Authors: David Rich
“Do you think they come in here themselves? Actually make an appearance?”
“All these guys on the walls. Do you think they come around with an armful of posters and photos and a pen and sign the things for, what, free drinks? I mean, if you don’t see them sign it, how do you know a machine didn’t do it? Or a friend? Why does it matter if it’s signed if you don’t meet the person, if there’s no connection?”
“I met Mickey Gilley once.”
“I don’t remember. A singer, I think. At least that’s what he said.”
“Maybe the bar owner did the signatures. I would. Your friends are here.”
She turned quickly to see the two shooters, dressed as MPs now, scanning the place from just inside the door. She started to rise, but it was my turn to grab her arm.
“You stay.” I held on tight and guided her back into her seat. “Besides, if you don’t collect now, you’ll never see your money.”
The taller one stayed near the door. The shorter one, the one who shot at me, strode over to the table. When he got there, he said to the woman, “You can go now.”
“Make him pay you first.”
She didn’t move. He glared at her, then at me. “Get up.”
“Get up or we’ll kill you right here.”
“Okay.” We both knew he wasn’t going to kill me right there. Everybody in the place was watching us. The waitress halted halfway to the table with the woman’s drink on her tray. The short man was silent for a moment, probably because he wasn’t used to people agreeing with him, so I said, “Who do you think killed that moose up there on the wall?”
The woman at my table chuckled, but the shooter took that as a threat. His hand moved toward his sidearm. I yelled, “These guys are not military police. They’re imposters. Call the cops.” The only person moving in the place was the tall shooter edging toward us. Then the woman pointed toward the bar, at a man on a stool near the middle.
“He’s a cop,” she said.
Cops seldom do just what you want them to. I wanted him to arrest these guys. Instead, he shrugged and turned back toward his beer. I slugged the short man and kicked the tall one in the groin just as he arrived at the table. Then I picked up a chair and threw it toward the cop at the bar. It bounced past him and knocked down some bottles. If he wouldn’t arrest the bad guys, he’d at least have to arrest me.
shaped the still, thick air with my hands, and the unsteady drip of sweat fell along a diagonal line as I traveled back and forth finishing my tai chi routine. Each cell in the brig contains a thousand cubic feet of air, stirred, slowly, by a fan somewhere deep in an air shaft. Somehow the cooler air wasn’t making it to my cell. I made a mental note to complain to the management and ask for an upgraded cell, or to have my bill adjusted.
Time was thicker than the air and that was fine with me. I sat on the floor, crossed my legs, and lifted myself into the scale pose. Once I found my balance, I relaxed. I kept my eyes open and stared at the dirty white wall. The mirage took shape, slowly, piece by piece.
This time the mesquite trees formed first. On the right, a twisted clump of leaning bark. The edge of the house came into view. The porch. Two big chairs. The chains jangling above them from where a swing once hung. I could see the low hills behind the house, speckled brown and green. And then more of the house: the shutters, upstairs windows open and curtains waving. I tried to
look inside the windows, but I couldn’t see anything. I could not get in there. To the left of the house, a startling swath of yellow that looked like bitterweed jumped out.
When I first learned yoga, I was instructed to imagine a peaceful scene and this one came to mind immediately. I enjoyed forming it, filling it out, altering it. I looked forward to lingering there, but the more time I spent there, the less I thought of it as a peaceful place. I had no idea where it came from. I never saw anything like it except in pictures or movies.
This was the first time I had been locked up since my two stints in juvie home, and so far, I didn’t mind it. The heat wasn’t nearly as bad as in Afghanistan. Confinement was a challenge; I knew I wouldn’t be in too long, so I tried to take advantage of the time alone, without distractions. And there was only one door for the people trying to kill me. I didn’t know where the shooters ended up after the bar fracas, but in the cell I’d probably be able to hear them coming.
The sound of footsteps could be heard. Three sets. Two in lockstep and another in the lead. I lifted myself into the firefly pose and returned my attention to the mirage. It took a slow moment for the fetid, fragrant air from my cell to envelop Sergeant Matthews after he opened the cell door.
“Dammit, Waters, what the hell…” He stepped inside and his boot splashed in a puddle of sweat. “Get up.” He pushed me over with his boot. I kipped up quickly and the sudden closeness of the movement made the sergeant flinch. The two MPs at the door moved closer together. “Get him cleaned up. Fresh clothes, too. He stinks like a goddamn mule.”
“Nah, if I smelled like a mule, Sergeant, you’d be licking my balls.”
Sergeant Matthews slugged me in the gut. Just once. I stayed on my feet. The sergeant started out.
“Where am I going?”
“Why would I tell you that?”
The MPs took my arms and led me out.
The first person I saw outside was General Remington, short, slim, and haughty, watching from across the quad. He was a Marine Corps legend for leading night raids too secret to mention and commanding units too elite to exist. He built the foundation on which my contempt for him lived, but he could not know the depth and strength of the feeling. It was best to assume his hatred was as fundamental as mine. He was too far away for me to be sure his tight, grim mouth was trying to smile. I could have seen it better through a rifle scope.
The sergeant escorted me to the Provost Marshal’s Offices. I expected some sort of dressing down from the Assistant Chief of Staff PMO. That would have been overkill, but understandable since he is the one who does all the work running things, like punishing drunk Marines for shooting out their windshields. But the sergeant passed the assistant chief’s office and took me to the Commanding Officer PMO: Colonel Gladden. The commanding officer’s job is to take credit for the successes and to place the blame for the failures. Colonel Gladden did not like me, but not enough to get involved in a small infraction like this. Either he was forced into it or outmaneuvered or someone fooled him into thinking there was something in it for him.
