It was Friday, the day before my high school graduation, and I was on a ladder in the gym, hanging a banner that read 'Good Luck, Graduates' when my cell phone rang. The banner was a sincere message, but with the area economy idling and the job market sparse, I kept reading it as sarcasm.
I was the one up the ladder because I had lost a round of rock-paper-scissors to Neeka, who now stood on the polished floor with one foot on the bottom rung, holding it steady. I only had a tiny bit of suspicion that she had cheated and read my mind so she wouldn't be the one teetering 40 feet up with her head in the steel rafters. I was sure she wouldn't have done that because if she fell off it could have meant weeks in the hospital, but if I went splat it would just have been several minutes of cussing and not much more.
I finished tying the banner off on the metal braces before I snatched the phone from its clip in the waistband of my shorts.
"Hello," I said, not bothering to look at the small screen to read the caller-ID information. Neeka had programmed it to use different ring-tones for calls from my friends than it did for calls from numbers that were related to my profession. The short bit of Wagner's Die Walküremeant that this was such a call.
"Good afternoon, Miss Kramer," the voice on the phone said. "I'd like to talk to you if you have a few minutes."
David Solomon didn't bother to identify himself, which was fine. I recognized his voice from his flat Northern accent and the way he casually dropped a name that he wasn't supposed to know, just to shake me up. Conversations with him weren't give and take exchanges so much as they were competitions to see who could wring the most information from the other person while giving up as little as possible in return.
"Sure. When and where?" I asked.
"Right now, if you don't mind. The telephone company van by the curb".
I leaned over and looked out the high window that overlooked the school parking lot. Sure enough, there was a phone company truck there with orange cones all around and a guy behind it fiddling in the green box by the curb.
"Be right there," I said, and closed my phone.
"How did he find out?" Neeka asked.
She'd been listening in by tapping my grey cells. I can't even call that snooping, since it seems that she lives in there most of the time and it gives me a wonderful outlet for my tendency to be a smart-ass without running the risk of offending anyone. Mainly it gives me a reassuring, security-blanket-feeling to know that there is someone who is zero distance from me at all times.
David Solomon's business card said he was the Second Assistant Deputy Director of the Homeland Security Department of the United States of America, which sounded to me like someone who was buried so deeply in the bureaucracy that he could fake it by just taking lunch meetings with the other Second Assistants and plotting how to move up to First Assistant and cut out of the office even earlier in the day. His real job was something else. Mr. Solomon was the chief liaison between all the diverse and acronymic Intelligence agencies — CIA, DIA, INR, DISA, NSA, ETC. — and the covert — I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you — Operations groups that had been roughly consolidated in the wake of 9/11.
"Duh!" I said. "The man has connections. If there were something he thought he needed to know and he couldn't find it out, I'd be worried."
Solomon had scored points with me for brilliantly orchestrating the rescue of a couple of VIPs who had been kidnapped by 'foreign nationals', a euphemism I had learned was used inside the Intelligence Community when they meant 'Bad Guys not from around here'. I had an equal amount of juice with him because I had been instrumental in freeing the hostages without calling attention to him or his operatives.
Solomon didn't visit socially. If he was here, there was a problem. If Solomon had a problem, it was probably something terribly important that couldn't be solved by conventional means, up to and including bombing it or invading it.
Neeka stayed behind to cover for me while I ducked out the back door and around the corner of the gym, where I scooted between the rows of parked school busses and then crossed to the other side of the road. When I came up to the back of the truck, the man squatting beside the junction box looked up at me and touched the brim of his cap. It was Max, one of the Operators and a former special operations soldier who had been on the rescue team. I supposed he was there so I would know this meeting was legit and not a trap laid by someone. Knowing that people like Solomon existed was making me paranoid. I wasn't sure that wasn't entirely a bad thing, which shows how messed-up your head can get when you start playing with the pros.
