The affair, p.22
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       The Affair, p.22

         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Twenty-Two

 

  61

  The waitress came by and picked up our empty plates and took our orders for pie. Then she went away again and Deveraux was left looking at me, a little crestfallen. A little embarrassed, I thought. She said, "I did a stupid thing. "

  I said, "What kind of stupid thing?"

  "I hunt," she said. "Now and then. Just for fun. Deer, mostly. Just for something to do. I give the meat to the old folks, like Emmeline McClatchy. They don't eat well otherwise. Pork, sometimes, if a neighbor is butchering a pig. If the neighbor thinks to share. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes the neighbors can't afford to share. "

  "I remember," I said. "Emmeline had deer meat in the pot when we were there the first time. She offered us lunch. You declined. "

  She nodded. "No point in giving and then taking away. I got that deer a week ago. I couldn't take it back to the hotel, obviously. So I used my dad's place. I always have, since I came back here. That's a good trestle. But then you came up with your theory about Janice Chapman. I didn't know you very well at that point. I thought you might get on the phone to HQ. I had visions of Blackhawks in the air, finding every trestle in the county. So I sent you off to ID the wrecked car so you would be out of the way for an hour, and I went over and dug up the blood. "

  "Tests would have proved it came from an animal. "

  "I know," she said. "But how long would that have taken? I don't even know where the nearest lab is. Atlanta, maybe. It could have taken two weeks or more. And I can't afford to be under a cloud for two weeks or more. I literally can't afford it. This is the only job I have. I don't know where I'd get another one. And voters are weird. They always remember the suspicion, and they never remember the outcome. "

  I thought about my old pal Stan Lowrey, back on post, with his want ads. A brave new world, for all of us.

  "OK," I said. "But it was a fairly dumb thing to do. "

  "I know it was. I panicked a little bit. "

  "Do you know other hunters? And other trestles?"

  "Some. "

  "Because I still think that's how those women were killed. I don't see how it could be done any other way. "

  "I agree. Which is why I panicked. "

  "So sooner or later we might need to get those Blackhawks in the air. "

  "Unless we find Reed Riley first and ask him some questions. "

  "Reed Riley is gone," I said. "He's probably army liaison at Thule Air Force Base by now. "

  "Which is where?"

  "Northern Greenland," I said. "The top of the world. It's certainly the Air Force's most remote place. I was there once. I was on a C-5 that had a problem. We had to land there. It's part of the distant early-warning system. No sunlight for four months of the year. They've got radar that can see a tennis serve three thousand miles away. "

  "Did you get their phone number?"

  I smiled. "We're going to have to do it another way. I'll see what comes out of the woodwork the day after tomorrow. "

  She said nothing in reply to that. We ate our pie slowly. We had time to kill. At that point the midnight train was probably just easing its way out of the yards in Biloxi.

  * * *

  Deveraux was still worried about the old man in the hotel, and she didn't want to repeat her charade at the top of the stairs, so I gave her my key and we left the diner separately, ten minutes apart, which left me with the check and time for a third cup of coffee. Then I strolled down the street and nodded to the guy behind the desk and headed up the stairs and tapped on my own door. Deveraux opened up instantly and I stepped inside. She had taken her shoes and her gun belt off, but everything else was still in place. Uniform shirt, uniform pants, ponytail. All good.

  We went at it like a junkie heats a spoon, half-fast, half-slow, full of intense anticipation, willing to make the investment, barely able to wait for the payoff. She started by taking the elastic out of her hair, shaking it loose, smiling at me from behind its thick dark curtain. She undid the first three buttons on her shirt, and the weight of her name plate and badges and stars dragged the loose material askew and showed me a deep triangle of bare skin. I took off my shoes and my socks and pulled my shirt tails out of my pants. She put one hand on the fourth button on her shirt, and the other on the button on the waistband of her pants, and she said, "Your choice. "

  Which was a tough choice to make, but I thought long and hard about it and came to a firm conclusion. I said, "Pants," and she popped the button and a long minute later she was barefoot and bare-legged in just her tan uniform shirt. I said, "Now you get the same choice," and she went the other way and I took off my shirt. This time she asked about my shrapnel scar, and I gave her the short version, which was all about unfortunate timing at the start of my career, and a routine liaison visit to a Marine encampment in Beirut, Lebanon, and being passed by a truck which then blew itself up near the barracks entrance, a hundred yards from where I was standing.

