July 28 hasn’t been a date I’ve associated with positive things since this day in 2003, when my only sibling, my brother, died at the age of 44. This year, instead of taking this date and marking it as the anniversary of something sad, I’ve decided to reclaim it.
As of today, July 28 will be the anniversary of the launch of the book which, among the four others published, I’m most proud.
The Better Spy is a novel in stories dealing with the aftermath of a single spy mission by U.N. covert operative Mai Fisher. It opens in more or less present day (2013) when a dying British soldier needs to get something off his chest before he gets to the great beyond. It’s a secret that changes everything about Mai’s life since that mission in the 1980s when she was under cover in the IRA.
I’m particularly proud of its experimental form. It begins in 2013 and works backwards to a often-mentioned event in the series of stories, the bombing of an IRA stronghold in 1986.
The Better Spy is available from Amazon as either a paperback or for your Kindle. You can search by the title, or click here to go to my Amazon Author Page, which lists all my works.
Also, check out a new interview with me at the Flash! Friday Microfiction page by clicking here. I talk a bit about The Better Spy, what inspires me, how I got into historical thrillers, and more. Comment on that page and you’ll be entered to win a free copy of The Better Spy and my recent novella, My Noble Enemy.
I’ll always think of my brother today, but from now on it’ll be a happy thought. He would approve.
Readers of my blog will recall I participated in this contest in 2014. I made it through all three rounds but was not a finalist. However, I received great feedback on the three stories I submitted. That made the experience more than worthwhile. The 2015 challenge is well underway, and I made it from Round 1 to Round 2. That was a great boost in a writing year, which, thus far, has been a challenge in and of itself. (I’ll write later about my critique group walk-out.)
I won’t go into detail about the challenge because I’ve described it before, but if you want a refresher, check out the website here. The Flash Fiction Challenge will be starting later in the year, and I encourage writers of all levels to try it out.
My assignment in Round 1 was to write an original story of no more than 2,500 words in the Historical Fiction genre, with the subject of “a walk in a forest,” and the character of a general. The assignment came in the midst of my epic bout with the flu, so I used several beta readers before I submitted it. Sure enough, one of them made suggestions which improved the story–and that story ended up in the top five of my heat. That placement moves me on to Round 2, and on March 12, I’ll learn my next assignment. This time the story will be no more than 2,000 words, and I’ll have three days to submit the story.
So, here’s my Round 1, Top Five story:
Being the “GI’s General” was a blessing and a curse—a blessing in that his men followed him with an enthusiasm few combat commanders had seen; a curse in that he eschewed many of the perks of his rank to maintain that image. Truth be told, Omar Bradley felt just as disgruntled right now as any of his soldiers, given his recent dispute with Ike and the fact his fourth star wasn’t forthcoming. He took some solace that Georgie Patton wasn’t going to get his either. Still, the sting of having had his command placed under Sir Bernard Montgomery was as strong as it had been back in December when Ike broke the news.
“The Brits are our allies, Brad,” Ike had said. “We’ve got to give them this.”
He knew his outburst, so unusual for him, had taken Ike by surprise. “By God, Ike, Montgomery’s not accountable to the American people. I am. You do this, and I resign.”
“You’re forgetting something, Brad. The only person accountable to the American people is me, as Supreme Allied Commander. Now, Montgomery will have command of your 1st and 9th Armies, and we’re at war, Brad. You don’t get to resign.”
“My men won’t like taking orders from that popinjay.”
“Brad, are you trying to out-Patton Georgie? I know he detests Monty, but I thought you—”
“Ike, I won’t stand for it.”
Ike’s face had flushed, an expression any soldier would understand, and Bradley knew he’d gone too far. “Brad, those are my orders,” was all Ike had said.
That had been enough to silence him. Orders were orders.
His shoulders hunched in his great coat against the cold, Bradley plodded the length of the encampment to his tent, apart from the others. His aide trotted ahead of him and held the flap open for him. Inside was almost pitch dark, given the no-lights, no-fires order—his orders—but Major Benson flicked his lighter to life.
