(Adapted from Short Stories Book 6, which is scheduled for release in April, 2024. Copyright 2020, Stroble Family Trust. All rights reserved).
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m as serious as a heart attack, which is what you’re probably going to have if you don’t relax. Calm down and don’t take it so hard.”
The favorite candidate for a vacant U.S. House of Representatives seat shuffled through the compromising photos and written allegations against him. So far, his political career had been stellar, a series of unbroken successes. Four years on the city council, then five years spent as a county supervisor, followed by another seven years in the state legislature. Next stop – Washington D.C.
Then this young punk had shown up unannounced.
The candidate ran his fingers through his perfectly trimmed, blow-dried shiny brown hair, a habit he reserved for whenever he became nervous. His hazel eyes grew darker as he smoldered with anger.
“Who put you up to this blackmail?”
“That is immaterial,” answered the unwelcome guest. “Who knows? Who cares? The real question for you is will you call off your campaign or will you play the martyr and go down in flames? You and I both know how no one loves a loser. So cut your losses while you still can.”
Faces of the other three candidates running against him in the primary election next month flashed through the aspiring national politician’s mind, followed by the obstacle he hated and suspected most of all, his rival from the opposing party. He considered any one of them to be ambitious enough to stoop to this sort of dirty trick. His anger reached its tipping point.
“Get out of here!” He shook his fist as he jumped up from his comfortable chair parked beneath an oversized desk. Two long steps and he leaned until the fist danced inches from his tormentor’s serene face.
“I ought to…” his shaking fist cocked backward, waiting to propel into nose, mouth, eye, any target would do.
“But you won’t.”
The younger man stood and smirked.
“Belting me would be assault and battery because I would press charges, which would end your career here in the legislature. Look, you can still continue being a state senator. Just pull the plug on your campaign to become a congressman and none of this will ever become public knowledge. Capiche?”
Wade Radcliff swept the incriminating evidence into his tan leather briefcase, spun on his heels, and exited the office without saying goodbye.
As Wade hurried to the dark green Toyota two-door compact he had driven for almost 130,000 miles, he phoned a media contact, who he knew was ambitious enough to carry out his backup plan. That was all any of these players he dealt with for a living were – mere parts of his grand schemes. No use in considering any of them as flesh and blood people. If Wade caved into such sentimentality, simple tasks became complicated. Besides, putting anyone else’s needs ahead of his cost too much of everything: time, money, and energy – in that order.
His contact met him forty minutes later at a nondescript coffee bistro, one of the many imitations of the chain whose green and white logo still seemed omnipresent, even after hitting its peak.
“Aren’t you ordering anything?” Wade asked as the reporter he had used once before slid into the chair opposite his. “I thought all hotshot journalist types have caffeine and or nicotine running through your veins so you can be the first to get the story.”
“No time. You know that my profession is 24/7, nonstop. What do you have for me? I hope it’s better than what you gave me before.”
Wade suppressed a giggle. These young mainstream media types all acted and talked the same, rough and tough, don’t give them any gruff or they’ll berate you until you feel like a creampuff. But it seemed like they would believe the worst about people who did not further their agenda. And verifying whatever their anonymous source had given them? Forget it. That sort of checking out a story before running with it had ended sometime shortly after the new millennium replaced the last one.
But if I waste time doing that, one of our competitors will beat us to the story or some such variation on that theme had been explained to Wade more times than he could remember.
Besides, this reporter was all business. Everything about her reeked of her overwhelming need to impress. From her matching manicured painted fingernails, to hair straightened beyond repair and subtle traces of make-up hiding every perceived blemish, and dressed to impress in a pantsuit Wade estimated to have cost three, maybe even four hundred dollars. I guess she has to look pretty for the cameras, Wade thought.
His momentary introspection made her fidget.
“Come on, come on. Let me have it. And it better be good.”
“Well, it seems that a certain someone who has been making headway in the upcoming election has a skeleton in his closet. I can give you the name of someone with a nasty grudge against him.” He paused, unable to resist teasing her. “That is, if I’m completely left out of it. In other words, I’m not your source, even if your boss asks you, okay?”
The journalist rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
“Good.” Wade scribbled on a coffee stained napkin and slid it across the small table. “Here’s the name and number of the one who’s unhappy.”
She snatched the napkin and read it. Then she dialed the phone number. Wade shrugged as he stood to take his half empty large cup of supposedly 100% freshly roasted and ground dark Columbian beans to the counter with free condiments to recharge it with anything sweet to deaden the bitter brew’s nasty and sour taste.
“You’re welcome,” he said with a sigh as the reporter gestured for him to be quiet.
Same old story.
If his target did not agree to whatever the one who paid Wade wanted, then he always fed the victim to the sharks, who would blast the embellished details in print or on the airwaves. Either way, someone’s reputation or, in the worst cases, life got destroyed. Once again, Wade convinced himself that he preferred for the target to cooperate and submit to his handler’s demands. If they didn’t…oh well.
I need a vacation, Wade Radcliff thought as he left the bistro.
* * *
Rapid City Regional Airport must be the smallest airport in the world, Wade thought as he claimed his alligator hide suitcase from the baggage claim area. Landing there had required him first to connect at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after taking off from his home on the East Coast.
Since reading about people with terminal illnesses creating bucket lists of things to do before dying, Wade had crafted one of his own. Burned out by his unorthodox line of work, he had decided to start with Number 20 on the list. He planned to hit Number 1, Retire at age 40, within the next three years.
After ten hours of sleep at a packed motel located on the southern edge of Rapid City, South Dakota, Wade skipped breakfast and drove his rental car into the Black Hills. He was thirty-fourth in line at the entrance gate to Mount Rushmore, one of the eager tourists wanting to cram as much as possible into the almost sixteen-hour long days that June bestows on the Dakotas. By the time he parked, read his emails, and entered the monument’s visitor center, the parking lot had already filled halfway.
