A war veteran finds a way out from his self torments.
A New Beginning
Flaming vehicles and flashes of light defeated the shroud of darkness, and illuminated the pride of culture lost. The funk of burning tires and flesh churned his guts. Screams of agony rent the crackle of combustion and the roar of weapons. His squad huddled in craters or laid dead or wounded in the rubble of blasted buildings. The shriek of an incoming round rose and rose to a crescendo.
Screaming, he jerked up, then crouched shaking in fear, expecting an explosion. Between his arms, his face twitched, as he scanned dark shadows. Sobs of relief convulsed his throat as he realized he was in the room he had rented for the week.
He pulled his sweat drenched T-shirt over his head, took a clean one out of his duffle bag, and put it on. A pale glow from the streetlights was coming through the thin curtains covering the single window. Pushing them aside, he looked down onto the street.
Gusts tossed old newspapers into the air. They flew up the street, shining wet from recent rain, then drifted to the pavement to be picked up by the next gust. He thought his life was like those discarded newspapers; pushed around by random events he had no power to influence.
His dry mouth further irritated his dark thoughts, and turning, he looked for a unopened can of beer. All he saw were crushed ones on the nearly worn out splotched-marked carpet. A flat pack of Marlboros was on the dresser. Lurching there, he placed his palm on the pack, and was relieved to feel a few inside. He peered into the mirror.
A fat lip and some crusty blood at the corner of his mouth added some spice to an unsavory face. He couldn’t remember how he got those. It bothered him that he couldn’t recall, so, deep in thought, he didn’t see the full can of beer on the floor.
He landed with full force on a brass bed post, his shoulder taking the hit. Cursing in pain, he glared first at the can spilling out its guts, then at the post cap. Ajar from the collision, it tilted at an odd angle with a shred of paper peeking out. With a calloused hand he twisted it off. A rough piece of brown paper from a supermarket bag containing a roll of bills raised his eyebrows. The money added up to three grand in fifty dollar bills. The piece of paper had an address below a code: 5R-L3.
He figured it was a combination for a lock to a safe-box at the written address. Maybe with enough dough and a proper shrink he could end these nightmares. Going back to the mirror, he took out a cigarette, lit it, and then the piece of paper. Well, he was going to take an unplanned trip, but first he wanted to contribute.
After a shower and a shave, he looked nearly normal. He walked down three flights to the lobby, and headed out into the street for the local church. Arriving, he smelt the aroma of cooking from the kitchen. The church provided two meals a day to the destitute, so he was thankful for the meals he had taken there the past week. He approached Sarah, the nun in charge. “Good morning, Sarah.”
Sarah turned and replied, “John! Good morning. You’re early. Breakfast isn’t ready, but you can have some coffee.”
“Thanks. But, that’s not why I’m here. I’d like to make a donation. I’m leaving today.”
Sarah was speechless for a moment. “Thank you, but you’ll need the money.”
“I came into an inheritance. The lawyer forwarded some money for me to travel to the estate.”
A big smile lit up her face. “I’m so happy for you. Where are you going?”
“East.” He took her hand and put a roll of bills into it. “Here’s a thousand dollars.”
There were tears in her eyes as she said, “Thank you, John. And, remember, if you let him, Jesus will always be with you.”
He didn’t say what he thought about the whereabouts of Jesus on the battlefield, but just nodded and left.
John needed time to think. He strolled to a barber shop and had his hair cut short, then to a men's shop. Looking like a business man, he entered a convenience store, bought a bun and coffee, then headed for the hotel to read the newspaper in the lobby.
An hour later, two men in suits and a woman in jeans and a sweatshirt came into the hotel. The del bell rang. John looked over the top of his paper. One of the men, tall and lean with wire frame glasses, spoke in a calm, clear, British accent, "We would like a room. Specifically, room 303."
"I'm sorry, sir. It's taken, however, we have many other fine rooms available."
John saw a bill placed on the table. "Would you kindly tell us the name of the guest in room 303?”
The clerk took the bill. “It’s John Holmes.”
“What day did he check in?”
“Three days ago, on Friday.”
“When is he checking out?”
“He’s paid up until Friday morning.”
“Did you see him today?”
He nodded. “Early this morning. Probably went to the church kitchen for breakfast.”
“What does he look like?”
The clerk’s face frowned in concentration. A hand from the other man, short with a barrel chest and a thick beard, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him forward. In a deep, angry voice, he asked, "Does this refresh your memory?"
"He's average in height. Hasn’t had three square meals in a long time. About thirty, I’d say. Has long brown hair in a ponytail. Doesn’t wear glasses or shades or a cap. He wears jeans and an olive green jacket. I’d say he’s ex-military.”
The hand pushed him back. “Why do you think so?”
“I got complaints. He has nightmares, so I had him move upstairs.”
“Thanks, and be quiet about this or we’ll be back.”
