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"No Time to Die" is a riveting love/war suspense that catapults a wartime secret from the past into the present where a retired soldier must face its devastating truth one last time.
In 1965 the Army proclaimed him a hero. Now, thrity-four years later, Walter Lewis and his wife, Karen, must face Sergei Godunov and the Murphy brothers, who claim Walter was never a hero at all. To them, he'd been a coward, and they intend to make him pay. Caught in Spanish Fort, Alabama, Karen slips into a coma and Walter has a heart attack. Unconcious in intensive care, they have an out-of-body experience that hurls them back to an adventurous past that was filled with war, lies and deceit, and unlawful death. It was the time they'd fallen in love, too, after he'd been wounded and she'd been his nurse. They vowed to survive despite the odds. But Godunov and the Murphy brothers are not interested in vows or odds or love, either back then or now. They're in town to settle old scores.
At a stoplight on U.S.31 in Spanish Fort, Walter Lewis suddenly felt nervous. He could almost feel them behind him now, closing fast. In his heart, he knew they would catch up with him one day soon, and then they would try to end things.
He tried not to think about them or his fate, or that of his wife, Karen; but the ugly images kept coming back no matter how hard he tried to escape them.
Using his hands like a towel, he wiped sweat from his face, and then anxiously watched a familiar tragedy unfold as a resolute sun scattered an early morning haze to the side of the road.
For a while longer, the fragile mist would hide the wild flowers there; but in the end, he knew the fierce Alabama sun would kill them.
He shivered in the suffocating heat, while his brain screamed for some compelling answers, at least some new ones that made more sense than the others he’d already heard.
At first, he thought he could hide with Karen, maybe even disappear for good; but that was no longer possible. Lately, they always found him, and then the ritual would begin anew: the stalking, the fear, the endless waiting, wondering when it would end and how. A brazen game of hide-and-seek with death’s claws poised for the final kill while the sun slipped by, gawking indifferently like always.
The worst part was not knowing exactly who they were. There were three of them, sometimes two, always lurking in the shadows. Like ravenous wolves on the hunt, they stalked their prey, endlessly forcing inadequate options upon him: fight or flee, live or die? Survive?
Through a dusty windshield, he could see Mobile Bay now, a jewel encased in a sea of doubt. Would the clever fishermen win today or the less clever fish? Would he win or would they? Would he fight or flee? Or would he let them kill Karen and him, finally end things? Unlikely, old retired soldiers seldom went without a fight. They simply faded the ones after them, and then died in old age, hopefully with their tattered honor still intact.
Honor? Was there really such a thing? If so, where had his been that day when this whole mess had started?
In his youth, he used to think that life, like death, was based on fate, luck, a mystery. Ripened by time and events, he wasn’t sure anymore. On the run, it seemed that everything was really based on knowing how to survive; here or back in that savage place where a war had raged, and truth had become as hollow as an empty skull, which lay naked in a jungle sun, its pride and dignity gone forever.
There had always been complications, but there was a new one now. It was ironic in a way, but it was there all the same. Karen could no longer run. She’d suffered a recent stroke and was mostly bedridden, not able to walk or talk.
At the moment, the choice of fight or flee was academic. He could not leave her here to face them alone, lying helplessly in bed. He would stand and fight, die with her if need be, like they’d promised each other years ago when they’d been much younger, but no less in love, or less afraid.
Impatient, he wished the damn stoplight would change. The heat and humidity were overwhelming, and his underarms and crotch were saturated with an itchy sweat that blackened his shorts and shirt as it tried to form a cloak of ugly fungus, torturing him again with the tenacious rash he’d earned in Vietnam.
That’s when they’d made a vow that neither would die without the other. He’d been a wounded soldier; she’d been his lovely nurse. The vow stood the same as their boundless love for one another.
He glanced at the rearview mirror, and saw that a line of cars had formed behind him as well as to his right and left. A faceless enemy could be hiding in any one of them. His hands were wet and slippery now, much like the skin of a newly butchered eel. Hurriedly, he wiped them on the car seat.
She’d told him a long time ago that he should loosen up, not be so afraid for her. Easier said than done. She was all he had left, maybe ever had. She was his life, his hers, and they clung to favorite memories like fresh lovers, despite their age and gray hair, an old guilt that burned, an old deceit that endured.
