Copyrightę2003 by Ed Howdershelt
Incidents happen. My team managed to bring a family of four out of East Germany near Fulda on 3 August 1973 with only one casualty, and that casualty wasn't one of our team or our extractees. This was remarkable for two reasons: first, because our teams had never had or caused anyone else to have a casualty in three years of smuggling people; and second, because it was later deemed a miracle that more people weren't killed or wounded during our escape.
We used the fact that it was a Friday to our advantage, timing our exit for the late afternoon shift changes at the guard shacks. Monika, my 'client', had the passports supplied by our employers (unnamed in this story to avoid repercussions) ready to show as we approached the first small gate in our decade-old Ford Taunus. Her father was in the back seat pretending to be asleep and her two children were in the car behind us.
We had split the family to increase chances of at least partial success if things went to hell. Splitting was a normal procedure on some of our extraction missions and in this case also served the pretense that Monika was my West German wife, that I was a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in Kaiserslautern, and that we had been in East Germany to visit members of her side of the family - which was just about the only true part of the story.
Will and Connie were in the car behind us, doing their best to act like typical hurried and harried middle-class American tourists who were ragingly frustrated with both their children in the back seat and the bureaucratic hoops of entering and leaving East Germany.
It was likely that they were only half-acting, since the kids were the only ones in our group who'd had enough sleep in the last thirty-six hours. The adults were all just about dead tired from preparations and waiting in a long line of cars at the checkpoint.
Throughout the mission they'd stood out like sore thumbs in their polyester outfits, dragging the kids to various museums and monuments for a couple of days as cover activities while they coached them on how to act and what to say.
The checkpoint guards were obviously old hands at their duties and were actually moving people through with relative speed, but you could see them glancing at their watches as their shifts neared completion. As the guards heard Will and Connie bickering and bitching from three cars away, they rolled their eyes in anticipation of having to deal with a couple of cranky, obnoxious Americans who probably didn't have their papers in order for the cheap souvenirs they'd purchased.
I looked across at Monika. She was tense, but containing her fear. I'd gone in with one fake wife and was leaving with another. Darlene had been dropped at the US embassy and would be listed as a robbery victim with all her luggage and personal effects stolen. It would be a week before she was back at her desk at Landstuhl's 2nd General Army Hospital.
Monika and the children had been appended to our exit passports by a friend in the business of "assisting in circumventings of convention", as he put it. We'd used him several times in the past and not once had his alterations invited suspicion.
Preparations had been fairly extensive. Everyone in both cars had been outfitted with ID's and used clothing from the thrift shop at Ramstein AFB. In the weeks previous to our extraction effort, I'd had friends in some Stateside German-American clubs write letters and postcards to Monika and her father at a Kaiserslautern address and some of these bits of correspondence were in luggage as well as the personal effects of both of them. There was even a past-due bill for membership dues for her father from one of the clubs. He said that if he actually made it to a meeting he'd pay the bill just for the hell of it.
I won't belabor you with all the other details of preparing people for escapes from Communist countries or the gut-clenching worry that something would suddenly go very wrong somehow.
I will say that we thought we had it nailed down, detail-wise, and the Eastie guards apparently thought so, too. After the usual minor interrogations, examinations of documents, and some less-than-subtle insinuations that Monika had somehow sullied herself by marrying a non-German, we were allowed past the gate to enter the narrow, twisting lane that crossed the hundred meters to the West German side of the barrier.
Other sections of the barrier between East and West were much more elaborate, often with wide, well-lit trenches and multiple fences. Some even had mine fields, but those areas of the 'wall' were mostly for the benefit of the news photographers, since nobody was ever dull-witted enough to try to escape at those points, anyway.
I lost sight of Will and Connie as we made the first turn between the concrete dividers. Monika almost turned to look back. I backhanded her leg softly before she could complete the move, which made her instead turn to stare at me. She looked like a deer in the headlights. Her face was a mask of stark terror and she was rigid with fear.
"Meine kinder..." she whispered.
"Your kids are fine. You knew this would happen. Stay cool and hold on, Monika."
The incident didn't begin until our Taunus sedan stuttered and died a little over halfway through the concrete maze. I put it in neutral, set the footbrake, then got out and opened the hood. One of the tower guards behind us blew a whistle and got on the radio.
On the West side I could see someone aiming a camera at us from a watchtower as a number of people stopped what they were doing and came to the fence to watch.
Monika was so visibly frightened I felt I had to do something to make her emotions fit our circumstances, so I stepped up to her side of the car and slammed my palm hard against the window by her face, which made her cringe away from the window as two East German guards came jogging up to our car. I pretended to have hurt myself, holding my "injured" hand and swearing effectively about everything and calling the Taunus "...this piece of foreign-made shit!"
"With MY car this wouldn't have happened!" I yelled at Monika, "You dumb bitch! You just had to take YOUR goddamned car to show off to your poor relations!"
I slammed my other hand on the window. "We haven't had it a whole goddamned week and the damn thing just has to fucking die in the middle of a goddamned free-fire zone!"
One guard seemed to disapprove of my behavior while the other seemed not to give a damn as he peered under the hood. He reached for something and I yelled, "Watch out! It's hot!"
Both rifles immediately pointed at me. Monika squeaked and quickly explained my outburst in German and the rifles lowered somewhat. I told her to tell them that I thought the problem was a vapor-lock and that I would pour water from the washer bottle on the fuel line to cool it.
One of the guards wordlessly handed me his canteen, instead. I took it and trickled water on the fuel line as he watched.
The one who had disapproved of my earlier tantrum strolled around the car to have another look inside, stopping at the driver's door. Glancing back over the hood, I could see that it was business as usual at the guard post. Will and Connie had been passed, but wouldn't be allowed to continue until my car was moving again.
They moved only slightly forward from the guard post and waited, as instructed. As the last of the water ran down the line, I got the guard's attention and made a key-turning motion in the air with my hand. He reached in and turned the key. When it wouldn't start right away, he sat in the driver's seat, holding his rifle outside the car, and put a foot on the gas. The Taunus finally started fitfully and smoothed out after a moment.
I handed the canteen back and smiled as I thanked him, then closed the hood and quickly walked back around to the driver's door. The other guard was standing there, blocking my way. I looked at him questioningly. He glanced around once, then quickly drove the butt of his rifle into my belt buckle. As I painfully straightened myself, he spoke sharply to me, then glanced at Monika and spoke to her in the same tone.
Monika fidgeted a bit, then seemingly reluctantly said, "He tells me to tell you that a man who treats his woman as you do should be beaten, that any good German woman is too good for you, and that he would enjoy meeting you out of his uniform."
I played the role as expected, glaring back at him as if tempted to do something stupid. After a few moments, he realized I wouldn't give him the satisfaction and spoke again before he turned to leave. I got back in the car - carefully because it hurt to move - and started us moving for the West German gate as the guards walked back to the East.
Monika's giggle came a few moments later. It had an edge of hysteria, but it was real humor.
"He called you an asshole," she said, giggling again.
"Yeah, I know," I said, "I speak German, don't forget. Good for us 'cause it means he bought the act and good for him 'cause it means he isn't an asshole."
Will and Connie were on the move again as we neared the West gate. She didn't relax much. As I negotiated the final turns of the maze, I heard a gunshot and thought, "Oh, damn."
A machine gun opened up, some rifles fired, and I was ready to try to get real small real fast as I ordered Monika onto the floor under the dash. She was peering up in abject terror as she squeezed herself into the area.
It crossed my mind as odd that nobody'd been able to hit the car yet. Ahead of us , a jeep quickly blocked our West gate exit, and just as quickly an officer appeared next to the jeep, screaming at the driver. I hoped the driver wasn't stupid enough to think I'd stop before ramming him and his jeep out of our way.
As I entered the final straightaway, I slipped the car into neutral, gunned the engine, and beeped the horn twice quickly. They looked at me. I waved them away.
"C'mon, guys," I mumbled, "Clear the deck. I'm coming through anyway, so move it."
The jeep backed away to clear the gate. I dropped the car into first and we made the dash across the white lines in seconds. Two machine-gun-equipped jeeps came up fast to take positions on either side of the gate, and soldiers everywhere had weapons out and ready as if expecting some kind of invasion. Four MP's came running up to surround Monika and me, rifles at ready, and demanded ID's and explanations.
I handed our paperwork to one of them, pointed back at Will and Connie's car and said, "They're with us and we're part of a D-team. Why the shooting?"
"I don't know, sir," said the MP, moving to stand between me and the gate.
"Do you think I'm going to try to walk back into East Germany?" I asked him, "Get the hell out of the way. I just want to see what's going on." The guy just stood there looking confused, so I stepped around him and went up to the officer who had been arguing with the jeep driver.
"Who's being shot at, Major?"
"The shooting's stopped," he said, pointing a bit left of the narrow lane between gates, "And now something else is happening over there."
An enlisted man ran up to us with a radio that was chattering in German. He turned it up a bit and we all listened intently as we watched the drama unfold in the zone.
Will and Connie were about to negotiate the last zigzag before the straightaway when the shooting started again. I saw glass flying as car windows shattered and then saw someone running alongside the car.
There was another short burst and the running man went down hard, sliding to a stop ahead of the car. He began trying to crawl forward, trailing far too much blood, and he only made it a few yards before he went limp and slumped flat to the road. One of the guards on the other side pointed a rifle at the guard tower as an officer spoke into a radio by the guard shack.
"Well, goddamn," said the Major, "He was trying to use them as cover. He probably thought they wouldn't shoot if there were tourists near him."
"Their officer must be holding the key down, sir," said the enlisted man with a grin, "He just told the guy with the rifle that if the guard tower fires again, he's to shoot that gunner. He's pissed, sir. Very pissed. He's saying... He didn't order anyone to fire... To shoot the next man who fires without orders..."
Will stopped his car only inches from the fallen man. He jumped out and ran around the car, scooped the guy off the ground and laid him face down on the hood. After using his belt to tie the injured guy's belt to the windshield wipers, he dropped himself back into the driver's seat, moved the car through the last turn of the maze, and floored it on the straightaway, accelerating right up until he crossed the white lines.
Will's car crossed the lateral road behind the guardhouse, jumped the eight-foot-wide ditch on the other side and was dragged to a stop by the deep mud more than halfway across the open field beyond the road.
Two jeeps full of MP's immediately hauled ass to catch up to him, having to go nearly a quarter-mile down the road to the gate. One of the men at the chainlink border fence had a pair of binoculars. The Major waved him over and used them to view the distant car.
I could see Monika struggling briefly with the soldiers at our car. They wouldn't let her go to the other car. When she looked at me, I raised both hands in a "stay calm" gesture and yelled, "Stay there. It'll be all right!" To the Major, I said, "Nobody took a stretcher," I said, "What are they gonna do, leave the guy as a hood ornament?"
The Major snapped a look at the enlisted man with the radio. "Gimme that. Get a stretcher out there and get that man off the hood of that car."
Done and done. The guy was off and running for the guardhouse door. He reappeared quickly with a green stretcher and tossed it and himself into the jeep that had blocked the gate for Monika and me. The driver didn't argue this time.
The Major flicked a switch on the radio and called a Lieutenant Someone for a sitrep. In the field, one of the MP's stepped a distance away from things and used his radio.
