Read the Story In Order


#1

Emily Dunsford typed up the all-company memo excitedly: "Come Celebrate 8 Years of Bold Traveling!" She would party for any reason at all, but she was proud of the magazine she worked for, and there was no better place to celebrate this anniversary than Little Nemo's on 50th Street. It was the Bold Traveler hangout. She spent five nights a week at that bar and grill along with her boyfriend Thomas, layout director "Black" Andy, content manager Brian, and whatever writers and photographers were in town at the time. Little Nemo's was Emily's mainstay, and though the anniversary was two weeks away, she was already planning what to wear when the president and VPs were there along with their spouses.

Writer Jason Huston rushed into the room of thirty-five cubicles from the reception area, folder in hand. Passing by Emily's desk, he called to his regular photographer, Michelle. "Hey. How long have you worked here?"

Michelle hesitated, as if waiting for a punchline. "Um, just over two years. Same as you, right?"

He held out the folder. "Ever seen an assignment like this?"

#2

Michelle looked over the task form Jason had printed. "Ok, cool. So, we go to hot spots all the time. That's why we're Bold Traveler. What's the matter?"

"We don't go talking to people in the middle of an international incident. We're a travel rag. We're not reporters. Looks like Dave's trying to turn us into a news magazine to boost sales. You know what happens to American reporters in these places?"

"It's a little scary, but I'm excited. It'll be fun. How many people do we know that get to do this?"

"Where are you going?" Emily was standing in her cubicle, overcome with curiosity.

Jason looked at her, then back at Michelle with a smirk. "I guess we're goin' to Syria."

#3

Jason was making his way toward Senior VP of Content Dave Pike's office when Dave stepped out and called his name. By the time Jason arrived, Dave was already seated at his desk again. Jason had just returned from lunch at a restaurant with slow service, so he was more irritable than usual. He made no effort to hide his theory of a shifting mission for the magazine.

"Dave."

"Jason, have a seat. Hey, nice suit. Got plans?"

"Yeah, an early Valentine's party."

"Ah, cool. I see you got the new assignment. How ya feelin'?"

Jason leaned forward in his seat. "You wanna know if I have any concerns."

"Yeah, I know Damascus is kinda scary right now. It's actually not as..."

"What's the deal with sending us out as reporters, Dave? Interviewing protesters, really? We're not Newsweek."

#4

"Is that what's eatin' you?" Dave tried to make light of the situation, and he wondered if Jason's deeper concern might be for his own safety. Jason may not have even detected his own fear just yet. "Look. You're not going there as a reporter. It's the same job as always. The idea is to help readers understand what they would experience if they decided to go to Damascus right now. We don't want hard-hitting news. Just the atmosphere. Just get us four pages on the atmosphere in downtown Damascus, with a few quotes from people in the middle of the action. Make sense?"

Jason looked as though he wasn't breathing.

"Jason, you're all I've got for this. I trust you with it. You'll be great. Just keep out of trouble; they're not gonna bother you if you're not bothering them. It's not like you'll have a TV camera in their faces." Dave nudged him and smiled. "And you'll have Michelle to protect you."

#5

As Jason made his way to his desk, feeling worse than before, Michelle was having her own conversation about the trip with "Black" Andy, the magazine's layout director who was her boyfriend of two months. They had worked together since joining the company two years prior and had finally decided to try for a romance, but their disparate backgrounds had been the cause of some tense feelings already.

"Syria, huh? That should be fun."

"I actually think it will be. Finally I'll get to see something I've only been able to hear about before."

"Angry, violent people? Well, if that's your thing."


#6

Michelle glared at Andy but paused to collect her thoughts. He looked tired but handsome in his black polo and scruffy beard. She half smiled, but he didn't see.

"I don't know if you're jealous or just being a pain."

He finally looked up from his computer. "I just don't see what the big deal is. It's the same thing that's been goin' down since the dawn of man. Not like there's anything really significant happening."

Now she was annoyed. "And what would be significant to you, Andy?" He retreated back to his work.

#7

She had no idea how this conversation derailed so quickly. She switched tracks. "Hey, ya know, I haven't seen Central Park in, like, weeks. Can you leave early?"

He removed his thick-rimmed glasses and smiled at her. "Would if I could." He stood, looked around for spies, put his arms around her slender waist. "Gotta finish makin' the doughnuts here. New ish goes to print Tuesday, ya know."

"Thought you were a fast worker," she teased.

"Don't know where you got that idea. Took my time with you, didn't I?"

#8

Andy's embrace was Michelle's new favorite thing, and to feel it at the office was a rare treat. She remembered that Tuesday was their first Valentine's Day together, and he should have no distractions once the new issue went to press. She pressed her face into his neck and kissed it. "Then I'll see you at Nemo's?"

"I'll be there. Then we can talk about where to go next."

"Like every Friday." She smiled and strapped on her camera bag and tiny purse. "See you there."

She passed Jason on her way out. "Jason, see you at Nemo's?"

"Yep." Like her, he was was heading for an exit to seek out an activity that didn't involve work.

#9

On a whim, he decided to take the stairs. Brian Grouper, Planning and Content Manager of Bold Traveler, was drinking whiskey on the landing. Jason hid his surprise.

"Brian."

"Hey."

"Break time?"

"Yep, takin' a little breather. Gonna be a long weekend gettin' this issue out on time. Hey, loved your story on Minsk. Good stuff."

"Thanks." Jason leaned against the railing of the aged stairwell and exhaled loudly. "Skiing in Minsk was cool, but not what I'd call great adventure travel. The nightlife was where things got interesting. Every night's a party in that town, even when it's frigid out. Saw some crazy stuff."

"So I read."

#10

"Right. So, wanna find somethin' to do, or are you stuck here?"

"Stuck good. Better get back to it, in fact." Brian hoisted his rotund torso off the landing with a grunt. "Oh...too many Cheetos."

"Good luck in there." Jason took off down the six flights of stairs, headed for 6th Avenue and freedom from thoughts about Syria.

As Brian snuck back to his desk with his bottle in a backpack, Dave suddenly showed up at Emily's cubicle. His yellow business shirt was a size too large, and she thought it made him look less masculine than usual. "Emily, when is our award winner due back from El Salvador?"

#11

Aggie Simms was a writer who had been with the magazine three years. She had won a feature writers award from the American Magazine Society for her story on the Egyptian riots in 2011. She was well liked among her coworkers. "Um, let's see." Emily checked the travel plan. "Aggie and Brady are due back on Tuesday."

"Ok." Dave seemed agitated, maybe worried. "She's usually good about checking in before the weekend."

"Should I try to reach her?"

"N-no, let's wait 'til five. I'm sure they're fine."

But Aggie and her photographer, Brady Murr, were not fine.

#12

From an alley in Santa Tecla's historic downtown, they watched their protector as he gazed down the street, weapon in hand. A gang battle had erupted moments ago as Brady was photographing the town and Aggie was taking notes. Brady had been shot near his right elbow and was bleeding profusely. A concerned gang member had quickly escorted them into the alley.

Brady shifted his focus to Aggie's face, strong in spite of their situation. Her brown curls framed her rubicund cheekbones perfectly, and she looked like a petite action heroine. "Incredible." His lip quivered from the pain in his arm. She moved closer to the street for a better view of the action. "Aggie," he said, but dizziness forced him to sit on the dusty pavement. He wished they'd had a more substantial lunch. The gunshots continued; the noise made him sicker. He was sure he'd lose consciousness soon.

#13

He heard Aggie speaking in Spanish to the gang member who had saved them. Was there anything she couldn't do? Suddenly she was by Brady's side.

"Brady, you still with me? We're gonna get you to a hospital, ok? Hang on."

The gangster crouched beside him and shouted at Aggie over the gunfire and voices in the street. She translated: "Do you think you can walk, Brady?" He felt arms hoisting him up, and his weight shifted to his feet.

"Um...uh....yeah, I think so." Strength returned to his legs as if in response to his voice. They walked into the street with two courageous gang leaders shielding them, holding up their hands as a signal that noncombatants were passing through. Within seconds, the one who had saved them was shot in the leg. The other returned fire as Aggie and Brady ran for their lives to the next intersection.


#14

Aggie turned back when she heard their new friend cry out. Brady had forgotten the pain in his arm and had only her safety in mind. "Aggie, come on!" The other gang member dropped his weapon, scooped her small body into his dark arms as though she were a child and carried her toward safety. Brady, cradling his bleeding arm, wished he had done that. The semi-automatic gunfire in the distance stopped, as though the rival gang had finally been informed they were putting innocent Americans in danger.

Before they reached the intersection, a military-style armored vehicle with a heavy machine gun and police markings swerved into view at high speed. It was followed by several police cars, sirens howling. The vehicles passed them and stopped near the alley they had just left. Doors swung open and a squad of police pointed guns in all directions.



#15

Immediately two officers from the squad car nearest them advanced on the gang members and seized the one already suffering from the bullet wound in his leg. Other policemen pointed their weapons at his friends, whose guns were already on the ground. Aggie watched in horror as the man who had saved their lives was kicked and handcuffed. "Stop!" she called out, not really expecting them to listen. The man was part of a violent drug gang; as far as the police and most other people were concerned, he deserved no mercy. They lifted him up, and he caught Aggie's eye as they carried him to the car. He and his eight friends were taken into custody while Aggie and Brady found cover in case shooting should start again.



#16

"If not for us, he wouldn't've been shot." They were sitting in a small room in the police precinct, waiting for an English speaker to translate their conversation with the sergeant on duty. Aggie was unsuccessfully fighting tears. She had seen violence before, but no one had suffered violence on her behalf until now. The images replayed continuously in her mind. She wanted to be held badly. She wanted to find the man who'd helped them, to thank him.

Brady had never seen her like this. He wasn't sure what to do. "I feel the same way, Aggs, but he was in a gun battle. Chances are he would've been shot regardless."



#17

Aggie didn't respond. She felt angry that Brady didn't feel the way she did about it. She gestured to the cop in the room with them. "El teléfono?" The man looked at her for a second and then slowly left the room. Aggie and Brady looked at each other.

"I normally would've called Dave by now. He likes to know we're ok."

"Don't you have a cell phone card or somethin'?"

"Yeah, but my battery died."

For a moment they had nothing to say. Then Brady said, "Aggie, it's gonna be ok."

She hadn't realized how much she needed to hear that.



#18

Emily and her boyfriend Paul, chief financial officer of a small software company, sat in their usual booth at Little Nemo's, waiting for the others to arrive. Most evenings they were accompanied by Brian and Andy, but they were always very busy in the middle of the month. They always showed up eventually. A Friday evening at this time of the month was a good opportunity for Paul and Emily to have some time to themselves, just to talk. On this evening, he was pitching the idea of a weekend getaway.

"Tomorrow? I don't know; the team might need me this weekend."

"You always say that and nothing ever happens. Face it, Emily, the magazine doesn't need you for every aspect of its existence. They can publish it without their logistics coordinator, just this once."



#19

Emily was mulling this over when Senior Editor Andy Haines practically stumbled into the restaurant. Emily had never seen him in Little Nemo's, and Paul had never seen him at all. Andy was forty-two, out of shape and slightly awkward, but he was known for his caring spirit. It was because of him that Andy Williams had become known around the office as "Black" Andy.

Emily called to him as he came near. "Oh, hi, Emily. Dave told me you'd be here." He introduced himself to Paul and then, "Listen, Aggie and Brady ran into some trouble in El Salvador. They're fine, but there was some gang activity and a bullet hit Brady's arm, but it's totally ok. He's just fine. It barely got him."

#20

Shocked, Emily invited him to sit. "Can they come home?" she asked.

"Yeah, in fact, Dave is trying to get them home earlier than Tuesday. The local authorities have been cooperative but a little slow. But they got Brady to a hospital and patched him up. The cops are actually kind of helpful down there."

"Thank God they're ok. Poor Brady."

"We should throw a party when they get back," Paul suggested.


#21

It was five forty-five when Brian poked his head into Dave's office. Dave was still hard at work.
"So, Boss." He paused, wishing he had planned his question better. "Do you think we'll get our Santa Tecla story for March, or do we plan on somethin' else?" This was the first time in the magazine's eight years that a member of the Bold Traveler team had been shot. As trained as he was, Dave was not sure how to lead them through this. He felt that downplaying the situation was probably wise, for his team and for his own peace of mind.
"I think it'll depend on Aggie. I wouldn't be surprised if she still comes through with somethin'. It might be Santa Tecla, it might be somethin' else, but she'll come through."


#22

A mere four hours after the first shots were fired, Brady and Aggie walked out of the downtown hospital looking for dinner and drink.

"So now what?" he asked, recognizing that his wish to return home would have little bearing on Aggie's decision as Senior Writer.

Smiling at her injured teammate, she said, "Well, are you feeling up to taking some pictures? That gang battle will make a great story."


#23

The winter sun was low on El Salvador as Brady began snapping photos to complement Aggie's new manuscript already in progress. "I think the alley we hid in is right up there," she said as they walked.

The pain medicine Brady received at the hospital worked well, but it caused a slight disruption in his focus. He lacked the creative vision he normally enjoyed, and his sling made him clumsy as he attempted to photograph the alley that had been their temporary haven earlier that day. Aggie sympathized with him, but her own vision for the new article was clear, and they had been through too much to give up on such a story.

But perhaps it could wait another day. "Ya know, Brady, we have time. You wanna go back to the hotel and rest for tonight? I can work on the story, and we can get pictures tomorrow. These streets aren't going anywhere."


#24

When Brian and Black Andy arrived at Nemo's at nightfall, the original Andy was still there, shifting the situation from awkward to highly unusual for the four younger thrill seekers. Andy was married with children, and it was well past dinner time for the likes of him. Emily decided it was up to her to solve the problem of the lost VP. The fact that he'd had two Manhattans in their presence made it less awkward.

"Andy, how are you doin'? Do we need to get you a cab or something?"

"I'm great! What's next?"

This was the response they had all feared.

#25

Emily decided they may have to include Andy in their night out, which might not be so bad. She loved an opportunity for a good story later. "Well, if Michelle ever shows up, we can figure out what to do next."

Black Andy had just seated himself, but now he stood again and reached for the phone in his pocket. "She's not here yet?"

"No. You haven't heard from her? She and Jason both left the office early, about the same time." She immediately wished she hadn't said that.

He had Michelle on the line now. "Hey. Where you at? Don't feel good? Come to Nemo's; we'll help ya feel better."

The other Andy had just ordered a third drink and was beginning to look flushed when he offered, "Maybe she's with Jason, huh?" Emily shot him a punishing look, while Paul hid his face so his amusement wouldn't show.

#26

"Speaking of Jason, anybody know where he is tonight?" asked Brian.

"Some Valentine's party," said Black Andy, helping himself to the appetizers. "You see his suit today?"

"Right? What was that, burgundy?" Emily actually thought Jason looked handsome in the suit, but she'd never admit it.

The waitress had just brought their orders when Jason appeared, suit and all, though not as buttoned up as it had been in the office. His tie was loose and his cufflinks had been removed. But what really caught their attention was the young lady who accompanied him.

#27

"Um, that's..." Emily looked again to be sure. "That's not Jason's girlfriend." He had brought her to the office at least three times that Emily knew of, including an office party where she had stayed the better part of an hour. This girl was attractive and very thin like Sherry but had little else in common with her. He brought the girl to their table and said hello.

Black Andy spoke up lightheartedly without making eye contact with either of them. "Jason, who's your friend?"

