First Friday Fiction: Porta-Pads Incorporated

Bobby’s father pulled the car into a parking space in the garage and stopped the engine. Bobby’s mother sighed. “Do we have to use the Porta-Pads?” she asked in a weary voice.

“For the last time, yes,” Bobby’s father answered firmly. “This is my vacation. I don’t want to waste it sitting in the car or sitting in the airport. Three instant Jumps and we’re there—Disney World! And we’ll have the entire week to enjoy before our three instant jumps back home to Atlanta.”

Bobby and his father and mother got out of the car. Bobby’s father pulled the family’s luggage from the back of the car. Bobby’s mother shook her head. “I just don’t feel like being scrambled. I don’t trust these things.”

“Thousands of jumps and never an ounce of harm done,” Bobby’s father reminded her, quoting the company slogan.

Bobby’s family took the moving sidewalk to the front door of the Porta-Pad station. As they stepped inside, they saw a line at each of the four stations. Five businessmen were standing at the nearest station, signing their waivers. “It’s just a formality,” the attendant said to each of them. “Thousands of jumps, and never an ounce of harm, but Congress still wants you to assume responsibility for your journey.”

Bobby’s mother pulled the laminated cards they would need out of her purse while they waited. These cards listed the inoculations each member of the family had received. To prevent the spread of illnesses, no one could travel by Porta-Pads without proof of immunization. While she was distracted, Bobby jumped away from her reach. Five information kiosks were placed along the waiting area. Running as quickly as he could, Bobby touched each screen so that all five voices would utter their message as a chorus.

“It was July 2019. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, archaeologist Anna Kane was studying photographs of a Mayan carving recently unearthed in southern Mexico,” said the first voice. “During the development phase of the Porta-Pads, the three inventors had to battle lawsuits from the University of Arkansas, which claimed ownership of their discovery,” added the second. “Because of the curvature of the earth, Porta-Pads can move their cargo no more than two hundred miles,” the third voice reminded them. “The Porta-Pad moves its cargo at the speed of light, which in two hundred mile jumps is almost instantaneous,” said a fourth voice. The fifth voice chimed in with, “No government outside the United States has passed legislation permitting the use of Porta-Pads or similar technology.”

“Bobby,” his mother hissed. “Come here at once! Don’t do that again!” She grabbed his arm and yanked him to her side.

The businessmen moved on to the second station. Bobby’s mother handed the attendant the cards, which he studied closely. Handing them back to her, he said, “Both you adults have to sign a waiver, and there’s an additional waiver you both have to sign for your son.” Bobby’s mother and father each pulled out their pads and signed electronically. “Retina or thumbprint verification?” the attendant asked. “Thumbprint,” Bobby’s father said.

“Your attention, please,” a voice came from the overhead speakers. “A weather system containing thunderstorms stretches from Texas to St. Louis. Travelers jumping to the west coast are being rerouted through the Great Lakes and Prairie states. Please adjust your time expectations accordingly.”

Bobby took advantage of the distraction to make another round of the kiosks. “Bobby!” his mother hissed again. One of the business travelers in line at the second station smiled at her. “Don’t be too harsh on the boy,” he told her. “We don’t mind the entertainment—really, we don’t.”

“As she began translating the text, it appeared to Dr. Kane that a device for translocating people was described,” the first voice was explaining. “The Mayan sculpture had mysteriously disappeared, and Kane possessed the only readable photographs of the carving,” the second voice told them. The third voice intoned, “Early experiments showed that the Porta-Pads can move as much as eight hundred pounds without harm to the cargo,” as the fourth voice indicated, “A pizza bought in Chicago would still be sizzling hot after making seven jumps to be delivered in New Orleans.” Finally, “The first Porta-Pads were built to connect nearby cities: Chicago and Milwaukee, Baltimore and Washington DC, Boston and New York, Los Angeles and San Diego,” according to the fifth voice.

As the businessmen handed over the luggage for inspection, one by one, they joked with each other about the pizza traveling from Chicago to New Orleans. “On a good, day, it won’t even have time to grow mold,” one snickered. Another joked back, “The crust will not be too hard to chew, so long as you have good teeth.”

Bobby’s mother looked at Bobby’s father. “It takes ninety minutes to fly from Atlanta to Orlando,” she reminded him.

“But you have to get to the airport two hours early,” he answered, “and when you’re in Orlando, you have to wait forty-five minutes for your luggage.”

Bobby’s father handed the suitcases to the attendant of the second station. “Anything breakable, flammable, explosive, sharp, or otherwise dangerous?” the attendant asked in a bored voice. Bobby’s father shook his head no. “No guns, bombs, knives, swords; no liquids of any kind; nothing poisonous; nothing dangerous. No alcohol, no tobacco, no marijuana, no illegal drugs.” Again, Bobby’s father indicated no. “Pick up your bags and step on the scale, please,” the attendant intoned. After they did so, the attendant mumbled, “Weight check OK.” He opened each suitcase, rummaging randomly through their clothes and toiletries, before returning the luggage to them. “Next,” he said, “Anything breakable, flammable, explosive, sharp, or otherwise dangerous?”

Bobby’s mother held tightly to Bobby’s arm as they approached the third station. The friendly businessman smiled at her again. “Let the boy go free,” he told her. “He’s not hurting anybody.”

Another businessman in the group was still wearing his name tag from a conference they had attended together. It identified him as Brian. “The company is doing this all wrong,” Brian said. “They could build these stations across the highway. You’re driving down the road and them, boom!—you’re two hundred miles closer to your destination. Another quarter mile, and boom! another two hundred miles.”

“I don’t think they’d make much money off of it that way,” one of the other businessmen said.

“They’d find a way,” Brian replied. “Cars could need special equipment, and a bar code stuck to the front window. Only those who had paid in advance would be allowed in the Porta-Pad lane. They could work it out somehow.”

“The big problem would be the inspections,” the friendly businessman said. “Congress is so worried about terrorist weapons and drugs and diseases being spread that they want to control every person who travels by Porta-Pad. They’d never allow people to take their own cars through the system.”

“They’d find a way,” Brian insisted, raising his voice to be heard over the five information kiosks. “Maybe random spot-inspections. Maybe investigation of every traveler before they could get their bar code sticker. They’d find a way.”

Meanwhile, the kiosks continued their spiels. “She brought her translation to Gunter Schultz and Rupa Sagatoriana, members of the physics department. The two scientists agreed that the device described would work,” said the first. “Around the time the lawsuits were settled, the United States Congress began creating legislation to oversee the translocation industry,” offered the second. “To provide a generous safety margin, Congress ruled that no more than five hundred pounds could be translocated on any trip,” the third voice explained. “A traveler could hop across the country from Boston to Los Angeles in less time than it takes to speak the names of both cities,” and, “Today eighty-four Porta-Pads operate across the United States, less than an hour’s drive away from most citizens’ homes,” the other two voices informed their hearers.

The attendant at the third station accepted their payment for the trip. Bobby’s father paid electronically and for the second time that morning he had his thumbprint scanned. Then the family got in line one more time behind the businessmen, waiting to go through the door that led to the actual Porta-Pad.

Brian was speaking again. “Sooner or later, someone is going to figure out how these things work, and then there’ll be competition. Prices will drop and service will improve. It’s the way the market works. The company won’t be able to keep their technology secret forever.”

“Funny that the Mayans knew how to build these things but no one else ever learned about them. You’d think that if one civilization could discover this technology, others would have found it too.”

The friendly businessman remarked, “Some say that it existed all over the world six or seven hundred years ago. Great Zimbabwe has a feature that looks a little bit like a Porta-Pad, and so do some of the other ruins in South Africa. Same thing in parts of India and China. All around the same time, too.”

“I’ve heard that,” Brian agreed. “One theory is that the Mayans launched a series of satellites so they could jump from MesoAmerica to Africa and from Africa to Asia. Curvature of the earth doesn’t matter when you can go up into space and down again.”

“I doubt the Mayans had space travel,” the friendly businessman commented. “I know Porta-Pad Incorporated is looking into satellite Porta-Pads just as soon as other countries allow their business to enter. I think the Mayan story is just a rumor to try to sell the satellite idea.”

