Labor Day weekend 2022 and looking for something to do? Look no further. Click the link to enjoy a free preview of Valley of Wolves: A Gypsy Spy Novel.
Special Agent Rick Cannon is a patriot serving his nation during a time when CIA came under increasing scrutiny. Law enforcement wasn’t his first choice. He loved finance. Numbers and spreadsheets were as fun for him as strategic board games. He had his sights on being the Chief Financial Officer of a reputable firm one day. But at a job fair just before completing his masters in forensic accounting, a recruiter from the FBI bent his ear and changed his heart.
Now, a wife and kids and half a career later, he’s on his toughest assignment yet, spearheading an investigation for the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It was all dollars and numbers until is became deadly serious.
Washington, D.C. – September 6, 1988
Rick Cannon sprang out of his seat and stood in front of the secretary’s desk, his throbbing fingers a reminder of the urgency of his errand. “How much longer?”
She peered at him over the computer monitor, her fingers clicking away on the keyboard. “Have a seat, Agent Cannon. Be patient. He’s a busy man.” Her head bent down. The clicking accelerated.
He stepped back, his heart mercilessly hammering pain through his broken fingers. Gasoline and bile painted the back of his throat like malevolent ghosts. Holy Moses! Two weeks! He invades my home, terrorizes my wife, threatens my children, and I’m supposed to sit?
He stared at the secretary—her gaze fixed on the document hanging beside her monitor, her fingers playing the keyboard in staccato bursts. He was invisible, the same non-entity she turned him into the minute after his arrival. Anger boiled up from his gut, balling his hands into fists.
“Son of a bishop!”
The clicking stopped. “Agent Cannon?”
He relaxed his hand. His fingers throbbed. He sucked air through clenched teeth and exhaled against pursed lips. Gasoline hung in his nostrils like bad cologne.
“Agent Cannon, are you okay?”
He blinked. “To heck with it.” Charging past her desk, he barged through his boss’s door.
Internees in the Drancy transfer camp outside of Paris referred to their deportation destination as Pitchipoi, “the place beyond.” They were told that in there they would have better accommodations, food, and meaningful work. It was a lie.
Germany and Jews take center stage in any history of the Holocaust, as well they should. Less dealt with are the hundreds of thousands of Romani (a.k.a. Gypsies) murdered and France’s cooperation in the rounding up and exportation of targeted ethnic groups (i.e., Jews and Gypsies).
Approximately 63% of European Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust. The Romani call this period O Baro Parrajmos, the great devouring. Parrajmos is one of the ugliest words in Romani, avoided in polite company. Among other things, it means “rape.” It is estimated that as much as 50% of the European Romani population was murdered in the Parrajmos.
Valley of Wolves is an espionage thriller. It is also historical fiction. In this chapter, we arrive in Pitchipoi through the eyes of Hishoro (click here to learn more about her). The chapter begins with a Romani song written in a concentration camp. If you want to hear it sung, click here. I think the tune will surprise you.
I am nearing final production on this novel and am planning on a summer release. Following is a taste.
Phabol lampa măskar o logori
Voi svetil amare Romange
De man, Devla, dui bare phakora
Te urav Nemso te mudarav.
A lamp is burning in the camp It shines on our Roma O God, give me two big wings So I can fly and kill a German (from “Phabol Lampa,” a Romani song of the Porrajmos)
Pitchipoi (“the place beyond”) – May 2, 1943
Hishoro huddled with her family in the cattle car. Unlike their journey from Gurs to Drancy, they were packed in with Jews as well as other Gypsies. Not long into their trip, a recently interned Jewish woman told her that Pitchipoi was in Poland.
“Don’t believe the newspapers,” she said. “Poland is worse than France.”
Now, five days later, the stench and heat of the packed humanity pressed in on her from all sides. She needed air. Worming her way to the wall, she stood under the ventilation slot and managed to get a couple of breaths before being pushed out of the way by others seeking the same relief.
“There’s a sign up ahead,” a man who displaced her said.
“Can you read it?” the man next to him asked.
“Almost. There, Birkenau.”
“Never heard of it. You?”
“No, but we’re five kilometers from it.”
Hishoro fought her way back to Keti and the boys. They drank the last of their water yesterday and their last meal had been the thin soup of Drancy. The twins were cried out. Keti was too tired to complain. The train clacked on. Leaning against Keti, she dozed off, the press of the other passengers keeping her on her numb feet.
The throng lurched, shaking her awake. The door rattled open and those nearest it tumbled out.
“Schnell! Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!”
Guards barking. Passengers falling, jumping, being hauled out and dragged. Hishoro scrambled out with her boys into a storm of blows, insults, shouted commands, and terrifying confusion. She gripped them both by the hand and held her ground until Keti was beside her. “Stay together.”