"Guys, this is Heather." They hoped for more information, but he volunteered none, so they all muttered a "Hi, Heather," and tried to move on as though their coworker and friend wasn't making an awful decision right in front of them.


#28

The group managed to distract themselves enough to put Jason's actions on the backburner, with help from Michelle's eventual arrival and original Andy's drunken antics. None of them had seen Andy like this, and most of them felt concerned, some for his present and future health, others for his home life. And all hoped their concerns were unfounded and that this was a one time occurrence.

They also managed to make Heather feel welcome despite the awkward circumstances. She was a cheery girl and a bit cheeky, though not in an insulting way. The group found they enjoyed her company, especially Michelle who was under the weather and had sat next to Heather, a born caretaker. By the time they all left for a noisy club in midtown, Andy in tow, some of them almost hoped Heather would remain their friend, even if it meant Jason ended his relationship with Sherry.


#29

Finally, in the basement restroom of a bar two hours after leaving Nemo's, Black Andy found a chance to confront Jason about their new friend.

"So," he said as he washed his hands, "what happened to Sherry?"

"What do you mean?"

"Come on, man, you know exactly what I mean. Why is this Heather chick with you and not Sherry?"

"I met Heather in Times Square this afternoon. We got to talking, and I invited her to Nemo's. No big deal."

"No big deal, huh. Weren't you goin' to a Valentine's party tonight?"

"Well, I..."

"Were you or were you not going to a Valentine's party tonight."


#30

"Yes, I was gonna go to the party, but I decided to skip it." Jason felt flattered that Andy was taking an interest in his affairs.

"And you left your girl there by herself while you hung out with this other chick?" Andy was looking him in the eye now.

"Well, I was mad at Sherry. We got into it this morning."

"Oh, well you showed her, didn't you. Are you proud of yourself?"

Jason wasn't feeling good about this encounter anymore. "Man, whatever. I think Sherry and I were through anyway."

"Well this was an honorable way to let her know."


#31

Andy's words began to sting, so Jason fought back. "Man, you don't even know Sherry. You don't know what's goin' on. Just stay out of it." He walked out of the restroom, and Andy followed.

"Hey, man." Jason stopped on the stairway, not sure what to expect. "Everybody at work cares about you," Andy said, standing at the bottom of the stairs. "I don't even know why. I'm not even sure you're worth it. We just do."

Jason searched for a response. Finally, "So what do I do?" He shrugged and looked at Andy.

Andy shrugged back. "Wanna go find your girl? I'll go with you. We'll bring Michelle."

#32

As Aggie lay on her hotel bed two thousand miles away, images of her brave San Salvadorian savior played continually in her mind. Why had he done it? Did he save Brady and herself because he thought she was pretty or because they might give him a reward? Or was there a sense of honor among the drug gangs that most Americans knew nothing about?

And what was happening to him now? Was he lying in a hospital bed or a jail cot? How long would he be a prisoner for his crimes? Was there any possibility of finding him, of ever seeing him again? Of even learning his name?

Society had taught her to hate drug dealers and gangsters, but she couldn't stop picturing his strong arms holding her as she drifted to sleep.


#33

Jason, Andy and Michelle rode the subway to the Upper West Side, having said goodnight to their office mates. Michelle still wasn't feeling well and knew she should be in bed.

"Why don't you just call her, Jason?"

"I left my phone at the office."

"And you never went back for it?"

"I left it on purpose."

Andy chimed in. "She might not answer anyway, after bein' stood up at a Valentine's party. We gotta do this in person. Jason, what's wrong, man?"

Jason looked as though he might vomit, and then he did, next to the wall of the train. "Ho!" said Andy. "Man, you are not ok. A'ight, new plan. The two of you are both goin' home to get some rest. You have some bad Belarussian steak a couple weeks ago?"


#34

A cold breeze hit Michelle in the face as she and Andy left Jason's Brownstone apartment. "Oh, I'm freezin'! And we didn't even accomplish what we came here for."

"At least he had someone with him to help him get home. That was lucky."

"Um, yeah, good thing he ditched Sherry and hung out with us so he'd have company as he puked on the train. What?"

He put his arm around her as they braved the cold wind together and marched back to the subway station. "Girl, you must be miserable. Let's get you back to Brooklyn and get you warm!" He took off in a jog, dragging her along behind. Despite the cold and her cramps, she couldn't avoid grinning.


#35

By 1 a.m. the elder Andy was practically unrecognizable as the tender, helpful gentleman they knew at the office. He'd ingested enough alcohol that Emily was sure he'd remember nothing of the night's events from that point on. He had become an awful flirt with Heather since Jason left, but she seemed to find it charming and at times hilarious. Emily took an opportunity for an interview when she lost a game of pool to her boyfriend and was replaced by Brian. Heather had excused herself to the ladies' room.

"Hey Andy, how ya feelin'?"

His eyes were on a pair of females across the room, and he was grinning like a coyote. "Good, good."

"So hey, why didn't you go home earlier? Is your family out of town for the weekend?"

"What? Oh, no, they're home." Suddenly he seemed to understand the point of her question, and he looked her in the eye, then at his drink. "I, uh, just didn't wanna go home." 


#36

Andy had been with the magazine since its inception and was one of the older staff members. Emily was used to thinking of him as an authority figure, but now she felt a need to support him as a counselor. She wasn't sure she was up to the task.

"Oh, what's goin' on, Andy?"

He attempted to shrug it off as unimportant, but she could detect pain in his face. "Oh, just some domestic trouble with Diane; it's no big deal. It's just, when I dropped by Little Nemo's to tell you all about Aggie and Brady and have a drink, it felt good. I haven't felt that good after work for a while. The kids mostly keep to themselves these days. Diane makes dinner, and we don't have much to say to each other until a fight breaks out, and then we go to bed. Usually mad at each other."


#37

"Oh, that sounds miserable." Emily was reminded of the many times she'd heard people encourage divorce in such situations, but she rejected such advice. She had grown up in a loving family, unlike so many of her friends, and she still believed in marriage. She wasn't sure what could help Andy and Diane love each other better, but she was sure something could.

"Oh, I know it's so cliché," Andy said with a drunken drawl, "the burnt-out forty-something with problems at home."

She just wanted to say something positive. "Well, I never thought of you as 'burnt-out.'"

"Mm, thanks."

There was a pause while she thought of something else to say. "So, what happens when you do go home? Will you be in trouble?"

He laughed. "Probably! That'll be fun with the hangover I'm gonna have."


#38

Heather joined Brian and Paul at the pool table, and Brian took the opportunity to ask her about something that had been nagging him.

"Hey, did Jason say why he left? That was weird."

"He said he had to check on a friend. I was hoping he'd come back eventually."

"Hmm." He leaned over to take a shot. "Ya know, I consider Jason a friend, but he's kind of a nutbag, and now that you're my friend too, I..." He paused to find the right wording as he adjusted his glasses and aimed carefully.

"You think he ditched me?" She was chalking a cue for no reason in particular.

He made a successful shot and looked her in the eye. "If he did, it's probably because he has a girlfriend."

She looked at him and raised her eyebrows. "Oh." She leaned back against the table and ran her fingers through her short, dark hair and then shrugged. "Well, if I met him just so I could meet you guys, then whatever." She took a swig from her beer bottle. "Ain't no thang." 


#39

Emily interrupted. "Hey, I just got a text from Andythe other Andy," she said, touching the drunken Andy's arm. "They took Jason home and are going home themselves."

"Aw, I knew it," said Brian, taking another shot with his cue. He was giving Paul a beating. "Well, maybe he'll be awake enough to bring me a doughnut in the morning."

"You still got a lot to do?" Paul asked.

"Yeah, a ton. Still have pages and pages of ads to organize, articles and images to sort through." He finally missed a shot.

"Do you ever worry that you won't have enough to put in an issue?" Paul aimed carefully.

"Heh, naw, it's more worrying about who you're gonna cheese off if you can't fit their stuff in."

Paul sank two balls with one shot. "Pssht, that was lucky," Brian said.


#40

A half hour later, Brian decided to call it a night. He and Emily each offered to see Heather home, but as she lived a few blocks away in Hell's Kitchen and had grown up there, she insisted on going alone. Emily was glad for the opportunity to see Andy home instead, since he seemed incapable of getting anywhere unassisted. A part of her hoped he would remember enough to be appreciative when he saw her at the office. She and Paul led him toward the door.

"Alright Andy, let's get a cab. Our treat."

He was floating at this point. "Oh, alright."

Heather met them at the door. "Hey, it was great to meet you guys." She gave Emily a quick hug. "You got my number. Use it."

Emily smiled. "I promise. This was a blast."

They loaded Andy in the cab, unsure of what was awaiting him at the end of his trip home.


#41

Andy dozed off soon after giving the cab driver his address. The sight amused Paul, seated on the other side of Emily, who sat between them. "Wonder what kind of weekend he's gonna have."

"His wife must be so worried."

"You said you've never seen him like this before?"

"Dude, not even close. He's like a big teddy bear. He was a totally different person tonight."

"Should we see him to the door?"

She looked at Andy, now completely passed out, mouth open. "We might have to."


#42

Emily gently woke Andy with a hand on his shoulder when they arrived at his house on the Upper East Side at a quarter past two. "Andy, you're home."

"Mm. Uh? Oh. Oh, thanks, guys." He opened the car door and stumbled out. As Emily followed Andy out, he turned to her with a smile and said, "Oh man, my wife's gonna kill me." She wasn't sure to what degree he was joking. She and Paul supported him on either side, and they made their way up the walk to the door as the taxi waited.

The door opened before they reached it. Mrs. Haines, a thin woman with dark hair, had been waiting, possibly crying. "Where were you?" Her voice was angry, but her trembling suggested relief from panic. "I called and called..." She broke down and began to weep.

"Honey, I'm..."

"Thank you," she said to Paul and Emily, regaining her composure. "Goodnight." She closed the door.

The younger couple stood on the doorstep and looked at each other. They embraced. "Don't ever make me feel that way, Paul Henley. That was too sad." He kissed her eyelids in response.


#43

Aggie sat in the dining room of the hotel in Santa Tecla, eating scrambled eggs and waiting for her photographer. Brady arrived wearing the large farmer's hat he'd bought two days earlier. It was similar to a sombrero and looked very silly with his polo shirt, cargo shorts and boyish face. Still, Aggie couldn't deny the handsomeness of his smile as he grinned at her.

"Mornin'!" he proclaimed loudly enough for other diners to take notice.

"Hey. Sit down, you goof. How are you planning on getting that home?"

"I'm not. I'll find a needy person to give it to before we leave. In the meantime, it'll make some great pics for Facebook."

"You want me to take your picture?"

He took his cell phone from his shorts pocket and aimed the camera lens at his face. "I got this."

She hid her smile in her coffee.

He took another shot from a different angle. "And with this sling, it'll look like we really had an adventure!"

"Oh, it's safe to say we've had one already."

"True dat."


#44

They headed downtown on foot, Brady snapping photos as they went. His arm gave him less pain that it had the previous day, thanks to the medicine he'd been given. They again reached the block where the fighting had erupted.

"Do you feel a little skittish?" he asked. "I keep expecting to hear gunshots again."

"Yeah, I feel that, a little," Aggie said. "It's good for me, though. I want to remember that feeling as I write my story."

"Man, that was so scary. I just want to forget it."

They reached the alley, and Aggie's thoughts drifted again to her young hero, brandishing his weapon and showing her to safety.

"I bet you've written half the story already, haven't ya?"

"Hmm? Oh, yeah. I've got a few pages already." She ran her fingers across some bullet holes in the wall and thought of his hurt leg. She prayed he wasn't being treated cruelly by the police.



#45

Aggie sat on a curb and took more notes about their experiences on her smartphone. As Brady continued taking pictures, he said, "Wonder where the jail is, or prison or whatever. Would be awesome if we could interview those guys that helped us yesterday."

She stopped typing, but her back was to Brady, so he couldn't see. She looked toward the plaza in the center of downtown and wondered if they actually could try to see him. "Brady, that's a really good idea. Come on." She stood and brushed the dust from her capris.

"Where to?"

"Back to the police station."

"Oh, good idea. We had a blast the first time." He followed her back up the street. "Hey, ya know, I was really just thinking out loud back there." He had to jog to catch up. "It wasn't that great an idea."


#46

Brian was busy at his desk creating the newest issue of Bold Traveler when Black Andy popped his head over the wall of his cubicle.

"Hey, little buddy," he said in the cartoon voice he knew could always brighten Brian's mood on a Saturday morning at the office.

"Look who finally showed up."

"I ain't got that much to do, and I have no plans later. So I wasn't in a big hurry to get here. Hey, thanks for makin' coffee, man."

"I made it for me, but you're welcome." Brian got to a stopping point and then asked, "So what happened last night?"


#47

Andy walked around to the cubicle's opening. Brian noticed his costly new sweater. Andy was smiling and shaking his head.

"Man, you missed out, dude. Jason blew chunks on the subway!"

Brian's eyes grew wide. "What? I thought he didn't drink very much."

"Brian, I kid...you not. I dunno what happened; I guess he was feeling guilty or scared or somethin'. We took him home. He was white as a ghost."

Brian was suppressing a grin, though he did feel badly for their friend. "That is unbelievable. We should think of a nickname."

"Like, um, Tube-Hurler?"

"How about Subway Ralph?"


#48

Emily sang along with the radio while gazing at the ocean from the passenger seat of Paul's Audi as they drove along Interstate 95 toward Stamford.

"We're so lucky," she said as the station went to a commercial.

"How do you mean?"

"Well, we have a car; we can just leave whenever. Most of my friends would have to take a bus out of town."

Paul just smiled, his thoughts hidden behind his sunglasses.

"Ok, I'm so lucky," she corrected herself. "I'm dating a CFO, with lots of money, who happens to the the best boyfriend ever!" She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "When are you gonna tell me where we're going?"

"You'll know when we get there."

"Poop head."

"You packed your swimsuit, right?"

"You only reminded me twelve times."

He made room for a comedic beat and asked, "So, you forgot it?" She stuck out her tongue and sang the last chorus again, though the song was long over.


#49

Jason sat on his couch answering emails on his laptop. The phone rang, and he let it go to voicemail. He listened to the message. It was Sherry.

"Hey. I wasn't gonna call you after you stood me up last night, but I thought maybe something happened, and I wanted to make sure you're ok. Call me."

He deleted the message and unplugged the phone. He walked onto his back porch and stood for a few minutes. Then he went inside, put his shoes on and left the apartment for the subway to 6th Avenue, the Simon & Schuster Building.


#50

Brian and Andy were at their desks working away to the sounds of a new hip-hop album when Dave came by. He was wearing a long-sleeved polo tucked into his khakis, his typical weekend gear. "Hey guys, how's the new issue comin' along?"

Andy hurriedly turned the music down. "Oh hey, we didn't know you were here. We're right on schedule."

"Ahead of schedule," Brian said, stepping out of his cubicle. "We won't need to come in tomorrow."

"Great," said Dave. "Let's do lunch."

Brian and Andy glanced at each other. Dave had never invited them to lunch before. They tried to read in his face whether this invitation had positive or negative connotations, but to no avail.

"Yeah...absolutely," said Andy. "Um, I'm ready. Let's go."



#51

"Hola, it is you again!" The desk attendant in Santa Tecla's downtown police station recognized Brady and Aggie immediately. "How is your arm, señor?"

"Uh, better, thanks. Just a flesh wound, really."

"Bueno, and what can I do for you today?"

Aggie flashed a charming smile. "We were wondering...you know we're journalists, and we were hoping to interview one of the gang members from that shootout yesterday. Do you know where they're being held?"

