Read an Excerpt
The guy flashing the badge at my door that morning looked like a Mormon missionary. His double-knit sport coat was a sweat machine, his cheap tie a noose. He glanced at the can of Tecate in my hand: wanton violation of the Sabbath.
We were off to a bad start.
“Special Agent Tompkins. CID. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“Sure.” I pushed open the screen door. He had the look of an NCO eager to be mistaken for an officer. “Want a beer?”
I couldn’t help teasing him. I was screwed, anyway. A fitting end to the affair. Now that Nikki was gone, after reducing my heart to shit, somebody must have gone running to the chain of command, whining about a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: adultery, a cold word for a conflagration. Probably her husband, whining from afar.
“Have a seat.”
Tompkins sat on the couch, ignoring the stains. He glanced around, in search of evidence. Nikki was everywhere. But nowhere he could see.
His eyes settled on the unread Sunday paper. An Abscam conviction shared headline space with the Fed’s 14 percent interest rate.
I leaned against the wall. Varnished knotty pine met bare flesh. The air conditioner grumped at the desert heat.
“Would you mind turning off the music?”
I flipped up the tonearm and stopped the record. Steve Winwood. Arc of a Diver. Not my life’s usual soundtrack. One of Nikki’s favorites. My self-flagellation.
“Did you just take a shower?” Tompkins asked. It wasn’t great sleuthing: My hair was wet, and I wore nothing but a pair of cut-off jeans.
“Dropped the towel when you rang the bell.”
“Why did you take a shower just now?”
I made a what the fuck? face. I’d been on a long suicidal run out in the proving grounds. Me against the Arizona sun. Stupidity, vanity and heartbreak, calves, thighs and lungs. I liked to jump the wire and run forbidden trails, just me and the rattlesnakes. The adjudicating authority could add that to the score.
“I was out running.”
“How long were you gone?”
I shrugged. “About an hour. What’s this all about?”
“Where were you were last night? Start at six in the evening and talk me forward.”
I didn’t see what my lonesome Saturday night had to do with Nikki and a conduct-unbecoming charge. Although it had everything to do with Nikki.
“I was here. All evening. All night.”
“That doesn’t sound like you. The way people describe you.” Then he added, “Lieutenant.”
“Look, would you tell me what this is about?” I was no longer so sure that I knew. “And aren’t you supposed to read me my rights or something?”
“Do you want me to read you your rights? Are you guilty of something?”
“You tell me.”
“Do you consider yourself a suspect?”
“A suspect for what?”
“Where were you last night, Lieutenant Banks? Let’s narrow it down. Where were you between midnight and six A.M.?”
“Here. I told you. I was in bed by midnight.”
“I don’t know when I fell asleep. But I was in bed.”
“Were you alone?”
“I told you that, too.” Alone. And sick at heart. Unable to read. Unable to bear any music I had played when we were together. Unable to jerk off without feeling puking sick at the thought of her gone.
“But you have no witnesses?”
“How could I have witnesses? I was alone.”
He canted his head toward the wall behind him. Cinder block, painted white, on that side of the room. My apartment sat in the middle of a building that looked like a one-story motel bypassed by a new highway. Junk decorated the yards across the street; an abandoned Airstream lurked behind the back fence. Huachuca City, USA, model desert slum.
“They might’ve heard me. I don’t know. I didn’t have the stereo on very long.”
“So … you have no proof that you were where you say you were between midnight and six A.M.? Are you sure you didn’t have any visitors? A female? Are you protecting someone’s reputation? As a gentleman?”
I hadn’t felt very gentlemanly of late. I didn’t answer, didn’t need to.
“What about your civilian friend from Bisbee, the homosexual?”
He spoke the last word as if fearing infection.
“He wasn’t here. No female, either. For Christ’s sake. Can’t you tell me what this is all about?”
It couldn’t be about Nikki. Even though everything in my life was about her now. Casual sex exploded into a wrecking passion. I fell in love with a slut as worthless as I was. Then watched, helplessly, as she walked away.
“Describe your relationship with First Lieutenant Jessica Lamoureaux.”