I smiled sweetly at Max. Just as I was about to knock, the back door of the truck opened and I quickly stepped inside, and into a different world.
Solomon has a thing about being comfortable in the field. It may be that upholstering the backs of bogus utility vans and faux commercial trucks with comfy chairs, coolers, task-lights and all manner of communications gear was a waste of the tax-payers money, but the government wasted billions on so much stuff that barely qualified as 'holes in the ground' that I wasn't about to say anything at all about him turning the odd plumber's van into a rolling executive office.
A man I hadn't met before shut the door behind me and sat down on the jumpseat next to it with an arm across his lap, poised just inside his open suit-coat. I ignored him and slid into a leather chair on a sliding track in the floor before reaching out to shake hands with the hawk-nosed, hatchet-faced Mr. Solomon.
"Good to see you again, Sam," he said with a friendly tone. He took my hand without hesitation.
"I wish I could say the same," I said. "But I have a feeling that meetings with you are not conducive to my continued good health."
He snorted, a much more convincing sound than a laugh would have been. He wasn't used to dealing with people who spoke the truth quite as bluntly as I had put it. No doubt that was from talking to Senators and other politicians, who, it seemed to me, had standing restraining orders against the Truth.
"I might say the same about most of those you have had occasion to meet in your — ah — other persona."
He was right about that. More right than I liked. Until I met Mr. Solomon I had never actually killed anyone. Since then, my body count was greater than zero — the only number I would acknowledge in my head. I was still very unhappy about that change in my record, but there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. Feeling perpetually guilty was something I had decided was unproductive, even though in unguarded moments the feeling did manage to return and even to bring its friends, depression and grief.
My change of mood must have shown on my face. Solomon decided to cut to the chase.
"You've probably seen the media coverage of the young women who have gone missing while on vacation in the Caribbean?"
I nodded. "I remember a couple of them disappeared from different places. I assumed they had been killed by local criminals who decided to prey on the more defenseless tourists. If you're interested, then I guess there is more to it than that."
"Quite. The specifics of each case make them appear to be random events, but the similarities are inarguable. Eight young women..."
"Eight? I only heard of two!"
"Eight. All girls between the ages of 18 and 20, although mostly on the younger end of that range. All similarly attractive-looking, in the same wholesome, schoolgirl way. All unmarried, although most had boyfriends and two were engaged to be married. All of these girls have disappeared without a trace in the past few months. All were tourists. Five Americans, one Canadian, one from Ireland, and one girl from the Ukraine. Some of the abductions were not reported because their families assumed it was a kidnapping and a ransom demand would be forthcoming. No demands were ever received. Some of the crimes were kept from the media by the local authorities because it was feared that it would impact the tourist trade on which these places depend."
"How were they abducted? Do you know?"
"Not yet. But there is one rather curious feature to the crimes that everyone finds interesting, but seems to shed no light on them. Nothing but the girls has been taken."
"We are fairly certain that some of them were taken from their hotel rooms in the middle of the night. And yet nothing else was stolen or even disturbed. Money, credit cards, jewelry, clothes, cameras; nothing of value that the girls had with them and which we might have traced if any of it had been fenced or sold on the street."
"I remember one girl was at a club. How about her?"
"Everything she had with her apparently vanished, too, but none of it has turned up."
"So, the kidnappers are only interested in the girls? That's creepy."
"And that is why I was asked to become involved. Whatever is going on has the potential for creating a very nasty scandal if it becomes public under the wrong circumstances. This administration already has enough on its plate as it is."
"You have a theory?"
"I have a suspicion. I do not yet have enough information to know if it is justified and I am not prepared to discuss it until I do."
"What do you want me to do?"
I already had an idea, but I didn't want to buy a bigger problem than I had to. Although this was only my second encounter with the man, I was already aware that volunteering for one of his jobs carried with it an implication of expendability. He had never actually said that if I screwed up the government would 'disavow all knowledge' of me or my actions, but I wasn't born the day before yesterday under a cabbage leaf. Accepting responsibility wasn't something anyone in power ever liked to do, and my History texts hadn't mentioned anyone actually doing it as a matter of policy since President Truman was in office.