Two camp stools, a camp table, and two sleeping bags with extra blankets—just as it had been for the past several nights—made the tent feel crowded. Bradley shivered, rubbing his gloved hands together in a futile attempt to bring warmth to them. In the center of the tent between the two sleeping bags was a dead campfire, tinder and small logs ready to be lit. Benson flicked the lighter off, and Bradley stood in the tent, still hunched, still shivering.
“Major,” Bradley said.
“Orders be damned. Light a fire to warm the sleeping bags.”
“With pleasure, sir.”
Again using his lighter to illuminate the interior of the tent, the Major opened the flap at the top to let the smoke escape, then knelt on the frozen ground to get the tinder burning. Bradley settled on his camp stool and draped one of the olive drab blankets over his head and shoulders.
Benson soon had a good fire going, the smoke spiraling toward the opening in the top of the tent. Bradley let the heat warm his face and felt almost comfortable. Benson also took a blanket and settled on his camp stool, holding the blanket over his head and shoulders. After a few moments, both men scooted their stools closer to the small fire, stretching out their blankets in an effort to channel the heat.
Just a few more nights of this, Bradley thought, and we’ll be on the move again. Just a few more nights.
“You know, Sarge, this ain’t fair, us doing perimeter patrols like we’re ground-pounders,” said Corporal Jenks.
“Even tankers are ground-pounders to the flyboys, Jenks, so quit pissing and moaning. Orders are orders,” Sergeant Duncan replied, as the two men crept through the forest surrounding the encampment.
The Battle of the Bulge wasn’t that far behind them, and everyone was in wait-and-see status: waiting for the generals to figure out what would happen next and seeing nothing but the same scenery for days now.
The winter of 1944-1945 had been tough, the coldest some said in centuries, and it hadn’t eased. Though they hadn’t seen snowfall in a few weeks, the temperatures hadn’t risen much. Tonight, then, Duncan was grateful for the exercise of a foot patrol. It kept his blood moving, kept his toes from getting frost-bit. Better than shivering in his tank or, worse, in a tent with no fire, which a new general order had forbidden.
The crisp air, the crunch of the snow beneath his boots, the evergreen branches drooping under the weight of the snow all reminded him of home. With a rifle in his hands, this was more like hiking in the woods when he went jacklighting for deer with his brothers.
Except back home, a stray German wasn’t likely to jump up and start shooting at him.
And his brothers, older than he, were scattered in the Army from here to North Africa. All of them safe he assumed, though how he’d find out different, he didn’t know.
“How much longer you figure we’ll be here, Sarge?” Jenks asked.
Duncan brushed aside a low-hanging bough and murmured, “Jenks, be quiet. If there are Jerries out there, you might as well take ‘em by the goddamned hand and lead ‘em here.”
Jenks lowered his voice. “Shit, Sarge, we kicked their asses so hard, they’ll think twice about bothering us again.”
Duncan recognized Jenks’ bravura. Everyone in the 4th Armored Division had felt it after they’d broken the siege at Bastogne and freed the 101st Airborne. Duncan was a new sergeant, a “buck sergeant,” but a quick learner. Discretion and thinking things through, not glory, saved men’s lives and won skirmishes.
“Jenks, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. That’s an order.”
Duncan scanned his surroundings, looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything other than a sea of GI tents. He gave a glance at the sky, again reminded of nights at home where the dark was deep and the stars were familiar beacons, interrupted by the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He let himself feel some wonder that halfway across the world from his home, he could find Orion the Hunter and the Dog Star.
Not for the first time, this country made him homesick. His tank had surged across many a farm field, achingly reminiscent of what he’d left behind to do his duty, and he’d sent silent apologies to the farmers whose fields he’d wrecked.
When Duncan lowered his eyes, he stopped, holding up a fist for Jenks to stop, too. Duncan went to one knee, M1 at his shoulder, eyes squinting in the dark. Through the trees and brush, he saw a faint orange glow against the snow.
“Son of a bitch,” he murmured.
“Is that a fire?” Jenks whispered.
