Baggage Claim

Image by Victoria_Borodinova from Pixabay 

“Hi. We just landed.”

“We? Who else is with you. You told me you were traveling alone.”

Sighs. “Just a figure of speech honey. I’m with a whole planeload of people.”

“Like the last time? Are you sure Heather isn’t with you?”

Looks over at Heather. “I told you. I should be home in about an hour.”

“Did you carry on? Seems like there is a delay in baggage claim every time”.

“It’s a busy airport. They are short on help, 9pm is like rush hour for incoming flights.”

“I was talking to Roger at the party. He told me he never has issues. I guess you just have bad luck eh?”

“Look. I know what you’re getting at and I don’t appreciate it. I will be home as soon as I can. See you in a bit.”

Ends the call and takes Heather’s hand. “I better head straight home.”

© Glenn R Keller 2021, All Rights Reserved

Where Do You Want To Go?

Image by suesun from Pixabay

Caesar sat in his usual chair overlooking the gardens. It was late spring so they were a carpet of riotous color that fell away down to the edge of the crystal blue lake. There was a sailboat silhouetted against the bright sky, and he wished he was on it. His face didn’t show it, but he was smiling inside. He had always considered himself lucky and here was just more proof. When he could no longer take care of his own home he was faced with living in a sterile senior living tower. The kind with elevators, the kind where everyone decorated their apartment doors to try and retain some sign of their individuality. He loathed those places. Nevertheless, he had nowhere else to go and so he had found the place and was already preparing to move in. That’s when his angel found him.

He was eating breakfast at his favorite diner, an easy walk from his home when he let Sheila, the waitress who attended the local college, know that he likely would not be seeing her again. He was moving away. Sheila teared up. She asked if she could drop something by his house later that day and he said sure, expecting a potted plant or some sort of knick-knack. He gave her his address and she assured him she would be by later.

He was just finishing up the last of his packing and the doorbell rang. He had completely forgotten about Sheila but there she was, standing at his door. But she looked different; freed from her dowdy waitress costume he saw an exotic looking young woman with flaming red hair and piercing blue eyes. She was very pretty, but that is not what struck him…it was her demeanor; she exuded some sort of quiet power…he was trying to put his finger on what it was about her, She smiled and broke the spell.

“Caesar, I have something very special I want to give you. It is very precious and I don’t know if I will ever get another one. I have been holding onto it for the right moment…to give it to you. And now I know the time is now.” She paused for a minute to let it sink in.

“But I don’t think I can accept something that is obviously so important to you…I mean, I figured an African Violet or maybe a pair of praying hands is what you were going to show up with.” He laughed nervously.

She smiled indulgently, “you actually don’t have a choice. We’re all part of bigger plan, we are just players and this is yours. I want you to think carefully, because you will only get to use it once and then it will be gone.” She held out a small brass tablet.

He took the tablet and read the inscription. “Anywhere you want to go. You have one chance only. You will not be returning. She who bears the tablet cannot decide for you. Only you can.”

Caesar handed the tablet back and said “I don’t understand.”

“Where do you want to go? Where would you be happy staying forever”

“Forever?” Asked Caesar.

“Forever”, she replied. “So think carefully”.

And that is how he came to be here. At this beautiful hotel, on this beautiful lake where he and his late wife had vacationed so many times. He was lost in thought about Sheila and how she had came into his life, when he got a tap on the shoulder. “Are you going to sit there all day? I brought your racquet down. Dave and Eileen are already down by the clay courts.”

“I was just daydreaming a bit. I’m ready.” And he looked up at his wife. She looked the same as she had fifty years ago when they’d first come here. Tall, muscular, and fair skinned…with flaming red hair and piercing blue eyes.

Danny and Bets

He took her hand, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I would have hoped you’d understand.”

“What’s to understand? We’ve been together since, well since we shouldn’t have been together.” She was crying a little now, “But I know, I mean I should have known, I can’t compete with those fancy eastern girls you met at that stupid college.”

He’d tried to time this right; his train left in ten minutes. That would give him enough time to tell her, let it sink in and then hop on the train back east. An easy escape. But it wasn’t working out because wasn’t taking it easy. “It’s not that Bets, sometimes you just meet someone and it feels right.” The conductor was starting to shoo people onto the train.

“Pullman sleepers to the rear, coaches to the front. We’re running two minutes late, all aboard folks!” The conductor pulled a lantern out and lit it, the flame glowed red and green through the Fresnel lenses. He was getting ready to highball the engineer. There was the sound of steam escaping as the brakes released.

“Bets I gotta go.” I’ll write you, try to explain it better.

“Save your time and your 3 cents. I won’t read it”. She walked back to the parking lot.

From the train window he could see her car still sitting there, snow piling up on the windshield. Was she sitting there crying? He would write to her anyway. As the train pulled away, he pictured her in rolled up jeans, daring the boys to throw her off the monkey bars, or in her first dress when they went to that school dance.

As soon as the train cleared the station, he got out his writing pad and began a letter.

*****

January 3rd 1953

Dearest Bets:

I wish I could make you understand. People grow, they change. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you; of course I do. We grew up together, we were inseparable, we will always have a special bond. But Sophie and I have the same interests, her family are all lawyers and bankers…I don’t know how to describe it; we just fit together.

I wish you would write back, if you do, I can explain some more. I need you, you’re still my best friend.

Love Danny

*****

January 26th 1953

Dearest Bets:

It’s been three weeks and still no reply from you. Probably you are not wanting to answer, but you know me, stupid optimist (haha), I am thinking that maybe it got lost in the mail or something. Anyway, would love to talk to you more about the whole thing. Things going okay here, give your Mother and Father my love.

All My Love Danny

*****

February 21 1953

Dear Bets:

Come on now, this is silly. There are things going on here I really need to talk to you about. Please write back.

Love Danny

*****

March 2nd 1953

Bets:

I think you’re being very immature about the whole thing. School and things with Sophie going fine. She’d like to meet you.

Love Danny

*****

3/14/53

Dear Asshole,

“SOPHIE?”

Worst Regards

Betty

*****

March 20th 1953

Dear Bets:

I was hoping that when you finally did write back, it would be something a little nicer than that. Sophie is a warm, intelligent gal. She says she has heard a lot about you and certainly is interested in meeting “your little friend”…I guess she is a tad jealous. Why don’t you hop on a train and come visit. Sophie’s family has a wonderful mansion on the Mainline I am sure you would love staying there.

All My Love Danny

*****

4/2/53

Daniel,

I can’t, I am getting ready for second semester finals. A mainline mansion? Are you serious? I think I know everything I need to know about Sophie baby. I hope you can afford her.

Betty

*****

April 10th 1953

Dear Bets:

School? I didn’t know. Good for you! So you decided to go to Dodson State? That’s a good solid choice and very affordable. Are you getting that secretarial certificate? I am proud of you.

Love Danny

*****

4/15/53

Daniel,

I’m pre-med.

Betty

*****

April 19th 1953

Dear Bets:

Well you didn’t have to get snippy about it. How was I to know? You said you couldn’t afford to go to college with your brother and sister already going. They don’t have a medical school there so what are you going to do?

Love Danny

*****

5/5/53

Danny,

Maybe you would know if you took three minutes to ask one question about me. Over Christmas break you did nothing but brag about Old-Sock U or wherever the hell you’re going. I should have known there was some snooty-puss chick involved. Even my dad, who always loved you, said you sounded full of yourself.

As to Med School I am pre-accepted if I can ace my second semester. It’s a place called “Yale”. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. I need to be studying but here I am writing to you.

Tell Sophie I’d like to meet her never.

Betty

*****

May 21st 1953

Betty:

I didn’t realize that. I’m sorry, of course I am interested in you. I might not write for awhile, we are going up to Maine to Sophie’s family summer place. It’s supposedly very remote. I do wish you had gotten to know her and her family…they are so smart and so connected. It’s a thrill being around them. Take care and have a good summer.

Love Danny

*****

5/30/53

Dan,

Yes I was accepted at Yale. Thanks for asking. I am glad you’ll be having such a “connected” “smart” summer. I hope “Sophie” doesn’t get eaten by a bear.

Betty

*****

7/2/52

Dan,

Your favorite Aunt died…three weeks ago. No one knows where Sophie is hiding you. If by some miracle you get this you should call your Mother.

Betty

*****

7/17/53

Dear Bets:

Well, I guess you’ll be happy. You were right. After about a month with that family I realized all they cared about was appearing clever and witty. They spent half the time making fun of people. When I mentioned it they started making fun of me. Sophie even said maybe I should go be with “Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farms”…that would be you. I’m a little heartbroken but not that bad.

I hope your first semester at Yale goes well.

Love Danny

*****

8/4/53

Dan,

Well, I am sorry you had your heart broken but I am not sure why you would think I’d be happy. By the way, I’ve been seeing someone. He is nice, reminds me of the way you used to be. Good luck to you as well.

Bets

*****

August 9th 1953

Dear Bets:

That stung. You have no idea how much. I hope it works out, but I have to admit I am feeling a little jealous.

Love Danny

*****

10/4/53

Danny,

I didn’t mean to be so harsh. Maybe I was a little happy. I am sorry for that. The guy didn’t work out, he found a cheerleader type to date. That’s okay. Wasn’t that smart anyway. Will you be home for the holidays?

Bets

*****

October 8th 1953

Dearest Bets:

I definitely will be home for the holidays and am looking forward to spending some time with you. I know I kind of screwed up. Can we talk about it then? School is going well, I guess I am going to rush a fraternity after all. Wish me luck. See you soon (hopefully).

Love Danny

*****

11/11/53

Daniel,

What the hell do you think you’re doing? You send your mother a letter that you met a prostitute and you “can’t wait for them to meet her?” Who does that to their mother? Never mind being with a whore. I don’t know you. Don’t come around, my father says he’ll hand you your head if you get near me.

Bye

*****

November 19th 1953

Bets:

I am so sorry!!!! It was a prank that backfired, I swear it. It was part of getting into the fraternity, It’s something they make the pledges do. Some other poor guy had to tell his mother that he’d fallen for a 14 year old but she was really mature for her age and they were getting married soon. Bobby across the street was supposed to check the mail every day and let me know when the letter got there so I could call her right after she read it. He missed a day. I tried to call her right away but the damned party line was clogged up for hours. I finally got through and explained it all. She is still mad about it…I had to quit the fraternity on her account she was so upset.

Pleading

Danny

*****

12/1/53

Danny,

You are a class A idiot. Lucky for you Carla’s cousin is in that same fraternity but over at Samuelson. He told her that’s the standard initiation they do. She told him he is an idiot just like you are. Your mother has calmed down and my father is saying now he will slap you on the head but won’t actually knock your block off. How come men (boys!) never think?

Hurry up and get home before you hurt yourself. I think our break starts sooner so call me from the station and I will pick you up.

Bets

PS: I can’t believe you trusted Bobby to do anything important. You’re as dumb as he is.

*****

January 5th 1954

Dearest Bets:

I am so sorry to be back here without you. The holiday was wonderful. I can’t wait until we are together again. Do you think I can come visit you? Yale is not far on the train.

Love Danny

*****

1/8/54

Dear Danny,

Of course you can come visit…I would love that. Try not to do anything stupid between now and then (kidding!) I really miss you. You better be living like a monk…you’re still on probation.

Love Bets

Break-up Time Machine Prompt

He took her hand, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I would have hoped you’d understand.”

“What’s to understand? We’ve been together since, well since we shouldn’t have been together.” She was crying a little now, “But I know, I mean I should have known, I can’t compete with those fancy eastern girls you met at that stupid college.”

He’d tried to time this right, his train left in ten minutes. That would give him enough time to tell her, let it sink in and then hop on the train back east. An easy escape. But it wasn’t working out, she wasn’t taking it easy. “It’s not that Bets, sometimes you just meet someone and it feels right.” The conductor was starting to shoo people onto the train.