People poured out of cattle cars up and down the siding, as far as the eye could see. German guards in high boots and gray uniforms with lightning bolt insignias beat the arrivals into massive columns. The river of humanity moved, carrying Hishoro and her family with it.
She filled her lungs, glad for the air’s lightness, free as it was of excrement, urine, and sweat. The freshness soon gave way to the oppressive taint of burnt hair and flesh. Ahead, dark gray smoke billowed out of towering brick chimneys, smudging the brilliant blue sky. She tightened her grip on the boys’ hands.
They flowed toward the smoke clouds on the horizon. The river split into two streams around an officer holding a pair of white gloves. Were it not for the SS uniform, Hishoro would have taken him for a Gypsy. His broad face, dark hair, and brown eyes reminded her of her uncle.
The officer shone in the rabble, a slight smile on his generous lips, his high boots gleaming. People moved to the left or right depending on the flick of his gloves. As she came abreast of him, his heavy-lidded eyes opened a margin wider. He uttered a single word, “Zwillinge.” He flicked his gloves and a man in striped pajamas shoved her into the column on the officer’s right. She carried the boys and Keti in her wake.
The column shuffled forward. Marshal music blared from overhead speakers. At the sides, barking dogs struggled against the chain leashes of their snarling masters. “Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!”
The column stopped alongside a brick building. Groups were herded in. The line surged forward, filling in the gaps.
Hishoro stepped inside, blind in the gloom. The boys were ripped away from her hands. Someone shoved onto a wooden chair. Rough hands jerked her left arm across the table and pushed her sleeve up.
“Don’t move. This won’t take long,” a man said in French. Her eyes adjusted and his skeletal frame came in view. His skull was topped with dark stubble. His filthy stripped shirt was several sizes too large.
A man with a clipboard stepped next to him. “Name?”
“Hishoro Velveloz. Ouch!” She jerked her arm but the prisoner’s grip held firm.
“Be still. It will be ugly enough without you moving the canvass.” The man continued pricking the outside of her forearm, making her blood flow.
“Papers,” the record keeper demanded.
Hishoro dug into her skirt pocket and handed the family packet to him. He opened it and glanced right. Tracking his gaze, she spotted Alfonso seated not far from her, followed by Pierre and Keti. The man jotted notes. He kept her papers. The skeleton rubbed ink on her arm.
Rising as one, the group was driven into the courtyard. “Get undressed! All clothing in the bins!” All around her men, women, and children disrobed. One woman pulled off her dress, but kept her shoes and underwear on. A guard prodded her with his sub-machine gun, shouting orders. Arms crossed, she shook her head. His gun burped and she fell backwards, awash in blood.
Hishoro tore her clothes off, then stripped the boys.
They stood bare, baking under the hot sun. The mass moved forward again. She was prodded onto a low stool and told to hold her arms out at her sides. Electric clippers buzzed like angry bees as the crew of men made the arrivals bald from head to toe. Hishoro stared at the rafters, unable to face her own shame.
They were pressed into a room. Hishoro held onto her boys. She squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to know whose skin pressed against her naked flesh. Water crashed down, hot and scalding. Someone screamed. She opened her mouth and gulped, not caring if she burned her mouth or worrying about the water’s metallic taste. Doors opened and they splashed out. Groups formed; Jewish men separated from the women, Gypsies herded off to themselves.
The Jews were issued striped pajamas. The Gypsies dug through the bins for their clothes. Hishoro spotted a riot of flowers on a field of red. She pulled the kerchief out, put it on her shaved head, and tied it under her chin. It smelled of pesticide. Digging out a blouse and long skirt, she threw them on and dressed the twins.
Her eyes met Keti’s. The sorrow there was beyond tears. She pressed her forehead against her sister’s brow for a moment’s comfort.
“Look, Dalé, they decorated my arm.” Alfonso lifted his arm, the dark Z with its string of numbers standing out on his raw, red skin.
I started writing Valley of Wolves, the sequel to Gypsy Spy, on June 30, 2018. At the time, I had hopes of seeing the book in print by the Spring of 2019. Life had other plans. A loss of a brother, a career change, the publication of Love Everlasting, and a world pandemic all provided their unique obstacles. Even without them, I doubt I would have made my original goal. I underestimated the depth of the story and what it would require of me.
I am pleased to announce that I am near completion of the first draft. With only a few chapters to go, my excitement to share this story has taken an exponential leap. I can’t wait for you to read this novel!
Below is a sample of the book (a soliloquy and the first two chapters). For Gypsy Spy fans, it’s a chance to see where Gavin Leoppard landed. For new readers, I welcome you to this most interesting world of the Cold War’s most surprising operative.
Valley of Wolves
A Gypsy Spy Novel
In this world, there is evil and wickedness and greater evil still. We Romani have been maligned, persecuted, and slaughtered for centuries. To this day, rulers still make us stateless on a whim. We remain to them the Tsingani, the “untouchable” other. Stateless people are easy prey for those in power. They can be made the face for all the ills the powerful care not to fix. They can be accused with impunity and demonized by rabble-rousers with no fear of reprisal.
