The Grey Man snippet…

I’ve had a number of requests/questions about the old man’s backstory. So I’m working on something that will end up as either a short story or possibly a novella, depending on how it works out.

Anyhoo, here’s the start… Usual caveats, comments welcome, as always!


The old man just shook his head, thinking back thirty plus years to his introduction to working with the DEA. 

      It’d all started over Christmas dinner in 1975. Amy and Ana had been in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on supper while John and Billy sat on the front porch sipping coffee as Jack shot cans off the fence posts with his new .22 rifle. It’d been an amazingly mild day for Christmas, with bluebird skies and temps near 70.

“What are you going to do, John,” Billy had asked.

“Not sure. Since mom passed, I’ve…been at loose ends. I know I’m getting on Amy’s nerves because I don’t have enough to do, and I take it out on her or Jack, or both. The ranch isn’t that hard, and all the oil stuff is contracted. All we do is collect the royalties. I finished my peace officer certification, but it doesn’t look like anybody is hiring.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed you’ve been pretty grumpy the last few times we’ve talked. I thought the county was always hurting for people?”

He’d chuckled, “Oh, they are, for anybody not named Cronin.”

Billy had cocked his head. “Say what?”

“It goes back a long time, I think my grandfather or possibly a generation earlier. Nah, probably grandpa. Simonson’s family came into this part of the country back then and had money. Not sure from where, although grandpa always thought he was probably a crook. He tried to buy grandpa out when they found oil, but grandpa wouldn’t sell.”

Billy laughed. “Stubborn seems to run in the family.”

John winced, “Maybe… Anyway, Simonson tried bribes, and tried to muscle grandpa and grandma off the place. There was some shooting at cows, and some shooting at the house. That prompted grandpa to go to town and he confronted Simonson, apparently daring him to draw. According to reports, Simonson took a swing and grandpa pistol whipped him in the middle of the street, then walked over to the police station and turned himself in, telling the chief the next time he was going to shoot Simonson on sight.”

Billy shook his head in amazement. “And he was serious?”

“Apparently as a heart attack. Grandma came in to get him, and apparently told the chief the only way he would get the shot was if grandma didn’t get him first, because she’d been cut by flying glass when they shot at the house.”


“Supposedly the chief had a talk with Simonson, telling him it was in his best interests to leave town while he could. Simonson apparently left the next day, and moved up to Pecos, but he kept the land he’d bought in the county.”

“Smart move, I’d say.”

John nodded, “Yep, and dad had problems with the next generation, and now the grandson, Burt is the sheriff. The only way I’d get hired is over his dead body, and I don’t dare speed or anything else. Pay all the bills early, and make damn sure we don’t step out of line.”

“You ever think about going back in the Army?”

“Nah. And you know why. Everything is winding down, and I’d lose a bunch of rank. Hell, I’m thirty-two. I’m not sure they’d even take me back.”

“Nothing with the state? Troopers or Rangers?”

“No, but I’ve got an application in with the troopers.”


“Nope. They’ve actually got enough folks.”

“What about the Feds?”

John shrugged. “Don’t think they have anything I could do. Certainly not in law enforcement. I don’t have the right degree. A bachelors in ranch management isn’t worth much.”

“What about that new Drug Enforcement Agency? They had people on campus last week recruiting. They’re recruiting a lot of ex-military. You’d go in as a GS-nine, pays about fifteen thou a year.”

“You thinking about it?”

“Nah, I want to finish school and maybe get my law degree, if I can figure out how to pay for it. This is my last year of pre-law, then it would be three years of law school. Ana would shoot me if I did that, but maybe I can go work in the oil patch. Staying in the reserves is bad enough. You didn’t even do that, did you?”

John shook his head, “No. Mom would have had a hissy fit if I’d done that. Drug En—”

Amy came to the screen door, “Jack, come wash up, John, Billy, five minutes. I need your help getting that damn bird out of the oven.”

They got up as Jack came quickly back to the porch. John said, “Leave the rifle here. It’s empty right?”

Jack racked the lever down, turned it on the side and looked, “It’s empty, Dad.”

“Okay. We’ll clean it after supper.”


Two months later, John had kissed Amy good bye at the Midland airport, “Thank you for letting me try this, Hon.”

Amy smiled, “If this makes you happy, it’s good. Jack and I can manage, and it’s not like you’re going to be gone all the time, right?”

“Not according to the folks I talked to. I may even end up in Laredo or El Paso. I have to go to Quantico for a training class and to do paperwork. I should be home in a month or two. Remember, if you need help, Scotty Halvorson is only a phone call away.”

Amy stepped back, hands on hip, “John Cronin, you’ve told me that a hundred times already. Jack and I will handle things with Enrique and the hands.” She kissed him and he held her a moment longer, until they called for the flight to Dallas. He walked slowly across the tarmac, and climbed on the Convair 600, stopping in the door to turn and wave.

The next morning he started class with twenty other candidates, and they spent all morning filling out paperwork. That afternoon, they did the physicals with a government doctor, and he picked up all his books after the physical before returning to his room in the barracks.

