Jean exited the elevator and headed to the Starlight lounge at the Silver Miner hotel where she’d arrived to attend the first reunion of Combined Joint Force Command squadron AG2017. She’d been looking forward to this for months. Much as she loved Karen, her best friend in Greyson, Arizona, she missed the friends she’d made in Afghanistan. There was something about those ties to people she’d served with under difficult circumstances.
When she arrived, the lounge was busy, tables were full, and people were standing in small groups all around the room. Not closed to the public, she showed her badge to the bartender. “Pinot Grigio, please.” He nodded and moved off to pour her drink. The first hour was open bar, part of the reunion cost she’d paid. After that, it was pay your own way. She looked around. Jean recognized several people and was looking forward to catching up. From the Facebook group she and they belonged to, she knew several, like her, who had reached retirement age and had moved on to other jobs. Some related to the work they did in the Air Force, Marines or Army, some not.
The bartender delivered her drink and Jean gave him a smile and a dollar tip. She joined the group standing on the far side of the room. “Hey people!”
“Jean!” Justin Romero clapped her on the shoulder. “Great to see you.”
“You still in supply?”
“Yeah, but with Hellerman, you remember, they had all the building contracts in the box.”
“I remember.” Her mind went back to the investigation she’d endured a few months earlier. She made a mental note to talk to him about it later. Jean traded hellos with the others in the group, Stephanie French, Norman Heller and Brandon Rivers. “It has been forever. I haven’t seen you post on the page, Norm. What are you up to lately?”
“Ugh, I don’t have time to hardly brush my teeth let alone keep up with social media. Took a job with the Department of Defense doing quality control on foreign contractors.” He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “It seemed so simple in the interview. Lots of travel to exotic places. Blech. I’m exhausted from jet lag most of the time.”
“That sucks, old buddy.” Brandon gave Norm’s arm a punch. “I’m still in though I’ve only got a year left. I’m cooling my heels in Anchorage. Joint Force Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Nothing exceptional in my project management projects. I’m already contacting some of the multi-nationals, looking for a high-paying gig.”
Jean never thought much of Brandon. One of the only other project managers in her unit in Afghanistan, his projects were always behind schedule or over budget or both. “What about you, Steph? Plans for when you get out?”
“Not yet.” She sipped her wine—a red of some kind. “Doing admin is great in the military but it’s kind of hard to make that carry over into civilian life. Being an executive secretary could potentially be high paying but I’m not sure I want to go in that direction.”
Jean patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. I remember the time it was just you and me in the office. The commander was stuck out back of beyond and the First Sergeant was out and so was everyone else. It was just you and me and the phones started ringing off the hook because of an imminent attack. And you just a couple of months into the tour. Dang you were cool under pressure.”
Stephanie grinned. “Thanks. Inside I was screaming Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!”
“It never showed. You’ll be great at whatever you want to do.”
Stephanie lifted her glass in salute. “Here’s to all of us. Home in one piece.”
“Here, here,” they all repeated and drank.
The group broke up and drifted to other tables and standing groups. Jean joined the nearest where Kiko Johnson, Ian Waring and Soren Stewart were standing. “Hi everyone.”
Kiko slid an arm around Jean’s waist. “I have missed you. I’ve got two years left in and you’ve been out forever!”
“Yeah, since just after my last tour. How are you?”
“I’m good. My last assignments haven’t been as good as that last one with you. It was just a great group!”
“It was.” Jean looked at the other two. “How are you, Ian? I know you got out just after I did.”
He nodded, squat glass of what Jean suspected was bourbon, his drink of choice back in the day, in his hand. “I got out of networking. Went back to school and got my nursing degree. I’m still on duty around the clock but I’m helping people. I like it.”
“Good for you! I never knew you weren’t interested in keeping the network up. IT pays pretty good.”
“It can. But I was tired of working in a refrigerated room all alone. This is better.” He turned to Soren. “What about you?”
Soren laughed. “I’m a travel blogger. You believe that? I travel, write about it, earn money. Best job ever!”
The whole group laughed. Jean asked, “How do you make money at that?”
“Monetize your blog and vlog. It’s a whole thing. I have thousands of followers.”
“You are going to hafta tell us how that works,” Kiko said. “I could get into that.”
Another person joined the group. “Hey!”
Jean turned. The smile on her face evaporated. “Dwight,” she said in a short, clipped tone.
He greeted everyone else. Kiko was the first to make her excuses. The others followed rapidly after her, leaving Jean alone with Dwight.
Dwight snorted. “Way to clear a room, Jean.”
Jean glared, swallowed what was left of her wine and went back to the bar. “Pinot Grigio, please.”
Behind her Dwight said, “Crown Royal.”
She ground her teeth together. He still couldn’t catch a hint. Walking away should have been enough.
Jean sighed. “Yes, I’m still in Arizona. You still in Massachusetts?”
“Yep. A new company, though. The city of Boston, actually.”
Jean’s eyes narrowed. “Seems like a pay cut.”
He shrugged and as the bartender approached, pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and peeled off a five for the man, dropping it on the bar. He took a long swallow of his drink.
“What’s going on, Dwight. You’re still transparent.”
