By David Farnell, (c) 2000
Texas, she thought. I can’t believe I’m going back to Texas.
She suppressed the urge to laugh, not wanting her drowsing seat companion, an egg-shaped businesswoman, to think she was a lunatic. Maria was still buzzing on caffeine and lack of sleep, and feeling more than a bit silly from it. Luke had called her at 4:30 that morning; it was now just after 6:00 and she was in a DC-10 on her way to Dallas-Ft. Worth and then Austin’s new airport, built on the site of decommissioned Bergstrom Air Force Base. It would be her first time through there–it wouldn’t have to work hard to improve on the old one.
She burrowed in her flight bag–her only luggage–and dug out her read for this trip: Armadillos and Old Lace, by Kinky Friedman. It had been on her shelf, unread, for about two years, after some businessman had given it to her. She’d met him briefly at a party, and then again a few days later, at a used bookstore. He had been a square, not her type at all, well dressed but distinctly oily. He recalled that she was from Texas, he’d said, and had given it to her. “Chatted her up,” as her friend Andy would say. When she’d gotten home, his business card had gone in the trash, and the book had gone on the shelf to gather dust. This morning, she’d grabbed it on impulse on her way out the door.
Freidman turned out to be an expat Texan, living in New Yawk. Like her. He wrote comic-mystery novels starring himself. As she settled into it, she felt a tingle up her neck as the hairs rose. In the novel, the main character was flying from New York to Texas.
Great, she thought. Synchronicity. Here we go again.
“If I’d known what was awaiting me in Texas, I’d have grabbed the pilot by the beezer and told him to turn the plane around.”
Oh, for crying out loud…
“I drew comfort from an old Texas axiom: Whether your destination is heaven or hell, first you have to change planes in Dallas-Fort Worth.”
Or Houston, she thought. So which is it gonna be, then? Heaven or hell? Maria, honey, if you haven’t learned by now, you’re in the wrong line of work.
Her mood considerably dampened, she shoved the novel back into her bag, grabbed a mindless flight magazine, and flagged down a steward to order a good, stiff whisky.
Texas, she thought. I can’t believe I’m going back to Texas. She felt a darkness hovering around the edges of her vision, and her stomach began to clench up.
The name of the Super 8 Motel had always made her think of cheap movie cameras behind every mirror. She’d become quite familiar with the standard room layouts–Luke always enjoyed setting up meetings in cheap hotels. Of course, he was never there himself. Linus answered her knock (a little knock-tap pattern they’d used for years) and swept her into the room with a big hug.
“Hey, check it out!” Still holding her, he spun and fell on the bed, bringing her down on top of him.
She was laughing, but started to object. “Uh, Jerry…”
“Ah-ah-aaaah!” he said, releasing her with one arm to waggle a finger in her face. “Cryptonyms only, Laura-my-love. These ain’t the Cowboy Years anymore. A-Cell is in charge. ‘We are operating under a new protocol.'” Then he reached over and fumbled at the bedside table. A rattle of a coin down a slot presaged a sudden shiver within the bed, then a smooth, burring vibration. “See? Magic Fingers! Can Luke pick safe houses or what?”
She couldn’t help but laugh with him. In his manic moods, Jerry…Linus was always able to bring her out of her dark moods. Almost always. It didn’t work the other way, unfortunately, but then Linus’ dark moods were as rare as her light ones.
She made to get up. “I’m going to wrinkle your suit,” she said. Linus was about the best-dressed professor she’d ever met, and she’d met a lot of them. He had a fashion sense not usually found among academics, particularly those in the intelligence community.
Linus clasped his hands at the small of her back, holding her with just enough force to let her know he didn’t want her to get up, but not so much as to actually stop her. She paused, looking in his eyes, seeing them soften to approach a level of seriousness he usually disdained. Crazy green eyes.
“There was a time, you know…” he began.
“Once,” she said. “We were both coked to the gills on adrenaline and fear, half out of our gourds…”
“We needed it.”
“You needed it. You always need it.”
“You needed it, too. And it was good. We did it, it was good; nothing wrong with that.”
“Yeah, I know.” She stood, breaking his grip gently to get off the vibrating bed. “Next time we’re in an immanent-death situation and we have the time and a good place to do it, you’re my man. Somehow, the ambiance here,” she swept her hand around the room, taking in the stained rug, the cockroach on the wall, and the vibrating bed, “just doesn’t put me in the mood, partner.”
Linus stretched out on the bed and put his hands behind his head, closing his eyes and making a show of enjoying the vibration. “Laura, you are so tragically conventional.”
