Safe From the War, (part of) chapter 4


Nunez walked into the officers’ work room to hang out before his shift. He was drinking a Dr. Pepper he bought from a machine in the station, like he always did when he got to work early, just having a drink and relaxing before roll call. A dozen or so evening shift officers were there, along with several night shift probationary officers who arrived early for everything. And Calhoun, because he had no wife, girlfriend or friends and therefore nowhere else to go.

Evening shift officers were hunched over computers that lined the walls, trying to finish reports that had stacked up during their shift so they could leave on time. The night shift rookies sat in a tight circle comparing notes and trying to outdo each other on who had made the most arrests or run the most dangerous calls, laughing and high-fiving and accusing each other of being full of shit. Calhoun sat by himself, saying nothing to anyone and not being paid attention to by any of the officers in the room, including two who had been in the academy with him.

Evening shift officer Ray Walker got up from his computer and picked up his Coke, ready to rush out and unload his gear so he could hit the road on time. Seeing Nunez, Walker’s eyes lit up and he greeted him with “Hey, platoon daddy! What’s up?” Nunez replied, “Damn, good to see you, Jarhead!” and gave him the half handshake, half hug that soldiers, Marines and cops give each other when they’re among their own kind.

“Man, I’ve been good, real good,” Walker said. “I just came back from an Alaskan cruise with Stacy, and we’re pretty sure I knocked her up while we were out there. I’m hoping for a girl this time, my two boys are tearing the house apart. And work’s been good, I’ve gotten some good turds lately. You hear about that check-cashing store robbery a couple of weeks ago? I got one of those guys on a traffic stop two days ago. How about you, what’s new?”

“Same as always,” Nunez answered. “You know how it is, man. The kids are good, Laura’s the same. I hate this job, but I’m not good for anything else anymore. So I’m counting the days til retirement. Only 48,663 to go before I’m done.”

Walker gave a broad smile. “You’re such a bad liar, Jerry. You said the same shit when we rode together, and you worked harder than any officer I knew. If you really hate the job that bad, just get into a few chases and make some good arrests, that’ll bring you back.”

“Yeah, maybe so,” Nunez said. “I don’t know though. It’s been so many years now, it feels like being sick of all this shit is normal and being excited about the job is weird. I’m just tired of it, bro. Hopefully it’ll get back to the way it used to be, but it doesn’t feel like it.”

Walker nodded and said, “It’ll get back to normal, ‘cause no matter how burned out you think you are, you’re still a real cop. Hey dude, I gotta run, Stacy’s got dinner going for me, she’ll be pissed at me if I’m not there when it’s done. And I need to make sure I don’t get on her bad side, I figure there’s a limited amount of time before she’s too pregnant to have sex with me.” Then, lifting his coke, he said, “To Jeff. Semper Fi, Jerry.”

Two young officers with high and tight haircuts sitting at their computers, typing furiously and seemingly not paying attention to the conversation, suddenly and in unison called out “Semper Fi!” without turning away from their keyboards. One of them had a long scar across the back of his scalp. Nunez lifted his Dr. Pepper and touched Walker’s Coke with it, returning the toast, “To Jeff.” Walker’s smile held just a touch of sadness now, and he grabbed and held Nunez’s shoulder warmly for a second before walking out of the work room.

From the circle of probationary officers, Woods watched the exchange with interest. He heard the “platoon daddy” comment and got the distinct impression that Walker and Nunez must have been in Iraq together but didn’t understand what the “To Jeff” thing was. He was acquainted with Walker from evening shift and knew he had served in Iraq, but didn’t know him well enough to ask him about something that looked like it was intensely personal. He did, however, think he knew him well enough to ask him something else. He got up from the circle of rookies and hurried out of the work room, speed-walked down the hall and caught up to Walker as he was walking out the back door.

“Hey Walker! I have a real quick question. Were you and Nunez together in Iraq?”

Looking annoyed, Walker answered, “We weren’t together, but we were in the same brigade. The same big unit, five battalions, about three thousand soldiers.”

“When did y’all come back from Iraq?”

Walker gave him a questioning look. “2006, why?”

“Nothing serious, it just came up when me and some guys from my class were talking about who at the station had been in the war. Thanks.”

