Friday, March 23, 2012

The Beginning of My New Novel --- As of Now

Espionage? It was laughable. Even if it wasn't a joke, Julie Townsend didn't think an espionage charge against Angela Beckstrom could ever stand up. The news just couldn't be the truth. It simply couldn't be just or fair. Not of Angela.
She pulled into Angela's driveway on Boise's fringe and stopped. Her best friend's house sat near Collister's peter-out point. And that's how Julie felt, at the end of her road, wasted. She needed time to think about what had happened and her position relative to it. And for certain, she needed more information, a lot more. You could never know too much.

It was the end of July and things were hot. And August usually got hotter still.

"Quit it, Ptolemy," she told her dog, a rescued greyhound that pushed his nose over the back of her seat into her neck, interrupting her thoughts. The mutt was anxious to be out and about with the car now parked.  Julie had grown used to the dog's antics, and a slippery snout was part of that.
She returned to her original thoughts. Fairness as it related to Angela; something she’d never thought about before, had never had to. Now it had arisen because of her best friend's arrest and incarceration.

"Lie down!" she told Ptolemy. Yeah, like that was going to happen. But the dog turned around twice as best it could on the narrow back seat and settled down.
Angela's detention didn't seem fair, not in Julie's gut or in her heart.  But still, she needed to think it completely through before deciding. In order to utilize her intellect to reason it fully through, however, she'd need data, a lot more facts than she had. She knew so little. In any event, Angela was her best friend and nothing would change that.

Ptolemy stayed down about eight seconds. Then his wet nose nudged at her again and brushed back and forth along her neck. "Quit it!" she said. She pushed his muzzle and blasted him with words. "Bad dog. Lie down."
Ptolemy whined.

"And shut up," she said. "You bellyache as bad as Ron."
Information, the collection of facts and data, the handling of it: that, it appeared, was what the whole arrest was about. According to news reports, scanty as they were, the FBI had arrested Angela and put her in jail for espionage, for obtaining secret information and passing it on.

Espionage? It was just unbelievable. They'd nabbed Angela. Allegedly, she'd received and passed on secrets of the United States without permission to do so. At least that was what the news reports said. And Ron, Julie's husband of ten years, who'd watched the reports with her, had then called Angela a traitor from the get-go, on the scantiest of information. In fact, after Ron had watched Fox News one time --- Fox was his usual channel --- he'd been ready to charge, convict, and sentence Angela to death. What an idiot.
Julie and Ron had always been light years apart on politics and philosophy. Julie had generally deferred to him, however, to begin with because she saw other redeeming features about him; but lately, it was in order to keep the peace. Sometimes she simply ignored his rants. Given their differences, it was a miracle their marriage had lasted.

But Angela, arrested for spying? It was hard to comprehend. Angela had been Julie's best friend since seventh grade. It didn't seem possible she could be in jail, let alone isolated in a cell all alone for something as serious as spying was. It seemed like a sick joke. It wasn't funny. Presumably Angela was in Boise, but who knew for certain?  Especially, with a charge like espionage. Maybe they'd shipped her to Africa or to the Middle East to "question" her.
Anyway, Angela couldn't have visitors or get correspondence. At least, that's what the receptionist at the Sherriff's office had told Julie when she inquired. Then the receptionist, upon finding out Julie's connection to Angela--- "But I'm her best friend!" --- had told Julie to hold on while she transferred her call to the FBI. "They might have questions for you." "For me?" "Yeah, for you." It frightened Julie to think she might know something pertinent to the espionage charge. But the FBI had just taken down Julie's name and phone number; they hadn't quizzed her but had only said they'd be in touch later.

So, it appeared, Angela would remain in jail, at least for the foreseeable future. Bail hadn't been set; some said it wouldn't be. And Julie, to be frank, didn't know what she could do about that. Or, even if the court did set bail, what she would be able to do about it.
If Julie could first of all decide somehow whether or not the arrest was fair, it'd be a lot easier to decide what measures, if any, she should or could take about getting Angela out, if it became at all possible to get her out. Espionage seemed special, a problem requiring a superhuman to deal with it.

