A short story by Zoltan James
Denver Metro S.W.A.T. Commander Walker McCoy was late. The perilous storm already dubbed the “Christmas blizzard of 2058” was making him later by the minute. The immense system was dumping blowing and drifting snow in a vengeance along Colorado’s Front Range in a freezing, white-out frenzy.
As he crept along the interstate heading toward downtown, he switched to automatic guided sensor and allowed his steel black Interceptor, a mini Hummer, to maneuver intuitively around stalled vehicles of every shape and size. Northbound I-25, the double-decked highway that bisected Denver, was for all intents and purposes now a multi-level parking lot. Even the rapid propulsion buses in the express lanes were crawling at a snail’s pace.
Meanwhile, The Rocket Rail, the high-speed, self-guided train that ran along elevated tracks parallel to the highway had come to a complete stop. In a panic, a herd of travelers spilled out into the blowing snow. Their vague outlines leaned into the wind; some scurried for shelter, while the optimists scrambled down to the highway, in hopes, somehow, of thumbing a ride home.
The big wipers on the Interceptor fought off the pelting flakes which attacked his windshield incessantly. They seemed as large as the lace doilies he remembered that dotted the side tables of his grandmother’s home. The windshield’s imbedded defogging unit sensed the outside temperature dropping and automatically increased the heater’s intensity.
Walker was off duty but in uniform and he had his police radio on. The calm dispatcher countered the beat-beat of the wipers as she read down the list of incidents:
“Any unit for a two-vehicle four-injury, 14th and Fox. Attention all units, be on the lookout for a blue Chevy Volt last seen eastbound on Speer from Broadway, possible DUI…No units available, 2154 hours.”
He glanced at the digital numerals projected onto the windshield. They read: “2155 Hrs.” He knew then he would never get there on time.
Walker was headed for Old Union Station No. 1 in downtown Denver to meet his girlfriend, Amy. She was due to arrive on the Metro Rocket from DIA, Denver International Airport, in five minutes. At the rate he was moving, he’d be lucky to get there in thirty. Without looking down, he felt the secret pocket on his black tactical shirt. The ring was safe. The thought made him smile. He hoped his proposal would be accepted on Christmas morning.
Earlier that day, his S.W.A.T. team had launched a strategic assault on a drug den in Cherry Creek North. The once, tony and upscale neighborhood had deteriorated to the point where it had lost its luster. The once popular indoor shopping mall, the Mecca of tourists and celebrities was now a vacant wasteland. The luxury shoppers had moved on to something blinger and better. Today, the area was home to families who lived day-to-day, and in the grip of evermore aggressive gangs.
But, Walker and his team surprised the North Creek Boys at dawn and took them down without incident. Just the way he liked it. The team debriefing and requisite paperwork, however, made for a long day. Now he was running later than planned. In Walker’s mind, late did not compute. Storm or not.
He had called Amy numerous times, but she had never answered. He hoped she was en route. He recalled their last conversation, a week ago. At the time, he thought she sounded dicey. She had even hinted she might not come. “Work demands, and all that sort of thing,” she had said. “I’ll let you know by Monday.” Today was Wednesday, and she still hadn’t called. The thought made him queasy.
He reached for the standard issue, palm-sized REU, Relaxation Enhancer Unit. It was the size of a tic-tac and blended frankincense, lavender, and other essential oils that when placed sublingual, under his tongue, mellowed him out. It also released a potent aroma. He sniffed. His nostrils flared and his brain cleared. Almost instantly, he felt his pulse slow down. He found the frankincense mixture an ironic choice considering it was Christmas Eve.
He thought about Amy and her work schedule. She was vice president of public affairs for a defense lobbying firm in D.C. She was direct and alluring with long flowing red hair and pale green eyes. He liked her immediately. They had met a couple of years ago when he testified on Capitol Hill. He was seeking critical funding for Metro S.W.A.T. The Metro Consortium of City Governments was desperate. They all needed more cops and tactical gear. The deadly gangs, who controlled human and drug trafficking from Mexico to Middle America, were winning and robbing good citizens of their moral will. Losing to evil did not compute in Walker’s mind.
