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The Summer House
By Brendan DuBois
Read by Ari Fliakos
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Once a luxurious southern getaway on a rustic lake, then reduced to a dilapidated crash pad, the Summer House is now the grisly scene of a nighttime mass murder. Eyewitnesses point to four Army Rangers—known as the Night Ninjas—recently returned from Afghanistan.
To ensure that justice is done, the Army sends Major Jeremiah Cook, a veteran and former NYPD cop, to investigate. But the major and his elite team arrive in sweltering Georgia with no idea their grim jobs will be made exponentially more challenging by local law enforcement, who resists the Army's intrusion and stonewall them at every turn.
As Cook and his squad struggle to uncover the truth behind the condemning evidence, the pieces just won't fit—and forces are rallying to make certain damning secrets die alongside the victims in the murder house. With his own people in the cross-hairs, Cook takes a desperate gamble to find answers—even if it means returning to a hell of his own worst nightmares . . .
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There is no Fourth Battalion in the Seventy-Fifth Ranger Regiment, and Sullivan County and its residents and towns are also fictional.
INSIDE THIS DUMP of a home in rural Sullivan, Georgia, Lillian Zachary's rescue mission to save her younger sister and niece isn't going well. Only because of her parents' pleadings did she make the three-hour drive this warm evening from the safety of her Atlanta condo to liberate Gina and her daughter, Polly, from this place.
She nervously eyes the guns that are on open display, their promise of violence making her uneasy. A pump-action shotgun is leaning near the sole door leading outside, a hunting rifle is up against the wall on the other side of the old home, and two black semiautomatic pistols are on the cluttered kitchen counter, next to three sets of scales and plastic bags full of marijuana. Antique oak cabinets and porcelain-lined sinks and metal faucets are on the opposite side of the room.
Lillian is in a part of the home laughingly called a "living room," and there's nothing in here worth living for, save her sister and her sister's two-year-old girl. The place is foul, with empty beer cans, two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew, crumpled-up McDonald's bags, and crushed pizza cartons strewn across a wooden floor worn and gouged from a century of wear.
Built in the small plantation-plain style and named The Summer House, the place was once the getaway destination of a rich Savannah family fleeing city smells and sounds generations before the invention of air-conditioning. Now, decades later, the rich family has fallen on hard times, and their grandly named Summer House is a decaying rental property fit only for this group of lowlifes.
Lillian wonders if the ghosts of the old Savannah family are horrified to see how decayed and worn their perfect summer escape home has become.
Lillian is perched on the armrest of a black vinyl couch kept together with scrap lumber and duct tape, and Gina is sitting next to her, shaking a footless rag doll in front of little Polly, who's on the carpeted floor before her mother, giggling.
Lillian says, "Gina, c'mon, can we get going?"
Her sister shakes her head. "No, not yet," she says. "Polly's laughing. I love it when Polly laughs. Don't you?"
Lillian isn't married, doesn't seem to have that maternal urge to bear children, but something about the bright-blue eyes and innocent face of the chubby little girl in a pink corduroy jumper stirs her. Her little niece, trapped here with her single mom, in a crappy house in a crappy part of the state.
At the other end of the room is another couch in front of a large-screen television—no doubt stolen, she thinks—and three other people who live here are playing some stupid shoot-'em-up fantasy video game where fire-breathing dragons and knights do battle armed with machine guns. She's already forgotten the names of the two lanky, long-haired boys and their woman friend. Shirley? Or Sally. Whatever. And Randy. Yeah. That's one of the losers' names.
The two guys gave her serious eye when earlier she knocked on the door, and she feels vulnerable and out of place with them and their guns. Even though they seem to be having fun on their couch, there's a simmering tension between them that's growing along with the insults they've been tossing at each other.
"Missed it, you fag!" Randy yells.
"Bite me!" the other young man shouts back.
Upstairs in the old home is the other occupant, Gina's on-again, off-again boyfriend, Stuart, who's lying in bed, not feeling well, bitching and moaning like the community college dropout and drug dealer he is.
