Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Al Lamanda

Copyright 2012 Al Lamanda


The Gulf War, 1991

The atmosphere was more like a frat house party than a war. That was his first impression as he stepped out of his chauffeured driven Hummer. The man behind the wheel held the rank of sergeant and he drove the massive tank-like vehicle as if it were a sports car. As he stepped down onto sand, he looked at the sergeant.
“CO of Special Ops?”
“That would be Colonel Riggens, sir. The field command tent.”
He nodded to the sergeant and turned away. Curious eyes watched him as he walked through the encampment. Men were playing touch football, shirts against the shirtless. Others, bored, were sharpening their field knives or cleaning their weapons. Some slept in open flapped tents to escape the heat. They had no fear of death at this point. The Iraqi Army, hailed as the 5th largest Army in the world proved to be little more than a nuisance and the conquest was like picking fleas off a dogs back.
The field command tent was a mobile office, complete with desks, phones, computer equipment and fax machines. Colonel Riggens was a tall man of forty-five, with the ramrod straight look of a career military man. Riggens inspected his credentials.
“CIA, huh?” Riggens said.
“Yes, Colonel. You did get the memo telling you I would be here?
“I got it. The details were unclear.”
“They were meant to be unclear. The mission is classified.”
“Even to the CO?”
“Afraid so, Colonel.”
Riggens nodded, turned to a coffeepot that rested on a small burner and poured a cup. He looked at him. “Coffee?”
Riggens poured another cup, passed it to him, then took a seat behind his field desk. “So what does the CIA need?”
He took the liberty of lighting a cigarette first, then pulled up a chair opposite the field desk. “I need your best man for a classified mission.”
Riggens took a sip of coffee. “Best? Best, how? Special Ops is pretty diversified. Some men are better than others at specific tasks.”
He thought about it as he sipped coffee. “The most dangerous mother fucker you have in this entire sandbag, shit hole, that’s how.”
Riggens thought for a moment, then picked up a field phone. “Find Sergeant Montgomery and have him report to my tent.”
He was shirtless, covered in sweat and sand when he reported to Riggens. “I just scored a touchdown, Colonel,” Montgomery said. He was built like an ox, was his first impression. That and the fact the man was annoyed at being pulled from the game and made no bones about it to him commanding officer.
“Sergeant, this man ii from the CIA,” Riggens said. “He would like to speak to you for a moment.”
He looked at Riggens. “Would you excuse us, Colonel?”
Riggens nodded, stood up and left the field tent.
Montgomery grinned at him. “Dismissing the colonel. I’m impressed.”
“Government jobs have their perks,” he said.
Montgomery patted his pants pocket for his cigarettes, but they were in his shirt back at his tent. “Spare one?”
He gave him his cigarettes and lighter. “So what did you want to speak to me about?” Montgomery said.
“The colonel tells me you are his most dangerous man,” he said and made eye contact with Montgomery. “Is that true?”
“If the colonel said so,” Montgomery said. “It must be true.”
He took another sip of coffee as he looked at Montgomery. The man reeked of confidence. The question was, was it unfounded? “I need someone killed outside the normal parameters of warfare.”
“You mean murdered?” Montgomery said.
“What’s the difference?”
“Political correctness.”
“Who and why?”
“Do you care?”
“Not really.”
He took another sip of coffee as he thought. “Can you hit a man and kill him from one thousand yards at an exact time and with only one shot?”
Montgomery puffed on his cigarette and blew a smoke ring. Then he grinned at him with confidence reeking from ever pore. “That’s my job,” he said.
“Pack your stuff. We’re going on a trip.”
“Right now?”
“Yes, right now.”
“Is there time for a shower?
Montgomery took a final sip of coffee and turned to exit the tent, then paused. “By the way, what’s your name?”
“Code name is Raven,” he said. “That’s all you need know for now.”


