Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars
He heard voices again, voices far away – as if on the far side of a scream.
The snake was there – by his ankle – coiling up to strike, again. Then – out of the corner of his eye – he saw a large cat…a leopard? – and he was groping for his sidearm in the dark with his right hand when the snake struck – again. He felt searing pain on top of his hand but managed to hold onto the Colt as he pulled it free; he shot the snake – then squeezed-off several rounds at the cat, striking it at least once in the gut…
Then he felt a new pain, something much deeper now, and this time throughout his right leg. Unreal thirst, too, and in his mind’s eye he thought he saw a helicopter, heard rotors beating the night, then there were men all around, lifting him, carrying him…into the night.
And he opened his eyes, saw he was in a hospital room.
He looked out a window across the room, saw Vancouver’s skyline on the far side of the glass and he wondered what’d happened. How had he…?
“My leg,” he said aloud. “They came back for me.”
But…where was Ted? And that woman? Where were they?
The lights were off but there was a bank of instruments lighting the little room, the various screens taking stock of the ebbs and flows of his life…and he saw a call button on a rail by his head. He reached for it, winced in pain as something flared in his leg, but he grabbed the cold plastic and pushed – as he gasped for breath. Nothing…and he pushed the button again, and again.
Then…he heard running, people running towards his room, and voices. Voices, faraway, as if from a dream.
Two women burst in and looked at him, then one turned and ran from the room.
She ran fast, he thought. Too fast.
“You’re awake,” the remaining girl said – as she came to the side of the bed.
“So it would appear. Mind telling me where I am, perhaps what I’m doing here?”
“We’ve just gone to get Doctor Sutton. She’s been wanting to talk to you.”
“Oh, she has? So, where ‘we’ are is a state secret, I take it?”
“Oh, heavens,” the girl said, thrusting a probe of some kind in his mouth. “Under the tongue, now. And no, we’re at Vancouver General. You’ve been here a while.”
“Define for me,” he mumbled, “if you please, what ‘a while?’ means.”
“We’ll let Doctor Sutton do just that…and as soon as she gets here I must go and call your son.”
“Ted? Is he here?”
“Heavens no. He hasn’t been here in weeks.”
“Weeks?” But he saw she was ignoring him now, busily writing away on an inch-thick file bound to an aluminum clipboard, one of those fat aluminum jobs, then the door opened again and a harried-looking middle-aged woman slouched into the room – though her eyes brightened a bit when she saw him.
“Ah, you’re awake! Wonderful!”
“That seems to be the consensus opinion, yes.”
“That I am, in fact, awake. And that seems to be all anyone will tell me, too.”
“Ah. Well, yes. I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Are you always so sarcastic?”
“Only when the situation warrants,” he added.
“Ah. Well, yes, well, you see…”
“Doc? Straight talk would be much appreciated right about now.”
“Ah. Yes, I see. Well, that bug you carried home from Iraq has turned into a super-antibiotic resistant little critter, and, well, gangrene set in before the antibiotic cocktail we devised could take hold. The good news is that the cocktail worked; the bad news is that you’ve lost your right leg, just above the knee.”
“And how long have I been here?”
“Not quite six weeks.”
“Your son has been here night and day almost all that time, and he’s only just gone back to Seattle. He’s on his way up, as we speak, and you’ve had people from your work here too.”
“Some pilots from Delta; a few corporate types. Insurance, benefits, those kinds of things.”
He looked at the foot of the bed, saw his left foot sticking up – then the vague contours of a shadow where his life used to be, and he swallowed hard as cold implications swept through the room on an ill wind.
“We’ll want to get you started on physical therapy, now that you’re up and about…”
“Up and about?”
“Ah, yes. Well…”
“The whole bedside manner thing, Doc? You need to work on that.”
“Ah, yes, well, you see, I’ve never been much of a people person.”
“No, not ever, as a matter of fact.”
“Ah, look, might I have someone from psychiatry drop by…”
“Why? Do I sound mentally ill?”
“No, I just thought that, well, ah, you know, you might like someone to talk to.”
“At five hundred an hour? Gee, no thanks. I think I’ll pass on that.”
“You forget, we have nationalized medicine here.”
“For American-nationals? Really? How nice.”
“Oh quite, I forgot.”
“Well, doc, thanks for hacking my leg off. Appreciate it, really, I do. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to get out of here.”
When Ted arrived, perhaps five hours later, he seemed relieved to see his father again…and tried to set him straight.
“Was it that bad?” he asked as he looked his son in the eye.
“You have no idea. Docs from everywhere, and I mean as far away as London, were called to consult on this. For about three days they told me you weren’t going to make it, then your leg turned black. I mean black. Started at the foot and streaks started shooting up your leg…”
“What about the VA? Did you call Schultz, in Seattle?”
“Oh, yeah. He came up, too. Stayed two days, and Delta sent some guy out from Columbia Presbyterian.”
He shook his head, felt a little ashamed of his outburst at Sutton.
“I think she understands, Dad.”
“Dr. Sutton. Everyone here knows all about you. Everyone busted there ass, Dad. You got to believe that.”
He nodded, said he understood – but he didn’t, not really. “When do you go back to school?”
“I’m taking the semester off, Dad. You’re going to need a hand for the next few months…”
“Back in her slip…on the lake. A bunch of us, a girl from Whaletown, Melissa, we all brought her down. Not a scratch, Dad. You’d’ve been proud.”
“The woman, from the bakery?”
“Oh, yes. How is she?” he added, barely remembering her.
“Back in Atlanta, but I just called her. She told me to tell you she’ll try to come up this weekend.”
He shook his head, tried to make sense of this new world – his new life. “Ted? What am I going to do?”
And his son sat there in the silence, thunderstruck. His father had never once spoken to him like this, asked him something so – consequential.
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“What am I going to do now? With my life?”
“I don’t know, Dad? What are the options?” – and then he had watched in dismay as his father looked down at the foot of his bed, at the emptiness waiting there, staring back like an accusation.
“Someone told me that people from corporate came by. Any idea what that was about?”
“Some friends, I think, but a few people from Atlanta, too. They talked with your docs, and that’s about all I know on that front.”
He shook his head – as if trying to clear away the cobwebs – then looked up at his boy. “You said the boat is back in Seattle? How’d that go?”
“Melissa and I – and that doc from Whaletown – we brought it down. Took three days, but it was a breeze. No problems at all.”
“Oh, yeah. When you passed out…”
“I passed out?”
“Fever. Yup. We got on the radio and called it in; the Canadian Coast Guard called a doc in Whaletown, and she came out to the General Store. I picked her up and carried her out to the boat. She’s the one who called for the medevac…”
“A medevac? What? A helicopter?”
“No, a float-plane. Single engine, turbine.”
“Jeez, my insurance company must be going nuts.”
“Apparently that’s all been taken care of. Your corporate people got on to the VA and they’re all coordinating with Blue Cross.”
“That’ll be the day,” he sighed, and they both laughed, then he realized it still felt good to laugh. “Wait a minute…you said Melissa and that doc? What happened to Tracy?”
“Long story, Dad, and I think Melissa might be the one to explain all that.”
And Ted looked away. “Things weren’t what we thought, Dad.”
“What does ‘what we thought?’ mean, Paco?”
“She…Melissa…didn’t just show up. She’d been following Tracy, for weeks.”
“Following?” he said, his thoughts reeling.
“Tracy had been, I don’t know…how to say this. Trafficked? Is that the right word?”
“Trafficked? What do you mean, trafficked?”
“She’d been abducted, Dad, years ago, moved around a lot by whoever ‘owned’ her. From Sydney to Singapore, then Hong Kong, and – finally – to Vancouver, last year. Melissa works on some kind of task force, law enforcement. FBI, Interpol, those kinds of things. Anyway, she couldn’t tell me much more than the basics. Someone identified Tracy a few months ago and law enforcement moved in, began tailing her. I think they’re trying to home in on the people chasing her…”
“Yeah, well, when she came with us she was making a break for it, I guess you could say.”
“Jesus, Ted. Is anyone tailing us now?”
And Ted laughed again. “I think we’re covered on that end, Dad. I’m a cooperating witness, under protection.”
“Sweet Jesus,” he sighed, not at all happy now. “This Melissa…is that even her name?”
Ted shrugged. “As far as I know…”
“Right,” he said, looking at his son and for the first time realizing just how clueless he was. How clueless they both were. “And she’s, what…coming back up soon?”
“Maybe this weekend.”
“I can’t wait. Man, she was laying it on pretty thick…”
“Dad…she likes you. I mean…I think she really likes you.”
“She, like, cried for an hour after you came out of surgery,” Ted said, looking at his leg, “and she didn’t leave your side, like, for a week. ‘Til Mom came up, anyway.”
“Your mother came up? Oh, swell…that’s just fucking great.”
“She still cares, Dad.”
“What turnip truck did you fall out of, son…?”
“Never mind,” he sighed, again, only this time it lasted forever. “So, your mother shows up and Melissa beats feet?”
“Yup. That’s about the size of it.”
“By any chance, did you remember my phone?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ted said, digging around in his coat pocket. “All charged-up, too,” he added, putting the phone and its charging cords on the little rolling table over his lap.
He turned it on, looked at his phone’s message queue and groaned. Over fifty voicemails. More than five hundred unanswered emails. Dozens of text strings. “Dear God…” he whispered, suddenly feeling the task of sorting through all this noise was, at best, a Sisyphean effort.
“Bad?” Ted asked.
“I can handle it,” he said, his voice now strong, full of command, and he looked up at Ted again. “What about you. School. When does it start?”
“Next week, but I…”
“No, you should make plans to head back there, today. You need to finish up; you’ve got big decisions to make.”
“I’ve made them, Father.”
His left eyebrow arched on hearing ‘Father’ – and in that challenging tone of voice. “Indeed. Anything you’d like to share with me?”
“I’m going to seminary.”
“I see. What pushed you back? The Tracy thing?”
“Everything happens for a reason, Dad. Tracy, you – all this was just a reminder…I need to get back on the path that’s been laid out for me.”
“I see. Well then, you’re happy with the decision?”
“Yessir – content would be the word I’d choose.”
“Good…well then, best get on the phone, get your classes lined up, then make plans to head back.”
“But Dad…how will you…”
“I’ll manage, son. You’ve got to tend to your own life…not look after me.”
“No, sir. I’ve already made plans to stay here, help you get settled, and that’s what I intend to do.”
He looked at his boy, at his chest all puffed up, and he tried not to laugh. “All right, Paco. We’ll take it one step at a time…how about that?”
There came a knock on the door and a woman’s face appeared.
“Safe to come in, Ted?”
“Yeah, sure Doc…Dad? This is Doc Sullivan, from Whaletown. She’s the doc who came out to the boat…”
The woman came in the room, and while he looked her over he tried his best not to smile. She was short, red-haired and milk-complected, with a broad mask of deep freckles under her green eyes – and she was wearing blue Birkenstocks, too – his least favorite footwear in the world. She was cute, though, and he liked the look of her.
“I was in town and heard you were up and around…” she said, walking bedside. “How are you doing?”
“Me? Swell. How ‘bout you?”
She seemed taken aback by his nonchalance, and felt a little on-guard. “Anyone talked to you about what comes next?”
“Next? No, not really.”
“Oh? Well, I guess…”
“I guess I should thank you,” he said, trying to put her at ease. “I was apparently out when we met?”
She laughed a little. “Yes, I sorry. My name is Brigit Sullivan.”
He looked at her left hand…‘No rings,’ he said to himself as he held out his right hand.
“Jim. Nice to meet you, Brigit,” then he added: “So, I hear you’re a sailor?”
“Not much of one, really, but I didn’t think two people could handle that boat alone, all the way back to Seattle. So I volunteered,” Sullivan said, grinning.
“How’d you like her?”
“Her? Oh, you mean Altair? Oh, I loved her, very much indeed.”
“Yes. I came here to go to school. I decided to stay for a while.”
“Yes, well, its been ten years…so I guess the best-laid plans…”
“I see. Yes, funny how fast the landscape can change.”
She smiled, looked into his eyes. Yes, full of doubt right now, but that was only natural. His entire life upended, all his plans… “So, what are you thinking you’ll do when you get out of here?”
“I don’t know yet, Brigit. Any ideas?”
“Get a peg-leg and head for the Caribbean?”
“Ah. I never saw myself as the pirate-type, ya know?”
She smiled at him and he melted inside – just a little – then he realized he was staring at her – and she wasn’t turning away. No, she was meeting his gaze head-on.
“I talked a bit with your people from Delta, and the VA. Rehab will be no problem, and it seems they want you to think seriously about the training slot in Atlanta.”
