by

John Burnham

Quenten Mcklegg brooded as he looked across the white sand and blue water. Puffy white clouds were forming on the horizon but he didn’t notice their beauty. He had not expected to go out like this. He’d never seen himself retiring in a blaze of glory. A simple “Job well done” would have been enough. However, it now looked like he’d be quietly put out to pasture as an incompetent schmuck.

He continued to brood. The Kobo in his hands remained off.

“Hello,” she said.

“Wha? . . . er . . . Hello,” he replied, looking from side to side and then up at her.

“What kind of e-book reader is that?”

“It’s a Kobo.”

“How do you like it?”

“The software has some clumsy spots; but overall, I’m quite pleased with it.”

She nodded. “I’ve looked at the Sony, Kindle and Nook. Since they don’t seem to offer anything that justifies their being almost twice the price of the Kobo, I’m thinking that Kobo is a good way to get into the e-reader thing.”

“Yeah, that was my thinking. So far, I’m glad I went this way.”

“Do you mind if I sit down?” she asked.

He laid the e-reader on his lap and removed his sunglasses. A slight frown pinched his brows. “It’s a public beach,” he answered.

She chuckled. “Yes, but you are entitled to say who invades your space.”

A smile replaced his frown. “Then, I’d be flattered if you’d join me.” He reached out his hand. “I’m Quenten.”

“Hello Quenten, I’m Andrea,” she replied, returning the handshake. After seating herself, she removed her sunglasses and looked at him thoughtfully. “You said ‘flattered.’ I’d have expected something like ‘park it’ or ‘pull up a stump.’ Can you tell me why you chose that word?”

“Sure. It’s not often a guy who was born before they started naming generations gets to be seen on a beach talking with a Gen Y’er.”

She cocked her head. “I’d figure you for a Boomer. That’s a generation name.”

“Even that term hadn’t been invented when I was born. So, you want to discuss e-readers?”

She regarded a toe as she dug it into the sand. “Not really.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“Do you mind telling me why you didn’t think I wanted to talk about e-readers?” she inquired.

“Y’ know, I do mind you asking me to explain my replies—without knowing why you’re asking.”

She leaned back on locked arms and looked at the sky. “Oh god, I’m sorry. I’m a sociologist. I study why people say the things they say.” She looked back at him. “It’s just habit. I think about a person’s reply and, if it’s atypical, I ask.”

His eyes narrowed. “So, you sat down here to study me?”

She caught her breath. “No, no, that didn’t come out right. I apologize again. I have no intention of studying you. But, aren’t you being just the teeniest bit suspicious?”

His voice softened. “How am I supposed to be, when the most impressive woman on this beach saunters over and starts chatting me up?”

She laughed, struck a prim pose and replied, “Thank you kind sir.” Her expression morphed into impishness, “You didn’t look like you were checking the girls.”

He held up his sunglasses. “Not very stylish are they?”

She shrugged. “Those big aviator style shades seem to hang on regardless of wherever else eyewear styles go.”

“They also hide what my eyes are doing. While the position of my head made it look like I was reading, I checked out everything else that was happening on this beach.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Including the girls?”

He put the glasses back in his lap. “Including the girls. I may be old, but I’m not dead.”

Her expression became serious. “Would it sound vain to ask why you chose the word ‘impressive’ to describe my appearance?”

“Not from you, Ms. Sociologist, so I’ll give it to you right between the running lights. You’re a damn fine looking lady, but there are a lot of ’em on this beach today. You stand out because you are the most tastefully attired. You know the difference between dressing for the occasion and using the occasion as an excuse to push the limits of how much skin you can show without getting arrested. Now, can we get around to talking about why you’re chatting me up?”

She dropped her head. Her hair fell around her face. “I’m not ‘chatting you up,’ I’m just lonely.”

He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’m sorry, but isn’t starting conversations with strange men a little dangerous?”

“Not if they have a nice aura.”

“A what?”

“Aura—the glow that surrounds a person. Most people can’t see it, but everybody has one.”

“That sounds kinda nuts. I thought you were a scientist.”

“I am. I can reference scientific studies which strongly suggest the validity of auras if you like.”

“No, you don’t need to do that. Talking to strangers just because they have a nice glow still sounds risky to me.”

“I’ve always found auras to be the most reliable indicator of a person’s character.”

“I knew there must be a better way,” he said, almost to himself.

“Pardon me?” she inquired.

