Corcovado V

Corcovado 5

Corcovado + Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars

Chapter V

He heard voices again, voices far away – as if on the far side of a dream. Scratchy voices lost in time, voices full of concern – and then he knew where he was.

Again.

The low tree-line in the distance, that same low, rocky escarpment – and the village beyond. Spreading fires lighting up the marsh as he falls from the sky, Tiger 509 tumbling through the swamp like a paper cup tossed from a passing car, gouts of fire erupting on the surface of the black swamp below his leg. The pain excruciating now, like something inside him is on fire. He knows if he looks down, looks at the onrushing earth inside the mottled red shadows under his boots he’ll see jagged shards of metal jutting from his leg…and there will be blood.

Then, he feels something on his forehead, something like a washcloth, cool and damp, and the muffled sounds of people talking again – far away – like voices in another room – and he wonders how this could possibly be – because he feels like he’s being pushed away from this life and, suddenly, those voices didn’t matter anymore.

++

“When did this happen? The first time, I mean?” the physician asked.

“It was in the early nineties, I think, after he came back from Iraq,” Ted said, looking back at the discarded memories of his childhood – like looking through the pages of a book that contained nothing but painful images. “His leg was pretty messed up, some kind of bacteria got into the wound, like in the space between the skin and the muscle, and it spread. My mom told me he nearly lost his right leg after they got him to Germany. But whatever it is, it’s come back several times since…two or three times that I can remember.”

“When was the last time?”

“Oh, I guess…maybe…three years ago. He went to the VA hospital in Seattle that time, I think, for some kind of special injections.”

“And it keeps coming back?” Melissa asked, clearly now concerned.

“It’s probably triggering some sort of autoimmune disorder at this point,” the physician said, shrugging as she looked around the boat. “You said he lives aboard? How long?”

“Not that long. Maybe nine months…not quite a year, anyway.”

“Humid down here, but I don’t see any signs of mold or mildew,” she sighed, as if talking to herself. “Well, whatever, with a temperature of 103 we’re going to have to get him back to a big hospital. I’ll call it in, have an air ambulance land outside the entrance. They can taxi right up to the boat, load him up right here. I think he should be taken straight to Vancouver, by the way. Be less paperwork than going to the US that way.”

“What about the boat?” Ted asked.

“Well, you’ll need to stay with him on the trip down; is there anyone who can remain aboard and keep an eye on things?”

“I can,” Melissa said, her voice now steady and calm – then, as she looked at Tracy there was an implied command in her voice.

“I guess I can, too,” Tracy added – though her voice was brimming with reluctance.

Ted turned, looked at Melissa, yet he could now see Tracy had been shaken by this unexpected turn of events – but that Melissa seemed steady as a rock. “I’ll go,” he said, “and get him checked-in, then I’ll turn around as fast as I can and come right back. Unless he’s released by then. I think we should try to take the boat back to Seattle…”

“The, what…the three of us?” Melissa asked, her voice full of alarm. “Do you think that’s…that he’d want you to do that?”

“What are the options?” Ted asked.

The physician chimed-in then: “There’s the town-dock, over in Whaletown. I know the Harbor Master, I could talk him into keeping an eye on her for a few weeks.”

Ted looked at the doctor, then at Melissa. “I don’t think so. This is my father’s home – and I’m not about to leave it sitting out here, unattended…”

“Well, think it over,” the doctor said, her voice a distant sigh. “If you could run me ashore now, I’ll call for an air ambulance, then we can send a nurse out to help you load him on the airplane. She’ll fly in with you to the hospital.”

Ted nodded and looked at his unconscious father again, then went topsides and helped the physician into the Zodiac. They motored off across the little cove to the store by the inlet, and he was back in a half hour – but Melissa was waiting for him on the swim platform, her arms crossed protectively across her breast, and he thought she was glowering at the world.

“Not quite what you signed up for, is it?” Ted said to her stony, fiercely expressionless eyes.

“Oh, it’s not that. I feel afraid, and yet I don’t really know why…”

“Afraid? Why…of what?”

“I don’t know, Ted. It’s hard to put my finger on it, ya know? But I feel a connection. It was, I don’t know why – or even how to say this – ” she said, suddenly almost gulping for air. “But I’ve felt a connection with your father since I saw him this morning…yet…”

“Yet? Just what are you trying to say?”

“I’ve felt drawn to this place for days…felt as if something, or someone, was pushing me to go to that bakery this morning, and when I saw your boat pull up to the dock, saw your father walking around down there I just knew I’d been summoned here, for a reason.”

“Summoned?” he said – warily.

“Yes. Like God wanted me to be here for some reason. Does that make any sense at all to you?”

He nodded his head as his stomach turned, then looked at the companionway hatch. “The plane should be here within an hour.”

“You should go pack some things, for both of you – just in case.”

He nodded, then turned and went below…but he stopped first – and stared at the sky for a moment, lost in the feeling that something was terribly wrong.

+

The girls, all of them save one, were slaves. It was as simple as that.

And Elizabeth, being a rather quiet, even a staid product of far-upstate Vermont, found herself ill-prepared for what came next, to handle the information that came out of these forgotten girls. She found that one or two offered to translate, though one girl, in particular, seemed to be quite fluent. This girl was well-dressed, haughty and indifferent, and Elizabeth figured this girl was on the inside of the operation, part of the inner family, and soon she had this girl sequestered from the others. Then, once she talked with one of the girls willing to interpret, she began her interviews with the girls – one by one…

They were bound for New York City, they said, and most of them already had “owners” lined up, though a few of the younger ones, she soon learned, were more like speculative ventures. Young virgins, for the most part, these girls would show up “to work at restaurants on the East Side” one day, but they would be snatched up within hours by their owners, destined to work as “housekeepers” – though, she learned, these as yet unattached waifs rarely did anything but housework. No, these girls were part of a steady stream of children being imported into the US, allegedly to work as domestics, but the truth of their existence, Elizabeth soon understood, was as part of a far darker world. All would work in the sex trade, either as domestic sex slaves or as “actresses” in brutally sadistic S&M films. One of the girls she talked with had a friend who had reportedly been killed – for the film, such as it was, was all about killing very young virgins. Or so this girl said.

+

Ted heard an aircraft overhead and went topsides to look for it; he saw the ungainly looking beast through the trees that lined the cove, and he watched as it flared and settled on the water. Then, with a wary eye, he looked on as it taxied through the inlet and he found himself wondering, for perhaps the first time in his life, what it was like to fly. To be a pilot. To do the things his father had done.

‘That’s odd,’ he thought as he watched the beast approach. ‘I’ve been surrounded by pilots and aircraft my whole life, yet never once have I…’

“Is that the plane?” he heard Tracy ask, and so, biting his tongue, he turned to her and nodded his head. “What took them so long?” she asked, and again, he fought back the urge to lash out at her inanity and simply shrugged.

He watched the aircraft pass a few anchored boats, their owners now very curious indeed and staring at the floats as it passed. As the beast drew near he saw the doctor was onboard and, oddly enough, she waved at him, and smiled. He waved away his fear and tried to meet her smile, then he thought about Melissa – and about the things she’d told him down below.

Drawn to his father. By God. Never had an interest in Canada, nor even heard of Desolation Sound, but for weeks she had felt a need to be here – today. Her description of seeing his father on the fuel dock had rattled him, too. He looked god-like, she said, wreathed in an aura of golden flame, and she said she knew right then that her destiny waited now, waited for a decision. She had been waiting for him all her life.

He’d tried to measure her words against his own experience of God – and he’d come up short. God didn’t do things like this, did He?

Or did He?

Or…was her being here really nothing more or less than chance, a mere coincidence. A simple statistical anomaly, a chain of unrelated events leading to a new outcome, like intricate lines of dominoes set to fall along predictable paths, only – interrupted by an earthquake. Destin. Sailboats. Her ex-husband, a pilot with Delta who had known his father. How many coincidences must there be, he sighed as these varied images came to mind, before things just didn’t add up any longer?

The pilot maneuvered his aircraft through the water in a tight arc, swinging the loading doors right up to Altair’s lifelines, and he grabbed hold and held the plane’s elevators off the shrouds while the pilot hopped out onto a float and secured the aircraft’s floats to Altair. After his father was lifted aboard the aircraft he grabbed their duffels and hopped aboard, but then, before he went further he turned and looked at Melissa.

Her eyes were full of tears, yet he felt strength in them, too.

‘So many contradictory impulses,’ he said, if only to himself, then he smiled at her – as the pilot let slip the lines and pushed his airplane away from Altair’s navy blue hull.

“You’ll need to sit up front with me,” the pilot said. “No room aft, I’m afraid.”

“Right.” He looked at Melissa after he clambered up into the tiny cockpit, looked at her – standing on his father’s home – as the airplane taxied out the inlet into open water. He looked down at Altair after they took off and circled the cove, lost inside all the implications of her last words to him.

“He’s in God’s hands now, Ted. Have faith in Him.”

Then, quite suddenly, he knew just what it was she’d experienced – and where his future lay.

+

She’d never imagined worlds like this existed. That one’s life could be so utterly, so wantonly castrated of meaning, of purpose, of even the simplest joy. It was as if these women, these girls really, had been wiped clean from the book of life. Erased, in silence, and no one would bear witness to their suffering save the warped souls who would torment them on their way through this life. These girls, all of them unwanted in their homeland and lucky even to be alive, had been cast adrift soon after birth, only to be raised almost as domestic animals, kept alive for their potential worth once they reached a certain age. Kept alive for men in America and Europe – so they could be consumed again and again, out of sight, out of mind.

After Elizabeth finished her first dozen interviews she went to talk with the haughtily indifferent girl she suspected of being on the inside. She had no name, she said, and her silence implied she had no existence.

“Where are you from?” asked Elizabeth.

No answer, only an insipid, almost vapid shrug.

“You should answer me, you know? If you don’t, well, you simply go to jail until you do.”

Again, the quietly defiant shrug.

“You think your people in New York will come for you?”

A slight smirk, a quick, sidelong glance of the eye.

“That maybe they’ll get you out so you won’t have to talk to me?”

“You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” the girl said, her English clear and perfect.

“Oh? Enlighten me?”

“Let me go now and you may yet live. Keep me and you’ll be dead by nightfall.”

“Oh? And who do you think will pull that off?”

The insolence on the girl’s face was almost too much for Elizabeth, but she looked into the girl’s eyes, tried to feel her way inside this lost soul, yet she found nothing there – only a darkening void.

“So, you take these girls down to the Village? They already have masters, is that it?”

“And you are dead.”

“No, Mai Ling, I am very much alive and, actually, I have your Passport. The FBI is en route, as is a representative of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And, as you are in a world of trouble I thought I’d give you an opportunity to tell me what you know before the, uh, well, the professionals start in on you…”

A rattled veneer now, a sudden, tectonic shift deep within the girl’s magmatic core.

“The truck driver? Your brother? You do know he’s dead, don’t you? Are you sure you don’t want to talk to me before the FBI gets here? You do realize the danger you are in, don’t you? Your family? What they’ll do to you now that we have these girls?”

Deeper cracks in her veneer, sudden tremors passing across her face like shadows of clouds.

“Your family in Queens? And in Kowloon? All that in jeopardy now. Unless you talk. I can help, you know?”

“You?” the girl cried, the word full of mocking scorn. “You have no idea what you’ve stumbled on, do you? This is just the tip of the iceberg…”

“Really? And what if you’re just a frightened little girl, a girl afraid of the dark.”

They talked for hours after that – while two detectives from the Vermont State Police took notes.

+

Melissa sat in Altair’s cockpit after Ted left, looking past the bow to the trees that lined the cove, but she appeared lost now. Lost and vulnerable. All she could see in her mind’s eye was the spreading disease within his leg. Black streaks, like lightning gone terribly wrong, and hot to the touch. She’d never seen anything like it but she knew it was evil, that something was coiled up inside of him waiting to strike, and she was afraid because she knew he was going to die. So much was riding on him now – and he was going to die. And now, suddenly, she felt quite helpless to stop this runaway train.

Then she heard Tracy coming up the companionway ladder and she tensed.

“Think you could run me across to the store?” Tracy asked.

“Sure, but there’s no bus service over there. Only seaplanes. Kind of expensive, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh,” the girl said, lost now, and not a little confused.

“So. Who are you running from?”

“Excuse me?”

“Running? Who from? Daddy? A boyfriend? Who?”

The girl turned away, shrugged.

“And? What happens if they find you?”

Tracy shrugged again, then sighed – as really, there was no point in lying now. “I guess they kill me.”

“You know their distribution network, I assume?”

Again the girl nodded, only now she turned and looked at Melissa. “How’d you know?”

“Oh, I’ve met you before. Not you, but girls like you. Caught in the trap, nowhere to turn, no place to run.”

“Dime a dozen, huh?”

“Something like that. Do you want to go home?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did he abuse you?”

She nodded her head a little, a barely perceived, mouselike little motion, almost a denial, yet not quite.

“What about your mum?”

“She was always too afraid.”

“I know, but there’s no need to blame her, you know? Caught in the same trap, I guess.”

“You too?” Tracy asked.

And Melissa shrugged. “Not really, but yeah, I know where you’re coming from.”

“Do you?”

“I’ve helped a few girls in your shoes.”

“Oh, have you?” Tracy said, but there was a layer of scorn in her voice that hung over them both.

“I’d like to think so, yes.”

“Yes, I rather imagine you might like that. Who are you running from, by the way? Boyfriend, or husband?”

“Not that simple, Tracy.”

“It never is, luv. Until it is.”

“When was the last time you thought you were made? Before this week, I mean.”

“About a year ago, in San Francisco. The people running me are tied to the cartels now.”

“No way out in California, is there?”

“No. I always thought I could hide there, but…”

“There’s always someone coming around the next corner, isn’t there?”

“That’s right. Always.”

“Did you tell Ted this part?”

“No, course not. I knew someone was on to me last week like, knew it was time to move again…”

“And along comes Ted.”

“And Jim,” Tracy added.

“Ah, so it’s him that interested you?”

“Until you fuckin’ came along, yeah.”

“Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?”

“Do you know how to sail this thing?”

“Sort of, but not really,” Melissa lied, suddenly realizing she was in imminent mortal danger. “The systems on this boat are…well, I have no idea how to run a boat this complex.”

The girl looked towards the seaplane base across the way. “I wonder where they fly to?”

“Up and down the coast, small fishing towns for the most part. Think you could hide out someplace like that?”

“Maybe. Got any cash?”

“A few hundred. I could buy your ticket, though. Give you what I’ve got on hand.”

That seemed to make up the girl’s mind. “Let me get my kit, then. I want to be out of here before dark.”

“Did you see someone this morning?”

She nodded her head. “Maybe. At that bakery. Someone I remember from Vancouver.”

Melissa thought about that now. Someone looking for Tracy here – if that was really her name – out here on the sound. And now they knew she was on this boat.

Would she be safe out here by herself, she wondered? And, when would Ted be back?

She was in the Zodiac, waiting, when Tracy came up with her duffel, and they rode across the cove in silence. She tied up at the cove and walked up to the store and bought her a ticket to Campbell River, gave her a few hundred dollars then hurried back to the inflatable before the girl changed her mind.

She tied-off on a cleat and climbed up to the aft deck, then went below to her duffel and pulled out an Inmarsat phone and flipped it on. She entered the encryption key and waited for the green light, then dialed a one-time number and waited for the connection.

“Go,” she heard the man’s voice on the other end.

“She’s on the evening flight from Squirrel Cove to Campbell River. Says she’s spotted someone on her tail, but I didn’t see anyone.”

“Your next move?”

“Stay here, for a few days, at least,” then she explained why.

 

(c) 2017 | adrian leverkuhn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

fiction, all of it…

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The Sunset Limited + Conclusion

So, here we go…

But first! A few more images of the real train to get you in the mood. First up, an old advertisement referencing the French Quarter lounge car mentioned in the story (more than once). These full-page advertisements usually appeared in such long-gone magazines as LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as the National Geographic Magazine.

SP SL FQL

(below) Here’s another advertisement, and this one appeared in poster form. I’d guess this one is from the early 1960s, too.

SP SL poster

Below, from Amtrak files, a 1960s Sunset Limited about to head over the Huey P Long Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River on the west side of New Orleans.

SP SL Long Bridge

Another shot (below) of the Sunset Limited heading into Los Angeles, circa late-60s. The angular ‘eyebrow’ structures over the cab windows on the lead FP-7 were added to break up snow and ice that might otherwise damage the exhaust fan blades. Southern Pacific carried a lot of traffic over Donner Pass, on the north side of Lake Tahoe, and most all their later F-units were so-equipped.

SP FP7 SL

(below) A Sunset Limited “crossing the diamonds” as it arrives in downtown Los Angeles, seen crossing the Los Angeles River just east of the station. This train is still wearing ‘Daylight’ colors, and as the surrounding area is not built up I’d guess this is an early 1950s image. Note the number board on the front of the lead EMD E-7A unit. Number 1 is the westbound Sunset Limited; the eastbound train would be numbered “2”. Obviously, Southern Pacific considered the Sunset Limited their premier offering, and trains from New York, Florida and points in between converged on New Orleans to feed this train, including many through sleeper cars. Many transcontinental passengers disliked a layover in Chicago, preferring instead to schedule a layover and visit the French Quarter. Still, by the time of this story, service was being cut back, some might say sabotaged, so that the SP could get out of the more cost-ineffective passenger business.

SP SL LA

A note: if interested in picking up a few prints of passenger trains from this era, I’d recommend dropping by John Winfield’s site (link here); he has several prints of the Sunset Limited, as well as SP Daylight-era trains in his varied offerings. Paintings, of course, available as affordable prints, I have a few that he did of Dallas back in the day. Cherished memories, I guess, need reminders on the wall. Winfield is about as good as they come, too. He gets the mood right.

winfield SP SL

I’ve taken the Sunset Limited a few times, once on the old SP and, of course, via Amtrak. The new incarnation is nothing like the old, but it’s not a bad way to cross the country – if you have the time. I gave up taking scheduled airlines after 911 and have usually been able to get where I need on Amtrak. It takes a bit longer, true, but it’s still a somewhat more pleasant way to get around than being herded like cattle and shoved in a metal tube. Anyway, I digress far too much…

So, on to the conclusion.

Sunset limited logo

Chapter Four

The train pulled into the station at Uvalde, Texas just ten minutes late – at three ten in the morning – and Sara looked out the window at the flat, almost treeless moonscape, and at the flat, treeless station – and thought she must have found the bleakest corner of the universe. The station looked, in the moonlight, like something out of a John Ford western – and if the sun had been out she’d have not been at all surprised to see a bunch of Comanches sitting around a cracker barrel drinking whiskey…

And she was worried, too.

It had been almost four hours since she’d seen or heard from ‘Ben’ – and she’d only heard the porter walking down the corridor once, when a woman rang him a little after two to ask for some water. She’d dared not check on him either, not after his warning, so she rang the porter after the train started moving again, and he came by a few minutes later.

“Ma’am?”

“Is the lounge car still open?”

“Yes, doctor. Could I fetch you something?”

“No, no, I just can’t sleep. I think I’ll go sit up for a while.”

“You want me to freshen up your bed while you’re gone?”

“If you don’t mind, yes, that’d be nice.”

“Alrighty. You go on up; I’ll get to your room while you’re gone.”

“Thanks,” she said, then she slipped on her loafers and walked forward. No light on in his room, she saw, and no sign of activity within, either, so she walked forward to the lounge. There were other night-owls sitting up: a couple playing cards, a fat, bespectacled man writing on a notepad and, of course, the attendant behind the bar, so she walked up to the bar.

“I can’t sleep,” she began. “Know anything that might help?”

He nodded – and grinned: “I can fix that.”

“Better make it two,” Ben said, slipping quietly next to Sara’s side.

She looked at him and grinned, then they watched as the bartender put four scoops of vanilla ice cream in a blender, then added a troublesome amount of Gran Marnier, a dash a white rum, then a liberal splash of Tia Maria before setting the blender on it’s base and turning it on for ten seconds. He then poured two tall glasses and set them down.

“Try that…” the bartender said, “but be careful. This one kind of sneaks up from behind – fast!”

Sara did, and her eyes went wide. “That’s fantastic!”

Carter tried it, then nodded. “That’ll do the job, alright. Better make two more.”

The bar-keep grinned knowingly and set about making two more while Carter led her to their table. “Couldn’t sleep?” he asked.

“Not a wink. How’d things go?”

“Fine. This is a fine little drink, ya know?”

“It’s like a milkshake, only better…”

“I’ve never had a milkshake like this before.”

“Learned this recipe at Brennan’s,” the bartender said, setting down the two new drinks. “It’s a favorite at brunch on Sunday mornings.”

“I can see why,” Sara added, already feeling a little tipsy..

Carter handed over some money, told the bartender to keep the change before he turned to look at the other people in the car. “You horny yet?” he asked in a whisper.

“YES! You?” she whispered loudly.

He nodded. “I can’t seem to think about anything else. Very unprofessional of me.”

“Think this will ‘reload’ your gun?”

“If it doesn’t – nothing will.”

“Are you okay? You look a little, well, upset.”

“I am.”

“Want to talk?”

“Later. Not here.”

She nodded, shook her head. “This thing’s hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said as she polished off the first 12 ounce glass. She picked up the second and tossed off about half that one in one long pull, too.

“Better take it easy – or you won’t be doing anything for the next 12 hours…”

“Wanna bet?” she said – licking her lips.

“Not really, but I don’t want to carry you through a moving train, either.”

She snorted then squealed – and everyone turned and looked at her, then grinned and turned back to their tables – except the fat old man, who was sitting a few feet away.

“Best be careful with those hammers, young lady,” he said. “Ian’s are legendary in these parts for being both smooth – and lethally strong. Don’t go too fast, or the velvet will turn into a nasty hammer!”

They watched as she swooned in her chair, still snort-giggling as she picked up her glass and finished the second drink. Carter – wide-eyed – stood quickly and caught her as she slid sideways out of her chair.

“Oops,” the old man said. “Need a hand with that?”

“No, sir. I’ve got her.”

The fat man shrugged, turned back to his writing and Carter picked her up, tossed her over his shoulder and started back to their car, doing his best to shield her head as the train rolled along. The porter was just coming out of her room when Carter huffed into the corridor, and the old man turned, saw her and grinned.

“Don’t tell me. Velvet Hammers?”

“Two of ‘em. She just sucked ’em down, too!”

“Uh-oh. I take it the doc ain’t a big drinker?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I better gets a bunch more towels, maybe a bucket, too.”

“Swell.”

“You ready to fuck yet?” she crooned – and the porter rolled his eyes.

“She gonna go fast tonight, like one of ‘dem volcano movies. I better scoot!”

He sighed, looked at her head hanging limply: “No, I’m not quite ready, Sara. Why don’t you start without me.”

“Okay,” she crooned again – her lilting voice carrying happy notes of carefree inebriation down the corridor.

He set her down on the freshly made bed and stood, waiting for the porter – and the eruption that had to be coming.

“Was that him?”

He spun around, saw her sitting up – and saw she was now, suddenly, stone cold sober. “What?” he said, his voice registering confusion.

“The fat man? Was he the one who killed your friends?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know, but I assume it’s either him or the other couple there.”

“The couple…they’ve been walking around out in the hallway a lot.”

He shrugged. “Who are you?”

“What do you mean? You know who I am…”

They heard the porter coming and Carter slid the door open, held a hand out to take the towels – then he heard Sara moaning on the bed. “Looks like you got here just in time,” he added.

“Lawdy, lawdy, I keep sayin’ Ian makes ‘dem things too strong.”

“Yeah? Well, thanks, I got it from here…”

“You need a hand you just holler.”

“Will do.” He slid the door shut and locked it – again – then turned to her as she sat up and grinned. “So, who the Hell do you work for?”

“County-USC hospital writes the checks…”

“Come on, no bullshit…”

“Open my purse. My last paycheck is in my checkbook.”

“That doesn’t mean shit.”

“It does to me! If I don’t deposit it soon I’m going to start bouncing checks…”

He saw the truth in her eyes, but still, he couldn’t reconcile her actions. “So, why…”

“Because I want to help! You! Got it, numbskull!?”

“Help?”

“Yeah. There are people on this train – right? – trying to kill you. I want to help.”

He grinned, chuckled a little when her words registered. “So, Sara Berman, MD. Super Spy. Is that about right?”

“You betcha. But first, don’t you think I need to know what’s going on?”

He sat down, let slip a long sigh – then shook his head gently. “About two weeks ago a military cryptographer stationed in France, a kid named Dinkin, apparently flipped out and went AWOL, but he ran to Switzerland. He contacted someone he knew in the UN there, and he told them a story…

“He read intercepted dispatches between military units – in Texas – the upshot of which is that there are five teams on the ground in Dallas, and they’re going to try and take out Kennedy later today.”

Her face went pale, her eyes round with fear.

“We’ve been tailing several known actors in this plot…”

“Actors?”

He shook his head. “Just another word for suspects.”

“Oh.”

“And we picked up a new one a few days ago, a guy named Oswald. He’s been in and out of New Orleans a lot, and as we picked up more chatter about him last week, well, the last few days, we decided to intervene. We think Oswald is under the control of a mob family out of Chicago, but acting through a cut-out in New Orleans. I was there yesterday to take out who we think is Oswald’s controller, the thinking being maybe we can stop Oswald from getting a ‘go ahead’ – and he’ll abort.”

“Mob? You mean, like, the mafia?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“But, what about the other teams?”

“We know where one is setting up, but no idea where the others are.”

“Are they military?”

He shrugged. “No one knows. Military, mob, Cuban…no one I know knows who’s doing what, but there’s apparently a faction in government that does. And apparently Kennedy does too. And he won’t back down. Anyway, we have almost all our agents from Europe on the ground in Texas now, and some from the FBI, but we don’t have enough to cover all the leads.”

“And you’re afraid something’s going to happen, aren’t you?”

“There are too many people out there, too many loose cannons, and too few people around the president to keep this from going down.”

“Is that why you asked me about Kennedy yesterday?”

He nodded. “I was trying to flush you out into the open, see who you’re working for.”

She shook her head. “So what happens next?”

“They either get him – or they don’t.”

“You mean…kill him? The President?”

He nodded his head. “Yup.”

“So, why are there people trying to take you out. And your friends?”

“They don’t know how much intel we have, and I suppose they look at us as loose ends. We know enough to bring down the conspiracy.”

“So…”

“They’ll have to eliminate us.”

“And…since I know you?”

He nodded his head. “Sorry.”

“Oy vey.”

“You can say that again.”

“What’s your backup plan?”

“Mexico,” he lied. “I have a place down there.”

“You have room for me?”

He nodded. “I can make that work.”

“Can you get us out of the country? Safely?”

“Hey, you’re the one who reads Ian Fleming novels. Can’t you?”

“Nothing comes to mind, no. Short of jumping off the train…”

“I’m guessing you’ve never tried to cross a desert, on foot…?”

“I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia…does that count?” she grinned.

“Almost,” he said, sighing and shaking his head again.

“So, there’s nothing we can do about Kennedy?”

He sighed. “My guess? Containing the news, and the fallout, is a military operation – so yeah, there’s nothing to do now but get out of the crosshairs. There will be an orderly transfer of power, a cursory investigation and it’ll all go away in a few months. A few history books will have to be updated, but that’ll be the end of it.”

“So, we just need to get out of sight? For how long?”

He shrugged. “Probably forever. Can you deal with that?”

“Jeez-Louise.”

“You’ll be able to get your medical license anywhere you go. No big deal.”

“Assuming I can use my own name, you mean?”

“The appropriate people can be paid to get things like that taken care of. What languages do you speak?”

“Other than English? Hebrew of course, a little German, more French.”

“No Spanish?”

“Junior high, but languages always came easy to me.”

He heard a clicking sound, then the lock on the door vaporized – followed by several more bullets smashing into the seat…

He pushed Sara to the floor while he pulled out the Walther, then he squeezed into a corner – and waited…

Then all the lights went out.

He heard the door sliding open, saw a handgun enter the room, then the silhouette of an arm, then a head…

He squeezed the trigger once and the Walther coughed, and he saw the head jerk back before the body crumpled and fell to the floor.

Voices in the corridor – “Jesus!” and “What the fuck?” – then footsteps…retreating.

A moment later the lights came back on, and he heard the door hissing open in the vestibule. He pulled the body into the room and slid the door closed, then he turned to Sara.

She lay crumbled on the floor – motionless – and he dropped to her side.

“Sara? You with me?”

An eye opened and she looked up at him. “Are we dead yet?”

He grinned. “Sorry, no, not yet.”

She looked at the man on the floor, the man from the lounge car. “Do you know him?”

He shook his head. “Let’s get him into the toilet for now,” and they both stood, hefted the man up and shoved him into the tiny compartment. “Do you smell…shit?” he asked.

She nodded. “Most people, when they die fast like this…their bowels and bladder cut loose.”

“Funny. I usually never hang around for that part.”

“Welcome to my world.”

“Shitty way to go.”

“Stop it. I mean that…just stop it!”

“Oh, alright.”

“Does he have any money, anything in his pockets?”

“Good thinking, Miss Bond,” he said as he went in and patted the man down. He came out with a wallet and an envelope, which was stuffed with hundred dollar bills. “This might come in handy…”

“Ya think? Who is he?” she asked as he flipped through the man’s wallet.

“No I.D., but some more cash,” he said as he pulled more currency out of the billfold, “maybe five hundred or so in dollars, some Swiss francs and Italian lira, too. And…a key?”

A knock on the door.

“What happened to this door!?” they heard the porter say. “Land-sakes! What now?”

He pulled the door open, pulled the porter into the room and showed him the body.

“What’s goin’ on here?” the old man said suspiciously.

“I’m law enforcement,” Carter said, “and I need to speak with the conductor.”

“You got somethin’ that looks kinda like a badge?”

Carter pulled his wallet from the jacket hanging by a hook on the back of the door and handed it over, and the old man looked it over before handing it back, nodding his head. “Alright. Stay right here. And keep this door closed!”

“Don’t worry…” he said, then he looked at his watch and turned to Berman. “I’m assuming they’ve reached the others we have on the train too, but…”

“The others?”

“Our team…of investigators.”

“More loose ends?”

He nodded again. “Yup.”

“What’s going on? You’re talking like they’re two competing teams within our government, one trying to kill Kennedy, the other trying to stop that from happening…”

He looked her in the eye. “That’s about the size of it. There are people, on the inside, and I mean all the way from Washington to the Dallas Police Department, that are in on this thing. The scale is staggering, too.”

“Why not just call the newspapers, the TV stations?”

“And expose the rift in our government? That would start a civil war, or worse, right when we’re at our weakest. The country is divided…”

“And you think killing Kennedy will help?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You don’t have to.”

He looked away. “Look, this country has been divided from the beginning, between mercantile interests, the big money, and the little guy…”

“It’s like that everywhere…”

He shook his head. “Not like it is here. Here we hold out the proposition as self evident, that any man can get ahead. That’s real new in human history. In the past that impulse was held in check by a monarch, or by a vested nobility, but not here, not now. That’s an explosive force, Sara. So much expectation, so much money, our entire system awash in material expectation, and the entire thing, for a hundred years, has been fueled by cheap oil – but that era’s coming to an end. Kennedy knows that and wants to put the brakes on, reorient the economy. The oil companies and the so-called military-industrial complex want to stop him, and one way or another they’re going to.”

“If they kill him, they’re killing…”

“Yeah. We’re at a fork in the road. If they kill him they’re nullifying the will of the people.”

“Then they’re killing the country.”

He shook his head. “No, just one vision of the country, the vision FDR tried to implement.”

“I feel sick to my stomach.”

Another knock on the door…the porter talking with another man in the corridor. Carter slid the door open.

The conductor standing there poked his head in the room. “You have a body in there?” he said, nodding to the toilet compartment.

“Yes. My concern is that there may be more on-board, probably hidden.”

“Do we need to stop the train? Get people off…?”

“How many people are onboard?”

“241, plus the crew.”

“What’s the next stop?”

“Sanderson.”

“Anything there?”

“Like what?”

“An airport?”

“Not that I know of. We usually just pick up mail there. No one scheduled to get on or off tonight.”

He thought for a moment… “No, just keep on schedule. My guess is whoever’s behind this will try to get off there.”

“You need back-up?”

Then the train started slowing, obviously coming to a stop, and he looked at the conductor. “What’s going on?”

“We meet the eastbound train out here about now…stop on a siding to let it pass…”

He held up the Walther and looked at the conductor. “I need a clean shot, in case they try to jump across…”

The conductor’s eyes widened. “Vestibule is the only place. Follow me.”

“Stay here,” Carter told Berman, shutting the door behind as he left. The conductor had the trackside door open by the time he got to the vestibule, and the conductor was already down on the gravel ballast, looking at the eastbound Sunset Limited approaching – still about a mile away – but he could hear the approaching train slowing down.

“That’s not right,” the conductor said. “It usually passes at speed.”

“Not tonight. You better get up here, out of the line of fire.”

“Who are these people you’re after,” the conductor said as he climbed back up.

“Mafia. They killed a bunch of people in New Orleans,” Carter said.

“God – damn!”

The eastbound train sounded off – three short blasts – with it’s horn, and their stationary train responded with one long blast just before the engines met, and Carter saw a head poke out of a car near the front of their westbound consist, the head silhouetted by the oncoming Alco…and then a wide door opened on the eastbound train, in the baggage car…

The eastbound train stopped and the fat man from the lounge stepped down from the car – and Carter squeezed off a round just as a woman followed, hopping down onto the gravel ballast. The fat man swatted at his neck, like he’d been bitten by a stinging insect, then he fell to the ground. The woman turned and looked towards Carter, and his second bullet found her, struck her in the base of the throat, in her windpipe, and she too fell to the ground…

He heard the eastbound’s engine’s throttle up and he ducked inside out of view as the baggage car slid past, then he turned to the conductor. “Tell the engine not to move. We need to get those bodies into the baggage car.”

The conductor ran forward just as the train started moving, but a few seconds later it stopped – the two bodies now almost right outside the vestibule – and he hopped down, checked for signs of life, found both were still alive and groaned.

“Anything you want to tell me?” he asked the fat man.

“No.”

Carter placed the Walther’s silenced barrel just above the ear and pulled the trigger; the man’s body jumped, then twitched a few times as he sidled over to the woman.

“You? Want to tell me anything, something that might keep you alive a while longer?”

“Fuck you, Dead Man.”

“So be it.” One more round and she too was gone, and he picked her up, carried her body to the baggage car just as two men appeared trackside. They picked up the fat man and carried him to the baggage car, and a few minutes later the train resumed it’s journey, with almost all aboard none-the-wiser.

“What next?” the conductor asked.

“We find the other bodies.”

“But they could be anywhere…”

“How long ‘til we hit Sanderson?”

“A half hour, maybe.”

Carter led them to the car beyond his own, 2311, then to two compartments he knew of – and they accounted for five dead agents before he moved on to the last car. One more compartment, one more agent. He bent close and pulled papers out of his controllers jacket pocket, and as he read the dossier he wondered why they’d left it. ‘So I’ll find it, obviously,’ he said to himself.

“You might as well leave them where they lie,” he told the conductor when he heard them man walk up. “You’ll need to notify the FBI as we near Los Angeles.”

“Those two did all this?”

“Three, but yes.”

“Oh, the one in your compartment. You think there are more of them onboard?”

“Yes, one more,” he sighed. “To take out…me.”

“Do you know who it is?”

He nodded his head. “Yes, I do,” he said – as he folded up the paper.

+++++

The man from the toilet compartment had been moved by the time he returned to ‘Berman’s’ compartment, and he went inside and slid the shattered door to, then sat across from her.

“You’ve been gone a long time,” she said – then he handed the dossier to her as he pulled the Walther out and laid it on his lap.

She read the document, looked at the attached photographs in the dim light, then she looked up at him.

“This isn’t me…” she said, her voice quavering. “Some one planted this. It’s not me.”

“Mossad? Why?” he said, pointing the Walther at her forehead. “Why would Israel be in on this, too?”

“This is not me!” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

He pulled the trigger once, just once, his eyes filling with tears too – then he smiled.

+++++

When the Sunset Limited pulled into El Paso he slipped off the train and walked through the old brick station, noting the news flashes coming from Dallas. The president had been shot and was being rushed to Parkland Hospital, and he shook his head as he walked out to the taxi stand in front of the station. He walked up to the first taxi and poked his head in the front passenger door: “Can you take me across the border, over to Juarez?”

“Sure thing.”

He got in the back seat and sighed. “Go around the block first, would you? Just swing by the front again.”

“It’s your dime, mister.”

He rolled down the window, was surprised at how warm it was here. “Seems pretty hot for November,” he said.

“Almost ninety.”

“You hear about Kennedy?”

“No? What’s going on?”

“He’s been shot. In Dallas.”

“Really? Well, hallelujah! There is a God!”

He smiled at that, smiled at the implications of what that would mean going forward. Two countries – split right down the middle – each united in their hatred for “the other side.”

They turned and were passing the station again, and he leaned forward a little. “See the woman there, in the brown dress – and the high heels?”

“Yessir?”

“Let’s pick her up.”

“Okay.” The driver pulled over to the curb and Carter opened the door.

“Glad you could make it,” he said to Sara Berman – and she slid in beside him.

“Did you see the news?”

He nodded but didn’t say another word, and the taxi slipped back into the early afternoon traffic, bound for Mexico.

This story © 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

from Wikipedia: In “Allegations of PFC Eugene Dinkin,”the Mary Farrell Foundation summarizes and archives documents related to Private First Class Eugene B. Dinkin, a cryptographic code operator stationed in Metz, France, who went AWOL in early November 1963, entered Switzerland using a false ID, and visited the United Nations’ press office and declared that officials in the U.S. government were planning to assassinate President Kennedy, adding that “something” might happen to the Commander in Chief in Texas. Dinkin was arrested nine days before Kennedy was killed, placed in psychiatric care, and released shortly thereafter. His allegations eventually made their way to the Warren Commission, but, according to the Ferrell Foundation account, the Commission took no interest in the matter, and indeed omitted any mention of Dinkin from its purportedly encyclopedic 26 volumes of evidence.

WIP + The Sunset Limited + Ch O2

Sunset limited logo

So, off we go, a little deeper into the night. A short read…enjoy.

Chapter Two

Carter looked at the menu and decided the cheeseburger looked like the least deadly option, but after the heavy breakfast he’d just eaten in the Quarter even the idea of a hamburger felt oppressive. And just now, after slamming down three rums in a half hour, he felt a little light-headed when he’d walked into the swaying dining car – though of course Berman seemed unaffected by the splash of rum she’d not quite finished.

He’d walked behind her, looking at her legs as she made her way forward, then up at her hips and back, and there was something about her that just seemed a little too well put together. She looked too strong, he observed, and that bothered him. For someone who’d allegedly spent years studying, he thought something was “off” if a girl like this was too strong. His mind worked through the problem as he watched her walk, because in his worldview when something was “off” the situation soon devolved into a “kill or be killed” situation.

He had no problem killing, of course. That was part of his job description after all, and he’d killed more than a few women over the years, too. Even a few children, he thought, if you considered the airliners he’d brought down. No, he just didn’t have any desire to kill anyone he didn’t absolutely have to kill. The thing was, however, he wasn’t sure about this girl – yet.

And she was cute.

He hated killing cute.

So he’d taken the seat across from her’s, his mind full of contradictory warning klaxons, his eyes searching for clues…

“What are you going to have?” she asked.

“You,” he said, then he shook his head. “Excuse me. I meant – a cheeseburger.”

“Me? You want me for lunch?”

“I’m sorry. I think that was the run talking.”

“Really? Remind me to drink rum more often, would you?”

He laughed – a little laugh that seemed to come from someplace far away, then he looked out the window into the black-water swamp just a few yards from the tracks. “It looks dangerous out there,” he said, and he watched her reflection in the glass, watched her head turn and look out too – but their eyes seemed to meet inside that moment. Meet, and lock-on, inside the glass.

“Dangerous?”

“Everything that moves out there can kill you.”

“Have you spent a lot of time in swamps?”

“Enough.”

“Scouting for movies?”

He turned and looked into her eyes, yet he saw nothing to fear – and again, that troubled him. She was either what she said she was, or she was something much more dangerous. “That’s right,” he said, looking her in the eye – trying to decide.

“So, you’ve spent time in swamps and you’d like to eat me for lunch. I guess that makes you, what? An alligator?”

“Pardon?”

“If you could choose to be any other animal, anything other than human, what would you choose?”

He shook his head. “I have no idea.”

“Oh, come on. Pick one.”

He looked out the window again, tried to ignore the question – but he couldn’t. His mind filled with the image of an eagle screaming down out of the clouds and snatching a snake – a snake coiled a large, flat rock. ‘And who am I?’ he thought. ‘The eagle, or the snake?’

“Well?”

“I think a bird of some sort. Maybe an eagle, or a falcon.”

“A predator, then?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Odd. Not what I’d have picked for you.”

A waiter came up to their table. “What can I get you folks this afternoon?” he asked.

She looked up. “Cup of soup and a grilled cheese, please.”

“To drink?”

“Do you have iced tea?”

“Yes’m. And you, sir?”

“Cheeseburger and a Coke, I guess.”

“Potato chips okay?”

“Fine,” he said, and he watched the waiter walk off before he turned to her again. “So, what do you think I’d be?”

“A horse. Steady and dependable.”

“Really. Interesting. A beast of burden. And who do you on my back?”

She smiled. “I’m not sure. Yet.”

“What’s it like…to dissect another human being?”

“What?”

“Didn’t you take anatomy your first year?”

“I heard you. I’m just trying to make the jump from talking about horses to cutting up a cadaver…”

“I can’t imagine what that must feel like. Another human being…”

“Why would you want to imagine that? It’s hard enough doing it, but you can intellectualize the exercise, I guess, when you understand the objective of the class, when that’s what you’re studying.”

“So, how’d you do?”

“The first lab session, when we were assigned cadavers and a cadaver buddy? I remember the smell most of all, then we were given an info sheet. You know, who the person was, what they did, how they lived and how they died. The idea being they wanted us to realize we were not just cutting up some piece of meat…but that was a person, a person with a life, with hopes and dreams…”

“What kind of person did you have?”

“A middle aged woman,” Berman said, a hard edge in her voice. “She’d had breast cancer and passed after fighting it for two years. She had a husband and three boys. She’d been a nurse most her life, and wanted her body donated to the medical school.”

“What color was her hair?”

“Red,” Berman said, not missing a beat.

“What could you tell about her, just by looking at her?”

“That she fought her cancer until she couldn’t take one more breath.”

He nodded, shook his head at the reflection in the glass. “Sounds like my mom.”

“I’m sorry, Ben. I don’t like talking about this stuff, okay?”

“Yeah. What was your favorite class, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Anatomy. My least favorite was my fourth year rotation through psychiatry. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.”

“Helpless?”

“Yup. With older inpatient psychiatric patients, well, it’s like looking at people locked within in an endless cycle of despair, and their’s no real treatment. It’s like stuffing broken people into a warehouse. They sit on a shelf until the rest of their body wears out and dies. I’ve never been as depressed as I was for those six weeks. Like I said…helpless. I hated that feeling.”

“Maybe that’s why you want to be a surgeon? To work on eyes?”

She nodded. “I know. I want to fix things, help people. Tell me about your mother.”

“She was a nurse, but my dad died when I was still a, well, when I was young. She raised us, me and my brothers.”

“How long ago did she die?”

He sighed, looked down at the table. “Fifteen years, I guess,” he said softly.

“Do you miss her?”

“Every day.”

“I can’t believe my dad’s gone. It’s only been a week but I still feel numb inside.”

He watched her eyes fill with tears – and reached across the table and took her hand. “I know,” he sighed. “It never really goes away.”

“No?”

He shook his head, picked up his glass. “Rum helps. Sometimes. What did he do?”

“He was a lawyer, but he’s been a judge for a long time. Mom still works there, in the court clerk’s office.”

“You had no interest in the law?”

“No, not really. That and politics. No interest at all.”

“You like Kennedy?”

“I guess. He seems more honest about the problems facing the world, and less likely to start another war.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, but like I said, I don’t keep up with politics, all that stuff. Pointless.”

“Pointless?”

“Yeah. I mean, everybody likes to grouse about how politicians are nothing but con-men, then they turn around and root for their team, for their con-man, because – supposedly – their con-man is better than the other sides con-man. All we end up with, one way or another, is a bunch of con-men deciding our destiny.”

“Sounds like a cynical worldview.”

“Maybe, but I’m not a cynic.”

“So. Kennedy?”

“What about him?”

“What if he was to disappear, like…tomorrow. Would that be a good thing?”

“Disappear? How do you mean?”

“Oh, just hypothetically. Someone waved a magic wand and presto – poof – he was gone. Would that be a good thing for the country?”

She shrugged. “That’s not reality, the way this world works, is it? I don’t see the point of the question.”

“Oh, you’re correct. There’s no point.”

“What do you think about Kennedy?”

His face a mask, he shrugged, looked away. “Camelot. I liked the metaphor,” he said wistfully.

“Liked?”

“Like. They’re very photogenic people.”

“The missiles last year. Khrushchev, all that stuff. What did you think of that?”

He had tried not to, for more than a year now, but he couldn’t let go of the memory, of how close the world had come to annihilation.  “It worked out well, in the end, I suppose.”

“Well?”

“We’re still here.”

“Do you think the country would be better off? Without Kennedy, I mean?”

“Yes.”

“You’d like him to just disappear, then?”

He nodded his head. “Yes. I would.”

And when she looked into his eyes, when he said those three words, she saw into a space of infinite darkness – waiting, a hollow hatred that left her feeling more bereft than she had when she’d learned of her father’s passing. “I see,” she said.

“Of course, as you said, that’s not the world we live in.”

“The world is what we make of it, don’t you think?”

“As opposed to?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The idea that, perhaps, God takes care of everything.”

“Maybe He does.”

“Do you believe that?”

“It’s either that or there’s no purpose to all this.”

“Purpose?”

“Some meaning to it all.”

“What about the notion of a life well-lived. The Good Life, things like that?”

He shrugged. “The Good Life?”

“Aristotle. The idea that goodness is it’s own reward, that leading a good life, a life dedicated to producing good in the world, is the best a man can do.”

“Where does that leave women?”

“Men, women…humans.”

“No heaven? No hell?”

She shrugged. “Just working to achieve good, here, in this life.”

“What’s the point?”

“What?”

“Without the idea of salvation, of a life beyond this one, what’s the point of living at all?”

“Ah.”

“Without salvation, without forgiveness, what is there left out there – but a jungle?”

Her soup came, a steaming bowl of chicken and rice, and she looked at it, suddenly not sure she could eat. “So, the only reason to act with virtue is because God is watching? And that He’ll forgive you if you sin?”

“That’s right.”

“But what if you sin, and He doesn’t. What if some sins are so bad He either can not, or will not, forgive them.”

“That’s why there’s Hell.”

“So, you can act without virtue all your life, work to create harm all your life, then at the last minute recant and ask for forgiveness?”

He shrugged. “Maybe. I think that’s God’s purview, though. Not mine.”

“Interesting,” she sighed. “What about your mother? Did she believe that?”

He shook his head again. “No.”

“But you do?”

He nodded. “Yes, I do.”

“What about the notion of leading a good life?”

“Sometimes a man’s got to do what he’s got to. He may not like it, but he just has to.”

“For example?”

“Say killing people, in a war. He may not want to, but he has to.”

“Does he?”

“Yes. If he’s a man.”

“I see.”

“How’s your soup.”

“Too hot. What about high heels? What do you think God has to say about those?”

“What do you mean?”

“Aren’t high heels sinful?”

“Sinful? How so?”

“Don’t they promote impure thoughts?”

“I’m not a priest.”

“Only priests can have impure thoughts?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“What about stockings? Lingerie, and all that stuff?”

“What about it?”

“I listened to a psychiatrist talk about the Christian symbolism of those things, like a woman taking off her stockings is analogous to a snake shedding it’s skin, the snake analogy referring to original sin, Adam and Eve in the Garden.”

“Really? Stockings?”

“Really. A lot of the things we encounter in daily life are symbols for some of the things we struggle with on a metaphysical plane.”

“And sometimes a snake is just a snake.”

She laughed. “I suppose so.”

“You walk out there in that swamp for five minutes, then talk to me about the metaphorical meaning of snakes.”

“Okay, but what about the man who chooses to go out and walk through that swamp, to walk among the snakes?”

“That man is a fool.”

“Really? Maybe he’s just a man who has faith?”

+++++

They walked back to their sleeping car after lunch, and while she half expected him to follow to her room, he ducked into his own and shut the door. More amused than disappointed, after their conversation she was more convinced than ever that ‘Ben Carter’ was anything but a ‘movie location scout.’ She had, on the other hand, no idea what he did or who he worked for, but she did have the very certain feeling she didn’t want to know those things. He was, she thought, attractive – in a way – but there was a hard undercurrent of danger behind his eyes – something evasive and, yes, she had to admit – predatory.

She sat, looking out the window as the train slowed and stopped in New Iberia. She admired the red brick station, a long, low, one story affair with broad, sheltering overhangs that looked vaguely like it belonged in New England, and she saw three men standing almost directly beneath her window, looking at the vestibule and the exit from her car – when she saw Ben walk up to the men and shake hands with one of the men. When that man leaned forward a bit his jacket swung open, and she saw a badge clipped to the man’s belt, as well as a pistol dangling inside a barely concealed shoulder holster – and she leaned back in her seat when it looked like Ben might turn his head her way. She wished the windows opened, wanted to hear what was being said, but she remained still – and out of sight – until she heard the train’s horn blast once. Moments later the car jerked ever so slightly and began moving again, and she leaned forward, looked out the window and saw only one of the men walking to a car in the lot adjacent to the station – and she watched him until the station slid from view.

She heard people walking outside her door and wondered if he’d stop and talk, but no, a minute passed, then another, and nothing – so she decided to go forward to the lounge car and get another Coke, or maybe some coffee. She felt sleepy, like she needed a nap, and maybe, she thought, caffeine would help keep her awake. She yawned, wiped errant water from her eyes while she stood, then she slipped on her heels and reached for the door.

Voices?

His voice?

Ah, talking to the porter – about dinner reservations.

Then…a knock on her door. She opened it and the porter was standing there expectantly.

“Yes?”

“I’m coming by, taking dinner reservations, and this man,” he said, nodding to Carter with his head, “wanted to know if you’d care to join him at seven?”

“Yes, that’d be fine,” she said, looking at Carter – who was staring at her legs again.

The porter wrote something on his notepad, said “Very good,” then walked on to the next room in the car.

“I was going to go get a Coke,” she said to Carter then, and he looked up, grinned, then nodded his head.

“Me too. Want some company?”

“Sure. But no more rum. I’m about to pass out as is.”

“I know. It’s all I can do to keep my eyes open right now.”

“I was thinking of coffee,” she said as they walked forward, squeezing past the porter in the narrow corridor, “but it smelled stale.”

“I’m sticking with Coke.”

“You don’t like Dr Pepper?”

“Too sweet. Makes my teeth ache.”

Their same table was still open so she sat while he trundled up to the counter, and he came back a moment later – empty handed – and sat. The attendant brought glasses and bottles of Coke – and another cup full of lime quarters – then laid the things out on the little table for them.

Carter poured both glasses and she watched his movements – fluid, sure of himself – then looked at his eyes. More unsettled now, unsettled – but full of resolve. She could see his carotid, see his pulse and she began a short count: resting – 110, and she noted the fine bead of perspiration on his upper lip and in his hair-line. Something had changed, and he was doing his level best to hide it, too.

“Interesting station,” she said.

“What?”

“That last station. Interesting architecture. Kind of rococo. All the arched doors and windows, the overhangs.”

If this was her way, he thought, of telling him she’d seen him on the platform, she was certainly being coy about it. He took a wedge of lime and squeezed it, watched the juice run off his fingers into the deep brown cola in his glass, then he looked up at her. “Rococo?”

“Italianate. Kind of popular in the late 19th-century.”

He shrugged, bunched his lips a little. “Not my thing, I guess.”

“Oh? I’d have thought a location scout would have to be attuned to such things.”

“Would you?”

“Looked like cops on the platform, too. Guns and badges all tucked away out of sight. Kind of interesting, I think.” She watched him stiffen ever so slightly, made another carotid count – 120 now, his blood pressure going up too – then she just grinned at him. “It’s funny how things are never quite as simple as they seem, isn’t it?”

“Funny?” he asked, his voice catching, the word coming out more like a frog’s croak.

Her grin widened to a broad smile, and she could tell that unsettled him even more. “Why don’t you relax – before you have a stroke.”

“Who the fuck are you?” he growled softly, his voice now full of menace, like a predator who’d suddenly been forced back into an unexpected corner.

“Sara Berman, M.D.,” she said casually, “intern and wannabe eye-doc. Who the fuck are you?”

“You don’t want to know, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, now focusing intently on his twitching lip, “if you say so. But could I ask you one thing?”

He shrugged. “Go ahead.”

“Why do you keep staring at my legs?”

The question seemed to startle him, jerk him back from wherever it was he’d gone. “Stare? Do I? I wasn’t aware…”

“You do. It’s kinda cute, too.”

“Cute?”

She nodded her head, grinned again. “Yup. I like it, like that you like them.”

“I do, you know. You said you’ve never been with a man before?”

“I did.”

“That’s true? I mean, you’re not BS-ing me?”

“No. No BS.”

“You, like, holding out for your wedding night?”

She laughed at that, a little, attractive laugh – honest, not evasive. “No-o-o,” she said, drawing out the word in a way that dripped with latent meaning. “Why do you ask?”

“Because…if I don’t make love to you, soon, I may lose it.”

“Make love? Don’t you mean…fuck?”

“No. I mean make love. To every inch of you.”

“Starting with my legs?”

“If you’d like that, yes.”

She felt the change in her thighs almost immediately, and the warmth spread to her belly as he spoke. “Yes. I think I’d like that.” She finished her Coke and stood, and he stood too, then he followed her to the sleeping car – his eyes never leaving her legs.

Bed

This fragment © 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Strangers on a Train

Was working on this one Friday when a comment came in, asking if I knew of a certain book. I’d run across that book, in the place mentioned in the first paragraph of this story, almost 30 years before. Synchronicity, I think, is the word I’m thinking of.

strangers on a train

Strangers on a Train

He rubbed his eyes, looked at his fountain pen – leaking, again – a puddle of deep blue spreading on the paper. He picked up the pen and threw it in a nearby trash can, then took a little packet of tissues out of his jacket and wiped his ink off the paper and tossed that away, too. He looked at his watch and shook his head, packed up his things and grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair and walked out to the reception. The old man shoved the register across his desk and he signed his name, once again, then took off down the steps and out onto the snowy walk, but he pulled out his little Leica and took a shot of the stained ochre house. Mann’s last house, at the university, on the hillside overlooking Zurich. Now an archive where he’d spent most of the last week buried in drafts of old manuscripts and correspondence, and where he’d realized he was tired of academia. Of books and musty old curators and anything to do with German history. Even the idea of a life spent researching academic minutia – and in that frame of mind he put his camera away and took off down the hill to the main railway station. He went to the luggage storage window and retrieved his suitcase, then looked up at the departure board over the platforms: his train, an overnight to Rome, was due to board in twenty minutes, so he walked over to a news stand and very nearly dropped his bag when he saw the headlines.

“Shah Abdicates!” Screamed a Swiss paper, and “Khomeini En Route From Paris” was highlighted in blood red on another, from New York. “Oh, no,” he said, now noticing the unusual number of heavily armed police officers walking around the station platforms. ‘Maybe I should just go home,’ he thought. ‘Italy will only be worse.’

But no, he thought, knowing he was, even then, trying to rationalize the decision: he had almost an entire week before the next term began, and after a week in Lübeck and another here in Zurich, he was ready for some sun – and holding to the plan would still be the best thing to do right now. Two more months of snow waited back in Boston, and two more months of winter in that dreary apartment did not appeal to him that much. Preparing the final draft of his dissertation, weeks of consultations with his advisor, integrating his latest research into the middle chapters… No, he needed this time off. He needed to recharge his batteries, maybe meet a girl, have a fling, or just get drunk once or twice…

“Ihre Papiere bitte!”

He jumped back into the present, turned and looked into the eye of a uniformed soldier of some sort. Flanked by men in dark suits. All eying him closely.

“Certainly,” he said in English, and then the men relaxed some.

“You are an Englishman?” the soldier asked.

“No. American,” he said, handing over his maroon ‘special’ passport. The soldier handed the passport to one of the men, and this man stepped forward now, while he scanned the passport in his hand, comparing it to items in a notice on the clipboard in his other hand.

“Herr, excuse me, Mr Douglas, you have been in Zurich for the past week?”

“Yessir.”

“At the Hotel Engadine?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“And before that?”

“In Lübeck, sir, north of Hamburg.”

The man grinned, slightly. “And here? What were you doing?”

“Research, at an archive.”

“Ah? What sort of research?”

“Academic, at the Thomas Mann archives.”

“Research concerning?”

“Mann’s role in convincing FDR that the need for a united front against Hitler was imperative, and…”

“That’s fine. I understand all the rest, yes?” the official said, handing his passport back. “Good afternoon.”

“And you,” he said, and he turned and followed the men with his eyes as they walked across the platform. Stopping other men about his age, he noted, men who looked and were dressed similarly – to himself. “Geesh,” he sighed. “What is that all about?”

He turned again, looked at the departure board, saw the yellow ‘Now Boarding’ indicator was lit up and he picked up two newspapers and paid for them, then walked across the platform, pulling out his ticket as he made his way through the shuffling crowd. Of course his car had to be all the way out the platform, he grumbled, and it was so far out he walked the last hundred meters in falling snow. A conductor checked his ticket and let him board the car, a First Class sleeper, and he trundled down the narrow corridor to his compartment, which was, of course, the farthest from the entrance – at the very end of the train.

He walked in, heaved his suitcase up onto the overhead rack and sat heavily, looked out the window at the snowy scene. The city, defined here by rivers and low commercial buildings, was emptying now as commuters came to the station for their evening ride home, and he saw skiers getting off local trains still in there ski boots, skis parked jauntily over shoulders as they clomped through the station. He saw a woman getting off the train just across the narrow little platform outside his window, saw her stop and look around, then look at his train. Deep burgundy colored coat, red fur collar. Nice legs, rather timeless shoes, burgundy colored pumps, a matching handbag. She looked nervous, yet somehow almost predatory. She possessed a peregrine alertness, like she was searching for something – her eyes registering recognition or threat, and then she turned – looked right at him. He thought he saw a briefest flash of smile, then she walked down the platform and disappeared from view.

And he watched two men appear behind her, just stepping out of the train she had, and they watched her for a moment, then followed in her wake.

“Interesting,” he said, then he picked up a paper and started reading about events in Tehran, and in Washington, wondering what the event meant going forward. A pivotal country in the heart of Persia, loaded with oil, going from staunch American ally to radical Islamic theocracy literally overnight. No wonder there are troops walking the platforms, he thought. After two deep oil price shocks over the past decade, not to mention the almost constant threat of war between Israel and her neighbors, and now the ever-present threat of terrorism – this would be a world-seismic event. And Europe, unlike America, was not separated from these changes by oceans. Parts of the second world war had taken place in the region, and one of Hitler’s goals had been to wrest control of the area’s oil supplies from Britain and America. Now, overnight, the region was in play again.

The train barely shuddered as it backed away from the platform, and he looked out the window as the train moved slowly out of the station, watching the city slip by in near silence. A minute later the train stopped, then changed direction, heading south now, and he resumed reading – an opinion piece about the need to approach Khomeini, try to avert a war of ideologies – and he laughed. That wouldn’t happen, he scoffed. Not in Washington, anyway. The Kremlin might try, simply con their way to a new understanding in order to keep the west off balance, anyway, but that would be the end of it. A new war was beginning, one that would play out over decades, a war that would bring untold changes to the world.

“Oh well,” he sighed. “Maybe academia isn’t such a bad place, after all.” He wasn’t a writer, or even a literary scholar. No, he was an historian, and he had studied foreign policy both as an undergraduate and, now, as a graduate student, so he could teach, easily, or he could go into government. Events taking place now, right now, would define the need for foreign service officers for decades to come. Maybe it was time to begin moving in that direction, he thought. Stop this wooly headed pursuit of academic trivia and move on out into the real world…

His compartment door opened and she was standing there. The burgundy coat with the red fur collar.

“Hallo,” she said, her accent English, as the room porter stepped up behind. “And I see you found our compartment?”

The look in her eyes. The searching, pleading look, so unexpected in a predator. No, someone was looking for her. Someone, or something dangerous. Those men…

“She is with you?” the porter asked.

And he stood, quickly. “Yes, of course. Here, let me help you with your coat…”

She stepped in, and as he helped take her coat he could smell unrelenting fear under layers of travel – and he noticed the conductors leering grin. Some sort of recognition, perhaps, that not all was on the up and up in this compartment – but the old walked away, left him to her devices, and he slid the compartment door to and turned to her.

“Well,” he said, smiling, “so nice to see you again.”

And she smiled too. “Thanks,” she said, looking at him.

“So, who’s chasing you?”

And she shrugged. “Mind if I sit?”

“No, please do.”

She sat by the window and sighed – and he handed her a handkerchief. She nodded, wiped her brow, then leaned back and sighed again.

“Tough day at the office, dear?” he quipped – as he sat down across from her.

She looked at him and laughed a little. “You might say so, yes.”

They heard the conductor coming down the corridor now, checking tickets, and she looked at him again.

“Shoes off,” he said, “feet in my lap. Now.”

And when the conductor opened the door he was rubbing her feet, she leaning back in sudden wedded bliss. “Ihre Fahrkarten, bitte?” the conductor asked.

“Ja, hier sind sie,” he said, handing them over.

He punched the ticket and handed it back. “You are going to Rome, Herr Douglas?”

“Yes, we are. Then on to Paestum. We’re on our honeymoon.”

“Ah. So, perhaps we need some champaign here tonight?”

“Yes, that would be wonderful. Is it possible to have dinner in our room this evening?” he said, handing over a 20 franc note.

“Yes, of course. I’ll see that your porter takes care of you immediately.”

“Thank you,” he said, and the conductor slid the door to again – and he began to move his hands away from her…

“Oh, please,” she said, “don’t stop on my account. I was rather enjoying that.”

He laughed, resumed massaging her feet while he looked her in the eye. “So, do I at least get the short version?”

“No, sorry,” she sighed. “Our honeymoon?”

“Best I could come up with on such short notice.”

She smiled. “God, this feels a little like heaven…”

He looked out the window, saw evening coming on fast now, the snow letting up a little, lights coming on in little chalet-looking homes scattered across the valley floor, cars driving alongside the train as they came into a village, slowing now – but not stopping. The train accelerated away and a lake appeared, the low mountains beyond now etched by the setting sun’s pale orange light.

He took the ball of her foot and pushed it towards her, stretched the tendons on the bottom of her left foot, then he ran his thumbs up the tendon, busting little crystalline nodules along the taught rod – and she twisted in sudden agony, took in a sharp breath – then he rubbed the area gently, before starting up again.

“My God in heaven, what are you doing to me?”

“Calcium crystals build up on that tendon,” he said, rubbing it carefully now, “that’s what makes your feet ache like that. High heels make it worse, I think.”

“Don’t tell me? You’re a foot doctor?”

He laughed. “Not quite. Historian. Had a girl friend in college, she taught me this little trick.”

“Thank God for girlfriends,” she moaned – as his fingers started in on her right foot. He found a big crystal and dug into it with his thumbnails, felt it give way and burst, and she almost screamed as relief flooded up her leg into her back. “Oh…” she sighed.

Another knock on the door, the porter sticking his head in, another leering grin as he looked down at the ongoing massage. “You wanted dinner this evening? In your compartment?”

“Yes, please,” he said, handing over another 20 franc note.

“Ah, very good sir. We have a trout this evening, or a lamb curry?”

And he looked at her. “A curry,” she said, “might be nice.”

“Make that two,” he added. “And perhaps a red wine?”

“I’ll bring a wine list by, sir.”

“Ah. Thanks.”

“Yes, sir,” the porter said, sliding the door closed yet again.

“It’s getting rather busy in here,” she said, leaning forward now, putting her shoes back on. “You should be careful doing that to a perfect stranger, you know?”

“Oh?”

“That’s like an aphrodisiac, or heroin. Addicting, I should think.”

He smiled. “You looked like you could use it?”

“Oh? And how do I look, to you?”

“Tired. Scared. Alone.”

She sat back again, looked up at the ceiling – scowling now.

“You’re very pretty, you know?” he said. “In a dangerous kind of way.”

“Dangerous?”

“Yes. I think it would very easy to fall in love with you, and yet quite dangerous to do so.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, or not?”

“More an observation, I think. Calling you pretty? That was a compliment.”

“I see.”

Another knock, and this time the porter handed over the wine list, as well as a list of snacks and light appetizers. “Cheese and crackers, some hummus and olives, please, and I think we’ll have this Pinot Noir,” he said, pointing to an item on the list.

“Very good, sir.”

She watched him move, his self assuredness a bit of a surprise. She’d wanted a momentary diversion, somewhere to hide for a few minutes, but now she wasn’t so sure if she wanted to leave him just yet. She felt sure she’d lost the men on her tail, but she also knew she could be wrong about that. She was cut off from the outside world inside this little compartment, yet that was a double edged sword she’d have to handle with care. But she felt safe here, safe – for the first time in two days.

“Could I see your ticket?”

“What…oh, sure,” he said as he handed it over.

Douglas Fairchild, ticket issued by an independent travel agent in Cambridge, Massachusetts almost six weeks ago. An historian, but too young to be teaching yet, too old to be an undergrad. So, a grad student. In Zurich. Either religion or foreign policy. She looked up, looked at his clothing: taupe tweed jacket, grey flannel slacks, pale yellow button down shirt, Harvard tie. He was like a walking advertisement, his appearance screaming ‘I’m an Ivy Leaguer!’ – and he probably had a serious foot fetish thing going under that staid Brook’s Brothers veneer.

She handed his ticket over and held up her leg. “What do you think of these shoes?” she said, flexing her foot suggestively in the air between them.

“Classic lines. When I saw you out there I thought you looked a little like Audrey Hepburn. Good choice.”

Another knock on the door: a small bottle of champagne, a tray of appetizers appeared and were set out on a small rolling table, and the door zipped shut.

“I think I’ll go wash up,” he said, and he disappeared down the corridor. She took a cracker and a slice of something mild and white, took a bite and sighed. Her first food all day, and she realized she was famished. He came back in a few minutes later, looked at her as he stood there, then he shrugged.

“Two of them,” he said quietly, watching her reaction.

“What’s that?”

“Two men. My guess, middle eastern, probably Iranian, maybe Israeli. They’re following you, asking the porter about you.”

She nodded her head. “What did he say?”

“That he hadn’t seen anyone fitting your description.”

“I see.”

He opened the champagne, poured her a glass, then sat. “You have the loveliest eyes,” he said. “What color – hazel or green – I can’t quite tell in this light?”

“More green I think,” she said, looking at him anew, trying to figure him out.

Another knock on the door, and the porter slipped inside, pulled the door to. “The conductor told me they are Iranian,” he said. “And that there are two more of them onboard.”

He nodded his head, took two one hundred franc notes out and handed them over. “Keep me posted, Emile.”

“Certainly, sir. We have a french onion soup this evening. Should I bring two down?”

“Yes, Emile, if you please.”

She watched this exchange with a growing sense of alarm, and no small amount of wonder. ‘Who is this man?’ echoed in her thoughts, then: ‘Is he dangerous?’

He took a cracker, looked over the cheese and shaved a bit of gruyere from a small block and took a bite, rolled his eyes. “Oh, God, I love this stuff,” he said, then he took a sip of champagne. “I could move here, you know, just to have cheese this good every day.”

“What?”

He chuckled, took another bite – sip, then leaned back. “So? What about you? Obviously from Devonshire. So Oxford, and, by the nature of these circumstances, I’d say MI6.”

She was speechless now. And not at all happy. “Devonshire? What makes you say that?”

“Your hair. Skin and eyes, too, but your accent is the give away.”

“You’ve spent time there, I take it?”

“My junior year. Oxford.”

“Ah, but that’s not all there is to it?”

“No. My Grandfather has property, near Wells.”

“Indeed? And you visit – quite a lot?”

“Used to, yes. Not so much recently.”

Another knock – and Emile came in with two soups. He put them on the table and took off their covers, grated cheese on top of croutons and disappeared again.

“Damn,” he said, “that smells a little bit like heaven.”

Still speechless as unseen implications rolled over her, she watched him eat for a while, then leaned over, started in on her crock. ‘Fairchild?’ she wondered. ‘Douglas Fairchild? Have I heard that name somewhere before? Could he be agency? Or is that his legend, and he’s moving about under an assumed identity? Well, there’s no way to tell now, is there?’

She looked at him again, now putting hummus on a cracker, then some cheese – oblivious. Or was his carelessness simply an act?

‘Perhaps I should just kill him – before he kills me…’

But no…there was something about him. In his eyes, perhaps. An unexpected kindness. A steadiness of temperament. Learned, almost a patrician air in his learnedness. Like a lion, she thought. A bored, sated lion, or a comic book hero – about to go soft from too little action.

“You know,” he said as he looked up from his soup, “they never put enough cheese on top.”

“Don’t they?”

“I suppose it would turn into a soupy, oniony fondue, but I can never get enough.”

She smiled at that. “You never make your own?”

He looked up. “No. Suppose I could learn, but I’m always too tired to cook when I get in.”

“Tired? Your studies?”

“God, yes. Twelve hour days in the library, day after day. And I’ve been leading freshman seminars since August. That added about 300 pages a week to the load.”

“What are you studying?”

“FDR, for the most part. How he struggled to build a coalition, a political coalition, to overcome the isolationism building before Lend-Lease.”

“Why the interest?”

“My grandfather again. He was in the House of Representatives then, and FDR enlisted his support.”

‘Fairchild?’ she heard an inner voice say. ‘Douglas Fairchild?’

“Your grandfather…is he in the Senate?”

He nodded his head. “Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.”

She swallowed hard, made a series of quick recalculations – as now, her mission had just been put on hold. She had just led this kid into serious danger, serious danger that could blowback all over the Prime Minister, endanger the so-called Special Relationship. Her job was no longer to get information to headquarters, it was to protect this boy from her carelessness, and his bad luck. Iranian agents might try to take her out, and they might very well take out this kid, too – while not knowing who they were dealing with, let alone what the repercussions might be.

“It is good soup,” she said as she took a spoonful, then a sip of champagne.

“You look like you just swallowed a squirrel,” he said, looking at her.

“What?”

“Nervous. You suddenly look very nervous. More nervous than just a few minutes ago.”

“I am.”

“Me?”

