Rayford looked up from his preflight checklist. A trim young woman carrying a square leather case was standing at the cockpit door. She could have been
“Good afternoon, Captain. My name is Kayla Jackson, priestess of Ishtar for Pan-Con. I’ll be doing the pre-flight ritual today.”
Steele grinned to himself. He’d gotten the memo, of course, written in typically muddy airline bureaucratese, saying that pre-flight check-in would include “safety-enhancing ritual procedures” by “certified priestesses of Ishtar,” including a “personal checkup” for the captain immediately before the flight. He’d looked up Ishtar in the old World Book that Irene had gotten when Chloe started school. Apparently, Ishtar’s girls were little better than prostitutes. Interesting idea of a checkup. There had been follow-up memos, but he hadn’t bothered with them. He already knew how he’d handle the new “procedure.”
In fact, he was looking forward to it. To tell the truth, he’d been missing Hattie. True, she’d been getting too attached, but that was part of the fun, wasn’t it? Now that he’d had her transferred to another flight schedule, he could only imagine her frustration. And only imagining it was turning out to be not quite enough.
He aimed his most charming smile at the young woman.
“Hello, Kayla,” he said in a voice made carefully low and slightly husky. “It’s good to have you onboard.” He hoped she’d catch the slight but meaningful pause before that last word.
“Thank you, Captain.” Kayla replied. She either hadn’t caught it or wasn’t letting on that she had. Fine either way, thought Rayford. The ones who liked to present themselves as “all business, no nonsense” sometimes turned out to be the most fun.
No question, Kayla saw herself as all business. She returned his handshake firmly and withdrew her own hand just a bit before he was ready to let go. “As the procedures associated with the ritual are specific to the flight leader and somewhat personal,” she said, “we’ll ask the copilot to leave the cockpit at this point.”
Tom Stroh, Ray’s copilot, gave Ray a leer and got up. Once he got behind Kayla and out of her line of sight, he paused and, looking back towards Ray, traced an hourglass in the air behind her. Turning back to the door, he nearly bumped into the blonde who had at some point—when?—taken a position there. With a dancer’s grace, the blonde moved out of his way and, once he was well out the door, stepped back into the cockpit. Pulling the door so it was just the smallest bit ajar, she again took her place in front of it.
Two priestesses! This was gonna be one heck of a ritual.
“Wow, girls! Careful there!” said Rayford. “There’s only one of me.”
Kayla gave him a tight, formal smile. “I’d like to introduce my associate, Emma DeWitt. Emma will be present during the procedure and associated rituals, but she will not actively participate unless it becomes necessary.” She turned the copilot’s now-empty chair towards herself and set her leather case firmly on the seat.
“Will not participate unless it becomes necessary,” she had said. Rayford could guess what that meant. But he didn’t much care for her tone of command. Time for Cap’n Rayford to take charge of this little party. As Kayla leaned forward to open the case, he directed his gaze pointedly between her jacket lapels, right where the open blouse of a flight attendant would have given him a clear view into her bra. But of course Kayla wasn’t wearing a flight attendant’s blouse. The high-necked shirt with its plain round collar gave him nothing at all. And of course she’d seen him looking. That was the point of the move—to let the woman know you’d seen more of her than you were meant to. He couldn’t read the glance she gave him, but it wasn’t either of the ones he usually got: the embarrassed confusion of the ingénue or the knowing smile of the experienced woman, ready for a flirtation—or more. Instead, he found himself thinking—he wasn’t sure why—of his third-grade teacher, the pretty one, Miss Higgins, when she’d caught him eating library paste.
Rayford tried again. “So, sweetheart, how’d you get into this line of work?” Emma shifted slightly in the doorway, but Kayla simply smiled. An understanding, almost maternal smile.
“I was a pediatric nurse. Of course, since the Disappearances, there hasn’t been much work for us, and, . . .” she paused, biting her lip. Rayford wondered if she was remembering someone she’d lost. Women, he’d noticed, had a tendency to get emotional when they talked about it. Good thing men were more objective. He’d lost Irene and Raymie, but you didn’t catch him letting everyone know how he felt about it. Of course she could be thinking about what it meant to go from being a nurse to the kind of work she did now. Whichever, Rayford didn’t want to encourage the kind of female confidences that might lead to. Save it for Oprah, honey. He turned quickly to Emma, still standing at the door.
“We can’t leave Emma out in the cold. How about you?” He allowed himself just the hint of a wink.
“I’m in training,” she replied. “They were looking for people with certain basic medical skills, and I’ve been serving as an EMT. Volunteer,” she added quickly.
Rayford had heard that women who did—well, the sort of work these women did—tended to be matter-of-fact about it, but he had thought they’d at least try a little harder in front of a—what was he, anyway? A customer? Put that way, it sounded particularly unpleasant. He tried again.
“And what do you call this full-time job of yours?”
“Oh, this isn’t my full-time job. I’m here as an attendant for the priestess. Like my EMT work, I do it on a volunteer basis because I think it’s important. It saves lives. My income comes from the karate studio my husband and I run.” She smiled. Rayford suddenly noticed the wedding ring on her left hand and the stance she had seemed to adopt automatically, weight equally balanced on both feet, arms relaxed but ready for action.