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. Tell me, what does my aura look like?”

“I’ve given up trying to describe auras. They don’t look like anything you’re familiar with. The one thing I can say is that your aura looks like my dad’s.”

“Now, that’s just what my male ego needs—to be told I remind you of your dad.”

“If I read your aura right, you are not the kind of guy who needs his male ego propped up. Anyway, in my case, it’s the ultimate compliment. My dad was the only person I’ve ever been able to really talk with.”

“You said ‘was.’ How long has he been gone?”

“It will be six years this December.”

“So, as an adult, he was still your best friend?”

“Yes.”

“And, you’ve been looking for someone with whom you could communicate for six years?”

“Yes.”

“Well, before you decide I’m someone you want to communicate with, I should ask if you’ve read the papers lately.”

She looked at him quizzically. “The papers?”

“Yeah, that story about the FBI detaining disabled visitors.”

“Yes, I read that story.”

“I’m the agent-in-charge of that mess.”

“So?”

“The papers make me look pretty bad.”

“Their stock in trade is to make somebody look bad, whether they deserve it or not. As usual, they didn’t mention your side of the story.”

“To their credit, they asked; but I couldn’t say anything. I don’t yet know, myself, if I made a mistake. I was trying to figure out what to do when you came along.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have interrupted you.”

“I’m glad you did. I wasn’t getting anywhere,” Quenten answered. 

“I’m sure you had good reason for doing what you did.”

Andrea’s reply disarmed Quenten. ” Yeah, we got some humint about a plan to assassinate the President . . .” Quenten’s voice trailed off as he realized what he was saying. He tried to regroup. “Humint is—”

“Humint is ‘human intelligence’” she interrupted. “information gathered by people in the field—the best kind.”

Quenten was taken aback by her knowledge of his trade. Without considering what he was about to say, he continued his previous thought. “Subsequent intelligence developed nicely. We discovered that certain known terrorist operatives had arranged a meeting in this city. Since the President was scheduled to give a speech here around that time, we thought we had enough.” Again, he stopped short. He was saying too much. What was with this verbal diarrhea?

“Can you tell me what happened next?” she asked innocently.

Against his better judgment, he did. “We thought we’d raid the meeting, and put a stop to whatever they were hatching.”

“That sounds perfectly reasonable.”

“Yeah, it looked tidy. I could see myself retiring as the guy who’d foiled a probable assassination attempt.”

“But, it didn’t work out that way?”

“Not at all. The raid yielded five individuals: Four men who claimed to be physically challenged and a woman who said she was their tour sponsor. The men were foreign nationals with passports. The escort was a citizen and an established therapist.

“Three of the men resembled the guys we expected to be there, but none of us could make a positive ID.

“Passport checks indicate that that they are who they claim to be.” As Quenten finished, he searched her face for a reaction. Thoughtfulness was the only thing he could detect.

“That does sound like a mess,” she offered.

“To make matters worse, the press arrived soon after we commenced the raid. That’s why the papers are full of stories about the FBI mistreating disabled persons.”

“In a sense, that ties your hands, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, if those people are who and what they claim to be, I’ve made a colossal mistake. On the other hand, if those identities are actually legends, we are onto something huge. False identities require a gigantic amount of both effort and cash. If the woman was complicit, she has to be a ‘deep sleeper’ agent. Assets like that are not risked unless the operational goal is big—like the assassination of a head of state.”

“That is a dilemma. Where do you go from here?”

“That, m’ lady, is the million dollar question. Since the press was all over my ass, I wasn’t able to do a proper interrogation or even get photographs. Detention for a passport check was all I could do. So far, searches on the passport photos have produced zilch. I expected as much. If those identities are legends, it’s probable the photos were digitally altered to confuse our comparison algorithms. In another twenty-four hours, I’ll have to let them go. Then what? I could have them tailed until after the President’s speech, but they’ll probably split up after release. Which one should I tail? This isn’t TV, where any agent has unlimited resources. This is real life; I have a finite number of agents at my disposal. Tails take a lot of manpower. I don’t have enough to follow all four.”

Quenten fell to wondering why he’d told her so much. She looked pensive for a time and then asked, “Would it help if you knew which one was the assassin?”

“Hell yes, but what . . . How . . .”

“I have the feeling you are right. If I could see those men, their auras might tell us who is who.”

