I wondered if I would have to sit there alone all night. The black of midnight hovered heavily just above the ground. It seemed darker than normal in contrast to the moonlight brushed atop the swaying sea of wild grass, and in contrast to the blinking of fireflies, sparkling by the hundreds in a mesmerizing visual symphony. It was curious how something so natural could seem so unnatural. Such surrealism, I suppose, was a perfect backdrop for the oddness of the meeting that was about to take place.
“You got my letter, I see,” said a woman’s honeyed voice from behind me.
I slid my hand behind the flap of my sports coat and extracted a marbled cream envelope from the inside pocket. My name, Lawrence, was penned in calligraphy across the front.
“Yes,” I said, and I turned to watch her take a seat beside me on the bench. “How did you get into my house?”
“That’s not important,” she said.
She didn’t look at me. Instead her eyes shimmered with reflections of the fireflies as she stared into the field. The wind did nothing to the dense waves of cherry hair draping past the shoulders of her trench coat.
“Yes, it is important,” I said. “I can’t sleep knowing that some stranger entered my apartment in the middle of the night.”
Her lips were the same lush red as her hair. She said, “It boils down to this – I was in your home, and you were defenseless. Yet nothing happened. If I wanted to harm you, I would have done it already, and if it were my future intention to do something devious, I most certainly would not have brought you face-to-face with me.”
I sighed and slid a folded piece of parchment from the envelope she had left on the carpet outside my bedroom two nights prior.
“So what the hell is this all about?” I asked, and I unfolded the letter to read it again. It, too, was penned in trim, delicate calligraphy:
Your life is at risk.
Meet me at Midland Prairie Park on Wednesday evening at 11:45 p.m. Walk down the Deer Run trail and sit on the third bench. Bring this letter and envelope.
I know it will be difficult to trust me, but be warned – I know what I am talking about. The last four digits of your SSN are 2768. Your mother’s maiden name is Mullaly. Your last pet was a Labrador named Zeus who died of heart failure on July 23rd, 2015 at 11-years-old.
Do not try to run. They will catch you. Do not approach the authorities. They have been infiltrated. Do not tell anyone you know, or they too will be killed. I am the only one who can help you now.
This is much, much larger than you. You are but a pawn about to be sacrificed. If you do not follow these instructions exactly, you will die on Thursday at 10:17 a.m.
I refolded the letter and inserted it back into the envelope. She snatched it from me, and a bright flicker burst at her fingertips. When my eyes adjusted, I realized she was holding a lighter. The flame it spawned was crawling across the letter.
“Tomorrow morning you’ll get on a plane,” she said.
After the fire had swallowed most of the envelope and discarded it in snowing crumbs of ash, she blew out the last dancing flame.
“I’m supposed to be at work tomorrow,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “But I suggest you don’t go to sleep tonight, that way you can thoroughly enjoy the final ten hours of your life.”
She raised her arm and released the charred, jagged corner of the envelope. It tumbled into the breeze and wandered among the fireflies.
“Alright, goddammit,” I said. “What do you know that you’re not telling me? You’re freaking me out and pissing me off. I have no idea how to interpret your insane claims. This shit seems like it’s out of some mass-produced action movie. You realize that right? You realize how crazy this sounds?”
She looked at me for the first time since she had sat on the bench. Her pupils were like dimes, both in size and in the way they glimmered with the silver moonlight. They were wrapped in a thin circle of blazing blue.
“You know what…” she said, “if you don’t believe me, go to work tomorrow and let the final, dying thought of your brief and uneventful life be not one of happiness, but one of regret as you think to yourself, ‘Why didn’t I listen to her?’ ” Her vehement gaze did not waiver. “Honestly, go off and die if you want. It’s really not my problem. But know that you looked your guardian angel straight in the face and said, ‘I don’t need you.’ ”
She rose from the bench, extracted an envelope from the inside of her trench coat, and handed it to me.
“We’ve already been here longer than we should have been,” she said. “In this envelope is a plane ticket to Guadalajara, Mexico scheduled to leave Saint Paul International Airport at 6:32 a.m. tomorrow morning. It will arrive at Chicago O’Hare at 8:02 a.m. After a layover in O’Hare you will board another plane set to depart at 9:47 a.m. It is scheduled to land in Guadalajara at 1:52 p.m., but you will not make it to Guadalajara. This is meant to be a diversion. A couple of hours into the flight the captain will announce an unplanned stop. My contacts won’t choose the actual location of this stop until tomorrow when they can assess the final nature of the situation, but it is likely to be somewhere in the Midwest. When you arrive you will be approached with further instructions.”
When she finished speaking, I realized my mouth had drifted open. I closed it and swallowed what little spit I had in an attempt to lubricate my drying throat.
“One last thing,” she said, and she extended her palm. “I need your cell phone. Otherwise they will find you easier than water in the ocean.”
Without thinking, I pulled my cell phone from my pocket it and placed it in her hand. She walked away.
* * *
The fluffy tops of clouds and a chatty neighbor accompanied me on the plane toward Guadalajara. A severe introvert, I typically despised small talk with strangers, but the random ramblings of the mid-fifties woman beside me were a welcome release from my tightening internal anxieties. As I listened to her talk about her cat, Cinnamon, and live Christmas trees versus artificial ones, and the unreasonable price of organic produce, I found myself able to finally sip on a cup of coffee without feeling the immediate need to vomit.
