Saturday, May 6, 2017

Fiction: Unwanted President. Chapter 2

A Reporter Is Born

By Ed Rogers

Tom had been riding high for the twenty-four hours after the paper hit the streets. The New Daily scooped everybody, including the FBI. Their online edition had over two million hits and was still climbing. It just didn’t get any better than that. Everybody wanted to buy him drinks and shake his hand. He was now like the star of a new hit movie, titled, “Cahill Done It.”
    The FBI demanded that Tom tell them who had given him his information, or how he had received it, or they would put him in jail. It was easy to say you would stand on your principles no matter what; as long as you had the safety of a bar room. It’s a whole other thing when two men come up to your desk and show you their badges and you read those large letters that say, FBI. Not that Tom would ever tell them anything, but he was glad the threat hadn’t amounted to much more than just that. He could enjoy basking in the warm light of success for a little while longer.
    He forgot how great it felt to get that big scoop. With this Cahill story, it all came rushing back. He felt like he was that young reporter once more, with the scoop that launched his career.

It had all started with his first job. It was with The St. Paul Express. He was more of a gofer than anything else. They called him the junior reporter and, between getting coffee for everybody, they let him cover the stories no one else had time for, or wanted to fool with. Some of his stories they even printed.
    The Editor called Tom into his office one day and told him, “The owner asked me to send a reporter down to Grenada and find out what is going on. Mr. Wilson’s best friend’s daughter is going to school down there and she called home crying. Her parents had a time understanding everything she was saying, but they did understand there are Cuban soldiers in town down there, and their daughter was afraid.
    “Tom, I called the State Department. They know nothing about this, I think it’s a waste of time and money, but the boss wants it done, so you’re it.”
    Tom had tried not to show the excitement that was trying to burst out of him. To the Editor, there may not have been anything to the story, but to Tom, it was his first field assignment. A real reporter at last! This could be his big break, he could feel it in his bones, his time had arrived. It didn’t matter what the story was, as long as the owner knew Tom was willing to go anywhere to get it.
    After calling the airline and grabbing a bag from his apartment, Tom found himself on a plane with an atlas trying to find Grenada. He had no idea where to start looking for a place named Grenada, so he turned to the index.
    He got off the 737 in St. Petersburg, Florida and at the far end of the airport he caught a two-prop puddle jumper that should’ve been retired after WWII.
    The plane touched down at the airport in Grenada and, from across the tarmac, Tom could see two jeeps with soldiers racing toward them. The jeeps pulled parallel with the airplane and from the way the soldiers were waving their rifles at the pilot, Tom knew they were in trouble. The passengers pushed and shoved to see out the windows. They began to speculate about why the soldiers were chasing the plane. Evidently he was the only one who knew the soldiers were Cubans. He pushed his press papers between the seats. If the Cubans weren’t supposed to be here, the last thing they would want to see was a reporter from the United States.
    The airplane came to a stop and the soldiers surrounded it. One of the soldiers came aboard and ordered the passengers off the plane. Tom noticed how young they looked; they should have been in school, not running around here with guns. They all seemed to be about Tom’s age or younger. A truck backed up to the ramp that disembarked passengers. There was a lot of pushing and hitting by the soldiers before everybody was in the back of the truck and on their way to a hangar.
    The fear in the back of that truck was so thick you could smell it. Tom had always heard it said, you could smell fear, but until that day, he thought it was just a saying. That was the first time, but over the years, he had smelled it many more times, and it was always the same.
    In the middle of the hangar was a table where a soldier sat with two armed guards behind him. The soldier at the table looked out of place among all the younger men. With a long scar down the right side of his face, which was partly hid by a salt and pepper beard, he not only looked older but damn mean. He spoke very good English; more than likely he was educated in the States before the Revolution. One at a time the passengers were ordered forward to stand before the desk. There the soldier asked for their passport. Some were crying and pleading not to be hurt, others cursed their captors and paid the price – a gun butt to the middle of their back.
    The soldier looked up at Tom. “Well, American, what brings you to Grenada?”
    Tom decided to play dumb, “Look, I just heard about the medical school down here, and I’ve come to check it out, but if that’s a problem, I’ll be more than happy to go back home.”
    “Go over there with the other gringo pigs,” spit the soldier.
    “What about my passport?”
    “We’ll keep it for now,” the soldier said, as he turned to the guards and laughed.
