March 21, 2015
The hostess on my flight poured me another drink. If there was ever a time in my life when I needed a good stiff one, this was it. I watched her as she substituted the short glass for a tall one, and shoveled in a double scoop of shaved ice. The Diet Coke went in next, followed by a straw, a twist of lemon, and a little umbrella—just for show. I wasn’t about to fall off the wagon over the events of the last few days, and if there was ever anyone that needed a good clear head for the business at hand, it sure as hell was me.
With less than thirty minutes to touchdown, I went over the scant few facts that Howard had been able to relay to me. Additionally, I worked the on-board computer Google machine for info. It wasn’t much, but it did give me a starting point. Detroit. Specifically Dearborn, a very near suburb of Detroit, and home to the largest Muslim-American community in the United States. On the order of thirty percent of the total population. It wasn’t exactly what Dearborn had been traditionally known for—but hey, what the hell—times change. They had changed a lot in Dearborn, Michigan too. It was a matter of some dispute as to whether those changes had been for the better or not.
I intended to keep an open mind.
It was common knowledge, and common sense as well, that the vast, and I do mean vast, number of Arab immigrants to the United States were both peaceful and hard-working citizens. Many had not immigrated just lately either. More than just a few were descendants of folks that had come to American back in either the late nineteenth century or the middle of the twentieth, looking for work in the then burgeoning auto industry. Even though most of those jobs had long gone south to Mexico, north to Canada, or east—as in Far East—to Japan, Dearborn was still World Headquarters to the Ford Motor Company. And all those Arab immigrants weren’t Muslim either. A clear ten percent of Dearborn’s Arab-American population were Christians. In total, both Christian and Muslim, we were talking a population of around forty-thousand souls. Like I said—mostly good people. And a few bad apples, some really bad apples. Those were the ones that were going to have to be sorted out, and removed—fast.
I was slated to meet my new partner, the somewhat mysterious Jedidiah Wahl, the next morning. And not in Dearborn either. I can’t really say I was looking forward to it very much. Partners are very much like a pair of shoes. The older they are, the better they fit, and the more comfortable they become. I know I had picked up a bit of a reputation around the Washington State private-eye community for working with children at Watchmaker Enterprises, but the true facts of my professional relationship with Matt McCabe were comforting. The man, despite his youthful looks, was forty years my senior. I doubted very much that was going to be the case with Mr. Wahl. Wahl was much more likely to be like a very new pair of shoes. As in, stiff, hard and unyielding. Chafing the feet, causing blisters and aches, and taking a hell of a lot of getting used to.
Today was a different matter. An FBI operative would greet my plane upon arrival, and in a very private part of the airport. He was going to have more information for me, beyond even what Carter knew. Like maybe even a name. Seems the FBI had been watching certain home-grown terrorist groups in the southeastern Michigan area for quite some time. Mostly they were dormant, or exhibiting very little activity. Lately however, the agency had been picking up a lot of “chatter” in those groups about an impending attack on US soil, a big, bloody one—chatter that had turned into a full-blown and red-hot alert as it was investigated.
I had met more than a few FBI men back in my police department days. I had never met one that didn’t have a very high opinion of himself, whether deserved or not. For the most part, they were pretty damned hard to get along with too. There’s an old saying about some people that didn’t think their poo-poo had an odor. Bureau agents generally didn’t think they had poo-poo at all. I had little doubt that was going to be exactly the case this time too, and I intended to blow this one off as quickly as possible and get to work on my own. I imagined that he thought he would be working with me—but that was one damned thing that wasn’t about to happen. One partner at a time was more than enough. Besides, I was sure he probably had a lot of paper on his desk back at headquarters that needed to be re-shuffled and pushed around. I was going to let him get back to doing that as fast as humanly possible.
As I’ve said so many times in the past, if I’d had to make a living as a fortune teller—I would have starved.
The hostess arrived again to collect my empty glass and let me know that we were beginning our descent into the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
It was almost show time.
I could see the downtown business section of the once proud city out my window and just to the east. Detroit had been through some rough times in recent decades, and the former center of the industrial might of the mid-west was not quite what it once had been. Large sections now lay in ruins, former vibrant neighborhoods now as empty and vacant as the surface of the moon.
From the air however, it was still impressive, situated as it was along the banks of the mighty Detroit River. Many skyscrapers still dotted the skyline, but there were also a lot of empty spaces where others had been, giving much the same appearance as that of an old woman with missing teeth.
We made a smooth landing, and almost immediately the plane veered off the runway, headed for an obviously little used area of the airport.
As the plane taxied to a full stop, I could already see my waiting contact. Back turned to me while talking on his cell-phone and waiting by the side of a large, dark-blue limousine. It might as well have had large scarlet letters emblazoned on the side: FBI. I shook my head a little in amazement. It didn’t seem the agency was ever going to change very much, wedded as they were to both convention, and the stereotype.
Exiting the jet a couple of minutes later, I made my way down the roll-away steps and toward the agent. Only when I approached to close-range, did I realize that this was not exactly my grand-daddies FBI agent. Her dark hair might have been close-cropped, but the figure that filled out the equally dark pant-suit was most definitely not that of a male. She had a set of long legs that went all the way to the ground, and a lot more shape to her backside than a bale of hay in an old pillowcase, as dear old papa used to say. Even before she turned, I knew in the pit of my stomach and with every fiber of my being, that she was going to be a looker.
I was wrong. She was a stunner. It was beginning to become apparent that I might have been a bit rash in deciding that I wanted to ditch this agent immediately. Everyone deserves a chance to show what they’re made of—and heavens only knows I’m a fair-minded guy.
Time for a test, I thought—two tests to be exact—and no time like the present.
She heard my approach and switched off the cell phone, returning it to her blazer jacket pocket. Smiling, she approached, hand outstretched, in a businesslike manner.
I got rid of her smile in a hurry.
“Hey babe,” I opened, ignoring her hand and tipping my homburg back to a cocky angle. “The Bureau out of male agents?”
Her face went white. “Excuse me?” she said.
“If I’d known they were going to send a ‘chick-cop’, I would have brought my own man with me. Or are you here to take me to the real agent? I guess I’m supposed to be briefed or something.” I shoved my hands in my pockets and tried to look bored. The look on her face was almost comical, and in another way, kind of sad. I was almost sorry that I had begun this, but dammit, if I were going to be working with, and depending on, this lady in any kind of a life or death situation, I had to know if there were any fire in her belly or not.
Her eyes flashed an anger I hadn’t seen since I had missed my first wedding anniversary with my late wife Jan—and I want to tell you—that was some kind of mad. It had started a life-long good habit with me, as in, marking my calendar really, really well.
“Why you sorry little prick,” she started, in a clipped tone of voice. “You misogynistic, male-chauvinistic puffed-up little pig-swine. Just who the hell do you think you are, anyway, you mouthy little bastard?”
Her face had gone from white to beet red within a matter of seconds, and it was hard not to smile, obvious as it was that she was just getting started, and to tell the complete truth, I didn’t know exactly where it was going to end. She had passed the first test I had put her to—with flying colors. If I didn’t stop this soon though, I was pretty sure she was going to go for her gun.
Can’t really say I blamed her very much.
It was time to end it, and time to put the second part of the test into action. For just a fleeting moment, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that if this didn’t work, I was going to be in for one hell of a long bumpy ride with this lady. I almost wished I’d thought of that before I started.
And then my hand closed over the pocket-watch in my jacket pocket, and in what I can only describe as a lightning-fast flash, I was in another place and time. About five minutes before, to be exact. Still sitting in my seat, belt still fastened, as the jet taxied close to the terminal. I could just see the lady agent, still standing by the limo, and still talking on her phone.
I was about to get that rarest of gifts in life—a complete and total do-over.
Matt had told me that the watch would work for me. He was right. He had also told me that since the replacing of the five missing stones, it was going to work a lot better. In that, he had completely understated what I had just experienced. I had used the watch before, there in the darkened streets of 1889 Seattle. Oh, it had gotten us where we needed to go. After a fashion. Just like an ancient and rusty old Volkswagen Beetle, it got you where you needed to be. But this new watch, this was something else. This was like a souped-up Lamborghini.
Deadly fast. I had just gotten my first wake up call, as to just what kind of power I now possessed. Again, the image of Bilbo’s ring flashed through my mind.
Finally exiting the plane again, a few moments later, I once more made my way toward her, this time taking her offered hand without hesitation, and shaking it warmly.
“Hello,” I said. “The name is Johnny O’Brien. Just Johnny to my friends. A real pleasure to meet you . . .” my voice trailed off.
“Faris, Johnny,” she said. “Agent Shahida Faris. A pleasure to meet you too. I’ve heard enough about you from Chief Carter, I almost feel I know you already. I’m here to take you to your hotel, and to brief you on the latest developments.”
“Which are, Agent Faris?” I asked.
“Just Shahida. We need to talk. Long story short, Johnny—we don’t have nearly as much time we thought we did.”
“So what else is new?” I responded. “Or, as my dear old pal Matt McCabe used to say, “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a Johnny O’Brien story, now would it?”
Agent Faris smiled broadly as she nodded affirmatively, and held the limo door open for me.
Classy, I thought. This gal might just turn out to be a keeper after all.
We headed out of the airport, and got onto I-94, heading east.
I could have sworn that the many and much repaired pot-holes of that old highway made a sound under the wheels much like bricks, as we headed toward a town that was most definitely made of anything but emeralds.
Thanks for reading. Next up, a profile of the late horror and fantasy writer who has been called “The Twentieth Century Poe” . . . H. P. Lovecraft.
Dumb joke of the day:
What do you call an alligator in a vest?
Answer: An Investigator.