Doctor Jenna Costello worked quickly. She had no choice. The villagers would be lined up around the block, if there were a block. She went from tent to tent, treating those who needed treatment immediately, taking her time with those who came to see her more out of curiosity than need. She wore military style pants and a white tee shirt and tied her dark hair in a slim ponytail to avoid the heat. As if there was any chance of escaping it.
Jenna treated an old woman for gout, an old man for arthritis. Six women were pregnant, a dozen women needed their babies examined. The day wore on, the heat grew worse, the villagers kept coming. Assisted by two nurses, Sister Ann and Sister Katherine, they got through the morning.
Joseph, Jenna’s supply supervisor arrived just after lunch with a jeep full of new medical supplies. Joseph was a tall, dark man from southern Africa, who spoke seven languages and found Christianity as a boy in a missionary. He wore a bolt-action rifle slung over his shoulder and carried a machete on his belt as he toted crates of much needed supplies into the tents. “Some you meet on the roads aren’t so friendly,” Joseph told Jenna when asked why he always traveled so well armed. “And medical supplies fetch a handsome dollar on the black market.”
“Did you get everything on the list?” Jenna said as Joseph gently set a crate on the floor of the tent.
Joseph shook his head. “Some didn’t arrive. Father Michael said they would be in on the next shipment.”
“Damn,” Jenna said. “How am I supposed to run a field hospital without supplies? I’m low even on band aids and tongue depressors.”
Joseph grinned at her as he opened a cooler for bottled water. “Most of these villagers wouldn’t know a band aid from a bullet wound. Give’em what you got.”
“But I know the difference, Joseph,” Jenna said. “I’m a doctor, not a local medicine man.”
Joseph drank from the water bottle. “Most of the local…”
Sister Catherine suddenly appeared in the opening of the tent. “A woman just came in. She’s in labor. I think it’s bad.”
Jenna ran from her tent and followed Sister Catherine to the tent used for surgery. The woman, a local from a nearby village, rested on a table where she spoke non-stop in a dialect unfamiliar to Jenna.
“Get Joseph,” Jenna told Sister Catherine.
As Sister Catherine ran from the tent, Jenna approached the woman. The woman’s stomach was swollen and low. She was ready to give birth, but was having a problem. Jenna tried to calm the woman as she began her examination.
Joseph appeared in the tent.
“I need you to translate,” Jenna said. “Ask her if this is her first.”
Joseph spoke to the woman in her dialect and the woman responded. “She said this is her fourth,” Joseph told Jenna.
“Tell her the baby is breeched and that I’ll need to go in and get it.”
Joseph spoke to the woman and the woman looked at Jenna and nodded her head several times that she understood.
“Ask her where her husband is,” Jenna said.
Joseph spoke to the woman, waited for her answer, then looked at Jenna. “Working,” Joseph said. “At least three days from here.”
Sister Ann and Sister Catherine appeared in the tent.
“I’ll need you to scrub up and assist me,” Jenna said. She looked at Joseph. “I’ll need you to stay and translate.”
Joseph sighed. “Is this going to be messy?”
“Certainly the mighty hunter is not afraid of a little blood,” Jenna said.
Joseph muttered in his native language under his breath.
“What was that?” Jenna said.
“I said, I’ll go wash up,” Joseph said.
“That’s what I thought you said,” Jenna grinned. “Mighty hunter,” she added.
The procedure was long and difficult, but the woman was strong and in the end, Jenna presented the woman with her newborn son. Her white tee shirt covered in blood, Jenna scrubbed her hands, then returned to her tent to change.
The afternoon wore into evening. Joseph stayed for dinner and afterward, they sat in folding chairs outside the tent to take advantage of the cooler, evening breeze.
Joseph smoked a pipe and its sweet aroma filled the air. “I will return to the church in the morning,” Joseph said. “Maybe Father Michael will have received the extra supplies by then.”
“All right,” Jenna said. “But no more than three days. I need you back here to break camp if we’re to meet our schedule.”
Joseph puffed smoke and thought for a moment. “When is the church going to build a real hospital? You’ve been running around the jungle for two years now.”
“I’m sure that Father Michael is doing everything he can, Joseph. Thirty million dollars just doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”
Joseph shook his head. “I’ve seen your pictures. Rome. New York. They seem to have plenty of money for things that don’t matter, like gold and silver and artwork.”
“Everything matters, Joseph,” Jenna said. “And everything gets its turn.”

In the morning, Joseph left. He returned three days later with a telegram for Jenna from New York City. She read the telegram at breakfast. As she read, Sister Ann and Sister Catherine saw the hurt enter Jenna’s eyes. They remained silent, but Joseph spoke up.
“What is it? Bad news,” Joseph said.
Jenna set the telegram aside. “My father has passed away. I’m to return to Father Michael at once.”


