Mine is a writer’s life: It’s all about family, and I’m back to writing and editing.

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I often tell young people, “Family is everything.” An oversimplistic view of life and relationships? Perhaps, but I’ll stick by it. The last two weeks exemplified the message, as the matriarch of my wife’s family was stricken by an unexpected serious intestinal ailment that quickly worsened, led to hospice care, and she peacefully left this world. Watching my wife and her siblings care for their fading mother was an unforgettable and extraordinarily uplifting experience, despite the difficulties and ultimate loss. All my mother-in-law’s grandchildren called in from across the country and internationally to tell her they loved her and would miss her. It was so beautiful and poignant. It’s all about family.

It was also an emotionally and physically exhausting couple of weeks that set me back on my writing and editing. I mentioned to my wife that I hadn’t been as tired as the day after her mother’s passing versus any time over the previous five years – a big statement for someone with advanced MS that famously delivers considerable fatigue. But family should take precedence over passionate pursuits like writing when those we love are ailing and dying. I consider it a blessing I was able to spend time with my mother-in-law and her family during these final months and days.

Regarding books:

If you enjoy page-turning psychological thrillers, please consider my novel Eagle Bay: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0C17XWN4Y

Attached below are the first four chapters of a book I will release in January: The Emerald Cross. It is parts domestic, military, and cartel thriller. Take a read and feel free to send me a note!

Cheers from the Sonoran Desert,

Ken Cruickshank

#domesticthriller #psychologicalthriller #murdermystery #murderthriller #militarythriller #cartelthriller #goodreads #Kindle #BarnesandNoble #bookstagram #bibliophile #fiction #mysteries #books #EagleBay #memoir #MS #chronicillness #familymatters

Chapter 1

On a balmy Mexico City evening in 1991, Samuel Morales lay contentedly in bed next to his wife, Maria. Barely conscious, he hadn’t noticed the approaching shadow reaching from the hall into their bedroom. Now sensing the presence of another human, he turned his head and opened his eyes, finding himself face-to-face with an expressionless little man. 

“Papi,” the two-year-old whispered, “you sleep with me.” With full lips and almond eyes, adorable Jaime Morales extended an arm, imploring his father to join him for slumber on the boy’s mattress. It was just before midnight, the fifth straight evening Jaime had awakened Samuel.

“Honey, if you get out of bed whenever he asks you to, he’ll never accept sleeping alone. You’re encouraging a bad habit.” Maria rolled onto her side and caressed her husband’s arm while releasing an exaggerated yawn. “And it’s a critical evening for you to get sleep, don’t you think?”

Samuel smiled at a boy dressed in Ninja Turtle pajamas, gesturing to rouse his father from bed. Silently, Samuel acknowledged Maria was undoubtedly correct; he’d been endorsing taxing behavior. But curling up with Jaime delivered a special kind of tranquility, a state of bliss. He kissed Maria on the forehead, grasped the boy’s hand, and led him from the room, convincing himself that five hours of sleep should suffice for a day that would change lives.

Sitting in the kitchen, clean-shaven with a head of wet black hair at daybreak, Samuel sipped coffee from a chipped mug adorned with a heart. Maria pressed her hand to his neck, then wiped a touch of milk from the edge of his mustache.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said from a wooden chair beside her husband. “I’ve always admired your integrity.” But your obsession with justice sometimes terrifies me, she silently pleaded.

Samuel and Maria shared their favorite traditional breakfast, chilaquiles—fried tortillas, rich salsas, and cheese. While staring into moistened eyes, he leaned over and hugged her. “Stop fretting. It’ll all be over in hours. Jaime will wake us again tonight, demanding to snuggle with his favorite parent.” He grinned, then placed his hands on her cheeks and gazed into admiring eyes, forcing trepidations from his consciousness. Revealing any anxieties would have shaken her.

Descending the outside stairs of their departamento, Samuel gripped the ornate metal handrail he’d always admired, upon which the artisan had forged Mexico City landmarks. He reached the sidewalk, whistled, and waved to a passing green Volkswagentaxi—a Vochito to locals. He gazed out a passenger window and measured the controlled chaos of bustling urban streets as smells of cooked breakfasts wafted through the streets and into his taxi. Suspended pollution struggled to dissipate due to the city’s high altitude. He found comfort in the nuanced familiarity of his barrio.

The clock has started, Samuel thought. I’ve made it to the floor of Congress. Whatever happens next is out of my control. He handed the driver his fare with a generous tip before stepping from the car.

Samuel Morales was about to set the wheels of justice in motion. Three years of tireless efforts as a journalist for Mexico’s El Universal newspaper led to this pivotal moment. His exposé would offer damning information uncovered through inquiries into government corruption binding five Mexican senators to the country’s most notorious drug cartel, La Buena Familia. 

The President of Mexico, Antonio Cornesa, had reviewed Samuel’s findings weeks earlier and subsequently called for today’s special session. Samuel had detailed for Cornesa evidence of extortion and payoffs, including testimonies from imprisoned traffickers and sicarios—trained assassins. He hoped coordinated government actions might challenge and topple Mexico’s fastest-growing and most brutal illicit drug enterprise. He’d demand that political leaders get publicly held to task; these were not times for lawmakers’ dithering or indecision.

President Cornesa informed Samuel that an investigation had been opened and would be thorough. The journalist realized senators’ careers would soon end in disgrace, their reputations destroyed. But the country would not heal unless those same men spent appropriate time behind bars, the necessary penance for accepting millions from drug empires in exchange for disregarding or enabling their violent intimidations. 

