Short Story By James Strauss
The air above Africa is rarified. Volcanoes spew up from below to be reported for the first time by overflying airliners. Storms with horizontal lightening that will take any passengers breath away wedge in from all directions, above and below those same airliners. Arch was happy to be aboard such a South African Airlines plane bound for JoBerg in South Africa, and the woman and he had taken up together at a conference in Paris. She was unlike any woman he’d ever met. Brilliant, sensitive, caring and compassionate to all those around her. And entranced by Arch’s entire projection of life as he saw it. Love did not properly describe his feelings toward her.
First class had been filled when Arch Patton had sought to change his ticket to fly with her. She always flew first class. It was one of the perks that went with being a senior executive of a publishing organization. Arch was coach. There was no help for it. He’d made the trip up into first class to visit with her three times but had been turned back by attendants on all three intrusions.
He flew in coach with his partner Sam the Man. A knuckle dragger of epic proportions. A huge man who could not be hidden or disguised. Arch hated working with such men but his position of Mission Commander, CIA Operations did not give him much leeway. If it weren’t Knox the Ox then it would be somebody of equally ridiculous presentation. The Agency had little understanding of what true effective fieldwork was like, mostly because filed people like Arch himself seldom told them anything of the truth. The truth meant getting limited in options. The truth meant getting decision makers making decisions from Langley and not the field. So analysts were always lied to. They knew it. Operations knew it but nobody ever did anything about it.
The sex had been astounding with Merril. Merril Johnson she went by, although Arch had not had a chance to check it out. She had drawn him in the night before with stockings and a garter belt. Arch had caught a glimpse, which had caused her to smile and then approach him. “Like what you see?” she’d asked. He’d been stunned at her observation of his own observation and unable to respond.
The woman had no reservations about anything sexual. Any and all of it. Things Arch had only imagined. They’d done them all. To the point that Arch had faked his shower the morning after simply because he didn’t want to lose her scent. What was love if not that? What kind of attractant could take a man of middle age and draw him in like a hugely powerful steel magnet, only to release him when all of his iron had passed over or expended itself completely?
The plane flew on through the night. She’d asked him if he was gay, before they’d gone to the same room in Paris. He’d laughed so hard tears had come to his eyes. Gay. No, not that, but he had told her he came with a certain amount of baggage. He just hadn’t mention what the baggage was. From the point of meeting him onward she would be a person of interest to the CIA for the rest of her days. Just upon meeting him her file would grow from some nothing to pages of data. The Agency did its homework very well, fed by the mega-databases of NSA and the NRO. Any friend or lover of a CIA agent was an immediate minor star among analysis operatives of several agencies.
Arch had been in love once before while attending college. A Midwestern college of great quality, but unknown by most. The woman had been a disciple of Catholicism and had finally had to choose between going away with Arch and going off to become a Nun. She’d chosen the priory in the end. She’d seemed to be more sorry than Arch although the weight on his heart had been immeasurable heavy.
Sam slept next to him. Fortunately, they had the two seats next to the window on the isle. 747s seemed to be disappearing in favor of two engine airliners but the configuration they were in allowed for Sam’s snoring and sprawling about while allowing Arch’s frequent wanderings around the confines of the cabin.
He slipped through the barrier of first class once again. The attendants were forward behind curtains getting ready for another level of service their sleeping charges didn’t really want or need.
Merril was one of the passengers asleep. Arch crept up next to her. She’d fallen asleep with her tray down, laptop out and briefcase open at her feet. Arch smiled. He would not wake her. He was about to drift back to coach unnoticed when he saw the leather book sticking out of her case. A beautiful brown thing with gold edged pages. Almost without his conscious will Arch’s right hand snaked down and removed the volume. He knew what he was doing was unforgivable, even if the book only ended up containing Merril’s most important addresses.
The trip back to his partner’s sprawling snoring existence was uneventful. Nobody had seen him. He sat in the aisle seat, unsnapped the eating tray and dropped it above his lap. Very carefully he place the stolen volume upon it. He stared down at the ballpoint inscription written deep into the quality leather “The Journals of Merril Johnson,” under which written the month of October. He smiled to himself. The woman was not an analytical personality but she had the intellect to act and practice as one. Inside the journal he knew there would be notations about him. The thought of her love for him and the depth of it so in evidence in her behavior drove him to open the volume.