"Oh, señorita, gang fights happen all the time here. That was nothing special."

"Oh, I know, but we're not news journalists. We work for a travel magazine. So we want to write about our experiences here...like surviving a gang fight. And we just wanted to talk to one of the gang members and find out what they're like."



#52

"You are in luck, señorita. They's kept here until tonight." The desk attendant, a roly-poly police lieutenant with a mustache and a big smile, led them down a hallway to a heavy door and unlocked it. "I caution you, señorita, the men in here can be very...impolite."

He opened the door and led them past a few cells. Each contained one to four prisoners, and all appeared to perk up at the sight of Aggie's pale, pink skin and curly, brown hair. She wanted to make eye contact to show that she was friendly, but she was afraid of the consequences. She preferred not to cause any more of a stir than necessary. But only a few seconds went by before the cell block became very loud with the inmates' catcalls. They proceeded to the last few cells, where eleven gang members were being held. They looked younger than they had yesterday, next to the older prisoners here.

"I stay here, ok?" the lieutenant said.

Aggie nodded. She pulled a notepad from her bag as she surveyed the cells for the young man with the injured leg. "Hola," she said to four of them in the cell nearest her.


#53

There was nothing Brady could do. As he stood in the jail wearing his big hat and cargo shorts, watching her talk to the gang members in Spanish, he had to admit to himself that after traveling the world with Aggie for three years, he was very much in love with her.

It wasn't a situation he would've chosen for himself, a former frat boy at NYU who, at twenty-four years old, already had plenty of experience with women. During his internship at Bold Traveler three years prior, he'd been focused on the work, the adventure of traveling, and the single life in Manhattan. Aggie was only a year older, but at the time she seemed more like a boss than a partner. But over three years, his feelings had developed until, during his moments alone, he could think of little else but her. This was a new state of affairs for him.


#54

"'Kay, guys, ready?" Dave was waiting for Andy and Brian outside their cubicles. He hadn't mentioned where they would be having lunch, and they couldn't guess.

"Alright," Andy said. "Good to go."

The three of them headed toward the elevator. As they waited, Jason emerged from one of the shafts. "Hey, man," Dave said. "What are you up to?" It was unusual for a writer to be at the office on a weekend, since they could work anywhere.

"Hey, I left my phone here yesterday."

"Run and get it, and let's do lunch." Jason disappeared into the office with a strange look on his face. Brian and Andy exchanged glances again.


#55

On the trip to the lobby, Dave seemed to be the only one who was completely sure of himself. Brian admired his experience and confidence and deeply desired to follow in his footsteps. He looked at Andy, usually so cool, now so uncomfortable! He smiled to himself. Then there was Jason, who used to be ok to hang around with, but what was going on with him lately? Whatever it was, Brian was glad it led to him meeting Heather the previous night. What a blast that was, and what a cute chick!

The elevator doors opened, they walked past the security guards and outside, and suddenly all three of the younger men had renewed confidence, walking down 6th Avenue on a chilly Saturday with their fearless leader. Wow, Brian thought, I'm really goin' places now.



#56

After talking with the surprisingly cooperative gangsters for a few minutes about their lives and situation, Aggie finally felt comfortable asking the lieutenant about the one she was secretly seeking. "Officer, what about the ones who were injured in the fighting? There was one who helped us..."

"The injured go to a hospital. If they ok enough, they go to same prison where these boys go. Maybe tonight, maybe later."

"I see. Do you know what hospital?" Brady looked at her.

"No, and if I know, I not tell you, señorita," the lieutenant said, smiling graciously. "Sorry, I hope you get enough for story."

"Oh, more than enough. Gracias, señor."

They left the station with a lunch recommendation from the lieutenant and set out for another part of town.


#57

On a bus ride to the west side of Santa Tecla, Brady asked a question of his own.

"So what kind of angle are you pursuing in your story?"

Aggie continued checking her email as she answered. "Um, I'm really not sure yet. Have any ideas?"

"No. I was just trying to figure out why you wanted to talk to all those guys in the jail. We've never done anything like that before."

"Well, we've never been through anything like a gang fight before."

Brady thought about the time when they were nearly trampled by protesters in Cairo nearly a year prior. Aggie had written an award-winning story without interviewing a single protester. He was perplexed but decided not to pursue the subject any further.

"They wouldn't even let me take pictures." He sighed and looked out the window.



#58

Dave took Andy, Jason and Brian to a Brazilian/Portuguese restaurant on 46th Street called Ipanema. All three of them remarked that they'd never been there before. The host greeted Dave by name ("Mr. Pike") and led them to a table. Dave ordered a bottle of wine for the table, and then Jason ordered a glass of scotch. Andy wondered what in the world was wrong with him. 

Once they ordered their meals, Dave got down to business quickly. "Ok, guys. I want some honest opinions. We're all friends here, so no holding back. I want each of you to tell me, one, your favorite thing about working at Bold Traveler, two, your least favorite thing, and three, what we could do to improve things. Brian, go." 

 So this was the purpose of the lunch. Brian paused to think. He didn't look like he was about to address a friend. Though Andy couldn't imagine a better boss, Dave was definitely an authority figure, and it was hard to feel completely at ease around him. 

 "Ok, favorite thing," Brian began. "I like that our readership is still growing, that we're winning awards, and that I get to put the rag together every month. It's an awesome job." He looked at Dave to be sure that was an acceptable answer. Dave just stared back. "So, least favorite thing..." He looked at Andy as if he was sharing a thought with him, but Andy wasn't receiving it, and he wasn't sure what Brian would say.


#59

"Um, not enough parties? Just kidding, we party all the time." Brian was even more nervous than Andy. It was silly for them to feel this way, but Andy couldn't seem to shake it, and he could tell Brian felt the same way. As exciting as this lunch was, he would be relieved to be back in the office working at his desk. Jason, however, seemed detached.

Brian tried again. "My least favorite part is having to deal with freelancers that don't understand what goes into making a monthly. Some of them are a little self-important. I don't think there's anything that can be done about that, but that's my answer."

Dave still didn't speak, but at least he turned his gaze from Brian for a moment, as if pondering his words. Brian continued, "And something to improve, how 'bout an open bar? Kidding again. Uh, what about a Friday monthly movie?" 


#60

"A monthly movie, ok," Dave said. "Could be good. Inspirational, maybe."
"Yeah, that's the idea."
"Jason, what about you?"
Unlike Brian and Andy, Jason didn't really want to be there. But he didn't want to put unnecessary strain on his relationship with Dave, so he played along. "Well," he began as swirled his drink, "like Brian, I like working for a successful publication. It presents many opportunities. I think you're doing a great job running things."
Dave made no response.
"I'm not crazy about the mental and social strains of the job. I know that's part of it; that goes with being a travel writer. But if we could hire a few more writers or take on more freelancers, it would take some of the strain off all the writers."
Andy felt that Jason was beginning to relax a little, and that was helping him relax, too.


#61

But at that moment a friend of Dave's entered the restaurant, and the meeting was suspended. Dave introduced the three of them as his team and invited the man to dine with them. The younger men finished their lunch mostly in silence as Dave chatted with his friend, who was in the publishing business. Andy felt relieved that he may not be required to answer Dave's questions after all. Jason, on the other hand, planned to tell Dave later what changes to the company he would recommend.

A light snow was falling as they briskly walked back to the office, the vapor from their breath looking like smoke from three steam engines. Dave apologized. "Sorry our lunch was interrupted, guys. It was fun, though. I'll keep what you said in mind." They thanked him for lunch, and the four of them discussed the previous weekend's Super Bowl until they reached the Simon and Schuster building. Jason said goodbye and continued walking, and the others returned to the sixth floor to resume their work.

#62

Brian and Andy walked back toward their section of the office. Brian was smiling.

"Well, that went well. I was actually a little worried. Not that I've been doing bad work, but that something was going on with the business."

"Yeah, I didn't know what was happenin'," Andy said. "That was out of the blue, man."

"Man, what is up with Jason lately?"

"Aw, he's just bein' a character." Andy flopped into his desk chair and Brian followed him into his cubicle.

"Naw, I'm thinkin' we should stage an intervention or somethin'. Though I'm not sure what specifically needs to be addressed."

"Maybe the trip to Syria'll be good for 'im. Some nice desert air."

"I dunno, he travels all the time. Wouldn't think this time would be any different." Brian sat in his own chair and roused his computer.

#63

The bus carrying Aggie and Brady stopped at a shopping center in west Santa Tecla. Aggie had come here to capture some of the culture outside of the downtown area and to hopefully get her mind off the young man who had taken a bullet for their safety.

Brady donned his sunglasses as they stepped off the bus. "Can we get some bottled water real quick? I need to take some more pain meds." They entered a market, and while she waited in the simple grocery store she finally thought of an angle for her story.

"It's San Salvador's quiet sister..."

Brady, in line for the cash register, turned around. "Huh?"

She looked back at him. "...Attached at the hip and happy not to be noticed, but every once in a while she has a crazy day. Go there to see the real El Salvador, but be ready for anything. Brady, I sure wish you'd gotten some shots of that gang fight!"


#64

"Yeah, I wish I had, too." Brady paid the cashier and they walked back out into the sunshine. This was a relatively peaceful part of town that resembled American suburbs. "Funny how getting shot can make you forget about doing your job."

"Don't take it personally, Brady." Aggie had to shield her eyes to look around despite her sunglasses. "I'm not blaming you. Don't feel bad about it."

"Well, I don't." He took his pills there in the parking lot and then started walking as Aggie followed. "On a side note, how awesome is this weather? I heard it's s'posed to snow in New York today."


#65

The ground along the road was white with snow as Paul and Emily passed through Westerley, on the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island. Snow was still falling softly. It was just beginning to get dark, and they'd not yet had dinner. A few minutes later they crept up a hill with signs leading the way to a resort hotel. Emily grabbed Paul's hand.

"You booger! What is this place?"

"Welcome to Watch Hill, Rhode Island. A doctor friend of mine lives near here and told me about this place. It sounded perfect."

"Is that a beach down there? Only you'd wanna go to a beach resort in February. Oh, hon, I'm just kiddin'. I love it. Thank you so much."


#66

A valet driver met them at the entrance to the hotel. "Hi, welcome to the Rosita," he said, opening Emily's door with a smile.

Paul had reserved the largest room. Emily, having never known wealth, could hardly believe what she saw. Rose petals and lit candles adorned the room, and dinner waited, including an expensive champagne, in front of a giant window overlooking the snowy beach. An expensive-looking hot tub was waiting also, on a large balcony off the bedroom.

"I don't know what to say, Paul," said Emily. "This is like something out of a dream."

"I just wanted you to feel special."

"You..." She embraced him and buried her nose in his jacket lapel. "You certainly did that!"


#67

The hour in the hot tub on the balcony overlooking a snowy beach was one she knew she'd never forget. They talked about shared experiences and mutual friends, and they laughed a lot. Paul had more romance in him than she'd seen before. And she fully anticipated that this was leading to something even greater.

But when they went inside to order coffee and dessert, Paul said, "Hey, I hope you don't mind, but that friend of mine that told me about this place is bringin' his wife over tonight. Cool?"

"Tonight? Paul, it's nine o'clock already." She suddenly felt hurt.

"So, that's not so late. Come on, I've told 'em all about you. They're dyin' to meet you. We'll meet 'em down at the bar and just hang out for a little bit."


#68

A short time later in the lounge, Paul introduced Emily to his well-dressed friends. "Honey, this is Tommy and his wife Joanna."

"And we know who you are!" said Joanna. "Paul's told us how great you are for him. Can't believe we're finally meeting you!" She gave Emily half a hug.

"Really great," Tommy said, clasping Emily's hand. "Hey, let's get a bottle o' wine, eh? Miss, could we get a table?"

Once they were seated, Emily said, "So Tommy, Paul tells me you're a doctor?"

"Yes, I specialize in women's health."

"Oh, sort of like..." She looked at Paul. "...A gynecologist?"

"I don't like to be the one to introduce the word, but yes, exactly."


#69

Paul's friends were charming and interesting, but one hour quickly turned into two-and-a-half before they finally said goodnight. Emily had slept in that morning and wasn't very tired, but her hopes for something beyond a romantic evening now seemed dashed.

"Sorry that ended up being so long," Paul said in the elevator. "Did you have fun?"

"Yeah, they're great. Really nice."

"You're unhappy."

"No! I just..." The doors opened, and they walked back to the room. "This has been an awesome night, Paul, really. Thank you so much. I guess I just got it in my head that it was leading to something." She smiled at him.

Paul stood in the foyer looking at the wall. Then he looked at her. "Oh."


#70

She retreated, not wanting to ruin a lovely evening by making him guilty. And why should she presume that marriage was on his mind when it had hardly come up in their two years of dating?

"You know what, no. I'm being ridiculous. This has been incredible...you're incredible." She kissed him. "Please forget I said anything. Wanna watch TV?"

Paul made a mental note to bring this up again in the near future. He wasn't the type to leave her hanging, wondering what his plans were. The truth was that he'd made none, and he was fine with that. But apparently Emily was not, so he had some decisions to make. He felt it would be best to not bring the subject up again on this night.


#71

The text from Black Andy read, "Lets do dizzys at 1230." Just thinking of Dizzy's made Michelle hungry. She wished they could've gone at a time more appropriate for brunch, but he was at church, probably texting her during the sermon.

She finished the chapter she was reading and got dressed. She thought about him, without her, among all those people she could never spend time with. Growing up with a preacher for a father had not suited her disposition, and to be dating someone who attended church every Sunday was unsettling. It was a major reason she had avoided dating Andy for nearly two years. She no longer spoke to her family, and he was like a different version of them, another program on the same channel. But no one made her smile like he could.

She laced up her boots and headed out to see him.


#72

One hour behind Brooklyn, Aggie and Brady were finishing brunch at a traditional restaurant in Santa Tecla. "I can't get over how good the coffee is here," Aggie said between sips. "I'm gonna have to do some research and find out if there's any way to get this in New York."

Brady looked out the window as he picked berries out of his fruit salad. "Think you can get some beans on the plane?"

"I should think so. I wonder if they roast 'em in a different way here. Anyway, listen. Let's brainstorm. We got lucky with our one little adventure, but if we could get a little more action before we leave, we'd have a trip more than worthy of Bold Traveler. What kind of shots does my star photographer still wanna get?"

His gaze hadn't left the window. Suddenly he stood up. "Hang on." He left the table and then the building, plate in hand. Through the windows, Aggie saw him give his scraps to a beggar on the sidewalk that he'd apparently been watching. She shook her head. What was it with him always looking for someone to help? It was charming, but somehow a little annoying, too. Like he was trying too hard to play the hero.


#73

"Always the hero, huh?" she teased him when he returned.

"Well, why should I let 'em throw my scraps away when somebody's goin' hungry right in front o' me?"

"You're a good guy, Brady. I mean it."

"Thanks."

"And you've got a little jelly on your cheek. Other cheek. I paid for the food. Don't forget your hat."

As they walked down the street, the sun blaring down on them once again, she returned to the task at hand. "So, any ideas? What's your camera eye hungry for?"

"Ya know what would be adventurous?" Brady said. "Wormin' our way into someone's dinner party tonight."

"Atta boy, Brady. Always thinkin' with your stomach."

"Hey, it works."


#74

Michelle took her time walking from the subway station to the restaurant. The sidewalk was slick in some spots, and she liked making Andy wait a little bit anyway.

