THE GRASS IS GREENER
McQueen Was My Valley 3
Copyright © 2013
“But there’s coffee right here,” Sasha said.
Her friend Jane insisted. “No, I like the coffee in the Atrium better. The coffee here in the ballroom is so watered-down. It’s just like dirty water.”
“Since when are you so interested in coffee anyway, Jane? Over-caffeinating can lead to insomnia, dehydration, and a dangerously fast pulse.”
Why did Jane look so irritated? Maybe not enough caffeine. The two friends hadn’t seen each other in a year, when again Sasha had flown to meet Jane at a conference where her politico husband was speaking—that time, in Palm Beach, Florida. “I just like the taste, Sasha! Can you please just go? Get the coffee that’s in the Atrium patio, outside. Yeah. That stuff is better. Here’s some money.”
“I don’t need your money.” Sasha was only trying to be polite, but now realized it made her sound like a rich snob. Still, she pushed Jane’s money back at her. A little dance ensued, each woman shoving paper bills at the other. Jane had a scary, determined, steely look to her eyes, as though this damned coffee meant life or death. Sasha was confused and concerned.
“Take it, Sasha,” Jane said meaningfully.
Sasha relented, if only to soothe her strange friend. Jane shoved the bills into Sasha’s purse. “Whatever, Jane. If you ask me, you’re acting extremely stressed. Is there something in John’s speech you don’t want me to hear?” Sasha McQueen leaned left on certain issues and was conservative on some, but she definitely didn’t agree with John Maliano’s ideas of defense spending. He was so gung ho about there being a “towel-headed terrorist” lurking behind every McDonald’s, you’d think he was a former military man himself. No, he was just paranoid. A paranoid congressman stumping for a Senate bid on an anti-terrorism platform. Sasha didn’t care for him, but she’d been connected at the wrist and ankles to Jane since high school in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Now go!” Jane wiggled her fingers at Sasha. “In fact, you know what? Get a table in the Atrium patio. I’ll join you shortly. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes, all right?”
“All right,” Sasha muttered, unconvinced. Jane must really want this coffee.
Now Jane’s expression looked mournful as she walked backwards toward the ballroom. Why was she acting so strange? John’s speeches came with a sympathetic audience of like-minded paranoids, and surely Jane was accustomed to her husband’s podium thumping by now. But she had to be a dutiful wife, and couldn’t be seen drinking coffee apathetically while her husband was wowing and riling the crowd in the ballroom. She had to be at his side, ever the obedient and idealistic wife.
Sasha had her own speech to write, so she sat down at a sunny table on the patio, setting aside Jane’s covered coffee and waiting for her own chamomile tea—two bags, not one—to cool. This was going to be one of the most difficult speeches of her life. And as Chief Medical Examiner for Charleston County in South Carolina, she had been forced to deliver some mighty difficult, sensitive, and delicate speeches in her time. She wanted to commit this speech to memory so she didn’t stumble and blow it.
In a few days, she would be taking a puddle jumper to a small town in southeast Utah named Bird in Hand. Her little sister Xandra had inherited a gorgeous, rambling lodge there, and now their other sister Brooke resided there as well. Sasha had been there once before, last December to witness Xandra’s wedding to a balls-to-the-wall kind of guy named Nathan Horowitz. Nathan had retired from that commando life and was a mild-mannered fly fishing instructor. Now Sasha was arriving to attend Brooke’s wedding to an Adrian Kinsey, a stunning ginger-haired fellow who was apparently quite clever, an art antiquities expert.
Sasha’s speech wasn’t for Brooke’s wedding.
She had to deliver to her sisters the hardest news of all—that their father’s dementia had progressed to stage six Alzheimer’s, severe decline. Sasha could no longer look after Dennis in her home, even though she had a full-time caregiver living with her to allow her to go to work. Dennis was simply too much for the caregiver, too. He often didn’t remember their names and wandered around at night. He had trouble controlling his bowels, and just before Sasha had come on this trip, he had put his pajamas on over his jeans and T-shirt. He had attended Xandra’s wedding last December, but he would not be attending this one, and Sasha was the one to break the news to her sisters.