Walker said “No problem” and hurried to his car. Woods walked back to the work room just in time to hear Calhoun ask one of his academy classmates, “Hey Gonzalez, why do you Mexicans call your kids ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’?”

Officer Rob Gonzalez rolled his eyes and swiveled the seat around to face Calhoun, who was leaned way back in his chair with his arms crossed and a ridiculous smirk on his face. Giving Calhoun a look that said Eat a dick, Gonzalez said, “I don’t know, Eddie. Why do all you white guys call your kids ‘the master race’?”

The room erupted in laughter, coming from officers of all colors, which drowned out Calhoun’s weak “Because they are” response. Looking a little pissed, Calhoun said, “Last night I arrested some Mexican for traffic warrants, and when I was towing his car his wife was standing by the side of the road telling their kid, ‘It’s okay daddy, it’s okay.’ What the fuck is up with that shit?”

Gonzalez said, “Couldn’t tell you, Eddie. I guess she said it just to fuck with you. And I’ve told you before, I’m not ‘Mexican’, I was born here and my parents were born here. How many traffic warrants did the guy have anyway?”

“Sorry, Mexican-American,” Calhoun sneered. “The guy had two warrants, plus his inspection was expired two months.”

Gonzalez pursed his lips. “Let me ask you something, Eddie. You arrested the guy and towed his car over two traffic warrants and a chickenshit ticket, even though his wife and baby were with him?”

Calhoun nodded proudly. “Yup, sure did. She didn’t have a license, I wasn’t about to let her drive.”

“You could have let that little bullshit go. Or you could have let her call someone to come and get the car, asshole. What’d you do with the wife and kid?”

“I couldn’t give a fuck less what happened with the wife and kid,” Calhoun said. “I told the wife to haul ass. Last I saw she was carrying the kid down the service road toward a gas station. If her husband didn’t want her and her kid on the street in the middle of the night, he shouldn’t be driving around with expired shit and warrants. But don’t get all butt-hurt about it, it’s not like I hate you Mexicans as much as I hate Hajis.”

Gonzalez rolled his eyes again. “Eddie, you never even left the U.S. when you were in the Marines. You told us that, remember? What reason would you have to hate Arabs? Really, what actual, personal reason would you have?”

“Man, it doesn’t matter whether I went anywhere or not,” Calhoun retorted. “Lots of my friends got killed by Hajis, just because I wasn’t there doesn’t mean I can’t hate them too.”

Gonzalez looked at the other classmate of theirs, who had turned from his computer to watch the exchange. Gonzalez and the other officer both shook their heads, then went back to their computers. Gonzalez mumbled, “That explains it. Hajis must have killed all your friends. That’s why you don’t have any.”

Officers turned away from Calhoun in disgust. Nunez glared at Calhoun, looked at his watch, finished the last bit of Dr. Pepper and walked toward the roll call room. Calhoun and the probationary officers followed him. Woods stayed back a little further than he needed to, wondering if he should ask Nunez what the reference to the mysterious Jeff had been about.

Roll call went quickly, and the officers were on the street earlier than normal. After they left the station, Woods asked, “Hey Jerry, why’d you come in so early? I don’t remember ever seeing you in the work room early before.”

“You’ve never been married, right?” Nunez asked.

“Nope. Engaged once, but never married.”

“Someday when you’re married you’ll probably get it. There are times when it’s just better for everyone if you get out of the house as soon as you have an excuse to.”

Woods wondered what he meant, but decided it wasn’t important enough to pursue. His next question was more on the path of what he really wanted to find out. “Hey, what was that that Walker called you in there? It was ‘platoon daddy’, wasn’t it? What’s that?”

Nunez answered, “Yeah, he said platoon daddy. It’s a nickname for platoon sergeant. I was a platoon sergeant all the time I was in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s the senior NCO, the senior sergeant in the platoon. Most of the time the platoon sergeant runs everything, because most platoon leaders are new lieutenants who don’t have any idea what they’re doing.”

“I see,” Woods said. Then, preparing himself for Nunez to cut him off or make a smartass remark, he asked “And what was that ‘To Jeff’ thing y’all did? Who’s Jeff?”

Nunez stayed quiet for a few seconds, making Woods almost certain he was going to say something sarcastic and then tell him to shut up. Instead, Nunez said, “Jeff was a friend of ours. He was one of my soldiers, a fire team leader in my platoon before we went to Iraq. Jeff Colin. Good guy, funny as hell. He was smart too, always made the right decision under stress. At least in training, anyway.”