Bobby, in his boredom, had set off the kiosks one more time. “The two scientists agreed that the device described would work. After briefly considering publishing their findings, the three of them decided instead to form a corporation and develop the device,” the first voice was saying. “Licensing fees, restrictions, and consent waivers were all imposed upon Porta-Pads, Incorporated, before the first commercial Porta-Pads could be built and made available to the public,” said the second. “The cargo can be living or not; to date nothing and no one has suffered harm when being translocated from one Porta-Pad to another,” the third voice assured them, while the fourth was saying, “Porta-Pads Incorporated offers the greatest improvement in affordable travel since the invention of the airplane.” “Porta-Pads Incorporated: getting you there swiftly and safely,” concluded the fifth voice.

The businessmen went through the door of the fourth station, followed a minute later by Bobby and his parents. A lighted screen greeted them at the door. “Expect a forty-five minute wait from this point,” the sign said. While they looked at it, it flickered and changed to, “Expect a fifty-minute wait from this point.”

“I wonder why that changed,” Bobby’s father muttered to himself.

“Probably a member of Congress,” the friendly businessman answered. “Congress made sure that government officials would be allowed to cut in line. Company officials can do it too. It’s good for them, but it does tend to slow the rest of us just a bit.”

Bobby looked around the room. StarBucks, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Subway all had booths. There was a book stand, a souvenir shop, and a candy shop. “Mom, I’m hungry. Can you buy me a hamburger?” Bobby whined. “No, dear,” his mother said.

A man approached the family. “For two bucks, I’ll hold your place in line,” he offered. Bobby’s mother glanced at him, then looked away. His hair was uncombed and he had a three-day growth of beard. He was wearing a dirty T-shirt, jeans with holes at the knees, and a torn jacket. He also did not smell very clean. “Just two bucks,” the man pleaded. “You can go buy the boy something to eat.” Bobby’s mother held her lips tight and shook her head. “No, thank you,” Bobby’s father said in a strained voice. The man walked away.

The friendly businessman looked at Bobby’s mother and father. “It didn’t used to be like this,” he said. “At first the wait time was a lot shorter; the jumps were almost instant. But as the wait times got longer, they put in the restaurants and the other shops. Now some people practically live here. It’s become a city all to itself.”

Between the Burger King and the StarBucks was a large metal door with the words “Atlanta Porta-Pad” painted on it. An attendant opened the door and two women wearing fancy dresses walked out. The attendant ushered the next waiting group through the door and closed it again. Talking loudly, the two women took their place at the back of the line. “Forty-five minutes,” one of them exclaimed. “That’s better! In Knoxville we had to wait for an hour.”

“They said it was an hour,” the second woman remarked in a ringing voice. “I swear it was longer.”

Bobby’s mother looked at Bobby’s father. “It only takes six hours to drive from Atlanta to Orlando,” she said.

“Mom,” Bobby said, “I have to use a bathroom.”

 

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Busy times

The last couple of weeks have been busy. Most of the busy-ness was unavoidable, but the net effect has felt (at times) overwhelming.

Most important, of course, were Holy Week and Easter. Special services for Good Friday and Easter are to be expected. We observed the anniversary of the Lord’s death in our place, conquering death and granting forgiveness and eternal life. Then we celebrated the anniversary of his resurrection, announcing his victory and establishing the guarantee of our resurrection to live in a new and perfect world.

On the morning of Good Friday, a member of the congregation died. He had been ailing for some time; given his faith, it even seemed appropriate for his to die on such a day. He was seventy-three years old, a lifetime member of the same congregation. One of the other members called him “a pillar of the church.” After the funeral service, one of his sons remarked to me, “Finally Dad got to fill the church.”

On top of that, a historical exhibition that I was assigned to create and assemble opened at my workplace the night of Good Friday. As soon as I realized that the opening date was a holiday, I alerted the other people involved that I would not be present for the opening. For them the date was set—the second Friday of the month is a given for such events, because of other plans involving the place where I work and its neighbors in the community. With help, I put together the elements of the exhibit on Monday afternoon, and a “soft opening” was held Wednesday night prior to the official opening. A “soft opening” is only advertised within the workplace, and there are no refreshments. Four people came into the exhibit during the hour of the “soft opening,” and two of them were casual visitors unaware that there even was a “soft opening.”

I had decided in March that my First Friday Fiction would be a story taken out of a novel which I started writing more than thirty years ago. When I made that decision, I did not realize that I would end up posting the story in six installments, bleeding into Holy Week. Nor did I anticipate that typing and updating the story would inspire me to complete it in two more parts. My draft of the six installments actually ended with discussion questions, intended to gather responses that might shape the rest of the story. Instead, I began answering the questions myself, which led to writing the final parts of the story.

Embedded in these busy times were three landmarks for this Salvageable blog. I passed the second anniversary of the beginning of the blog on April 14. Somewhere in there I published my four hundredth post (one of the story episodes—I haven’t bothered to see which of them was #400). Around the same time, I reached one thousand different visitors who have looked at least once at Salvageable.

That mark of one thousand different visitors might not seem impressive, but I am happy about it. After all, writing anonymously, I have not promoted the blog on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media. In the past two years I have made many good friends, even though we know each other only through WordPress. I am grateful for all my readers, and I also enjoy reading your writings.

Undoubtedly, the best is yet to come! J.

There’s No Such Thing as Crazy, part eight

As he greeted them and invited them into his office, Mike introduced his partner, Jenna Smith, to Juan and Laura.  Laura barely acknowledged Jenna. Her face was pale and her hands were shaking. When the four of them sat, Laura put her feet on the seat of the chair and wrapped her arms around her legs. For a brief time, no one spoke.

Juan broke the silence. “Were you able to get Laura’s dental records? Do they match?”

Mike shook his head grimly. “I did get Laura Kinser’s dental records. They do not match the ones Doctor Welz took.”

A loud, long, anguished “No!” burst from Laura’s mouth. She began to weep—not quiet tears, as Juan had seen before, but noisy sobs, occasionally broken by a gasp for breath.

“I’m sorry, Martha,” Mike said kindly. “It was a matter of time before the truth appeared. This is just about the best way it could have happened.”

Juan sat in his chair, stunned. Jenna rose to her feet and crossed the room to give the woman Juan knew as Laura a hug. “There, there, Hon,” Jenna cooed. “Things will be fine. It’s not so bad. You’re gonna be alright.”

Laura continued to cry, and Jenna continued to try to comfort her. “Let’s switch to the other office,” Mike suggested to Juan. As if in a dream, Juan stood on his feet, followed Mike across the hall to Jenna’s office, and found a seat.

“Where should I start?” Mike asked himself after he had closed the door and settled into Laura’s desk chair. “It struck me as strange that the woman was so hesitant to see a dentist and denied having seen one any time recently. Hollywood people generally are faithful to their dental appointments. It’s a professional necessity.

“It had already occurred to me that the federal investigators working at the airport probably had requested dental records for Laura Kinser. That guess was correct. I contacted them and traded the information about Ron Lawrence for a copy of the records. They came digitally, of course, and over lunch I took them to Doctor Welz. In next to no time he found three clear differences between the two sets of images—fillings in different places, wisdom teeth present in one set and missing in the other, and, um, I’ve forgotten what the third difference was.”

Laura’s sobs still rang through the building, even through the closed door. Juan found it difficult to concentrate. He clenched his fists. His heart ached for her.

“The crash investigators called me back about an hour ago. They were able to find Mr. Lawrence, and he surrendered peacefully to them. I guess he was having a hard time with the insurance companies—or rather, they were having a hard time with him. He wanted his money quickly, and they were waiting for the results of the investigation. So Ron opened up and told them the whole story.

“That woman across the hall is named Martha Jones. She and Laura met while they were both receiving in-patient treatment in the same ward. Both of them noticed the similarities in appearance, and for a while they were both equally amused. They exchanged contact information and promised to keep in touch.”

