Up Country - Chapter One
Bad things come in threes.
The first bad thing was a voice mail from Cynthia Sunhill, my former partner in the army's Criminal Investigation Division. Cynthia is still with the CID, and she is also my significant other, though we were having some difficulties with that job description.
The message said, "Paul, I need to talk to you. Call me tonight, no matter how late. I just got called on a case, and I have to leave tomorrow morning. We need to talk."
"Okay." I looked at the mantle clock in my small den. It was just ten P.M., or twenty-two hundred hours, as I used to say when I was in the army not so long ago.
I live in a stone farmhouse outside of Falls Church, Virginia, less than a half hour drive to CID Headquarters. The commute time is actually irrelevant because I don't work for the CID any longer. In fact, I don't work for anyone. I'm retired, or maybe fired.
In any case, it had been about six months since my separation from the army, and I was getting bored, and I had twenty or thirty years to go.
As for Ms. Sunhill, she was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, about a fourteen-hour drive from Falls Church, or twelve if I'm very excited. Her caseload is heavy, and weekends in the army are often normal duty days. The last six months had not been easy on our relatively new relationship, and with her interesting career and my growing addiction to afternoon talk shows, we don't have a lot to talk about.
Anyway, bad thing number two. I checked my e-mail, and there was a message that said simply, 1600 hrs, tomorrow, the Wall. It was signed, K.
K is Colonel Karl Hellmann, my former boss at Headquarters, and Cynthia's present commanding officer. That much was clear. What wasn't clear was why Hellmann wanted to meet me at the Vietnam War Memorial. But instinctively, I put this under the category of "bad things."
I considered several equally terse replies, none of them very positive. Of course, I didn't have to respond at all; I was retired. But, in contrast to civilian careers, a military career does not completely end. The expression is, "Once an officer, always an officer." And I had been a warrant officer by rank, and a criminal investigator by occupation.
Fact is, they still have some kind of legal hold on you, though I'm not really sure what it is. If nothing else, they can screw up your PX privileges for a year.
I stared at Karl's message again and noticed it was addressed to Mr. Brenner. Warrant officers are addressed as Mister, so this salutation was a reminder of my past - or perhaps present - army rank, not a celebration of my civilian status. Karl is not subtle. I held off on my reply.
And, last but not least, the third bad thing. I'd apparently forgotten to send in my response to my book club, and in my mail was a Danielle Steel novel. Should I return it? Or give it to my mother next Christmas? Maybe she had a birthday coming up.
Okay, I couldn't postpone the Cynthia call any longer, so I sat at my desk and dialed. I looked out the window as the phone rang at the other end. It was a cold January night in northern Virginia, and a light snow was falling.
Cynthia answered, "Hello."
"Hi," I said.
A half second of silence, then, "Hi, Paul. How are you?"
We were off on the wrong foot already, so I said, "Let's cut to the chase, Cynthia."
She hesitated, then said, "Well. . .Can I first ask you how your day was?"
"I had a great day. An old mess sergeant gave me his recipe for chili - I didn't realize it fed two hundred, and I made it all. I froze it in zip lock bags. I'll send you some. Then I went to the gym, played a basketball game against a wheelchair team - beat them big time - then off to the local tavern for beer and hamburgers with the boys. How about your day?"
"Well. . .I just wrapped up the rape case I told you about. But instead of time off, I have to go to Fort Rucker for a sexual harassment investigation, which looks tricky. I'll be there until it's concluded. Maybe a few weeks. I'll be in Bachelor Officers Quarters if you want to call me."
I didn't reply.
She said, "Hey, I still think about Christmas."
"Me, too." That was a month ago, and I hadn't seen her since. "How's Easter look?"
"You know, Paul. . .you could move here."
"But you could be reassigned anytime. Then I'd wind up following your career moves. Didn't we discuss this?"
"Yes, but. . ."
"I like it here. You could get stationed here."
"Is that an offer?"
Whoops. I replied, "It would be good for your career. Headquarters."
"Let me worry about my career. And I really don't want a staff job. I'm an investigator. Just like you were. I want to go where I can be useful."
I said, "Well, I can't be following you around like a puppy dog, or hanging around your apartment when you're away on assignment. It's not good for my ego."
