discarded lies: friday, june 23, 2017 3:03 am zst
Now Panic and Freak Out
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guest author: papijoe
The Curse of Interesting Times
With the doctor's bills piling up, I don't like to open letters these days from law firms. But I was surprised to discover instead of a demand for payment, it was a notification that I had been appointed executor to the literary estate of Tom Gibson. Tom had been a fellow bike messenger and Brandeisian. Apparently he had been running a marathon and succumbed to a previously undiagnosed heart defect. He left a wife and three children and had a successful and presumably happy career as a director of marketing for an Eden Prairie high tech company. The role of executor was defined simply. If I agreed to the appointment I was to take possession of all of his writing.

A small subset was designated as potentially publishable, mostly short fiction. My instructions were to make my best effort to have them accepted for publication in whatever journal or magazine would take them. No deadline was set, nor was there any compensation save for a small percentage of the proceeds if anyone ever paid for his work.

I'd lost touch with Tom after our messenger days and infrequently visited the humorous vignettes I retained and maintained as memories of him. I've given the question of why he picked me as executor a fair amount of thought since receiving the letter. Our first workshop together was my last. The way the writing track worked was that you got course credit for your thesis which was usually a collection or stories or short novel. You also submitted your latest installment for review by the your classmates in the workshop on a regular basis, although you weren't on the same schedule of assignment as the non-thesis students. Tom hadn't seen any of the work I submitted for my first workshop. I could sum up those efforts as "Hey ma, look at me, I'm a writer!" Then there was the humiliation and 11th hour redemption of Alice Walker's careless and irritated tutelage. That trial by fire had ushered me into the company of the elite faction of the writing program, at least as a junior associate. Looking back I have to admit I was a better critic than artist, but if nothing else I had the gratitude of the circle for deflating David Sofer, a promising but self absorbed son of Argentinian Sephardi who fancied himself the next Gabriel Garcia Marquez. David defended his work like a game cock and made a point of making the discussion unpleasant for those who had anything less than praise for his writing. But someone had to point out that if you end your first novel with a sex scene involving a toothless old woman, you damn well better have earned it

But I digress. I was aware then that Tom looked up to me as something of a model, and I detected my own influence in some of his earlier stories. It would be unfair to portray them as pastiches of my own work. Tom seemed to be on a similar track of self discovery, and was at that point arriving at some of the same milestones I had visited a year or two earlier. Castaneda, Herman Hesse, Lame Deer, Pyncheon. Years later we were playing hooky on our dispatcher one slow Friday afternoon. The bar we favored at the time was also the preferred watering hole for construction workers who started work before dawn and were set free at 3PM. Due to their parochial school educations, they were shouting out answers to obscure ecclesiastic history questions on daytime Jeopardy with uncanny accuracy. He had just reminded me of an arch comment I made about Mann's Magic Mountain of which I had absolutely no memory. It was the first time we had discussed the workshop since those days, and he mentioned how in the view of our writer-in-residence I had, for better or worse always taken on challenging narrative voices. Woman, children, the mentally ill and drug-addled, a learning disabled immigrant, and in one ill-fated draft that got dropped from my thesis, a child's pet goat. I admitted that all those efforts were attempts to avoid the earlier problems with my adult narrative voice that I never resolved. He grew pensive, and now as I consider his next statement, I tend to think he was referring to this story and a secret re-dedication to the craft of writing. "I've been thinking lately how children can be brilliant writers, but in a literary universe, they are the cruelest of gods. For me the hardest thing is what to do with my characters. They aren't like us, they don't have free will. I try to let them follow their own way, but they tend to go in every direction at once and you have to settle on one for them. Then you are responsible for what happens to them. You feel sorry for them...it's hard not to when you realize they're in the hands of a stupid god like myself."

Reading this piece it was obviously not publishable in it's current state but I've been fascinated by it, initially because I was familiar with some of the people and events that inspired it. I had an eerie sense that I could have written something very similar which was definitely not the case with his earlier stories. Regardless of how good his writing may or not have become, he had been working on his craft and his other works show he had moved beyond the writing workshop stage in which my development as a writer had been arrested. I won't deny I've even considered a posthumous collaboration to try to improve it, although I am leery of the legal, ethical and creative consequences

So I present a work with all the classic characteristics of a workshop submission, written hastily under a deadline, then neglected in a drawer somewhere. You will find it flawed but I hope not uninteresting. Any feedback you might be able to provide will help me find my bearings in my unfamiliar new role.




One of his speakers had developed a noticeable buzz. Motley Crue was his favorite background music when he worked out on the heavy bag.

The punching bag had worked out well as an outlet for his frustration. The need for something like it had become apparent after a keg party the baseball team had hosted. He had smashed a wall and torn out the sink in the men's room back at the dorm. The only reason he was still enrolled was that when the campus police showed up, his freshmen neighbors were apparently too frightened to be effective witnesses. This was probably due to the fact that he was their RA.

He had had his Mandarin tutorial with Tan Mei. His language professor Lauren had arranged the sessions as part of the agreement they had regarding the recommendation for the art program in the People's Republic next year. She was a good professor and advisor in that sense, always ready to steer him away from a potentially disastrous direction in which he was heading. He didn't look forward to their meetings however. She was a pleasant enough as a person, could only charitably described as plain, and had feverishly bright eyes, and when she was particularly excited about something Dom found her gaze unendurable.

Someone began to knock. He turned up the speakers all the way and pounded the bag harder.

Lauren was married to a Chinese artist who was about fifteen years older than her. It was through his connections that Lauren had found out about the program. It was exactly what he needed in his academic career to recover from his failure as a studio artist and salvage his plans to study abroad for the second semester of junior year.

Freshman year he quickly jettisoned his diffuse interest in impressionist watercolors and labored profitably with the prints of William Blake, aided by a rare exhibit at the MFA where he was an intern. Blake however seemed to have a negative effect on his already uneven studio work. At the same time his roommate Angelo was being kicked out of school for giving his girlfriend a black eye. Angelo was the grandson of Frankie "Two-toes" Monti, the Mafia boss for all of New England. Dom supposed the fact that the were both Guin-zos on the track team convinced the officials that picked freshmen roommates that they would be compatible. And they did get along pretty well except for the time Angelo's unfortunate girlfriend ran into his closet to hide during one of Angelo's fits of rage. Angelo threatened to kill him if he ever interfered again, but they soon put the incident behind them. But the writing was on the wall for Angelo's college days, and Dom knew he would have to find a roommate or another would assigned to him. The waiting lists were crowded with the miserable refugees of the four-student rooms that still existed in the dilapidated housing from the days when the college first opened, and after Angelo he was tired of squalor and savagery. But to his surprise, the pool of willing candidates to be his roommate was non-existent, and when Angelo departed Ross Levy was assigned to him.

Ross worked out much better than expected. Dom never would have expected that a roommate with a subscription to GQ magazine and love of show tunes would be so easy to get along with. Ross went on to marry the shy lovely daughter of a former secretary of state and become one of the top orthopedic surgeons of his field.

The knocking got louder and the broken speaker now emitted a harsher drone that suggested imminent and explosive combustion.

It was Ross who introduced him to Naomi.

***

Dear Naomi

Since you haven't answered any of my previous letters, I have no idea if you will read this. Maybe you throw my letters away as soon as you get them. Maybe you throw them in a drawer unopened. Personally I would read a letter from anyone, if I didn't I would never know what it had said. But maybe you already know exactly what I'm going to say, and there no point in reading it, and you don't care even if I wrote something that would surprise you. I can't blame you for not answering or throwing the letters away. But I have to keep writing because the thoughts I have are the ones that I never told anyone until you came along and I got used to it.

Even if you are reading these you are probably sick of hearing about how sorry I am. As time goes on I see even more how stupid I was. Yet you would think I'd finally see the bottom of my stupidity and move on. But it seems to be endless and I keep realizing new ways that I was wrong and should have seen that from the start.

According to my lawyer the Feds have realized that you had no involvement, and should have given up on using you to get me to tell them where I got the plane tickets. I really considered telling them everything, but of course I'd be dead right now. A day doesn't go by that I don't wish I had told them, and at least I wouldn't be around to regret everything. Then I wouldn't have to remember the confusion and fear on your face when they arrested us at the terminal. I wouldn't remember how the first thing I said to you was the ridiculous lie that I didn't know the tickets were bought with stolen credit cards.

I won't try to defend my self or explain anymore, except to say it was the most important thing to me to make aliyah with you and to paint in Israel. Sometimes the worst part seems to be the realization that even if I hadn't caused the disaster with the tickets and found a better way to pay for the flight, I would have failed anyways and probably lost you because every time things get difficult and I don't know what to do I always end up making the worst possible decision. You think I would learn not to trust my decisions, but somehow I convince myself that I'm doing the opposite of what I did the last time, but looking back it's obvious that it's the exact same type of mistake.

The only exception in my life was you. I wish I could figure out how I got that right, it wasn't due to anything reliable in my mind or my emotions. I've actually thought about it a lot, constantly since I met you but even more now that I have nothing else worth thinking about. All I know is that I had a moment of complete clarity during the first seizure you had in front of me. After that I don't think your epilepsy played into it at all, but when I first saw you part of me that I know too well loved you because you were beautiful, and clever and funny in that stuck-up way that made you even funnier. But when the seizure hit you and I saw you on the floor like that after the first shock wore off, another part of me that I didn't know even existed loved you too. I haven't seen that part of me since that day at the airport, and I have no idea where to find it except when I'm pretending that we are still in communication.

***

When his shoulders and triceps had turned to meat puree he pulled off his bag gloves and unwound the sweaty wraps. The room began to smell of ozone and broiled plastic so he shut off the stereo. This caused the banging on his door to gradually fade away, and the hallway was empty by the time he shambled off to the shower. He had been invited to a potluck dinner by some of Tan Mei's friends. He had already picked up the four large bottles of soda that represented his contribution.

He arrived with his mustache trimmed his pirate locks still wet and a grim determination to be friendly and sociable.
It was a mix of Mainland Chinese students, mostly from graduate school and their non-Chinese friends. Dom recognized most of the faces and only knew a few of them by name. There was Hong Wen, Tan Mei's old boyfriend. He was relatively tall skinny fellow with nervous mannerisms. Dom had recently found out that Hong Wen was the source of a rumor that he and his tutor were sleeping together. Then there was Er Fei. He was a the son of an important cadre member back home. Intellectually obnoxious even by graduate student standards, it was also common knowledge his primary purpose on campus was to spy on the other Chinese students and send a monthly report from the consulate in Boston. He had likely crashed the party. Some other American friends of Tan Mei were there, she had lived with them in her summer sublet last year. He was somewhat relieved that his professor Lauren hadn't attended.

His mood was already eroded by the realization that he should have brought ice as well. Tan Mei immediately steered him to the makeshift buffet table. The lack of chafting pans require immediate consumption and Tan Mei was particularly anxious that he try her dish. "Hmm it smells really good, what is it?" "Hearts of chickens cooked Szchewan style. Tell me if it is too spicy" He began to load his plate watching her face for the sign that he had gotten the desired portion. It took 4 scoops to elicit the signal. The rush to plunder the rapidly cooling food was soon over and he was seated between Tan Mei and Er Fei with the former roommates across from him. The aroma of Tan Mei's dish was already stinging his eyes. They all seemed to be waiting to start eating, He speared a heart and popped it in his mouth. Er Fei choose that moment to bring up the upcoming trip to China. The caustic sauce had flash-fried his tongue and palate, while sending tendrils of white fire into his sinuses. Chewing was futile, the hearts had the consistancy of faucet washers. "Is it too hot?" He shook his head and smiled giving her a thumbs up. Tan Mei's face became a sunburst of pleasure. The Americans across the table began reluctantly poking at their plates. Er Fei was determined to continue his interrogation regarding Dom's travel agenda so he resorted to yes or no questions. Having decided that chewing only released more of the incendiary oils, he swallowed the heart. It traveled like a meteor down his esophagus, finally exploding like a depth charge in his belly. He quickly shoveled two more hearts in his mouth hoping to end the ordeal as quickly as possible.

Er Fei had been embellishing his interrogation with proclamations that were apparently the official party positions on Chinese art and culture. Dom had been present when Er Fei had done this in the past, in the library or the student lounge. It irritated him that he did this in a social setting. Dom noticed that all other conversation had ceased. He was usually too self-absorbed to bother with a pompous buffoon like Er Fei, But the chicken hearts that had collected like a flaming pile of gasoline-soaked tennis balls were becoming indistinguishable from his usual sensation of burgeoning wrath. When sober his rage was effectively kept in check by a deep sense of shame and dread caused by the memory of his past outbursts. However the corrosive vapors of Tan Zhong's dish were nearly as effective as pot and alcohol in dissolving the internal checks to his darker impulses.

Er Fei was trotting out some tired argument about China's cultural influence along the Silk Road, and breezily mentioned Tibet, as if it were some backward mountainous region whose greatest fortune was its proximity to such an advanced and ancient culture as China's. There was something even about the way Er Fei said "China" that stoked his fury. The first syllable with a rising tone with the accent, spoken as if he were unexpectedly experiencing his first prostate exam. The second syllable a falling tone that sounded like a death gurgle. Spoken together the effect was heinous, but it was always the same pronunciation and he said it over and over.

A commotion in the kitchen provided a brief respite from Er Fei's sermon. One of the Americans was glaring daggers at her housemate, and the host's colossal dog was furiously batting it's empty steel water dish around the kitchen. Apparently the young lady had tried to avoid the culinary torment of Tan Mei's dish by slipping it to the unlucky brute.

"So, I was saying Tibet has benefited culturally as well as socially and politically since..."

He seemed to struggle to remember the English equivalent of the officially approved term for the liberation of the Tibetan serfs. Dom completed the sentence for him before he realized himself he had spoken.

"The invasion?"

Er Fei made an exasperated noise that was a cross between a hock and a sputter. "China", he crowed, same damn rising and falling tone, "has never invaded another country!"

Dom had this discussion before with Tan Mei and realized this was a central element of party propaganda in regard to their own benevolence. She was genuinely shocked and dismayed when he produced neutral press accounts on microfiche.

"What happened with India in the 50s?' was it a military parade that took a wrong turn at the Sikkim Pass?" A giggle was quickly stifled at the end of the table. "Or North Vietnam in the 70s?"

"Those are reactionary counterrevolutionary lies! China has never invaded another country!" He had jumped to his feet and loomed over Dom. The implied physical threat snapped the last thread of restraint.

"I got 20 bucks here that says that you are full of crap. The library is open until midnight. Put up or shut up Er Fei."

In the silent millennium that followed Er Fei's jaw sagged open. He had clearly never experienced any sort of challenge and something seemed to spin behind his eyes like a reel to reel computer tape. His eye twitched, his mouth closed, he spun on his heel, knocking over his chair and he left.

There was quiet murmuring and Hong Wen even looked out the window and collectively the Chinese students decided to make the best of things and enjoy the rest of their evening unobserved. Everyone had seemed to have finished dinner or lost their appetite. The tables were pushed back, bottles of his warm soda were carefully opened and decanted, and an audio tape was inserted into the host's stereo. To the gorgeous strains of Strauss' Blue Danube, they began to waltz.

***

Dear Naomi

I know you were concerned and upset when Shari was attacked so I thought you'd want to know that there was another rape on campus. It was Robin Sharansky.

I was doing a run on my usual loop with Mike Sullivan. We had decided to take the longer way through the cemetery and up around the hospital. When we came back to the Graduate Estates a campus police car was blocking the path to campus where it crosses the train tracks. An hour later I was in my Women's Studies class and found out it was Robin. I'm pretty sure you remember her, she was the redhead Deadhead who went out with the captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team.
I was sitting there while that crazy Finnish chick Lisu was demanding once again I be banned from the class because my presence there as a product of patriarchal oppression was another form of rape. Then it hit me that if Kevin and I had gone the usual way we would have been in there at the scene of the crime and maybe could have prevented it.

That night I was dreaming but thought that I had woken up in the early morning. It was still dark although a faint light was starting to creep into the eastern horizon. A vague memory of a noise had stirred me and I strained to hear. It came again a desperate cry, full of fear and despair. A woman was in very bad trouble. I bolted out the the door and stood on the lawn between the buildings and strained to hear where the cries were coming from. Finally there was a miserable gasping whimper from the direction of the river. I tried to run toward it but suddenly my body was paralyzed, I became dizzy and started to black out as the wailing began to echo again.

I woke up soaked in sweat. Outside it looked exactly like my dream, and I went out and sat in front of the door listening. While I sat there I saw the first scouts of a band of feral cats that lived in the woods along the river. They are the pets and their descendants that were abandoned by grad students when they completed their degrees. They've completely reverted to the wild. The vanguard makes sure the coast is clear, and then the main group emerges from the underbrush, the pregnant females and kittens in the middle, flanked by outriders and followed by a rear guard. They climb up into the dumpster to feed, protected by their warrior caste of battle scarred toms. I counted 36 adults, and I couldn't even see how many kittens there were. I wonder how large the pack would have to be before they decide to go after fresher fare.

Tan Mei hasn't called me back in a week. I talked to Lauren and she said that Er Fei is going to retaliate against anyone who helps me with my trip to China. He supposedly goes to the capital to file a report at the consulate through secure channels and will use his influence to make sure I don't get a travel visa. Of course it bothers me that I screwed up once again. But as bad as that is the thought that Tan Mei will bear the consequences of my arrogance. Her career is probably over once he files that report. And her father died in a re-education camp in the Cultural Revolution, murdered really. There is no guarantee the same thing won't happen to her. I shouldn't say this but chances are you aren't reading this anyway so it probably doesn't matter. I have to figure out a way to make sure Er Fei never files that report next weekend.

***

All week he had been turning over two questions. First did he really mean to do something about Er Fei, or was it a ploy to get Naomi to respond, even to report him if nothing else. There were moments that he had decided he had no choice and had to do something. The question then was what was to be done? He might physically be able to kill Er Fei, but wasn't able to accept a lifetime in jail or in flight from the law or communist assassins. Trying to arrange a fatal accident seemed a better but but every scenario he dreamed up, from shoving him in front of the commuter train to dropping a large piece of masonry on his head from a parapet of the Castle were he had a single dorm room, seemed to require too much luck to succeed and luck wasn't his forte.

His thoughts keep returning to Angelo. Angelo didn't officially exist on campus although he was getting increasingly daring in his appearances at parties and the campus bar when a friend from the baseball team was tending bar. Angelo could arrange this easily. He would enjoy every minute of the caper. He lived for that kind of thing. Dom was very aware that this reasoning was the same that got him into trouble before. Where was Angelo when he had been sweating in an FBI interrogation room?

Yet no other good plan had presented itself. Wednesday night Angelo was at the Stein. Since he didn't have a Wednesday night Mandarin lesson anymore Dom had added an additional drinking night to his schedule.He came over and questioned Dom in a friendly way to find out how his case was going. Angelo's family had provided the lawyer in return for his cooperation. When he was satisfied that not only had Dom kept silent but it was starting to look like the case was going to be dismissed. Dom was thinking this would be the perfect time to ask. Why was it so hard to avoid doing the same stupid thing over and over?

Dom had to wait until Angelo's wiseguy banter dried up and he moved on before he felt he was permitted to leave the bar. The feminist group that had mobilized to combat the rash of rapes had demanded a curfew, the administration had countered with a voluntary arrangement that suggested that if both male and female students needed to travel around campus after 1PM when the libraries closed they should use the volunteer safety service to escort them. There was also a call for more volunteers and Dom had signed up. His training was tomorrow morning and his first shift was later that night. He also had a meeting with Lauren. He assumed that between the enmity of Er Fei and Tan Mei's defection as his tutor his trip was a no go, but Lauren had mysteriously suggested that he might still have an option. He was willing to see what she had in mind but he wasn't getting his hopes up.

The escort training was straightforward and solemn. It would have been a marvel of organization except for the frequent pointless interruptions by the Wymmin's Coalition "observer", who like a political officer in the Red Army, had to interfere with anything resembling efficiency. The observer was a PoliSci major from Yonkers, she had been a housemate of a friend of his and was given to communicating her grievances to those she lived with in shrill notes taped to refrigerators, bathroom mirrors and even TV screens.

When he got to Lauren's office she was making tea which she always offered him and he always declined. The office always smelled faintly of Tibetan incense. When dealing with authority figures, or at least what passed for them at a college like this, Dom was accustom to gauging their level of disapproval of him. It was assumed that while this metric could vary wildly, it was never entirely absent. Maybe one of the things Dom found unsettling about Lauren was he never knew where he was on her shitlist.

She waited until he was seated in the old naugahyde chair that she inherited from a Russian emigre Comp Lit professor who was now more lucratively tenured at the more famous nearby women's college. She positioned herself behind the desk and seated herself with excruciating grace and quietness. Then she maintained a silent air of pensiveness. Is this what a first job interview was like? He stared sullenly at the floor until she finally spoke. Thankfully she got right to the point. His trip was dead in the water, Er Fei had approached her husband directly and demanded Dom be removed from consideration. Dom asked what was going to happen to Tan Mei and the others at the party. Lauren seemed strangely unconcerned. She stood up and began to pace as if about to make a momentous decision. There was another opportunity that had come up. She paused waiting to see what Dom's response was. She was behind him, standing in front of the office door. After a few moments she continued. Her husband had been asked to create an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Art. Based on his volunteer work on the Blake exhibit and current work, he could be considered for an assistant's position. He might even be able to choose a few of the pieces on loan. She walked around and sat on edge of the desk in front of him. This was unusual. Again she paused, expectant. Dom reiterated almost in a whine, that he was still worried about Tan Mei.

Lauren actually looked exasperated for a moment, Dom couldn't help feeling a little flicker of infantile pride at disrupting her composure. When she had calmed herself again her gaze took on a startling smokiness. She began to explain that the reason he shouldn't worry about Tan Mei is that she had plenty of experience dealing with Er Fei. I don't trust him Dom blurted. He's evil. Her smile was both pitying and condescending. Tan Mei never scheduled a tutoring session on Thursday night did she? Dom admitted she hadn't that was one of the reasons Thursday became bar night with his teammates. That's the night that Er Fei visits her. He's been seen at her door punctually at 10PM and leaving at one or two in the morning. When he hadn't responded after a minute or so she slowly stood up and walked over to him. She began stroking the curls near the back of his neck. He was up and at the door quicker than a gasp. It didn't yield when he tried to pull it open, she had locked it at some point. He fumbled with the latch and slammed the door behind him.

He had planned to work out on the bag and shower before his shift, this would clear his head of the emotional and hormonal static of what was becoming a difficult day with no resolution in sight. The problem was he had stopped to pick up his mail as his only daily ritual reflecting anything resembling optimism. There was a slip telling him to pick up a package at the window. He had seen the post mark. Dread hung like a cold iron ingot in his stomach all the way back to his room. It was the feel of the package that snuffed out any hope, it couldn't be anything other than that which he feared. He opened it anyway. Until the moment he had to make his decision he sat on the edge of the bed, arbitrating between the different impulses that were curiously diverse. The darkest was the most vivid, where he took a slow dive off the highest parapet of the Castle. the access hatch was locked but he had popped it before easily. The moderate course seemed to be to blow off his escort shift and go to the Stein and drink until his brain was an apathetic slurry. He surprised himself by grabbing his leather jacket and walking to the student center to check in with the service. He was completely unaware of leaving the door of his room wide open and the pile of unopened letters that were inside the package scattered on the floor.

***

Dear Naomi

Everything was a blur up until the point I left the Dean's office last week. Since then I feel like I entered a weird alternative universe. I don't answer my phone but I got a letter from Lauren saying she has been trying to reach me. I need to get a new advisor this week. That crazy Finnish chick Lisu keeps asking me to have dinner at her apartment off campus. No one has seen Angelo all week. I saw Tan Mei between classes on Monday. We just kind of looked at each other and we both kept walking. All the other Chinese make a point of talking to me whenever they see me, asking if I'm all right. I have a couple of cracked ribs and still have a black eye where Er Fei clipped me with that back hand move. He must have had some special martial arts training in the People's Army or something.

The town police asked me if I wanted to press charges for assault, but they didn't think the AG would have a very good case. Some jerk from the consulate wanted them to arrest me, but the Dean actually got angry and told them as an a security escort I had made a "non-violent intervention" which is an interesting way to describe taking a beating. When they questioned me I said I didn't remember anything after seeing someone move in the shadows, which I guess they believed because of the concussion Er Fei gave me. The other escort and Lisu who was "observing" agreed in separate statements that they found me wrestling with Er Fei yelling "He's a rapist!"I do remember that he tried to get away a few times after I had initially tackled him [nobody saw that] and whenever he managed to break my hold I grabbed his leg or what ever I could get a hold of. I didn't really take too much punishment until the last time he got loose and kind of went berserk and really started pounding me, which was perfectly timed for when the campus cops answered the other escort's call on the radio.

The whole Wimmyn's Coaliton rally was weird. Even though the police announced there wasn't any evidence that Er Fei was involved in any of the rapes, one of the female campus officers is friendly with the head of the Women's Studies department, and the details of the report don't cast Er Fei in a very favorable light. Maybe they don't care whether he's a rapist or just a vicious bastard. But as of yesterday he has left the country if my sources are correct.

I wonder if certain people have figured out what really happened. I've been honorably discharged as an security escort, the director said that post traumatic stress was too much of a concern to allow me to continue my duties in good conscience, but my selfless devotion to the campus community was appreciated and I was given a certificate to that effect.

I actually do have trouble remembering exactly what was going through my head when I saw him making his way along the path near the tracks, the very spot the last rape occurred, on his way to Tan Mei's for his Thursday night visit. The vague impression is that it was something red and wordless. But it wasn't really a decision so much as a reflex, so maybe that's why it didn't turn out to be a total disaster this time. But on the other hand, at some point I still have to face the fact that I withheld the truth, or at least an important part of it. And I didn't really learn anything that seems helpful. And I don't have any idea what I am supposed to do now.

When she came to visit me in the hospital, Lisu told me that I should really check out the folk art of the Lapplanders which is apparently almost completely ignored outside of Finland. She even offered to get her father to pay for the plane ticket to do some research over the Passover break to see if I want to do my thesis on it. I guess he's some kind of bigshot tire company executive. The idea is starting to grow on me at least compared to moping around here trying to figure out what else I can do. No doubt I'll screw it up, but either way I'll let you know how it turns out.
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guest author: Dances With Typos
Plan On Me
It was a quiet night, on a quiet street, in a quiet part of town, in a neighborhood made up of older people. Although it was nearly Christmas, most houses were not decorated. Of course there was the occasional door wreath, or electric candelabra in a front window, and even a few lights on a few porches, but nothing that would require climbing a ladder or risking a fall.

Except one house, on a cul-de-sac, which was brightly lit, with blinking lights on the porch, and Santa in his sleigh sitting on the front yard. Seeing it, you would know that this was a house with children. As you got closer, however, you would see that Santa was a bit threadbare, and his face had been inexpertly repainted. Nonetheless, it was the brightest, most cheerful house on this quiet street.

Inside, quiet carols were playing, as a young girl, the reason for the cheerfulness, sat at the kitchen table, doing her last homework before the Christmas break. An older woman, just the right age to be the girls grandmother, was at the sink, washing dishes.

From the living room, over the quiet carols, came the ring of the telephone.

"I'll get it, Gramma!" called the child, then pushed her chair back and rushed from the room.

"Hello, Simkins residence, this is Alicia speaking."

"Hi, Sweet Patootie," said the voice on the phone. Alicia's eyes grew large.

"Daddy?"

"Hello, Baby Doll."

"Daddy! Gramma, it's Daddy!"

"I'll be there in a minute," answered Gramma's tired voice.

"Guess what?" said the voice on the phone.

"What, Daddy?"

"I'll be home for Christmas," the voice broke into song.

"Really!?"

"You can plan on me." By then, the girls eyes were full of happy tears, and a huge lit her face.

Her grandmother reached for the phone, and said, kindly, "Go finish your homework, Sweetie. You can talk to your Dad a little more before we hang up." Alicia looked like she was going to argue, then handed her grandmother the phone, and skipped back to the kitchen, singing "Daddy's comin' home, Daddy's comin' home."

"Well?' said the older woman into the phone.

"I mean it, this time, Corrine. I am on my way, now. Driving across on 80. I stopped for dinner and got a bunch of change to call. Should be there by tomorrow night."

"Like last time, Robbie?" Corrine's voice hardened. "That little girl can't have another disappointment like last time."

"I explained that, Corrine."

"To me. And you left me to explain it to her. I won't go through that again, and I won't put her through that again. Understand?"

"Corrine, I am on my way, and I will be there, or I will die trying. Look, put Alicia back on, OK? I've just about used up my change, I have a very short time left."

Robbie talked to his daughter for a few more minutes, learning her greatest desire as a Christmas gift, then finished the conversation with "Remember, I love you forever."

He turned away from the phone booth at the restaurant truck stop just outside Laramie, Wyoming and headed for his car, collar up against the biting wind. He thought that perhaps he'd promised too much, given the weather that had been following him the whole way from Nevada, but he was going to do his best to keep that promise, "Or die trying," he said out loud as he started the car.

Robbie thought, as he drove, about what had led him to this. He thought of his baby girl, and how much he missed her, and that naturally sent his thoughts to his dead wife, and how much he missed her. It had been almost three years since his wife's funeral, and his collapse, and almost 2 years since he'd left his daughter behind, with his mother-in-law, and gone west.

He told himself, and anyone who would listen, that he was trying to get a stake, to start over, to build a new life for himself and his daughter. But he realized, deep inside, that he was running from memories that he could not deal with in any other way. He also knew, even deeper inside, that everyone else realized that, too.

Well, he finally had his stake. On the winter solstice, his dead wife's birthday, as he was just at the end of his money, and his sanity, he had finally had one perfect night, in Las Vegas. Everything he touched turned to gold. Well, actually to chips, which he cashed in. By the end of that night, Robbie had over $100,000, and a complimentary high-roller suite in a casino that hoped he would stay and lose it all back to them.

But Robbie had fooled them. The next day, he went into a Las Vegas car dealer and bought a brand-new, 'End-Of-The-1976-Model-Year-Clearance' Oldsmobile Cutlass sedan. He'd really wanted the red coupe, but decided, in a burst of domesticity, that the white sedan would be better for a father and daughter. It felt wonderful to pay cash for the car, keep out more than $1,000 for the trip, and still have a savings account of $100,000 to start his new life, or maybe, he thought, just to re-start his old one.

Robbie drove through the night, then at six am, found himself a room in a cheap motel, where he asked for a wake-up call at noon. By twelve-fifteen, Robbie was showered and dressed and ready, he had chugged two cups of 'complimentary' coffee, asked directions to the nearest toy store, then stepped out into a world that had gone white. The weather had caught up while he was sleeping.

Robbie brushed the snow from his running car with the sleeves of his coat, and realized that he would need to get used to winter again, if he was going to be living in Pennsylvania. But soon the defroster and wipers cleared the last of the snow from his windshield, and Robbie headed east on Interstate 80.

Heading through Ohio, Robbie kept the radio on as the snow fell around him. The weather reports were full of dire predictions for sleet and freezing rain to mix with the snow, 'making this Christmas travel season the most dangerous in many years,' and repeating requests from police agencies throughout the eastern part of the country to stay off the roads if possible. He finally had his fill of that, and pushed in the 'Holiday Classics' 8-track he'd bought on a whim at a gas stop.

"You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen."

"Now, that's traveling music," Robbie said to himself, and began to sing along. Every few minutes he looked at the package on the seat beside him, the very last Talking Tina doll available at the store he'd found. He imagined the smile on Alicia's face as she tore open the bright foil wrap, and that made him smile, too

As he moved eastward, Robbie realized that the snow was thickening, and the traffic was thinning, as more and more travelers took heed of the police warnings. Finally, about thirty miles from the Pennsylvania border, he realized that it was not just snow on the windshield, any more, but sleet, and freezing rain as well. "The classic 'wintry mix'" he sighed, as Bing Crosby dreamed of a White Christmas on the stereo. Robbie snorted as he heard that.

Robbie began to pass highway rest stops already full of cars and trucks, their drivers deciding to wait out the storm, but he pressed on. His speed dropped lower and lower with each time his car would fishtail, until he was doing no more than forty miles per hour on the highway. Even so, none of the few cars he saw was moving any faster.

The early sunset caught him just across the Pennsylvania border. Robbie thought about finding a place to stop, but he knew that he would not be able to stand the sound of disappointment in Alicia's voice, or the cold disapproval in Corrine's, if he called to tell them he would not be home in time. "Or die, trying," he repeated to himself. The snow continued to fall.

Finally, on a long straight stretch, where he could see for almost a mile ahead, there was a line of road flares, then two police cars, blocking the blocking, lights flashing. He stopped and rolled down his window as a huge black officer, with the name tag Williams, walked up to his car.

"Sorry, sir" the state trooper rumbled, "but there's been a bad accident, and 80 is closed east of here." He pointed to the right, and added, "this is the last exit you can get to. I really recommend that you pull off here, and find a place to stay, tonight. The road crews should have things clear enough to get on your way sometime tomorrow."

"But, officer, my little girl is waiting for me in Phillipsburg. I promised her I'd be there for Christmas, this year."

The trooper looked at Robbie's Nevada plates, and said, "Sir, until 80 is open again, there is just no safe way for you to get there. Now please do as I suggest. Surely you don't think your daughter wants you to risk your life trying to get home?"

Robbie shook his head, then began to roll the window back up as the trooper said "Have a safe and merry Christmas, sir."

Robbie turned onto the exit and headed down toward a small cluster of highway businesses. He pulled into the first motel he saw, though the parking lot was completely full, shut off his headlights and headed back out onto the road. With the snow, the night was bright with reflected light, and he knew the officer would not see him in his new white car, unless he turned on his lights or touched his brake pedal.

In a few minutes, when Robbie was certain the trooper could no longer see him , he turned his lights back on, and headed down the local road, until he found a connection to State Route 322. He knew that road would take him all the way home.

A few miles ahead of Robbie, Wally Peters was wrestling his short-haul Mack diesel around the twists and turns of Pennsylvania 322. The road conditions and the continuing fall of ice and snow were making him very nervous, but he knew that if he did not get this load delivered by tomorrow morning, he would be out of a job. "Not a very good Christmas gift for Janie and the kids," he said.

Behind him, moving slowly, Robbie was struggling to keep his new car on the road. He felt like a fool now, but he kept repeating to himself, "I promised, I promised...Or die trying." He pushed the 8 track in, for company, and to keep up his courage. "If I can live through 'Holly, Jolly Christmas" he said, I can live through this." The snow continued to fall.

In Phillipsburgh, after Corrine finished reading 'A Christmas Carol' and both of them had repeated "God bless us, every one," Alicia put out a plate of cookies and glass of milk for Santa, then kissed her Gramma goodnight. "Can't I stay up and wait for Daddy?" she asked.

"No, dear, with this weather, I'm sure your father is stopped somewhere to wait out the storm."

"Oh, so he won't be home?" her face fell.

"Tell you what, when he gets here, or if he calls, I'll wake you, OK?"

"Okay."

Alicia went to her room, said her prayers with Gramma watching, then wormed herself under the covers. "Night, gramma," she said.

"Good night, Sweetie."

Corrine walked back to the living room and sat in the only comfortable chair. She turned off the lights, except those on the small tree in the corner, and looked out, through the open curtains, watching. Her thoughts seemed equally divided between anger and worry. "Or die trying," she mumbled.

On State Route 322, Wally Peters was working his way through ever deepening snow and sleet. His hands ached from gripping the wheel. He came around a sharp corner at the start of a downhill stretch, and his trailer swung left. He tried to correct the slide, but could not catch it, and then the trailer and cab were both sliding slowly sideways, the end of the trailer taking out a row of guardrails, that had protected traffic from a steep slope, leading down to a small but deep lake.

The cab thumped into the ditch, blocking the whole roadway, and Wally knew he was not going to get home tonight. At least the accident would give him a good excuse for not delivering on time. He sighed, zipped up his jacket and went out into the snow to set warning flares, deciding to go east first, to warn oncoming traffic. The snow continued to fall.

Less than a mile to the west, Robbie was still fighting his car, and the snow, and the slippery road. He knew that he was being a pure fool but it was too late. Even if he wanted to stop now, there was nowhere out here in farm country for him to spend the night. He pushed on, his wipers barely able to keep the windshield clear of the the freezing slush.

Elvis Presley had just started to sing "I'll Be Home For Christmas" as Robbie came around a sharp corner at the start of a downhill stretch, and saw the truck across the road in front of him. He hit his brakes and the car began to slide, he corrected, but it was too late. The tail of the car snapped back to the right, and his car went straight ahead, through the place where the guardrails had been torn out. It gathered speed as it went down the steep slope, and plunged into the lake. Robbie's head hit the steering wheel as the nose of the Cutlass struck the water, and he was there, unconscious and hanging from his seatbelt as the water began to fill the car.

On the far side of his truck, bending down to set a flare, Wally saw nothing of the second accident.

As the freezing water reached his waist, Robbie revived. He tried to release the seatbelt, but he was still dazed, and his cold hands were not responding. All that he could think was "Oh no, oh no." Robbie tried to open the door, but the outside pressure was too much, he thumped his shoulder against it over and over, a little weaker each time, as the water rose. On the seat beside him, Alicia's package began to float. Robbie kept trying, but he could not unfasten the seatbelt, or open the door. Finally, the cold lake water had closed over Robbie's head. He held his breath for as long as he could, praying to get home, to see his daughter just one more time.

In Phillipsburgh, Alicia was half asleep when she looked at the foot of her bed, and saw her Daddy standing there. He raised his finger to his lips and made a shushing sound. Alicia could see that his clothes were wet, and she could see him shivering.