"The government of the United States would like to send you and your partner on an all-expenses-paid vacation to the Caribbean Sea."
"How nice! To what do we owe this honor?"
"You are the right age. You are unmarried. And you are very attractive."
"Why Mr. Solomon! I didn't think you'd noticed."
"Hurmm." He choked back a laugh. "You two are also the only operatives who fit the profile."
I noticed that he was addressing me as though Neeka were in the truck with us. The time he had spent alone with Neeka while she gave him the telepathic play-by-play of what I was up to during the hostage rescue back in early May must have impressed him quite a bit.
"So we're bait. You want us to go get ourselves kidnapped or shanghaied or whatever. Are you sending bodyguards with us?" I asked, nodding toward the beefy man by the door who hadn't taken his eyes off me or his hand out of his coat the whole time.
"That would be rather like setting a tabby to guard a tiger, wouldn't you say?" This time he did laugh, and with no help from me.
The man by the door didn't look amused at all at hearing the comparison. His gaze became more steely and his shoulders tensed. I swiveled my chair so I was facing him.
"Sam," Mr. Solomon said in a tone that was part warning and part pleading.
"Don't worry. I won't hurt him."
That really got the guy's blood going. His eyes narrowed and he looked at Mr. Solomon for the first time to see if he was being put-on. It was very tempting to mess with him, but I had already seen how badly I could rattle the most professionally-scary people and that was kind of unsettling. I mean, you'd think that the most elite ex-Force Recon, ex-Green Beret, ex-SEAL, ex-Delta, ex-whatever special operations unit I might have missed would be made of sterner stuff, but every one of them I had met so far had very nearly freaked when I introduced them to The Dragon. I think it must be that seeing a 5' 1", 110 pound, blonde, blue-eyed, 18 year-old girl turn into a grey-green, scaly, fire-breathing monster with blood-dripping yellow teeth and claws is something that doesn't get covered anywhere in the courses on 100 ways to kill silently, jump out of planes and wait til the last possible second before pulling the ripcord, sneak up back stairs quietly while carrying an arsenal on your back, swim miles underwater in the freezing cold, or make a bomb out of a can of bug spray and a handful of thumbtacks.
They don't seem to mind that I can tear cars apart, bend iron bars into pretzels, or jump over small buildings, but my animated make-up scares the bejeebers out of them. Go figure.
"You made Colonel Brock feel like a fifth wheel, you know," Solomon said, tossing out a piece of gossip to try to get my attention back so I wouldn't do what ever he thought I was thinking of doing to his bodyguard.
Brock was the commander of Sigma Seven; one of Solomon's teams of go-anywhere, do whatever is needed, and get out without being spotted Operators. He was magnificently suited to his job and he was one of the few men I had met since I took up being a superheroine who actually scared me. I guess partly for the same reason he made my skin crawl, he also made the more intimate parts of my body quiver as well. I still had fantasies about what it might be like to spend some quality time between the sheets with him and I wondered if he hadn't felt the same about me.
The fact that I had managed to save Brock's life the last time we met had probably ruined any chance I might have had to know him better. That I had done it by accident added to the insult. Brock worked off a steel-strong sense of duty and an equally hard self-image of himself as a professional soldier. I had put some cracks in that by being in the right place at the right time to keep him from being perforated. Me being a 'little girl' just poured salt into the open wound.
"How is the Colonel?" I asked.
"Keeping busy," he said, which was a polite way of saying I didn't need to know. "He was one of the people who advocated giving this assignment to you. He was quite enthusiastic about it."
