"Yeah!" I blurted, more out of reflex, then gasped in another lungful of air. "I'm okay."
"You're safe," she assured me in a calming voice, placing a soft hand over the top of mine. "Your vision may be blurred. That'll go away in a few moments. Stay put, I'm going to take care of Clark."
(Clark? Where?) I started turning my head, following the sounds. I noticed that the chair I was in could swivel, and felt more like a lounge chair than an airplane seat. I pivoted to face the movement ahead of me. In another chair like mine was a large figure (Is that Clark?) with someone else kneeling in front of him. I saw a blurry arm near his blurry face. Just then he came awake with a start, grunting, pushing the kneeling figure away from him. She flopped down on the floor with a crash and a whoosh of air.
An unfamiliar man's voice called from the cockpit: "You okay?"
Getting to her feet, she replied with a groan, "Yeah. He just knocked me on my butt. Considering his history, he could've easily decked me."
I did recognize that voice. "Dot?" I said in a whisper.
"Okay," replied the man in the cockpit to the woman. They hadn't heard me.
Dot looked over at me, and smiled. "Perry? Can you see me now?"
"Yeah," I replied. "What happened?"
"I'll explain in a moment. You're safe now."
She turned back to Clark. His face mirrored confusion and guilt. "I pushed you down," he admitted. "I'm sorry. Are you all right?"
"Yes. Fine. How are you?"
"I'm okay," he said. "What happened?"
She moved over to a couch that stretched along the wall on the opposite side of the plane, where she could face us both. Looking at Clark, then me, she said, "Now that you're both conscious, I'll explain. We're on Penelope Savage's private airplane, but we've got our own pilot on board." She turned to call up front. "How long until you can come back here?"
"Give me a couple of minutes," he called back with a rich masculine timbre.
She turned back to them. "In the meantime, I'll bring you up to speed. Like I said, you're both safe. You see, Granddad suspected that Penelope might try to snatch you back to Caroline Island -- her turf. And he didn't want that to happen. So we arranged this little backup plan to get you both out of danger."
"We?" asked Clark.
"Well, most of us have been in on it: Mom, me, and our pilot who you'll meet in a couple of minutes."
"How long have 'we' been in on it?" he asked.
"Granddad brought it to my attention a few weeks ago. I don't know about the rest."
My question. "Why weren't Clark and I brought in on it?"
Her expression was mild embarrassment. "I honestly don't know."
"So how did you know we required assistance?"
She held up an electronic instrument. "This monitors heart rates." She came over to me and touched a place on my sweatshirt. For the first time, I noticed a small circular area that was slightly more rigid than the surrounding material. "Modern medical science. That's a wireless scanner. We sewed them into the clothing you'd be wearing for the meeting." She paused, then continued. "We needed a way to monitor you without making security suspicious. Any security crew worth their salt would spot your average bug. But we gambled on the heart rate scanner slipping under their noses, which it did. We assumed your heart rate would remain within a certain range. When they spiked and soared, we knew something was up, and so the backup plan went into effect. We replaced the jet's crew and waited for you."
"How'd you figure we'd end up here?"
"This is Penelope Savage's quickest link to Caroline Island. So we just headed them off at the pass, so to speak."
"So what's the plan?"
"I think I can answer that." From the cockpit, the pilot came back into the passenger section. He removed his helmet and smiled, and a piece of the puzzle suddenly fell into place.
"Captain Clark Mayfair, U.S. Air Force. But, considerin' it might get a bit confusin' havin' two Clarks on this plane, why don't'cha just call me 'Gumball'."
"Gumball?" I asked.
He just smiled and tossed me a bright blue Gumball. He flipped a second one into a neat high arc, dropping expertly into his mouth. After a quick couple of chomps, he grinned and added, "Sugar-free. Finestkind."
He stretched out a hand to Clark. "It's a great pleasure to finally meet you, sir!"
Clark took the hand. "And, under the circumstances, the feeling is mutual. I assume we're on autopilot?"
"Yes, sir. But I've got to get up front in a few minutes, so I'll make this quick." He sat down on the couch near Dot. "In order to make it look like we were heading to Caroline Island, I took us out to sea, then doubled back the long way 'round. Now we're heading for a little pit stop in upstate New York -- just a ten-minute layover to get your gear. The last leg of our journey will take us to sunny Nashville, Tennessee. I've got some friends who've got a small landing field there, and owe me a few favors. That'll be our transfer site. My Cessna is waiting there to take me back to my base, as well as a vehicle to take you all back to Oklahoma. This here bird will roost for a while until we can figure how to get it back to Ms. Savage. Probably give it a week or two, fly it somewhere, and then anonymously tip them off to where to find their jet. In the meantime we'll keep it in good condition, and even fill up the tank before we wave it bye-bye." He paused. "And, of course, clean it thoroughly of all physical evidence that could be linked back to us."
"Good plan. How did you replace the jet's crew?"
"Well," answered Dot with a grin, "we had a little help." She reached for a shoulder bag resting nearby, and palmed a couple of objects. She held onto one, and casually lobbed the other one in Clark's direction. With a look of sudden shock he recognized it, and swiftly snatched it in midair. Handling it tenderly, he turned it over in his hand. "Betcha haven't seen one of those in a while," commented Dot.
"Anaesthetic gas?" It was more statement than question.
"Yep. Granddad was able to resurrect the formula. We just tossed a couple of these in the direction of the crew, and they never knew what hit them. Very effective. Anyhow, we set it up so they'll be found, too late to come chasing after us."
"This isn't glass," observed Clark.
"No. It's a special plastic. The way Granddad explained it, when the ball is broken, the gas is released, and the plastic starts a rapid decomposition cycle. In an hour, you never knew either existed."
Gumball continued. "After replacing the crew, it was a simple matter of waiting until they delivered you to us."
Just then his watch beeped. He looked at it and announced, "We're coming up for landing. I've got to get up front. Would you like to join me, Mr. Savage?"
Clark nodded. "Yes, thank you. I'd like that."
Gumball hung his helmet on a hook near the front as he moved forward. Clark unfastened his followed a little cautiously. Dot excused herself and walked to the rear of the plane, going through a door into what I guessed was the wardroom. I removed my seat belt, stood and stretched, then settled on the opulent couch. I was amazed at the features of the private aircraft, and was looking about when Dot came out and sat on the couch next to me.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
I looked at her. She smiled warmly. "Much better than I thought I'd be," I admitted with some relief. I smiled at her, then covered her hand with mine and slightly closed the fingers. "Thanks."
I knew we would be landing, but it took me by surprise when we suddenly stopped in midair, hovered a moment over a clearing, then descended smoothly. We touched down in the midst of a fairly mountainous area, surrounded by lots of trees. I saw a covered pickup off to the side, well shy of the clearing. Gumball cracked open the door and climbed from the plane. A moment later, each of us followed him out.
The truck's door opened, and Carrie climbed out. She waved at us, then hugged us in turn. She was shocked by Clark's ripped clothing, but Clark assured her he was fine. She opened up the back of the pickup, and I recognized our gear from the hotel room. Gumball led the way, grabbing a suitcase and carrying it back to the Osprey.
Suddenly, Clark froze. He was looking at an old dilapidated building a short distance away. The expression on his face was as close to pale as I had ever seen him, and it concerned me. I walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Clark, you okay?"
"Oh . . . my . . . God," he muttered, not turning his head.
I looked to the building he was so strangely affected by. It looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. The roof had collapsed in several places, as so the walls. The paint was cracked and faded. A few spots were tagged with graffiti, but it appeared to be quite deserted now. A fence of chain link now lay on the ground, broken and flattened in many places. The foliage had overgrown the structure, and vines hung from broken windows and holes in the walls. I turned back to Clark.
"You know this place?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," he replied, almost sarcastically. "It's the College."
I froze, then did a double-take on the structure. My eyes went wide as I recognized the building I last saw in the Murrow videotape months ago. Now I knew why the sight of this put Clark in shock.
"Oh, wow," I commented.
"Hey, guys!" It was Gumball, calling to us. "We're getting ready to go. Climb aboard!"
I took Clark's elbow. "C'mon, let's go," I said softly. He responded, and we walked back to the Osprey. Just before we climbed in, Clark took one look back. Then he got in and went up to the cockpit.
"Gumball?" he asked, calmly. "Who suggested this as the landing spot?"
"Dad," the pilot replied innocently.
Overhearing the exchange, I nodded to myself. I should have known. Monk arranged for us to land at the site of the Crime College. A reality check, perhaps? It would definitely be among the chief questions when we return to Oklahoma. In the meantime, Dot and I strapped into the luxury seats.
She pivoted to face me. "Clark okay?" she quietly asked.
"Yes," I replied. "Yes, he is. Do you know where we are?"
She shook her head. I told her. Her mouth gaped and her eyes went wide. She whispered to me, "I had no idea! Granddad just told me that we were going to be rendezvousing with Mom here, but didn't explain what 'here' was. I don't even know if Gumball knows the significance of the location."
"Yeah." I smiled and looked out the window. We cleared the mountains, and began level flight. We ascended into a cloud bank and were on our way to Tennessee.
We were still an hour from our destination. Dot was up front with Gumball, and Clark was in the seat he woke up in, facing the window. Both Clark and I had taken advantage of the wardroom facilities in this amazing aircraft to change out of our disguises.
He turned to face me. "Yes?"
"How're you doing?" I asked, lightly probing.
"Well, I'm a little sore where Pa--Penelope hit me, but I think the effects of the tranquilizer darts have completely subsided."
I smiled ruefully. "This is me you're talking to, brother." I moved over to the seat facing his, where we could talk privately. "How are you doing?"
Clark understood. He paused, looking me in the eye, then answered. "She blames me for all of her pain. Why?"
"She doesn't want to admit that she gave in to her own lusts -- she wants to absolve herself of guilt by passing it over to a . . . " I searched for the right word. " . . . a scapegoat. While you were out of the picture, you became the most obvious target for her frustration and rage. You weren't around to fight back. But now . . . " I let the words trail. "She won't give up, you know."
Slowly he nodded. "Yes. I know. But she's my cousin, Perry. She's family."
"Clark. Family feuds are nothing new. Look at Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, David and Absalom, Jacob and Esau. You're in good company. Also realize, there was no way she'd let us go." Suddenly something occurred to me; I held up a finger as if my next word would be 'eureka'. "God's hand was in this from the start. He put it on Monk's heart to have a backup plan for us, here. He even put it on Pat's heart to use the trank on us. Think about that. She could have just as easily ordered the guards to kill us outright then had our bodies dumped into the ocean, removing the evidence. Remember, it's her company, and the lady has power. She might have been able to get away with it. But that's not what happened, praise God."
Erik LaSalle had been part of security for the World Trade Center complex for the last ten years. Five years ago he was hired on as Security Chief for Patricia, Inc. The pay was good, and he got to see a ton of good-looking ladies, among other benefits. Duty was easy, too. He was traveling a smooth road to retirement and that fishing boat in Jamaica.
His coffee was just cooling to tolerable levels when a disturbing call came in from his roof patrol. They had been investigating a mysterious ringing noise coming from the rooftop storage shed, and found the crew of Ms. Savage's private aircraft. The crew had been bound and gagged but otherwise unaffected, and the noise had originated from an ordinary wind-up alarm clock. A note was placed in front of the clock: 'Penelope Savage's airplane crew. Please rescue them.'
LaSalle rubbed his hand over his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. This was not good, he thought. Not good at all. Ms. Savage's Osprey -- her prized Osprey -- had left over two hours ago, shortly after that little 'ruckus' downstairs.
He instructed the roof patrol to bring the flight crew down to Security for questioning, and sent an investigation team up to make a fine-toothed comb-check of the roof for clues. That was the easy part.
Now came the hard part, telling the boss lady, Penelope Savage. He hated the idea of anything going wrong, period, but it was a thousandfold worse having it happen on his watch.
He picked up the phone.
"THEY STOLE MY OSPREY??" she screamed. "LaSalle, I pay you to keep this type of crap from happening under my nose!" She paused and took a few deep breaths in an attempt to regain some of her composure. "I want a full media block on this -- Word One does not leave this building! I will personally KILL anyone who leaks this!" She paused. "I want you to talk to your men who saw my Osprey leave, and get a full description of everything that happened and everything they saw! NOW!!"
She slammed the phone into the cradle, then filled the air with a tirade of cursing and railing. She reached into a desk drawer for a ball of wax which she used to relieve stress. As her fingers convulsively kneaded the ball, she paced the floor, trying to think things through.
"The man still leads a charmed life!" she observed angrily. "And they took my Osprey!! NO!! I can't accept the fact that they're out of my reach. That long-haired nerd in the sweatshirt . . . YES!! He can be identified!"
Smiling wickedly, she reached for the phone.
"Yes, Ma'am!" LaSalle repeated in response to her orders. "Right away, Ma'am!" he concluded. She hung up, and he immediately set her instructions into motion. She wanted a forensics team to check out Conference Room Four, top to bottom, and another team to check through the security videotape, trying to isolate and identify a particular individual who visited earlier. As he assigned people to their tasks, he thought, Ms. Savage would have her answer soon. And, considering her demeanor over the telephone, he felt pity for the poor S.O.B. responsible for this, once she got her hands on them.
Gumball announced, "I just called the field for landing instructions. Everything's clear. And, Dot, Alan wanted me to tell you 'the eagle has landed.'" She let out a whoop.
"Here we go," called Gumball, as we approached the field.
I noticed that we were practically in the middle of nowhere, which was fine with me. We hovered over a concrete helipad next to a row of hangars. A man in bright yellow coveralls waved twin wands in our direction, signaling for descent. We touched down smoothly and Gumball cut the engines. The man in coveralls backed up a tow vehicle to the nose of the Osprey, connected, and pulled us down the row to stop at a hangar with the number 18 neatly printed on the outside. He paused long enough to open the hangar doors and switch on the lights, then towed us the rest of the way inside.
Gumball opened the hatch and lowered the ladder as the man in coveralls came over. He was a silver haired gentleman in his 60's, and Gumball introduced him as Alan Koenig, the owner of the field. As each of us stepped off of the Osprey, Gumball introduced us.
Dot climbed down behind me. In a spontaneous gesture of appreciation and relief, I spun and gave her a big hug. She hugged me back, also glad that it was over. Then, as she looked over my shoulder, she suddenly broke away and ran to a Dodge pickup sporting a camper, parked in a corner of the hangar.
Clark joined me, then Gumball. "Alan's always been a news buff, so I asked him if there'd been any mention of Ms. Savage's private aircraft." he explained. "I'm happy to report that they've not released anything to the public. So far, that is."
"Good. Is the Osprey going to be safe?"
"Yeah. Without giving away your identity, I gave Alan the bare-bones idea of what we did and why. He gave his word to keep it secret, and that's good enough for me."
We nodded agreement.
Just then, pulling a luggage hauler, Koenig drove a small cart over to the side of the airplane. He called to us. "Better start transferrin' your gear into that camper, so's I can shut this place up for the night."
We complied, and put our luggage on the hauler. I noticed a few unfamiliar duffles in among the group, but then noticed Dot's name on them and left it at that. Alan scooted the little rig away from the Osprey and to the back of the camper. Dot climbed out of the back and hopped to the ground. She ran to Gumball and gave him a big hug. "It's great! Thanks!"
"I told my friend what you had in mind, and he came up with this. The papers should be inside."
"Yeah, I saw them. Six month lease, okay?"
"With an option to buy."
She looked at the rest of us, who were eyeing her curiously. "Go ahead and put the gear in the back," she instructed. "Did you find a couple with my name on them?"
I told her I had. "Good. Put them on the bed above the cab."
Gumball got her attention. "Dot, I hate to say this, but I've got to get back to the base," he announced.
She gave him a long hug. "Thanks, Uncle Clark."
"I couldn't have pulled this off without you, Dot. You going to be all right?"
She smiled. "Sure."
Gumball turned to me. I set down a suitcase and accepted his handshake. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, sir."
"Likewise. Thank you."
He walked over to Clark. "You'll never know just what an extreme honor is was to serve you: my namesake." They shook hands, then he saluted Clark. "Sir."
