Monster Behind The Masks

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Chapter 11

Julie


The doorbell rang as I lounged in front of the TV hooked on Homeland— getting brainwashed about spies and secrets according to Caryssa and Anna. They think it’s a murky portrayal that helps justify the twisted “War on Terror.” Regardless, it’s an amazing show that raises some thought-provoking issues.

Who could be here at this hour of the night? Who would be here? A slight tingle made its way up the nape of my neck. Perhaps watching this program wasn’t a great idea; my paranoia is in overdrive.

I considered pretending nobody was home. But my lights bathed the place in brightness, the TV blared until I reached for the remote and switched it off, and Feisty happily chirped his bedtime lullabies. That nighttime bird-song was somehow simultaneously relaxing and annoying.

What if it was that good-looking guy I kept bumping into at Trader Joe’s? First, we nearly collided in the produce section, and he smiled and asked: “Do these peaches seem ripe to you?” No, but you look ripe for the picking, I wanted to say.

After the produce encounter, we would often meet at the coffee station. “We need to stop meeting like this,” he joked, flashing that dazzling smile. The most adorable crinkles formed under his eyes when he smiled. From that, I knew he smiled often. That instantly attracted me to him. Okay, let’s meet at my place instead. By now he knew my name and that I live in Sausalito. Who knows? Is coming to my house assertive or stalker-ish? Nope, pessimism can take a hike; this was charming. If it is him, that is.

I dashed to my bathroom, leaned into the mirror, and applied a few flicks of mascara. My eyes seemed to double in size with just a few strokes of my mascara brush. Noticing my unkempt curls, I sought to tame and tidy them with a comb. Finishing off, I slid a coat of copper-glazed lipstick over my lips. I returned my weapons of beauty and gave myself a once over before answering the door. A white silk blouse hung at my shoulders, covering my torso. A pair of fitted jeans contained my legs. That’s the best I could do in just a few minutes. All in all, I didn’t look half bad. Hope my dream boy is still there. That would mean he possessed patience, which would add to his already growing list of appeals.

I flew through my living room neatening my attire, bare feet slapping the wooden beams, and Feisty chirped, “Pretty woman!” Nothing like a feathery friend to give a girl a dose of confidence.

As my hand moved towards the doorknob, I hesitated. Be optimistic but smart. Realistically, this could be anyone. “Who is it?” I asked, my hand hovering above the knob.

The same heart that raced with anticipation of Mr. Right now sank to my gut upon hearing, “This is FBI Special Agent Flock.”

The gruff voice was clipped in a legalistic manner—and most definitely female. A frown tightened my forehead. I could feel a migraine coming on as my brain spun in confusion.

What the fuck! It was as if the TV channeled itself into my life, and here is an obsessive-compulsive terrorist hunter at my door. Isn’t she supposed to have a warrant? But I have nothing to hide. What do I do? My stomach churned with anxiety. I straightened my shoulders, taking a moment to compose myself, and flung the door open trying to mask my panic.

Her slight frame appeared through the swirling, misty fog of the night as if appearing from a nightmare. She was five foot nothing and a half, a little round about the belly, with flat-ironed blonde hair pulled tight into a low pony-tail. She was stuffed into a slim-fitted sharp black suit that didn’t compliment her figure in the slightest. From her belt protruded a standard issue Glock, and her badge glinted under the street light.

I had nothing to say to Special Agent Flock with the Glock. But she had something to say to me, something that warranted an abrupt, unexpected visit. Without so much as an apology for barging into my personal space, she announced, “We have informants that tell us a Mr. Jackson Taylor is staying here, ma’am.” Her words carried authority and were delivered from an expressionless face. Though her movements were measured and considered, her eyes already got to work darting all over the place.

“Ma’am.” Guess I have no name in the eyes of a federal officer. “Uh…um…I am Julie Taylor, Jackson’s sister. Mind telling me what this is all about?” But I knew. I was no fool. I feigned disinterest and listened as if I had the utmost respect.

When the FBI Agent turned a smidge, the words “FBI Terrorism Task Force” were clear as day in big white letters on her jacket. I braced myself. My stomach tensed. My throat dried.

Special Agent Flock squared her shoulders, trying to look intimidating. “Shortly after a terrorist attack in New York City, your brother was seen taking photos at the Times Square subway station. He was arrested for not cooperating with the police. I’m sure you must know this. What you may not know is he was ordered not to leave Manhattan while awaiting trial.” Her words lacked empathy and were covered in firmness with just a hint of aggression. This attitude made my bowels squirm.

Holy shit Jackson, why didn’t you tell me? I had half a mind to ring his neck the next time I saw him, which hopefully wouldn’t be behind bars. For a brief second, I wondered if my brother really had something to hide. But before that ridiculousness set in, I remembered him as the kid who cried seeing his buddies shoot squirrels with b-b guns. The truth was, my brother is a pacifist who couldn’t hurt a fly. The irony of it all. This is just a colossal misunderstanding.

I stared into dead eyes set within a hardened face, and replied defensively, “My brother heads up a major high-speed railroad project. His motive was to protect people from getting killed in train accidents with our crumbling infrastructure.” My own words became keen-edged the more I spoke, feeling a need to defend my wrongly-accused sibling. While I wanted to let my words hit her in the face I had to remember her position and ranking. I couldn’t help if I ended up in jail for verbally assaulting a federal agent. Weigh your words, Julie.

“And my motive is to protect the American people from getting killed by terrorists. Is your brother here or not?” the FBI agent spat with too much force for my liking. When her words came to a stop her jaw clenched, followed by a slight flare of her nostrils. Weren’t agents trained in emotional control and such? She wasn’t doing a great job of disguising her feelings. She behaved as though my brother were some murderous monster who she wanted to kill. She looked almost inhuman, like a robot. I half wondered if her hand would shoot out like it was remote-controlled. I no longer cared to be in the company of this angry lady. I had to put a nail in this conversation which echoed an interrogation.

My brother is a pacifist, but I’m not sure I am right now. I wanted to strangle the bitch for disturbing my inner peace. I had to get a handle on this rage; wrapping my fingers around her neck wouldn’t help the situation for me or my brother.

I narrowed my eyes, soaking in the scene in front of me. Agent Flock stood stiffer than her uniform. When she spoke, I heard the army in her voice. I’d bet the farm she’s ex-military as she holds herself like a mannequin wearing tactical-like cargo pants. I tried placating her militaristic side.

“You are implicating the son of a man renowned for building our nation’s first Liberty Ship during WWII, and I work preserving its history!” I blurted out uncontrollably. The words spilled from my tongue before I had a chance to wrangle them.

Her nostrils flared once more. If looks could kill, I’d be sprawled on the floor in a bloody heap. The FBI agent was not impressed, as she demanded fiercely, “Just answer the question, ma’am. Where is Mr. Taylor?”

Life seemed to lack color for this woman; there were no shades of grey in her existence. It was all black/white, legal/illegal, right/wrong. She didn’t do ‘in-betweens’, only this way or that. She stood unmoving, like a Knight of Self-Righteousness. Scars on her otherwise pretty face made me wonder if she fought in Iraq or some other land of needless war, and is still chasing the shadows of terrorists. Experiencing such chaos would no doubt scramble a person’s morals and rationality.

I answered, in as calm a voice as I could muster, “He left a few hours ago with his wife and young children, headed home after a much-deserved getaway.”

At this, the agent strode forward invading more of my private turf, puffing her chest out. Her heels clacked on the floor. She whipped her head from side to side as if suspecting my brother was here and that I’d just spun a lie. At that moment, Feisty came alive in his cage. “FBI phony terror,” chirp.

The FBI agent halted. Every muscle in my body tightened. Her eyes locked on the bird, suspicion drilled into them. “How’d that parrot learn to say that?” Her words were drenched in an accusatory tone.

“On his own, he can mimic what people say.” I realized at once that I just revealed conversations that had taken place in my home. I would have face-palmed myself had my body not froze in anxiety. Just as I was about to defend myself, Feisty chirped again, “CIA evil.”

