New Dawn Underground: Chapter 1
CIA Analyst Elora Monro stood on the tarmac of Dover Air Force Base awaiting the arrival of a C-17 cargo plane bearing the remains of her fiancé, U.S. Army Major Brendan Jacobs. Her friend and colleague, fellow CIA Analyst Nick Hildebrandt, stood next to her. Nick had also been close friends with Brendan, he was even slated to be one of the groomsmen in Elora and Brendan’s upcoming wedding. Now, instead of marrying Brendan, Elora was burying him. She and Nick stared silently off into Delaware’s gray March sky—watching, listening. They heard a low rumble begin to approach from the east and looked up just in time to see the C-17 break through the cloud cover. As the plane dipped its wings to circle the airfield and line up for landing, Nick placed a supportive hand on Elora’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“Are you okay?”
“Nope,” Elora replied, feeling her chest tighten as she struggled to maintain her composure.
Nick didn’t press further but kept his hand on her shoulder.
Elora was thankful the mission and Brendan’s death had remained classified, meaning there were no loitering reporters with cameras to capture the arrival of his body. She looked forward to having at least a few minutes alone in peace with him to say goodbye. She was going over in her head what she wanted to say to Brendan, when a commotion and the sound of footsteps approaching from behind pulled her away from her thoughts. She turned to see who was coming and her heart sank. It was Brendan’s ex-wife, Ashley, flanked by their two children and a few others in tow, including an Army colonel and a chaplain. The chaplain and colonel had gone to Ashley’s home the day before to inform her of Brendan’s death and assist her with telling the children if she wished. Elora didn’t think Ashley would bring the kids to the air base to receive his body. She was wrong.
Ashley marched across the tarmac toward Elora with puffy red eyes and tissues in hand, yet her makeup—which she’d slathered on extra thick today—remained perfectly intact. Obviously, she’d had the foresight to wear waterproof mascara. She wore a skin-tight black dress with three-hundred-dollar Jimmy Choo shoes, and not a hair was out of place in her perfectly coiffed shoulder-length blonde bob. She was the picture-perfect grief-stricken military widow. Her Village of the Damned-looking children were the ideal accessories to complete her look, props in her show to garner added attention and sympathy. Ashley had been using those kids as tools and weapons since the day they were born—hell, before they’d even left the womb. She’d trapped Brendan into marrying her when she tricked him with the age-old I’m on the pill bit a few months after they started dating. Brendan was in his final year at West Point, and Ashley was a waitress at a local dive bar frequented by the cadets; their entire relationship was basically the plot to An Officer and a Gentleman, playing out in real life.
Ashley halted her entourage a couple of feet from Elora and Nick, facing them squarely. “I don’t want her here,” Ashley declared in a condescending tone, looking down her nose at Elora. Unaware of the existing family drama, the Army colonel and chaplain exchanged confused looks. “My children are here to say goodbye to their father, and I’m here to grieve the man I was married to for fourteen years. We shouldn’t have to do this with his mistress looking over our shoulders,” she added in a disgusted tone.
Elora was surprised Ashley was making a scene but not shocked; it was par for the course when it came to Ashley. “I’m not his mistress,” Elora corrected, crossing her arms. “I’m his fiancée.”
“You’re a home-wrecking cunt. That’s what you are!”
“Are you seriously going to do this right now?” Elora asked, raising her voice over the sound of the incoming C-17, now touching down at the far end of the runway. “You’ve been divorced for three years.”
“I know you were fucking Brendan years ago, when he was still my husband,” Ashley said through sharply narrowed eyes. “I was his wife for over a decade; you were his side-whore.”
Ashley’s comments were typical, but the fact she was saying them right in front of the children was out of character. That was low even for Ashley.
“Come on, guys, not here, not now,” Nick said, stepping in, trying to diffuse the situation. “Both of you can have your time with Brendan—separately. I’m sure Elora is willing to wait until after the kids have had a chance to say goodbye to their dad,” he added looking at Elora, urging her to acquiesce with his eyes.
Elora pursed her lips but gave a curt nod, indicating her willingness to wait but also making it clear she wasn’t thrilled. Though Elora had grown accustomed to Ashley’s tirades, her words still stung. Elora couldn’t deny there was truth in them. Fact was Elora had had an affair with Brendan several years before his divorce. They’d met ten years prior while the two were studying at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. Elora had enlisted in the U.S. Air Force right after high school and went to DLI following basic training to study Arabic for eighteen months. Several weeks after arriving at DLI, she fell head over heels for a fellow classmate, a handsome Army officer ten years her senior. Elora and Brendan embarked on a ten-month affair that was not only scandalous due to the fact Brendan was married, but also a violation of the military code of conduct; relationships between officers and enlisted personnel were strictly forbidden.
