TITLE: The River Man
GENRE: Romantic Suspense
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming, W. B Yeats
Chapter One: Midnight in the Garden of Eden
On the fertile riverbank just north of Basra where the Tigris meets the Euphrates, in a place known as the Garden of Eden, Seth Hoffman waited to die.
He could smell the cordite, the scorched flesh, the acrid scent of diesel on his clothing. He knew what was happening and how it would end. Captives would be executed, their bodies left in a public place where the authorities would be certain to find them.
Live by the sword, die by the sword.
His life didn't flash before his eyes. There was no heart-warming reminiscence of family and friends. Instead, Seth remembered the last time he'd seen his younger brother Thomas when Family Services separated them, putting Tommy in foster care and Seth in detention. He could see Tommy's little face surrounded by blond curls, his nose red from crying, his brown eyes bloodshot and all he felt was --regret.
What would Tommy think of him now? A black ops killer for hire?
He'd screwed up so much while growing up. He was a killer – proud to claim the dozen dead terrorists killed while he and his black ops unit were behind enemy lines, and the hundreds of kills he'd made as an ordinary soldier. But it wasn’t really his fault that his identical twin brother died. A fluke of nature caused the single fertilized ovum to split so that he and his twin shared a single inadequate placenta. Seth just happened to grow larger faster, crowding out his twin so that eventually, the tiny fetus just stopped growing. He died fifteen weeks before birth, his body drying up into a fetus papyraceous.
When Seth was born, his little brother was stuck to him like a tattoo, the body leaving a small indentation on his side, the paper-thin corpse surrounded by a desiccated membrane. His parents named the dead twin Zachary and buried him in a tiny cherry wood box in the family plot beside Seth’s great grandmother and great grandfather.
All his life, that image haunted Seth – a dead Zachary snuggled beside him inside his mother’s body, growing tinier and thinner with each passing week while Seth grew larger and stronger.
When his mother became pregnant again when Seth was four, his mother sat him down and told him that he had an identical twin who died when they were both still in mommy’s tummy. Once, the old bastard claimed that Seth was a spoiled little sonofabitch who actually killed his own brother, hogging the nutrients in the placenta they shared, causing him to dry up like a fallen leaf in autumn.
Until his mother’s death when Seth was twelve, the family made a yearly trek out to the grave and laid fresh flowers on the tiny plot in remembrance of Seth’s first killing, their accusing eyes heavy on Seth’s back as he stood at the grave marker and said his silent apologies for a crime he'd never chosen to commit.
Tommy, born when Seth was almost five, was eventually told the same story – that Seth grew too big in the womb and starved his little brother to death. As a result, Tommy looked at Seth with awe as if he was someone to reckon with, able to kill even before he came into the world. Tommy never held the death of unborn brother against Seth, who in his eyes could do no wrong. Seth always protected him when dear old dad was on a rampage, drunk, a bottle of bourbon in one hand, a knife or bat or gun in the other, depending on what was close by when the frequent rages struck.
Seth carried in his mind’s eye an image of his dead brother – an identical version of Seth at every stage of his development, exceptionally fragile, staying about six inches tall. He imagined that, unlike Seth, Zachary had a soft voice, was shy, and averted his eyes when speaking as if not wanting to impose on anyone – not even to save himself. In contrast, Seth was an extrovert, assertive, in control, never afraid to put his needs first or promote his own causes.
Seth was a survivor.
Now, as he waited to die, Seth felt so much regret. One more tour – that was all he had intended to do – so he could make enough money to find Tommy.
One more tour.
Danger and death were a reality to those deployed in Iraq but like his fellow operatives, Seth felt the rewards were worth it. In truth, Seth was like all the others; he didn't really think it would happen to him. Resignation surpassed fear when he realized how wrong he'd been, and all he could think of was Tommy. It was his face Seth imagined as he was dragged out of the truck to the riverbank, forced onto his knees, a man with a large knife standing at his side while one of his captors spoke in Arabic, reading off their crimes from a page in his hand.
Seth tried to keep focused on Tommy as events around him spiralled down, but the screams of the other two security officers as their heads were sawed off shattered the quiet desert night and brought him back to reality.
Before the assassin could do much with his knife on Seth’s neck, something drew their attention away and Seth conquered the pain and flipped onto his back, kicking out blindly, knocking the man over who stood poised to kill him. Seth rolled down the riverbank, letting gravity propel him until he felt the water, cold and wet, on his legs.
Then darkness closed in as blood loss sent him into unconsciousness.