Somewhere deep down, he suddenly sensed imminent danger. He jerked his head to the left, where he saw a dark sedan in the left-turn-only lane. Three men were inside. He thought he recognized the one in the front passenger seat who’d pulled a placard up to cover the side window and his face with it.
The message was clear, but not the face of the bearer of it. Your Time to Die!
He swore as he pushed his shoulder against the side panel of the door to jump out. He wanted to see who was hiding behind the stupid sign, and who the others were.
Before he could exit the vehicle, the light changed, and the traffic began to move. With a few irate drivers blowing their horns behind him, he tried to edge into the other lane to follow the sedan; but it had already turned left onto I-98, racing south for Daphne.
Frustrated and mad, he rammed the accelerator into the floor as he twisted the steering wheel hard over. He misjudged the clearance. The right fender of his Accord smashed into the rear end of a pickup in front of him that had just stalled out.
Behind him, more horns blared.“Damn,” he shouted angrily, slamming the steering wheel with both hands. He was checkmated for the time being, but not for good. He was almost certain that the man with the sign, and the others with him, would be back sooner or later. They always came back, sooner or later.
He’d only gotten a glimpse of one of them before he’d raised the sign to the window; but the face seemed familiar. But from where? When? Why the stupid sign? Why now? Why anything? A deadly game of hide-and- seek without an end, until someone died.
* * *
Darkness had fallen hours ago, muffling the sounds of a gentle rain. Walter Lewis liked the patter of rain on the windows and roof; it normally lulled him to sleep, but not tonight. He had too many things crawling around in his mind, like the taunting memories, the fears, and the matter with the sign from yesterday morning. Your Time to Die!
Twisting on the bed, he glanced at the clock on the nightstand. 4 A.M. He stretched as a new thought burned his brain: a man needed his sleep when he could get it, in peace or war.
In shorts and T-shirt, he slipped out of bed and moved across the room. In the dark, he yanked open a desk drawer and pulled out a towel. He neatly aligned each item that had been stored in it on the top of the desk, almost like he was getting ready for an inspection: linseed oil, brush, rod, cleaning patches, and the gun.
Everything in order, he grabbed hold of the army-issue M1911A1, .45-caliber pistol there, and immediately began to fieldstrip it as quietly as he could. She was fast asleep next door in her own bedroom, her own bed. He did not want to wake her. Not just yet.
With the parts spaced in front of him on the desk, he quickly reassembled the .45, ignoring the darkness of the room. In the army, they used to blindfold him, he recalled. “A blindfold was good for training and hanging,” some of his buddies liked to joke; but he soon learned that a man could die in lots of ways, with or without a blindfold.
Twisting on a hard chair, he held the weapon in both hands, and aimed it at a new shadow at the far wall. He said softly, “Bang, got you.” His hands shook slightly as he lowered the weapon to his knee, whispering, “Almost.”
Abruptly, he shoved away from the desk like he was angry. Then, sighing deeply, he wrapped everything back in the towel, and returned it to the drawer before he went back to bed.
An hour later, he was still wide awake with his head propped up on two pillows, his hands resting on his chest. Occasionally, one hand shook a little. Maybe the heart medicine. He calmed it with the other.
His health and strength were not what they used to be, but so what? He didn’t have to use his hands to kill with anymore, like those times in the army. He was older and retired, sort of. And if he did have to kill again someday for whatever reason, he was sure that a .45 slug could easily make up for one hell of a lot of missing things, an older man’s fading strength included.
Funny, a lot of guys wished they could do as many push-ups and sit-ups as him. “Sure they did,” he whispered.
He threw an arm across his forehead, and pushed back into the pillows. He could at least rest his eyes and body for a while, if nothing more. Rest would be good. He had plenty of things to do when it got light in the morning. A visitor was coming who needed him.
He glanced across the room at the wall that separated him from his wife. She would need him, too, until the day she died, or he did.The shadows grew darker as he remembered the promise they’d made that day: neither would die without the other.
Suddenly, he thought about the placard and its ugly message. His hand began to twitch. It was starting all over again. There was no place to hide, just like before.