My case is even more precarious. Not only am I stateless, I am supposed to be dead. No nation has laws against killing a dead man, let alone a dead Gypsy who was a spy.
Who is supposed to bring hope for the helpless? At what point does killing slide to murder, execution to senseless bloodshed, justice to vendetta? I used to know, or at least I thought I did. I no longer have the luxury of such reflections or certainties. All that is left me is action.
New battle lines were drawn on the Buffalo River. This past Friday, the Wells Cemetery board lost their latest appeal with the National Park Service.
“We’ve been burying our kinfolk in this ground for over 100 years.” Marion Wells’s ancestors buried in this graveyard dated back to the Civil War era. “These people,” he pointed a finger at one of the Park officials, “cause problems and then break the rules to fix them.”
At issue was a fence the cemetery board erected. Elk, introduced by the NPS to the Buffalo National River, knocked over gravestones. The NPS disputed the boundary where the fence was installed.
“We respect the needs of this community and the historic significance of the cemetery,” Craig Moore, the Buffalo National River Superintendent, said. “But the fence was erected beyond the property line of the graveyard. I have ordered a complete archeological survey to determine the proper boundaries after which we will help the board reinstall the fence in the appropriate place.”
As contractors cut the present steel tube fence down and a backhoe made its way off a lowboy trailer, Marion Wells did not look convinced.
“Feds are all the same. Take what they want and leave you ashes.”
Ferrisburg Daily Bugle, April 4, 1988
Ferrisburg, Arkansas – April 1, 1988
Buck couldn’t stand Yankees. They were always in a rush, even on a Friday night. “If’n I gotta git ‘er pulled out by another tractor, it’s gonna cost you extra,” he yelled out to the man in charge. The man just stared at him. They didn’t care. Finish it already. The light drizzle at sunset had turned into a serious rain an hour later. Still, they wouldn’t let him move the backhoe to the worksite. They made him wait until dark and then pushed him to hurry.
He maneuvered the machine through the pylons that had held the gate a few hours before and threaded his way down the slope to the designated plot. One of the agents buttoned up his windbreaker against the driving rain. The agent in charge didn’t even bother pulling up the hood on his raincoat. He just eyed the front of Buck’s backhoe until it reached the caution tape stretched across the ground. Without a glance toward the cab, he raised his right hand and signaled for Buck to stop, as if Buck didn’t know how to operate his own equipment.
“You want this done, you best get out the way,” Buck said. “I’d hate to see you get hit by this here claw.” He raised it and the agent stepped to the side. Buck dug the bucket into the ground and scraped the earth back to himself. In one fluid motion, he picked up the dirt, swung left with the arm, and dumped the load, burying the front of the agent’s feet under the edge of the pile.
Digging fresh graves never bothered Buck much, but he was plain ornery digging old ones.
Spokane police, in coordination with the FBI, raided the home of a Gypsy family suspected of being part of an elaborate fencing operation. Officers confiscated $1.6 million in cash and an estimated $150,000 worth of jewelry. Five adults and ten minors are said to be in custody. Bail has not been set. The family’s patriarch, Karoly Bardu, denied all charges and promised a vigorous defense. [The Spokesman-Review, June 5, 1988]
Penticton, British Columbia – June 12, 1988
Drom felt her enter the room, but didn’t turn from his task. He remained bent over the crib, the back of his fingers caressing the baby’s cheek.
“Where have you been?” Her voice was low, yet its edge managed to slice through.
His shoulder blades drew together as he took a tight breath. He brought his hand from his youngest son’s face, rested it on the top rail of the crib, then straightened. He focused his mind on a placid pond in an effort to pacify his soul.
“Climbing,” he said.
“It’s two a.m., Drom. You were supposed to be home hours ago.”
He turned to face the press of her gaze. Even in the dim light of the half moon, her beauty made his stomach flip. He was defenseless. “It was a longer climb than I expected, Shell.” Shell, that’s what he called her now, even in the sanctuary of the nursery. And she called him Drom, even when she was upset.
“I don’t like it when you climb after dark,” she said. “It’s not safe.”
Safe. Was anything safe? Could they be safe? Drom wasn’t sure.
“It wasn’t dark when I started.” He held her gaze, making sure to let his arms hang down with his hands open.
She uncrossed her arms and tucked the loose locks of her hair behind her ear. “Are you coming to bed? You’re supposed to pitch tomorrow, remember?”
Church, softball, family Sunday, normalcy. He needed it. She deserved it. “I’ll be there soon. I just want to check on the other two and catch a quick shower.”
“They’re fine, Drom,” she said. “Why don’t you head straight for the shower. I’m awake now. I’d hate for you to have to wake me up again.”
He took a deep breath. She was upset, but conciliatory. The benefit of sleeping children outweighed the risk of waking them. “I’ll be quick.”