“Pullman sleepers to the rear, coaches to the front. We’re running two minutes late, all aboard folks!” The conductor pulled a lantern out and lit it, the flame glowed red and green through the Fresnel lenses. He was getting ready to highball the engineer. The sound of steam escaping as the brakes released.

“Bets I gotta go.” I’ll write you, try to explain it better.

“Save your time and your 3 cents. I won’t read it”. She walked back to the parking lot.

From the train window he could see her car still sitting there. Snow piled up on the windshield. Was she sitting there crying? He would write to her anyway. And as the train pulled away, he pictured her in rolled up jeans, daring the boys to throw her off the monkey bars, or in her first dress at the school dance. And he couldn’t help thinking he’d made a horrible mistake.

The Cold Green Sea

She stretched her legs out in front of her, letting the sand run through her toes. The sand felt good on her feet, the same feeling she remembered getting from a warm bath. Not that she’d been anywhere near a warm bath for years. Well, she’d best enjoy it because the sun was setting behind her and it would soon be freezing.

It was overcast and breezy. Had there been a lifeguard the red flags would be out. But of course there were no lifeguards and there never would be. She was watching a group of seabirds floating in a clutch on the swells. Every now and then a shaft of light would poke through the clouds and light up the gulls, iridescent against the dark water. And then just as quickly, all would be gray again.

She used to come to this beach with her family. A year ago, just thinking about her family; her two little girls and her husband, would have made her break down. Now she was just numb. No, numb wasn’t the word, she was still mad and she would have killed them slow if she had tracked down who’d taken the girls. She saw the animals that killed her husband…took him right out of his car and then dragged him behind it. They had been taken care of, and she’d made sure they knew why they were going to die. It had turned into a cold calculus; one thing happened and then another, and the next thing you know she’s sitting on her favorite beach with an AK-47. She didn’t have much ammo left, not that there was anyone left to shoot. The roving gangs died off, exterminating each other, the survivors dying of starvation or thirst. She hadn’t seen another woman in weeks, and any man she saw she shot on sight. She was the only one of her friends that hadn’t been murdered, raped, or otherwise assaulted, the only one still alive; see a man, shoot a man. It had worked so far, but of course there was hardly any point now.

It had started with the TV news: the networks figured out if you tell people what they want to hear and get them angry enough they couldn’t help but tune in. They traded in anger, but they couldn’t hold the beast they created. The irony was when things started to spiral out of control they were the first to go. It didn’t matter what side they were on. The killer was social media where “the crazy ones” were few but had the loudest voices. It spread like a virus, most people kept out of their arguments at first but soon the middle was gone. If you tried to make peace both sides hated you. She’d been called “complicit” by both sides. The right hated her because she was a “Latina”. The left hated her because we was the wrong kind of “Latina”. Fuck all of them.

At first it was just words, keyboard warriors fighting each other, but then people started to fight in real life. Homes were burned, businesses destroyed and soon everyone was weaponed up. It got hard to get to work, the truckers were afraid to drive and the trains stopped for lack of crews willing to take the chance of being burned alive in their cab units. Then the crops started failing. Everywhere. Food was like gold and people would trade anything for it. One of the few commodities you could exchange for food was, wait for it, sex. And so teenage girls and soon even younger children were being snatched everywhere. Crystal had been taken off the street, before she’d known that it wasn’t safe for young girls to be outside, even in their own front yards, even for a moment. She never saw who took her and she never saw Crystal again. She had fought hard for Janey but it was a gang and there were too many of them, and the only reason she was still alive herself was that a bigger gang showed up and they fought over the girl. She ran out to the street hoping to buy her back from the winner. She woke up a few minutes later in a pool of her own blood caused by her head hitting the ground. That’s when she started killing gang members. It didn’t matter which gang, they were all the same.

She looked back at the boardwalk, at the row of hotels. Not a sound, not a soul. Not surprising…it would have been shocking to actually see someone still alive. She was a survivor in a non-survivable world. Maybe the fish would survive…they didn’t need fresh water. She gave a bitter laugh, she would have “googled” it but google and its data centers and the people that maintained them were long gone. She was surprised by how long parts of the internet stayed active. That figured. The thing that had caused the destruction of humanity clung to life, just in case someone wanted to look up the feeding habits of zebras or watch the odd cat video.

She had some canned food, and she thought she knew where there was water; someone had told her of a hidden stash months ago a few miles from here. But that was a long way on foot and the thirst was overwhelming now. She felt dizzy and she wanted to be in her right mind long enough to end things. It was the water that killed them all. After the crazies got hold of the nukes and the bio weapons keys and started lobbing missiles, they’d poisoned all the drinking water. There was drinkable water, but not near enough and as soon as any was discovered people started killing for it. Most people died from drinking the poisoned water or salt water. You couldn’t help yourself, you get thirsty enough you’ll drink anything.

So now, thinking when she would do it…she wanted to see the ocean at night, with the moon reflecting off it one last time. It was darkening now and a couple of running lights, white and green, shown against the purple sky. It took a minute to register…there shouldn’t be a boat. It must be a buoy still running off solar power or maybe an abandoned ship. But no, it was moving, the green starboard light told her it was moving to her right…towards the inlet. It was in the channel even though the markers were long dead. She got up and started walking down the beach toward the inlet. The moon was not up yet so there was no way they could see her on the darkening beach. She needed to know who they were, where they came from. Did they have water? Food? Were they looking for it? Well, they would either share or she would be dead just like she had planned on anyway so it was a good gamble.

She was close enough that she could hear the engines going to idle as it slipped into the narrow part of the channel. There were no other boats to avoid but they must not be familiar with the layout of the small harbor. She was maybe 100 yards away from them now and watched as they shined a searchlight around, looking for something. She decided to let them find her, but kept her AK visible out of habit. Even if they had their own arsenal, at this range she could do serious damage to a small boat. She took it to be 42 feet with diesel engines. The light hit her and she froze. The light froze too…whatever they were looking for it probably wasn’t a crazed woman with an assault weapon. The standoff went on for what seemed like minutes but it was only seconds. Finally, from the boat, a woman’s voice “are you going to shoot us with that thing?” She relaxed just a hair…at least if wasn’t full of men. She wasn’t in the mood to shoot anyone else.

“Where did you come from and what are you doing here?” The boat woman replied “we’re looking for lobster and crab pots. Anything to extend our food supply.” Made sense, if they’d have said fuel she would have known they were lying; anyone with half a brain knew there wasn’t any fuel to be found on the whole eastern seaboard. “Are you hungry? You look hungry we have food and water”. The food was one thing but water? Where had they gotten potable water? They could see her suspicion, “look, do you want some or not? We don’t know you but we’re not going to let you die out here unless you insist.” “Okay, why not…I mean what do I have to lose”. She took the magazine out of the AK and showed it to them. “This comes with me, but you can hang onto the magazine.” “Fair enough. Meet us at that pier just ahead.”

When she got to the boat they had already tied up and what she saw made her stop in her tracks. The boat was painted grey and the woman she’d been talking with was wearing the blue coveralls of a US Navy sailor. “Who the hell are you and why aren’t you flying a flag?” “We’re ex US Navy”. The “ex” was the key word, as there had been no national command authority for several years. “But how…I mean we thought you were all destroyed?” “Not all of us. We went black. No electronic emissions, no weapons fired, no nothing”. “So what ship are you from?” “Not going to tell you that until you tell us your intentions. We think we can make a go of it but we need more people like you, so why don’t you tell us who you are”?

As she told her story, she realized that though she had relived every part of it over and over again in her mind, she had never spoken any of it. It took a long time to get the story out because she kept breaking down. Another woman had come forward to listen but the two men on the boat kept a respectful distance. When she was done, one of the women said “you’ll never replace what you’ve lost, but neither can any one us. It ain’t much but we’re trying to start over. Are you in?” “I think so but I’ve so many questions”. “We have to get back, so we’ll explain on the way and if you change your mind I promise we’ll drop you right back here.”

She woke up in a rack in what was formerly officer’s country, a real bed with clean sheets…how long had it been? There was an empty bunk but due to the reduced complement of the ship she had it to herself. The United States Navy might no longer exist, but it’s stamp was still everywhere from the cryptic emergency instructions stenciled on the bulkheads to the monogramed towels and blankets. She was hungry so she got dressed and followed the signs in the passageways and the directions they had written down the night before. The carrier was enormous and it took a number of wrong turns and about fifteen minutes to find the mess. She expected to be stared at, an outsider, but she was wearing navy coveralls and even the reduced complement on board offered a degree of anomonity. The food was as advertised, smallish portions, not fancy but healthy and expertly prepared. About halfway through her second slice of bacon it hit her. Where had they gotten the meat? Where had they gotten the fresh produce for that matter? She would soon find out.

She decided to look around, she was told there would be some dangerous off-limit areas like the reactor spaces but other than that she was free to wander. Someone would let her know if she was in the way. She climbed a series of ladders until she was on a deck with a partially opened side. She looked out at open ocean and what she saw took her breath away. As far as her eye could see there were ships…of every shape and size. “Holy shit!” Just then Leslie, her benefactor from the night before, walked up behind her “good morning, I went down to look for you, figured you’d sleep all day. You seem to be navigating the ship okay on your own.” She gestured toward the opening “you said there were other ships but I had no idea…” Leslie chuckled, lets go up to the flight deck, you can get a better view and I’ll try to answer your questions.

She was looking through a pair of high powered lookout binoculars and, sure enough, none of the ships flew national flags. For every question there was an answer “the carrier can sail for 30 more years on it’s reactor fuel”, “One of the tankers in the group carried aviation fuel because there were no refineries left.” “The other ships could run on unrefined crude and there were plenty of full storage tanks around the world” “The food? The container ships had been converted to floating farms.” “Who was in charge? A board voted on by all members and they were headquartered on one of the cruise ships”. As they walked around the ship, Leslie explaining how things worked, how often the fighters flew, etc. something was eating at her: it was just a little too perfect. And where had the crew gone? They had scattered to the other ships. To help with growing food, governing, etc. When she asked if the ship carried any nukes or bio weapons she’d been told they had been disposed of. There would be no need for those anymore…fair enough.

She had to admit, the whole thing was pretty…well, it was exciting. For the first time in years she allowed herself to feel some hope. Maybe humans could survive and rise above their old racist and tribal instincts. And also, she could scarcely believe what she was feeling: a little vanity about her appearance. She told herself, that it was natural, and a sign that her old optimism could return and that what these people thought of her would actually matter. Still, she felt a little guilty as he stood under the lights in the overhead and looked in the mirror in her quarters. Under the sunburn and the baked in grime she could still recognize her beautiful face. Her jet black hair was frizzled and speckled with a few streaks of gray but her piercing blue eyes still shown as bright as ever. Her stomach flipped and she gasped. Oh my god…she realized what was wrong. Where were the people of color on this ship? Latinos and African Americans made up half the damned US Navy but where the hell were they? She felt a cold shiver go up her spine…she was a Latina but didn’t look it and her last name was German…common in the country from which her parents emigrated.

She found Leslie’s quarters and knocked “Come in, wow you’re not sleeping much. Oh well, after you get used to being on board you’ll sleep better. What’s up? There’s a lounge at the end of this passageway with a TV and a movie library if you can’t sleep. ” She took a deep breath, “where are all the Latinos? Where are the African Americans?” Leslie sighed, “why don’t you sit down?” “Fuck you Leslie, time to start talking”.

“Alright, I was hoping to give you a few days to acclimate before we had the talk but lets just say everyone is where they should be”. “WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”. “Well, some people are more suited for manual labor and some to run things, to make decisions, do the brain work. You understand that surely.” “No I don’t. Where are they?” Leslie made a wide gesture referring to the rest of the fleet. “They’re on the farm ships, the desalination ships, the tankers, etc.” “So they’re your slaves. That’s what you’re telling me. I want off this ship. You said you’d bring me back.” “Yes we will bring you back, but why go back to the beach only to die? And what a waste. Look at you, you must have perfect genes. Why don’t you sleep on it and if that’s still what you want in the morning fine. Your loss.”

