As a Naval intelligence officer stationed in the Middle East, Jade Aden was trusted with secrets that would leave most people shaking in their boots. But after the fallout from an incident during Desert Storm forced her into early retirement, Jade made a new, more pedestrian life for herself and her two children in the picturesque town of Cairn-on-the-Hudson, New York.
Employed as a river keeper, Jade monitors pollution created by weekend boaters and commercial tankers. But when something strange surfaces in the river, Jade’s dangerous past is dredged up once more. She knows the object strapped to a dead sea lion is a mine from a top-secret weapons system supposedly canceled years ago. Because it was highly classified, Jade is forced to feign ignorance, but her silence soon leads to death and destruction.
Determined to do the right thing, Jade must face off against forces willing to kill to protect their own despicable interests.
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After Desert Storm
"Shooting off the sergeant's testicles and half his penis was a bit extreme, wouldn't you say, Captain Aden?" "No, sir. I fully intended to kill him. I was aiming for his heart, but my hands were shaking badly and I missed."
Jade watched as Vice Admiral Hubert Roberts, Chief of Naval Intelligence, shifted his tall, bony frame in his chair behind the long, wooden table on the raised platform before her. He coughed lightly, and then made a note on the yellow legal pad in front of him.
Of the four men sitting in judgment of her, Roberts was the only one in uniform, and the only man Jade knew. She suspected that the two men in dark business suits sitting to Roberts' right were from the intelligence community, but she gauged them as bureaucrats, not field operatives. One would almost certainly be a C.I.A. liaison, and the other would probably be from Army Intelligence or some other lair deep in the belly of the Pentagon, where Roberts dwelled. The two men looked to be about the same age, in their early 60's, with cold eyes and the pale, waxy pallor of men who spent too much time in stale air out of the sun.
The man in the ill-fitting brown suit to Roberts' left was older, perhaps in his mid-70's, but he looked healthier than his companions, with a tan Jade suspected might have been acquired on the White House tennis courts. Unlike the others, this man did not project hostility. There was warmth, perhaps even sympathy, in his blue eyes. The faint smile that teased the corners of his mouth could mean anything. He had the bearing of a diplomat, not a military man. This would make him political, and he was the man Jade feared most, for she was certain he would be the one to make the final decision on what was to be done with her.
Roberts finished writing and looked up from his pad. His brown eyes narrowed. "I hope that comment wasn't an attempt to inject humor into these proceedings, Captain."
"No, sir," Jade replied in a flat tone, meeting his gaze. "I hadn't slept for forty-eight hours at the time of the incident. I'd come across the desert, through enemy lines, and I'd been forced to kill five men. I was feeling a bit stressed. Sir."
"Why didn't you come to the sea like you were supposed to, Captain? We had a boat waiting for you there."
"The first strike wasn't going to come from offshore, sir. It wasn't the Navy that needed my information."
"How the hell did you know where the first strike was coming from?"
"I knew, sir. My orders were to complete my mission and get out of Baghdad as quickly as possible. That's what I did. Since the first strike was going to be launched on the ground, I reasoned that it was General Schwarzkopf who would have the greatest need for the freshest intelligence on the grouping of enemy forces in the desert. I had a Republican Guard uniform and ID papers, a vehicle, and I was armed. I wore a scarf to cover my face and hair."
"And if you were stopped and questioned? How did you plan to explain what a woman was doing in a Republican Guard uniform?"
"I was stopped, sir. As I mentioned, I had to kill five men."
"Your job was to track, to the best of your ability, the movements of Saddam."
"I did that, sir, as you know from my communiqués."
"What if you had been captured or killed? Invaluable information would have been lost."
"I had good reason to believe that my cover had been compromised just before I left Baghdad. The Iraqis would have been looking for me on the road to the sea. I judged a run across the desert to offer the best chances for escape and survival. Besides, I knew we weren't going to take out Saddam, even if he was at one of the sites I'd indicated. I judged that additional intelligence I could gather on a desert crossing would be more valuable than what I'd already reported. I tried to show initiative, sir."
"What the hell made you so sure Saddam wouldn't be targeted?"
"Sir, I have been the Navy's top Middle East covert intelligence operative for the past eighteen years. It's my job know what our enemies are thinking, what they think the United States and its military are thinking, and what you think they think you're thinking. From the beginning of the buildup, the common wisdom among the rulers and diplomats here was that Saddam would be spared, no matter what happened to his people, because the risk of Iran stepping into a power vacuum was too great."
"That was their thinking, Captain. How could you presume to know what we were thinking?"
"I agreed with their assessment, sir."
"So you decided to cut yourself new orders, go on an intelligence-gathering mission behind enemy lines, and then ignore your chain of command in order to report directly to Army Ops."
"I had no way of communicating with my superiors after I left Baghdad, sir. My primary objective in crossing the desert was to evade capture."
