Old Ventures, Ch. 7

Seven, Philadelphia, 7/28/16

“I hate this,” Jack said sullenly, as Rose straightened his necktie.

“Think the last time you wore a tie might have been our wedding,” she said, blushing.

“Okay, gross,” Joey said, “because I’m pretty sure she was thinking it was your wedding night.” He turned so his back was towards her. “I never pegged you as afraid of a little public speaking,” he teased.

“It’s not that,” Jack muttered.

“It’s a little that, too, hon,” Rose said, pecking him on the cheek. “Or your stomach wouldn’t be complaining quite so loudly.”

“It’s politics,” Jack said. “I’ve been used by politics most of my adult life, but I-” he furrowed his brow, and couldn’t force the rest of the thought out.

“That’s what gives this weight,” Joey said, his expression turning serious. “You aren’t some failed soldier trying to turn their retirement into a career. You’re here because this circumstance is different, more important than any before. I respect that, and I think the American people will, too. Now get out there, before your introduction drags any more than it already has.”

Jack stepped out onto the stage, and for a moment was blinded by the house lights, and then the chorus of flashbulbs from the media. “I’m happier than I can say to welcome a true American hero onto this stage,” the man at the podium Jack couldn’ see because of the lights said, flashing a wide smile.

Jack shook his hand stiffly, then waited for him to clear the stage before speaking. “I’m not comfortable being here,” Jack said, “and I’m sure that shows.”

The audience chuckled nervously. “That’s okay. You’re laughing with me,” he paused, “I think.”

“But I’ve never been comfortable using my… celebrity, I guess, like this. I’ve marched, with John Lewis, Martin Luther King, for many varied human rights on many different occasions. You could say I’ve never been apolitical… but I’ve always attempted to keep who I am as a man separate from who I was as a symbol. I never wanted to trade on the good I’ve done, and even today, that’s not my goal.

“But I can no longer abide my prior silence. This is not the usual push and pull of politics. This is the rise of something far more sinister, an enemy we fought a world war against, an enemy I hoped we vanquished for good. Maybe that was naïve of me. Maybe my generation failed to keep the flames of vigilance lit.

“I didn’t decide to speak until last week. I waited, hoping that sanity would return, that someone, anyone, would be able to show the Republican candidate that he’s not just trying to be the leader of conservative America, or scared America, or majority-white America, but that he’ll need to lead all of us. He’ll need to represent the will of all of us. He’ll need to represent the hopes, as well as the fears, of all of us. And their convention convinced me that realization will forever elude him. At his core, he is a divisive and spiteful man. He doesn’t like the idea of an America united, unless he can force us to unite behind him, not as a good and changed man, but as he is: angry, scared and lashing out.

“And with each passing day, the parallels with the fascist rise- a rise that cost our world millions of lives- become stronger, and harder to ignore. Every day, more language about how everyone but America is the problem is used, while more narrowly defining what counts as America. I have seen this ugliness before, I have seen what it does to good men and women caught up in its throes, and I have seen what they in turn do to those they deem unworthy of sharing soil with. I wish I could be here for any other reason, truly. But we do not get to choose our burdens, only how we rise to meet them.

“So please, vote. Not just for Democrats, but for democracy itself, for a return to normalcy, to respecting our differences, and the rights of others. For returning this country to an ideal for the rest of the world to envy. For a world where our most vulnerable are cared for, protected, and safe. For America as we want her to be, and need her to be, not what she was. Because viewing who she was through rose-tinted glasses can’t erase those who were left behind or excluded in that past, and we know better, now, and we have to do better. The only hope I have to leave you with is this: we can do better. I’ve seen it. And I pray I’ll live to see it again. Thank you.”

Jack was numb, and barely heard the roaring crowd, or their applause. He put up his hand, to wave as he left, but couldn’t help but feel that it was all too late.

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 6

Six, Joe, Canton, Ohio

“I can’t,” Jack said. “Believe me, I’ve tried. But every time I thought of coming here, I… I couldn’t. Because I’d think about every time I wasn’t there, every time you needed me that…”

“Jack,” Joey said. “You’re here now. I don’t blame you, not for any part of it, not getting molested, not getting kicked out of the Army, not for getting sick. I lived my life as I chose to. Sure, there might have been times when I could have used your help, or different help than what you tried to give. But you’re a person, just like me, bouncing around and off of a tumult of events neither of us could hope to completely understand, let alone control. All we can do is cope. Sometimes, that means taking you as you are at that time, accepting you for how you can support me, not hating you for the ways you couldn’t.”

