Julia had fallen asleep after having heard Jay Leno’s opening monologue, but the TV was still on. Its light danced across her face, affecting her REM sleep, shaping the dreams in which she did not sleep alone. The full size bed that had been with Julia for some time was well worn in the middle, the shape of the depression mimicking her body. The bed, like many of the furnishings in her small three room apartment, was dilapidated, but Julia was unwilling to replace any of them with fresh pieces as they still connected her with the happier times she remembered. The happier times she wanted, but never was quite able, to relive in her dreams.
Julia was instead haunted by the remembrances of her younger days when she had first acquired the now run-down furnishings. The time when one day of happiness was followed by another equally cheerful day. The era of her life spent with Thomas, the one person who affected feelings of adequacy within her by making her feel desirable. Those times, like Thomas, passed quickly, before they were ripe, when Thomas plummeted to his death jumping out of a plane over Laos, the ‘accident’ attributed to a defective parachute that hadn’t opened properly.
At first neither Julia nor Thomas’s parents had been told what actually happened to him, just that he had not returned from his third tour of duty in Southeast Asia. Eventually, as the years, and then decades, passed, as more of the people sent to that god-forsaken region of the planet spoke up about what they had been ordered to do, Julia began learning the truth of Thomas’s demise. His fellow SEALs had been unable to recover his body, so Julia and Thomas’s family had nothing but an empty grave graced with the generic headstone the government provided for all its fallen heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. Neither the grave nor the stone provided the type of closure Julia required.
Due to some rather cryptic letters Thomas had sent her before his passing, Julia wasn’t ready to accept the explanation of her lover’s death, or rather the lack of one. In those letters, Thomas had hinted at something Julia couldn’t quite grasp, but she nevertheless knew was significant. Thomas had repeatedly remarked that he had discovered something, something that wasn’t proper going on behind the scenes everyone in America saw on their televisions each night. The Vietnam conflict was, after all, the first truly televised war and this added to the illusion the American people had accepted–the illusion that they knew exactly what was going on in the jungles halfway around the world. At the time no one, other than the protesters who crowed the many streets in various cities across the nation, wanted to accept that their soldiers or government were condoning, or actively participating in, anything that was less then completely ethical.
In her despair after Thomas’s internment, Julia had latched upon the clues he had supplied in those letters as the answers she needed to explain, and accept, his death. She delved into the subject, looking for any information she could find about SEAL operations in Southeast Asia. At the time her nation’s official line concerning Laos was that there was no involvement, but rumors and the protestations of the country’s royal family supported the paltry amount of evidence to the contrary. As Julia continued her research in her off hours from the Georgetown restaurant she worked at, she began to believe the rumors pertaining to the SEAL teams’ Laotian campaigns. However, no matter how hard she tried, no matter where she looked, there was little to add to the insignificant amount of information relating to Laos or the other nations that surrounded Vietnam.
Julia’s frustration magnified exponentially as the research that was so important to her but failed to ignite anyone else’s–including Thomas’s parents–curiosity, didn’t produce any worthwhile information. The job at the restaurant feeling like a thorn as her investigation lingered on without the concrete results she needed to sanction the closure she felt she was lacking. Julia believed that if she could devote herself full-time to the research, she would find the answers she needed. Lacking any type of support other than what she provided herself, full-time investigation was, unfortunately, not practicable. So she continued to labor at the restaurant at nights after toiling in the various libraries that graced the nation’s capital throughout the days. Julia’s life consisted of nothing but taking orders and reading endless documents that had been deemed not sufficiently secret and the Pentagon had been impelled to release. She was certain there were an almost infinite number of documents that hadn’t been released. She was equally certain those unreleased documents held the answers she needed.
After several years of rereading the same documents and being unable to even discover which SEAL unit Thomas belonged to, Julia was assisted by the Agent Orange debates of the late seventies. The scandal had compelled the Military to produce legions of documents indicating the location of military personnel in relation to where the abhorrent chemical had been used. Not only had this given Julia new material to read, it allowed her to assemble a list of the men Thomas had served with. Many of his fellow SEALs had fallen in combat or suffered accidents during their time in Southeast Asia, only seven had survived the tours they served. Using the skills she had developed during the years of fruitless research, Julia tracked down the addresses of all but one of Thomas’s former compatriots. However, the letters she sent, each including details of her relationship with Thomas and her plea for information, went unanswered.
