Bonne Femme by AR Simmons

AR Simmons
By AR Simmons August 11, 2013 19:48

Bonne Femme by AR Simmons

Summary:

Three people. Two former soldiers, each with a mission, each waging a campaign. At the center of their conflict is a vulnerable young woman, alone and far from home.

Richard Carter has come back to Cartier trying to pull hislife together, while Jill Belbenoit has come to finish her degree. He has seen her on campus, but doesn’t know her. When a former squadmate from Somalia, Mic Boyd, turns up unexpectedly and assumes a friendship that never was, Richard allows himself to fall into what he hopes will be only a brief association. The last thing he wants is a reminder of his tour in the famine-racked squalor of Africa.

Mic inserts himself into Jill’s life as well as Richard’s. As attractive women must do, she has learned to deal with unwanted male attention. Unable to disengage from one man, however, she obligates herself to the other. Now she must navigate out of both relationships. Jill reproaches herself for both her naiveté and her manipulativeness. Soon she will have much greater concerns.

Memories, dreams, and flashbacks torment Richard as he tries to discover if what he fears is real, while Jill must decide if he is only a damaged soldier suffering from PTSD, or dangerously delusional and obsessed with her.

Is his nightmare vision the product of a fevered imagination tortured by his war experience and his guilt? Or does he see what no one else can? Is he averting a horror or perpetrating one?

Where does Jill’s real danger lie? Can she trust him? Is the “godforsaken pile of rocks” called Bonne Femme a refuge from peril—or from reality?

The author has rated this book PG-13 (questionable content for children under 13).

Excerpt:

Mogadishu, Somalia

A bright light stabbed outward from the beach. Dozens of hovercraft rumbled shoreward accompanied by low-flying choppers. With full packs and weapons at the ready, they hunkered down, peering toward the still dark coast. The joking gave way to uneasiness, the natural consequence of the decision to bring the force in via amphibious landing. Once ashore, however, it was theater of the absurd. Camera lights blinded. Microphones thrust from the dark. Faceless voices shouted questions as Richard Carter and the rest of his bewildered squad wedged through the raucous reporters and Somali civilians, pressing near to pat their backs and shoulders.

The carnival atmosphere evaporated as he left the cameras behind. He became separated from his squadmates and lost amid a crowd of gaunt faces pleading in a croaking tongue that he didn’t know but somehow understood. A wraith appeared, clutching a too-still baby to withered breasts. Dull-brown skin stretched tautly over her cheekbones like heat-shrunk plastic. Her lips were drawn in a rictus over yellow-brown teeth—a mummy freshly unwrapped. He saw her only a moment, and then she was gone. But neither she nor her baby ever really left him after that. They became his night accusers, first for his failure, and then for the crime.

Cartier, Michigan

2:45 AM, May 12

Diamond-dust frost glinted from the cars. Here and there, lamps dimly lit windows as he drove slowly through the old neighborhood. He pulled into the shadows next to her house, cut the lights and ignition, and waited silently, weighing the risk of being seen by an elderly insomniac. Feeling around the floor, he located the duct tape, tore off two six-inch sections, and slapped them over the dome light. Patting his jacket to make sure he had the keys, he picked up the cold flashlight and got out, easing the door shut. A few blocks to the east a dog barked challenge to the night while farther away, a trucker Jake braked coming off the interstate—early morning sounds.

He paused at the knife-edge of shadow, and then he stepped deliberately into the streetlight glare, turned purposefully, and climbed the stairs as if he belonged. The third and final key worked, eliciting a sigh of relief. He stepped inside, closed the door, and leaned with his back to it, listening intently. No one could be in the house, but his pulse continued to race as it had since he had taken the first irrevocable step that afternoon. Using the flashlight he had masked with the duct tape before starting out, he picked his way to the bathroom. Once inside, he flipped the switch, noting in alarm a frosted window over the bathtub. Then he reminded himself that no one would think twice about a bathroom light coming on in the middle of the night.