Plus the father of little and innocent Polly.
"Gina," she says, looking away from the video game players. "Please."
"Just a sec, Lilly, just a sec, okay?"
Lillian rubs her hands across her tan slacks, looking again at the shotgun resting between the television and the door leading outside. All she wants to do is carry the two green plastic trash bags holding the entire possessions of Gina and her daughter through that door. In just a very few minutes she'll get Gina and Polly out of this shithole and back up to Atlanta and leave this crap off-ramp to a loser life behind.
If those increasingly angry young men let her, Gina, and Polly leave, that is. Randy said a while ago, "Hey, you plan on staying for a while, right? We're gonna party hard later on."
Her plump younger sister is wearing black yoga tights and an Atlanta Falcons sweatshirt, but even through her bad complexion, her eyes shine bright with joy and love for her baby girl. That light gives Lillian hope. Gina moved down to this little town with Stuart, promising Mom and Dad she would study dental hygiene at nearby Savannah Technical College, and not telling anyone until a week ago that she dropped out last year.
Tonight it's going to change, Lillian thinks. She has a great job as a purchasing agent for Delta, and she's confident she can get her younger sister a job even if the work is physical, like handling baggage. Gina is a stout, strong girl, and Lillian thinks that will be perfect for her, and much better pay than the night shift at the local Walmart.
Her little niece keeps on laughing and laughing.
There's a sound of a helicopter flying overhead, and Lillian vows to leave in just one minute. Yep, in sixty seconds she's going to tell Gina to get her ass in gear.
Lillian thinks she sees a shadow pass by one of the far windows.
As he moves through the typical Georgia pine forest to within twenty meters of the target house, he raises a fist, and the others with him halt. He wants to take one more good scan of the target area before the operation begins. A helicopter drones, heading to nearby Hunter Army Airfield. The woods remind him some of forests he operated in back in Kunar province in the 'stan, right up against the border to Pakistan. He likes the smell of trees at night. It reminds him of home, reminds him of previous missions that have gone well. Some meters off is a small lake with a shoreline overgrown with saplings and brush.
He slowly rotates his head from left to right, the night-vision goggles giving him a clear and green ghostly view of the surroundings. He can see that the two-story place used to be a fine small home with two front pillars and classy-looking, black-shuttered windows. Now the siding is peeling away, the pillars are cracked and stained, and one of the windows is covered with plastic.
Only one entry in and out between the two pillars, which will be challenging but not much of a problem.
Four vehicles in the yard. Two Chevy pickup trucks and a battered Sentra with a cracked windshield and trunk held closed with a frayed piece of rope. Previous surveillances of the area showed these same vehicles here, almost every night.
But tonight there's an additional vehicle. A light-blue Volvo sedan.
It doesn't fit, doesn't belong, hasn't been here before.
Which means there's at least one additional person—and perhaps up to four—in the target house.
Embrace the suck, move on.
Has he ever been on a mission that went exactly, 100 percent right?
So why start tonight?
He catches the attention of his squad mates, and they move into position, with him leading the way to the open wooden porch before the solitary door.
He flips up his night-vision goggles, blinks a few times. He can hear music and sound effects from some sort of video game being played inside.
He pulls out his pistol, gets ready to go to work.
Lillian puts her hand on Gina's shoulder, is about to say, I want to get on I-16 before the drunks start leaving the roadhouses, when there's a sharp bang! and the door leading outside blows wide open into the small, old house.
The woman on the other couch screams, and the guy to her right—Gordy, is that his name?—stands up and says, "Hey, what the hell—"
A man in military-style clothing ducks in with a pistol in his hand, and Lillian stands, putting her arms up in the air, thinking, Oh, damn it, it's a police raid. These morons have finally been caught dealing their dope.
Funny how all cops nowadays feel like they have to dress up like soldiers, like this one, with fatigues, black boots, belts and harness, a black ski mask over his head.
