by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Chapter 18, part 2
appear in this issue.
Chapter 18: Without You
part 1 of 2
Early on Friday morning, Homeland Security visited the hospital and had a persuasive and confidential word with a junior administrator about the present condition of the unfortunate Mr Murano, the exact nature of his injuries, and the names of the officers attending the scene.
After securing his informant’s promise to advise him as soon as the patient was discharged, which was still anticipated to be the following morning, the agent made his way over to the city’s police headquarters, and soon completed his own picture of the previous evening’s events.
Maelene stopped by as promised on her way in to work.
‘How did you sleep, honey?’
‘Not very well.’
‘I’m so sorry. Was it mainly the pain, or the memory of what happened ...?’
‘Oh, the pain. I don’t remember much about it at all. And I never asked you properly last night — are you OK?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine. I just have a big bruise on my shoulder, look — one of the kids swung his arm round at me as I was trying to pull him off you ...’
‘You were doing that? Wow, thank you! But what about Salvi ...?’
‘Oh, he was completely unhurt — apart from an uncomfortable butt from landing on the ground with me on top of him.’
‘He managed to avoid that kid’s arm, then ...’
‘He did nothing to help you, Toni. He just stood up and kept well away, even when I was trying to get them to leave you alone. And the police and the ambulance only came ‘cos someone else made a call, even though I kept screaming at him to do it. He had no idea. He just froze.’
Toni shook his head and sighed.
‘Thank you for being there, Maelene. Why do you think they chose us?’
‘Oh, it was mainly just bad luck, I reckon. But we were drawing attention to ourselves — that was stupid. And it wasn’t hard to guess we probably had money on us. But one of them also said something that’s far harder to bear ...’
‘What was that?’
‘Aw, I won’t repeat it. But he obviously didn’t like seeing me out with two white guys. It just shows that some things haven’t changed a lot, despite appearances and the pretence of political correctness. It reminded me so much of what happened to my Mom, nearly forty years ago ...’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘No, Toni. It’s really personal. I’ve said too much already — forgive me. It’s just that my Mom was so very sad when I told her the news last night ...’
‘I think I’d like to meet your Mom — and your Dad.’
‘Maybe, Toni. Maybe one day. Who knows? Now, I have to get to work. I suspect I’ll need to start clearing my desk fast. I’ll be back at lunch time. Get some more good rest, honey.’
He had closed his eyes, but Carla guessed he was not yet asleep. She re-made on the chair that Maelene had occupied only minutes before. She would not mention the fact that she had been listening in ...
‘Good morning, Toni.’
He blinked, and took a moment to register that he had a new and similarly caring, smiling lady visitor.
‘Oh, Carla, it’s you!’
‘Be calm and brave in the midst of all this, carísimo. Now, Quo needs to talk to you, straight away ...’
Toni, we are all very sorry about what has occurred. Our understanding is that you will be discharged in the morning. We are very pleased with that news, for several reasons.
‘Thank you. I’m looking forward to getting out of here as soon as I can ...’
That is very good. For we are now in a position to move rapidly forward, on two fronts. Carla and I need to visit California tomorrow, and we need you to pave our way.
‘All right. I hope Maelene will be able to get herself organised by then ...’
Maelene will manage her time with ease. But I am afraid she will need to provide her skills and support in an immediate, separate assignment for Lucia and the Chief — alongside Salvatore.
‘Oh, Quo, that’s not very fair. We’ve only just begun ...’
I know, Toni. But that is where she is needed most. And we cannot wait for you to recover, before setting them on their way. We hope their work will not occupy them for too many days, and we intend to reunite everybody as soon as we can, for many good reasons ...
‘She’s not going to like this either!’
Ah, sometimes a great cause demands small sacrifices — such as yours last night.
‘I wasn’t aware that we had signed up voluntarily for any cause ...’
Nor did I suggest it, Toni. But that situation is neither strange nor new. And there is much about us that you still do not know. In fact, Maelene now has the advantage over you, in certain aspects of our own troubled lives. I am sure she will help you later to understand our motivations. Coming from her, the explanation may well appear more worthy still ...
Rest now, and regain your strength ready for departure at the earliest opportunity.
‘Hang on, Quo. How can Carla and Lucia follow separate teams at the same time?’
Ah, I thought you would never ask ...