"You could get a job here in law enforcement."
"I'm working on that. Here in Virginia."
And so on. It's tough when the guy's not working and the woman has a traveling career. To make matters worse, the army likes to change your permanent duty station as soon as you're comfortable, which calls into question the army's definition of permanent. On top of that, there are a lot of temporary duty assignments these days - places like Bosnia, Macedonia, South America - where you could be gone for up to a year, which pushes the definition of temporary. Bottom line, Cynthia and I were what's called these days G.U. - Geographically Unsuitable.
The military, as I've always said, is tough on relationships; it's not a job, it's a calling, a commitment that makes other commitments really difficult. Sometimes impossible.
"Are you there?" she asked.
"We can't go on like this, Paul. It hurts."
"What should we do?"
I think she was willing to resign and forfeit a lot of her pension, in exchange for the M word. Then we'd decide where to live, find jobs, and live happily ever after. And why not? We were in love.
"Yeah. . .I'm thinking."
"You should have already thought about all of this."
"Right. Look, I think we should talk about this in person. Face to face."
"The only thing we do face to face is f**k."
"That's not. . .well, we'll talk over dinner. In a restaurant."
"Okay. I'll call you when I get back from Rucker. I'll come there, or you come here."
"Okay. Hey, how's your divorce coming?"
"It's almost final."
"Good." Regarding her loving husband, I asked, "Do you see much of Major Nut Case?"
"Not much. At the O Club once in a while. Can't avoid those situations."
"Does he still want you back?"
"Don't try to complicate a simple situation."
"I'm not. I'm just concerned that he might try to kill me again."
"He never tried to kill you, Paul."
"I must have misinterpreted his reason for pointing a loaded pistol at me."
"Can we change the subject?"
"Sure. Hey, do you read Danielle Steel?"
"I bought her latest book. I'll send it to you.
"Maybe your mother would like it. It's her birthday, February 10th. Don't forget."
"I have it memorized. By the way, I got an e-mail from Karl. He wants to meet me tomorrow."
"I thought maybe you knew."
"No, I don't," she said. "Maybe he just wants to have a drink, talk about old times."
"He wants me to meet him at the Vietnam Memorial."
"Really? That's odd."
"Yeah. And he never mentioned anything to you?"
"No," she replied, "Why should he?"
"I don't know. I can't figure out what he's up to."
"Why do you think he's up to anything? You two worked together for years. He likes you."
"No, he doesn't," I said, "he hates me."
"He does not hate you. But you're a difficult man to work with. Actually, you're difficult to love."
"My mother loves me."
"You should re-check that. Regarding Karl, he respects you, and he knows just how brilliant you are. He either needs some advice, or he needs some information about an old case."
"Why the Wall?"
"Well. . .I don't know. You'll find out when you meet him."
"It's cold here. How's it there?"
"It's snowing here."
"Be careful driving."
"Yeah." We both stayed silent for a while, during which time I thought of our history. We'd met at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. She was engaged to Major What's-His-Name, a Special Forces guy, we got involved, he got pissed, pulled the aforementioned gun on me, I backed off, they got married, and a year later Cynthia and I bumped into each other again.
It was in the Officers Club at Fort Hadley, Georgia, and we were both on assignment. I was undercover, investigating the theft and sale of army weapons, she was wrapping up a rape case. That's her specialty. Sexual crimes. I'd rather be in combat again than have that job. But someone's got to do it, and she's good at it. More importantly, she can compartmentalize, and she seems to be unaffected by her work, though sometimes I wonder.
But back to Fort Hadley, last summer. While we were both there, the post commander's daughter, Captain Ann Campbell, was found on a rifle range, staked out, naked, strangled, and apparently raped. So, I'm asked to drop my little arms deal case, and Cynthia is asked to assist me. We solved the murder case, then tried to solve our own case, which is proving more difficult. At least she got rid of Major Nut Job.
"Paul, why don't we put this on hold until we can meet? Is that okay?"
"Sounds okay." In fact, it was my suggestion. But why point that out? "Good idea."
"We both need to think about how much we have to give up and how much we stand to gain."
"Did you rehearse that line?"
