Saundra Langford sighed. The elderly drunk who had been
harassing her finally decided to leave and wobbled across
the store, bouncing off a L'egg's display, multicolored
plastic eggs rolling across the floor, then staggered out
one of the double doors.
As she started around the counter to pick up the panty
hose, two wild-eyed black men in their mid-twenties hurried
into the store, the door buzzer announcing them stridently.
"Hey, baby, we too late to buy beer?" one asked Saundra.
"I'm afraid so. It's ten after two," she replied
steadily, moving back behind the counter, near the register,
and braced herself for the argument.
"Aw, c'mon!" the other man frowned as they walked up to
the counter on the other side of her. "Ain't gonna hurt ya
to let us get a coupla jumbos. You a sister... sort of. Help
"I can't," Saundra said shortly, her left hand hovering
near the silent alarm button beneath the counter. Her
as-always accurate sixth sense was warning her that these
two were going to be more trouble than usual.
"Now lookie here," the taller of the two, whom Saundra
noted had lighter skin and a scar over the bridge of his
nose, leaned forward and she stepped back without moving her
hand. "You here all by yerself, ain'cha? Now who gonna stop
us iff'n we wanna take the beer, an' even the money?"
With a silent sigh of relief Saundra, keeping one eye
on the troublemakers, saw a tall, burly young white man step
out of the back room with a 2x4 in one hand, a hammer in the
other. "And while I'm kicking your asses, she'll be calling
The two black men eyed him for a moment, then with
snarled curses they stalked out, slamming the doors back.
Saundra, shaking slightly, let her hand drop from the button
and said, "Thanks, Marshall."
He ignored her and went into the back room again. A
moment later she heard the cooler door open, the blowers
stop, then the clink of bottles. Her shoulders slumped as
she went around the counter and began to pick up the L'eggs
that had rolled across the floor, ignoring the hurt that
swept through her at the snub. Still, she couldn't help but
wonder why Marshall--and Janet, for that matter--disliked
her. Was it because she was mixed? Nobody else who worked in
the store, black or white, seemed to care.
She carefully arraigned the pantyhose display then
turned around and was surprised to see a crumpled green bill
on the floor mat in front of the counter. She quickly picked
it up and smoothed it out, getting a pleasant surprise to
find that it was a twenty, rather than the single she'd
assumed it was. One of the would-be robbers must've dropped
it, she thought, since the old man hadn't had any money and
had been trying to get her to give him a bottle of cheap
wine. Who knew, maybe there was some justice in the world.
"Hey, I dropped that!"
Saundra looked up into Marshall's pale blue eyes and
her temper snapped. "Kiss my ass, you did! I just found it
on the floor and you haven't been out here since we
He stared at her with undisguised surprise, since
Saundra was usually quiet and rather shy, then spat
unthinkingly, "You'll be sorry for that, nig-" He shut up
suddenly, looking uncomfortable.
"Go on, say it. Nigger bitch is what you meant, isn't
it?" Though her eyes burned, she held back the tears with
steely will, well used to this sort of thing. "Come to think
of it, Marshall, I wouldn't let you kiss my ass. I might get
AIDS or herpes or some other nasty kind of disease." With
tightly controlled dignity she stalked past him and went
behind the counter, pretending to check the coffee pots.
When he'd disappeared into the cooler again, she sagged
against the side of the Frozen Coke machine and nearly gave
in to her tears, but held them back. Why do people hate me?
Because I'm mixed? But I didn't have anything to do with it!
she thought angrily as she had many times before. I'm not
accepted by whites because they can see my black blood, and
blacks don't like me because I look too white.
Forget it and go on, she told herself as she had many
times before, too. It was worse in school and I survived
She busied herself in work, making fresh coffee and
filling the overhead cigarette racks, but often caught sight
of her reflection in the long two-way mirrored wall behind
the counter. She tried not to look, but couldn't help it.
Long, straight, slightly coarse dark brown hair, an oval
face with full lips and a thin nose, large, dark, tilted
eyes, and amber-colored skin. Yella, the blacks called her.
Nigger, the whites called her.
Nothing, she called herself.
Morning finally arrived and at seven o'clock she
checked out her register, talking briefly with the girls on
the next shift and giving them a good description of the two
men who had almost robbed her, then left shortly after
Marshall had driven off. This October morning was dawning
beautifully, gold and pink lighting the eastern sky beyond
the many tall buildings. As she walked the city streets
home, she ignored the interested looks and occasional honks
or shouts from passing drivers. Despite wearing a loose
sweatshirt and fashionably baggy jeans beneath her heavy
jacket and cashier's smock, Saundra knew that men seemed to
sense the full figure that she had- and hated.