***

Quenten took Andrea to the hotel room where the detainees were being held. As he introduced to her to them, three of the men maintained a pleasant demeanor while the thin one became sullen. After the introductions, Andrea thanked them and asked Quenten if they could leave. He agreed, noting that she was agitated. In the hall, he asked, “What?”

She shook her head. “There’s a coffee shop in the lobby. Let’s get a cup.”

Quenten set a cup of coffee in front Andrea. “Take it easy,” he said gently as he seated himself.

She did a deep breathing exercise, looked around, and sipped her coffee. He waited.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she began. “Those auras were terribly frightening. Being in the same room with them was overpowering. On my own, I’d cross to the other side of the street if I saw a person with an aura like that coming toward me.”

Quenten’s expression became analytical. “How far away can you see these auras?”

“I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully. Slowly, she looked somewhere beyond his left shoulder, then up at the ceiling, and down to her coffee cup. “I’ve never thought about it.” She took a sip of coffee and studied the cup. “At a distance, I guess I can see an aura before I can tell how the figure is dressed.”

“Are you ready to tell me what you saw in those guys?”

“Auras like theirs usually belong to people who don’t have any regard for human life.”

Quenten brightened. “Did any one of them look worse than the others?”

“The thin one. He looked like a predator.”

***

On this particular day, they were sitting on a park bench. Quenten hadn’t said much.

The days leading up to the presidential visit were not good ones for agent Quenten Mcklegg. Andrea was the only bright spot. She seemed unconcerned with the possible outcome of his plight. He became confident that their conversations—which had become almost daily occurrances—would continue regardless of how things turned out for him.

“So, how’s it going, sport?” she prodded.

“Not good. After we released the detainees, I slapped twenty-four-seven surveillance on the thin one. The others got whatever else I could afford. I needn’t have bothered. The foursome and their tour sponsor took up normal touristy activities. They visited museums, galleries, and shopping venues. They attend theatre, movies, and functions for disabled persons. They continue to look more and more like legitimate visitors.”

“Where will you be during the presidential address?” She asked.

Surprised at the abrupt change of topic, Quenten answered, “A temporary structure, over the pitcher’s mound, will have the stage, seating for dignitaries, and accommodations for security people. We’ll be positioned where we can observe the stands as well as the stage.”

“Would it be possible for me to join you at your post?”

“Why . . . Yeah . . . I guess so. The whole thing’s probably going to be a crashing bore. It’d be nice to have you.”

***

Andrea arrived with a pair of huge field glasses hanging from her neck. “Going birding?” Quenten asked playfully. She started to reply, but he held one hand up and pressed the earpiece of the headset he wore with the fingers of his other hand. His countenance fell. He shook his head.

“Bad news?” she asked.

“They’re here—all five of ’em. They got seats in J section. If they were planning any mischief, that’d be a piss-poor vantage point. I guess that about bakes it. They must be legit.”

Andrea touched his arm. “Where are their seats?”

Quenten spoke into the microphone of his headset. “Jerry, specifics on their seats.” He turned to Andrea. “Section J, row 52, seats eight to twelve.”

Andrea swung the powerful field glasses toward the indicated seating. Quenten thought the bulky instrument looked odd in her slim hands. He sighed. He began to accept the idea he’d been wrong. His next position in law enforcement would probably be Rent-A-Cop at a shopping center.

Andrea gasped. She lowered the field glasses and turned toward Quenten. There was an urgency in her voice. “Are you certain the thin one is with them?”

Quenten keyed his microphone. “Jerry, status.” He listened for a second and turned to Andrea. “He says they are all seated.”

“Ask him which seat the thin one is in.” Andrea said firmly. After hearing his reply, she raised the field glasses. Again, her intake of breath was audible.

Quenten looked at her. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“That’s not him,” she said firmly. “He’s not there!”

“Who’s not where?”

“The thin one! He’s not there!”

“Impossible,” grumbled Quenten as he keyed his microphone. “Jerry, confirm the position of the thin one.” Quenten looked at Andrea. “Jerry says he’s in seat nine.”

Andrea was already scanning elsewhere as she replied, “The guy in seat nine does look like him, but it isn’t.”

Quenten felt rooted to the spot. He looked about helplessly.

Andrea grabbed Quenten’s arm as she stood, pointing to a set of flood lights. “There! He’s on that lighting tower!”

Quenten grabbed the field glasses and examined the tower. “I don’t see anybody.”

