Friday, December 5, 2008
Hell is knowing what you’re missing. Gunnery Sergeant (Ret.) Champ Mayer had heard that from a chaplain somewhere, and he figured the padre was onto something. The constable loitering at the Cloverleaf Motel’s registration desk, for example, was missing plenty about the naked guy on the floor. Soon Mayer would clue him in and make his life hell in the process.
Right now, though, Mayer was concentrating on the naked guy himself—kid, really, nineteen if he was that.
Pinching the kid’s nose shut and pinning his tongue roughly against the back of his front teeth, Mayer locked lips with him for the eighth time. A gale-force lungful of breath redolent of Jim Beam and Skoal rushed down the kid’s windpipe. Mayer rocked back on his heels and released the nose. He kept the tongue pinned, though. He hadn’t liked fishing it back from down the kid’s throat, and he didn’t want to do it again.
That one did it. With a hint of a shudder, the kid started breathing again. The breaths were shallow and the kid was still out like a boot after a twenty-mile night-hike, but he was breathing. Mayer released the tongue.
Now he looked up at the constable, who was intently studying the monitor for the lobby’s security camera. The video loop showed the kid striding up to the desk about forty minutes before, if the timer was right, with a bulging duffel bag in his left hand. In grainy black-and-white he set the bag down and with a looping, southpaw flourish signed a card the desk clerk pushed at him. Then he disappeared screen right and the loop started again. Mayer couldn’t have said why, exactly, but he could tell the kid on that tape was a soldier.
The constable finally felt Mayer’s gaze. Even in a faded checkerboard plaid flannel shirt and aging denim jeans and with every one of his fifty-two years showing in the salt-and-pepper stubble on his seamed face, Mayer came across as someone it would be imprudent to ignore. The constable turned his head and tried unsuccessfully to meet Mayer’s eyes.
“An ambulance is on the way.”
“Well that’s real good.” Mayer’s tone asked whether the constable was expecting a medal or something. “When it gets here they’re gonna want a name to plug into a computer for some medical history before they try anything too ambitious with this youngster. You got one for ’em?”
“No idea. Signed in as John Smith and paid cash. SOP at a flophouse like this. Whoever dosed him took his bag and everything else except his lighter. Even his cigarettes.”
Mayer glanced over at the young woman in shiny vinyl pants who was nervously smoking a few feet away. She washed her hands a lot, Mayer knew, but even so he could see a faint orange tinge on the tip of her left index finger. Nothing like that on the kid, and no tell-tale discoloration of his teeth.
“How do you know he had cigarettes?” “The lighter.”
The woman took three baby steps and crouched next to Mayer to whisper at him.
“This is great, what you’re doing, honey, but I’m on the clock.”
Mayer jovially smacked the damsel’s rump and grinned at her.
“The commodore and I have things to talk about darlin’, so why don’t you just go warm up the sheets?”
With only a pro forma pout at the swat—after all, the customer is always right, at least if he doesn’t go too far—she jumped to comply. She deftly caught a room key the clerk tossed to her. She and Mayer hadn’t gotten around to registering yet, but the clerk didn’t stand on formality with regulars.
“Do me a favor, constable,” Mayer said then. “Call the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and see if they’re missing a mid—’cause if they are, that’s where this kid oughta go.”
“It’s almost midnight. No one’s gonna answer the phone.” “There’s a midshipman on watch at every duty station twenty-four hours a day. They’ll answer the phone all right.”
“But there must be two-thousand kids at that place. You think they’re gonna know whether one of them missed bed-check?”
“There are more than four-thousand midshipmen in the brigade, divided into two regiments. Each regiment is divided into three battalions. Each battalion is divided into twenty companies. Each company has a company officer and two stripers in charge. And one of them for damn sure knows if he has a mid unaccounted for.”
“Why do you even think he’s from the Academy? Just because he has a crewcut?”
That did it. A Camp Lejeune beam lit Mayer’s eye. His left eyebrow twitched. When he spoke his words came in a deliberate, unhurried cadence and his voice was low, so that the constable unconsciously leaned forward as he strained to hear.
“Two reasons. First, this pillow shop is nineteen-point-four miles from the Academy, so it’s within the twenty-two mile radius where a plebe with town liberty can legally go—and why would anyone his age come to a pissant dump like Fritchieburg if he could get laid in Baltimore or Washington? And second, that shoulder-board of yours wouldn’t pass inspection at the Academy. You need one of these.”
He stopped talking long enough to dig his own lighter from his pocket. It was a brushed steel Zippo—the lighter that won World War II—embossed with a USMC globe-and-anchor seal. As he opened it and thumbed the friction wheel, a fragrant blue and orange flame popped up. The constable retreated, as if he thought Mayer were actually going to attack his epaulet with the lighter.
“Most midshipmen don’t smoke these days, but they almost all use lighters to burn the fuzz off their shoulder-boards and melt shoe paste when they polish their shoes.”
“Look, we got priorities. Fritchieburg is part of a county-wide metro squad. This probably isn’t the only kid got cold-cocked by a hooker in Anne Arundel County tonight.”
“Constable, do you know the most important thing that’s going to happen tomorrow?”
“Your day off, I hope.”
“The Army-Navy football game. Which will be attended by the Corps of Cadets from West Point and the Brigade of Midshipmen from Annapolis. And by the President of the United States. Who will start the game sitting on the Army side and at halftime cross the field and sit on the Navy side. All in front of something like eight-thousand cadets and midshipmen who’ve marched in without a security check. It’s a hundred to one that whoever slipped this kid a mickey walked out of here with a United States military identification card and a duffel bag holding a service dress blue uniform. Someone in service dress blues will fit right in at that game.”
Mayer paused. The deputy blinked and swallowed. When Mayer spoke again, his voice was very, very quiet.
“Now you be makin’ that call, son.”