“Yes, I hope you don’t mind, but one of them gave me a card and I’ve called. Someone is supposed to be up tomorrow to talk to you about all that.”
“Who? The VA?”
He looked away, out the window…but all he could see was what was left of his right leg…and his lips scrunched-up into a loose frown. “Training,” he whispered as he recoiled from the thought. Hours and hours in a simulator, teaching kids – kids with all their whole lives ahead of them.
And his was behind now; with whatever might be left receding fast.
Then he felt her hand on his, rubbing away his fear. “It’s not, you know,” he heard her say.
“Your life. It’s not over.”
“What makes you say that?”
“It’s all over your face, in your eyes. But you’re wrong, Jim. It’s going to be a fight, but you’re just opening the book to a new chapter.”
“Ah, I see. That’s how it is, eh?”
“I suppose it can be, yes. The other option, I assume, is to simply fall away, fall into a black hole…what you might call the pits of despair.”
“Never been my thing.”
“I think I knew that, but it’s nice to hear you say so, anyway. Oh yes, your VA people classify this as the direct result of your original injuries, by the way. As far as coverage…” but she saw he’d tuned her out and was, in fact, falling over in the bed. Then – he was gone…and people were running again…
He woke in in the middle of a strange night, woke to the steady hum of machines pumping medicines into his veins, of other machines listening to fading electric currents arcing through his body. He listened to the beep-beep-beep of one and turned to look at it, and saw what he assumed was something like his beating heart – only something wasn’t right. Another registered O-SATS, another PULS, and yet another RESP – and as all of them registered something in the positive range he assumed that he was still alive…yet even so the thought rolled around in his mind for a while. Then he was aware of people dancing all around him, chanting strange things into the night…
“Gimme 5cc epinephrine,” one voice sang.
Then another cried – “Get the central line ready!”
Then he saw his mother standing by his bedside, and she was looking down at him, smiling gently.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, gently.
“Hello, Jimmy,” she said, and while he took comfort in her presence, something about her being in the room troubled him. “Oh yes,” another voice, this one as familiar, said, “your mother’s been dead for…oh, how many years? Is it five now?”
He turned to this second voice, his mind reeling: “Dad? Is that you?”
And they were both by his bed now, looking down at him, and they were smiling now, odd, gentle smiles – like smiles he’d never seen on their faces before.
“Hello, James,” his father said.
“Why are you here?”
“You asked,” his mother said, “so we came.”
“You’re dying now, Jimmie,” his father said. “It’s alright. Don’t be afraid.”
“Dying? Me? Now?”
“But…I’m not ready.”
And his father looked at him again, only now he smiled. “Okay. So? Go back to them.”
“Yes, of course. Go back.”
“You have more to do, Jimmie,” his mother said, still holding his hand.
“I smell…gingerbread,” he said. “Are you baking?”
And she smiled again. “Yes. For you.”
“You’re not making this any easier, are you?”
“We’ll be here when you’re ready, son,” his father said.
“Be careful, and don’t forget the shadows,” his mother added – then she was gone.
“What’s happening to me?”
“It’s not you, James. It’s your boy. Be careful.”
But then his father was gone, too.
“Ted?” he cried. “Ted!”
“I’m here, Dad! I’m here, we’re all here!”
He felt for his parents in the darkness, felt their smiles, then he reached up, reached up to the warmth of their light.
The shades had been drawn the night before, before he went to sleep, but now he remembered asking the night nurse to open them; he wanted to watch the dawn, he told her, slatting through all this thick, late-summer foliage. Now, the walls of his room were a riot of crisscrossed shadows, no direction clear, no way to tell where the sun was.
He heard the door open, saw Ted sticking his head in the room. “You up?” his son asked.
“Yeah. A few hours now.”
“Still can’t sleep?”
He bunched his lips, shook his head.
“You know, Dad, it’s not the strangest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Yes it is. And it’s different when you hear it coming from someone else. If it ever happens to you, you’ll know what I mean…”
“I can only imagine. What did Sullivan call it? A near death experience?”
“Oxygen deprivation, by any other name, I think.”
“That’s one worldview,” Ted added, grinning. “You want to hear something even weirder?”
“When the air ambulance thing showed up…”
“I think they’re called airplanes, Ted.”
“Yeah. It was called a Kodiak.”
“Oh? Nice plane. Sorry I missed the ride.”
