The camera reversed angle to show Warren Griffin. He was bringing up the rear. It was Griffin who had brought the paint and who would actually paint the faces and torsos of the three murder victims blue.
Sitting in the den of their cabin, the buddies watched the film twice more. When the third showing was over, Thomas Starkey removed the videocassette. "Here, here," said Starkey, and they all raised their beer mugs. "We're not getting older, we're getting better and better."
In the morning, Sampson and I arrived at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to continue our investigation into the Bluelady Murders. C-130s and C-141s were constantly flying overhead. I drove along something called the All American Freeway, which I then took to Reilly Road. Surprisingly, there had been no security cordon around the army base, no fence around the post, no main gate until September 11. The army had allowed local motorists to use base roads as transit from one side of Bragg to the other.
The base itself measured twenty-five miles east to west, ten miles north to south. It was home for combat troops ready to be sent anywhere in the world within eighteen hours. And it had all the amenities: movie theaters, riding stables, a museum, two golf courses, even an ice-skating rink.
There were a couple of signs as we entered at one of the new security posts. One read WELCOME TO FORT BRAGG, NORTH CAROLINA, HOME OF AMERICA'S AIRBORNE AND SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES.
The second was common to just about every U.S. base around the world: YOU ARE ENTERING A MILITARY INSTALLATION AND ARE NOW SUBJECT TO SEARCH WITHOUT A WARRANT.
The grounds were dusty, and it was still hot in the early fall. Everywhere I looked I saw sweaty soldiers running p.t. And humvees. Lots of humvees. Several of the units were "singing cadence."
"Hoo-rah!" I said to Sampson. "Nothing like it," he grinned. "Almost makes me want to re-up."
Sampson and I spent the rest of the day talking to men dressed in camouflage with spit-shined jump boots. My FBI connections helped open doors that might have stayed closed to us. Ellis Cooper had a lot of friends, and most had originally been shocked to hear about the murders. Even now, not many of them believed that he was capable of the mayhem and cruelty involved.
The exceptions were a couple of noncoms who had gone through the Special Warfare School under his command. They told us that Cooper had physically bullied them. A PFC named Steve Hall was the most outspoken. "The sergeant had a real mean streak. It was common knowledge. Couple of times, he got me alone. He'd elbow me, knee me. I knew he was hoping I'd fight back, but I didn't. I'm not that surprised he killed somebody."
"Just chicken-shit stuff," Sampson said about the training school stories. "Coop has a temper and he can be a prick, if provoked. That doesn't mean he killed three women here and painted them blue."
I could feel Sampson's tremendous affection and respect for Ellis Cooper. It was a side he didn't let show often. Sampson had grown up with a mother who was an addict and dealer, and a father who'd run out on him when he was three. He had never been much of a sentimentalist, except when it came to Nana and the kids, and maybe me.
"How do you feel about this mess so far?" he finally asked.
I hesitated before giving an answer. "It's too early to tell, John. I know that's a hell of a thing to say when your friend has less than three weeks to live. I don't think we'll be welcome around Fort Bragg much longer either. The army likes to solve its problems in its own way. It'll be hard to get the kind of information we need to really help Cooper. As for Cooper, I guess my instinct is to believe him. But who would go to all this bother to set him up? None of it makes sense."
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