I wanted the fireworks to go on forever — or at least for the rest of the night. It’s the way I feel every Fourth of July — never enough fireworks. But this year, 1976, I was in the Air Force, watching the display from a grassy knoll near the practice tee at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Needless to say, those in charge of the show had pretty much pulled out all the stops.
The night sky was dazzling with sound and color and light. Just enough breeze stirred to dissipate the smoke and the smell of black powder.
I was stretched out on a picnic blanket, looking up, perfectly content, when a body landed beside me.
“Having fun yet?” Jeb Dalton, fellow aircraft mechanic trainee and all-around goof ball. There was wafting around him a distinctive, pungent aroma.
“Dal, what the hell have you been smoking? Are you crazy?” I asked. “Don’t get any of that on me. I don’t want to get arrested.”
“You can’t get arrested for the way you smell!” He laughed uproariously.
“Don’t be too sure about that. You’re in the military, remember? Who knows what they can arrest you for. And it might interest you to know that my roommate is around here somewhere, and she hangs out with S.P.s a lot.”
“Gotta run.” Dalton launched himself straight up off the blanket. “See you at work,” he called back as he disappeared.
“Who was that?” Dal’s spot on the blanket was now occupied by my dorm roommate, Lena Fletcher.
“Another crew chief.”
“You work on the flight line?” A new voice. I turned my head. He was sitting on the blanket on the other side of Lena. Nice looking. Dark hair, gray eyes, trim mustache. Something familiar about him.
“This is Chris Miller,” Lena said. “Chris, this is my roommate, A.J. King.”
“Hi,” I said. “Yes, I work on the flight line — Delta section.”
“Ah, F-4s. A guy I went through Basic with works on F-4s — Shawn Mercer — you know him?”
“Sorry, I haven’t met everyone on the flight line yet. Been a little busy dodging jets and the verbal abuse my trainer likes to hurl at me.”
Chris gave me a long look.
“You drive a blue Chevy pickup, don’t you? A new one?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly. Then a light came on. “I know where I’ve seen you. At the gate, right? The civilian clothes threw me.” At the gate meant he was S.P. — Security Police. I was glad Dalton was already gone.
“I know,” he agreed. “I don’t always recognize people when they’re not in their cars. You have Texas plates on that truck. Is that where you’re from?”
“Yeah, Houston. I bought the truck when I was home on leave after tech school. It gave me plenty of room to pack all my junk to move out here. Where are you from?” Standard line of questioning when meeting someone new on base — what’s your first name, what’s your specialty, where are you from.
“Wow. You’re a long way from home. What is that, about 120 miles?”
Chris looked down at Lena.
“She always this sarcastic?”
“Oh, she’s not even warmed up, yet,” Lena grinned.
“Sarcastic? Me?” I acted hurt. “That’s a little harsh, don’t you think? I prefer to call it heavy irony, myself.”
“Tell me something, both of you,” I said. “Is it just me, or does it seem a bit cliché to be in the military on the 200th anniversary of the first Independence Day?”
They both looked at me like I’d lost my mind.
“What? You mean you haven’t thought about the whole red, white, blue, rah, rah, rah, thing?”
Lena rolled her eyes and shook her head. You’d think she would be used to me after three months of sharing a dorm room.
“I guess I never thought about it quite like that,” she said,
“A.J. why’d you join the Air Force?” Chris asked.
“So I could get out and use the G.I. Bill to pay for college.”
“Not because you wanted to work on jet fighters, or see the world?”
“Being in the Air Force wasn’t the objective. I didn’t really care what job I got. Getting out in four years is the objective. And I’d rather see the world as a civilian.”
“It’s good to have goals,” he said solemnly. I turned to look at him. The corners of his mouth twitched up. Huh. Nice looking and a sense of humor.
The fireworks came to an end in one final dazzling barrage, and everyone cheered. We got up and started shaking the grass and twigs out of Lena’s blanket. I looked around at all the other people doing much the same — gathering up folding chairs and coolers and kids.
“They’ve all come to look for America,” I warbled softly.
Lena looked around at me.
“Is that from a song?”
“Did it not sound like I was singing?”
“Is that what you’d call that?” Chris asked.
“Hey!” He was quick. I’d have to stay on my toes.
“It’s a Simon and Garfunkel song,” Chris told Lena. She looked surprised.
“You listen to Simon and Garfunkel?”
“Sure, I even wear a beret sometimes,” he deadpanned. I threw back my head and laughed. The beret was part of his uniform. I could end up actually liking a law enforcement official.
“Well, that makes up for the crack about my singing.”
I rode back to the dorm with Lena. Chris had gone off in another direction.
“Lena, how come you know so many cops?”
“So many? I know about six, and not all that well. I met Chris first. We went through in-processing and base orientation together, went out to eat a few times. But those guys all change shifts every time the wind changes, so they get off in their own little world. Chris calls now and then, but it’s not like we’re dating or anything.”
“So, do you think someone could get arrested for smelling like pot smoke?”
“I don’t know,” she laughed. “Why?”