While he spoke, Mike was toying with a bottle of water. Now he stopped and took a sip. “Martha became obsessed with Laura. She pumped her for every scrap of information about her life. When Laura stopped responding to her questions, she began reading everything she could find about Laura. Her doctors could see that she was identifying with Laura in a way that was not healthy. They tried to work with her, but they had little success.

“Ron had met her once while Laura was still in the hospital. Now he went to visit her again. That required her permission, but of course once she knew who he is, she accepted. Without any details, he asked her if she would be willing to double for Laura. She accepted quickly. Monday morning he returned and signed her out of the hospital for the day. I don’t know how he convinced the doctors to let him do that, but he managed. From there, I think you know the rest.”

Juan nodded. “I wonder what his plans for Martha were after the explosion. And I also wonder what’s happened to the real Laura Kinser.”

“The real Laura Kinser is out of the country on a long vacation. I gather that wherever she is, they aren’t paying attention to news from America. I wasn’t told the details of why Ron wanted so much money or what he was going to do when Laura returned.

“As for Martha, he said that he was planning to return her to the hospital on Wednesday when she escaped him. We’ll never know whether or not he told the truth about that.”

Juan nodded again. Martha’s weeping was becoming quieter. “What’s to be done with her?” Juan asked, gesturing in Martha’s direction.

“Just before you got here, I made arrangements with the hospital. They’ve been searching for her all week. They will find transportation to return her; I said they could pick her up here.”

Juan thought for a minute. “I can drive her to the hospital, so long as she stays calm—and if she wants me to.”

“That’s mighty generous, under the circumstances. Are you sure you want to, though?”

Juan nodded yet again. “Yes. I want to.”

“Well, let’s check with her then.”

The men crossed the hall. Laura had stopped sobbing, but her eyes were red from crying. She looked up at Juan. “I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice catching in her throat. “I’m terribly, terribly sorry.”

Juan shrugged. “I’m not going to hold any grudges. In fact, it’s probably better this way. I don’t know if I could handle being friends with a real celebrity.”

“You actually want to be my friend… after all the lies I told you?”

“I do indeed. This week has been quite an adventure.”

Martha smiled weakly. “I had you fooled the whole time, didn’t I?” Juan nodded. Martha sighed. “For a little while, I actually got to be Laura Kinser.”

Juan didn’t stop to consider whether his next words would help her recovery or slow it. He truthfully told her, “In my heart, you will always be Laura.”

The End. J.

No Such Thing As Crazy (was Flashback 1986), part seven

Juan refused to sleep in the same bed as a married woman. He decided that instead he would sleep on the floor. This led to an argument with Laura which ended when Juan grabbed a pillow and a spare blanket and walked down to the motel lobby. The clerk at the desk eyed him curiously. “Had a fight with the Missus,” Juan said. He chose the most comfortable-looking chair, pulled off his shoes, and tried to get a few hours of sleep.

He managed to slumber fitfully until the morning staff began setting up the complementary breakfast. Juan put on his shoes and returned to the room. He quietly unlocked the door and stepped in. Laura was asleep on the bed. Juan grabbed some fresh clothes from his suitcase along with his toiletry kit and went into the bathroom to take a shower.

When he was clean and shaved and dressed, he turned and saw Laura, wrapped in a sheet, sitting on the bed and looking at him. “Breakfast is ready,” he told her. “We can dawdle over it; my friend’s office doesn’t open until nine.”

Laura yawned. “You go on ahead,” she said. “I’ll join you after I’ve had my shower.”

Juan was sipping his second cup of coffee when she made her appearance. She had managed to find an outfit much like her usual garb, complete with large earrings. Juan smiled at her, and she smiled back. She ate a light breakfast with fruit juice—no coffee—and then asked, “What else can we do to kill time until nine o’clock?”

“You could satisfy my curiosity about something.” Juan paused, uncertain how to phrase his questions. “This husband of yours—Ron—where did you meet him and why did you marry him?”

Laura laughed. “OK, fair enough. Ron is an amateur stand-up comedian—very amateur,” she emphasized. “But he has a way of getting what he wants from people. Like the police uniform you saw him wearing—that was just a costume, as phony as the search warrant.”

“So he’s not a police officer?”

“Right. Well, one of his friends managed to get him a job as an extra on the show I’m in. He was only in two episodes, but he took the opportunity to talk with me. He can be very charming, and he was with me. We had dinner together a couple of times, and then—out of the blue—he proposed to me.”

“And you accepted.” Laura nodded. “Why?”

“I know it sounds funny, but he swept me off my feet. Other men seemed to be drawn to my looks or my fame or my money. Ron made it seem as though he cared about the real me. We had a Las Vegas wedding, and soon I discovered that looks and fame and money were all that mattered to him when he was with me. Especially the money. I stayed with him three months. I should have left sooner.”

“However did he manage to involve you in that stunt at the airport?”

“A lot of fast talking, some threats—I won’t tell you what they were—and the thought that, after this, I might never hear from him again.”

Juan shook his head. “The whole thing still confuses me, but the most confusing part is this: how could any man treat you like this?”

Laura smiled weakly. “Partly it’s his disorder, and partly it’s my insecurity. I’m sure when he met me—maybe even before he met me—he could see the word ‘victim’ written all over me.”

The two chatted for the rest of the hour. Shortly before nine o’clock, they went out to Juan’s car and he drove them to the private detective agency.

Mike Johnson had been trained as a police investigator, but after a few years with the force, he decided to move to Westfield and go into business for himself. Much of the work was tedious—for example, getting details about one of the parties in an impending divorce—but every so often a case came along that made the job worth keeping. Juan expected that Laura’s predicament would be one such case.

The two friends shook hands. Gesturing toward Laura, Juan said, “And I believe you know who this is.”

“I would need to see some identification,” Mike said, always the cautious one, “but I will say that she bears a striking resemblance to the actress, Laura Kinser.”

“Not only does she resemble her,” Juan boasted. “She is her.”

“Given the news of the last few days, I definitely want to see some identification. But first, won’t you take a seat.”

“Thank you,” Laura sad as she sat. Mike settled into his chair behind his desk. Juan also found a chair and sat. “Identification is the problem. All of mine was lost with my airplane.” She described to Mike the plan Ron had invented to blow up her airplane and collect insurance money, a plan which ripened when Harvey learned of his terminal state of health. In words almost identical to those she had spoken to Juan, she explained how Ron persuaded her to accompany him to the airport. “I thought that, within hours of the explosion, he would get me out of there and I’d be off to some private resort. Instead, he left me there, locked up, for two days. When he came back for me, he had a gun. I panicked. I ran. Juan helped me to hide, and he’s been helping me ever since.” She smiled warmly at him.

“I figured a man in your position would be able to help Laura prove her identity,” Juan interrupted. “There must be something that will work—fingerprints, maybe, or dental records; a DNA sample, or a voice print….”

“All excellent thoughts,” Mike said, “but if you want to do this quickly, we can rule out DNA and voice prints. Fingerprints would be great if we already had an authenticated set of Laura’s prints. Trying to obtain such a set would be difficult after several days, though.” He peered over his glasses at Laura with some amusement. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever been arrested, have you?” She shook her head no. “Too bad,” he said in a cheerful voice with a twinkle in his eye. “That would have been convenient.

“Dental records are our best bet, then,” Mike continued. “Laura, tell me who your dentist is, and I’ll arrange to have your last X-rays delivered to my computer. Meanwhile, there’s a dentist here in town who can take a set of X-rays this morning or this afternoon. He and I will compare both sets and see if we have an answer.”

Laura’s face was increasingly pale as Mike said these things. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, so softly both men had to lean toward her to hear her. “I haven’t been to the dentist in more than two years.”

“Oh, that’s no problem,” Mike assured her. Even if they’re five years old, or older than that, we can still use them.”

“But I don’t even remember who the dentist was, or where his office was.”

“Now, that is a problem, but not too big for me to handle. Tell you what: I’ll track down your last dental records. All you have to do is visit Doctor Welz for X-rays. I’ll make an appointment for you right now.” Mike picked up the phone.

