The clock moved. The hand jumped and bounced and settled. Three minutes past midnight. The phone rang again. It was someone calling to wish me a happy new year. It was the sergeant in the office outside of mine.
"Happy New Year," she said to me.
"You too," I said. "You couldn't stand up and put your head in the door?"
"You couldn't put yours out the door?"
"I was on the phone."
"Who was it?"
"Nobody," I said. "Just some grunt didn't make it to the new decade."
"You want coffee?"
"Sure," I said. "Why not?"
I put the phone down again. At that point I had been in more than six years, and army coffee was one of the things that made me happy to stay in. It was the best in the world, no question. So were the sergeants. This one was a mountain woman from north Georgia. I had known her two days. She lived off post in a trailer park somewhere in the North Carolina badlands. She had a baby son. She had told me all about him. I had heard nothing about a husband. She was all bone and sinew and she was as hard as woodpecker lips, but she liked me. I could tell, because she brought me coffee. They don't like you, they don't bring you coffee. They knife you in the back instead. My door opened and she came in, carrying two mugs, one for her and one for me.
"Happy New Year," I said to her.
She put the coffee down on my desk, both mugs.
"Will it be?" she said.
"Don't see why not," I said.
"The Berlin Wall is halfway down. They showed it on the television. They were having a big party out there."
"I'm glad someone was, somewhere."
"Lots of people. Big crowds. All singing and dancing."
"I didn't see the news."
"This all was six hours ago. The time difference."
"They're probably still at it."
"They had sledgehammers."
"They're allowed. Their half is a free city. We spent forty-five years keeping it that way."
"Pretty soon we won't have an enemy anymore."
I tried the coffee. Hot, black, the best in the world.
"We won," I said. "Isn't that supposed to be a good thing?"
"Not if you depend on Uncle Sam's paycheck."
She was dressed like me in standard woodland camouflage battledress uniform. Her sleeves were neatly rolled. Her MP brassard was exactly horizontal. I figured she had it safety-pinned in back where nobody could see. Her boots were gleaming.
"You got any desert camos?" I asked her.
"Never been to the desert," she said.
"They changed the pattern. They put big brown splotches on it. Five years' research. Infantry guys are calling it chocolate chip. It's not a good pattern. They'll have to change it back. But it'll take them another five years to figure that out."
"If it takes them five years to revise a camo pattern, your kid will be through college before they figure out force reduction. So don't worry about it."
"OK," she said, not believing me. "You think he's good for college?"
"I never met him."
She said nothing.
"The Army hates change," I said. "And we'll always have enemies."
She said nothing. My phone rang again. She leaned forward and answered it for me. Listened for about eleven seconds and handed me the receiver.
"Colonel Garber, sir," she said. "He's in D.C."
She took her mug and left the room. Colonel Garber was ultimately my boss, and although he was a pleasant human being it was unlikely he was calling eight minutes into New Year's Day simply to be social. That wasn't his style. Some brass does that stuff. They come over all cheery on the big holidays, like they're really just one of the boys. But Leon Garber wouldn't have dreamed of trying that, with anyone, and least of all with me. Even if he had known I was going to be there.
From The Enemy by Lee Child. Copyright Lee Child 2004. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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