She rewarded him with a slight smile and slid out of the room.
Afterward, he held her as she fell back to sleep. He loved listening to her breathe and burying his nose in her thick hair. He prayed and pictured the still pond, but the ripples in his mind refused to dissipate.
The news from Spokane was almost two weeks old. Why hadn’t Karoly contacted him? How much time did they have? He listened as the air filled her lungs and her warm breath bathed his broad chest. He thought of the children, Amanda now ten, Jakob three, and David fast approaching the terrible twos. How long did they have?
Sunlight bathed the room when he came to. Bacon and coffee perfumed the air. Maybe the storm has passed. He sat up in bed and was met with a flying tackle from his three-year-old. “Daddy,” the boy squealed, hugging his father’s neck. “Get up! Mommy’s fixing us breakfast.”
The boy’s excitement was infectious. Drom got out of bed and carried Jakob into the kitchen. David was already in his high chair and Amanda was helping her mother. Shell gave him a kiss and ruffled Jakob’s dark head of hair.
“How did you sleep?” she asked.
“Fast,” he gave her an easy grin.
“Dreams?” she asked.
“I don’t think so.” He searched for the disconnected thoughts of his sleep, but they had melted like fog in the morning light. “None I recall, in any event.”
“How many eggs do you want, Daddy?” Amanda asked.
“Better make it four, sweetheart. I’m famished.”
“What face did you do yesterday?” Amanda was always eager to hear about his climbs in the Skaha Bluffs Park, especially since he started taking her to the climbing gym.
Drom set Jakob down and poured himself a cup of coffee. He took a tentative sip before turning around to answer his step-daughter.
The crash made him jump, sending his coffee to mix with the ceramic shards scattered on the kitchen floor. He turned his eyes to Shell and found her gaping at him, her hand still slack from the dropped plate.
“The Replicant?” Shell said. “The Replicant, Drom? Are you out of your mind?”
The storm was back with renewed intensity. Butter popped on the stove. Amanda scurried over the flip the eggs. Drom downed the remains in his cup and set it on the counter.
“It’s not as bad as it looks from the ground.” The Replicant was over ninety feet of sheer I-dare-you capped with a crux of climb-upside-down. It really wasn’t as bad as it looked from the ground.
It was worse.
“It would have been easier with your gear,” she spat, “or if you had started before dusk. You have responsibilities, Drom.”
He followed her gaze as she eyed their boys. I know, they are why I have to climb. “Stay put, I don’t want you getting cut in that mess.”
He grabbed a towel from the counter and knelt down at her bare feet. He wrapped the fingers of his left hand around her right ankle and gave it a gentle tug.
She lifted her foot without resistance and placed her hand on his head. Drom swabbed her sole from heel to toe and moved her foot to the seat of the kitchen chair. He mopped the linoleum around her other foot, scooping the shards into a pile out of her pathway. Satisfied the floor was relatively safe, he rose to exchange the towel for a broom.
The family ate in silence.
Drom helped Shell with the dishes. They worked together getting the boys ready for the Sunday morning service. Amanda was old enough to take care of herself. They rode to Grace Covenant Community Church without any eruptions from the backseat, the children subdued by the prickly air between the parents. They shared morning pleasantries with parking lot friends and congregational greeters on their way into the sanctuary.
According to the bulletin, the pastor’s sermon this morning was entitled “Doing Difficult Things.” His central text was Psalm 144:1, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle.”
Drom looked at his fingers, still raw from last night’s climb, and thought of a different verse. “You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood.”
He scanned the sanctuary from his vantage point near the front row of the center section of seats. When they started attending two years ago, the congregation barely numbered a hundred. It had tripled since then. Drom was having trouble keeping up with all the new faces. He tried nevertheless, relying more on instinct than insight. He was rewarded with a near dozen that were unfamiliar.
The worship was exuberant, led by skilled musicians well versed in the popular contemporary worship songs. The pastor challenged the congregation to contemplate on skills they had gained in the course of their lives and how they could be used to further the kingdom of God.
Drom had his doubts. Not all skills were redeemable.
Shell sat beside him, keeping pace with the pastor in her Bible as he moved through the passages of his sermon.
Drom took another look around, cataloging the positions of the new faces he spotted earlier. He checked off in his mind those that fit the context—a raised hand here, an amen over there. A young couple in the right wing worked hard to find the verses but consistently turned the wrong way in the scriptures. A man in suit and tie perched on the edge of his seat, a hawk surrounded by sparrows. Others were peppered about, chatting now and again with the congregants next to them.
After the closing prayer, Drom and Shell split up. She headed to get the baby. He went to collect Amanda and Jakob from their Sunday school classes. Drom retrieved Amanda first, then scooped a reluctant Jakob away from his friends. They worked their way through the busy passageway to join Shell and David.