Squinting against the harsh fluorescent glare, he checked the medicine cabinet for prescription drugs. A medical condition would greatly complicate things. He found, to his relief, only the usual over-the-counter medicines and ointments. He fetched a pillowcase from the bedroom and put in everything from the cabinet, along with toilet articles, her cosmetics, a hairdryer, and a curling iron. The latter two would be useless, but he took them for appearance sake.

In the bedroom closet, he found two large, soft-leather suitcases. He packed an assortment of suitable clothes together with towels, washcloths, and a box of feminine napkins. A paperback lay on the nightstand. He took it, along with several others from atop the dresser. As an afterthought, he scooped up a handful of pens and two spiral notebooks.

She leased by the year, so there should be no problem with a curious landlord. Her friend, however, had to be taken into account. He went to the computer and touched the mouse. As soon as the monitor lit, he clicked the e-mail icon, scrolled down her list of contacts, and began typing. He proofread the brief message, hoping that it read like something she would write. Then he sent it.

Fifteen minutes later he pulled onto the shoulder of a hill overlooking the lake and turned off his lights. No headlights appeared in either direction, so he turned into the old lane and followed it past the junkyard with only moonlight to illuminate his way until he reached the deserted marina. After loading the boat, he drove to the junkyard and parked between wrecked vans. He checked his watch, and then he popped the trunk, got out the tools, and set to work.

Later, he inspected his handiwork by the light of the gibbous moon. Minus the tires that he hid inside a wrecked van, his car was indistinguishable from the other derelicts. Satisfied with the camouflage, he stowed the license plates and tools along with her hair drier and curling iron in his trunk, pocketed the keys, and ran back down to the marina.

The morning wind had yet to freshen, so the water was still relatively calm. He paddled out into the cove, listening carefully for the sounds of boats nearby. Detecting none, he started the engine and headed out at low idle. Using his flashlight to set the compass, he took a bearing slightly north of a bright star hanging low in the western sky and slowly brought his speed up until the big Merc planed her off. Then Richard Carter sped off into the dying night and away from everything normal and sane. Cold numbed his face as the boat made steady progress westward across mercifully calm waters. The big lake was cooperating so far.

“What have I done?” he wondered.

More to the point, what might he have to do?

Part One

Chapter 1

Pere Marquette University, September 30

(Eight months earlier)

Six years had worked inevitable change on both Cartier and him. Shrugging acceptance of the undeniable, Richard Carter leaned against the warm concrete fronting Academic Hall and cupped his hands against the onshore breeze to light up. The seductive tickle in his chest was a memento mori. He should quit of course, just as he should also quit this other thing, but he lacked the will. With another mental shrug, he continued to survey the swarm of class change, hoping to catch a glimpse of the auburn-haired girl he’d seen the day before. She was undeniably beautiful, but that wasn’t it. It was that she appeared so wholesome and pure. It was probably all silliness, yet he wanted to see her again, at least once. Perhaps it was because she seemed to be what he no longer was and never could be again.

He smiled wryly.

She’s half your age.

Doing the quick math, he corrected. Okay. Three quarters.

Actually, he could be no more than five years older, but at her age that was a lot.

She’s a total stranger. What? You’re a stalker now?

Most of the oncoming faces seemed fresh from high school. He wondered where they were when he was in the Mog. The boys were most likely playing Pop Warner football or park league baseball. Was she playing with dolls?

Do little girls still do that?

The languid swagger of a muscular man his own age arrested his eye. A tanned face came into sharper focus. Dark, close-cropped hair crowned a wide forehead over intense brown eyes, aquiline nose, and square, dimpled chin.

“Boyd?”

“I knew I’d run into you here—in Cartier that is,” said the man striding toward him.

And there was that cocky smile.

He slapped Richard’s shoulder as if they were old friends.

“Sure as hell didn’t think I’d find you on campus though.”

“What brings you to Michigan, Mic? I didn’t think you’d ever leave the Corps.”

The smile faded momentarily.