* * *
Toni’s anticipated discharge from hospital the following morning was to be preceded by a more spectacular one from the Mater in the coming minutes.
Everything was looking good, and the countdown was continuing. Carla was ready at the Handler’s controls, as she had been when the first radimote was generated over Spain, a month before.
She had learnt a lot from that experience, when the electric storm brewing over Santander had pushed the newly-born’s sphere eastwards, and they had been forced to glide to land in Bilbao instead. Today, courtesy of Salvatore and the Internet, they had been able to take the benefit of America’s regional weather forecasts, and had added in their own careful local observations. There would be no storms or significant winds in that area of South Carolina on this pleasant April day. Perfect for a precisely positioned deployment, just a few miles out of town, followed by a simple and still un-made final approach to the centre of Columbia.
And everything went to plan. Quo kept the laser generation power level as low as she dared — as the Captain had insisted — and was relieved to see from all the monitoring feedback that it had been more than adequate for the task. Carla piloted Radimote Jr. from 4000 feet down to the ground with skill and ease, and for old times’ sake she ended with a typical Doman flourish, alighting in the centre of Finlay Park, only yards away from a very familiar bench and a most convenient clump of bushes.
The Handler relaxed and was given a gentle round of applause by her admiring audience of colleagues and superiors. Then she focused herself once more, and began working through a very long list of checks to ensure that all of the second radimote’s systems were well and truly “Go”, before setting out on her next planned visit to the hospital, later in the day.
* * *
The lower level of power used for this deployment was of course still impossible to disguise from the eyes and ears of the Earth’s detection systems. And the security flurry that followed it was no less strong than the previous month’s reactions in Europe.
The Americans had ensured that they were fully involved in those earlier investigations, of course; but like every other interested party, they had come up with no feasible explanation for the cause of the two huge radio bursts, up in the heavens and seemingly separated by just a few miles, whose resultant beams had apparently come together over northern Spain.
So when it happened again, and this time over their sacred territory, they were not at all amused.
But there would be no subsequent ground-sourced radio bursts like the one in Bilbao a few hours after that original alert (and, over the following days, in Rome and Prague as well). So they would have even less to work with than before.
Unsurprisingly, then, with the passing of the hours, and later the days, and with no sensible technical answers forthcoming, much of the American security establishment became distinctly annoyed.
In parallel with those fruitless physics-based analyses, however, others amongst them would at once adopt a rather different sort of investigative approach. And it would not take long for somebody, or more precisely some computer, to establish that Antonio Felipe Murano, who had been suspected of implication in the Bilbao fiasco (but had been subsequently released without charge), and had later been quite firmly connected with the alert in Rome, had entered the United States only a few days before the latest event. And the immigration records would show, of course, exactly what had been established at Kennedy Airport — that after an overnight stay in New York City, the vacationing Spaniard had been bound for a prestigious hotel in Columbia, South Carolina ...
* * *
Maelene had been hard at work for over an hour, and was still expecting the promised morning contact from her new employers. And Lucia had, at last, been able to take up her work at the second Handler’s station. She and Carla had both really been looking forward to the end of their game of musical chairs ...
She remained unseen as she entered Maelene’s office. She whispered ‘It’s only me — our Chief Surveyor needs a quick word,’ and their new recruit was brought rapidly back into the Briefing Sphere.
Good morning, Maelene. We have not spoken before. Welcome to our cause — and do please call me “Chief” ...
‘Hello, Chief. Not a very good start to my team building efforts, last night ...’
I’m glad to hear you have a sense of humour.
Lucia frowned across at her boss once again.
Maelene was less restrained. ‘That was not a joke!’
No, indeed. I apologise. Let us start again ...
And then the bad news from the Mater was delivered for the second time that morning.
Maelene was fighting back the tears. ‘Are you sure I have to go with Sal? Can’t he handle it on his own? I really don’t want to leave Toni here like this ...’
Toni will be fine. And yes, I am convinced I need you as much as I need Salvatore. Perhaps even more. Take strength from that, Maelene.
We shall attend to all your travelling expenses, in our standard way, so do not begin to concern yourself with this. Please instead be calm, and ready yourself for a short meeting with Norman, before you leave to prepare for your journey. Here is what you will need to do ...
The Chief and Lucia wasted far less effort on the subsequent forward briefing of Salvatore Pirone in the deserted Forretan library, and concentrated on instructing him to use one of its PCs to arrange seats for Maelene and himself on the earliest possible set of flights through to Montana, and a pair of single rooms in Red Lodge for the next two nights.