For some reason, everything about Mount Rushmore looked different from the other time he had visited it. Maybe it’s because I was only five years old way back then, Wade thought. Maybe it’s because Mom and Dad and my sister and brother were with me. Mom and Dad…
Remembering life before The Divorce always filled him with pain. Why did his siblings have to blame him for their parents splitting up and never once attempting to reconcile? Those two big snots had been just as much of a pain as he had. Probably worse. They were supposed to set an example for me because I was the youngest.
Wade’s musing ended as he finished his first meal of the day, three candy bars washed down by an energy drink. With sugar and caffeine energizing him, Wade sauntered outside into the already brilliant sunlight that served as an all-encompassing spotlight on the busts of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Hoping to dredge up at least one memory of his last time here, he walked to the point closest to the base of the huge granite outcropping. But no memory surfaced.
Oh well, at least I can send this souvenir to Mom, Wade thought as he patted the postcard in his blue windbreaker’s pocket. After all, she’s the only real reason I bothered to come here. She’s the one who always had to engineer all of our vacations because Dad always wanted to either go hunting or fishing with his buddies instead. He turned toward the parking lot and his main destination for the day, Deadwood.
After twice watching the DVD series about the old West town made famous during the 1800s by the gold prospectors, prostitutes, business owners, gamblers, outlaws, and the overworked lawmen, Wade had added Visit Deadwood to his bucket list. He couldn’t wait to walk the streets where his hero Wild Bill Hickok had and then visit his gravesite.
A year from now, Wade would still be cursing himself for obeying instead of ignoring the little kid nearby who began pointing and yelling. If only I had ignored that kid and left for the parking lot right away, maybe none of it would have happened to me, Wade would repeat to anyone, many of them more than once.
“Hey look up in the air above the statue of those four dead guys,” the kid said. “What is it?”
Wade started to say, it’s probably just a plane or a bird but froze when he turned his head in the direction signaled by the boy’s shaking finger. Hovering over the monument floated a human being. The one who appeared to defy gravity with a rectangular shaped object strapped to both feet and a fuel source strapped onto the back of what looked like long-sleeved black overalls. A nearby teen-aged geek knowledgeable of all things high-tech danced from foot to foot as she broadcast the unfolding incident from her smartphone to her links at Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram.
“Oh yeah!” the geek shouted. “It’s a hover board.”
“A what?” an adult a few feet from her asked.
“You know, the kind of thingies that guy used to fly across the English Channel nonstop not very long ago.”
Within seconds, the crowd below the four towering presidents began gawking and pointing at the marvel. Many of the tourists jostled through the crowd to gain the best location to record or photograph the fly-like human who was making this a vacation to remember. Within a couple of minutes, those inside the visitors’ center had spilled outside to join the spectacle.
Through it all, Wade Radcliff remained detached. Because he made his living by disrupting and sometimes destroying other’s ambitions and dreams, he had no links to any social media. Long ago, he had joined Myspace when it first emerged on the internet but then abandoned it after his line of work expanded from part-time into full-time. Being the go-between for those competing for power required a strict anonymity on his part.
He joined those surrounding him by taking a few photos with his phone of the strange flying human. None of them would ever be broadcast on the internet, just for the record to maybe show Mom during their scheduled visit at the end of this vacation. Got to have something to talk with Mom about, he thought.
“Look, now that fool is spray painting Washington’s face!” An older bystander with high-powered binoculars informed those nearby her. “It looks like they are letters. There’s an S…now an O…”
Gasps, moans, and curses filled the air as black letters tall enough to be seen with the naked eye appeared on the foreheads of the four presidents. On George Washington: SO. On Thomas Jefferson: S0. On Teddy Roosevelt: I. And finally, on Abraham Lincoln: NR. The crowd below murmured as interpretations of the mysterious vandalism spread. Then, as if ascending from a netherworld, a group of two men and a woman began to chant:
Followed by an explanation of those same ten-foot tall letters now defacing the stony faces high above them:
SOS means help
O stands for our
I stands for idolatrous
N stands for nation
R stands for reorganize
After chanting the refrain six times with the fervor of a church choir on fire, the three spread out among the crowd, giving out sheets of paper. Wade snatched one just before two rangers grabbed the long-haired scruffy looking young man handing it to him. As handcuffs bound his wrists, the protestor tossed his remaining leaflets into the air. Anxious sightseers scrambled to claim theirs as a breeze carried them above their outstretched hands. Who knows? Maybe someday such an object might appear on one of the television shows that appraised such historical items. If nothing else, maybe the paper would reveal the motives of the four engaged in the unfolding drama.
Wade held his in such a way that he could read it while the upper part of his field of vision helped him navigate back to the parking lot:
SOSOINR stands for Help Our Idolatrous Nation Repent. Now you too can become part of The Resistance by standing against the patriarchal, misogynist, sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist establishment which dictates absolutely every part of our lives, every hour of every day.
Help Our Idolatrous Nation Repent by destroying all memorials nationwide dedicated to the evils of America’s past, such as Slave Owning George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Imperialist Theodore Roosevelt and No Reparations for slaves Lincoln. Only then will we finally be able to move forward. Log onto to SOSOINR.com to vote to pick four progressive people who really made a positive difference in America. The top two women and two men vote getters (at least two of the four final selected must be people of color) will take the place of the four outdated evil doers (may they R.I.P. in the trash-bin of history) who now unfortunately reside at Mount Rushmore.
