Odd Fellows (jtb-3)

by Mickey Hunt

Grandma Middleton always guessed right. If you don’t believe me, then explain how just a week after Grandpa’s funeral she won a $251 million jackpot in the South Carolina Education Lottery. Anyway, because she didn’t need outside information, and having been frugal all her life, she didn’t pay for internet at her house. Which is why my cousin Duncan and I were spending Saturday afternoon using the Beaufort library’s WiFi for our history assignment about heroes of the Revolutionary War.
At least I worked. Duncan kept staring toward the blonde librarian and sniffing. He removed his headphones, adjusted his hearing aids, and straightened the eyeglasses perched on his largish nose.
“She’s twenty or more,” I whispered. “Way too old for you.”
“Introduce us, will you?”
“I don’t know her.”
“Introduce yourself first.”
I smirked at him. “Okay, you asked for it.”
We walked up together, Duncan bumping his knee into the counter.
“Hi, my name is Carlson Middleton,” I said in my library voice. “I know Carlson is a weird name for a girl with brunette French braids and a feminine, but exceptionally fit 5-5 build. My deceased parents followed the fashion of giving girls the last names of presidents, or whatever. This here’s my cousin. He’s almost normal, except for his nose. Like me, he’s not old enough to drive, but he thinks you’re cute.”
The blonde glared at me, and then him. “Excuse me, my shift is over.” That’s what she said in a Russian sounding accent. She gathered her bag, disappeared into the back room and emerged moments later wearing a green jacket. She had ignored us altogether.
With his eyes half-closed behind his thick glasses, Duncan breathed deeply.
“Stop it.” I elbowed him in the ribs. “You’re rude.”
We followed her surreptitiously to the front door of the library. She went outside and stood by the curb as if waiting for a ride. I pretended to study the bulletin board, and couldn’t help but notice the red, white, and blue trimmed poster with Governor Cobb’s jovial facade plastered front and center. I snickered. The poster extolled the entertainment value and altruism of playing the South Carolina Education Lottery.
“You didn’t give her my name,” Duncan said with an air of injury. “And you should have told her she was mature.”
What are you talking about? Anyway, her name is Irina Grigorenko.”
“How do you know?”
“Name tag, silly.”
Irina seemed to be occupied with an incoming text when a burly man approached her and jerked a black sack over her head. She screamed and dropped her bag. A midnight blue van appeared out of nowhere. Another man joined the burly one and they wrestled her into the van and then raced away.
Duncan and I didn’t need to discuss. We had to help her. We bolted from the library. He slid his hand down the rail and grabbed her bag, and I jumped on my bicycle.
Duncan fiddled with his bike lock. “Darn, I can’t get the combination.”
“Get on.”
“Get on my bike. Handlebars. Feet on the pegs.”
“You’re crazy,” he said, inching his butt up while I held still. I pedaled us down the middle of the road, weaving between cars, but I couldn’t see the van.
Duncan tilted his head back, sniffed the warm, humid air, and shouted, “Left. Turn left!”
I leaned the bike over, cut in front of a sporty, squealing Mazda, jumped the curb, dodged pedestrians, and dropped back onto the road, finishing with a 360 degree sliding spin on my rear tire.
“I didn’t mean then, smarty!” Duncan shouted, breathing hard and still on the handlebars. “I meant at the stoplight! You’re going to kill us.”
“Listen, Bud, you’re not going to die on a mountain bike with this girl. Besides, you’ve got the balance of an Olympian. Now where?”
He took another sniff and said, “Cross the bridge.”
The Woods Memorial Bridge arched us over the Beaufort River, the openness and height bringing a refreshing breeze. We rode and rode, keeping in the bike lane now. Duncan directed a right turn and a left. The trail got colder until it took us outside Beaufort proper and left us standing by the road not knowing where to go next.
Ahead, a few miles east, was the end of South Carolina and the frontier of the Atlantic Ocean, and between it and us, water, stinky tidal flats, barrier islands, and fragrant pine-covered hammocks. Running north and south before us stretched a wide river, and on its western shore where we stood ran rows of elegant summer homes.
“The scent ends here,” Duncan said. “The van was a 2007 Ford Econoline. You won’t believe me, but every car’s exhaust smells unique.”
“Given our family talents, Duncan, I believe.”
He had been wearing the blonde’s bag around his neck, and he re-
moved it, stuck his nose inside, and filled his lungs with its atmospheric contents.
“Strengthening her impression,” he said.
He squinted toward me through his lenses with a dirty look, which I ignored, then he sniffed the air several times. He gazed south. “She’s down there.”
We climbed back onto my bike and took the access road running behind the houses. At last we reached a dead end, a black gate, and one more house beyond. The property was surrounded by a heavy iron fence. Duncan dismounted and fell face down onto the pavement.
“You alright?” I asked.
He grunted as he creaked to his feet, then brushed his palms together to dislodge the tiny embedded rocks. “Okay. She’s inside a house—the scent is fading. She’s petrified. This is not her home.”
“No kidding,” I said. “It’s the Governor’s summer mansion. There’s a sign saying so. Wide lush lawns. A fountain. White columns. With a titanic yacht at the dock! What are you doing?”
“Speed dialing a taxi.”
“You take a taxi. I’m riding back,” I said and pushed off.
“We’re not leaving. We need to rescue her.”
“Here? You were delusional for wanting to meet her.” At this point I circled back and rode tight loops around Duncan while he held his phone to his ear.
“She needs our help. Now.”
“Call the police, not a taxi.”
“The Governor? The police are probably in the scheme.”
“Okay. You asked for it.”
I had already noticed how to scale the fence, so without a pause I headed toward the bin-sized green electrical box and jumped the bike on top.
“Wait!” Duncan called.
A couple hops, and then another jump with a 90-degree turn, and I was on the fence’s top flat edge.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Duncan sang out.
I rode along the fence for 30 meters until I came to a cluster of trees and jumped the bike down on the other side. I thought the trees would give cover, but a red ATV was already speeding in my direction, the driver and his pal glowering. No problem. I started for the house and the ATV made a wide arc and followed. He was on my tail zigging back and forth and pressing tracks into the thick grass. I scanned ahead and found the perfect tree surrounded by a mulched bed. Getting up speed, I aimed straight for it, the ATV still right behind. My little maneuver in the mulch kicked up a dust cloud. I struck the tree hard, the bike and I zoomed up several meters, hit the upcurved branch, flipped, and completed a loop to the ground. The ATV and its blinded occupants smashed into the tree trunk.
Poor tree. Seriously.
Now for the house, its vast, complicated roof an untrammeled, never-before-explored bike park festooned with dormers and a widow’s walk. An upstairs window was open. I jumped onto a banister for the handicapped ramp, then to the wooden fence around the pool, rode on top the length of the pool, then, gathering myself, concentrated with all my might, and jumped onto the roof. Easy. Just then a text message rang in. Duncan.
What you doing, crazy? He always speaks his texts.
rescue ur girl
Not that way!
i can get her out
“Come down, bitch!” A couple security guys in green golf shirts now stood below me, looking up.
“Don’t ‘bitch’ me, you…” and the rest of what I yelled with my ample vocabulary seemed to so shock the southerly breeze that she sucked in her breath.
Duncan texting: Taxi coming. Draw beasts to back. Stall.
Me: why
I rode to a ridgeline and crossed over. A half minute later, green shirts collected on the ground in back, only they comprised a platoon by now and carried guns. Two others were inching toward me on the roof. The front gate had opened, and the taxi was cruising in. He sure arrived fast. I pedaled around trying a few quick runs across roof hips and valleys and keeping out of the goons’ reach. Up close those guys didn’t look like employees of a governor. More like dumbbell-jerking gangstas.
Duncan: Got her. Go. Go.
Huh? Well, okay. Yeah. I rode to the highest peak and scanned the scene until a gangsta creeping near reached out like a zombie, and I lifted my feet to start a long run. Down, down, and up, finding air. Double forward flip. Land on back tire and recover. Jump across to a garage, then the roofs of one, two, three limos and one black SUV, then to the ground. Hear the cracking of gunfire and swerve to dodge bullets left and right, smack into one of the goons who tried to grab me, and I finally sprint out the open gate. You’d appreciate the beauty and gracefulness. I only wished I’d brought my MoJoe camera. Left it at the library, along with our backpacks and laptops.
Duncan was waiting by the taxi. “What took you? Mosquitoes are driving me bonkers. Gimme your lock.”
“Just give it.”
I did. He slapped at himself and waved the taxi forward, its trunk lifting open. The blonde in the front passenger side was biting her thumbs and glancing toward the house.
One of the roof-dented limos arrived as the gate closed. Duncan leaped to lock the gate to the post with my cable. Or, he thought so. He had locked the gate to itself.
“Alright,” he said cheerfully. “They can’t follow.”
A gangsta exploded from each side of the limo and drew weapons, but must have received orders via their earpieces, because they reholstered and waited for the gate to reopen, grimacing like fools.
I fixed the lock placement without Duncan or the gangstas noticing. The gate’s motor engaged and promptly jammed. The gangstas lost their grins, threw themselves at the gate and shook it. One started climbing. I ran and tossed my bike into the trunk, which wouldn’t close all the way, and I scrambled into the taxi.
“This is Irina,” Duncan beside me said, beaming with pride.
“We’ve already met, you know.” The Russian accent again.
“Where to?” the taxi driver said, saucer-eyed and gasping. “Shouldn’t we hurry?”
We called for an emergency family conference.
Duncan, Grandma Middleton, Uncle Al, and Irina and I gathered that evening around the walnut table within the humongous porch of our house on the ‘Ranch’. In the fading evening light, the view overlooked an emerald pasture like a wide sea broken by archipelagos of trees. Duncan, seated next to Uncle Al, kept screwing up his face and shuddering as he no doubt smelled a parade of diverse stenches wafting through the screens, smells undetectable to the rest of Earth’s entire human population.
The spring evening’s coolness felt good. Uncle Al lowered his vacant gaze from the ceiling and rose for courtesy’s sake when Irina and Grandma shuffled out to us, each bearing a tray, one loaded with iced tea and the other a raspberry dessert.
“Ah, just what I needed.” Uncle Al rubbed his belly and sat back down as Irina served him. “I’ll take three of those tiny dishes, if you don’t mind.”
“The tea is jasmine buds wrapped in green tea leaves,” Irina said.
“And she made the dessert, too, from scratch,” Grandma said, scooting her rocking chair forward to the table. “We are friends already. Another daughter.”
I took my snack to a corner to watch night coming on.
Irina had told us her basic story on the way home, but to decide what to do about the kidnapping, we needed a fuller account, Uncle Al said.
“I was so scared,” Irina began. “I remembered the stories my father told of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Many of my relatives disappeared in the Gulag. A few returned. I felt like I was living their experience.”
“What happened at the Governor’s?” Uncle Al asked.
“They told me to take a bath, and they gave me some lovely clothes. What I’m wearing.”
I wouldn’t call a black evening gown designed in Milan and a cashmere sweater “lovely,” but then I wear Goodwill for everyday and REI for fancy occasions.
Uncle Al continued. “Then what?”
“A fretful man, not one of the thugs, came and told me they had made a horrible mistake. He said it was the Governor’s son’s birthday, and the abduction was a joke. They mistook me for the son’s girlfriend.”
“Bullcrap,” I said.
“The man told me the girlfriend knew about a surprise, but not exactly what. He apologized repeatedly and gave me $500 ‘for my trouble’. But I had to sign a statement saying I was well treated and agreeing to not tell anyone.” She covered her mouth with her hand. “Am I breaking my agreement?”
“We saw it, Irina,” I said. “Duncan reasoned if anyone came ringing their bell and asked for her, they’d panic and let her go. The taxi driver had no idea what he was walking into and did his job superbly.”
“Really?” Uncle Al said. “Why didn’t they pretend ignorance?”
“Because the taxi driver told the doorman Irina had a date with a Marine officer, and he and cohorts would be looking for her.”
“Good thinking, Duncan,” Uncle Al said.
Duncan turned to Irina. “Uncle Al is the thinker. He performs complex math in his head while long-haul driving.”
Uncle Al chuckled. “Keeps me awake. Some people, like Grandma, work crossword puzzles.”
Thus far Grandma had been sitting like a motionless panda bear with either a faint frown or smile, depending. She was now smiling. “Crosswords are easy. Your math is too easy, Al. For a real knotty problem, give me a jigsaw puzzle and a time limit.”
Grandma wasn’t kidding. If the question was about a fact, any fact, even a future one, she always guessed right, which is how she won the lottery and bought the Ranch.
After she and Grandpa Middleton married, he threw their money at lottery tickets and never won more than a few dollars. He never let her pick numbers. He never followed her advice on anything, and they lived in poverty. So, the day after his funeral, Grandma bought a ticket and won the $251 million jackpot. We grandkids always knew her ability because she was a killer at Jeopardy. Odd thing is, she never wonders why. She only says in her innocent granny voice, “I let my mind go blank and say the first thing that pops into my head.”
Uncle Al won’t let her buy any more tickets because that would arouse suspicion. She doesn’t care, because she’s richer than she ever dreamed possible and living with me and Duncan in our big house. Big. Fifty thousand square feet on a hundred rolling acres northwest of Beaufort…
“Why are you making a face, Duncan?” I asked, seeing him wrinkling his nose.
“Someone pooted.”
Everyone glanced around for a clue to the guilty party.
“Probably upwind a mile away,” I said.
“Was a horse.”
“I think,” Uncle Al said, moving on. “I think maybe we should leave this kidnapping matter alone. It was a practical joke gone awry. It’s not possible the Governor is mixed up in such an unthinkable business. He’s a leading candidate for President.”
Irina suddenly burst into tears and Grandma frowned like when my parents died in the motorcycle accident. When Irina recovered her voice she asked, “What do you think, Mrs. Middleton? Was it a joke?”
Grandma closed her eyes, and she wasn’t only frowning now. Tears flowed down her cheeks, too. She opened her eyes and blinked rapidly. “I guess it was… and I blush to say the words, the Governor’s people wanted you for a sex slave. They expected to make a lot of money. Your abductors meant to sell you.”
We were stunned. Grandma’s guesses were as good as Gospel. Were as good as trial by jury. Were almost as good as God Himself speaking in an audible voice. Were as good as the founder’s original intentions for the Constitution.
At this juncture I was happy Uncle Al was present. He was the only one with the brain power to guide us. “What is it about you, Irina?” he asked. “They don’t pick women at random.”
Irina stared ahead. Grandma’s face was working with emotion. Irina sighed and said, “My parents moved back to Russia. I’m here alone. The other night at a club I met a young man. He asked me questions. I trusted him. He seemed kind and didn’t make improper advances. I was looking forward to seeing him again—he was supposed to meet me after work today. He talked about marriage and told me about his family, that they were religious, you know. I confided in him that I was chaste, you know. That I believe in waiting for marriage. He agreed.”
Crap. He had interrogated her to see if she was a virgin because they command high prices. We all knew.
Uncle Al said, “Okay then. You should live here with Grandma. She has plenty of room. Is that okay with you Grandma?”
Grandma nodded. “We’d love to have you. My house feels so empty. I should have bought something smaller.”
“I can cook,” Irina said. “What will we do next?”
We all thought for awhile, then Duncan said that since going to the police was iffy, we might get his father involved, a Marine Corps Colonel who worked at the air base in Beaufort. Uncle Al suggested that we go to the press, the state legislative leaders, and the Attorney General.
“If they abducted me,” Irina said, “surely other girls have been kidnapped too, and we must do something swiftly. What do you think, Grandma?”
Grandma closed her eyes, opened them and said, “Y’all are part wrong. But we can’t act until after the Easter Reunion.”
Duncan and I couldn’t wait. All we could think of were the poor girls trapped in the pervert Governor’s sordid sex slave network. So we and a half-dozen school friends cooked up an idea. We secretly bought poster board, brushes, paint, and wooden lath and made signs including ripped-off pictures of the Guv from his lottery propaganda. Then on a stormy afternoon, we rode bikes to his mansion and stood outside the gate.
Our soggy signs said,
“Stop Sex Traffic Now!”
                  “Cobb is a Crook”
                  “Free the Girls!”
                  “Arrest Cobb”
                  “Kidnapping is Krime”
It was cheesy, but we were serious. We had sent out press releases and called reporters, but no one believed us, and if they did, based on the last election coverage, they probably were insiders and would suppress the truth. It also could have been the deluge of rain. In short, no reporters showed up.
State patrol showed up. An officer who’d peel paint with his fiery glare, strutted from his cruiser, water dripping from his hat’s brim.
“May I see your permit?” he said.
Duncan handed the officer a damp, pocket-sized edition of the Bill of Rights and said, “The First Amendment.”
“Hilarious,” the officer said without the trace of a smile. “Do your parents know you’re here?”
“My parents are dead,” I said. “Do your mommy and daddy know you’re harassing an orphan and protecting a corrupt Governor?”
His face didn’t even twitch. All he said was, “Your parents or guardians will be upset when you all are arrested for protesting without a permit and when they get sued for slander. They’ll lose custody and you’ll land in the foster care system.”
That was a low blow. But we knew he was bluffing.
Right then the officer received a call on his cell phone. He walked away. A minute later he returned. “How long will you stay?” he asked.
“Until dark.”
“I’ll just wait here so you don’t trespass again.”
And that’s what he did. We knew then he was one of the pawns… prawns in the Governor’s sordid gumbo. We also knew that whoever mattered knew we knew the truth. And that had to have scared them. We hoped so. It scared us, too.
On Monday after a government agent called to threaten Grandma with child protective services, that amazing lady told us she wasn’t worried and promised to include us in her plan. “I understand your impatience, dear,” she said. “Waiting hurts me, too.”
If Grandma showed warm grace about our protest, Duncan’s Marine Corps dad displayed pallid anger. Duncan lived at Grandma’s house because he and his dad didn’t get along so well, and when the Colonel rushed over after work, he brought his personal, command-presence aerial bombardment. I’m sure he didn’t know he shouted loud enough for me to hear through the solid oak parlor doors.
“What are you trying to prove with your shenanigans?”
I couldn’t hear Duncan, but I guess he explained the situation.
“I get it,” the Colonel boomed, “but waving signs won’t do a bit of good. It draws attention to yourself.”
We had to try. That’s what I think Duncan would say.
“Okay. If you want to help the world, follow my example.”
But I want to be a doctor. Yep. He’d say that.
“I’m enrolling you in a military academy tomorrow.”
But I don’t want to leave my friends. I like living at Grandma Middleton’s.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it? Hanging out with this eccentric family.”
I’m one of them.
“You should be living with me.”
You don’t have a real home.
“That hurts. I don’t have money and a massive house.”
Hmm. I’m not sure how Duncan would reply here.
“I’m not making that mistake again,” the Colonel said. “Your mother had power to hypnotize people? And she never knew? Bull. I thought I was head over heels in love, but it turns out I was bamboozled.”
Same thing, in my opinion. When she was my age, as the story goes, Duncan’s mom would walk up to men and say “Give me your money,” and they did, happily, eyes twinkling. This was before Grandma won the lottery. Duncan’s mom and dad married young and after he was born, she ran away to New Mexico to start a commune.
Was Duncan suggesting his dad remarry?
“She’s Russian?”
I knew it! Duncan probably said he knows by their scents that Irina and his dad are a biological match.
After that last question, it was quiet for a long while. Apparently, Duncan was telling his dad how sweet and beautiful Irina was. I pressed my ear to the door. I could hear Duncan’s soft wah, wah, wah, but no consonants.
“Stop.” The Colonel spoke in a normal volume now, but I still heard him say, “Graduate from high school, pick any college and enroll in ROTC. Once you qualify as an officer, the Marine Corps will hone your skills. Or, we’ll skip college and give you an individualized training program. We need you to fight terrorism, Duncan.”
“To Hell with military school!”
I heard that. I backed away from the door and assumed a demure posture. Hands folded in front, head down, but watching covertly.
The parlor doors flew open, Duncan’s father frowned, marched to the main entrance of the mansion, and I’m sure he didn’t know he slammed the decorative door so hard its windows cracked.
Duncan snuffled a couple times and brushed past me up to his room.
Easter Reunion at the Ranch. The highlight of every year.
You might think it boring, but not so. Not with our weird family, but even more fun were the new people, the Lottery Kin. Ever since Grandma won, relatives by the score pop out of the woodwork. The peculiar thing is, most are real, or adopted. My job was to scout them and sign them up on the giant Family Tree in the foyer. Grandma never lets me turn anyone away, not even lying freeloaders. We wouldn’t give away money, but we served heaping platters of grilled seafood delivered fresh from the Gay Fish Company (an old family name) and hauled iced tea in buckets. All free and as much as anyone wanted. We filled every room of the mansion with overnight guests and even had a large encampment down by the fishing pond. Portajohns, electric hookups, a rented big-top tent, and live entertainment every night, and a sunrise worship service on Easter morn.
Rain had washed the sky clean and left us with faultless weather. More strangers than usual came this year. Oddly, some of them edged away from me. They kept away from everyone. I told Uncle Al, and he said he’d look out for trouble.
An hour before lunch on Saturday, and I had already sent a couple dozen distant cousins-to-the-9th-degree to the genealogy station when someone caught my eye. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties, and might have been a movie star except for the naked expression of skepticism planted on his face. Like, he really didn’t want to be here. I rode up on my bike, noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, and asked, “Who are you?”
He smiled in a way that made my stomach flutter and said, “I’m looking for someone called ‘Grandma’. Grandma Middleton.” His voice sounded familiar.
“Oh, she’s busy now with the jigsaw puzzle races. You couldn’t pull her away with a— How can I help you?”
He looked at me askance.
“Believe me. I represent Grandma. Whatever your business, you deal with me.”
“Okay,” he said, but I think he was humoring me. “Grandma… Is she your grandmother?”
“You may safely assume.”
“Let’s talk somewhere private.”
“Then, this time of day, that would be… nowhere. A bathroom.”
He cleared his throat.
“Alright. Do you ride? I can get you a bike.”
“How about if we sit in my car?”
This creeped me out. I was thinking of Irina’s horrible experience. “Let’s sit on your car. Where is it?”
“Never mind. Let’s walk.”
He walked. I rode.
“Please, let me start over. My name is Jonathan T. Barron and I’m a host of a nationally syndicated radio program. I—”
“Oh!” I interrupted, “JTB. Grandma is a huge fan-girl of yours. I heard about that wild skirmish in western North Carolina. The tree monsters. You were in the middle of it all.”
“Mostly as a spectator.”
I lowered my voice to ask, “Are you here to investigate the sex trafficking?”
“The what?” He turned beet red.
Interesting. “Umm. Why are you here?”
“Your grandmother says she has a grandson who sees with his nose. I mean, he has the sense of smell superior to a bloodhound.”
“That’s not so special,” I said, probably pouting. “Everyone in our family, I mean, who is really related, has an ability.”
“Such as?”
“Hey, let me introduce you.”
I had by then figured out Grandma’s scheme. Lure JTB in and recruit him to help take down the Governor. So, I organized the tour for the best effect. First, Uncle Sharp who excels at horseshoes. Never misses. The only excitement is from how far away, or how high, or how many spins and twists. Continuous clanking coming from that corner. Roars and cheers arising from the spectators.
Next, the guy who hears voices. As he puts it, sound disturbs the foundation of language and releases “meaning.” A door squeak tells him it’s time to pick up the mail. If the door keeps squeaking, he hears a lecture on economic socialism. I’ve been told “water” tinkling into the commode really bothers him. He also understands animals, because their sounds connect to real meaning. ‘What crows talk about!’ he says. Mockingbirds drive him insane. Grandma spent a fortune on him for psychiatrists until Uncle Al just said to wear hearing protection and learn sign language. I call him Earmuff Guy.”
We watched him signing by himself in a slow, martial-arts-like dance.
“You sure he’s not crazy?” JTB said.
I shrugged.
“I could do a month of programs here already.”
Gone was his trademarked skepticism. That was nice, though I thought he was only being polite, and I said, “Then that’s enough introductions for now.” I next showed JTB the rope swings, the swimming pool, the horse barn, and the auction tent where people sold stuff for charity.
“Where’s your relative with the extraordinary sense of smell?”
“Gotcha. He’s indisposed. His father’s here, again. I’ll show you, and it’ll explain.”
We walked behind the skateboard park where the bike track was. Under a cluster of pecan trees at a picnic table sat Duncan’s father straight up in his dress Marine Corps uniform. Duncan was standing nearby, his back to his dad. Not a happy picture. Duncan had his glasses off and was wiping his eyes.
“A family crisis?”
“Umm. His dad believes Duncan’s abilities would be a phenomenal asset to defeating our enemies. But Duncan believes he can learn to diagnose disease and save thousands of lives. That’s been his dream.”
A phalanx of helicopters chugged high overhead interrupting our conversation, a common thing near the airbase. As JTB looked up, his knees wobbled and he grabbed my handlebar to steady himself. I glanced at him, his face pale and clammy.
When the airships were mostly gone, I sighed big.
“What’s that about?” JTB asked, still pale, but steadier.
“A dream of mine. Are you alright? My dad sneezed whenever he looked up.”
“I served in Afghanistan. The helos brought back a memory.”
Just then Duncan’s father turned, nodded to JTB, and walked away toward the parking area.
“Does he know you?” I asked.
“Maybe. Ask Duncan if I can talk with him.”
“Not a good time.”
“I need to know if he’ll let me interview him for my radio program.”
“Gotcha. You asked for it.”
I went to Duncan and gave him a hug after which I presented JTB’s question. He said exactly what I thought he would before he stormed away.
“And that was…? JTB asked.
“He said you can go straight to Hades, but I wouldn’t take him too literally.”
We watched Duncan for a moment. He kicked at a stray soccer ball and missed.
“His father enrolled him in a private high school, starting next fall. Up east.”
“I’ve wasted a trip, then.” His face scrunched up, maybe in disappointment. Then he brightened with hopefulness. “Unless you have a special ability?”
“You’re not quite done. You have to meet Grandma Middleton.” We bee-lined for the house and the game wing. I leaned my bicycle against a sweetgum tree in front.
“Your bike looks new,” JTB said. “Sturdy, thick tires.”
“It’s a pro-grade mountain stunt model, custom geared for road riding. I’ve had it four years.”
“But not a scratch or nick.”
“I never crash and never will.”
“Is this your unusual gift?”
I scoffed and walked through the front doorway. We moved along passageways into the ballroom where the chess tournament was. Irina and Uncle Al were battling it out in the center of the room. Irina had said she was trained from a child, but Uncle Al was a purebred natural, and so it seemed an even match.
JTB circled through the room and returned. “The girl’s sharp,” he whispered.
As I told JTB about Irina’s story, you could see him forgetting the nonsense about our family. I mean, we had our kinks, I said, but otherwise we were normal. Irina was the needy one, and not her so much, but those girls held in captivity.
“All those like Irina who won’t be rescued unless you help us bust this evil crime ring,” I said. “This is real. See Irina? How many girls like her are enslaved?”
He adopted a poker face, and the sounds of the chess games pushed into hearing. Click of a piece being moved. Slap on a chess clock. The word, “Check.” I didn’t know what was playing in his head, but the longer JTB pondered, the more likely he was to join our team. When he smiled to himself, I knew I had him hooked. He glanced at me and said, “I’m ready to meet Grandma.”
Thought so. His conscience speaking.
We went next door to the jigsaw puzzle room. If the chess tournament was intense and ponderous, this space was light-hearted and busy. The room was full of wide tables. Each contestant kept a talkative assistant who organized the 5000 pieces, with the contestant studying the box, picking a piece up and turning it, sometimes fitting it into place and sometimes exchanging it for another. For fairness, everyone worked on identical puzzles, the image a painting of a young mother who was hand sewing, with her rosy-cheeked daughter leaning onto the mother’s lap.
Hands moved fast.
“Grandma’s in the pink and green dress.”
“Are jigsaw puzzles her gift?”
“Heavens, no. Grandma always guesses right about everything. She probably guessed you’d be here now. But you can’t guess at jigsaw puzzles and that’s why she loves them.”
Grandma looked up at JTB and suddenly grinned. She abandoned her puzzle, leaving her stunned assistant gaping, and came over to us. “So pleased to meet you in person, Mr. Jonathan T. Barron, when I have only heard your voice. She stood up on tiptoe and whispered in his ear.
JTB sighed and nodded.
“Do you mind, dear?” she said to me. “I need to talk with Mr. Barron. Anyway, you have your upcoming bike workshop with the children.”
After the square dance that evening, everyone went to bed early. Grandma had invoked a strict quiet time because she wanted everyone to be fresh for the sunrise service.
The music Sunday morning under the big tent was awe inspiring. A couple of local churches joined us, and they brought a combined adult and children’s choir, with handbells and two keyboards going at once. If it didn’t raise the dead, it did raise goosebumps. I was transported. The sermon, however, was the usual nap inducer, something about how even though the apostles faced a grisly martyrdom, none confessed the resurrection to be a sham. How a preacher can make such a fascinating topic boring was a true miracle.
The preacher pitched a half-hearted altar call, and as an organ softly wandered from chord to chord, a handful of worshipers started forward. The preacher met them in front of the stage. The whispering, kneeling, and praying wound down, and the preacher re-mounted the steps. A few strangers had arrived late, and one of them, a pale, pockmarked woman wearing slacks and a polo shirt, followed him to the podium.
The preacher leaned into the mic. “After the service—”
But the stranger cut him off, saying, “Excuse me, may I?” and gestured to the microphone.
The bewildered preacher stepped aside.
The stranger pulled a sheaf of papers from her back pocket. “Good morning everyone. I hate to disrupt your party, but I’m with the Department of Heath and Environmental Control. My helpers and I found twenty-three violations on the property this weekend. For example, major Portaloo spillage next to the outdoor kitchen and dining pavilion, with potential food contamination—your lunch, in fact. Also, your hosts failed to secure permits. Therefore, for your safety, I’m afraid we’re closing the event. We’ve closed the swimming pool, too. You all will have to leave. Sorry to disrupt your day, but someone might be hurt, particularly a child. Pastor, I’ll turn the proceedings back to you.”
I wanted to bellow it was a truckload of bullcrap, but the preacher raised his hand and mumbled a benediction. When he pronounced the final Amen, everyone yakked at once, while the stranger, still at the microphone boomed, “Please go to your cars now and leave.”
The other strangers, who reminded me of the Governor’s gangsters, handed out flyers. I grabbed one, a court order signed by a judge.
The visitors pretty much herded to the parking lots, anxious to be in the best position for racing to the restaurants, since they couldn’t eat the mountains of fried chicken and potato salad waiting at the pavilion.
I ran up to Uncle Al and asked, “What’ll we do?”
Duncan ran up, his eyes smoldering behind his glasses. “Let’s fight,” he said.
Uncle Al stepped to the microphone, but the cord had been unplugged. He cupped his hands. “They can’t make you leave!”
Not many heard him. Duncan reconnected the power, but too late, and I started calling the guest’s phone numbers we had. Uncle Al dashed to the house in his electric cart. We tried to convince people to stay, but the goons worked harder to intimidate them. They swarmed the place and taped off everything. By the time the dust settled, the only guests remaining were relatives with Monday flights from Charleston, Duncan’s and my friends whose parents weren’t there, and JTB, who had kept in the background during this whole mess. We gathered at a shady corner of the dining pavilion to eat of the lonely food. The goons traipsing over the property couldn’t care less if we ate anything “contaminated.” The portable outhouses that had mysteriously tipped over were two hundred yards downwind. JTB and Earmuff Guy attempted to converse, which looked awkward because JTB didn’t know sign language.
Grandma said and everyone agreed that the Governor was behind this harassment.
“There’s nothing we can do till tomorrow morning,” Uncle Al said, “but at least we should protest to the supervisor.”
“She’s at the swimming pool,” Duncan said. “I already told her what I think.”
“Good, son,” Uncle Al said. He patted his mouth with a napkin, then drove away with Grandma in the electric cart. Duncan, me, and our five friends rode our bikes. JTB, Irina, Earmuff Guy, and a few others hurried behind on foot.
We kids passed the cart and arrived first. So many more goons than we expected. We were outnumbered three to one. Many of them were lounging at the café tables under umbrellas, with heaping plates of food before them. When we rode up, a few looked frantically for a place to hide the guilty booty. One laughed and stuffed a forkful into his mouth. Closing the swimming pool really irked me—I had worn my two piece bathing suit under my church clothes. To cool off and show I wouldn’t let them ruin our day, I stripped off my blouse and skirt, climbed the ladder to the board, paced three steps, bounced, and swan-dived into the pool. The goons at the café tables cheered when I surfaced, and one wolf-whistled when I climbed out dripping wet and joined my friends. I was tempted to flip the goons the bird.
The pale Supervisor walked toward us and eyed me closely. I plugged one nostril and blew the other, then wiped my nose with the back of my hand. She shuddered, glanced aside, and nodded to a couple goons who were standing beside her.
They grabbed my arms. Then someone grabbed my bike.
“Let me go, you animals!” I slipped from their grasp and they grabbed me around the waist and neck.
“Hey!” someone shouted.
“Give my bike back!”
“What the Hell are you doing?” someone else shouted.
“Get off her!”
Yelling, punching, and kicking, our friends attacked, but the goons easily pushed them down. Then a goon threw my bike into a nearby midnight blue van. The more I struggled, the more they tightened their grips until it hurt.
I howled, “Let me go. Give me my bike back!”
Uncle Al and Grandma wheeled up, Al with his shaking fists clenched like he might throw a pile driver punch. I bumped a gun inside one of my captor’s belts and really became afraid.
Grandma said, “Let me handle this, Al, please.”
Like a queen condescending to a common bully, Grandma advanced toward the Supervisor.
“Why are you holding my grand-daughter?”
“We have a court order, ma’am. You’re not the legal guardian of this child.”
“Is that so? I’m her closest living relative.”
“It’s only my opinion, ma’am, but from the look of this place, the child hasn’t been properly looked after. Twenty-three health and safety violations. We have affidavits swearing she’s been running loose unsupervised in the streets. The girl will be appointed a guardian ad litem who will protect her interests. You’ll be able to petition the court to gain guardianship. Until then, she’ll be placed in foster care.”
“You mean, jail,” I said. “I want my bicycle.”
“Listen, Grandma.” Here the Supervisor spoke no louder than Grandma Middleton and I could hear. Her pockmarks burned red in her whitewashed face. “Your grandchild won’t be harmed as long as you keep away from the Governor’s business. Stay out of politics. Otherwise, no telling what could happen.” The woman leaned forward and whispered. “She’s insurance.”
The stragglers had arrived in the middle of this menacing threat. JTB hung back but Earmuff Guy waded into our midst. The two goons pulled me toward their van and I screamed.
Other goons drew their pistols. All my family stood frozen and helpless. All but Earmuff Guy, but he wasn’t wearing his earmuffs. He began wailing, waving his arms, and babbling incoherently. The air seemed full of the noise of bubbling, boiling mud pots like at Yellowstone Park. Earmuff stopped screaming and swung around wildly, listening.
“The vampires will come,” he croaked at last, then he spun in a circle, faster and faster, emitting a fierce buzzing noise.
“I’ve seen enough,” the Supervisor said, unfazed. “Let’s go, men. Stick her in the van. If anyone resists, cuff them and toss them in with her.”
I looked around for Duncan because it would be like him to get arrested, but he was gone. The bubbling mud pots grew in intensity, and Earmuff’s buzzing rose in pitch to merge with a whine at the upper limit of human hearing. It settled over us like a hovering, throbbing, flying saucer, numbing the senses.
Everyone was gazing up.
An opaque cloud that jittered like static on an old TV screen descended. Mosquitoes, and they swathed my captors in an instant as if the men had sprouted fur coats. Now they were screaming, and slapping themselves.
A few insects bumped into me, and they were in my eyes and ears. Suddenly free, I zipped away, intending to hide in our secret, prohibition-era wine closet, but as I approached the house, two goons jumped from behind a van, grabbed me, and yanked a bag over my head. I broke loose, screamed, kicked, and punched. They snatched me again and tie-strapped my arms, and I felt a sharp prick in my thigh. Then I was roughly tossed into the van. The door slammed and I faded from consciousness.
Apparently, Earmuff’s communication with nature was two-way.
I’m upset because I had planned to spend the day playing freeze tag in the water with my friends, then keep-away, and sharks and minnows, then there was supposed to be a dive competition and the belly flop contest. I’d ride up the ladder and jump the high dive with a bike. Duncan would swim laps then sit in the shade and listen to a book on tape. A perfect day spoiled. Worst of all, I’ll never see my lucky bicycle again. Oh, my gosh, I’ve been kidnapped!
I opened my eyes and blinked. I was lying on a couch, groggy, with a thin blanket over me. It took a second for my eyes to focus.
“You’re the smart little vixen, aren’t you?” I swiveled my head toward the speaker, and it was the supervisor woman who had been wearing slacks and a polo shirt. Only now, she had on a business suit. New pimples covered her face, which had been slathered in pink calamine lotion. Ah, the mosquitoes.
I tried to sit up, but my feet and wrists were strapped. My heart rate jumped, and I started panting.
“No one’s going to touch you, Carlson. What’s wrong with your parents, giving you a name so ugly? No one will touch you, but you might see and hear something you won’t like. Now, will you behave? Can we remove the restraints?”
“I’m not promising anything.”
“There, at least the fox isn’t snapping her teeth.” She nodded to two gangsters, who cut me loose.
I sat up, rubbed my wrists, and looked around. The room was strange and formal. Big, but not as big as my bedroom. I was only wearing my bathing suit, it was still damp and I felt cold. The blanket hadn’t helped. From my first glances, I guessed I was in the Governor’s summer mansion, but that couldn’t be right because everything was too modern. I wrapped the blanket around me, went to the window only to see the sun setting between two looming skyscrapers. This was not coastal South Carolina.
Atlanta, Carlson. Governor Cobbs is announcing his presidential campaign tonight, and we have some wealthy guests attending the gala here at the Hotel U. The other girls arrived by bus yesterday. I’ll have work for you, too. Easy, light work.” Her sickening smile said she was enjoying the thought.
“I need to pee,” I said. “I’m hungry.”
The door opened and a pretty girl lilted in carrying a long decorative box. She set the box on a counter, and turning to leave gave me a quick wink. Not a mischievous wink, but conveying solidarity, like she knew me already.
The Supervisor opened the box and removed a deep blue sleeveless dress—my size if not a tad small—clearly intended to be alluring. “Take your shower and put on the dress. Oh, and there’s supposed to be underthings.” She glanced at a goon, who hurried out. “Your first guest may arrive soon.”
I’m sure I showed all kinds of alarm.
“Don’t worry, nobody will touch you. They’ll be creepy, but you’ll get used to it. This type of client likes to talk.”
“I might say a few things he won’t like,” I said, already composing new insults.
“Oh, the clients especially love this. You should realize that if your family doesn’t keep their traps shut about the Governor, it won’t be polite, gentleman voyeurs, but hungry, urgent men with money. Lots of them. Lots of money. Tonight is to let y’all know we mean business.”
“I want to talk with Grandma.” The fear in my voice and tears in my eyes weren’t acted.
“We’re talking with her. She knows what’s happening.” She leaned back and looked me up and down. “As cute as you are in your bathing suit and blanket, it’s not quite appropriate for tonight. So, shower. Brush your hair. Wear the dress. We’ll have a beautician see you within the hour.” She and the goons left, and the door shut with a mechanical jolt.
I looked out the window again—no escape there, twenty stories high and the windows wouldn’t open. Adjoining this room was another room with a king-sized bed. Everything in this place was expensive. Leather upholstery. Boutique furniture, like pieces in an art gallery. Watercolors on the walls. Hardwood floors and Persian rugs. Neon accent lights and stainless steel. Ovals and squares. A thick, hand woven bedcover, which I wrapped around me instead of the blanket. Sculptures of naked men and women. Faceted mirrors, like at Grandma’s. A mini bar with imported distilled spirits. A solid wooden table. The refrigerator stocked with food and bottled beverages.
When I jiggled the door handle, a man outside said in a muffled voice, “Forget it, girl.”
I ran to the bathroom to pee, came back to the kitchenette and helped myself to some yogurt, almonds, and a banana.
The dress. Like a poisonous snake. Simple in design, gorgeous, but dangerous. I held it up, draping it before me in a mirror. Not bad, I thought. Surprisingly heavy, the cloth itself was exquisite, soft, and was composed of many subtle blues blended together. I almost could pretend I was a beauty.
Umm… No.
Even if it were my style, I couldn’t wear the dress. I couldn’t play along that far. I wouldn’t give them what they wanted. I tossed the dress onto the box and then noticed a tiny folded scrap of blue paper on the floor. I opened it and read.
“HELP US, CARLSON!” it said. Then it had the number “34.”
The note must have fallen from the folds of the dress.
When the door unlocked and the male beautician arrived with two goons, I was sitting on the couch, un-showered, watching television. The beautician obviously had encountered reluctance before and made only a feeble effort to tempt me.
“These genuine blue diamond earrings and pendant will be fabulous on you, honey,” he said in a pinched, tenor voice. “They’re my favorite. They’ll just glorify your eyes.”
I said nothing and continued staring at the TV.
He said, “You don’t need makeup,” and shrugged his shoulders. Upon leaving, he said to the guard, “Be nice, will you? After all, it’s her first time.”
The Supervisor stormed into the room. She didn’t waste any words, but nervously fretted and steamed as the goons stripped the place of every sheet, towel, blanket, or piece of cloth. They even tore the curtains from the windows. Lastly, they ripped the bedcover from my body. I stood there glaring.
“Okay,” she said finally. “You know, your bathing suit will do fine. A visitor will be arriving soon. The Governor just finished his speech. It was a good’un.”
They left me alone. I was scared. I knew Grandma would guess where I was and Uncle Al might try something, but I didn’t know what. Our family had special gifts, but I couldn’t think of anyone who had a skill that would help this situation.
Using the gorgeous dress would be better than only wearing my bathing suit, so I draped it around my hips and knotted it at the waist, sat on a chair, and waited.
If only I had my bicycle…
The waiting. Fear turned into anxiety. Anxiety turned into dread. Dread turned into horror and humiliation. Humiliation turned into panic, and I began hyperventilating. The lights dimmed and I heard a roaring until I realized I was passing out, and strangely I knew then I had the power to deal with these feelings. I did it all the time without thinking when I did crazy stuff on the bicycle. All I needed to do was breathe deliberately, slowly, and imagine riding. Trust my gift. I pictured gliding along my most challenging urban trail between Grandma’s and school. I had ridden it a hundred times. The trail was incredibly technical. I could do it and recite Shakespeare at the same time. “Once more to the breach.”
The end of this transformation brought me to serenity, and serenity turned into compassion for the girls, and cool anger. I’ll endure this degradation for them and bust the criminal governor all to Hell. I’ll bring him down from the inside.
Yeah. All my resolution and courage melted when the lock flipped and the door opened. So much for being a hero. I ran to the bathroom, and its lock spun uselessly.
“Where are yooou, Carlson!” a treble voice called.
Embarrassed at my cowardice, I emerged from the bathroom. Oh, great. The client is a woman carrying a largish bag. This is creepier than ever! She was dressed in an evening gown like the one around my waist. She was even wearing blue diamond earrings and a pendant. The ones the beautician showed me? Holy cow. With her were two goons wearing navy seersucker suits, one suit way to big and the other way too small. Both of the men sported shaggy beards, and they fidgeted in their shiny, matching brown and white Oxford shoes.
Despite my racing heart, I laughed.
The woman, however, was lovely and looked perfectly comfortable. “You’re cute, but please put the dress on,” she requested, and then smiled in a way incongruous with anything I imagined. Creep-y.
I felt an overwhelming impulse to obey her, but caught myself. “I’ve already made this decision.”
“Mother said you knew your own mind. Then, wear these,” and she pulled shorts and a camo hoodie from her bag. “We’re leaving. You can’t traipse around the U Hotel lobby in a bikini.” Then she smiled again in her kind, totally weird way.
“I’m not going anywhere with you, a-hole.”
“I don’t have time to waste, feral spirit. My flight back to Albuquerque leaves at 11:05. Okay, Shady Grove, bring it in.”
Shady Grove—one of the glassy-eyed bearded men—stepped into the hallway and returned wheeling a brand new, ultra high-end mountain bicycle, my own helmet dangling from the handlebar.
“Your grandmother said you’d need these. I’m Duncan’s mom. I can mesmerize enough people to get us in and out, but no one knows who I am. You, girl, will be recognized from a distance, and I can’t reach people unless they’re nearby, within forty feet or so. The effect lasts five to ten minutes, but for those who stay with me for extended periods, it never wears off.” Here she punched the other bearded guy really hard in the shoulder. (He didn’t even flinch.) “You’re on your own, Carlson. Look for the red rental van double parked in front of the hotel.”
I grinned and pulled on the hoodie and shorts.
We sidled past a real goon wearing a perfectly fitted suit and a drool-slimed tie. “Now, handsome,” Duncan’s mom, my aunt, said, “go soak your head in a toilet.” He shambled off to obey, his brain under her influence functioning no better than scrambled eggs.
She and her escorts waited at the elevator. The elevator dinged, its door opened, and a dapper little man stepped out, followed by another mindless hulk. Did everyone around here bring apes for bodyguards?
“Put your watches, rings, and wallets in the bag,” she said sweetly to the men from the elevator.
“Cheers!” Duncan’s mom waved to me as the door was closing. “Good luck. Say hello to my kid for me. To Duncan.”
I snapped on the helmet and threw my leg over the bike. The weight and balance felt off. I looked past the two men who stood like statues with their mouths open and saw the stairwell’s sign. Twenty stories up. Fun. I wheeled toward the men and realized the little guy was probably my client. I could, I should, run him right over. Would be easy. With his brain addled, he wouldn’t move. I stood on the pedals to gain power and aimed right at him. But at the last moment, conscience kicked in and I dismounted to walk by. He leered, and his eyes tracked me as I passed. At the last moment, he leaned out and patted my fanny, the turd. I didn’t even look back, even though he howled as he lost balance and hit the floor.
The dapper man’s bodyguard must have regained what dim consciousness he had, because he shouted, “She’s loose!”
The first turn in the stairwell gave me trouble, or the new bike did, because I scraped the wall and nearly flipped. After that, no problem. I bumped down the entire spiraling way, only dismounting to walk through a couple fire doors including the one at the bottom that opened into a main hallway crowded with glittering people. I sprinted through, with them screaming and leaping out of the way. A parking valet waved his hand to trigger the front door to open. As I rode by I noticed he was wearing protective headphones. Earmuff Guy! He tipped his cap. Outside, a red van waited in the middle of the lane, its back doors wide open. I jumped the bike inside. Earmuff crawled in afterwards and pulled the doors shut.
We accelerated, and I looked around.
Here they were, my closest family! All of them. Duncan, Grandma, Uncle Al, Uncle Sharp, Irina, and even Jonathan T. Barron. They were smiling, laughing, and trying to hug me. Duncan snuffled over my hoodie like a lost and found puppy.
I burst into tears.
When I stopped crying at last, Duncan said, “It worked.”
“What worked?”
“Cousin Ralph. Earmuff Guy? I figured if there was an important message for him, all I had to do was broadcast a repetitive sound.”
“Oh. Gurgling mud pots?”
“Grits. I took a cordless mic and turned up the heat.”
“But it didn’t work. They stole my bike.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Even in the flashing, irregular illumination of passing headlights I could see something wrong with Duncan, so I asked, “Your forehead?”
“Bruise. My usual clumsiness. Doesn’t hurt. I’m sad because I can smell my mom on you. It’s the closest I’ve been to her since she left. She’s older, I know, but she hasn’t changed.”
Grandma had chartered a private jet and a pilot for the hop to and from Atlanta and had got permission through Duncan’s dad to use the Beaufort Marine airbase, so they could move faster and get me home quicker. At the Atlanta hangar, everyone said again how glad they were that I was okay, and lined up for more hugs. Everyone but Duncan, and Cousin Earmuff, who wouldn’t let anyone touch him. He twirled in a corner wearing his valet hat and bearing a mischievous smile.
JTB waited until everyone was done. “I’m sorry you went through this,” he said.
“I knew someone would save me.”
“Yesterday I gave you the impression that I’d help. I didn’t lie, but I hoped I could be excused. But after today… After today, I’m completely in. Cousin Ralph and the eerie mosquito attack really impressed me, but your issue is far more important. I know I can make a difference.”
I tried not to get lost in his eyes.
“Your Uncle Al should research if the Governor is using the foster care system as a farm program for sex slaves.”
“Oh dear. I’m positive he is.”
“I’m flying back home to California tonight. But I promise to drop everything and join you the instant your plan starts moving, whatever it is.”
Once I nestled into a bed they made for me on the jet, I fell asleep and didn’t fully wake up until morning and found myself in my own blessed room.
Who said the wheels of justice grind slowly?
The new bike was better than mine. I mean, it featured better components, but it didn’t ride the same. I wasn’t sure I could perform impossible stunts like I did with mine. My old bike and I had so much history, and I didn’t trust the new one.
Anyway, we were afraid the kidnapping syndicate would attack us again. We looked at the files of missing women in the region. So many girls had been in foster care when they disappeared. And I figured the number 34 on the blue note was how many girls the Governor currently held in captivity.
Grandma guessed we would be okay, but it didn’t stop us from watching over our shoulders. I think Duncan’s dad was watching over us, too. Even so, shadows felt deeper and more ominous. The situation improved after Uncle Sharp paid us a visit, and Duncan sniffed out an unconscious goon in our shrubbery, a horseshoe nearby. The stalker was lucky not to be strangled by a ringer.
A month later Uncle Al finally put together a kind-of plan. Al is a master logician, and he had been studying the lottery long before Grandma won her money. On a closer examination, he found that Governor Cobb introduced a political media blitz—TV, radio, mailers in our box—after every lottery jackpot. Every one. Also, the Governor received a flush of donations after the jackpot award and before the campaign. Studying the Governor’s published itinerary, Al didn’t see any corresponding increase of fundraising activity. No particular increase of events and few personal appearances. And most of the events he did throw were fake. That is, no crowds and no VIP guests.
“The conclusion is obvious,” Uncle Al said. “But how to prove it?”
“Have Irina win the lottery,” JTB suggested by phone.
It was easy enough. Grandma never questioned us for being inquisitive. I waited until bedtime when she needed help getting ready.
“Yes, sweetie.”
“If you bought a ticket for the next Powerball lottery, what would you pick?”
“How many numbers, dear?”
“Go for broke.”
“I don’t know. I’m tired, but I’d say…” She closed her eyes. “14, 52, 35, 34, 9. Let’s see… The red ball: 20.”
I jotted them down and repeated them back.
“That’s it. Is Mr. Jonathan T. Barron being helpful?”
“He’ll be here next week.”
“It will all work out, sweetie.”
I gave a covert look, but she just snuggled into her pillow.
“Good night Grandma.” I gave her my hand, which she kissed.
“Good night, dear.”
So, Irina bought the ticket and won the huge jackpot, though she’d have to split it with another winner. She signed to take it in one lump sum, and Uncle Al said he’d handle the tax forms. The check was soon ready in Columbia, the capital.
We assured ourselves of the danger one morning as we waited at Irina’s new Fripp Island villa overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, we being Irina, and me, too, as a chaperone to keep her company, Duncan, and JTB, who was watching from the balcony. It was the middle of summer vacation by then. We had been at the villa for a week, and I risked riding every day along the beach and into the waves on the new bicycle.
We were waiting for Governor Cobb’s presidential “committee” to show up. They’d arrive anytime, maybe.
Duncan was outside somewhere smelling the morning breezes. JTB stepped in from the balcony. The wind whipped the curtains of the sliding glass door.
I peeked out as a glorious peloton of pelicans floated overhead.
“The waves are high,” JTB said. “Nice surf. Someone with binoculars was observing me. They don’t seem to be hiding. That’s good. I don’t believe they know about the Governor’s lottery business.”
“We don’t know, either,” Irina said.
Just then Duncan came rushing in. “They’re here.”
“Who?” I said.
He stuffed a pistol under a couch pillow.
A forever minute later I answered the door. Suits, two of them, one grey and the other black were standing at the villa’s entrance. They both were sweating.
The grey suit contained a black man whose expression said he wouldn’t do the talking. The black suit came with black shirt, black tie, and a black cowboy hat carried in his hand. His soft hair combed into a gentle wave made an instant impression, but it was blacker than nature and couldn’t misdirect from the worn, tanned face. The only life in this person showed in his darting eyes, and then his mouth.
“Good morning. My name is Whitmire, and I’m an attorney for the South Carolina Education Lottery. We’d like to see Ms. Irina Grigorenko. May we come in?”
How could we say no?
When everyone settled into chairs, JTB, who was wearing dark glasses, said, “I speak for Miss Grigorenko. You’re here to request a donation for the Governor’s presidential campaign. Miss Grigorenko has received many inquiries since she came into money, and I regret that she’s turning them all down. This is an exciting time for her and she wants to take things slowly.”
Whitmire looked shocked. “I said we’re with the Lottery. Who are you?”
They didn’t know who JTB was. Excellent.
“Someone who has her best interest in mind.”
“I see,” the man said in a singsong tone, not attempting to conceal his mockery. “Is this the lady?” he asked, nodding to Irina and not to me.
At this point the black man edged around the room and inspected everything as if he was searching for cameras and recording devices.
Duncan was sniffing and staring around blankly. He had misplaced his glasses.
“What’s wrong with him?” Whitmire said.
“He’s blind,” I said.
“You’re all very nervous,” he said, looking around our circle. “You should be. Ms. Grigorenko is in an uncomfortable position. Those shadowy men lurking on the beach and in the parking lot? Your bodyguards?”
“No,” JTB said.
“Ms. Grigorenko is in the U.S. illegally. The country has every right to deport her. If she were from Mexico, perhaps there wouldn’t be an issue, but as is, she’s in danger of being deported back to Russia. I understand that her relatives returned there? I must say, Ms. Grigorenko’s illegal status puts her substantial Education Lottery winnings in jeopardy.
“The Governor has spoken personally about her situation, and he can help. We will advocate on Ms. Grigorenko’s behalf to ensure she remains in the U.S., if she wishes. We can also reserve $20,000 cash for her, and grant her a full scholarship to any one of the South Carolina state universities.”
“And what’s the deal? What does she do in return?”
“What about her lottery winnings?”
“She signs a paper releasing the winnings. We avoid an expensive, expensive for you, I might say, court proceeding.”
“What happens to the funds?”
“They become available for other purposes.”
“You have a contract?”
He handed JTB a sheet of paper.
“This says nothing about a scholarship.”
“You’re skeptical. If you wish, we’ll also cover the cost of your nice villa.”
Here JTB stood up and pulled open the curtains, letting the glaring morning sunlight pour through. “You’re not with the Education Lottery, Mr. Whitmire. You work for the Governor’s presidential campaign. If Miss Grigorenko agrees with your terms, I have no doubt you will honor your pathetic offer, but I know that the lottery money will be disbursed to dozens if not hundreds of people, who will, in turn, make perfectly legal donations to the Governor’s campaign.”
JTB stopped to wait for a reaction. The minuscule hesitation on the part of Mr. Whitmire was all we needed to see. I’m sure Duncan smelled a change in Whitmire’s chemistry. Heck, I could smell it. Whitmire started flibber-flabbering, but JTB didn’t let him reach coherency.
“My name is Jonathan T. Barron and I produce a radio show called Strange Days Radio. Ordinarily, I broadcast stories on the paranormal, the weird, the improbable. I’m more of debunker than believer, and Mr. Whitmire, you’re debunked. This room is bugged better than the CIA can do it. It’s my trade, sir. And though this story has nothing to do with the supernatural (here I cleared my throat), it is the oddest corruption I have ever seen. People will care.”
JTB waited for another reaction. Whitmire only glanced to his partner who was staring at his phone, checking JTB’s credentials, no doubt. JTB took off his sunglasses. The partner glanced up and nodded.
“You can’t prove anything,” Whitmire said.
“I can speculate. It goes a long way in politics.”
Whitmire was silent, thinking.
“You’re an intelligent man, Mr. Whitmire. You haven’t threatened to sue me for slander. I respect you for respecting me. But let me tell you something you don’t know. Those men you thought were Miss Grigorenko’s guards? They’re her tormentors.”
By the end of Irina’s softly narrated tale of her abduction and our boisterous team presentation proving Governor Cobb being the hub of a sinister sex trafficking syndicate, Whitmire and his silent partner were shaking in anger. They said, and I could tell that Duncan, the human lie detector, believed them when they said, that they hadn’t known anything about it. The black guy even spoke, saying. “This is horrible.”
I forgave them for their bad costume colors.
When they were leaving, Whitmire said, “I’m not guaranteeing anything, but we’ll see about these unthinkable crimes. As for our shakedown, you do what you think best. Ms. Grigorenko has nothing to worry about from us. She won the lottery, and her immigration status doesn’t affect this whatsoever. We’re at your mercy.”
A week later Governor Cobb withdrew from the presidential race, stating the classic he “needed to spend more time with family.” He didn’t even endorse anyone.
We also read that a Mr. Whitmire of the Governor’s staff had been murdered by unknown persons. Too bad, really. I felt bad for him—for a political crook he seemed to have a smidgen of ethics. We had played one crook against another, but as far as we could tell, the sex trafficking continued unaffected. Uncle Al said that kidnappings of young girls seemed to be picking up, and we were feeling desperate, especially Duncan. We stood ready. When and if it was right to move, things would happen fast.
It was now nearly the end of summer vacation. Duncan had been staying with his dad and volunteering at the hospital. One Sunday he rode over to Grandma’s. I met him at the front door. He dumped his bike on the lawn and grinned while bouncing up and down with excitement. “Uncle Al said we never did confirm the Governor was running a kidnapping ring and selling girls.”
“But Grandma said.”
“Not everyone believes her. So, Dad did his own surveillance. Satellite imagery.”
“We’re raiding the Governor’s compound. We’re going to stop this shit. Yeah.”
“Who is we?”
“Marines. A Special Operations Team.”
“You mean like Navy SEALS?”
“Some guys are here from Camp Lejeune on a training operation, and dad and Mr. Barron persuaded the commanding general to give them a live exercise. In their free time.”
“Mr. Barron did?”
“The President okayed the mission. Apparently, they all know each other from Afghanistan. Mr. Barron was involved in some fantastical op no one will discuss. The subject has its own smell. It’s how he started his paranormal investigations.”
“And you know that jump you’ve always dreamed about?”
“I can smuggle you onboard the plane, but you’ll have to wear a parachute. I insist.”
That’s how I found myself stuffed into an airplane compartment and hugging an expensive, folding, carbon-fiber bike in its aerodynamic fabric case. Grandma would never give permission, so this was my only chance until I turned 18, and since it was for a good cause, I thought I’d give it a try. I have to admit, I was nervous. The danger was darkness. But I figured the Governor’s house was lit well enough that I would find my landing site, a long, grassy slope ending at the water’s edge.
I was wearing a radio headset that Duncan gave me. I turned down the Marines’ chatter. The noise, vibration, and bounce of the aircraft was relaxing. We had to circle upward from a distance to get the right altitude, Duncan had said. I wondered what kind of commitment he had made to talk his dad into this operation. Probably going peaceably to military school. Too bad. Duncan would fail in a rigid environment. Or, he’d be bullied because of his ability.
I didn’t think of it often, but in those minutes of waiting, I wondered where our abilities came from. I mean, my skill. Lots of guys have amazing talent on a bike, but mine wasn’t natural, was it?
Maybe Duncan’s powers of smell were natural, but how? Genetic mutation. But Grandma’s infallible guesswork? Maybe she had simply tuned into what was available to everyone. JTB had been telling me the other day about how some trees are interconnected underground. Say, if one tree is attacked by a pest, such as an insect, that tree will produce a toxin to make its sap and leaves unpalatable. But the thing is, the other nearby trees of that species will produce the same toxin, even if not attacked. Maybe the world is like that. We humans might have an underground invisible connection to reality ready to be tapped if only we’re paying attention.
I had asked Uncle Al this question once. He said that with all the bad luck in the world, there must be good luck somewhere to even the balance. Our family just happens to be the “locus” of concentrated good luck. He called it blessings. I sure hoped my luck would hold out for this jump.
My ears popped and the background chatter took a new note. I turned up the volume. The jump door had been thrown open.
“60 seconds,” I heard. My cue.
I pushed open the closet and stretched my legs. The bike package was strapped to my front. Peeking around, I saw no one looking in my direction. I slowly stood, pulling myself up. I timed it just right. I waddled to the door. At the ten second count, I launched.
“What was that?” a voice asked.
“A girl.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Go, go, go, go.”
Then there were several seconds of deep breaths, grunts, and quick prayers. The Marines were behind me. Or I should say, above me.
“Was she wearing a parachute?” the first voice asked with some unease.
Better than a parachute, I thought. A Flying Squirrel brand wingsuit.
Once I had cleared the aircraft, it took a few seconds of tumbling to figure out how to glide. The bike pack made it hard. At least the ocean gave me an orientation. The view was spectacular. Bright stars in the heavens and muted stars below. I had studied night-time satellite images and thought I would see my target, but I was lost. I had no idea where I was. I was feeling panic. I switched radio channels and heard Duncan say, “Did you wear a parachute, stupid?”
“Listen, I’ve got more important things to think about.”
“An altimeter?”
“No altimeter.”
“Alright. I’m with Beta Team at our mobile base. We are poised to enter the Governor’s compound. I’ve got you on sonar and infrared. Bear north until I say when, and begin spiraling. That will bring you closer to the house. I’ll provide you a running altitude.”
Duncan gave me readouts until he said, “You have 35 seconds for chute deployment. I pray you’re wearing one.”
At least I had practiced unfolding the bike, which took 12 seconds in my room. But falling through the air, it took more strength and focus than I knew I had to get that bike into rideable configuration.
Worse, I couldn’t see a thing below, and the Governor’s house and his grassy slope were too far away.
Duncan at this point was screaming, “Deploy your chute! Deploy your chute! You can’t land the bike!”
Duncan was right. A patch of trees was in front of me now. Even with a chute, my landing would be a challenge. Reluctantly, I pulled the cord, jerked back, lifted over the trees, and mercifully saw the pale grey of a field. My tires were about 10 feet from the ground when the chute caught a tree. I cut it loose and slammed into the ground. The bike squirreled, but I stayed up until a wheelbarrow-sized rock loomed ahead. I swerved and toppled sideways and then the world was a rolling, skidding chaos. When at last I came to a halt, I lay still for a minute. Miraculously everything checked out. My radio was quiet, though. Not broken, but out of range, I guess. I wobbled up to my feet and looked at the bike with my headlamp. It was intact, but there was something I had never seen before. Made me proud.
A hound dog was sitting nearby watching me with curiosity.
I had to tell somebody. “Hey fella,” I said showing him the bike, “my very first scratch.” Was he impressed? He whimpered, shook his ears, and trotted away.
Best of all, of course, was that I had the whole jump on my infra-red MoJoe.
I stripped the wingsuit and stuffed it into the bike bag, then wheeled up an incline until I could see the Governor’s house on a rise a mile north.
I was way off target. I sighed.
Why did I come anyway? Was it just for the jump? Even if I had landed on the grassy slope, I really had had no plan. Was I going to show off and dodge bullets again like last time? What good had that done? Duncan had used his brain and figured out a way to rescue Irina, while I had been only a side show.
I noticed a lighter band to my left and found it was a gravel road. Too depressed to ride, I walked along, the hound dog with me once more.
Eventually, I came to the iron perimeter fence and could see the house again, popping and flickering like someone was shooting off firecrackers, but no doubt it was firearms and flash-bangs. Marine Special Forces giving them Hell. Literally. A blaze burned near the water—the Governor’s yacht.
The road continued along the fence and ended at a stumpy brick building, brick similar to that of the Governor’s house and with a wide garage door. I couldn’t see a way to cross the fence, bike or no bike, the jump between roof and fence too far.
Just then my phone rang. Duncan’s voice. “Carlson?”
“Yep. Useless, but here.”
“Thank God. Somewhere on Earth, I assume.”
“Yep. I’m not dead. Due south of the house. Missed the landing zone.”
“Obvious. We’re done here. The sex traffickers are dead or captured. Mostly dead, I’m afraid. We can’t find the Governor, however. Can you ride? You want someone to pick you up?”
“That’d be nice. I’ve got more bruises than I thought.”
“We’ve got you located. It will be awhile, ‘cause that gravel road… Someone’s checking a map for me. It doesn’t go anywhere. But we’ll find you.”
“Should I ride out the road and meet you?”
“If you want. I have to go.”
I climbed onto the bike and rode a few yards, but I was pretty stiff, so I got off and walked.
My doggy friend stayed behind at the brick building. He whined and scratched at the door. Lights flashed on. A motion detector. The garage door creaked and rattled open. Headlights streamed out and lit the trees ahead, and from the door crept a black SUV. And yes, it still had a large dent in the roof.
There must be a tunnel from the house to the garage.
The SUV’s tires spun in the gravel as the vehicle gained speed, and I realized there might be one final, impossible, daring bike trick left for me to perform. One I had never thought of before. One harder than jumping from an airplane. And it was the purpose for me so badly missing the target. Maybe it was why I was born and brought into my family.
The Governor’s presidential campaign was over. Good. His sex trafficking career was over. Good. But he would find a way to stay free. He was still in office. He would avoid punishment and cook up some new corruption. Or maybe he was fleeing the country to escape justice. But I could prevent him.
The car approached, accelerating. The driver was leaning forward, his nose almost touching the steering wheel. I had never laid eyes on him before, but I recognized his face from the many posters I’d seen. It was the Governor, pale and grim, illuminated by the light of his console. I timed it perfectly. My MoJoe was rolling in high definition. I felt weak and dizzy, but as with all my stunts I smothered my fear and rode on, right into his path and held up my hand. The pup trotted near and began barking a frantic warning.
The Governor could have stopped in time. I hoped he would, but if we judged his character correctly… he sped up. He was right there, looming before me. The metal grill of the vehicle.
You asked for it, buddy, was my last thought…
My memory of being run over and what the Governor shouted near the wreck of my body is fuzzy. As is the transport to the hospital. I heard a barking dog… When I came into full consciousness, Duncan and Irina were beside me. Duncan grinning and Irina teary.
JTB came in and asked if I wanted to do his radio program from my hospital bed.
“The Governor?” I whispered.
“In jail. Hit and run. Attempted murder. Assault with a deadly weapon. They won’t let him bond out. He’s a flight risk. It’s big news.”
“Then, where’s my microphone?”
I really wasn’t up to it so soon. Doctors said I was lucky to be alive, and with my damaged spine it was unlikely I would walk again let alone ride a bike. Little did they know riding was easier for me than walking. But it took a whole week for me to stabilize. At least one member of our gang sat with me around the clock.
Grandma came every day. I lamented to her that my supernatural ability on the bicycle had not covered deliberately peddling in front of a speeding SUV.
“You’re wrong dear,” she said. “Anyone else would be plain dead. He ran you right over. Thumpity, thump, thump. Instinctively you placed yourself so that the SUV missed your head and vital organs. Your bike punctured the Governor’s oil pan and he ruined his engine. That’s how we caught him.”
“How about the pup? What happened to him?”
“He stayed by you the whole time, keeping guard. He was a stray, I guess, and we brought him home.”
“Can we keep him, Grandma?”
“I don’t see why not.”
JTB was patient. As soon I was able, they moved me to Grandma’s house, where she had kitted out my room with hospital gear, and she hired nurses. I have a big room, so it was easy to bring in chairs, tables, and the audio equipment. Irina helped me dress and put on a little eyeliner. JTB’s program goes live every Saturday night, barring national and regional emergencies, so it was pretty exciting. The lights were turned down low and we had spectators in chairs shoved along one wall. Only family and Ergo. That’s what I named the pup. I wanted to invite a couple intelligent, non-arrogant guys from school, but JTB nixed that. “Save your family secret for Mr. Right,” he said.
JTB produced a transcript of the program, so it’s easier just to quote from it and then add commentary, if I think it’s important.

JTB: Welcome to Strange Days Radio. I’m Jonathan T. Barron, and we are broadcasting from a secret location near Beaufort, South Carolina where no doubt you’ve heard the news. Governor Andrew Cobb has been arrested and is now in jail for allegedly running over a teenage girl in his SUV and then fleeing the scene. As you likely know, Governor Cobb recently dropped his candidacy for President of the United States. There’s been a lot of speculation from both the left and the right of the political spectrum about what’s happening behind the scenes.
Well, we will add fuel to the fires. Because tonight, from her hospital bed, we have the girl who was run over. What was she doing riding a bicycle on that isolated gravel road near the Governor’s summer home? She will tell you herself, after these messages from our sponsors.

The introduction was awkward, true. I mean, how could I explain me being there in the middle of the night? But JTB had told us we should attack the issue head on and tell as much truth as could be believed.
When JTB came back, he said, “Okay. I begin with a disclaimer. If Governor Cobb is convicted of hit and run, attempted murder and so on, he’ll be spending a lot of time in jail. Likely his political career is over. His lawyers may think that what we are about to tell you gives them a case for impeaching my guests’ characters. They may think they have a case for slander against me and my guests. I dare them. Try it. Just try it. We have the evidence on video. Our story is real. At their request, and to protect their privacy, we’re not using our guests’ actual names. They are not publicity hounds. All they want is for right to be done. As for our listeners, all I can say is, believe it or not.
“We will call our first guest, ‘Marie.’”
So, I explained that I had jumped from a plane with some military guys whose mission was to shut down the Governor’s sex trafficking. I didn’t say they were Marines. I didn’t say anything about my bike riding stunts. JTB guided me with questions. I told everything I saw and heard. Then JTB asked me the dreaded question.
“I know this is personal, Marie and it’s an uncomfortable issue. But why did you join this mission? Why did you make the jump?”
I paused a long time, a couple seconds of dead air being a long time on radio. I finally said, “What really matters is the girls who were enslaved and this evil man that so many people trusted. I wanted to help. I’m lucky that I have people who care for me. Friends and relatives who protect me. Not everyone has this. I had to do something.”
“You did help, didn’t you?”
I nodded.
JTB affirmed as much to the radio audience. “And it cost her. She’s lost the use of her legs. You can’t see her, but Marie has tears in her eyes. She lost a lot already. I think it’s okay to tell you her parents both died less than a year ago. When we come back, we’ll talk with another girl who was abducted by the Governor’s sex trafficking thugs, and who was rescued by none other than Marie’s cousin, a young man who is a human bloodhound.”
We broke for another round of commercials, then Irina, as “Iris,” told her whole story again, including the scene with Whitmire, then Uncle Al as “Abel” succinctly filled in the details of the lottery scandal.
Last was Duncan. He was going by the name “Dennis.” He touched on his role in tracking Irina when she was first kidnapped and how he called a taxi to rescue her.
Here’s more transcript:

JTB: You have an extraordinary sense of smell.
DENNIS: Yes, sir.
JTB: How extraordinary?
DENNIS: I’ve been tested. The creature with the best sense of smell is probably a male moth, but it can best detect only a female moth pheromone. Next would be a bear, probably the grizzly, which can smell better than a bloodhound. My ability to identify scent is probably 100 times greater than a grizzly bear. For example, I can tell what brand of cigar you smoked. I can smell the proximity of a wall by the gassing of its paint. I know how long ago the wall was painted. You see, I can also smell across time. For example, this microphone was used by a… a conifer tree? I know that in this room… [Pause. Takes a deep breath through his nose.] There’s a woman three weeks pregnant.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [Squeal.] I didn’t know! It must be me! We’ve been trying for a year!
DENNIS: She tried only an hour ago.
MARIE: Duncan!
JTB: Umm. Okay. I must remind my guests this is a family program. So, Dennis, tell the scene in the Governor’s house, of how you used your powers of smell.
DENNIS: Yes, sir. I didn’t parachute in with Marie and Team Alpha, but I entered with the second team on the downwind side of the estate. Five men, and me. We climbed over the fence with a titanium ladder. I helped locate any hostiles who were outside. When we were sure the grounds were secure, Team Alpha cleared the known rooms. My job then was to find the hidden rooms. This took time, but not as long as you’d expect. I jogged through the mansion and located the secret doors and tunnels. Once these had been breached, team members stepped back and let me check the air. In most cases no one fired on us. I could tell how big a room was and who was in it, if anyone. And what their intentions were, even in dark. So, we found a dormitory full of girls, 30 of them chained to their beds. Two guys with guns were guarding them. One of them dropped his gun. The other didn’t and we shot him dead.
JTB: Was that hard?
DENNIS: I was armed, too, you know. I can shoot.
JTB: Really?
DENNIS: Yes, sir.
JTB: There’s something else special about you, isn’t there? Something besides your superhero powers of smell. Would you tell us about it?
DENNIS: It’s not a big deal.
JTB: Do you mind if I tell?
DENNIS: No, sir. My friends and relatives all know.
JTB: This young man is blind. Totally blind. He wears thick glasses to conceal the fact. How do you get around? I mean, you seem in all respects to be a sighted person.
DENNIS: Doctors believe that as I was developing inside my mother, somehow a wire split in my brain. The part of my brain that processes visuals connected to my olfactory system. So my eyes are normal, it’s just they never were hooked up. Then, my olfactory epithelium is also considerably more densely innervated than the average person. So, that sort of explains it.
JTB: Sort of?
DENNIS: Some of it isn’t explainable. I should have a really long snout.
JTB: You do have a big nose, if I may say.
DENNIS: [Laughs] I can’t see it. And I can’t smell it either.
AUDIENCE: [Laughter.]
DENNIS: I usually get around okay by smell, and I also have sonar implants, but even those aren’t perfect. I bump into things.
JTB: What does the future hold for you?
DENNIS: I want to go to medical school so I can learn to diagnose disease. My father wants me to join Special Forces so I can help on ops like this more often. He’s pretty happy with how things turned out, and it was fun. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll do both.
JTB: Amazing. That wraps up our program. Strange Days Radio. Tune in next week when we interview some of the girls rescued during this daring raid on the summer home of Governor Cobb, former Governor Cobb, of South Carolina.
DENNIS: You have a thyroid condition.
JTB: What?
DENNIS: Your thyroid isn’t producing enough T4, and your TSH levels aren’t keeping up. Do you feel tired all the time?

Though it wasn’t planned, the engineer let that last spontaneous banter go over the air and conclude the program. JTB thought it brilliant.
I was tired, so people left the room quickly. They dismantled and removed all the equipment the next day. By afternoon when my room was back to normal, Grandma came in and sat by my bed.
“I’m proud of you, Carlson, dear.”
“What is it, sweetie?”
“I don’t want to be Carlson anymore. I want to wear lovely dresses once in awhile. I’m ready for a new life. I want to go by my middle name.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“I thought it was funny you picked it for the radio. I went through a transition like you did when I was your age. Or a little older.”
“I was a smart-ass know-it-all, until I met your grandfather.”
I gave her a funny look.
“Our family is odd isn’t it?”
“No, ma’am. Not really.”
“But we do have secrets.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” My secret wasn’t spectacular or anything. Grandma looked at me like she expected me to tell her, and I didn’t want to disappoint, so I said, “I’ve always known I was adopted. I’m not really a member of the family.”
“Oh, yes you are.”
“I know what you mean, but because I’m adopted, my bike riding isn’t supernatural, like you guys are. Like Duncan. It’s just me. I’m the best mountain biker in the world. Was, I mean.” I took a deep breath and let loose a huge sigh.
“I have a secret to share with you, dear.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I don’t guess at things. I really know them. I don’t want people to know I know, so I pretend. I can’t explain why, or how, but it just is. I don’t try to understand, but I try to be wise with this knowledge, and humble. Your Grandpa Middleton and I were poor, but we were happy. Grandpa needed to be head of the house—to have the final say on our decisions. I loved him and let him be who he was. And I also knew he wouldn’t be with us forever. Those years with our children, your father a baby growing into a boy growing into a man, were filled with fun. It was hard, but oh, so worthwhile. And when Grandpa died, I knew I needed to use my gift for our family, and that’s when I bought a lottery ticket.
“And I knew, Marie, the date your parents would die. I always cautioned them about riding motorcycles, but I couldn’t say more. I don’t caution you. Maybe you’ve noticed. There’s a reason. We didn’t tell you about being adopted because we wanted you to be confident. You always took smart, calculated risks and challenged your abilities. You needed to jump from the airplane and ride into the path of that SUV. You needed to risk losing your life.”
“I suppose.”
“It’s not over, dear. I haven’t told you yet, but I’ve opened the house as a safe haven for the girls you all rescued. They’ll stay until they’re ready to resume their lives or begin new ones. A transition home. Several returned to their families already. But this crime is worldwide, and we’ll be hosting girls from everywhere, Asia, Europe, Africa, South America. All over. I’ve hired Irina to direct the program.”
“She’ll do great. Duncan will love having her around. And maybe it’s something I can get involved in, too.”
Grandma only smiled, and I knew why she did. All of those vague smiles through the years. She couldn’t say what she knew.
But I was mistaken about her smile today. My door opened and in came Duncan, Irina, and JTB. As they stood back, Irina put her arm around Duncan’s shoulders like a big sister, and girls entered the room one or two at a time. Some even my age. They were happy, sad, and each one beautiful in her own way. They thanked me simply and left.
Then Duncan’s father entered wearing his steam-pressed uniform. He and Irina traded friendly glances. It’s a start. Then some of the Special Forces entered wearing casual clothes. Normal manly guys made of steel, not only physically, but in their core. They really cared.
One of them said, “When you’re old enough, Marie, please sign up for Marine Corps Special Forces. You’ll be the first girl. I’d love you on our team.” He took my hand.
I told him to be careful what he asked for.
At the end of the line of Marines was my cousin Duncan. He said he’d ride on my handlebars again any day. I’ll not reveal if I cried.
To wrap this story up, I’ll say that Duncan began checking on my condition and gave the doctors valuable information so that I could heal quicker. It didn’t hurt that he kicked butt to keep them thinking about my case. The blind boy who could sniff out all their skeletons and who had gone into combat was more than intimidating.
And I actually began to feel my legs.
Who knows if I will ever ride again? Well, Grandma knows, but she’ll never tell. I have the videos of my incredible flying squirrel suit/mountain bike landing and the awesome getting-run-over-by-an-SUV trick, and they’re up at YouTube and other places, and still garnering millions of views, but that’s past. I have to live in the present and meet its challenges, whatever they are.
Hey, but picture me doing amazing, impossible stunts in a wheelchair. Even better, racing down waterfalls on one of those arm-powered bicycles. I’m sure Grandma Middleton will get me one someday.


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