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The Night in Question 

Toby Ryan looked longingly in the direction of the attractive young woman walking toward him across his huge living room.  She was carrying a half full bottle of wine.  Returning his smile, assuming the look was meant for her, she said, “This is a good Merlot.  1970 is the year I was born.”  As she put her arms around his neck Ryan caught the wine bottle securely with his right hand to avoid it spilling. He was not concerned about his expensive Persian rug being stained.  His whole attention was focused on saving the precious wine.

         The wine was moderately priced and from California.  What made it precious was the fact it contained alcohol.  Not a lot of alcohol; but enough to help him survive another night.  If he was embarrassed his affection was for the wine, not the young woman, he didn’t allow his poker face to give his embarrassment away.

         Much of Ryan’s considerable success in life was built upon his poker face and his ability to convince people black is sometimes white.  The fact he was considered by some, who rank these things, to be one of the best criminal defense lawyers in the country was a source of some pride to him.  He was often asked to appear on television with the likes of F. Lee Bailey, Roy Black and Johnnie Cochran.   Fame and professional respect were important to him but not as important, lately, as his need for alcohol.

         He’d met the young woman earlier in the evening while appearing on a cable talk show.  The show was hosted by a washed up actor with the worst hairpiece in television.   His fellow guest had been a woman prosecutor whose fame was based on recently losing one of the monthly “Trials of the Century”.   Ryan was not sure why he made these television appearances.  He’d recently read an expanded version of the old saying, “Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.”  The update added, “And those who can’t do either commentate on cable television.”

         The lawyer had long ago convinced himself it was harmless to discuss complicated legal issues with people who refused to have their opinions changed by either the facts or the Constitution.  But Ryan knew he could convince himself, and many other people, of just about anything if he put his mind to it.

         These appearances brought clients into the bottomless money pit his law practice had become.  And it was a good way to meet attractive young women.

         Attractive young women were the best people he’d found to drink with.  They didn’t make pigs of themselves with the wine.  He usually got more than his half of the bottle.  And mainly they kept him from breaking his last remaining intact rule about drinking.  If he was drinking with them he was not drinking alone.  He had convinced himself he was successfully dealing with his drinking problem as long as he didn’t drink alone.

         A federal prosecutor he’d once defeated in a white collar fraud case was widely quoted as saying, “Toby Ryan can pee on a juror’s foot and convince him it’s raining.”  On some level Ryan knew he was peeing on his own foot when he drank.  He’d stood up at many meetings and announced he was an alcoholic.  But lately he had been having inordinate success in convincing himself that he could drink a little wine.  It was a negotiated settlement of his problem in his mind, an internal, personal plea bargain.

         Ryan set the precious bottle down gently as he guided the young woman toward the bedroom.  He felt some small shame over his deception but he could live with it.  She believed he was motivated by lust for her.  He knew he wanted merely to separate her from the several inches of wine remaining in the bottle.  In a “waste not, want not” spirit even his mother would approve of in any other context, he planned on drinking the remaining wine first thing in the morning.  He would, of course, offer her some of the wine.  But odds were she’d turn it down.  The offer and its refusal would satisfy his not drinking alone requirement. 

         Would the young woman be flattered if she knew she had distracted him enough he could leave the wine until morning?  It was more of an accomplishment than she would have likely understood.

         But Ryan was not totally without conscience.  As he moved down the hall lined with photos of his past, including some with his buddies in Vietnam two years before his lovely young companion’s birth, Ryan sincerely wished his higher power would make him a better person.  But it could wait until morning.

         He could usually rationalize his bad behavior.  He could convince himself he was just “goal oriented.” This was generally accepted as a good thing if he didn’t look too closely at the goal.  But the old photos reminded him of a time when there were more important things in his life than his next drink.

         Much later when the ringing phone jarred him awake he could see the dawn breaking over the city through the bedroom curtains. Ryan looked at the young woman, whose name he couldn’t remember, sleeping next to him in the rumpled bed while waiting for the machine to answer.

         First came his own recorded voice from the tinny speaker, “You have the right to remain silent.  If you give up that right I’ll call you back.”

         After the beep he heard a familiar voice say, “Toby, it’s on CNN!  Your army buddy Norman Kane is in a world of trouble.  Pick up the damn phone Toby!” 

************************ 

 At about the time Ryan had been leading his new friend into his Atlanta bedroom, some 600 miles to the north events had started to unfold that would drastically change Ryan’s life as well as the lives of several others in one of the old photos hanging in his hallway.

          Inside a modest wood frame house one of the men shown in the front row of the largest of Ryan’s army photos had come instantly alert.  The sound which had awakened him was unmistakably to his ears.  He had heard it many times in Vietnam.  It was small arms fire in the night.  And it was close. 

         Nothing else sounds exactly like it.  No one who has ever heard it can forget how it sounds.  Startled from a sound sleep, it took Norman Kane a few seconds to realize he was in his own home, not in a rice paddy half a world away.  In just those few seconds icy sweat soaked his body.  Fully awake, he heard more gunfire.  His wife was sitting up in the bed next to him.  The blue numbers on the bedside clock glowed "2:22."

        "Call the sheriff," he said pulling himself from the bed.  Not wanting to turn on the light, he reached into the darkness for his jeans from the chair, then for the pump shotgun leaning against the wall.

         "The phone's dead," she told him.  She replaced the useless receiver and picked up a small, whimpering baby lamb wrapped in a towel from the box next to the bed, cuddling the shivering creature to her breast.