"Daddy?" she said quietly.

"Listen, Baby. I tried to get home. I tried as hard as I could, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for all the time I was not here. I should have been here."

Alicia could see he was shivering more and more as he spoke, and she threw back her blankets to reach for him. But he held his hand up and stepped back. "Don't touch me, Patootie. I'm cold and wet, and you might get sick. But please remember, I love you forever."

In the lake, under the bitter cold water, Robbie could no longer hold his breath. A line of bubbles escaped his mouth. After a few more moments, he could not stop himself, and Robbie inhaled

In Phillipsburgh, Alicia saw her Daddy shiver hard, one last time. Then he faded away.

"Grammaaa!"

Corrine ran down the hall and into Alicia's room. She turned on the light to see her granddaughter crying in despair. As she walked toward the bed, she stepped in a puddle of freezing cold water.

On Christmas morning, on Route 322, trooper Gerald Williams was at the beginning of a steep hill, watching for traffic, as a powerful wrecker pulled a semi-trailer sideways, sliding on the snow and ice, until it was back in a traffic lane.

"Thank God no-one was hurt or killed in this mess" he thought as the wrecker operator went to detach the cable from the trailer. Then he saw the driver look down, look again, and begin waving frantically at him.

A few minutes later, as the wrecker dragged the white Oldsmobile from the water, trooper Williams saw the Nevada plate, and said to himself, "Oh, you damfool."

He looked into the car, and recognized the young man from the evening before, mouth and eyes both open. There was a brightly wrapped package frozen into his hair. A few minutes later the ambulance pulled up with lights flashing, but no siren. It was far too late for that.

The ambulance crew and trooper Williams struggled to work Robbie's stiff body out of the car. As they almost had him free, his knee slammed against the dash, and they could hear Elvis singing, "I'll be home for Christmas, If only in my dreams." Shuddering, one of the men reached in and jerked the tape out of the player.

At Seven-thirty PM, trooper Gerald Williams was standing on the porch of a quiet house, on a quiet street, in a quiet part of Phillipsburgh, Pennsylvania. There were lights around the porch, and Santa's sleigh in the yard, but they were not lit up, tonight. He shifted a brightly wrapped package to his left hand, and knocked on the door with his right.

"Mrs. Simkins?" he said, when the door opened, "I am so sorry for your loss." He held up the package, and added, "Your son-in-law had this with him when..."

"Thank you officer," she replied taking the package from his hand.

Trooper Williams trudged back down the steps, and out to his patrol car. The single glimpse he had caught through the open door of the sad-eyed little girl made him want to hurry home to his own daughter.

Inside, Alicia looked at the package her grandmother carried to the tree. She did not know if she wanted to open it. Her grandmother held it out, and said "He bought this for you, as the last thing he wanted to give you."

Alicia took the package, and looked at it a little while longer, then finally, carefully, opened it, and held the talking doll she had wanted all year. She reached behind the doll, and pulled the string.

"Remember," said Talking Tina, "I love you forever."
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guest author: Sean Gleeson
The Podium Chronicles
Chapter 1: Birth of a Hero

[SCENE: A dark cave, with computers and blinking lights.]

"Seven years ago, I watched my parents die at the hands of a violent criminal."

"Yes sir, we know. That's the day you swore to dedicate your life, and your vast fortune, to fighting crime, right?"

"I've told you this story before then, have I?"

"Yes, sir."

"That was seven years ago, Dr. Ignatius. I have spent that time training myself in mind and body, in the mountains of Borneo. And I asked you, my team of secret scientists, to conduct certain... research projects."

"Yes, sir. A hook capable of scaling walls, a pair of glasses that could see through everything, a rocket car, and a costume designed to evoke a strong primal fear."

"Right, right! The costume is essential! Even though my combat abilities are honed to perfection, I may have to fight entire armies of criminals, and the power to instill fear might give me a crucial edge. What did you come up with?"

"It's right here, sir."

"In this box?"

"No. This is your costume."

"It's... a wooden box."

"No, not a box, a podium. See how the top is slanted at a 30-degree angle? Our research indicates that the strongest and most common fear is of public speaking. A podium will evoke the..."

"Public speaking?"

"Yes, it surprised us, too. People fear public speaking more than death itself. This podium costume is one of the scariest images known to man. Try it on."

"I don't want to."

"See, even you're scared of it."

"How about my building-scaling hook?"

"Ah, there we ran into a bit of luck. It turns out that has already been invented. It's called a grappling hook, and we got it for $52.95 plus shipping."

"Hmmm. I was hoping for something more, scary, or something."

"We're just following the instructions you gave us. You didn't mention how it had to look."

"But I mentioned I needed to carry it on my person. This hook is huge!"

"Not to worry. We designed the podium costume with many roomy drawers. See, the hook fits right here."

"Drawers."

"Yes, I added that myself."

"Great."

"Thank you, sir. And we also invented these..."

"Ooooh, is that the pair of glasses that sees through everything?"

"Yes, sir. The lenses actually see through all matter."

"They are really cool-looking, too! Great job! Do I look like that guy in The Matrix with these?"

"I couldn't say, sir."

"How do I, uh, turn it on?"

"Turn it on? But it is on."

"No, all I see is black. Can't see a thing through them."

"Ha, ha. Forgive my laughter, sir. That may be what it seems like to you, but in fact you are seeing the void of space through them. You are seeing through all matter -- the walls, the hills, the clouds, the moon, the planets, the stars and galaxies -- everything, just as you instructed. In any direction you look, you are seeing the dark, empty universe beyond all that is."

"Um."

"Amazing, isn't it? It's almost too bad that we are your team of secret scientists, or else we could apply for a Nobel with these."

"But how will I use this to fight crime?"

"I'm sure I don't know, sir. We just followed your instructions."

"I could have just got some Foster Grants and painted the lenses black."

"The effect would be the same, yes, but..."

"Can you, like, turn it down, so I am only seeing through a little bit of everything?"

"Well, I don't know. With more research, perhaps..."

"Okay, okay. How is the rocket car coming?"

"Not as well, I'm afraid. To develop that project, we would need some additional funding. I have a proposal typed up..."

"What! I gave you a $390 million budget! The entire fortune my murdered parents left me! It's all gone?"

"The glasses do represent a tremendous advance in applied quantum physics. That kind of research doesn't come cheap."

"I had no idea..."

"Sir, are you all right?"

"I've got to think, dammit!"

"Would you care for a cup of coffee? I'll just..."

"Listen, Dr. Ignatius, could you imitate a low-class Brooklyn accent?"

"Yes, I think so. What do you have in mind?"

[SCENE: First National Bank.]

"Gimme all da money, and nobody gets hurt. I'm holding up dis bank, see? Dat's right, put it all in dis bag."

"Not so fast, criminal!"

"Eek! A... blind podium with a hook! My fear of public speaking renders me immobile."

"That is correct, miscreant! And now I shall escort you to police headquarters. We'll cut through the park, it's quicker."

[SCENE: The cave again.]

"Okay, how much did we get?"

"From this last bank, or total?"

"From all twelve."

"Approximately $16.5 million, sir."

"Is that enough for a rocket car?"

"Perhaps. And then will you start fighting crime, sir?"

"That's the plan, Dr. Ignatius. That's the plan."
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guest author: Dances With Typos
Snapshots From Hell
The gray-haired older man paused, his hand on the lever of the steel door marked '304'. Turning to his much younger companion, he said, "Now this patient is not treated the same as any of our others. He is not dangerous to anyone but himself and, unlike the rest here, has never, so far as we know, committed a violent crime."

"Why is he here, then?"asked the young psychiatric resident.

"Well, for two reasons. The first is hysterical blindness brought on by a delusional incident that he completely believes in, and insists was real, and second, because any time he has access, he will break any drinking glass or bottle and begin to cut himself horribly."

"Oh. Oh, my. What was the incident that brought on his blindness?"

"I think it best if I let him tell you that for himself."

The Chief Resident pushed down on the lever and opened the door.

The man inside was sitting at a table, doing nothing. He lifted his head and turned his face toward the sound of the door opening. It was a face ravaged by something more than just time or the self-inflicted, circular scars where he had ground a broken bottle into the left side of his head. His eyes roved unfocused, back and forth, never stopping their movement.

"Hello?" he said, in a trembling voice. "Who's there?"

"David, it's Doctor Wilkins. I've brought someone to meet you."

"Another shrinker?" asked David with a twisted smile.

"Well, yes. This is Doctor Jacoby. He is fresh out of school, and coming to work with us, here."

"So you brought him by to show him your best loony?" The smile was wider now. Just on the edge of a grimace.

"David, you know that's not how we think of you."

"No, really? You think I am crazy enough to make something like that up. You think I just enjoy the story so much that you keep bringing people to hear it, and no-one ever does anything to find the bastard!"

"David, we have been through this many times. The police have combed the whole hillside, over and over. They checked every place you could possibly have seen, that night. There is no evidence at all of what you say happened."

David lowered his head into his crossed arms. "They didn't look hard enough," he mumbled. "They just did not look hard enough."

"David," said the younger doctor, "you don't mind if I call you David?"

"Hmph!" grunted the ravaged man. "I don't care what you call me as long as you don't call me 'Liar!'"

"No-one thinks you're a liar, David," soothed the older man.

"No. You all just think I imagined this. You all think I wanted to see this! You all think I wanted to go blind! You think I wanted that girl to die! That I wanted never to see the stars again! He slammed his head down onto the table, hard enough to make both doctors wince. His shoulders shook in silent sobs.

But after a few moments he raised his head again, and the grin was back. It was past a grimace, now. David's mouth was open in a rictus of horror at a sight that only he could see.

"Well," he whispered. "So are you here to listen to my story, Young Doctor Jacoby? Are you ready to try to pick my brain apart, too?"

"I would like to hear, David."

"Are you sure? Do you have a strong stomach?" David grinned again and without waiting for an answer, started to talk again.

"It was three years ago, August 27th. The night of the giant thunderstorm and flash floods, remember?"

"I remember. I was a third year psychiatry student at the college, and had just come back to school for the fall semester."

"Then you know how it was."

"I was happy that night," David continued, "after almost four years of saving, I finally had enough money to buy myself a good telescope. I had spent the afternoon, getting it ready, setting it up. Making sure the spotting scope and main scope were perfectly aligned. I was waiting for it to get dark so I could see the stars. I hadn't heard a thing about the coming storm, so when the sky started to turn grey I was happy.

Then I saw it was black clouds rolling in. They were moving faster than I'd ever seen them. I knew I wouldn't get any seeing that night." David paused, then said 'Huh, not get any seeing. God I wish I hadn't." David closed his eyes, and the doctors could see them moving behind the closed lids. He began caress the scars on his face, tracing each raised circle with his left forefinger.

"Well, since it was already getting dark at 7:30, and I knew I wasn't going to see any stars, and it was a brand new telescope, I decided to look around on the ground for what I could see."

"I watched a cat stalking a bird, which got away. I watched cars driving, with their lights on. I watched a mother calling her children into the house. All of them looked like they were close enough to touch. I was happy with my new toy."

"Then I looked further out." David's voice got quiet. "I started to look at the hills outside of town. I saw a few animals, but not many. Then I saw a boy and a girl, sitting under a big tree. I thought to myself they were in a bad place, they were going to get soaked by the storm I could see coming up fast, or even hit by lightning under that tree."

"I looked again, and the young man was holding the girl, kissing her. But she was trying to pull away. He grabbed her face, and kissed her again, but she jerked her face away. Then he slapped her. Then suddenly he was on top of her, tearing at her clothes. She was hitting him, and he was hitting her. It was so dark I could barely see, now, but I kept my scope pointed there, and my eye on the scope."

"Suddenly there was a bolt of lightning that lit the whole sky. I could see he was raping her, now. Her head was thrown back, screaming, and her arms were thrashing through the leaves and plants under the tree."

"I couldn't move. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to tell police where they were."

"There was another flash and I could see her hand come up with a broken bottle, smash into the side of his face. She ground it in hard, and now he was screaming, too."

"In the next flash, I saw him holding her right arm on the ground, and punching her with his other hand."

"In the next flash, he had taken the bottle, and jammed it into her chest, slicing her. Her head was thrown back, but no-one could possibly hear her scream over the thunder." David's voice was shaking, now, and tears were streaming from his empty eyes.

"I got my phone and dialed 911. They put me on hold!"

"I ran back to my scope. He was sitting on her, now, and just slashing. Her arms and head were moving, her legs were kicking, her mouth was open, screaming, but he just kept slashing." David sobbed as he spoke.

"In one flash, I saw him cut off her breast."

"In the next, I saw her chest open down to her ribs. She was still moving a little, the poor girl wasn't dead yet.."

"Every flash of lightning showed me something. Another slash, another stab. It was like seeing stills from the worst horror show ever made. Or like snapshots from Hell."

"Finally, he started slashing at her neck. She had stopped moving, now, but her eyes were open, and looking back at me through the scope. He cut and he cut. Then he started to jerk back and forth on her head, until he pulled it loose from her shoulders. He held it in front of him, and kissed her bloody lips."

"As he did that, there was one giant final flash of lightning, everything lit up brighter than day, then went completely black. have never seen anything, outside of my own memory, since then."

David sat, rocking back and forth at the table, grinding his closed fists into the tops of his thighs. Tears flowed freely from his eyes. His voice was muffled.
"All I can see now, when I dare to sleep, is that poor girls dead green eyes, open and looking at me through my scope, and that murdering bastards long dark hair and the blood running down his face, from where she had cut him. He should be easy to find. He should have round scars the size of a coke bottle on the left side of his face and head. Like these," and he pointed to the scars on his own face.

"But the police can't find him. They can't even find where it happened. They said the rain was so heavy that night that any trace of any 'possible' crime was washed away."

The three men sat in silence for a few moments, then Doctor Jacoby, eyes wide, nervously excused himself and walked shakily down the hall to the nearest staff restroom.

He leaned on the lavatory counter and looked at himself in the mirror, habitually checking for dark roots in his blonde hair. Then he reached into his pocket and removed the tube of makeup he always carried to cover the circular scars on the left side of his face.

As he touched up the covering makeup, he gave himself a tight little smile. He began to wonder just how difficult it would be to give poor David access to some broken glass and enough uninterrupted time to make sure he would never tell his story to anyone else.
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guest author: Sean Gleeson
Love Poems for a Chicken
On a small farm just over the hill there lived a farmer named Farmer. He took some kidding about his name, but not much, mostly because he didn't talk to many folks. He lived alone with his wife, Mrs. Farmer, whom he loved very much. And they had a chicken, whom he also decided he loved very much.

"I love this chicken," he said to his wife one day.

"Yes, I love her too," said the wife. "She's a nice chicken."

"By cracky, I'm going to write a love poem for her."

"I'm not so sure people should write love poems for chickens," she warned, but his mind was already made up.

Mr. Farmer worked on his poem for an hour. He had never written a poem before, so he didn't know how bad this one was. It went:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
You're a great chicken,
Cock-a-doodle-doo.


He thought it was good enough, and he wrote it out in his best handwriting and brought it to the chicken early the next morning, and set it down in front of her so she could read it.

The chicken looked at the poem with one eye, then the other. Then she hopped on the paper and scratched with her talons, until it was nothing but shreds. The farmer frowned and walked away silently.

He was downhearted, but Farmers don't give up so easy. He said to his wife, "I love this chicken."

"Yes, I love her too," said the wife. "She's a nice chicken."

"By golly, I'm going to write a love poem for her."

"But you did that already, and she scratched it up."

"That just means my poem wasn't good enough. I'll write a better poem."

"I'm still not sure people should write love poems for chickens," she warned, but his mind was already made up.

Mr. Farmer worked on this new poem for five hours. He had only ever written one poem before, so he didn't know how mediocre this one was. It went:

Dearest chicken, lovely bird,
Love is not too strong a word
For the way I feel for you,
And hope you feel it for me too.
I love you more than I can say,
And even more each passing day.


He wrote it out as before, and brought it to the chicken early the next morning. He set it down before her, anxiously watching for some sign of approval.

The chicken stared at the poem for a second. Then she pecked at it. And pecked again and again, poking holes in the paper until every word was obliterated. The farmer grimaced and walked away, choking back a sob.

But a Farmer does not admit defeat so readily. He said to his wife, "I love this chicken."

"Yes, I love her too," said the wife. "She's a nice chicken."

"By God, I'm going to write a love poem for her."

"But you did that twice already, and she tore 'em both up."

"That just means they weren't good enough. I'll write a better poem."

"I'm pretty sure people shouldn't write love poems for chickens," she scolded, but his mind was already made up.

Mr. Farmer worked on this third poem for three whole days. He had only ever written two poems before, so he didn't know how good this one was. It was, in point of fact, the greatest love poem ever written by anyone in the whole history of poetry. It went:

As grains in the cornfield, for thee have I shucked,
Words of love do I offer, yea of praise and renown,
Winged yet earthbound, as seraphs cast down,
To thee have I whisper'd, to me hast thou clucked.
Pulchritudinous poultry, from beak to thy legs,
To gaze at thy galliform soul is to sing
Of the unbested arm and the untested wing;
I toast thy fowl beauty as I toast thy fresh eggs.
Say not love is folly 'twixt chickens and men;
For hath not my heart forged a bond with thy breast?
Yea, a thick bond, which thickens, like mud in a nest,
And quickens my pulse for thou pullet, thou hen.
O chicken, surpassing the swallow or dove,
As thou swallow my corn, spurn not my love.


He finished writing it just as the sun came up on the third day. He brought it to the chicken, and bowed low as he placed the parchment before her.

The chicken looked at the poem for almost a minute. Then she clucked musically, and the farmer's heart filled with joy.

Then she turned around, and pooped right onto the sonnet. She defecated again, and again, until every word was smothered in chicken droppings. Mr. Farmer stumbled back to the house. He could barely see for the tears in his eyes.

That night, he said to his wife, "I love this chicken."

"Mmm, so do I," she agreed. "May I have the other drumstick?"
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guest author: Dances With Typos
Fireworks
It was while he was sitting in backed up traffic, stuck behind a new Buick Enclave with a bumper sticker that read "I Heart Warthogs" and in front of an old Dodge Ram pickup with a hood and both front fenders in clashing colors that the little man finally found the key.
It had been a horrible week, even worse than most in his life.
As usual, his Friday pay covered only about two/thirds of his bills, even though he bought nothing for himself except soap, and nothing for his only friend except the cheapest of store-brand dry dog food.
So, through Saturday and Sunday, he'd washed a few dishes, and did laundry until his detergent ran out. Then he sat, doing nothing. There were no sounds in the house. No voices, no laughter, no friends or family coming to visit.
He heard the sounds of children playing in the yard next door, and smiled for a moment. There were a lot of kids there. Sunday was July second, and they were having an early Independence Day barbecue. They had invited him, as always, and were obviously relieved when he said "No, thanks," as always.
He noticed that his friend was still scratching and biting at herself, and her hair was coming out even faster, despite the fact that he'd given her a bath in moisturizing shampoo, and was putting baby oil on the worst of her dry skin to ease the itch.
It was when he was doing that, before bed Sunday night, that he had found the hairless, veined, thumb-sized thing, a growth on her right thigh. He did not think it had been there the week before when he had bathed her, and she yelped when he touched it.
"Oh, no," he sighed. He knew there was not anything left in his checking account to pay a vet, and he thought that, if the thing had grown so big, so fast, that it was something serious. His friend looked into his eyes, trusting him to do something about the pain, as he always had before. But this time he knew there was nothing he could do.
The little man felt a tear start down his cheek, and he hugged his friend around the neck and just let them come. He thought of all the things he could not do, all the things he would not ever try to do, and the tears came faster. They burned his eyes, and his friend whimpered with him. She forgot her own pain for a while, and worried about him. He felt her caring, and that made him cry even more.
After a while he finally stopped himself crying, and blinking his eyes clear, continued to rub the baby oil into his friends dry, crusty skin, carefully avoiding the thumb-sized lump. If he could not do anything else for her, at least he could do that.
He sat, long after the sun was down, long after the sounds of celebration were gone from next door. He sat in the darkness, both inside and outside of his heart. He thought of all the hopes he'd had, all the things he'd wanted for his life. All the things he could never have.
The longer he sat, the more he thought, the deeper the darkness became.
He knew he was something special, something different. He knew he could do something that no-one else had ever done. He also knew that was why he had no friends, no family to call on him. He had separated himself from them out of fear of the thing he could do. He did not want to hurt anyone who did not deserve it. But what did he deserve?
"Dammit!" he said to himself. "Why can't I control this? Why can't I turn it down or up, why is it so damn hard!?" He felt the burning behind his eyes, the beginning of the power building.
"But how? I'm not thinking about anyone. I'm not angry with anyone, or afraid of anyone."
"Except myself," he added after a few seconds.
Breathing fast in fear of what was happening, he carefully pushed the burning back down. He closed his eyes and imagined water pouring through his mind, a torrent, a Niagara of water quenching the burn, stopping the fire. He felt the cool mist inside his head, and finally fell asleep in his chair, his friend at his feet.
The little man dreamed he was in his old family home. He recognized the kitchen wallpaper with the big roses. He recognized the faded linoleum, and the old wood-fired cookstove. He recognized the smell of fresh-baked bread. He even recognized the little blond-haired boy in the high chair looking at him. It was himself.
"Humry, Daddy," said the little boy to the little man.
"Of course, son," he answered himself, and went to the cabinet to get what he knew would be there. A jar containing a mix of sugar and cinnamon. It was the only real treat he remembered from his childhood, and he was happy to see the jar.
He sliced a piece of bread from the loaf on the cooling rack, still hot enough to melt the Government Surplus butter that sat in the dish on the table, and sprinkled it thickly with the mix from the jar.
As he got a melamine plate from another cabinet and turned to give the treat to himself, he heard the front door open and close, and a strange shuffling sound coming down the front hallway toward the kitchen.
The little boy screamed, and the little man whirled to see a hairless, veined thing staring at them with red eyes. It looked like a giant rat, almost as big as a man, with pointed snout and sharp teeth, and it shuffled slowly toward them.
The little man stood between the thing and the little boy, who was now crying. As the rat-thing came closer he slowly backed away, pushing the wheeled high-chair behind himself, trying to get to the back door, and out of the kitchen. Out of the house.
The rat jumped, and the little man felt its teeth in his arm. He screamed. The little boy screamed. The little man felt a POP in his head and the rat thing screamed, and exploded.
He sat up in bed, gasping. Suddenly he realized that the rat thing's scream, that had wakened him had actually come from his friend, on the floor beside his chair.
He turned on his table lamp. Blood was everywhere, all over the walls, the floor and him. He scrambled out of his chair to kneel beside his only friend. She was whimpering softly as the blood poured from the hole in her thigh where the growth had been.
The little man picked up his friend and ran through the early dawn to his car. He laid her gently on the back seat, then ran back in for his keys. He'd take her to the emergency vet, whether he could pay or not. They had to help her. He would make them help her!
When the little man got back to his car, his friend was dead.
"Oh, God," he said to her blood-soaked body. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you! I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He kept saying it as his knees sagged and he slowly knelt, with his forehead against the cold metal of the car.
The gas man found him there later, and said "Hey, what the Hell happened here?"
It was light outside, now. How much time had passed, the little man did not know.
"My dog died last night," he said the the man standing beside him, looking into the car, gaping at all the blood.
"Jesus!," said the gas man, "did somebody shoot her?'
"She, she had a growth. A thing on her leg, it was growing, and it popped. I tried to get her to the pet hospital, but she died."
The gas man shook his head, "What a mess. I'm sorry for you. Umm, I hate to do this, now, but I'm here to shut off your gas."
"What? Why? I paid. I sent them a check last week !"
"It wasn't enough, guy," said the gas man, with a sympathetic look. "Didn't you get the notice? I hung it on your doorknob Thursday. You're way behind on your bill. The office wants $437, or I have to turn it off"
"Can I have one more day, please? I'll get the money to you. I'll go get my checkbbook, right now!"
"Well," said the gas man, "can't take a check, but if you give me cash, I'll turn it in when I get back, tonight."
"Oh! I don't have that much cash." He thought quickly. "I can go and get it, can you give me an hour, please!" He was almost in tears, again, and he was beginning to feel the burn behind his eyes.
"OK, guy, calm down. I'll come back in a hour, I have another house to do a couple of blocks away. But only an hour! I have to check back in, then, and they will want to know that I have shut you off, or have your payment in my hands."
He shook his head, sadly. "God, I really hate shutting people off, like this."
The gas man never knew it, but that last sentence saved his life.
The little man jumped into his car, dried blood making his clothes stiff and scratchy. He did not notice the blood on his hands and face as he backed out of the drive, and raced to his bank. As he pulled in, he saw the sign that read, "Bank Offices Will Be Closed July 3,4,5 In Honor of Independence Day. Have a Safe And Happy Holiday!"
The little man stared, his mouth hanging open, then had a sudden thought, and headed for his work.
He pulled into the parking lot about 20 minutes later, threw open the car door and dashed into the lobby. The gas man would be back at his house in only a few minutes!
He'd forgotten the blood on his clothes. The receptionist's scream reminded him.
"Quick," he said to her, "I can't explain, but I need to see Mister Rogak, right now!"
"He, he's in his office. What happened to you?"
"No time," called the little man over his shoulder as he ran down the hall.
He burst into Rogak's office and poured out his story. But his boss' face was stone.
"You're late again," Rogak growled. "You didn't call, you come running in here looking like that, and now you expect a loan?" Rogak looked at him with disgust. "Well, you aren't getting any loan, and as of now, you don't have a job, either."
The little man staggered. The burn was getting hotter. Rogak grabbed his head.
"Dammit, get out of here! It's giving me a headache just to look at you!"
The little man stared at his ex-boss. He thought how easy it would be.
Rogak moaned, and a trickle of blood started to run from his ear. Seeing that, the little man turned and ran from the building, trying to get home in time, ready to beg or promise.
He'd forgotten the holiday. He'd forgotten what traffic would be like now, as people left work early to travel to the beach, or to grandma's house, or to anywhere out of the city. Traffic was crawling at single-digit speeds as the little man's time ran out. He was struggling to control the burning in his head.
He was stuck behind a brand new Buick Enclave with a ridiculous bumper sticker. Horns were blowing everywhere, it was hot outside and hotter inside the car, and the body of his friend, still in the back seat, was starting to smell very bad.
In his mirror, he could see a big man in a three-colored Dodge behind him, gulping down a beer. He stared at this, and did not notice the Buick had begun to move in front of him. But the man in the Dodge saw it. He laid on his horn, and screamed at the little man.
The burn was getting hotter, as the little man shook his head, then turned to drive.
The man in the Dodge hit his horn again, then banged into the back of the little mans car. His head jerked back, and he heard his friends body jolt off the seat, and land stiffly on the floor.
The big man in the dodge was screaming at him, and blowing his horn, he heard the Dodge's engine rev up, and saw a fist shaking at him out of the open driver's window.
Time seemed to slow, then stop. The little man was aware of the beating of his heart. It also seemed very slow, but he knew it was racing. He felt the fire inside. It was hotter than he'd ever felt before. He felt a strength he had never had before. He realized that something had changed. He did not know the drunk in the Dodge, but it did not matter.
Knowing was not the key. Rage was the key.
In his mirror, he could see the big man in the old Dodge back up, to gain speed and slam him even harder, and the little man let the power go.
It was not a POP, this time, it was a BOOM! He even heard the explosion from inside the truck. It sounded like fireworks, behind him. It did not hurt, this time, it felt good. It was the best feeling he'd ever had.
In his mirror, he could see the glass of the pickup cab. It was covered in blood, and bits of bone, and small pieces of gray matter the little man did not care to identify. A speed limit sign on the road shoulder beside the pickup was also soaked, and the little man could see some blood on the trees more than twenty feet from the road.
The big mans headless body slumped against the sterring wheel, and the old Dodge's horn began to blow continuously.
The little man drove away, toward his home.
He saw the yellow sticker and the seal the gas man had placed on his meter when he shut it off, but did not care, now.
He took a shower in the ever-colder water, and thought of all the hopes he'd had, all the things he'd wanted for his life. All the things he could never have.
But this time, there were no tears. There was only the fire.
After it was dark, the little man dressed in his best clothes and walked out into the night.
That night, the fireworks were incredible.
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guest author: Dances With Typos
Abra Cadaver
Now that I am in the last few days of my life, I've decided I had better put down on paper the true story of the most important unsolved case in the history of the Secret Service.

It is the story of the asassination of President Wilmont.

"Assassination?" you ask, and I answer "Yes, no matter what was released to the media, or the public, it was an asassination, and not an aneurysm."

According to the Surgeon General, who was the third man on scene after the President's body was found, no aneurysm has ever actually forced a man's eyes out of their sockets, or caused blood to shoot through ruptured eardrums to splash against a wall more than 8 feet from the body.

Given the circumstances and the victim, a thorough forensic autopsy was performed, and it was found that not only one, but apparently every single blood vessel in the President's head had ruptured. The forensic pathologist stated that, as far as she knew, the effect could only be duplicated by moving a living man from the bottom of the sea to a complete vacuum in less than one second.

The autopsy report was never released, of course. I do not know where it might be today.

In any case, as Senior Agent of the President's Protective Detail, I asked for, and was assigned, leadership of the investigation into just what had killed the forty-fifth President of the United States, only 16 weeks into his first term.

To the press and public, we treated it as a routine, pro-forma investigation, although it was anything but that. We combed every piece of scientific literature. We asked, quietly, everyone we could think to ask. We even re-opened the files of the old CIA ESP projects.

For nearly three months we made no headway of any kind. There simply was, and is, thank God, no known weapon, no known drug, no known anything that can do that to a man.

And then, just five days short of three months into the investigation, a letter came to our office addressed to me. It was in the most common of computer fonts. There was no return address, no signature, no fingerprints, and it was mailed from the post office nearest our offices.

It simply said, "If you want to know what happened to the president, meet me next Wednesday at 7 pm. I feel a need to confess." It gave the name of a restaurant only about 12 blocks away from my home, which I will not identify here, and asked me to come alone, wearing a white flower in my lapel. The letter said that the person I was to meet would recognize me.

You realize, of course, that for every notorious crime, law enforcement agencies get many voluntary confessions, all of which are checked, and almost all of which turn out to be pathetic, desperate people looking for attention. My brother officers at the FBI keep a file of people who have confessed to everything from the Lindbergh kidnapping to being a surviving hijacker from 9/11. They pass the file around any time something new, and particularly funny/insane/pathetic or all of the above, comes in.

I figured the chances of this being just some poor loser to be about eleven out of ten, but of course, I had to go.

By 5:30 pm that night, Doane was at the counter, nursing coffee, Washington had already raised his ruckus about no soul food and was settled over a plate of ribs and a glass of beer that did not seem to ever need refilling. Carne and Liebenthal, our "hippie couple," would come in a few minutes after me, and sit as near the door as they could manage.

Just in case.

Anyway, at 7 pm on the dot of US Naval Observatory Atomic Clock time, I opened the door and walked in. I was exactly on time, because I had no idea just what sort of fetish my confessee might subscribe to. Cases have been lost for being one minute early, or one minute late, to a meeting.

I was wearing a dark blue blazer, so the white plastic rose blossom would show well against it. I have not worn a real flower since I was in high school, and tried to be cool with "A white sport coat and a pink carnation," and sneezed all the way through my first freshman hop.

I looked around, like I was meeting a friend I'd not seen for a while. The place was a classic middle-class DC eatery. The clientelle was mostly single guys who could not, or just did not want to cook tonight, sprinkled with the family from Iowa who were thrilled to be eating in any Washington restaurant, the off-duty cabbie, and the up-scale pimp who thought no-one knew.

I walked toward the men's room in the back to give everyone a chance to see me.

As I began to push open the men's room door, a surprisingly deep voice said, "Hello, Agent Coleman." I looked down to see a little gray man in the back corner booth. He was not really gray and not really little, but simply so nondescript that I doubt I could have identified him in a crowd of three.

"Please," said the little man, "have a seat." He was positioned perfectly to see everyone who came into the restaurant. He looked at my plastic flower and said, " I see you are allergic, too."

I sat, and pulled my badge and ID from my breast pocket, but he put his hand over mine before I could open the folder. "I know who you are, and I know you are investigating the death of our beloved president, 'Rock' Wilmont." I nodded, too surprised that anyone knew "Rock" as a presidential nickname to say anything.

"I knew 'Rock' from the time we were both about thirteen, and in junior high school." I was surprised, since the man before me looked at least fifteen or twenty years older than our dead president.

"We started calling him 'Rock' because we all thought that was what he had crawled out from under."

"Anyway, I know you are wondering. I killed him."

I nodded. Another damned nut-case.

"I'm not crazy," he said quietly.

"Uh-huh," I responded.

"Let me tell you about it. In junior high, 'Rock' Wilmont was never known to do the right thing, if the wrong thing would get him further ahead. He was known as the most self-serving, self-righteous and self-satisfied kid in school."

"Yeah," I answered. "Who all knew this?"

"Well, me," he responded in a voice so low I barely understood.

"So, you hated him?"

"Well, yeah. I had every reason to hate him after he stole my American History presentation."

"Huh?" I said, intelligently.

"When we were in the tenth grade, we were given an assignment to choose an event from American history, to dramatize. I chose the beginning of World War II, and the ship of Jewish refugees who were sent back to die in the death camps. I did a lot of research."

"Two days before we were to give our presentation, 'Rock' asked to see my presentation, in exchange for looking at his. You knew him, Agent Coleman. You know how persuasive he was."

I nodded, only partly to humor him.

"So, I showed him my presentation. He showed me his presentation. His was a jumbled mess. But the next day, he gave my presentation, down to the footnotes. He did it much better than I could have done. He got an "A." I failed the class."

"So, you hated him. So you imagine that you killed him." I started to rise.

"Imagine?" he hissed, and I sat back down. "I did not imagine anything!"

"OK."

"You do not know,' he said, again so quietly I barely heard. "I can kill with my mind."

I wanted to laugh. I started to laugh, but something in his eyes stopped me.

"It started when I was eleven," he said, more calmly.

I cocked my head to one side and put on my best 'tell me all about it' expression.

"I used to deliver newspapers," he said. "One of my customers had a very vicious dog."

"So?"

"If the dog was on his chain, everything was ok. But when he was off the chain, he would come at me like a starving wolf. One day, I walked around the house to put the paper on the back porch, and he was loose. He jumped up and started to chase me. I was scared to death. I ran across the street with him getting closer and closer. No-one was around. No-one to help me. I felt his breath on my legs, and I stopped and closed my eyes. I wished him dead, and he suddenly screamed like a tortured soul. I turned, and he was in the middle of the road behind me with blood coming from his eyes and ears. Then he fell down. I ran away. The next day, when I took the newspaper to the back porch there, the lady of the house was crying and told me how her sweet doggie had been hit by a car and his head crushed. Had I seen anything? I told her no."

"So," I said. "You killed a dog?"

He was silent for a few moments, then said, "Not only a dog."

I waited for him to say more.

"When I was twenty-four, I fell in love." His cheeks reddened as he mumbled this..

"And?" I responded.

"She worked with me at...well, that doesn't matter. She was perfect. She was small, quiet and dark. I've always liked dark girls. Brown eyes, black hair..." he faded off.

"AND?" I asked again.

"Oh, she already had a boyfriend. He was a nasty SOB. One day in the summer she wore a sleeveless blouse. It was a hot day, and the makeup she wore to cover the bruises he'd given her started to run. Some of the girls in the office were talking about it, how she had gone into the ladies room to lay down with a headache. I heard one of the girls say 'I'd shoot the bastard before I'd let him do that to me!' "

"I had met this guy at the office Christmas party, and talked to him for a while. He was big. He talked about how he would like to 'get into the pants' of almost every woman at the party. I could tell that Kath... never mind. I could tell she was embarrassed. After a while he started to yell at her. Then he grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the party."

"Well, the next day after we had seen the bruises on her arms, I was standing at the window when he rode up with her on the back of his loud motorcycle. When she got off, I could see her tears, and I could tell he was shouting at her."

"As she came into the building, I looked at him. Soon I could see the blood coming from under his helmet. I saw his head jerk back like he was screaming. Then he fell down, and I went to my office and started to work. A few minutes later I heard the siren of the ambulance. They said he had passed out and fallen under a bus. She never came back to work, after that."

I realized I had been holding my breath, and let it out. "So," I said, "if you can kill people with your mind, why don't you kill the really evil bastards in the world?"

"Do you think I haven't tried! After 9/11, I tried to kill Bin Laden. I thought and thought. I imagined his head exploding. I tried, but nothing happened. I realize I can only kill people I know. People I have talked to long enough to get a feeling for who they really are. I do wish I could be an avenging angel, and I guess I am, on a small scale."

"So," I asked, interested in spite of myself, "why did you kill the President?"

"Do you know what he was going to do? he was going to just stop fighting. He was going to appoint a commission to try to 'talk' to Iran! He was going to give more openings to Saudi Arabia to fund madrasses in the US. He was going to...Hell! He was going to give away the country!" He was breathing hard, now.

He calmed himself, finally, then gave a strange little half smile. "So, anyway. I thought about what he was doing for a while, and POP, Abra Cadaver!" I think he expected me to laugh.

I sat silently and looked at him. I was getting tired of it. "Avenging angel," my ass.

After a few moments of this, he stood. "Well, I can see you don't believe me," he said. "I'm going to go, now."

He picked up the bill and wormed his way out of the booth. Near the door, I caught Liebenthal's eye, and waved her off. This poor little man was not worth following.

Before he left, he looked at me and held out his hand. I shook it, and he said,"Well, Agent Coleman, I am so glad I had the chance to know you." Then he paid his bill and walked out.