It was a tiring, three-story climb to her attic
apartment for her sore feet, but once inside, Saundra kicked
off her shoes and tore off her clothes, putting on a
comfortable old robe. She relaxed in an overstuffed easy
chair and watched the morning news for a while, but it was,
as always, too depressing and she shut the old
black-and-white TV off. Then, remembering the twenty dollars
she'd found, thought about walking down to the diner for
breakfast. No, I'm too damned tired to climb up and down all
those stairs again. I'll go to bed and get something when I
But even with the shade down and drapes pulled, enough
sunlight penetrated to keep her awake. She lay on the
hide-a-bed couch's lumpy mattress, staring up at the
ceiling, her mind wandering restlessly. She thought of her
mother, who had been Amerasian--half black and half
Vietnamese--and her white father, whom she strongly
resembled, though with darker coloring. They had been so
happy for the first fifteen years of her life, living in a
small brick house in a mixed city neighborhood where they
weren't discriminated against or thought odd, until the
evening that her parents had gone out for their twentieth
anniversary dinner and never come back. A drunk driver had
ended their lives, and may as well have taken Saundra's too,
she thought as tears ran down the sides of her cheeks at the
Then going to live with her single Aunt Patty, her
father's younger sister, in the suburbs. The white suburbs.
Sticking out like a sore thumb with her exotic features and
coloring, called the "token nigger" by most of the whites.
Shortly after graduating, on her eighteenth birthday, she'd
come back to the city- alone.
But, a year later, it wasn't much better. All she had
was a cheap place to live and a job; no friends, no car, no
social life. She survived, but that was all.
The ringing telephone woke her. A glance at the clock
told her that she'd only been asleep about five hours as she
climbed out of bed and hurried into the kitchen. "Hello?"
"Saundra? It's Nellie, from the store. Listen, Janet
just called and said she's not coming in today, her little
boy's sick. Can you come in and work her shift? Dave said
he'd work for you tonight, even though he's supposed to be
"Who else is coming in?" she asked groggily.
"Elmer works four to midnight. I need you for one to
ten. I know it's a long shift, but..."
"Couldn't Dave come in now? I haven't had much sleep,
Nellie, and I'll never make it there by one." It was
"No, he goes to school part-time and I caught him just
as he was leaving the house. But I'll give you tonight and
tomorrow night off, how's that for a deal?"
"Yeah, okay. I'll be there as soon as I can, then."
"Thanks, Saundra, take your time, wake up first. I'll
stay until you get here. You always come through when I need
you, and I appreciate that."
As she hung up the phone Saundra mused, that's because
I don't have anything else to do except sit home. And I need
to save all the money I can so I can get the hell out of
here. Work, home, work. A trip to the grocery store is a big
deal to me.
She put water on to boil for a quick cup of instant
coffee as she washed and dressed, then gulped it standing at
the counter wearing her jacket. As she locked the door
behind her Saundra felt an odd chill of premonition, a
feeling that something was going to happen. Remembering when
she'd almost been broken into once, she re-checked the
strong new locks, then shrugged. She got these weird
feelings from her sixth sense, as she called it, once in a
while. They didn't always come true, but every time
something bad had happened in her life she'd at least been
warned by the feeling, though she could rarely tell what was
going to happen.
At the store she was dismayed to see that it was a
madhouse, nothing unusual for the afternoon shift, which
was why she preferred quieter, if more dangerous, midnights.
Kept busy by the hoards of customers, she didn't even have
time to think as she ran the register and tried to watch
people who might steal, which was damn near every person who
came through the doors in this neighborhood. Finally, near
four-thirty, when the schoolkids tapered off, she was able
to relax for a moment.
"Pretty busy, huh?"
She turned to see Elmer Postin, the stockman, smiling
at her from the back room doorway. He was a tall, almost
cadaverously thin black man in his early sixties, with a
lively sense of humor yet a somber demeanor about him.
"Yeah. Hi, Elmer. I was so busy I didn't even see you come
in or Dayna leave."
"You were so busy that I didn't bother you. How you
doin', girl? You switchin' to afternoons?" He came behind
the counter and stood beside an ashtray as he lit a cigar.
"No, Janet called in. Nellie's giving me a couple of
days off since I came in at one-thirty," Saundra explained.
Besides the manager, Nellie, Elmer was the person she liked
to work with the most, but he rarely worked a midnight
shift. He didn't talk much, yet was comfortable to be around
and often made her laugh with biting observations of
"You worked last night, huh? I see," he nodded his
graying head sagely. "Could be that Janet knew today was the
day Mark, Dave, and Wendy all had off an' there was nobody
but you to come in."
Saundra smiled slightly. "Could be." She was always
careful not to gossip about the other cashiers and
stockboys, knowing from experience that gossip always turned
back on you and bit. "She did say her kid's sick, though."
Elmer snorted derisively. "Likely he's got allergies,
jus' like everybody around here gets come fall. That girl
the laziest body I ever did see."
Saundra couldn't help but laugh. "You're terrible,
He grinned back at her. "Yeah, I am, an' after
sixty-three years ain't nobody gonna change me." Then he
looked across the store, out the front windows, and frowned.
