CHALUPA CONUNDRUM

Chapter 1 Prologue: THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT



26 Miles northeast of San Jose, Costa Rica, 9:32 p.m. local time.


It was a dark, moonless night as the creatures moved through the jungle as silently as wraiths. Ahead of them lay a large camp, and inhabiting the odd collection of temporary structures was a team of archaeologists who had been busy each day combing the nearby ancient ruins for clues to its mysterious past. Tonight, however, the team was relaxing and celebrating, as they had made an important discovery earlier in the day—a discovery that would once and for all settle the thousand year old question as to whether or not the Chalupans were the rightful heirs to the once thriving city and surrounding area.

     The creatures were now close and could hear the melodious sound of music as they hunched down on the periphery of the camp and waited to strike. A short distance away, a man and woman were completely unaware they were being watched as they talked animatedly and drank wine at an outdoor table. The man abruptly took hold of the woman’s hand, and he smiled and leaned in and kissed her. At that very moment, the creatures began their assault, and the camp suddenly went dark and quiet as its generator’s dull thrum was replaced by the ominous silence of the night. Murmurings were heard as the people stumbled around in the dark until one of them turned on a flashlight and began to make his way towards a large temporary structure where the generator was kept.

     Suddenly, an ear piercing scream filled the air, and it sent the camp’s inhabitants frantically moving about in the darkness, but it was too late, for the creatures were dragging everyone out into the jungle. The woman, who had been drinking wine and having a romantic moment with the man, had lost him in the confusion, and all around her, she could hear her friends and colleagues screaming for help. She had thus far managed to evade capture, but she knew that her only real chance to save herself and the people in the camp was to call for help. To that end she began to make her way to the communications hut, where they kept a wide assortment of radio and satellite equipment.

She stayed low and moved carefully from one hiding spot to another, working mostly from memory as she navigated the darkness and chaos happening all around. She at last managed to reach her destination, but, as she approached the entrance to the hut, one of the creatures appeared from the door, and she froze in place. Thankfully it didn’t see her, and its red glowing eyes turned away as it headed off to find its next victim. She quickly slipped inside the little building and found it to be in complete disarray. Chairs had been tipped over, and wires and parts of what felt like the camp’s radios were strewn about the floor. She was fairly certain there was little or no hope, but she went to the file cabinet where they kept the satellite phones, and she was relieved to find they were all still in the drawer.

“Thank God,” she said, aloud, as she pulled one out.

     She frantically dialed the only number that came to mind then listened as the call was transferred through various digital relays and drew closer to the person on the other end. She was starting to feel a spark of hope, but a sound outside the door made her jump, and she dropped to the floor and retreated under a desk to hide. She remained as still and quiet as possible and continued to hold her ear tightly against the phone before at last breathing a sigh of relief when she heard it start ringing. One, two, three rings passed, and she was starting to get hopeful—that is, until she felt a presence enter the tiny building. She silently prayed it was one of her colleagues, but, as she looked out into the darkness, two red glowing eyes appeared, and, as they moved closer, she could smell the creatures horribly musky and putrid scent. She was overwhelmed with fear, yet she still remained quiet and desperately held back the urge to scream. At last, she heard the person at the other end of the line say hello, and she spoke frantically into the phone, but her words were soon eclipsed by the creatures horrible roar. She waited a moment until it was quiet then continued speaking, but claws clamped on to her feet and started pulling her out from under the desk. She fought and tried to kick free, but it was immeasurably strong and kept pulling her closer. Still, she maintained her composure long enough to relay her final message into the phone before succumbing to her fear, whereupon she screamed and fell into unconsciousness.








Sausalito, California, three minutes earlier, 8:29 p.m. local time.


Sweet mother of God it had been a difficult week. No sooner had I returned from my good friend’s wedding in Hawaii, than I was hired by a local tech company to follow one of their employees. The company in question was designing yet another social media app, and they suspected that one of their founding partners was sharing their proprietary code with a bitter rival. As it turned out, the person in question, a beautiful woman named Alice Jorgens, was simply sleeping with a high ranking employee of the other company, and the only actual secrets being relayed were her preferred eccentricities in the bedroom. It took a week and a half to resolve, and, after suffering a brief bout of constipation from all the sitting, I was at last feeling the results of the Miralax I had bought at my local pharmacy. It was therefore time to get moving, and by that I meant take a glorious uninterrupted number two.

