Description: More Deaths Than One: Bob Stark returns to Denver after 18 years in Southeast Asia to discover that the mother he buried before he left is dead again. He attends her new funeral and sees . . . himself. Is his other self a hoaxer, or is something more sinister going on? And why are two men who appear to be government agents hunting for him? With the help of Kerry Casillas, a baffling young woman Bob meets in a coffee shop, he uncovers the unimaginable truth.
“My dad was a CO in the war,” Beth said proudly.
Bob shot a questioning glance at Scott. “A commanding officer?”
Scott snorted. “Not hardly. I registered as a con-scientious objector.”
“He got sent into combat,” Rose said. “Can you believe that?”
Bob drew back. “Combat? A lot of conscientious objectors, including Quakers have served in the military, but they were usually given duties like medic or clerk. I never heard of any being sent into combat.”
Scott shrugged. “Well, they sent me. I don’t know if it was a mistake or someone’s idea of a sick joke.”
“Dad wouldn’t fire his weapon,” Jimmy said. “He believes killing for any reason is wrong.”
“He won’t even kill bugs or spiders,” Beth added.
Kerry laid aside her fork. “It must have been terrible.”
Rose nodded. “They assigned him jobs of a particularly filthy or menial nature, like permanent latrine duty, trench digging, and retrieval of dead bodies.”
“Someone had to do it,” Scott said.
“I know, but they didn’t have to harass you the way they did.”
“They thought I was a coward, hiding behind my religious beliefs to get out of combat duty.” He sighed. “Maybe I was.”
“No you weren’t,” Rose said fiercely. “It took a lot of courage to maintain your dignity in the face of their hatred. And you always had to dodge bullets and skirt explosions on your way to rescue injured men.”
She turned to Kerry. “During combat he had to get the wounded out of the line of fire and to help the medic care for them.”
Kerry’s eyes widened. “I can’t even begin to comprehend the strength it must have taken to survive not only a combat zone, but the torment of one’s own countrymen.”
“I had my faith to sustain me,” Scott said.
Beth shuddered. “They shot my dad.”
“The bullet gouged a furrow on my thigh, a flesh wound.” Scott smiled. “In the movies they always say, ‘It’s just a flesh wound,’ as if it’s nothing, but mine hurt like the dickens. They wouldn’t give me many painkillers, either. One nurse pompously told me they didn’t want us wounded soldiers getting addicted so they cut back, but another nurse whispered that the hospital workers had used the drugs themselves for fun. They must have received new supplies, because I didn’t notice much after those first few days—they kept me doped—but I do remember being transferred to a hospital in the Philippines.”
“Can you believe they sent him back to Vietnam after that?” Rose said. “It makes me furious thinking about it.”
Scott reached across the table and grasped her hand. “When I got back, my sergeant said to me, ‘Now that you know being a conscientious objector doesn’t keep you from getting wounded or even killed, are you ready to do your duty as a combat soldier?’ ‘I have no control over the actions of other people,’ I told him. ‘If the VC choose to shoot me, there’s not much I can do about it. The only choice I have is whether or not to shoot them, and I will not kill anyone.’ He glared at me and ordered me to get out of his sight and to keep out of his sight, because I disgraced the U.S. Army.”
Scott kept silent for a time while his family gazed sympathetically at him. Bob watched them, thinking the man had more than his faith to sustain him.
Scott drew in a breath. “Everyone still treated me the same until after the next engagement. We were under heavy fire, and many of our guys got wounded. I kept busy hauling injured men away from the front line. Afterwards, the sergeant came to me and said, ‘Glad to see you finally got some balls.’ The others guys stopped ostracizing me as if by getting shot I had passed some sort of test, like an initiation, but sometimes I could hear them snickering at me behind my back.”
“Do you think maybe you changed?” Kerry asked.
“No. Well, in little ways, of course. I became more self-confident, knowing I had never wavered in my beliefs even though my faith had been severely tested, and occasionally I have nightmares that make me sick to my stomach, but for the most part I’m the same as always.”
Kerry pushed aside her plate, folded her arms on the table, and gave Scott an intent look. “What kind of nightmares?”
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I can’t.”
“Sure you can,” Jimmy said. “You always say we can do anything.”
Rose gazed at Scott with anxious eyes. “Maybe you should tell her, dear. You have always refused to talk about your nightmares, even to us, but perhaps it’s time.”
“Go ahead, Dad,” Beth chimed in. “You can tell Kerry.”
“But what if you find out my life is a lie?” Scott asked his wife. “What if you find out I’m an evil person?”
Rose looked at him in astonishment. “Evil? You?”
“In my dreams I am.”
“But those are only dreams.”
Scott held her gaze. After a moment he spoke in a voice so low Bob could barely make out his words. “In one of my dreams, the VC is firing on us. I see a man down. He’s hurt badly and is trying to crawl away. I go to help him, but before I drag him to safety, I take his M-16 from him. I don’t know why. I just do it. Then, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, I shoot the VC. I see blood spurting out of the men I shoot, and I hear their screams, but I keep shooting. When the rifle is empty, I return the weapon to the injured soldier, who is staring at me as if he can’t believe what he saw. He laughs, and I awaken with the sound of his laughter still echoing in my ears.
“All the dreams I have are similar to that one, but they involve different firefights and different men, as if I killed many times.
“I don’t know what these dreams mean. I don’t know why I dream them. But the idea that I murdered people, even if only in my dreams, makes me so sick I have to vomit. Sometimes after I’ve thrown up I feel as if I’ve gotten rid of the evil, but other times I feel as if the evil is a permanent part of me, and I wonder if somehow I did do those things.”
He looked at Bob with sad, sad eyes. “But it is only a dream, right?”
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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.