“Yeah, it is, and I’m gonna bust whoever lit it down to buck private,” Duncan said.
Duncan strode toward the tent, Jenks almost jogging to keep up with him. As he neared the tent, he could see the silhouettes of two soldiers inside. Just outside the flap, Duncan paused and called out in his best sergeant’s bellow, “You, there, in the tent! Identify yourselves!”
One of the men stirred, and Duncan kept his rifle in a position to bring it up quickly. A head covered in a blanket poked through the opening.
“Stand down, soldier,” came the command.
“I’ll decide who stands down,” Duncan said. “My corporal and I are on patrol, and you have a fire in violation of standing orders. Put it out. Now!”
“Who are you, soldier?”
“Sergeant Duncan, 25th Mechanized Recon.”
A murmur came from inside the tent, and the man poking his head out looked back inside. He turned to Duncan again. “Step inside, Sergeant, and we’ll clear this up.”
“There’s nothing to clear up, soldier,” Duncan said. “The fire needs to be put out now.”
The man stepped back and held the tent flap open.
“Jenks, you stay here,” Duncan said, then ducked inside the tent.
The second man remained seated, only his eyes visible through a small opening in the blanket he clutched around him. “What’s the problem, Sergeant?” he asked.
“The problem, dogface, is that we have a general order for no lights, no fires, and what do I see before my eyes? Why, I believe it’s a fire, soldier, a fire you are not supposed to have.”
“Sergeant—” the other soldier said.
“Quiet,” Duncan ordered. “I’m talking to this soldier. Now, soldier, just why it is you think you have the right to a fire, when the rest of us are freezing our asses off? Or do you want the Jerries to see us and blow us all to hell?”
“Sergeant,” the other man said, “you need to stand down. Now.”
Duncan ignored that and continued to address the seated man. “You need to put this fire out now. No questions. No excuses. Put it out. Piss on it if you have to, but put it out. Now!”
“Sergeant! Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?” the other man asked.
“Two pieces of shit who are getting put on report for having a fire against orders.”
The seated man stood, letting his blanket slide to the ground. Duncan took in the three stars on the great coat and the helmet. He blinked and looked at the other soldier, whose helmet he could now see bore a gold oak leaf; then, he looked again at the man standing across the fire from him.
“Oh, shit,” Duncan muttered and drew himself to attention. “Sir, I—”
“Sergeant Duncan, was it?” said General Omar Bradley.
Duncan swallowed hard in a tight throat. “Yes, sir.”
Bradley looked him over, taking in his unit patches. “You’re one of Georgie’s boys,” he said.
“Yes, sir. My apologies, sir. I didn’t realize it was you, sir. Might I ask, sir, if we could just, maybe, pretend this didn’t happen. Sir.”
“No, sergeant, we can’t.”
Well, hell, Duncan thought, there goes my Army career. “I apologize again, sir.” He turned to the major. “And to you, too, sir.”
“Sergeant, at ease,” Bradley said, and Duncan barely shifted from his rigid stance. “Sergeant, we can’t leave this be because you’re absolutely right. I am in violation of those standing orders, and you are well within your rights to put me on report.”
“Sir?” said Duncan and the major at once.
“Tell me, sergeant, what would you have done if some other soldier had a fire against orders?” Bradley asked.
“Well, sir, I’d order him to put it out, take down his name and serial number, and report him to my lieutenant.”
“And give him a good chewing out?” Bradley asked, a smile twitching his mouth.
“Uh, yes, sir.”
“You did a good job of that, Sergeant. Best I’ve heard in a long time. You have a notepad and pencil on you?”
“Very well, sergeant, take out that notepad and pencil.”
Before he realized it, Duncan had done just that.
“My name is Omar Nelson Bradley, U.S. Army, Commander, 1st Army. Rank, Lieutenant General. Sergeant, you should be writing this down.”
“You need to write all that down to put me on report,” Bradley said. He repeated his information, adding his serial number, and Duncan wrote it down.
“Who’s your lieutenant?” Bradley asked when Duncan finished.