Joseph waited in the jeep outside of Jenna’s tent while she took a bath and did whatever it was women did when they made themselves presentable for the public. Except, as Joseph learned early on, Jenna was not your ordinary woman and usually took just a bit longer to get ready. When she finally emerged from her tent, Jenna wore the lightweight, summer garb of a Roman Catholic Nun.
Joseph grinned at her, not used to seeing her in holy attire.
“I’m ready, Joseph,” Jenna said, as she climbed aboard the jeep.
“This is a long ride, sister,” Joseph said. “Many hours. Are you sure you are comfortable dressed like that?”
“One is never comfortable dressed like this, Joseph,” Jenna said.
Joseph started the engine, but before he could put the jeep into gear, Sister Ann appeared at their side. “What if we have an emergency, sister?”
“You and Sister Catherine are fine nurses,” Jenna said. “I’m sure you can handle anything that comes up.”
“Joseph will be here until I return. If surgery is required, he can drive the ambulance to the closest field hospital. You can find the location on my field schedule.”
“How long will you be gone?” Sister Ann said.
“I don’t know. Now don’t worry. I’ll call you as soon as I reach New York.”
Joseph put the jeep into gear and Jenna nodded to Sister Ann as the jeep sped away in a cloud of soft, dry dust.

Father Michael was a tall, fit looking man of forty-five. His thinning, sandy colored hair was worn in a military style, crew cut. Rimless glasses did little to hide the piercing blue of his eyes. He smiled at Jenna as they walked through the courtyard that separated the small school from the even smaller church.
“Joseph will drive you to the airstrip where you will catch a small plane to the airport,” Father Michael said. “I’ve booked you on an overseas flight to Kennedy Airport in New York. I’ve called Cardinal Keeting and told him to expect you.”
“I don’t have to go, Father,” Jenna said. “Really.”
“He was your father.”
“And I haven’t spoken to him since I graduated medical school.”
Father Michael paused to look at Jenna. “In six months, God willing, you will take your final vows.”
“Holding a grudge against a family member is a very poor way to begin your service to God and the church,” Father Michael said. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Jenna resisted the urge to sigh. “Yes.”
Father Michael continued walking. “From what I understood from your father’s attorney, your father’s will can only be disclosed in your presence.”
“What’s his name?”
“The attorney? Martin Lowenberger. Do you know him?”
“Of him. I’ve heard the name. We’ve never met.”
Father Michael paused again. “I don’t wish to pry, sister. Even we are entitled to privacy. However, I would like to know about the falling out between you and your father.”
“He wanted me to become a doctor,” Jenna said.
“But not a nun?”
Jenna smiled. “Something like that.”
“May I ask why?”
“We weren’t raised Catholic.”
“I see,” Father Michael said.

Amazing. That was the word that always came to mind whenever Jenna traveled throughout Africa. The deepest jungles contrasted with the widest, most open plains and both seemed ill at ease with large, modern cities situated between them. Was it any wonder more and more people suffered attacks and even death at the hands of native wildlife.
Six months ago, locals spoke of male lions hunting humans who encroached upon their highly guarded territory. Six people were killed, a dozen more wounded and maimed. Hunting parties went out to kill the lions and when an entire group never returned, the hunt was called off.
“Live and let live,” Joseph said of the incident. “And you’ll make it to an old age, or at least the lions will.”
Jenna thought of that now as Joseph carried her bags to the airport terminal. He came with her on the small, private plane, insisting on seeing her safely to the city. “There are many bad people around,” Joseph said, when she argued. “And the gold in your rosary beads would make a nice tooth.”
They entered the sleek, ultra modern airport and found her gate.
“Please look after Sister Ann and Sister Catherine,” Jenna said.
“You told me that,” Joseph said.
“I’m telling you again,” Jenna said. “They will need you.”
“I will look after them,” Joseph said.
“And don’t forget the supplies.”
“How can I? You’ve practically pinned a note to my shirt like a little boy.”
Jenna paused, then smiled at Joseph. “Am I that bad?”
“Would you like to know what Father Michael calls you?”
“No.” Jenna picked up her bags and began walking through her gate, then paused to look at Joseph. “Yes.”
“Pain in the ass.”
Jenna looked at Joseph, then, smiling to herself, she entered the gate.