A list of suggested names to vote for followed, so many they filled the rest of the single-spaced piece of 8 and ½ by 14-inch sheet of paper. Wade recognized some of the names of those who still lived. The names of those dead at best seemed vaguely familiar. By the time he found his rental car, Wade had shoved the leaflet into his windbreaker. He did not notice the barrel of the shiny .38 Special revolver resting atop the opening of a stranger’s large cargo pants pocket until after the car’s five locks had opened.
“I just need a ride. I do not want your car, your money or your life. All you have to do is cooperate with me and do exactly what I say and we’ll both get far away from this mess just fine,” the stranger said as he opened the driver’s side door, slid in past the driver’s seat and settled onto the front passenger’s seat, all the while keeping his weapon pointed at Wade’s midsection. He waved the handgun’s barrel.
“Come on, let’s get going. You and I both have places to go to and things to do.”
Wade felt like he watched himself get into the car as part of a cheap movie that had used unknown actors following orders from an equally barely competent crew.
Have to focus, he thought. Don’t want to get lost in fantasyland or I’ll probably do something stupid and get myself killed. I wonder if this is karma, some kind of payback because of all the people who I have hurt just to make a buck. Mom always warned me how you’re going to reap what you sow, Wade. So please promise me you will at least always do something honest for a living.
Wade glanced at his kidnapper. If this really had been a thriller movie, then his co-star could have used a better make-up artist.
Whoever sat next to him had long black hair hanging to his shoulders and an uneven bushy beard that did not quite match his hair’s color. He wore faded gray pants with frayed cuffs, a white pullover shirt with no pockets, and orange windbreaker tied about his waist with its arms fastened into a square knot because the morning chill had given way to the growing warmth radiated by the sun. A baseball cap with a logo Wade did not recognize completed his outfit. He carried a backpack small enough to carry on board an airliner.
“Uh, where exactly are we going?” Wade asked after sliding the key into the ignition.
“The front gate,” answered the stranger. “When we get there, I’ll be pretending to sleep. No funny stuff if we get stopped there. My good buddy is still aimed at you even though he’s now hiding inside my pants pocket. Oh, by the way, I’m Bill.”
The stranger thrust his free hand toward Wade, who squeezed its edges. Only then did Wade notice the thin clear plastic glove covering his unwanted rider’s hand.
“I’m not contagious, you know,” Wade said. He let out a nervous giggle to try and lessen the tenseness squeezing his body and mind. “You don’t think I am do you?”
Bill shrugged as he stared down at the glove. “Can’t be leaving any of my DNA behind because it leaves too much of a tell-tale trail. Let’s go.”
A few minutes later, a small version of a railroad’s moveable crossing gate blocked their exit. A ranger strutted from the small hut next to the adjustable barricade.
“Good morning, sir. Is it just the two of you?” the ranger asked through the window Wade had lowered.
“Yes sir, Mr. Ranger.” Wade tried to sound formal. “What’s with all that fuss going back there at the visitor’s center all about?”
The ranger groaned.
“Just some crazies. We get them out here occasionally.” He bent at his knees to get a better view of the car’s passenger. “Your friend over there doing okay?”
“He’s just plumb worn out, Ranger. We had to get up real early this morning –”
An electronic whooshing sound followed by the greeting “Command post to front gate…” sent the ranger backpedaling toward the hut. He reached through its door to grab the microphone attached to the two-way radio on the wall of the small building, used his other hand to push down on the end of the wooden crossing gate blocking Wade and Bill’s exit, and then motioned for Wade to exit.
“Have a good day, Ranger,” Wade said as he contorted his face into a pleading look meant to signal help me, I’ve been kidnapped by this guy and he has a gun pointing right at me. But the ranger’s attention had already shifted to the next car approaching him.
Without changing his position of a fake sleep, Bill said, “Excellent. Hope you didn’t have any plans for the rest of today because no matter what you might have had in mind, I really need you to bail me out of a jam.”
“Actually, I was going to hit Deadwood before I headed on back to my motel. You think I can drop you off somewhere in Rapid City –”
“I’m afraid not, amigo. Stay on this road until we hit Interstate 90. Then take a right and head to the east. Just continue to be a good little esse and someday you’ll have a great story to tell your kids and grandkids. They might not believe you but what do the kids of today know anyway?”
* * *
The 337 miles and six-hour drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, seemed like the final two acts of the same awful movie Wade had stepped into back at Mount Rushmore, one that would need major editing because the self-absorbed actors obeying the likewise marginally competent crew had produced a flop. Everything about Bill demanded routine. He and Wade stayed together everywhere while outside the car during stops for gas, food, and bathrooms.
Bill left nothing to chance, even inspecting the metal partitions of the stalls when Wade urinated or defecated to see if he had scrawled a rescue note. He also made Wade hand over is phone.
Wade continued to gobble his normal diet of potato and corn chips washed down by 64-ounce cups of sugary soda. Bill ate nothing but turkey and beef jerky whose salt made him drink four bottles of water.
But overall, Bill seemed to be okay for a kidnapper. He and Wade even had something in common, sort of. Not until they were halfway to Sioux Falls did Wade ask what he had wondered for hours.
“So, are you connected to those protestors back there at Mount Rushmore?”
Bill laughed for half a minute, as if to make up for his otherwise serious manner.
“Afraid I am. I was their baby sitter. My suggestion for them was to go on ahead and do their protest, get themselves arrested, and then I would go into Rapid City and hire a lawyer to bail them out until they stood trial to get a whole lot more publicity for their cause. But no, they had to do it their way instead.”
“So, what do you do to pay the bills?”
Wade’s description of I’m a fixer who derails people’s plans because of their enemies brought forth an approving nod from Bill.
“Hey, we’re sort of alike, you and me. How much do you make in a year?”
“I pulled down $50,000 last year,” Wade answered, inflating the true amount by $12,000.
