The visit from the mysterious flying man left me rattled for days. The page in front of me remained blank as I stared at the typewriter, willing the words to come. Here I was on the verge of quitting the newspaper grind and the biggest story ever drops in my lap. I should have majored in economics like Mother advised.
This was going nowhere, I sighed in frustration and took another gulp of tepid coffee. I picked up the essay I wrote for the magazine section of the Sunday Gazette and read it again hoping it would jar my brain loose from the writer's block gripping me. I may have been new at reporting but knew how to write an interview. I revised the copy four times before handing it to my editor when he was in a good mood, hoping it wouldn't look ridiculous.
Al Mackie did not put up with the ridiculous. I watched him read it without correction then he peered at me over his reading glasses.
"You're fucking kidding right?" Al famously excelled at editing and swearing with equal skill.
"No, he's the real deal," I assured him, a touch chagrinned. He narrowed his eyes, unconvinced of my assessment.
"First you speculate this guy is a myth, only to have him conveniently show up on your doorstep where you interview him like Lois Lane, for Christ's sake, and you expect people to believe this?"
" Well, not when you put that way but I was hoping you would," I answered, as I watched my credibility crumble. He perched his glasses on his head and leaned his chair back in exasperation.
" Look Vic, you've been straight up so far, but this is outrageous. I'm going to need verification this is legit," he said, not quite sure where to go with this. Inwardly I fumed but he had a point. Now what?
"He'll call me in two weeks. When he does, I'll set up a meeting between the three of us and you can see for yourself okay?" I volunteered. I had no idea if flyboy would go along with any of this but he had to, if I was going to get the story printed.
"Deal, let me know when," he said, signaling the end of the conversation. We would sit on the story until then.
I was relieved when he called exactly two weeks later and I explained the situation to him. He wasn't keen on the idea but agreed to the reasonable request. We arranged to meet at a defunct golf course outside of town in a few days. No one else comes and no cameras he demanded.
You know the feeling you get on a roller coaster as it climbs up the hill- how your anxiety builds until you get to the top before that moment of release? That's how I felt until the next meeting.
Neil was leaning against his car wearing jeans and a Steeler's jersey when we pulled up in Mackie's car. Frankly I was surprised he did show up, demonstrating for total strangers-journalists no less, had to be intimidating after a life time of secrecy. Mackie unfolded his tall, lanky frame from the car while Henry, our photographer and I emerged from the back seat.
" I said no cameras." he crossed his arms defensively, ready to end the encounter. Mackie mollified him by waving at Henry to put his camera away which he did reluctantly but remained where he was. There was an awkward pause.
"How does this work, you need a running start or what?" Mackie asked in a condescending tone I warned him against. Neil regarded us carefully, his half moon eyes squinting in harsh determination. Any misgivings he may have had were instantly replaced with a desire to put Al's haughtiness in its place.
He gazed out over the wide grassy lawn of the driving range where a line of huge boulders marked the far side. He launched himself a hundred feet in the air and I held my breath. It was a weird and dangerous sight with no turning back. He flew to a boulder, landed on it briefly, then returned to his starting point.
"Well?" He prompted after a stunned silence. His show had the desired effect.
"No one will believe this, no one will believe this, no one will fucking believe this," Mackie sputtered as he paced back and forth.
"Will you stop saying that," I winced in embarrassment. That was not the reaction Neil expected and his face drooped. He started for his car when I put a hand on his arm.
"It was very brave of you to come, thank you." I smiled and he gazed at me for a long time before returning it. He turned his attention to Mackie.
" I hope this satisfies you that Ms. Ball was telling the truth. I would appreciate it if you hold off publishing this story until I inform a few other people first," he said. I cringed, that wasn't going to happen.
* * *
The reaction from Mackie made me reconsider this whole revelation idea. I was a jittery wreck after I left the golf course and fretted about how my family, friends and the Bureau would react. Especially the Bureau. I should have gone to the Public Information Officer but decided to see how this played out first.
I called Victoria and asked to meet her to get a take on all this. Maybe it's not a good idea to be chummy with a reporter, given the love hate relationship between the media and fire departments: the media wants drama and the departments wants accuracy.
I knocked on her door once more, wavering between doubt and curiosity. She opened it seconds later; her oval face flush from exertion.
She must have just gotten off work as she was still in a black skirt and a light gray striped shirt that showed off her Mediterranean complexion and curvy figure nicely. A blazer and pair of shoes had been carelessly tossed on a couch which she hastily cleared off as we entered the living room. She added them to a pile of mail on the coffee table, apologizing for the mess which I politely ignored.
" Thanks for coming, I'd like to get some more background information if you don't mind," she said in full reporter mode as she picked up a notebook and pen.
"Maybe I should do the same of you," I replied likewise as we sat down across from each other. The couch, like her chair, was a dun corduroy and as worn and comfortable as an old pair of shoes; the arms stained from being used as a napkin.
"Why did you come to me in the first place?" she asked, pushing a strand of black hair out of her face with a delicate hand.
" Because you're the only one I trusted," I answered. I stared into her dark eyes, both of us startled at my unexpected response. Honestly, she was smart, attractive and took me seriously which was good enough for me.