“I almost reupped, but all that peacekeeping and nation-building—we didn’t go into the Corps for that crap, right? Life’s short. Anyway, I didn’t want to do grunt work, so I’m looking around for a school I can afford. I find Pere Marquette online, and the price is right—then it comes to me: the damned place is in Cartier, Michigan. Hell, I say to myself, that’s where my old buddy, Ricky, comes from. So here I am.”

They had hardly been buddies.

“Come off it, Mic. You didn’t come up here because of me.”

“It was an added benefit,” he said seriously. “I mean I grew up in the Corps. I don’t know any civilians. You and me, we’re ‘brothers in arms’ and all that. We can knock down a few beers and relive our glory days . . .”

He trailed off as he turned to stare at a coed ascending the steps.

“I’d like to get me some of that,” he mumbled, unable to stop staring until she was out of sight. “So, are you taking classes too, or did you just come to check out fresh poon?”

A gamut of de rigueur juvenile responses came reflexively to mind. “Criminology classes,” he said instead. “If things work out, I’ll get into the Michigan State program next fall.”

“Law enforcement?”

“Yeah, I worked for the sheriff’s department this summer.”

“County Mounty. Cool. You’re in uniform but still a civilian. Damn! I envy you, Ricky.”

“Don’t. So far, all I’ve done is run the back roads on the graveyard shift. Not much exciting about it.”

“Never know,” replied Mic with a tight smile. “You could walk into something you don’t know is there and get your damned head blown off. Can’t tell the bad guy from the good guy until he pops a cap on you—kinda like Somalia.”

In Mogadishu Mic had seemed the perfect warrior. Unlike Richard, he was eager, decisive, fearless, and uncursed by doubt or second thoughts. Now Richard wanted to forget Africa. Mic turning up didn’t help.

“Things are a little clearer than that here,” he said.

“Hey, buddy. Remember: when you start thinking everything’s cool, that’s when it comes down. A guy ain’t got his eyes open, that’s when he buys it.”

Mic glanced at his watch. “Look, let’s get together later and tip a few.”

“I’d love to, but I’ve got some stuff to do, and . . . I don’t drink much anymore.”

“Come on, Ricky. We’ve gotta have a beer for old time’s sake. Know where Tonto’s is?”

“Yeah, but I—”

“Six. I’m counting on it.”

Mic turned and took the steps two at a time without looking back.

What can it hurt? Richard asked himself. I’ll have a few beers and then stall all this at the nodding acquaintance level.

Just then she appeared, hurrying up the steps in tandem with the shorter dark-haired girl he saw her with before. He caught a few words of conversation as they passed within arm’s length, noting her slight accent.

French Canadian, he decided. Wonder why she came to a small school in Michigan when Quebec has several excellent ones probably cheaper?

Her companion’s accent was not nearly so subtle—definitely Hispanic.

He lingered until they had ascended the steps and disappeared through the doors of the domed administration building. He took a last introspective drag on his cigarette, wondering how different his voyeurism was from Mic’s. After he flicked out the coal and field stripped the butt, he gathered his books. He had been unable to put Mic off, and he was unwilling to forget about the girl. It was pathetic.

The “few beers,” intended as a token tribute to a friendship that never was, began an ordeal Richard couldn’t end. So it was that he found himself a week later in the college cafeteria enduring another interminable war story when the girl and her Hispanic friend took a table nearby. Mic picked up on it immediately when his eyes wandered toward her.

“That white girl’s a sweet looking piece,” he whispered. “Know her?”

“I haven’t met either of them.”

“Come on then.”

Mic was moving toward the girls’ table before Richard could stop him. He didn’t want to meet the girl this way, but Mic had taken charge in his usual to-hell-with-it way, and all he could do was follow his lead. He braced himself for a chilly and permanent rebuff, but somehow Mic pulled it off. Before he knew what was happening, they were seated at the table and talking.

Her name was Jill Belbenoit, the first letter of which she pronounced as in je ne sais quoi, the only French phrase he knew. Her friend was Marta Florez.