Nunez rolled his head on his shoulders, closing his eyes for a few seconds while he was driving and making Woods nervous. Opening his eyes again, he said “The way the Guard deploys units, what they do is pick a unit to send overseas, and then they strip other units to make sure the deploying battalion has everyone it needs. Guard units are always short on people, we just never had everyone we were supposed to. My unit got stripped so they could send guys to other battalions that were deploying. I got sent to an artillery battalion, Jeff got lucky and went to an infantry battalion. Lucky…huh. Anyway, Jeff wound up in Walker’s platoon. They were good friends.”

Nunez got to the service road and headed towards a business park. “Walker’s platoon was out on a route patrol and Walker’s humvee got hit by an IED. It disabled the humvee, and I guess Jeff thought it was on fire because of all the smoke. Jeff was the vehicle commander, and he told his guys to stay inside while he went to check on Walker’s truck. Before Jeff got to Walker’s humvee, two secondary IEDs went off. One of them was right next to Jeff, like six feet away. He didn’t have a chance, he was killed instantly. At least, I hope it was instantly. The other IED didn’t hit anything. It turned out Walker and his guys got their bells rung by the blasts, no injuries. When Walker shook it off he got out and found Jeff dead outside the truck. He never told me how bad Jeff was hit, and I’ll never ask him, but I figure Jeff had to have been torn up pretty bad. Probably in pieces.”

Woods didn’t know what to say. Nunez took another drink, then went on.

“Walker wound up being the guy who had to put him in a body bag and stick him in the back of their humvee, and then drive him to a firebase,” Nunez said. “This happened toward the end of the deployment, when we only had about six weeks left. Walker got onto the department after that deployment, and we rode together a few times when he was on probation. That’s when we found out we both knew Jeff.”

“Man,” Woods said. “I’m sorry to hear about your friend.”

“Don’t be,” Nunez said. “Jeff was a grown man, he knew what he was doing. Walker and the other guys in that humvee were his buddies, and he was taking care of them. I knew Jeff real well, he wouldn’t have regretted getting out to check on them, even if it meant he would die because of it. That kind of thinking is something I’ve only seen in the military, and then only in the wars. Civilians just don’t get it. It sounds weird, but sometimes it’s better that you die trying to protect your soldiers, if the alternative is living while your friends get killed around you. Jeff knew it, and he didn’t just talk about it, he lived it. He died living it.”

Woods turned that over in his head, and decided that Nunez was right about civilians not getting that kind of thinking. “So, Walker just decided to bring him up right then, in the roll call room?”

“No. No, he didn’t decide that just then. After Jeff was killed, Walker decided he would do a little something to make sure Jeff was never forgotten. Every time he sees someone who knew Jeff, he makes a toast to him. A raised glass, handshake, fist bump, high five, whatever. Just to remind us.”

“Wow.” Woods took in what Nunez had just told him, reaching for the right word to describe it. “That’s really…touching, I guess.”

Nunez looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Touching? Fag. That’s not ‘touching’, it’s just what soldiers do. We don’t leave our dead, and we don’t forget them. And Walker always says Semper Fi to me, even though I wasn’t a Marine. Because it didn’t matter a whole lot to the guys out front what branch you were in or had been in before, as long as you could be counted on in a fight.”

“Ohhhhkay. Sorry man, I don’t know anything about the military. Except way back in World War Two, I don’t think anyone in my family ever served in the military. Hearing all this stuff is new to me.”

“Good thing you went to college then,” Nunez said. “I’m sure that toughened you up for the street.”

“Aw, bite me, Jerry. Plenty of college guys are good street cops. You’ve told me about a bunch of them yourself.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t include you. At least, not yet.”

Woods stayed quiet for a minute while he thought about what Nunez had told him. Nunez stayed quiet as well. Then Nunez’s phone rang, breaking the silence. He flipped the phone open.

“This is Jerry.”

“Jerry, my friend, it is good to hear your voice again. I am sorry if I am disturbing you, are you able to speak?”