Saundra followed his gaze and saw a large group of rowdy
teenagers approaching across the empty parking lot from the
direction of the high school down the street. "I do believe
I'm done in the back for now," Elmer said as he stubbed out
his cigar. "I think mebbe them kids need watchin'."
Saundra was glad that he stayed up front with her,
since there was no way she could have watched seven people
by herself. After the kids left, Elmer went into the back
room, putting returnable bottles away, then into the cooler
while she swept the store and neatened up, occasionally
waiting on a customer. Then she got busy with the five
o'clock rush hour crowd again, feeling the heavy lassitude
that came from lack of sleep but too busy to drink coffee to
help combat it.
The store was finally empty when he emerged from the
cooler. "I'm done," he announced, shrugging off a jacket.
"That Marshall boy doan' do nuthin' in there but mess it
Saundra nodded. "I know. I think he just sits in there
and drinks- I thought I smelled beer on his breath last
night, but I wasn't sure."
"An' you can't tell Nellie cause you ain't got no
proof," Elmer supplied correctly. "I dunno why he doan' like
you, but I 'spect it's cause you won't go out with him.
Yeah, I heard 'bout that."
Saundra shrugged and sprayed Fantastik on the counter,
wiping away stains from Frozen Cokes. "It doesn't matter,
either one. I can't do anything about it."
Elmer fixed her slender back with a deep, knowing look,
then said, "An' I know Janet doan' like you 'cause you won't
do her work for her. She doan' like me either cause I doan'
take her shit." Saundra glanced at him in surprise as he
continued, "You jus' keep doin' right, girl. Nellie knows
you a good worker and the shit dat Janet's pullin' ain't
gonna go on for long."
Saundra mulled over his words as the older man pulled a
lunch bag from beneath the counter and went into the back
room with it. Could he mean the open assistant manager's
position? Lost in her thoughts, she looked up startled when
the door buzzer went off. Two elderly white women entered
and returned her greeting with dirty looks, so she went back
to cleaning the counter stoically. She was well used to
looks like that.
A creepy, otherworldly feeling stole over her and
gradually Saundra realized that it was a warning. But for
what? The two old women were no threat, and neither was
Elmer, so why was the warning growing so strong?
As she glanced around the store worriedly, her eye was
caught by something in the sky outside. Above a bank of dark
clouds to the west that heralded the night approaching, she
saw a light in the sky. It had the shape and color of a
single flame, but it didn't flicker or light the sky around
it. It was just there, hanging in the clear blue air above
the darkening clouds. As she watched it hovering, a shiver
chased down her back and goosebumps raised every hair on her
body. She was vaguely aware of Elmer coming out of the back
room to stand beside her, but she was too entranced by
staring at the unusual and wonderful flame to look at him.
It wasn't just hanging there, she suddenly realized.
Slowly, like the hands of a clock which move so gradually
that they seem not to move at all, it was inching downward
toward the bank of heavy blue-black clouds. She couldn't
think, only watch, feeling her wonder at the sight change to
something very akin to fear as the sixth sense's warning
pulsed through her.
Saundra snapped out of her trance and stared blankly at
the wrinkled face on the other side of the counter. "Wha...
"I said, where's your eggs?" the old woman demanded
harshly in a cracked, annoyed, shrill voice that rasped on
her nerves like fingernails on a blackboard.
Elmer took charge, seeing the glazed look in Saundra's
eyes. "Third door from the other end of the cooler, ma'am,"
he said, pointing. As the old lady hobbled away, muttering,
he put a gentle and comforting hand on Saundra's shoulder.
"You okay, girl?"
Her eyes flicked from his dark, seamed face to the
clear blue sky, which was empty but for the bank of dark
clouds which were nearly invisible beyond the buildings.
"It's gone. Did you see it, Elmer?"
He struggled with himself for a moment, then made a
decision. "We'll talk 'bout it later. For now you do your
"Listen to me, Saundra. Yeah, I seen it, but now's not
the time to talk 'bout it. I doan' think too many people saw
it, and those that did are in serious danger." She followed
the line of his eyes and saw the two old women approaching
the counter. "Go 'head, take care of them."
Mechanically Saundra waited on the two women, who
complained long and bitterly about the high prices in the
24-hour convenience store, which she'd heard so many times
before that it was barely noticed. But when she made an
error on the register and had to void it out, that snapped
her out of her daze. She rarely messed up, and her good
record was a source of pride for her.
After the old women left she started to follow Elmer in
the back room, urgently wanting to talk to him, but
customers came in with annoying regularity as rush hour
continued. It wasn't until the next shift worker came in at
ten that she realized what time it was.
Elmer walked up to her after she'd checked out and was
getting her purse and jacket from the back room. "How you
"Guess I'll have to call a cab. That's how I get here
at night." She didn't dare walk after dark around here,
though it was safe enough during the day.
