Just goofing around. This is a short story I wrote when I was — ya know — supposed to be working on something else. Enjoy.
The Patriot Act
By: Lora Douglas
“Am I under arrest?”
His response is a menacing half-twitch of his dry lips. He doesn’t bother to look up from the file.
“I want a lawyer,” I demand. I’m shooting for authoritative, but the tremble in my voice betrays me.
The officer, or detective, or… God, I don’t even know, closes the manila folder and lays it flat on the metal table. Then he folds his hand over it with deliberate slowness, hunching over, looming closer, trying to intimidate me with his size. Or his coffee breath.
“Oath or not, I don’t think there’s a lawyer in five-thousand miles that would come to your defense.”
His partner snickers from his perch in the corner. The guy hasn’t said one word, but I’ve already pegged him as the “good cop,” if that’s the game we’re playing.
It’s all so cliché: the sterile interrogation room, the two-way mirror, the steel table and chairs — the handcuffs.
“You have no reason to question me. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
They’re both wearing Cheshire cat grins this time. “Oh, you’ve done enough,” the one seated across from me says, tapping a finger on the file. “We’ve been monitoring you for some time, Mrs. Mondel.” He tilts his head. “If that’s your real name.”
“Of course that’s my name. Who else would I be?”
“It’s a good cover, I’ll give you that,” he continues. “I’ll admit, you threw us off your scent a few times. Yet, here we are.” He gestures to the room, proud as a peacock.
“A compliment, Mrs. Mondel,” he taunts. “You’ve been alluding the FBI for quite some time. Not an easy feat.”
“You’re FBI?” I want to kick myself for sounding awed. But they’re both so young, fresh-faced and beaming with confidence.
“Special Agent Burke and Special Agent Gilbert,” he gestures to the lanky man in the corner, “I’d say at your service, but we serve the American people. Not the likes of you.”
“I’m an American citizen,” I assert. “I have rights. I have—”
“Considering the circumstances, Mrs. Mondel, you’re lucky to have any rights at all. If it were up to me, I’d’ve locked you up in a dark cell and thrown away the key.”
His stare is acid and unwavering.
My eyes burn, my bottom lip quivers. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Agent Burke scoffs. “Your tears aren’t fooling anyone. This sweet, innocent act you’ve got going worked for a while. Not anymore.”
“I am innocent!” I blubber. “I’m nobody. I’m — I’m a boring housewife. I drive a minivan. I’ve got — I’ve got kids, and — and a dog. I’m the Vice President of the PTA, for Christ’s sake. I don’t know what you think I’ve done, but I assure you, you’ve got the wrong person.”
The lanky agent — I’ve already forgotten his name — steps forward to snatch the file from the table. His fingers walk over the pages inside until he finds what he’s looking for.
A grainy, black and white photo meets the table with a slap. “This you?” Agent Beanpole barks.
It is me, sitting near the windows of Cafe Latte, a cup of chai tea in my hand.
“And this?” He slaps down another photo.
Me, in the front seat of my minivan, parked along the curb of a busy city street.
Me, placing an envelope into the mailbox on the corner.
Me, walking out of the library, my laptop bag slung over my shoulder.
Me, perched on the ledge of a planter box, outside the Starbucks on Forty-Second Street.
They have at least twenty photographs. All of me doing the boring stuff I do.
I shake my head and look up, trying to read the men’s expressions through watery eyes. “I wasn’t doing anything.”
“Who do you work for, Mrs. Mondel?”
I shake my head again. “Nobody. I told you. I’m just a housewife.”
“The truth, Mrs. Mondel. You’ll save yourself a lot of pain if you tell us what we want to know.”
“I don’t know what you want to know,” I snap. “You won’t tell me why I’m here. You won’t tell me what I’m being accused of. You — you’ve been following me for God knows how long.” I shove at the pile of photos. Half of them fall to the floor. “And you won’t tell me why.”
And then I’m sobbing; great, heaving, shuttering breaths that make my shoulders shake and my lungs burn. And they let me. They let me bawl my eyes out, offering nothing, not even a consoling glance or a tissue.
Several minutes pass, and then the door opens. An older man in a dark suit steps in. He sets a box of tissues and a bottle of water in front of me and leaves.
The laughter that bubbles up is maniacal, deranged. Maybe they should lock me up and throw away the key. Clearly, I’m losing it.
“I fail to see what’s funny about this situation,” Agent Burke growls.
I wave a hand toward the mirror. “You guys are just so… cliché. I mean,” I gesture in a wide arch, “it’s just like the movies.”
“I can assure you, ma’am, there’s nothing fictional or funny about the evidence we have mounted against you.”
That wipes the smile off my face.
“I’ll only ask you one more time; who are you working for?”
