A Tyler Christmas
Copyright© 2016 by AA Nemo
Cause no matter how big the storm; I know I can find a place that’s warm. The sun is shining somewhere in Texas. I hope it’s shining for her – somewhere down in Texas. – Jason Boland
Palo Alto, California
Dillon Chandler got the young woman from the Navy situated in the living room of the spacious Palo Alto home. That large room, which faced the drive, was pretty formal and primarily used to greet guests. The more-used family room, which overlooked the south end of San Francisco Bay, was where the family spent most of its time. He was headed that way, but dreading it.
Dillon was what in years past might have been called a butler. Now his title was ‘Household Manager, and Personal Assistant to Ms. Hawthorn, ‘ but he was much more. Not only did he manage the household staff of four, but he also took care of ‘things’ for Ms. Hawthorn and her daughter Cassandra Cavanaugh, and also their now-permanent houseguest Erica Patterson. Among those ‘things’ was security for the trio.
Born and raised in Keswick, England, in the Lakes District, he had gone off with his best mate Joe Tyler to the service when they were nineteen. There really wasn’t much opportunity for young men in Keswick unless it was in some way connected to the tourist industry. That wasn’t what he wanted, so on a lark they decided to try for the SAS, the Special Air Service. Joe didn’t make it through the training but Dillon, at six one and one hundred ninety, thrived on it. So for twenty years he was in many of the hellholes in the world at one time or another, including Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Wounded (again) in Libya in 2011 he decided to hang it up, but at forty-three he was too young and too poor despite his military pension to sit back and do nothing, so on another lark he attended butler training in London. Apparently a lot of wealthy American families decided they had to have a butler from the UK. A year after he left the military he went to California and interviewed with maybe a dozen families. It was a disaster.
It was the summer of 2013, and Dillon quickly learned that it would be impossible to work for these insufferable people who only saw an English butler as a status symbol and had no real idea what a butler did or what he could do. What was that saying, ‘An ounce of pretension was equal to a pound of manure?’ Yes, based on that formula these Californians were swimming in manure.
Before giving it up and heading back to the UK he had one more interview, and there he found his home. Recently divorced, Pamela Hawthorn was a tall, thin, auburn-haired beauty who was smart and funny, and was not reluctant to tell him she was a recovering alcoholic so there was no alcohol in the house. She was probably no more than a couple of years older than he was and genuinely kind and giving. In the three and a half years he had worked in her household he had inexorably fallen in love with her. Her daughter Cassandra had become a surrogate for his own daughter, Felicia, who was a second year student at university in the UK. Felicia had been the product and the blessing of his short-lived marriage to a fiery-tempered Spanish woman. Fortunately, his daughter got her mother’s good looks and his mild temper. They communicated almost daily and he hoped she would join him in California upon graduation. Pamela said she would be welcome to stay with them for whatever time she needed to get adjusted and find a job.
Reluctant to spoil the festive mood, he stopped at the French doors to the family room and took a few moments to watch the three women. The room was dominated by a large, beautifully decorated evergreen. Pamela, Cassandra, and Erica were in the midst of wrapping presents, and Christmas music played softly in the background. They had changed into casual jeans and sweaters upon their return from shopping in San Francisco. To him they looked beautiful in anything they wore, especially Pamela. They were his charges, his family, and he was fiercely protective. He was still dressed in the perfectly fitted gray suit he had worn on the excursion to the city a few hours ago. He could have hired a driver as part of the staff but he never felt comfortable entrusting their safety to anyone else. It was difficult to find a man or woman who was trained as he was and who would also lay down his life for his charges.
He knew the appearance of the young woman from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was going to disrupt the happy scene in front of him, because the visit would certainly be about James Cavanaugh. He watched Pamela, her hair in a short, youthful ponytail, as she concentrated on getting a bow on a gaily wrapped package just right. She always made his heart skip when he was around her, and he was often in her presence, whether it was about a household matter or consulting on a guest list for dinner. Sometimes she asked him to share coffee in the large kitchen while they just talked. Dillion particularly enjoyed those times. Yes, he was always around, but she never treated him as if he were a servant.
