From all around me came the sounds of battle: the dull thump of mace on shield, the jingling of chain mail armor, the heavier clank of full plate, the rhythmic chanting of wizards and healers casting their spells. Somewhere in the chaos my brothers-in-arms – my friends – threw themselves into the fight, working to press the enemy back, away from the fortress we were foresworn to defend. I had no time to spare a thought for my friends as I moved to square off against an opponent, a sword in my right hand and a shield strapped to my left arm.
The enemy, smaller and younger than me, shifted lightly from foot to foot, looking for an opening between me and my shield and trusting his compatriots to watch his back. He was wise to let them; he had enough to do trying to protect himself from the front. Speed and agility are the hallmark of the young, but so are inexperience and overconfidence. The boy – for he couldn’t have been more than that – danced forward and drew his sword down, right to left, aiming for my legs. I dropped to my knees in the dirt, and my shield turned his blade aside.
Seeing my opportunity, I flung my left arm wide, following the deflected sword. Into the now wide open space in front of me I thrust my blade. The boy tried to jump backward, but I let myself fall forward, and my momentum carried the tip of my blade into his belly.
I let myself fall to the ground, sword hand still extended, and rolled onto my back, covering myself with my shield. I looked up to find one of my allies shielding me, giving me a moment to regain my feet and reenter the fray.
Staggering to my feet, I let my eyes sweep the battlefield. I nodded to the man who had been guarding me, and we moved together to engage a mace-wielding madman. I paused midstride, listening. Then I stepped back out of striking range, set my sword aside, and reached into the pocket of my jeans.
“Shit.” I held my shield over my head in an awkward gesture that signified defeat. “Sorry. Phone call. I gotta take it,” I said. I didn’t recognize the number, and this close to graduation any unfamiliar number could be a potential job offer.
“It’s all good,” my team-mate said, never missing a step, his attention focused on the game.
I scooped up my sword and shoved it under my arm as I hurried off the field, answering my cell as I ran.
Nothing but silence answered my greeting, and I wondered for a moment if the call had dropped. Then a familiar voice asked, “Elizabeth?” I’m good with voices. Sometimes it’s easier for me to identify someone by his voice than by his face. Even without that, I’d have known this voice anywhere. Brian Kelly had the most unique accent I’d ever heard, not quite Australian and not quite British but something in between the two.
“It’s me. What’s up Brian?” I asked, wondering why in the world he could be calling. We were friends, but we usually kept in touch through my best friend who happened to be his girlfriend. I scored a bottle of water from a nearby cooler and plopped down at a picnic table.
There was an uncomfortable silence, punctuated by the sounds of my fellow gamers bashing each other with foam-padded swords. After a moment, Brian asked, “Have you heard from Dylan?”
Brian had convinced Dylan Connelly, my closest friend and former roommate, to spend a week with him in Orlando. From what Dylan had told me, her flight should have landed by now. I frowned as I cracked the seal on my water bottle.
“I haven’t talked to her since last night. Is everything okay?”
I listened to the silence spin out again as I uncapped the water and took a long drink.
“She’s not here,” Brian said. “Her flight landed half an hour ago. I haven’t seen her, and she’s not answering her phone.”
I took another drink before answering. “Brian, you know Dylan’s bad about forgetting to turn her phone on. She’s probably wandering around the airport wondering where you are.”
“So…she didn’t change her mind, then?”
I almost laughed. Dylan had talked about nothing but Brian for months. This week was likely to be the highlight of her year – or maybe her decade.
“Brian, honey,” I said, “Dylan didn’t change her mind. Not about this week, and not about you. Okay?”
Brian made a small sound that couldn’t quite be called a laugh. “London said I was being paranoid.” London, I knew, was Brian’s close friend and band mate. The band - named DPS of all things – had a gig at the Hard Rock in Orlando at the end of the week. Dylan was almost as excited about the concert – and seeing Brian’s friends again - as she was about having a week of alone-time with her boyfriend.
“I would say so, yeah. At least about the whole ‘changing her mind’ thing. Maybe not so much about the ‘she hasn’t shown up’ thing.”
“Yeah. I’m going to try her cell again. I’m sorry I bothered you with this. I’ll talk to you later.”
"Don’t you dare hang up on me!" I snapped. I took a deep breath, reminding myself that Brian had to be worried and distracted. "You can’t just get me worried and then leave me hanging, Brian.”
“Psssh. Is her phone going straight to voice mail? And are you sure you’re at the right terminal, have the right flight info?”
“Dylan sent me a copy of her flight information. I’m in the right place, and her plane definitely landed a half hour ago.”
“And her phone?”
“Straight to voice mail.”
I nodded, even though I knew Brian couldn’t see it. I took another swig from the water bottle while I collected my thoughts.