Samuel sat alone and organized his thoughts inside Senado de la República, the meeting place for Mexico’s Senate, upper chamber of the country’s bicameral congress. President Cornesa delivered a subdued introduction, and Samuel ambled from his seat to the flag-adorned platform from which he would present. Attendees grew captivated as they inhaled tension-filled air. The cavernous room fell silent while Samuel stared into their collective gazes.

Counting backward from three to calm shaking hands, he began: “I am a proud Mexican, a doting husband and father. I want the same things most of you do for your families and country. But our society and government are encountering unique challenges today, perpetuated by abusive pursuits of power and wealth. What I have uncovered will, I ardently hope, trigger an avalanche of change necessary to save our beloved nation from bowing to the rule of terrifying drug cartels. Here are the facts . . .” 

Samuel finished his ninety-minute address and hoped he’d done enough to spur real action; then he collected his notes and reached for his briefcase. Upon opening it, he grew comforted, glancing at a photo of Maria and Jaime. His hands stopped trembling, and the beads of sweat slowed their trickle down his forehead and neck. 

Legislators remained seated, stunned into guarded murmurings; there was no applause. Per President Cornesa’s instructions, Samuel had not named the five senators he contended were La Buena Familia puppets. It wouldn’t take politicians and the public long to connect the dots. Cornesa wanted more time to complete his inquiry, but by lauding Morales’s findings inside the Senate chamber, he unquestionably considered the report’s conclusions worthy and damning.

Elected officials offered handshakes and nervous compliments, then Samuel made his way to a courtyard near the building’s side exitApprehensions stirred anew, and his pulse raced as he contemplated the magnitude of everything he’d just disclosed. He held no regrets. An essential next step, his speech to various Mexican and international media outlets, would begin in minutes. The public deserved to hear a summary direct from the source, unfiltered by bureaucrats.

Roberto Enriquez, Attorney General of Mexico, greeted him as he stepped from the building. Samuel hoped Enriquez’s presence implied a commitment to help transform the republic through broader policing and legislation. Gilberto Herrera, head of the country’s federal police, was among the credentialed crowd around the walkways and foyer from which Samuel and others would face cameras and questions. 

Four Chevrolet Suburban SUVs with government plates were parked curbside sixty feet away. Eleven members of the Policía Federal Preventiva, commonly referred to as Federales by Mexicans and Americans, assembled nearby in black uniforms with ski masks concealing their identities, thus protecting themselves and loved ones from retaliation—an unsettling but familiar reality. Federales scanned the crowd, each man armed with a customized version of the AR-15 American troops used and a holstered Beretta 92F sidearm.

Maria watched the proceedings on television from home, proud of her husband’s diligence in exposing La Buena Familia’s links to crooked politicians but constantly fearing for his safety. Three grisly executions of reporters and media executives nine months earlier had stirred her worries. Samuel often commented that if he and other investigative journalists hid from the public, it would be tantamount to surrender, precisely what the drug lords wanted.

News outlets, legislators, and justice officials gathered in an arc around the foyer from where Samuel would deliver his remarks; he was the third scheduled speaker. A dozen microphones from leading news outlets snaked in and around a podium. Lawmakers and their aides stood close by, and Samuel assumed he could read their thoughts: Which senators were guilty? Will government forces storm La Buena Familia compounds?

Attorney General Enriquez spoke assertively regarding the government’s commitment to eradicating drug networks. He reminded people that the insatiable demand for marijuana, opioids, and methamphetamines in the United States drove the drug trade—the amount of illicit wealth involved was staggering.

While the attorney general spoke, three more dark SUVs with tinted windows and government plates pulled up. With firm grips on their weapons and experienced fingers resting upon triggers, several Federales asked the new arrivals for identification. An officer in charge adjusted his earpiece while reviewing IDs. Then he turned his head to speak into a mic clipped to his left shoulder sleeve, sharing information and inquiring who had requested backups. Simultaneously, two Federales monitoring happenings around the building subtly lifted their weapons to more readied positions. Government and media preparations for the broadcast continued uninterrupted, and the crowd remained calm.

Rays of late afternoon sunshine draped the gathering. Enriquez shook Samuel’s hand as he approached the podium wearing a turquoise tie that brought a smile to Maria’s lips; she appreciated his coded tribute. 

Samuel laid three typed pages upon the console and breathed deeply while looking at towering industrial windowpanes reflecting blue skies crisscrossed with white jet contrails. An image of kissing Jaime on the forehead hours earlier flashed through his mind. The recollection felt slightly ominous; he convinced himself it was not. He extended an arm and pulled the silver microphone upward and back toward his head. After twisting his gold wedding band, he cleared his throat. 

Flocks of gray pigeons glided through trees and over bystanders before landing among the spellbound assemblage. Samuel began presenting his rehearsed words just as the doors of the three late-arriving SUVs opened a second time, and six new Federales offered badges identical to those of the other forces. Three words lay tattooed under the wrists of their muscular, uniform-covered forearms: La Buena Familia. 

A woman screamed. Urgent shrieks echoed across buildings and through an adjoining plaza. Automatic machine gun fire exploded and reverberated. Panic stretched in every direction; people scrambled and knocked each other down, bewildered. Sickening sounds of human bodies getting penetrated by 39mm AK-47 rounds blended with whizzing noises of ricocheted bullets hitting windows, walls, and metal. The fake Federales tossed smoke grenades over streets and walkways, magnifying the confusion.

