The Final (okay, might never be really final) Chapter Two of Savage Investigations, The Novel: AfterMatth
Here it is, Chapter Two, AfterMatth, of Savage Investigations, the novel I started back in February of 2005. I know I spelled AfterMatth wrong but it’s a play on words, using that poetic license us writers have the right to use:
Aftermath Matt, AfterMatth, get it? Of course you do.
Less than a month (actually 21 days) after I finished the final, final (really final) Chapter One.
At this rate, I should have those 5 chapters ready for sale (at 99 cents, a steal) on amazon and at www,larntz.com easily by Christmas.
Dominique is going over it as I type, so any minute now, I will copy that sucker into this post and you can read it for FREE. That’s right, I said FREE. I read that the one thing that gets everybody’s attention is the word “FREE!” With an exclamation point, even more so. FREE!
We found a couple of corrections, so there’s that never gonna be the final, final, blah, blah, blah…
Here it is!
Probably ought to get serious now. This is solemn stuff…
Savage watched with horror as the large monitor went blank. The voice monitor and biometric displays flat-lined. The other monitors displayed the fireball erupting out the top of the blast shield and the smoking hole in the ground where the two kids stood. The blast shield was still erect but covered with bloody fragments of Matt’s body armor and bits of Giovanna’s clothing.
Matt and Giovanna were dead because the primer charge detonated.
Savage sat dumbstruck, wracked with guilt, staring at the blank monitor and the flat line that seconds ago was a beating heart.
He wondered for the first time if the bomb suit would have protected Matt from the smaller charge, a question that would haunt him for the rest of his days.
“My God,” he thought to himself, “did I just kill those kids?”
“Chief?” came the voice from his headset. It was Master Sergeant Orrin Mickelson, Savage’s choice to be the onsite commander.
“I don’t know Johnny, he’s not responding.”
In the background, Savage heard Johnny say, “C’mon Mick, he’s gotta be there.”
“Chief! Are you there? Do you copy?” Mickelson half-shouted into his mic.
Savage snapped out of it.
“I’m here, Mick,” Savage said, unscrambling his thought processes.
“Gather up all the crime scene evidence you can, you know the drill. Set everything up in Hangar 243, it’s empty,” Savage added.
A light on the secure desk phone started to flash.
“Hold on, the secure line is ringing.”
He picked up the receiver.
“Savage. This is a secure line.”
“Savage, do you know who this is?”
“And why I’m calling?”
“I’ve called in the cleanup crew and your people can’t be there when they show up. Clear them out immediately.”
“Oh, and Savage, sorry about your man.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The line went dead.
“Mick, you need to evacuate the site. Leave everything and get back to the base. You know what I’m saying, right?”
“Uh, yeah, we copy.”
“And Mick, Team Building at my place after you get back. Let yourselves in. I’ll be there as soon as I finish up here.”
After an op, Savage and his boys always went back to Savage’s villa to unwind and compare notes. They called it a “Team Building Exercise”. It was especially important when they lost a member of the team.
Savage completed the most painful Operations Report he had ever filed and left the command center.
He made his way home to his villa, Northwest of Sorrento.
Walking through the gate and up to the house, he looked through the window at the men assembled in his living room. The same men, minus one, who just a few hours ago were laughing and celebrating the missing teammate they were here to mourn.
MSgt Mickelson met him at the door with a cup of black coffee.
“I know how close you and Matt were. You okay, Chief?” Mickelson asked.
“Not really, Mick. Sorry I flaked on you, but this hit me pretty hard.”
“No, it’s all good, Chief. You came back pretty quick, considering.”
“I guess you got the call, huh, Chief?” MSgt John Johnston, the team logistician, asked.
“Yeah Johnny, he called so you guys had to bug out,” Savage said.
“So what the heck happened?” asked TSgt Billy Ray Simon, the team weapons expert.
“I reviewed the footage. The primary charge went off before Matt could cut the leg of the ballast resistor,” Savage offered. “I don’t think there was anything he could have done.”
“Yeah, I heard him say something about the crappy soldering job,” Mickelson said.
Staring at nothing in particular, Johnston said, “Makes you think about how quick life can be snuffed out and how unfair it is to a guy like Matt, who may be the nicest guy I’ve ever known.”
“Yeah, but that’s EOD. Walking on the edge of destruction. You’re right Johnny, it’s not fair, but neither is life,” Simon mused.
