(XIX) PROJECT F.O.Y. — CH 37,38,39 — 9/22/12

            “Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings.  It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowering through one’s head . . .”

Mark Twain

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

PART FOUR

“Hit ‘em high and hit ‘em low,

I can’t talk now ‘cause I gotta go.

Look at you still playin’ the game –

Hey, isn’t that ol’ what’s his name?”

CHAPTER 37:  No holds . . .

            I was almost forty-eight years old and . . .

On your mark.

Get set.

Going . . . Going . . . Gone!

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 38:  Too Many Flowers!

            The view out the panoramic kitchen window into the backyard was spectacular.  Over approximately three-quarters of an acre of land was filled with a variety of trees, including pine, cherry and apple, and a vegetable and herb garden plus so, so many flowers.

The combination Hummingbird Feeder / Outdoor Thermometer hung from a pine tree branch to the right side of the window.  The temperature registered eighty-six degrees out.  So, it was slowly going down.  At two in the afternoon it had been stuck on ninety degrees for three hours.

For the better part of that afternoon I played in the spacious den, organizing, cataloguing and pricing a good many of my older comic books.  My comic collection had really grown over the years in spite of the fact that I had not bought a single comic for the past year and a half.  It seemed to me that there were now way too many comics on the flooded market.  So, I basically just stuck with my older books, mostly Marvel and DC – my staples like Batman, Superman and Spiderman.  I also owned a couple comics that I discovered were even rarer.  They were from an original series of The Incredible Hulk and Sub-Mariner splits.  And, of course, my more recent pride and joy was my first edition Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – the black and white version.

Now, at a little after 5:00 p.m., I stood rinsing some dirty dishes and drinking fresh iced sun-tea.  I looked out of the large window at all of the different flowers flourishing in the backyard garden.  I had to admit, in the short time I’d been here; I had truly grown to love this place.

From the kitchen window I could actually view quite a large chunk of the backyard.  The main portion of the yard had a patio and a small area of green lawn that were completely surrounded by so, so many intoxicating flowers.

There was also a fragrant McIntosh apple tree that branched out over the northwest corner of the garden.  In fact, that section of the garden was almost always undercover, in the shade, and was nicely separated by large stones and frog and lizard sculptures.  And it even sheltered a small, decorative birdbath near the center.  Off to one side was a tiny wheelbarrow filled with polished stones.  The stones gave off a rainbow of colors whenever the sun managed to glisten through the thick foliage.

Anthuriums, pinkish-red flowers with straight pistil stems and flat, waxy heart-shaped petals immediately caught one’s eye.  Also, thriving in the shade, were deep purple and bright red Geraniums and a rather large Lace-Top Hydrangea bush, complete with sizable round, white flowers fringed by a lacy, purple top.  Directly next to it was languishing a Snowball Hydrangea where pink flower snowballs bloomed proficiently.  And, then, probably the smallest, yet most striking plants of all were the Lobelias with their clusters of tiny, dark bluish-purple flowers.  They added a whole new color dimension to the shade garden.

Of all regions of the sprawling garden, the shade garden was the most peaceful, and in some ways, the most impressive.  Light green clover created a soft, velvety looking carpet and also partially covered bricks and stones in the shade zone.  In contrast, dark green ferns grew up near a wooden fence.  And, on the fence, elegant String of Pearls’ vines drizzled their way down and mingled with the ferns and even some of the dark blue Lobelias.

I continued viewing the garden as I poured more fresh, ice-cold sun-tea.

Two huge Camellia bushes with lots of shiny green leaves bordered the shade garden.  One bush had deep red flowers and the other produced the more traditional pink.  At that very moment, a tiny portion of the shade garden was kissed by a few glinting rays of sun and the resulting colors and various shades of green were simply awesome, as they reflected a rainbow of greens, blues and purples.

In another space of the garden, pretty much south of the shade garden, Desiree’s head popped into view.  She was working hard, trimming, pruning and weeding around all of the large rose bushes.  Specifically, she was working on the Shreveport bush.  It had vivid orange rose buds that lasted forever, even after you cut them.  Out of all our roses, which included Double Delight, Fragrant Plum and a Peace Rose bush, my favorite was the brilliant orange Shreveport.  However, the Double Delights with their contrasting pink and yellow petals were a really close second.  Actually, the more I thought about it the Double Delights were my true favorites.

I watched as Dez snipped and clipped and shaped.

Eventually, I decided to go outside and join her.  As I walked out the back, sliding glass door and slid the screen shut behind me, I passed pots of lively colored orange, purple and pink Impatiens, small four-petal, star-shaped flowers.  Mixed in, here and there, were also pots of Dianthus, a small, deep red, flat-topped flower with perfectly fringed edges.  Desiree had arranged all of these pots to form a border around our patio.  It was really quite enchanting.

As I strolled through the garden I was taken in by all of the brilliant colors surrounding me.  When I eventually reached Desiree she smiled and wiped her brow with a soft cloth.  I handed her a fresh glass of iced-tea.

“Thank you, Michael.”

“Too many flowers,” I commented mildly.

“You can never have too many flowers,” Dez countered and tapped my nose with her gritty finger.

“If you say so.” I wiped at my nose.

“See what I did with the Fuchsias and the Jasmine bushes?”

I looked around.  “Wow!” I exclaimed. “You really cut them back.  Will they be okay?”

“No, I cut them back so they would die!  Silly!”

I found myself studying our unique Fuchsia flowers that Dez had cut and stuffed into a large vase.  They grew as droopy, upside down, pinkish-white dunce hats.  Then, as they matured, they became more like balls that popped open and produced a dark purple flower.

“Very pretty,” I remarked. “Will they last?”

“Not really sure,” Dez replied. “Probably not too long.”

“I think you have to be an ar-teest to work in the garden,” I said thoughtfully.

“Probably so.”

“I have no ar-tees-tic ability,” I lamented.

“But you can appreciate art – that counts.

“Yeah, but it would still be nice.  I don’t have your eye.”

Then Desiree switched direction a bit and asked – “Hey, you want to see the new mid-summer veggies and herbs I planted this morning?”

“Sure.” I was game.

And we walked to the northern most part of our garden.

“Pretty hot out for 5:00 p.m., huh?”

“It was a lot worse earlier.  Actually, thanks for the reminder.  Let me get my hat.” Then Dez trotted back to the roses, donned her wide-brimmed, summer sun hat and quickly rejoined me.

When she returned she showed me all of the dark new soil she had worked in and all of the brand new little seedlings.

“Over here are zucchinis and these are patty pans and over there are bell peppers, eggplant and onions.  And would you look at all of our tomatoes!  We can pick some tonight or tomorrow, if you want.  That’s the best I’ve ever seen tomatoes grow.”

“It’s the constant heat and sunshine,” I said.  Then I asked her – “What’s over here with all this new black soil and the little plastic covers?”

“Oh, those are all of my new herbs and spices – some from seedlings and some from seed.  I don’t want the birds to get them.”

“Wow!  There are a lot.”

“You name it, I planted it.  I’m pretty sure.”

I asked – “Do you have Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme?”

“Of course, and all in a row, right here.  And, there I added Basil and Dill.”

“Wait!  In the same row?”

“Why?”

“You can’t do that – you’ll ruin the song!”

“Ha-ha.” (Swipe.)

Then I switched gears.  “You know, Dez, at first I wasn’t completely sold on this but I’m really growing to love it here.”

“Me too,” she said and gave me a quick peck on the cheek.

“It’s a lot different, but you know what I really like?”

“Our garden?”

“Of course, especially with you in it!  But, aside from that,” I continued – “I love how everything is so slow here.  Time slows down.  But, then you go twenty or thirty minutes away and you can speed up, find a faster pace if you want to.”

“Yes . . . But, we’ll see if you’re still singing that tune when the fall season hits and then the winter snows.”

“You know, this might surprise you, but as much as I love the sun and the summer, I’m kind of looking forward to the other seasons.”

“Yeah?  Talk to me in January, bub!” Dez said with, oh, I’d say a hint of sarcasm.

Then I played my computer card – “Ya might be interested to know, I went on the Net and read some stuff.  It says that because it’s so dry here, the snow and the winters aren’t usually that rough, not like back east.”

“We’ll see,” Dez again spoke as if she could foretell the future. “Right now I’m enjoying the summer and the garden.  It is very peaceful up here.”

I totally agreed.

The up here that Desiree referred to was actually in the Virginia City foothills, near Reno, Nevada.  However, although our address did say Reno, the downtown area, itself, was a good twenty to thirty minutes drive north up Highway 395.  We were living on the outskirts of civilization, as we had known it.  In fact, our nearest neighbors were an acre away.  Pretty isolated for city-folk . . . even if we were from suburban coastal towns.

Actually, we were located in the center of a hub, and what a hub!  If we drove east, up the hills we could travel back in time and visit the old silver mining town of Virginia City and visit with Mark Twain.  If we went due west for about forty minutes up Highway 431 we could climb Mount Rose and run smack dab into Lake Tahoe.  And then, to our south was Nevada’s historic capitol, Carson City.  And, directly north of us beckoned all of the nightlife, restaurants and casinos that made up Reno, The Biggest Little City in the World.  Like I said, what a hub!

So far we were both truly enjoying our newfound selves.  And, I for one, looked forward to not having to return to the classroom in September.  I realized that after awhile I’d miss the kids but I definitely would not miss all of the papers, grading and planning.  Besides the paperwork, Dez had mentioned that she would not miss the aggravating politics.

As I was standing there inspecting the garden I was overwhelmed with all the love I felt for Dez’s life and for our life together.  I thought about how Gumby, (Kirk Blackman) had truly helped us both obtain full early retirement packages and had been so instrumental in setting us up in this location.

I wasn’t really sure, because it had never actually been referred to directly, but I somehow felt that we had now been mixed into the W. P. & R. program.  Because of our knowledge of the whole PROJECT F.O.Y. thingy plus those infamous pills we were definitely under the umbrella of the Relocation portion, I thought.

My mind wandered to the group.  From what Walter had told me at the reunion and from things intimated by Kirk, I was certain that Walter was living out his dream life somewhere far away in his own way – maybe Hawaii or the Bahamas or Podunk, Idaho.  Who knows?  Walter was always an enigma.

And even though Kirk wouldn’t (or couldn’t) tell me point blank about the rest of the group, I felt relatively secure that they were all okay . . . especially since Gumby always did seem closer to Bob-O and Benny.  They played basketball together all through high school.  From time to time Desiree and I had speculated that, with Gumby’s good graces, the surviving members of the group were now all relocated somewhere, much like us.  I always wondered if Walter had gone around and given pills to everybody else in the group that night at the reunion.  Nah, no way!

Dez was right about the right hand not knowing anything about the left hand within the intelligence community because it seemed of vital importance to Kirk’s section of the agency that Walter’s pills remain top, top secret.

Desiree suddenly brought me back to the now.

“Michael, did you happen to write that letter to Jennifer yet?”

“Huh? (Uh-oh.) I stalled for time . . . “Well, I did start it.”

“Yeah?  Probably – ‘Dear Jennifer,’ – right?”

“Nah,” I protested. “I’ve got more than that.”

“How much more?” Dez stopped pulling at some weeds and looked at me.

“Dear Jennifer, how are you?”

There was a long pause and a stare.

Then Desiree sat back.  She spoke haltingly – “Look M, I don’t want to dig where we’ve already dug fifty times.  There’s no point.  But I do need for this to be buried. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you how disappointed I am in you.” She set down her trowel. “You with Jennifer Tremain will always be there no matter what the circumstances.”

Dez paused.  Suddenly everything in the garden seemed so still.  I couldn’t help but notice that there was no breeze.

Dez continued – “So, M—, I need full closure on this.” She looked at me straight on and we held each other’s gaze.  I started to say something but thought better of it. “Besides,” she eventually added – “I would think that you would want closure too, Michael.”

“I do.”

There was another brief pause.

“Seriously, M, you need to write that letter.  You don’t want to chance scarring her for life, do you?”

“Yeah, right, like that could ever happen.”

“Michael Thomas, you of all people!  You are definitely one who should know – anything can happen.”

Man, I hated it when she was so right!

Then Dez added – “Besides, my parents are coming up to see the place this week-end.  I thought they could mail it for you, you know, so that it’s post-marked in Southern California.

“Okay, okay – I’ll work on it.  I promise.” And I meant it.  For a second, I thought back to Jennifer and her “I’ll miss you.”  I grimaced.

“Good.” Dez got up and gave me another quick peck on the cheek as she crossed to the squash plants. “The last thing I need is competition from an eighteen year-old teenage goddess!”

“Pshh – there’s no competition.  You have absolutely no worries.”  I kissed Dez on the back of her neck a couple of times for emphasis.  Finally, now I felt a slight breeze returning to the backyard.

While she worked I gazed around at our sprawling acre of land and rather nice, large three-bedroom house.  From our backyard we could see more of the Virginia City foothills rolling and rising to the east.  We could also see Mount Rose to the west.  It was a beautiful setting.  And the summer sunsets punctuated that setting – indescribable.

After we made love right there in the garden we both laid back and relaxed.

“I think I’m gonna go into town for a little bit, well, maybe just to the Pepper Mill,” I said suddenly.  “I feel like playing at Twenty-One – you know, Blackjack?”

Dez glanced up and shook her head. “It was clever the first time, M—.  But now it’s getting old.”

“What?” I feigned innocence.

“Well, while you’re playing at Twenty-One just remember – don’t eat anything.  We’re going out for a late dinner.”

“I might get just a little snack.  I skipped lunch.” I told her.  Then there was a pause as we both slipped back into our summer clothes.  I suddenly spoke seriously – “The garden looks really great, Dez.  You’ve done a lot of work here,” I complimented her.

“Thanks.  I love it so it doesn’t feel like work.”

I made a move to leave but then hesitated.  I toyed with something else I wanted to bring up—

“Hey, Dez, I know you’re on the fence with this, but I honestly think we should contact Kirk about organizing a little clandestine re-union.  It would obviously be small, really only six to ten people including us, I think.”  I paused – no reaction. “I mean it really is rather frustrating,” I continued, “not actually knowing more details about Ray, Walter and Bob-O and Carrie and Benny – you know, their whereabouts, their stories—”

With her hands on her hips, Dez cut me off—“Yeah, M—, like the CIA can reveal that kind of information.” Desiree pulled at some more weeds. “They’d have to change their name to the Witness Location Program!

“Well, we could at least suggest a little get-together in some clandestine destination.”

“M—, it’s just too soon.  I said you need to let me think about it.”

“Okay, okay, it’s just that—”

“Michael,” Dez cut me off again – “Let me think, please.  I promise you we’ll talk about it when the time is right.”

“All right.” I knew when to drop a subject.  You didn’t have to hit me over the head with a hammer or a piano or even a garden trowel.

Then I pretended to be very serious for a moment – “Dez, hon, can I just tell you one more thing before I go?”

“What is it, M—?  I already took my break!  I’m going to start losing light soon.”

“Well,” I began in very even tones. “I just read where they are going to start charging for e-mails.  Something to do with being politically correct—”

“Politically correct?” She bit!

“Yeah, they’re gonna call them fee-mails!

“Oh, God, Michael!” She tossed a trowel full of dirt at me. “I’m going to puke!  Somebody’s got way too much time on his hands.” Dez put her finger toward her mouth to dramatize the puke part and then said – “Either come out here and help me with the garden or go play Blackjack!”

“Twenty-One.”

“Whatever.”

“Okay,” I said. “Tough choice but I feel more like Twenty-One at the moment.” I had reached the back door and was just about to go in and get my car keys and wallet when Dez called out—

“Oh, M—”

“Yes, dear.”

“Don’t forget to take your pill.”

“Of course,” I said. “I wouldn’t play at Twenty-One without it.” I went inside.

“Arrgghh!  Enough!”  Then Desiree called out – “Remember, you’re taking me to dinner and then out dancing tonight.”

I returned to the sliding doorway. “I remember.” Then I asked coyly – “Hey Dez, am I taking you or Daisy out tonight?”

Desiree, who was on her knees working, sat up – “I think it’s pretty clear, isn’t it?  The rules are whenever we go anywhere it will always be Daisy accompanying Phillip.  You know that.”

“Of course.” And then I made what I thought was a profound observation. “You know what’s actually kind of funny?” I asked.

“What’s that?” Desiree kept right on working.

“All of these hundreds of different flowers in our garden and no daisies.”

Dez sat up straighter – “What do you think those are right in front of you?” she asked, referring to a large green, leafy bush with bright yellow flowers.

“Those are daisies?” I expressed true surprise. “I always thought daisies were white petals with little round yellow disks.”

“Well, see, you’re never too old to learn! They also come in yellow. Now, go.” Dez returned her full attention to the garden.

“Bye.  See you in a couple hours,” I said and left for the Reno Pepper Mill and a little Blackjack.

(Or, Twenty-One, whichever the case might be . . .)

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 39:  Blackjack or Twenty-One

            When I walked through the large, wide glass doors of the Pepper Mill the first thing I noticed was the refreshing coolness of the air conditioning.  Some people swore that they pumped extra oxygen into casinos to keep patrons going.  Whatever!  I just know that it felt great and I immediately perked up.

As I strolled around, casing out tables, I couldn’t help but notice that it was not very crowded for an early Friday evening.  I mean, there were people, but it wasn’t wall to wall.

I knew that I wanted to play Blackjack, my favorite game, however I could not seem to find a five-dollar table on either side of the vast casino.   I stopped and asked one of the dealers who was standing alone – no players were at her table – if she knew of any five-dollar tables anywhere.

“They now all change to a ten-dollar minimum at five o’clock on week-days.” She explained politely.

“Oh, it used to change at six o’clock, right?” I asked.

“Yes.  I think it just went into effect this week.”

“Oh, okay – thanks.”

That threw me off a bit.  I walked around for another ten minutes or so.  I had planned on a hundred-dollar limit at a five-dollar table.  Now I had to regroup and convince myself that a two hundred-dollar bankroll at a ten-dollar table was okay.

Dez and I were on a budget but we still had plenty of fun money.  More than most couples had, I imagined.

Eventually I ended up in a nice slot at a semi-full, ten-dollar table.  I took the last seat to the dealer’s right, so that I could see what cards had already been dealt, admittedly a slim advantage but an advantage none-the-less.

However, just after I sat down and had the dealer, Julie – from San Jose, (according to her nametag), change my hundred-dollar bill into house chips, there was a shift change and Julie left.

Enter Kenny.

So, now Kenny was our dealer and what a dealer!  He was definitely out of a different era and quite a quirky character.  He was tall and lean and probably in his late-sixties, early seventies.  However, truthfully, he appeared much older.  There was a hunch to his shoulders and his teeth were sort of yellowed with age, plus a couple teeth in the front were chipped.  Also, the bottom row of his teeth was extremely crooked.

Additionally, Kenny’s thinning, silver-gray hair, which was mixed with darker gray streaks, was parted crookedly on one side.  It was all slicked back very tightly.  And not a hair was out of place.  I thought that Kenny must have had the last tube of Brylcreme in existence stashed away somewhere in his medicine cabinet.  He wore a white dress shirt that was so thin that his horseshoe-neck T-shirt shown through.  To this he added a very thin black tie and a scratched and worn nametag that identified him merely as Kenny.

But his style is what truly set him apart.  Kenny spoke most everything in sing-songy rhyme—

“Throw down a twenty – I’ll make you some money!” he chanted as patrons passed by our table.

“Give the man your Player’s Card – It’s really not that hard!” Kenny continued to rhyme.

“Oh, thanks for the reminder,” I said and handed my Pepper Mill Player’s Card to Kenny who, in turn, passed it on to the Pit Boss.  The Player’s Card was just another method for the casinos to zap you in a kindly fashion.  The more you played, the more you accrued stuff – like free meals and buffets, free shows, and a variety of other freebies.  Obviously it was a perk that worked.  A lot of regulars to the casino subscribed to the Player’s Card.

“Where you from, Kenny?” I asked, as his nametag didn’t say.  He had dealt me a queen and a deuce. (Yuck!) That was a twelve, my least favorite Blackjack hand.  Dealer had a ten of clubs showing.

“I come from a small town – But I don’t let it bring me down!” Kenny sang out.

I took a hit – another face card.  Busted!  And I was quickly down forty bucks, just like that.

“Yeah, what small town is that?” I inquired, really just making small talk.

“I ain’t much of a talker – But I come from a town called Walker!”

“By the Walker River?” I perked up. “Great fishing there!” I said.

Kenny put his forefinger to his nose and kept dealing –

“Ace, three, five – That don’t jive!”  He was certainly full of himself.

Now I was down about eighty dollars and I was thinking of changing tables.  My rule of thumb was – if I lost four hands in a row I automatically switched tables.  That way I could sustain a losing streak much easier.  Hypothetically, at a ten-dollar table, I could move four different times if I had to and only lose a hundred and sixty to two hundred bucks, depending on splits and double-downs.

And, I had learned a long time ago that the odds of losing four hands in a row at four different tables were astronomical!  In fact, in my entire Blackjack career I had never had that happen.  Three different tables was as bad as I’d ever had it.

The very next hand Kenny dealt me two bullets.

“Change, please.” I threw him my other hundred dollar bill so I could split my aces.

“A hundred on the floor – But he wants more!”

The Pit Boss acknowledged the dealer.

“Thanks.” I said and split my aces.  Kenny dealt out a down card under each of them and crowed—

“Here’s to the guy with luck – Hit those cards and collect your bucks.”

Kenny was on a rhyming roll.  And, as it turned out, he busted so the dealer paid off everyone at the table and I actually won on both hands.  Since I was losing that helped get me close to even.

Soon, two of the players to my right cashed in and left –

“Thank you for playing – I only wish you were staying!” Kenny crooned mournfully.

So, now only two patrons, besides me, remained at our table.  I entertained a notion of leaving, changing tables, but I was actually holding my own, breaking even.  In truth, I was probably down a little from my original two hundred.

“Is this seat taken?”