Instead of starting at the beginning he went directly to the end. He wanted to know what was on her mind in the most recent past.
“The target is secure. He’s certain of my love and care for him. Everything is ready at Jberg station. His Hertz rental will malfunction just after leaving the lot and the disposal team will do its job. I’ve slept with this man. He’s credible in bed. Bareback sex, which worries me. I’ve slept with so many. There was no way to even bring up the subject of protected sex. I will have to be checked out just as soon as he’s pronounced. It is so damned tiring to carry on these ridiculously intense love affairs. The results are stunningly successful however and I take great pride in that. Goodbye to number 23.”
Arch’s heart seemed to stop. What target could she be referring to? She worked for a major U.S. book company. One of the largest. He thought of her sales and her potential competitors. He wondered if she could be sleeping with one of the agents opposing her.
His mind wandered, then roiled with emotion. He thought he was going to be sick. He closed the journal with a snap so loud his partner woke up.
“What?” the big man said, unfolding from his laid back position jammed against the closed shade of the airliner window.
“Who’s our rental car with?” Arch asked him, his voice so flat that the other man came to full attention from his disturbed sleep.
“Hell, I don’t know. Whoever they hooked us up with. I’ve got it in my briefcase.”
Arch had to stand so the man could bend his muscled torso to pull the briefcase from beneath the seat in front of him.
“Hertz. I’m betting Hertz,” Arch whispered softly, taking his seat as his partner unsnapped the latches to his Rimowa aluminum case.
“I’m not even sure Hertz does business in South Africa,” Sam responded, searching through his papers. “Here it is. How in hell did you know it was Hertz?” he asked, holding out one sheet of paper.
Arch massaged his face, ignoring the proffered confirmation. He unsnapped the flat tray before Sam. When it came down he placed the leather journal upon it.
“Read the last part and tell me what you think. I may be wrong. I so want to be wrong. I don’t know what to say.”
Sam opened the small volume after turning on his overhead light. He sat for moments staring at the last two pages before slowly closing the volume. He closed the volume and handed it back to Arch.
“We’re dead men when we hit JoBerg,” he commented, his mood somber. “She’s a player. A player with a lot of power and well placed. What do we do?”
Arch agonized. He’d wanted to hear some kind of argument about how the woman’s writings could be something other than whatever they were. “They plan to take us in the rental car, not at the terminal. They can’t take us at the terminal. Too many people. Too much security. The rental car thing makes all the sense in the world. We have an opening. We don’t go to the rental car company. We get a cab. We know we’re blown though. I don’t know if I gave us away or not. This volume has to go back.” Arch pushed his tray up and was about to climb in the aisle before Sam’s big powerful hand clamped down on his right bicep.
“She’ll burn us instantly when we hit the ground. She’ll know we aren’t going to claim the car because she’s with us. One cell phone call and we’re toast. She has to go.”
“Go?” Arch asked, without any thought.
“You’re mission commander. It’s your call. What do you want me to do? She hits the tarmac, makes the call and we are history. She’s a player, not what you thought. It’s your call.” Sam still clutched his arm as he finished. Both of their lives were in Arch’s hands but Sam’s hand would not let go.
“Give me a second. I’ve got to get this back. We need the time to think,” he said, looking directly down at Sam’s squeezing hand.
Sam let him go. Arch got up and made for first class. The attendants were delivering hot towels and lemons, for whatever reason. Before the one in his aisle could encounter him Arch got far enough forward, leaned next to Merril’s sleeping form and slipped the journal back into her case. He then turned and fled, sending a sheepish grin to the approaching First Class attendant. He’d taken it the smell of fresh Plumeria flowers. Merril used a Hawaiian shampoo with that fragrance. Arch knew because he’d bathed in her bathroom.
