The last words spoken by Gunny hung in the air, held aloft by the pain that they reflected. Deeks let his head drop, partly in shame for having brought up such a tragic and painful memory, but also for the loss that he knew that the man would experience for the rest of his life. It was the worst tragedy that could befall a human being; where a parent had to bury their own child. The amount of pain inflicted by that level of loss was beyond the detective’s ability to comprehend, nor could he fathom the overwhelming sense of longing for a future that was stolen and the memories of the past that were all that was left to hold onto.
“God, Gunny… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
The Marine stopped, his hand coming up to gently stop the shaggy blonde’s apology. “Not your fault son… but it isn’t something that I readily talk about. I’m kind of shocked that I told you that… we barely know each other.”
Deeks nodded. “Sometimes it’s easier to share personal things with people we don’t know. There’s no connection to mess up or a relationship to damage.”
The other man quirked his lips and nodded, but he seemed to be lost in his own thoughts and Deeks felt compelled to try and help him through them. “So, Short Round was your son’s dog?”
For a moment, Gunny continued to look off into the distance, but he shook his head from whatever memories were haunting him and returned to the present. “Yes… he was. He was too badly injured to return to active duty and Wyatt’s old unit moved heaven and earth to get him home to us… so we could have just another piece of my son to hold onto.”
The dog at their feet seemed to know that he was the subject of the conversation and turned to nuzzle into Gunny’s leg. “When we finally got him home, he wouldn’t leave Wyatt’s old room for anything. I had to clean up quite a few messes before he finally allowed us to take him outside to do his business.”
Something that the man said prompted another question. “You said, ‘we’ and ‘us’?”
Another sad look crossed over the older man’s face and Deeks literally wanted to kick himself for digging too deep, too fast. But before he could think of a way to backtrack, Gunny was speaking in a low voice.
“Yeah… ‘us’… my wife, Wyatt’s mother, Robin.” There was a twinge of both love and regret in the way he said her name.
Since he’d already caused the man to dredge up the memory of his lost son, Deeks simply allowed the next question to come of its own volition. “What happened?”
They walked on a little further and were pleased when the park finally opened up in front of them. With a simple nod to the animal, Gunny sent Short Round scampering off across the green grass, Monty tight on his heels as the two dogs began a very confusing game of ‘Tag’ that didn’t appear to have any rules whatsoever. As the dogs danced around in front of them, the two men settled on one of the benches that dotted the perimeter of the park.
Without preamble, Gunny addressed the question that Deeks had thought the man had forgotten or simply refused to answer. “We… ah… we divorced a year or so after we buried Wyatt.” It seemed that the man’s suffering knew no end; having no one to help shoulder the pain of their loss would have been devastating. Seeing a frown form on the younger man’s face, he went on to explain. “It wasn’t her fault. If anyone’s to blame it should be me. I… I just… I just couldn’t see past my own pain and anger to be able to help her deal with her own grief. Eventually, we drifted apart… turned into strangers in our own home… and in the end, it was the only thing that either of us could see to do to make some of the pain go away.”
“Again, Gunny… I’m sorry.”
This time the man just nodded, letting his chin fall to his chest. “I loved her… in a way, I guess I still do. It was just too hard… every time I looked at her or heard her voice… all I could see was the son that I’d lost… and it was just too much.” He paused to catch his breath and regain his composure. “We parted as friends, at least; no ugly divorce fights or vindictiveness… just two people who were better apart than they were together. Didn’t really work out that good for me though. After she moved out of town, I started drinking… heavily… couldn’t hold down my job, lost my house along with everything else, and ended up out here. When I realized that I had nothing to go back to… I guess I decided that it was just easier to stay out on the streets and just live day to day.”
Deeks could hear the faint echoes of loss and sorrow in the man’s words. “Have you ever thought of contacting her? Maybe try to patch things up?”
The dry chuckle that escaped the other man’s mouth was not what the detective was expecting. “Would you be surprised if I told you that not too long ago, I tried that very thing?” Gunny glanced over and caught the surprised expression on Deeks’ face. “I still had some of my things, including the phone number to her lawyer. She was gracious enough to give me my ex-wife’s new number. It took me weeks to build up the nerve to actually dial the number and even longer than that to stay on the line when someone answered on the other end.”
When that seemed all that he was going to say, Deeks simply raised his eyebrows, inclining his head to indicate that a little more information was needed.
Gunny’s lips curled up into a soft grin, but there was still some pain in his brown eyes. “When the two of us finally had a conversation, I could have sworn that the past years had been all one big horrible nightmare. Then she talked about how she was getting remarried and how happy she was with her new family. She sounded like the girl I’d fallen in love with all those long years ago… and that was all I could have ever asked… for her to find peace and happiness again. It just sucked that it wasn’t with me.”