A cloud of solemnity hung over the rest of the gathering as they swapped stories and memories of Matt, and some even managed a few weak smiles.
It was near dawn when the last man left and Savage fell into a fitful sleep at about four-thirty.
He was rousted out of bed at six a.m. by the phone.
“Savage,” he said into the phone, his voice clouded by sleep.
“Chief, this is Captain Armstrong. Colonel Harding requests that you report this morning at o-eight-hundred.”
“Yes sir,” he said, shaking the cobwebs from his consciousness. “I’ll be there.”
He dragged himself into the shower.
He arrived at the outer office of Colonel Richard Harding, the installation commander, and Savage’s direct superior.
“Go right in, Chief,” Armstrong said without looking up from his desk. He wanted to express his condolences, but said nothing because he knew what was waiting on the other side of Harding’s door.
“Thank you, sir,” Savage said as he passed the adjutant’s desk.
Harding’s door, which to Savage’s recollection had always been open, was closed. Savage stopped in front of it for a moment to compose himself.
He stood at full attention and rapped once on the door.
“Enter!” came the brusque reply from the inner office.
Savage took a deep breath and let it out slowly before he twisted the door handle and entered.
He noticed that the two chairs that were always set at 45 degree angles to each other across from Harding’s desk were gone. They had been replaced by a lone straight backed chair, placed four feet away from the front and center of Harding’s desk. In addition, there was a video camera set up on a tripod and an operator a few feet to the side and behind Harding’s desk to record the interview. This was not to be a social visit.
Savage snapped to attention in front of Harding’s desk at 0759 with a sharp salute and a curt, “Sergeant Savage reporting as ordered, SIR!”
“Sit down, Savage,” Colonel Richard Harding said from behind his huge cherry wood desk. As the military installation commander, Harding was responsible for everything that happened with respect to the U.S. military under his command.
“All right then. Let’s get this started,” Harding said. The anger in his voice was palpable. “Mitchell, start recording,” he said to the video technician. The flashing red light on the front of the camera went constant.
“Savage, since this is an official inquiry, you have the right to counsel in your defense. Do you wish to have counsel present?” he asked. The tone of his voice was all business.
Savage sat at attention in the chair across from the colonel’s desk. “No, sir, it won’t be necessary.”
“Let the record show that Sergeant Savage has waived his right to counsel,” he said to the camera.
Harding’s anger flashed in his eyes. He knew Matt and was fond of him, since Matt had often taken the colonel to task on the racquet ball court.
This incident was indefensible.
“Your report on the fiasco that went down last night. The Italian government wants someone to answer for that girl’s death.
“What the hell were you thinking, allowing Swanson to go in without the bomb suit?”
“Sir, as I stated in my report, Sergeant Swanson suggested there wasn’t time to suit up, and in my opinion, the situation warranted the breach of regulations.
“Considering the outcome, the bomb suit would not have been much protection, anyway.”
“All right, I’m willing to overlook that for now, but you and I both know Swanson cut the wrong wire. It’s an obvious mistake, yet there’s nothing in your report that says so. It also states that you want to give him the Air Force Cross? Why?”
“Permission to speak freely, sir?”
Savage was a Chief Master Sergeant and had achieved as much rank as possible in the enlisted ranks as an E-9. He had five years more time in service than the colonel, and at age 43, was a year older, but Harding was an O-6 and military protocol dictated that enlisted always defer to an officer.
Since they were in uniform and Harding had summoned Savage to report, all military protocols had to be followed. They had become close friends over the years Harding had been the Base Commander. Had they been out of uniform, on the golf course, at the gym, or at the club together, they would have been on a first name basis. “Permission to speak freely” took them off the record.
“Of course,” Harding said, and then to the camera operator. “Pause the recording, Mitchell.”
The red light on the camera pulsed again.
Savage rose from the chair and walked up to the desk. He leaned across the desk on his hands, his face a foot away from Harding’s.
“Rich, I don’t believe it was a mistake. You know—knew—Matt. He wasn’t at fault. I think he is—was—the best EOD guy in the business, with more citations for bravery and excellence than almost anyone I know. He was a professional and died in the commission of his duty. That’s why I’m pushing for the Air Force Cross. If we say he made a mistake, he won’t get it. I can’t let that happen. The only conclusion I can come up with is shoddy wiring, because he never got the chance to make that final cut. Thank God, he managed to disable the vest before it blew.