“I know,” Jack said, his voice frail. “And maybe if I’d only failed you…”

“What, mom? Or is this about the election? Because I got strong words for you if it’s that. You didn’t fail America, dad. America failed you. And not even the people, really. They rejected fascism by a pretty healthy margin. But a party hell-bent on control and not too fond of actual democracy enabled fascists to seize power, anyway. I mean, I take your point, in that way too many people gave a thumbs up to fascism, way too many eagerly greeted all of the nastiness. But you? This isn’t on you. Great a man as you can be, you can’t save people from themselves.

“But let me remind you how fucking good of a man you can be. Do you remember what you told me, when you saved me in Germany?” A wistful, almost impish smile crossed Jack’s lips, before fading just as quickly. “I know, that doesn’t narrow it down, smart ass, because you saved me at least a dozen times in Germany. But you know the time I mean.

“I was a dumb kid, and ran off to help you fight Nazis, not realizing… I actually believed your dopey, make-believe radio show kid sidekick could actually fight Nazis.” He laughed, and there was bitterness in it, but also real amusement. “And when one caught me… that rat bastard raped me. And that might have been my whole fate, just being abused, humiliated and tortured by the Nazis. But you stormed that camp, alone, and broke me out. But I was still a kid, what was I? Twelve?”

“You just turned thirteen,” Jack said.

“Right. But I was still waiting for my growth spurt. Anyway, it was all basically cops and robbers to me, to that point. I didn’t, I mean, I couldn’t fathom that kind of evil, the kind of monsters who would do that to a child, and then laugh about it. Something inside me had broken, and I was catatonic. Even after you rescued me… I felt like we’d never get way, that the Nazis would capture us both and then they’d do to both of us what they did to me and… that would have been worse. And I couldn’t move on my own, but there you were, risking life and limb, getting me food, medicine, a blanket; I can’t tell you how much the blanket meant to me. Food, water, you need those, can’t survive without them. But the blanket… you weren’t just trying to save me to soothe your conscience. You cared about me, you cared if I was shivering, and scared. I kept it. Through the war. Through a few points in my life when what I owned didn’t fill a backpack.

“Anyway, the thing you told me, and it stuck with me more than anything else, you said me that ‘Defying tyranny isn’t about punching Nazis. It’s about vigilance. It’s easy, to lace up your boots on the days when your buddies are all alive, when your people aren’t being rounded up. But those days when you’ve taken that punch, not the one that simply makes your head spin, but that makes your whole world feel like it’s teetering off its axis, when you’re bleeding and broken, those are the days when you need to get those boots on tight, figure out what the good fight is, and fight it. Sometimes you’re tired. Sometimes you’re hurt. Sometimes you’re so scared you can’t think straight. And there are days when the weight of even one more step feels like it could shatter you. So you take two. Because evil doesn’t take a day off. And neither can you.’”

“I said that?” Jack asked.


“Was I always full of so much hot air?”

“Since before I met you, yeah,” Joe said with a laugh.

“How-” The thought caught in his throat, “how’m I going to do this without you?”

“You’ll have to take three steps, dad,” he said, and squeezed Jack’s shoulder, “for the one I won’t be there to take.”

“And when I can’t go on?”

“That’s why you’ve got me, handsome,” Rose said from the doorway she was propped against, looking every bit like one of her pin-ups from the war. “To pick up the slack. Though God knows you haven’t left me much over the years to pick up.”

“No man can do it all alone,” Joe started again. “And it’s a fool who thinks otherwise.”

“And we’ve always loved you, foolish though you often are,” Rose teased him, crossing he room and laying her head on his other shoulder. “But it wouldn’t matter. Even if this were the 40s, and you were indefatigable, even in the face of nearly a century’s worth of horror. This is different. You’re up against an idea; a man- there’s no man alive and likely none who ever lived you couldn’t take. But an idea… tearing down an idea is the work of years. Maybe generations. Maybe we’re still fighting the ideas behind Nazism today- maybe this really is the same fight you’ve been engaged in since you were a kid.”

“What can I do?”

You can’t, Jack,” she said, an edge of frustration in her voice. “We’ve been telling you that your whole damned life. But we can. All of us. Together. We can turn back this tide like you helped turn back the Nazis. Like you helped fight off the Reds. You were big in those fights, disproportionately so. But you weren’t alone then, either. And you aren’t alone now. We can get through this. We won’t all live to see it through to the end. And for those of us who fall, you’ll pick up the standard and keep moving. Because I know you. And on days when I’m weak, honey,” Rose paused, softly touching his chest, “I know you’ll be there for me. So let us be here for you. So we can all be there for the people who need us now. And there’s going to be a lot of people who need us, now.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 5

Five, North of Paris, 4/10/45

“How’s your German?” Fleming asked in German, as they walked towards the security gate.

