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.

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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.

Sing-a-long/A Long Long Night

I cannot stop myself. When certain songs are played on the radio while I am driving, I have to sing along. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen is one of those songs. “Renegade” by Styx is one of those songs. “American Pie” by Don McLean is one of those songs. “Hey Jude” by the Beatles is one of those songs. Even if the station cheats and shortens “Hey Jude,” I continue singing until I have completed all fifteen refrains.

It doesn’t matter where I am or where I am going. I have to sing those songs. This spring I was driving to deliver an hour-long lecture, but “American Pie” came on the radio, and I had to join Don McLean from the first line to the last chorus. Even if I have a job interview later in the day and want to make the best impression possible, I will sing along with “Renegade” or “Hey Jude” at the risk of ruining my voice for the rest of the day.

When I was in college, one of us in the dorm could put on the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” and a group of us would gather, singing all the songs of all the singers. The opening complaint of Judas, the conversations involving Mary and Jesus and Judas, the entry into Jerusalem, the prayer in Gethsemane—we knew them all, every word, every note. I don’t know if that’s good or bad; I just know that we were that way back then.

I’m changing the subject here, but on the Fourth of July my daughter needed a ride to the airport. She needed to be there at four in the morning. I set my alarm to wake up at 3:15 and tried to go to bed at 10 p.m. I was restless and had trouble falling asleep, probably concerned that I would not hear the alarm and awaken in time. When I did fall asleep I had a string of odd and unpleasant dreams. I woke myself from one dream, shouting, “Who’s there? Who’s there?” I had been dreaming that my father and I were at his trailer, and we could see that someone had entered the trailer even though the door was locked. A clothespin on the door was some sort of clue. I managed to open the door and look into the living room which was empty. A large walk-in coat closet was to my right, and I thought the intruder was hiding there. That is why I shouted… and awoke. By the way, in real life my father does not live in a trailer.

Driving to the airport, then, was a mixture of fatigue and stress. The city streets look different at such a time than they look, not only during the daytime, but even at nine or ten at night. To make matters worse, we drove in and out of showers. The highway to the airport was not well lit, and the paint on the pavement was faded. Driving took much concentration, so I focused all my attention on what I was doing. I got her to the airport, she grabbed her stuff and entered the terminal, and on my way back to the highway, I turned on the radio.

After the last few seconds of a commercial, I heard a familiar voice sing familiar words. “A long, long time ago.” I was right there with him, “I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.” I did not sing loud and vigorously. I still needed to concentrate on driving, dark roads badly painted, water on the windshield and on the road, and other traffic (including a truck behind me with its bright lights shining off my mirrors). Besides, I did not want to call attention to myself on the highway at four in the morning of a national holiday—I didn’t feel like taking the time for a sobriety check. Softly, and with a skipped line here or there as I navigated a curse, I made my way back home.

Even as I type this now, the urge to continue singing “American Pie” is nearly irresistible. In fact, I know of only one way to break the pattern of “…and I knew if I had my chance, I could make those people dance….” My freedom comes from four simple words: “A three hour tour. A three hour tour.” J.