“Captain, I believe we’re ready now,” Kayla said. She had finished setting up whatever was in her leather case. “Now, I realize you’ve received a number of memos on the procedures, but it sometimes helps if we take a moment and explain the how and why of what we’re about to do.”
Rayford opened his mouth to speak, but she raised her hand.
“First of all, don’t worry. We’re both trained professionals, and you’ll find this takes just a short time and will not be too unpleasant, although the ritual does at one point get perhaps a bit . . . personal. It makes some people uncomfortable, but there’s nothing to worry about--it's perfectly safe. Second, let me just ask: do you know anything about the rituals of the Lady Ishtar other than what was in the airline memos? You may have heard of her as Ashteroth or Inanna.”
Rayford allowed a crooked grin to spread over his face. “Yeah, honey. As a matter of fact, I looked her up in the World Book. And I have to say—“
“I see,” Kayla broke in. “That’s unfortunate. We prefer that people not begin with a lot of preconceived notions. However, I’ll do my best to clarify things.” She pulled a glossy brochure from her case. On the cover was an eight-pointed star, like the one on her uniform, and the words, “A Safer Journey with Lady Ishtar.”
“As your reading may have told you,” she began, “the ancients recognized the connection between the success of an enterprise and what we might call the ‘vigor’ of the males associated with it. Even in modern times, we don’t fill our armies with eighty-year-old men or children under the age of 18, the point at which the sperm count becomes reliable.”
“That’s not why we—“ Rayford protested, but she again cut him off.
“Of course, people have not always understood precisely why age restrictions for males are appropriate, but the eternal laws of the Goddess Ishtar, given in a form made understandable for people of earlier ages, have been shown to have scientific validity as we learn more about the human body.
“Now, in the past, all males in a society—and especially captains of ships, heads of caravans, and leaders of armies—would be expected to demonstrate their level of vigor by the actual production of ejaculate, as certified by a temple attendant. The work could be unpleasant and dangerous for the temple attendant. That’s one reason actual priestesses rarely performed the ritual, and for the same reason, volunteer attendants were recruited from the general population to assist on a limited, one-time basis. Now, of course, we simply measure basic health, blood factors, and testosterone levels, and there’s no need for anything as intrusive as in the old days.” She smiled, again, with that gentle, almost maternal smile. “I’m sure you’re relieved to hear that, aren’t you?”
He nodded, dumbly, as she pulled a pair of latex gloves out of the case.
“OK. To start with, I’ll just need a drop of blood. Left pinky or right?”
While the drop of blood was doing whatever it was supposed to do on a piece of tissue in a small test tube, she took his blood pressure and temperature. She picked up the test tube, examined it carefully, and seemed satisfied.
“Now, Captain, this is where it becomes just a bit personal. We’ve established that you have acceptable hormone levels, and the tests we’ve done here, along with the information the airline has from your regular medical checkups tell us everything else we need to know. But here’s the part that medical science can’t help us with. I’ll need you to stand up, face me, and close your eyes. You’re right-handed, I think?”
“Now wait a minute!” Rayford protested.
Kayla spoke gently, coaxingly. “Let’s not be difficult, Captain. As the memos made clear, the airline, in cooperation with the FAA, has established pre-flight procedures for the safety and security of passengers and crew. If you don’t cooperate,” she shrugged, “well, then you don’t fly the aircraft. And neither of us wants that, now, do we?” It occurred to Rayford that she must have been very good at getting children to sit still for their shots.
He watched as Kayla took a small vial—“sacred olive oil,” she said in response to his questioning look—from the case. He decided on one last try.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t have anything against reasonable safety precautions. But we’ve never worshipped Ishtar.
Kayla gave him a long, serious look.
“Really,” she said quietly. “And how has that worked out for you?”
Rayford had nothing more to say. Feeling as helpless as he had ever felt, he got to his feet and closed his eyes.
He felt Kayla’s gloved hand dab a bit of oil onto his forehead and right hand and heard her intone a brief chant, the gist of which was a request to the Lady for safety on the voyage.
“All done,” she said cheerfully. “You can open your eyes now.”
With a few swift moves, Kayla packed away the vial and the discarded latex gloves and snapped the case shut.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Captain,” she said. “Here’s your copy of the brochure. You’ll find it contains useful background information on the pre-flight safety procedures we just went through.”
“Uh, my pleasure,” Rayford replied. He tried to wink, more out of habit than anything, but somehow just couldn’t manage it.
“I bet that wasn’t as bad as you expected, was it?” Emma asked.
“Not as—not a—no, I guess, not really,” said Rayford.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” Kayla said, “how much easier technology has made the rituals? Really, it’s like the medicine on that old show, Star Trek, where you just wave a device and find out everything you want to know. The High Priestess—she’s been doing this a lot longer than the rest of us—says it makes her feel like the doctor on the original Star Trek series. Who was that—“Bones” Somebody? Dr. Spock? My father used to talk about it. Captain, I bet you remember the original series. It must have seemed incredible back then, but now we just take it as a matter of course.”
And as she turned to leave, she smiled once again, that sweet, gentle, almost maternal smile. The smile of a nurse well trained in dealing with difficult patients.