After they left, John went to the desk. "I'd like to change rooms."
The clerk took a moment to recognize him. "I'm sorry, Mr. Holmes. You heard and saw the men threaten me."
John put a fifty on the desk. "That's okay. Just don't tell them how I look now. Give me the room next to mine, and when they come back, tell them I checked out."
"Thank you, sir. It will be my pleasure."
Two hours later, John heard the door of room 303 open and close. He put his ear on the wall.
He heard the tall, lean one say. "He found the money and the paper with the info. We have to find him. Then, follow him to the loot or make him take us there.”
His partner replied. "You forgot one possibility. This chick brought us to the place knowing the stash had already been taken.”
John heard a woman's voice in a Central American accent. "I swear Jose told me everything would be here. Let me go.”
The lean one answered without a shred of a tone of apology, “Sorry, Juanita. Though, I believe you would never lie to us, there is an important clause I forgot to mention.”
“You stay with us until we get what we came for.”
"You said I could go after I brought you here.”
“Don't worry, eventually you can go home with a handsome reward you for your cooperation."
His partner interrupted them, “Here's a burnt piece of paper. I can make out the letters oux followed by a space and a w."
“Most likely the remains of the address."
John heard the woman plead, “Tony, you don’t need me anymore.”
“You’re forgetting the clause. Relax, enjoy the adventure. It won’t be long before it’s all over.”
"Miguel, please, I’ll just get in your way.”
"Shut up, bitch, or I'll make you!"
“Miguel, there's no need for violence. Let’s get on the road, and end this frustration.”
John pondered the best way to get away. Taking a cab to the airport was one option, but the most obvious. The way things were these days, once there he would be stuck for hours. No good. Renting a car was too risky, for he was prone to seizures and the distance was long. So, the first stage would be by bus.
Arriving at the bus station, he bought a paperback, for he had no cellphone, and would attract attention doing nothing. Half an hour later, he was on the bus heading east and reading.
After a long drive, Holmes arrived at a town near his destination, purchased a used motorcycle, a small pair of binoculars, and a map. When the sun dropped below the horizon, he hopped on the cycle and headed for the address which according to the map was a church. He stopped when he saw it on a rise, and parked the bike under a tree.
Extremely cautious from his years in a war zone, he approached in an arc, and saw a car with an out of state license parked behind the church. Groaning, he wondered where he’d flubbed up. He considered leaving, but decided to find out what he was up against. Taking the binoculars out of his jacket, he discovered the woman occupying the back seat and the thin man in the front. Probably, the muscular one was inside the church. That meant they hadn’t found the loot, so it must be hidden somewhere. But, where? All he had was 5R-L3.
Unarmed, he debated his next move. Deciding he had had enough of violence, Holmes crept away nearly to the bike when he heard a scream.
Looking back, he saw the tall, thin man dragging the girl on the ground by her hair. John jumped on his motorbike and charged.
The roar of the engine alerted the man. He swiveled his body and pulled out a gun from under his jacket. He spread his legs, and with both hands took aim just above the bright light.
Juanita grabbed a rock, and slammed it into Tony’s head just as he fired a shot. He crumpled to the ground.
The bullet whizzed by John’s head as he saw a man dart out of the back door of the church. Leaning the bike, he pulled the throttle to the max.
Miguel was ready. He took aim and squeezed the trigger of his Glock.
The bullet plowed into John’s shoulder, and thrust him off the bike. Hardly losing momentum, the bike propelled forward toward Miguel. He leaped left. The riderless bike, as if guided by an unseen hand, changed direction and whammed him against the wall of the church in an unconscious heap.
Juanita rushed to her hero who was sitting on the ground with a limp arm. “Are you all right?”
“I got shot in the shoulder, but it went clean through. I’ve had worst. How about yourself?”
“You’re shot?! I can drive. We can take their car. I’m okay, but you have to see a doctor.”
“Yeah, later. First, let’s solve the puzzle of the church.”
Juanita bent down, and offered her shoulder.
He put his good arm around it and they stood up. “What’s your name?”
“Thanks, Juanita. I’m okay, now. Let’s go inside.”
Juanita asked, “What were they looking for?”
John thought she knew, but answered, “Don’t know. The only clue I have is 5R-L3.”
“Maybe it means fifth row third seat from the left.”
“Why didn’t I think of that? Here, take this penlight. Look under the pew, Juanita.”
She bent down. “There’s a metal box.”
“Bring it out.”
Grunting, she lifted it. “Where should I put it?”
“Open it on the seat.”
Emeralds reflected the faint light.
Juanita gasped, then asked, “What do we do now?”
John knew he could use the cash from the sale of the emeralds for therapy, but he also needed a different kind given by a friend.
“I don’t use my real name, but call me John for now.”
She had always been attracted to the strong and brave. Mystery added to the allure. “Okay, John. You lead. I follow.”