Anxiously, she replied, “I don’t see him either, but I do see his aura.”

Within Quenten, a war began to rage. Years of training in the logical approach fought with instinct. After a few seconds, the latter won. She had to be right! He switched his headset to the channel used by the President’s security detail. “SS, delay the President’s appearance. We’ve got a threat.” Returning to the company channel, he again keyed his mike. “Units two and three, surround lighting tower bravo. There may be a shooter up in the lights. Unit one, apprehend the suspects. Try to prevent them from using any communication devices.” He looked at Andrea. “Well, there it is. I’m either a fool or a hero.”

The civic leader who had been droning from the podium gathered his papers and sat down. With a flourish, the Master of Ceremonies introduced a vocal group. Andrea looked at Quenten. “I thought the President was up next.”

“It’s a scripted threat reaction. We want things to appear as normal as possible,” he explained and then tuned his attention to the comm. set. He nodded with satisfaction several times before smiling at Andrea. “It looks like we have a bingo. There was a car parked at the base of the tower with the motor running. The driver surrendered. A rappel line is hanging from the lighting platform.”

As the third vocalist took the stage, the crowd began to get restless.

Quenten’s eyes were alight as he again addressed Andrea. “The guy threw a sniper’s rifle down. They think he was still in the process of putting it together because two pieces came through the air. He’s currently coming down the rappel line. He doesn’t seem to show any fight.”

“What happens now?”

“We wait,” he answered before switching channels to update the President’s security detail.

The opening act took the stage “for an encore.” The crowd shuffled. Some began to leave.

Quenten acknowledged the last transmission and frowned.

“Problems?” Andrea asked.

“Not really. The Prez still wants to go on—damn cowboy.”

Andrea raised the field glasses and began scanning the other lighting towers as she said, “I don’t think that’s a real good idea either . . .”

Quenten was talking on the comm. set when she shook his arm roughly and shouted, “There, on that tower! There’s somebody else!”

This time, Quenten didn’t hesitate. He punched his mike button. “Units two and three! We have somebody else on lighting tower kilo. Goeff, you make the call on who stays and who goes. Jerry, send anybody you can spare over there.” He changed channels. “SS, it looks like we have another one on tower kilo. Evac may be necessary.” Several popping sounds came from the direction of the kilo tower. Quenten kept his pressure on the mike button. “Hear that? My team may be taking fire. Better get these people out of here.” He returned to the company channel just in time to hear, “We’re taking fire. My sharpshooter returned a round but the effect is unknown.”

Quenten watched tensely as the security detail began hustling occupants out of the seats beneath tower kilo. He selected the channel used by the local police helicopter. “Agent Mckillock here. You guys got any tear gas aboard?”

“Yes,” the pilot answered.

“Can you put a can on tower kilo?”

“Standby.”

Quenten watched the chopper appear over the edge of the stadium and make a wide circle around the lighting tower. His headset came to life.

“Can do—looks like you’ve got that area cleared.”

“That we have. Lay it on.”

The helicopter swept past the tower. A mist enveloped the lights.

Quenten congratulated the pilot and switched back to the company channel. A shout erupted in his earpiece. “Sonofabitch! Well done, chief! The shooter fell out of the tower clutching his piece. We musta winged him and he was holdin’ on for dear life. Guess the gas made him lose his grip,” the voice said in excited bursts.

“Calm down and give me a complete status,” Quenten answered as he winked at Andrea. He regarded her fondly. “You made some damned fine calls today. I’d like to know more about what went on in your head.”

“From the way the group was acting, I was sure they were arranging for the thin one to give you the slip. I expected him to be here today. I brought these field glasses to look for him.”

“Ok, I can dig that. But what made you think there was another shooter?”

“The whole thing was too pat: The intelligence leading you to detain people with elaborate legends, the press showing up during the raid, the way the group acted to make you appear a fool, it all indicated meticulous planning. I couldn’t see a plot like that relying on a single shooter.”

Quenten looked at her with added respect. “You sound more like a cop than an egghead.”

Her face was full of mischief as she replied, “You never asked me what sort of sociologist I am.”

“What’s that got to do with . . . no, I don’t guess I did . . . I didn’t know there was more than one kind . . . I don’t think I even know what a sociologist does.”

“I study criminal behavior. I’m writing a book on the subject. Would you care to collaborate?”

“Yeah. Hell, yeah, I’d really like that.”

—End—

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