Ted shook his head, then plowed on ahead. “Anyway, I sat up front. We talked, the pilot and I, and I told him about you.”
“It was the first time I’ve ever been interested in it.”
“Oh? What was interesting to you?”
“The methodical certainty of it. Do this, do that – and if you do everything just right you make it. If you don’t…”
“You screw the pooch.”
“Yeah, that’s it. I’ve heard you say that a million times before yet I don’t think I ever really understood until just then. Anyway, I found it kind of interesting.”
“What does ‘interesting’ mean?”
“I’ve been looking at flight schools.”
He looked at his son, nodded his head slowly. “I see.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you being in the room while I tried to die really fucked with your head.”
And they both laughed.
“Feels good to laugh, doesn’t it?” his son said.
“You have no idea. What time does that flight from Atlanta get in?”
Ted looked at his phone. “She’s due in at ten.”
“You picking her up?”
“Where’s she staying?”
“The Four Seasons.”
He nodded his head, looked out the window.
“So? What do you think?”
“If that’s what you want to do.”
“Well, Dad, actually…I’m asking for some advice.”
“And you know how I feel about that.”
“Yeah, I know. ‘You’re smart enough to make your own decisions.’ I hear you, Dad, but right now it kind of feels a little like a cop-out.”
“Yeah, it does.”
And he heard the same teen-aged insolence, the same wall of sarcasm he’d always heard whenever he’d tried to give his son any kind of advice. “Well,” he said, taking a deep breath, “let’s see if I’ve got this straight. You want to be a priest since you were knee-high to a grasshopper, then you get to BC and all of a sudden its medicine. You bounce around back and forth between those two for three years then you take a ride in an airplane and all of sudden you want to be a pilot? Have I about nailed the contours here?”
Ted looked down at the floor.
“Now, you tell me,” he continued. “This whole God thing seems to have been a driving force your whole life, so what do you think he wants you to do?”
“That’s not how it works, Dad.”
“Oh? There’s a checklist for that too, is there?”
“No, I think He leads us to choices, then he sits back and watches, waits to see what we’ll do.”
“And then what? He doesn’t interfere?”
“Yeah, Dad. Just like you.”
“Just like you, Dad. Don’t you get it?”
“No, obviously not.”
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted, Dad. To be just like you.”
“But you wanted to be a priest? I’m confused…”
“I was too, until I talked with Melissa about it.”
“Melissa? What did she have to say?”
“Nope, and you know what, Dad? I’m not going to interfere.”
“Interfere? With what?”
“Jesus, you are one thick-headed son-of-a-bitch.”
“What the devil are you going on about, Ted?”
“Melissa and Brigit, you idiot.”
“What about them?”
Ted shook his head – then looked at his phone. “I think I’m going to head out to the airport now.”
“It’s seven o’clock.”
“Yeah, how ‘bout that.”
“Bring me what you have on flight schools. I’ll look it over.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks, Dad.”
But the door closed before he could say another word.
He wasn’t quite sure why, but he barely remembered Melissa those first few minutes after she walked into his room – and that made this ‘reunion’ all the more strange.
She had, apparently, made some kind of connection to him that day. That much was clear.
As the morning passed he remembered more of their time talking in the cockpit, the blustery winds, dodging timbers that had broken free of their rafts, even fragments of her shooting the inlet…then everything was gone – like the rest of the day – it had all been wiped clean.
But the most disconcerting thing of all? He hadn’t recognized her when she walked in the room – not at all. She was a complete stranger…
But when she first came in the room…?
She had dashed to his bed and wrapped herself around him, and all he had felt was a vast chasm of annoyance opening between them. Her hair, dry and scratchy, crushed against his face and as waves of perfume hit he’d felt waves of panicky suffocation settle over the room. She had grabbed his face and kissed his forehead – and then she must have seen the confusion in his eyes. She pulled back looked into his eyes and a veil of tears crossed between them.
“Do you know who I am?”
He had turned away a little; a fraction of a gaze passed between them and he knew he had answered her question as best he could. She regrouped a little, took the seat Ted had pulled up for her, then Ted left the room.
“Ted tells me the two of you…no, there were three of you, right? Three of you moved Altair back to Seattle.”
“Yes, that’s right. Brigit – Doctor Sullivan – was with us.”
“I should thank you for all that. I’m not sure Ted would’ve been up to it by himself.”
