A place for thought.

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Question? (part thirty-four)

The General spent the same day adjusting his attitude. He prided himself for being the kind of leader that encouraged thought among those he led. He asked for opinions and used good suggestions. That was the nature of his work. He understood his presence could fill a room and overpower some people but he fought against it. His business was to seek out answers and these came from where ever he could find them. David Randolph had caused him to think. When Sally had taken off, before he had a chance to invite her into the fold, he had panicked. Sally was a prize too big to loose like that. He knew if he had had the chance he would have won her over. David Randolph’s view was entirely different. David saw a chance to win her over not with conversation but by planting good caring feelings into the answers Sally might be getting. That became the goal of the day and the plan for days to come. The General had never had any plans to harm Sally in any way but he had shifted into an almost predator like pursuit and he was sure she had reacted to that pursuit. Changing the feelings Sally came across could not be faked. The General had to genuinely care for and want the best for Sally. It wasn’t an impossible task. He had liked her the first time they spoke on the phone before he started to understand the depth of her gift. He would need to suppress his zeal to possess her talent. He took the advice David Randolph had given and started with securing the fourth story apartment she had rented in town. His plan had been simply to pay the rent but he changed his mind when the owner mentioned the apartment was still in the condition she had left it. It had not been rented or even prepared for a new occupant. The General paid the back rent and several months forward.

“That’s the key. But I’ll need it back. Get a copy made if you plan to come back. You paid the rent. I figured most of that was going to be a loss. We were making plans to have someone come in and haul everything off which we don’t make anything off of. As far as I’m concerned everything in there belongs to you now,” The General thought for a second holding the key in his hand.

“No,” he said. “Everything in there belongs to Sally. The day she comes back she can walk right in like she was never gone. I’m not going to disturb anything in the room. I just want to go up and make sure everything is all right.” It was true The General was planting seeds for Sally’s answers to find but he also meant every word he had said to the building’s owner. He used the steps to the fourth floor; he was spending way too much time behind his desk. He was winded when he reached her door. He walked into the small apartment. He left everything as he found it; he opened no drawers, read no personal papers and kept all his investigative skills at bay. He stood where she would stand and looked out at the street below. He looked into the bathroom mirror she must have used every morning and took the time to view everything she had attached to the wall. When he left Sally’s home he knew none of Sally’s secrets, he knew nothing she would not freely share. As he walked down the steps to the street below he felt he knew her better and he felt more attached and more protective. His next two stops would be not far away and both would be in the same downtown building. He would secure her office and talk to Toby’s employer, the owner of the coffee shop.


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Question? (part thirty-three)

The morning chill on his face woke Toby. He slid a hand sideways inside the almost too warm sleeping bag and found no Sally. He dressed as best he could inside the small tent and unzipped the door. The sun was up just enough to form a line of fire along the top edge of the mountains to the East. Sally was sitting on the bench of a red wood picnic table. She had a blank stare on her face and looked like she was in some kind of trance, Toby knew what she was doing.

“Asking questions?” Toby asked as he bumped up against her on the bench, stealing a little of her warmth and providing a little of his.

“It’s weird,” she said coming out of her trance and pulling him a little closer. “Everything has two sides. Take the newspaper, I can go there and pick up my check any time I want, in fact if I wait until tomorrow they will have my final check all printed out and waiting for me. But I don’t work there anymore.”

“They’re firing you?” Toby said.

“I think firing is a little strong. I think they will say they are letting me go. But here’s another thing. We can go back to Mike’s house and pick up our stuff. He’s not mad at us either but we can’t live there anymore.”

“How are we at the coffee shop?” Toby asked.

“That’s a weird one. Nothing has changed at the coffee shop. If we hurry you can work your morning shift,” she paused and thought for a second to double-check. “And we are as safe as we can be from The General and his people, it’s like he wishes us well.”

“I should work,” Toby said.

“Yes, we need to get going,” and they went back to at least a part of their life. The group in the coffee shop almost cheered when they walked into the shop. Everyone had a story about the two officers and of how the officers left without a clue. Sally told them nothing about the officers seeing right through them. Toby went to work with plans to spend his break with Sally. Sally went to the library to sort out a few more things.

