Ghost Riders in the Sky



 


Barney Flederman knew things.

And he had a lot of time to think about those things while he was sorting bags at his "thankless, bloodsucking job" at Horizon Airlines…. which Barney Flederman hated along with just about everything else.

For instance, the moon thing. Barney Flederman knew the whole deal was shot out in the desert in some godforsaken place….like right outside Las Vegas where Elvis was alive and hiding-out in a penthouse above the Riviera and everybody else was going to hell in a hand-basket.

Anyone with a brain the size of a pea knew that they just put "bouncy" shoes on the so-called astronauts, gave them some Buck Rogers spacesuits, and let the old camera role. A bunch of stupid moon rocks didn't prove anything. If you believed that, Barney Flederman would be glad to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

Then there was that Roswell thing. Evidence galore. The army's own brass flat-out admitted it was a saucer from outer space. Alien bodies scattered to kingdom-come, moving pictures of the doctors and such, and then they say…oops…it was just a balloon. They had the bodies and they were willing to kill anybody who said otherwise. You could take that one to the bank.

So when Barney Flederman's boss at penny-pinching Horizon Airlines called him on the carpet to tell him they were forced to make cutbacks because of "changing economics" (whatever the sam-hill that meant). Well, you get the picture.

"Come in…," Milton Albert Roberts III, fat-cat president of Horizon Airlines glanced at the top name on a stack of files, "Barney Flederman, right?"

Barney just stood there. He wasn't about to admit to anything.

"Well..uh..all right." Milton III pulled his collar out from his neck and scratched a blotchy spot. The collar was too starchy, because his wife, Corky Sue always told the laundry "heavy starch", even though Milton told her time and time again he was a "medium man". "Why don't you have a seat, Flederman?"


Flederman eyed two leather armchairs facing the king-sized walnut desk in front of Milton III. The chairs might be germy or infused with chemicals to make Barney ill. "I'll stand."

"As you like." Milton III scratched his neck. "I don't believe in beating around the bush, Flederman." He tried to stop scratching. "These are tough times," he said and opened Barney's file. "Thirty years come April?"

Barney took out a nail file and sawed a weather beaten thumb. "So?"

"So….that's….nice." Milton III never said that's nice. Could this seedy man with his dirty glasses, cheap watch (Milton III wore an initialed Rolex from Corky Sue), and high-water pants be getting the better of him? That was impossible. Milton III fondled a Faberge egg on his desk and scratched some more. "Bottom line, Flederman, we've got to make some cutbacks." That was better; Milton III closed the folder.

Flederman put his own file away and crossed his arms.

Milton III would have loved to fire Barney. There was something about him that was….well, unsettling. But it just wasn't that easy; the Union had to be considered. "Nevertheless, we believe in taking care of our workers." He said finally.

Barney eyed Milton III and spat on the imported Chinese carpet.

"Here's the deal." Milton III tried not to think of scratching. "Our reservations are way down. People are jittery…not that there is any reason whatsoever that they should be…but well, after September." Milton felt the flag on his lapel and tried to look patriotic. "So, we've decided to transfer some of our workers to a program called "sky riders," the words tasted like the vinegar spinach that Corky Sue cooked on Mondays. "Starting tomorrow, Flederman, you'll be filling empty seats on under-booked flights."

The idea had been hatched by Corky Sue while she was working out on a treadmill in her cute little pink tights. Instead of firing all the surplus workers, utilize them to pad empty flights. "It's war, Honey Pie.' Corky Sue had said after a gulp of Perrier. "Empty planes scare people. Fill them up; and people will think if everyone else is flying…it must be all right. Just simple psychology, Huggy Bunny. It's our patriotic duty to get Americans back in the air."

Maybe Milton III wouldn't have been so eager, but Corky Sue had looked so adorable with sweat dripping from her rosebud mouth, he just couldn't say no.

However, Corky Sue had not faced Barney Flederman with his beady eyes and five-dollar haircut.

Was he wrong to move Flederman? Milton III opened his collar and scratched with both hands.

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Barney was on cloud nine, but he had no intentions of giving that mealy-mouthed weasel, Milton III, the satisfaction of knowing! Barney Flederman was finally going to get a chance to prove himself and to show the world that Barney Flederman was not the one who was crazy.

Immediately after leaving Milton's office, Barney stopped off at Baggage Claim C12 to bid adios to the jealous bunch of bums who were still working the belts. He may have exaggerated a tad when he told the sorry, scumbags that he had been transferred to "security" on a "top secret mission", but the low-life, yellow-bellies deserved it. Who was laughing now?

Barney didn't shed one tear as he threw his '65 Ford pickup into gear and watched the bunch of dumbfounded idiots disappear behind his rear window sign, "I don't need a dog, I have a gun".

After a quick stop at the Speed Mart to get gas from the price-gouging oil barons, a pound of bologna, and a National Enquirer, Barney headed for home, a basement apartment in a slum-lord fleabag at 705 Cocklebur Crossing.

Barney checked to make sure he wasn't being followed, sneaked down the steps, and unlocked padlock, deadbolt and doorknob to apartment B3. Once inside, he checked a sprinkling of talcum powder on the carpet for footprints, relocked the door, and turned off the barking dog tape.

It was time for action. Barney made a bologna sandwich (after checking the package for pinpricks), washed it down with a beer, and stripped down to his boxers and undershirt. Next, he wrapped a dirty tube sock around his forehead and went into his bedroom.

Barney bowed in front of a wavy mirror, then raised one knobby knee and stretched his arms into chops. "HAH YEEEE!" One arm came down, one arm stretched out. After about two hours of "HAH YEEEE"s and various other moves Barney had seen in Jackie Chan movies, Barney turned on the barking dog tape and went to bed.