    They put Tom and the others in the back of the truck once more and headed out of town. Tom asked, “Does anybody know where we are going?”
    From the front of the truck a lady said, “They are taking all the Americans to the school.”
    This started everybody debating the fate that might await them. Some of the parents had genuine apprehensions concerning their children. Maybe they were just getting all the Americans on the island together at the school before sending them home. The school didn’t sound as bad as some other places Tom could think of.
    The truck driver seemed to go out of his way to hit every hole in the road. Tom saw the soldier in the passenger seat peering back through the small window and laughing. Two older women were having a hard time staying seated. The soldiers seemed to find amusement in their discomfort. By the time they got to the school, everyone in the back of the truck felt like someone had been beating their bodies with a club.
    Tom saw truck after truck full of soldiers heading down the highway toward the beach. The soldiers were all grim-faced and looked afraid. Some were openly praying. Something was going on down on the beaches. The Cubans were leaving or the Americans were coming. Either way, Tom knew he had to get down there.
    The truck pulled through the gates into the school and around the circular drive in front of the school, throwing rocks, dirt, and dust into the air as it came to a stop at the main door. The cloud of dust settled over the twenty or more guards standing around smoking. They hardly looked up as the Americans came into the compound.
    The two soldiers got out of the truck cab. Tom heard their boots crunching on the gravel as they walked to the rear of the truck. They dropped the tailgate, and Tom was one of the first to get out. Then for no apparent reason, the soldiers started pulling people off the truck and throwing them on the ground. Tom tried to help some of them, but many of the older ones received bad cuts and bruises.
    After everyone was off, the soldiers that had been standing around got on board and the truck drove away. For a few seconds no one knew what to do next, and then out of the big double doors poured the students and staff. The questions were non-stop. All of them wanted to know what was happening in town. Was the President sending the Army to rescue them? Had any of their parents sent word for them? They had a hundred questions, but no one had the answers.
    Tom was thinking about finding the daughter of the owner’s friend but changed his mind. Hell, there wasn’t anything he could tell her. She knew as much about what was happening as anyone else.
    Instead of wasting time with the daughter, he started looking for the guy who thought he was the school player, the real lady’s man. Tom needed a way off the campus, and who better to show him the way than the local Tomcat? He needed a back door – the kind that was used to sneak off to the beach with a young lady. He spotted his man, and walked up to him and introduced himself. The young man’s name was Jay, and he answered Tom’s question, “Yes, there’s a shortcut to the beach – out through the hole in the back fence.”
    Jay and Tom climbed the hill behind the school to a spot between two palm trees. Unless you walked right up on it, you couldn’t tell there was a hole in the fence at all. They squeezed through the hole and ran low along a path toward some trees. Jay went as far as the tree line with Tom. From there they could hear the gunfire on the beach. Jay told Tom the path would take him to a knoll overlooking the beach, but this was as far as he was going. Jay turned and headed back to the school.
    But Tom knew there was no turning back for him. It was as if all his life had been preparing him to be right here. He put his head down and ran toward the sound of the cannon. This was the first time, but it would be far from the last.
    Tom came out of the trees and fell flat on top of the knoll. He could see US Marines on the beach. They were in the middle of a firefight, pinned down by heavy fire from above them. He could tell they were in for a hard time; they needed to get off the beachhead before they were all killed. The Cubans held the high ground, and they had the Marines pinned down on a small stretch of sand. Until the Marines could get off the beach, no more troops could land – it was going to be a long day. Tom made his way along the backside of the trees until he came upon the right flank of the Marines. Bullets were kicking up sand all around him. This was the first time Tom had ever been shot at. He never felt so much alive as he did that afternoon. To know death could find him at any moment redefined his life.
    The Marines were not too happy to see him at first, but after he told the Commander he knew a shortcut to the school, they became friendlier. He stressed the need to get there quickly. Tom feared that if the Cubans were cornered they might use the Americans as hostages.
    With Tom in the lead, a platoon of Marines headed back up the trail to secure the school. When they came to the hole in the fence, the Marines pushed Tom aside and deployed around the grounds. In the ensuing battle, the Marines killed the five Cubans that had been left behind. The school, and everybody in it, including the daughter of the owner’s friend, were safe.
    As wars went, it was not much of one. The troops landed in October and were back home by December.