“I have seen you at the bookstore, have I not?” Jill asked, addressing Richard politely although she was clearly more interested in Mic.

“Yeah,” he stammered. “I remember seeing you too.”

“You are a graduate student?”

“No. I’m just getting a late start. I enlisted in the Marines right out of high school.”

“Yes, I can see you as a soldier,” she said before turning to Mic.

“Are you also an ex-Marine?”

“You never stop being a Marine,” he proclaimed with an easy smile. “You just stop wearing the uniform when you leave the Corps. Ricky and I were in together—put our lives on hold, you know. But a guy does his thing for his country.”

He nodded toward Richard. “My friend heard you speak earlier, and thinks you might be Canadian. Is he right?”

“You heard me speak?” she asked Richard.

Although he saw no umbrage in her wide blue eyes, he felt as though he had been caught doing something shameful.

“Yeah,” he said. “The other day when you passed me in front of Academic Hall, I . . . That’s when it was.”

“Then we must clear up the mystery,” she said with a smile. “I am French. Marta is from Merida.”

“The Paris of the Yucatan, right?” said Mic.

“Yes,” said Marta, obviously impressed that an American would know such a thing.

Mic flashed his smile. “And what brings you fine ladies to a place like this?”

The trite inanity made Richard groan. The kiss of death, he thought.

“I am ‘discovering my roots’ so to speak,” said Jill. “Grandfather was an American soldier like the two of you.”

“And I improve my English,” explained her friend. “No,” she corrected herself. “I am attempting to improve my English.”

Richard let Mic carry the conversation after that—not that he had a choice. Mic surprised him with his charm, and he plainly impressed Jill. He thought, with some satisfaction, that Mic had miscalculated when he began telling war stories. However, Jill leaned forward eagerly at the mention of the famine-relief expedition in which he and Richard had participated.

“Really? I am considering writing my thesis next year on European colonial administration in Africa,” she said enthusiastically.

“The Europeans should never have left,” proclaimed Mic. “At least not Somalia.”

“But your own country was once a European colony. Should the British still be here?”

He frowned, shaking his head slowly. “Different circumstances. I don’t know much history—and nothing at all about African politics, but those people didn’t need anything so much as a decent government to end the chaos.”

“They were starving,” she objected with youthful idealism. “In such a situation societal order is bound to break down.”

“It was a man-made famine,” he countered. “Their so-called leaders did it to them. There was plenty of food in the country, but the government couldn’t, or just wouldn’t, distribute it. Damned thieves were everywhere. Even we had trouble getting food to the people who needed it. Whole convoys got hijacked. And you know what? No one gave a damn.”

“But, do you not see? That is a direct result of the Europeans destroying the native social order. When they were given their independence in the 1960s, most Africans were no more prepared for it than the Russians were when they suddenly plunged into democracy and the market economy. Europeans deliberately prevented the Africans from learning to rule themselves.”

“The Africans had almost forty years in Somalia to get their act together. It didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of difference as far as I could see.”

“Before colonization, Africa was organized along tribal lines,” she explained. “Today’s so-called countries are just collections of arbitrarily drawn areas created by whites for their own administrative convenience, just as they did in the Middle East. They had little appreciation for the native societies. Had they organized the countries along tribal lines, perhaps things might be different.”

Mic held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

“I can’t argue political theory with you, Jill. All I know is that when a mom is trying to figure out how to keep her baby from starving, it don’t mean jack if the government is run by black natives or white foreigners. Unless I’m wrong, there weren’t any widespread famines in Africa when the Europeans were running things.”

“Are you excusing over a century of colonial exploitation by saying that the blacks are incapable of governing themselves?”

“No. Kipling once spoke of the ‘white man’s burden,’ that he had a moral responsibility to uplift his ‘little brown brothers.’ Now wait—I know how that sounds. But Kipling was no fool, and I believe there is a responsibility the more advanced civilizations have to shoulder. Once we yank Stone Age people into the modern world, we ought to at least stick around long enough to make sure they get the hang of it.”

