Authors: Melanie Jackson
Eye of the Beholder
Version 1.1 – February, 2014
Published by Brian Jackson at KDP
Copyright © 2014 by Melanie Jackson
Discover other titles by Melanie Jackson at
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
enry reflected that, with the unpleasantness of modern-day security measures, everyone knew going in that the airport was no longer the place for starting a happy adventure, but given the weather delays caused by tropical storm Edna, the overcrowded terminal had become a place of actual tears and wailing. Not heartfelt tears of partings or greetings. These were exhausted tears belonging to children and even parents who were finally understanding that their wait in the ugly building would not be over any time soon, and that they were going nowhere except to the bathroom or the less than meritorious coffee shop. There would be no Disneyland or Grandma’s house when they woke on the morrow. There would just be more odorous, sauna-smelling airport as people’s deodorants broke down, cell phone batteries died, and despair built into the air.
perhaps a nearby cheap motel, probably also odorous, if any vacancies could be found.
Juliet had no inte
rest in cheap motels and their bedbugs and paper-thin walls, and even less in spending the night at the crowded terminal, so as soon as it became apparent that she would not be leaving by air any time before noon the following day—and that was an optimistic projection from the “help” desk based on hope that the local weatherman wasn’t seeing—she decided to head for the car rental counter and seek salvation further afield. There had to be someplace within reasonable distance where she could go and not listen to people prepared to raise endless and pointless fuss about their cancelled flights. After all, the rain was bad, but it was still only rain, and once away from the airport it might be possible to find shelter and solace in one of the area’s many bed and breakfasts that were likely empty because the storm had delayed the scheduled guests.
, transportation to the mythical Eden was needed.
It turned out that she was not the only person to have this plan
, and the last car was being commandeered by credit card as she arrived at the rental desk. Though it was a lost cause, she made enquiries and had the bad news affirmed by a glum clerk who was also stuck at the airport. There were no vehicles for rent, nor were any likely to be returned until the storm had passed.
Juliet stepped back from the
counter, frowning at her duffel bag and wondering if she would get caught if she hotwired one of the cars in long-term parking. She knew how. It was part of her plan for lifelong learning, one of the few mementos of her old working life at the NSA. She didn’t care to think too much about this impulse and how she came to have that kind of knowledge. The name of her former employer left a bad taste in her mouth even years later. Dog-like obedience had never been her thing, and she had faked it as long as she could and then hidden behind her boss, who was a much better political animal. Once he had gone and been replaced by someone from another division who was an echo-chamber for the higher-ups’ new and more aggressive policies, there was nowhere for her to hide and Juliet had likewise “retired,” taking her keen mind and nefarious skills on to a new life. And since she had no intention of returning to her previous relationship with people she had come to distrust, Juliet made sure that she never became a liability to them. Even with her cooperation, when requested through back channels, she and her former masters were still engaged in and endless and indecisive battle with her desire for freedom always pitted against their need to be sure that she wasn’t engaged in ideological heresy, or working for someone else who objected to their activities. The balancing act was often tiring but necessary if she was to keep her ex-employer believing that she was just a high-functioning idiot savant who had limited uses and that she was of no interest to anyone.
Not that her many
illegal talents, even if she were willing to indulge them, were doing her much good at the moment. She couldn’t threaten or intimidate a hurricane.
This was absolutely the last time that she did a “country festival” art show. She did not like being out in the wilds with nothing but a tent between her—and her twenty-dollar t-shirts and a few small but precious canvasses— and the great outdoors where the woodbine and poison ivy twinethed. To heck with widening her audience in other regions of the country. She made good enough money on the local circuit back home in California.
Juliet pulled out her phone and was relieved to see a couple bars in the window. She speed-dialed Raphael and was glad when he picked up
, though the connection was predictably awful.
“I’m stuck,” she announced.
“I suspected as much,” Raphael answered. At least she thought that was what he said.
“I’m afraid that you will have Marley as a houseguest for a couple days more.” There was no need to say this since it was clear she would not be getting home as planned
and Raphael wouldn’t mind.
“The cat and I are fine. I took the precaution of laying in extra tuna.”
“Well, thank you—” She wasn’t able to finish though, since the connection was dropped on her expression of gratitude. The gods of telecommunication had ceased to smile on her and she was alone again. Juliet plunged her phone back into her purse with unneeded force and turned toward the plate-glass windows where the storm raged under the few parking lot lights. “Swell.”
A shadow fell over her
as she mulled, and she glanced up at a lanky man in a chauffer’s uniform. He was tall though stooping and grey hair showed under his cap, which he finally removed, revealing a face as austere as any Old Testament prophet.
“Ma’am.” He nodded his head
. His eyes were tired and Juliet did not for one moment think that this was a pick-up. The modern cultural obsession with youth was tiring and she didn’t bother with trying to hide her age, especially while traveling. “My name is Jeffrey. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with the unhelpful man at the desk and believe that I may be able to help.”
The way he said
made her think that it was a last name. Like Jeeves.
Yes?” Juliet forced her face into pleasant lines. It took effort.
“My employer, Mr. Markham,
who is a patron of the arts and helped arrange the art festival, has also been delayed because of weather. If it happened that you were traveling west, I will be heading towards Keensboro to fetch Mr. Markham by car and could offer you a ride.”
Juliet was not stupid. She knew all the horror stories of women who got into cars with strange men and disappeared off the face of the earth. But she was not just any woman
. She was one with certain survival skills and also a burning desire to not spend another moment at the dank airport, so in that moment the idea seemed no more unreasonable, indeed world’s saner, than staying at the refugee camp of an airport where the coffee and soda and disposable diapers were running out. She had also heard of Mr. Markham, though they had not met. The eccentric philanthropist was supposedly a recluse.
Juliet did a rapid assessment of the risks
and found them acceptable. She had no idea where Keensboro was, but it was a place and it probably had a hotel or at least an inn that wasn’t full to flooding with refugees. That would have to do.
Jeffrey. That would be wonderful.”
A particularly angry screech rent the air and the elderly
Jeffrey winced. Juliet sympathized. She had developed an eye tic because of that same ear-piercing tonality which went off every five minutes or so.
went to fetch the car while Juliet and her duffel waited just inside the terminal’s doors. Jeffrey would have taken her duffel, but Juliet was firm that it remain with her.
The lights outside were not numerous but adequate to show that the rain was coming down in a much more horizontal than vertical fashion. That meant that the wind was freshening
and blowing from the east. Juliet fastened her coat and tensed her muscles for the ten-yard dash.
The limousine was an old one
, a Packard luxury sedan that looked a lot like the black cabs of London, with the addition of whitewall tires. This made her more interested in meeting the reclusive Mr. Markham.
Juliet took firm hold of her duff
el and hurried out before Jeffrey could leave the car. She need only travel thirty feet and it was under a portico. There was no need for the old man to brave the storm twic,e since the wind was more bracing than a dose of smelling salts. And once she was inside she planned to enjoy the limousine’s luxuriance, which no doubt included splendid heating which would dry out her damp clothing.
Though it might have been traditional for her to sit in the back, Juliet took her place on the bench seat beside
Jeffrey, admiring the wood trim and the lovely heat gushing out of the vents in the dashboard. After the are-you-ready conversation, neither of them was inclined to banter. Jeffrey needed to keep both eyes on the road where debris was beginning to pile up, and Juliet was reveling in the silence.
did not drive as if out to prove his virility. To do so would have ended in disaster, but that wouldn’t have stopped some men. Still, he was so hesitant when they came to crossings that Juliet began to suspect that he hadn’t traveled their route before and was having to search for street signs and landmarks. She said nothing, peering with him at the dark as the night slid by at twenty miles per hour.
The small metropolis
and its relatively smooth roads were soon left behind. The last sign of civilization was a drowning neon sign in Satanic red announcing BEER & BAIT HERE.
A suicidal deer jumped in front of the Packard a half a mile later but it was gone again before
Jeffrey could apply the brakes. After that they saw not a soul, nor any lights except those provided by the Packard’s wide-set headlights. They might be the last two people on earth, a thought that was a long way from comforting, and Juliet had to resist the urge to get out her phone and check the bars. There wouldn’t be any. There hadn’t been any outside of the airport since the storm started.
“I had no idea that we were so close to the forest,” Juliet finally said. The silence was growing uncomfortable and she was tired of the sound of rain pounding on the roof.
“This is one of five fingers of woods that reach around the city,” Jeffrey answered. “This one belongs to the Reich family.”
The description was unpleasant, bringing to mind a giant’s grasping hand.
Juliet knew that there were lots of narrow roads that led somewhere eventually. She lived on one herself. But usually these roads were paved and gave some sign of their purpose or goal—frontage roads or emergency escape firebreaks, for instance. But these roads usually had signs, however old and rusted, announcing their purpose and their number should they have not been graced with an actual name. The road they were traveling had posted neither name nor number. It did have a gully on the right that gushed hard enough to carry away a body or even a whole car, a thought which was far from reassuring. And where were the antique stores and roadhouses that area of the country was supposedly littered with?
Juliet drifted into speculation but
she was dragged back by the undertones of concern in Jeffrey’s voice when he announced that they were getting close to Keensboro.
“Yes? How can you tell?”
Jeffrey seemed an essentially honest man, and his straight lips and conscience must have taken a beating as he told lie after lie about how they were almost at their destination and how the weather seemed to be improving, so there was no need to worry. Juliet did not point out that the water-logged back road—though it was dignifying the cleared dirt strip to call it a road—was running ever deeper with rainwater which had overtopped the deep ruts and gullies.