Origin of a Character: Edwin Terrell, Jr.

This is the latest in a series of explorations of characters in my canon of stories and novels. Edwin Terrell, Jr., CIA agent, isn’t a primary character in any of my work, except for a novella, My Noble Enemy, dedicated solely to him. He is, however, a central character in Mai Fisher’s and Alexei Bukharin’s professional and personal lives. So, let’s find out more about him.

Birth and Early Life

Born in 1935 to hastily wed, teenaged parents, Edwin (so called by his mother, Evelyn) was only four years old when his father Edwin, Sr., joined the Marines for a steady income. Two years later, Edwin, Sr., was stationed in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He spent the war in the Pacific Theater, eventually winning a Medal of Honor.

Back in the states, Edwin (by now Eddie to his grandparents) and his mother lived in rural Pennsylvania with her parents, and Eddie idolized his hero father and worshipped his young, beautiful mother, who taught him to read and write when he was four and insisted he read books well beyond his years. Evelyn instilled in him a life-long love of education. (He would go on to get several masters degrees in a variety of subjects.)

In December of 1945, on her way in a snow storm to Philadelphia to pick up Edwin, Sr., from the train station, Evelyn slid off the road and down a small embankment. The car was out of sight from the main road, and she died overnight of hypothermia. Edwin, Sr., was devastated, as was Eddie, and he thought it would be him and his hero father for the rest of their lives.

But Edwin, Sr., was still a young man, only 27 when his wife died. Two years after her death when Eddie was 12, he remarried–a recent high-school graduate, and Eddie entered his rebellious stage.

Those Rough Teenaged Years

Eddie did all the things a teenage boy could do to upset his parents in the late 1940s, early 1950s–drinking, driving cars too fast, peppering mailboxes and signs in the countryside with buckshot. Whenever the local cops caught Eddie at his vandalism, they usually sent him home to his father. His father was a war hero, after all, and they didn’t want the family to be embarrassed.

Eddie’s saving grace with his father (who staunchly believed in corporal punishment) was he did well in high school, both as a student and as an athlete. Then, his father and stepmother provided Eddie the ultimate embarrassment when he was 15. They had a child of their own, Barrett. Immediately after Barrett’s birth, Eddie ran away and tried to join the Marines, but they, too, sent him back home.

Until he graduated from high school in 1953, home life was a continuous row with his father. Eddie ignored his stepmother and his little brother, who was besotted with his tall, muscular, and handsome older sibling. With the ink drying on his high-school diploma, Eddie left for the college he’d worked in secret to be accepted at, the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.

His father had wanted him to accept a football scholarship to Penn State, but Eddie knew he didn’t want to play football, and it would piss his father off for Eddie to affiliate with a service other than the Marines.

Army Life

VMI taught Eddie Terrell military history and strategy, but his majors were in History and Philosophy, and he minored in English Literature, in honor of his late mother, who never got to study either subject beyond high school. Because of him. To Eddie’s surprise, his father came to his graduation and saw him commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

His ability to write and his analytical skills drew him to Army Intelligence and eventually the Green Berets, during his several tours of duty in Vietnam (officially), Laos, and Cambodia (both unofficially). Eddie’s skill with languages and in understanding different cultures worked well for him in Southeast Asia, but he was also known by his fellow soldiers for his hard-drinking and womanizing while on leave.

During one leave, he woke up in a Bangkok brothel with a massive hangover and a healing tattoo on his left arm: a naked woman whose large breasts were dice rolled to snake eyes. He had no recollection of when or why he’d gotten the tattoo, but from then on, he was known as Snake, though for years he would say it was because the Green Berets were called “snake-eaters.”

His missions in Vietnam were often deadly–for the enemy–and he found he was adept at planning and executing assassinations. But as the Vietnam War got deadlier, he left the Army in 1967 to join the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA and The Directorate

While working Army Intel in Vietnam, Terrell often encountered “observers” from the United Nations. He also occasionally got orders to allow these observers to join him on missions, and he quickly figured out they were spies despite their denials. In turn, they would request his assistance in other parts of Southeast Asia–Thailand, Taiwan, Korea.

