The Disposable Man (1998)

The Plot

An unidentified man is found face down in an abandoned quarry, strangled with a piano wire. The labels have been cut from his clothes, his facial features are Slavic in appearance, and his toes are tattooed with Russian letters. When no one reports any missing persons, and no police agency responds to a fingerprint check, it looks like a dead end for Joe Gunther and his team. But then why are the FBI and the CIA showing such an interest? Searching for the truth draws Joe into a paranoid twilight battle zone where the blood of old cold war combatants runs lethally hot over old disputes. Ruthlessly manipulated by unseen forces, Gunther is pitted against the legal system he has always worked to uphold, and before he knows it, ends up framed for a crime he didn’t commit, estranged from his colleagues, and fighting for freedom, vindication, and his own life.

An excerpt from The Disposable Man

To set the stage: Having found a mysterious dead man in Vermont-who has no identification and Russian letters tattooed on his toes-Joe is suddenly called to Washington, D. C. for a meeting with a CIA officer.

I don’t often travel beyond the three states surrounding Vermont, but when I do, I’m amazed at the my small world’s insularity. There are just over half a million Vermonters-not quite as many, it seemed, as were crowding the Boston-New York-DC corridor the day I drove south. Like the sole contemplative member of some gigantic herd, I began to wonder if I was even remotely in control of my choice of destinations, or merely being influenced by some massive migratory urge. Trucks, cars, pickups, and upscale four-by-fours by the thousands, along with their apparently transfixed drivers, seemed as drawn by the same irresistible magnetism that was pulling me along. And that was just the most immediate contrast. Beyond the traffic was the scenery, slowly changing from farmland to mall to suburb to something that eventually looked like a city without end, punctuated now and then by a sudden upthrust of taller buildings, appearing like some cataclysmic collision between tectonic plates. Which may be, in fact, what makes the approach to downtown Washington as unique as it is, at least from the north. Where Hartford, Springfield, New York, Baltimore, and all the rest have recognizable city centers projecting a sense of purpose, DC is essentially flat, lacking the glass-and-steel towers most other urban clusters erect to justify their existence. From the outskirts, there is only a gradual sense that the gritty, commercialized, outlying carpet has yielded to something more focused. Trees appear alongside avenues, traffic becomes leavened with buses, taxis and the occasional limo, and the buildings—increasingly pompous by the mile, if no taller—cease being either residence or business, and become that third, more mysterious creature: the office, where things indefinable, arcane, and even faintly menacing are allowed full leash.

Joe made sure to arrive in DC a day before his appointment with the CIA officer so he could have time to pay homage at two memorials: the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the Korean War Memorial. Having visited the former, he is now on his way to see the latter.

It was dark by the time I reached the reflecting pool, but not much cooler. The tradeoff for walking had been a reminder of just how tenacious southern heat can be. It radiated off the sidewalk as from a wood stove in the middle of winter, and filled the air—in a startling paradox—with the familiar parched odor of warm silage, the acres of cropped grass around me substituting for the farm fields of memory. The jacket I’d been wearing had gone from being slung over my shoulder to being held uncomfortably in one sweaty hand.

But I had no complaints. This part of Washington, especially at night, subdued most petty complaints with its sheer wide-open majesty. The pale-lit Washington Monument, a red beacon at its apex, looked otherworldly in the surrounding darkness, its daytime absurdity replaced by the mysterious murmurings of its Egyptian forebears. And that aura spread outward like a thin mist, snagging on the spotlit architectural oddities that belted the Mall like an ancient ring of mountains. I took it all in, from the Capitol to the museums to the gargantuan, recumbent federal buildings, with the happy acceptance of a willing tourist. I walked the length of the quarter-mile pool-Lincoln’s tomblike tribute reflecting in the water like a ghost-and yielded utterly to the theater of it all, using the countless historical cues to carry me back to my past.

Finally, thus summoned, a pale scattering of distant shadows caught my eye through the trees, to the left, and brought my journey to an end. I stood stock still in the darkness, in the here and now, and saw the defining image of myself as a nervous, isolated teenager, on the threshold of self-discovery.

Scattered across a gently stepped slope, only barely illuminated by concealed, muted spotlights, a company of soldiers silently hovered in the gloom, as if frozen in mid-step by the distant, dying flash of a random artillery flare.

I abandoned the sidewalk and cut across the warm grass, all discomfort forgotten, transfixed by the nineteen nebulous bronze statues that formed the centerpiece of the Korean War Memorial. As I approached, their details emerged, commingling with memory. Clad in windswept ponchos, their weapons held with the casualness of umbrellas or shovels, they were lean with hunger, fatigue, and worry, and their faces, barely caressed by the thoughtfully directed light, were by degrees exhausted, pensive, frightened, and resigned. The closer I got, the more clearly I could see the slightly blurry photographs I’d sent my mother from beyond the ocean, and which reside still in the albums by her side.