"Lissen, you know that donut shop down the street? By
"Yeah?" she looked at him curiously.
"You go on down there an' wait for me. I'll run you
home after we talks. We got to talk, child."
Saundra nodded slowly as she pulled her jacket on.
"Okay. Elmer, what was that-"
He cut her off. "Not now. See you at midnight."
She left the store and walked to the donut shop two
blocks away, every sense alert as she passed darkened
doorways, looking around with paranoid energy, ready to run
at the slightest threat. Inside the shop, she ignored
curious stares as she mulled over several cups of coffee and
a Danish, coldly and angrily rebuffing the advances of a man
who thought she was a hooker after she's been sitting in the
place for an hour.
She was relieved when Elmer's familiar tan car pulled
up outside the window she sat beside and quickly got up, her
bill paid, and went outside and got in. "You hungry?" Elmer
asked as he pulled back out into traffic.
"Not really. Had coffee and a danish while I was
"Well, I am. I already called m'wife and let her know I
was gonna be late, so we goin' to a restaurant and you get
what you wants, you hear me? You too thin, girl."
"Okay," she said with resignation, knowing that to
argue with Elmer when he'd made up his mind was about as
productive as arguing with a brick wall. She waited until
they were in a secluded corner booth in a 24-hour restaurant
and a waiter had taken their order before looking
expectantly at him and saying firmly, "Now will you tell me
what's going on?"
He nodded and looked back at her speculatively. "Yeah,
you needs to know. Saundra, you gots one powerful talent an'
you don't even know it, do you?"
She frowned across the table at him. "I don't have any
talents, not really. I can sing and carry a tune, and I've
tried learning to play the piano-"
"Not like that," he interrupted her. "In here." He
tapped the side of his head. "You got the Light."
A realization dawned on her and Saundra shook her head.
"Wait. I don't-"
"Yes you do know!" Elmer hissed, fixing her with his
intense black eyes. "You get funny feelin's, what you call
warnings, but that ain't what it is. You just don't know how
to use it yet."
Saundra stared at him in amazement. She's never told
anyone, not even her parents or aunt, about her sixth sense.
"How did you know? And what's that got to do with whatever
it was we saw in the sky tonight?"
"I gots it too, that's how I know, only I knows how to
use it. My grammy, she see it and train me how to use it.
Mebbe nobody in your family knew you had it, though it
usually runs in families..."
Saundra gazed at him, seeing the inner strength and
power in his dark face for the first time. "My parents
couldn't have known. I never said anything. And after they
were married neither of their families wanted anything to do
with them. The only other relative I knew was my Aunt Patty,
my father's sister, and she didn't like me and we didn't
Elmer recognized her pain, felt it coming off her in
resentful waves, and wished he could get her to talk more
about herself to relieve some of it. But he knew she was a
private person, not someone who spilled her guts, and they
did have something more important to talk about. Instead he
said, "That light in the sky we saw today, not everybody
could see that, you know. An' I doan' know how it ties in
with our powers, but I think only us that's got the Light
could see it."
When their food came she picked at little at the
hamburger Elmer had insisted she order, but she had no
appetite. "How do you know that?"
"I jus' know. The way you sometimes know when something
bad's gonna happen." He pushed his mashed potatoes around
with a water-spotted fork, apparently not very hungry
either. "I senses it. That was a... a warning, I think. Or a
call. I'm not sure but it ain't no good for us, I know that
"Us? You mean... psychics? That's what I am, isn't it?"
Saundra winced as she said it. This was the stuff of books
and movies, not reality.
"You could call it that. Me, I c'n sorta read minds,
but I more sense feelins. I think you could do more'n me
iff'n you was trained--you gots it strong, stronger than
anybody I ever met 'fore--but that means you in the greatest
As tired as she was Saundra couldn't sleep after Elmer
dropped her off near one o'clock. Finally she got out of the
couch-bed, turned the radio on low to her favorite jazz
station, and sat by the window and looked out the front
window. Her view from the third floor was of the tops of
many houses, trees, and some factories as far as she could
see. In the dark it was a panorama of many tiny twinkling
lights in the inky surroundings, but she found no beauty in
She thought about her life so far a lot, cried a little
remembering both good and bad, and finally returned to bed
when she began to yawn. If nothing else, she was certain,
Elmer was right about two things: she had a talent and
something was definitely going to happen that involved it.
Just what, she also had no idea.
She slept until nearly noon and slowly rose from the
depths of sleep groggy, confused, and disoriented. Hazy
remnants of dreams clung and she twisted and turned, trying
to go back to sleep, but finally she gave up and swung her
feet over the side of the lumpy mattress. As she padded
toward the bathroom, her toes curling away from the cold
bare floors, she recalled some of the odd dreams she'd had.
They seemed to have something to do with that flame in the
sky they'd seen... she'd been following it... drawn to it
helplessly like a moth...
