Bill Maxwell's hurried stride through the hallways of the FBI left him feeling very nervous about being fifteen minutes late. As he trotted to the conference room, he heard a hubbub of whispering from the colleagues he passed and a few folks actually dropped what they were holding. Was he really in that much trouble? Bill hoped he wouldn't be suspended, again. He was tired of Carlisle doing that to him.
At 8:15 a.m. FBI agents were gathered in the room, standing and talking with Styrofoam cups of steaming coffee in their hands. "Alright, people, have a seat," Carlisle ordered. "Deputy Bureau Chief Cain doesn't have all day."
The agents sat in their usual seats, their files plopped on the desks in front of them.
Bill barged into the room, case folder in hand, and all eyes bugged out seeing him. His short brown hair was porcupined off his head, strands pointing every which way. His unshaven face contained burgeoning grizzly grey whiskers. His suit could only be called a zone of destruction. There was a large hole by his right knee, holes by his shoulders, by his left elbow and numerous tears all over the grey fabric. Blood stains were evident throughout the fabric of his suit, and just about his entire shirt collar was dark red, as were large spots on his tie and vest. Drops of old, dried blood stippled his shoes. The pristinely white bandage and tape stood out like the moon at midnight. But, there he stood, tall and straight, his broad shoulders filling out his suit, as if nothing was wrong, nothing was out of order.
"Sorry, Carlisle and Chief Cain, for being late," Bill said. Apologies didn't usually go far with his boss, but it seemed the best place to start.
The room was drop dead silent. Bill glanced around and saw he was the focus of everyone's attention. He hadn't eaten in six hours so there couldn't be food stuck in his teeth; nonetheless he ran his tongue over his mouth, just in case.
Oh, boy, there was no doubt how much trouble he was in. Stickler for Promptness Carlisle was going to hammer him for his tardiness in front of the Chief.
Bill made a lame play at lessening the seriousness of the situation. "Uh, though, it's only fifteen minutes…"
Carlisle spoke to Bill with precise diction in a low volume as if he was a patient and tolerant parent asking four year old Billy to explain why he had crayoned the living room wall. "Bill…Agent Maxwell…weren't you shot…in the head…this morning?"
Bill's mouth did a silent "Oh" and he activated one of his several habitual nervous ticks—his patented right shoulder shrug. "You heard about that? Gee whiz, gossip really travels fast. Well, uh, yeah, you know, boss, I was, but only by a .32 caliber. Can you believe the guy only had a .32? Took me by surprise at first, but the old Maxwell resilience came through." He pointed to his bandage. "The bullet's still in there. Didn't have time for them to remove it before the meeting took place."
Silence and stares. For a solid minute. For the first time in his life, Bill wished for the green guys to beam him up again.
"And…the rest of you?" Carlisle asked, incredulously, his hand going up and down in the air pointing out Bill's appearance.
Bill looked down at his suit, the holes, the blood, the dirt. He picked at a random thread which kept coming out and out so he just let it go. Bill had been in such a monomaniacal rush to get to the conference on time he had not quite allowed his slightly drug altered, exhausted and bullet laden head to come up with all the explanations his appearance demanded. He stood there, his tongue dancing around his lips. "Well," he said, "uh, there was this little train incident..."
"The train you fell off of?"
Carlisle's knowledge of that temporarily derailed Bill's budding cerebral machinations.
"Bill, two hoboes hitched a ride on a freight train from Seattle to Los Angeles. They got off at LA and reported to the police that an FBI agent named Maxwell, who had gotten on at Bakersfield, had been pitched off the train at forty miles an hour."
Bill giggled. "Really? They reported that? I can't believe they turned out to be responsible citizens. Especially after I told them to fall into a stupor."