“Okay, so. The voice mail thing tells me her phone’s off, like I said. But she should have tried to call you by now if she thinks you guys have missed each other.”
I tucked my feet under me on the bench, what we used to call ‘sitting Indian style’ before the term became politically incorrect. “Well, hell. I don’t know what to tell you, Brian,” I said. “No, wait…I wonder if she missed her flight. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“If she did miss her flight, and she’s in the air…”
“Then you won’t be able to get her on her cell. And you’ll be left in limbo for who knows how long.” I waited a beat, and then added, “But it just so happens that she trusts her best friend way too much. As soon as I can get to a computer, I can find out if her flight got changed.” I unfolded my legs and stood up, digging in my pocket for my keys. I wanted to get home and find out where the hell Dylan had disappeared to.
“Could you tell someone else how to find out?”
I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder so I’d have my hands free to gather up my role-play equipment. “Not that I don’t trust you, but I feel weird about giving you Dylan’s info.”
“I didn’t mean me,” Brian said. “I was actually thinking of London. He’s probably at his computer right now. But I guess the same’s true of him.”
“Even more so,” I agreed. I managed to hit the trunk button on my key fob without dropping any of my gaming gear, but fumbled the phone when I shoved my bundle of weapons and armor into the trunk.
“I can be home in 20 minutes,” I said, as I unlocked the car. I stopped, turning to lean my back against the car. “You know what…no. When we hang up, try Dylan’s cell again. If you don’t get an answer, have London call me. If you do get an answer, have Dylan call me. Okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, of course. Someone will call you back in…ten minutes, either way.”
“Perfect,” I said. “Good luck, Brian.”
We hung up, and I got into my car. I turned on the radio for something to concentrate on, but didn’t start the engine. I didn’t want to try to drive and talk on my cell at the same time, so I stayed put.
I passed the time imagining how the conversation would go if it were London who called. Everything I knew about him I had learned from Dylan: he drummed for DPS and he was one of Brian’s closest friends. I had heard a few of the band’s songs, and I liked the music well enough. The mellow pop-rock sound didn’t seem to fit Brian all that well; it didn’t fit the mental picture I had of London Dahlbeck, either. I’m not sure why, but I pictured London as a modern Mick Jagger. I could imagine him raising hell and terrorizing the staff in some high-class hotel, though as far as I knew DPS hadn’t ever caused any scandals.
Less than ten minutes later, my phone rang again, startling me back to the here and now. The number wasn’t Dylan’s.
“Hi. This is London. Dahlbeck? Brian Kelly asked me to call you.”
The voice wasn’t at all what I had been expecting. Instead of having a Jagger-esque British accent, he sounded…normal. More than ever, I found myself wondering what kind of people would name their son ‘London,’ especially paired with ‘Dahlbeck.’ Elementary school must have been so much fun for this poor guy.
“Hi, London. Brian wanted me to pair my brain with your computer.”
London laughed. “You make it sound like I don’t have the brains to pair with it.”
“Well, I have no proof to the contrary,” I said. I shook my head. “Prove it to me. Help me figure out where Dylan is.”
“I’ll do what I can,” he promised. “Okay, I’m guessing your plan is to look at her flight information on the airline website?”
“Yep. And I’m sure you know that….”
“We’re going to need a res number, yeah. We hacking her email?”
I smiled. He was already proving himself sufficient in the brains department. Good. “It’s not hacking if she gave me her password,” I replied.
“True enough. Where’m I going?”
I told him which website she used for email and gave him her login and password. I could hear the click-clacking of keys as he followed my directions.
“I’m in,” he said. “Okay…she’s got a billion little folders in here, and I have no idea what most of the labels mean. I mean ‘work’ and ‘Brian’ are pretty self-explanatory, but I don’t see…oh wait, maybe….”
“Try search,” I suggested.
“Too late. I found the confirmation.”
“You got lucky.”
“I’m good at that,” he said.
I laughed. “The advantages of being in a band.”.
For a moment there was utter silence, not even the clacking of his computer keyboard coming through the phone. Then, “That is so not what I meant.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I mean, I’m not denying that I’m good at ‘getting lucky’, but that really isn’t what I meant.” Before I could think of a witty retort, he said, “Fuck. She didn’t change her flight. She checked in…she should have been on that plane. She should be in Orlando.”
“Fuck,” I agreed, leaning my forehead against the steering wheel. “Now what?”
London took his time replying. After a moment, he spoke, his voice low and somber, “It’s too soon to file a missing person’s report.”
“And the airline won’t tell us anything,” I added. “But I can’t just sit here and wonder.”
We spent another quiet minute or two thinking.
“I’m here,” I said.
“Can you get to Orlando?”