As they neared the nursery, Drom saw his wife talking with the young couple from the right wing and he stopped. Amanda managed to get one step past him before he restrained her with a firm hand on her arm. Her chin whipped over her shoulder. Drom nodded his head toward the wall. They stopped within earshot of the nursery door, camouflaged by the stream of people flowing past.
“We left our baby with the sitter,” the young woman said. “We weren’t sure what the nursery would be like.”
“This church cares about its children,” Shell said. “It’s one of the reasons we joined. I am sure you will like the staff and volunteers. All of us who have infants take turns in here. Gives us all a chance to walk out the Golden Rule.”
“That’s good to hear,” the young woman said.
Drom caught a hint of an accent in her voice. French maybe, he wasn’t sure.
“Where y’all from?” Shell asked. The American South seemed to always sneak its way into her voice when meeting new people. Drom made a mental note to continue working with her on that.
“We moved here from Quebec,” the man said.
Definitely French, Drom thought. He loosened his grip on Amanda’s arm.
“Well, we’re always happy to see new people here,” Shell said. “Maybe we could go to lunch after the service next Sunday and my husband and I can help you get oriented in the great metropolis of Penticton.” Shell’s attempt at humor looked to have fallen flat for a second, but then the other woman laughed.
“We would like that,” the woman said. “Penticton may be small, but local tour guides would still be a great help.”
“You’re on,” Shell said. “Now, if you will excuse me, I need to find the rest of my family.”
Drom didn’t wait around for the rest of the pleasantries. He turned his back on the scene and strode to the nearest exit with Amanda and Jakob in tow. He didn’t stop until they got to the station wagon. He unlocked the doors and ordered the kids to get in the back seat and strap in. He cranked the engine to life and stood at the open driver’s side door and kept his eyes on the church’s main entrance.
Shell reached them, locked David in his car seat between Amanda and Jakob, and got in the passenger side.
Drom didn’t move.
“Everything all right?” she asked.
“What was the name of the woman you were talking with?” He remained vigilant at the car door, a sentinel with his gaze fixed on the stream of people pouring out into the parking lot.
“She didn’t say.”
“Odd, don’t you think?”
“You’re being paranoid.”
“Probably.” He got behind the wheel and slammed the door shut. He scanned his mirrors as he weaved his way out of the parking lot and onto the street.
“Half the church is headed to the ballpark, Drom,” Shell said. “We will be followed.”
Drom let his back slump into the seat and intentionally stopped scanning his mirrors. He was making her uptight and didn’t care to fray her nerves any more than he already had in the past twenty-four hours. You’ve frayed them for the past four years.
The softball park was well appointed with ample public restrooms, covered team benches, and sturdy bleachers. The stands were already half filled when they pulled into the parking lot.
“Why don’t you get situated with the kids while I get changed,” Drom said.
“Good idea. Looks like it might be standing room only before too long.”
He helped her get the kids out of the car and then pulled his duffle bag out of the trunk. She headed toward the stands, but doubled back after several steps and gave him a kiss.
“Don’t fret over me,” she said. “You know I worry enough about you. Just get out there and have some fun.”
“Will do,” he said.
“Break a leg, Drom.” She turned away to catch up with Amanda and the boys.
“That’s a good luck wish for actors, not ball players,” he called after her.
“Whatever,” she said. She picked up her pace and spooked Amanda from behind. The boys squealed when their sister jumped.
Drom laughed in spite of himself. He lived for these morsels of happiness. He made his way into the rest room and locked himself into the stall farthest from the door. He suited up for the game, surprised at his eagerness to get out on the mound. Have some fun, she had said. He wanted to do just that, play a game for the sheer fun of it.
Grace Community’s at bat in the top of the first inning ended in disappointment. They only managed to get two base hits before their third out. Drom didn’t even get a chance to swing at the ball. He trotted out to the field with his team and took his place on the pitcher’s mound. He reminded himself to allow the other team at least a couple of hits. It would give his teammates a chance to field the ball and have some fun of their own.
He let the first batter snag his second pitch. The batter hit the ball down, driving it to the ground. The short stop ran toward the bouncing ball, scooped it in his glove, and then flung it to the first baseman. It arrived too late. The batter was safe.
Feeling he had given the opposing team enough encouragement, Drom struck out the second batter in short order. His slow pitch looked normal, almost boring in its delivery. The ball traced a graceful arch from the mound to the plate. But at the last instant, it would veer to the left or right, leaving the batter to beat the wind. Strike! Drom liked the sound of that.
The third batter took command of the box. Drom’s forearms bristled. Tumblers dropped and rose in his mind, unlocking what he should have realized hours before. He shifted his eyes from the batter to the stands and centered his gaze on his family. He widened the view. There to the left, two rows above Shell and the kids, sat the young woman from Quebec, childless. She was watching his family, not the field. He scanned right and found her counterpart seated near the stairs a row down from Drom’s treasure.
