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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Trailhead - No. 272

Martin adjusted the overhanging lamp, barely noting the sting of the flame’s heat bleeding through the green shade and scorching his fingers.  The amber pool of light on his worktable shifted, and he brought his magnifying glass to his weary eye.

The bulbous slug lying before him seemed to cringe.  With his tweezers, Martin nudged the gastropod, elongating its striped form.  The chestnut spots and gray flecks appeared ten times their normal size in the round lens but Martin tromboned his arm, gaining a sharper view.

From beyond the world of his worktable, he noted footsteps nearing.

"He's been in there for days.  Ever since...."

Martin recognized Adele's voice, but the Cook’s tone carried an unfamiliar, nervous quality.  Shrugging off the curiosity, Martin flipped the slug over and peered at its parched underbelly.

A round of tentative raps broke his study’s quiet.  Wincing, Martin leaned closer to the specimen, his curls brushing against the lamp and sizzling.

The knocks rapped again, and then the door knob squealed.

"Mr. Adams?"  The hinges squeaked, and the papers piled before the entrance tumbled as Adele opened the door.  "Oh, Mr. Adams!"

Adele scurried to the collapsing piles and began propping up towers about to teeter while herding those spilling across the carpet.

"Don't mind those," said Martin.

"But sir.  The mess!"

Martin shook his head.  Plucking the slug between the tweezers, he deposited the creature back into the terrarium.

"Adele," said another voice. 

His accent scratched at the edge of Martin's memory.  A face failed to emerge and enlighten him, so Martin put the oddity aside and watered the potted ferns cluttering one side of the container.  Their tapered leaves drooped, he suspected from a dearth of sunlight.  Martin flinched at the idea, and set the watering can aside.

Adele huffed as if regaining her feet and flapped out her skirts. 

"Mr. Adams," she said, coming to his elbow.  She clasped her wrinkled hands at her aproned waist and a mask of serenity settled on her features.  Her gun-metal gray bun wobbled as she gestured behind him. "You have a visitor."

"I don't want a visitor," said Martin. 

He caught the drop threatening to fall from the watering can’s spout and wiped his finger clean on his dress shirt.  The fabric rubbed against his chest like a second skin and exuded a faintly musty smell.  He focused his thoughts on categorizing the aroma, settling on a mix of sweat, dirt, and leather.

"Why don't you go brew some coffee, Adele," said the accented man.

"Are you sure, Father?"

Adele's title inspired Martin’s recollection and in his mind’s eye Father Bernard's face coalesced.  The Priest’s lean visage presided at stone alter, flanked by bouquets of lilies wrapped in indigo ribbons.  Laying on the platform before him—

Martin diverted his thoughts to the bookcase alongside his worktable.  Running his fingers along the spines he selected one on gastropods, and began searching for an identifying image for the slug within his terrarium.

Meanwhile, Adele shuffled out, pages crumpling under her feet.  The door failed to close behind her, and the flame in the oil lamp flickered with the escape of the room’s stuffy air, making the text on the book's splayed pages waver.

Martin scowled and readjusted the lamp.  "Would you mind closing that on your way out?"

"I thought we could have some coffee," said Bernard.

"I'm not interested."

"I am."

"Then suit yourself." 

Martin thumbed through the essay on garden slugs, and another on exotic species found in the rainforests by the Equator.  None fit his specimen, and he thumped the book shut.  Shelving the volume, he search for another, one on local flora and fauna he remembered wedging between two others after a brisk read.

"Would you mind if I sat?"

Martin jolted, reminded of the Priest's presence.  He glanced at Bernard. 

The Priest motioned with a slender hand to one in the pair of leather-backed chairs tucked by the curtained window.  A mountain of journals occupied the cushions.  

Martin recalled reading through the last twelve issues during the night.  He frowned, trying to calculate how long ago that had been.  Last night? The previous night?  His mental computation leapt to a week ago, on Sunday, after the ceremony—

"No," said Martin. 

He discarded the book in his hands, strode to the other side of the room and examined his globe.  Laying his fingertips on the chest high orb coated with shades of blue, green, and brown, he spun until the South American rainforests lay in view.

"Martin,” said Bernard.  “Come back to us.”

Between Martin's hands the continents, lines denoting rivers, and colors marking various countries swirled.  He heard Bernard shifting, piles landing with soft thuds on the carpet.

"How about some light, hum?"

Martin hunched his shoulders as Bernard pulled aside the thick, velvet curtains.  Afternoon light streamed around him, casting a shade of his form on the mahogany paneling the room.

"Better?"

Martin shrugged.  He glanced to either side, but found his worktable and more clutter pinning him in the corner, and providing no route of escape.

"Why don't you join me," said Bernard, "and we can talk?"  He grunted and Martin envisioned the twiggy man hefting one of the thicker tomes from the second chair.

Bernard gave a tinny yelp before the tumbling books made the lamp rattle in its perch.

"Sorry about that, Martin."

"It's nothing.  It's all nothing...."

"It's not nothing," said Bernard.  The leather groaned, flexing as it caught his figure on the seat cushion.  "Death happens, Martin."

