I had no idea what woke me up early, until I caught a whiff of my own breath. Then my tooth began to ache and I thought it could be that. But it could also have been a premonition of sleepus interruptus, because no sooner did my eyes overcome the crust gluing them together than the doorbell chimed, and then chimed again. I got to it on the fourth intonation, when whoever was on the other side of the door decided a bar of "Greensleeves" didn't perhaps convey the proper desired authority and began underlining the urgency with their fist.
"Vin, c'mon, man. I know you're in there," said Major Arlen Wayne, solving the day's first mystery—namely, who was making all the goddamn noise assaulting my alcohol-poisoned gray matter. Arlen was practically my only friend left on the planet—when my ex-wife moved out, she took most of them with her. Arlen and I had been out on the town drinking, celebrating my divorce coming through as well as the conviction for murder handed down on a case I'd been working on. Arlen knew I was "in there" on account of him being the person who brought me home the previous night. I think.
I opened the door to a sliver of light and he pushed his way in. "Go away," I said as Arlen threw back the curtains and let in the day. I'm not a morning person. I've been known to punch people for waking me before a reasonable hour, which varies according to the time I went to sleep the night before and the condition I was in when my head hit the pillow.
My name is Vincent Cooper, Major Vin Cooper, Special Agent in the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations—the OSI. I work major crime. Homicides, mainly. I'm thirty-four, look twenty-eight, so I tell myself, and occasionally act eighteen, so my ex says.
I shuffled past Arlen, keeping to the protection of the shadows, and lay down on my bed, burying my head under the pillow.
"C'mon, Vin," he said.
"You already said that," I told him, my voice muffled by the pillow.
"The big cheese wants you in her office. ASAP. So get your shit together. And I'd bring my passport if I were you."
"Am I going somewhere?"
"Germany, I think."
The big cheese is the OSI's second-in-command. She's one tough old boot, a major general. Her name is Winifred Gruyere, which explains why we call her the big cheese. But not, of course, to her face. She's probably the most terrifying person I've ever met: short, built like a Buick, eyes that don't blink, and large pores that remind me of the way a pancake looks when it's cooking. She's fifty-five, I think (it's hard to tell—she could be a hundred and fifty), and is the real power running OSI rather than the four-star general who spends most of his time on the golf course getting his handicap below embarrassing. "What's it about?" I asked, taking the pillow off my head.
"When you turn on your cell phone, you're going to hear a few heated messages. You know it's against the rules to turn it off."
I shrugged. "Battery ran low." That wasn't true. The real reason was that I hate the damn things.
"What about your pager?"
"It got wet."
Arlen shook his head and changed the subject. "You heard of a General Scott?"
"No. Should I have?"
"He was the CO of Ramstein Air Base. A four-star heavy hitter, married to the daughter of the Vice President of our fair land."
Like most people, I'm a bit slow on the uptake after a night on the suds, but I'm not stupid. "I'm assuming the past tense you're using is significant."
"Yeah. Did you get who he was married to?"
"I got it." Ramstein AB is a vast NATO facility in Germany, shared by a bunch of other air forces. But U.S. forces have by far the biggest presence there. Pretty much everything going to Europe and to the Middle East transits through Ramstein. It's a giant military hub. "Do you know how he was killed?" I asked as I shuffled into the bathroom for a shower.
"The wings fell off his glider."
A shiver running the full length of my spine and into my legs. I am not good with flying.
I had moved here to the town of Brandywine, Maryland, when Brenda and I decided life would be better all round if we no longer shared each other's. We'd hit the wall. My issues revolved around the fact that I didn't see the wall coming. And just maybe that was a big part of our problem: Even when I was home, I wasn't. The reality of our marriage was staring me in the face, only I never took the time to open my eyes.
Anyway, where was I? Yeah, Brandywine, somewhere south of D.C. It sounded like my kind of town before I moved here, given my situation, and indeed they do have one or two good bars. The reality is that it's more of a family town stuck in the middle of five-acre lots with developers licking their chops at the prospect of making the place completely faceless. A lot of air force people live here, renting. On the weekends, dads throw balls to their kids in the parks while moms lay out blankets, setting up picnics. I felt like the place was rubbing my marital failure in my face and I was thinking I might have to move.
Those Disney scenes were in full swing as Arlen and I drove past, this being a Saturday morning. Winter was fast becoming a memory. It was mid-May, and warm. The sun was out and the sky was a pale blue, softened by haze floating down from D.C. But I wasn't really there, "in the moment," as my ex-wife would have said. My brain was trying to pick through the information passed on by Arlen, though not with much success. It's hard to concentrate when you have a headache that'd knock down a buffalo fighting it out with a toothache for supremacy.
Arlen piloted the Chrysler onto Route 5 and accelerated into the traffic heading generally north toward Andrews Air Force Base, where OSI is headquartered. We drove through the rural landscape. People used to grow tobacco here until the government persuaded them it would be far better if they just accepted a handout. These days a lot of folks still left on the land farm old car wrecks and broken-down washing machines, herds of which collect in their front yards. I was thinking about this as I either dozed off or suffered a mild brain seizure, because the fifteen miles to the base seemed to pass in a matter of seconds. The brief sleep did me some good, though, and the handful of Tylenols I had swallowed before leaving home were well and truly on top of things at last, having corralled the buffalo and knocked the barbs off the toothache. I was almost feeling positive, "seizing the day," as my ex would have said. A meaty case would be good for me, take my mind off said ex, and I silently thanked General Scott for going and getting himself killed.
OSI, or AFOSI if you want to be anal about it, has a command structure which sits outside the usual operational framework of the USAF. That is to say, we're autonomous. Our buck stops at the desk of the Inspector General, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, rather than the commanding officer of a particular base or region, or even the Secretary of Defense. The OSI exists because, like any large organization, the USAF has its share of rotten apples, people who murder, rape, embezzle, rob, traffic in drugs and/or sex, commit fraud or arson, and so on. To say OSI is a busy little outfit is an understatement. And, just like any internal-affairs unit operating within an organization, we're not particularly popular with the arms we oversee. We're a negative force, as Brenda used to tell me, always looking for the bad in people rather than the good. Well, duh is just about all you can say to that pearl of wisdom. We don't exist to hand out gold stars to hall monitors. According to Brenda, the OSI is high on destructive energy. Or something. Brenda went off the deep end, lost her marbles, call it what you will, the minute she began to walk down the endless path of personal development. I wouldn't have been surprised if she believed any and all evil could be expunged if it could just be seated in a room with an aromatherapy burner heating up the right combination of oils.
Okay, I'm getting myself worked up again. The truth is, I'm not sure whether it was entirely thoughts of my former spouse that were to blame for my foul mood, or the toothache that had managed to find a way back through the Tylenol barrier.
Arlen stopped at the guard post at the southern entrance to the base as a pair of F-16s in close formation ripped past low overhead. He got our credentials inspected by a bored noncom armed with a loaded M16, while I tried to get in touch with Mr. Happy hiding somewhere deep within. You're a single guy again, I said to myself. That's got to be worth a smile, don't it?
Come in," said Major General Winifred Gruyere when I appeared in the doorway. I did as I was asked. I stood at attention in front of her desk for some time, waiting for a further sign that she acknowledged my presence. In fairness, I don't think this was some kind of tactic. She was sifting through files on her desk, like a seagull pecking among food scraps it suddenly realizes are cigarette butts—with initial interest followed by distaste.
I saw my name and number on one of those cigarette butts. Eventually the general picked it out and opened it. I gathered she had been going over the service records of a number of fellow special agents. Without looking up, she ran through a summary. "Special Agent Vin Cooper, rank of major. You studied history at NYU, graduated, and entered the service as a second lieutenant. You put in for the CCTs, the combat air-controller squadron, where you trained with SEALS, Marine Force Recon, et cetera. You saw action in Kosovo and received the Purple Heart."
At this point, and for the first time, Gruyere lifted her eyes above the half-moons of her spectacles and locked them on to mine. She was trying to imagine whether the soldier standing in front of her was the same person she was reading about.
"I've read the citation your CO put in," she said. "You should have received the Bronze Star."
I felt like saying thank you, but didn't, and continued to keep my eyes leveled on the bookshelf behind her.
"You then transferred to OSI. In Afghanistan you took down a drug gang. A local senior politician had been killed by a car bomb and it looked like a strike by the Taliban. You proved otherwise, that it was an operation mounted by a group of U.S. soldiers set on eliminating the competition. You were shot and wounded and received a second Purple Heart. I see you also survived a helo crash on that one. Seems you're a hard man to kill, Major."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, giving her the response I thought she was looking for.
"Next came the episode of the brigadier general." Gruyere shook her head. "Now, that was a sorry shit piece of business."
I agreed. The asshole beat his gay lover's head to jam because he caught him in an embrace with someone who turned out to be the young man's half brother.
"So what the fuck's gone wrong, Major? Seems to me you're not the man you were."
Swearing just sounds plain odd when it comes from the mouth of a woman old enough to be your grandma. "I don't know, ma'am," I said.
"That much is obvious, Special Agent."
The general was possibly referring to the charge of assault against me. The man on whose face my knuckles played the anvil chorus happened to be a full bird colonel, which never goes down well on one's record, even if the charges are eventually dropped because there are, as they say, extenuating circumstances. I'd caught the colonel in question in fellatio delicto with my wife, and I'm sorry, but rank does not extend to those privileges.
"Separation and divorce are never easy, soldier," Gruyere remarked, breaking in on my trip down memory lane. She shook her head and continued. "Aside from the assault, says here you've been arrested three times in the past year for drunk and disorderly behavior."
I'd forgotten about those items, possibly because, as the record said, I was drunk at the time. And I was sure it was only twice, but I kept that to myself.
"I'll let you in on my problem, Major. I need an investigator, a very good investigator. A year ago I'd have said you were that man, but, going through this," she motioned at the file on the desk in front of her as if it were kitchen trash, "I've got serious doubts. The trouble is, someone upstairs likes you. But I've got a feeling that, with you, we're scraping the bottom of the barrel." She glared at me over her glasses. "Yeah, that's what it feels like to me."
I continued to study the bookshelf behind her. What friends upstairs? I wondered. As far as I knew, Arlen was it in the friends department, and he wasn't so much upstairs as sideways in the room down the hall.
"At ease, Special Agent, and take a seat. Give me a reason to believe. Talk to me."
I did as I was told and sat in the chair beside me. "General, I'll be straight with you. I've had a hell of a year. Sounds like you've got the broad sweep of it there in front of you, but maybe not the details. My divorce came through yesterday and that closes the book on a few chapters I'd like to forget were ever written."
"Major, cut the folksy shit and just reassure me you're the man for the job."
General officers, it seems to me, can occasionally be capricious, uncaring of the fates of mere mortals, and, although I knew why I'd been summoned, I thought it best to play dumb. I can be good at that. "What job, ma'am?" I asked innocently.
"If you don't know why you're here, Cooper, then you're not half the investigator your record says you are. Or were." The general tilted her head and looked at me as if I were a puzzle with several pieces squeezed into the wrong holes. "Dismissed."
Gruyere then began shuffling papers. I'd played it badly. If getting me on the case was Plan A, I'd just managed to convince her to go with Plan B.