“Certainly you. I’ve led you into real danger. Inadvertently, but nevertheless.”

“That’s okay. I can take care of it.”

“Oh? Look, I don’t know who you think you can call, maybe the Marines or something, but there are four or more hostile agents closing in on me – as we speak, and you might get in their way. Understand?”

He nodded, took another cracker and spread hummus on it, shaved off another bit of gruyere and popped the whole thing in his mouth – then he smiled at her.

She couldn’t tell if he was deliberately trying to infuriate her, or if he was simply the most obtuse human being in the long, boring history of male chauvinism – then he took yet another sip of champagne. ‘I may kill him myself,’ she thought, ‘and save the world the trouble…’ He looked up at her and grinned, blinked rapidly several times.

“You know, you’re taking all this a little too seriously.”

“Perhaps you aren’t taking things seriously enough.”

“Perhaps because I don’t know what’s going on. Just what on earth did you do? And to whom?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t…”

“I know, I know. Well, tell me, did you kill someone?”

And she looked away, tried to hide her eyes.

“Ah,” he said. “I see. So these gentlemen are a little pissed off.”

“You could say that, yes.”

He stood and pulled his suitcase down from the overhead rack, unzipped a side compartment and pulled out a little black pouch, then he put the suitcase back. He sat next and unzipped the case, pulled out a little Walther, and a silencer, then screwed it on. He took the magazine out and checked the load, then chambered a round – and handed her the pistol.

“What,” she said, “are you doing?”

“I’m assuming you know what this thing does, and how to use it better than I do, so you take it. If I tried to use it I’d probably shoot my foot off.”

She looked at the pistol, an Israeli special. A TPK, 22 short, designed for close range head shots. “Ammunition?”

“Israeli,” he said.

“Jesus.”

“Don’t hold it close. I keep it as far away from soft tissues as I can.”

“Who…?”

“My dad.”

“Is he…?”

“Yup. Career. Seventh floor.”

“Oh dear God. This just gets better ‘n better.”

He laughed.

Emile knocked on the door, brought in two curries and a bottle of red. “They are in the dinning car right now. Six of them. Four Iranian passports, two Swiss.”

“Emile? I’m going to need to use the radio-telephone.”

“But it is not for public use, sir.”

“I understand. Perhaps it will be better if a dozen or so people are killed by terrorists on this train during the night?”

“I’ll have the conductor come by in a few minutes, sir.”

“Thanks, Emile.”

“We’re going into the Alps now,” she said. “Poor radio signal.”

“We will be, until Milan.”

“Where is this train going, anyway?”

He laughed. “That’s right, I forgot. Rome – by way of Milan, and Genoa. The coastal route. How’s that curry, by the way?”

“Swiss,” she said, not quite making a face.

“Ah.”

“And where are you headed? Rome?”

“Paestum. I wanted to walk the ruins there. And you?”

“I was going to try for our embassy, but the way was cut off.”

“So, any ole embassy will do?”

“Theoretically. I’ll be blown, but yes.”

“What’s optimal?”

“Disappear. Make my way back to town.”

“You married?”

“Me? Heavens, no. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.”

“Well, are you?”

“Married? No, I came close…but, no.”

“What’s next? Teach?”

“Maybe. My father would like me to sign up, grandfather wants me to go to State.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I wish I knew…”

Another knock on the door, the conductor sliding the door open quietly. “You need to contact the authorities, Herr Fairchild?”

“I do,” he said, then he turned to her. “And is there a name I should reference?”

She leaned close and whispered in his ear.

“You’re joking!” he said, but she shook her head and he took off with the conductor – while Emile came inside the little compartment and sat with her while he was away.

Which wasn’t long.

“Did you get through?” she asked once they were alone again.

He nodded his head. “Yup, but the neighbors were watching.”

“Indeed.”

“The RT is right by the dining car. They’re just sitting in there, drinking coffee.”

“Gearing up for a long night.”

“As will we,” he said. “I’ve got strudel and coffee inbound, and I’ve got a deck of cards in the suitcase. Play gin?”

“Of course. And I’ll beat your ass into the ground, too.”

“That sounds kind of like a challenge,” he said, grinning.

“No, not at all. More a warning, a fait accompli. I’m going to kick your ass all around this little compartment, that’s all.”

“Assuming your name isn’t George Smiley, think you could tell me your real name?”

“George Smiley.”

“I see. Guess I deserved that, huh?”

She smiled, tried not to be too ironic about it, then Emile knocked and cleaned up their dishes, spread a fresh tablecloth and laid out silverware for dessert and coffee – then disappeared again, returning a moment later with two mountainous globs of strudel and a carafe of coffee. He produced a bowl of schlagsahne next, and heaped it on each pastry – leaving the bowl with their coffees before he disappeared, and they looked at the size of their desserts, then at one another.

“Dear God,” they said in unison, then they laughed for the longest time.

He took down his suitcase again and dug out his deck of cards, and when the cabin was squared away again he opened the deck and shuffled it. She cut and he dealt their hands, and a few drops in she ginned.

He raised an eyebrow, then dealt another hand – and she smoked him, again.

‘Something’s not right,’ he sighed, and he leaned forward, dealt again, and lost again.

“Odd,” he said.

“Isn’t it?”

Then he discovered her trick.

Dangling a shoe off her toe, moving her legs just so…and he grinned, went into the tiny head and stuffed a towel down into his briefs, rolled up just so. He went out and splayed himself just enough to reveal a monstrous bulge – and he took the next four games.

“This is too much fun,” he said, and then he moved around a little, pulled the towel up from it’s hiding place.

“Bastard!” she cried.

“Bitch!” he echoed, then he leaned over and put her shoe firmly back on her foot.

“Oops.”

“I’ve never seen such underhanded play before,” he said, smiling.

“Works, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“I had you pegged after five minutes.”

“I wonder what that says about you?”

She arched her eyebrows rapidly a few times, then grinned. “I’ll never tell.”

“You know, I feel certain you won’t.”

“Anymore coffee in that thing?” she asked.

And she felt the change before she heard anything – he did, too. Someone outside their door, listening. Then trying the lock. Her hand, going for the little Walther. Then Emile’s voice, down the corridor: “Excuse me, but you are in the wrong car! You must leave! NOW!” Hastily retreating footsteps – she putting the pistol away – then Emile, knocking on the door.

“Come in!” he said.

“This is the second time they have tried to come into this car. I have alerted the conductor, and we will try to put them off at the next stop.”

“No need,” she said. “They’ll just put someone else on at the next stop, and then we won’t know who they are.”

“But…”

“My concern, Emile,” he said, quickly trying to cover her mistake, “is the terrorists might set off a bomb if we tried that, or take hostages.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Just let them come, Emile,” he added, “but turn off the corridor lights.”

“Okay.”

Emile cleared the dishes on the rolling trolley, and a few minutes later the lights went out.

“You do know,” he said, “we’re the last room in the last car of this train.”

“Nothing behind us?”

“No. I, uh, well I borrowed Emile’s key, unlocked the door.”

“You didn’t?”

“Here’s my plan…”

A half hour later he felt that same presence, knew someone was just outside the door, and a moment later the door started to slide open. He saw a small silenced pistol slide past the curtain, then the man appeared – and he seemed startled to find an American, alone, sitting there making a sh-h-h gesture – with one finger up to his lips – then pointing at the folded berth over his head.

“She’s in there,” he whispered, and the Iranian nodded his head as he stepped up to the bed and tripped the release…

At which point she stepped out of the tiny head and with one – pffft – the agent fell to the floor, grabbing at the small, fatal head wound.

“Okay,” he said as he picked up the man, “you get the door.”

She stepped out into the corridor, saw it was clear and stepped aft, quietly, then opened to outer door – and he tossed the body out the back. Seconds later they were back in the compartment, and a minute later they heard Emile knocking on the door.

“Yes,” he said as he slid the door open an inch or two.

“Did you hear something?” Emile asked, trying to see into the compartment.

“I’m so sorry, Emile. When she gets on top she gets a little wild. I think it has something to do with the motion, ya know?”

“Oh, dear. Oh, no, excuse me…” Emile said as he retreated to his compartment at the other end of the car.

Twenty minutes later the presence announced itself again, and exactly as before the door slid open, the curtain parted when a silenced pistol entered, he sh-h-h’ed the man and whispered she was above, and when the man tripped the release she dispatched him. Two minutes later they were back in the compartment.

“This is too easy…” he said.

“They won’t fall for that one again.”

“Okay, let’s try this…”

Twenty minutes later the door slid open and the gun appeared; when the man entered the compartment he saw another man splayed out face down on the floor, apparently dead.  When he bent down to check for a pulse – pffft – down he went too, then out the back door.

“Was that number three?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What are they? Morons?”

She broke out giggling.

“This is like Laurel & Hardy. I thought these guys are supposed to mean, ruthless killers?”

“Well, they are.”

“But they’re fucking morons!”

“Stop it,” she said, doubling over, laughing hysterically now.

The door flew open, the next assassin rushed in – and he took the gun right out of the man’s hand and she stuck the Walther up to his left eye and – pffft – down he went, right into his waiting arms.

“I’m getting tired of this,” he said. “Maybe tie one hand behind my back? Something, anything to give these morons a fighting chance?”

Forty minutes later the last two were dispatched and they stood there, looking out the back door, letting the frigid mountain air wash over their sweat-soaked bodies – when Emile walked up.

“This door is supposed to be closed, locked!” Emile said as he scurried up, and he shut the door, felt for his key.

“What are you looking for, Emile?”

“My key, for the door?”

“Is that it,” he said, pointing at a key on the linoleum floor.

“Ah, just so. Thank you.”

“Fell out of your pocket.”

“Ah.”

“Where are the Iranians?”

“They seem to have disappeared?”

“Really? How strange?”

“Yes, we just looked from one end of the train to the other, and not a sign of them.”

“Curious. How long until we reach Milan?”

“Oh, about an hour.”

“I’m expecting a business associate to join us there. Name is Jones.”

“Of course, sir. You’ll still be up?”

“Up? Why, yes Emile. I’ll still be up.”

“Very good, sir.”

“You’re awful,” she said once Emile was safely out of range.

“I am? Why?”

“You’ll still be – up!” she said, her pointing finger popping straight up.”

“Oh. That. Wishful thinking on my part.”

She smiled. “It is?” she asked.

“Yup.”

“Well, how long do we have?”

But he shook his head. “You know? I’ve never had a one night stand, and I’m not sure I want to, even with you.”

And she kissed him, once, before she got off the train in Milan. Teams from the CIA and MI6 escorted her to a waiting transport, and she was in London hours before he made it to Rome. He walked the ruins in Paestum, and in the winter light the old Greek temples took on the soft aires of forgotten dreams. He walked and walked, took dozens of rolls of film, all black and white, which seemed to fit his mood better than color.

He flew home on a Pan Am 747 and once back in Boston he rode the T out to Cambridge and found he’d forgotten to leave the heat on inside his apartment. His jet lag was terrible for days, and he walked around in a fog, barely able to come to terms with the things he’d done, so the next weekend he hopped on the shuttle and flew down to National. His father was waiting for him at the gate.

And uncharacteristically, his father was very quiet on the ride home. Once they were home, once he’d put his suitcase back in his old bedroom, he went downstairs and got a Coke, then went to his father’s study.

“Shut the door, son.”

He did.

“So, how was Zurich? Get much done?”

“A bit, yessir.”

“And how many people did you kill on that train?”

“Me sir? Technically, zero.”

And his father smiled. “Let me rephrase. How men dead men did you throw out the back of that train?”

“Six, sir.”

His father leaned forward, his face turning redder by the second, then all that pressure released. “Kind of fun, isn’t it?”

“Sir?”

“Bad guys? It’s kind of fun, popping them in the head like that. Sorry you didn’t get to take out a few.”

“Sir?”

“The first dozen or so are the toughest. Gets easier after that.”

“Sir?”

“Still, everyone down in Yorktown that’s read the after-action report thinks you’ve got what it takes, son. You know Russian, German and French, and you have the background. When are you going to decide?”

“Sir, I’ve put in my application, with the Peace Corps.”

He flew back up to Boston on Sunday morning, still unconvinced that a life of killing spies was the life for him, but he had promised his father not to decide about the Peace Corps until his dissertation had been defended and approved for publication, so he sequestered himself in his apartment and began writing in February, and he emerged from time to time, for groceries, mainly, and he wrote and wrote. March passed, then April and May. Then June and July. And August, too, but at last his work was at an end and he took it to a professional typist, then to his advisor, who took it first to one committee, then another. He was called in the middle of September to defend his dissertation, and he did so on the third day of October. A month later he was notified: he would receive his PhD in December.

“So GramPa, what’d you do next?” his granddaughter asked, swaying in the rail car.

“Well, when I walked home to that little apartment, your Grandmother was waiting for me right there, out on the front steps.”

“Yes, but who was she?”

“Who? Oh, that spy, from Britain.”

“From Devonshire?”

“That’s the one. She was waiting, said she had been for a few hours, and that’s when we made your father.”

“GramPa! You’re not supposed to say things like that!”

“What? We didn’t do it in the road! We went upstairs!”

“So, you’re telling me GramMa was a spy?”

“Yup. And a pretty good one, too, as it turned out.”

“Golly, that’s kind of hard to believe, you know?”

“Hmm? Why’s that?”

“Well…it’s GramMa! I mean, she’s just a little old lady!”

“Oh…is that what she is…?”

“I guess she’s more than that, huh?”

“You know, you never seem to talk to her all that much and I think she misses that. Maybe she’d like to get to know you better.”

“It looks different out here,” the little girl said – going to the window, looking out over passing farmland and trees.

“How so?”

“Like there’s more water here, more rain.”

“That’s true. This part of England gets a lot of rain. Do you know why?”

She shook her head, still gazing out the window.

“Well, it has something to do with a water current. Does that ring a bell?”

“The Gulf Stream!”

“That’s right. Now why don’t we go down and talk to GramMa for a while.”

“I don’t know. I think I’m a little afraid of her now.”

“Afraid? Why?”

“Well, you said GranMa killed people…”

“Yes, so? Soldiers kill people all the time? Are you afraid of soldiers?”

She nodded her head. “Yes. Kinda.”

“And police officers kill people too. Are you afraid of them, too.”

Again, she nodded her head.

“What about those big, bad terrorists? Are you afraid of them?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding her head big time.

“Well, somebody has to kill the terrorists too, don’t they?”

“Yes,” she said quietly, “I suppose so.”

“You suppose?”

“GramPa, why are we going out to that old house?”

“To Devonshire?”

“Yes.”

“Well, after your grandmother and I got married, we lived there for a long time. I worked in London, and your GramMa continued to work, well, as a spy. Your father was born here, too.”

“Did she kill more people?”

“Why don’t you go ask her that? You can ask her about all kinds of things, you know? She helped a lot more people than she hurt.”

“Did she?”

“Yes.” He stood and held out his hand, helped her out the door and down the narrow little corridor, and he knocked on her door.

The nurse came and let them in, and his granddaughter slipped inside, through the little curtain beyond the sliding door, then he turned and went back to his compartment. He sat by the glass, looked at the passing landscape through a reflection he saw there. His face, staring back, and the passing landscape beyond, merging. He hardly recognized the old man in the glass, then realized he hardly knew that old man at all.

The trees and farms looked the same, he thought, but not me. Everything out there looked caught in amber, frozen in time, but not me. Not her.

How many more weeks do we have together?

Time, so precious now. So inescapably precious.

His time, with her, the most precious thing of all. But so too was the little time those two could share. So much would be passed along. Memories would be made, memories to last a lifetime. The little girl was old enough now, and she was bright enough; she would remember. His wife would pass along the secrets of a lifetime, just as he had passed on those secrets to his son.

He looked at the eyes in the glass. His eyes, so unchanged, looking back into God only knows – like strangers on a train, chancing to know one another.

© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Hope you enjoyed. Happy trails… A

 

Sunset at the Pink Water Café, Chapter 4

sunset logo

So, another ending. Life as metaphor. An End well met? Perhaps.

+++++

Sunset at the Pink Water Café

Chapter Four

Sitting in the cockpit of the Air Force C27J Spartan, he listened to an analyst’s evaluation of the situation over an encrypted line, checking the team’s reasoning once again, while the transport bounced around inside a frontal boundary. Of the fifteen replacement crewmen bound for a Russian oceanographic research vessel, that had been docked in St Johns taking on fuel and supplies earlier today, three tripped Customs alerts when they checked through checkpoints: known SVR and GRU operatives with military backgrounds, and certainly not oceanographers. Canadians photographed the group and imagery was in Langley within minutes, and a further eleven of the fifteen were identified, all former military with established dossiers in CIAs files.

A hit team, in other words, the analyst argued.

And with zero equipment in their luggage.

The research vessel had departed St Johns 14 hours ago, and an Air Force E-8 was keeping track of it’s progress, the analyst advised. The ship had traveled 120 miles, heading south along the coast, then turned to 2-4-0 degrees. And such a route would, the analyst said, carry them about a hundred miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, on a route that would take them on a passage along the US seaboard.

“And let me guess? Who’s out there?”

“The Jimmy Carter has been tailing the Severodvinsk for three days, sir. She’s closing on sea mounts and canyons, working her way into shallower water, the skipper thinks.”

“They’ll transfer to the sub out out there,” Jim said, “then work their way closer to shore.”

“That’s my guess,” the analyst said. “Skipper on the Carter wants a few million sonobuoys dropped from the shelf off Halifax all the way around through the Bay of Fundy. We can fine tune their approach once the Severodvinsk gets into shallower water, but he wants to drop back some now. Not enough room to hide, something like that.”

“What’s going on up on the seventh floor?” Jim asked, referring to the operations directorate on the top floor.

“No decision yet. They’re still talking with the White House.”

“Swell.”

“I know. Looks like three days ‘til they can make the transfer, and maybe two more for a real cautious approach. If I was going to do this I’d try to get in the channel between Grand Manan and the coast. It’s real noisy in there…easy to hide.”

“Well, they’d break the 12 mile limit, and it’s full of lobster pots. Not real smart.”

“They need to get within a mile or two if they’re coming by inflatable. A helluva lot closer than that if the team is going to swim for it.”

“They won’t do that.”

“I don’t think so either.”

“What about sleds?”

“Possible,” the analyst said thoughtfully. “Hadn’t thought of that. Several on the team have the relevant experience.”

“Do we know what the range is on that new unit is?”

“The two man units, uh, let’s see, looks like about 30 klicks, so call it 10 to 12 each way, with a little in reserve.”

“That would put them off the twelve mile line, on the east side of the island.”

“Deniability?”

“Exactly. Uh,” he said, looking out the cockpit windshield, “looks like we’re getting ready to land. I’ll get back to once we’re airborne again.”

“K – out.”

He looked up, saw runway lights ahead through rain and intermittent clouds, and the little transport flared over the numbers and rolled out on runway 34, then turned off to the northeast, and the pilot taxied to the Canadian Air Force facility on the east side of the airport. An airman opened the door and a blast of rain soaked him as he ran down the slippery metal steps – then across rain-soaked concrete to a waiting US Navy P-8A, and he climbed up those steep stairs and into the cabin. An airman close the door behind him and the Boeing’s engines spooled up as he walked into the cockpit, putting his raincoat in a closet as he walked forward.

“War Eagle 3-0, clear to taxi,” he heard the tower say as he strapped into the jump-seat and put on the proffered headset.

“Rolling.”

“Uh, three-zero, change of runway and departure information. Wind now 2-6-0 at 18, taxi direct to two niner from your position and hold just short of the active. At 1900 left turn direct VOBEG, then hit GAGMA at 6000.”

“Eagle 3-0, 12 and 6. Got an altimeter?”

“Still two eight niner five.”

“Got it.” The captain turned to her co-pilot: “Checklist?”

“Complete.”

“Flaps?”

“Set.”

“Bugs?”

“Set.”

“Armed and crosschecks?”

“Set and checked.”

The captain held just short of the runway, flipped on the lights as she checked in with the tower: “Eagle 3-0, holding short of the numbers.”

“3-0, hold for the MD-80 on short final.”

“Roger.” She looked past the ensign in the right seat and scowled. “See anything?” she asked.

“Nothin’. Weather’s really closing in fast…nope, there he is…”

Jim bent down, looked out through the rain splattered glass and could just see strobes bouncing off the Air Canada jet’s belly, then it flared and settled onto the black asphalt, thrust reversers roaring a moment later, the air behind the MD80 full of drifting spray and settling exhaust.

“Eagle 3-0, clear for take off, and expedite, please.”

“3-0,” she said, advancing the throttles a little, and as the 737 lined up on the centerline she advanced the throttles, jogged the rudder pedals a little as the jet began it’s run.

“80 knots,” her ensign co-pilot called out 18 seconds later, then “V1…and…rotate.”

She pulled back on the yoke, eyes on her instruments: “Positive rate.”

“Gear up…”

And moments later they were in solid cloud, the sudden turbulence extreme.

“Clean the wing,” she said, and Jim couldn’t tell where they were now, even what their attitude was, until he looked at the screens on the panel. Nothing but gray ahead, then the lights turned off and he couldn’t even see that, so he focused on the panel, watched her ease into a deep left turn, saw a waypoint on the screen, and when they hit that point she made another easy left, and another waypoint appeared ahead. Five minutes later the P8 climbed out of the clouds at 12,000 feet and she turned to parallel the coastline, then she turned and spoke to him.

“Better head aft now, sir. You can monitor the ship better from there, and we’ll be over the Carter in about, oh, twenty three minutes.”

+++++

She watched his men walk into the house next door, but one of them, Tom, slipped through the rain and knocked on the door. And, surprisingly, waited for her to come to the door.

“Where is he now?”

“He had to leave, quite unexpectedly,” the man said. “Do you need anything?”

“Is it safe to go outside?”

The question seemed to startled the man. “Ma’am?”

“I have no idea what’s going on around here, but what I read on Google sure opened my eyes.”

“Oh?”

“How he save those Russians, and now, how the Russians are trying to get back at him.”

“That’s online?”

“It sure is. Want to read what I found?”

“No, not really.”

“Is it true?”

“Ma’am?”

“Are you hard of hearing, or is it just my voice?”

He laughed a little, looked up at the house next door. “Ma’am, you’re safe here, but if you’d like me to walk Jimmie, I’d be happy to.”

Of course Jimmie was out the door in an instant, circling in the rain, looking for just the perfect spot to let one go, and when he finished his business he pranced up the steps and back into the house, then turned and looked at her.

“I guess not,” Tom said and they both laughed.

“Will he be back tomorrow?”

“Should be, but I don’t have any word on that yet. How ‘bout I come over and tell you as soon as we hear something?”

She nodded her head, remembered his promise to keep her in the loop – then turned and went inside. When she slipped under the sheets Jimmie came up and laid beside her, his chin resting on her thigh, his eyes focused on hers like twin laser beams.

She looked at him for the longest time, then turned off the light and away from his searching eyes, but she rolled over a few minutes later and saw the pup’s head on Jim’s pillow; he was facing her now, but his eyes were closed, and he was snoring gently. She looked at the pup for what felt like years, and she couldn’t help thinking that, somehow, these two were connected in some vital way.

+++++

He watched the research vessel far below on a screen, the stabilized, night vision image clear enough to make out sailors on deck, but there wasn’t much to see yet. They came up on the Carter’s track and at 0100, exactly, the radio operator picked up a UHF burst and ran it through the computer.

“Skipper reports the contact is holding steady on course 2-1-0 and has slowed to five knots,” the operator said a few minutes later.

“Ivan has got to be nervous now,” the Navy commander said. “Just a matter of time till he picks up something out there that spooks him.”

“Been a while since he’s tried something this brazen, don’t you think?” Jim asked.

“Yup. They must want you real bad.”

“Nice to be wanted,” Jim sighed. “Got a track for your sonobuoys?”

“Computer sets the deployment pattern. All the pilot has to do is get down to about 200 feet and 180 knots, then engage the autopilot. The computer flies the airplane and spits out the buoys, and we’ll get half laid this trip, the other half later today. More difficult now, too. Since they closed Brunswick, adds about three hours to the evolution.”

“Short-sighted. Closed too many bases, thought Ivan was gone. Well, people are waking up now.”

“This is a decent platform, endurance-wise, anyway. I thought we did a better job in the old P3, though; pilots have to fly slow to do half of the things we need to, so speed ain’t a real asset. Stealth would be, but these crates aren’t stealthy.”

“Cheap and easy to get hold of. Easy to get past committee, anyway,” Jim added.

“Did you hear the Admiral Kuznetsov is out there?”

“Nope. Where is she?”

“RORSAT picked her up five hours ago, two hundred north of Lajes, headed north. Of course they know when the birds pass.”

“If she’s headed this way, that would change the dynamics.”

“The Astute and the Warner are moving in, should get a baseline course for us by mid-morning.”

“This is getting interesting,” Jim sighed.

“Isn’t it? Think it’s worth the risk?”

“Yup.”

“Where will you take her?”

“Bucksport.”

“If you don’t start the next world war, you mean.”

“There is that,” Jim sighed, smiling.

+++++

She was in the café, still feeling depressed, when she saw his slate blue Land Rover coming down Main Street – Jimmie in the passenger seat, his head hanging out the window…his ears flapping in the breeze. He pulled up right outside the café and hopped out the door – Jimmie waited for his door, then he slipped down onto the sidewalk and waited for Jim to open the café’s door, then they made for the corner table as she walked over, menus in hand.

And she saw dark circles under his bloodshot eyes, thought better of tearing into him and handed him a menu.

“What’s he got going back there this morning?”

“Fish chowder and, believe it or not, about a half dozen fresh Dover sole. Sautéed, with lemon butter and broccolini.”

“Done. Tea?”

“Blueberry.”

He nodded his head. “Sorry about last night. Something came up.”

“Yeah?” she said knowingly. “I understand.”

“Do you?”

“No, but at least I understand you’ll never change.”

He looked at the hurt in her eyes and bunched his lips, and he seemed to deflate before her eyes.

“Look,” she sighed, “all I know is I don’t know. Okay? And that not knowing is a lot worse than knowing.”

He looked up but she was walking away, so he looked down at Jimmie and shook his head. “I fucked up, boy. Big time.”

The pup looked in his eyes and saw something, because then he got up and stood, put his hand on Jim’s shoulders and leaned forward, licked his chin – and Jim leaned forward and hugged the pup, put his face to his, nose to nose.

“I know. I’ve got to do better,” then Jimmie nibbled his ear before he licked it a couple of times. By the time she came back with his tea and chowder the pup was on the floor again, curled up and sleeping.

“Hear about the Sheriff?” she asked and he looked up.

“The Sheriff?”

“Drunk, bunch of kiddie porn on his lap. Arrested, took him down in Bangor this morning, for some sort of hearing, maybe arraignment?”

“Whoa. Kiddie porn? Up here?”

“Yeah. Lot of people freaked out this morning, talking about it. You know, ‘it can’t happen here,’ that kind of thing.”

He nodded his head. “The Devil’s greatest triumph was convincing people he doesn’t exist.”

She seemed shocked by that. “What? I didn’t think you…”

“What? Good and evil? That they don’t exist? Of course they do. It’s all around us, all the time. So much so that we forget it exists, that it’s real.”

“But…?”

“So, you can’t measure it, take a photograph of it, but you can’t take a picture of love, either. You can’t put love on the scales and measure it.” He looked at her again. “I love you, by the way. In case you wanted to pick that up and throw it against that wall over there.”

“Do you enjoy reading my mind?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Very much.”

She turned and walked away. Again. She brought his sole a few minutes later, then turned away – without saying a word. Again. She brought him his check when he finished, and he paid her, watched her walk away again.

“You’re gonna get a lousy tip today,” he said after she put his change on the table, and she grinned – before she turned and disappeared into the kitchen.

“Hmm,” he said, looking down at Jimmie, “I think we need to get out of here…before she kills something.”

So, he drove home and they went inside, turned on his computer and made the encrypted connection while Jimmie settled in by his feet – again. Revised plans started pouring in: two subs with SEAL teams onboard now northbound from Norfolk, several hundred special forces types already digging-in around Lubec and on Grand Manan, the Gerald R Ford almost in position to intercept the Kuznetsov – a giant chess board taking shape far away at sea, all because he’d managed to keep two Russian president’s safe and out of harm’s way. All because he’d pissed off the wrong spy. He sent a note to Langley and slipped off his clothes and into bed, and it seemed only a few minutes later he felt someone shaking him away from the dream. The soaring dream. Only something was wrong now. Something dark and forgotten.

He sat up, saw it was dark outside, saw Tracy, out of her clothes now, walking into the bathroom. He heard the shower next, then Jimmie coming in the room, his paws wet, his grin fresh, and he stumbled into the bathroom, barely made it to the toilet before he vomited. He saw streaks of blood in the water and groaned, looked at his watch and made a few quick calculations.

“You okay?” he heard her ask.

“I’ll let you know,” he croaked.

She turned off the water, came to him, saw the blood in the bowl and lifted him up.

“What is that? Blood?”

“Probably. Yes.”

“Do you have an ulcer?”

He shook his head, walked back to the bed and sat on the edge, sweating now, and he picked up a little radio and called: “Tom?”

“Sir?”

“Need the doc. Now.”

“Yessir.”

“You have a doctor over there?” she asked.

“Sure. Don’t you?”

“No.”

“Ah, well, there you have it.”

Tom and a woman in khakis came in through the back door, walked up to him. The woman, the physician, put the back of her hand on his forehead while she checked his pulse, then she told him to lay back and she palpated his gut.

“It’s too soon, sir,” she said. “We need to get you back to Philadelphia.”

“How long will I be away?”

“Two days, best guess – maybe three.”

“Can’t afford that now.”

“No choice, sir. It’s that or big trouble.”

He sighed, looked at Tom. “Okay, let’s get going, but I want to be back here by Saturday morning.”

“I’m coming too,” Tracy said, and everyone turned to look at her, then at Jim.

“She’s coming too,” he said, grinning.

Tom looked at him, shook his head then sighed. “Okay.”

The physician went back to the safe house next door and came back with an bag of plasma, then she started an IV and shot a little morphine into the line. She hooked up the bag next and set the drip, waited for Tom to bring the Suburban to the drive. Once he was settled in the back seat, for the first time with Tracy by his side, they drove around to Eastport, waited for the Challenger to arrive. He slept on her shoulder until, sometime in the middle of the night, he once again sat back and felt hard thrust pushing him back in his seat, and he looked out a tiny window as the earth fell away in darkness. Again.

He was unconscious by the time the Challenger landed at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, and an ambulance met the little jet, drove him down to the Abramson Cancer Research Center.

By then, Tracy was beside herself, deep inside an unknown landscape of mysteries so terrifying, so far from her experience, that she felt herself shutting down. She called Darren later that morning, told him what had happened and where she was, and he told her to take care – which left her feeling hollow, even more unsure of herself.

He had, she learned, stage four colon cancer. He had been treated conventionally, with chemo and radiation, almost two years ago – but treatment had failed. Miserably. Then he’d come here, been treated with an experimental protocol that used a tailored HIV virus to trick the cancer into remission, and that had worked. He felt wonderful but his physicians argued against his returning to work, so he had continued treatment, begun rebuilding his life here.

Then a Russian team entered the city and tried to take him out at the little townhouse he’d moved into northwest of downtown. He’d been moved to a safe house after that, then yet another team tried to take him out. In retaliation, a Russian diplomat in London disappeared, his mutilated body turning up in a Syrian whorehouse – the message clear – and the attacks stopped.

He resumed treatment, got better – to a point, and began to work out, to build himself back up – all that began almost a year ago. Then, just before Christmas, another team was turned back, and the decision was made to move him – almost – out of harm’s way. A suitable location was found, assets moved into place, modifications made – only this time the idea was to keep the location quiet, but only for a while. Three months ago mention of his movements began to show up in routine chatter, on lines of communication known to be compromised, and assets globally began watching for a response – so that they could be drawn in, closer. And observed

The plan this time was to hurt them, to make the cost of doing business as usual a little too steep for comfort. And that’s when the Navy got involved.

+++++

By Friday morning he felt – almost – human again, and a team from Langley dashed up to brief him on the mission’s progress. It was critical that he be seen in Lubec some time during the day tomorrow, critical that he go to the café – because that’s where, according to reports going to Moscow, he was seen, at least twice a day.

“So, there’s someone in town? Watching?”

“Yes, we thought it was the Sheriff, but the reports are still going out, an encrypted burst transmission.”

He laughed. “No, it couldn’t be that easy!”

“What?”

“Check on a guy named Dooley. Paul Dooley. He was living in Bangor after his divorce, until a recently. Showed up a few weeks after I moved in. Tom has the details, so check with him.”

“So, the question is…can you make it back up by tomorrow?”

“Yeah, we’ll head up tonight.”

“Prognosis, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Oh, you know me. I’m gonna live forever.”

“Yeah, okay. Anyway, if this plan works, there’s no telling how they’ll react.”

“No telling. That sounds about right.”

“They’ll try again, that’s for sure.”

“Reckon so.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“No, not really.”

“I’m curious. Is there anything that does? Bother you, I mean?”

“That girl out there,” he said, pointing at Tracy, waiting outside in the corridor. “She does something with her finger…well, that bothers the hell out of me.”

+++++

She walked down to the café a little earlier than usual the next morning, wrote Darren’s specials on the board – in pink and blue chalk, just to spice things up a little bit – and she stuck her head out back, looked at all the progress the carpenters and plumbers and electricians had made over the past four weeks, but Dooley wasn’t out there. “Hasn’t been here for a few,” the contractor said, shrugging his shoulders, but she saw Vance walk by a little before noon, a few minutes after Jim and Jimmie came down for lunch, and he looked in the window as he passed, then looked down at the ground. Other eyes took note of his passage, however, and Jim smiled.

“This could be fun,” he sighed.

A massive Russian submarine slipped into the Bay of Fundy two nights later, and Russian commandos dove into the water and mounted electric sleds, took off past North Head and crossed Owen Basin under the dark moon, though other men, unseen ‘til that moment, boarded the submarine, and a half hour later the submarine was under tow, on the surface, bound for the Penobscot narrows.

He sat in his study that night and watch his plan unfold. The commandos, captured on the rocky beach a little before sunrise, never got a message off, while a billion ruble submarine – stripped of all it’s secrets, was towed out to sea and set adrift, months later. Spies were caught that night and would be tried in courts, sent to prisons, but all that was for tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow to deal with.

When morning came he walked down to the café and went out back, looked over the addition. The drywall was finished and carpenters were trimming the doors and windows, and Bruce pointed out where the piano would go. Jim pulled a sawhorse over and put it where the piano bench would go, and he sat there looking out all that glass for a long time, wondering what it would feel like. The sun setting over the world, all that pink water.

He walked back to the house, found Tracy just getting out of bed, and the smile on his face was not lost on her – yet like everything these days she wondered how long it would last.

+++++

A few weeks later, the addition complete, the truck from a music store in Boston pulled up to the café and four men muscled a huge box out the back and carried it inside. They carefully unboxed the Clavinova and set it on the wood floor in the indicated corner, and Jim beamed while Bruce stood behind his new bar, mixing old fashioneds. The men hook up the concealed speakers that were already in the walls and ceiling and, when everything was ready, they powered up the full-sized concert grand.

“Well?” Bruce and Darren sighed, looking at Jim – and pointing to the piano.

“Reckon I ought to,” he said, grinning. “Just to try it out.”

And everyone laughed. Everyone watched, even Jimmie, settling by his feet again.

He sat behind the keys and played a few disjoined notes, then riffed along warming up, his eyes closed as he remembered nights with his wife so long ago, so far away, rocking back and forth in the music of another night, in other arms – as he drifted into Gershwin’s Prelude Number 2. He felt hands on his shoulders just then, in the here and now, and when he finished the piece he looked up, saw Darren crying by his side, Tracy too, her arms wrapped around Darren.

He drifted into Summertime, looked out the window into the distance, and he watched the sun slipping towards the far horizon behind lozenge-shaped clouds drifting by. The sky turned orange, then pink, and the water turned with the sky – orange to pink – and he felt their love all around him. In the air, all around this new space.

He heard the bell on the front door twinkle as it opened and he turned, saw Vance and three other men walking in, silenced pistols coming out of shoulder holsters and he laughed, then he smiled, and the hair on Jimmie’s neck bristled.

“Oh,” he sighed as he soared, “this is going to be so much fun…”

© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | adrianleverkuhnwrites7@gmail.com | a little work of fiction, every syllable of it.

Sunset at the Pink Water Café, Chapter 3

sunset logo

Chapter 3 here for you today, and I think I mentioned in a comment a few days ago that this story exists in shades of metaphor. Jim and Tracy and Dooley and Darren, all of them metaphors, shadows of a paradigm slipping from our grasp. A few queasy moments in this one, so hang on for the ride.

+++++

Sunset at the Pink Water Café 

Chapter 3

Jimmie heard her first. His ears perked when he found her peculiar gait among all the other noise out there, while she was still on the strange hard stuff beyond the grass, then he stood when he heard her footsteps brushing through the grass, hoping she would take him outside, play with him for a long time, but he looked at the man on the floor and didn’t know what would happen next.

She came up the steps and opened the door, came into the house, walked into the living room – then saw a man sprawled out on the floor, apparently unconscious. She ran over, knelt down and checked his neck for a pulse, signs of breathing – but everything appeared normal, at least as far as she could tell – yet she had no idea who this was, let alone what had happened.

She was about to get up, call for an ambulance when she heard more footsteps on the landing just outside the door, and she turned, expected to see Jim walk in the door – but no, that wasn’t what happened. Not at all.

She watched her world turn upside down when Paul Dooley and Sheldon Vance walked in the door. They walked in and looked around the room, then Dooley saw her kneeling on the floor, and he smiled. There was nothing nice about his smile, she saw. Nothing like this afternoon.

“Well, lookie here. My, my, already on the floor…waitin’ for us.” he said as he walked over to her, then he saw the other man on the floor and stopped. “Who’s this? Your new boyfriend, maybe?”

“No, I don’t know who he is. Can you help me get him up into the chair?”

Dooley laughed a little; Vance went over and nudged the man with his foot.

“Looks out cold to me,” Vance said, then he bent over and slapped the man’s face. No reaction, nothing at all, and Vance stood up and shrugged.

“Good,” Dooley said. “No witnesses…”

And then she looked at Paul, who was now undoing his belt and unbuttoning his jeans, flipping off his work boots, stepping out of his jeans…

“What are you doing?” she asked, not believing what she was seeing.

“We’re gonna have a little party tonight, just the three of us, and guess what? You’re the guest of honor.”

“What?”

He pulled down his briefs – letting his cock free to dangle between his legs – and then he leered at her now. “Suckee, suckee, five buckee,” he said gleefully, then he stepped forward, coming for her…again. “Just like old times,” he sail, almost giggling.

“Who’s that,” Vance said, but Dooley heard a click-pffft, like the sound of rushing air, then something bit his neck, pain like a wasp’s sting, or a hornet, maybe –

And she saw Jim step out of the shadows, a pistol of some sort in his right hand – which arced over to Sheldon Vance and click-spitted again. She saw a little spat of blood form on Vance’s neck, watched him react, bring his hand up to the side of his neck – “Ahh, ouch!” he said – then Dooley went down on his knees, eyes rolled back in his head and he slowly slumped over backwards, trying to stop his fall with an outstretched arm. “Oh, fuck,” Dooley said as he let himself down to the shiny oak floor. “Somethin’ don’t feel right…”

And then Vance stumbled, leaned against the wall, then he was trying to hold on to something, anything, as he slid to the floor, and he ended up in a sitting position with his back against the wall, his chin on his chest.

Jim walked into the room and the stranger on the floor sat up, looked at the two men on the floor and grinned, more men walked in from other hiding places and she looked around at all this sudden commotion and didn’t know whether she wanted to hide her eyes or run away or cheer for the good ole red, white and blue…

“Did you just kill them? Simple as that?” she cried, but he came over to her and held out his hand, pulled her up.

“They’ve been watching you, and your house, for a couple of hours. What’s up with them? And why is this dickhead wagging his weenie in my living room?”

So she sat down and she told him, them really, because all of them, all eight of his men, walked in and listened to her retelling of events now almost thirty years old – with all of them soon regarding the two on the floor almost like dog turds they’d just stepped on.

Jim looked at them, shook his head, then said: “Tom, get my bag, would you?”

“The black bag, sir?”

“Yup.”

He walked over to Dooley, leaned over and looked into the man’s eyes. “What hit you in the neck is a voluntary muscle relaxant. That’s why you’re still breathing, and that’s why you can’t move. You’re not going to die, so just try to relax”

‘Tom’ brought in a small black case and handed it over; Jim opened it and took out some eyedrops and a few other odds and ends.

“That’s also why you can’t close your eyes, or even blink, so I’ve got to put some drops in your eyes from time to time, until you come out of this.” He put drops in Dooley’s eyes, then tossed the vial to one of his men. “That boy looks uncomfortable sitting like that. Let’s get him down on the floor, then put some drops in, would you?”

“Yessir,” the other man said.

“So,” he said, looking at her, “which one is this?”

“He was my boyfriend in high school. Paul Dooley. And that’s Sheldon Vance. He held me down most of that night, jacked off on my face once, then fucked me in the ass.”

“Did he, now. Well, too bad for you, Sheldon.” He turned to her, his face a blank mask now: “You might want to go home now.”

“What are you going to do?”

He sighed. “I think class is going to be in session again for these boys. It’s time they learned a thing or two about what happens to rapists in the real world.”

“No, I’m not leaving,” she said defiantly. “And I won’t let you kill them.”

“Kill them? No, just a little civics lesson, but it won’t be pretty.”

“I don’t care. I have to watch, to make sure…”

“Well, suit yourself,” he said, and he took a vial out of his bag and leaned over Dooley, put two drops on the man’s tongue, then he walked over and did the same to Vance.

“What’s that,” she asked.

“It’s an LSD analogue. Sort of the same thing, but this little home-brew heightens the sense of paranoia,” he said as he took latex gloves out of his bag and slipped them on. Two wrapped syringes came out next, and he pointed at Vance, said “get his pants down,” and men snapped to, pulled that man’s pants down, including his underwear, then he walked over to Dooley, leaned over and looked into his eyes.

“Can you talk yet?”

Dooley worked his mouth, tried to say something and failed, then tried again. “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you, man…” he whispered.

“Indeed. Glad to hear it. Now Paul, do you know what this is?” He held up a snake, a rubber snake, but one that looked remarkably like a live coral snake, and he held it up carefully to Dooley’s eyes, taking great care to hold it, then he put it back in his bag. “That’s right, Paul, this is a coral snake. You’ve heard of those, haven’t you? Well, Paul, what I’m going to do is this. I’m going to put that coral snake right up your dick. I’m going to put that snake to sleep first, then I’m going to just slide him right up that dick of yours, all the way up into your bladder. Then that snake is going to wake up. And Paul, do you have any idea what that poor snake’s going to do once it wakes up?”

“Fuck you!” he slurred, and he watched as Dooley’s eyes rolled back, the LSD analogue taking hold now.

“No, not at all Paul. I’m not going to fuck you. That snake is going to fuck you, right up your ass. Just imagine that snake coming up behind you, then fucking you up the ass, just like you fucked Tracy up the ass. Remember that? How good that felt? Well, that snake is going to enjoy fucking you up the ass just as much as you enjoyed fucking Tracy, only his dick is a lot bigger than yours.”

“Oh, no…” Dooley cried, and he leaned over, put more drops in his eyes.

“Yes, Paul, much bigger, and it’s going to hurt like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. So, Paul, I’m going to have to get your dick hard first, so I can slide the snake up there, and this is going to hurt a little, and I’m sorry for that. But I can’t push that coral snake up your dick is it’s soft, can I?”

He opened a syringe, screwed down the plunger to prime the binary chemical load, then swabbed off Dooley’s dick with an alcohol swab, quickly slipped the needle into the base of Dooley’s penis – then slowly depressing the plunger. He went over and repeated the process on Vance, right down to dangling the snake in front of the terrified man’s face.

“No,” Vance whimpered, “no snakes. Please, no snakes.”

“Ah, so you’re afraid of snakes?”

“Yes!”

And Jim frowned at that, shook his head at Vance’s tears, his uncontrolled trembling when he held the snake in front of Vance’s eyes again.

“Oh well, that can’t be helped, I’m afraid.”

He walked back to Dooley, bent over and flicked the dick with a gloved finger – and it was beginning to react to the medication, getting harder by the minute, and he nodded, then looked up at her.

“Anything you’d like to say to him now, before we do this?”

“No. Will it hurt?”

“Excruciating pain, yes. When it wakes up and bites him, he will experience total agony.”

“Good. But…won’t he die?”

“I’ll administer an anti-venom when that happens,” he said, and he saw his words were having the exact affect he wanted. Dooley farted, began to cry…

“Don’t do this to me…what kind of monsters are you?”

Jim nodded, leaned over and looked into Dooley’s eyes. “I’m so sorry about all this, that this is going to hurt so much, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Neither can you, for that matter, so why don’t you just relax now…it’ll all be over in a minute.”

“No, please, don’t do this to me…”

“What? Are you sorry now? Sorry for what you did to Tracy? Are you?”

“I didn’t do nothin’ to her.”

“Oh. I see.” He went into his bag, pulled out a small envelope and a tube of sterile lubricant, then opened the envelope, pulled out a small sterile sleeve. “Okay, Paul, if you’re not going to tell me the truth, guess who’s coming out for a visit?” He pulled the snake out and handled it carefully again, held it just above Dooley’s face –

– and he cried out again: “I didn’t do nothin’!”

“Of course you didn’t, Paul. And you go right on thinking I believe you, too.” He put lube on the end of Dooley’s dick, then opened the sleeve, peeled back the wrapping and took what looked like a six inch long piece of glass tubing out and in one smooth motion slipped it inside Dooley’s urethra. “Here it comes, Paul. Here comes the coral snake…”

The man screamed, coughed and screamed again.

“That’s alright, Paul. It’s almost all the way in now. But Paul, once that snake is all the way in I can’t get him back out. Do you understand, Paul? Once I let go of the snake he’s in there for good, until he wakes up, then, well, you know what happens then, don’t you? So, are you sure there’s not something you want to say to Tracy now?”

“I’m sorry, Tracy, for all we done to you that night…I’m so sorry…”

“Tell me, Paul, just what did you do to Tracy that night?”

“We fucked her, he fucked her in the ass, we fucked her all night long…”

“Paul, did you like it? Did you like fucking her up the ass?”

He grinned. “Oh yeah, it was great, the greatest night of my life. I loved it, we all did.”

“So, you’re not really sorry, are you, Paul? Not really?

“Shit no. I’d do it all over again…”

“That’s what you were going to do tonight, isn’t it, Paul?”

“Oh, yes. I can’t wait to fuck her up the ass again…”

And put a gag in Dooley’s mouth then squeezed his dick, causing the crystalline sugar rod to shatter, and he kept squeezing the dick until he saw blood run out the tip. The rod melted quickly after that, and Dooley’s muffled screams filled the room – and Tracy looked down at him for a minute, then stood and left the room.

He walked over to Vance, and began again.

+++++

He and his men were sitting around the card table, deep in a new hand when they saw a sheriff’s car drive up the street and stop in front his house. An old man got out and walked up to the door and banged on the glass, then on the wooden door frame. “Open up,” he called out, and Jim went to the door, opened the door and smiled.

“Yes?”

“I just come from the hospital. Two men down there, their dicks all torn up, and they you done something to them.”

“Excuse me? Who said what?”

“Two locals, say you stuck snakes up their dicks.”

His eyes went wide and he laughed. “Snakes? Not likely, I’m deathly afraid of snakes, and besides, we’ve been playing cards since five this afternoon.”

“I’m gonna need to see some ID,” the old sheriff said, and eight men pushed back their chairs and walked over to the door, their pistols and badges now clear for him to see. “You all law enforcement,” he asked, now cowed.

“Federal,” Jim said. “Counter-terrorism.”

“Why didn’t you guys check in with me, let me know you’re here?”

“Because,” Jim said, “we’re not here. You didn’t see anyone in this house. Not one soul. Is that clear enough for you? Do I need to elaborate?”

“Yessir, I got it.”

“Now, I don’t know who you have down at the hospital, but it sounds to me like somebody took too many drugs tonight, maybe got hold of some really bad shit. You wish ‘em a speedy recovery, though. Tell ‘em I hope they get better, real soon. Now, goodnight Sheriff.”

She watched the old man walk out to his car from his bedroom, watched him drive away, then walked out to the living room, walked up to the table and put her hand on his shoulder. “Thank you, all of you,” she said, and Tom looked over at her and winked. “Five card stud,” he said, looking right at her. “You in, or you just gonna stand around lookin’ all cute ‘n stuff?”

+++++

Life slipped into new patterns after that night.

She moved most of her things down the street, put her clothes in the closet – in his closet, as in: her clothes next to his – and she looked at that development in wonder. Looked at what that really meant. For the first time in nearly three decades she had given her heart to another human being, yet she still had no real idea who, or what he was.

She only knew that he was dangerous. A most dangerous kind of human being, a great unknown, like a shadow in the night, lurking out there beyond the trees. He would walk by and she would feel that in her gut…that he was a feral beast, the creature of a child’s nightmare.

And that night lingered in her mind for days. The way he walked around the room, the gentle way he talked to Dooley and Vance as he stripped away their souls, laid them bare. Practiced was the word that came to mind, too. Like he’d done this so many times he’d grown bored with their fear. They were toys, not human beings, and yet when then were through with them, after they loaded Dooley and Vance in the back of one of the Suburbans and drove away in the night, after they were pushed out the back of the moving Suburban onto the beach road, when he came back to her he was as gentle and caring as any soul she’d ever known. So he just didn’t compute, she told herself. Things didn’t quite add up. Like two separate souls inhabited one body, one gentle and sweet, the other an unspeakable monster.

Yet she loved him. She loved him because he instinctively understood what had happened to her all those years ago, what it had cost her over the years, in the most human terms. And he – without hesitation or questioning her – acted on her behalf, to protect and avenge her. So, she understood he had been trying to protect her, and probably in the only way he knew how – so, could she hold that against him? Truly?

But what did his actions say about the man? Who he was, at his core? What he had done with his life?

And, she knew, he would have to tell her – because she wasn’t about to ask him again.

The first time she tried he turned her questions away, inverted their meaning and deflected her searching looks. The second time she asked that dangerous monster settled in his eyes – and she had to turn away, quickly, lest the other man, the creature who lurked deep within those shadows, came out to play.

Yet one moment she knew his was a gentle soul, playful in the extreme, yet also deeply caring. He was an attentive lover, wanted her to have at least twice as much enjoyment from their intimate moments together, and he seemed to need her happiness for his own to be complete.

But she soon noticed he grew tense every Sunday afternoon, and the crescendo of his anxiety always came around six in the evening. When his computer, or something like that in his study, buzzed loudly – and he shut the door as he went inside. Jimmie stood and growled until she either walked outside or down to the bedroom, and he would come out of the room, his face glum one Sunday, or seriously excited, as had happened last week, and she could let out her breath again. Regardless, his face was stern and all business when he came out, and his men would come over and they talked in hushed, angry tones while she worked in his garden or finished folding their laundry.

And Jimmie?

When he came out of the room Jimmie relaxed, and it was as if nothing had happened. One minute a snarling creature ready to rip into her throat, the next just another gentle soul ready to love, and be loved. Feral – docile – in the blink of an eye. Birds of a feather, she thought…

But the changes just didn’t make sense.

Or did they?

“Just who the hell is he?”

+++++

And another routine was quickly established, soon set in stone. He stopped cooking lunch and dinner, except on Mondays, and he walked down the hill, to her. He walked down to the café and in the front door at 11:15 sharp, for lunch, and at 5:00, on the nose, for dinner. And Jimmie always came with him. Soon everyone knew the corner table was his, or…theirs. For the pup curled up at his feet and just slept – until it was time to leave again,

About ten days after “that night” Paul Dooley came back to work, was working out back framing a bathroom wall when he walked in, right on time, and she came over, told him about the day’s specials then mentioned, in an underhanded way, that ‘a friend of yours is out back…’

“Oh? Splendid!” And he’d walked right through the kitchen and out the back door, onto the framed and decked addition – and Dooley was about five feet away, on a step ladder, when he stepped out there. He walked around for a while, until Dooley saw him, then he walked back inside, stuck his head in Bruce’s office. “Lookin’ good out there,” he said, and Bruce looked up.

“Yes, now that they’re back up to full strength they should make good time.”

“Oh? Something happen to someone?”

“Yeah, one of their carpenters had some kind of bladder infection, something like that.”

“Ah. Well, looks good, lots of progress. Can’t wait to see it once all the walls are up and rocked.”

Bruce smiled, looked at him, then cleared his throat. “Got a minute?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Come on in, have a seat.”

“Yeah?” he said, “What’s up?”

“I was looking over the plans, thinking about maybe getting a piano, putting it in a corner out there. We’ll have room for a piano, maybe even a trio, something like that. Evenings, ya know. Try to set a new mood around here. Maybe a small dance floor, too.”

“What? Jazz? Stuff like that?”

“Oh,” Bruce said, leaning back, “jazz, classical, even old Elton John.”

“Sounds interesting. What are you thinking you’ll need?”

“I don’t know anything about pianos, neither does Darren, but Tracy mentioned you play so I was wondering, could you help us pick out a piano, maybe get that up and running once we get close to opening?”

“Up and running?”

“Well, maybe you could play a few nights a week, for an hour or so?”

“Ah, kind of sing for my supper, eh? Well, we’ll see. I can certainly help get a piano in here, and there are a few options to go over, but we can talk about that in a month or so.”

“Great, thanks! So, what’s Darren got for lunch today?”

And his routine at home changed a little after that. He started playing more, working on pieces he’d played easily years ago, but that challenged his hands more these days. And when the addition out back took shape he walked out there and looked over the area where the piano would sit. And he’d picked out a nice one, too. A Clavinova, of course, but a full size concert grand, and he could hardly wait to dance with it.

Then one afternoon Paul Dooley walked up the street, trying to act like he wasn’t there, and he walked up to her house and looked at it for a while, then kept on walking up the hill. But of course by that time several people were looking at him, wondering what he was up to – and one of his men slipped into the trees and watched Dooley from a distance, watched Dooley walk up and get into the sheriff’s car, then drive away with him.

And that night the man gathered around the card table, waiting, and the sheriff’s car drove by as the sun set, and again, a few hours later – and then the loud buzzing alarm went off in his study and she thought that odd, as it was a Wednesday. He disappeared inside the room and talked for a few minutes, then he came out and looked at his men.

“Okay, let’s roll,” he said, and they left the house, left her sitting in the living room, alone, and they got in their Suburbans and drove off into the night. The drove south on Main, then out the old County Road where the sheriff was set up, working radar, or so he liked to tell people. When they pulled up to the sheriff’s car he was hurriedly stuffing girly magazines into a briefcase, and he was not amused that these strangers had interrupted his routine.

“What are you lousy sons-a-bitches doin’ out here?” he fairly screamed.

And as he watched Jim walk up to his window he heard a ‘click-pffft’ sound, then swatted at the wasp that must’ve just bit his neck.

“How’re you doin’, Sheriff?”

The old man slumped over behind the wheel, began babbling and drooling.

“My oh my, Sheriff. Have you been drinking? You know, it sure smells like you’ve been drinking. And look what we have here. Juggs Magazine. And Little Beavers, too. Why Sheriff, do you have a thing for little girls? Oh, and look at what we have here. An envelope full of pictures? Of little children, being fucked by…why Sheriff? Is that you? Are you beating off to pictures of you fucking little children?”

The Sheriff mumbled something incoherent, then his bowels cut loose, filling his pants.

“Opps, looks like we’ve had an accident. Well, I hate to say this, Sheriff, but we’ve put a call into the State Police,” he said as he emptied a pint of bourbon onto the sheriff’s uniform, leaving a few good swigs to pour down his mouth. “I guess you know what a DUI is going to do for you, don’t you? Not to mention all that kiddy porn.”

More mumbling, then a State Police trooper’s car pulled up behind the caravan and one of his men went over and introduced himself to the trooper, explained what they’d found when driving out of town. The trooper checked their IDs and was duly impressed, then she examined the sheriff’s car, found all that kiddy porn and they helped her get the sheriff hand-cuffed and into the back of her car.

They watched as she drove off, content with having cleaned up a little of the local trash. For now. Then they watched as the C-27J circled the airport and landed, never once turning on any lights during it’s approach.

They drove out the county road and turned into the airport, and he ran to the Air Force transport and climbed aboard, then the aircraft taxied – again, with no lights – to the end of the little grass strip. The engines spooled up and the Spartan sprinted down the runway and leapt into the sky, then turned to the north northeast and disappeared into the night.

+++++

She watched the Suburbans pull into the drive next door, saw he was gone – again – and she wondered where he went – without explanation – on these sudden nights. ‘No point,’ she said to herself as she turned out the lights and went to sleep. “He’d never tell me…”

He wasn’t at lunch the next day, neither did he come by for dinner, but an hour after she walked up to her house she heard one of the Suburbans pull into his drive, and she watched, from her living room, as he went inside and, she assumed, looked for her around his house. Yet a few minutes later all the lights went out and she cursed his name, then went upstairs and crawled into her own bad, in her old room, the room of her childhood.

When she couldn’t sleep he tried to touch herself, tried to get herself off but she knew that was pointless now. She couldn’t even get wet down there without his touch – so she threw back the sheets and put on her slippers, walked down the stairs and out the door. Cussing now, as a light rain began falling, she pounded down the street and across his yard, threw open his front door and tromped down the hallway to his bedroom door. She threw that door open too and walked over to the bed, threw down the sheets and, like a heat-seeking missile, her mouth zeroed in on his cock – and just then she realized he was sitting there, that he’d been waiting for her, that his cock was hard, and slippery, and she flew onto his lap, impaling herself on him. As soon as he was all the way in she slipped into an almost convulsive state, writhing in sudden ecstasy as he held her down, twisting under her and driving up deeper inside from time to time – then he reached for her clit and with his thumb began massaging her. She growled for a moment, then began to roar, finally howling her way into a monumental, thrashing orgasm – screaming “Oh, God, oh, God!” over and over and over again.

When she was falling back to earth he flipped her over and slipped his cock into her mouth, and as soon as her liquid warmth encased him he felt himself explode – and he watched as his cum erupted, oozed past her lips, began running down her chin and onto her breast – then he slid down and put his face on her nether lips and began hammering her clit again, with his tongue this time.

She became a thing possessed now, wrapped her legs around his face, her feet on the back of his head, pulling him closer, and she was lifting up to put more force on her bud, pulling him deeper still – and within moments she was pounding the mattress with clinched fists and her legs shot straight up into the air – her thighs squeezing his head so tightly he thought he might pass out. He drove his tongue in as deep as he could just then, and a silky wave of fluid washed over him – and that only seemed to release a second, much deeper wave of orgasmic contractions…

“Oh, fuck…put it in me…now…”

And he moved up, ran the head of his cock over the running river and slid in, the silken grip surreal now, almost molten. She had her legs up, his face resting on the sides of her feet and he started licking the bottom of her strong arch, then he bit it, started sucking the skin there and her back lifted, he felt her contractions from the head of his cock to the small of his back and everything was suddenly unstoppable. He felt his orgasm begin somewhere in his thighs, the pressure building until his entire being felt wrapped in hot light and a million pricking pins of lust –

And then he felt light headed, like he was standing on a mountain high above timberline and a cold wind was blowing in the sun. He lay there, very still, propped on her legs as the feeling grew more intense…this feeling of altitude, high altitude, and of howling winds. He put his arms out to his side, felt the wind lifting him high into the sky –

And he was flying. Like an eagle, he thought, looking down at the earth far below, soaring on unseen currents, banking on a breeze then looping over into a steep dive…his wings back as he fell on unseen prey far below. He could hear his cry, an eagle’s piecing call even over the roar of the wind, and he took a deep breath, opened his eyes and saw her there, looking at him, her eyes full of wonder.

“Where did that come from?” she whispered.

“Oh, God I love you,” he said – then he was on her, kissing her with more passion than he’d ever felt in his life – and she was all arms and legs now, wrapping herself around him as they rolled on the bed in a frenzy of abandoned restraint.

“Don’t ever leave me like that again,” she cried. “I can’t stand not knowing where you are, not knowing if you’ll come back to me…”

And he stopped, looked into her eyes. “Alright. I promise,” he said, then he took her fingers in his mouth, one by one, licking and sucking on them, “on one condition,” he added.

“And what would that be?”

“We fly to Vegas, and you marry me.”

She grew very still then, and she moved away, looked him in the eye. “Is that what you really want?”

“More than anything in the world,” he said softly, sucking on one of her nipples.

“Alright. I’ll accept, on that one condition.”

He moved to her other nipple, began tonguing that one, and he felt them growing hard as he worked them over, felt her thighs trembling and her hands pulling his mouth closer – and he pushed her down again, buried his face between her thighs until her body was almost on fire, her being on the verge of spontaneous combustion.

When she came down this time he left her again, spiraled away on thermal currents until he was high over the mountains, looking down. Clouds were gathering along a far ridge, a deep storm coming and he looked down into the forest far below. He saw her running then, running like a fawn, her tawny, spotted skin dancing in the sunlight, oblivious to the warning wind building around her, carefree, alive, running through the trees without a care in the world.

He wondered what it was like to run free, to run through forests – without orders. What it must feel like to kill just for the sake of killing, without having to be told to kill. He looked at the fawn and wondered if he should let it run free a while longer, or if he should fold his wings back now, and fall on her.

He knew they were getting close now. The team had been spotted in St Johns. Leaving the airport, headed to the wharves. So, they would come by sea this time. Not unexpected, he thought, and he looked at her – sleeping by his side. So cute, he thought. I could lick those freckles for all eternity, kiss those lips, fall into her eyes and swim away. He trembled and jerked for a moment, felt himself falling through lightning and rain, the wind and enfolding darkness too close now. Close, but not touching.

She would die, he knew. She would get to close to the lightning before he could save her, so maybe it would be better to kill her now, before all the pain came crawling through the night – before the real suffering began.

He reached out, put his hands around her neck –

And the current, the charge of her skin touching his, reached into him – and he closed his eyes, felt the wind and the rain and he flew higher, reaching out for the sun.

© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | adrianleverkuhnwrites7@gmail.com

Sunset at the Pink Water Café, Chapter 2

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Sunset at the Pink Water Café

Chapter 2

She woke up late the next morning, slipped out of bed and tip-toed to the window – halfway expecting to see that dog down there, waiting for her, but she saw grass and trees – and no dog – so she showered and dressed quickly for work. She fixed coffee and toast in the kitchen, looking out the window at his house, then walked out the door and down the street, passing his house with her head down, as quickly and as quietly as she could – but the Land Rover was gone, a black Suburban in it’s place now. She saw US Government plates on the back bumper and shook her head, saw a young man inside the house looking at her as she passed and she quickened her pace, made it to the café in record time.

She wrote out the specials on the chalkboard, took the chairs from the tabletops and arranged them just so, swept the floor – again – and went to the kitchen. Darren was working away on today’s soup – a cream of celery with shaved gruyere and scallion garnish – and she heard a commotion out back, just outside the kitchen entry.

“What’s goin’ on out there?” she asked Darren, and he looked up from the cooktop and smiled.

“Permits approved yesterday. Starting the new patio soon. Check it out…”

She went to the door and opened it, looked outside to the land between the back of the building and the water’s edge. A big yellow bulldozer was clearing the site, surveyors were placing stakes and a construction shack was already in place and she nodded her head before going back inside, wondered what this would mean to the future.

“It’s going to double our seating,” Darren said. “Almost all glass, like a greenhouse. In fact, it’s going to be full of plants!”

“What about the kitchen?” she asked. “Aren’t you going to need to expand that too?”

“Yes, we’re going to put a bigger walk-in downstairs, and that’ll free up enough room to add two tops and a huge prep station.”

“So, going from 12 tables to what? Twenty five?”

“Thirty. And we’ll have room to put a little bar up here too.”

“Geez. How many…?”

“Bruce figures we’ll need three girls waiting tables, maybe a barkeep full time if business picks up. He’ll work prep and the bar while I work the kitchen, but we’ll probably need another cook, too.”

“Oh.”

“We were thinking, maybe you’d like to move to hostess and being a manager, that type of thing.”

“Yeah, why not,” she said, crestfallen.

“Hey, Tracy…it would be a promotion…”

“I know. I get it. Too old to work tables, I guess.”

“No…that’s not it at all…we just thought you’d like a change, that’s all. Maybe make some more money, ya know?”

“Yeah. Sure, if that’s what you want.”

“Oh, Tracy,” he sighed. “What are we going to do with you?”

She shrugged. “Told you a long time ago, I have zero ambition. I do what I do because I like it.”

“So, how was Prince Charming?” She looked away and he did too. “Well, so it didn’t work out?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “He’s kind of a busy man.”

“I thought you said he was retired?”

“I don’t think he is. Not really. Anyway, I think he’s out of town.”

“You think?”

“I don’t know where he is, okay?”

“Ah. Well it’s time, honey. Better open the door and let the starving masses in.”

She nodded her head, went to the door. “Starving masses. Right.”

+++++

She walked home after the café closed for the evening, walked up the hill and by his house, and the black Suburban was still parked out front, the blue Land Rover still gone. She relaxed after that, walked to her house and locked her doors before going upstairs for the night.

She never locked her door anymore, she thought. So why now? She gotten over all that other stuff a long time ago, hadn’t she?

But the Land Rover was back the next morning, and all those feelings seemed close again.

She saw it from her living room, saw Jimmie out in the front yard. Sitting. Looking up the hill, at her. She looked at the dog for a long time, and he never once looked away from her. What was he thinking, she wondered? Or was he thinking about him, and how she might be a threat? Or was he even thinking?

She walked down the hill a few minutes later, saw Jim on the ground, on his back under the Land Rover – swearing at something up under there – and she laughed.

He heard her laughter and turned, looked at her – and she stood as if transfixed. Like a deer in the headlights, tail up and motionless. Waiting to see what would happen next.

“Howya doin’?” he asked.

“Fine. You?”

“Not bad.”

“Jimmie?”

“Oh, he’s fine,” he said standing up, wiping greasy hands on a coarse, red shop towel. “He doesn’t like it when I leave him like that, but c’est la vie, I guess.”

“Oh? Where’d you go?”

“Down south. Washington.”

“Fancy house-sitters you have. The machine guns are a nice touch, too.”

He looked down, shook his head. “I was gonna fix some coffee. Want some?”

She shook her head, said “I don’t know,” and he looked at her for a moment, at her indecision.

“Well, suit yourself,” he said, turning away.

“Just who the fuck are you, anyway?”

He spun around, his eyes narrow and hard again – but he relaxed again, as quickly. “You want to talk, we can talk inside,” he said, turning and walking inside.

And she followed him. Right up the steps and into the living room. Right through the living room and into the bedroom. He was standing there when she walked in, unbuckling his belt, smiling, then he turned to her. “I took a blue pill this morning. One hundred milligrams. I could drive a nail with this fucker,” he said, grinning – and she walked over and felt it.

“Damn…does that hurt?”

He nodded his head a little. “Pressure seems to be building a little.”

“I take it you could use a hand with that?” she said, slipping her skirt down to the floor.

“A hand?”

“My mouth’s dry. Think you have something that could lube it up a little?”

“I’m willing to try, if you are…”

She got on her knees, flicked it with her finger a few times. “Goddamn, Jim, I ain’t never seen anything this hard in my life. It’s not natural,” she said, taking it in her mouth. She went up and down the length of it a few times and withdrew. “Nope, this ain’t right,” she sighed, biting the tip once, watching him flinch and smiling –

And he held her head after that, basically raped her mouth, going at it like a jackhammer…and he felt her fingers encircling his thighs, then creeping up, closing on his ass. She felt his cheeks clinch and she forced her fingers through the cleft…

“And just what the devil do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m going to stick my fingers up your ass.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Let me repeat. No. As in N-O – you are not.”

She took the head of his cock in her teeth and applied pressure. “Excuse me?” she said, sweetly, once she released him.

“No, thank you.”

“Do you mean to tell me that no one has ever played with your ass?”

“That’s affirmative.”

“Your prostate?”

“Aside from my internists bi-annual explorations, ditto.”

“Oh, you poor man. I-am-going-to-have-so-much-fun-with-you-tonight…” – and with that she took him all the way down again, then hammered him until she felt him rising on his toes, breathing hard, then she felt it pulsing and slowed, swirled her tongue over the head as it erupted. She felt it filling her mouth and she worked to swallow him as fast as she could – but the poor thing didn’t get in the least soft after that. In fact, it seemed harder and she pulled back, looked at it and bit the head once – causing him to convulse a few times. Liking that response, she bit him a few more times, felt him writhing somewhere between controlled and uncontrollable ecstasy, then she pushed him onto the bed and crawled up on his lap and slipped him inside.

She moved slowly now, all the way up, all the way down, drawing out each motion into a minutes long journey, until she looked down and saw him sweating profusely, trembling uncontrollably. Then she slid all the way up and off him, watched as sudden anxiety filled his eyes, then she positioned him over her anus and slid down again, taking him all the way down in one easy slide.

She clinched down hard as she rode him now, milking him with pressure until he was trembling again, then she went into overdrive until he was lost in searching spasm. They came down together, and she let his breathing ease before she spoke.

“Did you like that?” she asked.

“Yes, but it felt different. What’d you do?”

“You ever fuck a woman up the ass, Jim,” she asked, her voice teasing, almost mocking him now.

“No…uh, you don’t mean…”

She nodded her head slowly, smiled gently, and as slowly. “Uh-huh, you sure did, you horny devil. Now tell me, was it as bad for you, Jimmie-boy, as it was for me?” And she slid off him, put her clothes back on and walked from the house, smiling triumphantly as she skipped down the street.

+++++

He skipped lunch, thought he’d let her stew for a while, then he went down a little before five only to find contractors all over the property, and men in suits gesturing pointedly at one another. He walked up, listened and got the gist of things in a moment, then walked inside. She saw him and he pointed at his table in the corner and she nodded her head; Darren stormed through a moment later and disappeared in his kitchen and she brought him a glass of iced tea.

“Blueberry tonight,” she said. “Pretty good, too.”

“Thanks. Could you ask your employer to come here, please?”

“Darren? Sure, but why?”

He shrugged, she walked off and Darren came to his table a moment later and looked at him.

“Yessir? Tracy said you wanted to speak with me?”

“Have a seat, would you?”

The boy sat.

“You want to tell me what’s going on out there?”

“Sir?”

“Bankers and lawyers, upset contractors. What’s going on, what went wrong?”

“Oh, the short version is the bank wants more collateral before they’ll release funds to the GC, that’s the…”

“I know what a GC is, son. How much are they sticking you up for?”

“Twenty large.”