Carlisle let that obscure, incomprehensible reference pass, shaking his head brusquely a couple of times, as if he was trying to expel an insect from his hair. "Yes, they reported that. They said the men who pushed you off had just left the train. A search was made but the men weren't found. The LA cops contacted the Bakersfield police who did, indeed, confirm you visited them for information, but your car wasn't found at the station. The hobos explained to the police exactly where the train was on the route when you were, apparently, forcefully ejected from it, and a search was made. One of your guns was found on the ground nearby where they said you fell from the train."
Bill beamed brightly at the good news. "They found one of my guns? That's great. Now I only have to buy one new one. Can I pick it up after the meeting?"
Carlisle wondered if his agent was actually as daft as he so frequently appeared. Bill seemed to miss all the important points and focus on the trivialities. Carlisle ignored the question and continued with his story.
"When you weren't found, but some blood was discovered at the bottom of the embankment, a search for you was begun in all the hospitals from Bakersfield to Los Angeles."
Gradually, Bill started figuring out what had been going on in his absence.
"No hospital reported your admittance."
Bill darted his eyes upwards at the ceiling as he anxiously bit down on the side of his lower lip, remembering exactly which 'hospital' had treated him. He then did a little cycle of all the movements that overtly defined his agitation, stretching his neck out, clearing his throat and once again shrugging his right shoulder. This wasn't looking good. A zillion scenarios played out in his imagination as he struggled to cohesively formulate a realistic explanation for his last twenty-four hours. His mind began churning out a fable that would have humbled the Brothers Grimm.
Carlisle continued, "Then, around 7 a.m we get a call from Agent Kyle Atkins at Mercy General right here in L.A. that you were admitted with a bullet in your head-"
"—Well, not much of a bullet-"
"And now here you are, looking like that!"
"At least my socks match my trousers, Carlisle," Bill joked, lifting one trouser leg up a little to prove he was indeed wearing grey socks with his grey suit.
Carlisle's exasperation was mounting. "Bill, perhaps you want to explain to all of us just what has been going on? Starting with the train? Being thrown off it at forty miles an hour?"
Some anonymous comedian called out "Look, up in the sky, it's Super Bill!"
The room sniggered as Carlisle demanded everyone "Shut up!"
Carlisle's plot had slightly backfired; by spending so much time on the Maxwell Tale, designed to catch Bill in unfathomable doings, it had given his bright and clever underling the chance to formulate his answers.
Bill shook his head. "Oh, no, the train was only going maybe fifteen miles per hour. Twenty at most."
"And you fell from the top of the roof onto rocks."
"Nah, I landed on sandy dirt, between the rocks. Cushiony, like your new office sofa. Nice and soft."
"The hoboes clearly said 'rocks'."
"Did you get their blood alcohol levels anytime during their report? They were gulping down rye like a sewer drain after a rainstorm."
"The police reported rocks."
"Did they state there was no sand or dirt between the rocks?"
"Look at your suit! The blood!"
"Mostly from the bullet, but also I did get a little rough with one or two of the criminals in the garage. It's probably some of their blood, too." And then came the coupe de grace, "I mean, look, Boss, I'm not hurt anywhere." He held his arms out to the side, offering up his whole body for inspection, unable to avoid a smarmy smile. "Not a scratch."
Carlisle's face swelled like a purplish red balloon as his ire at Maxwell assumed gigantic proportions. If Maxwell had been closer to his boss, Carlisle might not have been able to control his hands, which he held in fists by his thighs to keep them from wrapping around Maxwell's undoubtedly muscular neck. Carlisle was sure, however, he could wring it like a wet dishcloth, getting every last drop of fluid from it. Maxwell saw Carlisle's emotional reaction reaching "nuclear fission" and had the good sense to keep quiet.
"Carlisle, let's stop the interrogation. You got the arsonists, didn't you, Agent Maxwell? Come on up here and tell us all about it." He planted a friendly arm in Bill's back and guided him to the podium. Bill brushed his hand through his hair, failing to bring any real order into it. Carlisle stood to the side, hating his chastisement.
