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Heroic love is to do what is best for the loved one, disregarding desire,
trust, and cost. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know what is best for
Captain Coleman -- Cole, to his friends -- still wasn't sure whether
getting assigned to Major Malich was the opportunity of a lifetime or the dead
end of his military career.
On the one hand, as soon as Cole got the Pentagon assignment, high-ranking people started dropping hints that Malich was regarded as more than
merely promising -- war hero in Special Ops, brilliant in strategic and tactical
thinking, with the only real question being whether he would end up his career
commanding in the field or from the Pentagon. "You just got your wagon
hitched to the right horse, Cole," said one general that dropped by his new
office apparently just to tell him that.
On the other hand, he'd been in his new position for three days and he
hadn't met Malich and couldn't find out from anybody where he was.
"He goes out, he comes back," said the division secretary.
"Goes where, does what?"
"Goes away," she said with a tight smile, "and eventually returns."
"Are you not telling me because you don't know, or because you don't
trust me yet?"
"I don't know, and I don't trust you yet," she said.
"So what do I do while I wait for him to come back?"
"Is this your first time in the Pentagon?"
"Go out and see the sights."
"It's not my first time in DC," said Cole. "My parents took me to all the
museums and I've already waited in line to see Congress and the Declaration of
Independence and I've climbed the Washington Monument to the top."
"Then go to Hain's Point or Great Falls of the Potomac and say ooh and
aah, and get on a bicycle and ride the W&O trail from Leesburg to Mount
Vernon. Or stay here and I'll give you a whole box of pencils to sharpen."
"What are you working on while he's gone?"
"I'm the division secretary. I work for all the officers including the
colonel. Once every two months, Major Malich gives me something to do.
Other than that, I take messages for him and explain to his confused
subordinates how they can kill time till he comes back so he can tell them
nothing in person."
"Tell them nothing -- you mean even when he's here he --"
"Why do you think you're replacing a good man who only stayed for one
month? Who replaced another good man who lasted three months because
Major Malich gave him a huge pile of scutwork assignments without ever telling
him what they were for and then thanked him and left him to sharpen
"So you don't expect me to stay."
"I expect you to grow old and die on the job here."
"What does that mean?"
"It means," said the secretary, "that I've given up trying to understand
Major Malich's role in this building and I've also given up trying to help young
officers who are assigned to him. What's the point?"
So here he was, three days later, with his pencils sharpened, having seen
the statue of the giant at Hain's Point and the new World War II Memorial and
the FDR Memorial and the Great Falls of the Potomac. Was it too soon to put
in for a transfer? Shouldn't he at least meet Malich before trying to get away
Cole could imagine Major Malich's arrival in the office.
"What have you been doing while you waited for me to get back," Malich
"Waiting for you, sir."
"In other words, nothing. Don't you have any initiative?"
"But I don't even know what we're working on! How can I --"
"You're an idiot. Put in for a transfer. I'll sign it and hope that next time
they'll send me somebody with a brain in his head and a spark of ambition."
Oh, wait. That wasn't Malich speaking. That was Cole's father,
Christopher Coleman, who believed in only two things: That people named
Coleman should have really long first names (Cole's was "Bartholomew") and
that nothing his son did could possibly measure up to his expectations.
Malich probably wouldn't even notice Cole was there. Why should he?
As long as Cole was doing nothing, it didn't matter whether he was there or
So Cole left his office and crossed the hall to the secretary. "What am I
supposed to call you?" he asked.
She pointed to her nameplate.
"So you really go by DeeNee Breen."
She glared at him. "It's the name my parents gave me."
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "That's even worse than Bartholomew."
She didn't smile. This was going well.
"I need some information."
"I won't have it, but go ahead."
"Is Major Malich married?"
"See? You did know."
"Her name is Cecily. They have five children. I don't know the children's
names or ages, but one of them is young enough to have been crying one of the
few times Mrs. Malich called here looking for her husband and there's a family
picture on his desk but I don't know how old it is so that doesn't help with the
ages. The children are boy boy girl girl boy. Debriefing over, sir?"
Cole realized now that she did have a sense of humor -- but it was so dry
that it came across as hostility. So he made another try at winning her over
with wit. "It's improper for me to discuss debriefing you, DeeNee Breen," said
She either didn't get the joke or it was a Pentagon cliché or she thought it
was hilarious but chose not to encourage him.
"Miz Breen, I need to know the address and telephone number of Mrs.
"I don't have that information," she said.
"They don't give Major Malich's contact information to the division
secretary? What if the colonel wants him?"