Elora wasn’t proud of the affair and still harbored a great deal of guilt over it. A part of her tried to chalk it up to being “young and dumb,” but she wasn’t stupid, and she knew the affair was selfish. Brendan talked about divorcing Ashley a few months into the affair, but then Ashley wound up pregnant, again. Elora didn’t see it at the time but looking back, she realized it was a manipulative move by Ashley to hang onto Brendan. Ashley knew he was slipping away; she may have even known about the affair. Out of desperation, she used the same trick that helped her rope Brendan into marrying her in the first place, trapping him with a baby. With Ashley expecting a second child and neither Elora nor Brendan wanting to end their military career, they decided to break off their affair. It was one of the most excruciating points in Elora’s life. Emotionally devastated, she struggled with mild depression for a year after the breakup.
Fast-forward a few years, Elora separated from the Air Force and landed a position as an analyst at the CIA. A few months into her new job, she stepped off the elevator one morning at work and nearly collided with Brendan. He’d recently become a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force unit and served as an Intelligence Liaison Officer between the CIA and Delta Force, meaning he was frequently at Langley. A couple of days later, Brendan and Elora got together for coffee and to catch up. Brendan made it a point to inform her of his recent divorce from Ashley while Elora ensured Brendan knew she’d dated off and on since their affair but was currently single. They quickly rekindled their romance, picking up right where they’d left off several years earlier. A year later, Brendan proposed.
They’d planned an intimate ceremony with just family and a few close friends for later that Spring. Instead of putting the final touches on her wedding preparations, Elora was now standing on the tarmac of Dover Air Base, waiting to receive and bury the body of the man she’d been in love with since she was eighteen; and, once again, she was fighting over him with Ashley.
“Are you fucking kidding me right now, Nick?” Elora screeched into the phone.
“Elora, they’re his kids and she’s their mother. What do you want the Army to do?”
Nick had just spoken with the director of the funeral home handling the burial and called Elora to fill her in on the funeral arrangements and itinerary. Brendan would be laid to rest the following afternoon with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His son, Bryce, would be accepting the American flag traditionally folded and handed to the spouse or child of the fallen soldier at the graveside service. Bryce would be seated front and center at the funeral, meaning his mother, Ashley, would be at his side. Elora was content to sit at Bryce’s other side, but Ashley torpedoed this idea.
“This is fucking bullshit and you know it. They divorced years ago, and he and I were two months from getting married! You’re telling me that because I didn’t immediately start popping out babies when Brendan and I first met, I have less rights to him than a woman who manipulated his life from the day she met him?” Elora took a deep breath and tried to quell the rage coursing through her veins. “Look, I am completely on board with Bryce being the one who accepts the flag from his father’s coffin,” she continued in a calmer tone. “I can even live with having Ashley at my side. What I will not rollover and take is Ashley barring me from my own fiancé’s funeral and conjuring this bullshit excuse that my presence will be emotionally traumatic for Bryce and Brooklyn.”
“I am so sorry, Elora, I truly am,” Nick said. “I know how much Brendan loved you and I know he’d be pissed knowing this was happening. But as far as the Army is concerned, neither you nor Ashley have any more rights here than the other. She’s his ex-wife and you weren’t his wife yet. The only ones here with any claim acknowledged by the Army are the kids, which...”
“Which, by default, gives Ashley the upper hand because she’s their mom,” Elora said, finishing his sentence for him. “Yeah, I get it.” She decided to change the subject. “What about my ring?” she asked, referring to the small white-gold band she’d given Brendan the day he left for Iraq. He’d promised to keep it on him, so she was confident he’d had it with him when he died. “Is the ring my dead father gave me in middle school going to end up with the kids too? And, by default, Ashley?”
Nick exhaled. “No, at least not any time soon. For the time being, everything that was on Brendan’s person when he was killed will remain in evidence lockup until JSOC completes their investigation into the raid.”
“What about Brendan’s autopsy? When will the report be ready?”
