Riva has returned to her own car in the pharmacy parking lot by the time Alex returns to his. He is reading his new prescription bottle label, shaking his head. The listening device she planted a couple minutes earlier allows her to hear everything.
“Whatever,” she hears him say. And, “These better be good,” as he washes a couple down with a swig of root beer. Squealing his tires out of the parking space, he barely misses another car just entering the lot.
“They call me Axel,” he is talking to himself. “Axel McLean!” In his best James Bond voice, he then says, “McLean. Axel McLean at Your Majesty’s service.”
Riva is not sure what to make of this. Multiple personality syndrome? Harmless role playing? All she knows is that five minutes later, she is following him down the L.A. freeway system. His radio is blaring “gangsta” rap. Riva would not have pegged him as a fan. Maybe this personality of his has always been a fan of rap?
She never liked that style of music, if it can be called music, but she now catches herself nodding to the beat as it comes through her own speakers. She is not tuned to the same station that he is. She is hearing it through her own listening device now broadcasting everything from Alex’s vehicle into a receiver on her end that is tuned to that device’s signal. Pirate radio at its finest.
She notices a small pickup truck in traffic, loaded down with lumber, virtually crawling at 40 mph. Alex swerves to avoid it, cutting off several other cars in the process.
“Reflexes … OK,” Riva dictates into yet another recording device, this one a lapel pin. “Judgment … poor.”
He is now travelling 55 miles per hour in the fast line. Fifty-five mph is the local speed limit, but no one obeys the speed limit, especially in the fast lane, in California or anywhere else she’s been.
If Alex notices the two men on the right shoulder, he gives no indication. Riva does notice the men. How could she not? They are standing between their cars, one of them pointing a gun at the other who, in turn, is raising his hands over his head. She keeps a close eye on them until safely out of range.
Riva has not only rigged Alex’s vehicle for audio broadcasting, she has rigged her own with cameras and microphones recording everything for this, her first solo operation. She makes a mental note to save for the local police whatever footage she might capture of that highway robbery.
Serge would have kept that footage for himself, hunted down the gunman, shown him the video, and used it to blackmail him. It would not matter what was extorted, just so long as something was extorted. “It’s how it’s done!” she can imagine Serge saying.
She, on the other hand, would rather just give the video to the local cops and let them deal with it; not so much out of respect for the law or a sense of civic duty, but out of … Now that she thinks about it, she is not sure why she would bother. Why should she care? So, someone is being robbed. So what? She needs to keep this civic-mindedness from creeping in if she’s ever going to complete her assignment.
Speaking of which, it is a shame this little operation has no name. All the great military operations had memorable names: “Charge of the Light Brigade”; “Operation Overlord”; and who could forget “Operation Flash” by the Croats against the Serbs. Her assignment is not military, but it still needs a great name.
“Operation Make Him Your Bitch,” she says with a laugh. No. “Operation Dimwit.” Ha! Funny, but no.
Passing by an off-ramp to her right, blocked with barriers and flashing lights, she says with a slowly evolving smile, “Operation Detour.” It’s the perfect metaphor for what’s about to happen to this Alex, or Axel, or whatever he’s calling himself.
I’m busy staring into the abyss — or whatever people stare into when in shock and consumed with self-pity and –loathing – when I fail to notice that traffic has slowed to a crawl. I slam into the back end of a candy-apple red Hummer. It puts a slight smudge on its bumper. My car is now even more compact than before. My radiator is spewing steam.
The Hummer driver jumps out, screaming, “What the hell is wrong with you?!”
I untangle myself from the steering wheel and sit in shock a moment while the very large Hummer driver approaches, still screaming, “Are you blind or something?! Did you not see my extra large vehicle!?”
He actually says “extra large vehicle,” pronouncing the “h” in “vehicle,” which always makes me laugh. I roll down my window.
“Smorgasbord,” I say to him. I don’t know why. The word comes out of nowhere. This happens sometimes. I should probably see someone about it. It doesn’t occur to me to stop popping these new pills like they’re M&M’s. I’ve lost track of how many I’ve had.
Hummer Man says, “Huh?”
With a more fanatical look, I explain, “Life! It’s a smorgasbord! It’s all there for the taking!”
The Hummer man stops screaming and starts nodding, either in agreement or confusion. I never understood why people nod in confusion. I mean, if you’re confused, stop nodding.
Anyway, seeing its effect on the man, I am now repeating “smorgasbord” as a sort of mantra. Chanting softly, getting out of the car, I say, “Smorgasbord. Smorgasbord. Smorgasbord.”
I walk blithely past the man who is now looking at me as if I’m insane … because I am. But it’s the fun, temporary kind of insanity, I tell myself.
I stop and stare at the Hummer. Gleefully, still speaking softly, I repeat, “It’s all there for the taking.”