It took him a while, but the job was eventually done. Then, with Lucia in unseen tow, he dragged himself over to Maelene’s office.
She was still hard at work, and still crying.
‘I suppose you’ve come to tell me when we’re leaving?’
‘Yes. The taxi will be here at two-fifteen. The first flight departs soon after four.’
* * *
Maelene stopped outside Norman’s office and a friendly voice said ‘I’m right behind you, partner. And your eyeliner looks fine ...’
She turned, saw Lucia smiling reassuringly, put on her bravest face, rapped on the door, and opened it wide.
‘Hey, Norm, I’ve brought a mutual friend to see you again ...’
Crofton smiled back, and Lucia gave him her customary little cuddle.
Norm, this is the Chief, and I shall be brief.
I observe that Sal has already told you of Toni’s unfortunate experience last night ...
‘Yeah. Damn shame. Nice kid.’
Quite so. But he is apparently recovering well.
Now — Sal and Toni will be leaving here soon. I wish to thank you for all your indulgence towards them. And I have some important news. Maelene has agreed to join us for our crucial work with Jack McGarran and whatever may follow it. I know her presence will be missed, in many ways, Norm, but we should like you to allow her to take a special vacation, for as long as we need her. We shall of course ensure that, financially, you are both very well compensated ...
‘Damn right we’ll miss her, Chief! But I do understand ya ballgame, and I won’t try and argue. Ya better look after her really well, though! And just give us a few moments together now, OK?’
Of course, Norm. In one moment, I promise ...
But first, a final word from me. Once Sal and Toni have left, you will recall none of your confidential researches for us here: merely a bitter-sweet set of local events associated with their stay amongst you all.
And let me assure you that we are not thoughtlessly swayed by what happened here last night. Such is the way of the world at large, we fear. Columbia is a fine city, and South Carolina is a very fine state, and you should all be very proud. We wish you well.
‘Nicely put, Chief. Ever thought of a job in PR?’
Norman Crofton was back in near-normality, and Maelene was standing in front of him with tears in her eyes once more.
‘This is all so weird, Norm. When I think back to yesterday morning, before I went out for a walk with Toni at lunch time — oh, what a difference a day makes!’
‘I ain’t too clear about things either, sugar. But I guess we both know ya got a very big job to do, whatever it is. Take care, and be back soon ...’
‘I will, Norm. Oh heck — give me a hug, please!’
Maelene Bay hurried home and stunned her mother with the news that she was going on an urgent, open-ended business trip. But she said nothing of her travelling companion, and avoided the subject of “poor Toni” even when he was mentioned, pointedly, twice.
She packed a bag while her Mom made her a couple of sandwiches, and nibbled at one of them as she spoke briefly to her father on the phone. Then she said some more tearful goodbyes, and took a cab to the hospital.
‘Have they told you?’
‘I only have a few minutes to spare. Three separate flights, and then a long cab ride, before I get to bed tonight — in Montana, would you believe?’
‘That sounds exciting.’
‘Ha! Keep making the jokes, Toni. They’re good for both of us. Now, has Sal been to see you yet?’
‘No. But I don’t care.’
‘Well, I do! Oh, sorry — no, you’re probably right, he doesn’t matter. It’s just that I have to be with him all the time, now, for as long as this thing takes ...’
‘They told me it won’t be too long, Maelene. Hopefully we can join up in California very soon.’
‘Yeah.’ She brushed away another tear. ‘Kiss me, honey.’
Salvatore had finished his own quick lunch in the Forretan cafeteria, and walked smartly back to the hotel to pack and check out.
At one-thirty he took a cab to the hospital. But when they stopped outside the front doors, he sat like a statue on the back seat for a very long time. Then he abruptly asked the driver to wait just a couple of minutes, plunged inside, asked for directions at Reception, hurried along to Toni’s room, and opened the door without knocking.
‘So, how are you feeling?’
‘Aching and fed up.’
Toni said nothing in reply, but just waited.
‘Anyhow, I’m sure Maelene’s been back here again ...’
‘... and told you where we’re going.’
‘Right. Well, see you when I see you, then.’
‘Yes. And Salvi — make sure you take good care of her.’
‘Yes, you try ...’
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd