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    C James
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Changing Lanes - 5. Expeditions


Chapter 5: Expeditions


 



 

The growl of the black motorcycle reverberated through the parking lot as Eric took one final spin, weaving in and out between the few parked cars in the almost-empty lot, far more comfortable than he’d been just an hour before.

Jim watched as Eric pulled up beside him and opened his helmet visor. Jim was pleased with the progress, but still harbored a few concerns. “You’re doing well, man, but cool it a little; you don’t have the experience to be doing any hotdogging. Do not, under any circumstances, try to run from the paparazzi. Leave them to me and my guys. The traffic isn’t too hectic right now, so do you want to try riding back to the hotel?”

Eric’s face, framed by the black helmet, lit up in a broad grin. “Don’t sweat it; I’m not going to try anything crazy. Hell, just this helmet keeps me pretty well disguised. I went for plain black when I ordered the bike so it wouldn’t stand out, so with any luck the paparazzi won’t know it's me. With that in mind, how about you ride it back to the hotel? If they see you driving my Jeep, it might clue ‘em in that I’ve got a new vehicle.”

Staring at Eric’s innocent smile, Jim knew that there was at least one other reason for the request. Crossing his arms, the big biker replied, “You just want to make me ride your bike past my guys... They saw me ride it here, ain’t that enough?” The other bikers had been hanging out at a distance, on the lookout for any return attempt by the paparazzi.

“That’s part of it,” Eric replied with a mischievous smirk, before adding, “But the paparazzi angle is real, too.” Eric took the helmet off and swapped it for Jim’s which was in the Jeep. Handing Jim his helmet, Eric said, “I had the dark visor so they can’t see my face, and I’ve ordered a leather jacket with a few special modifications.”

Jim arched an eyebrow in Eric’s direction, and then looked at the helmet. “What kind of modifications?”

“Extra padding, lots of it. They’ll see a guy with a heavier build, I hope, and not get curious. I was going to have ‘em add padding around the gut so I’d look a bit like you, but that stuff’s expensive when you buy it by the metric ton,” Eric said, struggling to keep a straight face as he gave Jim’s beer gut a pointed look.

“Why you son of a...” Jim laughed as he stomped forward and Eric reacted by darting away, laughing hard enough to be unable to utter a word. Jim shook his head at Eric, smiling. He’d gotten to know Eric and the Instinct guys pretty well, at least enough to know that Eric only teased people that he liked.

Jim said with a smirk, “First you make me ride a Japanese bike in front of my guys, and now you’re insulting my famine-proofing. I’ll have you know that this,” Jim rubbed his hand on his stomach, “is the product of many a fine brew. Okay, I’ll see you back at the hotel, wise-ass.”

Eric caught the tossed keys with a chuckle and jogged towards his Jeep.

While following Jim back towards the hotel, Eric wondered – not for the first time – when would be the best time to break the news of the motorcycle to Helen.

 

Jim wheeled into the shaded confines of the underground parking garage, ascending three levels up to the private parking area reserved for the adjoining studio.

Brandon heard the motor’s rumble as he locked Chase’s car, and looked up in curiosity as Jim pulled up beside him. Brandon’s eyes took in the make of the bike and as Jim took off the helmet, Brandon said, “There’s got to be a story behind this.”

Giving Brandon an apologetic shrug, Jim then held up his hands and said, “Sorry, I can’t tell ‘ya.”

Brandon gave Jim an appraising look, wondering what was going on. The normally forthcoming biker wasn’t one to keep secrets, so his curiosity was piqued. Brandon was about to ask a few more questions when Eric’s Jeep, its tires squeaking on the concrete, rolled into the parking area and parked next to the motorcycle. Beginning to suspect that Eric was somehow involved, Brandon watched Eric’s eyes as the bassist jumped down from his Jeep and walked towards them, shirt in hand. Eric barely glanced at the motorcycle, and showed no surprise, which was enough of a confirmation for Brandon. “Tell me you didn’t,” Brandon said, indicating the Yamaha with his eyes before adding, “Helen will kill you slowly, you know that, right?”

Eric shrugged and gave Brandon an innocent smile, knowing full well he’d see right through it. “I have no idea what you’re talking about...”

Not buying it for a second, Brandon took another look at the bike. “Not bad. So when did you get it, bro?”

Eric glanced at Jim, and upon receiving an empty-handed shrug in reply, he said, “We just picked it up today. Jim’s been teaching me how to ride. Helen doesn’t know about this yet.”

“I know that by the fact that you’re still breathing,” Brandon said, rolling his eyes before adding with a chuckle, “I had a bike for a year back in Phoenix. I like ‘em, but you get to deal with Helen about this and I don’t envy you there.”

“I’ll just have to wait for the right time to tell her. Maybe later this week, when we’re having dinner with her and Barbra. Helen’s a little less extreme when Barbra’s around,” Eric said, sounding more hopeful than confident, and keeping his fingers crossed that he could play Helen’s anger to his advantage.

 

That evening, sitting in Jon’s suite after dinner, the four members of Instinct wrapped up another writing session.

“The girls should be here in an hour, so I’m going to grab a shower,” Jon said.

A few minutes after Jon left, Eric watched Brandon and Chase stroll through the connecting door to the suite they shared. He’d seen a few of their exchanged glances during dinner, and had no illusions as to what they planned to do. He smiled to himself, happy that they’d found each other, and ignored the small tinge of jealousy their relationship engendered in him. He’d seen it, in their actions and in their words; they were becoming one, partners of the soul. Eric’s recent long string of one-night stands flashed through his mind: nameless groupies, joining him for a few hours of three and four-way sex. Eric shuddered at one of his fleeting thoughts, that the sex just wasn’t as much fun anymore. That notion had become apparent to him weeks before and had only grown, in spite of his ever more difficult mental gymnastics as he attempted to explain it away.

He couldn’t, though. Eric had, a little at a time, accepted that it was real; his sexual escapades, once the very core of his being, just were not what they had once been. Glancing at himself in one of the room’s mirrors, Eric wondered about the two girls he’d invited to share his bed that night. The old thrill he’d felt in the past was gone, and that, he decided, just wouldn’t do. With that thought came another: he needed advice, but from who? The person he was closest to was his younger brother Chase, but the one way they most differed was that Chase was far from sexually adventurous. Jon was another option, and Eric resolved to ask him, but as he did so his other option began to look ever more attractive, though Eric had no conscious notion of why. With that settled in his mind, and resolved to asking Brandon for some advice and opinions the next time they were alone, Eric snapped open a laptop to continue his research into dance and stripping routines for the stag party, determined to improve Jansen and Keith’s act.

Fifteen minutes later, Eric startled as Jon said over Eric’s shoulder, “What’re you planning on, producing a whole new act? Why don’t you just find different strippers? There’s got to be some somewhere that’d be good.”

Eric shrugged. “I like the ones I found. They’re good, and I think Brandon and Chase will like ‘em. It’s their act that stinks. Typical cheesy, raunchy shit. The fact that they won’t have the stupid stage settings and lighting will help. I want something classy and different, but still hot. I’m going to get ‘em to rehearse whatever I come up with a few times. I’ll need you to come with, and give me your opinion.”

Jon shook his head, biting back a chuckle. “Bro, I’m not exactly the right choice for this. Straight guy here, remember? Brandon or Chase would be your best bet...” Jon’s voice trailed off as he realized the glaring problem with that idea.

“Yeah, like that would help keep it a secret from ‘em... We’d just say, ‘Hey dudes, come check out this stripper act we’re working on, but it has nothing to do with your stag party.’ Right...” Eric said, as he shook his head and rolled his eyes.

Jon laughed, and then plopped into the sofa. “Okay, okay, dumb idea. Too bad The Shadows are off on tour, because we don’t know any other gay guys. Anyway, you better go grab a shower; the chicks will be here in a few.”

Eric shut down the laptop and stood up, turning to walk towards the door to his suite. Halfway across the room, he decided to ask a question, both for the apparent reason, and a very different one. Turning to look at the back of Jon’s head, Eric asking in an uncharacteristically soft and serious voice, “Jon, do you ever get tired of groupies? Ever thought of maybe changing a little, dating the same girl for a while?”

Jon’s head snapped around to stare at his brother. “Who are you and what have you done with Eric?” he asked, smiling until he saw Eric’s serious expression. Surprised, Jon tried to answer as best he could. “Yeah, maybe a little, but I like things the way they are. No commitments, no stress. They’re happy and I’m happy. Besides, with our life, it’s kinda hard to maintain a relationship. We’re on the road so much, it just wouldn’t work. One day, yeah, maybe I’ll settle down – or maybe not, but for now I’m having fun so why change? What brought this on?”

Eric shrugged, not really wanting to delve into the subject just yet, and having already planted the seed for his other, travel-related plan. “Just wondering. Anyway, I’ll grab a shower. See ya in a few.”

 

 

General Bradson had trouble of his own making. He was due to meet with his extraction team, somewhere in or near the Cape Verde Islands, just off the west coast of Africa, in a week’s time. He’d been warned, via both Bill’s sources and his contact, that his travel to the Cayman Islands had generated some official interest. Therefore, he’d been asked to travel under an assumed name and avoid registering with passport control on his way in and out of the U.S. That simple request had presupposed something he did not have: a means to obtain a false passport. Bill had come up dry; he had no access to the operations side of the agency, hence he could not help in crafting a cover or the paperwork to go with it.

When informed of the difficulties, the contact had offered, for a hefty fee, to provide the needed passport. The catch, though, was that it would take a month and would therefore preclude any chance of the General’s direct participation in the training, and thus exclude him from the ground mission. He suspected that this was no coincidence, as he was well aware that Felicity, the team leader, considered him an unskilled interloper and thus a danger to have along.

There had to be a way. A few ideas flashed through his agile mind, including an offer of help he’d had no prior intention of utilizing.

Bill took a seat in the General’s sparse living room. There wasn’t much choice; one armchair and one plastic lawn chair, so Bill, mindful of his comfort and bad back, took the former. He cast a skeptical eye around the room and said, “Perhaps you ought to consider some redecorating. I know it’s a little far-fetched, General, but you might consider getting some actual furniture,” he said, as he tossed a manila folder on the milk crate that served as a coffee table.”

“What can I say? I’ve lived in base housing for so long I just don’t know how to do the domestic stuff,” General Bradson replied with a shrug at the good-natured jab.

Smiling in his callow way, Bill flipped open the folder, and handed the General the topmost glossy photo. “Here’s some of the recon take. Other assets have confirmed; your son is being held in the brig of a Revolutionary Guard battalion. We think it’s in here,” Bill said, pointing to a stone and masonry building near the main barracks.

Nodding, the General put on his reading glasses and studied the photo. He’d seen satellite photos before, so the clarity and detail came as no surprise. The photo had been taken from slightly south of directly overhead and the shadows indicated an early afternoon. Several men stood in the shade near the building, smoking. The cigarettes were beyond the ability of the satellite to see, but the hand positions and a small puff of smoke made it plain enough. They appeared relaxed and bored, which suited the General just fine. A dozen yards away, a small olive-drab van with what appeared to be a capped stovepipe jutting out of its roof caught the General’s eye. “NBC vehicle,” he said as a statement rather than a question, referring to a Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical detector vehicle.