It looked as if, from what Julie had pieced together, Angela had just yesterday, inexplicably, left her modest, twenty-five-year-old home — all the home Angela, as far as Julie knew, had ever cared about or desired — for an afternoon of disc golf.
Disc golf?  Angela had, it appeared, taken her old white Camry up near Bogus Basin ski resort to play disc golf with some new casual friends. At least that's what Angela's brother, Vern Peek, had told Julie.

Angela didn't have many friends: a few acquaintances from two book clubs, a handful of people from her church, a small number of neighbors. A couple of relatives. Nobody else was nearly as close to her as Julie was, however.
Besides, disc golf didn't seem like the kind of activity Angela would like, other than maybe for some flight of fantasy that she would actually get fully fit. Angela wasn't sporty, hadn't ever been. She preferred sitting in her leather recliner and reading in air-conditioned comfort to, of all things, disc golf.

Angela did have an elliptical machine in her basement. She kept in decent shape. There she'd listen to books on tape as she pedaled and moved her arms to and fro. Afterward, she'd stick her earphones in and take her dog for a walk.
But these "friends" she'd reportedly gone disc golfing with couldn't have been anyone special; Julie didn't even know them. While their names had been reported in the news, Julie hadn't recognized a single one of them. And none of them had been arrested or detained. They weren't, it appeared, friends of Angela's from her book clubs, her church, or the neighborhood. They weren't related to her.

For some strange reason, Angela had felt obligated to meet them for disc golfing. Odd.
The FBI had arrested Angela at the Boise ski resort and put her in jail. It had been in the news and not just locally. The networks all reported it in primetime, even without many details. All they needed was a sound bite. Then they'd utilize so-called experts to speculate and conjecture. The story stewed, a bare bone in water with little meat or fat. It looked like Angela would stay in jail, though, and details would remain scant. But Julie had to figure out if what they'd done to Angela was fair or, maybe, the better word was not fair, but just.

Angela's house, along with others, lined Collister Drive. The street itself originated someplace near downtown Boise, closer to Julie and Ron's house. From there, it headed north, passing by or through several subdivisions, eventually crossing Hill Road before wandering away from any semblance of a city or subdivision and up a foothills drainage.
Julie needed to feed Moochey, Angela's own rescued greyhound, while she was here. She let herself and Ptolemy in with a just-in-case key Angela had given her years ago. She turned off the security system, which Angela had bragged about and shown her how to work. Now Moochey greeted Julie happily at the door, but then saw Ptolemy and started growling. The two had never gotten along that well. "Moochey, it's okay," Julie said in a gentle, loving tone. "It's just me and Ptolemy." Then more sternly: "Ptolemy, shut up."

Pretty soon the two dogs had worked out their differences . . . mostly. Actually, what Julie finally did was let Ptolemy out the back door into Angela's fenced yard then put the dog-door gate down so he couldn't get back in. And Moochey started living up to her name, nose nudging Julie's hip and snotting her swinging hand with her nose as Julie walked toward the cabinet where the kibble and other dog supplies and treats were.
"You hungry, Moochey?"

No doubt the mutt was. Feeling neglected, too. Angela had always walked the dog daily, spoiling her good. Evenings, the two of them always sat together on Angela's leather couch, the greyhound curled up next to Angela, his front feet and head on her lap as Angela watched television or read. Sometimes Angela even read out loud to the pooch and discussed the book she was reading with Moochey.
Julie loved the fact that Moochey was so laid back. She exhibited no harsh, repetitive barking and yipping, no insane running back and forth, and no going all nutso like so many dogs did. Julie didn't like those kinds of dogs as much as Moochey and, now, Ptolemy.  She had long wanted to get her own rescue greyhound from the Denver racetrack, even before Angela had gotten Moochey. But Ron, he wouldn't have it, not at first. "Dogs are for hunting and belong outside." He'd insisted that they not have one in the house, and Julie wasn't going to leave a rescue dog outside, treated worse than it had been at the track.