“No – go ahead.  Welcome.” A rather pretty young woman, probably in her mid-twenties, joined our table and sat down next to me.  Kenny cooed—

“The girl in blue – These cards are for you!”

He was actually in the middle of shuffling the large, multi-decks of cards and readying them for the chute.  She handed Kenny her Player’s Card.

“This table’s got another player, how much should I pay her?”

Kenny’s unique style, filled with a light-hearted sense of fun, seemed to attract patrons.  Some of them lingered around the table and just watched and listened.

When the Pit Boss came over for the lady in blue’s Player Card, he called out—

“Mr. Widlyfe, Phillip Widlyfe?”

“Thanks,” I said as I took my perk card back and shoved it in my pocket.

“Good luck, Mr. Widlyfe,” he said casually and then retreated behind the rows of tables.

“So far so good,” I announced a little too loudly.  And then I set out fifty dollars in chips for my next bet.  I just had this feeling that it was time to up my bet.

And, son of a gun, if my intuition wasn’t right!  I was dealt two face cards.  Kenny, who had a six of hearts showing and a deuce underneath, continued to hit until he had seventeen.  As he paid me he crowed—

“Winner, winner – Get a chicken dinner!”

“Nice hand,” said the young woman next to me.

I smiled.  “And I upped my bet at the right time!  Now, that’s a first!” I exaggerated.  “You’re doing okay,” I added. “Two blackjacks in a row!”

“I can’t complain,” she smiled.  She continued to talk, pleasant blackjack table conversation.  She introduced herself – “My name’s M.A.  It stands for Mary Alice but I’m no Mary and I’m certainly no Alice.  So everyone just calls me M.A.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you M.A.  I’m MT.”  Then, Kenny piped in—

“So many initials – We’re gonna need officials!”

“Oh, that’s unusual,” M.A. commented.

“Well, really not – no more unusual than M.A.,” I countered.

“Oh no, not that – I mean that you would go by MT, by those initials, even though your name is Phillip.”

I must have looked perplexed.

M.A. went on – “You know, your Player’s Card – Phillip Widlyfe, I think the pit boss said.”

(One Big UH-OH!)

What did I just do?  “Don’t panic!” I thought to myself.  Then I said out loud – “Well, actually, it’s a long story.  The short version is –MT – they were my dad’s initials.  He’s passed on.” I built a bigger lie to house the first one.

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay – A lot of times I go by MT to honor him.”

Then we both smiled at each other and studied our newest cards.

(Whew!)

For some reason M.A. suddenly began to complain about her hair –

“This air is so dry I look like a Harlem Globetrotter in the Seventies.”

“It’s hardly that bad,” I said as I took another hit and busted.

I continued to play twenty-one for another forty-five minutes, enjoying the company, the diversion and, truthfully, the thrill of the game.  I had a nice conversation with M.A., Kenny continued to rhyme away, and hey – before I knew it, I was actually more than two hundred dollars ahead!

Then Kenny began heading into repeat territory—

“Lay down a twenty – And I’ll make you some money!” he said for at least the fifth time since I’d been there.

I decided that it was nearing the time for me to head on home so that I wasn’t too late for Desiree or Daisy.  All week I had promised her a nice Friday night out.  We’d go to dinner and a show and then, maybe a little dancing . . . probably . . . oh, well, all right – definitely some dancing.

However, just before I left I did something totally out of character, something I’d never, ever done in my gambling life.  I have absolutely no idea what possessed me but I took all four of my black one hundred dollar chips and carefully placed them out in the little circle for my next bet.

“Whew.” M.A. just threw me a sideways glance and raised her eyebrows.

“Gut feeling,” I whispered to her.  Kenny called out—

“Four hundred on the table – Match it if you’re able!”

The croupier looked over and nodded.

I held my breath as Kenny dealt the first round of cards.  I sneaked a look – a queen of hearts.

I have to say that it seemed as if I was still holding my breath as Kenny dealt the second cards around the table.  When he dealt mine I let it sit there for a moment.  Then I watched Kenny deal his up card – an ace of clubs.

I peeked at my second card.

(WHAM!  BAM!  THANK YOU MA’AM!)

It was an ace – an ace of diamonds!  I turned it over immediately. “Twenty-One!”

“Insurance?  Insurance?” Kenny called out in his first non-rhyming words.  Then he asked me specifically—

“Would you like insurance, sir – For what could definitely occur?  It’s a break-even proposition – Buy insurance or you go fishin’!”

After just a slight pause, I answered—

“No insurance for me!” I was emphatic. “Life is too short – there’s no insurance!”

Then Kenny chimed in again with—

“He’s goin’ fishin’ – And a hopin’ and a wishin’!”

And he slid the corner of his down card into the little telltale machine, the almighty machine that read the dealer’s down cards.  I know that Kenny held his card there for much longer than normal, expressly to build the suspense.  Then he slowly removed the card and crowed loudly–

“He’s got twenty-one – That’s a boatload of fun!”

Kenny paid me two to one for my original bet of four hundred dollars!

“Winner, winner – He’s buyin’ lobster dinners!”

Next to my four black one hundred-dollar chips he set down eight more black chips!  That was twelve hundred smackers to the good!  Wow!

“Thanks, Kenny,” I said and I threw him two twenty-five dollar chips.  He knocked them twice on the table and barked out—

“With this quip you can rest assure – That for this tip, I thank you, sir!”

And he bowed, slightly.

I got up from the table and said so long to M.A. “Good luck,” I offered as I left and made my way to the cashier’s window.  “I just made the single biggest blackjack bet I have ever made in my life!” I thought. “And, I hit it!  Life is good!”

I left the Pepper Mill and actually caught myself skipping in the parking lot.  I got into my car and headed for home.  I couldn’t wait to see Dez and show her the twelve hundred buckaroos!

“Sometimes it really pays to play Twenty-One” was what I planned on telling her.

I thought – “Tonight Daisy and Phillip are going out for one big night on the town!”

It was actually a quiet drive home and I was reveling in all my glory.  And then for some odd, out of the way, reason my mind wandered to the ending quote from the novel, The Great Gatsby.  With my classes over the years, we always discussed the final paragraph where Fitzgerald says something like  So we beat on, boats against the currents . . . ceaselessly . . .

            At that particular moment, as much as I liked Fitzgerald, I had to say I disagreed with ol’ F. Scott.  You see, some of the time, we’re not fighting to climb up, and we’re not continuously swimming upstream.  In real life, there are times we spend lounging in the valleys, times where we just relax and go with the flow.  We float along easily, in sync with a gentle current.

“So, say so long to your youthful ways,

You’ve got your own family to raise.

Don’t waste your time with nostalgic days,

You can’t rekindle a burnt out flame . . .”

“No, you can’t go back . . .”

(But sometimes you can come close— really, really close.  Thanks, Walter.)

The End

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(XVIII) PROJECT F.O.Y. – CH 35,36 – 9/15/12

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 35:  Answers = Decisions +

            That Wednesday evening I broke protocol and showed up at Desiree’s doorstep about 5:30 p.m., an hour earlier than our rendezvous time and definitely not at our rendezvous point.  But, how could she blame me?  I was extremely excited.

Dez eyed me in the doorway, quickly glanced around and then ushered me in.

“Are you positively sure you weren’t followed?”

“Pretty sure,” I answered. “Plus I did the routine, walked around for awhile, then came up the back way through the garage – just like you taught me.” That seemed to satisfy her, put her at ease a bit.

“Dez!” I finally blurted out – “You’re not going to believe this!”

“I take it your meeting went well,” Dez said and then she broke into a big smile.  I followed suit.  We both sat down at her kitchen table.

I must have paused a little too long, not on purpose however; I was just trying to figure out how to word everything.

“Well?” Dez expressed a modicum of impatience.  “What’s the story, M—?”

“Well, to start with,” I began, “You were right.  Kirk was totally flabbergasted to see me as Phillip, well actually MT; you know what I mean – me as twenty-one-ish.  After the shock wore off I told him about the hundred packages we have all ready to send out. Ha!  You definitely knew what you were talking about.  It was a slam-dunk!  He bought it completely.  I’m tellin’ you, Dez; you should have seen him.  Almost immediately a ton of barriers came tumbling down.”

“The CIA hates to have dirty laundry lying about.  With them, everything either needs to be in the washing machine or in the hamper.”

“Well, you certainly pushed the right buttons,” I complimented her. “Great plan!”

“Thanks.”  Dez got up to get us sodas. “Root beer, orange or Coke?” she asked.

“How about a root beer without the root?”

“I can do that,” she said and handed me a bottle of Miller Light.  “What about Walter?” Dez jumped ahead.  I actually wanted to brag a bit more about my office antics and how I had Mister Blackman really squirming in his seat.

“Kirk assured me that Walter is fine.  He has broken protocol so many times and in so many ways that they now have him on a much tighter leash.  Apparently, they gave him a lot of rope when he first went under, and he was getting close to hanging himself so they reeled him in.”

“Where is he?” Dez queried.

“He said that that was classified.  But he guaranteed Walter was fat and sassy and living quite well.”

Dez looked pensive and had a far away expression in her eyes.

“I asked Kirk if I could write to Walter.  He said fine as long as I send it through him.”

“Well, that’s something,” Dez exclaimed. “If he said that, you really did get through to him.  To my knowledge, usually there’s no contact at all in cases like this.”

I tried not to beam but I’m sure Desiree could tell I was proud of myself.

“And what about the group?”

“Yeah, the group,” I repeated.  I was actually going over Dez and my situation in my mind.  That was going to be a real doozey!

“Kirk was a little evasive there,” I answered. “Well, not evasive really – more like, vague.  He told me that I didn’t need to concern myself with the group.  I told him that I was concerning myself with the group and I told him the nuts and bolts about Walter’s letter.”

I paused trying to remember just how Kirk had put everything to me.

“It turns out, I’m pretty sure, that Koop really did die from a heart attack.  And Mo’s mysterious, deadly flu was also true.  However, by how he stated certain things – actually by not specifically naming anyone else in our group, Kirk lead me to the belief that everyone else – Benny, Bob-O and his wife, all of them – they were all okay, unharmed.  Bob-O and his wife didn’t die in a crash.  I think it was staged.  And Benny chose to go into seclusion.  After high school and college he really became a real loner as it was. I can’t remember exactly how Kirk put it, but I felt satisfied that they were all living comfortably somewhere and that they were happy.”  I paused for a beer break.             “Like I said, he was very vague, no details.  He kept telling me ‘I can’t go there, MT.’ – but then he seemed to lead me to where I could sort of figure out for myself that they were all okay . . . I think . . . Well, I’m pretty sure.  I don’t know, Dez, it was weird.”

“Typical CIA,” Dez spouted – “They say things without really saying things.”

“I do know one thing,” I interjected. “In the middle of discussing the group with Kirk I suddenly realized that I had been looking at a portion of Walter’s letter bass-ack-wards.”

“What do you mean?” Dez asked.

“Well, you’re not going to believe this – You know how I was freakin’ out because of the two names that were underlined?  It turns out they were underlined because they had truly died, not because they had anything to do with the CIA or Walter’s pills.”  (Duh!)

Dez’s eyes widened – “Oh . . .”

Then Desiree suddenly asked me – “Did you say anything about Ray?”

“Oh, yeah – I told him, now let’s take a hypothetical situation.  Say a guy decides to move to Canada or Mexico for good, basically lives there for the rest of his days – How much interest would the CIA have in him then?  Kirk said – ‘Hardly any’ –”

“So you basically told him about Ray without telling him about Ray.  Well done!”

I looked at Dez a little puzzled.

“MT, you did the same thing the CIA did to you!  Maybe you are CIA material after all.”

I took a long swig from my third bottle of beer.  Dez rose from the table and, running her fingers through my hair, she suggested – “Let’s order a pizza.”

“Sure,” I said, “I’m easy.”  I actually was getting hungry and because I was so hyped up, I had the beginnings of a beer-buzz.  But my stomach was also churning for another reason.  A part of me felt very uncomfortable.  We were still skirting around the biggest issues – Dez and me.

I basically waited until the pizza came and we had eaten before I took on the equation of where all this left Desiree and me.  And, a funny thing – I could tell that Dez was also dodging those inevitable possibilities and answers.  It really was as if both of us were walking barefoot around broken glass.

I watched her as she rinsed some dishes in her sink and watered a few of her houseplants.  She really looked great.  She was wearing a long, plain white T-shirt and faded old sweats and she still looked great to me.

I know that Desiree noticed that I was staring at her and I couldn’t resist telling her – “You really look great, Dez.”

“What?  I’m in my frump-mode!”

“You still look great,” I insisted.

“Tell the beer I said thanks.” She gave me another cold one.

“It’s not the beer.”

Then Dez asked me to tell her more specifics about my initial encounter with Kirk.

“Oh, it was great!” I beamed like a spotlight. “Mrs. Henderson wasn’t there so I finagled my way into Kirk’s office and waited for him there.  Boy, you should have seen his face when he saw me like this!”

“Yeah, thirty years in reverse can do that to a person,” Dez threw out.

I actually got to brag in a bit more detail about my meeting with Gumby as we scarfed down sausage and mushroom pizza and drank more beer.

Eventually, after we were stuffed with pizza and beer, Desiree was the one who actually eased into our situation.

“Hey, M—, did you happen to bring up the three agents?”

“Oh, yeah, as a matter of fact, I did.  Kirk said that wasn’t his department but that he’d make a couple of calls.  He seemed to think that would take care of it.  He said to give him a few days.” I shrugged.  “So, the dogs are called off . . . I think.”

“What about you, MT?  Are you going to be all right?”  Okay, now we weren’t going to dodge around anymore.  I answered carefully—

“Well, that depends, Dez.”

“I don’t understand, depends on what?”

“It’s not so much a me thing.”

Desiree still appeared perplexed.

“It’s more of an us thing,” I said delicately.

“What do you mean?”

We held each other’s stares for more than a moment.  I searched her clear, soft eyes.

“I’m not sure where to start,” I said quietly.

“Usually the beginning is a good place,” Dez began – “But, you could start in the middle if you want to or at the end and tell me in flashbacks. You’ve read enough books, seen enough movies.”

Dez’s voice trailed off but she smiled playfully and I have to say, she really caught me off guard.  I smiled back and suddenly felt more at ease.

“Well, basically, we’d be talking about quite a big change.”

Dez commented, “Someone once told me –change is the only constant.”

“Hey, I had a professor who used to say that!”

Dez simply glared at me until it hit home.

“Oh . . .” I finally got that that someone was me.  (Duh!)

“Go on, MT.”

So, we sat there, without interruption, and I explained everything that Kirk had suggested.  I covered everything he felt he could do to alleviate our current situation.

“Here’s Kirk’s essential offer.” I talked evenly, very deliberate.  The manner in which I told Desiree what Kirk felt he could do for us was threefold – One, how he could help me – Two, how he could help Dez, and Three, what he thought he could do for both of us together.  He had actually presented me with quite a variety of options.

The longer I spoke the quieter it grew and the more serious the expression on Desiree’s face became.

After laying all of the cards on the table, and all face up, at that, I chanced a look at Desiree.  She hadn’t moved or changed expression for quite some time.  I continued to stare at her.  She stared back.  (Statue Desiree.)  The quiet became deafening.  For the first time since I’d known Dez, I could not get an accurate read on her.  Finally, I said softly –

“Someone once told me that change is the only constant.”

Dez looked away, then down at her hands and then back to me –

“Yes, but MT, this is a tremendous amount of constant to sift through.”

It was silent again.  I really didn’t know what else to say.  However, thank the gods for small favors, Desiree soon broke the silence and the heavy mood.

“You did a great job today, MT.  But, now, I need a break.  Let’s watch a little TV,” she suggested.  “There’s no reason why we should have to deal with all of this in one night.  In fact, if we take our time I’m certain a lot of it will simply fall into its proper place.”

I wasn’t sure if she was right but I had learned that Desiree was an expert at switching gears and a master at weighing the unknown, the future.  So, we relaxed together on her couch and watched an old movie –“The Pride of the Yankees” the Lou Gehrig story, which was a reel classic.

When the movie ended I got up to go into the kitchen –

“Where’re you going?” asked a much more relaxed Desiree.

“Just getting some water.  It’s time to take my pill,” I answered.

“Hold on a minute, MT.” Dez pushed herself up from the sofa and met me near the kitchen.  She looked at me.

“What?”

“Don’t take your pill tonight.”

“Why not?” I asked.  She looked me full on, in the eyes.  It was a steady, unwavering stare.

“Oh . . .” I suddenly thought I may have understood. “Really?”

“No, don’t take it.”

We returned to the couch and cuddled.  We watched the news together and then switched back and forth between David Letterman and Jay Leno.

“MT, for goodness sake, leave it on one station or the other.  Arrgghh! Give me that remote!  Men!”

As we watched, and after Dez had secured the remote, my mind wandered.  I was trying to figure out why Desiree didn’t want me to be Phillip anymore.  I finally assumed that she needed to see and talk to me – MT . . . Me – Michael Thomas.

Then, at some point during one of the late night variety shows, the effects of my pill must have worn off.  I felt Desiree staring at me.  Suddenly, she stood up and said—

“It’s time for bed, MT.”

My head was a bit fuzzy.  “Okay.  Good night, Dez.” I started to stretch out on the sofa.

Then Desiree spoke very softly – “No couch tonight, M—” And she took my hands and helped me to my feet.  With literally no talking at all she slid her hands under my shirt and around my waist and gave me a deep and wonderful kiss and hug.

I kissed her back a little bit harder . . . and we went to bed. . . together.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

The next morning we were up and about early, as we both had some follow-up work to do and a joint meeting with Kirk Blackman before he left Los Angeles.

Desiree had whipped up some scrambled eggs with bits of green onion in them, lots of bacon and slices of wheat toast.  We sat, leisurely eating our breakfasts, talking quietly about the upcoming day.

Then Dez reminded me – “Don’t forget to take your pill.  You still need to be Phillip –for, oh probably, a few more days at least.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I said and started to get up to go get the pills out of my jacket pocket.  However, I was so relaxed, with my breakfast, orange juice and freshly brewed (strong) black coffee, that I changed my mind.  “I’ll take it after breakfast,” I told Dez.

“Just leave yourself enough time,” she advised.

Next, Desiree re-directed the conversation – “Kirk’s option offers are all very do-able.  I’m just not sure, M—”

“Not sure about what?”

“I’m not sure about such a huge change. For instance, I don’t know if I can leave teaching so early, for one thing.  And what about our retirements, for another?”

“I don’t know.” Then, I thought for a moment. “Couldn’t we do the same thing Ray’s doing?  You know, take them out and invest them?”

Desiree stared at me and then, right through me.  Finally, she answered—“It might be too soon.  Don’t take this wrong, MT, but – do we invest in one or two homes?”

“Oh . . .” was all I could manage.  I was simply on a faster track than the train carrying Desiree.

“Well, first things first,” Dez said in a more upbeat tone. “We will deal with today first and tomorrow tomorrow.”

I grinned – “So many tomorrows.”

Desiree merely shrugged and gave a quick smile back.

Then, as I sat there, finishing up with breakfast – I was ending on another slice of bacon and a triangle of toast – Dez poured more coffee.

Quite suddenly, there was a crisp knock at the front door.  With the coffeepot still in hand, Desiree automatically answered it.  That was probably the only time I had ever seen Dez let her guard down.

I don’t know who she was expecting, if anyone, but I know she wasn’t expecting the three dark suits.  All three of the goons burst through the door with their guns drawn!

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 36:  No Flowers and Mounds of Cruddy Dirt

            In a whirlwind of action and surprised confusion Desiree dropped the coffeepot.  One of the Agents fired one shot down at the floor and we both hit the deck!

In my peripheral vision I saw that Dez was lying face down on her stomach with her hands clasped behind her head.  So I automatically assumed the same position.

Then, in the confusion that followed, I heard two of the goons arguing about the gun-shot mixed in with Desiree’s desperate attempts to try and reason with Jerry, who I took to be in charge.

“What the hell you shootin’ at, Monroe?  Someone oughta whack off that itchy trigger finger!”

“Jerry, listen to me,” Dez reasoned.  “We are not armed.  And everything’s over.  It’s all cleared up.  I know it’s early but just let me try to call the office.”

However, it seemed that Dez’s words were falling on deaf ears.  The dark suits, two of them still wearing sunglasses, (Come on, now!), roughly got us to our feet and patted us down.

“I told you – we’re clean,” Dez repeated.

Then, with rapid motions and short, static quips, Jerry had us move to the couch where he sat us down, forcefully—

“Hands behind your heads.  Now!” he barked. “And no talking.”  He looked at me. “Where are the capsules, the pills?”

I looked to Desiree—

“Hey, don’t look at her!  I’m talkin’ to you, here!  I’m not going to ask you again. Where are the fucking pills?”

I started to get up.  Jerry pushed me back down with one of his polished black shoes. “Just tell me,” he ordered. “I can get them for myself.”

“They’re in my jacket pocket.” I indicated my jacket thrown over one of Desiree’s living room chairs.

Jerry snapped his fingers and swiftly waved a hand.  One of the other goons dug them from my jacket pocket. “Got ‘em,” he announced.

“Good.  Fine.” Jerry now returned his attention to the both of us. “Now, sit nice and no talking.”

He was definitely an asshole.  They all were.

“Jerry, just let me make a call,” Desiree tried again. “Or you can make it—”

“Shut up, Garner!” He said it very nastily.  Then added – “Whatever happened to— ‘I’ll call you if I see him?’  You can’t be trusted.”

“That’s not true!” Desiree shouted – “This whole thing is over!  If you won’t let me do it, you call downtown.  Call your goddamn superiors!”

She had said this with such force and emotion everything that was whirling in my brain seemed to slow down to an abrupt stop.  For an abnormally long moment it was extremely silent.

Then, without saying a word, Jerry took out his cell phone and punched some numbers.  He turned away from us and walked towards the kitchen.  I could only catch a word here and a phrase there, as he mumbled quietly – “Desiree Garner’s . . . Both of them . . . No, no weapons . . . I’ll check . . . The capsules, yeah . . .”