“Twenty?” he said, smiling. “Could I see the plans, please?”

Darren excused himself and went back to the office, returned with plans and renderings of the new addition and Taylor looked them over for a minute and asked a few questions about their latest earnings statement, the he leaned back and steepled his fingers. “Sounds like you boys need a silent partner.”

“Oh?” Darren asked. “Know anyone interested?”

“What’s your position right now, today? You down with any suppliers?”

“Yessir. We had a slow winter.”

“So…why expand now? Increase cash flow? Tax write-offs?”

“Yessir.”

He shook his head, knew they were making a classic blunder but with enough financing to get them over the hump they might make it. “I’ll take a 25% stake in all future earnings for a one hundred K investment right now, tonight.”

Darren ran back to the office; he and his boyfriend returned a minute later and Taylor went over his proposition once again. The boys smiled and, after Taylor stood to shake hands, they leapt into his arms and hugged him.

Tracy watched all this in silence, wondering just what the fuck she’d gotten her boys mixed up in now.

+++++

She walked up the hill after the café closed – and walked right up the steps onto the porch – right through the front door – right past a snarling Jimmie and into his bedroom. He was laying on his bed, naked, with a huge grin on his face – waiting.

“What did you do to those boys!” she said, almost screaming.

“Not much. I just saved their collective asses, and yours too, I’d say.”

“What?”

“I made an investment, and I expect it to pay off handsomely over the years, too.”

“An investment?”

“Yes.”

“They were pretty glum this afternoon,” she said, “but now, I’ve never seen them so happy.”

“Good. Now, if you’ll focus your attention on the hard thing between my legs, you’ll find it’s cold and lonely, and in need of some close, personal attention.”

She looked at it and smiled, then tossed a small brown paper sack on the bad and watched him pick it up, look inside. “What’s this?” he said, taking the small bottle out of the sack. “Personal lubricant? Whatever for? I thought I slipped inside easily, didn’t you?”

“It ain’t for my asshole, you asshole,” she said, grinning.

“I thought we cleared that up earlier.”

“No, we didn’t.”

“Did you just call me an…?”

“I did, yes,” she said, taking the bottle from him. She got down on the bed, slipped between his legs and popped the top, squeezed a glob all over his penis and began stroking it. Long, slow strokes again. He put his head back and sighed. “Spread your legs a little wider,” she said – and he shook his head. “I said, spread them a little wider,” she repeated, holding the tip of his cock in a fingernail pincer.

“I have an idea. Let’s not, and say we did.”

“Now, Dickweed.” She poured a large glob of lube on him and let it ooze down, then she slipped a finger over his bud and massaged him for a few minutes.

“That’s not so…”

“Shut up,” she said, positioning it over the opening, “and take a little breath in.” She slipped inside and he fought it, clinching for all he was worth, but in the end it didn’t matter. “Let it out now, and relax.” She moved it in and out several times, then felt his prostate. “I’m going to touch it now,” she said, and she took his cock and put it in her mouth – then massaged the gland…

He erupted on her second stroke, catching them both by surprise, and she swallowed all of it, then swirled her tongue over the tip for a few minutes – and he was wracked by spasms when she nibbled the tip again – then she pulled out.

“Was that so bad?” she whispered.

“You’re a devil,” he said quietly, then he rolled on his side and shut his eyes; a minute later he was snoring gently.

“Well, damn,” she said. She got up, slipped out of her clothes and under the sheets, curled up along the contour of his back. A minute later Jimmie jumped up on the bed and she looked at him when she leaned over and to turn off the lamp on the bedside table. He was staring at her, panting gently, but he wasn’t grinning now. He seemed to be measuring her intentions, wondering if she was some kind of threat, perhaps.

She turned off the light and shut her eyes, and she felt the pup circling on then end of the bed, then he curled up behind Jim’s knees, like he was placing himself between his master and an intruder. Perhaps she would have been surprised to know the pup never once slept during the night, never took his eyes off her, never relaxed.

Or perhaps not.

+++++

She heard someone in the kitchen, looked up and saw a clock on an unfamiliar dresser across an equally unfamiliar room – a little after seven, she saw, and she sat up, looked around the room and remembered where she was. He walked in a moment later carrying coffee and croissants, some Nutella and orange marmalade, all on a little tray.

“Been to the head yet?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No. And I feel like elephants are dancing around inside my skull,” she added, rubbing her eyes with the backs of her knuckles.

“Well, go do your business and I’ll dig up a few naproxen. That ought to get you going.”

She padded off to the bathroom, washed her face – and he ducked in, handed her a new toothbrush, still in the box, and gently closed the door behind. She scrubbed her teeth, smelled her fingers and scrunched up her nose, turned the water to hot and washed her hands a few times, then went back and crawled up on the bed. He sat on the edge and handed her a coffee and she took a sip, then took the pills he handed her. He asked for her cup then, and for her to turn over on her stomach. He started on the backs of her calves and worked his way up her thighs, massaging her muscles with his elbow, he told her, digging in deeper than fingers or thumbs ever could. He worked his way up her pelvis, then through the deep muscles astride the spine. He sat on the backs of her thighs then, leaned into her upper back and shoulders and, a half hour later, up her neck.

“Why don’t you roll over now,” he said, and she did – if a little groggily – then he looked at her. “About last night. About what  you did. Never again, okay. That was not enjoyable, in the least. Clear?”

She nodded her head. “Okay.”

“And I’d just as soon not go there with you. I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy, I guess, but that’s always been good enough for me.”

“Alright.”

“You always cover up your legs, you know? The way you dress. You shouldn’t. They’re spectacular.”

“Spectacular?”

“Uh-huh. I could nibble on those thighs for a week and never get tired.”

“Okay,” she said, opening her legs to him. “Be my guest.”

He grinned, looked her in the eye. “Got chores to do this morning. You?”

“Nope. I was just planning on screwing your brains out for an hour or so.”

He seemed to grow annoyed at that, took his coffee and went to the study – the door closing behind as he stepped inside his little sanctuary – and she looked at him as he walked away, wondering about all his irregularities and inconsistencies. He acted like a man in conflict, undergoing some inner turmoil, and she thought about Monday night and his secrets, his armed guards in the house next door.

Who the hell was he? What was this all about?

She slipped on her clothes and walked out the door, up to the house, and she showered and changed clothes, then walked back down the hill – to the library.

+++++

She walked into the café a few minutes early, walked into the kitchen and found Darren in the back office, talking with Bruce – about their latest good fortune. About Jim Taylor’s investment, and what a godsend he was. Then she handed them the pages she’d just printed up at the library, and they read through the pages and pages slowly, page by bloody page, and Darren looked up at her at one point and sighed.

“That’s him?” he asked.

“That’s him,” she said, her voice stonily cool.

“Holy Mother of God,” Bruce whispered. “He got Gorbachev out? And Yeltsin? Stopped assassination attempts on them both?”

She shrugged, then handed them one last print out, a simple Google search. “The Russians have tried to kill him a half dozen times, twice in Washington, DC, in the last 18 months.”

“So, basically,” Darren sighed, “he’s hiding out up here.”

“Yeah, well, if Putin declared me an enemy of the state,” Bruce added, “I couldn’t think of a better place to hide than here.”

“I could,” she said. “Canada, right across the border. A deserted beach a few hundred yards away. I’d feel exposed as hell here, and he would know that he is, too.” She looked at her friends, perhaps the only friends she had in the world, and she smiled. “So, he’s your partner now? That sinking in now?”

“Yes, I suppose.” Darren said. “Anyway, I deposited his check first thing this morning, and the bank released our funds to the contractor.”

“So, they’re back on track?”

“A-yup, still on schedule. The new addition will open early August.”

“I wish we had a piano,” Bruce said. “Space for a piano bar, ya know?”

“Jim’s got one,” she said, and they both looked at her.

“Does he play?” they asked in unison.

“He hasn’t so far, but I haven’t asked him, either.”

“Think you could?” Bruce pleaded.

She smiled. “Might be able to, but I got to get ready now…”

She marked up their specials, swept the floor and put the chairs on the floor, then unlocked the door and flipped over the ‘OPEN’ sign; a few minutes later she saw Jimmie prancing down the hill – but they passed the café, walked on down the street and into the pharmacy. She shook her head, seated an older couple and was explaining the days specials when Jimmie reappeared, and they both walked in a moment later, went to their corner table and sat.

“Is that a crab-cake Benedict I see on the Specials today?” he asked when she came to the corner.

“A-yup. With Hollandaise and capers, some field greens.”

“Geez. Sign me up. What kind of tea today?”

“Bing cherry.”

“Geez, yeah, better bring me one of those, too.”

“Wanted to ask. You play the piano?”

“Badly, but yes.”

She nodded, walked off – stopped off by the office. “He plays,” she said, and Bruce nodded while Darren smiled, then she took him his tea and seated several new groups that had just walked in. ‘Sailors,’ she sighed. ‘Always starving, always in need of a shower…’

He lingered after he finished lunch, and he waited, paid her at the table. She brought him his change then planted a kiss on him – a lingering kiss that garnered catcalls from the other patrons inside – then he and Jimmie walked from the café, his gait a bit unsteady, and they disappeared up the hill.

But he had left his sack from the pharmacy on the table, and she opened it up, peeked inside, saw another bottle of ‘personal lubricant’ inside, along with a card. He’d written ‘sorry for being such an asshole,’ inside, and she took the sack and put it under the counter and finished up the lunch shift, then a couple of the carpenters working out back came in, and she stopped dead in her tracks.

Paul Dooley. Her boyfriend, all through high school. That she had not seen once since.

He walked in, saw her and stopped – dead in his tracks.

“Tracy?” he said, and he smiled, came up to her and took her by the arms. “I heard you were working here…”

“Paul? So nice to…well, this is a surprise…it’s good to see you. Again. Here, let me get you guys a table…”

“You guys got burgers?” one of Paul’s buddies asked.

“Sure do. Fries and beer, too.”

“That’ll do.”

Before they left to go back to work, Paul stopped by the counter…looked like he wanted to talk.

“So, you livin’ at your pop’s place?” he asked.

She nodded her head. “Sometimes, yes. Heard you married Sally Needham.”

“Yeah, we got a divorce a while ago, after the last kid moved out.”

“Oh? Too bad, I always liked Sally.”

“You seein’ someone?”

“Yeah. For a while now.”

“Oh? Well, good for you.”

“So, how long will you be working here?”

“A month or so. We’re out of Eastport, not much work around here these days.”

She smiled, nodded. “Yup. Well, maybe we’ll have a chance to talk every now and then,” she added, holding out her hand. “Sure nice to see you again.”

He looked at her hand, didn’t quite know what to do so he took it. “Yeah. You too,” he said slowly, then he walked out back – and Darren walked over, looked at the man as he left.

“Is that Trouble,” he asked, after the door closed.

She shrugged, sighed. “Could be. He’s the type that wants it, bad, and won’t take no for an answer.”

“Not sure I liked the look in his eyes just then. Looks kind of…unhinged.”

“He’s a big part of the reason why I left after high school. Heard he used to beat up his wife a lot. Glad she got out in one piece.”

“You let me know if he causes you any trouble,” Bruce said, standing in his office door, but he wondered: ‘Did you get out in one piece?’

She turned to him and smiled. “You guys are like my very own kid brothers, ya know.”

Bruce looked at her, went back in his office, but Darren came over and hugged her. “If I’d ever wanted a girlfriend, it would be you, so pardon us if we’re overprotective.”

She kissed him on the cheek, nodded her head and wiped away a tear. “Okay,” she whispered, then she got back to work.

When her break came she walked up to Jim’s house, walked right in, found him on the living room floor, under the piano hooking up speakers to a black box – and she looked at him, then it, not quite knowing what to think.

“Isn’t that kind of, well, I don’t know. I didn’t think pianos needed speakers.”

“Not really a piano. It’s a Yamaha Clavinova. Digital, more of a teaching tool, but hang on, let me finish up and I’ll show you.” He hooked up the second speaker, then a sub-woofer – and left them on the floor – then turned on the piano. She walked over and watched him hook up his iPhone to the piano, pull up a file and press ‘begin’ – and a full orchestra began playing – through the piano.

“A Rachmaninoff piano concerto,” he said, then he pressed pause. I can play along with the orchestra, or I can just let the piano play the part for me. Great for parties, dinners, things like that, or I can just turn all that nonsense off and play by myself. It’s also a great teaching tool.”

“Teaching? What? Like piano lessons?”

“Sure. Do you play?”

“No.”

“Want to learn?”

“I don’t know – maybe?”

“Here, have a seat,” he said while he opened up the file ‘Pachelbel Canon.’ “Now, when the piano prompts with a light,” he said, pointing to lights ahead of the keys, “you just press the key. Watch…like this…” He pressed begin and a light lit on the piano, and he hit it, then the next note, and the next. He paused the lesson, went back to the beginning and added accompaniment, and he pressed ‘Begin’ again. “Now, you do it.”

The light lit up and she hit the key, and a symphony orchestra began playing with her. Her smile was infectious and he smiled with her as she hit key after key, but after a few minutes of this she grew bored and turned away. “It’s not really playing music, or learning, really,” she said, “but it’s kind of fun.”

“Yes, it’s more a child’s game, like dangling a carrot to stimulate curiosity, but you’re right. Like so many things these days, we need carrots to stimulate the imagination, to stimulate learning, yet little seems to take root.”

“Well, I’ve never wanted to play.”

“Tell that to a piano salesman. A hundred years ago they couldn’t build them fast enough, and most every home had a piano of some sort, yet now that’s a rarity. An even greater rarity, that you’ll find anyone in such homes who knows how to play. The world changed, didn’t it, Tracy?”

“I suppose so. Do you play? I mean, really play?”

He moved over, turned off the computer and took up playing the concerto for a few minutes, then stopped, turned off the instrument and walked to the kitchen, leaned over the sink and looked out the window.

She could feel his despair as he walked away and she went to him. “Tell me what you’re thinking, right now,” she said softly, putting her arms around him, the side of her face on his back.

“Alone,” he said.

“You’re not, you know.”

“No, I suppose not,” he said, turning inside her arms, putting his around her. “We used to play together, sometimes for one another. I thought of a moment when I went inside the music again.”

“Has it been a while…since you played?”

He nodded his head, sighed. “Too long, I think.”

“What about me, Jim…if I was suddenly gone tomorrow, what would remember about me?”

He smiled, deeply: “I would think about you walking in here and pulling me by my belt-loops. I would think about the first time I breathed in your hair, and of how lost I became in that moment.”

“Lost?”

“How suddenly everything else felt so far away, so inconsequential. How overpowering lust grew, my lust for you. Nothing else has mattered since, you know? I feel like a blathering teenager again, when you’re here with me, only when I was young I never knew anyone quite like you.”

“You feel lust? For me?”

“I do.”

“Is that a little like love?”

“It is…a little.”

“A little?”

He nodded his head. “I can’t imagine life without you now, yet I…”

She place a single outstretched finger over his lips, made a ‘sh-h-h’ noise and then kissed him, once, gently. “No explanations necessary,” she whispered. “And I love you too.” She let go, went back and got the little paper sack then came for him, grabbed him by the belt loops and pulled him free, led him on…

“What do we need that for?” he asked, pointing at the sack.

“You’ll see,” she said, grinning madly.

Dooley watched her walking back from her break. Never took his eyes off her, as a matter of fact.

+++++

In his mind’s eye he saw her then as he remembered her most fondly: spread out on the hay in the barn behind his father’s house, her legs spread, waiting for the final assault. He had hit her, hard, and she was barely conscious when he pulled her legs up and put them over his shoulders, when he put his cock on her anus and pushed in as savagely as he could. She had moaned a little, started to cry and he hit her again, told her to shut up.

She had told him at school earlier that day how she wanted to head south after graduation, to get out into the world and see it, to learn more about people and places and things she’d never even heard of. Then he’d reminded her of their plans. Get married, settle down and have kids. Make a life together. And then she had gone kind of silent, a faraway look in her eyes – and he had nodded to the reality he saw in that moment. When school let out that afternoon he and three of his best friends picked her up as she walked home and they drove out to his father’s place, took her into the barn. They talked about silly things like football and the school play, then Dooley grew serious, took off his jeans and gathered his fists. They took turns, every time up the ass until she was bleeding down there; they picked her up when they were finished with her and carried out to the truck, then down the beach road – and they pushed her out on the side of the road, left her there with blood and semen streaming out her ass, pooling on the asphalt.

Someone found her, carried her to the hospital and in time the county sheriff came and talked to her, but he didn’t fill out a report. He went over to the Dooley farm and talked to the boys, and they told him pretty much what he thought they would. They said they’d been alone here in the house all afternoon, and that Paul and Tracy had broken up a few days before. He talked to the girl’s father and he agreed, there was no reason to put all those families through an investigation and a trial. It would just be better if it all went away.

She was better, her face had healed by the time graduation rolled around, and she walked on that stage and looked at all those good people looking at her, judging her, and she got her diploma, then walked home, alone, after that. Her grandfather had given her five hundred dollars and she took that money, packed her suitcase and walked out the door. She didn’t say goodbye to anyone, and she never once looked back when that bus headed south down the old county road.

But Paul Dooley watched that bus. He watched it leave and he frowned, and after it was gone, after the swirling dust and diesel fumes had settled all around him, he turned and walked back to the barn – smiling, as the memory came back to him.

And as he watched her walk into the café he smiled. He smiled at the memory, and he wondered how it would feel to put on a little repeat performance. When he got off work he called his old friends and told them what he had in mind. Two begged off, but one, Sheldon Vance, said he would be more than up for a little reenactment. They got the old truck out of the barn and he drove it into town while Shel followed in his car, and they parked the old truck right in front of her house, left their calling card for her to see.

They watched her walk up the hill after work, but she turned and went into another house and they wondered what was up with that.

“Maybe we should pay them a little visit,” Vance said.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Sunset at the Pink Water Café – Ch 01

 

sunset logo

Here’s the first chapter.

+++++

Sunset at the Pink Water Café

It was a small town, cold and quiet. Hard by the Canadian border. The Atlantic yards away, and on most nights she could hear the surf from her parent’s house. She grew up on Summer Street, but growing up there – just the thought of summer was often an unbearable idea. In December, when the snow came fast, summer was a memory hard to find. Something to hold on to when night came. Something far away and warm, something to reach out to when nights got too cold. Like a promise, broken, summer was something far away and out of reach.

She’d run away once, almost thirty years ago, right after she got out of high school. She ran to Boston, and Boston ran all over her. She left after a year, not quite a year, really, and she ended up in New London, fell in with a sailor, a submariner. He left, was gone for six months, came home moody and dark and they split up after that. She moved up the coast to Mystic for a while, worked at the Seaport Museum that next winter, days, anyway. She worked the counter at Mystic Pizza too, at night, and she hoped men would think she looked like one of those actresses from the movie. Didn’t work out that way, but she met a guy with a boat and for a while she thought they had something going. That didn’t work out, either, and she settled in Newport, Rhode Island, working for a lawyer. Secretarial work, for the most part. The lawyer, a girl from Boston, tried to get her to go back to school – maybe because the girl made the mistake of thinking she had ambitions.

But she didn’t. Not really. Her needs were far simpler and, like memories of summer, always just out of reach.

She stayed in Newport, however, for fifteen years, and never missed a day or work. She and the lawyer became close, then closer than close, and she was comfortable for a while, but uneasy. Like she’d found a false Spring and was trapped in a season of discontent. Then one September morning her mother called.

“Your father’s dying,” her mother said, “and you need to come home, say goodbye.”

She hopped a bus the next morning, told her employer – her employer! – that she’d call when she knew more, yet somehow both knew this was the end of their road.

The bus ran through Boston on it’s way up to Portland, and she looked at the city like maybe she’d visited once, but the memories were painful and she turned away from them. She changed buses in Portland, at the little train station, got on the bus that would take her all the way down east, to Lubec, and she sat by a window and watched the coast slip by through veils of blazing trees. In almost twenty years nothing much had changed, yet somehow that bothered her. A part of her was happy to see so little change, it was almost a comfort, yet the closer she got to home the more she wondered what a lack of change really meant. For her.

Trees were turning brilliantly up north, and when she got off the bus she smelled smokey fireplaces in the distance. She walked to her parent’s house and let herself in, but when she called out she realized the place was empty. She carried her little bag upstairs, put her clothes in the same little closet she’d left behind so many years ago, and she turned, looked around the little room where she’d spent so many years. So many little years. Inconsequential years, she thought. Little, like her life. Almost empty, but for a few broken dreams back there, down that dusty road.

She stood by her mother’s side while her father passed, and she stood by her mother’s side when his body was lowered into the ground, and when she went into her mother’s bedroom later that evening to check on her – she had gone too. Died of a broken heart, a neighbor said.

They’d left her everything, of course. The house and enough money to fix the plumbing and replace the roof, and she took a job at a restaurant down by the water to make ends meet. It was a new place, had just opened a month before, and it catered to the summer crowd. It was called the Pink Water Café – because of the sunsets visible from windows out back that looked over the river towards Eastport.

She got along well enough with the owners, two boys from New York City who’d run away in search of true love and fresh lobster, and time slipped by, slowly, like the first snows of autumn.

+++++

It was a June morning, May still just a day or so gone. Still a snap in the air, no boats on the river yet, no sailors from Boston or New York. Didn’t matter, they started summer hours on June first, and that was that. She took out some chalk and began putting the day’s specials on the board: fresh poached salmon Hollandaise with orzo and field greens, a tarragon lobster bisque, and, of course, their famous lobster and butternut squash tortellini. And for dessert, a blueberry crisp fresh out of the oven, with mountains of fresh churned vanilla bean ice cream on top.

She put prices by each item and had just placed the blackboard on an easel by the door when he walked by.

Old man, tall. White hair, and not much left on top, and he was wearing khaki shorts and a navy blue windbreaker, but he was walking a dog, black and white and tan, with no leash. Big dog, yet not quite, and the pup was what caught her eye. Gorgeous. Like a movie star reincarnated and now here he was, ready for his next role. She watched them walk down the street and disappear into the hardware store and she sighed.

A young couple came in and she seated them, gave them menus and she saw the dog again, then the man – and he stopped by the door, read the menu through the glass then poked his head in the door, and the little bell twinkled his arrival.

“Y’all allow dogs?” he asked her.

“Is he trained?” she replied.

“When he feel like it, yes.”

She smiled, shrugged. “If he acts up, he’s out of here.”

He smiled too. “Well, smells too good to pass up. How ‘bout that table in the corner?”

“It’s all yours. What’s his name?”

“Depends. If he’s being good I call him Jimmy.”

“And when he’s not?”

“Fudge butt.”

“How old is he?”

“Not quite a year. Still filling out.”

“A Springer?”

“That’s right. When he wants to be, anyway.”

“They’re bird dogs, aren’t they?”

“Could be. He likes looking at birds, so I guess that counts for something.”

She handed him a menu, pointed out the specials.

“What’s good?”

“The bisque is crazy good, but really, my favorite thing is the lamb burger. Swiss, steamed spinach and a garlic aioli.”

“Whoa…if I twist your arm, could I get a cup of bisque and that burger?”

“As long as you don’t twist too hard, sure. Anything to drink?”

“What do you recommend?”

“Redcurrant iced-tea. Brewed fresh this morning.”

“Now that sounds good.”

She nodded, walked to the kitchen and handed off the order, then went to take care of the young couple, coming back a few minutes later with his tea.

“You passing through?” she asked.

And he shook his head. “Moving in.”

“Oh, a summer place?”

“Nope. Full time. Retired recently, wanted to be up here, away from it all.”

She laughed. “Well, you’ll be away from it all, alright.” She knelt and scratched behind Jimmy’s ears and he sighed, his stumpy tail started ticking like a metronome. “So, is it just you and the dog?”

“Yup.”

“So, let me see if I have this right. You moved up here, alone, to live in the most lonely town in the universe?”

“I’ve got Jimmy,” he said, but he looked at the girl now, maybe for the first time, and he took her in, sized her up in an instant. “Sometimes quiet is a good thing,” he said, looking into her eyes.

And she almost fell over backwards – from the force she felt in his eyes. So blue, like cobalt, but she’d never felt such intensity before – like his eyes were x-rays, maybe, designed to probe the soul. She stood, wiped her hands on her apron…

And he looked her over now, continued his ritual inventory. Tall, red hair tucked in a bun, green eyes, milk-white complexion with buckets of freckles spilled everywhere. Evasive eyes, two fingernails broken, or chewed. Could have been a stunner once, but something like low self-esteem got her – and hard, probably in high school. No wedding band. Maybe fifty. He didn’t think marriage was a good fit for her – probably too unfocused, too ready to take flight for that kind of commitment. Ten years ago he might have been interested in her, but not now.

“How’s the tea,” she asked.

“You know? Not bad…like the mint.”

“Let me go see if your soup’s ready.”

He watched as she turned and walked away…sprayed on Levis, good legs, strong, a little hip waggle going on, trying to flirt a little.

He felt a stirring below, felt Jimmy resettling on the tile floor, trying to find just the right spot and he reached down, rubbed his neck for a minute. He looked down and they made eye contact; he saw curiosity in the pup’s eyes, an unusual willingness to explore. “You think so?” he asked.

Jimmy opened his mouth, into the grin that meant he was interested in the things going on around them, but now they kept looking right at one another – as if they were reading each other’s mind.

He felt her putting the bowl on his table but didn’t break the link just yet, but he saw her legs by Jimmy’s face, watched Jimmy move closer and sniff her ankles…

“That tickles,” she giggled. “Would you like some oyster crackers with that?”

He shook his head. “You wouldn’t happen to have some french bread?”

“Only at dinner. Baked fresh, too. Sorry.”

“Ah, well, you live and learn.”

She looked at him again, looked at those eyes. She wanted to fall inside, naked, and go for a swim – but he looked away just then, turned to his soup, and that kind of startled her, maybe depressed her just a little.

She walked back to the kitchen, unsettled now. By him. By the kinds of emotions he released in her. She knew she was a flirt, that she worked here in part because of the attention she received from older men. She still liked feeling attractive – wanted – and she had realized a long time ago there were times when she really needed to feel wanted…and she got that attention when she worked around men in the café. She had from the first day, and maybe that’s why she’d stayed.

But this guy was something different.

She wanted his attention, and in the worse sort of way, yet he didn’t seem to want any from her. Something about those eyes, some weird force. She’d never seen anything like them before, and now? He lived just down the street? Alone? Every single woman within a hundred miles would be making a play for this one, and soon. “So how do I make my play?” she sighed, not aware she was speaking aloud.

“Play for who?” asked Darren, one of the co-owner/chefs.

“Him?” she said, nodding her head covertly to the man at the corner table.

Darren leaned over the counter and looked. “Umm. He looks delicious. Not taken, I take it?”

“No ring, said he lives alone.”

“You’ll have to move fast, Tracy. Maybe you’ll have to move faster than me…”

“I know,” she said, then his words penetrated and she looked at Darren, smiled: “God…you’re taken…so hand’s off, okay?”

“Go get ‘em, Tiger Lilly,” he said, and he handed her a lamb burger, watched her carry it out – and shook his head.

She put the platter on the man’s table. “I forgot to ask, pasta salad or slaw?”

“You know…this is good. Neither, I guess.”

“Okay. Let me know if I can get you anything else.”

“Will do.”

More people came in and things got busy, and after he finished she left his bill on the table. The next time she looked up he was gone, he’d left cash on the table and had simply gone, and she sighed. ‘That’s the way it is…’ she told herself as she cleaned his table.

She had a two hour break between lunch and dinner and she walked home, enjoying the sun on her face and the sea breeze in her hair as she walked, and she saw a moving van pulled up to the old Martin place on Washington Street. Saw him directing movers, helping with boxes, and she watched neighbors looking at him through mottled glass and curtains just pulled aside. Sizing him up, perhaps, wondering who he was, what kind of neighbor he’d make. Maybe even what kind of dark secrets lurked in his past…just waiting to be discovered?

He looked over as she walked past.

“Hi there!” she said.

“Howdy. Off so soon?”

“Lunch break. Two hours.”

“Ah. What time do you open for dinner?”

“Five. Open eleven to two, and five to eight, closed Mondays.”

“Good to know. Probably see you tonight.”

“Bringing Jimmy, I hope?”

“Yeah. We’re inseparable.”

She smiled. “Well, seeya.”

The movers were carrying in a baby grand piano just then and that made her wonder: what kind of man is this? She walked on by, walked into her house, went over to the large window in the living room and looked down the hill and through the trees. She could just see him, and her curiosity was more aroused than before. “Who is he?” She said to the empty house and the barren walls, then she turned, went to the kitchen and put on water for tea.

When she walked by an hour or later he was leading Jimmy into an old slate blue Jeep looking thing, a Land Rover she saw as it drove by, and she watched him wave as he passed, and she smiled at him – and she thought about him all the way back to the café. She thought about his eyes most of all. His eyes, looking at hers.

He came in a little after five and as he was the first customer she told him to sit where he liked, and Jimmy walked over to her, sniffed her ankles, and she noticed it then. The pups eyes were milky white now, obscured.

“Can he see?” she blurted out.

“Sometimes.”

“Blind?”

“When he wants to be, I think.”

“So…that’s why you’re inseparable?”

“Yup.”

She handed him the evening’s menu. “Need a wine list?”

“No, not tonight. Too much to un-pack. Any specials?”

“Yes, a broiled cod stuffed with lobster and morels.”

“Wow…sign me up.”

“Soup or salad? He’s doing a butternut bisque or I can make you field greens with stilton and walnuts.”

“Salad, I think.”

“More tea?”

“Sounds good.”

The café filled up quickly after that, and as before she dropped off his check and he left money on the table, walked out unnoticed. She ‘clocked-out’ a little before nine and walked home in the late twilight, and he was standing in his front yard, throwing a ball for Jimmy – and she stopped and watched.

The ball had a bell inside and the pup homed in on the sound as it bounced and rolled, then used his nose to zero in on it, and when the pup picked it up the man clapped, providing a signal to run for. She watched them for a while, then walked over to the yard.

“This is unbelievable,” she said. “I’d never believe it if someone told me.”

“Oh? Well, you have to adapt, but it’s easy for him, I think. He has no other frame of reference, yet his instincts are intact. He wants to fetch, sometimes I think he needs to…” he said as the pup ran up and sat, ‘looking’ up to him for praise. And it came, soft, deep – sincere. She could feel the love in his voice, almost like, she thought, empathy. Like he was blind to things around him too.

“It’s odd,” she said, “playing out here in the dark.”

“Doesn’t make a bit of difference to him, I guess. How was your day?”

“Long. But this is the season, you know? Make it or break it.”

“Looked busy when I left.”

“I wish you wouldn’t just get up and leave.” The words came out in an unexpected rush, and she looked embarrassed.

“What? Why?”

“I’d like it if you let me say goodbye, at least.” Then she walked up and kissed him on the cheek, turned and ran off into the night.

“Well, I’ll be, Jimmy,” he said, and the pup turned, sniffed the air – then looked up at him, grinning.

+++++

She couldn’t sleep that night and got up the next morning feeling groggy, almost dead on her feet, and when she looked in the mirror she wanted to scream. She showered, slathered anti-wrinkle cream on her face, anti-bags-under-the-eyes cream under her eyes, brushed her teeth – twice – then went down, made some toast and put on water for coffee. She almost jumped out of her skin when she heard a knock on the door.

She saw him standing there, flowers in hand, and when she opened the door he handed them to her, then quickly turned and left.

She stood there, open mouthed, speechless, and watched him walk back down the hill – then realized she’d forgotten to put on clothes before coming down to the kitchen.

+++++

She walked down to work an hour later, but she left an hour early – in case he was outside – and he was just pulling in the drive when she passed.

“Hi!” she called out. “Thanks for the flowers.”

“You bet.”

“Sorry about the, uh…”

“Don’t be. I shouldn’t have come by so early.”

“Groceries?” she asked. “Can I give you a hand?”

“Sure, if you can spare a minute.” He watched Jimmy watching her, then he handed her a sack with eggs in it. “Could you take these? I think I’ve got the rest…”

“Did you go to Wal*Mart?”

“Yup. Didn’t know where else to go.”

“You want to get in bad with the locals, do your shopping there.”

“Where else can…”

“Monday,” she said, following them into the house. “Be ready early, and I’ll show you the ropes,” but she staggered to a stop when she stepped inside. Everyone had seen workmen at the house for the last month or so, but she didn’t expect what she saw now. The place looked brand new, not a hundred years old, and the kitchen was like something out of a magazine. Muted, but elegant. “Holy cow,” she sighed.

“Like it?”

“I was in here a few years ago, but it didn’t look anything like this.”

“Bought it because of the view, but the structure needed some serious work so I went ahead and gussied her up a little while I was at it. I’ve got to get stuff in the ‘fridge, but take a look around, tell me what you think.”

She put down the eggs and walked out to the living room, then to the little den on the other side of the fireplace. He’d turned it into a study and there were dozens of pictures on the wall – and she walked to the wall and started looking at them. One with him and Reagan – on a submarine, another with him and the first Bush, standing beside an airplane, a fighter of some sort. With Jimmy Carter, on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Letters of Commendation, from the Central Intelligence Agency, four of them. A framed note from Gorbachev, thanking him for something he’d done in Berlin. Diplomas, from Annapolis and the Fletcher School, another from the Naval War College.

‘Who the hell are you?’ she thought, then she heard him behind her and turned, looked at him, her eyes full of questions. She shook her head, felt at a loss for words. “Nice,” she said, quietly. “I like what you’ve done to the place.”

“Thanks. Like to sit for a minute?”

“Sure.” She followed him back to the living room and sat on a small sofa; he sat across from her in an overstuffed chair – and looked at her while Jimmy walked up and sniffed her legs again.

“He’s just saying hello, I guess. You get used to it.”

“I don’t mind,” she said, now very unsure of herself around all those letters and pictures.

“Look, about all that stuff in there…”

“Who are you?”

“What?”

“Well, for starters, I don’t even know your name,” she said.

He laughed, gently, as he looked from Jimmy to her. “Sorry. Jim Taylor. Thought we…but no, we didn’t.”

“Tracy – Collins,” she added, hesitating between names. “What is all that stuff in there?”

“Forty three years,” he said, and when he saw the lost look in her eyes he continued: “Forty three years of my life. And that’s about all I’ve got left to show for it, too.”

“I didn’t see any pictures of…”

“My wife? In the bedroom.”

“How long ago?”

“A couple of years,” he said, turning away.

“It shows,” she said.

“What shows?”

“She was your life, wasn’t she? Your best friend.”

He chuckled at that. “Yeah. I guess maybe she was, when all was said and done.”

“So. CIA?”

“You weren’t really supposed to see that stuff.”

“So why put it out on the walls?”

He shrugged. “Memories.”

“I hate to ask, but why did you really move up here?”

“Too many memories. Where I used to live.”

“Do you get lonely?”

He turned away again, then looked down. “There’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely,” he said. “I think at a certain age you kind of expect to be alone, at least if…”

“I know what you mean, but that wasn’t what I was asking. Do you get lonely?”

“I guess I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”

“Sex,” she said, nervously.

“What about it?”

“I get lonely. Do you?”

“Like I said…”

“I heard what you said. Look, please don’t make this hard for me, any harder than it already is, but what I’m asking is, well, would you like to sometime?”

“What? Have sex? With you?”

She nodded her head slowly, grinned just a little. “I can’t get you out of my mind,” she whispered. “I haven’t been able to, all night…”

“It’s Jimmy, you know. He has that effect on all the girls I’ve met.”

“Oh? You meet a lot of girls?”

“Well, you’re the first, but yeah.”

“So?”

“Uh, look, maybe if we knew one another better…”

“Okay, Jim, so get to know me better. I’m not going anywhere, but, well, just know I want to get to know you better. Okay?”

She stood and he stood too, then she walked over to him, put her arms around his waist, leaned in and kissed him on the lips, then slipped away silently – walked right out of the house.

“Well, well,” he said, but Jimmy was sniffing the air, listening to her footsteps receding in the distance. He went over to a window and watched her walk down the street, and he wondered who she was then. What her story was, then he turned and faced a pile of boxes that needed to be unpacked and groaned, but he turned back to the window again, looked at the house next door and nodded to someone watching from a dark window.

+++++

He looked at his watch, then at Jimmy.

“It’s almost two, so what do you say? Walk down for lunch?”

Jimmy stood and walked to the door, leapt once and made a sneezing noise. He came over, grabbed the leash and hooked him up, then they took off for the waterfront – but when they got to the diner he saw a line out the door and he sighed. “Better luck next time,” he sighed, so they turned, walked back to the house and got in the Rover, drove out to the West Quoddy Head beach. He grabbed a few towels from the back and they took off down the trail.

Jimmy could smell the sea, hear the surf, and he knew this could only mean one thing. The pup pulled at his leash before they got to the bottom of the trail and he laughed a little, then they stopped and turned into the wind, smelled the sea with it’s arms all around them and he was awash, adrift in memory. The wind, lifting Jimmy’s ears, the fur on his neck feathered by the passage, nose up, scenting, trying to place instinct and memory in the moment, then they walked out onto the stones and down to the water’s edge.

He unsnapped the leash and Jimmy waded out until he had to start swimming, and he kept talking, kept giving the pup a sense of direction, but the water was still icy cold and after a few minutes Jimmy walked out of the water and shook off. He bent and toweled him off, hooked up the leash and they walked a while, letting the wind and the sun dry his fur, then they walked back up the trail to the Rover and he drove home – with Jimmy hanging his face out the window in the slipstream, his nose going a mile a minute.

Once they were back in the house he got Jimmy a fresh bowl of water and fixed himself a glass of iced tea, and a few minutes later he heard someone walking up the steps and onto the porch, then coming in the front door. He saw her walk right for him, and without saying a word she grabbed him by the belt and pulled him to the bedroom. She pulled his pants down and pushed him on to the bed and took him in her mouth, and she worked him over until he was boiling over, and when he came she took him down, every inch of him, every drop, then she stood – breathlessly, on fire – and walked out of the house – having never said one word.

He propped himself up on his elbows and watched her leave, then sat up, pulled his shorts up and stomped out of the house after her. She was still about ten paces ahead by the time she went in her house and he threw the screen door open after it slammed in front of him. He followed her up the stairs to her bedroom, and there she turned, stared at him defiantly as he walked into her room. He pulled off her clothes, pushed her gently to the bed, knelt between her legs and ate her out, hammered her clit until she came somewhere north of a half dozen times, then he stood and walked back down the stairs – never saying as much as one fucking word.

Jimmy was waiting by the door when he came home; the pup came over and sniffed his groin once, then looked up at him, grinning.

+++++

He was in the kitchen early the next morning, Monday morning, fixing coffee and toasting an English muffin when he saw her walking down the street, shopping bags in hand. Jimmy heard her tromping up the steps to the front porch and went for the door, and once again she didn’t knock. She came straight in, came right for him in the kitchen, grabbed him by the belt again and pulled him to the bedroom, damn near tore his shorts to shreds trying to get them down and she pushed him down on the bed again, started playing him like a violin with her mouth again, then straddled him, held him firmly then sat down, forcefully, in effect impaling herself on his cock. She leaned forward, put her hands on his shoulders and stared into his eyes while she rode him…

“I couldn’t sleep last night because of you,” she said after her first orgasm, “because of this. Goddamn it to hell…what have you done to me?”

“Done to you?”

“Yeah…did you cast some kind of spell? I’m serious, Jim,” she said as her legs began to tremble again, her back to arch.

“Don’t stop,” he grimaced, and they both started grinding away, faster now, deeper, and his back spasmed as it arched and he launched her about two feet in the air, cum spraying out his penis and running out her vagina, and when she landed she ground her external lips along the length of his shaft, causing him to slam the mattress with clinched fists.

He reached up, pulled her down and held her close, breathing in her hair, kissing her neck – then he felt her reaching down, slipping him inside again. They started kissing, deep wet tongue kisses, a rolling cascading tympani of beating hearts…and he felt her hands cradling his head, then she was lost again, trembling, clawing, pulling his hair and he didn’t give a damn anymore about anything all he wanted was to feel this way forever and oh my God she’s cumming again and…oh shit I am too…!

They lay panting after, lost in some kind of bliss, some kind of understanding still miles away, then he rolled on his side, rolled her on her back and he looked into her eyes again and he knew whatever was going on between them was getting some kind of serious.

“All night long?” he said, grinning.

“Kiss me, goddamnit.”

They kissed, for a long time.

“I have never,” she said, coming up for air, “and I mean never ever been as horny in my life as I was last night, and all night long. I started playing with myself around two but couldn’t cum. It’s like that part of my body refused to cooperate. Refused – without you. You’re like heroin, you know? And I’m completely addicted.”

And with that she climbed on top of his face again, held him close but she paused, poised over his mouth. “Well? Don’t you have anything to say?”

“I was wondering…if you were a natural redhead,” he said – as he pulled her down.

+++++

Four hours later they were headed back from shopping; she’d taken him to a dairy farm for milk and butter, to a poulterers for eggs and fresh chicken, then to the wharf for fresh cod and bugs, which was, he learned, the local’s term for lobster.

“I’m not sure my ‘fridge is big enough,” he said as they pulled in his drive.

“I’m not sure I can wait long enough to get all this stuff in the ‘fridge.”

Jimmy scented the air, smelled grass, and the pup hopped out of the car as soon as she opened his door, and he reluctantly went inside when he heard the humans opening the door. He went to the bedroom and sniffed the bed, then went back to the kitchen and sniffed her legs and he understood. He had been puzzled for a while, but he was pretty sure he knew the score now.

He heard them struggling by the food, heard them rolling on the floor, and he perked up when he heard the heavy breathing again, then her little screaming noises, and he put his head down on the soft thing and let slip a long sigh.

+++++

He looked at the bug and scrunched his nose.

It was huge. Like four pounds huge, and the girl behind the counter smiled when he said “I’ll take it.”

“Comes with cobbed,” the girl said.

“Huh?”

“That’s corn on the cob,” Tracy translated. “With lots of butter,” she added.

“I’ve never seen anything that big in my life,” he said.

“Lots of people like to get the big ones, but some think they’re tough. There’s an old trick to cookin’ ‘em, and Debbie knows it.”

“What’s the trick?”

“Add wine to the water before it steams. Gets ‘em drunk, they relax. Meat stays tender.”

“Right.”

She grinned. “You try it at home a few times and you’ll believe me.”

“Thanks for all your help today.”

“Right,” she grinned. “Maybe I should thank you.”

“Felt pretty mutual to me.”

“It did, didn’t it? Felt good. So long since…”

“Yup.”

“Any regrets?”

“No,” he said, smiling at the memories they’d made today. “Not a one. You?”

She nodded her head. “Wasted a day. Shouldn’t have waited. I knew as soon as I looked into your eyes.”

“You did, huh?”

“Yup. So, you going to tell me why you moved up here?”

He leaned back, sighed. “When I was in graduate school I came up here to walk around Campobello, around FDR’s place over on the island. Kinda decided back then I’d like to move up here someday.”

“What did you study?”

“At that time, history. Naval history, in the war. Mainly FDR’s strategic planning, how that translated into tactical operations.”

She shrugged.

“Doesn’t mean anything now, I suppose.”

“School was never my thing.”

“What was your thing?”

“I just wanted to get away from here.”

“Did you?”

“For a while. Sometimes, I think…not long enough.”

“Bad memories?”

“I don’t know. Not bad, more like none at all. Nothing much happened, I guess. I can remember a few Christmases, when my folks had money, anyway. Graduating high school was kind of a big deal, but not much else.”

“Ever married?”

“Nope.”

“No one special?”

She looked away, thought of her, working in her office, the time they spent together – away from the office. “Nothing ever really took, I guess.”

“So, you came back?”

“Yeah, my dad got sick, my mom died a few days later. The restaurant had just opened and I’ve been here ever since.”

“No wild summer romances?”

She shook her head, looked at him again – then the girl at the counter called his name and he went up, picked-up their plates and carried them to the picnic table. His bug was about the same size as his forearm and he sighed, looked at the vat of melted butter on the side and cringed.

“My cholesterol is going to go through the roof,” he chuckled.

“This ain’t low-calorie grub. Here, let me show you how to get at that thing.” He watched her move, her hands swift and strong, her demeanor precise yet almost bored, then she tore apart her bug and they ate quickly.

“So, no romances?” he asked again. “That means you’ve been…”

“Alone. Lonely. Waiting. For someone like you.”

“Like me?”

“When I looked at you it was like my thighs started to, no, they caught fire. No one’s ever done that to me, I’ve never reacted like that to no one before.”

He wanted to correct her English, but then again, he didn’t. She was what she was, and what she was was cute. Not too young, not too old. Just cute. Not fat, not skinny, not educated but not stupid. She was just cute and that was just alright with him. He watched her fingers as she ate…long, thin fingers, red nail polish in need of some work but overall very…cute. Her copper colored hair was out of it’s tightly coiled bun now and it hung to the middle of her back, parted down the middle, framing her impossibly white skin. And those freckles…a fine spray of them – so cute. Cute enough to get his attention and hold it long enough to get his mind back to her eyes. Huge, luminous eyes, almost wet looking but clear, free of guilt, not quite free of pain. He’d not paid much attention to her lips before, yet now they struck him as perfect. Perfect, and cute. Neither full nor thin, and they seemed to have settled into a light smile a long time ago, and when she wasn’t talking it looked like she was smiling a little, at him.

The girl behind the counter came over and gave Jimmy a few treats and asked about him, fell totally in love with him after a minute or so, then told them they had some fresh blueberry pie coming out of the oven in a few minutes.

“You don’t want to miss that,” Tracy said. “Debbie’s pies are the stuff of legend.”

“I will die if I eat a ten thousand calorie dinner…you do know that…don’t you?” he moaned. “How ‘bout a small slice?”

“You want one Tracy?”

“I’ll have a bite of his.”

The girl raised an eyebrow. “Okay.”

“Small town,” Tracy whispered as the girl walked off. “News’ll be around town in five minutes.”

“I would think,” he whispered back, “after your yodeling this morning that would be old news.”

“Shit…I forgot.”

He winced inside on hearing the word and tried to smile it off. “That was a big critter. I will say he did not give his life in vain.”

She smiled at his awkwardness, finished her Coke. “How’s your beer?”

“Cold. Not bad. What did she say this is?”

“PBR. Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

“Never had it. American?”

“Yup,” she sighed, “think so.”

The door opened and a yellow lab walked in, took one look at Jimmy and growled. Jimmy stood and wheeled around, growled about 400 decibels louder, started foaming at the mouth while the hair on the back of his head stood on end – and the lab darted behind it’s owner’s legs.

“It’s okay, easy boy,” he cooed, and Jimmy shuffled around, sniffed his hand then sat – but still ‘looking’ in the general direction of the counter.

“I wouldn’t want to piss him off,” she said – and he winced at her language again, inside, anyway, but he smiled.

“He’s very protective.”

“I’ll say…hope he never gets mad at me.”

“Are you kidding? I think he’s in love with you.” They looked down, saw his chin resting on her foot and he shook his head. “I’ve always suspected he had a foot fetish.”

She grinned at that, but turned serious. “Your wife passed before you got Jimmy?”

“Yup, almost two years before. A friend of mine took me out to a breeder, outside of D.C. Jimmy chose me.”

“That’s the way it goes sometimes. My father had newfies, took them out with him on the boat.”

“Newfoundlands? Big dogs.”

“Big hearts. Lot of love, big love.”

“Your father was a…?”

“A lobsterman, yeah. His boat is still here, he passed on his buoys to a friend.”

“You grew up in that house?”

“A-yup.”

“And you left, right after high school? Nothing here to keep you, I take it?”

“Not much here but the sea. Still some farms, some dairy, but those families are moving on now. Used to be three, almost four thousand people here. Down to about a thousand now. Wal*Mart’s the biggest employer around here, but their customers come over from Canada.”

The pie came; the ‘slice’ was not quite the size of a football and weighed, he guessed, about fourteen pounds – without the three scoops of ice cream that came as standard equipment – and he groaned, again.

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

“Sure you can. I’ll help ya out.”

“Nope. Can we get a box, perhaps?”

“Nope. This won’t keep. Be a solid pile of goo in five minutes.”

“I’ll be a solid pile of goo, in two minutes, if I eat that thing.”

He settled up and they drove back to his place and she followed Jimmy in like it was the most natural thing in the world now. He fixed tea and put a fire on in the wood stove, then they settled in for a talk.

“What was her name?”

“Claire.”

“How long were you…?”

“Not quite forty years.”

“How’d she…”

“Cancer.”

“My father, too. What did she do?”

“Government work, like me.”

“You don’t like to talk about it much, do you?”

“That was then, this is now. One time ended when Claire passed, another began.”

“Just move on? Simple as that?”

“Nothing about our life was simple, Claire.”

She paused, wondered if she should correct him but decided to let it go.

“If she was a ghost and you could talk to her, what would you say to her now?”

He looked at her for the longest time, not quite sure what to do, what to say, but the first thing that popped into his mind was ‘that’s none of your business,’ – but he stopped himself, thought about the past 24 hours – and all she might bring to his life – and he leaned back, tried to think.

“I wish we’d spent more time together,” he said softly. “Just the simple things, really. Holding each other, more than anything. I loved holding her hands. Just the feel of her skin on mine. I would tell her that, I guess.”

When he looked at her now she was crying. Softly. And nodding her head.

“I never had that, but…” she whispered, but a loud buzzing cut her off and he got up out of his chair, went to the study and shut the door behind him – and as she watched this she was stunned by the change in him. When he heard the alarm, or whatever it was, he had changed in an instant. The alertness, the physical agility of his response. From relaxed to hard and sharp, like he was walking a knife edge between…

She heard other sounds: beeps and more alarms, maybe on a computer, then his voice, subdued, calm, and she went to the door, tried to listen.

“Yessir,” she heard him say, then “I understand.” More beeping, his chair scraping back, his footsteps and she turned –

And Jimmie was standing there, staring at her with crystal clear eyes, snarling, foaming at the mouth, then she heard the door opening, felt him standing behind her.

“You like listening through doors, I assume?”

She jumped back, almost into his arms, then stammered “I need…where’s the bathroom?” she said while she tried to gather her wits about her.

“Right where you left it, earlier today – I seem to recall.”

The look in his eyes was dangerous now, vaguely predatory – and now, suddenly, she felt deep fear when she looked at him. Like she was in real danger, and like he was a very dangerous man used to doing very dangerous things.

She walked to the bathroom and sat for a minute, then washed her hands and walked back to the living room – yet all was as it was before. He was kneeling by the fire, putting a little log on the embers, then shutting the iron door and taking his seat again. And Jimmie, too, was sitting quietly by his feet again – as if nothing had happened.

“Would you like me to leave?” she asked.

“Not at all,” he said, but then he looked at his watch. “Unless you need to go home now.”

“I think I should let you get some rest.”

“Alright.”

“I’ll let myself out,” she said, walking rapidly to the front door. “You don’t need to see me out.”

He watched her leave, and Jimmie never took his eyes off her.

She felt it as she walked up the street. She was being watched, and she turned her head slightly, saw two men kneeling in the shadows. Dressed in black, carrying guns, talking on a radio.

‘What in God’s name have I gotten myself into?’ she said to herself as she hurried up the hill.

When she got to her house she turned and looked down the hill – to his house. All the lights were off now, and she hurried inside, bolted the door behind her and ran upstairs to her room.

Her hands were shaking as she went to her dresser and, with her hands out, leaned on it, looking at her face in the mirror on top. Splotches of red, a bead of perspiration under her hairline, and she could see the fear in her eyes now and she wondered what had happened.

She went to the bathroom and brushed her teeth, changed into her night clothes and pulled down the sheets, was going to get in bed but she went to the window and looked down into the yard, saw Jimmie looking up at her, then the pup walked over to a tree and lifted it’s leg, grinning all the while.

WIP © 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | and so here ends Chapter One. More soon, as it comes to me.

Predators

So…

Here are all the chapters in the Predator series, as well as Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, all wrapped up in one giant burrito. I’ve made a few changes and additions along the way, mainly to smooth transitions and to better integrate Beyond into the main story arc.

This was not the initial intent, however, so the two will, I think, reside side by side rather uneasily. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I come back to this one oneday, make a few tweaks here and there. It’s not finished yet, really, but what really ever is? As she stands, about 240 pages, single spaced, and I’ve divided the tale into Parts and Chapters.

If you’ve just finished reading the original (parts of the) story, I’m not sure you’ll find enough new material to justify the time, but who knows what works best on a rainy Sunday afternoon?

+++++

Predators

Part I – Shadows Beyond the Reef

Chapter 1

Dallas

He was about forty, forty five years old, very tall, almost gaunt, and not very well groomed. The man was, in every way imaginable, a slothful looking creature, yet in a soiled, potbellied way, and he was wearing greasily tattered green chinos and an old, plaid short-sleeved shirt – not quite tucked-in all the way. His sneakers were foul looking and, to anyone unlucky enough to get close enough, truly foul smelling. Officer Amy Breedlove watched the suspect through binoculars from an unmarked patrol car, a battered, twenty-six year old Pontiac Grand Am coupe that had, once upon a time, been painted a nice, bright silver. She was parked beside a fragrant trash dumpster off Harry Hines Boulevard, deep inside the industrial wastelands of central Dallas, Texas, in an almost war-torn district full of taquerias, strip joints, peep shows and barren industrial warehouses. She had been following this ‘perp’, a 45 year old habitual offender named Bruce Walker, for three days – ever since CID had received an anonymous tip that Walker was downloading kiddy porn from the so-called ‘dark web’ – and that he had been roaming around schools and playgrounds. Walker had been released from from federal prison a month ago, and as a registered pedophile-rapist, local law enforcement had been tasked with keeping an eye on him.

Yet here he was in an area full of homeless addicts, scabby-legged hookers and tired old gays cruising glory holes for their next load – and not working the parks and playgrounds the detectives in CID were hoping for. Still, Breedlove had her orders – document all his activities –  so she pulled a battered old Canon 1Ds from the seat beside her and slapped a 400/5.6 on it, then swung it to her face. She lightly depressed the shutter and centered his face in the viewfinder, then fired off a five frame burst when his face was clearly visible, then she snapped a few of the adult bookstore he was coming out of.

It was around two in the afternoon, two hours to shift change, and it was hotter than hell outside – maybe ‘110 in the shade’ hot, and of course the air conditioner in this stinking, fucked-up old car had seen better days – ‘like maybe ten years ago,’ she thought. Breedlove was baking in the afternoon heat, and with summer thunderstorms brewing sweat had been pouring down her neck for hours; now it was running down her back, and she wanted an ice cold Coke in the worst sort of way. She leaned forward and tried to pull her water-logged bullet-proof vest away from her skin, sure the goddamn thing was adding about ten extra degrees to her internal temperature, when she caught sight of really odd looking person following the suspect.

“What the fuck! Is that – a woman?”

The woman was short, dressed in black fatigues – including a black hood covering her head – and every instinct Breedlove had screamed “wrong!” – that this woman was not simply following the suspect, she was stalking him – like a predator. Breedlove raised the camera to her face, fired off a long burst of the woman, but just then the woman stopped, turned and looked directly at her unmarked car. Breedlove instinctively fired off a burst with the Canon – and perhaps sensing this, the woman turned and disappeared in the shadows between two warehouses. Breedlove noted the time and location on her notepad, started the engine and slowly made her way over to the area where she had seen both the suspect and the woman, and when she came up empty she started to drive around the area, looking for any trace of either.

“I don’t fucking like this,” Breedlove said to the hot air in the car, so she picked up the mic dangling from the radio and pushed the transmit button:

“317 to 310 on two,” she said, calling the district patrol sergeant on the tactical frequency.

“310, go head.”

“Uh, 310, I’ve got a female over here in what looks like black fatigues, including a hood, following a signal 7 suspect.”

“317, what’s your 20?”

“Harry Hines at Freewood.”

“10/4. 247, are you clear yet?” the sergeant said on the primary frequency.

“247 to 310, 10/4, clearing now.”

“247, back up 317, Harry Hines at Freewood on a signal 13. Contact 317 on Tac2 for more information.”

“247, code 5.”

“Central received, 247 en route at 1420 hours.”

Breedlove circled the area, was driving north on Harry Hines when she saw someone running west from a Church’s Chicken a block ahead, so she jumped on the accelerator.

“317 to 247, got the suspect running west on Mrytle Springs, away from the chicken place, black fatigues, black hood, looks like a large knife or machete in hand.”

“10/4, almost code 6.”

“310 to Central, get me some units heading to 317s location, and notify CID.”

“Central received at 1422 hours.”

“317, suspect running south on Maybank, through the trees!”

“247, code 6 in the area.”

“247 at 1426 hours.”

“247, this is 310 and I’m about a minute out.”

“Received, uh, 247, Signal 33, officer down, repeat, 33, officer down on, on Maybank, just south of Myrtle Springs…”

“310, get air support headed this way, and all responding units go Code 3, now!”

“1426 hours.”

“310, code 6, oh, crap! 310, two officers down, repeat two down! I want a full tactical callout, now! Advise Watch Commander…oh, shi…”

“310, received at 1427 hours.”

“141, Code 6 in the area.” ‘141’ was Ben Acheson, a traffic officer a motorcycle cop, assigned to the northwest district that day, and as he was close when the call came out, he headed to the area to provide extra back-up. He was the next unit to roll up on the scene, and he nearly lost it when he saw the carnage in the street.

He jumped off his BMW R-1200-RT-P motorcycle and let it fall to the ground while he drew his Sig-Sauer P-226 from his holster and covered the scene.

“141, I’ve got three officers down, decapitated, no suspect in sight.”

“141 at 1429 hours.”

Acheson kept his 9mm moving, his senses acutely tuned to pick up the slightest sight or sound, but all he heard now was a rolling avalanche of sirens, then a helicopter overhead. Within a minute he was relieved to hear a herd of patrol cars approaching, and he knew a mobile Command and Control Unit would be on the scene soon. He holstered his weapon and walked over to the three slain officers; their bodies were artificially positioned, leaning against one another, the heads placed neatly in their laps, and he fell to his knees and vomited, just as the first back-up units screeched to stop behind him.

Chapter 2

Acheson could hear several helicopters over the crime scene now, and he knew the entire area was being cordoned off as detectives and Crime Scene Units from the department arrived. He saw techs from the Medical Examiner’s office looking over the bodies and his stomach lurched again. Looking around, Acheson guessed there were more than fifty patrol cars searching the area now, and news helicopters were circling overhead too. He poked his head in Breedlove’s unmarked car, looked it over, read her notes, and walked back to his BMW. Now he was trying to re-trace Breedlove’s route from where, he’d read on her notepad, she’d first sighted the female suspect.

He circled around a particularly seedy area on Harry Hines, a bunch of bunch of small businesses just south of Lombardy Lane, looking at a cluster of adult bookstore/video arcades that were usually full of gays, and worn-out hookers, worshipping cock on their knees, when he thought he saw something odd behind a tire store on the corner. He motored over and saw a leg sticking out from behind a pile of old, discarded truck tires, and got on the radio.

“141, out on a possible Signal 1 at 10499 Harry Hines, believe this is related to 317s case.”

“141 at 1455 hours.”

“105, get some backup and CID over there, Code 3!”

“1455 hours, 309, 315, respond Code 3 to 10499 Harry Hines, at Lombardy, back up 141 on a possible Signal 1.”

Acheson got off his bike and walked over to the tires, looked down and suddenly felt like vomiting again. There on the ground lay what was left of an old man, his head severed and his green pants pulled down past his knees. The man’s penis had been cut off, his abdomen cut open from the sternum to the pubic area, and his intestines were spread out randomly on the dirty concrete. He walked around the tires, heard sirens closing in on his position when he found the man’s head.

Acheson fell to his knees again and vomited uncontrollably when he saw what he assumed was the man’s severed penis lodged in a hideously contorted mouth.

Chapter 3

Captain John Wayne Dickinson, usually called “The Duke” by his team in CID, or the Criminal Investigations Division, was in charge of the Breedlove investigation, and he was tired, dog-tired, having been at the scene on Maybank since late afternoon – the day before. He picked up another glazed donut and took it down in one bite, then downed a pint of ice cold milk in one long pull.

“Look, I want to get some sleep sometime this month,” he said as he looked over the crime scene photographs one more time, “so let’s summarize what we know so far.

“First, Breedlove was assigned to tail this perp, Walker, and had been for three days;

“Second, she had him near the cum-palaces on Harry Hines, south of Lombardy;

“We also know she was detailed to photograph the perp, so she had one of the department’s Canons with her, a 1Ds with a 200 macro and a 400, and those are both missing;

“Third, she calls-in and advises she has a suspicious person, dressed in some sort of black, maybe a ninja-style get-up, stalking the perp, this Walker guy…

“So, do we assume she got some images of this suspect?”

The Duke looked around his briefing room.

“Sounds reasonable to me,” Ben Acheson said.

“Remind me, Officer Vomit, just why you’re here?”

“Watch Commander assigned me, sir, in case I can fill in any gaps.”

The Duke sneered derisively. “Fine, but if you barf on my floor, you’ll be working Animal Control for the next five years. Got it, Meathead?”

“Yessir.”

“Well, again, assume she got some images of the suspect, as well as the perp she was tailing. So, where does that leave us?”

The Duke looked around the room. “Anyone have any ideas?”

“I do,” Acheson said.

“I don’t give a fuck if you do or don’t, Meathead. Anyone else?”

The room was silent.

The Duke fumed.

“Okay, Meathead, let’s hear it.”

“Well, okay, assume she shoots them both, but the suspect sees her with the camera. Taking her photograph, that is. If that’s the case, it seems to me the suspects first priority would be to recover the camera, get the memory cards. So she disappeared, briefly, then lured Breedlove into a kill zone, took her out but then had to deal with two other officers who got on the scene quicker than anticipated. So, she took ‘em out too.”

The Duke nodded, grunted his approval. “Then what?”

“She circles back to her original target, Walker, and takes him out, then gets the fuck out of Dodge.”

“Okay, I like it, makes sense. What about the crime scene? What does that tell us, Meathead?”

“First, she treated the officers’ bodies with respect. She placed the heads neatly on their laps, so my guess is she killed them reluctantly, out of perceived necessity. I guess we can assume the suspect was pretty pissed off when she did Walker, sir.”

“Okay, the rest of you take off, get some sleep. I want to talk to Acheson for a minute before I go home.”

The room cleared, leaving The Duke and Acheson alone.

“That’s pretty much what I took from things, kid. Good work.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“No sirs when we’re in here chewing the fat, kid. So, why are you on motors?”

“Calculus, I guess, sir.”

“Calculus?”

“I have an engineering background, BS in Mechanical, UT Austin. When I finished my probation they moved me to Traffic, sent me to reconstruction school…”

“Oh? Where?”

“Northwestern, sir.”

“No shit. So, you’re one of those hotshots, eh? You’re not exactly young. What did you do before?”

“Air Force, sir. C-17s.”

“Really? Why aren’t you flying for American or Delta, or some such shit?”

“I did. For a couple of years. Layoffs got me, in 2008.”

“Oh, yeah. Shitty times all over.”

“Yessir.”

“Duke. Call me Duke.”

“Sorry sir, ain’t in my DNA.”

“Alright. So. Did you know her?”

“Sir?”

“Breedlove. Did you know her.”

“Yessir. Academy.”

Ouch, Dickinson said to himself. Academy classmates were always close. “You okay about that?”

“I will be, sir. In a few days, I guess.”

“Okay, understood, but don’t keep it bottled up. Any interest in coming to CID?”

“No sir, none. I love it out there on motors.”

“Yeah, I did too.”

“Sir?”

“I was in motors, Traffic, for about five years. Bad crash, fucked up my arm.”

“You miss it, sir?”

“Somedays, but not when it rains.” The Duke laughed, then shook his head. “Fucking shoulder is like a goddamn barometer now. Every time a fucking storm heads this way my whole fucking arm feels like it’s going to implode.”

Acheson nodded. “Sorry, sir.”

“You ride out there long enough and you’ll know what it’s like to feel like a barometer. Don’t you forget that.”

“Yessir. You still ride?”

“Yup. A hawg, every now and then. Electra-Glide.”

“Heavy bike. Where do you ride around here?”

“Hill Country. Llano. Usually run down to Cooper’s Bar-B-Q and pig-out, then come back up next day.”

“I’ve heard about that place, sir. Good grub?”

“The best.”

“Well, next time you head that way, give me a yell if you want some company. I’d like to get out on the open road, away from all this traffic, anyway.”

“Sure, kid. Well, I guess you’re with us on this one. You finish your report?”

“Yessir, the original and two supplementals, one for each crime scene.”

“Okay, I’ll look ‘em over later, but tomorrow. I’m going home now, get some shut eye. Report to me after briefing tomorrow morning, but write up your theory about what happened, put it in a supplemental and drop it in the Watch Commander’s box. Tell him I told you to.”

“Yessir.”

“And good work, Meathead.”

Acheson turned, grinned. “Thank you, sir.”

Chapter 4

Acheson wrote the report Dickinson wanted, dropped it off at the lieutenant’s office then walked to the locker room, grabbed his helmet and a fresh ticket book before he ambled through the station and out to the parking lot. He started the BMW’s motor and turned on the strobes, then walked around the bike, checking to see that all the emergency lighting was working properly. He mounted the bike, turned off the lights and was getting ready to retract the side-stand when a patrol car pulled up alongside.

“Hey,” Carol Denison said as she rolled to a stop.

Acheson looked at her and smiled. “Hey, yourself.” Then he looked at the thing next to her, and groaned. “Hey, Rookie,” Acheson barked.

“Sir!”

“Don’t you ever, and I mean ever, ever let me see you picking your nose when you’re in a department squad car. You got that?”

“Sir?”

“And that bugger on your fucking finger? If you put that mother fucker in your mouth and I’ll put three rounds in your fuckin’ face. You, like, hear me, Rookie?”

“Sir! Yes sir!”

“You his FTO?”

“Yup. Hey, someone’s gotta train these kids…”

“Guess so.”

“Well,” Denison said – rolling her eyes, “How’s it hangin’?”

“Low. Like down in the weeds low.”

She nodded. “I don’t know how you did it, man.”

He looked away, didn’t really want to go there today.

“So,” she said when she saw his eyes, “Would you like to come over for dinner tonight? Me and Brad are doing up some steaks by the pool. Maybe a salad and ice cream?”

“Y’all still over in that complex off Northwest Highway?”

“Yup.”

“Well, sure. Unless…”

“Yeah, I know, I know. There he is, ladies and germs: Joe Ace, Traffic Reconstructionist Extraordinaire. Gets called to go work every bad wreck in the county.”

Acheson grinned. “I never, ever shoulda taken calculus. No good ever came from taking too much math.”

“You finally figured that one out, like all by yourself?” Denison smiled. That knowing smile, the one he remembered from academy.

“With a pencil, too. Say, that reminds me. Rookie!”

“Yes sir!”

“Do you know how a mathematician gets rid of constipation?”

“No, sir!”

“Works it out, with a pencil.”

Stone cold silence.

“So, you get it?”

“No, sir.”

“Where do they dig up these morons,” Acheson moaned.

Denison shrugged. “He’s not too bad, Ben.” But not as good as you were, she said to herself. She and Amy Breedlove and Acheson had become inseparable halfway through their academy class, and for a while there had been even money on who loved Acheson more, Carol Denison or Amy Breedlove. Yet Acheson had been oblivious to everything, was always the serious student and had never let on he noticed what was going on.

And who knows, Denison thought, maybe he really hadn’t caught on. Better for him now if he hadn’t.

“So, got a girlfriend yet? If so, bring her along!”

He shrugged. “You know me, still flying solo. You and Brad engaged?”

“No way! He’s still married to his job…”

“Still selling cars?”

“Cadillacs, Ben, not cars.”

“Oh, right. Silly me.”

They laughed.

“Well, okay. Seeya around four thirty or five?”

“Sounds about right, and Rookie? Keep that finger out of your nose.” he said, then he looked at Carol: “Be careful out there.”

“You too, Ben.” She slipped the car into gear and eased away, pulled out into traffic and was gone.

“141, are you in service?”

“141, 10/4,” he groaned, knew what was coming next.

“141, 27B, Lemmon at Turtle Creek. Vehicle on fire, one fatality reported.”

“-41, Code 5.”

“141, at 0910.”

“Well,” he said as he pulled away from the station, “there goes the day.”

Chapter 5

Acheson cleared from the wreck a couple hours later, then headed out Lemmon Avenue past Love Field, then wound his way over to Harry Hines and began cruising the area Amy had been working the day before. He didn’t have any idea what he was looking for; in fact, he felt kind of lost as he cruised up and down the streets around the crime scene. He stopped on Maybank, looked toward the tire store as a Southwest 737 lined up on final for Love Field, then made his way back to Harry Hines. He was waiting to make a left onto Lombardy when something, some sort of insight, flashed through his mind. The light turned green and he turned east on Lombardy, rode a few hundred yards, then stopped on the shoulder and looked around again. Something was bugging him, but after a minute he pulled back onto Lombardy, then turned south on Denton Drive. Another few hundred yards and he crossed a little concrete bridge over a paved storm-water runoff ditch that carried floodwaters down to the Trinity River, and there it was again – he knew he was missing something important. But what? He pulled the bike over onto the shoulder again, and something in his gut twitched, some little alarm in his head went off.

“So, if I ran from Maybank to Lombardy, killed Walker there, where would I go next?”

He looked through the trees to his right. He could just see the tire store, there beyond the drainage ditch. And the crime scene on Maybank – was at the far end of an imaginary line running from here through the tire store.

“Well, I’d keep on running, away from the scene on Maybank.”

He drew a line on the map in his head, and it led to right here. He pulled the BMW off the road, parked under a shade tree and walked down the sloped concrete to the drainage ditch, then over to the bridge that carried traffic on Denton Drive over the ditch. He saw a couple of water moccasins in the shallow, brownish water and skirted them warily, then walked under the low bridge.

He saw it immediately.

A white towel, folded neatly on top of a small blue duffel bag.

He walked over to pile, took a pencil and unfolded the towel.

A blood-soaked knife. A notepad.

And some writing on the notepad.

“Better luck next time, Ben,” was written on the pale yellow pad, and in a daze Acheson ran up to the BMW and called dispatch.

The mobile crime scene unit arrived before anyone from CID, and they secured the scene while Acheson paced ‘round and ‘round, obviously agitated.

One of the techs came up a few minutes later.

“Any idea who this ‘Ben’ is?” the tech asked.

“Yeah. Me.”

“No shit? That’s fucked up, man.”

Acheson looked at the guy, cold smoldering fury in his eyes.

“Well, right, anyway, the camera is in the duffel, along with a bunch of shots of that Walker dude, probably from the CF card.”

“That sounds about right,” he said as the implications of the note pounded away inside his head. He went to the radio again, shook his head, took a deep breath.

“141,” he said into the mic.

