Twelve minutes remained before the bus arrived. I could incapacitate Hiram in seconds, which would leave ample time to move his body and search for the kids. Except I wasn’t sure what to do if I found them.
First things first: “Let go, Hiram. Please.”
His grip tightened and the fingers on my right hand tingled as blood circulation ceased. Oh well. I warned him.
I introduced my knee to his groin, twisted and swung the heel of my boot into his shin. He lost his balance and toppled, but his hand squeezed tighter and I fell to the ground with him. “That’s assault, Maribel. I could have you arrested.”
Instinct precluded thought. I bit the nearest wrist and clamped down, demanding “Eh-Oh!” with no intent to demonstrate. My teeth broke skin and dug until he finally loosened. My numb hand delivered a quick chop to his throat to make him lose some time remembering how to breathe. His face reddened, but amazingly, his countenance never changed.
My suitcase was gone. During that briefest of melees, it had disappeared. Much like the children had. A quick check of my watch let me know I had ten minutes to relocate it, as it contained important papers. With names. I set a mental note to add Lockley, which triggered the recollection of him saying mine.
Maribel? No one here knew me by that name. I hadn’t used it in years, not since my stint in Iowa. It reinforced that my cover had, indeed, been blown and this wasn’t my imagination. If only I felt such confidence in whether or not I saw those children mere minutes ago.
“You’re not going anywhere,” the mayor gasped, producing a gun from his jacket. Though the conflict confirmed my reflexes were still fast, the lack of a pat down reminded me how my training had slipped. Bullets were beyond what I was willing to challenge. I obeyed his direction to “Turn around and keep your hands where I can see them.”
Bus headlights crested the horizon. Ahead of schedule. Lockley rose to his feet and watched as the vehicle slowed. This was no Greyhound. The streetlight illuminated yellow paint, and a blinking stop sign protruded from the side. The school bus doors opened and deposited dozens of young children, many of which I recognized. What kind of phantom field trip was this? I squinted at the front window but couldn’t discern the face of the driver.
When the conveyor belt finally ran out of kids, the doors closed, the stop sign retracted, a horn beeped, the mayor waved, and the school bus rolled down the road. Lockley demonstrated no sense of urgency or surprise. I surmised a poker face was a perquisite for politics, but that didn’t explain his inhuman clutch.
I also couldn’t justify the numbers. Hundreds – if not more – of elementary school kids crowded the streets, a throng of little faces transfixed on Mayor Lockley. He pressed the gun between my shoulder blades and suggested we “Move.”
As we stepped into the mass, a pathway opened. I didn’t see anyone shift out of the way, but the road was clear between us and Lockley’s Beamer. Young eyes looked through us as we passed. An unseen hand opened the driver’s side doors and I was instructed to “Drive.”
I spotted a stick shift and attempted, “I only drive automatic.”
“I expect you’re a quick learner. Because I’m going to have this gun right behind you. If you pop the clutch suddenly, I’d hate to think what might happen.”
A precursory look informed me the seat adjustment was motorized, which removed any hope of me slamming back into his lap. One of the reasons I enjoyed small town assignments was my technological savvy was always more advanced than the locals. The mayor’s new car negated that advantage.
The push button ignition started the engine humming. I fastened my seatbelt, but I refused to put the vehicle in gear. “I won’t risk hitting anyone.”
“Oh, they’re perfectly safe. Honk the horn.”
I complied. A small arc of pavement appeared in front of my bumper, but I kept the brake firmly pressed. I remembered two other times my car was surrounded like this: first, trying to drive through an assembled protest before it escalated into a riot; and later, when reporters badgered me to extract how I was able to avoid the demise my husband and little girl hadn’t. Both times, I maintained a focus in the innocuous distance without meeting anyone’s eyes. This time, all efforts were concentrated on establishing a connection.
I noticed a Greyhound bus crossing my rear view mirror without slowing. Did the driver not see the street convention?
Lockley ordered, “Keep your eyes on the road. One hand on the wheel, one on the gearshift. Now drive.”
Though the population was dense, it wasn’t endless. I emerged from the crowd and chanced a peek over my shoulder. Lockley’s gun absorbed my attention.
We turned up Harper’s Creek toward the highway. I asked, “Where are we going?”
“I’ll worry about the directions. You keep driving.”
“You should wear your seatbelt.”
I knew it was impossible for a right hander like Lockley to keep a gun trained while fastening a shoulder belt.
“I trust you won’t do anything stupid.”
“Fair enough. But if you shoot me, I’m going to crash this car. And I’ll stand a better chance of surviving a gunshot than you making it through the collision. Wouldn’t that be ironic?”
His smirk persisted. Further attempts at conversation were met with dimpled silence. I sighed. “Can I at least listen to some music?”
