aurelia received a letter in the mail. it stood out from the junk mail by being addressed by hand.
it had no return address.
she opened it.
it read, you have an appointment with doctor carter on wednesday, june 16, at 3 pm. it gave dr carter’s address, which was on the next street over from a second hand clothing store aurelia often patronized. it also listed a phone number and an e-mail address.
aurelia had never heard of dr carter. she had had a checkup with her own regular doctor the month before, and the doctor had not referred her to anyone, or indicated that she needed any kind of treatments or visits to specialists.
aurelia called the number listed in the letter. she immediately got a message to leave a message. she decided not to leave one. as it happened, wednesday was an afternoon off for her - she had an elaborately staggered schedule in her job as a waitress - and she decided to just drop by dr carters office and explain that there had been some kind of mistake. it was a saturday when she received the letter, so wednesday was only four days away.
but except when she was busy at work, aurelia found that she could not get the strange letter out of her mind. she wished she had tried to get through to a person on the phone, although she realized how unlikely success would have been.
she sent an e-mail, but as she expected, got no reply.
she decided to go through with the visit. it did not occur to her, as it might have to some people, that she might be kidnapped or murdered.
it did occur to her that she might be charged for the visit, and one reason she was going was to make sure that she was not. if she did not show up, they might try to charge her some ridiculous fee for missing the appointment!
wednesday afternoon arrived, and aurelia arrived at the address in the letter. it was an old brick office building. the front door was unlocked and she entered. there was no security guard inside. a directory beside the single elevator showed dr carter’s office to be on the fourth floor, which she had already guessed by the office number, 404.
aurelia knocked on the door of number 404 and entered. there was a small reception area but nobody at the desk.
a man suddenly appeared. aurelia assumed he was dr carter. he was younger than she had expected, with curly hair, a little mustache, and he looked a bit nervous.
“come in, aurelia, come in, “ the man said. “we have been expecting you.” even though she was five minutes early.
“are you dr carter?” aurelia asked.
“yes, of course, who did you think i was? “
“one question, please, before we go on,” said aurelia. “how much is this going to cost?”
“oh, your employer is paying. you don’t have to concern yourself.”
“mrs johnson’s restaurants is paying?”
“of course, why wouldn’t they? but please come in , your father is here, we have had a nice talk.”
her father? aurelia had not seen or talked to her father in years, and had forgotten all about him.
aurelia followed dr carter down a narrow corridor behind the reception area and into a small bare office. there was no desk, just a computer station and what looked like a dentist’s chair.
a man was seated in the office, in a low chair beside the computer station. he was definitely not aurelia’s father.
aurelia’s father had been short and stocky, with five o’clock shadow, with nothing much to say and a permanently surly expression, although he was not at all violent and had almost no energy of any kind.
the man seated in the office was tall and thin and pale and had glasses with small thick lenses. he wore a sports jacket with leather elbow patches. he was definitely not the man aurelia had thought was her father.
what was this about? was this guy supposed to be her real father? and if he was, so what?
“tom here has been telling me all about you,“ dr carter said, as he took a seat himself at the computer.
there was no place for aurelia to sit, except the dentist’s chair or on the floor, so she remained standing.
“i have never seen this gentleman before,” said aurelia, “and my father’s name wasn’t tom.”
“tom” ignored this, and without saying hello to aurelia or introducing himself, launched into what seemed a continuation of a story he had been telling dr carter. something about aurelia’s being taken to the beach - or maybe it was some kind of county fair or a family picnic - where she, aurelia, had amazed the assembled listeners with her ability to - to do something, aurelia could not really understand what - even though she was only - some age or other, aurelia did not catch the number, as tom talked rapidly, and made jerky little movements as he talked.
dr carter listened attentively to tom, never taking his eyes off his face, and nodding encouragement, particularly at the most incomprehensible parts of his disjointed narrative.
“this is ridiculous,” aurelia attempted to interrupt tom. “i have had enough.” and she turned to go.
dr carter stood up suddenly. “i don’t think you want to leave just yet, aurelia,” he said. “i think you might want to hear what tom has to say.”
“not really.” aurelia opened the door behind her.
“you’ll be sorry,” the doctor said. “you should stay.”
for the first time aurelia felt a twinge of fear. was there anybody else, she wondered, in the whole building? she had not seen any sign of anybody. would anybody hear her if she screamed for help?
but neither the doctor nor tom followed her as she made her way down the corridor, through the reception center, and back to the elevator.
the elevator was still on the fourth floor and she took it down to the lobby and made it safely to the street.
what was that all about? aurelia laughed out loud, happy to be in the sunny street, and a couple of teenaged boys walking by turned and stared at her.
that was weird, thought aurelia, but she knew, from the internet and reading newspapers, that far weirder things happened to people every day.
she thought she might send her story to some website - to be included in something like “31 weird creepy things that happened to real people”. but it probably was not strange enough.
she went shopping. shopping was her favorite thing to do.
the next morning aurelia did not show up for work at mrs johnson’s restaurant. darlene, the manager, called and texted and e-mailed her but did not receive any response.