The headaches are getting a little worse every day.

Oh, God! There's blood running from my ears.
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guest author: mauretto
Parties and Pistols - Part 3
“…..and you, Franco, where did you falavelin’ go? Tell me now. Now! You were supposed to pick Ari up at the gate, a-t t-h-e g-a-t e! What part of gate did you not get?!! You nearly got him killed! Where were you? Why did we lose you for 3 hours? What the flying fak do you think we pay you for? Suntans in Medellin? You fucked up really bad and don’t blame it on that guy. (look of total disgust my way). The equation is simple you tossers: I, me, moi, io give the orders and you fall in! That simple. This is not an anarchists-r-us club. We follow precise instructions! Ari, where did you get the idea you could just go and kill that guy? Ever heard of the word Sin? Sin! Sinners! Damn the moment I ever thought you were half-decent for this job. Mauro….ooooohh…you….I have nothing but complete contempt and for you. I have no idea how you manage to complete crosswords; let alone a mission, I have no idea how you happen to be one of the best at this. You have no respect for authority. Your attitude stinks. Your have never left stage one of puberty in your mind. You chase women during missions, you smoke dope behind Ari’s back, you make sexist remarks to Zuzu and you insinuate totally fake stories about Franco! If there was an idiocy competition you’d win it without competing.
And I am left picking up the pieces of your overall performances. Mons Papi ain’t a joker you know! I was slow roasted on a stick that went from my bottom to my mouth, all I needed was my gob open an’an apple stuffed in my mouth.
I had to find excuses for all of you.
I was made to apologise to the Pontiff himself! He is beside himself in shame for what you lot have managed to do this time! This one’s a German you know! I hate you all….I really do, you bunch of walking twats! I mean. Go away, get out of my sight, you’re on indefinite suspension.”

Maresciallo Midden was out of her head. We truly fucked up this time. Franco and I pulled a hubby and wifey couple when we were supposed to just follow them and he went off for 3 hours to interrogate him...I just took 5 minutes….a quick interrogation more like. Ari just “forgot” this was one terrorist we needed alive…Stormi managed to add a chemical solution to Zuzu’s lipstick instead of using that solution to knock out the wife, Zuzu` gave the lipstick to Franco…
A disaster.
The only difference this time was that what was to be a hush-hush operation with no kills ended up with a corpse, sexual allegations and gross misconduct calls…well, nothing new there.

After the severe beating, we were left alone for the rest of the day, to carry on feeling depressed.
“I’m not sure I need more of this for the day; I’m off to buy some stuff for my new place” Stormi said, “bought a place?” Zuzu asked, “Ye, bought a place. I want to settle down soon.” “You found somebody?” “Yes, me. I think I gave what I had to give you know? I think I’ll call it a day soon” “You told Tovarich Popmitten?” “You joking? No, I’ll just break her into it when I’m ready. Need just a bit more dosh” “How much?” “About 200k” “You need 200k?” “You got 200k?” “No. I asked if you needed 200k” “Yes, more or less, yes, that’s what I need” ”I might have something lined up, I can’t tell the guys, fucking pricks they’ll be all-over me like a rush” “What is it?” “ I’ll tell you soon. Just keep a line open on this one girl” “What, we’re trusting each-other now?” “Yes, why not. War’s over ok?” “Ok”

“Listen Boss, let’s reason about this. We’re always so …I don’t know. You’re always so rough with me. I serve you and the cause well, I have never left a bad smell behind and surely all these successful missions must speak for me no? You’re very hard.” “What, did I hurt your feelings? What do you think this is; a support group?”
“You see? What I am saying is that by now we should relate much better, after all this time and after all we’ve gone through”
“I’ll think about it. You do piss me off with your sarcasm”
“The disrespectful part is the Roman in me boss…the rest is just folklore”
“Well, we’ll see. You’ve been sweet as pie before only for me to find out you were only lining something up, my friend.” “I’m not lining anything up but you know I’ve been wanting out for sometime now. I think I have paid my debt to society with more authorised crime ever to be committed by one man. I mean, what I have done to repay by far out-weights what I originally did!” “We’ll see. As you know, we will need to move right for you to get out and be able to move on. Let’s get over this latest mess. Let Mons. Papi calm down. I know where he needs you next and he has a very important project in North Africa. He wants to challenge them in their backyard. He is moving all his pieces there to create a network, which directly attacks brotherhoods and the regimes at the same time. A string of small businesses are being lined up for you and others. You will live with and operate from within the Copt community. You will create disorder and perpetuate hostile unprovoked attacks on institutions, scholars etc etc. A list of 300 people is ready. They all need to be targeted and addressed in a spectrum of manners. You will have a lot of work. Also, you will only be a part of a wider net he is casting with Opus Dei. You will need to interact if asked, if not, just totally undetectable as per standard practice. You will need to infiltrate and lay low in TV networks, sabotage editing when requested. Newspapers, radios, hospitals, schools. We are placing men everywhere. I estimate over 200 agents have been moved across.
From the moment you are in North African soil, you will be dispensed of any law.
You will be granted lawlessness.
The resistance has become attack now. We think this war will last 30 years.”

“I thought we were talking about my departure from the scene….”

“Yes…you will after laying the ground, after a few pre-emptive strikes to nerve-centres. 6 Months and you’re out. That’s it. No more. No war zone, no dilly-dally business.
Just straightforward terrorism Brigate Rosse style.
Hit 1 to educate 100.
You’re the best at this and with Franco, Ari and the girls, you’ll do wonders. My crew is budgeted for the dispense of at least 100 situations using harassment, extortion, blackmail, elimination, disposal, forging, trafficking and corruption. The end will justify any of the means we will use.

Zuzu will take over the stolen car trade with her SA families connections. The business is there and existing, we take it over and every car we send we fit with an explosive device we can detonate at will and whenever. We plan to facilitate the traffic of 1200 cars a month. All primed to explode either when their individual code hits them or all together when the general code is released.
Imagine the panic. Just imagine. The devices have a 10 years life span. Only Mons Papi could think of that. What a plan.

Franco will go porno. The NY families have had porno and cars since the 70s in the whole Middle East. Using Ari’s NY families channel, eventually Franco will get in prime position. Slowly we will use a different paper in which the stuff is printed on. Slowly, chemicals will enter the body through finger pores. When yet another kind of paper is introduced, added chemicals will trigger and the subject enters a semi-permanent state of confusion, which will last up to a week and it will be complete with visions, cold sweats and high fever symptoms. Incapacitated for one whole week with the runnies. This is aimed at all kinds of Armed Forces.

Mauro, Ari, Stormy are the prime fire-group. Stormy the face of extortions, Ari the prime trigger, you the back up shooter.”

“I like that, I just stay behind him then ye? I stay at the hotel, good stuff for a change”

“No, it just mean that he gets to chose his targets and then distribute and delegate the rest.”
“Delegate?”
“Delegate. Can’t do everything on his own.”
“ I beg to differ and I am resentful over this evident favouritism at work. Surely this is against the Human Resources practices in use. On the numbers, I have less disposals, better quality eliminations and a clear ability in not being detected (which is easy if you’re only there with your fantasy) I have a proven track and only recently concluded successfully my first ever and second missions in the ME. I really would be prone to say I am a by far a more cost effective and efficient resource.

Ari can’t hit a three if it’s more than a meter away, shoots at anything that consists of more than two cells (Hence always at Laura Two Cells), is incapable of timing and always starts the interrogations by shooting the suspect. He drinks, reminisces about a wife he’s probably never had and lately he’s been reported to visit kernels at night. He is turning loopy. I wouldn’t trust him, I wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole”
“Very funny Mauro. Very. You also have two sexual harassment complaints (one from me), two gross misconduct disciplinary over lack of discipline and one actual ongoing corruption case. I remind you, you still have to finish explaining why Michele Maino was found with that component only you had. And you lost. 3.5million USD of it. So, silenzio then. Like I said, Ari tops the chart and delegates. Ev, the business face. He’ll be in charge of the money.
Also, you will have to work with Madame Le Flo’s and in her circle there’s that banker Monsieur Biliguel who can help with the DCF. (Droite Christienne Francaise) ((RT!)) , you’ve got Lady Annie and the Philadelphia Banks, you’ve got Signora Falco-Rosso and the estates in Sardinia (the only internationally recognised safe heaven for the very rich and powerful)
“Interesting. Ok boss, I will tell the guys.”
“I’m not finished. Listen to this one…Mosn. Papi had a ring around Rip “Heads” Ford’s recent confirmation. Rip owes and will pay with a 3 months stint with his crew Laura Two Cells, Dance The Bullet and Martin “The G” Grave.
Rip said no first…then found himself at the centre of a major FBI investigation and reconsidered. End of investigation. Santa Opus Dei.

“Boss…by the way, didn’t we have fun at rip’s birthday eh!” “Yes, it was really good. For a change you all behaved well and appropriate for Vatican service. Maybe that Rip has a notorious crew of killers and psychopaths helped though.”
“A bit yes, I’d say that”

“Eddie Mahmood is at the towers central, you refer to him anytime you are near any piece of equipment that can send or receive anything. Even if it’s a fucking Take Away cell phone.
He is the net-brain behind all forecasting and communication. Just watch the maps, he’s stuck with this Gulf thing. I gave him a map of the world but he cut the gulf off and used the rest to wipe the windscreen. So…go easy. I think he sees himself as a Florida Freedom Fighter but don’t say that, just say yes. Don’t antagonise him of Franco will butt in and start posting compromising photos, you know what you start, so just drop it there”

“I wont even discuss it boss. When I see the gulf I will just play along with that like nothing. Touchy eh?”

4 months later…
“A head of a counter-espionage agency, one bullet from 2 miles. Another outside his office from 1540 meters. Another while asleep from the window. 740 meters. Mesh at his best. The vice director of the Red Crescent, in the upper neck. Major of town A upper neck. Major of town B in upper neck. Ari’s work. Obscured left wing politician. That journalist, drawn. TV news director, suicide. Reporter gone mad. Cameraman lost and never found. Zulu’s work. Two civil servants, knees. 4 scholars, knees. 2 university lecturers disappeared in the Sahara, scores of local lords on the run from something that they just don’t even know what is. Mauro & Franchino.
One safe dam collapse, airports, stations, ports sabotaged repeatedly. Every time with notice so to block the country chosen without loss of lives. Herr Kommander Zorks.
Reported thefts of documents, artefacts, engineering plans, valuables, commodities.
Every currency forged to perfection.
8600 cars already circulating, well beyond expectations. Stage 1 of paper contamination complete. Mons Papi illuminated underworld work.
Impressive. Impressive and only 3 months. Rip’s crew will have to do as good.
“But we lost Big in Tunis for nothing” “No, we lost him because it was decided we had to let him go and meet the maker. It was his time, he had asked to be released upward a few times”
“and we let Ev off the hook again. He got away with 2 million US and has another own-cult complete with 64 wives, Mercedes and all mod cons estate in Arkansas.”
“Ah…leave it. You know Ev, he’ll just be parked there for us when we need him. That was only electro-money. He doesn’t know that he really doesn’t own anything he has. Everything seems to be on his name but truly, all our. I close the tab, present the bill and get him to work. Simple. Better than having to look for him and begging.”
“And Stormi and Zuzu never came back from that car traffic deal. And neither the 12 million quid of the local syndacate.” “Well…I knew Stormi wanted out, Zuzu warned me. What I didn’t realise was that Zuzu was in it with Stormi from the start.” “It was a true mess that day, I heard” “They killed all the syndacate associates there and took the money. Simple.” “Yes but 8653 bullets fired from 2 weapons?” “you know…they probably got excited working together…girls…”
“Girls…”
“Franco is back in Colombia now. I think he’s bought a big estate and farms. He was always good at heart. He’s just going to take it easy.
Ari’s packed it all up and has a kernel in Louisiana. He’s happy. I’ve decided to open an Internet forum and write about cheese. I’ll find you there.”

Well I’m off too now. I paid many times around.
I’m on a promise to go visit Ari in 10 years, when some this stains are no longer on my shirt. When some of this dry sweat is no longer sticking to this blood crusted shirt. When sleeping at night wont be harder than working a day. Pistol’s packed away, no more parties now.
Generale Mauro, la Guerra e` finita.
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guest author: papijoe
Part XXVI: Matt's Gambit
Brunner stepped behind the figure of Yossi, held upright by the blonde giant.

"First if you try to shoot us, your friend will die. You will put your weapons down if you want to live."

"No", said Matt,"The Chilean police will be here any minute. You let him go. It's all over."

The Nazi laughed. "I think not Jew. The Chileans will stay put until they know the job is finished. I know them better than you. Lay down your weapons!" Hans Jurge punctuated his commander's order by giving Yossi a shake.

Matt's mind raced. If Yossi had been captured, Lincoln and Jetta must be dead or wounded.

"I don't believe for a second you'll let any of us live if we surrender."

"So we have a Chilean stand-off? Well, like any good Jew I'm sure you'll be willing to make a deal. I need to find a new base of operations to continue my work. If your friends agree to be disarmed I will leave Hans Jurg in their care. He's a favorite of mine, I will miss his simple loyalty, but I can't take him with me. I take the weapon and you come with me as insurance. I think you are smart enough to know this was a suicide mission so you won't mind dying. If you are lucky I will find refuge somewhere else in South America, which I would prefer. Then I can promise you a bullet to the back of the head. If we are not so lucky, we may have to go back to the Middle East. That may be a bit more messy for you. But at least you'll know that you saved your friends. Now if you have any useful knowledge and are willing to cooperate, more favorable terms may be possible, but I won't pretend that is any more than a faint hope."

"You're insane Brunner."

"Am I Jew? Then I must be crazy like a fox. I've not only managed to survive the fall of the Third Reich and your Mossad assassins, but that which didn't destroy me made me stronger. I'm sure you saw the reports that I lost an eye, an ear, some fingers? It was true! But look at me now. You have no idea what we accomplished here. That's another reason to let some of you live, I want the world to know what our cause has accomplished.

I should admit that the inspiration came from you Jews, but we dared what you could barely understand. You see, Eichmann had us report on any religious artifacts that were confiscated. There were hundreds combing Europe for the Holy Grail and Hitler had his obsession with the Spear of Longinus. Eichmann himself had his theories of a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons. At first my interest in these relics was purely mercenary, they had a high value in the Reich. Then the first Stone came into my possession. A Lithuanian rabbi in mufti who had escaped the Sonderkommandos in Vilna was trying to reach Palestine through Cyprus, but his ship was intercepted and escorted to Greece where we took custody of the 185 Jews on board, men woman and children. They joined the trainloads of Greek Jews headed for Poland. The rabbi had mostly old texts with him Torah and Midrash scrolls as well as an extremely valuable Sephardic Zohar. But what he was the most reticent about was the stone. We soon determined that it was a beryl with the name of Gad. We eventually got more information out of him, but his will was stronger than his flesh and he died before we extracted all the information we wanted. But it was enough to begin my inquiry into the Hoshen stones. Using Eichmann's credentials and the influence of his office I got the word out that finding similar artifacts would be rewarded by the Reich. Then an Arab cutthroat who had robbed and murdered a Jewish merchant in Alexandria sold the jasper of Naphtali to one of our Egyptian agents. Then came the arduous labor of finding the onyx of Asher that was so ingeniously hidden in Salonika. I'm sure your Macedonian friend has told you what was involved in obtaining it. But the difficult trial that protected it also revealed many other secrets when it was decyphered. Just as she had to be initated into the mysteries of Kabbalah, I too passed behind the veil, but as a Teutonic wolf in the sheepskin of an acolyte! And I was not so blinded by my success in finding the third stone that I didn't notice a greater treasure. In that spiritual dimension that the Kabbalists call the Garden I saw the Tree of Life. After I was prompted by a strong intuition and urging that came from outside of me to the text that I rememberd vaguely from childhood and understood not at all. Your Moses made a great error in revealing too much of the thoughts of your God, and subsequently His great weakness. Some of us had been initiated into the Secrets of the Lost Cause, mostly through the pagan rites of our German ancestors and their origin in a lost continent from another forgotten age. This was the knowledge of the Thule Society. Others were students of the knowledge that Karl Haushofer brought from the East, that our Ahnenerbe traced back to the hidden Tibetan city of Shamballah. Like Nietsche, the Cathers, the Gnostics and Manicheans, we recognized that your Jewish god for the jealous and misguided creator he was. Mankind was expelled from Paradise because had they also tasted of the tree of life they would have become immortal and as the serpent promised, truly godlike. And the most terrible angel in heaven was posted sentry over the Garden of Mysteries. But like all the secrets of the spiritual realm, your Kabbalists have left clues as to how they have learned to defeat or avoid these spiritual guardians and I have become one of their most dedicated students in this field of study, but for a very different purpose. Most of my plunder has been in the form of knowledge, but it was information that was put to good use in the physical world. But the Stones also afforded me a good measure of protection. Fate arranged that the stones I found were in the order of the lower row of the Breastplate of Aaron. I later discovered that when on the march in the wilderness the three tribes the stones correspond to were also grouped together in battle formation and were deployed together to protect one of the four sides. This strength is reflected in the spiritual realm. I suspect that you may have an equal quantity of stones, but not in such a fortuitous combination. This accounts for your partial success and also your ultimate defeat.

Look around you Jew! All we grasped for is coming to pass, including the final destruction of World Jewery! If only we had been patient and subtle, we would only have had to wait until the world was ready. But the hard road had it's benefits. Only I and a few others pure of purpose survive. The discoveries of the nature of our DNA soon after the war allowed the secrets of the Tree of Life to be applied to the physical world. By culling a few of the weak and useless from the local population, we have repaired our bodies and extended our span of years, taking the organs, tissues and stem cells we need. We've found the moral handwringing in the world over these technologies laughably ironic. While you've vacillated, we've gone far beyond anything you've envisioned and at this point our primacy in this field is permanently out of your reach. Soon we will announce our greatest acheivement and your world will beg us for access to our knowledge. The morning will soon dawn where the world will again see us as a race of magicians sent to lead them and will gratefully capitulate.

So. I'm getting impatient. You will set down the weapons before I kill this Jew and Hans Jurge starts tearing the rest of you limb from limb. My helicopter awaits and on the way I might consider ransoming you for the rest of the stones in your possession, although I'm certain that some associates of mine may be close to obtaining them regardless. Make your decision now!"

Yossi refused to meet Matt's gaze, but was trying to shake his head in the grip of the colossus.

"Do as he says, put your guns down men"

They complied, but Matt was not yet ready to surrender his weapon. He needed a second for his conscious mind to override the reflex that his training with the weapon had burned in. As he laid it gently on the polished floor the disruptor gave a single barely audible chirp. Matt took one step back.

Brunner pounced on the SHOFAR with surprising nimbleness. He caressed the pearly housing while holstering his sidearm. He took hold of the gripes and as a sly smile spread across the parchment of his face he pointed the barrel at the motionless group of prisoners.

They'd never know if he meant to fire in an act of casual treachery, or if it was a gesture of intimidation before ordering Matt to come with him. Waves of energy had already begun streaming out of the sonic generator that was the heart of the weapon. The little time the Israeli scientists had to research the different effects the weapon could produce left them limited options. The only choice for a self-destruct mechanism had to be the sole effect that could transfer through the frame of the weapon itself. This itself was easily done by tuning to a frequency that resonated with the molecules of the SHOFAR's materials. Given the nature of their enemy it was even seen as a benefit that this effect would also transfer to anyone in direct physical contact with the weapon. The problem was that the only waveform that worked was the same that caused the demolition effect.

The result on Brunner was devastating but seemed to the team also excruciatingly slow. First affected were the nerves. The designers assumed it would be unbearable, but the same explosive firing of ganglia that would induce such agony would also cause muscles to contract until they became as rigid as stone. The Nazi became frozen in silent suffering like wax effigy of a denizen of Hell. Then in order of solidity the wroughtworks of the body were undone. First the bones ground themselves to powder, tendons and ligaments became gelatin. As the muscle liquified, the pent-up torment was briefly released in a brief keening howl that trialed off in a pathetic gurgle. The entire flacid mass held together only by the papery skin, burst on the floor with a sickening pop, fouling their boots.

The tow-headed giant was shrieking in terror and was soon crouched in a corner whimpering in anticipation of a similar fate at the hands of the merciless Jewish wizards. Then a recessed door flew open. A very tall thin man in an SS uniform and gold rimmed glasses charged them firing a machine pistol. He seemed unable to control the muzzle lift and the rounds sailed over their heads. Yossi aimed a diving kick at an office chair on casters which rolled into the path of the ostrich-like gait of their attacker. He went down hard with a crack as his forehead met the linoleum. Yossi somehow knew this was the network admin, and his satisfaction was immense.

At that moment Lincoln staggered in pushing a women ahead of him. Her arms were bound behind her back with ziptie restraints and she was covered with demolition dust. He had a head wound that was still oozing blood. "Caught her skulkin' around. I think Baby Huey over there fractured my damn skull. Someone shoot em for me, I'm seeing double. I'm gonna sit down now."
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guest author: mauro
Party and Pistols - Part 2
“Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I hope you have had a good sleep and had some coffee. This is will not take long and since we have a long day ahead of us, we will make this to the point. What I am about to tell you will change everything and not much in your lives. Your opinion is not requested and is terribly irrelevant. The long story short is that you are all be part of the same agency now.
You Stormi, have ceased working for Stasi. You Zuzu are finished with The South Afrikan Jewish Consortium (for mutual benefit and welfare). You Ev are no longer a free-lance freedom fighter and your B&B is now a parking lot. You Ari no longer even hold an American passport. You, Franco, are not even you-know-what anymore unless I tell you so and you Mauro, you…. you just stay you; it’s bad enough as it is.
Not one of you is a national of your own country anymore.
No one of you has anywhere to go. You Stormi, the moment you set foot outside this office…. you will have anyone that can walk in Gaza after you.
You, Ari, out of this, are still guilty and a lifer. Between Detroit and Denver, it will never be the same because of you. The cemetery manager sent you a thank you postcard from Barbados for your input in his business. And we don’t go “there” do we, I mean “the war”..
Zuzu, you are on a UN must catch list, a Hamas must kill list, a Russian hit list, in the FBI top 30 most wanted, in the awol list of the SA Army.
Between you all, you are officially undesirable in 63 countries. 63.
Franco is now formally institutionalised. We will tolerate the absurdly wrong and indecent parts of your personality (posting a picture for almost every comment) and you Mauro…well, I think it was only last Friday the last time a Cotoletta crew was known to be looking for you. Earl “The Pearl”, Rip “Heads” Ford, Vario“Suntan” Pederiste and Tutu “O’negro” Ancamen and given that in South America there are the wolves after you…. wherever you go, you wont go to your family so what the fuck; you might as well stay.”
Silence
“You with me?” she added
“Is the Pope a Cath..” “I wouldn’t say that man, honest” “Bad joke?” “Bad joke” “Get over it?” “Quick” “Done”.

“After 5 years of trial and tests you are now working for another state. This state has enormous resources and deepest clout. This state has ultimate power and responsibility. You will join the untold service that is everywhere. Everywhere. It has power in the most remote corners and in every capital. This, you will understand, is IT.”
Grey naked walls, a table, not Italian* coffee on it, 5 chairs. We’re all seated in front of this total stunner who, I assume, is Maresciallo Midden. I stopped asking; it’s never the same person anyway. I’m just happy this one hasn’t got moustaches…or has she…
She’s intentionally towering over us in a menacing way, she clearly dislikes each and every one of us with a flavour, she is furious that she has to associate with us and she has a venomous mean streak to chill your blood and freeze you like a cod.
“Boss, what happened to swanky offices, espresso & pastries, lunch break at Davide’s in Piazza Risorgimento?”
A look of contempt is all I get.
“You will be explained all you’re worth explaining to in Rome, where you will be in about three and a half hours. Do not pack anything; you’ll be back tonight. You’re going to get cleansed”
“I don’t have to go to Rome for a shower” Ari muttered
“Ari, Mauro, Franco, especially you. Mesh has been purified too and is already in place where you will be in a few days. I remind you he is our insurance. Ours against “them” and ours against you.”
“Thanks for the trust boss. I thought you just said we were going to be made or something today. Can you expand a little? And please, let me have the time to take the guys to Pascucci in Rome, that frullato must be worth a daring visit!” “Oi oi Miss, I am all for Italian frullato!” came in Stormi “Why am I not surprised” said Zuzu” “what d’you mean” “Nothing” “What d’you mean? No say it. Say it” “I was joking, nothing” “I don’t like you, you know, South Afrikan shit, yes? Friend of whatisname the nazi there eh?” “You miserable fuck, look who’s talking, the German lover!” “Wha’dd’you call me? Wha’dd’you call me?” “Ladies! Please!” “Ladies… how many?” Zuzu spat.
The girls didn’t like each other; from what I had learned, Stormi was doing a great job in the territories. She was a pacithick chef during the day and a beggar at night. She was on both camps of the enemy. Zuzu instead was a skipper of a 4-strong crew who routinely eliminated the “worst cases” and by accident (yes, by accident) happened to dispose of a case before Stormi had finished linking him to the next on the chain. No point in having your target in sight if you don’t have the next one in view too. Don’t move if you don’t know where you will go next. Stormi had worked at it for months and it wasn’t that worth of a kill…not him, not yet anyway. But hey, Zulu’s crew was one of a kind really and it was in town. Speciality: incursion & stings. A fast trail of death in other words.

“I don’t mean to be venial but what’s the money like in this agency?” “I wouldn’t worry about that. Wherever you are, all you will have to do is walk into a church and ask.” “ Yes, of course, how stupid of me. Marescia`, why Rome? And can I stay a few hours longer?”
“Rome because that is where it is. No, extra hours. See you tonight”
“Is she on drugs?” asked Stormi walking to the plane which seemed to be right outside of that room. “I’ve no idea my friend but if there’s a plane taking me to Rome I really don’t care about anything else. Provide she takes me to Rome, I’ll say yes to any fantasy she has, the maniac. Take me to Rome, you’ll see.”

The car speeds through the roman traffic, yellow taxis, fur covered women, arrogant mopeds, endless roadwork’s, vigili urbani on a war-path, cut through Fori Imperiali, flow into Piazza venezia traffic, a look at the balcony where he used to address the masses, over Largo Argentina and into Corso Vittorio, by passing Campo De` Fiori and the Jewish quarter, down towards San Pietro. Over the bridge, Rome is potent in her looks. A view from that bridge at the right time of sunset it a show of Godly magnitude.
Via Della Conciliazione looks to the square itself. The car negotiates over the low columns and moved solemnly over sanpietrini and beside puzzled tourists, visitors and faithful. The Swiss Guard lifts the bar without a look or a question. We are in Vaticano. Through a small tunnel, the car finds itself on the side of a beautiful garden.
“Fratelli! Benvenuti a Roma.” Suor Annia said, opening the door of the car. As I step out of the car, a perfume that permeates the air nearly knocks me out. It’s beautiful… Suor Annia, second guessing me just points to a magnificent plant…..”and you haven’t smelled those ones….those ones beyond that row or roses….those are for later. We just thought that this garden was a good welcome.” As I look around me, my partners in crime are all looking like on some heavenly drug. I love them all and they all love me. We have grown such a bond. We would die for each other…gee, this drug is strong I am hallucinating a bond that is not there…wakey wakey Mauro, what drug is this? “You seem puzzled Mauro” “I am just taken aback sister”
Things are slowly falling in place.
“Follow me please, take your shoes off, feel the grass while we cross the garden”
As I walk, a surge of power runs through my body, it’s like my body is a washing machine initiating its program.
From my feet to my head I feel a growing push and a drench off of all that is bad within it. By the time it gets to my face, I am the happiest guy to walk on hearth.
“WHAT WAS THAT!!!” we all bursted once out of it. “Wow this is amazing, I haven’t felt like this in. …ever, fucking ever!” Zuzu cried as in going crazy. But that was crazy stuff. Suor Annia asks us to moderate our language and smiling invites us put our shoes back on, now he adds, we are going to meet Monsignor Giuseppe Papi.

Monsignor Papi…I remember him, he was on the right of Monsignor Lefebvre for a period before making a figliol prodigo return to the church. He was seen as a war priest, an irrequieto, alleged to be in soul communion with some of the most reactionary wings of the church. He’s the link between the church and right-wing evangelists. Powerful stuff. Just how powerful, I was about to find out.
Someone up there had decided to move a piece on the big chess-board and he is that piece. It’s like Lucyferus really pissed God off this time and the chips are down.
“Fratelli, did you enjoy walking in the garden? 5 happyness-numb faces staring the depth of nothingness….he claps his hands and we get back. “I love it, now who sold you those plants? You can make a fortune! I mean this could be bigger than anything before. Forget the poppy fields in Afghanistan, forget the Colombian plantations, forget the Southeast Asian golden triangle. This is bigger than drugs, this is bigger than alcohol, this is the next thing” I’ve lost my head, the plant’s scent is still all over my head. I want more.
“Don’t be silly Mauro. What you have just had was a mere whiff of the scent of some plants in Paradise. Just a whiff…anything more could actually kill you if you are in a human body” “Paradise, yes…they must be; heavenly they are…. now how much per seed?”
Monsignor Papi looks at me bemused by my naivety.
“It’s time you all know what is happening to your lives.
You are what we have, in the centuries and centuries before, called upon in the name of Our Lord. You will be dispensed of sin and live to be one of His mysterious ways.” “Listen Monsignor Papi, I don’t think we need all this stuff you know? We’re grown adults here. I’m having my fills with all this show and to be honest, I don’t think we share all the most important values so, why don’t we just part company now…and….ohmyGordon….what is this….” said Franco as his voiced ridiculously pitched between extremely manly and extremely gay on its own, without Franco having any control over it….we’re all smirking at the bastard…“Be patient please Franco. Be patient all of you. Remember, everything will be revealed and He works on need-to-know basis. Suor Annia will now take you to a cell; one each and you will spend a few minutes inside praying. When you come back, you will understand.”

In the little room there is a small bench to knee on to. As I knee I feel a lump in my heart and I realise immediately that room is my soul. I am inside my soul and I can change whatever I want and keep whatever I want, whatever makes my happiness.
My own happiness. Mine, here’s my soul, here’s my one chance to make me a happy person. I cannot believe this is happening, I am tampering with my soul, adjusting, fixing and as I do it, I feel changes being stored away. I want to be a good man, I want to live a normal life, I never want to see a gun again, I never want to betray any woman I will have, I never want to steal, cheat, rob, deal again. Can I really have all this?
“I must admit some of you have pretty strange expectations from your soul in your remaining time on earth. Frank…ly I am appalled and strongly doubt you will be given what you seem to ask but hey….mysterious ways and all that, remember?”
He looks genuinely bewildered at that piece of white paper in front of his hands. Yet his orders are clear.
“Go back to the garden, the Francescano will show you a path you will need to follow. At the end of that path there is a tree. Yes, an apple tree. Pick an apple and eat it. It will make sure the devil always knows who you are.”
I am making no questions anymore; my entire belief system has been thrown to the pits. I feel like a Lego part. Either this guys has discovered the Nirvana of all drugs and I was going to be the richest drug baron ever, or it was all True.
If it was True, I was in a real pile this time.
“This is all very miraculous…. any chance to tell me who killed Kennedy?” said Ari. “Is Elvis alive?” “Truly, is Lazio ever going to win the league again?”, “The Minnesota National Lottery Numbers?” “We don’t do betting,” grinned Mons. Papi while opening the door.
“Note: He didn’t say no to the rest” notes Ari.
As we make to get out, Suor Annia runs in with a small piece of paper; a message. A look of relief in Mons. Papi’s face.
“On second thought, guys, your list of soul changes has been so alarming that He Himself has decided that more than suited for this service, you are best suited to 350 years in purgatory (where you get to work really hard to get anywhere near to paradise) but, given that we’re all too deep into this now, we’ll look at about 15% of what new people you want to be and work with that. In the meantime, you’re still in. Let’s just skip the second garden bit because, and He says and He’s right, “That’s such a nice garden…”

As we are led away by Suor Annia, we cross the garden we walked before. It’s dead. It’s all-dry, burnt out flowers and cracked stems.
There rests our Sins.
“We had to make room for new terrible sins. What you will be asked to do. There are times, there are places where the Archangels will fight and win the Demons; those places, those times will need to be prepared. While you slay its human incarnation, the archangels rip the demon soul in the heavens”
“Another one on crack” whispered Stormi.

“So, I believe you have met Mos. Papi and his aid Suor Annia
“Yes” I said.
“Ok. Now, I will need to brief you individually over your new mission and new resources” All the others are led out.
“Ok, first, congratulation for wanting to be a sane person after this, unlike most of your associates. I was surprised to be told. As we speak you’re only looking at about 27 years in Purgatory.
“Sounds spectacular” “You haven’t lost your irreverence.” “You haven’t lost your sense of humour. I bet you’re Ms Paradise yesterday eh?” “No actually, 3 years” “I wonder how they calculate, I mean this is a bit dictatorial….” “Well, there are points of no return and points of…what the f…. listen, you; the job at hand now.”
“Simple again. Mesh has been sitting on a roof for three weeks now. He’s part of the furniture. He’s waiting for a good shot and he’ll wait as long as it takes. In the meantime he’s also pot shot other birds. It’s a bit of a blurr in the bees nest. Can’t find the shooter and lost of nervous people about.” “Haven’t they caught him yet? I mean, same roof? 3 weeks? How many birds did he take?” “4, he’s found a great spot and you know he doesn’t say much. He’s just saying he’s enjoying the new resources.” “Is he?” “Sounds like it yes, anyway. There’s all the fuss we need to get in, take the big one out and walk away.” “Kidnap your taxy driver, put him in the trunk, you need him for about 4 hours, so adequate knocking only please. Get his papers, go to this address. It’s a laundry. It’s where they do the ministry’s tapestry and all that. Someone you know will work there. Stuff yourself inside a rug or something. You’ll end up in the staff and delivery area. Someone you know will work there by then. Here’s the plant, here’s the staff door, follow this arrow and your target will be here.” “And what’s between me and my target?” “At the time you’re going, not much.”
“What about Ari and Franco, Stormi and Zuzu?” “And what’s it to you?” “Just curious….I mean, I am getting a difficult job and we’re all on the same dough you know?…” “Wha’; you think they’re getting the easy jobs?” “Well, we’re talking killing again for starters and I though I was purified and all that” “Yes, you have, imagine how dirty you were. But there are times where swift actions must be carried out” “Hence Ari?” “Hence Ari, yes. He’s much faster than you at decisions.” “This is the good guys yes?” “Yes. Now. Once you’re out of the rug, in your nice burqa, you just make your fast way. Someone will have already eliminated as many as possible without rousing suspicion in the run up 20 minutes before you arrive.
As from the moment you arrive, you will also have Mesh support. As you leave, in the rug again and to the laundry, take the taxy and go to the home of the driver, some you’ll know works in the taxy company, he’ll find out who’s missing, send your “way out” there.”
“Sounds preposterous like all your other plans boss”
“Unreal”
“What”
“You’ve been in the Vatican”
“Leave that alone. What’s so good about going into a nest of bees and stick my head in it? Security will be high, big numbers.”
“Like I said, there is Mesh from the outside and another colleague from the inside to weed off a few.” “Boss, I want out. I prefer giving a go here on earth than 27 years of Purgatory.” “Go to bed, it’s all enough for you guys today. Really. Go and have a rest Mauro” she says rubbing her gun. I’m sure you’ll feel all better tomorrow.
“No doubt I will Boss, no doubt I will.”
1 month later…
Beirut South. 427 yards from Nashi’s lair.
Interrogating Abdul, some “in the know” guy deep in Beirut
“So, make me understand; you were king in your homeland; now you’ve got it half destroyed and half occupied while you call this a victory.
You’ve suffered human losses about tenfold of your enemy’s and still you call this a victory.
Your children run amongst piles of rubble, while your enemy’s ones go to the beach and yet you call this a victory.
You have infidel soldiers in their thousands in what was Umma-land and guess what? You call this a victory.
You had monopoly over the border with your enemy, now you can’t even see it with binoculars and again you call this a victory.
Please, more victories like this mate…if that’s a victory for you, what would be defeat? You know, the Jews have totally destroyed your infrastructure while you damaged a couple of villas and they call this a defeat.
They suffered human losses about 10 times smaller than yours and still they call this a defeat.
Their children have probably missed a few days of school whereas yours have schools in rubble and yet they call this a defeat.
They now have thousands of other nations’ soldiers occupying your territory and to protect Israel’s border and guess what? They call this a defeat.
They had a vicious enemy over their border and now you can’t see that border even on a postcard and again they call this a defeat.
Wouldn’t you want defeats like this?”
Abdul was silent. He said all he had to say last night. It was time to kill him now. I mean, I should have killed him a few hours ago already but just thought I’d let him live a bit longer, he’s so nervous. Easy to call martyr, less easy to approach to be one.
Sing your prayers pilgrim of death, your gatherer is looming.
As I load my gun Ari comes back from the shops, “This fucker still alive?” WHACK-WHACK “What’s wrong with you! You were supposed to pop it 3 hours ago. What’re you keeping him alive for? Christmas decoration?” “You’re a fucking psyco Ari” “But you love me, so fuggerabourit”
I am not cleaning this mess.