As the two men sat side by side watching their dogs play in the warm grass, they remained silent, lost in their own thoughts and emotions. As the clouds passed by overhead, the world was still and simply as it should be.
Carmen Snyder’s legs were tired by the time she reached her office on the second floor of the Veteran’s Hospital where she served as one of the counselors on staff to aid the many patients that found themselves in need. She wasn’t a doctor of any sort, just a licensed therapist who had a penchant for quickly getting inside her patients’ heads and getting them to open up so they could find the root cause of their issues. While the position didn’t pay all that much, she was dedicated to her profession and since it was just her and two troublesome cats who occupied her apartment, the lack of a huge paycheck didn’t bother her all that much. Her sense of worth came not from the numbers in her bank account, but from the bruised and battered souls that would come to her, asking for some way out of the darkness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm them.
While she trod her way toward her office, one ‘battered soul’ in particular remained at the forefront of her thoughts; the former Marine Gunnery Sergeant whose warm and gentle smile belied the torment that she could see hidden behind his chocolate colored eyes. Ever since their first meeting at one of the Saturday morning tables, she had felt that whatever was haunting the man wasn’t something that he knew how to deal with… and it was driving her bat crap crazy trying to figure out what it could be. He’d seen combat, she had seen enough battle tested men and women in her therapy sessions to know that in an instant. But the trauma that shadowed his soul didn’t seem to be related to what he had experienced on the battlefield… it was almost like he was running from something that would always be a part of him. She was desperate to help him understand that you can’t escape that type of pain; you have to face it head on and learn how to make peace with it. Vets who had seen too many of their friends die right in front of them or had seen too many dead civilians had come to her for help. Carmen was humbled knowing that through hard work and, yes, lots of tears… those people had learned to become friends with the faces that lingered in their dreams.
Carmen dropped her eyes to the floor, slightly embarrassed by the way her heart thumped loudly in her chest as she let the image of the man she knew only as ‘Gunny’ dance around in her mind. She was so preoccupied with her ruminations that she didn’t realize she was about to collide with another person until they were right on top of her.
“Geez! I’m so sorry!” The younger man’s warning pulled her focus back to the present just in time to prevent her from walking right into him.
“Oh, Angel! Sorry, I wasn’t really watching where I was going.” Carmen reached out to brace herself against his shoulder, spinning them both in place. When she had her feet under her once more, she gave the male nurse an assessing look. “Ummmm… didn’t know you would be in on a Saturday. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah…” His face still had the shock of running into someone on that floor on a Saturday, but it quickly changed into a more relaxed and friendly expression. “… we’ve got an external audit next week and we’re behind on some paperwork down in the pharmacy.” That’s when she noticed the stack of papers, file folders, and small boxes that were balanced precariously in his arms. “The department head has us running back through the tracking sheets, sign out logs, and every other piece of paperwork that they could conceivably want to see when they get here.”
“Looks like you’ve got plenty to do.” She patted him gently on the arm, sidestepping around him to continue toward her office. “Hope you’re still going to have a weekend left when you’re finished.”
“I hope so too.” He gave her a soft shrug, nodding toward the elevators at the other end of the hallway. “So, I’d better get to it, all this stuff won’t sort itself.” Angel stepped away quickly and that struck her as rather odd; he’d usually spend a bit more time making small talk or regaling her with some story about his most recent exploits with the ladies. Maybe it had to do with the upcoming inspection and his mind was just too occupied to waste any precious time.
Carmen heard the elevator chime when the doors shut just as she reached her office, quickly slipping inside. She hadn’t planned on coming by today, but since she’d been in the neighborhood to drop by the charity group that morning, she decided to come in and check her emails before making the trek home. She was just entering her password when there was a soft knock on her door and when she looked up, she recognized the man in the familiar hospital security uniform.
The man leaned part of his large frame through the opening, his smile warm and calming. “Sorry to bother you, Ms. Snyder…”
“How many times to I have to tell you to call me Carmen?” She was rising from her chair, giving him a firm look from under her curled eyelashes.
His answer made her chuckle. “At least once more, Ms. Snyder.”
When his smile wavered, she realized that this wasn’t just a friendly visit. “So, is there something I can help you with?” The way his face fell caused a shiver of apprehension to trickle down her spine. “Thomas?”
He seemed to catch himself, reigning in his behavior. “I’m sorry, Ms. Snyder… but there are two NCIS agents here and they’ve asked to speak to someone about patient treatment. Do you have time to talk to them?”