"No more than it is for me," replied Clark, returning the salute. "Take care."
Then he walked from the hangar, waving once before going around the corner.
"Now what?" I asked to no one in particular.
"Clark . . . Perry?" said Dot. "I'd like to talk to you both about something before we go."
We paused in our transfer of the gear. She looked up at us and I saw the serious look on her face. "I'll get right to the point. Once we return to Oklahoma, I want to join you on the rest of your search."
We stood there a moment, absorbing her request. "We might be on the road a lot. Don't you have a job that needs you?" I mentioned.
"I've got some vacation time."
Clark and I glanced at one another. "Could we discuss this aside for a moment?" asked Clark.
"Sure. But before you do, let me point out a couple of things." Her stance changed to a defensive one. "As you have seen, I am quite capable of pulling my own weight. This is the '90s, Doc; women have even flown in space." She paused. "And gentlemen, if I so much as hear one word about me being a helpless girl, I will personally demonstrate my graduation exercises when I got my black belt in Karate."
She crossed her arms. "Besides, gentlemen, this is your ride back to Oklahoma." She smiled. "Don't screw it up."
"All right," he said. "We'll be right back." We started to walk in the direction of the Osprey.
"Don't take too long," she called behind us. "I'm leaving in five minutes."
We talked out of earshot. We returned in six minutes -- she was still there -- and gave her our answer. "Welcome aboard."
She let out a triumphant "YES!" and hugged us both.
As she sprinted to the truck, Clark and I exchanged comments.
"Is this a family thing? First Carrie, and now Dot," he asked me.
"Look at it this way, brother. Genetically speaking, she's part Pat, part Monk, and part Ham." I paused, shaking my head slightly. "God help us."
Clark just smiled.
Considering the hour, we decided to find a motel, have dinner and get a couple of rooms, and start off for Oklahoma in the morning. After all, it had been a long day, and we were all looking forward to a rest.
Dot ahemed to get our attention. "Guys, there's not that much room in the front seat," she announced. "Unless we want to get REALLY cozy for the next several hundred miles, I'll need a volunteer to sit in the back."
I thought about it for a minute, then volunteered. "I'll take the first shift. I can E-mail Jack and bring him up to speed on things. Give me a few minutes to reposition things. Got a bungee cord? I can put the bags on the bed and secure them so they don't come crashing down on me."
We found a couple of bungees and I moved things around, giving me room to move. Right before Dot closed the door, I swore I saw a disappointed look on her face. I opened the window that connected the cab to the camper, took a seat behind the dinette table, and moved my backpack next to me.
"Hang on, Perry, here we go," announced Dot through the window.
I bounced around in the back for a few minutes while we maneuvered to the main road, and the ride became smoother. I kept a close eye on the cargo resting on the queen bed over the cab; it shook a little, but remained secure.
I had to admit, it was a very nice camper. It had a queen bed over the cab, combination bathroom and shower, and galley with microwave and refrigerator. For a single person, it was ideal. And it looked like Dot was setting things up for the duration. Something told me it would be longer than any of us expected.
I decided to at least compose something to send Jack. Considering all that had happened today, I needed to let him know we were alive and well.
We're alive, praise God! Considering what's happened today, that's a very good thing.
Before I begin, let me assure you that, as unbelievably as this may sound, all this stuff is absolutely true, without exaggeration.
Clark had been correct about Penelope. There is NO Penelope Savage. Patricia Savage consumed a rare herb which kept her youthful. She made up a 'daughter' named Penelope to perpetuate the illusion. We went to the meeting, suspecting this possibility and trying to be prepared. Jack, she is majorly bitter because of Clark. She blames him for all of her crap, and holds a lot of hate in her heart. Push the intercession.
When she couldn't get through to use verbally, she attacked us physically. We were knocked out, and expected to be taken to Caroline Island to be tortured and killed. I'm not joking, Jack. She used a tranquilizer gun on both of us, and had us loaded on board her private aircraft.
But God had us covered. He prompted Monk Mayfair to launch a backup rescue plan, with the help of Dot Brooks and Monk's other son Clark Mayfair. They replaced the aircraft's crew, and flew us to safety.