“Ari, am I really the only one that thinks this was the best outcome possible? After the dust settles, it will be Hezbollah to suffer stigma from all Lebanese and then, they will not be able to shoot at Israel from over the hill to give themselves a purpose. There’re more infidels on that hill now. South Lebanon looks like Dresden and is reduced to handouts, the 10.000U$$ may taste good now but in reality? It will not go far; you don’t rebuild a house and you don’t rebuild a life with that.
Soon, the dollars for the populace will dry, then?
Soon enough the deluded Arabs and the radical-chic pacithiks will realise that Hezbollah has nowhere to go now whereas Israel will have handed “the hot potato” to a host of others. Israel borders with Europe now. That’s a great move. Anything that happens from now on will have to be sorted by Europe via the UN whereas Israel will have earned a nice cushion/buffer between itself and South Lebanon. A 15.000 soldier’s buffer precisely.
All Israel has to do now, if any Hezbollah manages to bypass the UN soldiers (and they will), is resist temptation of raids or retaliation for a few months. Let Europe see for itself Hezbollah’s treachery and then, when the time is mature, payback, which was always legitimate, will also be supported rather than antagonised.
And then, Israel will have the free reign it needs to dismantle Hezbollah.”
“Did you smoke while I was out?”
He’s a such a puritan prick, I lie “No, smoke what”
Look of contempt my way.

Anyway, I had “word”. Stormi is in place at the laundry, Zuzu at the staff quarter, Franco at the taxy station and I’ll be wherever the fuck the guy you’re gonna kidnap lives. Do me a favour, make it a nice area of Beirut.” “What happened with me flying out and flying in another person again just for this stint?” “Forget that, we ran out of dough” “Are you joking me?” “Couldn’t find a church, we’re in South Lebanon here, not exactly Oratory playground. It was that maniac of Maresciallo Midden idea anyway. The megalomaniac. Monsignor Papi thought it was extravagant but apparently even him just looked the other way when she came up with it.” “Listen mate, really, what’s this story of going into a church?” “You mean you haven’t tried it yet”? “No, I thought…” “SO did I. Just go” “Ok, will do.”

It all unfolds as fast as it always does. Speed, precision and surprise is all. The driver is one Ahmedjan Mahaj. Whatever. I call the office and claim to be a friend who’s looking for him. Soon, they’ll report him missing. I go to the laundry, Stormi is there, no one else seems to be, she opens a door, 3 corpses, a pile of rugs, I roll into one. I am loaded in a van, I am downloaded into a staff room large table, I unfold and Zuzu is there, she smiles and I can see a bloodied blade just peeping through the sleeves of the burqa. I get the picture; there won’t be many left, she got as far as she could get, it’s men only after that door. I follow the arrows in my mind, one, two, four, six, seven bodies then a door. Stormi indicates me to just knock.
As I knock a hole opens up and an eye scrutinise me. I am a man, I have a beard, I have come so far. The door opens and as it does a knife whiz next to my ear and right through the man’s forehead, not a sound, he doesn’t fall, he just stares at me, dead. I bypass him and two men look at me. One, two. Dead. A corridor, an aide, dead, a stair, a door ajar, I enter, 3 men, one is my man.
“Have a nice victory gentlemen.” I tell them.
3 seconds later that’s over too.
As I come out a carload of men erupts from a government vehicle. I watch little fountains of blood springing from they skulls. 4 in 3 seconds. This is Mesh, this is the Insurance.
I’m in the rug, I’m driving off.
“I am not at home, please see Rajawis’ down Al-Sharallallah-lallah bar” Ari, you fucking crazy? You’re supposed to be my “way out” here! This address! As I get to the bar, Ari’s having a drink with the others. Only Ev’s missing. “Where’s is he?” “He had a conscience crisis” Franco said “After the Vatican thing he converted to some obscure cult in Arizona and now has 82 wives and 166 children, a ranch of 150 square km, 350 cattle, a worshipping crowd of about 650 e 2 cadillacs”
“2 cadillacs?” “ye, ain’t that funny” I said…..”Mysterious ways”, I just wish.
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guest author: papijoe
Part XXV: Hunted
ENCRYPTION: 1024 BIT
FROM: TIM
TO: ALL

THIS IS VERY URGENT. MELCHIZEDEK IS IN GREAT DANGER. I'VE RECEIVED AN ANONYMOUS TIP FROM MI6. HE HAS BEEN ARRESTED AND IS BEING HELD IN OK AWAITING. THE SIGINT DEPT HAS INTERCEPTED A MESSAGE THAT 2 HIT TEAMS ARE BEING POSITIONED TO ASSASSINATE HIM. ONE IS IN THE JAIL ITSELF AND IF THAT DOESN'T SUCCEED THERE IS A SNIPER TEAM TO TAKE HIM ON HIS WAY TO THE AIRPORT AFTER HE IS EXTRADITED. WE NEED TO GET IN CONTACT WITH HIM AND WARN HIM IMMEDIATELY AND GUARANTEE HIS SAFETY.

***

"You seem to be taking this well. That's good. If you stay cool, there's a good chance I can get you out of here. These people are about as dangerous as they come, but they ain't as smart as they think they are. One thing they didn't take into account is we got family around here. See, I knew you was family the minute I saw you. And you picked a good alias. Not too many would admit to believing the old stories, but the old folks especially would talk about things that had happened, not in front of just anybody of course. In fact if one'd say too much in front of the younger folks th' other'd give em a look and they would shut right up. But after a while, if they thought you could keep a secret they'd talk about the family, and about the heir. Afterwards they'd be sorry they said anything and make you swear not to tell anyone. But all the old folks knew. I reckon it's the family business that brings you out here, maybe you're even the one. I know you're running, but you're chasing something too. So here's the plan, old Earl Whitlow, he's a Glazier on his mother's side, they still got people living in the Township. He's in charge of the maintenance crew at night. They trust him here. And Earl knows me, we got to talking last time I was in here, turns out our grannies was cousins, both named Eunice. They met when our people came from California for a Glaizer reunion they held every summer in the Township. Ever since they wrote to each other regular. Earl will help cuz you're family too.

The timing is going to be real important. This thing is supposed to go down in the exercise yard at noon when the guard's shift changes, but we need to get out early, they let some of the older ones like me out early to walk around the perimeter before it gets crowded. There is a locked door next to the basketball courts that opens to a storage area. Then there's another locked door that opens to a corridor. Earl will leave em open but you gotta lock em behind you. If you go right and follow the corridor to the end there's a loading dock. There's a huge bin full of dirty laundry. Dive into that as quick as you can and cover yourself. They'll load it on the laundry truck with a fork lift so no one will notice the extra weight. The bin gets tied off to slats on the side of the truck, and it has a half gate in back so you aren't sealed in. After he picks up here at 10:00, he gets breakfast at the truckstop on the highway out of town. From there you have two choices. You can try to get a ride with a trucker. But I have a feeling you ain't gonna get much of a head start. The other choice is to cut through the scrub out back and then down the hill to the rail yard. You can pick any direction. For reasons I'll explain in a minute, I hope you go West, but you need to go in the last direction they'd expect you to.

The one favor I'll ask you is to read this letter here when you get somewhere safe. I gave you as much cash as I could, try to save it for emergencies. There's another letter in with it for Michaela. What ever you do don't lose it or let anyone take it. It tells you how to get in touch with her and it has half of the signal that she'll answer. I'll tell you the other half just before you go. I need you to find her and help end this thing. We've been up against the same people or at least they're all in it together."

"What exactly do you think 'it' is?"

"To understand you have to know what was at stake. Innocence is one of the most powerful things there is. They made war on the innocence of my generation. For some it was Vietnam, for others it was the drugs. For most it was the damn TV. They also took the destiny that was there for us and switched it with one they made, like a changling baby. And those they couldn't change, well, you've heard all the fairy tales. They were chased off into the forest, put in high towers or under a spell. Don't ask me to tell you who they really are, it don't matter, they can call themselves one thing today and another tomorrow. Somehow just when we thought we'd won and were going to live happily ever after, they got in and took over. But the worst part is we saw the enemy and it was us."

Arlie leaned close and whispered in Melchizedek's ear. He nodded.

"Ok, they're coming. You're gonna do this."

***

They did two laps around the yard. Arlie adopted an unhurried casualness that helped Melchizedek calm his jitters. Arlie seemed to be waiting for the yard to fill up enough that Melchizedek's sudden disappearance wouldn't stand out. After the third lap they veered along the basketball court which was still empty and around the side of the building. "Go, I'll make sure no one is following you. Make sure you lock the door behind you. Quick now, good luck."

He slipped through unnoticed and made sure it clicked shut behind him. He made his way quietly past the cleaning supplies and equipment and cautiously opened the door. He immediately heard voices and eased it shut again. He strained to get a sense of the direction of the conversation. They seemed to move away in the direction of the loading dock that was also his destination. From Arlie's description of the layout of the building, if anyone was facing his direction he would be in clear view when he opened the door. Until the two lounging on the loading dock moved along he was trapped. Arlie had warned him he only had about a 40 minute window before the laundry truck left. As he searched the room for another way out he peered out the single window. It was barred, but it had a view of the employee parking lot beyond the dock. Clusters of kitchen and laundry workers waited beneath the window, apparently for transportation. He stood on a plastic barrel of liquid floor wax to get a better view of the outside area. There was a rack of clean uniforms against one of the walls. He began searching through them until he found one that fit reasonably well.

As he had when he posed as the Dutch professor and later as the doctor travelling to a conference, he found some acting techniques that he had learned of from a former girlfriend to be useful in handling the stress and strain of being someone he was not. He "centered himself" in the character of an unskilled laborer who was a recent refugee of an Eastern European country. If challenged he would plead his ignorance in his meager supply of English phrases and quail as one who still remembered the helplessness of living in a Kafkesque dictatorship. He opened the door and shuffled down the hall with the weariness of one barely surviving on 2 full time jobs. One whose paltry paychecks were eaten up by wire transfers overseas at outrageous fees that keep three generations from starvation for another week. He entered the loading dock and let his head shoulders and limbs be dragged down by years of imagined toil, avoiding eye contact. He didn't see any sign through his peripheral vision that the two men talking took any notice of him, his role protected him like a cloak of invisibility. He tottered down the stairs and rounded the corner to join the group waiting for their ride. Even with his slouch, he towered over most of the workers, so he hunkered down with his back to the wall and pretended to nod off. A van eventually pulled up. Roughly half of the people began to line up to pay the driver. Fortunately both the kitchen and laundry workers had his same white uniform, so someone working in one area would assume he worked in the other. There were also some in blue scrubs who seemed to be medical orderlies. He approached one timorously, "Which bus? Please?" "Moos-koo-gee" "Thank you" That would be close enough to the bus station and railyard.

He was squeezed against the side of the door by a large Woman with food stains on her uniform as the van was packed to bursting. Still sweating from the kitchen, she enveloped him in her humid local climate. After the last person had wedged themselves in and all the passengers had to exhale at the same time so the door would close, the driver got in. The tires scraped against the inside of the wheel wells with every bump in the road. He worried briefly that this would cause a blowout before they got to Muskogee. But now that he had done all he could and his fate was out of his hands, the tension bled out of him. Even the sound of approaching sirens couldn't prevent his descent into sleep.

***

Trooper Nikki Swagger knew that every second lost since she was notified of the escape increased the chances that he would get away clean. If she could get to the most likely points out of the county first she stood a good chance of finding him. One advantage was her ability to identify him immediately. She had already checked the bus station and left instructions to call the State Police if someone fitting the book thief's description showed up. Next was the truck stop. Fortunately a fugitive warning had been broadcast over the CB channels and the truckers could be counted on to cooperate. She did a quick pass around the diner and service areas. Another trooper would be along soon and she wanted to check out a hunch she had. She traveled a few hundred yards down the road and stopped at the top of a buff that overlooked the railyard. There was a path between the truckstop and the railyard. Only short scrub pine and sickly oak grew in the sandy soil but there was fair cover except for a few clearings. Nikki shifted her gaze between the bare places along the trail and was eventually rewarded by the sight of tall figure in white making his way quickly through the exposed areas. She put the cruiser in gear, as she was in plain sight as well. There was a locked gate where the utility road began, she would have to be quick with the bolt cutters she kept in the trunk. She estimated that the diesel engine sounds and clashing of the rail cars would cover the sound of her tires on the gravel, and she would be able to travel fast enough to get to the rail yard a little ahead of the fleeing book thief.

The road wasn't as well maintained as she would have liked. It was barely suitable for the 4x4 pickups that Conrail used and the State takes a dim view of troopers tearing out the undercarriage of their vehicles. Still she used the noise of the long horn blast of an engine getting underway to mask the roar of her final acceleration as the cruiser burst into the level clearing of the yard. She had caught Glazier dashing for the accelerating train. She blocked him and her Glock 9mm was in her hand as she sprang from the vehicle. He veered off and ran for the cover of some derelict tank car.

"You drop now Mr Glazier, or I will drop you!", she bellowed. It was daddy's Marine DI voice, and as always, it worked.

He pulled up short and tipped forward into the dust.

She wasn't gentle this time. He winced when she kicked his feet apart, and again when she had his hands handcuffed behind his back in a double joint lock and hauled him up hard. She used the excruciating strain on his shoulder ligaments to keep him on the tips of his toes all the way back to the cruiser. She got him into the cruiser more or less by sweeping his legs out and throwing him in. She didn't seem to mind that his head grazed the top of the rear door on the way in. He left his leg out of the car a bit too long and made sure he got it out of the way the second time the door slammed. She was slightly out of breathe as she got behind the wheel. As she radioed in she watched him in the rear view mirror as he struggled to control the trembling that had started with his legs.

Finally she spoke. "Well Mr Glazier it looks like you might be our guest longer than you planned. If the murder charge sticks, that is..."
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guest author: mauro
Parties and Pistols
“I can’t take this anymore, going to parties with a gun, I mean, I’ve had enough, what sort of life is this! Do you know how many times have cheated death in the last week? Week? What week! In the last 48 hours for crissake! How long do you think this is going to last? They ain’t gonna always miss you know? I want out of this! I’ve repaid my fkng debt you hear me? Get me a fkng ticket out of this garbage can, now!”
I yelled over the phone, sweat trickling over my cheek, burning over my bruised cheekbone. It’s hot in this damned slice of the world.

“Yes, yes, yes, I heard this before. In words, you have resigned already 25 times in the last 3 years, have you noticed that? You want out? Piss off then. Go. Who cares! See if I care! You may be the best we’ve got in that shit-hole of a country but hey, go on, be my guest, and while you’re at it, why don’t you blow your fucking cover as well? Do a Franchino on us you twat”
Maresciallo Midden would take none of it. Again and again I had shown frustration and stress yet I wasn’t being substituted. “Your work rate bla bla bla…the success of Operation x, y and z…your field knowledge bla-bla-bla” and that’s when I wasn’t getting the old “Democracy! Freedom!” speeches.
Stuff that. I have spent my whole life dodging bullets and handcuffs. I have been a football-hooligan, a drug dealer, a robber, a counterfeiter, a “family” associate, a “Fascist” extremist and now an agent for a non-specified Italian “security” service agency. So anonymous it has no name. So secretive, I do not know my superiors. So closed I often wonder if there’s anybody else besides Maresciallo Midden and me in this. But I can’t do this any more. I have 17 bodies in my conscience and a grand total of 768 years in jail sentences handed out to people I’ve caught. Were they all bad? Yes. Yes they were but my conscience is asking me precisely WHAT makes me better than them. I killed, robbed, cheated just like any of them. And no, I have not asked for forgiveness to a God who looks away while I pull that trigger.
God…here’s someone that owes me answers.
Is the killing of a made man by a made man any more of a killing than the killing of a drug baron by an “agent”? Am I killing because otherwise justice cannot be done? There are limits, many limits, to “democratic” rule after all and someone has to protect that rule.
I am just tired for that person to be me.

Wow. If only the bullet that’s looking for me could giv’a fuck about any of that...

Ari was sitting right next to me when these thoughts were being loud in my mind. He knew them full well. Ari works for something very similar to my thing. Similar…but how many times we actually thought it was the same? Oh yes, difference: he gets paid in dollars while I get paid in Euros. Some fucking difference. We could never find another difference and often speculated whether we were working for the same “agency”? The recruitment seems to be the same after all. Ari robbed, dealt and did more or less the same stuff I did before being talent-spotted like me.
“Here’s that Pina-Colada Mauro. Forgetaboutit” and every time he says that forgetaboutit I think “is this from a movie or is this from reality?” I never asked really. One day I will but I am not sure I’ll like the answer either way.

Maresciallo Midden, as usual, would finish the conversation with “you’re the best at this Mauro, think careful please” and I never understood what that “careful” meant. I never understood but always felt somewhat uneasy. I have paid many dues; could I not just walk away from “it” now? Or was I in another “family” I could not leave? Bottom line, I had had enough of Latin America, Mafiosi, explosives’ traders, expatriates, fugitives, drug brokers, drug growers, drug users (woopy!) and agents of every single national police/security force on earth.

I had enough of parties on boats filled with cocaine, enough of that metallic bulge in my waist, enough of half-sleeps, enough of half women and enough of a half-life, enough of a job that kept me tied to a phone and a gun.
15 bullets in my Beretta, one per jail-term years I swapped with this life. Thank you Maresciallo Midden. I am not sure that 15 years in jail would have been as bad as 5 years of this.

Ari looked at the ice melting in that Pina Colada and I wondered yet again what did he did he swap with to choose this.
“We’re the silent heroes” he often smirks. Heroes.
The world has lived without me for millions of years so, why can’t it leave without me now?
We often spent time laughing about the most absurd things or spent hours in silence after an “eventful” day. Ari and I were not paired together but always find time to meet and do stuff. This is a pretty lonely life really. When you meet women and people and you just cannot tell them why you find smiling with your eyes difficult. Ari and I almost traded bullets before trading a look that made both realise we were in the same sinking boat.
I value his unspoken friendship more than anything now. Neither one of us will see old age. Neither one has seen home in years. Neither has any hope of seeing home again. Neither one of us has a woman that can be called My Woman. I have seen a photo of a child in his room once. Must have been a 10 years’ old girl in an American school uniform. I never asked who she was. I know who she is. She is the same girl I haven’t seen in 3 years. My daughter. He has one too but there is no point in talking about it. Certain things are better left unsaid; they can drive a man crazy.
Like me, he has tears. I have seen him cry and it’s always good to see others are humans like you, always good to see you are not the only one that cries after an operation.
Yet I have never seen him blink over pulling that trigger and I am sure he thinks the same about me. This is why we stick together, we drink stupid together and I smoke dope to his face, the puritan p***k .

But hey, I take care of difficult people for a living and so does he. From removal to elimination to disposal. This is my punishment and my job and in this one tend to think very little but execute a lot.

Ari slept in his white tuxedo and his panama over his face. His creased shirt’s a mess of food and drink and blood stains. We had no time for a beauty parlour before crashing this morning. A night spent avoiding getting killed take its toll on your wardrobe I guess. But it was yet another job well done and it was only stress that was making me yell at MM.

“You’re coming home, happy?”
Maresciallo Midden said with a triumphant voice over the phone.
“Home?”
“Home.”
“Home as in home?”
“Home as in as close as you can get, yes”
“Home as in Rome?”
“Home as in Rome, yes”
“I don’t believe you”
“You better, you have a Caracas flight bound to Rome at 18.45pm tomorrow ”
“You’re having me on!”
“Well, miss that flight then!”
“But it’s in Venezuela and I am in Chile!”
“One more reason to believe me and hurry”
I had just about 24 hours to get me there…. how the fuck…Aridog! He must have CIA contacts for a dodgy flight!
“Maybe I can help, are you going then?”
His voice sounded feeling-less, I knew instantly that my departure would mean his end. I had never considered that. Never considered what this kind-ship of souls meant to both of us. I knew now. I knew. All of a sudden I knew. I knew I was his only friend just as much as he was my only friend. I knew instantly that my departure meant the beginning of his end. There is no way you can live that life on your own.
I felt sorry for him and sorry for me. I felt I was leaving him to die. Both of us were far too buried in that life to ever be able to make it out of that alive if alone.
But I could not stay. I had to seize this opportunity.

We hugged, no more words were said. We both knew this was the end, we both knew we’d never see each other again. Never. There are no written laws about this but there is one certainty; I have to forget I ever knew him and he has to forget he ever knew me for knowledge is dangerous. In bad times, the less you know, the higher the chances of survival really….that basic rule I had learned in Palermo looking at the lifeless body of Salvatore “Papigio`” Due Bibbie (two Bibles).
He knew the difference between right and wrong, he knew the Bible, he knew the afterlife and he knew too many family secrets. The day we got to him, he was praying on an altar he had built with his own hands in a Catania safe house. 22 years on the run never leaving Sicily. 22 years, 14 of which as boss of the Catanese faction. He sat in the Cupola. He was a respected and feared man. Feared yet fair and this is why the Catania Mafia had the lowest killing count. 22 years just to end clutching a Bible while my Beretta exploded all the 15 bullets. Me and another 3 had put an end to that. If only…if only I could turn back time. That was the second and last of my “family” killing. The reaction of the Catanese faction was unexpected in its ferocity. All my fellow murder-companions got killed in the following 5 months. At the end of the 8th month of war, peace came back and its price was my execution.
Here’s when Maresciallo Midden entered and saved my life. I can still remember his first words
“Do you want to live”?
There was nobody to answer to in the cell I was. No window, no table, no bed, no nothing bar the chair I was sitting on.
“Yes I do”
I meekly replied. I was tired and resigned. How many times had I cheated death of my scalp?
“Are you a patriot”?
What sort of question is that! I thought.
“Because, if you are, and your history tells me you are, then, maybe we can change this life of yours…. I have been watching you”
“Expand please?”
but no voice came back to that. I understood. I had heard of strange recruitment practices from a contact in the Italian services and suddenly realised this was my recruitment. Did I ask why was I chosen? No. I was just glad I was. Maybe and just maybe I could lead a “normal” life now? Maybe I could sleep at night?
Maybe I was never going to fear my shadow again?

Ari looked at me and smiled. He could smile the brightest of smiles and I often wondered how can you be a killer with a smile like that. He was happy one of us was going to make it.
“Let me call a friend, I go back with this guy a long time, he’s a friend of ours”…..
A friend of ours? Ours? I got it now. That way of saying something tells me all I need to know about that “fuggerabourit” he always comes up with. Make no questions Mauro and you’ll get all the answers between the lines. Ari was a made guy. Ari was a made guy that took the fall for someone else. It happens and his family is probably being “looked after” and held in high esteem now. I’ve seen this before. He took a rap that wasn’t his, done some time and got talent spotted.
“We cannot use the agency for this. We’re not supposed to work together. Our friend says there’s no problem. He knows someone that knows someone here with a light plane. You’ll fly with that in 3 hours”
It’s amazing. Last night we tried to disrupt the Mafia and the Cartels business and today I fly with their air force. This is one complicated business of Russian dolls. One into another not knowing neither how many there are or what they look like. I only hope the plane provider is from another “family”.
“Do me a favour mate”
“Anything”
“Once a month, call this number from Europe, ask of Judy Gardener, tell her you tele-sell books, she will give you another number, she will say that person is interested, call that number and try a pitch-sale, you will be successful and that person will pay by credit card over the phone. The middle 12 numbers of that card is a phone number, call that number and say you are a friend of a friend in need, they will keep you on hold for a bit then the line will drop”
“And?”
“And stand by the phone. It will ring back within minutes. A man will ask you what need you have. Say Spiritual. The line will fall again. Get back to that phone at precisely the same time plus 3 hours two days after. It will ring. Pick it up and just say Tony Two Dogs has paid his due. The person on the phone will be a young girl. She will reply yes or no. If it is yes, I am dead.”
“Dead?”
“Dead. Don’t make questions to the girl on the phone and just hang up. If that’s the case I want you to call this number direct and tell my wife I died with her name in my mouth”
“I will”
Air’s wife and the hope to meet her again and tell her all the truth is the only thing that kept him alive this long. To save her he told her he was going away with another woman, he needed her to hate him. He needed her to tell the police and the Mob all she knew about him and to be true in her hate of him.
Anything short than true hate would have got her killed in revenge. Alive she was more useful to them but only if they thought she’d grass him out if she could.
“Ari, I will. But I will also tell her everything else, she will not know what we did but she will know you loved her every minute of every day. This I promise.”

The Caracas flight landed in Rome half hour later than scheduled. Maresciallo Midden promised I was going to go through customs in a flash and then find my daughter and my mum out there waiting.
As I stood up from my seat, the woman sitting besides me, whom I did not talk at all on my flight as I was immersed in my thoughts, looked at me and said “Mauro, sit down please. Wait a minute”
I looked at her and sat down again. I had learned not to be surprised of total strangers suddenly knowing my name. She was another “agent”.
Once all the passengers were off, this tall and beautiful woman came in the plane, walked towards me and simply asked
“Do you want your gun back now”?
“My gun? What am I going to do with “my gun” now? No, thanks, why?”
“Because you are at work my dear”
“At work? No I am not, I am just coming back home” “home? Ah, home yes. Just not yet thought, you’ll have to come with me first, we’re going to have a chat about your future”
“And I need my gun to do that?”
“Ahahahahah, no you don’t but I just thought you’d want it back. After all you know what it’s like “feeling naked” don’t you?”
“I don’t feel naked, thanks. I feel relieved actually!” “Oh well, you can have it back later then, just follow me now”
“Where are we going?”
“Home”
“Home?”
“Home”
“I don’t need a driver to get home”
“You know which home I mean”
Yes I did know what she meant immediately. I knew from the moment the other woman asked me to sit down. This was going to be a longer than I expected journey home…

“Ok, take a sit, d’you want an espresso?”
“No, I’m a ok thanks. Where’s Maresciallo Midden?”
She smiled but didn’t reply….
”Is he coming or not? He told me I was going home, my home.”
“You have no home and you know that”
“I mean home as in where my mother lives with my daughter!”
“Ah, yes. Sure but that’s not home. This is home. This office, this gun, this building, this is home for us Mauro and you should know that by now”
“I do, I so fucking do.” I admitted.
“So, Maresciallo Midden? Is he going to dignify me with his lordship presence or am I just here for coffee?” “Now Mauro. You are going to learn something not many people know. I am Maresciallo Midden and let’s never get back to this ever again”
I knew better than making questions. Maresciallo Midden, a cruel bastard I always thought was in his late 40s. Ah, marvel of technology. Now I realise why that voice always seemed a bit metallic. Duped by my own superiors…. knowledge is dangerous…. if I ever got caught I would have never been able to reveal my own boss identity! Sometimes I just don’t know if I ever left the mafia really.
“But you know what? You’re in no state to talk right now. I am not going to tell you why you are here. But you’ll be back after the weekend and then you will know. Go to your daughter now”
What was all that about? Why could I not just have made to go home without this charade?
“How am I going to come back if I don’t even know where I am?”
“Are you being stupid now Mauro?”
Yes I was I realised. I don’t need to know where I am and I don’t need to know how I am going to be back here Monday. It will just happen.

I had forgotten how beautiful my mother looked. A stunning blonde at 67. Blue mesmerising eyes. A warmth I had un-conceived to exist. There is no parallel to how I feel for my mother. There is no parallel of how she feels for me, not even for my brother or my sister…
First thing she did is hug me and lift her back left foot as if she was a young love-struck girl. “Bello de` mamma, are you hungry?” Am I hungry mom? I am hungry for rest, love, unconditional heaven and peace. “Guess what mamma’s done for you that you like them so much!”
“Gnocchi! Ma`! Gnocchi!”
How stupid can you feel? Gnocchi meant I was home and I just felt really happy for a moment.

Only then I realised how normal I just was not. I had been away 5 years and I had no luggage.
A bulge in the belt reminded me I wasn’t naked and that I still had “hand-luggage”.

I decided to go pick Al from school. Like a dad. Like dads do. I used to do it as often as I possibly could after all. I anticipate and worry but I smile.

Ari. Get the fuck out of here. Remember that Monica Morientes, Ari? The daughter of Mr Elmo Morientes you-know-who? ‘Member checking her for a month? School, boyfriends, bitchy mates? ‘member looking so stupid being caught eves-dropping to a girly conversation in that Colombian Apostolic nun’s convent? How do you explain Madre Superiora that you’re not 2 perverts but 2 agents trying to nick a father’s whereabouts in a conversation? Do you remember the sticks on the palms of the hands? Ernesto Madreguina’s cartel Paolo A’Morte didn’t beat us that bad man!

I wonder if anybody’s ever come and have a check on my daughter Al. Any man would explode at just the thought of someone watching his daughter. I don’t. I have a cold, basic, unpleasant, certain knowledge that I would kill anybody for getting close to her. I have killed for infinitely less and even when I had doubts. I have killed without proof. I have judged and killed in seconds.
But I have to wear a smile as I walk to the school. People on streets, mild afternoon confusion, busy people and shops. Leaves falling gently and gracefully from browned trees.

Is that really her? That beacon of beauty? She so looks like her mother…. good grief she is beautiful.
“Hey Al”
“Hey Dad…. you gonna walk me home?”
Her eyes were filled with emotion and we walked and talked for what seemed all the 3 years. Just like she had never been away, neither had I. She still talked to me everyday like I talked to her.
As we turned the corner, away from the school gates she swung her arm around me. Her love revealed and it was of an intensity I had never felt before.
“Dad. What nobody knows is that I know everything. Everything. And I love you and I will wait for you”
And she did. I felt she did. I felt tranquillity I could not comprehend but I felt at ease with. Yes. She knew. She knew my heart.

She remembers like my mum does of another time. Of many other times.
We all know somehow, this is just another time we’ll remember.

“You don’t touch a woman, you don’t touch a mother, and you don’t touch a daughter”
was what killed Zi` Papigio` I told myself when my mind was re-running everything on Monday. Would I die not to have to do that too? One day, the time might come when a woman can be in the other side of that 45.
He chose not to shoot Zi` Marcella. He knew she was Cotoletta from birth. He knew he was unleashing a vendetta by not shooting.
She’d have run away and raise another son to avenge his crimes.
“You don’t touch a woman, you don’t touch a mother, you don’t touch a daughter”
but when it was over, he knew he had to die and that’s why he asked for Santo to shot him first. A true man to his end he wanted to protect one of the Honoured Society’s pillars: Vendetta and still reconcile with his deep Christian faith not having killed “innocents” in his life.

Innocents….are there any? Is my mother innocent in the eyes of the parents of the man I shot in Praja Da Costa?

The phone rung. I was being sent for. Funny how things….procedures shall I say, don’t change.
“Meet this girl at Pascucci. Order an inverno. 5pm ok?” “yep”
“Ciao”
“Ciao”.
I have always liked the Italian services meeting places. Restaurants, bars, rosticceries, trattories, bistro, tavole calde, pizzerie and generally wherever there was access to food. And it was a known thing that if you wanted to meet Italian agents and be on their good side in “funny places” you’d have better come up with a good place to eat. Pascucci still is the best frullato makers in Rome. Always has been. It goes back decades. Inverno is based on winterberries. A total delicacy. I’m going there an hour early. Who cares if they’re there 2 hours early? We’ll both pretend we’re not supposed to be there and have some great frullato! Like that meet we had in Fregene. Anguilla al sugo, 2 spigole, 1 carpaccio, fritto misto doppio, Trota di Bracciano, Tiramisu`, espresso doppio, Grappa, Sambuca and Frascati wine and Frascati wine later we realised we “oops” had to meet somewhere else. It happens. It always does whenever you have Italian agents. It’s funny how CIA, NSA, FBI, MI5 operatives always and unmistakingly try to hook with an Italian service agent…. you know you might end up in shady deals but you also know you’ll put a few kilos on. Corruption and food should be our motto.
I realise my brain would rather think of anything but what’s in my future. I want out but in my heart I know I don’t have the poker I need to call it a day safely.
Maresciallo….”Marescialla” maybe? No. Maresciallo Midden has never really mention a price for my sudden rehabilitation amongst the rightful citizen of this nation. But I know I have not finished payback yet.
Zi` Papigio`’s son Dances With Bullets is in town, is strong and he is doing business with The Cotolettas. All bad deeds are forgotten. After all Sicily is more business-like than Calabria where a blood feud has no end ever. And I still am the only survivor of that crew. I still am the “peace bargain.” The good thing is that DWB is a good Catholic like his dad and chances are that if he catches me, I will die quickly and even get the last rites while he’s at it. He’s a good man really. He is, like his father, brought in this life by injustice if anything. The injustice of a corrupted state and its bastard officials, the injustice of a beautiful island cursed by centuries of invaders. Do you know why Sicilians are so secretive? Do you know why they never mention a name? A place? And why everything is described with “That place, that thing, that person”? Because when you know what you’re on about, you don’t need anymore than “that” to describe things and keep ears un-clued. The Mafia, the N’drangheta, the Sacra Corona, the Camorra are self-preservation societies forged in omerta` and blood to protect first.
Well…. they were born like that anyway; what killed “honour” out of it all was the Americanisation of Cosa Nostra and the drug trade and that’s a story DWB knows well having been a host to a Denver family while his fathers soldiers were fighting Zi` Papigio`’s last war.
But he was back now. Peace had broken out, there was business to be made and his father’s contacts demanded DWB back as guarantee things would still be as honourable as if Zi` Papigio` was not dead.
He was back and his price for coming back was Vendetta against the perpetrators of his father’s death: Me, Fat Laura two cells, Tutan the African and Max the Jew. 3 out of 4 are dead now.

Maybe it isn’t time yet I leave my employers after all.

But if I forget this lot for a sec and think positive (fat fucking chance) I think I’ll finally get a desk or a smaller part in some European office. After all, I have been in S.America for so long now I wouldn’t know where to start in Kosovo!

“Kosovo? Who mentioned Kosovo Mauro?”
“I don’t know; I was just saying…”
“there’s no need to go to Kosovo now. Use your imagination and you’ll know who’s there anyway. They still fly our flag put it this way”
“Ummhh…. last I heard the Sacra Corona was looking to expand from Albania….”
“Warm…”
“They did?”
“Warmer…”
“We helped them”
“Hot…”
“Facilitated a deal or two, added a couple of agents in their ranks, minused a bad person/obstacle or two, added some fortunate coincidence, divided the chances of getting caught and multiplicated the days off of the local services?”
“Very hot….”
“We did this together with the Greek services to control the arms trade”
“Bravo!”
“Shit, the Greeks? They work well in that environment. I mean, that’s an Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and Iran trade, all men with moustaches. I heard the Greeks sent women there posing as traffickers…but anyway….so….what has that to do with me? What do you want from me?”
“You’re so…I can’t believe what you just said. I am gob-smacked. Actually, I am not, you complete twat you. You are so rude!”
“No I am not, I am joking, you have a short fuse, you need a holiday: try South America”
“What? Listen you miserable person, to start with I never liked your Fascist inclinations”
“Though titties”
“And then I never really liked your football-hooligan glorifications”
“Sue me”
“And to top it all, you post men in tights and blatantly fake moustaches photos’ slurring our Greek allies on the Internet”
“Execute me”
“So you know what? That Signor Diabolik change of deed name and new passport you wanted?”
“let me guess: no chance”
“you’re a smart guy. You got it in one.”
“what has any of that got to do with my next little errand?”
“you are going to join our ME division from tomorrow.”
Silence. I have 3 million things to say but there is no point. Do not misunderstand when business is being talked.
“Go and see Professor Joem, he will prepare you regarding the culture and language. He’s an expert, listen careful and keep your mouth shut. You will need to know the ideology of both our allies and our opponents. See him everyday for 2 months.”
“We have allies? Now that’s a novelty. Usually you just put me in a flight with a….”
“Sshht. Jeeeee. Just listen. See also Franco Ibco, you remember him don’t you? He will brief you on people we know. You will see me again the day you go. In these 2 months at home you will never seek to contact me. You will never seek to contact any of your old associates and you will not do anything, like buying specific clothing, which might reveal where you plan to be at some point in the future. And by the way, you’ve had a pay-rise.”
“Can I just ask one question?”
“Try, we’re not the CIA here”
“Will I be there long? Will this be the last of me with you?”
“You will be there for two months, you will carry out operations with the field team, you will see me on your return”
“Ok”.

The only part of that I liked was Franco.
It was going to be nice seeing him again. Nice and worrying. Nice as he handed and smoothed me in the job in Brazil when I was investigating the fence activities of Thousands Mas, this Colombian-American guy both Ari and I were looking for.
(That’s how I actually met Ari, did I say? Well, that’s when he shot at me more like. Yep. Ari has this all-American John Wayne thing and you need to watch that. Twice, in later operations he simply wasted too early in the “conversation”! “Shoot first, ask qu…BANG….” “Ah, fuck off Ari. Your cake. I was never here”)

That was the first of many times in Brazil. As the net of contacts widened so did my knowledge of that luscious place. Its women, its fruits, it sun, it vibe.
If only I wasn’t after a pedo-ring of filth I’d have actually thought that was near-paradise.

Franco was having the time of his life in Praja da Costa when I got there. In the 3 years before he had nailed some 15 fugitives from Italy, smashed a good 5 rings of people involved in exporting prostitutes to Italy, brought down one Venezuelan cartel and done great business with the Central American blue-blooded, embassy high society.
Killing records are not kept but word is we’re nearing the two dozen there.

But it’s when he stumbled on what was the largest pedo-ring away from Thailand that things went wrong. It is difficult not to kill there. It is difficult to penetrate a ring without wanting to kill the first one you come around. This is why it’s difficult to get to the big ones if you kill the feeder so quickly and after killing Rob Mc Gee, Franco was burned.

So the office made him hand over the leads to me and go. Franco still managed to give Stewart Ground a parting shot right through his forehead in a last “3 hours before the flight” frenzy.
It’s true what they say; you can only investigate those cases once or you turn into a man-killing animal.

Yet Franchino was the best guy. He pulled blokes but hey; I pull total dogs sometimes so I guess I’ll better shut it.

