Carter found that he made very few rules, but breakfast, rather oddly, was subject to one of them. They called it the most important meal of the day, after all. He didn’t know about that, but there was no denying that it was his favourite. Without breakfast, Carter found that he couldn’t function; couldn’t think in the same manner as he ordinarily would. It seemed to make it more difficult to focus on what was happening around him.
He hadn’t had breakfast the day Flight Commander Stevens had requested he come see him in his office. The message had been passed from Stevens to Carter through Carter’s drill sergeant on the barracks campus; an unpleasant guy called Ramon. Although Carter expected that the Commander had amicable intentions, would offer him coffee, talk to him about his career, promotion and pass on any developments, he still found himself dreading the meeting. Ramon had made every task sound like something worth dreading. It was the way the man looked at people when he spoke, even his superiors; as if they were, in his eyes, worthy of no more respect than a rat. Fittingly, Ramon resembled a rodent in many respects. Sure, he was muscular and tall like every drill sergeant, as he needed to be able to look down on the cadets, but there was something remarkably pointed about his features, as if he had had a bad encounter with a giant pencil-sharpener.
So Carter had walked on past the mess-hall, where the other pilots were breakfasting, and knocked on the door of Stevens’ office sharply, and entered. The office had been fairly large and well-stocked, with large grey filing-cabinets lining one wall, a large walnut desk in the centre of the room before the Commander and a large window behind him, with a view over the sports fields. A group of men were running around the athletics track, and they were halfway around the five-hundred metre circuit, at the farthest point from the window.
It had taken Carter a split second, in spite of missing breakfast, to know that something wasn’t right. Stevens hadn’t responded when he had knocked, and he hadn’t looked up as he entered. The Flight Commander was seated, upright in a leather chair, his back straight, arms at his sides. It looked as if his body had been somehow petrified. Carter couldn’t see the man’s eyes because his head was tilted forwards, staring aimlessly at his own crotch. There was a greyish tinge to his face that was just visible to Carter from where he stood.
“Sir?” Carter had said, but not loudly. Something had switched on inside him, an automatic override had taken control of his mind. He stepped forwards and reached across to check the man’s pulse. He stopped. The cruel side of Carter intervened, and he used the cuff of his sleeve instead so as not to leave fingerprints on Stevens’ neck. It was the only time those stupid, outsize overalls ever came in useful.
“Sir?” Carter tried again, his hands on the man’s neck through his sleeves. Stevens seemed to convulse beneath his tense fingers, briefly, though enough to shift his chair, before slumping forwards across the desk. Ten seconds later, Carter was gone from the room and entered the mess-hall at speed. He approached the drill sergeant in what he hoped had been a tentative manner, and the man had looked around.
“Stevens is dead, sir.”
“Say what, boy?!”
“Commander Stevens, sarge, he’s dead. I just went…”
“What the fuck!” Something pink and half-chewed shot from Ramon’s mouth amid a spray of saliva. It tumbled down his stubbly chin onto his uniform, and he slapped it away with a free hand.
“Well, what the fuck happened to him?! Speak, soldier!” Ramon had got to his feet along with two other sergeants. Before or since, Carter had never been more intimidated. They rounded on him like thugs, and it was all he could do not to let a whimper pass his lips.
“I just found him, sarge. Just laying across his desk. Looks like he’s been there for some time. You gave the message that I was to go see him, remember…”
“Alright.” Ramon raised a hand, and the four of them made their way to Stevens’ office; Carter trailing somewhat in the wake of the three incensed sergeants. Looking rather stupid, in Carter’s opinion, all three knocked. Not just stupid because the man was already dead, but stupid in the way that they knocked in procession, like little mannequin puppets of soldiers crashing their cymbals in sequence.
“Hey!” the first one through the door had yelled, and there had been a cry of pain, followed by the sound of one of the filing cabinets falling over. Carter had waited for the din to end, and then peered around the door. The three men had seized a smaller guy, who must have also had a meeting scheduled with Stevens, and had clearly been caught in the act of checking to see if the man was alive. And the first thought that had popped into the heads of the drill sergeants had been that this rookie piece of dirt had been killing the Flight Commander while he slept. It was the single most unbelievable moment of Carter’s life, and the single greatest example of human ignorance he had ever witnessed. The men were beyond stupid. They seemed to have totally forgotten that Carter had been in the room himself moments before. One of them even thanked him as the stunned cadet who had been caught was carried out between two of the sergeants and down the hall. They had believed what was in front of their eyes and nothing more.
Carter later learned that Stevens had died from strangulation, and the fingerprints of the cadet had been found on his neck. This was enough for the judge, who sent him down for fifteen years, and discharged him from the line of duty. The three drill sergeants had been rewarded for their part, but Carter had modestly turned down an award for vigilance. He made Flight Commander later anyway. But he never went in the office Stevens had used. He had claimed that this was out of respect, but it was really because Carter did not want to sit in that same chair, where the grey-faced man partly responsible for Carter’s elevation through the USAF had lived and died, and go the same way. The man had been perfectly healthy, and was only in his early forties, so the death was entirely put down to the actions of the innocent cadet, whom Carter subsequently thought about on a daily basis. He had wanted to write to the man, but had never thought of anything he could say.
What he did learn from his experiences at the Michigan Flight Academy was this. Breakfast was the most important meal of the day. If it was missed, people died.