Martin snapped his hands back from the globe, and pocketed both, hiding the ring threaded on his finger in his slacks.

"You should be relieved she went as quickly as she did."

Martin wheeled, his hands sudden fists trapped in tweed.  "What!?"

"Beatrice was in pain.  She went swiftly to a better place, a more peaceful place."

Martin scowled.  "Is that all you've come to tell me?"

"No," said Bernard.  He scooted to the chair’s lip, balanced his knobby elbow on similarly peaked knees, and clasped his hands.  "I came to help you live again."

"I'm living fine," said Martin. 

He stormed to his worktable and slapped his hands onto the counter.  His shoulders warmed beneath the lamp's glow, adding to the fueling fury swirling in his chest.

"You're dying.  Slowly," said Bernard.  "You can't think she would have wanted you to be like this."

"She didn't want to die either."

"Of course not," said Bernard.  "Some things can't be helped.  Others can.  You have a choice here."

"Choice?"  Martin snorted.  "Some choice."

"It's yours to make.  You can stay cloistered in here and from what Adele’s told me, probably starve yourself to death.  Or you can pick up your pieces, grieve, and move on."

"Move on?"  Martin spun, and the room seemed to chase itself.  He covered his eyes with one hand until physics regained command, and then refocused his glower on Bernard's passive figure.  "How am I supposed to move on?  This is not how it was supposed to be."

"Nothing is supposed to be anything," said Bernard.

Martin ground his teeth, gnashing the placating tone dribbling from the Priest's lips and staining the air.

"Life is what it is," said Bernard, his cadence oozing.  "You still have yours.  Think of the effect you might be able to have on hundreds, maybe thousands if you returned to your work.  Your colleagues have been asking about you, your students too.  Are you going to let them down?"

"The only person who's opinion I cared about is gone, so what does it matter?"

"How do you know she's gone?"

"Because I saw you put her into the ground," said Martin, his voice crackling as readily as the tremble in his arm pointing with accusation at Bernard’s hawkish nose.  "You covered her with dirt, you...."

Clamping his mouth shut, Martin sagged onto his worktable and dropped his chin to his chest.  Since the ceremony, tears had already come and drained him dry.  Even his shoulders failed to waver with the echo of sobs wracking him in the present.  A hushed silence embraced him, marred only by the rustle of papers.

"Oh…Excuse me," said a high baritone.

Martin put his back to the door, half spying the young Mr. Johnson, donned in a crisp khaki suit and carrying a silver tray with coffee pot and flock of china cups.

"Ms. Adele told me to bring these up.”  The young man’s voice warbled around his hesitation.  “But perhaps I should—“

"It's all right," said Bernard.  "Set them here." 

A shuffle denoted more sheets being gathered and piled onto the floor.  Saucers clinked against one another as Johnson placed the tray onto the side table sprouting between the two excavated chairs.

"Eddie Johnson," said the young man.

"Father Bernard.  You must be one of Mr. Adam's pupils."

Flesh smacked with their handshake.

"Yes sir…ah Father."

Martin stiffened as he sensed both men's gazes upon him.

"I wanted to stop by, Mr. Adams,” said Eddie, “and let you know some news."

Martin raised his gaze from the worktable and drifted over the bookcases.  "News?"

"Yes sir, great news, sir."  Eddie's words started racing.  "I got my acceptance letter to the University.  They let me in.  I thought...given everything that's been happening you might like to hear about it.  And I wanted to thank you as well.  I couldn't have gotten in without your recommendation, without all of your tutoring."

Martin pivoted slowly, wary of the room sprinting around again.  Eddie stepped back as if stunned by something in his face or eye.

Martin worked to smooth his features, and even gained a quirk to his lips.  "You did the work," he said and offered his hand, minor trembles and all.  "Congratulations, Eddie."

Eddie leapt over and cupped Martin's hand in both of his.  He pumped vigorously as if unsure how to stop once he'd started. 

"Thank you, sir.  Thank you."

Retrieving his limb, Martin listed back against the support of his worktable.  "I hope you've spread your news around."

"Oh, I have, sir. And I found out Paul Vends is looking at the same program.  I told him you might be able to help him, like you did for me.” 

Martin frowned, while Eddie’s mouth finally stopped into a fishy gape. 

"Vends, huh?"  Martin frowned, working up what he recalled of the young Mr. Vends academic record and personality.  

Meanwhile Eddie chewed on air, working up his next onslaught.  “I was also hoping….hoping you might be able to guide me during first quarter at least.  I'm afraid of getting overwhelmed with all of the medical details."

Eddie’s request glided over Martin’s diverted thoughts. 

Vends had a head for numbers, Martin recalled in the sudden quiet, although he had a tendency to wander especially when a female student or two neared.

Martin smirked at his chastisement.  If it hadn't been for your own wandering eye, he chided, you might never have met Beatrice. 

The thought of their first meeting flooded in his senses. Ankle-deep mud squelched around their boots, and their mutual preoccupation with the snails emerging from the muck remained engrossing, until they had butted heads leaning toward the same spiraled mollusk.

Martin’s chest tightened as he saw Beatrice, her heart-shaped face damped by rain and cheeks flushed with a complimentary rose.  Her smile lingered, the heady gleam in her mossy eyes sparkling.  He heard her words that day as clear as if she whispered in his ear.

