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Shadow of the Corps
By James DuPont
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2013 James M. DuPont
All rights reserved.
The first snowflake drifted from a dark and moody sky, flitted down, and touched the silver bell.
A Marine in full dress-blue regalia stood sentry amid the tombstones. With white-gloved hands he lifted the silver trumpet, inhaled, and played Taps—the notes as crisp as the air, lingering across the vast, harsh field of the dead, resonating with those who stood and mourned.
Near the maw of the grave sat a relatively young woman. Veiled in black, her lamentations seemed as piercing as the trumpet. It was difficult to watch her, let alone to listen. She reached for the pine coffin, cried, collapsed time and time again. Two teenage boys stood nearest her, holding her, crying with her—her sons, no doubt, doing their best to remain strong in the company of death.
As for dad, well, dad was the man of the hour, wasn't he? The occupier of the pine casket. Its lid closed with resolute finality.
Dale Riley stood in the back of the dark-clad gathering, where he overheard someone whisper to another that nothing could be done to restore dad's face. This was precisely what Dale was afraid of; was, in fact, the reason he'd driven here from Charlotte. Two days ago, what would have been Wednesday morning, he'd sat at the kitchen table with his wife and son and parents, reading the newspaper and picking at a plate of soggy scrambled eggs. Being unemployed, leisurely breakfasts had become a bit of a hobby. A front-page article in the Raleigh News and Observer— one of two newspapers that his father religiously subscribed to, the other being the Charlotte Observer—reported a shooting in a prominent Raleigh neighborhood. One man shot and killed, suspect still at large. At first, Dale thought nothing of this. A man shot and killed. Shit happens. But then, after the funnies and a rather generic if not uninspiring horoscope, Dale happened upon the obituaries. One in particular keyed his interest. He reread it. For a brief moment he tried to convince himself that this was a different Alex Snead. Tragically, however, everything seemed to fit. The obit described a loving husband, caring father, and god-fearing Baptist. Furthermore, it went on to say that Alex had served eight years in the Marine Corps as a JAG officer, his most recent assignment Cherry Point, North Carolina. Details that left little doubt that this was, in fact, the same Alex Snead.
Sipping from his cup of coffee, he had the gut feeling that the front-page article and obit might be related. In other words, was Alex the same poor bastard who had taken a bullet in a prominent Raleigh neighborhood? The obit reported nothing as to the cause of death, as was evident on the third, if not fourth, reading.
"Everything okay?" his father inquired, peering above his reading glasses.
"Yeah, Dad. Everything is fine."
Unless, of course, you're Alex Snead.
"Are you sure?" Gina pressed. "You look as white as a ghost." Gina, on the other hand, looked beautiful; her dishwater-blond hair in a bun, cheeks and neck dusted lightly with freckles. Still in her pajamas, her taut, heavenly body lilted beneath the soft cotton flannel. She'd been feeding their six-month-old, Clint, goop from a glass container, and was currently wiping his mouth with a towel.
"It's just ... I think I know this guy." He set the obit on the table nearest Gina.
She set aside the towel, picked up the newspaper, and read. "You know him from the Marine Corps?"
"Yeah. My days in the Corps." He left it at that; wasn't in the mood to go into specifics. "It says that the funeral is Friday morning. I think, you know, that maybe I should go."
"How well did you know this guy?"
"Well enough, I guess."
"You never mentioned him."
She shrugged. "I don't think so."
"Well, there are a lot of guys I knew that I've never mentioned."
A different argument came to the fore. "Dale," she began, embarrassed to be bringing this up in front of his parents, "your unemployment check doesn't come until next Friday. We barely have enough money to buy food for Clint."
Anticipating this, he said, "There's a couple hundred on the Visa. I just need to fill up the tank. I mean ... it shouldn't be that expensive."
Gina might have persisted if not for the sour expression on Ellen's face, who sat at the far end of the table, knitting.
Dad pulled out his wallet, reached in, and threw a few twenties on the table.
Gina shook her head. "We can't. You guys are doing so much for us already."
"Nonsense," dad replied. "And it's good to pay your respects to old departed friends. Go to the funeral, son. It's the right thing to do."
