That Friday evening Hood was off patrol duty and he met Lenny Overbrook down in Muscle Beach. They joined the skaters and boarders and joggers and walkers northbound on the sidewalk. The ocean flashed silver and black and an old red biplane lugged a banner that said “Lose 20 lbs. in One Month-No Drugs” across the powder blue sky. The outdoor stalls offered everything from falafel to Mexican sandals to pendants with the wearer’s name hand-painted on a grain of rice. Hood smelled incense and tobacco.
Lenny Overbrook was slight and short, with a ramrod posture and a luckless face. He still had a military haircut but Hood knew he’d been discharged nine months ago, just before his own tour had ended. Lenny wore jeans and sneakers and a light jacket against the breeze.
Hood had first encountered Lenny in a Hamdaniya living room in which an Iraqi father and his three sons had been shot to death. Hood had blundered into the crime scene during the tail end of a late evening firefight, drawn by a ferocious outburst of automatic fire. In the hot, smoke-filled twilight Hood saw soldiers running from the house-six of them-and he’d yelled for their attention, but they ignored him as they vanished into the labyrinthine Hamdaniya alleys.
Hood rounded a doorway inside the house and saw a young corporal wiping down an AK-47 with his shirttail. When he was done, he placed it in the hands of a bullet-riddled Iraqi man slumped against a blood-splattered wall.
At that moment Hood knew that for the rest of his life he would be tied to this bloody young marine corporal who positioned the machine gun in the dead man’s lap then turned with a look of blue-eyed innocence. That look would come back to Hood in dream after dream after dream.
I wish I hadn’t seen that, soldier.
You see what I did.
I saw the others.
There weren’t no others.
And that was how Hood’s investigation went. That was what it all boiled down to. Lenny Overbrook from a holler in West Virginia refused to admit that there had been other soldiers with him in the Hamdaniya living room when the Iraqis were slaughtered. Nothing Hood could do had an effect on Overbrook. When Hood said that he’d seen Overbrook wipe down the AK, the man shook his head and denied that he’d ever touched the gun at all. When Hood said he’d seen six men leaving the home where the dead family lay, Overbrook said he was alone in the house. When Hood turned Overbrook over to senior investigators, nothing changed. The little corporal told the same story, day after day. In spite of the evidence and Hood’s testimony, the senior NCIS field people wanted to believe it.
Hood interviewed the soldiers in some of the door-to-door platoons but he couldn’t identify anyone with certainty-the massacre had taken place in late evening and the soldiers were running, laden with battle-rattle, their faces hidden under their helmets. During these interviews Hood learned the full meaning of contempt. The soldiers thought he was there to betray them. He sensed that there was a bullet out there looking for his back.
Hood quickly learned that the Iraqi father ran a small produce stall in a nearby marketplace. The two youngest boys helped him, and the oldest son was a journeyman auto mechanic employed by an uncle. They were nonvio lent, moderate Shiites, used to being subordinate under the old regime.
Hood also learned that Lenny Overbrook had an IQ of seventy-two, had not yet completed his junior year requirements for high school when he joined the marines on his eighteenth birthday. He’d never had a grade above a C-minus. He’d been working full-time at a filling station when he enlisted.
Even with the crude investigative tools at Hood’s disposal, it was apparent that the Iraqis-the father was forty-two years old, the sons were eighteen, fifteen and thirteen-had been shot sixty-one times with six different weapons. But Overbrook said no, that wasn’t possible because he’d done it himself in self-defense against an insurgent with an AK. He had acted alone. He had done what he thought was right. It all happened “so dang fast.”
When Hood did the toolmarks comparison on Overbrook’s dust-choked M-16, he found that only one of the sixty-seven casings recovered from the Hamdaniya home had been fired through it.
When Hood explained to him that this was a capital case, that the navy could execute him for murder if he insisted on confessing to it, Overbrook had just turned his clear blue eyes on Hood and nodded.
So Hood released him. He figured if he couldn’t even identify the six men who’d done most of the shooting, he wouldn’t allow a man who had fired one shot to take the rap for killing four people. Overbrook was willing to lay down his life for six men who ran out on him, but Hood wasn’t willing to let him.
Now, nine months later, Overbrook looked at Hood with the same calm conviction with which he had falsely confessed to the slaughter of four people.
“I want to tell the truth,” said Overbrook.
“It’s too damned late, Lenny. It’s over.”
“Nothing is over when it’s still in your heart.”
“I’m sorry it’s in your heart but you had your chance.”
“There shouldn’t be a time limit you have to tell the truth by.”
“You’re going to name the six?”