Brock was one of the least animated people you were ever likely to meet. Brick walls generally have more vivacious personalities. To hear him described as being enthusiastic about something was jarring. For him to be strongly in favor of giving me this assignment meant he either had complete faith in my abilities to carry it out, or he wanted me to vanish off the face of the Earth along with the rest of the victims. Either way, I must have had more of an effect on Brock than I thought.
I decided to take it as a vote of confidence. If Brock's professionalism had deteriorated to the point of his becoming vindictive, Solomon would have fired him in a skinny second. At the level these people worked, emotions could not be permitted to influence decisions. Even I knew that getting emotional in the field could get you very quickly dead.
"When do we leave? You know we have Graduation tomorrow?"
"I wouldn't dream of keeping you from the ceremony," he said, taking a thick manila envelope out of a drawer and handing it to me. "Your plane doesn't leave until Sunday afternoon."
I wasn't the slightest bit surprised or offended that Solomon had arrived completely prepared or that he assumed we would be willing to help him. 'Detail-oriented' didn't begin to describe how he worked. He was probably a genius and everything I had seen of him made me think he was he best person for the job.
"And if we do manage to get ourselves picked up by the kidnappers?"
"Then you may deal with the situation as you see fit."
The thing I liked best about Solomon was that despite the level of detail in his plans, when he gave you an assignment, he gave you an assignment. I knew he would have liked very much to know what was going on every second, but only so he could provide whatever support we might need. If his being in the loop might compromise the outcome of the mission, he was smart enough to know when to butt-out.
He was also smart enough to know that he didn't know everything. If you had a contribution to the plan or an idea to offer, he would listen. Although maybe that was just me never knowing when to shut up and let the people in charge run things. I had been sort of mouthy before my transformation. Afterwards, the knowledge that I could pound anyone in the room into sand loosened my tongue even more.
The other implication in leaving things in the hands of the people 'on the ground', 'in the field' or however you want to describe it, was the assumption that the Bad Guys were just targets to be 'neutralized' or whatever the current euphemism was for killing. I still told myself that I would avoid that if I possibly could, but I had to admit that sometimes the bastards just didn't want to be reasonable. A stern talking-to or a slap on the wrist just wasn't going to do it for people who had already decided that it was going to be you or them and they were totally committed to making it you.
When I got into this line of work, I had illusions that I could change people, to make them see the error of their ways. So far, most of the change seemed to be in me. In darker moments, I wondered if the risks I took while giving the Bad Guys as much rope as they wanted before I had to turn it into a noose were really worth it. Surely it would be easier to just go into things with the idea 'kill them all and let God sort it out'? But if I let myself believe that, didn't that make me as much of a threat as the people who created the problems in the beginning? Sometimes my level of job-satisfaction is pretty low. I never thought it would suck to be a superheroine.
"So quit," Neeka said in my head. "Give it up. You don't have to do this."
"No. I won't. I can't."
We had this conversation regularly. She knew just what it would take to get my head screwed back on right. I knew it too, but having the conversation felt like reciting an oath or a catechism something. It always made me feel better.
"I do it because I can. I do it because for whatever reason, I have abilities that few people have and if I don't use them to make a difference in the world then I'm really not a human being after all."
You try getting up in the morning knowing that you are so totally different from everyone around you that you may as well be an alien from another planet. You see how long you can go, knowing that as your abilities grow, you get further and further away from the person you were. See if you don't start to doubt your own humanity and that the most important thing in your life doesn't become the belief that you are still one of Us instead of one of Them.
At the speed of thought, all this took only a fraction of a second. When I nodded and squared my shoulders, Solomon thought I was acknowledging the mission.
"Good!" he said. "You can reach me through my office or by calling any US Embassy or consulate. Just mention my name and they will put you through."
He waved a hand at all the electronic stuff in the truck. I had no doubt that he could use it to talk to anyone, anywhere, at a second's notice. It was reassuring to know that if we somehow got ourselves into something really deep and smelly, one call would being bring the Marines — literally.
