Book 3 of A Mac McClellan Mystery series
Bonnie Youngblood was waiting on a bench near the southeast corner of McKenzie Park, a large square of land shaded by sprawling live oaks a block off Harrison Avenue, near its termination at the city marina. It was only a short walk to Panama Joe’s. I’d almost balked when she suggested we meet there Monday morning at nine. Considering what happened to my previous client, the park was a little too close for comfort.
To make matters worse, as I approached I noticed she was drinking a cup of coffee with Panama Joe’s logo printed on the cup. If she was eating one of their croissants, I was going to turn around and get the hell out of there.
“Mac?” she said when I was within earshot. We had dispensed with formalities during yesterday’s phone call.
I offered a hand. Her grip was firm. “Nice to meet you, Bonnie.” She wore jeans and a desert camouflage T-shirt with Army Strong! imprinted in gold and black across the front. I pointed at the opposite end of the large wood and concrete bench. “Mind if I sit?”
Bonnie was late twenties, early thirties, with natural dark blonde hair cut along the jaw line. Her toned body indicated regular exercise. You could call her attractive except for the dark circles under her eyes and an overall drawn and tired expression weighing on her face. I also noticed a faint bruise under her left eye that makeup had failed to conceal.
She didn’t waste any time getting down to business. “My husband’s cheating on me again.”
She nodded and sipped her coffee. “I met Ray at Fort Jackson, in South Carolina. I was a mechanic with the 187th Ordnance Battalion. Ray was a drill sergeant. I’d recently returned from Iraq and was welcomed home with divorce papers from my first husband. I suppose as a civilian my ex got tired of being both Dad and Mom to our son while Mommy was away playing soldier.”
“That’s tough. I can relate. The same thing happened to me during my last deployment with the Marines. At least our kids were about ready to leave the nest at the time.”
I was trying to connect with the client like the book says all good PIs should do, but Bonnie acted like she hadn’t heard me. She set the cup on the bench and fumbled in her purse for a pack of Marlboros. Her hands shook a little as she thumbed the lighter and lit up. She took a puff, turned her head and exhaled. “About a week after reporting in, I was drowning my sorrows at the NCO club one night. This hunk walked in and sat next to me at the bar. He started talking me up and buying me drinks. I wound up spending the night with him at his apartment off base.”
She must’ve read my face. “Yeah, I know, not the wisest move I’ve ever made.”
“I’m not being judgmental, but were you married at the time?”
She frowned and her eyes narrowed. “No. My ex and I both grew up here. He wanted out of the marriage, and frankly, so did I. He got the ball rolling before I got home. The whole thing took less than six weeks.”
“What about your kid?”
Bonnie took a draw on her cigarette and let it out with a deep sigh. “I left Tyler with my parents until I could get settled in at Fort Jackson. Ray and I hit it off right away and decided to live together at his place. A couple of weeks later we got married by a justice of the peace. As soon as we could, we both got three-day passes and drove down to Panama City so Ray could meet the family and we could pick up Tyler.”
Talk about a whirlwind romance. “I’m not judging you, but wasn’t that rushing things a little? You get divorced, meet somebody new and get married in what, a month or so? You hardly knew the guy.”
She took a final drag and dropped the half-smoked cigarette into the dregs of her coffee. “Do you believe in love at first sight, Mac?”
“I do, or did. “Ray was Army, I was Army, both career. My son needed a father figure. He damn sure never had one with my ex.”
It was past time to zero-in on why I was here. “When did the cheating begin?”
“About three months after we were married. At least that’s when I found out about it. He was screwing around with another drill sergeant’s wife.”
Nothing like esprit de corps. “How’d you find out?”
“A friend. She saw them coming out of a motel together one afternoon while she was in Columbia shopping. Ray had tried to hit on her, too, and she figured I ought to know about it.”
“What happened when you confronted him?”
Bonnie lit another cigarette. “He denied it. But when I named names and told him my friend had seen the two of them at the motel, he went ballistic. He punched a couple of holes in the wall and kicked the coffee table over. When I tried to stop him from tearing the place apart he slapped me. Hard. Thank god Tyler wasn’t home.”
“In the face?”
“Did it leave a mark?”
She nodded and turned her head again to exhale. “I told the guys at the shop that I tripped and bumped my cheek against a chair. I don’t think they bought it.”
Bonnie glanced at me and then stared ahead. “It was the PTSD. Ray did multiple tours and saw a lot of combat. I begged, but he refused to go for help. He said it would be a sign of weakness and ruin his chances for promotion.”
