On a warm September evening in the Millers Kill community center, five veterans sit down in rickety chairs to try to make sense of their experiences in Iraq. What they will find is murder, conspiracy, and the unbreakable ties that bind them to one other and their small Adirondack town.
“One Was a Soldier is one of her best and most heartfelt in this superior series.”
—Oline H. Cogdill, Florida Sun Sentinel
The Rev. Clare Fergusson wants to forget the things she saw as a combat helicopter pilot and concentrate on her relationship with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne. MP Eric McCrea needs to control the explosive anger threatening his job as a police officer. Will Ellis, high school track star, faces the reality of life as a double amputee. Orthopedist Trip Stillman is denying the extent of his traumatic brain injury. And bookkeeper Tally McNabb wrestles with guilt over the in-country affair that may derail her marriage.
But coming home is harder than it looks. One vet will struggle with drugs and alcohol. One will lose his family and friends. One will die.
Since their first meeting, Russ and Clare's bond has been tried, torn, and forged by adversity. But when he rules the veteran's death a suicide, she violently rejects his verdict, drawing the surviving vets into an unorthodox investigation that threatens jobs, relationships, and her own future with Russ. As the days cool and the nights grow longer, they will uncover a trail of deceit that runs from their tiny town to the upper ranks of the U.S. Army, and from the waters of the Millers Kill to the unforgiving streets of Baghdad.
“Spencer-Fleming's most ambitious book yet - think The Best Years of Our Lives with corpses....fans will continue to be impressed by her resourceful determination never to tell the same story twice.”
“Spencer-Fleming explores a serious societal issue - the reentry problems of soldiers home from combat... while concocting an an absolutely irresistible combination of crime fiction and romance...this is a surefire winner. This series, as intelligent as it is enthralling, just keeps getting better.”
“A story of greed, betrayal, and wounded love.”
—New York Times Bestselling author John Hart
The good news is that Rev.Clare Fergusson has come home from her Mideastern deployment as Maj. Fergusson to a marriage proposal from Millers Kill Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. But that's about the extent of the good news. Despite its high murder rate (I Shall Not Want, 2008, etc.), Millers Kill, NY, is a small town, so it's not surprising that everyone in the therapy group clinician Sarah Dowling runs for returning veterans knows everyone else. But Clare Fergusson, orthopedist Trip Stillman, double amputee Will Ellis, bookkeeper Tally McNabb and MP Eric McCrea, who's returning to the civilian police force, can't imagine how closely and painfully their lives will become tangled over the coming months.... The author is less interested in fixing individual guilt, however, than in exploring the inescapable legacies of soldiers come home including a crushing burden of imagined, and unimaginable, guilt. Spencer-Fleming's most ambitious book yet think The Best Years of Our Lives with corpses can't quite live up to its lofty goals. But fans will continue to be impressed by her resourceful determination never to tell the same story twice.
Clare Fergusson comes home from Iraq to Millers Kill, NY, a damaged version of herself. She must now reconcile her combat experiences with her other job as an Episcopal priest. When a fellow veteran in her therapy group is killed and the death ruled a suicide, Clare sets off to uncover the truth. In her latest mystery (after I Shall Not Want), the award-winning Spencer-Fleming calls attention to the stress, nightmares, anger, and guilt many military personnel experience on their return to civilian life. VERDICT In the hands of a lesser writer, this novel would not fly, but Spencer-Fleming carries it off and concludes with a believable resolution. As always, there is a cliffhanger ending for Clare. Outstanding.
...As in her previous novel, I SHALL NOT WANT, Spencer-Fleming explores a serious societal issue - the reentry problems of soldiers home from combat - that extends even to small-town Millers Kill, New York while concocting an absolutely irresistible combination of crime fiction and romance. ...this is a surefire winner, taking the linchpin Fergusson- Van Alstyne relationship to a new level, probing the personal lives of other members of the town's police department,and personalizing the toll taken by war. Spencer-Fleming's fans who have been waiting anxiously for her latest won't be disappointed; this series, as intelligent as it is enthralling, just keeps getting better.
Thank you for visiting! Enjoy the excerpt and please explore my website to find out more about my books. – Julia
Love makes people do some pretty dumb-ass things, Officer Hadley Knox thought. In her case, it had convinced her a self-absorbed La-la land user would make a good husband and father. She had paid big for her mistake; crawling back to her grandfather's home town for refuge, taking this pain-in-the-ass job to support her kids.