Seven loyal Federales were the first to die. It was impossible to save themselves, let alone the lives of unarmed men and women slain because they stood in the crossfire of La Buena Familia’s indiscriminate shooting. The four legitimate officers who survived the initial gunfire hesitated while assessing which uniformed men were comrades or enemies. Those seconds of indecision resulted in their deaths.

Two journalists at Samuel Morales’s side were shot in the chest by a pair of approaching triggermen. Samuel flung himself to the ground, his head twisted sideways on the pavement, witnessing appalling violence. He assumed the worst, that his life with Jaime and Maria was over. Instead, strong hands clutched his biceps and thrust him upward before men aggressively wrenched a bag over his head. He saw only darkness. Rushed from the scene toward an idling SUV, strangers shoved Samuel inside. The vehicle rattled as doors slammed shut, then it roared south on Avenida de los Insurgentes and through the streets of Mexico City as part of a three-car caravan.

The dead and mortally wounded lay motionless, blood streaming from their wounds, staining steps and walkways. Those spared executions moved in circles like the emotionally traumatized humans they’d quickly become. Sirens wailed throughout the city. 

Gang members had meticulously planned and executed the brazen attack, turning the government’s day of hope and purpose into a spectacle of carnage and heartbreak. The drug lords had won yet again. 

Marco Delgado, kingpin of La Buena Familia, watched the onslaught from a television inside the den of a lavish Sinaloa mountains hacienda two hundred fifty miles away, calmly puffing on his cigar and sipping tequila. He glanced at his gold watch and noted the time, then reached for a tissue to clean the crystal of his timepiece. His chiseled face showed little emotion.

Within three minutes of the final gunshot, friends and neighbors of Maria Morales rushed to her residence in a quiet district of Mexico City. Maria entered Jaime’s bedroom, simultaneously agonizing over the fate of her husband. AK-47 gunfire had obliterated news cameras when the violence erupted, so she and the public remained in the dark, unaware of the scale of bloodshed or that Samuel had been kidnapped.

Ninety minutes later, the authorities informed Maria that her missing husband and his abductors had vanished. But he’s alive, the Federales insisted. They told her Delgado spared him for a reason, so there was hope. It felt illogical to believe that, but she tried. 

The day’s events reflected the nightmare Maria had often contemplated but rarely confided. She felt betrayed.

Chapter 2

Over the next two weeks, officials confirmed La Buena Familia remained silent while authorities followed leads. Shaking her head, Maria would scream to herself and sometimes at them, “That is not progress!” She measured their words as maddening indifference and insulting: Let the men do their jobs, and we’ll inform the grieving wife when we deem it warranted. Blatant chauvinism enraged her. 

Knowing Samuel was the only person kidnapped set her imagination wild. Like all Mexican citizens, she’d read accounts of the cartels’ torturing tactics, including executions of those who had dared to expose anything detrimental to their drug empires. Her heart broke for the bystanders wounded and killed during the attack, especially the families of Samuel’s journalist associates she’d known personally. 

“Papi come eat?” It had been a tradition for Samuel to walk from his El Universal office each afternoon to share lunch with Jaime and Maria.

“Papi loves you, Jaime,” Maria told her son after he asked for Samuel nine days after the kidnapping. On the tenth day, the boy didn’t ask about his father, an observation prompting a flood of tears from Maria’s now perpetually bloodshot eyes.

Government officials’ lack of information felt like it was intentionally pain-inflicting. She wondered if the people she relied on to locate and save Samuel might be aligned with La Buena Familia. Neither Marco Delgado nor his lieutenants had delivered any demands for her husband’s release. Authorities insisted they anticipated contact from someone soon. Just more evidence officials were clueless, Maria decided. Or afraid to aggressively pursue and expose anything that might trigger reprisal against their families; Delgado was a terrifyingly vengeful drug lord. Her fears grew crippling; she considered Delgado Lucifer incarnate and wound a rosary around her wrist as if to ward off a vampire. 

Comisario Pérez, Federale Commissioner, arrived at the Morales’s departmento with two heavily armed officers. When pressed for an update on victims, Pérez said, “Señora, the final tally from the attack is a staggering sixteen dead and seven badly injured.”

“How could three SUVs with fake plates roll right up to the press conference? And how could their occupants present fake IDs to legitimate Federales before mowing down innocent people with machine guns? Why couldn’t your men prevent the massacre? Give me answers!” 

“It is regrettable, and we will learn from this slaughter.”

“Regrettable?” she said like a person dealing with unimaginable tragedy. After days of pushing for answers to reasonable questions, the authorities stopped supplying updates, and every Federale assigned to her security detail repeated the same line: The investigation is ongoing, and the very public drama will end well. Maria insisted it was an absurd proclamation.

“It is what we are instructed to say, Señora,” said one of the Federales guarding her door. “I am so sorry for your anguish and the uncertainty.”

She stood with a face reflecting his sincerity, then glanced at the name on his uniform. “Thank you, Officer Hernandez.”

Finally, the cartel made contact. A courier delivered an unsigned letter to Attorney General Enriquez. The communiqué urged the government to get its facts straight: La Buena Familia was a legitimate family enterprise revered by rural communities it supported through farming, health care, and education services. The note included the line: “Señor Marco Delgado expresses heartfelt condolences for the deaths and casualties outside the Senate chambers, and he hopes authorities locate and prosecute those responsible.” After reading the ridiculous sentence, Attorney General Enriquez and President Cornesa’s eyes squinted.

The message then advised: “If you find Samuel Morales, ask him about the Emerald Cross.” No one in Mexico’s investigative agencies knew what the baffling statement meant, and authorities deemed it immaterial to the urgent task of saving Samuel.