She had come to rely on him for advice, and on a few occasions comfort in the form of a hug, or just understanding, especially in the last year since the image of James Cavanaugh had made an appearance. His presence seemed to haunt the place. Pamela had several photos of him around the house. James Cavanaugh was a dark-haired, dark-eyed young man with an easy smile who had chosen to walk away from Pamela and his family. At first, Dillon didn’t know why, although after one encounter with the ex-husband he had suspicions.
Pamela didn’t date. Occasionally she’d attend some charity gala with friends or another couple, but she turned down all invitations for dates. As she was considered a prime catch even among the wealthy beauties that made up the San Francisco social scene, such refusals were frequent.
Despite the divorce, there was always the problem of her ex-husband showing up at the same function drunk with some bimbo on his arm. Dillon had met him once. It was late summer after one of those charity events, about three months after he’d started working for her in 2013. Dillon had brought the Jag around to the front of the hotel where the event was held and had just come around to open the back door for her when Tom Cavanaugh appeared. Pamela was obviously distressed and was hurrying as fast as her high heels would take her when Tom bolted out the front door of the hotel and yelled at her, ‘Stop you bitch!’ As she reached the car Cavanaugh caught up to her and grabbed her bare upper arm and jerked her around. Dillon saw her wince and she cried out. Seconds later Tom Cavanaugh was lying on the sidewalk gasping for breath while Dillon stood over him, fists clenched, barely able to restrain the urge to kill the bastard. He controlled his breathing and temper; got Pamela buckled in the back seat, went around to the front and got in. Cavanaugh would never know how close he’d come to death that night. He had assaulted one of Dillon’s charges, and Dillon had come close to losing control.
When they got back to the house in Palo Alto he opened the car door for her and she took his hand as he helped her out of the back seat. She held his arm tightly as he escorted her to the front door. As they reached the door he turned to her. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I should have stopped him before he touched you. I promise I will do better in future.”
Pamela smiled a slight smile and touched the side of his face. “You did just fine Dillon. Thank you.” With that she opened the door and disappeared inside. He put his hand to his face where she’d touched him, still feeling the coolness of her fingers.
Cavanaugh’s lawyer blustered about charges of assault and having Dillon deported, but when he saw the security footage from outside the hotel, his threats went away. So did Mr. Cavanaugh.
Now Pamela was going to get some more news about her son. Dillon had never heard all the details, but he did know James Cavanaugh had departed four and a half years ago. That departure had been abrupt, and he had cut off all contact.
Almost a year ago Cassandra had discovered his whereabouts purely by accident. When school resumed after the holidays in January, one of Cassandra’s classmates at Stanford had come to her and asked if she had a ‘hunky’ brother who was in the Marines in Afghanistan. Cassandra was stunned when the young woman pulled out her tablet and accessed a YouTube video of an up-and-coming female country star who had visited military bases in Afghanistan for Christmas 2015, under the auspices of the USO. During the show the young blonde had introduced her security team, which was headed by one Sergeant James Cavanaugh, USMC.
That evening Dillon, Casandra and Pamela watched the entire video on their big screen television. The women insisted he sit on the sofa between them and in the darkened room Pamela and Cassandra confirmed it was James. Early in the presentation the camera caught James as he helped the young singer from a helicopter. He was dressed in his full battle gear and helmet and looked very serious. Pamela found Dillon’s hand and held it tightly as she sat weeping into one of Dillon’s handkerchiefs. Casandra had much the same reaction until the showstopper ending with the young woman’s rendition of All I Want for Christmas.
James seemed to enjoy her attention as the leggy, short-skirted blonde spent much of the song perched on his knee and concluded the song on his lap singing directly to him. At that point, to whistles and catcalls of the audience, she gave him what was far from a staged theatrical kiss.