I wasn’t sure I could make it all the way to my Japanese Toto toilet upstairs, so I instead opted for my main floor baño which resided beside my office. I slid off my shorts, dropped down, and looked forward to the sweet relief of release, but I realized I had forgotten my iPhone. Fuck—I think I left it in the kitchen, but it’s possible, that, in my haste, I had forgotten it in the car. I looked to my wrist in the hope of using my Apple Watch to page it, but, annoyingly, I had already placed my favorite time piece on its charger, and that meant I had to get up.

Just as I lifted off the bowl, a sudden and urgent pain shot through my stomach, and I realized it was too late. I dropped back onto the seat, but, as I was about to release my glorious deuce, I heard my phone ring with the tone I purposefully chose for unknown callers. It was the eerie Sci-Fi sound, and its presence meant this might be a potential client—well, that or a fucking prerecorded marketing message. The only way to find out for sure was to answer it, and it couldn’t have been shittier timing, though I suppose my only consolation was that I now knew my phone wasn’t in the car. By the sound, it was on the little table by the front door, which meant it was close but still out of reach. It rang again, and my mind went into panic mode. Answer or not? Risk missing a call or risk shitting on the floor. I decided to risk shitting on the floor and rose off the pot, clamped my butt cheeks together, and, with the awkward gait of a pregnant goose, I waddled down the hall, grabbed the phone, and returned to my porcelain mistress only a fraction of a second before the damn broke, and I spilled my bounty. The phone rang a fourth time, and, in spite of the armageddon playing out beneath me, I mustered my courage and answered.

“Hello, Tag Finn Investigations,” I said.

“Finn! It’s Estelle!”

Estelle was a fairly recent ex-girlfriend, but I hadn’t heard from her in over two months, and our last communication had been when she relayed to me that she was, as I already suspected, dating her PhD advisor. There was no real need for the call, but she was the type of woman who liked to have things out in the open—not that it mattered with us already broken up and her living two hundred and fifty miles away in Southern California.

“Oh, are you calling me from your graduate advisor’s place?” I asked in a snarky tone.

“No, and you have to listen because I’m in trouble!” she said, frantically.

At that moment, I heard a horrible roaring sound in the background that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

“Hello? Finn, are you still there? Can you hear me?” she asked,

“Yeah, I can hear you! Now, what the fuck is happening?”

“I need your help! We lost power, and there are things in the camp.”

“Wait a minute—things?”

“Yeah, things—scary fucking things,” she said, in a frightened tone that I’d never heard in her voice before.

“Fuck—where in the hell are you?”

“I’m on a dig at the Chalupa ruins in Costa Rica and…”

There was a blood curdling scream, then the line went dead, and I had to take a minute to process that call, as I wasn’t sure if it had been a joke or a real cry for help. What the fuck were the Chalupa ruins, and, better still, what did she mean by things? I looked at my watch to check the date, and verified that it was definitely not April Fools, so what in the hell was that call all about? I looked at the number on my phone and saw that it was an international number. Weird. I called the same number back, but there was no answer. I hit the end button, brought up her cell number, and hit the send button. Send and end, that’s what we did in the digital age—no more dialing and hanging up. I got her voicemail after three rings and left a message asking if the call I just received was some kind of joke. Perhaps she was just drunk dialing me from a friend’s phone as a cruel ruse to reconnect.

With nothing else to do, I set down my phone, flushed, and washed my hands before exiting the bathroom. I poured myself a glass of Soft Taco Island rum and proceeded to take a seat on my couch to ponder the unusual communique. Unfortunately, the rum provided an unintended olfactory jolt that took my mind back on a voyage to the wild times I had experienced with Estelle on Soft Taco Island—obviously the namesake and origin of the rum. And, with those memories, came a stirring in my loins and a sadness in my heart. We had a good thing until she left for graduate school, though our breakup technically took place about a month later—by phone. She had said that it was for my benefit—that she didn’t want me to have to wait, but I think we both knew it was for her. She was in an exciting new place with exciting new friends and colleagues and deserved the freedom to explore her brave new world. Of course it was even more annoying, however, that tonight, as usual, she once again managed to get the last word.

“Motherfucker! Of all the assholes in all the towns in all the world, she calls this asshole,” I said, aloud, thus creating my own distorted version of the famous line from the classic movie Casablanca.

I finished off the glass of rum and walked upstairs to take a quick shower before climbing into bed, where I lay in the stillness of the night, staring at the ceiling as my mind swirled with thoughts of Estelle. Unable to sleep, I realized I needed a little respite and took Tag Junior firmly in hand and finished up with a minor mess about five minutes and several impure thoughts of Estelle later. I cleaned up and at last closed my eyes and fell into a dark turbulent slumber. I wasn’t prone to nightmares, but for some reason the call kept playing over and over in my mind and brought forth horrible images of great clawed beasts running through a dark forbidding jungle.









     Thankfully, relief came at seven forty-five a.m. when I at last awoke and opened my eyes to see the sun rising over Tiburon—the great bastion of wealth and privilege that resided just to the east of my little town of Sausalito. I rolled out of bed still feeling tired in spite of having slept eight and a half hours, and so I decided to go make some coffee. Ten minutes later, I was back in my room, sitting on the bed, and looking at the clock to see it was after eight and almost a polite hour to make a phone call. Fuck it. I dialed Estelle’s line and again got her voicemail, though this time I chose not to leave a message. I reached over, grabbed my laptop, and brought up UCLA’s website then navigated to the Archaeology department. Estelle was in the process of finishing up her PhD thesis and held the title of associate professor. Her contact page didn’t show her to be teaching any classes, and so I decided to call the department office. It was still before nine, but universities opened early, so I figured I had a pretty good chance of reaching someone. Two rings later, a woman answered.

     “Hello, this is Priscilla Talbert—department secretary for Archaeology. How can I help you?”

     “Yeah, hello, Priscilla, my name is Finn, Tag Finn, and I’m trying to reach a member of your staff—an associate professor named Estelle Connor.”

     “Oh—um—can you hold for a minute please?” she said, suddenly sounding a bit tense.

     “No problem.”

     Priscilla clicked off, and cheesy instrumental music filled the void, so I put my iPhone on speaker and continued to sip my coffee while I waited. Three minutes passed, and my cup was empty, so I grabbed the phone and headed back down to the kitchen, where I poured myself a refill and decided to sit at the breakfast table. A voice finally came over the line, and I quickly snatched up the phone and placed it to my ear.

     “Hello?” I said.

     “Yeah, hello, this is Dean Donald Delaney of the Archaeology department. Do you mind if I ask who’s calling?”

     “Not at all. The name’s Finn, Tag Finn, and I’m trying to reach Estelle Connor, who I believe is one of your associate professors.

     “Oh—well…”

     “Is there some kind of problem?” I asked.

     “Honestly, we’re not sure at this point, but your call seems to have come at a rather unusual time. Were you aware that Professor Connor is in Costa Rica on an important dig?”

     “Well—I wasn’t until she called me last night around eight thirty and told me she was, though she also told me that was in trouble—which is the reason I’m calling.”

     He was quiet for a moment, and his breathing was the only sound coming through the phone.

     “Do you remember what she said?”

     “Yeah, but it was cryptic, and we were cut off pretty quickly. I tried to call her back and even tried her personal cell, but still haven’t gotten any response, so I’m wondering if it was some kind of joke, or is she really in some kind of trouble.”

     “Do you mind if I ask what your relationship is with Professor Connor?”

     “Well—um—we’re very close friends, and—um—well—we used to date. Why do you ask?”

     “Well, Mr. Finn, as you’re a close relation, I suppose I can tell you that Professor Connor and the fifteen others members of our team down there all went offline last night at approximately 9:30 p.m. Costa Rican time, and we have yet to hear a single word.”

     “Meaning?”

     “Well, honestly I’m not sure what it means, but we’ve already contacted the United States Embassy and the Costa Rican authorities, and they’re sending in a rescue team to assess the situation. Odds are likely they had some kind of power failure, but we won’t know for certain for a few hours.”

     “A few hours?”

     “Yeah, I’m afraid the location is fairly remote.”

     “So—that’s all you can tell me?”