"Go ahead." 

She had motioned him forward on the snail’s trail.  Instead, he'd held out his hand, and after a brief moment of consideration, she'd slipped her fingers onto his palm, and they'd gone forward together.

"Sir?"

Eddie's voice plunged Martin back into his study.  He dropped his gaze, and dove into the soil-dark carpet revealed through the scattered pages and tomes.  A passageway led from his loafers through the clutter and Martin found his eyes locked upon the open doorway.

"Go ahead," whispered against his ear.

Martin gulped a sudden swell of grief twined with unexpected relief.  He raked a hand over his face, and then turned to Eddie and Bernard, both waiting with concerned expressions.

"The first rule to avoid overwhelming yourself in the first quarter," said Martin, "is coffee."  He gestured for Eddie to pour.  "We'll start there.”  He met Bernard’s gaze and dipped his head in a brief nod of thanks.  “I'm sure Father Bernard wouldn't mind staying.  He seems overflowing with good advice today.”

"It would be a pleasure," said Bernard.

Martin stuffed his hands back into his slack's pockets while the glug of the dark brew filled the cups.  Fingertips seemed to brush his skin and he clasped tight, bent on keeping hold no matter where his next step lay.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Greener Grass - No. 267

Exiting the limo, Roche raised her hand and pressed her slender fingers tight.  She managed to block the majority of the blinding flashes as cheers crashed upon her from all sides.

"Put your arm down," whispered Gil, emerging from the car’s front passenger seat.

Grimacing, Roche lowered her hand.

The flanking crowds pressed in, their swell making the barricades rattle.   Looming before her, Stan held out his arms, pushing back the tide and gaining a circle of breathing room.  Roche hurried on in Stan’s wake as he pushed forward.

Gil trotted behind her, keeping his prodding demand close.  "Quit squinting," he whispered.

Mindful of his tirade about the wrinkles they might deepen, Roche forced her eyes wider.  She swept her gaze up and over the crowd splayed against the corridor leading to the hotel’s entrance like bugs on a windshield.  She smiled as her aim avoided the ceaseless snap and pop of flashbulbs and camera phones.  

The cheers roared on, until she thought the ground should shake.  Shouted phrases or questions bombarded them, the words lost in the torrent.

"Wave," whispered Gil.

Roche strode behind Stan's monstrous bulk, and lifted her arm like a fluid ribbon up into the afternoon heat.  With her cheeks burning from her stapled smile, she spun once, the stilettos providing two trivial pivot points.  The motion swirled her dress’ cyan-hued skirts and earned another surge of cheers.

The hotel's awning provided a crisp edge of shade and Roche settled back into the parade route.  Those flanking their passageway thinned as the terrain shifted from public sidewalk to private property.

At the other end of the red carpet, a leather faced bellhop opened a glass door.  His grin quirked to the side, and he straightened his shoulders beneath his uniform's weight.

"Thank you," said Roche.

"Miss," said the bellhop adding a tip of his hat.

Roche winced as Gil's sigh expressed his irritation.  He shuffled her through the entrance before her courtesy for the normal folk led her into any unplanned conversations.

The dearth of noise within the lobby's expanse left her feeling hollow, and her stride staggered as if a crutch had been taken away.  Roche steadied as the clack of her heels and the slap of Gil's loafers provided their own blare.  Eerily, Stan's shoes never made a sound. 

He hovered like a massive shadow as they arrived at the elevator bank.  Gil pecked the button half a dozen times, none of which made the lift arrive any sooner.  He checked his watch, the golden band glittering in the chandelier’s glow, and tapped his similarly shiny loafers.

The elevator dinged, and the doors split, revealing an elderly couple dressed for the evening.

"Excuse us," said the snowy-haired gentleman, a thick Russian accent warming the air.

Gil sputtered, but Roche nudged him aside with a grin for the husband and wife, not to mention the surprising anonymity.  The older woman adjusted her shawl as her companion prevented the doors from closing, and then they glided as one into the early evening.

Darting into the elevator, Gil stabbed at the penthouse button, grumbling under his breath about increased advertising in the European markets.

Roche listed against the back wall as the elevator doors closed, and shut her eyes, blocking the reflection of her standing between the bookends of Stan and Gil.  Their presence lingered like annoying flies, ones she couldn't bat away.

After passing stories punctuated by Gil's toe tapping and the lifts electronic hum, the doors hushed open.  Again, Gil stormed through, already digging out the suite's card from his suit coat pocket.

Stan motioned for her to precede him, and Roche sighed.

"I'm going, I'm going," she whispered.

Gil had the door wide and his PDA in hand by the time Stan had her herded into the penthouse. 

The crisp scent of clean sheets, towels, and vacuuming hung in the air.  Pinned drapes revealed the coastline, the surf rolling in on the beach mottled with tiny blots of color for each tourist or local catching the last of the sun's rays.  With a click, the suite's entrance closed, cutting off the hallway and the route back into the world below.

Roche perched on the couch's arm rest, crossed her arms, and stared down at the view.