"Perhaps I haven't made myself clear," she said. "Major Malich does not
consult with me. He does not give me assignments. I take his messages and
when he comes in to the office, I give them to him. I have never needed to tell
him his wife's address and telephone number. No one else has wanted it
either. Therefore I do not have that information."
"But you do have a phone book," said Cole. "And a telephone. And an
imagination. And some of your time is supposed to be used in support of
Major Malich's work."
"You don't even know what Major Malich's work is."
"But with your valuable assistance, Miz Breen, I will find out."
"From his wife?"
"Now you've connected the dots."
She reached under her desk and pulled out a phone book. "I have real
work to do," she said. "Assignments that are urgently needed for the ongoing
projects of officers who actually work here and know what they're doing.
However, if you find out that information, I would be happy to record the
results of your research so that I can answer this question for the next person
to hold your fascinating position."
"You have a gift for sarcasm, Miz Breen." He took the phone book from
her desk. "Please feel free to practice it on me whenever you want."
"It takes the fun out of it, if you give me permission," she said.
It took ten minutes to find out that Reuben and Cecily Malich lived in a
housing development off Algonkian Parkway in Potomac Falls, Virginia.
Cecily Malich sounded cheerful on the telephone when he introduced
himself as Major Malich's new subordinate. Or whatever his job description
was supposed to be.
"He gets a captain again?" she said. "How interesting."
"It might be," he said, "if I knew anything at all. Such as when he's
expected back in the office."
"Why, hasn't he been in lately?"
"I've been here three days and have yet to meet him."
"Interesting," she said.
"I don't even have enough information for my lack of information to be
interesting," said Cole. "I hoped you could enlighten me about a few things.
Like what we do here in this office."
"But I'm cleared to know it."
"But I'm not," she said. It was nice of her to leave off the "duh."
"So you won't help me? I just want to make myself useful to him, and I
don't know how I can do that if he doesn't come in to the office. I'm not sure
he even knows that he has a new captain assigned to him."
"Oh, he knows," she said.
"He mentioned it?"
"No," she said. "But he makes it a point to know everything about the
people who work with him, including the fact that they work with him. Believe
me, he knows all about you and my guess is he specifically asked for you in
That was gratifying, even if it was only a guess. "But what is the
"I assume you already asked around the office."
"Nobody knows. Nobody cares."
"That's because he doesn't report to anyone they know."
"Who does he report to?"
"Well, clearly he doesn't report to me or you."
"Mrs. Malich, I'm drowning here. Throw me something that floats."
She laughed. "Come out to the house. I'm a cooky-baking wife and it's
summer vacation. Chocolate chips or snickerdoodles?"
"Ma'am, anything you offer will be gratefully received."
It was more of a house than Cole would have expected on a major's
salary, though still hardly a mansion. There were four bikes on the front lawn,
two of them tiny with training wheels, which suggested that the kids were
home from some sort of expedition.
"No, I only have little John Paul here," she said, indicating the three-year-old who was studiously drawing something with crayons at the kitchen
table. There were, as promised, chocolate chip cookies on a cooling rack.
"I just thought, with the bikes on the lawn ..."
"The kids have been told to put their bikes away. Often enough that we
refuse to remind them again. They know that any bike that is stolen from the
front yard will not be replaced by us. So there they sit. Reuben will mow
around them before he'll move them an inch."
"So he does come home often enough to mow the lawn."
She looked at him like he was crazy. "Reuben is home every night,
except when he's traveling, and he's never gone for more than a few days. It's
really been quite nice since he got this Pentagon assignment. It's a far cry from
the days when he'd be gone sometimes a year at a time, with only a few
"That must have been hard."
"I take it you don't have a wife," said Mrs. Malich. "Or you'd already
know all about it."
"I'm Special Ops, like your husband," he said. "Not much time for
dating, and I couldn't imagine asking a woman I actually cared about to marry
somebody who might be killed at any time."
"Yes, that's a hard thing. But husbands die of other things, not just
bullets. It's a risk everybody takes when they marry -- that the other person
might die. Much higher risk that they'll cheat on you or leave you. So I chose
to marry a man who will never cheat on me and never leave me. Yes, he might
be killed at any time, but my odds of keeping him are still far higher than the
national average. And now that he's working at the Pentagon, he's far less
likely to come home covered with a flag. Instead he brings home whatever
groceries I ask him to bring."
"So you call him during the day."
"But the secretary said --"
"I only call DeeNee when he has his cellphone off."
"Doesn't she have his cellphone number?"