Neeka and I excused ourselves from the after-decorating party with the excuse that we had some shopping to do. Instead, we went back to my house and into the basement workroom that she won't quit calling the Dragon's Lair.
I opened the bulging envelope and dumped everything onto the desk. It was a big pile of papers and stuff. When we got it all sorted out, we had plane tickets, passports, visas, permits, IDs, and several credit cards apiece that probably could be used to buy an entire department store, or anything that we might need to complete the mission.
"Holy credit limit, Sam," Neeka said, fanning herself with the plastic, "this is gonna be a lot of fun! We get to party and Uncle Sugar gets the bill!"
"Now you see where all those taxes the coffee shop took out of your pay went to." I said.
"And well worth it! I had no idea being your partner would be so — rewarding!"
"Better than riding around on that thing?" I asked, indicating the huge motorcycle that was lurking malevolently under a tarp at the far end of the room.
Neeka was torn. Dressing up in her costume and driving the bike all over town at insane speeds was her favorite part of our partnership. She had a hard time deciding if being handed a fistful of no-limit credit cards and told to go party in exotic places appealed to her more.
"Almost," she finally allowed. "Hey, wait a minute! These say Monique Diamond, not Monique Morgan."
"Mine say Samantha Draco."
"Ha! From the constellation Draconis, the Dragon. Someone in the government has a sense of humor."
"Apparently. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I mean, the joke might be on us."
"Or it could just be that Mr. Solomon picked aliases he thought we could remember."
"That's better. I'll sure turn my head the first time someone calls me Miss Draco. Solomon strikes again. That man is too smart for his own good."
"You'd rather someone with that kind of power were an idiot?"
"Oh, heck no! Still, sometimes he scares me more than Colonel Brock. In a totally different way, of course."
"Still thinking they might haul you off to the underground lab and take you apart to see what makes you tick?"
"Sometimes. But not as long as Solomon thinks he can use me."
"You left out 'to do his dirty work'."
"It's dirty work all right, but someone has to do it."
"You and Brock are more alike than you think. You both have a strong sense of duty. His is to his country."
"And mine is to the human race as well."
"Sam the Earth Mother?"
"It helps to think that way. Actually, it helps a lot. I feel closer to people."
Neeka knew I had been having a hard time dealing with having killed those men. She couldn't live halfway inside my head and miss it. She was always there to remind me of what was important.
"Like love," she said, flooding my head with the warmth of her mental embrace.
I wrapped my arms around her and we hugged for a while as we danced through each other's heads, sharing a pure emotion that drove my depression back into its box and slammed the lid.
There are things that people do to show love. They touch. They caress. They kiss. They make love. Picture doing those things mind-to-mind. You can't. I know. The best you imagine isn't a fraction of what it feels like to feel love at the source, to tap into the pure flow, to dive in and feel it with your whole being. It's the most incredible thing you can imagine, and we had it. Whatever happened, we had that. It made everything good.
When she found that she could visit my dreams, we thought that would be a lot of fun, but neither of us had managed to work up the courage to try it again.
It made sex so fantastic that it was scary. A couple of times, we had gotten confused about who was who. I would see the red hair over my shoulder and not know it wasn't mine. Neeka would play with my boobs using my hands instead of hers. I felt what she felt and on and on until it threatened to spiral out of control. Afterwards, it brought us so close together that we had to cut back on the telepathy to make sure that we stayed two separate people instead of one gestalt.
Still, the times we had managed to drag or trick our boyfriends into bed with us at the same time had been truly awesome adventures in experiencing more orgasms than should be legal. She would cum, I would feel her cum, she would feel me cum and pretty soon our brains would be spinning. I know it made Steve and Jim feel seriously studly to bring us to the point where we would climax continuously and either beg them to stop, or beg them not to. I think it was the fact that they had us so totally at their mercy and I suspect they even exchanged a few high-fives over that, but I wasn't in any shape to confirm it at the time. Boys keep score. Girls just keep cumming. I think we got the better deal.