“No, wait!” Tears welled in Laura’s eyes as she said, “I can’t do this. I’m very much afraid of dentists.”

“Laura,” Juan said gently. “This isn’t a full dentist appointment. This is just X-rays. They take hardly any time at all.” He smiled at her. “He isn’t going to clean your teeth or examine them.”

She shook her head. The tears began to flow down her cheeks. “Isn’t there some other way?” she demanded. “I’m scared of dentists.”

Mike set down the phone. “Laura,” he said. “I want to help you. But you have to do this my way. The dental records will prove who you are. If you refuse to do this, I won’t help you, and neither would any other investigator.”

Still crying, she pleaded, “Wouldn’t be easier to start over with a new name, a new identity?”

Mike laughed, but his laughter was kind. “Not in this century!” he exclaimed. “I might be justified in putting you into a Witness Protection Program, but even they would need to have firm evidence of who you were before they changed you into someone new. Now let me call the dentist and get this started.”

Juan added, “Laura, you have to do this!”

She smiled at him through her tears. “If you say I have to,” she said, “I have to.”

Mike placed the call and set an appointment for 10:30 that morning. “Come back at three,” he said. “I may have something for you by then.”

They began to stand, prepared to leave, when Mike said, “Oh, one more thing. I probably should track down this Ron Lawrence. Can you tell me where to find him?”

Laura dropped back into the chair. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. In a monotone, unlike her usual voice, she slowly recited an address. Mike thanked her and dismissed them again.

Heavy clouds were moving in as Juan and Laura returned to the car. They decided to drive around town until Laura’s 10:30 appointment. “How did you get to know Mike Johnson?” she asked as they traveled.

“We were neighbors when I was growing up,” Juan answered. “He was a police officer then—he hadn’t become a private investigator. He’s the reason I decided to take a job as security guard. I was thinking I might join the police force someday, just like him.”

At 10:15 they stopped at Dr. Welz’s office. His receptionist welcomed them and assured them that Mike Johnson would pay for the X-rays. A hygienist led them to the examination room. Laura began to cry again, so Juan took her hand. “Stay with me,” she begged him. Juan knew that the X-rays posed a small health risk, but he was willing to take bigger risks than that for Laura. She squeezed his hand tightly as the four images were taken.

“Mr. Johnson will be by later to look at these with Doctor Welz,” the hygienist said. “That’s all we need; you’re free to go.”

A shower had left drops on the sidewalk and on the car during those few minutes, but it was not raining as Juan and Laura returned to the motel. Almost immediately she turned on the television and absorbed herself in the program. The two of them had a light and leisurely lunch from the food Laura had packed in Juan’s kitchen. Occasional rain splattered on the room’s windows while they waited. Eventually, the time came for Juan and Laura to return to Mike Johnson’s office. There they would discover what the investigator had found.

Flashback 1986, part six

When they went out for dinner, Juan had left his phone behind in the room. Returning, he saw that he had missed two calls from the same number, a number he did not recognize. Laura switched on the TV, so Juan walked down to the motel lobby. He made sure that his phone was programmed not to reveal his location, and then he returned the call.

“Hello,” a gruff, half-familiar voice answered.

“Yes, hello,” Juan responded. “You phoned me earlier this evening.”

“Is this Juan Rivera? The airport security guard?”

“It is indeed.”

“Juan, my name is Ron Lawrence.” When Juan gave no indication of recognizing the name, the voice continued, “I’m Laura Kinser’s husband.”

“I… I didn’t think she was married.”

“She is. We are. You can look it up on the internet.”

“Assuming for the moment that you’re telling the truth, why did you call me?”

“I had a long conversation with your boss this morning. I found out who you are, and he told me that you suddenly claimed a vacation. Tell me this, is Laura with you?”

“I don’t think I have to answer that question.”

“Don’t bother. I’m sure she is. If this was just about her, I wouldn’t care. But I called to warn you. You are in extreme danger right now. Not from me—from her.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Listen. Laura is a very sick woman. Not physically ill; just sick in the head. She does crazy things. People get hurt because of the things she does. If she is with you, you are not safe.”

A light dawned in Juan’s mind. “You’re the man who was chasing her at the airport the day she escaped.”

“Yes, that was me. Now we know each other.”

“And are you the one who claimed that the woman at the airport wasn’t Laura, that she only thought she was Laura.”

Ron sighed. “I should have told the whole truth. I needed people to believe that she is crazy and dangerous, and saying she wasn’t really Laura seemed like the best way to get cooperation.”

“And then you came to my apartment dressed as a policeman.”

“I am a policeman, Juan. I know I screwed up with the phony warrant, but I was in a hurry. Believe me, I’m trying to protect you.”

Juan thought quickly. “Laura hasn’t done anything crazy since she’s been with me.”

Ron laughed. “That whole thing at the airport—that was her idea. I don’t know how she talked me and Harvey into helping with her scheme. It started when Harvey told us that his doctor said he would die soon. Laura started talking about going out with a blaze of glory. Soon she had us playing along with her plan to have Harvey switch clothes with her at the airport and blow up her airplane. I should’ve known better, but it all made sense at the time.”

“But why would she want to do that?”

“Kid, when you’re crazy, you don’t need a reason. She’s been like this as long as I’ve known her. Even the two of us getting married was an impulse on her part.”

Juan made a decision. “Ron, I have your number. If anything bad starts happening, I know how to get ahold of you. Meanwhile, I’m going to do my best to help her get her life back.”

“You’re making a big mistake,” Ron told him. “She’s a dangerous woman. She’ll destroy you.”

“Thanks for the warning, “Juan said, and then he pressed “end.”

Before he went back to the room, Juan Googled Laura Kinser and found her on-line biography. She was indeed married to a man named Ron Lawrence.

When he returned to the motel room, Laura was still watching TV, although she had changed clothes and was wearing a bath robe she had bought that afternoon. Juan suspected she was wearing little, if anything, under the robe, and he tried not to stare.

“I just had an interesting phone conversation,” Juan started. Laura muted the TV and looked at him quizzically. “He said his name was Ron Lawrence. He said he was your husband.” She did not respond, so Juan added, “Laura, I didn’t know you were married.”

“’Was’ and ‘were’ being the key words,” she responded, bitterness in her voice. “How did he find us here?”

“He only has my cell number. He doesn’t know where we are. Laura, you being married changes a lot about what we’re doing here.”

Laura snorted. “Ron and I are separated,” she said, “and we are not getting back together. Especially not after this week.”

“Ron says you planned the whole scene at the airport.”

I planned it? That’s preposterous. Why would I plan something like that?”

“I asked him that. He said you didn’t need a reason. He said that you’re crazy.”

Laura shook her head. “Let’s get a couple things clear,” she said. “First, there’s no such thing as crazy. The diagnosis is borderline personality disorder. Second, I’m not the one with the disorder. He is.”

“He is,” Juan repeated. “But why the scene at the airport?”

“Insurance fraud,” Laura answered. “Both life insurance and the insurance on the plane. Ron needed a lot of money fast, so he staged the whole thing. Harvey was about to die anyhow, so he was easy to convince. I had a lot of objections, but he basically forced me to do it. He said that I would be kept hidden until he could repay the life insurance, and then I could make a dramatic reappearance and be the top news item everywhere. But when he ‘hid’ me by locking me into a room at the airport, I began to realize that my life wasn’t so important to him after all.”

“That’s when you escaped.”

Laura smiled. “That’s when you saved my life.”

AUTHOR DISCUSSION: That is as far as the story got in the novel. The private investigator Juan knows in Westfield was away, working on another case which was also part of the plot. I added a few things (like the cell phone, of course), but to this point, this fairly represents what I wrote more than thirty years ago.  On the other hand, I have had time to think of an ending for the story and to start writing it. That ending will appear next week. J.

Flashback 1986, part five

You can read part one here

You can read part two here

You can read part three here

You can read part four here

Juan stopped at a motel next to the highway on the edge of town. “I wonder if they’ll take cash for a room,” he said. “I really don’t want to use a credit card.”

