Welcome back to Two Navy Guys and a Novel, the blog series where we answer the age-old question: how many Navy officers does it take to write a spy novel? (Answer: two). If you’re looking for previous episodes, you can find a complete listing on our web page.
As we reported last week, the manuscript for Weapons of Mass Deception is now in the hands of our editor, and we’re working on covers and book descriptions and the like. So, with all that going on, we figured why not release another chapter?
WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION
Chesapeake Bay, near Annapolis, MD
06 April 2003 – 1645 local
The April wind whipped across the yawl, filling the mainsail of the Hornet and heeling the boat hard to starboard. Midshipman First Class Brendan McHugh gripped the helm, a large stainless steel wheel, and leaned into the twenty-degree cant of the deck. They were making twelve knots easy. A brilliant sun lit the Chesapeake Bay and sailboats from the US Naval Academy sailing regatta—the first one of the spring season—dotted the water around him.
He tugged up the zipper on the neck of his fleece. It was the kind of day he loved, the kind of day he would long for during the Dark Ages of the Naval Academy academic year, that stretch of time between Christmas holiday and Spring Break when the Annapolis weather turned gray and rainy and the full brunt of coursework consumed every midshipman’s attention.
He tried to enjoy the moment, to live in the now. That’s what Mark would have said if he were here. He was glad for the hooded Ray-Bans he wore. It would do no good to have Liz see him crying, she was pretty much a mess herself.
It was odd the way he could almost feel Mark next to him. The funeral had been beautiful, but it wasn’t Mark. The hymns, the flag-draped casket, the stillness in the vast space of the Naval Academy chapel broken only by the sobs of Mark’s mother…
No, the Mark he remembered was sitting behind his right shoulder, feet propped on the bulkhead, cracking wise about something or other.
* * *
Brendan had been a plebe when he’d first met Mark, and not a very good one, either.
It wasn’t the physical routine or even the yelling that got him, it was the memorization. So much to remember and spit back in the face of any upperclassman who wanted to harass you. He had just come from a forty-five minute “training” session with Midshipman Second Class Fermit, a real ball-buster with bad breath to boot. He had Brendan braced up and rigged—Naval Academy-speak for pulling your chin into your neck and holding it there with both hands. Not so bad for a few minutes, but painful after a half-hour.
Fermit had caught him on some minor bullshit infraction and jacked Brendan up against the wall outside his room. He stalked in and out of his open door, stripped to a white T-shirt and uniform trousers, asking Brendan questions in rapid fire and Brendan getting more and more snarled up as his memory hit its limits. He’d already sweated through his uniform, and he wondered if he had a fresh shirt to change into before evening inspection. When Brendan got into this situation, he’d found the best strategy was to go “rope-a-dope” until the upperclassman tired of playing with his victim. But that wasn’t working today.
“Name all the weapons carried on the F/A-18, McHugh.” Fermit’s breath was rank, but Brendan did his best not to react. The bastard probably stopped brushing his teeth to see if he could make plebes gag when he spoke to them.
“I’ll find out, sir!” Brendan responded at the top of his lungs. Assholes like Fermit liked it when you yelled; it showed intensity. He got the added satisfaction of seeing flecks of his spittle make Fermit back up a step.
“What? You can’t name any, McHugh? You are a worthless piece of shit, McHugh. Why don’t you just wash out now and save the taxpayers some money?”
“No, sir!” Why don’t you eat shit and die, you fucking loser?
“Name all the classes of destroyers in the fleet, McHugh.”
Brendan took a deep breath, ready to belt out another “I’ll find out, sir” when he heard her. Liz’s voice, high-pitched, musical with always the hint of a laugh behind it, floated down the passageway. “Go Navy, sir. Beat Army, sir.” As fourth-class midshipmen, or plebes, they were required to double-time through the corridors of Bancroft Hall, make only right angle turns, and “sound off” every time they made a turn. Her voice was getting louder and timed with her footfalls as she squared her corners. She was coming toward them.
Lizzie, stay away. I can handle this asshole on my own.
She appeared at the end of the passageway, a slim figure made smaller by her dark uniform. She squared the corner to face them, yelling out loud enough for Fermit to hear. “Beat Navy, sir!”
Had the situation not been more serious, Brendan might have burst out laughing. Fermit’s face went white with shock, his jaw hanging open as Liz trotted down the polished hall toward them. “Beat Navy” was an insult akin to saying your mother had sexual relations with farm animals. Fermit’s mouth worked open and shut a few times as Liz reached them.