She left in a rage and walked right by her quarters, trying to calm herself down. What could she do? It was just her and thousands of…oh my god. Nazis. When Leslie hit her with the spotlight back at the inlet she must have gotten one look at her blue eyes and gotten a fucking Nazi hard-on. She wandered the passageways aimlessly, passing the occasional sailor or civilian…they were all friendly and she fake-smiled back. She wondered how friendly they’d be if they knew of her indigenous blood. Some of the men gave her that wolf-stare, she hadn’t noticed it before but she’d been exhausted and high on adrenaline. Then something her cousin Rodrigo had said dawned on her. Rodrigo had snuck into the US and managed to enlist in the navy…it was the best thing he could have ever dreamed of. He loved the United States and wanted to serve and besides, it was the best food, clothing and housing he’d ever had in his life. It didn’t matter that he had a shit job…she couldn’t remember what it was, but it was hard, hot, manual labor and he told her he had only been top side 6 times during one seven month cruise. She passed a pair of Marines guarding some sensitive space, the reactors maybe? They saw her getting ready to take a ladder down and shouted to her “you sure you wanna go down there Miss? Rough characters.” Then she realized what they were guarding was the ladder…not to keep people from going down but to keep people from coming up. “I can take care of myself”. She heard one of them whisper to the other “I’ll take care of her”, both of them laughing. She started wishing she had a weapon. The AK was under her bed, they had let her keep it as promised, little good it was though without ammo. She turned around to glare at them and they quickly apologized, like they were afraid of her…strange.

She kept going down, and the spaces kept getting hotter and then finally she heard it, someone speaking Spanish. She crept around a corner and found herself in an open berthing area. She wasn’t the only one. Everyone stared, then someone said in heavily accented English “well it looks like someone sent us a princess”. Loud laughter broke out. She replied in Spanish asking if he wanted to have his balls stuffed down his throat. The laughing stopped. “What the hell are you doing here? Are you Latina? And why do you have the run of the ship? You must be some big shots toy. ” She ignored that. “I just came aboard, they think I’m Anglo or Aaryn or some bullshit. What the hell is going on here?” An African-American man came forward, it was obvious from his bearing he was, or had been an authority figure. “You are in Nazi-Heaven darling, and we…are at the bottom of the totem pole. He held out his hand, “Lt. Commander Garson…as was. Welcome to the new world.” She looked around at them…they were an impressive looking bunch. “How could you let this happen? You’re the only survivors of this, this Armageddon and you let a bunch of Nazi’s define the future?” Garson gestured to an empty rack, “have a seat, this could take awhile.”

“They told me they “disposed” of the nukes, I guess they did in a matter of speaking.” They’d told her the whole incredible horrifying story. And now she remembered something: there had been a guy on talk radio, even when almost all of the stations were off the air, you could hear him over most of the country on the AM band in the evening when the weather was right. Everyone wrote him off as a crackpot. People were blaming the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, even the Poles at some point. But this guy kept on, and what he kept on saying was that this was no miscalculation, no lunatics taking over the nuke and bio keys. It turned out that after so many years of so many ludicrous conspiracy theories no one could recognize a real conspiracy. THEY had flooded social media with fake news. THEY had sowed the seeds of division. THEY had put weapons in the hands of the zealots. Then they sat back and let evolution do its work. And finally, when the whole world had devolved into this Mad Max hell, they administered the Coup de Grace . And it had come from the sea.

“So, you’re all gonna spend the rest of your lives down here?” A woman spoke up “we’re just waiting for our chance…and you honey, are that chance”. “What the heck can I do?” “First thing is to avoid letting them get your DNA. Once they do that you’re cooked. You’re pretty so you won’t have it bad but still, you’ll be “assigned” to some perv Nazi. “How can I put it off, Leslie will make me do it won’t she?” They all started laughing. “You think they just pick up women at random and let them have the run of the ship? This is a giant hive and with that hair and those eyes, you’re one of the princess bees.” She was confused “because of the way I look?” Garson spoke up again “this is a giant gene pool factory…how you look is ALL they care about. You wanna test it? Go up that ladder and tell one of those asshole marines to put a bullet in Leslie.” She whistled…”are you serious?” “100%…but don’t, we think Leslie can be turned. Actually we think quite a few of them will be turned. They had to go along or they’d have just shot them and tossed them overboard. And there’s a reason they flew in and rescued their families”. How much more horrifying could this get she thought “their families are hostages on the cruise ships…”

They spoke of plans and plans for plans for a few more hours, but it seemed impossible. They had all the ratings they needed to get the job done but getting jets up to the flight deck, and then getting them armed and fueled, much less launching one, might just attract a wee bit of attention. They had thought through a lot of it but it depended too much on luck, and on people risking their lives, and the lives of their families, to come over to their side. They all needed some rest so she got ready to go back up for the night but then remembered her weapon. “I have an AK under my bed but I need ammo…where can I get some standard NATO?” Someone whistled “In an AK? Lady you will blow your face off. You never fired that gun in anger, did you? This whole Rambo girl story is all bullshit, you’ve been lying to us!” “No” she shouted back at him “It’s not a normal AK-47”. There was a lot of murmuring and some swearing, “bitch, you’re a spy. We’d kill you but they’d slaughter every one of us”. But then a calm, measured voice she hadn’t heard yet spoke up. It was a petite woman who looked like she could spit nails. “Israeli?” “Yes, a Galil dammit”. The new woman nodded “she’s right. 7.62 39mm will chamber just fine in a Galil. For gods sake tell her where she can find ammo. Bring it with you in the morning. It will be guarded but like we been telling you, you’re a princess. They won’t say shit cause they wanna live”.

They were right about the ammo. She found the ready ammo locker right down from her quarters and told the Marine guard to open it. He looked her over, nodded, and let her in. Then he went back to standing watch. The next morning she grabbed a shower in the officers head after instructing another Marine to watch the door and turn away any men. On the way out, she handed her dirty clothes to the Marine, told him to have them laundered and it had damn well better be back by 14:00. They told her to act a little arrogant and she was enjoying playing the part. When she got back to her quarters, surprise surprise, Leslie had stocked her locker with some decidedly feminine clothing. There was a note on her desk letting her know the plan for the day which was for her to be on her own until around 18:00 and then her and Leslie would hang out the rest of the day and they would talk about what was next. As she read through the note, catching a few subtleties in tone, she realized that she would have absolutely no problem turning Leslie. The only qualm she felt was that if Leslie indeed turned out to be a good egg waiting for the right time, she might wind up hurting her. TBD.

By the time she descended the ladder back to the berthing area, she had put her new outfit to good use and had acquired a posse of three loyal Marines. “Don’t worry they’re with us now”. The petite woman, Ramirez was her name, whistled “damn girl, you work fast”. Ramirez looked at the Marines…you jarheads are a taking a big risk on the UNLIKELY chance you’re gonna see some fresh poontang. “No Ma’am, its nothing like that! We don’t feel any of this is right…and besides, she’s kind of hard to say ‘no’ to.” Ramirez laughed, looking her straight in the eye “yeah, I bet you are, I’m just glad you’re on our side”.

They were going over the plan for what seemed like the 20th time, but it was complicated and for everything that could go wrong, there needed to be a contingency. And there were a lot of things that could go wrong. She looked around at the team and reminded herself that these were career military…warriors, aviators, engineers, and every other rating imaginable. They’d had the whole plan worked out months ago but were biding their time, waiting for the right moment. The right moment was the moment she showed up on the ship. With her status she could stand down almost anyone that tried to interfere. Almost. She was near but not at the top of the food chain and once the alarm went out bigger forces would get involved including a Marine Praetorian guard force that would shoot dead, on sight, anyone they even suspected was jeopardizing the larger mission.

There were five ready aircraft on the flight deck; 2 Hornets, 2 Lightnings an ASW bird and a Hawkeye. They needed the Hawkeye not for its AWACS suite but for its ECM capabilities. There was only one problem: no one among them knew how to operate the top secret ECM equipment that would have to decoy the raft of missiles that would be launched against the Hornets and the ASW chopper. The Lightnings could take care of themselves. Guess who was detailed to either turn, order or force an ECM operator onto the team? This was sticky…she would have to turn Leslie and then Leslie would have to lead her to an ECM operator. It was the riskiest part of the plan. The rest was black and white…it would work or it wouldn’t. Powering up the EMAS catapults, disabling the Phalanx close in defenses, which were a threat to the aircraft right after launch, was just activating or deactivating systems that they were familiar with…but they would start attracting attention immediately. Marine sentries would try to stop them but they’d either be turned quickly or killed. That would be tough because while they were the enemy they were also their former shipmates. If you’re gonna make an omelet though…

It took less than thirty seconds to win over Leslie, she told her there was a plan. “Who is in charge?” “Garson and Ramirez, good enough?” Leslie grabbed an illegal sidearm hidden in the overhead. “Let’s go.” There were three Marines, more than expected, guarding the weapons lockers. Two of them stepped aside at her command as expected but the third looked at her with his deep blue eyes and said “fuck off cunt”. Leslie pulled the AK-47 from behind her back and wasted all of them. There wasn’t time, in fact their colleagues who needed the weapons arrived almost as the last Marine hit the deck. “You two had better hurry up and get us a damned ECM officer or we’re all dead”. They walked/ran down passageways until they came to the airwing quarters. Leslie said “I got this. Wait here” A minute later she emerged with a young ensign at gunpoint. “Sending you in would have been a waste of time, I know all the ECM guys. Assholes every one.” “Jesus Les, what if he doesn’t cooperate?” She laughed, “Oh he will. If we get shot down he’ll die with us. This one’s a pussy, he won’t die for the cause”. Things were already starting to happen, the lights dimmed slightly in the passageway as the team fired up the EMAS.

When they emerged on the flight deck the first Super Hornet was just launching and the other one was right behind. They were moving the Hawkeye into place and the security squad had set up a perimeter to keep anyone from interfering. They’d disabled the elevators and had all the entries to the flight deck covered. The only real threat was from the Island as there was a defensive weapons locker there but they’d copped two M60’s and were ready to put up a hail of covering fire. Plus that Hornet was already circling back around and everyone on the Island knew it could take them out in a heartbeat. Sooner or later though there would be a surge of armed goons from below and they wouldn’t be able to stop them all so they had to move it. Leslie was sprinting over to the Hawkeye dragging the ECM asshole with her, while she ran over to the AWS bird. Two strong arms grabbed her and literally threw her to the rear of the chopper. They lifted off.

She looked back at the ship and could see both Hornets were gone and the second F35 and the Hawkeye were lined up. A cheer went up from the front of the chopper. “They took out that French Aegis cruiser! Oh my god it’s frigging vaporized”. They circled the carrier again at a distance ready to spray the deck with their 50 calibers, but all she could see now was a flight deck crowded with the enemy trying to line up a counter strike. Wisps of smoke emerging from the cat tracks told her that would be no more launches. The covering team had withdrawn from the deck, taken out the EMAS system and now had the job of protecting the other good guys until the carrier surrendered. She was sitting close to the ASW operator now and he shouted “Magnetic anomaly, possible submarine! Shit! I’m tracking a torpedo!” The pilot raced to an attack position to take out the sub, but someone yelled “they got the carrier!”. They could all see it now a ball of flame had shot out of the fantail and the carrier was beginning to list. “That was NOT part of the plan. Who the hell is that?” Whoever it was, ignorant of the overall plan and wanting in on the action, did the logical thing and took out the biggest threat. “Drop an active buoy and ping that damned submarine, we don’t want him taking out the cruise ships, the tankers or the containers.” As it turned out, the sub focused all of its efforts on the surface combatants. “So this sub is on our side, but are there others out there?” The AWS guy shook his head, “no, there were some boomers, I mean missile boats, but once the nukes flew they sank them, kind of useless at that point.” Meanwhile between the aircraft and the submarine a swarm of Harpoons and MK48 torpedoes had quickly reduced the Nazi battle fleet to a smoking debris field.