When Sally reached the library the sign on the door said it would remain closed for another hour so Sally sat on a concrete bench next to the main road that ran through town. She felt no need to hide. She felt no danger at all. She made a list in her head of things that needed to be done and of things she could do under this new arrangement. She could find her and Toby a house or apartment to live in, anywhere but Mike’s converted garage. For some reason Mike’s garage came up a big no. But their stuff would be there and Mike would have no problem with them coming to get it. She could apply for a job anywhere in town other than the newspaper office. She would miss the newspaper job. They were letting her go and her check would be ready tomorrow. She could even deposit the check into her bank without fear. And Toby’s job hadn’t changed at all, in fact he seemed to be even more welcome and his friendships even more secure. When she thought of friendship The General flashed across her mind, but she couldn’t fit the two together. The library opened. “House or job,” she asked herself. The answer was house. It was getting too cold to sleep outdoors. She made a list and shopped for a house her way. Instead of going door-to-door looking and talking she pointed to the first house on the list and asked, “this one?” She had never done things like a normal person. Her way took much less time. After finding the house she decided to find a bicycle which took twice as long because there were more to choose from and her idea of the prefect bike was much more specific.

Sally parked her blue beach cruiser with an oversized seat and five internal gears on the brick walkway that led to the small, white, one bedroom, wood frame, redwood sided, home. When the house had first been build it could have been the only house on the block. All the houses surrounding it were at least thirty years newer. She walked up the three steps and sat on the porch swing. The lady from the rental office would be a few more minutes. The neighborhood was quiet; trees lined both side of the narrow street. Birds in the trees watched her watching them.

She left a foot long skid mark in front of the coffee shop. The fat front tire of the cruiser fit snugly into the bars of the bike rack. Toby added the hot water to her cup as she walked through the door and had her coffee on the table by the time she had her helmet and gloves off.

“Good morning,” she said as Toby sat across from her, she meant not only that the morning itself had good qualities but also that the morning’s tasks had gone well.

“Yes,” Toby answered in agreement with both interpretations.

“Want a bike?” Sally asked.

Toby looked out the window at the blue bike Sally had rode in on, “Not that one.” He said. “So we’re good?” Toby asked, still not sure of how life was going to work now, under these new rules.

“We’re very good,” Sally said. She told him all about the house she had rented and they discussed places she should look for work, or ask herself about. When their break was almost over Sally said, “it’s like The General placed his thumb print in three places, the newspaper office, our home and this place. For some reason it had no effect here but he knows you work here.”

“We have friends here.”

“You could be Toby and let them pay you as a regular employee now.”

“I think I’ll leave it the way it is. I kind of like Alan.”

Sally decide to wait a couple days before finding a new job and spent the afternoon moving out of the tent and into the rental. They would need to borrow a pick-up truck to move the things out of Mike’s garage but one of Toby’s friends would have one. That night they lay on the bedroom floor in the two sleeping bags zippered together to form one large sleeping bag.

“Interesting,” Toby said after they had spent several minutes in silence, side by side.

“Interesting?” Sally asked. “What’s interesting?”

“Life with you is interesting,” he kissed her on the nose and they slept through the first night in their new home.

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Question? (part thirty-two)

David pulled his phone out of his pocket and punched the icon that would ring The General; he held it to his ear and waited.

“Yes,” The General said.

“Found her.” David Randolph said sounding a little breathless. He took a gulp of air and tried to calm himself.

“You know where she is?”

“I’d bet money on it.”

“Are you near there now?”

“About three hundred miles away.”

“She’ll be long gone before you get there,” The General said thoughtfully.

Reality drained the excitement from David, “Yes Sir, I suspect you are correct.”

The phone went silent for a moment and then The General spoke slowly, like him mind was someplace else, “Sit tight. Have a snack. Take a break. I’ll ring back in a half.” The phone went dead.

“Alan?” a soft, whispered voice forced a hand over his left ear and a request for a repeat.

“Could I speak to Alan?” a little louder and definitely Sally.

“I’ll get him, Sally,” he said. “You Okay?”

“Not really,” she said honestly.

“I’ll get him.”

“Sally?” Toby’s concern already had his apron off and someone else completing the order he had started.

“It’s all a mess. They know everything. I’m going to the bank,” she just stopped talking with nothing more to say.

“I’ll meet you at home?” Toby asked.

He was answered with silence.


“Sure, why not? See you at home,” she put the phone into the cradle on the desk in her cubby and started gathering up the few things that belonged to her.

At the coffee shop Toby did the same, he had the feeling he was not coming back. He said good-byes and gave hugs until the people in the shop also had the feeling he was not coming back. He walked out the back door through the alley, turned onto a walking path between two houses and then down the alley to the kitchen entrance of their home. He saw Sally come around the corner and then toward him from the other end of the alley and met her halfway. Her eyes were red from crying but she looked more mad than sad.

“What happened?” he asked taking a few of the things from her hands he could help her carry and they walked together with his arm around her.

“I don’t know. It’s just were not safe or maybe we’re just found out, I don’t know,” she sounded like she had given up. They went through the door to their kitchen and sat at the kitchen table setting Sally’s trinkets from work in a pile at the center of the table.

“Explain,” Toby said softly, like they had all the time in the world.

“They know where I work. I know that much for sure. I think they are coming here, but not yet,” she looked up at Toby to see if that made any sense.

Toby nodded and waited for more.

“We’re not safe here. You’re not safe at work. We need to leave but we could come back?” Not having a clear answer frustrated her, a person who always had the answers. “I don’t know.”

‘“Ask, “is there a chance I will understand better if we go somewhere safe for a period of time.’” Toby said.

She asked herself and nodded yes.

“Any idea of how long?” Toby asked in his calm soothing way with his constant smile.

She thought, “Till noon tomorrow?”

“And how long can we stay here?” he asked.

She thought, “at least,” she thought some more, “three hours?”

“Put together a bag of things you can’t leave behind, we may not be coming back.” Toby got up from the table and started making up some sandwiches and things they could eat later, he wasn’t sure how far they needed to go before they stopped for the night. It was early evening before they left their home. They walked up the alley because Sally’s answer voice said it was the safest way.

The phone buzzed in David Randolph’s pocket catching him with a mouth full of burger, he passed the phone to Gordon while he finished chewing.

“Hey,” Gordon said into the phone.

“Gordon? Where’s David?”

“He’s chewing,” Gordon answered.

The General waited. Gordon passed the phone back to David.

David swallowed a lump of half chewed burger, “Sir,” he spoke into the phone the first second he could.

“Kick this around, let me know what you think. She knows we know right?” The General said.

“From what you’ve told me she just asks herself, so she knows we know where she works, right?” David said.

“That’s how I understand it. So she’s on the move and we’ve lost her,” The General sounded ready to give the whole thing up again.

“What if,” David started and then hesitated, this was a new strategy, one he had not thought of before.

“What if what?” The General asked.

“What if she’s not in danger? She thinks we’re the bad guys and we back it up by being after her. What if we know where she is and her voice tells her she’s still safe?”

“And then?” The General was interested, but not convinced.

“And then nothing. She knows we know but she’s safe. Translates, she’s safe with us. What is it we want anyway; to give her a good job something that makes a difference in the world? We just give her some time to work it out. In the mean time she’s afraid to go back to her job.”

“Worth a try,” The General said. “It’s your plan, what’s the next step?”

“I think Gordon and I should go there, look around. If I remember right there was a guy in a mom and pop’s coffee shop that acted a little strange, if it’s the same town, I think it is, we’ve been to a lot of towns. If we could pin down where Toby is working and find out where they’ve been living it would keep them from getting comfortable. We could make her knowing everything work for us.”

“Sounds good,” it was high praise from The General. “Anything I should be doing?”

“Sir?” David asked, unsure of what The General was asking.

“It’s your plan. Can I help at this end?” The General asked.

David hesitated, he had an answer but he didn’t want to sound like he was telling The General what to do.

The General understood the silence, “speak freely man!” he understood rank could get in the way of progress.

“You could set up a house for them to live in. Keep her office space rented. Pave the way for Toby to have his old job back. If she happens to stumble upon some of that in one of her questions it could push her into trusting us,” David tried to keep the authority out of his voice; he knew his place in this structure.

“I’m on it,” The General answered like he had been given an assignment. The phone went dead.

Toby and Sally each carried a small green canvas bag; Sally’s bag was slightly larger but weighed less. Both bags had shoulder straps and were easy to carry. They walked a couple blocks past the newspaper office one street over from the main street through town.

“We’re safe here,” Sally said after thinking. “It’s weird but we could stand here all night and be completely safe.”

“I don’t want to stand here all night,” Toby said with a grin.

“Me either,” Sally stood on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss.

“We could get a motel or we could look ahead a little and get some camping equipment for the same price,” Toby said.

Sleeping bags, two that would zip together, a small tent, a backpack and other odds and ends ended up costing slightly more than a night at the motel but they were planning for the future. They walked two miles on the shoulder of a little used local two-lane road and checked in with their old friend at the RV campgrounds.

“Where’s the panel?” the man in the guardhouse asked.

“Gone,” Sally said. Something in her voice told him more.

“Tonight’s on us,” he said pushing their money back. “You kids have a good night.

First thing in the morning David Randolph and Gordon pushed open the front door to the mom and pop’s coffee shop. Every conversation in the entire shop stopped. Every eye, worker’s and customer’s alike attached itself to the two men.

“Do we need to ask?” Gordon said to David.

“No, this is the place alright, but let’s plant some seed.” They made their way from table to table and behind the counter showing a picture of Toby and a picture of Sally. They asked questions. No one had seen them. Most of them were not very good liars.

“Newspaper next?” Gordon asked David.

“They’ll have the address,” David said. The almost new light green Chevrolet Caprice jerked to a stop in front of the square office building, the background for the photo in the paper. They walked through the double doors. Uniforms, hats, guns in holsters gave them credibility; ID’s in leather folders did the rest. Without saying much at all they had Sally’s address and insured she would not be working for the newspaper anymore.

They stood shoulder to shoulder in front of Mike’s house, two ID’s, two photos, one question, “do you know these people.”

“Know them? No, I guess not. They live in the back,” Mike stumbled over his own feet in an effort to please the two officers. He gave them full access to the garage turned into an apartment.

“I think we’re done,” David said to Gordon.

“Home sweet home,” Gordon said. The Chevy squeaked around each corner until they reached the freeway, the speed-o-meter needle pointed to eighty-five before they reached the end of the interstate on ramp.

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Question? (part thirty-one)

If you were everybody else you parked in the front and walked through thick, double, glass doors. The first thing almost everybody saw was a wide oak desk sitting in a rectangle of thick light blue carpet. Beyond the desk a gray four-foot high wall of cubicles hid all the sitting people from view, only when they stood could the people be seen. Behind the desk a middle aged lady with glasses sitting on her nose talked to herself, at least it looked like she talked to herself until almost everybody walked closer and could see the tiny wire that curved around the side of her face stopping in front of her mouth. She was almost always talking on the phone and seldom talking to herself. If you were one of the privileged few you parked behind the square building. The privileged few entered through a single, thick, glass door that opened onto a center strip of floor covered with vinyl floor tile. On each side of the five-foot wide strip of floor tile the cubicles opened completely, their four-foot high walls on three sides, only hiding their occupants from the sides and the back. If you were one of the privileged few when you walked through the single glass door you could see people working at their desks and sometimes they would look up from their work and greet you, if you were one of the privileged few. If you were Sally you walked to work and did not park in the front or in the back. Sally did not enter through the double doors in the front of the building or through the single door in the back. Sally walked through a small courtyard with two small trees a bit of grass, two benches and one picnic table with built on benches. If someone happened to be sitting in the courtyard when Sally walked though they would say, “Morning Sally,” because in this place Sally was called Sally.   She opened the wooden door that opened out into the courtyard and walked into the break room. A long plastic topped table lined with chairs ran down the center of the room. On one side of the room a plastic topped counter ran the full length of the small room. A sink in the center of the counter, beside the sink a Bunn coffee carafe sat, on its hot plate, half filled with dark coffee. The wall beside the coffee maker held a four-foot by four-foot system of square shelves, a coffee cup in each one. Sally picked her cup from her square shelf and poured a cup of the black coffee. She took a sip. She missed Toby. With the first sip of her morning coffee she always missed Toby. She went through a wooden door to the room filled with cubicles. The door opened onto a narrow hallway with a four foot gray wall on each side. Her head and shoulders showed above the wall.

“Morning Sally,” a greeting came from her right side.

“Good morning,” Sally said.

“Ready for a new day?” a question from her left side.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Sally answered. There were more greetings as she made her way to her corner cubby in the back of the second roll of cubicles. She turned on her computer and took a couple sips of her coffee while she waited for the screen to light up. She felt at home here. She enjoyed the company of the people working here but at the same time her work was set apart and belonged only to her. She felt like the punter put into the game to kick field goals or the point after. She didn’t write the stories or take the photos. She had nothing to do with finding the proper place for the stories and photos or making sure the space for advertizing remained full but without her the paper could not continue. She prevented lawsuits, eliminated retractions and gave subscribers confidence that what they were reading was the truth. She no longer missed her Answers company. She had enjoyed working from her phone and getting checks in the mail but this was much better. The screen in front of her lit up and she started her day, after one more sip of the coffee that could never be anywhere near as good as coffee Toby made.

Toby missed making Sally’s coffee. He had come to know her setting an Americano on her table every morning for years before they sat and talked and drank their drinks together. Now, in their new life together they had talked through his morning break every morning. He put on his green apron and made sure his bushy hair was in control under his black baseball cap. His work had changed. At the shop on the ground floor of the high rise customers were always in a hurry, always conscious of how they appeared, even those who sat at a table for hours were deep into the commerce they conducted through their computers. In this mom and pop’s place the customers were friends who came to interact not only with the friends sitting at their tables but they knew the guy two tables down and occasionally shouted information to the guy unafraid of being censored because everyone here was family, even Toby. The people knew him as Alan but it did not feel like a lie. He had been Toby in his first life. In this life he had always been Alan. He smashed coffee grounds into the portafilter, foamed milk and created art to be sipped away, life was good.

The phone in the front pocket of his jacket buzzed. He glanced at the caller ID, “Sir.” David Randolph said.

“Bring it in,” The General said.

“Sir?” David said in disbelief.

“Bring it in. I need you somewhere else. Let her go. You’re done. I want you in my office first thing in the morning,” the phone went silent.

David sat still in the drivers seat for a full thirty seconds before he hit the horn of the new light green Chevrolet Caprice. Through the plate glass window of the coffee shop he watched Gordon picking up his coffee at the counter. Gordon turned at the sound of the horn. David waved for him to come to the car. Gordon came out the door of the coffee shop carrying a paper cup filled with coffee and a rolled up newspaper. He tossed the coffee into a garbage can just outside the door.

“What’s up,” he asked as he dropped into the car seat and wedged the newspaper between the windshield and the dash.

“Going home,” David said while starting the car and pointing at the parking lots exit.

“Fired?” Gordon asked.

“Nope, he’s got something new for us,” David said as he plunged the big car into traffic.

“There is a God!” Gordon said.

“He wants to see us in the morning,” he looked at the dash, “five hundred miles away and its only noon. I’ll have you home in your own little snuggly bed in time to get your beauty sleep.” The needle on the dash settled at eight-five before the car reached the end of the freeway onramp. The car floated down the interstate passing all but the craziest drivers. Gordon lowered the back of his seat as close to flat as it would go. The noon sun hit him between the eyes so he covered his face with the newspaper and within five minutes David turned the radio on to cover the sound of Gordon’s snoring. Eight-five miles behind them every hour, David waited until he had completed his two hundred and fifty miles and started looking for gas and snacks. Gordon woke up when the car hit the off ramp. He stuffed the newspaper next to the windshield and pulled up the back of his seat. He looked toward the end of the off ramp to see what the dinner choices were.

“Where are we?” he asked stretching as much as he could in the confines of the car.

“Half way. Your turn,” David Randolph said, and then the blood drained from his face and he ran the stop sign at the end of the ramp. The ramp led to a lonely road in the middle of nowhere with absolutely no traffic but the car slid sidewise before David got it pointed toward the fast food and gas. Instead of continuing he pulled the boat of a car off the blacktop and stopped in a cloud of dust.

“There,” he said pointing to the wrinkled up newspaper stuffed into the crack between the windshield and the dash. “That’s her.” In a photo on the lower corner of the back page of the newspaper, posing with a group of people in front of a square office building, almost hidden behind a tall skinny guy, was Sally. She had short black hair but there was no mistake it was Sally. The article, written by a sister newspaper claimed the group had won an award for, of all things, accuracy.


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Question? (part thirty)

The newspaper lay folded in half, poised, on the kitchen table, a box drawn in yellow highlighter marked on the classifieds page. Sally sat on the sofa Mike’s mother had left behind. She had asked all the questions she could think of and everything seemed okay, but it was still taking a chance. She heard Toby at the back door. He entered the kitchen and saw the newspaper on the kitchen table.

“Hey, honey, I’m home,” he said using his best Ricky Arnez imitation but distracted by the newspaper. He sat in the chair at the table that had been pulled out for him and started reading the words in the yellow box. He read it twice before he came to sit beside Sally on the sofa.

“Sounds good,” he said and reached for the clicker to the television.

“Sounds good! That’s all I get? This is a big deal. I’ve been asking questions all day ever since I saw that ad,” Sally said.

“And all the answers came back fine or the paper wouldn’t be on the table,” Toby said giving her hand a squeeze. “I trust you and it sounds like a good fit, you could go far.”

“It’s just a fact checker but I’d be giving them my real name and social, checks and banks. Is it worth the risk?”

“You asked yourself, right?” for Toby it was settled already.

“It makes a big footprint, and answers are just for today remember? They can’t tell the future.”

“Put your app in. See what happens,” Toby said.

“Did you know I was on the school paper in high school?” Sally asked.

“I did not know that. Should help, right?”

“I majored in English but I took several Journalism classes,” Sally added.

“More reasons for them to give you the job.”

“I already asked. If I apply first thing in the morning it’s almost for sure the job is mine.” Sally squeezed Toby’s hand, “I’m going to do it.” And then they kissed, several times, forgot to watch the news and went to bed early.

Two weeks later Sally sat in a room with forty other people. Each person sat at a small table with a laptop computer, a pen and a scratch pad tablet. A very serious lady handed out the test; face down on each of the forty tables.

“This test is rated two ways,” the proctor stated. “Accuracy is most important and will carry fifty percent of the weight,” she walked around the room making sure no one had turned their page over. “Speed is also important and will carry thirty percent of the weight. The final twenty percent of your score will be based on how well you defend your conclusion. The paper on your desk is an actual rough draft of an article as reported before the statements within it were checked and in many cases, corrected. Check each line, confirm correct statements and address mistakes.” She looked around the room, “Are there any questions?” Everyone appeared ready to begin. “You have one hour, keeping in mind that speed counts, I will stamp your test with the time as you hand it in. Good luck, you may begin.” Forty sheets of paper were turned over in unison. Keyboards clicked and pens made notes. Sally asked a question at the end of each line and then with the answers complete she started her research with a distinct advantage. Sally was the second person to turn in her test. She knew her answers earned her the fifty percent for accuracy. She had found good reasons for all her answers. As she left the room she asked once more if she had the job. Unless an eagle swooped down from the heavens and snatched her chances she was soon to be a fact checker for the largest, and only newspaper in town.

“Tall Latté,” Gordon said.

“And your name sir?” the barista asked with pen in hand.

“Gordon,” he squinted at the nametag on the green apron, “Juan?”

“Yes sir, is that all you will be having today?”

“Sure is. Hey, is Toby working today?” Gordon asked, real casual, like an after thought. Juan looked puzzled. “Tall guy, big black hair,” Gordon showed him the size of the hair using both hands.

“I’ve been here six months and I’ve never met him,” Juan answered. “I’ll have your Latté in a second.”   Gordon walked out the front door and slid into the front seat of the light green Chevrolet Caprice.

“He could have changed his name and cut his hair but he’s not in there right now. He’s not going to work in one of these chains anyway, he’s working for a mom and pops,” Gordon said.

“You’re just tired. Two more stops on this street and then we move to the next town.”

“Farther from my nice cozy home,” Gordon said, opening his laptop he went back to looking for coffee shop sites.

“It’s getting to be a drive,” David Randolph said already slowing for the next shop. “We’re going to need to start thinking about some nights away from home.”

“Oh, Sally, Sally, where can you be,” Gordon sang as he flipped past pages on his laptop.

“I’ll take this one,” Randolph said. “You take a break.”

“I’ll be fine, some other time,” Gordon sang back to him.

“Way too much coffee,” Randolph shook his head and ducked under the rush of wind from the fly blower mounted above the door. The shop was identical to the one Gordon had just walked out of. “It’s not going to be a chain store,” he agreed with Gordon but he refused to leave one Tern un-stoned as the little boy with the hand full of rocks had said.

Sally smoothed her first check out on the kitchen table so Toby could see all the numbers in a single glance. Their income had doubled and she didn’t miss the dogs at all.

“Nice,” Toby said. “He pick it up and made sure it wasn’t a forgery, checking it under the kitchen light. “Buy me something,” he joked.

“Anything you want, dear. I’m going to start taking care of you like the arm candy you are deserves.”

“So you’re still loving every minute of it?” Toby asked even though he was sure she was.

“They said I might be able to contribute an article some time? What do you think of that?


“Us writers use pen names,” she added. “How’s Kathy Jones sound?”

“You’ll think of something,” Toby said. She was happy. That’s what counted. She had plans to open a bank account during her lunch break the next day. Toby hoped they were not becoming too visible. But he wasn’t about to bring a cloud into her day. The clouds stayed away for another full week.

One week later two men came into the coffee shop. One ordered a Latté the other an Americano. One added a scone. The other did not. They sat at a back corner table with a view of the whole shop including behind the counter. They didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry. They seemed to be good friends just passing a mid morning.

Sally finished scanning a page and felt a twinge at the back of her head. A physical ping like someone had flicked his or her finger. “Something’s wrong,” she thought. A yes with an exclamation point came back at her. She dialed the coffee shop.

“It’s Kathy can I speak to Alan!” she said the second the phone was answered.

“Hey Kathy, how you liking the new job?” a friendly voice said.

“No time, where’s Alan?” she asked with even a little more urgency.

“He stepped out for a walk. He does that on his breaks now that you can’t come in. I’ll have him call you as soon as he gets back.”

“No!” she said quickly afraid he was about to hang up. “Can someone meet him and tell him not to come back into the shop?”

“Sure, but,” Sally cut him off.

“Okay, please do that. Tell him to take the back way home.” Sally thought for a second, “Yes take the back way home and I’ll meet him there.” She asked herself another question, “and no one there has ever seen or heard of anyone that looks any thing like Alan!”

“Okay Kathy.   I’d better hurry. Don’t worry I got you covered.” Sally hung up the phone.   Her hand was shaking.

“Be right back,” she told the office in general and ran out of the room. She asked questions as she ran. By the time she arrived at home everything was all right. Toby had just reached the back door. He never opened it.

Sally explained as much as she knew, “as near as I can tell someone working for The General was in the shop about to asked some questions. The guys must have done well ‘cause it’s all better now.” She thought one more time, “we’re good.” She kissed him but something about the look on her face puzzled Toby.

“What?” he asked.

“It poked me on the head.”

“It?” Toby asked.

“Whatever it is that answers the questions, it poked me on the head. It’s never done anything like that before.”

“Weird?” asked Toby.

“Kind of comforting,” Sally said. “Like I’m being protected.”

“Two guys were sitting at that table,” he pointed to the table in the back corner of the coffee shop. They had coffees. One had a scone. They must have talked for five or ten minutes before one of them got up and like he wasn’t really interested asks when Toby came in for his shift. I told him I didn’t know any Toby, which, at the time, I thought, was the truth. But then he describes you Alan. Kathy said not to tell them anything so I kept silent. Are you Toby, Alan?”

“Can’t say,” Toby said with a grin.

“Anyway, they got into a new light green Chevrolet Caprice they had parked at the curb in front of the shop and drove away like they had somewhere to be. You all right Alan? You in some sort of trouble?”

“No, not now. You did good. Thanks.” Toby gave him a quick sideways hug. “I’m great.” Toby said.

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Question? (part twenty-nine)

The phone in his pocket buzzed. He put it to his ear. “Speak to me,” The General said.

“Just checking in,” David Randolph said.

“Got anything?” The General pushed a pile of papers out of his view.

“Working a very long shot. We’re still checking photos, news that looks interesting but we’ve started drinking coffee.”

“You being funny?” The General asked.

“Trying,” David said and then quickly added, “we’ve started a systematic search of coffee shops, from the center outward. We figure Toby’s working one of them. Could take a while but that’s what we got.”

The General said, “How far away are you?”

“Fifty miles, you wouldn’t believe how many cups of coffee that represents,” The General could hear David smile.

“The two of you come see me before you get any farther away,” The General broke the connection and slipped the phone back into his pocket.

With the phone still in his hand, half way between his ear and his lap David looked over at Gordon who was sitting in the passenger seat of the light green Chevrolet Caprice. Gordon had just stuffed a hand full of greasy fries into his mouth.

“He wants an office visit,” David said, while he waited for Gordon to chew he slid the phone into his coat pocket and started the car.

“Just you?” Gordon asked hopefully, dumping the rest of the fries from the small white bag into his mouth.

Gordon wiped his mouth and chewed. David put the Caprice into drive, pulled out of the fast food parking lot and bounced the heavy vehicle into the traffic lane.

“Both of us,” David answered.

“What’d we do? Fail to do the impossible?” Gordon asked, brushing the crumbs of a burger bun off his lap.

“Gravy trains never last forever. I figured he’d get tired of sending us checks,” The big car shot down the on ramp and merged across two lanes and into the freeway’s fast lane, the speed-o-meter found the eighty-five and David hit the set on the cruise control. They drove in silence, running the right to left high beam routine when someone slowed them down, clicking the light bar in the back window when they passed black and whites.

David knocked on the office door, turned the knob, and entered. The General motioned toward some chairs in front of his desk and finished what he had been working on while David and Gordon grew nervous. The General kept a grin away while he finished the entry, David and Gordon were both good men but it was good for them to sweat once in a while. He stopped typing and looked up at them.

“The coffee shop idea is as good as anything I can come up with,” The General said. He watched the two men relax, as if he had said, at ease men, “I understand much better than you the difficulty of your task. I’m going to share a bit of information that must not get out. It belongs to me but it will make us all rich men. Both David and Gordon moved forward in their chairs, sat up straighter and opened their eyes wider; The General had gained their full attention.

“Sally has a talent,” he started slowly, choosing his words. “A gift, a skill? I don’t know. She had a business, people would call her and ask questions, they could ask simple things like what should I get my son for his birthday and she would give answers. No just any answer. Not just speculation based on clues the caller had unknowingly given. She gave the right answers.” The General outlined two of the most successfully strategies he had ever sold to the United States military, “Both of those came from her,” he paused to let what David and Gordon had just heard sink in.

“So…that action that shut down all the airports with any causalities came from Sally?” David said, finding it hard to believe.

The General just nodded his head.

“How could she? That took some kind of mastermind, we were in awe.” David was just starting to understand that the most impressive action the think tank had ever achieved had not come from the think tank.

“I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know if she knows how she does it but it’s no trick.”

“And that’s how she stays one jump ahead,” David said.

“This is the most confidential thing you have ever heard,” The General reminded them.

“Understood,” David and Gordon said together.

“We’ll add this to the search, somehow, news of people finding unbelievable answers?” David was trying to think of how this information could help.

“Thank you Sir,” David stood, the meeting was over. Gordon followed his lead.

“Keep drinking coffee. Could work,” The General started to return to his work.   “You checking Face Book and other social sites? Sometimes they post pictures of the crew.”

“Yes, Sir, we have been, but there must be half a million coffee shops in this state.”

“Keep after it,” The General said, waving them toward the door.

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Question? (part twenty-eight)

The wedding would be small and simple but Sally’s days leading to it were full. There were handwritten initiations to be created and delivered. Flowers to be picked and arranged. The coffee shop had asked the whole wedding party, over twenty people, to come by the shop for drinks and snacks. Most of Sally’s time was spent making a basic white dress. Toby agreed to a buttoned white shirt with a bow tie, as dressed up as he had ever been. When the big day came everyone invited showed up including all four dog owners and Mike. The coffee shop closed for the day opening only for the private reception. No pictures were allowed but both Sally and Toby were sure some had been taken. They were paying less attention to keeping themselves secret. Sally did ask each morning if any progress had been made by The General or his team and the answer always came back a definite, “no.”

“It’s like when we lived in the panel,” Sally said to Toby in the quiet of the dark room.

“Well, not exactly,” Toby said meeting her in the center of the king sized bed Sally had had the foresight to purchase when they first moved into the converted garage.

“No, not exactly,” she admitted.

But in the very back of her mind, hidden in a tiny corner, something wasn’t quite right. Relaxing next to Toby she started asking herself questions. She had started making a little progress when Toby started snoring in her ear. She listened to the rumbling for just a minute until, much to her surprise; the rhythmic rumbling put her to sleep.

“I might be late for coffee,” she told Toby as he made his way out the back door of the kitchen and out into the alley.

“Already getting bored of this whole relationship thing?” Toby said grinning.

“I’m going to the library. I’ve got some questions to ask and I need some information,” she said. She gave him another good-bye kiss and added, “I like our relationship.”

She was right in assuming her research would take her past Toby’s break. It took her past lunch and she was still at work when Toby’s shift ended.

Toby, already concerned, left the coffee shop on the minute his shift ended and walked the three blocks to the county library. He made his way past shelved books and reading areas all the way to the back of the building where a line of computers were set up along the back wall. Sally looked much as she had everyday when she worked from her office, before they needed to leave. She read from the computer screen, made notes on a yellow paper tablet and punched in a new site from the keyboard.

“What?” Toby asked as he scooted a chair next to hers and looked at her notes on the yellow tablet.

Without taking her eyes from the screen she answered, “When we first ran off,” she typed in a web address and read a bit of the page on the screen. “I expected to be on the run. Moving from place to place,” she made a note on the pad, checked back a couple pages to a note she had made earlier in the day, returned to the current page and make another note. She looked up at Toby, “But that never happened.”

“No, that’s a good thing, right?” Toby said.

‘“Yes, a good thing, but not expected. When The General first called I asked myself, “does he really work for the government?” the answer was, “Yes.”’

“Wrong government?” Toby said.

“No, he works for the United States,” Sally said. “But he’s not military. It took a lot of questions,” she waved the pages of notes at him. “He’s free lance. He runs a private think tank. He sells plans and ideas to the United States government for a price, and that price goes up when the plans are useful.”

“So he sent you big checks because he received bigger checks,” Toby said, starting to understand how this could change their lives. “He doesn’t even have real investigators, at least not investigators trained to find missing persons.”

“Right. It looks like he hires people he worked with when he was in the military, when he was a general.”

“He’s just supplementing his retirement,” Toby said.

“Well, for some reason, he retired early, but he still has lots of friends and a lot of people in the military still treat him like a superior officer.”

“So he has some power?” Toby asked.

“His opinions, suggestions, and ideas carry a lot of weight, he’s a very powerful man. He plans to become wealthy and I could play a part in that. He’s willing to devote considerable resources to making me a part of his organization.” Sally folded the pages of her tablet back into their place and smoothed the top sheet flat.

“But he doesn’t have access to everything the actual government has,” Toby added.

“He is no small potato but he’s limited,” Sally said while turning off the computer.

“Neat,” Toby said looking up at the camera pointed at him from the library ceiling and not being afraid he was being watched for the first time since they had started this new life.