So for several years Julie lived without a dog, always admiring the companionship Moochey provided Angela, hoping someday she'd have a hound to Velcro its nose to her hip. It was so unfair that she couldn't. But finally, Ron had relented. Well, relented wasn't quite the word. Ron had had an indiscretion, and Julie found out about it. Ron apologized and begged forgiveness, promising he'd never do it again. Julie had had reservations, but she'd always been taught to give people a second chance if it seemed like they were sincere. She hadn't been certain if Ron was, but he seemed to be. So she decided to give him another chance, just one more. Plus, it'd been the leverage needed to get Ptolemy. And then Ptolemy took care of ingratiating himself on Ron after that.
As Moochey scarfed up kibble, Julie returned to her thoughts on Angela's arrest and her need for more information about it. Then she noticed Angela's laptop sitting on the coffee table. She walked over and touched a key. It was on. When Julie touched the key, the computer flashed to life, displaying a blistering hot desktop. The background picture presented a violent sun, swirling in a caldron of fiery explosions, almost too searing to look at. Its "bing" logo had an orange dot above its "i".

Julie imagined hell might look like that from a comfortable distance, say from heaven or on one of those clouds with an angel and a harp. The thought, however, made Julie wonder if she should be snooping in Angela's private computer.
Well, there was no password protection, or Julie would've encountered it. But then again, Angela lived alone; she didn't normally need to protect her machine. She wasn't the type to carry the computer around in public. In fact, Angela didn't have much commerce in public. Primarily, there was home and work --- Angela was a research chemist for J.R. Simplot. And no one took laptops to book club or church.  So, in fact, a password would be a big inconvenience. She'd strangely installed and faithfully maintained a security system, however, even though she'd told Julie she'd never experienced break-ins.

Julie glanced at the operating system's taskbar to see Angela's shortcuts to important programs. That didn't seem too snoopy, she thought, unless there was one with a weird title like ISpy2010 or SPinahge. At least that'd provide critical information to perhaps consider. There were the typical icons: Internet Explorer, Audible Manager, and several others. Nothing exceptional but OmniPageProfessional17, which Julie simply didn't recognize. She'd Google it in a minute.  But now Moochey had finished her kibble and come to nose Julie's arm, to beg for a treat or an ear scratch. Julie smelled Purina on her breath. She tried ignoring the mutt, but it didn't work. The dog wiped its mouth on Julie's denims. Julie patted her and scratched her head. Finally, Moochey left and settled down with a big sigh on a padded matt on the floor near Julie and the computer.
Julie's eyes returned to the computer screen. She clicked the Start circle and checked the All Programs line, scrolling down its listings to get some idea of the programs loaded. Maybe she was looking for something like Evidence Eliminator, a program that claimed it could delete hidden information from a hard disk.  Snooping, but not too deeply so she thought she'd violate her friend's privacy. Julie lifted her fingers from the keyboard to rub her itchy eyes, thinking how ridiculous it'd be if that burning sun, which for her was a symbol of hell, she'd witnessed when Angela's computer had first came to life, had burned them. Computers connected people in the broadest sense. At the same time, they provide a hiding place.

Julie felt a bit uncomfortable, not from being in Angela's house --- she'd been Angela's guest often and told to feel at home --- but by messing with Angela's personal computer, where she could potentially enter her friend's private place. But Angela was sitting in jail. Maybe something here could help her, could at a minimum help Julie understand why Angela had gone disc golfing and beyond that, what'd had happened to make authorities believe she was a spy.
Julie hit escape and clicked the Word icon. The program came up, the Office 2007 version. She clicked the Office Button to see the listing of recent documents worked on. There were seventeen. The first was named favorite fantasy books.docx. Several more had similar naming convention, for science fiction, mysteries, whatnot. There was a file named past needs.docx. A few were named by date and a single name, mostly names Julie recognized: Angela's siblings --- all three of them --- Angela's pastor, members from her book groups. None were the names of the disc golfers mentioned in the news reports, however.