Carmen stopped beside her desk, noticing the two shadows standing just outside in the hallway behind Thomas; one fairly large and the other had more of a medium build. She’d dealt with federal agents before and a visit from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was nothing truly surprising but she did wonder about why they were here and who they were investigating. “Uh… yeah, sure… send them in.”
“Right this way, gentlemen.” Thomas pushed the door open with one arm while gesturing for his companions to enter the office. The two agents stepped in, the smaller man coming right up, offering his right hand out to her, the other holding up his badge for her to inspect.
“Special Agents Callen and Hanna, ma’am… NCIS.”
Carmen exchanged a quick handshake with him and his partner before gesturing toward the two chairs in front of her desk. “Please, call me Carmen. Have a seat.” As the two men took a chair, she noticed that Thomas hovered by the still open door for a moment before easing into the hall where she knew he would only go far enough away from the door to give them some privacy.
“I just popped in for a moment, so there’s no coffee but I have some bottled water in the mini-fridge if you gentlemen are thirsty.”
Agent Hanna gave her a warm and disarming smile. “Thank you, ma’am… I mean, Carmen… we’re good.”
She gave him a gentle nod of her head in return. “So, what can I do for NCIS?”
Agent Callen leaned forward in his seat, apparently the lead agent for the moment. “We understand that you counsel patients here at the VA and we were wondering if you could answer a few questions for us?”
“I’m not sure what information I’ll be able to provide. I’m sure you understand that patient confidentiality is paramount within these walls.” Carmen had squared her shoulders, preparing to go to the mat to defend her patients’ rights to their privacy.
Callen’s blue eyes sparkled. “We understand that and our questions aren’t about the patients…” He glanced over his shoulder toward the open door and lowered his voice. “…Actually, we’re more curious about the staff.”
“The staff?” His response had surprised her but she had the mental awareness to keep her voice soft as well.
“Yes. You may be aware that there has been a spike in homeless deaths in this area.” Agent Hanna’s tone was firm and professional, but there was sadness behind his eyes. Carmen guessed that he was former military, Special Forces from the look of him. When she nodded in response, he continued. “The forensics on the cases indicate that the victims had several medications in their systems.”
Carmen had enough experience dealing with the people who lived on the streets to know where this was going. “Most of the men and women out there are good people… but sometimes they get their hands on something to help them get by…”
Agent Callen held up his hand to cut her off. “True, but some of the drugs involved are specific to the treatment of depression and PTSD… Serotonin inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, and certain alpha blockers. Are you familiar with those?”
“Why yes, several of the patients I help treat are on those… but they are prescribed medications, not hard street drugs.” Carmen was growing confused as well as concerned.
“Yes, we understand that, but what if someone was providing these outside of a doctor’s care and oversight?” Agent Callen’s expression had turned dark.
“Are you accusing me of this?!” Carmen’s faced blanched and her lungs constricted inside her chest. From the quick look that the two agents exchanged, that was exactly the reaction they were looking for.
“No Carmen, we know that you are only a counselor and you do not have any type of access to the drugs that the hospital provides.” Callen seemed apologetic in the avenue of questioning, but his eyes retained their calculating intensity. “But we have reason to believe that someone on the staff may be providing these drugs on the side… selling them maybe, but we aren’t sure. Either way, it may be contributing to the deaths and we need to find the source and make it stop.”
It took a moment, but Carmen could see that the two men were indeed out to protect those who could not protect themselves. She let out a soft sigh, deciding to ask a question or two, herself. “The drugs you’ve mentioned don’t kill… so what else is involved?”
The agents had a brief and impressive silent conversation with just their eyes before Agent Hanna turned back to her. “There’s some highly potent cocaine out on the street and, combined with the victim’s poor diet and nutrition…”
Carmen’s mind caught up and she finished for him. “…along with the antidepressants, it’s causing some type of respiratory compromise.” The two men gave her an affirmative nod, impressed by her sharp mind, but they caught the sad expression that clouded her eyes. “It’s sad that even when people have nothing, they can still find a way to get ahold of the stuff that eventually destroys them.”
Callen kept his voice calm and reassuring. “Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated.”
Carmen snapped out of the dark mood that was threatening to overtake her, focusing instead on the issue at hand and how she could, hopefully, do something to help stop it. When she looked back up at the two men, she couldn’t help but think about her earlier conversation with Gunny and the tormented expression that haunted his eyes when he spoke of the dead. With a final thought of his deep brown eyes and gentle smile, she sat up a little straighter in her chair.
“Okay, what do you want to know?”
To be continued…
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Thanks to Lindy AKA Sweet Lu for the wonderful feature image.