  She said, "I heard about an army MP there. That was you?"

  I said, "I'm not sure who else was there. "

  "You went into the ruin and helped people. "

  "Only by accident," I said. "I was looking for a medic. For myself. I could see what I had eaten for dinner the night before. "

  "You got the Silver Star. "

  "And blood poisoning," I said. "I could have done without either thing. "

  I undid my waistband button and she undid the last of her shirt buttons and then we were in nothing but our underwear. That state of affairs did not endure long. We set my shower running and climbed into the tub together and pulled the curtain. We grabbed soap and shampoo and lathered up and washed each other up and down, side to side, inside and out. No one on earth could have faulted our standards of hygiene, or our approach to insuring them. We stayed in the shower until Toussaint's tank ran cool, and then we grabbed enough towels to make sure we wouldn't put puddles in my bed, and then the serious business began. She tasted warm and slick and soapy, and I'm sure I did too. She was lithe and strong and full of energy. We were very patient. I figured the midnight train was by then north of Columbus, south of Aberdeen, maybe forty miles and forty minutes away.

  And forty minutes is a good long time. Halfway through it there was precious little we didn't know about each other. I knew the way she moved, and what she liked, and what she loved. She knew the same about me. I got to know the way her heart hammered against her ribs, and the way her ribs moved as she panted, and the difference between one kind of panting and another. She got to know equivalent facts about me, the early-warning catch in my throat, the things to do to make my skin flush red, where I liked to be touched, and what drove me absolutely crazy.

  Then we began, a long slow build-up, with a time certain in mind, like an invading army approaching a D-Day H-Hour, like infantrymen watching the beach come closer, like pilots seeing the target grow large in the bomb sights. Long and slow, closer and closer, long and slow, for five whole minutes. Then eventually faster and harder, faster and harder, faster and harder. The glass on my bathroom shelf began to tinkle right on cue. It shook and rattled. The pipes in the walls made muffled metallic sounds. The French doors shook, one sound from the wood, another from the glass, a third from the latch. The floorboards vibrated like drum skins, a discarded shoe rolled right side up, her sheriff's star beat a tiny tattoo against the wood, the Beretta in my pocket thumped and bounced, the bed head beat on the wall in a rhythm not our own.

  The midnight train.

  Right on time.

  All aboard.

  But this time it was different.

  And wrong.

  Not us, but the train. Its sound was not the same. Its pitch was low. It was suddenly slowing hard. Its distant rumble was overlaid with the binding, grinding, screeching howl of brakes. I saw in my mind iron blocks jammed against the rims, locked wheels, long showers of superheated sparks in the nighttime air, one car after the oth
er slamming and buffeting the next in front, as the mile-long length telescoped together behind the slowing locomotive. Deveraux slipped out from under me and sat up straight, her eyes nowhere, listening hard. The grinding howl kept on going, loud, mournful, primitive, impossibly long, and then eventually it started to fade, partly because the train's momentum had carried it far beyond the crossing, and partly because it was finally almost at a stop.

  By my side Deveraux whispered, "Oh, no. "

  62

  We dressed fast and were out on the street two minutes later. Deveraux stopped and took two flashlights from her trunk. She lit one up and gave one to me. We used the alley between the hardware store and the pharmacy, past Janice Chapman's sad pile of sand, between the loan office and Brannan's bar, and out to the beaten earth beyond. She walked on ahead of me. Almost limping. Which didn't surprise me. I was on my knees. But she kept on going, dogged, committed, reluctant but determined to serve.

  She was going to the railroad track, of course. She scrambled up the packed stones and stepped over the bright steel onto the ties. She turned south. I followed her. I figured the engineer would be about twenty minutes behind us. I figured his train would weigh about eight thousand tons. And I knew a little about trains that weigh eight thousand tons. Sometimes MPs are traffic cops like any other cops, but our traffic is specialized, in that it includes tank trains, which usually weigh about eight thousand tons, and part of directing traffic at that level is understanding it takes a tank train about a mile to stop even in a panic. And it takes an average man twenty minutes to walk a mile, so we would get there twenty minutes before the engineer did.

