The last thing Lena expected to encounter on her way home from the convention was murder.
Lena did not consider herself to be an exciting person. Nice enough looking she dressed neatly and enjoyed a fairly good life, especially since her divorce. Though she loved to read mysteries and detective stories, they touched her for only a few precious moments before she returned to her desk, computer, and the never-ending mountain of paper work.
The Certified Public Accountant’s conference highlighted her year, and she always stayed behind to help clean up. “That’s me,” she thought. “Reliable and competent, but hardly exciting.”
With boarding for the red-eye back to Albuquerque still an hour away there was not much to do at the DFW airport terminal but read. Most of the restaurants were closed, and Lena had little interest in the sports bars.
Staring off into space from an uncomfortable little seat, she would never have noticed the tall dark-haired man coming from the skyway had he not lifted a sheet of paper to cover his face. She wondered why he would do that. The man followed about ten feet behind a neat blond stewardess. Young and stylish, she pulled a dark blue suitcase with a flat red purse hanging from her shoulder.
Lena still had half an hour before boarding when the urge to visit the ladies’ room came upon her. It was eerie. Thirty-plus cold, shiny steel stalls with a dozen sinks, a place designed to cater to a mass of femininity – and Lena the only one there. She thought.
Not wanting to invade the echoing water chamber further than necessary, she used the toilet closest to the door. As she shut the stall door, she saw a flat red purse hanging from the coat hook. The sound of a sudden flush made her jump, but there was no accompanying sound of footsteps, no rustle of clothes or bags.
Lena put the purse in the front pocket of her flight bag, intending to take it to the authorities. Hefting the bag onto her shoulder she exited the stall. Another flush startled her. She looked around the corner and saw it – a hand stretched out on the floor under a stall door.
Oh, my God, was someone hurt? Lena glanced around to see if anyone else was there, then walked toward the stall. The toilet flushed again.
“Hello?” Her knock opened the door.
The neat blond stewardess lay like an upside down rag doll, her perfect hair mussed, eyes wide open, and neck bent in a way Lena had only seen once before – when the robot C3PO on Star Wars had been welded together backwards.
The only dead bodies she’d ever seen before were tidily tucked away in a casket. The stewardess’ eyes were wide open, and frightened. A leg bent up over the toilet must have confused the motion sensor, for the toilet flushed again. Lena noticed there was no suitcase, blue or otherwise.
A shiver ran from her shoulders to her scalp. Her first wild thoughts ran to the safety of practical observations. “Why do these things happen when you are in a hurry to be somewhere? If I stop to report this to airline security I will definitely miss my flight.”
“What the hell, no one is waiting for me anyway.”
“Your name?” The officer asking questions looked about 12-years-old –but then everyone in authority seemed to be getting younger to Lina. “Catalena Mejia.”
He looked askance at her response. A short, sometimes blond, somewhat pudgy maternal figure, Lena did not display the Latino mystery of a “Catalina Mejia.” The first name had been a gift from a romantic mother, the last an unfortunate holdover from a previous matrimonial mistake.
“…just call me Lena.”
Lena told the police about seeing the stewardess earlier, and that a man had followed as she walked down the corridor. Lena tried to describe him in plain police talk – knowing that just saying he was tall, dark and handsome would be frowned upon.
Reaching into her vocabulary, Lena said he was Mediterranean looking with shoulder length layered black hair and mustache, and wore a black jacket and blue jeans. She forgot until later that the man had been wearing a beige hat with a floppy brim.
The detectives took the flat red purse. It contained a wallet, a comb, a lipstick and a house key. Several hours later they escorted her back to the airport for a 5:30 a.m. flight home.
Among the last to board, Lena squished her bag and bulky coat along to Row 34, Seat D, she squeezed into a seat between a woman who looked like Queen Latifa and a huge guy with a long braid who would have fit into the World Wide Wrestling Federation. He smelled like Irish Spring soap, which kept Lena from gagging on the exhaled remnants of Queen Latifa’s sausage-onion-garlic breakfast.
A late arrival walked down the aisle – the tall, dark potential murderer. That’s when she remembered the beige hat.
Scrunching down between her generously sized seat companions, she watched Beige Hat as he walked slowly and looked at the seats. He obviously did not find what he expected as he scanned the rows further on.
For some reason she felt he was searching for her, like he knew of her interview by the police. “But why follow me?” she thought. “Just because I saw them walking down a corridor? How would he know I exist?” It was ludicrous to think he could do anything to her in a crowded airplane. She grew suddenly grateful for the preponderance of human flesh around her.
He sat around Row 20 on the other side of the plane.
She fought the impulse to yell, “It’s him. He’s here. Someone call 911!” Rationally, she tried to go over the facts.