"What happened when you reached Ops?"
"I reported to the CO on site, and I was debriefed by Colonel Michaelson, one of General Schwarzkopf's tacticians. I described the placement of enemy forces I'd observed, told him about Saddam's likely movements, and then I was dismissed."
"How did you and Sergeant Bolo cross paths?"
"He was assigned as my personal aide, sir. He didn't like that."
"Why didn't he like it?"
"You would have to ask him, sir. I assume it may have had something to do with the fact that he'd been pulled from a first-strike force and ordered to look after a woman while the rest of his unit was going into combat. I think he was afraid he was going to miss something, and he may also have felt humiliated."
"Did he have any idea who you were?"
"No, sir. Colonel Michaelson assumed you would want my identity, rank and mission closely held. All Sergeant Bolo knew was that he had suddenly been separated from his unit to wait on a very dirty, very smelly Arab woman dressed in a Republican Guard uniform. His orders were to make sure nobody approached or tried to speak with me. He wasn't even supposed to speak to me himself, only bring me whatever I asked for."
The dark-suited man sitting to Roberts' immediate right cleared his throat, then leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table as he stared hard at Jade, who stared back impassively. In contrast to Roberts' face, which was craggy and angular, this man's face was oval, and his brown eyes were cold. Although this space in one corner of a vast, empty and otherwise deserted airplane hangar wasn't particularly warm, the man's completely bald head glistened with sweat. After a few moments he said, "You can understand the man's frustration, can't you, Captain? He was a highly decorated Army Master Sergeant being pulled from imminent combat duty to baby sit for an indeterminate amount of time an unidentified, unwashed Arab woman he knew nothing about except that she wore the uniform of the enemy."
"It wasn't Sergeant Bolo's frustration that caused the problem," Jade replied evenly. "It was his behavior. I'd always assumed that Army Master Sergeants rose to that rank by following the orders of their superiors. Do you wish to correct that impression?"
"That's impertinent, Captain Aden."
"I'm sorry if it sounded that way, sir. Perhaps I misunderstood. I thought you might be implying that it was perfectly understandable that Sergeant Bolo should rape me because he was frustrated and unhappy with the orders he'd been given."
The stout, bald man in the dark suit flushed, and then took a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his face and the top of his head. When he spoke again, in was in a mock-friendly, conspiratorial tone belied and rendered absurd by the anger that was obviously driving his words. "You led him on, right? You were feeling a little high and horny after killing five men. It happens."
Jade stared in disbelief at the sweating, bald-headed man. She knew she should probably feel outrage, but in place of anger she felt only a bone-deep weariness. She had hoped one day to make admiral, perhaps even replace Hubert Roberts, but now she knew that wasn't going to happen. Her career had been raped along with her body, but she no longer cared. At the moment the only thing she wanted was to escape from this hangar, but she could not do that until these men were finished with her.
"I wasn't feeling high or horny, sir" Jade replied quietly, pointedly looking away from her interrogator and directing her answer to her commanding officer. "I was totally exhausted, and I could hardly stand up. Sergeant Bolo started asking me questions. He wanted to know my name, what I was doing there, and why some Arab bitch — his words — was getting all this special attention. He said he'd never had an Arab woman, and the way I smelled turned him on. He told me he'd heard Arab women knew all sorts of tricks to please their men, and he said he had a few tricks of his own he'd like to show me. He invited me to take off my clothes and lie down on the bed, and I invited him to leave. Then he asked me if I was a lesbian."
The dark-suited figure to Roberts' far right, a burly man with eyes so pale they almost matched his white hair, spoke for the first time. "Are you?"
"That question is impertinent, mister," Jade answered in an even tone as she continued to stare straight ahead at the vice admiral. She could feel heat rising in her face and the muscles in her stomach begin to knot, and she struggled to remain calm as she considered her options and the possible consequences of what she might say. She decided she couldn't very well be charged with insubordination to a man in a business suit whose identity was unknown to her. She also decided that she had little to lose, for there was no question in her mind where this secret, unrecorded inquiry was headed. In the same steady voice she added, "Fuck you for asking it."
Roberts and the two men in dark suits stiffened and drew back in their chairs as if they'd been slapped, but the man in the brown suit seated to Roberts' left simply continued to study her with the same enigmatic trace of a smile on his face and a faint hint of amusement in his eyes.
"You're way out of line, Captain!" Roberts said sharply.
"I meant no disrespect to you, sir. The gentleman's question was out of line and deeply offensive to me."
Roberts glanced down at his legal pad, and then once again fixed Jade with his cold brown eyes. Jade calmly met his gaze. Although she felt like a mongoose facing three cobras and one dangerous sphinx, the knot in her stomach was gone and she felt a little better.