It's amazing, Jack, as I look at these words, just to imagine that they actually happened to us. It seems fantastic, like a scene out of one of Clark's pulp stories. But I assure you -- and me -- that it was real. At one point I thought I would wake up in a cell on Caroline Island. But God rescued both of us out of the hands of death.
We're in Tennessee right now, and will be returning to Oklahoma in the morning. Dot Brooks is joining us. She's an amazing lady, Jack. She's not a Christian, but she's not rejecting things either. I like her, Jack. Very much. She saved our lives.
She got a truck camper, and she and Clark are up front while I'm back in the back putting this together. It's good that I write this down. If anything, it proves to me that it actually happened, something I can hardly believe. I admit, my life hasn't been exactly boring, the last 12 hours have been incredible.
Every now and then I wonder if I've gotten too far afield of what God's wants of me. But then He reminds me, everything up to this point has prepared me for what I am going through now, and He continues to prepare and strengthen me for what I will face tomorrow. It all comes down to: I don't know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.
It's all so fantastic in the most literal sense, but I guess I'm in good company. Those simple fishermen never knew what they were getting into, and what their lives would become because of that special man from Galilee. Sometimes I think things are so out of control, but then I'm reminded of who is in control. Just another test of faith, Jack.
God is good. Talk to you later.
Perry and Clark . . . and Dot
I made a quick look at the post, then used the cellular modem to connect to my ISP, and sent the mail. I backed out of the system and shut things down, tucking the notebook safely in my backpack. I could hear Clark and Dot talking up front. There wasn't much in the way of conversation; all of us were showing the weariness of the day's activities. I didn't know about the others, but I would be looking forward to finding a motel and getting a meal and a good night's sleep before heading back to Oklahoma.
LaSalle looked over at the telephone. He dreaded the call he had to make this morning. He had been off the booze for several years, but now a drink sounded like a really good idea. He took a few slow deep breaths, and looked down at the reports before him.
The first report summarized the conclusions of identifying 'Don Iverson' from the video and fingerprints. He looked over the pictures taken off the video monitors, but they showed a nondescript, long-haired man in his 30's. Sorry to say, nothing to distinguish him from countless others. And there were no identifiable fingerprints, so there was no way of tracking down this man.
The second was a summary of the debriefing of the guards who carried the drugged 'Don Iverson' and 'James Morris' to the Osprey and saw it off. Their descriptions of the pilot and co-pilot corroborated: the pilot was a male in his early 40's, the co-pilot a female in her late 20's. Both of them had their helmets on, so only their lower faces were seen. Again, nothing to hold onto.
The third was a summary of the interrogation of the pilot and co-pilot found in the storage shed on the roof. They had been standing near the Osprey, and suddenly felt sleepy. They woke up in the storage shed, bound and gagged. They never saw who attacked them.
She was NOT going to like this.
In the top drawer of his desk was his final option: a sealed envelope containing his resignation. He hoped he wouldn't need to use it.
He had paused long enough. Time to face the principal, he thought, as he picked up the telephone handset and dialed.
"Are you positive, Mr. LaSalle?" She paused as she heard the recitation of conclusive evidence. In her hand she absently squeezed the ball of wax. "Very well, Mr. LaSalle," she concluded, remarkably calm and collected. "Thank you for your completeness." And she hung up the telephone.
She sat there, staring at the opposite wall, her breathing slow and shallow.
There was a blur of movement. The sound of the Ming vase exploding into fragments and the sound of the scream of rage from Pat Savage came almost simultaneously. Small fragments of the vase were imbedded in the wax smear on the wall. Pat's hands were now empty, but she loudly continued her Grade-A temper tantrum. Beyond the walls of soundproof material, her secretary calmly held back all calls and visitors, and called the maintenance staff to arrange for damage control.
Minutes later, her chest heaving, she looked from her window to the Empire State Building. As she looked down upon the edifice, she smiled. Then, with a low voice bordering on guttural, she cursed God and cursed her cousin. "You always did have a charmed life," she spoke to the building as if it were the embodiment of Doc himself. "You have escaped me this time. You will not escape our next meeting."