She’s a fan, at least. He had that much going for him. Only reason why she let him in the door in the first place.
“Mrs. Kristofer, you have to understand that I’m on your side here,” said Hector Ramirez, graciously accepting the cup of coffee offered by his host. “I’m not eager to believe the worst about your son, believe me.”
A living room shrine to Colin Kristofer, gone too soon, lost in a war Hector protested a few times back in college. Met his first wife at one of those rallies, actually.
Framed photos of a little sandy-haired kid with his model cars, golden retriever, winning baseball trophy, surrounded a 24 x 36 recreation of Colin’s official draft portrait. A “man” in name only, far too young for that uniform, half-smiling against a gray background.
“But I saw you on the television last night,” Jocelyn Kristofer replied, taking her seat. Hector could barely connect the woman before him with the young mother in those photos, time punishing Jocelyn more severely than she deserved. “That image on the screen behind you…my boy’s photo positioned right next to that evil man in the mask. How could you do that, Mr. Ramirez?”
Her voice, that shaky tenor, the mist in her deep-set topaz eyes, could break even a man of stone. Hector wondered, for just a moment, if the lady had invited him in solely for the guilt trip.
He debated his options, decided to go straight to “warmth.” Hand on Jocelyn’s knee, he answered in a honeyed tone, “Ma’am, please understand that I stated nothing as fact. I’m merely following a story, going where the clues lead me. And, sadly, there is evidence now that your boy faked his death.”
Last thing she wanted to hear. Jocelyn sucked in the emotions, turned her face away. Hector squeezed her knee. “I know, I know, it’s a bitter pill, Mrs. Kristofer. It truly is. But, believe me when I tell you that I’m not rooting for this to be true. I’m sure your Colin was a good boy, served his country with honor.”
“So why would someone start spreading these lies?” she asked, reaching for a tissue.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” said Hector, offering her instead his silk pocket square, last year’s Christmas gift from the network execs. “I can’t speak to the darkness that lies in some hearts. But, as a journalist, it’s my duty to chase facts, Mrs. Kristofer. And if it’s true that your son left the warzone, returned home, and began…a new life, I have to get to the bottom of it.”
“Oh, Mr. Ramirez, you have to believe this isn’t true. You can’t just spread rumors. My son loved this country, was proud to serve, and could never…he couldn’t…”
“It’s okay, ma’am,” Hector consoled, moving his hand up to her shoulder. Jocelyn collapsed in his direction. He caught her, squeezed her tight, cursed the woman for prohibiting cameras in her home. What a friggin’ moment to be lost to time. “No, it’s okay. Let my shoulder absorb those tears.”
A thought stirred Hector. “Say, Mrs. Kristofer…do you think an autograph might make you feel better?”
Knock at the door. Through the window, Hector saw the face of his field producer. Excusing himself, Hector left Mrs. Kristofer on the couch and discreetly exited the front door.
“You got anything, Glenn?” he asked, warming his hands under his armpits, cursing himself for leaving his coat on the woman’s couch.
Glenn was beaming. “Oh, I’d say so. They tried to block the cameras best they could, but we managed the clearest shot you could ever hope for. And when they opened the casket, Hector, know what they found?”
Steam on his breath, Hector snapped, “Old bones?”
“Nothing, buddy. Nothin’ in that casket but stale air.”
“…and with government officials staying tightlipped, it’s possible weeks will pass before any information will be revealed to the public. What we do know, however, is that a critical piece in the mystery of Cobra Commander’s identity was, very likely, exhumed from the earth this day. A candy cane for federal investigators, unwelcome coal in the stocking of this unfortunate woman, Jocelyn Kristofer. This is Hector Ramirez, wishing you love and peace from Salem County.”
Leigh clicked off the television, poured herself a drink. This Colin Kristofer story, it was a heartbreaker, but the truth had to be known. Over two months had passed since Leigh arrived at FBI Headquarters, packet in hand, offering to reveal the truth about the most notorious terrorist organization in history.
The agents initially dismissed her as a crank. Took her to the break room, one agent asking her cursory questions while consuming his morning orange juice and crullers. Wasn’t expecting her to correct him on some of his details. (“No, it was Major Bludd who served in the Australian Special Air Service, not George Winston, a.k.a. Michel LeClerc, a.k.a. Firefly, assuming you’re keeping track of his latest alias.”)
Had her locked in a soundproof room within ten minutes, none other than POTUS himself on the line, expecting updates every hour on the hour. The circumstances that led Leigh to make that decision, to reveal details on over a dozen Cobra operations, to spoil the identity of the most wanted terrorist in American history, remained murky. But the atavistic desire within her to speak out, to cripple the plots of Cobra, and yes, to make amends for her egregious sins, that was very clear. It was a fire that still burned hot within her.
That’s why she kept passing those lie detector tests. Why every profiler and psych agent sent to suss her out all came back with the same conclusion. This woman, regardless of her past, regardless of what she’s done, isn’t feeding us a line.
She’s changed, she’s useful, and we’re keeping those snakes as far away from her as humanly possible.
She arrived in Glynn County, Wisconsin three weeks prior. The name “Leigh Miller” selected from a computer program of randomly generated monikers, experimental laser eye surgery from Europe depriving her of those glasses, and routine cosmetic procedures offering a new nose, chin, and cheekbones.