He was sound asleep about a half hour later with his butcher knife under his pillow and the copy of The National Enquirer opened on his chest to a story about a man who had spontaneously combusted.

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Barney had been working "sky rider" for about two weeks when he noticed the man.

Barney had already made two flights to Albuquerque, a quick stop to Wichita, four round trips to Louisville, three stops in Little Rock, five to Chicago, and had been bumped three times because the flights were filled.

Barney was pretty much into the routine by now. He arrived two hours before the flight with a loaded duffle bag of Conspiracy magazines, Vienna Sausages, Moon Pies, and a six-pack of Big Red.

As an employee, Barney didn't have to go through security except for a brief metal detector check and a glance at his ID card (Barney always whipped it from his wallet, cop-style). Barney would have given anything to carry his Colt 45, but even Barney couldn't have sneaked that one past the guards. That didn't stop him trying, however, on three separate occasions.

Barney spent the extra time between flights "casing" the airport. He had seen an article once about how aliens liked to hangout in airports and how someone had invented a camera that could pick them out with some secret technology, like x-ray vision. Barney wished he had one of those cameras, but he was pretty sure the government had bought up the patent. Barney had checked a number of stores, but nobody even admitted the camera existed. Barney knew, of course, it was all a lie, because a photograph had accompanied the article with at least fifty aliens identified by fuzzy blue circles.

There were other ways of detecting them. Barney Flederman was bound and determined to get the slimy, bug-eyes. They didn't appear as they really were; of course, they were too smart for that. They tried to look just like us. And that's why Barney was about 99.99% sure it had been a bunch of aliens disguised as terrorists who had wreaked havoc on America.

Barney wasn't stupid. He had studied them, knew their habits and their secret greetings (two fingered and split in the middle like the Vulcans on Star Trek). They consumed huge quantities of water and salt (their home planet was liquid), and always carried a copy of "How to Serve Man" (it was a cookbook!).

The aliens wanted us dead. They had wrecked their own planet and had their sticky paws ready to snatch earth right out from under our own noses. There were thousands of them in pods hidden on the dark side of the moon, just watching and waiting.

Barney got tired sometimes just thinking about it and all that responsibility. Who would save mankind, if Barney failed?

And that's one of the reasons Barney noticed the man.

He was sitting two rows in front of Barney in Seat 13D on a flight to Denver. Barney had just unwrapped a Moon Pie and opened a magazine to an article titled, "Is Hitler hiding under the Arctic Circle?"

The man's pointy ears were the first clue, although he had tried to hide them under clumpy hair. Barney wasn't fooled; suspicious tufts stood out on each side of his head. That was the first thing. The second thing was that the man asked for extra peanuts, four salty bags to be exact.

Barney, who was seated behind the man in 15C, got up and moved to the front of the plane to the restroom. While he was waiting in line, he pretended to casually look to the back of the plane.

The man appeared normal, but you couldn't tell a thing by that. He could have covered his dark, colorless eyes with contacts. He could have even been a shape-shifter, for all Barney knew, some insect with pincer-claws or one of those wormy things with sharp teeth.

The man looked up and stared Barney straight in the eye. Barney stared back and sent the stranger a telepathic message. I know what you are.

Barney spent the rest of the flight observing the man, on the lookout for any other telltale signs. Barney braced himself to be ready in case the alien should storm the cabin, overtake the captain, and send them all to kingdom come

But the man fell asleep for the rest of the flight. Barney breathed a sigh of relief when the plane touched ground and landed. His thought-rays had done the job; the world was safe for another day.

Barney would have probably forgotten about the scaly invader, if the man hadn't just happened to be on the next flight too.

This time he noticed other things, like the way the man clutched his duffle bag to his chest while boarding and how he kept checking it during the flight. They kept their real clothes inside…gray uniforms that were bumpy and skin-like.

It was the same old story with the peanuts. Six bags washed down with a couple of bottles of Mountain Spring.

Boy, Barney sure wished he could have gotten his hands on one of those cameras.

Barney fell asleep about an hour into the flight. Maybe it was because he had been up late watching reruns of X-Files; but Barney was positive the creature had somehow put him to sleep, either with some kind of gas, or mind invasion.

This had continued for the next twelve flights. The alien creature, who had become a familiar face to Barney, was on every trip. Barney was getting really edgy, now. How long would it be before the Pod Man made his move to take over earth?

It was nerve wracking to stay constantly on alert. It began to take a toll on Barney. He wasn't sleeping well and dark circles formed under his eyes. His hands had started to shake. He couldn't even concentrate on his reading. Something had to be done.

Barney decided on a flight to Joplin it was time for a showdown.

The flight had finally landed. Barney had been on edge the whole trip wondering would this be his moment of destiny? Would the world finally know the real truth? Would Barney Flederman finally take his rightful place in history beside George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Orson Wells?

The man was getting off the plane. Barney almost knocked a blue-haired lady to the ground as he hurried to keep up with him. Barney could see the bumps under his suit as he chased him down the corridor. He could feel his head pound as the invader entered his mind. Then a quick turn, and the reptilian dodged into the Men's Room.

Barney took a deep breath, pulled his bag into a sledgehammer and entered the restroom.

The room was empty. The stranger must have transported to a mother ship nearby.

Suddenly, everything went black for Barney. He felt a severe blow to the head that stung like a thousand hammers. Barney tried to fight back, tried to keep from swooning into the never-never land of unconsciousness. Then he felt peanuts being stuffed down his throat, bags and bags of them, until he took his last choking breath.

"Take that, you scum-sucking Martian." The stranger, whose name happened to be Arnold Needleman, looked down at Barney, stone cold, and still clutching his duffle bag. He took the bag from Barney and opened it.

You could always spot them by the Moon Pies. Once again, Arnold Needleman had saved the world.
 

The End