Jenna walked through the gate with several hundred other passengers. Kennedy Airport was a madhouse of noise and activity. Literally thousands of people rushed to and from gates, while hundreds of others sat in chairs and waited for their flights to be called. Discarded newspapers and empty coffee cups were everywhere. PA announcements blared every few seconds. It only took moments before she was caught up in the excitement of the big city and she found herself looking around at the massive terminal the way a star struck child looked at a Christmas tree for the first time. It was enough to make a person dizzy and for a moment, she actually was.
She asked a skycap for directions to baggage and after a ten-minute walk through tunnels and escalators, she arrived in the massive room filled with baggage carousals. Her flight indicated carousal 21 was hers. She stood with the crowd and caught snippets of conversations and it was impossible to follow any of them, so she did her best to tune it all out. Then a well-dressed man of about sixty sought her out, gently moving his way through the sea of people to stand by her side. She glanced at him.
“Sister Mary Martin?” he said politely.
Jenna looked at the man and immediately realized he was a chauffeur sent by the cardinal. “Not yet,” she said. “In about six months I will be.”
“His Eminence sent me to pick you up,” he said. “I hope you had a good flight.”
“Good and long,” Jenna said. The carousel came to life with a loud clank and startled her. “Sorry. I haven’t been in the city in a while.”
“The Cardinal said you been in Africa?”
“How is that, Africa?”
“Exciting, Hot” Jenna said. “And sorely in need of what the church can provide.”
The man snickered. “If you mean money, his Eminence is as tight as a…” The man caught himself, made eye contact with Jenna and then looked away.
“I understand,” Jenna said. “Oh look, there’s one of my bags.”

The limousine was a massive, Lincoln Town Car, large enough to fit eight passengers. A tinted, glass partition separated her from the chauffeur. Jenna tapped on the patrician and the chauffeur lowered it and looked at her through the rearview mirror.
“Yes, sister?”
“I was wondering where we are.”
“The Long Island Expressway, sister.”
Jenna nodded and sat back. She couldn’t believe the bumper to bumper traffic, the abandoned cars along the side of the highway, the graffiti and the filth. “I guess I’ve been away longer than I realized.”
“Not really, sister,” the chauffeur said. “I live here and I still can’t believe this mess. Relax, sister. We’ll be there in about an hour.”
The cars rolled by, the potholes jarred her spine, but suddenly they were crossing the Triborough Bridge and the sight of Manhattan in the distance was breathtaking. “Look,” Jenna heard herself say.
“At what, sister?”
“The city. Manhattan. It’s beautiful.”
“Most things are from a distance, sister.”
“I guess you think I’m silly.”
“No, sister. Just not a New Yorker.”
“You say that as if it were a sin to be from anywhere else.”
The chauffeur grinned at her and she could see his smile in the rearview mirror. “You were in the jungle?”
“Yes. Almost two and a half years.”
“Well, sister. One jungle is a good as another. It’s just this jungle is made of cement and the wild animals are called residents.”

At Fifth Avenue
and Fifty Third Street
, the chauffeur pulled alongside the curb in a no parking, tow away zone. Two uniformed cops on the corner glanced at the Cardinal’s limousine and chose to ignore the violation. Nobody in their right mind questioned the Cardinal, not even the Mayor who wasn’t even Catholic.
Jenna exited the limousine and waited for the chauffeur. He rolled down the window and called to her. “Your bags will be along, sister. Don’t worry. Best not to keep the Cardinal waiting.”
Jenna looked up at the massive, Fifth Avenue building. She was na├»ve about Manhattan rents, but surely this place cost a fortune. Having lived two thirds of her life in cities, she was not unaware of the price of real estate. She looked at the chauffeur. “Which floor does the Cardinal occupy?”
The chauffeur grinned. “All of them, sister. The church owns the building.”
“And we wait for medicine,” Jenna said under her breath.
“What was that, sister?” the chauffeur said.
“I said, thank you,” Jenna said and walked toward the building lobby.