It was a horrible chore, but then Sasha’s life had been one horrible chore after the other. As a specialist in forensic medicine, there wasn’t much room for shits and giggles. Oh, there were the usual medical school pranks, like making up fake triage sheets just to hear the nurse call out “Dixie Normous? Where is Dixie Normous?” Or hiding in a body bag, then sitting up in the middle of the transport van. Or sending an intern to the lab to get some fallopian tubes to run a test. Those were the good ole days, but her marriage and subsequent divorce had seemed to suck up a lot of years in between then and now. She had woken up one day recently, realizing she was thirty-eight, unwed, and childless.
Of course, Sasha would not read aloud to her sisters from this tablet. But she wanted to make no mistakes. Xandra had been gone from Charleston for a whole year. She’d been chosen as the heir to the Triple Play Lodge. Although not the oldest, Sasha hadn’t protested Dennis’s choice because Xandra had been in severe need of a new path in life. So had Brooke, the perennial wild child following shortly after. No, good old reliable Sasha didn’t need a thing. She made good money in her job for Charleston County and she certainly had prestige, although she hadn’t dated once since leaving that rat bastard ex-husband.
I don’t need to date. My life is full. I will smile at all the ungodly drivel my sisters babble about hot studs. How their smoking pieces of man candy are all that, sweet and dope. True, I did notice Adrian Kinsey was built like a brick shithouse. But he had eyes only for Brooke, and now is marrying her, thankfully. Adrian had been some kind of commando who beat up criminals overseas to retrieve the American antiquities they had stolen. Now he, too, was changing. He was retiring from the black ops life to focus on the more sedate aspect of antiquity appraisal.
No, Sasha McQueen had no desire to date. She wasn’t of the belief that the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. Knowing her poor choice in men, she’d pick an equally cheating, violent liar as her ex, Colin. She had a knack for picking abusive louses. Her longest-lasting boyfriend before Colin had also been known to spend the night away from home, location unknown. No. There was no sense in perpetuating the cycle of abuse. The definition of insanity is—
Oh, my. A diabolically handsome specimen of manhood distracted Sasha from her tablet. She admired his hale but not overly buff physique, long and lean, with arms swinging manfully. Sasha used to be of the opinion that it was those long-armed ones who swaggered so confidently who were the best in bed. Now it made her blush to think it, and she glanced back at her tablet. It had been far too long since she’d looked upon another man with lust in her heart, and she wasn’t about to start.
Dad has become enraged on several occasions, believing Birdie or me to be imposters. “Where’s Sasha?” he demanded of me one time. “What have you done with Sasha?”
Her eyes flickered up again to the handsome devil and she was mortified to discover him staring directly, levelly, at her. He leaned against a pillar facing the ballroom where John was speechifying, but he stared directly at her. Reflexively, she looked from side to side. Perhaps he ogled some other younger, prettier girl sitting nearby. No. This striking middle-aged man with what was probably a perennial five-o’clock-tomorrow shadow fixed her with his piercing eyes. He looked like a tough customer, and no doubt carried a pistol in the shoulder holster that bulged out his windbreaker.
He looked like one of the oafish goons hired by John Maliano that didn’t blend in like they were supposed to. One could always tell them a mile away with their mirrored shades, bulging biceps, and little earpieces. John always traveled with a coterie of these private military contractors, “security guards” who were armed to the teeth. These were the men whose presence he promoted with his hate-mongering, paranoid talk about a terrorist under every couch cushion. Of course it was good to be safe—John Maliano preyed on that fear in people. He promoted sending PMCs, men of “The Circuit,” into every country to protect American interests. He liked to rail that even in the most innocent-looking countries there was a towel-headed bomber in every teapot.