     “Yeah, but I’ll call as soon as I hear anything.”

     “That’d be great, though do you mind if I get your number? That way, I can contact you if I hear anything more from Estelle,” I said.

     “Good idea.”

     Dean Donald Delaney and I exchanged numbers, then I hung up and created a new contact in my iPhone address book. Finished, I took a moment to think as I sipped the final bit of coffee in my mug. A strange night just turned into an even stranger morning. Lovely.



Chapter 2: MISSING PERSONS


So, Estelle really was in Costa Rica on a dig, though, if I remembered correctly, her interest lay more in Mayan civilization, and I was fairly certain that the harbingers of the 2012 doomsday paranoia hadn’t gotten down that far south. Interesting. Well, at least it explained my strange dreams of a dark forbidding jungle filled with beasts, though those beasts would most certainly turn out to be a bunch of professors and their graduate students traipsing around through the lovely Costa Rican jungle while under the influence of beer, wine, and perhaps some locally grown marijuana. Oh to have pursued a career in academia.

     With nothing to do but wait, I made myself some steel cut oats, the healthier version of oatmeal, then proceeded to eat while I finished a third cup of coffee. After taking the last bite, I rinsed my bowl off in the sink and felt a magical tickle in my abdomen—the enduring sign that my digestion was back to normal. Blessed be the regular man. I refilled my coffee cup and headed upstairs to my bathroom and took a moment to gaze in wonder at my Japanese Toto toilet. It was a fine machine, crafted by the greatest minds in waste management, and I had dubbed this one R2-Pee-Poo. He was my little buddy, my wing man, and my spirit guide every time I sat upon his gloriously multi-tasking seat.

     “Pee poo—pee poo—pee poo—ooooooo,” I said, in my best R2-D2 imitation as I disrobed and dropped into his familiar and loving embrace.

     I instantly felt better and realized that all this stuff with Estelle was obviously some kind of elaborate prank or miscommunication, and at any moment I would receive a call and be able to relax and return to my usual mundane worries. Perhaps I might even take advantage of the beautiful weather and drive out towards the oceanside town of Pt. Reyes for lunch and a cup of coffee. I picked up my phone, took a sip of precious java, and set about de-boarding my fecal passengers, who were patiently waiting on the other side of my sphincter. Group one, or first class, left without a hitch, and all appeared to be going perfectly according to plan. Group two, economy, was just approaching the porcelain jetway when my phone rang with its unmistakeable fart ring tone. It was my tone for known callers, and it was a special sound for a ringer, as it happened to be one recorded by a woman I had met in Hawaii. She was an FBI Special Agent, and, on our last drunken night together, she had decided to leave me something to remember her by—namely a recording of her fart. Strangely, it was one of the more special things a woman had ever given me. Sure, guys and farts went hand in hand, but any woman who understood that relationship helped bring peace and tranquility to the sex-time continuum. So, there I sat, simultaneously defecating and listening to a long lost lover’s fart, and the experience was somewhere between surreal and sentimental until I finally hit the accept button to answer the incoming call.

     “Finn here.”

     “Yeah, hello, Mr. Finn. It’s Dean Donald Delaney.”

     “Any news?”

     “Yeah, and it’s not good.”

     My heart skipped a beat.

     “Meaning?”

     “The rescue party reached the camp and found it utterly deserted. There were half-eaten meals, unfinished glasses of wine—you name it. It’s as though they all instantly vanished from the face of the earth.”

Sipping wine under the romantic Costa Rican stars. Typical. That’s how I imagined Estelle spent her time with her asshole graduate advisor.           Maybe they all got so drunk they ran off to go skinny dipping and managed to get lost in the jungle.

     “So, what now?” I asked.

     “To start, we have officially reported our team missing and filed all the necessary documents with the State Department, so I suppose at this stage, it’s a waiting game.”

     “Well shitzky.”

     “Mr. Finn, if you don’t mind me asking, why was it that Professor Connor decided to call you?”

     “Well, I can’t be sure—but I suspect it has something to do with my job. I’m a private investigator.”

     “And do you handle missing persons?”

     “I do—along with the occasional international rescue operation.”

     “I know I already asked you what Professor Connor said, but now it’s even more important that we know every detail possible, so, can you remember anything else she said that might be useful?”