Then I heard the bing sound that signaled an impending intercom announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your co-pilot speaking. We’re going to make a brief stop at Tulsa International Airport. We’ve received a status light on our dashboard indicating a potential glitch on an instrument that will not affect our flight. I assure you we are cruising along both safely and comfortably, however it is airline policy that aircrafts land to fix any issue in the instrumentation regardless of severity. The flight attendants will be traveling down the aisles shortly to collect any garbage you might have, and then we ask that you fasten your seat belts and secure your seat backs and tray tables in the upright position. The maintenance crew in Tulsa is already prepared to fix the problem, and we have been informed that they do not expect it take long. Thank you for your patience. We plan to touch down in Tulsa in about twenty minutes.”
That was the first moment when I truly trusted the mysterious woman. Yes, the previous evening she had been so thorough that it seemed convincing, and I suspect that was why I handed her my cell phone, but hearing this aspect of her story corroborated by someone as random and respectable as the co-pilot of a commercial airliner put the mortar between the bricks she had laid.
Still, although I finally knew I could believe her, my fear of the unknown did not wane. Instead it amplified. It chugged through me like pattering drumsticks. The space between the notes compressed as did the gaps between my heart beats as the tips of the 747’s wings sliced into the clouds. The drumsticks rolled and rapped. They bounced chaotically to the heads of other drums—snare-snare–tom-snare-cymbal-snare-tom—as the stewardess passed, rolling her cart and collecting garbage, eyes darting at me with strange, intermittent glances. The cymbals hissed. Pounds of the bass drum accompanied another bing sound and the glow of the orange seat belt lights above every head. A tilt of the plane’s flaps, a tip of the wings. The Tulsa runway stringing down from the horizon. The ground seemed to speed in its dizzying travel beneath us as if the closer we dropped to the Earth, the more I could detect its eerie axial rotation; and as the landing gear clunked out of its ports, as the wheels jarred the tarmac and the wind rushed louder and buildings flew past and momentum threw me against my seat, I could hear that drummer, his deafening, disorganized, maniacal fury echoing through my head.
“Are you okay?” the woman beside me asked.
But I could not find the breath nor the words to answer, and I could not find the willpower to unclaw my fingers from my palms.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t like the landings either, but it’s over now.”
I worried she was all too right. ‘It was over.’ All of it, for me, was almost over.
The plane seemed to taxi forever. I thought for the briefest moment that the lazy nature of its roll might help me regain some composure, and then it jolted to an authoritative halt.
The bing sounded again, and a voice penetrated from the speakers:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. Thank you for your patience. The maintenance crews have asked that we exit the aircraft so they can perform the repair. Stairs have been wheeled up to the main exit door near the front of the plane. Please file out in an orderly fashion. We’ll get you back in the air as soon as we can.”
I was reluctant to leave the stability of my seat. My eyes drifted out of focus as I watched the other passengers stand and ease down the aisle. To them, this pit stop was a minor inconvenience. To me, it was the precipice of the unknown entity that had haunted me since the moment I opened my bedroom door and stared down at the woman’s letter.
When my focus returned, I realized I was the only person still sitting. The end of the exit line was three rows ahead of me. I unclasped my seat belt, stood, careful not to hit my head on the low ceiling, and followed the old man at the end of the line.
A frigid wind tried to blast me backward as I stepped out of the plane onto the stairs. The clouds masked the sun. Every single person below seemed to be staring up at me. I clutched both handrails tightly as I descended, afraid that in my panicked, trembling state I might trip and mow through everyone below me.
My feet finally reached the ground. I ambled nervously toward the crowd, searching their faces and trying to determine who would be the deliverer of my fate.
Something slammed into me from behind. My head smacked the tarmac. A hand pushed my face harder against the ground. The passengers screeched and gasped. A ratcheting noise accompanied the tight squeeze of metal around my wrists.
A man declared, “You have the right to remain silent.”
* * *
I sat in an uncomfortable chair. My hands were cuffed to eye-bolts which had been welded to the top of the table. I stared at a mirror on the opposite wall. My right cheek was as purple and swollen as a plum. Blood painted my ear.
The door opened, and in strutted a man dressed in black slacks, a tucked-in white shirt, and a black tie. He sat in the chair across from me.
“You might as well confess, Lawrence. With all the evidence we have there is not a jury in the nation that wouldn’t convict you. This is what we call an open and shut case.”
“What’re you talking about?” I asked.
“You can’t be serious,” he said. “We’re the FBI. We’re good at what we do. And you are not nearly as sly as you think.”
“No,” I said. “No, there’s something wrong here. There’s a misunderstanding.”
“One cannot misunderstand hard evidence, Mr. Noll. We traced a remote detonation signal sent from your cell phone to a bomb which was connected to a Layer 7 Ethernet Switch at Core Securities Enterprise, your place of employment, on a day you just happened to call in sick and fly to Guadalajara. We have video footage from Monday of you replacing a cooling fan motor on said Ethernet Switch, which I assume is where you housed the bomb. We also have several documents with your signature acknowledging that you placed an order for that motor, checked the motor out of the shipping and receiving department, and did indeed perform the task of installing it.”
She must have intercepted the motor before it got to Core Securities, I thought. She must have planted a bomb in it and put it back in the box. How long has she been planning this?
The agent continued. “We’ve uncovered several foreign bank accounts recently opened in your name, but you must be playing a shell game. None of them house the two hundred million dollars that disappeared from Goldman Sachs during the three second blip the explosion caused to their cyber security system. Most people would not be aware of the possibility of such a blip, nor would they know how to write the code to exploit it. An elite network specialist such as yourself, however, would be very well aware of such things.”
He leaned back and swept his arms in front of him as if laying something on the table and saying, “Your move.”
I watched the light flicker on my cuffs as my hands shook inside of them. I listened to the metal rattle.
“She wasn’t lying,” I finally said.
“The Concerned Citizen. She said in her letter, ‘You are but a pawn about to be sacrificed.’ She was telling the truth. She just didn’t mention she was the opposing queen.”