“I get by,” Jack replied in kind. He retrieved the counterfeit papers Fleming provided from his pocket, and handed it to the guard who approached him.

“What is your business?” the guard asked.

“Do you need me to read the instructions to you?” Jack asked, pushing his chest into the guard.

The guard sighed, and stared at the typed note. “Prisoner? For interrogation?”

“Will we have a problem? Because I can speak with your Leutnant. He sounds like the kind of man who appreciates his subordinates wasting his time on nonsense.”

The guard handed the papers back. “I must have him processed. Then you can interrogate him.”

“Nein. I do not have time for processing. The Resistance will notice soon that he is missing. If we do not find them and arrest them, these rats will scurry back into the shadows. You may send your Leutnant to me, if you believe he will need to hear it directly.”

“No,” he said. He waved for an NCO to come to him. “Take this man to the interrogation cell. Give him whatever he needs.”

Jack and Fleming followed him through the gate, past a flagpole in the central courtyard flying the Nazi flag, and into the nearest building. He led them down several hallways, and finally unlocked a room. The table was covered in dust. “Will you need anything else?” he asked.

“Assistance with the interrogation,” Jack replied, “if you wouldn’t mind.”

“No, sir,” the NCO said. “I am eager to assist a-” Jack seized him by the collar and pushed him against the wall, holding him there with his forearm across the NCO’s throat. He kicked and flailed, before going limp. Fleming took the Mauser out of the NCO’s holster as Jack let him slide to the floor.

“That’s the first part out of the way,” Fleming said, and slipped a ring of keys off the guard’s belt. Jack dragged him across the floor, to the table, and used the guard’s own shackles to secure him against it. “If our intelligence is correct, then the barracks opposite this one is where most of the prisoners are housed. I’m likely to be a liability, out in the open; aren’t many dark-skinned Nazis roaming about. So I’d propose I stay here, and rouse some trouble. I’ve had more than my share of experience working as a saboteur. Unless you think you’ll need me to take the barracks…”

“No,” Jack said. “But you should bide your time.” Jack checked his watch. “Start your distraction at 2:37. I’ll be ready for it, then.”

“And how distracting would you prefer for me to be?”

“The flagpole is in the middle of the damned courtyard. I’m going to need the biggest distraction you can think of.”

Fleming smiled to himself. “I’ll see what I can accomplish.”

Jack locked the door to the interrogation room, then grabbed Fleming by the arm. “I’ll escort you through the building, so you can get the lay of it, first. Probably best if I don’t stroll right across the courtyard without you, after making so much noise about needing to debrief you myself.”

“I’m not going to turn down the cover,” Fleming said. “Though I’m keeping the sidearm.”

“Fair enough. Just keep it out of sight, or it’ll blow our cover no matter how roughly I treat you.” Fleming stashed it inside his jacket.

They walked together past a stairwell, then some administrative offices, and an officers’ lounge. “This is where we part ways,” Fleming said.

“Godspeed,” Jack said, and let go of his arm. “It’s been a pleasure.”

“Maybe that would sound more convincing if you hadn’t said it in German,” Fleming said, smiled, and walked back the way they came.

Jack looked through the windowed door, to be sure the lounge was clear, then walked past it to a door into the courtyard. The barracks formed an L shape, surrounding the administrative buildings on two sides. That put Jack close to the main rear entrance to those barracks. The door was locked, but the lock was distinctive enough it only took Jack two keys to find its mate on the guard’s ring. He locked the door behind himself, and nearly knocked over an old man inside.

“They don’t usually come in through the rear,” he said in French, eyeing Jack suspiciously.

“Pardon my French, but I’m not one of them. I’m no Nazi.”

“Then you have a very strange fashion sense, my friend,” he replied with a twinkle of amusement in his eye.

“I’m here, with the Resistance. We plan to take the camp.”

“There are only a few hundred here,” the old man snapped. “Most have already been shipped out, by train.”

“That’s the next step,” Jack said. “But to get there, we need to take this camp quietly. That means, most importantly, preventing reinforcements and keeping prisoners safe. Do you know where their radio room is?”

“Across the way,” an older woman said in somewhat broken English. “I heard distorted screaming, orders, in German.”

Jack wondered if Fleming knew already, if that was where he headed when they parted. Either way, he wasn’t going to be able to safeguard the prisoners, and raise the flag, and blockade the radio room. He was going to have to trust that Fleming would find the radio room and deal with it. “What about guards?” Jack asked.