The penny dropped. Partway. Jessie Lamoureaux was born for trouble. This was all about her. Nikki was just plain gone. Not even the CID was going to bring her back to me.
“I don’t know what to call it, exactly. Not really friendship. Acquaintances? We’ve been on the outs.”
“Did you ever have sexual relations with Lieutenant Lamoureaux?”
“You’re certain of that?”
Was she the one facing charges? There was plenty of sleep-around, emotional bloodshed to raise a stink about. And the jealous wives to do it. Then there was the darker stuff. Much darker.
“Could you pass a polygraph on that? Swearing that you never had sexual relations with First Lieutenant Jessica Lamoureaux?”
“If the polygraph works. Yeah.”
“Did you ever attempt to have sexual relations with her?”
“Jessie isn’t my type.”
He looked at me skeptically. To the average male observer, Jessie was everybody’s type. “She never rebuffed you?”
I couldn’t help smirking. I remembered Jessie naked, wet and cold, a gorgeous serpent, coiling around me. Waist-deep in the Sea of Cortez at two A.M. In one of the few wise actions of my life, I had broken her grip and waded back to the beach. That had been the beginning, not the end, of our relationship.
“She never ‘rebuffed’ me.”
“Would you describe Lieutenant Lamoureaux as promiscuous?”
I killed the smile. “I’d describe her as socially energetic.”
Then he slipped. An NCO, not an officer. “She was a very attractive woman, wouldn’t you say?”
The chill hit me. It had nothing to do with the struggling air conditioner. “Has something happened to her?”
“Why do you say that?”
“You just used the past tense. You said she was an attractive woman.”
That miffed him. He recalibrated his deadpan expression.
“Lieutenant Lamoureaux was murdered. Early this morning.”
I sat down. On the floor. Right where I had been standing. I parked the empty beer can so clumsily that it fell on its side and rolled.
“Did you kill her?” Tompkins asked me.
I shook my head. Then I raised my hand: Wait a minute, give me a minute.
Dinwiddie? Had she driven the poor bastard crazy? Crazy enough to kill her? Or Jerry? He had the skills. And, in his mind, the reason. Gene? Earnest, silly Pete? The Kraut? Another broken lover, or his spouse? Jessie left plenty of casualties in her wake. Or had it been one of her murky Tucson pals? Or the Mexicans? Jessie played with so many different kinds of fire that getting burned was inevitable. But she never seemed the kind who wound up at the stake. Jessie got away with things, with everything. She might end up scorched, but not dead.
I thought of her shocking, reptilian beauty. Blue black hair and perfect skin that gleamed pale through a tan. Full lips and ruthless cheekbones. Arctic eyes so blue, they were almost gray. Torso slightly too long, legs faintly too short, but who cared? She could have been the damsel of a Deep South trailer court, or born to the best suite in a Geneva hotel. We had buried pasts in common.
“How did she die?” I asked.
Tompkins had been looking at me hard.
“No tears, Lieutenant Banks?”
I shook my head again. “Jessie wasn’t the kind of woman I’d cry over. She would’ve laughed, if she saw me crying. How was she … how did it happen?”
“Are you sure you can’t shed some light on that?”
I lost it. Scrambling to my feet. Knocking over a shelf of books and records. Barking. Snarling. Shouting.
“What the fuck, man? Read me my rights. Or stop playing asshole games. Just tell me how she died, for Christ’s sake. Just tell me how she died.”
He looked at me. Impassive. The master, after all. The bureaucrats always win, in the end.
“If you don’t know how she died,” he told me, “you don’t want to know.”
* * *
Exhibitionists pose for others, but narcissists pose for themselves. I was minding my own business. Alone with a half-empty can of beer, doing my existentialist riff on a Mex beach after midnight. It was March and the nights got cold, but I was the coolest living thing under that full moon. I sat on my ass on the sand and watched the water.
Puerto Peñasco was just a run-down fishing ville in those days, with one rathole motel that had rooms for roisterers down from Arizona for the weekend. At night, the town slept. If you hadn’t brought along anybody to fuck, there was nothing to do.
