Angels and Guardians Pt. 06byphotodad©
Part six. To understand where the characters come from, it is recommended to read the first five parts.
Please remember to vote at the end.
All Things Must Change
Ashley was watching Joe's face. His expression of concern when he left the classroom hadn't changed any, but the blood drained, making him appear as white as a sheet. She grabbed his hand.
"Joe? Did you hear me?" Cindy asked when Joe didn't respond.
"Yeah," he said finally. "Where?"
"In Denver, Joe." The way she said this made Joe start to understand what she was calling for. He strode quickly toward the front doors with Ashley still holding his hand. "Do you want me to send the helicopter?"
He stopped in his tracks, and Ashley felt him squeeze her hand hard. "Only Dad can authorize aircraft use," he said.
Cindy knew Joe was aware of the chain of authority of his parents' assets, and so only repeated the question. "Do you want me to send it to pick you up?"
It dawned on Joe what the question was hiding. Things are bad. He resumed his near run for the car. To Ashley, it seemed something flipped on inside Joe as he changed his demeanor. Up to now, she'd only seen him this determined just before he took over games. She heard him say ahead of her, "No, by the time it gets up and running, I could already be halfway to the airport. I'll just drive there. What flights are available?"
Cindy clicked over to her efficient business mode as well. "Your parents flew commercial to Denver, so the jet is still here. I'll have police meet up with you on your way for an escort."
Joe burst through the hall doors and headed directly for Ashley's car. "Very well," he said. "I'll meet you at the plane in ten minutes." Then he hung up the phone. As they approached the car, he used his spare set to unlock it. "I have to go to Denver, you better stay here," he said to Ashley as he dumped his bag behind the driver's seat and slid in.
"I'm coming with you," Ashley said determinedly as she opened the passenger door and hopped in.
Joe slammed the car into reverse, barely letting Ashley close her door. Then he tore off toward the airport. "I guess you are, now. We might be gone a while."
Ashley watched Joe deftly pick through traffic, easily holding the speed over 80. "What's going on?" she asked nervously.
"My folks were in an accident," he said plainly.
She slapped her hand over her mouth. "Are they okay?" she asked.
"I don't think so. Cindy asked me for permission to use the helicopter. I don't have that authority to decide unless both my mom and dad are unable to give it."
A police cruiser spotted them and spun around to pull them over. Joe didn't slow down, and apparently the call came in over the radio, because the cruiser whipped around them and started leading them to the airport.
Ashley started to ask, "Are they...?"
"I don't think so. If they were dead, Cindy wouldn't rush me."
Joe didn't follow the screaming police vehicle to the terminal, instead, he pulled off into the driveway for general aviation. He threw the car into park and jumped out, running for the chain link gate while Ashley locked the car. She caught up to him as he started climbing the steps of a sleek business jet where a fuel truck was hooked up to one of the wings. One of the pilots said to Joe, "we're taking on additional fuel to top up. We'll fly non-stop to Denver for you." Joe replied, "thanks. When you file the flight plan, request higher speeds. Get us there as quick as you can." Both pilots responded, "Yes, sir!" Ashley followed as he turned toward the seating area. Joe sat down next to a very young woman who was waiting for him. Ashley sat in one of the seats opposite.
"You must be Ashley," the lady extended her hand. "I'm Cindy, executive assistant to Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
Ashley took the petite hand and shook it slightly. "That's correct. Pleased to meet you, Cindy," she responded as she appraised her. Cindy did not look much older than Ashley was. She was very attractive and her straight brown hair was pulled back and fell like a waterfall behind her shoulders. Joe would later tell Ashley that a couple of years ago, Cindy responded to his dad's ad for her current position right after her high school graduation. She interviewed well, telling his dad that she wasn't interested in college, and nothing would make her happier than help plan out some busy executive's schedule. She got hired, and for the two years since then, she had not faltered and performed exceptionally well.
One of the pilots pulled up the stairs after the last few minutes of fueling and latched the door. The engines revved up and before long, the aircraft soared on its way.