When she came through the door, Andy felt proud to be dating her. Her wavy, black hair was done up in a ponytail, and her brown skin was flawless and needed no makeup. She could easily be on TV, and when people looked her direction he wondered if they mistook her for a celebrity.

"Hey," he said, "what've you been doin'?"

"Nothin'." She smiled at him and sat down. "You look nice."

"Thanks. I went ahead and ordered some tea for ya."

"Cool. How was church?"

"Pretty good. Wish you'd been there. I still get ladies tryin' to set me up with somebody, and I don't think they believe me when I tell 'em I'm seein' someone. Some people prob'ly think I like dudes."

"Sorry. The sweater vest probably doesn't help with that."


#75

"Anyhow," Andy continued with a smirk, "I wanna take ya to a little get-together this Saturday, introduce you to a few people."

"At church."

"Yeah, at church. Girl, don't worry, these people are cool. And I know they'll like you."

"Don't mean I'll like them."

"They're not like the people you grew up with. They're not like Jason's church. They're like me. You like me, right?"

"Andy, you are just like the people I grew up with. Ok, maybe not exactly like them, but close enough."

Andy just looked at his menu.

"Alright," she said, "I'll give it a chance, on one condition. If I don't like it, I never do this again."

"Hey, you guys ready?" said a waitress.


#76


Emily and Paul had Sunday brunch, too, but theirs was an impromptu meal with Paul's friends Tommy and Joanna. Emily hadn't been excited about spending yet more time with them on her romantic getaway with Paul, but she had such a good time chatting with them that she was the one to suggest an afternoon of shopping in Watch Hill. The men agreed to tag along and buy lobster rolls when everyone was hungry again.

"Of course this place is pretty empty this time o' year," Tommy explained. "But in the summer it's hard just to drive by the beach, with the constant crowd of people walkin' through here. You two should come back in a few months. Memorial Day, maybe."

Emily and Joanna shared an excited smile. "Yeah, please do that!" said the latter. "We'll spend all day on the beach; it'll be great."


#77

Aggie had thought Brady was joking about inviting themselves to dinner somewhere, but once the idea came into his head, it became his goal. He was already seeing the photos that would be included with the story. And he was curious to know whether the mothers and grandmothers of Santa Tecla had cooking styles that differed from their restaurant experiences. He assumed their readers would be, too.

"Hola, Señor," he said to a man escorting his family in a downtown marketplace. "¿Cómo estás?" By that point he had used up the majority of his knowledge of Spanish, so he looked to Aggie for help. She shook her head with a smile.

"Come on, Aggie. Stir up that bold traveler within you!" Brady said, grinning madly.

"What do I say?"

"Just tell him we're Americans writin' a story about real El Salvadorian food, and we'd like to share a meal together. We'll help pay for it while we're here!"


#78

Neither Andy nor Michelle had a great love of shopping, but they loved spending time together, and clothing stores were an affordable place for that in the winter. Michelle was trying on a few items with no intention of making a purchase. Andy was happy to serve as an audience for her modeling.

"How do you like this skirt? It's on a really good sale. It'd be perfect with that light blue top, you know the one?"

He didn't, but she didn't need to know that. "That looks great. Shows off your legs real nice."

"You ok, Andy? You seem a little off, not yourself."

"I'm just thinkin' about your trip."

"You're not worried about me, are ya?" She came closer and touched his face. "Come on, Bold Traveler's been going to the Middle East for eight years. It's no big deal."

"Yeah, but you haven't been there. And Syria's crazy right now."

She kissed him. "Andy, it's fine. Please don't worry. It's not good for you."


#79

It took an offer of a free truckload of groceries at the magazine's expense, but Brady and Aggie managed to get their invitation to dinner. The family lived on a ranch outside town, so they were given a ride by a cousin who was going to be joining them for dinner, as well. When they arrived, seven shouting children greeted them in the driveway.

"Hola!" Brady shouted back, trying to remember the Spanish word for "children." Aggie noticed that he immediately fit right in despite the language barrier, and it seemed the children fell in love with him immediately. Their driver informed her that he couldn't remember white people ever visiting this ranch before, explaining their excitement. A little girl of about three, holding a doll and sucking her thumb, stared at her.

"Hola," Aggie said to the girl, bending toward her. The girl smiled and ran to the other children.

"This is great, huh?" said Brady, snapping pictures. She had to admit it was, and that she never would've thought of it.



#80

Andy enjoyed cooking now and then, particularly when Michelle was leaving town. He'd wanted to try out a salmon recipe he'd seen in a magazine, but Michelle didn't care for salmon, so he was cooking curry chicken instead.

"Hey, that show Army Wives is on," Michelle said from his living room.

"Ok." There was a sneer in his response.

"Ok let's watch it, or ok I know you're crazy now?"

He peeked in from the kitchen. "Girl please, you know I don't go for that military stuff, much less those housewife shows."

His dislike of the military angered her, and she wasn't in the mood to keep it to herself. "Ya know, soldiers work hard every day, just like you, and they're helping us stay free. What's the problem?"

He didn't peek out this time. "Could we please not get into it right before you leave? Just find somethin' you know we'll both like."


#81

"Aggie, com'ere, you gotta see this." Brady was with the men of the family in a shed behind the house. Aggie stepped inside just in time to see a large hog being slaughtered. Brady was taking pictures.
"Whoa, ok," she said in a voice somewhere between incredulity and disgust. "I hope you don't think those pictures are going in my story."
"Naa, but maybe my Facebook!" He came closer to her. "Admit it, you're salivating right now."
She gave him a small taste of her elbow in his ribs but said, "I do like me some puerco."
"Looks like dinner's still a ways off, though."
"You'll be happy to know, I just got a soccer game goin'."
"Boo-yah. Let's play."


#82

They had decided to just turn the TV off. They ate on the couch quietly for a minute, each frustrated with the other. Andy's mind was on Michelle's assignment in Damascus, and he broke the silence with a thought.

"I wonder if Syria is ready for Jason."

She smiled in spite of herself.

Andy said, "Ya know, when Dave took us to lunch yesterday, he treated us to a bottle o' wine, and then Jason ordered his own drink."

"What?"

"I'm tellin' ya, somethin's goin' on with him. Some kinda phase."

"He best watch himself this week. I ain't in the mood for no bull."

"Heh, keep your leash on 'im."

Suddenly they made eye contact. She took his hand and rubbed it with her thumb. "Andy, I know we still have a lot to work through."

"Yeah, I'm sorry..."

"I just wanna tell you...that I love you."

He was speechless, both surprised and overjoyed.


#83

As they ate their dinner, Aggie embroiled in conversation and Brady chewing and making faces at the children, he wondered what it would be like to brush his leg against hers, as if by accident. They both wore shorts, and they were sitting close in the crowded dining room. He wondered if it would tickle, if she would blush, if it could possibly lead to kissing later...

What was he thinking? He reminded himself of one of his college buddies who could never get a date and spent all his time thinking up ways to win a woman's heart. This wasn't Brady Murr. Besides, how could they keep on working together even if something might develop? Better to put it out of his head, somehow.

But she was lovely. The family loved her. The young girls, and the older boys, especially. Who wouldn't love her?

Disgusted with himself, he focused on building a big pork burrito. This was truly a meal worthy of publication. But the world would never know the feelings the photographer had for the writer. And neither would she.


#84

"So whaddya think o' that?" Michelle asked, curling up next to Andy and putting her head on his shoulder. But she knew by his expression how he felt. She turned his face to look at her. "Hmm?"

"I think it's the best thing I ever heard. And I love you, too." They kissed, a long and passionate kiss. Then he said, "You sure know how to leave a man thinkin' 'bout ya when you go away."

"You better think about me, boy." She smiled and hit him with a pillow. He picked up another and wielded it threateningly. She squealed, they wrestled, and Brooklyn went to bed.


#85

The evening couldn't have gone any better for Brady and Aggie. She was proud of him for exhibiting the spirit of Bold Traveler and creating this fun night that would be a fantastic addition to her story. And he couldn't help but love the time they were spending together.

They stood in the corridor outside their hotel rooms. "Well, one more day," Brady said, playing with his big hat. "What do we do tomorrow?"

"Let me take some notes about today, and I'll sleep on it," she said, smiling.

"Tonight was a blast, huh?"

"Mm-hmm. I'll be sure and let Dave know it was all your idea."

"Cool. Well, g'night."

"See you at breakfast. And hey..."

"Hmm?"

"Thanks for...all this. It was really awesome."

He winked and turned with a wave goodnight, disappearing into his room. Alone at last, he shook his head at himself, a dumb grin plastered on his face.

(Next: Monday actually starts on Monday! The trip to Syria finally begins!)


#86

"'Going to the doctor, feel terrible, get back to you soon.' That was the whole text, and he's just ignored my calls since then."

It was five past six in the morning, and Michelle was sitting in a row of seats near an American Airlines gate at JFK. The text was from Jason, whom she'd expected to meet her there. She'd received it on the subway. She had never heard Dave so furious, though he seemed to be trying hard to keep his anger in check.

"Ok, thanks for calling me, Michelle," he said. "This is not good at all. I'll try to reach him myself."

"Well, should I still go?"

"Absolutely, absolutely, do just like you would if Jason were there. We'll get him there, and if we can't, we'll get somebody there. A freelancer if we have to."


#87

Dave's name came up on Jason's cell phone. He had expected it. He'd thought about what he would say, but now that the phone was ringing, his memory was fuzzy. He let it ring twice, three times...

"Hello?" He made his voice sound frail.

"Jason, this is Dave. What's up, man." He said it like a command.

"Hey Dave, I'm just not up to flying to the other side of the world this morning..."

"You have an appointment?"

"Y--yeah, I'm gonna see the doctor this morning." Not a lie, since he intended to visit his friend who was a doctor.

"What are your symptoms?"

"Huh? Oh, I got an upset stomach, kinda jittery, a little dizzy..."

"Sounds like nerves. I know you're nervous about the trip."

Jason said nothing.

"Jason, I told you, I'm countin' on you, man. I don't think you're gonna make your flight. I'm gonna call Emily and have her get the next one available, ok?"

After a pause, he said, "O--ok."

"And I don't want this to happen again, unless you're really sick."


#88

At 8:45 Emily was chatting with Tanya, one of the girls in Finance, through the shared wall of their cubicles as she scanned her computer screen. "Hm," she said. "Michelle's Facebook status says, 'Whole nudda level,' with a smiley face."

"What's that about?" said Tanya.

"I'm guessing either going to Syria with all the protests, or the thing with Jason this morning, like a whole nudda level of ridiculous, or..."

"Or maybe Andy? Are you friends with him?"

"Yeah, but he doesn't use it. He's too paranoid." Emily switched to checking on the new issue's print status.

"Hmph. So Dave was pretty mad this morning?"

"Oh man, I've never seen him like that. Jason's skatin' on thin ice. Dave thinks he's not really sick and is just bein' a flake."

"I used to think he was pretty professional."

"I tell ya, Status should be pretty interesting this morning."


#89

"Andy. Andy." Dave listed them off as the two Andys entered the company's second largest conference room together. He was smiling in an effort to lighten the mood for the ten o'clock status meeting.

"Mornin'," Brian said, plopping into the chair next to Emily who had her notebook and pen at the ready. "Where'd you and Paul go this weekend?"

"Oh, he told you? We went to a beach resort in Rhode Island. It was really great."

"In February? Interesting."

"Alright, morning everyone," Dave started. "Hope everybody had a good weekend. Our ninety-sixth issue goes to print tomorrow. For the mathematically challenged in the room, that's twelve times eight, which means our eighth anniversary can unofficially start this week!" A cheer went up, causing employees outside the room to wonder what the fuss was about.


#90

Dave continued, dropping the smile. "If anyone hasn't heard, we did have our first gunshot wound in our eight-year run. Brady was hit in the arm during a gang battle on Friday afternoon. But he's totally ok. They stayed on in El Salvador, and they'll be back..."

"Tomorrow," Emily said. She continued the travel report: "And Rachel and Ricardo are coming back from Tasmania today..."

"Those devils," said the elder Andy.

"...And Jason and Michelle left for Damascus this morning. Well..."

Dave interjected. "If you've heard a rumor about Jason this morning, it's taken care of; it's no big deal. He wasn't feeling too great, but he'll be on his way this afternoon. Also, we have a record nine freelancers working for us around the world as we speak. How we ever got along with just three, I'll never know."


#91

After the meeting, as the attendees filtered out of the room, Dave told Emily to keep close tabs on Jason, making sure he boarded his plane, arrived in Syria and checked into his hotel. "He's earned a little micromanagement for the week," he said.

Emily went by Andy Haines' office and knocked lightly on his door. He opened it himself, since he had only just closed it upon returning from the meeting. "Hi, Emily, come in," he said with his usual joviality. She closed the door behind her.

"Hey, I was just wondering...well, Paul and I were wondering how you were doing, I mean, after Friday night. Diane seemed pretty upset."


#92

"Oh, aren't you a sweetheart," Andy said. "Actually, Diane kicked me out."

Emily gasped. "Because you were out late one time?"

"It was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back, I'm afraid. We haven't been seeing eye to eye on a lot of things. So now she feels like I'm not committed to the family, and somethin' about being a bad influence on our son."

"That's crazy, you're one of the nicest guys I know."

"Well, thanks, Emily..."

"So what are you gonna do?"

He paused. "Well, I'll just carry on. I moved into a hotel last night, and I'll just take it from there. Make it my goal to move back in so I can prove myself to be a good dad."

#93

Two thousand miles away in Santa Tecla, the breakfast that Brady and Aggie were sharing in their hotel's dining area was interrupted by two young policemen. "Perdón, Señor Murr, Señorita Simms?" said one of them.

They looked at each other. Aggie finally said, "Sí?"

In Spanish, the young officer asked them to accompany them to their vehicle. She asked for identification, but even after they'd provided it, she felt frozen to her chair. She asked what would happen if they refused to go along. At that, the lieutenant from the station emerged from the hotel office across the hall from the dining room. Aggie felt relieved at seeing a familiar, even friendly face.

"Good morning, my friends," he said in English. "I ask you, please no be difficult. We have a situation that need you cooperate with us."


#94

Having agreed to go to the police station, since it was the lieutenant who asked, Aggie now sat in the interrogation room for the second time on this trip, still wondering what would've happened if they had refused to go quietly. She wondered if they should've contacted the U.S. embassy following the gang incident. She had a feeling they might not be allowed to leave freely this time.

"Man, why couldn't they have done this two days ago?" Brady had tried not to whine, but it was a very disappointing situation. "We're supposed to go home tomorrow!" He thought about his friends and the comforts of home.

The door opened, and the lieutenant entered the room along with the sergeant who had interrogated them three days earlier. "Ok," said the lieutenant, looking more serious than he had before, "we have more questions to ask about the men you were with last Friday. We need to know how they contacted you about transporting their product."


#95

Aggie stared at the lieutenant with wide eyes. Then she looked at Brady, who appeared equally incredulous. Were they really being accused of drug trafficking?

"Lieutenant, I assure you, we never spoke a word to any of those gang members."

"Not true. I was with you here in station when you talk with them two days ago."

"That...that was an interview for our magazine. We spoke about it."

"One of the perpetrators tell us that you two made agreement to take cocaine with you back to United States."

Brady looked ready to pounce. "What? No..."

The lieutenant cut him off. "Was that your real reason to come back here? Did you come to get payment instructions? Find out where to go?"


#96

Aggie had never known the kind of desperation she felt in that moment. She'd heard stories of Americans imprisoned abroad. Many were never able to return home. Even if they could get back to the States within a year, her career would probably be over. She would have to live with her parents in Vermont, working whatever uninteresting job she could find...

