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
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 mantle clock in my small den.
It was just ten 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 of 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
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
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 past – or perhaps
present – army rank, not a celebration of my civilian
status. Karl is not subtle. I held off on my
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
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
We were off on the wrong foot already, so I said, "Let's cut to the
She hesitated, then said, "Well. . .Can I first ask you how your
"I had a great day. An old mess sergeant gave me his recipe
for chili – I didn't realize it fed two hundred, and I made
it all. I froze it in zip lock bags. I'll send you
some. Then I went to the gym, played a basketball game
against a wheelchair team – beat them big time –
then off to the local tavern for beer and hamburgers with the
boys. How about your day?"
"Well. . .I just wrapped up the rape case I told you about.
But instead of time off, I have to go to Fort Rucker for a sexual
harassment investigation, which looks tricky. I'll be there
until it's concluded. Maybe a few weeks. I'll be in
Bachelor Officers Quarters if you want to call me."
I didn't reply.
She said, "Hey, I still think about Christmas."
"Me, too." That was a month ago, and I hadn't seen her
since. "How's Easter look?"
"You know, Paul. . .you could move here."
"But you could be reassigned anytime. Then I'd wind up
following your career moves. Didn't we discuss this?"
"Yes, but. . ."
"I like it here. You could get stationed here."
"Is that an offer?"
Whoops. I replied, "It would be good for your
"Let me worry about my career. And I really don't want a
staff job. I'm an investigator. Just like you
were. I want to go where I can be useful."
I said, "Well, I can't be following you around like a puppy dog, or
hanging around your apartment when you're away on assignment.
It's not good for my ego."
"You could get a job here in law enforcement."
"I'm working on that. Here in Virginia."
And so on. It's tough when the guy's not working and the
woman has a traveling career. To make matters worse, the army
likes to change your permanent duty station as soon as you're
comfortable, which calls into question the army's definition of
permanent. On top of that, there are a lot of temporary duty
assignments these days – places like Bosnia, Macedonia, South
America – where you could be gone for up to a year, which
pushes the definition of temporary. Bottom line, Cynthia and
I were what's called these days G.U. – Geographically
The military, as I've always said, is tough on relationships; it's
not a job, it's a calling, a commitment that makes other
commitments really difficult. Sometimes impossible.
"Are you there?" she asked.
"We can't go on like this, Paul. It hurts."
"What should we do?"
I think she was willing to resign and forfeit a lot of her pension,
in exchange for the M word. Then we'd decide where to live,
find jobs, and live happily ever after. And why not? We
were in love.
"Yeah. . .I'm thinking."
"You should have already thought about all of this."
"Right. Look, I think we should talk about this in
person. Face to face."
"The only thing we do face to face is f**k."
"That's not. . .well, we'll talk over dinner. In a
"Okay. I'll call you when I get back from Rucker. I'll
come there, or you come here."
"Okay. Hey, how's your divorce coming?"
"It's almost final."
"Good." Regarding her loving husband, I asked, "Do you see
much of Major Nut Case?"
"Not much. At the O Club once in a while. Can't avoid
"Does he still want you back?"
"Don't try to complicate a simple situation."
"I'm not. I'm just concerned that he might try to kill me
"He never tried to kill you, Paul."
"I must have misinterpreted his reason for pointing a loaded pistol
"Can we change the subject?"
"Sure. Hey, do you read Danielle Steel?"
"I bought her latest book. I'll send it to you.
"Maybe your mother would like it. It's her birthday, February
10th. Don't forget."
"I have it memorized. By the way, I got an e-mail from
Karl. He wants to meet me tomorrow."
"I thought maybe you knew."
"No, I don't," she said. "Maybe he just wants to have a
drink, talk about old times."
"He wants me to meet him at the Vietnam Memorial."
"Really? That's odd."
"Yeah. And he never mentioned anything to you?"
"No," she replied, "Why should he?"
"I don't know. I can't figure out what he's up to."
"Why do you think he's up to anything? You two worked
together for years. He likes you."
"No, he doesn't," I said, "he hates me."
"He does not hate you. But you're a difficult man to work
with. Actually, you're difficult to love."
"My mother loves me."
"You should re-check that. Regarding Karl, he respects you,
and he knows just how brilliant you are. He either needs some
advice, or he needs some information about an old case."
"Why the Wall?"
"Well. . .I don't know. You'll find out when you meet
"It's cold here. How's it there?"
"It's snowing here."
"Be careful driving."
"Yeah." We both stayed silent for a while, during which time
I thought of our history. We'd met at NATO Headquarters in
Brussels. She was engaged to Major What's-His-Name, a Special
Forces guy, we got involved, he got pissed, pulled the
aforementioned gun on me, I backed off, they got married, and a
year later Cynthia and I bumped into each other again.