“Let me put my feminine charm to work,” Laura suggested. “It might also require a little tip, but I think I can manage this.”

Ten minutes later, she was back in the car. “Did it work?” Juan asked. In answer, she showed him the cardkey. “What did you tell them?” he asked.

“Mostly, I told the truth,” she said, smiling. “I said I had been in an accident and my purse was lost with all my credit cards, my driver’s license, and other identification. The only lie I spoke was my name—I told them that I’m Martha Jones.” Juan smiled, and he moved the car closer to their room.

After unloading the car, the two drove down the road to a Walmart. Laura took some of Juan’s money and went shopping for clothes, while he wandered from department to department: outdoor furnishings and supplies, paint and home repair, automotive, toys, electronics—anything but clothing. When that bored him, Juan went to the front of the store and sat on a bench. Soon he saw Laura getting into a line for a cashier. He waved at her, and she smiled and waved back. Juan stayed on the bench until she had paid for her clothing, then stood up to join her.

As they walked through the doorway to the parking lot, they heard a firm voice behind them say, “Please stop, folks—I need to talk with you.”

Both were tempted to break into a run, but they controlled their fear and turned. The man who had spoken to them was wearing a dark suit and a tie. “I’d like to check your bags and your receipt, please,” he said in a gruff voice that clearly offered them no choice.

“Could we see some identification first?” Juan asked. The man shook his head. “I’m store security,” he said. “That’s all you need to know.” Juan wondered if he and Laura should just walk away, but it seemed safer not to cause a scene.

Wordlessly, Laura handed him her bags of clothing. With care he matched each item to the receipt. Then he reloaded the bags and handed them to her. “Now, sir, I’d like to check your pockets.”

“What’s all this about?” Juan asked.

“You were acting suspiciously in the store,” the man told him. “Just let me search you, and if I don’t find anything wrong, you’re free to go.”

Juan took his wallet and keys out of his pocket and handed them to Laura. So long as the man from Walmart didn’t demand to see identification, Juan thought, they would be fine. The man patted Juan’s pockets and also checked to see if Juan had anything between his shirt and his body. His touch was professional, and in less than a minute he was satisfied that Juan had stolen nothing. “I apologize for the inconvenience,” the man said, no trace of apology in his tone of voice. “Catching thieves saves you money, you know.” Without waiting for any acknowledgement, he turned and went back into the store.

Juan sighed loudly. Laura laughed and gave him his wallet and keys. They returned to the car and went back to the motel.

Laura went into the bathroom to change clothes. She left the door ajar, but Juan averted his eyes. He saw the television and decided to turn it on.

“Do you want to eat some of the food we brought, or should we go out for dinner?” Laura asked as the came out of the bathroom, but Juan hushed her. She didn’t like being ignored, but she understood when he pointed at the TV. She saw her own face looking back at her. A voice proclaimed, “Investigators today released their first findings regarding the explosion, evidence that the airplane had been sabotaged.  No motive for the sabotage has been determined. Although personal items belonging to the actress were recovered, her body has not been found. The partially-burned body that was recovered from the scene was identified as a male in his thirties. The coroner indicated that the man suffered from a terminal case of lung cancer. His name has not been released.”

Laura dropped to the bed next to Juan. “It sounds like the investigation has gone well so far,” she told him. Her face had disappeared from the screen as the newscaster went on to a different story.

“They are still searching for your body at the airport,” Juan said. “They don’t realize that you’re alive.”

She reached out and stroked Juan’s hair. “Suddenly, that doesn’t seem so important,” she cooed.

Juan stood and said, “And they probably don’t know anything about the other man who kidnapped you.”

Laura sat up straight. “That other man…” she began angrily. Then she lay back on the bed and said more calmly. “That other man will be found soon enough.”

Juan didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded. Then he said, “Were you talking about dinner a little bit ago?”

They looked at a phone book and discussed their options. Westfield had several restaurants. Neither of them was in the mood for hamburgers or pizza, and Juan didn’t want to spend his money too quickly. They chose a Chinese food buffet, drove there, and ate their fill. Leaving the restaurant half an hour before sunset, they noticed a park with grass and trees and flowerbeds across the street. “Let’s go for a stroll,” Laura suggested.

As they walked through the park, Laura reached out and took his hand. He wanted to let go, but his hand felt good and also natural in hers. Neither of them spoke as they wandered from one flowerbed to another. The western sky became pink, then rosy, and then purple. Soon the evening star was glowing above the horizon.

“This is a perfect evening,” Laura said. “Every day should end this way.”

Juan saw some flying creatures—he did not know whether they were birds or bats. “I think the car is in this direction,” he said, turning away from the sunset and walking east, Laura’s hand still in his. Their closeness made Juan bold enough to inquire of her, “How did you get into acting? And do you enjoy it?”

Laura began telling the story she had told so many times before. She described a little girl growing up in a poor but happy family. When she was in high school, she suddenly decided to turn away from poverty and happiness in pursuit of fame, money, and loneliness. Skipping quickly over three years of waitressing, snatching food from plates the busboys had cleared from the tables so she could save her tips to buy make-up and clothes. She related how, without great expectations, she took part in an audition her agent recommended. The character made no sense to her, and the entire show seemed nonsensical, but the directors and the writer insisted that she was perfect for the part.

The show bombed. It never even appeared on a television screen outside the network offices. The director did not forget Laura. He kept in contact with her agent, invited her to three more auditions over the next two months, and also told his friends about her. One of his friends decided to take a chance on her. His show became a sensational hit. Now, four years later, Laura Kinser was riding the crest of public favor and adulation. That brought them to the present, to the sudden unexplained kidnapping and the staged plane crash and her escape.

“You know the rest,” she told Juan as they reached the car. “That’s all there is to tell. Anything else about my life,” she lied outrageously, “would be too boring to tell.”

As Juan drove back to the motel, Laura yawned. “It’s funny,” she said. “Half the world thinks I’m dead, and the other half probably thinks I staged the whole incident to take a long vacation. They’re probably imagining me on a beach in Tahiti or southern France, some place exotic like that.” She reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “Can’t say that I’m disappointed that they’re wrong.”

As they pulled into the motel parking lot, Juan said, “Tomorrow we can visit with an investigator I know here in town. He will be able to prove that you are who you say you are, and he can get the authorities started on track to find your kidnapper. That should just about wrap things up for me.” He put the car into park, and then he said, “What do you plan to do after that?”

Laura smiled. “I don’t know. Do you have any suggestions?”

Juan said, “You’ve told me several times how lonely you are. Now that we’ve spent all this time together—and now that we’re about to spend the night together in a motel room—well, would you be interested in having a boyfriend?”

In the dark car, Juan couldn’t see Laura’s face, but he could hear her low-pitched chuckle. “Maybe we should see how the night goes before I answer that question.”

“Listen,” Juan said quickly, “Nothing is going to happen between us tonight, not even if you say you want me as your boyfriend. I don’t move that fast.”

“Oh, please don’t be so old-fashioned,” Laura retorted. “Until now, I’ve wondered if you even liked me. You’ve been so distant, so cold, so… so gentlemanly it almost frightens me.”

“Not even like you?” Juan spluttered. “Laura, I’m crazy about you. I’d do almost anything for you. Why else would I set aside my job to protect you, to bring you out here where you’re safe, where you’ll have a chance to prove who you really are?”

“Oh, I appreciate that,” she said airily. “And I’m grateful, I truly am. But before you offer to be my boyfriend again, let’s try to do a few more romantic things together, OK?”

“OK,” Juan agreed. They left the car and went into their motel room.

When they went out for dinner, Juan had left his phone behind in the room. Returning, he saw that he had missed two calls from the same number, a number he did not recognize. Laura switched on the TV, so Juan walked down to the motel lobby. He made sure that his phone was programmed not to reveal his location, and then he returned the call.

“Hello,” a gruff, half-familiar voice answered.

“Yes, hello,” Juan responded. “You phoned me earlier this evening.”

“Is this Juan Rivera? The airport security guard?”

“It is indeed.”