Suddenly, during this pause, there was time for terror and fear to strike my body.  And it did!  I tried not to shake visibly as I turned to look at Desiree.  When she finally looked my way I said off-handedly –

“Kirk’s a little slow.  They obviously haven’t called off the dogs.”

Then, everything happened so fast.  The next thing I knew I thought I heard Dez say “Shhh” and I immediately felt a tremendously sharp pain on the right side of my head.  I doubled up in agony as I reached for my head with both hands.

“Shit!  Goddamn it!” I swore and crumpled to the floor, my body involuntarily curling up.  I held my head and tried not to blackout.  Wait!  One of my hands was wet and red but I couldn’t quite focus.  Everything was swirling and growing dim.

I heard Dez shouting – “Jesus, Monroe, what the hell!  You didn’t have to do that!”

And then, I think I felt her at my side and holding my head up.  But that and the stabbing pain were the last things I recalled before the darkness overwhelmed me.

Black . . .

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

When I came to, I was sitting, slumped, next to Desiree in the back seat of a car.  Everything was very far away at first.  I heard someone groaning and then, as things became clearer, I realized it was me doing the groaning.  I tried to stop.

The three goons were also in the car, two in the front and one in the back, the one in back with a gun in his lap, and still strategically pointed at us.

“Jesus Christ!” I thought – “This can’t be happening!  I’m just a friggin’ teacher.”

“Shhh . . .” I was pretty sure that came from Dez.

All of a sudden, while I was focusing on Desiree’s hands and arm I saw blood on them. “Jesus, Dez, you’re bleeding!” I exclaimed and I tried to reach for her wrist.

“Shhh – Stay still, M—.  It’s okay.” Then she delicately wrapped what looked like a torn piece of cloth, around my head.  The throbbing pain was still there but it had dulled somewhat.

After awhile I came to realize that the blood was from me, from my head.  And things began to clear and come into focus more quickly.  Back in Dez’s apartment one of the dark suits, the electrician, had obviously pistol-whipped me right across the forehead for saying something he didn’t like – dogs.  The asshole – the fuckin’ asshole, prick!  I thought about saying it out loud but I already hurt too much.  I tried to glare at him but I couldn’t even do that.

Slowly, I forced myself to glance at Dez, and then out the closed car window.  I couldn’t tell where we were, but by the broken down buildings and threadbare houses, I quickly gathered that we weren’t in the best part of anytown, USA.

Looking back to Dez I tried to whisper to her – “The phone call?” was all I could manage to get out.  My tongue felt swollen and filled up the inside of my mouth.  I realized that the right side of my jaw was also screaming in pain and my teeth ached horribly.

Again, I looked to Dez, who shook her head sideways and put a finger to her lips, indicating “Shhh.”

For the remainder of the ride, which I don’t think was very long; I just sat there in a miserable, painful stupor.

Then, quite abruptly, the light colored sedan turned and pulled to a rude stop in the driveway of a shabby, half-painted, broken-down house.  (Truly a fixer-upper!)

As the three dogs forced us out of the car and walked us to the front door, even in my condition, I couldn’t help but notice the front yard.  There were absolutely no flowers and nothing but mounds of cruddy dirt.  (Beyond a fixer-upper!)

And then we were inside a stark, dimly lit house.  Very swiftly and efficiently, Desiree and I were moved to and locked in a small bedroom.  At least I think it was a bedroom.  There was actually no bed, just a table and four folding chairs.

As we were being locked in I heard Desiree trying to reason with one of the goons. “Listen, Monroe, just tell Jerry to call Kirk Blackman or let me call him, before you guys turn this into even a much bigger mistake.”

The final part of her plea was muttered and tailed off as Monroe had already shut and locked the door on her.  Desiree, uncharacteristically, slapped hard at the door and shouted – “That’s Blackman, Kirk Blackman!” There was no mistaking the anger in her voice and her flashing eyes and tightly drawn face.

“Dez, where are we?” I asked softly.  I had taken a seat in one of the metal folding chairs but Dez prowled around like a caged animal.

“Somewhere in Watts,” I think. “We could be in East Carson or Dominguez.  I lost track.” Then, she studied me. “Are you okay, M—?”

“I’m not going to lie to you, Dez,” I answered. “It hurts.  It hurts like hell!”

“I know, that jerk, son-of-a-bitch, Monroe.  He took out a couple months of frustration on you!”

She came over and checked my makeshift bandages. “I had to tear up your Ace of Spades T-shirt . . . Sorry.”

“That’s okay. It always brings me luck.” I tried to smirk.

“That’s good – it looks like the bleeding’s stopped but you probably have a concussion.” She was finished inspecting.

It was quiet for a minute and then Dez pulled up a chair and sat across from me.  She held both of my hands in hers.

“It’s going to be okay, MT.  We just need to hook Jerry up with Blackman.  Jerry’s a jerk but he can be reasonable.  He’s proud – doesn’t like to make mistakes.  But, I don’t think he’ll do anything rash.  You just pissed them off since they couldn’t find you for so long.”

Desiree was attempting to soften the blows for me.

“It’s okay, Dez, you don’t need to do this.  I’m a big boy.  I’m just obviously not a super hero.” (Where are Superman and Spiderman when you really need them?) (And, hello – we could also use the Incredible Hulk right about now!)

“Jesus, MT, nobody expects you to be a super hero.”

“I thought we were home free.”

“Me too.  And, we are.  We will be.  I’ll get Jerry to contact Kirk if it kills me!”

“That would sort of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”

Dez stopped.  She looked at me funny.  Then we both tried to smile.

“Ow!  Sweet Jesus, that hurt!”  Man, I couldn’t even find a little levity without pain.

“You need to keep as still as possible,” Dez advised – “It is probably a concussion.”

Then I asked Desiree – “Hey, Dez, what is this place?”

She shifted in her seat and paused before answering me. “It’s called a holding-house.  The CIA buys a bunch of these run-down places in run-down areas all over the country.” She paused again, appeared as if she wanted to say more, but stopped herself.

“Go on,” I urged.

“Well, to put it simply, this is the last stop in the Witness Protection and Relocation Program, the last stop before elimination.”

“Before elimination?”

“Yes,” she continued. “This is where you are held until the final decision is made.” Then, before I could ask, she answered my next question – “The decision can range anywhere from radical surgery and relocation to freedom to—” she paused . . . “execution.” She said it so softly.

We sat silent for a moment. Dez was thinking.  I was stunned.

“We need to contact Kirk.” I tried to stand up but my head was pulsating and swimming.  I fell back into the chair.

“Just sit still,” Dez ordered. “I know these guys.  I’ll take care of this.” She was firm and obviously filled with resolve.

(Wonder Woman!)

“M—, I’m going to try something.  You just sit tight, all right?”

“Like I’m gonna go anywhere.”

“Just – no heroics.  This is real . . . Promise me.”

“Okay,” I said and lowered my aching head into my hands. “Ow!”  Jeez—Us!  I couldn’t even touch my head due to the constant, throbbing pain!

The next thing I knew, Desiree was pounding hard on the door and calling loudly for Monroe—

“Come on, Monroe!  I’ve got to use the Goddamn bathroom!  For Christ’s sake, be decent about this, will ya?  It’s just the bathroom!” Desiree continued shouting and reasoning – “Monroe, come on – open up!  I really gotta go!  It’s the bathroom; it’s not like the airport!  Where am I gonna go?  Damn it, Monroe! Open this door!  So help me God—”

There was a click and the door opened ever so slightly.  I watched as Desiree pushed the door open very slowly, very cautiously, then she said something to Monroe and whoosh, very quickly, the door was closed and locked again.

She did it!  She was out!  All right, Dez!

I waited . . . and waited.  Actually, for the first few minutes I was okay.  Then, the longer Desiree was gone the more panic began to set in.  It was all now very quiet.

“Oh, my God!  What if they took her someplace else?  Or, did something to her?” I thought to myself.  Soon, more thoughts whipped through my throbbing head – “Oh, Jesus!  No!  They wouldn’t hurt her would they?  God, would they torture her?  No, what could they gain by that?  I already gave them the pills!  I mean, she’s their colleague for Christ’s sake!  But, she was a colleague who betrayed them . . . for me!  Oh, my God, no!”

My pulse must have been racing at over two hundred and I was sweating profusely.  In fact, I had really worked myself into a lather when, quite unexpectedly, the door clicked twice, then flew all the way open.  Instinct hit me and I dived for the floor, covering my battered head.  I think I almost blacked out again from the dizziness and the pain.

The room swirled but there was nothing, no gunshots or other terrifying sounds.  I lay there, trembling and throbbing.  Suddenly, yet very gently, Desiree was at my side –

“What?  What did she say?” Nothing was registering.  And I couldn’t shake my pulsating head to clear the cobwebs.

“Michael – look at me!  Look at me now!” I heard Dez order me.  But she seemed so far away.  Then we made eye contact and held it.  Now, she wasn’t so far away anymore.

“It’s over, MT.  We got through to Kirk and their superiors.  It’s over.  They’re gone.”

Still quivering, I’m pretty certain that I collapsed into Desiree’s arms.  And all I could think to say was – “They’re gone?”

“Yes.  It’s over.  They’re gone,” Dez answered forcefully, “When they’re called off, the dogs don’t stay any longer than they have to.”

“But, how’re we gonna get home?” I asked.

Dez laughed and I think her laughter truly helped solidify that this terror was, indeed, over.

Still chuckling, she said – “Hang in there, MT, I’ve already called for a cab.”

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(XVII) PROJECT F.O.Y. — CH 34 — 9/08/12

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 34:  Just a Little Visit

            In point of fact, we switched gears the very next night.  Desiree and I worked out the logistics of our new plan on Friday at “TGI – Fridays.”

It was crowded, as usual, as I strolled up the walkway to greet her at about 6:30 p.m.  Immediately, I saw the look of surprise in Dez’s eyes.  She was definitely caught off guard.

“You were expecting someone a tad younger?” I teased.  I obviously had not taken my little blue, Walter-pill.

“Actually, I was just noticing how well you age,” she countered.

“Just like a fine wine.”

“Don’t let this go to your head, but you’re actually not too bad looking for an old guy.” She smiled tauntingly.

“It’s all lighting,” I said and struck a pose for effect.

That night we downed two bottles of wine.  And, this time, Desiree actually kept up with me.  However, we also worked.  We devised and revised what we thought was a brilliant new plan of action.  If it worked we were almost certain to find Walter Young and also possibly discover the fate of the rest of the group.

Then, as we neared completion of our plan, Dez suddenly turned and scanned the restaurant –

“Just making sure no one is eavesdropping,” she explained.

“I’m used to it.  Boy, I don’t know who’s more paranoid, you or me—”

“You are,” she said firmly.  And then she broke into a pleasant smile. “I’m just careful.”

As the weekend unfolded it unfolded ever so slowly.  It truly seemed to just be crawling by.  Desiree explained that she needed some downtime, alone, for herself and also she grumbled that she had a million papers stacked up, ready to grade.

So, we decided that it would be best not to see each other again until Sunday night when Phillip would show up and get to sleep on her comfortable sofa again.

Crawl, crawl, crawl . . .

On the weekend I searched for ways to while away the time.  I went swimming in the motel pool, loafed in the Jacuzzi and walked all around.  I hiked to the Esplanade and the Riviera Village and actually took a long stroll up and down a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway.

Window-shopping did help pass some of the hours but, without papers to grade or lesson plans to develop, I was ultimately left with plenty of slow-moving, excess time.  Wow!  It was truly amazing how much time I had.  For awhile, as I washed my car and then watered both the front and back yards, all that extra time that I now had actually allowed me to take pause.  For once, I think I fully appreciated how hard teachers truly worked and how many outside hours became an expected, unheralded (and unpaid for!) part of the job.

Sunday night took its sweet time but it finally rolled in.  I took my pill, waited around for fifteen minutes or so, then hurried over to Desiree’s.  Once there and settled in, I told her how pumped I was about our new plan.

“Why hadn’t we thought of it earlier?” I wondered aloud.

Dez replied – “I think we had to go through everything we’ve gone through this past month in order to arrive at this point.”

“I suppose.”

She eyed me and scrunched up her face.

“Finally,” I said, “This time I’m excited to go into the CIA offices again.”

Dez just shook her head and scrunched up her face once more.  Oh, and, of course, she rolled her eyes at me.

All day on Monday, no matter how hard or in how many ways I tried, I could not seem to get an appointment with Kirk Blackman.  It quickly became fairly obvious that Gumby was far too busy for the little guy.

Every secretary I approached would tell me – a) he’s out of town, b) he’s out of the office, gone for the day, c) he’s not making anymore appointments this month, he’s booked solid, I can fit you in next month, or d) he is just plain ol’ too damn busy!

And then, of course, there were those secretaries who stared blankly at me and asked – “Who’s Kirk Blackman?” (Some big shot.  The right hand and the left hand again.  Hmph!)

However, one secretary in particular, a Mrs. Betty Henderson, who seemed to really be the only one “in-the-know” – explained to me that “Mr. Blackman is based in Washington DC and New York most of the time.  Los Angeles is just a peripheral stop for him.”

I wondered just what would happen if I tried to garner an appointment using my real name instead of ace UCLA cub reporter, Phillip Widlyfe.  Then would Kirk squeeze in some time for me?  Could he afford a minute or two for an old high school buddy?

Shortly, merely by nosing around, I discovered that Betty Henderson, who advised me that Kirk Blackman was not based in LA, was right on the mark.  It seems that he took conference calls fairly regularly, plus he came to Los Angeles now and then, but for the most part, Kirk worked on the other side of my world.

So, I figured my next order of business had to be to try and hunt Kirk down, to learn his current whereabouts.  Additionally, besides determining where he was now, I needed to ascertain where his plans took him over the next couple of weeks.

I’d love to say I performed an ultra-superior job of undercover work to uncover Kirk’s whereabouts and his LA plans but, in truth, I actually stumbled upon all that by pure accident.

Late on Monday afternoon I returned to the knowledgeable Mrs. Henderson to see if I could slyly pump more info from her.

Of all things, she was not in her outer office.  And, of all other things, her appointment book was just sitting there on the closer end of her desk.  And, check this out – it was facing me!  The office was empty, no one around, and the book was just sitting right there!

“This is too easy,” I thought.  It was so easy I felt like maybe I was being set up. (Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!)

I furtively glanced around a few times.  Then I casually, but ever so carefully, flipped the page over to Tuesday.  I looked around again.  At any minute I was expecting an alarm to blare out!  But nothing happened – still an empty office.  And then came the mother lode!  There, in somewhat large but neat printing, was written—

            “Mr. B arrives – 11:00 a.m.  (Leaves Thurs. – sched. Flite)”

Under that was scrawled in pen –

            “Reservations:  Sushi place for lunch – 12:30.”

After stealing another look around, I returned the page to Monday and moved myself to the other edge of the desk.  Precisely at that moment, Betty Henderson, the oh, so knowledgeable secretary, returned from the inner office, which I presumed was Kirk’s.  I had to presume that since the door was angled partially open and I could not see a name plaque.

“No word yet,” Mrs. Henderson called out to me as soon as she saw me.

“’Just thought I’d check on it before I left.  The persistent worm gets the dirt, so I hear,” I said flippantly.

Betty stopped what she was doing and lowered her glasses at me.  I smiled.

“And sometimes they become bait or a meal,” she countered as she grabbed the appointment book and moved it behind her computer.  “Again, I’ll tell you Mr. –?”

“Widlyfe – Phillip Widlyfe, from UCLA,” I hurriedly repeated to her.

“Well, Mr. Widlyfe, from UCLA, Mr. Blackman is a very busy man, especially when he is down here in LA.  You just might do better with a phone call,” she suggested.

I thanked her and told her I would check tomorrow and maybe try the phone call method at that time.  Then I left.

Later, I discussed with Desiree how much trouble I had had dealing with phase one of our plan –

“Hell, it isn’t even phase one!” I complained, “It’s pre-phase one!”

Dez just looked at me funny.  She thought for a moment and then said –

“Maybe we’re going about this all wrong, MT.”

“Yeah?  How so?”

“Well, maybe I need to make the meeting with Mr. Blackman,” she suggested.

“Why you?  You said that Kirk doesn’t really know you.  It’s me he knows.”

“Actually, he doesn’t know you . . . Phillip. – The way you look he hasn’t known you for thirty some odd years.”  She paused to let that last part sink in.

“Oh, hmm . . . yeah.”

“And he does know me, not well, but we did talk cordially for a bit in a couple of agency meetings.”  Then Dez hooked me with that look, those twinkling eyes of hers and a slight smile that played at her lips—

I’ll make the appointment,” she disclosed, “But, you will keep it.”

“Huh?” At first I was somewhat confounded.  Then— “Oh, I get it.” (Duh!)  “Boy, am I CIA material or what?” I thought to myself.

“Hardly!” Dez cried.

“Hey, that last part was supposed to be to myself!”

“Man, MT, you really need to get a grip.”

I actually thought Dez was serious until she cracked a flashy, beguiling smile.  I thought I was actually going to faint when she grabbed my butt cheek as she passed by.

“Just checking,” she called back.

Me?  I was dumbfounded and speechless.

All day Tuesday I was on edge.  I know I drank too much coffee but that really wasn’t it.  I wondered if Desiree had more luck than I did concerning that illusive appointment.

After lunch I found myself merely flipping pages of files and reports and not even reading any of them at all.  “Not good,” I finally told myself.  And I did the only sensible thing.  I packed up and headed for home.

Because I left the Secret Service and CIA offices early I still had time to kill before my designated meeting with Desiree at the “2nd Street Café” in Hermosa Beach.  So, for the most part, I just walked up and down The Strand, splitting my time looking at the ocean to my west and checking out all of the fancy-schmancy, multi-million dollar ocean front homes to the east.

Eventually I dropped into a small bar on Pier Avenue and had one drink, a whiskey sour – and then I worked my way to the cafe.  When I got there I was still too early so I ordered a cold beer and sat outside, in their quiet patio section, to await Dez’s arrival.

Of course, of all times, Desiree chose this particular Tuesday evening to be late.  And, of course, my mind began to create scenarios where she was detained by the dark suits or the agency had caught on to us and they reeled her in.  “I could be sitting out here all night.” Then I imagined that I saw Dez trying to speed away from her CIA pursuers and she bashed into the cement guard railing on the freeway and . . .

I was in the middle of lovely thoughts such as these when Desiree suddenly appeared at my side.

“Hey there, sailor, you got room for two there?”

I didn’t say anything at first.  I just stared at my wristwatch and tapped at it lightly with my index finger.  She just ignored me.  In fact, this time, for once, the tables were turned – Dez could hardly contain her excitement.

“We got it!” she blurted out before she even sat down.

“Way to go, sailor!” I held up a hand to high five.

“No, you’re the sailor, silly.” She slapped at my hand anyway.

“Whatever.  What’s the low-down?”

It turned out that Dez was able to procure an appointment with Kirk at 1:00 p.m. Wednesday, the very next day.

“He has an important, can’t miss meeting at one-thirty, so his secretary, Mrs. Henderson, said we have roughly fifteen minutes right after lunch.”

“Wow, that’s great!”

“So, don’t be late, M—,”

“Jeez, Dez, if anything, I’ll be there early.”

Then Desiree moved on – “Okay, let’s firm up and polish what you’re going to say—”

Then she interrupted her own train of thought – “Oh, by the way, the appointment is under the name Dez Garner.”

“Okay, sounds good.”

And we sat together, hunched over the table, and drank beer, rehearsing and refining phase two of our plan.  Eventually, oh, I’d say three to four beers later, we felt pretty darn good about everything so we ordered dinner.  We were so relaxed we never went inside.  We just lounged and ate peacefully on their quasi-heated outdoor patio.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

On Wednesday at 12:45 p.m. I stood in the corridor outside of Kirk Blackman’s office.  I peeked in at the secretary.  Surprise!  It was not Mrs. Henderson.  It was a much younger woman.

I waited a few minutes, tried taking some deep rhythmic breaths, and then said, “Screw it!”  I entered the office early for Dez Garner’s appointment.

“Can I help you?” the young secretary, Miss Arnold, inquired politely.

“I’m a little early,” I said. “I have a one-o’clock with Mr. Blackman.”

“Oh?” She looked a bit perplexed, then apologized – “I’m sorry, Mr. Blackman is seeing a Miss Garner at one o’clock.”

“I’m Dez Garner,” I lied.

“Oh, oh, my gosh!  I’m so sorry sir.  It looked like a Miss written here in the book.”  She flustered easily.  That was good.

“No problem,” I told her. “I get it all the time.”

“Mr. Blackman has not yet returned from lunch, sir.  He should be here momentarily.” She paused and then stopped what she was doing to look up—“Dez is an unusual name for a man, is it not?”

“Oh, it’s short for Desert,” I cracked. “My parents had a very dry sense of humor when it came to names.  All except for my brother, River.  He’s all wet, anyway.”

“That’s nice.”

(WHOOSH!)

That’s nice?  Hello?  Nice to meet you, too Miss Arnold.  And then I couldn’t resist—

“You see the irony here?” I tried to point out – “Dez sounds like a female name and I’m a guy.  And you – you are definitely a woman yet Arnold is most definitely a male name. You know, like Arnold Schwarzenegger?”

“Hmm . . . um . . . yes.”

“Oh, well,” I thought to myself – “Now is as good a time as any to make my move, while she’s working on irony!”  I watched as she separated file reports into different stacks.  I could feel her discomfort.  I decided to terminate this situation.

“Excuse me, Miss Arnold, do you mind if I just wait for Mr. Blackman in there?” I pointed to his inner office.  “It might be best and I’m certain Kirk, um – Mr. Blackman, wouldn’t mind.”

“Well . . . uh . . . I’m not sure . . . I’m just here temporarily . . . I – ”

“It’s fine, Miss Arnold.  I’m used to it.  I’ll just see myself in.” I moved closer to the doorway.  “Betty, er – Mrs. Henderson has me wait in his office all the time whenever I’m early.  Thank you,” I said as I maneuvered my way into Kirk’s office and partially closed the door.