"So what do you say?" The lieutenant's voice snapped her back to the present. "Anything you have to tell us? I can tell you that drug trafficking carries a harsh punishment in our country."

She looked at Brady again and suddenly felt very glad it was him traveling with her and not Michelle or Rachel. They lacked his strength. And she needed his strength right then.

She looked the lieutenant in the eye. "We need to make a call."


#97

Two-and-a-half hours later, Dave was waiting to board a plane at JFK. He was gnawing on a PowerBar, since lunch had been an impossibility. The day's events were beginning to tie his stomach in knots, anyway.

When BT's attorney, Pierce Devreaux, appeared in the terminal, Dave instantly felt a significant amount of relief. Despite his lawyer status, Dave knew Pierce to be a good man who was always ready to help in a way that benefited all parties as much as possible. There was no one he would rather have on his side in a bind. And he was in a serious bind.

He stood to greet him. "Pierce, I can't thank you enough for coming on basically no notice."

Pierce unbuttoned his coat and gave Dave's hand a firm shake. "Don't mention it, Dave. This is the kind of thing I live for. I want you to put your mind at ease. We're gonna handle this."

Dave sat down again and breathed a little easier. "It's a bad day, Pierce. My business's most valuable asset is sitting behind bars in El Salvador, and she didn't do anything. Wait 'til you meet her, Pierce; she's a sweet girl from Vermont and sharp as a tack. More professional than a lot of women ten years older."


#98

Brady and Aggie shared a small holding cell apart from the cell block they had visited on Saturday. Brady sat on the bench and looked at the ceiling, apparently searching for contentment in his current situation. Aggie stood, sipping water from a cup and thinking about how he would grow through this experience and what kind of man he would be. She also thought about the gang members and why one of them apparently thought his punishment would be lighter if he framed the two Americans for trafficking. And she thought again of the handsome gangster who sacrificed his body to protect them that day. When the thoughts became overwhelming, she focused on Dave Pike, whom she was hoping to be her hero on this day.

"You didn't do it, right Aggs?" Brady said suddenly. "I know ya didn't. Those guys are just tryin' to get some leniency, right? Can that actually work?"

"I kinda doubt it, but I don't know. Sometimes when you're in big trouble, you want more people in it with you."

"Trouble loves company, right?" He stood up, leaned against the bars and sighed. "Think Dave can get us outta this?"

"I'm afraid I don't know any more than you do. I've never been behind bars before. And it's my first time in El Salvador."

"I hope they're not passing around our credit cards in there."


#99

Two more hours passed. They had been fed two modest meals, but they felt undernourished. Through the window outside their cell, they could see the winter sun was setting. They stood at the bars, only speaking occasionally. Both were thinking of home, and each other.

"I just hope they don't separate us," Aggie said. "Not tonight, not ever. I'm a little terrified of that, actually."

He looked at her, wanting so much to take her in his arms and comfort her. "Aggie, no matter what happens, we have to stay strong. Stay free in here." He pounded his fist on his chest. "We're totally innocent. If there's a God up there, I'm sure He'll get us out of this."

She took a step closer to him. "I've been trying to pray a little, actually," she said. "I grew up in church. You?"

"I went with friends some when I was younger."

"I'll pray for both of us."

"Deal." He looked at her tenderly. "Thank you."



#100

As much as Brady wanted to hold her, Aggie was in bad need of being held. She came closer still. "Brady, in case they do separate us, I want you to know..." She looked at the floor, searching. He just waited for whatever it was. "You've been so great. This has been one of the best trips...until now, of course."

He spoke in a low voice. "Yeah, it's been fun."

"I think you're really great." Was she even closer? Brady began to feel excited and uncomfortable at the same time. "There's no one I'd rather have with me here, tonight," she said.

Whoa, Brady thought. Did she want to be kissed? If it were any other girl, he wouldn't hesitate, but this was Aggie. She was his senior partner, a mentor, someone he respected. And he'd never been in love before. What on Earth should he do? He began to sweat on the back of his neck. He eased forward and touched her arms, hoping this was what she wanted and that he wasn't making a total fool of himself. Of all places for their first kiss! Was this really happening?

"I'm really glad it's you," she said softly.

"Me too," he said, not knowing what else to say. He lowered his head to match her height, and she lifted her face, eyes closed. Their lips were now impossibly close...

The door burst open without warning. The lieutenant entered, smiling as usual. "Hola!" he shouted. "You have visitors!"

Aggie had never felt such joy as when she saw Dave's face in that moment.


#101

"Well, well, well," Dave said, smiling with hands on his hips. The atmosphere in the whole room had turned to mirth when he and Pierce Devreaux entered, so Aggie and Brady didn't mind a little lighthearted joking. "And I thought you were one of the good ones, Aggie."

Brady, surprised in the middle of an intense moment but just as happy to see Dave as Aggie was, countered with a goofy cartoon voice. "It wasn't us, honest!"

"Dave, thank you so much for coming," Aggie said with a shudder. Their relationship began before Brady joined the magazine, and it had always seemed a level above all others at the company. Brady almost thought he saw tears in her eyes. He couldn't help but wonder if another moment like they'd just shared could ever happen again, now that the situation had taken a dramatic turn.

"Don't worry about a thing," said Pierce. "We have connections to lawyers who specialize in just this kind of thing."

And then they saw the lieutenant produce the keys from his belt.


#102

Still smiling under his mustache, he said, "We have decided to not, ah, press charges," a phrase he seemed to have only just heard, "since the, ah, informant was not a reliable source." With a glance at Pierce and Dave, he unlocked the cell and slid the door open. "You are free to go." Then he added, "I was going to let you go anyway, I know you not do it, amigos, but I had to know for sure. Following proper rules, you understand?"

Aggie nearly knocked him over as she burst out of the cell and threw her arms around Dave. "I knew you'd do it! You can do anything. Thank you, thank you."

Dave seemed surprised by this outburst, but he maintained his cool. "Well, if it'd been anyone else, I'da just let 'em rot, but since it's you..."

Brady felt awkward and wasn't sure whether to try a handshake or a pat on the back while Aggie sustained her hug. Instead he put his hands on his hips and said, "Man, Dave, thanks a lot. I thought we'd found a new home here."

Dave seemed not to hear him. "Let's get some fresh air, huh?"


#103

Nearly fifteen hours after takeoff, Michelle's Egyptair flight finally landed at Damascus International Airport. While it was Monday evening in New York, it was already Tuesday morning in Syria. Michelle was thankful she'd been able to get plenty of sleep during the flight. Upon landing, she found she had a text message from Emily saying that Jason wouldn't be able to join her until the following morning. That pleased her, since she would now have an entire day to explore the city alone, taking pictures of whatever she wished.

She had bought long skirts that would help her fit in better, and she had worn one for the flight. She knew it wouldn't prevent her from sticking out as a tourist, but hopefully she would get fewer judgmental stares for any perceived lack of modesty.

With her luggage in tow, she exited the terminal and was greeted by much warmer air than she had left behind her in New York. The temperature would reach the mid-sixties by the afternoon. As she began looking for a ride to the hotel, she became very excited about this trip, especially this first day on her own.


#104

Back in New York, Emily, Paul, Brian and Black Andy were enjoying after-dinner drinks at their usual table at Little Nemo's. Andy and Brian shared a pair of headphones, enjoying a new music video on the latter's smartphone. Halfway through Andy glanced up and said, "Look who it is."

"Heeeeey!" said a tall, handsome Latino in a dark sport jacket and colorful tie, walking toward them from the door. Behind him came a waif of a girl with unnaturally black hair, thick-rimmed "hipster" glasses and a camera bag strapped around her casually clad torso. Both of them were toting luggage.

"Ricard-o," said Andy, emphasizing the o as he always did. They clasped hands. Ricardo and Brian exchanged a similar greeting.

"What's up, guys?" Ricardo was raised in a Hispanic community in Atlanta and had a purely American accent.

"Hey," said Rachel with a smile, and the others greeted her warmly. She was not a conversationalist, but she was far from uninteresting and was well-liked by her friends at the magazine.

"How was Tasmania?" said Emily.

"Pretty great, pretty cool," said Ricardo, stealing one of Brian's french fries. "Tell ya what, I'll write up a report so you can read all about it. I'll put some great pictures in it!" He put an arm around Rachel's tiny shoulders, acknowledging her contribution. "Might even publish it somewhere. But hey, what's with this e-mail about Aggie and Brady? Dave went to El Salvador?"


#105

On the taxi ride back to their hotel, Aggie and Brady sat on either side of Dave while Pierce rode shotgun. Brady took the opportunity to ask a few questions.

"Man, we weren't even in there twenty-four hours. You're like some kind of super boss. How did you manage to get us out of there so easily?"

Pierce turned in their direction, smiling. Dave was smiling too, a hard kind of smile. Pierce said, "Police down in these countries take a special kind of convincing." He faced front again and didn't explain.

Brady probed further. "Throw a little money around...?"

Dave finally responded. "Mm, there was a combination of politics, a little lawyer-speak, probably a little over their heads, a little bluffing, a little hardball, and yeah, a small peace offering."

Brady had the answer he'd feared. Now what to do with it without harming what little relationship he had with Dave? He took a risk, just to express his feelings. Looking out the window, he said, "Not sure how I feel about that."

Dave said, "We can take you back right now if you want. No problem."


#106

It was nearly midnight, and as much as Aggie wanted to continue visiting with Dave and Pierce at the hotel bar, exhaustion from worrying in a jail cell all day overtook her. Brady seemed uncomfortable and would probably retire upstairs, too. She wasn't sure she wanted to see him alone just then, but she couldn't stay there any longer.

"I hate to do this, but I've really got to get some sleep..."

"Please, go to bed," Pierce said, waving her on. "You've earned it!"

"Oh, I haven't earned anything. I've been a burden to you..."

This time Dave interrupted. He seemed annoyed, but his words told a different story. "Aggie, you haven't done anything that I'm not extremely proud of. You think Jason would've gone to that jail to interview those guys? You were after a real story; you don't just phone **** in. Now get your *** to bed; tomorrow I'm treating us all to the best breakfast San Salvador has to offer."


#107

The elevator ride to the third floor was quiet and uncomfortable, with neither Brady nor Aggie ready to speak after their tense experience at the police station. It wasn't until they reached their doors, opposite each other, that Brady finally broke the silence:

"Hey, um." She turned but didn't look directly at him. "I know things were crazy tonight. I, uh...I don't like, expect..."

"Brady, you really don't need to say anything, ok? It was...I was just..." She finally looked him in the eye.


He felt like time was suspended for a moment. Finally he was able to shake himself and say, "Yeah, yeah, I know. Hey, g'night, ok? Yeah. See you tomorrow." She didn't respond, and he closed the door behind him.


#108

The next day, about eleven o'clock on the East Coast, Emily visited Black Andy's cubicle looking concerned.


"Hey, Andy, I don't want you to freak out, but I thought you should know...Dave asked me to keep tabs on Jason this week, and I happened to notice that Michelle's flight landed like sixteen hours ago but she never checked into her hotel."



Andy appeared to be frozen, just staring at her. Finally he said, "What."



Emily sat on his extra chair. "Y-yeah. Ok, I'm kind of freaking out now."



Andy tried to remain calm. "Can you check other hotels?"



"I wish...I have no idea how."



He cursed. 



Ricardo had overheard them and peeped over the wall to ask, "When does Jason get there?"


#109

Brian had been paying attention, too, and now joined Emily in Andy's cubicle. "I guess you can't call her cell phone. Would a text get through?"

"I sent one, but I don't know," Emily said.

"And you called the hotel." Andy didn't look well.

"Yeah, of course."

"Sixteen hours," Ricardo said, thinking aloud. "Could she have just found something else to do, somewhere else to go? Should we assume something bad happened?"

"Would she've tried to contact us if she changed hotels?" Brian said.

"I don't know, this's never happened before," Emily said, trying not to sound exasperated. She had already thought all of this through before she dared say anything to anyone. So far no one was actually being helpful, but they couldn't know that.

"And where's Dave right now?" asked Ricardo. "Have they left El Salvador yet?"


#110

After enduring a long taxi ride in unruly traffic, Jason was glad to finally be in his hotel room in downtown Damascus. He knew he'd have to get in touch with Michelle soon, but for the moment he just wanted to lie on the soft bed. His flight had been difficult to sleep through.

He had only been on the bed for a minute when the phone in the room began to ring. He was annoyed that Michelle was calling him already. He pulled himself off the bed and picked up the receiver. He made no attempt to hide his irritation when he said, "Hello."

"Jason." It was a man's voice--Dave's! "How was your flight."

"It was alright. Long. I didn't get much..."

"Listen, we have a problem. Michelle hasn't checked into the hotel. As far as we can tell, she's missing. Can you look into it?"

Jason sat in the desk chair, unable to speak for a moment. Finally, he found his voice. "Miss-missing? Are you..."

"Talk to the people at the hotel, ask around, do whatever you have to do. But call me on my cell before you alert any authorities, ok? I've got my own plan I'll put into action as soon as I hear from you. Ignore your story for now until we know where she is. Got it?"


#111

After Dave gave his orders to Jason, he and Pierce had argued, over delicious tamales de elote, about whether the police in Damascus should be notified. Then a sudden silence overtook the table as each of their thoughts turned toward Michelle. It was Brady who interrupted the solemnity.

"Thanks for breakfast, Dave."

Dave ignored him. The waitress filled their coffee cups. He ignored her, too. Suddenly the group wasn't speaking because they were afraid to. Aggie sipped her coffee, thinking a prayer for Michelle, and another for Jason, and wondering what would happen next. The waitress cleared the table; Dave paid and continued to drink his coffee in silence. Finally, after an eternity, he spoke.

"Let's go home."


#112

"Excuse me," Jason said to the black-clad woman behind the reception desk. He spoke slowly to be sure she'd understand. "I'm looking for someone staying at this hotel. We work together. Her name is Michelle Owens. O-W-E-N-S." She didn't bother making eye contact and continued typing into her computer, so he wondered for a moment if she'd heard him at all. Finally she stopped typing and looked at him. She spoke with a thick accent.

"Michelle Owens reserved a room with us for five nights. Check-in date was Tuesday, yesterday." Hope sprang up in Jason's heart as she resumed her typing. "But she did not check in."  She continued typing and staring at her screen, as if making sure. Again she said, "She has not checked in, sir."

He thought about asking if he could be notified if she did check in, but he decided that was extremely unlikely. He briefly imagined her spending the night with some handsome Syrian man she met in the airport. No, all signs pointed to something bad happening to her.

"Thank you very much."

His next step, following Dave's orders, was to ask around elsewhere. He had no idea where to start.


#113

"And, sent." It was Tuesday afternoon and Emily sat at the head of the giant table in the largest conference room. Black Andy and Brian stood on either side of her. The other Andy sat a few chairs away. A large screen portrayed the contents of Emily's laptop display on the other end of the room. They had just delivered the entire contents of the next issue to their printing vendor electronically, a monthly ritual for the four of them. After five years using this vendor, the process was relatively smooth, though it always took at least three hours in this room together to work out last-minute kinks.

Normally Dave would be in the room with them, running things, but he was still en route from El Salvador. Number ninety-six would be the magazine's first issue that would go to print without Dave Pike's micromanagement on the last day. Brian therefore saw Aggie's and Brady's very brief incarceration as an unfortunate boost to his career, since it had been up to him to take the leadership reins. He would always think of this issue as his. He wanted to hug the others, but he restrained himself.