Jazz provided the company of noise. We accelerated onto the entrance ramp and passed an abandoned pickup truck. Lockley sat back and rolled his neck, but the gun didn’t move. I flipped up the high beams, then scratched my thigh, deliberately fondled the phone open and pocket dialed. Maybe Wilkes could triangulate my position and send help? Without knowing how long the drive would last, my mind searched for answers.
Iowa. Summer, 1997.
Townsfolk gathered in the Morgans’ barn to organize their effort against the recent, government-sponsored crop dustings. Tim Morgan, square jaw and flat top, hammered his fist on his makeshift podium and shouted, “We’ll get their hands off the corn in DeKalb!” He didn’t apologize for his pun, but I was pretty sure he didn’t know he made one in the first place.
As secretary for these poorly-kept-secret meetings, I took copious notes so we could present our case to the crop dusters’ union, to get them to stop using the new insecticide. The union claimed the heat was killing the crops, and the new compound was supposed to provide better nutrition for the plants as well as kill the bugs. Their assurances didn’t appease farmers like Morgan, who coordinated sabotage missions at Miller’s airfield. Simple vandalism, fitting for a simpleton: sugar in the gas tank, slicing tires, drilling holes in oil tanks. Why he took out his aggression on the planes, I didn’t understand. Those poor pilots were merely making their living.
The conflict escalated when a plane crashed. Thankfully, the flier escaped with only scrapes and bruises, but the automotive autopsy showed its engine was artificially disabled. Hank Miller declared our county a no fly zone, which triggered higher-ups to take over. Planes flew in from across the state, and no one knew what chemicals they were using.
I vividly remembered that morning in July. With school closed, I watched the neighborhood kids at my house on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Danya loved it when the girls came over to play because their toys were better than hers.
Phil the mailman delivered a telegram that required my signature. Departmental stuff. I rang Robert to see if he could watch the kids during lunch so I could run a quick errand. He welcomed the opportunity to hold a “pink picnic,” as he termed it. Barbie dolls, tea sets, and stuffed animals aplenty – every father’s dream.
Robert never had a chance to react when the biplane fell from the sky and crashed through the telephone wires. Our house and all the memories within it went up in flames, incinerated and disintegrated.
I learned about my husband’s fate at my meeting. My superiors detained my return until I could control my emotions. By that time, there was nothing left to identify.
The ensuing investigation leaked information to the press, which immediately headlined “POP-CORNED!” Apparently, Morgan had set up Project Scarecrow without my knowledge – shooters waited in sniper stations in silos across the county to scare away any new “birds.” He went to trial and was quickly convicted, as was everyone associated with the barn meetings. When my name was conspicuously absent from that list, word spread that I was in cahoots with the government. If they only knew.
Rumors mounted about how I was behind the “accident” because Robert and I were struggling through a difficult marriage, facts be damned. Mourning parents found comfort uniting against a scapegoat. Before further damage was possible, I was relocated to New Mexico, as far from DeKalb as the feds could put me. How many assignments ago was that?
“Take the next exit,” said Mayor Lockley.
His face must have been tired of grinning by now, but I supposed anyone who could afford this car would have no hesitation dropping a few thousand on Botox. He held the gun with both hands, his left steading his discoloring right.
“You should have a doctor look at your hand.”
My hopes of gaining sympathy were slim, especially since I inflicted the wound, but I had little else to work with. As far as I knew, I was on my way to a forest in the middle of nowhere so he could try to rape me before disposing my body. If that was his intent, I’d take great pleasure wiping that smile off his face.
Signs leading to the exit ramp promoted food, lodging and gas, as well as Clackamas Community College and the Haggart Observatory.
“Are we going star gazing?”
“You are an inquisitive woman, Maribel.”
I dismissed his non-response and followed his order to turn right at the traffic light, away from the roadside amenities. I’d never been to Oregon City, so I couldn’t tell what else was ahead, but the campus’s miniature skyline included a dome.
I debated opening the car door and rolling out – we were slow enough that I could’ve made it – but I wanted to know what was going on. With my cover blown, I needed some kind of closure for this assignment. I obeyed by parking the BMW, then turned to stare down the gun’s barrel.
“Now what?” I inquired.
“Now we wait.”
Minutes later, a dark figure appeared at my door and opened it. Lockley told me, “Get out,” and lowered his weapon.
A hand helped me from the sedan as the mayor let himself out. I looked into eyes I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. “Robert?”
I was awestruck. Should I hug him or hurt him? Fight or flight? I quietly wept, unable to fully contain myself.
He spoke in the same confident tone he always used. “It’s an experiment, Maribel. We’re doing it for the children.”