* * *
An early morning drizzle streaked the windows of the small office above the garage where Walter Lewis now sat, scanning some notes. He was still a little groggy from lack of sleep; but had gotten the house chores done, and had prepared her for another day in bed, and himself for work.Since it was Saturday, he was dressed casually in summer slacks, a plain white shirt and running shoes.
He only expected one customer today, a young one. A narrow brick path connected the garage with the main house, a one-story rambler, seventy-five feet away. Its windows, like the nearby birdbath, caught the remaining drizzle and the scattered rays of some new sunshine.
But the sunlight had not yet penetrated the windows above the garage because of the huge oak trees that dotted the well-kept lawn, so Walter used a desk lamp to read with.
Periodically, he glanced across the cluttered room like he thought he saw someone lying on the aged sofa at the far wall, and someone else sitting on the easy chair near it. He’d listen a moment, and then turn back to his wrinkled notes and thoughts, until he imagined that he’d heard the sounds once more. He would look again.
It had become an endless ritual.Another sound caught his attention. He raised his head, and let his eyes roam across the open shelves that lined the walls. They were crammed with books, loose papers, folders, and shoe boxes filled with memorabilia from the time he’d served in the army for twenty years, including his Vietnam tours of duty during the war.
The first tour in 1965 had been about thirty-four years ago, when he’d been a healthy lad of twenty-two. Back then, he had a robust wife who could walk miles with him, and talk intelligently about things both big and small.A nasty stroke had changed all of that about a year ago, crippling her for good. But she was no bother at all.
He loved to take care of her, sit by the bed while he held her hand, sharing some of the dreams he’d heard from a few of his frightened and confused customers. Even though she couldn’t talk, she still had partial strength in her right hand, which she could use to press an alarm button, if needed.
Several months ago, he’d rigged a handheld device with a red light and three buttons on it to ease things for her. One button was for “talking,” using a blinking light: once for yes, twice for no; and the other connected her to 911. The third was to alert his pager, if she needed him.
He’d quit his job as an office manager in a local accounting firm to be near her, using his dream business to supplement a small annuity for what, he called, “hard-time army service rendered.” It had not all been a picnic for her either. An army wife’s job was never easy, even during the best of times.
* * *
Walter Lewis was not a psychiatrist or psychologist, not even a trained counselor. But he’d read a great deal about dreams throughout the years, and had become proficient at interpreting a lot of them.
Most of his customers would agree that he was a powerful listener, one who could grasp the essence of a dream normally during the very first session, which usually lasted an hour or so at a cost of about fifty dollars, unless the dreamer could not afford it, then the session would be for free.
The extra money was good, but helping was better. He liked to guide the people through their dreams, especially the scary ones that brought them flying, sometimes in the middle of the night.
He had his own dreams, too, that frightened him the most when the moon was covered and the skies were dark.He never discussed his own dreams with anyone, except the worst of them with Karen to get them out in open air.
She seemed to understand some of them even when he couldn’t. He let it go at that. Dream Busters, like lawyers, could rarely do anything right that involved themselves. Only die, maybe, or wish they had.
Walter was not infallible, and often told his customers so. Sometimes he could fully explain what he thought a dream might be about, sometimes not. But even for the dreams he couldn’t analyze, he at least gave the customer some hope and satisfaction simply by listening attentively without judging, or tagging them as dopes.
Shoving back from a rusted metal desk, he flipped on a tape recorder on the shelf behind him, and listened to the voice of one of the older customers he’d served the day before. The sound was wobbly and faint. As he tried to adjust the volume, he heard heavy footsteps on the wooden steps that led up to the door.
He flipped the play button to off. He was anxious to see the new customer who’d phoned for an appointment just yesterday. Remembering that he had to keep good records, just in case, he flipped the machine to record. In this business, one never knew what someone might say or do. It was always best to keep a record of everything said or heard.
Suddenly, he heard several loud taps, like a woodpecker at the door. He hurried across the room and flung it open. A young man stood there, stepping from foot to foot like he had to pee. He was tall, blond, and wore thick eyeglasses that made him look a little stupid, as did the obviously fake mustache. At least his blue jeans were fashionably frayed, like the T-shirt that hung loose on his shoulders.
