The General’s Daughter - Chapter One
"Is this seat taken?" I asked the attractive young woman sitting by herself in the lounge.
She looked up from her newspaper but didn't reply.
I sat opposite her at the cocktail table and put down my beer. She went back to her paper and sipped on her drink, a bourbon and Coke. I inquired, "Come here often?"
"What's your sign?"
"Don't I know you from somewhere?"
"Yes. NATO Headquarters in Brussels. We met at a cocktail party."
"Perhaps you're right," she conceded. "You got drunk and threw up in the punch bowl."
"Small world," I said. And indeed it was. Cynthia Sunhill, the woman sitting across from me now, was more than a casual acquaintance. In fact, we were once involved, as they say. Apparently she chose not to remember much of it. I said, "Youthrew up. I told you bourbon and Coke wasn't good for your stomach."
"You are not good for my stomach."
You'd think by her attitude that I had walked out on her rather than vice versa.
We were sitting in the cocktail lounge of the Officers' Club at Fort Hadley, Georgia. It was the Happy Hour, and everyone there seemed happy, save for us two. I was dressed in a blue civilian suit, she in a nice pink knit dress that brought out her tan, her auburn hair, her hazel eyes, and other fondly remembered anatomy. I inquired, "Are you here on assignment?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
"Where are you staying?"
"How long will you be here?"
She went back to her newspaper.
I asked, "Did you marry that guy you were seeing on the side?"
She put down the paper and looked at me. "I was seeing youon the side. I was engaged to him."
"That's right. Are you still engaged?"
"None of your business."
"It could be."
"Not in this lifetime," she informed me, and hid behind her paper again.
I didn't see an engagement ring or a wedding ring, but in our business that didn't mean much, as I'd learned in Brussels.
Cynthia Sunhill, by the way, was in her late twenties, and I'm in my early forties, so ours was not a May-November romance, but more May-September. Maybe August.
It lasted a year while we were both stationed in Europe, and her fiancé, a Special Forces major, was stationed in Panama. Military life is tough on relationships of all kinds, and the defense of Western civilization makes people horny.
Cynthia and I had separated a little over a year before this chance encounter, under circumstances that can best be described as messy. Apparently neither she nor I had gotten over it; I was still hurting and she was still pissed off. The betrayed fiancé looked a little annoyed, too, the last time I saw him in Brussels with a pistol in his hand.
The O Club at Hadley is vaguely Spanish in architecture, perhaps Moorish, which may have been why Casablancapopped into my mind, and I quipped out of the side of my mouth, "Of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine."
Either she didn't get it or she wasn't in a smiling mood, because she continued to read her newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, which nobody reads, at least not in public. But Cynthia is a bit of a goody-goody, a dedicated, loyal, and enthusiastic soldier with none of the cynicism and world-weariness that most men display after a few years on the job. "Hearts filled with passion, jealousy, and hate," I prompted.
Cynthia said, "Go away, Paul."
"I'm sorry I ruined your life," I said sincerely.
"You couldn't even ruin my day."
"You broke my heart," I said with more sincerity.
"I'd like to break your neck," she replied with real enthusiasm.
I could see that I was rekindling something in her, but I don't think it was passion.
I remembered a poem I used to whisper to her in our more intimate moments, and I leaned toward her and said softly, " 'There hath none pleased mine eyes but Cynthia, none delighted mine ears but Cynthia, none possessed my heart by Cynthia. I have forsaken all other fortunes to follow Cynthia, and here I stand, ready to die if it pleases Cynthia.' "
"Good. Drop dead." She stood and left.
"Play it again, Sam." I finished my beer, stood, and walked back to the bar.
I sidled up to the long bar among men who had seen some of life; men with chests full of medals and Combat Infantry Badges, men with campaign ribbons from Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf. The guy to my right, a full colonel with gray hair, said, "War is hell, son, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
"Saw the whole thing in the bar mirror," he informed me.
"Bar mirrors are interesting," I replied.
"Yup." In fact, he was studying me in the bar mirror now. Apropos of my civilian attire, he asked, "You retired?"
"Yes." But in fact, I was not.
He gave me his opinion of women in the military --"They squat to piss. Try doing that with sixty pounds of field gear" -- then announced, "Gotta go drain the dragon," and ambled off to the men's room, where I presume he stood at the urinal.
I made my way out of the club into the hot August night and got into my Chevy Blazer. I drove through the main post, which is sort of like a downtown without zoning, encompassing everything from a PX and commissary to misplaced barracks and a deserted tank maintenance facility.
Fort Hadley is a small post in south Georgia, founded in 1917 to train infantry troops to be sent into the meat grinder on the Western Front. The area of the military reservation, however, is quite large -- over 100,000 acres of mostly wooded terrain, suitable for war games, survival courses, guerrilla warfare training, and so on.
The Infantry School is phasing out now, and much of the post looks forlorn. But there is a Special Operations School here, the purpose of which seems somewhat vague, or perhaps, to be charitable, I could say experimental. As far as I can determine, the school is a mixture of psychological warfare, troop morale studies, isolation and deprivation studies, stress management courses, and other head and mind games. It sounds a bit sinister, but knowing the Army, whatever the original bright idea was, it has since become Drill and Ceremonies, and spit-shined boots.
To the north of Fort Hadley lies the medium-sized town of Midland, a typical Army town in some ways, populated with retired military personnel, civilian employees of the base, people who sell things to soldiers, as well as those who have nothing to do with the military and like it fine that way.
