When facing certain peril, human nature dictates a fight or flight response.
In my “career” I knew that this natural instinct wasn’t a viable option.
Assuming my cover wasn’t already blown, frantically fleeing the scene or better yet, slamming a left hook to the Mayor’s chin would surely rouse the town’s suspicion that I wasn’t who I claimed to be.
“When you lose your cover” Chomsky had warned “ you risk the life of every agent out there. You endanger us all. ”
I steadied my breath, ignoring the mayor’s claw-like grip on my shoulder and mustered my well-practiced small town charm.
“Why Mayor, why on earth shouldn’t I leave town?”
He self consciously pulled his hand away and offered a wide grin, flashing a row of impossibly white capped teeth.
“Why Mrs. B, because you haven’t signed up for our food drive yet”
That wasn’t exactly the answer I was expecting. I glanced, dumbfounded toward the eerily silent throng of children.
“The annual food drive, Mrs. B.?” Lockley smirked at my lost expression. “Surely you’ve seen the posters? Every year the children, with the help of yours truly” he pointed his thumb toward his chest with an unconvincing humbleness, “canvas the neighborhood asking for volunteers to cook for our neighbors less fortunate, seeing no one goes hungry. A tradition. Good to instill these values early. You know our motto, Mrs. B. ‘Phoenixville, a community that …cares.’ ” His narrow eyes searched for my figure under my woolen winter coat.
One of the children fearfully handed him a clipboard.
“But I don’t see your name on the list.” The mayor shook his head in an exaggerated motion and a syrupy smile like a host on a toddler’s television show. “No, no Mrs. B here…”
I certainly wasn’t buying the mayor’s late night charity routine but I knew I had to play along. I forced a flirty grin and surveyed the list: Mrs. Thomason was baking four pumpkin pies, Miss Bingley homemade cranberry relish, Mayor Lockley of course was supplying the main course.
I wracked my brain. Holiday menu planning was the last thing I could wrap my mind around. No, something was off, way off and I would need time, distance and back-up to figure it out but standing in a remote chilly bus stop, I had none of those.
I tried in vain to interpret the children’s faces in the scant light, willing them to send me a sign, any inkling as to what might really be happening. After all, I had grown to know them; I knew their talents, their hopes, their insecurities, their secret crushes. But not tonight. I could read nothing in their vacant countenances. They stood like the ghostly images of children in the midst of grainy war torn news footage, instead of wholesome do-gooders in middle America.
Gradually a faint rumble began to echo in the distance, the hazy glow of headlights illuminating the frosty darkness. My breath quickened. The bus was coming.Mrs. B’s famous mashed potatoes, I jotted quickly and thrust the clipboard toward Mayor Lockley with a wink.
“Well… uh, very well then,” he stuttered.
With a nudge from the mayor, Amy timidly handed me a folded yellow paper with an awkward hand drawn turkey adorned with the words: “thanks for caring!”, in a shaky font.
“Thanks honey” I cooed as she buried her face in her brothers coat.
The bus sidled up to the curb, the front and center doors opening in unison with a welcoming rattle and hiss, gasping grey exhaust into the late autumn air.
I climbed aboard, skipping a step. The driver stared quizzically at me, then at the mayor and gaggle of young kids.
“Well, I suppose we‘ll see you Monday?” the Mayor queried, noting the hulking driver speaking into his CB radio and nodding politely. “You wouldn’t abandon us here would you?” he continued suggesting a command more than a question. Lockley’s voice was flat, icy.
“After all, we…need you”
“Of course, I’ll be back” I giggled nervously. I offered a weak wave to the cluster of speechless children huddling together beside the idling vehicle. “See you bright and early at school! I’ll have my brand new car” I chimed, feigning cheerfulness, reinforcing my initial alibi.
“Very well” the mayor hissed, exchanging probing looks with the driver, then retreating onto the curb.
I slumped, trembling into the cold molded plastic seat as the bus doors closed with a satisfying clank.
I was the only passenger and I could hear the sound of confusion outside, Lockley’s voice calling the crowd of youngsters to order. At last I could breathe.
“You know they say they spotted some coyotes up in the hills yesterday” the driver uttered cautiously. I jolted upright. Those were the code words, I wanted to hear.
“Thank God” I gasped.
“7253?” he continued, smiling knowingly, meeting my gaze in the rear view mirror.
“49870124, but you can call me 49, pleasure to finally meet you. We’ll get you somewhere safe quick as we can.”
I unbuttoned my coat, contemplating the day’s odd series of events, as the ungainly bus navigated the country roads out of town in relieved silence. The darkened landscape slipped by; a frost encrusted patchwork of barren fields in ash grays and browns, spotted with isolated farmhouses and the occasional church spire.
Suddenly, the driver bellowed urgently into a slim cell phone. “Aunt Betty’s got a little souvenir” This was a code I’d never heard. “Pit stop!”
He abruptly pulled the mammoth bus to the side of the desolate road. What was going on? There was no safe house here.