I heard Miss Arnold ramble on – “Well, I suppose so.” And  “I guess it can’t hurt any.” Or words to that effect as I strolled around Kirk’s sparsely decorated desk.

It was a large dark-stained, wooden desk with a minimum of frills.  There was a fancy telephone with speaker box, a plain notepad, a calendar, an old-fashioned Rolodex and a small 5×7, framed photo of Kirk with his wife and two kids.

To the far side was another smaller desk, which made up his computer station.  In addition to the computer, there was a laser printer; a couple of speakers, a scanner, and what looked like a shredder – all perfectly aligned.

The light cream-colored walls were also sparsely adorned.  There was the usual, and now common to me, CIA logo plus a picture of the President of the United States right near it.  There were also a few plaques in a cluster that held some of Gumby’s certificates and degrees.  And that was it.

My guess was that since this was an auxiliary office for Kirk, he didn’t give it too much attention.  Eventually, after a cursory inspection of the wall decor, I sat down in one of two dark, high-backed chairs that faced Kirk’s desk and simply waited.

I went over the plan again in my head.  I felt unusually calm, yet excited at the same time.  I’m not really sure how to explain that feeling except to say that it’s a lot like the feeling a batter gets when he is going up to the plate and somehow he just knows he can hit that pitcher.

I really didn’t have to wait very long for Kirk to arrive.  Soon, I heard his voice in the outer office as he tried to calm down a somewhat rattled and flustered Miss Arnold—

“So, he’s in there waiting, right now Mr. Blackman.  I’m so sorry.  I do hope that’s all right.”

“Not a problem, Miss Arnold.  I’ll take the appointment right now.  Please hold my calls until you hear from me.  Thank you.”

And then, the next thing I knew, Kirk was in his office and closing his door.  My back was still to him as he ambled in and I did not move or turn the chair at all.

“Okay, I don’t have much time, here, so tell me quickly – how can I help you?” Kirk asked as he moved into my field of vision.  I leaned back and crossed my legs for effect, and then said –

“Hi ya, Gumby!  How’s it hangin’?”

Well, whatever reaction I wanted or was hoping for, Kirk exceeded my expectations.  He turned as white as a sheet and had to use his desk to support himself—

“Wha-?  Who?  MT?  No—” Kirk wrestled for words.

Then, suddenly I could see the blanks filling in as he quickly put two and three together to equal twenty-one-ish!  I decided that I needed to hit him fast.  The less time he had to process and the more I gave him to chew on the better.

I jumped up and slammed down the large amber pill bottle that Walter had given me in the center of his desk.

“I didn’t get to talk with you that much at our re-union a few months back, Kirk.  But, I did spend quite a bit of time with Walter.”  I slid the bottle closer towards him.

“MT, what do you want?  You’re in dangerous territory.” Kirk was able to re-establish his thought process and was becoming cohesive.

“In fact,” I went on, “Walter was nice enough to give me those.” I pushed the bottle even closer to him.  “But you already know that, don’t you?”

“MT?”

“What do I want, you ask?  Well, I want to know the whole story, Kirk.  I want to know where Walter is and what the hell is happening to everyone in our group – Mo and Benny and Bob-O for starters!”  I tried my best to speak evenly and firmly.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about—”

“Don’t give me that crap, Mister Blackman!  I want all of the cards on the table now!  (Not so evenly, but still firm!)

“MT, I don’t know how deeply you are embroiled in this, but you are touching on matters of National Security—”

“Screw National Security!”

“That’s easy for you to sit there and say.  MT, listen to me, you are a high school teacher, a civilian.  You are in so far over your head you can’t even imagine.”

“No, I probably can’t.  So, tell me.”

“Look M—, you are on the outside looking in and I’m on the inside looking both outside and inside.  The scope of this program is huge.  The ramifications are deadly.  So, as of now, I want you to consider this meeting over and I’d like you to leave quickly and quietly.  There’s nothing I can tell you and nothing I can do for you so, please, don’t make me call—”

“Kirk!” I jumped up. “Before you call anyone or go any further I should tell you I know all about Project F. O. Y. – The Fountain of Youth program that Walter worked on with the other researcher.”

Kirk rubbed at his chin and mouth and then squeezed his hands together.  He muttered something.  I think he said – “Not good, not good . . .”

“Look Kirk, sit down for a minute and just listen.  Give me just two minutes of your precious time.  I really think you ought to hear me out.  Two minutes, just two minutes and then if you still want me to, I’ll leave.”

Kirk hesitated.  He stared at me but I couldn’t gauge him.  Slowly, he obliged and sat down across from me, behind his desk.  The entire time he held my gaze.  Then he said –

“I really don’t know what you expect to gain from me – my hands are tied.”

“I expect you to untie them,” I said as I launched into phase three of Dez and my plan—

“Kirk, even as we sit here, Desiree Garner – you remember Desiree, a simple teacher, a civilian – oh, wait a minute, not so simple!  She’s also a member of this community, this agency, this CIA, you know, the whole enchilada!” I indicated his office and all of the surroundings as I spoke.

“At any rate, Desiree has one hundred individually wrapped pills, just like these, ready to go out with one hundred letters and memos on CIA letter-head paper, along with one hundred DVD’s that show me before and after consuming one of those turquoise beauties.

“By the way, those DVD’s would have been very expensive on a teacher’s salary.  Lucky for us Desiree was able to get them all for free from her second job!

I now obviously had Kirk’s acute attention.

“Look Kirk, those one hundred packages are set to go out to one hundred different people and organizations who just might find them, oh, I don’t know – for lack of a better word, let’s just say – interesting!”

As I spoke Kirk was simply staring at me, his mouth open, but he was speechless.  He was processing but not yet fully computing. So, I continued—

“Places like 60 Minutes, 20-20, Dateline, and then, of course, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, plus quite a few other major newspapers and magazines are all on our list.”

And then I dropped what I hoped would be the clincher –

“Oh, and we also made up a very special package specifically for the head honcho, that guy up there!” I pointed to the framed headshot of the President of the United States hanging on his wall. “After all, we thought he’d appreciate being privy to another one of his options after his term ends.”

At that moment it was very, very still and quiet in Kirk’s office.  If it weren’t for budget cutbacks you could’ve heard a CIA pin drop.

Then Kirk shifted in his seat and suddenly and firmly he hit a couple of buttons on his phone pad.

(Uh-oh!)

I held my breath.

“Miss Arnold—” he said bluntly.

“Oh, my God!” I thought to myself – “Don’t call for security.  Do not call for security.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Blackman?” came the echo-like response.

I was still holding my breath as Kirk and I engaged in an old-fashioned stare-down.

“Don’t . . . Don’t . . . Don’t . . .” kept running through my head.

Finally – Kirk spoke—

“Miss Arnold, please tell Mr. Runnels and Mr. Carter that I will be late for this afternoon’s one-thirty meeting.  Tell them to go ahead and start without me.”

(WHEW!)

I tried to hide my relief as I let my breath out slowly.

“Of course those one hundred packages can easily be destroyed,” I said as I stood up and stretched, then sat back down.

“How do I know you’re not bluffing?”

I stared at him and smiled – “You don’t.”

There was a rather profound and lengthy pause.

“Now, Gumby, can we talk turkey?”

Kirk glared at me and then his stare suddenly softened.  He broke into a big smile—

“Man, MT, you look like you just walked out of our high school yearbook!”

I smiled back.  “You look a lot older than that!”  Then I said – “You know, Walter used to say the eyes can see more than seven million colors.”

“What?  So?”

“So, you might want to give your eyes more of a challenge in here.  Whew, man— Drab City!”  I was obviously referring to his barren, lifeless walls.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Kirk grinned again.

I asked – “How are the wife and kids?”

“The family is great.  I don’t get to see them enough.  We actually live in DC now.  My youngest is playing high school basketball – JV’s.”

“That’s great,” I said.  “Like father, like son. How tall is he?”

“Nearly six foot and still growing.”

“Sharp elbows?”

“Of course.”

There was a pause and then Kirk leaned in with both hands on his desk –

“Okay, MT, let’s explore our options, here.  I’m sure, with a little effort, a little give and take, we can figure something out.”

And then, quite cordially, he asked – “Can I get you anything before we start?”

“Sushi would be nice.”

Kirk looked at me, puzzled.

“Oops, that’s right, you had Sushi for lunch yesterday.”

Even though Kirk grinned widely I know I got him.

“A cup of coffee would actually be great,” I said and he was on the horn to Miss Arnold.

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(XVI) PROJECT F.O.Y. — CH 33 — 9/01/12

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 33:  One Dead End After Another

            I looked Desiree straight on into those terrific eyes.  She was in the midst of revealing to me that she was almost positive that all or at least some of those deaths and disappearances within the group were not what they appeared to be.  She didn’t want to get my hopes up but now, she increasingly felt that the situations were all somewhat curious – from Koop to Bob-O and Benny and Mo.

“Those situations could have all been staged, either by the CIA or by Walter, himself,” she conjectured.

“Yeah,” I said, “But it’s also a possibility that they could have been eliminated by the CIA, correct?  For the agency thinking they knew too much?”

“Maybe true, but not likely. The reason I think that is more unlikely is because, for the agency to act, those guys would have needed to pose a viable threat.” Dez was really delving into this.  “There are actually a couple more places I can check tomorrow,” she reflected.

Then she switched gears a bit – “The main thing we need to do is establish a solid connection between Walter Young and Kirk Blackman,” she said. “We need to uncover concrete proof that they were both involved in PROJECT F.O.Y. at the same time.”

“Why?” I asked.

Dez thought for a moment. “Well, for one thing, we need undeniable evidence that they were in cahoots if we are going to bring Blackman to task.”

“Oh, okay . . . makes sense, I guess.” I fought back a yawn.

Then, just like that, Dez shifted gears again – “But, now – let’s go to bed.”

“Just like that?” I asked – “You’re going to leave me hanging?”

“Yep . . . bed,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“I’ve got the couch again,” I said in hopes that Desiree would say “no.”

“I think it’s probably best for now, don’t you, MT?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” I honestly didn’t.

“M—?”

“Yeah?”

“We need to keep our focus.”

“Yeah, I know.  I know.”  I sat down on the couch and tried not to show my displeasure.

“When are you taking your pill – tonight or tomorrow morning?” Dez suddenly asked.

I forced myself up. “Oh, yeah – I think maybe I should take it tonight,” I answered.

“Okay, just keep strict track.  That’s important.”

“Don’t I know it,” I mumbled under my breath.

“Good night, MT,” Dez called as I walked into the kitchen to get some water. “I’ll see you in the morning.  Or, should I say, I’ll see Phillip in the morning?”

“Ha-ha!” I called back. “You should do stand-up.  Good night, Dez.”

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Early the next morning I was traveling along on the Harbor Freeway, actually making pretty good time, headed for the Los Angeles offices of the Central Intelligence Agency. “The CIA – pretty exciting stuff!” I thought.

I would hazard to guess that ninety-eight or ninety-nine percent of the people living in L. A. County had no idea that the Secret Service and CIA had offices in Los Angeles.  And those offices were located in the 200 block of Temple Street.  It turned out that Dez had provided me with perfect directions.

She had also awakened me a lot earlier than I had expected that morning.  However, she told me that it was extremely important otherwise she would have let me sleep for another hour or so.  She was right, of course.

We sat at the kitchen table and, even though I had trouble trying not to yawn, I was in complete awe.  Between pouring and serving freshly brewed coffee and homemade biscuits, Desiree was showing and explaining to me all of the paraphernalia I would need.  She had security passes, nametags and labels and a lanyard with a security clearance ID – all these with my picture and name on them, (well, actually Phillip’s name and picture.).  She had been a very busy girl.

“Wow!  This is a lot of stuff for low level clearance!” I exclaimed.

“Well, I have actually made a couple of friends there through the years,” she revealed. “But most of this is standard stuff.

“Still – Wow!” I repeated.

“Now, these are your press credentials and press pass from the UCLA Bruin, their University newspaper.  Congratulations, you are now officially enrolled in the UCLA Department of Journalism.

“Cool,” I said.

Dez stopped what she was doing.  “M—, or should I say, Phillip?  You don’t have to sound eighteen, do you?”

“Okay.  Hey, man – whatever.  That’s cool!  What up?” I taunted.

“Ha – ha!” Dez stared at me and then looked away – “Man, it is so hard to look at you.”

“Aarrgghh!  Turn away, I’m ugly!  I’m hideous!” I covered my face with my crossed arms and my hands.

“Very funny.  It’s just a little unbelievable – you look so, so young!  I guess I can see why Jennifer fell for you.” And then she added – “Oh, by the way, you are not eighteen anymore.”

“What?  What do you mean?”

“All documents and records now list Phillip Widlyfe as twenty-one.  Happy Birthday!”

Now, as I was nearing my destination, I double-checked all of my cards and ID’s.  Besides all of the CIA stuff, Dez had somehow also gotten Phillip Widlyfe registered with the DMV so that I now had a legitimate picture driver’s license and a temporary registration.

“This time if you are stopped, the worst that should happen is a ticket,” Dez had said to me earlier that morning. “No jail time.” She was obviously referring to my New Year’s Eve fiasco with Jennifer Tremain.

I just tweaked the direction of that conversation a bit and said – “Wow! Twenty-one!  Gosh, thanks – now I can drink!”

(SLAP!)

I parked in the parking lot without any problem and gathered all of my ID’s.  The actual CIA! – I tried to subdue my excitement.  I put a Bruin Press Sticker on my sport jacket pocket and I looped two credentials around my neck.  One was a CIA temporary employee badge and the other was another UCLA credential.  Both of them had small face-shot photos of me as Phillip.  Dez had used one of my left over Polaroids but she was much, much better than I was.  Pretty official!

It all felt pretty darn important.  In addition to everything else, Desiree had secured clearance for me and set up interviews with three people who worked in the Records Departments.

I had my everyday sign-in pass plus three passes to three different offices – Mr. Martin, Mr. Reed and Mr. Williams.

So, there I was, smack dab in the center of the Secret Service and CIA offices.  I tried hard not to look like a spectator or worse, a rookie.  But I truly had to fight off goose bumps.  I mean, come on, the CIA?  And I was undercover!  Boy, oh, boy!

As I stood there I couldn’t help but notice that, except for the large, famous (or infamous, as the case may be), round, CIA logo on the floor, everything appeared rather drab and ordinary.

I will say this, though.  Everyone wore suits – all the males, that is.  So, at that moment, I was truly glad that I had at least worn a coat and tie.

I checked in at a long semi-circular desk and signed two clipboards.  I glanced around for awhile, noticing that most all of the office doors had the familiar logo on them—a circular plaque with the profile of an eagle on a bright blue background.  The words CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY, spelled out in white, formed a border around the upper half of the circle.

Finally, I asked someone where I could find Mr. Martin’s office.

“What department?” asked a rather young, nondescript woman.

“Records, I think.”

“Let me see that,” she said referring to one of the clearance / appointment letters Dez had obtained for me.

“Oh, okay – You’re not too far away.  It’s just up the stairs.  Go up and make an immediate right.  It’ll be the first office on your right.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.  Have a nice day.”

“You too,” I called out as she walked off and blended in with the other employees, soon disappearing into an office corridor.

I gathered all of my paraphernalia and headed for the second floor and my very first CIA appointment.  My heart was pounding with excitement but I kept a stiff face and kept it to myself.

Mr. Martin was old and sour.  My heart quickly stopped pounding.  I don’t know what I was expecting but I knew I wasn’t expecting to be treated like a fly buzzing around garbage.

Martin’s answers were monosyllabic, as short and cryptic as his gray crew-cut styled hair.  I actually got nowhere fast with him, not to mention that he would not let me see any of the files or records.

“Sealed,” was all he kept saying.  And he said it with emphasis as he shook his head.

Additionally, he would not even get up to check on anything that I asked about.  He basically told me that it boiled down to this – “I am far too busy with current cases to go rummaging through old, cold, dead files for some college newspaper project, sonny.”

“But I don’t believe this file is closed,” I offered as politely as I could.

“Yep, yep – it’s closed all right.  It says so right here.” He tapped at his computer screen.

“Look,” I attempted reasoning with him – “Give me a break, huh?  I’m just trying to research an assignment for the Bruin newspaper.  And even the CIA here, wants me to do this.  Isn’t there any way you can help me out just a little?” I pleaded.

He tapped at his computer screen again (like that answered my pleadings!). There was a frustrating silence.

“Well, I guess I can print this out for you,” he said, finally.

“Thanks.” I said. (for nothing.)

So, Mr. Martin printed out a copy of what was on his computer screen onto somewhat official looking paper.  It mainly stated that all of Project F. O. Y. was a dead file – closed and completed.  Then I noticed down on the bottom where it mentioned “Level-A Restriction.” I wondered what that meant and made a mental note to show Desiree.

My initial CIA excitement was waning rapidly as the rest of my day continued on and wasn’t really too much better.  However, at least Mr. Reed and Mr. Williams were more patient and more cordial.  And Mr. Williams actually pitched in for ten to fifteen minutes and helped me go through some old files that he found.

But, there was nothing new and nothing that dealt directly with Project F. O. Y.  I did find some things that confirmed what Desiree had already told me about.  I tried not to show my disappointment and frustration as I spent the afternoon reading through old documents.  After all, I was a cub reporter.  This stuff was all new to me.  (Yeah, right!)

I guess that, in reality, if I truly were doing a story for the UCLA Bruin, some of what I was researching would have actually been interesting and useful.  But I wasn’t and it was now old hat to me.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

A little more than three weeks passed and little changed, except my heart no longer pounded and the excitement I had felt that first day had completely dissipated.  I spent four to five grueling days a week in downtown L. A. stashed away in the back of a humid, low-security, CIA office poring over boxes of files, reports and memos and finding nothing!  I was learning first-hand just how rote and un-exciting the CIA could be.

And, then, I would spend most evenings kavetching to Desiree.

“Don’t complain to me!  What’s it been, four weeks?  Talk to me when you’ve put in twenty years!”  She sounded pretty well soured.

“Well, this is going nowhere fast!” I lamented anyway. “No wait, let me amend that – it’s going nowhere slowly!  There’s got to be something else we can do.”

“Maybe,” Dez agreed, “But, right now I really don’t know what.  You need to be more patient, MT.  This stuff usually doesn’t magically happen overnight.  Let’s give it another couple of days or so.  If there’s one thing I do know,” she’d profess, “It’s that nothing moves fast in the agency.”

“All right, two more days,” I’d say – “And then we come up with a new plan.”

Then two days would pass and Dez would tell me to have a little more patience and we’d repeat my entire frustration dialogue all over again.

“But, Dez, we really do need a new tact.  It’s been almost four weeks now and all I’m doing is hitting one dead end after another.  I doth protest! “We are no closer to locating Walter now than we were a month ago.” Then I added – “Or any of the rest of the group, for that matter.”

“We might be,” Dez said thoughtfully.

“What do you mean?” I asked.  And I actually perked up a little.

“I can’t quite say yet.  But, you did say that Mr. Williams has been helpful to you, right?”

“Right.  Off and on, but for the most part – yes.  At least he’s letting me do work alone, in the back of his office.”

“There’s something I want to check on,” Dez commented, almost to herself.  Then, suddenly she turned towards me – “I’m going with you tomorrow,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Okay,” I said. “Because –?”

“I just am. Leave it at that for now.”

“Does it have to do with Williams?”

“Yeah, possibly . . . I think so.  Sorry, M—, allow me to be vague on this one, all right?”

“Hmm-mm . . . All right.”  I crossed and then uncrossed my arms.

I had been the new and improved twenty-one year-old version of Phillip Widlyfe almost everyday for a month now and I had grown accustomed to my room at the Vagabond Inn.  In fact, I was getting so comfortable I hardly ever had to sneak back into my house for anything anymore.  And, you know what?  I hardly ever thought about my classes or teaching.

Desiree continued to teach most days and for the nighttime we had set up a variety of meeting places.  Each week we created an easy alphabet code for our rendezvous points.  For example, to meet on Monday it would be at the “Montana Coffee Shop” or “Montez’s Mexican Grill.”  Tuesdays’ meeting places would all have to contain a two in the name like “Pat’s’ II Cocktails,” that small bar on South Pacific Coast Highway.  Fridays’ were the easiest as we always met for dinner at the “TGI – Fridays”restaurant in Torrance.

However, if I ever went over to Desiree’s apartment, it had to be as Phillip and, just in case, I had to be careful that I wasn’t followed, or that those three black suits were nowhere about.  “Just in case,” she had told me.

Actually, speaking of being followed, the three goons hadn’t seemed to be around much anymore.  But Dez reminded me that they were tricky and to be careful – “Don’t drop your guard.”

And I did listen to her about that because those guys were downright freaky, eerie.  Them, I could do without.

“Besides,” Desiree calculated – “The reason you aren’t seeing them is simple.  One, for a month now, you have been Phillip most of the time and they don’t know Phillip from Adam.  And, two, you aren’t going home and you left your original hotel.  You’ve managed to lose them and that’s good!  Let’s just keep it that way, okay, MT?”

“Of course!” You didn’t have to twist my arm.

On that Thursday Desiree and I drove up to the CIA offices separately.  She gave me an hour and a half head start just in case the three dark suits decided to follow her.  She indicated that if they did tail her it was no big thing.  She would merely be doing something for her agency job.  But, obviously, she did not want them to catch onto me, that I was undercover as Phillip.

I had been working, as usual, going over reports in the back of Mr. Williams’s office for probably two to three hours when suddenly, and to my surprise, Mr. Williams strolled in with Desiree.

“Mr. Widlyfe,” he stated, “This is Miss Garner.  I think she might be able to help you a bit more than I can with your research topic.”

After the introductions and Williams had gone from the area, Dez and I broke into huge smiles.

“What are you doing?” I asked, trying not to laugh.

“Just trust me on this one, will ya kid?” Dez replied out of the side of her mouth, using her best CIA spy voice.

I almost lost it.

Then she stuck a pencil in her mouth like a cigar and barked out – “Woirk with me, kid.  Woirk with me.”

I thought for sure that Mr. Williams and others in the office could hear me laugh.  I hurriedly looked around but I was anxious for no reason.  Nobody was within earshot.

Eventually, however, things progressed to where Dez and I engaged in quasi-normal conversation.  I told her that for the past few days I was really fighting off the blues, borderline depression.  The whole CIA thing frustrated me.  I couldn’t live in my own house, I couldn’t find Walter and – “I’m tired of being eighteen.”

“Shhh . . . MT, keep it down.  Besides you’re twenty-one,” Dez corrected.

“Whatever.”

The last part surprised Dez somewhat and, in a way, it also surprised me too. There was a pause.  Then Desiree spoke quietly, hushed—

“What’s the best part of being eighteen or, rather, twenty-one?” she whispered.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said glibly – “But, so far, being eighteen was a lot more fun, not as much paperwork!” I exclaimed and fluttered a stack of file folders.

“So, what was best about being eighteen?” she inquired with a coy smile playing at her lips.

I know she wanted me to bring up Jennifer Tremain, but I was going to throw her a curve.

I was about to tell her that I really had enjoyed the thrills that came with playing baseball again when I noticed Mr. Williams walking right towards us.  He was carrying an old box.  “Buck up and fly straight,” I suddenly told Dez and buried my head in a folder.

Desiree caught on immediately as I handed her a couple of folders.  She pretended to thumb through them.

“Here you go.” Mr. Williams set the dusty, old box down in front of her. “Miss Garner, I think this is what you asked about.  Perhaps it might be of some help.”

“Oh, thank you, Glen!  You didn’t go out of your way, I hope.”

She was good!

After some chitchat, Glen Williams left and we began rummaging through the worn and crinkled old box.  We struck gold!  (Well, maybe not gold, but at least silver!)

“Eureka!”

Desiree held up a couple of pieces of paper and then passed them over to me.  They were two normal looking memos.  However, one was a memo from Walter Young to Kirk Blackman.  And the other was from Kirk back to Walter.  And right there, in big, black bold print, were references to PROJECT F.O.Y.

“Eureka squared!” I exclaimed.

Dez looked at me, then stared at the memos, then back at me.  I could see the wheels turning – “Okay, MT, now we can switch gears.”

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(XV) PROJECT F.O.Y. – CH 31,32 – 8/25/12

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 31:  Looking Ahead

            On the long drive down to Huntington Beach, long only because we were on the infamous 405, better known as the San Diego Freeway, Dez and I tried to keep the conversation light.  The afternoon traffic on that freeway was notorious for its sluggishness and all of its stop and goes.

At one point I asked playfully – “Does the CIA condone dating?”

I was specifically referring to this date however, Dez answered seriously.  “Actually, no.” Then she added – “I think that’s one of the reasons why things have moved so slowly between us, M— . . . Sorry.”

I still attempted to keep it light. “Hey, I’m in no hurry.  It’s not like it’s a race, ya know?”

Dez smiled warmly.  Actually, she was doing the driving.  We had decided that if she drove her car and picked me up at some out of the way spot, there was less chance we’d be followed.

So, after I got home from teaching I changed and went directly to the Best Western Hotel.  Then I left the hotel and walked to the local grocery store a few blocks away.  At the store I went in the South entrance and immediately left by way of the West exit.  I then met Dez in a small, hilly parking lot behind some small businesses on Pacific Coast Highway.

From the get-go, Desiree indicated she felt fairly comfortable that we were not being followed.  But I noticed that she did fidget and look around a lot whenever we hit a traffic pocket and slowed down to five miles per hour.  Ah, a typical Friday evening on the San Diego Freeway.  There was nothing like it.

I had already taken the first steps to initiate my plan and informed the school that I would need to take a personal leave of absence beginning the next Monday.  I also arranged to stay at a different hotel – the Palos Verdes Inn which was a little further down PCH, but still, all in all, not very far away.  So, for my part, everything was falling into place.

Desiree had spent the previous couple of afternoons trying to ascertain any information or leads or whatever’s from the CIA offices in order to give me as much of a head-start as possible in my quest to locate Walter Young.

However, all of that was put on hold as we motored on down to Huntington Beach to see Ray sing.  Neither one of us really expressed anything orally, but I think both of us wanted to try to treat as much of the evening as we could as a date.

We crawled along the 405.  Besides teaching down at a high school in Orange County; Ray had a steady gig Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights at a very nice restaurant in Huntington Beach called The Shoreline Grill.

After more than two hours on that infernal freeway we finally veered off onto a main drag and followed it west towards the Pacific Ocean.  It was actually a very picturesque drive, with the sun darting in and around fluffy white clouds out over the ocean and rolling hills on either side of us.

Eventually, sometime before sunset, we pulled into The Shoreline Grill parking lot.  Funny, it was already pretty full.

We hadn’t told Ray we were coming.  I always liked to surprise him whenever I went to see him sing.  So, when we walked in we could hear his velvet tones as he sang James Taylor’s You’ve Got A Friend.

I held Desiree back. “Wait a sec,” I said and then I stopped a cocktail waitress and asked her to do me a big favor—

“Will you take this request up to Ray Donnells for me?” I hastily wrote, “Do you know the song Robert E. Lee?” on a napkin and handed it to her.

“Sure, no problem.  Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Yeah, thanks.  Bring me a Maker’s Mark and Soda on the rocks – tall,” I added. “Dez?” I asked.

“I’ll have a white wine spritzer.” And then she turned to me – “I’m driving, remember?” she said as the cocktail waitress left on her given mission.

I explained to Desiree how I always wrote out some old song request and sent it up to Ray every time I went to see him sing.

“I’ve done it forever.  I used to try to stump him.  Came close once with My Mother’s Eyes.  But, now I just send up tunes I like and make an entrance.”

Dez smiled kind of a goofy smile.

“What?” I asked.

“She smiled broader. “It’s nothing.”

“Come on, tell me.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, really M—”

I gave her the look, lowering one eyebrow.

She giggled. “I was just thinking – boys!”

“Huh?”

“You know, as in a boys-will-be-boys sort of thing.”

“Oh . . .”

She slapped at my shoulder. “I told you it was nothing.”

We were still hidden on the outskirts of the lounge area where Ray was playing when he suddenly broke into a rousing rendition of The Robert E. Lee.

I immediately took Desiree’s hand – “That’s our cue –” and I led her to a small table pretty close to the front.

Ray gave a huge smile when he saw us and we sat down comfortably watching him strum his old Epiphone guitar and listening to him croon.  When the song ended Ray announced softly into his mic—

“That last one was for Dickey.” Then he winked at Desiree and began a medley that started with My Girl.

The waitress brought us our drinks and I asked her to put our names in for dinner.  She indicated that there was a wait but that it would not be too long and Dez and I sat relaxed.

“No hurry,” I told her.

However, leave it to me.  I did disturb the relaxation mode that we were in for a moment when I queried – “Hey, Dez, how should we tell Ray?  I mean, how do we tell him he might be in danger?  He’s going to want to know more.”

Dez sipped at her spritzer through two thin red straws and then replied – “Let me tell him, MT.  I think he’ll take it a little more serious coming from a source he doesn’t know.  Besides, I think I can do it without arousing as much suspicion as you would.”

I must have looked at her funny.

“No offense.”

“Okay,” I said and then muttered – “It must be a girls-will-be-girls thing.”

“It’s just the nature of this animal, M,” Dez tried to explain.

“Dez, it’s okay, really.”  I shrugged my shoulders and took a drink.

“You want an appetizer?” I asked, changing the subject.  I had noticed that she was reading the little appetizer menu card on the table.

“The crab-stuffed mushrooms look good.  Do you want to try them?”

“Sure.” I hailed our waitress.

About halfway through our appetizers and second set of drinks, Ray finally took a break.  He came straight over to our table—

“Hey, Dickey!”

“Hi, Ray – you sounded great,” I remarked. “You know Desiree, I think.”

“I ‘m not sure, I think so,” Ray said hesitantly.

Desiree offered – “No, I don’t think we’ve ever officially met.  I’ve heard a lot about you, though.  It’s nice to officially meet you, Ray.  Hi, I’m Desiree.” And then she added – “I love your voice and your selections.”

“Thanks.” Then Ray turned to me – “Hey, MT, she has good taste.”

“Yuk-yuk.” There were smiles and chuckles all around.  And then Ray sat down at our table and we congratulated him on getting engaged and chatted like that for a few minutes.

“How is Ginny?” I asked at some point in the conversation.

“She’s great.  In fact, she’s better than great.” Ray paused. “I’ve got some more big news, MT – really big!”  He paused again.

Finally, I said – “Well, don’t leave me hangin,’ Ray.”

He leaned in.  Dez and I followed suit. “I haven’t told anybody here, yet, so shhh.” He said and glanced about.

“What?”

“Ginny’s company gave her a humongous promotion.”

“That is big,” I said – Then I whispered quite loudly – “Don’t let anybody in here know!”

“Ha-ha.  Have another one!” I think Ray was referring to my drink.

“What’s the deal?” I asked.

“Well, her company is moving her to Canada.  She’s going to head up the Vancouver branch.”

“Yeah?” At this point Dez was pretty much a spectator.

“Yeah.  And here’s the best part.” Ray paused for effect. “I’m going with her!”

“What?” I almost jumped up out of my seat. “What about your job?”

“Shhh . . . MT, you don’t understand, you don’t have the total picture.  Ginny’s gonna make a high three figure salary.  Maybe I’ll teach up there, in Canada, but I won’t really need to.  In fact, we talked about me just singing full time instead.  It’s whatever I want, really.”

“Wow!  Ray, that is huge.  That’s great.” I said even though I was obviously more than a little taken aback.

“Yeah, I’m really lookin’ forward to it, Dickey.”

Then, Desiree, being practical as she was, asked – “What about your California teacher’s retirement?”

Ray turned directly to her.  “I’m not sure.  Somebody told me I could take it all out, that they’d give me a lump sum settlement if I retired.”

“I think that’s still true,” Dez offered. “But if you do that you get more if you invest it in something.  Then, it’s actually like a big loan with little to no interest.”

“We were thinking we’d put it toward a house in Vancouver.”

“That works.  And it’s very smart.”

“In fact,” Ray continued, “That’s where Ginny is now.  She went up to Canada this week-end with her mom and dad to check out her job and to look for houses.”

“Wow!” was all I could say at first.  Then – “God, Ray, that’s a humongous change!”

“I know, Dickey – I’m totally jazzed.”

Dez threw in – “Congrats, Ray, that’s wonderful.”

“Yeah, congrats,” I echoed.

“Thanks.  Man, it’s a great feeling.”

“How’s it going to work out with your school?” I decided to ask.

“Well, Ginny starts work up there in three weeks.  I’m going to finish out the school year.  But, I already gave them my notice that I won’t be back in the Fall.  And then, when school’s out in June I’ll go up and join Ginny.”

“Hey, Dickey – you’re going to be a friggin’ Canadian!” I said suddenly and thwacked him lightly on the shoulder.

“Could be worse, eh?”  He quickly flicked me on the forehead and then the chest.

We talked for a little while longer and then the cocktail waitress came to tell us that our table was ready.

Ray commented – “Oh, good, you’re springing for dinner.  Order the Maine lobster.” He winked at Desiree.

“Ha!” was all I managed to utter.

“Seriously, any of the grilled fish is excellent here.”

“What kind?” I asked.

“All of it.  It’s all fresh.”

We told Ray we’d come back to the lounge area after our meal – “For after-dinner drinks,” I mused.  And Ray returned to his guitar, mics, amps and speakers to resume singing and Dez and I followed our waitress to our new table for dinner.

As it played out, we had a nice view of the ocean and if we turned just slightly, we could still see Ray.  And as long as we didn’t talk too loudly we could even hear him fairly well.  Certain songs generated certain sparks.

I talked Dez into sharing a bottle of white wine by promising to drink most of it, (Not hard for me!).

“A glass and a half, no more!” she insisted. “It’s a fairly long drive back.”

“Okay, you really don’t have to twist my arm.  I promise.”

However, before our grilled fish came we already consumed more than two-thirds of the bottle of vino.

“We better slow down,” Dez cautioned.

“Okay, I’ll sip slower.” I exaggerated a sip.

Then Dez became serious for a moment –

“You know, MT, this probably changes things.” She started to explain.

“What, with the wine?”

“No, seriously M—, Ray going off to Canada.”

“Yeah, how huge is that?”

“He seems very happy.”

“Yeah,” I said – “He and Ginny were made for each other.  I mean, they sort of even knew it in high school but they were both deeply involved with other people.” I paused for a second. “I’m glad it’s finally working out for him.  He deserves it.”

Then I re-directed the dialogue a bit – “How are you going to broach the danger subject?” I inquired.

Dez set down her wineglass and leaned in.  She glanced around.  Habit.  Finally, she said – “That’s what I’ve been trying to say.  We may not have to tell him.”

“What?  Wait.  I must’ve missed something.  Why?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure if Ray moves to Canada the agency will most likely write him off, especially if he hasn’t ever posed a threat in the past.  He’s considered low-key, peripheral.  Actually, it’s all because of budget cuts, but that’s another story.”

Dez continued – “It’s called a dormant file.  I’ve seen it happen with countless other cases.  They keep the file open but just stow it away in the Limbo Section.  In fact, I’ve had to file a lot of them.”

“Limbo Section,” I repeated.

Dez nodded.

“Are you positive about this?” I asked.

“Well, no, I’m not positive.  But, I’m as sure as I can be.  Like I said, over the years I’ve seen it happen so much.  In fact, M—, ninety percent of the time the agency feels you are doing them a favor if you leave the country.  Now, re-entering the US or constantly traveling back and forth, that’s a different story.  Then you’re a suspect.

“Anyway, we definitely don’t have to say anything to Ray tonight.  We’re relatively sure that he doesn’t know anything about the pills, right?”

“Right.  There’s no way he knows.”

“Just let me check on some things next week.  But, really, I think he’ll be all right.  If I discover I’m wrong we can always make another trip down here.”

“Aw, you just want me to take you out on another CIA approved date,” I teased.

“Maybe.” There was that sparkle again in Dez’s eyes. She sipped her wine.

This time I was smart enough not to ask if I were forgiven!

Then, as we ate our grilled fish, I had the Chilean Sea Bass and Desiree had Mahi Mahi, I suddenly became a little melancholy.  In retrospect I think it was a combination of things — the alcohol for one, and seeing Ray for another.   And the thirty minute Sounds of Silence / Beatles medley he performed certainly didn’t help . . . (Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away . . . Echoed in the wells of silence . . .)

            I remember that we didn’t talk much during that medley.  We just ate good food, drank good wine and listened to good music.  I stared out of the picture window.  However, approximately halfway through the medley or so, I did casually ask Desiree how well she knew all of the guys in the group.

She indicated that she really didn’t know any of them since she was like six or seven years behind us in school.

“Oh, yeah – duh,” I said.

But, she did know Koop’s younger sister and she knew Mo a little bit.  And since her high school years she had briefly met with Kirk Blackman (Gumby), on a couple occasions at the CIA offices.

I truly think that the combo of Ray singing again and, probably the alcohol, but more likely all of the weird happenings lately with the group led me to recount the following memory to Desiree.  I think I just wanted her to know more about us.

“Dizzy, did I ever tell you about our Senior Grad Night?”

“No, I don’t think so.  Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know, no special reason.” There was a pause.  Ray’s medley continued with What a dream I had, pressed in organdy, clothed in crinoline.

For some reason I just began to relate this story to Desiree.

“We went to Disneyland by bus from, like 9:00 p.m. till six or seven the next morning.  It was the last time the group would all be together.”

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 32:  Looking Back

            Benny and I walked down the hallway during class time.  We had a hall pass to be out of class for some reason or another.  Anyway, classes were going on in normal fashion in each of the rooms.  As we passed Mr. Light’s room, his door was wide open and he was standing at his podium lecturing about World History to his class.

            Suddenly Benny stops and says –

            “Hi ya, Terry!.” and then Benny gave Mr. Light an ultra-cool wave and began to walk off.

            Well, Mr. Light literally bolted out of his classroom and grabbed us both by the nape of our T-shirts and ran us down to the vice-principal’s office.  The entire time his face was beet-red and he was sputtering something unintelligible.  In addition to that, he ripped my T-shirt near the neck.

            I honestly don’t think Benny thought that a young, first year teacher, like Mr. Light would mind being called by his first name by a mature senior student about to graduate in a couple of days.

            But Benny was wrong.

            We were almost put on restriction for Grad night!  I remember Mr. Kingman, the vice-principal, threatening us with that.

            I looked at his almost triangular shaped face and dark brown eyebrows raising and lowering as he reprimanded us.  And then my eyes were drawn to his perfect crew cut.

            “Are you paying attention, here, Mr. Thomas?”

            “Uh – yes sir,” I answered. “It’s just that—” I stopped because of the daggers shooting from Mr. Kingman’s dark, squinty eyes.

            “Mr. Leonardi, Mr. Thomas, are you two planning on attending grad night?”

            I felt the breath rush out of me and I looked at Benny.  Benny spoke up.  Benny was brave; I’ll give him that.

            “It’s not like we set off a fire alarm,” Benny countered, “Or threw cherry bombs in the heads.  I just said ‘hi’ to the guy.”

            Mr. Kingman was quiet for a time.  He wiped at his mouth, then very deliberately blew his nose into a handkerchief, and finally, he slowly thumbed through our file folders.  If he was doing all of this to make us sweat, mission accomplished!  Benny and I both shifted in our seats.

            “All right, gentlemen, here’s the deal.” Mr. Kingman spewed forth the following – “One, you apologize to Mr. Light for disturbing his class and inappropriately referring to him by his first name.  Two, you both serve one hour of detention today or tomorrow.  You can serve morning or afternoon, your choice.  And three, Thursday morning you come by my office before school and I will personally let you know, at that time, my decision.”

            We both looked up.

            He continued – “What decision, you ask?  To put it simply, whether or not you will be allowed to attend Grad Night . . . Are we clear?”

            Benny lost it for a sec – “All this just for calling him by his first name?  It is his name, isn’t it?  People do have first names.”

            “Mr. Leonardi, let’s just say it’s a question of courtesy, appropriateness, and your attitudes.”

            We both sat silent.  I prayed that Benny wouldn’t say anything else.

            “Are we clear?” Mr. Kingman asked again, with a bit more force.

            “Yes sir.”

            “Yeah.”

            “Good.  Now, go back to class.”

            We left Vice-Principal Kingman’s office with our tails between our legs.  However, I’m sure my tail was further implanted between my legs than was Benny’s.

 

            Two mornings later, all points of discipline accounted for, we both sat anxiously waiting in Mr. Kingman’s office.  We actually waited from around 7:20 a.m. until nearly eight o’clock.

            When VP Kingman finally sauntered in he gave us one cursory look and said – “All right, gentlemen, you can go.”

            “Thank you, sir,” I said.  I don’t think Benny said anything, which, actually was probably for the best.

            Benny, the unofficial leader of the group really came up with the following agreement for Grad Night at Disneyland.

            All of us made a pact that, no matter what, we would not pair off with any chicks since this would be the last time ever, in high school that we all would be together.  That was important to all of us.  It would be a night for the group, we decided.

            Even Bob-O, who was firmly entrenched with Carrie, agreed to spend the first few hours with us.  He made arrangements to hook up with Carrie at 2:00 a.m. either at the Matterhorn or in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

            So, actually, at our last lunch period together, as we sat outdoors on the table top of one of the worn, blue bench tables, our regular territory, all of us ardently agreed to “the pact.”

            There were like two or three buses total for the Grad Night trip, but we all planned to go on the same bus.  It would be a blast.  Even Mo somehow secured special permission to go with us.  I think his mom knew someone on the school board.

            I was really looking forward to it.  It truly would be the “last hurrah” for Vinny, Koop, Mo, Benny, Bob-O, Gumby, Walter and Ray and me.  We all genuinely knew it was the end of an era and I think, in each of our own ways, we realized that this would actually be the end of the group as we perceived it.

            Grad Night finally came.  I, myself, was extremely excited about the prospects of just merely paling around with the guys in the group.  I just knew that we would laugh like crazy, probably more than on any other occasion.

            Earlier, all of us had gone through the routine of our graduation ceremonies without any major hitches.  Graduation was actually held in the late afternoon and then we had all been out to dinner with our individual families.  My family went to “Woody’s Smorgasbord” because they had great grilled hamburgers and everyone could put their own fixings on them.  That was a big thing back then.

            Grad Night at Disneyland was next up.  Then, before I knew it, the group was all together on that big yellow bus.  At first, there was a tremendous amount of noise.  Ninety plus kids were all festive and hyped up.  But, about a half hour into the ride out to Buena Park I could feel the mood swing.  At one point it actually became pretty subdued, just gentle chitchat from different areas around the bus.

            That is when the big secret started circulating throughout our bus.  At first, everyone thought it was just a story.  Later on, it proved to be very, very true!

            It seemed that Vinny, Bob-O and Koop had taken a little trip to Disneyland approximately a week earlier.  They had gone specifically to bury alcoholic beverages somewhere on Tom Sawyer’s Island.  In fact, that was their express purpose.

            Like I said, everyone thought that it was just a bunch of hooey, a lot of bull.

            “How’re ya gonna get it, anyways?  Tom Sawyer’s Island is closed at night!” I heard someone whisper rather loudly.

            That’s when Vinny, Koop and Bob-O began showing us, obviously behind the backs of our chaperones, that they were wearing swimming trunks under their regular pants.  Bob-O even went so far as to produce a pocketknife and a couple of large soup spoons, evidently their digging tools.

            “Wow!” we all thought, (in our own ways of “wow-ness”), they actually found a way to beat the system, to get around the tight security.

            Then, Koop, who was sitting right behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and told me that he and Vinny and Bob-O would need the group’s help covering for them while they swam over to the island, dug up their booze and swam back.