Senior investigators agreed the note was very likely scribed or dictated by Delgado. Justifications, irrelevancies, and riddles—they’d previously read similar ramblings from the young and powerful madman. Those prior dealings never ended without him exacting further revenge and shedding more blood.

“This is likely a death warrant for Señor Morales, Mr. President,” said Attorney General Enriquez.

President Cornesa haltingly agreed and decided there was no benefit to sharing that opinion with Maria. Then he demanded all updated police and military intelligence for a review with cabinet members. 

Cornesa chaired the meeting with leaders of the Federales, Army, and Mexican Marines. They concluded a quick strike on a presumed Delgado compound in Sinaloa State was their best of meager options. Army intel established a high likelihood that the drug lord currently occupied one of his rambling properties nestled in the hills of heroin country. If they could apprehend the nefarious cartel boss, they could negotiate Samuel Morales’s release on the slim chance he was still alive. 

Six Mexican Marines helicopters descended upon a walled estate in the mountains eight hours later. Three Army Special Forces assault vehicles and thirty Federales and Ejército Mexicano soldiers stormed the remote complex. An intense battle ensued, with firefights exploding throughout the acres abutting the hilltop hacienda. Government troops penetrated the fortified residence, defeating heavily armed narcos and Delgado lieutenants committed to never surrendering.

Infuriatingly, Marco Delgado eluded capture and remained free to terrorize again, though his brothers Jesús and Rico were killed during the attack. Police and joint branch commanders informed President Cornesa that early evidence suggested Delgado fled a mere hour before the assault. Mexico’s president nervously believed he knew what to expect next.

The government’s fears and Maria’s worst nightmares turned real. Two days after the assault on Delgado’s lair, she received word a farmer discovered Samuel’s body along a roadside trench. His appendages had been severed and hideously scattered around his torso in what had become a typical La Buena Familia signature, where the point was to intimidate and paralyze. A stretch of masking tape across his forehead read Samuel Morales, liar and thief. Maria heaved upon learning of the horrific details.

While the victim shared Samuel’s appearance and body measurements, bruising and swelling of the face complicated definitive proof of a corpse hacked into pieces and exhibiting early signs of decay. President Cornesa demanded expedited forensics and DNA analysis, and science confirmed it was Samuel. Later, adding to Maria’s agony, the defaced body was mistakenly cremated due to administrative ineptitude. “No damn way!” she exclaimed. She hired lawyers to determine whether officials had been forthright regarding the “accidental cremation” claim; their investigations suggested the government’s account was truthful. Later, Cornesa appeared genuinely appalled as he visited Maria to apologize for the incineration debacle. 

Samuel Morales’s ashes arrived at Mexico City’s most famous cemetery, the Panteón Civil de Dolores. Government leaders honored his career of civic contributions by announcing his burial at the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons, where Mexico’s highly venerated were laid to rest. Wet and dreary skies blanketed mourners and echoed the mood of the ceremony. During the service, Maria stared at a crucifix, pondering how God could allow heartless criminals to take such an exceptional man. 

Samuel’s aunt strongly advised Maria not to bring Jaime to the funeral, but she pushed back. “It will be an honor and privilege for the son of a remarkable man to watch his father get ceremoniously interred. I don’t care if he won’t remember it.” People grappled with saying something positive to the happy toddler who still believed his father would walk through their departmento door one day. Jaime clapped with a face lit up in adoration and squealed Papi” whenever someone mentioned Samuel.

Weeks of personal reflection passed, during which Maria debated a life-altering decision. She loved her country and the people within it, but she struggled to trust those responsible for investigating Samuel’s murder. She feared Marco Delgado and La Buena Familia might never pay for their horrific deeds. Samuel named five senators in the report handed to President Cornesa, but the still-grieving wife grew unconvinced they would all serve time.

Maria’s sole comfort in life was Jaime, but she increasingly felt like mother and son lived in a shrinking fishbowl, imprisoned spectacles under constant scrutiny. She grew worried about his long-term physical safety. Slowly, the once inconceivable grew obvious: They needed to leave their homeland.

The US government granted Maria’s appeal for emergency asylum based on the extreme dangers of remaining in Mexico. Upon approval, things moved quickly. One morning, a government SUV shuttled them to the airport from their barrio in Mexico City; the next, they awoke in Maria’s brother and sister-in-law’s spare bedroom in North Tustin, California. 

Chapter 3

Time moves on. Two decades had passed since Samuel’s murder—a staggeringly inadequate word to describe what he endured. In the summer of 2011, the pain of losing her husband sometimes remained excruciating. Maria Morales hid it well.

She missed certain relatives and lifelong friends living in her beloved Mexico. Simple observations would sometimes unexpectedly bridge what was with what is. Orange and black monarch butterflies, indigenous to California and Mexico, represented bonds to past and present as she watched them flitter across her yard.

Sipping coffee from Samuel’s favorite mug in her kitchen, she reflected on all the happenings since immigrating to Southern California. Raised in their adopted homeland, Jaime was now more American than Mexican, with a name change to emphasize the point. In fourth grade, he decided he preferred the Americanized version of Jaime. “It’s the same letters, Mom, and I like how it sounds.” She was uncomfortable with the request but later asked herself, why not? She acceded but drew the line at permanently changing his legal name to Jamie Morales. If the nickname stuck, he could deal with the bureaucratic nightmare of modifying myriad government documents as an adult.

Had Jamie been school-aged when they arrived in America, aware his father had been gruesomely tortured and executed, Maria believed he could have lived burdened with a lifetime of emotional scars. Because he was barely three when they fled, he mercifully lived his youth oblivious to those agonizing truths.