Bill's perspicacious mind came through for him in the end. He mentioned driving up to the warehouse in Bakersfield, finding the piece of glass, the fingerprints, the police using them to find Hartman and Englewood. Bill's canvassing of cafes eventually hit pay dirt and he was able to learn from a waitress she'd over heard Hartman and another fellow planning to board the 3:21 freight train to Los Angeles. Bill wasn't successful in capturing them on the train, and was pushed off luckily landing on soft ground. Stunning, but no real injuries. It took a few hours of walking but finally a passing car picked him up and drove him back to Bakersfield. Before being attacked from behind he had gotten from Hartman that he was after Research Scientists. He drove back to LA and checked a lot of hotels until uncovering the one which was having a Symposium of Research Scientists conference, the Holiday Inn in Century City. He went there and was able to capture Karen Englewood and Eddie Thompson, already getting the incendiary process in place, and they spilled the location of the Studio City house where Hartman was. He drove there and busted those four men, but was shot in the head in the process.
It made sense, perfect sense. Bill had stopped a catastrophe from happening and saved the lives of three hundred research scientists and god knows how many other people who may have been victims of the fire if it had spread beyond the confines of the banqueting room.
The lack of mention of bones sticking out of trousers, green aliens, space ships, holographs, and magic jammies didn't seem important. As usual, the felons had kept Ralph to themselves to avoid getting Rubber Room stamped on their foreheads. Jail was much better than being assigned to a mental institution and daily doses of psychiatric drugs.
"Amazing," the Chief Cain said, actually clapping, and all the other agents joined in on the rousing applause. "Simply amazing."
"But doesn't his explanation sound a little fishy?" Carlisle asked.
"Fishy? Not at all. It fits the facts as we know them," Cain said, as if Carlisle was an idiot.
"As we know them," Carlisle repeated, casting a shrewd look at Bill, who returned a visage along the lines of a little boy holding his new puppy. Innocent. Joyful.
Bill had to give Carlisle due credit. His boss had as strong an instinct for sensing when Bill's story was hogwash, as Bill did in perceiving which cases seemed suit worthy. And, Carlisle was right. The real story of his solving this scenario hadn't been told. It couldn't be.
Bill respected Carlisle for his inquisitive mind and his deft intuition. It made it easier to handle all the endless grief Carlisle dumped on his as a result.
"What about Ralph and Pam Hinkley being at Hartman's home when the police arrived?" Carlisle persisted.
"I called them in case I couldn't drive by myself. They drove over to check on me. In fact, Pam Hinkley was the one who called the cops after I got a little dizzy for a few minutes."
"The police didn't mention their car."
"Carlisle, why should the police care about their car?"
"Enough, Les, enough." The Deputy Bureau Chief shook Bill's hand. "Well done, Agent Maxwell. It's unusual and non-standard having you work alone, but I'm going to continue to allow it since your success is so continually impressive. I'm going to put a gold star in your file for this case."
"Thank you, Chief," Bill said. "Your praise means a lot to me." It did. And, it was the perfect way to thumb his nose at Carlisle and he enjoyed every minute of it. Carlisle's body began shaking as if an earthquake was occurring in tectonic plates in his torso. He had enough pent up pressure inside to re-erupt Mount Vesuvius, a defunct volcano for two thousand years. Bill grew slightly worried and decided to quit kidding around with his boss to forestall the risk of him suffering a massive heart attack.
"I want to be clear, Sir," Bill added, speaking to Cain, "I had no idea there was a search going on for me. I would of course have reported in if I had known it."
"Yes, yes, of course. Don't worry about it. We're all simply relieved to see you're okay. Now, Agent Maxwell, go home and get some sleep, and then get that bullet removed. If you need to, take a couple of days off, on medical leave. Write up the report when you get back."
"But-!" Carlisle chimed in.
"Les, the man's been up over twenty-four hours."
There was no way for Carlisle to put up any more argument without overtly appearing to be the ass that everyone pretty much covertly believed he was.
"Yes, sir," Bill said.
As Bill made his way to leave the room, his fellow agents collaboratively stood up and began shaking his hand and patting his back as the police had done. Exclamations of "Great job! Well done! What a bust!" filled the air. Bill was uncomfortable with attention of this sort although it was a great boost to his sometime insecure ego. He retreated into cockiness, downplaying the arrest of six criminals, his fall off the train ("It's all in the tuck and roll") and his being shot with the .32 ("Like being hit by a baby's thumb"). As he left, the commendations were still audible behind him.
Bill went into the community room and saw Rose Harris by his desk, dressed as usual to show off her undeniably female body, jangles of jewelry around her neck and hanging off her ears. He walked up to her, plopping the folder sloppily on top of several other ones.
"Hello, Rose," he said. "What're you doing here?"
"So, you don't call or write. What am I, chopped liver?"
Huh? Her non-sequitur response baffled him and she stood arms akimbo cutting him no slack. It took a few seconds for her complaint to register. Oh, their dinner plans last night. He had completely forgotten about them. Bill sighed. Ever since he and Ralph had saved Rose from the Russians, he and Rose had become friends. They had enough in common, even given their twenty year age difference, to enjoy going out to dinner or a movie, or playing some pool in a bar. It was not serious dating, just a casual time together once or twice or month.
He had stood her up last night.
"Sorry, Rose, I'm truly sorry. Don't get mad. I got busy on a case again."
Bill had cancelled a meeting or two before due to work. Considering that she had once herself been part of his "work", she was amenable to that excuse.
"I cooked a whole chicken. Made a nice salad. Got leftovers up the wazoo." Like a blindfold being removed, she suddenly let go of her self-centeredness and noticed Bill's appearance. "What happened to you?"
"Long story." Fatigue suddenly settled on Bill like a sumo wrestler jumping on his back, and his bones turned to lead "Listen, can you drive me home? I gotta hit the sack." He didn't think driving now would be such a good idea. Ralph could drive him back to work in a day or two.
"Are you alright? What's with that bandage? What's with your suit?"
"It's nothing. I'm fine."
"You'd say 'it's nothing' if you walked in carrying your head under your arm."
"Maybe. Come on, let's go. Charity run to the Maxwell Villas."
"So, what was the case about?"
"Some guys playing with matches."
"Some guys…? That's it? No details?"
"Rose, I'll write a thesis on it tomorrow. Right now, I really need to get home."
She tsk'd her disapproval at his paltry answers, but picked up her purse to go. Noticing another woman in the office surreptitiously examining her and Bill, Rose wrapped her arm through his, raising her eyebrows at the woman as she claimed ownership, which she didn't have, true, but nonetheless a girl has to stand up for herself now and then and appear the winner of a grand prize even if she wasn't in the contest.
Bill naturally didn't notice any of this inter-female silent communication.
At 9:15 a.m., she pulled up at his apartment complex, and instead of just saying good-bye, Rose grabbed the leftover chicken she had in the car and walked with him up the long flight of stairs and through the outside hallway to his studio apartment. Bill's feet clomped heavily up the stairs and he walked past his mailbox, his lethargy mushrooming; his bills could wait till later.
Bill appreciated Rose's gift of food. He liked her chicken. Rose had a talent for using Italian spices. And, he knew his own fridge was empty except for a beer or two and some mustard and moldy bread, and he'd no doubt be starving when he woke up from his upcoming twelve hour sleep. Cold chicken would do until he got to his corner deli.
He fumbled with his keys a little but got the door open and they went inside. Rose put the chicken in the fridge as Bill took off his ruined jacket and bloodied tie and threw them on his cherished antique roll top desk which had been his grandfather's. His vest soon joined them.
"Thanks," he said, grateful for her help.