Rising, he turned towards me, his wide frame dwarfing the cramped aisle as he marched steadily between the rows of seats. My throat cramped tightly as he headed my direction. I clenched my fists. What was happening? In an instant he was behind me and I stared in astonishment as he reached behind a seat with a sudden swoop producing a quivering, pale, and clearly terrified Jake.
“Jake? What the…” I sputtered clumsily
“Know this kid?” the driver questioned with a hint of friendly sarcasm.
I nodded, speechless. How did I miss this? I was slipping.
“I’m so…so..sorry Mrs. B“ Jake stammered. “I couldn’t let you go...by yourself” he whimpered “They’ll kill me if … you have to help… I, I… snuck on the back of the bus..no one saw, I swear.”
I did my best to calm the petrified boy, steady streams of tears erupting generously from his widened red eyes, too shaken to divulge any more. 49 murmured into his cell phone, shifting the bus into drive as I cradled the child in my arms, rocking him gently, the familiar motions stirring up a wealth of painful memories of my own. You have a job to do. Be strong, for them. Grieve later.
Nestled in an isolated wood, the safe house was just that; a nondescript quiet and cozy Victorian several miles outside an equally nondescript town. It was decorated for the holidays with husks of corn and a myriad of pumpkins and gourds. It played its role of contented family dwelling perfectly. It said: people lived here. People that cared about decorating their front porch. Good people. We had relinquished the bus in favor of a silver SUV and 49 guided the vehicle up the lengthy drive, parking it to the side and collecting my bags as I ushered a still terrified Jake inside. This was going to be tricky. What did Jake know, or think? What had he heard?
I assured him he was safe. He eyed the three other agents with understandable trepidation. 49 was elf-like compared to Austen and Drake and even their soothing tones and friendly demeanors couldn’t offset their menacing size. Of course the black leather holsters strapped against their sturdy torsos didn’t help. Miller was less threatening, middle age, slight of build with small wire glasses, he was definitely more brains than brawn. He’d been my mentor, my guardian angel when I first started.
“These are my friends” I urged Jake. It was true. My only friends now. “Please tell us what’s going on honey. Please, if someone’s in trouble, we can help.”
He remained terrifyingly silent, vapid, speechless.
“Got cocoa?” I pleaded to no one in particular. “He loves cocoa.”
“Come with me bud” 49 rose, patting Jakes head. “I make a mean cocoa” He managed to guide the unresponsive boy into the kitchen and I could hear 49 shuffling through the cabinets.
“You like baseball? Soccer?…” 49 attempted to engage him. “What grade are you in..hey it’s got mini marshmallows!” I heard the familiar chirp of a microwave being programmed. “five minutes should be good” 49 announced cheerfully. God he’ll get third degree burns.
“One minute per mug” I warned, shouting to the kitchen from my living room chair. “two tops” He couldn’t hear me.
Miller lowered his voice to a whisper. His tone was somber.
“Maggie, what’s going on?”
I hesitated, not having heard my name in ages, savoring the sound in my ears.
“I don’t know…exactly, but it’s scaring the hell out of me”
“…and it’s sure scaring that kid too” Miller cocked his head toward the kitchen. “Can you tell us anything?”
“Chomsky’ll be here tomorrow. Said he may have some info we can use.” And a hangover, I thought. But I would be glad to see him.
“Look Maggie, when we sent you to Phillipsville to..”
“You mean Phoenixville”
“Maggie you OK? You mean Phillipsville.”
“Miller, I know where I’ve been living, for God’s sake!”
I had been rifling through my briefcase for information I had collected over the months, scattering notes, photos and printouts onto the coffee table as Miller fiddled with the keys of his laptop.
“Mags, you’re tired. A fire wiped out Phoenixville ten years ago. Big news story? Remember. Burnt to the ground. Couldn’t rebuild…some chemical EPA thing. No one lives in Phoenixville anymore. ”
Miller wasn’t the jokester type and I wasn’t laughing.
With a few clicks on his computer an article appeared: Fire destroys Phoenixville. Many feared dead. Foul play Suspected. The date was underneath.
“Miller, I’m telling you, I live in Phoenixville. I teach at Phoenixville Elementary school. ” My voice rose in pitch, trembling. “I’m making mashed potatoes for the Phoenixville junior volunteers…” I waved Amy’s card in the air and froze mid wave. My God, how had I not seen it?
“Maggie? Maggie you were talking about potatoes?” Miller quipped but I didn’t answer. I was staring at the back of Amy’s thank-you turkey.
A sudden shout echoed from the kitchen.
“He’s gone!” 49 was frantic. “I didn’t take my eyes off him for a… he’s vanished.”
The microwave pinged. Miller barked orders into a cell phone as Austen and Drake scattered instantaneously to comb the woods. I sat, still frozen, staring at Amy’s daffodil yellow construction paper. On the reverse, scrawled in red crayon was a crude drawing of a frowny face and the words:
Mrs. B. pleez don’t go…big trubble…we need you.