I was soloing that weekend. I’d loaned my car to my current bed-filler so she could drive up to Scottsdale to visit her husband’s family. Neither of us wanted them popping up at Fort Huachuca to see the sights.
So I was the odd man out in the little cabal we mockingly called the Officers’ Club, our answer to the impossibly dreary O-club on the fort. To which we were forced to pay dues to keep the bar open for the walking dead who lived above the parade field.
I had come down to the beach to get away from the sexual vandalism in the next room. Jerry was banging his DD-cup date against the wall. To needle me. She made barnyard sounds. I could picture him grinning. Nor did I want to think about the scene between the other two officers who’d tagged along.
When I stretched out my hand, the sand felt startlingly cold. My denim shirt didn’t keep me warm. But I was Mr. Zen, telling myself the chill was an illusion.
I didn’t even want the beer, really. It was just part of the role.
The world refused to respond to my profundity. The moonlit sea just stayed the same, no matter how long you stared at it. I shifted from pondering infinity to think about the girl who’d borrowed my car. Tight little lieutenant, married to her ROTC sweetheart right after graduation. We could’ve made some noise, had she come along. Although that was all she was good for. Nicole Weaver, second lieutenant, United States Army. I didn’t even know her maiden name. Didn’t want to.
I stopped thinking about her, too.
I didn’t hear Jessie Lamoureaux’s approach. She could’ve been watching me for an hour. Although Jessie wasn’t the kind of girl to wait that long for anything.
Bare feet, bare calves. Pale on the pale sand.
“I could’ve robbed you,” she said. “I could’ve murdered you.”
I shrugged. She sat down beside me. We stared at the so what? sea.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Isn’t it? And so quiet.”
“It was. Quiet.”
She laughed. Jessie put more of a southern accent into her laugh than into her speech. And her speech was theatrical enough.
“Got another beer there, Mr. Serious?”
I couldn’t really see her. But I’m sure she shook her head.
“Where I come from, no self-respecting gentleman would go wandering off from his friends in the dead of night with less than a six-pack. You Yankees aren’t drinking men, are you?”
“We try not to puke on our dates.”
“That girl you’ve been seeing’s a terrible little slut. You must know that.”
“Here. You can have what’s left. It’s warm.”
She took the can. “I’m just sorry you and I haven’t been able to have a heart-to-heart before this.”
“Are we having a heart-to-heart?”
She drained the can and flung it. That was within the Mex rules. The poor bugger with whom she’d come down—a permanent-party major who wasn’t supposed to be sneaking off with transient junior officers—had cut his foot on broken glass on the beach early in the evening. Before anybody had downed enough beer and tequila to have an excuse for bleeding.
“Where’s the major?”
“How would I know? Asleep, I suppose.”
“I thought you were together? That was the impression he gave. When he thrust himself on Jerry and me. His big date.”
“We’re just friends. Separate rooms—I’m surprised you didn’t notice, Mr. Intelligence Officer. Oh, he’s nice enough, I suppose. But not my type at all.”
That explained why Major Leon Dinwiddie, a balding character battling a weight problem, had drunk more than a lacerated foot excused. Back at the fort, his nickname was Major Dim-witted. Even his fellow staff officers called him that. The U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School was a small town: Peyton Place without the moral restraint.
“So we’re both alone,” Jessie added. “You and me.”
“I’m spoken for, ma’am.”
She snickered. “You’re fucking another officer’s wife.”
“That’s putting it bluntly.”
“I don’t mind shocking people. When they need it.”
“And I need it?”
“I think so. You’re just playing at life. I’ve been watching you. For a while now. You don’t have any future with that little tramp.”
“Maybe I’m not looking for a future.”
“Then why do you always walk around looking so serious when you’re in uniform? And acting so hush-hush about that project they’ve got you on?”
The project was “hush-hush.” In a doesn’t-really-matter Fort Huachuca kind of way.
“What else have you found out, Inspector?”
“That you’ve got more walls around you than Parchman Farm.”
“Keeps the little girls intrigued. Case in point. Watch out for the scorpions, by the way. They sneak up on you.”