"The guy on the hood is still alive, sir. Two adults and two kids seem to be okay, but there's glass everywhere and all of them have some cuts and bruises. I've called for a medevac. They'll take 'em all if it's okay with you."
"Yeah, good. You go with them, arrange for guards at the hospital, keep them isolated for now, and keep me posted. My authorization is yours within reason, but don't go crazy with it, okay?"
The Major then turned to me and asked, "Now, exactly who the hell are you, sir? And the short version will do just fine."
"Name's Ed," I said, "Your guys already have my phony ID's. When you call Brigade, tell them that D-319207 and his clients and crew are safe in port, okay?"
The officer's eyes narrowed and he swore softly for a moment. "A goddamned Dragonfly run, huh? Mind telling me why you people had to use my gate?"
He didn't really expect an answer. He was just venting a little as he said, "Tonight this place will be swarming with reporters and brass. None of us'll get out of here 'till around midnight. Thanks a lot."
His attitude pissed me off a bit. "One man may die and some people are stepping on free soil for the first time in their lives, and all you give a damn about is going home late? Should I quote you to the press, the brass, or just to some of the people I work for? I'm sure any or all of them would love hearing your opinion on this matter."
He deflated instantly, but I felt that it wasn't really due to my casual threats. Now and then you meet a brass hat with a conscience, and the Major seemed to be one of them.
"How many, um, clients, total, did you bring over this trip? Is anyone still stuck over there?"
"Four clients and this was everybody. I don't know the guy who got shot. Where's the lady I had with me?" I looked for Monika but didn't see her by the car.
"They've taken her inside," he said, leading the way to the office, "What needs done and who needs called?"
"I don't think anything needs done that isn't being done and I'll give my office a ring when we get inside. Got any coffee in the guard shack?"
"We're the Army. We always have guns, ammo, starch, boot polish and strong coffee, and you aren't using the phone until I've verified you with somebody." I nodded.
Monika was the center of a cluster of MP's when we entered the office. She was at a small table by the coffee pot, so all backs were to the door as we entered. The Major slammed the door. Six men spun at the sound and were suddenly standing at attention.
"This is a surveillance unit," said the Major, "So how come not one of you zeroes was aware that an officer entered the room? All except the company clerk get out now ."
He sat down at his desk and asked the clerk to get him a coffee, then to get my particulars and call Brigade for verification 'of some sort'.
"Serve yourself," he said, waving at the coffee pot, "Then sit down over here and tell me what you can. I'm going to have some things to do before the circus really starts around here."
I noted that he said, "Thanks, Harry," when the clerk delivered his coffee, so I didn't assume he was a martinet-type. I took a moment to reassure Monika, got a coffee, and sat by his desk to give him the company line.
"We have observers on both sides of the wire, so my people already know what happened. Probably the best thing to do, Major, is simply contain everybody and everything in whatever manner seems appropriate and wait for them to take us off your hands. That way neither you nor your office has to be involved to any great degree."
He agreed with a nod. We were interrupted by the arrival of the medevac helicopter. Monika was at the window instantly, watching for her children. I joined her there and the Major joined us at the window to watch them load the stretcher and the other passengers.
Two medics worked on the gunshot victim for a few minutes while people and luggage were loaded, then the stretcher was attached to the inside wall of the chopper and two intravenous drip bags were hung on the wall above the patient. With everybody aboard and strapped in, the bird lifted off and the MP's went back to matters at hand.
"Sir," the radio crackled, "This is Davis. The car's full of holes but you ain't gotta tow it out of here. We can drive it up there if we put a couple of boards across the ditch."
"Wrong, son. You don't have to tow it. I wasn't going to help with that anyway. But why tell me?" asked the Major, grinning at us, "Tell someone who has some boards. Just get that car out of that farmer's field and up here under secure cover with a guard. Use one of the old mess tents. Someone may show up thinking it's evidence, you know."
Someone laughed in the background as the guy replied, "Yes, sir."
The Major half-turned to face the company clerk as he keyed the radio and said, "Nobody goes near that car or any of those people unless they clear it with me. Got that?"
"Yes sir," said the guy on the radio.
"Clear, sir," said the clerk, "I'm on it. After I contact the L.T. I'll pass the word."
The Major said, "Thank you, Harry. Stay on this and call me if you need me to back you. I really mean nobody , okay? This place will be a goddamned circus tonight."
"Got it, sir. Potential international incident. Lockdown. By the way, this guy checks out. Brigade was expecting a delivery today, but they didn't know which gate."
"An announcement might have been difficult to arrange, I suppose." The Major chuckled at his joke, turned to us and said, "All right, make your call. I hear another helicopter coming and it doesn't sound like one of ours. It's probably the first busload of brass-hats and bureaucrats looking for a useable angle on this thing."
I called our Bonn embassy office, made a quick report, took a moment to confirm which hospital was receiving our crew and clients, and was told that one of our people was very likely on the incoming helicopter if it was blue.
When I had hung up, I looked out to see a sleek, light-blue helicopter with civilian markings setting down in the parking lot. I grinned as some of the eight men who got off that bird looked as if they wanted to kiss the ground. Fancy pilot, probably. None of the faces were familiar, so I sipped coffee and waited. The blades were barely moving when the last person stepped off.
A brunette woman with a briefcase stood at the top of the steps and looked around for a moment. She took off the sunglasses she'd worn on the flight and tucked them into her suitjacket pocket, set her briefcase down long enough to straighten her skirt and jacket, then disembarked the aircraft. She had to duck to clear the doorway and descended the steps with a sort of sidewise step, probably because she was wearing a close-fitting skirt.
The legs I saw flashing in the sunlight were the kind I use in my sketches, not skinny model's legs, and she wasn't wearing heels to enhance them. She waved off a guy who was about to carry her suitcase and picked it up apparently effortlessly, then approached the guard shack with a steady stride.
I poured a cup of coffee, set it on the nearby table, and went to get the door for her. When I heard her measured steps on the wooden porch, I opened the door, smiled at her, and said, "Hello, Linda."
"Hello, Ed. They sent me to annoy you with lots of questions." She smiled slightly as she said it and never slowed her stride as she entered the office. She set her bag and briefcase on the floor by the small wood-and-glass table and scanned the room, spotting the Major and Monika in the center of a clustering of the people who had been on the chopper. The Major sat at his desk sipping coffee as he scanned various documents that would relieve him of the situation and the people. Linda looked hard at my shirt.
"Cut me some slack, lady. I earned this rumpled look today and I even poured you a coffee as you were walking to the shack, just in case you still drink the nasty stuff."
"Thanks for the amenities," she said, "But no coffees until we do the secret handshake and all the other spooky rituals. Them's the rules, mister."
"Bruno, D-31..." I said, and waited for her to finish my number and password.
"Giordano, 9207," she said. All she was verifying by that was her involvement in our case. She might have known my number from another case, but not my current mission passwords. As she had said, "Them's the rules."
I took her over to meet Monika and the Major. Linda reassured each of them according to his or her concerns, then suggested she and I go back to the table so I could bring her up to date. I took her light jacket and seated her as if we were in a restaurant, asking if she'd like to see a menu. She smiled.
"Cool," I said, "Linda Baines, Girl Spy. I didn't know they let you out of the office."
"Oh, now and then I slip the shackles," she said, "I have your bag with me, too."
She bent at the waist and knee to retrieve her briefcase. I watched the lovely play of muscles in her legs and her graceful self-control until I realized she wasn't moving. She was gazing back at me in the glass top of the small table next to the chair.
Linda straightened with the briefcase and looked at me rather piercingly for a moment.
I gazed evenly back at her, unashamed of my interest in her legs and waiting for her response, if any. She merely opened the briefcase and pulled out the manila envelope in which I'd placed my personal effects at the start of our mission.
There were no signs of tampering, so I flicked open my belt knife and slit the top of the envelope. If my facility with my knife impressed her, she concealed it well. I took a quick inventory of the contents. Everything was there; DAC-ID card, keys, etc...
Linda sat down at the little table and sipped coffee as I rooted through the small pile of pocket stuff. In the clear space between my stuff and her briefcase I could see that her skirt had ridden up a bit when she sat down. Her legs were wonderfully solid-looking, so I counted everything again between lingering glances.
"What's the matter? Don't you trust your own outfit?" She grinned at me. I had no doubt she was just as thorough about such things.
I grinned as I said, "Trust, but verify. Just taking a second look."
"I noticed that," she said, setting her coffee on her napkin to block the clear space, "I'm actually slightly flattered, but may I have your attention elsewhere for a moment?"
"Ah, hell, you caught me," I said, taking the other chair. I looked through the table top and made a minor production of placing the manila envelope precisely to block my view of her legs through the tabletop, then met her laughing gaze as I sipped my own coffee.
"Such a sacrifice," she said, producing a tape recorder, "Thank you. Now report."
I gave Linda a synopsis of the mission from the moment we entered East Germany to the moment we left it. She took notes of her own as I offered my observations about changes in routes, two breaks in the chain of contacts, some buildings missing due to construction or renovation projects that interfered slightly with plans and that hadn't been mentioned in our briefings beforehand, and some ideas for substitutions and drops.
Linda questioned me on a few points, but they were the kind of questions that clarify meanings. She wasn't doubting my abilities or judgments. That would have been someone else's job, anyway. She was simply nailing down bits, pieces, and details.
I studied her face as we went over things. She wasn't a ravishing beauty and used very little makeup, but her face and demeanor radiated strength and competence and she was a truly attractive woman in every way. Her hair was pinned in a small, businesslike bun, something which can't be done unless the hair is at least shoulder-length. My imagination was beginning to kick in when she tapped my cup with her pen.
"Hey, there. Where are you?" asked Linda in a soft voice.
I realized that I hadn't said a word for several moments. I'd just sat looking at Linda. She rose with our coffee cups and strode over to the pot for refills. I watched her go and watched her return, as did every other man in the room. She met my eyes as she handed me my cup and sat down, saying, "Monika is asleep on the couch back there. You look damned tired yourself, Ed. I think I have enough notes for now."
"You don't have to furnish me excuses, Linda. I'm tired, but not that tired, and I don't usually distract so easily. For some reason you truly fascinate me. I was just looking at you with nothing else at all on my mind. When you tapped my cup I was daydreaming about how long your hair would have to be to make that bun."
Linda sat staring at me for a moment. "I don't know what to say, Ed. Thanks, I guess."
"You don't have to say anything," I laughed, "Just keep me on track until we finish. Once you're out of sight I should recover enough to function on my own again."
Linda blushed and said, "I really do have enough notes. But you're not going to be free of me right away, Ed. That's why I brought a suitcase. We're going to join the others at the hospital, and I'm to remain with your group until this incident is completely over."
"What incident? The guy who got shot isn't dead and wasn't part of our operation. We can just turn everybody over to the 'crats for processing into the West and we're done."
"He's not dead yet , Ed. You delivered potential witnesses to a murder. You and Will and Connie are also witnesses. IF that man lives, we can probably sweep the whole mess into a file folder and process him for potential asylum. Business as usual."
"What the hell...? Half the barracks here saw what happened. There are plenty of other witnesses available, Linda. They don't need us. We could just disappear."
