“When Duty Calls”

"When Duty Calls" was a finalist for both the 2012 Agatha Award for Best Short Story and the 2013 Macavity Award for Best Short Story and won the 2013 Derringer Award in the Long Story category. The opening section of the story is below, and the full story is available in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder (Wildside Press, 2012).

Keri is just setting out the silverware when the Colonel calls across from the living room with a new question. He’s watching the Military Channel and finishing up the cocktail she made for him—a thimble of Virginia Gentleman, a generous portion of soda, another light splash of whiskey on top to make it smell like a stronger drink. The Colonel’s house has an open floor plan from the kitchen through the dining room to where he sits, and as she’s finished up dinner, she’s listened to him arguing lightly with the program’s depiction of Heartbreak Ridge, reminiscing about his own stint in Korea, rambling in his own way. “Last rally of the Shermans,” he mused aloud, and something about “optics” and “maneuverability” and then—a different tone than Keri’s heard in the four months she’s known him—“Is the perimeter secure, Sergeant?”

“The perimeter?” Keri asks, cautiously. She’s grown used to these sudden shifts in subject—learned quickly just to roll along with the conversation, even in the first days after she and Pete moved in. But she still stumbles sometimes to catch up and find the right response.

The Colonel turns in his chair—turning on her, Keri thinks, expecting his regular confusion or the occasional rebuke—but he doesn’t look her way. He’s listening, it seems, his jaw fixed, his chin jutting more than usual. The tendons in his frail arms tighten, his tie tugs at the skin around his neck, his whole body perches alert, if unsteadily so. Medals and photos crowd the wall behind him. Round stickers dot many of them and almost everything else in the living room: lamps, books, bookcases, the chair itself. Red, white, and blue.

“Incoming,” he says.

“No one’s out there, Colonel,” she tries to reassure him. Not anymore, at least, since that pair of surveyors out in the woods had packed up their bags a half-hour before, one of them waving at her through the window before cranking up, heading out. They’d stayed late. She was glad to see them go.

“Vibrations,” the Colonel whispers. “A good soldier can sense these things. Life and death.” Just his mind wandering, she knows, just another bout of dementia, but for a moment the seriousness of his tone, the weight of his words, stop her. Despite herself, she looks toward the door. Has he actually heard something? The surveyors had forgotten something, returned unannounced. Or maybe Pete had canceled his Tuesday night classes in town to come home early. But no. There’s no knock at the door, and no sound of a key turning in it. No muddy shoes being brushed against the mat. No sound of tires on the gravel drive. Just the TV program rolling on. Strategies, skirmishes, victories, defeat.

“Did Pete call?” she asks.

“Negative,” the Colonel says casually, just the hint of disdain, and then he relaxes, settles back into his chair. “Radio silence has been maintained.”

There’s something melancholy in his answer, or maybe it’s Keri’s imagination this time. She wonders if he even notices how seldom the phone rings—for either of them. Calls come so rarely that she once raised the receiver to her ear just to make sure there was a dial tone there. More than once, actually.

“Lasagna’s ready,” she tells him, and the Colonel brightens up.

“Officer’s Club,” he says eagerly. Date night, she knows.

Other nights, mealtime is just “chow,” but on Tuesdays Pete always stays on campus late, and the Colonel seems to love those nights best. She’s not sure how she goes from being his staff sergeant to being his . . . wife? Girlfriend? Daughter? She’s not sure about that either: which role she plays. He doesn’t seem to know who she is at all, has never even spoken her name. But sometimes when Pete is out of the way, the Colonel reaches over and presses his gnarled fingers over her hand, pats, squeezes, breaking Keri’s heart a little each time.....