Nunez silently mouthed Yussuf to Woods, and put the phone on speaker. “Of course I can speak to you Yussuf, how are you doing? You had me a little worried when you went in so fast last time we visited you, and we hadn’t seen or heard from you since then. I thought you might be having some kind of problem with Rahim, you looked like maybe you were a little afraid of him that night.”

“Jerry, of course not,” Yussuf said. “Please pardon me for saying so, but such talk is foolish. I simply do not wish to have any unpleasant experiences with my neighbors.” Then, laughing, he said “Should there ever be any tension between Rahim and me, you know of course I would have no recourse but to avoid him in the manner a rabbit avoids a hawk. I am an academic, not a man of violence, like men such as Rahim are. I should not like to ever have a physical confrontation with him.”

“’Man of violence?’” Nunez asked. “Can you explain that?”

Yussuf dismissed the question, saying “Ah Jerry, remember, I am a citizen of Kabul, which in my youth was a city of western ideals. Those of us fortunate enough to have received an education during our lives in Kabul do not display the same tendencies as rural villagers, especially those from Kandahar. You may not know this Jerry, but Kandaris are known throughout Afghanistan for their short temper. Rahim is the type of man used to settling disputes with violence. Of course, Rahim has never displayed any hostility toward me or any other residents of our complex, and I do not mean to suggest that he personally is a violent man. It is not likely that Rahim would return to any of the activities he was involved in when he was in Kandahar. I simply would prefer to not provoke anger from my neighbors.”

“Yussuf, what activities are you talking about?” Nunez asked. “What was Rahim involved in?”

“Oh, just such activities as are normal for rural Afghan men, Jerry,” Yussuf answered. “I am sure you recall many incidents of violence such as feuds between tribes and families. Such a life is normal for a man such as Rahim, whether or not the man is a member of a militant organization.”

“A militant organization, like the Taliban?”

“Yes Jerry, an organization such as the Taliban,” Yussuf said.

“Was Rahim Taliban?” Nunez asked. “I’ll go over there and shoot him in the head right now if he was a Talib.”

Yussuf laughed again. “Please do not, Jerry, I would prefer to not see more death around my home. No, I don’t believe Rahim was a Talib, I believe he angered the Taliban by refusing to heed their orders. I think you are perhaps too fixated on the Taliban, Jerry. There were many such extremist organizations in Afghanistan before the Taliban, and there are many more today that exist alongside them. You need not go too far to find such an organization, Jerry. They are not hidden.”

“Well, in that case, it’s a good thing we met, Yussuf,” Nunez said. “Make sure you tell me if there are any organizations like that around here.”

“Yes, Jerry, of course I would. Perhaps that is the purpose God orchestrated the circumstances that brought about our meeting.”

Nunez looked up at Woods with his brow furrowed, a look that said What the hell did that mean? Woods returned the look, shrugged and mouthed I don’t know.

“Yussuf, are you busy now?” Nunez asked. “Do you want us to come visit you? I’d like to talk to you some more about Rahim.”

“I am sorry Jerry, it is very late and I do not wish to disturb my wife,” Yussuf said. “Please accept my apologies for being so inhospitable, my friend. I would very much like to entertain you and Michael as guests, but I am afraid it would not be wise for me to have you here tonight. Perhaps another time. I believe I must end the call now, my wife is getting annoyed at my absence.”

“Wait a minute,” Nunez said. “Yussuf, you called me. Why did you call, if you couldn’t talk?”

“Jerry, my friend, I simply wished to ensure you and Michael are safe. Nothing more than this. Will you come visit tomorrow, perhaps?”

Nunez gave Woods a frown. “Okay Yussuf, maybe we can visit tomorrow. Hey Yussuf, is everything okay? You sound like something’s been bothering you lately.”

“Nothing is bothering me, Jerry. Thank you for inquiring as to my safety, but I am fine. There is no danger to my life, nothing for you to worry about. Even if something should happen, it would simply be God’s will.”

Nunez looked up at Woods again, giving him the same confused look as before. “Well, okay, Yussuf. You let me know if there are any problems, alright?”

“Of course, Jerry. Thank you for your concern, and good night. Please give my regards to Michael.”

“I will, Yussuf-khan. Good night.”

“Good night, Jerry-khan.”

Yussuf hung up. As Nunez put his phone away he said, “Damn, that guy keeps fucking with my head. Sometimes I just can’t figure out what the hell he means.”

