We snooped around for dope on Pick and Galahad in September. Charles’s usual genius in finding the impossible was stymied. The only thing we learned was that Pick had an anal obsession about punctuality. Leads on Galahad were even colder. It seems Stilwell didn’t have the strategic muscle I thought he had.
“CHAMPION to TIGAR,” the radio squawks. Charles drops the deck of cards he’s shuffling, scrambles over to the set, and pulls on the earphones to receive the call from Delhi headquarters.
“TIGAR to CHAMPION, copy.” Our charming radio operator gives Bernie and me an “I’ll kill you guys if I get caught” look, then shoos us out of the radio room with his free arm. We don’t budge. Bernie puts his feet on the table where we’re playing cards and closes his eyes for a cat nap. I tilt back on my chair, showing mild curiosity about the incoming call.
“TIGAR, Pick arriving at 18:00 hours today.” Charles mouths to us, “I thought the Colonel was to show up tomorrow.”
He answers the radio with, “Copy. 18:00 hours. QUARTERBACK in line.” “CHAMPION, out.” The buzz and crackle of the disconnected line grates like nails on a chalkboard before it goes dead.
“Those guys in Delhi,” Charles sighs. “Talk about throwing a grenade. I hope Quarterback Stilwell knows who’ll be knocking on his front door later today.” A twitching eyebrow signals Charles’s building panic attack. “Harry, were you assigned as Colonel Pick’s driver?”
“Nope,” I answer. “Our friend Schmidt has that honor. And if I know the Captain, he’ll be decked out for a presidential ball when he meets his new boss.”
Charles nervously taps his toe until I’m ready to sit on his leg. “Harry, you don’t happen to know where Schmidt is?” he asks in a tone I don’t like.
“Hell, I’m not his keeper,” I answer.
Our charming radio man scowls as though pouting will get him what he wants. “Since you and Schmidt work together, I thought you may watch out for each other. I mean, cover when the other’s busy. Harry, be a pal. Go look for Schmidt.”
“No can do,” I answer. “Saw him heading towards Ledo on my way over here. He probably went to the station early so he’d be ready to kiss Pick’s ass.”
Bernie opens one eye. “No one knew when Pick would get here. I bet Schmidt’s up to no good, like usual.”
“What do you mean, like usual?” I ask, dropping my chair forward and trying not to look too interested. I thought I was the only one with suspicions about Schmidt.
Bernie pauses to consider his words, then says, “There’s one truck that’s gone every other day about this time, using up a ton of gas. But no one’s been signing it out.”
“So how do you know it’s gone?” Charles asks, clearly not convinced of foul play. “A man may lie, but an odometer won’t. I keep a record of the mileage for all our trucks.”
I wonder what other information Bernie’s not sharing and who else he’s tracking. “Why d’you think it’s Schmidt? And what’s he doing with the truck?” I ask, thinking Schmidt is probably busy cleaning up his ammo stockpile before Pick arrives.
Bernie sits up and starts putting the cards back in the pack. “I’ve no idea what he’s up to. But he’s the only one who smokes Cavaliers. I’ve been cleaning out the ashtray before the truck goes missing. When it returns, there are always a couple of butts in the tray.” He turns to me, thinly veiled distrust clouding his face. “Frankly, Harry, I thought it was you copping the truck until the butts showed up. You sure have been acting squirrely lately, sneaking around the garage. But I know you hate Cavaliers.”
“And I hate it when guys you think are your friends don’t trust you.” I can’t look Bernie in the eyes without verbally grinding him into bone meal. I feel my face turning red. “You think I’m crazy because I don’t act like a jackass and refuse to look like one? Try getting buried in a mudslide. See if that changes your perspective on things. We got soldiers dying in a war we’re not even fighting. You don’t think there’s something wrong with that?” I bump into the poker chips. They fall to the floor and roll in all directions.
Charles adds, “Harry, I’ve got to agree with Bernie. You’ve done some pretty stupid things lately, like calling off the flight to Indaw when the Chindits were in the middle of Burma on Operation LONGCLOTH.”
“You forget the FLYING BOXCARS were grounded that day. I can’t believe my two best friends are turning on me.”
Bernie looks down at the floor rather than face me. “Hey, buddy, sorry. But you haven’t been the same since you came back from the construction front. Hope there’s no hard feelings.”
From that moment, I start to see them all in a different light. What hits me is that I should have seen it sooner. I’m so convinced that the road is the enemy that my I’ve been blind to the people around me.
Charles breaks, emotion rising in his voice, “Can we hold the kumbaya until later? We all agree Schmidt’s an asshole and nowhere in sight. So right now I need someone to get Pick from the train station.”
Fighting back burning indigestion at the sight of Bernie, I stand up to go. “No problem. I can motor to the train station to pick up the new boss. I’d like to meet this fella before he gets his ass kicked by the QUARTERBACK when he can’t get us to Shit town by January.” They laugh at my reference to Shingbwiyang, but I’m serious.
Charles looks at his watch. “It sure would be swell if you left right now, Harry.” He pats his perfectly groomed hair just as the radio screeches. Before he takes the call, Charles lifts his boot as though he’s ready to literally kick me out.
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