At Heaven’s Threshold

by Gary Clifton

part 1


William Cozad, 32, husky, close-cropped sandy hair, walked out of the men’s restroom under an arrival-departure screen that taunted early risers. It was 5:06 a.m. He was weary and short on sleep. The numb ache in the back of his legs ensured he needed no clock to realize the hour.

A figure briefly caught his eye in the ladies’ restroom doorway. He thought he recognized the person, but she disappeared in the throng. He stopped and watched the frenzied activity for several moments but did not catch sight of the person again.

Concerned with his own schedule, he opted not to waste time looking for a shadow and walked on. The concourse was crowded with early-rising travelers of many descriptions, dragging or carrying luggage. At an unmarked, nondescript metal door, he stopped and removed his dark sunglasses. He had a ruggedly macho look, but his expression was tired and haggard.

Two uniformed airport policemen raced by him down the concourse. Then a pair of uniformed paramedics hustled past in the same direction with a wheeled gurney. Curious passengers rubbernecked after the running men, and two additional officers ran past.

Cozad, on tiptoe, craned his head in the direction of the commotion near the ladies’ room he’d just walked past, but the details, a hundred feet away, were lost in the crowd. “Another fainting spell in the crapper,” he said under his breath.

Stifling a yawn, he punched numbers into a keypad on the wall. It responded by clicking the door open. He stepped inside a small compartment to face a second, identical door as the outer door clicked closed behind him.

An illuminated sign over the inner door warned: HOMELAND SECURITY RESTRICTED AREA. ALARM WILL SOUND IN FIVE SECONDS. A small screen beside the second door flashed. Cozad plunked his briefcase on the floor, placed his right hand over the screen and spoke: “Cozad, William L., six-seven-one-zero-eight-blue-six-delta.”

In a sultry, female alto, the door replied: “Good morning, Special Agent Cozad. Afternoon high temperature in Bogota today will be eighty-nine degrees Fahrenheit. Be careful out there.”

“Colombia, huh?” Cozad muttered. He retrieved the briefcase. The door swung open into a small entry hall, and he nearly collided with Sarah Collins. Sarah, 28, was darkly beautiful as always.

“Hello, Will.” She smiled, flashing a mouthful of gleaming ivory. “Boy, I’m glad to see you.” Her eyes devoured him with an up-and-down. Sarah had a knack for making every man she met feel he was the ultimate alpha male.

Her stretchy, dark-blue jogging outfit wasn’t as skin-tight as normal, a surrender, he assumed to the necessity of concealing the firearms she was carrying. No matter. The contents beneath were indelibly and inescapably burned onto Cozad’s mind. The fleeting thought caused him a familiar stir.

“Coasting along, Sarah, just like always.” He stepped into the inner corridor to allow the second door to swing shut behind him. “How about you?”

“Same-old, same-old.” She leaned up and kissed him a peck on the cheek. “Better, now that I’ve checked the sheet. We’re together on American 244 to Bogota with an intermediate stop in Mexico City. Tonight’s a re-match for me and you big boy.” Her smile exuded pure sexuality.

She reached up and slid a sensual fingernail along the scar which marked his left cheek from the corner of his eye to the jawbone. Sarah always used that gesture to crank his motor for more intimate contact.

Cozad grinned. “Well, kiddo... you, the talking door, and God knows who else seem to have a grip on my itinerary. The schedule only told me I had a three-day trip out of country.”

“One night layover in Bogota, then we fly to London with a stop in Algiers. Over night in London, then back to Big D. We could go enjoy the sights in a couple of big cities, or maybe just hang around your hotel room.” The quick smile again left little to the imagination.

“When did you get to Dallas?”

“Half hour or so. Red-eye from Chicago. How’s your ex? Dead I hope?”

“Not yet, but one can always hope.” He grinned again. “Man, I’m not sure I’ve got the energy to party hearty, Sarah. I’ve been so tired...”

“Cozad, ol’ Doctor Sarah can fix what ails you. It’s summer, you’re not supposed to catch the flu. We’ve been inoculated for everything except gout. Maybe you just caught a little bug.”

“Bug? Me? No, no. Just too many greasy meals on the go. Too many hours. They’ve sent me all over creation lately. I could use a day off.”

“Poor baby.” She patted his cheek. “Maybe you can catch a nap when we get to Bogota. Soon as you take care of my carnal feminine needs.”

“Sarah, I wish you hadn’t gotten an itch to move to Miami. We had something good here.” His regret was genuine.

Cozad had always been preceded by his reputation as a tough customer and an accomplished womanizer, but he had allowed his feelings for Sarah to drift well beyond casual. When she’d asked to transfer to Miami, he was genuinely wounded. The pain still lingered uncomfortably.

“Sometimes” — she flashed a toothy smile — “Grandma’s sugar cookies are best when you don’t get them every day.” As he looked down at his briefcase, she studied his face an extra second or two with the calculated expression of a person pondering their next thoughts. Cozad didn’t notice.

* * *

They stepped from the corridor into a larger squad room. Wordlessly, Cozad returned the nods and waves of several people in the bullpen. “Got any idea what happened out there by the ladies’ restroom?” he asked. “I thought I saw you walk out of there a minute ago. Tried to catch your eye.”

“Uh, well, Dumbo, I had to make a pit stop a couple minutes ago. Didn’t see you. I walked in here just a half minute before you. You must’ve been right behind me inthe hall.”