While Walker held his own against the senators who were more interested in showboating than solving a problem, Amy fell for his no-nonsense straight talk and the way he stood up to the bully Senator Cargill from New York. Much later she admitted it was his movie star good looks and deep voice that struck a chord. When she invited him out for coffee, Walker was, at first taken aback, but accepted.
“McCoy, you’re fearless. I like that in a man,” she had said.
“I don’t believe in fear,” he countered. “I believe in hope.”
That encounter began a long-distance relationship that brought her often to Denver. It didn’t hurt either, that she had grown up in Golden and that she dearly missed her majestic mountains.
Amy was supposed to catch the Metro Rocket from DIA to Union Station tonight where Walker would pick her up. He smiled as he remembered how whenever she rode the Rocket, it always made her giggle. The train was smooth and faster than a speeding bullet. That was Walker’s little joke which always escaped Amy. The Rocket was powered by a high-speed magnet motor that zipped the train into downtown in a mere ten minutes. He hoped she was at the station waiting for him.
A ring of scrolling blinking tail lights on the transporter in front of Walker grabbed his attention. He almost didn’t see the massive truck. His auto guiding sensor had frozen and the Hummer was gaining fast. With one quick motion of his right thumb, he switched back to manual control. With his left hand on the wheel, he swerved into the middle lane, started to spin out and, re-corrected. He let out a breath and refocused.
He noticed how the Interceptor’s infra-red headlights were melting the snow in front of his all-season airless tires. They gave the tiny tank he was driving, a dry surface to grab. He relaxed a bit.
Walker touched the stem of his black, night vision glasses and activated his phone. “Give me Anita Mondragon,” he said in a clear baritone. A luminous heads-up screen illuminated on his windshield which allowed him to see graphics and messages while also watching the road.
A perky female avatar appeared on his windshield. She was a brunette with pouty red lips. Her large brown eyes blinked. “I’m ringing for you right now,” she purred.
“Good Lord,” he muttered under his breath. “Just call the number.”
“I heard that, Walker,” the avatar said.
While he waited for the connection, he strained to see old Invesco stadium up ahead. It was a welcome reference in the ferocious foggy storm. Once a gleaming landmark, the stadium was at one time the home of the Denver Broncos. Now, it was due to be demolished. A new tri-stadium complex for the Broncos, Rockies’ baseball team and Rapids’ soccer team was opening in East Aurora next fall.
Since 2030, the metropolitan area had spread like a prairie grassfire east and southeast across the plains. The rapid sprawl of asphalt, homes and retail centers chewed up farmlands and spawned a population epicenter surrounding Aurora, DIA, and the Mexico-Canada Super Highway. Almost overnight it seemed that Aurora had overtaken Denver as the largest city in Colorado and trumped Parker, its southeast neighbor, for the right to host the new sports complex. No one joked anymore about DIA, or Aurora, being in Kansas.
Landlocked Denver, meanwhile, lost its influence as the region’s financial and entertainment hub. The area’s power brokers had even floated a plan to move the state capitol to Aurora’s new downtown, east of the former Buckley Air National Guard Base. But, the old politicos dug in their heels and the quaint gold dome stayed put.
“Hello, Walker. How may I help you?” An animated and demur Anita Mondragon appeared on his screen. She was a Spanish beauty with a charming overbite. She also served as the popular weather anchor for 9NEWS/DENVERPOST, the region’s media powerhouse. She appeared in front of an ominous map. Urgent letters and numbers streamed across the top and bottom of the virtual screen.
Avatar technology had improved so much that the animated Anita was impossible to distinguish from the real Anita, who appeared live on the ten o’clock newscast, simulcast on the network and the web. Even though this woman was not real, he liked what he saw and treated the avatar with respect. “What are the current conditions, Anita?”