Fact Number 1 – She had no idea if he had murdered anyone – covering his face could have been accidental or he might be a famous person being incognito.
Fact Number 2 – How could he know Catalina Mejia existed ?
Fact Number 3 – The aircraft was packed, the airport in Albuquerque would be crowded, she would never be left vulnerable and alone – until she crossed the threshold of her own home. So, no worries for at least 2-and-a-half hours.
She always enjoyed the lifting sensation of an aircraft taking to the sky. For some reason it thrilled and relaxed her. And after the night she endured, neither fear, turbulence nor bad breath could keep her from falling asleep.
Lena awoke with the left side of her face plastered to the big guy’s right bicep – the one decorated with a tattoo of a knife stabbing a rose. She remembered wondering if her cheek would retain a reverse copy of the image, like silly putty.
“Hey, Lady,” the Hulk said. “Time to get off.”
She thanked him for the use of his appendage and he smiled. He had a nice smile. Looking forward, she could see Beige Hat stand up. He saw her. She froze for a moment, feeling trapped.
“Hey,” Lena said to her large seating companion, “Thanks for lending me your arm for a pillow. My car is here…can I give you a lift someplace?”
The Hulk’s name turned out to be Tom Tasker. She thought they probably looked strange standing together in the baggage area – a six foot seven inch man mountain and a short blond hamster wearing glasses.
Lena tried to keep Tom between herself and Beige Hat, but her nemesis headed straight to the door – bypassing the baggage area. He didn’t even glance her direction. Maybe he wasn’t looking for her. Was her fear misplaced? Did he know where she lived? Tom watched her as she watched Beige hat. “Someone you know?”
“Not really,” she replied. “But there’s a possibility that he murdered someone last night and I’m the only person who saw them together beforehand.”
Tom’s eyebrows rose.
“Sounds like a bad movie plot, doesn’t it?”
“Well,” He drawled, “mebbe… mebbe not.”
She couldn’t know what he was thinking, but from his height Lena must have looked pathetic and small and very tired. He reached down and patted her shoulder. “Think we should go see the local cops, Lena? Together?”
Gratefully, she agreed. “Do you know the way to a police station?” Lena figured a 300-pound walking advertisement for Hell’s Angels could deter just about anything.
As it turned out the police station was exactly where he wanted to go. Lieutenant Tom Tasker, of the Albuquerque Police Department, left his motorcycle at the station before flying out to Indiana to see his mother in the nursing home.
“Gee… you don’t look like a cop.”
He grinned. “I’m an undercover detective. I’m not supposed to look like a cop.”
Tom escorted her to an officer who listened to her story, then called Fort Worth to confirm it.
The Fort Worth office made progress since she left the cowboy kingdom. The stewardess, Carrie Koehring, age 27, had worked for the airline for five years.
The picture of the stewardess made Tom’s eyes light up. “She was on my flight from Indianapolis.” He looked at Lena intently for a moment as though she held the key to all this. That scared her.
“Martinez, call the cab companies, see if any of the drivers picked up someone at the airport answering this description, between eight and eight-thirty this morning.” Tom handed him the paper faxed from Dallas.
“Got it, Captain.”
“It’s a long shot,” Tom said. “But if someone remembers him, then we could get a handle on where he’s gone, we’ll check the rental car places, too.”
“Ok. Well, I guess I should leave?” Lena was uncomfortable at the idea of entering her property alone with a potential killer in the area.
Tom followed her to the south valley, he said his place was only a little further north. He approved of the six foot wooden slat fence around the front of the property and the automatic gate opener. Lena unlocked the house as he walked the edges of the half acre she called home.
“Nice place,” he remarked. “That two story adobe garage looks big enough to drive a semi through.”
“I understand the previous owner was a mechanic. I just recently bought the place, so I mostly use it for storage.”
Lena’s adobe house was on a lane that ended at an acequia. The deep water-filled ditch was a traditional method of irrigating fields within a few miles of the Rio Grande.
Tom took a cursory look around the place and made sure there were no bad guys lurking under the staircase. Not finding anything amiss, he headed toward the door. “You know, Lena, just in case this guy is looking for you, you might consider staying with friends for a while, or in a hotel for a few days.” His eyes were hazel, she noticed.
For a strange moment Lena nearly asked if he had an extra bed at his place—she realized she only just met him, but he was really comforting to be around.
“I’ll think about it.” What she really wanted to do involved nose-diving onto her mattress, wrapping a sleep mask over her eyes and dreaming about snuggling into a strong man’s arms. But instead she sheepishly said, “Since you’ve gone over the place I should check on my fish.”