  Which was not a privilege.

  Although I doubted there would be much left to find.

  We pressed on, almost jogging, trying to match awkward strides to the intervals between the ties. Our flashlight beams bounced and swung, through a fading cloud of smoke left behind by the train's tortured brakes. I figured we were headed right where I had already walked twice that day, where the path through the field to the east crossed the track before heading into the woods to the west. Deveraux's own childhood street, in effect, more or less. She must have been thinking about the same place, because as we approached the spot she slowed right down and started playing her flashlight beam carefully left and right.

  I did the same thing, and it fell to me to find it. All that was left. Except, I supposed, a red pulverized mist that must have filled the air and touched everything within a hundred yards, a molecule here, a molecule there.

  It was a human foot, amputated just above the ankle. The cut was clean and straight. Not ripped or torn or ragged. It was a neat straight line. That line had been hit by some unbelievable instantaneous shockwave, some kind of savage subsonic pulse, like an acoustic weapon. I had seen such a thing before. And so had Deveraux. Most traffic cops have.

  The shoe was still in place. A polished black item, plain and modest, with a low heel and a strap and a button. The stocking was still in place under it. Its top edge looked like it had been trimmed with scissors. Under its beige opacity was dark ebony skin, ending neatly in what looked like a plaster-cast cross-section displayed in a medical school lecture hall. Bone, veins, flesh.

  "Those were her church shoes," Deveraux said. "She was a nice woman at heart. I am so, so sorry this happened. "

  "I never met her," I said. "She was out. That was the first thing the kid ever said to me. My mom's out, he said. "

  We sat on a tie about five yards north of the foot and waited for the engineer. He joined us fifteen minutes later. There wasn't much he could tell us. Just the lonely glare of the headlight, and the briefest subliminal flash of a white lining inside a black coat falling open, and then it was all over long ago.

  "Her church suit," Deveraux said. "Black gabardine, white lining. "

  Then the engineer had slammed on the brakes, as he was required to by railroad policy and federal regulations and state laws, all of which were a totally pointless waste of time, in his opinion. Stress on the train, stress on the track, and for what? A mile's walk, and nothing when he got there. It had happened to him before.

  He and Deveraux exchanged various reference numbers and names and addresses, again as per regulations, and Deveraux asked him if he was OK or wanted help in any way, but he brushed the concerns aside and set off walking north again, a mile back to his cab, not at all shaken up, just weary with routine.

  We walked back to Main Street, past the hotel, to the Sheriff's Department. No one was on duty at night, so Deveraux let us in with a key and turned on the lights. She called Pellegrino and told him to come back in on overtime, and she called the doctor and told him he had more duties to perform. Neither one was happy, but both were quick. They arrived almost together within a matter of minutes. Maybe they had heard the train too.

  Deveraux sent them off together to collect the remains. We waited, not saying much, and they were back within half an hour. The doctor left again for his office, and Deveraux told Pellegrino to drive me to Memphis. Much earlier than I had planned, but I would have wanted it no other way.

  63

  I didn't go back to the hotel. I left directly from the Sheriff's Department, with nothing except cash in one pocket and the Beretta in the other. We saw no passing traffic. No big surprise. It was the dead of night, and we were far from anywhere. Pellegrino didn't talk. He was mute with fatigue, or resentment, or something. He just drove. He used the same route I had come in on, first the straight-shot east - west road through the forest, and then the minor road I had ridden in the old Chevy truck, and then the dusty two-lane I had ridden in the sagging Buick sedan. We crossed the state line into Tennessee, and passed by Germantown, where I had gotten out of the lumber guy's pick-up, and then we headed through the sleeping southeast suburb and arrived in downtown Memphis, still well before dawn. I got out at the bus depot and Pellegrino drove away without a word. He went around a block and I heard his motor beating between buildings, and then it faded to nothing and he was gone.

  The early start gave me a big choice of buses, but the first of them didn't leave for an hour. So I quartered the surrounding low-rent blocks, looking for an all-night diner, and I found a choice of two. I picked the same place I had used for lunch three days previously. It was cheap, and it hadn't killed me. I got coffee from a crusted pot, and bacon and eggs from pans that had been hot since the Nixon administration. Fifty minutes later I was in the back of a bus, heading north and east.

