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  • Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.
    You sit down to dinner and life as you know
    it ends.

    ― Joan Didion

    The overweight middle-aged man was sweating heavily in the Indian Summer heat of St. Louis as our airport shuttle headed across the Mississippi River to deposit us in various towns upriver in Illinois.

    He seemed impatient and fidgety.

    He wore an expensive brown tailored wool suit, perhaps Versace, a maroon Brioni tie, and a crisp white dress shirt with gold coin cufflinks.

    His highly polished dark brown shoes looked Italian, handmade.

    He was overdressed, hot and obviously miserable, but he did not take off his suit jacket, even as the rest of us did what we could to get more comfortable for the ride.

    Between his dark brown handmade shoes, he held a large maroon Mark Cross glove leather briefcase, with round gold plated locks.

    Large enough to hold sales materials, product samples, or legal briefs.

    When the shuttle driver asked him if he would like to put his briefcase up in the overhead rack, he declined with a quick, almost angry shake of his head.

    He closed his eyes to end any further conversation.

    The briefcase stayed on the floor, clamped between his legs, and it was clear that it would remain there for the journey.

    Sitting beside him, I could feel waves of his body heat, and smell the light sweet citrusy scent of an expensive, European cologne.

    I didn't like the looks of him.

    Something seemed off, in spite of, or maybe because of, the expensive clothes.

    There was a thin light pink scar running down his left cheek, faint, and barely visible.

    He was a bit too polished, a bit too slick. I couldn't figure him out, but he seemed out of place here in the shuttle.

    Why was he not traveling by private limo? He seemed in a hurry. Maybe all the private limos were taken.

    While the four other passengers dozed off as we headed up the river highway, I was bored, and decided to try and find out a little bit about him.

    I decided to poke the bear, so to speak, just for the hell of it.

    I noticed that there was a New Orleans Four Seasons Hotel tag on the briefcase, and used this to start what became an awkward conversation:

    I asked him: "So how was The Big Easy?" My attempt at humor.

    "Hot," he replied curtly, obviously hoping to end the conversation.

    His accent was perhaps Cuban, maybe Honduran. Hard to tell.

    "You from there?"


    I had noticed another tag on his briefcase, from Nova Scotia. "Ah, you're from up north, Nova Scotia! What do you do up there?

    "Got a restaurant." Short, brusque, almost annoyed, but trying not to make waves.

    "Oh, that's interesting!"

    But then I backed off, as he was clearly getting very uneasy, as though he had said too much. The bear was not very good at hiding his anxiety, and his anger.

    In my mind, I saw a map with Nova Scotia up in the top right corner, New Orleans down on the Gulf of Mexico, and an as yet unnamed location on the Mississippi River, north of Alton, Illinois. Sometimes my mind goes what I call "Landsat." Looks at geography, positions of things in relation to other things.

    He may or may not own a restaurant in Nova Scotia, but I did not pursue it.

    I wanted to know more, put together his story, connect the dots.

    I looked again at his big maroon briefcase, and how he held it tightly between his expensive shoes.

    I decided to leave him alone, as I felt I had crossed some invisible boundary, and he did not look like anyone I wanted to antagonize.

    The angry bear closed his eyes, sweat pouring down his face and darkening his white collar.

    We travelled up along the river for about forty five minutes, and then the man indicated an unmarked side road.

    "Turn right here," he ordered sharply. An almost military bark.

    And then again: “Here! Down this road!”

    The shuttle driver complied, but was clearly unhappy about the condition of the road.

    It was an unused dirt farm road with a lot of potholes, surrounded on both sides by fallow corn fields.

    We passed a patch of dessicated pumpkins, left to the elements, looking like severed dark orange heads in the dried weeds.

    We were now clearly in the middle of nowhere.

    After about ten minutes of this, we came to the end of the road, where there were several weathered farm buildings, covered with green lichen, and a boarded up farmhouse.

    Strange, I thought, very strange. No sign of animals or activity.

    Parked in front of the buildings was a collection of shiny brand new pickup trucks and SUV's, with license plates from adjacent states.

    Adjacent states.

    Brand new vehicles.

    From the looks of tire tracks in the weeds, their owners had just come in. It did not look as though anyone lived here, or planned to stay long.

    The driver stopped the shuttle in the middle of the clearing, and asked the profusely sweating man for his fare.

    The man who was sweating heavily.

    The man in the Versace suit, with a Brioni tie.

    The man with a large maroon Mark Cross briefcase.

    The man just in from New Orleans.

    The man who might or might not own a restaurant in Nova Scotia.

    The man who stayed at Four Seasons hotels.

    The man refused, his face reddening, the scar on his left cheek brightening to a deep pink, saying that his fare had been paid by credit card when he made the reservation.

    The driver said he had no record of that, and an angry argument ensued.

    I still could not place the accent, but it was definitely either Cuban or from somewhere in Central America.

    Above the scent of his cologne, I smelled something else, something more rancid, more like what fear must smell like. His body heat must have gone up five degrees.

    This went on for about five minutes, with angry words back and forth, and some phone calls to the main shuttle office. There was no record of his payment.

    Why did he choose a public shuttle for this trip?

    What was in that briefcase?

    At about that time, a large, heavy set African-American in dark green military tactical gear, heavy black boots, and a brown cap pulled down over his forehead walked slowly out of the boarded up farmhouse, and sauntered over to the shuttle.

    He looked like a former NFL player who had gained some weight, but could still wrestle a heifer to the ground.

    "Uh oh," I thought. The other passengers had shrunk into themselves and were quiet as mice.

    The man who may or may not have been from Nova Scotia looked as though he wanted to get out, but did not make a move to do so.

    The man with the maroon Mark Cross briefcase between his legs. That man.

    "You boys got some trouble here?" Slow, growling Mississippi drawl. No smile. The NFL guy in camo leaned his elbows on the driver’s side open window.

    In the background, I could see three other men, all in camo, emerge from the shadows of the buildings, and it did not take an overactive imagination to believe that they were armed.

    The shuttle driver was not paying attention to the circumstances in which we had arrived, and continued to argue loudly with the man from Nova Scotia, the man who might or might not own a restaurant.

    The man who might or might not make connections at night, off shore, to pick up shipments, or information, or passengers.

    I had a flash of revelation at that point, realizing that I might never know what all this was about, but that it might be about something very bad.

    In the sweltering Indian Summer heat, made worse by the thick air in the shuttle, and now by the body heat of the overweight angry man next to me, the man with a scar,
    I felt real fear.

    This was not a movie. This was current reality.

    The driver then did the most stupid thing imaginable.

    He told the man that he would hold the briefcase in custody until the bill was paid via credit card or any other means.

    The maroon Mark Cross briefcase with the gold plated locks, big enough to hold almost anything that needed to be hand carried across borders.

    In custody. In the shuttle. In the shuttle we were trapped in.

    The NFL paramilitary man stuck his face into the window, and handed the driver what looked to be several hundred dollars.

    On closer inspection, I had a pretty good idea that there was definitely some kind of gun under his camo jacket.

    The man who may or may not have been from Nova Scotia got out, slammed the shuttle door, and stalked off with his briefcase to the boarded up farmhouse and did not look back.

    The man with a slight Cuban or Honduran accent.

    The man with what was now an angry bright pink scar.

    The man who had just come up from New Orleans.

    The three men in battle fatigues who had been walking slowly toward the shuttle turned around and faded back into the farmhouse.

    The boarded up farmhouse, with green lichen.

    The shiny new pickup trucks and SUV’s in a semi circle.

    The out of state license plates.

    The driver turned the shuttle around. We headed back down the bumpy dirt farm road.

    Past the abandoned corn fields. Past the unharvested pumpkins, like severed heads rotting in the sun.

    No one spoke. We all knew this could have ended badly. In an instant.

    We didn't want to talk about it. We just wanted out of there. Fast.

    Close encounter?

    With what?

    I will never know.

    (Edited and reposted)

    (Photograph by Alex in "The Far Away," an installation by AM Radio in the 3-D virtual world of Second Life)
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