"Yes. But it's true. Look, I love you--"
"And I love you."
"I know. That's why this is difficult." Neither of us spoke for a while, then she said, "I'm younger than you--"
"But I'm more immature."
"Please shut up. And I like what I do, I like my life, my career, my independence. But...I'd give it up if I thought..."
"I hear you. That's a big responsibility for me."
"I'm not pressuring you, Paul. I'm not even sure I want what I think I want."
I'm a bright guy, but I get confused when I talk to women. Rather than ask for a clarification, I said, "I understand."
"Absolutely." Totally clueless.
"Do you miss me?"
"Every day," I said.
"I miss you. I really do. I'm looking forward to seeing you again. I'll take some leave time. I promise."
"I'll take some leave time, too."
"You're not working."
"Right. But if I was, I'd take a leave to be with you. I'll come to you this time. It's warmer there."
"Okay. That would be nice."
"You like chili?"
"I thought you liked chili. Okay, good luck with the case. Give me a day's notice, and I'll be there."
"It'll be about two weeks. Maybe three. I'll let you know when I get into the case."
"Say hello to Karl for me. Let me know what he wanted."
"Maybe he wants to tell me about his alien abduction."
So, just as we were about to end on a happy note, she said, "You know, Paul, you didn't have to resign."
"Is that a fact?" The case of the general's daughter had been trouble from minute one, a political, emotional, and professional minefield, and I stepped right into it. I would have been better off not solving the case because the solution turned out to be about things no one wanted to know. I said to Cynthia, "A letter of reprimand in my file is the army's way of saying, 'Call your pension officer.' A little subtle, perhaps, but--"
"I think you misinterpreted what was happening. You were scolded, you got all huffy, and you acted impulsively because your ego was bruised."
"Is that so? Well, thank you for informing me that I threw away a thirty-year career because I had a temper tantrum."
"You should come to terms with that. I'll tell you something else - unless you find something equally important and challenging to do, you're going to get depressed --"
"I'm depressed now. You just made me depressed. Thanks."
"Sorry, but I know you. You were not as burned-out as you thought you were. The Campbell case just got to you. That's okay. It got to everyone. Even me. It was the saddest, most depressing case --"
"I don't want to talk about that."
"Okay. But what you needed was a thirty-day leave, not a permanent vacation. You're still young --"
"You've got a lot of energy left, a lot to give, but you need to write a second act, Paul."
"Thank you. I'm exploring my options." It had gotten noticeably cooler in the room and on the phone.
"Are you angry?"
"No. If you were here, you'd see me smiling. I'm smiling."
"Well, if I didn't love you, I wouldn't be saying these things."
"I'm still smiling."
"See you in a few weeks." She said, "Take care of yourself."
Silence, then, "Good night."
We both hung up. I stood, went to the bar, and made a drink. Scotch, splash of soda, ice.
I sat in my den, my feet on the desk, watching the snow outside. The Scotch smelled good.
So, there I was with a Danielle Steel novel on my desk, an unpleasant phone call still ringing in my ears, and an ominous message from Karl Hellmann on my computer screen.
Sometimes things that seem unconnected are actually part of a larger plan. Not your plan, to be sure, but someone else's plan. I was supposed to believe that Karl and Cynthia were not talking about me, but Mrs. Brenner didn't raise an idiot.
I should be pissed off when people underestimate my intelligence, though in truth, I affect a certain macho idiocy that encourages people to underestimate my brilliance. I've put a lot of people in jail that way.
I looked at the message again. 1600 hrs, tomorrow, the Wall. Not even "please." Colonel Karl Gustav Hellmann can be a bit arrogant. He's German-born, as the name suggests, whereas Paul Xavier Brenner is a typical Irish lad, from South Boston, charmingly irresponsible, and delightfully smart-assed. Herr Hellmann is quite the opposite. Yet, on some strange level, we got along. He was a good commander, strict but fair, and highly motivated. I just never trusted his motives.
Anyway, I sat up and banged out an e-mail to Karl: See you there and then. I signed it, Paul Brenner, PFC, which, in this case, did not mean Private First Class, but meant, as Karl and I both knew, Private F***ing Civilian.