"Will and Connie aided an escape, as far as the Easties are concerned. They're going to be considered participants, not witnesses. Pictures were taken at the guard post over there, so we couldn't substitute even if they were just witnesses. Word is that the guards who fired are being tried for acting without orders. It's all about politics, of course, and trying to create the appearance that they give a damn. You haven't heard the news, have you? The world is already watching. Everyone wants a useable piece of this political cake and they won't care who gets trampled in the process."
She took a sip of coffee and continued, "If it becomes a murder trial, the trial will be on the Eastern side of the wire, where the shooting happened, and things will be very well covered in the press and propaganda mills. We'll have to produce the witnesses and participants or explain how we lost them. The extractees will have to be granted immediate residency and asylum in either the U.S. or West Germany to avoid being arrested once they're discovered to be escapees themselves. This crew will have to be reassigned, and this incident could suspend the Dragonfly runs for a long time."
"Huh. Maybe I'm more tired than I thought. I just figured there were enough witnesses without us and that we'd disappear for a while as usual. I didn't think the Commies would give a rat's ass about shooting an escapee, whether he survived or not, and you're right, I haven't heard any news. The only radio I've heard is that thing."
I pointed to the walkie-talkie on the desk. After a moment, another thought occurred to me. "You're here to take more than notes, aren't you, Linda? You're here to take over command of the mission post-op."
Linda sat quite still, her eyes gazing steadily into mine for a moment as she gauged how I might respond to being displaced.
"Yes, I'm here to relieve you, Ed. You accomplished your mission. Now we need someone between you and the press, politicians, and police in just about that order."
"That's a nice way of saying that you've been ordered to take over and explaining why in the same breath, Linda. Someone at the office knows me pretty well. John sent you, and I'd bet a year's pay that choosing you wasn't any sort of accident, even though there are probably a couple of others who could handle merely being our social secretary."
Linda didn't answer immediately, but when she did, she said, "John knows what it's like to end a mission. We knew you'd all be dead tired, Ed, running on adrenaline and coffee, just as you are, and he also said you're an easy mark for tall, strong women. He used exactly those words, by the way. John told me you respect brains and competence and that all of those reasons added up to my being directly selected for this job. He was going to send someone out here anyway. Was he wrong to send me?"
I chuckled. It surprised her. "Let's see," I said, "You're tall and have magnificent legs, so you commandeered my attention immediately. Add grace, beauty, brains, competence and orders from the home office to take over because I don't handle political terrains well. I'll even add my own reference, Linda. You have great management abilities, too. I've hardly felt a thing, and you've been in charge since you boarded that chopper."
She continued her steady gaze as she asked, "You mean that? No hard feelings, Ed?"
"I'm not paid to have feelings, Linda, hard or otherwise. I'm paid to find ways to haul people out of places, not to deal with the press and politicians. I'm glad to leave that crap to someone else. And you shouldn't be too worried about my feelings or anyone else's if you're going to have to order troops around. They tend to take advantage of your good intentions. Besides, John's right. He's seen me deal with politicians before."
Linda laughed softly and said, "He told me about a nosy new Senator's visit last year. Did you really push him into the canal?"
"The official story is that I tripped and fell against him during his third visit, Linda. He thought he could conduct some grand little inquisition and came at us like an officious, spook-hating fop. I suggested a tour after lunch, so he and his dozen or so "assistants" accompanied me to a restaurant and afterward we walked back on the path by the canal. He was too out of shape to save himself from rolling and sliding down thirty feet of grassy slope, screaming for help all the way, so he got very wet in front of all his sycophants. Strangely enough, the press somehow got pictures. He didn't visit us a fourth time. John is afraid I'll catch another case of the clumsies in the middle of all this."
Linda laughed again, whether at the mental image of the Senator rolling downhill or only because it seemed expected of her I couldn't tell and didn't guess. John had sent her, so she had all the qualities advertised. He didn't make personnel choices casually.
With that in mind, the whole mission takeover I'd experienced could easily have been something such a woman could have executed without difficulty, not that I really gave a damn about that. My job was finished, as we'd both said. All I had to do was stay clear of the press and pols while the boss found me something else to do somewhere else.
"Linda, there's something else you should know about me. I hate deceitfulness from anyone working with me. I'm discovering that I like you for a lot more than your legs, so if this friendliness is an act to make your takeover easier, let's drop it and get down to business. No hard feelings if we do it now."
I sipped my coffee and said, "My trust in John's judgment in choosing the right people for a job is based on my own experience. In three years he's never made a bad field choice of which I'm aware, and in our business mistakes of that nature can lead to people getting imprisoned or shot. You're here because you're well above simply being competent, Linda, and I completely understand that. An entire segment of our agency's reason for existing could be shut down over this incident, and you were John's choice."
Linda just stared silently at me for a time. She put her notes and the recorder in her briefcase and closed it, then drank some coffee and continued to stare at me for a while longer before speaking. "Well, that was pretty direct. Did you mean it?" she asked.
"I meant it. No hard feelings if we drop all pretenses right now."
Linda made an exasperated expression and said, "No, not that part. The part where you said you were beginning to like me for more than my legs." She grinned.
It was my turn to stare at her. I grinned back. "Yes, I very definitely meant that, too."
Linda laughed nervously. "What were you trying to do, talk me out of this? First you make me sound like Wonder Woman , then you tell me how bad things will go if I fail."
"Both items appear to be true. Ah paints what Ah sees."
"Well, thank you anyway, but all this flattery is going to give me a nosebleed, Ed."
"Flattery? You know better than that, Linda. If I ever even once handed you flattery you'd trash it instantly and never trust me about anything else. Have you considered any other reasons for putting you in charge of something that is potentially momentous?"
"We're all expendable in one way or other," she said, "If I slip, I can be reassigned..."
I held up a hand. "John retires in less than two years, Linda. We've talked about it, and I was wondering if I'd even stay with the agency if John couldn't pick his replacement."
The shock on her face told me she'd thought this was just another assignment. The fingers that covered her lips were trembling. "But...me ? Are you serious , Ed?"
"I'd refuse that crown and haven't been asked anyway. My next choice for boss is retiring for medical reasons next year. I know the rest of the possibles in the office and I'd leave before I'd let any of them design or conduct one of my missions. You were the wild card, Linda. I remember when John spent six months stealing you from the Navy two years ago. I almost wished I had a desk job when you showed up in the office, miLady. The Navy had you running some SEAL ops, and you handled all facets as needed, but you weren't being ticketed for a command slot. Why?"
I held up a hand again and answered my own question. "You were too damned good for your own good, Linda. You made the brass look too good, too. John said the 'old boy' network was going to keep you there 'till you were old and gray. He didn't steal anyone else that year, but he yanked some strings hard and the pretty Navy Lieutenant was attached to us for a year. You must've walked across a swimming pool somewhere along the line, because John busted his ass to keep you when your TDY tour was up. Your decision to leave the Navy and join us was largely based on pay grades and benefits that John arranged to have sprinkled in your path. He didn't want you to get away, Linda."
After a few moments of startled silence, Linda said, "I thought you're supposed to be a local hire, Ed. How in the hell do you know so much about all this? And about me?"
"About you? Just how you came to be in our outfit. No personal stuff."
"Well, that's really comforting, Ed, but I'm asking why John confides in you at all. You've only been there three years, yourself, and you work in the field, not the office. You're listed as a circumstantially-necessary 1970 local hire with no explanation as to why you're still on the payroll. I only scanned your jacket lightly."
"Consider that you even saw my jacket or anyone else's. You aren't in personnel. Logic, Linda. Logic. You know John well enough to know that I'm still on the payroll because I'm good at what I do. Do you know how I came to be with the agency?"
She shook her head. It mildly irritated her to be lectured by someone under her command, but she sat for the rest of it without interrupting, so I continued.
"It isn't a secret around the office. John's only son Rick was in Vietnam in 1968. I'm the medic who pulled him out of a muddy, bloody hole and dragged him to cover. He was hit bad, and I thought he'd be a KIA when I got a good look at him. He had chunks blown out of his leg and shoulder and he was already a couple of pints down."
Linda gave me an odd, sideways look and said, "That sort of thing wasn't unusual there, was it? I mean, John didn't think he owed you a government job here, did he..?"
"Doubt it. Anyway, I couldn't stop the bleeding in his leg without cutting circulation, so I used a piece of jeep radiator drain tubing to splice the vein. Tied the ends of the vein around the hose with dental floss. One of the other guys died and he was a "type-O", so I pushed his body up the paddy dike and rigged an IV tube to drain some of his blood into Rick before he spoiled. The zone was so hot it took an hour to get a medevac bird to us. About two weeks later they pulled me out of the field and sent me to Tan Son Nhut airbase without a reason. That's usually a bad sort of thing. In this case it was some guy who wanted to take me to dinner, and that's not usually a good thing, either."
I grinned at Linda. She chuckled softly. I continued, "The civilian said his name was John and that I was assigned to him until he chose to let me go, which was just a plain damned weird thing as far as I knew. Then he got me a room at the Bachelor Officer's Quarters, even though I was only a sergeant, and told me to report back to Brigade HQ at six o'clock. By this time I didn't know what the hell was going on, but I thought he was CIA or like that, about to try to get me to volunteer for some strange-assed mission, so I called Brigade from the BOQ and got nowhere with questions. I was again told firmly to be wherever I was told to be. When I arrived at HQ, he was waiting with two women, introduced as Sylvia and Darlene. Nurses, he said. Darlene was a friend of his and Sylvia was a friend of hers as well as my blind date. Both looked at me as if I'd just arrived from Mars. Hell, I thought it was because I was enlisted instead of an officer."
Again Linda laughed softly as I drank some coffee. "Go on," she said.
"Well, he took us to dinner in the restaurant at the U.S. embassy in Saigon and fed us steaks and booze. After dinner, he circulated a picture of his son and told us that I had saved his life. I said thanks, but that I barely recognized the son from among all the other guys I'd patched up. John said he'd expected that, so the dinner and weekend away from the war was as much for all of the guys I'd ever saved and tried to save. Sylvia said John had told Darlene what I'd done and that Darlene had told her and that she had actually volunteered for this "dinner mission" just to meet the guy who installed auto parts in people."
Linda smiled a little smile. "So how did the weekend go?"
"Classified," I said, smiling back, "But Sylvia seemed to like me enough. Monday it was back to work. When I married back into the Army two years later and we came to Germany I took a job at Landstuhl Hospital. One day John showed up and recruited me."
"And the rest is history, as they say," said Linda, "How and why did he know you were at Landstuhl? Do you think John was keeping an eye on you all that time?"
"Hardly that. I was just a team medic in the war. My name probably popped up when my wife got very drunk, nasty, and arrested during a tour of East Berlin. She had to have special permissions to travel in or near East-bloc zones due to her job and all of those permissions are tracked. We were put on the next plane to Frankfurt. Back at Landstuhl she was told she was being transferred to the States. I'd had enough of living with an alcoholic, so I cut a deal with her. We send each other forms to sign and we still have all the bennies of being married in the military. She gets COLA and supplemented off-post housing near Washington while I get to keep my green car tags, PX privileges, and the NATO/SOFA stamp in my other passport. She has her world and I have mine."
"I was wondering about that... The wife nobody ever sees. Any regrets?"
"Have you ever lived day-to-day with an alcoholic? Hell, no. No regrets."