“Knock, knock!” someone bellowed at the front door.

Maria glanced through the peephole and saw the beaming face of her older brother. Manuel Jimenez, Manny to friends and family, had built a successful landscaping business creating magazine-worthy hardscapes for clients in wealthy beach and hillside enclaves.

“It’s great to see you,” she said as they embraced. “How are Natalie and the kids?” Manny and Natalie had two sons, Manny Junior and Daniel. Relocating to the United States would have been unthinkable for Maria without her sibling’s support.

“Everybody’s great. Natalie’s busy with her tennis, charities, and the kids.” He lifted his mug in appreciation of the aromatic beans. “Business is great—there’s a lot of money in California.”

“So true, and it boggles my mind. That’s why most people can’t afford to live here. Again, Manny, we never would’ve been able to buy this house without your generosity.”

“Please, dear sister, that was years ago. Let it go. Stop thanking me. Having you two so close and in our lives has been a blessing.”

Maria’s small ranch-style home was purchased using Samuel’s life insurance payout and a gift from Manny. It fronted Redhill Road, which connected Tustin’s lowland neighborhoods and business district with the adjoining hills where Manny and his family lived. The community surpassed Maria’s hopes of what life in California might encompass with its low crime rates, friendly neighbors, and outstanding schools. “It’s been a magical eighteen years—can you believe it’s been that long?”

“Honestly, no. Yet here we are.” He extended his palm and rested it atop her warm hand. “We are so excited for Jamie’s graduation and commissioning. He’s always been an extraordinary young man. Sam would be so proud.” Samuel and Manny had always enjoyed each other’s company in Mexico City. “What are you staring at?”

“Just look at the trees out the window. Towering eucalyptus, palms, and pines intermingle throughout the neighborhood. It’s just so beautiful here.”

“I love seeing you this happy. How are things at school? Have the other teachers found you a new husband yet?” During her initial years in California, it seemed every educator and neighbor she’d befriended tried to match-make her with “a great guy I just know you’ll like.”

Remarriage hadn’t happened, but she voiced no regrets. Life with Jamie remained fulfilling, and he eased her anxieties upon leaving Mexico City. After settling in Tustin, Maria hadn’t expected her degree in history from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to help her quickly secure employment; she was thrilled to have been wrong. Bilingual skills and an impressive academic record earned her a Spanish and history teaching position at an elite private school. 

She took a deep breath, poured herself another cup of rich java, and stirred in a touch of cream. Further memories cascaded through her mind. Maria and her little boy grew into best friends and fierce protectors of one another. He was an unruly and curious student in grade school, traits that wore Maria outJamie and his friends shared a penchant for adventure that sometimes verged on trouble. She attributed his mischievousness to a similarly obstreperous childher deceased husband, if she were to believe family lore.

“The other night, Natalie and I laughed about Jamie’s grade school teachers lecturing him about inappropriate behavior as he bounced off the walls during class.”

 Maria grinned, wishing she could somehow relive those precious, entertaining years. Though her son continued to earn reprimands through sixth grade, Maria’s instincts told her Jamie might be remarkable. While that would be a common opinion for many parents, others drew the same conclusion as he matured. He became popular with students and staff, a great student, and unusually wise for his age.

Manny asked, “How is Brooklyn? And why haven’t they eloped yet?”

“You better not give them any ideas.” She pantomimed a slap across his face. “I still remember Jamie’s words after his first day at Hewes Junior High School: ‘I met someone who’s going to be an awesome friendI just know it. Her name’s Brooklyn, like the city, and she’s incredible.’”

“I remember you informing me of his infatuation. But you were wrong; you told me back then it would fade. But that engaging thirteen-year-old brunette has remained the center of his universe nine years later.”

“That’s true, and I wasn’t the only one with reservations. Brooklyn’s parents questioned whether it was healthy for two barely teens to maintain such strong bonds,” Maria said. “But week by week, year by year, their obsession only strengthened.”

“Well, it all seemed to work out. Kudos to you for not squelching it.”

“Trust me, I thought about it often. But I don’t know; somehow, they put the MacDonalds and me at ease. Anyway, here we are.”

After chatting for thirty minutes, Manny pecked her on the cheek. “Thanks for the coffee and catch-up. I’m meeting a client for a big job in Newport Beach.” Manny departed, and Maria continued her trip down memory lane.

Jamie lettered in two sports at Foothill High School while garnering national academic honors. He attained the rank of Eagle Scout and earned salutatorian of his class, then received an appointment to the United States Military Academy—West Point. He’d always relished uniforms, military history, and the principles of freedom and democracy. Yes, Maria proudly recalled, his high school teachers and coaches had been right all along: Jamie Morales was a natural leader. 

As Jamie achieved his milestones and accolades, Brooklyn did likewise as an accomplished student-athlete. Her ambitions remained unwavering, and her grades or performances never suffered from Jamie’s ubiquity in her life. Maria glanced at a photo taped to the refrigerator door of Jamie and Brooklyn at Disneyland. Limitless devotion colored their expressions.

Unknown to both sets of parents, the lovestruck teenagers began discussing their futures together as spouses during their senior year of high school. When Brooklyn dropped Jamie off at Los Angeles International for a flight to New York, preceding his initial bus ride to West Point, people may have assumed he was heading off to war instead of college based on Brooklyn’s emotional farewell.