Cassandra said, with some heat, “I’d like to slap that little slut!”
Dillon noted that James appeared to very much enjoy the song and the kiss, and wondered exactly what additional duties were required of the young woman’s head of security.
At Pamela’s request Dillon followed up with the young woman’s agent about the possibility of additional footage. He discovered she had done interviews with individual Marines, including James Cavanaugh. Most of those interviews had been transferred to DVD’s and sent to the families. The agent said that since Cavanaugh had not provided an address for any family, that particular interview was never sent.
A few days later they were on the sofa again. This time Pamela was holding tightly to Dillon’s arm in the darkened room. The recorded interview was conducted in a room made of what looked like crudely-formed sand-colored bricks. The doorways and windows were sandbagged. Helmet and sunglasses removed, James looked almost relaxed in the presence of the young woman, who stayed off camera as she asked questions. Even though he looked relaxed they couldn’t help but note how hard he looked. His hair was close-cropped; his face was thin and darkened from exposure to sun and wind. Both of the women were shocked at how much older he looked than when the family had seen him last.
Dillon recognized the look on James Cavanaugh - he’d seen it in his mirror enough times in the past to know it was the face of a fellow warrior – a warrior who had seen too much death and desolation in his young life. His estimation of young James Cavanaugh went up markedly.
The young woman asked questions in a conversational style about his hometown and his career in the Marines. He freely admitted he had grown up in Atherton, California and had attended Stanford for a couple of years. He also spoke about his affection for his fellow Marines and a little about the hardships of combat in Afghanistan. When asked, ‘Why the Marines?’ he paused and replied, “It was time for me to grow up.”
When James said that, Pamela gripped Dillon’s arm tightly. He wished he had the nerve to put his arm around her. She was obviously distressed.
The last question was simply, “Is there a special someone back in California you’d like to say something to?” He shook his head. Then she asked “What about family?”
At that point Cassandra gripped Dillon’s hand from one side and Pamela leaned toward the television as her grip on Dillon’s arm intensified.
James simply looked at the camera, the sadness in his eyes heartbreakingly obvious, and said, “No girl, no family.”
The interviewer responded, “I’m sorry.”
He looked at her somewhere off camera and said, “So am I.”
Pamela and Cassandra almost simultaneously burst into tears. Dillon finally put his arms around both of them as they leaned against him, sobbing.
For several days thereafter there was no talk of James, at least to Dillon. Then one Sunday morning he was surprised when Pamela and Cassandra came into his office, which was in the front of his apartment over the garage at the Palo Alto House.
“Dillon, we know this is usually your day off, but we wanted to discuss this right away.” He never minded interruptions from ‘his’ two ladies. “Congressman Issa from southern California has just put out a press release that he’ll be visiting Afghanistan in May. We were discussing going to see him and asking him to make an effort to see James. What do you think?” It was obvious that they had already made up their minds, but he was flattered that his opinion mattered.
He looked at Pamela. “Perhaps you could send a letter with the congressman.”
That got the ball rolling, and the congressman agreed. He had known the Hawthorn family for years, and seemed only too willing to add a meeting with James into his busy schedule and deliver a letter from Pamela.
About the time the congressman left on his fact-finding trip in May, Dillon decided he might call in a favor and get more information about Sergeant James Cavanaugh.
“First Reconnaissance Battalion, Gunny Alvarez!” Dillon was surprised Gunny Alvarez had picked up the phone at battalion headquarters at Camp Pendleton California.
“Gunny, this is Dillon Chandler. How are you?”
“Jesus H. Christ! Is that really you, Sergeant Major?”
Pleased the Gunny remembered him, he said, “It is, Pete, and I’m still breathing thanks to you.”
The Gunny laughed. “Damn straight. Good thing we were in the neighborhood to be able to rescue your Limey asses.”