He was really funny when in the mood.
We had a good laugh when, dressed like Mexican village folks, we did the number on Alvaro’s country retreat. I will never get over running just behind Franco and watching him holding that Mexican skirt! His face! That face! That red red lipstick splattered across his cheek, the hairdo, and the wig! I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone better than him at cross-dressing. I have learned all my disguise tricks from him and I never really understood how was it possible that he could look like a woman like that. But Franco is not laughing matter. Alvarez did not laugh when he heard of Grounds and Mc Gee.
I guess that helped him choosing to talk to me.

Seeing Franco again is worrying as well.
Because this was 5 years ago and he was still in the job.
Now, I know what brings one into this but I am not sure I know how to get out of it. Franco obviously didn’t know either.

“Forget Praja Da Costa. Forget Gamburi`. Forget Prosciutto. Forget Pina Colada. Well, try to anyway. Forget women. Please, forget women”
“Franco, I thought we discussed this already, I don’t want to try homos..…”
“Ah piss off, listen, PJ will explain to you why you forget women in the society you are going to get stuck into”
“I’ve shagged even with villagers from Kathmandu`, I’ll have you know”
“So have I mister but this is not a good place for you”
“But it is for you”
“In all honesty? It’s fucking paradise with all these wankers. This people don’t shag did you not know?”
“ What do you mean they don’t shag”?
“heehawed, look forward to your lessons with Professor Joem over this people boy, you’re looking at a long time without fems babe”

Surely he’s kidding. Surely he’s having me on. Everyone knows Italians like women. Everyone knows Romans like women. Everyone knows I like women. You cannot reasonably ask me not to pull a woman for months. What will I do on my day off?

“You’re going to be this Italian peace activist Paolo Gualtieri guy then…”
“Hey, let’s change something here, let’s do something different, why can I not be an Italian Jewish peace activist? They eat well too and I like their improbable tomato and cucumber soups. I know a lot of Russians that claim to be Jewish! I can be Jewish; look I can even not give you your change back and be rude!” “That’s Israelis Mauro.”
“And? They are Jewish, no?”
“This is not looking good. Listen: MM has simply told me to tell you these basics. The idea is for you to go and have a nice little life as deaf and dumb in the territories. You go as a peace activist, you get shot, you lose speech and audio, you live with a Palestinian family, you convert to Islam, you might want to suicide, you’re on. Pure and simple. 6 months before you’re in position I’d say.”
“In position for what?”
Franco just smiled.
“Maresciallo Midden said this was a two months stint” “Maresciallo Midden has convinced you he was a woman too”

MM has convinced me he was a woman too.
What the fuck is going on?

“Why can’t you put someone that’s familiar with the culture?”
“Because she got shot 5 days ago in Amman, you were not for this job. You were for Iraq. We got so many agents there you’d have had all the time to smooth in” “I still can’t see the point of me. I have S. American knowledge”
“And skills”
“And skills?”
“You will understand”
“I see. The girl that got shot, she’s one of us?”
“ One of a few” said Franco smiling.
A few are normally the State, the Secret Services, a Mafia, the Vatican, the Free Mason Propaganda 2 lodge or the Americans through Gladio.
I know that somewhere along the line, I work for the state but it’s all a bit loose. I am sure my agency works for one or more or those.

“Maresciallo Midden will meet you at Ciampino’s bar at 11.30am. You’re leaving tomorrow right after the meet.” the voice said.
After Prof. Joem and Franco’s indoctrination I felt wiser to the scenario I was about to enter. I hadn’t paid that much attention to the Middle East conflicts and the Islamist threat before (The closest I had come to that world was a meet with a Moroccan contact the “family” was dealing with on the back of a Mafia venture into his government contracts.) but I knew this was the New Front. Resources had been draining from Samaria towards the Middle East after 9/11, I had noticed that. Ari sometimes talked about his frustration that all attention seemed to be diverted to that threat nowadays.
“The Cartels are so happy! Remember them planes we used to poison the coca plantations in Colombia? Well, forget them; they’re now in Afghanistan poisoning the poppy seeds” he once told me.
“And the fucking Congress is not allowing to buy more. Some fucking fight on the drugs trade. What am I supposed to do? Go rip the plantation out plant by plant by hands?”
The war on the drugs barons was always going to be near impossible. It was never achievable by normal law-means to start with anyway. Too much money, too much corruption at all levels. Politicians paid to stop Bills, local officials paid to turn blind eyes, government agencies plagues by agents looking for a retirement pay-off and an education system that just would not tackle the glorification of drugs amongst young people. I knew this well. This was the same reasons why the ruling “families” back in Sicily decided not to fight the trade but to regulate it. There was no point in not dealing with drugs even if all members of the Sicilian Commission were against it.
The Neapolitan Camorra was ok with it, the Calabrese N’drangheta would go with it soon and the Pugliese Sacra Corona was already in it. Not being there would have meant a devastating loss of influence for Cosa Nostra. The Turks wanted to cover the transport, the Afghani, Colombians, Thais, Moroccans and Vietnamese wanted to grow it, the Marseille mafia wanted the refinery cut and the North American N.Y families wanted to control distribution in US soil. The Chinese and Japanese networks wanted to swap immigrants with drugs, the Russians wanted to swap weapons with drugs and there were tentatives approaches from Middle Eastern syndicates to swap oil with drugs.
Everybody needed what Cosa Nostra had: contacts.
Cosa Nostra was the only truly international syndacate after all. Was. Now it’s N’Drangheta who’s got the power.

“I have your ticket and new passport, Paolo”
“I thought Maresciallo Midden was coming to brief me” I replied to this small balding harmless looking man.
“I am Maresciallo Midden”
“Yes. Of course you are, how stupid of me, you even pay me to be an agent. I get the picture now mate. Just tell who am I looking for, why, where is he and what do you need me to do”
“Franco told you. Nothing has changed. Fly to Tel Aviv, go to Gaza, be a good peace activist.”
“I got that much; it’s the part where I get shot that worries me”
“Forget that. We have a very sharp shooter to look after that. Mesh was born with a finger on a trigger. You’ll meet him”
“Fantastic. I should be well reassured then. I am going to meet the person that’s going to shoot me?”
“Have faith Paolo”
“I am Davide; it’s more Jew. My friend Davide from Piazza Cavour is not Jew but he’s got the name and he even looks Jew. I remem…”
“Bye, ciao P-a-o-l-o”
“I am not Paolo as much as you’re not Maresciallo Midden”
“Get over it. At the airport a South African peace activist will meet you. A genuine one. Her name is Zuzu. You come from Pace Internazionale, this peace activist network we set up to infiltrate the territories. She’s not one of us, watch your mouth. She will take you to their offices in Gaza where you will be introduced to the Palestinian family you will be living with. Once in their home, behave impeccably and show a lot of hostility towards Jews. The rest you’ll pick it up there. There will be Mossad agents looking; they will know who you are and what you are up to. We are not working alone there. They will know you but you will not know them. One last thing; do not, I repeat do not lay your eyes on no woman while you’re there”
“I’ll remember that”
I am flying to Tel Aviv then. Israel. Who’d have ever said that? Of all places. But it’s fine; I might get me to Jerusalem as well, I’ve always wanted to see that place.

“Paolo I presume?” who the hell is this absolutely astonishingly stunning specimen of a human female?
“Hi, I am Zuzu, Peace Korps, pleased to meet you.” “Hey, pleased to meet you too Zuzu! Did you say you are married?”
“What?”
“No, I was just kidding, an ice-breaker really”
“Ah, no. Well, yes. I am married to our cause. I just want peace and freedom for the Palestinians from this evil Jewish occupation. This has gone on for so many years now. Palestinians are hungry for freedom!”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Zionism is threatening the whole world now and we must, must put a stop to it”
“Oh we will.”
“There will come a day when Israel will only be a bad memory and the territories will be freed together with the rest of Jerusalem and then we will live in peace, can’t you see we can really make that happen? I have left lots behind me to do this. I am committed to this cause! The world attention will make it happen. If we can keep the pressure to the Israelis, eventually they will have to cave in and return territories. Once that starts, there is no going back as all of Israel is one giant occupied territory.”
“Fucking Jews, eh?”
“Yes, you bet. But we’ll wipe’em away in the name of the revolution, we will…..”
“Oi-oi, just a sec; on this note, shall we go eat something? I’d like to find out about the local cuisine” “how mundane Paolo” she said,
“Well, I am sure you’ll understand, my stomach is not yet taking part in this Jihad”
“Italians. You are always the same” she laughed.

On the car to the offices, she talked a lot about her life there and the struggle to frustrate “the occupation” but what was coming out of her mouth was simply not what my eyes were telling me.
Faces were not smiling, people didn’t seem active, dirty children were running around burning tyres. “Don’t they go to school?” I asked
“Some do, some don’t. Depends on the family. They have such money problems that it’s cheaper to educate them at home rather than building schools. The West is so stingy! The bastard Americans are not paying enough and the double bastard Europeans only pay the top guys. As a result, you have children not attending classes because A) there are no teachers and B) there are no schools.”
“They have no money for books but they have money for guns?”
“Yea, but it’s the Americans fault! Bastards, they need to pay more. If anything just because they defend the Zionist fuck occupier!”
“U-hu” this is a good one, I thought.

“Here’s the office, let’s just have you registered. You will meet some comrades there, so you can swap stories. Relax; tonight and we’ll catch up tomorrow morning here at 6am. Ok?”
“Where do I stay?”
“Al-Ev’s, he’ll drive you to his guesthouse where you’ll get your room. Relax, take the afternoon off, it can be hot. Tonight we eat all together and we have a discussion over policy, okkupation and strategy.”
“fhinn-tastik”
“ Uh?”
“Nah just a joke”.

The HQ is a shambles of scattered paper-cups, loose paperwork and Che Guevara flags. “El Che” I think. What a disaster a myth can do…good stuff Ari’s not around; he’d burn this place down.

“Salam Aleikum comrade! Thanks for being here to support our cause. It’s people like you that help us spread the message of peace”
“I am honoured to be part of this, I am eager to start. I want to do my part for the Liberation of Palestine brother”
“You will. We all will. Just rest this afternoon and tonight we’ll eat together and then decide what comes next”
“Good stuff”
“Relax now, I will be with you in a minute and drive you to my guest-house”
Looking out of the window I can only see desolation. Scores of kids run amok in the dusty and dirty street. Some guy burns a poster of a politician, kids gather around and chant. Black robes with women inside walks against the wall keeping themselves for themselves. I want a beer, a badly want a beer….
”Al”
“Yes comrade” “I am going to make a funny question….”
“Tell me brother”
“Pure and simple…. please don’t be offended…. anywhere for a beer?” he grins and winks “Offended? Nobody will be offended here if you ask one-to-one like this but just never ask when there’s more than one person in front of you and anyway; yes but not here. I will get you the best Foster in the ME on the way home brother”

Maresciallo Midden told me I’d be contacted by another “provocateur” and be given a gun. I never thought I’d miss my tool like I am now. This is not as dangerous as having dinner with a Cartel’s member or a made guy, still I want it. I want my gun. I know, I can tell I am going to have to use it.
My job here…. something tells me what I was told is not what I am here for and Franco’s words “your skills and you’ll understand” still ring in my brain. I had noticed a slow yet relentless drain of agents in South America and I had half an idea where they were repositioning but still I just don’t know why. Why using people with that knowledge for this very different scenario.
“Kill is what we do best,” Franco told me before the hand-over…I just wonder if this has anything to do with it.

“Let’s go brother. Inshallah, we’ll get there in 20 minutes. We just have to be a little careful. I will need to go through a Hamas checkpoint and make sure they see your face and know whom they are. You never know, they might just think you’re a spy”
“A spy?”
“Well, we’re all a little paranoid here. Zionists, Americans, Iranians, Syrians, your own government…. they are very active here.”
“What has Italy got to do with spies here?”
“Didn’t you know your Services are the best in knowledge all over the ME? They are only second to the the Mossad anywhere from Casablanca to Baghdad”
“And why is that?”
“You’re ex Prime Minister Andrecotti; he has been making business with us Arabs for the last 40 years. When nobody cared, he and his people were everywhere already. And if it wasn’t them, it was and still very much is the Mafia. Who do you think exports every bit of porn in the ME? If you see a Mercedes here, do you think it’s a new one or a stolen one? And you can’t steal Mercs here…. they come from anywhere in Europe and the US. The Mafia ships them here and it’s been like that for 40 years”
“the things we don’t know…..”
Or better still, (I am thinking,) the things you don’t know…

3 men in green fatigues and ak47 is the Hamas checkpoint. My instinct tells me this is not going to go down too well.
My senses are on. Al Ev is gesticulating wildly and pointing at me. The guards look at me in a menacing way. There is nobody in sight. I am ready, if push comes to shove, I will kill you all. One of the guards jabs Ev, the other pistol-whips him. He’s on the floor. They kick him. One of the guards come to me and, in broken English tells me to exit the car, I open the door, keep my hands visible but there’s no point. A crack opens in his forehead, a splinter of skull hits my brow, and he’s dead.
Who killed him? Who gives a fuck; I’m just glad I wasn’t the target. I pick his ak47, aim, shoot. One is down. Move, shoot, second is down. Both in the head.
I hate it when it doesn’t make just a hole and has to half burst. It’s all over in less that 4 second. Three men eyes wide open and a hole in the forehead. I turn to the man at my feet, he’s small-trickle bleeding from the hole in his forehead. A tear of blood, no more.
This has the hallmarks of this guy Mesh.
I am not alone. Good.

I have no emotion when it comes to cold killing like this. Mors tua, vita mea the Latins used to say and I have learned to keep very cold and calm even when under direct fire. It’s not worth shooting 30 bullets to hit the dust and the walls.
One single shot always does it, however small the gun.
I pick Al Ev up. He’s passed out and hasn’t seen anything. Good thing otherwise I’d have to kill him too. I’d probably even be half sorry. I load him in the car and drive off.

“How did we get away from the bastards?”
“I just gave’em some money”
“Bandits! Hams wants all the power and monopoly” “it’s ok Ev, good thing I had some dear old dollars” “well, thanks. That saved our lives” Not theirs I am thinking but I will have to wait and see what happens if he learns they are all dead.

I shut the door behind me. I am empty. I always am after a kill. I wonder why I can just kill like that and why don’t I just chose to die instead. Die? Can’t do that; I have a daughter, a mother and an ex-girlfriend.
They cost money you know.

As I lay on the bed I feel something under the pillow…I smile even before I lift the pillow. I know what it is. It’s my gun. Maresciallo Midden has the best agents.
Ari just could never comprehend how Italian Services seemed to be everywhere and have an interest in every corner of the globe. For what is only the world 7th most industrialised country in the world.
As much as I tried to explain from Macchiavelli “Dei delitti e delle pene” (about crime and punishment) to Andreotti “Il potere logora chi non ce l’ha” (power only wear down the powerless), as much as I’ve expanded on the history of the Genova and Venezia sea-borne Republics, as much as I explained it didn’t stop with the Romans, he just doesn’t get how can crime syndicates, service agencies, political ideas and Masonic/Atlantic lodges from a relatively small country like that can produce so much activity across the world. Ah well.
Wonders of a perceived naively joyous yet deadly imaginative stubborn ultimately naturally lucky people.

She’s perfectly clean, has 15 bullets and there’s another lil’case with more bullets.
I hold her in my hands, she feels like she’s never left my side.
I lay on the bed and sleep. Yes, I can sleep. Ari taught me how to sleep after a kill, I wonder if he’s still alive. Very optimistic of you, I thought. Of course he’s alive. Just like I am. Just a few more kills down the line I suppose.

“So, comrades, let’s enjoy this meal together. This is Paolo; he’s our new activist. Welcome Paolo, welcome and thank you for being here”
“I am proud to be here, amongst people that, like you, are doing all they can to help the Palestinian regain their land”
“Too right! Too right! This is our place and we’re going to get the Zionists out of it”
“I have no doubt in my mind we will succeed. What’s this stuff by the way?”
“Ah, this is a tomato and cucumber cream soup. It’s Jewish. It’s got a un-pronountiable Jewish name I can’t remember. It’s been made by our Jewish chef Stormy.”
“We have a Jewish chef?”
“Yes, but don’t worry. From the hard-left in Germany. A true comrade.” I am smiling. If this is not MM via Mossad, the Pope’s not a Catholic.

“It” has heard of the soup and sent me one. This is going to be an interesting assignment, in so many ways it reminds me Caracas before the coup that never was. Heeving with agents, more agents than crooks, queuing to evesdrop, booking spots!
I am not kidding when I say that we were so many we even organised a small World Cup tournament…well, Kjian did (some non-specifiable Dutch agency) He got really pissed off to get hurt in a game with some Germans and miss out on the elimination of
MartiG-Crew the next morning.

It was mad in Caracas back then. Franco leading the Italians, Ari the Americans with Louisiana Mobster turned CIA contact turned NSA operative (and you thought they were La Crème didn’t you? No honey; that’s where the psycos gets a job) Rip “Heads” Ford, Dave The Ray of Death for MI5, Mesh, and many others including a fucking angry air-force wife looking for her husband (last seen by Rip the day someone allegedly kidnapped him.).
For some strange reasons there were also a few Iranian merchants, a few too many people with a weak R around and a seemingly bored French woman, Le Flo, world famously famous for a quick solution to most problems: your death.
(Only much later I understood there was a ring off shooting from MartinG operation: stolen ME art.)

All after MartiG and his operation.
He had different deals tied with each of the characters mentioned. He owed and so did his crew. But let’s face it, the only reason why there was a chase to take him out was because if he went then Eduardo Telch would have been the legitimate natural choice for defence minister in the new regime. And Eduardo was in the pocket of the Vatican for his ties with the Church in Venezuela.
Who got him? Ah, what does it matter, he went but it may be a clue that there was a little plastic airplane in his mouth and the skull was bashed in by a kitchen utensil.
Way to go.

I know there is a crowd here…the chef is definitely dodgy and so is the super-blonde S.African activist. Maresciallo Midden was wrong about this Zuzugirl and this Ev-boy-here. I noticed that every time there’s an IDF incursion, a few days beforehand, one or all of them go missing between 06.15 and 07.25.
I have noticed the higher percentage of failed suicide bids. People seem to explode before they actually leave their own houses around here.
I have noticed a few of Al-Ev’s guests tend to get hurt, get cared for locally and stick around.
I have noticed the beggars down the street, has exactly the same pattern of eye twitch as Stormi the Chef. I have noticed the crow-looking woman in the guesthouse and at least 20% of the volunteers have a funny R. No kidding.
But it’s been 6 months of protests, blockades and general embedding in the local ways and I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen. I am in position now. I know MM must be thinking it’s time to use me. This is no holiday after all and I can think of about ninehundredandfiftyfivemillionfourhundredandfiftyseventhousands of better places I could be.
I am starting to think I had it good going to deck balls on Portuguese embassy cruises with a gun under my white jacket and a Pina colada on my hand. Smooth lights and cherry picks, the bored French Le Flo, Senora Fay, Senora Pakety and all the crème of the South American embassy scene. Ah, these were the days! What soave elegance, the moon, the breeze, the stars, Madame Popmittek from the Austrian embassy waltzing the night away with Typo De Ballo the ambassador of the Porto Rican state.
The hand holding crystal glasses, tears of champagne streams the air as they dance around to the admiration of the crowd. Gentlemen over the deck with red head women half their age frivolously laughing at every gag.

Arms deals, drugs prices, contraband percentages, future coups d’etat, present coups d’etat, marine oil excavation contracts, casual discussions and frivolous laughter. The price for an escapee on a Cuban boat is too low at the moment.
If it weren’t for the pedo-ring, I’d even miss my time there.

I whistle…. a zip…a nip at the back. I’m hit. I mean I’m shot. I’ve been shot. Is that it?

I wake up in a whiter then white room.
“Ok, Mesh shot you with a classified high precision rifle. The bullet was not much bigger than a needle that exploded on contact to create the look of a finger size hole with no real depth. In the needle there was a reactive substance to attract a rush of blood towards the wound. A two minute bad looking wound, enough for us to get you here”
MM was a female voice again.
“Now, simple: you heal but don’t walk properly, you ask to stay, you offer to kill yourself. You get accepted, trained then on the goodbye ceremony-last meeting with everybody, we kill them all. All. We don’t need to keep any alive.”
I got it. Small carnage in a large room. I can see that. We’re talking about 7 men and me...I wonder what they mean by “we” when they say, “we’ll kill them all”.
“The end of this is to end attacks from this particular crew by entire eradication of its family size cell.
“Why us?”
“Because we’ve been asked. Why you and Franchino? Because our ways here have shifted now and we need people with your skills.”
Our skills…. yes.
“Why the change? What happened to the cartel’s threat?”
“Times have changed here in the ME and whereas before it was only us and the Fwench really, now you have half the world in for a slice around here.
The Families have got everything from Morocco to Egypt. From cars to people to porno to drugs. They get a lot of cash from that, cash they use to finance the control of the heroin trade, from which in turn they make the money to “play” the stock market in NY. This last leg is with the American Families. We need to change all that.
The State too has many lucrative works contracts in all ME countries, all must be paid various states around here. Those contracts need protection.
The Church has churches and properties all-over the ME and that needs protecting too.
We know that a Lodge called Propaganda Civis has sowed an exclusive nuclear expertise deal with Iran and we’re Iran’s second biggest trade partners. If Iran runs into sanctions we must seize their assets fast. That needs close effective monitoring.
Our most immediate danger lays here now.”
“Are you even going to mention Democracy, Freedom of Spee….”
“No but I did say to Mesh I thought he needed to use a bigger bullet”
“Thanks. You’re so kind. I am a man in an hospital bed, can’t walk, probably never will again, nobody will ever love me again and come to think about it I haven’t had a shag in 6 months now….”
”Finished?”
”Yes”
”Ok, if it’s any consolation, the bastards we’re going to do are responsible for all the suicide attacks West of Sderot so, make sure you don’t miss. Mind you, you never do; hence you here. Also, your wound is risible and you’ll like the nurse. She will be compassionate.”

The precision of the shot is fantastic. If this were a real bullet, it would have severed my spine clean. This Mesh aka Big aka Max Zip must have liked triggers. I know, no one has ever seen him; I only heard of him in a strange Internet quarters populated by great minds, beautiful hearts and circus acts.
The things you learn….

It’s almost Ramadan now and my indoctrination is coming to an end. It’s all a swing of white headbands and green fatigues. I have limped both in my body and in my mind for this initiation day but everything is set now. Unless I got my getaway bike stolen that is. It wasn’t too clever to dune-ride it on my way here last night. I jumped so high; I thought I could touch that Arabian moon. And lost the lock. Yes, lost it, don’t ask.

I wonder how many people will be there. I know 5 for sure. I only have 30 bullets. The silencer is vital this time.

A child runs towards the opening rusted gate, still the sparkling black eyes of a Palestinian child before indoctrination. The young veiled girl at the door is already way down that path. She looks down as I enter. Another woman, all in a long black cover, points me to a door. They are all there as I enter. They smile, they laugh, and they stink of death already. Any minute now and my gun will start the dance, I am just waiting for a line of targets. Can’t shoot if they are too far from one another. I need angle. And I need to think what happens to the woman and the children. I already know I am not as honourable as Zi Papigio` but if I live them alive they will get help and cut my getaway leeway. All of them can, there’s no sparing anyone. Even those big black eyes.

As they tamper with the cam corder I walk to the window, I turn, the first shot hits Amir at the back of his head, the second Abdul in his forehead, the third Izzedin in his temple as he turns, the fourth Ahmed on his shoulder as he dives, the fifth lands on Omar stomach as he cloutches to the cam. Ahmed is cursing, I walk to him and grab his head. I turn him to Omar and point my gun to Ahmed head. I shoot. A bunch of sweaty dirty hair is left on my hand as the body slumps.
I point to Omar, the stomach wound is bad, he’ll die anyway, and I’m just going to make it quick.
7 bullets for 5 deaths. So far.
As I walk out to fetch the two kids and the woman, my mind is in total disarray, I am going to kill a woman and two children. I am walking too fast to stop myself. I raise my gun even before I open the door to the court. I know that once I open that door things must happen fast, think time is over. I have approximately 2.7 nanoseconds to find a way not to kill a woman and 2 children. I open the door; my fist is squeezing the gun with all its strength as if to crush it.
“No women, no children”. A man of Honour. I have met a real one, now his ghost is ever-present here and now with me. This is my time to be a Man of Honour and I will not kill them. I’ll just wack them over their head and put them asleep for a while.
What’s my option?
There’s nobody in the yard, I go around it where the water is and 3 bodies lays around the well. They are alive, just paralysed from top to bottom. Mesh’s peculiar bullets hit again. He has a heart after all.
Time to go, get out of the gate, my bike is not there.
Ari is.
Get in the car, drive off. I cannot believe this. “What are you doing here!!”? “Couldn’t leave you baby and then, they told me they needed my skills….” “Did they….”
Yes, make sense really; I should have thought he was going to be reposted here after what I’ve seen in the last 6 months. Shoot first asks questions later have become everybody’s policy around here too.

The Israeli IDF checkpoint is close; I can see those kids and their rifles, better slow down now.

“Listen mate, I’ve got news for you.” Ari tells me as the corporal hand me my first beer in three months, “Surprise me”
“Franchino’s coming over and you, me, him, the German-Jewish chef from the camp, Al Ev and the SA activist are moving. We’re off to Beirut”
“I knew they were all dodgy!”

I also knew they were the next thing to hit Beirut now.


[Warning: this does not claim to be the best written story, it doesn’t claim be to be the best comedy nor the best drama ever written on the net since the beginning or even on this cheese site in the last 15 minutes. It doesn’t claim to be all-inclusive and it doesn’t claim to be anything than a flight of fantasy while driving a car stuck in a traffic jam.
Enjoy if you can :-)
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guest author: papijoe
Part XXIV: Dies Irae
Matt had hunched down behind the barrel of the SHOFAR, presenting as small a target as possible to the increasing swarm of projectiles directed at him. It had become desperately clear that as the Nazi line advanced, their fire would become even more accurate. A larger caliber round had already been deflected by his Kevlar helmet, momentarily rocking his head back. But the shock delivered a fresh surge of adrenaline and with it a clarity in which he realized that what was needed was superhuman aggression and speed. There was also a terrible temptation to employ the demolition mode. All that seemed to hang between this decision and the hope of surviving the assault was the was Uncle Allen's warning of a life of regret, tissue thin as it was. More because the dilemma was wasting precious time, Matt decided to rally the squad with a counter-assault and break through to the Keep which was undefended behind the Nazi line. Matt gave the first signal for the assault, and the others poured fire on the forward positions as he freed the sonic weapon from its mount. At the second signal two smoke canisters arced into the courtyard, just in front of the demolished gate. Zil and Chevy burst out of cover. Chevy was peppering the nearest positions with his automatice shotgun. Zil had a pair of Uzis and with arms crossed at the wrists to stabilize his fire, sent waves of lead to break down the assault.

Under this concentration of fire, most troops would have fallen back for cover. The Nazi abominations instead advanced like clockwork soldiers into the curtains of fire. Many fell but the line still advanced. Matt and Edsel hadn't missed their cue and were also dashing into the path the other two had cleared for for them. But the Nazis were closing as well and one fast moving squad was threatening to beat them to the gate. Zil reacted like a panther to this threat, seemingly throwing himself at the advancing trio, rolling in a somersault and springing to his feet nearly under the rifles of the Nazis who only stopped when the impact of the Uzi rounds hammered them backwards. As the first two went down the third fired point blank as he stumbled over the tumbling bodies. Zil emptied the last clip into the back of the SS soldier as he went down, but then staggered like a marionette missing half its strings, trying to reach the gate.

Edsel and Matt had been able to put down two of the attackers from the other direction. Chevy reached Zil before he fell and threw him over his shoulder. Matt was unsuccessful in knocking the third out from cover, but before the remnants of the assault reached them they charged down the short passageway and up a long flight of stairs. At the top they set Zil down. He was bleeding out from an abdominal wound. "Not what I expected to find...beyond. Heh." A beatific smile surfaced on his pale face and his eyes set their focus on infinity. Choking back a sob Matt saw a helmeted head peer around the edge of the gate at the bottom of the stairs. He snapped off a shot, clipping his target enough to send the creature sprawling in the dust of the courtyard. Chevy nudged him. No one else appeared in the gateway below. Matt's suspicion that gate was now guarded was confirmed by the ghastly laughter that briefly echoed off the masonry. They advanced into the Keep.

***

For the unhappy few that were between Jetta and his objective, he was stealth and silent death. Most seemed to be some kind of technicians in lab coats. It made no difference to his kukri knife. Four denizens of the Keep died before they could raise an alarm. They had to move quickly, there was no time to hid bodies or clean up bloostained floors and walls.

They ducked into one of the rooms. It was full of lab equipment. A startled lab worker edged along a counter until Jetta's knife flew and sprouted in the man's sternum. Both soldiers turned to Yossi who gave a quick glance to the computer terminal and then nodded to them. They took up positions to guard the entrance and Yossi went to work. He unplugged a cable from the back of the Sun Sparc workstation and connected his own PC and booted its UNIX operating system. Electronic surveillance had already supplied him with a number of likely IDs and passwords, whisperings on wires that a remote sensor had gathered. The trick was to use them to lull the system into giving up its treasures without making it suspect it was being violated. All he needed was to get past the first line of defense. Then he would find the holes, the the treasure hoards left carelessly unguarded. There he would find the keys to give him ultimate power over the system. Suddenly the monitor went blank. A screen of text appeared. His German was weak, learned second hand by way of Yiddish, but it was harshly worded warning that he had done something verboten. "Crap". He had underestimated the Teutonic craving for control. But that was a weakness in itself. By not delegating authority, the dictatorial admin would have too much to keep track of. He had concealed his probes by routing them through spoofed locations, so the was safe from detection from with the network for the moment. Knowing that the system was now hostile and time was limited he started launching a number of distracting events across the network. The admin would have already started searching for the source of the unauthorized access request and Yossi needed to slow him down and misdirect him. Soon pings and probes started to pursue one of his decoys. Yossi had trouble containing his satisfaction. He had already taken a strong dislike to his opponent and his arrogant security policies. Yossi quickly went to work on getting access to the root directory while his adversary was on a wild goose chase. Yossi was already cooking up the nasty surprises that he would unleash once root was his, when a giant burst into the room.

He immediately slammed Jetta into the wall with a backfist and grabbed a stool and hurled it at Lincoln who barely had time to dive out of its path. Then the giant was on him. It slipped and shrugged off blows to the throat and solar plexus, and after deflecting a kick to the groin with a twist of the hip, it sent Lincoln sprawling across a lab tables scattering test tubes and sending LED-lit devices crashing to the floor. Yossi had typed a last command that would vanquish his digital opponent and only had to hit the return key, but the giant was advancing on Lincoln who was still trying to rise from the counter. Yossi drew his pistol and aimed at the huge target. It's massive head turned slightly detecting the motion in its peripheral vision. As the trigger broke the Nazi behemoth dropped into a roll to the side and somehow popped up close enough to swat the pistol from his grip. The giant gripped him by the throat and lifted him up off the ground with a shout of triumph that included one word Yossi's dimming awareness recognized: "...jude..."

***

Matt had barely turned the first corner inside the Keep, when they encountered the equivalent of a platoon of massive unarmed assailants. The wrongness was immediately apparent, despite the well developed physiques, there were slack jaws, watery vacant eyes and mishapen faces. Most were naked save for some type of loincloth. One creature was not fully developed on one side of its upper body, but flailed with its one powerful arm. Another had a pointed head and small doll-like face that was set in a thick mass that could barely be called a neck and was buried among huge shoulder and trapezius muscles. They absorbed twice the conventional firepower before falling, and although the sonic weapon was still effective even then there was a pause of a second before the misbegotten titans dropped. Again Matt felt the urge to employ the demolition mode. If he had used it before, would Zil still be alive...?

The last of the creatures, who was covered with a hairy pelt, was so close that when he finally succumbed to his multiple wounds, he fell on top of Edsel and it took both Matt and Chevy to roll the hirsute creature off and free their shaken comrade. The grotesquely surreal nature of the attacks was taking its toll, Matt found his mind drifting back to the spa, his lovely attendants, anything but the thoughts of the fresh horrors they would encounter around the next turn.

But there was no more resistance and they came to the part of the Keep where the operations center was suppposed to be. The intelligence of the internal layout had been good. As they approached the room the double doors were wide open. They sidled up along the wall out of the line of sight of the interior and at Matt's signal they burst across the threshold.

There were only three occupants. One was a blond haired giant wearing only fatigue pants. There was also a thin figure in the uniform of a general in the SS, clearly it was Brunner, but despite reports of being blinded in one eye by a Mossad letter bomb, there were no visible scars and both eyes appeared to be fully funtional. He also had the same skin tone and unnatural vitality of the other SS men. He had a Schmeisser machine gun cradled in his arm carelessly pointed at the third person, which was Yossi, propped up in a chair half conscious.

"Gentlemen, put your weapons down, we have important matters to discuss" Brunner barked.
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guest author: papijoe
Part XXIII: The Devil's Chessboard
"'Well lookee who's here! I knew we'd meet again Arlie. And gettin' all cozy with the lady I've been looking for. I always said, no such thing as coincidence.'

Chuck was wired, but he wasn't tripping. He wasn't even high on any kind of brain candy. Something else was simmering behind those crazy eyes.

'It's just gotta be fate. There's someone here you oughta meet. This little gal made his aquaintance jest a while ago and she can tell you he's something else.'

Like I said before, Chuck could go on and on. I don't have time to tell everything he told me that night. My problem was finding Porkrind and getting my new lady friend out of there without any trouble. 'Cept for a junkie, there's no one you want to trust less than a pimp and a pander. That's all I wanted to believe Chuck was, but now I know there's worse, all kinds of it. As Chuck was going on about this cat Bryce Lloyd, his new sugar daddy I guessed, I was looking all around for Porkrind. I knew I couldn't split without him.

'See, Bryce is tight with all these dudes in the music business. He has connections through the Church of the True Way. That's kind of a secret see, an artist like Bryce can't be too easy to figure out. But you know how the Beatles have the Maharishi, Bryce has the True Way, and if you knew all the other famous folks who were part of the Church...'

I got Michaela's attention and she followed my gaze to the archway that lead to the next room, where I hoped to find Porkrind. As we squeezed through the crowd, Chuck stuck close, still talking.

'What most people don't know is that the True Way came out of the Church of Psychological Technology. It was this English couple, geniuses both of them, they figured out pretty quick that H Bob Hibbert was on to something, even if he was playing them all for suckers. They realized that the whole con couldn't work unless there was something to it, something real to keep the rubes hooked. I don't know how, but somehow they found out about what Hibbert was into with Jake Parnell before he started PsychTechnology. Jake was a real rocket scientist at the Jet Propulsion Labs, and he was a disciple of the Beast, the famous English dude who discovered the old magick and Parnell and Hibbert tried to finish his work of raising the Moon Child. Some say they did it, but Bryce won't talk about that.'

Past the archway was a wide hallway with a few rooms and another big room beyond. Where the hell was Porkrind?

'They went out to the Yucatan, and while they partied and carried on the biggest storm in one hundred years hit their beach camp. That's when the leader John Wetherbee had his vision of the demon Huracán. He saw that God and the Devil, Jesus and Lucifer were all part of the same thing. He wrote it all down in The Four Waves and that became the scriptures of the True Way and he took his followers that survived the storm back to the States to preach the new revelation. They have Centers all over the country now and soon they'll be bigger than PsychTechnology...'

We squeezed through the crowded hallway. I was tempted to check the rooms off the hallway, but went on to the bigger open area at the end of the hall.

'Bryce is one of the first he ordained in San Francisco. His ministry is his music. It's kind of avant garde but he influences a lot of other musicians and there's lots that get what he's trying to do. He knows how tones and chords trigger instincts and emotions and how to modulate the response with light and color. He can make his audience deliriously happy, then so mad they want to kill him then stun them into submission all in the space of an hour. There's only a few that really understand what's behind his music, the Nordic imagery, the stuff from the Rig Veda. He has contacts with the Teutonic Lodge and ODESSA, he's in touch with Miguel Serrano and that Casteneda guy and a place in Chile called the Eagle's Nest. He says in this age that art is the best disguise for power...'

When we got to the archway, the room was dominated by a tall man with a stocky build. He wore a kind of black robe with a clerical collar and his head was shaved. His thick eyebrows were black like his goatee and his eyes were dark and piercing. I made eye contact for a split second, long enough to know he was tripping too, probably mescaline or peyote. He didn't want me to know what he was thinking and that was fine with me, because I had to come up with a plan fast. Next to him was Porkrind, telling him all about the Rolling Curse. Chuck ran up to him like a puppy when the schoolbus comes around in the afternoon. Chuck interupted Porkrind, and pointed to us. Bryce finally held up a hand to silence Chuck.

'They know I have something they want", said Michaela, "but I mustn't give it to them. Then they'll kill me, or make me one of Charlie's slaves. They are going to do something awful with it. We have to find a way to stop them.'

The choice was I could save Porkrind, but I'd lose my queen. There was something selfish in that, I loved her. But it would have been betraying her.

'Hey Arlie! This gentleman says he can help me. He can send away the the Rolling Curse!'

Damn Porkrind, we had at least taught him to shut up went the Holsteins showed up or we were in front of a judge, but the fool must have thought Bryce was some kind of priest that he could confess everything to. He had gone over to them of his own free will. Later Chuck'd use him to buy the knives they used when they slaughtered that director and his wife and the other couple. But first they killed Porkrind because his conscience got the better of him and he tried to go to the police. It was kind of a comfort to know that. So instead of saving my friend, I took my queen and Bryce sent the Rolling Curse after me."

Arlie went quiet. Melchizedek struggled a bit with the sense that the silence was significant. The gut response was to ask what happened next, and the pause in the narrative seemed a prompt for a question.