“That is sophistry,” she said.

“I’m just telling you what I saw firsthand. It was enough to make God cry.”

Subdued by his apparent sincerity, she hesitated to rebut.

“I wanted to help. But nothing we did seemed to make one damned bit of difference,” he said earnestly. “I remember . . . we came into this village once. The stink was almost . . . Well, it was the smell of death . . . and . . . The place looked deserted. We were searching the hooches, and I found a dead woman on the floor, still holding her baby in her arms. Only it didn’t look like any baby you ever saw . . . all gray, eyes sunk in their sockets, arms and legs like parchment stretched over pencils.”

Richard stared at the table, finding it difficult to believe that what he was hearing came from the lips of Mic Boyd.

“We raised rabbits when I was a kid,” continued Mic, as if the memory had carried him far away. “I remember going out to feed them one winter morning, and I found this newborn bunny lying half frozen on the wire floor of its cage. It must have held onto its mother’s nipple when she hopped from the box in the night. The poor thing was barely moving . . . kinda in slow motion, opening its mouth like it was trying to speak . . . Only no sound came out. That’s what this kid reminded me of. I held it in my hands, and I remember thinking that it was moving like some toy with its batteries running down.”

He paused to sip his soft drink.

“Then it just stopped moving. I’ve never felt so helpless in my whole damned life. After that, all I wanted was to get the hell out of there because if we couldn’t stop something like that from happening—well, what the hell good were we doing?”

“How horrible,” said Marta.

Jill nodded somberly. Then she looked at her watch.

“Oh! We are late for class,” she said, hurriedly gathering her books.

Before turning to go, she favored Mic with a smile.

“It has been very interesting talking with you—with both of you,” she added, nodding quickly to Richard.

“Hey don’t run off,” Mic said. “There are plenty of classes. Where are you gonna find a couple of old Marine veterans?”

Jill brushed back her hair as she clutched her books to her breast.

“Perhaps we shall meet again.”

“I certainly hope so, Miss Belbenoit,” he said.

Richard lit a cigarette.

“She believed that crap about the starving baby,” snorted Mic with a laugh. “Give me one of those.”

Richard slid the pack and his Zippo across the table.

“You made all that stuff up?”

“Gotta tell them what they want to hear, Ricky. Little Miss Liberal’s heart bleeds when it comes to the Africans,” he scoffed, blowing twin plumes of smoke through his nostrils.

“She sucked it right up, Old Buddy. She’s ready to do anything I want.”

Mic paused, savoring the thought. “I saw it in her eyes as soon as I sat down.”

Richard felt like putting a fist in Mic’s smug face, but he had no claim to the girl. He wished to hell he had never brought her to Mic’s attention.

“She’ll take some work though,” continued Mic. “Uptight ‘intellectuals’ like her got to fool themselves that there’s more to it than just flopping on their backs. That bitch has got to calculate the precise angle of repose.”

Adhering to the adolescent male code that the situation would have called for had they indeed been adolescents, Richard smiled. Inwardly, he fumed. The girl obviously bought into Mic’s fake sensitivity. Worse, at the back of his mind hovered the suspicion that Mic may have correctly evaluated Jill Belbenoit. He didn’t even know the girl, and yet he ached at his loss.

There’s something seriously wrong with you, Richard, he thought.

Mic’s crude appraisal of Jill Belbenoit, however, proved laughably wrong. She was not only smart and witty, but compassionate to a fault, and reserved in an old-fashioned way that Richard found captivating. Nor did she give herself to Mic as he had predicted, or if she had, he kept it to himself, which was hardly likely. Richard’s initial attraction grew into admiration and more. Unfortunately, she still seemed charmed with the man he increasingly loathed. Still, he continued to play the part of “buddy” through the winter just to have an excuse to be near her. He hated his inability to walk away. What he was doing had gone beyond the pathetic to the grotesque.