He shrugged. “I was probably looking backward.”

“Dunno really, but I think there were two or three customers in there as well as I recall,” she said. “I’m not assigned to take roll call in the john. However, nothing seemed wrong. You sure it was the ladies’ room?” Again, she studied his face for an extra second or two.

“Not sure.” He shook his head indifferently. “I came out of the men’s room. Just figured it was the ladies’ lounge.” Cozad tossed his briefcase onto a long table with several computers strung along it. He punched keys and booted up one. A map of Mexico and South America appeared. Sarah leaned over, using his shoulder for an armrest.

Sarah massaged his shoulder muscles. “Well, dude, this job sure beats us pushing a squad car around Dallas night after boring night, even if we did get a little time alone from time to time.” She gave his shoulders an extra squeeze. “Hours are just as screwed up, but the pay is night and day. Plus the travel. I’ve seen the whole world.”

“It’s a good gig.” He glanced back over his shoulder. Both recalled well the night the bed had collapsed in the cheap motel. Their times together had been physical, fulfilling.

“No, I don’t miss being a beat cop.”

He laughed, “We were the only officers in our section with college degrees when this job opened up. Lucky us.”

She released his shoulders. “I miss the guys, but not that idiot sergeant.”

Cozad shrugged, shook his head. “Haven’t seen you in... what? Three months or so. How you liking Florida?” He knew well it had been three months and six days.

“When you see my tan line, you’ll be begging Section Five to transfer you straight to Florida.” She flashed the smile again and watched him closely, waiting for a reaction.

“You found anybody permanent? A guy you like?” He didn’t really want an answer.

Sarah’s look was an odd hint of shame. “Well, I’ve dated Pierre a few times.”

“Pierre? Foreigner?”

“No, would you believe he’s a minister of the gospel? He’s a good dude, but I still miss you.” She made and held eye contact with him.

“A preacher? What denomination?”

Had Cozad been watching, her face reflected a touch of uncertainty. “He’s sort of an independent. No organized church affiliation.” Again she watched his reaction and added hurriedly, “Bet you never figured ol’ sinner Sarah to get hooked up with a man of the cloth?” She fondled the cross she wore around her neck on a string of orange beads.

Cozad shrugged, attempting to hide his disappointment, and opened his briefcase. A Glock, .40 caliber, semi-automatic pistol, and a small, .38 caliber revolver lay on top. He stuffed the .38 into a boot holster, the Glock into a stretchy, neoprene bandolier beneath his shirt. “Case you gotta use one of these, the .38 has the low impact stuff.”

“Yes, master Cozad.” She studied his big hands as he re-buttoned his shirt. He slid his trouser cuff over the boot holster. “I don’t like the sun so much. No Florida for me, please. Just wish you’d opt back to Dallas.” Sarah watched without comment.

Cozad nodded wanly as the group supervisor walked up. Tall, slender, with gold-rimmed glasses perched halfway down his nose, he tossed a computer printout on the table. “Guys, here’s the most up-to-date manifest we’ve got. One hundred and fifty-five passengers, plus crew. We need three guys, but...” — he gestured at the room and softly sang — “Ain’t got no bodies.”

“Boss,” Sarah said quietly, glancing around the squad room for privacy, “Will looks a little under the weather. Let him sit up front where the ride is smoother. I’ll ride in the rear.” The smile smothered any intent the supervisor may have had to the contrary.

The Supervisor closely studied Cozad, still seated at the computer. “Will, don’t even dream sick leave. We’re strapped to the ass for manpower.” He glanced at Sarah, “Er... for Agents, that is.” “Naw, boss, I understand,” Cozad replied. “Just haven’t been eating right. Maybe tonight I’ll find something for dinner that perks me up.” Will glanced at Sarah, not unnoticed by the Supervisor. The Supervisor scanned the list. “Over 100 Colombian citizens on board. Apparently attended some kinda religious conference in Dallas. Oughta be fairly placid. Got one I’d like watched closely... He shows on the watch list but has a common name. He’s in 10C, on the aisle in coach class, on the port side.” Cozad and Sarah jotted down the seat number.

As the supervisor walked away, a pilot and co-pilot approached, distinctive in their dress blue uniforms. The pilot was fifty, graying, fit. Thirty and handsome, the co-pilot’s probing eyes devoured Sarah. Cozad saw they were more than casual acquaintances, a realization Cozad didn’t really like any more than her talk of her preacher.

The pilot spoke with the edge of a man used to being in command. “Just wanted to see who was on deck. Sarah and uh...” He eyed Will with the distinctive cool regard of a man who considered himself a notch or two above a broken-down cop.

“Will Cozad.” Cozad rose to shake the hands of both officers, ignoring the Captain’s self-assured arrogance.

“Yeh, Will. Just the two of you?” The pilot glanced around the squad room.

“We don’t like it either.” Will held the pilot’s gaze. “Next time you have lunch with your congressman, feel free to speak up.”

“Sarah can handle half of Al-Qaeda on her own,” the co-pilot blurted. “Uh. I’ll bet...” His expression showed he was aware he’d said too much.

Sarah nervously studied her nails as the pilot and co-pilot walked away.

“Old friend?” Will asked, cautious to avoid any edge in his voice. Sarah ignored the question and checked the loads in her pistols.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2015 by Gary Clifton

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