“I was wondering if you’d catch that. Yeah, it’s not exactly our Fox M93A1. It’s bare-bones, equipped to detect some kinds of nerve and chemical agents. Our best estimate is its capabilities are analogous to our old M256 Chemical Agent Detector Kit. Like the M256, we think it’s got two primary testing components – a vapor sampler and reactive detection paper. That pipe on top is, we think, an active intake. A small fan draws air through a sensor plate, and any reactive gasses trigger an alarm, prompting further tests.”

General Bradson nodded, asking the obvious question, “So that means they’ve got some high-value assets in the area. What are they?”

Bill shrugged. “We aren’t entirely sure. What we do know is that they’ve got TOR-M1 mobile surface-to-air vehicles in the immediate area. That’s the Russian’s best air-defense missile system, and the Iranian’s paid a packet for ‘em. They don’t have many, so that makes something nearby very high-value. Best guess; storage facilities for their chemical weapons. That would explain why they have some of their few NBC assets in the area.”

General Bradson gave a noncommittal grunt before replying, “Yeah, somebody bombs your storage depot and you’ll want to know if anything is leaking. They don’t have chemical protective suits, at least not enough for their troops, so they’d be cautious. Clever of them to give us notice of a high-value target like this.”

Bill, who understood the intelligence side far better than The General, angled his head and gave a bemused smile. “You’d be amazed how often things like this occur. They took your son to a convenient secure installation, and it happened to be this one. Their deployments are logical from their operational perspective, and it probably never occurred to them what we might surmise from the combination of deployed assets on display. That happens so often in this business that it’s no surprise at all.”

General Bradson laid the photo down in his lap, a slow smile spreading across his face as he said, “At least now we know how we’re going to pull this off.”

“Time to do a little cleaning,” Bill replied with a malicious chuckle, having reached the same conclusion himself.

 

 

Eric fidgeted as Helen and Barbra served up dessert. His case of nerves, important to portray due to his plan, required no acting skill. Deciding that now was as good a time as any, he decided to get started. “I need to go to San Francisco. I’ll only be gone for a couple of days,” he said as casually as he could muster, before adding in Jon’s direction, “Could you pass the pepper?”

Jon shoved the crystal pepper grinder in Eric’s direction, wondering both why he wanted pepper for ice cream, and why he wanted to go to San Francisco.

Helen stared at Eric for a moment before asking in a reasonable voice, “Why do you want to go to San Francisco now, right in the middle of our studio time?”

Trying to keep his expression unconcerned, Eric said, “I figured the drive would get me used to the motorcycle I bought a couple of days ago.” Eric ground a little pepper onto his ice cream and took a bite, deciding that it wasn’t a bad mix at all.

Brandon, Jon, and Chase, all of whom knew about the motorcycle, turned to watch Helen’s reaction. To their shock, she nodded calmly and said, “Motorcycle? Well, that’s news. But why did you choose San Francisco,” she paused, and then added in a guttural snarl, “as the first destination for your two-wheeled death machine?

Feigning shock at Helen’s reaction, Eric gave her a wide-eyed look. “I need to go there anyway. I just figured it would be a good way to learn to ride, away from city traffic,” After taking another bite of his ice cream, Eric added, almost too casually, “I’ve been dealing with some personal issues lately.” He glanced pointedly at Jon, feeling a little guilty for misleading him into thinking that this related to their conversation about girls, but knowing that Jon was incapable of successfully lying to Helen. Eric also needed to keep Brandon and Chase in the dark. “It’s about the girls I’ve been dating. Things just haven’t been as much... fun, when I’m in bed. So, I got some advice, and I decided to act on it. Remember that guy you caught me kissing after the San Francisco concert? His name’s Cody and I just need to see him.” Eric paid careful attention to Jon, wondering how he’d take the coming news. “I want to find out if maybe it’s time for me to, you know, change lanes, change teams, play both sides, or whatever. Maybe that’s what’s affecting me. I just can’t seem to get as into sex with the girls as I used to. We’ll be rolling around, and when it’s time for the main event I–”

Helen’s hand shot up, exactly as Eric had expected, waving for him to stop. Eric had always been very open about sex, but Helen didn’t want to hear the graphic details. “Whoa, way too much information! Are you really sure about this?”