In the case of the shaved-head Army guy in front of her, it had made taking on a small-town thug and his posse seem like a good idea. He had paid for it with a split lip and battered face.
When she arrived at the bar, he’d been getting the worst of it from a group of the Dew Drop’s finest: skinny-shanked guys with ropey muscles and nicotine-stained teeth. The big black guy in camo pants looked as if he could have taken on two, maybe even three of them, but five tilted the odds way out of his favor.
Hadley had waded in, rapping elbows and knees with her extendable baton, giving it her best Russ Van Alstyne impression: hard voice, big presence, short commands. A pair of construction-worker types helped her take hold of Soldier Boy and drag him back into the jukebox corner; the locals retreated behind one of the pool tables.
Now, she noticed the soldier kept looking toward a trio of girls backed against the bar. Two of them had long acrylic nails and streaked hair scraped back in Tonya Harding ponytails, but the third was a blunt-fingered natural brunette with a dutch boy bob. Short. Practical. Like maybe it fit under a helmet. Tears had smeared the girl’s makeup, but she looked more angry than upset. “Tally, get your ass over here,” a good-looking guy in a Poison t-shirt and steel-capped boots yelled; in response, the girl flipped him the bird.
The soldier lurched forward. Hadley blocked his path. “Sir, you have got to stay here.” The man wiped his bloody nose on the back of his hand and stared over her shoulder. “Sir? Are you listening to me?” Hadley slapped her baton into her palm for emphasis.
The man shrugged off the hands holding him. Hadley nodded to the two guys behind him, letting them know it was okay, even though she was worried it wasn’t. The air in the Dew Drop sparked with the tension of a boxing ring between rounds. “What’s your name, soldier?”
“Nichols,” he said. “Chief Warrant Officer Quentan Nichols.”
“What are you doing here, Chief Warrant Officer Nichols?”
Finally, he focused on her. “You ask that of everybody who visits this podunk town? Or just the black folks?”
She thumbed toward the pool table. In the light cast by the hanging lamp, she could see the good ole’ boys scowling and glaring at the CWO. Poison t-shirt was at the center, speaking fast and low to the guy next to him. “I want to know why that man and his buddies were trying to take you apart.”
“Maybe they’re down on the Army.” His eyes darted back to the angry brunette. This guy was a worse liar than her eleven-year-old.
She pointed the baton toward the girl. “You know her?”
Nichols jerked his attention back to Hadley. “We were talking.”
“Uh huh.” She slapped the baton into her palm one more time. “Stay here.”
She crossed the scarred wooden floor toward the bar, her boots sticking with every second step. She was maybe five feet away from the girl, close enough to read the “In Memory Of” tattoo circling her arm, when she heard the thud of footsteps and the shouts and she whirled to see the locals charging Nichols. Shit! Dumb, sophomore mistake. She should’ve shut those assholes down once and for all before talking with anybody else.
Somebody bumped her from behind, sending her stumbling. She staggered upright, baton at the ready, but it hadn’t been aimed at her. The brunette had joined the melee, punching and kicking at the white boys like Xena, warrior princess, while her girlfriends screamed and wailed.
Hadley breathed in deep and bellowed, “Break it up!” One of the construction workers, a fresh-faced blond with pierced ears and impressive muscles, came in on Nichols’ side. Oh, great. Hadley advanced toward the nearest man, baton extended, and whacked him: back of the thigh, side of the arm. He staggered away, howling, but two more roughnecks came off their bar stools in defense of the home team, causing the construction worker’s buddy to wade in, airlifting another guy who went flying into the jukebox box. Shit! Property damage. Hadley advanced again, whacking away with her baton, trying to weigh her blows; pain, not injury, because injury could mean lawsuits; aware that she wasn’t going to be able to stop them unless she reached the ringleader, aware that getting into the middle of the fight would make her utterly vulnerable.
A crack, rifle-sharp, sliced through the meaty thuds and half-voiced curses, bringing every head up for a second, like a pack of coyotes spotting a much larger wolf. “Police!” a man bellowed from the door.
Now or never. Hadley thrust herself into the crowd, driving the butt end of her baton into stomachs. Men folded, retching, around her. She reached Poison t-shirt, grappling with Nichols, and swung the baton with all her might into the small of his back. He arched upward, screaming, and Nichols lunged toward him, knocking Hadley aside, and then there was a tall, lean man blocking the way; yellow letters on a black t-shirt, cropped red hair, and Officer Kevin Flynn was twisting Nichols’ arm around like a pretzel, bringing the soldier to his knees.
“Straps?” he asked, speaking loudly to be heard, and she tugged the plastic restraints off her belt and tossed them to him.
Poison t-shirt was pawing at his back. “You broke something!” She captured one wrist with her cuffs and locked the other one in place. “Didja hear me? Jesus Christ, you broke my friggin’ spine!”
She pushed his shoulder, nudging the back of his knee so he’d get the message. “We will provide transportation to the hospital if you’ve been injured.” He collapsed into a sitting position. “Sir,” she tacked on.
With two cops in the room and the instigators restrained on the floor, the air went out of the balloon fast. Poison’s buddies limped back to the bar and the pool table, clutching their midsections and wiping blood off their mouths. The frosted blonde gal pals tried to drag the brunette away, but she shoved them off to kneel beside Nichols. “I’m sorry,” she said, low, for his ears alone. “I’m so sorry, Quentan.”
“Goddamn it, Tally!” Poison t-shirt made to rise from the floor. “You were supposed to have got rid of him!”
Hadley pushed his shoulder down, harder this time. “Stay seated. You get up again before I tell you to and I'll cuff your ankles, as well.”
He sank back down, glaring at the brunette across the floor.
She gestured to Flynn to step away, out of earshot, trying to figure out what was an appropriate way to welcome a fellow officer back after a year. A fellow officer she had dumped after a very against-the-regs one-night-stand.
The earringed construction worker came up to them, grinning and wiping his hair out of his eyes. “Hey, Kev! Haven’t seen you in dogs’ years, man. Where you been?”
“Hey, Carter.” Flynn bumped bumped fists with the guy. “I was away on detached duty. Albany, and then Syracuse.” He sounded older to Hadley. More assured. Or maybe she had forgotten his voice.
“Dude. They put you on a SWAT team or something? You look like you’re ready to blow shit up.”
Flynn did look like a tactical agent, with the black POLICE t-shirt and the many-pocketed pants laced inside a pair of paratrooper boots.
“Bad-ass Officer Flynn,” she said under her breath.
“Yeah. Well.” Flynn’s cheekbones went pink and he rubbed the back of his neck, popping a bicep and a blue Celtic armband. Hadley knew neither the muscle nor the tattoo had been there a year ago. He still looked like a reed next to Carter’s bulk, but he had put on some much-needed weight while he was away. She became aware that she was staring at him.
“So.” She bobbed her chin at him. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but what the hell are you doing here? I heard you weren’t back on duty until tomorrow.”
“Harlene called me, looking for backup for you.” He glanced to where Poison was rocking back and forth on the floor. “Although it looks like you didn’t really need it.”
She snorted. “Right. John McClane with boobs, that’s me.”
Carter stared at her chest. “Who?”
“Die Hard,” she and Flynn said at the same time. He dropped his eyes to the floor and smiled before looking back up at Carter.
“You know this guy?” Flynn gestured toward the black soldier, who was sitting quietly, bent well forward to take the stress off his shoulders.
“Never saw him before in my life.” Carter dragged his gaze away from Hadley’s chest. “But I know that dipshit.” He flicked a finger at Poison. “We worked together on the new resort before his ass got fired.” Carter shook his head, sending his blond hair swinging. “What a tool. I figured if he was against somebody, I’m for him.”
“What’s his name?” Hadley asked.
“Wyler McNabb.” Carter smiled winningly at her, displaying teeth as dazzling as the diamond studs in his earlobes. “What’s yours?”
“Not Available.” She turned toward Flynn. “Will you find out what McNabb’s story is? I want to talk to her.” The brunette was hunkered down next to Nichols, arguing with him, from the tone and her body language, though Hadley couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Hadley slid her baton back in her duty belt and squatted next to the girl. “Ma'am, I need to talk with you.” Hadley stood up. “Leave your friend for a minute and let’s go over there where we can have some privacy.” She waited while the girl rose, then steered her toward the dark corner past the jukebox box.