Today Grenada has a pro-western government, and you’ll have a hard time finding anyone that even remembers this place in time; a place where Americans fought and died.
    Tom was the only reporter on the beach that day. It was a wonderful thing, being in the right place, at the right time. His story was carried nationwide and picked up by AP and UPI. Tom won a Pulitzer for his story on Grenada, and never went back to St. Paul.
    He had found his calling, a freelance reporter. After his baptism of fire to and from the beach, his life was charted on a new course. Tom knew he could never sit at a desk again. From that day on, he would be free to write the stories he thought were important. His stories would go to the highest bidder, and he would live the life of the roving reporter.
    He could point to the exact time that defined what kind of a reporter he would become, it was the moment he felt the rush on the beach in Grenada – that was what he would be chasing throughout his life. The rush was like a drug; you kept looking for the next high.
    It had been a long time between fixes. The Cahill story reminded him why he had chosen this kind of reporting – the idea of chasing stories, chasing women, and drinking all night. That had sounded like a reporter’s dream, and he had pursued it until it almost killed him.

Tom had been daydreaming at his desk, and it dawned on him that the two big stories of his life were stories he hadn’t been looking to write. No matter, he still felt the glow of being top dog in the pound. Then he suddenly remembered something that the Cahill woman had said. Something about the Gulf War. He hadn’t cared too much for that war, and he stayed drunk through most of it.
    Tom laid down the paper he was pretending to read and rubbed his eyes. His coffee had gotten cold. He got up and started toward the lunchroom, but changed his mind. He put his cup on the desk and headed to the file room. That old memory from the first Gulf War was coming back to him. It had been a different kind of war, one very hard for a reporter to cover. You had to go to the daily briefings to find out what was happening in the field you had just come back from. Everything seemed to be happening all at once and your mind couldn’t put it all into a big picture because what you saw was such a small piece of the puzzle. Tom had never got shot at, or even hollered at – what kind of a war was that?
    Most of the old files were on CD-ROM now, but Tom was from the old school. He liked computers and the freedom they gave him to find information, but there was something about the way a reporter wrote his notes on paper that told you much more than the words.
    It was past ten at night before Tom found his Gulf War folder. It was big. He filed a lot of stories, and a lot of pictures, but the war was so short that only one or two ever got to print. They were good stories, about young men facing war for the first time, and the hardships, and the bravery they encountered. But Americans had stopped caring about those things after Vietnam. War news was bad news, and most people had had their fill.
    Although Tom didn’t know all the soldiers’ names, the paper had run the story of Lieutenant Cahill, but they refused to print the pictures without the name of everyone in them.
    Then there it was looking back at him from the past. For a second he could smell the burning rubber, and hear the horrible screams of the men, as they were being burned alive. It wasn’t the enemy that caused this horror, but friendly fire. He had raised the camera to take a picture of a burning Humvee, when suddenly out of the fire and smoke walked a soldier pulling two men away from the wreck. Tom reacted with surprise, and horror, as the soldier ran back into the fire. Tom’s camera clicked away the whole time, but as the soldier entered the fire, he took it down from his eye. There was no way that soldier was coming out of that fire again.
    Then, like a ghost, the smoking, half-dead man came out pulling his friend over to the other buddies, where he fell down among them. By now, more soldiers were showing up, and an air medevac was landing. Tom got back in his jeep and said to the driver, “Let’s go find the war.”