The final step in erasing Leigh’s former identity? Simple drugstore hair dye; “Champagne Blonde” according to the label on the bottle.
Leigh’s new life in the Badger State, in her unassuming suburban neighborhood, had been as peaceful as any Fed could’ve hoped for during these three weeks. Outside of that one kid who lost control of his brakes, came this close to crashing his Huffy into her (and soon finding himself swarmed by men in $800 suits), Leigh couldn’t have asked for a quieter respite from the life she once knew.
Sometimes the boredom got to her. Making friends helped. Little Mikey, who offered reasonable rates for shoveling her walkway, was usually good company. So were her next-door neighbors, the Dugards. Sweet older couple, always inviting her over for coffee or Bridge games, always offering to set her up with their grandson.
Funny she was thinking of them, because through her front window, there just so happened to be Dennis Dugard, heading towards her recently cleared walkway. Fearful he’d lose his grip on his cane out in this weather, she opened the door and stepped outside.
“Dennis, what are you doing out?” Leigh asked, wrapping her housecoat around her thin frame. “The snow’s just going to get worse today, you know that, don’t you?”
Nodding, Dennis replied, “I know, I know. Just wanted to return this to ya before I forgot. Or it got lost in that mountain of newspapers Darlene saved for cleanin’ windows in the spring.” In his free hand was a copy of A Timeline of Flight, a technical journal documenting the history of fixed-wing aircraft. Dennis thought it was the cutest thing he’d ever seen, a girl like Leigh collecting books on warplanes.
“Very conscientious of you, Dennis. You want me to walk you back to your house?”
Dennis shook his head, laughed. “No, no. I’m not that feeble yet, dear. See you tomorrow for Bridge?”
“Wouldn’t miss it!” Leigh said, waving farewell.
Leading with his cane, Dennis made the trip back to his front porch. Looking both ways, he knocked a peculiar pattern on the door, then waited for the prerequisite knocks from the other side. As the door opened, Darlene gave him a smirk for a greeting.
“So, you get anything worth traveling out in this weather for?”
Dennis groaned, tossed his cane to the side. “We were told to have routine check-ins. Wasn’t expecting some great reveal, just following orders.”
“I would’ve gone. Told you that.” Darlene didn’t look his way as she returned to the study, flipped a switch, and waited for the intricate computer setup to finish rotating in from its hidden wall compartment.
Dennis followed, tried to keep the conversation going. She shushed him, typed into the keypad a coded message. Thousands of miles away, the recipient on the other end unscrambled the symbols and recorded Darlene’s missive.
Romeo has completed daily check-in. Subject’s status unchanged. Juliet remains skeptical, Romeo…less so.
TRANSCRIPT: ABN Television Studios
The Late Tonight with David Fetter program. Special guest, comedian Hill Bix.
DAVID: So, you keepin’ up with the news lately? Now you, Hill, I always view you as someone -- you’re a fella that likes to stay informed, aren’t you? I get that sense about you.
HILL: Oh, Dave. The news. Nothing depressing there, huh? [Audience laughs.] So nice to know that our fine government, in the midst of that meat grinder they sucked us into, ten-fifteen-whatever years ago, was also training a terrorist lunatic.
[Light laughter and applause from audience.]
DAVID: Now, Hill, if this story is true --
HILL: Which it is.
DAVID: Okay, assuming you’re right, that doesn’t mean the military is responsible for one soldier’s actions.
HILL: Really, Dave? Seems to me, they put the gun in his hands, taught him the tactics. Introduced him to that lifestyle, normalized it for him. He gets home, has a bad day, decides “Hey! Real life…chaotic, difficult, meaningless. I know! Start my own army! Control the weather, brainwash politicians, kidnap national monuments for ransom!” [Guest takes drag from cigarette.] There’s a certain logic there.
DAVID: The kind of logic I think only you can grasp, Hill. [Host chuckles uncomfortably.]
HILL: I don’t think I’m the nutty one here, Dave. Seems like, with the ol’ Red Scare winding down, the defense contractors pulling the strings of our leaders demanded a new threat to keep us scared and obedient. I think this Commander chump is off his rocker, yeah, but I don’t blame him for ending up this way. Ultimately, we oughtta be pointing the fingers at ourselves. [Portions of the audience groan.] Oh, did I upset your tender feelings?
DAVID: Okay, Hill. [Host again chuckles uncomfortably.] Don’t want to be upsetting that ol’ blood pressure. [Taps notecards nervously against desk, continues chuckling.]
HILL: Oh, mister tough guy, why don’t you sit down? [Gestures towards audience member.] Yeah, I see that crayon drawing on your arm. Eagle, anchor, globe, real original. [Indecipherable chatter from crowd.] Yeah, tough guy? Come down here and say that.
[Man emerges from audience. Is withheld by security.]
DAVID: [Tapping notecards faster.] Hey, hey now. I think -- [Host chuckles uncomfortably.] I think Hill’s got our fine audience a bit worked up. No, Hill, have a seat. [Security appears onstage.] We’ll, uh, I guess we’ll be back after these messages. According to that cue card, Twisted Pet Tricks is next! That’ll, uh, that’ll be fun.
[Band plays opening notes of “The Man Who Sold the World” as the program breaks for commercial. Comedian Hill Bix escapes security, rushes towards audience member.]