Early this month, we had a guest blog by author Sarah Black and a giveaway of her latest book, The General and the Horse-Lord. Well, the response was wonderful and the book’s reception has been great. I gave it 5 stars (as have other reviewers) and picked it to land on Scattered Thoughts Best of 2013. So I was delighted to hear that Ms. Black was hard at work on the sequel, The General and the Elephant clock of Al-Jazari.
John received a couple of interesting emails the next morning. Gabriel was up and gone early, with plans to stop by his house and have breakfast with the kids. The first email was from an old colleague and fellow Brigadier General, David Painter. John didn’t particularly like the man. They had worked together several times in the past. Painter was good, had what John would call episodic brilliance, but his work tended to be sloppy. He didn’t always put in the time and research that John felt was needed for their work to bring about lasting change. He also tended to be sloppy in his dress, in his personal manner, as if his wild and original mind meant the same rules didn’t apply to him. But they knew each other well, both strengths and weaknesses. John winced at the name on the email, thinking Painter was exactly the sort of man he did not want to discuss his coming out with in any detail. Not that he had much choice, since he’d splashed every bit of privacy he’d ever had across the cover of Out magazine.
The second email was from Abdullah, a very polite thank you note to himself and Gabriel for rescuing him yesterday. John looked at it for a moment, appreciating Abdullah’s good manners, and then he replied: Are you sending me an email from the garage? Or have you skipped town already?
The answer came moments later: I’m in the garage.
If you would like, you can come into the kitchen and speak to me in person.
Abdullah wrote back: I’m about to climb into the shower. See you in a few minutes.
John shook his head at the screen for a long moment, and wondered if Abdullah and Kim emailed each other from the bathroom. No, email was dead, he’d read that somewhere. Instant Messaging? Texting, that was it. So much easier than speech, apparently. Maybe they would evolve right out of their vocal cords, and human communications would consist exclusively of written messages and a few grunts and gentle hoots, like the Great Apes.
John turned back to the first email, wondering if he needed to complain about the younger generation first thing in the morning, every morning, or if his time would be better spent doing pushups.
“Hey, John, long time. I saw the cover of Out. It’s making the rounds in DC, everybody saying they knew it all along and wondering what took you so long to grab your cojones and tell the truth. Your pilot looks like he’s held up well.”
John could feel his blood pressure spike, a drumbeat behind his eye that might be an aneurysm getting ready to blow.
“I heard you quit the university. Little dust up with the locals? Well, you were always a sucker for a boy in trouble. That’s why I’m calling on you. I’ve got a couple of boys in serious trouble, former Rangers, in lovely Tunisia. They’ve been working for me as contractors in Algeria. I could go in and level the fuckers and get my boys out of there, but things seem a bit fragile in northern Africa right now. Maybe a peacemaker would be a better choice. And no matter our differences, John, you were a peacemaker. You always brought home the right solution. That was your great gift, understanding the right solution to the problem. So how about you hop on a plane to DC and talk to me about these boys? I heard your pilot went to law school. Why don’t you bring him along? I’ve got a couple of plane tickets at the airport for tomorrow, and a hotel reservation. First class, if you care about that shit. I’m assuming you two can share a room? Appreciate it, John.”
He forwarded the email to Gabriel. John Painter knew how to hit the soft spots. “Just give me a little job to do, and I’ll follow you anywhere, you fuckhead,” John said to the kitchen wall. He walked back to their bedroom, pulled an overnight bag from the closet shelf.
Kim found him putting a load of clothes into the washer. “Hey, Uncle J. What’s up?”
John looked at him for a long moment. Kim had his hands on his hips, had prepared himself for a royal ass-chewing. He was a brave kid, John thought suddenly, and the affection he felt for the boy was suddenly on his face. Kim reached out and hugged him, his face buried in John’s neck. Even at twenty-three, his first thought had been to come find his uncle and face the music. But John had no time right now to get into it.
“Kim, I’ve got to leave tomorrow, go up to DC. I don’t know any more than that.”
“What can I do?”
John shook his head. “Everything’s done. I’ll need you to watch over Billy and Juan if Gabriel comes with.”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Keep everyone safe,” John said, and Kim’s face flushed.
“I hear you. You can count on me.”
“I always do, kiddo.”
He followed John to his bedroom, studied the clothes laid out on the bed, and the passport. “Not that white shirt. Take the gray one. You have to leave the country? Where are you going? I can keep an eye on CNN for a sudden flare in hostilities.”
“Not exactly sure, but I heard talk about Algeria and Tunisia.”
“Oh, God.” Kim sat down on the side of the bed. “Tunisia, isn’t that where Arab Spring turned from smoke to fire?”