The company clerk came over and said the helicopter would be leaving in about half an hour. We decided to have a look at Will's car before leaving and cleared it with the Major. Linda produced a camera and devoted a roll of film to the car, then we boarded the chopper with Monika for the trip to the hospital.
It was well after dark when we set down in Frankfurt. A car met us and we were ferried from the helicopter to the hospital side-entrance. The driver handed Linda an envelope, which she opened on the short trip. After reading the note inside, she handed it to me.
It said the shooting victim would remain at 92nd General and we would be continuing on to Landstuhl 2nd General Hospital. Fine. My stuff was there. Monika looked at me curiously, but since Linda had said nothing, I simply shrugged and followed Linda's silent lead.
Will was asleep in room 1203 and Connie was reading in bed in the adjoining room, 1205. Monika's family was in a room a few doors away from us. Linda excused herself and went to the nurses' station to use the phone.
Monika embraced and held me for a few moments, tried to say something, lost the words, and just kissed me quickly before she walked away to join her family. I set my two suitcases quietly by the other bed in 1203 and padded back out into the hall.
The nap on the helicopter had me vibrating. I was still damned tired, but no longer sleepy. The nurse at the ward desk directed me to the mess hall, where I might be able to find something to eat, even though it was after hours. I stopped to ask Monika if she wanted anything, but she was already asleep. Connie said she'd rather just read herself to sleep, so I looked for Linda and couldn't find her. The nurse said she'd gone, so I left a note and headed for the mess hall.
At the end of the hall two MP's stopped me. The Corporal said we weren't supposed to leave the ward. I asked if one of them would go to the mess hall and bring something back for us. He said they weren't allowed to leave their posts. I asked him to call his duty officer for me. He said he couldn't do that unless it was an emergency.
I said, "Fine," and walked on past them. He lunged to stop me and grabbed my arm, so I put him on the floor in a thumb lock. Quietly, of course. It was a hospital, after all. The other guard reflexively aimed his rifle at me and approached cautiously.
"What the hell are you gonna do with that?" I asked him. "Hit me with it? Wake up the whole ward because I'm hungry? Have your duty officer meet me in the mess hall. We aren't prisoners as far as I know. We're guests, and your job is to keep people away from us."
"I don't know about any of that, sir..." said the guard with the rifle.
"Then find out," I cut in, "And if you're going to try to intimidate someone with a rifle, you should at least lock and load before you point it. You weren't issued any ammo, just orders to stand around and say 'no' to people. The duty officer to the mess hall. Okay?"
I let go of the guy on the floor and waited. The guy with the rifle nodded as the other one stood up, examining his thumb. They were a couple of clerks who happened to get night duty.
I continued on my way to the mess hall as one of the guards jogged to the nurses' desk for the phone. About halfway down the corridor I heard a noise ahead and spotted someone turning the corner in the main hall. When I turned the corner, a blonde woman in her mid-twenties was sitting on one of the benches, trying to appear surprised.
I took the opportunity to look her over as I passed the bench. She had good features, was well structured, and had obviously been waiting for an opportunity to buttonhole someone who might talk about what was going on in the ward behind me.
She quickly stood up and greeted me with, "Hi! I'm Marsha."
"That's nice." I walked past her extended hand.
"What's the matter? Did your mother tell you not to talk to strangers?"
"Yup. Told me to watch out for women who lurk in hallways, too."
She caught up to me and tried to match my stride. "I wasn't lurking. I was waiting."
"Well, then, go back to the bench and wait some more, Marsha."
"Can't I just walk along with you? Slow down! This place makes me nervous."
"Then go someplace where you won't be nervous, Marsha."
"That's not very nice. Where are you going?"
"Nowhere, now. I'm just walking fast to tire you out so you'll go away, Marsha."
"What's the matter? You don't like women?"
"That's what a street hooker says when you ignore her. Are you a hooker, Marsha?"
She ran a few steps forward and tried to block my path like a basketball player, arms spread a bit and ready to dodge to intercept me. "No, goddamit, I'm not a hooker! I just want to ask you a few questions, okay?"
"Not okay. Get lost, Marsha."
I made to walk around her, but for the second time that night someone grabbed me. She stepped into my path so that I'd run into her and grabbed my arms. I stopped as her breasts compressed against my chest.
"You feel great, but I can't play with you, Marsha. I mean it. Let go of me or I'll drop you on your ass and call the MP's to have you removed from the hospital."
"What if I call the MP's and tell them you tried to do something to me?"
"Something like what in a main hospital hallway?"
I kept my word and spun her to the floor fairly gently, with enough momentum to spin her some distance away on her butt on the freshly waxed floor. Nice legs flashed as her skirt flew up in her face. I started walking again.
"You can't do that to me, you bastard," I heard her mumble, but I didn't hear her coming at me soon enough. She'd taken her shoes off and was sprinting at me when I turned.
She slammed into me hard enough to take us both down and we slid into the adjoining hallway in a tangle of arms and legs. She was pummeling me with her fists as I pushed her away. Her hair was all over the place, mostly in her face, and she was frantically trying to kick me when she was too far away to reach me with her fists.
I got to my feet and looked down at her. She was wordlessly glaring up at me. I turned to walk away again. This time I heard her coming and stepped quickly aside. She tried to change direction, but her stockinged feet flew out from under her and she went down on her own. Hard. She was keening with rage and pain as she rubbed her hip.
"Nobody shoves me around like that! Nobody! "
She was trying to get up, but a sharp pain took her breath away and she fell back.
"I think I just did," I said, "You could have just let me go. You didn't have to grab me and bodyblock me, and you definitely didn't have to tackle me. How bad is it?"
"Don't touch me," she said as I reached for her arm. I stopped.
"It hurts like hell, she said, "I think I want to stay right here for a minute."
"Is anything broken?"
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"That's good, Marsha. In that case, when you're ready to get back on your feet, you can find your shoes and haul ass out of here."
I walked away from her again, watching her in the reflection from a glass door. She lunged to her feet pretty quickly for someone supposedly in great pain and came at me again. This time I stepped to meet her charge and caught her in my arms, pivoting to pin her against the wall. She couldn't hit or kick, but I thought she might just bite me if I got careless.
After a moment she realized she was trapped. I waited to see if she was going to try something like a knee in the groin, but she didn't. I let go of her right hand and swept the hair from her face. It was a nice face.
"Well, hello, again," I said, grinning, "I don't usually get this familiar on a first date."
"Let me go," she said sullenly.
"So you can attack me again? I think not. I like you just like this for the moment."
"You're just feeling me up," she said.
"Yeah, right. Promise you won't attack me again and I'll let you go."
"Okay," she said, too quickly to suit me.
"Liar. You'll pounce on me the minute my back is turned, Marsha."
"I won't. I promise."
"If you do, I'm going to pin you to the wall like this until the MP's haul you away. That's my promise, Marsha. And I promise to thoroughly enjoy every single moment of being pressed against you like this. I also promise to..."
"OKAY," she said, "Okay, I get the picture. Lemme go now."
I stepped back carefully. She didn't move except to rub her arms where I'd held them. I looked her over for damage. She must have thought I was just looking her over.
"Well, do you like what you see?" Her tone wasn't pleasant.
"Yeah, I do, but I was looking for battle damage. You'll live to tackle another guy."
Marsha glared at me and pushed off the wall. I stepped back as if expecting an attack, grinning at her. After a moment, she couldn't quite hold back her own grin. Then I noticed the small red spot on the wall behind her. She saw my expression change and looked behind herself to see the spot.
"Hold still," I said, stepping around her to check her back. At first I couldn't find an injury, then I parted her hair and found a small gash. "You must have bumped your head sometime during all the commotion. Come on, let's get your shoes and purse and take a better look."
"How bad is it? I don't feel it." Her fingers lightly touched the area and she winced. "Oh, yes, I do! Damn! It's starting to hurt now."
"That's because you know it's there now," I said, "There's a washroom up the hall."
We walked back a surprising distance to find her shoes, then continued on to retrieve her purse from behind the bench. A camera sat next to it. I took charge of both items and led the way to a womens' bathroom across the hall. Marsha hesitated as I held the door for her.
I waited a moment, then just went on in with her purse and camera, set them on one of the countertops, and waited. A few moments later she entered the bathroom rather cautiously, peering around the corner to locate me. I gave her a small wave and a smile.
She straightened and crossed the few paces separating us to look up at me, waiting to see what I'd say or do, I guess. In a conversational tone, I said, "Boo." Marsha giggled.
"Now that we've got that settled," I said, "Take a look in the mirror. You look like a morning-after prom queen."
Marsha spun to look at herself in the sink mirror and said, "Oh, my God."
"Exactly. I'll wash out that cut and then I'll get out of here so you can polish your nose or whatever it is women do in bathrooms."
"Powder," she said, "The term is 'powder one's nose'. We never polish them."
"I stand corrected." I soaked a paper towel and blotted the cut. She didn't wince or squeak too much while I worked. "No stitches necessary," I said, "It's more of an abrasion."
"What can I put on it?" She held her makeup mirror so she could see the reflection of her injury in the big mirror. She fingered the area gently and winced.
"Without shaving the area so a Band-aid will stick, use an ointment. Just keep it clean and let it heal and try not to rest your head on anything that will stain easily."
"Funny. I'll pass on shaving it. I know you must be disappointed about that."
"Damn right," I said, "Bald women are considered exotic, you know."
"I always just considered them bald. What's so exotic about hairless women?"
"Well, I don't really know. Never met one. No experience with bald women."
"You certainly seem to have experience at shoving women around, though."
"Don't start," I said, "That was just plain old Ranger-type personnel management."
Marsha gave a short bark of laughter. "Management , you call it?"
I finished cleaning and drying the area. "Yup. Management. Okay, you're on your own, now. Make yourself gorgeous and I'll treat you to coffee if there is any."
I took a moment to wash my face and run a comb through my hair. Marsha watched me.
"Why the change of heart?" she asked, "You don't still want me gone?"
"I probably should," I said, "But I don't."
"Why?" She sounded suspicious.
I sighed. "Because I think you look damn good even when you're all rumpled up, Marsha, and you're a tough lady. You don't give up easily and you have a personality when you aren't badgering someone to death."
Her mouth fell open. "Badgering? I may be a little pushy, but..."
"Don't kid yourself. You DO badger and you're a LOT pushy. Argumentative, too. Pushy AND argumentative. You'll be some poor man's slavedriver some day."
I paused at the corner of the counter. "Hurry up if you want to find some coffee with me."
I stood waiting in the hall trying to figure out whether she was being meticulous or stalling me. After a little while I cracked the door and said, "Sometime tonight or not at all."
"Okay, okay! Just another minute."
It didn't take that long. Her hair was generally back in place, her clothes were neatened, and her stockings were gone. She noticed my eyes on her legs.
"They had runs and I don't have another pair, so I just took them off. Do I look okay?"
"As I said, you look damn good to me, Marsha, even in an unpolished state. I think I like this bare-legged look, too. Why do women wear stockings, anyway?"
"I don't know. Probably because some man invented them."
"Huh. What a damned dummy he was. Your skin looks pretty good all by itself."
She smiled at me. "Glad you like it. It's the only one I own. Where to?"
"That way," I said, "The mess hall may still have some stuff out for the night shifts."
An Army Captain met us inside the mess hall doors with two enlisteds when we entered the mess hall. Marsha's presence threw him off. He'd expected me to be alone.