"Of course she does. And he checks in with her frequently."
"But she said -- she claims not to know anything about what your
Mrs. Malich laughed. "She's hazing you, Captain Coleman."
"Please just call me Cole. Or Captain Cole, if you have to."
"DeeNee is a superb secretary. My husband trusts her implicitly. In part
because she not only never tells anybody anything, she manages to not tell
them in such a way as to make them think she doesn't know."
"She's very good at that."
"But you, I take it, are not pretending when you say that my husband
has not been in to the office in three days."
"That worries me."
"Oh, I'm sure it's because he's busy on something --"
"Captain Cole, I know he's busy on something. I know from the way he
tells me almost nothing. Normally he gives me enough information that I won't
worry. Like when he worked on counterterrorism in the District for a few
months. He didn't tell me anything at all about it, specifically, but he did let
me know that he was supposed to imagine ways that terrorists might go after
key targets in DC, and I gathered that he was not just looking at high-profile
psychological targets like monuments and such, but also at infrastructure
targets and political targets."
Cole felt a surge of relief. So his new boss did do something that
"But you don't know which ones."
"I have a brain. I assumed he looked at bridges and other choke points
for transportation. And opportunities to attempt assassinations. That sort of
"I thought the Secret Service worked on protecting the President and Vice
"And there are plenty of people working on protecting Congress and the
Supreme Court and other key personnel. You have to understand, I'm only
guessing here, but I know my husband and I know what he's good at. I'm sure
his assignment wasn't to protect the President, it was to figure out how to kill
him despite the protections that are in place. Just as his assignment was
probably to figure out ways a terrorist might bring Washington to its knees
without having a nuke or poison gas."
"And he completed that assignment."
"From his sudden air of relief and cheerfulness back in February, yes, I
believe he did."
"And now he doesn't even go to the office, but doesn't tell me that he
hasn't gone to the office, but he's still coming home every night at the regular
time, and he has a haunted air about him, so whatever he's doing, he hates it."
Cole finally realized what was happening here. "You didn't invite me to
the house just to chat."
"No, Captain Cole," she said. "I'm worried about my husband."
"But I can't help you. I've never even met him."
"But you will," she said. "And when you do, you'll form your own
conclusions about what he's involved with."
"I can't tell you anything that's classified."
"You can tell me whether I should worry, and how much."
"About his safety? Here in Washington?"
"No," she said. "I deal with my fears for his safety in my own way. That's
not what worries me right now."
"It's that haunted look?"
"My husband is a patriot. And a born officer. He is not troubled by the
things he does to defend his country. He has killed people, even though he's a
gentle man by nature, and yet he does not wake up screaming in the night
from combat flashbacks, and he doesn't lash out at the children, and he shows
no sign of traumatic stress disorder. I know what he looks like when he's
worried about his own safety, or when he's intense about fulfilling an
assignment, or when he's annoyed at the stupidity of superior officers. I know
what those things do to him, how it shows up in his behavior at home."
"And this is new."
"Captain Cole, what I want to know is why my husband feels guilty."
Cole didn't know what to say, except the obvious. "Why do husbands
ever feel guilty?"
"That's why I haven't confided these worries of mine to anyone. Because
people will assume that I'm assuming he's having an affair. But I know for a
fact that this is impossible. He feels guilty. He's torn up inside about
something. But it's something to do with work, not with me, not his family, not
his religion. Something about his present assignment is making him very
"Maybe he's not doing as well at it as he thinks he should."
She waved that thought away. "Reuben would talk about that with me.
We share self-doubts with each other, even if he can't go into the specifics. No,
Captain Cole, he is being asked, as part of his work, to do something he fears
may be wrong."
"What do you think it might be?"
"I refuse to speculate. I just know that my husband has no qualms
about bearing arms for his country and using them. So whatever he's being
asked to do that he hates, or at least has serious doubts about, it isn't because
violence is involved. It's because he isn't in full agreement with the
assignment. For the first time in his military career, his duty and his
conscience are in serious conflict."
"And if I find out, Mrs. Malich, I probably can't tell you what it is."
"My husband is a good man," she said. "It's important to him to be a
good man. He has to not only be good, he has to believe that he's good. In the
eyes of God, in my eyes, in his parents' eyes, in his own eyes. Good. What I
want you to do for me is tell me if he's not going to be able to get through this
project, whatever it is, believing that he's a good man."
"I'd have to know him very well to be able to assess that, ma'am."
"He asked for you to be assigned to him for a reason," said Mrs. Malich.