“You Mister Lewis, the Dream Buster?” the boy asked timidly. He’d heard that Walter could be strange at times, maybe even dangerous. He was, after all, a Vietnam vet, stereotyped like all the rest of them, even if he didn’t wear a beard or have long hair.
But few of the local residents contested the fact that he was one of the best Dream Busters in the area. Others felt that his so-called powers were blatantly exaggerated. Regardless, all of his customers were cautious around him, to be sure.
“Yes, I am. You must be Jeremy Watson, right?”
“Like I said on the phone, I heard you could help bust dreams, sir, explain what they mean. Do you think you could explain one for me?” He still looked ill at ease.
“I’d like to try.” Walter stepped away from the door, and waved him into the room. “Come in, Jeremy. Have a seat on the sofa over there.”
Hurrying across the room, Jeremy flopped onto the sofa, and Walter sat on the easy chair. A squat coffee table that looked like it had not been waxed in years separated them. Walter called it his “buffer zone.”
“Okay,” Walter said, rubbing his hands while he leaned over the table, “let’s dispense with the formalities, Jeremy. You can call me Walter, if you prefer. Things are pretty informal here as you can see.”
Walter glanced around the shabby room, and smiled. “But don’t let appearances fool you. Sometimes things happen here that no one would ever believe. Not even I do. For now, let’s concentrate on you. Tell me a little about yourself, and the dream.”
“Not much to tell. My mom and I just moved into Spanish Fort a few months ago. That was back in March. I work at the Delchamps store off Route 225, stocking shelves.”
“How old are you, Jeremy?”
“Do you dream a lot?”
“Tell me about the one that bothers you so much.”
“I don’t want you to think I’m crazy or something.”
“Never happened. Tell me about it. Nothing you say will ever leave this room, at least with your name attached to it.”
“Okay, so here goes. I didn’t feel too good when I got home at about six or so that evening so ate a light supper, then went to bed. My mom was still at work. She works as a waitress at Shoney’s over in Daphne, off Route 98.
"Anyway, I tossed and turned most of the night, until I finally went to sleep after three, I guess. That’s the last time I glanced at the alarm clock anyway. And that’s when I must have had the dream. Maybe I should say the nightmare.”
“Tell me about it. Don’t leave anything out.”
“I was falling from the sky. And I was naked. The wind was in my face and I could hardly breathe. I knew I was going to die. Somebody told me once that if you woke up too quickly, you could die from a bad dream.”
“Doubtful,” Walter said, “but go on.”
“While I was falling, I saw something.” He hesitated.
“Don’t be ashamed; tell me.”
“My dead father; he was falling right next to me. I screamed when I saw his face. It looked like he was a thousand years old, and his eyes were red and bulging. Man, it was awful.”
“What did he say or do, exactly?”
“He smiled, showing me that he didn’t have any teeth.” Jeremy started to stand, like he’d had enough already; but sat down when Walter coached him back by waving his hands.
“I know it’s hard to talk about a dream,” Walter said softly, “especially to a stranger like me. But you have to trust me, Jeremy, if we’re ever to get to the root of this thing, and bust it right out into the open, so we can take a closer look-see.
“I can’t promise anything, but I certainly will tell you what I think. Maybe that’ll help. Now, tell me more, and then we’ll talk. Sometimes, I recommend that a customer see a professional shrink, if things seem too much out of synch with reality. We’ll see, okay?”
Jeremy rested his head on the sofa cushions, trying to avoid Walter’s stare, and whispered, “He touched me.”
“How, where?” Walter sat straight, his nerves taut. He’d heard dreams from abused people before, some from kids and teenagers even. None of them were ever nice.
“On my face. He used the back of a wrinkled hand, and stroked my cheek, like I was a kid or something.”
“He didn’t try to hurt you, then?” Walter felt relieved.
“No, nothing like that. He just kept twisting his head back and forth, looking at me. He touched my face, all the while that we were tumbling down.”
“Were you frightened by his touch?”
“Not really. We always got along good. He died when I was about ten, eight years ago. For some reason, he looked stranger this time. Scarier.”
“I had the same dream a couple of times before.”
“Within the past few weeks?”
“No. Once last year when we lived in Florida, and once again when we first moved here three months ago.”
“How’d your father die?”