He snapped his head back to the batter. He took in the profile, the rigid readiness of his body. The tumblers moved. Click, click. The Spokesman-Review picture of one more Gypsy humiliation captured in black and white. A face caught on the periphery of the police line. A hawk perched in church looking to feast on sparrows. A batter in league uniform holding his aluminum club at the ready.
“Strike him out, Drom!” someone in the stands yelled. But the words he listened to were Shell’s. Break a leg. He gripped the ball overhand, his index and middle finger riding the seams. He launched it along the path of his earlier pitches, its gentle arc concealing its violent spin.
The batter stepped forward and swung with enough force to drive the ball past second base. But the softball dove below the bat and slammed into his left leg just below the knee. A satisfying crack was followed by wild screams as the batter thrashed on the ground holding his leg just below where his tibia stabbed through the skin.
Drom was on him in an instant. He pressed his right hand on the screaming batter’s sternum until the man’s back was on the ground. “Call an ambulance,” he commanded the catcher. His teammate sprinted off to the pay phones without hesitation. Drom added his body weight to the force of his arm and placed his cheek against the batter’s ear. “Get ahold of yourself,” he said. His voice was low and tight. “I am certain this is not your first experience with pain.”
The batter took a couple of gasps and attempted to twist his torso. Drom slid his hand across the man’s chest and pressed his elbow down to apply increased pressure with his full forearm. He made a show of checking the man’s pulse at the carotid arteries with his left hand. But Drom wasn’t counting beats. He was cutting them off. Drom watched as the man’s eyes glossed over and felt the batter’s body go limp beneath him.
“He’s passed out. We need that ambulance,” Drom said for the benefit of the small crowd gathering. With practiced skill, he turned his belt into a tourniquet and slowed the bleeding. A siren wailed in the distance. One threat down and soon to be collected. Two left to go. He scoped the stands. Mr. and Mrs. Quebec weren’t there. Shell burst through the onlookers into his view.
“Ga …” One syllable is all she managed to get out before Drom’s roar cut her off.
“Where’s that ambulance!” The siren’s song blared near and died. Pulsing red bashed through the early afternoon sunlight. The batter remained unconscious. Drom sprang to his feet and stepped to Shell. “Take the kids and grab the bags. I’ll meet up with you.”
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“With the patient.” The medics placed the batter on the gurney. “Go. And make sure to check your mirrors.”
Shell stood frozen for a moment. She locked eyes with him then turned her gaze to the yawing back entrance of the ambulance.
Drom spotted the Quebec duo slicing their way through the crowd. Close, too close. He ripped off his cleats. “Go,” he said again.
Shell looked down at his hands, his cleats held like tomahawks. “Drom, don’t.”
Mr. and Mrs. Quebec were almost through the crowd.
“You have to move.” It was a command, not a request.
Shell spun and darted off toward the parking lot. Drom followed her with his eyes and caught sight of Amanda and the boys already halfway to the car. Mr. and Mrs. Quebec came into his peripheral vision, twelve feet and closing. Nose and cheek, avoid the eyes. The cleats flew from his hands.
He turned, skipped over home plate, jumped into the ambulance, and yanked the doors shut. The ambulance lurched forward in concert with its renewed wail. Drom peered from the back window at Mr. and Mrs. Quebec holding their faces, blood streaming through their fingers.
“You shouldn’t be in here, Drom,” the attending med tech said.
“Count it as one of my volunteer days, Mark.” Drom moved away from the doors, snatched the key ring clipped to Mark’s belt, and cracked open the narcotics cabinet. He rifled through the bins and grabbed a vial and a syringe. He stabbed the needle into the morphine bottle and pulled back on the plunger. The driver’s eyes stared at him from the rearview mirror. “Just drive, Bill. It’s nothing you guys wouldn’t give him anyway.”
“What happened?” Mark asked. He had stabilized the leg and was checking the patient’s vitals.
“Bad pitch,” Drom said. He reached over and slapped the patient.
The man came to with a start and sat up, arms flailing. His left forearm caught the side of Mark’s head slamming it into the compartment wall. The med tech crumpled to the floor. Drom blocked the right arm and shoved the patient back down onto the stretcher. He grabbed the chest strap, pulled it across, and locked it in. He jerked the strap tight until it bit into the batter’s biceps.
“Name,” Drom demanded.
The man strained against the straps. Drom pressed down on the thigh of the broken leg. The patient howled. His scream of protest turned into a stream of French profanities.
“What is your problem, Drom?” Bill yelled from the front. “Get it together or I’m stopping this ride.”
“Best not, Bill,” Drom said. “Mark’s down and I don’t have time to check him. You need to push this beast as fast as it will go.” The engine roared with renewed anger and Drom was forced to hold onto the gurney rail to maintain his balance. “Name.” More French curses. Drom increased his pressure on the broken leg until curses turned to crying.