“141, go ahead.”

“141, would you contact Captain Dickinson, advise him he needs to come to this location.”

“141, at 1347 hours.”

Acheson walked over to a telephone pole and put his hands out, leaned against the creosoted wood as his head began swimming in the currents of his doubts and fears.

Then he vomited. Again.

Chapter 6

Dickinson arrived on the scene about an hour later; Acheson led him down into the ditch and over to the bridge. The CSU techs had left everything pretty much as they’d found things, primarily to let Dickinson look things over before they tagged and bagged the evidence and took it all down to Central Evidence.

Dickinson read the note, then whistled.

“Holy fuck-a-doodle-do,” he said. “I didn’t see this one coming.”

“No, sir. Neither did I.”

“So, how the fuck did you find this shit?”

“I worked a major accident first thing this morning. When I cleared I decided to come over here, just poke around. I thought, well, I tried to picture a vector, a trajectory, from the crime scene on Maybank to the tire store, and I carried that line forward. I, well, it pretty much leads to the bridge, sir. I came down there, and bingo. Here it is.”

“Are you, like, a weirdo, or some kind of fucking genius?”

Acheson shook his head. “Not hardly.”

“I guess there’s no memory card in the camera?”

“Uh, no sir,” the CSU tech replied, “it was in the bag. Probably wiped, but there are images on it.”

“And no fingerprints?”

“None.”

“Fuck-a-doodle-do,” Dickinson said again. “Any theories, Meathead?”

“It’s either a cop, sir, or an ex-cop. And maybe she put this stuff here yesterday, or saw me a while ago and dumped it then.”

“Damn right it’s a cop, and a pissed off cop, too. Fuck-a-doodle-do.” He walked down the ditch towards Harry Hines. “Anyone check the area for footprints?”

One of the detectives from CID answered that she and her partner had just finished walking both sides of the ditch down to Harry Hines and back, and had found nothing.

“Figures. Well, fuck-a-doodle-do. Guess we’d better send the towel and the bag over to the Federales, see what the fuck they can come up with.”

“Yessir,” the CSU tech said. “Can I bag it now, sir?”

“Yeah, go ahead. Acheson, let’s go grab some chow. If I can’t sleep, we might as well eat.”

“Sir, one of my Academy friends is cooking steaks this evening. Meeting her around five. Could we head over there?”

“Steaks? Well, why the fuck not. Never turned down a steak in my life.”

“It’s not far from here, sir, if you want to follow me.”

“Lead on, boy. Just don’t lose my ass. That fucking bike looks like it’s going a hundred miles an hour just standing still. Hey, come to think of it, we’d better stop off and pick up some extra meat. I’m fucking hungry!”

Chapter 7

“So, just what did you run into over on Denton,” Carol asked when Ben and The Duke had settled down in lawn chairs out by the pool behind her apartment building.

Ben looked at Dickinson, who nodded it was okay to talk about it.

“Some evidence. From the thing, uh, yesterday.”

“What Mr Articulate here is trying to say, Officer Denison, is that he found the missing camera and the murder weapon.”

“Really? That’s, uh, pretty wild. How’d you put that together?”

“I can’t wait to hear this,” The Duke said. “I swear to god, Meathead, you ought to go into politics. You could bumfuzzle a raccoon.”

“Yessir. Uh, well, I had a picture of the area, uh, in my mind. I just drew, well, a line. Well, in my mind…”

“I just fuckin’ love this guy,” The Duke interrupted. “He’s like Cary Fuckin’ Grant. Suave, man, I mean fuckin’ grace under pressure.”

Carol laughed, then looked at her watch.

“Heard from Brad,” Ben asked.

“Nope.”

“Well, I’m starved,” The Duke said. “Got some charcoal handy? I’ll get us a fire going…”

Carol’s cell phone pinged, she answered, walked away from the pool while she talked, then came back a few moments later.

She did not look happy.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” she said.

“What’s up?” Ben asked.

“Brad. He’s done with me, with us, the whole police widow thing.”

“Hot damn!” The Duke yelled. “A purdy girl all to ourselves, and an extra steak for me! Fuck-a-doodle-do!”

Chapter 8

“That guy’s a trip,” Carol said a few minutes after The Duke left.

“Kind of a force of nature. And a legend in Texas law enforcement, from what I’ve heard.”

“You know, he kinda looks like John Wayne, too. Spooky.”

“I think he’s even bigger,” Acheson answered. “How’re you holding up?”

She shrugged, turned away, walked into the kitchen.

Ben heard tears from the living room, walked into the kitchen, stood behind her. “You going to be alright?” he asked.

She turned, walked into his arms and buried her face in his neck. “I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to blow off two years. You know what I mean?”

“I reckon so.”

“Haven’t you ever had a serious thing with a girl before?”

“Yeah, once.”

“Once? When…”

“In college. Well, we were together from our second year ‘til we graduated.”

“And you split up after…”

“No.”

“What happened?”

“Killed. An ice storm up in the panhandle, on 287. She was headed home for Christmas, a truck lost it on the ice, hit her head on.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Ben. I didn’t…you never…”

“Nope, no reason to. Never been a big fan of pity parties.”

“And, well, has there been anyone since?”

He shook his head.

“No one?”

“Nope. Not a soul. Actually, I thought I’d make a decent priest, gave it some serious thought, too.”

She laughed, then stopped. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes, but see, the thing is, I’m not big on the whole God thing. I figured that might not be the best way to approach the ministry.”

“I can see that might present a few problems,” she said gently, almost smiling again.

“A few?”

“You know, Amy and I were both in love with you. Back in Academy.”

His eyes didn’t register the words, but his head shook a little. “What?”

“We were both in love with you. Amy and…”

“You?”

“Me. I. Yes.”

“Sorry. I had no…”

“Idea. Yes, we figured that out. It still surprises me, though. I thought we were kind of obvious.”

“That’s so…weird. I just never thought…”

“Of me that way. Yup, I know.”

“But…”

“Yessiree. Good ole Carol, the invisible girl.”

“What? Why do you…”

“Why do I say that? Well, Officer, let’s look at the evidence before the court, shall we? See? There’s this girl in his arms, this suddenly available girl, and this girl’s had like a mad crush on him for like five years, and you aren’t even going to kiss me, are you? You aren’t even going to, like, throw me down on the kitchen floor and fuck my brains out, even though she’s just standing there, right in front of you, practically begging you to do just that?”

“You want me to kiss…”

“Oh-my-fucking-God! Do you like have some kind of brain tumor or something, some weird-ass-fucking-thing in your head that makes you totally stupid when it comes to girls?”

“A tumor?”

“Would you just shut the fuck up and kiss me now, you moron?”

Chapter 9

“So, did you and Officer Carol swap some spit last night,” The Duke asked when Acheson made it into CID the next morning.

“What?”

“Are you, like, totally stupid? Or are you some kind of fuckin’ space alien, from, you know, like Mars or someplace like that?”

“What?”

“Jesus H Fucking Christ, Meathead! I have never, and I mean never, ever seen a girl as crazy in love with a guy like that gal is with you! Tell me, really, you weren’t like, you know, picking up on that even just a little bit?”

“I think she kinda got me dialed into that, sir. Took a while, though.”

“Man, and I thought you was like half way smart, too. Shame on fucking me.” The Duke shook his head, grinned a little, then said: “You’d better go wash your hands again, son. I think I can smell a little, well, you know, on them fingers.”

Acheson turned a deep crimson purple, put his hands behind his back.

“I’m serious, slick. That hand smells like a can of tuna that’s been sitting out in the sun for a week. Now, git! And use some soap this time, too.”

Acheson took a leak, washed his hands, then went back to CID.

“So, did y’all set a date yet?”

“What?”

“Jesus, this is fun.”

“What?”

“Okay, Meathead, okay…where do we go with this case? Any ideas?”

“Forensics. On the bag and towel. Any idea when we’ll get those back?”

“Probably a week. Thereabouts, anyway, but I don’t feel like waiting. So? What’s next?”

“We bait a trap.”

“And how would we do that?”

“We find another perp, another Walker, get CID onto him, put a tail on the guy.”

“Tether a goat, wait for the lion?”

“Yessir.”

“Might work. What else?”

“Unmarked patrols around the bookstores and arcades. Clear out all the marked units from Harry Hines, for a while, anyway.”

“Oh. Did you finish that accident report? From yesterday?”

“Yessir. I came in early, 0600, and wrapped it up.”

“She’s seems like a helluva girl, Ben. You figure that out yet, or are you going to pass?”

“Carol?”

“God, I’m sure there’s a fucking brain in there somewhere,” The Duke said as he squinted hard and looked at Acheson. “Yes, Carol. Did she say how long she’s been in fucking love with you?”

“Since Academy. She’s says, sir.”

“That fits. What district is she working?”

“She’s floating, Field Training Officer this month. Working with a rookie around Love Field, I think.”

“I’m going to pull her off the street, until this is over.”

“Sir?”

“Well, first Breedlove is killed, then the note to you. It could be random, or you might be the common denominator in this case, and if that’s true then she’s at risk.”

“Unless she did it, sir.”

“Already checked that one, slick. Last night, while you had your fingers in the pie, so to speak. She was here in the station when you checked out on Maybank, doing paperwork, and she didn’t leave until it was all over. So…”

Acheson nodded, felt a chill run down his spine. “Have to wait until the woman strikes again,” he almost whispered.

“No way, Meathead. No fuckin’ way, and don’t ever let me hear you thinkin’ like that again, not even to yourself. We don’t wait for people to get killed, got it?”

“Yessir.”

“Now, don’t make a fuckin’ stink about it, but go check your bike in, write it up on a mechanical or something, then check out an unmarked and head over to Harry Hines, just start setting up, scoping out those dirty movie places, them glory holes where the hookers hang out. My bet is she’s going to hit some guy who’s about to take out a hooker.”

“What about the pedophile angle, sir?”

“Possible, but we’ve got the district squads handling that, putting pressure on the parks, so maybe that’ll push her to the peep shows. Assuming she’s smart, but I’m assuming that’s her kill zone.”

“Sir, if she’s inside, she probably knows every unmarked car we have.”

“Hadn’t thought of that,” The Duke said as he looked out a window while he stood by a water cooler in the corner of the room. He bent over, took a little paper cone and filled it with cold water, then tossed it down while he looked out the window. He filled it again, tossed that one down too, then crumbled up the little cup and threw it across the room to a waste can by his desk.

He didn’t miss; the wadded paper flew straight in the can, and The Duke smiled.

“That’s kind of like life, kid. You gotta take the shot, every time. But you can’t afford to miss.”

“Yessir.”

The Duke looked around the room, walked over to a long table, opened up a white donut box sitting by some folders.

“Empty! Motherfuckers! Not one fuckin’ donut left! Bunch of goddamned vultures! What kind of fuckin’ police station is this! Where are my Goddamn donuts!” The Duke screamed as he rambled off down the hall…

Chapter 10

Acheson was driving an old, impounded Toyota past Love Field, on his way out to Harry Hines, and he stopped by the old Braniff hangers on the north side of the airport and watched as a Southwest 737 flared over the threshold and roared to a stop. He looked at the jet and had to admit that he missed it. Flying. Being in the cockpit. The economy that had ruined his career had turned around again – and he wasn’t too old, yet. He could get back on with a major again, or even Southwest, if he really wanted to. Get a type rating on 737s, or go back to 777s.

Still, he really loved police work, and he’d never expected that. He loved riding motors, working wrecks. Even arresting people from time to time, those that really needed it, anyway. He could see himself doing the work, doing it for the rest of his working life, but every time he saw a 737 coming in to Love, or a heavy out at DFW, his heart fluttered a bit. It was a lot like loving two women, each with a lot of good things going for her, and then being forced to choose between them.

He shook himself back into the present, got back on Lemmon Avenue and headed toward Northwest Highway – then that instinct hit him in the gut again and he swung off Lemmon into a parking lot, cursing himself as he jumped a curb. He opened his briefcase and pulled out a map of the city, penciled in a line from the initial scene on Maybank to the tire store on Lombardy, then extended the line out in both directions.

“Fuck!” he said. The line extended south, straight to Love Field, right through runway 1-3 Right until it veered slightly into a new parking garage across from the remodeled main terminal building. His stomach lurched as he got back into traffic, then he U-turned and backtracked on Lemmon until he hit Mockingbird Lane, then after another half mile he turned right on Cedar Springs and into the airport.

“Now what?” he asked himself as he drove on to the terminal area. He slowed, looked at his marked-up map again, looked where the line crossed the runway and veered through a new parking garage, and so he headed for it. He came to a pay gate and took the time-stamped card the machine spit out at him, then drove inside.

The garage looked to be three, maybe four stories tall, so he started cruising the lanes, looking between parked cars as he worked his way up to the next level. There were construction trucks parked on the second level, and construction materials were stacked in a few corners of the building, but there were still a lot of parked cars, just normal airport traffic mixed in with the trucks and pallets…

“What the hell is that?”

He stopped near a corner of the garage on the second level, and while there was some sunlight flooding through other parts of the building, this corner was dark, almost pitch black. He could just make out a large pile of what looked like garbage stacked in this corner, some construction debris maybe, but a blue plastic tarp covered a large part of the pile – but something else caught his eye.

Acheson picked up his flashlight and got out of the car, then walked over to the pile, lifted the tarp, fell to his knees and started vomiting. Again.

_______________________________________

Captain Dickinson got to the scene fifteen minutes later, along with a few dozen patrol cars, and he made his way up to Acheson’s location as quickly as he could. The Duke got out of his Ford and walked over to the CSU van; he saw Acheson standing away from the scene, then he saw the fresh pile of puke Acheson had just deposited on the concrete.

He walked over to the victim, looked at the poor fucker and turned away before his own stomach started to heave.

“Fuck-a-doodle-do-do!” he said as he made his way over to Acheson. “Man-o-man, she field dressed that poor sumbitch. Phew-whee, poor fucker must’ve eaten at Taco Bell. Wow! You ever small anything like that?!”

Acheson stifled a heave. “Could you stop it, please?”

“So, what got you this time? The olives? Or the sour cream?”

Acheson dropped to knees again, and The Duke walked away with a big grin plastered all over his face, then ‘high-fived’ a CSU tech as he walked inside the van.

“Got anything interesting?”

“Nothing much, but a few differences. Same MO. Cut his head off, probably same type of blade, maybe a Special Forces K-Bar. Disemboweled, as before, only this time looks like she took a bite out of the large intestine.”

“No shit? Hungry little bitch, I guess. Bite marks worth a damn?”

“Still working on that. Anyway. Cut his penis off, same type knife, then put the pecker in the guy’s mouth, tip sticking out, just like the one yesterday. Another something different. She took the guys testes, put them where his eyes used to be.”

“Now, that’s a nice touch. Find the eyes?” The Duke heard Acheson ask.

“Not yet,” the tech replied.

“Oh, you back among the living, Meathead?”

Acheson was standing behind The Duke. “Yup.”

“So, what do the eyes tell you?”

“She thinks we’re blind. And we’re thinking with our balls, or think like men, I guess you’d say.”

“Uh-huh. We probably are, but that’s the problem with having nuts. Anything else?”

“Yeah, the shoe-print.”

“She left…a shoe-print? Didn’t see that…”

“Well, it’s over here, and I’d say it’s a plant. It’s too perfect.”

“Show me.”

The tech, Acheson and The Duke walked over to the corner by the body; there were bright work lights set up now, and a team of techs was dusting everything down for fingerprints. A few feet away, bright yellow tape on the concrete demarcated a dark red shoe print on the concrete, and a tech was photographing it when the three of them approached.

“So, what is it? Blood, or paint,” The Duke asked the tech.

“Best guess right now? Blood.”

“The shoe?”

“Woman’s high heel, probably size 7. Imprint on the sole says Pepe Jimenez.”

“An imprint?”

“Yeah, that’s the giveaway. Probably a new shoe, never worn.”

“Search the building. I’d make bet it’s in here somewhere.” He turned to Acheson. “So, what’s that shoe supposed to mean?”

“Either, uh, wait a minute…” Acheson said as walked back to his unmarked car. He rummaged around on the floor, then came back carrying a compass and a map of the city in his hands.

“Hey, look! It’s…Dallas!” The Duke cried when he saw the map. “Holy shit, what a clue!”

Acheson ignored him, put the map down on the concrete, spread it out to show most of the city.

“Okay, sir. Here’s how I found this scene. I drew the line…”

“Yeah, from Maybank to the drainage ditch. You told me that. What of it?”

“Well sir, I extended the line. It leads to the runway over there,” he said, pointing to the threshold of 1-3 Right, “but veers into the garage. Right here, as a matter of fact.”

The Duke kneeled down to the pavement and studied the map. “I’ll be damned.”

“Now, that bearing is roughly 130 degrees true. My guess is if we take the heel and the tip of the toe on that shoe print and use that as a vector, we’ll get roughly 130 degrees.”

“Do it.”

Acheson walked over to the print and gently placed an edge of the map along the heel-toe axis, then placed the compass on the axis. “132 degrees, sir.”

“Fuck-a-doodle-do,” The Duke said, looking at Acheson. The tech nodded, clearly impressed.

“So…?”

“So, think she’s pointing us to her next kill? What’s along that axis, Ben.”

Acheson placed the map on the pavement again and extended the line on the map to the very edge of the paper. “Condos and high rises on Turtle Creek…”

“Gucci Gulch, you mean?”

“Yessir. Then along Haskell, on to the other side of Central, and then out to the north side of Fair Park.”

“A lot of potential kill zones in there. Anything stand out?”

“Besides the fair grounds? No, nothing jumps out at me, sir.”

“What about the shoe? You were about to say something. What was it?”

“Well sir, it’s feminine. The shoe, I mean, and it’s a woman’s size. She’s either telling us something about herself, or her next victim.”

“Assume it’s hers. Then what?”

“First, we find out about the shoe, find out who carries that brand, then try to find anyone in the area who bought one in that size, then cross check that info with women in the department, with that shoe size.”

“Like we have that kind of information on file, Meathead!”

“Then we get it, sir. Daily briefings. Shouldn’t take more than a few days.”

“Okay. So I think we should extend that line north and south, plot it out on a really accurate, really big fucking map. Start patrols along that line. Like, today.”

Acheson shook his head again. “Probably isn’t going to matter much, sir. Whoever it is, she’s probably inside, very dialed in to what we’re doing, my guess is she’s monitoring all our frequencies, and my guess is she has whatever equipment she needs to de-scramble every channel we use. She’ll know the patrol districts, squad numbers, you name it.”

“Ben, you and I are going downtown, talk to the Chief. Leave that piece of shit car here, ride with me. Give the keys to…what’s your name?” The Duke asked the tech.

“Logan, sir.”

“Logan, have someone get that unmarked back down to Central when you clear.”

“Yessir.”

“I’ll go get my stuff out, sir,” Acheson said as he jogged over to the old clunker. Then…

“What the FUCK!” he cried.

The Duke and an army of detectives and crime scene techs ran over to Acheson’s car.

Down on the driver’s seat was another notepad, open to a fresh page.

Acheson leaned over, read it aloud:

– Not bad, Ben, but you’re not there yet. And time’s running out, so don’t waste any more of my time. Luv, C –

Everyone stood up and looked around. Whoever planted the notepad had done it in the past few minutes, while the group had been over next to the body looking at the shoe print, only now the car’s passenger door stood open – and there was a stairwell just beyond the car’s open door.

Thirty cops and detectives took off running for the stairs; half ran up, half ran down, and nobody found anything or anyone in the least bit suspicious.

+++++

“You know,” the Chief said as The Duke looked on, “you took the sergeant’s exam, scored high, could have had your stripes but you turned ‘em down. I’m curious. Why?”

“I would have had to give up motors, Chief. I like Traffic, I like what I do.”

“I can relate to that,” he said. “I was on motors in LA for nearly fifteen years. Still, no ambition beyond motors?”

“I’m not sure, Chief,” Acheson said as he looked away.

The Chief opened Acheson’s personnel file. “Oh, yeah, you’re one of the pilots. I understand now. Southwest’s hiring. So are United and Delta, maybe American, too. When are you going to apply?”

“I haven’t decided what I want to do yet, Chief.”

“You mean, you might stick it out here?”

“Yessir.”

“You miss flying, son?”

“Something awful, sir.”

The old man nodded. “Yeah, once it gets in your blood it’s hard to shake, and life’s short.”

“Did you fly, sir?”

“Me? Yup, a little – ‘Nam. Navy. RA-5C, recon bird. You know it?”

“Yessir, probably the prettiest aircraft ever made. Must’ve been a hoot and half, sir.”

“You flew, what, the C-17? Then for American? What did you fly with them.”

“Right seat, 757s, then 777s, just before things turned south.”

“Pretty bird, too. Still a lot of carriers using ‘em,” the Chief said, pointedly. “Bet you could get a job tomorrow.”

Acheson shrugged, looked back at the man.

“What could I offer you? To keep you here?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“What about…if you could have ‘em both. Would that work?”

“Sir?”

“Go get your job, just keep yourself based here in the Dallas area, work some days off as a Reserve.”

“Could I stay in Traffic, Chief?”

“Maybe, sure, but the Duke wants you pretty damn bad. Over in CID.”

“Maybe Traffic for a few more years, then jump over to CID?”

“Duke? Would that work for you?”

“Hell, Mike, we’re short downstairs, and I could use him full time, right now. I’d bump him up to sergeant tomorrow, get him on the list to take the Lieutenants Exam in September. I’m retiring in five years. He’s got the chops to take my place, the only one I’ve been around the past few years that has the mind for the job. Anyway, that’s what I want, Ben.”

“Ben,” the Chief said, “I’m not a high pressure type of guy. You want to fly, you go fly. Do whatever you can in this life that makes you happy. I believe if you’re happy, your family will be happy, and the people you work with will be happy. That said, we can sure use you. We need men and women that can think on their feet. Hell, the world’s changing faster than ever and, well, we need officers like you more than we ever have. Ya know, the days of redneck policing are over, the job is simply getting too complex. Anyway. We need you. Please think about that…before you make any decisions. Okay?”

“Yessir.”

“Oh, one more thing. I’ve got a complaint from a rookie about you. Says you threatened to blow his head off?”

“Yessir, I did.”

“Oh? I guess I’d kinda like to know why…?”

“He was right seat, in a patrol car, saw him pick his nose, and I think he was getting ready to eat a pretty big bugger, sir.”

The Chief’s and The Duke’s eyes went round, the Chief made a small retching sound.

“Tell you what, Ben; you see that sumbitch do that again you put that pistol of yours right in his mouth, and tell him I told you to pass along that’s his last warning. We clear on that, Officer?”

“As a bell, sir.”

The Chief stood, held out his hand. “It was good to meet you, son. I hope you decide to stick around, and if you do just let Duke know. Now, Adios you two.”

“Yessir. Thank you sir.”

The Duke and Acheson walked in silence down the hall to CID, the old man stopping once to look at a particularly nice pair of legs, then they went into the briefing room and sat down.

“Nice set of stems on that one, eh?” The Duke said.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah. That your secretary?”

“Yup. New gal. Took her on a few months ago. Sweet as can be, had a sad life. Well, nice chat with the Chief. Guess you know where things stand.”

“Yessir. Thanks. For what you said in there. I appreciate it.”

“Well, you’ve got a report to write, me too, for that matter. Then why don’t you get over to that gal’s place, Carol, and take her out to dinner? You two might have a few things to talk over tonight, too.”

Acheson smiled, nodded. He hadn’t thought about her all day.

“Oh, by the way, I’ve got her detailed to dispatch for the time being, until we get this little fracas settled, anyway. In case you want to drop by or call her or something.”

“Sir?”

“Oh, man, you do disappoint the shit out of me sometimes, Meathead.”

“Yessir.”

+++++

“Sounds like you had another weird day,” Carol said as they settled in a dark corner booth at a decent little Mexican place close to her apartment.

“Yup. Weird’s a good word.”

“You found…another body?”

“You want some guacamole or something?” he asked, hoping to change the subject.

“Sure. Maybe about ten Margaritas, too!”

“Yikes! Hope you got kneepads, and your plumbing works!”

A waiter came by and Ben ordered a couple of Maggies and some green stuff…

“Anyway, I had a ‘two-on-one’ with Dickinson and the Chief this afternoon.”

“Uh-oh,” she said, turning serious. “About my rookie and that stuff about picking his nose?”

“Oh, no, not really. More the ‘are you going to stay with the department?’ kinda stuff. Am I going to go back to flying, in other words, and Duke wants me to move to CID as of yesterday, will bump me to sergeant right away if I do, and as much as said he wants me working towards taking over CID when he leaves.”

“Holy shit, Ben, that’s wonderful news. What did you tell them?”

“Nothing, yet. It was more a ‘you need to go home and think about this for a few days’ kinda thing, but Duke seems to think you might have something to do with this decision.”

“Oh, really? Me?”

“Well, he seems to think you love me, and that I’d be crazy not to jump all over you…”

“Or maybe he’s just using me to manipulate you?” she said.

He shook his head. “Maybe, but I doubt it.”

“You like him, don’t you.”

“Kinda reminds me of my grandfather. Hard around the edges, but a real softie inside.”

“You trust him, then?”

“I think so. He’s a natural leader, but an honest one, too. Rare, in other words.”

“Loves donuts, or so I hear.”

“Loves? Shit, he drinks ‘em down. I mean it, in like one bite. And he inhales a pint of milk after almost every one. Fucking amazing. Amazing he doesn’t weight four hundred pounds. Anyway,” he leaned forward, took a folded up letter from his shirt pocket and opened it. “It’s from United. Got it today. First officer’s position, 757s. Probably Seattle, maybe Denver. Pay is about twice what I’d make as head of CID five years from now.”

“Uh-huh? But?”

“But the Chief said I could fly and, if based out of Dallas, still do motors in the Reserves.”

“But aren’t you still in the Air Force Reserves?”

“Yup.”

“So, you’d be flying three days a week, then maybe a day or two per week on the street, and what is it, a weekend a month driving C-17s for the Air Force? Sounds an awful lot to me like you’d be burning the candle at both ends.”

“To me, too.”

“So, you’ve got a big decision to make, don’t you?”

“Yup.”

“And do I fit in there, somehow?”

He sighed, nodded his head. “I, well, I guess that’s the question. I say we give it time, see where it goes.”

“Yup, no need to rush.”

“So, this stuff…when you say you loved me in Academy? Were you serious?”

She smiled, shrugged her shoulders. “I wasn’t making that up, Ben, but maybe it was more an infatuation, for a while, anyway. But over time, as I watched you, well, I don’t know. I began to feel something more, as I got to know you better. Amy did too, but I never thought it was anything like love – with either of us. It was more like we respected how you picked yourself up after getting dropped by American, how you didn’t give up. But it was more than that, too; it was how seriously you took becoming an officer, like you really respect the job, the problems we deal with, that people have to care enough about the world to try and make a difference. The funny-sad thing about Amy, though? I think she fell for you, hard. Like she really wanted to love you, somehow needed to…but she never really got over the idea when it looked like, well, you two just weren’t going to happen. I tried to move on, tried to tell her to, too, but really, it’s funny, I could never commit to Brad, and I think he guessed the real reason why. But Amy? Like I said, she never really tried to move on. I think she wanted to be near you any way she could, maybe even just to talk to you every now and then. Who knows, maybe she thought if she was around you long enough she’d get an opportunity.”

“That sounds sad. And it’s like, well…I never had a clue.”

“She was poor, I mean her folks never had anything. She never had anything, either. Then she met you.”

“Why didn’t she say something? To me?”

“What would you have done if she had?”

“I don’t know. She was nice, I guess, but not my type. A little too wild.”

“She could be. Remember the party, after graduation? When she started stripping?”

“Not sure I’ll ever forget that. She was toasted.”

“And she did come on to you, didn’t she? That night.”

“Yeah, but she was coming on to everyone that night.”

“No, Ben, she wasn’t. She was, well, she was making her play for you.”

“Drunk people are a real turn off – to me. Maybe if she had…well, no, we just never clicked.”

Carol nodded. “Did you feel anything last night? With me?”

He looked at her, wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. “Kinda hard to put into words.”

“You’re off the next three days, aren’t you? What are you going to do?”

“Going up to Denver, to United, and talk with them.”

“It must be like a dream come true for you.”

“In a way, yes. I never thought the choice would be anything but clear…like I always knew I would fly for a living. It’s what I always wanted to do.”

“Then you should, Ben.”

He nodded his head. “If that’s the choice I make, well, would you stay with the department?”

“It’s too soon to make those kinds of decisions, Ben, but if you want me there with you, I will be. If not, I’ll understand, and I like what I do. Life goes on.”

IV

“So, Ben,” The Duke said as Acheson walked into the CID briefing room, “how was Denver?”

“Decent. Good package. Shitty city.”

“Oh?”

“Uglier than this place, and I always thought that would be just about impossible.”

“But the mountains…”

“They’re there, all right. I guess. Smog was so thick I couldn’t see ‘em.”

“Well, the Rockies are something else. Best motorcycle roads in the country.”

“Yeah, imagine so.”

“So. United? Good pay package, you say?”

“Decent. Yessir.”

“Did you sign with ‘em?”

“No, not yet. Hung up on how long I’d have to wait before I could make Captain. I was due at American. United wants me there five years before they’d consider it. Not sure I want to wait that long.”

“Hallelujah!” The Duke said as he slapped his desk. “Their loss! Anyway,” he said as he walked over to the wall behind his desk, “here’s the map, with your 130 degree vector drafted on it. City surveyor did it, so it’s accurate.”

Acheson walked over and studied it, slid his finger along the line. “Oak Lawn, Holland, Turtle Creek, then…that Frank Lloyd Wright building. The Dallas Theatre Center, it’s right on the line.”

“Theatre? Why – is that important?”

“Maybe, but, well, this is, in a way, someone’s scripted drama unfolding slowly, isn’t it? What better place than a theatre!”

“Let’s go!”

____________________________________

They came down Blackburn, turned left on Sylvan and approached Wright’s cream colored masterpiece slowly, then turned up the hill into the little parking court and got out of The Duke’s Ford. Acheson walked up the stairs and over to the glass entry doors and peered inside. He tried a door – it was locked, so he walked over to a little fountain and stopped dead in his tracks.

“I think this is what we’re looking for, Captain!”

Duke walked over, looked down into the water and saw a woman’s shoe; it was already in a department evidence bag, sealed from the water. “The bitch is playing with us now, isn’t she?”

“Gotta camera?”

“In the trunk.”

They both heard it, at the same instant. Footsteps, running on gravel, then on pavement. Acheson ran to the car, looked on the front seat.

“Mother fucker!” he yelled. Duke trotted up right behind him and looked down into the car.

A note pad, open to fresh page.

“What’s it say, Ben?”

Acheson read it silently first, then aloud:

– What? No back up? You guys are pathetic. Ben, you most of all. Expected more from you. Come on, get with it. Oh, Ben. I hope you enjoyed Denver as much as I did. Luv, C –

“What the fuck?” The Duke said.

“She followed me?”

“Okay, let’s grab some pictures and bag that shoe, then get the fuck out of here…”

“You think I should try to follow her?”

“There?” The Duke said, pointing at the bamboo, and the trail beyond.

“Used to be a railroad track up there, now it’s a jogging trail. She ran towards Lemmon…”

“There are hundreds of joggers on that trail every hour. Forget it; let’s get to work. And I want to get you out of here, out of the city, before she nails you.”

“Calm down, Duke. She wasn’t in Denver. It would be too damn easy to check passenger manifests against our employee roster, and DHS could run that down in about two minutes flat. Remember, look where we are. This is theatre, she’s the director, and she’s fucking with us.”

The Duke turned and stared at Acheson. “If you go to Denver it’s gonna be a black day for law enforcement in this town, Ben.”

“Come on, let’s get the camera.”

“Yup. We were stupid, Ben. Shoulda had the area surrounded before we got here.”

“She would have known, Duke, and wouldn’t have shown up here, or maybe just jogged on by when she made us.”

They got back to the fountain, and Acheson looked at the shoe for a moment, then looked up and drew his pistol. Dropping into a combat stance he moved forward toward some deep bushes at the periphery of the building, then stepped into the undergrowth. He looked back at the shoe once, then pushed his way deeper until he came to the next body, then he jumped back out of the bushes, fell to his knees – and vomited.

V

“So, the shoe is made by Pepe Jimenez, style is ‘Lola,’ a 4-inch pump, size seven, made in Spain and imported into the US by a firm in Illinois called Classic Pumps; in the past 12 months they’ve shipped this size and color to 21 addresses in the Metroplex. If you look at all sizes and colors shipped here, then it’s to almost a three hundred addresses in the region. None of these addresses collate in any obvious way to any officer in the department.”

“What about P O Boxes?” Duke asked.

“Just six, sir,” the CSU tech advised.

“Let’s get to those POs, pull the cards, see who signed for those boxes,” The Duke said to the detectives from CID, “and let’s get those by lunch time, okay?”

He motioned to the tech by the video projector to move on.

“Now, the bodies,” the tech resumed. “The victim at Love Field was one Jonah Feldman, 42, lived in an apartment over off Northwest Highway. Mister Feldman is, or was a registered sex offender, three convictions for child pornography, a couple misdemeanors for lewd conduct, exposing himself in adult movie theaters…”

“Sounds like my father-in-law,” someone said.

“Knock it off!”

“Anyway, his parole officer noted some porn in his apartment on his last home visit, wrote him up…”

“Parole officer?” The Duke sat up. “Cross check all female parole officers with the shoe data, and the post offices.”

“Maybe we should cross check with female sheriff’s deputies too,” one of the detectives added.

“Do it.”

“Right on it, sir.”

“What about his computer? Anything on it?”

“About twenty thousand encrypted images sir, mostly young boys being sodomized, but there’s a bunch snuff porn, again, young boys, looks like southeast Asian stuff, some south of the border stuff too, and more recent. His email contacts were sent to the FBI, and to Interpol.”

“Anything else on this guy?”

“Not much at this time. Nothing much on phone records, neighbors didn’t say much one way or another, parole officer thinks he was born again, reformed, but he ran his PC through a maze of fire-walled networks set up by other kiddy pornsters. How he hid his activity. Pretty common.”

“What about that duffel and towel from the Walker crime scene? Anything back on that yet?”

“Lands End duffel, both mail order and sold at Sears, more than four thousand sold in the area over the past two months, in this sales region alone, sir. The towel is worse. Target’s house brand, pretty generic, maybe twenty plus thousand sold over the past year in Dallas County alone.”

“Shit.”

“Could be our girl chose these items for their anonymity,” Acheson said. “What did you find on Walker’s computer?”

“Lot of porn, kiddy porn. Boys, sodomy, mainly stills, but a few snuff videos, too.”

“Well, there’s a link,” Acheson added.

“Rodriguez,” the Duke interjected, “did you check air traffic to Denver and back for the weekend?”

“Yessir. Nada. DHS ran a broader crosscheck of all LEOs in the region. Only one made the trip, a male, Tarrant County SO lieutenant, went up to Ft Collins for his mother’s funeral.”

“Okay, that’s a blank, just like you called it, Ben. What about the victim on Turtle Creek?”

“That would be,” the tech resumed, pausing to look at his notes, “one Rueben Salazar, thought to be a mule for one of the big border cartels, been running junk and girls out of Oak Cliff, DeSoto, Cedar Hill, and The Grove, and with some recent moves into Waco reported. Been using girls to move product, works ‘em for a while then allegedly dumps ’em.”

“Dumps? You mean kills ‘em?”

“Well sir, no one knows. Most of his girls, well, all of ‘em, probably, are illegals. There’s just no record of them, no way to track ’em.”

“So, what are you telling me? There are drug runners up here using girls to move product and possibly killing them off after a while? And we have no idea how many have been killed, or even where the bodies are?”

“Yessir,” the tech said, looking down at his notes. “That about sums it up.”

“Holy Mother of God. So, this Salazar? Any porn on his drives?”

“Stuff’s still downstairs in Evidence, not in the lab yet, sir.”

“Expedite that. So,” The Duke said to the detectives in the room, “why does this one feel important? Why hit Salazar? Maybe he into porn. Or was he?”

“Well,” Acheson replied, “he’s trafficking women, now purportedly killing them, too. That makes our Ninja an avenging angel, doesn’t it? Out doing what we can’t, or haven’t been able to do.”

“Like that movie, Death Wish,” one of the detectives added.

“Maybe,” Ben said. “Could be as simple as that, but I kinda doubt it. That Bronson character in the movie is motivated by revenge, isn’t he? Hoods break into his apartment, rape and kill his wife, beat up his daughter, rape her too, and the cops seem powerless to do anything about it so he goes on a killing spree. Becomes known as a vigilante killer. Public see him as doing the cops’ work for them, crime goes down as ‘scrotes get taken out, and in the end he becomes an invisible hero.”

“So,” The Duke said, “are we missing something big here? Motive? Revenge is the oldest motive in the world, isn’t it?”

“My guess is Salazar is the key,” Acheson replied. “He seems atypical, as a victim anyway, but something atypical might be on his computer, something that links him to the first two perps. Say,” Acheson said to the tech, “that email list? Is it possible that Feldman was getting images from either Walker or Salazar? Or the other way around? Are they linked somehow?”

“Haven’t checked that angle, sir.” The tech got on his cell and made a call.

“Well, Salazar was running women and drugs up here,” Acheson continued. “He had a working pipeline, a renewable, fresh supply of talent, so who’s to say he wasn’t running families, and families have little boys in ‘em. Maybe he was providing kids to these perps, for them to photograph, or have, uh, sex with. Or…oh sweet Jesus.”

“What, Ben? What is it?”

“Or to kill. Snuff vids,” Acheson groaned. “What if these guys were making snuff vids, then dumping the bodies. Kill the kids, then kill their moms. Leave no trails…”

“BINGO!” cried the CSU tech. “Multiple IP hits on Feldman’s drive with Walker. As soon as we know Salazar’s IPs we’ll run crosschecks on that one too.”

“Cloud storage,” Acheson said. “Check to see what kind of Cloud storage facilities Feldman used, see if Walker…”

“Right! Got it!” The tech was back on his phone, relaying instructions.

“Cloud storage?” The Duke asked.

“Places to store huge files off site, video files mainly, encrypted and easy to share with known associates. Be hard to locate because he’s got so many…was he using Tor?”

“Yeah,” the tech said, “they all do, but it’s not as bullet proof as they think. NSAs been inside Tor for years.”

“So, we ask NSA to run down these guys, see if they were running a network together. Captain? That might have to go through the Chief, via the FBI.”

“Got it, Ben. I’ll go have a chat with him. Say, do you think our suspect is leading us to these guys?”

Acheson leaned back in his chair, looked up at the ceiling. “There’s not a doubt in my mind now, Captain. That’s exactly what she’s doing.”

“So. Do we really want to run her down?”

Acheson looked at The Duke. “She killed three of our own, sir.”

“Yeah. She’s gotta pay for that.”

“Uh-huh, but my guess is she’s always going to be at least two steps ahead of us. So in the end, Captain, when she’s got what she wants she’ll either turn herself in, or just disappear.”

The Duke nodded, left to go see the Chief, grateful this stuff hadn’t got too much attention in the press. Yet.

But it would. Stuff like this always did.

+++++

The Duke, Acheson and a handful of detectives from CID were sitting behind little school-desks eating ribs and brisket at Sonny Bryans’ on Inwood Road, and had been talking about the case and where it was leading them – before their food was ready.

“You know, potentially, this shit’s going to go international. Those pedophiles had, have, a huge network set up,” Acheson said, “so there’s just no way of knowing where this is going lead.”

“God damn, these are good fucking baked beans!” The Duke cried. Acheson took that to mean it was time to stop talking shop.

“Ribs ain’t too bad today, neither,” Deke Slater, one of the senior detectives added. “Still, too much sauce. Like mine dry, any-who.”

“How’s that sam’ich, Ben? Got onions and relish over there if it’s too dry.”

“It’s fine, sir.”

“Ya know, this is still the best place in town,” The Duke continued, “Has been since the sixties, when Sonny was still cookin’. Heard he was a dentist! Did y’all know that? Come in and stoke the fires on his way to his office. Course, don’t know if that’s true or not, but it sounds good. Died of cancer. Shame. He was a good man.”

“You knew him, Captain?”

“Yup. Short man, nice smile. Had this old 60-something Mercedes, silver I think, drove it in every morning, always around four or so, almost always had a police escort, or so legend has it. When they opened up in the mornin’ there’d always be about ten squad cars out back, just waitin’. Shame he didn’t sell donuts, ya know? He’d a been a gozillionaire.”

Nods around the group, then The Duke’s cell phone pinged.

“Dickinson,” he said into the thing as he took out a notepad. “Okay, go ahead…yup…yup…you don’t say. Well, fuck-a-doodle-do. Alright. We’ll see you back at CID in, say,” he looked over at the desert menu on the wall, “in about forty five minutes. Right. Bye.”

“Anything new?” Acheson asked.

“Probably. That cloud shit? They’re all linked. Internet addresses, too. Looks like twelve more here in town, on Feldman’s list anyway, and seems they share the same cloud storage thingy, so presumably we got eight or nine more potential targets. FBI’s running down the addresses now, they’re gonna meet us at the station, go over what they got with us, then maybe we’ll go pay some of these boys a little visit this afternoon. Say, Slim, is that peach cobbler worth a shit today?”

___________________________________

The group got back to Central CID just before noon, just before a small contingent of FBI agents arrived, and The Duke took a seat, loosened his belt a notch, then lifted a cheek and cut loose a monster fart.

“Jesus H Christ, Captain, smells like you ate fuckin’ road kill for lunch.”

“Don’t smell half as bad as that after-shave crap you’re wearin’, Slim,” The Duke parried. “By the way. You ever heard of deodorant?”

Then, a knock on the door.

“Y’all come on in.”

A handful of federal agents, easily identifiable in their blue suits, white shirts and red ties, walked into the room, but all the detectives’ eyes zeroed in on one agent in particular.

About five foot six, trim, navy blue blazer and mid-length skirt, sheer stockings and…

‘Navy blue pumps…’ Acheson said to himself. ‘About a seven, seven and a half.’ He stared at her shoes, then up at the woman’s eyes. ‘And looks exactly like the shoe in the fountain,’ he thought as he looked at her legs and shoes again. ‘A she’s got a runner’s legs, too.’

He looked up at her again, only now saw she had stopped in her tracks – and was staring at him.

He pursed his lips, turned red and looked away, then the woman came and sat next to him.

“Genie. Genie Delaney. And you are?”

“Ben Acheson.”

“Oh, right, the motor-jock.” She held out her hand. “Read your reports, good work. Nice to meet you.” She then leaned over, almost conspiratorially, and whispered: “Say, you got, like, a shoe fetish thing going on there, Ben?”

Acheson pulled away, turned even redder in the face.

“Not your thing, huh?” Delaney said triumphantly as she leaned back in her chair.

“Guys,” The Duke began, “This here’s Red Gibbons, SAC Dallas. Red? Why don’t you make up a few introductions?”

“Well, let’s see, that’s John, Paul, George and Ringo,” the Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas Bureau said sarcastically as he pointed at four of the sunglass’d agents, “they do computer crime when they’re not playing video games. The shady looking pervert over there is, uh, Mick Jagger. Sex Crimes are his thing, when he’s not in the bathroom jacking off. The chick with the legs is, what the fuck, she’s Twiggy today, and she’s our profiler. A psychologist too, so watch what you say around her, boys, or you’ll be on the couch.”

“So,” Acheson said. “We’re keeping this on a bogus, first name basis. Cool.”

“Yeah, well, these guys are from D.C., but they’re not here, if you know what I mean.”

“Ah. Quantum teleportation, is that it?” Acheson said.

“Whatever, slick,” the SAC said sarcastically. “Anyway, where are you guys on this thing?”

“Ben, this is pretty much your show. Why don’t you get these freaks up to speed?”

Acheson jumped a little, looked down, saw Delaney’s shoe rubbing against the inside of his right ankle, then he looked up, caught a faint smile on her lips. He stood and went to the map on the wall, the new one with the vector drawn on it, then recounted events of the last week.

“So, you’re the one that figured out the line linking the kill zones?” Gibbons said when Acheson finished. “How’d you come up with that?”

“I’m not really sure. I think I was looking up at a jet on final, landing at Love. I was over on Maybank, and I could see the tire store, well, some trees by the store, and everything was lined up just right. From where I was to the tire store, and then there was this aircraft, a 737, right above the store, and on the same line. Anyway, I just started looking along that vector…”

“Vector? You a math freak?”

“BS in Engineering, UT Austin, sir.”

“No shit? Not exactly common for a traffic cop?”

“He’s a pilot too, Red,” The Duke added. “Air Force, American Airlines. Got dropped when the shit hit the fan back in ‘08.”

“Okay,” Gibbons nodded. “So, that’s how you found the duffel?”

“Yessir. And that’s when I started thinking more and more about the vector. Anyway, that’s what took me to Love Field, and that confirmed the theory.”

“Interesting. And the shoe? You figured out the compass thing from that?”

“Yessir, and the shoe at the Theatre Center, that it pointed to Salazar, in the bushes.”

“How long had Salazar’s body been in there, Duke?”

“About two hours, plus or minus.”

“So she knew you were out of town, when you’d get back to the station, and about how long it would take you to figure out the next kill zone.”

“Yessir, and I’d say her note mentioning Denver proves that.”

“Why didn’t you guys set a trap for her there?” Delaney asked.

“I fucked up,” Acheson said.

“We fucked up,” The Duke added. “My fault. Shoulda seen that one coming.”

“She wouldn’t have shown if you had,” Delaney said.

“I know,” The Duke said, “and Acheson told me that too, at the time.”

“Solid work, Acheson,” Gibbon said. “Why don’t you take a seat. We’ll fill y’all in with what we found, then we’d better hit the street, see if we can round up a few of these fuckers.”

Acheson returned to his seat, Delaney leaned over again and whispered in his ear: “You have a cute ass, too.”

He turned beet red. Again.

Her shoe was on his ankle a second later, and she poured it on now: “I wore these today, just for you.”

He sat back, pushed his chair away from her, then she winked at him.

“Hey, Ben,” Gibbons said, smiling, “don’t let her fuck with your head too much, okay? She’s a pro, but I think she’s having way too much fun today.”

Delaney sat back in her chair, a mock pout on her face, her lower lip leading the way. “You’re no fun, Red, you know that?”

“Yeah, well, deal with it, Delaney – and stop dangling that shoe,” Gibbons smirked as he began handing out papers, “Anyway, these are the addresses associated with the IPs and links you gave us this morning. Most are known sex offenders, a few are registered, all have been confirmed as using the cloud storage box Feldman was using, and it shows a lot of recent activity from these guys, within the past 48 hours too. I say we break up into two man teams and hit them right now.”

“Warrants?” Acheson asked.

“No time, exigent circumstances.”

The Duke nodded. “Agree.” He looked at the printout in his hand, then around the room, and called out assignments. “Ben, why don’t you take Miss Twiggy there and hit the guy at 4408 McKinney.”

‘Swell,’ Acheson groaned as he looked over at Genie – again.

“Oh, this is gonna be fun,” Delaney said – as she rubbed his ankle again.

They left the station and were making their way through town to Central Expressway when she started in on him.

“So, you a leg freak?”

“Excuse me?”

“You were practically drooling over my legs when…”

“I was looking at your shoes. They look like a match…”

“But the color’s off, don’t you think, Darling?” Delaney said in a patently sultry voice.

“Are you for real?”

“Oh, alright. I’ll be good. So, you have a girlfriend?”

“Jesus H Christ! Would you like me to pull over right here? Fuck you now, so we can get it over with?”

She laughed. “Not a bad idea, Ace, worth thinking about anyway, but maybe we ought to check out the place on McKinney first?”

He grumbled, looked ahead, still shaking his head. “And yes, I have a girlfriend.”

“Really?”

“Well, sort of.”

“Uh huh.”

“But your legs aren’t bad,” he said, smiling.

“You oughta smell these things…”

“What?”

“The shoes! The leather! Spanish…and, well, it’s just kinky as hell.”

“So, are we kinky?”

“Play your cards right Ace, and you might find out.”

“Uh-huh, So, I take it, you just got them?”

“The shoes? FedEx, this morning. Hit the web, called the owner, ordered ‘em after I read your report. You know, for follow up, evidence, that kinda thing.”

“Wow.”

“So? You think they’re sexy?”

“If you want to get there in one piece, you’ll knock it off, right now.”

She laughed again. “Never had anything quite like ‘em. Ever since I put ’em on this morning it’s been nonstop stares. Kinda cool.”

“If you dig giving men woodies, yeah, I guess that’s kinda cool.”

“Oh? You feeling a little stiff?” she said as she started to go for his ankle again.

“Stop it!” Acheson said as he pulled onto Central.

“Traffic’s not too bad,” she said, suddenly all business and looking at her GPS. “Better take Henderson.”

“I know…”

“Of course you do, darling. I’m so sorry.”

“You just won’t let up, will you?” he said as he rolled his eyes. He exited on Henderson, turned across the highway, then south on the frontage road.

“Looks like Oliver is the best cross street – and park just after you make the turn.”

He turned, pulled to a stop and parked the car, then checked out on the radio.

“Is it an apartment?” he asked.

“Yeah, back right corner, looks like,” she said, glancing at her iPhone. She looked up, then around the area, before pointing – “Right over there.”

“Okay, let’s do it,” he said.

“Glad you’re not in uniform,” she said. “What are you carrying?”

“Sig, 226.”

“Great, me too. Got extra clips in my coat pocket if you need ‘em.”

“Yup, got three in mine.”

“Cool.”

They walked to the alley behind the building, stopped at the tall iron fence that surrounded the parking area in the rear; Acheson hopped over, then drew his pistol and went into a low combat stance. When he heard Delaney, cursing her high heels now, behind him as he moved towards the building, a maroon brick two story affair that looked – vaguely – like Frank Lloyd Wright had inspired the design.

“Which unit?” he whispered.

“That one,” she pointed, then they ran for the door.

“Fuck!” they whispered – in unison. The door was ajar, there was blood on the sill and on the floor just inside the door, and Delaney bent down, touched it, rubbed it between her fingers.

“Still warm,” she whispered.

Acheson kicked the door gently, stuck the Sig, then his head inside the doorway.

“Stairs right here, covered in blood, looks like someone was just pulled down.”

“You lead,” Delaney said, and Acheson slipped inside, began heading up the stairs – with his 9mm in the lead. There was a living room at the top of the stairs, a dining room to his left in the far corner. The kitchen was to his left, and he guessed the bedroom and bath would be behind and to his left. He led off to the kitchen and walked through it, then headed back toward the bedroom…

“Oh, shit,” Acheson said as Delaney came up behind him.

“Oh, bloody fucking…” She bent over, retched once, then vomited.

The little bedroom was almost completely bathed in blood, there were splatters on the ceiling, huge sprays on the walls, but worst of all was the bed. A middle aged male, decapitated, penis in mouth, lay on the floor, and a little Mexican kid was tied by wrists and ankles to bedposts, spread-eagled, obviously dead and floating in a pool of almost black blood; what appeared to have been a fairly sophisticated video recorder, on a tripod, lay by the foot of the bed. Acheson looked at the rig, guessed it had been set-up at the foot of the bed, but now lay in pieces on the carpet. The CF card was gone, the battery too, so everything in memory was wiped.

“You better call Gibbons; I’ll go get the car, get dispatch on…”

“Okay…” Delaney groaned.

“You alright?” Acheson looked at Delaney. She seemed pale, more than upset.

“No. No, I’m not.”

“I know. Sometimes it helps if you barf, sometimes it doesn’t.”

“So I’ve heard.”

They laughed.

“Yeah, I must be famous by now. Well, I’ll be right back.”

“I’m going with you,” she said.

He turned, looked at her. “What is it?”

“Something, I don’t know, monstrous. Evil. It’s everywhere, and it’s close, too,” she said, shivering, then she looked at the bed again. “Poor fucking kid. Never had a chance in this world, did he?”

“Don’t think about that right now. Think about the evidence, the scene.”

“You’re right. Sorry.”

“Okay, let’s get downstairs. You stand outside the front door; we have to secure the scene.”

She nodded her head, seemed unsteady. “Yeah.”

“Give me your hand,” he said when he got her to the top of the stairs. “You look kind of shaky.”

He led her down the stairs, noticed she was still shivering when he got her out under the mid-summer sun. “Can you call Gibbons?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, I’ll be right back.” Acheson ran to the iron fence and jumped it, then ran over to the car and got on the radio.

“741 to 700,” he called, using his temporary and The Duke’s call numbers.

“Go ahead, 41.”

“We have multiple Signal 1s at this location.”

“You aren’t the only one, 41. Does it look fresh?”

“10/4, yes sir, maybe an hour, maybe less.”

“700, get back-up headed to 741s location, Code 3!”

“700, at 1418 hours.”

Acheson grabbed his hand unit, cursed himself for forgetting it, then jumped out of the car and drew his weapon just in time to hear Delaney scream, followed by rapid bursts of gunfire.

Then… silence.

“741, shots fired this location!”

“741 at 1419 hours.”

He ran for the fence, jumped it, sprinted across the parking lot and found Delaney breathing heavily, blood all over her blouse and jacket and a defensive knife wound on her left forearm.

“That way,” she said, pointing towards McKinney Avenue. “Black one piece suit, hood, about a fifteen inch blade,” she said, gasping. “Black hair maybe,” she said airily as she slumped to the ground.

“741, Signal 33, officer down behind 4408, am in foot pursuit of suspect at this time!” he yelled into the hand unit.

“741 at 1420 hours.”

He heard sirens everywhere as he ran between buildings and out onto the grassy lawn in front of the apartment building. He shuddered to a stop, turned and looked both ways down McKinney.

Nothing.

“What the Fuck!”

He heard a car peeling out behind 4408 and ran back between the buildings for the alley, ran right past Delaney and hopped the iron fence again, then stopped in the alley.

Nothing.

“741, lost contact, heard a car leaving the area at high speed, going back to down officer.”

“741 at 1421 hours, paramedics advise ETA less than two minutes.”

“Received.”

He jumped the fence again and got to Delaney’s side; she was pale, breathing rapidly, and he pulled her coat open, saw a massive slashing wound across her belly, could make out her intestines through a pool of blood.

“Did you see the car?” he asked.

She nodded. “Bla-ck. Camaro. May-be – mid 80s. T-tops. Clean. Two people inside, both masked.”

“741, stand by for BOLO!”

“741, go ahead at 1422 hours.”

“741, BOLO black mid-80s Chevrolet Camaro, t-tops, two occupants. Vehicle described as clean…”

“I seen ‘em.”

Acheson spun around, saw an old homeless man standing in the alley behind the fence, and he could smell alcohol on his breath from ten feet away.

“Describe them!”

“Yeah, okay. Only one I saw good was a gal, had on some kind of leotard like thing. Black. Her skin was real white, black hair. Had on…”

Sirens were close now, Acheson ran to the gate and hit the inside release and the powered gate started retracting just as the Fire Department’s ambulance unit pulled onto Oliver.

“In here!” he yelled, waving his arms. When the driver saw him he turned and ran back to Delaney.

“They’re here, kid, just hang on.”

“Not feelin’ too hot, Ace. Sorry.”

He ran his hands through her hair, looked her in the eye. “C’mon. Just fight it a few more minutes. Keep breathing! You can do it!”

She nodded her head just as the first paramedic ran up.

Acheson backed out of the way, turned to the homeless man. “Okay, she had on what?”

“Well, like that girl there. High heels. Real nice ones.”

“Color?”

“Black, man, like everything else she had on.”

“741, more BOLO information. Suspect one, white female, black leotard, black high heels, very white skin, black hair, and, wait one…what did you say?”

“She had a big knife, man, and a gun, a pistol, in a black shoulder holster.”

“741, suspect one armed with a knife and a handgun in a shoulder holster.”

“741, at 1424 hours.”

“Okay, did you see the driver of the car?” Acheson asked as he watched one paramedic starting CPR, while another started an IV.

“Not real good.”

“Male, or female.”

“Oh, a girl, same black hair, same clothes.”

“Anything else stand out?”

“Yeah, the car. It had Oklahoma license plates.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah…”

“741, BOLO update, suspect two probably a white female, same description, black hair, black clothing. Suspect vehicle reported to have Oklahoma license plates.”

“741, at 1426 hours.”

“700 to 741 on tactical, how’s your partner?”

Acheson switched to the encrypted TAC channel, then keyed the mic: “Alive. Multiple knife wounds, bleeding out, looks bad. CPR and IV going now.”

“Be there in about five.”

“10/4. Sir, the suspect dragged a body from here, to their car, wherever that was. There’s gonna be a blood trail. We need a lot of manpower here, right now.”

“I’ll take care of it, you look around but stay close to Delaney, ride with her in the box if we don’t get there first. Find out anything you can, got it?”

“Yessir.”

“We’re going to transport now,” a paramedic said. “You coming?”

“Yup.”

+++++

“We’ve got a blood expander going now, and her BP’s stabilized. Bad belly wound, but it doesn’t look like the intestine or stomach is cut, so probably no peritonitis. There’s a really, really good cutter at Parkland right now, guy named Sanchez, and he’s standing by in the ER. My guess is she’s going to be fine.”

Acheson held her hand, squeezed it, and he felt her squeeze his hand in return: “Hear that, kid,” he said gently in her ear, “everything’s going to be okay.”

She opened her eyes, looked at him oddly. “Are you crying?” she asked through the clouded green oxygen mask.

He rubbed his eyes. “Guess so. Sorry.”

She squeezed his hand again. “Don’t be sorry. It’s not so bad.”

“Shouldn’t have left you alone.”

“Bullshit. You did everything right. I screwed the pooch, lost my concentration.”

“You remember anything?”

“Pretty sure I hit her in the arm, left arm, maybe her side too, like near the left ribcage. And her eyes. They were bright blue. Like really bright.”

“Contact lenses?”

“Probably. And the hair. It’s a wig.”

“Witness said she was wearing shoes like yours.”

She thought for a moment. “Didn’t see that, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Why?”

“They’re nice shoes, Ace. Got you going, didn’t they?”

“They sure did, baby.”

“Why’re you calling me that?”

“Because I don’t want you to leave me.”

“Why?”

He shrugged, shook his head. “I guess because…”

Her eyes fluttered, closed. The EKG began to dance, her BP started falling.

“Step on it, manno!” the medic called out to the driver. “She’s crashing!”

“‘Bout three minutes, Steve! Pump some more of that secret sauce in the bag!”

The ambulance pulled into the ER’s parking area and backed up to the huge, covered unloading ramp; a team of nurses and medics was waiting and pulled Delaney from the box, then rushed her through sliding doors into Trauma 2; Acheson ran in behind them, only to be pulled out of the room by a uniformed officer. Acheson stepped back, pulled out his badge and the other officer let him go.

“Who is that,” the officer asked.

“FBI.”

“Oh, shit. Say, you wouldn’t be Acheson, would you?”

“Yup.”

The other officer stepped back. “Hey, man, that’s cool…just don’t, you know, like barf on me, okay?”

+++++

The Duke, Red Gibbons and Acheson sat in the surgical waiting room somewhere in the UT Southwestern hospital complex, and they were worried. Delaney’s operations was supposed to last two hours max, but she had been under now for almost five hours.

For the first hour or so they had talked about the case, and the fact that the Camaro had been abandoned a few miles away and, not surprisingly, that the car had been reported stolen a few days hours earlier by some kids visiting from Tulsa. And again, no surprise, there were no unaccounted for fingerprints in the car, only a single Pepe Jimenez pump in the back seat, size seven, this one Navy blue.

Just like Delaney’s.

As the second hour approached – and passed, the talk turned more to Delaney, her background, and Gibbons talked about her like he knew her pretty well.

“She’s just a kid, you know? Bright as hell, a psych major at Penn, went from grad school straight to the Academy at Quantico. Valedictorian. Hates guns, so with her background went into profiling. Seemed a natural, ya know what I mean? But she likes to play games, fuck with people’s heads. Been bounced out of two postings, doesn’t make friends. Probably intimidates too many people, those she doesn’t irritate the hell out of, anyway.”

“No boyfriend we need to call?” Acheson asked.

“She’s cute, Ben, but watch out. Still waters – know what I mean?”

“So that means, I take it, no boyfriend?”

“No one. You spend enough time around her and you’ll get it.”

The Duke watched this exchange knowingly, looked at Ben and saw all the signs, then shook his head. ‘Well,’ he said to himself, ‘you never know when it’s going to hit, do you?’

Passing four hours, Ben was almost beside himself. He was up and down, pacing back and forth, looking at the clock on the wall one minute, at his wristwatch the next, then a few minutes later a surgeon in bloody scrubs came into the waiting room.

Red and The Duke came over, stood next to Ben.

“A real mess in there,” the doctor began. “Thought all we had was a knife wound, but we found this in there.” He held up a bullet, and the three cops’ eyes went wide. “.223, best guess, anyway. AR-15 probably. Too bad she wasn’t wearing a vest.”

“Is she okay,” Acheson asked, now almost pleading.

“Well, yeah. Her gut’s a mess, the bullet’s the problem, though. Why she crashed, anyway. Nicked her aorta. Close call. Tim Snyder, a great vascular cutter, just happened to be around the corner when we put out the first Code Blue, but he was there when we needed him. He’s still in there, finishing up. Her lucky day, I guess. Not too many docs around here could’ve handled a clusterfuck like this, and he’s the best we got, period.”

“So, she’s gonna make it?” Acheson asked pointedly.

“Well, yeah. Didn’t I just say that?”

“Thank you, doctor,” The Duke said, taking Ben by the shoulder and turning him away. “Say, let’s go get some dinner. Red? Wanna tag along?”

“Might as well,” he said, looking at Acheson and shaking his head. “Where to?”

“Want some ribs? Sonny’s is still open, and they’re just across the street?”

“Didn’t we eat there, for lunch?” Acheson asked through a fog.

“What, you some kinda Yankee? Can’t eat Bar-B-Q two times in one day?”

“Well, I kinda wanted to keep my cholesterol under 1500, at least once in my life, anyway.”

“Shee-yit, then don’t eat two desserts this time, Meathead!”

+++++

He went up to her room after The Duke and Gibbons took off, sat up beside her while she slept – until he too fell asleep – sitting up in an old blue vinyl recliner. Sometime in the night a nurse came in and reclined his chair, covered him with a blanket, and he slept through a world of nightmare images: little boys being cut up by butchers, drowning in oceans of blood. Then he woke with a start around five in next morning – when another nurse was drawing blood and checking vitals.

“You’ve been here all night?” he heard Delaney ask.

He sat up, rubbed his eyes, smiled when he saw her face. “Yeah, guess so. Where are all the horses?”

“Horses?” Delaney said. “What are you…”

“The ones that walked through my mouth. Tastes like one took a shit in here.”

“Goddamn!” she cringed. “Don’t make me laugh, you asshole!”

He came to her side. “Hurts, huh?”

“Feels like I’ve been shot.”

“You were.”

“What?”

“.223. Just missed your right kidney, nicked your aorta.”

“Shot?”

“In the back, kid. Whoever these bitches are, they’re playing hardball.”

“That’s right. There’s more than one.”

“It’s worse than that, kiddo. Best estimate is, as of now, anyway, there’s at least four two-girl teams out there.”

“What?”

“Three of the other search teams ran into them, when they went to their target houses.”

“This is unreal. Have you ever heard of anything like this before?”

Acheson shook his head. “No one has. Gibbons told me last night the FBI is bringing a few hundred agents down from D.C. Full court press, I think he called it.”

“How long am I going to be here? Anyone tell you?”

“Depends on your aorta, how it heals. Maybe a while, so maybe you’re taking an early medical retirement.”

“That bad?”

He nodded. “Could be, from what the doc told Gibbons. You’re lucky to be here right now; that’s what an OR nurse told me, anyway.”

“Got that right, sweetie,” the nurse finishing up her rounds added. “You coded, twice. Lucky ain’t the half of it, sister!”

“Coded?”

“You was dead, sweetheart. Dead times two. Now, can I get you anything? Pain alright?”

“Feels okay. Kind of a bad burn in my back, that’s all.”

“Okay, I’ll slip you something in your IV. You’ll sleep good for a while, too.”

“Could you give us a few minutes?” Delaney asked.

“Sure. Just hit that call button when you’re ready.” The nurse left the room.

“So, I remember you crying,” she said.

“Yup. Like I said. Sorry.”

“And I remember you squeezing my hand.”

“Guilty, your honor.”

“So, uh, I’m not going to ask any questions. Well, maybe one.”

“Fire away.”

“Are you, like, crazy or something?”

He laughed. “I wasn’t. Not until I met you.”

“Oh. What was it? My sparkling wit, or the shoes?”

“I’ll never tell.”

“Prick,” she said with a smile.

“Douchebag.”

They both laughed, then she winced, one eye closed tightly.

“Time for Mister Morpheus, me thinks,” she said.

Then Acheson’s phone rang.

Number blocked. He ignored it. Then it rang again. And he ignored it.

Then again.

He answered.

“Hello?”

“Tell her we’re sorry.” It sounded like a middle aged woman, mid-western accent.

“Who?”

“Delaney. Agent Delaney.”

“And who would you be?” He reached down, put the phone on speaker.

“A friend of Anne’s. I shot Agent Delaney.”

Delaney’s eyes went wide.

“So, why’d you shoot her?”

“I was trying to knock the gun out of her hand.”

“Nice shooting. Any of your people hurt?”

“No. Tell Delaney, when she gets back to D.C. she needs more time on the range.”

“Right. So, when is this going to end?”

“We’re almost done. In Dallas, anyway. Then we’re moving on.”

“Moving on? We?”

“We accomplished what we set out to do. We’re moving on.”

“Don’t suppose you want to tell me who ‘we’ is, do you?”

“Hang on.”

They heard a phone being exchanged between people.

“Hello?” It was a new voice, an older woman’s.

“Acheson here.”

“Oh, hello, Ben.”

“Excuse me, but have me met?”

“Only indirectly, but yes, we have.”

“Oh? Are you Anne?”

“No names, Ben. Not yet.”

“Got it. So, maybe someday?”

“Maybe, but I owe you another apology.”

“Oh? What for?”

“Amy,” she said, “and the other officers. I didn’t find out Breedlove was a friend of yours until yesterday. Were you close?”

“Friends. From Academy.”

“Oh. I understand. Well, I’m sorry.”

“I’m curious,” Delaney interrupted, “why are you calling now?”

“Agent Delaney? You’re awake?”

“It’s either that, or this is one seriously fucked up dream…”

The voice on the other end laughed, and they heard other women’s voices in the background laughing as well.

“Obviously I’m not going to answer that, Agent Delaney, but you’re on the right, shall we say, track?”

Then the line went dead.

“Now what did she mean by…Ben, what is it?”

But Acheson had gone stiff, as if an icy hand had suddenly gripped his heart.

He looked at his iPhone, found The Duke’s home number and dialed it.

“Ben? That you?”

“Sir, I know where the bodies are, and there’s something else.”

“Ben, it’s like five in the morning. Where are you?”

“Sir, with Delaney. They just called, here.”

“Who? Who called you?”

“Them. The suspects. Just now.”

“Fuck-a-doodle-do!” Acheson could tell the old man was now wide awake.

“Meet me at Fair Park, sir. On Washington, by the train exhibit, and get a CSU rolling.”

“Do we need a TAC team?”

“I doubt it, sir, but better safe than sorry. They told me they’re finished in Dallas, and moving on.”

“What? Told you? You believe ’em?”

“Yessir. I think so. Still, it could be a trap.”

“Okay. Give me…uh…we’ll be there in about forty five minutes or so.”

Acheson cut the connection, looked at Delaney.

“Holy mother-fucking guacamole,” she said.

“I know. Gotta go, but…mind if I kiss you first?”

“If you don’t, I’ll shoot you myself.”

He leaned over, kissed her gently on the lips.

“That feels nice,” she sighed. “I could get used to that.”

He kissed her again. Longer this time, and deeper, then he leaned back, ran his fingers through her hair, and noticed her eyes were locked on his.

“I’ve been waiting for you, for a long time,” Delaney said.

“Have you now?” She winced again, took a deep breath. “Pain getting worse?”

“A little, yes.”

“I’ll get the nurse.”

She nodded, but the skin on her face looked pale and waxy, and her brow was lined with beads of perspiration. “Ben, be careful. I doubt this is over. These aren’t the kind of people that leave loose ends, and I sense something much bigger is going on.”

He nodded. “I think you’re dead right.”

Chapter 11

Acheson took surface streets through town as dawn came to the city, and he made his way to Haskell Avenue and streaked east through light traffic towards Fair Park. As he approached Washington he turned off his headlights and wound around the convoluted intersection until he was sitting a few hundred yards away from a fairly large exhibit of old steam engines and passenger cars.

Within minutes he spotted The Duke’s Ford, followed by several large dark blue step-vans, all with their headlights off.

Acheson flicked his lights once, and the caravan headed for his position.

“Seen anything,” The Duke asked as he pulled up to Acheson’s open window.

“Nothing.”

“Okay, so why are we here?”

“A pun.”

“A pun?”

“She said we were on the right track. This exhibit is right on the line, sir.”

“Oh, fuck-a-doodle-do.”

“Yessir. My sentiments, exactly.”

The Duke picked up his radio’s mic: “700 to all units, let’s move in on foot, surround the train exhibit. Anything in there moves, kill it, ask for ID later. Got that?”

Seventy Tac Team officers poured out of the vans and sprinted around the fenced-in exhibit; Acheson and The Duke followed and went to a gate in the fence; the lock was destroyed. Some sort of acid had been poured on it, the metal had simply melted away, leaving the gate ajar.

“Blood?” Acheson said, pointing down at the ground. “Is that blood?”

A Tac sergeant came over, took out his SureFire and hit the ground with it’s intense beam.

“Looks red to me,” the sergeant said.

“Okay Collins, get ten of your best over here, and let’s follow the trail.”

The sergeant turned, called out names and a new team formed and assembled by the gate.

“Weapons free,” The Duke whispered hoarsely. “Y’all follow me.” He led off, the TAC sergeant by his side, Acheson just behind, and the rest of the team fanned out beside and behind the leaders, H&K MP-5s sweeping the area as they followed the blood trail…

…which led between two rows of old “heavyweight” passenger cars, and ended at an old Railway Post Office baggage/mail car…

…and the lock on this car had been similarly defeated; drooping bits of melted metal lay on the sill, and had dropped down onto the ballast below in slagging heaps…

…The Duke slid the door open…

…The Tac sergeant shined his light inside…

…and Acheson looked in, then fell to his knees and started vomiting. Again.

+++++

The rest of the pedophiles were inside the baggage car, hanging from meathooks strung out evenly from the ceiling – heads lay below each disemboweled body, a severed penis in each mouth, testes in each eye socket, and seething piles of warm intestine lay oozing all over the old oak floor.

The sun was up now, and it was getting hot – very, very hot. Acheson took notes for his report but was already getting tired of all this detective crap. He wanted nothing more than to get on his BMW and hit the streets, write a few tickets even, if only because all this ‘blood & guts’ crime shit was starting to get on his nerves. He popped another Tums and chewed the chalky crud, then swallowed it.

“Here, have a donut,” The Duke said, holding out a fresh, warm glazed one.

Acheson scowled at the thing. “No, thanks.”

“Man, ain’t you figured out why cops eat donuts yet?”

“Nope.”

“Well, Meathead, it’s because nothing, and I mean nothing neutralizes stomach acid faster than a fresh glazed donut and a pint of ice-cold milk. And besides, they kinda help keep things in perspective.”

“Well then, you better give me a couple.”

“See? You ain’t as dumb as you look, Meathead.”

“Got Milk?”

“Hey, beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Swell.”

“Got any more of them Tums?”

“Yup.” Acheson handed his bottle over. “Perspective, huh?”

“One born every minute, Meat. Did you stay up with her all night?”

“Think I slept some.”

“How is she?”

“Better.”

“I could see it in your eyes last night. She hit you like a ton of bricks.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Gibbons had a good laugh over it, anyway. Seems to think she’s a handful. Personally, I don’t doubt that. Good legs, though.”

Acheson looked at The Duke. “Yessir, reckon they are.”

“What about Carol, what’s her name? Denison?”

“Sir?”

“Think she’d go for an old fart like me?”

“She’d be a fool not to, sir.”

The Duke smiled. “We’d better head for the barn, lots of reports to write.”

They walked back to their cars, still parked side by side, down on Washington Street. Ben opened the door, saw a piece of folded up paper on the passenger seat as he got in. He sighed, looked at the thing like it was a cobra, then picked it up and read it:

– Ben, if you want, check the old man’s laptop, in his desk drawer. Go to C:photos:personal:99eXMFM. Mostly girls, lots of girl on girl, a few dirty movies, nothing too bad. Probably enough to get him fired, enough to get you promoted to Lt pretty fast, if that’s what you decide. Anyway, that’s for you to mull over. We’re not going to do anything about him. Again, sorry about Amy, and for what it’s worth, you should stay with the department. Luv, C –

“What’s that?” The Duke asked, looking at Acheson while he read the note. “Is it – from them?”

Acheson handed the note to The Duke, watched him read it, watched his face turn pale gray. After a minute, The Duke handed it back.

“Well, like it says, it’s for you to decide, ain’t it?”

Acheson reached into the car’s glovebox, found an old box of matches, struck one and held it up to the paper. He watched the paper ignite and held it out the window, watched it burn, let the ashes fall to the ground. When it was completely destroyed, he let go of the last fragment, then started the car.

“Seeya at the station, Duke.”

“Okay, Meathead. I’ll stop off and get some fresh ones on the way in.”

“Better get some milk, too. Cold.”

Chapter 12

Six Months Later

Dallas

The 757 from Seattle flared over the threshold of Runway 17 Right and touched down in a light freezing mist. The First Officer applied the spoilers and reverse thrust, then applied the brakes gently with his toes, and the old Boeing slowed smoothly and turned off the active half way down the runway. Flaps and slats were retracted while the jet taxied to Gate E7, and after Delta Flight 322 mated with the Jetway, the FO cut the engines and began working his way through the Engine Shutdown Checklist.

“I’ll handle the passengers,” the Captain said, referring to the post landing ‘meet and greet’ one of them had to attend to after every flight.

“Yessir,” the First Officer said. “I got it here.”

The Captain exited the cockpit, walked back to the doorway just ahead of the wing port-side; he smiled at the older folks, waved at the kids, then his eyes locked on a gorgeous pair of legs and he smiled at the woman appreciatively, if for no other reason than she was dressed well enough to make any man drool. Still, her high heels were over-the-top old school, the kind movie stars and pin-up queens back in the fifties and sixties used to wear, and he was old enough to appreciate them, yet still young enough to feel a certain welcome stiffness setting in.

The woman passed him on her way out the door and her coat swung open just enough to reveal a gold badge clipped to the belt around her waist, and his eyes moved quickly to the old couple behind her and he smiled at them, waved to a kid behind the old people, but his head turned to catch one last glimpse of the legs as they started up the Jetway.

Genie Delaney walked up the sloped ramp and into the terminal, then turned toward the escalator that would carry her down to the baggage claim area. She found the assigned carousel and a nice spot to watch for her bag, then waited for all the flight’s luggage to start coming down the chute – when she felt someone move in close, too close.

“Hey, douchebag,” the man by her side said.

She turned, looked at the DPD motor-jock standing by her side. “Hey, prick, didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s stupid to ride a motorcycle when it’s icy out? Or did they finally put training wheels on your scooter?”

People nearby listened, some moved away, not sure what the cop would do after such a deadly insult, while others thought it was great fun, like ‘who the Hell puts down a cop that way, and lives to tell about it?’ ‘What would he do next?’ ‘Beat her over the head with his flashlight?’

The cop slowly took off his helmet, then his sunglasses, and he put these in a shirt pocket, and all the while the woman looked him in the eye. He put his helmet on a seat-back and took the woman’s face in his hands, then leaned down and kissed her. It was a long, deep kiss, and people all around the couple smiled and laughed a little, while more than a few men’s gazes lingered on the woman’s legs – and for way too long.

Delaney’s bag came; the cop grabbed it and, holding her hand in his, they make their way out to the short term lot, to a rain spattered Ford SUV clearly belonging to the Dallas Police Department. He opened her door, helped her get in, then put the bag on the seat behind her. Once he was strapped-in, he started the engine and made for the north airport exit, then turned eastbound on Highway 114 and drove on into the city. He knew just by looking she was exhausted so they drove in silence, and by the time they passed Las Colinas she was fast asleep. He drove through the city towards the SMU campus, then a few blocks north to Milton St, and into the driveway of his little house. He quietly went around, got her bag and carried it in to his bedroom, then went back out and woke her, gently.

“Did I fall asleep?” she said, yawning.

“You sure did, darlin’. Let’s get you in, and to bed.”

“Um, that sounds kinda good,” she purred. “Dinner?”

“I can make you a salad. Anything else sound good?”

“Maybe you should just come to bed.”

“I can try…”

“…But you’re on call. I knew it. You’re always on call.”

“Sorry.”

“Can’t people in this town go just one night without killing themselves in a car?”

“Come on, I’ll carry you.”

“Ooh, really?”

“Really.”

“You haven’t done that in a while, Officer Studly PooRight.”

He leaned over, picked her up, carried her into the house and on into his bedroom.

“Right there,” she pointed, “right on that there bed!”

“Coming right up, M’am.” He put her down gently, then settled down next to her.

The telephone rang.

“Oh, fuck! Already?!”

“Don’t answer it, Ben.”

“Sorry. Got to.”

He picked up the phone. “Yo!” he said.

“Ben? That you?”

“Duke! How’s it hangin’?”

“Fine, fine. Say, is Genie back?”

“Just picked her up. What’s up?”

“Wanted to know if you two were up for dinner.”

“Duke wants to know if you’re hungry.”

“Sure. Here, or out?”

“Yeah, Duke, come on over. Steaks and salad here?”

“No, gonna need some curry tonight.”

“No shit! Curry?”

“It’s that gal of ours. Broadening my horizons. Again.”

“Wow. I’m impressed. She’s coming, then?”

“Yeah,” The Duke said. “We’ll be there in about fifteen or so.”

“Okay. See you then.”

“Duke?” Delaney asked. “Man, it’s been awhile. Carol with him?”

“Yup. But he sounds a little tense. On edge.”

“Oh? Well, I’d better throw a little water on my face, brush my teeth. Any mail today?”

“I’ll go see.” He was gone a few minutes, then came back with a handful of letters. “Couple of letters from schools, one from D.C.”

“You need to shower?” she asked.

“Probably.”

“Why don’t you hop in?”

“Okay,” Acheson said, but he was thinking about the tone in The Duke’s voice. He hadn’t heard that kind of stress since last summer, and hadn’t seen him in weeks. He showered, dressed in a fresh uniform and got his hand unit’s spare battery out of the charger and slapped it onto the bottom of the radio just as the doorbell rang.

He heard Genie and Carol talking about how good the Christmas tree looked, about how crowded the malls were, then The Duke – asking where Ben was.

Knock on the bedroom door.

“Ben? Mind if I come in?”

“Nope. Entrez vous!”

“What was that? Frog?”

“Yup.”

“So, are you still flying that Paris route.”

“Yup. One day over, one day on the ground over there, then one day back and three days off, then repeat as often as necessary until the desired results are achieved. Gives me two days to work wrecks, though.”

“Almost sounds fun. I know the Chief appreciates it. So, what are you flying?”

“777s. Fun airplane. Huge, though.”

“I’m a little jealous.”

Acheson grinned, then turned more serious. “You also sound pretty stressed-out, Duke. What’s up?”

“Those gals have been in Portland and San Francisco. West coast, anyway. Lots of rumbles in Orange County, Irvine area. And now Seattle, too. A couple of cops taken down again.”

“Same MO?”

“Yup. Decapitations, disembowelments, the dicks and balls…all the same shit.”

“And?”

“And, well, I got this is the mail yesterday; it’s addressed to us, but you were still airborne so, well, just read it.” He handed Acheson a letter, still folded neatly in it’s envelope.

Acheson took the letter out and looked it over; it had already been dusted for prints.

– Hi, boys. We’ve been busy, as I guess you know, but we’ve been recruiting and our numbers are growing. This note is just to let you know that we’ve got a permanent team set up and operating in Dallas now, and we’ve got a few new targets lined up and ready to go. Real fun ones, too, I promise. As I doubt there’s anyone around the department who can figure us out quite like the ‘Junior Birdman’ can, it’s our hope you can convince him to join us on our next wild goose chase. The last one was fun, and this one promises to be even funner! Oh, and tell him to look near the Inner Marker; he’ll know what to do. The next one will start with a bang, too! Luv, C  –

“Well, that’s quaint,” Acheson said. “Nothing like goading someone along, is there?”

“Look, the Chief wants you back, full time…”

“Ain’t gonna happen, Duke. If y’all want to pull me off traffic to work on this, fine. I don’t much like driving that mastodon-mobile around on the ice, anyway. Bikes are one thing, but that fucker ain’t no fun at all.”

“So, two days a week? That’s all?”

“I don’t think it’ll matter much, Duke. Sounds to me like they’ll set up their kills when they know I’m around. Either that or they’ll be so mad at me they’ll take me out.”

“You know, it sounds like they’ve got the department completely infiltrated.”

“Oh, you can count on it.”

“You don’t sound surprised. Why?”

“Simple, really. It’s just history, so look at it that way. We’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of women coming back from wars in the Middle East, and many have seen combat operations, but they’ve been working in close proximity to the most misogynistic culture on the planet. In other words, they’re battle tested, but they’re pissed off, too. They get back here and see the same old misogynist bullshit they always have, the same old male patriarchy keeping them down, the same old predatory bullshit where rapists get a slap on the wrist while their victims get pummeled in court and victimized over and over for the rest of their life. Then the President from Hell gets into office, and things only promise to get worse, much worse. So what are these women supposed to do? Well, they plan, they think and plan for the long term. They organize, they look at where the real problems lay, then they join police departments, sheriff’s offices, any kind of law enforcement agency they can, any kind of job that helps them gather intel on whatever kinds of targets they want to go after. They develop hit teams, intel teams, logistics teams, then, probably, political action teams, and in time, when they’re ready, they’ll move into politics, begin to reshape the political agendas in targeted regions, then nationwide. Then in fifty years or so, who knows? The cultural landscape will be completely altered.”

“You think they’re that well organized?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Well, why?”

“Because these women want change, real change. The kind of change they want will only come about through some kind of revolution, maybe even civil war.”

“Maybe the family values people are right…” The Duke sighed.

“What? A woman’s place is in the kitchen?”

“Yeah…”

“Maybe a hundred years ago you could justify that kind of thinking, when religion dominated social discourse in much of the country. Today? All you have to do is look at Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, places like Iran to see where that leads. And guess what? Our new President is leading us right down that path, to a Christian theocracy, to putting women back in the kitchen. My dad always taught me to put yourself in the other fella’s shoes, you know, kind of a ‘do unto others as you’d have them do unto you’ kind of thing. How would you like to be objectified, subjugated, put down at every turn, then for good measure have your spouse beat the Hell out of you every time you displease him?”

“Ben, really, do think this is linked? I mean, they went after pedophiles…”

“Yeah, so what? Serial pedophiles are just the worst of the worst. Remember, these aren’t “just women” – I’d guess a bunch of them are mothers, too. What would represent the worst repression possible to a woman and a mother – than men who prey on their children?”

“Jesus, Ben, do you know what you’re saying?”

“Yeah, sure, I’ve been thinking about this for months, and it’s about the only thing that does make sense. And you know what? More power to ‘em.”

“What?”

“Duke, look, it’s simple. Women want equality, right?”

“Sure.”

“Well, the thing is, nobody is ever “given” anything, especially things like equality or freedom. These things are earned over time, usually earned with the tip of a spear, through force. Look at the civil rights movement, the equal right’s movement. You can pass all the laws you want but in the end nothing changes. Fifty years after women began burning bras very little has changed, and a lot of what has changed is little more than window dressing. Fifty years after LBJ and the civil rights movement, what’s happened? The welfare state was dismantled and black men have been incarcerated in record numbers. Why? Because no one’s going to “give” them equality, and rather than face the music, rather than endure more cities burning, like what happened in 66 and 68, it’s far better to warehouse all that anger. So we put blacks in prison, we arrest them for the slightest provocation, let ’em rot in hot cages, at least until they acquiesce, and by then all the revolutionary fervor is burned out of them, and then we ‘let’ these burned out hulks spend the rest of their lives on the streets, maybe sleeping in shelters.”

“Hey,” they heard Genie say from the living room, “you guys coming out, or should I get a salad going?”

“We’re coming now,” Dickinson said, then he turned to Acheson. “Okay, so what do I tell the Chief?”

“You know what? That secretary of yours? The one with the great legs? Start giving her all our plans, what we’re thinking of doing, how we’re going to respond…”

“You don’t think…?”

“I’m going to assume so until proven otherwise. You’d be well advised start thinking that way, too.”

“But, why?”

“I’d want them to know what I’m doing, at least until I don’t want them to know, but by then they’ll trust the intel they’re getting. Then I’d be in a better position to confuse them.”

“Okay, got it. But, what do I tell the Chief?”

“For now? I’ll work in CID a couple of days a week. I’ve got three weeks in June, I’ll spend those working downtown. That’s when they’ll make their big move, if my hunch is correct. The one year anniversary would be nice timing.”

“Yeah, makes sense. Well, guess we’d better head on out,” The Duke said, “before we have some seriously pissed off womenfolk out there.”

“Reckon so,” Acheson replied, shaking his head at life’s little ironies. The Duke would never change. How many men could?

“Ben!” Carol Denison almost screamed when he and The Duke came back out to the little living room. “She got in!”

“What?” Ben said, smiling.

Genie looked up from the letter in her hand; “UT Southwestern. Here’s the letter.”

“What’s this?” The Duke asked.

“Med school,” Acheson said, glowing with pride. “She got into UT Southwestern! Hot damn! Baby, I’m so proud of you!”

Carol turned to him, smiled that knowing smile of her’s and came over to him, hugged him. “And I’m so proud of you, too,” she whispered, and he felt her slip a little piece of paper into his hand before she slipped into The Duke’s protective embrace.

They walked out the front door, out to their cars, discussed where to get curry in Dallas on a Friday night and decided on a place out on Greenville Avenue, but because Ben was ‘on call’, they broke up into two cars, and he helped Genie up into huge SUV while The Duke and Carol went over to his Ford.

He walked around to his side of the car, paused to read the note Carol had slipped him:

–  We knew you’d understand. Luv, C  –

Ben Acheson looked across his ice coated lawn at Carol Denison sitting beside the head of CID, and he understood. He saw her eyes, the love, the compassion, the cool fury, and he wondered where all this would lead, and what the world would look like after all this wild passion burned it’s way through – to the scorched heart of the earth.

Part II – Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Chapter 12

Seattle

I took the call a little after midnight, and yes, it was a dark and stormy night, but in my line of work nights tend to get stormy – in one way or another. Dispatch called in the middle of a dream, just as I ran across an ex-wife in a very interesting situation, but the sleepy voice on the other end of the line had no way of knowing that, and even if she had, there wasn’t a damn thing either of us could do about it. Sometimes late night calls are just the luck of the draw, some nights you end up in the wrong place at the right time, and everything goes to hell from there. No one’s fault, you know what I mean? But still, some calls are like a stone skipping across a pond, they ripple through time, across the windmills of your mind – before they sink from view. This one sure would.

I slid out of my berth up forward and looked at the puffy-eyed stranger I saw in the mirror, threw on some clean pants and ran my belt through the loops, then hooked my badge over the left front pocket and strapped my old Sig P-220 into the crusty leather shoulder holster a wife – which one? – had given me twenty years and more than a few nightmares ago. Funny how some things from marriages last longer than others, even if the joke turns out to be on you. On second thought, maybe that isn’t so funny.

I hopped off the boat – another consequence of one wife too many – and walked through the fog-shrouded marina to the department Ford sitting in the parking lot. I was soaked-through by the time I got seated, and I checked ‘in-service’ with dispatch, groaned when the light rain suddenly turned heavy. As if losing another night’s sleep wasn’t enough, I’d forgotten my raincoat, something you do in Seattle at your peril. Oh well, it’s only water, right? Just like water under the bridge. You live and learn; at least, you’re supposed to, anyway. Funny how we never do, and how all the unintended consequences pile up around us on our march to the big sleep.

The windshield wipers beat like drums ahead of a funeral march, lightning rippled inside clouds just overhead, and reflections of city streets drizzled by in the tired, mechanical cadence. My mouth tasted like horse manure, too, and to make the morning even more interesting I’d felt a sore throat coming on during the night, but that didn’t matter: sick, well – or even dead – this was my call and I had to take it. Mine to ‘make or break,’ to solve or to seriously fuck-up. You never know what’s out there, but that’s the real fun of police work. Hell, at least the rain was supposed to let up later in the day. But would it? I’ve heard some rains last forever. That’s why there’s Prozac and bourbon, right? But that dark, endless rain is why some cops give up and swallow a hot chunk of .38 caliber ambivalence, too…

The address dispatch read-off didn’t mean a thing to me, neither did the run-down apartment building I parked in front of ten minutes later: both were in a run-down, bleak area just south of downtown – an area full of docks and warehouses – and home to lots of broken dreams and burned-out souls. It’s funny, well, maybe not, how such places seem to reek of despair. How phrases like ‘income inequality’ and ‘collapsing American dream’ take on a pathos of uncertainty and despair when you get up real close – and smell that reality in every shadow you desperately try to ignore. But cops can’t ignore the shadows, if you know what I mean.

Three squad cars were already parked out front, their red and blue strobes pulsing in the waterfront rain – crystalline echoes caught in gravity’s embrace. The frenzied light created strange moving shadows on the walls of this brick canyon, and the feeling was unsettling, even to my tired eyes. An ambulance was out front, too, and a couple of firemen sat in the brightly lighted back of the box; they looked bored – tired and bored – because they’d seen it all before, and probably ten times this week. Still, those guys looked as though they were sitting in an island of intense light, and that kind of clarity looked out-of-place here in this landscape of lightning and foggy shadows.

Out-of-place, too, because this part of the city is a land of shadows, and clarity isn’t really welcome in the shadowlands. Truth is a painful subject to the down-and-out, a reminder of all the wrong turns some people made along the way to here – to the last stop on their long road to nowhere, and I guess it can be kind of rough to turn around and everywhere you look you’re reminded of how far you’ve fallen.

Like that pain in your gut where hunger used to live isn’t enough?

A medical examiner’s rain-streaked van, dull blue with official looking white letters on it, pulled up behind my old Ford right as I got out of the car; Mary-Jo something-or-other was behind the wheel writing on a clipboard but she looked up and waved at me as I walked away. I nodded and wished I’d worn a hat; no one ever told me when I was growing up that cold rain on a head with three hairs left on top could be so interesting.

Anyway. Mary-Jo something-or-other and her assistant got out of their van (both wearing rain coats and hats, by the way) and followed me into the building; I made it to an elevator just before the door closed – and they squeezed in.

“Messy night,” her assistant said. “Gonna rain for a week.”

“No shit,” I said. “Welcome to Seattle.”

“Hey, Woody, you still on the boat?” Mary-Jo asked.

Funny, but I couldn’t remember telling her I lived on the lake, but that’s just another one of the joys that go along with white hair and hemorrhoids, and I’d known Mary-Jo through work for more than a few years. She was cute in a thirty-something kind of way, but the work had taken a heavy toll on her – yet. She’d filled-out a little too much over the last few years, yet she wasn’t what I’d call fat, either. She was like everyone I’d ever met on the M.E.’s staff: puffy dark circles under her dulled eyes, cigarette ashes on her blouse, and of course, the requisite weird sense of humor. Working around dead people does that to you, I guess. Even so, working around victims of violent crime sucks the humanity from the marrow of your bones – and living that life soon leaves people like her pale and dried up. Having worked homicide for fourteen years, that’s a statement I feel I can make with some authority. You get used to human degradation, to the meanness that lurks our there, waiting, yet even so there are things waiting for you out there you never get used to. Not and still consider yourself human, anyway.

These cheap apartment buildings are all the same. Grimy, rickety old elevators spit us out into a dingy, dimly lit hallway, and why the hell are the ceilings so goddamn low in these shit-holes? Virgil’s “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here” should be carved in stone over the entries to these hovels, because it’s my guess that’s exactly what happens to the poor souls living in them. And man, did I feel it just then, looking down that empty, piss-soaked hall to the open door at the end. The walls even smelled like this was a place broken people came to die, to give up and drop dead on the floor, even if it took them years to get around to doing it. This was a world of frayed carpets and peeling, cracked linoleum, of bare light-bulbs hanging from broken fixtures – like the necks of old men after that last trip up the stairway to heaven, into the hangman’s waiting embrace. If I had to write building code violations for a living, I could have turned this place into a career.

Still, the essential truth of places like this is simple: nobody cares whether you live or die. All you need to do is make rent and everyone will just leave you the fuck alone. That’s just the way it is when you live in the shadows: life is all the shit that rolls down on your head – then you die.

Up on that third floor it was the same story: dim grunge everywhere I looked, haunted eyes looking through cracked doors, maybe a little curiosity – but a whole lot of indifference too – mixed with a little fear of the unknown, and the known. Just ahead, right down there in the gloom, I could see the door to Apartment 321 standing wide open, and I saw the indirect light of a camera flash strobe off an unseen wall – so someone from forensics was already up here photographing the scene. A patrolman stood outside the door, looking bored, of course, and because, I guess, some things never change. A couple of nervous neighbors had gathered in the gloom across the hall and were hopping around like birds in a broken cage, but there was no place to fly now, and they knew it. Life had them trapped now, and held them fast to their despair.

I walked past a couple patrolmen on my way into the room and – stopped dead in my tracks.

The first victim was a middle-aged man and what I saw was a shattered wreck; the sight of so much blood still gets to me. The young M.E.’s assistant walked-in – but he turned away a little too late. I watched him stagger back from the sight, watched as he flashed hash by the doorway, and within seconds the poor guy fled to the safety of the elevator, retching as he stumbled away.

“Fuck a duck,” Mary Jo said quietly as she came in the room.

“I don’t think so, Ma’am,” I said in my best Joe Friday. “No duck did this.”

The guy was sprawled out on the living room floor, and the worn green carpet under him had been unable to absorb all the blood. Now vast pools of the stuff had coagulated under his head and torso. His throat had been cut and he’d been stabbed in the chest and belly too many times to count, and for good measure his penis had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth.

“Jealous wife?” Mary-Jo said as she bent down beside the guy.

“Or boyfriend,” one of the techs from forensics said.

I bent down to have a closer look, saw something odd under the blood on the guy’s belly.

“Somebody get me some gloves, and a wad of four-by-fours. Maybe some saline, too.”

A paramedic brought me a wad of gauze pads and a one liter bottle; I gloved-up, popped the cap and poured a little saline on the guy’s belly, just below the sternum, then I wiped away the coagulated – and just had to shake my head at what I found.

Letters, carved in his flesh.

“What does it say?” Mary-Jo asked, looking over my shoulder.

“Love me,” I said absently. Whoever had killed the guy had taken something really sharp and carved the two words into his flesh, even taken time to underline them with a nice, bold slash.

“Well, sometimes love hurts, I guess,” Mary-Jo chuckled.

See, I told you working around dead people sucks.

Mary-Jo had her tackle box open and was taking samples from under his fingernails a minute later – when I saw something in his hair.

“Better take a look here,” I said, pointing at his scalp.

She came up, her gloved fingers sifting through the victim’s hair: “Semen?” she thought out loud.

“Well, I sure ain’t gonna smell it. Tell you what? Why not take a sample and do some of that science shit, maybe tell me just what the fuck it is? Okay? Maybe even whose it is?”

She chuckled: “Maybe he shot his load all the way up here…”

I rolled my eyes: “Mary-Jo? You need to get your fat ass laid. And bad, too.”

“You volunteering, Woody?” she said as she removed some of the stuff with a sterile swab. She held it up and looked at the gunk with a UV light, then put it in a vial, before turning around and saying: “Cause, ya know, I swallow…”

I had to get away from her then. Even the dude from forensics stepped back and looked at her all wide-eyed, like she was some real crazy shit. Me? I didn’t know quite what to say. Neither did the tech. Mary-Jo just laughed and laughed, before she looked at me and licked her lips, letting her tongue linger like a writhing phallus.

+++++

But the guy in the living room wasn’t the only victim.

I moved to the bedroom, started poking around, trying to come to terms with one more senseless crime scene, but this one just didn’t fit with what had gone down in other room. There was another middle aged white guy on the floor, but this one had a single entry wound in the middle of his forehead, his brains splattered on the wall behind, forming one vector. And he’d been shot at close range, very close – almost execution style. I could see powder marks by the entry wound, and the entire back of his skull was simply gone. Vaporized. And there wasn’t another mark on him that I could see.

And then there was the kid on the bed. And the camcorder on the tripod, aimed at the kid.

He was asian, maybe ten years old. Maybe. And the kid was dressed up like a girl. Stockings, high heels, makeup…the whole ten yards. Wrists and ankles tied to the four corners of the bed. Sex toys everywhere.

So, someone had been filming this scene. Maybe the guy on the floor with the headache? If so, who was fucking the kid…assuming that’s what was being filmed.

I walked back to the living room. “Has this place been searched?” I asked the patrolmen standing at the door.

“Not really, sir. We came in, saw this shit on the floor and called it in, stepped out here.”

I drew my pistol and wheeled around, walked quietly to the bathroom. The door was by the bed’s headboard, and it was closed.

I tried the knob.

Locked.

I heard a patrolman come up behind me, turned, saw his gun out – and I motioned him to take one side of the door, then stood back and kicked the door in.

The little room was basically all white tile, but the room as red now. It looked like a slaughterhouse, too, after a busy day.

White guy, twenties, was my first best guess, but his head had been cut off, and neatly, too. Like in one blow. His body was hanging from the shower head by the wrist, his gut had been sliced open from sternum to groin and his intestines had simply spilled out on the floor. His head was in the sink, the stump of a penis stuffed in his mouth.

“What the fuck is that?” I heard Mary Jo ask, and she in the doorway now, pointing at the bottom of the bathtub.

A white fabric shower curtain, blood soaked. Several light blue towels, ditto. And a foot. A woman’s foot. I pulled the stuff back, saw a woman, handcuffed, and terrified. Very much alive, and out of her mind as pure terror filled her waking mind.

“Paramedics,” I screamed at the patrolman. “Now, you fucking moron!”

I was furious. Not only had the idiot failed to search the place, there was a victim in need of serious medical attention just laying here, and for how long?

I heard paramedics running down the hallway, then turning into the room. I listened to their “Oh, Gods!” and “No fucking ways!” as they were led to the bathroom, and when the stepped inside it was like someone hit a switch. One of them retched, then made it to in the toilet and flashed hash, the other ran to the kitchen and let go in the sink there.

Let me tell you something…when paramedics can’t stand a crime scene, you know it’s bad. This was the worst I’d ever run across, and it was getting more so by the minute.

We got the woman out of the bathtub and I took off her handcuffs, put them in an evidence bag and sealed it, but then I looked at them, saw an FBI identifier stamped in the metal and shook my head, really confused now. The medics guided her through the slaughterhouse, and a few minutes later I heard the ambulance below, leaving with sirens on, but I was still caught up in the mess in the bathroom.

Caught up?

Well, yeah. Crime scenes like this one are usually loaded with symbols. Actions are metaphors. One kind of knife wound says anger, another type screams fear. Looking at a crime scene like this was like trying to read a book – in a language you barely understand – because each scene is created by a different writer. A monster with a language all his, or her, own.

The dicks, all savagely cut off and stuffed in mouths? Anger. Sexual anger. Or reprisal? A woman’s sexual anger, or revenge? This was patient and methodical, not to mention seriously messy work, and it would take someone with a fair amount of intestinal fortitude to carry it out. And strength, too.

Or, more than one?

But everything was carried out with knives, except for the guy on the floor with the headache. FBI handcuffs? Where the fuck did those come from?

Turn around, walk back to the main entry, walk through the apartment again, play it back in my mind like a video recording of the event. Look at the guy on the floor with ‘love me’ carved on his gut. Clean cut, no beard, physically fit.

“Law enforcement?” I whispered. “FBI?”

Had he come in – but why? – and found this going down? Taken out the guy working the video camera? Had he interrupted the people in the bathroom? What happened then?

Too many questions.

The answers would be in the crime scene, but then I thought about the camera, and the kid.

A pedophile, making a film?

I shook my head, knew I couldn’t put off getting my hands dirty any longer, yet I didn’t know where to start.

I remember thinking you have to start at the beginning, and the beginning was the kid. Asian. Woman in the bathtub was too. Who the fuck was she? A hooker? The kid’s mother?

Pulled out my notepad, started writing down ideas, theories, impressions. Leading the photographer around, take this picture, no, from this angle, over here, that smudge on the wall, that one too, lift the kid up, see the semen running out his ass, get that too…

When you do this for a living you get into the zone, you move like a robot, analyze this, bag that, get the ME to take samples of x, and y, and z. It’s bursts of movement, interludes of pure thought leading to another burst, another insight, and on and on and on. Hours of it.

Ligature marks on the wrists and ankles on the man in the living room, and a few deep, small cuts inside his thighs – like the victim had been tortured before he was killed – yet the things I’d seen so far just weren’t adding up to a routine murder. All the evidence was contradictory. Tied-up but no signs of a struggle? So had been some element consensual behavior? That was nonsensical. And if that was the case, then everything I was looking at had to have been some kind of pre-arranged encounter. A paid encounter – with some really weird ideas about foreplay? Or…some kind of set-up? Lure the cop here, let him…? What?

Like I said.

Nonsensical.

Because all the evidence – out here, anyway – said most of his wounds had been the result of an aggressive – and hardly consensual –  assault.

Before things went way south anyway, so the guy probably didn’t really know his assailant all that well.

But what if he had?

Then he didn’t know the perp well enough to have trusted her (or yeah, him) with his life. Probably, but then again, what if he had? But then, there was the explosive nature of the wounds on his torso, the penis stuffed in his mouth, the carved words on the gut – Love Me! – and all that added up to evidence of pure rage. The murderer, or even murderers, were uncontrolled or consumed with blinding rage at this point, either wild with rage or completely off-the-wall in some sort of frenzied lust.

Then there were the basic assumptions. Was the ‘perp’ a woman? What about motives? Envy? Jealousy? I went back, looked at the kid again. Still, without more to go on, I was grabbing at straws now, because without evidence, real evidence or witness statements, the scene was loaded with conjecture. What about the woman? Had she seen anything? Heard anything? What was her relationship to the scene?

“Yo! Woody!” Mary-Jo called out from the living room. “Better come take a look at this.”

What else was I missing? I looked at the bed again before I turned to the other room.

“What you got?” She was bent over the guy now, her assistant holding his legs up, shining her UV light up his ass.

“Semen. All over the external anus.”

“Swell.” So there was another angle to consider.

“We’ll have to wait until autopsy,” she said as I bent over to take a look, “to sample what’s inside.”

“Peachy. Can’t wait to read the results.”

“Woody? You ain’t going all soft on us down there, are you?”

The woman was merciless, just annoying, and merciless. Hell, it would probably be a month before my poor dick would get up again after seeing that smile – while shining her light up that guy’s ass. “You know, M-J, if I have to listen to anymore of your shit I’m going to go somewhere and join an order. Maybe the Benedictines.”

“Yeah, sure thing Woody. You’ll get all you want there.”

“You’re a twisted bitch, you know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, ain’t it the truth? But I know you love me.”

I looked at the words carved on the guy’s belly and shook my head, then walked back into the bedroom with my back to her laughter. “Very punny,” I said over my shoulder as I disappeared around a corner.

I looked around the bedroom again and poked around the head of the bed; a pillow was stained and still wet with what looked like some sort of clear fluid, and not semen from what I could smell. Urine? There was a length of discarded rope on the floor, and in the corner a pair of pantyhose: “Johansen! Did you get these yet?” I called out to the photographer shooting in the bathroom.

“What? The rope and stuff?”

“Yeah. The pantyhose. Did you get those?”

“Yeah. You ready for me to bag ‘em?”

“Let the M.E. have ‘em, see if they can get some hair or fluid. Maybe we’ll get some DNA.”

“You got something in there for me, Woody?” Mary-Jo asked suggestively as she came into the room. There are days when I wish my last name wasn’t Woodward, and this was one of them. When I heard Johansen snickering in the bathroom I’d have gladly settled for Smith. I guess I should be grateful my folks didn’t name me Richard. Dick Woody. Yeah. That would have been just the thing on a night like this.

+++++

The sun was coming up, the rain had tapered to a drizzle and paramedics were loading bodies in a large coroner’s van; they’d be transported to the lab, get logged-in for autopsy. Forensics had a pile of evidence to log-in at Central and I had a headache – like I’d just come out of a bad slasher movie and eaten way too much buttered popcorn. I rubbed my eyes while Mary-Jo joked with one of the patrolmen, then groaned when I saw her headed my way. I rolled down my window as she walked up.

“You hungry?” she said.

“You’re like, kidding, right?”

“No, not at all. Seeing a guy’s severed cock stuffed in his mouth like that always makes me hungry.”

“Brings out the man-eater in you, does it?”

She looked down after that, turned serious. “Woody, I need to ask you something. Some serious shit.”

“I could use some coffee,” I said, nodding. “If you’ll stop with all the creepy shit for a while.”

“Right. Pike Place?”

“Sure. The alley? There ought to be a place to park on Pine or Stewart this early in the morning. Oh, and be sure to park that heap in front of a good restaurant. Good PR. Know they’ll thank you for it.”

“Gee, Woody – that’s nice,” she said, looking at her Medical Examiner’s van. “And you call me creepy?”

+++++

I beat her there, made my way to Post Alley then followed the scent of roasting beans and got a table inside; rain had given way to fast-scudding clouds over the sound, and now the tops of the Olympics were all aglow in the sunrise.

Cool, clean air, roasting coffee, fresh pastry…life suddenly felt good again, and Mary-Jo showed up a few minutes later. I got a couple of two-liter quadruple-shot espressos and she waited at the table.

Nothing like a slight buzz to start the day, I always say.

“Geesh, I didn’t know they made ‘em that big,” she said while she stared at the cup, considering the implications of so much caffeine.

“Oh, sure. Gets the main pump throbbing.”

“Really? My guess is your heart’s going to explode one of these days.” She looked nervous, like she didn’t know how to say what she had to say.

“You know, I find it best to just spit it out, M-J.”

“What?”

“You had a question? Some serious shit, I think you said?”

“I got divorced, you know,” she began, “a few years back…”

“Well no, M-J, I didn’t know that. In fact, just to set the record straight, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know you were married. Come to think of it, I don’t even know your last name.”

“What? Oh, shit,” she said as she laughed. “Right. Kopecki. Maria Josephina Kopecki.”

I held out my hand: “Ed Woodward. Nice to meet you.”

“I’m sorry,” she continued, “I just took it for granted, ya know, having worked around you all this time…”

“No problem. Now, what’s up?”

“Well, see, I’ve been trying to hook up with someone for a while, like, through the internet. Well, see, I did, sort of, but it didn’t really work out. Turns out the guy, the last one, was kind of creepy. I mean really creepy.”

“Is that, like, ‘really, really creepy’?”

“Don’t make fun of me, alright?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Right, well, see, the problem is, the dude’s a cop.”

“Uh-huh. Define creepy.”

“Well, see, he wanted to meet the first time at this club. A swingers’ club.”

“And?”

“Yeah, well, see, I did, and he had already hooked up with another couple by the time I got there. He wanted to go back to their place and I don’t know why, but, well, see, I did.”

“Really? Why?”

She looked down, just shrugged. “I dunno,” was all she could say – yet everything she said, even the way she said it – looked a little like an act to me.

“So, what’s the problem?”

“Well, the guy has shown up a couple of times, like, see, at things where I was.”

“Things?”

“Clubs.”

“Clubs? You mean like…”

“Yeah, swingers’ clubs.”

“This is, well, see, your thing, then?” I was trying my damnedest not to laugh, or even smile for that matter, but the stupidity of young people sometimes leaves me breathless. And if she said ‘well, see’ one more time I was going to have to hurt her. Strangling her came to mind.

“I’ve done it a few times, yeah.” She was speaking quietly now, very self-consciously. “It’s fun.”

“Yeah, well, whatever floats your boat.”

“Well, see, I wasn’t sure if he was following me, or if it was just, like, a coincidence…”

“Well, see, I’m still not seeing the big problem?”

“Well, see, he’s got a big tattoo on his chest. ‘Love me.’ That’s what it says.”

Now she had my attention. “Uh-huh. What’s his name?” I asked as I took a notepad out of my shirt pocket.

“I don’t know, for sure.”

“Oh?”

“Well, see, like I only know his internet address and his screen name.”

“And how do you know he’s a cop?”

“He, like, told me so.”

“Uh-huh. Did he like show you a badge or anything?”

“No,” she said.

Sometimes I wonder how people so fucking stupid could possibly live long enough to reproduce. Then again, maybe more than a few don’t. “Can you describe him?”

“Tall. Six feet, maybe a little more. Not fat but like really buff…”

“Buff?”

“Muscular. Like a weight-lifter.”

“How old?”

“Late-forties, maybe fifty. Red hair and freckles. You know, he’s got like a faint scar on his right cheek.”

She had just described Mark Tottenham, one of the department’s assistant chiefs, to a T; Tottenham had been in charge of Internal Affairs for years, and while I’d heard rumors he was flaky, this was off the charts.

“Got an email address?”

She gave it to me.

“When’s the last time you saw the guy?”

“Night before last.” but her eyes darted to the left when she said that, always a sure sign of deceit. Hiding something. A lie.

Hinkey. Cops call it that, but don’t ask me why.

I looked over my glasses at her, tried not to judge the kid too unkindly. “I’ll see what I can find out. Where can I get in touch?” She gave me a number.

“Thanks, Woody. Maybe I could buy you dinner?”

“Yeah. Maybe.” I flipped my notebook over and made a few more notes then put it away. “Well, see, like I got to go now. Do like some cop shit. I’ll give you a call this afternoon.” I made my way to the Ford, felt a little sick to my stomach. I checked in with dispatch, then drove over to Tate’s office.

Richard Tate had been a detective for almost thirty years; now he was doing the PI gig, doing sensitive background checks for corporations and taking photographs of cheating spouses. For the past ten years we had been best friends – I had his back and he had mine – that kind of thing, and Tate has been the only friend I’ve ever had who I’d trust with my life. Now I wanted him to run down the internet stuff for me because I didn’t want any traces of a search on department computers, or my private one for that matter. I gave him the run-down on what Mary-Jo had told me and he whistled, leaned back in a squeaky leather chair and steepled his fingers.

“You ain’t gonna believe this,” he said, “but this ain’t the first time Tottenham has been in the shits for something like this. The tattoo thing, the wife-swapping shit; he’s been into some pretty creepy shit over the years. He supposedly likes, or used to, anyway, to rough-up girls. I heard once he was into kids, too?”

“Kids? And?”

“Nobody found anything, but I’m not sure how hard they looked.”

“What about guys?”

“Guys? What do you mean? Gay shit?”

I told him about the murder scene this morning and he whistled again. “No shit?”

“That’s a fact. No shit, but maybe a little piss – on the bed.”

“Crap. I can get a friend in Tacoma to run down the IP. Can you get a picture of Tottenham to show to the girl? Just to confirm things?”

“I dunno. Might be better to get someone outside the department. Maybe a reporter,” I said, grinning.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “Then what? They’d want some inside angle or some other tit-for-tat, or fuck, they could get hold of something you’d missed and then what the hell would you do?!”

“Fuck, I don’t know, Tate. I’m tired, been at it all night. And this one took something out of me. I need a change – I can feel it now.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll see what I can do.” He steepled his hands again and sighed. “Shit, it’s probably nothing anyway. No telling how many people have that tattoo.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Who knows? But it couldn’t be that common, could it?”

+++++

I drove back to Central and went up to my office in CID, called dispatch, asked them to run-off the NCIC data I’d called in earlier. I wanted to know more about the background of the guy in the living room, because I had a really bad feeling about that one. The voice on the phone told me to come down to her office.

“He’s clean, Woody,” Trisha Wickham told me when I walked in. “You won’t believe how clean.” She was the lead dispatcher on duty that morning, and an old friend.

“FBI?” I said, now really on edge.

She looked at me, shook her head. “How’d you know? White-collar crime unit, mainly computer crime. Talked to the SAC a while ago; he filled me in. The guy’s as clean as they come, too; fifteen year veteran, wife, two kids, straight as a razor.”

“Shit. Anyone told his family yet?”

“Nope. SAC wanted to talk to you first.”

“Got a number handy?” She read it off to me. “Thanks, Trish. Appreciate it.”

“Woody?”

“Yeah?”

“Something big is going on, maybe. You be careful, okay?”

Now just what the fuck was going on? How the hell did she know something big was going on? Something she heard from her call to the FBI?

This was beginning to feel a little like I’d just been shoved down the rabbit hole, but where was Alice leading me?

I went back to my office, wanting to look through recent intel reports, see if we’d picked up any new pedophile stuff, but first, I had to call the FBI.

+++++

Peter Brennan was the SAC, or the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s SeaTac office; I’d known him for years and he was generally a straight-shooter, a no nonsense, old school kind of Irish-American cop, the kind of guy who has your back when the chips were down.

He was waiting for my call, too, and he sounded anxious.

“Woody, what can you tell me? Any suspects?”

I gave him the basics but left out the grittier details. “Hell, Pete, we haven’t confirmed anything yet, don’t even have the other fingerprints processed. Was your guy supposed to come in this morning?”

“Yeah. He was a no show, his wife said he went out early last evening on a call, never came back. She called in about six-thirty this morning, worried.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Yeah. Anything you can tell me now?”

“Let me pull the prints and I’ll run ‘em over in a bit. Got any time this morning?”

“I’ll make time.”

“Okay, Pete. Seeya later.” I hung up, walked down to the locker room and picked-up my mail, then dropped by dispatch to pick up the NCIC and DL print-outs that would have to be attached to my preliminary report. Trish was not there so I turned and walked back to the elevator.

And Tottenham walked into to the elevator right after I did.

“Hey Woody, how’s it going?”

“Fine, Chief. You?”

“Can’t complain. You still livin’ on the boat?”

I laughed to avoid the question. “Well, it worked for a while but it got real small, real quick.”

“I can imagine. Brennan called me a while ago. You got the case?”

“Yessir.”

“Any leads?”

“Not a thing, Chief.” The elevator binged and the door opened.

“Well, keep me posted.”

“Right, Chief.”

“Seeya later.”

“You bet.”

The door closed and lurched up to the next floor; I walked to my office and got my coat, then called forensics and told them to fax a copy of the fingerprints to Brennan. My other line lit up and I took the call: it was Dick Tate.

“Hey Woody! Long time no see, amigo. Wondered if you’d like to have lunch and swap lies.”

“Hey there yourself! What the hell have you been up to? You still chasin’ lyin’ husbands and cheatin’ wives?”

“Only when I’m not screwing their wives!”

“Yeah. Ain’t Viagra a wonderful thing?” We laughed. “Listen, I have to drop by and see Pete Brennan for a minute, but how ‘bout I meet you for a bowl of chowder at Betty Lincoln’s?”

“Be good; like old times. Say about noon?”

“That’ll be fine.”

“Okay, buddy. Can’t wait. Be good to catch up on things.” He hung up; I’d managed to tell him of FBI interest in the case and told him to meet me near Ballard Locks, and he’d told me he had something important to discuss. Hopefully, if anyone was monitoring the line they’d not get too suspicious.

I drove over to the main FBI office by the Wa-Mu building and talked with Brennan; he told me they’d handle the notification and I thanked him.

“Any leads yet?” he asked.

“Nothing yet. I’ll let you know as soon as something breaks. I assume you’ll start your own investigation?”

“Already have.”

I nodded.

“You got a private number?”

“No, sir.”

He squinted, sat down and wrote out two numbers: “The first is unlisted, anytime. The second is my home number.”

“Understood.”

“You got something, don’t you?” he asked.

“Nothing definitive, more like a hunch, need to make a few calls.”

He nodded. “You need me, just call.”

“Pete, if I need you it’ll be too goddamn late to call.”

“That bad?” he said, sitting down.

“Worse,” I said, looking out the window.

He leaned back, looked me in the eye. “You sure you don’t want to fill me in?”

I shook my head. “Not there yet,.”

“Okay,” he said, but I could see the gears turning now.

“Pete?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t put a tail on me, okay? I’m halfway expecting someone to try, and I don’t want you to run ‘em off.”

“Fuck.”

“Promise, Pete?”

He stood, held his hand out. “Scout’s honor, Woody,” but his eyes darted to the left.

I smiled. Like I said, Pete was ‘good cop’ – and by that I mean – predictable.

I drove down to my boat on Lake Union and put the Zodiac in the water, then took off toward the locks. So far I hadn’t seen anyone on my tail, either on the ground or in the air, but the game is best played by people who know how to blend in. It’s a hard game to play well, and the stakes are highest when the feds get in on the action.

Tate was standing on a dock about a hundred yards shy of the locks and I pulled over, let him hop on; if anyone had followed him they’d have to hustle to follow us now – but he hadn’t seen a thing either – and that worried me. I puttered over to the south side of the channel and we both watched the shore as we trolled along.

“Victim was an FBI agent, supposedly clean.”

“His name Dan Harvey?” Tate asked.

“Yeah. How’d you find that out?”

“Through IPs of Mary-Jo’s contact. It’s Tottenham alright, and there’s been a lot of activity between him and this Harvey fellow over the past few months. A lot of meets at a code name, some place they refer to as the Hole in the Wall.”

“My. How original.” I’d need to look at my notes, but MJ hadn’t mentioned that name.

“So Harvey was FBI, huh?”

“Yeah, and supposedly clean. White collar crime.”

“Think maybe he got onto someone, maybe Mark?”

“Possible, but I doubt it. Why all the contact?”

“Maybe they were working a joint task force? Undercover?”

“Maybe. Ran into Mark this morning; he didn’t let on he knew the guy. Any luck on a photo?”

“Yeah. Pulled one off the net, from the Post-Intelligencer; about a year old, so it ought to do.”

“Good deal.”

“So Mark knew the guy and didn’t own up to it? And the tattoo? You think the girl might know the name of the club?”

I smiled. “Yeah, I think so, but she’s acting a little hinky, too.”

“Say, think we could grab a bowl while we’re out?”

“Yeah. You know, that actually sounds pretty good.” I rolled on the throttle and scooted up channel toward Fisherman’s Terminal and tied-off below Chinook’s. With any luck we’d miss the lunch crowd; we got lucky and sat way back from the entrance, looking out over the fishing boats, and from this vantage Tate could cover the entrance while I watched the docks. We ordered clam chowder and coffee and had just begun to relax when Dick sat upright and coughed attention.

“Tottenham,” he said under his breath. “At the desk, trying not to look this way.”

“Fuck.”

“What the fuck have you gotten me into, Woody?”

“Your guess is as good as mine?”

“Well, here he comes…”

The waitress came by and dropped off two huge bowls of chowder – and a gallon jug of Tabasco. “Damn, that looks good!” Tottenham said as he walked up. “Tate! What are you doing here? Where’s your Nikon?”

I turned and looked up at Tottenham.

“Sheesh! Well, looky who’s here!” Tate said. “Surprise, surprise.”

“Hey Chief,” said yours truly, feigning a little surprise of my own.

“Shit. This is like old times, huh?”

“You alone, Mark?” Dick asked. “Can you join us?”

“Kind of you to ask, but no. I’m meeting Pete Brennan, should be here any minute.”

My heart lurched. So, he had me tailed – surprise, surprise.

“Well, good to see you Dick. Woody, check in with me this afternoon, would you?”

“Right, Chief.”

Brennan walked in and they took a table across the restaurant from us.

“I think I’ve lost my appetite,” Tate said.

“At these prices? Better go find it, and fast.”

He laughed. “Too bad you’re on duty.”

“Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth. Nothing like a real cold one with hot chowder.”

“So. What the fuck do you think’s going on?”

“I have no clue, Amigo. Maybe Harvey found something on Tottenham, or maybe they were just into the same shit and met up with Cruella de Vil in that apartment. Anyway, I asked Pete not to throw a tail on me. I didn’t think he was lying when he said he wouldn’t, but guess what?”

“Really? I wouldn’t count on that prick to not sell out his mother.” He sighed, looked out over the water for a minute, then looked at me. “Well, anyway, Woody, you’re missing something. Something big. Why the hell would Tottenham and Brennan both be here? Right now? I hate to say it, but it sure feels like someone’s following you. Someone’s really uptight, too.”

“Besides us?” I chuckled.

“Right. Besides us.” He coughed, looked over at Brennan. “Thanks, I think, for coming over this morning.”

“Doesn’t matter. Food’s good, sun’s out… what else is there?”

“A pretty girl with a warm mouth?” Tate sighed and looked away. “Yeah, I guess, Woody.” He shook his head, and I really couldn’t blame him for feeling put-upon. “You’d better think about lining something up with the girl soon.”

“Yeah. Name is Mary Jo, works for the ME. You working anything major right now?”

“Nope. Not even anything minor.”

“Things that slow?”

“Slower. In a recession nobody gives a damn if their spouse is cheating ‘cause nobody has any money. I’d sure hate to be a divorce lawyer these days.”

“No, you wouldn’t. I can guarantee you they made enough off me the last twenty years to keep themselves in Guccis the rest of their sorry, goddamn lives.” We laughed, but we’d both been there and done that. Most cops have, and I guess that’s why most cops grow old by themselves. Bitter and cynical doesn’t even begin to describe it.

We finished up and paid the bill, Dick went over to say ‘bye to Tottenham and Brennan while I washed up, then we hopped into the Zodiac and continued up channel to the lake, and my boat. The shore was lined with boat dealers and houseboats, and even Tate wanted to linger and look over the little floating shack where they filmed “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Whoever it was tailing us was doing a good job, because neither of us picked up anything until I turned into the little marina where I kept my boat – and even then he was hard to see. Standing up on the second deck of a parking garage overlooking the lake, we saw a man with binoculars and a walkie-talkie watching us; he looked away when we looked at him, then stepped inside a van.

“Dark suit,” Tate said, snickering.

“Sunglasses,” I said, scowling.

“FBI,” we both said, laughing. It was an old joke. Never seems to get old, too.

“Yeah, but pretty good anyway,” Tate said, then we looked up at the garage again.

“Why would they be watching us?” I said, thinking out loud. “I mean, we’re not suspects?”

“Wanna follow you, I guess; see where you lead ‘em?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe? What else?”

“Keep us from getting too close to something.”

“Woody? You’re getting paranoid.”

“Damn straight. I just hope I’m getting paranoid enough.”

“Amen to that, Amigo.”

+++++

I dropped Tate off by the locks as the sun dropped behind some clouds; the plan was for him to fall way behind me on an agreed-upon route – and see who was tailing me. I took my phone out and slipped it into my shirt pocket, hooked up a hands-free headset and took off down Market Street, then turned right on 15th Avenue and crossed Ballard Bridge.

The phone chirped and I looked at the screen. Dispatch. Trish?

“Woodward,” I answered.

“Detective, there’s an urgent call for you from the Medical Examiner’s office.”

“Gimme the number.” I scribbled the info on a pad and hung up. The phone chirped again – immediately. Tate this time.

“Yeah?”

“Two cars. Fed plates, and I’m pretty sure there’s one on me too.”

“Right. Go to the barn.”

There was no way to beat this kind of operation; too many resources had been allocated – and that, really, told me all I needed to know. The FBI had been running some kind of op; Special Agent Harvey had been made and neutralized. Now, the question was: what role was Tottenham playing, and what did Brennan know, or not know about Tottenham’s role? But lunch together? This was getting weird, and fast.

I drove back to the lake along Mercer, wound around to Westlake and pulled into the MarinaMart lot and locked the car; I stopped at the pay phone outside the gate and called the MEs office. Mary-Jo picked up on the first ring:

“You alright?” I asked her.

“Yeah. You know who the guy is yet?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. So do I.”

“What about the stuff you found inside the back door?”

“His property.”

“No shit. Want some dinner?”

“Sure.”

“Ray’s Boathouse, Shilshole. Six o’clock.”

“Okay.”

“And you’ll be followed.”

“Oh, okay?” She sounded pretty uncomfortable now. There was a little quiver in her voice when she continued: “You too?”

“We’ll talk then.” I hung up, took out my mag-key and held it up to the gate; it buzzed open and I walked though, then turned when I heard a lot of cars pulling in the lot. Two black Fords slipped into the lot and parked near mine; I thought I might as well wait for Tate – and he pulled in a few moments later – trailing his own caravan of black Fords. Tate got out and surprisingly all the other feds did too – Brennan in the lead. As Tate walked my way the entire entourage did as well, so I stood by the gate and held it open, watched as all the Men in Black filed past – silently – and there was something almost comical in their clinging uniformity – like every black suit and all the Ray-Bans in the Pacific Northwest had been scooped up by all the FBI agents in Seattle, and here they were now, my very own parade.

I walked past them and hopped on the boat – Brennan and one other agent I didn’t know followed me up and Tate brought up the rear; we went down below and I put on a shitload of coffee.

“Why’d you have to bring him in on this?” the unknown agent said, pointing at Tate.

I looked at the man and took in his smug swagger, his pompadour hair, then looked at Brennan: “Don’t y’all still administer a test that measures the basic stupidity of your applicants?”

Brennan laughed; Pompadour bristled.

“Look, Woodward,” Pompadour said, “its hard enough keeping a lid on things without you, well, without you bringing in every broken down old cop in Seattle.”

“I guess you don’t plan on getting old?” I said. “Does that about sum up your little corner of the universe, asshole?”

Pompadour huffed-up, stepped toward me. “Sit down, Rollins,” Brennan commanded. Pompadour sat, just like any other well-trained Doberman might, but he kept his eyes locked on mine. Did I see him drooling, too? Foaming at the mouth, maybe?

“I thought you weren’t going to throw a tail on me, Pete?”

“I didn’t know you were bringing in reinforcements.”

I nodded. “Hard to know who you can trust, isn’t it? I’m sure you understand.”

SAC scowled. “Did you get the ME’s preliminary yet?”

“Nope,” I said, and he handed me a faxed copy.

“Read it. Enlightening, to say the least.”

I read it. The conclusions were pretty freaky. “Someone dosed him with Viagra?”

“Yeah. He might have been unconscious, by the time they killed him, anyway. Apparently some people can pop a woody, even in their sleep.” Pompadour laughed at the pun, I flipped him the bird. “Best guess is they jacked him off, then shot him up with potassium, caused a massive heart attack, then started hacking away.”

“They didn’t find any…”

“No, it doesn’t hang around too long… not much of a half-life. But there are a couple of puncture wounds consistent with injection sites…”

“Insulin, maybe?”

“Fuck, are you kidding?” Brennan said.

“Had to ask. Induces a coma. Kind of a double tap.”

“Anyway, I hope he was out – before they did that to him. Would freak anyone out, you know?”

I shrugged. “Okay Pete, why were you with Tottenham this morning?”

“He called, wanted to meet.”

“And?”

“And nothing. He didn’t even mention the case. Wanted to talk about some Homeland Security shit.”

“You know about the tattoo on Tottenham’s chest?”

“What…no?”

“Says ‘Love Me’, right there in red and blue, right over his heart.”

“Fuck.”

“No shit, Sherlock.” Pompadour, on hearing that little tidbit, turned livid white.

“Know any people in your office with something similar?” Both men shook their head.

“So, there’s no tail on Mark,” Tate stated, a dour look on his face. “That’s great. A roman legion on our ass and not one on the prime suspect. Perfect.”

“Hey, not our fault,” Pompadour said. “You kept us out of the loop, remember?”

“I have a hunch,” I interrupted, “that we’re dealing with a club of some sort, some sort of organization. There may well be a lot of guys with that tattoo. Anyway, I hate jumping to conclusions.”

“Right,” Brennan said, but I could tell he was still holding something back. Who the fuck was this clown he’d brought with him?

“So, what’s your interest in the case, other than losing an agent?”

“Sorry,” Pompadour said. “Need to know only.”

“So, let me get this straight, just so I’m crystal clear on this. You think I don’t need to know?”

“No. Not yet, anyway.”

I looked at Brennan. He shrugged, said not one word, and didn’t even bother to look at the Doberman.

“Fine,” I said. “That’s just fucking great.”

“Your tax dollars at work,” Tate said, shaking his head.

“When are you meeting the girl from the MEs office?” Pete said.

“What? You don’t know?” Tate shot back.

“There’s a limit to what we can do, Bucko. You know? Congress? Surveillance courts, all that shit? Ring any bells?”

“Doesn’t seem to have stopped you guys much lately,” Tate fired back.

Brennan’s face was a blank mask: “So anyway,” he said, “we’re not monitoring your phones. Yet.”

“You going to drop the tail?”

“No. Not unless you’ll wear a wire, and a locator.”

“No way. Not yet.”

“Then we’ll be around.”

“So, why this meet?”

“Just don’t try to shake us, alright,” Pompadour said. “Waste of time; anyway, your field-craft sucks.”

“Bet you didn’t know your mother gave me a blowjob under the table at lunch,” Tate said. “She’s coming back for seconds as soon as you leave.”

Pompadour fumed, stomped up the companionway ladder and jumped off the boat.

“Nice, Tate. Real class,” Brennan said sarcastically. “By the way, Harvey was his partner.” We looked away, things jumped into focus. “Alright, the low-down is this: we’re going to be on you, that’s the point of this meet. And don’t try to drop the tail, you’ll just make my guys angry, and you don’t want to do that.”

“Why, Pete? What are you saying?”

“Just listen to me, Woodward. Don’t think. Just listen. Act like you don’t know or don’t care, your choice, but don’t shake the guys on your six.”

“I don’t like it,” Tate interjected. “Not one fucking bit.”

“I don’t care, Dick. I’m perfectly happy to lock you up for a few days if you won’t play ball.”

I got it then. Pete’s reasoning was clear. “Okay, Pete. I got it.”

He looked at me, relieved. “Be careful, Woody. I mean it.”

“I hear you.” I looked at him then, and knew it was an organized ring. So, this WAS big. And they were on it, too.

He tromped up the steps and all of the Feds trooped off behind him.

“Okay,” Tate said, “what am I missing?”

“We’re the bait, the tethered goat.”

“Oh, shit.”

“I couldn’t have said it better.” Because Brennan had told me what I really wanted to know. This was big. Bigger than big. And I was in real danger, too. Then we went below and I told him what I knew, and let him read my notes.

Chapter 13

I looked at my watch: a little after three. “Better call Tottenham now,” I said to myself as I fished out my phone. I called dispatch, they transferred me.

“Chief? Woodward.”

“Woody! How was ole Richard doing? Is he getting along well?”

“Not much business, he says. Barely making ends meet.” Tate flipped me the bird.

“Oh really? Too bad. Well, pensions don’t make up for sloppy retirement planning.”

“No sir, they sure don’t.”

“Do you have the medical examiner’s report on the FBI guy?”

“I’ve got to go over and pick it up, sir.”

“Oh? Well, fine, fine. Keep me posted on this, would you? Pete seemed pretty bent about it at lunch.”

“Will do, sir.” And with that, the line went dead.

“You gonna meet the girl?” Tate asked.

“Yeah. At Ray’s.” I shook my head. “Guess what they talked about at lunch?”

“Yeah. One lie leads to another. Always does.” He grinned. “So, Shilshole for dinner?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re gonna put on ten pounds today.”

I looked down at my stomach. It was still flat – except when I sat. Well, maybe a little when I stood…

“I gotta take a nap,” I said. “Feel like I’ve been up for two days.”

“Okay if I sit here for a while?”

“Sure.” I went forward and crawled in my bunk; I think I was out before my head hit the pillow. I dreamt again, about an ex-wife giving me a hand-job, with razor blades between her fingers.

+++++

Someone was shaking me, shaking me from somewhere far away.

I opened my eyes. “Fuck, that hurts…” I think I said.

“What?”

“I said fuck. As in, ‘why is that whenever someone wakes me up it’s not an insanely gorgeous redhead wanting to sit on my face.’”

“Ah. Yeah, I pretty much have the same problem. It’s called getting old, Dickweed.”

I sat up, rubbed my eyes. They burned, burned like someone had thrown acid in them. I reached over and grabbed some eyedrops, asked Tate what time it was while I struggled to put them in.

“Five-ten. You got time to take shower?”

“Thanks, yeah. What have you been up to?”

“Looking through your porn stash.”

“Hah-hah.”

“I was reading a book. ‘Cruising in Serrafyn,’ by a couple named Pardey. Pretty cool stuff.”

“Yeah, I met ‘em at the boat show a couple years back. Nice people.”

“Well, I get it now. The whole boat thing, keep it simple.”

“Right. Well…”

“Oh, shit, excuse me…”

I shut the head door behind him and hopped in the shower, looked in the steamed up mirror when I got out and freaked when I saw that stranger in there again. Man, getting old hurts, and in all the wrong places.

We locked the boat and went up to the parking lot, and all the black Fords were nowhere to be seen. Spooky.

“Okay. You sure you don’t want me to join us?”

“No. I’m gonna go home. Got to feed my cat, commune with some old Hustler magazines for a while.”

I laughed. “As long as you keep the two activities separate!”

“That’s just gross, Woody.”

“Well, it’s nice to know you’re still getting some pussy.”

He stared at me, then shook his head. “You need to get out more.”

“Hey, where do ya think I’m going?”

“This ain’t a date, Woody,” he said, serious now. “Don’t forget that. Anyway, she sounds like damaged goods to me.”

I nodded. “Probably right.”

“I’ll keep my phone on,” Tate said.

“Right. Be careful.”

“You too.”

We got in our cars and I took off towards the bridge, then retraced my earlier route out past the locks and pulled into Ray’s. The lot was nowhere close to full, and I wondered where the Feds were – because if they were tailing me, I sure hadn’t noticed. And I had to admit I was worried about Tate, too – dragging him in on this…whatever this was.

Mary-Jo pulled into the lot and parked next to me; I got out and walked around, opened her door and helped her out. She’d gotten dressed for the occasion – and my khakis and boat shoes were a little shabby next to her rig. I held out my arm and she slipped hers in mine and we walked in, checked-in and we walked out to a table looking over the Sound.

“You look fantastic,” I told her, and the truth of the matter was she really did look good. Sexy as hell. In fact, she didn’t look anything like she had earlier: her hair was down, her face was made-up discreetly, the dress… well, classy described it well. Black, low-cut in front, and her legs were simply stunning – there was a lot to see, too, and I felt myself responding to her before I knew what was happening. We ordered drinks and looked out over the Sound – a ferry was making it’s way across the water to Bainbridge Island, the snow-capped Olympics stood beyond the Sound, beyond the ferry, and I suddenly wanted to get away from all the ugliness in this world – to just leave it all behind – while I still could.

“What are you thinking about?” Mary-Jo asked.

“Out there,” I said, pointing.

“What about it?”

“I think,” I sighed, “I’m ready to retire.”

“What? Out there?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, right. The boat.”

“So, have a look at this.” I pulled out the image of Tottenham and handed it over; she unfolded the paper and looked at it for a split second then folded it up and handed it back. “Is that him?”

“Yup. No question.”

“What can you tell me about the club? Where you two met?”

“I think he called it the Hole in the Wall, but the building doesn’t have a name on it. Anywhere. It’s a red brick building over on Leary.”

“By the docks?”

“Yeah. I don’t know the address but I could take you there, show you where it is.”

I nodded. “Tell me about the people in there.”

“Like what?”

“Anything that comes to mind. Rich, poor, black, white – whatever.”

“Well, I’d say mainly middle-aged white people, probably pretty educated group as a hole. Some nights they have erotic poetry readings, other nights erotic art shows.”

“Do people just hook-up there, or do people have sex there as well?”

“To tell you the truth, Woody, I’m not sure. I think the place is pretty big, but I’m not sure how big. I’ve only seen a few rooms, but I think it was an old warehouse, looks like it’s been redone. A lot of money out into it, too.”

“Is there a bar?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Any people doing drugs? You know, out in the open?”

“I saw some guys doing lines off the top of a girl’s thighs. Does that count?”

We laughed.

“Probably so,” I added, then I looked her in the eyes: “How many times have you been?”

She looked away: “More than a… more than once.”

“With Tottenham, or with other people?”

She didn’t answer.

“What are you into, Mary-Jo? Swinging? Or is it something else?”

Again, she just looked away, didn’t answer. She was either embarrassed, or acting that way.

“I need to know, Mary.”

She nodded, looked down. “Yeah, I know.” She seemed to gather inward on herself, as if to protect herself from a storm, then she looked up at me. Her eyes were really lovely, soft, kind, but something darker than confusion lurked in her shadows.

“Tell me,” I said again, and I remember that now. I commanded her to tell me, and something seemed to snap-to when I spoke in that tone of voice.

“I’m a Bottom, Woody.”

“A Bottom? What’s that? Like something to do with anal sex?”

She laughed. “No Woody, it means I’m submissive. I do what people command me to do.”

“What do you mean, ‘what they command you to do’?”

“Sexually, though sometimes it’s more than just role playing. You know, like the French maid and the Gestapo interrogator?”

“What? You mean like bondage and stuff?”

“If that’s what my master wants to do.”

“Your master?”

“Yeah. The Top, the person in charge.”

“The person? You mean, like, see, a man, or a woman?”

“Yes.”

I coughed, took a long pull on my drink.

She reached up, wiped my forehead: “You’re sweating, Woody. Does that turn you on?”

It was my turn to look away.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Woody. Everyone has fantasies, everyone wants to let go a little.”

“Yeah? I suppose so.”

“What would it be, Woody? Would you like to tell me what to do? Would you like to do that?”

Her hand was under the table now, it was resting on my thigh. I cleared my throat as her hand drifted up to the zipper on my khakis.

“Or maybe you’d like it better if I told you what to do. Would that do it for you, Woody? Would that trip your trigger?”

She was squeezing me through my pants, and I’m pretty sure I felt an eyelid trembling.

“Ooh, Woody! I think that’s it! I think you’d like it if I told you what to do!” She squeezed again: “Do you feel that, Woody? Feel that need? To let loose, lose control? Let me take control? For a while? Would you let me?”

“Let you? What?”

“Let me take you there, Woody?”

“You keep squeezin’ my dick like that and you won’t have to take me anywhere. I’ll pop-off right here.”

Her eyes smiled, she licked her lips. “Really?” I felt her foot on my ankle, my heart hammering in my skull.

She slowly pulled the zipper down, undid the belt, then she reached in and pulled my cock out; our waiter came over to fill our water glasses and she looked up at the kid: “Would you bring me a clean glass?” she said to him. “An empty one, please?”

“Certainly, Ma’am.”

He disappeared and she started squeezing my cock again, milking it. Every now and then she’d pause and run her fingernails up and down the shaft, then she’d jerk it fast a few times before squeezing it again, milking me, bringing me to the edge and letting me float there.

The waiter came back and dropped off the glass.

“Take it, Woody. The glass. Hold it down there.”

I did as she said, felt my balls boiling, my cock getting hard as a rock.

“Hold it there, Woody; let me shoot it in the glass.”

I did as best I could, but within a blinding flash I started to cum. And cum. And cum some more.

“Jesus, Woody! How long has it been?”

I couldn’t answer. I was biting my lower lip, holding on to the edge of the table with one hand and the glass with the other…I was still cuming…and it felt like it lasted forever…

“Hand me the glass now, Woody.”

I brought it up from under the table and put it on the table.

“Woody?”

“Yeah?”

“No, Woody. Not yeah. It’s ‘Yes, Mistress.’” She squeezed my prick with her fingernails to drive home the point. “Woody, I said hand me the glass.”

I picked it up and put it in her hand, then she released my cock and I groaned.

A couple at the table across from ours was looking at us, they were leaning close and whispering something to one another. Mary-Jo held the glass up to the dim light like she was examining a fine wine, then she drank the cum – all of it – in one smooth motion. The man across from us squirmed in his seat, the woman with him was directing all her attention to his lap, and soon he held up his own glass, as if toasting us, and then he handed his glass of cum to the woman.

I guess it really hit me then; the couple across from us were our minders, here to keep an eye on us. Just part of the club, I guess, but I felt cold dread as I looked at the smiling couple across from us, as I watched the woman drink down the milky contents of her glass.

I felt my phone go off in my coat pocket and excused myself, went up on the front desk and called dispatch, trying to conceal the contradictory alarms I felt going off in my head. The only way anyone could have found out about our dinner plans was through Mary-Jo – or Tate, and the latter just wasn’t possible – was it?

“Woodward.”

“Detective, we have officers at the scene of a homicide; they want to talk to you directly. Can you take a number?”

“Go ahead,” I said as I fumbled for my pad. I scribbled as she spoke, then hung-up and dialed the new number.

“Woodward.”

“Detective Woodward?”

“Yeah. Go ahead.”

“Ah, yessir, we’re going to need you to come out here.”

“What’s going on?”

“Can’t say sir. Not on an unsecured line.”

“Well okay, where the hell are you?” I wrote down the address of a hotel out north off the Interstate. “I’ll be there in about an hour,” I said as I closed the phone, then: “Fuck!” I walked back to the table, sat down beside Mary-Jo, avoided looking at her.

“You okay?” she asked. The couple across from us had departed, I noted.