     “Well, she said she was on a dig at the Chalupa ruins in Costa Rica, and she needed my help because there were scary things in the camp, but then she screamed, and the line went dead.”

     Suddenly, my iPhone was making a beeping noise, and I assumed I had another call coming in, and, as I held it away from my head, I saw that Dean Donald was attempting to FaceTime me. Perhaps he had some kind of picture or document that he wanted to show me. Lovely. A little warning might have been nice, considering I was sitting on the toilet. I thought about making a hasty exit but instead decided to keep the framing close and try and play it off that I was sitting at my desk—or really anywhere other than on the toilet. I adjusted the camera framing then hit accept and saw that Dean Donald Delaney was sitting at his desk.

     “Oh, sorry about that. I just put my iPhone down on my desk and must have accidentally hit the FaceTime button.”

     His hand moved closer and eclipsed most of the screen as he picked up the phone and fumbled with the buttons. The next moment the view changed to the lens on the opposite side of his phone, and I was looking at the wall in front of his desk. Every inch was filled with the typical mementos of a life in Archaeology, though nearly all of his pictures and items related to Costa Rica. In the very center, was a map of the entire country with ink markings just to the north of San Jose—probably the site of the Chalupa dig. Above, and in the very center of the wall, was a plaque from the Costa Rican Board of Antiquities. Clearly, Donald had spent some time down there, which also explained why UCLA was working at the Chalupa ruins.

     “Ah, got it!” he said, finally terminating FaceTime.

     A second later, I was off FaceTime and feeling grateful to be back to just speaking with Dean Donald Delaney. The ever growing technology of communication was a wonderful thing, though there was definitely a proper time and place for it—a bathroom not being one of them.

     “Judging by your wall, I see you have a real penchant for Costa Rica,” I said.

     “Yeah, I love the place. As a matter of fact, I did a lot of the preliminary research on the Chalupa site.

     “Interesting, though it’s kind of a funny name,” I said.

     “Yeah, had you not heard of it before?”

     “In terms of Taco Bell—yes, but in terms of ancient archaeological sites—no, at least not until Estelle’s call.”

     “Well, it’s the name of both a people as well as the name of the ancient city where the team was working, and it was also kind of my unofficial love child.”

     “How come you weren’t part of the team this time?”

     “Too busy. As dean of the department, I unfortunately have too many daily duties, though I was probably lucky considering the circumstances.”

     “Yeah, otherwise it would be seventeen missing people.”

     “True.”

     “So, I take it that you’re pretty familiar with Costa Rica?”

     “Oh yeah, in fact I’ll probably move there when I retire from UCLA.”

     “Nice, I imagine your money will go a lot father down there than here.”

     “Absolutely—now, getting back to our current problem—I’m thinking that we could possibly help each other.”

     “How so?”

     “Would you be willing to come down here today so we can talk in person?”

     “As in UCLA?”

     “Yes.”

     “Sure.”

     “Good, because if you’re willing, I’d like to talk to you about traveling to Costa Rica to be our personal liaison—our man on the ground to oversee the search effort. Needless to say, it’s an incredibly embarrassing situation to have an entire research team go missing, and we could use someone to coordinate our efforts down there. I’d go myself, but, as I said, I’m too busy and will be doing what I can from here.”

     “I’m in. I’ll be your man on the ground.”

     “Excellent, I’ll book you a flight immediately and text you the details. See you soon, Mr. Finn.”

     “You too, Dean Donald Delaney.”

     Five minutes later, a text appeared on my phone, and I officially had a reservation on a Southwest Airlines flight leaving SFO at 3:30 in the afternoon. That meant I only had a few hours to pack my things and arrange transport of a firearm, which could be a hassle unless you were some kind of specialized police officer or federal agent. I was neither at the moment, but I had something even better. I was a close personal friend of the vice president of the United States, and one call to Sandra, his head of security, and I would have no awkward conversations or need to get cavity searched when I checked my weapon at the airport.