Maria remembered her son explaining he savored the physical and mental challenges an institution like West Point demanded. Getting screamed at as a plebe by cows and firsties, being air-horned awake at four-thirty in the morning, marching in stifling humidity or subfreezing air, and studying until his eyes grew bloodshot—Jamie insisted he relished all of it. Cadet Morales’s trips back to California grew less frequent as each demanding year passed.

During recent phone calls, Jamie spoke of one classmate with the most profound respect and admiration; that man was Wes Berkeley. They’d met as plebes, but lately, Maria realized Wes occupied Jamie’s private mantle of honor. She stepped to the coffee maker and poured the last few ounces, then reminded herself she’d meet Wes at the men’s impending commencement at The Academy.

Maria glanced at a photo of Jamie in his formal Army dress uniform and grew lightheaded with pride. At six-one, chiseled frame, and with thick dark hair, he was the mirror image of Samuel. The observation inevitably triggered a moment of sadness. If only . . .

Walking the West Point campus the day before Jamie’s graduation was a remarkable experience, with every building steeped in fascinating history. A look of unbounded respect seemed permanently fixed on Maria’s face. The ceremony lasted the day and exceeded Maria’s expectations, predictable since no one—including her son—told her what to anticipate.

Jamie’s other guests also grinned relentlessly: Brooklyn, Uncle Manny, Aunt Natalie, and Jamie’s two cousins. Maria glanced at Brooklyn and acknowledged she represented Jamie’s future. That realization halted her: Would his adoring mother remain a large part of his life? She caught herself: Stop! You’re already sharing him with the “other” woman. And they’re both central to your life. You’re blessed, Maria Morales. She distractedly shook her head, self-judging a pointless insecurity.

Jamie tossed his formal white, gold, and blue-visored hat in the air, signifying the ceremony’s conclusion. Then freshly commissioned Second Lieutenant Jamie Morales faced his family and Brooklyn with glistening eyes. Moments later, he glanced to the skies and whispered, “I love and miss you, Samuel . . . Papi.” Maria had raised him to appreciate the doting father he couldn’t remember.

Phase Two of Jamie’s military career deeply unsettled Maria. He’d decided without her counsel to train to become a member of the United States Army Special Forces, the legendary Green Berets. Maria wouldn’t attempt to squelch his enthusiasm for serving on the elite squad. But she’d pray, she told herself. She’d pray a lot.

Chapter 4

Jamie arrived in Kabul one year after graduating from West Point. Weeks later, he led a small group of soldiers to collect and tag eviscerated body parts of Shiite men, women, and children that Sunni rocket launchers had shelled. A group of civilian women desensitized to hardship assisted in the assignment. He wondered what the grieving wives and mothers thought as invader Americans bagged pieces of their loved ones and neighbors. Occasionally, he locked eyes with a horrified Afghan and shared a telling gaze—how could humans justify doing this to each other?

As wrenching as clearing the dead and wounded was for Jamie, it was more challenging for an eighteen-year-old Army private assigned to the detail. The young soldier performed his duty as commanded, without questioning or hesitation. Measuring the gradual transformation of the private’s face, Second Lieutenant Morales asked, “Soldier, are you okay?” Of course he’s not, Jamie thought. Nobody would or should be. The enlistee remained silent. “Private Lincoln, I asked you a question.”

The soldier stiffened and faced his superior, shaking his head slowly, not speaking.

“How long have you been on tour?”

He swallowed hard twice and barely squeezed out the words. “Ten days, sir.”

Jamie understood: No one was supposed to witness this sort of hell. Nightmares weren’t supposed to be real. “Private Lincoln, you and I are now bonded forever. What surrounds us is beyond human comprehension for rational people. Go tell Master Sergeant Guilford I want a soldier with at least six months of service in these deserts to replace you.”

Jamie ambled about in contempt of those who’d attacked Shiite families celebrating the end of Ramadan. Their enemies were also Muslims but of a different sect. The violence loosely resembled the Catholic and Protestant uprisings in Northern Ireland during the ’60s and ’70s, though intensely magnified in these deserts: more weapons, brutality, death, and destruction. Jamie’s words could never convey the emptiness of purpose and burdened soul he endured that day. 

Time rendered itself almost meaningless in Middle East battle zones. It moved at a snail’s pace or breakneck speed, never as expected. Seven years had passed since Jamie solemnly gathered fragments of bodies in Afghanistan. He struggled to force painful recollections of other harrowing missions to the back of his mind, hoping to forget horrific events that sometimes felt impossible to erase. All a soldier could do was try.

In 2013, the Taliban captured Jamie and tortured him in ways he promised never to reveal to friends and family. His Green Beret brethren rescued him. A bullet tore through his left thigh in 2015, thankfully missing his femur and arteries. Though he never stepped on an IED, he knew or learned of men who did; only one survived. Jamie silently deemed staying alive to be his colossal victory.

Scores of enemies killed on these tan sands were conscripted by Islamist lunatics as kids. It was a heartbreaking truth; those forced to live under fanatical rule stood little chance for ordinary lives. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS never gave a shit about Western precepts of justice or religious freedom. They coalesced around jihad. Many of the men and women Jamie fired upon grew up as casualties of a fundamentalist culture embracing rigidity, dogma, retribution, and death.

The sun rose over Syria, and Jamie contemplated finishing this final tour. Soon, it will be time to say goodbye to this turbulent region of the world. Civilian life beckoned.

He last kissed Brooklyn in June of 2018, the day he proposed. In February 2019, Purple Heart recipient Captain Jamie Morales would hop aboard a C-130 for the first leg back to Fort Benning, where he’d get discharged from the Army. 

