San Diego, Present Day
“Any advice on how to talk to a dying man?”
“That’s the one.”
Wolf poked a metal rod in a mound of glowing coals at the bottom of a circular stone firepit on Sam McFadden’s hilltop lanai. Sparks spiraled upwards in the night sky. Glancing across the bed of scattered embers, Wolf’s closest friend, Sam McFadden, a former Green Beret major with stories of his own about dead and dying men, swirled two fingers of rum in a glass tumbler and shrugged.
“C’mon, Sam, you’ve been around plenty of the admiral’s kind in your day.”
“You mean control-freak brass hats?” said McFadden.
“No, guys at the end of their rope.”
McFadden stared at Wolf. “How much time does your man have?”
Wolf said, “Not sure. Could be weeks. A month. Maybe two, three.”
“It might make a difference,” said McFadden, backing from the pit’s heat. Settling in his chair, he focused on the patio blocks at his feet and downed the last of his rum.
“How so?” Wolf stirred the scattered coals. “He didn’t give me any details.”
An awkward pause descended, wrapping the fire pit in silence. Avoiding each other’s eyes, the two stared at a single stubborn flame. Far below McFadden’s hilltop patio, the Lake Miramar reservoir was a vast black pool. The surrounding hills sparkled with streetlights and San Diego’s distant skyline glowed under a gossamer blanket of fog. To the southwest, a river of lights belonging to traffic on I-5 flowed like migrating fireflies.
McFadden spoke without looking at Wolf. “So, why did you get the call?”
“No clue. My admiral only told me he’s dying. Said he wants to see me.”
“You going to Atlanta?”
“Tybee Island,” said Wolf. “He lives outside of Savannah.”
Wolf said, “General Sherman thought so, too.” Stirring the last few embers, Wolf sent a puff of ash above the firepit. Waving away the smoke, McFadden got up and fetched a blackened steel disk, which he lowered into place, smothering what was left of the fire. Wolf put down the poker and, drink in hand, wandered to the railing overlooking the reservoir.
McFadden joined him, elbows on the fencing, his voice low. “So, you going to Savannah or not?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You could beg off if you want to. You’re not at his beck and call, you know.”
Wolf snorted. “It’s complicated, Sam. This guy was a mentor. Kept watch over me. Always there when I needed someone to run interference.”
“You mean, when it hit the fan?”
Leaning against the iron railing, Wolf faced McFadden. “Yeah. There were a few times when things got a little rough around the edges. Admiral Harris smoothed things over with the powers that be. Kept me on the straight and narrow.”
“A full-time job in your case, I’d guess.”
Both men laughed.
“So, in other words you owe him.”
“I suppose so. But it’s more than that. He wasn’t the easiest guy to work for. Wielded a heavy hand for some of us. Quick tempered. Didn’t suffer fools. But yeah, I feel like I owe him.”
“Well then, what’s the problem? Pack up and head to Georgia, Wolfman.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“And you make it sound so complicated,” said McFadden. “Hell, no need to overthink this. Time’s your own. Nothing holding you here.”
“I’m just asking for advice on what I should say to him.”
Backing from the railing, McFadden said, “Don’t know what to tell you. Every situation is different. Maybe the key at a time like this is just to be a good listener. Your man probably wants someone he has a history with to be beside him.”
Wolf shrugged. “Dunno. Haven’t talked to him much in the last ten years. My leaving the teams was not what he expected.”
“Had to live your own life, Wolfman.”
“True. Did I mention the admiral has a wife?”
McFadden said, “Soon to be his widow. Will she be a problem?”
“She’s fifteen years his junior. Wears his rank well.”
“Uh, oh. You don’t need a chaperon, do you?”
Wolf huffed, “C’mon, I’m serious, Sam. It feels as though I’m being summoned. I know he’s dying, and he wants to talk, but I’m just wondering what’s going through his head, that’s all.”
“Who’s buying the ticket?”
Wolf sighed. “That’s another catch. He is. Makes it hard to say no.”
McFadden put a hand on Wolf’s shoulder. “Careful, my friend. Dying men sometimes have secrets. Who knows? Maybe he wants a confessor. My advice is to sleep on it. Might make more sense tomorrow. Your decision. Make the call if need be and book a same-day ticket on his dime.”
“Right. Thanks for listening, Sam. As always, appreciate the conversation and the use of your pool house during my visits.”
McFadden abandoned the railing. “Your spot to roost any time you’re in town, Wolfman. I’m heading to bed. Do the same. Get some rest. I’ll be here if you need a ride to the airport. Good night.”
McFadden paused at the back door to face Wolf. “You know, my guess is that your admiral is thinking hard about facing his own mortality. And that reminds me. Long ago the British writer Samuel Johnson said—and I paraphrase, ‘Nothing like being hanged in the morning to focus a man’s thinking.’"
“Cheerful thought. G’night, Sam.”