Gordy says, "Hey, guy, I know my rights—"
He stops talking when the man with the pistol points it at him—and with horror Lillian recognizes there's a suppressor on the end of the pistol, just like in the movies—and in two muffled reports, Gordy falls back onto the couch, his skull blown open in a blossom of brain and bone.
A spray of blood hits the face of Sally, who is now screaming louder, and the other guy on the couch scrambles over the side, toppling the couch. Lillian pushes Gina, screaming, "Run, run, run!"
Gina ducks down and picks up her girl, who's still giggling, and Lillian shoves her sister and niece away as she grabs a dirty couch pillow and throws it at the gunman.
"Gina!" she screams at her sister. "Run!"
Polly in her arms, Gina runs up the stairs, Lillian pounding the steps right behind her.
THE MAIN PART of the old house is cleared within seconds by his squad, and as he goes past the bodies, picking up warm shell casings and carefully digging out spent bullets as he does so, one thought comes to him: how often Hollywood gets this part wrong.
They love showing a squad like his breaking into a residence, screaming Go, go, go! or Down, down, down! Truth is, you move quietly and with deliberation, clearing and securing everything before moving on.
He heads to the wide wooden stairway, the others following him. Stops at the foot of the stairs. Makes the necessary hand signals, and they go up, sticking to the left side to reduce the sounds of creaking steps.
Halfway up the stairs he pauses, hearing frantic movement overhead.
When they got to the top of the stairs, Gina slammed open the door to the left with her free hand, saying, "Stuart, Stuart, oh, God, Stuart…"
Lillian broke right, going to the other bedroom, sobbing, panting, not wanting to think of what just happened, who that man was, not wanting again to see in her mind the spray of blood from Gordy being shot in the head, and above all, not wanting to think of the man coming up the stairs after them.
She nearly stumbles over the piles of clothing, shoes, and more crumpled boxes and beer cans strewn across the floor. Two beds. One bureau. Trash bags with clothing. Open closet door.
Two windows. One with an air-conditioning unit that's not running.
The other leading out to safety.
Lillian gets to the window, yanks at the bottom.
It won't move.
"Please, please, please," she whispers.
She yanks again.
She senses the man with the gun is nearing the top of the stairs.
Lillian is too scared to turn around, dares not turn around.
It moves, just enough for her to shove her fingers in between the window and the sill.
"Please, please, please," she prays, whispering louder.
She gives the window a good hard shove, leveraging her weight, her shoulders and arms straining from the attempt.
The window grinds open.
Fresh air flows in.
Lillian bends over, ducks her way through, as she hears the other bedroom door slam shut.
He's nearly at the top of the stairs when he hears a window slide open, and then he gets to the landing.
Room to the left, room to the right.
The door is open to the right-side room. The other door is closed.
He looks back at his squad, gestures to the nearest two behind him, points to the left door, and they nod in acknowledgment.
He steps into the room on the right.
Trashy, of course, but there's no one he can see.
The window is wide open.
He's focused on clearing this room, but he can't help but hear the door to the other room open, a woman scream, and a man call out, "Hey, hey, hey—" followed by the friendly thump of a pistol firing through a sound suppressor.
Then a sentence is uttered, and two more thumps wrap up the job.
He moves through the room, dodging piles of clothes and trash. An overhead light from the top of the stairs gives him good illumination.
The closet is empty.
He goes to the window, leans over, peers out.
Lillian is biting her fist, trying hard not to breathe, not to sneeze, not to do a damn thing to get noticed. She's under one of the two unmade beds in this room, trembling, part of her ashamed that she's wet herself from fear.
There are slow and measured paces of someone walking through the room, and then going over to the open window.
She shuts her eyes, her mother's voice whispering to her from more than twenty-five years ago: There's no such thing as the bogeyman, she would say. Just close your eyes and pray to Jesus, and everything will be all right.
Oh, Mamma, oh, Jesus, please, please, please help me.