Damn it Feisty, shut up. Beads of sweat traveled the slopes of my face. I was sure my perspiration added a glossy sheen to my features and would soon emit a stench. Agent Flock’s jaw dropped, and just when it couldn’t get any more intense, the bird added, “CIA FBI chirp partners in crime.” This bird was digging me deeper and deeper as my heart raced faster and faster. Why’d I have to get a bird that can mimic conversations?

The agent’s eyes hardened further, if that was possible, as she fixed me a glare that could murder. What was she going to do? Arrest me? Detain me? Shoot me? Does she think I am involved now? Does she consider the bird’s words as my own and think I am disrespectful and a potential security threat to our nation?

However, to my shock, she turned to walk out the door. The grip of tension that had squeezed my chest loosened. Though she didn’t leave without a few words. “You ought to discipline that bird, teach it some respect. His freedom here is thanks to Uncle Sam.”

And with that, she was gone, into the fog that swamped her patriotic wake.

I glanced at the clock, one in the morning New York City time. Jackson was still airborne. I scrambled for my phone, reaching into my jeans. I texted him, my nervous fingers twitching over the keys.

Somethings up. FBI came looking 4 U. B careful Luv ya.

What a lame text. But what could I say? I didn’t want to berate him for not telling me he was told not to leave the city. I don’t blame him for taking his family and getting the heck out of an apocalyptic showdown. Can’t they see he is innocent? Or have their minds been warped so badly after tough experiences that they no longer see logic or have time for common sense?

I needed to vent. Anna and Caryssa were still on their ski trips to the French Alps and Utah respectively. This doesn’t mean I can’t text them, why not add some exciting tension to their adventure? Just as I started a new text message my cell phone pinged. Jackson. He obviously has a Wi-Fi enabled flight, and is using WhatsApp or iMessage.

Jules, don’t talk to the FBI. They need a warrant to come to your place. They have no right.

Shit! Now I wish I hadn’t texted him. My fingers roamed over the messaging icon again, pondering my response before I texted him back.

Don’t worry. Barely said anything. Just letting u know they r looking 4u.

But did I barely say anything? Had this lady been a word wizard and pulled more information from me than I remembered? Feisty certainly said too much, that’s for sure. I was frightened for the safety of my brother and his family. That fright sat in my throat and fizzed in my stomach.

Restless, knowing I’d get no sleep, I texted Anna. Shit, only seven in the morning there. Despite knowing there’d be no response until later, my thumbs flew over the keys:

Sorry to bother u in paradise. An FBI Agent popped by my place. Just another night in beautiful Sausalito!

I had turned the TV off before my unnerving visitor demanded my brother’s whereabouts, and it was now eerily quiet. No white noise to fill the void of silence. The weather sang a quiet song outside, that’s about it. Feisty was curled up in a corner of his cage, oblivious to the damage his words had potentially caused. Lucky bird, to be able to get all keyed up about our mislead law enforcement, and still fall back to sleep.

Minutes later, after changing into a satin nightgown and quickly brushing my teeth and using a wipe to remove my makeup, I lay on my bed, lit a candle and turned to my Google Home Mini. “OK Google, play some relaxing music with waterfalls.” I decided to leave the bird sounds out, had enough bird show for one night. Feisty just pissed off a crazed FBI Agent—couldn’t be a good thing.

While listening to the sounds of rushing water among the chirps of crickets outside, it dawned on me that the FBI Agent is not the only one hovering over my home like a vulture. Who is the man I’ve seen watching from the street, in a long trench coat and roaring twenties-style gangster hat? He remained to be an unsettling mystery. Caryssa has joked a lot about the CIA being gangster warlords. Maybe Feisty is right about them being partners-in-crime. My mind wouldn’t let me rest, continuing to conjure more unresolved revelations.

I was surprised when my cell phone rang, shaking my rushing thoughts free for the moment. It was Anna. “To what do I owe a call from the beautiful snowy Alps so early in the morning?” I asked.