“Am I in trouble?” Up close, she was older than Hadley had guessed. Flynn’s age, maybe; 25 or 26.
“Let’s try to figure out what happened before we start assigning blame. What’s your name?”
“Tally. Tally McNabb.” She rubbed her hand over her In Memoriam tattoo. “It’s really Mary, but nobody ever calls me that except my mom.”
“Okay. Private McNabb?”
“Specialist. But I'm out of the army now. It's just plain Tally.”
“Okay. Tally. Chief Warrant Officer Nichols there said he was talking to you before the fight started. But you two didn’t just meet tonight, did you?”
Tally shook her head. “We served together.”
“Did Nichols come here looking for you?”
Tally nodded. She looked at her feet. She was wearing red and white high-tops. “He wanted to see me again.”
“Uh huh.” Hadley glanced over to where Flynn had hauled McNabb off the floor and was questioning him. “Is that your brother, then?”
Tally sighed. “My husband.”
Oh ho ho. “Wait here.” Hadley crossed the floor, now decorated with blood spatters to go with the spilled beer, and gestured to Flynn. “Officer Flynn?”
He laid a hand on the guy’s shoulder. “Sit down.” McNabb did so, groaning theatrically. “I’ll be right back. Don’t move.”
Hadley retreated a few steps to make sure the guy couldn’t overhear them. Flynn closed in, towering over her. He was definitely taller than she had remembered. Either he had grown, or she had been squashing him in her mind’s eye. “What is it?” he said.
“What’s his story?”
“He says he works construction for BWI and your girl over there’s his wife. He claims the black guy came into the bar and started hassling her. When he told him to back off, the guy swung on him.”
Hadley nodded. “I got a slightly different take. The one on the floor is Chief Warrant Officer Quentan Nichols. Specialist Tally McNabb says they served together in Iraq and that Nichols came here because he, quote, wanted to see her again.”
“Ah hah.” Kevin sucked in his lower lip. “Yeah, that does put a different perspective on it. Whaddya want to do?”
She felt a flush of pleasure. He may have been eight years her junior, but he’d been on the force for five of those years, and whatever they’d had him doing in Syracuse and Albany the year he’d been gone, it was clearly more involved than manning the radar gun and making D.A.R.E. presentations. She had assumed he’d be telling her what to do.
“I think we ought to book both of ‘em. That’ll give ‘em time to cool off, and make sure the bar owner has an arrest report if he has to make an insurance claim.”
“I’m going to try to gauge how safe the wife feels. Ask her if she wants to file a restraining order.”
“Against which one? The husband, or the boyfriend?”
Hadley shrugged. “I dunno.” She almost made a crack about one man being as bad as another, but that wasn’t fair to Flynn. He was a good guy. Too damn good. She had no doubt that beneath the menacing black uniform and the pumped up bod, he still had the heart of an Eagle Scout. An Eagle Scout who’d been a virgin until he was 24. Until she had nailed him. God.
“Okay, look—” she said, then the door opened. Another soldier, in urban camo and a black beret. This one was a woman, older, and she swung through the door with the ease and command of someone used to stepping in and taking charge.
“Military Police?” Kevin said, and then, right on her heels, the chief walked in.
“No.” Hadley started to smile. “It’s her. She’s back.” She waved. “Reverend Clare!”
“...the award-winning Spencer-Fleming calls attention to the stress, nightmares, anger and guilt many military personnel experience on their return to civilian life... Outstanding..”
At the Millers Kill Community Center, five veterans gather to work on adjusting to life after war. Reverend Clare Fergusson has returned from Iraq with a head full of bad memories she’s using alcohol to wipe out. Dr. George Stillman is denying that the head wound he received has left him with something worse than simple migraines. Officer Eric McCrea is battling to keep his constant rage from affecting his life as a cop, and as a father.
High school track star Will Ellis is looking for some reason to keep on living after losing both legs to an IED. Tally McNabb has brought home a secret—a fatal one. Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne just wants Clare to settle down and get married—to him. But when he rules Tally McNabb’s death a suicide, Clare sides with the other vets against him. Russ and Clare’s unorthodox investigation will uncover a trail of deceit that runs from their tiny Adirondack town to the upper ranks of the Army, and from the waters of the Millers Kill to the unforgiving streets of Baghdad.