“Most rooms have one armed guard,” the old man started again. “There is one rover, who-” They all froze, at the sound of keys in the interior door. “Hide,” he told Jack, and dove into his bunk.

“Nobody scream,” Jack said as he ran at top speed towards the door, at the last second flattening himself quietly against the wall as the door creaked open.

“How are you, mein little sheep?” the roving guard asked, jangling his keys as he closed the door. “Docile and fluffy?” he said, the hint of a laugh in his voice. Jack wrapped his big arms around the guard’s head, one hand covering his mouth and nose, with the other gaining purchase on the back of his head. At the last moment, the guard realized what was about to happen, and he screamed through his eyes and mouth, but the latter couldn’t break through Jack’s grip. He twisted, fast and hard, so when the guard fell onto his chest he was still looking up at the ceiling.

One of the women gasped, loud enough that it set off noise in the next room.

That room’s guard came to the door and yelled, “What’s the noise for?”

“Nothing,” Jack called back. “Stubbed mein schnitzel.”

“You know I can’t ignore that much noise,” the other guard said, then, “Why is this door unlocked?”

Jack hit him with a bladed hand in the throat, then covered the guard’s hand at his holster with his own. Gasping for air, the guard attempted to stumble backward, but Jack used his holster to pull the man towards him. When he fell forward, Jack rammed his bicep into the man’s throat. He tumbled to the ground, gasping, his breaths wet and broken.

“What is wrong with him?” a small boy asked.

“Crushed larynx,” Jack said.

“May I attend him?” the older woman from before asked.

“If you like. He’ll die without it. But take his weapons, first, and someone watches him.”

The old man who first spoke to Jack extended a shaking hand. “I’m Mordecai, and I’m sorry I did not believe you before. The Nazis play games with us sometimes, pretend to let us escape. And when we get into the courtyard, they beat us, they shoot us. To them it is a sport.”

“They keep score,” a younger woman added.

“Everyone stay here,” Jack said. “Barricade the back door, be prepared to fight at this one. Anybody comes through other than me, you attack them, en masse. Fists and knives, if you can accomplish it. Guns only as a last resort; gunfire will bring more.”

Jack worked his way through the rest of the rooms, fifteen in total, in each dispatching the guards quietly, then giving their weapons to the prisoners. When he was done, he checked his watch. He had seven minutes before Fleming’s distraction.

The front entrance into the barracks faced the courtyard, the guard at the gate and the guard towers in either corner. It was too exposed as an exit, so he instructed the prisoners to pile up their bunks in front of the door, then started back towards the rear. The armed prisoners he divided in thirds, a third he sent to the front, a third to the back. The rest he told to move their bunks to block the windows, and be prepared for Nazis to try to break in that way.

At the back, he disassembled their barrier, then gave Mordecai his gun. “I have to raise this,” he said, removing the American flag from his bag. “That’s how reinforcements will know they can take the camp. This will likely make them realize that the prisoners are free. You have to hold them off until the American troops can arrive.”

“Raise a flag?” Mordecai asked. “I’m more use out there, with the flag, than in here with a gun. Somebody help me get into one of those uniforms,” he said.

Jack nervously eyed his watch. Any second now, Fleming’s diversion was going to hit. Only nothing happened.

Had Fleming been caught? That didn’t seem likely, because if he had, they would have scoured the rest of the base for him. But if he was stuck someplace, waiting for a patrol to pass, that could account for the timing.

“I look like a kilo of potatoes in a 2 kilo sack,” Mordecai said, sauntering up wearing a Nazi uniform several sizes too big, holding it up at the crotch so it didn’t drag on the ground.

“You’re sure about this?” Jack.

“You give me cover from that cannon, and I’ll get the flag up,” he said.

“Fire!” they heard the Nazis scream from the courtyard. “The administrative buildings are on fire!”

“That’s our distraction,” Jack said, and opened the door. He turned as he shut it. “Barricade this behind us.”

“It’s a beautiful day for a walk,” Mordecai said.

Jack had noticed the two guard towers on his way in. They were each near the corners of the front gate, spread enough apart to make it all but impossible to approach both stealthily. “Wait until I’ve taken the first tower to lower the flag,” Jack said. “That you can probably get away with. But once you pull out the Stars and Stripes, the game’ll be up. That you’ll need to do fast, and dirty.”

“My specialty,” Mordecai said with a mischievous grin. “Just ask my wife.” His smile suddenly faded.