"A young Special Ops hotshot -- that describes you, yes?"
"Probably," said Captain Cole, shaking his head.
"He wouldn't take you out of the front line, where you're needed, if he
didn't think you'd be needed more working for him."
That was logical, if Malich was indeed the man his wife thought he was.
It gave Cole the reassurance he needed.
"Ma'am," he said, "I'll keep your assignment in mind. Along with
whatever assignments he gives me. And what I can tell you, consistent with
my oath and my orders, I certainly will tell you."
"Meanwhile," she said, "let me assure you that you do not have to keep
secret from him any part of our meeting today. I certainly intend to tell him I
met you and exactly what we talked about."
"Please don't tell him about the cookies I hid in my pockets," said Cole.
"I know you saw me take them."
"I made them for you. Where you choose to transport them is entirely
All the way back toward the Beltway on Route 7, Cole tried to make
sense of Mrs. Malich's behavior. Was she really going to tell Major Malich
about the assignment she had just given Cole? In that case, would Malich
regard Cole as compromised somehow? Or would Malich simply give up and
tell his wife what she wanted to know?
Or was there some game going on between them that was far more
complicated than Cole could suppose? Cole had never been married or even
had a girlfriend long enough to really think that he knew her. Were all women
like this, and Mrs. Malich was unusual only in being so candid about her
Whatever it was, Cole already didn't like it. It was outrageous to be given
an assignment by your commander's wife, though heaven knows it happened
often enough when it consisted of moving furniture or running errands. Cole
could see no way things could turn out that would not be detrimental to his
Had she been drinking? Was that it?
No, there had been no sign of that.
His cellphone went off.
"This is Major Malich. What does it mean when I get to the office and
find you gone off somewhere?"
"Sorry, sir. I should be back within thirty minutes, sir."
"How many hours do you think you get for lunch?"
Cole took a deep breath. "I was visiting your wife, sir."
"Oh, were you."
"She makes excellent cookies, sir."
"Her baking is none of your business, Captain Coleman."
"It is when she offers me cookies, sir. Begging your pardon, sir."
"So what did she want with you?"
"I called her, sir. Since I couldn't learn anything about you or my
assignment there at the Pentagon, I hoped to discover something about what
you expected of me by talking to your wife."
"I don't like you intruding into my personal life, Captain."
"Neither do I, sir. I don't see that you left me a choice, sir."
"So what did you learn?"
"That your wife is so worried about you, sir, that she enlisted me to try to
find out what your clandestine operations are." How far should he go with a
new superior officer, and on a cellphone, no less? He plunged ahead. "She
believes you're morally troubled about those operations, sir."
"I think the word she used was 'guilty,' sir."
"And you think this is any of your business?"
"I'm convinced that it's none of my business."
"But you're still going to do it."
"Sir, I'll just be happy to find out what we actually do in an office so
secret that the secretary treats your subordinate like a spy."
"Well, Captain Coleman, she treats you like a spy because the last two
clowns we had in your position were spies."
"For your wife, sir? Or for some foreign power."
"Neither. They were spying for people in the Pentagon who are also
trying to figure out what I'm doing when I'm not in the office."
"Doesn't the Army already know what you're doing?"
There was a moment of hesitation. "The Army owns my balls and keeps
them in a box somewhere between Fort Bragg and Pakistan."
Sometimes a non-answer was a perfectly usable answer. "It's a mighty
big box, then, sir. This Army's got a lot of balls."
This time the pause was even longer.
"Are you laughing at me, sir?" asked Cole.
"I like you, Coleman," said Malich.
"I like your wife, sir. And she likes you."
"Good enough for me. Coleman, don't park. Don't even come to the
Pentagon. Meet me at Hain's Point in half an hour. Do you know where that
"It's a big long park, sir."
"At the statue. The giant. Half an hour."
Malich clicked off before Cole could say good-bye.
What was the phone call about? A test to see if Cole would tell him what
his wife said? Or was Malich really angry at him for leaving? Why the meeting
in the park as if they were trying to avoid bugs? If secrecy was so important,
why did they talk over unscrambled cellphones?
If I ever get married, thought Cole, would I have the guts to choose a
woman as tough as Mrs. Malich?
And even if I did, am I the sort of man that a woman like that would
choose to marry?
Then, as always, Cole shut down the part of his mind that thought about
women and marriage and love and children and family. Not till I can be sure
I'm not going back into combat again. No kid is going to be an orphan because
I'm his dad and I ducked too slow.
Copyright © 2006 Orson Scott Card