“Really? I got the impression after an hour or so he hardly needed us at all. He couldn’t sleep, you see, so he stood behind the wheel, steering hour after hour. We stopped in Friday Harbor and he told us about the trips you used to take out there, to the islands, and only then did he go to sleep.”
“I guess we never really know what our kids will remember, do we?”
She looked away. “We never had kids.”
“I’m sorry. I never knew that much about…”
“Let’s not go there, okay, Jim?”
“Anyway, you’ve set up Altair to handle anything, haven’t you? She handles like a dream.”
He turned to her, his little ship, and in his mind’s eye he saw her then. For the first time…since…resplendent under a full set of canvas, biting into the wind – like a wild thing set free.
“I have no idea what I’ll do with her now.”
She was looking at him as he spoke, looking at banked embers of uncertainty eating away at his soul, and she nodded her head just so.
“Yes, I don’t suppose you have much choice now.”
His eyes lost focus for a moment – and Altair faded from sight.
“What do you mean?”
“Only that you’ll need to get fitted for a peg-leg, and soon.”
“Oh. That. Look, it wasn’t funny the first time I heard…”
“Listen, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve talked with a few friends at Delta and your moving down there, moving to DATC. Whenever you’re ready.
“Who’d you talk to?”
“Ben Chambers.” He had looked at her then, his eyes full of molten fury – and she’d looked away lest she go up in flames with him. “I’m sorry,” she said a moment later. “I shouldn’t have.”
“Why would anyone want me now. I can’t get out of bed, I can’t even take a shit without calling a fucking nurse…”
“This is the hard part, Jim, the worst of it. We can all pull together, Ted and I – and you. We can help you get there.”
“Look…I don’t even know you,” he said through gritted teeth, his voice a venomous hiss, “but you’re talking to me like you’re my wife. You’re going to have to forgive me, but what the Hell is going on here?”
She sat up, looked him in the eye. “It’s funny, yes, but Jim, I feel like God brought us together. I’m here now, for you, because I think this is all part of His plan.”
“Do you really?” he said, his voice full of sarcasm.
She nodded – and he found the certainty in her eyes revolting. Revolting, and yet almost fascinating, at the same time. “I don’t believe in coincidence, Jim.”
“And all that crap about being at the inn, being compelled to join us for breakfast? That you’d been…”
“I know, I know,” this strange woman said, “but the truth of it is even stranger.”
“Oh? There’s some truth in this story? Oh my goodness, I can hardly wait.”
She smiled, her eyes wide now, wide and clear. “We lost Tracy in Vancouver. We’d had no trace of her, for almost a week…”
“Time-out. Who’s ‘we’?”
“I’m with a joint Federal/Interpol task force on human trafficking.”
“So…you’re a cop?”
She shook her head. “You could say that. I’m with the FBI, been working with local jurisdictions in and around New Orleans for years…”
“On human trafficking,” he said, his voice now full of urgent anger.
She saw the look in his eye, the change that came over him. “Yes…why?”
“My mom was a social worker, in Vermont, after the war. She was pulled into working on human trafficking cases when she was young.”
“And she couldn’t shake it, could she?”
He turned away.
“It’s a calling, Jim. There are so many girls, and so few of us give a damn.”
“Yes, I imagine you do. Did she stay in social work?”
“No, not really. She started working for the state AGs office sometime in the early fifties, then was offered some kind of job in Washington. All I know is she turned it down, and she quit a little later. She never talked about what she did much after that.”
Melissa nodded. “I know, part of the pattern.”
“She was in Vermont, right?”
“Yup, where we – where I grew up.”
“Chinese, through Montreal and Quebec. An almost constant stream of girls come in through Vermont. Taken to New York City first, to the restaurants around the city, worked as indentured servants – unless they’re pretty. Then they’re sold off as domestics – until they’re no longer pretty, that is.”
“Free pussy, Jim. At parties and other – events. Then they’re disposed of.”
“What does that mean? Killed?”
“Most of the time, yes. Unless new buyers can be found, but often it depends on how much the girl knows, and that depends on what her ‘master’ was into. It’s usually drugs, and these days that usually means heroin.”
“Where does Tracy fit into all this?”