Following my eyes, Hummer Man says, “Oh, no. You’re not …”
Too late. I win the three-yard dash to his vehicle, jump in and lock the door. As hoped, the keys are in it. The man furiously bangs on the window, though I notice he is careful not to damage his prized possession.
It is a swap, really, not a theft. I have simply traded my car for his. Is it my fault his car is so much better than mine?
Through the closed window, laughing hysterically now, I say, “You can take my car. No, really. The keys are in it. Go ahead.”
To his horror, I grind the gears – his gears – as I merge back out into traffic. Literally adding injury to insult, I then run over his expensive shoes.
Punching the accelerator, I zip past dozens of cars, leaving Screaming Hummer Man in my rearview mirror. After a moment, I squeeze back in among the cars trying to exit to the airport, where I am once again confronted with gridlock. “I have no time for this!” I yell at the cars.
“Let’s see what this puppy can do,” I say as I grind the gears and pull onto the grassy median. I circle the other cars and crash through a chain link fence. I have just created a more convenient and direct route to the parking garage! A public service, if you will.
I squeal the tires through the aisles, causing echoes throughout the garage, before finding a spot in front of a fire hydrant. I jump out and leave it there with the keys in it. I am sure it will be towed … or stolen. It might even cause a complete shutdown of the airport by hyper-vigilant security officers, but hopefully not until after I am long gone.
I walk slowly and calmly into the airport terminal, pretending to be normal. I know a review of the security tapes will reveal my identity, but I will be out of the country by then … hopefully. I have no idea where. Timbuktu? Kathmandu? One of those, not even sure where they are. Things just aren’t working out for me in this country. It’s time for some new scenery.
Better yet, maybe I should visit the southern hemisphere. My luck will be the exact opposite there to what it has been here! Brilliant! I love it when I’m brilliant.
I’m told that, in Australia, a toilet flushes in the opposite direction. Maybe my life can reverse course and go down the drain the other way!
Oops. Staying positive, staying positive.
In the airport terminal
I come across a gift shop selling hats, among other things. I find a nice fedora, try it on, check my look in the mirror, and buy it from the smiling woman behind the counter. I’m smiling now, too.
I spot a travel poster with a beautiful smiling woman in a bikini immersed in a collage of beaches, islands, palm trees, and Malaysia’s iconic conjoined twin skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers. Everyone’s smiling all of a sudden. It’s going to be a good rest of the day. I can just feel it.
Moving toward the poster, I reach out. Running my hand over the frame, still smiling, I caress the poster.
Realizing people are now staring at me, I move quickly to the nearest ticket counter and ask the man, “Do you fly to Malaysia?”
“No,” the agent deadpans, “but Malaysian Air does. Next window.”
I slide over to the female ticket agent behind the Malaysian Air counter. Having overheard me a second ago, she asks helpfully, “Where in Malaysia would you like to go?”
“What would you suggest for an available young, fun-loving single guy like me?”
Almost falling over with laughter, the agent next door shouts out, “Do you like under-aged boys or under-aged girls?”
“What is he talking about?” I ask.
“Never mind him. If you want nightlife, I suggest Kuala Lumpur.”
“Kuala Lumpur!” I say it a little too excitedly. She steps back, startled. In a normal voice, I say, “I’ve heard of it. I’ve always loved that name. It just sounds so exotic and sexy, so … foreign.”
Unsure if I’m trying to be funny, the woman replies, “Yes, it is foreign.”
“Are there a lot of koala bears?” I ask. Stifling a laugh, the woman shakes her head no. “I would like a one-way ticket, please.”
“One way?” she asks.
Hoping I sound tragic, I explain, “Yes. You see, I’m dying. No point buying a return flight.”
“I am so sorry,” she says. “You look … healthy.”
“Yes, but I have the cancer.” I have never referred to it as “the cancer” before. I have no idea why I am starting now. “I don’t have much time left,” I continue. “Don’t worry. It’s not contagious.”
She does not look concerned. “I cannot sell you a one-way flight, sir,” she tells me. “It is against the law.”
“Against the law? Really? Why?”
“Too many tourists visit Malaysia, then never want to leave.”
“Wow, it’s that nice?”
“Yes, it is,” she says proudly. “But you cannot stay,” she makes it clear.
In a stage whisper, the other agent says, “Actually, it is not that people don’t want to leave. They are arrested for crimes they did not commit and thrown in prison so they can’t leave.”
“Just because that happened to you …” Alex’s agent snaps.
“And my roommate!”
“Your roommate is a drug-dealing gay gigolo!” the woman retorts. “What did you expect?”
She reassures me, “Don’t worry. You will be fine if you stay away from the brothels and drugs.”
“Oh, I never do drugs,” I assure her, conveniently forgetting I am under their influence as I speak. “Brothels?”
She does not respond. I drop the subject and charge the trip to my credit card, the one with the ridiculously high limit. The one I have every intention of maxing out and never paying back. It’s all part of my new outlook on life: Screw everyone! They never should have given me such a high limit. If governments can do it, why can’t I?