“I blame my Catholic upbringing. Anyway, I’d have to cut my hair short again to properly turn you on.” Jerry’s ambiguous sexual preferences, which tended toward the androgynous of both genders, had bothered her the first few months of their partnership, but she’d mostly gotten over the social programming of her youth.
“Oh, you should try switch-hitting sometime, babe. Loosen up your libido. Broaden your horizons. You’ll never lack for a date on Friday night again.”
“You’re a corrupting influence, Linus. We shouldn’t let you anywhere near all those innocent, malleable minds.”
Linus chuckled at the thought of the students in his espionage classes, most of them experienced field agents, being in any way innocent. Before he could say anything else, their cell phones simultaneously rang. Jerry muttered, “I wonder how he does that.” Maria shrugged as they both answered the three-party call.
After getting the all-clear signals out of the way, Luke, his voice sounding quite normal for once, apologized for inconveniencing them and got down to business. “Early this morning, the Perry-Castaneda Library was broken into by something which reeks of the Outside. A guard was killed; there were no direct witnesses, but apparently a librarian overheard it. The PCL is the central library for the University of Texas, and has a secure room in the basement housing some of its rare books. This room was broken into. I assume you can see where this is going.”
“Just what particular reek are we talking about here?” Laura asked.
“A police officer on the scene claimed the footprints were more bird-like than human. He also described the damage to the security guard as being similar to a bear mauling. Since bears don’t read books, we took notice.”
Linus spoke up. “Do we know yet what was taken, or might have been taken?”
“No clear idea. I’ve been checking around and UT does not seem to have much in the way of Outside-related materials, although of course something could easily have escaped our notice. Only one thing: UT recently sponsored an archaeological dig down in Mexico. Maybe they recovered something important.”
“So we’re really flying in blind, here,” Laura said.
Luke paused to clear his throat. “Actually, there is something, though I’m not sure yet what it is. As you know, there are a few agents from the old days who have retired but maintain Friendly status, and some of them are quite well trusted. Not many, of course. One of them, according to Alphonse, has some information that may be pertinent to this case. The possibility is good enough that Alphonse has asked Agent Laura to visit the man.”
“OK,” Laura said. “Just tell me where he is.”
Another pause. “Hawaii.”
“What!? You flew me down to Texas, and now you’re going to send me to Hawaii? Are you nuts?” Linus was laughing at Laura’s outburst.
“You were already on the plane to Texas when I got the request. I’m sorry, Laura.”
“Why can’t I just talk to him on the phone?”
“He insists on a face-to-face. Security.”
“Oh, for crying…So, how long am I going to be there?”
“Just overnight. Then it’s back to Texas, assuming Linus hasn’t already taken care of everything on his own.”
“Great, so I fly twelve hours to Hawaii, talk to some old fart, fly twelve hours back, and I never even get to lay on the beach. Why don’t you send Linus? Austin’s my town. I went to school here. I’ve spent weeks studying in the PCL! I know professors here. I can pretend I’m visiting my old haunts.”
“Laura. Alphonse specifically requested you. He didn’t explain why, but he was quite insistent.”
Linus stopped laughing. “Ooo, a mystery within a mystery.”
Laura was rubbing her temples with the thumb and middle finger of her free hand, her eyes tight shut. She let out an exasperated sigh. “OK. Tell me at least that I’m not traveling coach.”
“Business class all the way. You need to get moving, though–your flight leaves in forty-six minutes.”
Laura opened her eyes and for a moment looked hopeful. “Will there be a layover in L.A.?” Linus groaned.
“I’m afraid not, Laura. The flight goes Austin-Denver-San Francisco-Honolulu, then you transfer to a local shuttle to Hilo.”
Disappointed, she said, “Oh well, probably for the best.”
Linus couldn’t keep quiet. “I can’t believe you’re still hung up on that techno-hippy, philosophy-spewing blowhard.”
“Hey, he’s a nice guy!”
“Because of him, we almost ended up dead! Those Killroy bastards he introduced us to…Jesus!”
“You never got to know him…he has some brilliant insights into the whole Dreamlands matrix–“
Luke broke in. “Agents! Can we keep our eyes on the ball here? Your plane is leaving soon, Laura–I suggest you get moving. Linus, we’ll continue the briefing on your way to the University of Texas. Be seeing you.” He rang off.
Linus closed his phone. “Ouch.” He looked over at Maria and said, “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s OK,” she shrugged. “Shows you care. You’ve always been trying to take care of me, since we first teamed up.”
“Well. Anyway, have a good flight. Grab me some macadamia nuts, will ya?”
Maria stepped over and kissed him on the cheek. “Sure thing. And you be careful. No crawling in dark places until I’m here to watch your back.”
He smiled. It was the list time she saw his face handsome and unscarred.