He almost whimpered on his way back into economy. He couldn’t kill the only woman he loved in decades. He couldn’t simply have that done without talking to her. He had to confirm the writing in the journal. How could he do that? Sam awaited him upon his return, big muscled arms crossed over his chest. His expression accusing. Arch was delaying and equivocating and both of them knew it.
“We can’t do it based on her writing alone,” Arch said, not looking Sam in the eyes.
“Yeah, we can. What’s her name?” Sam replied.
“Merril,” Arch answered.
“What’s your name to her?” Same shot back.
“Arch,” Arch replied, not understanding where the conversation was going.
“No. It’s Target,” Sam replied. “You read it yourself in her own handwriting. There’s no wiggle room there. You know what a target is. We’ve certainly been assigned enough of them over the years we’ve been about our work.”
“I love her,” Arch whispered to his partner. “I haven’t had anybody to love in so long…”
“Yeah, well, what do we do about this? You’re Team Leader. We need a plan. When we get off this plane we either head on over to Hertz or she blows the whistle behind us. I don’t think that team she described as ‘disposal’ in nature wants to talk to us or take us into any kind of custody.”
Arch got up and headed to the bathroom at the very back of the plane. He stood stoically waiting his place in the short line. Attendants moving around the bathroom supplicants with authoritarian attitude. Once inside the small plastic cabin Arch breathed in and out. He stood with both hands on the mirror in front of him. He did not look into his own eyes. He knew what terrors lay there. He simply breathed in and out, trying to find a way through. He could not be responsible for Merril’s death. He could not make any decision to kill her, no matter what she might have done, or how much she might deserve it. He wanted to throw up but couldn’t.
There was no sleep left in Sam, Arch noted, as he got back to his seat. Most lights in the cabin were extinguished as almost all other passengers took advantage of the night flight to get some rest.
“I need to talk to her back here. I understand you have to make sure. To make sure we have to talk to her but she needs to be back here to do that. Go up front and tell her some huge lie. You’re good at that. I’ll be as gentle as possible, but I think I’ve got to do it. You’re too close.”
Arch considered. They could not go forward with things the way they were. Talking to Merril seemed sensible although getting anything out of a trained agent while aboard a commercial airliner without using drugs or pain was unlikely. Sam was good though. Arch moved to get up.
“Make sure you tell the flight attendant you’re switching so they won’t make any trouble. Then stay up there until I come get you,” Sam said, speaking in a tone that made it seem like he was the Team Leader and not Arch. “This is South African Air, not exactly Lufthansa for rules.”
Arch agreed, knowing he wouldn’t even be allowed to visit Merril if they were aboard one of the stiff-necked German airliners.
She slept soundly in the luxuriously large first class seat, a black blanket with big white letters of S.A. sewn into the fabric. She roused with his slightest touch, awakening with a great sleepy smile.
“Sam wants to talk to you. He’s my best friend,” Arch lied. “We talked about marriage. He wants to spend a couple of minutes with you in back because he’s going to be our best man. Would you do me a favor and humor him for a bit? I’ll catch a few winks in your great seat while you’re gone.” Arch smiled disarmingly. The woman knew he was a player. An agent of some opposing force she was willing to send into the night. He watched closely as such thoughts ran through her mind. She had nowhere to go aboard the airliner, but she had the protection of passengers and crew around her. He saw the decision in her eyes before she spoke.
“Of course. He’s rather a strange man to have as a best friend, don’t you think?” She asked, tossing the blanket aside and unwinding herself from the seat. Standing in the aisle she looked magnificent, her perfect body contours softened by the low lighting, her hair backlit by the forward cabin lighting always on.
Arch guided her back to where Sam stood in the aisle, making the window seat available to Merril. She glanced back at Arch before taking the offered inner seat, her look one of deeper question than she had displayed upon waking. Sam sat down immediately, effectively blocking any exit she might attempt to make. Arch turned and went back up the aisle. Whatever questions Sam would put to her would have nothing to do with any future marriage, he knew. The relationship would not survive the plane trip. There simply was no way. Even if the journal was not truth, which it had to be. There was no corroboration more sensitively received or validly accepted as the writing of one’s own hand. Not in the business, anyway.