“We got onto her while we were trailing some cartel people, down in San Antonio but moving product to New Orleans. She made a break for it, made it to Colorado but she, well, her addiction was too powerful. She fell in with a lawyer, in Aspen, and to make a long story short she ran into someone who knew somebody who knew people in that cartel, and when someone told the lawyer he ratted her. By that point, we knew if we could get our hands on her we might get her to talk, but she was off again, gone before we could get to her. We lost her until she crossed into Canada, and by that time Interpol was involved. She kept slipping in and out of our radar but we had her – or at least we thought we had her. And that’s when you two showed up.”
“And you got her, told her to leave?”
“We got her, period.”
“She’s in –”
“Protective custody…yes. Witness Protection.”
“What does Ted know about all this?”
“Next to nothing.”
“So, I assume you think the cartels will take no interest in me? Or my son?”
“Doubtful. But then again, I won’t be far away.”
He looked at her then, feeling a little like a tethered goat. “I see,” he said.
“I doubt that, Jim.”
“So, what’s all this hooey about God bringing us together, and no coincidences. Is that part of your ruse, too?”
“No, not at all. That’s how I found Tracy, in Vancouver. Through this feeling I had.” She looked at him hard for a moment, then she cleared her throat. “Could I tell you something, something sort of private.”
“Oh, I can’t wait.”
She nodded her head. “Alright, Jim. Three days ago – when you threw that clot and went into arrest – I saw something.”
“Something? Like what kind of something?”
“I saw your parents – talking to you.”
Icy claws grabbed his throat and he struggled to take a breath…
“I heard what your father said to you.”
“Oh?” he said, his eyes burning now.
“It’s not you, Jim. It’s your boy.”
Then he was crying openly, his lips quivering, his eyes twitching as he tried to come to terms with her words…
“I know why I’m here now, Jim. I’m here to open the gate between you and your son.”
She was lost just then, like she had faded into another plane of existence, then she shook herself back to the present.
“I’m think I’m here to make sure that happens. After that, my purpose here is over.”
“Over?” he said, trying to breathe. “What do you – mean – by that…?”
And the woman shrugged. “I have no idea, Jim. But I think that’s what your mother was trying to tell me.”
He struggled under the weight of her words, fought to come to terms with the implications of the timing. “Could you see her? My mother, I mean?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, Jim. All I have left is the impression of someone’s eyes, but I never saw anyone, not in the usual sense of seeing.”
“You’re not, like, a schizophrenic, are you?”
“I don’t think so,” she began, giggling, “but, does menopause count?”
And he laughed too, then his eyes turned cold and hard. “Open the gate? Did he really say that?”
“I think so. Why?”
“I was thinking, just now, right when you said that, about the gate in our backyard. We had a little dog when I was growing up, and that gate was the only thing that kept him in the yard. I think I left it open once and he got out, ran into the street and a car hit him. Keeping the gate closed became kind of a metaphor in our family, something about the necessity of protecting the things we love.”
“Yes, but what about being overprotective?”
“Is there such a thing as being too protective where our kids are concerned?”
“Sure there is,” she sighed. “Nobody can grow when they’re being smothered…”
“I don’t smother Ted,” he countered, perhaps a little too defensively. “If anything, I think I’m too distant…”
“But don’t you see, that’s a kind of control too, Jim. When a child needs guidance, wants advice, and you stand back – well, in a way you’re reinforcing a child’s needfulness. Parents need to give advice freely, I think, and kids need to know they can come to you with anything, at anytime, for help…”
“What else did you two talk about?”
“That being true to yourself is the best way to be true to God…”
She read through the letter one more time, then called the head of her department in Burlington, Vermont.
“Mike, I got another one.”
“What’s this one say, Liz?” asked Mike Bennett, a retired federal judge who had recently been assigned to coordinate state and federal law enforcement activities along the Canadian border.
“Sounds kind of like ‘back-off or else’ to me.”
“Did this one come to your house?”
“Well, goddamn. What does Jerry think?”
“He’s not sure, wanted me to run this by you first.”
“Well, if it’s Hip-Sing, or one of the other Triads, we’ll have to take it seriously…”
“Jerry says there’s no way we can be sure. There’s that new group in the Village, the Ghost Dragons…”
“Bad people…bad news if it’s them.”
“Yessir. Well, we’re stepping on a lot of toes, disrupting a lot of ongoing operations up here. Even so, it’s out of character for them to attack one of us like this…”
“Yeah…going after families…that’s something new alright. Is that what Jerry thinks.”