“A call.” I couldn’t even look her in the eye.

“You have to take it?”

“Apparently so.” Fuck! What had I just let happen, and just who the fuck was this girl?

Our waiter had brought our dinner while I was out; I had a beautiful King Salmon and some steamed broccoli Hollandaise and I was damned if I was going to walk away from it, so I lit into it as fast as I politely could.

“Goddamn, someone back there sure knows how to cook fish!” I said as I finished up. I flagged our waiter, got the bill and paid up. “Sorry,” I said as I stood.

“I understand. Will you call me later? Let me know you’re alright?”

“Yeah.”

“Ed? I liked this. I like you. Could we do it again sometime. Maybe soon?”

I leaned over, kissed her once, then leaned closer and kissed her again, for a long time – then I turned and left, clouds of confusion and uncertainty hanging over me as I fled. I walked out to the Ford, saw a note tucked under the windshield wiper and plucked it up while I opened the door.

‘Watch your six, and they’re close…T’

Goddamn! Tate hadn’t gone home after all, and he’d seen something. I closed the door and my phone went off again.

“It’s me,” he said. “Did you get the note?”

“Four.”

“Need to twenty-five with you,” he said. “Betty Lincoln west?”

“Four.” I started the Ford and drove three blocks to the visitor’s parking lot by the locks; Tate winked his lights and I drove over and parked next to him.

“There’s a shitload of traffic on the scanner. I mean, even the Chief’s on the air, en-route to a Signal One.”

“Tottenham?”

“No, no, not an A/C… I mean THE Chief.”

“Fuck.”

“Nice night to dawdle over dinner, Dickhead!”

“I just got the call, I think. That girl…something’s not right.”

“Your face is flushed. You alright?”

I shook my head. “Not sure yet. I know she’s out there, though.”

“What did she do to you?”

I told him.

“Shit. Nobody ever done that to me, Amigo. How come you get all the fun calls?”

“I dunno. Not sure that was fun, ya know?”

“Want me to tag along?”

“If you’re not too tired, sure. The Silver Cloud, in Mukilteo.”

“Wow, out of jurisdiction, no less. Oh well, I’ll follow you.”

We made our way over to I-5 and blended with northbound traffic, and I didn’t even bother to look for a tail; we probably would have looked like a freight train if I had. Twenty minutes later I exited and we wound our way west between huge Boeing assembly buildings, then down to the waterfront. More patrol cars – local ones, more flashing lights, a couple of ambulances. I could see Chief Anders waiting in the lobby, looking at his watch. Then looking at my car.

“Great! Just fucking Great!”

I grabbed my stuff and walked in, looked for the Chief and walked over to him. He was on his phone talking in hushed tones: “Okay, he’s here now. I’ll call you in a half hour.”

“Chief Anders,” I said as I walked up.

“Where the hell have you been? And wipe that shit off your shirt!”

I looked down, saw a nice, shiny glob of salmon on my shirt and groaned.

“Who’s that with you? Richard Tate?”

“Yessir.”

“He’s retired, isn’t he? What’s he doing here?”

“Chief, I’m still active in the reserves; just putting in my hours.”

“You were homicide, weren’t you?”

“Yessir.”

“Oh, well, come on, then.” We walked up a flight of stairs and down a hall that stretched off into infinity to an area cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. We walked past two local patrolmen into the room.

Mark Tottenham lay face-up on the bed, his penis had been cut off and was dangling from his mouth. The tattoo on his chest had been cut out of his flesh, and it looked like he’d been stabbed about a hundred times in the chest, belly and thighs.

And now I didn’t know what to think.

My prime suspect was dead, afloat in a sea of blood.

I looked at the Chief. There was a tear running down his cheek and his teeth were clenched so hard the side of face was trembling. Tate walked over to Tottenham’s body while I walked around to the other side of the bed. There was a glass there, the rim smeared with red lipstick, and obviously, whoever she was, she’d drunk a shitload of cum from the glass.

I groaned inside, thought of MJ, and I just knew her little performance hadn’t been coincidence. Tate knew it too, as soon as he saw the glass. I heard her say “Call me Mistress” and wanted – no, I needed – to turn and run away.

Some nights are worse than others, I guess. Nature of the beast; no two nights are ever the same – yet somehow they all are. After a while you learn to put up The Wall. How to compartmentalize your feelings. Things that would make a combat vet flinch and turn away don’t get through the wall. If they did, even a patrolman wouldn’t last on the streets for more than a few years. After a while, The Wall becomes automatic, a self-defense mechanism. When you run into a cop on the street, that hard, faraway stare is The Wall, ready to come up and shut you off.

But this wasn’t just déjà vu all over again. Even with more than a decade of looking at wrecked and mutilated bodies, this one got to me. I don’t care what you have to say about it, or even what you think about cops: when you look at one of your own, a brother officer, your feelings are…well, they’re different. The Wall can’t get up fast enough. you’re left wide open and vulnerable – and just like every other Joe on the street you feel a big, cold slap on the face as reality breaks over you like a wave of black hate. There’s no other way to look at it: without The Wall you feel everything in the scene around you, and it fuckin’ hurts. It hurts because you don’t get to play the objective observer anymore, you’re not just a cop. It hurts because the pain hits you where you live – and there’s no place to hide. And you can’t run from your feelings, either. They come for you hard and fast, grab you by the throat, like a leopard grabs a goat by the throat, and you know that cat won’t let go until you stop breathing.

Chief Anders was shook up bad, too. He was standing at the foot of this perverted hotel bed looking down at Tottenham’s body and I couldn’t even begin to guess what was running through the old man’s head. They’d gone to Academy together, been close friends for just a little longer than forever – and now this. This wasn’t a random drive-by or another officer run-down by a drunk driver; this wasn’t a pissed-off veteran blowing his brains out after a bitter divorce or a forced retirement. No, this one was different…because everything in that room was so goddamn dark and twisted – so evil – and what was left of The Wall came tumbling down.

Because it looked like the body on the bed had gotten there on its own, so this was a consensual encounter. So – what happened? Had Tottenham been betrayed, or set up? Still, as I looked around the room it hurt most of all because it hinted that something immeasurably dark and vicious – was on the inside, prowling within our ranks.

Whoever it was had not bothered to untie the wrist and ankle restraints this time, and Tottenham’s body was obscenely splayed; he looked like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – drawn in blood on bleached white sheets. There were deep impressions all over his body, too, marks not easily explained.

Only Tate seemed relatively unaffected. He’d never really cared for Tottenham, thought he was a martinet and had done sloppy work in Internal Affairs, yet Tate seemed to be the first to grab hold of the implications of having the head of IAD compromised; I didn’t get it yet because none of us had grasped the depth of departmental penetration this murder implied.

+++++

This was another city’s jurisdiction, but after learning the identity of the victim we’d been asked to join their investigation; given the FBIs tertiary interest I wasn’t surprised when Brennan walked through the door. Tate and I helped the local detectives, a crusty old veteran named Spiros Pantazis, and a new detective, a four year veteran – who also happened to be a woman.

Her name was Susan Eklund, and my first impression of her was that she might make a good cop – when she got out of high school. To my eye she looked like a teenager, but then again I’ve been a little slow to admit that just about everyone under the age of forty looks like a teenager to me these days. Eklund had a cute, round face and wavy red hair, sort of reddish-blond, but not quite, and there was a zit on her chin that looked like it was about to go Vesuvius on us. She was wearing a dress. A very sexy dress, like she’d been called away from a family dinner. She was putting on a good show, too. Miss Know-it-all, and her partner, Pantazis, regarded her knowingly, yet we could tell he was embarrassed by her show. I would have thrown her off my crime scene, but that’s just me. I like it quiet, I like to think, and showboats are a distraction. They come and go, and usually leave a mess in their wake, but I had to admit…her legs were cuter than hell, and I had a hard time not looking at them.

Their photographer was moving around as directed, taking photos then standing back, waiting for orders; Eklund seemed intent on ignoring Tate and myself but was deferential to Chief Anders, but neither of them, it seemed to me, knew what the fuck what they were doing…and that bothered me. It became apparent to both Tate and myself that we would have to teach these yahoos how to work a crime scene, around the Chief, and that made me uneasy.

I went over to the bed’s headboard and looked at the grain of the wood. “Prints here, I think,” I said; Pantazis came close and looked too, held up a little UV lamp and looked again.

“Good call,” he said. “Missed that one.”

That had been Eklund’s first mistake and he wanted her to know it, too. She glowered at me and came over with her kit and began taking the print.

I walked over to the sliding glass door; it was unlocked. “Anyone been here yet? Dusted the door?”

No one had. “And don’t let anyone in the bathroom!” I said. The carpet, I could tell, was already useless.

Pantazis came over and looked with me. There was dozens of prints on the glass, and we wouldn’t be able to tell about the door-handle and lock-lever until Eklund tried to lift prints from them, but I was guessing there’d be a relevant one or two – at least – on both.

Pantazis groaned.

“You’re gonna have to ride her ass,” I whispered. “She’s sloppy, and a know it all. Bad in the line of work.”

“I know, but she’s a councilman’s daughter.”

“Ah.” I shook my head, knew he wouldn’t have made it in our department. “You shootin’ film?” I asked their photographer.

He looked like he was – maybe – fourteen, then shook his head.

“No, sir. We haven’t in years. Canon 1Dx Mark II, with data verification.”

“Can you shoot IR?”

“What’s IR?”

“Never-mind,” I grumbled as I took out my phone. I called dispatch, had them transfer me to the lab.

“Woodward here. Is Harker on tonight?”

“Yeah, hang on.” I heard some hollering in the background, banging sounds of stools falling over onto the floor, then the always and ever diminutive: “Jonathan Harker here.”

“Jon? Woody. You got any high speed infrared loaded?”

“Yeah, sure. Tons. What’s up?”

I filled him in; he got excited and loaded up his stuff and was headed our way in a flash, he got to the room about a half hour later – somehow keeping his velocity just under the speed of light. I had managed to keep everyone away from the patio door, and the bathroom, until he arrived, then told him what I needed. I moved off and let him do his thing. He knew what I was after, and I didn’t have to ride herd on him.

We finished the crime scene about five hours later, and only then did we let the M.E.’s people move the body. I had Harker shoot some IR where Tottenham’s body had been, then pulled down the comforter and had him shoot the blanket, then each sheet underneath. Pantazis and Eklund looked on like I was nuts.

“You need a new photographer, too,” I told Pantazis after their useless teenager left.

Anders and Tate were down in the lobby when I got off the elevator, and there were a couple dozen reporters outside on the sidewalk – too late for the morning editions, I told myself as I walked over to the Chief – and Tate handed me a cup of coffee when I got there.

“Thanks. That was rough…”

“Woodward, I want a total black-out on this for now. Strictly ‘no comment’ – got it?”

“Yessir.”

“Of course that goes for you, too,” Anders said as he looked at Tate.

“I know.”

“Did you get what you needed?” Anders asked.

“Think so, Chief. If the locals cooperate, anyway.”

“They will.”

The way Anders spoke left no doubt in my mind: he would turn up the heat when and if needed. Even Brennan had taken one look at Anders and moved off.

The elevator dinged; Pantazis and Eklund walked out; a photographer pointed and all the gathered reporters got ready. Obviously they didn’t know who I was, maybe not even Anders, so it was a cinch Tate was totally off their radar.

“There a way out of here?” I asked the girl behind the reception counter. “To avoid that?” I added, pointing at the press.

She pointed to a hallway: “Down there, door at the end of the hall. Leads right into the parking garage.”

“Thanks.” I turned to Anders and grinned. “You sure you don’t want me to talk the reporters?”

“Get out of here, you bum,” he half-snarled, half grinned at me, “and keep on Harker and the lab until you know something.”

“Right.” I turned to Tate, motioned with my head and we walked-off down the hall to the covert exit. I opened the door and recognized her immediately: Liza Mullins, crime reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She’d staked us out, been waiting for us.

Ambushed…

“Got anything for me, Woody?”

“Well, does ‘No comment’ count?”

“Heard it’s a cop. Any truth to that?”

“I heard there’s a shuttle headed up to the mother-ship. It’s already on the roof and they’re holding a place, just for you.”

“Can I quote you on that? ‘Seattle PD claims alien Mother Ship wants Ace Reporter?’”

“So, you’re an Ace Reporter?” We laughed, then: “You never give up, do you?”

“Never.”

“You ever been married, Liza?” That seemed to shut her up…

“I’m not now. Why?”

“Well then, would you marry me?”

Her left eyebrow shot up: “Sure, Woody, right after the aliens get through probing your asshole.”

“That’s just about what I thought you’d say. Always the same story with us, isn’t it.” We all laughed – even as Tate and I turned and walked off, leaving her standing there. Then I heard her high heels clattering along behind us and we stopped when I got to the back of my Ford. “You still here?” I pointed at the ceiling: “They ain’t gonna wait forever, ya know?”

“Knock it off, Woodward. Gimme something!? Please?”

“Sorry. No can do.”

“How ‘bout coffee later? Or some breakfast?”

I looked at her; cute kid, maybe a pest – but cute. I could handle some cute after a night like this. “I don’t know how long I’ll be?”

She handed me her card. “Call me. Whenever.”

I looked her in the eye. “Cute,” I said, and that eyebrow shot up again.

“What?”

“I said, cute. As in, you-are-cute.”

She started to blush as I opened the door and got in, started the engine and let it warm up. She moved closer, until she was blocking my open door, then she knelt down beside me.

“Do you mean that?” she said.

“What? About the mother ship?”

She didn’t have a come-back ready, or maybe she was being serious, but she just looked at me.

“Yeah, Liza, I think you’re cute. Maybe 99 percent gorgeous. Why?”

“Just didn’t expect you to say that, that’s all.” She was looking all kinds of serious now, but it was kind of odd because for some reason I didn’t regret saying it. I’d know her for years, we’d bantered back and forth over cases – the normal back and forth between cops and reporters – and yet for any number of reasons nothing had ever developed. We’d certainly never exchanged Christmas cards or birthday greetings, let alone met for coffee, so I considered this a most unusual, and interesting development.

“Well, maybe I should have told you years ago, but there it is.”

“Will you call me?”

“For coffee? Sure, why not?”

She looked at me. She got it. “Okay. I’ve got to get some sleep, but I’ll answer.”

“Right.”

She shut my door and I backed out and drove out from under the building; Tate fell in behind me and called as soon as we were clear:

“What did she want?” he asked.

“Anal sex. With me and a goat.”

“You wish, Dickhead. Seriously, Woody, what’s she after.”

“A warm shoulder, I think. Who knows?”

“Aren’t we all. What else.”

“Coffee. Chit-chat.”

“No shit? You need a chaperone or anything, you let me know.”

“Right.”

“I’m wasted, Woody, gonna head to the barn and crash for a while.”

“Yeah, you old farts! Gotta get your rest or you…”

“Woody?”

“Yeah, Tate?”

“Suck my dick.”

“No thanks. Tryin’ to quit.”

“Well, then, be careful…”

The line went dead.

+++++

Forensics was in an annex to the original Central Precinct building; it had been cobbled together over the years to make room for new gadgets and ever newer technologies, but somehow digital had yet to replace film completely in our lab, and I for one was grateful. Digital is good, don’t get me wrong, but a fine grained film in the hands of a good photographer with a Leica can reveal all kinds of things better than digital, particularly in the infrared spectrum, and that’s why I’d called Harker.

Infrared excels at picking up things the human eye misses; things like leather scuff marks on floor tiles, or the impression made by knees or shoes on blankets and sheets. Harker knew exactly what I was looking for; he hadn’t needed to ask because we’d danced this dance a hundred times before. He came out of the darkroom a little after nine that morning with a big smile on his face.

“Bingo!” he said.

“Yeah? Let’s see.”

He laid out a pile of 11×17 inch prints on a drafting table and flipped on an articulated desk-lamp/magnifying glass and pulled it over; I sat down and looked at the first print…

“She probably stood over him, on the bed. High heels, probably a size seven, maybe a seven and a half. Look at the next one.”

I picked up the next image and put in under the light.

“Scuff mark on the tile in the bathroom, and a couple of other prints in the next shot. Same shoe, same size.”

“So… female for sure.”

“Yeah. Probably pretty small, too. Like five four, five five, maybe a shade more. Look at the next one… close.”

“This the bathroom floor again?”

“Yeah.”

“What is it?”

“Two sets of prints, really. The same high heels, and a man facing her. About a size nine, maybe a ten.”

“Tottenham?”

“Size thirteen. I checked.”

“Bingo, indeed. Good work, Amigo.”

“Woody? It’s pretty weird you know, even so.”

“Why?”

“Well, all the usual places you’d find prints were wiped down, like a cop was in on it, but an insider would know we might use infrared. Any competent lab would.”

“So?”

“Well, I had just assumed an insider, you know, what with that FBI guy and the A/C.”

“How’d you hear the other was FBI?”

“Shit, Woody, are you kidding? Everyone was talking about it yesterday.”

I bunched my lips, frowned. It would be in the papers today. Had to be. It would be interesting to find out their source someday. “So then, what are you thinking? Amateurs?”

“Yeah. Or just sloppy.”

“Or tryin’ to throw us off the trail.”

He shook his head at that one. “Glad this is your case, Woodward.”

“Yeah, ain’t life grand?”

Chapter 14

Anders wasn’t in; he’d gone home and left a note for me to call him that afternoon. I pulled Liza’s card from my pocket and dialed the number.

“Hello?” She sounded half asleep.

“So, let me take a wild guess. You blew off the Mother-ship?”

“Woody?”

“Yup.”

“You find out anything?”

I didn’t answer.

“Oh, right,” she said. “Sorry. No questions allowed.”

“Coffee?”

“I could do that.”

“Starbucks on Westlake, by the Marriott. Half hour.” I broke the connection then checked my messages. First one was from Tottenham, telling me to check in with him in the morning. Okay, nothing unusual going on there. Next one was from Mary-Jo, late last night.

“Woody, sorry about last night. Maybe we could so something this weekend?”

Uh-huh. Sure. Right after I get back from the mother-ship.

Next was from Tate, this morning when he got home: “Just checkin’ in, Woody. Call me if you haven’t heard from me by noon or so.” I dropped by my mailbox and then walked out to the Ford, got in and drove over to Lake Union, went into the Starbuck’s and bought a New York Times. I looked around, took a seat away from the windows.

The Times, I thought, really ought to piss her off.

She came in a few minutes later; the dark circles under her eyes were almost as puffy as mine.

“I didn’t take you for a bird owner, Woody.”

“Hm-m…what’s that?”

“The only reason to buy a rag like that. To line the bottom of a bird-cage.”

“Ah. Gee, I didn’t even think…”

“You order anything yet?”

“Nope; thought I’d wait and see what you wanted. You know, like bein’ chivalrous and all that crap.”

“Woody?”

“Yes?”

“Cram it.”

“Here? Now? Are you sure?”

She laughed. “Yeah, man. Bend over.”

“What do you want?”

“Hi-test. Big.”

“I hear that.” I came back a few minutes later and sat across from her, slipped two fingers up to my carotid and felt for my pulse.

“I didn’t take you for a Lake Union kind of guy,” she said as I sat. “You got a boat?”

I ignored the question. “So, what are you hearin’ on the street about this?”

“At least two cops dead, same MO.”

“Someone inside tell you?”

“Is that a confirmation?”

“Nope. A non-denial denial.”

“Then I’m sorry. My sources are confidential.”

“Tit for tat, huh?”

“No other way in this biz, Woody.”

“C’est la vie.”

“Il ne doit pas etre de cette facon.”

“Yes it does. It wouldn’t work for very long if we expected each other to compromise our integrity.”

“Guess so.” She looked me in the eye: “You lonely, Woodward?”

“No, I’m tired.”

She nodded. “When’re you going to retire?”

“Yesterday.”

She laughed. “How long ‘til you can?”

“Oh, I could now. Just not with full benefits.”

She sighed. “So, why are you staying?”

“Habit.”

“The bad ones are tough to break.”

“The hardest. May I ask you a question?”

“I’m forty three, was married once, divorced about ten years ago.”

“Touché. Damn, I hate being so predictable.”

“Well, if it means anything to you, Woody, I’m lonely.”

I nodded, looked at her eyes, saw the long nights typing stories, just meeting deadlines by minutes day after day, year after year, and pushing everyone she cared for right out of her life. It was all right there – hiding in plain sight.

“What about you?” I asked. “You gonna work ‘til you drop?”

“I’ve thought about quitting but I have no idea what I’d do. Guess I could teach somewhere.”

“Where you from?”

“Portland. You?”

“Military brat. All over.”

“Married? No. Wait. How many times?”

“Three.”

She whistled: “Just didn’t work out, huh?”

“The hours. You have to be around every now and then in order to have a relationship. Took me awhile to figure that out. Funny thing is, we’re all still good friends. No alimony, none of that bullshit. Just friends. Like the marriage thing never happened.”

“That’s why I never remarried, I think. No good reason to, really, because I was never ready to put my work in second place.”

“Any regrets?” I asked. She was so easy to talk to, like an old friend.

“No, not really, not then, anyway. The prospect of growing old, alone? Well, that’s not so comfortable anymore.”

“Perspectives change a little bit, don’t they?”

She nodded. “If you retired tomorrow, what would you do?”

“Depends. If it was just me I’d take off, maybe just go wandering.”

“Really? What, like on a motorcycle or something? A motorhome?”

I took a deep breath, wasn’t sure I wanted to put so much about myself out there in the public domain. Then it just sort of slipped out: “I have a boat.”

She went wide-eyed on me: “No shit!?”

“No shit.”

“Powerboat?”

“Hell no, are you serious?”

“Good for you. Always thought that would be fun. Sea of Cortes, Baja…”

“Tahiti.”

“Now you’re talking. When do we go?”

We laughed at that one, but it was an uneasy, loaded laughter, like we were all of a sudden finding something in common and grasping to make something out of nothing and see where it took us. Maybe we were. Maybe we could…but this was rocky terrain.

My stomach growled.

“You hungry down there?” she said to my belly.

“Always. How ‘bout you?”

“You know? I could eat.”

“Follow me.” We walked out and went over to the Ford, I opened the door for her then got in behind the wheel, drove the few blocks down Westlake. We walked down to the slips and I buzzed-in the gate, then led her out to the boat.

“She’s nice. How big?”

“Forty one.”

“About right for two people.”

“Yep.” I unlocked the companionway, slid back the hatch and stowed the boards, went down and offered her my hand. She ignored it and hopped down with practiced ease.

“It’s nice, Woody. Comfortable.”

“Thanks. Eggs and bacon sound okay?”

“Maybe. How ‘bout some juice or something…”

“Okay, comin’ up.” I poured a couple glasses, put them on the table.

“You don’t have any tissue handy, do you?”

“Sure. Be right back.” I went to the head, rummaged around for a fresh box and went back. She had some eye-drops out and her eyes were watering; I handed her the box.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

She took her juice and drank most of it. “Good stuff.”

I took my glass and downed it. I thought it had a funny aftertaste – kind of bitter.

She smiled at me now. “I don’t really feel like bacon and eggs, Woody.”

“Oh?”

“No, I had something, well, firmer in mind, something a little more satisfying…”

She was looking right at my groin and I swear she was licking her lips.

“Oh?”

“Come on,” she said as she stood. “I’m going to fuck your brains out, Woody.”

She came over, took my hand and pulled me up, led me forward. I felt a little light-headed, suddenly sleepy. She pulled me up to the berth and turned me around, pushed me gently and laughed as I fell back. I felt like the world was spinning now, like the whole world was careening wildly out of control. She leaned over and unbuttoned my shirt, undid my belt, then she yanked down my pants. “Sit up,” she commanded; I felt her tugging my pants all the way down, pulling my shoes off, pulling them over my ankles.

I could hardly keep my eyes open now.

“Woody, push yourself up, to the head.” It was hard, my arms and legs felt like hot lead, nothing worked right anymore. “Here, I’ll help you…” I felt her arms under my shoulders, wanted to say something but couldn’t. She fluffed-up some pillows, propped me up in a reclined position and I watched as she took off her clothes, folded them neatly and put them aside.

She opened her purse, took out a bottle and opened it, then she came over, opened my mouth, slipped a pill under my tongue. “I want you nice and hard, Woody. Real hard.”

“What?” I think I managed to say.

“Don’t try to talk, Woody.”

“What? Why?”

She had my handcuffs now and she came over and put them on me, clamped them down hard. I think I winced.

“Is that too tight, Woody? Hmm?”

“Why?”

“That’s right… I heard you like it rough. You like it rough, don’t you Woody?”

I felt cold fear in the air all around me. “Who?”

“Mary-Jo told me, Woody.”

I blinked. I wasn’t tired anymore, just…paralyzed. She had pantyhose in her hands now and she leaned over and tied my cuffed hands behind my head with them, then draped the moist crotch over my face. “Does that smell good, Woody? Do you like that?”

I could see her moving through the fabric; no details, really – just her body moving slowly around the cabin. It was getting hard to swallow and I felt fear for the first time, wondered how it was going to feel to die, then I felt her leaning close, felt her hot breath on my cock, her tongue stroking it. It felt like a hot, wet glove had gripped me and I saw her shadowy head moving back and forth, up and down…

“Oh, Woody, you’re getting so nice and hard.”

“Glad…you like…it…” I managed to say.

“Oh, Woody. I do, I do like it.” She leaned forward and licked my lips through the fabric, stuck her tongue in my mouth, forcing the nylon in with it. My left eye was clear now and I watched her as she leaned back over my cock and took it in her mouth again. I tried to move my legs, felt some kind of rope around my ankles and gave up.

I was aware of the smell now, the smell of her pantyhose up against my face, then I felt her get off the berth and walk to the rear of the boat. I turned my head, saw her talking with someone out there. There was someone with her, a man. It was too dark to see anything clearly but everything was becoming all too clear.

She came back a minute later and leaned over me, kissed my open eye as she reached down and stroked my cock. “You ready for me, Woody?”

“Ready?”

She straddled me, rubbed the head of my cock against her cunt. I felt the heat, the unbelievable wetness, felt her hand grab the head and guide it inside, then she slid up and down a few times – until I could feel my cock getting unnaturally hard. She slid off me, then up my body and I watched as she moved the nylon from my face and hovered over me.

“I’m going to mark you now, Woody. Mark you as mine…”

I felt hot liquid splash my face, smelled urine, tasted it as it ran down my face and across my lips. She lowered herself onto my face and mashed her wetness all over me, pissed some more – filling my mouth until it spilled down my chin and onto my chest – then as quickly she lifted herself from my face and slid down onto my cock again.

“It’s hard, Woody. So hard. I think you liked that. You ready to cum for me?”

I couldn’t speak at all now but I saw her lean forward and take a cotton ball and moisten it with alcohol, then she wiped my arm, took out a syringe.

“It’s not going to hurt, Woody, I promise.”

She stuck the needle in, pushed the plunger down slowly and I felt a sudden warmth flooding through me.

I didn’t feel too different at first, then the dizziness returned. My vision changed, everything looked cast in blues and purples, and I felt her hand around my cock. She was jerking it furiously now.

“Not much longer, Woody…not much more…”

I could see her holding a glass under the head of my cock, then felt an incredible orgasm wrenching through me, pulsing into the glass…

“Ooh, Woody! So much! And so soon, too!” She kept jerking it, mouthing her surprise as she looked first at the glass, then at me, then she held the glass up and looked admiringly at the pearlescent flow. She came up to me again, sat beside me so I could see her face clearly and she drank it down, licked the sides of the glass to get every bit of it, then she put the glass aside carefully and turned to me, kissed me. She forced her tongue into my mouth and painted broad strokes of cum across my face, dribbled a huge wad down onto my forehead, then licked it off and spit it down again, this time onto my lips.

She got up suddenly and the man came into the cabin. He had a mask on, and she stood beside him silently while he looked down at me.

“Did I do well, Master?”

He only nodded, but then he whispered in her ear.

“Yes, Master,” she said after a moment. “I will obey you.”

He handed her a knife.

She came up to my face again and looked at me, spoke gently, almost kindly: “My Master says I must tell you that this is a warning. A warning to stop, now.”

She held the knife at my neck, I could feel the point just beneath my chin and she pressed gently.

“Will you stop now, Woody?”

The knife pressed it into my skin; I could feel my heart beating, then the knife slid through skin – into muscle.

“Yes.”

“Do you swear it?”

The knife pressed deeper, and I could feel my pulse hammering in my head…

“I… swear…”

She turned, looked up at the masked man. He nodded and she withdrew the knife, then he turned and left the cabin.

She leaned into me, kissed me again – this time gently.

“You’re a sweet man, Woody. So sweet. I wish I’d met you a long time ago.” I could see she was crying, like she hated what she had done – but that she had been powerless to resist, as well.

“I…”

“Don’t try to talk now, Woody. You’re going to sleep now.”

“Please…don’t…”

“It’s okay, Woody. This is it. It’s all over now. As long as you don’t break your promise, this is it.”

I felt sleep coming, powerful, irresistible sleep. I could feel her cradling my face, kissing my forehead, telling me that everything would be alright again, that everything would be fine…but I knew nothing would ever be fine again…nothing would ever be the same…

I hoped it wouldn’t hurt. Hoped they wouldn’t find me with my dick hanging from my mouth and take pictures of me and wonder what the hell had happened to get me mixed up with this bunch of crazy, fucked-up monsters, then I felt myself falling…falling…and I wondered if this was how Lucifer felt when he was forced out of Heaven and fell from the sky.

Chapter 15

My head hurt – as if from a series of violently spinning falls, and my gut burned like nothing I’d ever felt before. Everything was dark, pure unadulterated black, but I saw distant glowing flashes of light that were like a lightning – yet not quite, more like flashing, streaky pinpoints of reddish light.

Then the thought hit me: these flashes were a sign or some sort. What were they trying to tell me? What had I missed?

Obviously, I was dead… or maybe still just dying. That was clear if only because nothing in my experience had ever felt even remotely this –. The sensation of falling was so real, so vertiginous, it overwhelmed almost every other sense, yet it was more the supporting elements that were so disturbing.

I could feel my hair fluttering in the slipstream, hear vast oceans of wind howling as I fell downward, and those strobing pinpoints…those signs? Photons might be passing through me on their way to wherever they went, leaving just the faintest impression of their passage. Was that what they were?

Then I could hear something like muffled surf, perhaps wild breakers crashing on a distant shore. The sound would come – and as suddenly fall away.

It went on like this for hours, days…the pulsing light and distant surf that defined this windward passage…yet from time to time I felt a jabbing in my arms, pressure in my chest…then one day: An eye opened. No, not that. It was opened by someone. Someone was above me, holding my right eye open, shining a light in my eye. I tried to see beyond the woman, the woman holding the light, but she followed my eye, followed my movements and kept shining the light in.

Then I saw her hand. Fingernails. Sharp fingernails. She was pressing my forehead with her fingernails, right between my eyes. Son-of-a-bitch – that hurt!

I wanted to tell her to stop, but couldn’t.

Then she had an earlobe; she was pinching it with those fucking talons of hers and I found all I could sense or feel now was the pain she was inflicting. I struggled to tell her to stop. Stop it… stop…

“STOP! GODDAMN IT!”

And she did, too.

And it was like I heard people letting go after holding a deep breath… or was it me struggling to breathe?

Both my eyes were open now, but it was like someone had smeared Vaseline in them… everything was a coarse blur, coarse and watery. I wanted to move my hands, rub my eyes – but I couldn’t and I felt a familiar panic grab my chest…

“Mr Woodward… you’re in the ER, the emergency room at Mason. You’re alright now so try to relax.”

Her words found me and I understood what she was saying but panic still gripped my chest… like a vice…gripping…darkness again, coming for me…

“Oh fuck!” I heard the woman say. “He’s going into arrest again…get me a…”

Then darkness. Darkness and falling, all consuming darkness…and the wind and the surf returned.

+++++

I knew I was awake. Knew something wasn’t quite right, but I was awake. But what was with all the incessant beeping?

Beeping. I heard beeping everywhere, just like I was on the set of some hokey medical show, and I remembered thinking I must have become an actor somewhere along the way because here I was, starring at a television show about a man dying in an unknown hospital.

I opened my eyes, looked at banks of streaming monitors in black and green and I tried to swallow but my throat was too goddamned dry. My tongue was stuck…to the roof of my mouth. I tried to raise my head, to say something…something, to somebody…but I couldn’t see anyone…

“Hel…” I gasped. “Hello!”

Nothing.

“Hello! Help!”

Footsteps. I heard footsteps! Then a woman, huge and black. I remember thinking I was in Star Wars, I was a prisoner and someone had brought me before Jabba the Hut. Her eyes were round and huge too, and even the room looked kind of like a cave.

So.

I was an actor now. This was my big chance…

“Mista Woodward? Can you hear me?”

“My name is Luke,” I said, proud I’d remembered the lines, “Luke Skywalker. If you let me have the Princess and Han, I’ll let you live…”

And Jabba was laughing now, right on cue: “Oh, Mista Woodward! You ain’t no Luke Skywalker, and I sure ain’t no Princess Leia. Now. You thirsty?”

“Not Leia?” I was – crushed.

“How about some ice?”

“Yes. If you’ll tell me where I can find her?”

“Shit! Don’t dat beat all…” I heard her say as she left the room, laughing as she went…

She came back a few minutes later, and an old man was with her:

“Obi-Wan?” I said.

“I’ll be damned,” my old friend said to Jabba. “You weren’t shittin’ me, were you?”

“Obi-Wan?”

“Yeah, Luke, old buddy. It’s me. Howya feelin’.”

“Obi-Wan? The Princess…she…the Dark Side. Oh, I’m so tired…”

“Woody, come on… snap out of it. What are you saying, what are you trying to tell me?”

“Woody?”

“Yeah, that’s you. Me Richard. You Tarzan. Now come on, Woody. Concentrate.”

“Woody? Woodward?”

“Yep. Now, what about this princess? Who are we talkin’ about, Woody?”

“Reporter. Liza.”

“Mullins? She did this? You sure?”

I nodded. “It was a warning. They told me it was a warning.”

“They? You mean she wasn’t alone?”

“A man. And Liza. ‘This is a warning,’ she told me. I have to stop. Stop, or they’ll kill me.”

“Shit.”

“Obi-Wan? Got to find out what size shoe she wears?”

“What? Woody, what the fuck?”

“Harker. Photographs.”

“Woody. Jon’s dead. Fire. In his apartment.”

“Harker?”

“Yeah, Woody. He’s dead.”

“When? When did…”

“It’s been a few weeks now.”

“Weeks? What do you mean, weeks?”

“You’ve been out a while, Woody. Almost a month.”

“Coma?”

“Yeah. Probably drug induced. You were high as a kite on morphine and LSD when I found you.”

“You… found me?”

“Yeah. When you didn’t call I went down to the boat.”

“The boat?”

“Yeah, Woody. She’s alright. I’ve been taking care of her.”

“Can somebody lift my head or something?”

The nurse hit a button and a motor under the bed whirred, my back inclined. “Dat better, Mista Woodward?”

“Yeah, thanks Princess.” I winked at her and she laughed, put a cup full of ice on the table over the bed and left the room.

“I remember the ER. Did I have a heart attack?”

“Three.”

“Three? Heart attacks?”

“Yep.”

“Swell.”

“You’ll be joining the ranks of the disabled and retired now, Woody. Sorry.”

“Fuck.”

“Ain’t it the truth.”

“Harker took photographs, in infrared. Tottenham. Woman, small. Like size seven shoes. High heels. Man. Size nine or ten.”

“You want me to see what size shoes she wears?”

“No, wait. It was a warning, right?”

“I can’t do this without you, Woody.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t do it, Richard.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

“Have there been any more? Murders?”

“No. Not a one.”

“I wonder what the hell we were on-to?”

He shrugged. “No way to know now, is there?”

“Call her.”

“Call? Who?”

“The reporter. Liza. Tell her I want to talk to her.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“No. Now, do it now.”

He looked at me – his eyes hard, then he nodded and left the room.

Everything was coming back to me now, in a flood. Memories were flooding in, out of control, like water pushing through a cracked dam, running unrestrained across a vast, empty plain, soaking it all in…

+++++

Tate came back in a few minutes later.

“Did you get her?”

“Yeah.”

“She coming?”

“Yeah, Woody. She’s coming.”

“Can you find out about the photographs? The infrared prints?”

“Why?”

“The only evidence. If they’ve penetrated the department, compromised us, then the photos will be gone. They’ve won if that’s the case.”

“If I ask around that might alert whoever, ya know?”

“Who said anything about asking?”

“Gotcha. Look, Woody, I don’t wanna be anywhere near this place when that bitch gets here, ya know?”

“I understand. Not sure I want to, either.”

“Then, why?”

“Something I gotta know.”

“Dangerous, man. This is real fuckin’ dangerous.”

“I think I got that. Something I need to know before I take the next step.”

“I sure hope you know what you’re doin’, man.” He seemed reluctant to talk, like he was afraid of something else.

“What’s bothering you, Richard?”

“Later. We’ll talk later. I’m gonna split now. I’ll come back tonight.”

+++++

“Crushed ice! Man, I love it.”

The nurse, another one, basically ignored me as she went about the little room scribbling down readings from various machines, then she injected something into my IV and started to leave the room.

“What is it this time?” I asked. “Heroin? Potassium?”

She stopped, turned and looked at me and she smiled, then said: “Not this time, Woody.” She looked at me for what felt like an hour, mouthed the words ‘Love me’ – then walked out of the room.

There are certain moments in your life that run up on you fast, like lightning out of a clear blue sky, and time stops because nothing makes sense anymore. I think dying must be like that.

This was one of those moments.

She came back in a little later, adjusted the drip on the IV. “Can I get you anything?” she asked.

“Think I could have a Coke?”

“Yeah, sure.” She looked at me again, this time with real human kindness in her eyes, then leaned forward, ran her fingers through my hair. “Don’t do anything stupid, Woody.”

“I’m doing my best.”

She lifted up her skirt and ran her hand inside her panties and rubbed herself, then she brought her fingers to my face and wiped her juices under my nose. She smiled at me the whole time; her eyes were bright, almost feverishly bright, then she ran her fingers over my lips. “You know you want to, Woody. Go ahead.”

I opened my mouth and she slipped her fingers in, I tasted her cunt on the soft skin of her fingers and sucked them for a moment, then she smiled, laughed a little before she turned and walked out of the room.

“What the fuck…” I think I said.

She came back some time later with a cup; she sat by my bedside and spooned ice into mouth, then opened a can and poured some Coke into the cup. She put a straw in and handed it to me. “Suck it, Woody.”

I laughed, took a pull on it, then chewed on the ice.

“We’re going to have fun, Woody. You and I.”

“Are we?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, very much.”

“Who do you belong to?”

“My Master, you mean?”

“Yes.”

She smiled. “It doesn’t matter now, because he’s given me to you.”

“Given?”

“Oh yes. I am yours now. Your property.”

“Indeed. And if I don’t want you?”

“Then I will have failed. I will die.”

“Die?”

“I will be killed.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes. Just like that, Woody.”

“And you must do whatever I ask of you? Is that it?”

“Yes. That is The Way.”

“The Way?”

“Yes.”

“And if I commanded you to tell me who your old master was?”

“I will tell you, but then I must kill you.”

“I see. But then, you would have failed. Is that right?”

“Yes. And I would die.”

“So, why have I been given… this honor?”

“You were marked. By my sister?”

“Your sister?”

“We are all sisters. Think of us as belonging to a religious order.”

“You say she marked me?”

“When you opened your mouth to her, and took her inside.”

“I see. Your sister; I am expecting her.”

“Oh, she is here. She has been, for a while.”

“Why didn’t you…let…”

“Master, she can only come to you when commanded.”

“I see. Well, I’d like to talk to her. Alone.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“But…”

“Just…Woody, for now. Okay?”

“Okay, Woody.” She stood by the bedside, waiting. I think she was waiting for me to dismiss her and the thought was mildly silly.

“Dismissed,” I said… and she turned to leave the room. “Stop!”

She turned to face me again: “Yes, Master?”

“I don’t know your name.”

“My name? Master, that is yours to choose. Each master chooses.”

“Fine.”

She stood solidly still.

“Go on, then!”

This was exasperating. Stupid, silly – and totally exasperating. And not even mildly interesting, I told myself.

The door opened and Liza came in. She was dressed in black from head to toe, like she was in mourning, yet even so I looked down at her shoes. Her feet were small, too small, but she was wearing high heels.

“Hello.” She said when she got to my bedside. “How are you?” Her voice seemed flat, almost forced.

“Not bad, considering.”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t know your heart was so weak.”

“Neither did I.”

“I feel very bad. For what happened.”

“Was the man with you your master?”

“No.”

“Who is?”

“Do not ask me this. It is very dangerous to talk about these things.”

“But if I ask, you must tell me.”

She hesitated. “No, that is not so.”

Why did she hesitate? Was it that simple?

“And if I command you?”

“Then I must tell you. But do not, please.”

“Alright, I won’t.”

She looked at me and I saw a great weight fall from her; her eyes became kind and I wanted her so much it hurt inside. But I needed to know more, and fast. I couldn’t fall under her spell again.

“You said something, before you left. You said you wished you’d met me long ago. What did you mean?”

She looked at me with those eyes and I struggled, simply because I was powerless before the weight of the lust I felt for her.

“It doesn’t matter now, Woody. Truly.”

“Did you kill Mark Tottenham?”

“Only a servant may kill a master. I will say no more.”

“Can a master kill his servant?”

“If it is his pleasure, yes.”

“And if I wanted to be your Master?”

She looked at me and beamed: “Would you?”

“If that was what I wanted, how would I make that happen?”

“If you pass the trials, if you are accepted, you have only to ask the council.”

“I see. But in the meantime?”

“You have a servant now.”

“I can have only one?”

“For now. Yes.”

“Would you want to be with me?”

“What I want is of no importance. To be wanted is all I could ever hope for.”

“All?”

“Yes, it is all to be worthy of a Master’s desire. It is all one could ever ask for.”

“I desire you. With all my heart.”

That broke her. Clean through. She leaned over, put her hand on my cheek and rubbed my face.

“Then you forgive me?”

“You changed me. I can’t think about anything but you.”

“Truly?”

“Yes, truly.”

“Will you join us?”

“If that is what I must do to possess you, then yes, I will join.”

She nodded. “I had hoped this would happen.”

“Will you tell your Master?”

She clouded over. “No. I cannot.”

I understood then. Tottenham had been her master.

“Then you will tell who you must of my decision.”

“They know now.”

“Can you come by from time to time? While I’m here?”

“If that is your wish, then yes. I will come.”

“Well then, it is my wish that you visit me each evening, until I leave this hellhole.”

She smiled. “Then I will. Are you tired?”

“Yeah, think so.”

“I’ll leave you now.”

“Alright.”

“Woody?”

“Yes?”

“I think you will be a good master.”

“Good?”

“Fair. I think I meant to say fair, as in just.”

I nodded. “Would you send my nurse in?”

“Yes. Good night.”

“Good night, my love,” I whispered, when she was leaving.

I knew she heard me, too.

This was going to be a very dangerous game, indeed.

+++++

“I have decided on a name for you,” I said to my nurse when she returned. “Persephone.”

“Thank you, Master.”

“I assume you heard our conversation?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Well, I accept you as my property so long as you accept me as your one master.”

She hesitated, the conflict immediate.

“Get out of my sight!”

“But…”

“Now! Leave! Find me a new nurse.”

She fled in tears.

That was easy, I told myself.

Too easy?

I waited a few minutes then hit the call button. She came in; it was obvious she’d been crying, and was probably scared to death. What did she say? If she failed – she was toast?

“I’m…”

“Master, no. You must never apologize.”

“Of course. Nevertheless, I was careless. I should have understood the conflict I put you in.”

She was looking at the floor but I could tell she didn’t know what to say.

“Your friend has returned.”

“Tate? Already?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Send him in.” She left the room, came back in with him and lingered in the back of the room. I didn’t send her away – probably no point. I had to assume complete surveillance from now on.

“What did you find out?”

“No photographs, Woody. Sorry.”

“Well, it probably doesn’t matter anyway.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter, Richard. If the department wants to continue the investigation, well, then, that’s their business. Like you said, I’m retired.”

His face creased as he scowled, and it looked like he was chewing the inside of his cheek as he turned my words over in his mind. “You feeling okay?”

“Yeah, fine. You say the boat’s okay?”

“Yeah. There wasn’t too much to clean up.”

“Forensics?”

“Yeah, you know the score. It was a potential homicide scene.”

“You had any new cases?”

“A couple new ones. Cheating husbands, angry wives.”

“Have Nikon, Will Travel!”

“Paladin! Man, that was a great show!” he added.

“You know it, amigo. You need anything? Hustler? Penthouse?”

“Nah, you know me… I was always a Leg Show kinda guy!”

He laughed, so did the nurse – my Persephone.

“Well, I guess I can leave now. Looks like you’re in able hands.”

“Yeah, she seems very dedicated to her profession. Right, nurse?”

“Yessir.”

“See? How ‘bout that, Richard?”

Did he see? Could he make the leap? If he had, he didn’t show it.

“Well Woody, if they cut you loose I’ll drop by the boat in the morning; maybe see you around lunch time.”

I closed my eyes after he left, felt myself dozing, then ‘Persephone’ came in with “dinner”.

“Sorry. Restricted diet for a while.” She rolled the table over my lap and I looked at red Jell-O and green yogurt and felt very ill indeed.

“Gross.”

“Sorry,” she said again. “And you won’t be going home for a while.”

“I know. All things being equal, I think I’d rather suck on your fingers again.”

She smiled, came next to the bed and lifted her skirt.

“I’m glad I can please you, Master. Do you like the way I taste?”

As a matter of fact, I did.

+++++

I was discharged from the hospital a couple of weeks later. “Persephone” had somehow, astonishingly no doubt to those of you following along here, been assigned to the hospital’s home health care division and presto! – she came home with me. Again, I ask for leniency here; please do consider, despite your misgivings, that a boat can be a home – and anyway, she took to it like a duck to water. But I want to be clear: as I have never been particularly adept at housework I was glad to have the help. The fact that she had sworn a blood oath to serve me until death? Hey, man, icing on the cake.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You see, it’s like this: having three heart attacks over the course of a week – while in a coma, no less – fucks with your head. You stand up from a chair too fast and you hear the grim reaper walking up behind you, his scythe whizzing through the air – right for your carotids. Which were already, I had reason to believe, pretty well clogged after a twenty-five year binge on Quarter Pounders and Krispy Kremes. Having a nice, sexy-as-Hell blond-haired, blue-eyed nurse following me around begging to please me was – well, frankly – kind of unexpected, yet this was just one of the unforeseen perks accrued by hooking up with a bunch of homicidal sadomasochists. Hey, I’ve always said if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Who am I to question the logic of this fucked-up world? Join ’em, then beat ‘em?

And Sephie (and frankly, she hated being called that, but calling out “Persephone!” in a crowded grocery store will get you all kinds of unwanted attention) was a miracle. She was like Carnation Instant Love; add a few teaspoons of cream and she was all kinds of happy. She’d chosen this life, too. She even told me it was true. She wasn’t some Central American or Asian kidnap victim sold into a life of sexual servitude. No, she’d been a nurse for years and had met someone who knew someone and before you can say “beat me, spank me, make me write hot checks!” she was into the scene and loving every ass-smacking minute of it. Honestly, have you ever whacked a girl on the ass and had her fall to the floor in orgasm?

Well, right, neither had I.

Like I said, this whole scene was fucking with my head, and I think I may have mentioned my head was already pretty well scrambled, and, so, everything about my life now was pretty fucked up. One day I went down to Central to fill out some paperwork and bang, just like that – it was all over: I was a retired cop. Since I was officially retired, I didn’t have to turn in my gun and badge, so like Tate I signed up for the reserves. I week later I got a call; they’d had a bad one and wanted my help. Would I mind coming down?

Would I mind? Fuck. They even sent a patrol car over to pick me up! Limousine service! If only I’d figured this out sooner!

Sephie claimed she preferred being chained to the floor by the foot of the bed but I wasn’t having any of it. A cold teak floor? Am I heartless? No, I had her curl up behind me and scratch my back all night. I’d never had a wife do that for me before, so what the hell was wrong with this picture? Sex? Don’t ask… just command! It was like Nirvana. On steroids:

“Say baby, I’d like to screw upside down hanging from the top of the mast!”

“Sure thing, Woody. Let’s do it!”

– or –

“What say we read poetry tonight, to each other?”

“I’d love to…”

It was every misogynists’ dream come true, enough to make Susan B Anthony turn barrel-rolls in her grave. There was only one problem, but it was a big one. I hated it. Everything about it. When she asked me to get rough with her I cringed inside, then I hated myself afterwards. If I left a red mark on her ass I had to go into the head and somehow keep myself from puking. Let me be perfectly clear: I was not then and am not now wired that way. Causing pain or administering corporal punishment for her supposed infractions did not make me happy, did not help me get my rocks off.

It was a means to an end.

Let me explain.

I’d made my decision the first time I saw Liza after I came out of the coma. I knew I loved her. I don’t know how, or why, and anyway, I don’t give a damn. When she walked into my room in the ICU the lights got brighter, my heart suddenly felt young and strong, and I wanted to live – but only with her by my side. That feeling became bedrock, too.

But she, apparently, belonged to – if not someone – then something that made it impossible for her to just drop off the map and sail away. She let me know in no uncertain terms that there was no running from these people. They weren’t limited to Seattle, to the Pacific Northwest, or even to the good ole U. S. of A. They were, she told me, everywhere. Literally. Senators belonged. Federal judges too. And – pointedly – chiefs of police belonged. FBI agents, CIA operatives, even a former President were regular adherents. I had no idea. My tax dollars at work! And here I’d thought all these years that politicians took no pleasure from screwing us over!

Just goes to show ya, huh?

The ‘local affiliate’ had been started years ago, she told me, by a bunch of uppity-ups at Microsoft (hey, that figures, doesn’t it?); now, she said, more than a thousand of the most influential people in the area were deeply involved, but they were always on the look-out for talent that could help in a pinch. She told me if I wanted to get an idea of what the group was like to watch Kubrick’s last film. You know; the one with Tom and Nicole and all those nice people wearing leather beaks. She let me know these people were, however, just a touch meaner than those in the film. Having been at two crime scenes and admired their handiwork, I was prepared to take this appraisal at face value. Then it hit me: If the cops and the courts were compromised, then what? If you took down a couple, or even a couple dozen, there were hundreds more buried everywhere ready to hunt you down and feed you your dick.

And the simple fact of the matter was you’d never know who to trust, or who not to. With that simple maxim as gospel, then trusting Tate – maybe especially Tate – was out of the question. If you don’t know who to trust, you trust no one. If there is any doubt, then there is no doubt. This arithmetic is simple, the kind I understand. If I was going to do anything, if I was going to extract my pound of flesh, it was going to be a solo operation. Either that or I could just go with the flow and enjoy Persephone and Liza and learn how to use a riding crop.

And believe me, there were times I thought that was an attractive proposition, too. How fast we fall, eh Lucifer?

+++++

The first time Liza came down to the boat after Sephie joined the crew was, well, interesting. Like every red-blooded male in America my favorite fantasy involved making it with two women at the same time. Let’s ignore the fact that I had never known two women at the same time that I’d have even been tempted to do this with; now I had two women who, simply stated, were more than willing. Way more than willing. The biggest problem now was I’d recently had three major coronary vapor locks: my V-8 was now an inline four, and Viagra was a major league no-no. What would I do, enquiring minds wanted to know?

But did that stop these two girls? My two girls? In a word: No. In two words: Hell No.

They were gentle, at least at first, and not very demanding – which was highly appreciated. Remember, all it took to send Sephie over the edge was a good smack on the ass. Liza was simply oral, like Linda Lovelace was oral; apparently her tonsils and clit had merged years ago – and to wondrous effect. The only thing she liked more than giving head was receiving a little. She could lay back and take a licking – for hours at a stretch, too. Fortunately the only thing I enjoy more than receiving is giving, so we were perfect for each other. And face it, all either of us had to do was smack Sephie on the ass every now and then and we were all three in carnal heaven. Hard to do on a boat, believe me, but we managed.

And this went on for months. Whoever or whatever this organization was, they were content to sit back and watch and listen for any signs that I might be trying to plot my revenge. I, however, was equally content letting Liza and Sephie clean my clock any time the mood hit.

And then there was the poor guy on the boat next to mine?

Every time I poked my head out into the sunlight the guy bowed at me like I was Krishna or the Buddha. I never really considered that sound carries through water, but our exploits were becoming the stuff of legend. So, like I said, I was retired now, and in goods hands. An equitable exchange, don’t you think? And now I had groupies.

I thought you’d enjoy that, too.

So, life took on all the aspects of a comfortable routine – but things were, in truth, not quite what they seemed. Once or twice a month the department would need me and someone would come for me and I’d go do my cop thing for a day or two. Tate joined me from time to time, then he sponsored me and I got my P.I. ticket and bought my own Nikon. Well, a Canon, but you know what I mean. I went out with him every now and then and took photos of philandering husbands and cheating wives; the rest of the time Sephie and I puttered on the boat: I taught her to sail and believe it or not I taught her how to love. Someone paid her salary, everyone left us alone, and three or four times a week Liza came over to spend the night, and along the way she taught me how to love, too. It was a trip, a real slice of life.

I think after a year of this routine I’d have been quite content to live out the rest of my days doing this, and only this. Tottenham’s murder receded into a dim and hazy past, dreams of sailing south to the tropics began to feel unnecessary, even narcissistic. I was content, even happy. I hadn’t made any waves and all indications were that I wouldn’t.

In short, they had me right where they wanted me.

And I was counting on that, too.

Chapter 16

It was right before Christmas, more than a year later, when the call came.

They were apparently sentimental characters and wanted me to attend their annual Christmas get-together. Liza told me the Satanists in the group tended to boycott the affair but it was, generally speaking, a rather low-key orgy followed by the ritual sacrifice of a few goats and a seminar or two on the proper use of riding-crops. Everyone there would be masked except, of course, me. I would, if I chose to attend, be examined, judged, and if found wanting, killed. By Sephie. Who would then be killed.

No pressure or anything. Just your average holiday get-together. Mistletoe over the spiked punch and all that jazz.

“Don’t we, like, exchange gifts or anything?” I asked. This could be fun!

“Woody, this is serious.”

“I am. It’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake!”

The girls laughed at my naiveté. They had no idea how naïve I was, or am – for that matter. Old dogs and new tricks and all that nonsense. I mean, come on: I like Christmas, always have. I still get the warm fuzzies when I watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. I like it when the Grinch finds his heart is still pure. I love watching kids open their presents on Christmas morning, and don’t mind opening one or two of my own – so shoot me! How cold-hearted could a bunch of homicidal sadomasochists be?

+++++

It was the thought of spiking their Christmas punch that intrigued me. How could I do it and not get caught? And what could I spike it with that might drive the point I was trying to make home? More to the point, what could I spike it with that would break no laws but really fuck with them where they lived?

Acid? I mean LSD, not hydrochloric – geesh – cut me some slack, wouldya? Anyway. No. Too common, and they’d used it on me.

An overdose of Viagra? Nope, I could cause a couple of heart attacks that way, yet even so the idea of a hundred or so men turning up at local ERs with permanent hard-ons did have a certain “use it or lose it” appeal.

No. What I was looking for was the anti-Viagra. Something I could give these guys that would make it impossible for them to get up for a long, long time. Permanently would be even better, but hey, do you think I’m a heartless son-of-a-bitch? Even better, to keep them from killing me I could allude to having an antidote, and my remedy would of course be the only way to restore potency.

Fuck me! This might even be fun!

But this was really only a nice daydream, perhaps, because I didn’t know any biochemists or physicians, and anyway, these guys probably had half the scientists in Seattle in their back pockets. Maybe I was just going to have to play their game, which led to one inescapable conclusion. Maybe I’d just have to be content to live with these two beautiful women the rest of my life, because the choice, as it was being presented, seemed pretty obvious to me: go along with their way of life and remain alive, or refuse their offer and die. But what would I do, I wondered, if I acquiesced only to find I was getting pulled in deeper? Maybe into something really dark? What if there really was no third option, no way to get away from these people and secure some sort of happiness? They’d tried to warn me off but had damn near killed me. Still, I was under no illusions – they didn’t owe me a thing.

Killing two cops had been dangerous for them, but they’d had the right people in the right places to mitigate the damage. Killing me might have been over the top, and they might have seen endless security issues as a result, but the other option kept gnawing away at the back of my mind. What if the man I saw on the boat with Liza had a plan? Or, what if he was the intermediary between me and this ‘council’? Had he had kept me alive – for a reason? And, I reasoned, the real key to to figuring all this out would involve what was the first domino to fall…why kill Harvey, the FBI agent? Was he inside. or had he been investigating something peripheral and stumbled onto the group? Had he been compromised, or warned like me, then tried to join the group – and failed?

But, and this was a big but, I was now on the outside, looking in. I wasn’t a cop anymore, not a real one, anyway. Weekend warriors don’t have the same administrative rights and access to information that full-timers have, so that left my new PI ticket as my only way inside, and that left me dependent on Richard Tate.

And what if Tate was the intermediary, the man on the boat who’d spared my life. He was smart enough, skilled enough to pull off most any subterfuge, and he was my friend – and that alone might have been motive enough to cause his intercession.

And what about Anders, the chief. What if he was inside, and wanted to put a stop to things before they got out of hand and exposed this seamy underside of his life? And SAC Brennan, or anyone else in the Bureau’s SeaTac office?

What I was left with was a ‘no-win’ situation, there was no way out, and I only had a week to come up with something if I decided to make a break.

That was when Mary-Jo dropped by, and paid us a little visit. That was something I hadn’t been counting on, and for quite some time too, if you know what I mean.

+++++

“So, you’re really going to join?” M-J asked when she came on board, meaning, was I really going to go to meet the council, and seek membership in their little club?

“Well, it’s either that, or Seph is going to go all Sunni on me with a knife,” I replied with a shrug, smiling a little. So much for idle chit-chat, anyway.

“That’s not a real positive attitude, if you get my drift, for wanting to come in out of the rain,” she added.

“Maybe if they’d just let me be, not bunked me down with the hottest nurse in the Pacific Northwest?”

“They couldn’t trust you, Woodie. Simple as that.”

“Well then, what made them think being held almost incommunicado for a year would make me more trustworthy?”

“I suppose, but…what did you call her? Seph?”

“Persephone. Queen of the underworld.”

“The underworld? Like Hell?”

I smiled. “Not quite.”

“Well, what I was going to say is I think they weren’t counting on Persephone’s ability to control you.”

“Even though I am her master?”

Now it was M-J’s time to smile. “Yes, funny how these things work, isn’t it? Isn’t control almost always an illusion? Anyway, just what do you feel towards Persephone?”

“Feel? I love her completely. Aside from that, she’s the best friend I’ve ever had.” Persephone, sitting by his side, smiled demurely, knowingly. “If she were taken from me tomorrow I think I might wither and die.”

“Really? Die?”

“I don’t think I’m trying to be disingenuous here, M-J. We’re very close.”

“Well then, suppose I order her to leave you, right now. What then?”

“Well then, I suppose I would begin to wonder just who you really are? What you’re role in this little organization really is?” Truth of the matter is I thought I knew exactly who she was, yet even so at this point I was more than a little concerned. I knew a lot was riding on my answers the next few minutes, and that M-J was holding all the Aces.

“You still think like a cop, Woodie.”

“True blue, all the way through.”

“And you’ll never change, will you?”

“Are you kidding? Persephone has changed me, completely.”

“How so?”

“Because I love her, M-J, and I love what she is. What she is has been defined by the role she plays within your organization.”

“My organization? You presume too much.”

“I don’t think so.”

She smiled. She knew I knew. Everything hung in the balance now.

She stood, looked undecided, first at Persephone, then at me.

“You’re dangerous, Woodie. You always will be.”

I stood, came to her and held out my hand. She looked down and took mine, and I kissed her fingers.

“We were almost friends,” I began, but she cut me off.

“Almost?”

“We never had a chance to see where we could go.”

She shrugged. “Some things are never meant to be.”

“And Persephone? Was she meant to be?”

“She was always meant to be your executioner.”

“You know, I think I’m too old to be a danger to anyone.”

“But you’re not.”

“So then, it comes down to…”

“Allegiance, Woodie.”

“What are your aims, I wonder?”

She smiled. “Allegiance is complete, or it’s meaningless.”

I kissed her hand again, and said “I agree,” and that was really all there was to it.

M-J smiled at me, then to Persephone she said, “I release you, Persephone. You belong to no one now but this man. You have no conflicting orders or purpose. You belong to him now, and will serve him until his death. Do you understand?”

“I do, Mistress.”

She turned to leave, this Mistress, my almost friend, and then I saw her entourage in the cockpit. Girls dressed in black, women who looked like ninja warriors, and then I remembered an intel briefing I seen the last time I was at Central, something about a group that had started taking out pedophiles in Dallas. Ninjas? So, was this another piece of the bigger puzzle I’d wondered about last year – when this first started going down?

I started to follow M-J but she turned and stopped me. “You will stay here now. Down here. Do not leave for a week. Do not communicate with anyone outside. Do you understand?”

“Yes. And Liza?”

“She is masterless. Do you want her?”

“Yes.”

“You must understand one thing. Once she is yours, it is to the death. She killed her master, and she is marked. If she fails you, you must kill her. Do you accept?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitating.

I could see surprise in M-J’s eyes, but no doubt, and she nodded her head in appreciation. “Perhaps one day I will trust you,” she said as she looked at me.

“But not today.”

“No, not today.” She pulled my face to hers and bit my earlobe so hard I was sure she had severed it, and when she pulled away I could see my blood on her face. “Not yet, Woodie, but the day may come when you will be given the opportunity to prove yourself.”

She disappeared into the night, leaving me and Persephone down below, with only lapping waves hitting the hull for company. A strong gust shook the boat, and wind moaned in the rigging. I turned to Persephone, and when she saw my wound she ran to get first aid supplies from the head.

“She marked you,” Persephone said as she worked on the injury.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Either she wants you for her own, or she intends to kill you.”

“Now, there’s some good news.”

“Did you really mean what you said to her? About me?”

“Every word.”

“Even though I was meant to kill you?”

“I meant every word.”

“You really love me?”

“Yes. Completely.”

“And Liza? You really love her too?”

“Yes, but not like I do you. It’s different. You are like a wife to me, Persephone. Liza is more…”

“A concubine? For your pleasure?”

“Perhaps, yes. But she brings me comfort, too.” I looked at this woman, this care-giver, and I did indeed feel something unique when I looked into her eyes. Love? Yes. Fear? Way too much. Would she still kill me if ordered? I doubted that not at all.

+++++

The next morning I felt the boat move as someone hopped aboard, and went to the companionway and looked up into the cockpit. Liza was there, sitting beside the wheel, and she looked at when I poked my head up into the light.

“You here to stay?” I asked.

“Could we talk? Up here?”

“Sorry. I’m down here, for the week. Orders.”

“I’m glad you said that,” Liza said. She had been testing me – as I assumed she might.

“Well, not sure I’ll cook you breakfast again, in case you were wondering.”

She smiled, but there was pain in her eyes as she confronted the reality of being a murderer.

“It doesn’t go away, does it?” I said to her indecision.

She shook her head.

“So, you coming down?”

“Could I sit up here for a while?”

“Suit yourself.” I ducked below, started working on the alternator’s belt. Sephie was forward, I assumed, reading a nursing journal, but then I heard her coming up behind me. She knelt down, put her hands on my shoulders and whispered in my ear: “We’re going to need a bigger boat…”

I turned, looked at her, saw the smile on her face – and I smiled too.

“We’ll need a bigger bed, too,” she added.

“Hadn’t thought of that,” I grinned.

“I have,” Liza said. She was sitting on the cockpit sole, leaning into the companionway.

I looked up, was kind of surprised to see her so soon.

“I have a question for you,” I said to her. “Kind of an important one, too.”

“Okay.”

“You marked me, remember?”

Her eyes were half closed, but she nodded her head.

“What does that mean? To mark me?”

“That I marked you as my property.”

“I understand that, but what are the consequences?”

“You are mine.”

“But that’s where I’m a little fuzzy, Liza. I am your master, am I not?”

“You are. True.”

“Yet you say, ‘you are mine’? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”

“No, not at all. ‘You are mine’ simply means that I am sworn to you, that my soul belongs to you.”

I turned away.

“You do not believe me?” she asked.

“No, I don’t.” I looked at Persephone. “Is she telling me the truth?”

She nodded her head.

“Why haven’t you marked me, Persephone.”

“I can not answer.”

“That’s okay, I think I get it.” I turned back to Liza. “Lying to me is the same as failing me,” I said to her. “Or do you disagree?”

“Oh, no, I agree. Will you kill me now?”

“When it pleases me, I will.” That seemed to penetrate the fog, and she nodded her head slightly. “Come below now, and go forward.”

She didn’t hesitate. She climbed down the steps and went to the forward cabin, and I let her stay up there the rest of the day, by herself.

Sephie helped me change the alternator belt, then we fixed lunch and I sat at the chart table for a few hours looking over sailing routes from Puget Sound the Polynesia.

An hour later, Liza called out; she needed to use the head.

“Show her how, Seph,” I said, and she went forward. When Liza came aft I saw she was naked, and I wondered why but kept my mouth shut. I heard the head being pumped clear a minute later and watched as Liza walked back to the forward cabin, but I let her stew in silence a little longer. When the sun was sliding behind the hills to the west I told her to come to me.

“No more lies, Liza. When I ask you a question, I want a truthful answer.”

“If I can.”

“That’s not good enough.”

“I’m sorry.”

I nodded my head, opened up chart table drawer and pulled out my old Kimber 45 ACP, and screwed on a silencer. I racked the slide, chambered a round, and leveled the pistol at her chest.

“Care to change your answer?”

She looked at the pistol, then at my eyes, judging me.

“Only members of the council may mark a master,” she said.

“And Persephone isn’t a member?”

“No.”

I unscrewed the silencer and put the pistol back in the drawer.

“Woodie, were you going to shoot me?”

“Yes.”

“You are a master! I knew it!”

“Don’t ever lie to me again,” I growled.

She dropped to her knees. “Yes, Master.”

“Why did you mark me?”

“Because I killed my master. I was masterless, and afraid.”

“Afraid? That is your truth?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes, Master.”

“I will cook you something.”

“No, Master, let me…”

“No, you need to understand, it pleases me to cook. Even for you.”

“As you wish.”

“It would also please me no end if you’d stop calling me Master, and talking like you’re some kind of medieval vassal. And, get off the floor, for heaven’s sake –  unless you’ve dropped a contact lens or something…”

Liza smiled, stood, and looked at me.

I opened my arms, she came to me, and I held her close. Persephone looked at us, and she smiled too, but there was something new in her eyes, something that hadn’t been there for the past year.

I told Liza to go forward and put on some clothes, and when she was gone I went to Persephone and kissed her passionately for the longest time. When I was sure she was completely confused I let her go, and turned to the galley with a smile in my little black heart.

Phase One was now underway.

+++++

Tate came over a few weeks later, and, he said, he just wanted to just shoot the shit for a while. Liza was off doing her thing as a reporter, while Persephone remained on hand like my very own two legged Golden Retriever. That is to say, she was right by my side, my ever faithful, golden haired companion, so talking would be a little restrained.

“When I have my big heart attack, can I have one just like yours?” Tate said when Persephone came up into the cockpit carrying a tray loaded with orange juice and heart-healthy snacks. That’s code for saw-dust, by the way. There’s no such thing as a heart healthy snack, unless of course you’re talking about oral sex.

Anyway, Sephie smiled, handed Tate a glass of fresh squeezed, then settled in by my side.

“You look like you could use some sun,” Tate said. “You’re pale.”

“It’s her fault,” I said, pointing at Sephie. “She sleeps all day and flies away at night, in search of fresh blood.”

“That explains everything,” Tate said. “Listen, I think I’ve got a case I can’t handle alone. Think you’re up to it?”

“I’ll have to check with his doctors,” Persephone said. “The last time he went out with the department he had some strange rhythms, and was light-headed.”

“Oh, still bothering you, is it?”

“Well, it’s pretty much a permanent condition now.”

So, in pidgin-cop talk he’d just managed to ask if I was still under house arrest, and I’d confirmed his suspicions.

“Well, it’d be nice if you could. The case is going to involve a lot of camera surveillance, and you could make a few bucks while just sitting back in your car with a Nikon for company.”

“If the doctor approves, could I come with him?” Sephie asked.

“No reason why you couldn’t, as far as I can see.”

“That might be fun,” she said.

“Do we have any avocados?” I asked out of the blue, knowing full well we didn’t.

“I could run out and get a few,” Tate said, helpfully.

“No big,” I said to Sephie. “Next time we’re out, I think we should get a few.”

“Have a craving?” Persephone asked.

“Oh, you know me. Put avocado on shoe leather and it’d taste good.”

“Want me to run out and get a couple?” she asked.

“No, next time we…”

“Don’t be silly. It’ll just take a few minutes, remember? The farm stand’s open down the street!”

Like, really, I’d forgotten? “Would you?” I asked innocently. “That’d be great.”

And a few minutes later Tate and I were alone. I pointed to my ear, indicating possible listening devices might be planted, so we continued with small talk about his difficult case, but at one point I bent over to pick up a napkin and slipped a note under his shoe. A minute later he knocked his napkin off the little cockpit table and retrieved the note, just before Sephie returned.

“Want me to make some guacamole?” I asked them.

“Sure,” Sephie said, and Tate nodded his head.

So, what was in the note? Just an innocent question concerning the PI business, but it would be enough to trip up Tate if he was part of the group, and if he wasn’t he’d understand in no uncertain terms that I was not free to move around on my own.

And yeah, I made some guacamole, and Liza got back just in time to have some, too.

+++++

Every couple of years I haul the boat and get the bottom scrubbed and re-painted, and it was coming up on that time again. We, the girls and I, packed overnight bags and checked into a hotel down the street, then Tate and I drove the boat to a yard across the lake, then hopped into the Zodiac and puttered back across to the hotel’s marina. Somewhere along the way Tate slipped a note into a coat pocket, but otherwise kept quiet. End result, I thought he was clean, but wouldn’t do anything compromising – for a while longer, anyway.

As summer approached, Liza started making noises about wanting to take some time off, some real time off, and wanted to know what I thought about taking a trip.

“On the boat?”

“Yes, of course. Why own a boat like this? Certainly not to let it sit in a slip and rot?”

“Guess that depends on what my doctors say. Isn’t that right, Persephone?”

“That would depend on how strenuous a journey we make? Like, where to, how long?”

“Like Tahiti,” she said. “How long would that take, Woodie?”