            “No problem,” I told him and I felt a sudden surge of importance or excitement or both.

 

            Once we were all safely inside the Disneyland gates we migrated to the Fire Station just off of Main Street, USA.  Then, as a group of nine, we made our way towards Frontier Land.  Vinny, Bob-O and Koop took charge and began to lead us to a rather dark and somewhat desolate area just past the Tom Sawyer Rafts and the Indian Canoes.  The reason it was dark and deserted was simple.  Both of those attractions closed at dusk and there were no other significant rides or attractions anywhere nearby.

            I have to admit that Vinny, Koop and Bob-O had really planned this out.  They would no doubt, become infamous if they pulled it off.  It seemed that they had thought of everything, including large, bulky jackets in which to store their stash.

            The group surrounded Vinny, Koop and Bob-O, who quickly stripped down to their swimsuits.  Before we knew it they were all three submerged in the murky waters and swimming in a wide arc, so as to stay in the darkest areas of the river.  They were off for their own adventure on Tom Sawyer’s Island.  Mark Twain would’ve been impressed.

            We all watched, as they became tiny dots bobbing up and down off in the distance, making their way to the darkest portion of the island.  Benny and Gumby dutifully stuffed all of Vinny, Koop and Bob-O’s towels, dry clothes, shoes, and jackets into three large, brown paper bags.  I crossed over and said to Walter—

            “Mark Twain would be so proud.”

            “So would Sammy Clemens,” he countered.

            Then we hid the paper bags in some nearby bushes and left that area so as not to draw unwanted attention.  We actually walked over to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride but the line seemed kind of long.  It was moving swiftly but none of us wanted to chance being gone for too long from our rendezvous point with Vinny, Koop and Bob-O.

            As it turned out, Vinny, Bob-O and Koop’s plan went off without a hitch.  After they were back and dried and re-dressed, we all just stood around, somewhat giddy with the excitement, for awhile.  At Koop’s, (and actually Walter’s) insistence, and I guess because everyone in the group was doing it, I took a couple of swigs from Koop’s vodka bottle.  Boy, I truly wanted to gag!  It really just tasted bitter and rotten to me.

            Eventually, we all began meandering through the park.  First, we all went on “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  However, we did have to split up into two boats.  We went four and five to a boat.

            Near the end of that ride, just before the boat begins it’s steep ascent back to civilization, the entire ride stopped, shut down completely. Then, suddenly a God-like voice boomed out over a hidden speaker system—

            “Sit down in the boats!  No standing!  Sit down in the boats!”

            I looked back and, “duh!”  Bob-O was standing up leading cheers for the pirates as they ravaged and pillaged the surrounding village!

            The others in his boat yanked him down and soon the ride continued. “Good God,” I thought, “He’s already plastered!”

            As it turned out that was the only ride I went on with the group for the remainder of Grad Night.

 

            After “Pirates” everybody decided that they wanted to go on the “Matterhorn” next.  I argued that since we were already close by, we should hit the “Jungle Cruise” and other rides as we made our way over to the “Matterhorn.”  That made more sense, instead of traipsing back and forth.  However, my logic and mutterings fell on deaf ears.  I was definitely a minority of one.

            When we finally made it to the “Matterhorn” the line was from here to tomorrow – (Land . . .).  Anyway, I told the group I was “sitting this one out.”  I tried to explain that I’d been on it twice before and I just really didn’t like it.  In truth, I didn’t like the feeling of my stomach up in my throat!

            Well, you would have thought that I was the biggest chicken this side of the Mississippi – (Wait, the Disney Mississippi is right there!  Does that count?).

            We quickly made arrangements for everyone in the group to meet me at a bench where I would sit until they all came back after the ride.  So, as they all got into that very, very long line I simply sat there, watching.  The line wound around and around.

            Actually, at first, I just sat there and people-watched.  At one point, when the line doubled back and the group was in front of me again, Ray, Vinny and Walter looked over and gave me a variety of “Sheesh!” looks.

            I merely shrugged my shoulders.  Walter went a bit further and flapped chicken wings at me with his arms.  And then, every now and again, he would extend his already thin neck and pretend to peck at something with his nose.  Then he’d flash a big toothy grin at me.

            It was pretty funny, really.  I couldn’t help laughing.

            One of the last things I remembered was seeing Ray, arms folded across his chest, shaking his head from side to side and giving me a look of mock disdain.  He must have mouthed the word “Wimp!” and “Really wimpy!” at me nearly twenty times.

            The last thing I remembered was seeing them all talking with girls from our own high school just before they were inside of the fake snow covered mountain and hidden from view.  I remembered from experience that from that point the Matterhorn ride took roughly another thirty minutes.

            So, once the group was completely out of sight I sprawled out on the bench and began to count the number of out-of-sight chicks who walked by.  Next I began giving them ratings from one to ten and sorting them by faces and bodies.  Hey, it passed the time.

            After some time had passed I began checking the exit area of the “Matterhorn.”

            “Man, this ride sure isn’t worth the wait,” I thought to myself, “No matter how great it is.  Hey, maybe it broke down or something.”

            Then, finally, an awfully long time had passed by – more than an hour, I’m sure.  And still no sign of the group.  I finally realized that something must have happened to the bobsleds, either while they were actually on the ride or when they were close to getting on.  The ride had to have had a breakdown or some kind of hang-up.  I hoped to God that Bob-O hadn’t stood up again!  In my life, I never remembered any ride taking so long– maybe forty-five minutes, but never more than an hour and certainly not an hour and a half . . .  But, then again, the “Matterhorn” was the ride of its time, so maybe with all of the different grads that night, this wait-time was an anomaly.

 

            Quite suddenly, as I sat there on the bench, still waiting for the group, what to my wondering eyes should appear?  None other than Ray and Ginny, who leisurely strolled by, hand in hand.  Bob-O was with them and had Carrie hanging onto his arm.  Following them came Benny with Jeanie from Yearbook staff, Vinny with Anne and even Walter was paired up!  He was glued to a girl named Vicky.  I had forgotten that he was kind of sweet on her.  It was obvious that everyone in the group had paired up!  In fact, these were the same girls I had seen them with in line!

            It sank in fast for me and I was flooded with emotions.  Before I could stop myself I flew into a rage and ranted and raved at Ray and Walter and Benny, but especially at Ray.

            “What the hell are you guys doin’?  We had a pact!” I knew I sounded ridiculous but I had more than an hour and a half’s worth of emotions bottled up inside of me –

            “I’ve been waiting right here where we agreed to meet for over two hours!” I exaggerated.  I was in Ray’s face, then Walter’s – “You said we’d meet right here when you got off!  What the hell’s goin’ on?”

            Ray tried to smile and shrug and slough it off – “You saw us get on with the girls.  You had to know, M— . . . We all talked about that this could happen—”

            “I only know that we had a pact!” I shouted as I interrupted him.

            “Hey, Thomas, give it a rest, already,” Benny barked out.

            “You – you give it a rest!” (Great comeback, MT!) “Aw, shit!” I cried and I swiftly turned on my heels and walked as fast as I could in the opposite direction.

            I think Ray tried to catch me and he mumbled that he was sorry but I just kept walking.

            Quite obviously, I was really hot under the collar.  But, besides the anger, I felt betrayed.  My cheeks were hot and I fought back tears and tried not to cuss anymore.  But, it hurt. It was the group.

            Later, after I had cooled down somewhat and was walking around alone, I passed Gumby (Kirk), who had paired up with Trisha Garrett and Mo who was with some girl I didn’t know, and even Koop, who had Judy Jones hanging all over him.  I watched as they all made out.  They were oblivious.  They never even noticed me walk by!  I resisted the temptation of saying anything to them.

            It was getting later and later, or earlier and earlier, as the case may be.  I wandered aimlessly throughout the park alone and miserable.  I wanted the night to end but time just seemed to crawl by.  And what made matters worse is that I could not shake the feelings of betrayal by all of those guys.

            “We had a pact,” I kept telling myself.  And then I began rationalizing – “I could understand it if maybe one or two of them paired off, but this was all of them, the whole group . . . the entire group!”

 

            At about 5:30 a.m. I found myself standing next to a barrier bordering the big Disney Mississippi River.  Behind me was the “Plantation Chicken House” where the group had talked about eating.

            I gazed mindlessly into the quietly rippling water.  All of a sudden I thought I felt a presence at my side.  I turned and to my awe and surprise it was Christy Hanratty.

            Christy was a total fox and in our Yearbook class.  She had perfect, blond hair and had the cutest face and one great bod.  She was like number four or five on our list.  However, she had been dating some college guy, Brad Anderson, an athlete, a stud, (a God), ever since she was a freshman and we all knew that she was hands-off, off limits.  I mean, she was practically married.

            “Hi, MT.  ‘You okay?” She spoke softly.

            “Yeah, I’m fine, thanks,” I lied.  I looked at her for a second and thought I felt a connection, but there was no way.  So, I turned back to the river.

            “You are one hard guy to track down,” she said – “I’ve been looking for you for a few hours now . . . You want to hit one last ride or two?” Christy asked, “Before we have to be back to the bus.”

            I started to decline but suddenly she had one hand in mine and her other arm around my waist . . . and we were walking like a couple, her head leaning in against my chest and shoulder.

            I couldn’t believe it – Christy Hanratty!  Number two or three on our list!

            Wow!

 

            “So, there’s a happy ending?” Dez suddenly brought me back to The Shoreline Grill.”

“Huh?  Wha–?  Oh, uh, yeah, I guess,” I answered. “She gave me a nice kiss when we cuddled on the bus-ride home.  So, it wasn’t a total loss . . . I guess.”  I finished up my wine. “I had an hour, maybe a little more.” And then I added – “Those feminine powers!  I actually can’t blame those guys for pairing up.  Your gender has some sort of mysterious, hidden powers.  Not fair!”

“Boys will be boys,” Dez said and grinned widely.

“Yeah, and girls will be beguiling!” I countered.

Then Dez asked kind of a funny question I thought. “Whatever happened to Christy?  Do you know?”

“Uh, no, not really.  I mean, I know she married Brad, her high school sweetheart.  But I never heard anything after that.”

“Did she know?” Dez asked softly.

“Huh?  Know what?” I really didn’t know what Desiree was getting at.

“About the group?  You know, about them all leaving you stranded.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said automatically – “I don’t think so.”  Then I thought about it for a moment and re-played some things in my mind.

“Hmm . . . maybe she did,” I heard myself say. “Oh, my God!” I exclaimed suddenly – “You think it was a pity hook-up?”

Dez said – “No, no, most likely not, M—.  Besides, does it really make that much difference?  If it’s good it’s good.”

She smiled at me and squeezed my hand.  I looked into her clear, radiating eyes.  They were alive and beautiful.  “Did I ever tell you, you have great eyes?” I said and meant it.

“Thanks . . . You’re paying, right?” Dez giggled and squeezed my hand tightly and then let it go – “Let’s go listen to Ray some more.”

(Time, time, time, see what’s become of me – While I looked around for my possibilities, I was so hard to please.)

So I took care of the bill and we returned to the lounge, (Look around now, leaves are brown, and the sky is a hazy shade of winter) found good seats where we could actually semi-cuddle and we ordered after-dinner drinks. (Seasons change with the scenery, weaving time in a tapestry – Won’t you stop and remember me?)

 We sat there close, (like lovers do), and listened to Ray’s smooth voice and music fill the rest of Friday night, (you can go your own way).  We were so comfortable we actually closed the place (it’s a quarter to three and—) . . . They had to ask us to leave.  But they did ask nicely.

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(XIV) PROJECT F.O.Y. — CH 29,30 — 8/18/12

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 29:  The Almond and the Peach

            For some reason I woke up extremely early.  I couldn’t sleep.  It was still pretty dark outside.  I looked around for a clock as I tried to get my bearings, but I didn’t see one anywhere.  Immediately my mind began formulating a plan.  There were some things I needed to do and I toyed with the idea of not telling Desiree.  But, very soon, it became crystal clear to me that I needed her.  I needed her knowledge.  I needed her help.  I needed her connections.  I needed her.  There was no getting around it.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

“I can’t believe you’re CIA,” I said quietly as Dez and I sat across from each other in a small, yet comfortable, booth at an out-of-the-way coffee shop in Culver City.  We had purposely driven north, away from the South Bay and once Dez was certain that we hadn’t been followed, she pulled into this mom and pop place called Nancy’s.

“Believe it,” she said between bites of toast and scrambled eggs.  “And I’m sick and tired of it,” she added.

“How long have you worked for them?”  Even as I asked the question and waited for her answer, the entire situation seemed totally surreal to me.

“Actually, they recruited me right out of college.  In fact, I think they helped me get my teaching job, indirectly, of course.”

“Pretty exciting,” I commented.

Dez laughed – “Hardly!  You know what I did, MT?  What I still mostly do?”

I indicated “no” and finished my tomato juice.

“I was and still am a researcher and editor.  I am so on the outer fringes of the CIA it’s not even funny.  Mainly, for all these years I have been editing the most boring, routine reports you can imagine.  M—, I have the lowest clearance of any employee in the company!  A custodian could get more information than I could.”

“Really?  Are you kidding? All of it’s boring?” I asked.

“Well, other than this situation –” (She meant me.) – “I can honestly say that there were only two other quasi-exciting times.  And they were both mostly exciting only in retrospect.”  She paused and picked at the fruit on her plate.

“Go on.  Don’t leave me hanging,” I urged. “Or can’t you divulge that information?”

Dez basically ignored my comment and went on – “You remember hearing or reading about Operation Stargate?

“I think so,” I answered.  I searched my memory banks.

“Sometimes they referred to it as remote viewing.  The project contained at least thirty men and women working in top secret on various attempts to psychically prophesize our enemies’ workings.  They mostly dealt with unverified classified reports.  The program was funded for twenty years and then suddenly the funding stopped – not gradually, but it was disbanded all at once.  Someone just yanked the plug.”

Desiree paused to drink some coffee.  She glanced around, out of habit I suspected.  But, the diner was only sparsely populated and there was absolutely nobody near us.

“I think we’re safe,” I offered, for what it was worth.

Dez smiled weakly.  “Habit.”

“I got to work on the editing and filing of a good portion of those reports,” she continued, “both the verified and unverified ones.”

“Wow, that had to be pretty interesting.”

“Yeah, there were some very outrageous and intriguing findings.”

“Can you tell about any of them?”

“Not really, not supposed to, anyway.” There was a short pause. “Let’s just say that to this day Western science and Western culture voids out so many things.  For the most part, everything is cut and dry to them.  That’s partly why there’s so much confusion with Project F. O. Y.  What we see with our eyes is merely slivers of the entire picture.  To them, they’re old school –seeing is believing, and even then, only if it makes sense to them.”

“Almonds are a member of the peach family,” I uttered softly.

“What?” Dez questioned.

“Oh, it’s just something Walter used to say in high school when something didn’t make sense.  I never really knew what he meant until I looked it up when I was in college.  It’s true.”

“And?”

“And I’m thinking that most of the old school, the classic Western thinking portion, would still group almonds with nuts . . . even if they were shown the proof.”

“Bingo.” Desiree touched her index finger to her nose.

I was still kind of hungry so I ordered an English muffin and we drank more coffee.

“What was the other memorable experience?” I asked, resuming our conversation.

Dez looked up – “It was eight years ago, when Walter supposedly died,” she revealed. “Actually, he was missing and presumed deceased.  Obviously, all the conclusions reached are now most probably inaccurate.  However, there were subsequent, follow-up reports filed that allowed for the possibility that Walter Young was not dead but, instead, submerged deep within the community.”

“Wow, you mean they picked you to work on Walter’s case?” I asked, somewhat awed.

“Yes, but actually almost all of it was after-the-fact editing and processing.”

“Still, that’s something.” And then I asked – “Do you think they chose you because of the high school connection?”

“No, no—In fact, I’m sure they didn’t.  That was just a fluke, flat out, a coincidence.”

I interrupted – “I thought that there was no such thing as coincidences within the CIA community.”

Dez smiled.  “What movie is that from?”

“I don’t know, probably an old X-Files episode,” I said.

We sat relaxed, and drank coffee until we realized we should be switching to decaf.  I think we were relaxed because, being in Culver City, we were at arm’s length away from our immediate problem.

“Hey, Dez,” I queried. “How much did Walter actually have to do with those pills and the CIA?”

She leaned in and spoke quietly. “Actually, he was one of two key scientists—”

“Really?  Don’t tell me the other one’s gone too!”

“Of course.  However, the company is pretty certain he’s deceased.”

“They are?”

“They better be – they buried him!”

“Oh!”

“From everything I’ve read, all the de-classified reports and memos, I don’t think Walter really understood all of the ramifications contained in his research.  As it turns out, once the pills appeared to actually work, they were utilized in ultra-clandestine cases of the Witness Protection Program.  The subject would be given a lifetime supply of the pills and also special skin ointment and hair coloring early on, and they would be relocated to some spot where only top officials would know.”  And then Dez added – “As far as I know it is still going on, although the CIA will categorically deny any knowledge of it.”

“So, Jimmy Hoffa’s still alive,” I said and smiled.

Dez merely shrugged her shoulders and gave a “who knows?” expression.

“So, truly, Walter is probably alive somewhere and has a boatload of those pills.”

“That’s my best guestimate.  Either that or the CIA has him in seclusion somewhere.  Apparently, the pills have no long-term side effects other than a more pronounced case of aches and pains (arthritis, neuralgia, etcetera), when the subject returns to his rightful age.

“Somehow Walter and his crony discovered a gene or chromosome, an area of the brain, or chemical or whatever and it regulates aging.  I mean, you are also supposed to follow a certain diet but, the amazing thing is that, even without that, the pills have the uncanny ability to subtract approximately twenty-five to thirty years from a person’s true age.  Hence, Project F. O. Y.  In an eerie way, Walter and his partner did discover the Fountain of Youth.”

(Take that, Ponce`!)

“Jeez! It sounds just like science fiction,” was all I could think to say.

“I think that is exactly the reason why there is so much confusion within the agency, itself,” Dez explained.

“The almond and the peach,” I remarked.

“On the nose.”

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 30:  Not a Perfect Plan, but Still a Plan

            We decided to spend the rest of the morning strolling along Venice Beach, which was really, really nice as it wasn’t crowded and the weather was excellent.

For the most part, as we walked, I could tell we were skirting around the bigger issues – What were we going to do?  Return to teaching like nothing had ever happened?  Take to the road and run?  What?

For all she’d been through, Desiree looked great.  I took a chance.  I suddenly stopped walking and slid my arms around her and buried my face in her neck.  I squeezed.  I couldn’t believe it, there was a slight hesitation and then she squeezed back!  We actually hugged and cuddled like that for some time, neither of us saying a word.  And then, hand in hand, we made our way out to the sand and towards the isolated water’s edge.

It was a bit overcast but the sun was successfully fighting its way through the haze as we sat there, silent, watching the waves roll in and out and the seagulls dart and dive and then float in for a landing on the wet sand.

At some point while we sat on the sand, knees pressed up to our chests, I mentioned Bob-O to Desiree.  I also pulled my code-deciphered letter from Walter out of my jacket pocket and unfolded it.  I had now folded and refolded it so many times that it was actually becoming quite frayed and worn.

Together, we sat there and re-read it –

(BE)                                                                (HCGG 7TTEEGN)

(M-T)                                                              (P-I-L-L  B-O-T-T-L-E)

500KLNS

D-A-N-G-E-R

EUNM    OOSN  YNEECKY      ETTTT  4GTTLN

T-H-E-Y  A-R-E  G-E-T-T-I-N-G  T-O-O  C-L-O-S-E

EUN    GQRK— EUN    YSTT1H:    TTTTTH  BTT  7TT7-TT   7NKKM

T-H-E  L-I-S-T – T-H-E  G-R-O-U-P:  K-O-O-P  M-O  B-O-B-O  B-E-N-N-Y

S00M   BE

R-A-Y  M-T

EUNM     TNTT6:    TCST     600GENS

T-H-E-Y  K-N-O-W:  K-I-R-K  W-A-L-T-E-R

BM    GCONL  CK   ANTTH00S5M

M-Y  L-I-F-E-S  I-N  J-E-O-P-A-R-D-Y

7N    400SNOHGG

B-E  C-A-R-E-F-U-L-L

500KLNS

D-A-N-G-E-R

“Was Walter this dramatic in high school?” Dez suddenly asked.

“No, not really,” I answered, “just sort of weird.  He was an odd duck at times.”

We were silent for a moment.  Then Desiree remarked – “’They are getting too close’ can mean so many things.”

“Too close to Walter,” I offered.

“Yes . . .” Dez paused.

“What?”

“He could also mean that the CIA is getting too close to the entire group or . . .” and she slowly sucked in a breath – “That they are getting too close to you, MT.”

WHACK!

I really hadn’t even thought about that.  I had just assumed Walter meant that they were getting too close to him.

“What can I say?”  I finally whispered and we were silent again.  Dez took the letter from me and studied it a moment longer.  I pointed out that Koop and Mo’s names were underlined, the only names underlined.  Desiree nodded.

“Well, that’s three from your group on this letter,” she said and by her facial expression I couldn’t really tell if she was concerned or just thinking.  Carefully, she re-folded the letter and handed it back to me.

“No,” I corrected her as I took the letter and stuffed it back into my pocket – “Vinny actually makes it four.”

“Right,” Desiree confirmed.

“Well, that’s four, then – Koop, Mo, Bob-O and approximately ten years ago, Vinny.”

I could feel Dez look at me. “What about Benny?”

“What about Benny?” I asked somewhat hurriedly. There was obvious concern in my voice.  A significant pause followed.  “What?”  Now I was on edge.

“I’m sorry, MT, I thought you knew.  You were pretty close to Benny, weren’t you?  I just assumed—”

“What do you mean, Dez – Knew what?”  Now I am certain there was panic in my voice.

“Benny Leonardi has been on the missing persons list for at least two years.  It came through our office. I filed it.”