“The way I did? On you?” She granted me another stage laugh. “I should have been born a Scorpio. But I’m just a poor little Capricorn. What’s your sign, Roy?”
It was the first time she’d used my name.
“ ‘Dead end.’ ”
“See what I mean? Well, I’ve done a little research into Second Lieutenant Roy Banks, I’ll have you know.”
“You’re twenty-eight years old. That’s old, for a second lieutenant. Even for a first lieutenant.”
“I know that, too. Four years.”
“Major Dinwiddie show you my personnel file? Shame on him.”
“He didn’t do any such thing. The poor man. But you’re flattered. Aren’t you? That I went to so much trouble?”
“Depends on why.” Two gulls strafed the moon.
“I’ve got my reasons.”
“So now you know all there is to know. Case closed.”
She kept her silence for a moment, picking up a fistful of sand to strew across the darkness.
“Southern girls do the math,” she told me. “You’re twenty-eight. Allow a year for OCS and the course you just finished out here, and that gets us down to twenty-seven. Subtract four years enlisted time. That brings us down to twenty-three. You didn’t join the Army until you were twenty-three. Either that’s pathetic and you were a complete failure at something else … or you’ve got something to hide.”
“Maybe I’m hiding my failure?”
“Where were you between college and the day you joined the Army?”
“This an interrogation? Am I a prisoner?”
“I could make you my prisoner. If I wanted. Tell me about those missing years, Man of Mystery.”
“I was a riverboat gambler. And a carnival barker. Then I did a short stint as an astronaut. After which I became a Zen monk.” I turned my torso, examining her profile: 1940s Hollywood, back when women had profiles. Unpinned, her River Styx hair graced confident shoulders. “How about you, Miss Scarlett? I hear you came in from the National Guard for training, then convinced the Army to shift you to active duty. That takes some serious powers of persuasion. Or string-pulling of the first order…”
“What else do you think you know about me?”
“Only that you’ve already burned a hole in one marriage on post. The Kraut.”
We called the Bundeswehr liaison officer “Hitler without the Charm.”
“Colonel Faulenzer? He was just a pest. Just a poor, pesky old man. There was never anything between us.”
“Enough for his wife to go crying to the commandant.”
“And nothing came of it. Not one thing. Because nothing happened. Except that the creep would show up at my quarters in the middle of the night. What was I supposed to do?”
“Promote cordial international relations, I suppose. The point I was getting to is that you’re not the world’s youngest lieutenant, either.”
“A gentleman never asks a lady about her age.”
“That statement contains two possibly unjustified assumptions.”
“I was enlisted myself. For a while.”
“Naw. You don’t have the enlisted gene. And I can do math, too. Basic arithmetic, anyway. I peg you for … say, twenty-six. Make that twenty-seven. Where were you all these years, Blanche? Shambling about the rooms of the old plantation?”
Jessie stood up. “We’re wasting all this beautiful moonlight. I’m going for a swim.”
She dropped her shorts and pulled her T-shirt over her head, tossing back her darker-than-darkness hair. I expected her to stop at her bra and panties. She didn’t.
“You’ll freeze,” I told her. “And watch out for the glass.”
“Sissy!” she yelled. With a laugh.
She ran for the water.
I did what I was conditioned to do. I stripped down and ran after her.
The water was shockingly cold. Splashing upward. Biting. I kept moving. Stones bruised my feet. She was tougher than I was.
When I caught up with Jessie, in waist-deep water, she turned to face me. Moonlight washed the left side of her face. I could not see the least hint of emotion.
Shock of skin-on-skin. One-size-fits-all, she applied herself to me. Wet flesh. Cold flesh. Warm flesh. Hair. Muscles.
“You were right,” she said. “It’s freezing.” Her face reached up. A wet paw on the back of my neck pulled me down.
Our lips met.
Her tongue could have been a viper’s.
I’ve never been able to put a name to what I felt, to that instant of uncategorizable revulsion. That single time in my life my instincts saved me.
I broke her grip. Roughly. And marched toward the shore.
It made no sense. None of it made sense. Why on earth was I walking away—running away—from a gorgeous, naked, aggressively willing woman? I felt her ghost against me.