"That's an interesting story Arlie. I get the feeling there's a specific reason for telling it."

"There is sir. I had to establish my credentials. Not that talking is much good for that, but I have reason to believe you are a man of character."

"Why is that?"

"That's because of the enemies you've made. If they're against you, you can't be all bad."

Now Melchizedek took a few moments and then said, "What else do you have to tell me?"

"The rest of the story first. I'm sure I had your attention before, but now you need to hear it in the right way. We ran from Bryce and the True Way for years. They had their own problems and had to change names and the way they operated as some of their people got careless and certain connnections became public, but pawns are cheap. But that Curse dogged my days and I had to send Michaela away somewhere safe. To protect her, I don't even know where she is, but only how to get in touch if the coast is ever clear. And there's also a signal that I'm being coerced and she should not respond.

Now they've caught up with me again, but they have a new proposal. They've offered to lift the Curse and call off the hunt for Michaela if I do them a favor. They want me to gain your confidence then betray you to one of their people inside who will kill you and make it look like fight. Chuck always talked about the True Way's connnections in Europe, but they are just part of something bigger. Something I got stuck on the wrong end of a long time ago. Course I ain't going to do what they want, else I wouldn't be telling you this. I don't believe for a minute that they will let Michaela alone but so far they seem to believe they've got a move for me that I can't pass up. But I've got one move left that they'll never understand."
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evariste
Keep Your State Outta My Womb
William Saletan writes about Italy's messed-up mandatory pregnancy law for IVF patients:
Imagine lying on a table at a fertility clinic. Across the room are three Petri dishes containing embryos made from your eggs. Given your genetic history, at least one of the embryos probably has a fatal blood disease. You don't want to implant the sick embryo or embryos, but the law says you have to. On a judge's orders, every one of those embryos will be inserted through a catheter into your womb, whether you like it or not.

Is this Rosemary's Baby? The Handmaid's Tale? Nope. It happened last year to an Italian woman under that country's IVF law. Today, Italians held a referendum on whether to change the law. Thanks in part to vigorous opposition from the Catholic Church, the referendum failed.

This is a lesson in what can happen to the United States and other countries if religious conservatives get their way. Conservatives fear a slippery slope from IVF and pre-implantation genetic testing to eugenics and dehumanization. Their fears are well-founded. But they've overlooked a law of geology: Every slope has at least two sides. Legislation designed to stop us from sliding down one slope can push us down the other. That's what has happened to the Italians. And if we don't learn from their tragedy, it could happen to us.


Two years ago, Italy was the Las Vegas of biotechnology. A baby was born there to a 60-year-old mother and (thanks to frozen sperm) a father who had been dead for 10 years. A scientist claimed to have cloned babies. Italians were horrified. At the pope's urging, the parliament passed a law imposing numerous restrictions. You can't get IVF unless you're married. You can't use donated eggs or sperm. You can't employ a surrogate mother. You can't fertilize more than three eggs at a time, and you have to implant all of the resulting embryos simultaneously. A doctor who violates any part of the law can be jailed for up to three years.

It's easy to think that the people who wrote the law must have been crazy. Then you wouldn't have to worry about the same thing happening in your country. But the logic of the Italian law is eerily simple. It tries to make IVF as much like natural conception as possible. No surrogates or donated eggs, because a married man shouldn't have sex with another woman. No donated sperm, because a married woman shouldn't have sex with another man. No more than three embryos at a time, because nature almost never works that way, and every embryo you don't implant or carry to term is a forsaken human life. All embryos implanted quickly in your womb, even if they're doomed, because that's where they'd be if you'd made them the old-fashioned way, and you wouldn't even know—because you wouldn't be able to run all those fancy lab tests on them—that they were sick.

It's as though you weren't using IVF. But you are using IVF, and that's what causes the nightmare. As a practical matter, you could run the lab tests—so the law has to stop you from running them or from doing anything with the results. The embryos aren't inside you; they're in the dishes. To restore them to their "natural" place, the law has to move them through your vagina and into your uterus. The only thing standing in its way, potentially, is your refusal. Therefore, your refusal must be outlawed.

The ghoulish ironies don't end there. Last year, President Bush's council on bioethics, well-stocked with conservatives, strongly urged fertility clinics "to reduce the incidence of multiple embryo transfers and resulting multiple births, a known source of high risk and discernible harm to the resulting children." But the Italian law requires such multiple transfers, endangering healthy embryos in the name of protecting unhealthy ones. By limiting the number of embryos in each IVF round to three, the Italian law has doubled the average number of rounds necessary to get a successful pregnancy. This means more hormonally induced egg production and extraction, which, according to Bush's council, "carry significant medical risks to the women." To top off the absurdity, the law explicitly avoids any change in Italy's abortion regulations. So, if you don't want your embryos, you can't freeze them—but you can implant them, let them grow, and then kill them.

Or you could suffer the fate of the woman who was ordered to implant those high-risk embryos. Two of the embryos died before her case was resolved. The third was implanted. A month later, the woman ended up in a hospital with a gastric hemorrhage, apparently caused by stress. She lost the baby. Now that it was dead, the doctors could test it. The tests showed it was free of the dreaded blood disease.

This isn't what the Italians had in mind when they passed their law. They were just trying to stop the country from tumbling down a slippery slope. "Italy's grandmothers became mothers, and every uterus was for rent," an Italian politician explained. "We needed to take back control." Well, they've got control now. Just ask that woman.
Yikes. This certainly doesn't seem like the smartest idea. While secular culture has gone too far in divorcing reproduction from nature, and would love to go even farther, I can't support such blatantly immoral and clumsy laws. IVF isn't natural pregnancy, and they shouldn't impose restrictions on hopeful mothers of in-vitro fertilized embryos based on nothing more than that the process should resemble natural conception as closely as possible. You don't get moral legitimacy for a morally ambiguous procedure by dressing it in moral clothes. While I do find abortion distasteful, I have a hard time agreeing that blastocytes consisting of less than 50 cells created in a laboratory are already a human being with rights.

Saletan contradicts himself when he simultaneously points out that the Bush administration is far more rational about this than the Italians, and then claims that Italian-style restrictions are American religious conservatives' fondest dream. I doubt that.
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guest author: papijoe
Part XXII: Eagle's Nest
The the resort provided lodging for the staff, and Katia had packed and was waiting for a taxi. She would have preferred to simply slip away, but that wasn't possible. Quitting without notice drew more attention to her while she was still there than she would have liked, but her cover was that she had just received bad news from home of a parent with cancer, so she hoped that would deflect any further scrutiny. The night manager was taken off-guard, and busied himself with making phone calls to fill the gaps that her departure would leave in the work schedule. In twenty minutes the taxi arrived and her role as Anette the French girl would come to an end. She would wait in the airport until Matt's destination was certain and take the next flight there herself.

***

On the plane Matt had decided that thinking about the upcoming operation was the worst thing he could do. He hadn't really anticipated the Waterstone's incident where others had said he handled himself well. Nor had he prepared himself for the fight at Great Zimbabwe. He felt he could have been a lot more effective, but thanks to Shaka and the Yehudit Unit they carried the day. What was worrisome was that now the whole operation depended on him and the mysterious new sonic weapon. The training sessions with the SHOFAR had given him a familiarity with its use, but also raised doubts aboutits untried capabilites and his own performance in battle. The tests on structures and points of ingress demonstrated the awe inspiring power. And in training on the non-lethal mode the simulated targets simply fell over when the sonic beam made contact. But when he tested what he had come to think of as the "piledriver" mode he had a moment of terrible clarity. Despite being crudely painted to resemble menacing stormtroopers, the torn canvas and shattered timbers of the wooden silouettes was a grisly pantomine of ruined flesh and bone. If this was considered a morally appropriate use of the weapon, he shuddered at the professor's warning about it's unauthorized use. His trainers didn't help his qualms, they emphasied the lethal beam exercises, and they were particularly adamant about the disarming of the weapon when the operation was finished. They attacked his tendency to want to set the weapon down without activating the disarming mechanism, drilling him until it became reflective. They impressed on him that he didn't want to know what would happen if he forgot to disarm and picked the disrupter up again himself.

Most of the rest of the team was asleep. In the group training they had had the elite troops all answered to code names. Their identities were sanitized and all understood this could be a suicide mission with no guarantee of extraction if they failed. The team was picked for their ethnic diversity to make it more difficult to trace the origin of the mission. Still, Matt was able to make some educated guesses about his team members. Lincoln was African American, everything about him said Special Forces or Delta. While his favorite phrase with Matt was,"You the quarterback.", he was clearly senior in rank to everyone. Mat of course was Mustang. Jetta was most likely Thai or Vietnamese, he was quiet and dedicated. Edsel could have been a young playboy sheikh making the circuit of London nightclubs on weeknights, Matt guessed he was Druze or Bedouin. Zil was an urbane Slav,most likely Russian or Ukrainian. He was the oldest of the team and interspersed literary allusions with dirty jokes. He was always in high spirits, as if this was a dream vacation that he won in a contest. Chevy was Latino and he slept through the whole flight. In the training missions he was the most agile member of the team. During the short breaks when he wasn't napping he was picking out fandango riffs from a guitar borrowed from Yossi, whose call sign was Delorian.

Yossi was the only member whose identity was discussed in detail. Unlike the others, he was not a professional soldier. Uncle
Allen had told him, "You bring our Yossi back safe. If not for all the secrets in his head, do it for his 5 kids." Yossi was indispensible because he was the only one with the chops to break into the Nazi network once they were inside the compound. With the information they could not only roll up the entire ODESSA infrastructure and round up the last surviving war criminals, but also remove the Nazi threat to Israel permanently.

"Won't they all just die out in a few years?" He had asked.

"Matt, soon you'll understand better, but there is a lot more here than a few old men"

Uncle Allen also suggested that under Brunner's guidance, the Nazis may have already recovered other stones than what was found in the safe in Salonika.

Yossi was now picking out a JB Hutto tune on his guitar. Matt sensed that Yossi may have similar jitters before the operation and he wished now that he had spent more time getting to know him. It may have been helpful to have someone in whom he could confide his doubts among these professional soldiers. But for now he took his cue from them, it seemed that this was a time when men drew into themselves, balanced accounts and stockpiled strength and resolve in an economy of words and all but the most focused actions.

***

Two empty SUVs were waiting for them on the tarmac at the small regional airport, gas tanks full, engines running. No one was there to greet them. They had maps but the drivers had memorized videotapes taken of the journal and could navigate by sight if they had to. Matt reviewed the plan of attack as they drove. The assault was to be launched in two places simultaneously. Matt was to use the sonic weapon in a frontal attack on the main gate. While that was underway, A small insertion team of Lincoln Jetta and Yossi would use a large sapper charge to create an opening in the side of a storage building that formed part of the outer wall. Israeli intelligence suggested that this was a weak point in the compound's defenses and it was hoped that in the shock and awe of the frontal assault and its demonstration of the power of the disruptor, the defenders would instinctively rally to the main gate and the insertion team would only encounter light resistance, if any at all. It was only then that it dawned on Matt that his role was merely that of a massive diversion.

But before the operation could begin, there was a significant obstacle to be neutralized. Thermal satelite imaging had pinpointed the two hidden positions flanking the approach to the compound that served both as bunkers and forward observation posts. They were at the last natural ridge on the only road approaching the compound. The vehicles and their uniforms had infrared shielding. The SUV would be able to approach within half a mile in the dark. While the insertion team circled the compound to position themselves, a strike team of Zil and Edsel would take out the bunkers. Mustang and Chevy would then race for the gate, picking up the strike team as they approached. Zil would take over at the wheel of Mustang's vehicle. A coaxial mount on the roof of one of the vehicles had been created for the SHOFAR and Matt was to engage the two facing guard towers and then demolish the main gate.

As they left for the first phase, Zil seemed elated. "Let's kill some Nazis! This will be for Meyer Kaufman." It had been mentioned in their briefing that Meyer was a graduate student in journalism at Columbia who disappeared while hiking in the region on vacation. A journal that was found among his effect in the nearby youth hostel that suggested that he was intrigued by the reputation of the colony and may have gotten it into his head to investigate. A defector from the compound later charged the leaders with the torture and murder of Meyer because they believed he was a Mossad spy. No charges were ever officially made. During the briefing, Zil made a comment that made Matt wonder if they were aquainted.

They sped off as soon as they heard the signal that the bunkers were neutralized, barely slowing down to pick up Zil and Edsel. They had only had time for two dry runs of the mission, they warned him that the model of the compound wasn't to scale, now that it loomed in the haze of a few sodium lights Matt's heart sank at the way it seemed to dwarf his team. Chevy was on the radio with Lincoln, letting him know they had started their final run to the gate. Matt had set the SHOFAR in its pintel on the roof. He had sighted the guard tower on the right waiting until it was in range. There was a blast behind him that seemed to lift the SUV off the road, but it settled back on its suspension. Apparently it had been manually triggered but the defender miscalculated their position. That was a risk they considered but the decision had been made to stick to the road for the sake of speed and better aim. Now that was not an option and the vehicles veered off the road in opposite directions. Separate points of muzzle flash appeared from the two towers, Matt sighted on one of them, but the shot went high as the four by four bounced over the rough terrain. They would have to halt in the open under fire from both towers. Chevy slewed his vehicle and Edsel popped up with what looked like a smaller version of a Dragon shoulder fired missile. A trail of flame sought out the left tower and shattered its crown. Matt fired again. A faint outline of a figure with windmilling arms fell back from one of the firing positions of his tower. Now that his eyeballs weren't being jostled, his vision had become more acute. When he had run through the training exercises he made a point of using the non-lethal mode to prevent what he thought would be unnecessary carnage. Since the roadmine exploded behind him and the bullets thudded into the chassis of the SUV, all thought of such gallantry left his mind. There were God knows how many real Nazis in this huge fortress and they were all trying to kill him. The other guard had momentarily froze in shock at seeing his comrade's terrible death rumba and Matt took advantage of this spell of stalled time to sight on the exposed head. Matt heard the wasp-whine of the disruptors piledriver mode and the head snapped back before it disapppeared. He switched to demolition mode, noting mentally as he was trained that the weapon was properly braced in its mount. "Head for the gate!" Soon they would be close enough to fire on the fly and they would let their momentum carry them through the entrance. In this mode, the spooling up sound was more like the distant squeal of a giant conveyer belt starting up. This signaled that the elements were properly charged and the weapon was ready to fire. The trigger had the resistance of a lightswitch. The mount was designed to flex but the recoil still rocked the moving vehicle back on its springs. The heavy steel door peeled back on its hinges first in strips and then shards that seemed to curl in on themselves as they fell back in a metallic shower. Where they not armored, the tires would have been shredded as they rolled over the sharp coils of metal. More of the guards were running frantically around a small square looking for cover. Matt swung the weapon around to pick off as many as he could while they were out in the open. Edsel's SAW chattered and Matt found that piledriver mode was still effective enough to knock the defenders out from behind most light barriers where the fire of the others could pick them off or he could hammer them like stunned roaches. The SHOFAR had devastated the first wave of guards but the attackers had the element of surprise and the defenders would soon realize the buildings surrounding the square were the best cover. His team was still completely exposed in the square. Rather than take cover themselves, Matt told Zil to circle the square and he started to demolish the buildings in turn.

***

In his fight to stay focused Yossi's greatest opponent was not fear or even the thoughts of his family that were always with him when he was away, but the sense of unreality. He skills were so specific and his cover was so deep that it was rare that we was called up once more than once a year. Often his assignments didn't require travel, like the time he was able to pluck shipping schedules and manifests out of a supposedly secure wireless connection remotely. The information had lead to the capture of a freighter laden with weapons, and the paper trail was the demise of a certain terrorist organization's pretensions to peaceful statecraft. Although he had been well trained in the paramilitary aspects of his secret service to Israel, his life in the United States with his wife and five children, his job as a head of a major professional services practice of a leading systems integrator for the telecommunications industry, and his standing as a member of his thriving Orthodox shul all stood out in stark relief to his present crouching and scuttling through a strange terrain to the walls of an ominous citadel.

Although the suspension of disbelief was foreign to him, the focus needed to stay present wasn't. Concentration was part of his stock in trade and was the cornerstone to his gift for visualizing all dimensions of a complex information system including the joints and seams of which the designers were only vaguely aware. The terrible secret of software was that typical projects in their earliest stages soon became too complex for the creators to account for all the ways in which they could behave, such that extensive testing is needed to ensure the the most of the basic functionality is present when the customer takes delivery. Yossi had the ability to envision all the details of a system like a detailed schematic in his minds eye and soon it gave up its flaws and weaknesses.

Jetta, whose secondary specialty was demolition, had done a similar analysis of the fortifications and was ready to breach the wall where they felt it was most vulnerable. But first one of the rear guardtowers had to be taken out. Lincoln had been weighing the different options available, and now that he had a firsthand view of the the situation, he chose the weapon for which he was famous in his small community of peers. The M-79 was relatively low tech compared to modern weapons systems. The 40mm grenade launcher had been used extensively in Vietnam. Even then many prefered the combination of their M-16 with M-203 which mounted under the assault rifle's barrel. But Lincoln was never a big fan of the .223 poodle-shooter as a primary weapon and he found the M-203 awkward to reload and fire rapidly. The M-79 on the other hand was just like a short barrelled shotgun. He kept the 40mm grenades in a memorized sequency in a bandolier, high explosive, airburst, incineary, which he lobbed with uncanny accuracy on enemy positions. He also kept a nummber of anti-personel rounds available for tight spots, mostly flechette and buckshot. Conventional military doctrine requires that the M-79 be fired like a rifle, braced against the shoulder to absorb recoil and maintain accuracy. Lincoln had perfected a firing position that was like a modified Weaver stance. He would brace the forward grip on his forearm and fire the grenade launcher like a pistol. This allowed him to carry a small machine gun. This was the new Heckler & Koch MP7. There was concern that the Nazi guards would be wearing body armor. The MP7 was roughly the size of its predessor, the MP5 but instead of pistol rounds that could be stopped by Kevlar, it fired steel jacketed rifle rounds specifically designed for this model. After months of training to control the heavier recoil of the MP7, he was now able to bring the machine gun into play before and after firing the grenade launcher. This only left him vulnerable when he was reloading either weapon.

They had found a small bit of defilade to hide in and when the first explosion occurred, they quickly scrambled in the dark to the closest point in range of the tower, counting on the sounds of the frontal assault to briefly draw the attention of the guards. Lincoln dropped to one knee and leaving his machine pistol slung across his back for the moment. This first shot was a true three pointer, so he used the standard two handed position. The high explosive grenade sailed through a firing aperture and the top of the tower blew apart, part of the roof arcing through the sky on a bent column of smoke and flame. In a reflexive set of movements that no untrained eye could follow, the barrel was broken open, the shell casing ejected, an airburst round seated and locked into the chamber. It blossomed directly over the ruined tower, raining shrapnel on whatever was left of the defenders.

After the first explosion Jetta sprinted to the wall to set his charge. The builders had thoughtfully left small length of loadbearing wall that jutted out at a right angle to the outside wall for about a foot or so. This would act not only as a fulcrum for the blast, but would also deflect it enough that Jetta would be able set of the charge much closer. Lincoln had reloaded with a custom round he rationed from a small lot he reserved for special occasions, and now had the MP7 in his left hand. Yossi had been instructed to lie flat through this first part of the assault in case they drew fire, but instead he crouched close to Lincoln to guard him from ambush. Soon Jetta yelled, "Fire in the hole!" and they ran for the wall after the shock of the blast passed.

The blast had not only breach the outer wall, but had also collapsed part of of the ajoining building. Dim figures rose from inside and Lincoln fired the M-79 directly into the mass of them. The custom shell was a Burma load, double-ought buckshot with 4 steel balls of a similar diameter to a .38 round. The flash frozed half-clad figures in an agonized danse macabre like some kind of Third Reich rave. Lincoln sprayed quick burst with the MP7 and then Jetta tossed in a hand grenade as they dashed across a small courtyard. Their next objective was a small service door in the rear of the Keep, the castle-like structure that was the last defense of the compound. As the footfalls faded and a smoky silence fell on the demolished barracks, a large thatched head rose cautiously from behind one of the beds. The biggest challenge for his officers, coaches and trainers was waking Hans Jurge up in the morning. His gymnastics coach said he slept like a tranquilized ox. The first blast barely roused him. The second blast sent an alarm through his sleep-addled mind but he leapt out of bed in the wrong direction and slid down the wall, momentarily stunned. This saved him from spray of bullets that followed. Looking around, he only felt the slightest twinge of sympathy. He hadn't been trained for that emotional pattern. He rose to his full height and pulled on a pair of fatigue pants that had, like himself, been specially tailored. He then set off at a run to at least warn his superiors, possibly even save them from this long awaited attack by the Jews. Then they would be very pleased with Hans Jurge.

***

Matt's new strategy was yielding mixed results. Hitting the buildings several times with the demolition beam would cause them to finally collapse, but they left large piles of rubble. THe remaining guards (who mercifully, appeared to be few at this point) were trying to use the mounds of debris as cover. Matt continued to employ what he had mentally dubbed "the croquet shot" to dislodge the defenders by battering them with their own shields. He was now playing the equivalent of whack-a-mole with defenders in the various windows and firing ports of the Keep itself. Matt knew that it was time to try to charge the gate of the Keep. At that instant the gate flew open. A fast moving column of uniformed troops rushed out. A number also dropped in quick succession from hatches in the ceilings of the broken down guardhouses while others jumped from second story windows of the Keep rolling as the hit the ground to leap up running. Matt was engaging as many as he could, but the well timed rush presented too many targets at once, but that wasn't the greatest threat. His own mind was on the verge of some kind of overload, some critical process was rapidly failing and re-starting but each time some aspect of the data wasn't being accepted, because what Matt's senses were telling him wasn't possible. Unlike the guards almost comical rent-a-cop uniforms, these troops were decked out in full SS regalia. But it was the soldiers themselves that were most problematic. In most cases, their skin was a sallow yellow and sagged and seemed to melt off skulls and bones. Yet the limbs were remarkably well muscled and movement weres cobra quick. Some with the bearing of officers and aristocrats seemed to have had cosmetic enhancements, faces stretched like canvas into sardonic masks but all had the same jaundiced dead mackeral eyes. Even as he brought down one target after another he watched in a disembodied horror as half of the counter-attack dropped into firing positions to cover the advance of the rest. After extending their line, they did the same as those behind them surged forward. Bullets now sought him, zipping and pinging all around him with increasing frequency as the line advanced.
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guest author: papijoe
Part XXI: Yardbirds
Fear took down the winged life
The winged life we've led
So kiss the joy as it goes by
The poet William said
Blake the poet said

'Cause the old future's gone
The old future's gone
We can't get to there from here
The old future's gone

The old future's dead and gone
Never to return
There is a new way through the hills ahead
This one will have to earn


-John Gorka


Arkansas State Trooper Nikki Swagger had just come from her supervisor's office and was on her way down to the motor pool. She was somewhat pleased with the citation that was going to go into her record for recognizing the book thief. She did have an excellent memory for faces, but the main reason that she spotted him was the picture from a security camera that was provided with the bulletin. The face was as devoid of any of the characteristics that marked the mug shots of even the most innocuous of criminals. Like her grandfather, Earl Swagger, she approached criminology less like a science than the way an actor viewed his craft, or a doctor the near prophetic gift of diagnosis. Her approach to the fight against crime was equal parts analysis and intuition. She would rely first on gut instinct. Both her daddy Bob Lee and his stories of his daddy Earl testified to the efficacity of instinct in surviving gunfire and mayhem. Intellect, when there was time for it, was good for validating instinct and in her profession that meant justifying what one did in desperate adrenaline charged moments. So her instincts were alerted at the incongruity of a face at the first bulletin that was issued by Interpol and nagged at her more with the four succeding ones that appeared in her mail slot at the barracks.

But it was no longer her problem. The man would give no other name than the one on the exquisitely faked ID, which was different from the one presented at the scene of the crime. But a computer analysis of the structure of the outer ear of the man in the security photo had matched, clearing the way for the approval of his extradition to the Netherlands. There he would face a Dutch judge, and if found guilty would would face the penal consequences. She could not imagine what that might actually entail in a country where one could smoke hash, trip on mushrooms and pick up a hooker all with complete legal impunity, but she imagined that there must still be some form of punishment for criminal wrongdoing. Maybe they put orange vests on them and set them to plant tulips for a few years. In any case, once on the plane, he was out of her jurisdiction and beyond the perimeter of her concern.

***

"Glazier huh?", the guard drawled past a plug of Red Man,"Well, they said your ID was fake, but for all I care, that's as good a name as any to call you. Since we do things alphabetically, you might be in luck. We'll put you in with the other Glazier. He might think you are kin and take a shine to you."

The guard led him to a cell whose occupant looked up briefly from the stripped Louis Lamour paperback when the door opened, but gave no sign of greeting. Once the the guard left he put the book down and swung his legs over the edge of the upper bunk and regarded Melchizedek. He had an air about him of an oldtime actor who was typecast as an Indian without actually being one. He had shoulder length white hair and turquoise and silver ring as well as a battered stained suede jacket. Not unclean, he rather appeared preserved and sterilized by smoke and creosote. However his studied coolness was almost pure Hollywood with a dash of barracks joker, nothing indigenous about it at all. He extended a hand and said, "Arlie Sampson Glazier". Melchizedek was now too ashamed of his alias to say it aloud. Arlie'nears grip was still strong and heavily calloused, and felt as if he could still dig a posthole or chop a cord of wood.

"Never seen you around here"

"I'm not from here"

"Still your face is kinda familiar"

"My family came from near here...at one point"

"Mine too. Guard said you're a Glazier?"

"I'm related, but that's not my real name."

"My people were in California. They were Dustbowl Okies. They settled with the distant cousins who arrived in Forty-nine. Eighteen forty-nine that is. The California Glaziers were good Christians, they had been part of the Azusa Street revival and then in Aimee Semple's church. They were glad to take the Okies in and help them get set up. I was born after Daddy left for the Pacific. He died on the beach at Tarawa and I never got to meet him. Momma worked in the Grumman factory and Grannie Eunice watched me. Then momma married Phil and we moved away from the family to San Bernadino. I didn't much like Phil or the valley. I stay away from home as much as I could. Back then there were a lot of kids running around half wild and we caused a bit of trouble. Finally I joined the Corps to get out of there and I wanted to be like Daddy. Spent my first tour in Korea on the DMZ mostly. At the end of that hitch I re-signed, not knowing what else to do. They said I was going to a country called Viet Nam. They said it was warmer than Korean and it sounded like we'd finally get to shoot at as many Commies as we wanted.

Boy it was nothin' like we expected. Same for the officers. The best of the generals and colonels were still fighting Korea, but some seemed to be fighting WWI, Getttysburg or the Barbary pirates. But I suppose all of us that survived finally got it, now we can't stop fighting Viet Nam. We got chewed up real good in one of the first major firefights with the NVA. Half my platoon was gone in the first night, and I got promoted to lance corporal. Then I kept getting confused about what the job was about. I would have thought it was about keeping the newbies they gave me alive, but nope, jest take that ridge, flank that VC position and roll 'em up, stay here and call in fire on those mortars and if you get em we'll be right behind you. Fact is I ended up getting most of the guys they gave me killed at first. But for some reason, the fact that I stayed alive entitled me to some medals and a promotion to sargeant. I didn't see what difference it made if I couldn't keep all my own guys alive, but I never considered myself what they called leadership material. So once I managed to pretty much keep a squad from being shot up they gave me a platoon. Now the company commander had gotten a bit smarter too. The men had a lot of faith in him, our patrols almost never got ambushed we had some good luck interdicting supply lines for the VC and captured some of their bases. But they always melted away and that was ok with me. But then a patrol disappeared and I was afraid they had run into something big. They sent out 3 more patrols and the rest were ready to go at a moments notice. I realized later that those generals and colonels are haunted by ghosts that haven't left them alone since West Point. The field grade officers and their hungry ghosts were looking for a big win, a sumptuous body count, a paragraph in the history books.

One of the patrols got into a firefight and we mounted up. At the beginning it was as bad as it could get. Charlie'd jump up behind us and shoot a bunch of my guys in the back, we'd turn to fight but he'd be at our backs again. It wasn't until I shot one that appeared right next to me and he disappeared into the ground that I realized that we found an underground base and there were tunnels all around us. We were all pinned down, the captain was bleeding to death and I had a dumbass lieutenant colonel who was telling me to probe and identify the tunnel entrances instead of lighting the freak out of there. After telling the LC with all due respect to perform an anatomical impossiblity on himself, I set a squad on the tunnel entrance to pot Charlie everytime he popped up like a gopher and then I had em dump all the deadwood and dried elephant grass we could find down the hole. We lined up big rocks around the edge and threw all the ordinance we could find in after, flares, C-4, smoke grenades, claymores, you name it. Then we pulled the pins on 3 willypete grenades dropped em in and them rolled in the rocks.

The Jag lawyer they gave me for my court-martial was pretty good and the panel accepted his argument that my role in destroying the VC base and the lives I saved should justify their dropping the insubordination charge. I was given a General Discharge with a clean service record. After I processed out at the Naval Air Station near San Francisco I thought I had earned a bender. I had only gone on I & I leave in the Philipines a few times, and it had seemed like a good way to sort things out after a few bad operations. I didn't expect that it would last a few years. But during that time I did get something accomplished. I realized that senior officers weren't the only ones that were haunted. I met a few NCOs like me that didn't look for medals or parade to convince us there was some sense to it all. We were casualties of what I started to call Ghost Shrapnel. It was like when one of your guys got shot or blowed up, splintered bits of their soul would spray the rest of the unit. It would get in deep and start to fester. No damn VA hospital was any good at finding it and getting it out. We had to set up our own field hospitals, use booze or whatever else we could find for anaesthetic, and even then one small piece hurt something fierce coming out. Only way we knew was that a man had to re-live the whole thing that caused that wound, and maybe the ghost would take some of the pieces back. It wasn't much of a cure, but it was the best we could do. Soon you learned to live with the pieces that were too deep to get out. But damn they ached sometimes when a storm was coming.

It was around that time that I met a certain fella in a cell just like this. Leroy and I had gotten picked up somewhere near the Nevada border for public drunkeness and vagrancy. He said that his name was Charlie, and I told him I had enough of Charlie and when I talked to him I called him Chuck. He didn't like that and he didn't like Leroy. But after Leroy got shanked by a biker and lost a gall bladder, I was stuck with Chuck. He kind of glommed on to me, there were times he couldn't seem to shut up. He had this guitar and he said Creepy Kravis, who used to run with Ma Barker and her boys, taught him to play when he was in the pen in Washington State. He wasn't half bad and when he was singing at least he wasn't talking. His dream was to be some kind of radio star. He bragged that he was going to be bigger than the Beatles. He was due to be released a few days before me, and he told me there was a ranch nearby, he had some friends, rich dudes and foriegners who would give us a place to crash, and he knew these crazy chicks, it would be a good time, he handed me an address. I told him I was still considering different options. I was a little surprised when I walked out of the jailhouse ahd he was waiting there. He had an old Bel Air convertible They were a little high, but not so much that the cops would pick them up. Chuck in fact had trimmed his hair and had a dapper suit, and might have even passed for a car salesman if it weren't for his crazy eyes. I couldn't seem to say anything that would get rid of them, I got tired of him yelling to me as I walked to the bus station so I agreed to let them give me a ride. That was a mistake. The girls in back made a space between them and they nuzzled me and squirmed against me the whole way. One even dragged at my elblow as I boarded the bus, and they sat there until the bus pulled away. I was never really tempted to go with them. I wanted no truck with Chuck and hoped never to see him again, but of course after a while I did.

Pretty soon none of us were into booze anymore, LSD had arrived. There was a program out of the VA to use it to help treat vets.They had their own fancy term for Ghost Shrapnel, they were already calling it "Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome". I didn't trust the VA to dispense aspirin, but soon it didn't matter, acid was everywhere. Captain Trips was around then, seemed like he was at every party. He was the one who had the original Sandoz pills. Later Owlsley learned to cook up his own.

I mention the whole deal with Lester mostly because a lot of people think that was the cause of the Rolling Curse. Lester LeBlanc had come to Frisco from the coffeehouses and small clubs of Boston to play with one of the big folk rock acts when they had to fire their guitar player. Lester hit the bigtime music scene like a wrecking ball. Seems like the more he partied and made a spectacle of himself, the more parties he got invited to. Soon he was hanging out with the Stones and their whole crew. Finally he went too far and OD'd. None of his famous friends even seemed interested in attending the funeral. Porkrind all messed up about it, he kept saying that Lester made him promise, back when he still made the local scene, that if he ever died he wanted to be cremated at his favorite spot at Joshua Tree. He and Morris and Pedro started making a plan. I told him not to be foolish but he didn't listen. They somehow rented a hearse and showed up at the airport and convinced the baggage people to release the body. They got away clean, maybe because no one else in Lester's miserable rich family cared to meet the plane. Porkrind said that they carried him all the way to the top of the overlook. Then they all got drunk and when the bottles were empty they made rambling speeches and dowsed old Lester with a gallon of gasoline. The park rangers found them passed out or crying and talking ragtime with Lester smoldering and pretty much unreduced. Within a week of getting out of jail Pedro had crashed head on into an embankment and Morris had been found shot in his car. Porkrind was scared, John Small Thunder told him that Joshua Tree was sacred to the Shastas and they must have brought down the Rolling Curse by angering the spirits or ancestors or whatever. Maybe that's where it did start, or it was just because of the crazy life we were living. Porkrind had a theory that it all had to do with the British. He was convinced it wasn't a coincidence, Lester hangin' with English rockstars, that limey doctor that worked with Captain Trips who was running all the LSD experiments, and Porkrind said that he was working with the other English dude who came over and brought the acid to Harvard where Leary and Alpert got into it. Supposedly that guy was sent by that writer who had all those stories about Martians invading and scientists turning people into animals and such. Later folks said Porkrind was right, it was all in that song American Pie how the British Invasion corrupted the innocence of the whole country. There sure was something fishy about how the acid was suddenly so easy to get, but there had to be more to it than that. Then there were other weird folks from England, but that comes later.

Porkrind was too scared to be alone, so he came with me to a show at the Fillmore and there was gonna be a big party after and everyone was gonna be there. We knew every member of the Dead, the Airplane, crazy Kesey, Janice and a whole slew of other folks. We were both tripping by the time we got there. Porkrind was usually a pretty laidback steady tripper like me but he was still so agitated. He had gotten up to get a beer or some reds and I was just grooving on the low roar of the crowd when a girl sits next to me and starts whispering in my ear. There was a guy scaring her, could she hang with me a while. She couldn't point him out, she left him in the other room, he was following her all night. She had black shiny hair a rounded Aztec nose and dark almond eyes that reminded me of a panther. Her name was Michaela. I had to know where she came from, how the world had made something so exquisite. It turned out that her family roots were as exposed and twisted as a mangrove. All the Spanish ancestors were on the lam from the Inquisition, they had been sailors and flamenco troubadors and painters of madonnas ascending to heaven, they lit kandelikas on Friday nights and told the children not to tell anyone. There were Apache warriors and Yaqui brujos. Also a Turkish dervish, a Hawaiian princess and a Chinaman. How they got in there was anyones guess. I was already in love before I even turned my head or understood the first word she was whispering, I fell when I felt her breath on my ear, felt the heat from her cheek and smelled the perfume in her hair. I was just starting to realized how happy I was when Chuck walked up to us."

***

"...he absolutely cannot be allowed to return to the Netherlands to stand trial, who knows what might come out in the trial...I wish we could keep him for questioning, but it's impossible at this point. I don't even want him getting on the plane...yes, hopefully she'll find out what we want know...We'll try for the first option, it's less likely to raise suspicions...I haven't gotten a report yet but our man should be getting close to him, enough so that he can arrange everything to look like a typical jailhouse altercation...it's to be carried out as soon as possible..."
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guest author: papijoe
Part XX - Gideon's Trumpet
Matt and Uncle Allen sat in loungers by the pool. Matt was still in his bathrobe, fresh from a treatment of Dead Sea mud. He had taken the last opportunity to indulge himself as it was unlikely he would ever experience such luxury any time soon. He would especially miss his ministering angels, Fatima the demure and dark eyed Druze, the Russian emigre Natascha with hair the color of wheat, the quiet and conspiratorial Anette from France, and the Falasha Miriam, with the fluorescent smile and laughter of church bells. They first made him ashamed of his resistance to pampering, teased him over his squeamishness around extravagant treatments and grooming, and finally cajoled him into extravagant spoiled contentment,like a great diva's cat.

They were discussing the final details of his trip. There had been many such discussions, as well as two trips offsite. The first was a meeting in Tel Aviv in a nondescript office that turned out to be a secure Mossad operations center. There in the presence of his superiors who didn't introduce themselves, Uncle Allen briefed him on the mission objective.

"Our intelligence agrees with the opinion of your friend in Greece that one or more of the stones had fallen into the hands of the fugitive SS officer Alois Brunner. Based on several credible reports we believe he is now in Chile. He is under the protection of a isolated colony of German emigres who inhabit a mountain citadel called "La Jerarquía de las Aguilas" or "The Eagles Nest". They had originally claimed to be a religious sect attempting to lead a simpler devote lifestyle. However their entire leadership consists of high ranking Nazi officials and their descendants. European visitors are frequent, but their only contact with the local population had been a free clinic and orphanage. But lately, all but the sickest shun the place as rumors had spread about the emigres being unable to account for all of the children in their care. In the past their excellent relations with Gen Pinochet and his security forces had protected them from any scrutiny. Now as more reports are coming out about child abuse and other suspicious activities in the uncensored press, they are an embarassment to the current administration. However they are reluctant to act decisively, the colonists are believed to be heavily armed and the location would be difficult for even the most elite of commando units. The Chileans will give us a free hand as long as they can claim credit for the operation. They are hoping that we will weaken the colonists defenses sufficiently so that their own units can come in after to mop up, but in private they consider our operation a suicide mission."