Saundra spent the day cleaning her three small rooms,
went to the Laundromat then, as she was gathering up her
purse and jacket to go grocery shopping, was startled by a
knock at her only door, which faced the back of the house.
Surprised since no one had ever come by since she'd lived
there, she paused in the middle of the kitchen, wondering
Then it hit her. Only one person knew where she lived,
and that was Elmer, since he'd dropped her off last night.
She hurried over and unlocked the door, pulling it open even
as a pulse of warning shot through her like an electric
She stopped dead.
Outside, on the tiny landing beyond the storm door,
stood two white men, their khaki uniforms reminding her of
those worn by the military, but there were no name tags or
patches on them. As she gaped in total surprise, feeling the
warning coursing through her, the one with crewcut black
hair spoke. "Are you Saundra Langford?"
"Yeah-yes," she stammered, making no move to unlock the
storm door though she could barley hear them through it.
"I'm Lieutenant Cassidy of the U.S.A.F. Special Forces
unit. This is Colonel Rossman. May we come in and speak to
Saundra eyed them warily. Not only her sixth sense but
her street sense as well told her not to let them in. "Tell
me what you want."
"May we come in?" Colonel Rossman spoke politely, but
she saw an odd, almost wary look in his light gray eyes.
"No, not yet. Can I see your credentials?" she asked
warily, wondering if they were impostors. A girl living
alone learned to be exceptionally wary, even with her sixth
sense to warn and, at times, guide her. "What do you want?"
she repeated, feeling more uneasy by the moment.
Neither moved toward a wallet or pocket. "Miz Langford,
we understand that you may have seen something you don't
understand, a UFO possibly, yesterday..." Colonel Rossman
let his voice trail off meaningfully, watching her closely.
She started. "How in..?"
"I can't disclose my sources, miss. Can you give us a
statement as to exactly what you saw?" He stared at her
through the storm window, gray eyes as cold as ice on the
river in January.
"No, I will not," Saundra replied firmly, getting angry
on top of being scared. She had noted that they carried no
weapons, apparently along with no ID. "Not until you tell
me, first of all, how you found out, second, why you want to
know, and third, who in the hell you really are! Air Force
my ass, you ain't got no badges or ID!" Out of habit Saundra
slipped into the street vernacular she'd picked up as a
defense mechanism and often used when talking to people that
The two men glanced at each other, then stared at her
expressionlessly. "Miz Langford, this is serious. It's a
government matter. We aren't allowed to discolse any
information, only gather it. We only want a few minutes of
your time." The lieutenant tried to smile, but it never went
past his lips.
"You've already taken more than a few," she retorted.
"If you ain't gonna answer my questions first, I ain't
having nothing to do with you. Go away or I'll call the
She slammed the door in their faces and leaned back
against it, shaking and breathing heavily. They knocked a
while longer, then she heard the clump of their boots
descending the long flights of stairs, fading away. After a
few moments she peeked out the door then carefully crept
halfway down the first flight to a small, cloudy side window
that faced the driveway far below. Just starting up, a plume
of smoke curling out from behind it, was a plain, dark blue
four-door Ford sedan, and as it backed out into the street
and pulled away she saw that there was something unusual
about the back plate, but it was too far away for her to
make out what it was.
Maybe they hadn't lied, she mused as she went back up
the steep stairway. They might have been Air Force, but she
was still mystified as to how they'd found out about what
she'd seen... and why it was so important that she tell
Forgetting about shopping, Saundra locked both doors
and headed through the small kitchen toward the living room.
Suddenly she paused just before the archway as a thought hit
her: call Elmer. That had to be where they found out from,
because she hadn't told anyone else! She dialed the store
and asked Mark for Elmer's phone number from the employee
list, and was shocked when he told her that Elmer's written
notice of quitting had been delivered by some guy none of
them recognized. She wrote down the number anyway but after
dialing it, was told by an impersonal electronic voice that
it was no longer in service.
Thoughtfully she went to the living room window and
perched on the couch arm after flicking on the radio. Low,
mellow old jazz played in the background as she gazed out
over the familiar landscape of metal, shingles, and the tops
of a few autumn-hued trees. Her mind worked over the tangle
of sudden new problems, trying to figure out what all of it
meant, but nothing made sense anymore.
Finally she stood and, feeling slight hunger pangs,
glanced at the clock and was surprised to see that it was
near six o'clock. She went in the kitchen and glanced in the
refrigerator, then frowned. Nothing to eat, no meat thawed
for dinner. However, she still had five dollars left out of
the money she'd found at the store the other day and decided
to walk down to the diner--a truck stop, really--they had a
great cheeseburger plate for $2.75.
As she stepped out into the crisp, amber-tinted autumn
air she noted that the sun was nearing the horizon and
decided to get take-out rather than eat there. It wasn't
that bad of a neighborhood, for the inner city, but Saundra
knew well the dangers of a young woman out alone after dark.