“Juan, my name is Ron Lawrence.” When Juan gave no indication of recognizing the name, the voice continued, “I’m Laura Kinser’s husband.”

To be continued… J.

Flashback 1986, part four

You can read part one here

You can read part two here

You can read part three here

The next day at work was startlingly normal. Juan left the apartment before Laura awoke and drove to the airport. Pilots came and went as they usually did on a bright sunny day. Some walked past him without a word; others exchanged pleasantries with him. None of them mentioned Laura Kinser. Even Juan’s supervisor did not ask him again about Laura. It seemed to Juan that she should still be at the center of everyone’s attention—after all, she was at the center of his—but her tragedy seemed forgotten. The woman running through the airport thinking that she was Laura Kinser also was apparently forgotten.

Juan pondered the situation. He had already thought of various ways for the woman to prove that she really was Laura. Fingerprints should help—surely some of the actress’ fingerprints could be found in her home and compared to those of the woman back at Juan’s apartment. Dental records could also be consulted and compared. A DNA test was not out of the question, but fingerprints and dental records should suffice. If Juan believed that the woman was telling the truth, he would have suggested these things to her. As it was, he feared that they would prove that she was lying, and Juan was not prepared to handle her reaction to that discovery.

When Juan returned home from work the next afternoon, he was surprised to see the apartment door open wide. He was even more surprised as he entered the apartment to find two uniformed police officers inside. “We’re sorry to disturb you, sir,” one of the officers said. “We have a warrant.” He showed Juan the search warrant. “We’re trying to find a girl who escaped Monday from the mental ward of the state hospital. She thinks that she’s Laura Kinser. Unfortunately, she also looks a bit like Miss Kinser.” Juan stood mutely in his living room as the officers thoroughly searched his four rooms and his two closets. He expected any minute for them to find his guest, for them to drag her, kicking and screaming, from a closet or some other hiding place. When the officers had completed their search, she still had not appeared.

“We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” he officer said again, disappointment in his voice.

“Whatever made you come here to look for her?” Juan knew that it was a bold question, but it seemed to him that quietly accepting their search would be suspicious.

“One of your neighbors phoned this morning. She described a woman she thought she had seen in the apartment. Obviously she was mistaken. Have a good day.”

After they left, Juan collapsed into a chair. He gazed around his apartment, now a bit disorganized, and wondered where the woman who claimed to be Laura Kinser had gone. After resting for a minute, Juan got up and began putting his things back into place.

The apartment door was still open. Juan looked up with surprise when he saw Laura standing in the doorway, clutching a stack of folded clothes so high that she had to hold it with both arms and her chin. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said as she walked into the living room, setting the clothing on the chair where Juan recently had been sitting. I decided to wash the clothes I’ve been wearing, and I grabbed some of your dirty clothes too, to make a full load.” She looked down at the floor, a little flush creeping across her face. “I filched some of your quarters, too. I’ll pay you back—I promise—just as soon as I can reclaim my identity.”

Juan wanted to laugh. “I don’t mind,” he assured her. He saw that she was wearing one of his flannel shirts and a pair of his blue jeans. The jeans were double-cuffed to keep them from dragging on the floor. He realized that he didn’t mind her borrowing his clothing either; in fact, she looked fine in it.

“You didn’t tell me about the washer in drier in the basement. I went exploring,” she said. Juan didn’t know what to say, but he didn’t have time to form a response. “What’s this piece of paper?” Laura asked, picking up the search warrant that was lying on the table. “This wasn’t here before.”

Juan tried to sound casual as he said, “Oh, it’s just a search warrant. Some police stopped by apartment looking for you while you were down in the basement.”

She frowned as she read it. “It doesn’t look like a search warrant,” she said.

Juan stepped next to her to examine it with her. “It’s the paper they showed me when I came home,” he said.

“But, look, half of it isn’t even filled out, and there’s no signature on the bottom. This looks like something someone printed off the internet.”

Juan shook his head, ashamed that he had been fooled by a clumsy forgery. But they were already in his apartment when he got home; there wasn’t much he could have done. After all, they were wearing police uniforms, complete with guns….

Juan turned away, striking his forehead with his hand. “Of course! I knew he looked familiar!”

“What? Who looked familiar? The police?”

“Yes—the tall one, the one who didn’t speak to me today. The uniform distracted me, but he’s the man from the airport yesterday, the one who was chasing you.” Juan sucked in his breath with another realization. “He was also with you at the airport the day your plane exploded!”

As Juan looked at Laura with renewed recognition, his telephone began to ring.

Juan and Laura jumped, glanced at each other, and then both of them stared at the phone. It rang a second time, then a third time. Finally, hesitantly, Juan picked it up. “Hello?” he said. His voice crackled; his throat was suddenly very dry.

“Well, it’s about time,” the voice of his landlady hissed at him.

“Yes, Mrs. Cook,” Juan said, his tense shoulders relaxing. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m calling to warn you,” she growled. “There was a pair of phony policemen looking for you about an hour ago. They asked all kinds of questions about you—when you’re home, if you have guests often, things like that. I saw through them right away. I asked for badge numbers, and when they didn’t produce any, I told them to leave the building and never return. I think they might be thieves, casing the place to try to rob you.”

Juan smiled. “Thank you for the warning, Mrs. Cook. I’ll be sure to keep the door locked, and I’ll ask the neighbors across the hall to keep an eye on the place.”

“And another thing,” she continued. “I don’t like the looks of that tramp you brought home yesterday. My building has a good reputation, you know.”

“Yes, Mrs. Cook. She’ll be gone before nightfall,” Juan said. “Good-bye, Mrs. Cook.” He set down the phone.

“’Gone before nightfall’?” Laura repeated. “Juan, are you kicking me out?”

“Not exactly,” Juan answered. “You and I are leaving town together as quickly as we can. Grab what you need for a trip. I’m due for some time off, and I’m going to take it now.” He picked up the phone again and called the security office.

Laura waited until Juan had finished arranging his vacation. “Where are we going?” she asked as he set down the phone.

“Somewhere safe,” Juan replied. Without another word, he began grabbing clothes and toiletries. Laura shrugged and went into the kitchen, where she found two bags and started filling them with food that would travel well—crackers, fruit, breakfast cereal, raw carrots, and granola bars. By the time she finished, Juan had filled a suitcase, including Laura’s clothing that she had just washed. “Quickly!” he whispered, ushering her to the hallway. He locked the door, and they took the stairs down to get to his car.

First Juan drove to the bank. “Walk with me,” he invited Laura as he got out of the car. At the ATM, he said, “I don’t think we’ll be overheard here. It’s possible that your friends had time to bug the apartment. Possibly they bugged the car too. I think it’s best for us to get out of town, a hundred miles or more, and find a place to stay. You’ll want to buy some more clothing, I think. Then, tomorrow, we can find a private investigator who will listen to your story and figure out how to help us.” Juan put his card into the ATM and withdrew the maximum amount of money allowed. Then he took out a credit card and got a cash advance from that as well. “That should cover the next few days,” he said. “I’m counting on you to be able to pay me back when this is over, you know.”

Laura stepped next to him and lay her head on his arm. “Absolutely,” she guaranteed.

“OK—let’s go,” Juan said. They returned to the car, and headed to Westfield.

To be continued… J.

Flashback 1986, part three

You can read part one here.

You can read part two here.

When his shift ended, Juan did not furtively smuggle the woman out of the airport. He knew how to avoid looking suspicious. Confidently he took her arm, escorted her to his car in the employee parking lot, unlocked the passenger door, and invited her to take a seat. The woman was trembling the entire way, but she managed to stand straight, to walk as if with confidence, and to keep her face calm. The exit gate of the parking lot opened in response to Juan’s magnetic card, and soon they were in traffic, driving just like every other vehicle on the road.

At his apartment building, Juan adopted the same nonchalant manner. He even held the woman’s hand in the elevator and as they walked down the hall. He pulled out his keys, unlocked his door, and invited the woman to have a seat on the couch while he got them each a can of soda from the fridge.