The familiar smells of a classic American breakfast—grilled eggs, hash browns, and bacon—snapped him back to the moment. Army coffee was another scent greeting Jamie. Ersatz coffee, diluted coffee, not what he’d call real coffee, but technically some sort of morning brew. He also smelled burning JP-8 fuel wafting through his tent from three or four idling Humvees preparing to put soldiers in harm’s way. That’s what Humvees do.

Another potent fragrance soon overpowered the odors of food and combat, pulling Jamie and his itchy, dry eyes further from slumber—a Wes Berkeley fart. He thought he was hearing the distant rumblings of Abrams tanks trudging over trenches or rough terrain. But no, this was a much more common disturbance, an echoing from the butt of dear Wes. A tear-inducing concoction he’d be excited to inform his fellow West Point grad of after he awakened. Jamie had already tossed fresh white cotton skivvies onto his blanket, convinced he’d need a change. He guessed most of Wes’s tighty-whities had stains contrasting the faded white. How could they not? He farted more than a cow burped. 

Most soldiers would wake their buddies after being victimized by such a pungent assault. Jamie wouldn’t be doing that because Wes Berkeley was the noblest man he’d ever met. The sort of son no mother could ever rationally expect to be gifted withminus the farting. He exceeded anyone’s expectations of what a good human should be. Wes also remained his best friend. Would be for life. A brother who took a round from an AK-47 while covering Jamie during a battle in Anwar province that killed two of their comrades. Wes was his hero. He could float as many god-awful air biscuits as he wanted.

There’s one other smell Jamie recognized. It would stick with him all day, as it always did. Fellow grunts insisted he imagined it. He replied it was as tangible as any real thing could possibly be. It followed him every step of every day during his tours in the Middle East. It was the stench of death, and he looked forward to leaving it behind.

He’d become a classical music aficionado, compliments of Wes. His latest favorite morning tune was Brandenburg Concerto Number 3 in G major—unbelievable stuff, he proudly insisted. Theirs was the only tent not pumping out Zeppelin, Brooks, or Kanye. He and Wes embraced their musical snobbery and enjoyed lecturing fellow grunts about the splendor of classical music. Their comrades typically responded by throwing shit at the West Point elitists.

Later that day, Jamie and Wes received orders to tamp down a minor disturbance, possibly their last hurrah together. Jamie was leaving the Army, and Secretary of Defense Mattis had requested Wes enroll in the War College in three months. That was quite an honor, but it didn’t surprise Jamie; Wes would wow the brass with his keen intellect and leadership skills. With a name like Wes Berkeley, Jamie joked that his friend grew up destined to become someone notable, an ethical politician or movie star. But he was built for the military. A month earlier, Jamie bet Wes a hundred bucks that his friend would be named Secretary of Defense before age fifty. He aimed to collect. 

Syrian villagers had reported a small band of real or wannabe ISIS fighters harassing young men at a grade school twenty miles from base camp. It was not something you’d typically assign two senior battle-tested Green Beret captains to, but regional Army support was light that week. Besides, it’s the military: You don’t ask why; you go.

Islamic revolutionaries recruited kids all the time, filling their heads with bullshit stories of heroism, martyrdom, or their perverse creed of duty to Allah. Hardened warlords often destroyed hopes for normal lives before youths turned fifteen. Jamie met good people in these unstable lands, hopeful men and women just trying to stay alive and care for their families—people who simply wanted to live free. But the good were too often intimidated into silence and inaction; thus, the bad propagated their wickedness and doctrine. Brutal realities hardened people. Hardened people were more likely to fight. And to kill.

When the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or ISIS knew Americans were coming, they scattered like ants and disappeared. US troops would arrive, and there seemingly wouldn’t be an insurgent within miles. Too often, the locals that requested protection wouldn’t disclose anything: direction of the terrorists’ escape, number of fighters, weapons they possessed—not a damn thing. Jamie found it hard to blame them; even rumors of aiding the infidels could get them killed.

They reached the school at the base of a rocky knoll overlooking Ankara. Jamie and Wes jumped out with weapons at the ready. Whether in a crowd or standing in groups of two and three, it was beyond challenging to distinguish friends from foes in these war zones; they often dressed the same. Jamie understood that hesitation or indecision could lead to death. 

Critical decisions made in uncertain situations leaned on instincts. That’s not necessarily how instructors taught it, but it was reality. Jamie’s gut told him there were hostiles in or around this school, so he grew more vigilant, thorough, unrelenting, and prepared to pull the trigger. Rules of the war game required a delicate balance of protecting innocents while keeping oneself alive. Wes was sometimes less suspecting of the locals than Jamie, who didn’t understand why his friend ignored certain dangers. Jamie considered low-grade risks to have a high-grade potential for bad things. Still, as compatriots and experienced soldiers, they trusted one another like blood brothers and relied on each other’s combat skills.

Two Green Berets and seven Army grunts dispersed. Jamie respected the three- or four-tour enlisted soldiers as much as Green Berets. They’d seen much, survived myriad hellish situations—never just by luck—and possessed something Jamie termed desert smarts

A grizzled sergeant led three soldiers to the school grounds’ perimeter, positioning them to defend against ambush as others reconnoitered for enemy advances. Just because any number of unsavory characters skipped town doesn’t mean they won’t return. Approaching cars or trucks got two rounds in their direction as a warning, then a couple of shots into the dirt just in front of their grills. If they continued forward, Army guns obliterated their wheels. And if they still advanced, soldiers assumed the worst. That’s when terrible things sometimes happened.