Eric glanced at the five shocked faces looking back at him. He couldn’t help but notice that Chase seemed the least stunned, though he’d expected as much. With a casual nod, Eric replied, “I just want to try out that side of me. If I don’t like it, at least then I’ll know that’s not the problem.”

Shaking her head in mild disbelief, Barbra glanced at Helen before saying to Eric, “Have you ever considered that maybe you’re just getting tired of one-night stands, and what you need is a girlfriend?”

Carefully dancing around the truth, and taking pains not to lie about anything other than his destination, Eric replied, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try that if San Francisco doesn’t work out.”

Barbra nodded, and after sharing another surprised look with Helen, replied, “Hon, I knew I was attracted to women by the time I was twelve. Aren’t you a little old to be thinking along these lines?”

Smiling sweetly while eating the last bite of his ice cream, Eric shrugged. “I’ve always found some guys hot, it’s just that I’ve always found girls hotter, until now maybe. I wouldn’t have kissed a guy unless I was kinda interested. So, I figured I need to do this, otherwise I’ll never know. I’ve laid down some bass tracks so this won’t get in the way of our recording work, but I need to do this,” Eric said, looking slightly abashed, which was unusual for him.

Recalling the incident at Candlestick Park all too well, but also understanding better than most what she thought Eric was facing, Helen nodded gravely. “Eric, I can understand your confusion, and thus your need to go. I’ll agree, but on two conditions. One, that Jim rides with you. Second, that you swear to me you won’t touch tequila while you’re gone.”

With a happy smile, Eric said, “Thanks Mom, you’ve got a deal.”

“Quit calling me Mom or I’ll change my mind,” Helen said, with a skyward roll of her eyes.

Eric felt bad about partially misleading everyone. His biggest regret was Jon, but he knew that his brother was a poor liar, and if he found out Eric’s real destination, Eric didn’t think he could lie convincingly about it. Besides, Eric consoled himself; much of what he’d said was true in a way. The discussions he’d had with Brandon and Jon had been real enough; it wasn’t his fault if they drew the wrong conclusions. It was, he said to himself, all in a good cause: keeping Brandon and Chase in the dark about their party and their wedding location.

The best part of it all, Eric thought, was that the stunned silence around him did not contain any mention of his new motorcycle by Helen. He hoped he’d dodged that particular bullet, at least for now.

Eric was pleased with himself regarding his performance, though the fact of the matter was that it had not been quite as convincing as he believed.

Out of all those at the table, Jon had the hardest time with Eric’s words. Learning that his youngest brother, Chase, was gay had not been easy, but now his other brother was showing definite signs. It wasn’t as much of a surprise as it might have been; Jon well knew that Eric was nothing if not sexually adventurous, and there was the kiss with a guy, though Jon had chalked that up to the tequila, which always made Eric act crazy, even by Eric’s standards. Keeping his qualms to himself, and quickly realizing that, as probably the only straight person in the room, he was alone on this issue, with no one he could talk to who could possibly understand.

 

 

Helen answered her intercom, and her secretary’s words made her jaw drop open. She gave the only answer she could. “Send them in.”

Helen looked up, watching her door, the long seconds ticking by as she wondered what this could be about. She didn’t have long to wait; the two federal agents, wearing the cliché attire of black suits and sunglasses, strolled in.

Once they were seated, the older of the two said, “Thank you for seeing us, Ma’am. We need to ask you a few questions. The first one is, do you know this man?” The agent removed a photo from his briefcase and slid it across the big desk to Helen.

Glancing down at the photo, Helen resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she replied in a civil tone, “Anyone who has picked up a newspaper, a magazine, or watched TV knows that I know General Bradson.”