The following morning was the PT testing, and he noted two people were already missing. He asked Agent Ramirez and was told they’d failed the physical and sent home. After the PT, they spent the rest of the day on laws, ethics and conduct. As the days turned into weeks, the class shrank, and at the end of the third week he was pulled in, “Cronin, you speak Spanish, right?”

“I speak border Spanish, its close and I have no problems making myself understood in Mexico, if that’s what you want to know.”

The agent made a check on a form, looked up and said, “I think we’re going to push you out early. Your military experience and shooting ability mean you don’t need the rest of the BS, and we need a Spanish speaker to fill in. The combination of those is going to bump your pay. You’ll qualify for a nine step ten.”

“Where will I be going?”

“Florida first, then forward from there. You’re going to a FAST team.”

“FAST Team?”

“Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams”

“When do I have to be there? I’d like to go back to Texas and see my family.”

“We can probably get you five days, since your class isn’t supposed to graduate for another two weeks. Turn your shit in, do your checkout in the morning, and I’ll have you some plane tickets for tomorrow afternoon.”


Three days at home were a blessing, as short as it was. Amy was smiling the whole time, and Jack got sent to bed early the first and last nights, as John and Amy enjoyed each other’s company, with Amy joking that if they weren’t careful, Jack might have a little brother or sister.

Three days later, he’d shown up on a Monday in Jacksonville, FL was issued gear, two passports, one in his courier cover and one in his primary cover, and was on his way to South America on Tuesday morning as a “courier” for a diplomatic pouch carrying his equipment.  When he’d arrived in Brasilia, he was promptly driven to the embassy, changed clothes, turned over his courier passport, and was back at the airport in three hours.  Put on a Helio-Courier and flown out of Brazil to a camp in Guatemala, via Panama, he’d been dumped on the side of an unimproved runway and sat for two hours until someone had shown up to pick him up.  It wasn’t until he’d been in the camp that anyone actually questioned him about his qualifications, and he was told his training consisted of OJT in the jungles and a passing grade was that he survived.

The second night, John was sitting in the jungle camp in Guatemala, looking across the fire at a bull of a man, Jorge Ortega. “What the fuck they sending me a damn white boy gonna stick out like a sore thumb out here. You even speak Spanish, boy?”

John had seen these dick beating games in Special Forces, and he casually pulled the Bowie knife he carried, using it to carve off a piece of the meat roasting over the fire. He’d mimed burning his fingers on the meat, thrown the Bowie, sticking it in the crate Ortega was sitting on, just below his crotch. As Ortega had jumped back stumbling to the ground, John drew his 1911, snicking the safety off as he stepped around the fire and planted it between Ortega’s eyes so quickly that nobody else even had a chance to move.

Ortega’s eyes crossed and he started to raise his hands until he saw John’s finger tighten on the trigger. He stopped moving as John told him softly in Spanish, “You won’t be the first man I’ve killed up close and personal. I like it up close and personal. You fuck with me again, and I’ll shoot you like the fucking dog you are.” He raked the pistol down to Ortega’s nose, starting a little blood running down Ortega’s face, “And don’t think you can fuck with me in the jungle. I spent two years with the Montagnards in ‘Nam on the trail. I’m better than you’ll ever be.”

Darrell Mason, the senior DEA agent said, “John, please put the damn safety on before you slip. Please?”

He took a step back, put the safety back on, reached down and pulled the Bowie out of the crate, then stepped around the fire. He resumed his seat, picked up the piece of meat that he’d flipped away, brushed it off, and ate it, “Not bad. Needs a little better seasoning.”

Two weeks later, the situation was moot, as Ortega tripped a grenade that killed him instantly as they approached a coca processing camp deep in the jungle. John’s ability to get along with the remaining Hispanic members of the team, his ability to move through the jungle, and ability to handle everything from intel to taking out sicaros led Mason to recommend John be given more responsibility. Two months and quite a few successful operations later, he was moved down to the embassy in Quito, Ecuador, ostensibly as the assistant to the Ecuadorian Opportunity Liaison officer.

John’s first meeting with the new team at the safe house the first night proved to be interesting, when the first person he saw was Hector Velazquez. “Hector? What are you doing here?”

Hector had jumped up. “John! Madre Dios, it’s been… what, ten years,” he said as the handshake turned into a back pounding hug.

“More like fifteen, and my original question stands, what are you doing here?”

Hector laughed. “Apparently the same thing you are. Fighting the damn drug runners.”

The other three stood, watching the two of them with smiles on their faces. Hector turned, “This is the crazy Norte Americano I’ve told you about. His family raises longhorns too! We’ve known each other since we were kids.” He turned and pointed, “John, this is Pasquale Arrego, he’s a Kaibil- Guatemalan Special Operations. I warn you, he is also a devout catholic and does not like cussing.”

John said, “Pleasure Pasquale,” as he shook hands with him, seeing a squat powerful man who moved like a panther.

“The lazy one by the couch is Fernando Duarte. He is a Costa Rican cop from San José. He does not like the jungle. He’s a big city guy, and likes his comfort,” he said with a grin.