when she did not show up or respond to messages the next day, she was sent a letter that she was fired, and the letter enclosed a check for the wages she was owed. employees often quit suddenly, and mrs johnsons restaurant chain did not waste time or energy on them.
when aurelia did not pay her rent on the first of the month, the manager of her apartment building found her room empty. the letter from mrs johnson’s with the enclosed check was later found in her post office box along with forty-five pieces of junk mail.
the commander was scowling at his map. he tapped it with a pointer .
the map showed what morrison already knew - that they were trapped in sector c, surrounded by three battle squadrons of the rival empire, and with little hope of a breakout.
communication wth headquarters had broken down months ago and they had no way of knowing if any effort was being made to reach them, or if they had been written off.
they suspected the latter, as they had only been a scouting expedition to begin with. and headquarters surely knew what they were facing now.
“quite useless, these maps, quite useless,” the commander observed.
“indeed, sir.” morrison nodded.
“there is nothing else for it,” the commander continued. “we shall have to make a dash for it. and hope there is still something to make a dash for.”
“how long do you think it will take you to gather the men together and brief them?”
“why, no time at all, sir. the only man left is hodgkiss, and he can not have gotten far, after telling me you wished to see me. he is not due to go on patrol until sixteen hundred hours, so i expect he just went back to his bunk.”
“hmm.” the commander scowled briefly. “i did not realize things had gotten quite so far as that. so you are telling me that there are only you and i and hodgkiss left alive here?”
“yes, sir. and the woman.”
“the woman!" the commander exclaimed. "what woman? i did not know there was a woman on the premises.”
“oh, yes, a native woman. we took her in shortly after we got here.”
“well, i hope she was not some sort of spy!”
morrison coughed. “not so far as i can tell.sir.”
“and to what use has she been put?”
“oh, this and that. washing the pots, entertaining the troops. though with the troops pretty much gone, she has had some time on her hands lately.”
“yes, i can imagine. do you suggest we should take her with us when we depart?”
“well, that is up to you, sir.”
the commander considered. “i suppose as long as she has been a faithful servant , and if we can find some use for her. we should take her along. we were always taught at academy that we should show some loyalty to natives who had shown loyalty to us. as a general principle going forward in the path of empire, you know.”
“quite, sir. she is quite sturdy, i am sure we can load her up pretty well with whatever we wish to carry.”
“yes. well, i leave it up to you, morrison. i would like to move out before daybreak, if it can be arranged.”
“yes, sir. i might add, that the woman might be useful in parleying with any tribesmen we encounter on our way.”
“tribesmen! what tribesmen? you amaze me, morrison. i did not know there were any tribesmen about, i thought we were engaging exclusively with the forces of the blue empire!”
“oh no, sir. the hills are quite alive with tribesmen. you can hardly set foot outside the camp without tripping over a tribesman.”
“you do not say so. well, one learns something new all the time, even in the darkest hour.”
“very good, sir. should i start making our preparations?.“
“yes, please do. while you are doing that, i shall make one last attempt to contact headquarters, though it is only for form’s sake, i am afraid.”
morrison turned to go.
“wait!” the commander stopped him.
“this - woman. is she young? at all attractive?”
“ah - that is difficult to say precisely, sir. i think opinion might tend to fall on the negative side.”
“i see. well, carry on.”
the first glimmers of dawn were visible between the hills.
the little party of four moved out, with the commander in the lead, slapping at the air and at his thigh with his riding crop, followed by corporal hodgkiss carrying a radio which morrison and the commander both thought quite useless but were afraid not to bring.
behind hodgkiss came the woman, barely visible under supplies and equipment that might have been carried by four pack animals.
morrison brought up the rear. he had a heavy pack on his back, and carried a small submachine gun.
they had not gone half a mile when, true to morrison’s prediction, they were met by a group of five tribesmen - actually three men and two boys. two of the men were riding animals that looked like a cross between a bear and a camel. the other, older and heavier man, and the two boys walked beside them.
the commander scowled as morrison came forward and began to parley with the two men.
the conversation went on interminably - though politely enough - until the commander could take it no longer.
“what is it they want?” he demanded of morrison.
“well, sir, in one word, they want the woman.”
“they do, do they?” despite morrison’s cautious description, the commander, in the brief glimpse he had of the woman as she was being loaded up, had thought her a rather fine specimen. a fine and sturdy specimen, though of course it had been hard to tell in the dim light and all.
“they are prepared,” morrison went on, “to furnish us with some food, lead us to a water hole where we can fill up, and give us one of the boys as a guide - in return for the woman.”
“that does not sound much of a bargain,” the commander countered. “i think we are well stocked as we are. and can the boy carry all she is carrying? eh?”
“i think, sir,” morrison replied in a low voice, “it would be wise to take their offer.”
“you do, do you? look here - i tell you what - unload the packages from the woman and let us get a look at her.”
morrison looked puzzled but answered, “yes, sir.”
the commander had come to a decision. if the curvature of the woman’s hips was at least equal to that of the dome of st weneceslaus’s cathedral, he would refuse the tribesmen’s offer. otherwise, they were welcome to her.