Once in the air, Cindy briefed Joe on what she knew. His dad's panic button had gone off, and the security office notified Denver police of the position. At first they didn't find anything, but then an alert officer noticed some tracks leading into a ravine that crossed under the interstate. They found the car, and the driver was already dead. His parents were taken to a hospital. "There's something you should know, Joe," she added. "They're looking into this as a homicide attempt." She told him that because of something discovered at the accident site, some of the security team stationed at the plant in Denver was at the hospital.
Cindy left them and sat a few rows back for a bit while she made some calls ahead to Denver to prepare for their arrival. Ashley was appalled. "Who would want to kill your parents?" she asked.
"Well, that covers a wide range. Everything from lunatics who are jealous of their money to foreign enemies."
"Just because," was all he'd say, and then he stared at the floor, lost in thought.
Ashley got up and approached Cindy when she was between calls. "Yes, Ashley?"
"I was wondering if I'm allowed to use my phone on this plane."
"Yes, it's okay. The commercial airlines got the FAA to make that stupid rule because they wanted passengers to use the seat phones. Was there anything else?"
"I hate to ask, in this sort of time, but is there any food for later? Our lunch period was going to be next when you called him. I'm fine, but I'm worried about Joe."
"Of course, dear. I had the staff stock the fridge up front with some sandwiches and drinks when I called to activate the plane."
"Dang, your staff is fast then, cause it only took us like seven minutes to get to the airport."
"That's how I work," Cindy joked, even though Joe's dad would often accuse her of working miracles. "But, seriously, I had called up the jet before I called Joe, so they could get here and start getting it ready."
Ashley then asked if there was a restroom, and Cindy pointed to a door at the tail of the plane. She stepped inside, withdrew her phone from where she tucked it under the uniform skirt waistband, and placed it on the small counter. Ashley pulled down her skirt and underwear, and sat on the commode. As she relieved herself, she started typing, "Joe's parents hurt in accident. We're flying to Denver now. Will keep you updated. Jill, please let our coaches know." Then she checked off her parents, Jill, Jasmine, and Kim on the send list. She hit send and her phone broadcasted the text to the five phones.
Jill and Jasmine met at lunch, and asked each other what was going on. In fact, everyone was asking them the same thing. All they knew was the message was sent throughout the school's PA system and now Ashley's car was missing, along with her and Joe. A rumor circulated that someone saw Joe and Ashley bolt through the front doors, got in the sports car, and Joe peeled off in a cloud of smoke. Jill thought it odd that Joe would be driving. Just before lunch was to end, her and Jasmine's phones chirped at the same time. They both read the message, and Jill grabbed her stuff and ran out the door at breakneck speed to tell Sister Kate and their coaches. Jasmine stayed and put away their garbage. She found Sally, Allison, and Marybeth with their boyfriends, gathered them into a corner and showed Ashley's message to them. They stood looking at Jasmine as if asking her for ideas on what to say. Jasmine didn't know, either, and they just stood silent in each others' company until the end of lunch period bell.
Just before the end of the day, the intercom system crackled to life. Sister Kate's voice said, "ladies and gentlemen. I wanted to put to rest some rumors that are circulating. Joe Smith's parents were seriously injured in an accident. Joe and Ashley Roberts are flying to his parents in Denver to be with them. Contrary to rumors, there is no threat to Joe nor Ashley's life. The school is also not in danger. I ask that you all join me as we pray for his parents' return to health, and our two students' safe journey. Our Father, who art in heaven..." The school's air filled with the somber voices of students and teachers reciting The Lord's Prayer. After the prayer, Sister Kate continued by saying, "tonight is the district championship game. Your team needs your support more now than ever, as their thoughts will be on Joe and his family. I have chartered a bus, and anyone who wants to go, can at no cost. We have contacted Bonifay and told them the circumstances. They agreed to push back the game to 8p.m. Our buses will leave the school at 5:30. Thank you."
Allison and Sally found Jill after the final bell. They asked if she heard anything more. Jill said no, the flight from here to Denver would take about 6 hours, and the announcement for Joe was made a little over three hours ago. She promised them that she would tell them what Ashley knew after they land sometime after 6p.m. She asked if they or Marybeth wanted a ride to the game. They declined, saying that the trip to Tallahassee was a lot of fun on the bus. Jill said she doubted there would be any cheer on the team bus with their star quarterback gone in such a manner. Then she asked them who started the rumor that Joe and Ashley left suddenly because a terrorist was coming for Joe. Sally said a sophomore in her class was talking about that in her 7th period. Allison said someone was trying to start a rumor that Bill went psycho, and Joe raced Ashley out of town to hide her from him. Jill shook her head. "Fucking teenaged imaginations," she muttered.