The colonel sat back in his chair as if intending to leap out when the g-forces abated. His face was a shrine to rage and resentment.
Somewhere along the line, he must have noticed it, or noticed how others reacted, and decided to try to hide it with false ease and tinny relaxation. The result was a nasty hiss and eyes that seemed reluctant to focus. His online bio said he was only forty-two, but he looked at least ten years older and probably had since he was a teenager. Maybe it was because his blood was always boiling. After my first deployment to Afghanistan, back at Camp Pendleton for Recon Indoc training, Gladden was the exec and the major recommended me for Officer Candidate School. Gladden disagreed with his assessment. Eventually I got in anyway, and Gladden, not able to take it out on anyone above him, naturally held it against me. I helped him along because I believed, foolishly, that I could make his thermostat evaporate.
The MPs left and closed the door.
A civilian sat across from Colonel Gladden. He nodded at me and looked me over, but Gladden didn’t introduce him. Gladden started right in. “You can’t stop, can you, Lieutenant?” He paused as if it were a question. “No, you can’t. The investigation goes on in Afghanistan and I get reports, I get reports and they’re horrifying. Are you a traitor, Waters?”
I stared at him. He was just showing off. What happened there was not his business and he knew it.
“And now you’ve destroyed Marine property. What’s next?”
“Whatever you would like, sir. I’m open to suggestions.”
“Do you know a Dan Waters?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Who is he?”
I knew that he knew the answer to that one, but I had to play along. “My father, sir.”
“It says here he’s a scumbag. Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“Because you think everyone is a scumbag, sir.”
The other man in the office chuckled. The colonel looked at him like he thought the man was a scumbag. The man did not seem to mind. He was about forty, thin, with curly dark hair and the kind of lines on his face that make people think you’re wise. The colonel returned his attention to me. “Your file says you’re a hero. But I don’t think you are and a lot of other people around here don’t, either. You’re just another soldier who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Another…another…” And here he made the mistake of pausing.
Colonel Gladden’s hands balled up into fists, his nostrils flared, and he started to get up, but he glanced at the other man first, then sat back down. He didn’t call in the MPs to hit me or to take me back to my cell to be worked over. This was a test and Gladden had flunked. For some reason, the other man was in charge here. I turned to him.
“I’m Lieutenant Roland Waters. Everybody calls me Rollie.”
The other man reached into his shirt pocket and handed me a card. “Steve Shaw. Treasury Department.” Then to Gladden: “May I?” The direct civility nauseated Gladden. He said nothing.
“What does your father do? For a living?”
I could see Dan the first time I asked that question. One hand on the doorknob, he stopped and smiled and said it as if he had been given a special gift: “I’m a middleman, Rollie Boy, best job in the world. The money flows through the middleman.”
I said to Shaw, “He’s had many jobs. All sorts of things.”
“When was the last time you saw your father?”
“About three years ago. Between tours. I was in Arizona, sitting in a bar. He walked in.”
“Just like that?” Now the Treasury man sounded just like any cop. “You were there and he walked in, or the other way?”
I could remember the scene exactly as it happened. I sat at the bar. Bought drinks for the two girls next to me. They were giggly, friendly college girls with too little to do, just preparing for the real drinking that would happen later when their friends arrived. I knew they saw me as an exotic specimen, but I didn’t mind. I saw them the same way. And I was in just the right mood for company with someone who never took orders without arguing or complaining, someone who thought having bitchy friends was a major problem in life. The dark-haired one was interested and I started to think I had a chance, though I knew she would want to get drunk and I didn’t like screwing drunk girls. Then someone poked me in the back. It was my father, Dan.
I remember most clearly the awful feeling of being woken from a pleasant dream. Me wanting to stay there chatting up the girls, Dan offering to join us. I suddenly felt a horrible sense of responsibility; I couldn’t do that to them. The pleasant part of my dream was over. I said good-bye without asking for a telephone number and went to a booth with Dan.
I said to Shaw, “I didn’t see him when I walked in. He tapped me on the shoulder. We talked a bit. That’s all.”
“Why were you in Arizona?”
You’ll never know that. “What do you want?”
Shaw said, “Just what I asked. Why were you in Arizona?” His voice stayed calm, but he was not going to budge.
“I’d been back from Afghanistan a month and I missed the
desert. That’s all.” I shrugged, hoping Shaw would believe I thought it sounded foolish.
Colonel Gladden never believed anything. He jumped in, “And then last week when you went AWOL, were you on your way to Arizona? You must really like it there.”
Had it been a week? “It’s very beautiful, sir.”
Gladden almost choked. Shaw seemed to be holding back a smile. He said, “In 2003, a few months after we took Baghdad, we began finding stashes of U.S. dollars that Saddam Hussein had squirreled away. Hundreds of millions, in fact. A few soldiers got tempted, grabbed a few bundles as souvenirs. Most got caught. It’s safe to assume a few got away with it. I wouldn’t know. That’s military business.” He nodded toward Gladden as if he were in charge of military business.
Gladden hissed, “It’s not over.”
“Two years ago a man named John Saunders, a former major in the Third Infantry, was arrested in Colorado for beating his girlfriend. He paid his lawyer in crisp new hundred-dollar bills and bragged that there was plenty more where that came from. The lawyer was suspicious and contacted us. It happens. By the time we checked it out, Saunders had been run over and killed. His girlfriend said when he got drunk he talked about shipping home the stolen money in body bags. It’s been a long investigation. Day before yesterday, three graves were dug up in a veterans’ cemetery in Oklahoma. They didn’t find the money. So you know what they did?”
They both watched me carefully. It was easy to act puzzled. I didn’t know where the money was, and I didn’t know if I was even
supposed to answer. A story that included the words Dan and stolen hardly merited comment in my world.