"Well, that's that," said the elder Andy, still looking at the screen. "Hope Dave likes it."

"If he doesn't hate it, I'll feel like we succeeded," the other Andy joked.

"Come on, Black, we did great work here," Brian said, grinning.

"I agree," Emily said. "Brian, congrats. I think it's a great issue. Look at that cover. I'm ready to see Belarus myself now! Michelle's pictures are fantastic." The reminder brought an ominous silence to the room.

"Four thirty," Brian said after a few moments, looking at his phone out of habit even though the time was displayed on the large screen. He sighed, his grin now gone. "Let's sneak outta here and head for Nemo's. First drink's on me today."


#114

When Ricardo and Rachel showed up at Little Nemo's, the others had already been there an hour and were embroiled in conversation at their usual table. It was Andy Haines' first time out with them since the events of Friday night that had led to his move into a hotel room, and he seemed to be doing alright. But Ricardo noticed all the fun had gone out of the younger Andy. He engaged him when he reached the table, as the others continued talking.

"Got it sent off?"

"Yep. I think we did ok."

"Awesome. So how you holdin' up, man?"

"Man, I dunno. All I can think about is 'Where's Michelle?'" Ricardo just looked at him, hoping to lend an ear and help in any way. Andy continued. "I just remembered on the way over here that it's Valentine's Day. Hadn't thought about it since I found out she was missing. Course, all I could'a done is call her at her hotel, but I'da done that anyway."

Rachel was listening in. "Man, your first Valentine's together and...that's terrible," she said, barely audible over the din of the restaurant. She put a hand on his shoulder, a very unusual gesture for her. "I'm so sorry."


#115

Paul arrived, and Emily made her apologies as they had made reservations at an expensive restaurant months prior. Once they'd left, Brian made a proposal.

"Hey, we should all go to a nice place for dinner, too."

Ricardo, Rachel, and Andy Haines liked that idea and started discussing possibilities. Black Andy wasn't in the mood.

"Andy," said Ricardo, "we all love Michelle. We'll all be thinking of her. Let's do this in her honor. Let's celebrate her...and hope our thoughts and prayers bring her back to us."

A few minutes later they began making their way out of the restaurant to find a cab to pile into. But before they reached the door, a couple of familiar faces entered through it.

"Oh my Go...look who it is!" Ricardo shouted.

Hugs and handshakes ensued all the way back to their table, and questions were asked and stories begun. Aggie and Brady were finally home.


#116

She felt a warm wind whipping over her body. Where was she? A hotel room somewhere? Syria...she had flown to Syria. Had she forgotten to lower the shade? So bright. Cars driving at highway speeds every few seconds, not far away. This bed...it wasn't a bed at all...

She opened her eyes slowly. Holy Lord, she was outside. There was no vegetation in sight, only barren desert. She tried to lift herself, but her body ached all over. What had happened to her? She turned her head in the direction of the passing cars. Suddenly she remembered. The cab she'd entered at the airport didn't belong to a taxi service. How could they get away with...must have something to do with the riots. It was chaos here, and she'd become a victim of evil intent the moment she arrived.

She checked herself over. No sign of sexual aggression. Nothing left to her but the clothes she was wearing. How many passing drivers had noticed her there and done nothing? How long had she been there?

Every attempt to stand was met with unbearable pain. For the first time since she was a child, Michelle realized she may have to depend on the mercy of another human being to survive.


#117

She tried to get a sense of direction and time of day. The sun was low, but the temperature felt more like late morning than early evening, not that she was familiar with the February climate in Syria at all. Maybe she'd only been there an hour. Then why did she feel so parched and hungry? Could she have been lying there for more than twenty-four hours? Had she survived an entire day and a frozen desert night exposed to the elements, after being flung from a speeding car?

It suddenly occurred to her how fortunate she was to be alive. She thanked her lucky stars that she had no open wounds; she could've bled to death. Her goal now was to keep breathing, in honor of God or fate or whatever had managed to carry her this far. She thought of Andy and her friends, of seeing them as soon as possible.

She needed medical attention quickly. And that meant getting to the highway and getting a ride.

Fighting through the pain, she managed to slowly roll herself onto her belly. Then she reached out her hands, dug her fingers into the sandy soil and inched forward using her elbows, hips, knees and toes, as vehicles continued to pass by not twenty yards away. The pain was excruciating. She traveled half a body length before she was forced to stop and rest.


#118

Around noon on Wednesday Jason was on the phone in his hotel room when there was a knock at the door.  Since he was on hold, he took the phone unit with him and opened the door. Behind it stood a bulky man in a gray trench coat, navy blue sweater and khakis. He hard straight, dark hair, meticulously combed, and hard eyes. He reminded Jason of a boss at the end of a level in a video game. This was not someone to mess around with.

"Jason?"

"Yeah."

The man clearly didn't wish to interrupt Jason's phone call. Jason beckoned him to enter and said, "I'm on hold, hang on--oh, yeah?" (To someone on the other end of the line.) "You do?" A long pause, and then: "Oh, no, the Michelle Owens I'm looking for has brown skin and black hair. Ok, man, so close...thank you...thank you very much. Bye." He returned the phone to the desk, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then turned to the stranger in his room. "And you are?"

The man extended his hand. "Peter. Peter Leiser. Dave Pike sent me."

He shook his hand. "Oh?"

"I'm here to help you find your missing coworker."


#119

"Who were you talkin' to there?"

"I was calling hospitals," Jason said. "I've called a few, have a few more to go."

"Good. Keep doin' that. I've rented a vehicle. Since we know Michelle landed but didn't get to the hotel, I'm gonna search the area in-between."

"I wanna go with you."

Peter looked him in the eye for a moment. "Alright. Finish up your calls real quick and meet me in the lobby."

"'K, thanks. Question. Why didn't Dave want me to call the police?"

Peter smirked. "He don't even trust New York cops; you think he's gonna rely on Syrian cops? Uh-uh. Now get dialin'."


#120

As Michelle continued her struggle to reach the highway, the pain became so overwhelming that she feared she may soon lose consciousness. If she could just get the attention of one merciful driver before she passed out, it would be enough. As dizziness took over, she reached up her hand and waved it with the last of her resolve. Her face fell into the sand as she heard a vehicle leave the road and stop nearby. She turned her head toward the sound and saw a figure step out of a car just before she slipped out of consciousness.


#121

Peter and Jason took the highway toward the airport in a rented Nissan Infiniti SUV. Each surveyed the landscape on his side of the road as hard rock music blared from the speakers, not quite to Jason's taste.

Jason was clueless about what Peter intended to do if they didn't find any clues on this trip. "So what's your plan?" he shouted over the music.

Peter had removed his coat. His very large arm commanded the steering wheel. His eyes scanned the desert as he spoke. "I've got contacts here from my tours with the Marines. They have contacts, their contacts have contacts, and so forth. They extend everywhere from government to criminal organizations in every country. In my line o' work, if someone needs to be found, we have about a ninety percent success rate. We already got the ball rollin' last night."

"What is your line of work? Search and rescue?"

Peter took his eyes off the desert just for a second to glance at Jason with a smile. "Just gettin' stuff done, man, for whoever can afford it." He resumed his search. "The Marines train us, and the world becomes a business opportunity for those of us who can figure out how to take advantage of it. Bein' able to help people is just a nice perk."

Jason decided to be quiet for a while. He'd never met anyone quite like this before.

#122

Traffic to the airport had become heavier in the afternoon. The combination of Jason's sleepless night on the plane, the extremely loud and abrasive music, and having nothing to look at but barren desert and the back of a sedan caused him to nearly doze off despite the seriousness of his mission. Suddenly the flow of traffic slowed dramatically, stirring him to full consciousness. Peter could see the reason for the delay.

"A car went off the road up here on the left. It was tryin' t' cut in and get back on."

Jason looked at him. Peter was studying the scene. Jason shouted, "You don't think..."

"We better find out." As he was saying it, he took the SUV off the highway to the right, down a slight incline onto the sandy ground, accelerating past the cars on the road. Jason saw passengers staring in disbelief. He was surprised himself, but only slightly. He wished he had something to hold onto.

"Which car?" he yelled. The music was still pumping, but now it began to add to the excitement of the situation for him.

"It was ten cars in front of us," Peter shouted back confidently. Jason was impressed that he could tell. "Or maybe eleven," Peter added. "I think it was gray, but it was hard to tell in the glare."

#123

They continued passing cars, swerving to avoid a road sign in Arabic that appeared to give the distance to the airport. It was almost Jason's first car chase, except the driver being chased wasn't aware of it. And once they caught up, there wasn't much they could do about it until the car stopped.

"Pretty sure that's the one," is what he thought he heard Peter say, though the big man's head was turned toward the cars and the vocalist in the speakers was screaming something that sounded vaguely like, "No love! No hope!"

"Alright," Peter said directly to him, "I'm ninety percent sure that's the car." Jason wasn't sure which one he meant. "We're getting back on the road--hang on." There was absolutely no room to do so that Jason could see, but an inclined exit ramp loomed ahead of them, so it was now or never. Peter applied the gas even more heavily. "One, two...three!"

#124

Jason had to close his eyes as the wheel nearest him clipped the edge of the exit ramp. The vehicle went airborne for a couple of seconds, and the rear panel on Peter's side smacked the car he was trying to cut off. That car stopped, along with the traffic behind it, but Peter regained control of the SUV and continued his pursuit.

Jason's heart was racing. He hoped this effort was worth the trouble they were causing, since all they had seen was a car forcing its way onto the highway on the way to the airport. The probability that it had anything to do with Michelle seemed small, though the location did make sense based on what they knew.

"Does that look like her?" Peter asked. The passenger in the car in front of them had turned around and was staring at them, obviously wondering what the crazy driver behind her was up to. Peter had seen pictures of Michelle, but Jason would be able to identify her much better.

"No, definitely not," he said. "But she could be in the back seat, or the trunk."

"Yep. Let's stay in pursuit. It's the only lead we have so far."

Jason prayed to God that she was in that car, alive. But if she was, whoever picked her up may have misinterpreted Peter's daredevil move as evil intent for the girl, which could result in a real car chase after all.

#125

Sure enough, once they'd exited the highway and found room to accelerate on the airport road, the car accelerated dramatically, obviously trying to get away. It didn't prove Michelle was inside, since the driver may have simply been afraid of the two men's intentions. Peter continued the chase, which reached high speeds on dangerous curves as they neared the airport. Both vehicles made frequent lane changes, narrowly avoiding cars as they passed by. Jason began to sweat from anxiety. He yelled "Whoa!" a couple of times, quite accidentally, but Peter ignored him.

"What if they don't stop?" Jason yelled.

"They gotta stop eventually."

Three police cars sat in front of the airport terminal, and this was where the driver decided to park. Peter rolled to a stop behind him. Three officers stood nearby, so far oblivious to the situation. No one moved in the car they'd chased down. "Be cool, Jason," Peter said as he climbed out of the cab. Jason remained in his seat, greatly relieved to be stopped but terrified of what might happen next. Peter reappeared within seconds, holding a crowbar. "We're gonna have a look in that trunk," he said to Jason through the open door, and then he proceeded toward the car.

#126

Jason found his bravado incredible. In direct view of the three police officers, Peter peeked into the back seat of the car and, finding nothing, quickly popped the trunk open with the crowbar as if he'd done it a thousand times before. Jason's heart nearly stopped as he watched his face to see the result. Peter shook his head at him and returned to the vehicle. Either they'd followed the wrong car, or its entry onto the highway had nothing to do with Michelle. She could be anywhere.

At that point all three policemen began making their way toward them to investigate. Without saying a word, Peter gunned the engine and squealed away from the scene. Jason watched the officers in his side-view mirror; they were scrambling for their cars. What would Peter do now?

He must have the accelerator all the way to the floor, Jason thought. They were suddenly beyond ninety miles per hour and still on airport property, narrowly avoiding cars in their escape.

Peter took the SUV offroad into the desert and finally took a moment to glance at Jason. "You ok? You're turning white," he said. Jason was too frightened to answer. "Hey man, just relax. This is all in a day's work for me. We'll be alright."

#127

Peter turned the vehicle toward the southeast, away from the city, to decrease the likelihood that the pursuing police cars would notice them. Now far from the roads, driving on the dense sand, they were traveling about sixty-five miles per hour. Jason peered nervously in the direction of the airport, looking for flashing lights. He soon saw two of the cars leaving the airport at high speed on the road toward the highway. The third must have stayed behind to question the driver. They seemed to be in the clear. He breathed deeply, trying to relax. Peter made a large semicircle around the back of the airport complex and climbed onto a back road that would lead them to the other side.

They passed dozens of commercial aircraft, Arabic writing decorating their hulls and fins, without saying a word. Peter looked deep in thought. A large passenger jet came in for a landing in front of them. Still recovering from the shock of the situation, Jason swallowed hard and finally asked, "So what now?"

Peter seemed barely aware of Jason's presence, simply speaking out loud what he was thinking. "Ditch the car. Get back to town, back to my contact list."

"Wouldn't we be better off working with the police instead of running from them?"

Peter's cell phone rang. "Hello?" There was a long pause as he listened. "Thanks, man. That's a hot lead. Fast, too. 'Preciate it." He rang off and glanced at Jason, then looked at the road. "From what I've been hearin' since yesterday, we're better off without 'em. Lots o' cops turnin' to crime since the riots started. I don't think they'd be much help right now. Better to stay off their radar."

"So what's the hot lead?"

"Rumor of items stolen from an American girl fresh off the plane. Some guys apparently usin' a taxi cab to rob people the last couple o' days."

#128

Michelle awoke to the sounds of traditional Syrian music on a cheap radio. Someone was stroking her hair. She found herself on a bed, in a bedroom, with a young Arab man kneeling beside her. Her lack of reaction to her situation surprised her. She was very comfortable...then she remembered her crawl in the desert, the pain...the pain was gone now. She drew up her left arm slowly and felt her forehead. Everything was odd...she must have been drugged. The man, probably nineteen or twenty years old, with hair long enough to resemble a small Afro, noticed her eyes had opened and smiled. He said something softly in Arabic. She smiled back, against her better judgment.

"Where are we?" she choked. There was sand in her mouth and throat, which she just noticed.

"At my father's house. He is doctor," he said with an accent so thick she would later wish for subtitles.

She attempted to sit up, but her body didn't cooperate. "You rest. My father come back soon. Rest," the young man said.

She wanted to thank him for rescuing her, assuming he had anything to do with her being here, but all that came out was "Thank..." accompanied by a soft smile, and she drifted to healing sleep again.

#129

The Wednesday morning after sending off Bold Traveler's newest child into the world, the latest collection of experience, insight and adventure this family of creators had to offer, was always an unofficial rest day. There was something gloomy about putting so much heart into a large piece of work, deciding it was finished enough, and then having it out of your hands, only to start over again and try to top it, month after month. And they wouldn't even see the new issue on the newsstands for more than a week. Everyone but the writers and photographers were expected to be in the office, but no one was expected to accomplish much, particularly Brian and the two Andys, who had put in loads of extra time and suddenly had little to do until they had more content to work with.

Of course, this Wednesday morning was particularly gloomy because of Michelle's disappearance. Brady and Brian were enjoying doughnuts in the kitchen with Black Andy, trying to keep his mind occupied.

"We could see a movie, but there are just no good ones out lately," Brady said. "There's nothin' in the theater I wanna see."

"Well, they did just rerelease The Phantom Menace in three-D," Brian said through a half-chewed bite of doughnut.