Gil paced through the sitting area, tapping at his screen.  "Good crowd huh?"

"Yeah," said Roche.  "I guess staying under the radar was too much to ask."

"You're a celebrity now, people want to know what you're up to, where you are, what you're wearing.  You gotta want that, right?"

"What I really want is a car," whispered Roche.

"Sure, sure," said Gil, staring into his PDA.  "We can probably do a voice over, an endorsement, or something.  What were you thinking?"

"I'm not talking about an endorsement," said Roche.  "I want one for me."

"We might be able to swing one in the deal."  Gil halted and quivered as his thoughts churned.  "Yeah, I bet they'd agree. I mean every time you drive around it'd be like free publicity."

"No," said Roche.  She swiveled and caught him with her gaze.  "You're not getting my point.  I want a car so I can get away from this, at least for a little while.  Something every day, something that's not going to stand out, with plates people won't recognize."

Gil's eyes bugged as if she had punched him in the gut.  "But...."

"Gil, please.  I'm going to burst if I don't get some quiet time, some time alone."

"You get plenty in here.  Not like Stan and I are always around."

Roche dropped into the couch's cushions and drew a stiff pillow into a close hug.  "I want to go someplace real and just...be me for a while."

"You're famous now, kid.  Being alone is kind of out of question."

"It is if I don't fight for it," whispered Roche.  She set her chin on the pillow's braided edge and stared up at Gil.

Gil shook his head but she saw his stubbornness begin to waver.  "I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Gilbert."

Gil's mouth flashed with a half-grin, one that softened the aggressive glint in his eye.  "Get some rest, kid.  You've got a big day tomorrow."

"You said that yesterday."

Gil smirked.  "They're all big now."

"Goodie," said Roche.  She sank deeper into the couch.

"See you at 7," said Gil, "remember to wear that blue number so you don't clash with Mr. Denabrio at breakfast."

"That was serious?"

Gil shrugged.  "Verbatim from his people: only the Director wears warm colors." 

"Wow," said Roche, "that's insane."

"I don't make the rules."

"Yeah, I know," said Roche.

"The blue one, okay?" 

Roche rolled her eyes and landed back in the view.  "I'll remember."

Gil finished with his PDA and then started for the door.  "You need anything else?"

"No," said Roche, "but thanks." 

Stan moved to follow Gil as if silently beckoned.

"Night, Stan," said Roche.

"Miss," said Stan, the word emerging like a primordial grunt.

The two exited the suite, the door clicking shut again.  Gazing out the windows, Roche sank into the couch's squishy embrace, and daydreamed about cooling sands between her toes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Internal Affairs - No. 265

Roger slammed Fredericks’ report down, rattling the ballpoint pen lying on his desk’s blotter.

"Maureen!"

Gritting his teeth, Roger flexed the pages and glowered at the report's concluding paragraphs.  Another bellow began worming up his throat by the time his office door swooped open.

"Sir?"  Maureen filled the threshold, her tweed pantsuit rustling.  She raised both brows while keeping one hand on the earpiece inserted beneath a tumble of bleached blonde hair.

"Get me Fredericks, now.  This is unacceptable."  Roger pitched the report toward the door.  It skipped like a stone on a pond, and then thudded to a stop on the plush industrial carpet.

"Yes, sir," said Maureen.  Her fa├žade never wavered as she walked forward on pointed heels and retrieved the document.

"And a fresh cup of coffee too."  Roger checked his Rolex and squinted at the early evening hour.  "Decaf."

"Yes, sir." 

Roger waved a dismissive hand and swiveled in his chair, absorbing the skyscrapers glittering in florescent illumination.

"Ah…Sir?"

He scowled at the warble in Maureen's tone.  "What?"

"You have two visitors."

"Are they scheduled?"

"No," said Maureen, "but I think you should see them."

"I think I should be deciding that don't you?"

"Of course sir.  But...."

Glaring at her reflection, Roger stewed over Maureen's insistence.  She was rarely so adamant without reason. 

Smoothing his features, he firmed his voice.  "Send them in."

"Yes, sir."

The door clicked shut.  Roger heaved to his feet and set his hands on his hips, the hem of his suit coat fluttering.  Staring at the array of lights twinkling in the city below, he worked up his response to Fredericks' mediocre report.  As he debated between a demotion and the complications of an outright dismissal, a knock smacked against his office door.

"Come in, Maureen."

Dropping back into his chair, Roger swiveled, and plucked the pen, twirling it between his fingers.

"This way, gentlemen," said Maureen, gesturing through the entrance with a graceful sweep of her arm.

Two men, both in crisp suits in opposite shades of gray, entered.  The first, sporting a silvery comb-over and tie too wide to be of the present decade, strode slowly across the room and halted before the desk.  The second, in a stylish charcoal jacket and slacks, nodded to Maureen.

"Thank you, Miss."

Maureen pursed her lips together, and bobbed her head.  Roger didn't bother meeting her eyes when they darted to him.  She exited, closing the door with a hushed snap.

The older of the pair widened his stance and pocketed both hands into his suit coat.  "Good evening, Mr. Bertsham."