“I’m. A. Housewife. My husband works for —”
“Oh we know all about your husband, Mrs. Mondel. But the real question is, does Robert know about you?”
“Know what about me?”
“Tell me, Mrs. Mondel, if you’re a boring ole housewife, as you put it, why were you spending,” he flips open the file, searching the page in front of him, “forty-seven minutes, sitting in your car, parked outside the Office of Homeland Security?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
Lanky Agent steps forward. “Don’t waste our time playing coy.” He lifts a photograph from the scattered pages on the floor and holds it up. “While you were watching us, we were watching you.”
“I — I don’t know where that is.”
He rolls his eyes. “Right. And I suppose you don’t remember what you were doing on November ninth, sitting outside the Office of Emergency Preparedness, for an hour and a half.” He moves a photo to the top of the pile. Me, sitting crossed legged in the grass, my laptop balanced on my knees.
“The Starbucks!” I exclaim. “The Starbucks on East Street has free WiFi.” I don’t know why I’m so excited. It’s not as if that little revelation is going to set me free.
“Yes,” Agent Burke says, as if he expected that answer. “Since you bring it up, let’s discuss what you were doing with that free WiFi connection.” He shuffles some papers. “Mrs. Mondel, what is your interest in the policies of the U.S. Military?”
I scrunch my eyebrows. “I’m sorry?”
“You’ve been spending quite a bit of time on various military websites. Navy’s requirements for admission. The SEAL teams and their methods for deploying covert operations. On November eighth, you posted questions in an open forum about the whereabouts of undercover CIA operatives and how they go about obtaining —”
“It was research.” I argue. “I was doing research.”
“And you expect us to believe that?”
I search the photos strewn about the table. The common denominator in each — my laptop.
I start to laugh. Really, really, laugh. “Wait,” I shake my head. “Are you… You’ve been tracking my Google history?”
“Your Google history has landed you on several terror watch lists. Under Title Two of the U.S. Patriot Act, we have the right to —”
“I’m a writer!” I blurt out. “I’m doing research. For a novel.”
I pick up a picture — me sitting outside Cafe Latte. “Jamie has ballet class two days a week. Sometimes I go to the coffee shop on Forty-Second to pass the time. To write,” I emphasize.
Me, outside the Homeland Security Office. “This is two blocks from Amanda’s piano lesson. It was too cold to write outside, so I waited in the car.”
“The library,” I explain, holding up another photo. “I was researching combat terminology. And here,” I hold up the picture of me and Frank. “Frank Albot, retired Air Force, my main character.”
“You’re not a novelist,” Agent Bruke says flatly.
I have to fight back the eye roll. “I’m not published, yet. My agent is shopping the manuscript around. But I’m working on my second book. Would you like the name of my agent? Perhaps my anonymous pen name might be helpful? Oh, but I’m sure you already have that,” I mock. “Seeing as you’re the all knowing FBI.”
The shift in power is tangible and heady. I find myself sitting up a little straighter, folding my hands over the table, looming closer, trying to rattle him with my confidence.
“And you’ve read by blog, of course, so you know I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month. Fifty-thousand words in thirty days it a lot harder than thought it would be when I signed up. Thank God for Frank. Without his first-hand account of the war, I’d barely have put together an outline.”
They’ve both gone white as sheets. Poor things. I almost feel bad.
“How old are you?”
“My age is irrelevant to this —”
“New on the job? Let me guess, first assignment?” Rookie, is on the tip of my tongue, but I decide not to push it.
Agent Burke swallows hard. When I glance at Agent Beanpole, he nods.
“Little tip, boys. Do your homework.”
Two quick knocks sound at the door, and both men rush to answer it. A hushed conversation fills the hall, punctuated by an assortment of four-letter words and apologies. Then Agent Beanpole returns, alone.
He clears his throat. “You’re free to go, for now.”
I laugh, standing taller than I ever have in my life. “You’ll be hearing from my attorney about this,” I growl. And they will, as soon as I find one.
My purse is returned, my IDs and my jacket handed over by the female agent at the front desk. I want to ask if she’s gone through my stuff, but I want out of here more.
Frank is pacing just outside the door. I’ve been free less than a minute, and he already has his arms around me.
“What happened?” he asks, eyeing me up and down.
“I’m fine. Can you just… take me home, please?” With one arm around my shoulders, he leads me to his car.
Thank God for Frank. He’s always there; since that first day Robert and I stumbled across him in the union, surrounded by a group of students, hanging off his every word.
Hungry for the truth.
The drive through downtown is silent. It isn’t until Frank merges onto the interstate, the skyscrapers behind us, the cookie cutter houses of suburban America drawing closer, that he speaks.
“What happened?” he asks again, only taking his eyes from the road for a second.
My smile is a menacing half-twitch of my ruby lips.
“They bought it.”