Now they were circling the burning carrier, it was still listing and smoke was pouring from the elevator openings. “They’ll be counterflooding now and if they can get the flames under control it won’t sink”. He didn’t have to say what they all knew, they were grateful for the sub coming into the fight on their side, but the fixed wings had nowhere to land and they’d be out of fuel before they could put down on the carrier even if it managed to stay afloat. “We’re going to have eight flight crew in the water and only one chopper. Get on the horn with that sub and get them on lifeguard duty pronto”. While they were trying to signal the sub she got into a conversation with one of the door gunners. “Why did you come over to us? You’re a blue eye.” She explained that she was a Latina and that no one had taken her DNA yet. “I like to think I wouldn’t have gone for their bullshit anyway.” The gunner nodded. “I’m Filipino, my family had been serving in the US Navy for over a hundred years. This is some hard shit to take. But you know what? He motioned to the carrier. That sub did us a big favor after all. They need everybody for damage control, they can’t save the ship without our guys so for now they won’t be focused on taking hostages or killing any of them.” She wanted to tell him that the whole plan revolved around having the carrier. There was a plan ‘B’, but it meant sacrificing some of the good guys on the other ships. Best keep that to myself she thought.

The only aircraft aloft now were the chopper and the Hawkeye. The Hawkeye was tracking the remaining civilian ships which were exiting the area at best speed and the chopper was directing the submarine onto the downed fliers. All had landed near the designated ditching point and all were being picked up. Meanwhile the list on the carrier had been partially corrected and the flames looked to be dying down. The submarine was back to doing submarine stuff, which meant they had no idea what it is was up to. The carrier wouldn’t answer their radio calls so they circled and blinkered at the bridge “any movement of aircraft on the flight deck and you will be sunk without warning. Acknowledge.” They had sabotaged the EMAS cats, but not beyond repair. The pilot called out over the intercom “we are bingo fuel. I’m gonna put down on a tanker and take on fuel.” From the flag bridge of the carrier came a terse “acknowledged” . One of the tankers carried aviation fuel for the carrier air wing and unlike the fighters and the Hawkeye, the big Sikorsky could set down and fill up. They chased down the tanker which was mostly manned by allies with the exception of a small Marine guard. They circled the pilot house with their weapons pointed right at the bridge windows. The tanker, having seen all their protective escorts taken out, got the message and signaled permission to land.

There were six Marines on board the tanker. Three of them came over to them and the rest were clapped in irons below decks. They took four crewman, the two Marines and a weapons stash from a locker and re-boarded the chopper. The tanker was left with a friendly commander and crew and told to hang back from the carrier. They lifted back off and in a few minutes were back circling the carrier. They were now in radio contact with Ramirez; she and a small assault team had stormed the CIC and taken over, the carrier was now secured from sinking but there was still a firefight raging over control of the ship. They had quickly liberated their allies and managed to turn a good number of crew members, but key command positions and most of the aviators had been carefully screened and they were not going to give up. The carrier was blind after one of the F35s had tore up the masts with its 20mm cannon so even if the cats were operational, nothing was going up as long as the submarine was lurking around. Ramirez held most of the ship forward of the island and most forward areas below decks. There was a standoff in the reactor spaces but most of the machine spaces including the turbines and the critical shaft alleys were held by Ramirez. She instructed the helo to drop the six armed crewman onto the forward flight deck. On the way back to the tanker for reinforcements they shot up the bridge for good measure. By now, there was a defensive position and the return fire killed the door gunner. They left his body on the tanker for later burial and returned with seven more fully armed fighters.

It took a couple of hours and a bloodbath but the ship was secured enough for the Hawkeye to land. While the AWACs was refueling, the chopper circled ready to pick off any heroes that showed up on deck trying to interfere. None did. When you get down to it, Nazis are idiots. By sending all the people of color to do the crap jobs they had isolated themselves into a few areas of the ships. The Marines they had posted below decks were quickly overwhelmed, but in most cases come over to the rebels once they saw who was involved and that they were going to be successful. They stood down the submarine and it surfaced and transferred the aviators back to the carrier and, in a nod to tradition, the carrier’s mess transferred 10 gallons of ice cream back to the submarine. Someone had hung a banner from the island “under new management”. After tense negotiations the surviving Nazis on the carrier were transferred to the headquarters cruise ship and people were shuffled between ships until all the Nazis were on the one cruise ship and everyone else was transferred to another ship. The Nazis were given a tanker full of bunker fuel and one of the floating farm container ships and told to leave the area. No one was happy.

That evening Garson led a tense meeting on the hanger deck for everyone that wanted to attend. By the time it was over, first watch had finished at midnight and a unanimous decision had been made. There were some vocal dissenters but in a show of solidarity they had taken the decision together. All those not on watch headed for the rack. Tomorrow was going to be a tough day.

At 0500 a flight of four F35s, loaded for stealth, was launched from the flight deck. They were quickly followed by an F18 tanker and a Hawkeye. Four heavily armed Seahawk helicopters also took off and headed in the same direction. Within 30 minutes the flight leader reported back “Tanker and Container both capsized, cruise ship is down at the bow and launching lifeboats. We are inbound.” The F35s had done their part of the job. The Seahawks were there to finish it. Though heavily armed, they were also outfitted for air-sea rescue, but when they returned to the carrier they brought no survivors and the armorers noted that the 50 caliber magazines were empty. One of the Seahawk gunners walked a few yards then fell to his knees and vomited on the flight deck. “You think he’ll be alright?’ Leslie shook her head. “I doubt it. It was a terrible thing we asked those crews to do…but necessary.” They went below decks and went out to the fantail opening and stared at the wake as the ship accelerated. The submarine was somewhere, skulking around looking for threats, and they had new company: a Canadian frigate had managed to ride things out and had cautiously challenged them. The Canadians thought they were taking a gamble but the truth is the Hawkeyes had been keeping an eye on them for the past two days. One wrong move and a Harpoon would have sent them to the bottom. As it turned out they were a welcome addition, able to scout far ahead of the carrier saving the fighters the trouble of a constant air patrol. Not that they would find anything.

They were heading south. There had been shortwave chatter, up until about a year ago, that the radiation was more survivable down south. It wasn’t bad out at sea, but most of them had been exposed enough already to dramatically shorten their lives…that is except for the submarine and the Canadian frigate which had locked down in “Castle Mode” and avoided the worst of it. So the sub and the frigate would explore close in, checking the radiation levels and looking for secure anchorages big enough for the carrier. Leslie chuckled and said “well, I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand”. She didn’t respond. She could barely make out the masts of the rest of their little flotilla and she was both depressed that this might be the last of humanity and amazed that she was still alive. Leslie offered her hand and she took it. And they stood there, hand in hand, looking at the cold green sea.

Daddy

“Daddy”. He spun around instinctively, she had not called him that in a long time. Not since the divorce anyway. They’d gone without talking for a couple of years, and he was just glad to have the chance to meet her and the grandkids for a few hours. “Yes?” “You should start dating. Even Mom says so…it’s not good for you to be alone so much”. “Okay Beth, I’ll think about it”. Beth smiled, closed the van door and was gone.

That he hadn’t been dating was a sort of penance he was doing to himself. Most nights he’d come home from the office and sit at home, lonely. It didn’t feel good. He didn’t think he deserved to feel good. So he worked out, went to the supermarket and occasionally met an old buddy for a beer. Lately he had taken to hanging out in the local library. He could sit there and read, and though he rarely spoke to anyone, at least there were people around.

The one person he did speak to was the woman at the circulation desk…nothing heavy, just pleasantries. But he’d thought she might be fun to get to know. She was one of those people who works in a library because she loves books. Now he was looking at her in a different way, like someone he might have asked out when he was good at that sort of thing; back when he was cheating on his wife. But what’s done is done he told himself. He had made peace with his ex-wife, he was rebuilding his relationship with his daughter and he’d cleaned up his own house. He knew he would never cheat on anyone again, but that’s easy to say when you’re not in a relationship.

Her name was Annette. She was pretty; with sandy blonde hair, a broad smile, and a friendly voice. What else did he need to know? Oh, and she exuded confidence. He asked her if he could buy her a cup of coffee after her shift ended. She smiled and said “no, but you can buy me a beer.”

It became a ritual, he would stop in after work about an hour before her shift ended, he’d read for awhile and around six o’clock he would ask her to dinner. She said yes. She said yes 14 times in a row until she finally said “this is ridiculous, you know I am going to say ‘yes’. She could tell he was hesitant because of the trauma he had caused himself. He had told her everything having vowed not to keep a secret from a partner ever again. So she took the lead: “It’s about time I saw where you live”. He still showed up at the library after work but now it was to walk her home…his or hers, whatever they were feeling that night.

When he invited her up to the cabin he shared with his ex-wife, she seemed hesitant, a bit out of character for her but he figured it was because of the connection to his ex. Once she got there she settled in but still seemed a little on edge. He turned on a movie, lit a fire, broke out a bottle of wine and she started to relax. Before long she was dozing with her head on his arm while he watched an old movie. Then he dozed off.

Annette shot upright, on full red alert, eyes fixed on the patio door overlooking the lake “did you hear that?” No, he hadn’t heard anything. “There it is again.” Still, he heard nothing, “there’s a lot of wildlife out there, bears, bobcats, thats what you’re hearing”. She shook her head, “no…thats a human. Where’s my bag?” Her voice was calm but her tone was urgent. “I put it on the bed upstairs…” She tore up the stairs after it. Uh oh. Now he was hearing something, and she was right, it was starting and stopping, being careful…definitely not a wild animal. She reappeared carrying some sort of automatic weapon. “What the fuck!?” “Let’s go, out of the house before it’s too late!”. She dragged him out the side door and he made for the truck, “no, get away from the truck. Into the woods, follow me”. As they made the edge of the woods the truck went up in a ball of flames. She dove behind a downed tree and he jumped in after her. “You’re not a regular librarian are you?” She grabbed the back of his head and kissed him hard on the mouth. “No. I’m not.” She shoved his face into the mud. “Keep your head down”.

He tried looking at his watch but she’d swatted his arm down. She was right, the watch face lighting up would have been like a floodlight out here. Instead he watched the sliver of a moon moving across the sky and knew it had been at least two hours. That was two hours of quiet because the carnage had been over in seconds. Still, she had put in a fresh magazine and they sat there and waited…just in case. The weapon made little noise, but he could still smell the cordite and hear the screaming of the one that took two shots. Five attackers. Six shots. All were down, and she was calm…her breathing slow and steady. They were so close that in the silence he could make out her heartbeat. It was slow. Who the hell was she? She had tied her hair back in a ponytail and it showed up off her perfect silouette in the half-light. He was either in love or terrified…or maybe both.

The sky was starting to brighten in the east when she finally thought it was safe to get up. They walked the perimeter of the clearing around the cabin until she found all five kills. Then she started searching the bodies. When they got to the first one he could see that he was wearing kevlar, with a helmet and a windbreaker. She ruffled through his front pockets and asked him to help her flip over the body. He froze. She must have seen the look on his face “its not what you think.” There were three large letters on the back of his jacket: ATF.

He was on autopilot just following directions now. She had found what she wanted: two sets of car keys and didn’t find what she knew she wouldn’t: any kind of ID. “Did you see any badges?” He shook his head, unable to speak, “Feds carry badges. Always.” His voice came back to him “then who were they?” “I don’t know but I know who sent them. I’ll explain later. We need to get out of here before someone comes looking for them. These clowns were sloppy, they’ll send the “A” team next time”. She took one set of car keys and threw them in the lake, then she grabbed her bag and told him to get a move on. There were two identical vans at the end of the driveway, just like she knew there would be. They jumped in one and took off.

Nine hours later they were on their third “borrowed” car and about 450 miles west of where they’d started. They stopped about once an hour, first using one of her credit cards, then her ATM card to take out cash and buy supplies. Then they used his cards, leaving a trail of transactions heading due west. They cruised a dark residential neighborhood until she found a grey van, a ubiquitous type. She had it started in under a minute, drove down the road, parked, then took off the plate. She replaced it with one she had taken off the van they took from the snatch team. “Why did you do that?” “It’s the one plate that no one is going to report stolen.” They stopped and filled up the van, this time being careful of security cams and using a card that was under a false name. She made a call on a burner phone she had in her bug out bag, and had a conversation in Russian. Not surprising; she had told him she had immigrated from Russia as a young girl. When she hung up, the phone went out the window into the woods and she just said “I got us a safe place to stay”. Then they headed back east.

He didn’t ask many questions on the way back, but she explained a few things without much detail. She once held a dangerous job in law enforcement and there were people that wanted to see her dead. She thought she knew who set up the grab and he was extremely dangerous, and evidently had held a grudge for years. “That’s all I can tell you for right now. I need to know if you are going to leave because if you are the less you know the better”. “To be honest, I was wondering that myself. I shouldn’t leave you alone, though you seem to be able to fend for yourself.” For the first time in hours a smile crept onto her face. “I can, but we need to decide what’s safest for you. Those creeps would have called in your plate before they attacked so you can bet whoever sent them knows who you are. You’d have to run.” “For how long? What about my daughter, my grandkids?” “Well, I was the one that killed five of his guys, but he’s gonna assume you helped. He’s really after me so he might get tired looking for you after awhile. On the other hand…he may never stop” It was a pretty stark choice; go on the run and hope someday he may be able to contact his daughter, or stay with this woman that he cared about but obviously didn’t know. He looked at her across the front seats “you’re not gonna run are you?” She shook her head, “no, I’m over this shit.”

After driving another 6 hours back east, they hopped off an interstate exit in the middle of nowhere, then turned onto a dirt road that wound up a steep hill for 3 miles. At the top was an abandoned ski resort; there were dilapidated buildings, old lift towers that looked creepy in the moon light, and a huge gravel parking lot overgrown with weeds. They rolled up to a cabin on one side of the lot that was in surprisingly good shape. “Welcome home”. Annette got out and stretched her legs then motioned for him to follow her through the front door. Inside was a sparkling clean living room with a modern TV. He opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of his favorite beer. “Seriously, you had them stock my beer?” “We could be here for awhile, might as well be comfortable.” He nodded and guzzled the beer then helped her drag in her bug out bag and the few supplies they had brought along the way with the now useless credit cards. She had been driving for hours, not to mention the activities of the night before, so he told her to relax and he would make dinner. He hadn’t checked the pantry yet, but from what he saw in the fridge he wouldn’t have a problem finding ingredients. She kissed him on the cheek and went off to take a bath.

They’d finished dinner and were still at the table enjoying a glass of wine supplied by her “friends”. “I know you’re hesitant to give me details, but I’m here, and I’m trusting you with my life. Time to fill me in.” She sighed, “I was undercover for two years. This was an extremely bad guy and we wanted him.” “Two years and you couldn’t grab him?” She shook her head “thats not the way it works. He supplied money, inititated some things, but there was a huge network of people with blood on their hands. We needed all, or at least most of them. We were getting close, really close, and then it all went to shit. They’ve murdered so many more…because we didn’t finish the job”. “So…he wants you dead? Why would he bother? You were a Fed doing your job. Why would he risk bringing so much more heat on himself?” Annette got up and stood at the window; looking at the moonlit mountains with her back to him. “He holds a special grudge for me. I was his mistress.”

Neither of them said anything for a long time. Finally, he got up and said “fuck this, I’m going for a walk.” Annette had never been angry at him but that changed in an instant “you bastard! Are you fucking judging me? Mister ‘I screwed everything in a skirt while my wife and little girl were at home waiting for me’?” “Excuse me, I’m having a hard time processing that your job involved putting some thug’s dick in your mouth.” “I did what I had to do, if you don’t like it, there’s the door. You can fuck yourself on the way out”. He took a deep breath and turned back towards her. “I’m sorry. Someone just tried to kill me, I’m in hiding for fear of my life, I haven’t slept in 24 hours and I found out instead of a librarian I’m dating fucking Atomic Blonde.” She took it down a notch “I really am a librarian. I never lied to you”. He nodded “no you didn’t lie. You just left out all the interesting parts”. They both started to laugh, “go for your walk before we kill each other. Don’t be alarmed, the friends that helped with this place are coming by to try and help us get out of this alive.” “Are there going to me more surprises?” She shrugged, “Yep”. He nodded and headed outside to clear his head.

He was back in a minute…”tell me these are your guys”. He was followed into the cabin by two tall lanky men who looked like the kind of guys you call when you need something fixed in a hurry. She spoke to them in Russian then turned to him “sorry, we’ll speak English from now on. This is Sasha and Yuri”. They all nodded at each other and he asked “so do the Feds use a lot of Russians?” Sasha spoke up “we are not with Feds.” He looked at Annette “but you said you were a Federal agent…” “No, you said that. I said I was on an undercover assignment. You filled in the rest.” He started to freak out, “oh that’s just great you’re all Russian spies, you kill people and now I’m on the lam with you.” Sasha asked Yuri “what he means ‘on the lam'” ? Yuri shrugged. He started yelling, “who the hell cares??? If I don’t get killed I’m going to jail and will probably share a cell with Boris here”. Annette intervened “we’re not spies, we’re police, or I should say we were police”. His head was spinning, “Russian police working in the U.S. and this is Kosher?” Yuri wiggled his hand “sometimes is Kosher sometimes is not”. “Which time is this?” “Sometimes your police work in Russia. Sometimes government says ‘okay come get these guys’. Sometimes government says ‘no'”. “And now?” “Sometimes government doesn’t want to know”. He looked at Annette “I need a drink”

They were all staring at him and he shook his head. “You’re crazy. I get it, he killed over 200 Russian children, now I want the guy too. But they’re just gonna kill me and then torture and kill Annette. There’s just three of you.” “We have other help”. “Who”? “Good help”. Yuri bent close and whispered to him “let’s take a walk”. They got up to leave and Annette wanted to walk with them but Yuri stopped her: “Just us, we are going to talk”. Annette shrugged and sat back down while they headed outside.

Yuri put his hand on his shoulder; “I am going to tell you the truth. This is dangerous.” “I know. So whats the plan?” Yuri filled him in…it made sense but who was he to judge? It seemed like there were a lot of assumptions but what choice did he have? “Are you in or out? You could be killed. I am just being honest.” “Yes, I know, but these guys are after Annette and my god those children…”. Yuri nodded, “Look, not everyone is supposed to be hero and you have a daughter and grandchildren. Are you sure?” He nodded “I’m in”. “Thank you my friend, we will do our best to protect you”. “Just get that guy and take care of Annette”.

The next morning, Yuri and Sasha had dissappeared, having risen early and presumably off to set the plan in motion. They would be intentionally giving away their location, so he was all in now. The irony was that he and Annette had slept together for the first time that night. It wasn’t the romantic moment he had envisioned, but they made up for a lot of time that they both knew they may never get. But now it was all business, they drove to the nearest town, walked into a diner and ordered lunch. They couldn’t see him but they knew Sasha was outside somewhere where he had a good view of the restaurant. They took their time eating and when they were done, Annette got up to leave, kissing him goodbye and headed out the door. He wondered if he’d ever see her again.

He ordered another cup of coffee as two grim faced men came into the diner and picked a table between him and the door. He pretended to watch a video on his phone but he was really watching for a text from Sasha. It came about 10 minutes after she left. “They have her”. He glanced up at the two men that were presumably watching him: no reaction. Just then three teenagers came in the restaurant, a boy and two girls. One of the girls gave him a big hug, then sat down in the booth next to him. The other two plopped down opposite and he called the waitress over and they ordered food. The kids all knew each other and talked about some drama at school. He noticed the two goons starting to get restless. He had to smile; the kids were part of the “help” that Yuri had told him about.

Suddenly, the goons were gone. The kids had distracted him ordering food and he hadn’t noticed. He texted Sasha letting him know. “Good. Stay there with the kids for another hour but I am sure they’ve decided you’re not a threat.” Then one more update “everything going well. Don’t worry.” Easy for him to say. Part of his job was done, he had drawn off a couple of the bad guys and kept them occupied. He was probably safe but Annette could be dead any minute and if Sasha and Yuri didn’t make it, he’d never know what happened. They didn’t even know where this guy was, though Annette was sure he was in the area. “This is the best place to hide, there are so many spies around here he would just blend into the background noise. Besides, the US isn’t looking for him”. He hoped to God she was right.

He got a message from Sasha. It was an address and he knew exactly what to do; it was a town in the next state. He looked up the local police department then pulled out a burner phone and gave them a ring. He avoided calling 911 so they couldn’t see where he was calling from. “I’m not sure but I think someone fired shots at me after I dropped off a package”. He pulled out another phone and handed it to one of the girls. She did a great job sounding hysterical: “someone chased me and tried to grab me when I jogged by the house”. She gave the name of some girl she had found in an internet article about local high school sports. The result was predictable. Within a few minutes another text from Sasha “Police pulling up. You should leave now. There is a room for you at the motel down the street. Check in and hang tight. You are clear.” “Clear” meant that he had no tail waiting outside the diner, not that he was out of danger. How Sasha could know that or where he was he would love to know but he’d been told the less he knew the better. He assumed it was more of that “help”.

He wanted to talk to Beth, but of course he couldn’t. He’d been using a phone he’d gotten from Sasha and Yuri along with the burners because he didn’t dare turn his on. So he spent a sleepless night eating microwave dinners, snacks and cheap beer he’d gotten from the motel lobby. He fell asleep and woke up just after eight the next morning and still nothing on his phone. Yuri had told him that if he didn’t hear something by 10am to walk down to the Amtrak station, take the 10:30 and to run and keep on running. He packed up and walked back to the diner to get a proper breakfast. That was part of his own plan. Supposedly Sasha had swept the area but in case someone was watching him we would look relaxed…not like someone that was going to run to the police. When he was done eating that would put him that much closer to the train station. He hoped it wouldn’t matter. He grabbed a newspaper and read every story in the sports section. Apparently the local high school team had a hot baseball prospect, a pitcher, and he’d signed with the Reds. It was 9:50, and despite trying to remain calm he was shaking. Even when they were being shot at he wasn’t that scared but now he could feel fear burning a hole in his stomach. He pulled himself together, paid the check and headed for the station, trying not to think about his life spiraling away from him.

He started walking and pulled the phone out. He hadn’t heard it or felt it buzz but he looked at it desperately hoping there was a message anyway. Nothing, just a text from Beth…wait, he looked at the phone again, he’d pulled the wrong phone off the charger in the morning! He went through his day pack and came up with the phone Sasha had given him, it was dead. It was 10:05, shit, they would think he’d gotten spooked and run if he didn’t answer and then what? He sprinted back to the diner and found an outlet and waited for the phone to get enough charge. Finally an apple appeared on the screen and it started up…so slow, damnit hurry! Finally he unlocked it and waited…a string of text notices flew by on the screen…he went to the last one: “Where the fuck are you? We have to leave NOW” he couldn’t type straight but finally he typed “Dine” frigging spell check, he was starting to retype when a car rolled up and screeched to a halt “get in!” It was Sasha and Yuri, with a woman he didn’t recognize and more importantly without Annette. “We almost left you, we have to move. What the hell happened”. “I’m an idiot, I had the wrong phone”. Yuri shook his head but was sympathetic, you are not professional, nerves make us do funny things.” He was afraid to ask “where is Annette and who is this?”, jerking his thumb at the backseat. “Annette is fine and this is ‘Miss you don’t need to know'” He looked over at her “she just shrugged but smiled. She didn’t look like someone you wanted to tangle with so the smile was clearly just to calm his nerves.