Harding held up a DVD.
“This is a copy of the events as they happened, recorded from the Ops Center console you were sitting at,” he said, sliding the DVD into the computer on his desk. He used the mouse to activate the video display. The monitor came to life and showed a split screen display of each of the monitors that Savage had seen last night. Harding clicked the mouse again and the displays froze.
“Swanson’s reputation is not the issue here,” Harding said. “Hell, I recommended him for most of those citations. The fact is, somebody is going to get hung out to dry on this. If not Swanson, as the OPCOM, it’ll be you.”
“So be it. I’m responsible. I made the call to go without the bomb suit. I was the one in charge.”
“Drake, be reasonable. Matt’s death was tragic, but he’s dead and you throwing yourself on this sword isn’t going to bring him back.”
“Rich, can I show you something?”
Harding slid his chair away from the desk as Savage walked around behind it and took control of the computer. He sped up the recording to the point just before Matt was about to cut the wire.
“Now watch this,” Savage said. “See how the wires are all the same color? There’s no way for a lay person to tell which wire he was about to cut. In fact, he wasn’t going to cut a wire, but the negative leg of the ballast resistor. Look at those cold-soldered joints. He even said something about the substandard construction job. I don’t think he ever got a chance to make that cut.”
He pressed a key and the static display came to life. His voice came from the computer speakers.
“Matt, if you don’t think you can do it, leave it alone. You’ve disabled the majority of the bomb. We can make her comfortable and bring in somebody else. She’s relatively safe now.”
“Aw shucks, and leave this pretty little girl wired to explode? I couldn’t do that, Chief. Nothing I can’t handle. It’s a matter of pride, y’know? We’ve come this far, you gotta let me finish it.”
He heard his own voice again, “All right, but be careful.”
“Okay, one last thing, and we’ll all go home. Don’t you just love happy endings? Me too.
“Just cut this leg of the ballast resistor, and we can all go home—“
The larger of the displays, Matt’s point of view, showed the open jaws of the wire cutters about to make the final cut.
The larger screen went blank and the other three displayed the event that was now burned into Savage’s psyche. His stomach clenched.
Savage held up his finger.
“There! Did you see it?”
“See what?” Harding said, confused.
“The jaws of the wire snips never closed on the leg of that resistor. Did you see it?”
“I don’t know. Play it again.”
Savage reversed and played the scene again frame by frame, freezing the image at the instant before Matt’s helmet camera screen went blank, clearly showing the open jaws of the wire cutters hovering over the resistor before the other displays showed the explosion.
Savage asked, “Do you see it?”
“I do,” Harding admitted.
“Exactly!” Savage exclaimed. “This is proof that he never got the chance to cut the wire. The thing went off before he could disarm it! It may have been on a timer, or it could have been bad wiring. You can see how sloppy those connections are. Or maybe a remote detonation, but for whatever reason, Matt never had the chance to cut that wire!”
Harding looked thoughtful.
“You might be right, Drake, but she was the Italian Minister of Finance’s daughter. The Italians are still going to want someone’s head for this.”
“Give them mine. We can’t let them have Matt’s,” Savage said. “He doesn’t deserve to go out that way.
“Rich, Matt died trying to save that girl’s life and I can’t, in good conscience, let his death go unrewarded. The least we can do is give his brother the satisfaction of knowing his little brother died a hero.”
Harding stared into Savage’s eyes as he pondered destroying his career.
“Okay, I’m convinced, but we both know what the bureaucrats are going to say happened. He was nervous because she was a diplomat’s daughter and he choked,” Harding insisted.
“I don’t think so. Not once you show them this. He didn’t seem nervous to me. I didn’t hear it in his voice. Matt Swanson’s been part of my team for five years, Rich. His voice monitor showed normal right up until he went for that final cut. You can see it on the biometric display. His heart rate and respiration were perfectly normal.
“You’ve known Matt Swanson almost as long as I have. Did he sound nervous or afraid to you?”
Harding shook his head.
“You and I know better, but the bureaucrats don’t know him. They’re still going to say he caved under the pressure,” Harding protested.
“I believe he knew what he was doing,” Savage said, “and the primer charge went off prematurely. He said it was a poorly rigged device.
“Imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t first disabled the main charge. Instead of a big hole in front of the gate, we would have lost the whole building, half of the block around it, and my team. For that, he is a hero.