It was Dillon’s turn to laugh. “Hummm, I would say that it was the other way around, but I can’t imagine how that could have happened since there were no US forces on the ground anywhere near Tripoli in 2011.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Maybe I got it mixed up with some realistic joint armed forces training exercise ... and the fact you were leaking from half a dozen ‘simulated’ wounds when I shoved you onto that helicopter made it that much more realistic.”
“Yeah, and it was a ‘Limey’ helicopter that took me out and at the same time brought more of my people and more ammunition for your people.”
“Good training wasn’t it? Next time, Sergeant Major, when you take on a company of bad guys, wait for backup and remember to duck.” The Gunny’s voice turned serious. “I take it you recovered from those simulated wounds.”
“Pretty much, but I had to hang it up. I don’t heal from those simulated wounds like I used to.”
“Tell me about it!” He laughed, “So what’s up?”
Dillon told him about his employer and her son, Sergeant Cavanaugh, and asked if he knew him.
“Like the SAS, we’re not that big an outfit. I know him, and this is just between us, right?”
“Right. We’re just a couple of joint training exercise comrades swapping war stories.”
Gunny Alvarez went on to describe Sergeant Cavanaugh as a selfless and courageous leader. He had been decorated several times, including several awards of the Purple Heart. It also appeared Cavanaugh didn’t suffer fools and had been reprimanded a few times, mainly for interpreting orders in a way that was sometimes at odds with those that were given by higher headquarters. Recon missions were by definition small unit missions. Cavanaugh prided himself in getting in and getting the mission completed and then bringing all his people back. So far he had a high success rate and never asked his people to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself – the hallmark of a good leader.
“Thanks Pete. I owe you.”
“Hey, you still owe me from last time!”
Dillon laughed but he did propose that they needed to meet soon to figure out who owed whom. They agreed to meet for a tour of Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Major (retired) Chandler would take Gunny Alvarez out to the best restaurant in town and buy him the biggest steak they had on the menu.
Before he hung up, Gunny Alvarez said, “One more thing. The Sergeant is probably as crazy as you were. He hardly gets back here before he volunteers for the next shit mission. He’s spent more time overseas than half the battalion. I don’t know what drives him - he doesn’t have anything else to prove, but he acts like it. I’m not saying he’s dangerous except to the bad guys, it’s just he keeps driving. We’ve both seen it before ... been there – adrenaline junkies.”
“Thanks for the assessment Pete. I hope I get a chance to meet him. By the way, when is his enlistment up?”
“Just a second.” Dillon heard keys clicking. “In about six weeks - end of June.”
“Think he’ll reenlist?”
“He’s good at what he does, but I don’t know. Someone should have talked to him about that already but he doesn’t hang around long enough. As an adrenaline junky I think he will unless...”
“Yes, I know ... gets his ass shot off first.”
Dillon was quiet for a few seconds as he processed that information. “You’re right Pete ... makes it tough to readjust to civilian life, especially when you’re young. He’ll probably stay. Thanks for the information.”
“See you soon Sergeant Major.”
Gunny Alvarez never got that steak dinner. Before they could get together he was deployed overseas again.
December was here and there had been no word from James Cavanaugh despite the confirmation from Congressman Isa that Pamela’s letter had been hand-delivered to him. Nor had there been any response to the other letters she had written. Had he reenlisted? If so, where was he now? Dillon wished he could call Gunny Alvarez and check, but if James was still in the Marines that meant he was probably getting those letters and he had chosen not to respond. It distressed Dillon that James Cavanaugh had not bothered to reply or even acknowledge the letters in any way. Pamela had not given up and she still sent a letter every week.
He knew he was operating without all the facts, and of course his unfortunate but mercifully brief meeting with Tom Cavanaugh told him that life in the Cavanaugh household had to be anything but pleasant, but what had Pamela done to her son to rate being ignored? Or had James Cavanaugh just gone off the deep end and never planned to resurface?
A sudden chill ran through him. What if the woman from NCIS had come to tell the family that Sergeant Cavanaugh had been killed? He quickly discounted that possibility, thinking the Navy would send a senior officer or a chaplain to do that job. So, what did Special Agent Toliver want?
