For thirty years, the cries of dying men and the searing agony of guilt have haunted John Travers—all because he made a decision in a Vietnamese jungle that resulted in the deaths of nine good soldiers. Now, after suffering through decades of self-hatred and bitterness, Travers has finally come to the conclusion that life is good.
And then Philip Mackey shows up. Travers—the owner of a private investigation firm with his business partner, Wally Karpinski—does not know much about Mackey except that he was a reasonably competent soldier who once saved his life. But it is not long before Mackey’s appearance and his revelations force Travers to confront his demons and question long-held truths. With the help of Karpinski and an eclectic group of associates, Travers embarks on a journey into the past where he must delve into humanity at its worst.
In this fast-paced thriller, the excruciating consequences of war erupt after thirty years, bringing violence, vengeance, and redemption to a Vietnam vet who must fight through the pain in order to find the inner peace he so desperately needs.
The National Mall was a great place to walk, if you were so inclined. There were monuments in the middle, and the entire Smithsonian complex was situated on either side. Abe Lincoln sat at one end and the Capitol at the other, with the towering Washington monument in the middle. I walked beside the reflecting pool, listening to the sounds of tourists and joggers, until I reached the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Wall. In its unique and somber way it was a beautiful monument. But I had always been troubled by the idea that a monument to tens of thousands of dead people could be considered beautiful, when its sole purpose was memorializing something so terrible, so bloody and so costly. On the other hand, that particular monument put a name—thousands of names—right there for you to think about. You could not hide from reality by simply appreciating its design and simplicity. Because the names of all the lost lives, hopes, and dreams were right there in your face. You could run your fingers over the engraved names of countless men who never again would see a sunset, kiss a lover, hug a parent or walk on the beach. I felt it was important for people to see those names; to put a price tag on that bit of history—my generation’s unhealed sore. I walked to the panel upon which my men were memorialized and stood there for thirty minutes, reading the names and reminiscing. In the polished, black surface I could see my own reflection superimposed on the names. It was like a vivid indictment of my responsibility, and I shuddered as I gazed upon my own countenance. I spent a lot of time looking at Everett O’Riley’s name in particular, and as I had done so many times before, I apologized to him and begged his forgiveness. I would have said a prayer for his soul, but I did not do that any more. I was not that much of a hypocrite. I stepped away from my men and meandered along the monument, looking at random names and wondering about the man whose name I just read. I noticed lots of tourists there, many of them putting mementos at the base. Some people were crying, some were laughing, but all were showing respect. I got to the entrance to the monument, where the books were; the indices that listed the names of the dead and gave the panel on which their names were engraved. I noticed an old man at one of the books, turning the pages. He was dressed in a shabby pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and he was wearing filthy running shoes. He was shorter than me, probably just under six feet tall, and he was skinny, almost unhealthy looking. He had lank, stringy hair and his weathered face was wrinkled and worn. He was reading names silently, but his lips were moving. He looked familiar, but I could not figure out from where. I continued to stare at him for a few more moments, shook my head, and walked away. I was back in my office a few hours later and Wally was sitting with me, drinking a cup of coffee. His large muscular frame was wedged into one of the upholstered armchairs in front of my desk, and as he was explaining something I thought the old chair would disintegrate with his enthusiastic gyrations. We were laughing when our receptionist, Andrea, knocked on the door. She stepped inside and was pulling on her ponytail. “A man is out here who wants to speak to you, JT.” I looked over at the big guy and shrugged my shoulders. “Bring him in,” I said. Andrea smiled and stepped back into her area. A moment later the door opened wide and she appeared again. She pointed into the room and the man walked in. He was the one I had seen at the Vietnam Memorial, reading the book. He took a tentative step forward and his eyes roamed through my office, passed over Wally and then came to rest on me. I could not get over how familiar he looked. “Hello, Lieutenant Travers,” he said, looking self-conscious. I noticed how he straightened up, slightly. “Corporal Mackey reporting.” I don’t think if someone had hit me on the head with a club that I would have been any more stunned than I was at that moment. When he said his name, all the tumblers fell into place. Like me, he had aged considerably, but it seemed like his aging had been far more difficult than mine. I could see the telltale signs of substance abuse and/or a lifetime of bad breaks. His rheumy eyes seemed sunken and he was missing a good number of teeth. His pasty skin was so thin the underlying vessels looked like engorged tangles of wire, and there were scores of liver spots on his forehead. He did not look like a healthy man. “Mackey?” I said, stepping around the desk. “Philip Mackey?” “The same,” he replied. He offered me a friendly face and thrust his hand out. I worked it like a pump handle. I shared his smile and looked into his eyes. But it was like looking through a dark tunnel into my past. I saw him as a young man, scared to death, as he pulled me out of the water where the mortar had thrown me. I saw him as we huddled together, waiting for the ambushers to come in and finish us off. I saw him, wide-eyed and frantic, holding my hand as I was loaded onto the chopper to be airlifted out. We just stood there, hand in hand, studying one another. I suspect he too was reliving our shared experience. Finally, I introduced him to Wally as the man who saved my life. I saw a fine blush cross Mackey’s face and he shuffled his feet. Then I offered him a chair and he sat down heavily. “I saw you at the Wall earlier today,” I said. “I didn’t know it was you, of course, but I saw you looking at one of the books.” “Really? It was my first time. And it was hard. All those names. I wanted to come before, but never had the money. Or I wasn’t sober enough. I’m not sure I feel better having been there.” “I know. What made you come out now?” He peered at me and gave me another awkward smile. “I saw your name in the paper. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know if you survived or not. You were pretty beat up last I saw of you.” “Yeah.” I continued to study his face and felt myself being pulled back to the jungle. I was starting to feel clammy. Wally stepped in. “You read about one of our recent cases?” he asked. We had been pretty active over the past year or two and had gotten some good press and lots of new business. “Yeah,” he said, still facing Wally. “I saw Lieutenant Travers’ name and where he was, and decided I should come out.” He paused and seemed to be staring off into space. “And to visit the guys on the Wall.” Nobody spoke for a few moments, and it was uncomfortable. I did not really know anything about Mackey, except that he was a reasonably competent soldier who had saved my life. And I was not sure why he wanted to see me. Our paths crossed a long time ago when we were young and inexperienced. We had nothing in common except an incident we both wanted to forget. “How have you been, Mackey?” I asked after a few awkward moments. He shrugged and looked at the floor. “My life—after Nam—has had its ups and downs. Mostly downs, I guess. I went home, got married and screwed that up. I’ve worked odd jobs and live in a trailer. The VA people tell me I got that post-traumatic stress disorder. I can’t hold down a job, can’t maintain a personal relationship, and I drink too much.” “I’m sorry,” I said, casting a glance at Wally. “I don’t know if I’m better or worse off than the guys on the Wall.”
C. Carl Roberts is a professor at a major medical school on the West Coast. Abreaction is his third Travers and Karpinski novel.