“In the past thirty-six hours,” she reported, “the storm has dumped more than twenty-four inches of snow. And more is coming. This massive storm is stalled over the Front Range. The swath of heavy snow is dumping a new foot of snow every hour and is already threatening to stop the evening commute. We’re awaiting closure reports for DIA, Aurora, Parker, Denver and all cities west to Vail. All major highways in the metro Aurora area have been closed since noon. The Christmas Eve rush hour has not helped matters. It’s currently five degrees at DIA. This is a dangerous storm. Driving conditions are treacherous and icy. Walker, stay home, please,” she pleaded. “This is the biggest and meanest Christmas blizzard in Front Range history.”
“Great,” he sighed.
“Be careful out there,” The avatar smiled and blinked, and then her image faded out.
Walker remembered the time several years ago when he had mustered courage to ask the real Anita for a date. He waited until she finished the newscast and then appeared, unannounced on the news set. His uniform and badge easily got him past security. She had refused his offer, in such a nice way, that he didn’t feel rejected. Later, she had agreed to join him for a series of coffees, which brewed into a mutual friendship, nothing more. She was a ray of sunshine in his dark life of fighting evil. But, with the demands of his schedule, he was never able to continue the relationship on a consistent basis.
Walker veered his Hummer off the Interstate and pointed it downtown. He weaved through snow-packed side streets and the canyons of office towers where the erratic winds shoved snow in every which direction. He crossed Larimer Street, which despite bright holiday lights, looked deserted. He pulled into Union Station and parked near the front door in a space reserved for police.
With the engine running, he powered down the fusion cell reformer and activated the electric capacitor, which his gauges announced was good for another hundred hours. The wrap-around imbedded windshield defogger melted the avalanche of snow piling up on the idling Hummer. But it was only momentary as heavy snow continued to swirl in angry waves. Massive drifts buried vehicles in the parking lot.
Again, he touched the stem of his glasses and activated the Interceptor’s wireless web network. He commanded the Rocket’s live map and schedule to upload onto his windshield. It blinked on, but something was wrong. The red train graphic was stopped east of Northfield, along the industrial district of warehouses located between DIA and downtown. A “news alert” of scrolling text announced that the train had left its tracks under high winds. Emergency crews were having trouble getting to the crash site. Multiple injuries were being reported.
He logged on to Amy’s personal travel code, a series of numbers and letters that were assigned to her permanently. She was not on that train. He switched to an update of her flight logistics. Maybe she had been delayed or her plane was diverted. Again, he checked her travel code. She wasn’t on the plane either. He slammed the steering wheel so hard the entire vehicle rocked sending sheets of snow sliding off his roof.
His temples throbbed and his tongue went dry. Walker slugged down a small bottle of pure water, a by-product of his hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, and sloughed back in his seat with eyes closed. Then, the phone chirped in his ear.
When he opened his eyes, the heads-up screen on his windshield revealed the words, “Amy Nelson.” He opened the line but didn’t answer. He fought back the acid racing up his stomach, past his throat, and into his brain.
“Walker? Are you there?” A steady voice asked. Accompanying text scrolled across his virtual screen.
He remained silent and with both hands pushed hard against his steering wheel.
“Walker. I know you’re there. Listen. There’s only one way for me to say this. I’m not coming. I repeat. Not coming. I’m sorry. I had hoped to tell you sooner, but (there was a long pause) I’ve met someone. Yes. Someone else. I know you won’t understand, but…with work and all…and pressures from this lame duck congressional session…well…let’s talk soon. Okay?” There was a silent pause. He could hear her breathing and then the call clicked off.
He cursed. He wanted to tear the steering wheel from its column and hurl it through the front window. He felt like hiking home in the storm. At this point, he didn’t care if he made it or not. Then, his normal frame of mind returned, albeit reluctantly. He inserted another REU, and as he relaxed, he powered down the engine.
He decided he could use a coffee. With this storm he figured he wasn’t going anywhere fast, anyway.
He jammed on his baseball cap, grabbed his tactical coat and dashed for the station’s front doors. His vehicle locked automatically. As he ran, head down, a freezing mist pelted his face.