     I finished up on the toilet, made a quick call to Sandra, then took a quick shower, and dawned a black suit and a white dress shirt, hoping to look somewhat credible when I met with Dean Donald Delaney—a man I decided to nickname, Triple D. Clean and fresh, I went to my man-room to pick out a pistol and grabbed my 9mm Sig Sauer, because it had an extremely effective silencer I’d had custom built by a master gunsmith in Hawaii. The silencer, which was highly illegal for private citizens, was made out of a composite material that rendered it invisible to airport scanners, and, if it were physically inspected, it had a little attachment that made it look like a travel toothbrush.

     I also took a quick look at my rifles, specifically my trusty M4 but decided it was probably silly to bring a long gun on a missing persons job, even if I was heading off into the dark forbidding jungle. The larger and scarier looking the weapon, the more shit you took at customs, so I decided to keep things simple. That just left the other essentials, namely socks, underwear, T-shirts, shorts, and of course my night vision goggles, lock picks, and my portable all-weather GPS. I was probably overpacking, but it would be a lot better to have them and not need them then leave them behind. Of course, there was a good chance that Estelle and her entire team would turn up any moment, making this all a huge waste of time. Still, I couldn’t get that spooky-ass phone call out of my head. Those sounds in the background were hardly the romantic canoodlings of her graduate advisor, unless he suffered from some advanced case of sleep apnea or perhaps irritable bowel syndrome.

     Finished packing, I headed downstairs and called my neighbor Joyce to tell her I’d be away for a bit and asked if she’d collect my mail. She said it would be no problem, so I was officially set and ready to go. I decided to take the Silver Hornet, my beloved Subaru WRX STi, to the airport, and twenty-five minutes later I had parked in a nearby extended stay private parking lot, and I was riding aboard their shuttle en route to my first economy class flight in six months. Ah, to be with my beloved proletariat yet again. The shuttle dropped me off at the curb, and I immediately went to check in at the Southwest counter. I showed the pretty woman at the ticket counter my ID then handed over my bag and gun case and watched as she typed something into her computer. A moment later she gave me a scrutinizing gaze, so I guess she didn’t check a lot of pistols.

     “What are you? A cop or a spy?” she asked.

     “Neither, I’m a private investigator.”

     “Who is personally cleared by the vice president of the United States and the Secret Service.”

     “It’s not really a big deal.”

     “Yeah sure, it happens all the time,” she said, in a friendly, though sarcastic tone.

     “No, seriously—I’m just a private investigator.”

     There was an attractive late twenties couple in line behind me, and the woman chimed in at that point.

     “I’d totally guess you’re a spy as well,” she said.

     I turned and smiled at her.

     “No, I’m definitely not, and the sad truth is that my life is a daily grind of mundane and mostly shitty investigative work that includes divorces and lost pets.”

     “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me,” the girl behind the counter said, as she handed me my boarding pass.

     “Me too,” said the woman behind me.

     Lovely. Good thing I really wasn’t a spy at the moment, or my cover would have already been blown by the curious hens. Maybe it was the suit. Men in suits always got a lot more interest and respect than men in board shorts and T-shirts. I took my ticket and pass and headed towards my gate to find a seat near the boarding area. With nothing else to do, I took out my laptop and was about to check my email, but I remembered that the airport charged for internet. Assholes. Entire cities had free wifi, but these cheap fucks pinched every penny out of a captive populace. Fuck them. I closed my laptop and instead decided to people-watch at the adjacent bar, as I was curious who else was heading to Los Angeles on such a lovely spring day. I took a seat and noticed a twentysomething guy drinking a beer to my immediate right. He was also busily texting someone, perhaps the person he was going to visit, which begged the question—what the hell would he have left to talk about when he actually saw the other person? Hopefully it was a lover, and they’d already be done with the chit-chat and could get right to the bang-bang.

     I turned my attention to the rest of the bar and noticed that most of the people around me looked like business travelers, but their true identity could often be hidden in the details. The couple to my left, which also happened to be the same two who were behind me in line at the ticket counter, were both dressed as though they had come straight from the financial district, but, if you looked a little closer, their appearance told a different tale. The man wore a suit but didn’t appear to be comfortable in it, which made me think he was in a new job that required one—perhaps sales or marketing. She, on the other hand, was dressed nicely but with a very obvious touch of sexy. She was also wearing a suit, but hers had a short mid thigh length skirt and a matching jacket, though the latter item she had already taken off and folded over the back of her chair. This revealed her white silky button up shirt, which she was wearing sans a bra, and it made her pointy nipples particularly obvious—not that I noticed or spent an inordinate amount of time admiring them. After all, five straight minutes of direct viewing of a woman’s breasts and associated accessories was a mere glance in terms of man-minutes. I definitely liked her sense of style and concluded that she likely hadn’t come from a typical office and instead worked for a company with a more relaxed and forward thinking dress code—perhaps a dot-com or edgy ad agency.