"I have to see some ID, sir. And yours, too, Ma'am."
I unbuttoned my shirt pocket and handed him my card as Marsha rummaged in her purse. "I had it in here somewhere," she said.
The Captain read off my name. "You're the guy we came for. Why did you rough up one of my men and how come you don't carry your ID in your wallet?"
I turned and patted my flat back pocket. "Don't need a wallet and your guy grabbed me."
"Everybody needs a wallet," said one of the guards, "Why don't you?"
The Captain glanced at him and he shut up quickly, then the Captain looked at me curiously. He wasn't going to repeat the enlisted guy's question, mostly because the enlisted guy had gotten the words out first. I realized the Captain barely understood his temporary duties as Watch Officer and was going to try to play it as a tough guy.
Marsha finally came up with a card. He glanced at it and held it with mine.
"Let's get coffee and talk," I said, waving at the room, "Since we're already here."
"We didn't come here for coffee," said the Captain, "We're here to take you back."
"Figured that. If you have time to stand here waiting for me, you have time to let us have a snack and coffee, too. How about it?"
"We have orders to contain you in ward twelve."
"CONTAIN me? Not DE-tain me?"
I was getting pissed off at all the meaningless hoops and rituals.
"Is that your word or someone else's? Did anyone actually use either of those words, or did they only say 'no unauthorized visitors to the ward'? How far do you want to go with this, Captain? I'm tired and I'm hungry and I've got some lovely company and I'm fast on the road to being very pissed off. I'm going to talk to my friend here over coffee and snacks unless you guys are prepared to get drastic over a rather questionable interpretation of your orders. Is it worth it? There's nothing in it for you."
"There are three of us, and I can call more, sir. Will you come along peacefully?"
I looked at the other two guys, then at Marsha. "You want coffee?"
She nodded and set her purse on the table behind us. She looked ready to rumble. I turned back to the Captain and said, "Not a chance. You don't have enough men, Captain. If you aren't going to join us, you'd better make that call, 'cause I've seen her when she's pissed. I guarantee it isn't worth it for an overnight incident report that will be kitty litter in a year or so."
There it was. Showdown time. Do it or get off the pot, and now there was a woman who appeared quite ready to join the fight. The guards were looking at the Captain for orders. The Captain was glaring at us, but he had to decide quickly or lose face with his men.
He handed us back our cards and said, "You have a point. There will be no unnecessary violence in this hospital while I'm the one who has to do that goddamned paperwork. As long as these men are with you, you're under guard, as ordered. If you try to get away from them, I'll find you with enough men to get the job done. Got that?"
"That'll do fine, Captain. Everybody hates the Army's quadruplicate paperwork."
"Wow," said Marsha, "You know some big words, don't you?" She gave me a big, vacuous smile. The guards snickered. Even the Captain was holding back a smile.
"You're with them until they're back in the ward," the Captain told his men, then he left.
The guards looked momentarily lost, so I suggested they take it easy a few tables away from us so we could have a little privacy. Marsha gave me an odd glance as if to ask why I thought we'd need privacy. "We're getting to know each other a little better," I added.
The guards joined us long enough to get their coffees and settled a few tables away, as suggested. There were only a few apples and single-serving boxes of cereal in sight. I chose a couple of apples and some frosted cereal for later. Marsha waved off on food, so we chose a table and sat down.
"Why did you change your mind about me?" she asked.
"I liked what I saw of you. Aggressive women fascinate me."
"That's hard to believe. You didn't even introduce yourself. I wouldn't know your name now if General Patton back there hadn't read it off your ID card."
"Maybe I wanted to know you better first. I'm shy, you know."
She snickered. "No, I don't think so. Why were those MP's after you?"
"They aren't MP's. They're just soldiers who have to pull guard duty in the halls."
"But why were they after you?"
"You mean you won't say, right?"
"Can't. Won't because I can't," I said, "Same thing. Who do you work for, Marsha?"
"My real job isn't much to talk about," she said, "But it lets me stay in Europe and work on a US base so that I don't need a visa. I sell encyclopedias. Well, actually, I just show them to people in the PX and write up the orders for the other guys who sell them."
She named a Stateside newspaper, then added, "Really I'm just a stringer for them, somebody in the area who can take notes and pictures and phone in the details they'll use to make a story. They called and told me they wanted more info on that border thing today. They said there was shooting and that an Army medical helicopter landed and took off again, so I figured it would head for a hospital if someone was hurt. It had to be this one or the one down south, and this one was closest to me."
"What the hell made you think I knew anything about it? I was just walking down the hall to get coffee when you tackled me. I could be an outpatient from the clinic."
Marsha laughed. "You aren't. The clinic is up in the main hall and there's been a lot of activity at this end of the hospital this evening, all of it focused on ward twelve. Guards and big black cars and lots of very healthy-looking civilians and brass types have been coming and going. Then a big blue civilian helicopter landed an hour ago and a bunch of guys drove off in some of the cars and I saw you get off with two women..." She blushed slightly and backtracked, "I mean... you got off the helicopter with them..."
"I think I liked the first version better," I said with a small smile.
Her blush deepened and she silently reached for her cup.
"So, Marsha, you just assumed that blue helicopters somehow had something to do with green ones? What if I told you I was just a poor little civilian pilot who flies where he's told to fly and that I don't really know anything about anything else? What if I told you that I've been stringing you a little since patching you up to keep you with me because you're a pretty blonde? Would you still want to sit here and drink free Army coffee with me?"
"That wouldn't explain all the activity or a civilian helicopter on a military base."
"But it sure could explain why I wanted to keep you around, pretty blonde lady."
"Oh, damn," said Marsha, fingering her ear, "I think my bullshit detector just went off."
She grinned at me. I grinned back and trailed a finger down her bare arm.
"You could try making me prove that I think you're a pretty blonde," I said.
"Oh, I believe that part, but I'd rather make you prove you're a pilot," she said.
"That could be tough. It isn't my helicopter, you know. No joyrides allowed."
"Pilots have licenses. Where's yours?"
"My bags are in my room. Want to come with me and see if I have one?"
"If I even half-believed you had one, I might say yes, but you've carefully avoided actually lying to me by saying you're definitely a pilot. Or anything else, for that matter."
I heard footsteps and knew their cadence. Linda had entered the mess hall. I gave her a little wave and said, "Hi, Susan."
She didn't bat an eye at my calling her by a name other than her own. She passed our table with a little return wave and said, "Hi, back at you. Want some company?" as she took a coffee cup from the racks.
"Sure. This is Marsha. We met in the hall on my way down here."
"Trust you to find a cute blonde in the middle of the night in a hospital."
"Ow. Unfair, Susan. She found me. Tell her, Marsha."
Marsha said, "That's right. I, um, ran into him in the hall." In a whisper she asked me, "Is this your wife or your girlfriend?"
I shook my head and whispered back, "Neither. Just a friend."
My guards were suitably impressed with my additional company, if maybe also a bit confused. One came over and asked to see her ID, of course.
She handed it to him and with a steady gaze at him said, "Sorry to disappoint you. I'm just a night-shifter looking for some strong coffee."
He wasn't stupid, I'll give him that. His expression never changed as he read her card and handed it back, saying, "Thank you, Ma'am. Sorry, but we were told to stick with this guy. We're supposed to escort him back to his room, too."
"Well, I'm sure he deserves the attention," said Linda. She sat down and extended a hand to Marsha. "Nice to meet you. Are you new here in the hospital?"
Marsha took the hand and answered, "Nice to meet you, too. No, I work in the PX."
"I just shuffle papers," said Linda, then, to me, she said, "We need to be getting back. I just came down here to find you and take a break."
"Okay," I said, "Sorry, Marsha. Duty calls, and all that." Then, to Linda, I said, "Marsha doesn't believe I'm just a simple pilot, Susan. She thinks I do something dark and secret."
"Pulling me into this was dumb, Ed. Let me guess, here... You told her in a way designed to make her not believe you, right? Your old 'I just drive the bus' routine?"
I pretended irritation and mumbled, "Um, well... I just sort of mentioned it, is all."
"Uh, huh... Marsha, did he ever come right out and say he was a pilot?"
"No, Susan," said Marsha with a quick, hard look at me, "He actually didn't."
Linda gave her a 'just between us girls' look. "He pulls this crap on every good-looking woman he meets. They wind up thinking they've slept with James Bond's American cousin or something. It keeps them from trying to call him at work, I guess, and if he doesn't call them, they think he's off saving the world. Just between you and me, Marsha..." Linda looked hard at me and said, "I don't approve of men being devious to get a date."
"I see," said Marsha, her narrowed gaze bouncing from Linda to me. She picked up her purse and said, "I have to go, now, everybody. Nice meeting you."
I began to protest, of course. She waved me off as she picked up her purse and camera.
"It's getting late. Thanks for the coffee, and thank you for clearing something up for me, Susan." Her steps were quick and angry as she headed for the doors.
While she was still within earshot, I said, "Well, thanks a helluvva lot, Susan! I'll make damned sure to find a way to return the favor sometime!"
Marsha didn't look back at my outburst.
Linda sipped her coffee and gazed steadily after her until she was out of sight, then turned to me. Her demeanor had changed between one glance and the next.
"Explain that encounter, please," she said.
I told her what I knew about Marsha and described our battle in the hallway. I concluded with an opinion that we probably hadn't seen the last of Marsha.
"She figured out that we'd be here or at Landstuhl, Linda, and she doesn't give up easily."
"Well, now that she thinks you're just a horny pilot," said Linda, "She'll probably go back to watching for someone else she can fish for a story."
"Maybe. Maybe not. She didn't buy it from me, and now you're with me. Assume she develops some doubts. How do you want to handle it if she pops up again?"
"If she pops up again, she's smart enough to be useful. We'll put her to work. She'll sign a Secrecy Act and we'll tell her what we want the press to know as we go along."
Linda then informed me that the gunshot victim was still barely alive, that she'd made arrangements at Landstuhl for us, and that we'd be leaving early in the morning. As we rose to leave the mess hall, I motioned to the guards to saddle up and come along.
On the way back, I noticed the tiniest bit of movement of the ladies' washroom door and whispered to Linda that it might be a fine idea if she could suddenly need to use that particular bathroom at that very moment. She excused herself and went in.
We waited for her. A few minutes later she emerged with Marsha. For the benefit of our guards, she told me that she'd run into Marsha in the washroom and that there was someone she wanted Marsha to meet back in the ward.
Marsha was a little embarrassed, but otherwise looked determined. The guards stopped at the guardpost in the end of the hall of Ward Twelve. Inside Linda's room, Marsha was told that she would be staying in Linda's room for safekeeping and that if she tried to leave she would be quietly jailed until someone happened to remember she was there. Linda then took Marsha's purse and camera and locked both in a suitcase, then left to make a call.
Marsha sat on the bed looking at me as if I'd betrayed her. I walked over to sit beside her on the bed. She scooted farther away, looking anywhere but at me.
"I tried to make you go away until I realized that you wouldn't, " I said, "And then I tried letting her tell you I was just a horny pilot, but that didn't work, either. Don't blame this on me."
"You don't give a damn about me, so why are you telling me this?"
"Not true. If I didn't give a damn, I wouldn't be saying anything to you. Marsha, you got yourself into this. Now you're part of things."
"Is she going to have me put in jail?"