“Knock it off, Drom!”
“Drive, Bill, or this guy is going to bleed out in the back of your ambulance.” Drom let off the leg and the crying died in ragged breaths. He retrieved the syringe from the floor where it had fallen during the scuffle and moved around to patient’s head. The patient continued to struggle against his restraints.
Drom hooked his left thumb into the man’s right nostril and pressed his rigid index and ring fingers into the man’s eyebrow. The man shook his head. Drom shoved his thumb in past the first knuckle and kept pressing down with his fingers until the man stopped struggling. He brought the needle up to the stretched-open eye and let the point dangle a hair’s breadth from the pupil.
“I would stay still, if I were you,” Drom said to the man in French. “Who are you working for?”
“Qui de diable êtes-vous?”
Drom brought the point down until it bit into the man’s sclera. Tears poured out of the corner of his eye, but the man remained still. Drom was impressed. The man was more disciplined than he had given him credit for. “Agency.” Clenched teeth. Drom had enough. He needed fast answers and he wasn’t going to get them. He pulled the needle from the man’s eye and pushed it into the thigh of the injured leg. He emptied the syringe and tossed it into the red bag bin. The patient passed out.
Drom extracted his thumb from the man’s nostril and replaced it with a wad of gauze to staunch the bleeding. He worked his way to the other side of the gurney and checked on Mark. The med tech had an egg-sized knot on the back of his head and the beginnings of a bruise on his cheekbone, but his breathing was regular and his pupils responsive. Drom strapped him into the side seat and turned back to the drugged Frenchman.
Drom patted the man down. He wasn’t carrying any concealed weapons or pouches. He reached under the man’s body and dug through both back pockets. Nothing. No billfold, pocket litter, or even lint. He reached in through the waistband and checked inside the athletic cup. Standard equipment, nothing else. Drom worked his way into the cabin and got into the passenger seat.
“Mark should be fine,” he told Bill, “but you better have the docs check him out when you get to the hospital.”
“I know we owe you,” Bill said, eyes riveted to road, “But this is too much. How am I going to explain it all?”
“Tell them it was a rough ride.”
“You know that won’t do, especially once the patient comes to.”
“He won’t say anything, trust me. I would appreciate it if you didn’t either.”
“I wish I could still use that excuse.” Drom checked the side view mirror. The nearest vehicle behind them was a hundred yards back and losing ground. The ambulance came around the curve of Martin Street as it became Main. No vehicles were in their rear view. “Slow it down a second,” Drom said.
“I’m gunning to Carmi then hooking it straight into Regional. I’m in enough trouble as it is.”
“Bill, please.” The driver glanced at him and then tapped the brakes. Drom bailed out the passenger side and hit the pavement rolling. He bounced over the curb, sprung to his feet and sprinted west through the neighborhood away from Main toward Fairview Road. The ambulance wailed away. Drom kept back from the road and headed south over fences and through back yards towards the steeple of St. Gregory’s. He needed a change of clothes and a pair of shoes.
Dressed in blue jeans, a t-shirt, and deck shoes from St. Gregory’s donation closet, he made his way to the rendezvous, a supermarket in the middle of a strip mall. He used the service alley and scaled the utility ladder to the top of the first store. He crept across the flat roof to the façade and surveyed the parking lot. Their minivan wasn’t there yet. He checked his watch. Shell still had a half-hour before he could officially worry. Drom worried anyway.
He worked his way closer to the grocery store to gain a better vantage point on all the parking lot entrances and surrounding streets. He was soon rewarded with the sight of their minivan making its way west on Green Avenue. It went past the entrance without slowing down. Eight more vehicles flowed behind it across Skaha Lake Road. Five minutes later, the minivan was heading east on Brandon Avenue. No other vehicles were following. It turned south on Paris Street and made its way across Green Avenue. It reappeared moments later, traveling northeast on Skaha without growing a tail.
Drom waited until the minivan turned into the parking lot. He padded to the north end of the mall and scaled down to the asphalt. He strolled past the shop windows taking in the reflection of the parking lot with his peripheral vision and stopped occasionally to admire the displays. He popped into the stationary shop next door to the supermarket and browsed the aisles. A couple of other customers came in after him. One stopped at the register counter and spoke with the cashier; the other made a beeline to the high-end fountain pen display.
Drom slipped out of the shop, walked past the supermarket, and turned into the parking lot. Windows and waxed car bodies gave him eyes behind his head. He was clear. When he reached the minivan, Shell was in the passenger seat. He got in behind the wheel, put on his best smile, and twisted to the bench behind him. “You kids ready for a road trip?” He got a cheer from Jakob, a chortle from David, a worried look from Amanda.
“Where are we going, Daddy?” she asked.
“It’s a surprise, sweetheart,” he said, “but I can tell you that getting there will be almost as much fun as being there.” Amanda didn’t look convinced, but didn’t press any further. Drom turned back to the front, cut the radio on, and faded the speakers toward the back. Shell’s silence weighed on him and he didn’t expect it to last much longer.