I understand the problems PTSD can cause; been there and done that. But there are ways to deal with it that don’t include slapping women around. Manning up and getting help is one. I’d heard enough to know this guy was a royal prick and a wife beater, but I sensed Bonnie needed to vent. “Anything else?”
She leaned forward and placed both hands beside her thighs and rocked back and forth. A thin trail of smoke snaked upward and dissipated in the light breeze. “He had sex with a female private while the platoon was on a field training exercise.”
I was damn near speechless. “A recruit? Are you serious? That’s enough to warrant brig time and a dishonorable discharge.”
Bonnie sat back and folded her arms across her chest like she was suddenly cold on this warm and muggy August morning. “Another female private saw the girl giving my husband oral. Of course Ray and the girl both denied it. The only thing that saved him was that the two privates had a history of bad blood between them all during training. The battalion CO handled it, so it never went to trial. The privates were transferred to different training companies, and the matter was dropped.”
“And you believe your husband did it?”
“Yes. He’d cheated before, and since.”
“You mentioned that you and your husband were both career Army. What happened with that?”
Bonnie finished with the barely smoked cigarette. It hissed when she dropped it in the cup. “Ray beat the shit out of a couple of privates in his platoon. One of them reported him. He was court-martialed and convicted.”
“What kind of discharge?”
“BCD. Twelve years of service down the piss-tube.”
Bad Conduct. That meant Ray Youngblood was screwed as far as ever receiving veterans’ benefits. Getting a decent job as a civilian probably wouldn’t be easy either. “Why did you get out?”
She glanced up at the blue-white sky. “Because of Ray. I loved him despite everything, believe it or not. I thought I could help him. I’d completed eight years and was up for promotion if I reenlisted. But I gave it up for him, the sorry bastard.”
A small flock of pigeons landed a few yards away and waddled toward us, expecting a free meal. I reached down and picked up an acorn and tossed it their way. They scattered. “What is it you want from me?”
“I’ve been talking with the local recruiter. I’ve only been out for eight months, so if I reenlist I can retain my sergeant’s rank. I know Ray’s screwing around again, but I need solid proof.”
“As in photos?”
Bonnie nodded. “I want to nail the bastard when I take him to divorce court. Without photos it’s his word against mine.”
“What happened to wanting to help him?”
“I tried. There is no helping that son-of-a-bitch. He stays drunk half the time, and he’s taken a belt to my son.”
“And he’s slapping you around,” I said, pointing to the mark under her eye.”
Bonnie ignored my last remark. “Will you take the case?”
“Please. I’m trying to make a new life for Tyler and me.”
Hanging around sleazy motels spying on horny lovers wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I’d signed on with Frank. But this young woman was hurting. She’d made some poor choices, but she had the intestinal fortitude to want to make things right for her son and herself. What the hell was I supposed to say? “Okay, but I’ll need info.”
E. Michael Helms grew up in Panama City, FL. He played football and excelled in baseball as a catcher. Turning down a scholarship offer from the local Junior college, he joined the Marines after high school graduation. He served as a rifleman during some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War until wounded three times in one day. Helms discounts it as "waking up on the wrong side of the foxhole."
Helms' memoir of the war, "The Proud Bastards," has been called “As powerful and compelling a battlefield memoir as any ever written ... a modern military classic,” and remains in print after more than 20 years.
A long-time Civil War buff, Book One of Helms' two-part historical saga, "Of Blood and Brothers," was released September 2013. Book Two followed in March 2014. Seeking a change from writing about war, Helms decided to give mysteries a try. The first novel of his Mac McClellan Mystery series, "Deadly Catch," was published in November 2013 and named Library Journal's "Debut Mystery of the Month." The second Mac McClellan Mystery, "Deadly Ruse," premiered in November 2014. It was awarded the 2015 RONE Award for “Best Mystery.”
While concentrating on his mystery series, Helms dusted off a manuscript dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that sat in his desk drawer for over two decades. "The Private War of Corporal Henson," a semi-autobiographical fictional sequel to "The Proud Bastards," was published in August 2014.
With his wife, Karen, Helms now lives in the Upstate region of South Carolina in the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. He enjoys playing guitar, hiking (when his body cooperates), camping, canoeing, and is an avid birdwatcher. He continues to listen as Mac McClellan dictates his latest adventures in his mystery series.