"Aw, man..." Brady stopped himself, not wanting to be rude. "Yeah, I guess if you're into that."

"Well, I saw it Saturday night, anyway."

"Surprised you didn't see it Friday night."

"I was goin' to, but then Jason brought his new friend and left her with us, and I wanted to make her feel welcome..."

"Yeah, I bet you did!"

Andy stood at the counter, spreading cream cheese on a bagel. "I don't think I'd be able to pay attention to a movie anyway."

Brian and Brady exchanged glances. They wanted to say or do anything that might help, but this was a new kind of situation for them. At any time it could be announced that Michelle had been found, or that she had been killed, or anything in-between. Or no announcement may ever come.


#130

Female voices approached, and then Emily, Aggie and Rachel walked in. Emily wanted to cry and hug Andy when she saw him, but though they'd been friends a couple of years, it didn't feel right. She said, "Hey, guys," stood beside him, cut open a bagel though she didn't want the calories. She wanted him to know he was loved somehow. "Hey," she repeated just for him. He responded in kind, giving her the smallest smile.

Brian was saying something about Star Wars to the others, though it seemed he was just trying to occupy the uncomfortable space with frivolous words. Emily also felt an oddness, something vaguely different, with Aggie and Brady. Were they avoiding eye contact with each other? No, but the eye contact they did make seemed forced, as if they didn't want anyone to notice that they'd rather not make eye contact. Emily had developed a type of clairvoyance when it came to male-female relations.

"Brady, how's your arm?" she asked, digging for clues.

"Totally fine now. The bullet really just grazed me. I'm good as new."

"That's awesome. You're a lucky guy."

"Yeah, it coulda been a lot worse."

"We saw a guy get shot, in the leg," Aggie said.

"You told us, last night," said Brian.

"Oh yeah. I think I need more sleep. Or at least more coffee."

Brady had sort of a puppy-dog look as he looked at her. Something must've happened on that trip, beyond the gunfire and a day in a jail cell. Emily had never seen him like this.


#131

"So, Rachel," Brian said, "where are you and Ricardo goin' next?"

"Las Cruces, New Mexico. We're gonna see how much fun a person can have in the desert in February."

"Huh. Could be interesting," Aggie said.

"Yeah, I'm lookin' forward to it. Ricardo was talkin' about meetin' up with some border patrol guys if we get a chance."

Just then Dave appeared in the doorway and interrupted. "Brian, can I see you in my office, please?" And then disappeared.

Andy awoke from his stupor and turned to look at Brian. Everyone in the room was silent with wide eyes. What could this be about? Brian had put his all into finalizing issue ninety-six in Dave's absence. Had he forgotten something? Was Dave unhappy? Was Brian in trouble?

"Um, ok, I'll see you guys later," Brian said, getting up from his chair.

Brady, as usual, tried to lighten the moment. "Can I have your last doughnut?"


#132

The next time Michelle awoke was after sunset. Lamps lit the room softly, and the smell of Middle Eastern food permeated it. Now a second man was in the room--must be his father--along with the young man. He was dressed more traditionally. They were standing with their backs to her, apparently working on something at a table opposite her bed. She wasn't sure how much strength she had. Might as well let them know she was awake.

"Hi," she said without moving. They jerked around.

"Ah, there you are. This is my father. Oh, I am Asu. You may call him Dr. Tlass. He does not speak English. How are you feeling?"

"I'm not sure. How bad am I hurt?"

"He says you are very, very lucky. No broken bones, no open wounds. A little internal bleeding and many bruises. You are going to be very sore for a long time. He is keeping the pain away, but you need much rest to heal."

"I need to call people back home."

Asu spoke to his father. They both smiled. The older man may have even chuckled, she thought. Had Asu understood what she said? Did they even have the ability to call people in the U.S. here? She had no idea. This didn't look like the kind of place that was wired for internet, either, but one never knew these days.


#133

She tried to sit up, but it felt so disorienting that she had to lie down again. Still very little pain at the moment; must be whatever drugs they'd given her.

"Asu? May I use your phone, please? Do you have a telephone?"

He turned and stepped toward her, smiling. "You need to rest..."

"No, no, I need to call my boss. I'm here on business. I need to call my boyfriend and let him know I'm ok. What day is it?"

"It's Wednesday night."

She could hardly believe so much time had gone by since her plane landed, and yet she was comforted that it wasn't any later. "Oh, they must be really worried by now. May I please use your telephone?"

Asu's face became pouty, a look she'd seen on her young nephew many times. Then it became authoritative. He spoke with careful diction, as if to a toddler. "You do not need to call anyone because you are staying here to recover from your injuries."

"But I need to let them know..."

"No. I rescued you. You are staying here." He angrily left the room and closed the door, leaving her alone with his father. The old man seemed completely unaware of what had just transpired. A shudder came over Michelle as she realized that she had gone from isolation and exposure to confinement. She didn't know much about Arab men and wondered if this was normal for their culture or if Asu's apparent possessiveness was a quirk of personality, or something more sinister. Either way, outside contact was now critical.


#134

She tried again to sit up, but she nearly vomited and gave up. The gray-haired doctor finally turned around, revealing a large syringe in his hand. He was mumbling something in Arabic.

"What's that?" she said. Seeing the concern on her face, he spoke to her in comforting tones as he came near. "No," she said, but she had no energy to resist. She grimaced as he held her arm and the needle entered it. When he removed it and turned back to the table, she began to cry. She wasn't a crier, but she'd never felt so helpless. She wished she knew what these men really intended for her. How much pain would she be in if not for this doctor? She might still be alone by the desert road if not for them.

After a few minutes Asu returned with a plate of food and a cup of water. "Here, eat. It's good. Make you strong."

It did smell good. Asu propped up pillows behind her and helped her sit up. She ate a little. It was different from anything she'd ever eaten, but she liked it. After a minute she said, "I need to lie back down. Thanks for the food."

He helped her lie down again. "You see?" he said. "You will be very happy here, Michelle. I will make sure of it."

She smiled politely despite the uneasiness he gave her. She turned on her side, away from him, to rest. He remained seated beside her, stroking her hair. Sleep came again quickly, but as it did, a thought came to her: How did he know her name?


#135

Brian poked his head into Dave's office. "Hey."

"Hey, have a seat, Brian." Dave continued typing his e-mail while Brian sat and tried to be comfortable. He had no idea what might be coming. Rockefeller Center was visible through the window. Shoppers in heavy coats were scurrying around six floors below them. He looked at some of the items on Dave's windowsill: a tennis trophy, a family portrait, a Far Side daily calendar that still showed Monday's page. Finally the e-mail was sent, and Dave turned to address him.

"I had a long look at the new issue last night."

"Cool. I hope it was--"

"Ya did good, man. I saw a few stylistic things that I would've done slightly differently, but this is always a team effort, and I like that this one kinda has your signature on it. I couldn't find anything really negative about it, and that says a lot."

"Yeah, it does..."

"This was a great experience for you, and if anything ever happened to me, I'm really glad somebody like you is around to take the reigns. You've got a good eye and you know what customers are looking for."

"Thanks..."

"So can you give me one good reason we shouldn't make you VP of Content right this minute?"

Brian felt outside of himself. "S...seriously?"

"And I think we can get that monthly movie going. In fact, that can be your first responsibility. It's all yours. Work with Emily."

"Whoa, thanks, Dave..."

"You've earned it, man. Great work. I'm lookin' forward to workin' more closely with ya."


#136

Jason and Peter had abandoned the Infiniti behind an aviation firm's offices and were waiting in a hotel lobby. Jason still wasn't sure what kind of person Peter was, but he found much to admire in him. He felt like he had met a real action hero and was participating in his adventure. Peter sat reading a newspaper, his coat draped over the comfortable chair.

"So who is this guy we're waiting for?" Jason said.

"You'll be happy to know he's a Syrian cop," Peter said in a low voice, "well, ex-cop. He doesn't work for tax money, anyway."

"A private eye?"

"Sort of, but he considers himself more of a protector and server."

"A cop for hire?"

"Exactly. Guys like us have to work in secret since our activities are considered illegal in most places. But we feel like we do more good than state-run cops and soldiers. They're mostly lookin' out for each other and whoever's runnin' the show. Especially in places like this. And we network with people in low places to do good things, like findin' your friend. That's another difference--we don't let pesky things like laws or someone else's moral standard get in the way of doin' what needs to be done. We have our own code."

"So you're criminals."

"We're the real good guys. Like the posse in the old westerns, except that we're everywhere. And we don't come cheap."


#137

An Arab man in a gray flannel suit, expensive tie and a gotee entered and approached them. "Peter," he said, grasping his hand. "Good to see you again."

Peter stood, gathering his coat. "Jason, this is Rani. Let's move to the restaurant. I'm starvin'."

They discussed their situation over a decent hotel meal of fetté and bread. "So assuming the girl who was robbed was our girl," Peter said, "I'm thinkin' they probably just ditched her in the desert. Simplest thing, right?"

"Definitely," Rani said. "And that would be the second time in the past week."

"Could she still be alive, then?" Jason asked.

"There is hope. I can envision many such scenarios."

Peter leaned back in his chair. "The car we chased down had gotten back onto the highway. We were hopin' they might've found her out there, but..."

"If that was even the right car," Jason said. "For all we know, she was right there and we just chased the wrong car."

After dinner, Rani paid for their food and they returned to the lobby. "Don't lose hope," he said. "The trail is still very warm. We have eyes and ears all over the city."

"What if she's not even in the city," Jason said.

Peter looked him in the eye. "We'll find her." They stepped out into the darkness.


#138

"I'm just sayin', to mock good people for not knowing about things that have nothing to do with their lives is pretty arrogant." Rachel was enhancing photos of Tasmania on her computer and chatting with Ricardo through their shared cubicle wall. It was normal for her to talk to him much more than anyone else in the office, since they spent a lot more time together. "I mean, who is Jay Leno to be makin' fun of anyone, anyway?"

"He's, um, Jay Leno," Ricardo said as he scanned his post-lunch e-mails. "That's who he is. And come on, anybody who can't name at least two of the guys on Mount Rushmore has gotta be pretty ignorant."

"Ignorant of things that mean nothing to them, though. I admire them for having more relevant things to think about."

"Hmph, if they're thinking about anything. And really, none of those guys on Mount Rushmore are relevant? Whoa, what's this? 'Congrats to Brian Grouper on his promotion...' VP! Brian's a veep now! Youngest in the magazine's history, it says! Oh man, drinks are on him again tonight."


#139

Black Andy approached Brian's cubicle, where Brian was watching movie trailers on his computer. Brian removed his headphones when he saw him. "Oh, hey. I'm tryin' to pick a movie for Friday. Would you rather see Mission: Impossible or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?"

"As long as it ain't Twilight, I don't care. Hey, Dave wrote a nice e-mail, huh?"

"Man, Dave is my hero right now."

Andy sat down. "It's a good day, man. But listen, I don't think I'm gonna go to Nemo's tonight."

"Aw, man, what's up?"

"I keep thinkin' about Michelle's family. She doesn't talk to 'em much, but I feel like I wanna find 'em, talk to 'em. They gotta be hurtin' ten times as much as I am."

"They know, right?"

"Oh yeah, Dave called 'em from El Salvador as soon as he found out. But I don't know what's happened since then. I got an address; I'm gonna try 'n' find 'em after work."


#140

At five o'clock, Andy packed his messenger bag, said his goodbyes and took the elevator to the sub station. He didn't even know what her parents looked like. Did they even know she was dating someone? What would they think of him? He knew they had Jesus in common, and that gave him comfort. But that would have to come up in conversation--they wouldn't just know it. And he knew her father was a black man like himself, which helped a little, too. So the situation could have been worse.


He had thought about calling ahead, but showing up unannounced actually felt right, since they would see his demeanor and hopefully understand right away that his character and intentions were true. On the ride to Greenwich Village he read a book on his phone to distract himself, but focus was a stranger. He kept seeing the faces of these people he'd never seen. If only his phone would ring, with someone ready to tell him that Michelle was ok. He'd much rather she would introduce them.



He reached the Village and decided to get something to eat, help him feel stronger. A half hour later he found the apartment, charming and humble in a peaceful neighborhood. Seeing where she grew up made him even more emotional. He pictured the little girl she was running down this very sidewalk, shouting at the neighbor kids. He closed his eyes and rang the doorbell.


#141

In the seconds after the door opened, Andy saw himself through the eyes of Michelle's father: the hipster glasses, the expensive sweater, the short 'fro, the quirky shoes. He felt silly. Mr. Owens was exactly what he'd expected, serious, balding, overweight, authoritative. A heaviness hung over him. His first words were "Help you?" He didn't seem actually interested in helping.

His plan all along had been to get it all out quickly with boldness and sensitivity. "Hi, sir, I'm Andy, I'm dating Michelle. I wanted to stop by and say..." But that was as far as he'd been able to think through. He paused and then resumed. "Sir, how are you doin'? I'm really sorry about Michelle. I'm..." He looked at his shoes. "I'm really hurtin', too."

The man stood looking at him for several moments. Andy wondered if he should just leave. He'd never felt so awkward. Finally the man stepped aside and said, "Come in here, Son. You're datin' my daughter?"


#142

"What's your name, Son?"

"Andy, sir."

"Andy, I'm Reverend Owens, but you can call me Carl." Andy immediately thought of the dad on that Urkel show, and this Carl didn't seem so different from that one. Carl introduced him to Michelle's mother, Eliisa, who had moved to New York from Finland as a child. She was blond, lovely and sweet. Andy searched their faces as they talked, trying to discover how these extremely different people created the woman he loved.

Others were there, Carl's cousin and his wife and two daughters from Alphabet City. They were watching the news with excitement. "Andy, they're runnin' a story on Michelle on the six o'clock news," Carl said. It was already three past six.

"Wha--really?"

"We didn't know what to do," Eliisa said. "The authorities weren't communicating with us very well; we didn't know what was happening. So we called the news station, and this afternoon there were three news crews out here talking to us."

"Here it is," said Carl's cousin.


#143

"...tonight of a New York City journalist missing in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where massive protests and a rebel uprising have been going on for months." The family was glued to the television as the anchorman laid out what was known. A picture of Michelle filled the television screen, at least two years old, from before she'd broken off ties with her family. "Brooklyn resident Michelle Owens, a photographer for a travel magazine based in New York, went to Damascus earlier this week on assignment and hasn't been heard from since. Our own Casey Banning spoke with the FBI about Michelle's disappearance. Casey, what have you heard?"

The picture changed to a female reporter in lower Manhattan. "Thanks, Lou. I spoke with Matthew Remington at the FBI's New York Field Office in the Federal Building behind me. Now it's only been three days since anyone has heard from Michelle, but the case has gotten the attention of the FBI due to signs that she may have been assaulted and could be injured..."

"Assaulted?" Andy said, shocked. He hadn't heard anything like that. "What's she talkin' about?"

Michelle's parents were just as surprised. Eliisa buried her face in Carl's chest and sobbed while the reporter finished her story. Andy's heart sank into his stomach. He couldn't look at the screen.

"...as the FBI continues to work with Syrian authorities to find Michelle. For Channel Six News, I'm Casey Banning."

"Thanks, Casey. And we'll be following this story and will update you as more details arrive, and our thoughts and prayers go out to Michelle's family."