“You’ll see her again,” Jack said, and slapped him on the back, before walking away from him. Jack worked his way to the ladder leading up to the guard tower. Most of the Nazis were consumed with the burning buildings, to the point where no one noticed Jack until he reached the top of the ladder.

“Who are you?” the first of two guards asked.

“Out of breath,” Jack said, elongating the words as he wheezed, punctuating it with a cough. “I was in the building when it caught. The Leutnant ordered you two to help with the fire, while I recover here.”

“No,” the second said, looking up from his rifle scope. “You are that intelligence officer. You shouldn’t be-”

Jack grabbed the first guard by the shoulder and threw him off the tower. He screamed as he fell, before abruptly stopping when he hit the ground. The remaining guard tried to bring around his rifle, but Jack was too fast, and smashed him in the nose with his pistol. Jack pulled off his helmet, and hit him several more times with the pistol’s grip, before the man slumped against the guard tower wall.

The guard at the gate was screaming, roused by the falling guard. Jack thought he could make out them calling for a medic. Jack watched him stride off through a rifle’s scope, past Mordecai. Mordecai panicked, and started pulling down the Nazi flag. That got the gate guard’s attention anew, and he reached for his pistol. Jack exhaled, curled his finger around the rifle’s trigger, and squeezed.

The guard’s shoulder exploded in a mist of blood, and Mordecai covered the flag with his body. Jack trained the rifle on the opposite guard tower, but there were no openings facing him. They had been deliberately designed to protect even from each other. Jack slung the rifle from its shoulder strap, and slid down the ladder. With each step he cursed himself a little more for not realizing how exposed Mordecai was. Finally, about a third of the way towards the flagpole, Jack got an angle into the further tower, and dropped to one knee.

The guard was prone, rifle trained. It was a race, and the guard had a head start. Jack forced the rifle steady, settled the crosshairs over him-

The guard fired first, and Jack squeezed his trigger.

An instant later he was running towards Mordecai, who was teetering, blood flowing from a wound in his chest and onto the flag in his hand.

Gunfire stopped Jack in his tracks. The second guard in the tower was firing at him. Jack raised his rifle, sighted him in, and fired. The guard toppled out of the tower silently, before smashing on the cobbles below like a dropped pumpkin.

Jack glanced around, to be sure there were no more gunners headed towards them, then started back towards Mordecai. He had the flag attached to the rope, and was pulling it up. His hands were slicked with blood, and he was waving in the wind nearly as much as the flag.

Jack put his hands over Mordecai’s, and they continued to raise it together. When the flag reached the top of the pole, Jack tied it off.

Without the rope to hold him up, Mordecai collapsed onto the ground. Jack tore the Nazi flag into strips, and used them for a makeshift bandage. “How bad?” Mordecai asked.

“If you were a younger man, and I were a skilled surgeon, and you were already on my operating table…”

“That good?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Feh,” he said, with a shrug. “My wife was a goy. When they first brought us here, she’d tell me, every day, if we ever got separated, she’d see me again, if not in this life then in the next. She died here, standing up to those bullies. I couldn’t save her… but at least I finally got to make her proud. And maybe… maybe I will I get to see my wife again, like you said.”

“Is there, anything you want me to do?” Jack asked.

“Punch Hitler’s goddamned head off,” he said, coughing, “and tell him it was from Esther.” Jack heard the sound of armor moving down the road; he’d been at this long enough to know it was Allied armor, not German.

The speakers at the camp whined, before a voice came over them. “This is Resistance radio,” Fleming said. “If you’re a Nazi, know that your defenses are compromised, American armor is knocking on your front door, and your only shot at surviving the day is to surrender yourselves to that strapping chap in your courtyard. And do be polite about it, because he may well be looking for any excuse to tear your limbs off. This is Resistance radio, signing off. And Jack, I’m afraid our schedule is more rigorous than originally assumed. A train departed here not an hour before our arrival. If my figures are correct, you may be able to catch them by plane, depending on your skill at hitting something with a parachute.”

Old Ventures, Ch. 4

Four, Jack, Canton, Ohio, Present

Jack was driving too fast, too recklessly. He could feel the wind in his hair, which meant he hadn’t grabbed his helmet, either, but he couldn’t force himself to care. His son was dying, but not today, not if he could help it. He weaved between two cars, coming so close to smacking into the nose of one then rebounding into the tail of the other he held his breath. When he exhaled, he could feel his breath’s heat, his anger warming it like a dragon’s fire.