“It was an accident. It wasn’t Matt Swanson’s fault. I want him to get the Air Force Cross for gallantry in action. He really deserves the Medal of Honor. I can’t let his memory be tainted on my watch!”
Harding broke in, “Even though we have visual proof that he never cut the wire, videos can be edited, and the Italian government can say the video was tampered with.”
“Then it’s our job to convince them otherwise!”
Savage realized he had balled up his fists. Harding noticed, too.
“Look, Drake, somebody is going down for this and I don’t want it to be you,” Harding pleaded. “You’ve had a long and distinguished career. I heard you tell him to leave it alone. He was being insubordinate.”
Savage nodded at Mitchell, who looked at Harding. Harding nodded his consent. The camera’s recording light glowed red again.
“Sir, with all due respect,” Savage said, regaining control and switching back to military protocol to make his point, “neither of us were there, but we have proof that he did not make a mistake. The video record clearly shows that he never had the chance to cut the wire that would have disarmed the device. You can see on the video that the jaws of his wire cutters were open and hovering over the detonation device at the time of the explosion. Sergeant Swanson was the best EOD specialist I’ve ever known. He would not make a rookie mistake like this. Everything was going fine until the bomb went off. I could hear it in his voice. He was not nervous or hesitant. He also said that it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. Consider what would have happened if he hadn’t first disabled the main charge, the vest of explosives. Instead of a big hole in front of the gate, we would have lost the whole building, half of the block around it, and my team. For that, he is a hero.
“Sergeant Swanson gave his life while trying to save the life of another, an innocent, terrified, young girl. That’s what I want the record to state.”
He paused for effect.
“The fact is,” he went on, “I was at fault. I used poor judgment, and as a result, two young people are dead and we are on the verge of an international incident. If the Italian government needs someone to blame, let them blame me. As you said, Colonel Harding, I was the OPCOM. I could have ordered Sergeant Swanson to stand down, but I didn’t. Court Martial me. Give me an Article 15. Force me to retire. Just don’t let my mishandling of the situation stain the honor of a brave young man who gave his life in the service of his country.”
One of the rights and responsibilities of a high-level position in the military such as installation commander is the ability to perform both field promotions and demotions in the form of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 15, Non-Judicial Punishment. Savage’s solution would be the perfect way out of this mess and they both knew it.
The colonel thought for a moment, weighing all the factors. This was already a political hornet’s nest, and could very well become an international incident, unless he could find a scapegoat to give to the Italian authorities. The Black Ops crew had already covered everything up, so a thorough and public joint investigation was going to be out of the question.
On the record, Savage had just offered his own neck for the chopping block and Harding needed to decide whether or not to drop the axe and sever his career.
Given Savage’s spotless record, Harding didn’t want him to be drummed out of the military, but he respected Savage enough to accede to his wishes.
“All right, Chief. If that’s the way you want it. Effective immediately, you are out-processing for retirement, and you are hereby demoted to the rank of E-8.
“End recording, Mitchell,” the colonel said to the camera operator. The red light went out.
“I hope it’s enough to satisfy the girl’s father,” Harding added.
“So do I,” Savage agreed.
One of the less glamorous aspects of being a diplomat was the knowledge that something might happen to a loved one, which is why they are so well guarded around the clock. A covert investigation, which Savage would have been an integral part of, would reveal exactly what happened to the girl’s security people. He knew that since he was no longer privy to such information he would never know the truth because due to the classified nature of the incident, none of the personnel involved in the investigation would be able to reveal any details to Savage as a civilian.
The official story for the media was that a suicide car bomb blew up at the gate of the embassy. The Black Ops cleanup crew, whose job it was to rewrite history and cover up what actually happened, gathered all the evidence, hosed down the site, and brought in a car loaded with explosives with a cadaver behind the wheel. They blew it up at the front gate, taking down the gate and a section of fence, right after Savage’s crew left. An hour later, it was all over the major wire services and television.
The world media all carried the same story.
He heard the news while in the Outprocessing Office at the Military Personnel Flight that afternoon.
“Our top story, Crimson Jihad, a new terrorist group, is claiming responsibility for the suicide bombing of the United States Embassy in Naples last night in retaliation for American air bases and military presence in the Middle East. Fortunately, due to the late hour of the attack, other than the driver, there were no casualties.”
“We are Crimson Jihad. We will no longer tolerate the Capitalist American Invasion. Death to the American pig-dogs who would desecrate our sacred holy lands with their machines of war and destruction. This is our first message. There will be others.” droned the monotone English translation dubbed over the frantic Farsi shouting on the tape.