“Car wreck. He was drunk at the time, or so the police report said. He ran off the road one Saturday evening, and hit a tree. He smashed his head real good. It killed him instantly.”
“Were there ever any marital problems in your family that you know about?”
“Some I guess; but nothing serious that I remember. Like most married people, they argued once in a while. Mostly about money, but that was all. He never hit her, or me. He just yelled sometimes. He was a pretty good guy all in all. Even my mom misses him a lot.”
“Even your mom? Does that mean you miss him a lot, too?”
Jeremy stood, and moved around the coffee table. “What’s this got to do with my nightmare, Mister Lewis?”
“Maybe nothing, maybe plenty. Do you want to talk some more about it?”
“Can’t right now. I have to get on to work. I’m filling in for a friend today,” he lied.
“Would you like to talk some other time, when you aren’t so busy?” He could see Jeremy wanted out of there badly, even if he had to fib to do it. He was probably embarrassed. He’d seen that in lots of people before, until they’d gotten to know him better, well enough to open their minds and let him crawl inside, intensely sometimes.
“Yeah, I think I would,” Jeremy said hesitantly. “When could I come back?”
Walter walked over to the desk, where he placed a pair of bifocals on his nose. He scanned a personal computer that he’d recently purchased at an auction. Checking the appointments, he glanced up, and said, “Monday, at 12 P.M. would be good for me. How about you, Jeremy? Think you could make it during your lunch hour?”
“I’m sure I could,” Jeremy said. “See you then, Mister Lewis.” He rushed for the door.
Walter watched him leave, and then sat on the chair by the desk. Sighing, he rubbed both hands through his gray hair, still cut to military standards. Turning, he smiled when he saw that the tape recorder had been working. Sometimes, it didn’t.
He began to play the tape back, hoping that Jeremy didn’t wear the stupid-looking disguise next time. Listening to the tape, he relaxed and let his mind brainstorm by itself.
The falling part Jeremy talked about might indicate that he’d not accomplished some goal. Maybe one set by his father or mother. Maybe himself. It could have something to do with his job, dignity, something. And the nakedness might be little more than a confession of his vulnerability, of being exposed to life’s hopes and terrible frustrations, his inability to cope.
It could be a lot of things. Many people dreamed about being naked in a public place; but Jeremy was naked in the sky. Did that mean that his fear went far beyond a mere public exposure? Maybe it had something to do with his father’s death, and his own fears about it.
There were other things there, too, that had not been discussed yet. He’d have to find out more about Jeremy’s fall. Clearly, he was in trouble and needed help. But for some reason, he felt a little afraid of Jeremy, at least leery of. He’d have to figure out why.
Walter switched the machine to record, and began to add some of his own thoughts to those of Jeremy’s for future reference. They would serve as a basis for the next session, if he ever came back.
Suddenly, he heard something by the sofa. It was a hoarse voice, repeating a familiar call. His mind wandered while he listened.
“Sergeant Lewis, you can’t leave us here like this. You got to get us out. For God’s sake, Walter, do something.”The hair on his neck and arms quivered exactly like those times in Vietnam when he’d been on a particularly hellish patrol.
His hand twitched as he moved around the desk. Shoving it deeply beneath his belt buckle to control it, he moved quickly toward the sofa.
Across the room, he flopped onto the easy chair there, and rested his head against its cushion while he stared at the ceiling. The whispers were back, probing his ears, tormenting him with the same old accusations, filling his stomach with fears. It had always been the same since 1965. *
* * *
"Freeze,” the lieutenant shouted. “Keep your young asses down, men. This paddy’s mined all to hell.”
Fletcher, the medic; Wienczslaw, the radioman; and Gavin, the interpreter, were to the left, frozen by the lieutenant’s orders. For some reason, Gavin moved. There was a gut-twisting explosion, muffled a little by the paddy water, then a puff of smoke, finally the god-awful screams.
Fletcher moved toward the spot where Gavin was sprawled half in and half out of the water. Blood covered his lower body, and it looked like at least a good part of one leg was gone.
Just as Fletcher got to him, the hollow-like thump, thump of mortar fire filled the air. Round after round was lobbed at their position, each one getting closer, louder, the sounds sickening.
“How is he, Fletcher?” the lieutenant shouted.