Roger smirked and met the man’s spear-sharp blue eyes.  "I'm afraid I'm not as well informed," he said, hiding his irritation.

"Andy Landon, I'm from the IRS."

"I'm sure you have some proof of that," said Roger, cocking a skeptical eyebrow.

Landon's smile quirked on one side.  "Certainly."  He dug into a breast pocket and retrieved a leather wallet.  "This is my associate," he said, handing over the billet and thumbing at the man perusing the contents of the mahogany bookshelves.  "Jeremy Masters."

Opening the wallet, Roger skimmed over Landon’s glimmering badge, raised department's icon, and the identification card’s textual details. 

"This seems in order," he said, offering back the wallet.  "What can I do for you?"

Landon took his time stuffing the wallet away, and working up a reply.  "We investigating into a particular account, a financial company with whom you've invested a great deal."

Setting the pen down, Roger leaned back and folded his hands onto his lap.  "I wasn’t aware the IRS does investigations."

"We're part of an elite branch," said Landon. "One that looks into the most...interesting of situations."

"I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific."

"RW-42," said Landon, accentuating each letter and number.

Roger's stomach quivered, but he kept the ill vibe from showing in his features.  "It may be in my portfolio,” he said with a heavy dose of nonchalance.

"I'm sure we'll be able to confirm that."

"Don't you need warrants for those kinds of things?"

"Yes," said Landon, "they're pending."

Roger grunted.  "Well if you find anything out of order I'm sure you'll be in touch."

"I'm sure we will." 

Roger shifted in his chair, his nerves beginning to chip.  "So how can I help you tonight?"

Landon swept his gaze around the room before returning with an intrigued air.  "We're surveying the situation.  Getting a base for how things are.  I'm sure you can appreciate the benefit in being thorough before moving ahead with any transaction."

"Of course.  But there's also something to be said about showing your hand early."

"Is that what I've done?"

"That would imply I have something to hide," said Roger.

"Do you?"

Roger bristled.  "You can't believe I'm going to answer that question without a lawyer present."

Landon shrugged. "Sometimes I get lucky."

"There are stupid people out there, Mr. Landon. I assure you I am not one of them."  Landon's smile stretched again, irking Roger's blooming exasperation.  Tipping forward, he intertwined his fingers, and rested them on his desk's blotter.  "Is there anything I can actually help you gentlemen with or is your intent to waste my time?"

"I assure you, Mr. Bertsham,” said Landon, his mirroring words oozing, “I would never do something so hazardous to your wellbeing."

"Then if you don't mind, I have other matters needing my attention."

"On a Friday night?"

Roger narrowed his eyes.  "You don't build an empire by taking the weekends off."

"Must be why I'm still in a studio apartment." 

Landon extended his hand but Roger barely gave the man’s rough palm a glance.

"Been a pleasure, Mr. Bertsham."  Landon withdrew and stuffed his hands back into his coat pockets.  "I imagine the next time will be even more memorable." 

Roger frowned.  "Next time?"

"Oh, we'll be back,” said Landon, his smile reappearing.  “I'm nothing if not thorough."

"Then I hope you get what you're after.  I hate to see my tax dollars misspent, and I can't imagine you'll find anything digging around here."

"My imagination will astound you," said Landon.  He bobbed his head in farewell.

As he strode past his associate, Masters turned from his perusal.  He offered a similar nod. 

"Evening, Mr. Bertsham."

Roger stared over his steepled fingers as they exited. 

Maureen hovered at the threshold, and peered inside.

"Sir?"

Roger held up a quieting hand and she froze.  The duo's footsteps thudded against the floor, making the frames of the art lining in corridor clatter.  An elevator's ding echoed, the hush of doors opening and closing finally taking the presence of his recent visitors from Roger's floor.

"Get me Aspen."

"But sir," said Maureen, her eyes going wide and words rushing with uncharacteristic speed. "Mr. Jones' secretary said not to call in the evenings."

"I don't give a damn," said Roger, rising to his feet. "Get him on the phone, or you'll be dealing with more than his pissed off secretary."

"Yes, sir."

Maureen scampered toward her desk, allowing the door to close on its own. 

Roger stared at the sealed panel, his breaths coming in ragged inhales and exhales.  Each strained his Egyptian cotton dress shirt already dampened with his sweat.

"Calm down," he whispered to himself.

Grabbing the armrests, he lowered himself onto the plush cushion, hoping the chair would not fall out from under him.  He braced himself against the desk, drinking in the stability provided by the weighty furniture.  He had his breathing under control by the time the bulb winked on his blocky phone-unit.

"Get a hold of yourself," he said to the crimson light.  "You've gotten out of worse."

He seized his nerves and snagged the receiver. 

"Aspen?”

The typical silence replied. 

“This is Roger.  We've had a complication."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fallen Stars - No. 257

Bert maneuvered down the airplane's aisle.  The roller bag behind him glided at his heels as he perused the seat numbers.  Near the tail, row thirty-four gaped, like the unanswered questions Tabitha's call had left hanging in his ear. 

