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When a professional military woman with a pristine reputation is found raped and murdered, a preliminary search turns up certain paraphernalia, and sex toys that point to a scandal of major proportions, The chief investigator is reluctant to take the case when he learns that his partner will be a woman with whom he had a tempestuous affair and an unpleasant parting. But duty calls and intrigue begins when they learn that several top-level people may have been involved with the “golden girl” – and many have wanted her dead.
It’s Nelson DeMille at his best – exciting, suspenseful and highly provocative.
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Panther
A Preview of The Quest
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Is this seat taken?" I asked the attractive young woman sitting by herself in the lounge.
She looked up from her newspaper but didn't reply.
I sat opposite her at the cocktail table and put down my beer. She went back to her paper and sipped on her drink, a bourbon and Coke. I inquired, "Come here often?"
"What's your sign?"
"Don't I know you from somewhere?"
"Yes. NATO Headquarters in Brussels. We met at a cocktail party."
"Perhaps you're right," she conceded. "You got drunk and threw up in the punch bowl."
"Small world," I said. And indeed it was. Cynthia Sunhill, the woman sitting across from me now, was more than a casual acquaintance. In fact, we were once involved, as they say. Apparently she chose not to remember much of it. I said, "You threw up. I told you bourbon and Coke wasn't good for your stomach."
"You are not good for my stomach."
You'd think by her attitude that I had walked out on her rather than vice versa.
We were sitting in the cocktail lounge of the Officers' Club at Fort Hadley, Georgia. It was the Happy Hour, and everyone there seemed happy, save for us two. I was dressed in a blue civilian suit, she in a nice pink knit dress that brought out her tan, her auburn hair, her hazel eyes, and other fondly remembered anatomy. I inquired, "Are you here on assignment?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
"Where are you staying?"
"How long will you be here?"
She went back to her newspaper.
I asked, "Did you marry that guy you were seeing on the side?"
She put down the paper and looked at me. "I was seeing you on the side. I was engaged to him."
"That's right. Are you still engaged?"
"None of your business."
"It could be."
"Not in this lifetime," she informed me, and hid behind her paper again.
I didn't see an engagement ring or a wedding ring, but in our business that didn't mean much, as I'd learned in Brussels.
Cynthia Sunhill, by the way, was in her late twenties, and I'm in my early forties, so ours was not a May–November romance, but more May–September. Maybe August.
It lasted a year while we were both stationed in Europe, and her fiancé, a Special Forces major, was stationed in Panama. Military life is tough on relationships of all kinds, and the defense of Western civilization makes people horny.
Cynthia and I had separated a little over a year before this chance encounter, under circumstances that can best be described as messy. Apparently neither she nor I had gotten over it; I was still hurting and she was still pissed off. The betrayed fiancé looked a little annoyed, too, the last time I saw him in Brussels with a pistol in his hand.
The O Club at Hadley is vaguely Spanish in architecture, perhaps Moorish, which may have been why Casablanca popped into my mind, and I quipped out of the side of my mouth, "Of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine."
Either she didn't get it or she wasn't in a smiling mood, because she continued to read her newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, which nobody reads, at least not in public. But Cynthia is a bit of a goody-goody, a dedicated, loyal, and enthusiastic soldier with none of the cynicism and world-weariness that most men display after a few years on this job. "Hearts filled with passion, jealousy, and hate," I prompted.
Cynthia said, "Go away, Paul."
"I'm sorry I ruined your life," I said sincerely.
"You couldn't even ruin my day."
"You broke my heart," I said with more sincerity.
"I'd like to break your neck," she replied with real enthusiasm.
I could see that I was rekindling something in her, but I don't think it was passion.
I remembered a poem I used to whisper to her in our more intimate moments, and I leaned toward her and said softly, " 'There hath none pleased mine eyes but Cynthia, none delighted mine ears but Cynthia, none possessed my heart but Cynthia. I have forsaken all other fortunes to follow Cynthia, and here I stand, ready to die if it pleases Cynthia.' "
"Good. Drop dead." She stood and left.
"Play it again, Sam." I finished my beer, stood, and walked back to the bar.