Ashley returned to the cabin and went directly for the galley near the front of the plane. She overheard one of the pilots talking into the radio, "negative, Atlanta Center. Bombardier seven zero one niner requests speed four niner zero." She knew they were doing what they could to shave minutes off the flight. She looked in the fridge and pulled out two wrapped turkey sandwiches and two cans of soda. She went back to Joe and handed one of each to him. At first, he pushed it back to her, but she insisted, "Joe, you gotta eat. There's nothing else you can do right now, so you might as well get some nourishment." He gave her a weak smile and took the sandwich and drink. By the way he was eating, Ashley doubted he even tasted it. His face was blank, staring at the wall behind her seat. Joe took small bites, and seemed to chew by means of auto pilot. Compared to how she was used to seeing Joe eat, he seemed to be only nibbling. Her heart broke for what he must be feeling.
She finished half of her sandwich and rewrapped the other half. Joe finished his drink, and she took the empty can and wrapper from him and threw them in the garbage container she saw earlier in the galley. Ashley went back, and saw that Joe had nodded off. So, she picked up the other half of her sandwich and took it to Cindy. "I can't finish this, Cindy. Do you want it?"
Cindy accepted the other half and said thank you. "Here, sit with me for a second," she said. Ashley sat next to her as she busily typed on her laptop. "Do you have your driver's license with you?"
Ashley slapped her hand on the armrest as she remembered just now that she only had her phone with her. "No, it's in my locker at school. I didn't have time..."
Cindy cut her off. "That's okay. I've worked with less." She changed screens on her computer and typed some more, taking a bite of her sandwich half in between strings. After a bit, she flipped her screen around and pointed the built in camera at Ashley. "Look at the top of the screen and give me a pretty smile," she said.
Ashley did her best, and Cindy struck a key, making the computer play the sound of an old camera snapping its shutter. As she spun the screen around and started typing some more, Ashley asked what that was for.
"To add you to my Facebook album, of course!" Cindy chided. Then after a pause she said, "actually, it's for your secret clearance ID. You're going to need it if you want to stay with Joe in Denver. Actually, you'll need it even if you're gonna stay around me for that matter."
Ashley was really starting to like Cindy. She had a quick wit that could put you at ease even in times like this. Yet, at the same time, she was professional, knew what she was doing, and very efficient. She wished she could be more like her. "Why would I need that to be around Joe? Or, why would I need to stay near you?"
Cindy smiled, still typing away. "Well," she said. "If I don't finish this up for you, you'd have to be out of the room when Joe has meetings about his parents and our company. So, that means you'll probably want to be with me during those times. Then, there's the thing about me taking phone calls that could be sensitive, which we couldn't have you overhear. So then, you'd end up being chaperoned by an Air Force MP. I have a feeling you'd rather be able to be with one of us than the MP. MP's tend not to talk very much when on duty."
Ashley was confused and started to worry about what she was getting into with Joe. "I don't understand. Guarded from my boyfriend by a military policeman?"
"Probably policewoman," Cindy corrected. "Men aren't allowed to go in with you to restrooms."
"What the hell?!" Ashley demanded. "Why would a guard need to be with me while I pee?"
"I can tell you a little, just as soon as we finish this." Cindy flipped the screen around and closed it, transforming her laptop into a tablet. "Just trust me. Raise your right hand. Good. Do you swear that you are Ashley Roberts, as identified by your boyfriend, Joe Smith?"
"Yes..." she replied, unsure of what was happening.
"Do you swear to me that any government assets that you might read, see, hear, touch, taste, or smell will be guarded inside you, never to be repeated by voice, signal, writing, or any other means that could be conveyed to enemies of The United States?"
"No matter how trivial they may seem to you?"
Cindy handed her a stylus. "Sign your full name inside the box, please." And she handed the tablet to Ashley.