Upon each of the three chairs on the right hand side, folded seatbelts gleamed.  Hefting his bag into the overhead bin, wheels first, Bert claimed the window seat.  He grimaced, bumping his elbow onto the bulkhead and discovering less room than the backseat of a car or even his cluttered office.  Resigning himself to the threadbare cushion, he fastened his belt over his lap and gazed out the window. 

Airport vehicles darted through the flurries starting outside, each cart scurrying like a collection of manic toy cars.  The similar image on his screen saver, with its sped up orbiting projectiles, appeared in his mind's eye, teasing with solved equations and understood patterns. 

Shifting his attention to the other passengers, Bert diverted his brain's churn to calculations on the probability the middle seat might remain vacant.

Around him, row thirty-three and thirty-five filled. An elderly gentleman, who appeared on the verge of sleep, sagged into thirty-four C.  The crowd of those standing about began thinning as seats were claimed and the lower numbered rows began boarding.

Bert exhaled, allowing his mantis legs to drift into the middle seat's terrain.  Slouching down, he folded his arms over his navy fleece and listed his head onto the curved bulkhead.  He shut his eyes, and ignored the bustle, murmured apologies, and thumps of closing bins, and tried escaping the echo of Tabitha’s voice in the blackness of sleep.

The tittered banter of one woman whittled into his near doze.  Bert squinted, and spotted her rotund figure as she worked down the aisle.  Against her chest and ample ski-jacket, she hauled a scarlet bag like an enormous ruby.  Stopping at each row, she peered at the numbers, and into the opened bins.

A steward tromped passed Bert's row, her trajectory aimed on an intercept course. The stomp of her practical flats shook the floor. 

"Can I help you, ma'am?"

"Oh!  Hello.  I'm in Row 34.  Seat B," said the woman, her cheeks flushed.  "But I'm not sure where I can put this."

"Let see," said the steward, a strained smile on her lips.  She snooped into the overhead bins like a detective seeking a culprit, cracking up and down one lid after another.  "How about here?"

The woman shuffled forward, and heaved the bag to her shoulder with a constipated grunt.  With the steward's help, they wedged her luggage between a roller bag and stout backpack.  After two tries, the steward managed to close the lid and then backpedaled, waving the woman toward the one remaining empty spot in plane’s final rows.

"Take your seat, ma'am," said the steward, "we'll be heading out in a minute."

"Of course.  Sorry."

Rocking from his chair, the elderly man rose, providing the woman as much access as the plane's confines allowed.

"Thank you," said the woman.  She sucked in her gut and batted down the front of her puffy jacket a radioactive shade of green.  With her breath held, she waddled into the row like a bulbous crab.

Bert nudged closer to the window as she plopped down beside him. 

She grinned.  "Well isn't this cozy?"

Bert offered a lean smile, and tilted aside as the woman worked into her seatbelt.  She smoothed coat's fluff, and wiggled between the armrests.

"There we are," she said with a contented titter. 

Bert's stomach plunged as she extended a meaty hand. 

"Hi, I'm Melba."

Frowning, Bert shook her hand.  "Like the toast?"

Melba chortled.  "You don't know how many times I've heard that."

Bert hoped she wouldn't indulge him with a recounting of each. 

"Bert," he said, tucking his arms back across his chest and settling against the window.

Melba failed to pick up the hint in his body language.  "Are you stopping in Chicago?"

"No," said Bert. 

"Where will you be flying today then?"  Her smile stretched, and she giggled at what she apparently perceived as a humorous mimic of a steward's questioning tone.

"Phoenix."

"Oh!  I bet Phoenix is lovely this time of year."

"Warmer."

"Any where's warmer than Buffalo.  Are you going for business or pleasure?"

"Ah...."  Bert raised his brows, and contemplated the two choices.  Business seemed the safer reply.

"Oh," said Melba, "what do you do?"

"I'm an astrophysicist."

"Really?" Mable's eyes widened. "You study...space?"

"Yeah," said Bert.

"You must work at the university then."

Bert nodded, but Melba barely paused for the confirmation.

"What's in Phoenix for an astrologist?"

"Astrophysicist," said Bert. 

Melba blinked, the correction impacting her like a light bulb flickering on within a galaxy. 

He sighed.  "A meteor shower deposited some...some space rocks.  I'm going to take a look at them."

"What are you hoping to find?  Aliens or something?"

Bert shrugged.  "I'm not sure."

Melba cocked her head.  "So why are you going?"

Glancing down, Bert plucked invisible lint from his ebony jeans.  Tabitha's worried voice over the static-laced line flooded his thoughts.  The goose bumps as she described the meteor's unusual characteristics pebbled Bert's skin beneath his winter gear.

"You're guaranteed not to find anything if you don't look," he whispered.

With her mouth forming a silent "o", Melba nodded as if he had relayed some sage advice.

Shaking himself from the hours-old phone conversation, Bert settled on Melba, who stared at him with silent but hungry expectation. 

Suppressing a sigh, he indulged the inevitable.  "What about you?"

Melba beamed as the conversation changed tack.  "I'm visiting my sister.  She lives just outside of Chicago with her husband Roy and their kids, Betty, Oliver, David, and little Susie."