#144

Carl gathered the family in a circle and offered up a powerful, sorrowful and very long prayer. When he finished, the others prayed also, one by one, until only Andy was left. So he prayed, too:

"Dear Lord, thank You for this family I'm gettin' to know tonight. Thank you that in the midst of tragedy You bring us together in love. Lord, we love Michelle very much and we want her to be ok. I..." Tears began, and he couldn't speak for a moment. Finally he choked out, "We miss her, Lord. Please let her be ok." He broke down and cried, and the family embraced him.

Eliisa made cookies since she couldn't possibly send Andy home empty-handed. The family chatted as the cookies baked. They talked about the magazine a good deal, since they had hardly heard from Michelle since she started working there. They had a subscription to Bold Traveler and were able to see month-to-month which places she had traveled, thanks to the photo credits. Andy told them about Little Nemo's and all the fun times that had led up to their romance. He even told them about Michelle's reluctance to visit his church.

When he finally decided to go home, Carl put a hand on his shoulder. "Andy, I'm so glad you decided to come by tonight. You've been a little piece of Michelle for us that we've been missing for a long time. Here's my card. Could you do me a favor and ask your boss if he knows anything about this assault we heard about on the news? Call me and let me know what he says, if you would please."


#145

When Michelle awoke again, the sky was still dark. Or was it dark again? She decided it must be the same night, though she did feel a little stronger. Apparently her new doctor was taking good care of her. But what would happen once she healed? She felt certain she was a prisoner there and that no one but Asu and his father knew she was there. She tried to motivate herself to get up. Her one goal was to escape, but achievement seemed far away since her body had so much mending to do and had so many drugs pumped through it.

With much effort and some pain, she managed to sit up for the first time since she was thrown out of the taxi. Her head swam and her ribs ached. The house was incredibly quiet, and the only light was a streetlight shining through the blinds over the one window in the room. She slowly swung her legs over the side of the bed. The floor was nearly a foot from her toes. She felt very dizzy. She rubbed her face, trying to wake herself. Then she scooted her backside toward the edge of the bed with small twisting movements until she made contact with the floor. Now she felt sick. Her legs couldn't bear the weight, so she quickly lowered herself to a crawling position. She heard a sound--someone coming in? Maybe going to the bathroom. She prayed they wouldn't look in her room.

She waited on the floor for a few minutes. She didn't have the strength to return to bed anyway. She only ever heard the one sound, so finally she began to crawl toward the door opposite the bed. She hoped no one was sleeping outside the door. If she could just make it outside, she'd be free. She focused all her strength to that end.


#146

As Dave was en route to his home in Trenton late that evening, his wife Cindy had called to tell him that several vehicles were parked in front of their house, including two news vans, and men in jackets marked "FBI" were waiting for him. This came as no surprise at all. They would want to know why he failed to alert the proper authorities when he found out his employee had gone missing abroad. There was no way he could've prevented everyone at the magazine and all of Michelle's family members from calling a public official, so he didn't even try. He was just glad his associates had enough time to make use of their network and do some effective sleuthing before governments and media outlets encouraged every criminal in Syria to go into hiding.

"David Pike?" said a man approaching him when he arrived. He was accompanied by two others. "We'd like to ask you a few questions. Could we step inside with you, please?" He agreed and went into the house, thankful that his kids were in bed and wouldn't see this. Cindy met him at the door.

"Finally," she said, clutching him tight. She whispered in his ear, "I knew you shoulda called someone."

"I did call someone," he said, not looking her in the eye. "Have a seat, guys," he said to the three men. He was determined to not give them any respect as authority figures, as he didn't consider them to have any real authority over him. "Should I make coffee?"

"Why don't we get right down to it," said their leader, a tall blond in his forties, as he sat in a chair. "We know you found out your employee, Michelle Owens, went missing a full day before any kind of public official was notified. Wanna tell us why you didn't bother to call the police or the FBI or anyone?"


#147

"Oh, should I have?" Dave said from the kitchen as he poured himself a whiskey. "Maybe I missed that day in civics class." He brought his glass in the living room and sat on the couch next to Cindy, who looked very tense. The three men remained silent, apparently waiting for Dave to say something that would ensnare him. "Seriously, guys, is it against the law to not report an employee who goes missing in a foreign country? Or is it my moral fortitude that's on trial here?"

"No one's on trial, Mr. Pike," said the blond. "We just wanna find your missing employee. We'd appreciate your complete cooperation."

"Sounds like you know an awful lot already. How will questioning me help?"

"Mr. Pike, by failing to report Ms. Owens as missing, you have put her in immense danger. If you had alerted the FBI when you found out, we'da had a full day earlier to start lookin' for her."

"Did you drive all the way out here to tell me that?"

"Mr. Pike, we're bringing you in for questioning. Agents are confiscating the computer in your office tonight. Please surrender your cell phone--"

"You people broke into my office?"

The blond raised his voice. "If you do not come quietly, of your own volition..."

Dave stood and put his fists together as an invitation to arrest him. He knew this had nothing to do with finding Michelle. The FBI was after Peter's and Rani's network. Bringing Dave in wouldn't help them, as the network was well hidden, but fighting them wouldn't do any favors for his company or his family. He didn't say another word as they led him outside, where cameras were rolling and reporters were reporting. They put him in a car and took him away.


#148

When the sitcom rerun Brian was watching went to commercial, he flipped to the eleven o'clock news in time to see an update on Michelle's story, accompanied by scenes of a familiar figure being escorted to a waiting car.

"Well at six we told you about a journalist, Michelle Owens, who's gone missing in Syria. We have an update to that story now as her manager, David Pike, is being questioned by the FBI. Mr. Pike apparently failed to notify authorities when he found out Ms. Owens had gone missing, and as we told you at six, she may have been injured in an assault. We're told Mr. Pike does not face criminal charges, but he could be faced with a lawsuit due to negligence. And we'll continue to update you as more details on this story become available."

Brian wasn't sure what to do. He wanted to jump up, throw his coat on and head into the night, but where would he go? He felt helpless to assist the man he admired so much. Would Dave be in the office in the morning? Would he have to leave the magazine?

And then the realization came: Brian might have to take primary  responsibility for the content ofBold Traveler immediately. Did Dave know that earlier in the day? Is that why he was really promoted? Was he ready for that kind of responsibility? He knew he might have to find out very soon.


#149

Jason had been asleep for a few hours back at his own hotel when the phone rang, waking him. He was disoriented from the exhaustion of the previous day. Who would be calling him in Damascus in the middle of the night?

It was Peter, of course. "Jason, get yerself ready and meet us in the lobby ASAP." He rang off. Something had happened. Whether good or bad, it was impossible to hear in Peter's voice. Maybe he wasn't sure himself.

Still rubbing his face to rouse himself, Jason met Peter and Rani wearing khakis, a sweater and his long coat. He was glad he'd brought some warm clothes, though he hadn't imagined he'd be running around at night so much when he packed.

"Four a.m., guys? What's goin' on? Did somebody find her?"

"Big lead," said Rani. They had black duffle bags with them.

"Somebody heard somebody who knew about Michelle's luggage talking about some other person who wanted to get her off the side of the road," Peter said.

"Huh. So we were right about that. So what do we do?"

"We have an address," Rani said. "We're going in."

"We--what? The three of us?"

Peter smiled, something Jason hadn't seen much yet. "We have a team. We're meeting them now."


#150

One hour later, Jason was sitting in the passenger seat of a black van with Rani at the wheel. They were in a poor neighborhood in south Damascus. They and a team of men with assault weapons and night-vision goggles had arrived in two vans, headlights off. Jason was watching them surround the house. Peter was among them. There was no hesitation as most of them suddenly entered the house simultaneously, kicking in doors and smashing windows without warning. They waited to see what would happen next.

Within half a minute, the radio crackled. Peter said, "Rani, come on in."

Rani looked at Jason as he opened his door. "Take the wheel and get ready to drive as soon as we are loaded." He ran into the house.

Jason was incredulous. Apparently they hadn't expected to need one of their drivers in the house. Had they found her? He hadn't heard any shots fired. What was happening? He climbed into the driver's seat and tried to prepare himself for anything.

After the longest two minutes of Jason's life, Peter emerged alone and came around the van to speak with him. "She's not here," he said. "But we think she mighta been."


#151

Others emerged running from the house, and Peter said, "We gotta go before the neighbors get curious. Rani'll give you directions."

Half the team piled into the van, and Jason shifted it into gear, wondering how he ever got himself into this situation. He saw the rest of the team forcing two half-dressed Arab men into the other van, one younger, one older, hands tied behind their backs. "What's going on?" he asked Rani, seated next to him.

"We found two men sleeping in separate bedrooms. Turn right at the next street. A third bedroom with sort of a lab bench, lots of drugs and meds. There were signs that they had been caring for someone with severe injuries, in a great deal of pain. Such as someone thrown from a car outside the airport."

"Where do you think they took her?"

"Probably had her picked up, but we don't know. We will interrogate them on the road and then return them here."

As Rani directed Jason onto a highway going across the city, he wondered what kind of interrogation was happening in the other van. He suddenly realized that Peter had gotten into that vehicle and was part of the questioning. Jason desperately wanted Michelle to be found, but how far were these men willing to go to get the information they sought?


#152

Jason drove the ancient city's highways for twenty minutes. At a half hour before dawn, they passed the downtown area. It sparkled as impressively as any American city of two million people. It didn't look quite like his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, but the downtown area wasn't so different from Columbus, either. The Barada River glistened beautifully in the middle of town, reminding him of the Scioto back home.

Finally the radio crackled again with Peter's voice. "Alright, Rani, they've fessed up. These guys were treating an injured woman at the house, and she meets Michelle's description. But they're genuinely surprised that she wasn't there when we got there. Either somebody stole her during the night or she left."

"She couldn't have gotten very far in her condition," Jason said to Rani.

Rani apparently agreed, as he told Peter: "We'd better go back."

"Roger that," Peter said. "See you back at the house."

"What will they do with the two men?" Jason asked.

"Take this exit," Rani said. "We're not in the business of taking prisoners or meting out punishment. We'll leave them at the house. We don't have to worry about them calling the police. They may seem like nice guys who wanted to help Michelle, but they both have criminal records. And keeping Michelle at their house instead of taking her to the hospital would get them in big trouble with the police. Probably they intended to keep her there."

Jason hoped the two men hadn't already done something horrible to Michelle.


#153

Michelle had never been so cold, except perhaps on the previous night, which she'd spent unconscious in the open desert after being thrown from a car. It was probably around forty degrees Fahrenheit, but she was still wearing the short-sleeved shirt, skirt and sandals she'd arrived in and had no protection from the wind except the house she had crawled behind. She had managed to get two houses away before the cold and the increasing pain forced her to take a break. Part of her wished she could simply go to sleep again until the daytime sun warmed her. She hoped she could get a little further away and find help before her captors found out she'd escaped.

A dog barked and roused her. She had dozed off, after all. She looked to the east and saw orange hues at the horizon. Soon she would be found. Soon this would finally all be over.

She heard a leaf crushed underfoot and looked back toward Asu's house. Several men dressed in black were walking carefully around it. Must be the Syrian version of a SWAT team--they'd found her! Asu had known her name, which meant he was connected somehow to the men who stole her luggage. But now she wasn't in the house, and they could deny having ever laid eyes on her. She tried calling out, but she didn't have the energy to muster enough volume to be heard from that distance. In desperation she began crawling back toward the house from which she'd come. The pain across her body was growing again, causing her to grunt with each movement. She prayed she wouldn't be too late.


#154

Then she saw Asu and his father, being taken into the house instead of out. What was happening? The men were searching...for her! If only she had stayed in the house. She tried again to call out, but her strength was gone. She laid prostrate in the grassless yard and groaned as loudly as she could. If no one noticed her in the half darkness, Asu might find her later and she might never escape.

She heard someone with an American accent say that the cops would be there in seconds along with officials from the State Department, so they needed to get out of there right away. So if these weren't cops, who were they?

With her head on the ground, she could see someone with pale skin in Asu's yard, wearing a long coat. The other men were apparently in the house. She cried out to him, focusing all her energy on that one person, praying he would hear. She saw him turn, and then he ran to her.

"Michelle!" The voice was very familiar. "Guys, over here!" He turned her onto her back and gathered her into his arms, the first physical contact they'd had in two years of traveling the world together.

"Hey, Jason," she said, smiling feebly. "Did you get your story yet?"


#155

"Go, go, go!" they heard Peter shouting at the others. The team came spilling out of the house, minus two Syrian kidnappers, and ran to their vehicles. Peter gave Jason a thumbs-up sign as he ran. Jason suddenly realized that he and Michelle were being left behind for the Syrian and American authorities to deal with. He'd probably never see or hear from Peter or Rani again.

Tires squealed, and within seconds they saw, between the houses, the two black vans roaring away. Not two seconds later, they heard another vehicle approaching at high speed from the other direction. As it passed them, they saw that it was a black sedan. It must have been chasing after the vans--maybe someone from the State Department? he wondered. Whether his new friends were caught or got away, he'd probably never know. The media weren't likely to catch wind of it if they were caught. And Jason had decided he wouldn't give them up for anything. He might not agree with their methods, but he liked them as people, and they helped him find Michelle.

Then he realized she probably would've been found within a few minutes anyway, as other vehicles arrived and more men in black were suddenly on the scene. "Jason, what's goin' on?" Michelle asked, grimacing with pain.

"Um...I'm not sure. I think the cops are here to find you. I'm gonna take you back over there, ok?" He lifted her in his arms and carried her back to the house.


#156

Three men ran to them before they got to Asu's yard. "Hold it, son," one of them said. "Put her on the ground. Right now...that's it."
A second kneeled over her. "Michelle Owens?"
"Yeah."
"Hey girl, we've been lookin' all over for you. How you doin'?" He examined her superficially as other people brought a stretcher.
"Not so good."
"I know, I know, we're gonna get you to a hospital, ok?"
"What's your name, son?" said the first man to Jason in a half-threatening tone.
"Jason."
"Jason Huston?" The man had assumed a stance that made Jason feel like he'd be tackled if he took a step.
"Yeah."
"You got a problem with me, son?"
"What?"
"You're lookin' at me like I'm one of the bad guys or somethin'. Come on, you're gonna ride with us while Michelle rides in the ambulance, ok?"
Jason wished they could've gone with Peter and Rani instead, but he was thankful this nightmare was over. Andy was gonna be the happiest man on Earth.

#157

"She's still in a lot of pain, but her healing thus far has been pretty incredible." It was nearly lunchtime on Thursday and Jason had missed breakfast. He felt dead on his feet after his exhausting night. He had sat in the waiting room of a Damascus hospital with a representative of the American State Department for hours, waiting for Michelle to be admitted and to hear about her condition. Now a British physician was finally ending their wait. "I expect we can probably release her in about three days."

"Three days!" Jason said. "That's great. I thought you were gonna say three weeks."

"Michelle sustained a lot of internal bleeding but has no broken bones and no infections since she had no open wounds. She's a pretty tough lady to take a beating like that and come out so well."

The man from the State Department continued staring at his tablet computer. He had spent the previous half hour telling Jason what would happen to the men who had kept Michelle at their house. They would probably be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. "Doc," he said, "she was under treatment by this Doctor Tlass that was involved with her kidnapping. He took care of her almost a day and a night. Do you think he actually helped her?"

"It's possible actually. He may have provided therapy to help her body rest and heal, which she wouldn't have had if she'd stayed out in the elements another night."

"Yeah, well there's no tellin' what those two had planned for her once she was well. Looked like they were set up to keep her there long-term. We found handcuffs."

Jason thought about Peter and wondered what the last two days had all meant. He planned to call Dave as soon as it was morning in New York.

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