     The longer I gazed at her, the more I realized the woman was extremely attractive, and I would go so far as to say uniquely beautiful. Her ancestry gave her an exotic look, probably a mix of European, Asian, or even some kind of Pacific Islander—a fact which instantly made me think about the incredible woman in Hawaii who had recorded her fart on my iPhone. She was also of a similar heritage, and perhaps when I finished up this thing with Estelle, it might be time for another trip to the Islands. I turned my attention back to the couple and noticed that they were engaged in some pretty heavy social drinking, and by that I was referring to the fact that they were doing a round of shots in addition to their beers. Clearly, they were obviously at the beginning of some kind of party weekend. Meanwhile, the bartender approached and asked if I’d like something to drink. It was a little early for alcohol, so I went with a mineral water on the rocks with a squeeze of lime. The woman, or Nipples as I had unofficially decided to nickname her, overheard and gave me a questioning look before commenting.

     “James Bond would never order a mineral water at a bar.”

     “He might before five.”

     “Come on, let me buy a spy a drink,” she said.

     “Thank you, but I really can’t.”

     “You’re turning me down?”

     “Yeah, but just so you know, I generally make it a point never to turn down a drink from a beautiful woman,” I said.

     “Until now, apparently, which would suggest that I’m not a beautiful woman,” she responded.

     I smiled at her excellent ability to put me on the spot.

     “Well, for the record, you are an extremely beautiful woman, but I’m really trying to keep a clear head at the moment.”

     “Come on, dude. Just one beer,” the guy, who I assumed was her boyfriend, said.

     I looked at the woman and then at my watch and saw that it was two fifty-nine and therefore not even close to five o’clock.

     “Shit—I really appreciate the offer and would love one, but this is a working trip for me.”

     “Then shouldn’t you be working on a beer?”

     “OK, fine—maybe I can have just a beer—as in one.”

     “Bartender, a pint of Stella Artois for James Bond here,” she said.

     The bartender brought a pint, and I held up my glass to my two new friends.

     “What shall we toast to?” I asked.

     “The spies who keep the world safe,” she said.

     Very funny.

     “To those invaluable few—wherever they may be,” I added.

     I took a sip of my beer, and it was indeed delicious, if not two hours ahead of schedule.

     “Thanks for the beer,” I said, to the couple.

     “No problem.”

     “So, what takes you two to LA?” I asked.

     “Actually, we’re only going to LA to change planes before heading down to Costa Rica for a college friend’s romantic beach wedding.”

     “No shit? I’m going to LA to meet a potential new client, but, from there, I’ll also very likely be flying off to Costa Rica.”

     “Small world. What kind of secret spy assignment do you have down there?”

     “Nothing secret—just a missing persons.”

     “Still sounds exciting.”

     “Doubtful, as it’s probably all just a false alarm, and the so-called missing persons will likely turn up drunk and hungover before I even get there.           So, enough about my boring-ass life—let’s hear more about this wedding.”

     “Ugh,” Tina, said letting out a groan.

     “What’s the problem? Are you actually a part of the wedding and have a lot of bridesmaid’s duties?”

     “No, thank God, but Shawn does, as he’s one of the groomsmen.”

     “So, you get to just sit back and enjoy the festivities.”

     “Hopefully, though it’s a little complicated, as the bride-to-be hates me, because I dated the groom for all of one week during our freshman year of college.”

     “So, your boyfriend is at the main table, and you’ll likely be seated with the photographer and the wedding coordinator if you’re lucky. Yeah, that would definitely suck a few dicks.”

     “Yeah, pretty much—though Shawn’s not my boyfriend. We’re just friend-friends.”

     Maybe in her mind, but I’d bet he felt differently.

     “So, what do you guys do for a living?” I asked.