Once we had the plastic, we both wanted to hit the mall and see if we could run up the national debt a few more decimal points, but sanity prevailed. The chance that someone would recognize us and know that the names on the cards didn't match was a risk neither of us felt was worth taking.
"Just wait till we get there!" Neeka said. "By the way, where is 'there'? Where are we going first?"
The airport abbreviation on the plane tickets said VIJ. Neither of knew where that was. We had to turn on the PC and look it up before we discovered that our first stop would be the island of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands.
"Virgin Islands?" I said.
"Hush. Just hush," Neeka said, giggling.
"Yeah, but do you really think they'll let us in?"
It was too late. We giggled until the tears started. It was silly and stupid, but it was funny just the same.
After we wound down, we sat dabbing our eyes with wads of tissue and tried not to set each other off again.
"Now we have to tell Bambi and my parents," Neeka said. "Oh my God! What am I going to tell my parents?"
"You won a contest?" I suggested. "No? Tell them we met a nice Jewish boy who is giving us free tickets to visit him and his mother in the British Virgin Islands."
"That's better, but I think Daddy might have some questions."
"Then tell your mother the truth and let her figure out what to tell your father."
"You want me to tell my mother that I'm going out of the country for a few weeks while I try to get kidnapped and probably murdered?"
"OK, scratch that. Tell them Bambi is sending us on a holiday as a graduation present."
"Now that will work. All you have to do is get her to go along and we're home free."
"Um. I hadn't thought of that. How is she going to take this?"
Not at all badly, as it turned out. I tried to subtly suggest the idea of the trip as a present, but I wasn't as subtle as I thought.
"Mom, I think I need to get away for a while after graduation."
"You mean, go off somewhere and kick up your heels before you go to college in the fall? That sounds like a wonderful idea. You have seemed kind of down lately. Maybe a trip will do you good. Where were you thinking of going?"
"The Caribbean. Maybe the Virgin Islands."
"That sounds like it would be a lot of fun, honey. Just stay away from the places where those girls were abducted." She thought for a moment; then she looked at me funny. "Or was that the idea?"
"Busted! Crud. You know me almost as well as Neeka does."
"Thank you. Are you really going to try to find those missing girls?"
"Yes. Or at least learn what happened to them and put a stop to it. The Federal People asked me to go, so this is an official trip. We already have tickets and passports and everything."
"Oh. Then how can I help? You certainly don't need my permission."
"We need you to cover for us with Neeka's father. Pretend you're giving us the trip."
"Sam, I won't lie to Fiona. If she agrees that this is what she wants to tell Carl, I'll go along."
Mrs. Morgan had been keeping our secret from her husband for a couple of months now. Adding one more small fib to the pile she had already told him wasn't a problem. Anything would have been better than telling him what his daughter did on those occasions when she ran out of the house in a sudden fit to go visit me. I'm sure he just thought she was having a good time before finishing high school. If he knew she put on spandex and black leather and went out kicking criminal butt, he might have had a problem with it. Fiona Morgan did too, but she was so proud of her daughter for having the courage to do it that she was willing to shut her eyes to the danger.
It also helped that Neeka didn't tell her any more of the nasty details than she had to. I tried to do the same thing with Bambi, but she always knew when I was hiding something and she almost always got it out of me. Sometimes she was sorry she did, but it didn't stop the interrogations.
Graduation was every bit the big deal I thought it would be. The ceremony was a sell-out, with every seat filled and a lot of people standing in the aisles. We probably could have filled the football stadium too. In fact, the only reason we didn't have it out there was the looming threat of a hurricane turning the wrong way and hitting us instead of Key West. So instead, we had it in the gym where the weather wouldn't spoil everything.
I thought I was going to be calm and mature about the whole thing, but every time one of my friends walked across and picked up their diploma, my eyes started to tear-up. I kept thinking that I'd never see them again after this.