He gave her his card and put his huge hand on her shoulder. “Give me a call if you need me. Ok, Lena?”
The way he looked at her, Lena wondered if maybe he hoped she would have to call him – she actually felt herself blush.
Buzzing the gate open, she waved him out, and then took her flight bag inside. In gentlemanly fashion, Tom had put her suitcase in the living room.
The fish looked at her accusingly, so she tossed a frozen cube of brine shrimp into the tank. Rubbing her neck, but feeling like she needed to wind down, Lena wandered into her office and turned on the computer. There was a ton of email to answer after having been gone for four days. She looked them over answering those she considered urgent, then decided to take a nap.
As she got up from the desk, she looked out the front window where, through the slats of the fence, she saw a car driving slowly by. It was black. Lena lived at the end of a lane and knew all her neighbor’s cars. None of them were black. It was possible someone had driven down the wrong street. It happened occasionally.
Yet, suddenly the idea of a hotel was attractive. Her head started buzzing with a fear she did not understand. She looked at the flight bag on her bed. Quickly turning it out, she refilled it with clean underwear, jeans and a shirt, and then stuffed in essentials like a comb, face cream, deodorant and a bottle of spray sunscreen– necessary for a blond in the desert. Lena slung the strap over her shoulder and hurried out, stopping only momentarily to toss another weekend feeder tablet into the fish tank. She headed for her car.
Before she opened the car door she could see the nose of the black car turning into the driveway. She’d forgotten to close the gate!
Lena ran to the garage and closed the door. Big mistake – no windows! She grabbed the cell phone from her travel bag and realized she had not turned it on since the airplane had landed. Pushing the “on” button, she tried to muffle the tinkling noises as it woke up.
As soon as it was functional, Lena dialed the cell phone number on the card Tom had given her. It went straight to voice mail. She left a quick message in a low voice and hung up as she heard footsteps on the gravel drive.
Did he see her run into the garage? She would have called 911, but didn’t dare make a sound now. The building was bright with skylights. She frantically looked for a hiding place, a weapon, anything that she could protect herself with while straining at each little noise from outside.
The crash of the door succumbing to a well-placed kick made her jump – so her hiding place was irrelevant! It was him – without the hat. Later, she would recall how the next few minutes would have been hilarious if she’d been at the movies. Boxes and furniture were spaced far enough apart for the two of them to dodge around and over. Being short, she even skooched under an old dining table.
He cornered her between the rototiller and the table saw. With her flight bag clutched to her chest all Lena could think was that up close and personal, he really was not all that handsome.
“You have been in the wrong places, lady.” His voice was intense. He held a switchblade in his left hand. “I want the key… NOW!”
Key? He wanted a key? “You mean the key in the purse, the red purse?”
“Yes. Give it to me.” He came closer. She wished she was smelling Queen Latifa’s breakfast burrito instead of a murder’s bratwurst with onion on sourdough.
“I was at the police station… there was a house key with the rest of the things they took from her purse! I don’t have it.”
“YOU LIE!” he shouted, pushing her back against the adobe wall. “There was a car key with a tag – they did not have it and you found the purse!”
She swallowed hard, wondering how he had known such details. “I had the purse in my flight bag for a moment, maybe it dropped in here,” she said, holding up her bag.
He stepped a few inches away so she could unzip the it. Any woman who carries things in a large bag will tell you that finding things takes time, and when you know darn good and well that you are not going to find what the guy with the knife wants… well, it takes longer. He finally got frustrated and grabbed for the bag as her hand closed around the bottle of spray suntan lotion.
Quickly she flicked off the top and pushed the bag against his knife hand. She sprayed him in the face.
As he yelled Lena evaded his hands by dropping straight down and crawling for a few feet before she scrambled to her feet and ran for the door. She jumped in her car and headed out – nicking the front corner of the black Dodge Magnum as she cleared the gate.
Lena grabbed her phone and started to dial 911 when she saw Tom’s motorcycle turn onto her street. On the back of his bike sat a small dog with a red neckerchief, sitting in a big basket. The sight of Tom made all her fears lift.
“HE’S AT MY HOUSE!” she yelled out the car window.
“Call 911 and tell them I want backup!” He yelled, roaring down to the end of the street. Lena could not remember what she told the emergency call staff as she frantically made a really bad five-point U turn with only one hand.
With all the stupidity of a badly written soap opera, Lena raced back to the place where a friend and a madman were about to have a nasty confrontation. She parked her car behind the Magnum, figuring to keep him from leaving. She even remembered to lock her car with the flight bag inside.
Armed with her can of sunscreen spray she skulked through the gate and hugged the side of the house. The dog barked, and she looked west to see the bad guy climb over the fence separating her property from the acequia. Tom looked over the top, then boosted the dog over the fence then ran back towards the gate.