     “Well, Shawn’s a professor at USF, but I work at an ad agency in the City.”

     “Does USF have a strict dress code for faculty?” I asked.

     “Not at all—he’s just wearing his wedding suit, because he didn’t have room to pack it.”

     “A suit for a beach wedding? Sounds like you have a bit of a Bridezilla on your hands.”

     “No shit.”

     Interesting. I knew he didn’t look comfortable, but I forgot to factor in the possibility of a non-work event like a wedding or party—which was something I’d have to store away for future reference when I was trying to get a read on someone.

     “Luckily, I get to dress in my usual attire,” the woman said.

     “Luckily for all of us,” I responded.

     She smiled at my compliment.

     “I’m Tina, by the way, and this is Todd,” she said.

     “And I’m Tag, and now we have the three T’s—Tina, Todd, and Tag.”

     The first announcement for our flight came over the airport sound system saying they would be boarding the first twenty passengers, so I double checked my pass and saw that I was lucky number twenty. Southwest was a cattle call airline, which meant first come-first serve, and I had been lucky enough to make the first cut. Passengers who boarded later discovered most of the overhead bins already full and had to awkwardly mull around the plane and squeeze around all the other unlucky late boarders looking for space for their carry-on luggage. I chugged the remainder of my beer and thanked Tina again before picking up my laptop and boarding pass.

     “Maybe we’ll see you on the plane,” she said.

     “What are your boarding pass numbers?”

     “Twenty-one and twenty-two,” she said.

     “I’ll try and save you a seat.”

     I left Tina and Todd and arrived at the back of the small line at the gate just in time to hear the Southwest employee at the front pick up the microphone and make another announcement.

     “Once again, we are boarding passengers one through twenty only,” she said.

     About five people left the line. Fucking gate crashers. It didn’t matter how many times they said one through twenty—there were always a few assholes who thought they could weasel their way into the line ahead of their turn. A minute later, we were moving, and I handed in my boarding pass and made my way down the jetway and stepped through the front hatch of the 737 to find the pilots and attendants greeting everyone warmly. I managed to nab the window spot in the row behind the nearest emergency exit then stowed my laptop, put on my seatbelt, and the spent the following downtime unconsciously taking stock of the other passengers as they boarded. The tan ones were likely returning to Los Angeles while the pale ones were merely visiting. The next group of twenty were now boarding, and the first of them was a tan, fit, intimidating looking gentleman, obviously of latin descent. He paused and eyed me for a moment as though he knew me from somewhere, but I was pretty sure he was a stranger. Thankfully, he moved on, and my two boozehound friends from the bar came walking up the aisle and took the seats beside me.

     “Nice! You saved us a seat!” Tina said, as she patted me on the thigh.

     It was an innocent touch, but my male awareness went into high alert, and it caused my heart rate to increase ever so slightly and send my eyes unconsciously downward to her chest to do a quick inventory of her nipples. They were both still there, and both were still poking through the thin fabric of her shirt. Shit, I shouldn’t have had that beer, as it was dulling my self-control and making me even more subject to the passing whims of my deep inner manitude. I was technically on a job, after all, and I shouldn’t be ogling the naughty bits of one of the three T’s before meeting my new client Triple D. I mustered my resolve, returned my gaze to bulkhead before me, and waited patiently for the crew to complete boarding the remaining passengers. Movement to my left brought my gaze back just in time to see that Tina was stretching her back, and it had the unintended effect of pressing her nipples taught against the fabric of her shirt. It was a sweet treat for my eyes, but, before I could look away, she caught me, and, instead of delivering a scornful gaze, she gave me a saucy smile. Interesting.

     The final passengers boarded, then the flight attendant closed the front hatch, and we prepared for takeoff. The flight attendants assumed their various positions up the center aisle then gave their usual spirited performance about the various exits and flotation devices, and soon we were rolling along the jetway and getting in line behind a number of other flights waiting to take off. Skies were clear without an ounce of fog, so it was only minutes before we left the ground and were climbing and banking to the south for the hour long flight to LAX. This was it—there was no turning back. I was officially on a collision course with my beloved ex Estelle, and the thought alone was enough to make me wonder if perhaps I should be having another beer with my new friends. Oh well, what was life without a little emotional duress?


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