“Annette is okay. You should go home now, the police will be looking for anything out of place and this town is not so far from where he was. That includes people checking into motels and strangers eating in diners.” “But we used a fake name.” “Correct” said Sasha “ but not a fake face”. He nodded “why are the police looking around and did they arrest the guy?” The three Russians laughed. “He won’t be bothering anyone anymore.” “You killed him?” “No, police killed him. Such a shame. Is crazy to shoot at police, they’re always going to kill you”. “You said the guy was smart why would he shoot at them?” “I never said he did.” His mouth fell open…YOU shot at the cops?” Yuri shrugged “just over their heads, no harm done”.

They had taken him to the bus station “how did Annette get away?” Sasha laughed “she is good looking woman with Krav Maga skills. Young meathead guards with guns are no match”. He could only imagine. “So when will I see her again?” Sasha put his hand on his shoulder “thank you my friend. Now go to your home”. He shook hands with both of them, but the woman remained in the car giving him that odd smile.

“So what’s this?” Beth was fingering a bronze medal with a red star imprinted. It hung from a red ribbon and there were Cyrillic letters around the outside. “It looks Russian”. “Oh I picked it up at an antique store. It looked interesting.” Sasha had given it to him as an award to thank him for his help. “You should find out what it says.” “Yeah maybe I should”. He already knew what it said “Finisher, Sochi Marathon 2014”. That was Sasha’s sense of humor but he knew it was actually heartfelt by all of the Russians. “Well, she seems nice”. They had just gotten back from dinner with Annette who had taken a walk so that he and Beth could have some time alone. “You actually found someone age appropriate but it’s hard to believe she’s 60, looks forty.” He put two fingers up in the air “honest to God”. Beth laughed, “I believe you. What did you say she does?” “She’s a librarian”. Beth put her arms around him in a hug. “I’m happy for you Daddy. Just what you need; nice and calm and no drama”. “Thanks honey, you’re right. No drama.”

The Sound of The Setting Sun

The old man took a deep breath of the evening air. The sun had not quite set but the woods were beginning to come alive with night sounds. He sat near a small fire and looked out over the lake. He had driven up here, to the trailhead, and then hiked in 7 miles to this spot that he knew so well. He also knew it would be deserted; late October was not high tourist season in the North Woods. Not even hunters would hike in this far.

He was exhausted from the hike, but content and the only thing missing was Sam…he would have liked to have his dog here with him…especially now, but in the end he decided it would be best to leave him with Patti, she loved the dog and would know what to do. He was lucky to have Patti come into his life, at 23 years old it was strange that they got on so well, but she had taken a liking to him after he’d come in to pay his rent and made a point of checking on him almost every day. Even when she wasn’t working she would text him a funny picture or video the way young people like to do.

What really cinched it was the time he talked her into taking him skiing. It wasn’t that he couldn’t drive himself, he certainly could, but he knew if something happened his daughters would swoop in and take away his skis, his car, his freedom. For some reason, they thought he was hard of hearing…a misapprehension he used to his advantage. So he knew he needed to watch his step. They meant well, but their attempts to “protect” him meant losing his independence. Even Sam was a risk…he’d overheard one daughter saying something about a “rescue”. So what he needed was a wingman and Patti was up for the job. It took some talking, but after assuring her that he would stay on the green hills and throwing in gas money, lunch and dinner, and setting her up with a private ski lesson she agreed.

Everything went fine although he’d fibbed about the green hills, but as he explained some people can ski well into their 70s and even 80s. Once they arrived and Patti saw the large number of seniors on skis, she relaxed and went off for her lesson leaving him to do what he liked best; enjoying the peace and quiet of the snow covered trails and the occassional rush of doing something a little risky. Patti had refused to take any of his money even though her ski rentals and lesson had cost her a pretty penny. They had taken his car and he’d let her drive down but on the way home he drove…he wanted her to see he was fine driving alone, and in any event his daughters had insisted he upgrade his car to the lastest safety features which didn’t hurt any. During that three hour drive he’d come to regard her almost as a daughter…she had shared a lot with him and he began to understand that she was a special type of person. He loved his daughters beyond all measure but he understood that they had thier lives to live and so he felt fortunate to have someone like Patti in his life.

“Daddy, I don’t think you should be living alone”. That was Gracie, his youngest and the one he called Princess. She more than anyone knew that he would never be able to stand losing his own place. He kissed her on the cheek and promised her he would think about it. They both knew he was lying and Gracie wouldn’t push the issue but her older sister was another story. She had been checking out “nice places” and kept sending him brochures which he promised her he would read. “Would I get to keep my car?” “Now daddy…”. It all came to a head the day he fell, both girls freaked out a little and both came to town to take him to his doctor. He had to give permission but they came into the exam room with him. Finally, to get out of there, he’d agreed that he must have gotten a little light headed. They went home and the girls had the opinion from his own doctor that he should probably “be around people”. He explained about Patti looking in on him, but they objected saying “and what happens when she gets a new job?”

The irony of the situation was that he had actually tripped over Sam; no spring chicken himself, Sam was half blind and had taken to being underfoot all the time. If he had admitted that though, they may have taken Sam away. His sister called him; she never called with happy news. All she had to say was “how do you think your daughters would feel if they found you laying on the floor dead?” Thanks Phyllis. He said she was absolutely right and he would do something about it straight away. “Thank God I was able to talk some sense into you” she said before announcing that she had to go watch her favorite TV show.

Something his daughters did not know about was the followup call he’d gotten from his doctor’s office. His steadliy declining kidney function was reaching a critical stage. Telling his daughters would mean he had seen his last day of skiing, his last walk in the woods alone, his last drive to the ocean to watch the waves crash on the shore while he sipped beers from his cooler. He HAD confided in Patti, told her he wanted one last trip to the North Country, and she had given him a tent that she never used. His daughters wouldn’t like it and they would feel betrayed, well maybe Gracie would understand after awhile…she was her father’s daughter. Patti wouldn’t like it either, but she would immediately understand and that is why she was watching Sam.

He took the three notes, one for each daughter and one for Patti, put them in plastic bags and pinned them to the tent wall. They would find the car first so there was a note in the car pointing out his camping site. He told all three girls he loved them and asked Patti to take care of Sam, although he already knew she would. And then he thought about his late wife for a few minutes…would she understand? Of course she would; she knew who she married.

He watched as the sky turned orange, then red, then purple. He watched as the stars appeared and found Polaris, Orion and Ursa Major. There was no moon and that made him a little sad but he was able to make out Venus and Mars. He had carried in a can of beer and left it to chill in a nearby stream. He got up and grabbed the beer…it was perfect. He sat back down just outside the tent entrance, pulled the bottle from his pocket and without hesitation swallowed it’s contents, washing it down with the ice cold beer. Then he sat back and breathed the pine air and he could smell the Balsam and he could smell the Tamarack and he could smell the Jack Pine. He could hear a fish striking at a mosquito and his daughters crying in their cribs and he heard his wife saying she was waiting for him.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

JFK

It’d been a long flight from Russia and Peter was walking around like a zombie. He passed through the maze that was the old Pan Am terminal into another, even older terminal. After passing several waiting areas he found what he was looking for: a gate with no flights posted on the monitor, and not a soul in the waiting area. Sweet! He could catch a few winks undisturbed by nattering couples and unruly children. He plopped in a chair, put his feet on his briefcase and had almost shut his eyes when he saw something a few yards away. Shit. He wasn’t alone. He sulked as if someone had barged into his private property.

He opened his eyes a bit more; it was a flight attendant, but what was she doing on the floor? She had taken her boots off and was sitting with her feet curled up under her, reading a book. She had wavy dark hair pulled over one shoulder and he could see she was slim and by the look of her legs tall as well. She looked up. Damn! He had stared too long. On defense, he flashed her what had to be the nerdiest grin ever. She smiled back, and he mumbled “hi” and figured it was time to butt out and take his catnap. After all, she was after the same thing he was; peace and quiet.

“Where are you heading?” Well maybe she wanted to chat after all. “Dulles” he replied, “connecting from Moscow”. She nodded “that’s a long day. I just worked a flight from Paris, deadheading back to Atlanta now”. “So why are you sitting on the floor?” She laughed, “I’m working on my thesis and it’s the only way to keep all my crap organized, I’m Juliette by the way”. “Nice to meet you, I’m Peter. Is it Julie for short?” “Nope, I prefer Juliette.”

As it turned out she was working on a Masters Degree in French history for no reason other than she found it interesting. So she was a Francophile….that explained the Juliette thing. But at the moment she wasn’t particularly motivated after her overseas flight so they wound up getting a bite at a nearby restaurant. The conversation flowed easily as he too had an interest in history. They exchanged social media information and kept in touch over messenger. She documented her travels on Instagram and he always had to make a pithy comment on each picture.

A few months later she sent him a message “I snagged the Dulles to Paris roundtrip, I’ll have an overnight in D.C. Buy me dinner.” Dinner went great, not there was much doubt, they’d been messaging and occasionally calling each other ever since JFK. He wanted to see her when she returned from Paris. “When will you be back?” “Tuesday. I have a 3 day layover in Paris. Fun, but I’ll be on my own. Everyone else will want to shop and go clubbing. I just want to hit the museums and walk my feet off.” They agreed to meet when she came back through and he got a long hug when he dropped her at the crew hotel. But thinking on what she’d said about being alone in Paris he couldn’t help wondering was that a hint?

He walked through the main cabin door and couldn’t find her. Crap. What if her assignment had changed. It was a risk just showing up, but he wanted to surprise her. Guess he’d be the one alone in Paris. “I can’t believe you”. He spun around and saw a grinning Juliette in the entry to business class. “Well, couldn’t let you wander Paris alone could I”. She laughed “I’m a big girl”. “Well I thought you might like some company and well…I mean…are you mad?” He was stammering. “Cut it out, you’re right where you’re supposed to be. I practically beat you over the head hoping you’d ask me yesterday, but the surprise is nice”. She squeezed his hand ” now sir, you’re in 24B, please take your seat and I’ll attend to you later.”

He watched her walk up the aisle back to her business class passengers and was just starting to settle in when she showed up again. “Sir” he leered at her “yes ma’am”. “Good news. You’ve been upgraded. Please get your belongings and follow me”. As they moved into the premium cabin he noticed an empty seat next to a pretty blonde and headed for it. Juliet grabbed his arm and guided him towards a seat next to a young man wearing headphones. “Nice try bucko. You just sit right here where I can keep an eye on you.”

What followed for the next hour or so was a parade of flight attendants and even the Captain, slowly walking by, trying to look casual, checking him out. One crusty veteran looked him up and down, grunted and shook her head. Finally, the Captain plopped down in the seat across the aisle. “So you’re Jules’s boyfriend.” Boyfriend? What had she told them? Well, he had to admit, he didn’t mind the sound of it. The Captain was still talking, he looked him over. Right out of central casting, tall, Dutch, square jaw, “you have to forgive us, always there is a passenger who is after Juliette and always she is saying ‘no'”. So we are very curious about the passenger she said ‘yes’ to”. Peter laughed “well truth be told, it was more like I said yes to her.” The Captain laughed “be good to her”, and then he disappeared back to the flight deck. It was all very friendly, but there was the hint of a warning in the Captain’s tone.

Paris was a complete success. He’d assumed she’d bunk with her crew but she had other plans and so they wound up spending almost every minute of the three days together. By the time they’d boarded the flight back he told her he thought he was in love. She was noncommittal but when his entree was served about an hour into the flight it came with a note that sealed the deal. He thought “damn…and I wasn’t even going to speak to her”.

After they landed at Dulles she had to hustle back to Atlanta so she could get enough sleep before her next assignment. As promised, she texted that she’d gotten home alright and added an ‘I Love You’ lest he forget. He was already working out where they would meet next and texted her about his idea. But she didn’t answer that text. Or the next one, or the next…then he tried calling and her phone went to voice mail. He kept calling and leaving messages over the next 2 weeks until her mailbox was full. Was she ghosting him? She didn’t seem the type, she was direct, even blunt. She would have at least told him to knock it off. Something was very wrong.