Despondent that she would never learn of the events surrounding Thomas’s death, or the truths he had hinted at in his last letters, Julia concluded that she had to confront the only people who could answer any of her questions directly. Before she could however, she needed to confide in someone, someone who she hoped would believe her. She had spoken to Thomas’s parents many times and they had made it quite clear they had no interest and wished she would drop her search; Julia understood they only wanted her to go on with her life, as they had with their own. She had even spoken to members of the press, congressmen, their staffs and some veteran’s organizations that she thought would be interested, but never received a nibble from the lines she had cast in their direction. One night after her shift at the restaurant, Julia entered the office of her manager, told him everything and explained she had to quit and follow her instinct and confront the ex-SEALs she had tracked down. The restaurant manager was flabbergasted and said as much, but gave her three hundred dollars and told Julia she would always have a job there.
It took almost four months for her to visit the six members of Thomas’s SEAL team. The Six lived in grand houses that were only a half-step down from qualifying as palatial, with large tracks of property encompassing them. All six refused to cooperate by unceremoniously slamming their front doors in her face. After completing her circuit across the country, Julia didn’t know what to do. In a vain effort to reap some information, she attempted to contact the six ex-SEALs on the telephone, but, once they figured out who she was or what she wanted to know, they hung-up, leaving her to listen to the monotony of the AT&T dial tone. Julia returned to her apartment in the District of Columbia frustrated and deflated; she had no desire to continue on with anything when her search, the one thing that had guided her life for so many years, had resulted in nothing. Julia was at the bottom of her resolve, with nothing left to put into the fight. She had become a paladin of truth trying to discover the details surrounding Thomas’s death and she had failed.
Julia returned to the restaurant five days after returning home, not out of any need for support or money, for she no longer cared what happened to her, but because she didn’t know what else to do. The manager, delighted by her return, saw the aura of defeat surrounding her and made no comment, allowing her to go about her chores at her own pace. Over the next few weeks, there was little improvement in Julia’s disposition, she slept when she wasn’t working, and her meaning had left her.
One day when she asked a customer for his order, the man only smiled. He introduced himself as Jasper Robinson and said that he wanted tell her his story. She remembered the name but it took her a moment to realize he was the one member of Thomas’s unit she had been unable to track down. She collapsed into the chair across from him and asked where he had been. He explained that he had been in hiding, from what would become clear as she heard his story.
Robinson began his tale explaining that her search had attracted his attention and he had been wanting to speak with her for some time, but had been afraid to involve her. He continued, accounting for his time in Vietnam, when he had known Thomas. He described a war in which it was difficult, if not impossible, to tell who your enemy was and, unfortunately, your enemy all too often wore the same uniform as you. That was what had happened to Thomas.
Their battalion commander, a man they saw infrequently, decided since he was ordered to fight a war in the stinking jungles of Southeast Asia, he was going to make that war profitable for himself. The Commander made a deal with a man called Xiamen–a notorious heroin trafficker and one of the founders of the golden triangle. Thomas had somehow found out about the commander’s illegitimate dealings and told the one person in the unit he trusted, Jasper. Regrettably, Thomas was unable to keep the knowledge of his enlightenment from the Commander, and, soon after informing Jasper, suffered his ‘accident’. Robinson, who had always acted out the persona of a country bumpkin, had been able to keep his knowledge of the commander’s activities secret, unlike others in his unit who, like Thomas, experienced mishaps of their own, were put into the thickest battles or sent on suicide missions.