He sat in a chair. Each of them sipped from their cans of soda. The woman—Juan was increasingly thinking of her as Laura—began to thank him again, but Juan waved his hand through the air. “Remember—this is for a very short time, until you come up with a better plan,” he told her.

Then the telephone rang.

The call was from his supervisor. “Juan, this afternoon at work, did you see a young woman with dark hair, running? About five-three, well endowed, maybe thirty years old?”

Juan hesitated only briefly. “A woman matching that description ran past me a little after noon. A man was following her.”

“That must be her. Did you see her again after that?”

“No,” Juan said. He reasoned that technically he was not lying—she had not left his sight, so he could say that he hadn’t seen her “again.” “Why do you ask?” Juan said.

His supervisor sighed. “She escaped from a mental institution. Evidently, with all this talk about the event at the airport two days ago, she’s become convinced that she is Laura Kinser. I gather that there is a similarity in appearance. Either she’s still roaming around the airport, or she slipped out through one of the employee exits. We’re all being told to keep an eye out for her.” He paused, and then added, “She’ll probably be found before you’re on duty tomorrow, but if she’s not, do remember to watch for her. Let me know if you see her or get any news about her.”

Juan agreed that he would do so, then hung up the phone, deep in thought.

She let a couple of minutes go by before softly saying, “That was about me, wasn’t it?”

Juan nodded.

“What did they tell you?”

“He said that a woman escaped from the hospital and somehow got to the airport. They say that she thinks she is Laura Kinser, who we all know died in a plane crash two days ago.” He pointed to the morning paper. “You can read all about the crash if you wish.”

She began to reach for the newspaper, then stopped. “You read it,” she said to him. “You tell me what it says.”

“Your plane took off, and then it exploded. They found your body—well, part of your body—in the wreckage. Your purse was there with your ID.” He gestured again toward the newspaper. “It’s all there in black and white.”

“Things are not always as they seem,” she said in a mysterious tone of voice.

“Laura, I was on duty at the time. I saw the explosion. No one could have survived it, believe me.”

“All you know is that someone flying my airplane died in an explosion. They had my purse with them. Someone is going through a great deal of trouble to make it seem that I have died, to the point that someone was willing to die in the charade.” Her voice trembled as she beseeched Juan, “Please believe me. I know it’s a lot to swallow, but I really am Laura Kinser, and I am very much alive.”

Juan shook his head. “You’re right,” he said. “It is hard to believe what you say. No I’m not accusing you of anything, and the offer still stands—you can stay for a night or two. All the same, it’s even more important now that you find a place to go afterward.”

She sighed. “I don’t look like the Laura Kinser you see on TV,” she acknowledged. “I’m missing all the make-up, the jewelry, and the bright-colored clothing. I guess it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe me. But if I can’t convince you, when you saw me at the airport, how am I going to convince anyone else now?”

“Surely there must be someone who can recognize your voice, or who knows things about you that no one else knows. You must have some friend, some family member, who can identify you.”

She shook her head. “My parents have been dead for years. No brothers, no sisters. The people at work only know me as an actress—they’re not friends. And as for dates… well, ever since high school I haven’t been out with the same man more than twice.”

Juan didn’t know how to respond. After a minute or two of awkward silence, Laura—that is, the woman who claimed to be Laura—shyly inquired, “May I ask another favor?” When Juan nodded, she said, “I really need a shower—it’s been a couple of days. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” Juan replied. “I’ll get you a washcloth and a towel. You can use my soap and my shampoo. Oh, and there’s a new toothbrush in its wrapper I can let you use. The toothpaste is in the medicine chest.”

While she showered, Juan turned on the television to watch a ball game. Three innings later he heard her voice again. “Juan?” she said quietly. He looked away from the TV. She was wearing nothing but the towel.

“Do you have a t-shirt I could borrow? I hate that shirt they gave me to wear.”

Juan wanted to ask how her kidnappers had forced her to change her clothes, but now was not the time for that. He tried not to stare at her, but he noticed how her clean hair was beginning to curl as it dried. “Any particular color?” he asked. Laura shrugged, then grabbed the towel with both hands to keep it from slipping. Juan went into his bedroom, found a red t-shirt, and brought it to her. She retreated to the bathroom to get herself dressed.

A few minutes later she was out again. “One last favor,” she said. “I’m starving. Set me free in your kitchen—I’ll see what you have, and I’ll whip up a supper for both of us.”

Juan watched the rest of the baseball game while she cooked. She put together a surprisingly tasty casserole of ground beef, macaroni, canned tomatoes, and cheese. Juan envied Laura’s talent at blending herbs and spices; he had a fairly good selection, but he always followed recipes. What she had produced was noticeably more flavorful.

After they had eaten, Juan told her, “I have to be at work early in the morning, so I have an early bedtime. I hope you will excuse me.” He locked the door of his bedroom, hoping that she would not be offended. Juan read for more than an hour before turning out the light and going to sleep.

To be continued… J.

Flashback 1986, part two

You can read part one here.

Two days later Juan was back at his desk in the airport’s private wing. Once again he sat through a gray and cloudy day, as if nature itself wept for Laura Kinser. Once again Juan felt sleepy, since no one came to visit his part of the airport on such a gloomy day.

In his mind Juan could still see the orange fire and the black cloud, as he could still see the yellow airplane peacefully lifting off the ground a moment earlier. He tried not to look outside. At home the night of the explosion, watching the evening news and the memorials to Laura, Juan had finally cried. The tragedy weighed heavily upon his heart.

Juan tried to distract his mind by any other subject: politics, religion, even the Never Again series. He forced his mind to try to puzzle out the secret identity of a character identified only as “the Avenger.” As before, Juan was distracted by the sound of footsteps, but this time the person approaching was running. Moreover, the sound came from a hall that led to an abandoned warehouse—nobody should have been running toward Juan from that direction.

The woman who came around the corner from that hall was about the same height as Laura Kinser, and she had a similar figure. Both these facts made Juan’s heart race, and he felt as if his heart had risen into his throat. The woman’s face was not familiar to Juan. He had little time to react to her sudden appearance, because she ran up to him, saying, “Please protect me! They’re trying to kidnap me! Please help me!” Already Juan heard heavier footsteps approaching from the same hall the woman had just exited.

He had no time to ponder a decision. Juan did what seemed natural at the moment—he took the woman by the arm and swung her around behind his desk, pointing to the space where his chair belonged. At the same instant that the woman’s head disappeared under the desk, a man came around the corner, following the same path she had taken. Juan pointed down the hallway that led to the main terminal. The man nodded and did not stop running. Juan stood by his desk, wondering what he was going to do next.

Two or three minutes passed. Juan looked down at the woman cowering under his desk. “I don’t think he’s coming back,” he said. “You can come out now.” She looked timidly up at the security guard and only reluctantly abandoned the safe shelter he had offered. As the two of them talked, she continued to glance nervously down the hall to assure herself that the pursuit had not returned.

“So,” Juan said, still standing. “What’s all this about?”

The woman shrugged. Juan could see that her hands were trembling. “They kidnapped me—I don’t know why. They didn’t seem to expect any ransom, and they didn’t try to harm me. They never even spoke to me. I don’t know what they wanted.”

Juan frowned. “They locked you in a warehouse for no reason at all?” He wasn’t questioning her; he was trying to solve the puzzle with her. Juan noted that the woman was wearing slacks that were too big for her. His keen eyes even discerned that the white shirt she was wearing buttoned as a man’s shirt, not a woman’s shirt. Her feet were bare. He wondered about the strange outfit, but instead of discussing her clothing, he said, “They never gave you any indication of what they wanted?”

She shrugged again. “They just grabbed me and threw me in there and locked the door. When they brought me here, I had no idea what they were planning to do to me. I still don’t know what they wanted. All I know is that they had a gun. I didn’t bother to ask any questions.”

Juan observed that she was wearing no make-up. Her eyes were large and brown, her nose small, her lips full. Her black hair was tied in a loose bun. Juan found her attractive in a girlish way, even though he could see that she was well beyond her teens. “Perhaps we should formally introduce ourselves,” he offered. Bowing slightly at the waist, he continued, “I’m Juan Rivera, at your service.”