When it was my turn, I tried to keep it together and focus on things so I could treasure the memory later, but it was over way too fast and before I knew it, I was walking back up the aisle to my seat with the blue leather folder in my hand. The one thing I remember vividly was seeing Yvette and Jan waving to me from the bleachers. Jan looked happy, but Yvette looked about as miserable as she could be. I suspected she felt she had to be there — she's my birth-mother after all — but it still must have been very hard for her to see me again. Neither she nor Jan came down afterward to talk to me. I understood. I had just enough empathy with Yvette to understand why she had treated me the way she had, but understanding and forgiving can be very different things. Forgetting wasn't even a remote possibility.
After the ceremony Bambi took us all to dinner. Me, Bud, Jim — and the Morgans, which I thought was very nice of her to do and them to go along. As close as Neeka and I are, I really would have missed not having her there, and Fiona and Bambi had gotten much closer too. I guess sharing secrets will do that. Although they had actually been really close before and had just drifted apart until lately.
I hardly knew Carl Morgan. He spent most of his time on the road, handling public relations disasters for his clients by spinning scandal into cotton-candy. I think I probably had only had the chance to say ten words to the man.
The party was very nice, but the big deal was the graduation presents we all got afterwards. The Morgans gave Neeka a new car. Bambi gave her sons both new cars. (Jim got the red sports car he wanted, but not the one with the big engine in it.) I was thrilled for everyone and they totally blew me away when Neeka handed me the keys to her old car and they told me it was mine now.
You have to understand — I don't know how to drive. Yvette would never let me take Drivers Ed and hardly ever even let me out of the house, so I never learned how and I still didn't have a license. Part of the reason Neeka and I are partners is she's the one who can drive the bike whenever we go out on a local job. I just hang on the back and try not to scream too loud.
It was probably just as well that the car was pretty old and a little beat-up. Who knew how much damage I might do to it while learning to operate it on my own? So it didn't matter at all to me that it wasn't a new car; the car itself meant I had something I had never had before — freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted, without having to impose on someone else to chauffeur me around.
I didn't realize how much that meant to me until I stood there in the driveway with the keys in my hand. At that moment, I think that meant more to me than graduating. It seemed an even bigger deal than becoming a superheroine.
While I was standing there bawling my eyes out, Bambi promised to teach me to drive. I wanted to get started right away, but she reminded me that my plane would be leaving in less than 24 hours and I had better get started packing. Leaving that car sitting in the garage was one of the hardest things I've ever done.
The next day was total madness. I dragged absolutely every scrap of clothing I had out of the closet and the drawers and tried to cram most of it into the biggest suitcase Bambi had.
"You're going to have to leave something here, honey," she told me in a serious tone.
I looked at the piles of clothes and then at her to see if she was about to laugh at me. She was doing her best not to, and that was terribly sweet of her, but I got her point.
"I don't know how to pack!" I wailed. "I've never been anywhere before!"
Bambi had been to lots of places, and even out of the country several times. She helped me pick what I had to take, then what I needed to take, and then as much of what I absolutely wanted to take as would fit in the suitcase.
"I could carry a bigger bag," I suggested hopefully.
"Honey, you could carry a moving van, but you might raise some eyebrows taking it into the terminal with you."
I looked at the suitcase she had loaned me. Empty, it was more than large enough for me to fit inside it and still have room to move around. It was going to look funny enough, me carrying something this big around. Anything bigger would be blatantly suspicious.
Bambi saw me frown at the bag.
"Don't forget to use the wheels," she said, and showed me how to pull up the handle and tip it over so it would roll.
That would help. I tried to look like I knew it had wheels.
She reminded me that I might want to buy some things there. Things that I might want to bring home with me. So I took some more stuff out of the bag. I think I only made enough room for a pack of crackers and a paperback book, but Bambi was willing to leave it at that.