“Fernando, glad to meet you.”  Fernando was the best dressed of the four, with a pencil line moustache and long hair.

Fernando laughed. “Don’t believe a word that puta says. He is the one useless in the jungle. He gets lost in the first hundred yards. Yes, I do prefer my creature comforts, but I also know the jungle.”

John laughed. “I know to take Hector with a grain of salt.”

“Maybe a bit more, maybe a kilo or so…”

Hector jumped in. “Insults. These minor slings and arrows one must endure against their betters. I am an officer. These others not so much,” he said with a twinkle in his eye as the others laughed. Pointing to the last man who leaned quietly against the wall, “Felix Obregon. He’s one of yours.”

Felix pushed off the wall and surprised John when he said in a broad New York accent, “Felix, I’m from Brooklyn. Former Marine, one tour in Nam, medical discharge for leg wounds. I’m off the books, so don’t expect me at the embassy.”

The next four hours passed in a blur as they brought him up to speed on what they were doing, including having convinced the neighbors they were small time smugglers, and they also told him about the smuggler’s track into Colombia that was totally and completely unguarded by both Colombia and Ecuador’s border patrols for fairly small bribes every month.


John spent the next three days in the secure spaces with the local CIA station chief and the DEA section chief from Panama, who was currently overseeing operations in Panama, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Colombia. Charts, maps, overlays, pictures of players and others, including enforcers, hangers on, lawyers, and politicians thought to be on the payroll, along with questionable military, border police, and local gangs left his head spinning.

He and Menendez, were walking in the garden of the embassy when John finally asked, “How the hell do you keep track of all this shit?”

Menendez shrugged. “I don’t. That’s the job of the country teams. That and developing new leads, running shit to ground, and paying for information. There are some greedy bastards in the drug game, and regardless of how much they’re making, they want more. More money, more control, more women, more everything. Latin machismo writ large.”

He stubbed out a cigarette and sat on one of the benches, “That usually works to our advantage, but there are times it comes back and bites us in the butt when a mid-level player tries to flip us to a big player. Ambushes and counter-ambushes are the name of the game, even among the players. One thing I want you guys concentrating on is remote airfields.”

“Remote airfields?”

Menendez lit another cigarette, “Yeah. CIA’s got some overhead assets that come through time to time taking pictures from altitude. The cartels hack out strips in the jungle at central points to their labs, then pay pilots to fly in and pick up drugs. That’s the latest thing, and some of the airplanes are pretty damn big. Six, maybe seven tons of cocaine on one airplane seven hours to the US beats the hell out of weeks or months of slow boats to fast boats, or slogging through three or four countries dodging patrols. They pay good. Ten to twenty-five thousand, depending on the size of the airplane.”

John whistled. “Damn. Per trip?”

“Yep. What we need is descriptions of the airplanes and tail numbers, or side numbers, or whatever the hell they call them.”

John shook his head. “You don’t want much, do ya?”

Menendez smiled. “Nah, just another day in the office. Not like you’ve got much else to do, right?”


The Grey Man snippet… — 21 Comments

  1. De Ja Vu ? Man, some of this sounds very familiar. Did you run this one before ?

    Man, I’m wondering if that time change was more than an hour in the other direction, lol.

    No coffee yet, I’m just talking out loud. It sounds really good to me.

  2. Reads a lot cleaner than the rough snippet. I can see a lot of the threads coming in play, including the teaser about El Lobo Blanco. Very nice story.

  3. I knew a couple of those guys back in the mid-70s: scary … when they wanted to be. Great installment, and reads more smoothly than before. Bravo zulu!

  4. One minor issue. It might be worth stating who Menendez is, job and first name,when he comes up in this clip. Is he the DEA Section Chief, someone from the embassy, or CIA? Just a clarity thing.
    It all looks good.

  5. All- Thanks, this was alluded to in Twilight, which sent a bunch of folks down the ‘Where is the REST of the story’ email string…

    Posted from my iPhone.

  6. First comment here, but I’ve been lurking for a while. I like this a lot, and it is better than the first version. It has a lived in feel, and you do know what you write about. I’ll buy this when it comes out.

    Claudio from Italy

  7. Agree with what everybody has said.
    One minor annoyance near the beginning.

    ‘Billy had cocked his head. “Say what?”’

    Drop the ‘had’, implies prior action.

    • Well, it IS a reminiscence.

      I think it sounds right, when viewed in that vein.

  8. I’m thinking that if you keep this trend going you may end up becoming a decent author! You may even make money at it. Snork! LOL!
    Keep on pouring whiskey down the muse or whatever it takes.

  9. Like it a lot, but then I’ve been half in love with John Cronin from the start.

  10. Hey Old NFO;

    Very good read and that provides some backdrop on the “old Man”. Very much appreciated, but if you want to add much more, feel free to “Release the MUSE!!”

  11. Sorry for the late comment. Meant to do this for the first one…

    Knew some guys who did some things, ifyouknowwhatImeanandIthinkyoudo, and one day one of them mentioned “Those DEA agents were great guys, but they were useless in the jungle…” so I’m guessing that an old Snake Eater’s experience would have been very welcome.