Still. If this was one of John Maliano’s private security men, he certainly was dashing. With his gray stubble and closely shaven, intelligent skull, this man could’ve been recruited directly from the IRA. Probably pushing close to fifty, he had smartly abandoned a fight against a receding hairline and had just shaved his head. It gave him a tough, take-no-prisoners look.
Sasha forced her eyes back to her tablet. I suppose those are good qualities in a private military contractor. She felt his eyes upon her as she typed.
Recently he thought Birdie was you, Xandra, and he berated her for forgetting his birthday, which was six months ago.
Sasha looked up at the well-built thigh, the nicely packed crotch, the fat cock snug in the tight 501 jeans. His face, Sasha. Look at his face. Just because you’re sitting down doesn’t mean you need to ogle—
“I don’t want to interrupt you. But by any chance did you buy that coffee for Mrs. Maliano?”
It was effortless smiling at the IRA hit man. He was that beautiful. “Why, yes. But I’m afraid it’s cold now. I should buy her another and bring it in to her, since it appears she’s not coming out to meet me.”
“Why don’t you stay out here? Sounds like the speech is almost over.”
Sasha was confused. She assumed this security guard worked for John Maliano’s campaign. Why would he urge her not to bring John’s wife some hot coffee? “No, I really should. She seemed adamant about having her coffee. I didn’t even want to come out here to begin with.” Suddenly Sasha found herself looking from side to side furtively, as if someone might overhear her. “Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m not in agreement with John’s politics, so I really don’t care to hear his speeches.” Why did I just confide in this stranger? Maybe because he’s a bodyguard, and is used to hearing secrets. The macho, grizzled man with the piercing blue eyes did seem to inspire confidence. Sasha wanted to run her hands over his salt-and-pepper buzz cut. He was probably not yet fifty. He just had “character” from a lifetime of stressful work protecting people.
Now he sat down in what would have been Jane’s seat. “You’re good friends with Jane Maliano?” So he did have an Irish burr, just like an authentic IRA man. Sasha became more intrigued.
“Oh, yes. We both grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. She had a more privileged upbringing than I, but our high school didn’t discriminate, and neither did we.”
When he smiled, little crinkle lines appeared at the corners of his eyes. He was so beautiful Sasha could have seen him being an actor. A spokesman for the IRA, perhaps. “I have the feeling she doesn’t see eye to eye with her husband either. That’s too bad.”
Sasha shrugged. “I guess you love who you love.” Why was she getting all wistful with this complete stranger? “You’re right, though. Jane doesn’t believe in all this gung ho drums-of-war business. I suppose you do. You look like an overseas veteran.”
“Aye, I am. You have a sharp eye. I did many tours in Afghanistan and Iraq with the marines, but now I while away my days in domestic service.”
“Don’t you miss the excitement of overseas? I know that sounds horrible to say, but I’ve dealt with many soldiers who say they can’t get used to being back home. The dullness, the lack of excitement and action.”
He looked her levelly in the eye. “Believe it or not, Miss, domestic service can be quite as ‘exciting,’ unfortunately. And I’m not one of those silly fellows who thrives on the charge and fireworks of constant danger. I’ll take a nice little country house with chickens in the yard any day. I just don’t move in the circles where that’s possible.”
Sasha was oddly touched that he would admit that to her. She reached out her hand for him to shake. He wore those fingerless gloves mercenaries always seemed to wear—at least on TV—but his grip was firm. “Sasha McQueen.”
Regretfully, she let go of his hand. As a medical examiner, she touched many people every day, some of them alive. But Rowan was very warm. More alive than most. “You must have the same politics as Mr. Maliano, then, being a combat veteran.”
He looked even more gorgeous when he smiled. Such even, white teeth! The Marines must have a very good dental plan, especially for Irish terrorists. It hit Sasha suddenly. How did she know Rowan O’Shea—if indeed that was his name—worked for John Maliano? Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was just pumping her for information about the congressman. “I wouldn’t say I’m as enthusiastic as Mr. Maliano. Having been over there, having spent many months living in the filthy confusion and squalor, I can’t say I support an escalation of troops anywhere. Anywhere at all.”
