ERMAGERD a Thursday Tale! I’m struggling through a story which I wanted to post today but since I’m sucking like a Dyson vacuum at the ending, I decided I would spend some time gently caressing it (no, not like SomethingAwful) and speaking to it tenderly. While I hold that story’s hand, here’s something I wrote a few years ago for Friday Flash and really like. It’s the result of a conversation I had once with my sister after the body scanning machines for airports were first announced. She said, “Just wait. One day they’re going to have airport psychics!” Obviously, I couldn’t let an idea like that slip away. Weighing in at a hefty 2300 words or so is a heavily revised version of an old, old story.
Time was, Clem mused, when a man’s thoughts were his own. They were private- nobody else’s business. These days that wasn’t true anymore, at least not if you wanted to travel somewhere. While he was busy thinking about this and sipping his coffee, Laura was leaning with her forehead against the wall, eyes screwed shut and cascading red hair moving from side to side as if swaying in a breeze. One of her hands was balled into a tight fist and the other was pressed to the textured concrete next to her face. It looked as if she were crying. When she turned around, she was.
“There’s nothing,” she had said. A little over an hour later, while Laura was sleeping through her terrible headache, GlobalAir Flight 205 broadcast a staticky, panicked message before exploding midair. Clem saw the news on television and clenched his jaw, tears springing to his eyes. He couldn’t believe it had happened. He was relatively certain Laura would lose her license as a spotter. He was one-hundred percent certain Laura would lose her shit, because she was a bleeding heart and worried constantly about events just such as this. It was a wonder she wasn’t an alcoholic yet, but Clem could bet she was going to be a good deal closer to it than she’d been an hour ago. He sagged, glum, into a chair in the smoking lounge, took a drag off his cigarette. Courage.
Back in the security offices, Laura’s cubicle was empty and spotters had gathered around the coffee maker in the break room, clucking among themselves. Clem begged off interaction and sat at his desk, staring over the short wall into Laura’s cube. The chatter faded and Clem heard a sniffle behind him. He turned to see Dana emerging from the back hallway that led downstairs, where scores of investigators had set up shop. Her face was red and mottled, eyes swollen from sobbing. She was one of the senior spotters who had checked him and Laura for intoxication and fatigue before putting them on the point. Their eyes met and she stared at Clem helplessly. He lifted his hands in a silent gesture, face full of puzzlement. As she walked past him on the way to her office, Clem couldn’t take her sorrowful gaze, and slid his focus to his upturned palms. Her partner, Steven, was nowhere to be found.
When Dana had fled the Spotlight offices at last, the talking picked up again.
“She’s been really stressed out lately- Laura, I mean.” Debbie said, then glanced around before lowering both her head and voice dramatically “I guess she’s been having some problems, you know, at home.” She nodded sagely, fingering the fat fold of her purple turtleneck collar and turning away with her coffee cup. Fred passed through the gossiping clutch with his tie unclipped and flapping around as he walked. Another silence fell over the group when he touched Clem’s elbow and asked him to step into the conference room. Clem’s stomach lurched.
As they walked out the door, Clem shot a glance back over his shoulder, looking into the eyes of his workmates. He couldn’t tell what any of them was thinking. Laura would have called it stress. He didn’t want to think about Laura right now. He made a fist and counted his knuckles silently.
“Clem, we wonder if you might know something about what happened today with Laura. You were on the point with her.” Fred’s face was intense and his jocular manner had become abrupt. Clem was scared. He felt miserable and he thought he might be sick. He examined his fingers and wondered if Fred believed he had anything to do with Laura’s failure to spot the terrorist who blew up Flight 205. He struggled to maintain his composure, glancing up and trying not to look like he was obviously attempting to read Fred’s thoughts. Fred wasn’t a spotter; typical of handlers, he was a human lie detector.
“I…like Laura.” Clem’s green eyes, framed by his straight, dark brown hair, glistened as he lifted them to Fred’s watery blue ones. “I don’t want to get her into any kind of trouble.” He was worried for Laura but he didn’t want to get caught up with her either. He had a life of his own.
Fred nodded three times, scratched the side of his neck, and huffed. “There’s no way this should have happened. Here, of all places, with Laura, of all people. The two of you were on the point and someone didn’t get spotted. Now three hundred people are dead and we’re not getting anything from Laura except a lot of hysterics and apologies.”
Clem’s eyes dropped. He couldn’t keep up his gaze any longer. It would probably make him look guilty, but it was easier to stare at his hands and let Fred talk.
“This is a huge failure for us, courtesy of yourself and Laura. It’s an absolute blight on the face of Spotlight. You’ve never missed a spot, Laura’s never missed a spot. We don’t miss spots here. You know who misses spots? Lazy spotters, tired spotters, distracted spotters. Not spotters handled by Fred Marguey.“ His eyes narrowed for a moment and he shuddered, gritting his teeth.
“Something happened in that line today and one of you is going to tell us what it was. Steven and Dana cleared both of you and now they’re under the gun too. I need to find out who went wrong and where. If we don’t get some answers, doubt is going to spread through this entire program. Help me stop that from happening, Clem. Did you notice anything unusual this morning about Laura? Anything at all? I don’t like having to do this and I know you don’t, either. Talk to me, Clem.”
Clem’s face turned away from Fred’s, just a bit. Just enough that Fred knew there was something. Staring at the floor, he remained mute.
Running his fingers through his hair, he debated with himself before relenting, setting his hand on the table with an unintentionally loud slap. “Fine, okay. I just didn’t think anything of it really, until afterward.” Fred watched him, noted his obvious distress. Laura was Clem’s senior and it was clear he wanted to protect her.
“Go on,” Fred prompted.
“I told her that I spotted something while I was walking the line, but I couldn’t be sure where it was coming from. When I came around the wall, she was trying so hard to home in on it but she just couldn’t spot anything. I…I mean in the past the same thing has happened and everyone says that sometimes it takes a few years for a spotter to be able to really feel out a false alarm. Fred…” Clem looked directly at him again, eyes full of confusion and fear. Fred pitied him. “I feel like it’s all my fault for not calling Steven or Dana…but I didn’t want to go over her head and she was never wrong before and she tried so hard to verify my spot, she looked like she was really straining. I could tell because when she turned around to tell me there was nothing, tears were coming out of her eyes. She had to go right to sleep after that so I walked her into the baffle because her head hurt so badly.” Everything rushed out so fast that Fred had a hard time keeping up, but he could see Clem relax a little as he finished speaking.
“Don’t you find that a little strange?”
Fred grunted. He hated this whole thing, hated the eye of suspicion being cast on members of his staff. “Laura’s record has been exemplary. This one time, the time she ‘strains’ herself to verify a spot- a correct spot- she tells you there’s nothing, and then there’s a terrorist attack. There’s something seriously wrong with this scenario, Clem. Someone wasn’t doing their job.”
Clem couldn’t think of a reply, but it was obvious Fred was torn up about the whole situation. Everyone liked Laura, and Fred had been her handler her entire twelve years at Spotlight. Clem didn’t envy him a bit. Fred fell silent for a few minutes. Clem fidgeted, thinking of Steven in the basement being questioned by authorities, surrounded by spotters and handlers. He knew he’d be next.
His reverie was cut short when Fred abruptly dismissed him. With heavy, halting steps, Clem trod back to his desk to await his turn in the ad-hoc interrogation chamber.
After Clem left the room, Fred stared at the forms in front of him and rubbed his hands over his face. Nobody in the world wanted this crap to roll down the hill onto them and yet here he was, covered in it. “How could anyone have missed this?” He forced a deep, shuddering breath into his lungs to alleviate the sensation of crushing pressure all around him. “Dammit, Laura.”
For the next few days Clem stayed home from work, avoided phone calls, and fielded visits from various authorities. He grew tired of explaining, over and over, the events surrounding Laura’s failure to confirm his spot and her subsequent behavior. He holed up inside his apartment with the blinds closed and the television off, not checking the news, not reading the paper, not even checking his email. His coworkers hovered near his cubicle and speculated as to whether he would be coming back.
“This is just like that horrible TransFlight wreck, remember that?”
Debbie was wearing a slate blue turtleneck this time and she nodded in agreement, shivering at the memory. Everyone remembered that. It was due to, as Fred would say, an intoxicated spotter back in the days when spotters worked alone with a single handler. Back when spotters were new and there seemed to be a new iteration of Spotlight every other month. Then, they were just called airport psychics.
It had started when a security guard named Earl Waits got “the shivers” from a passenger and remarked on it to a fellow guard. He’d said there was something about this guy, as if there were a spotlight shining on him out of all the people in the crowd. After takeoff, the passenger mounted a frenzied attack with a hidden weapon. He managed to kill two passengers before he was overcome and killed by an air marshal, who also died. Waits went on to point out other passengers he “spotted” and he was always right. Nobody knew how, but he had a long and successful career in airport security before he went on to create Spotlight, a training program for the similarly gifted. Eventually the laughable “Airport Psychic” became “Spotter” and nearly every airport in the country had one.
While the office was abuzz with speculation after Clem’s and Laura’s workspaces had been plundered of evidence and office supplies, and interviews had been conducted with the staff, Clem was at home, hoping Laura was okay. He felt bad for the position he’d put her in, like he’d sold her out. She must be getting it worse than I am, he thought. He’d been bled dry of information and couldn’t tell what anyone was thinking. Fred recommended time off, and Clem gratefully took it. He was weak with relief when suspicion was finally off him and wondered if it was time to quit.
His decision was made for him when he received a call 2 weeks after the incident, just when he had 3 off days left and was panicking about going back, facing a new partner, and not being able to spot anyone. Wearily, he answered the telephone.
“You can turn in your badge now.”
The familiar voice on the other end of the line was smug with triumph and Clem could feel all the tension leaching away with the knowledge that his job was done. Still, there was Clerc…
“You’re thinking about Clerc.”
Clem retorted, “You must be psychic,” and then grimaced.
“About as psychic as you are!” The two broke into rueful laughter, until Clem’s throat tightened and he stopped so he wouldn’t start to cry.
“Leave tomorrow. Just call in and quit. You’re stressed out, you aren’t dealing with the whole situation well at all. We’ll get all your stuff moved out. Daisy’s coming into town, as your sister who is handling things for you. Good job, Clem.”
“You can stop calling me that now,” Clem joked, but the call had already ended. With a wan smile, he went onto the bathroom and plugged in the electric shaver he had placed on the counter in anticipation. Finally the hair, the beard, the contact lenses and the carefully practiced nonregional accent he had acquired could be shed. He wasn’t Clem anymore, and after a shave and a shower he didn’t look a thing like Clem either. That night, he got the best sleep he’d had in a while.
Next morning not-Clem shouldered a meager backpack and a clean identity, then departed, leaving all of Clem’s documents in the apartment along with everything Daisy needed to settle Clem’s business and zero out his existence. He drove right past the airport where he’d been an employee just a day before, and on to the next state where he left the car in overnight parking for pickup. Strolling through the airport, not-Clem wondered if any of his comrades were there too. He sipped coffee until his boarding call came, and when it did he lined up at the gate with everyone else. He looked at his hands, studied his fingers and didn’t think about the spotters. He didn’t think about Daisy, didn’t think about Clerc or Laura or Fred. His mission had been successful. The proof had been in Clerc’s eyes as he’d walked past Clem, past Laura, past the security gates on the way to sacrifice himself and the 300 others on Flight 205. Not-Clem looked up and glanced around idly. He couldn’t spot any spotters but he grinned a little, because they couldn’t spot him.