Still running, he performed a quick physical and mental check of his survival gear – gun, taser, flashlight, baton, tactical knife, wireless activated communication device. He was good to go. Even though he was off duty, he was really never off duty.
Walker pushed through the doors and into the cavernous station. It was packed with nervous locals pacing and waiting for family or friends to arrive. Others were anxious holiday travelers hoping to get to the airport. Ambiguous and tinny Christmas jazz played on the speakers overhead.
His angry aura must have cut a path before him as he bore through the grand hall. Bodies gave him a wide berth. Eyes turned. Walker landed hard at the worn coffee counter. Snow melted off his big frame and puddled beneath him on the beaten and crusted tile floor.
“Hey, Walker,” the always effervescent Margi greeted him from behind the counter. She was wearing a Santa cap and a holiday button that read simply: “Nice.”
“What’re you doin’ out?” she said. “You, nuts?” She poured black coffee for him without asking.
“Yea, must be,” he said.
“Well, for what it’s worth. Merry Christmas, honey.” She leaned over the counter and kissed him on the cheek. She winked and left to help another customer.
Walker swiveled in his chair and surveyed the coffee shop which anchored the west end of the terminal. It was packed with tired and edgy travelers. Luggage was parked at every table, sitting like obedient dogs waiting for their masters to move. Anxious eyes checked the big board or hand-held communication devices seeking good news. Then, he spotted her. She was sitting alone at a table by the far corner, next to a sadly-decorated Christmas tree.
With coffee cup in hand, he walked over. “May I join you?”
She looked up, eyes wide with surprise. “Walker. Why, yes, please do. I didn’t expect to see you here,” Anita Mondragon said.
“Nor I, you,” he answered. He removed his cap and looked deep into her large brown Latin eyes. “I just spoke to your avatar not more than half-an-hour ago.”
She laughed. “Was she cordial, I hope?”
“Very. But, I prefer the real thing.”
“Say, are you waiting for someone, because if you are, I can leave, I didn’t mean to intrude,” his voice trailed off.
She shook her head and looked down. When she looked back up, he saw glistening eyes. “Remember Chuck?”
“Yup,” Walker said.
“Well, he’s not coming. The creep didn’t have the nerve to tell me in person. He sent text. Can you imagine? Said Sarasota was warmer this time of year.” Her eyes ignited to a shiny dark brown.
“I think he’s right about the weather. But, I’m sorry to hear that,” Walker said. He cradled his coffee cup in both hands and nervously turned it round and round.
Anita held up a brave face, “And, you, my big police hero, what brings you out on a night like this? Didn’t my avatar warn you to stay at home?” She touched his hand and drew it back. She picked up her coffee cup and sipped at it while watching his eyes.
He took a deep breath and pursed his lips. “Remember Amy?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, she’s not coming, either,” he said coldly. “She just called to inform me, at the eleventh hour, I might add, that she met someone else. Guess I’m riding this storm and Christmas out alone.”
Anita looked into his eyes and held her gaze for a long time. “No, you’re not,” she said with a rise in her voice. “I have a turkey at home. I’ll bake, if you’ll carve. It’ll be all that more delicious if you join me. That is, if you would like, or can.”
He looked at her and fought back a smile. “I’d like that.”
He helped her into the Hummer. “Buckle up, little lady. Santa’s gonna get you home in time for Christmas.”
Walker felt like a giddy boy about to open his first Christmas present. He looked across at Anita. This time she touched his hand and left hers there.
“You know, don’t you that eventually this storm will pass,” she said.
He smiled big and broad. “What storm?”
He turned his Hummer back into the swirling snow and headed across the side streets of downtown. Strange undulating forms of white clung to the sides of building cornices, and covered entryways. For some reason, he now found the scene wondrous as though nature was creating a winter wonderland of sculpture.
For the first time, in a long, long time, Walker felt like hope was blowing in from the Rockies.
# # #
Make Every Hour Your Happy Hour and Merry Christmas to All