Midland was an English trading post as early as 1710, and before that it was an outpost of the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in Florida. Prior to that, it was an Indian town, the center of the Upatoi Nation. The Spanish burned the Indian town, the English burned the Spanish outpost, the French burned the English trading post, the British army burned and abandoned their fort there during the Revolution, and finally, the Yankees burned it in 1864. Looking at the place today, you wonder what all the fuss was about. Anyway, they've got a good volunteer fire department now.
I got on the interstate that skirts Fort Hadley and Midland and drove north, out into the open country toward a deserted trailer park. This was where I was temporarily staying, and I found the isolation convenient in terms of my job.
My job. I am an officer in the United States Army. My rank is unimportant, and in my line of work, it's also a secret. I am in the Criminal Investigation Division, the CID, and in the Army, which is very rank-conscious, the best rank to have is no rank. But, in fact, like most CID personnel, I am a warrant officer, a specialized rank that exists between noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers. This is a pretty good rank because you have most of the privileges of an officer but not much of the command responsibility, or the Mickey Mouse crap that goes along with it. Warrant officers are addressed as "Mister," and CID investigators often wear civilian clothing as I was that evening. There are times when I even have illusions that I'm a civilian.
There are, however, occasions when I do wear a uniform. On these occasions, the Department of the Army issues me orders with a new name, a rank appropriate to the case, and a uniform to match. I report for duty into a unit where my quarry is working, and I go about my assigned duties while gathering evidence for the judge advocate general.
When you're undercover, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I've been everything from a cook to a chemical warfare specialist -- though in the Army that's not such a big difference. It's sort of difficult to get away with some of these roles, but I get by on my charm. It's all illusion anyway. So is my charm.
There are four warrant officer grades, and I'm topped out at grade four. All us fours are holding our breaths waiting for Congress to approve a five and six. Some of us have died of asphyxiation waiting.
Anyway, I'm part of a special CID team, a sort of elite unit, though I hesitate to use that word. What makes us special is that we're all long-time veterans with good arrest and conviction records. What also makes us special is that I have extraordinary powers to cut through Army red tape, which in the military is like having a magic mushroom in a Nintendo game. One of those extraordinary powers is the power to make an arrest of any military person anywhere in the world, regardless of rank. I wouldn't push this and attempt to arrest one of the Joint Chiefs for speeding, but I always wanted to see how far I could go. I was about to find out.
My permanent duty station is at CID Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, but my cases take me all over the world. Travel, adventure, free time, mental and physical challenges, and bosses who leave me alone -- what more could a man want? Oh, yes, women. There's some of that, too. Brussels wasn't the last time I had a woman, but it was the last time it mattered.
Unfortunately, there are some men who get their fun and challenges in other ways. Sexual assault. Murder. That's what happened on that hot August night at Fort Hadley, Georgia. The victim was Captain Ann Campbell, daughter of Lieutenant General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Campbell. As if that weren't bad enough, she was young, beautiful, talented, bright, and a West Point graduate. She was the pride of Fort Hadley, the darling of the Army public relations people, a poster girl for Army recruiters, a spokesperson for the new, nonsexist Army, a Gulf War veteran, and so forth and so on. Therefore, I wasn't particularly surprised when I heard that someone raped and murdered her. She had it coming. Right? Wrong.
But I didn't know any of that during the Happy Hour at the O Club. In fact, while I had been speaking to Cynthia, and talking man talk with that colonel at the bar, Captain Ann Campbell was still alive and was actually fifty feet away in the O Club dining room finishing a meal of salad, chicken, white wine, and coffee, as I learned during my subsequent investigation.
I arrived at the trailer park, set among the pine trees, and parked my Blazer some distance from my mobile home. I walked in the dark along a path of rotted planking. A few unoccupied traders were scattered around the clearing, but mostly there were empty lots marked by cement blocks upon which there once sat about a hundred mobile homes.
There was still electric and telephone service available and a well that provided running water, which I made potable by adding Scotch whisky to it.
I unlocked the door of my trailer, stepped inside, and turned on the light, which revealed a kitchen/dining room/living room combination.
I thought of the trailer as a time capsule in which nothing had changed since about 1970. The furniture was sort of an avocado-green plastic, and the kitchen appliances were a kind of mustard color that I think used to be called harvest gold. The walls were paneled in a dark plywood, and the carpeting was a red and black plaid. If one were color-sensitive, this place could induce fits of depression and suicide.
I took off my jacket and tie, turned on the radio, got a beer from the refrigerator, and sat in the armchair that was bolted to the floor. There were three framed prints screwed to the walls, a bullfighter, a seascape, and a reproduction of Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer." I sipped my beer and contemplated Aristotle contemplating Homer's bust.
This particular trailer park, named Whispering Pines, if anyone cares, was developed by a few enterprising retired sergeants in the late sixties when it appeared that the war in Asia was going to last forever. Fort Hadley, an Infantry Training Center, was bursting with soldiers and their dependents back then, and I remember Whispering Pines when it was full of young married soldiers who were authorized -- actually encouraged -- to live off post. There was an aboveground pool crammed with kids and young Army wives, and there was too much drinking, and too much boredom, and too little money, and the future was obscured by the fog of war.
The American dream was not supposed to look like this, and when the men went off to the war, too often other men came in the night to the bedroom at the back of the long, narrow trailers. In fact, I had lived here then and had gone off to war, and someone took my place in the bed and took my young wife. But that was a few wars ago, and so much has happened since, that the only lingering bitterness left is that the bastard also took my dog.
I read a few magazines, had a few more beers, thought of Cynthia, and didn't think of Cynthia.
Normally, I have a little more fun than this, but I had to be at the post armory at 0500 hours, a.k.a. five A.M.