“Man, that’s only chicken feed. I clear six figures easy every year. It seems like whole truckloads of rich people these days are willing to underwrite a lot of protestors’ causes.” He paused for a minute. “You think you might like to come on board? I could put in a good word for you because just between you and me, I’ve got way more assignments than I can handle right now.”
Wade remembered his bucket list. Number 1, Retire at age 40, had now taken on a life of its own, thanks to Bill’s offer. Who have I been fooling? There is no way I’ll ever retire until I can collect Social Security, he calculated. This has got to be the big break I’ve been wishing for.
“Hey, I’m your man,” Wade said.
“All right. So you’re a fixer? I’m sure glad you were the first person who was by himself heading into the parking lot back there at Mount Rushmore. I get a bonus whenever I find someone who works out handling one of our protestor teams. You won’t let me down, will you, Wade?”
“No way, dude. I’m only in it for the money. I’ve got a whole lot of things I need to do instead of what I’ve been doing.”
“Look, I need to be totally honest with what you’ll be getting yourself into if the big bosses bring you on board.”
“You know all that I really am?”
“Uh, sort of, I guess.”
“I’m a GBS. Just a glorified baby sitter.”
* * *
At one of the northern crossroads that help travelers crisscross America from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and from Canada to Mexico, where Interstate 90 and Interstate 29 connect, the Glorified Bay Sitter ordered the Fixer to exit south, then take a left before pulling into one of the dozens of the motels that accommodate visitors to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After entering their room, Wade began wondering why he not yet gotten out of this fix.
Wasn’t he a hotshot fixer? That’s all he had claimed for the last three hours since applying to be part of what Bill had called The Network.
When Bill had finished stretching duct tape over Wade’s mouth, handcuffed his wrists to one of the queen bed’s metal frames, and then duct-taped his ankles together, mounting anxiety convinced Wade that he had become the lead actor for a snuff film. He wondered how many twisted perverts would enjoy watching him die on the DVDs detailing his murder that Bill would make big bucks off of.
Six figures annually? This clown probably made more like seven figures a year doing underground snuff films. Sweat clouded Wade’s eyes so that the TV screen Bill turned on looked fuzzy. He listened to noise from channel after channel until a reporter’s upper body filled the screen. Wade wished he could laugh and groan along with Bill to build enough trust to be set free as they listened to the latest update from Mount Rushmore:
“Rangers and other law enforcement from the FBI finally have located four suspects in what has been called the Mount Rushmore Five case,” the reporter said. “One still remains at large.”
The camera zoomed in to show the unsmiling faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Their foreheads still bore the letters, SO, SO, I, and NR. Then a film clip of four rescuers carrying a stretcher with an unmoving body toward a waiting life flight helicopter played.
“Initial reports are that the injured person was found six miles from the spray-painted national monument. They found the suspect strapped to a hover board that looks similar to the one seen by millions of people on photos and videos that sightseers who witnessed the event have posted on the internet. The suspect was last reported to be at a trauma center in Rapid City, where she remains unconscious.”
“Are there any new leads on the fifth suspect yet, Clare?” asked the news anchor reporting from his network’s world headquarters.
“Not yet. It seems that…”
Bill switched off the television set.
“The original plan was for the one flying the hover board to drop the leaflets that explained the protest down onto the crowd below the monument,” he said. “Then the other three protestors on the ground were supposed to answer any questions anyone had after they read the leaflet. Finally, I was supposed to go meet the hover board flyer at a spot outside of the monument, drop her off at a hotel, and then get to work on bailing the other ones out of jail.”
He shook his head.
“I had a bad feeling that they were planning to do something else because every time I walked in on them, they would stop talking. That’s the reason I hung around the visitors’ center parking lot instead of going off to meet her. Just like I suspected, they went ahead and did it their way.”
Wade squirmed on the bed and blinked his eyes, his plea to be unbound from the handcuffs and duct tape.
“I’m really sorry to mess up your vacation like I have, dude,” Bill said as he pulled a small syringe from his pants pocket. He filled it with a clear liquid from a small bottle. Then he tapped the plastic casing of the syringe until the bubbles floating in the liquid rose to the top where a short metal needle waited for pressure to expel the liquid. Using a disposable alcohol wipe, he cleansed the area inside Wade’s right elbow.
“Relax, this is just something to chill you out after such a long stressful day. I don’t know about you but now that I know that one or more of those bozos gave me up to the authorities, maybe you can better understand why I had to borrow you and your rental car back there at Mount Rushmore. If I had driven away in the van that we rented, I most likely would have been stopped and arrested before I got a hundred miles away from there. Knowing those four clowns, at least one of them has probably already given a description of me and the van we used in order to cut a deal and get some of the charges against them dropped.”
Wade shook his head. All I want is to be free, he thought. Please don’t leave me here like this.
Bill injected the liquid barbiturate into the vein running through Wade’s arm. Then he waved goodbye as he walked toward the door.
“This little shot is guaranteed to give you at least twelve hours of sleep. Think of it this way, Wade. What you did for me was kind of like a professional courtesy. You know, Mr. Fixer helped out me, Mr. Glorified Baby Sitter. Thanks for all of your kind cooperation.”
Bill picked up the Do not disturb sign from where it hung by the door. He wiggled it at Wade.
“I’m putting this on the door handle outside. That way, the motel staff won’t come up here and find you any time before checkout time. That’ll give me enough time to be far, far away from here when the authorities question you.”
Wade wanted to scream but could not.
* * *
As soon as Glorified Baby Sitter also known as Bill closed the motel room’s door, he began his transformation back into his real identity. After scanning to his right and left twice and seeing no one in the long, carpeted hallway, he pulled his long-haired black wig from his head and stuffed it into his backpack. His body cooled as its heat escaped through his balding pale blond hair. Then he turned his reversible shirt inside out and pulled it back over his head. The pale white shirt he had worn when he and Wade had checked into the motel now appeared to be a bright red.