I sidled up to the long bar among men who had seen some of life; men with chests full of medals and Combat Infantry Badges, men with campaign ribbons from Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf. The guy to my right, a full colonel with gray hair, said, "War is hell, son, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
"Saw the whole thing in the bar mirror," he informed me.
"Bar mirrors are interesting," I replied.
"Yup." In fact, he was studying me in the bar mirror now. Apropos of my civilian attire, he asked, "You retired?"
"Yes." But in fact, I was not.
He gave me his opinion of women in the military—"They squat to piss. Try doing that with sixty pounds of field gear"—then announced, "Gotta go drain the dragon," and ambled off to the men's room, where I presume he stood at the urinal.
I made my way out of the club into the hot August night and got into my Chevy Blazer. I drove through the main post, which is sort of like a downtown without zoning, encompassing everything from a PX and commissary to misplaced barracks and a deserted tank maintenance facility.
Fort Hadley is a small post in south Georgia, founded in 1917 to train infantry troops to be sent into the meat grinder on the Western Front. The area of the military reservation, however, is quite large—over 100,000 acres of mostly wooded terrain, suitable for war games, survival courses, guerrilla warfare training, and so on.
The Infantry School is phasing out now, and much of the post looks forlorn. But there is a Special Operations School here, the purpose of which seems somewhat vague, or perhaps, to be charitable, I could say experimental. As far as I can determine, the school is a mixture of psychological warfare, troop morale studies, isolation and deprivation studies, stress management courses, and other head and mind games. It sounds a bit sinister, but knowing the Army, whatever the original bright idea was, it has since become Drill and Ceremonies, and spit-shined boots.
To the north of Fort Hadley lies the medium-sized town of Midland, a typical Army town in some ways, populated with retired military personnel, civilian employees of the base, people who sell things to soldiers, as well as those who have nothing to do with the military and like it fine that way.
Midland was an English trading post as early as 1710, and before that it was an outpost of the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in Florida. Prior to that, it was an Indian town, the center of the Upatoi Nation. The Spanish burned the Indian town, the English burned the Spanish outpost, the French burned the English trading post, the British army burned and abandoned their fort there during the Revolution, and finally, the Yankees burned it in 1864. Looking at the place today, you wonder what all the fuss was about. Anyway, they've got a good volunteer fire department now.
I got on the interstate that skirts Fort Hadley and Midland and drove north, out into the open country toward a deserted trailer park. This was where I was temporarily staying, and I found the isolation convenient in terms of my job.
My job. I am an officer in the United States Army. My rank is unimportant, and in my line of work, it's also a secret. I am in the Criminal Investigation Division, the CID, and in the Army, which is very rank-conscious, the best rank to have is no rank. But, in fact, like most CID personnel, I am a warrant officer, a specialized rank that exists between noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers. This is a pretty good rank because you have most of the privileges of an officer but not much of the command responsibility, or the Mickey Mouse crap that goes along with it. Warrant officers are addressed as "Mister," and CID investigators often wear civilian clothing as I was that evening. There are times when I even have illusions that I'm a civilian.
There are, however, occasions when I do wear a uniform. On these occasions, the Department of the Army issues me orders with a new name, a rank appropriate to the case, and a uniform to match. I report for duty into a unit where my quarry is working, and I go about my assigned duties while gathering evidence for the judge advocate general.
When you're undercover, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I've been everything from a cook to a chemical warfare specialist—though in the Army that's not such a big difference. It's sort of difficult to get away with some of these roles, but I get by on my charm. It's all illusion anyway. So is my charm.
There are four warrant officer grades, and I'm topped out at grade four. All us fours are holding our breaths waiting for Congress to approve a five and six. Some of us have died of asphyxiation waiting.
Anyway, I'm part of a special CID team, a sort of elite unit, though I hesitate to use that word. What makes us special is that we're all long-time veterans with good arrest and conviction records. What also makes us special is that I have extraordinary powers to cut through Army red tape, which in the military is like having a magic mushroom in a Nintendo game. One of those extraordinary powers is the power to make an arrest of any military person anywhere in the world, regardless of rank. I wouldn't push this and attempt to arrest one of the Joint Chiefs for speeding, but I always wanted to see how far I could go. I was about to find out.