He raced by Lena. “Stay here!” He yelled, and turned right toward the swiftly flowing ditch. She waited at the driveway entrance for the cavalry to arrive. She could hear sounds from behind the fence –lots of barking, swearing and a splash, but who or what fell in?
Sirens and lights turned onto the street and Lena waved the police in Tom’s direction, and then ran up onto the bank. Tom was standing near the ditch laughing so hard he was crying. His dog was running back and forth on the ditch bank, bouncing as only a Jack Russell terrier could.
Behind him, in the acequia, the alleged murderer tried repeatedly to scramble up its steep muddy banks while the strong undertow pulled him downstream.
“Good boy, Toby,” Tom caught the little dog and patted him. “Toby worried him right to the edge of the ditch, where he fell in.” Tom shook his head. “I was actually bringing him – Toby – to your place as a guard dog for a couple days when I saw you drive up the street.”
Tom put the little dog down next to Lena. Uniformed officers scrambled up the incline and Tom pointed to the muddy figure climbing the bank.
“Murder suspect,” was all he said, and the officers proceeded to fish him out. Tom turned to her with a quizzical look. “Now maybe we can figure out why he followed you.”
“The key!” Lena raced down the incline back to the road. “He said I have a key!”
“What do you mean by key?” Tom followed.
“He cornered me in the garage and said I had taken a key from the purse of the woman who was murdered.” She explained as they walked quickly toward the house. “It may have fallen into my flight bag when I put the purse inside – then, when I got home, I emptied it onto my bed.”
They hurried into the house where Toby proceeded to bounce up and down in front of the fish tank. Both of them pawed through the unruly pile of dirty clothes, magazines, cosmetics, and other stuff she dumped earlier. Lena rather wished the underthings he set aside were lacy and red instead of white cotton.
“Did he say what kind of key?”
“This one, I think.” Lena said, holding up a GM car key attached to a DFW airport parking lot tag with Q42 hand-written on the back. “It’s not mine.”
Tom took it thoughtfully. “How did he know you had this? He has to be working with somebody connected to the police.” He turned back to Lena. “I’ll personally take this key back to Fort Worth.”
He considered Toby for a moment. “I could use a dog sitter,” he added.
Dog sitter. Lena didn’t know a thing about dogs, or cats, or hamsters… just fish. But what was there to know? You feed them and let them outside to do their business. Besides, Tom trusted her to take care of his friend, which meant he thought of her as a friend, too. She liked the direction this was taking. She also liked the idea of an in-home bodyguard that could drive off bad guys.
By the time Tom returned two days later, Lena and Toby had become good buddies. He could fetch with the best of them and really liked having his belly tickled. She decided she liked dogs in general and this one in particular. He looked comfortable sleeping on the rug by her bed. She found herself thinking she might want a dog around the place permanently.
“So, what did you find?” With all she’d been through she seriously wanted some answers.
“Heroin,” he said, “about 10 kilos.” Tom sat comfortably at her sturdy kitchen table, sipping a diet drink.
“Turns out our stylish stewardess was what we call a mule. She kept herself in Gucci handbags by driving cars from one point to another. She probably didn’t know what was in them. In Indianapolis someone gave her a key to a car parked at DFW. Once her flight landed, she would find the car and drive it back to Indy, leaving it in another parking lot, and handing off the key to someone else before catching another flight. Only it seems the competition found out about the arrangement and our murder suspect, Nick Genali, was dispatched to intercept the shipment.”
“Turns out Genali’s bosses had a line into the DFW police – someone who pointed him in your direction. We found that link and he’s sharing jail space next to our murder suspect.” He smiled.
“So it’s all over?” Lena did not like the idea that now he would have no reason to visit her.
“Mostly. We’ve got fingerprint and DNA evidence on the guy so your testimony is only supplemental, but Genali’s associates might be looking to talk to you.”
She looked down for a moment. “Well, I do own a gun, though it’s only loaded with snakeshot. Guess I’ll need some real bullets.”
She reached over to pet Toby. “I could use a brave and loyal guard dog.” Lena looked up into Tom’s warm hazel eyes. “Do you think I could borrow him for a while?”
“Toby and I come as a pair.” Tom replied, setting the dog on the floor. Leaning closer, he gently touched her face. Bright sparkly pinpricks followed his fingers and suddenly Lena felt bright and pretty and – well, exciting.
A warm buoyant weight filled her heart and tingled right up to her hair follicles. With a playful smile she asked, “Then…could I borrow both of you for a while?”
JET LAG was first published in The Storyteller’s Anthology by SouthWest Writers which is available on Amazon.