“Can you get away from work or whatever and get on a plane to Orlando – today?”
“I…I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, if I knew it would help….”
“Elizabeth, I need you to trust me on this. I need you to get a flight to Orlando as soon as you can. And if you have something of Dylan’s, I need you to bring it.”
I sat up, rubbing my forehead. “What do you mean? What sort of ‘something’?”
“Just about anything that belongs to Dylan should work.”
‘Work for what?’ I thought. Aloud I said, “I have some heels I stole from her. And probably some of her books. I…I don’t know.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” he said. It sounded like he might be talking to himself instead of me, so I didn’t ask what he meant. “Just look around and see if there’s anything. I think you’ll know what to bring when you see it.”
“You’re kind of freaking me out.”
“Yeah,” London said. “But I’m not going to apologize for it. Not this time. Just book that flight. If you can’t afford it, call me or Brian back, and we’ll deal with it.”
I wanted to get huffy, to explain that I’m an independent woman and didn’t need his money. But truthfully, finances and I had not been friends lately. The perils of being a college student at thirty-five.
“I’ll let you know,” I promised. “And I’ll make sure to leave a paper trail, just in case.”
London gave a little, humorless laugh. “Yeah. Good idea.”
“I should go. Looks like I have some packing to do and a flight to arrange.”
“Hold on a minute,” London said. I could hear keys clicking again. “There’s a flight leaving from Bush Intercontinental in a little over two hours. Can you make it?”
I did the math in my head. “Yeah, I can make it.”
“Hold on,” he said again. More typing sounds. “I need your full name.”
“Elizabeth Kathleen Morgan. What are you doing? Wait…you’re booking my flight?”
“Yup. Date of birth?”
I didn’t even bother protesting. I just gave him all the information he asked for.
“You’re booked. Itinerary’s in your email.”
“I don’t even know what to say.”
“Say ‘bye’ and hang up. I want to be sure you make your flight.”
“Fair enough,” I said with a little laugh. “Bye, London.”
“Bye, Elizabeth. I’ll see you in Orlando.”
I don’t remember the drive from the park back to my apartment. That should have worried me far more than it did. I more or less parked and then launched myself out of the car and across the parking lot to my front door. I fumbled the key into the lock, opened the door, and kicked it shut behind me as I started stripping off my role-play costume – belt, tabard, tunic. The jeans, though dirty from rolling on the ground, could stay, I decided.
I dashed into the bedroom, grabbed my two carry-on bags from the closet, and started packing. I do a lot of travelling, though usually by train or bus. I hate flying. Anyway, I was something of a pro at packing, even in a hurry.
Comfortable, serviceable clothes – socks and underwear, bras, t-shirt, jeans. I remembered what Orlando weather could be like, even in the early spring, and packed a couple of pairs of shorts as well. I pulled off my hiking boots – too impractical for dealing with airport security – and traded them for my favorite pair of low-top Converse. The shoes, a gift from Dylan, were black with little skulls all over them. Some of the skulls had pink bows on top. A lovely blend of macabre and cutesy, they were totally ‘me.’ I tugged on my favorite Red Chapter t-shirt and stepped into the closet to grab a jacket for the plane.
I didn’t see my black leather jacket, the one that I defaulted to, especially when travelling. I sifted through the clothes on the racks, one hangar at a time, certain the jacket had to be lurking somewhere. Near the back of the closet, I pushed aside a garment bag…and stopped and stared for a moment. I moved the clothes on either side of the bag and twisted it on its hangar so I could reach the zipper. I opened the bag and pulled out one of the dresses inside.
Dylan and I had found the long black and white formal in a resale shop. It fit Dylan just right and made her look like a movie star from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen. I had urged her to buy it, assured her she’d have a chance to wear it if we ever got to go on the cruise we’d been planning for years. Less than a year later, we went on our cruise, exploring the islands of the Caribbean. We spent our first night onboard the ship hanging out in one of the lounges. It was there that we met Brian, not knowing at the time that he was the guitarist for a big-name rock band. Dylan and Brian hit it off from the very beginning. She’d been wearing the black and white formal the first time he kissed her. At the end of the cruise, the dress had gone into the garment bag with my formal and so had ended up in my closet.
I realized London had been right; I knew this was the ‘something’ I needed to take to Orlando, though I still didn’t know why.
I took my dress out of the garment bag, tucked Dylan’s back inside, and carefully folded the bag to fit into the rolling suitcase that was the larger of my two carry-ons. I moved on to gathering up the rest of my things – toiletries, computer, phone, iPod. Grumbling about the TSA, I went to the coat closet by my front door to dig out a fresh box of Ziploc bags - and there was my leather jacket. Later I would realize that if I’d known where I’d left the jacket, I wouldn’t have found Dylan’s dress.