Arch slept curled up in the wonderfully huge and cool first class seat. For some reason the air movement to the rear of the aircraft was not as effective as up front. He lay wrapped in the Merril-scented blanket she’d left behind until he felt a touch at his right shoulder.
“Seat belt, sir,” a woman’s voice said as he awoke with a start.
Arch twisted to look down the aisle but a curtain was snapped from one side to the other, blocking any access or view to business or the economy sections. Merril had not come back forward to change seats and that potentially conclusive failed occurrence gave Arch an ominous uneasy feeling.
The proper announcements for entering final approach were made over the broadcast system aboard the aircraft. Arch sought for something to pass the time. Something to displace or at least brush his dark thoughts aside. He once again removed the journal he’d so innocently read just hours ago. An envelope fell from a half page pocket running horizontally across the inside of the back cover. Arch caught it with his right hand, noting that it wasn’t sealed. Setting the journal aside atop his opened meal tray he opened and read the letter, more than a little surprised at finding it addressed to him.
Arch sat stunned, holding the letter in his right hand, while lovingly caressing the rich leather exterior of the bound volume with his left. The wheels of the aircraft striking concrete runway shook him from his reverie. Quickly he replaced the letter in its envelope, tucked it back into the slot of the journal and replaced all of it in her purse at his feet. He then snapped the tray up into its holding slot. Only in first class would the attendants have ignored his disobedience of landing safety procedures.
The plane pulled up to the extended tube waiting for it at their gate. First Class offloaded before any other class so he had to make some relatively fast decisions while he considered what to do. He let a couple of people go by him before deciding that he would take Merril’s purse with him, no matter how suspicious that might seem to anyone who might notice. What happened between Sam and Merril in the back of he plane was vitally important to the mission but it was even more important to Arch personally.
He was not a praying man but suddenly was overcome with a deep-seated emotional urge to reach out to a merciful God.
The journal and the letter had opened a newer larger portal in what Arch considered his core. He’d never really loved a woman as he loved Merril and her cool detached act, yet deep-seated need to be a critical part of his life, added a complex structure to their passion that he’d never thought possible. A window was open in a sensitive place in his heart where he had never known there was a window at all.
Instead of moving straight to baggage for their checked items Arch stopped and turned at the end of the tube as it disgorged everyone from their flight. Would Sam remember to bring his carry-on? Would Merril be with him? Would she have come to understand in passing her first class seat that Merril had taken her purse? Would Merril be with him.
Perspiration formed on his brow as people brushed past him. He could feel a slight shaking in his hands. Being mission commander for the Agency was always different. Every mission was different, even when some of them seemed like they were going to be just like one executed at some time in the past. He never got used to the fear nor did it diminish over time. But his controls of his reactions to the fear were extraordinarily well disciplined. But there was not much evidence of his vaunted self-discipline as waited for the plane to finish the offloading process.
What was Merril? A player, like Sam and himself? An innocent person who knew and understood the work they were involved with and wanted to enjoy the adventure? How had she come to use the word ‘disposal’ in her journal, which Arch had never seen used in any espionage novel or movie, but was commonly used by most players? Was the entry in her journal accurate or was the letter’s inference that it was itself inaccurate?
Merril had not come forward. He cursed himself for falling asleep, and his exhausted state prior to the extended nap was insufficient motivation. They were all exhausted under such circumstance. Had Sam acted self-protectively of the mission? Had he terminated her quickly and quietly in the back of the plane?
That last thought almost caused Arch’s to shake. Strange emotions of fearful loss ran through his mind as tension began to grow with each passenger that moved past him. If she were gone he’d never be able to replace her. In all of his life and career he’d never run into anyone like her, and if he had he was dead certain she would not have taken up with a mixed bag of nuts like he. Arch was simply too filled with quirks, failures, emotional bugs, just as he was lacking in smooth elegance and urbane worldly presentment.
Sam appeared without Merril. Arch stared, examining each person before Sam and following, but she was not there. A coldness began replacing the longing, hope and fear he’d been feeling only seconds before. A hollow coldness wherein he could not see past the next few minutes in his life. As if looking down into his own life from afar, Arch understood that he was automatically transforming his emotions into something he could manage to survive. There was no place in fieldwork for love, unbounded loyalty or total trust. Those things were reserved for citizens living regular lives.