Fletcher bent over Gavin, and shouted back, “Bad, sir. Leg gone all the way to the upper thigh, and he’s losing too much blood too quickly. I need help, sir.”
The lieutenant jerked his head around to assess the situation. The men were crouched against the onslaught of mortar fire, their weapons at the ready. They looked like they were prepared to fight. The lieutenant shouted, “Stay put, men, until I can get us some help. He knew it was an impossible situation. They could move and get killed by a mine, or stay put and get killed by an incoming round.
Another series of mortar rounds exploded close to the lieutenant’s position, splattering him with mud and water and other men’s blood. The lieutenant shouted louder this time, “Wienczslaw, get me some air support fast. You know the drill. Move, damn it, our guys are getting killed.”
Three men near the far edge of the paddy jumped up onto a bank. New explosions threw them back into the water, which quickly turned red. There was panic now. Most of the men hurried to find cover where there was none. Then it started all over again with new explosions, more screams while death washed its hands in newly spilled blood.
The lieutenant raised an arm to halt their flight; but another round hit near his left boot. He was hurled into the air, then backwards into a nearby eternity.
“Sarge,” someone shouted, “we’ve got to do something.”
“We’ve got to move is what we’ve got to do,” Walter said, “or die in place.” He turned about and shouted, “Watch your steps, men, and follow me the hell out of this mess.”
He heard more explosions and more screams, and saw more smoke. He also saw that most of the platoon was dead or dying.
Suddenly, choppers flew overhead, close to the ground. Machine gun fire and rockets crashed across the field. There were screams from the other side. It was their time to die.
Although severely wounded, he was still alive. He could feel it, but most of the others weren’t. Was that his fault? What could he possibly have done differently, done at all? Should he have had his head blown off with them, or should he have waited a short time more in place, waiting for help to come?
These were ugly questions that would plague him for the rest of his life, waking him in the night screaming.
“Dying was something some surviving soldiers thought they had to do,” a screwball shrink had once told him a long time ago; but what the hell had he known? What the hell did anyone know about dying? You could see it, hear it, taste it, smell it, cry over it; but you could never feel it, not unless you died.
You could only feel life and shame. And no one ever made it back from death to say how it really felt. Only the vindictive ghosts ever came back with their threats and accusations, always pointing their knobby fingers at him like he’d done something terribly wrong.Would he ever know for sure? Maybe someday...when he died.
* * *
Sweat poured from his nose as Walter jumped from the chair, and he faltered as he moved to the desk. Clumsily, he shut off the recorder and desk lamp, and then headed for the house. He had a lot to talk about with Karen this morning. The voices were getting louder, and much more bold. And there was still the urgent business with the stupid placard he’d seen the day before: Your Time to Die!
Like hell, he thought, as his breath squeezed his ribs. Suddenly, he had a premonition. Karen was in trouble.
The sun bright in his eyes, he hurried more. He popped a nitro tablet beneath his tongue when he felt the tightness in the center of his chest, edging steadily toward his left shoulder.
Without waiting the prescribed five minutes, he popped another nitro pill as he stumbled along the narrow brick path that connected the garage with the house.
No time to die. Not here. Not now, he thought.
Then he felt the knot in his chest tighten, like a noose at a condemned man’s throat when the trapdoor had been sprung. The sandbags were heavy at his ankles, deadweight as they tried to pull him down to face an old justice, a new mistake, death charging for his face. There was no escape this time. He could feel it.
He reached into his shirt pocket, but his hand was sweaty and shaky. He couldn’t hold the small bottle that held the nitro pills. It slipped from his hands, silently crashing into the brick pavement.
A dark silhouette suddenly appeared at the edge of the path. It moved quickly toward him, its extended arms flapping, like it was trying to signal him of an unspeakable danger nearby.
Dutifully, his troubled brain flashed a warning of death. Terrified, he held tightly to the center of his chest with both hands as he took a few steps more.
His legs grew weary, and he had trouble breathing. He gagged, like a garrote tried to crush his throat.
One last step, a final stumble, and then darkness mercifully engulfed him as it finally took him down to a dark place where he’d been before.
Extracted from "No Time to Die." Copyrighted Jul 16, 2001 by Robert A. Gallinger.