Dillon took a breath and stepped into the room. “There’s a young woman to see you, Ms. Hawthorn. She has shown me her credentials and she’s from the Naval Investigative Service. She’s in the front room.” He handed the woman’s business card to Pamela.
He could see the flare of fear in her eyes, and he was glad she was seated on the big sofa near the hearth. To his surprise, she reached out and caught his hand, squeezing it tightly as he helped her up. He could see tears forming.
He turned her to him and gently held her by the arms. She seemed to have trouble focusing. “Pamela, please look at me.” Once he had her attention he said, “Pamela, I’ve some experience in these matters. If something has happened to James the Marines would send a chaplain or a naval officer. Ms. Toliver is a policeman. This is still probably about James, but not the bad news you’re imagining.”
Her relief was palpable. He hoped he was right.
Pamela held his arm as they walked into the living room trailed by Cassandra and Erica. The dark-haired woman stood as they approached. Dillion thought she looked very young, for all her professional appearance. She moved to greet Pamela, put out her hand and said, “I’m special agent Nan Toliver, are you Mrs. Cavanaugh?”
Pamela managed a slight smile as she replied, “I used to be Mrs. Cavanaugh, up until three years ago, but I go by Hawthorn now.”
“But you are the mother of Sergeant James Cavanaugh?”
“Yes, yes I am,” she replied softly. “What’s this about?”
“Ms. Hawthorn, do you have any idea where Sergeant Cavanaugh is?”
Pamela paled as she shook her head.
Dillon stepped in. “Special Agent, I’m Dillon Chandler and I work for Ms. Hawthorn. Perhaps you would have a seat and start with what brought you here. I can assure you no one here has had any direct contact with Sergeant Cavanaugh in over four years. It was only last January that we learned he was in the Marines and serving in Afghanistan, where, by the way, we presumed he was still serving. Ms. Hawthorn has sent a number of letters to him at his unit, but we have not received any return correspondence or acknowledgement.”
Toliver nodded her understanding and then sat back down. She pulled an electronic tablet from her leather briefcase and then scrolled through a couple of screens. Finally she read, “On fifteen June twenty sixteen, Sergeant James Cavanaugh was severely wounded due to enemy action in Helmand Province Afghanistan and evacuated to the field hospital Bagram...”
“Oh no.” Pamela sagged against Dillon. He guided her to the large sofa which was under the bay window. She grasped his hand and he sat next to her. Cassandra and Erica both found chairs, their faces white with shock.
Special Agent Toliver continued, “On twenty June he was declared stable and was medically evacuated to the military hospital at Landstuhl Germany for surgery and further evaluation. On thirty June he was further transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda Maryland.”
She scrolled through some additional screens, probably skipping to the pertinent parts. “On or about twenty-eight September Sergeant Cavanaugh departed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center without authorization.”
Dillon was the first to find his voice. “So he’s AWOL?”
She replied, “Yes Sir,” and then looked at her tablet again, “effective one October.”
“So the Department of the Navy in their wisdom figured he might have headed for home?”
“Yes Sir. It’s always the first place we check.”
“With a fair amount of success I gather?”
“So, Special Agent Toliver, how did you know to come to this address? Was it in Sergeant Cavanaugh’s records somehow?”
She reached into her leather briefcase and without expression produced a number of envelopes and put them on the coffee table in front of Pamela. Pamela put her hand to her mouth realizing they were letters she had written to her son. The envelopes were unopened.
“The Department of the Navy has no home of record for Sergeant Cavanaugh other than where he entered into the service in San Diego, but all of a sudden these letters started finding their way to Walter Reed, forwarded from Afghanistan to Landstuhl and then finally to Walter Reed. The earliest post mark was from the middle of June. He never received them, of course.”
Dillon provided his handkerchief to Pamela, who was openly crying now.
“So the Capitol Area NCIS office forwarded them to me at Camp Pendleton. Your home’s the return address on all the letters.”