The smell of fresh coffee from the kitchen caught my attention and she fetched each of us a cup to brush away the awkward moment.
"So how did you become a nosy journalist?" I asked lightly as I stirred in a teaspoon of sugar.
"Not at all really. I dislike the 'good old boys' mentality in journalism. This job is just for experience and contacts. What I really want to do is be a publishing editor," she replied. The explanation felt weary from frequent use.
While she distracted herself with some internal debate, I looked at her apartment for the first time. Along with the couch, the furniture was sparse and practical although most of it was covered with disarray of some kind as if she had better things to do than attend to the clutter.
The place was dark with a window in the small open kitchen and a sliding glass door at the other end of the serviceable living room. On the wall across from us, hung a diploma from Yale next to several crooked photos above a desk with an electric typewriter.
"You're not worried about letting a strange man into your house?" I asked, breaking the long silence. She considered my lame non sequitur with a thin smirk.
"You're hardly a stranger. I know who you are," she said confidently as she settled back in the chair. She knew my full name, education and work history with the PBF.--the sort of thing on my resume. I should not have been surprised.
" You like jazz, play the clarinet-- oh and you just turned twenty eight," she said with a wry smile.
"And you'll be twenty seven in August." I retorted, having done some snooping of my own.
"Touche," she said, putting down her cup. After some discussion, it turned out we were both on track teams in high school.
"Sprint or long distance? " I asked.
" Cross country --but not for long, the coach was a macho jerk," she answered and we traded familiar training stories. I learned she was born in Paris and raised in Bethseda. Her parents were divorced and her younger brother just joined the Navy.
"How did you become a firefighter?" she asked, turning the subject back to me. Instead of being cautious, I decided she was entitled to a full picture since I was dragging her in to this haphazard plan. I gazed at the ceiling as I closed in on the memory.
At nineteen, I had no idea what I wanted to do. College seemed unaffordable but working at Dad's hardware store was stifling. I got a job as a truck driver doing deliveries between Chicago and Galesburg.
One day, while frustrated with a long wait in traffic, I got out to investigate. Beyond a roadblock, fire trucks and police cars swarmed around a partially collapsed building in a neighborhood of boarded up houses.
"Some kids are trapped under the rubble," a cop informed me crisply, holding out a hand to bar me from getting closer.
I could see firefighters throwing aside big chunks of wall board and cinder blocks in the continued to search for more victims. A trio of firefighters struggled with a large piece.
My God I could easily move that. I tried to rush in and help but the cop would have none of it. I glared at him and intended to shove him aside when I heard shouting as the rescuers pulled a kid out and the crisis passed. I watched the scene in a trance and knew exactly what to do with my life.
" I can see a straight line from that epiphany to this moment," I said as a curious feeling of self awareness rushed up. Her eyes narrowed as she mentally constructed a narrative.
"Not everything I say is for public consumption," I said, stopping her thinking.
Victoria gave me an odd look, like I didn't get it.
"Everyone is going to know your history when this breaks, so you better get used to it," She informed me bluntly. I squirmed in my seat. Once again I had the uncomfortable feeling this was a bad idea and felt the urge to run and hide.
"Have you talked to anyone else about going public?" she inquired. I shook my head, leaving Roscoe out of the equation. There was an anxious pause as she stared at her cold coffee and I got an ominous feeling.
"Uh-oh," I groaned as a prompt.
"Mackie wants to pass on the story."
"What?" I blurted, incredulous.
"We know it's true, but he's a conservative journalist and a cautious man."
"I thought the press loved this kind of story," I said, expressing confusion.
"Oh they do, the more dramatic, the better. Extreme behavior, the eccentric and the horrible-- all makes for good press," She looked out the rear door for a long time before finishing. "But this one requires-- more than print copy," she said tactfully.
"What should I do, fly into Three River Stadium in the middle of a ball game and land on home plate?"
Wow, this was proving to be more troublesome than I imagined. There was no in between, either I make a big reveal or not at all. I crossed my arms impatiently.
"Superheros never had this problem," I sputtered.
"This isn't the comics," she replied. I blinked, that's exactly what I once said to Pete. "Don't worry, when this story breaks the press will be all over you," she said with sardonic humor.
" And I can kiss my privacy good bye," I sighed. She shook her head.
" No, never give up your privacy. Never compromise or answer the unasked question. If you really want the press to ignore you, be boring, they hate that."
"Actually, I am kind of boring," I said. She gave a small laugh at my modesty.
" I doubt that highly."
We discussed the problem a bit further. In addition to the public and press, the government was going to be keenly interested. That hadn't occurred to me and I went into shock at the prospect of powerful, incompetent agents putting their hands on my balls.
"Maybe you could wear a mask or have a secret identity," she suggested with little conviction. I snorted at the idea.
"There would be a race to unmask me. I'll have a better idea what to do after I talk to my parents," I offered.
"They don't know?" She sat up startled.
" Kind of, " I hemmed. I planned to visit them in July for the holiday.
" Don't worry, I don't think anything will happen between now and then. I have all summer to yard this thing out," I said off handedly.
Famous last words.