Upon entering the school’s main door, a commotion erupted from within, and five boys rushed out of a classroom screaming. Jamie trained his M4 on them until it was clear they had no weapons and weren’t human bombs wired with explosives. He glanced behind at Wes, then gave a hand signal before moving to the right down the hall. He continued forward. Three soldiers trailing Jamie split away to back up Wes.

Thap thap thap! 

AK-47 rounds blasted into the wall Jamie and two grunts stood behind. The barrier separating them from the onslaught was only four inches thick. Every third or fourth bullet penetrated the earthen wall. Dust filled the halls, and their concussed ears filled with high-pitched sounds. The familiar odors of weapons fired in close quarters felt suffocating.

Jamie extended his field mirror around the corner and discovered a lone shooter in the shadows of the classroom with two dead kids. More shots rang out. Jamie glanced backward but didn’t see Wes or the other men; he assumed they’d discovered another room. 

Thap thap thap! 

The soldier behind Jamie crumpled to the ground, bleeding from a neck wound. Jamie inspected the damage and squeezed his shoulder; he thought the injured fighter might live. The young GI’s eyes widened. “Tell my mom I loved her.”

Jamie leaned closer. “Won’t do that. Tell her yourself when you get home.”

No other windows or doors led to the room the shooter occupied. Jamie discerned a distinct sound—the extraction of a magazine from an AK-47. The jihadist was momentarily out of ammo. It was time. Crouching low, he bent around the corner into the room and squeezed his trigger. Their enemy tumbled over as bullets ripped through his shoulder and chest, coloring the light brown wall and floor behind him with splatters of crimson. 

Jamie advanced to the fallen but still-breathing shooter and watched his dirtied face transform into a twisted expression of hate. Then the gravely injured man unclenched his right fist, and a trigger device dropped from his clutches, meaning anyone within fifty feet would get blown to hell. Damnit! We’ll all die because I fucked up! Jamie thought. Even though his gut told him it was futile, he screamed to evacuate, assuming it was the last command Captain Jamie Morales would ever utter. He flung himself into the hall and draped his body over the bleeding US soldier. Pressed tightly to the sergeant’s upper torso, Jamie smelled blood oozing from the private’s neck wound.

Nothing blew up. No one else died. Not yet.

Jamie’s comrades would see tomorrow because a hate-filled, dying ISIS terrorist’s ignition mechanism failed to detonate a bomb likely hidden in the classroom. Jamie inspected the two young bodies with holes in their heads near the fallen coward. Why had he murdered innocent boys? The man’s second sneer made Jamie want to finish the bastard off, protocol be damned. He didn’t act on his emotions but hoped the terrorist would stop breathing before US medics could save him.

The injured GI was lucky; the round missed his spine and major arteries. Scared but alive. Jamie watched him get loaded into a 9 Line medevac Humvee. Wes was trying to corral the wandering children; most appeared shell-shocked. The school kids’ parents were moving up a dirt road in their direction with purpose. These were dangerous moments—it took time to differentiate between non-hostiles and combatants. Three infantry GIs ordered the advancing parties to stop. Reading the American’s eyes, they halted: This wasn’t the time to challenge the invaders’ commands.

Jamie checked with Wes and the others; they hadn’t discovered additional enemies besides the now-dead man lying in the classroom. The kids seemed too agitated to offer much intel, but Jamie directed his Syrian interpreter to keep pushing for information. Jamie walked about eighty feet beyond Wes and the interpreter before someone called out. A soldier informed him that one of the children observed a truck with four insurgents depart minutes before the Americans arrived, but the kid insisted there had initially been six. The dead man in the school made five. Where was the straggler?

Jamie maneuvered back toward Wes and the kids. Then he observed a shadow extending over a rock outcropping on the hillside. He homed in on the distinct profile of a man thumbing the keys of a cell phone. He’s remote triggering an IED! Jamie glanced at the children and saw one of them standing stiffly with arms at his side, fear on his face and a slight bulge across his back. An unwilling human bomb. ISIS devils! Jamie raised his M4 and riddled the outcropping with bullets. He screamed at Wes and the interpreter to separate themselves from the school kids. Now! He kept firing at the rock while approaching the man with the phone, but the shadow of his profile remained in position. Jamie glanced away from his gun sights toward Wes, who pushed the bomb-wired child to the ground at his feet, hoping to shield him as he scanned for Islamists. Wes had no idea the kid was a C4 bomb. 

It all happened in slow motion, images that would forever torment Jamie. An unknown bomb maker would be proud of his brutally efficient weapon. The interpreter and the young boy no longer existed. Neither did Wes.

Obliterated limbs detached from torsos. Bomb material flew at Jamie with intention, a torrent of bone and blast. He felt a pain in his eye, then sensed his body getting torn into a thousand pieces. He was dead.

Jamie awoke from death after seven days inside an Army hospital near Landstuhl, Germany. The ringing in his ears remained so intense that it numbed his other senses. One eye ached and felt heavy. The surgeon explained that a bone fragment had rocketed toward him, exploding his left eyeball, which the doctor removed. Jamie lay confused because his death felt absolute, flashing before him frame-by-frame. Yet here he was, breathing, alive.

If his death were a mirage, could Wes also still be alive? He demanded answers to that question. People hesitated. People knew the truth. Their expressions slaughtered his hopes. Visions of Wes and the kid streamed through his consciousness over and over and over. Painful reminders of the day his best friend and a horrified, innocent child got exterminated.

Brooklyn was at his side, crying, holding his hand, loving him. Maria sat across from her daughter-in-law, her expression pained but hopeful. Both women understood.

Captain Morales had been defeated. He surrendered. It was time to go home.

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