Ellen eyed the twenties with malice. To dad's kindness and generosity, mom was equally mean and stingy. In this instance, however, Ellen held her tongue, her eyes darting back to her knitting.
Dale scooped up the cash. "Thanks, Dad. Mom. I'll pay you back, okay, promise."
"When you can," dad replied. "No rush."
Early Friday morning, the morning of the funeral, Dale stuffed himself inside a tired three-piece suit that he had resurrected from the basement. Without the jacket he appeared as fat as a rhino. His girth spilled over the waistband. He was painfully aware that he had put on some weight, but this was ridiculous. The jacket helped, or so he told himself. He kissed his sleeping wife and son goodbye, and then, as quiet as a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound church mouse, sneaked downstairs.
The month was February; the promise was snow.
He grabbed his father's overcoat and threw it on.
Outside, frost blanketed the lawn, thin patches of ice along the walkway.
The door to his faded-blue Honda Civic opened with the sound of cracking ice.
"Okay, Old Betsy," he said with frosty breath, "don't leave me hanging." With nearly 250,000 miles on the odometer, she had every right to do just that. She had suffered years of both physical and mental abuse: physical with how he had driven her; and mental with the names he had called her—Old Betsy today when just yesterday she was The Whore, or The Bitch. However, Dale was a father now, trying to change his ways.
Prayerfully, he keyed the ignition.
The cabin lights dimmed.
The engine whirred and whirred.
"Goddamn it," he exclaimed, and then pounded The Bitch's steering wheel.
He took a deep breath.
He tried her again.
"Please, baby. Please!"
At last she sputtered to life.
He goosed the gas.
"Atta girl. You can do it, baby."
He patted the dash and thanked her profusely.
With Raleigh a good three hours away, he unbuttoned his slacks. His gut spilled out and would have sparked another round of disgust had he not been preoccupied with worry.CHAPTER 2
Dale intended to hit the 9:00 A.M. service at the Pullen Baptist Church, Raleigh. There, finding just the right moment and a sympathetic soul, he would ask a few well-phrased questions. Since reading the obit, he had grown increasingly worried. His relationship with Alex had been professional and rather brief, so emotionally he was fine. What troubled him were the specifics of Alex's death. Heart attack, or shot? Aneurism, or shot? Rabid dog, or shot? Either way, he had to know.
East of Greensboro he encountered a road construction crew, the traffic at a standstill.
On the radio—KROK 99.1—DJ Savage Jack was saying, "Better grease up them sleds and toboggans, little kiddies, and dig out a scarf for Ole Frosty, 'cause the big one is coming. That's right, it's high time for a little wintertime fun, and for you commuters out there, well, I'd hightail it for home if I was you. Unless, of course, you got yourself a pair of them there snow skis in the trunk. And speaking of snow skis, here's a shout-out to our sponsors at—"
Dale glanced skyward. Hightailing it for home simply wasn't an option. He had to know.
When at last eastbound traffic flowed, two knuckleheads ahead of him, late for work or wherever, jockeyed for the left-hand lane and collided. The white SUV veered left and onto the grassy median, where the tires sank into the muddy earth. The black Buick canted, flipped, and came to rest upside down and in the middle of the Interstate. Adding insult to injury, a red pickup truck smashed the rear panel of the Buick and sent it spinning like a top. Traffic collided like an accordion. Fortunately, Dale had been far enough back to avoid any damage. He did, however, get ensnared in the net of twisted metal, at which point he banged The Bitch's steering wheel and cursed a small storm of his own.
Good Samaritans (Dale included, although it took him a few seconds to cool down) assisted the victims. Thankfully, no one had been seriously injured. The driver of the Buick, a middle-aged man in a suit, crawled out through a shattered window, blood trickling along the side of his face. Another suit in a Mercedes offered this man refuge from the cold. The man in the white SUV, screaming into his cell phone, welcomed both young and old with a firm middle finger.
And for the second time that morning, Interstate 40 eastbound turned into a parking lot.