  I watched the sun come up through the window on my right, and then I slept for the rest of the six-hour ride. I got out at the same place I had gotten in three days before, at the depot on the edge of the town close to the post where I was based. The town bore no obvious similarity to Carter Crossing, but all the same elements were there. Bars, loan offices, auto parts, gun shops, used stereo stores, each one of them thriving on the supportive stream of Uncle Sam's military dollars. I walked past them all and headed into open country, stopping at the diner half a mile out for lunch, then continuing onward. I was back on post and in my quarters before two o'clock in the afternoon, which was much earlier than I had expected, and which gave me the chance to improve my plan a little.

  The first thing I did was take a long hot shower. Deveraux's scent came up at me in the steam. I dried off and dressed in full-on Class A uniform, soup to nuts. Then I called Stan Lowrey and asked him for a ride back to the bus depot. I figured if I hurried I could get to D. C. by dinner time, which was about twelve hours ahead of schedule. And I told Lowrey to make no secret of where I was going. I figured the more people who knew, and the longer I was there, the better chance things would have to come crawling out of the woodwork.

  Washington D. C. at seven o'clock on a Monday evening was going quiet. A company town, where the company was America, and where work never really stopped, but where it moved into quiet confidential locations after five in the afternoon. Salons, bars, fancy restaurants, townhouse parlo
rs, those locations were unknown to me, but I knew the neighborhoods most likely to contain them. So I skipped the kind of distant chain hotels a lowly O-4 like me would normally use, and I headed for the brighter lights and the cleaner streets and the higher prices south of Dupont Circle. Not that I was intending to pay for anything. Legend had it there was a fancy place on Connecticut Avenue with a glitch in its back office, whereby uniformed guests were automatically billed to the Department of the Army. Some one-time conference arrangement that had never been canceled, or some embittered veteran in charge of the ledgers, no one knew. But the legend said you could be in Arlington Cemetery before the charges caught up with you.

  I walked there slowly, in the center of every sidewalk I used. I was vigilant without appearing to be so. I used store windows as mirrors and gazed around innocently at every crosswalk light. No one was paying me any attention. I was crowded and jostled at times, but only by normal busy people rushing ahead to the next thing on their long agendas. I got to the hotel without any trouble and checked in under my real name and rank, and the legend held up, in that I was asked for no charge card or deposit. All I had to do was sign a piece of paper, which I did, as clearly and legibly as possible. No point in being the bait in a trap, and then hiding your light under a bushel. Not that I had ever been sure what a bushel was. Some kind of a small barrel, I assumed. In which case the light would go out anyway, for want of oxygen.

  I rode the elevator to my room and hung my Class A coat on a hanger and called down and asked for dinner to be delivered. Thirty minutes later I was eating a sirloin steak, which would also be billed to the Pentagon. Thirty minutes after that I left the tray in the corridor and went out for a walk, just trawling, just seeing if my passage would pull anyone out of the shadows behind me. But no one reacted, and no one followed. I walked around the Circle and then quartered the blocks beyond it, passing the Iraqi Embassy at one extreme and the Colombian at the other. I saw men and women I took to be federal agents of various kinds, and men and women out of uniform but clearly military, and men and women in uniform, from all four branches of the service, and numerous private citizens in serious suits, but none of them made a move against me. None of them was even slightly interested. I was part of the furniture.

  So I went back to the hotel, and I went to bed in my luxurious room, and I waited to see what would happen the next day, which would be Tuesday, the eleventh of March, 1997.

  64

  I woke up at seven and let the Department of the Army buy me a room service breakfast. By eight I was showered and dressed and out on the street. I figured this was when the serious business would begin. A noon appointment at the Pentagon for a guy based as far away as I was made it likely I would have stayed in town the night before, and Washington hotels were easily monitored. It was that kind of a city. And I wasn't hiding my light under any kind of small barrels. So I half-expected opposition in the lobby, or right outside the street door. I found it in neither place. It was a fresh spring morning, the sun was out, the air was warm, and everything I saw was benign and innocent.