“That guy who took off right before you got there — Jeb Dalton. I work with him. He reeked of pot smoke when he came up. I just wondered what would have happened if Chris had got a whiff of him.”
“I think that as long as he’s on base, the cops can search him or his car whenever they feel like it. I guess if he doesn’t actually have any stuff on him or in his car, they’d have to let him go.”
“That would be a hell of a thing, wouldn’t it? To get thrown in jail on Independence Day?” I should have known better than to say anything. Next day S.P.s showed up on the flight line asking questions about everyone who knew Dalton. Me they searched. Seems someone had seen me talking to him at the fireworks show. I wanted to murder Chris Miller. All the rest of the day I ground my teeth over what a low-life he had turned out to be. So what if it was his job. I guess some people are never off-duty.
And there he was, standing in front of my dorm when I got home.
“Thanks, Chris,” I grimaced at him. “I really enjoyed all the attention I got at work today, getting patted down, having to empty my pockets, and letting a couple of ham-handed strangers go through everything in my truck and camper.”
He held out his hands in a conciliatory gesture.
“Your room got searched, too. And I’m sorry. That’s why I came over. I wanted to tell you it wasn’t me. I didn’t really see that guy you were talking to last night. But he was being watched. A.J. he wasn’t just lighting up a doobie in the parking lot. He’s been dealing. Everyone he had contact with had to be checked out.” That caught me flat footed. I had never associated with a drug dealer before — that I was aware of. Well, they say the military is a broadening experience.
At that point, Lena showed up and had to be filled in.
“You remember when we were talking about Jeb Dalton last night and how it would be a bummer to get thrown in jail on Independence Day?”
“Don’t tell me that’s what happened!”
“Oh, that’s only the beginning…” and I proceeded to tell her about my interesting day. “And Chris says our room got tossed,” I finished.
“Not ‘tossed,’ searched.” Chris frowned at me and shook his head. “You might find a few things out of place. Which reminds me of something I heard about. Which one of you keeps a live black widow spider in a jar on the desk?” Lena aimed a dagger finger at me.
“That’s what I figured.”
“I think black widows are among the most beautiful arthropods on the planet,” I said in defense. “Besides, I couldn’t find a tarantula out in the desert.”
“You’re not supposed to have pets in the dorm.”
“Not a pet. Science project. I’m conducting behavioral research.”
“Translation,” Lena added. “She likes to watch it kill crickets.”
Chris rolled his eyes heavenward.
“Now I’ve heard it all,” he said. “Why don’t you two go change and let’s go get pizza? I’ll buy. Unless you have other plans.”
“Those sound like good plans to me,” Lena said with a smile.
“I have to take a shower, first,” I added.
“Call me when you’re ready, then.” Chris turned and headed off toward his dorm, a few blocks away.
It was unsettling to find “a few things out of place,” even though Chris had warned us.
“That was nice of Chris to come all the way over here to tell us about the room,” I said. “Here I was having evil thoughts about him all day because I thought he turned me in.”
When I got out of the shower, Lena called Chris, and we met him in front of the dorm a few minutes later. He drove a black, 1967 Mustang that was so shiny I could see my reflection. I made the mistake of saying “oh-wow-cool-car,” which is the universal signal to the male animal to produce an information overload on the engine specifications, torque, zero-to-sixty times, and all modifications past and present. Lena and I were glassy-eyed by the time we got to the pizza place.
“I’m still in shock about this Jeb Dalton thing,” I said as we were drinking beer and waiting for our pizza. “He seemed like such an ordinary guy, although I knew he liked to party.”
Chris shrugged and said nothing. I guessed he wouldn’t be able to talk about the case whether he knew anything or not. Lena got up to visit the ladies room.
“Chris, can I ask you something? Purely academic curiosity, of course.”
“Okay,” he said, but his smile said, “Uh-oh.”
“I would expect a guy like you to have a girlfriend, but it seems you don’t. Is there someone down in Tucson?”
“There was, for a long time, in fact.” He set his beer down. “There was a girl down the street. We grew up together, went to school together, went to all the games, went to the prom. Then when I went off to Basic Training, she met someone new and got married — wham, just like that. Then I realized she’d always been pretty impulsive — something I’m not. She’d get us into trouble, I’d get us out. That’s why I wanted to be a cop — to help people get out of trouble.
“Anyway, I was with her so long, it was like being married. It’s weird to be single, but I’m not all that anxious to start anything new. I tend to see long term consequences. Like, I look at you — I see major consequences.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said ruefully. Chris shook his head.
“I didn’t say bad. I said major. For instance, I’ve known you 24 hours and you’re in the middle of a criminal investigation.”
“Not my fault.”
“Still. I get the idea stuff happens around you. I’m not saying I won’t come running if you need back-up. But you seem pretty independent — I don’t really expect you to need me to come running.”
“Come running where?” Lena was back.
“I think Chris just volunteered to be my guardian angel.” I smiled wickedly.
“Well, goodness knows you need one,” Lena said. “Chris, I don’t envy you that job.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Shut up and eat your pizza, A.J.”