* * *
In the punishing heat of midday the following day two men walked towards a dilapidated building that housed a makeshift mess. Officers and enlisted men sat and broke bread together – the entire base, aside from a few dozen NG’s that were stationed miles away, had a crew complement of less than 80. Colonel Waterman strode next to a far younger man wearing silver 1st lieutenant’s bars. The younger man could not have been older than 26. He had pale red hair, very fine, that was already receding from his forehead, and a neat moustache that as yet bore no signs of grey. His eyes were slate grey and were flecked with red that matched his hair.
“How was the ride in from Pittsburgh?” asked the older man. “To your comfort, I expect?”
“Yes, indeed, sir,” replied the Lieutenant. “A Cadillac Limousine beats a troop transport truck any day of the week.”
“Do you know why I asked you to have lunch with me today, son?” Col. Waterman asked in his reassuring, avuncular tone.
“No, sir,” said the Lieutenant.
Waterman paused a moment to study his young charge. 1st Lieut. Stephen Barber, the late Captain Cobble’s assistant, who played a part in Professor Clark’s lab as just another lab hand, and who knew much about this phase of the operation. He had not been present when Clark was sanctioned, though he knew, being a trusted associate of Cobble’s, that it was to have happened that day.
His file was already thicker than most, even at his tender age: graduated West Point three years ago as a second Louie, got his silver bar last year. Brief stint as intelligence gatherer for that unpleasantness in Cuba. Letter of Commendation from a General of Waterman’s acquaintance. Trustworthy. Discreet. Doesn’t mind doing an unpleasant task, with his own hands if necessary. By all outward appearances he seemed the perfect man for the job.
“Captain Cobble was removed from his area of responsibility,” Waterman said finally. “It was determined that, in the execution of his orders, he permitted a security breach that could have compromised the entire program, many of the details of which I’m not yet at liberty to discuss with you.” He paused for emphasis and to take a breath. “It was not the first time that this very security breach has been discovered. It couldn’t be allowed to continue.”
Lieutenant Barber, head slightly down to shield his eyes from the blazing sun, walked alongside the Colonel and said nothing.
“General Forge speaks highly of you,” he continued. “When Digger Forge says he likes someone, I listen. He and I go way back.”
“Yes, sir,” said Barber. “The General has spoken highly of you as well, if I may speak freely.”
‘Well, Lieutenant, the bottom line is we needed to reassign Cobble, even though he was good at what he did, and I’m considering you for the assignment.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
Barber hesitated almost imperceptibly. “Do I still have your permission to speak freely, Colonel?”
“What’d you do with Cobble?”
Colonel Waterman stopped walking and looked hard at Lieut. Barber. If he was going to be part of this mission, he would need to know many more things far more sensitive than this. Still, Barber and Cobble were friends – this news might make him cut and run, which besides being bad for both men’s careers, might be bad for the younger man’s health.
For another instant he stood on the razor’s edge of doubt. Finally he made his decision.
“He was sanctioned, Lieutenant. His family will be told that he was involved in a training accident. The President will call them himself. He will be buried with honor and will receive a posthumous Legion of Merit.”
“I thought he may have been,” replied Cobble after a small moment‘s reflection. “I‘m honored by your confidence, sir.”
“Won’t be the first secret I’ll expect you to keep. Lieutenant, I’ll get to the point. You‘re perfect for the assignment. You know all the players; you’re highly recommended. You also know the wages of failure.” He paused for a moment. “I’m mindful of the fact that you have a young family, Barber, so I’m going to give you an opportunity to turn me down and walk away right now. But I hope you’ll accept this assignment, because I am submitting your name for it.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll accept the post if so ordered.”
“Lieutenant, I don’t doubt that; you’re a good soldier. But I need to know: Do you want this job?”
A subordinate usually doesn’t look directly into a superior officer’s eyes; they call that eyeballing, and it’s a sign of disrespect. Once you’re out of Basic Training you won’t be made to do push-ups for it, but the person being eyeballed rarely forgets it.
In this case, Col. Waterman showed neither surprise nor displeasure when Barber looked him directly in the face and said, “Yes sir. I want this job.”
“Splendid,” said the older man. “It ought to take three days for approval, five at the outside. In the meantime, you’ll need to avail yourself of whatever comforts the Ravenna Arsenal can provide.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Barber. “Thank you, sir.”
“You know what’s at stake here, don’t you, son?” He looked searchingly at the younger man. “Play your cards right and you’ll be wearing Captain’s bars in six months. Play them wrong and you’ll get your very own posthumous Legion of Merit.”
“I serve at the pleasure of the US Army,” Barber said, echoing a common soldier’s creed.
“Good. Now let’s have some lunch.” They continued walking towards the mess. Lieutenant Barber walked a pace behind Waterman, his eyes fixed sidelong on him.