The doorbell rang.
It startled Julie, and she yelped.

Moochey barked just once, the common tack of greyhounds to bark once or twice.
Julie's heart quickened, her face flushed. Her hand pushed the laptop closed. She stood up and gawked out the window. A UPS truck was pulling away, so Julie went to the door, opened it, and found a package on the porch. It was the size of a large shoebox. She picked it up and brought it in. She put it on the kitchen counter, plopped herself on a bar stool, and read:

Queenie Townsville
c/o Angela Beckstrom
5980 N. Collister Drive
Boise, Idaho 83703
Queenie Townsville? It was not a name Julie could identify out as a friend or a relative of Angela's or even as one of the disc golfers mentioned in the news. She looked at the return address, one in the United Kingdom, an Albert Youknowme. Very funny. Phony.

She inspected the package for hints, but nothing provided a clue as to who the package was addressed to or really who it was really from. After Julie shook it --- it didn't weigh much and whatever was in it didn't make a noise --- she set it on the kitchen table and bent over and sniffed the package. It smelt like stale cigarettes, like whoever packaged it chain-smoked and had polluted its contents.
Julie stood and left the kitchen, returning to the sitting area where the computer was. She didn't go to it, however, but sat in a recliner opposite the one she had sat in to view the computer. She reached down and pulled the chair's leaver to recline. Her feet raised and she pushed back to relax and think. When did she ever have time to really think?

Then her cell phone rang. It was Ron. "Hi. What's up?"
"Where the hell are you? Weren't you supposed to pick up Tommy today? The school called me."

Dammit, it was Ron's turn to pick up the boy.  "Today's Tuesday, sweetie."
"It is? You sure? Hell, I thought it was Monday."

"Can you handle it? There's something I've got to deal with." Since Julie audited mostly small businesses or wealthy individuals for the IRS, she could cloak her activities under the guise of confidentiality. Julie picked up Tommy Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Ron was supposed to Tuesdays, one day a week. Julie's mother picked Tommy up on Thursdays, usually, when she could be counted on. Typically her mother took him to piano lessons; something that instilled culture and sensitivity over against Ron's insistence of brutality and competition.
"I guess." He cleared his throat and belched. "I've been busy." Ron's unspoken suggestion was that Julie wasn't.

"Life is rough," she said.
"Don't be a shrew. Don't worry, I'll get him." Ron hung up.

How magnanimous, agreeing to do what he'd already committed to do. After all, Julie helped Tommy with homework too; Ron never did now, he had at one time but had stopped. She saw that Tommy got to almost all of his other activities now, too, even the competitive ones Ron insisted on, the ones he had started taking him to but then quit. Plus, Julie worked forty hours a week. Fortunately, her schedule was flexible, and she could work at home some of the time.
Ultimately, getting Ptolemy by overlooking Ron's infidelity and giving Ron another chance had been a bad decision. He hadn't cheated again, not that she knew of anyway. But he'd slacked off other ways. Julie should've gotten rid of Ron and gotten Ptolemy afterward. But she had wanted to make their marriage work; she wanted to be an optimist. Now, it looked as if a divorce was imminent. She started trying to put a nice spin on that.

She got up and fetched a NutriDent from Angela's dog cupboard with Moochey trailing every step. She went to the dog door and lifted up the gate. "Ptolemy," she called.
As soon as Ptolemy stuck his head in, Moochey growled. "Easy, girl," she said. "You want a treat, Moochey?" She held Ptolemy's collar, opened the door and tossed the Nylabone on the deck for Moochey, who went after it. She closed the door, still holding Ptolemy, and put the gate back in.