He leans out the window, lowering his night-vision goggles to take in the view. More trees, more scrub, and a collapsed small wooden building that looks like it was once an outhouse.
Possible. This place is so old it would fit right in.
He looks closer to the side of the two-story summer house.
He's up about six or so meters. Hell of a drop.
And what's below here? Two rusty fifty-five-gallon oil drums, a roll of chicken-coop wire, and a pile of wooden shingles and scrap lumber.
All resting undisturbed.
He flips up the night-vision goggles, ducks back into the room, sees his squad mates have joined him. He holds a finger to his lips.
Moves across the room.
Lillian is still praying, still trembling, still biting into her fist when a strong hand slides under the bed and grabs her ankle, dragging her out.
She shrieks and rolls over and puts her hands up and says, "Please, please, please, no, no, no!"
Someone grabs her shoulders, holds her down. Another man—the one who just shot Gordy—drops to one knee and looks down at her. Lillian takes a deep breath, hoping it will calm her.
The man has military-type viewing equipment on his forehead, he's wearing military fatigues with some sort of harness and belts, and over one pocket where there should be a name tag is a strip of Velcro, meaning the name tag has been stripped off so he won't be identified. The ski mask from before is pulled up, revealing a friendly and relaxed face.
"Please," she whispers.
"Shhh," he replies. "Just a few questions. I promise I won't hurt you."
Lillian just nods. Answer him, she thinks. Don't ask questions. Just answer.
He says, "There was a man in the bedroom on the other side, with a woman and a child. Downstairs there was a woman and two other men. Is there anybody else here?"
"No," she says, her whole body shaking, the hands of the man holding her shoulders down firm and strong.
"Are you the owner of the Volvo?"
"Did you come down here alone?"
"Is anyone expecting you to return in the next few minutes?"
She doesn't process the question until it's too late, for she answers truthfully, automatically, and hopefully and says, "No."
The man stays quiet for a few long seconds and then lifts his head to nod to the man behind her. When he removes a hand from her shoulder and she feels the cold metal of a pistol barrel pressing against the side of her head, Lillian knows her mamma has always been wrong, that the bogeyman does exist.
AFTER MY "WORKOUT" for the day, I'm resting on my bed at my condo rental just outside the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, reading Glory Road, the second book in Bruce Catton's trilogy about the Union's Army of the Potomac. I'm enjoying the book and hating Quantico, because it's still not home, and it's definitely not New York City.
My ringing iPhone quickly pulls me away from the year 1862, and my hand knocks the damn thing from the nightstand to the floor. Bending over to pick it up, I gasp as my permanently damaged left leg screams at me to stop moving.
And I quickly think of those poor Civil War soldiers, both blue and gray, how a shot in the leg with a bone-shattering Minié ball meant near-certain amputation. Some days I'm envious of them, suffering short-term grievous hurt and then living on without a damaged leg constantly throbbing with burning-hot pain. I declined a chance to get my left limb amputated, and some days I wonder if I made the right decision.
I grab the phone off the floor, then slide my fingers across the screen to answer.
"Cook," I say, and a very familiar voice replies, "This is Phillips. What are you doing right now?"
"Besides talking to you, sir, I'm staring at my left leg and telling it to behave."
Which is true. My left leg is propped up on a pillow. I'm wearing dark-blue athletic shorts and a blue-and-white NYPD T-shirt. My right leg is slightly tanned, slightly hairy, and highly muscular. My left leg is a shriveled mess of scars, burn tissue, and puckered craters of flesh where metal tore through it last year when I was deployed in Afghanistan.
But my left foot looks okay. Thank goodness for heavy-duty Army boots, which protected my foot during the long minutes when my leg was trapped and burning.
Colonel Ross Phillips, who's probably a mile away from me in his office this bright Saturday afternoon, quickly gets to it. "We got a red ball case—a real screamer—down in Georgia."
"Hold on, sir," I say, and from my cluttered nightstand I pull free a small notepad and a pen from the Marine Federal Credit Union. I snap the pen into place and say, "Go ahead."
