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 mantel clock in my small den. It was just 10 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 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 pastor perhaps presentarmy 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 chiliI didn't realize it fed two hundred, and I made it all. I froze it in Ziploc bags. I'll send you some. Then I went to the gym, played a basketball game against a wheelchair teambeat them big timethen off to the local tavern for beer and hamburgers with the boys. How about your day?"
Copyright © 2002 by Nelson DeMille
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