Somalia, at least, was fading. It bothered him now only in half-remembered dreams that were unsettling, but manageable. That changed unexpectedly, and for no apparent reason, one afternoon as they all sat in a dark corner at Moon Pie’s drinking beer and waiting for pizza. Mic had paused during one of his stories, took a drag on his cigarette, and winked at him before delivering the point of some story that Richard hadn’t been listening to.

Suddenly, Richard was half a world away.

Faint gunfire off in the distance . . . the smell of sweat and urine . . . a glowing cigarette . . . that smile . . . wide terror-filled eyes in a black face.

He managed to shake it off that afternoon, but the pall remained. Later that night, he awoke in cold sweat. The “Boy Soldier” came this time. Unable to stay in bed with his ghosts so near, he fled to the bathroom.

It wasn’t my fault, he said to himself as he splashed cold water on his face. I didn’t know.

That doesn’t matter, came the inexorable reply.

He looked into the mirror, into his own unforgiving eyes.

“This is ridiculous,” he grumbled in disgust.

He went back to bed determined once again to leave the past behind by sheer dint of will. For better or worse, what was done was done—and besides, he had done nothing intentionally. It had just happened. That’s what he told himself. However, ghosts are not so easily banished, especially in the twilight drowsiness preceding sleep. Later, he couldn’t decide if he had dreamed it or was just remembering.

The minaret towered above a muddy street lined with the shards of shattered tree trunks. The neighborhood retained just enough residual beauty to hint at happier times in this unhappy place, although it was hard to believe that Mogadishu had ever been very happy. The squad moved cautiously toward the next intersection, hemmed in by pockmarked off-white stucco buildings standing shoulder to shoulder. They passed beneath narrow balconies overhanging the debris-strewn street. Each dark doorway and broken window on the eerily silent street was a potential sniper’s blind.

A single shot split the air, followed by a fading zing of ricochet off concrete. He dove through an open door and rolled over and over, not stopping until his back was against the solid masonry of the outside wall. He was shaking. There was something he knew he should do, but his mind refused to work. Go to the doorway? Scan for the sniper? Lay down covering fire for the others to advance? But he only sat, back pressed tightly to the wall and shivered—he had run, and now he was hiding.

The memories became constant companions after that. He dreamed them while asleep, and he relived them while awake. Any little thing could be their portal.

While he sat at a stoplight one morning, a spatter of raindrops transported him to a nameless village.

A naked little boy, his brown belly distended by starvation, ran through the rain and mud between hemispherical thatched huts that had been improved and made more watertight by a miscellany of mismatched polyurethane sheeting and tarps lashed down haphazardly with various sizes and colors of rope, wire, and twine. Litter was strewn amid the huts, paper, discarded cans, and unidentifiable trash imported from outside the world of these poor people. The sight of the huts that the ingenious natives had covered with scraps of plastic looked unbearably squalid.

They came out into the mud and rain, mobbing the Marines. The false dawn of their hope died to dark resignation. The Americans had no food for them, and little hope of recovering the stolen supplies.

Another vision came hard against the first.

Fifty or so thin children squatted on their haunches in the dust, waiting to be fed. A gaunt Somali man tapped a little boy with a long crooked switch. He rose and was herded by the switch-wielding man to a relief worker dishing out food. A measured amount was placed in the child’s bowl. Herded back to his place, he squatted on his haunches again and began to eat the meager meal with his fingers. The next child, a girl, was too weak to rise and was passed over.

Richard owned those failures. He, who had never been forced to miss a meal in his life, had let people die. It was not the worst of his crimes, but not the least either. The visions paralyzed him until an angry horn recalled him to the present.

A vortex had sucked him in, and he couldn’t escape. Sleepless night merged into listless day and listless day into sleepless night. He drifted in his depression, finding pleasure in neither companionship nor solitude. Then, his world turned again.

It began with an unexpected call from Jill Belbenoit

Copyright© AR Simmons. All rights reserved.

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AR Simmons
By AR Simmons August 11, 2013 19:48
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