I'd been sent on a mission. Apparently I was the only man for the job. The going was tough, but I made it through. The cab driver was from Senegal or Swaziland, or maybe from somewhere else entirely. Whatever, he had absolutely no idea where he was going in D.C. Eventually, he did find the place, the address of which was written on the slip of paper I'd given him, now clamped between his lips: a shop in the 'burbs called Sea Breeze Aquarium that specialized in tropical fish. I bought the ones the Navy captain, my current commanding officer, had ordered for his tank, and composed an elegant resignation in my head on the return trip to the Pentagon.
"Your fish, Captain," I said, holding up the plastic bag with Nemo and an identical twin swimming round in crazed circles.
"Ahh, you're back." Captain Chip Schaeffer lifted his head and pulled his nose out of a file. He got up from behind his desk like he was starving and I was a delivery guy from Pizza Hut, and raced over to take the little orange fish into custody. "Good man," he said, relieving me of the plastic water-filled bag. "I trust you got receipts for these, and the cab fares. You don't want to get the Government Accounting Office ticked off."
"Sir, I quit," I said eloquently.
He poured the live cartoon characters into the tank, where they immediately and wisely sought the darkest place they could find: beneath a sunken plastic sub being strangled by a giant plastic octopus. His back to me, Schaeffer said, "There you go, fellers, your new home. Your orders are in the folder on the table. You leave this afternoon."
Who? Me, or the fish? I wasn't sure. Maybe the octopus was going somewhere. The captain couldn't have been speaking to me, could he? I'd done nothing for months except polish the vinyl of my chair with my butt. In between errands, that is. I was fed up with my "recovery." In darker moments I wondered whether it was just Uncle Sam paying me back for all the waves I caused during the investigation into the death of General Abraham Scott, my last case. Maybe they were making sure I played nice and predictable by keeping me on the sidelines indefinitely.
Arlen Wayne, my ex-drinking partner, and Anna Masters, my current love interest and coinvestigator on the Scott case, both agreed that the relaxed pace of my new assignment was for my own good and there was nothing sinister about it. My country was just going easy on me. After all, they said, the Scott case had nearly killed me several times. And had indeed killed Anna, at least according to the newspapers. But, as usual, they'd gotten it wrong. Instead, Anna was in a coma. Once she'd pulled through, her recovery had been fast. Her age and fitness had had a lot to do with that, the doctors claimed, though she later said that it was because she wanted to have sex with me. I preferred her theory to the doctors'.
I, on the other hand, recovered slow. The bullet wounds and the broken ribs took their own sweet time to heal. I only started to get better once I began helping Anna through her recovery a couple of times a day. Within a couple of months, I was ready to reassume active duty of the more military kind.
That, as I said, was quite a few months ago. Major Anna Masters had long since returned to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. I'd moved, too, out of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and across the Potomac to a suite at the Pentagon. My orders said I'd been transferred to the DoD's investigation arm, into the exclusive ranks of those supersecret sleuths who handle the cases too sensitive for ordinary mortals. I had, apparently, made The Team. Months later, what these people did was still a secret, at least to me.
Captain Chip Schaeffer, my boss these days, was Navy and getting near retirement. When I first heard that my new immediate superior was a captin, I thought maybe I'd been demoted, a captain being inferior to a major—my rank. But, in fact, a Navy captain is equal to an Air Force colonel. Confusing, I know, but the military likes it that way. It keeps the real enemy—civilians—guessing. Rumor had it that Schaeffer headed up some extra-special investigation arm. The Team within The Team. But, from what I could see, his job entailed reading volumes of DoD documents and picking out procedural errors. He told me that I was his backup, only I had no idea what correct DoD procedure was and so had absolutely no idea what I was backing up. The captain understood this, which was why he never gave me anything to check.
All this was running through my head, so I asked for clarification. "Me, Captain? Am I going someplace?"
"You think I'm talking to the fish, Cooper? I'm old, but I ain't that old." He sprinkled food flakes into the tank.