He came out of the shopping center on Green Avenue and turned south on Channel Parkway. Any pursuit team would have difficulty following them without being spotted. “The station wagon?”
“I wiped it down as best I could and parked it in the garage,” Shell said.
Drom checked his mirrors. Shell was staring out the passenger side window at the channel, arms tightly crossed. “Did you light the candle in the window?” he asked.
She wiped the corners of her eyes and turned toward him. “Was it necessary?”
“The batter spoke French. The couple from church had French accents.”
“They were from Quebec.”
“So they said. But the batter’s French wasn’t Canadian. It was Parisian.”
Shell twisted in her seat and checked on the children. She gave the baby’s foot a squeeze and turned back to the front. “The kids really loved that home.”
Drom moved to the right hand lane and slowed to just below the speed limit. The southbound traffic behind him flowed around in the passing lane. He scanned the mirrors. “It’s just a place,” he said. “We can find another. I can’t replace you or them.”
“Gavin,” she said. Gavin, that’s what she called him when she was afraid.
He turned to her and wiped her cheek with his right hand. “We’re going to be okay, Michelle,” he said.
Michelle, that’s what he called her when she needed him the most.
Ocha enters the stage unnamed on page 66 of the epic spy-thriller saga Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files. She is the soothing angel of mercy calming Carlos after a fitful nightmare. Her first words to him are heartfelt, but wide of the mark.
“You’re safe now,” she said.
I have shared sketches of her before, which you can read about here. But where did she come from? Like any good character with real flesh and bone, her seeds were sown in the soil of real life.
The first chase sticks with you. I knew boys growing up who suffered through the cootie phase of childhood, that time in life when the opposite sex is scary, dangerously different, and carries of unknown pathogens best avoided. They suffered. I chased.
Charlie Brown had the Little Red-Hair Girl. For me, it was Rosa Agost, an ash-blond Spanish girl with a substantial infusion of the Swiss in her bloodline. We never sat in class together because the grade school I attended in Castellón de la Plana was segregated. The girls had their own side and the nuns. The boys had the maestros with the heavy hands and serious brows.
Getting near the girls during recess required boldness, creativity, and a certain level of recklessness. The heavy-handed men who taught the boys were once boys themselves. Our machinations seldom, if ever, fooled them. Kick the soccer ball hard enough on the playground and it might land on the girls’ side. Someone has to get it, right? Why play by the school yard wall when the middle ground offered such a better view? Stay on your side, boys, or meet the hand!
Rosa captured my attention when I was seven. Maybe it was the hair. Or the smile. Or the eyes. I chased. She ran. Sometimes we all ran and she watched. Her method of choosing the lucky one to be designated her boyfriend was to throw her sandal as far as she could. The boys had to race for it, to the victor the spoils of the coveted title of her novio.
Rosa was her given name, but she went by Ocha, the feminine form of the Spanish word for eight. Not only was she born on August 8th, her surname was Agost, one vowel shy of the Spanish name for August.
Children of the mind, the characters that populate the stories of writers, are chimeras of those we meet and observe in life. We capture the qualities that captured us—the smooth lines and the odd angles, the tangled emotions and sincere feelings, the triumphs and the tragedies—and cob them together into someone else, fictional but true.
When we run out of time, because writing is never finished, we stamp our disclaimer under the copyright:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Yep, entirely coincidental. Happy birthday, Ocha!
Tracking down an assassin can prove hazardous to one’s health. Gavin Leoppard was content to disappear. But someone decided to dig the bones out of his closet. The hunters become the hunted in Valley of Wolves, the next chapter in the Gypsy Spy saga. Follow the blog for sample scenes and publication updates.
Intelligence officers may use a dozen or more different alias names during a career. Gavin Leoppard’s career is far from over, even though he’s already been buried once. Known to some as Carlos, to others as Javier, and to a select few as Drom, he assumes cover identities with the skill of a con man. In a pinch, he may even resort to the truth for the most unbelievable cover story of all.
This scene is from Chapter 14 of Valley of Wolves, the next chapter in the Gypsy Spy saga. Follow the blog for progress updates, pre-publication previews, and publication news.
The first book in the Gypsy Spy saga, Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files, is available on Amazon.
 Wallace, Melton, & Schlesinger, Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda, Plume, New York, 2009, p. 381.
Gypsy Spy fans, find out what really happened in the Warehouse! Valley of Wolves, the next chapter in the Gypsy Spy saga, is well underway. Follow the blog for pre-publication vignettes and chapters.
Last recipient of an ancient art, Carlos de Leon, a.k.a. Gavin Leoppard, is deadlier with stones than most operatives are with their sidearms. When Gavin rocks your world, prepare to leave it.
Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files is available in print, Kindle, and Kindle unlimited.