“Yeah, he confuses me too,” Woods said. “But that’s usually because I don’t know shit about Afghanistan or Islam.”

“That crap about Rahim being a ‘man of violence’ just sounded kinda odd, you know? Like we didn’t hear the whole story.”

Woods nodded and asked, “So, what, you think he was lying, he really is scared of Rahim for some reason?”

“Yeah I do think he was lying, but not about everything. Like what he said about not having to look too hard to find one of those extremist groups in Houston.”

“No shit,” Woods said. “So you think he knows of some group around here?”

“Anyone who pays attention knows of groups like that in Houston. Supposedly there are a lot of them here, lots of guys with connections to groups in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, all over the place. I mean, at least that’s what we’re told at inservice classes.”

“Well, what do you think?” Woods asked. “You think a harmless old guy like Yussuf is part of some evil terrorist group?”

Nunez shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, he’s too nice of a guy, and he’s a complete pussy. He’s scared shitless of Rahim, I just don’t see him as the kind of guy who would be involved in something like that. He did say one other weird thing that got me thinking though. When I asked him if something was bothering him lately, and he right away said ‘Don’t worry about me, there’s no danger to my safety and if there is it’s just God’s will anyway.’ Just sort of brought up something about danger, out of nowhere. I think it’s just the language barrier, even though he speaks English real well I don’t think he always gets what I’m saying.”

“Yeah, I see, that does sound weird. What did he say when you asked if we could go over? I know he said no, but what was his reason?”

“He said it would bother his wife too much if we went over,” Nunez said. “But he sends you his regards.”

“Tell him I said thanks. Want to check out Hanley again, just in case…?”

Nunez nodded to Woods. “Yeah, I do. Let’s go.”

12 Responses to “Safe From the War, (part of) chapter 4”

  1. 1 Dave

    Another great excerpt Chris.

    Even though I have never been married or engaged, I knew exactly what Nunez meant about “getting out of the house as soon as you have an excuse to”. Sometimes just don’t need to confront the issue.

    I prefer to not call it retreating…I call it “kicking ass in another direction”.

  2. 3 Reserve Corporal

    Awesome as always !
    I can t wait to read the next chapter !

    • Thanks Sylvain. I really need to get this book ready for publication. The rough draft (and 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th drafts) have been complete for years. I just wasn’t sure whether or not I should publish it.

  3. 5 Mike_C

    Chris, is this novel available for sale yet? I’m enjoying the excerpts, but look forward to paying for the book. (Amazon has “Jack and the Zombie Attack” by Amy and Chris Hernandez, but without having done proper research — like clicking on the link –I’m gonna assume that’s not you.) How/where can we throw money at you, fer goshsakes?

    • This one won’t be out until maybe next year, unfortunately. However, Proof of Our Resolve is out, and Line in the Valley will be out next month-ish. And [gasp!], no I don’t write zombie books! I knew there was a children’s book author named Chris Hernandez, I’ve been mistaken for him twice. But I didn’t know there was a zombie book Chris Hernandez. Now I’m going to have to put a note in my bio about those other Chris Hernandezes.

      My mom told me I should have written as “Chris Navarrete”, her family name. I didn’t think so, since people would have a hard time pronouncing it. But maybe she was right.

      Sorry, but the vampire and zombie fad just drives me nuts. 🙂

  4. 7 M. A. Baxley, Jr.

    I have been asking that same question…. how/where can I
    throw money at you for more of this writing?

  5. 9 Ben

    Just stumbled on your site and had to read every story you’ve posted so far. I’ve been a cop for 9 years so far and I really enjoy your writing. It reminds me of Joseph Wambaugh’s books, in that you have you have that rare combination of actual cop experience and writing ability. Keep it up! I hope you find time to write a law enforcement book or three – they’d definitely have a spot on my bookshelf.

    • Thanks Ben, I appreciate that. My book Safe From the War is a cop book, and I’ve written and rewritten it several times, but I don’t think I’ll publish it until next year at the earliest. Where do you work?

      • 11 Ben

        I worked at a department in northern Virginia for the first nine years and have just moved across the country to a department in eastern Washington. There are a lot of interesting differences but police work is police work and I’m still loving the job.

        • Awesome Ben, glad to hear you still love it. I loved it too, but after 17 years of either being on the street or deployed I needed a change. I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything though.

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