This was about the time when DJ Savage Jack had a brilliant idea: that although Christmastime was over, why not, with the promise of snow, resurrect the festive mood? The first hit song he played was Winter (freaking) Wonderland, followed soon thereafter by Frosty the (goddamn) Snowman. And all the while, Dale was doing his best to be that better man, to be patient in the face of adversity, to breathe and relax, and to not allow the entirety of the situation to send him spinning like the Buick. He sat there with the others, watching the cops come and go, the tow truck, everyone so goddamn leisurely about their duties. Throughout all of this, he refused to pound The Bitch's steering wheel. He wouldn't do it, no way. Instead, he inhaled to a count of five, exhaled to a count of ten—something he'd read about in a men's fitness magazine, how to achieve Zen in sixty seconds. He actually found himself enjoying the shitty Christmas tunes, just a wee bit frustrated that he could find no other radio station.
At 9:02 the cops started waving people through, Raleigh still an hour away. But that's okay. So he was late, big deal. Funerals tend to go on forever, don't they? And they can last, it seems, a lifetime.
He arrived as the hearse was exiting the church's parking lot, followed by two black limos and thirty, forty cars.
He became the procession's caboose and cranked down Savage Jack (A Holly Jolly Christmas just didn't seem a fitting tune).
At the cemetery, the vehicles flowed in through the wrought-iron gates. A warmly dressed cop directed traffic, parking cars on both sides of the cemetery road.
Dale killed the engine and immediately regretted doing so. What if Old Betsy had given him her very last mile? A fitting place to call it quits, sure, but hardly the time for Dale to find himself alone without wheels. But for the dearly departed, he wouldn't know a soul. That, and he hadn't a cell phone from which to call for assistance. Worst case, he'd ask a fellow mourner for a jumpstart. Failing that, he'd beg a ride. To where, he wasn't sure. Certainly he couldn't ask for a ride three hours back to Charlotte.
Outside, he glanced around self-consciously, sucked in his gut, and buttoned up his slacks.
Pallbearers exited the second limo, pulled the flag-draped coffin from the hearse, and carried Alex Snead toward the open gravesite.
The minister followed with a bible held high.
A black sea of family and friends engulfed the widow and escorted her over to the gravesite, to that cold and lonely metal chair.
Quickly, the final rite was staged—the pine coffin suspended on straps atop the gaping maw, flowers here and there, a widow, her two sons, a single Marine in dress blues and white gloves, holding a silver trumpet, the sterling tint of which contrasted greatly with the weather, and more so with the mood.
With the mourners gathered, the minister cracked his bible and began with a reading from Psalms: You hear, oh Lord, the hopes of the helpless....
The widow cried. Jesus, how she suffered. Not a praying man, Dale bowed his head and said a prayer, that God might ease her suffering.
Two elderly ladies quietly chatted, lamented the closed casket, his disfigured face, that they hadn't had the opportunity here or at the church to see him one last time, for closure, to offer their good-byes.
When the minister closed his bible, the pallbearers lowered the coffin.
Mourners came with fistfuls of dirt, tossed pebbles and clumps that bounced off the lid and echoed. In passing, the minister reminded each and all that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.
Snow began to fall.
The Marine trumpeter lifted his trumpet and played his mournful tune.
When all that remained belonged to the gravediggers, the two young men assisted their mother back toward the limo. The entourage followed her, the Marine, and the minister.
As the widow drew near, Dale wondered if she might not spot him in the back of the crowd, if she might not point a finger. Ridiculous, of course, as the two had never met. Still, what if somehow she recognized him? What if she cried out: My husband is dead and it's all your fault. I hate you. I HATE you! He lowered his head so as not to be recognized.
The widow passed by, lost in sorrow, barely able to carry her own weight.
The sea of black filtered toward their vehicles.
Politely, Dale tapped one of the elderly ladies on the shoulder. Quietly, he whispered, "Excuse me, ma'am." Quietly, yes, although his heart was thumping quite loudly.
She turned. "Yes?" She had kind blue eyes and soft white hair, was probably in her seventies.
He'd been thinking about how to phrase the question. The best he could come up with was this: "I'm an old friend of Alex's, ma'am. I read about his death in the newspapers. I'm wondering, well, I'm wondering how it happened. I'm wondering if you know what happened to Alex Snead? How he ... died?"
Shuffling toward the vehicles, the ladies shared a woeful, puzzled look. The one with the kind blue eyes sidled up next to him. She took his right arm. Perhaps this wasn't the time or place, but the young man seemed sincere if not confused. There was something else. Fear, perhaps. Quietly, she replied, "You honestly don't know what happened, dear?"