It was in the Officers Club at Fort Hadley, Georgia, and we were
both on assignment. I was undercover, investigating the theft
and sale of army weapons, she was wrapping up a rape case.
That's her specialty. Sexual crimes. I'd rather be in
combat again than have that job. But someone's got to do it,
and she's good at it. More importantly, she can
compartmentalize, and she seems to be unaffected by her work,
though sometimes I wonder.
But back to Fort Hadley, last summer. While we were both
there, the post commander's daughter, Captain Ann Campbell, was
found on a rifle range, staked out, naked, strangled, and
apparently raped. So, I'm asked to drop my little arms deal
case, and Cynthia is asked to assist me. We solved the murder
case, then tried to solve our own case, which is proving more
difficult. At least she got rid of Major Nut Job.
"Paul, why don't we put this on hold until we can meet? Is
"Sounds okay." In fact, it was my suggestion. But why
point that out? "Good idea."
"We both need to think about how much we have to give up and how
much we stand to gain."
"Did you rehearse that line?"
"Yes. But it's true. Look, I love you--"
"And I love you."
"I know. That's why this is difficult." Neither of us
spoke for a while, then she said, "I'm younger than you--"
"But I'm more immature."
"Please shut up. And I like what I do, I like my life, my
career, my independence. But...I'd give it up if I
"I hear you. That's a big responsibility for me."
"I'm not pressuring you, Paul. I'm not even sure I want what
I think I want."
I'm a bright guy, but I get confused when I talk to women.
Rather than ask for a clarification, I said, "I understand."
"Absolutely." Totally clueless.
"Do you miss me?"
"Every day," I said.
"I miss you. I really do. I'm looking forward to seeing
you again. I'll take some leave time. I promise."
"I'll take some leave time, too."
"You're not working."
"Right. But if I was, I'd take a leave to be with you.
I'll come to you this time. It's warmer there."
"Okay. That would be nice."
"You like chili?"
"I thought you liked chili. Okay, good luck with the
case. Give me a day's notice, and I'll be there."
"It'll be about two weeks. Maybe three. I'll let you
know when I get into the case."
"Say hello to Karl for me. Let me know what he wanted."
"Maybe he wants to tell me about his alien abduction."
So, just as we were about to end on a happy note, she said, "You
know, Paul, you didn't have to resign."
"Is that a fact?" The case of the general's daughter had been
trouble from minute one, a political, emotional, and professional
minefield, and I stepped right into it. I would have been
better off not solving the case because the solution turned out to
be about things no one wanted to know. I said to Cynthia, "A
letter of reprimand in my file is the army's way of saying, 'Call
your pension officer.' A little subtle, perhaps, but--"
"I think you misinterpreted what was happening. You were
scolded, you got all huffy, and you acted impulsively because your
ego was bruised."
"Is that so? Well, thank you for informing me that I threw
away a thirty-year career because I had a temper tantrum."
"You should come to terms with that. I'll tell you something
else – unless you find something equally important and
challenging to do, you're going to get depressed --"
"I'm depressed now. You just made me depressed.
"Sorry, but I know you. You were not as burned-out as you
thought you were. The Campbell case just got to you.
That's okay. It got to everyone. Even me. It was
the saddest, most depressing case --"
"I don't want to talk about that."
"Okay. But what you needed was a thirty-day leave, not a
permanent vacation. You're still young --"
"You've got a lot of energy left, a lot to give, but you need to
write a second act, Paul."
"Thank you. I'm exploring my options." It had gotten
noticeably cooler in the room and on the phone.
"Are you angry?"
"No. If you were here, you'd see me smiling. I'm
"Well, if I didn't love you, I wouldn't be saying these
"I'm still smiling."
"See you in a few weeks." She said, "Take care of
Silence, then, "Good night."
We both hung up. I stood, went to the bar, and made a
drink. Scotch, splash of soda, ice.
I sat in my den, my feet on the desk, watching the snow
outside. The Scotch smelled good.
So, there I was with a Danielle Steel novel on my desk, an
unpleasant phone call still ringing in my ears, and an ominous
message from Karl Hellmann on my computer screen.
Sometimes things that seem unconnected are actually part of a
larger plan. Not your plan, to be sure, but someone else's
plan. I was supposed to believe that Karl and Cynthia were
not talking about me, but Mrs. Brenner didn't raise an idiot.
I should be pissed off when people underestimate my intelligence,
though in truth, I affect a certain macho idiocy that encourages
people to underestimate my brilliance. I've put a lot of
people in jail that way.
I looked at the message again. 1600 hrs, tomorrow, the
Wall. Not even "please." Colonel Karl Gustav
Hellmann can be a bit arrogant. He's German-born, as the name