He exited the motel, walked two blocks, and checked into a motel whose sign read Vacancy.
“Do you prefer a smoking or nonsmoking room?” the helpful desk clerk asked.
“Either one will do just fine,” Bill answered.
Who cares, he thought. I just blew so much smoke into Wade Radcliff’s mind that he’ll probably be confused the rest of his life. Especially whenever he thinks back on this day’s events. I wonder if today will change his life as much as it is changing mine.
His 260-square-foot room came with one bed, a bathroom, refrigerator, tiny desk, dresser with a TV set perched on its top, and microwave whose glowing green digital numerals keeping time reminded him not to relax yet. Bill grinned at the face smirking from the mirror above a sink.
“It’s showtime, Mr. Abraham Edge, because I’m sick and tired of pretending to be that big lousy liar and fake named Bill,” he said to his reflected image. “Time for this snake to shed his skin and never ever put it back on again.”
First to go was his beard, which took a pair of sharp scissors, an entire small can of shaving cream, and two disposable razor blades to remove. Next, he applied a milky gel to his tattooed arms and let it penetrate the tattoos for a half hour before standing under a hot shower that seemed to go on forever. Abe whistled as the colors from the temporary tattoos dripped from his arms down to the porcelain tub and washed down the drain. He inspected his transformation in the mirror.
“Abe, Abe, Abe, how could you forget?” he asked himself as he popped the dark brown contact lenses that had covered the sparkling blue ones he had been born with. He pulled the change of clothes from his backpack and put on a pair of new crisp blue jeans and a matching button-down plaid shirt.
He chuckled as he wondered if Wade Radcliff had believed his tale of trying his best to bring him into The Network. We don’t even call the organization that, he thought.
He called a cab.
Minutes later, he stepped out of it at Sioux Falls’ largest airport.
Wonderful how you can book flights these days anytime, from anywhere, Abe thought as he recalled making reservations using his phone shortly after he and Wade had left the Black Hills on the other side of South Dakota.
Three hours later, he landed in Minneapolis St. Paul. During the wee hours of the next morning, he walked down the stuffy concourse into the huge Airbus jetliner that would carry him and over 400 other passengers to Frankfurt, Germany. South of Frankfurt nestled in the rolling dark green forests of Bavaria, the woman he loved waited for him.
To Abraham Edge, this red-eye flight would be like going home. Sure, he had been born in America. But lately his native land had degenerated into warring factions unwilling to compromise, with the strife destroying relationships within families, neighborhoods, churches, communities. Enough had become enough and then too much for Abraham. Thanks to the foolishness of the last idealistic bunch of protestors he had been paid well to supervise, Abe knew his fate had been decided for him.
It could be worse. At least his free will remained intact, and able to choose between two options.
One, remain here in America and always have to look over his shoulder for whoever had been assigned to find and arrest him. Abe imagined standing before a judge and pleading with as much emotion as he could muster: but your Honor, I was only the driver for those protestors and had absolutely no idea that they were going to deface four of our greatest presidents. The original plan was for the hover board flyer to just drop those leaflets down onto the people milling around and for the other three of her comrades to explain the reason for their protest to the tourists. My mother named me Abraham after Abraham Lincoln because she admired the way he preserved our country when he ended slavery. I would never be a part of messing up his face at Mount Rushmore. Mom would kill me if I ever did that.
Abe’s flight into fantasy ended with the judge handing down a sentence of somewhere between five and twenty years in a federal prison. Those federal joints might be better than state and county jails. But Abraham Edge suffered from one phobia – an acute case of claustrophobia.
Or pick the number two choice.
Abe could continue his current escape plan of flying far away to a foreign land to live out the rest of whatever life he had left. It could be worse, Abe thought. With his wonderful fat and secret Swiss bank account collecting interest nearby where he would live in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with its fantastic views of the Alps, maybe he could at last slow down and smell the Edelweiss or whatever you are supposed to do after taking an early retirement.
The second option had to be what any 55-year-old Generation X guy hiding from the law would choose, Abraham Edge (AKA Bill, AKA Glorified Baby Sitter) concluded as he fell asleep 32,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
Life as an ex-patriate would come with obligations. His girlfriend Freida had often complained how hard it was to find good help for her coffeeshop, which specialized in strudels and chocolate goodies of every shape and size. Exchanging vows to be what she called a couple for the rest of our days here on Earth meant also being married to her business. A month ago, Abraham had at last convinced her to close her shop every Sunday so they could enjoy the nature that only the Black Forest and Alps offered. She agreed, on one condition. She needed his help to keep such a commitment of closing one day a week.
“That means I will have to continue to generate as much business in six days as I now do in seven days a week,” Freida had said. “I can take such a risk with the shop passed down through five generations of my family only if I have a husband to stand with me.”
Long ago Abraham Edge had learned how German women can persuade you do whatever they want, all the while getting their man to believe it had been his idea in the first place.
* * *
The second-floor maid preparing for a new batch of guests at the motel where Wade Radcliff slept glanced at her watch. Having finished cleaning every room except one, she wondered about its occupants. Her assignment sheet said they had been scheduled to check out by 11 a.m. So why did Room 201 still have a Do Not Disturb sign hanging from its door’s handle?
Maybe they decided to stay another day, the maid thought. I hope they let the check-in clerk know because they will have to pay an extra $150 for late checkout if they didn’t reserve the room for an extra night. She timidly knocked on Room 201’s door. After hearing no answer, she knocked again.
I bet they just forgot to put the Do Not Disturb sign back inside the room, she thought.
Still no answer. No one speaking to her or sounds of footsteps across the creaky floor.