"That's good enough," she said. "Now let's decide what you will carry on."
I vaguely understood the idea that some bags went in the belly of the plane and one I could keep with me, but that's about as far as it went. Bambi patiently explained all the details and protocols of air-travel to me. She went over gates, skycaps, boarding, seating classes, seatbelt signs, in-flight service, restroom features and etiquette, getting through security and customs without being detained, and why I should use the travel agent Solomon had included the number for, even if I was standing in the terminal across from the ticket counter. Then she covered the best places to find a taxicab, how to get the best room in a hotel without paying something she called the rack-rate for it, who to tip and how much and when, and where to hide valuables in a hotel room so they wouldn't disappear while I was out.
When she finished, I was reeling. I had no idea travel was so complicated.
"Sorry," she said, looking at my dazed expression, "It's just that I had no one to teach me all that. Ben thought it was cute to let me make a fool of myself. It seems funny now, but at the time I was very embarrassed not to know better. Remember, I'm just a local girl like you."
Much longer before the scheduled takeoff time than I thought was necessary, Bambi took us to the airport and dropped us off out front. From then on we were on our own. We were both so excited that we could hardly stand it. Neeka had never been out of the country before and I had never been anywhere before. Going to Miami in Mr. Solomon's jet didn't count — that was business.
We managed to get our bags checked in at the counter without too much fuss. Although the man who put mine on the moving belt shot me a nasty look when he went to pick it up and had to use two hands.
We found our flight to Miami on the monitors and started out for the gate. One hallway and one turn later and we were at the end of a long line of people slowly inching up to a security gate about fifty yards away.
Our excitement drained away quickly as we waited. An eternity later, we made it to the checkpoint. I laid my bag on the x-ray machine conveyor and walked toward the arch when the light turned green. Just as I was about to go through, I had a horrible second when couldn't remember if I had taken out the steel balls that I usually carried around in my, ah — well, lets just say I use them to keep a certain part of my anatomy toned and amused so it doesn't distract me so much. (Even if sometimes they do make me sound like a road-show version of The Caine Mutiny.)
Fortunately, the machine didn't fink on me and when Neeka made it through cleanly as well; we grabbed our bags and hurried off before we were singled out for 'special processing'. Neither of us knew what that was, and after standing in line all that time, we didn't care to find out.
The one thing Mom failed to emphasize enough was the sheer boredom of it all. If we weren't racing here or there, we were sitting for what seemed like hours. The actual flight to Miami was over almost before I knew we were in the air and then it was back to waiting some more in the next departure lounge.
When we landed in Virgin Gorda, we were pooped-out. Fortunately, Customs turned out to be less of an ordeal than the security gate had. The passport control people were very friendly, and even asked if we were traveling 'unaccompanied' and advised us to be careful but enjoy ourselves. Before we knew it we were standing in front of the terminal, looking for a way to get to the hotel. We darn near ran off and forgot the bags we had checked. We had to pass up riding in the colorful hotel van while we ran back to the baggage-claim to get them.
The taxi we wound up taking was falling apart, but I think it was a much more exciting ride than the hotel van would have been. The driver was charming and offered to guide us around and show us all the sights. It sounded like fun, but we were tired and we both felt grimy after being cooped up in the plane and lying around on the plastic benches at the airports, so we just had him take us over to the hotel.
The room was tasteful and charming, but we were too wrung-out to appreciate it. As soon as we had unpacked and showered, we crashed. We had only gone a few hundred miles, but the hassle of dealing with the airports wore us out.
In the morning, the soft, warm breeze coming through the open windows of our bungalow was very refreshing after our trip. It was still early, but the forecast in the paper left outside our door said it was going to be very hot and humid later, but nothing above normal for that time of year. I started to regret bringing all the clothes I had packed because it was looking like that this was the sort of place where you dressed very casually, and if you wanted to be comfortable, you wore even less than we were used to at home.