Jasper explained that the six ex-SEALs Julia tracked down had cooperated with the Commander, in both the drug trade and the ‘accidents’. His last year in Vietnam he had lived in a state of almost perpetual fear as ,one by one, the members of his unit were eliminated, always assuming he would be next. He was however able to surmount his fear and during the remaining time he was in southeast Asia and for the past fifteen years since he had returned, Robinson had been accumulating evidence against his former associates. He knew the who, the what, the when and the how of their network. Robinson hadn’t cared to find out the why; he felt there was no justification for what they had done to Thomas and the other SEALs who had perished. Jasper told Julia that he now had sufficient evidence to take to the authorities, but explained he wouldn’t be able to do so. The Commander, the Six and their minions had been following him for some time and he didn’t believe they would let him live to turn over his information. When fear swept across Julia’s face, Robinson assured her he had lost his tail before coming to see her. He gave her key to a locker at Penn Station that held a briefcase which contained copies of all the information, including evidence that proved the Commander, with the assistance of the Six, had orchestrated Thomas’s death.
“If you hear of my death, you’ll know what to do,” he told her. “Complete my last mission.” Smiling, he added: “Complete our mission.” He then left the restaurant leaving Julia still staring at the seat he had departed from.
The restaurant closed around ten-thirty that night and the television in the corner was switched from the sport programming the clientele favored to the eleven o’clock news. The talking head in the box reported that there had been a shooting in front of the Justice department in the late afternoon. Witnesses reported watching helplessly as two men jumped out of the car, shot a man and grabbed the victim’s briefcase before jumping back into the vehicle and speeding away. The news anchor didn’t report the victim’s name, only that the victim had died, but Julia knew who it had been.
She dropped the mop she was using to clean under her tables and left the restaurant. Arriving at the train station, Julia found the locker Jasper had told her about easily and inside laid a briefcase just as he had promised. Jumping into a cab and successfully resisting the urge to look into the briefcase, she soon arrived at the steps of the FBI headquarters. Telling the security people she had information concerning drug trafficking and possible war crimes, she was quickly shown to a fourth floor office, occupied by a studious looking woman wearing a crisply pressed grey suit. Julia handed over the briefcase and the female FBI agent began to read its contents. After having read few of the documents contained in the briefcase, the agent asked where Julia had acquired the information. Julia then unloaded the grief she had held for so long and detailed her exhaustive research, her trip across the country to confront the Six and meeting Jasper Robinson in the early afternoon. The agent nodded and told her to go home; she would be contacted if the FBI needed anything more from her.
After several weeks passed without any word from the FBI and her calls to them not being returned, she began to feel something had gone wrong and that perhaps the Commander and the Six had more power then she or Jasper had believed. But three days later, the headline on every paper in the nation was about the arrest of a former Navy SEAL commander and the elimination of a major heroin distribution network. Julia was pleased to see that the Commander was being charged with Thomas’s murder, the Six were listed as accomplices.
Julia knew consciously that she could finally go on and leave her past behind, but the truth she thought would free her, had now left her empty. She was haunted by the possibilities of what a continued relationship with Thomas might have brought her. Would that have gotten married? Would they have had any children? Droves of similar questions roamed within her consciousness as she lurched her way through the days. The feeling of satisfaction she had gotten when the Commander and the Six had been arrested quickly wasted away and she was left with the despondent feelings she had experienced just after Thomas’s death.
Once the story of how the Commander and his heroin ring were shut down and Julia’s part in the effort became public knowledge, scores of people with relatives or friends who had suffered mysterious deaths, both in Vietnam and throughout the rest of the world, approached her, asking for her help in researching the events. Many of them offered large sums of money, which she accepted but never spent gregariously, to help them prove something diabolical had occurred to their loved-ones. Julia took to the task with relish in hopes that it would alleviate her feelings of melancholy.
Years passed, the Freedom of Information Act passed in the early nineteen-nineties helped her in her work and she successfully proved numerous times that deaths had indeed been the result of foul-play. However, on equally numerous occasions, those that hired her were disappointed by the information she uncovered.
As the millennium rolled over, Julia realized that her work hadn’t taken away her depression, but had actually magnified some aspects of it. She knew in her soul that Thomas would never come back; nonetheless, acceptance of that fact still remained beyond her reach. Her life consisted of nothing but research throughout the days in libraries around the world and shifts in the little Georgetown restaurant in the evenings. Julia was always home in time for the eleven o’clock news, which she felt was required viewing since the incident with Jasper. The TV was usually still on when she fell asleep.
William Dashiell Hammett