“Very well. I’ll be checking with Lt. Westmoreland to make certain you put in that report. Am I clear, sergeant?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“Major Benson, put the fire out. Sergeant, you’re dismissed.”
The cold air almost froze the sweat on Duncan’s body when he left the tent. Jenks stood there, eyes wide as baseballs.
“Jesus, Sarge, that was—”
“And are you—”
“Westmoreland’s going to shit a brick.”
And probably throw it at me, Duncan thought.
Before he walked away, he looked back over his shoulder. The fire in Gen. Omar Bradley’s tent was out.
Even though he knew why Lt. Westmoreland had summoned him to his tent, Sgt. Duncan spent his time on the way there going over whatever he might say to keep the lieutenant from taking a stripe from him, but he wasn’t optimistic about the outcome.
Duncan stepped through the tent opening and came to attention. “Sgt. Duncan, reporting as ordered, sir,” he said.
Westmoreland didn’t look up from the papers on his camp table. “And yet again, Sgt. Duncan, your name shows up in my daily dispatches, and for the damnedest thing.” The glare Westmoreland fixed on him was as cold as the weather. “You put a lieutenant-general on report.”
“Well, sir, he ordered me to,” Duncan said.
“Oh, I know that. He sent me a personal note, explaining the whole thing. Once again, Sergeant Duncan, I don’t know whether to bust you or promote you,” Westmoreland said. “You’re damned lucky it was Bradley and not Blood and Guts himself.”
“Yes, sir. Uh, sir, do you want me to withdraw my report?” Duncan asked.
“No. Bradley told me I’d be a second looey again if I made you do that. The report stands, the only blemish on a command officer’s otherwise spotless military record. I thought you should know that. I’d like to read you something—a note Bradley sent to Patton, who passed it on to me.”
Westmoreland picked up a sheet of paper and began to read, “Sergeant Duncan is a fine example of a dedicated military man. His concept of duty and responsibility is something other soldiers should model. I consider you a lucky man, Georgie, to have him under your command. I did a stupid, bush-league thing, and Sgt. Duncan spared no words in reminding me of that. I am glad he was on guard duty to keep me from a mistake which could have cost lives.”
“General Patton added a personal note,” Westmoreland continued. He folded the sheet of paper in thirds and held it up. “Would you like to have this as a memento?”
“Uh, sure, sir. Yes, sir.”
Westmoreland nodded to him, and Duncan walked up to the desk and took the paper from his lieutenant.
“You’re dismissed, sergeant.”
Duncan tucked the paper inside his jacket, saluted, then about-faced and spared no time heading for the exit.
Duncan stopped and turned around. “Sir?”
“Is it true you told Bradley to piss on his fire to put it out?”
Duncan cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”
Westmoreland burst into laughter and waved at Duncan to leave. As Duncan walked back toward his tank, a spring in his step and a grin on his face, he could still hear Westmoreland laughing.
© 2015 by Phyllis A. Duncan; reprint with permission only.
If you’re my age or older, even a little younger, you will remember exactly where you were on this day fifty years ago, what you were doing, what went through your mind when the news flash came from Dallas, Texas. I won’t go into detail about my feelings and reactions here because I’ve done that on my political blog, and you can read that by clicking here.
What I will say was this was an act we young babyboomers in some way never got over. It snatched our innocence and optimism away. If hope for the future could be taken from us so quickly, so easily, then what did the future hold? It was a despairing time, and I can still remember it with obscene clarity.
Whether she intended it or not, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, who manages all of us Friday Fictioneers flash fiction writers every week (an admirable job because organizing writers is like herding cats), picked a photo with the briefest of echoes from that day. After you read my story, “A Conversation at the Site of Jennifer Juniors,” you may think it’s a stretch, even a long reach, but I just call it dramatic license. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.
By the way, I was thrilled my story in the upcoming anthology “1 Photo, 50 Authors, 100 Words” was voted by the other contributors the best along with Rochelle’s story–we tied. It’s an honor to be in her company not only in the anthology but as a top story as well.