The Brick: 3. Orders
↑ that's a permalink! visit the full archive
White Sands Space Harbor. The ground is white as chalk. Jagged mountains to the left and the sheet-pale sand dunes on my right. I'm facing north. I can see three silver Quonset huts in the distance like half-buried pieces of pipe.
I left HWY 70 an hour ago. Driving steadily into nowhere. Errand for the general. A manilla envelope from White Sands Main Post lies in the passenger seat.
The Quonset huts mark an intersection, sit shimmering under the sun. A meaningless sign points in all four directions.
The sky is like a pane of blue glass.
I top a slight rise and see a white van parked beside the metal buildings. When I pull off the road at the intersection into the beaten alkali, the van's driver-side door opens and a man in a black suit stands waiting.
I'm beginning to not understand.
I park the car and grab the envelope. A fence of white dust blows between me and the silver buildings. As it clears I see the man is wearing a red tie. His hair is like a news anchor's. Amber government-issue sunglasses.
"Brian Bell," he says.
"I'm Lieutenant Bell," I answer. The crusty ground crunches under my boots. I extend the envelope.
He shakes his head, denying the package with a raised palm. "Not anymore. Why don't you open that envelope?"
Inside I find four sheets of paper. Two promote me to captain and then major. The third is a discharge from active duty. The fourth sheet is a faxed set of orders so blurred I can't read them. I have a hard time holding the papers in the wind.
The envelope escapes and acrobats across the white ground, headed for the mountains.
"I don't understand," I say. "Is this some kind of joke?"
The papers snap in the wind.
He smiles without showing his teeth. "I've got a joke for you, Brian. You want to hear it?"
I attempt to fold the papers. Do so crookedly and shove them in my pocket.
"Who are you?"
"This girl goes to the grocery store," the man says obliviously.
The distant turquoise sky seems like a backdrop behind his perfect hair. "She gets a shopping basket and starts shopping. She gets a single soda, a single-serving yogurt, a single apple. She shops all over the store putting together a great meal for one."
He pauses, looking into the distance. His aviator's glasses reflect the empty intersection.
"At the checkout she sees the cashier is this cute boy, and as he's ringing her up she can barely look at him. The boy notices her single-serving stuff, and asks her: 'Hey -- Are you single?' and she looks up and says 'How could you tell -- from my basket?'"
Again he checks the southern horizon, continues: "And the kid answers: 'No, because you're ugly.'"
White dust blows between us. He has a bored smile.
He stoops to pick up a cardboard box I hadn't noticed sitting near his patent-leather shoes. He holds it out for me. Shoe-box size. Shipping label says FRAGILE.
"What's this?" I say.
"It's your mission."
"I don't understand."
"You were never interviewing to be a general's aide, Brian. Yeah, you pissed him off with that stuff with his daughter. But we expected that."
Nods at my bafflement. Now his smile seems genuine. "Take this box. Keep driving north until you hit Stallion Base Camp. Leave White Sands and take I-25 north into Albuquerque. Someone will meet you there. Among other things in the box is an ATM card: you're getting paid as a major now. That should be enough to cover expenses."
"What expenses? What are you talking about?"
A white dust cloud reflected in his sunglasses. Holding the box, I turn to see black vehicles coming our direction.
"Shit," he says.
"Who is that?"
"Get out of here," he says. "Open the box. You'll understand."
He turns and walks to the rear of the van, swinging open the doors. His black jacket flaps in the wind. I follow him.
The box is heavy as a watermelon, weighted strangely. He produces a rifle with a fat scope.
When the black SUVs start firing back -- pings of white dust rising all around us -- I throw the box in the passenger seat and slam my door.
"Right," I say.
The ATM card is good for $200 at a gas station outside Albuquerque.
James Stegall keeps on rockin'