“Plebe halt!” he screamed at her. Liz froze. Fermit blinked at Brendan as if wondering why he was there. “Shove off, McHugh. You, Soroush”—his trembling finger wavered at Liz— “up against the wall. Name all the classes of destroyers in the fleet. Go.” He bent over so his face was right in Liz’s ear when he screamed at her.
Liz refused to meet Brendan’s eye as he pushed off the wall and squared the corner. He could hear her rattling off the names of destroyers as he trotted away. He checked the clock. Twenty minutes until formation. He felt bad about leaving her, but there probably wasn’t a question Fermit could think up that Liz couldn’t answer.
He was almost at his door. A quick shower, a fresh shirt and a review of some likely quiz questions before the evening meal was what he needed to clear his head. He would use that mnemonic trick that Liz had taught him.
“Plebe halt.” Oh shit, not again. He froze.
“Come in here, McHugh.” The voice floated out from an open doorway to his left. He did a military left turn, ready for the worst.
“Don’t just stand there, McHugh. Get in here.”
Brendan trotted to the door and rapped his knuckles on the jamb. “Midshipman Fourth Class McHugh, requesting permission to enter—”
“For Christ’s sake, will you get the fuck in here, McHugh? And stop shouting at me.” Mark’s black-stockinged feet were propped up on his desk and he was stripped to a white T-shirt and gym shorts. His blue eyes, crystalline in appearance, added to the power of his smile.
“At ease,” he said.
Brendan went to parade rest, his hands crossed in the small of his back, senses on full alert. Mark’s approach seemed relaxed enough and he had a reputation among the plebes of the company as a “cool” upperclassman, i.e. not an asshole, but Brendan had never spoken to him.
“For fuck’s sake, McHugh, relax. I’m not going to bite your God-damned head off. I’ll leave that to dicks like Fermit.” He spit out the second-classman’s name like a bad taste in his mouth.
Brendan, still wary, allowed his hands to drop to his sides and his shoulders to ease down a notch. Be careful, this is how they get you.
Mark chewed his lip. “Fair enough,” he said. “You don’t trust me and that’s probably a good thing for your own survival. You’re a hockey player, right?”
Brendan nodded. “Yes, sir,” he replied in a normal voice.
“I’m recruiting for the sailing team. How about you crew for me in the off-season?”
Brendan’s eyes must have widened because Mark laughed out loud and let the legs of his chair hit the polished floor. “No tricks, McHugh. I’m on the level. I need a crew and I think you’d do a good job. Plus it gets you away from the Hall for a few overnights and weekends… away from that dickhead down there.” He cocked his head toward the door where they could both hear Fermit screaming at Liz. His voice had reached a hysterical pitch, probably because she had answered all his stupid questions and he was frustrated.
Brendan nodded at Mark. “I’ll do it.”
“Good choice, McHugh,” Mark laughed. “Shove off, I’m going to catch a catnap before dinner.”
Brendan turned toward the door and placed his uniform cap on his head.
“Oh, and McHugh,” Mark called to him. “Bring your friend, what’s her name—Soroush? I can use her, too.”
* * *
Brendan blew out his breath. Crewing for Mark had made his plebe year at the Academy bearable. It gave him and Liz a place to get away from the Hall for a few hours or a weekend. He owed Mark everything.
Screw the funeral. He would remember Mark the way he would have wanted to be remembered: sitting in the stern of the yawl, feet up, blue eyes hidden behind his Ray-Bans, a smile on his face from the last joke he had shouted out to them. Not as a closed casket.
Of course, all that was Mark before 9/11, the day that changed them all. Mark was a Marine first lieutenant when it happened and he was part of the first wave of troops that entered Iraq. Overnight he went from carefree Mark to Marine Mark. The playful blue eyes went cold with fury and the jokes became less frequent.
Brendan looked over his shoulder. Liz was hunched over a chart in the stern, her legs braced against the bulkhead. She had been looking at the same chart for twenty minutes, a pencil loose in her grip.
“Hey, Liz, you okay?”
She raised her head, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, but Brendan could see the tracks down her cheeks. The wind blew her short dark hair across her face, but she made no attempt to push it away. She smiled at him. Well, she tried to smile.