At the tiny corner restaurant, sitting on a stool at
the counter and talking to the waitress, whom she vaguely
knew, Saundra felt the warning gradually creep over her. She
glanced around, seeing only three other people in the place:
a derelict slumped over a cup of coffee at the other end of
the counter and a dark-haired, olive-skinned couple who
spoke in a rapid, guttural language sitting at one of the
booths near the windows. Then she caught sight of the rear
end of a dark car as it pulled away from in front of the
restaurant and shuddered. Had that been..?
When she stepped out into the gathering dusk a short
time later she scanned the street for the car but didn't see
it. It was noteworthy in this neighborhood just because it
didn't have any rust. Carrying the grease-spotted bag with
her dinner, Saundra walked quickly down the block, keeping
her senses alert to possible danger. Something told her that
the Air Force men, if that was what they were, hadn't given
up as easily as it seemed. She was relieved when the
streetlights winked on, but no less wary as she approached
her building, a huge, slightly decrepit old boardinghouse.
Two equally large buildings sat close on either side and
suddenly Saundra dreaded having to walk up the narrow
driveway. But her private entrance (her rooms had once been
the manager's until the old man became too feeble to climb
all the stairs and before that, the maids' residence) was in
the rear. There was another doorway leading to her stairwell
off the main floor, but it was locked from inside Saundra's
She relaxed a bit as she walked up the empty, familiar
driveway. Then, as she rounded the corner to the back of the
building, a flash of pale warned her in time to leap back
and dodge her attacker. As he stumbled past her,
off-balance, Saundra yanked her keychain out of her front
jeans pocket and found the small canister unerringly, having
practiced. Even as she aimed and pressed the tiny trigger,
she recognized the tan uniform and dark hair.
Lieutenant Cassidy stumbled back, screaming in sudden,
unexpected agony, clawing at his eyes where the mace had
Suddenly, without thinking about it, Saundra ducked and
whirled, spraying from the tiny but dangerous can of mace
just as she felt the whoosh of a solid object just miss the
back of her head. It was then that she screamed for the
first time, the colonel's hoarse cry as the mace penetrated
his eyes, too, lost in her piercing, pealing screams for
help. Then, as people began to appear in the yards around
the building, doors slamming and voices calling out, she
whirled and, with shaking hands, fumbled the key into the
downstairs door. After what seemed like an eternity but was
really no more than a few seconds, she stumbled inside and
slammed the door, shot the deadbolt that was near the bottom
of the door, and raced breathlessly up the steep, narrow
She paused near the window and glanced out, frightened
to see that both men weren't in sight but their car was
parked out in the alley, not visible from the driveway by a
ramshackle garage that sat behind the building.
In her apartment, she quickly shut the inner steel door
that she'd insisted on and thanked God that she lived on the
third floor- her windows were inaccessible to all but birds
and maybe a comic book hero or two. Just as she shot all
three bolts home, she heard the sound of pounding and wood
splintering below, then the approaching wail of police
sirens and the hammering quit. She dropped the bag with her
hamburger and fries, which she'd never let go of, onto the
tiny kitchen table then raced into the living room. From
beneath the mattress of the hideaway bed she pulled a gleaming
.38 Special, checked the bullets in the chamber, than ran
back to the front door. Shaking, she clutched the big gun in
a deathgrip, double-handed as she'd seen on TV since no one
had ever taught her to use the gun, and pointed it at the
door. If they somehow got through the thick steel panel,
they had a big surprise coming, she thought grimly.
The sound of heavy footsteps ascending the stairs made
her tense, startled, and nearly pull the trigger, but its
strong resistance gave her time to relax her finger before
the gun discharged. Then she nearly broke down as a man's
voice called, faint through the thick door, "It's the
police, miss. Are you all right?"
Nearly sobbing in sudden relief Saundra lowered the gun
and reached for the deadbolt. Then the warning flashed and
her hand drew back as if the metal had shocked her. Never
had it been so sudden and powerful and she knew she was in
terrible, life-threatening danger. She stared at the blank
gray steel door in terrible, complete confusion.
"Miss Langford? Are you in there?"
How did they know her name?
Fighting to keep her voice calm, she called, "I'm fine,
officer, you can go now."
"We'd like to talk to you about what just happened
She recognized the voice with a jolt. "It won't work,
Colonel. Leave me alone!"
Saundra waited wordlessly, breathlessly waiting to see
what they'd do. Then, lower, just barely audible, the
colonel said, "We'll get you, you know. If you'll come with
us peacefully we won't hurt you- we do need you alive and
cooperative. But our orders are to bring you in, willing or
"My ass you will!" Saundra screamed, terrified, as her
control broke. "This is America, you can't do things like
"The President can in times of war, and though you
don't know it, war's coming. We'll get you, Langford. Just
like your friend Postin. Make it easy on yourself."