Once he became CIA, it all became clear. These so-called observers were operatives from a super-secret organization out of the U.N. called The Directorate. In the remainder of the 1960s and early into the 1970s, he frequently worked with a duo of Directorate operatives, Nelson and Alexei Bukharin.

As an ardent anti-Communist, Terrell admired Bukharin for defecting, but Terrell was never quite sure he could fully trust the emotionless, standoffish Russian. Yet, in 1977 when Bukharin asked for Terrell’s assistance in testing Bukharin’s newly minted partner, Terrell willingly agreed.

Terrell and Mai Fisher

Mai Fisher once described Terrell as her “only friend,” even though their friendship got off to a rocky start. Terrell conducted a test of Mai’s ability to withstand capture and torture, a brutal event that almost led to Mai’s return to England and forgoing The Directorate. And when Terrell met Mai he realized he’d worked with her mother and father in Taiwan in the early 1960s. He knew their fate, as well.

In truth, Terrell, a dedicated bachelor and still a womanizer, was attracted to Mai, and he would have acted on that except she ended up marrying her partner, Alexei Bukharin. “That’s a mistake,” Terrell told Mai, “because the man has no feelings to give.”

And when that proved true, Terrell was the person Mai came to for validation sex. One afternoon and never again, though they came close to a second time years later. Terrell had to be satisfied with a deep friendship, one Bukharin resented (in fact it ended their friendship) but one Mai needed.

Terrell did work with Alexei and Mai, much as he had with Nelson and Alexei on several missions, including a personal one to rescue Terrell’s younger brother Barrett. Now a Christian missionary, Columbian kidnappers held Barrett for ransom, thinking he was a rich American. Since Terrell’s father didn’t have the money for the ransom demanded, Terrell asked Mai and Alexei to help with the rescue. The safe extraction of Barrett bonded the three into the next generation and beyond.

After his rescue, Barrett married and had two children, Alex Maitland Terrell, and Sara Evelyn Terrell. Alex Terrell eventually became Natalia Bukharin’s husband, and they had three children. As much as Alexei Bukharin wanted to be rid of Terrell, he always managed to have some part of him in his and Mai’s life.

The Death of a Character

Edwin Terrell, Jr., was the first of my on-going characters to die. That’s an exercise all writers have to endure. I knew I couldn’t be George R.R. Martin and kill off characters readers had become invested in, but the world of espionage isn’t one where everyone comes home. It’s rare, but it happens. Even then, I wanted to be realistic and not have Terrell go out in a blaze of glory, though that was what he wanted.

Terrell had left the CIA in the late 1980s after his capture and torture in North Korea, from which Mai and Alexei recovered him. The CIA was never certain of Terrell again. Had he talked under torture? Had he given up any secrets? He’d lost an arm during the torture, and that made him too easy to identify. He wouldn’t man a desk, and he and the CIA parted, bitterly.

For a decade after, he “consulted” for a number of governments (one being Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) and shady organizations, helping to “take care of” people those governments and organizations wanted to eliminate. It became quite lucrative for him, and he invested well, with Mai’s help.

But no amount of money could overcome Stage Four cancer in both lungs, and Edwin Terrell, Jr., who’d laughed at the cancer warnings on every pack of cigarettes he’d smoked, died in bed with Mai and Alexei at his side in the summer of 1999.

Living On

Let me tell you, it was harrowing to write that novella, My Noble Enemy. I felt as if I’d lost a friend myself, but I had to stretch myself as a writer. It’s not something I’ll do again anytime soon, but at least I know I can do it. I’m not ready for Mai to face losing Alexei, but as a fleshed-out character, she had to experience the loss of someone close to her. Who better than the man who was essentially her BFF?

And in a way, he lives on. My series, A Perfect Hatred, takes place in the mid-1990s, and he plays a crucial part in that series. His nephew, Alex, who marries into the Bukharin-Fisher family, is a dead-ringer for him, though very different personality-wise. Mai often “talks” to Terrell in her head when she needs advice, something I do with my own, long-deceased father.

He lives on, too, because he’s based on a cousin of mine who was a Green Beret and a man from my work who was my BFF (or as some called him, my work husband). So, the next time you’re in a seedy bar, raise a glass of Scotch (his favorite drink) to Edwin Terrell, Jr., son of a Medal of Honor winning Marine and Cold Warrior. Who knows? Mai may join you.