"She certainly has the power to do so." Marsha didn't say anything. I reached for her hand. "I'm really sorry, Marsha. I really didn't want this to happen to you."
"I was just doing my job." She was trembling and looked ready to cry.
"So was I, when I told you to leave me alone. So were the guards, misguided as they were in my humble opinion. We were all just doing our jobs. Now, so is she."
After a moment, Marsha looked up and said in a small voice, "I don't want to go to jail. I haven't done anything. I don't know anything. She doesn't have to put me in jail."
There was nothing I could say. While I agreed with her, it truly was up to Linda to decide. I sat with her until Linda came back to the room. She handed Marsha a towel and a little bag of hospital-issue toiletries, then told me to get some sleep and took my arm to lead me firmly to the doorway. I tapped Linda's arm in our 'play along with me ' signal.
I said, "She really doesn't know anything. She just got a hint something was happening here."
Marsha looked up hopefully.
"Tell me in the morning," said Linda, "I'll decide what to do with her before we leave."
I left after those words. The pressure was on for Marsha's cooperation. She had only to become the impromptu voice of our operation to avoid difficulties. There would be no reason and no point in misleading her about anything our offices wanted made public, but we would want various of the news items to be released according to our own timetables to counter possible propagandizing by the Easties.
I was for bringing Marsha aboard. The Commies had shot a man who had only wanted to live in the West. He was clean, with no police record or other legal difficulties that we could discover. He had only wanted out badly enough to try to escape, and I thought that might make a good first article if Marsha signed on with us.
I don't know what was said between Linda and Marsha, but in the morning the Judge Advocate General's office provided Security Act forms and Marsha signed them. Linda told us in a quick meeting that Marsha was now our official voice in this matter and that she, Linda, would be the only one other than John to authorize any information releases. John called to welcome her aboard and caution Marsha, then asked to speak to me.
"Trust you to come up with a date on short notice," he said, "How are things going?"
He didn't mean for me to report on known details. He wanted my opinions. I told him that I thought Linda was a good command choice. He laughed.
"Is she listening, Ed? Just nod your head if you can't talk freely." He thought that was hilarious, of course. I had to admit it was fairly original, anyway.
"Glad you approve," said John.
"Yeah, well, she's got the brains and legs for this job, John. She told me what you said about me being a sucker for tall women, by the way. I thought that was classified information."
"Ha. Nope. I was planning on adding it to your file, Ed. Big letters on the cover."
"Great. I'll finally have some kind of reputation around the office. Anything else?"
He had me put Linda on and they talked a bit and hung up, then Linda had us board the chopper for the short flight to Landstuhl. Six seats faced each other and shared a starboard-side window, a seat which Marsha claimed for herself.
Linda's briefcase dropped into the seat next to mine and she sat in the seat just beyond it. I looked over at her, but she was busily rooting through the briefcase.
"Here's an update," she said. "The gunshot victim is still with us as of eight o'clock this morning, so there's still a possibility that this will wind down and become old news in a week or two. Ed's the only one of us who doesn't work in a cover job provided by the company, so we're using him as bait. We'll return Ed to his job and apartment at Landstuhl and see if anyone contacts him about the matter. The rest of us will be in base housing until the situation changes enough to return to business as usual or until we have to make a decision to the contrary."
Marsha raised a hand as if she were in a classroom. "What does 'a decision to the contrary' mean, exactly?"
Linda said rather curtly, "It means that if the man dies and we can't go back to what we were doing, you don't need to know what we will be doing after that. You'll be debriefed, cautioned, and either reassigned or dismissed."
"Nobody said anything about reassignments! This was supposed to be all there was!"
Linda looked at her steadily and asked, "If this situation changes because what is now just an escape from the East becomes a murder case, aren't you going to want to cover it? You have a degree in journalism, but you're selling encyclopedias in the PX and only stringing for a Stateside newspaper. You don't speak German and you only have a tourist stamp in your passport, so you can't get an off-base job without a work permit and those are too much of a hassle to go through for an inexperienced beginner. If you aren't still too upset at being shanghaied, think about turning the work you do for us into a real job somewhere. If you do well, half a dozen English-speaking papers might want to talk to you. Armed Forces Radio and Television might be able to use you, too."
Linda grinned at Marsha and continued, "I can almost guarantee it if your work is good."
"I'll bet you can," said Marsha. "What is this, another carrot-or-stick choice?"
Linda's demeanor seemed to ice over. She said, "I don't ever want to hear something like that from you again, Marsha. That offer was real and the best I can manage. You know enough about what we've been doing and why we have a problem at the moment to know that we aren't monsters and that you aren't absolutely essential, so don't become in the least way inconvenient. This is your only warning. You're in or you're out. If you're out, say so and you can sit in jail until this is over and they ship you Stateside. If you're in, I suggest that you try to make the most of the opportunities we can offer you during and after this incident."
Marsha sat staring at her for a moment, then said, "Sorry. I know you aren't monsters and I know you don't really need me. I just feel as if I've been drafted or something."
"That's because you have been drafted. It's my only other option and Ed believes in you."
Marsha glanced at me in surprise.
Linda said, "That's right. He stood up for you. It would have been convenient to hand you off to holding facility, but Ed argued that you might be useful, so you must have impressed him a damn sight more than you've impressed me so far, lady. If he's wrong about you, I'll be wrong, too, because I listened to him. I don't like being wrong and I guarantee you'll like it even less, so if you have any doubts about being here, bail out now."
Linda paused a moment for effect and added, "Let me make the decision a little bit easier for you. It isn't really a jail, just a country house where people are held temporarily during times like these. You'd have a room to yourself and limited run of the place, but you wouldn't be able to leave or contact anyone until all of this is resolved. I don't know if they'd actually bother themselves with shipping you back to the States when this is over."
Marsha looked at me, then at Linda. "Thank you. You didn't have to tell me that and I know it. I'll stay here if it's still all right with you."
Linda smiled said, "This was never really all right with me, but I listen to my people."
She then stood up and went to the front of the aircraft to talk with the pilot.
Marsha watched her go, then looked at Will and Connie.
They returned her gaze impassively until Connie said, "You already know that we pull people out of East-Block countries. You can identify us. As far as I'm concerned, you know too damned much already. I don't happen to think we need a publicist and I don't like having one."
Will said nothing, his gaze unfaltering. Connie added ominously, "Just don't fuck up, lady," then she looked at me. "She better be more than a sex toy, Ed."
"Ease up," I said, "If we couldn't use her, John and Linda wouldn't have allowed her along."
Marsha flared at Connie's closing remark. "You think I'm just his toy, do you?"
I touched her arm and said, "Don't. Connie could trash you before you were out of your seat, but Will would get you first. Don't even think of getting physical over words and opinions or you'll be in a hospital instead of a cozy farmhouse during your isolation."
Connie said, "I don't care if you become his toy or he becomes yours. That isn't important. I just don't want to find out later that your face and legs screwed up his common sense and maybe wind up in an Eastie prison or cemetery because of you."
Will hadn't said so much as "Good morning" to Marsha until then. He leaned across to get eye-to-eye with her up close and said his first words to her.
"Like she said, but one more thing. If something you say or do harms anyone on our teams in any way, you'd best be already dead when we find you."
He then sat back in his seat, still glaring ominously. Marsha looked at me when I didn't say something like 'Ease up ' to Will as I had to Connie.
I shrugged. "He's right," I said, "Someone would come for you and you should know that while you can still bail out."
Marsha stared at me, then at them. She said nothing for a moment, then, sounding uncertain, "You don't scare me. You can't go around killing people."
Will said nothing. Connie was usually the somber one of the pair. Now she actually laughed aloud. "Oh, Auntie Em! Lions and tigers and bears!"
She then leaned forward as Will had done and said, "Grow up or get your ass out of here, little girl. You're the only innocent on this bird."
"I don't believe it," said Marsha, "You rescue people, you don't kill them."
Will said, "Let's suppose that one of our people was caught trying to help someone escape to the West. What would be done to them in an effort to find out, as you journalists say, the 'who, what, when, where, why, and how' of things? Easties don't ask questions politely, sweetie. You can think Gestapo, here. Prison, torture, drugs, and propaganda mileage. Let's say it happens because you didn't take things seriously enough and let something slip out. We don't forgive and we don't forget. Someone will be coming for you."
I was surprised. I hadn't heard that many words at one time from Will in the two years since I'd met him. Even Connie looked startled by what was something of an outburst of conversation from him. We were all staring at him, albeit for different reasons.
Marsha simply seemed shocked by the revelation that we weren't merely nice people doing good works in the world. She rather quietly and acidly said, "I see," and said nothing else during the remainder of the flight to Landstuhl.
When Linda returned to strap in for our landing, she noticed the silence reigning over our little group and likewise said nothing. We landed at the helipad at the hangar complex a quarter-mile from the hospital instead of the medevac pad near the entrance. Linda commandeered an office for a quick briefing.
"Will and Connie, you'll be checking in at the BOQ using your third-string ID's. You're married and Will is here for testing and diagnosis. Work it out yourselves according to these general notes. I'm also in the BOQ as a Navy Lieutenant here for treatment."
She gave us a four-digit autovon phone number, 7217, and her room number, then continued, "Ed, you'll go home and back to work on Monday. Marsha needs a shepherd, so you found her while you were touring Frankfurt. She goes home with you as a new girlfriend who is looking for a civilian job here in order to be near you. We'll appear to meet for the first time at the commissary around one this afternoon and talk as we shop, then you'll invite me to join you for dinner at the officer's club tonight. We're still in covers due to the incident and we'll play the game that way while we're here. That's all for now. Call for taxis."
When it crossed my mind that the arrangement would put a crimp in finding a way to spend some time with Linda, the thought must have shown on my face a bit. Linda gave me our 'later ' signal, which didn't go unnoticed by Will and Connie, but they probably assumed there was something Marsha wasn't supposed to hear.
End of meeting. Will and Connie left the airstrip first. Marsha and I would take the next taxi out and Linda would wait a while before leaving. Linda stopped me as I was about to make the call and asked Marsha to wait outside for me. I was expecting final instructions concerning Marsha, and after a fashion, that's what I received. Linda leaned on the desk and waited until Marsha had closed the door behind her before speaking.
"I'm your boss until this is over, and according to John, it looks as if I'm going to be your boss on some of your future assignments," she said, "That changes things for us."
I looked directly at her. "I don't have a problem with it. I told you that before, Linda."
"But I have a problem with it, Ed. Before John told me I'd be doing this job from now on, I had tentatively cast myself in the role of your new girlfriend. That idea just won't fly now that you'll be working for me."
I absorbed her revelation and realized a sudden sense of loss as we faced each other. After a moment, I asked her, "Why not, Linda? What can I say that will change your mind?"
"Nothing. I won't have an affair with a man under my command, Ed."
"That sounds like a line from the Bluejacket's Manual, Linda. You're not in the Navy anymore and I've had women as bosses before. No problem."
I tried to take her hand, but she moved away. "I think I need more of a reason than that, Linda. I wasn't kidding in the least about my interest in you."
"That's just it, Ed. I know you weren't kidding. When you said you wanted to know me better, I could tell you weren't just looking to get laid. You want more than that from me, but I can't give you what you want and expect to remain objective. That's my reason."
I didn't want to hear what she was saying. "You can't remain objective? I don't believe that for a minute, Linda. Not for a minute. You're tougher and smarter than that."
Linda sat down behind the desk. A few pensive moments later she said, "No. I won't let a man in my bed unless I care about him, and I was ready to find out if I could care that much about you. That means I was already halfway there. It's very hard to send someone you care about into potentially nasty situations, Ed. I know because I've had to do it before. At first you just sit and worry yourself sick, but later you tend to look for reasons to send others out, instead, and find ways to justify those decisions."
"So you want to stop us before we've even started. Is that part of why you didn't argue about Marsha coming with us? You maybe thought she might want to take a shot at filling the role you wouldn't and sidetrack me away from you? If so, you've lost your own argument. I'd consider that a very real breach of security based on a personal issue."
Linda was angry as she opened her purse and pulled out a few folded sheets of paper. "Read these," she ordered me, tossing them at my chest.
I scanned the pages. They were copies of college transcripts that had been copied a number of times between offices, which only made them harder to read. Marsha had been an 'A' student. The last page was a page of assembled clippings, each with her byline or sharing it.
"Your instincts were right on the money, Ed. She's good," said Linda. "Very good. Good enough that John and I are wondering why the hell she's hustling encyclopedias when she could be opening a real career in journalism somewhere. Those clippings are from several newspapers, but they all have one thing in common. Marsha's polishing touch."
She paused, then said softly, bitterly, "No , Ed. I didn't bring her aboard as a goddamned replacement for your affections. You'll have to find your own playmates."
I looked at Linda as I folded the papers and handed them back to her.
"Okay. I see what you mean about her work. Be sure to show these to Will and Connie. They seem to think she's some kind of a decorative pet. I was hoping we could find something together, Linda, and I disagree with your assessment of our personal situation, but I guess I'll survive. Please take my recent display of selfish disappointment as a compliment, ma'am."
"I will," she said, "And I'll treasure it, too, whether you believe that or not. I brought those clippings for just this moment, Ed. I knew you'd need some kind of proof as to why I'm doing this. It isn't you. It's me. My job."
I didn't want to talk anymore. I just nodded slightly, turned, and walked to the door after I'd called for a taxi. The bright sunshine that greeted me irrationally irritated me. I guess I just didn't feel very bright and sunny at that moment and it must have showed. Marsha almost spoke, then canceled the act before saying anything. She was trying not to stare at me and not really succeeding very well.
"Well," I snapped, "What's on your mind?"
"Sorry. Never mind. It isn't important. Later. You look upset right now."
"That's because I am upset right now. Thanks for not asking why."
After a moment, Marsha said, "Please don't be angry, but I don't have to ask why, Ed. I saw how you looked at her. I hope I'm not the reason you had a fight with her."
"It wasn't a fight and don't worry, Marsha. You're still on board. No jail."
Marsha's eyes narrowed slightly at that, but she didn't snap at me.
"That isn't what I meant, Ed. Remember when I asked if she was your girlfriend?"
"Oh. Yeah. Well, that suddenly doesn't seem likely to happen."
"But you wanted it to happen and so did Linda, I think. I saw that much. I just don't want to be the reason for another set of problems, particularly those kinds of problems."
"You aren't. We managed those all on our own, Marsha. She won't play where she works, that's all. Doesn't want to get too attached, don't you know. Let's drop it, okay?"
"And don't apologize. You had nothing to do with it and an apology wouldn't fix a damned thing if you had been at fault. Useless apologies irritate me when I'm not upset."
"Right. Okay. Sor.. . " She caught herself, her hand to her mouth, her eyes big.
I gave her a glare, then heard my own words and backed down. "No, I'm sorry. Like I said, it's personal and it isn't your fault. Let's just go home, Marsha."
She nodded and began paying attention to the scenery instead of me.
I had the taxi wait fifteen minutes or so outside building 3774 while I dashed into the PX for some household essentials, then we proceeded to my apartment. Marsha hadn't been outside Frankfurt and Wiesbaden much and seemed to be expecting to see thatched huts and happy peasants or something along those lines, so the fairly modern buildings and streets of Stadt Landstuhl had her staring out the windows during our short trip.
My building had a mural on the side of it, a common practice in much of Europe. It was a condensed panorama of seashore-to-mountain sceneries that somehow managed to blend almost believably. Marsha ooh'ed and ahh'ed now and then as we rolled over the cobbles.
Her jaw really dropped when she saw my apartment and furnishings. I told her how a divorced Colonel from the dentistry wards had to return to the States quickly and permanently due to a family crisis two years before.
His landlady had called me due to his recommendation of me as a prospective new tenant. The Colonel had left a number of things behind when he'd moved and in a letter addressed to me and the landlady he decreed that I owned them for having helped him retrieve his runaway thirteen-year-old daughter. He staved off any protests on my part by telling me it would cost a bundle to ship them to the States. I bought his car, too, a five-year-old Mercedes sedan.
Marsha was investigating one of the antique wooden closets in the bedroom with great interest, so I told her to use it while she was with me. As we were taking my stuff out and putting hers in, she asked if I was sure.
"I have two suits, a tux, and miscellaneous shirts and pants," I said, "We'll leave the tux and suits and put the rest in the other one. No sweat. There's another schrank in the basement if we need it, but I don't keep enough clothes to bother hauling it upstairs for my use alone. Save me a drawer here for socks and undies, okay?"
"Okay," she said, "I'm not trying to hint that I want this drawer, too, but isn't that schrank a match to this one? Doesn't it have drawers, too?"
"It does and they're in use," I said. "The steel liner-boxes in them could survive a fire and contain things worth locking away for either security or safety reasons."
"A well-delivered explanation," Marsha said. "Terse and precise without telling me much of anything. The kind of explanation someone still not in the best of moods would use. Tell me, Ed, would you really rather that I just shut up and leave you alone?"
I looked at her a moment before replying, "No, not really. I'll try to lighten up some for you. Brooding won't help and I have things to do before we meet Linda."
"Like what? Maybe I can help." She paused, then, "Actually, there is something to talk about. The others don't even know me, but they hate me. What can I do about that?"
"It isn't hate. They don't trust you because you aren't one of us. You don't do what we do or go where we go, so you're not at risk like us. Loose lips sink ships, and all that."
"But you don't feel that way about me, do you?"
"Of course I do. Can't help it, I'm one of them. But I can think around it, Marsha. If John and Linda couldn't see your presence as potentially useful, you'd be at the farm."
"Well, they made me think they hate me on the helicopter. You heard them."
"I heard them," I said, "Will offered you a piece of the risk and you accepted it by staying. You now know that what can happen to them can happen to you, and that will help them find ways to accept your involvement. Maybe it would help to know that they gave John, Linda, and a number of others we have to work with who never see the field essentially the same speech."
Marsha handed me some of my things while she moved clothing around in the schrank.
I continued, "Ranks and pay grades of office brass don't automatically guarantee common sense, and field personnel in the dangerous jobs know it all too well. What does guarantee the parity is a sharing of risk. We can accept a certain reasonable amount of risk and chance during a run, but if an office type were to risk or waste one of us in some half-assed scheme, that office type will become an enduring example to the others very quickly. You won't find this in the official manual, but you might ask someone about one GS-14 who wasn't with us very long in 1972. He screwed up big-time."
Marsha turned to look at me. "Okay. I'm asking. What happened to him?"
"He told a politician friend from his home state where to be and when so the guy could be on hand with a photographer when a team came back from a run. Their plan was to give the voters back home the idea that the politician had something to do with rescuing that family and others from the Commies. Hungry politicians leak like babies. Word got out, the mission was exposed, one of our people was killed and the other had to run for it without the family. The family was arrested and we haven't been able to locate any of them since. We noticed the politician in the area at the time and looked a little closer at the overall situation."
Marsha remembered it. "Did that happen in March? All anybody heard about it was some bragging rhetoric from the East about an escape attempt being smashed."
"You got it. The politician was out there faking a tour of military posts in the region. Vehicle signouts and other docs provided us with a trail that led straight from the Bonn embassy to our planned exit point, so we questioned that politician rather extensively in private. He coughed up the name of his contact in our offices fairly quickly and our leaker was immediately and very visibly transferred to a thoroughly nothing job in Bremerhaven to get him away from us. About two weeks later he wrote a note of apology detailing the whole incident and the people involved before he shot himself in his car in a restaurant parking lot one night."
"I remember that!" exclaimed Marsha, "Something wasn't right about something at the scene...! One of the cops wanted to know why something had happened!"
"Actually, he wanted to know how something didn't happen. The driver's window was up and intact and clean, but the bullet was found imbedded in the wall next to the car. They decided that one of the cops was afraid to admit having tampered with evidence by rolling up the window. They never did figure out why anyone would feel the need to do that, but they settled for that explanation and closed the case. They didn't find the note in the car."
"Why not? And should I suppose that you know why the window was up?"
"The note is in a file in case we have a use for it later. The window was a signal to others in similar positions in the intelligence community. Nobody in our offices and several other offices we have to work with at times had any doubts about what had really happened."
"My God... And the politician? What happened to him?"
"Nothing as drastic. He returned to the States in a hurry to duck the publicity and he resigned immediately at the request of some people who visited him at home in the middle of the night. He was told that the note would be discovered instantly in a plausible manner in his ex-contact's office if he ever again ran for any political office or was appointed to one anywhere."
Marsha asked, "How do I know you aren't just telling me all this to scare me?"
"That's something that you'll just have to decide for yourself somewhere along the line. I suggest that you play it safe and assume the story is true while you're deciding."
"Without proof, I guess I'll just have to take your word for it, won't I?" she grinned at me.
I grinned back at her as I named the politician and his state. Marsha's face changed to one of incredulousness as she remembered the man's abrupt, very poorly explained retirement from politics a week after the Bremerhaven suicide. "Oh, my God..." she said again.
I left her to consider things and finished transferring stuff out of the closet. There was a thump on the terrace. I went to open the door for Bear, my landlady's huge black cat.
"How you doin', Bear?" I asked as he paraded into the apartment. He paused for a greeting-rub and then made a beeline to the closet to investigate the new person in his world and all the new stuff she'd brought with her. Marsha was amazed at the size of him.
"Bear, huh? Named after his father or his mother? He must weigh twenty pounds!"
"No idea. My landlady's family owns a trout farm. When she brought him home from a visit he was already this size."
I went to the kitchen and opened the treats box. Bear heard the familiar noise, but he stayed where he was, soaking up Marsha's attention. I set a few treats in his dish and went to sit next to them on the bed.
"Well," I said, "I guess you can stay. Bear seems to like you."
Marsha laughed and sat down next to me with Bear on her lap. He folded himself to generally fit her lap and seemed perfectly satisfied to be there.
"He certainly knows a sucker when he sees one, doesn't he? I just realized that I haven't touched a cat since I've been in Europe," said Marsha, "I wonder why?"
"Time and circumstance. You probably didn't know where to look for a cat in downtown Frankfurt. When you get back, you can stop in at the BMW dealership on Marktstrasse. Mags keeps several around. She says they're good for the customers."
Marsha giggled. "You're right. I never would have thought of looking in a car lot. How is it you know she has cats? Is she an old girlfriend or something?"
"Or something covers it well enough. Mags looks great, but she's almost twice my age and she didn't always sell cars. Right after they started building the wall in Berlin, she and some other student friends began finding ways to sneak people out. A few years later they were caught and jailed. They escaped, taking the contents of the safe from the prison office with them. There wasn't much money in it, but there were documents that she thought would be worth a few bucks to the West, and she was right. She bartered them for escape assistance and a fair-sized pile of money and started a business here."
"So how did you meet her and find out about all that?"
"Her daughter Giselle invited me out to a disco one night and we dated for a while in 1971. Our outfit checks out the people in our lives and they already knew Mags."
"She invited you out? You didn't do the inviting?"
"Don't look so surprised. This is Europe, not Indiana. Women aren't so timid here."
Marsha glanced sharply at me, interrupting her attentions to Bear. He protested. "Timid? " She asked, "You think American women are timid ?"
"I've been invited out by a couple of dozen Euro women. Not once did that happen back in the States or here with American women. American girls drop hints and wait for the man to get the idea they're interested. They're devious about snagging a guy. Euro ladies will simply ask if I want to go to someone's party or a show or whatever. I haven't dated an American girl for over two years, Marsha. There's too much guesswork involved. I prefer forthright women who say what they want, whether it's just friendly male company at a movie or dinner or a wild weekend somewhere along the Weinstrasse in a tourist hotel."
Marsha sat there staring at me, automatically petting Bear. "I see," she said.
"Don't get all fuzzed up, Marsha. I was just telling you how I see things."
"And you said you see American women as being timid creatures. I'm an American woman. Did I seem timid to you in the hospital hallway?"
"Not a valid comparison. You were pissed off at me, not interested in me. When's the last time you saw a guy who interested you and asked him out? Or tackled a potential date?"
"I've never had to. They always asked me out."
"Uh, huh. And how many times did you have to do or say something to spur the guy into asking? Or did they just dash right up to you and introduce themselves?"
She smiled. "Yes, I'll have you know a few have done just that. But I see what you mean, too. Usually even the interested ones wait for a sign of some sort."
"I used to wait for a glance or a word. Now I just talk with a woman long enough to see if I'm really interested in her. If so, I ask if she'd like to spend some time together."
"And if she says no?"
"Then I'm crushed and heartbroken, of course. So I try another one."
Marsha hesitated slightly, but noticeably. "I guess Linda must have been more important to you than some of the others. I couldn't help overhearing some of it."
"Don't worry, Marsha. I'm not going to bite your head off over that. Linda thinks that she shouldn't date the guys who work for her. I didn't like her decision on the matter."
"She's right, Ed."
"Maybe. I think we could probably handle it, but she seemed pretty set against it."
"She's right, Ed," repeated Marsha. "Everybody always thinks they can handle it, but office relationships nearly always end in disaster."
"Are you some kind of authority on the issue?"
"You could say that. I'm just a stringer because of an office relationship that went sour. After I called it off, he kept trying to get back together for a while, but when it didn't happen, he said he couldn't see me and not want me, so he fired me. When I tried to find another job, I couldn't even get interviews. I don't know what he said about me, but everybody knows everybody else in that business, so I'm not working for a paper."
"Want us to look into it for you? See what's been said, at least? Maybe fix it?"
Marsha laughed. "Not if he's going to be another suicide."
I laughed with her. "No, not that. Just give some thought to where you might want to work when this is over. We may be able to help you get back into things."
Marsha looked closely at my face. "Your people can do stuff like that, can't they?"
"We can push a bit. Give us some good work during this situation. Having someone of sufficient clout talk with your old boss later could clear the air quickly enough."
"I can't believe this is happening. I thought I wouldn't be working for a newspaper again until I got back to the States. But what are you going to do about Linda, Ed? Try to find a way to get her to change her mind?"
"No. I think you're both right about office romances, but I didn't want to admit it to myself because I wanted her. She caught it in time. It won't come between us at work."
"You're sure you can do that?"
"I can do that."
Marsha finished unpacking and looking around while I made sure my car would start. It hadn't been run during my three-week absence, so I took the easy route with it, putting a couple of spoonfuls of lighter fluid in the carb bowl before cranking it. It fired up and ran sputteringly until the gas flow filled the bowl properly, then smoothed out.
I let it run while I checked the tires, then turned it off and went back into the apartment at about noon to tell Marsha to get ready to go. As I turned the corner from the hall to the bedroom, I almost ran into Marsha. She was down to bra and panties and was standing in profile with a dress up to her chin in front of the closet-door mirror. Her face turned to mine in startlement, then settled into a 'well?' questioning expression.
"Whups!" I said, "Sorry," as I backed out of the room.
A few minutes later I heard Marsha say, "Okay, you can come in now."
I opened the door to see her still in her bra and panties, holding up a different dress. She spoke without turning her head.
"What do you think of this one for a trip to the commissary?" she asked.
"Uh, fine, I guess. I thought you might actually be wearing one of them by now."
"I haven't decided which one," she said, hanging the dress on the door.
I let my eyes travel over her from head to toe and back. Firm, slightly rounded thighs and full calves. Trim belly and solid arms. Creamy skin. Her eyes met mine at the end of that journey.
"Is this assertive enough for you?" she asked. I nodded. She held up two dresses. "Good. Which one of these do you think looks best?"
I chose the sundress, then watched her stretch and shimmy as she slipped it on from above and adjusted it.
"Button me?" she asked.
I moved to do so. Fresh perfume, not too much, not too little. Her natural scent still carried through as I examined her shoulders and back at close range. Fine, smooth skin. I ran my hands over her shoulders and down her arms before I said, "You're buttoned, MiLady."
She turned to face me.
"I gave it some thought," she said, adjusting the dress, then she continued somewhat nervously, "While we were having coffee at the hospital. I was hoping you'd ask me out then, but Linda showed up. Then all the other stuff happened. Now I'm picking it up again. Are you still hung up on Linda? If I'm out of line I'll cool it. If.... Damn, now I know why guys are so afraid of rejection. So what do you think, Ed?"
I stepped around her and pulled her to me. "Linda's made herself unavailable. You've got a lot of nerve, Marsha, and I like it. Would you rather not meet Linda for dinner tonight?"
Marsha squeezed me slightly in her embrace and said, "No. Not if we don't have to."
"Then we'll try to get out of it gracefully," I said, "It's time to go meet her. After we go through the motions with her we can come back here and put the groceries away."
She blinked at me. "Huh? Was that some kind of really vague sexual innuendo?"
I laughed. "Nope. The commissary is a grocery store for military personnel. Check the cabinets right quick and see what we need, because I don't buy anything but cat food, beer, canned soups, coffee, and junk food. If you're going to want real meals here, you'll have to make them. I usually feed at the mess hall in 2nd General before and after work."
Marsha went through the kitchen taking notes, then made a few more notes once we were underway in the Mercedes. To save time, I didn't return to Landstuhl base by the same route the taxi used. Marsha acted like a tourist, pointing out each and every little thing that caught her attention. I used the entrance near the blood bank and the road behind the motor pool as a shortcut to the commissary.
Marsha put on her sunglasses and sat on the back of the seat to poke her head and shoulders up through the sunroof, laughing and waving at a couple of guys working on someone's personal car, a Dodge Charger. They laughed and waved back to her as we passed.
A friend of mine named Sondra was walking near the base theater. She stopped completely and watched us go by. Sondra was the NCOIC at the WAC billets, so I knew that news of my new blonde ladyfriend would be common knowledge around the hospital by nightfall. A medical community is worse than a small town about gossip.
As we neared the commissary, I tugged on Marsha's skirt to get her attention. She slithered back down to the seat with a glorious display of legs and asked where we were.
"Well, that's building 3701," I said, pointing. "The Class Six store. Coffee, tea, cigarettes, booze, and anything else that requires a ration card. We'll get you into some part-time job somewhere around here so you'll have access to the base without me. You'll have to be able to come and go as needed. As a base employee you'll have a DAC ID card, be able to register a car with green tags, get PX gas coupons, and use most of the facilities."
Marsha nodded. As we walked through the parking lot, she saw women with children and shopping carts and said, "I thought it would be different somehow, but it isn't. It's pretty much like any grocery store back home, isn't it?"
"Yup. Pretty much. You can even use manufacturer coupons. All the usual brands."
We found Linda stalling around by the bulletin board, maybe even reading some of the ads that offered cars and furniture for sale by people rotating back to the States. She turned as we approached and bumped into me, then apologized profusely.
"No problem," I said, "See anything you can't live without up there?"
"Actually, I did," she said, "I'm new here, so I need just about everything."
I gallantly offered to answer any questions she might have while we shopped. She accepted the offer and we pushed a shopping cart through the main entrance. It didn't take long for Linda to notice Marsha's behavior.
"She's really shopping, isn't she, Ed?"
"Our understanding includes her cooking if she doesn't want to live on canned soup like me. Apparently she doesn't."
Our shopping basket was filling quickly as Marsha checked items off her list.
"An understanding?" said Linda. " Do tell. Should I feel discarded? Cast aside? Forgotten?"
"Yeah, I guess so. Sorry, but Marsha let me know in no uncertain terms this morning that she doesn't intend to fake being a girlfriend."
Linda gave me a small smile. "Wouldn't that necessarily require your cooperation?"
"She made a very convincing argument, Linda."
I gave Linda a quick briefing on the events of the morning and finished with, "Shepherding Marsha could turn out to be an enjoyable assignment after all."
Linda wondered aloud if maybe I wasn't promising too much concerning helping her back into her old job later. I told her that I didn't think it too much to ask that someone talk to the guy if Marsha came through for us as required. Linda told me to get the names of those involved for later, so I knew she'd look into things. She never collected useless info.
When Marsha declared our shopping mission complete, we went through the motions of exchanging names and contact information. After loading our stuff into our cars, I asked Linda if the dinner date was really necessary. She said we'd be 'meeting' Will and Connie the same way we'd met her, so the dinner had to happen. I looked at Marsha and shrugged. She made a wry face and shrugged back at me.
Linda laughed softly. "You two look so disappointed! I had no idea you'd take your cover roles so seriously. Tell you what... we'll try to make it a short encounter. How's that?"
"If that's the best we can do, we'll take it. I really don't want to be out late tonight. My new girlfriend has a real mean streak." Marsha turned slightly red, but smiled.
"Poor Ed," Linda said to Marsha, "Women are running his life at home and at work. See you both at seven at the O-club." With that, she got in her car and drove away.
Marsha was quiet as we got into the Mercedes, but as I headed us over to the Class Six store for coffee, she said, "It's only about two. We have five hours before dinner."
"That's just about time enough for what I've got in mind for you," I said.
Marsha glanced sharply at me, but she was grinning.
"Oh, really? And just what do you have in mind for me?"
"Anything you'll allow. Should I tell you some of my ideas on the way?"
"That might be a good idea, stranger. I'll let you know what I think of them."
"Good. I'd hate to put my tongue anywhere you didn't approve first."
Marsha blushed again, but she gamely came back with, "There's only one place I wouldn't want to be tasted."
"There's only one place I wouldn't want to taste you, so that works out just fine."
"I hope we're thinking of the same place," she said as I started to get out of the car, "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't waste any time in there."
"Come in with me, then. You can pick out your favorite booze."
Marsha got out of the car and joined me for the walk up the steps.
"You're going to be a lot of fun, Ed. I just know it already."
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