Jenna waited in a room so lavish, so plush, it rivaled anything her father ever concocted to impress his wealthy friends. Rich leather furniture, plush carpeting, exquisite paintings, expensive vases with fresh cut flowers, it was all arranged to make waiting a comfortable experience.
She thought of Father Michael’s humble church and school. His building and all its contents wouldn’t buy the furniture in this room, probably not even one gold leafed vase.
After a forty-five minute wait, the Cardinal’s secretary entered the waiting room and smiled at her. “The Cardinal will see you now, sister.” The secretary didn’t apologize or offer an explanation for the long delay.
Jenna followed the secretary through a lavishly carpeted maze of offices and hallways to the Cardinal’s private office. The secretary knocked lightly on the door, then opened it and stood to the side to allow Jenna to enter.
The room was immense, at least 30 square feet in size. Leather furniture occupied one side, a polished, oak table sat in the center, the Cardinal’s desk rested by the window for light. A rich, creamy rug covered the floor. Another series of exquisite paintings decorated the walls. A walnut bookcase with leather bound books, a sofa and two leather chairs faced a marble fireplace that was highly polished and appeared unused except as a display for various photographs of the Cardinal on the mantle.
Cardinal Keeting sat behind his oak desk and rose to his feet as she entered the office. He was a tall man of about sixty years old, dressed in lightweight, summer vestments. His grey hair was perfectly styled without a hair out of place. Thin, rimless glasses perched on his nose.
“Sister Mary Martin,” Keeting said in a pronounced voice she was sure he rehearsed for public speaking. “I’ve been expecting you.”
Jenna walked to the desk, took the ring extended to her and lightly kissed it. “Your Eminence,” she said.
“Please sit down,” Keeting said.
Jenna took a chair that was even richer, more plush than the chairs in the waiting room. Keeting lowered himself to his chair behind his desk and smiled softly at her.
“I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when Father Michael told me I would be visiting you, your Eminence,” Jenna said.
“That was at my request, sister,” Keeting said.
“I don’t understand, your Eminence.”
“Matters of the rich and powerful are often complicated, sister,” Keeting said. “After his death, I was contacted by his personal attorney, Mr. Martin Lowenberger and informed of the situation. It pained me to send that telegram.”
“Thank you, your Eminence. I do appreciate your concern, even if I don’t understand it,” Jenna said. “My father was not exactly what you would call on good terms with the church.”
“I prayed for his soul at morning mass,” Keeting said. “I asked God for mercy for his many sins.”
Jenna looked at Keeting and for a moment, her mind was elsewhere as she remembered the newspaper headlines from twenty years ago. MOBSTER FRANK COSTELLO INDICTED BY GRAND JURY. WITNESSES VANISH IN COSTELLO HEARING. MOB BOSS COSTELLO BEATS RAP. NEW YORK MOBSTER FRANK COSTELLO MOVES TO VEGAS.
Jenna refocused and looked at Keeting. “My father lived seventy four years. That is a very long life for someone so prone to misgivings.”
“You sound as if you’ve never forgiven him,” Keeting said.
“I have forgiven him, your Eminence. It’s our Lord that my father need be concerned about at this time, not you or me.”
Keeting nodded his head slightly, then opened the center drawer of his desk and produced a sealed envelope. “Mr. Lowenberger gave this to me after your father’s death. He said only you were to open it upon your arrival.”
Jenna took the envelope, opened it, and removed the typed letter from inside. She read the short note, then looked at Keeting. “I’m to call Mr. Lowenberger and hear the conditions of my father’s will.”
Keeting nodded again and sighed softly to himself. “I do not wish to pry, sister,” he said with a slight hesitation. “Even we who serve are entitled to our private moments. However, if your father has left you some of his estate or business holdings, the church need be informed of the matter.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that, your Eminence,” Jenna said. “I’m sure that my brother Vincent has assumed my father’s place. However, if my father has left me a little something, I will put it to good use in Africa. With the church’s permission, of course.”
Behind his glasses, Keeting’s eyes appeared slightly concerned. “Use mob related money to buy medicine and supplies?”
Jenna smiled at Keeting. “The Lord really does work in mysterious ways, your Eminence,” she joked.
Keeting stared at Jenna until his face softened and he allowed himself a tiny chuckle. “Will you dine with me and my staff this evening? I’m sure they would love to hear about your exploits in Africa.”
“Yes, of course,” Jenna agreed. “Shall I stay at the convent?”
“I’ve already prepared a room,” Keeting said. “And a surprise.”
“A surprise, your Eminence?” Jenna said. “May I ask what?
“No,” Keeting said. “Then it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

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