I jumped up.  Sand flew through the air. “What?  How?  Who?” I obviously couldn’t zero in on one question.  Benny was missing?  What?

“I’m so sorry, M—, I really thought you knew.  I found out about it one night at the agency.  He lived in northern Oregon, right?”

“Y-Yes . . .” was all I could muster.  As I sat there and tried to make sense of this new development, new to me that is, certain puzzle pieces began to fall into place.  Benny hadn’t sent Christmas cards for a couple of years.  He had not been to the recent baseball reunions.  And he hadn’t shown up for our 30th reunion.

“Oh, my God!”  All of a sudden Desiree jumped up and grabbed me – “That’s it! MT, I just had a thought!” She stumbled in the sand but pushed and maneuvered me far away from any other human beings.  Finally, when it was just the two of us plus the seagulls, she stopped and spoke—

“Okay, M—, tell me exactly who was in your group with Walter?”

“Well, actually, Walter was sort of on the fringes.”

“I know, I know.  But from Walter’s perspective, who made up your group?”

A part of me was already sensing where Dez was heading with this as I answered her – “Well, just the people on the list, really.  Benny was the unofficial leader.  The rest of the group was me and Ray, Vinny, Koop, Mo, Bob-O, Walter and Gumby.”

“Gumby?”

“Yeah, he never really liked that nickname – His real name is Kirk Black—”

“Blackman – Kirk Blackman?” She finished it for me.

“Yes,” I said.  Maybe I really didn’t know where she was headed with this after all. “Why?  How did you know?”

“M—, sit back down. It’s truly a small, small world.” She yanked me down next to her and checked out our surroundings. “Kirk Blackman is high up in the system. He is or was one of Walter’s main superiors.”

(WHACK!  SMACK!  ANOTHER HEAD-ON!)

“What?”

We stared at each other with our mouths wide open.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Eventually we began our trek back to civilization and were somewhat ready to face the problems of our worlds.  We walked along the waters’ edge.  I was glad, to say that at the least, Dez thought we needed to work together closely.  I decided that that was the best time to divulge the basics of my plan to Desiree.

“Now, try not to interrupt me until I get it all out,” I asked of her.

“No problem,” she answered.

“Okay, now, I’ve pretty much thought through most of this.  I mean, as best I can to this point.  Okay, obviously I am in – actually, we are in quite a sticky predicament.  Right?”

Dez agreed. “Right.”

“Well, first off,” I continued, “I’ve decided that I’m going to get a long-term sub for a month.  I might ask for Mr. Nix.  He seemed to be pretty organized and efficient and the kids liked him, for the most part.”

“What are you going to tell the school?” Dez queried.

I stopped and put both hands on my hips.  I gave her an exaggerated stare.

“Sorry, just wondering. You don’t actually expect me to be totally silent, do you?”

I smiled.  “Kidding.”

Then I addressed her question. “I am going to tell them I have to have an operation or some such medical procedure and that I’ll need approximately a month off.”

Dez cleared her throat twice . . . Then, a third time—

“What?  What?”

“You really don’t have to tell them anything if you don’t want to.  You can take a personal necessity leave.  Our district offers that.  It’s usually non-paid,” Dez explained, “But most of the time they’ll let you use up sick days you have accumulated over the years.”

“You seem to know a lot about this.”

“I had to use it a couple of times when my second job took me out of town.  Once I needed three weeks and the other time, a week.  Both times the school and the district were cool – no questions asked.”  Then she added, “And where do you think I was this past vacation?”

“Oh, uh . . . yeah.  Well, anyway,  I’ll look into the district policy.  Anyway, the point is – I’m going to take a month off and try to solve this problem.”

Dez drew in a deep breath and let it slowly whistle out.

“What now?” I asked.

“Nothing, M—, really, nothing.  Go on.”

Okay, well, first I figured I’d go down to Orange County and visit Ray.  We are the only two left from the group who aren’t yet infected, I mean affected.” I paused. “Wow, now there’s a Freudian slip, for you, huh?”

“Hmm . . . interesting,” she said under her breath.  Desiree was obviously committed to listening to me.  True to her word.

I went on – “Anyway, I’m going to tell Ray about the pills.  Or, better yet, I’ll show him how they work, what they do.  Yeah, yeah,” I continued partially to myself— “I’ll probably have to show him because this whole thing just seems too fantastic when you try to explain it.

“At any rate, then I’m going to enlist Ray’s help and try to infiltrate the CIA.” I stopped.  Dez had suddenly stopped walking. “All right,” I said, “Maybe infiltrate is too strong of word.”

She stared at me.  I could tell she was obviously dying to say something—

“Wait, wait!  Don’t say it.  Let me finish, Dez.  All I want to do, all I want to accomplish is to try to find Walter – to find out if he’s alive, just to know that he’s okay.           “So, to elude those goons, the three dark suits, plus anything else the CIA can throw at me I’m going to go undercover as Phillip.  And that’s actually where I’ll need your help.  I need you to get that janitor’s clearance going and try to hook me up with Walter Young’s old files.”

There was a definite pause as we sloshed along.  The pause continued when we made a right turn and headed up the dry sand towards the Boardwalk.

“Okay, you can talk now,” I finally said. “I know it’s not a perfect plan but it’s still a plan and I think it’s a good start.  I mean—”

Dez interrupted. “It’s good.  I think that you might be right.  We need to see if we can locate Walter, at least see if he truly is alive and well.  And I believe he is. However, we need to do that as quietly as possible, we can’t rattle any cages.  But, MT, there is one thing you cannot do—”

I assumed that she was talking about going undercover into the CIA “No, no, really – I can do it,” I persisted. “I figure by taking the pills no one will recognize us.”

“There can’t be an us ,” Dez said emphatically.

“What do you mean?” Suddenly I was confused. “No us?”

“Trust me on this, MT.  If I’ve learned anything from my years with the agency, the less said the better; the less people who are in the know, the better.” Then she punctuated it. “Under absolutely no circumstances can you tell Ray.”

For a moment I didn’t say anything, actually trying to fully process where Dez was coming from.  Then I argued—

“But, Ray’s in danger, too, Dez.”

“I know.  I’m not saying that we can’t let him know there’s a possibility that he might be in some danger.”

“Well, what are you saying?” I was still a little confused.

Dez cleared it up quickly. “You can’t tell Ray about the pills.  Right now only you and I know about them, correct?”

I gave an affirmative nod.  “And Walter, “ I added, “But—”

“There are no buts here, MT.” Desiree was rock solid on this. “This needs to stay amongst the two of us and only the two of us.  No one else.”

Then she played a card she’d never used with me before – “You really need to trust me on this, MT.  In fact, I want you to promise me right now that, no matter what, those pills stay only with us, you and me.”

Since she was obviously so concerned, my options were narrowed down considerably.  I looked Dez straight in the eyes—“All right, I promise.”  Then I added, “But I still want to go down and warn Ray in person.”

“All right, that’s not a problem.”

We walked a little slower as we came to the sidewalk area.  I could tell that we were both thinking, processing.  There really was a lot of information to digest.

Eventually Desiree broke the silence – “I’ll go with you,” she said softly.

“Huh?”

“We’ll go together to see Ray.  We can go for dinner and see him sing.”

“Really?”

“You always say you want to take me down to hear him sing, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes, I do.”

Dez was actually walking a little ahead of me as I was trying to clear sand from one of my Van tennis shoes.  I called out to her –

“Will this be like a date?” I asked.

She stopped and looked back.  There was a sparkle in her eyes. “Actually, yes, it will be exactly like a date.”

“Does that mean you forgive me?”

She paused and seemed to stare right through me. “It will be exactly like a date,” she repeated.

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(XIII) PROJECT F.O.Y. – CH 26,27,28 – 8/11/12

Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of   it …                                                                                             Mark Twain

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

PART THREE

 

“Back to a different age

When that new dance was all the rage,

When Rock and Roll was King and Queen,

            But things are never what they seem . . .”

CHAPTER 26:  Hanging off hold . . .

            I was forty-seven years old and still sittin’ around waiting for my life to start . . .

On your mark.

Get set.

Go.

(Uh . . . Hold on a sec . . . Can I change my mind?)

 

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 27:  Desiree Garner

            No matter how hard you look you will not find the words rapscallion, scalawag or scoundrel anywhere in this account.  However, there certainly may be characters who warrant one or more of the above monikers.

Even characters like Steve Jones, the vice-principal.  He made it his mission in life to badger me at least once a day about something.  “You left your windows open again last night.” And  “The students are still eating and drinking sodas in your room.  I’ve warned you before, Thomas.  I’m going to have to write you up.”

“Write me up then,” I finally said.  “For crying out loud, Steve, it was raining outside.  I thought we were required to give sanctuary during inclement weather!” was my retort.  Steve Jones was a major pain in the butt . . . at school.

I really wasn’t sure how or when to confront Desiree.  But, I did know I didn’t want to get into it at school so at lunch I kept things light and mellow.

To tell the truth, I was somewhat thrown when Desiree went the entire lunch period without even bringing up Phillip.  (I mean, he was my nephew for Godsake!)  That just seemed peculiar to me.  But, like I said, I was trying to keep things mellow so I let it slide.  Maybe she was trying to keep things mellow too.

As we were leaving lunch to go back to our afternoon classes, Dez remarked—

“You’re awfully quiet today, MT.”

“Yeah,” I said and shrugged my shoulders – “Just a little tired, I guess.”

And then, at the fork in the walkway, we split up to head to our individual classrooms.  I called out to Desiree before I could stop myself—

“Dez, I really need to talk to you.”

There was a short pause as she hesitated, waiting for a group of students to stroll by.  Her face stiffened.  “I need to talk with you, too, Mr. Thomas,” she finally said.  “Call me right after school.”  And then she was quickly off to teach her final periods for the day.

“Hi, Mr. Thomas.”  The Morgan twins energetically passed by me in the hallway.

“Hello ladies.”  I just wasn’t up to even attempting the Tanya and Teresa thingy.  I went to class.

After school was out for the day, Desiree agreed to come over to my house so we could talk.

“Maybe we can have an early dinner, order pizza or something,” she suggested.

“Sounds good,” I agreed.

Man, I just could not fathom how nonchalant she was.  It was as if absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had occurred over winter break.  I have to admit that I was somewhat thrown off.  I wondered what was clicking and whirring in that brain of hers.

One thing was a given, at least to me, as I drove us to my place.  I knew I didn’t want to get trapped talking about everything out in the car.  So, I tried to keep things on a copacetic track, light subjects – first day back in the trenches for her and so forth – as we traveled the relatively short distance to my house.

However, just as we hit the driveway and I turned in, Desiree decided to bring up Phillip.

“I met your nephew, looks a lot like you when you were younger,” was all she said.

I sat quiet.

“Did he tell you?” Dez queried.

“Yeah, he did,” I answered gently. “I actually tried to call you a few times.”

“Oh – sorry, I wasn’t home.”

“It’s just that . . . Aw, never mind.”  I turned the car engine off and removed the keys from the ignition.

“What?  What, MT?”

I tried to select my words carefully.  “Well, I have to say I was a little concerned and a bit surprised.  I mean, you stopped by so early in the morning and I thought you were out of town, up north and . . . I don’t know.  I was just a little thrown off, a little concerned.  No, that’s not true, I was a lot concerned!”

Desiree was quiet for a moment.  She stared straight ahead.  “I’m sorry, MT, really.” She sounded serious.  “It was a fluke thing.  I had to come home briefly.  And I thought at first that I might need your help with something.  As it turned out, I didn’t.”

To me it definitely sounded as if Desiree was choosing her words carefully, also.  “I need to tell you something, Michael,” she stated.  (Uh-oh – Michael!  This can’t be good!)  “But I’m not sure where to start.”

“The beginning usually works,” I offered a bit stoically.

Dez suppressed a cough, I think.  “No, actually I don’t feel the beginning works here.”  She was serious.  “It’s really not an option.”

“Huh?”

We sat in silence.

“Well, then, start in the middle or at the end and tell me with flashbacks.  You’ve read enough books, seen enough movies—”  I forced a smile.

Dez forced a smile back.  It was obvious that we were both very uncomfortable.  “Well, I guess to start with MT, I need to tell you that I wasn’t at my sisters.’  I’m—”

“I know, I know.” I cut her off.  “I had a nice little visit with Portia at the market last week,” I blurted out.

You could’ve heard the proverbial pin drop, even on the carpeted interior of the car.  I really must have dropped a bombshell because Dez had a look on her face that I had never seen before.  It was more than a mixture of surprise and dread.  There was something else, something intangible.  She immediately turned away.

“Let’s go in the house,” she suggested softly and got out of the car.  “This could take awhile.”

I climbed out my side and grabbed my briefcase from the back seat, automatically locking the doors.  Desiree was already up the steps and on the front porch.  I thought to myself, “Well, it’s started.  But we’re both tip-toeing around trying not to bruise each other.”

All of a sudden Dez called out—“Hey, MT, did you know you left your front door open?”

“What?” I tried not to scowl. “No, I didn’t,” I said as I reached her.  I looked at the door, then at Desiree, then back to the door.  My front door was definitely opened about two to four inches.  My mind raced.  “I’m sure I locked it.” I said emphatically.  “In fact, I had to go back in and get some pills and I remember re-locking that door and checking it before I left for work this morning,” I insisted.

“Maybe you accidentally left it open when you went back,” Dez offered.

“No, I’m positive,” I said.

Actually, the reason I was so dead certain was because that morning I vividly recalled going back into my house to get the little blue, Walter-pills.  I wanted to take them with me in case, oh, I don’t know – in case I needed them.  Not needed in the sense that I would take any of them, but needed in the sense that I actually was contemplating showing them to Desiree.  A big part of me wanted to come clean with her.  (I truly think it was leftover from all of my ritual Saturday afternoon confessions.)

That morning I clearly remembered setting my briefcase down on the front porch and stuffing the pill bottle into my jacket pocket, then re-locking and checking the front door before I left.  It was a cut and dry memory.

Now, as I stood there looking from Desiree to the front door, which was just slightly ajar, a feeling of dread began to well up inside of me.

Dread was not nearly a strong enough word for what I saw once we opened the door—

“Oh, my God – no!” Desiree whispered, overcome.

Me?  I was completely speechless.

My house had been quite thoroughly trashed.  And, I mean trashed.  Everything was a mess.  It looked like a small bomb had exploded!  The living room was probably the least affected and that wasn’t saying much.  There were books and papers scattered all over the place and two lamps were knocked over.

“Wha—?  I – ?”  I still couldn’t manage to speak.

Additionally, my kitchen was turned completely upside down.  All of the drawers were emptied and their contents were strewn on the floor.  The cupboards were demolished.  There was even some broken glass spread around.

As the shock was being absorbed by all of the fibers of my being I began to experience the sickening sensation of being violated.  Next I fought feelings of outrageous anger.

Desiree, who had made her way back to my bedroom and den and bathroom stated simply—“They’re all bad, M.”

Then, from out of the silence, I heard my own voice – “What the hell happened?  Who would do something like this?”  I’m pretty sure I was in some state of shock.

Desiree tried to make me focus and asked – “MT, is anything missing?”

I didn’t really mean to but I almost yelled back at her – “Yeah, yeah, of course things are missing.  Someone broke in and robbed me!  Jesus Christ!  Why?  Why me?  Why now?  Jeez-us H. Christ!” I snapped.

Dez persisted evenly, almost too calmly.  “MT, what is actually missing?”

“I don’t know.  What do you mean?”

“What is gone?  What did they take?”

“Well . . .” I took in a deep breath and let it out.  Then I searched around trying to reply, but everywhere I turned nothing really seemed to be missing.  A lot of stuff was broken or in a mess but I couldn’t actually find that anything was stolen.  Finally my eyes met Desiree’s and we held each other’s stare.

“MT, listen to me,”  Dez spoke deliberately.  “This was not a robbery.  Someone was looking for something.”

“Huh?  What?” I said absently.

“Someone was searching for something you must have.  And judging by how torn apart this place is I don’t think they found it.”

“But, I don’t have anything.  I mean, what could they possibly be looking for?”

Desiree shrugged. “I don’t know,” I heard her say softly.

“Oh, my God!  No!” I cried. “My comics!” I rushed to my ransacked bedroom where I literally flew to my knees and frantically pulled the box out from under my bed.  I quickly opened it up – but it was fine.  The comic books even looked untouched.

“Whew!  Oh, man!” was all I could say.  I looked at Desiree with a little sense of relief.

Together we checked my bathroom and den, and then my bedroom again.  Everything was a shambles but nothing seemed to be missing.  Even eighty dollars in twenties was still on my dresser, scattered but still there.  How strange.

Mindlessly, I began to pick up various odds and ends, trying to return them to their proper places.  And for a short time I was completely oblivious of my surroundings, including Desiree.  That is until Dez spoke again.

“You know, M—, I don’t think you should move anything.”

“Why not?  I’ve got to clean up!” I exclaimed, exasperated.

“No, no you don’t.” She physically stopped me. “I think you better call the police.  You really need to report this.”

I stopped what I was doing and looked at her.  She seemed strong, firm.

I took Desiree’s advice.  “Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” I finally said and I began a methodical search for the phone.  Now, of all times, I wished I had a cell phone.

After the police came and investigated, dusting for prints, putting up crime tape and interrogating me with ten thousand questions, I was suddenly very, very tired.

Desiree also had to answer a barrage of questions but, for the most part, she just faded to the background, staying out of their way.  Every now and then I would catch a glimpse of her, (between questions), and I couldn’t help but notice that there was something strange about her demeanor.  It was almost as if she were too calm, too calculating.  Maybe she was just cool under pressure I remember thinking.

After awhile the police offered to take Desiree back to the high school in order for her to retrieve her car and both she and the cops strongly recommended that I spend the night in a hotel.  In fact, before she left, Desiree made me promise I wouldn’t stay the night at my own house.  It was a crime scene whether I wanted to admit it or not.

“I’d ask you over to my place, MT, but everything’s such a mess.” She paused.  We both looked around and grinned and even had a borderline chuckle as we realized the irony.

“No, no thanks, Dez, I think I need to be alone anyway,” I told her.  But the truth was I really didn’t know what I needed.

“Well, call me when you get settled.  Go someplace close,” she suggested.  “And definitely take tomorrow off.”

“I’ll be okay,” I told her.  “I think I’ll just go to the Best Western around the block, there.”

Desiree thought that was a good idea.

“Hey,” I said as she was getting ready to leave with two of the officers.  “What about our, you know – discussion?”

“I think you have enough on your plate right now, MT.  Don’t worry about it.  There’s plenty of time.  We will talk.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“To be continued,” I muttered.  And before long I was standing alone in the middle of my kitchen, surrounded by broken plates and glasses, jumbled up silverware, overturned glass bowls and pots and pans plus the scattered remnants of my Walter puzzle that I still hadn’t completely cleaned off of the cupboards.

At one point I found myself staring absent-mindedly into an empty cupboard where all of my pills, aspirin, allergy meds and vitamins were normally stored.  The whole lot of pills had been spilled out and spread all over the counter and floor.  Each and every bottle had been opened and emptied!

A slow realization began to seep into my brain.

“Oh, my God!” I said to myself.  I slipped my hands into my jacket pocket, more for reassurance than anything else.  “I do know what they were looking for!”

PROJECT F.O.Y.

(YOU CAN’T GO BACK)

CHAPTER 28:  Desiree Garner – Take Two

            No matter how hard I tried I could not get myself to fall asleep in that hotel bed.  I kicked back and watched mindless TV for more than two hours trying to lull myself to la-la land.  I even made a futile attempt at watching the porn station but I was just too jittery or something.  Eventually I simply found myself dully channel surfing.

For some reason I had a nagging thought that would not leave me alone.  Of all things, I kept thinking about my stupid answering machine in the bedroom of my house.  With all of the confusion that took place after the break-in I had totally forgotten to check my machine.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  I did check to see if the little red light was flashing and it was.  From the number of flashings I knew that I had at least three messages.  And, now, as I lounged around my hotel room, it was eating at me.

Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore.  A little past midnight I gave in to my persistent thoughts, got up and slipped on my jeans.  I splashed some cool water on my face in hopes I would be more alert, then I left the hotel room.

When I arrived at my house and parked on the street I was somewhat startled.  First of all, there was police tape everywhere – so I couldn’t even turn into my own driveway.  But that’s not what really startled me.

Within the outer edges of the glare from my headlights, as I drove up, I could have sworn I saw two shadowy shapes scuttle from my front porch and run away, across the lawn and down the street.

“Damn kids,” I thought aloud.  “Now something will be gone!”

Then, son-of-a-gun, if a police, squad car didn’t pull right up with a search beam.  Their light actually caught the two figures full out as they neared a light colored sedan parked down the street.

I sat and watched as the officers confronted the two figures and also talked with the driver of that automobile.  “Yes!” I thought to myself.  “Justice!”

As my eyes adjusted I could see that the figures were definitely not kids.  All three were young to middle-aged men and they were wearing dark suits.  (Now, who the hell prowled around at midnight wearing suits?)

Mostly due to instinct or intuition, but not with a lot of thought, I made a snap decision.  I hastily exited my car and, bound and determined, walked up to the police officers and the three men.

“Everything okay, officer?” I queried.  I cleared my throat and looked at the three culprits.  They blankly stared back at me.  It was almost as if they had no expression.  I subconsciously put my hands in my jacket pockets and grasped the pill bottle.  One of the police officers turned to face me.

“Can I help you?” he asked rather gruffly.

“Yeah . . . uh . . . I live over there.”  I pointed back to my yellow-tape surrounded house.  “My name’s Michael Thomas.” I said quietly enough that only the officer could hear me.

“What do you need, Mr. Thomas?”

“Well, I was just wondering if everything was okay.”

“Everything is fine,” the second cop interjected.

“I mean, I just drove up and saw these guys running from my house, so I couldn’t help but wonder—”

“You are quite mistaken,” One of the dark suits answered coldly.

“I don’t think so,” I said with confidence, the confidence that comes with standing beside two armed police officers.

“Must’ve been some kids,” The first policeman offered – “These gentlemen check out.”