“Did we have a bad day at work, dear?” I asked. I swear I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice, too, but that did it. She broke down, went into a rant about an editor at the paper who had been riding her ass for months, and that got me wondering…

Were there limits to the interventions this group was willing to make? To preserve their identities, and the group’s security? Or was this editor of hers in the group? Interesting, I thought, but the answer to her original question still hung in the air, apparently waiting to be answered.

“So, Tahiti. What do you want to know?”

She looked at Sephie: “Could he do it?”

Persephone looked a little hesitant, like she wasn’t sure this was something she was allowed to talk about, but then she looked at me and shrugged her shoulders: “Assuming we were both there to do most of the heavy work? I think so.”

The heavy work? I had to laugh. These two had been out on the boat in the Sound a bunch, and under a variety of conditions too, but they had no idea what lay on the other side of the Olympic Peninsula. There was a malevolent beast waiting out there, a sleeping monster called the Pacific, and neither had ever been ‘at sea’ – not even once.

So, I kept my mouth shut about that, and launched into the less intimidating aspects of such a voyage. Like: most people from the Northwest hop down the coast, stopping at Astoria, San Francisco, and usually in L.A. too, before pausing for a long breather in San Diego, where supplies are replenished and gear maintained, then it’s a non-stop thirty-two hundred mile grind to the Marquesas, the gateway to French Polynesia from North America, then another nine hundred miles on to Tahiti. Boats like mine can make almost two hundred miles a day under optimal conditions, but a more likely average is closer to a hundred and ten, which puts a voyage from San Diego to the Marquesas in the forty day range. But the trip down to California can take more than a few weeks, and most people stop off in the Marquesas for several weeks. Trip time by that point is almost three months and climbing, and most people who’ve made the trip then spend a year or more wandering around the islands before heading to New Zealand.

“New Zealand? Why there?”

“Well, I suppose because it’s lovely down there, but there’re other reasons as well. It’s like sailboat heaven, and after a year or more at sea boats need work. Serious work. And a lot of people sour on the dream by that point, and decide to either sell their boats there or ship them back to the states and start over.”

“Start over?”

“Well, just looking at the experiences of people I know who’ve made the trip, if they make it that far one of two things happens. Married couples either divorce and sell the boat and return to the states, or they double down and head west for Australia and on to the Med.”

“You mean…”

“Yup. Circumnavigate. That’s a five to seven year deal, assuming you stop to smell the roses from time to time.”

“Holy cow. Do many people do that?”

“More than you might think, but that’s a trip for people like you. Starting off in your forties is the norm for a trip like that. People starting a circumnavigation in their sixties are rare. My guess is if I started a trip like that now you’d probably get to spread my ashes somewhere in the Indian Ocean.”

“Now, Woodie…”

“No, I think that’s realistic, and it wouldn’t be the most horrible thing in the world, you know? Life is a one way ticket, I seem to recall. To leave this life doing something you always wanted to do isn’t the worst outcome imaginable.”

“Is it something you always wanted to do?”

“I used to think so.”

“And now?”

“Are you kidding? I’m getting older by the minute and haven’t a care in the world, but to make matters worse I live on my boat with two stunning women I just happen to adore. And yes, I know we need a bigger boat. If we made such a trip, we’d need a newer, bigger boat, or spend a heck of lot upgrading the hardware on this one. But there’s a more important question: why make the trip now?”

“Because you’d be happy.”

“You’re assuming I’m unhappy, aren’t you, Liza?”

“I know you’re unhappy,” Persephone said.

“Well, if anyone knows what I’m feeling, it’s you. And I mean that in the best possible way, of course.”

Sephie came to me and put her head in my lap, and I ran my fingers through her long hair for the longest time. Liza came and sat by my side, and she leaned in close.

“Do you want to at least try?” Liza finally asked.

And there I was, hesitating on the precipice, lost in the vertigo of a great decision. Two years ago this had been the dream, the plan. Retire and head south, then make for the Med or the South Pacific, and I’d even considered making the voyage solo, maybe meeting some wahini along the way and making a run at it together, but now…everything was different. And it was different in the most sinister way possible.

Just what the Hell were they up to? Get me offshore and push me overboard? Or just shoot me in the head and let me wash up on the shore somewhere?

“I couldn’t make it without both of you,” I thought aloud, “and I couldn’t ask that of you. Wouldn’t be fair, you know.”

“You don’t have to ask, Woodie,” Persephone said.

“Yes, I do. I could never impose my dreams on someone else, especially the only two people left in the world I love.”

“That’s not what I meant, Woodie,” Persephone said. “I love you too, and I’d want to share this, be a part of this.”

I could see the end of my life in her words, and it was fascinating. Simply fascinating.

All in all, the air around me felt exotic, heavy with portentous meaning, and suddenly it felt as if I was sitting in an Indian bazaar, flute in hand, watching a pair of cobras dancing to a tune only they could hear.

+++++

We decided to head out for a sail a few weeks later, kind of a trial run out towards Vancouver Island. Blue water, if you know what I mean. Real ocean, not that calm stuff in Puget Sound. That was the idea, anyway.

Mother Nature always has her own plans, and this was one of those days. No, not stormy. Far from it. The water in the Straits resembled a Wal*Mart parking lot – in Kansas. Flat. Flat as a billiard table, and not a breath of air all morning. We were off Port Townsend just after noon and still heading west northwest, and the only excitement we’d had had been dodging the occasional log. That, and my pointing out the passing fins of the odd blue shark that happened along from time to time. Odd how focused people get when they spot a man-eater.

By mid-afternoon we were past Victoria harbor and still motoring west, a Seattle-bound ferry crossing southbound off our stern the only company to be had. I hopped down the companionway and made some log entries, grabbed a few Cokes and went back up to the wheel and noticed the girls weren’t in the shaded cockpit. I looked around, saw them up on the foredeck deep in conversation. I saw the Beretta 92SBF in Liza’s right hand within the span of a single heartbeat, and it didn’t take me too long figure out what was on their minds. I reached down and let off the main sheet and the traveler lines, then moved all the way aft and got behind the wheel, and waited.

Persephone saw me first, maybe a minute later. She turned and looked at me – and I could see the sorrow in her eyes, the pain in her soul. She didn’t want to kill me, she never had. Then I looked at Liza. What I saw in her eyes made my blood boil. It was lust, pure blood-lust. In all my years on the street I’d encountered such savage evil only a few times, and I recognized what I saw in her eyes immediately. She smiled at me then, smiled as she drew the pistol and leveled it at my chest.

Liza moved towards the starboard shrouds as she started aft, and Persephone followed close behind. The Beretta is Liza’s right hand barely wavered as she drew near the canvas awning over the cockpit, and that’s exactly when I threw the wheel over hard to port.

Right as rain, the main boom rocketed off to the starboard rail, and with the satisfying ping of a four iron on a par five fairway, both Liza and Persephone were knocked high over the lifelines and into that deep blue sea.

It was time to make a few quick decisions, and though I’d had a few days to think about what I’d do if my worst-case-scenario came to pass, the sadness in Persephone’s eyes called out to me across that mirrored sea. In point of fact, Persephone began calling out to me at that very moment, and she looked pathetic. Helpless, and pathetic.

Liza, on the other hand, looked ferocious. Pissed off, and ferocious. Her hands were flailing away, no Beretta visible now, but she soon settled down and starting swimming after the boat. I dropped the RPM down to twelve hundred and tightened the turn, then straightened out, aiming to come alongside Persephone; Liza saw what I was doing and started back towards her.

The dilemma facing me was simple. The first thing that crossed my mind was that it would never be possible to trust either girl ever again, not right now – and probably not ever again. So, the next thing that hit me? Well, simply put, bringing one or both back to shore would leave me in exactly the same predicament. It would only be a matter of time before the order would come to kill me again. So, I reasoned, the simplest thing to do would be to run them down, kill them out here in the Pacific and let the sharks have them. There were no witnesses and, I calculated, I could do this with a clear conscience. They had set this up, all this talk about going to Tahiti, with nothing more in mind than killing me. They were predators, merciless, mercenary predators.

And then I saw the Beretta. Right there on the cockpit cushion, hard by the companionway. Leaning forward, I scooped it up before coming alongside Persephone. I throttled back a bit and turned away from her, watched as the panic set in. Liza arrived by her side a moment later and I just watched them. I watched them watching me, watched them study me, looking for the first sign of hesitation, or resolve.

And then I saw the shark.

A white. A Great White. Rare in these waters, but not completely unheard of, and now the huge fish was circling perhaps thirty yards away from the girls, probably trying to figure out exactly what they were, and how they might taste.

So here I sat – fat, dumb and very unhappy – on my boat, and just a few yards away two very nervous women paddled away in very deep water, completely oblivious to the danger that had entered their very precarious orbit.

I raised the Beretta, let Liza see it for what it was as I cut power and dropped the transmission into neutral. The boat slowed, but was still a good ten yards from the girls, and then I pointed at the fin.

“I think that’s a Great White,” I said.

Synchronized swimmers had never executed such a precise, coordinated turn in any venue, nor had any actress in any horror movie ever made shown such wide-eyed awareness of her impending doom as those two girls did.

Personally, it was kind of gratifying, but almost three decades of carrying a gun and a badge made what happened next a completely forgone conclusion. I swung the wheel hard to starboard and slipped the transmission into reverse and backed down slowly, then I slipped it into neutral and hopped down onto the swim platform and dropped the ladder into the water. Predictably, Liza made it to the stern first, and I reached down and hauled her aboard in one smooth motion. As she clambered into the cockpit I reached down and took Persephone’s frantically grasping hand in mine and hauled her onto the platform, then I grabbed her shaking body and held her close to mine.

I knew Liza had the Beretta even before I turned around, but when I looked at her she held it out to me, handed it over without so much as a murmur.

“Go grab some towels, would you, darlin’?” I said softly. I helped Sephie into the cockpit, took the towels Liza carried up a moment later and wrapped them both up and held them tight, kissed each on the forehead.

“Don’t ever do anything like that again,” I whispered in Liza’s ear. “Okay?”

I could feel her head nodding assent through her violent trembling. When she calmed down a few minutes later I handed the Beretta back to Liza, and with my head I motioned her to toss it overboard.

She didn’t hesitate. When I heard that definitive ‘ker-plonk’ I took her face in hand; I kissed her hard on the mouth, kissed her until she responded with an authenticity I’d never felt from her before, then I kissed Sephie, and more deeply than I ever had before.

It hit me hard, that irrational moment out there under then sun. Despite everything, I knew I loved them both, I mean really and truly loved them, and that I could never let go of them. Still, a part of me clung to the knowledge that I could never really trust them. Yet…there had been something so unexpectedly tender about those fleeting seconds that had caught me so completely off-guard. Something about the way we loved one another as we turned back towards the Sound, about the desperate gratitude we shared as we clung to one another, something about the looks I found in their eyes that told me the tables had finally turned.

You can’t have love without trust, after all. Or is it the other way around?

+++++

We didn’t talk too much about what had happened out there on the water. There wasn’t much to say, the way I saw things. They’d been ordered to do away with me, but up to that point in time whoever controlled them had never seen any reason to question their loyalty. By the time we tied up at my marina on Lake Union that assumption had been turned on it’s ear. I was alive. They’d failed – for whatever reason, and now there would be consequences. Whoever was calling the shots in their world, I assumed, just might expose themselves to get this done. Someone would have to give the order, and then someone would have to execute the operation against “their” girls. That’s what I was counting on, at least, and that, hopefully, would give me the opening I had been hoping for.

+++++

And so I wasn’t entirely confused when Mary Jo came down to the marina a few hours later. I had just sent the girls to the market for some grub, which wasn’t all that surprising either. The slip, my boat, were under constant surveillance, and again, I’d kind of assumed that for quite a while. But here she was, and all alone, which did confuse me. I had expected a return appearance of her ninja warrior girlfriends, but no, that was not the case. At least, they weren’t visible, but that’s the point with ninja, I suppose.

“Hello, Woody,” she said as she stood on the dock below the cockpit. “Kind of surprised to see you.”

“Are you, indeed,” I said as I climbed out the companionway and stepped into the cockpit. “Why’s that, I wonder? And where are those delightful girlfriends of yours?”

“Around.”

“Yes, of course.” I looked at MJ, remembered that night and her hand under the table. “Well, you’re looking good,” I said as I smiled at her. “Would you like to come aboard?”

“Assuming you’re not going to try to kill me, then yes.”

I almost laughed as I gave her my hand and helped her aboard. “So, to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

“Why are you still alive?”

“Well, as long as we’re asking questions, why do you want me dead? I thought we had an understanding?”

“We did.”

“What changed.”

“Circumstances.” Only the voice I heard wasn’t Mary Jo’s. It was a man’s voice, and one that sounded very familiar.

“What the fuck!” I said as Mark Tottenham stepped out from behind a pillar and back into the land of the living.

He walked over to Mary Jo, pulling a little Walther PPK/s from under of his jacket as he drew near. “Get down on your knees, you stupid bitch,” he said as he came up behind her. He screwed a silencer on the barrel, then put the tip up to the base of her brain and squeezed off one round. Mary Jo fell into the water between the dock and the boat and disappeared; Tottenham tossed the Walther into the water after her.

“You didn’t need to kill her, Woody. That was unnecessary, and stupid.” He took black leather gloves off his hands, then walked up to the gate without saying another word. As he left the marina, I took a remote control from my pocket, and hit the pause button. “This might be easier than I thought,” I had the audacity to say, but in truth, Tottenham’s resurrection was troubling.

I heard the sirens a few minutes later, and a half dozen patrol cars careened into the marina parking lot moments later. Their guns drawn, dozens of officers stormed towards the gate, but as they didn’t have a key, I had to walk up and let them in.

+++++

“Long time no see, Woody,” Chief Anders said as he climbed aboard.

“Hey Chief. How’s it hangin’?”

“Down to my knees, Peckerhead.”

“Good to hear it. Come on down. I think you’ll enjoy this.”

A couple of grunts from CID were already down below, and SAC Brennan was as well. They’d of course seen the recording already, which was why I wasn’t being booked-in at that very moment, but Chief Anders hadn’t seen it, which was why he was here now, and Brennan had thought it important he see it as soon as possible.

First, and for his benefit, I explained what had been happening for the past fourteen months, during my impromptu retirement, then I played the tape.

When he saw Tottenham step into view, when he heard his voice, Chief Anders just about came unglued. “What the fucking Hell is this!” he shouted. “Some sort of CG bullshit!”

Liza stepped into the cabin, right on cue. “Not quite, sir,” she said. “It’s his brother, Paul. Identical twins. I think Mark wasn’t going to cooperate, so Paul had him killed. Oh. He’s also the head of the local council.”

“Council?”

“Whatever you’d like to call them sir. They’re usurping control all around the country, coopting officials at every level of government.”

“A silent coup, Chief Anders” Brennan interjected. “A complete government takeover, using blackmail. Sexual blackmail, one of the oldest tricks in the book. Minimal personnel involved, very quick, very efficient. Even the Romans used to do it this way.”

“Shit,” Anders said, no small amount of wonder in his voice. “And this Paul Tottenham? He’s in charge?”

“I don’t think he has much power beyond Seattle,” Liza said.

“Do you know, Miss… Hell, I don’t even know your name, but you sure look familiar.”

“I’m with Woodie,” my dear little Liza said. “Have been for a while.”

I took her hand in mine.

“So you don’t know much about their operations, beyond the local structure?” Anders asked. “Brennan? You need to keep her for a while?”

“I don’t think so, Chief. She’s cooperating, and we have enough already to make a few dozen arrests. We may break open a larger investigation that way. I think it depends on how deep their penetration is, but it sounds like this could be a very sticky operation.”

“Woody, you think you’re well enough to come back?” Anders asked.

“Me? Hell Chief, I hadn’t thought of that. I wouldn’t count on me, though. Liza and I have been thinking of taking a trip, on the boat.”

Anders looked at Liza and almost smiled, but I could see the envy in his eyes. He just nodded his head, mumbled something that sounded a lot like ‘wish I could’, then he climbed up into the night and was gone. I’d already burned several copies of the recording, and everyone had their discs now, as well as Liza’s statement, and soon they were all gone.

Persephone was still forward, and she came aft as soon as I gave her the all clear. She had recorded the proceedings on board that evening, ‘just in case’, and Tate was buried away in the parking garage making recordings of all the people coming and going as well.

Divers recovered MJs body early the next morning, and they found the little Walther, too, so ballistics wouldn’t be a problem, and with the recordings there wouldn’t be any problem getting a conviction. There was certainly no ‘reasonable doubt’ about what had happened, anyway. For good measure, Tate took copies of all our recordings to multiple safety deposit boxes around the city, and I did the same at a few other banks. That done, we met back to the boat.

“So,” Tate asked when we were safely back on board, “are you really going to head out? Do the trip?”

“I’m thinking I might just give it a try?”

“You going solo?” he asked, and I could see he was wondering where the girls were.

I just smiled.

“Man, wish I could make that trip!”

“Yeah, I bet you do.”

It took a few weeks to square away the new boat and provision her, but I guess you know I had some help. She’s a little bigger boat, not by much, but she’s a lot stronger…yet the most important thing, more important than anything else, is the bunk in my cabin is a whole lot bigger.

Hey, I’m just sayin’, you know, but I’m pretty sure you understand.

Part III – Welcome Back My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends

Chapter 17

Dallas

She sat at her desk, listening to the man drone on about his wife. About how the wretched woman just didn’t understand him. How she never wanted to have sex anymore. How life had become totally empty, devoid of all meaning, all happiness.

She looked at this little maggot and wanted to laugh. ‘Have you looked in a mirror lately, you fat slob,’ she wanted to say. ‘Who’d want to fuck you? Who the hell would want to understand your pathetic, empty life? Jerking off to porn in the basement at two in the morning? Not even having the balls to jerk off in her face? Hiding in the shadows, afraid of your own shadow – all the shadows in your life…’

“Well, Mr Peterson,” she said after she’d listened to about as much as she could stand, “it looks like our hour’s about up. I’d like you to reflect on some of the strategies we discussed today, and keep writing in your journal.”

“Okay. How do you think I’m doing?”

“Fine, Mr Peterson. Just fine.”

“How many more sessions do we have?”

She looked at her appointment app, scanned his court-ordered sentence. “Another eight weeks ‘til your next mandated evaluation. Then I make my report to the court.”

“You think I’ll do okay?”

“I can’t discuss these matters with you, Mr Peterson. You know that, so please don’t make me remind you again.”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Now, it’s time for you to leave. I’ll see you on Friday, at ten.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

He even walked like a worm, she thought as he stood and made to leave, but he turned and looked at her – tried to look at her, anyway – but she was behind her desk and so denied him the view he sought.

He’d been sneaking down in the middle of the night to jerk off to online porn for years, then one night his wife came down – quietly – and caught him in the act. She belittled him for days after, until one evening he couldn’t take it anymore. After she hit him with a long string of insults he snapped, and he pushed his wife against the wall and screamed at her. He’d fallen to the floor, crying, and she’d called the police.

Domestic violence wasn’t tolerated in this city, Judge Thornton Thomas told him at one point during his sentencing, and in addition to the twenty-five hundred dollar fine – as well as all court costs – he’d been sentenced to six months of psychiatric counseling – again, at his own expense. And of course his wife filed for divorce, so now he was living in a flop-house by the warehouse district near Love Field. He could at least walk to work these days, flipping burgers at a nearby fast food place, which was a good thing – as he’d lost his car after being fired from his job.

But now he was infatuated with this psychiatrist – Dana Devlin – and her endlessly long legs. She usually left her office just after their session, and he knew this because he waited and watched for her, and for the limo that waited for her just outside the medical office building. The limo would whisk her to TV studios downtown, where she had a syndicated noon-time call-in self-help program, where she would discuss issues surrounding domestic violence and substance abuse – with a nationwide audience. He liked to watch her as she left the building, liked the feeling of hiding and watching her surreptitiously, but he loved looking at her long legs and high heels most of all.

So he was waiting for her downstairs this morning, behind some trees not far away, and he watched her as she walked out, watched her legs as she turned and climbed into the limo, and he relished that one fleeting moment most of all – when, with one leg outstretched her skirt rose up, revealing stocking tops and garters. He shuddered when he caught that glimpse this morning, wanted to crawl home and turn on his laptop.

But no, not today. Today he wanted to see more, so he caught the bus downtown – with a smile on his very happy face.

+++++

“Yes,” Devlin said, “bi-polar disorder has become, I’m afraid, a too-broad definition, a catch-all phrase being used to justify all manner of inexcusable behavior. Like a doctor’s note to get you out of gym, it’s become almost trendy, and now, today, people are calling themselves bi-polar without any sort of formal diagnosis, thinking their swings in mood can be excused away with a shrug and a smile – and a hastily contrived diagnosis. So, the point I’m trying to make is simply this; if someone is indeed bi-polar, they need medication, they need treatment, and that won’t happen without seeking help from a qualified medical professional. Absent that, people need to stop self-diagnosing the problem, and applying labels they simply do not understand.”

“Okay,” the show’s host said, “this has been The Help Desk, with Dr Dana Devlin. This is Dick Durban, and we’ll be back next week with a frank examination at post-pubescent bed-wetting, and what you can do to move on from suffering the consequences of this humiliating nighttime scourge.”

The lights dimmed and Devlin unclipped her mic and set it on the desk in front of her, then leaned over and thanked Durban.

“You coming tonight?” she asked.

“Oh, wouldn’t miss it,” he said, smiling.

“Good,” she said, then she left the studio, stopped off at the gym before going out for the evening. She did not, apparently, notice she was being followed as she went inside the gym.

+++++

He had been planning this night all week, and now it was time. He was going to follow her, wait until she was alone then take her. He’d been looking on from afar for too long, he told himself, and she had given him the courage he’d need to see this night through. He was sitting in the back of the taxi he’d called when she came out, and it fell in behind her Mercedes as it took off from the gym.

+++++

They had been waiting until night fell, and perhaps a half hour after the sun set a rope dropped noiselessly from the roof, and two shadows slipped through the night and into Peterson’s grimy little room.

They left a half hour later, the contents of his computer downloaded onto a card.

+++++

He looked up as a jet roared by just overhead, and barely made it in a back door without being caught; he followed the driving beat of the music down dark service stairs into an obscure, poorly marked basement, and slipped unnoticed to the back of the room, his heart racing as he looked at the action on the floor. It was dark in the big room, a few strobes pulsed in one corner,  beating like a sick heart to raw music, and he saw her down there, dressed in latex and PVC – everything black, everything shiny, almost wet looking – even the huge phallus she had just strapped-on was shiny-wet and black.

Then he saw the judge – his judge – down there on the floor, strapped down to a high bench. She was whipping him – savagely, too, he thought – then she moved between the jurist’s splayed legs and planted her strap-on over his anus – and plunged-in – then began mercilessly pounding the man’s ass. When he cried-out in pain she only whipped him more fiercely.

He pulled out his phone, slipped it into video mode and began recording, and after just a few minutes he slipped back out of the building and disappeared into the night.

Shadows within shadows watched his movements, and one broke off and retraced his steps into the building, into the basement. She came out a few minutes later and her team disappeared into waiting shadows.

+++++

The next week, at his scheduled therapy session, she noticed he was looking at her differently – almost leering at her, she thought.

“What would you like to talk about today, Mr Peterson,” she started, unsure of his mood.

“I’d like you to call me Pete.”

She smiled. “Oh? Why?”

“First, could you tell me the difference between love and lust?”

She seemed amused at this new line of thought. “What’s on your mind today, Pete?”

“It’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I’ve been thinking about what might be different between the two.”

“Well, what do you think the difference is?”

“That’s not my question, Dana.”

“I’ve told you before, Mr Peterson, I’d prefer that you refer to me by my title.”

“I really don’t care what you want me to call you, Dana. I would like you to tell me the difference between love and lust.”

She looked into his eyes and unconsciously crossed her arms over her lap, then caught herself and sighed. “The difference, you say?”

“Yes. How are they different?”

“Well, love is about continuity, about seeking permanence in life, while lust is all about the moment, impulses and needs. I’d say lust is more about impermanence, instant gratification, while love is about long term fulfillment. Now, Pete, what’s this all about?”

“I’d like to show you something, and I wonder if you could conjure up a definition of hypocrisy out of your black hat.” He stood, took out his phone and came close to her desk, turned it on and opened the video player. He put the phone on her desk and pressed play…

She leaned over, picked up the phone and watched as images unfolded; her hands began to shake, a line of perspiration formed on her brow. When the recording stopped he took the phone and returned to his chair.

“Interesting,” she said. “So. You’ve been following me.”

“No, I’ve had a private detective following you, and Thornton.”

She smiled at his bluff. “What do you want?”

“Right now? Right now, I want to fuck you in the ass. When I’m finished I want a letter from you making all this go away. A week from now, I want to read about that fucking judge’s resignation from the bench, and it better be front page news.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“Yes, that’s all. And I’m assuming you think I’m a moron. That I haven’t taken precautions to make sure this video shows up all over the internet if something happens to me. I could disappear, you know, or men in white coats could show up at work, throw me to the ground and put me in a straight-jacket, take me to the funny farm. Just let me tell you if anything like that happens to me, you and the judge are going viral. Youtube city, if you get my drift, and that’ll be just for starters.”

“And if we comply?”

“I hit delete.”

“Simple as that, huh? And we get to trust you, that you won’t publish?”

“Simple as that.”

The shadows listened intently now, confirming all their recording devices had good signal.

Devlin turned in her chair, hit a button and all the drapes in her office closed, the lights dimmed.

“Pete?”

“Yes?”

“Take off your clothes, Pete. And from now on, when you answer me, you’ll say only ‘yes, mistress,’ or ‘no, mistress.’ Is that understood?”

“Sorry, but no. I’m not playing that game with you.”

“Pete? Please? Just play along a little, would you? Make it easy for me?”

“Well…”

“Pete? Get your clothes off, then I need you to come over and lick my legs, suck my toes.”

“Uh…well…if you insist…”

“Oh, Pete…I had no idea your cock was SO big…”

And still the shadows listened.

+++++

He wasn’t exactly sure, but it looked to him as if someone had been in his room. Nothing too out of place – not exactly – but just enough, and he had to admit he hadn’t counted on this. He went to his laptop and opened it up, and everything – seemed – okay…so why this feeling?

He saw a shadow, or thought he did, and he turned, looked out the window –

“What the fuck!” he screamed. “Who the fuck are you?!”

It, whatever it was, looked like a giant, black owl – like something out of one of those Whitley Strieber books he used to read.

An alien, he said to himself, now sure someone, or something, had been in his room – and suddenly he rubbed the back of his head again and again – for he had been sure, once, that he’d been abducted, and that they’d implanted something in his skull.

Now, the more he thought about it, the more aliens made sense. Who else could have told Molly he was in the basement? How else could he have run into a psychiatrist as warped as Devlin, a judge as twisted as Thornton? They had to be in on it, all of them, and he bet they had been, for years, from the beginning.

That spot on his head was itching now, and he was sure he could feel it getting hot. They had to be transmitting now, transmitting instructions to him. Again. That’s why it was getting hot – that had to be the reason. He felt the room spinning, his eyeballs starting to itch – and he wanted to scratch them out of his head – because the noise was getting so loud now, the voices so insistent…

+++++

“What the fuck’s going on with him now?” one of the shadows said.

“I don’t think he took his meds this morning,” another one said.

Yet another laughed.

“No, I’m serious,” the second one said. “I don’t think he took anything, and two of them are anti-psychotics.”

“Too bad for him,” the first said. “Look, he’s going to whack-off again!”

“I can’t fucking believe this guy. It’s like anything sets him off.”

“This is like the third time today…”

“Did you see the recording from her office?”

“No. What about it?”

“He popped her in the can, then blew a load all over her face. He made her lick the shit off his dick after.”

“That woman has no pride.”

“I think she’s desperate.”

“You’d have to be fucking desperate to let that cretin anywhere near your asshole.”

“You should’ve seen what was on his hard drives.”

“I don’t want to know. Did the committee reach a decision?”

“Yes. He made the list, too.”

“Well, one more won’t make much difference, I guess.”

“No, it won’t.”

They had been in the basement earlier that day, and the team had epoxied all the windows shut, then had placed shaped charges in the ceiling, taped to a dozen 20 pound LPG tanks. No, it wouldn’t matter at all…

+++++

She had invited Pete to tonight’s event – “just to show you there are no hard feelings!” – and she’d picked him up a little before eight, driven him to the warehouse. A jet taking off from Love Field flew by just overhead as she got out of her Mercedes, and he followed her to the front door, then past the security guard beside the main basement stairs. She led him downstairs to the big playroom and told him to make himself comfortable while she changed into her play clothes, or so she called them. He looked around, didn’t see Thornton anywhere, and for some reason that bothered him. Someone handed him a drink and he tossed it down, then walked over and looked at a girl being sodomized by someone in a gorilla suit…but no, he was pretty sure it was an alien on top of the girl…then the room started to spin, he felt like he was about to suffocate – then the room went dark.

+++++

They watched on their video feed as Thornton and Devlin tied him down to a bench, then as someone gave him an injection. He’d begun to come around after that, but he was gagged now, and they couldn’t make out more than a few words that Devlin and Thornton were saying.

Soon Thornton walked over to Peterson, and they noted he had a large cordless drill in his hand; the judge put the drill above Peterson’s ear and pulled the trigger…

“You know,” one of the shadows said, “I really don’t want to watch this…”

“So, hit the detonator – whenever you’re ready.”

+++++

“Southwest 227, taxi to position and hold.”

“227”

“227, clear for take off. Contact departure one two two niner and good night.”

“227, two-two-niner. Rolling.”

“Give me ninety eight percent.”

“Ninety eight.”

“Helluva crosswind tonight.”

“Yup. Passing eighty. One-ten. EP at ninety eight. V-one – and rotate!”

“Positive rate, gear up.”

“Gear up…what the hell was that?!”

“Uh, Southwest 227, this is Tower. Looks like a large explosion under you at this time. Lot’s of flame and airborne debris.”

“Tower, 227, Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! We’ve lost number two engine, lost primary hydraulics, and we’re getting fire alarms from the cargo deck. We’re gonna try a right turn, try for runway three six.”

“227, say souls on board.”

“48, Tower. We’re three eight zero A-G-L, have about 5–5 percent on number one, can’t hold a climb at this weight.”

“Roger, 227, emergency services notified.”

“What the hell was that?,” the Captain said. “Did ATC say they saw an explosion?”

“I think so. Felt like a large IED.”

“Hit the APU, deploy the RAT.”

“Got it.”

“Might as well start dumping fuel, too. Okay, I’ve got Harry Hines and Mockingbird, I’m going to line up off them. Start reading off the radar altimeter, would you?”

“2-7-0 feet, gears still down and three green, flaps at twenty. Now 2-5-0 AGL, rate of descent is 3-5-0 feet per…”

“Landing gears are going to come right off at this weight.”

“Now 2-1-0 feet, speed 1-7-7, rate of descent now 400. Looks like Denton Drive in about a quarter mile.”

The computer chimed: “Minimums, minimums!”

“This is gonna be close, Mike.” The Captain keyed the intercom, her voice calm now: “Flight attendants, brace for impact.”

“Over Denton, now 1-1-0 feet, speed 1-5-5.”

“Mike…? I think we’re gonna make it…”

“You got it, Captain.”

“Crosswind’s a headwind now – good – okay, over the threshold.”

The computer began talking again: “Fifty – forty – thirty – retard – retard!” She felt the main gears hit, was going for reverse thrust when she felt the entire aircraft lurch – hard – to the left…

And that happened when the left main gear failed – which then blew through the top of the wing. The wing tanks ruptured, vaporizing thousands of pound of jet fuel – which ignited. The left engine nacelle dug into the runway, causing an immediate, violent yaw to the left, and the right main gear collapsed. The main spar failed next, then the entire right wing separated from the fuselage. Eight fire trucks began chasing the flaming wreck down the runway, spraying thick white foam on everything. When the wreck ground to a stop, doors and slides opened, dozens of dazed people tumbled to the ground and were soon coated in thick white goo.

First responders from all over North Texas converged on Love Field, while the FBI’s counter-terrorism task force was convened in Washington D.C. Survivors walked down the runway, some fell to the ground as soon as they cleared the flaming hulk. Off duty police and fire investigators all over the city heard their beepers go off, and families turned on their TVs, trying to figure out what that huge explosion was…

And Ben Acheson looked at his phone, rolled out of bed, showered and kissed Genie on the forehead, then got in his Yukon, drove across town to Love Field. The Duke was already there, walking around the wreckage on the runway, looking tired and very put-out.

“Took you long enough to get here, Meathead,” Dickinson said, glowering.

“Bring any donuts?”

“Couple dozen,” The Duke growled. “Back seat.”

“What happened?”

“Warehouse, over off Cedar Springs, blew up. Well, I mean was blown up. Powerful stuff. Jet was taking off, got hit by debris, force of the blast apparently did most of the damage.”

“So the warehouse was the target?”

“Yup. Firefighters still working it. As soon as they’re done we’ll move in. We’ll have lead, I assume FBI will back us up – unless terrorism is the initial conclusion, anyway.”

Acheson grumbled.

“How’s Genie? Still liking school?”

“It’s tough. Tougher than expected.”

“Miss the Bureau yet?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Good. World needs more doctors, not a bunch of cops.”

“World needs both, Duke. Nothin’s ever gonna change that equation.”

Dickinson grumbled, then his hand unit crackled. “700, are you still on scene at Love?”

“700, 10/4.”

“700, Fire Department would like someone from CID on scene at this time.”

“700, 741 code five.”

“Code five at 2310.”

“It’s gonna be a long night, Ben.”

“Glad you got two dozen. Nexium ain’t working anymore.”

They drove over to Cedar Springs, then down Manor Way to the burning building and got out, walked over to the Fire Department’s Mobile Command Unit; the Chief was waiting for them: “You come from Love?” the fireman asked.

“Yessir.” Dickinson knew it was rare for the FD’s chief to be out on a call like this – unless something way out of the ordinary was suspected. “What’ve you found so far?”

“HE residue everywhere, on everything. On the remaining structure, all over the debris field.”

“C4?”

“Maybe. Maybe something more exotic.”

“FBI here yet?”

“Nope. Thought I’d let you handle that. And, well, we’ve no way of telling if there’s any unexploded ordnance in there.”

“That’s nice. Who do you think – FBI, or Army?”

The chief shrugged. “FBI ought to be able to handle it; Army might be better equipped.”

“Okay,” Dickinson said as he turned to Acheson – but the kid was across the street, walking towards a dumpster, so he took out his hand unit and called dispatch: “700, notify SAC/Dallas he’s needed at this location, advise him we’ll need an EOD team here code three, and FD thinks Army may by better equipped for this one. Have Traffic shut-down on Cedar Springs from Mockingbird to Inwood, and we need to evacuate apartment buildings in the area.”

“700, 10/4 at 2335. Did you want us to notify 100?”

“Ah, 700, this is 100,” the Chief of Police said, “code five your twenty.”

“100, code five at 2336.”

“700 received.”

“2336.”

Dickinson looked at Acheson, who was looking around the area across the street.

“Oh, no,” Acheson whispered. “Not again.”

But The Duke could tell the boy had seen something as he walked up to the trash dumpster in a parking lot, and now Dickinson could see the envelope taped to the side of the dumpster. He watched Ben pull it free, open it up, then look up and around the area again. “Fuck-a-doodle-do,” The Duke whistled, waiting for Acheson to walk back, but he knew in his gut already.

They were back and it was happening again – and tonight was just the opening salvo. “Oh Carol,” Dickinson sighed, “what have you done to us now – what have you gotten me into?”

He turned, walked over to the charred, smoldering building, and looked down into the crater at shattered basement. Many bodies were recognizable in the rubble, though they too were charred, while other’s had simply been blown apart, then the nature of the facility came into sharp relief. Racks, benches, a viewing area, all of it, he’d seen all of it before, and more than once over the years.

He felt Ben walk up, felt him staring down into the pits of Hell.

“It’s them,” he said at last.

“I know,” The Duke sighed. He turned, looked at the package in Acheson’s hand. “Well?”

“A couple of discs, list of names, of the people down there. A brief synopsis of why they took ‘em out.”

“The names. Give me that list.” Acheson handed it over and Dickinson read down the list, then whistled again. “Fuck-a-doddle-do…”

“Yup. Three judges, and look at the last name, on the second page.”

“Oh, no.”

“He was officially running, so we’ll have to notify the Secret Service. Oh, and there’s this,” Ben said, handing the Post-it note to Dickinson.

“Where was this?”

“Windshield of your car, under the wiper.”

“Figures.” He read the note, whistled again. “Copies already sent to the Morning News, and to CNN. Well, that’s another big fly in the ointment.”

“No way to make the names on that list go away.”

“You know, Ben. They’re always one step ahead of us. Here, out west too.”

“We’re penetrated, at every level.”

“I know. Carol. She told me she was done with them.”

“Go on the assumption she isn’t. I would, anyway.”

“Do you think that’s why she expressed interest? In me, I mean?”

“Possible, but doubtful. I know her pretty well, and if she did something like that it would be way out of character. Still, I don’t know what motivated her to join that organization in the first place.”

“Neither do I…”

“Captain?” one of the Fire Departments unit commanders said, jogging over. “Could y’all take a look at something?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Over here, sir.” He led them to the edge, pointed with his flashlight at a large, 1500 pound gas cylinder. “Any idea what that is on top of that tank?”

Dickinson looked at the tank for a moment, then turned to everyone within earshot – “Everyone out of here, NOW!” – then he turned to Acheson, grabbed him by the arm and began pulling him away from the edge. “Detonator – countdown timer…”

They were almost to their cars when the device triggered, and the concussive wave knocked them both off their feet – hurled them through the air – and both landed about fifteen feet away, in the street. Their clothes scorched, the skin on the backs of their heads burned badly, they turned in time to see a wall of flame flaring up from the original crater…

“Well, there goes all the evidence,” The Duke said, picking himself off the asphalt. “Looks like they gave us just enough of a glimpse to substantiate their allegations.”

“Like you said, sir. Always one step ahead.”

The Duke was feeling the back of his head, not liking what he felt, then out of the blue he turned and looked at the raging ruins. “When your basic assumptions prove wrong, it’s time to challenge all your assumptions.”

“Sir?”

“It’s time to go on the offensive, Ben.”

Chapter 18

“So, what do we know so far?” Special Agent in Charge Red Gibbons asked.

“First on my list,” Dickinson began, “the airplane appears to be collateral damage, not an intended target.”

“You mean – they actually fucked up?” Gibbons said, chuckling dryly. “That’s a first.”

“Yup. Maybe. Next up, the building was targeted because that’s where this group was meeting up. Records show an entity called Argosy Partners have been renting the space for a few years. They were, before they rented this one, meeting out near White Rock Lake, in a private home.”

“Who’s home?” Gibbons asked.

“Thornton’s,” Acheson said. He’d dug up that information earlier this morning.

“This is a fucking nightmare,” Gibbons said. “We’ve got a US Senator, three local congressmen, two local and one federal judge down in that crater…and one presidential candidate.”

“Not to mention a half dozen local big-shots,” Dickinson added. “That TV shrink and her co-host, the CEO of SimCON, and well, we’ve yet to ID a bunch of bodies that aren’t even on the list.”

Gibbons shook his head. “I heard they found a head…with a drill-bit stuck in the side of his skull. That true?”

“Yessir,” Deke Slayton said. “The bit is drilled in, wasn’t blow-in during the explosion.”

“Fuck, those were some strange-rangers,” Gibbons sighed.

“I doubt this was entertainment, sir,” Acheson replied.

“Go on,” the SAC said, “let’s have it. The unvarnished version.”

“Probably retribution. Someone crossed them, so they took him out. Publicly, I’d say.”

“Retribution, huh?” Gibbons said, then he started writing on a notepad. “Okay, what else?”

“The charges, sir,” Acheson said. “One of the firemen ID’ed the detonators we saw as a so-called ‘shaped charge’ – and in case…”

“I know what they are, Ben. So, some sophisticated firepower, not available on the street, not easily cobbled together in a basement.”

“Stolen, would be my guess,” Dickinson interjected. “From a weapons lab, or a nuclear storage facility.”

“Oh, well, let’s kick it up a notch. Weapons from a nuclear facility, and all of sudden these chicks go to the top of the FBI’s most wanted.”

“It’s not going to be that easy,”Acheson sighed.

“Why not?”

“Well, first, look around this room. Not one woman in here. Next, we’re having the room swept for bugs, and have been – for months. For all intents and purposes this has become a ‘woman free zone’ – and simply because we have no idea who’s on the inside, who might be working for them.”

“So? What does that tell you?”

“Well, for one thing, this could easily ramp up into some sort of civil war. Look how rapidly their movement, hell, their ideology, has spread. What we first thought was a series of copy-cat crimes turned out to be well-coordinated by a national organization. They’re taking out scumbags all over the country, but what happens if this is a first move on more political targets?”

“You think,” Dickinson said, “that last night was a political act?”

“I don’t think we have enough information on hand,” Acheson said, “to make that call. Not yet, anyway. It’s certainly a possibility, though.”

“You know,” Gibbons said, his voice uncertain now, “there’ve been several BDSM groups, mainly on the west coast, that have merged their activities with political action groups, mainly by bringing prominent business and political leaders into their operations. We’ve been working in Seattle, trying to get one such group under control, for a while. We lost a couple of agents, and Seattle PD lost a few two, including an AC.”

“That was one of the last cases Genie was working on before she accepted the slot at Southwestern.”

“I know,” Gibbons said, looking away. “I wish she was still with us. I have a feeling we could use her insight.”

“You know,” The Duke said, “I remember reading about that Seattle thing. Seems to me the ‘ninjas’ were part of some BDSM group’s hierarchy.”

Gibbons looked around the room. “Okay, what I’m going to tell you has got to stay in this room, but that mess is a lot more complicated than we’ve previously let on.”

“Oh?” Dickinson said.

“It wasn’t just law enforcement that was compromised. Legislators, judges, prosecutors…even people in broadcasting and newspapers…all either compromised or actively taking part in the group’s organization.”

“You’re saying that this group had infiltrated almost all levels of government, and had, in effect, neutralized people in media?”

Gibbons nodded his head. “Yup. Reporters to owners, papers and television stations.”

“So,” Acheson sighed, “why do I get the feeling you haven’t gotten to the bad part yet?”

“Because I haven’t gotten to the bad part yet.”

“Swell,” The Duke said, reaching for a donut.

“Could I have one of those?” Gibbons said, eyeing the dwindling supply.

“Help yourself, Red. Ben, you haven’t eaten this morning, so for God’s sake, eat a donut – before you bleed out.”

“Yessir. So. What’s the bad part?”

“We’re picking up chatter inside FBI headquarters now; we may be infiltrated. Furthermore, it appears that a few members of congress may be compromised, and a few White House staffers, as well.”

“You’re saying,” The Duke said quietly, “that the federal government may have been compromised in some way by this group? The group in Seattle?”

Acheson jumped in before the SAC could respond: “But what if there’s no operational difference between the Seattle group and the one operating here? What if it’s just one organization?”

“Why go after a BDSM group, if that’s the case,” Gibbons asked.

“I don’t know. Competing objectives? Or maybe this group didn’t have anything to do with the Seattle group. Friends in need, that kind of thing.”

“That’s interesting, Ben,” The Duke said. “About competing objectives, I mean, and that makes a certain kind of sense. Once an organization gets big enough, especially one with political objectives, that group will begin to fracture internally as sub-groups form, as competing interests vie for supremacy. What if this group, the one taken out last night, wasn’t simply a group of perverts – and I say that advisedly. Recall, if you will, that they went after pedophiles last time, and that drug runner too. And here we go, operating under the assumption that taking out sexual deviants is still the primary objective.”

“But, what if it’s not?” Ben asked.

“Exactly,” The Duke sighed.

“Going after a bunch of politicians and judges is a helluva way to make your point,” Gibbons said.

“Not if this was an intramural skirmish of some sort,” The Duke said softly, “or not if this is an internal power struggle. This could be a message, to us, and to any other internal factions watching.”

“Wait a minute,” Acheson said, suddenly agitated. “This group in Seattle? You said it’s a BDSM group, but was it an all female group?”

“No,” Gibbons said, the point suddenly hitting home, “it’s not – or wasn’t.”

“So, two possibilities,” Ben said quietly. “The first; this has always been one group, and now it’s splintering due to internal dissent. Or the other possibility: there are multiple groups, but they came together through a marriage of convenience, and now there’s a power struggle underway.”

“That might explain,” Dickinson said, “the targeting last night. Assuming members of this group, or faction, had come into conflict with the, uh, well, the parent organization.”

“I, uh,” Gibbons said, coughing on a bit of donut, “well, can we just call them – the Ninjas – for now?”

The Duke shrugged. “They’re not ninjas, Red. They’re radicals subverting the system to achieve an agenda, in effect radicalizing a distinct segment of the population to undermine the rule of law, preying on those gullible enough to think there’s no other way to effect change.”

“Okay, predators,” Red said. “Let’s just call ‘em Predators.”

“No, I don’t think so,” The Duke said, shaking his head.

“Why not?”

Ben sighed: “Because we’re objectifying their actions, projecting motives we may not fully understand, and until we do calling them anything is premature.”

“All their handwritten notes to us have been signed ‘– C’, haven’t they?” Gibbons said. “Who do you think that is?”

“My guess,” Ben said quickly, “is Committee?”

“Okay,” Red said, “so we call them The Committee.”

Ben barely looked at Dickinson, tried not to feel guilty for such a brazen lie, but he’d spoken to protect her, to protect The Duke – and his relationship with her. “So, what’s the next step?”

“What about your vector theory,” Gibbons asked. “Does the location of this latest attack fit along the axis of the earlier string of murders?”

“It’s close to Love Field,” Ben said, “where we found the victim in the parking garage, but even this close it’s several hundred yards off the other established vector.”

“They’re not going to try that again,” The Duke said. “We were getting close a couple of times, probably too close for comfort…”

“And you’re assuming they want to play games with us,” Ben added. “Last night was different. Last night was a statement. When that list hits the Morning News and CNN, the lid is going to be blown right into orbit, and there’s not going to be any way to deny the group’s existence after that. Within a week, the talking heads will be putting two and two together, talking about nothing else. And if there’s a second incident? Or if this ‘Committee’ releases a manifesto of some sort? Hell, it’s going to hit the fan big-time, and open warfare won’t be far off.”

“Ben, turn up the TV, there’s something on CNN right now…”

All eyes turned to the huge flat-screen, to a hotel on fire, apparently burning furiously, out of control – yet one wing of the building was simply gone, like it had been blown away…

“Yes, Wolf, officials here at the scene believe this was caused by an explosion of some sort, a large explosion, but they’re not speculating at all about the cause…”

The helicopter circling overhead pulled back, and the motel’s tall highway sign came into view: ‘Manor House Lodge’ it read, and Ben felt a chill run down his spine.

“Manor House?” he sighed. “Manor House? – OF COURSE!”

“Ben? What the devil…?”

“Manor House!” he said, this time loudly. “And last night, the explosion was on Manor Way. If these are linked, well then, this isn’t a coincidence…”

The intercom crackled, and a voice from dispatch entered the room: “Anyone down there?”

“Dickinson here,” he replied.

“Patrolman out on a call advises he’s got a signal one, wants CID and a CSU code two.”

“Okay, where is it,” Dickinson said, nodding to Acheson it would be his call.

“Hotel out on Central. The Manor House, off Royal Lane.”

Everyone’s eyes went to Acheson – who only seemed to smile.

+++++

They drove out Central in a tight convoy: CID, the FBI, multiple Crime Scene Unit vans, but The Duke rode with Acheson, let him drive while he thought. “Why a murder there? Why this morning?”

Acheson shook his head. “Not even an hour after the explosion in Maryland? It doesn’t make sense, unless…”

“Unless what?”

“It’s to draw us in.”

“What? Why?”

“Shit!” Ben said as he picked up the radio’s mic. “741, notify units on Central to begin an immediate evacuation of buildings around their location, get EOD units to the area, notify fire and rescue to respond…”

“You don’t think…?”

“If last night was an announcement, a change in strategy, not just tactics…”

They were two miles away just then, when they felt more then heard a deep ‘woomp’ rolling through the air.

“Oh-sweet-Jesus,” Dickinson said when he saw the explosion further out Central, just as their Tahoe passed under Northwest Highway. “700,” he said into the mic, “large explosion, vicinity Central and Royal.”

They heard dispatch calling the patrol units already on scene – and none responded. More calls, more silence, then an avalanche of units responding to the scene checked in.

Dickinson pulled out his cell, called the chief’s office: “Chief, you got this stuff on the radio?”

“No, I’ve been in a meeting.”

“Large explosion, officers already on the scene not responding. Looks similar to the thing in Maryland.”

“What thing in Maryland?”

“Turn on CNN, get caught up. We’ll get a command post set up somewhere on Royal, and you’d better think about getting out here, getting a statement ready for the press.”

“What do you think’s going on?”

“The ninjas are back. Nationwide, would be my guess. And they just declared war.”

+++++

News helicopters were still circling overhead three hours later, and while both Acheson and Dickinson had been up for over thirty hours they could see no end in sight. Ten officers down, six dead, four in the burn unit at Parkland, and more than sixty bodies found in the hotel – and in three nearby buildings that collapsed in the primary blast. One person tried to flee the scene and her car had been wired; as soon as she hit the ignition she – and everything within a hundred meter radius – was vaporized.

Reports came in that attacks similar to this one, as well as the one in Maryland, had been discovered, and possibly thwarted, but by late morning three more occurred – one in Atlanta, the next in Phoenix, and the third in Tacoma – and each blast occurred in a facility that had the word ‘manor’ in either the place-name or the address.

There was now, literally, nothing else on the news – on any channel – and as letters taking credit for the attacks began showing up at major broadcasters and newspapers, the group’s objectives were being splattered over the airwaves – and the ‘net – at an alarming pace.

Acheson and Dickinson walked the rubble after firefighters secured the scene, and it didn’t take them long. A large bedroom, far from the lobby on the second floor, hadn’t been completely destroyed by either the blast or the subsequent fires, and they found the shattered remains of a young boy, dead, tied to the four corners of the bed. He had been tortured, sexually, and apparently for an extended period of time, according to the initial forensic examination conducted on scene. The boy’s rectum had been savaged, and more than a pint of semen remained in his lower colon. ID, driver’s licenses and credit cards, had established that the pastor of a local, politically very active Baptist church was one of the pedophiles, and the other was Clive Thornton, brother of one of the judges found in the aftermath of the first blast on Manor Way.

And before CID or the FBI could confirm these identities, let alone finish their reports, news outlets on the national level were broadcasting not only who was at the Manor House Lodge in Dallas, but what they had been doing to deserve retribution – complete with audio – and video – of their actions.

By nightfall, people around the country had begun to doubt the integrity of their leaders as never before, and a great, shuddering sigh of anxiety could be felt all across the land.

+++++

“How bad is it?” a dour Genie Delaney said when she saw Ben walk in the door.

Acheson just shook his head, looked at her books stacked on the dining room table, noted the silent kitchen and groaned his way to the shower. He looked at his watch before he took it off and almost stumbled into the shower, trying to do the math in his head. Fifteen hours until he had to be out at DFW, fifteen hours until the next flight to Paris – then two days away from this Hell. Two days of – room service, two days of endless sleep.

Then what? Two days off. Then two days downtown, two more days of this never-ending Hell. Genie, ass-deep in her studies, too wrung-out to do even the simplest household chores, nail-biting anxiety as exam after exam rolled over her like waves breaking in a hurricane – and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do for her but try to help maintain some semblance of order around the house.

At least she wasn’t a slob, he thought as the hot water pounded the back of his neck. He put his arms out, leaned forward and let the water hit his lower back, then he felt a little blast of cool air. She was beside him then, then in front of him, on her knees. He felt her mouth engulf his need, felt her arms encircling his thighs and he moved into the zone, relaxing completely. How many days had it been, he wondered, but soon that calculus didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, nothing at all, only the smooth, easy rhythm that came so naturally to her.

He stood, moaned, put his hands behind her head and added his motion to hers, but then she picked up her pace. He felt her fingernails on the insides of his thighs, the water running down his legs, the electric flutters building in his gut…

“I’m close,” he said, and she picked up the pace. Swirling tongue, jackhammer rhythm, so much need – “I’m coming…” he managed to say, but still she kept up her driving pace…

He slipped into the clouds and the rain, felt the world dissolve, heard her sharp intake of breath as his cum screamed in release. Her head swirled now, creating a waterfall of new, overwhelming sensation and he felt his knees buckling, felt her swallowing, then bobbing for every last drop.

She came up to him a moment later, rinsed her face in the spray then nestled into his neck, holding him tightly.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“I couldn’t help it, Spud. You looked like you needed it – almost as much as I did.”

He looked into her eyes, felt himself adrift on the ocean of their love, basking in the light of her…

And he saw a red laser’s beam dancing across the back of the shower – and turned – saw a woman dressed all in black, standing in the doorway from the bedroom.

“What is it,” he heard Genie ask.

“I think we’re having company for dinner.”

+++++

“That was sweet,” the woman said. She was middled-aged, possessed peregrine eyes that took everything in, yet she was attractive, Acheson thought. Actually, more than attractive. Pure coiled energy, like a predator, yet still quite feminine.

And they were in the bedroom now, all curtains drawn, and there were five of them standing by the doors and windows – her guards dressed in black, all carrying H&K MP5s. All looked very focused, and more than a little menacing.

The woman looked at him, sighed, put her hands together. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, handing him a towel, looking at his groin.

“Thanks,” Ben said. “If I’d known I was giving a performance I might have lasted a little longer, gone for a classier exit.” He was staring at the woman, memorizing her features: maybe fifty years old, sandy reddish-blond hair, very fit, hazel eyes and straight teeth. Maybe 5’5”, 120 pounds, and her feet were small, almost tiny. And her eyes: clear, intelligent, cool and calculating. Adversarial – predatory. He kept thinking peregrine, like a falcon’s eyes.

The woman smiled, just a little, then moved towards the door, shut it and locked it. “Sit down,” she commanded.

They sat. “Whatever you say,” he didn’t need to add. “Uh, to what do we owe this little visit?”

“Your conference, this morning.”

“So, you’re listening-in still?”

“You’re still on the right track,” the woman said, smiling broadly now, “and that surprised me.”

“That your group has gone political? All terrorist acts are political – so why should it surprise you that we came to that conclusion?”

“I wasn’t sure. Not after the airliner.”

“Collateral damage?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, sighing. “Unfortunate timing.”

“Well, it certainly got a lot of attention.”

“Not the kind we wanted.”

“What do you want? Why are you here?”

She opened a case, took out a large manilla envelope and handed it to him. “I’d like you to read this tonight, pass it on to your superiors if you deem it interesting.”

“You could have slipped this under the door mat. You haven’t answered my question: why are you here, now? This evening, in my house?”

“I wanted to meet you.”

“Oh?”

“And I wanted to tell you that as much as I admire you, and what you do, if you get too close I’ll hurt you. I’ll hurt you by killing her,” she said, pointing to Genie. “She won’t be able to hide, so think about what I’m saying.”

“You can’t expect me to not do my job?”

“I suppose I could simply tell you to quit the reserves, go fly full time, but the truth is, Ben, I admire your tenacity, your sudden flashes of insight. And I want…no, I need a worthy adversary.”

“Well then, logically, you think I’ll get too close, eventually. So, logically, you want me to succeed, and you want to kill Genie.”

“No. No I don’t.” She looked him in the eye, then stepped close, leaned over and kissed him, hard, on the lips. She slipped her tongue between his, reached down and pulled on his cock, then she stood over him, a look of triumph in her eyes. “No, Ben, I don’t want you to get too – close.” Then woman laughed a little, then the group simply walked out of the room and into the gathering night.

“Jesus,” Genie said, letting out a breath too long held, “what the fuck was that all about?”

“I have no clue,” he said, now shaking inside. “I felt like a cobra had coiled around me, uh, my neck when she did that.”

“Well, you must have liked it.”

He could feel it now, his cock standing straight up again. “Oh, no.”

“At least she didn’t give you a blow job,” Delaney said, but she appeared shook up, at least a little, he thought.

But something wasn’t right.

No jealousy, he sighed. No possessiveness.

Why not?

+++++

“At least she didn’t give you a blow job,” the woman heard on the video feed. She was watching the live feed from inside an agency van, watching Ben and Genie and the aftermath of their encounter, and she leaned over, turned up the volume.

“You think she wants me?”

“Did you hear what she said, about needing an adversary? Oh, yes, she wants you, Ben, she needs you, big time. That’s what she was saying. Killing me will, in her mind, only make you more available. You’ll be crushed after she kills me, but then she’ll pull you back out of yourself, back out into life among the living – her living. In the beginning, she’ll be your tormentor, then she’ll become your savior. In her mind, she’ll redeem both your sins and hers by claiming, and reclaiming, you.”

She listened to Delaney’s words and wanted to deny the truth she heard, but she too had been a profiler, and, like Delaney, had been with the FBI for years, before she moved to the NSA. She too was capable of extraordinary empathy, prone to sudden flashes of brilliant insight, but usually not where her own feelings were concerned – so as the girl’s words rocked her, she knew they may very well be true. The feeling in her gut when she saw him come out of the shower, the way his nakedness aroused her? She had wanted to fuck him like she had never wanted fuck anyone before, and yet even so she’d felt herself coming undone when he walked by, then felt the need to run from her feelings before they overwhelmed her. There had been more to tell him, instructions to relay, and now she’d have to contact him again.

She wasn’t used to making mistakes of this sort, and the idea bothered her. The very idea of him bothered her. She finished changing clothes as she watched them talk, and by the time the van drove out onto the private jet ramp at Love Field she was ready to play her part again. The dutiful Assistant Director sent by the President to ascertain the political fallout of the attacks in Dallas.

She hated this President, with all his blatant, corrupt hypocrisies – but he had been so useful. Until now, anyway. Now she had to deal with his buffoonery, his slip-ups on Twitter, and she was sure now his usefulness was at an end.

+++++

“Duke?”

“Yeah, Ben.”

“They just made contact.”

“Who?”

“They did. Their leader, I think.”

“In person?”

“They came inside the house, five of them, all heavily armed. The station is compromised, they’re listening to everything we say. I’d assume they’re listening to us right now.”

“Interesting. Were their faces covered?”

“Not the leader, but we need to talk. Echo all right with you?”

Dickinson seemed to hesitate. “It may be a while.”

“Carol?” Ben asked, sensing trouble in The Duke’s voice.

“Yup. Can it wait ‘til morning?”

“I don’t think so. I’ll be gone, and something big is brewing.”

“Right. Gimme an hour.”

Acheson hung up the phone, turned to Genie. “Something’s not right.”

“With what? Dickinson?”

“Yup. Are you sure that was her?”

“I am. It took me a minute, but I know who she is.”

“And she must know you know.”

“Safe assumption,” Genie said, looking away.

“So you really are in danger.”

She walked over to the window, looked out into the back yard. “I don’t like this weather. It’s unsettled, the clouds are moving too fast.”

He joined her, put his arms around her and held her close. “Everything is moving too fast. Maybe you should come with me. To Paris.”

“That would be nice.”

He felt a tremble pass between them, like insatiable need coming to an untimely end. “Come on. We’d better get some clothes on…”

“You don’t want to go naked?”

“Somehow I don’t think that’ll work out very well.”

“You’re no fun.”

“I know, but you still love me, don’t you?”

She turned, fell into his arms. “‘Til the end of time, Spud. ‘Til the end of time.”

+++++

It was called Flippen Park these days, but for ages it had been known as Echo Park, so-called after the little Renaissance-Romanesque gazebo in the center of the park that produced a surreal echo effect. The park surrounding the gazebo, though small, made for a nice place to walk, and to talk while keeping an eye out for someone following, or watching from a distance. Ben and Genie were standing not far from the gazebo when they saw a Highland Park Police patrol car drive by, the officer inside staring at them as she passed, then Dickinson’s car turned on Versailles from Lomo Alto. He pulled to a stop behind Delaney’s personal car and watched the patrol car make a u-turn and drive by again.

The officer stopped her car and got out, hands on her service pistol, and she walked up to Dickinson’s window.

“Good evening,” the officer said. “This is a residential neighborhood, what are you doing here?”

“I’m with Dallas, captain in CID. Badge is in my back left pocket.”

“Slowly,” she said, her hand on the holstered SIG. He took it out and handed it to her, and she flipped it open, looked at the badge and ID, then handed it back to him.

“I’m meeting them,” Dickinson said, pointing to Acheson and Delaney, and he thought he saw her smile.

“Okay,” the officer said, he thought a little too casually. “Y’all be careful out there.”

“Yeah, you too.” He watched the patrol car leave, but it went a block up Versailles and turned off it’s lights, the girl obviously watching them, so he got out and walked across the park to Ben and Genie.

“What was that all about,” Ben asked.

“I hate to say this, but my guess is she’s with them. So, what’s this all about?”

“The woman who came to the house,” Delaney began, “the woman Ben and I assume is this group’s leader, is Anne Rutherford. She was with the FBI, worked as a profiler in DC for fifteen years, but she moved over to NSA a few years ago. Right after I started with the Bureau.”

Dickinson whistled. “Fuck-a-doodle-do.” He looked up at the clouds, and they all turned when lightning lit the sky a few miles away. “You think she knows that you know?”

“Absolutely,” Delaney said.

“So that was part of the message. What was the other part?”

“This,” Ben said, holding out the envelope “and she told me if we get too close they’ll kill Genie.”

The Duke nodded his head, seemed to draw inward on himself. “When Carol got in this evening she seemed different. Unaffectionate, all business. Then she said pretty much the same thing to me: if we get too close she’d kill me.”

“She what?” Ben said, clearly alarmed now.

“I told her she’d better leave, and she just laughed. ‘Not a chance,’ she said. I guess the implication’s are clear enough. We’re penetrated, and I’m compromised. So. What’s in the envelope?”

“A manifesto, of sorts. A declaration of war, I think you could call it, but the gist of it is simple enough. Rights are never given, they’re earned, usually through blood sacrifice. The civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement were all shams, and women have banded together to take what is rightfully theirs. They’ve been gathering intel for years, who their friends are, and who’s the enemy. They’ll be taking out their enemies over the next few weeks.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Dickinson sighed. “I’d hate to be a Republican right about now.”

“I don’t think this is about party affiliation,” Delaney added, a hard, brittle edge in her voice. “I think this is about revenge, and retribution, and that’s going to cross party lines.”

“I think so, too,” Ben added. “There’s more than enough anger out there to turn this into a full-blown civil war, and enough military and law enforcement in their ranks to make them a more than credible force.”

“All those pedophile murders,” Dickinson said, suddenly thinking about last summer, “were just training exercises. Perfecting tactics, working out the kinks in their command and control network.”

“I think they’ve moved beyond that now,” Delaney said. “The problem is how do we…”

“Genie,” The Duke said, “there ain’t no ‘we’ in this deal, not now. You’re in medical school now…”

“And they just put me in the crosshairs, too, Duke,” she shot back. “You think I’m going to wait around until someone decides to shoot me in the back of the head, or cut open my belly again?”

He seemed taken aback by that – for a moment, anyway – then he nodded his head. “I hadn’t thought about it quite like that, but I think your finishing school is a higher priority.” He sighed, turned to Acheson: “Ben, I think you ought to turn in your notice, turn your back on the department, focus on your flying and getting a family started. There’s no telling how bad this is going to get, let alone who’s going to get hurt, or how long this is going to last. This isn’t the time or the place for heroics.”

The lightning was getting close now, the thunder growing louder, more insistent, and Acheson held out his right hand. “Okay, Duke,” he said, slipping a note into his hand. “We’ll be seeing you.” They turned and walked to Genie’s car, and The Duke walked back to his. The girl in the patrol car a block away took out a rarely used cell phone and hit a speed dial number, and reported what she’d seen.

The drone overhead had captured both the audio and video, so while her report was redundant, almost superfluous, Anne Rutherford was glad to have another layer of confirmation. With Acheson out of the way, and with Dickinson compromised, North Texas was no longer a concern.

Only four more cities to go, she told herself, and they’d move on the Federal Reserve, but first, she decided, it was time to neutralize the President. All she needed was a well-placed lie – and gravity would take care of the rest.

Chapter 19

Acheson sat behind the wheel, looked at Genie sitting beside him in the dark, then he flipped on the overhead light, picked up a notepad and began writing. “I need to get packed,” he said as he wrote, “and stop by the pharmacy on the way to the airport.”

“What time’s your flight?”

“I have to be in dispatch by nine. Scheduled departure is 10:20.”

He finished writing and handed her the pad, and she read while he started the car and drove up Versailles, then turned on Lomo Alto. At Mockingbird he turned right, and they drove in silence until he stopped at the light at Hillcrest, then he motored slowly through the SMU campus, checking for a tail, before he pulled into the driveway to his little house. He took the pad from her, tore the page from the pad and wadded it up as they walked inside.

He packed his clothes, took an envelope he kept inside a small, wall mounted safe and put it in his flight bag, then he sat beside her for a long time, rubbing her head.

She shook her head after a few minutes, stood and walked over to one of the bedroom windows. “I feel horrible inside,” she said as she looked at lightning dancing across the sky. “Like nothing makes sense anymore. I just want to go away and hide somewhere.”

“Might not be such a bad idea, if you could still look yourself in the eye, anyway. Not sure I’ll be able to, but I’ve had enough for now. I’m not sure this is a war we can win.”

“Nobody ever wins, Ben. Winning is an illusion, an idea politicians sell to get people ready for the next war.”

“You’re turning into a cynic, aren’t you?”

“We had to read this book for our Medical Ethics class,” she said, handing it to him. “It really shook me up.”

He turned the book over in his hand – 12, 20 & 5: A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam – then he read the blurb on the back cover. “Sounds, uh, interesting.”

“Interesting. Yes. It was that.”

“And?”

“I wonder…is it ever going to stop? I mean, what’s the point of all this – if we’re not going to learn from our mistakes? If we keep doing the same stupid stuff over and over again?”

He shrugged. “Who knows? What I do know is there’s always going to be somebody out there who wants your stuff, and who’s willing to kill you to get it. Does it really make any difference why?”

“Maybe not. Maybe we’ll always be Neanderthals. Maybe that’s just all there is, no getting past that.”

“You carried the badge, you know the score. Once upon a time I went with the assumption that all people are basically good. I mean, deep down. It took about a year on the street to figure out how stupid that is.”

“Is it? Maybe all people are born good, then maybe life changes us, slowly, little by little, until maybe it sucks the good right out of us. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the species.”

“I don’t even know how to respond to that. How do you explain a Mother Theresa, a Gandhi?”

“Did you ever read any Piaget? Or Kohlberg?”

He shrugged. “My degree was in engineering, remember?”

“You should read up on Lawrence Kohlberg. The stages of moral development.”

“They making you read that stuff, too?”

“Yup.”

“Morality and medicine, huh. Well, there’s an unexpected thought.”

“You’re a philistine!” she said, laughing a little.

He tuned the book over in his hand again. “Mind if I take it with me?”

“No, go ahead. You’ve been warned, though. Might change the way you think. What’d you need at the pharmacy?”

“Some more eyedrops.”

“I’ve got a spare. Want to take mine?”

“You don’t mind?”

“No. You still having trouble?”

“Smog and dry air. Bad combination.”

“Just use the drops, and stop rubbing your eyes. You get nodular episcleritis a few more times and you’ll need to go back to the doc for some real work.”

“Wish I’d taken a nap yesterday.”

“What is it, a seven hour flight?”

“Depends on the jet-stream, but that’s close enough. Usually closer to eight.”

“Where are you staying?”

He shrugged. “Usually out by the airport. Marriott, probably.”

“Makes sense, I guess.”

“You haven’t been yet, have you?”

She shook her head. “No, I haven’t. Can’t imagine why, either.”

“We’ll have more time now. Burning the candle at both ends…isn’t that what you said I was doing?”

“Yup. Maybe we could go – together? Still, I’m not sure…”

“Look, the cop thing is over with now. Time to move on.”

“You think you’ll miss it?”

“Being a cop? Hell yes. Every day.”

“I do, too.”

“You should’ve gone straight to med school, never done the FBI thing.”

“I know. 20-20 hindsight, huh?”

“And I never should have joined the department.”

“Well, the bottom fell out on the airlines, didn’t it. You weren’t the only one laid off.”

“It’ll happen again, you know,” he said. “If this really turns into a full blown civil war, the global economy will tank.”

“I know.”

“Then what?”

“Then we pick up the pieces. I get through school, you go work for the Sanitation Department…You can drive a truck, I take it?”

He chuckled. “I guess I deserve that.” He looked at his watch, shook his head. “I’m going to miss you, maybe a little more than usual this time.”

“You’ll be gone, what, three days?”

“Yup.”

She came and they hugged, then he picked up his bags and walked out to his department car, then he drove downtown and parked it in the central lot and hailed a cab for the ride out to the airport.

He got inside the taxi and ignored the man in the back seat by his side while he buckled his seat belt, then he turned and looked at The Duke, who handed him an overstuffed envelope.

“Here’s the contact information, and what little background info I could lay my hands on.”

“Seattle PD?”

“Yeah. Went out on a medical. CID for fifteen or so years. He says their department is completely compromised, the FBI field office out there is too.”

“What’s Carol think?”

“About?”

“Rutherford.”

“Not much. They’re very compartmentalized, local cells, then regional. The national hierarchy is diffuse. She really doesn’t know the details, and is getting testy when I ask.”

“Think she can infiltrate?”

“Nope. She thinks even making the attempt would expose her. She’s walking a razor’s edge as is, one slip and they’ll know she’s playing both sides against the middle.”

“You wanna get her out?”

Dickinson sighed, then shook his head. “Not yet. I’d like to know what their objectives are locally first.”

Acheson snorted. “I’d say we know that, already. Discredit the political system, expose corrupt officials, then…”

“Yeah, it’s the ‘then’ thing that has me bothered, Ben. What comes next, you know? Yeah, I get the whole ‘discredit’ and ‘expose’ thing, but what’s their end game? And what lengths are these people prepared to go to in order to achieve their goals?”

“Well, they’ve killed over a thousand people in the last two days…”

“Exactly. So, what’s next?”

“Who’s next might be the better question.” Acheson added.

“You ever wonder why so many of people in government have such serious kinks? Why so many kids have been a part of this?”

Acheson shook his head. “I’m no expert, but the whole BDSM thing is about consensual control, isn’t it? With control the operative principle? And the pedophile angle? That’s got to be about exercising power over someone completely, well, powerless hardly describes a kid.”

“What you said, the whole ‘manor’ thing, the medieval feudalism angle? What do you make of that?”