         "I'll call from the van," he said.  They both knew the van was on the other side of the shooting.  Neither mentioned it.

          Kane was moving now.  Doing what he did best; taking charge under fire. Doing what needed to be done to engage the enemy, to protect his home and family.  He was a trained, professional soldier.  Once he had soldiered for his country.  Now it was for a smaller group.  But the dynamic was the same.

         "Take Sam and the princess and get on the floor in the bathroom.  Freddy will guard the door.  I'll call the sheriff when I can." 

          In the front room he heard the dead bolt click open.  He turned toward the sound, swinging the shotgun barrel toward the ceiling.  A small figure carrying a baby was handed through the doorway.  His wife took charge of the new arrivals guiding them toward the interior bathroom.  Neither the baby nor the lamb made a sound.  More gun fire shattered the usually peaceful country night.

          As Kane moved through the open door he called quietly, "Freddy?"

         "Yo," came the response from the darkness.

         "My phone is dead."

         "Mine, too."

         "Here's the plan.  Give me a minute to get into position and then turn on the outside lights.  Hold your fire.  But if they get through me and threaten the family, kill them."

         "Roger that, LT."

         Kane moved silently around the corner of the house, toward a forward position of cover and concealment.  He did not need to be quiet.  More shots echoed through the darkness.

         Two men, bikers from the local outlaw motorcycle club, were in the pasture in front of him.  Both were armed with high-powered rifles.  They were whom he had expected.  But he had assumed there would be more of them.  One of the men was drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels.  The other was taking aim at an ostrich in the pasture.  As he watched the biker begin to squeeze his trigger again Kane wanted to shoot now to save the bird.  But there was a plan and he would stick to it.

         Besides he could not kill a man to save a bird, no matter valuable.  He looked at the other ostriches scattered throughout the field.  Many were in dead heaps.  The rest of the totally defenseless creatures were running in panic for their very lives. 

         His breath came quicker as his hatred for the bikers grew.  He fought for control of his breathing.  There would be time to hate them after he got command of the situation. He might need to hate them then.

          His mission was to protect his family and, only incidentally, to stop them from slaughtering his expensive birds.  He watched the men carefully while getting better control of himself.  The biker with the bottle set it down and raised his rifle toward another bird as it shrieked across the field.  Kane could hear loud laughter as the shooter lead his target.

 As Kane’s eyes adjusted he became aware of at least two more figures in the darkness.  They appeared to be women.  They were also laughing drunkenly but did not appear to be armed.  They were only a secondary threat.  The man again focused his attention on his more dangerous enemies, the ones with confirmed weapons.

Kane braced his elbows against the wood pile and waited for the lights.  The position was awkward and the shotgun was heavy.  It seemed an eternity had passed but he knew the lights would come on exactly sixty seconds from the time he had given his order to Freddy.  His mind was clear now.  He took quiet comfort from the fact, even if they got through him; they could still not get to the house.  Freddy would kill a battalion of bikers if necessary to protect the family.

If Kane had a platoon, or even a squad, he would have flanked his enemy in the darkness.  "Flank them, flank them, and flank them again," Stonewall Jackson had said. Jackson had died defending his home not far from this farm.  But Kane had only Freddy.  He felt confident he had deployed his modest force in the most efficient manner available to him.  He was a trained soldier to whom tactics, the weighing of options, came automatically.

Suddenly he heard the barking dog charging from Freddy's house.  Angel was loose and was going to chase off the invaders.  The dog didn't understand about guns. He just instinctively protected his home and the people he loved.  But Angel changed the situation dramatically in Kane's mind.  He could sacrifice the ostriches, but not the dog.  Sam could not lose Angel without changing her life drastically for the worse.

One of the armed enemies was trying to improve his aim at a running bird. The other tried to locate the barking dog in the darkness.  Bright lights suddenly flooded the pasture.

"Freeze! Drop your . . . "  Both of the armed men were turning toward him with their rifles.  And, he suddenly realized, toward the house and family behind him.  In that instant he knew he should have taken another position away from the house, even if it afforded him no cover.  But it was too late now.  He could not risk either of them getting off a single round.  Kane fired the shotgun again and again as fast as he could pump the five shells through it.  The first shot, a deer slug, tore into the chest of the closest biker, killing him instantly.  He swung his fire toward the remaining threat.  After the second shot, a buckshot load, the surviving intruder was still standing.  Another deer slug tore into his thigh.  The man screamed but would not drop his rifle nor go down.  The remaining two rounds stopped his screaming.  It was suddenly deathly quiet in the field.

Norman Kane lay on the ground.  He wondered how he could have been so careless as to draw fire toward his family.  It had been a long time between battles and Kane’s soldier skills were not as sharp as they had once been.  He also wondered how he could have forgotten to lock the wheels on his chair so the recoil of the shotgun couldn't knock it out from under him. 

He was aware of Freddy standing over him, reporting.  "Both men are dead, LT.  Their women are running, screaming, down the road.  I'll call the sheriff from the van."

Kane watched his friend jog away with his M-16 at port arms.  Freddy had not offered to help him back into his wheelchair.  But he had not expected the offer and would not have accepted it anyway.

As he pulled himself up into the hated wheelchair he saw Freddy enter the expensive, hand-controlled van, with the "handicapped disabled veteran" tag, and pick up the phone.

Norman Kane thought this war was over.  But it was only beginning.      

 

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