“W-What?  Huh?” I stammered.  I quickly looked from one cop to the other. Help me here. Then I thought to myself – “These gentlemen check out!  What the hell does that mean?”  And I stood there dumbfounded as the police told the three men to go ahead and –  “go on about your business.”

The next thing I knew the three dark suits were driving off into the night.  I tried explaining to the two cops that those guys should be considered prime suspects since I was certain I had seen them skulking around my place – “even before tonight!”

“You must be mistaken, Mr. Thomas.  I can assure you that those men have nothing to do with you or your house.”

I fought off my exasperation and although I still wasn’t nearly convinced, I let the police officers escort me to my front porch.  All the while we seemed to be dodging the yellow crime-scene tape that was all over the place.

I had explained to the police that I just wanted to retrieve my phone messages so, they intimated that they would wait out in the squad car until I was ready to leave.

“Thanks,” I said and entered my house of shambles.

Once I was inside, the shock and scope of the mess momentarily overwhelmed me.  “Jeez – zus H. Pierrepont!”  It was a friggin’ disaster area!  A tornado had ripped through.  (Toto, where are you?)

Dodging tape and trying not to move or touch anything, I made my way to the bedroom.  There were actually four messages on my machine.  I played them all back.  The first three were insignificant but the fourth one was a real doozey!  It was very unexpected.

The fourth message was from Ray Donnells and was rather long, coming from him.  Ray was usually very short and cryptic with his phone messages.  It stated—

“Hey, MT – I just got back from Ohio.  You know, family stuff— Don’t know if you heard about Bob-O.”

There was a long pause.  Then—

“He and Carrie got into a bad accident somewhere back east, New Jersey, I think.  Both cars were totaled.  Neither one of them made it.”

Ray’s message continued on – “You probably already heard from someone else.  It happened a couple of weeks ago now.  But, just in case, I thought I better call you.  The funeral was last week back east somewhere.  I know you weren’t as close to Bob and Carrie as I was but I wanted to make sure you knew.”  The message ended.

SMACK!

After all I’d just been through I really didn’t need that in my head.  In the middle of a muddled house I stood there stunned and horrified, trying to make things make sense.

“Oh my God! Benny was next on Walter’s list!”  My mind raced.  I had to figure out a way to find Benny and try to warn him.  But how?

Slowly, I sat down on the edge of my bed and replayed the message.  “Something obscure and very mysterious is going on here,” I thought.  First Vinny and Koop and recently Mo, and now Bob-O and his wife.  Then I tried very hard not to think about Walter’s letter and the group.  But I just couldn’t fight off certain suspicions.  What was up?  How could all of those be coincidences?  I continued to try to fight off these disturbing thoughts.

Then, as I continued to sit in a haze, my brain began to work things out and argue back – Well, first off, Vinny was in a fatal car accident and Koop had a heart attack.  Mo had a rare, and obviously deadly, flu. And Bob and Carrie Owens death was due to another fatal car accident.  These were four totally separate incidents at four separate times.  Life happens.  It moves and shifts constantly and sometimes life’s movings and shiftings touch you more than at other times.  “Happenstance, and nothing more, connected those four losses to the group,” I ultimately concluded.

Eventually, I basically convinced myself that the four members from the group were now all gone due to natural progression.  Then I thought about Ray again and I was happy for him, I think.  I forgot to mention that one of the short messages was Ray telling me that he and Ginny were engaged.

Finally, I stood up, drew in a couple of deep breaths and left my house.  The police officers were still outside in their squad car and nodded to me as I got into my car.  Although still quite numb, I waved and drove off.

But I didn’t return to the hotel.  For some reason I drove straight to Desiree’s apartment complex.

Despite the late hour, when I drove up and parked along the street, I knew I wanted to confront Desiree.  Maybe my house was the last straw, I don’t know.  I actually walked up the steps to her complex filled with strong convictions.  I was walking briskly, climbing two of the wide cement steps at a time.  But I stopped cold, dead in my tracks, when I suddenly saw the three dark suits outside, gathered near Desiree’s front door, all talking quietly with her.

WHAT?!

What the hell was going on here?  Now I was absolutely positive that those were the same three men who were just outside my house.

Within a matter of seconds two of the men branched off leaving Dez alone with the other.  I could not hear what they were saying but they were definitely engaged in an argument.  Now and then I could pick up a “No, no way!” coming from Desiree and I watched as the dark suit grabbed her by the upper arm and walked her a short distance away from her front door.

I was just about to make an attempt to try to move closer to Dez but, all of a sudden, the other two dark suits were heading directly towards me.  (Think quick!)  Without much hesitation I walked by the two men, ignoring them, and made an immediate right turn for the first apartment door.  I had no idea whose apartment it was but I pulled out my car keys, fumbling with them, and I pretended that they were keys to the apartment and that I lived there.

However, while I fumbled, I had this eerie sensation that the two men had stopped and that they were watching me so, very deliberately, I dropped the keys.  As I reached for them on the ground I stole a look.  I was right.  The two dark suits had stopped at the patio’s edge, just before the steps started downward.  I was relatively sure that they were checking me out.  I was obviously hoping I didn’t look familiar to them.

So, now I was stuck.  (What to do?)  If they were watching for me to enter into the apartment I was doomed.  I cautiously glanced again.  They were still waiting.  (Doom!  Damn!)

I decided that I had to take a chance.  I fiddled with the keys some more, looked at them and made a big shrug with my shoulders and –

What I did next totally surprised me.  I turned the door knob and the door opened!  It was left unlocked.  Now what I thought?  And then I just automatically opened the door and entered.  I quickly shut the door behind me and leaned against it.  What was I thinking!  Was I even thinking?

After I collected myself somewhat, I surveyed the surroundings.  Everything was very peaceful.  Actually, sleeping undisturbed in a chair facing the television was a very old man.  Next to him on an end table was a bottle of red wine, maybe half full.  I felt myself holding my breath and finally exhaled as quietly as I could.  I was incredibly lucky as the old man sighed, snorted and shifted a bit, but never really woke up.  He was in a deep, deep sleep. (Whew!)

After what I figured to be about ten minutes of just standing there very quiet and trying to get my pulse to stop racing, I finally decided to open the door and leave.  If the dark suits were still outside I would say something under my breath that I had left something in my car.  And as fate would have it they were still there.  They hadn’t moved but they weren’t looking at me until I came out a few steps.  As I quickly passed them I muttered under my breath—

“Aw, for Christ’s sake!  Damn it all!  I must’ve left it in my car!” I tried to mutter just loud enough for them to hear me.

Then I scurried by the two dark suits so rapidly I was relatively sure they did not recognize me and I literally tried not to run to my car and climbed in.  I looked around, hesitantly at first.  Sure enough, there, almost directly across the street from me, was that infamous cream colored sedan.

I sank down low in my car and positioned the mirrors so that I could see their car parked across the street.  And I waited.  I felt my pulse racing and I was breathing rather choppy breaths.  I tried to inhale and exhale rhythmically in order to relax somewhat.

I must have waited a good fifteen to twenty minutes when suddenly I saw all three dark suits hurrying down the complex steps and travel across the walkway.  Desiree was not with them.

With only a few abrupt glances about, they swiftly made their way to the sedan, got in and sped off.

At that point I wasn’t sure what to do.  Should I follow them?  Or, should I go in and check on Desiree?

I decided to check on Desiree.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

I knocked briskly at Desiree’s apartment door.  I was to the point where I didn’t much care how late it was.  However, as per usual with Dez, she startled me.  She answered in mid-knock!

“Hi, MT, come in.”

I was floored!  No expression, nothing.  Desiree wasn’t even a tiny bit surprised to see me.

“What?  I mean, hi, Dez, hello!” I inserted at some point.

She swiftly ushered me inside and shut the door.

“Dez, I need to talk.  We need to talk.”

“I know.”  She locked the front door and carefully peeked out her drawn front curtain, then walked toward the kitchen.  I followed her.

“Would you like some tea or instant coffee?  I was just boiling some water.”

“Tea or coffee!”  (What?)

Silence.

Sure, either’s fine.”  I finally said and sat down at her table.  Then, as I watched her fiddle with mugs and tea bags, I asked – “Dez, what the hell is going on?”

She was silent, concentrating on the two cups of tea.  Then – “Lemon?  Honey?” she asked.

“Huh?  Uh, yeah, thanks.  Dez, I saw you with those three men, those guys in suits—”

“I know,” she said softly.  And she handed me my tea.

“What?” Again, she caught me off – “How do you know?”

She smiled slightly.  “I saw you, too.  Nice move going into old man Rickett’s apartment.  He’s like ninety years old.”  She sat down across from me, actually a little to my right.

“Well, I was totally caught off guard and honestly confused,” I said trying to defend myself.

“I hope you didn’t wake him when you went in.  You would’ve given that poor old man a heart attack for sure.”

I shrugged.  “He was out like a light.”

Dez sipped her tea and got up to go back into the kitchen.  She returned with some sugar wafers.  Before she sat again she stated very softly, very evenly—

“MT, I know you have a myriad of questions.  I need you to trust me.  I can’t answer all of them.”

I couldn’t help myself.  I finally erupted, somewhat – “Dez, those three hoods were just at my house!” I snapped.  “No more than an hour ago I caught them running away from my place.  But, then, the damn police let them go.  I mean, I even saw them checking out my house and me a couple of weeks ago—”  I was trying not to ramble as my blood pressure rose.

“I’m sure you did.”

“Wh-what?” I stopped.  She was staring into her cup.  I continued, but not quite as forcefully – “And then I come over here and I find the three of them with you.  You obviously know them.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, who the hell are they?”  I tried to control the rising level of my voice.  “And don’t tell me that’s one of the ones’ you can’t answer!”

I rapped my knuckles a few times on the tabletop.  Desiree seemed quite composed as she took another sip of tea.  At last she answered.  Speaking somewhat slowly, she asked me—

“M—, do you remember that line from an old X-Files?”  There was a brief pause.  “’Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer.’”

“Yeah – yes, of course I do,” I responded quickly.  I stared at her, studying her.  She appeared to be looking right through me.  “But I don’t see what that has to do with us—” I started to say.  But I stopped myself because it struck me—

“M—?” she whispered so softly.

“What?  Jesus, Dez, when?  When did I become your enemy?”

She gave me an odd look. “MT, you’ve never become my enemy.”  And then her voice trailed off substantially.  “ . . . I think that’s part of the problem.” is what I thought I heard her say.

One of many very uncomfortable pauses followed.  I shifted in my seat.  Finally Desiree pursed her lips, then let out an audible breath.

“They are CIA,” she said with total calm. “And to a very real extent, so am I.”

(WHACK!)

“What?!” I was about to take another sip of tea but instead I spilled some of it onto my chest and lap.  I jumped up – “Ow, Jeez!  That’s hot!  Hot—hot!”

Dez also jumped up, quickly asking – “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” I said as I wiped at the wet areas with napkins.

Then, as I was dabbing, I thought about it—

“No, no – Actually, I’m not fine!” I almost shouted at her through partially clenched teeth.  “CIA?  I’m thoroughly confused!” I leaned on the back of a kitchen chair. “And now I’m even more – oh, I don’t know – mixed up, frustrated, angry!  You pick!”

I took a breath and asked as an afterthought – “What could the CIA possibly want with me, anyway?”

“They want Walter Young’s pills back.”

(WHACK!  CRUNCH!  HEAD-ON!)

“Wh-what?” I whispered.  I felt my entire body turn to mercury and my jaw must have hit the floor faster than a Sandy Koufax fastball.  I was so taken aback by both what Desiree said and her quiet composure while saying it that, at first, I couldn’t form a sentence.

“How . . . Th-they know?  You know – Walter—” I stopped and tried to collect myself, somewhat. “How on earth do they know about Walter’s pills?” I finally managed to ask.

“Oh, they have their ways.” And then she added – “For crying out loud, MT, you watch movies and TV!  Pick a show!  They figured it out a long time ago.”

Desiree was so very cool, calm and collected it was spooky.  Me?  I had to fight off the shakes.  I could feel myself trembling involuntarily.  Then quite suddenly it hit me!  And it hit me hard, harder than a high, inside hard one from Don Drysdale!

I asked – “Desiree, how did you know about Walter’s pills?”

She glanced up at me for a moment and then began to study her tea.

“When did you know?” I persisted quietly.

Dez finally spoke.  She spoke slowly – “Since your wall papering.”

“Wall papering?”

“You know, your wall-art, a few months ago.”

“Oh . . . Oh, yeah.” The realization washed over me.  “But, how?  I mean, how did you—”

“When you wall papered your dining room I saw a bottle of the turquoise pills sitting there on your table—”

“Those could have been anything,” came my retort. “Aspirin or Ibuprofen or anything.”

“But they weren’t, were they?”

There was a brief silence while we both sipped tea and stole searching glances.  We made eye contact—

“MT, I saw all of your papers with the jumbled letters and numbers.  You were obviously not doing the TV Guide crossword puzzle!  You were working on trying to crack some kind of code.  I picked up the pill bottle when you weren’t looking and I saw the basics to the code in large letters on the bottle and the same set of numbers and letters on your wall . . .” Dez paused, shook her head, then added – “I tried to tell you to stop.”

My mouth and lips were suddenly very dry and my jaw felt tight and heavy.  The question of how Desiree had connected the dots to Walter Young kept tugging at my brain.

“Dez, how did you know about Walter?” I eventually asked.

“You mean besides his letter sitting there with your stacks of papers and the pill bottle?”

I shrugged and looked down at my feet.

Dez continued – “I just put two and two together, M—.  It wasn’t difficult.  You told me about Walter’s letter at dinner and you mentioned that you had talked with him at your reunion.  I tried to give you a hint when I told Phillip I was disappointed in you, which, by the way, is true.”

I suddenly found myself staring at the floor.

Desiree paused again, then sat up straight.  I could tell that she was being careful, selective with her words and phrasings –

“The branch of the Agency that I am connected with investigated Walter Young’s death eight years ago, MT.”

(SMACK!  WHOA!  HUH?)

Obviously, I was stunned out of my gourd!  I tried to answer – “Wh-what?  Desiree, how can—?  That can’t be.  I sat there talking with him just six months ago at our reunion!  He gave me the freakin’ pills!”

Then Dez went deeper – “Well, I’m guessing the Agency must have wanted Walter out of the picture.  Either that or Walter might have wanted out.  Or, he could have been feeling so much heat that maybe he faked his demise.  I don’t know.  You did know Walter was CIA, didn’t you?”

I shook my head – “I just thought he worked for some kind of fancy-schmancy pharmaceutical research company.”

“He did.  But it was under the CIA umbrella.  Hmm, I thought you knew that.  Well, he obviously resurfaced at your reunion – not a good move.  At some point the CIA must have discovered that Walter had gone rogue.  When Walter realized that the agency knew about him he had to be scared out of his mind.  And he took a real chance mailing you that letter.”

“That’s why he wrote in code and, besides, the letter was some kind of warning.”

I couldn’t help jumping around.  Besides feeling guilty that Dez knew about my secret escapades, to a point, everything was all jumbled up in my mind.

“I’m sure he must have thought he was safe when he gave you the pills,” Dez offered, “Maybe because he’d been out of sight and out of mind for quite a few years.”

“This can’t be real.  This just can’t be happening,” I whined, mostly from exasperation.

“Oh, it’s real.  But you opened up another veritable, more dangerous can of worms, MT.”

“How’s that?”

“Those men who ransacked your apartment are professionals.  They won’t stop until their mission is accomplished or, until the dogs are called off.  They were looking for just one thing, the pills or any clue to their whereabouts.”

I was looking down into my tea mug, thinking  . . . trying to make sense.  Dez paused until I made eye contact with her.  I think she wanted to make certain that I was paying attention, taking it all in.

“You see, M—, as long as you have those pills you are a leak to their highly secretive program, Project F. O. Y. – a small leak I’m sure, but still significant enough for them to take action.

“The F. O. Y. program?  What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a simple acronym for Fountain Of Youth,” she said simply. “Project F. O. Y. is the company’s official name for it.  You see, Walter Young worked in a brown ops section of the WPP, the CIA’s Witness Protection and Relocation Program.”

“Walter was a CIA agent?”

“No, no, no – not really.  Well, sort of, actually.  He was a scientist, researcher.  He was developing and testing those very pills.  For years nobody actually believed they could work.  His reports consistently listed various flaws and problems and that it was too early to tell.  There were always the proverbial bugs to work out.  But, obviously, those reports were bogus.”

“Are we on candid camera?” I asked half-heartedly.

“Hardly.”

“I don’t really follow,” I said, trying to make sense out of what Dez was telling me.

Desiree went on – “Well, I’m not sure, but my best guess is that only an insurgent, brown-ops portion of the CIA knows the skinny on these pills, that they actually truly work.  I think that even within the CIA there is a massive cloak of secrecy surrounding those pills.  I also think it’s a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.”

“Do you think Walter’s still alive, then?”

“Oh, no doubt.  You saw him in the flesh.  I think he has cases of the pills or the exact formula and is either a willing participant in the Witness Protection Program or he’s a renegade.  Either way, he has severely broken protocol by contacting you, not to mention giving you that vial of pills!”

I thought long and hard before asking Desiree my next burning question – “How much do you know about the pills?”  I tried to act somewhat indifferent, sort of nonchalant.  I figured I was treading on thin ice.

Dez took a long, slow breath and sighed heavily.  “Oh, Michael, let’s not go there.”

(Uh-oh, she called me Michael – like I’ve said, that was never, ever good.)

I almost wanted to retract the question.  Finally, all I said was – “Dez?”

She looked at me straight on – “Let’s just say – I know that Phillip is not your nephew . . . and that you owe Jennifer Tremain one hell of an apology.”

(SLAM DUNK!  WHAM!  OH MY GOD!)

I was completely dumbfounded— and speechless.  I truly could not talk.  There was too much info to process; too many bombshells.  I got up and shook my head.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted to run.  I wanted to throw something or, better yet, hit something.  Where was a baseball when you really needed it?  Or a bat, for that matter?

Desiree ultimately broke the tension filled silence.  “M—, I think you should stay here tonight.  They obviously have your place staked out and they will probably trace you to that hotel through the police—”

“What?  Who?”

Desiree stood up straight and looked right at me.  She actually gave me a look like I was nuts – “The three agents.”

I’m sure that deep down I knew what she said had merit, but not everything was registering up to speed with me.

She continued. “They won’t come back here, at least not tonight.  I swore to them that I had no idea where you were; and that I had no contact with you since this afternoon.”

At last my thoughts began to be a little more focused.  “Is that what you were arguing about?” I asked.

“Mostly.  I assured them that I would do my job and let them know if you showed up.” Then Dez added – “That’s exactly why we’re safest here . . . for tonight.”

I stood there blankly staring at her.  I watched numbly as she put pillow covers and a sheet and blankets on the couch.

“You can have the couch.  We’ll talk more in the morning.  We’ll get up early and go to breakfast.”

“Someplace out of the way,” I suggested. “Way out of the way!”

“Sounds good.” In every way Desiree was so nonchalant, so cool.  It was almost as if she had been through stuff like this before.

As she started to clear the teacups I grabbed her arm – “Dez, the truth – are you really CIA?”

She bristled a bit then answered coyly – “No, MT, I only know about all of this because I’m a high school English teacher!” She shook her head.

I forced a smile and loosened my hold and then I maneuvered the teacups away from her.  I held her hand firmly and rubbed at her fingers.

“It doesn’t make sense.  You don’t even seem the type—”

“That’s precisely why it works.”

I looked at her.  She looked at me.  I stifled a sick chuckle. “And here I was worried it was some other guy!”

Desiree smiled for real, squeezed my hand and moved in closer.  Suddenly she gave me quite a profound kiss, just hard enough, just long enough.

When it broke off, I said – “Dez, I’m so sorry I’ve put you in the middle of this.”

“You didn’t, MT.  I’ve chosen to put myself in the middle of this.”  There was yet another pause while we soul-searched each other’s eyes.

Then Desiree ordered – “Now, go to bed.  We’re getting up early.  We’ll talk more tomorrow – figure out where we’re goin’ with all this.”

And with that she broke off our embrace, gathered the tea cups and put them in the sink and then started for her bedroom.  Suddenly she did an about-face—“M—?”

“Yes?”

“I’m assuming you have the pills on you.” It was more of a statement than a question.

I pulled them from my jacket pocket and shook the bottle like a rattle. “Right here.”

“Best to keep them with you, I think,” she told me.

“I figured.”

“Don’t take any.”

“Ha-ha.”

“Goodnight, MT – try to sleep some.  You’re going to need the rest.”

“Hey, Dez?  Just one more thing.” She stopped just before reaching her bedroom.

“Yes?”

“Your family doesn’t know, do they?  You know, I mean, the CIA gig?”

A distant look filled her.  She almost whispered the answer, an answer that I think I already knew.

“No, no they don’t.  Goodnight, MT.”

“Good night.”

And with that Desiree closed her bedroom door and I was alone with all of my thoughts ricocheting off each other.  I sat down on her front room sofa.  Man, a part of me really wanted to charge right into her bedroom and wrap my arms around her and just hold her.  But another part of me knew she needed her space.  She needed to be alone.  And, truthfully, I needed to be alone and sort things out, at least sort out what I could.

Then, all of a sudden, as my mind was whirring and whizzing, trying to sort things into some semblance of order, I remembered Ray’s phone message about Bob and Carrie Owens.  I started to get up off the couch.  I really needed to go tell Dez.  I mean, that was one of the reasons why I had come over to her place so late.  But it was also the dark suits and the condition of my house.

However, within seconds, I stopped myself – “It can wait.  She’s been through enough tonight.  I’ve been through enough tonight!” I told myself and slowly but surely I settled in on the sofa.

Boy, was I surprised.  Within a very short amount of time my mind ceased replaying the events of the day and evening – the house, the mess, Bob-O, Ray, the group, Walter’s pills, the dark suits, the CIA and Desiree.

And I floated off . . . for a little while anyway.

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