Joey had been on government benefits basically his whole life. He earned those benefits, from a lifetime of service- something the government hadn’t always agreed on. They tried to take them away when he was drummed out of the Army for being gay, tried to take them again when his utility as a spy went when they decided who he was was more of a liability than the skills he had honed under Jack over damn near twenty years.

Jack went to bat for his son to get those benefits restored; it was the absolute least Uncle Sam could do for a boy who had been serving his country longer than most men who retired with full Army benefits and pay. But there was a new Commander in Chief, a petty man who always remembered every slight. Jack’s anger was the one at the wheel, and even he was surprised when he arrived at the hospital in one piece.

Joey had been in the long-term care wing for months, so Jack knew the way. He was lucky, to catch up with another family visiting, so he didn’t have to wait to be buzzed in. Hot as he was, he may well have just torn the door off its hinges.

He didn’t smile at the doctors or nurses on his way, tried not to even recognize they were there, because he was angry, at them, at the entire system. He was looking for an excuse, and he knew it. He heard one through the cracked door to his son’s room. “…we can do, but we’ll get someone up here with a wheelchair, to take you out to the pick-up area. Unfortunately, I’m going to need to start unhooking you from the monitors, and since we can’t leave you on your meds without them, I’ll have to disconnect those, as well.”

Jack slammed the door inward, “You’re not going to do a goddamned thing,” he bellowed, before realizing that he was reeling back to throw a punch at the doctor.  

Joey was there in an instant, catching Jack’s fist in his palm. “Can, we, uh, have a few minutes?” Joey asked, smiling to defuse the situation.

The doctor, visibly shaken, looked at his watch. “It’s probably my lunchtime,” he said. “This’ll keep, until after that,” he said.

“Thanks,” Joe said, as the doctor left the room. The moment he was clear, Joey stopped forcing himself to stand up straight, and his spine curved, his face contorting in pain. “You know you’d have taken his damn head off,” he said, as Jack helped him hobble back to bed. “He was just doing what he was told.”

“Following orders has never held much water as an excuse with me,” Jack replied.

“Dad,” Joe said, “there is a whole world of difference between a doctor caught in a bureaucratic bind and a Nazi. You know that.”

Jack sighed, and his voice broke as he let all of the air from his chest, deflating like a balloon as he collapsed into a chair. “Yeah,” he said, the word coming out almost a sob.

“Hey,” Joe said. “It’s going to be okay. Doctor’s say my numbers have actually improved, even.”

“You, you shouldn’t have to cheer me up.”

“Why not? I’m just happy you’re here. So happy,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. “Just because I’m sick, doesn’t mean the world suddenly has to revolve around me,” he said, wiping a tear from his cheek. “We’re all grieving. You’re losing a son, and… I’m losing you, too.” Joey took up his hand, and squeezed it.

“I’m sorry,” Jack said, “that I haven’t been here more.” “Shush,” Joe said. “You’re here now. Let’s not waste the time we’ve got worrying about the time we didn’t.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 3

Three, Outside Paris, France, 4/10/45

Jack was tense. His contact in the resistance was late, and he’d never known her to be anything but punctual. From the roof he could see past the outskirts of the Parisian suburb into the forests beyond.

“Sorry, chap,” a man’s deep voice said from behind him, closing the only door up onto the roof quietly behind himself. By his accent he was British. “Unforeseen setbacks.”

“Where’s Marion?” Jack asked, turning to see a well-dressed Black man. He had a pistol, inside his jacket, where his hand was, but was trying not to be conspicuous about it.

“We were detained at a Nazi checkpoint. Ian and I managed to sneak away from the car, but… Marion will be late, and we’re on a tight schedule.” For the first time, Jack noticed a small boy hiding behind the other man. “Captain Simon, Fleming,” he said, and held out his hand. “And this is our son, Ian.”

“Didn’t realize Marion had one.”

“Yes, knowing her these four years, I can agree that’s a shock. But, war makes for strange bedfellows, resistance fighting still moreso.”

“He’s got her eyes,” Jack said. “But I don’t think this raid is any place for a child.”

Fleming smiled. “He’s been with the Resistance from the day he was born, while a Nazi search party ransacked the building looking for us. Silent as a church mouse, even from a babe; they would have killed us several times over, otherwise.”

“He’s shy,” Jack said, as the boy clung to his father’s pant leg.

“He’s not certain he likes Americans. You did, after all, take your sweet time riding to the rescue. He has… reservations about trusting you now.”

“Smart kid,” Jack said. “I can’t speak for my country,” he said, and knelt down in front of Ian, “but I’m here now, and I’m not leaving until we set things right. My friends call me Jack,” he said, and held out his hand.