Ashley signed, then asked, "what was that about?"
"I've been appointed as a notary for the Air Force, so that Mr. and Mrs. Smith could sign documents without having to go down to a federal building every time they entered a contract."
"Can you tell me what's going on, now?"
Cindy told her, "just a minute," and she clicked a few buttons to fax by Internet the papers she was working on to the federal office in Denver. While she waited for an email response, she said, "I'm sure it will go through, but all I can tell you until it does is that Carter Electronics is a contractor for the Air Force. Once I get emailed that you're approved, I can tell you a little more." She could tell Ashley's wheels were spinning. "Oh, don't worry, we don't assemble atom bombs or anything silly like that." Then she continued just to mess with Ashley's head a little, "we just make the chips telling the bombs where to go."
Ashley snapped her head around to Cindy. "What?!"
Cindy patted Ashley's bare knee. "I'm kidding!" When she saw Ashley settle a bit, she added, "we actually do make the bombs themselves."
Ashley looked at her, about to be shocked again, but caught her own gullibility. "You're funny," she said. "But, please don't do that again."
"I'm trying to prep you so you won't be shocked when we land in Denver, sweetie."
"But don't clearance passes take time? Like weeks, to get?"
"I started on yours about a week and a half ago, when Joe's parents found it getting harder to talk to him without you around. Yesterday, I received the last of your references from teachers and your principal back in California." Just then, an email popped up and Cindy opened it to read.
Ashley asked, "why did they request I get a clearance? I mean, before I met Joe, he was going out with Kim. And Jill was before her?"
"I've gotten clearances for both of them. Jasmine holds one as well because she was always near Jill. Joe dated the others in your group at some point or another, but they never got past the occasional fling, so we didn't need to get them one."
"But Jill and Jasmine never mentioned anything about clearance, nor about the company..."
"Keep that in mind when you might be tempted to let something slip," Cindy warned. "They approved you, and they'll get the badge to us at the airport."
"So..." Ashley tried to lead Cindy on.
Cindy finished the last two bites of the sandwich. "Okay, remember your oath," she began. She went on to tell Ashley a bit about the history of Carter Electronics. She explained how Joe's dad did a little program for the Air Force that helped spawn the development of their UAV's, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The Air Force knew they could pilot the drones remotely, but didn't want to risk having the aircraft crash into an innocent population if the remote pilot got discovered and killed, or if the remote signal got jammed. Joe's dad came up with a chip that would fly the drone automatically in a random pattern near where it lost it's signal. If it ran low on fuel, it was programmed to return to the point it was launched and attempt a safe landing. With those safeguards in place, the military was more confident investing in building the weapon. He came up with a few more ideas, and soon the military considered Joe's father a national security asset. "I told you that story to tell you this," Cindy said. "This meeting in Denver is big. Most of the details are top secret, even over my clearance. But, it involved Mr. Smith pitching a new encryption system to all branches of the military. Our security office wanted to shadow Mr. Smith throughout the trip, but he declined, thinking it would be better to move around anonymously. He also thought any threat to him or his family was perceived and imagined by security members trained to be paranoid. But now, I think he was mistaken..." Her voice cracked during the next part, "God, I hope they're okay."
Ashley listened intently, and when Cindy's voice cracked, it suddenly dawned on her that Cindy would be affected by worry almost as much as Joe, as she spent a lot of time working with his parents. Ashley leaned over and instinctively hugged Cindy. "I know," she said. "Me too."
A couple of hours later, Ashley was napping next to Joe, resting her head on his shoulder. The co-pilot gently shook Joe's opposite shoulder, waking the couple. "We're descending into Denver now, Mr. Smith. I'm sorry we couldn't do better." Joe thanked him, saying he was sure they did what they could. Ashley looked out the window as they fell through the cloud banks. "Oh man, I don't even have a sweater," she said to Joe as she saw the white ground far below through the openings between clouds.
As if she read her mind, Cindy came up to sit with them for the landing. She said, "One of the things I requested when I called ahead was that coats be bought and waiting for you two in the car when we land. It'll be a very short trip from the plane's steps to the car, so it shouldn't be too bad." Ashley thanked her and looked at Joe.