My permanent duty station is at CID Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, but my cases take me all over the world. Travel, adventure, free time, mental and physical challenges, and bosses who leave me alone—what more could a man want? Oh, yes, women. There's some of that, too. Brussels wasn't the last time I had a woman, but it was the last time it mattered.
Unfortunately, there are some men who get their fun and challenges in other ways. Sexual assault. Murder. That's what happened on that hot August night at Fort Hadley, Georgia. The victim was Captain Ann Campbell, daughter of Lieutenant General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Campbell. As if that weren't bad enough, she was young, beautiful, talented, bright, and a West Point graduate. She was the pride of Fort Hadley, the darling of the Army public relations people, a poster girl for Army recruiters, a spokesperson for the new, nonsexist Army, a Gulf War veteran, and so forth and so on. Therefore, I wasn't particularly surprised when I heard that someone raped and murdered her. She had it coming. Right? Wrong.
But I didn't know any of that during the Happy Hour at the O Club. In fact, while I had been speaking to Cynthia, and talking man talk with that colonel at the bar, Captain Ann Campbell was still alive and was actually fifty feet away in the O Club dining room finishing a meal of salad, chicken, white wine, and coffee, as I learned during my subsequent investigation.
I arrived at the trailer park, set among the pine trees, and parked my Blazer some distance from my mobile home. I walked in the dark along a path of rotted planking. A few unoccupied trailers were scattered around the clearing, but mostly there were empty lots marked by cement blocks upon which there once sat about a hundred mobile homes.
There was still electric and telephone service available and a well that provided running water, which I made potable by adding Scotch whisky to it.
I unlocked the door of my trailer, stepped inside, and turned on the light, which revealed a kitchen/dining room/living room combination.
I thought of the trailer as a time capsule in which nothing had changed since about 1970. The furniture was sort of an avocado-green plastic, and the kitchen appliances were a kind of mustard color that I think used to be called harvest gold. The walls were paneled in a dark plywood, and the carpeting was a red and black plaid. If one were color-sensitive, this place could induce fits of depression and suicide.
I took off my jacket and tie, turned on the radio, got a beer from the refrigerator, and sat in the armchair that was bolted to the floor. There were three framed prints screwed to the walls, a bullfighter, a seascape, and a reproduction of Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer." I sipped my beer and contemplated Aristotle contemplating Homer's bust.
This particular trailer park, named Whispering Pines, if anyone cares, was developed by a few enterprising retired sergeants in the late sixties when it appeared that the war in Asia was going to last forever. Fort Hadley, an Infantry Training Center, was bursting with soldiers and their dependents back then, and I remember Whispering Pines when it was full of young married soldiers who were authorized—actually encouraged—to live off post. There was an aboveground pool crammed with kids and young Army wives, and there was too much drinking, and too much boredom, and too little money, and the future was obscured by the fog of war.
The American dream was not supposed to look like this, and when the men went off to the war, too often other men came in the night to the bedroom at the back of the long, narrow trailers. In fact, I had lived here then and had gone off to war, and someone took my place in the bed and took my young wife. But that was a few wars ago, and so much has happened since, that the only lingering bitterness left is that the bastard also took my dog.
I read a few magazines, had a few more beers, thought of Cynthia, and didn't think of Cynthia.
Normally, I have a little more fun than this, but I had to be at the post armory at 0500 hours, a.k.a. five A.M.
The post armory. A cornucopia of American high-tech military goodies—things that go boom in the night.
I was on undercover assignment at the armory in the early morning hours near the time when Ann Campbell was murdered, which is why I caught the squeal, as my civilian counterparts would say. Some weeks earlier, I had assumed the duties and outward appearances of a slightly seedy supply sergeant named Franklin White, and with a real seedy supply sergeant named Dalbert Elkins, we were about to close a deal to sell a few hundred M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, and sundry other dangerous items from the armory to a group of Cuban freedom fighters who wanted to overthrow Mr. Fidel Castro, the Antichrist. In fact, the Hispanic gentlemen were Colombian drug dealers, but they wanted to make us feel better about the transaction. Anyway, I was sitting in the armory at 0600 hours, conversing with my coconspirator, Staff Sergeant Elkins. We were talking about what we were going to do with the $200,000 we would split. Sergeant Elkins was actually going to jail for the rest of his life, but he didn't know that, and men have to dream. It's my unpleasant duty to become their worst nightmare.