  I made a show of strolling out to a newspaper kiosk, even though the hotel supplied publications of every type. I bought a Post, and a Times, and I lingered and loitered over making change, all slow and unconcerned, but there was no approach and no attack. I carried the papers to a coffee shop and sat at an outside table, in full view of the whole world.

  No one looked at me.

  By ten o'clock I was full of coffee and had read the ink off both broadsheets and no passerby had shown any interest in me. I began to think I had outsmarted myself with my choice of hotel. A transient O-4 would normally stay in a different kind of place, of which there were simply too many to call. So I began to think it likely the opposition would be focusing on the end of my journey, not a stop along the way. Which would be more efficient for them, anyway. They knew exactly where I was going, and exactly when.

  Which meant they would be waiting for me in or around the Pentagon, at or before twelve o'clock. The belly of the beast. Much more dangerous. Less than three miles away, but a different planet in terms of how they would do things.

  It was still a beautiful morning, so I walked. Any day could be the last of life or liberty, so small pleasures were always worth pursuing. I went south on 17th Street, past the Executive Office Building next to the White House, down the side of the Ellipse, and onto the Mall. I turned away from George Washington's monument and headed for Abraham Lincoln's. I looped left of the old guy and found my way onto the Arlington Memorial Bridge and stepped out over the broad waters of the Potomac. Plenty of people were making the same trip by car. No one else was doing it on foot. The morning joggers were long gone, and the afternoon joggers were still at work.

  I stopped halfway across and leaned on the rail. Always a wise precaution on a bridge. Nowhere for a follower to hide. They had to keep on coming. But there was no one behind me. No one ahead of me, either. I gave it five minutes, resting on my elbows like a contemplative soul, but no one came. So I moved on again, another three hundred yards, and I arrived in Virginia. Straight ahead of me in the distance was Arlington National Cemetery. The main gate. I was there five minutes later. I walked into the sea of white stones. Immediately there were graves all around me. Always the best way to approach the Department of Defense. Through the graveyard. For purposes of perspective.

  I detoured once to pay my respects to JFK, and again to pay my respects to the Unknown Soldier. I walked behind Henderson Hall, which was a high-level Marine place, and I came out the cemetery's south gate, and there it was: the Pentagon. The world's largest office building. Six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but just three street doors. Naturally I wanted the southeast entrance. For obvious reasons. So I looped around, staying alert, keeping my distance, until I was able to join the thin stream of people coming in from the Metro station. The stream got thicker as it funneled toward the doors. It turned out to be a decent crowd. The right kind of people, for my particular purposes. I wanted witnesses. Arrests go bad all the time, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose.

  But I got in OK, despite a little uncertainty in the lobby. What I thought was an arrest team turned out to be a new watch coming on duty. A temporary manpower surplus. That was all. So I made it to 3C315 unmolested. Third floor, C ring, nearest to radial corridor number three, bay number fifteen. John James Frazer's office. Senate Liaison. There was no one in there with him. He was all alone. He told me to close the door. I did. He told me to sit down. I did.

  He said, "So what have you got for me?"

  I said nothing. I had nothing to say. I hadn't expected to get that far.

  He said, "Good news, I hope. "

  "No news," I said.

  "You told me you had the name. That's what your message said. "

  "I don't have the name. "

  "Then why say so? Why ask to see me?"

  I paused a beat.

  "It was a shortcut," I said.

  And right there the meeting died on its feet. There was really nothing more to say. Frazer put on a big show of being tolerant. And patient. He called me paranoid. Then he laughed a little. About how I couldn't even get arrested. Then he tried to look concerned. About my state of health, maybe. And certainly about my appearance. The hair and the stubble. He put on the kind of brusque and manly voice an uncle uses with a favorite nephew.

  He said, "You look terrible. There are barbershops here, you know. You should go use one. "

  "I can't," I said. "I'm supposed to look like this. "

  "Because of the undercover role?"

  "Yes. "

  "But you're not really undercover, are you? I heard the local sheriff rumbled you immediately. "

  "I think it's worth continuing for the general population. The army is not real popular with them at the moment. "

  "Anyway, I expect you'll be withdrawn now. In fa
ct I'm surprised you haven't been withdrawn already. When did you last get orders?"

  "Why would I be withdrawn?"

  "Because matters appear to be resolved in Mississippi. "

  "Do they?"

