A Day in Altoona

The train pulled into the station. Eric picked up his leather messenger bag, slung it over his shoulder and stepped off the train. The station was empty. Dim fluorescent bulbs flickered above his head making the noise of a bug-zapper executing mosquitoes. It was 5:00 AM. The sun had not risen, but the black sky was very slightly illuminated, having the appearance of a black light. There was a chill in the fall air, which didn't seem to affect Eric's skin but created a stabbing sensation in his lungs.

Eric walked determinedly across the platform and up the stairs into a small train station. The station consisted of an unmanned ticket window, a Coke machine, a cluster of coin-op news racks and one of Amtrak's new QuickTrak machines, which lit up the room as its screen flashed "Out of Order." Slipping two quarters into a news rack, Eric picked up the Altoona Mirror. He knew it was a good idea to know what was going on in the area so that he could avoid trouble. Or, at least avoid any trouble that wasn't a necessary part of his current job. Newspapers are also useful for covering one's face when one doesn't wish to be recognized.

The sun was just peeking up over the horizon causing Eric to squint as he walked a block east on 12th street to 10th Avenue. He saw a bike rack in the parking lot on the corner. No one was in sight, so he pulled cable cutters out of his leather satchel and cut the lone bike on the rack free. He took a brief moment to think about how when his parents were his age, Richard Nixon had been shaking hands with union laborers on this very street corner in the campaign to re-elect Eisenhower. Maybe it was Ike's interstates that later killed this town, making it the "capital" of the rapidly fading railroad. Eric didn't know and didn't really care.

Eric rode across downtown Altoona to the local cinema. Tossing his rusty bike to the side, he approached the door of the theater. He shook hands with a woman in a suit and they walked into a showing of The Good Shepherd. The soundproof theater, with the noise of the movie, provided a perfect environment for a secret conversation.

"Did you collect the product?" the woman asked in a hushed voice.

"Of course."

"And you're being careful with it, correct? We can't have that lost, and you know many would like to steal it."

"Of course."

"OK, then, Eric. Go to Texas Hot Dog at 1:00 this afternoon and hand the package over to the man with the Hamilton wristwatch. He will be wearing a bowlers cap and every three minutes he will raise his wrist and tap his watch twice."

"Will do, ma'am. May I watch the movie now?"

The woman didn't respond, but turned to watch the film. Eric assumed this implied permission for him to do the same. He enjoyed it a lot. Well, he at least enjoyed it as much as he enjoyed anything else.

He walked out of the movie and was pleased to see that "his" bike was still outside the theater, but when he mounted it the woman with whom he'd been meeting asked him where it came from.

"I borrowed it from a bike rack downtown" Eric stated flatly.

"You idiot. That was very dangerous. What if you had been caught?" The woman popped the trunk of her black Lincoln Town Car and pulled a motor scooter out of it. I guess I'll have to give you this. She was annoyed. Eric cared little. With only a mumbled "thank you," he jumped onto the scooter, still carrying his messenger bag, and headed in the direction of Texas Hot Dog at the full 15 mile per hour max speed of the scooter. He arrived at the old hot dog stand at 12:53 by his trusty Timex. He ordered a hot dog immediately. He was starving from his days of adventure, and from his lack of a decent meal. He had not eaten since he had eaten a sandwich at the Cosi at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station the evening before. While he waited for his hotdog, Eric knew that he should be planning for his exchange with the unknown man he was supposed to be awaiting. Instead, though, he opted to reminisce about the great taste of Texas Hot Dogs. He had eaten no less than five on a previous trip to Altoona, and thought they were much better than their much-hyped Coney Island alternative. He received his Texas Dog and ate it ravenously. He sat at a bench near the street, setting his messenger bag down next to him, and pulling out his copy of the Altoona Mirror half to keep himself occupied, and half to conceal his identity from anyone who may have their eye out for him.

A man in a gray pinstriped suit approached, wearing a bowler's hat and a Hamilton watch. When it turned 1:03, the man tapped his watch twice. Eric caught this action out of the corner of his eye. He reached for the leather bag. It was gone.

Eric thought about the contents of the bag with a slight feeling of panic. He had just let plans for the next generation of the CIA's rifle-in-a-briefcase fall into God-knew-whose hands. Proof that such a weapon existed and knowledge of its specifications jeopardized multiple operations in the works. Plus, it could only fuel speculation about past conspiracies. He could just imagine the Kennedy kooks now. Some had always thought it was a gun in a briefcase.

Then, Eric put the panic inside of him to rest. "My journey was never going to end here" he thought. He knew that now he would have to chase down whoever had taken his bag, probably around the country or maybe even the world, but he knew that whatever happened, he was always going to be chasing someone. His path was endless. His journey would only end when he died.