He shrugged and swallowed the last of his drink while signaling the bartender for another. “You know, another day, another project.”
Jean tilted her head. “Something else.” Her eyes went wide. “The twinkie divorced you!”
Dwight shook his head and sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t call her ‘the twinkie’” He ran his hand through his hair. He always did that when he was frustrated. The same move her son made.
“What happened?” Jean was surprised she wasn’t gleeful. Well, maybe a little. She sipped her wine and waited.
“I don’t know. We were working our asses off, hardly time to see each other even on the weekends, you know what it’s like on a big project. Anyway, a year and a half ago she says she’s had enough. It’s no fun anymore.”
Jean repressed a snort. That was just about what he told her when he left her standing, slack jawed, in their foyer back in Connecticut.
“She said I was boring and we never went out anymore.” He sighed again. “I did my best, I was pulling in great money. But she took off with a guy just five years older than her.” He shook his head. “Anyway, my performance dropped off, the drinking went up, the company let me go when the project went over budget.”
“So that’s why you’re working for the city?”
Dwight nodded. “I have all I can do to pay both alimonies.”
The bartender brought his drink and Dwight sipped it this time.
Jean sipped her wine. “No. I’m not going to relieve you of my alimony. You left me, remember? Just left me standing in the hall while you loaded your suitcase into her sportscar and drove off. Took all of the money out of our bank accounts.”
That brought back the still raw feelings of the very day. She sniffed back imminent tears and took a huge swallow of wine. Then she used the little napkin to blow her nose. “You were a bastard and I’ve had all I could do not to bad mouth you to our son.”
Dwight took a deep breath. “I know. I appreciate that. Though since Jim’s had his family, we don’t talk as much.”
Jean sniffed again. “I don’t feel sorry for you at all. You deserve all the karma you’re getting back.”
Dwight had both hands on the bar. He tapped one against it. “You’re right, I suppose. Yeah. Right.” He picked up his drink and walked away.
Jean rubbed her temple. The band was starting up and the warm-up was giving her a headache. What did he think I’d do or say? That I’d be all happy to see him? She sipped her wine. He’d spoiled the get together. Am I going to have to put up with him all weekend? The thought made her angry. She motioned for another wine and drank down what she had. When the bartender brought her the glass of wine, she left another tip and joined a table, toward the back of the room, away from the band.
"Hey! How are you doing?”
“Hey there, Jean!” Gail Amendola said. “I’m so glad you could make it.” She scooched her chair over so Jean could pull up an empty one to sit at the table.
“Me too.” Jean did her best to forget the whole conversation with Dwight. “What have you been up to?”
“I’m still in Supply but I’m taking a couple of courses before I get out in marketing. Oh my gosh, what a great career but it’s certainly not going to be nine to five! You?”
“I live in central Arizona now, fully retired.”
“Really?” Fletcher Napier sounded surprised. “How did you do that?”
“My retirement pay is a big part. I sold my house in Connecticut after Dwight and I divorced, and that gave me the money to buy in Arizona. I spend my time hiking, volunteering, having fun.”
“Oh. That has got to be the life. I’m still in security. The damn hackers make my life miserable and just like the military, no one wants to pay for good security.”
“That’s too bad, Fletcher,” Jean said. “Money is always an issue, no matter what field you’re in.”
Everyone around the table nodded. Stephanie joined the group, pulling up a chair of her own. Hi everybody!
Everyone greeted her.
“I’m still in medical,” Damon said. “Only instead of being a med tech, I’m now a Physician’s Assistant.”
“Congratulations, Damon,” came from everyone around the table.
“Thanks, I love the work and at a clinic, I get my weekends and holiday’s off.”
“Way to go,” Gail said.
“Didn’t I see you with Justin Romero earlier?” Fletcher asked.
“I was.” Jean nodded.
“What’s he doing now?”
Jean thought a second. “You know, we didn’t hear. We all said what we were doing now, but Justin.”
“Didn’t get to him, I guess.” Gail finished her drink and stood up. “I’m going for seconds, anyone else?”
Fletcher and Damon stood up to go with her while Stephanie stayed behind. “You and Justin good friends, back in the day?”
“We knew each other, from unit get togethers, you know, and I know he worked with Gail, but nothing else.”
Stephanie shrugged. “I’d heard rumors, is all.”
“What kind of rumors?”
“That he was shady. You know what it was like there. Money was flowing through the place like a tsunami.”
“You think Justin was doing something illegal?”
“No, well, not really. But you ever notice how he could get anything? That time when the hospital was desperate for that drug, what was it called,” she shook her head, “I don’t remember. But I do remember he managed to get some faster than anything I’ve ever seen.”
“He had good connections. That’s what supply is for, isn’t it?”
“I guess.” She sipped her drink. “Just funny is all.”
That’s when Fletcher and Gail came back and sat down. “I cannot wait for tomorrow,” Gail said. “I’ve been practicing my golf, just for this.”
Jean laughed. “There are three golf courses in our little town and I’ve never touched a club.”
“You should come out with us tomorrow, Jean,” Fletcher said. “We’ll show you the ropes.”
“Maybe I should.” Jean laughed, Dwight shoved to the back of her mind. She was going to have fun this weekend, Dwight or no.