I left the water in a rage. Behind me, I heard laughter.
* * *
When I strolled into the diner that Sunday morning, Jerry was already sprawled in our regular booth, grinning. After giving me a few more seconds of his cat-that-ate-the-whole-cage-of-canaries look, he called out to the waitress.
“Rosalita, mi corazón! Una cerveza por mi amigo! Ándale! Es una emergencia!”
“I don’t want a beer,” I told him, dropping into the booth facing him.
Jerry shrugged. “I’ll drink it. Don’t worry about it. Hey, you look tired, man. I’m the one’s supposed to be tired. I almost came over to get you in the middle of the night, you know that? I needed some help, brother. She was definitely out of control.”
He’d upgraded to a lonesome captain for the weekend. Lot of pent-up energy. She was plump for my tastes, but Jerry was an equal-opportunity fornicator.
“And where is the good captain, pray tell?”
Jerry grinned. “Good? She was great. More cushion for the pushin’. Just don’t bring her back for a rematch in ten years. I never sleep with women I can’t bench-press.”
Rosalita, who had proved trainable over the months, didn’t bring me a beer. She delivered hot water and a jar of Nescafé. It was as good as the local coffee got. A young, rotund Indian, she seemed to think we were funny, doubtless thought we were stupid, flirted with me and adored Jerry. All women adored Jerry. Even the ones who thought they hated him, the sort who derided him as an ass to each other, then screwed his brains out when their girlfriends weren’t around.
I suppose I adored him, too. He’d been Special Forces as an enlisted man and looked the part. Handsome, the Marlboro Man’s kid brother, he had massive biceps, an incandescent smile, and hilarious war stories from his time in Central America playing hide-and-seek with the Sandinistas. He was the soldier I wanted to be.
“Huevos rancheros,” I told her. “Por favor.”
Her meaningless smile didn’t change. “No hay huevos. Camarones?”
“Sure. Camarones.” The joint, La Cita, couldn’t be called fly-specked. Flies had more pride. But it was the only place to eat within an hour’s drive. Toast might not be available and eggs were always iffy, but the fishing fleet docked down the street and shrimp were a mainstay.
“Camarones coke-tell?” Spanish wasn’t her first language, either.
“Sure. Sí. Camarones coke-tell. My favorite breakfast. Gracias.”
Jerry’s grin was unkillable. “I wonder if Major Dim-witted got more than he bargained for? Should we go out looking for his body?”
“I’m not sure he had the weekend he expected.”
Jerry cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? And what am I to make of that, mi amigo? Don’t tell me you were on the night shift, after all?”
Before I could answer, Jessie Lamoureaux paraded down the dirt street, khaki shorts, white blouse, and glam-girl sunglasses. She spotted us behind the window and waved. Fingers doing a ballet flutter.
“Man, I’d have to go into training…,” Jerry said.
I expected her to keep her distance after my flight—a retreat I already regretted, telling myself that I was king of the chimps for not nailing her on the beach in an X-rated version of the surf scene in From Here to Eternity. She was a stunning woman, all good dirt. What had I been thinking?
Jessie wasn’t aloof. She smiled as if we were mad about each other, then slipped into the booth beside me, rubbing close, playful.
“Sorry if I frightened you last night,” she told me. For Jerry’s benefit.
He bit. “Is this true love … or merely lust, my children?”
“You’ll never know,” Jessie said. “Is that all they have? Nescafé?”
“You can have a beer,” I said. “Where’s the major?”
“Now, how would I know that?” She smiled at Jerry. “What I wouldn’t give for a cup of French Market coffee right now.”
“I thought you were from Mississippi,” I said.
“Mississippi’s where we go to church. N’Awlins is where we go to the devil.” She took possession of my cup. “Pass the sugar?”
Major Dinwiddie limped in, bandaged foot wedged into a sandal. His face was absinthe green.
He misread the scene in front of him. As Jessie intended.
Jerry’s captain didn’t show up for breakfast. She’d come down with a morning-after case of Montezuma’s revenge. It was hard to get her out of the motel.
The ride back to Fort Huachuca wasn’t much fun.
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Peters