Anna laughed. What sounded like hot tub bubbles popped in the background. “I’m so sore after an amazing powder ski day, I need some edgy action to get me pumped for skiing again today! Stay away from the FBI Jules, they’re playing out the theatre act of ‘terrorism’—an overused word used as a fear tactic in the drama of ‘security.’”

“You’re so lucky to be there where it’s not the main acting show—”

Anna cut in, “Well…not so sure. Here in the ski resorts it’s all about ‘eco-terrorism.’ Another sensationalized term to round up rebels—some innocent of nothing but being a moral environmental or peace activist.”

“Well, there was that arson at Vail—”

“Which is sabotage against corporate expansion, not terrorism. Anyway, France is having its own amphitheater using dramatic terror plots to keep the outlandish global war on terror afloat, don’t get me going! I heard a skier today say ‘If we want to defeat ISIS, let’s defund the CIA and Pentagon.’”

“Wow, even in the beautiful French Alps this stuff is being discussed?” I was surprised. Even among vacationers, this pandemonium leeches into conversations. “Must have been an American that said this?”

Anna’s laugh sounded more like a snort. “Jules, it’s a global thing, the CIA is the head of seventy years of organized international crime, doing the dirty business of the rich and powerful warlords.” She breathed heavily. “It was a foreigner that said it—but enough of this stuff, my hot tub experience is getting ruined!” I sensed a smirk.

“Well, enjoy the rest of your trip, and say hi to Pierre and Jared for me.” I was somewhat jealous of Anna’s French Alps experience but didn’t let that affect my tone.

We hung up. She returned to her serenity while I sank back into panic and dread, the unknown fate of my brother and his family spinning in my mind. Needless to say, it took me a while to reach slumber. Once again, I dreamed of a man in a spy suit, watching from afar, this time with a pipe hanging from his mouth like some tacky Sherlock Holmes wannabe.

In the morning, with dazzling sunlight splashing from every window, and fresh, crisp air cooling my home, Feisty sang me awake. I was delighted to hear him. Man, I love my bird. What would I do without his unstoppable happy?

I fed him pellets and let him perch on my finger before brewing coffee and treating myself to a homemade blueberry scone. With the ambitious sun painting the horizon in yellow, I decided a walk sounded good. A walk would clear my mind and get some fresh air in my lungs. I slipped out of my nightgown and stepped into more casual attire appropriate for a morning stroll on a beautiful sunny day. My hair was kept in place by a woolen hat. My clothing on the other hand, consisted of a breezy jacket, jeans, and padded shoes.

The fresh, sea-salted Sausalito air relaxed me, as I walked briskly down Bridgeway, then up a steep hill off a side street. I turned, taking in the breathtaking scene below. My heartbeat accelerated with the exercise high, releasing a batch of endorphins. The Bay, sailboats, Golden Gate Bridge gleaming to the right and Angel Island all reminded me of why I chose to remain in my little Bohemian beauty of a hometown.

I had purposely traveled in the opposite direction of where the mystery man seemed to await in the shadows. I decided he was merely in my imagination, with all that has happened.

Half an hour after setting out for my walk, I returned to my studio apartment. The minute I entered I knew something wasn’t right. At this time of day, anytime I walked into my apartment, Feisty would chirp up. He’d say one of his favorites “Bright day, I love you.”

But there was no singing and no chirping. The place was strangely quiet. When I looked at his cage, no Feisty. His cage door was open. He was gone.

I scavenged my tiny apartment like a frantic crazy lady despite knowing there was no way he was here. How was my door still locked if someone took him? How could they have gotten in? Was it that FBI Agent? Am I missing something? It’s just a bird—they can’t see him as a threat, can they?

I wandered back outside. That’s when I noticed what I had missed. One bright feather lay on the cobblestone by the rose bush—and two words were written next to it. “Respect Authority.” If that wasn’t terrifying enough, the words were written in a crimson fluid. Blood. Feisty’s blood?

A dark, uneasy feeling grew in the pit of my stomach, a sound roaring through my head as my knees buckled. My scream was the last thing I remembered before I lost consciousness.

I didn’t even feel my head smash into the rocky driveway.

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