They'd gotten Elmer, she realized. As she listened to
his boots descend the stairs, Saundra suddenly and
completely remembered the odd dream she'd had the previous
night. She had listened to the light speak, and it had told
her that the flame in the sky was a Call; a Call to all
psychics to heed the cry of war, a silent cry but deadlier
than any all the same. It was a war for all human minds.
Saundra let out a low, helpless cry as she crumpled to
the floor, dropping the gun on the warped, faded tiles. Oh,
God, why me? Before she's seen the flame yesterday--was it
really only about 24 hours ago?--she had lived a normal, if
desperate and boring, life. Now she was being chased, her
life in danger--hell, her very soul in danger!--by the
government, yet, it would seem. On the President of the
United State's orders.
She flung her hair back and pushed clinging strands of
her long, thick hair away from her wet face with a shaking
hand. Having hysterics and whining wasn't going to help any.
She picked up the .38, relieved to see that she'd never
cocked it or she might've blown off her foot when she'd
dropped it. She had found the gun in her aunt's closet just
before she'd left, and though she wasn't really sure how to
use it, Saundra thought she'd learned enough just from
watching cop shows on TV to be able to.
Finally she got up and laid the gun on the rickety
little table beside the grease-spotted bag. She was
surprised to find that she was still hungry. She set out the
cheeseburger, onion rings, and coleslaw, got a bottle of
Sprite from the refrigerator, and ate.
There was only one thing she could do, Saundra realized
as she wolfed down the cold food, and that was run. Tonight.
Despite its squalor she liked her thre tiny rooms and would
miss her job, but there was no other choice.
Wiping her greasy fingers on a piece of paper towel
Saundra got her purse from the bedroom and returned to the
kitchen table. Her checkbook announced a total balance of
$38.43--she only kept enough in there to pay the bills--and
after a cursory glance, laid the slender blue book aside and
picked up the slightly thicker, leather-bound savings book.
Her frugality might now save her life, she mused as she
opened the cover and flipped past several pages of deposit
entries. Two years' worth of steady deposits, from ten to a
hundred dollars each, greeted her eyes. After paying bills
and buying only necessities, Saundra had put almost all of
her paychecks in the bank. Rarely did she spend what she
didn't have to, and if she needed clothes, she usually
shopped at a nearby Salvation Army resale shop. Her balance
in savings was just over $2,500. She had been saving to buy
a nice car and get the hell out of the city, but the big
flaw now was that she'd never gotten a driver's license and
there was no time for that now.
Slowly a plan began to form in her mind. Leaving both
bankbooks sitting out, she went back into the bedroom to the
closet and pulled down a large manila folder from the top
shelf. For a moment she clutched it to her chest,
remembering, then wiping away a lone tear, took it to the
kitchen table and began to pull papers from it.
Here were all her memories of her parents and past
life... their marriage license, her birth certificate and
the one paper that might allow her to escape: the birth
certificate of her fraternal twin sister who had died at
three weeks old of SIDS. Amelia Margaret Langford.
The last name was still the same and possibly the
government knew that she'd had a sister or could find out
via old birth and death records, but it was the only chance
Saundra had, however slim, and she knew it.
To carry out the rest of her escape plan, however, she
needed to get to the bank and then a department store. But
how? She knew they must have her under constant
Unless... two hookers lived downstairs, one of them
nearly as lightskinned as Saundra herself, though she had
short, jet-black, jeri-curled hair. Could she pass as
Shamita? Cut her hair or wrap it up under a scarf, then
dress like a whore going out for the night?
Saundra stared into space, her mind whirling. Did she
have the guts, the brassiness, to walk these dangerous city
streets after dark masquerading as a brash, experienced
Then she remembered acting in high school. Despite the
other kids' derision she'd tried out and made it into every
school play, though often not for the lead role she tried
out for. Her drama teacher had admitted that she had real
talent and a natural flair for acting, but Saundra had been
passed over for prettier white girls so often that the
inclination was killed by the end of her senior year.
However, if she just pretended that being a hooker was a
role in a play... maybe...
She had to try. Her very life depended on it.
At four-thirty the next afternoon a young black hooker
left through the front door of the boardinghouse on Rufus
Street, sauntered the four blocks to Shopper's World, then
moseyed back with two huge shopping bags. Men stared, made
open remarks, and even approached her, but she just laughed
throatily and told them to watch for her after dark.
In the dimly-lit lower hallway of the boardinghouse
Saundra raced down the corridor and forced open the old,
warped wooden door that led to her stairway, locking it
again from the other side. Upstairs she tore off the tight
jeans and cut-off t-shirt, then ran a hot bath as she had no
shower in the rooms. While it filled she thoroughly read the
directions on both hair-care boxes, praying that she
wouldn't damage her hair with both a perm and a coloring,
then took off the bright scarf wrapped around her head and
lopped off her hair at shoulder level.
After she was through coloring and perming, she wrapped
her head in a worn towel and unpacked the rest of the
shopping bags. The check she'd written would bounce, but
that was the least of her worries right now. If this
disguise didn't get her past the Air Force people it really
wouldn't matter anyway.
