(Sometimes you sit down to improvise a story and nothing comes out. Sometimes a story comes out, and sometimes a beginning or an end. Thursday morning, I sat down to improvise and my fingers gave me a beginning …)
In those days before the huge starships, in those days when everything everywhere whirred and hummed and sang and rattled and chirped – in those days before the wasteland was wasted and “the homeland” was a phrase used by long-ago tyrants …
A walker walked alone. From this distance it was hard to tell if it was a man or a woman, but the walker was walking this way, so I waited and, sure enough, as she grew closer her walking clothes revealed the form of a woman – a trim woman with trim breasts and trim hips and medium-length hair under a baseball cap. Blonde. Blue eyes. The kind of face and body men tended to appreciate, but holding herself with an air that said she didn’t care if I appreciated how she looked, this was how she looked and that’s that, end of conversation.
But then she started a conversation.
“Are you Hank Stiller?”
“I might be,” I said. “You are –?”
“Someone who’s looking for Hank Stiller,” she said. “If you’re Hank, I have a proposition for you. If you’re not, then maybe you can tell me where I can find him.”
“What’s the proposition?”
“Well, sir, that depends,” said the woman. “Are you Hank?”
“Probably. If I like the proposition.”
She sighed. “Well, the proposition is for Hank, not might-be-Hank or probably-Hank. So if you’re Hank Stiller, show me. And if you’re not, stop wasting my time.”
“I like you,” I said, pulling out my ID and showing her.
“I don’t care,” she said, not smiling. She looked at the ID in my hand and was satisfied. “Is there somewhere we can talk?” looking around.
“Come on in,” I said, showing her the door into my cabin.
“No,” she said, stepping off the porch and holding her arm out to indicate the woods on the south side of my property.
I looked toward the screen door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I called. No one answered, but that wouldn’t mean there was no one inside.
I stepped off the porch and began to walk with her. “I still didn’t catch your name,” I said to the trim blonde woman.
“I didn’t throw it yet,” she said. All right, a promise of sorts to tell me when we were somewhere we could talk. Fair enough.
We walked across the side yard and onto a path I had covered with mulch that led into the woods. She remained silent until we crested a small hill and she looked back to confirm the cabin was out of sight.
“This way,” she said after looking to the left and right, choosing the way that would take us even farther away from the road.
We walked about 50 meters off the path, surrounded by trees with a layer of pine needles on the ground that cushioned our steps but would be a little prickly if we were to sit or lie down. We would be standing through this conversation anyway.
“Stella Maris,” she said. “I need your help.”
I scoffed. “Is that your real name? Stella Maris?”
She smiled, a thin smile. “It might be.”
“I like to know the name of a woman who has a proposition for me,” I said, “especially since she insisted on knowing my name.”
“That was different.”
“I’m not sure how,” I said, although I saw her point. “Is Stella Maris your name?”
“Probably.” That thin smile again.
“‘Probably’ wasn’t good enough for you. Not for me, either. Is that your name?”
Set eyes. A serious woman. Most people would have rolled their eyes at least once by now.
“No,” she said at last, staring into my eyes but not in any way interested in making my heart jump the way it did. “But Stella Maris is going to have to do.”
We stood there, eyes boring into eyes, and I sighed.
“Fine. What’s the proposition, Stella?”
“Need someone, someone I can trust, to help me with a job,” she said. “I was told I can trust you.”
Now we were getting somewhere, and the stroll away from civilization had suggested where it was we were getting. Most of my jobs involved certain skills that most people don’t know I have, and I prefer things that way.
“Who is this person who says you can trust me? And why should I trust you?”
“Pete Bratcher,” she said. “And Pete trusts me enough to give me your name.”
“I don’t know a Pete Bratcher,” I said, lying.
“He said you’d say that,” she said, putting her hands on her trim hips and looking around warily. “He said to tell you the chicken runs at midnight.”
I let loose a disbelieving laugh.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
Her set eyes gave way to confusion for the first time, her confidence shaken just a bit.
“He – he said –” she stammered, and I laughed a little more comfortably.
“I’m kidding you,” I said, to her apparent relief. “How do you know Pete? He never told me about any Stella Maris.”
“Pete’s my –” she started to be specific and then thought better of it. “Pete’s someone I know and sometimes do business with. He said you could help me. I need to get inside the train station office at Buckthorn. In and out without being detected.”
I whistled. “I assume you’re looking for something on paper, or else you’d be looking for a hacker.”
update: Click here to continue the scene