Using her electronic pass key, petite 108-pound Maria the motel maid let herself in. What she saw repelled her back through the doorway and down the long, carpeted hallway. Her heart pounded. The scream caught in her throat did not escape until she entered the stairwell, which she ran down two steps at a time. Then down the first-floor hallway and into the lobby.
With check-in time not until 3 p.m., only the desk clerk occupied the large airy room filled with comfortable chairs, sofas, a large-screen TV, and tables and chairs where a continental breakfast had ended at 9 a.m. The desk clerk wondered what excuse for not having finished her assignment Maria was about to lay on him.
“He’s dead! He’s dead!” Maria said as she pounded her fists to rouse the clerk to action.
“Huh? Who’s dead?” he asked.
“The person in Room 201. Call 911. Hurry, hurry, before the murderer comes after you and me or someone else.”
* * *
The pair of law enforcement officers first on scene entered Room 201 with their weapons drawn. Between them, they carried thirty-six years of service. Neither had ever seen what greeted them. At least not in a motel room.
“What’s that awful smell?” asked Officer Kirby.
“He pooped and peed in his pants. No wonder that maid said he was dead. That’s what a lot of people do just before they die, especially if it’s an accident or they’re getting murdered,” answered Officer Schultz.
“Yeah, one time I saw a guy let loose when he got executed. Who do you think would want to whack this guy?”
Officer Kirby slid a forefinger and middle finger back and forth across Wade Radcliff’s unmoving neck. “Hey, I got a pulse. You better call the paramedics.”
By the time an ambulance arrived, Wade had revived to a state of wakefulness. Feeling and smelling the feces and half-dried urine trapped inside his underwear and pants ended any further consideration of joining Bill and whoever he worked for. This had to be the ultimate humiliation. Whoever heard of a healthy adult soiling himself so bad that his rescuers had opened the room’s window, propped open the door with a chair, and turned on the bathroom’s ceiling exhaust fan. Worse yet, the closer they moved to Wade, the more they turned their heads away.
The duct tape removed from his mouth and ankles, Wade began what he considered to be The Mother of All Paybacks.
“His name’s Bill,” Wade said. “He kidnapped me back there at Mount Rushmore and forced me to drive him here. I forgot about the rental car. He stole it didn’t he?”
“Try to calm down, son,” said Officer Schultz.
“You don’t understand. I didn’t get the total insurance policy on that car. You know, in case it got stolen, stuff like that. I bet he took my wallet too. It had a couple hundred in cash and all my credit cards and ATM card and driver’s license. Oh, great. Now he can steal my identity too and wipe out my checking and savings accounts. I bet they’re already empty.”
“Okay, okay,” said Officer Kirby. “Just try to hold still while I get those cuffs cut so you can at least get to the bathroom and clean yourself up. No offense, but you smell worse than a pig sty full of sows and their babies.” He grunted as he squeezed the long thick handles of a bolt cutter to close its sharp blades against the shiny metal chain linking the two thick metal bracelets binding Wade’s wrists to the bed’s frame. “Well, Bill bought only the best. Those handcuffs are top quality, el numero uno.”
Two more grunts and the chain snapped. Supported by the two officers, Wade hobbled to the bathroom, where steam billowed from the hot water cascading out of the showerhead Officer Shultz had turned on a minute earlier in anticipation of finally being able to contain Wade’s stench behind the closed bathroom door. After washing the dried sweat, odor, and waste from his body, Wade opened the door wide enough to poke his head into the room.
“What am I going to put on?” he asked. “There is no way I can ever put these clothes back on again. The stink will never come out of them.”
Officer Kirby handed the underwear, pants, socks and shirt he had bought from a nearby store through the door. “You can send me money for them after you get back home,” he said. “After you get dressed, be sure to leave your soiled clothes in the bathroom,” he said. “It still stinks pretty bad out here. No offense, but like the saying goes, your caca stinks muy malo, Senor.”
“What’s with all the Spanish?” Wade asked.
“We get a lot of Hispanics who come up here to the Dakotas to work the dairy farms and natural gas fields,” Officer Kirby answered. “So I’ve been boning up on the two years of Spanish I took way back when I was at college. You know what they say, use it or lose it, so I like to practice it whenever I can. My wife and kids won’t let me practice it on them.”
After a thorough examination, the paramedics found no injury other than a severe wound to Wade Radcliff’s pride. As their patient continued to rant by calling Bill every profane name he could think of, one of the paramedics backed toward the door while saying, “I need to go get the ambulance warmed up.”
The other one packed her medical kit and offered advice.
“Sir, you may want to seek help from a counselor,” the cheerful twenty-five year said. “Kidnap victims often need to work through a great deal of anger before they can resolve the trauma that they suffered through.”
Two hours of questioning at the police station convinced Wade he had an excellent chance to achieve his revenge. His description of Bill matched the one given by at least one of the other four protestors offended by America in general and Mount Rushmore in particular. Even though he told his interrogator of how Bill had worn clear plastic gloves nonstop during their time together, a CSI team had been dispatched to Room 201 at the motel. News of the team’s members finding Wade’s wallet and rental car keys hidden in a dresser drawer and the undamaged rental car in the motel’s parking lot momentarily revived Wade’s faith in humanity.
Maybe Bill wasn’t as evil a dude as Wade believed after all?
Samples of DNA from over two dozen individuals were found in the rental car and Room 201. Matching them to the kidnapper who had claimed his name was Bill and by now had landed at Frankfurt’s sprawling airport would never be successful.
And Maria the motel maid?
She pleaded to only be permanently reassigned to either the first and third floors of the motel or she would have to find another job. Her kind manager gave Maria the rest of the day off to recover.
“But you have to do your best to be back here on time for your shift tomorrow, “said the manager. “There are two conventions coming to town this weekend. We’re already almost fully booked and today is only Wednesday.”