“But without troop escalation, your sort would be out of jobs.”
Again with the smile. “Aye. But isn’t that the goal? A world where we no longer need oafish goons such as me to protect or arrest anyone?”
Sasha tilted her head. She liked this man—whoever he really was. “I suppose that would be a nice pie-in-the-sky ideal. But in my line of work I see too many victims of—”
“Wait,” he said quietly. Rowan stood slowly, hands slightly out from his sides as though he held bombs. He made absolutely no noise as he sidestepped away from the table, alert like a stalking lioness. In one fluid motion he reached inside his vest, presumably for his gun, so Sasha twisted around in her chair to see what he aimed at. Surely he couldn’t just go around shooting someone inside the Winterhawk Resort?
The target looked just like a harmless, dorky twenty-something head-banging rocker with unattractive, lopsided features. Had Rowan perhaps been hanging around John Maliano too much, becoming more paranoid of every harmless asswad listening to Radiohead or Death Cab for Cutie on their iPod?
The dork froze in position when he saw Rowan going for his gun. He looked like a cartoon character stock-still like that, his backwards baseball cap revealing him to be a nerd of about thirty years of age with a bad dental plan. It was evident he had been one of those unfortunate “pizza faces” in his teens.
Sasha wondered why the dork was reacting so strongly to Rowan. Rowan could just be any guy reaching for a cell phone. But all at once the dork broke into a run. With hands out in front of himself as though he blindly felt his way, he tore through the swinging doors that led into the Atrium proper, then probably for the escalators or main entrance.
“Don’t move, Sasha,” Rowan commanded, dashing after the dork.
Sasha spent a few split seconds admiring his brutal, well-toned figure as he covered the distance in a flash. But her doctorly instincts took over and she grabbed her tablet to jog into the Atrium. If there was to be a shooting, she wanted to witness it. Sasha wasn’t the sort to retire with the chickens in the yard either, as Rowan claimed to want. She wanted to witness whatever went down so she could defend Rowan’s choices—or prosecute him, if he turned out to be overly reactionary, using unnecessary force. She could not side with a man because he had a beautifully muscled ass.
In the main ballroom lobby, the dork had disappeared. Rowan pivoted on one foot, gripping his gun, as if unsure which way to proceed. He seemed torn between following the questionable dickwad out the front doors to the parking lot, or assuring Jane, who was sprinting out of the ballroom where John’s idealistic voice thundered over the PA system.
Since Sasha had no interest in the vanished dipwad, she started for her friend. That’s when her entire life as she knew it was irrevocably changed, for better or worse.
Looking back on it later, time seemed to slow down. She heard Rowan yell, “Don’t move, Sasha!” but her body kept going toward Jane. An incredibly anguished expression tweaked Jane’s features into a mask of pain and agony, and she reached out to Sasha with clawlike hands. Her twisted mouth was saying something. But between Rowan’s yelling and the chatter of the usual Winterhawk conference-goers, Sasha couldn’t tell what Jane was trying to say.
So of course Sasha amped up her walk into a jog, ignoring Rowan. Just as he seemed to make his own decision and pivoted toward the two women, the entire wall behind Jane exploded.
The first concussion must’ve knocked Sasha backward. The sound wave had such a tangible force it was as though someone shoved her on her ass. Her last view of Jane, about thirty feet away, was of the wall shattering into a myriad of chunks of concrete, glass, and rebar. Then Jane was gone, Sasha spun on her behind, and some chunks of concrete were pelting her.
She held her tablet over her face, so the worst of the chunks only bashed her computer. People screamed and ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, just like in the movies. Everyone dashing in different directions. But louder than the people screaming was one overwhelming, constant, loud ringing. The sound wave had also damaged her inner ear, Sasha knew.
She crawled to a wall for shelter and waited for the last chunks to drop.
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