The woman smiled slightly, though her hands continued to shake. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Officer Rivera,” she said, extending her arm to shake his hand. “My name is Laura Kinser.”

Whether she really was Laura Kinser or not, clearly she could not continue to hide under Juan’s desk. Still, she remained close to the desk and ducked underneath it whenever she heard footsteps approaching. Over the next two hours, she hid five times. Twice she was hiding from people walking toward their planes, but the other three occasions were legitimate reasons to hide. The man who had been chasing her went back to the warehouse, then out again, and then back once more. He never stopped to ask Juan any questions, although once he stared hard at the security guard while walking past him. Self-consciously, Juan fingered his badge while he tried to look engrossed in the book he was pretending to read.

His shift was about to end, and the woman who claimed to be Laura Kinser did not appear to have a plan to get out of the airport. “Do you have a home, or someplace I can take you?” Juan asked. He hoped the question did not sound impolite.

She looked up at him, her large eyes wide with fright. “Oh, no, I can’t go home,” she explained. “That’s the first place they’ll look.”

Juan gazed at her. Under her baggy clothing, she did appear to have a figure resembling that of Laura Kinser. If one imagined the appropriate make-up, perhaps sunglasses, and of course the trademark earrings, he mused, she just might pass for the actress. Then he thought, no, something else was missing. He wasn’t sure what it was. At the same time, even though she was probably not Laura, she was a woman in trouble, and his job was to help her.

“Who are they?” he asked gently. “What do they want from you?”

“I told you—I don’t know.” She looked as though she was about to cry. “They talked to each other as though they had a plan involving me, but I never heard what it was.” She put her hands over her face. “I’m so scared.”

Juan wanted to hug her. He wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright. Instead, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I can’t do much to help,” he warned her. “I’m only a security guard. I don’t even have a gun. But if I can slip you out of the airport, I can put you up in my apartment for a day or two. That is, if you don’t mind sleeping on the couch.” She looked up at him gratefully, so he added, “Mind you, it’s only for a couple of days, until you figure out what to do.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, sobbing, reaching out to hug him.

Juan accepted the hug as he asked himself, “How do I keep getting involved in things like this?”

To be continued… J.

First Friday Fiction–Flashback 1986

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following story consists of selections from a novel I attempted to write in 1986. I chose one of the many characters and excerpted his episodes from a much longer work involving many characters, places, and events. I have rewritten a few sections to update the story and to close two gaping holes in the plot. I am also working on an ending, since the novel I tried to write was never finished. Other than that, most of what you are about to read was written more than thirty years ago. J.

The hours dragged slowly in the private wing of the airport. Security guard Juan Rivera found himself nodding off to sleep again and again. Part of the blame belonged to the book on Juan’s lap: a dog-eared edition of volumes one through nine of the Never Again series. Juan had read these books twice and was now seeing them for the third time. His drowsiness could not be blamed entirely on his questionable choice of literature. The weather was equally to blame: cloudy, with mist and drizzle in the air, the kind of day that induces sleep in the inactive. Not many people felt like flying in such weather, which is why his part of the airport was unusually still.

Days like this did not occur often. Generally at least a few people were coming and going in that part of their airport. Juan did not work for the government; he was an employee of the airport. While normal passengers were being searched and examined in the main terminal, pilots of small aircraft had access to a private parking lot and this private wing of the terminal. A magnetic card got them into the parking lot, and a code number got them into the terminal wing and into the hangar. As pilots, and as owners of airplanes worth more than a million dollars apiece, they had the privilege of being immune to security searches.

Juan liked his duties as security guard in this part of the airport. His presence was largely for appearances—he did not have authority to detain or arrest anyone. Those who walked past him usually were wealthy, and they often were famous as well. Juan took advantage of the opportunity to speak with these visitors, away from crowds of adoring fans, and briefly separated from whatever burdens they were fleeing by air travel or might be approaching by air travel. Juan had no real friends among this crowd, but some of them he genuinely admired. They also amused him with their awkward disguises. Some he had never seen without sunglasses hiding their eyes. Many of them wore strange outfits, based apparently on their perception of how ordinary people might dress. A few traveled in the company of sycophants, but more often they traveled lightly when they came through the airport. It seemed that their reason for travel often involved getting away from people rather than bringing people with them on the trip.

The people using the airport had no trouble recognizing Juan, assuming they bothered to see him at all. Juan was short, stout, and muscular, with broad shoulders and bulging arms. His dark eyes were friendly, and he tried to smile at the people who walked past his position. His jet-black hair was always cut short to prevent it from curling, as was its nature. His uniform was always clean and well-pressed. His black leather shoes were always shiny.

Unfortunately for themselves, few people took the time to recognize Juan Rivera.

Juan looked up from his book, hearing the sound of approaching footsteps. The center figure he recognized immediately: television actress Laura Kinser. Laura tried harder than most celebrities to disguise herself at the airport, wearing sunglasses and broad straw hats, saying little to anyone. Juan always knew her by her large earrings and her figure. Also, not many women fliers visited his part of the airport. Juan watched her show every week at home, but he had never dared to tell her personally how much he admired her work. A bolder man might have used the opportunities available to Juan, but he was shy around beautiful women.

Laura flashed her ID at Juan as she walked past him. He tried to reply with his friendliest grin. She seemed not to notice, although most days she did take the trouble to smile back at him. He tried not to stare as she proceeded to the hangar, even though her tight knee-length skirt gave him reason to want to stare. Juan turned his attention instead to the two men who were walking with her.

They did not seem at all friendly. They seemed to be making Laura nervous. Like her, they wore sunglasses, and their mouths were grim. They might have been bodyguards, judging from their appearance, but Juan preferred to think that they were financial advisors, or perhaps television producers. He hated to believe that anyone as lovely as Laura Kinser would need protection.

A fleck or two of blue began to show between the gray clouds. Juan watched through the window as the small yellow airplane taxied down the runway. The bright color shone against the blue and gray background, Juan thought. He knew that the yellow plane belonged to Laura, and he thought that it fit her personality—sunny, cheerful, and warm. Her wardrobe also included bright-colored clinging blouses that complemented her generous curves, as did the large earrings that had become her trademark. Juan continued to watch, his book forgotten, as her plane raced from the end of the runway, lifting itself in time to clear the trees beyond the airport limits, soaring gracefully into the sky.

The flight lasted barely more than a minute. Before Juan’s horrified stare, the small yellow plane turned first into an orange ball of fire, then a cloud of smoke blacker than the clouds above. The new black cloud pelted the ground with fragments of metal rather than rain.

One of the two men who had accompanied Laura to her ill-fated plane raced back down the hallway, and Juan did not try to stop him. He could not leave his post, but Juan watched as fire trucks and the first investigation teams rushed to do what little they could with the pieces that fell. He saw news crews arrive to interview witnesses (though in his obscure part of the airport, Juan was neglected). The same reporters spoke with authorities from the airport and filmed the scene of the accident.

Juan wanted to crawl away to a place where he could cry. Two of his dreams had been shattered with the yellow plane: the dream of the beauty of flight, and the dream of someday being Laura’s friend. No one came to see if Juan was OK, to ask how the tragedy affected him, or even to inquire whether he knew anything about what had happened. Juan bravely stayed at his post for the last two hours of his shift, and during those two hours he did not cry.

The fiery death of popular actress Laura Kinser was the chief news story across the nation for a couple of days. The loss of a young and popular actress saddened many people. Film clips from her series and from some of her movies were shown on the evening news. Interspersed with those clips were photos of the explosion taken by people who happened to have their cell phones in their hands when they heard the plane explode. Dramatic photographs of the scattered wreckage, interviews with Laura’s family and friends, and shots of the flowers sent to the television studio and to the airport completed the coverage. Tearful fans gathered to hold candles and to remind each other of the tragedy, striking her down at the peak of her career. Life would continue for the nation of survivors, as it does after every shocking death, but America set aside a day or two to be shocked and saddened.

To be continued…. J.