“Well, I’m the only one to receive something like this at home. Everyone else has gotten them at the office in Burlington.”
“What does your husband have to say about this?”
“He’s more worried about Jimmie than anything else.”
“What about the Florida thing. Will that work?”
“I doubt it, sir. It would be just a matter of days, maybe a week, before they’d track us down.”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“Change tactics again. Lure them in, take a few of them out, watch them, see how they regroup.”
“I don’t think I can keep at this much longer, Mike. Not with them potentially targeting my family.”
“Sorry about the dog. What did you tell your boy?”
“That someone left the gate open.”
“Damn. Well, the reality is simple enough, Elizabeth. We don’t have even one of these groups penetrated, so we have no idea what their real strength is. If they’re targeting you, or your family, we have no option other than to move you, get you out of there.”
“There’s another option, sir. I publicly resign.”
“And give in to their threats? But, even so…we could never be sure, could we? They could decide to make an example of you. That’s what…”
“Yessir, I know. That’s what they do to cop families over there.”
“Do you have any reason to think they wouldn’t do that to you, or to your family?”
“It would be a first, sir.”
“There’s always a first, Liz. You want to try that one on for size?”
“What about surveillance?”
“Keep you under surveillance, 24/7?” her boss asked.
“It might do the job, sir. What bothers me most is simply giving in so fast.”
“Listen…you know the drill, how it is now. No one in the White House cares about these Chinese gangs, not Eisenhower, not Nixon…not even Dulles…”
“Because they’re ‘running girls.’ Yessir, I know, but there’s tons of heroin moving in with these girls. That’s how they’ve done it, sir, and for centuries. First, they start with girls, then they move opium and heroin in with them. Drug use grows exponentially and when the real gangs move-in, the operations compromising politicians begin.”
“Preaching to the converted, Liz.”
“I know, sir. Sorry. It’s just frustrating – like watching a slow-motion train wreck.”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“I hate to do this, sir, but I think I’m leaving this one to you.”
She heard him sigh, then a moment later: “I’d like your resignation on my desk tomorrow. I’ll have the office prepare a statement, get it out to the newspapers.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“You’ll start with the next class at the academy. That’ll be August. Take some time off, get some rest, and be ready to get back to work next year.”
“Next?” An old man asked, opening a file folder.
“Melissa Goodway,” one of the other men in the office said. “Divorced, six years ago. Finished her J.D. five years ago.” His name was Jesse James – a name that had given him nothing but trouble ever since his Academy days.
“Where? I don’t see it here…”
“Okay. DAs office, I take it?”
“Fulton, or DeKalb.”
“Fulton, sir. One year, then she was snatched up by a joint task force, DEA, and FBI. SAC Atlanta recommended she go to the Academy, sir.”
“What got her into this?”
“Raped, sophomore year, Vanderbilt.”
“Shit. That’s a lot of baggage, Ken.”
“Her interview went well, sir, and her psych profile is rock solid.”
The old man flipped through the pages in the folder, then looked up at the other men in the room. “Anyone have any objections?” He looked around the room, made eye contact with all nine of them. “Come on, speak now – or forever hold your peace.”
“Does she have enough experience for this,” one of the others said. “She’ll be on her own for weeks at a time.”
“She knows what she signed up for,” James said.
“No one knows what they’ve signed up ‘til they’re up to the neck in alligators,” the old man said.
“Especially in New Orleans,” one of the others said, to murmurs of assent around the room.
“Who interviewed her?” the old man asked, flipping through the file again.
“Pat did the prelim, I did the follow-up. His write-up is on the next to last page, sir.”
The old man read the notes for a while, flipped to a few cross-referenced pages then tossed the file on the desk. “When can she be ready to go?”
“It’ll take a few days to get their documentation in order, another week to get them placed in Macao.”
“So, we need a week?”
“That’s cutting it pretty damn close, Jesse.”
“Yes, sir, it is. And the longer we sit here debating the merits of the operation, the worse it gets, sir.”
“Alright. Fuller and this Norton from Treasury go to Hong Kong, our Goodway goes to Macao. Any objections?”
No one spoke as the Old Man assayed the room one last time. He shook his head then signed the documents approving the largest sting on foreign soil the Bureau had attempted in fifteen years. No one had to remind him the last time the Bureau tried something like this, two agents died.
(c) 2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com