    His camera had captured the essence of war that day, but neither he nor anyone else noticed. Tom remembered hearing a sergeant’s reply when asked about heroes; he had said, “We call people heroes because they do things we believe we could never do, but war makes heroes out of the most common of people. There is no John Wayne on a battlefield; there are just plain, everyday people, who have been put in a terrible spot.”
    Tom went back to his desk and looked up a website he had visited over the years, Military Personnel War Records. They had a place you could search by name. Tom typed in “john cahill jr.” Within seconds, there was a picture of Captain John Cahill, Jr. Its caption said, “Private First Class John L. Cahill received the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions and wounds during the Gulf War, 02/16/91. Captain John L. Cahill KIA Iraq, 06/25/12.The citations are available upon request.”
    Maybe he should call Mrs. Cahill; there might be another angle to the story. Killer of President is father of war hero? He wondered how the American people would get their heads around that.
    Tom started to walk out of the office, but stopped for a minute to hear what CNN was saying.
    CNN was showing the same scene that had been showing on every station for days now – the President breaking out from his guards and shaking hands with a man in an Army Captain’s uniform. Then the explosion, followed by the pictures of the dead and wounded. Then the cameramen were trying to find the President, without any success. They would find only pieces of the President. Later they would be burying these back in New Jersey. They had also found body parts of Cahill and others who were standing too close to a madman.
    That was what they called Cahill after that, a madman. Tom had no reason to think otherwise. Just because his daughter-in-law said he wasn’t insane, that meant nothing. No matter how good looking she was. You had to be nuts to do something like that. Sane people didn’t kill themselves and others, not Americans anyway.
    The CNN reporter was saying, “The bomber has been identified.” They switched to the White House briefing room, where the head of Homeland Security would make an announcement. The FBI had refused to confirm Tom’s story; they had said that only DNA testing could identify the killer. And now they were still not giving him credit for breaking the story.
    Tom walked back to his desk and opened the bottom drawer. He pulled out a bottle of eight-year-old malt and poured two fingers in a water glass, and then slowly walked back to the TV. The head of Homeland Security had already started by the time Tom returned. He was saying:

Today we received the report from the lab with the results of the DNA test. The test shows the killer of the President of the United States to be one John Henry Cahill of Pine Hill, Mississippi. At this time, we think he was a disturbed man, working alone.
    His only living relative is his daughter-in-law. The FBI is trying to locate her. The last anyone heard from Mrs. Cahill, she was reported vacationing in Europe. The FBI requests that if you have information, or if you know where Mary Walker Cahill is, or you are in contact with her, please call the local authorities. She is not involved with the murder of the President. The FBI needs to speak with her as a follow up in their investigation.
    Mr. Cahill lost his son in Iraq, and then his only other child, a daughter, died in a car accident, along with her lesbian lover. There are reports of him being unstable. The FBI thinks that the deaths of members of his family somehow prompted this insane act.
    We will be getting information to you as fast as we get it. That is all we have for right now.
    No! I am sorry, no questions.
    Tom was at a loss to explain what Mrs. Cahill was doing in Europe. He thought she wanted him to do a story on her father-in-law. Maybe once she got back he would look her up. He could always say he tried to reach her, but he didn’t know where in Europe she was visiting.
[Editor’s Note: The novel from which this excerpt is taken can be ordered from Amazon, as either a paperback or a Kindle book.
    And the author’s “Boystown” novels recently also became available in paperback as well as in Kindle format:

Copyright © 2017 by Ed Rogers

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