The phone rang, and I picked up the receiver before my new buddy could grab it. I said, "Post armory, Sergeant White speaking."
"Ah, there you are," said Colonel William Kent, the post provost marshal, Fort Hadley's top cop. "I'm glad I found you."
"I didn't know I was lost," I replied. Prior to my chance encounter with Cynthia, Colonel Kent was the only person on the post who knew who I was, and the only reason I could think of for him to be calling me was to tell me I was in imminent danger of being found out. I kept one eye on Sergeant Elkins and one on the door.
But as luck would have it, it wasn't as simple as that. Colonel Kent informed me, "There's been a homicide. A female captain. Maybe raped. Can you talk?"
"Can you meet me?"
"Maybe." Kent was a decent sort of guy, but like most MP types, he wasn't overly clever, and the CID made him nervous. I said, "I'm working, obviously."
"This is going to take priority, Mr. Brenner. It's a big one."
"So is this." I glanced at Sergeant Elkins, who was eyeing me carefully.
Kent said, "It was General Campbell's daughter."
"My goodness." I thought a moment. All my instincts said to avoid any cases that involved the rape and murder of a general's daughter. It was a lose-lose situation. My sense of duty, honor, and justice assured me that some other sucker in the special unit of the CID could handle it. Somebody whose career was down the toilet anyway. I thought of several candidates. But, duty and honor aside, my natural curiosity was aroused. I asked Colonel Kent, "Where can I meet you?"
"I'll meet you in the provost building parking lot and take you to the scene."
Being undercover, I shouldn't be anywhere near the provost marshal's office, but Kent is annoyingly dense. I said, "Not your place."
"Oh… how about the infantry barracks? The Third Battalion HQ. It's on the way."
Elkins, tense and paranoid already, was getting fidgety. I said to Kent, "Okay, sweetheart. Ten minutes." I hung up and said to Sergeant Elkins, "My girlfriend. Needs some lovin'."
Elkins looked at his watch. "Kinda late… or early…"
"Not for this little gal."
As per armory regulations, I was wearing a sidearm, and, satisfied that Elkins was cooled out, I unhooked the pistol belt and left it there as per post regulations. I didn't know then that I would need a weapon later. I said to Elkins, "Might be back."
"Yeah, okay. Give her one for me, boy."
I had left my Blazer back at the trailer park, and my POV—that's Army talk for privately owned vehicle, not point of view—was now a Ford pickup truck, issued to me for my current impersonation. It was complete with shotgun rack, dog hair on the upholstery, and a pair of hip waders in the back.
So off I went, through the main post. Within a few minutes I was into the area of the Infantry Training Brigade, long wooden World War II era barracks, mostly deserted now and looking dark and spooky. The cold war is over, and the Army, while not exactly withering away, is definitely downsizing, and the combat arms branches—the infantry, armor, and artillery, the reason for the Army's existence—are taking the biggest cuts. The CID, however, dealing as it does with crime, is a growth organization.
As a young private, I graduated Advanced Infantry Training School here at Fort Hadley many years ago, then went to Airborne School and Ranger School at Fort Benning, not far from here. So I'm an Airborne Ranger—the ultimate weapon, a killing machine, mean, lean, death from the skies, good to go, and so on. But I'm a little older now and the CID suits me fine.
Ultimately, even government institutions have to justify their existence, and the Army was doing a good job of finding a new role for itself in knocking around pissant countries who get out of line. But I've noticed a certain lack of esprit and purpose in the officers and men who had always felt that they were the only thing standing between the Russian hordes and their loved ones. It's sort of like a boxer, training for years for the title match, then finding out that the other contender just dropped dead. You're a little relieved, but there's also a letdown, a hollow place where your adrenaline pump used to be.