Nodding, the senior agent adjusted his dark sunglasses with his thumb while leafing through his briefcase. After a few moments’ pregnant silence, he looked up to ask, the briefcase forgotten, “What do you know of his current plans?”

“All I know is that I offered him a job. He’s thinking about it.”

The younger agent asked, “Would that job involve the Cayman Islands, Ma’am?”

The senior agent, irked by his partner’s disclosure, gave the man an annoyed shake of his head as Helen replied, “He was offered the position of Instinct’s head of security. That would involve some travel, if he accepts. Is there a problem?” Helen asked, wondering what was going on, and suspecting that it had something to do with the General’s son.

Ignoring Helen’s question, the senior agent asked, “Would this job involve any financial transfers at the moment?”

Shaking her head and growing irritated with the one-way course of the conversation, Helen decided to play tit for tat and use the agent’s own tactic. Ignoring the question, she asked, “What is this about, gentlemen?”

“We’re just running down a few things, nothing to be concerned about, and you aren’t in any trouble at all,” the senior agent said with a patently false smile. “Now, please answer the question.”

What had begun as merely unexpected now had Helen seeing both red flags and red in general. Deciding that it couldn’t hurt to answer honestly, she replied, “As I said, I made the man a job offer. We have no further official involvement beyond that, so no.”

The senior agent angled his head slightly, and then nodded. “Very well, we may be in touch. I must insist that you keep our visit confidential.” Helen nodded pleasantly, the order she’d just been given guaranteeing that she would do nothing of the kind. She watched the two agents leave, and after counting to thirty, she left her office, seeking out the janitor, or more precisely, his cell phone.

After finding the man, she borrowed the phone and stepped away, looking in her own phone to retrieve the number she needed.

Aware that there might be more than one ear on the other end of the line, Helen waited until the General answered to say, “Walter, I’m afraid I need to reschedule our meeting regarding the security and investigation position we’ve offered you. Could you drop by the studio at two this afternoon, instead of three?”

General Bradson lifted his kitchen phone and listened in surprise, recognizing Helen’s voice and also the use of his first name, and the addition of ‘investigation’ to the job title. The fact that they’d had no arrangements to meet was the final clue. Realizing that something was up, he nodded in spite of being on a phone and said, “I’ll be there.”

“Thanks, bye,” Helen said in a chipper voice, before handing the phone back to the bemused janitor with an apologetic shrug as she said, “Sorry, my battery is almost dead. Thanks for letting me make the call.”

The meeting was not for an hour, so Helen busied herself by returning to her office and making a few inquiries into her other problem – Eric. Thanks to her eavesdropping on the intercom, Helen knew of his Canary Island plans, and his sudden interest in San Francisco had, after a couple of hours to mull it over, made her increasingly suspicious. Given forty-eight hours, there would be only one way he could get to the islands with enough ground time to do anything. Helen flicked through her dog-eared rolodex – she’d discovered long ago that paper had its benefits versus a computer-based index. Finding the number she sought, she dialed it. Once the secretary on the other end had picked up, Helen introduced herself. Instinct had used the charter agency many times, so Helen was recognized, and that made the next question easy, “I just wanted to confirm the departure time for Eric Carlisle’s flight.”

The secretary was happy to oblige the frequent client’s seemingly incurious request, and as she hung up the phone, Helen smiled at how easy it had been and breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn’t had to call every air charter agency in the city.

 



 


 

© 2008 C James

Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent.

Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"

 



 



Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions.

Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me.

Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice.

A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice.

Any remaining errors are mine alone.


Copyright © 2009 C James; All Rights Reserved.
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I say it's a good thing that Helen knows of Eric's plans. I just have a bad feeling about this.

 

And also about General Bradson.

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By now, it's abundantly clear that a great deal of this story is indeed very personal for those involved - and there's still the split as to what kind of personal.

 

Helen knowing most of what Eric's up to might be fine as a fallback, but it still makes his planning being realized feel choreographed. :/

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