“Crimson Jihad, eh?” Savage thought to himself. “Probably an Army Captain who’s an Arab translator. And why, with all the modern technology and advances in audio in the world, does it sound like it was recorded in a cave?”
He wasn’t wrong. The voice of Crimson Jihad was a Farsi translating U.S. Army Lieutenant from Kansas, recorded on a cheap cassette recorder, his mouth too close to the microphone, and he was in a bathroom stall. The tape was sent to the embassy and released to the media. The attack would be viewed as another skirmish in the war on terrorism.
Nothing was ever reported in the world news about the abduction and subsequent death of Giovanna Francelli, or the brave young man who lost his life attempting to rescue her. Neither government wanted anybody getting ideas about kidnapping the daughters of diplomats. Only a handful of people knew the truth about what had occurred. Giovanna’s death was explained away as a riding accident.
“In other news,” the Armed Forces Network newscaster solemnly reported, “Giovanna Francelli, age 15, the daughter of Finance Minister, Armando Francelli, died yesterday in a tragic accident when the horse she was riding threw her, sending her over the side of a mountain path to the rocks below, to her death. And now, here’s the weather…” the newscaster said, decidedly more upbeat.
The true nature of Giovanna’s death and the heroic young man who died while trying to save her would be forever shrouded in secrecy. Savage hoped the official Italian investigation might reveal what happened to Giovanna’s security detail, but he would never know.
He was fed up anyway.
“23 years in the military, 18 of it in black ops. I’ve lost enough close friends, and had enough of death, subterfuge, and lies,” he thought with acrimony in his heart. The world and tragically, Matt’s brother, must never know the true circumstances of the bravery and selflessness for which his little brother had given his life.
While he was outprocessing, Savage signed his retirement papers. Harding taking one of his stripes meant he would be retiring as a Senior Master Sergeant, but he would still receive the full retirement pay of a Chief, and “CMSGT / E9” would be displayed in the “PAY GRADE” field on his retiree blue ID card, and he would be receiving more than $3,000 a month for the rest of his life, but that brought little comfort at the moment.
Someone else would have to watch over his boys now. Maybe Harding would promote Mick to Senior Master Sergeant. He was ready.
They all came over to his place for Savage’s final team building exercise. It was a somber farewell gathering, unlike the one they had held for Matt just last night.
“Y’know, they say that those EOD boys just do the job for the crazy thrill of cheating Death every time they go out, but not Matt. He was one the most level headed guys I’ve ever known. No crazy in that boy, that’s for sure,” said TSgt Simon.
“Yeah, I’ve seen him talk guys down off the edge of crazy when they’d been drinking too much, and avoid incidents with the cops,” MSgt Mickelson said.
“And you couldn’t find a nicer, more genuine person, always ready to help out or pitch in,” said TSgt Johnston.
Savage raised his glass for the last time to toast Matt Swanson with the team.
“We are all better men just for having known him. To Matt.”
“To Matt,” the team said as one.
“And here’s to you, Chief. We hate that you’re going, but we know you’ll land on your feet,” said TSgt Anthony “Dollar” Bill, the team heavy equipment specialist.
“Thanks, guys. I’m really going to miss you, too. I have every confidence that you will all go on to greatness in your own ways. If you ever need a reference, let me know. I can lie as good as the next man,” he laughed. “Seriously though, I’ll send you my details when I get where I’m going, and please, keep in touch.”
Savage knew he’d miss the life and the camaraderie that exists nowhere else except the military, but now it was time to move on.
Though unprecedented in his experience, Colonel Harding granted Savage’s final request to take the physical Air Force Cross medal to Albuquerque and personally give his condolences to Matt’s brother, Albuquerque Police Department Detective Sergeant Luke Swanson.
His exit from the military turned out to be a whirlwind affair. The paperwork that normally took up to six weeks was pushed through channels in a few hours.
A transoceanic flight later, Savage had his final out-processing appointment stateside at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Later that afternoon, he would be officially retired and no longer part of the military.
He had a flight to Albuquerque scheduled for 0845 the next morning.
With a little more than forty thousand dollars in his 401K, his future was, for the first time in a very long time, uncertain.
Okay, here you have it.
Now on to Chapter 3!
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Thanks for reading, and for your support.
To be continued…
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