And now be began to realize how little he knew about her. He knew her last name, where she worked, her mobile number, that she lived somewhere in Atlanta, and that she had parents in Michigan…or was it Minnesota? He decided to check with the airline and finally found a number for Human Resources. “Has she been to work and do you know what flight she was working last?” Dead end. “All we can do is confirm she works for us sir, the rest is confidential…” he didn’t give up, “I’m worried about her.” The HR clerk sighed “No offense sir, but we get lots of calls where someone is trying to track down one of our Flight Attendants”. End of call.

He tried a different tack. He had a friend who was a retired Captain…maybe he still knew someone that would be more helpful. He was right on it: “All I could find out is she hasn’t flown for over two weeks, scheduling can’t find her and and she’s been suspended”. “Have they tried to track her down?” His friend sensed the distress in his voice but couldn’t help from laughing, “It’s a big airline, people quit without notice all the time. Sorry bud, hope you find her.” He was disappointed but still it was a tiny bit more than he’d known previously. He was getting ready to hang up “oh I almost forgot…the Captain on her last flight…he’s not showed up for work either”. Peter whistled. “Well surely this will have them try to hunt them down.” “Not necessarily. They won’t do much more than you’ve already done. Look, I know you’re crazy about her, but a pilot going on a bender with a pretty flight attendant? Wouldn’t be the first time. Not the second or third time either.” Peter felt himself getting angry at his friend but held it together, “doesn’t seem like the type but I take your point. I do appreciate your help”. “No problem buddy, I hope you find her”.

Peter thought surely he was closing in on the smoking gun…it was just too much coincidence that the pilot had disappeared at the same time. He needed to find some more info on this guy. Having reached a dead end at the airline he decided to call in his best online stalker buddy. Actually, he and Lori had been on and off for years so maybe buddy wasn’t the right word but it wasn’t the wrong word either. Lori came down to his apartment with a couple bottles of wine figuring this was going to turn into a booty call. Seeing no chance of that she started in on the wine. After Peter finished telling the story she snorted and almost blew wine out her nose.

“Okay”, she began, “so you meet a beautiful woman in an airport waiting room and she asks you to buy her some dinner before her flight”. “She didn’t ask me to buy, I just did “. “Okay whatever. Then she maneuvers you into going to Paris with her…”. “Wait a minute that was my idea.” Lori rolled her eyes “you’re cute. Did she sleep with you?” Peter clearly looking for something to recover his dignity snapped “yes. And then some.” “Well, that’s a point in your favor.” Peter thought she was enjoying herself a bit too much at his expense. “Don’t you think we should be focusing on that pilot?” “Irrelevant.” She stated flatly. “If she lied to you do you even care about the pilot?” Peter had to admit she had a point. “Let’s focus on her. I want you to write down everything she told you about herself. Dig deep. Now get cracking.”

After about an hour Lori was on her 3rd glass of wine and Peter was done with the list and handed it over for review. She rolled her eyes again, “Seriously? She doesn’t like THAT?” He tried to look innocent “you said everything…”. “What the hell were you trying to do?” “Nothing, she just came out with it”. She gave him the side eye “you mean like on the airport shuttle?” He grabbed the wine bottle “that’s enough, you get jealous when you drink”. She grabbed it back. “You wish. Let’s get back to work”.

“Okay. You have circumstantial evidence that she lives in Atlanta.” “No that’s solid. I met her flight when she came to Dulles”. “She’s a flight attendant and that’s a hub. Easy to game that. Circumstantial.” She moved on, “She works for the airline that’s for sure. And I feel like she is from Michigan for sure.” He shook his head “that’s just what she said, I have no evidence.” She disagreed: “She told you she’s a Packers fan. Someone faking they’re from Michigan wouldn’t say the “Packers”. Peter had almost forgotten about her history studies “she’s a whiz at French history, so that checks out too.” Lori screwed up here face and stared at the laptop. “She claimed she had little internet access until she left for college.” A grin started to form “I know where’s she’s from”. Lori then proceeded to put together the puzzle for Peter. “She lives in Michigan but likes the Packers…” Peter noted that there were Packers fans everywhere. “Just stay with me hun. She loves snowmobiling and she said her college was too far away to go home very often right?” Peter nodded. “And where did she go to college?” Lori said this like she was a game show host leading up to the final answer “Detroit, will you just tell me if you know something for chrissakes?” “God don’t be so crabby. Alright groucho man, she’s from the Upper Peninsula! You don’t look impressed…why don’t you look impressed?” Peter sighed “do you have any idea how big the Upper Peninsula is? That’s like 300,000 people up there.” “311,000 to be precise. That’s why you have me and the Mac daddy here” she said, patting her laptop.

Lori was simultaneously searching online for clues and singing a song designed to annoy Peter. For his part, he pretended not to be annoyed, though he was, which only made her sing with increasing gusto. “I know what you’re up to and you can forget it.” She only pouted and drilled into some new discovery. “Ooooh oooh is this her????” Peter rushed to look over her shoulder. There was a photo of a grinning beaver on the screen.

It was way past sunrise and Peter had dozed off on the couch but woke to hear Lori talking excitedly to someone on the phone. When his eyes could focus he could see she wanted him to take the phone. “What???” She half whispered “it’s her mom! She wants to talk to you.” He started to put it on speaker and Lori waved him off, “I’m crashing. Fill me in later.” The call went on for over an hour with them each walking through their latest convos with Juliette sifting for clues. She assured Peter her daughter was not the type to just ghost someone. She’d not heard from her in a couple,of weeks but hadn’t been worried until now. They agreed that she would call the airline (as next of kin they would tell her more) and Peter would pursue other means. There was talk of calling the police but mom was going to try to reach a couple of her girlfriends first. He decided to get some more sleep and then he’d get Lori caught up. He went into his bedroom only to find Lori sprawled across his bed snoring loudly. He pushed her to one side and laid down next to her. He was out in a minute.

They slept late, but after brunch they were back on the phone with Juliette’s folks. Her dad had gotten home from a business trip and immediately called the police in the Atlanta suburb where Juliette had her apartment. He got on the line, “the police asked for your number but…”. Peter said “thanks but you have to call them back right now and give it to them”. “Will you keep looking for her?” Peter answered “With all due respect sir, I wouldn’t stop if you asked me to.” Her parents both thanked him and they agreed to speak again that evening. Lori looked over at him “NOW it’s time to find out about this Captain.

Peters’s interview with the police was thorough and tedious. He was impressed…they actually seemed to be looking for her. Unlike him, they were able to find out that she had indeed taken the flight from Dulles to Atlanta which both helped the case and proved that Peter had not been the last to see her. While that was going on Lori had been digging around trying to get more on Captain Bligh as she had taken to calling him. She’d had some success.

“Now who is this we are going to see?” They has flown to Minneapolis the night before and had met Lori’s Sorority sister for breakfast. She was driving them north of the city to meet Shelly, a woman she’d met doing a community theatre production. As she’d explained over breakfast, at one performance Shelly’s boyfriend had attended and went for drinks with the cast. He was hard to forget, tall and handsome. His name was Dirk, a Dutch guy. He was an airline pilot.

Shelly was distraught, Dirk texted or called her almost every night without fail unless he was working a flight. And then he always let her know when he’d arrived. “Do you think they ran off? Dirk and your girlfriend?” “I don’t think so Shelly”. Shelly was trying not to cry, “then where are they…?” “I wish I knew…”. Lori interrupted “you two getting upset isn’t going to find them. Shelly, thanks hun, don’t worry, we’re gonna find them you’ve given us tons of details. “Shelly nodded “thank you”. They left her with their contact numbers and what to say if Dirk or even Juliette were to contact her.

On the drive back to the twin cities they inventoried their findings. Lori was excited though Peter couldn’t see why. “Big deal, we got a list of his destinations and his phone number. The cops will have that by now too.”. Lori scoffed “do the cops have a record of what he did…” Peter interrupted “says he did”. “Jesus Peter, sooner or later you have to believe something or you’ll never get anywhere at all. Now the only thing we need to do is find all the other Shellys, this guy’s a player”. Peter was shaking his head “he’s a straight arrow. He never made a pass at Juliette or any of the other Flight Attendants”. Lori laughed “so what, ever hear the expression ‘don’t shit where you eat'”? Peter got a mischievous look on his face “Jesus Lori, sooner or later…”. She cut his sentence off and punctuated it with a hard punch in the arm.

They were going through their notes on Capt. Bligh when the phone rang. It was Juliette’s father, “someone from the airline called and wanted to talk about Juliette but insisted on speaking to you two”. “Why us” asked Peter? “I don’t know, though she said it wasn’t official and would only talk to Peter and that chick who’s helping him”. “That chick, nice” muttered Lori. “Honestly, she sounded scared”. Lori arched an eyebrow, “lose her job scared? “. “Worse scared.”Peter took the woman’s number and promised he’d call back after they’d spoken.

It took awhile to draw her out, she was frightened, but gradually they got her to open up. Turns out she’d been the purser on that trip to Paris and word leaked out that someone was looking for Juliette. It wasn’t hard to put 2 + 2 together, but she had no way of contacting him so she got hold of Juliette’s emergency contact info, reached her parents, and here they were. “Girls are going missing and the airline is saying it’s normal attrition but everyone knows something’s wrong.” Lori asked carefully, ” what makes everyone think that? ” The woman asked Peter if she thought Juliette was the type that would just scram, “definitely not”, ” well it’s the same pattern with the other girls, they work a Paris trip, deadhead back to their home city and then they go missing.” Lori pushed her: “who are the other girls?” The woman hesitated, “I can’t say. Look, I like Juliette so I want to help but please swear you won’t tell anyone we spoke.” Peter and Lori swore to it, “okay there’s one more thing. Captain Dirk is somehow mixed up in this.” After she hung up Peter protested “this is a red herring. Shelly said he’d never gone missing before so I’m not seeing what would be different this time”. Lori put her hand on his shoulder “Peter, it’s you. You’re what’s different”

They began debating the merits of which trail to go down next. It was beyond doubt that somehow this Dirk guy, Captain Anders to be precise, was up to his neck in it. On the other hand tracking down who the girls were might establish a pattern. Lori scrunched up her face, “I’m not even sure the cops know there’s more than one. Searching all over the country looking for missing women who happen to be flight attendants…Damnit!!!” “What? What are you thinking?” Lori grabbed her mobile and told SIRI to call Juliette’s Mom. Her father answered and told Lori she was too upset and he’d have to do. “No. Put her on, it’s important.” Lori covered the mic “I think I know who one of the other missing girls is”. Mom came on the phone. “Ma’am what did you tell me about Juliette’s roommate being on vacation?” Lori thanked her and without so much as glancing at Peter dialed the detective working the case on Juliette. She put it on speaker and Peter heard an annoyed voice come on the line. Lori didn’t give him time to get a word out “Yeah it’s me again, so when the fuck were you going to tell me her roommate was missing too?” Flustered, the detective blurted out “we don’t have time to deal with amateurs”. Bad choice of words. Lori was on him “what do you have on Anders?” “Person of interest, not a suspect at this time”. “Oh yeah? Did you know there are more than 2 missing flight attendants and they all flew to Paris right before they went missing?” The detective was trying not to sound excited “how did you find that out?” “Never mind. Look I know we are not ‘working together’ but we’ve got nothing else to do but work this. I will tell you everything I find out if you do the same, agreed?” She didn’t wait for his answer, “good”.

Peter was shaking his head “how did you know for sure it was her roommate?” Lori grabbed an apple “I didn’t. But I do now” She chomped on the apple. “Well you could have just asked”, Lori laughed, “that’s how you get men to talk. If you ask they’ll have time to come up with a story”. “And if it had been a woman?” “A woman would not have even heard the question, she would have torn my head off.” “Geez, I’m glad you’re on my side”. “I can’t believe I’m helping you find another woman”. He kissed her on the cheek “thank you”. She snorted “whatever, I think it’s time to check her social media again”, Peter groaned “We spent hours going through her instagram account and nothing. Just a bunch of her friends posing on beaches and in front of mirrors”. “True, but now we have someone to zone in on.” “Did the cops give you her name?” “Rhonda Turner. But she’s not in Juliette’s list of followers. Not surprising, probably using a made up name, so we are going to have to find her the hard way.”