"No, sir. I don't think you're old, sir. So what's it about?" I asked.
"First things first, Cooper. Your resignation is not accepted. As for what it's about, and I take it you mean the case, we don't know. That's why we're sending you. Basically, what we have is an American scientist eaten by a fish."
Yuck? The picture of a man being attacked by a giant clown fish flashed into my mind. I was also a little puzzled. It sounded like this scientist had met his death through misadventure, and accidents—ones befalling American scientists or otherwise—usually fell within the jurisdiction of local law-enforcement agencies.
I was about to ask why the DoD was involving itself when Schaeffer said, "The scientist works—or I should say, worked—for a company doing some research for us."
That explained it. Research funded by the Department of Defense was usually highly sensitive, on account of it mostly having something to do with killing people—in the defense of our nation, of course, so that made it OK. "What was he doing for us?" I asked.
"_Need-to-know basis, Cooper, and you don't. For that matter, neither do I, which is why I haven't been briefed on it either. There are, however, a few more details in the file, the one with your name on it, on my desk. Read it before you get on the plane."
I'm getting on a plane? I swallowed hard. I don't like flying, which I know is weird coming from an Air Force officer, but I had reasonable grounds for the problem: I'd been shot out of the sky a couple of times during my tour in Afghanistan as a combat air controller. Lately, I'd been doing some work on that issue with an Air Force shrink. It seemed I was about to give it a test.
Schaeffer cooed, "Out you come, fellas . . . chow time." One of the clown fish made a tentative break from the submarine, tempted by the flakes sinking through the water, but it turned and fled back to the safety of the sunken sub when something spooked it, most probably the vision magnified by the water of the captain's approaching lips formed into the shape of a cat's puckered anus. Or was it a kiss? I really needed to get the hell out of there.
I sat and stared at the floor and recalled our last phone conversation. It went something like this:
"Japan," I said.
"Where?" asked Anna.
"Japan. Yokohama, Japan."
"What's it about?" she asked, and then said, "Never mind." We both knew I wouldn't/couldn't elaborate. More of that need-to-know crap.
"What about you?" I said. "You missing me?"
"No," Anna said.
"Sure," I replied.
"Okay, maybe just a little."
"You're calling eight inches a little?"
She laughed. "Don't kid yourself, baby."
"How are you spending your spare time?"
"Bible study. I've joined a group."
"Yeah, right," I said. It sounded lighthearted and friendly enough, but the truth of it was our long-distance relationship was suffering. The conversation had become stilted, the gaps between the exchanges widening. We both knew where it would end, but neither of us wanted to admit it—not out loud, anyway.
"When am I going to see you?" she asked.
That was the question on both our minds. And we both knew the answer.
"You tell me," I replied.
The conversation's first bracket of silence followed.
"I saw a quote the other day," she said, abruptly. "Do you want to hear it?"
Whether I wanted to hear it or not, I knew I was about to. "A quote by who?" I said.
"Right, the piano people."
"No, you idiot. That's Steinway. Steinbeck was a writer."
"Oh, yeah, him."
If it's possible to hear someone roll their eyes, that's what I heard.
"Steinbeck said, 'There's nothing sadder than a relationship held together by the glue of postage stamps.' "
I paused. "You sure that wasn't Hallmark?"
"Just as well we communicate via e-mail."
"And why's that?"
This time, she paused. "Do you ever take anything seriously, Cooper?"
"I'm serious about you."
"What do you think?"
Another loud burst of silence followed.
"Then what are we going to do about it?" she asked.
"About seeing each other? I don't know," I said, but I was thinking that we were going round and round the mulberry bush. There was one way to break the vicious circle—marriage. We'd discussed the M word before, but neither of us was ready for it. Not yet. Aside from the fact that we hadn't known each other all that long, and didn't even like each other when we first met, Special Agent Anna Masters wanted to concentrate on her career and I was still gun-shy after my last attempt at unholy matrimony. And with good reason. Brenda, my ex, had married our relationship counselor, the guy she also happened to be having an affair with while I was paying him to sort out our marriage. I'd forgiven her, but I still wanted to smack the guy around some—I enjoyed it so much the first time. And in the back of my mind, I wondered whether I actually believed in the institution of marriage anymore. I had trust issues, apparently.
"Christmas is coming up. You could get leave," I suggested. "I'm sure Ramstein would get along fine without you."
"No, I can't. I had so much time off after I came out of the hospital. What about you coming here?"
"Possible, I guess. It depends on the case I'm working." We both knew me tripping over to, Germany Ramstein Air Base, would, in reality, be impossible. Like Anna, I'd had too much time off already, even if it was spent recovering.
"OK, then . . ." she said, with more than a touch of hopelessness. "So . . ."
"Hey," I said, attempting to change the subject, "I haven't told you; I'm making real progress with the flying thing."
"That's good," she said.
I still needed to take a nervous dump before I got on a plane, and my palms sweated. But I could now travel drug-free, at last. "No more sleeping pills."
"That's really great, Vin. Congratulations. Pity you can't put it to good use and get on a plane to see me."
Silence. So much for changing the subject.
"Sorry," she said. "That was uncalled for."
More silence. The way we were going, I could see a point in the future where our phone calls would be mostly dead air.
Anna sighed impatiently. "Y'know, the trouble with men is that you're all spineless."
"A bit sweeping, don't you think?"
"It's true. You and I both know where this is going."
"And where's it going?" I said spinelessly.
"See what I mean? You and me, us, our relationship—it's going precisely nowhere, and you know it. But do you want to take charge? No. Oh, for Christ's sake, Vin . . . We had fun, when we weren't being shot at or involved in car crashes. We should have just left it at that."
And that was pretty much where we left it. There was a little discussion about us both being free agents, but nothing, thankfully, about us remaining friends—a surefire admission that we'd never speak to each other again.
The Boeing bumped around on some air currents and a light indicated that I should strap in. There being no lap restraints in the lavatory, I made the mental adjustment that it was time to take a seat without a hole in it.
I washed my hands, pushed open the concertina door and, leaning forward, climbed up the aisle toward my seat. The aircraft was still gaining height and the attendants were a little while from serving coffee and tea. The sessions I'd been doing to combat my fear of flying were working; I was almost getting on top of things. Actually, once airborne, it wasn't the fear of flying that chewed on me, it was fear of un-flying, like maybe the plane would suddenly realize it was doing something it shouldn't and drop out of the sky. Irrational, I know, but that's a phobia for you. I repeated the mantra: The higher you are, the safer you are, the higher you are, the safer you are, the higher . . .
We'd been airborne for ten minutes now, well outside the forty-second danger zone where there wasn't enough altitude for the pilots to prevent a catastrophe if things went into the shitter and, say, a wing fell off. Actually, not even Chuck Yeager could do anything about a wing falling off—except to eject, of course—not an option, even for passengers traveling first class, last time I looked. My bowels were churning and my heart rate was up. Six months ago, the only way I could have done this would have been with a headful of barbiturates. Now what I wanted sleeping tablets for was so that I could maybe get some shut-eye and perhaps find myself in a dream with Anna, which was the only way I could see that I'd ever be able to spend any time with her.
The Tokyo city coroner, Dr. Samura Hashimura, wore a plastic sheath and clear plastic industrial glasses, and he breathed through an industrial face mask of the kind spray-painters use, while he worked over the corpse on the stainless-steel autopsy table. She stared with open milky eyes at the ceiling and appeared completely unconcerned that the coroner was digging around in her small intestines as if he was looking through his sock drawer trying to match a pair. My nose told me the woman had been dead about ten days, and hadn't been refrigerated for most of it. Once you experience the smell of death, you never forget it.
Excerpted from A Knife Edge by David Rollins. Copyright © 2009 by David Rollins. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.