She returned to the recliner, the one with the computer. She'd think later. A revenue agent had to be inquisitive and snoop. She opened the lid and the monitor roused. Instead of a scorching sun, now the background showed a vibrant bird escaping an ice hole with three squirming fish in its beak. Bing.
Julie intended to find out everything she could about the package's return address and addressee, this Queenie Townsville person. She started Internet Explorer and went to work: clicking Tools, then the General tab, looking at Browsing history, seeing the box Delete browsing history on exit checked. So there was no browsing track to snoop. While Julie had been trained as an IRS sleuth, of sorts, especially relative to finances, her education didn't deal with this kind of digging into a dung heap.

The doorbell rang again. Shit. At least this time Julie didn't jump as much as she had before. She stood and looked out. This time an old lady stood on the porch. Julie went and opened the door.
"Hi," Julie said, "can I help you?"

"Who're you?" the old lady asked. "Are you a friend of Angela's?"
"Yeah, I am. So, you know Angela, too?"

"I'm her neighbor. Live two doors down, house with the detached garage. Saw your car and wondered what was going on. I saw in the news where Angela's a spy and they've stuck her in jail. You know anything about that?"
"Unh-unh. I'm just here to feed Moochey, her dog."

"Oh." The old woman giggled. "That skinny thing. Race dog." She looked back toward the road running down the middle of the gully. "Well, yesterday somebody else was here; they didn't answer the door when I rang the bell."
"They were inside?"

"Yeah. Spent about three hours and left. A guy and a gal. Younger-looking."
"You think they were cops?"

"Might of been authorities, I guess, but they didn't have official-looking hats that said FBI or anything."
"Wonder if they took anything?"

"Didn't seem to. I watched to see what they were doing. Their car was just a Toyota, I think, a light grey one, later model."
"A light bar or logo or anything?"

"Nothing to identify it as official I saw, no government plates. One of those mini-SUVs."
"Guy and gal, huh?" She seemed like a snoopy old sweetheart. Julie felt like asking if the old woman had seen any Frisbees in the back of the mini-SUV but didn't. "Did you know Angela well?"

"Hardly. Got her to feed my cat once when I had surgery. We didn't talk much, but she always seemed polite and was a good neighbor. Took care of her yard and never caused a ruckus. Hard to believe she's a spy; she didn't seem to ever go anyplace to do any spying. All she did is go to and from work, regular as days on the calendar, and to the grocery store."
Angela did more than just that: church, book clubs, dentist and doctor appointments, meet Julie for lunch or dinner, occasionally.

After the old woman left, Julie went back to the laptop and closed Internet Options and Googled Queenie Townsville. The first of 217,000 items said Auntie Queenie and staff at Queen's Hotel, Townsville. She opened it in a new tab, looked down the rest of the first page. Is Townsville in Queensland nice? caught her eye. She new-tabbed it, too. She checked the Auntie Queenie tab  but got The webpage cannot be found. She went back and chose Cached. It produced an old picture of the webpage from a few months before, a photograph of hotel maids from the Queen's Hotel in Townsville in 1922. Nothing. Next she checked the other tab, a Yahoo! UK & Ireland® Answers page. The question "I've got friends asking if they should stop in Townsville whilst in Queensland on vacation. What do you say?" produced various answers. They made it clear a city named Townsville existed in the state of Queensland in Australia. Julie knew enough to know it'd be in the upper right quadrant, possibly on coast by the Great Barrier Reef. One entry caught her eye: "Townsville in Queensland is not a very nice place. It is basically a 'forces town' i.e. the army & navy and families. I lived there for 3 years while my husband was in the Air Force & hated it every minute. I love Australia but would not recommend Townsville to anyone."
This was probably as much as Julie was going to find out about the return address and addressee on the package. It seemed even more obvious now that they were bogus, without significance. Perhaps the geographical location — in Queensland, Australia — and the fact that Townsville had military installations were meaningful, but that was a gut feeling. Julie always associated spying with the military.