“Supposed to be done this afternoon. It too won’t be available to the family until after the investigation but, as a member of the NDU task force, you’ll have access to it as soon as you return to work,” he added in a hinting tone. “We should have a copy of the autopsy tomorrow morning.”
“Well, it’s nice to know I have some privileges. Can you tell Derek to put a copy of it on my desk as soon as it comes in?” Elora asked. “I’ll be in tomorrow after the funeral.”
“Elora don’t,” Nick pleaded. “I got you cleared to take the week off; stay home, mourn Brendan, try not to think about work for at least a few days.”
“Are you kidding? The only thing I can think about right now is work, specifically wiping NDU off the face of the planet. You and I both know—hell, everyone on the task force knows—that—” Elora stopped short, knowing what she was about to say was not something she should discuss over a non-secure phone line. “Look, we’ll talk about it tomorrow when I come in.”
Nick wanted to argue but knew it was futile. “Are you going to be okay tonight? You want me to come over?”
“No, but thank you. You’ve gone far above and beyond for me already. I know this is hard on you too.”
“You don’t have to thank me. If there’s anything you need don’t hesitate to ask. Have a good night.”
“You too, Nick.”
A few minutes after hanging up with Nick, there was a knock on the front door of Elora’s townhouse. Shit, who is that? Elora ran her fingers through her long auburn hair, which she hadn’t washed in days, and threw it up into a quick ponytail to camouflage the disheveled mess as she went to answer the door. She looked through the peephole and saw a UPS driver standing on the stoop. She relaxed and opened the door. The delivery driver handed her a certified envelope and asked her to sign his clipboard. She glanced at the sender info on the envelope as she closed the door: JSOC PERSONNEL DEPT, FT. BRAGG, NC —Brendan’s home base. She ripped open the envelope and slid the paperwork out. LAST WILL & TESTAMENT: MAJ. BRENDAN D. JACOBS, U.S. ARMY. Elora plopped the documents on her kitchen counter and poured herself a glass of wine. There was no way she could go through Brendan’s will stone sober. She also had a nagging feeling in the back of her mind that she was going to be even more pissed off after reading it.
She took her wine, curled up on her couch and began flipping through the paperwork. The final page of the packet caught Elora’s eye. A penned note in Brendan’s handwriting.
Elora My Love,
If you’re reading this, I guess I didn’t make it back. Please know how sorry I am that I let you down. There was nothing in this world I wanted more than to be your husband and to make you my wife. It kills me to know—ha ha, see what I did there?
Elora rolled her eyes; yup, this was written by Brendan.
Sorry, I couldn’t help it. In all seriousness, it kills me to imagine leaving you behind before we’ve had a chance to live our life together. A life I’ve been dreaming about since the day I met you. You took my breath away—in every way. Even at just 18 years old, you could more than hold your own in a roomful of military men who outranked you. You captivated me then, and you continue to captivate me each day. You are going to go so far in this life. You’ve already come so far, but I know you are destined for greatness. I’m just sorry I won’t be around to see you change the world. And it is because I know how incredibly strong you are that you’ll understand my decision regarding the disbursement of my life insurance benefits. Ensuring Bryce and Brooklyn are taken care of is my number one priority in this world, and I know you agree with this. Again, I am so sorry I never got to marry you. Please don’t cry for me, I can’t bear to think of tears on your beautiful face. Live your life, love again, and know that I’ll always be with you.
Forever in love with you,
He’d asked her not to cry but Elora couldn’t help it. The full weight of the tragic events of the last seventy-two hours came crashing down on top of her all at once. She was only twenty-nine years old but knew enough about loss and grief to know she would eventually be able to move on, but in that moment, she felt like there was an impenetrable wall between her and the rest of her life. The entire future she’d envisioned, the love of her life, everything was suddenly gone, and she was alone. She shuffled through the paperwork and found the life insurance benefit distribution page. Sure enough, Brendan had allotted her a mere ten percent share of his four-hundred-thousand-dollar life insurance payout. About enough to cover the deposits she’d have to forfeit when cancelling the reservations for their upcoming wedding and honeymoon. Ashley would be getting the remaining three hundred and sixty thousand plus a hundred-thousand-dollar death gratuity. Elora knew this was the right thing to do; the children came first. Brendan was being a responsible father, but she still felt bitter. Then, she felt guilty for feeling bitter. From there it was a vicious cycle until she succumbed to exhaustion and passed out on the sofa into a fitful sleep.