  "I think so. The shootings outside of Kelham were clearly a case of an excess of zeal from an unofficial and unauthorized paramilitary force from another state. The authorities in Tennessee will take care of all that. We can't really stand in their way. Our powers are limited. "

  "They were ordered there. "

  "No, I don't really think so. Those groups have extensive underground communications. We think it will prove to be a civilian initiative. "

  "I don't agree. "

  "This is not debate class. Facts are facts. This country is overrun with groups like that. Their agendas are decided internally. There's really no doubt about that. "

  "What about the three dead women?"

  "The perpetrator has been identified, I believe. "

  "When?"

  "The news became public three hours ago, I think. "

  "Who is it?"

  "I don't have all the details. "

  "One of ours?"

  "No, I believe it was a local person. Down there in Mississippi. " I said nothing.

  Frazer said, "Anyway, thank you for coming in. "

  I said nothing.

  Frazer said, "This meeting is over, major. "

  I said, "No, colonel, it isn't. "

  65

  The Pentagon was built because World War Two was coming, and because World War Two was coming it was built without much steel. Steel was needed elsewhere, as always in wartime. Thus the giant building was a monument to the strength and mass of concrete. So much sand was needed for the mix it was dredged right out of the Potomac River, not far from the rising walls themselves. Nearly a million tons of it. The result was extreme solidity. And silence.

  There were thirty thousand people the other side of Frazer's closed door, but I couldn't hear any of them. I couldn't hear anything at all. Just the kind of hissing quiet typical of a C ring office.

  Frazer said, "Don't forget you're talking to an officer senior to you in rank. "

  I said, "Don't forget you're talking to an MP authorized to arrest anyone from a newborn private to a five-star general. "

  "What's your point?"

  "The Tennessee Free Citizens were ordered to Kelham. That's clear, I think. And I agree, they acted with an excess of zeal when they got there. But that's on the guy who gave the order, as much as it's on them. More so, in fact. Responsibility starts at the top. "

  "No one gave any orders. "

  "They were dispatched at the same moment I was. And Munro. We all converged. It was one single integrated decision. Because Reed Riley was there. Who knew that?"

  "Perhaps it was a local decision. "

  "What was your personal position?"

  "Purely passive. And reactive. I was ready to handle the fallout, if any. Nothing more. "

  "You sure?"

  "Senate Liaison is always passive. It's about putting out fires. "

  "Is it never proactive? Never about cutting firebreaks ahead of time?"

  "How could I have done that?"

  "You could have seen the danger coming. You could have made a plan. You could have decided to defend Kelham's fence from pesky civilians asking awkward questions. But you couldn't ask the Rangers to do that themselves. No commander on earth would recognize that as a legal order. So you could have called some unofficial buddies. From Tennessee, say, which is your home state. Where you know people. That's possible, isn't it?"

  "No, that's ridiculous. "

  "And then to integrate your whole approach you could have decided to tap MP phones, to monitor things, and to give yourself an early warning in case anything seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. "

  "That's ridiculous too. "

  "Do you deny it?"

  "Of course I deny it. "

  "So humor me," I said. "Let's talk theoretically. If a person did those two things, what would you think?"

  "What two things?"

  "Called Tennessee, and tapped phones. What would you think?"

  "That laws were broken. "

  "Would a person do one thing and not the other? Speaking as a professional soldier?"

  "He couldn't afford to. He couldn't afford to have an unauthorized force in the field without a way of knowing if it was close to being discovered. "

  "I agree," I said. "So whoever deployed the yahoos also tapped the phones, and whoever tapped the phones also deployed the yahoos. Am I making sense? Theoretically?"

  "I suppose so. "

  "Yes or no, colonel?"

  "Yes. "

  I asked, "How good is your short-term memory?"

  "Good enough. "

  "What was the first thing you said to me when I came in here today?"

  "I told you to close the door. "

  "No, you said hello. Then you told me to close the door. "

  "And then I told you to sit down. "

  "And then?"

  He said, "I don't recall. "

  "We had a minor discussion about how busy this place is at noon. "

  "Yes, I remember. "

  "And then you asked me what news I had. "

  "And you didn't have any. "

  "Which surprised you. Because I had left a message in which I told you I had the name. "

  "I was surprised, yes. "

  "What name?"