"It's such a tragedy." With a tissue she dabbed the corners of her eyes.
"A tragedy, ma'am?"
"It's awful. The poor thing."
The second lady corralled Dale's other elbow. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Mandy, just tell this young man what happened."
Mandy leaned in. He could feel the warmth of her breath when she whispered to him: "The poor dear ... he was shot."
The pounding in Dale's chest seemed to have stopped. He didn't, or couldn't, speak. He stared at her with wide and frightened eyes, the collar of his father's overcoat flipped up against the cold.
"I'm sorry," Mandy said. "I'm so sorry. It's terrible, isn't it? It's horrible."
Suddenly, Dale felt like running. Like sprinting through the cold and stark tombstones, sprinting just to get away, as if he could run from reality, from the dead body of Alex Snead, as if he could run away from his past. Instead, he stood as rigid as a tuning fork, vibrating as though he had been struck by a hammer. Around him the mass flowed by like lava. He didn't even hear himself when he said, "Jesus. He was shot?"
"I'm so sorry," Mandy said. "Were you two very close?"
Dale didn't answer her. He didn't know what to say. He stood in disbelief.
Shot, the poor dear. Shot!
The lady on his left whispered: "Wendy is lucky to be alive. She and her two boys. They had just sat down for dinner when it happened. When a gunman opened fire from outside their dining room window. Can you imagine?" She, too, dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
No, Dale couldn't imagine. It was all a bit much, really, the funeral, the widow, and even the snowfall. And now, two years after the threats, enter a gunman. Two full years since the court-martial that had forever changed Dale's life and the life of Alex Snead. Two years of troubled times, and now this.
Mandy, seemingly smaller than before, and more distant though she hadn't moved, said, "I'm so sorry for your loss, young man. I'm sorry." She released his elbow and motioned for her friend to come with her and follow.
Excerpted from Shadow of the Corps by James DuPont. Copyright © 2013 James M. DuPont. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excessive repetitive narrative
Shadow of the Corps: A Novel by James Dupont falls in the category of a thriller. It combines a background of a Marine Corps trial in the past and a serial killer in the present. DuPont is a Marine with twelve years of active duty as a pilot and legal adviser. He is currently a commercial pilot and holds the rank of major in the Marine Corps Reserve. This is his first novel. Dale Riley fresh out of law school joined the Marines to be a hero. One case will change his life and his career. A Marine is accused of bombing an Afghan village with out authorization, killing seventy eight civilians and five Marines, and Dale, against better advice, chooses to defend the pilot. The main story opens with Dale, his wife, and their son living with Dale's parents. Dale is unemployed, out of shape, and down on life. Almost by accident he sees an obituary for Marine lawyer, the name is familiar: the prosecuting attorney in the pilot bombing case. Here is where the story takes off. There are plenty of twists and surprises in the book and the pace is constant. As the novel develops, more of the trial and the past are brought to the present. Contemporary novels are not my usual reading, but occasionally I do take a break from non-fiction or the classics and read a modern novel. The Marine Corps imagery on the cover drew me in as well as the short description of the book.Shadow of the Corps supplies everything I needed. As a former Maine, I appreciated the back-story. The story telling is more than adequate and easily holds the readers interest. It is a good escapist novel, although nothing in it is far fetched even with the twists and turns. It is a good summer read or great read for those who enjoy crime thrillers. It was an enjoyable read.
Riveting, once you get your mental "footing" among the characters and time shifts. As a military daughter and wife, I hold high standards for military fiction, and I love a good legal thriller. The first section feels slightly labored, as if tacked on or rewritten after the fact, but it's WELL worth the effort....once you reach chapter 6 or so you'll be HOOKED. I raced though this story in its entirety (in one sitting) and loved the accuracy of the characters, places and action. James has a rare gift for writing action scenes--I could literally see them taking place in my head, like watching a movie. Very enjoyable debut, and I look forward to reading more from this promising author!
Overall, this book is really good. It took a few chapters to get into the story, but once you get there it's well worth it. There's a military tribunal and some interesting court scenes. There's a serial killer and hit man. There's a million different pieces that all come together in the end. Cool plot. And there's justice!