Anyway, it was that time of day that the Army calls first light, and the Georgia sky was turning pink, and the air was heavy with humidity, and you could figure out it was going to be a ninety-degree day. I could smell the wet Georgia clay, the pine trees, and the aroma of Army coffee wafting out of a nearby mess hall, or as we call it now, a dining facility.
I pulled off the road and onto the grassy field in front of the old Battalion Headquarters. Colonel Kent got out of his official olive-drab car, and I got out of my pickup truck.
Kent is about fifty, tall, medium build, with a pockmarked face and icy blue eyes. He's a bit stiff at times, not clever, as I said, but hardworking and efficient. He's the military equivalent of a chief of police, commanding all the uniformed military police at Fort Hadley. He's a stickler for rules and regulations, and, while not disliked, he's not anyone's best buddy.
Kent was all spiffy in his provost marshal's uniform with his white helmet, white pistol belt, and spit-shined boots. He said to me, "I have six MPs securing the scene. Nothing has been touched."
"That's a start." Kent and I have known each other about ten years, and we've developed a good working relationship, though in fact I only see him about once a year when a case brings me to Fort Hadley. Kent outranks me, but I can be familiar with him, actually give him a hard time, as long as I'm the investigating officer on the case. I've seen him testify at courts-martial, and he's everything a prosecutor could ask for in a cop: believable, logical, unemotional, and organized in his testimony. Yet, there's something about him that didn't play right, and I always had the feeling that the prosecutors were happy to get him off the stand. I think, maybe, he comes across as a little too stiff and unfeeling. When the Army has to court-martial one of its own, there is usually some sympathy, or at least concern, for the accused. But Kent is one of those cops who only sees black and white, and anyone who breaks the law at Fort Hadley has personally affronted Colonel Kent. I actually saw him smile once when a young recruit, who burned down a deserted barracks in a drunken stupor, got ten years for arson. But the law is the law, I suppose, and such a brittle personality as William Kent has found his niche in life. That's why I was a little surprised to discover that he was somewhat shaken by the events of that morning. I asked him, "Have you informed General Campbell?"
"Perhaps you'd better go to his house."
He nodded, not very enthusiastically. He looked awful, actually, and I deduced that he'd been to the scene himself. I informed Colonel Kent, "The general is going to have your ass for delaying notification."
He explained, "Well, I didn't have a positive identification until I saw the body myself. I mean, I couldn't go to his house and tell him that his daughter—"
"Who made the tentative identification?"
"A Sergeant St. John. He found the body."
"And he knew her?"
"They were on duty together."
"Well, that's a pretty positive identification. And you knew her?"
"Yes, of course. I made a positive identification."
"Not to mention dog tags and the name on her uniform."
"Well, that's all gone."
"Yes… whoever did it took her uniform and dog tags…"
You get a sense for these things, or maybe you get a backlog of cases stored in your head, and when you hear the evidence and see the scene, you ask yourself, "What's wrong with this picture?" I asked Colonel Kent, "Underwear?"
"What? Oh… it's there…" He added, "Usually they take the underwear. Right? This is weird."
"Is Sergeant St. John a suspect?"
Colonel Kent shrugged. "That's your job."
"Well, with a name like St. John, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment." I looked around at the deserted barracks, the Battalion Headquarters, the mess hall, and the company assembly areas overgrown with weeds now, and in the gray light of dawn, I could imagine the young troops falling in for roll call. I can still remember being always tired, cold, and hungry before breakfast. I remember, too, being frightened, knowing that ninety percent of us standing there in formation were going to Vietnam, and knowing that the casualty rate among the frontline troops was high enough so that a Midland bookie wouldn't give you better than two-to-one odds that you'd make it back in the same shape you left. I said to Kent, "That was my company over there. Delta Company."
"I didn't know you were infantry."
"Long time ago. Before I became a copper. You?"
"Always an MP. But I saw some stuff in 'Nam. I was at the American Embassy when the Cong came over the walls that time. January '68." He added, "I killed one of them."
I nodded. "Sometimes I think the infantry was better. The bad guys were never one of your own. This crap is different."
"Bad guys are bad guys," Kent informed me. "The Army is the Army. Orders are orders."
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 1993
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Grand Central Publishing