* * *
Thirty-three-year-old Ebony Sierra met Wade in the hallway outside the interrogation room. She handed him a bottle of mineral water.
“Here, drink this,” she said. “It will help flush out any remaining phenobarbital that’s still in your system. Bill, or whatever his name really is, sure loaded your blood with that knockout shot. Let’s go, we need to get to Rapid City ASAP.”
Wade stared at the bottle.
“Huh? Who are you anyway?” he asked as he strained to keep up with the auburn-haired, green-eyed woman who looked to be a couple inches shorter than him.
“I’m Agent Ebony Sierra of the National Park Investigative Service.” She also answered Wade by holding an identification card over her shoulder. “Sorry to be in such a hurry but my mom has a surprise birthday party planned for my dad on Friday. If I miss it, I’ll be toast. I couldn’t have taken a chance on you not showing back up at your motel in Rapid City. What if you had decided to head home from here instead?”
Wade trotted to read the card’s details before stepping in front of her. She bumped into him as she stopped.
“Hold that card up next to your face,” Wade said. “After what I’ve just gone through, I’m never taking any chances ever again.”
Her impatient smirk seemed to be the only difference from her photo, which had a smile revealing upper and lower rows of her front teeth. She stepped around him, exited a door, and walked to Wade’s rental car.
“Hey, what are you doing getting into my car?”
“My job. NPIS sent me all the way from Washington, D.C., to question you. It’s up to you. We can walk back into that interrogation room or you can enjoy the scenery while we drive you back to your motel in Rapid City.” She nodded toward the police station and then the car. “Your call. What’s it going to be?”
“Okay, on one condition. I get to drive,” Wade said as he elbowed his way past his new handler. Already manhandled by kidnapper Bill, the two cops who had found him in Room 201, woman-handled by the paramedic who had examined and treated him, and interrogated nonstop by a Sioux Falls police detective, he needed to regain control over his ruined vacation.
But his outstretched palm did not receive the car’s keys.
“No way. If I had a death wish I would gladly let you drive. But since I don’t, you get to ride shotgun.”
Wade’s expression turned from authoritative into a pout.
“But I’m the one who rented it. What if you get into an accident? You aren’t covered by the insurance I bought for it while I’m driving it.”
“Look, Bill or whatever his real name is who kidnapped you gave you enough of a knockout shot that you are in no shape to be driving until at least tomorrow. And maybe not even then. Kidnap victims can take quite a while to return to normal.”
Wade opened his mouth to continue their argument. Then the paramedic’s concerned look back in Room 201 and warning of kidnap victims often need to work through a great deal of anger before they can resolve the trauma that they suffered shut it. He grumbled as he walked around the front of the 2019 Dodge SUV. Frosty sulking replaced his self-pity after he had fastened his seatbelt.
A shiver ran through him as he remembered who had sat in this seat during yesterday’s long drive from Mount Rushmore to Sioux Falls.
“Wait a minute, I’m contaminating the evidence. Bill sat in this seat. I can’t be wrecking the evidence by sitting here.”
“Don’t worry. The local CSI team has already examined this car and your motel room. But any DNA they collected will only help solve this case if Bill or whatever his real name is has some of his DNA on file somewhere.”
“Why do you keep saying Bill or whatever his real name is? Did one of the other protestors give you a different name for him?”
“Two of them said his name was Bill when the FBI questioned them. The FBI is handling the crime scene at Mount Rushmore. The third one refused to talk until his parents had their personal lawyer fly in on a corporate jet to Rapid City. With the lawyer at his side, he’s answered nothing so far.”
“What about the other one?”
“The one who flew on the hover board? She is still unconscious in the intensive care unit of the hospital.”
“What made her crash?”
“It appears she was in too much of a hurry to land and make a getaway. At least that’s what the surveillance tapes showed.”
“One of our federal government’s eyes in the sky started monitoring the situation as soon as we got word of it in Washington D.C.”
Wade finished the last of the mineral water and dropped the empty bottle by his feet.
“Get another one out of the back seat,” Ebony said as she jerked her right thumb over her shoulder.
“Whoa, you must have about 10 bottles of this stuff back there.”
“The sooner we get you rehydrated and that sleepy time dope out of you, the better. There is nothing worse than an incoherent witness. I’ve had way too many of those send me down one too many rabbit holes during my career. The CSI team at your hotel room let me see how much you deposited into your underwear and pants. I bet your insides are still pretty empty.”
“I don’t ever go like that when I’m sleeping, okay?”
“Nothing to be ashamed of. Your fear because of being kidnapped, held at gunpoint, handcuffed and duct-taped coupled with being shot full of dope would be enough to make anyone soil themselves like you did.”
Three bottles of mineral water later, he needed a bathroom so Agent Sierra took the next exit. His first trust in her blossomed when she did not accompany him to or from the men’s room. Instead, she met him in the car with a bag filled with his favorite kinds of junk food. The fat, salt, and sugar he continually craved. Even his favorite brands of chips, cookies, candy, and soda.
“How did you know exactly what I like to eat?” he asked as the car re-entered Interstate 90 westbound.
“Oh, your mom told me quite a bit about you, Wade.”
“My mom?” Wade asked before a small potato chip slid down before lodging in his throat. He gagged until tears formed in his eyes and half a can of orange soda sent the wayward chip into his stomach. “Why did you talk to her?”
“Because I hate doing nothing while I wait in airports, which is what I had to do for hours after my itinerary changed. While I was hanging out at Minneapolis Saint Paul International, I called your mother. She sure is proud of you, Wade.”
“Just what kind of stuff did Mom tell you? She better not have told you any of my personal business.”
“Only how you live in a guest cottage behind her house. She said she really appreciates having one of her kids so close by.”