***

Matt had maintained a somber silence on the ride back, despite Uncle Allen's assurance that he'd feel more upbeat after their second meeting. This occurred on campus at Technion and they met with Dr Nachum Siegel. After a cursory tour of his lab and meeting some of the students and researchers, they got down to business in Dr Siegel's office. The lab was part of the overall nanotechnology department and were on the cutting edge of the field, matched only by the work of the two feuding titans of nanotech in the US. Dr Siegel's group address areas of signal processing and sensing on the molecular level.

"We've borrowed the stone from Great Zimbabwe and analysized it under an electron microscope and discovered some very interesting features. First, on the molecular level, the precision of the Hebrew letters is so fine that it seems impossible that they were etched. It appears that it was somehow manufactured, or grown into the proper form, even down to the shapes of the letters without a single molecule out of place. Similarly, the crystaline structure is impossibly regular, without flaw or impurity. We could not come close to duplicating it."

"Are you saying the ancient Hebrews had some kind of technology to create the stones?"

"The Tribes of Israel weren't engineers, and even with advanced technology, the problem is enormous. It would be nothing less than creating the stone molecule by molecule. This suggests a control over the material so far beyond our scope that, as unscientific as it sounds, I prefer to believe that HaShem Himself created them."

"But there is nothing in the Pentateuch that suggests that, rather it sound like they were created by the Jewish craftsmen like the rest of the temple implements." Uncle Allen was always a bit of a skeptic.

"I can only address the facts I've discovered and they don't support an easy explanation. I do wonder though if when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies there wasn't some transforming power of the Shekinah presence above the Ark. Let's remember that the Stones represented the Tribes themselves. Perhaps this is a model for what HaShem wants to do with His Chosen. This is pure speculation of course. But I never forgot a description I heard from a tzadik I served with in the IDF. Our position below the Golan was about to be overrun. He was my major, but he turned out to be very knowledgable in Torah and planned to become a scholar when he retired. He would encourage us with stories of what HaShem had done for us throughout our history, would also discuss Torah with those of us that were interested during the inevitable boring stretches of waiting that seem to be the the defining characteristic of military service.

He had ordered the rest of the unit to retreat, he was planning on staying to direct our artillery against the Syrian batteries on the Golan. I couldn't bear the idea of abandoning him to the approaching Syrians and since I was his radioman, it was my responsibility to stay with him to call in the coordinates which he calculated through his rangefinding field glasses. We were later decorated. He spotted several anti-aircraft missile sites that were destroyed by artillery and our bombers. This allowed the IAF to smash the big Syrian guns and the armored columns that had started streaming over the border. It sounds very heroic, but the truth was I was so terrified that I could barely speak to call in the airstrikes. We could see the columns approaching, the shells were falling around us and at one point we even came under sniper fire. What kept me from bolting like a frightened deer was his description on what he felt we were fighting for. He described the tabernacle before even the temple was built. So powerful was the Presence that dwelt in our midst that the high priest wore bells so those outside could hear his movements and a rope tied to his foot to drag him out in case he made a mistake and HaShem's power killed him. But when he ministered before the Mercy Seat, wearing the Hoshen representing the Twelve Tribes before the Shekinah glory of HaShem, oral tradition said that the heavens would open and the high priest was bathed in Light. And the Light would would be changed, refracted and reflected by the Stones on the the Breastplate of Aaron, creating a dazzling display of color and vision in which HaShem would reveal to the cohen hagadol the Mysteries of His destiny for His Chosen People. In that sense the visions would reflect the how HaShem would use His people to be a light to the nations, to the Gentiles. As he spoke with shells exploding all around us, his face seemed to shine with the reflected Glory his mind's eye saw in the midst of that earthly hell. His eyes shimmered with delight and he looked at me with a smile of pure bliss."

"What destiny did the visions show?",asked Matt.

"If he knew, my major couldn't tell me. During the barrage, an airburst had severed his femoral artery with a tiny piece of shrapnel. As he called in fire and kept me spellbound with the description of the high priest, his life was bleeding out. When the reinforcements came to relieve me, they asked what he had seen to account for the fixed expression of rapture, all I could tell them was, "Paredes."

He rose and asked them to follow him into one of the labs. There were a pair of guards in the hallway, and still he had to verify his finger print and swipe a key card. The lights came on automatically. In the middle of a spotless workbench on a clear lucite stand was an usual looking weapon. It had a long barrel and stock like a rifle, but the bore was larger than a shotgun and slightly flared at the end. But what was very curious was that the barrel was not so much rifled as spiral in such a way that one couldn't see down the barrel past the curve. It reminded Matt of a long twisted seashell he had once found on holiday in Majorca. The inner surface of the bore was a grey, slightly iridescent material with the suggestion of a fine grain that seemed to shift direction depending on the way the light hit it. Where the ejection port would ordinarily be were some irregular proturberances encased in a smooth housing. There was also a confusing array of small buttons and selectors.

"This is the instrument on which the success of your mission and no doubt your life depends. It has not been extensively tested in battlefield conditions, but there was one promising trial and of course it performed well in the lab. The offical nomenclature is Sonic Hyperspectral Oscillating Frequency Assault Rifle, some like to call it Gideon's Trumpet, but the most accurate description is that it is a disruptor. The technology is highly classified, but to I can say that nanotechnology is the key, both in the waveguiding surface of the bore and the resonating crystaline emitter.

We haven't had time to experiment with all the possible frequencies, but there are 3 distinct settings. The first is a non-lethal mode that causes complete loss of motor function for approximately 45 minutes and debilitating weakness and impared reflexes for several hours, after which there are minimal aftereffects. This is only only effective at ranges of 50 meters or less. There are two lethal modes that work at greater distances. The first works up to 1200 meters with a perfectly flat trajectory with no correction needed for windage. The effect has a spreading radius from 6 cm just past the muzzle to 12 cm at 1000 meters. Observed it appears exactly like being hit with a short but devastating stroke of a piledriver. Impact with the head or center mass is always fatal and we hope merciful. Clipping a limb is messier. One of the great advantages of this mode is there in no more recoil than you might detect from blowing an airhorn. There is a delay of less than a second in firing as a rangefinding sonic ping calculates the distance to the target and tunes the sonic wavelength and frequency to deliver the effect to the target.

The other lethal mode approved for use against enemy combatants is a bit more difficult to bring to bear on targets because there is quite a significant recoil, roughly comparable to an elephant gun. It is highly recommended that the shooter is well braced against a solid object when firing. This mode can be described as an invisible wrecking ball that we estimated at 1800 kilograms traveling at 240 kilometers/hour, without the curve of the swing of course. Unlike the localized effect of the first mode, it impacts anything in it's range, although large solid objects dissipate the effect somewhat. With proper precautions taken with the recoil, it is very effective against troop concentrations, most light vehicles, and unarmored doors. The final mode is lethal, but it is most emphatically not for use against enemy combatants. I think it's safe to say in your case Matt, any such improper use of this mode will but regretted for the rest of your life. This mode is exclusively authorized for demolition of buildings and other defensive structures Used properly it does no harm to those inside of a structure as long as care is taken not to cause the collapse of the entire structure. This effect is also recoiless. It has a 360 meter range and within that the effect varies from a 3-6 meter radius. It only travels at roughly right angles to the beam on impact and will shear off at corners without effecting perpendicular walls. Stone and masonry are pulverized and wood is shattered to splinters. Tempered metal is difficult and under some circumstances flying shrapnel can be produced, but we have tested it successfully on thick lead and titanium. Once again, for emphasis, you can image the effect if used against troops would be horrifying. We have already begun to develop materials that will resist this effect, but you are highly unlikely to encounter them. Now, aside from limited field testing, there is another great danger in the use of this weapon. We have long been certain that the Nazi scientists are working on similar technology for years. They don't have our resources but neither have they our scruples about how the technology is used. Losing this weapon to them would increase their destructive capabilities by orders of magnitude. So pay careful attention to to your training on the automated self-destruct mechanism..."


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guest author: papijoe
Part XIX: On the Road Again
Melchizedek's solitary ride gave him plenty of time to ponder the odd confluence of his family history with that of the Choshen stones. His response was not exactly one of shock and he began combing his memory of both the public accounts that could be found in the history books and the more personal details as his line of the family sought the obscurity of the New World.

But even the offical history would be obscure to all but the scholars of the House of Orange-Nassau. As an heir with the right of ascension but whose distant grandsire had fallen into disfavor with the the reigning monarch, the fate of his ancestor nine generations back was banishment first to the West Indies, and then when that was no longer safe, the American colonies. It wasn't the first time Melchizedek noted the curious parallel route to that of the stones that his family had taken. They also had found refuge in New Amsterdam with supporters of their former claim to the throne. But there were still those loyal the reigning branch of the family, so they soon decided to move on. First Pennslyvania and then Ohio. But it was always the same, neighbors would warn of strangers asking questions about the Winklepleckt clan, and their fears for their children would drive them westward.

Some members of the family tried to retreat into the mountains like the Melungeon, but found that they didn't have the skills or temperment for mountain living. In Indiana they were more successful as farmers and many of them picked up the trade of window-making. The family had also become devote Christians in their travels and trials as were most of their neighbors, and every generation seemed to product a minister or two. After they became proficient at the production of high quality glass, they entered into a partnership with a number of local glass blowers and the business thrived. However, once again word came that inquiries were being made. When it became apparent that the House of Orange-Nassau hadn't forgotten them, they sold out to their puzzled partners and moved again, this time to Fort Smith Arkansas and some of the surrounding settlements. There they sat out the Civil War while making a modest living. When the Indian territories of Oklahoma had opened up to settlement,it seemed like a natural choice, although a dissenting faction had already set out on their own against the wishes of the current patriarch, Jacob Winklepleckt. They kept the current pseudonym of Glaser and became window-makers to the boomtowns of California during the Gold Rush before the main body of the family lost touch with them. They chose an area not far from the Arkansas border. Not only were they in close proximity to the building boom of the settlers but were also neighbors to the more established Cherokee settlements. They established excellent relations with the Tsa-la-gi Nation. The favorable business terms they extended were rewarded when the Cherokee found a burgeoning market for the rock-oil that was plentiful on their lands. The Tsa-la-gi needed capital to purchase drilling equipment, and the family became major shareholders in the first Native American oil company. Ironically, besides Standard Oil, their next major competitor was The Royal Dutch Shell Company.

The House of Wincklepleckt would have no doubt faded into total obscurity were it not for three factors. One was Melchizedek's own career path as he was sent to the East for an Ivy League education, where he vacillitated between the seminary and the ivory tower of historians. The other was the impact of the Twentieth Century on the House of Orange-Nassau, where the lack of a male heir brought a young SS officer into the Royal Line as a consort to the Queen. He would later commit the family's fortunes to the founding of a new secular world order. The reports of his infidelity to the Queen and corrupt business dealings suggested that his more secretive business would reflect the same lack of character on a heightened scale. The powerful cabals, societies and committees that the king had established were committed to eradicating every last trace of the old moral order, and replacing it with a vast program of social engineering. Human Knowledge was its guiding light, the Self was the highest ideal, and the State was it's most sacred institution. And although more disciplined his son gave every indication of pursuing the same agenda.

***

Another key influence on the current quest was a friendship he formed at one of his longest teaching engagements. When he was at Columbia he met Pavel Milyukov at the dinner party of a mutual friend. Russian emigre, Renaissance man and libertine he was, but despite very different temperments, Melchizedek had appreciated his sardonic wit and encyclopedic knowledge of Russian literature and history. Then on the eve of a trip to Israel for a conference on the history of the Levant where he was reading a paper, Pavel called him over to ask a favor. He said he had some scientific documents that needed to be delivered to a colleague in Israel and asked if he would drop them off as a favor. Dr Yakov Levin was very appreciative and asked him if he had succumbed to the temption to peep at the documents. Melchizedek protested that he hadn't, mostly out of the certainty that they would be incomprehensible to him and thus uninteresting. Dr Levin opened one of the parcels that contained reams of technical manuscripts in Arabic script. He explained that the documents had been taken from a group of scientists from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Academy of Science. They had been invited to a university sponsored event to foster and encourage dialogue between Muslim and Western scientists. Dr Levin stated that the Iranians had recieved them them from sympathetic scientists working at Sandia and Los Alamos who had thoughtfully translated them into Farsi.

This didn't surprise him, in his own department, Edward Said sponsored many such events. Melchizedek's lack of enthusiasm and cooperation towards them was one of reasons for their frosty relationship.

He had found out later that these vistiting Iranian scientists came to an untimely end in the red light area near 42nd St, reportedly as victims of a robbery that the Iranian government was more than happy to hush up. Numerous eyewitness reports had placed them in a series of strip clubs and they were said to be extremely intoxicated and boisterous towards the end of the evening. They were found in an alley known to be used by prostitutes and their clients, Shot at close range with a .22 pistol, with their wallets missing. However because no shots were heard in the high traffic area, it was suggested that the pistol was silenced.

Dr Levin then suggested that there may be future opportunities to help Israel and World Jewry in the struggle again modern day Hamans and Hitlers that seemed to be springing up everywhere like toadstools after a soaking rain. There was no discussion of any financial gain. He told Dr Levin he would consider the matter, but his decision was already made by the time he boarded the flight home. In the following years there was little work for him, but he became Pavel's apprentice in tradecraft. What seemed to be casual strolls through the city were training runs in the art of the pass, the dead drop, and the tail. They began a rigorous self-defense program based on knife and small arms, Krav Magen and the Mossad's own unique system. Melchizedek refused to carry a weapon, but at least acknowledged that the information would someday be necessary. Melchizedek was dubbed Waxwing and Pavel himself used the codename Q, not solely as a Flemingesque nod, but also as a reference to full scale replica of an Aztec frieze that hung in his office of the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl.

***

The final factor to set his feet on the his current path was the trial of the heart that began when Melchizedek first saw Tamar. They met in a fiction workshop that Melchizedek took in his sophomore year. Melchizedek thought that writing style would be important for either a historian or a preacher. The instructor was in the visiting writer program. He had written a bestselling series of novels chronicling the lives and loves of a group of young adults in San Francisco in the 70s. Tamar was in the fiction track of the English Dept. She had been writing since she was nine and her fiction had a startling originality and imaginative power. The instructor was by turns humorously appreciative and cattily jealous of her talent. The post-punk frosted hairstyle not withstanding, he thought she looked exactly like Audrey Hepburn. Her family were Roumanian Jews who settled in Brooklyn and proceeded to build an empire based on home furnishings. When the furniture factories were driven out of the mill towns by labor unions her father was assigned the duty of setting up new manufacturing operations in North Carolina.

That semester he became obsessed with trying to impress her with his stories. As he couldn't compete in the style department, he first tried to adopt an archaic form and write period pieces. She seemed to take no notice while the instructor and the rest of the class agreed these were unmitigated literary disasters. In quiet desperation he adopted a stark boney Carverian prose and created nebulous vignettes out of his family history. The lukewarm reception of the class was an improvement but at the end of the class Tamar offered a single suggestion.

"Why don't you just let the story tell itself?"

It became clear to him why his stories had been so bad. The unlit workshop of his imagination had been filling up with oily rags of pretentiousness and other contrived detritus, and Tamar's question had ignited them. The fire became both a source of melding heat and illumination that allowed him to explore the mineshaft of his memory search of nuggets of ore to be forged in the furnace that Tamar had sparked.

He was still careful to hide the source of the stories. They took on a life of their own, and grew beyond the actual events to the point that the original versions were permanently contaminated by the fictional ones in his memory. But Tamar began to follow them avidly and the class discussions were soon followed by private conversations over coffee and ice cream in the student center.

As they began to entangle themselves in each other's lives, he became exposed to the desperate daily struggles that seemed to have no cause and produced a state of sustained crisis.While he became familiar with the events that brought her to this pass he couldn't truly understand how deep the damage went or how compromised her ability to self-repair was. A father whose leaving created a perfect vacuum and a mother whose compulsion to control was only slighty offset by a craving for her children's love and approval hobbled her attempts to find peace. Scenes from the past recurred in full dress rehearsal over the course of months, and no matter how many times he rode in on a white charger of hope, the more perilous each incident became. Soon she began to mutter of conversations and events that never occurred. Then she began seeing a therapist provided by the university health services. A elderly female Jungian, once highly regarded, now quite mad herself. Within 3 months Tamar had to be admitted to McLean Hospital, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Her mother came to get her after six weeks. As soon as she arrived in town, all access to Tamar was blocked. He was unable to call or visit the hospital, and under a pharmceutical spell, Tamar was spirited away to Raleigh, never to return to the university.

His attempts to contact her were unsuccessful, but once when he was a grad student after returning from a summer conference he received a birthday card from her with an Iowa postmark. Then when he had a history chair at Williams College, a friend from his school days sent him an email to let him know that Tamar had published a book. It was billed as a non-fictional account of her descent into the netherworld of schizophrenia. The surprise happy ending was that she became one of the first wave of patients treated with Prozac and this enabled her to finish her education and resume writing. He bought the book. It was the early days of the internet but her publisher had a website with an extended bio, the final sentence of which would also suit the closing of the tale of their relationship: "She lives in Connecticutt with her husband." Still, the conventional wisdom demanded that he achieve "closure", so he sent her brief note of congratulations, doubting if it would even reach her. But since he had never been able to respond to the birthday card he didn't think it was inappropriate. He later admitted to himself that it was weakness that prompted him to put a return address on the letter.

She responded quickly from her office address. The letter was full of questions about his career, writing and travels, but she did include a mention to the final stages of her divorce. A later letter explained that the marriage hadn't survived the strain of her literary success. They switched to email after that, a meeting was arranged and within a month, they picked up exactly where they had left off. There was a difference in that there was none of the metal taste of desperation that permeated their final months together. It had been replaced by a studied reserve on her part that he attributed to maturity and a newer mechanism for handling her inner conflicts. He was partially right in that. It wasn't until after the wedding that he began to detect the gaps between her version of events and the testimony his senses and the rest of the world. He was hesitant to see it as lying. Although he never got her to admit it, he eventually became convinced that she had a good grasp of reality, but when situations arose which were unpleasant to her, she would employ her imagination to create a perception that was more acceptable to her.

Both of their careers required travel, but they grew into an odd pattern of extended separation. Tamar seemed to delight in re-enacting their first reunion and he had finally begun to accept that this would be the normal pattern of their relationship. They spoke on the phone on an almost weekly basis, recounting recent events and making plans to spend time together that might plausibly occur. He was acutely aware of the irony that since his quest began, he himself was now making up the events he related to her.

***

An orange pink smudge on the horizon kindled to a glow. It became an oasis of fluorescence then an entire city of light. Having adopted Max's deep regard for truck-stops he pulled in. It was 3 AM. If he stopped here for the night he would still be in range of Glaser Township, but even after a short nights sleep would still need a few hours to look for temporary lodgings. He preferred to continue on after a brief pitstop as travelling at night was less conspicuous in his mind. Nightshift workers were more lax and less alert as Pavel had taught him. They didn't check vehicle plates on room registration forms, or notice that the the card he used for payment was prepaid and rung on the debit track.

As he was taught, Melchizedek scanned the dining room. His instincts were elevated regarding the trooper sitting at the other end of the counter. There were no overt stares, body language was relaxed and casual, but the trooper possessed Melchizedek's same peripheral alertness. This was no doubt due to good training combined with natural talents for tracking and stalking. But Pavel had cautioned him that radar senses radar first and that since a spy adopts the acute senses of a hunter, particular care was needed to prevent being recognized as a fellow predator.

He commiserated with the waitress over a long night with weary cheerfulness. He tipped well and left the diner in an unhurried manner. The trooper didn't stir. He was in the right lane driving exactly at the speed limit when the headlights appeared in his rear view mirror. They gradually caught up, and before the sillouette of the Crown Vic was clear, the bubble lights came on. He pulled over immediately and had his license and the registration in his hands, which he rested on top of the steering wheel in plain sight. The trooper approaced with flashlight in one hand and the other resting on the grip of the pistol that was seated in the unsnapped holster. Before the flashlight beam blinded him he saw the name flashing from the brass plate below the badge: SWAGGER.

"License and registration please."

Rather than going back to look him up in the onboard computer, the trooper scanned the inside of the vehicle with the light. This was a bad sign. Best to get all the cards out on the table.

"Did I do something wrong trooper?"

After a long pause and a guttural sound that could have been a brief chuckle, the trooper replied.

"I reckon someone thinks so. I never seen such a fuss. Five bulletins in one month. That must have been some damn book that got stolen. Step out of the vehicle which your hands up front and high, please."

"Yes ma'am."
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guest author: papijoe
Part XVIII: Trail of Tears
"...and as soon as the attack is detected, multiple warheads launch against the major cities of the Arab world and Europe..." Max's audience was polite and attentive. It had clearly been a while since they stopped trying to figure out what he was talking about. At night the cafe became a sort of roadhouse where bottled beer was served. Music was provided by a Johnny Cash tribute band.

Meanwhile at the Beulah Baptist Church, fellowship time was ushered in with decaf coffee and homemade cookies. After a spell of tears and hugs from well-wishers, Natalene had found one of her old classmates among the praise and worship team. Soon a mandolin and banjo appeared among the other instruments and a bluegrass gospel jam session had begun.

I saw the light, yes I saw the light
No more of darkness, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord! I saw the light!


Rev. Goins took Melchizedek to his office. There was a large oak desk with an old fashioned blotter, no computer and a rotary phone. The walls were completely lined with bookcases, many large sets of commentaries, concordances and obscure Bible translations. There were a few stuffed chairs for visitors and a small Oriental rug well worn in the middle by the pastor's knees.

"Now brother, I don't know any of th' details, but the Lord did give me a word of knowledge concerning you, and I'm s'posed to help in any way I can. So go and ask away and if I know the answer I give it t'ya. If y'can't bring me into all your confidences, that'd be just fine, chances are I don't want to know. What I do know is that you got a burden, and as a fellow Christian I'm t'share it."

Melchizedek had felt a tangible bond of trust with the Reverend. But he started with the account of Isaac's trek from New Amsterdam, with the background involving the vision of Menassah ben Israel. Rev Goins was an active listener nodding and occasionally chiming a response to encourage the tale.

"Well brother, as a Melungeon, I've heard my share of stories about th' Lost Tribes. You probably know about th' research done with genetic testing. There ain't any evidence that th' Native Americans have any biological connection to th' Hebrew race, but th' Melungeons do in part. We are a mix of Northern European, Iberian, Turkish, Mediterranean Middle Eastern and Jewish blood. Isaac's party surely could have had this make up, Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain coulda mixed with Turks in Salonika, Izmir and Constantinople either in their travels in the Mediterranean or in th' New World. As you know, th' Melungeon used t' identify themselves as "Portugee", and in th' time he arrived, ol' Isaac wuz bound t' run into th' Portuguese and Spanish settlers who that'd started with a fort on the coast 'tween Carolina and Georgia. They moved inland when th' English settlers b'came too many. These were likely th' ancestors of th' Melungeon and by and by, th'Native Americans and free and runaway slaves mixed in. "

"Is it likely that the original settlers were Jewish?"

"Not all mebbe, but you can bet many were on the lam from th' Inquisition. You don't go and settle in a lonesome wilderness on th' other side of the world for heck of it. I have a feeling that Isaac's group woulda felt at home. And I recall some Melungeon customs that coulda been survivals from th' Jewish rituals. My Melungeon forefathers were Christian folkvas far back as anyone can remember, but one particular thing of their worship was th' Friday night vigils where candles were lit. I know some other mountain folk did this as well, but I've never heared of it as a reg'lar thing outside these parts. Another thing that just occurred t' me was that used t'be a Melungeon settlement up in Kiln Springs jest over in Virginia, they're all gone now, that wouldn't keep hogs. That's an odd thing, pigs being the only cheap and easy thing to raise for meat in these parts. Jest mark their ears an' turn 'em loose t' fatten on th' forest mast. Sheep'r too valuable for wool and don't fatten as quick, and some can keep cows, but mostly for dairy and the meat is dear t' raise foreveryday eatin'. I remember folks speculatin' that mebbe the acorns made th' meat bitter, but it ain't clear as that's th' reason. So while I doubt if Isaac coulda found the Lost Tribes, they sure coulda become a lost tribe."

"Rev. Goins, Isaac was entrusted with something or a number of things he considered of great value and spiritual significance. We think he had at least one of the stones from the Breastplate of Aaron. We don't understand what their appearance in this age signifies, but our sense is that it is profoundly connected to the future destiny of Israel and the Jewish people. We are seeking the stones in other places in the world, but for those entrusted to Isaac, the trail ends here."

Rev Goins spent a few long moments in thought. "I've already forgotten more about th' history of these parts than anyone else knows. I'll have do some studying on it. Old Ollie Cabot left me some unpublished interviews his young folks did, and I've taken t' setting down th' stories of just about ever'one of th' old timers before they cross the Jordan. Too many t' remember, but now that I know what I'm after, if I concentrate on th' Melungeon yarns I might come up with something."

Max had made the aquaintance of several residents that shared his botanical interests, and he actually welcomed the additional delay as an opportunity to enhance his wilderness survival skills. They breakfasted together the next morning, Natalene was now radiant and peaceful, with no signs remaining of her withdrawal sickness. She spent the morning being greeted by former neighbors and schoolmates, and was planning on meeting again with some of the musicians.

Max had a date with Sojourner Perry, a robust 90 year old woman whose grandmother had been emancipated from slavery after the Civil War. She was the expert on every kind of wild food plant and medicinal herb and they would spend the day tramping through the woods. Melchizedek was to help Rev. Goins comb through his archives. It ended up as a day of scholarly triage, as the records were sorted in piles based on their perceived likeliness to yield clues to location of the stones. Only in the early afternoon were they able to start reading the accounts, many of them in the Reverend's own handwriting. By the end of the day they were in agreement that if the stones left the area before the early 1800's they would have been almost impossible to to track with the accounts they had. The only written accounts of contact with the Melungeon usually occurred when some fugitive had been suspected of hiding among them. The law seemed to have about as much luck finding outlaws among the Melungeon as Federal revenuers had of finding illegal stills. But these frustrated officials tended to take notice of any rare instances of usual travel in or our of the Melungeon communities. Melchizedek had a hunch that the Stones tended to have a unifying effect on a community whether their presence was common knowledge or not. And similarly their passing might leave subtle clues in their wake. They agreed to pick up here early the next morning.

The plan had been to meet at the cafe for dinner, but Natalene announced that they had been invited to a corn husking that evening. Some of Ollie's returning alumni had leased some fallow farm land and renovated a farm on the outskirts of town. Now that they had cribs full of the harvested ears, they had revived the communal practice of making what would otherwise be a tedious task into a party. This was a common strategy that was applied to barn and cabin raising, quilting, and sheep shearing, but overall, the mountain folk seemed to have returned to the age-old tradition of finding any excuse available to dance and celebrate.

When they arrived, the music was in full swing, but Natalene had already been admonished that only old folks need apply. Youngsters like her were supposed dedicate themselves to the mountain of corn ears in the middle of the room. One of the hosts announced that the old custom was to be honored that anyone who found a rare red ear of corn was allowed to kiss anyone he or she chose. And jealous husbands and wives weren't allowed to take a poke at them. And buried at the bottom of the pile was a 5 gallon jug of the local white lightening. The sooner the pile disappeared, the sooner it was opened and the dancing could begin. The men and women seemed to naturally sit a bit apart from each other. Melchizedek took this opportunity to update Max while they shucked, while the locals teased them about the slowness of their work.

Max listened with mild interest, then proceeded to recount his discoveries about mountain life. His survival skills were those of the forest recluse but the old-timers of Beulah Hollow lived in dependance on each other and their shared skills which allowed them not only to survive individually but to support others. For Max this was something of a revelation, in his apocalyptic worldview, he had never considered that an entire community could survive on its own devices in one of his post-historic scenarios.

Their conversation was disrupted by a commotion around Natalene. They looked up and she was holding up a shucked ear of corn like a rural version of the Statue of Liberty. While the woman hooted and hollered encouragement, the men froze in a kind of nervous anticipation, particularly Melchizedek as she began to walk towards them. She took her time for maximum effect and the shouts of the women reached a fever pitch. Melchizedek's mind began to race. His marital situation had always been complicated and the necessary travelling had made it worse. He still wore a wedding band but it was in fact a statement of hope. He wasn't looking for his situation to be complicated further.

So he was equally surprised when Natalene gave Max an enthusiastic kiss, to the wild approval of the women of Beulah Hollow.

***

The next morning's breakfast was a brief one. When they left the party at 3 AM the townspeople were still dancing and sipping moonshine. All three of them had refrained from the fire-water but were still bleary from lack of sleep and there was little conversation.

When Melchizedek arrived at Rev. Goins office he found the reverend surrounded by stacks of old letters.

"I have a confession t' make. I had trouble sleepin' last night and I usually find that a good time to catch up on correspondence with my denomination. I'm one of th' hold-outs that won't use email, and reading my district supervisor's letters is usually a sure cure fer insomnia. But I was suddenly reminded that ol' Ollie Cabot had some missives that were donated t' him for th' historical museum he started setting up. It ran out of funding and had t' close, and I became sort of a volunteer curator, which only means they gave me th' keys t' th' storage. I went and found th' letters I was interested in. They were from Abraham Gallegos. He was headman of the Melungeon settlement in Kiln Springs, until it dissolved in the 30's. Abraham's mother was pure Cherokee, of a pocket a that nation that chose t' hide in the hills rather than join th' forced march t' Oklahoma in th' century before. His father was Melungeon, and likely had some Cherokee on his side too.

At th' time th' Commonwealth a Virginia had a Registrar a Vital Statistics by th' name a WA Plecker who lead a crusade t' have th' Melungeon, or "mongrels" as he liked to call us, declared non-white and subject t' segregation and later t' apply Virginia's sterilization law t' th' Melungeons. The Kiln Springs community had been subject t' racial hostility for nigh on one hundred years since th' Nat Turner rebellion, but this was th' last straw. Abraham had been in contact with th' parts of th' tribe that went on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Now if y' can read this writing, tell me what y' make of it."

Uncle, I apreciate your offer and I'm making plans now for the move. I'd like to come out first to see what is invoved to fix up the property in Glazier Township.

We expect to be free to depart in peace, but we don't know what dangers we may face on the trip. As we discussed the bearer will entrust to you the Signet of the Covenant that has been in our family's keeping these long years. Should anything happen to my party it will pass to the Cherokee Nation for safekeeping.


"Turns out Abraham and his people made it safe. One might think that th' covenant is between th' Melungeon and Cherokee, but you could easily read it as between man and God. So just mebbe there is a connection. I checked the maps and Glazier Township is just outside of Tahlequah, th' old capital of th' Cherokee Nation, on th' road to Muskogee."

"I'm familiar with Glazier Township," said Melchizedek, "It was founded by my family"
***

Natalene had stopped by with her musician friends and Melchizedek with Rev Goins. Sojourner had invited them all to supper. They were all singing on the porch as Max took Melchizedek aside.

There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky

We sang the songs of childhood
Hymns of faith that made us strong


"Hey listen, unless you think you really need me in Oklahoma, I thought I would spend a few more days here. I'll check my service and you can let me know where to catch up with you..."

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, lord, by and by?

There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky


"Randy Martin's gonna show me how to make a stone chimney that drafts properly...anyway no more than a week..."

Melchizedek smiled warmly, gave Max a bear hug and said,"Thanks Max, thanks for everything." After he got in his car and drove off, Max was still assuring himself.

"...definitely no longer than a month..."
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guest author: papijoe
Part XVI: Prodigal Daughter
A person walking along the highway in the rain carrying a red canister can only mean one thing. But Melchizedek was already 400 yards down the road by the time the meaning dawned on his road-weary brain. The sensation of going from 0 to 40 in reverse woke Max mid-snore. "What the f- ?"

At first she stared at them like a mute apparition. In fact with her drenched hair, pale face and blue lips, she could have been what the locals called a "haint", a ghost, perhaps of a drown woman out of a familiar local legend. Melchizedek began to lower the passenger window (much to a sputtering Max's dismay), and was about to offer a ride to the next hamlet or at least to call the State Patrol if she wasn't comfortable taking a ride from two strange men. But she opened the back door and fell into the seat without a word. Soon she was either asleep or passed out.

Max began to complain bitterly about this complication in their schedule while Melchizedek searched among the luggage for a blanket. At the point that Max had him almost convinced that they should call Emergency Services, she pleaded with them to take her to the next gas station.

"You better turn up the heat in here. She's still shivering and her teeth chattering sound like castanets. It's driving me f-ing crazy!"

"She's sick but I don't think it's just a cold. I think it's withdrawal."

"She's dope sick? Oh that's just great! What if she still has drugs on her?

"If she did, she wouldn't be sick, would she?"

"This is not an auspicious development."

They had taken 81 south from Harrisburg. It cut through small sections of Maryland and West Virgina and then ran right along Virginia's piece of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It brought them into Tennessee east of their destination and they soon turned off on a poorly maintained state road. Max had done the much of the driving until they had reached Virginia. By the point that they encountered their sojourner, they were desperately in need of a rest from the road.

From Max's point of view the situation didn't get better. When they found the next town she was clearly in no condition to drive. They had her car towed to a local garage where the mechanic pointed out that the inspection sticker had expired almost a year ago, and wasn't optimistic about making it street legal. They retrieved a duffel bag and a guitar that by her last effort of will had avoided a pawn shop. They had checked into two rooms at the only motel in town, a mildewy one star affair. Melchizedek sat up with her to make sure she made it through the night safely. Max insisted on searching her bag for illegal paraphenalia. He found none but she had a small inventory of music CDs from well-known independant label with her picture on a few of them and the same name on all: Natalene Groves.

She bore cold turkey with the grim stoicism of an early Church martyr. There was no screaming or vomiting although she was drenched in sweat all night. She obediently drank the Gatorade he bought her and in the morning she was eating the breakfast of oranges and bananas picked up at the convenience store. Natalene apologized that she couldn't pay him back for the room or groceries. She was trying to get home to Beulah Hollow which was about 35 miles east of the home of the Melungeon historian in Winslowdale that they were supposed to meet. Melchizedek called their contact to reshedule and broke the news to Max that there had been a change of plans. He didn't take it well.

***

Natalene was feeling sound enough to travel the next day. While Max smoldered in silence, she napped and dutifully accepted more of the fruit that was laid up for her for the journey. Towards the afternoon, she was able to converse with Melchizedek for brief spells.

She had grown up here in Appalachia, her father was a mechanic for a mining company, but was chronically unemployed when she was a teenager following the main mine closure after a cave-in that claimed a dozen lives.

The central event of her young life was the arrival at the regional high school of Ollie Cabot. Of course he was first known as Mr Cabot. But despite being armed with a handful of teaching degrees from Rutgers and Princeton, it was soon apparent that he did have the presence that commanded the kind of respect needed to maintain order in a post-modern classroom. He was soon familiarly addressed as Ollie, among other things. Despite the stinkbombs, desk locks filled with glue, and blackboard caricatures that greeted him every day, he resolved to try a different approach. It was on the day when he opened his desk and was presented with an hissing mother possum, with her litter that his epiphany came. The project for his history class soon involved all but the most unruly of his students. He had them travel out to the older people who still lived up in the mountains more or less self-sufficiently. It was clear to Ollie in the early Seventies that this lifestyle and all the knowledge that went with it would vanish when these people died.

In many ways the project succeeded beyond all of his expectations. Most importantly, the students recognized and appreciated the toughness and lack of dependence the mountain people had on the modern world. They were coming into the world at the end of the first television generation, and the the contrast with the simplicity of the mountain people was stark.

The mountain people produced everything that they needed. Sheep were raised and sheared and from the wool they wove their own cloth. Hogs were allowed to fatten on the "mast" of the forest, acorns, chestnuts, etc. They were slaughtered at home and virtually no part of the animal went to waste. Even the lard was used for cooking, candles or soap. Their homes were built with tools that they fashioned themselves. Their diets were supplimented with nutrious wild greens and roots, as well as medicinal plants. That which they grew themselves they planted by the signs indicated in their old almanacs, and they had methods for preserving enought to sustain themselves through the winters.

They were not particularly averse to modern ways where it suited them, as attested to by the ubiquitous rusting hulks of autos, but they were proud of their knowledge, and sensed that technology was a relentless task-master and for the most part were content with their old way of life.

The project burgeoned into a journal published by the students called The Beulah County Almanac. Eventually the articles were published in a series of books, the first few of which eventually sold over a million copies each. Ollie then took the revenues from the books, and opened his own progressive school that offered free scholarships. By the time Natalene had enrolled, the local public television station had begun producing a show for young adults based on the articles and Natalene made her debut as one of the hosts that covered folklore, mountain music, and homemade instruments.

But her short tenure was in the twilight of the project. After almost a twenty year run, interest finally had begun to wane and three years after Ollie's untimely death from AIDS the school closed.

The way this influenced the young people in Ollie's classes was curious. The old-timers had a strong effect on the younger generation, but this seemed to be countered by the attention that the books had generated. Some of the students had actually stayed on in the area, in effect apprenticing themselves to the older folks and passing into the obscurity of the simpler lifestyle. Most of the rest of the students continued on in a normal trajectory, some going off to local colleges, joining the service or working in the mines. But there was another sizable group that included Natalene that pursued their new craving for fame and glory. Here she became reticent. She did mention that in later years that several of the alumni of the Almanac had returned with a revived interest in their earlier studies. It was her hope that there would be a place for her among them. The unspokened questions were whether she would be able to finally break the addiction and how she would fill the aching void left by the heroin.