Julie stood up and headed for Angela's landline telephone, for the portable handset on the kitchen counter. Julie planned to check for messages that'd been left and see if she could listen to them. She'd check to see who had recently called. At the very least, she hoped to get some numbers of recent callers.
Before Julie got halfway to the telephone, however, her own cell phone rang again. Not Ron again, she thought. I can't stand to talk to him right now. But it wasn't Ron; it was work, her boss, Mitchell Meacham. Julie wondered what he was calling about; she was off the clock, but maybe he didn't know that.

"I need you in the office," he said.
"Now?" she asked. Julie had such a flexible schedule that it was hard to keep track if she was on or off the clock. Mitch probably thought she was on. He didn't usually call otherwise.

"Yeah, now."
"But, you know, I'm off the clock."

"Come anyway. We'll put you on the clock. You have a problem with that?" Mitch was unusually curt.
"I guess not, but what for? Is something wrong?"

"I'll tell you when you get here. Hurry up; it's important." Mitch hung up before she could say or ask anything else.
Julie closed her cell phone and swore under her breath as she wondered what the hell was going on. What could be so important that Mitch wanted her to come to the office right now and wouldn't give her any idea what it was all about? She worked for the IRS, not for local law enforcement, the FBI, or CIA or something. Mitch, as far she recalled, had never expressed urgency in getting to the office quickly before, and he'd never been so vague about why she needed to come in; sometimes she wished he were more subtle.

She surveyed her personal situation.
No makeup. Her hair was a complete mess. After all, she'd just come to feed Moochey and check for intimations of why Angela was in jail. Her blue jeans, the ones with a hole in the knee and butt, and her "messed-up" t-shirt didn't qualify as proper office attire, not unless it was dress-down Friday, and it wasn't. Even then, it'd stretch every limit. Besides, she had Ptolemy with her. She couldn't leave the dog in her car or take him inside the federal building, although security would get a laugh if she tried. She couldn't risk going clear home to change and running into that damn monster, Ron. Plus, Mitch knew just where she lived — she'd hosted an office party Mitch'd had attended. He'd have little patience for her getting there slowly. Of course, she wasn't home, but at Angela's. Mitch didn't know that, and, anyway, coming from Angela's would add all of --- what? --- five minutes?

Well, Moochey was okay and could stay right here. She'd eaten now and was lying on her padded mat between the kitchen and the living area. She was on her back, her long greyhound legs sticking up like a dead cockroach. Her pose, a common one to the breed, always looked very awkward, most precarious and pretentious, and not at all lady-like.
Julie glanced out the window to check on Ptolemy. He'd found a spot to rest, also. His body spread out on a padded mat on the deck in the shade, and he looked clueless.

Julie went to the back door and, as carefully and as quietly as possible, removed the dog door gate. Now the two dogs could move in and out as they needed to. She removed the gate with care, however, hoping not to disturb them and cause a ruckus before she left. She hoped, when the two dogs later discovered that she had removed the gate, they wouldn't fight, but she was less worried about them getting into a spat than about Moochey having an accident in the house.
Julie slipped out the door and scanned the terrain, including the houses across the street and on both sides like she never had before. Funny what her friend's arrest did to make her extremely paranoid. She didn't see anybody out and about or peeking through their windows to watch her. She looked up and along the hills of the wash on both sides that ran behind the houses. Lots of sagebrush and weeds up there. The growth had mostly turned yellow with the heat and no rain. It was hot. Her obsession in looking up there seemed extreme, but this was about espionage.

She climbed in her RAV4 and started it up. As she pulled out of the driveway and headed down the road out of the wash, she noticed the old lady who'd come to the door. She was looking out her own window, a telephone to her ear, watching Julie.

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