John glanced at him. “Nice metaphor. And yes, it started in Tunisia. But we don’t have to assume that’s the only trouble that can brew. It’s still a Muslim country at the end of the day. Lots of ways for Americans to get into trouble.”
“That’s what this is? A rescue mission?”
“Seems likely, but I don’t really know. Kim, you know that stupid magazine came out this week and every jerk at St. Matthews High School is going to mention to Juan that they’ve seen it. I’m worried about him.”
“And the Horse-Lord says he needs to just suck it up and take it like a man?”
“No, it’s not like that.” John sat down on the bed. “He wants Juan to stop making Martha crazy with his behavior, using this issue as an excuse to act out every hostile teenaged impulse, and he also wants to let the adults handle issues of bullying. The school authorities, or the police.”
Kim was nodding. “Right. That is so not going to happen. Have you both forgotten Juan is fifteen now?”
“He’s not one of your baby gang-bangers, Kim. He’s an Army kid. He has braces and goes to Catholic school and lives in the suburbs.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m worried, too. He’s hardly talking to me anymore, or Billy. It’s like he’s grown up really fast and he’s tough inside. He’s strong in his anger. Young Luke is turning toward the dark side.” Kim grinned for a moment. “I wonder how I would show that in a picture? Maybe I’ll get him to let me take his picture. Feel him out a little bit.”
“Whatever you think is best, Kim. I usually try to stay out of sight until a crisis looms. He’s not speaking to me, either.”
“You’ll keep yourself safe, won’t you? And the Horse-Lord? Just because I’m grown up doesn’t mean I don’t need you anymore.”
“Now you have Abdullah. Is that what I’m to understand? The two of you, together?”
Kim nodded, pulled at a loose thread on the bedspread. “Yeah. I think so. I think we’re going to be like you and Gabriel. Two bodies, one heart, all our lives. That’s how it seems to me, but I don’t want to jump the gun. It’s early days yet. Half the time we start a conversation getting along and end the conversation fighting and I have no idea why.”
“You’re just feeling your boundaries, defining yourselves to each other. That’s what I’ve always wanted for you, a real relationship, a family of your own. You guys can even adopt kids if you wanted. I’m really very pleased, Kim.” He looked at what Kim was doing and frowned. “Don’t pull on that thread. I’ve got some scissors in the bathroom if you need to clip a loose thread. I know how much you spent on this new bedspread.”
“Speaking of that.” Kim stared at him until he put the tie down on the bed.
“What? We’re not going to talk about the furniture again, are we?”
“No, we’re not. But there is something I want to talk to you about. Uncle John, you need to update your style.” Kim raised a hand to quell any protests, but John was too surprised to complain. “You’re still wearing your military haircut, still wearing suits that look to my eye about twenty years out of date. I mean, a single breasted navy blue with three buttons? Please, stop torturing me. You need a makeover, and you needed it, like, yesterday.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You’re out now. You have to maintain a certain style, up your cool factor just a bit. You have an image to maintain now you’re out of the closet.”
“Because people will judge you by your clothes. For God’s sake, nobody would believe you’re related to me! This is my rep too, Uncle John. You’re about to go back to DC, and you need to stroll in with some killer style, not like some lonely, bored, miserable retired general who’s mooning around, thinking about the glory days. DC has seen plenty of those. You want to blast in there and have the town talking about you.”
“I think that ship already sailed, Kim.”
“Talking about you in a good way. Look, you’re a winter. You shouldn’t be playing about with all these muddy blues.” Kim was flipping through his ties.
“What are you talking about? It’s the middle of summer.”
That got him a pitiful look. Kim stood up and crossed his arms. “What I am talking about is gunmetal gray with teal accents, made by Emporio Armani. What the Army cares about is the work. But you’re about to jump into a new shark tank, Uncle John, and in this shark tank they care about money. I will not have those dickhead bluebloods look down on you because of your clothes. We’re going shopping tonight, after supper.”
John’s mind was flipping frantically through any reasonable excuse. “But what about Abdullah? He just got here.”
“He’s not going anywhere. I know more about this than you.” Kim’s face softened, and he looked at John kindly, a doting smile on his face. “I know more about this than you, and I’m not going to argue anymore. We’re going to buy a new suit, along with two shirts and ties, and one leisure outfit. I repeat, I will not argue with you. I know there is available credit on your Navy Federal Visa. You paid off the furniture already. If you argue with me,” he said, holding up a hand to stop John, “I am going to start going to the plasma bank and I will sell blood until I have paid back every cent I spent on the couch.” John had no doubt, looking at the angle of his jaw, that Kim meant every word.
What the hell was a leisure outfit? John looked down at himself, jeans and a faded chambray shirt. Kim closed his eyes as if he were in pain.
“These are weapons, Uncle John.” Kim was speaking as if John were a little slow. “This is a new war, and these are your weapons.”