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I had this TWA flight from Guam via Honolulu and Phoenix, which put me into Tucson at eleven on Sunday night, August 24, which was noon of Monday the 25th, as far as I was concerned. By the time I walked off the plane I had read two paperbacks (one Ludlum and, like every third person on the plane, the new Tom Clancy), the Air Force Times, and TWA Inflight; consumed three meals of airline "chicken," a dozen cups of coffee or Coke; and (occasionally) managed to sleep next to, successively, one oversized clothing retailer from Sherman Oaks, California; one nineteen-year-old jarhead; and one twenty-seven-year-old refugee from a religious commune.
I felt like ten miles of bad road. And Maia wasn't there. I had worried about that.
We hadn't seen each other in eight months. Twice my unit was placed on alert just when I was supposed to go on leave. First it was something to do with rumors of a new series of Soviet missile tests, then Seventh Fleet maneuvers in the Sea of Okhotsk. Then a guy named Barry Owings, my relief, gave himself a compound fracture of the right anterior tibia in a softball game between Det 422 and some overly enthusiastic boys from the 432d Tactical Fighter Wing at Misawa, earning himself an extra month on Honshu and costing me an extra month on Guam. All of this meant that, through no one's fault, I had spent eight straight months, from January through August, on Okinawa, Guam, or Honshu. No USA. No Maia.
We had not parted on the best of terms. In fact, just days before I shipped out we'd had our first, last, and only major fight. But by late March, after two months of silence, I had broken down and phoned her ... and two days later received a postcard she had mailed before the call.
Since April we had written a lot. And I personally spent over $260 on phone calls. But, still, we had not seen each other since the end of last year ... and that is a situation guaranteed to take the heat out of the best relationship. So here I came off the plane in my rumpled blues, half expecting to find no one waiting.
The plane was a 767 and it had been about two-thirds full, so by the time I managed to disembark (I'd been seated about row 50), the arrival area was completely jammed. I searched for Maia's face. There was a baby crying somewhere.
After a few minutes of this I cornered the ticket agent, a no-nonsense woman in her fifties. "Did a woman named Maia Chios leave a message with you?"
The agent raised a finger, effectively putting me on hold. I doubted she heard me at all, since that baby was really yelling now. Everyone else was starting to notice. "Excuse me, but first let me check on that baby. I'll be right back."
I leaned on the counter, thinking, okay, so Maia hadn't shown up. There could be all sorts of perfectly good excuses. The ever-popular car trouble. A sudden change in work hours, though the university library wasn't open this late in summer.
If only that baby would shut up!
It also occurred to me that this might just be an unusually creative version of the classic Dear John letter. After all, we had only known each other for a year, total—much of that spent apart. We had not pledged undying love ... Maybe it was time to head up to the second-floor servicemen's club and beg a ride to Davis-Monthan.
"Lieutenant?" It was the TWA ticket agent. "Were you asking about a Maia Chios?" She pronounced it right– MY-ah kee-OHZ. I guess she had been listening.
I nodded. The agent dragged me over to a row of seats, where a Continental agent was calming a very unhappy infant. One of those massive yuppie strollers was here; next to it was an overturned baby bag that had spilled Pampers and formula bottles all over one of the chairs. My TWA agent—Hazel was the name on her badge—handed me a wallet.
"This wallet, and by implication, this child, belong to a Maia Chios, 1221 East Ninth."
Continental cooed and held the baby close. I looked at the driver's license. It was Maia's, all right. "That's her address, but I don't know anything about any child. Uh, she's not even married." Well, I didn't think she was married. Twelve hours in an airplane, remember?
"Poor little tiling," Hazel said, patting the baby. "A little boy?" Continental nodded. "How old, do you suppose?"
"Less than a month," the other agent said.
"Maybe she went to the ladies' room," I suggested.
The Continental agent, a very thin young woman with a bad complexion, looked at me sadly and sighed. "I wouldn't ... but I suppose you never know." She handed the baby to Hazel and sprinted off.
"I haven't held one this small in thirty years," Hazel said. She looked me over. "Are you the daddy?"
"Just a friend."
"He seems to have your eyes."
I had about three seconds to fit my head around that idea before Continental came back. "Nobody in there named Maia."
"It's time to call security," Hazel said.
"Name," the man in the brown herringbone jacket said.
"Richard Earl Walsh."
He was writing this down. Hazel was holding the baby, who, after a diaper change, a bit of formula, and some gentle rocking, had fallen asleep.
"And you are a first lieutenant, U.S. Air Force," the man said with a hint of satisfaction. Well, a lot of people can't read military rank. Like everyone else I'd met in the airport, this guy had a plastic badge clipped to his coat pocket. Vic Roelke was the name. "Your cooperation is appreciated."
"I'll do what I can."
"Stationed at D-M?"
"Officially, though, I'm TDY at Guam at the moment. Andersen Air Base."