After about an hour they’d collected and printed out five mirror selfies of Juliette that they determined must have been from her apartment. “What’s the point of this?” He asked. “Just do what I say. Go through the list of Juliette’s female followers and checkout their pics until you find something interesting. Try not to hurt yourself.” “Where the hell are you going?” She laughed “I’m free labor and your ex. Don’t push your luck. I’ll be right back.”

When she returned Peter was grinning “I found her! Username is RhondaFlys.” “Matched the wallpaper in the selfies didn’t you?” He looked crestfallen, “I thought I made that up…”. She patted him on the head “you did honey. I just made it up first.” She handed him a beer she’d gotten from down the street.”

As it turned out, Rhonda was a social media addict and her accounts on Instagram and Facebook yielded a bonanza of cat videos and selfies. Fortunately there were lots of pictures with Flight crew including Juliette and Anders and she consistently tagged everyone in her photos. Soon they had a wall full of index cards and yarn tying together all the relationships. They were starting to get punchy from lack of sleep so Lori headed for Peter’s bed to crash for awhile. He took a walk around the deserted streets to clear his head. When his head was clear it told him to get some sleep. Walking into his room he saw Lori was again taking up most of the bed but wasn’t yet asleep. He crawled in next to her but did not shove her aside this time. He whispered thank you, and she moved closer to him and then went out like a light.

Peter woke up to the smell of fresh coffee and the crackling of frying bacon. He threw on his robe and went to the kitchen. Lori motioned for him to sit down. Funny, he thought, during the time they were a couple she had never cooked once, yet here she was like Suzy Homemaker. “What’s gotten into you?” She wagged her finger at him “don’t be so suspicious, I went for a walk and got hungry, bacon, eggs, toast and orange juice sounded good.” He saluted her with his cup, “and coffee”. Lori just smiled. She filled a couple of plates and they sat in silence while they ate, thinking. As soon as Peter was done, Lori led him to her laptop and told him to sit down. She’d been up to more than walking and cooking while he was sleeping.

“So here is Anders on Rhonda’s list of followers and she follows him of course”. Peter nodded “that’s to be expected, but no connection between Anders and Juliette right?” “Right. But look here. I started going through El Creepo’s list of connections focusing on the flight attendants”. He was beginning to understand her methods; focus on the easy stuff first and you might catch a break. Lori had indeed caught a break but it wasn’t the kind of break either of them was expecting…or wanting.

Peter hung up the phone, the detective had been sympathetic, and even acknowledged they might be on to something but that; 1. Men looking at internet porn wasn’t illegal and; 2. there wasn’t enough of a lead to go on to start pulling in the type of resources they would need. Besides, he reminded them, they were far from exhausting their conventional leads and his captain would insist he follow those before going off on something speculative. He did promise however to call a friend at the FBI who specialized in this sort of thing. Neither of them thought it was speculative and Peter was still shaken by what Lori had shown him. If Lori’s theory was right, Juliette was in grave danger.

They called Juliette’s father and filled him in on progress but only told him she might be with Anders and that the police were reaching out to the FBI…all true but hardly the whole picture. They had both agreed that further frightening her parents wouldn’t do any good. Peter’s phone dinged with an incoming text from his retired captain friend. “Four, women same thing. No shows for work, suspended, couldn’t get names.” He texted back a “thank you” and put his head in his hands.

Peter was looking at the picture of Rhonda the flight attendant and then the other account that Lori had found. There was something familiar about the profile pic and then she realized that the redhead featured in the porn account looked a hell of a lot like the blonde Rhonda. She finally found a small scar on her neck and confirmed it. The rest was easy. She was able to track two of the followers from her legit account to two other porn accounts. These three women HAD to be the other missing flight attendants. And then Peter had realized something that made his blood run cold: none of their legit accounts had been touched in weeks…just like Juliette’s.

“We need to verify this and then we can get some help from the feds; ironically they’re the only ones who can verify our theory. Can we call Daniel? The one with the wife that went missing?” Daniel was a childhood friend of Peter’s and a detective with the local police force. He and his wife, Gretchen, had become locally famous when she’d mysteriously disappeared. Gretchen was a frumpy dresser but her mother, a PR professional knew how to keep the police on the case; she found the one glamour shot she had of her daughter and made sure it got in the local papers. The press went berserk and the cops were forced to keep the case as a top priority. Ironically, Gretchen had rescued herself with Daniel’s unwitting help, and the strange circumstances along with her good looks kept the story alive and they lived like minor celebrities.

They met over lunch at a posh suburban restaurant, all brass and Art Deco and waiters in white aprons, it felt like they had stepped back a century. Gretchen’s outfit was muted but there was no hiding who she was , and the other customers snuck glances in their direction. Daniel had indeed spoken to his fed friends who were able to confirm that all four women were indeed missing. Lori shook her head “what is Anders into?”. Gretchen tried to sound upbeat “there’s no porn account for Juliette yet, Anders Dutch passport has been revoked and border patrol is on the lookout for him”. “So they’re probably holed up somewhere in the country, which for now is a good thing” Daniel offered. Peter stared at his plate “what happens when they’re done with these girls?”. Gretchen laid it out straight: “everyone pictures cases like this happening in Eastern Europe or some place like that. Truth is these women could all be in New Jersey or someplace . They may be messed up but there’s a much better chance of finding them…”. Peter completed her sentence “Alive”.

They’d been back at his apartment throwing out theories but not accomplishing much. Peter got up and took a walk. He’d spent a grand total of 93 hours with this woman and had fallen hard…who was she? The local pizza joint was open so he stopped in and got a large pie…he wasn’t sure about Daniel and Gretchen but Lori loved pizza. He trotted up the stairs, reinvigorated and excited about the hot pizza. He threw open the door and said “pizza!” but no one budged. Not even a facial twitch. The one exception was Gretchen who just gave him a baleful look. “They’re not missing”.

Peter set the pizza down on the counter “you found her?” He’d said it like a man repeats news he thinks is too good to be true. He wasn’t wrong. Daniel walked over to him and put his hand on his shoulder “no, we didn’t find them. We just know they’re safe and not missing”. It was a lot to process, should he be happy? Sad? What? His mind did the only thing it could do, it evaded the obvious, hard question and went on a tangent “do her parents know yet?” Lori piped in “they knew it all along. They played along with us because the feds thought you were mixed up in it.”. It was too much and Peter just sat down and stared into space. Gretchen shooed Daniel away and sat down next to him. “I’m gone 45 minutes…”. “I know. It just all came together that fast”.

Gretchen started filling in the blanks. How Daniel’s buddy at the bureau had called and told him to back off. Daniel pressed his friend, and his luck, for Peter’s sake. All he got was “we have them and they’ve committed no crimes.” Daniel got nothing else out of his friend, well almost. He had a theory and he tested it. “Our friend wants to see the girl. They were lovers.” All the agent said was “he’ll never see her”. That told Daniel everything he needed to know. Gretchen tried to soothe Peter…she’s safe Peter. “I would have went with her, she could have at least asked”. Gretchen took his hand “if your places were switched, would you have done that to her? Asking her to make that choice? To never see her parents again? Her friends? Would you really have done that? Never see your parents again? Or Lori?”. Peter was shaking his head, I couldn’t have asked that. And no, my parents are dead but I don’t think I could have left Lori”. “It’s because she cared about you that she didn’t make you choose”.

Peter regained his composure. “So what happened? What were they into?” Daniel shook his head. “Hard to tell, but if I had to guess, Juliette had been targeted like the rest of these girls. Probably were going to befriend her in Paris…but then you showed up and you never left her side”. Peter was confused, “so the Feds are involved in a non-kidnapping?” “They must have made another try for her…but Anders is keeping an eye on her and got in the middle of it”. Gretchen took over from Daniel “So they go to the feds and the feds know these guys are really bad actors…”. Peter was nodding now “so Anders and Juliette can finger these guys”. “Probably”. So now the cross examination he’d gotten from Anders on the way to Paris made sense…he had been on high red alert.

It had been six months since he’d met Juliette and while he wasn’t over her, he’d come to accept reality. He walked into his apartment and Lori was on the couch working on her laptop, mooching his WiFi. It was okay, he liked having her around. There’d been a couple of near misses, but they’d kept it platonic; he wasn’t sure why, except that maybe she’d think he was just rebounding. He was going through the mail when one envelope caught his eye. It was handwritten. He opened it to find a smaller envelope inside. He did not recognize the handwriting but the writer was unmistakable: “Do you remember the two dogs we saw near La Place des Vosges “? Juliette was probably taking a crazy chance writing to him, even if she’d managed to conceal the true origin of the letter; which was postmarked Chicago. It went on and finally ended with an offer. She’d finagled a way that they could meet each other: would he like to see her? Instructions followed.

He went onto the balcony hoping the cold night air would focus his thinking. But what was there to think about; wasn’t this what he’d wanted? He looked through the window at Lori, she was oblivious, and she’d tell him to go if he asked her. He went back inside and sat next to her, she was typing an email so he said nothing, but he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Where did that come from?” “I’m sorry, are you mad”? “No dumbass, just wondering why it took you so long.” She continued typing but moved closer to him. “Any interesting mail?” “Nothing important”

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

The Big Whiff

I saw it coming before he did. It was just too obvious…too many beers, too much PBR apparel. I saw the blonde heading to the table between us and it was like the script was already written.

She seemed nice, at least she was patient you’d have to say.  His radar went off like a sailor in port on payday. He said something to her, admittedly it was kind of funny, I thought so and she did too, at least she laughed. A brief moment of triumph before the inevitable crash and burn.

That the PBR shirt and her Bogner apres ski clothes weren’t gonna mix well was apparent to everyone in the bar…well almost everyone.  He was in that beer fueled optimistic state that all guys experience. Unfortunately, there’s a delicate equilibrium of alcohol and stupidity and when one gets out of balance high comedy ensues. But for some reason she wasn’t shooting him down. That reason soon became apparent when three girlfriends arrived…she wanted to keep the quarry alive until the big guns showed up.

Now the women are giggling and taking potshots at the guy…he doubles down and orders another beer. I wanna tell the guy to stop, to preserve his dignity, but he’s beyond helping. I scope the women in the group, all of them attractive…the redhead especially so.

I lose interest and go back to my book. The bar was clearing out, you could feel it as the bodies left and the temperature dropped imperceptibly. The women were gone except the redhead, I could see her out of the corner of my eye. Then she got up to leave and I turned for a last look…and then I noticed her hand was trailing behind her, it was attached to another hand…that hand belonged to PBR guy.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

Prince Charmin

Reluctantly he grabbed the last 12 pack of toilet paper in the store. He lived alone and didn’t need much but he was down to half a roll and even for a single guy that was cutting it close. He didn’t need 12 but there was nothing else to be had.

Then he noticed the pretty blonde staring forlornly at the empty shelf and knew he’d be giving up his treasure. “Are you out?” She nodded and he turned over the package, “here, I’ve got plenty” he lied, “ you take this”. She protested but he insisted and then she said “I’d hug you but social distance and all…”. He laughed “just my luck”. She smiled and thanked him again and he went to look for a slice of pizza.

He finished checking out and headed to the car working out in his head how he could make the half roll last, and then he saw her again. She’d been waiting for him, and was holding 3 rolls of toilet paper she’d broken out of the package. “Take these…I don’t need 12 of them”. Grateful, he thanked her, and headed home, he was a little upset with himself for not talking to her more but then he didn’t want to turn kind gestures into awkwardness.

He kept thinking about her…she was cute, and kind. Those were two pretty good starting points. A few days later he was getting ready to use one of the rolls and be noticed a dark smudge, he unrolled it a little and there it was, writing as clear as day: “here’s my number, call me and tell me where you are right this minute.” And so he did, and then he knew she was funny too, and that’s all he needed to know.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved