While I normally put in a lot of internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.
Part of the problem, I think, aside from the preponderance of (seemingly legitimate) excuses to spend my limited time doing things other than writing the last few days, is that after days and days of the work just flowing, and two days in particular (the balloon rides) that were a piece of cake, the story has suddenly gotten harder to write. I recognize that this is because all of a sudden the viewpoint has shifted to Margaret. On the one hand, my gut is telling me strongly that it’s the way the story has to go, structurally and thematically. On the other hand, it feels like I’m on thin ice in trying to avoid losing the narrative and making it sound silly or trivial.
Another factor is that I’m getting a much better picture of where I’ve got to go from here to get to where I want to be. While that’s good, it also means that I’m feeling like I have to keep tighter rein on the characters rather than letting them just go off willy-nilly. It sound stupid if you’ve never done it (at least, it sounded stupid to me before I started writing) but it’s really true. Characters will act differently and demand that you let them go off in other directions. They take on a life of their own. I understand that they’re just imaginary constructs in your head — but if you’re writing the true story that needs to come out, you have to listen to them and go where they take you.
Yes, I know how much like pseudoscience psychobabble that can sound. I am and always have been a huge skeptic. But I’ve heard many, many other authors say it, and now that I’ve seen it happen on multiple occasions while I’m doing the typing, I know that it really is part of the process.
For now, I just need to remember this is just a “zeroth” draft and start spewing words again. Maybe tomorrow, if I can get a good night’s sleep. (By the way, the job interview went well, or at least I thought that it did. I’ll know in two or three weeks if I get to move on to the next round of interviews, but at least one of us in the room felt good when we left.)
CHAPTER SIXTEEN (continued)
As she drove south, she thought about who might be watching her and how much they might know about her. How would they know what “acting normal” was for her if they didn’t have a baseline to compare it to? How would they have that if they hadn’t been watching her previously? Why would they have been watching her before her flight with Tom? But if she only started showing up on their radar yesterday after they spotted her balloon, could anything she did be considered odd by them? Or was there another way that they could retroactively figure out what she had done in the past, to define a “normal” for her?
That thought led right back to the concept that someone with enough resources or clever enough software could monitor just about anyone in Western society via their cars, their transactions, the Internet, the web of security cameras that were everywhere, and the nearly complete lack of privacy that everyone knew about but no one cared about. Margaret, like many people, had always assumed that it wasn’t as bad as all of that and the few who were up on their soap boxes about it were just extremists and nut jobs. Besides, the common wisdom was that if you didn’t have anything to hide, you didn’t have anything to worry about.
She was finding that piece of wisdom a little less wise when one found oneself watched like a bug under a microscope, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong. Especially when, in order to protect herself and regain some control of the situation, her first acts were deep into the grey area between right and wrong.
In this case, she almost hoped that her shadowy opponents did have a good idea of what were normal activities for her and Neil. If they did, what she was going to do could look like she was blowing off steam, which would be natural. If they didn’t, they were bound to be wondering what she was up to. That might not be good.
About ten miles south of town she passed the last of the giant irrigated crop circles that filled the desert. There she took off from the highway onto a rutted dirt road. The land to her south was not mountainous, but it had been torn up into small hills, gullies, ditches, and mud pits by hundreds of four-wheel off-road drivers. The snow of a couple days ago had melted, leaving behind enough mud to make it interesting, but not enough to make it impossible and impassable. With her jeep, this was a common place for Margaret and Neil to come and see how close they could come to breaking the shock absorbers without actually killing themselves in the process.
At the entrance to the off-road playground, Margaret paused for a minute. She knew this area well but needed to plan just a little bit. Grabbing her knee board and a note pad from her flight bag, she quickly sketched out a rough diagram of the area. In all it was probably over fifty acres, bordered by dirt roads on three sides and the highway on the east. After a couple of false starts, Margaret had a good idea of what to do. Strapping the pad and kneeboard to her leg, she took off in a cloud of dust and mud.
It was both harder than she had thought that it would be and easier than it looked in the end. She had watched from the air as farmers did this in their fields to make corn mazes, but they had the benefit of being able to see exactly where they were and where they had been. They also had the luxury of planning things out and putting out markers where necessary, which she couldn’t do without arousing even more suspicions. So she drove her course blindly, hoping that good enough was good enough.
She drove in long, looping curves across the desert floor, trying to keep on course even when she was cutting across some of the bumps and jumps that had been built up. Skidding to a stop, she reversed her course, back to the beginning, then started two laps in a loop the size of a NASCAR track. Coming out of that it was another series of long curves, then retracing back to the beginning.
Getting back to the entrance, she started over again, this time in shorter sprints, often stopping and reversing her course, trying as best she could to drive back over her tracks from the first pass. Back and forth across the lot, crawling through long curves, backing and filling on straight segments, always trying to keep close to the plan she had put together.
When she finally was done, she exited the lot on the south side, turning back toward the main highway and then back to town. She had done the best she could do under the circumstances.
Not wanting to draw attention to Neil, who might be at home despite her attempt to keep him away, she went back to the office and hanger. She knew that if the bad guys could really do half of what she suspected they could, not going home wasn’t going to keep them from knowing where she lived, and hiding Neil at Bobby’s house wasn’t going to keep them from knowing about him or tracking him down. But she had to do what she could, even if she suspected that it was a feeble and futile attempt. To do otherwise would be to submit to despair.
At the hanger she spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on routine maintenance on her balloon and planes. She hauled the propane tanks from the balloon out to the local dealer and got them refilled. She cleaned the balloon’s basket and double checked all of the rigging lines. She went through the last weeks’ worth of bills, caught up on her accounting, and wrote checks, even though the bookkeeping side of being a small business owner was her least favorite part of the job.
Three calls came in and each time she jumped like a spooked deer when she heard the ringing. One call she let go to voice mail, listening in as Neil left a message confirming that he had gotten her text and was at Bobby’s house. One call was from someone asking about booking a balloon flight for the holiday weekend. She tentatively scheduled it, with a caution that the weather would be getting worse as the season got later. The caller wanted to see the area with snow, and while it might be lovely and the flying could be good, they would have to have some flexibility in scheduling the flight, moving it up a day or back a day or two as the weather required.
The third call was more routine business, an inquiry from someone at the Albuquerque FAA office about some paperwork on one of her planes. Her first thought was that it might be something triggered by the people who had snatched Tom, but after some discussion she found the written inquiry from the FAA that she had ignored so far. It was dated almost a month ago, so Margaret couldn’t see how that could be related to the events of the last two days. She pulled the needed documents, scanned them, and emailed them out in order to keep the FAA bureaucracy happy and off of her case. For now.
By the time it had been dark for a while, Margaret debated whether she should go home or stay at the hanger. If she went home, it was possible that Neil could see the lights on. Whether he came home or stayed at Bobby’s at that point was irrelevant, she would still have a lot of explaining to do. She wanted to avoid that and keep him out of this as much as humanly possible.
Instead, she hunkered down in the office and turned the heat up for all it was worth. As the evening cooled the big, sheet metal hanger started to cool off fast. The heaters were set to keep the interior above forty degrees in order to keep the fluids in the planes from freezing. It also prevented any ice from forming on the wings, which would keep them grounded if she needed to fly somewhere in a hurry. But while it kept the planes functional, it wasn’t comfortable.
The office was contained in a separate suite of rooms in one corner of the hanger. It wasn’t terribly well insulated, but there was a separate heating and cooling system, so it could be made reasonably livable in there. It wouldn’t be the first time that Margaret had spent the night there, since she had clients who occasionally would need her on short notice at unconventional hours. It was a service that paid well, but it had long ago prompted her to put a few living basics into the office. A refrigerator, microwave, convertible couch, game console, and television made it a pilot lounge paradise. The upgrade to add a shower to the bathroom had been worth every penny.
Margaret settled in for the evening and tried not to look at her phone every five minutes. At least there were some college basketball games on the television, and she killed some time playing video games. She also kept an eye on her email, but there was nothing special there either except for the usual.
By 10:30 she was nodding off. There had been far too much adrenaline for one day. She was still jumping at shadows and trying not to let her imagination run away with boogeyman fears about who might be after her and Neil and what they might do. Most of all, she was getting discouraged about the efficacy of her afternoon activities. The longer the night went on, the harder it was to believe that she had been successful.
Just after midnight she was brought awake by a chirping from her phone. She was confused at first, her sleep-clogged brain not registering why she was in the hanger office instead of at home. Memories of the previous day then flooded back to her and she was filled with a second wave of confusion.
Why was her phone making that noise? The “do not disturb” function should keep it quiet at this time of night. In addition, what was the sound it was making? She didn’t recognize it as anything she had ever heard from her phone before.
Fumbling to get the phone out, the noise stopped as soon as she touched the screen. She immediately noticed a new, blinking icon on her screen, labeled “Mayday”.
It was almost too much. Margaret held the phone tightly, closed her eyes, and tried to decide what to do. This could be a trap that would paint a target on her back, or it could be the help she had been asking for. Fly the plane. There was only one way to find out. She tapped the icon.
The app’s window opened up with a logo, a large blue “A” in a circle. Over this a script message began to write out, the letters crude and connected to each other, almost as if they were being drawn by an Etch-A-Sketch connected to a fat tipped, red Sharpie pen.
“Toronto’s football team and their leader welcome you. Do you wish to continue?” Buttons appeared labeled “Exit and delete” and “Continue”.
Margaret was about to cancel whatever she had started and exit the program, when she paused. What was she missing here? Why had the script displayed that way? It was weird, and not too artistic or professional. Who would do that deliberately in a program?
Who in the hell were Toronto’s football team? Did they even play football in Toronto? Afraid to do anything with the phone for fear of messing up the program, she turned on the desk computer and quickly looked for an answer to that question. The answer caused her to sit back with a huge sigh of relief. Now the message format and the Toronto football reference made sense.
She hit the “Continue” button.
The screen cleared, the logo reappeared, and the odd script with the connected letters began writing again. “For access to this site, please enter the first and last name of the person who referred you to us.” Margaret entered, “Tom Tiernan,” and hit enter.
This time the text displayed normally, with the instruction, “Please leave the phone on and set it on the desk. Installation will begin when you hit ‘enter’.”
Margaret put the phone on the desk and hit the “enter” icon on the screen. The phone immediately began to show a progress clock with an estimated install time of twenty minutes, the clock slowly running backward toward zero. At about the twelve-minute mark the desk computer screen went blank and the computer hard disk began ticking furiously, as if the entire disk was being scanned.
As the clock on her phone finally counted down to zero, Margaret watched with growing anticipation. At 0:00, the screen on her desk computer and phone simply went back to their normal displays. Nothing further happened and Margaret realized that she was holding her breath. She let it out and picked up the phone, which suddenly rang. She hit the button to connect and held the phone up to her ear.
“Margaret, I’m Jason. I think we need to bring each other up to speed.”