Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 6

I Was the Man Who Died Twice

I woke with cold pavement pressing on my cheek. I couldn’t open my eyes. My head felt like a cork about to pop. My every joint creaked if I moved the slightest muscle. My clothes were like sandpaper. My throat was a desert. The air was heavy as a stone crushing me to the face of the earth.

I moved an arm and a spike of hot steel lanced up from my elbow. Screaming broke the crust that seemed to have caked around me. My face contorted as blood began to flow. My heart –stilled for how long – started beating again. I could feel each spasm shudder through me. My lungs filled with air as if for the first time.

I rolled and pressed my palms against concrete. The ground felt like broken glass. I drew a painful breath and pushed hard against the earth. It didn’t feel like sitting up. It felt like the world rotated around me.

Somewhere a bird chirped. That was odd for October. Maybe one last straggler lingered far behind the flock, still hoping for greener pastures. Whatever it was, I was thankful. The first sound I heard was an emblem of life, not death.

Idiot. There I was again, searching for a goddamn metaphor. I opened my eyes.

Gray coalesced into the shape of the world. A thin, white line separated sky from the earth below. A cold wind ruffled my hair and blew off a layer of grit. I blinked to clear my eyes, then rubbed them when that didn’t work. Hardened sleep peeled off my lids like scabs, and a rain of tears followed. I wiped my cheeks and black grime smeared on my hands.

Where the hell was I?

There was a metal building like a silo on its side. I sat not far from it on a sea of pavement. In the distance was as sprawling concrete structure punctuated by a tower with antennas on top.

Christ, I was still at the airport. But why was it so dark, and where the hell was everyone?

Were they dead?

Was I?

I felt my chest. No holes. The same for my head. My shirt was dry, not a bit of blood. My arms felt tangled and I couldn’t figure why until I remembered the wire running from my watch to my coat pocket.

I spoke into the watch. “Hello?” My voice cracked and I coughed until something warm rose up. “Hello?” I squeaked. “Powell? Anyone? Hello?”

I reached in my pocket and pulled out the case. The ‘Record’ button was still pressed, but there was no sound of a reel spinning. The transmitter was probably dead as well. There was no way to get the thing off me without completely disrobing, though, so I’d save that for later.

First things first. I climbed to my feet and wobbled until my balance came back. My legs felt like reeds of grass that would whip over with the first strong breeze. I took a practice step to make sure I wouldn’t fall, then I took two more to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke.

On the horizon, the sun started to rise.

What?

Was I expected to believe that after the bloodbath when Aranjuez’s plane landed, everyone left me on the airfield to sleep overnight? And that they’d cleaned the area up as if nothing had ever happened?

No. If what I remembered was real, I’d have at least three bullet holes in me. I didn’t, so it must have been what… a hallucination? Maybe I really was crazy. The last few days would make a whole lot more sense that way.

So was it plausible that I’d hallucinated being targeted by some dark, power-mad conspiracy? Sure. That I’d dreamed about being interrogated by the FBI? Why not. That I’d wandered all the way to Baltimore, had some kind of breakdown, and slept overnight on the tarmac at the airport?

It couldn’t be that simple. The wire I was wearing was real, so at least the FBI part had happened. Whatever else I’d imagined, I felt like a sane man at the moment. Sane men could analyze their situation and take action, so that seemed like the best place to start.

The hangar was locked. No surprise there. It had to be about 6:00 a.m., give or take. The public terminal would be gearing up for the day’s traffic, but a private hangar wouldn’t open until needed. I looked for a gate in the fence. There was one, but it was padlocked. Had I felt stronger, I would have tried climbing over, but in my current state I would only fall on my ass.

There was nothing for it but to walk the length of the fence back to the main airport. If I was lucky, someone in a cart would spot me and give me a ride. If I was extremely lucky, it would be someone who didn’t speak English and wouldn’t ask questions.

It must have taken half an hour to skirt the perimeter, but it felt even longer. A straight line across the airfield would have been suicidal. Two large airliners passed low overhead as I crossed the edge of the landing zone. The frosted grass made a satisfying crunch as I walked. Less pleasant was the ten foot ditch I had to climb down and back up.

Once I reached the terminal, I kept in the shadows under overhangs, away from the gates currently in use as much as I could. Traffic had already started for the day, with airport personnel running back and forth. I kept my head down and if anyone noticed I was out of place they didn’t say anything.

Eventually I came to an open gate disgorging passengers across the tarmac toward a Douglas DC-7. I pushed against the tide of morning travelers and emerged into the warmth of the airport proper. The stewardess at the gate gave me a confused look, then smiled at the next passenger preparing to board. There were many people milling inside the airport, waiting for early morning flights, so I lost myself in the crowd and desperately looked for a coffee stand.

I hoped I had some money. Please, God, I thought, let me have some money.

There was a single dollar bill in my wallet. The vendor gave me coffee, a paper, and 90 cents change. I found a vacant bench on which to collect myself. The newspaper was a good anchor from which to do that. The front page had stories about the Pioneer 1 launch and the debate among the D.C. Bar Association on whether to accept blacks as member attorneys. I sipped the coffee and remembered that they were supposed to have reached a decision on that by now.

An inscription at the top of the page said Tuesday, October 14, 1958.

That was today? No, that was yesterday, the day Aranjuez was supposed to land. I went back to the coffee vendor.

“Hey, bud,” I said, “you got today’s paper yet?”

“That’s it in your hand.”

“This is Tuesday’s.”

“This is Tuesday. What, did you have some kind of bender last night?”

I almost argued with him, but how could someone make so simple a mistake? I shuffled away and looked for someone else to ask.

“Say, mister,” I said to a weary businessman smoking a cigarette. “You know what day it is?”

“The fourteenth, I think.”

“But this is Wednesday, right?”

“Is it?” He rubbed his temple as if my questions made his head hurt. “No, it’s Tuesday.”

I wandered away in a daze. Clearly I wasn’t as sane as I thought. I walked down the hall until I found one of the ticket counters and stood in line before getting my turn at the desk. The paper was still rolled up under my arm, and I still had my coffee in my hand.

“I’m sorry to bother you, miss,” I said to the ticket lady, “but could you tell me what day it is?”

“Tuesday the 14th,” she said with too bright a smile for seven o’clock. “Where can I book you for?”

“Thanks, I don’t need a booking.” One more crazy thought crossed my mind. “I’m a reporter for The Washington Street. Do you know anything about a private flight coming in today from San Magin?”

“Ooh, yeah, I heard about that,” she said. “It’s coming in around noon, I think.”

“Thank you,” I said. I walked calmly away, found the nearest men’s room, and staggered into a stall.

It was Tuesday morning. The landing wasn’t but a few hours away. What had I had, some kind of premonition? Then how was I already here?

Whatever it was, if the attack I remembered was real, then it had yet to happen. I still had time to stop it. Five hours to go, and I had time to save them all.

***

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***

The first thing I did was call the Street. All the way to Washington, I had to call collect. When the operator put me through, someone I didn’t recognize picked up.

Washington Post, may I help you?”

“I have a collect call from Allan Jones, will you accept the charges?”

I was already trying to cut her off; the stupid broad had dialed the wrong number.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t accept collect calls,” said the receptionist before she hung up.

“I’m sorry, sir, but your call was not accepted,” said the operator.

“You dialed it wrong, listen again.” I gave her the number a second time, and she insisted it was the one she’d put through. At my urging, she tried it a second time, this time as a person-to-person call to George Farnsworth.

The same Post receptionist answered and curtly informed us that the Post didn’t have any employees by that name, and perhaps I should contact the Street instead. I found myself shouting down the line that I had called the Street, but the operator cut me off.

“I’m sorry, sir, but it seems you have the wrong number. Shall I put you through to directory assistance?”

I hung up, having wasted some of my limited change. Then I dropped another dime in and dialed the operator back, hoping I’d get someone I hadn’t already annoyed. This time I asked them to put me through to the FBI. There was no reason to think Agent Powell would be in his office, but I was sure that someone could reach him.

This time, thank God, I got the right number. I explained to the FBI switchboard operator who I was, that I was working on a case with Agent Powell, and that I needed to speak with him urgently. I would have been overjoyed just to leave a message, but the switchboard lady transferred me directly to his desk.

“Hello?”

“Powell, listen. This is Allan Jones. There’s no time to explain, but I’m calling from Friendship International Airport. The assassination is going down today, repeat, today. And it’s not just Bordani’s hit men; I think they’re a smokescreen. It’s the people behind Bordani, and they’ve got military hardware. They’re not just going to kill Aranjuez, they’re going to open fire on the whole crowd.”

“What? Who is this? Did you say this was Allan Jones?”

The voice was definitely not Powell’s.

“Um,” I said slowly. “That’s right. I was calling for Special Agent Powell. Was I connected to the wrong desk?”

“Allan Jones from The Washington Street?” The voice sounded achingly familiar. “Did you say Friendship International? What’s this about an assassination?”

I didn’t know where to start. A voice in the back of my head screamed for me to hang up, but I didn’t dare, not with so much at stake.

“Um,” I said again. “To whom am I speaking?”

“What, you don’t know? I’m hurt. This is Ray Tyler at the NSA. Who did you think you were calling?”

Shit. On. Me. How in the hell did I get transferred to the NSA? And to that rat bastard Tyler of all people? But time was running out.

“Uh, I was calling Special Agent Powell at the FBI.”

“Buck Powell? He’s that negro agent in the D.C. office, right? Well, look, you better tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t know, I was trying—”

“Son, spill it or you won’t even see a judge on your way to the hell I’ll send you.”

I spilled. I didn’t mention my vision of the future or whatever it was; I just put it down to a ‘tip’ from an anonymous informant. I told him about the hit, about Bordani’s thugs, and about the well-armed mercenaries who were the real threat. I don’t know how much he believed, but at least he listened.

“Jones,” he said, “I want you to stay where you are. I’m going to have the Baltimore P.D. pick you up and put you in protective custody until I get out there.”

“What about the hit squad?”

“Don’t you worry about that. I’ll have it covered, and I’ll call your friend Powell too. Right now you’re a material witness and I want you somewhere bulletproof. Got it?”

I got it, and promised to wait by the phone so the cops could find me, but I didn’t feel any better. An itch ran up and down my spine. I didn’t like that no one I trusted knew where I was. I could try Farnsworth again, I could try to reach Powell, but something was redirecting all my calls. Was this more of JANUS’s weird technology? If so, then they were on to me and I was already good as dead. But damn it, I had to let someone else know what was going down.

I called Directory Assistance and asked for the number for Roxy Brandt. It was early enough that I might still catch her at home. I was half afraid that my call would get directed to a Chinese laundromat, so imagine my surprise when my sweet, little bubblegum-popping angel picked up on the third ring.

“Roxy, it’s Allan.”

“Allan!” she said. “I told you to call yesterday.”

“I know, sorry. I got pulled in by the FBI.”

“The who? Sweetie, what’s going on?”

“No time to explain. I’m here in Baltimore, at the airport. I need you to make some calls for me. I can’t seem to get through to anyone.”

“Sure, just…” There were some grunts on the line as if she was rearranging something with one hand while holding the phone with the other. “…just let me get something to… Okay, go.”

“I need you to call Farnsworth and tell him where I am. Tell him I’ve already talked to the NSA and they’re about to take me in. Then I need you to call the FBI and have them send a warning to Special Agent Powell. That’s P – O – W –”

“I know how to spell Powell. Jeeze Louise, what’s happening out there?”

“The hit on Aranjuez?” I covered my mouth and the receiver so no one else would hear. “It’s today. And it’s going to be big. They’re not just gunning for the target, they’re going to shoot everyone who’s there to meet him. Leslie gets shot, I get shot, everybody. I’ve already seen it.”

“Leslie gets shot? What are you talking about ‘you’ve already seen it’?”

“I don’t know, I can’t explain. It’s like I’ve seen the future. Or more like I’m living a day over again.” I sobbed on that last sentence. It just burst out, taking me completely off guard. “I think I’m about to crack up.”

“Allan? It’s okay. Calm down. You’re at the airport in Baltimore? I’m coming out there to get you.”

“What? No. No, I need you to make those calls. Tell Powell what I said. He’s got to stop this. Tell him it’s not Bordani, it’s JANUS. J – A – N – U – S, you got that?” I saw two police officers heading my way. “I’ve got to go. The cops are here. You’re a life saver, sweetheart.”

“Allan?” she said. “Allan, no, wait.”

I didn’t hear the rest. I hung up and faced the cops.

“You Jones?” the first one said. I nodded. “Turn around, please.”

I obeyed without thinking. The second cop shoved me face first against the wall, pinned my arms, and cuffed me.

“Guys, what gives!” They yanked me away from the wall so fast I almost fell over. “I’ll come along, you don’t need to do this.”

“Shut up,” said cop #1. “You’re under arrest. Give us any trouble and you’ll wish you hadn’t.”

“I’m not causing trouble. Call Agent Tyler.”

The second one kicked my legs out from under me. I landed hard on the case in my jacket and gasped as my breath escaped. A crowd was starting to back away and stare.

“What’s this?” the second cop said, pulling back my sleeve to expose the wire trailing out of my watch. “Spy equipment? Looks like we caught us a commie.”

I looked that moron in the eye and growled. “I’m an informant for the FBI, dimrod.”

“That’s not what we heard,” said cop #1. “Now shut up and come along.”

***

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***

They left me in a holding cell for hours. I didn’t even know airports had holding cells. The room looked like a public shower that someone had forgotten to install plumbing in. Thank God I didn’t need to pee. From the way those police goons had acted, they’d have probably kneecapped me as soon as letting me go to the bathroom. Thanks to my “spy equipment,” they’d stripped me down to my skivvies to search for any other hardware I might have, then acted like they were doing a favor by giving my clothes back.

I’d no idea what time it was when they finally came for me. It was a different cop this time who led me through the airport’s security office to a small room with a table and a stool. I could imagine this room being used by a customs agent sorting through an unwelcome visitor’s luggage. My hands were cuffed behind me, so I wouldn’t have much of a chance for mischief. I sat on the stool and waited.

Minutes later Agent Tyler came in, followed by the cop who’d escorted me. Tyler stifled a chuckle, but he still wore that same sly smile he’d had when first we met.

“Lousy day, huh?” he said.

I didn’t answer. Tyler pulled an envelope out of his pocket, then showed me the tiny reel of tape inside.

“That was some nice equipment you were carrying. I can’t wait to hear what’s on this.”

A wild hope sprung into my mind. What if Tyler wasn’t one of the bad guys? What if he was just a jerk? He’d still want to do the right thing, if only for advancement in the NSA.

“Can we play it here?” I said. “Does anyone have a tape machine? I’m serious. I want you to hear that.”

His interest piqued. “What’s on it?”

If I was crazy, nothing. If I wasn’t, that tape was salvation.

“A live recording of the attack on President Aranjuez. The attack that’s going to happen at noon today.”

“You’re not making sense.”

“I know. That’s why I want you to hear it.”

Tyler was silent for a moment, long enough that I knew I’d set the hook. He turned to the policeman.

“See if you can find a player. If customs doesn’t have one, the control tower will.” When the cop left, Tyler pinched his nose in thought. “Okay, Jones, I’ll bite. Who do you think is after… who did you say it was?”

“Diego Aranjuez. He’s landing today at a private hangar on the other side of the airport. The group that’s after him is called JANUS. I think they’re tied up with a bunch of offshore banks that Aranjuez may have cheesed off.”

Tyler’s eye twitched. “What the hell do you know about JANUS?”

Oh, crap. Was he in with them?

“That’s just what an informant told me.”

“Some informant. JANUS is classified Top Secret above even my level.”

“Then who are they?”

“If I knew for sure, I’d probably have to kill you.” He looked around as if he could spot a listening device with a cursory glance. “Listen, I’ve only heard rumors, but I gather they’re some kind of big money group that finances operations that the intelligence community wants kept off the books.”

My stomach seemed to shrink in on itself. “And why are you telling me this?”

Tyler rubbed his eyes.

“Because if JANUS is real and you’ve been throwing their name around, then you’re a walking dead man and so is anyone you’ve talked to. If you’ve kept your mouth shut, and you keep doing so, then you might at least keep the people you like from getting whacked.” He shook his head. “I’ll deny this conversation, of course. Don’t print this in your fucking magazine or I’ll be on the hit list too.”

“You’re shitting me,” I said. “They’re that scary?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never heard of them, and I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. Get it?”

I gulped.

The policeman came back in with a small reel-to-reel. Tyler laced the tape across the head and played the recording.

I can’t even describe how bizarre it was to listen to events that I’d doubted even took place. And yet here it was: absolute proof that what I’d lived through wasn’t a dream or delusion. The feeling of vindication made me dizzy, but a darker seed took root. These events had yet to take place. For all I knew, my younger self was right this very moment arriving at the airfield, on his way to a rendezvous with a bullet.

I had traveled back in time. I had traveled back in god damn time. The Whisper had said that if he revealed his secrets it would shatter what I knew about the world. On that note, he’d been straight up telling the truth.
Before he shot me in the head.

I narrated enough so that Tyler would know who was speaking on the tape. The roar of the arriving plane drowned a good chunk of it. Then came the screech of my own voice shouting into the microphone that the attack was about to begin.

The rest was over in seconds. I heard myself scream when the Secret Service agent died; I didn’t remember that. I heard myself shout Leslie’s name. Then came two loud gunshots at point blank, followed by a gasping wheeze. My chest actually tightened when I heard those blasts for the second time. Then one last bang, and I was finished.

The tape continued. It hadn’t stopped recording when I was shot, but that last crack of gunfire brought all the action to a halt. Tyler and I both leaned in to listen for whatever happened next, but there was nothing. No more gunshots, no more shouts, no sound of survivors scrabbling to safety. Just a sibilant hiss like wind through a narrow passage. We listened for several minutes until it was clear there was nothing more.

“Do you mind taking me out of these cuffs?” I finally said.

Tyler jumped, startled, then waved for the officer to free my wrists. After he’d done it, Tyler nodded for the man to leave the room.

“Last Friday,” I said, “why were you interested in Hugo Harvey, and why’d you come looking for me?”

“Orders. I got word from on high that Harvey was a person of interest and that you were a known associate. I was told to investigate your connection under the assumption that you were both involved with criminal and possibly foreign interests.”

“It had to be JANUS.”

Tyler pointed at my mouth to remind me not to say that word. “Whatever orders I received, they never covered this.”

“Did you call Agent Powell?”

He shook his head. “I left a message. What time does the plane land?”

“Noon, I think.”

He checked his watch. “Then we need to run.”

***

We had a car in moments, but wasted agonizing time getting out of the airport parking lot. A second patrol car followed us with his lights and siren blaring, and I cursed the idiot driver under my breath. I hardly thought that alerting the assassins to our presence with an airport-wide broadcast was the best way to go.

We bounced down the dirt track around the edge of the airfield at what felt like 80 miles per hour, though when I looked over our driver’s shoulder between bone rattling jolts, the speedometer claimed we were only going 30. I shouted for the man to go faster, but the roar of a low-flying three-prop drowned me out.

Aranjuez’s plane had arrived. My throat felt as dry as it had when I woke and nausea welled up inside it. Maybe this was good, I tried to tell myself. It would take the plane several minutes to taxi to the hangar, and we were already nearly there.

But a black sedan sat across our path, and four men in dark suits waved for us to halt. They were dressed like Secret Service, and all I knew they were. Still, I cowered in the back seat as low as I could without trying to be obvious I was hiding. Tyler rolled down his window and held out his NSA credentials.

“We need to get through,” he said. “There’s a threat against President Aranjuez.”

“We’re aware of that, sir,” said the agent. “The situation is in hand, but I can’t let you pass.”

“It’s not in hand,” I said. “It’s bigger than you think. We have information that has to get to Special Agent Powell.”

The agent frowned. He waved to one of his companions for a Walkie Talkie and pressed the button to speak.

“Station One, this is Five, over.”

The answer was a screeching blast of static. The agent shook the transmitter, tried again, and met the same response.

“Someone’s jamming your gear,” said Tyler. “You’ve got to let us through.”

“Come on,” the agent said, then he ordered his own men into their car and led the way.

How much time had we wasted? The plane was almost to the hangar. How long would it take to alert the FBI? Would there be time for them to act?

I never saw the grenade. In fact, I’m just assuming that’s what it was. All I saw was that the ground beneath the car in front exploded, flipping the vehicle sideways and blowing shredded metal everywhere.

Our driver cursed and swerved hard. We toppled into a rut that lurched our car skyward, then yanked it back down. My head hit the roof, then my face hit the back of the seat in front of me. Tyler and the driver both flew forward, the driver into the wheel and Tyler head first into the windshield. It shattered but didn’t break. Tyler slumped, limp as a corpse, and the car slid to a halt.

Until the other cop car slammed us from behind. I hit the seat in front of me sideways, and the car spun round one-eighty. Glass filled the air like rain.

In the heat of a moment, time can slow down. I’ve felt it happen myself once or twice. But never like this.

Splintered glass poured from the shattered window gently enough for me to watch each shard fracture into a dozen smaller pieces. I ducked out of the way – then realized I had outrun them. Tiny glass nuggets careened through the car like rolling pool balls. I swept through the air with my arm and deflected a wave that had been heading for my face. Tinkling droplets tumbled back toward their brethren in a hundred delicate collisions.

The world had gone quiet, the only sound a distant, low rumble. The car was still spinning, sliding with the impact, but so slowly I could barely feel it. I carefully opened the door and stepped out onto the grass.

Everything around me was easing to a halt. The Secret Service car hung suspended in the air, inverted, the smoke from the explosion frozen in still-frame. The face of the driver who hit us had hardened, unblinking, in panic and surprise. Pieces of debris drifted like dandelions.

I breathed in and out. I flexed my fingers. Everything still worked. Whatever had stopped the rest of the world hadn’t stopped me.

First things first.

I dragged Tyler and the cop who’d driven us out of the car. Both looked to be in bad shape. I pulled them through the air like Macy’s Day balloons. Without time, they didn’t fall. I lay them on the ground a safe distance from the wreck and went back for the Secret Service men. The agent in the passenger seat had wounds he would never survive, but I was able to rescue the others. The cop who’d rear-ended us was wearing a seatbelt. I had faith he’d be all right without my divine intervention.

I jogged toward the hangar.

I arrived with the scene frozen mid-carnage. The crowd had already scattered when whatever happened to me took effect. Given time to look around, I could even see bullets crawling to their targets. I tried to grab one in my hand but it burned, so I took off my shoe and batted it skyward with the heel. I did this with several bullets I found, then traced them backward to their source.

The assassin lay flat on the roof of a tool shed next to the hangar. All I could see was his rifle, just like the one of the killer in my apartment. There was no way I could climb to dislodge him, so I searched for something heavy to throw. I launched a loose brick and a pair of fist sized stones his way, but they slowed to a crawl shortly after leaving my hand. I just had to hope at least one would connect once they made it all the way up.

I waded back through the crowd, deflected several more bullets, and weaved around panicked businessmen until I came to the center of the conflagration.

It was too late to save Leslie. He was already on the ground, blood pooled around him. It was too late to save myself. I saw myself kneeling, two red holes through the back of my suit. A shadowed figure stood over my past self’s form and held a gun to his – my – head.

I ran. If only I could stop the final shot. It was only five paces. Or was it six. Or seven. Or eight?

Space stretched away from me. My killer receded in the distance without moving. The universe was a tunnel around me, with my past self and murderer as the light at the end.

The Whisper turned his translucent face, and I could feel him staring right at me as he blew my earlier self’s brains out.

Time snapped like a rubber band. I froze suspended and the world moved as lightning around me. The living became blurs of gray while the dead remained as they were. Streaks the color of police lights swarmed around the edge of my vision. Bodies grew outlines of chalk, then vanished one by one, leaving children’s yellow traces and splatters of brown to mark their passing. At some point, seconds later, the airplane rolled away. The blurs of people disappeared. Comets of airplane trails streaked across the sky. The sun melted into the horizon.

I fell forward, struck pavement, and howled. It was night. I was alone. I was alive. And once again, I was dead.

To Be Continued

***

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The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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