She came up close to him and smiled; she had very white, straight teeth, strawberry blond, mid-length curly hair, and always that mischievous look in her eyes. "Well, I naturally want a favor from you in return."
Oh, brother. What drivel was she going to say next? "Rose…" Bill began complaining, before she moved in further and enacted a double action upon him that took him as much by surprise as had the bullet three hours ago.
Wrapping her hand behind his neck she pulled his head forward and expertly planted a passionate kiss on his lips; she was indeed a very good kisser. Her other hand sank to the midline of his body, massaging him through his zipper.
Rose had first initiated sex after their fifth or sixth time together, and they had happily found themselves to be very harmonious lovers. Since neither was in a committed relationship, they appreciated the pleasurable benefits of occasional platonic sex. For convenience sake, they kept it private between themselves.
Still, he was tired. Reluctantly, Bill pulled his head back. "Listen…I don't think-oh!"
Rose had increased the pressure of her massage and began undoing his belt. She was not going to stop. "Every girl crazy 'bout a man of action," she purred. "I want you right now, you tall, dark, handsome Fed."
Bill loved being complimented by women. He became much less tired and his vitality grew measurably enhanced as his belt slid to the floor, his zipper was undone, and Rose dipped her hand beneath his underwear. They both noticed that a very important part of his anatomy seemed quite "up" for sex.
Without any more debate, they tumbled onto the bed, achieving a Guinness Book of World Records award in the category "Quickest Undressing Of Each Other By a Couple". They spent the next half hour exquisitely enjoying their sexual compatibility.
When the apex of their pleasure passed, Rose spent a minute or two resting on Bill's chest, his hand caressing the muscles of her back. Rose then pecked his forehead affectionately, showered quickly, dressed and after another light kiss and a gentle run of her hand down his roughly whiskered face, bid Bill good-bye so he could get his well-deserved, very well-deserved, rest. He waved weakly back at her as she slipped out kindly flipping off the light, put his underwear back on, and settled down comfortably in bed, the essence of sex mixing with the scent of masculine body sweat. He would definitely shower first thing upon awakening. Right then, he had no energy to move even a finger.
The phone rang right at 10 a.m., exactly twenty-four hours after having been assigned the arson case. Bill sighed and lifted up the receiver, flopping back down to talk. "Maxwell."
It was Ralph. "Hello, Bill. Your office told me you were at home. How're you feeling?"
"Not bad. Relaxed and tired. Just heading off to sleep."
"Me too. Things go okay at the meeting?"
"The Deputy Bureau Chief fell for my story hook, line and sinker. Gave me a gold star. Carlisle almost ate his liver."
Ralph laughed. "Excellent! Hey, we did do a fantastic job, didn't we? Saving all those lives."
"Yeah, those creeps could've roasted the entire hotel."
There was a pause. "You know, aside from you being obnoxious sometimes, we make a damn fine team."
"Ralph, you getting maudlin again? You'll make my eyes water."
"A little, I suppose. But, that's the truth. Take it or leave it."
Bill's macho defenses were too bushed to disagree. "Yeah, Kid, I know what you mean. We do pretty well together."
"Surfer boy and gun-toting Fed. Who'da thunk?" Ralph joked.
"No one but the green guys, I guess."
"Yeah, no one but them."
Bill realized that it was probably safe to trust their extra-terrestrial overlords. The aliens had put him and Ralph together and for that he was immensely thankful.
From what Bill's sluggish mind could discern, it seemed that Ralph felt the same way.
They hung up saying "Good night" and Bill lay back, images proliferating in his mind as the magnitude of the day hit home: firebugs, bones sticking out, aliens, Mars, averted hotel bonfire, toy guns, Carlisle's bile rising, kudos from Chief Cain, nice talk with Ralph, and that undeniable ecstasy with Rose.
Not a bad day, he thought, his consciousness lowering down quickly into sleep. Not a bad day at all.