  "I wasn't sure. It might have concerned anything. "

  "In which case you would have said a name. Not the name. "

  "Perhaps I was humoring your delusion that someone did in fact send those amateurs to Mississippi. Because it seemed important to you. "

  "It was important to me. Because it was true. "

  "OK, I respect your convictions. I suggest you find out who. "

  "I have found out who. "

  He didn't reply.

  "You slipped up," I said.

  He didn't answer.

  "I didn't leave you a message," I said. "I made an appointment. With your scheduler. That was all. I didn't give a reason for it. I just said I needed to see you at noon today. The only time I mentioned anything about names and the Tennessee Free Citizens was on a completely separate call with General Garber. Which evidently you were listening to. "

  The hissing quiet in the little office seemed to change in pitch. It went low and ominous, like a real thrumming silence.

  Frazer said, "Some things are too big for you to understand, son. "

  "Probably," I said. "I'm not too clear about what happened in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. I can't make the quantum physics work. But I can get by with a lot of other things. For instance, I understand the Constitution of the United States pretty well. You ever heard of the First Amendment? It guarantees the freedom of the press. Which means any old journalist is entitled to approach any old fence he likes. "

  "That guy was from some radical pinko rag in a college town. "

  "And I understand you're lazy. You've spent years kissing Carlton Riley's ass, and you don't want to start over with a new guy. Not now. Because that would involve actually doing your damn job. "

  No reply.

  I said, "The second human being your boys killed was an underage recruit. He was on his way to try to join the army. His mother killed herself the same night. I understand both of those things. Because I saw what was left. First one, and then the other. "

  No reply.

  I said, "And I understand you're doubly arrogant. First you thought I wouldn't figure out your genius scheme, and then when I did, you thought you could deal with me all by yourself. No help, no backup, no arrest teams. Just you and me, here and now. I have to ask, how dumb are you?"

  "And I have to ask, are you armed?"

  "I'm in Class A uniform," I said. "No sidearm is carrie
d with Class A uniform. You'll find that in the regulations. "

  "So how dumb are you?"

  "I didn't expect to be in this situation. I didn't expect to get this far. "

  "Take my advice, son. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. "

  "You got a gun in your desk?"

  "I have two guns in my desk. "

  "You going to shoot me?"

  "If I have to. "

  "This is the Pentagon. There are thirty thousand military personnel outside your door. They're all trained to run toward the sound of gunfire. You better have a story ready. "

  "You attacked me. "

  "Why would I?"

  "Because you're obsessed about who shot some ugly black kid in the back of beyond. "

  "I never told anyone he was ugly. Or black. Not on the phone. You must have gotten that from your Tennessee buddies. "

  "Whatever, you're obsessed. I ordered you to leave but you attacked me. "

  I leaned back in his visitor chair. I stretched my legs out in front of me. I let my arms hang down. I got good and relaxed. I could have fallen asleep. I said, "This doesn't look like a very threatening posture, does it? And I weigh about 250. You'll have a problem moving me before 3C314 and 3C316 get in here. Which will take them about a second and a half. And then you'll have to deal with the MPs. You kill one of their own in dubious circumstances, they'll tear you apart. "

  "My neighbors won't hear. No one will hear a thing. "

  "Why? You got suppressors on those guns?"

  "I don't need suppressors. Or guns. "

  Then he did a very strange thing. He stepped over and took a picture off his wall. A black and white photograph. Himself and Senator Carlton Riley. It was signed. By the senator, I assumed. Not by him. He stepped away from the wall and laid the picture on his desk. Then he stepped back again and pincered his fingertips and worried the nail out of the plaster.

  "Is that it?" I said. "You're going to prick me to death with a pin?"

  He put the nail next to the photograph.

  He opened a drawer and took out a hammer.

  He said, "I was in the middle of rehanging the picture when you attacked me. Fortunately I was able to grab the hammer, which was still close at hand. "

  I said nothing.

  "It will be very quiet," he said. "One solid blow should do it. I'll have plenty of time to arrange your body whatever way I need to. "

  "You're insane," I said.

  "No, I'm committed," he said. "To the future of the army. "

 
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