But he knew he couldn’t let it go. What had happened in the back of the plane was not going to be framed to Sam as a question from one friend to another.
They proceeded up the access tube together, neither saying a word. At the top of the opening to the concourse leading to emigration and customs Arch stopped. Instead of proceeding he walked over to the glass windows with a view out toward the plane they just come off of. Same joined him.
“C’mon, we’ve got to get through and out of here before there’s any kind of commotion.”
Arch ignored him. He simply stood and gazed down at the airline employees working on unloading the luggage and others doing things he didn’t understand.
“Go,” was all Arch could manage. He could not come to terms with what must have happened back in coach. He was completely numb for the first time in his life. He couldn’t feel anything although he felt like he was standing on the edge of vastly deep abyss. Sam stood with him for a few moments before leaving his side.
It took several minutes for an ambulance to arrive. All the passengers and crew had offloaded and none of them had been Merril. The ambulance could only be for her.
Arch noted that the last attendant off the plane had not locked the access door to the loading tube. A special scissors-like machine rolled next to the ambulance and sent a platform upward out of view with two attendants and a portable gurney on it. Arch eyed the unlocked tube door but held his ground, watching what was going on below.
Several moments passed before the platform started back down. Arch saw her body.
Her stark still face was uncovered although the rest of her body was tightly wrapped. He moved to the tube door. There was no one left in the area to intercept him. He ran back down the length of the tube. Near the closed plane door at the end was another door. It too was unlocked. Arch opened it and found the stairs he’d seen from his vantage point on the concourse. He plunged down, arriving at the back of the ambulance as the men aboard the platform were very gently unloading the gurney for transport. Merril’s body jostled but she was totally still, as Arch knew she would be. He walked up to the working ambulance crew.
“Where they taking the body?” he asked, to one and all, staring at them but not Merril’s exposed face. Tears ran down from his eyes. He hadn’t cried in thirty years, that he could remember, and he hadn’t cried in public ever before. Arch didn’t notice or care about his tears. Merril had somehow become immediate collateral damage in a mission that had not even begun. Sam had done what knuckle draggers did, for self-protection and for the success of the mission. But this time Sam would die for his role. It was not just and Arch knew that, but someone had to pay for the outrage of such beautiful and outrageous innocent death. And the death of the only woman Arch had ever come to love.
“What body?” one of the paramedics asked.
“Her,” Arch pointed at Merril’s prone figure disappearing into the back of the ambulance.
“No body. She’s unconscious. Don’t know why. Could be anything. Cardiac arrest, although her vitals are strong. Maybe drugs, we don’t know. They’ll do a toxicological at the hospital. You her husband?” The paramedic asked.
Suddenly Arch registered what the man was saying. He wiped his eyes. Merril was not dead. He couldn’t believe it, but he also knew he had to get off the tarmac instantly and on into immigration or questions he couldn’t answer would be asked very soon.
Arch turned without answering, taking the steps back up to the top of the mobile passenger tube three at a time. He ran the length of it, out the door and down the hall to where immigration, luggage and customs would be waiting. Great energy and power flowed through his body as he ran. Merril was alive. Nothing else mattered.
There was no delay as he processed through. He was the last to go through but only received a cursory questioning and no search of his luggage at all. He didn’t have to catch up with Sam as the man stood waiting outside the door on the wide busy sidewalk running the length of the terminal.
“You didn’t kill her,” he whispered, as he walked up to stand with the larger man.
“No, what do you think I am? You’re in love with her. How could I kill her? You’d never work with me again. Ten milligrams of morphine worked wonders. She talked like a magpie before she went out. Does she have a thing for you,” Sam laughed as he finished, striking Arch on one shoulder. “Maybe I will be best man after all.”
“How did she know about Hertz being our rental company though?” Arch asked, the small detail still bothering him.
“When we get the car take a look,” Sam responded. “Hertz is the only American Car Company renting cars here. What company do you think any American is going to use with them here?”