The boy took it, and his hand disappeared when Jack closed his hand it and shook it.

“Now what can you tell me?” Jack asked, rising to his feet.

“The camp is to the north of here. Originally, the plan was for Marion to be your prisoner, but desperate times, and all that. So Ian’s going to wait here, this rooftop, for her, and you’re going to take me. Resistance member, suspected Jewish heritage, that ought to be enough, but the dark skin should put us over the hump. We have a nearly pristine Nazi uniform for you, and your cover is Nazi intelligence, if you’ll indulge me the oxymoron, with orders to interrogate me within the prison’s walls.”

“That’ll work?” Jack asked.

“I have no reason to believe it won’t,” Fleming said with a grin. “Everything prepared on your end?”

“The Colonel’s sending men. How many make it through is an open question, but the plan is for us to secure the prisoners as best we can, to keep them safe while American troops liberate the camp.” Jack took his pack off his back and unzipped it. “The signal is the flag- we take down the German colors and raise Old Glory.” Jack pulled an American flag from the pack, folded into a triangle. “That’ll tell our back-up that they’re clear to take the camp. And your intel is solid?”

“Well, you must always consider the source, but insofar as you can trust the word of a Nazi, this concentration camp functions largely as a transit station, for moving prisoners deeper into Nazi territory. If the rumors are true, you’ll find your answers at the other end of those rails.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 2

Two, Jack, Canton, Ohio, Present

Jack’s entire body felt heavy, and heavier still every day. It wasn’t the weight gain, though he hadn’t been able to make himself go to the gym or even run laps around the property. It was the force of a world he wasn’t sure he was a part of anymore, slowly grinding him into a boneless paste. Joey had barely left the hospital since they got back from Israel, but Jack could hardly summon the energy to even be sad. He had fought fascists before, even lost to them, on occasion, but it was the first time he felt alone with that loss, alone with his grief, with his pain.

He was thankful Rose wasn’t home. It was worse, when she was here, because then he had to hide it. It wasn’t right, to pawn his suffering off on her- a suffering, he knew, she couldn’t help him out from under, a burden she couldn’t help shoulder. It would just make her miserable, too, and she was already dealing with losing their son.

Joey and Jack didn’t always see eye to eye. There were times past Jack couldn’t help but feel his son was embarrassing him, not with who he was, but the way he lived his life. Jack knew, now, that he was wrong, that Joey’s wild years had all been a pursuit of something stolen from him in his youth, or perhaps even trying to fill a hole he was born with. But he loved his son, and if he was honest with himself- which, he wasn’t, always- watching him waste away was weighing on him, too.

He couldn’t burden, Joey, either. The boy had been through enough; he’d seen enough before the end of WWII for a lifetime.

The sounds of the news only occasionally broke into Jack’s reverie; he kept the sound low, absorbing the carousel of horrorshow imagery mostly through osmosis. He was an old, old man, and sometimes… sometimes he wondered if he was just waiting to die, waiting for this world or God or at least his old bones to finally release him. But after the experiment that gave him his strength, his durability, and yes, his longevity, he wasn’t sure if it ever would.

Through exposure to him, his wife and Joey had both lived longer, healthier lives than most could hope for; Joey’s HIV lingered decades longer than his counterparts, before finally overtaking his immune system- long enough that anti-retrovirals gave him still more time. Just, not much more.

Jack sighed. He wanted to cry; he wished he could. If he were crying, grieving, anything would have been better than just sitting in his recliner, waiting either for the world to end or for him to, it would have felt like something. Like he was doing something with his life.

His phone rang, and his heart skipped a beat. Maybe this was something he could do, some problem he could solve, or even some sick kid he could hug and tell he hoped she got better. He unlocked it, and saw it was his wife, and tried not to be disappointed. “Jack,” she said, her voice fluttery, “they’re taking Joe off the machines.”

“God,” Jack said, his voice rattling hollowly in his chest. He wasn’t ready for this. No parent should have to bury their children, but… Joey still should have had so much more time. “I’ll be right there,” he said, uncertain he could move himself from his chair with anything approaching the urgency in his voice.

“No, Jack, he isn’t dying. They say his insurance has been cancelled. They’re forcing us to leave the VA.” Jack’s phone splintered into dozens of tiny shards, as his grip tightened into a fist. He didn’t remember even standing, but he was already moving towards the door. Finally, he had a mission, a distraction, a wrong to right, a place to put his anger, his frustration and his woe- and God help the bastards who got in his way.