"So you have no local address."
"I was, ah, planning to spend some time here with Miss Chios. I'm awaiting orders for my next PCS. Permanent change of station."
"And you know nothing about this child?"
"And nothing about Miss Chios's whereabouts?"
"No. I mean, she was supposed to meet me when I got off the plane."
Vic frowned and began looking through Maia's belongings, which were piled on his desk. There was the baby bag, her wallet (she never carried a purse), and a set of familiar car and house keys (she drove an old Mazda). The bag turned out to have Maia's name and address on it.
And there was the baby. The baby boy.
He had a full head of dark hair and was wearing some kind of fuzzy white sleeper. He seemed healthy and, for the moment, happy in Hazel's arms.
It was clear that he belonged to Maia ... but did he also belong to me?
"In case you're wondering," Vic said, "his name is Gus." He had found a prescription bottle in the bag. He went through the wallet.
"Vic," Hazel said quietly, "are you going to call the police?"
"What choice do I have?" He turned to me. "Is Miss Chios the sort of person to walk off and leave an infant in an airport?"
"Didn't think so." He sighed and looked unhappy. "Son, you do know what this looks like, don't you?"
"I'm trying to figure it out."
"I don't know any other way to put it, but we've seen situations like this a couple of times before. Hazel, remember the Steiner girl?"
Hazel didn't answer. I said, "What happened to the Steiner girl?"
"It was ten years ago, I think. Laurie Steiner was this young woman, maybe twenty-three, here to meet her husband, who was coming back from overseas. He came off the plane and she was gone. She just disappeared. Her car was found in the parking lot."
"Where was she?"
Vic didn't answer. Finally Hazel said, "About five months after she disappeared, they found a body in the desert."
Something like that had been percolating in the back of my caffeine- and fatigue-racked brain. The thought that something awful had happened to Maia. You never want to start thinking it ... as if acceptance of the possibility makes it more likely. But Maia would never have left her baby alone in the airport.
"Now," Roelke said, "there's no reason to get upset. We've got no evidence of any foul play. The little guy is reason enough to call the police." It was a nice try, but I was not reassured. "Uh, you're probably going to have to keep yourself available to answer some questions, Lieutenant."
"I wasn't planning to leave town." I realized I was on my feet.
"Where are you staying?" Hazel asked quietly.
I hadn't given it much thought. "I suppose I can get into the VOQ at the base ..."
Hazel was giving Roelke some kind of look, enough to make him drop his ballpoint. "Hazel, it's late. What are you trying to tell me?"
"What do we do with Baby Gus?"
He stared at her. "What do you think? The police'll come, I'll fill out a pile of paperwork, they'll take the kid, do some more paperwork, and he'll wind up with some social worker. And, yes, it's a terrible idea, but what else am I supposed to do? I can't keep him."
She nodded in my direction. "But couldn't he?"
Hazel pressed her case. "Vic, it's almost midnight. By the time the police get here it'll be one. This child won't be settled somewhere until the middle of the night, and then it'll be with some unhappy stranger. Ordinarily I'd be forced to agree with you, but this situation is different. Here's this fine, upstanding young gentleman who's a friend of Miss Chios's. He's supposed to stay at her place. That's where this child belongs."
Roelke closed his eyes. I knew the feeling. I was getting a headache, too. Then he opened them. "Lieutenant, would you excuse us for a moment?"
Hazel promptly handed the baby to me and ushered me out the door. Little Gus was surprisingly light. He smelled good ... fresh, somehow, even after all he'd been through. Like new life. Tiny, tiny hands. He merely yawned and opened his mouth a couple of times when Hazel made the switch, then burrowed into my neck.
Most bachelors and a lot of fathers panic when an infant is placed in their arms, but I've held babies before. My older sister Kate has a three-year-old. When Molly was born, we were all living in Omaha, so I was a frequent visitor and part-time baby-sitter. I can change a diaper, warm a bottle, and rock a baby to sleep. When they're a certain age, babies don't require much more maintenance than that. As we say in my line of work, I was operationally capable of handling Baby Gus for a little while.
But the question was a political one.
Hazel hadn't closed the door all the way, so I heard key portions of their discussion. Roelke kept coming back to words like "liability" and "responsibility" and "lawsuit" while Hazel countered with "common sense" and "Make up your own mind!" and "How would you like to have your new grandson handed over to strangers?"
Just as suddenly, it was over. The door opened; Hazel appeared carrying the baby bag and Maia's house keys, and just like that the three of us were heading down the hall.
"What did you tell him?"
"Nothing! He talked himself into it."
I'm sure. "Hazel, if I'm ever court-martialed, I want you defending me."
A hint of a smile crossed her face as she traded me the bag and the keys for Gus. "You're very sweet, Lieutenant, and I suspect you actually could be trusted with this little boy ... but I'd be out of my mind to turn this baby completely over to you. The idea is to keep Gus out of the clutches of 'social workers' long enough for some relative to come for him. That takes two of us. So we're in it together. Come on."