Bert tuned out as Melba droned on about her nieces and nephews, each apparently more impressive than the last.  He nodded appropriately when Melba noted some of the children’s less than glorious moments and "oh’d" as necessary when they had redeemed themselves with some thoughtful, surprising, or heartwarming act. 

Tabitha's concern, however, rang in his ears, undercutting the awkwardness in their first-argument free conversation since she'd departed for greener pastures, and the meteor's troubling details. 

"....so I'm going to see if I can help her out and take things from there," said Melba.  Her grin stretched, yearning for approval.

"Imagine that," said Bert, meeting Melba's gaze, "me too."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Animal Instincts - No. 251

The paper-wrapped handles dug into Brigit's palms.  She shifted the two department store bags from her left hand to her right, joining the already dangling trio, and swung around her purse.  Fishing out her keys, she unlocked the door.  She winced as she entered, and shushed the rustling bags.

"Honey,” said Carl, “is that you?"

"Um, yeah," said Brigit, flicking her gaze around the front hall.  She darted to the closet, flung open the door, and shoved the quintet of purchases inside.  One toppled, and a shoe box tumbled, splitting open and revealing the gleam on a pair of faux snake skin boots.  Giving them a swift nudge with her foot, Brigit forced the door closed by the time Carl rounded the corner from the living room.

"You okay?"

"Yeah," said Brigit, feigning a struggle with her purse's straps and leopard print coat.  "What are you doing home?"

"The game ended an hour ago."

"Oh," said Brigit.  She made a move for the closet, cringed, and then draped her coat over her arm.

"Here."  Carl set one hand on her coat, the other on the closet's knob.

"It's okay," said Brigit.  "I...ah…." 

She fumbled for an excuse in the face of Carl's frown.  The door opened with his undeterred motion.  Boots and bags slid out like an accessorized avalanche.  She stared at the assortment even as Carl froze.

"Brig."

"I know, I know," whispered Brigit.

"You said you were going to stop."

She bowed her head and shut her eyes tight as if the pressure might make the scene before her vanish. 

"I just went to the mall to pick up those sun glasses, but they needed a half hour to finish.  I started walking around, killing time, and the next thing I knew I had my hands full."

"These didn't leap off the shelf, Brig."

"No.  But I ran into Amanda, and you should have seen what she was wearing.  Talk about fashionable.  I might as well have been wearing cardboard."  She looked up at Carl who seemed unimpressed.

Sighing, she pivoted and leaned against the wall, her gaze drifting down to the shopping bag clutter.  "I just needed to keep up."

"What you're upping is your credit card debt."

She glared at him.  "Well, they are mine."

Carl didn't wilt.  "It's our credit score."

Brigit rolled her eyes and settled back on the tiger striped blouse slinking out of a collapsing bag.  "We can pay it off."

"But do you really want to be spending like this?  How many things do you need that look like animals? Your closet's a zoo."

"It's fashionable."

"It's a fad.  In six months it's going to be all about wearing red or sweatpants or something."  He swept a hand at the bags.  "What are you going to do then?"

"Buy more."

"Brigit."

"I know I know," said Brigit, hunching her shoulders beneath his scolding tone.

She heaved off the wall, and shambled down the hall, leaving the clothing littering her wake. Plopping down into the living room's paisley armchair, she let her coat and purse fall to the spongy carpet.  Carl followed, and perched on the coffee table facing her.  He leaned his elbows on his knees and interlaced his fingers.  Silence stretched between them, and Brigit stared through her zebra inspired skirt.

Carl exhaled, his breath weighty with frustration, but he kept his voice even.  "What are we going to do about this?"

She shrugged one shoulder and kept her gaze diverted from the concerned she knew would be lingering in Carl's eyes. 

He stood, and walked into the kitchen.  The junk drawer rattled when he opened it, sifted through the contents, and then slid the drawer shut.  Plucking up her purse, he reclaimed his seat.

Brigit locked onto the ruby red handles of the pair of scissors he set beside him while working her wallet free. Her heart began thumping like prey in a predator’s sights.  Unclasping the fastener, Carl splayed open the array of plastic cards tucked neatly into the leather's slots.  He collected the scissors and offered them, handle first.

"You promised me last time."

Brigit's eyes grew wide and she met Carl's expectant expression.  A nervous chuckle rippled off her lips.  "It was a joke."

"You promised."

"Carl, you can't be serious."

He cleared his throat with a cough, his voice emerging in a mimicking octave.  "I, Brigit Johnson, swear to shred my credit cards the next time I shop just to shop, rather than shopping for what I need."  Carl cocked an eyebrow.  "I still have the signed agreement."

"You didn't."

"It's in my closet."

"At least I use mine for what it's supposed to be used for, rather than blackmailing my spouse."

"His and her's, hon."

She glared but again, Carl never flinched. Quelling her rising nerves, Brigit worked her lips in a dimpled grin, the one that usually diverted Carl's thoughts from anything resembling responsibility. 

"You're not going to just cut them up."

He shifted on the table, but then waggled the wallet and scissors, regaining his concentration with what would usually have been an admirable sense of determination. 

"I'm not, Brig.  You are."

"You can't make me."

"No," he said, "I can't." He set the scissors onto the table and stood.   Pocketing his hands, he shrugged.  "You wanted my help.  That's what I think you need to do.  Either that or this is just going to keep spiraling."