Melchizedek had been so engrossed in the story that he was a little taken aback when Natalene asked where they were originally headed. He told the plain truth about their appointment to learn more about the Melungeon which earned him a glare from Max. His instinct was rewarded with a wealth of stories surrounding the nearby settlement that had long been abandoned, but was still remembered in the oral history of Beulah Hollow. Melchizedek had already thoroughly mined the published accounts that centered around the county seat in Winslowdale that was the epicenter of the recent Melungeon revival.

Jabez Spring was the closest thing to a city around Beulah Hollow. At the junction of two state roads, it had two gas station with convenience stores, a supermarket with strip mall, a real truckstop with a diner, and one motel belonging to one of the "value-priced" national chains that Max preferred. Natalene still didn't feel up to joining the men for dinner at the truckstop. Max's mood improved slightly as he engaged Melchizedek in the first civil conversation they had had in days. He amused himself by making observations on the seamy underside of life on the road, pointing out the activities of the women climbing into tractor trailers in the nearby lot, identifying which patrons were affiliated with white supremacist groups based on their jailhouse tattoos, and correctly predicting which traveller would approach them with a sob story about a broken down family car. When they returned, they could hear Natalene's steady guitar and slightly shaky voice coming from the next room:

Far back in my childhood
I'member th day was happy an' free
But I wandered away
I was taught by my Father
Who sleeps beneath th stone
I was led by my Mother
Yet I wandered alone
Yes alone, all alone
An' I seen them go on
Yet I wander, O how lonely
I'm shivering in th cold

Soon after the song ended there was a knock on their door. Natalene suggested that if they went with her to the mid-week service at the Beulah Methodist Church, Rev. Goins, who she described as a learned man and something of a local historian might have some useful information.Max flatly refused.. Melchizedek said he would be happy to go with her.

The meeting was in full swing when they arrived. Muted music and colored light spread a out to the parking lot like a groundfog of praise. The hymns and camp meeting worship songs were sung exuberantly. As with all well-loved songs, enthusiasm was favored over technical perfection, and the flats and sharps seemed to cancel each other harmoniously.

Rev. Goins was tall and lean, with an olive complexion. From his last name and appearance, he was almost certainly Melungeon. Natalene later told him he was probably in his late fifties to early sixties when she left Beulah Hollow. Judging by the wear in his face he could be in his eighties, but his hair still was a mixture of black and white and had the posture of a four-star general.

He delivered some announcements and other church business with mild humor. His sermon on how God uses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise would have made the top graduates of the best seminars secretly envious, but it was delivered in the homey diction of the county. It was fortified with anecdotes from his career involving unnamed persons that were alternatively heartwarming and hilarious. Nearly every point was answered with enthusiastic salvos of assent, ranging from the simple amen to "You preach it pastor!". Melchizedek was no stranger to the inside of a church, and though his travels had made attendence a distant memory, he was thoroughly enjoying himself when Rev Goins brought the sermon in for a landing and asked if anyone needed prayer.

The assembly fell into a reverent stillness as if they knew exactly what was going to happen. As if on cue, Natalene stood and walked toward the pulpit. There rose a collective murmuring from the congregation, like a soft moan of relief. Open palms were stretched towards Natalene all eyes closed and some prayed silently while others cried out loud in unearthly languages.

"Raise your face to Him, Natalene and lift up holy hands to receive His blessings" Her arms were visibly trembling and soon her legs gave out. She curled on the floor and a bloodcurdling shriek seemed at first to shatter the peace. Rev. Goins was unmoved.

"In the name of Jesus, unclean spirit, you will hold your lying tongue until commanded to speak truth. In Jesus name I rebuke you spirit, and in Jesus name you are bound..." Rev. Goins was just warming up. He seemed to relish the task at hand as he beat down Natalene's personal demon eight ways to Sunday, releasing it from it's assignment, tearing down it's stronghold, breaking it's jaw, confounding it's schemes and confusing it's purpose. At one point he had to remove his jacket and the shirt beneath was soaked in sweat, but he didn't miss a beat. After a few minutes of praying aloud in tongues and calling on the Lord, he bent closer.

"In the name of Jesus, what is your name, spirit?" The head slowly lifted as if under a heavy weight. The eyes glared balefully at Rev. Gloins and a voice croaked, "Papaveryin!"

Rev. Goins stretched himself to his full height and raised his arms. He spoke quietly. "In Jesus name, You will leave this precious child of God. She is His and you can never snatch her from His hand."

Natalene turned her head as she retched and gagged. I thin stream of a bright lime green liquid issued from her open mouth like a jet from a fountain. She let out a heart's cry, and began weeping, not in a key of misery or despair, but one of gratitude and relief.

Melchizedek came out of his seat when she fell, and was beside her. Rev Goins hunkered down beside them and stroked Natalene's head, the first contact they had during the whole encounter. He turned to Melchizedek and whispered, "This was just the overture. You and I, sir, have a divine appointment this evening!"
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guest author: papijoe
Part XVII Departures and Arrivals
"He had the gun pointed at my chest and started walking towards me. His blond hair was cropped almost to the scalp and he had a long ugly red welt along the side of his skull. Then a woman stepped into the room and pointed a sawed off shot gun at me. The man pointed the gun at her and yelled something in a language that sounded vaguely German. She seemed surprised to see him and ducked behind the door. I took that opportunity to dive behind some crates. I heard a loud boom. The man barked what sounded like a curse and there were 3 sharp reports. Then there was a soft shuffling, it sounded like he was moving to a different position and two more shots. The shotgun roared again and after hissing a curse he answered. Footsteps retreated down the corridor. A few quick stealthy steps to the door and a shot fired down the hall. Then some metallic clacks that I assumed was him reloading a full clip of ammunition as he trotted up quickly to peer over the crates to check if I was still cowering. His shoulder was tattered and bloody and had a few small wounds in his neck and jaw, but he was grinning and with the gun still trained on me sidestepped to the tabernacle. I lost sight of him, but was sure he still had the gun pointed in my direction. The last thing was a brief rusty creak.

I was flying. The explosion brought the end of the world and the ringing silence. I had never left the state of bliss that I brought down with me from the Tree of Life. Even after the man with the gun had appeared, the Light was all around me, murmuring secrets in my ear to my everlasting delight. I did what I had to to save the poor vessel I had been, but now it was beyond my control or concern. The Light endured and we flew. But then the Light led me back. I got up on shaky legs. At that point the fragrant oil that had been poured out on my head was depleted at last, although the faint scent still lingers.

The man, who ever he was, was lying on his back and I'd rather not describe his condition. I could see that the scorched interior of the small vault was empty save a dagger. The design was familiar to any historian. It was issued by the Tottenkopf SS and this one bore the special insignia of The Rosenberg Kommando.

As I stumbled out of the room. I kept my mind calm by reviewing the chronology of the special SS misson to Salonika. Alois Brunner who Adolph Eichmann considered his "best man" was already infamous along with Dieter Wisliceny for sending Salonikan Jews to the deathcamps, and especially well known to art historians and scholars of Judaica for stealing their art and religious artifacts. He was the first I suspected. After I made my way cautiously out of the villa past the guard who was slain before he looked up from his German nudist magazine, past the scattergun that the woman had abandon in her flight. I then hid in my office and slept. When I woke I did some quick research online while cleaning out my desk. I had pretty much confirmed my suspicions about Brunner.

Then I despaired. Like many Nazis, he was rehabilitated by the CIA under the patronage of Hitler's top anti-Soviet spy, Reinhard Gehlen who would serve as head of German security between 1956-68. But the blood of forty three thousand Greek Jews, twenty five thousand French Jews and the children of Izieu cried out to heaven. When he became a political liability to German security, he sought refuge in Syria. The Israelis attempted to assassinate him twice and failed. Brunner it seemed was beyond my reach. I even considered asking a good friend from Jordan if he could help me get into the country but then I saw a more recent report that Brunner had been spotted in South America.

I realized that my labor was over. I resigned my position the next day by letter, settled my affairs quickly and that night was on a plane for the United States. I expect to be starting in a degree program here in the fall and I also have a research position to pay the bills. I'm sorry we never got to meet Matt. I'm grateful that I was allowed to play a part in your search. Yassou file mou Matthaios."

The connection broke before Matt could respond. In a quest framed by so many unfathomable mysteries, Psyche now passed into Matt's memory as one of the greatest.

***

Katia had become such a study in psychological shock that she sought complete isolation to recover. The dead guard had the key to his Fiat on the same tethered set of keys he kept on his belt. She drove to her hotel and quickly checked out. The car was abandon at the airport. She slept in the rental in a turnoff of the highway to Izmir just before the Turkish border.

She buying a new wig and outfit in Istanbul when she heard the report out of Salonika that an unidentified intruder believed to have garrotted a security guard had been killed himself by a bomb in the Villa Allatini. What her sense of doom lifted, and now she seemed to be the recipient of some incredible good luck. Now with the Jan truly dead, she could return to Greece. The woman would recognize her, but she already had the seed of a story about how she was a secret ally that finally had to come out of hiding to save them from Jan. She could finally be able to insinuate herself into the quest as Matt's would-be saviour. Yes, she would make it work.

***

Matt was in the air by dawn of the next day. A brief conversation with Arcy had informed him that arrangements had been made with sympathetic parties in Israel for a brief period of rest and rehabiliation. She was now the de facto liason for the entire group as Tim felt he was a security risk and Melchizedek was incommunicado somewhere in the Appalachian mountains. She sent him his reservation information for the Mount Carmel Spa Resort which was recommended by his Israeli contact as safe exclusive and very conductive to a pleasant and speedy recovery from his illness. It was also only a few minutes away from Haifa and The Technion, Israel's premier institute of science and technology. Apparently Matt was to meet with one of the faculty regarding some special equipment he would need for the next phase of the mission.

He was only to refer to the Israeli contact as "Devora", but the smartly dressed woman holding the "Mustang" sign had a familiar face. Matt realized as she spontaneously hugged him like a prodigal son that she was one of the lady commandoes of the Yehudit Unit. "You probably don't remember me, completely understandable, but you might as well call me Annie. We're so glad so see you are alright, and there is someone out in the car who can't wait to see you, you'll understand why..."

Annie's excitement was infectious, and his first thought was that he would see Shaka again. He would have asked if he could have gotten a word in, but was content to listen to Annie kvell about the spa until he reached the pickup area for arrivals. When he saw the balding man in a colonel's IDF uniform he was too stunned to speak.

"Shalom, Matt", said Uncle Allen.
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guest author: papijoe
Part XVII: Psyche's Tale
"When I found you at the hospital you were already delirious and talking...sometimes shouting. You mentioned different people by name, some of the names were rather odd. And you talked about the Hoshen. I knew I had to get you out of there.

It took a while for the arrangements to be made, so I got you a private room and I tried to keep contact with the staff to a minimum. And I have to admit, I was fascinated by the story that emerged from your, uh, ramblings.

Just before you left for the retreat I sent Arcy PGP encrypted email telling her what the situation was and asking for advice. She seemed a little confused, I don't think she knew all of the details herself, but she said she would talk to her people and get back to me as soon as possible. In half an hour your phone rang. It was Arcy and there was another nice British gentleman on the line who apologized for introducing himself only as a friend of yours. They asked me lots of questions and were very concerned about you. It seems like at the end of the conversation they were satisfied that you were in good hands.

What I didn't discuss with them was my growing resolve to find the Hoshen stone if it was still in Salonika. Maybe the reason I've always enjoyed puzzles and problem solving games is that they gave me the artificial sense that something in this life can be figured out. History, especially for someone from Salonika, is a frustrating enigma. The Greeks have had their labyrinths and the Turks their Oriental tales of treasure troves revealed by secret words. I never thought the Jews had any similar mysteries, but that was all about to change.

I'll spare you the detailed explanation of my research, but I found myself going as far back as the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic communities before the expulsion of 1492. There was a recurring reference to "Etz Chaim" or the Tree of Life. It was a popular name for Sephardic synagogues and there was later a Jewish relief organization by that name. I soon suspected that there was also a connection to what is known as Kabbalah. The word itself means "tradition" or "that which is received", and seems to refer to the oral transmitting of a school of Jewish mysticism that may go back to the Biblical patriarchs. In Kabbalah, the "Tree of Life" is a model of the supra-sensible universe, the Ten Sephirot. They are considered the spiritual foundation of the physical world. I was sure that some of the historical references had other esoteric meanings, so I began to read everything I could find on the Kabbalah. I got bogged down in the Zohar but I made better progress reading about the lives of the famous Kabbalists, like Moses Cordovero, Joseph Caro, and Isaac Luria. Through their histories and writings the concept of the Sephirot or Divine Attributes became clearer. The mystical practice of manipulating the Hebrew letters from Scripture or "tzeruf" had a lot of appeal for me and I promised myself I'd look into it further once all this was over.

By this point I was sure that references to Etz Chaim were significant. After the apostasy of Shabbetai Zevi, there was both a Talmudic backlash against Kabbalists, and a greater degree of secrecy and clannishness among the Kabbalists themselves. Soon a reference to Pardes Rimmonin or the Pomegranate Orchard began to crop up with greater frequency. This is a common Kabbalistic allegory, but it was almost certainly being used as a code word for something. Over the centuries there seemed to be a lineage of Kabbalist rabbis that whispered of a secret garden. But in the same span of time the Jews in Salonika prospered and among the old Sephardic families there arose an aristocracy. My Beneveniste ancestors were included, but first among equals were the Allatinis. Their flour mills were the source of their fortune. The family seems to have come to a historic crossroads after the 1876 war with Russia that had so many disastrous consequences for the Ottoman empire. Salonika was flooded with Jewish refugees. The "Etz Chaim" society in conjunction with the Sephardic congregations raised funds to support the refugees. But the bulk of the relief came from some of the new secular Jewish organizations like Il Avenir and most prominently the Alliance Israelite committee. Dr Moise Allatini was the President. But other description of the title sound positively Masonic: "the minister and vizier, master cavalier Dr. Moshe Allatini"

This group seemed to initially have excellent relations with the religious community. I came across a letter of a Rabbi Kovo, praising Dr Allatini and the Alliance in terms that, if I wasn't sure were veiled Kabbalist credentials, would be absurdly sycophantic. He also goes on to mention the society reaching out to the "tree of life", meaning the religious relief organization. Most of the prominent rabbis were supporters of the Alliance including Chief Rabbi Avraham Gatinio. But when Rabbi Gatinio died, Rabbi Shmu'el Arditi was appointed. He become embroiled in a power struggle, with the Alliance and Dr Allatini, over a more democratic administration of the community. As this would greatly reduce the power of the rabbis, the Chief Rabbi opposed it bitterly. Allatini's progressive faction managed to get the Chief Rabbi fired, despite his popularity with the poor traditional Jews. The rabbis then appealed to rabbinical and imperial officials Constantinople who then got Rabbi Arditi re-instated. After more Machiavellian maneuvering on Allatini's part, Rabbi Arditi had to settle for keeping his post, but conceding everything else to Allatini's progressives. This caused a deep schism in the Jewish community between the wealthy progressive Jews, many of which, like Allatini were considered foreigners, and the poorer traditional Sephardic community. And it was the among these representatives of an older Salonika that believed that a higher authority was invoked in this dispute. For there had long been a traditional belief that whenever a wealthy man offended a rabbi, he would die within twelve months time. And before a year had passed, Dr Moishe Allatini, as well as fellow prominent progressives Dr Becher Frances and Shu'al Modiano had passed away. And while any record of the funeral arrangements would have been destroyed in the great Salonika fire years later, oral tradition says all three were eulogized quite movingly by Chief Rabbi Shmu'el Arditi.

This power struggle wouldn't have been important to my research if I didn't think that sometime in the honeymoon period between the more religious "Etz Chaim" group and the progressives, the Hoshen stone was transferred to the custody of Dr Allatini. During this time of warm relations the case wouldn't have been hard to make. The city was chaotic and often subject to the brigandry of first the janissaries and later Albanian irregulars, not to mention prone to apocalyptic fires. On the other hand the Allatini estate, with footman armed with both pistols and daggers, was considered so safe that when Pasha Hamid was deposed, he sought refuge there outside the city walls.

There is also the apparent lack of any references to the stone after Dr Allatini's death. This could be explained by the departure of the remaining Allatini's for Italy in 1911 and the great fire, but I could find nothing to suggest that Moise's descendants had inherited it, or that it had been returned to the rabbinical community. It just seems to have disappeared.

So I was left with nothing more than a hunch, and dove back into the Kabbala to look for a fresh clue to the jewel's whereabouts. Don't think that while all this was going on I had forgotten about you. Usually I'd visit at lunch and early evening. I even tried doing my research by your bedside, hoping that your delirious rambling would reveal some clue. But your subconscious was concerned with many other subjects, more than a few quite amusing if at times embarrassing. And no, I won't tell you what you said. In any case I gave up on those study sessions.

I knew I had a small window of opportunity to solve the puzzle. Your friends allowed me to use your phone to consult with Arcy and give them updates on your recovery. I went back to the old texts again to find the key that would unlock the secrets of Etz Chaim and the Alliance Israelite. I became like a Kabbalist scholar myself in my study habits. I alternated between the Kabbalistic works and the historical texts for the next break in the story.

It came from an unexpected source. A marginally related Google search turned up previously unpublished article from a little known French occultist named Guy Chabon. He had been a high degree Mason that followed some better known figures into a renegade lodge which emphasized the craft's roots in the mysteries of Hermes Trismigethus, the alchemy of Paracelsus, the ecstatic meditation of the Melevi dervishes and of course the Kabbala. He had apparently finagled his way into a ceremony held at the lavish estate of the Allatinis. Having studied the blueprints and visited the areas accessible to the public, I was fairly certain it was held in the room reserved for worship on the Sabbath. But in Chabon's description, the interior was entirely covered by gold leaf and the entrance was flanked by two brass columns. Chabon gave these an Masonic significance, but it was clearly first and foremost a replica of Solomon's temple. Both the columns and the gold have long since been removed.

The rest of the article was more Masonic propaganda that centered around further descriptions of the room. Not being a Hebrew speaker, he seemed to miss the the significance of the ceremony itself. But if his claim of the presence of a Bektashi sheik and an elderly monk from Athos among others is to be believed, then this would suggest it wasn't an ordinary Shabbos service. That's when I began to make arrangements, on the pretext of an imaginary grant proposal, to get unlimited access to the Villa Allatini.

But I still had no idea what I was looking for. At one particularly low point I was trying to grasp some of the practices around the Hebrew language. I was beating myself up for the thousandth time for not having a better working knowledge of Hebrew. I was studying a shivviti, which was a graphic chart of designs composed of Hebrew writing that Kabbalah acolytes meditated on. At a few points I had a sense that I was on the verge of a breakthrough. A glimmer of understanding would surface and then the thought process would collapse under a burden of fatigue and frustration. Finally I just stared at the letters on the page until my eyes stung. I closed them and the large characters floated before my mind's eye, now searing white instead of black, shimmering like flame.

As I saw the burning letters it was like being suddenly confronted with a living thing. Although at that point I seemed to be free of my body and gravity, there was a sense of coursing power and something like the sound of wind.

Abruptly that all changed and I was enveloped in a memory. It was my school trip to the Villa Allatini. Although I've been there several times since, it was apparently the first and last time I really paid attention to the surroundings. We were in the garden outside I had been looking at a statue of a chariot that Mr Polymeris had explained was Apollo's. Here my awareness bifurcated. As I child I received and believed the information my principal was giving me, but in the present I had the realization that it was actually a representation of the Merkaba, or the chariot of fire that Ezekiel saw and Kabbalists meditated on. Then Kostas Liacopolis started teasing me about something silly I had said in class the day before and I started crying. Mr Polymeris yelled at him and told me to never mind. To distract me he led me by the hand to another part of the garden. Under a tree was a bronze plaque with a scene from the Garden of Eden. My older self noticed that the tree was a pomegranate. Mr Polymeris started quizzing me on the story of Genesis, which I was never taught at home and never paid much attention to the few times I had been to church. Consequently I answered almost none of his questions, but he didn't get cross. My older self found the figure of Adam strange. He stood somewhat stiffly within a vaguely defined circle, a bit like the famous Da Vinci picture but with the arms lowered and slightly extended away from the body. In contrast, Eve was in a much more natural if dramatic pose. The memory faded and I was again staring at the black letters on the page.

I went home for a quick nap, shower and cup of Turkish coffee to brace me for the appointment I had been dreading. After an excruciating meeting with the Prefect Governor punctuated with promises of political benefits I could never deliver on, he sent me to his Operations department to sign out a set of keys.

I went to my office to nap for the rest of the day on the old couch. There was a nagging sense that I was operating on instincts that I couldn't comprehend. Part of my rational mind was in a panic at the way I seemed to sleepwalk to the Villa and demanded to be briefed on the operational plans but there didn't seem to be any.

I checked in with the security guard inside who was quite upset at being distracted from his crossword puzzle, sports section, or whatever he was reading. I told him I would be out in the garden. The plaque wasn't hard to find, despite the fact that everything looked smaller and more compact than I remembered. I ran my hands over the patina crusted surface, trying to conceive of what I was supposed to do. I studied every detail hoping some clue would come to mind. I even tried remembering all the details of the Creation story, the exoteric version Mr Polymeris tried to teach me and the Kabbalistic exigences that I read recently. Suddenly I wanted to cry. Here I was in the same damn garden, being tormented, a helpless member of a tour I didn't understand. Why me? It was then I noticed that the expression of Eve seemed to reflect my agony. I saw that the reason she gave the impression of being aloof from the figure of Adam was both her expression of longing and frustration and her gaze that was directed at a small pomegranate that hung from a tree behind Adam. She was inclined to it but frozen in the beginning of a posture of reaching up. Reflexively I touched the tiny protuberance. With a grating pop the figure of Adam sprung out from the plaque, spraying out small chips of copper oxide. My heart was pounding and as I tugged desperately on it I became aware that I was crying in earnest. It wouldn't move! I tried to calm myself and tried turning it counter-clockwise to see if it would unscrew. I was rewarded with a click and ringing echo as it moved. Above Adam's head three Hebrew letters that spelled Keter were illuminated. I couldn't tell if they reflected light or somehow shone from within. I turned it again and the four letters for Hokmah appeared. I tried turning it back and this time I succeeded at moving it counter clockwise. Turning the figure revealed the names of all ten of the Sephirot in a particular order of descent and right to left with Malkut last and a neutral position at the top.

I stared at the device for a while trying to grasp what was at least at first like a combination lock. Clearly starting from the neutral position, I could ascend or descend depending one whether one choose to go clockwise or counterclockwise. And it was probably safe to say that returning to the neutral point was like a reset.

The first question you have to ask is how much a puzzle wants to be solved. Certainly there are cyphers that try to forbid all that don't know the code, locks that resist those who don't have the key. But these have inherent weaknesses that can actually make a puzzle comparatively more difficult to overcome, if only because of its ability to confound the hopeful with the promise of a solution. I can't really describe completely the approach I took, because it wasn't a linear process, but a series of them occurring in parallel. This faculty had operated before in both my studies and in my particular hobbies, but the study of Kabbala and particularly the experience of "tzeruf" or the permutation of the letters amplified this. I started with, in no specific order, a sense of awe at the design of the device and the mystery it represented, a growing panicked feeling that I was losing a race with time, and my familiar insatiable craving for the solution.

I choose to ascend based on the hint provided by the setting. The first of the Sephirot in ascending order was Shekinah but its symbol was often the Orchard or Garden. Picturing the Tree of Life the next step was a freebie, the only route was to Yesod. Yet that transition itself as a precursor to the next undecided move already opened two channels of thought. First how to determine choice of direction from the fixed circular sequence of the Sephirot. The Tree of Life allows a number of routes in the climb, but it wasn't apparent how to select a path using the device. Simultaneously there was an inner opening up and out and I had an awareness of transition from one interior state to another.

Here any attempt at narrative fails and the mind can't follow. I experienced what the Kabbala mystics described as their travels from one cosmic sphere of the Sephirot to another, and also the *mastin* or "witholders" that guarded each realm with terror distraction and a host of other weapons. Yet when vanquished, they offered clues to the direction of the ascent. It may be possible to produce the epic that would describe my ascent, but I came away with the firm conviction that to do so wouldn't be wise. And the goal of the ascent, the indescribable prize made the release of the device an shabby anticlimax.

Yet I didn't lose site of the temporal task, it was intimately connected with the metaphysical journey. Here my Greek legacy of grounded abstraction served well. The device was easily extracted. I had suspected that the jewel itself wasn't in the plaque, but that the whole locking assembly would now serve as a key. I wrapped it in a silk scarf to protect the complex array of rods and levers that were now exposed in the back of the device and hid it in my backpack. I hurried to the villa.

After startling the guard again I made my way to the temple room in the basement. I had also bought a small but powerful halogen worklight which I set up as close as the cord would allow to where I believed the tabernacle to have been. Again, I was working on a hunch, but my instincts were becoming increasingly more accurate. I soon found a circular feature that corresponded to the rough size of the device. It seemed to be capped electrical or gas fixture at about the level of my shoulders about the tabernacle that had been painted over. I scoured around its circumference with a small utility knife then tried prying it away with a screwdriver. After taking the skin off a few of my knuckles I finally realized that the bump in the center was the head of a fastening bolt, which I was able to remove after more hacking chipping and donating of epidermis. When it finally fell away it revealed a surprising clean interface for the device, which I wasted no time in inserting. It seated itself with a satisfying click and part of the face of the device inside his stance retracted to reveal something like a grating. Here all inspiration and intuition failed me. I found to my further dismay that the device didn't turn as it had previously done.

In my frustration I was muttering to myself that I was sure the first stage in the descent would start with Binah, or understanding for a number of reasons when the letters for that attribute began to show not steadily as it did before, but flashing on and off. I then tried pronouncing Hokmah to test if it was triggered by sound, but the flickering continued. After much trial and error I realized I was stuck and began to ponder what need to happen before I could move on. And I did discover the means for moving on. I'll say that it did involve the spoken word and the practice of "tzeruf" but knowing what I know now, the rest isn't knowledge to be divulged lightly, so I'll leave it at that. I will say that once the proper recitation was completed for each level, the letters for that level would shine steadily andthe next in the sequence began to flash, so there was no need to guess at the next step. The challenge occurred within the each Sephirot and everytime it was a great and unique labor. And each had a *mastin* but their aspect in descent was different from the ascent.

When the final syllable of the recitation of Shekinah was uttered, a panel sprung from the wall and with a shriek of metal and cracking of paint. That's when the man with the gun stood up from his hiding place."
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guest author: papijoe
Part XV: La Sivdad de los Fantazmas
Her greatest fear was that the vertigo induced by the stench and the nausea would cause her to fall, and she was sure to land on one of the bloated corpses. She had found a treelimb which she used as a lever to roll them over. Thank God she always had surgical gloves handy. It was impossible to recognize faces when the features were distorted by two days in the hot sun. And no matter how often you kicked them, the damn vultures never stopped their grim work. She applied herself diligently to the task at hand, but the bodies stretched to the horizon...

Katia came awake with a gasp. After more than a week, the nightmare occurred every evening. All for nothing. None of the bodies looked like the digital photo of Jan van der Hoek, but then few of them resembled anything human. None of the rucksacks or pockets she searched among the nine corpses turned up the GPS monitor. Its recovery was more than a matter of losing an expensive piece of equipment. Few people had access to such technology and it would be a simple matter to trace it back to Joop's source. He made a big show of the loss being unacceptable, but she was smart enough to craft an excuse that would relieve them both of as much of the blame as possible. For Katia had through a variety of sources and minor slips on Joop's part pieced together the nature of his relationship with his sponsor. She knew the degree of power and influence with which she was dealing even if she only guessed at his identity.

Despite being temporarily in the clear and in many ways more valuable to Joop than ever, her sense of personal insecurity had never been worse. She was for her own reasons concerned that she couldn't verify Jan's death and recover the tracking device. Why hadn't she made a point of remember the number of men involved in the assault? The quantity of bodies being an odd number disturbed her. Worse still, the recent unpleasantness had spoiled anything exciting about her assignment. At this point she wasn't enjoying the danger and fear in the least. And she didn't have the faintest idea of how to reclaim the sense of adventure.

***

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Matt was gratified by the good news that Prof Hamisi had recovered the jewel less than a week after their departure from Great Zimbabwe. It turned out to be a beautiful blue and white agate that represented Manassah. The Professor took this to be a good omen and talisman for the Lembas, as the half-tribes of Ephraim and Mannassah were often used scripturally to represent the exiled Jews as a whole. But before he got to see it for himself, Tim sent a text message announcing that Ms Arcy Nieujoux found a promising reference in one of Menasseh ben Israel's letters to Antonio Carvajal about another correspondent in Thessaloniki, or as it was known in the Ladino dialect, Salonika. He was to catch a flight to Athens immediately, with detailed instructions to follow.

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He downloaded some email waiting in Athens for his connecting flight to Thessaloniki. On the first leg of the flight he had time to put the Zimbabwe incident in perspective. After the fight in London, it was clear that they were being tailed. But the surveillance effort that would have been needed to track them undetected to Great Zimbabwe would have been a stretch for even a first-rate intelligence organization. Their own communications were based on a 1024 bit encryption algorithm, and it was considered uncrackable under the current technology. The other possibilities were even more disturbing. He, Tim and Melchizedek were the only ones with a "need to know" on the details of their overall operation, and it would be ridiculous for either to be the source of a leak, at least intentionally. It was conceivable that Shaka and/or Ennio were moles, but practically that didn't make sense either. That left the possibility of some tracking device that had been planted. This too seemed logistically unlikely, but he planned to go through his belongings as soon as he checked in.

Tim informed him of his reservation at the Electra Palace in Aristotelous Sq, and a detailed information packet had been overnighted and was waiting for him at the front desk. Ms Nieujoux suggested that he get in touch with a colleague of hers. Psyche Zorochimedes, a researcher at the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki is considered the pre-eminent authority on the Ladino community in Salonika. Although born into the Greek Orthodox tradition, her interest in the Sephardim began when she discovered as a young girl that her maternal grandmother belonged to the Benveniste family. If anyone could confirm the existence of one of the Hoshen stones in Salonika, it was her.

The problem now was that if their security had been compromised, direct contact with Psyche would be both endangering her and adding a security risk to the operation. She would be provided a special phone number that would secure the line on her end and they would use that as their sole means of communication. As instructed she called an hour after his plane was scheduled to arrive.

"Hello? Ms. Zorochimedes?"

"Oh, Psyche, please! You're British!"

"Uh, yes I am."

"I'm sorry, I just assumed with a name like Mustang...anyways, I trust you arrived with no problems?"

"Yes, thank you, everything is perfect. Let me just say Ms...ah, Psyche that Ms Nieujoux has told us marvelous things about you and the work you've done on behalf of the Jewish community here is greatly appreciated."

"Oh please...Mustang. It's a labor of love."

"Quite. And I hope after speaking to her and seeing the information that we forwarded that you have some idea of what we are interested in. Please understand that you are under no obligation or pressure even to decide right now. We want to give you time to sleep on it. But I have to warn you there is some risk. Although we are not sure of the exact nature of that which the search involves, it is entirely likely that may be considered an ancient artifact. And you are aware I'm sure of your government's position on antiquities being taken out of the country."

"It could pose a problem."

"Exactly. But you can be sure that by all rights this would be a Jewish artifact, it's just that we can't count on the officials taking the same view, particular in the current political climate."

"I see"

"So one precaution that we must insist on for your own benefit, if you decide to help us, is that we can, under no circumstances have any direct contact. We wouldn't want this to cause you any problems with your career or otherwise..."

"Well Mustang I must admit, I have always been fascinated by puzzles and mysteries..."

"No, no, Psyche, please don't say anything at the moment. We really want you to consider this carefully. I'd ask that you take a day or so and get back to me at the earliest by tomorrow morning."

"Well, I suppose it wouldn't hurt. I'll call you tomorrow morning, Mustang"

"Tomorrow it is then. Thanks ever so much Psyche"

***

The Electra turned out to be a 5 star hotel and his room directly overlooked the square.

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The only problem he found upon checking in was that he had been assigned a smoking room. It was the combination of the smell of the smoke and the lack of sleep to which he attributed the faint dizziness and nausea he was experiencing so he opened his balcony to let in a harbor-scented breeze. He decided to relax for a while and catch up on the information that was sent, then search his luggage before turning in. He awoke on the large comfortable bed still dressed and surrounded by manuscripts as the dawn light streamed in through the open window

He quickly showered and dressed an popped down to the café for a coffee and crescent roll. He then returned to his room and began methodically to check his personal effects, starting with his clothes.

The tedious search left him contemplating the sinister looking black lozenge that he found in the lining of the suitcase. He pondered for a moment and then threw his clothes and shoes in the suitcase. He would dispose of everything in case there was another chip that he had overlooked, but the problem was leaving luggage unattended or surreptitiously disposing of it could cause alarm. He hurried downstairs and took a cab to a decrepit neighborhood near the industrial district adjoining the port facilities. He found a cheap hotel and checked in under an assumed name backed by a passport with a throw-away legend. He left the suitcase in the room. At the desk he asked the clerks to post a letter to the customer support address in Sao Paulo Brazil of a major computer manufacturer . The chip would soon be on it's way to South America. In the cab he checked flights to the nearest airposts and reserved one back to Athens departing in 3 hours. By now his shirt was drenched in sweat, yet felt so cold his teeth chattered.

When Psyche called he would inform her that his trip was canceled and request if they could meet at some later date. He used that time to call the Electra and cancel the rest of his reservation blaming the smoking room. He instructed the cabbie to take him around the city. Perhaps it was the wild driving and his poor sleep schedule since South Africa, but he soon felt car-sick and asked the driver to drop him off near the White Tower, where he hoped a stroll along the ocean would clear his head. He was still queasy when the phone finally rang.

"Hello, Mustang? This is Psyche"

Matt struggled to give her a coherent explanation of the change of plans. His head was now pounding and he seemed to be having trouble keeping the details between the real situation and the cover story separate in his mind.

"Are you sure everything is all right?" This wasn't going well. Her tone had changed from polite disappointment to genuine concern. Best to end it before he really mucked it up. Unfortunately he missed the last question, a persistent buzz had started in that ear. He switched the phone to the other side and asked her to repeat herself. The words entered his mind, all of them familiar but they seemed to have no relationship to one another. Matt apologized again, at a complete loss as how to re-establish the connection. His sense of purpose was rapidly slipping away, to the point that he couldn't remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. The buzzing sound had become a roaring crescendo in both ears. Mustering his last strength he reached out for the only certainty he had left and gasped, "Psyche!". The phone fell from his hand and the sidewalk came up in a rush.

***

He woke up in a sunlit room with white walls and white gauze curtains. The breeze from the open windows made them flutter and carried the sound and smell of the ocean. The sea smell brought a olfactory clarity, other vivid odors were attached to vague memories that were also associated with mental states. The scents of disinfectant and rubbing alcohol were connected with distress and a blurry glimpse of shiny floors. The smell of strong plain cake soap brought with it a recollection of helpless infantile annoyance and security and the more definite remembrance of a black clad figure administering a merciless towel bath with strong wrinkled hands. Finally there was an alchemically mysterious blend of lemons, nicotine and lavender that was most the most comforting of all. His ring tone ended the reverie abruptly. Matt stared at the impertinent device and was loathe to answer. It finally stopped but started up again almost immediately. No use.

"Hello?"

"Matt, it's Psyche"

"Where are you?"

Her laugh was familiar, but when had he heard it before?

"Don't you want to know where you are?"

It was a retreat center of the Greek Orthodox monks, not far from Mt Athos. It had been a week since he collapsed. He had been mostly unconscious. He didn't remember the Greek doctor's diagnosis of a nasty African virus. A crack team of Psyche's relatives had been taking care of him. As the pieces came together Matt became agitated.

"Psyche, we were very explicit that there was to be no contact. I don't think you realize what you've done, but now you and probably your family are in horrible danger..."

"I think I do understand, and we've taken some precautions, we'll talk about that later..."

"How did you find me?"

"I called back and someone in the crowd that gathered after you fainted answered. They were very helpful and told me that you were being taken to the AHEPA hospital. It wasn't hard to track you from there. My family has friends on the hospital board, so we were able to convince them we were taking you home with us. But I decided the retreat was safer. The monks would make sure of that."

"But you can't possibly understand..."

"Matt, while you were out of it...well you said things. A lot of things."

"Oh bloody hell."

"Matt, it's ok. I take full responsibility for everything, and I swear I'll never tell a soul. Even at the beginning I knew this was...delicate. I just want you to know I believe in what you are doing. And while you were not yourself, I think I found some of the answers you're looking for."
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guest author: papijoe
Part XIV: Appalachian Trail
A beep alerted him that a secure text message from "Mustang" had arrived. Thanks to a rare mood of piety on Matt's part,the tall man had aquired the handle "Melchizedek" and soon their whole cabal was using it. Reading the message, he was pleased with the outcome of the Zimbabwe adventure and was confident that Prof. Hamasi and the Lembas would recover the jewel.

Melchizedek stood in Grand Central Station under the schedule boards. As a fashion statement, the orange watchcap he was wearing was a disaster, but is was very successful in helping his contact find him. Soon a husky man in a leather jacket with dark smouldering eyes and a comb-over like a bar code approached him and said, "One smart fella, he felt smart."

"My baloney has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R" Melchizedek responded.

Having confirmed the contact, the man in the leather coat said, "I'm Max. Max Leibowitz. But my friends call me Big L...
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