It is a beautiful monument, low-key and reflective. A mixed service company of slightly larger-than-life soldiers-sculpted by a fellow Vermonter – ascends a series of shallow, planted terraces, reminiscent of rice paddies. Ahead of them is a pool and a flagpole, to their right a low, black polished granite wall, sandblasted with the smoky images of over a thousand people looking out, like half-seen specters, representing the millions who served with the likes of me. The countries that contributed to this ephemeral, poorly remembered effort are etched in stone, along with the numbers of people sacrificed-over fifty-four thousand of them. It is a quiet place, designed for pensiveness and reminiscence, and alone in the night, I gave in to just that, slowly pacing the walkway that circled the entire site.

That quiet, however, was offset by occasional urban interruptions, the most jarring of which were periodic low-flying jets heading for nearby National Airport. I was strolling in an easterly direction when a particularly noisy one made me stop in my tracks and turn around to watch. Instead of focusing on a startlingly nearby airplane, however, I came face-to-face with a rough-looking, bearded man, standing a mere ten feet behind me. He and I, witnessed by nineteen well-armed silent soldiers, were the only ones within sight.

At first, he seemed as surprised as I was, his eyes widening and his body stiffening, and then he whirled around as I had, and stared down the empty walkway. He looked back at me, his eyes suspicious. “Whaddya lookin’ at?”

His voice was slurred and thick. “You,” I admitted.

“What’s wrong with me?”

“I don’t know. What’re you doing here?”

His mouth set in an angry line. “You sayin’ I can’t be here?”

“Not necessarily.”

He considered that, found it acceptable, and loosened his stance, looking almost athletic in the process. He wasn’t old-at most in his mid-thirties-and his clothes, while far from city wear, were more rough than ragged.

He gave me a conspiratorial smile. “You do me a favor?”

He took a couple of paces toward me, which I didn’t like. Only half consciously, I moved my jacket before me, holding it loosely in both hands.

“I need some money,” he continued. “I gotta get enough for bus fare. You give me something?”

I stepped back as he drew nearer, the hairs on my neck tingling. “Isn’t this a pretty strange place to be looking for bus fare?”

His eyes narrowed, and his right hand dipped to his side. There was a metallic click and a flash of reflected light. I surprised him by leaping forward, the jacket held taut between my fists. He came up with the knife, startled by my sudden proximity, and I caught the blade in the folds of the coat, twisting it away and to one side. Inches from his face now, enveloped in his breath, I saw his mouth open in pain as he let out a shout. I then brought my knee up between his legs with all my strength.

The results were mixed. On TV that would’ve been the end of it. In fact, as he crumpled, he grabbed me around the neck with his free arm, rolled with his hips, and sent me staggering toward the nearest soldier. I tripped over the low curb separating the walkway from the terracing, and stumbled with a dull clang into the statue, twisting around to keep my eyes on my assailant.

I’d dropped my coat in the process, the knife still within it, and it now lay between us on the ground. Doubled over, one hand clutching his groin, he dove for it the same time I did, just as a clear shout rang out in the night.

“Police. Stop where you are.”

I got to the jacket first, but only because my opponent pulled up at the last second, rabbit-punching me in the neck instead of fighting for the knife. As I collapsed onto the cement, the flat switchblade hard against my chest, I saw him run off into the darkness toward Independence Avenue.

Heavy footsteps ran up behind me. “Don’t move.”

I twisted around to look up at a young patrolman, standing over me with a gun in his hand. “I’m the victim.”

He looked at me nervously, and then glanced up to where the other man had vanished.

“I’m also a cop,” I continued, very slowly reaching for my back pocket. “Can I go for my badge?”

I extracted the worn leather folder and flipped it open.

The patrolman slowly lowered his gun, his disappointment complete. “Shit.”

The DC police were sympathetic and helpful, giving me aspirin and an ice pack for my neck. They listened patiently to my account, took a few notes, and when they were done, they even drove me to my Arlington motel. But I wasn’t asked to look through any mug books, or to give a detailed description to an artist, and when the switchblade was recovered, I noticed no effort being made to preserve any fingerprints. What I’d suffered, I was told, was a typical attempted mugging-one of the mandatory accessories of any large city. I was wished a pleasant visit, given a generalized apology for having witnessed the back end of the welcome wagon, and left to my own devices. That night, however, as I lay watching the traffic’s lights play across my ceiling, I found myself unable to be as casually dismissive. While not a city dweller, I still knew the makeup of the average mugger. The man I’d wrestled with had not been such a creature. I’d sensed duplicity and purpose in his eyes, beyond the presence of any cash in my wallet. As the hours slipped by, the more I replayed what had happened-and the more I believed our meeting to have been no random act.

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In Category: Joe Gunther Series
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