I hadn't been in Tucson in eight months, but even in that time you could see the signs of new construction all along the airport access road. What had been nothing more than scrub desert—beige ground covered with the occasional stunted plant—was turning into scrub development—beige ground covered with rows of stunted buildings. I guess there's some law that says high-tech operations have to look like Bekins self-storage units.
I'm originally from the Midwest, which is not, as you might expect, Utah or Colorado—the middle of the West—but Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Green places, by and large. Stepping off the plane in Tucson a year ago on a hot August afternoon, having lived in green places all my life, I thought I had been sentenced to a lingering death in a brown hellhole. Everywhere you looked, things shimmered in the heat. They say the angular size of the sun is about that of a quarter held at arm's length, but this one was more like a blinding white basketball stuffed in your face. Nothing moved. The only notable odor in the air was that of diesel fuel. On the ride to D-M all I saw were squat little adobe cottages on patches of arid ground. Cars on blocks in the front yards. Graffiti in a language that was not English and probably not even Spanish. And nothing moved.
At night, though, especially in late summer, the place is blessed with a monsoon that sneaks up from the Gulf of Mexico and bumps into the Santa Catalinas, where it lets loose an hour-long barrage of lightning and heavy rain which washes away the heat and dust. Use hundred-plus temperatures give way to those in the seventies. You don't see the dirt and the scrub, only the lights. It's very comfortable—even invigorating. Had I not been on such a sad mission, I would have begun to feel great.
I waited with Gus at Maia's Mazda, which was in short-term parking, while Hazel picked up my one bag and her own car, a new Beretta. The two of us got Gus strapped into his baby seat—it faced backward in the front passenger position—and traded keys. I took Hazel's car and led the way while she followed with Gas in the Mazda.
We headed out of the airport, west on Valencia, north on Park, through South Tucson and close to the old city center, all the way to Ninth, where we turned right. Since Maia worked at the university, she needed to be close—easy commuting is not one of Tucson's amenities—and her apartment was just a few blocks south of the campus.
In the daytime it was a depressing-looking place, a one-story brick building with a front yard made of gravel and a backyard—well, five feet from the back door there was a culvert. At night it merely looked lonely. I carried my bag and Hazel carried Gus.
There had been some changes inside. What was the living room had become Maia's bedroom. The sole bedroom had been turned into a nursery. A little animal border ran around the walls where they joined the ceiling. A crib had replaced the bed; a changing table stood next to the dresser.
Oh yeah: across one wall of the living room stretched a big printout banner saying, "Welcome home, Rick!"
"Well, I guess we can put some of those suspicions to rest, can't we?" said Hazel as she lay the oblivious Gus in the crib. He was a cute kid, allowing for his age, meaning he bore no resemblance at all to Winston Churchill. If he was mine as well as Maia's, an idea I was not allowing myself to consider seriously, I had every right to be pleased.
But at that moment all I felt was equal parts fatigue and fury.
Hazel must have seen this. As we tiptoed out and gently closed the door, leaving it open only a crack, she nodded toward the kitchen. "I can think of two people who need a drink, how about you?"
"What kind of blue suiter are you, Lieutenant?"
We were sharing what was left of a bottle of white wine. I don't know what kind; if the bottle doesn't have a screw cap, it's generally all right by me. "Call me Rick," I said. "Unless you want me calling you Mrs. Hazel."
She laughed. "It's officially Mrs. Swensen, but Hazel will do, thank you."
"Won't Mr. Swensen be wondering where you are?"
"Mr. Swensen is deceased."
"And even if he were alive, he would know that I'm working at the airport until three."
I glanced at my watch. "Well, you're in big trouble. My watch says it's almost eight. And God knows whether that's a.m. or p.m."
"You came in from the Far East, didn't you? In Guam or Hawaii, that's p.m." She looked me over. "You're not rated and you don't have a service ribbon. Since, allowing for fatigue, you look reasonably bright and responsible, I'd say you were in spook work. Or nuclear weapons. Those are the only people I know who are stationed at D-M but working on an island in the Pacific."
This is one of the dangers of being a military officer in a military town. When you go out in your blues, whether you like it or not, you tell some people a whole lot about yourself. "Close," I said. "It's actually a little bit of both. I'm with MAC—"
"Military Airlift Command. A weather officer!" She beamed. "My late husband was in the Air Force, too."
No kidding. "A master sergeant?"
She half smiled. "A lieutenant colonel. Thirty years."
"Even worse. Anyway, I did weather predictions for missile tests in the Pacific. Dummy nuclear warheads, SDI. A little spook stuff."
Excerpted from Dragon Season by Michael Cassutt. Copyright © 1991 Michael Cassutt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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