“Yes, myself first. I fired once, just like your test said I did. I shot the father. I hit him square, too.”
Hood stopped and Lenny stopped and Hood looked into the corporal’s placid eyes.
“I gave you a chance to tell the truth,” said Hood. “And I gave you a chance to let it go.”
“I don’t want to let it go. I murdered, sir. My heart needs to tell it.”
“Tell it to who, Lenny?”
“You, Mr. Hood.”
I wish I hadn’t seen that, soldier.
“I’m nobody, Lenny. I’m just a guy who saw something once. But go ahead. We’ll walk and you can tell me what happened.”
Hood leaned into the breeze coming off the ocean. Overbrook was hunched in his jacket and looked like he weighed maybe a hundred and ten pounds. Hood saw that since the discharge Overbrook hadn’t put on weight, hadn’t grown out his hair, hadn’t changed really one bit since Hood had first laid eyes on him in the bloody Hamdaniya living room.
“We followed some bombers off the street but they got away. There were voices inside. Loud voices. I was the first one in. One of them moved his hands and I shot him. After that there was no sense. It got mighty loud. We were furious at the bombers that got away. We had a lot of hate inside us.”
They cut across the sand toward the beach. A flock of seagulls standing in the sand regarded them but didn’t move.
“It was Cowder what had the AK. Called it his throw-down gun. Cowder told me what to do with it and said if anybody told, they’d get personally killed by him and that went for me, too.”
Hood recalled Cowder, a PFC with a cool look in his eyes who told Hood later that maybe the Racks had it coming.
“See, Mr. Hood, the thing is I was raised by churchgo ing folks and I believed what I was taught back then and I believe it now. I don’t know how to get this blood off my hands except by suffering the consequences of what I did.”
“You did as good as you could do, Lenny. You never asked to go to there.”
“Yes, I did ask. I wasn’t old enough after 9/11 but I made up my mind when the buildings came down I was going to do something.”
“I can’t reopen the investigation, Lenny. I wouldn’t even if I could. I did the closest thing to right that I could come up with.”
“Letting four men get murdered and nobody pays is right?”
“You’re paying, Lenny. We all are.”
“I don’t think it’s enough.”
“You’re not the judge of that.”
“It’s about consequences and terrible dreams. I have the most awful dreams you can imagine and they never stop.”
Lenny turned around and looked down at the gun in his hand.
Hood dove for it.
Never took his eyes off it. He hit the sand gut-first with his arms extended and the pistol locked between them, and when he rolled over and aimed up, Overbrook was looking down at him with an expression of crushing hopelessness on his face. Hood popped to his feet and Overbrook charged him, screaming. Hood threw the gun to the sand behind him and got Overbrook in a bear hug and took him down. Hood used his weight and held tight, and Overbrook’s screams slowly devolved into moans, and his struggling ceased, and Hood loosened his grip enough so the man could cry but not break away for the gun.
A while later Hood untangled himself from the still-blubbering Overbrook and retrieved the pistol. It was a Smith & Wesson.22-caliber rimfire revolver, each of its eight cylinders containing a live load.
Hood blew the sand off the gun. A family dragging towels and bodyboards and swim fins stared unabashedly at him and the gun, then at the man lying faceup in the sand breathing hard and sobbing quietly. Hood slipped the gun into the right front pocket of his chinos.
Then he walked back over to Overbrook and squatted in the sand. “So what am I going to do with you, Lenny?”
“I thought I’d be dead by now.”
“I’m glad you were wrong.”
“I hope you don’t think I was going to shoot you, Mr. Hood.”
“I don’t. But it worries me that you were going to shoot you.”
Lenny struggled to his knees, then sat back on them. He wiped the sand off his sleeves, then his thighs. The fine beach silica had stuck to the tears on his face to form a dark sludge that framed his bright blue eyes.
For a long time Lenny stared out at the heavy orange sun beginning its melt into the Pacific. “Okay.”
“Yes, it’s okay.”
More time passed.
“Something’s different, Mr. Hood.”
“It’s hard to describe. Like something got lifted off.”
“Yeah,” said Hood. He wondered if grappling with Lenny had left him light-headed, or if maybe the charge of adrenaline had made him giddy. But what he really thought was the truth had lightened their burdens, at least for a moment.
Lenny pulled a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his jacket then stood and walked it over. “These are them. The six. They should say what really happened, too. They were my friends. I did my part.”
Hood took the paper and put it in his shirt pocket without opening it.
“You hang in there. I’m keeping the gun.”
“Go home. Take care of yourself. I like you.”
Hood backpedaled away from Lenny Overbrook, then turned and jogged back to the boardwalk.