"You can occasionally give offense yourself, Captain," Roberts said at last in a tight voice as he began to tap his pad with the eraser end of his pencil. "You didn't simply ask Sergeant Bolo to leave, did you? Specifically, you told him that if you wanted any shit from him you'd squeeze his head. Is that a correct quote?" "It is essentially accurate, sir."
"Then you said he sounded like he was talking with his head up his ass, and you told him to fuck off. Is that correct?"
"That is essentially correct, sir."
"You don't consider this provocative language?"
"It was meant to provoke him into leaving me alone, sir. May I remind you that I hadn't eaten or slept in forty-eight hours?"
"Then you said that if he didn't leave you were going to shoot his balls off."
"Yes, sir. However, I was speaking figuratively. My act was not premeditated; his was. We come back to the fact that he was disobeying orders by even speaking to me, and I do not believe that my use of abusive language gave him the right to rape me."
"What do you suppose gave you the right to shoot him?! If you had taken some sort of defensive action before the attack -"
"Excuse me for interrupting, sir, but, as I explained at my first interrogation, I had no opportunity to try to defend myself before the attack. I turned away from him, and he punched me in the back of the head. He threw me face down on the bed, tore off my slacks and underpants, and then proceeded to rape me anally while he held a knife to my throat. I was only half conscious, but I could hear him mumbling something about not wanting to catch any Arab clap. When he was finished he said he'd kill me if I told anyone, and that nobody would believe me anyway. I got the distinct impression that I wasn't the first woman Sergeant Bolo had raped since arriving in Saudi Arabia."
Jade paused and shifted her gaze to the bald-headed, sweating man, then continued in a sharp tone, "Of course, Army Intelligence would know more about that than me. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the Army knew or suspected it had a psychotic master sergeant in its ranks, and chose to do nothing about it — maybe because of his combat record. I don't know why Colonel Michaelson assigned this man as my aide, but I'd like to think that he just wasn't aware that Sergeant Bolo was a loose, disobedient, murderous cannon with a constant erection."
The sweating man in the dark suit flushed angrily, and then abruptly looked away. Roberts dropped his pencil, folded his hands in front of him, and then said, "Whatever the sergeant's unfortunate proclivities, the fact remains that you shot him after the attack, which makes it an act of revenge."
"I don't view it that way, sir. I was acting in self-defense. After the attack, Sergeant Bolo gave no indication that he was intending to leave. On the contrary, he told me how much he'd enjoyed himself, and said he was thinking of having another go at me after he'd rested for a while. He said that if he couldn't fight he might as well fuck. This was a man who'd brutally raped me inside a tent right at operational field headquarters, and he seemed absolutely confident that there would be no consequences for his actions. He was way around the bend, and I feared for my life."
"Why didn't you scream or cry out for help?" "The impulse to scream or cry out for help was cut out of me a long time ago, sir. You saw to that. In this instance I reacted instinctively, in the manner in which I'd been trained, to a life-threatening situation."
The Chief of Naval Intelligence started to ask another question, but immediately fell silent when the brown-suited man to his left raised his hand slightly. The other men at the table now turned their heads in this man's direction, and Jade sensed a distinct deference, perhaps even anxiety, in their manner. The man said, "You have two teenage children, don't you, Captain?"
The question took her by surprise, and she found it disturbing for reasons she could not immediately identify. There was nothing threatening in the man's manner, or in the question itself, but she had not expected to be reminded of Max Jr. and Fatima in this setting, and she found it unnerving. She stared back into the man's expressive blue eyes, which now seemed to reflect mild curiosity more than anything else. After a few moments she replied tersely, "That is correct, sir."
"It must be difficult for you, Captain — raising them by yourself with their father dead. It would be difficult for any woman to raise two children alone, but especially so for somebody with your demanding career and assignments. In addition, if I understand correctly, one of your children is handicapped, and that makes your burden even heavier."
"I'm not the only single parent in the U.S. Navy, sir. The Navy has provided most excellent support services and facilities for my children, thank you very much." She paused, looked back at the craggy faced man in uniform. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
Vice Admiral Hubert Roberts smiled thinly, but there was no trace of amusement in his glittering brown eyes. "I got the impression you've been speaking quite freely all along, Captain. What's on your mind?"
"I don't believe the gentleman on your left would be following this line of inquiry regarding my family if I were a male officer, sir."
"Captain, your family situation and responsibilities could have an important bearing on the disposition of this case."
"I don't understand why my family situation should have anything to do with the disposition of this case, sir. I merely defended myself against a man who attacked and brutally raped me at knifepoint once, and was threatening to do it again."
"You're an officer who performed a ballistic castration, as it were, on an enlisted man. You horribly maimed a highly decorated combat soldier. Do you think we can, or should, just let that go by the boards?"
Excerpted from "The Keeper"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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