Dressed and with the new, suitcase-sized purse filled
with what little she dared take, Saundra picked up the phone
and made two calls. Then, with a last, thorough double-check
and a tear-filled look around her home, she locked the door
and went down the stairs for the last time.
A green-and-white cab picked her up fifteen minutes
later and when she told the driver that her jealous
ex-boyfriend might be trying to follow her in a dark
four-door Ford, he grinned at her in the rearview mirror. "I
kin see why he'd be jealous," the cabbie sneered. "But
doncha worry. Ah could lose Jesus Himself iff'n I wanted
He was true to his word. Within ten minutes the Ford
appeared behind them, and in half that time he'd lost it,
the cab jumping lights, dodging around other cabs in the
busy downtown area, and racing through dark, narrow,
twisting alleys. Then Saundra had him to stop at several
24-hour teller machines and withdrew the limit from her
savings account, five hundred dollars each time. She had him
drop her at a large, expensive hotel in the suburbs, then
walked nearly five miles to a smaller, cheaper motel, afraid
he'd come back and try to find her.
Three days later she emerged from the Motorama Motel in
her third, and final, disguise. She was sure that even her
relatives wouldn't recognize her now, never mind a couple of
men that had only seen her once or twice. Her
shoulder-length reddish-blonde hair was an interesting
contrast to her tan skin, and she was still amazed that she
looked almost full white with the light hair, possibly half
Indian or Mexican rather than black. Her new wardrobe of
bright, stylish clothes and assumed attitude made her seem
like a snobbish suburban girl rather than the self-effacing
city person she really was, and she played the part to the
She had new ID, issued in the name of Amelia M.
Langford. The card itself would go to a nonexistent address,
but the slip of paper and voter's registration she'd gotten
at Secretary of State was good enough for now.
She had no problems at the passport office either, and
heaved a sigh of relief as she left it carrying the small
black book. She'd been afraid that the computers would know
that Amelia had been dead for over eighteen years, but now
she was free and clear to fly.
Saundra flagged down and cab and directed it to the
airport, praying that this last step wouldn't prove to be
the fatal one. It was the last leg of her journey, but not
until the plane had cleared the United States did she relax,
knowing that she had escaped.
Heads turned as the tall, slender young woman swept
past the rows of motionless sun-worshippers at poolside. She
held her head high, looking neither left nor right; despite
her casual flowered t-shirt and shorts, nearly everyone
recognized her as Ladybird Amelia, the exotic singer from
the hotel bar.
Saundra--even now she rarely thought of herself as
Amelia though she was quick to answer to the name--had
finally found her niche here in the Caribbean. After two
years of gypsying across Europe, pretending to be an
exchange student, she'd gotten drunk in a London basement
cafe and let herself be talked into getting up and singing.
No one more than Saundra herself had been surprised to find
out that she had a low, rich contralto voice that spun out
silky, smoky magic and an unerring ear for tone. Her
popularity as a cabaret singer grew, but she had to keep
moving lest the people looking for her find out by her fame
who and where she was. She traveled across France and
Germany, but this small Jamaican resort was the best yet;
her mixed blood wasn't the least unusual in the Caribbean,
and here she was making eight hundred American dollars a night,
six nights a week, plus room and board at the resort hotel.
She welcomed the coolness of the hotel's air
conditioning as she headed across the lobby for the elevator
and her rooms. As much as she liked the islands, she sensed
that it was time to move on. After three months here,
everyone was urging her to record an album or go to
Another thing she'd discovered in her travels was the
art of makeup. With the right cosmetics applied carefully,
she went from a nominally pretty girl to a ravishing exotic
beauty with smoky dark eyes and red, pouting lips. Though
she was now used to men pursuing her, she rarely had more
than a one-night stand as she dared not get involved, though
she'd been tempted more than once.
As she stood before the bank of highly reflective
polished steel elevator doors her wide, slightly tilted eyes
scanned her reflection and a slight smile crossed her face;
hard to believe that this exotically beautiful woman was the
same shy, defensive little store clerk that had run like a
scared rabbit. Now she was in control of where she went and
what she did, the dark cloud that hung over her
The elevator bell dinged and she looked up at the
glowing red arrow over the doors. Anticipating lunch on the
terrace of her room, which faced the sea, she took a small
step forward as the doors began to open, then froze as the
warning pulsed through her stronger than ever before. She
hadn't felt it since the night she'd decided to run but it
wasn't something easily forgettable. She stared at the elev-
ator doors as they began to open, ready to bolt, then her jaw
dropped in shock.
As they slid back a body fell at her feet, Elmer's dead,
sightless eyes staring up at her almost reproachfully from
behind the mask of blood that covered his face.
"He did his job, just as you will," Lt. Cassidy smiled
at her coldly. "We told you we'd get you one way or the