“Well, I owe her big time, okay? I mean by the time she got pregnant with me, she could have just gotten an abortion because it was legal in our state even though the Supreme Court hadn’t yet made it legal nationwide. Besides, she already had two brats to take care of. Do you know what my brother and sister used to tell me? That I was adopted. Then they told me that Mom and Dad would send me back to the orphanage if I didn’t do their household chores and give them part of my allowance and…”
Agent Ebony Sierra let twelve miles of silence pass between them before speaking again.
“Look, I know you’ve been through hell during the last day and a half, Wade. But I have to clear some things up.”
“Go ahead. Believe it or not, I want you capture Bill or whatever his name is even more than you do.”
“Based on your present reported income and the $2,000 you give your mom a month for rent and your share of the utilities, things don’t add up at all. It looks like you must have a second source of income other than your morning paper route.”
“You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“I’ve looked at the amount you have paid into Social Security and Federal income taxes for the last 15 years. It’s way less than what you should have seeing how you give your mom a couple thousand a month. That comes to $24,000 a year. My best guess is you’re doing some kind of work off the books, maybe even something that breaks the law. Whatever it is you do on the side is so far under the radar that even your mother doesn’t know about it. She told me I just can’t understand how Wade does it. Your voice sounds young so I’m guessing you must be about his age. How do you youngsters today make ends meet?”
She paused to take a sip of mineral water.
“I make my ends meet by working a 40 hour, sometimes longer workweek. Just what else do you do besides tossing newspapers out your Toyota’s window seven days a week? Your mom said you’ve put way too many miles on it doing that.”
“Look, my personal business has nothing to do with your investigation of those bozos who have their fun by spray painting national monuments. That’s what Bill or whatever his real name is said they are, bozos. They’re the ones you need to be asking questions, not me.”
“The FBI has been assigned to question them. I’ve been assigned to you.”
“Have you ever heard of Stockholm syndrome?”
“It happens when hostages or kidnap victims like yourself begin to identify with whoever is holding them against their will. What you went through had to do some emotional damage. Maybe Bill or whatever his real name is even reminded you of your brother and sister who manipulated you so much? How long did they do it?”
“As far back as I can remember. Finally, I got up enough nerve to ask my dad if I was adopted. Man, did he get mad after I told him what they had told me. I think I was about nine when I finally found out how they were lying. But forget all of that. I still think my personal business won’t help you to profile me into some kind of psychological pigeonhole to help you decide what to believe about what I tell you about Bill. I’m just one person in this whole lousy situation. It’s just a nightmare, okay?”
“Get real, Wade. One person can make a huge difference. Our political science teacher at college taught us to always look deeper. She said that on the surface, it appears that politicians, judges, and presidents determine America’s fate. But she said the real power lies in the bureaucracy of the federal government. There are more than two million of us federal employees, Wade. And a whole lot more when you add in part-time employees and contract employees. Just one of them with an agenda can bring down any judge, president, or politician, even the ones who are in Congress.”
Faces of those he had helped ruin flashed through Wade’s mind. “But –”
“No more buts, Wade. My best guess is that you do something shady to make money that is off the books and therefore tax free because you obviously don’t ever report it. Maybe you even do things that are illegal. I don’t know. But I do know this much. People like you are more susceptible to going over to the dark side, given the right circumstances. I just need to know if Bill or whatever his real name is made some kind of deal with you. I’m surprised he didn’t just leave the air bubbles in the syringe he injected you with to make you have a fatal embolism. Instead, based on what you told the police officers who found you, he made sure to push the air out of the syringe. Or he could have just injected more dope, enough to kill you instead of putting you into a deep sleep.”
Wade wadded up his half-eaten bag of chips and tossed it over his shoulder onto the rear seat. This is going to be about as much fun as my long ride with Bill yesterday, he thought. At least Bill offered me a job with his thingy he called The Network. Wait a minute, if he offered me a job, why can’t secret agent woman do the same? I’m getting sick of wrecking other people’s lives. It reminds me too much of the way my siblings treated me.
“Okay, okay, busted,” he said. “You win. I’m guilty as charged, Judge Ebony.”
“You’re worse than those judges on TV who hear real cases of people suing each other for everything from A to Z. I give up. Tell you what. You don’t send the IRS on my tail for my past crimes of tax evasion and I’ll tell you some real interesting stuff about Bill or whatever his real name is. Stuff I didn’t bother to tell those two cops who found me or the detective who grilled me until I felt like an overcooked hot dog.”
“And you also show your appreciation for my total cooperation by helping me to change my evil, wicked ways. I need to get a real job so I can quit doing what I have been.”
“I’m betting you want me to pull enough strings to get you a federal job.”
“Yes ma’am. I really like working outdoors. How about getting me a job with the national parks system?”
“I can’t promise you anything right away. First you will have to take a test.”
“That’s all right. I have some money saved up so I don’t have to go back to doing anything crooked for about a year.”
“That should be enough time to get you hired. But you will probably have to start out as a seasonal employee and prove you’re a good worker before you get hired on fulltime.”
For the next 294 miles, Wade answered every question NPIS Agent Ebony Sierra asked. Honest answers to prove his commitment to stop being only interested in himself.
Darkness rapidly replaced dusk when they pulled into the parking lot of Wade’s Rapid City motel. By then, personal telephone numbers had been exchanged. Wade called a cab to take Ebony to the motel room she had reserved after being given this assignment twenty-five hours ago.
As Wade opened the cab’s rear door for the woman he now considered a friend, he said, “You know, I’ve never been as honest with anyone as I have with you today. Can I say just one more thing?”
“You’re the kind of gal a guy wants to take home to meet his mother.”
“Sure. I think I’d enjoy meeting her. When we talked on the phone, she reminded me of my mom.”