"But Amanda—"

"I don't care about Amanda,” he said, his voice finally snapping.  “I care about you."

Brigit looked away, but like magnets, the scissor's gleaming blades drew her gaze. 

Tipping forward, Carl placed a kiss on her cheek before striding from the living room.  The door to the den opened and closed, his descending tread on the stairs quieting once he reached the bottom. 

Brigit bit her lip and shifted her gaze to the waiting credit cards.  Worn edges and faded front faces stared back, each looking fatigued from their efforts.  Their weariness leapt across the intervening space and settled in her bones.  Heaviness draped her, as if she wore a coat of lead.

The thought made her chuckle.  "I'd probably buy that too."

Shaking her head, she sat forward and seized the scissors.  She plucked the top card from its slot and scissored the blades.  Staring at the sharp edges, she wondered if cutting granted the same satisfaction as swiping plastic through the card reader.

"I guess there’s only one way to find out."

Monday, November 7, 2011

At Sea - No. 238

A gruff hand seized Sawyer's shoulder, jolting him from a beach-inspired dream.

"You're on," said Hyde.

Peeling apart his sleepy lids, Sawyer spied the mountainous man dropping into his hammock slung below without even bothering to hide an expansive yawn.  The nails attaching the strip of fabric to the ship's posts groaned under Hyde's weight, and the man’s briny musk rippled through the cramped quarters.

"Up," whispered Sawyer.

Heaving from his recline, Sawyer ducked low, preventing his head from hitting the underside of the deck's planks.  He clambered out of bed while Hyde began snoring.

Seizing his boots from where he'd discarded them what felt like brief minutes ago, Sawyer tugged them over his breeches' hem.  He grabbed his coat from its peg, and thrust his arms into the sleeves as he made his way to the door.

The ship’s sway caught his initial stride, but he settled into the undulating gait within a pair of steps.

Mounting the ladder, he poked through the hatch. A night gust swept across the deck, rattling rigging and fluttering the tied down sails.

Emerging from the hold, Sawyer nodded to Jackson as the leather-faced sailor manned the rudder through the spoked wheel set up at the stern.  Sawyer strode along the deck's perimeter before ascending the platforms' steps and joining the other man on watch.

"Been quiet?"

"So far," said Jackson.

Standing beside the stouter man, Sawyer gazed down the length of the ship, toward the bow and the ongoing night before them.  Stars twinkled like watchful eyes through the masts and booms.

Sawyer pulled his coat close.  "What's our heading?"

"The Captain said to keep due West until morning," said Jackson.

"Doesn't that seem a little direct?"

Jackson shrugged.  "Not my place to question the order."

Sawyer grunted.

"We got away," said Jackson.  "No one's going to catch us out here."

"Sure."

Pivoting, Sawyer leaned against the back rail, watching the ship’s wake stir the darkened waters.  Foam trailed off toward the lightening horizon like an arrow aimed at land.  The ship rocked with the steady sail and swift current, and as night passed, indigo skies gave way to violet and peach.

Straightening from his slouch, Sawyer rubbed at his eyes as posts appeared, silhouetted by the rising morning.  A second glance confirmed the masts, growing like weeds out of the sea.

"Jackson."  Without taking his gaze from the vessels behind them, Sawyer laid a hand on the other man's shoulder.

"What, boy?"

"Tell me what you see."

With an irritated mumble, Jackson shifted.  He set one hand on the rail, the other on the wheel, keeping the ship on course.  In his peripheral vision, Sawyer saw Jackson's scowl ebb into raised brows.

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure," said Sawyer.

They watched the gathering force in silence for a few moments.  Sawyer began counting, reached twenty and stopped as the chasing ships dropped their sails and caught the morning's offshore winds.  A plume of smoke rose from one, an acknowledging puff from another, and then the signal worked through the armada.

"We better wake the Captain," said Jackson.

"We better grow wings," whispered Sawyer.

He stared at the taut fabric bringing their enemies closer with every gust while his stomach dropped to his feet like an anchor.  After a final glare, Sawyer turned away and yanked on the warning bell posted by the wheel.  The peal shattered the quiet.  As the din echoed over the water, he heard pounding beneath the deck as the crew awoke.

In the cabin under his feet, the floorboards creaked.  A heartbeat later a door opened and closed again with a clack.  With a steady tread, the Captain ascended the stairs, thumbs looped at his belt beside a holstered pistol and saber.

Without a word, Sawyer pointed over their stern.

The Captain smirked.  "The Admiral seems unhappy with us, boys."

"Looks that way, Captain," said Sawyer.  "What are we going to do?"

Sawyer froze as the Captain caught him in an unwavering stare.

"We're going to do as we promised, Sawyer.  They've entrusted us."

"Paid well for it too," said Jackson.

The Captain snorted his agreement.  "We've taken the job.  We'll get it done."

"Yes, sir," said Sawyer.

The Captain swiveled to face the dozen men on deck, standing in a loose clump awaiting orders.

"Get us underway."  He set his hands upon the ship's railing, confidence washing off of him in waves.  "We've got a message to deliver."