He coughs, clears his throat, and says, "Sullivan, Georgia. About fifty miles from Hunter Army Airfield, near Savannah. We have four Army personnel in civilian custody, arrested by the Sullivan County Sheriff's Department. Their duty station is Hunter."
"Four?" I ask.
"Four," he says.
"Names and unit?"
"I've got someone tracking that down."
"What are the charges?"
My pen stops writing. I scribble and scribble and no ink appears.
"How many?" I ask.
"Another thing we're tracking down," he says. "We should know in a few more minutes. What we do know is that it was a house holding a number of civilians and that they were all shot. Some historical place called The Summer House. How original, eh? Our four guys were arrested by the county sheriff about forty-eight hours later, in a nearby roadhouse."
"Who's CID head at Hunter?"
"Colonel Brenda Tringali, Third MP Group," he says. "But this case is no stolen Humvee from a motor pool. Mass killing of civilians by four Army personnel is one for you and your group. So far it hasn't hit the news media, but it will soon enough."
He coughs again. And again.
"Colonel…are you all right?"
"Shut up," he says. "I expect you and your crew there by tonight. The sheriff for that county is Emma Williams. Get to her, use your folks to find out what happened, where it happened, and why. Do your job. And get it done. This brewing shit storm is going to rile up a lot of people and groups. Lucky for the Army you and your crew are going to be out there, taking the heat and whatever crap gets flung around."
"Yes, sir," I say.
"Good," he says. "I'll contact you once I have more information."
My supervisor hangs up, and I throw the dead pen across the room, open the nightstand drawer—grimace again as my leg shouts at me—and find a new pen to scribble down a few more notes.
Then back to my iPhone. I need to reach out to the four members of my investigative unit, but there's one call I need to make—and now—even though I'm dreading it.
I tap on the contact number—the number that last year was my home number—and wait for the call to be picked up in Staten Island, about 250 miles away.
It's picked up after one ring, and the woman says, "What's wrong?"
I rub the side of my head. "Sorry to do this, but I can't come up tonight."
"What about tomorrow?" she asks. "You know how much Kelli is looking forward to seeing you."
"Tomorrow's not going to work, and Monday won't, either," I say, hating to say these words.
She says, "Work again?"
"No, that was last month. I'm leaving for Georgia later today. Is Kelli there?"
My ex-wife, Sandy, says, "No. But don't you worry. I'll tell her myself. How Dad is missing another volleyball tournament. And I'll even tell Kevin you're missing his Boy Scouts Court of Honor Monday night. Anything else I can do for you?"
Months ago these words were sharp blades that Sandy used so well, but now, after months of hearing them, the words have dulled some, though they still hurt.
"No, just tell them I'm sorry, that I'll do my best to make it up to them."
Sandy says, "Fine. And you got a call here from Gary O'Toole, wanting to know if you're going to Pete Monahan's retirement next month."
"Pete?" I ask. "Pete's pulling the pin?"
"That's what Gary told me," she says harshly, like I'm questioning her intelligence or her ability to listen carefully. "I guess Midtown South is planning a huge send-off. You should go."
"No," I say.
"You should go," she repeats, "and you should kiss and make up with the chief of d's…You know they were going to give you a nice desk job at One Police Plaza. I hear the offer is still out there, even if you've been a prick ever since you got hurt."
I say, "Sandy, thanks for telling the kids I won't make it. I'll try to talk to them later this week."
With that call out of the way, I send a text message to three members of my crew, giving them the raw basics. Rendezvous point and time to follow.
I pull up the contact of my fourth team member, but before I can call and speak to her directly, my iPhone chimes again. It's Colonel Phillips.
He says, "More information, all bad."
I get my new pen and pad and say, "Go ahead, sir."
"The four Army personnel…they're all Rangers. Assigned to the Fourth Ranger Battalion, stationed at Hunter Army Airfield."
"Shit," I say.
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