Old Ventures 2, One

Note: I’ve had a rough few weeks. I feel like I’m still in the middle of them. And Old Ventures 2 has been my white whale. I started it fairly early into the Trump Presidency, and the weight of it crushed me. Jack’s struggles, with depression, with dealing with a world even more heartless than you thought… even now, just thinking about that hopelessness weighs on my heart. Maybe that’s because we’re not past it yet. We’re in a fragile moment, with fascist barbarians still at the gate, and Democrats as an imperfect group of champions. But to get through this, we have to move forward- I have to move forward. It’s going to get bumpy, that much I can guarantee- but with even a little luck we’ll all get to the other side (to be clear, the operative this is just the story- I don’t pretend to know where this republic of ours is headed). Updates should be coming Mondays, unless I change my mind about that.

Chapter One, Rowher, Arkansas, 9/28/42

Jack was full of nervous energy. His boot camp had lasted only a week. His instructors had to take him in shifts, because even shouting commands from the back of a Jeep they couldn’t keep up with him for long. But he knew he wasn’t a soldier. The discipline, the camaraderie, all of the things that the U.S. Army did to break a man down and remake him as a G.I. Joe they skirted. He was a show soldier, only, good enough to keep the real soldiers from smelling the fakeness and nothing more.

Jack didn’t feel good about it; these other boys were risking life and limb for the good of the world, and it seemed the least they could have done to be honest with them. He could still hear Colonel Millen barking his mantra in reply, “An Army lives and dies on morale.” Jack had heard it differently, that an Army survived on its stomach, and said so. “Oh, an Army won’t even show up to the fight if you don’t feed them. But they won’t even make it to the mess tent if they lose hope. That’s why we aren’t letting you anywhere near the front line, son. You’re hope, made flesh, with ‘Made with pride in the U.S.A.’ stamped on you like a rack of Grade A beef. But unlike beef, you become useless if somebody puts a bullet through your skull.”

Today was supposed to be a dry run, boys who hadn’t even left the continent, yet, let alone seen any combat. But Jack had seen enough of them around the base to know that they were boys, skinny, naïve kids who didn’t know the dangers they were rushing towards- and had never been given a choice in the matter. Not that Jack was much older, or wiser, but he also wasn’t rushing into a hail of Nazi bullets.

Idly, Jack’s hand dragged at the chain link fence to his left as he walked. When his fingers grazed flesh, he recoiled; he’d learned that much in training, that what the vaccine did to him made him a bull loosed in the China shop that was the rest of humanity. If he wasn’t careful, he could break people without trying.

The finger he brushed against belonged to a little boy on the other side of the chain link. Jack frowned, not realizing what the fence was, or who the boy, or his family, were. A sign bolted to the fence declared it a Japanese camp, meant to concentrate citizens descended from that island nation. The U.S. was petrified at the idea that Japanese Americans might divide their loyalties, acting as sappers and saboteurs.

The boy’s parents looked just as scared, huddled together behind their son, and Jack was taken aback when he realized they were scared of him. He was, after all, dressed as an American Captain, even if he didn’t feel he had properly earned the rank.

He knelt down, and touched the boy’s hands again, through the fence, this time on purpose. The boy was scared, too, but within that fear were questions, as well. Why us? What have we done? How could we scare you so much that you could do this to us?

The boy tilted his head, uncertain how to react to the gentility of a soldier. “What’s your name?” Jack asked. They boy’s eyebrows shot up, and he pursed his lips.

“George,” his mother said, taking a step towards them.

“George,” Jack said, and beamed at him. “That’s a good name. I had an uncle named George, who fought in the Great War. A Japanese soldier named Shiro saved his life; if he hadn’t been there, my uncle would have died in a trench in France.”

Jack could feel the other eyes on him, even before he knew they were no longer alone and took in a breath, and held it. A handful of new recruits, on their way to the show, had stopped, and were watching. He kept his eyes on the Japanese family, who he had known for less than a minute. He knew these people were not his enemy. But his first day on the job, he couldn’t go against the President- an Army, after all, succeeded on its morale- no matter how much it rankled him.

“We’re going to wrap up this war as quick as we can,” Jack said, “get you out from behind this fence.”

One of the soldiers behind him snickered. “Nip-lover,” he mumbled. Jack turned on his heels with a speed that surprised even him. The soldier spit out a mouthful of chew. “They belong in cages,” he snarled defiantly. Jack grabbed him by the ear and twisted him around, until he was kneeling, with his head at an awkward angle, so low to the ground he was looking up at the boy. “That’s an American family, private,” Jack said, anger rumbling in his chest, “and you will show them their due respect.”