It’s okay, Lizzie. I miss him, too. That’s what he should have said, but instead he plastered his face with a wide grin. “Any idea where we are?” he asked. Mark’s favorite line. This time she gave him a real smile.
“Does it really fucking matter? We’re not in the Hall, are we?” They both laughed—for real—but Brendan felt the sting in his eyes again.
Her face froze. Liz stood, her finger pointing to starboard side of the boat. “Man overboard,” she screamed. Brendan saw a flash of red hair whip by the gunwale.
The crew reacted instinctively. As Liz kept her finger pointed at the target, Brendan brought the 36-foot yawl around. The crew of eight called to one another, and Brendan took a mental tally of the missing voice. He needn’t have bothered. From the red hair, he already knew it was Don Riley.
He swung the helm to bear on Liz’s pointing finger, and fumed to himself. The main sail was down in heaps on the deck and he started the engine. Once they saw that Hornet was able to recover their man, the rest of the sailboats in the regatta whipped by them.
Midshipman Fourth Class Donald Riley was his and Liz’s attempt to pay it forward. Just as Mark had done with them, when he and Liz were named co-captains of Hornet, they picked a plebe from their company to join their crew. It would be their way to give back, their memorial to Mark’s generosity of spirit.
Riley was a terrible plebe, there was just no other way to say it. Brendan was only 5’10”, but Riley was even shorter. And heavier, a lot heavier. The kid had been off and on “Sub Squad,” Academy slang for the midshipmen who failed their quarterly PT tests, and without help from Liz and Brendan, he’d probably still be there. He was their project, and they’d picked a doozie.
Still, the kid had skills. With a near eidetic memory, Riley consumed information like most people breathed air, and some claimed his computer talents were near hacker level. Unlike Brendan, this kid never had any issue with memorization and his academic scores were tops in his class. But that wasn’t what made Liz and Brendan choose him. Riley was one of the post-9/11 crop of midshipmen, the ones who never would have considered a military career had they not been touched by the terrorist attack.
Riley’s uncle, a bond broker, had been in the World Trade Center when the planes hit. Riley never spoke to him about it, but Brendan had heard his uncle managed to call their home answering machine minutes before his tower collapsed.
No, they’d made the right choice with Riley. What the kid lacked in physical prowess he made up for in guts.
Liz picked up the tethered life ring. She swung it wide, and Brendan watched the orange ring arc over the chop toward Riley’s pale face and red hair. Brendan killed the engine to stop their headway. Two more crew members took the rope from Liz and hauled Riley toward the boat. When he was close enough, they reached over the gunwale and hoisted Donald Riley into the cockpit. The boy collapsed to the deck, splashing water over Brendan’s Docksiders, his pale belly spilling out from under his shirt. One of the crewmen muttered “fucking Riley” under his breath and took a seat on the bench.
Liz whirled on him. “What the fuck is your problem, Richardson? Have you forgotten we’re in a race here? Move it!”
The two crewmen scrambled forward to the winches as Brendan swung the helm and put them on a bearing to fill the main sail again.
Liz knelt next to Riley. “You okay, Don?”
Riley sat up. His voice was hoarse. “I’m sorry, Liz. I just slipped and it happened so fast…”
Liz helped him onto the bench next to her. “Go get some dry clothes on, Don, and then we need you back on station. We’re in a race here, or have you forgotten like those other knuckleheads?”
“No, ma’am. I’m on it.” Riley gave her a bright smile. He slid forward and disappeared into the tiny cabin. Brendan kept his face impassive as he watched from behind his dark glasses. He was going to miss her when they graduated, but she’d make a great officer—and besides, Marine green was a good color for her.
He watched Liz angle her body as the deck canted beneath their feet again. They had one of the faster boats in the regatta, if they kept this kind of speed on they might even place in the top five. She leaned into him, and for just a moment lay her head on his shoulder.
“Do you have any idea where we are?” she said softly.
“Does it really fucking matter? We’re not in the Hall, are we?”
* * *
We hope you enjoyed this brief taste of WMD. We plan to release more chapters in the coming weeks. If you’d like to get a short email notification whenever new chapters are posted, you can sign up here.
David Bruns is the creator of the sci-fi series The Dream Guild Chronicles, and one half of the Two Navy Guys and a Novel blog series about co-writing the military thriller, Weapons of Mass Deception. Check out his website for a free sample of his work.