“Well, feudal power rested within an uneasy alliance between lorded aristocrats and the church. That’s beginning to resemble our modern world again, isn’t it? A vested political elite appealing to an evangelical class – which itself wants greater access to power and money – in order to solidify their own hold on power. It’s a symbiotic relationship, Duke. They’re feeding off one another, until one gains momentary supremacy, anyway, then there’s a renewed power struggle after a new hierarchy emerges, until the other can maneuver into a position of supremacy again.”

“Dominance games?”

Acheson laughed at that. “All world history deconstructed into dominance games. With the emerging sexual undertones we’re finding each day, that may not be too far off.”

“Simple way to end that world would be to cut off all the balls. Get rid of testosterone as the fuel driving the motor of civilization.”

“Or…get rid of all men in positions of political power.” Acheson and The Duke looked at one another, then both shook their heads and laughed.

“No way,” they said in unison. “Not gonna happen.”

The Duke looked out the window, at the world passing by, still trying to make sense of the new contours taking shape out there.

“What happens if things get out of hand, Ben? Start to spiral out of control?”

“I told Genie to head out west, to Alpine. My gramps has a place out there. Cattle for the most part, but he’s kind of a survivalist, big on self-sufficiency.”

“Maybe I could tag along with her?”

“Sure. I told her I’d try to get there…if something starts to go down.”

“I have a bad feeling, Ben. Like things could break down fast. Once it does, things will take on a momentum of their own.”

“Oh, you know, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Someone will figure out how to…”

“I’m not so sure, Ben, not this time. This time feel different.”

+++++

He had a new First Officer that morning, and she was already at work in the cockpit when he walked in and hung up his jacket. He stood by the closet door and looked at her for a moment, wondering, then turned to stow his flight bag – but she was up, her hand out, waiting for him.

“Sandy Beecham,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve flown together before.”

“Ben Acheson,” he said, taking her hand – while thinking ‘My, that was fast.’ “No, I don’t think we have. Ready to take a walk?”

“Yup,” she said, gathering up her raincoat.

It would be at least another 45 minutes before pre-boarding began, but it was still raining out so he slipped his rain jacket on too. They walked out through the galley to the stairs off the Jetway, then on out into the storm. He looked up at the clouds once he was on the wet concrete, scudding low, whipping across the prairie, they gray-brown grass around the airport driven by a howling north wind, then he walked to the left wing while Beecham took off for the right. He checked tread depths on tires, talked to the ground chief about the turn-around report and what had been finished – and the squawks that remained on the 777s ‘down’ list – then he signed the fuel load-out and finished his walk-around, meeting up with Beecham under the tail.

“Look good?” he asked.

She nodded her head. “Hardly anyone onboard today,” she added. “Five in First, three in Business, and fifteen in coach.”

He shook his head again, wondered how long the airline could keep this up. So much uncertainty, and coming on so quickly, had undermined international commerce, and once again consumer confidence had fallen through the floor. With fuel prices spiking, this 777 needed almost 70 percent of her seats filled just to break even, and today’s load was nowhere near that. He was a captain now, but he was low on the seniority list and that familiar worrying sensation came back again. He’d be among the first let go this time…

“You ready to head up?” she asked, but she was watching him closely now.

“Hmm. Oh, yes, let’s go.”

“You alright?”

“I was just thinking, about the last time. In 2008, with the crash. How fast the lay-offs came…”

“Me too,” she said. “I was at Northwest, had just started in A320s, then the boom fell.”

“Too much uncertainty out there right now. Things feel spooked.”

They started walking back to the Jetway, both lost in thought, and they slipped into the cockpit and took their seats quietly. But the routine was the same, and they fell back into the familiar: they pulled out checklists and began waking the bird up, getting ready like today was just another day.

But of course it wasn’t. Pilots in the dispatch office had been wary, on edge, and even the weather was unsettled. Like the earth had decided it had had enough, and even it too wanted change. Big change.

“Someone told me you work with the Police Department, here in Dallas.”

“I did,” he lied. “I quit recently. Too much on my plate.”

She nodded her head. “Got to be confusing. You look tired. Get much sleep last night?”

“You know, I had trouble falling asleep. All this stuff on the news I guess,” but he found himself thinking of Genie – and that book about the doctor in Vietnam. He wanted to go someplace quiet, find a fat chair seat by a fireplace and read for a while, but he shook himself back into the present…

“You married,” she asked.

He turned and looked at her, pointed at the ceiling – the universal sign that the cockpit voice recorder was on – and he began calling out the pre-start checklist. He was all business now, and a few minutes later the Trip-7 was pushing back from the gate.

“American 48 heavy, clear to taxi,” the tower said, “on K to 1-7 Right, DALLAS FOUR departure approved. Winds out of the south now, 1-6-6 degrees at four knots, ceiling 2500, visibility five miles, altimeter two niner niner one.”

He watched as the push-back cart disengaged and pulled away, then reached up and turned on the wipers as Beecham began starting two. The ground chief standing in the rain below got on the intercom: “Okay, double checks on baggage doors complete, all show red-locked. You’re ready to go, Captain.”

“Thanks, Chief,” Acheson said, and when the man was clear he advanced the throttles and cleared the brakes, then began the short taxi out to the runway.

“Pre-takeoff checklist complete,” Beecham said as he slowed at the EK intersection, then a powerful gust shook the aircraft. “That’s out of the north,” he said, then he called the tower. “Uh, 48 Heavy, can you re-advise wind speed and direction, please.”

“Uh, 48 Heavy, winds now out of the north at 2-5 knots. Standby one.”

“48, standing by.”

“Uh, 48 Heavy, take off runway 3-5 Left, BLECO SEVEN departure now active, winds now 0-1-0 degrees at 2-7 knots, altimeter two niner niner four.”

“3-5 Left and BLECO SEVEN, 48 Heavy.”

“Look at those clouds,” Beecham said, and he looked left, to the north. The clouds were almost black, and he thought he could see a wall cloud off to the left.

“Uh, 4-8 Heavy, you got anything on doppler to the north northwest?”

“4-8, heavy precip, no hooks.”

“I think I see a wall cloud from up here. Might keep an eye out.”

“Uh, tower, Delta 224, we just went through and it’s a screamer, picked up some hail and a lot of chop.”

Acheson listened as the tower advised all aircraft in the pattern of the storm, and they taxied south for the new runway; he re-entered the new departure information on his FMC, or flight management computer, and he watched as his display changed, as new waypoints and steering commands appeared on his display. An American Eagle RJ ahead pulled onto the runway and roared by, then he stopped at the holding area and double checked power settings and climb angles entered in the computer.

“4-8 Heavy, taxi to position and hold.”

“Heavy.” He released the brakes, turned onto the runway and lined up on the centerline, applied the brakes and waited. He peered into the sky a little off to the left. “I don’t like this,” he sighed.

“What?”

“That cloud.” He keyed the mic again: “4-8 Heavy, any update on this storm?”

“Still heavy rain, no hooks. Uh, Heavy, you are clear for take off.”

“4-8 rolling,” he said as he advanced the throttles. He scanned the engines then began looking at the storm…

“80 knots,” Beecham called out, then “V-one…and…rotate…”

He pulled back on the stick…

“Tower to all aircraft…tornado on the ground one mile north of 3-6 Right, repeat, tornado on the ground. The pattern is closed, the airport is closed!”

He looked to the left and saw the rope twisting in the sky and turned right. “Go to full take off power. Positive rate…”

“Gear coming up. Where is it?”

“Right fucking there,” he said – as the skies opened up. They flew into an impossibly thick hail storm, then the right wing dipped, and dipped some more. He didn’t fight it, turned right with the gust. “Uh, tower, 4-8, heavy hail, we’re turning right to 0-2-0 degrees.”

“0-2-0 approved, contact departure on 1-2-5-decimal-1-2, and good day.”

“48, bye.” He switched frequencies. “American 4-8 Heavy, out of 3-5 Left for BLECO, we’re deviating around this funnel cloud, on 0-2-0 right now. What’s it look like out there?”

“4-8 Heavy, resume 0-0-4 degrees as soon as possible, direct to YUNGG at 7000 approved. Storm is now at your eight o’clock, four miles. Do you have any damage?”

“Nothing showing right now.”

“Okay, 4-8, only traffic now a Delta MD80 at your ten, eight miles, he’ll be turning ahead of you, about two thousand over.”

“4-8, got it. Where are the tops right now?”

“Solid to flight level 2-4-0.”

“4-8, okay.” He shook his head, scanned the engines again – looking for any sign hail ingestion had damaged a fan blade, but everything looks good. “Let’s clean the wing,” he said as he turned to the originally programmed course.

“Flaps and slats up.”

“Well, that was fun,” he said.

“You mind if I go change my underwear now?”

He laughed, turned on the intercom: “Uh, ladies and gentlemen, for those of you on the left side of the aircraft, yes, that was a tornado. Sorry, that thing came out of nowhere and we had to make a few abrupt turns, but we’re on time and it looks like we’ll be in Gay Par-ee a little after midnight local time. No more bad weather on the radar, so as soon as we reach our cruising altitude the crew will be around to serve lunch. We’ll keep the seatbelt signs lit until we’re out of this cloud, so sit tight and enjoy the ride.” He flipped off the intercom, but the chief flight attendant called as soon as he did.

“Uh, Captain, it’s like floor to ceiling barf back here. Carpets, walls, you name it.”

“Was it that bad?”

“You have no idea. Half the overhead bins popped, one woman didn’t have her seatbelt latched properly.”

“Is she hurt?”

“Don’t think so, maybe a few bruises.”

“Okay. Keep me posted.” He looked at the FMC and watched it make the turn at YUNGG.

“4-8 Heavy, clear to flight level 2-7-0, contact Oklahoma Center 1-2-4-decimal-1 and good day.”

“4-8, bye.” He turned to Beecham as he changed COMMs. “Go back and take a look around. See if this bird needs a look see in Tulsa. Check on the folks, wave the flag.”

“Right.” She got up to leave and he put his mask on, and after she left he sealed the door again. Such a visit was now very unusual, but he felt it warranted under the circumstances. She chimed a few minutes later, and he picked up the intercom.

“Nothing bad,” she said, “but I think the ground crew at CDG ought to be warned. Maybe a few seats need to changed out, that kind of thing.”

“The injured woman?”

“There’s a doc onboard. He says it’s no biggie.”

“Okay. Codeword?”

“Pink-two.”

“Opening now.” He unsealed the door and Beecham came in, double locked the door then sat down. She handed him a sandwich and a Coke, then buckled up.

“What is it today?”

“They had pink sludge, and green. This is the pink.”

“Okay. But what is it?”

“Supposed to be roast beef on rye.”

“It’s oozing. I’ve never seen roast beef ooze before.”

She unwrapped her’s and took a tentative sniff.

“Goddamn, I can smell it from here,” he said, and she tossed them in the trash.

“I brought a couple of granola bars,” she added.

“I think I’ll wait. There might be some good food left in Paris.”

“Not a three in the morning.”

“Good point,” he said as he took the offered granola bar from her. ‘Well,’ he thought, ‘is she one of them? Is she going to try to kill me right here? Now? Can I not trust any woman, ever again?’ He sighed, tore open the mylar wrapper and started in on the bar. ‘Can’t live that way. Not sure I’d want to live that way…’ then, for some reason, he thought of a play he’d had to read back in high school. A Greek comedy? About women, and the Peloponnesian War? Women who joined together, stopped having sex so men would stop making war? What the hell was the name of that?

“Lysistrata!” he shouted.

“What?”

“Oh, I was just thinking,” he said, but he saw the look she gave him just then. A little sidelong glance, a look full of suspicion. Then he settled in for the flight, centered his thinking and time passed.

“Do you think they’re serving real food in First today?” he said a while later.

“You hungry?”

“I am. Skipped breakfast, can’t even remember what we did for dinner.”

“So, you’re not married?” she said, ignoring his earlier warning about the CVR.

He sighed. “Not technically, but I might as well be. Genie. She’s in med school at Southwestern.”

Beecham laughed. “That’s too much.”

“Oh?”

“My husband was in med school; he started his internship and filed for divorce the same day. I paid the bills while he was having an affair – with a goddamn nurse, too!”

“Sorry. What do you think happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’s just the cop in me, I guess, but marriages rarely fail due to just one person’s issues. It’s more like a group effort.”

She leaned back, sighed…

“4-8 Heavy, Toronto Center, clear to flight level 4-1-0.”

“4-8 to 4-1,” he said as he leaned forward and entered the change on the AP panel, then initiated the climb.

“I never looked at it that way,” she added.

“You know, you’ll burn up inside if you can’t put yourself in the other fellas shoes every now and then.”

“I know.”

And he chuckled.

“What’s that for?”

“Oh, every time I hear someone say ‘I know’ I think that’s the last thing on their mind. ‘I know’ is a deflection, a statement used to turn away from an uncomfortable truth.”

“You study psychology, too?”

“Engineering.”

“Okay. Now I’m confused.”

“Oh?”

“I thought engineers were anal retentive types, all numbers and slide-rules and shit like that.”

“Did you say slide-rules? How old are you?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Air Force?”

“Navy.”

“Oh, that explains it.”

“What?”

“Oh, Navy pukes still use slide-rules and have wind-up rubber bands in their engines.”

She laughed. “Don’t tell me. Air Farce.”

“Up in the air, Junior Bird Man,” he sang. “So. What was your contribution?”

Beecham looked out the windshield for a while, then she turned to him. “Mind if I turn off the CVR for a few minutes?”

“Oh. I don’t know,” he said as he nodded.

She reached to the back panel of the overhead panel and flipped the breaker, then shook her head. “He wanted sex, like all the time. I mean, like whenever we were together, but after a while it became mechanical, no love at all. He wouldn’t kiss me, or even say anything to me during. He just wanted to get his rocks off, and I began to feel like I was his plaything, his personal vagina, just someplace to shoot his load.” She looked away, and he saw she was upset.

“That sounds lonely,” he said.

“Yeah, it was.”

“So, you were upset when the divorce came?”

“Yeah,” she said, but she was crying a little now.

Time to get back on the clock, he said to himself. “We’ll finish this up later,” he said. “Turn on the recorder.”

“Yessir.”

The sun was setting now, and he saw stars popping out ahead, and an endless layer of low cloud stretched ahead.

“I never get tired of the view up here,” she sighed.

“Me too. It’s magic.”

“You know where we’re staying?”

“The Marriott.”

“At the airport?”

“Yup.” He noticed she hadn’t turned on the recorder yet, and he looked at her, wondered what was going on in her head. “The recorder?” he reminded her.

“Oh, right.” But still she didn’t move. “Is everything okay between you and – Genie?”

“Yup.”

“I haven’t been with anyone in a while.”

“A while?”

“Three years, and change.”

“Jeez.”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to help me out with that, would you?”

He looked at her, looked at her looking down at her hands, trembling a little – like a little girl. “You know, if you need a shoulder, or someone to talk to, yeah. I’ll be right there.”

She nodded her head, sighed. “Okay,” she whispered, then she turned around and flipped on the CVR. “Thanks,” she said.

The rest of the flight passed uneventfully, and they landed in Paris a little before two in the morning. Ah hour later they checked into the Marriott; he went up to his room and watched Beecham walk into the room next to his, then after he dumped his bags he called Genie.

“How’d it go?”

“Rough.”

“I heard about the tornado. Were you near it?”

“We were in it, real close, as it turned out.”

“In the air?”

“Maybe a few hundred yards. Close, in other words.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“How was school?”

“Oh, you know. The same. I saw Carol this evening.”

He was instantly on guard now. “Oh, how is she?”

“Uh, she seemed fine.” Which was Genie’s way of saying she had been anything but.

“Hear from The Duke?”

“Yep, he came over a while ago.”

“Oh?”

“Right after Carol left.”

“Oh?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Okay.”

“What time do you get in Friday?”

“Around 3:30.”

“Want me to pick you up?”

“Could you?”

“Sure.”

“That’d be great.”

“Okay, see you then.”

“Thanks, Genie. I love you…”

But she had already rung off. He put the phone down and looked at it for a while, then lay down and turned out the lights.

+++++

He slept in, woke up around noon and saw his message light flashing on the house phone. He dialed the message line and listened.

“Hey, Captain Sleepy-head. Call my room when you get this?”

He trudged to the head and showered, brushed his teeth, then went back to the desk and called her room.

“You weren’t kidding,” Beecham said.

“What?”

“That you didn’t sleep the night before. You were a zombie in the crew shuttle; Bruce thought you were going to pass out.”

“I feel like I could use another few hours.”

“I went into the city, bought a few things.”

“Oh? How were the crowds?”

“None. Even the Chinese are gone.”

“Damn.”

“I know. Say, you want a back rub?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Could you give me a few minutes. I want to try something on, and I need your opinion.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Thanks. Give me five minutes, and my door’s unlocked.”

He looked at the adjoining doors, and he went over and moved the little baggage rack out of the way, then put on some khakis and a polo shirt. He looked at himself in the mirror, looked at the redness in his eyes and shook his head, then went and opened the door.

All the lights in her room were off, the curtains drawn.

“I’m in the bathroom,” she said. “Be right out.”

He went in, sat in a chair by the window and sighed, then the bathroom light went out and she walked into the room.

She was dressed in black – black lingerie, stockings and heels, and she walked across the room, right up to him.

“What do you think?” she said. “You like the way this stuff looks?”

“You know, I think I need to go now,” he said, trying to stand. But she stepped closer still and blocked his way, pushed him down into the chair. “Look, I’m serious…”

“So am I, Ben. I need you. Oh, God, how I need to feel you right now. I need to feel you inside of me, need to feel your cum inside of me.”

“I, uh…”

“Please don’t say no, Ben,” she said as she moved closer. “Don’t do this to me, not now.” She pulled his face forward, until the side of his face rested on her panties and garters, and she pushed and gyrated against his skin until she felt his resolve softening. When his hands went around her thighs she smiled inside…

The camera had a hard time focusing in such low light, but the operator adjusted the gain a little, then began recording.

Part IV – The Lioness, and the Tethered Goat

Chapter 20

Off the coast of Oregon

It’s hard to say when we jelled as a crew. The three of us, I mean.

Leaving Puget Sound on a sunny winter morning, heading outside together for only our second time together. Past Victoria, past where we had our little epiphany – with the Beretta and the Great White. Turning south at Tatoosh, running down the coast for days, sailing past the nightmarish Columbia River bar for the easier pass at Coos Bay. Cross the bar, sail under McCullough Bridge into the back bay, tie up at the little marina back near the flats. Pump out the holding tanks, fill up with diesel and spend the night after a quick dinner ashore, then back out into the Pacific.

We kept close enough to the coast to keep cell coverage, and about half way down to San Francisco I watched news reports on my phone, about bombings in Dallas and Maryland while I sat behind the wheel. Persephone was with me when I started swearing.

“Woodie?” she said, clearly alarmed. “What is it?”

I handed her the phone.

“Oh, no.”

“I think it’s started,” I sighed.

You know, there’s something heartbreaking about a cute girl saying ‘Oh, no.’ Like watching a little girl on her first bicycle falling down and scraping her knee, there’s a helplessness inside the moment. Maybe a little inevitability, too, but that’s not the point. I looked at my golden girl, the sudden pout on her lips, in her eyes – and I just wanted to hold her close.

Then the phone chirped and she gave it back. I looked at the screen: “Chief Anders,” I said, “Yo. Chief.”

“Where are you?”

“Coming up on Point Arena, not quite ten miles offshore.”

“You see the stuff about Dallas?”

“Yessir.”

“This is it, isn’t it?”

“Opening move, my guess, anyway.”

“How far are you from San Francisco?”

“About a hundred and ten miles from the Golden Gate. Call it tomorrow afternoon, late.”

“Fuck. Why couldn’t you buy a goddamn motor boat. I can walk faster than that festering turd.”

“What’s up, Chief.”

“There’s a Coast Guard facility, on the east side of Treasure Island. Call them on 72 when you pass the Gate, then follow their instructions.”

“Chief? You didn’t answer my question.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Roger that.”

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“We’re running low on condoms, Chief. Think you could…”

“Woody?”

“Yes, Chief?”

“Fuck you, Woody.”

“Thank you, Chief.”

The line went dead, and Sephie just looked at me, scowling.

“What is it, baby.”

“We’re not low on condoms, Woody? I didn’t even think we were using condoms anymore.”

Ah, that’s my Persephone. Did I mention…well, yes, I’m sure I did. She’s a natural blond, through and through, and I love her more than life itself.

+++++

“Sailing Vessel Black Dog calling Coast Guard on 72.”

“Black Dog, Coast Guard, what’s your location?”

“Just coming up on the west span.”

“Roger that.”

And that was, indeed, that.

Then I saw an aluminum CG 44 footer cutting through the bay, headed right for us, and the little ship turned wide and came up on us from the rear. I held a steady course while it came alongside, and I saw a lieutenant come to the rail as they slowed and matched speed.

“You Woodward,” the lieutenant said, his eyes focused like twin lasers on Sephie’s chest.

“I am. And this is Persephone,” I said, as graciously as I could, “And this is Liza.”

“Yes they are,” he stumbled, his eyes still locked on Sephie cleavage. “You need to follow me, sir, and we’ll help you get tied up.”

I had to laugh. He’d never run across two girls more adept at tying things up than these two. If he only knew, right?

+++++

Once we were tied up the lieutenant led me to an administrative building, and Anders was inside, laptop on desk reading away intently. Tate stood in a far corner, looking out the window. He looked at me and gave a quick nod, and I did the same.

“Sit down, Woodie,” Anders said absently, yet his eyes never left the screen. I watched him for a few minutes, then he closed the screen and turned to Richard. “Tate? Take a seat.”

“Okay.”

“You been keeping up with all this?” Anders asked, looking at me.

“There’s been more?”

He nodded his head. “About ten strikes so far. Another in Dallas, a few on the east coast, a few out here.”

“And?”

“They’re targeting politicians, compromised politicians and people in…”

“Let me guess. Corrupt judges, lawyers, cops?”

“Among others, yes. The press, broadcast reporters, and some pervs, too.”

“And what’s this got to do with me?”

“When Tottenham took out that girl…”

“MJ?”

“Yes, the Kopecki girl. Seems she was head of the local branch of, well, you remember reading that intel report on the stuff going on down in Dallas?”

“Some women, wasn’t it? Targeting pedophiles?”

“Uh, yeah. Well, they were dressed as Ninja.”

And I remembered MJs girls up in the cockpit, dressed in black, like Ninja. “So, MJs girls and Tottenham’s group weren’t together?” I asked quietly, if only to myself.

“Nope. Brennan thinks Kopecki’s Ninja group infiltrated Tottenham’s ‘whips and chains’ crowd, seemed to integrate with them, and I emphasize the word ‘seemed,’ but now the Ninjas are taking them out – and it’s a nationwide effort, with all that implies.”

“So, these two groups are everywhere, and a war between them is breaking out?”

Tate nodded, cleared his throat. “My guess is when Tottenham took out Kopecki he started a war, and while the moves we’ve seen so far are overt, and very public attacks, a bunch of the Kinks have turned up dead, sometimes in their homes, in their cars, but not in an overt manner.” He tossed some photos on the table and I picked them up, flipped through a couple. Slit throats, bullets in the face, the usual.

So our immediate concern is this,” Anders interjected. “These two girls of yours were in deep, up to their eyeballs in that kink group, and those people are disappearing like snowballs in the Sahara right now.”

I nodded my head. “Yessir. I see where this is going.”

“Okay. Second concern. They’re either taking out cops directly, or compromising us. Blackmail, set ups and blackmail. There’s a Captain in CID down in Dallas. Dickinson’s his name, and he led the investigation last summer. He’s compromised, or so he says, but his lead on the case, a kid named Acheson, isn’t. The thing is, he’s a reserve. His day job is with American, flies for a living. He’s on his way to Paris as we speak. And you’re leaving at nine tonight.”

“Sir?”

“For Paris. I want you to compare notes, and Tate has a few toys he’d like you to try out. He’ll be with you, but I want you to get this Acheson fella up to speed on things going on out here, the structure we know about…”

“Chief, you can’t expect me to leave the girls here?”

“Safest place for them right now is at sea, next safest place is tied up right here. For now, anyway. Brennan wants to take them and put them in Witness Protection.”

“Jesus.”

“Except he thinks the Marshall’s are compromised too.”

“Oh, now that’s just fuckin’ great. Tell me, Chief. What have they got on you?”

And I could see it in his eyes, before he turned away. “Yeah, don’t ask, Woody. I’m going to go down in flames, and soon. They got me with a hooker a few months ago.”

“Marie doesn’t know?”

“Nope.”

“Why don’t you just tell her. Apologize like hell, get down on your knees and beg for her forgiveness.”

He almost laughed. “What if she’s one of them, Woodie.”

I didn’t know what to say. “You think that’s possible?”

He nodded his head. “They’ll crucify me on TV, and within days I’ll be gone.”

“You know, I think this is going to be impossible to stop. Whatever it is they’re doing, they’ve been planning it for years, quietly moving assets into place, and they’re not constrained by the norms of typical political debate. They’re going to take out their enemies, violently – publicly, then, after compromising the ethics of the standing elite, they’ll just move in to fill the vacuum.”

“Yup. I hear the Romans did it that way a few times, and it worked for them, I guess. Quick, bloody coups work. That’s the lesson.”

“So, we’re Rome now?”

He snorted. “Hell, we’re just people, Woodie. People arrive at similar solutions to similar problems.”

“And we create the same problems, over and over again, don’t we?”

“Maybe so. Whatever, someone else made that call. We either fight them now, or we roll over and play dead.”

“I think I should get on my goddamn boat and get the fuck out of Dodge.”

“I do too. I would if I could.”

“Then why? Why ask me to do this?”

“Maybe there’s a chance you and Tate can figure something out.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. A group with thousands of people spread throughout government, with several years head start, and that’s killing with impunity? What am I supposed to figure out, Chief?”

“Look at it this way, Woodward. We’re in the beginning stages of a civil war. The president and the Joint Chiefs are looking at it this way, too. The next step is to find the snake and cut off it’s head.”

“What if there’s more than one snake?”

“Then they’re going to start killing all the snakes.”

“What?”

“You heard me. It kind of gives a whole new meaning to Gender Wars, doesn’t it? Round up suspected women, everywhere, and kill them.”

“This is seriously being considered?”

“The pieces are being moved on the board as we speak.” He looked at me, then at Tate.

“And pawns will be sacrificed,” I sighed, “won’t they?”

“Yes, Woodie, pawns will be sacrificed.”

+++++

I gave the girls the rundown and they took the news about as expected: Sephie went into full meltdown mode and Liza went aft and helped me pack, then she started packing a bag too. Tate looked at her, then at me – shaking his head.

“What are you doing?”

“We’re coming with you. And don’t even think of arguing with me, either of you.” When she was packed, she went forward and got Persephone. “Where’s your Passport?” she asked, and they went went to my safe and got them just as I felt else someone hop onboard.

“Woodie?” I heard Anders say from the cockpit.

“Yes, Chief?”

“How’s your heart?”

I shrugged.

“Would it be better if these girls went with you?”

“Probably.”

“Well, get ‘em packed up, then we’ll make a run for the airport.”

“Yes, Chief.” He threw me a wallet, and I opened it – then looked up at him.

“I know. Kind of funny, but Brennan insisted, and who knows, it may come in handy. Anyway, if anyone asks you’re the AD of their SeaTac field office, tasked with counter-terrorism operations. And you’re authorized to carry this,” he said, handing me a Sig P-220, “everywhere. Even on the goddamn airplane.”

Liza was looking at all this go down, then she came up from behind and put her arms around me. “Come on, sweet-cheeks,” she said. “It’s time to go save the world.”

+++++

We flew over on Air France, in one of those A380 double deckers, and the changes were obvious as they were unsettling.

In the airport, very few women seen, not even behind the counters. On the aircraft, the same story: all the flight attendants were male, and only a few passengers were female – and those were Muslim. Not that it mattered; on an airplane designed to haul over 500 people, there were less that fifty on board, and it didn’t matter what class you were in, everyone got the same chow. Factory made sandwiches, all beverages either canned or poured from a sealed bottle. Paranoia run amok, I think, and to me it felt like the initial conclusions had been assimilated by leaders in Washington D.C. and then passed on to world leaders: a cabal of women was behind these attacks, and they were intent on taking over the country, maybe even the world. Was Anders mimicking a greater breathless hysteria, or was something really so formidably drastic taking shape all around us?

The four of us sat together on the upper deck, and there was a television show playing while we boarded, a French production, the dialogue translated as text, streaming along the bottom of the screen. Women all across Europe were not showing up at their jobs, men were reporting that wives and girlfriends had simply stopped having sex with them, then a reporter in Tokyo was onscreen, saying much the same thing. In Brazil? The same. Cape Town? Ditto. From Amsterdam to Zimbabwe, women were disengaging from civic life, and from their personal routines, too. More ominously still, local politicians’ illicit sex lives were making their way online, or on-the-air, and the same pattern first noted in Dallas, then around the United States, began appearing around the world. Weird sex clubs and rampant pedophilia were the norm in these lurid exposés, and some of the politicians caught up in the reports resigned forthwith. Those that didn’t soon turned up in charred wreckage somewhere – a bombed out motel or warehouse frequently the scene.

And I noticed that while Sephie watched the unfolding horror with empathy in her eyes, Liza watched for a moment – then turned away.

And perhaps I hadn’t seen the faint echoes of a smile on her face. Maybe it was all just my imagination.

Then I saw a live report from Paris, something about Christmas shopping, and I saw snow falling in the cameras lights, then looked down at my shorts and boat shoes. Had I even packed one pair on long pants? Hell, I couldn’t even remember if I owned any long pants.

That’s what living on a boat with two sadomasochistic nymphomaniacs will do to you.

+++++

Paris is, I suppose, simply Paris – and it always will be, right? Another big city with a phallic monument in the center. A male phallus, of course – at least that was Liza’s version of the city as we drove in from the airport – but she seemed more than a little put out by the whole phallus thing. Like she was anxious, even angry about men and their penises – and how we’d, figuratively speaking, of course, rammed our dicks down the world’s throats since the beginning of time.

“Excuse me,” I said to her sulking reflection in the window, “but is it that time of month?”

Which was, of course, not the right thing to say. At all.

Arms crossed over chest, steam coming out ears, she glowered the rest of the way into the city. Sephie, of course, looked out the window, oohing at the Eiffel Tower while Liza snorted derisively. Yin and Yang, Ego and Super-Ego, two sides of the same coin – falling through time. One was Conscience, the other Lust, and isn’t it a simple truth that we go through life attracted to both – and yet we can never decide which we hold most important?

Someone had booked us into a little hotel on the Ile Saint Louis; we walked up to our room and I showered while the girls unpacked, and as I dressed I heard Liza talking to Sephie.

“You stay here, keep an eye on the room.”

“I want to go with him,” my golden Persephone said. “You’re so mad right now you’ll get him in trouble.”

“I will not.”

“You will to.”

“Uh, girls. I’m sorry, but Daddy doesn’t like to see his baby girls acting like three year olds. Can we get it together? Or does Daddy have to go out by himself?”

Then Liza cut to the heart of the matter, holding up my bottle of Viagra: “Does Daddy want a little blue pill, make little stick big again so he can go boom-boom?”

Touché.

Why is it that girls are always right?

Maybe because it’s so easy to lead men around by the balls?

So, Sephie stayed in the room while Liza and I walked out of the hotel – and Tate had gone. Vanished. We looked around, got our bearings and walked the few blocks to Notre Dame, and we sat on a bench at the south end of the little park by the river, and we waited.

He was lanky, that’s what I remember most about Ben Acheson. Tall, and lanky, and he had a kind of Jimmie Stewart air about him that day. Kind of an “Aw, gee shucks, Ma’am…” thing going. Like he’d screwed the pooch big time, and didn’t mind if we knew it.

He ambled up and sat on the bench beside ours, then he sighed.

“Woodward?”

“Yup.”

“Who’s she?”

“The person I most trust with your life.”

“Okay.”

“So, why are we here?” I asked – and I noticed Liza scanning the sky overhead.

“To share notes, I think.”

“Drone,” Liza whispered. “Overhead. We’re blown.”

At least the kid had the good sense not to look up. “Okay,” he said, “what’s next?”

“Why don’t you tell me what you know?”

So he did. Everything that had happened in Dallas, all the Ninja stuff from the summer before, the attacks this week, then the stuff about Rutherford in his house – which as far as I could tell no one else knew about.

“So, she’s an AD at the NSA?”

“Yes. Kind of clever, don’t you think? Get yourself on the inside of the surveillance state, the head of the snake…”

“That’s what Anders, my chief, said. ‘We’ve got to cut off the head of the snake.’”

“So, how’d all this get started out there?”

So I told him my story, including Persephone and Liza’s part in the drama, and of the Tottenham twins demise.

“I take it,” he sighed, “you know your department is compromised, from top to bottom. The FBI, too?”

I nodded. “From the first, when Chief Tottenham was killed.”

“So his brother killed this Mary Jo, and that precipitated the split?”

And for the first time, Liza spoke-up about that night. She cleared her throat, then looked at me.

“Not quite. MJ was protecting Woodie,” she said to Acheson, then she turned to me. “She was from the beginning. Tottenham and his clique wanted you out of the picture, she intervened, kept you from being killed – at least three times that I know of.”

“What?”

Then she turned to Acheson again. “What’s eating you?” she asked. “You look like you’ve swallowed a squirrel.”

“I think they got me this morning?”

Liza just looked at the kid, then I could see it all over his face too.

“What did they get you with,” I asked. “A woman?”

He nodded his head, told us about the encounter.

“You married?” I asked.

“Not yet. I guess that means no, as in it ain’t gonna happen now.”

“Man,” Liza said, shaking her head, “I am so glad I wasn’t born with a dick. Don’t you guys ever stop thinking with that fucker?”

“Alright, knock it off,” I scolded. “So, your girl either gets over it or she doesn’t. They think they’ve got you over their barrel now, that they own you, and maybe we can use that to our advantage…” But I could tell the kid was turning something over in his mind, like he was working a math problem in his head. “What is it, Ben?”

“Rutherford,” he whispered. “She kissed me, seemed vested in me somehow.”

“She wants you,” Liza said. “All these Alphas, these leaders, have to take a mate, but they have to take them from another woman, then kill the other woman too, usually with their own hands. They have to break down their new mate after that, mentally, emotionally – and physically, before rebuilding him. The idea is to make the new mate totally dependent, totally demascluinize him. Like a role reversal dominance game, taken to a new extreme,” she added, looking at Acheson. “She’ll turn you into a girl, what girls were to men in the old order, anyway.”

“Right,” the kid said. “Over my dead body.”

“That’s what it’ll come down to,” she added, looking him in the eye. “These Alphas are predatory, feral, and the veneer of civility they wear is very thin. They’ve been plotting this for decades, and they know the kinds of sacrifices that are being made won’t ever be undone. In their eyes the battle of the sexes was never some kind of joke, or something they were ever prepared to lose, for that matter. They’re preparing to completely upend the old patriarchy, to end ‘what was’ and replace it with something totally new. And they’re counting on you thinking with your dick, and not your head, to help them make that happen.”

+++++

So, there it was. The end game, the backgammon.

Tate dropped by, had us download an app on our phones, told me what he and Acheson had in mind – just in case – then we split again. He followed Acheson out to the Marriott while we went back to our little hovel – and waited.

Acheson was leaving for Dallas in the morning, and we would leave for San Francisco an hour after he. At least, that was the plan.

Would Rutherford’s group respond? Had we set an attractive enough trap?

Only time would tell.

Chapter 21

Acheson sat in the back of the taxi, trying to ignore the female driver sneering at him from the driver’s seat.

‘My God,’ he thought, ‘they’re everywhere. Yet only where they need to be.’

The logistics were staggering, coordinating the movement of millions of assets around the globe, and it would all be impossible, he knew, without the ‘net. And without apps to tie-together their vast network, innocent social media apps, that literally everyone had access to. All they’d need was a language of their own. Codes, he thought. Deciphering codes? Was that the key? Rutherford was NSA, so…

He looked out the window, at the endless stream of little cars – tiny little Renaults and Citroens – and how unlike the scene was compared to Dallas. Pickup trucks and Cadillacs, gas-guzzlers all, versus these tiny gas-sippers, and he saw a vast train station beyond the freeway. Dozens of trains filling with people, ready to leave for the furthest reaches of the country. So very different, yet the same. People moving freely, always on the move: on business, to take care of family, to ramble on an endless vacation.

What would happen if it all just stopped?

Because what loomed on the horizon was a sudden, screeching halt. An end to one way of life, and the sudden imposition of a new, radically different way of life. What had that girl, Liza, implied? Men would be maintained as breeding stock, and dumbed down men would be utilized for heavy labor – until, presumably, men could be replaced by robots or genetic engineering. The idea was comical, like Our Man Flint meets Blofeld, only now, after watching events unfold in Dallas, and hearing about these groups working around Seattle, he was sure this was a serialized comic book caper anymore.

No, this is just the opposite. This is real, and it’s happening now. Right now.

What had she said? Stop thinking with your dicks? How was that even possible? And what would happen if the unexpected reared it’s ugly head? What would unravel first?

“Qu’est-ce que vous avez dit?”

“Pardonnez-moi, je ne me rendais pas compte que je parlais…”

“Vous avez dit, ‘comment était-ce possible?’”

“Oh je suis désolé…”

“You are English?” she asked.

“American.”

“So, what is not possible?”

“Someone just told me something funny, that it is impossible for men to not think without using their, well, their penis.”

“Ah. Yes, this is probably true, but that is who and what you are, is it not?”

“Exactly.”

“So, why is this funny?”

“I think she was asking me to think like a woman, which is clearly not possible.”

“Perhaps. But how does a woman think?”

“You tell me?”

The woman thought for a moment, then she brightened. “A woman does not live in the moment. She lives in the future, yet also in the past. She thinks not of pleasure, but how pleasure can be used to her advantage. She thinks of the moment as a stop along the way to what she desires.”

“That seems very mercenary to me, very cold and calculating.”

“Perhaps. But men’s calculations are as narrow. What gets me power, and how do I gain power, yet with the most pleasure attached?”

He shook his head, laughed a little. “We are a doomed species.”

“Perhaps, yes,” the woman said, “or perhaps it is better to try a new way, while there is still time.”

“So, who do you work for?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

He nodded his head, looked ahead. He could see aircraft landing and taking off at CDG, then his hotel on the left. “Do you know…are they going to kill me?”

She looked at him in the rearview mirror, then shrugged. “Truly, I do not know, but I would not want to be in your shoes.”

“Well said. And I doubt I could walk in heels, if you know what I mean.”

She pulled up to the entrance and he pulled out his wallet, but she shook her head. “It is not necessary.” She turned and looked at him now, and she shook her head just a little. “If I were to give you one piece of advice, I would say act not inside the moment, but within the future you seek.”

“What does that mean?”

She sighed, and frowned. “It means you must be prepared to sacrifice yourself to save the ones you love.”

“Maybe you could just take me to the airport…”

She laughed, looked him in the eye. “You cannot run. There is no place that far away.”

“Okay.”

“Good luck, my friend.”

“Yes. You too.”

He got out of the little Renault and walked through the lobby. A woman looked over her newspaper and watched him pass, then sent a text.

He went upstairs and pulled open the drapes, then got out the little book Genie had read for her ethics class – 12, 20 & 5 – and he started reading. The book was about choices, he saw, about choices forced and choices randomly arrived at. It was about choosing who lived, and who died, and all under the most impossible circumstances imaginable. Ultimately, it was a story about trying to impose order when man is surrounded by chaos – of his own making. Even if the only thing he’d ever surrounded himself with before was apathy.

He stood up to go to the bathroom and heard people outside his door, so he bent to his phone and sent the emails he’d composed. One to Genie, one to The Duke, and one to Woodward, then he went to the door and opened it.

Five of them came in. All in black, black Ninja, and he walked into the bathroom, left the door open while he took a leak, then he went back to his chair and picked up the book and resumed reading.

Another knock on the door.

One of the Ninja opened it, and she walked in.

Rutherford, the assistant director of operations for the NSA.

She walked in – black dress, blacks stockings and heels – and she stopped, looked out the window at the airport, then down at him. Then she put her heel on his groin – and pushed.

“I liked that book,” she began. “Read it years ago. Kind of heartbreaking, in the way Hooker’s MASH was.”

“The more things change…” he said, trying to hide the pain of her spiked heel on his penis.

“Yes. Exactly. I want you, but I guess you know that, don’t you.”

“I’m not sure why?”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I do.”

“I understand.”

“The audio on our end wasn’t good. I take it Woodward’s little bitch filled you in?”

“Pretty much. You’ll have to kill Genie, with your own hands, to sanctify the marriage, that kind of thing?”

“Don’t trivialize something so sacred.”

“I’m not. I simply…I don’t understand.”

She looked at him with, perhaps, a little compassion, maybe even understanding in her eyes, then she turned to one of the Ninja. “It’s time. Turn on the television.”

One of the girls found the remote and turned it on, then tuned into CNN.

“The President met in Reykjavík this morning. Secretly, of course,” she smiled. “He’s about to leave…they’re all about to leave, now that their press conference is over. Watch…”

He saw Air Force One taxi to the end of the runway, then make it’s run. It lifted into the air and was beginning to make it’s turn for the Atlantic when it simply exploded, and a huge black and orange fireball appeared – where only moments before there had been normalcy.

She nodded at the Ninja – who turned the sound down – then she turned to Acheson. “Right now, and I mean right this moment, the vice president and the entire chain of succession is being eliminated. Within the hour, a huge explosion will simply remove the Pentagon from the face of the earth. When Congress convenes in emergency session this evening, that building will fall down around their heads.”

“My. You seem to have thought of everything.”

The back-handed slap was brutal, as her leather gloves were full of lead shot, and he felt his left water.

“I’m not fond of sarcasm,” she said.

“Apparently not.”

The next blow was more savage, then…

“Director, on the television. Look!”

Rutherford turned to CNN and she saw – Rutherford, turning to look at the television.

“What is this?” she almost screamed.

“It’s CNN, and smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” Acheson said, pointing at an air conditioning vent.

She turned, snapped her fingers and all the Ninja made for the door – only Woodward and Tate and half the FBI were waiting, guns drawn and ready.

They opened fire, cut them down in one massive volley. All of them but Rutherford.

The war had been joined now. He could see it in the woman’s eyes.

Then she turned and looked at Woodward. “Leave us for a moment, please. I need to tell him something. Something personal.”

Acheson nodded, and the team stepped back out into the hall, closing the door – almost.

She knelt between Acheson’s legs and cupped his face in hand: “I’m sorry, Ben. Sorry I hurt you.”

And he took her hand and kissed it. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand why this happened, but I’ll try.”

“I know you will. That’s why I chose you.”

“That’s a good look for you,” he sighed, trying to smile. “You look good in black. Sexy.”

“And that’s why I’ll always want you.”

“Okay.”

“This isn’t over, you know?”

He nodded his head. “I know.”

“God, I want you so much it hurts.”

He watched as one of the agents came into the room, and he looked as the man pulled out a silenced pistol and came up to her from behind. He placed blue steel against the back of her neck, and Acheson turned away.

Chapter 22

She was looking into his eyes – and he could see fear lurking in the shadows, then he watched as the medic came up from behind and slipped the syringe into her deltoid muscle. Her eyes fluttered moments later and she fell into his lap; by then Tate and Woodward were back in the room, looking at her, then at the ninja’s on the floor – blood splattered all over the room.

Woodward came over to Acheson, put a finger on Rutherford’s carotid as he bent over her. “We got that co-pilot at the airport; her name isn’t Beecham, by the way. Her ID is in the FAA database, but the image doesn’t match what’s on file. First run of fingerprints comes up dry too.”

“She’s polished on 777 procedures,” Ben said, “so work through foreign pilot registries, look for women with the appropriate type ratings. Russia, Ukraine, places like that.” Acheson ran his hands through Rutherford’s hair, and he wondered why he felt such a strong attraction to this woman…then, “where did you pick her up?”

“International departures,” Tate said, walking into the room.

“Surprise, surprise,” Acheson added, then he looked at this new man: “Do I know you?”

“He’s my partner,” Woodward said. “Richard Tate, retired from CID, Seattle PD; he’s working under a private ticket now. Dick, this is Ben Acheson.”

“Anders told me about you,” he said, shaking Acheson’s hand. “Good work on that stuff last summer.” Tate looked at the woman on Ben’s lap and grinned. “Is it just me, or does it look like that dame’s giving you head?”

Acheson looked at Tate, then Rutherford. He shook his head, tried to hide from his feelings again. “Can we get her off now?” Ben said.

“Poor choice of words, Amigo,” Woodward said, and everyone laughed. Everyone, that is, but Acheson.

+++++

Acheson rode in a caravan to de Gaulle with Tate, Woodward and several FBI agents; they walked into Terminal 2E and were instantly overwhelmed by a sudden, massive increase in security. The group passed a bank of television monitors tuned to news outlets from around the world, and images of a wide debris field, floating in the sea off Iceland’s west coast, filled the screens one minute, then switched to images of the US Capitol Building the next. Flames and black smoke were pouring out of shattered windows, then the camera shook, the cameraman trying his best to keep his footing as he wheeled around, trying to frame the source of the explosion in his viewfinder. A huge fireball was rising from the White House, and another, across the Potomac – over the Pentagon…

And Acheson stopped, stared as an image of the new President of France filled the screen. The woman was giving a fiery speech, had just declared a new order was beginning when she turned and screamed as troops stormed the studio. She turned, tried to run and was gunned down, several cameras capturing her horrendous death on live feeds.

“What the hell is going on?” Acheson said as the screen switched to surveillance feeds coming from a subway platform. A large explosion could be seen lighting up a distant subway tunnel, then flames filled the platform. Another feed flickered to life, smoke pouring out of subway entries all around the Kremlin filled the screens, then as quickly changed to images from Beijing and Tokyo, then Aukland and Sydney – the images always the same. Political landmarks, and politicians, exploding or being gunned down. Globally. In real time.

“There’s no way any one network could have these feeds,” Acheson said. “Someone’s taken control of television networks, globally. They know where the next strike is, and are tying into the feeds…”

One of the FBI agent’s phones started chirping, and several of the men took out phones and began reading out the text message. “The Vice-President is dead,” one said. “Major blasts at the Capital Building, the Pentagon, FBI Headquarters, the Supreme Court Building…”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Acheson said, pointing at the live feeds. Airport control towers around the world were next on TV. Video feeds from Los Angeles to Lagos began showing the exact same thing: large detonations toppling control towers, streaming live on-screen…then the fact registered…

“Oh, fuck!” Acheson said. “Everybody! Get down…!”

A concussive series of explosions rippled through the terminal; he heard glass breaking and then screams filled the air, walls falling in every direction – then Acheson felt himself flying through the air, thudding off a far wall, coming to rest on a pile of steel beams and shattered glass.

“Got to out of here…” Acheson said as he climbed to his feet. He ran to the dispatch office, tried to open the door – but there was no power – and the electric security lock had tripped – then gone offline. He banged on the door with his fist, heard someone trying to open the door from inside. It opened and a dispatcher stood there, her scalp bleeding, blood coming from her ears, then she fell back and landed on the floor, gasping for breath.

Acheson went to her, helped her into a chair, then went to the dispatch board and looked at gate assignments and fueling status; he grabbed the crew’s clipboard and memory cards for the flight to DFW, then made his way through the terminal to his gate. The ramp chief was talking to gate agents, and they turned to Acheson as he ran up.

“What’s the status of the aircraft?” he said to the ramp chief.

“Fueled, ready to go, but no bags yet.”

“Fuck the baggage. Get everyone onboard, now.”

He pushed through the crowded departure lounge, walked down the Jetway, heard people running up from behind and turned, saw Woodward and Tate, and two girls running beside Woodward, holding him up.

“Get on, now,” he yelled, then he ran past the flight attendants gathered by the main door, ran straight for the cockpit. He slammed the door shut, engaged the locks then turned around.

He saw Sandy Beecham, or whoever the hell she was, sitting in the FOs seat – turning to look at him, and two ninjas standing behind her seat, little Sig pistols pointed at his gut. He heard moaning, looked down and saw Rutherford on the floor behind his seat, blood coming from a scalp wound, debris all over her clothes.

“Did you just get here?” he asked Beecham.

“Yes.”

“Anyone done a walk-around?”

She shook her head.

“Go!” he commanded. “We’ve got a full fuel load out, and no squawks on the cheat sheet, but check the holds are locked and crossed.”

She looked at him, not sure what to do.

“Look, either you do it, or I do. This way one of your girls can keep an eye on me. Got it?”

“Yes, Captain,” ‘Beecham’ said. As she left the flight deck he turned to the ninja: “There’s a First Aid kit in there. Get it, please.” One of the girls holstered her weapon and opened the closet, handed the kit to him and he opened it, took out some gauze pads and a little bottle of saline. “Give me a hand, would you? Pour the saline in her hair,” he said as he picked little bits of glass from Rutherford’s scalp with tweezers. “Good, now take a fresh gauze pad and tamp it dry.” He taped a fresh gauze over the wound, then took out a penlight and shined it in her eyes, saw little pinpoint pupils, but they were equally reactive.

“Help me sit her up, then go get some water, a couple of bottles, at least.”

One of the girls bent to help him lift her, then left for the galley – just as Beecham came back in.

“I think she’s okay,” he said to the girls. “Are they ready for us to start two?”

“Da…I mean, yes.”

“Okay, Comrade. Let’s get to work on the checklist, shall we?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“So, tell me…how’d you get roped into this little caper?”

“Excuse me?”

“They chose you, how?”

“I am captain rated on this model. Apparently they could not recruit any US pilots.”

“Oh. So not simply because you’re a world class fuck?”

“I did not know this would be asked of me.”

“Odd.”

“Why odd?”

“Seemed like you enjoyed yourself, I guess.”

She looked at the ninja, then looked ahead. “I did,” she whispered, “very much, yes.”

“Well, just so you know where we stand, I enjoyed you, too. Very much, yes.”

She looked at him and smiled. “Ready for push-back?” she said as she settled in her seat.

He put on his headset, then he called for the ramp chief.

“Oui?”

“We’re about ready to go up here.”

“Oui, capitain, but we have no authority from ground control.”

“I really don’t care, chief. Push us back and get us away from this building, and I mean right now. There are fires in there, and they’re spreading!”

There were, he knew, multiple ground control towers at de Gaulle, and the first two he called were offline, but he heard one after he dialed in 121.675.

“de Gaulle ground, Swiss 332, we are VFR OPS only at this time, and all airway routing is down.”

“Ah, 332, roger. You advise a straight in approach for runway 27 left is approved?”

“de Gaulle ground, Swiss 332, that’s affirmative.”

Acheson keyed the mic. “de Gaulle ground, American 3-8 Heavy at 2E-1-0, ready for push-back.”

“de Gaulle ground, American 3-8 Heavy, standby one.”

“3-8, standing by.”

“de Gaulle ground, American 3-8 Heavy, clear to push back.”

Acheson switched to the ramp intercom. “Chief? We’ve got the go from ground.”

“Roger. I picked it up too. We’re ready down here.”

“Thanks, chief. Ready when you are.”

Acheson watched the terminal fall away, then looked at Beecham when the 777 stopped. “Start two.”

“Starting two.”

“American 3-8 Heavy, de Gaulle ground, we’re ready for read back.”

“de Gaulle ground, American 3-8 Heavy, taxi R-Robert to Whiskey-one-one. You will be number two for departure on runway 2-6-right. Wind is calm, altimeter 2-9-9-2. This will be a VFR only departure, and departure control is offline. London is offline, but Shannon is currently on the air. New York and Dulles are off the air, but La Guardia is still on the air. Denver and Dallas Fort Worth are on the air, but Houston Intercontinental and Hobby are off the air. ATL, FLL and MIA are reporting limited VFR OPS. KDFW reporting thunderstorms, ceiling 2500, winds out of the southwest at 2-0 knots. ILS OPS currently restricted.”

Ground, 3-8 Heavy, Robert to Whiskey 1-1, number 2 for 26 right, two niner niner two. VFR to DFW.”

“3-8 Heavy, be advised we have no radar, no ATC at this time. Rennes, Brest and Plymouth are attempting to coordinate. Contact Rennes approach on 122.25, and you are clear to taxi.”

“So,” Acheson said as they began rolling, “where are we going? I mean, really going?”

“To DFW?” Beecham said, shrugging.

“Flaps seven,” he said. “So no grand plan now?”

“Seven, check. No, Captain, no plans.”

An Emirates A380 was ahead of them, just turning onto the active runway, and Acheson could see landing lights in the distance, yet “the tower” – such as it was – hadn’t mentioned any incoming traffic.

“Uh, 3-8 Heavy, de Gaulle, we see several aircraft lining up for all runways. Do you know who they are?”

“3-8, you are cleared for immediate take off. We are getting word these could be Russian troop transports. Berlin just reported dozens of Russian transports landing, then went off the air. Air Force units now report Russian incursions, air combat near Liege.”

“Okay, 3-8 Heavy, we’re rolling.”

“Bon chance!”

Not quite at the end of the taxiway, Acheson guessed the first transport was two miles out, then he started his turn. “Damn…wish we were in a C-17 today…”

“Captain, you are going a little fast for this turn, are you not?”

“Fuck it.”

“What about the 380s wake turbulence?”

“Fuck it.”

“This could be interesting, Da?”

“Da, Comrade,” he said as he pulled out on the runway and applied full take-off power – and he watched as four Sukhoi-35s streaked low over the airfield – on their way to the city. “Oh, this just isn’t funny. Not one little fucking bit…” he whispered.

“80 knots,” Beecham called out. “V-one – and rotate!”

He barely pulled back on the stick, and when the radar altimeter read 150 feet he called for “Gear up!”

“What are you doing?” Beecham cried.

“Staying down in the trees until we’re away from those goddamn fighters.” He looked at the city off the left wingtip, saw explosions in the distance, then dark smoke trails rising into the sky. “This can’t be happening…”

“Da, it can be. Russian leadership is opportunistic. They seek weakness, they exploit weakness. US politically neutralized, Germans and French now too. Russian Army will move into Eastern Europe and Baltics in one move, into Iraq and Saudi Arabia in other.”

“So, you’re Russian? Aren’t you happy now?”

“No, not Russian. Ukraine.”

“Ah, so not happy.”

“No, now we have new Soviet monster.”

“The bear slips out of his cage again, I guess?”

“Da – Power lines!”

Acheson pulled up sharply on the yoke, and the 777 vaulted into a steep climb – just clearing a set of high-tension power lines hanging over the Seine. “Okay, enough of this. Clean the wing, configure for a maximum speed climb, then look up the numbers for Shannon.”

“Shannon? Why?”

“Because,” they heard Rutherford say, “he’s the captain, and he knows what he’s doing.”

He turned around and saw the woman looking at him, then he reached around and took her hand, felt her kiss his fingers. “You feeling groggy?”

“A little, but what’s going on down there?”

“It looks like our Russians friends are getting adventurous again. They’re taking European governments right now.”

“Damn,” Rutherford said.

“You were not expecting this, I take it?”

“It was not completely unexpected, but it means the entire North American command and control network remains compromised.”

“Well, you did infiltrate it? You did try to compromise it? What were you expecting?”

“A quicker transfer of power. Consolidation of our assets in Washington and Omaha.”

“Do you honestly expect members of the military to fall in line with you?”

“Yes, when they see the current order collapse, and sudden threats emerge to our control of the larger world order.”

A light on the overhead panel started blinking, then chiming.

“What’s that?” Rutherford said, looking at the light.

“SELCAL. Company broadcast.” He flipped the switch, selected the main cabin speaker.

“Repeat. EWO-EWO-EWO. Emergency War Order case Baker. Repeat. EWO-EWO-EWO. Emergency War Order case Baker…” He flipped off the channel, shook his head. “Goddamnit all to hell…” he sighed.

“Ben?” Rutherford said, her voice now unsettled. “What is it?”

“Oh, in plain English it means the Civil Defense network has been activated, that nuclear hostilities are considered imminent, and all airborne aircraft are free-agents now. We’re to get our aircraft and passengers out of harm’s way, any way and any where we can.”

“That means the…”

“This order, Baker, is supposed to go out when missiles are being fueled in their silos, when launch is imminent.” He looked at Beecham, then shook his head. “What’s your name, anyway?”

She turned, startled, and looked at him. “I – don’t…”

“You don’t remember your name?”

“No, of course I do, but I think I like this Sandy Beach name.”

“Sandy Beach. Yeah, I get it. Well, okay Miss Sandy Beach, get the numbers for Bermuda into the FMC, and a heading as soon as you can.” He settled on 270 degrees, looked over the panel, saw the Scilly Isles ahead and to the right, then checked their current altitude. He changed frequencies, listened to eastbound commercial traffic trying to check in with London…

“Delta 003, is anyone on this frequency?”

“American 3-8 Heavy, go ahead Delta.”

“Geez, all our COMMS are dark. What’s going on?”

“Russian fighters and transports in the air over major European cities right now. We have an EWO broadcast. Did you get that yet?”

“Negative.”

“I’d get down on the ground as fast as you can. There are Russian fighters over Paris.”

“What about London?”

“Been off the air for an hour or so. Shannon is supposed to be on the air.”

“Uh, Speedbird-2 here, did you advise London is off the air?”

“Affirmative 2, advised by controllers on the ground at LFPG.”

“Well, Delta, Dublin is a better facility for heavies. Ah, 3-8 Heavy, where are you off too?”

“Over the western channel now, heading for Bermuda.”

“I say, I wish we had enough fuel for that.”

Acheson heard knocking on the cockpit door and flipped on the closed circuit camera, saw Woodward standing out there, with two of the flight attendants. He unlocked the door, then turned to one of the ninja. “Let them in,” he commanded.

The girl looked at him, then at Rutherford.

“He’s the captain. Follow his orders.”

Woodward walked in, saw the ninja, then Rutherford, and he sighed. “Ah. Things have changed again, I see.”

“Captain?” one of the flight attendants said. “What should we do back there? People are getting restless, getting phone calls from home. There’s a lot of confusion…”

“What’s the food situation?”

“We have enough.”

“How many passengers did we end up with? The manifest says 220…”

“We’re full up front and in Business Class, but coach is almost empty. Maybe 150.”

“That figures. Well, get meals out fast, free booze for everyone. Tell them I’ll have an update in a half hour.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Woodward? We’re headed for Bermuda, that’s about all I can tell you right now. We’ll get on the ground as fast as we can, then…”

“Why? Why aren’t we going to the States?”

“Again, I’ll tell you more in a half hour. Things aren’t real clear right now.”

“Speedbird-2, 3-8 Heavy, are you still on the air?”

“3-8, go ahead.”

“Reports coming into Dublin advise Russian forces have moved into Norway and Finland, and that an American carrier battle group has been attacked in the GIUK gap. There is apparently a large air engagement taking place off the Yorkshire coast, NATO forces trying to stop a Russian air strike on petroleum facilities near Rotterdam.”

“So, you’re saying it’s World War Three? Right? Just not nuclear?”

“It rather looks that way. We’re tucking into Shannon, try to refuel, then head your way.”

“Okay. We’ll stay on this frequency, our ETA is about four hours.”

“Right-o. See you there.”

“Did he mean – war has broken out?” Woodward asked.

“It’s the law of unintended consequence,” Rutherford said. “Do one thing, expect one set of consequences, then another materializes, upsetting all prior calculations. Our movement critically weakened the West, to the Russian mind, anyway, and this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for, patiently, since 1945.”

“So,” Woodward asked, “what happens next?”

“The war either remains conventional, and protracted, or it ends quickly, via nuclear exchange.” Rutherford added. “Our military will be assuming command absent civilian leadership. They’ll be least likely to resort to nuclear war, until they see a direct threat to the homeland or NATO, then they’ll strike out, fast and hard. If a carrier group has been attacked while rushing to reinforce Norway, submarines will be getting their firing orders soon.”

“Fallout patterns,” Acheson whispered.

“Da,” ‘Sandy Beach’ added. “We must go south.”

“South?” Woodward asked.

Rutherford stood. “Could someone get me some water, please?” One of the ninja left for the galley, and Rutherford stood up behind Acheson, put her hands on his shoulders. “Bermuda can house thousands, but it hasn’t the agricultural base to support such a massive influx of permanent residents. Nor do any of the Caribbean islands, except perhaps Puerto Rico, or the Dominican…”

“Too close to fallout,” Sandy said. “If war breaks out, we must get as far south as possible.”

“I can’t handle this,” Woodward said, leaving the flight deck, mumbling as he went.

“Many people will react like this,” Rutherford said as she watched Woodward leave. “Many will want to go home, regardless, others may simply lose the will to live. You need to be mindful of this, Captain.”

Acheson was more mindful of something else he heard in her voice. She had just surrendered to him, in effect submitted to his authority. She had told her girls to obey not her commands, but his. She was depressed, perhaps from the tranquilizer, but she was compromised emotionally, and he needed her strength right now.

“Your airplane,” he said to Sandy, then he motored back in his seat while he undid his harness. “Come with me,” he said to Rutherford, and he took her by the hand, led her aft to the toilets by the forward galley. He pushed her inside, felt her flaccid response, then turned her face to his –

And he slapped her, hard.

He saw the sudden fury in her eyes, the trembling lips of uncertainty, then he bent to her and kissed her with all the passion he could muster. She responded instantly, and as passionately, digging her fingernails into his back.

“You know me so well,” she whispered in his ear. “It’s like we were born to love one another. I feel it in my bones.”

He held her close, then felt her fumbling with his belt, pushing his trousers down. He knew where this was going, felt himself falling over the edge of the abyss, then he was entering her, helping her legs encircle his waist. Her mouth open beside his, he heard her breath mingle with his own, felt all his fear turn to inverted lust, then he put his mouth on hers, driving into her, fear to lust, lust to need, then an infinite release.

“I need you,” he heard himself say, a coarse whisper at first, and he felt her shuddering orgasm as he added “I want you.”

“I am yours, forever,” she sighed, her legs pushing him deeper as they came down.

“And I need your strength, so don’t leave me again,” he said as he kissed her a few minutes later.

“You need to call Genie,” she said. “Warn her, get her headed south,” then she went to her knees and began cleaning him with her mouth, taking him in, swirling his need with hers, and a minute later his knees began to buckle, his back arched – and he felt himself coming undone in her mouth, and he held her head while she cleaned him again, then his hands went out to the walls, holding himself up against all the contradictions he felt flowing through his veins on the way – into her.

Chapter 23

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out some things, and when I looked at that Acheson kid I could see it all over his face. Mid-30s, in command of an airliner, re-captured by the very same women we thought we’d captured just a few hours before. That Russian girl up there? How did they do it? I told Tate as soon as I got back to my seat, then Liz and Persephone were leaning close, listening to every word that came out of my mouth – like it was the last thing they were ever going to hear.

Then Acheson comes out of the cockpit with that Rutherford woman, his face set in stone, like anger, only worse, then that bitch. Like she’s in heat. Lips puffed up, breathing deep, then he’s in that bathroom and the walls start shaking. Like the fucking starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. Then he walks out of there a minute later and the front of his slacks look like Monica Lewinsky’s little blue dress. Then she crawls out of there, cum running down her legs and looking like she’d gone ten rounds with Ali. I swear, I’d do anything to be thirty years old again.

Then Tate’s looking at me – like ‘what the fuck?’ – as in: what’s going on up there?

Then Liz leans over, tells us to be cool, some kind of dominance game was going down, that Acheson was taking control of Rutherford, and it hit me then. We’re like dogs and cats, the birds and the bees. We’re nothing but hormonal drives and dominance dances, not a helluva lot different than Frigate Birds on Midway Island, or gorillas in an African mist.

Anyway, Liz starts looking at me all goo-goo eyed and hands me a Viagra, and I’m like, ‘Really? World War Three is breaking out, and you want to get laid?’

Then I’m thinking about it. Yeah, you know, if the human race wants to go out with a bang, well then, what the fuck. Why not get a woody and duck into the head, join the Mile High Club? Then Sephie is looking at me, her lips all puffed up and I’m wondering, like, if there’s room for three in there…and will my heart be able to take it?

But really? Why the fuck not?

Know what I mean, Jelly-Bean?

+++++

Acheson climbed back in his seat, noticed the SELCAL light chirping away and slipped on his harness, then put on his headset. He scanned the panel, then he flipped the circuit and listened to the message – through the headset this time. Headquarters had activated Case Epsilon. War, probably nuclear war, was considered imminent, and all pilots were now ordered to land at the nearest open airport. He listened to The Lord’s Prayer coming over the circuit, then shut it down and took off his headset.

“What was it?” Rutherford asked.

Acheson shook his head, bent over the keypad on the Flight Management Computer and entered ‘LPLA’ – then watched data stream onto his PFD, the Primary Flight Display. A prompt came up: “Execute?”

He sighed, hit the button on the keypad, and the aircraft banked hard to the left, then settled onto the new course.

“Lajes?” Beach asked. “Why?”

“We’re two thousand miles from Bermuda, six hundred from the Azores. We’ll lose GPS signal any time now, they’ll be encrypted. There’s a storm off the east coast, it’ll sock-in Bermuda by the time we get there, and without GPS I’m not sure we can shoot an approach there.”

“Why will we lose GPS?” one of the ninja said.

“It’s SOP when launch of ICBMs is considered imminent.”

“Oh sweet Jesus,” he heard the girl whisper.

“Yeah, if you’re the praying sort, now’s the time to get on your knees and pull out your rosary. Sandy, write down our coordinates, the coordinates for Lajes and start a DR plot, the faster the better.”

“Okay,” she said, her hands shaking now.

He scanned the horizon, saw something far off to the left. “You see that?”

“What?” Sandy said.

“Ten o’clock, a little high.”

She peered around the center-post, squinting just a little and he smiled, then turned back to the panel.

“You know, I see three aircraft, maybe four…”

An alarm sounded, then another.

“Alert! Collision imminent, turn right!”

Acheson toggled the autopilot and pushed the yoke down and to the right.

“Something’s not right,” he said as he re-engaged the autopilot, then the alarm sounded again.

“Alert! Collision imminent, turn right!”

He looked out the windshield again, looked aft as far as he could, then he smiled, relaxed – as four F/A-18F Super Hornets pulled up alongside the port side of the 777. He signaled 121.5 to the lead pilot and switched COMM 1 to the emergency frequency.

“American 3-8 Heavy to Diamondback Lead.”

“Lead here. What’s with all the evasive maneuvers, Captain?”

“Collision alert sounded. Sorry about that.”

“You headed to Terciera?”

“Yeah. How many of you are there out here?”

“Whatever’s left of the air wing from the Papa Bush. We had about half my squad up when she was hit. Low yield nuc, torpedo we think. Subs in the Atlantic were ordered to MFD about twenty minutes ago.”

“What’s MFD?” Rutherford asked.

“Missile Firing Depth.”

Another alarm hooted, and Acheson looked as the GPS SIGNAL LOSS banner flagged on his PFD. “Fuck,” he whispered, then he toggled his mic, “Okay, D-Back lead, we just lost GPS. You have encrypted sets in those birds?”

“Yup. I suppose you want to follow us?”

“You got enough gas?”

“Yeah, we just tanked. Another section is tanking east of here. You military?”

“Air Force, reserves now. C-17s.”

“Rank?”

“Major.”

“Well hell, look who just assumed tactical command?”

“Swell. Okay lead, why don’t you scoot up ahead, leave a couple back here with me.”

“Alright, 3-8 Heavy. Out.”

He turned to the ninja, looked them over and shook his head. “You know, where we’re going, if you get off this airplane dressed like that you’re likely to be run out to the nearest wall and shot.”

The girls looked at each other and nodded, then peeled off their suits.

“What about me?” Rutherford said.”

“What do you mean?”

“What are you going to do about me?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea. What do you think I should do with you?”

She frowned. “I think you should try to get in touch with Miss Delaney.”

And he smiled…which, he could tell, seemed to shock her.

Chapter 24

Genie Delaney left the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School campus, driving on Harry Hines towards downtown, then north on Oak Lawn, and then down Maple to Turtle Creek. She drove along the creek, looking at the dry winter grass along the waterway, the bare oak and pecan trees, their bare limbs hanging over the street, and she decided to drive up to Preston, to look at the big pecan tree – still strung with Christmas lights – and she saw they were on now, and smiled.

Her phone chimed as she stopped at the light, and she saw a new email from Ben in her in-box, but it was a huge file so she decided to wait until she got home to open it. The light turned and she passed mansions on her right, then the country club, and she turned there, on Mockingbird Lane, and drove down to the SMU campus and turned left on Hillcrest. A few minutes later she turned on Milton and, a block later, into the driveway at Ben’s old bungalow.

She looked at the file and decided to open it on the desktop machine in his study, so gathered her book bags and lab coat and walked to the front door, fumbling with her keys as she walked across the crunchy grass. She went through the house to his bedroom, hung her lab coat in the closet, then went to the study, fired up his Mac Pro and sat, waiting for it to load and open. She went to Mail and opened her account, then opened the email.

It was a huge video file, and she double clicked it, waited for it to open.

She saw a darkened hotel room, with Ben sitting in a chair – and she leaned forward, looking closely at the image – then she saw a woman walk out of the bathroom, dressed provocatively in garters and stockings and heels – and little else.

She paused the file, saw this was a fifteen minute long recording and could guess what was on the rest, so the closed the video file then put the email in trash – and deleted it.

They’d been expecting this, at least she had – and for months. They had to compromise him, like they thought they had The Duke, and despite both their misgivings, she had counseled him to let them do it. It would be safer, she reasoned, if they thought they had something on him – especially something as innocuous as this was. She looked at the time – yes, guaranteed to make her call him late at night – over there – the better to get him off-balance, and keep him that way.

She picked up her phone and opened the Cryptor app, dialed Ben’s line and waited for him to pick up.

“Hello.”

“It’s me. I got an interesting email, on your account.”

“The video?”

“Yup. Was she good, at least?”

“Not bad, but not good, either. Generic.”

She laughed. “God, how many women have you laid?”

“Laid? I don’t know. I’ve only loved a couple, though.”

“What about Rutherford? She’s dropped off the radar here, reports say she may be in Brussels.”

“That figures. The President spoke at NATO headquarters today, and he’s going to Iceland tomorrow. Something feels weird to me, Genie. Like there’s some kind of storm brewing. A big one. Different, too.”

“Like we haven’t been down this road before. Yeah. I’ve been picking up on that all day long.”

“Remember, it’s a game, a chess game, Genie. We have to try to guess their next three moves.”

“Then she’s going to try and get to you.”

“And she has to know we’re thinking that, too. So she’s already thinking of counter-moves.”

“Doesn’t matter, Ben. Just the fact she’s so compromised by her desire is enough. It’s her Achilles heel.”

“Yeah.”

“Ben? Just don’t let it be yours.”

“I hear you.”

“So, if things head south, you still want me to go…?”

“To Alpine, yes.”

“Okay. Be careful, Ben. I love you.”

“I love you, too. More than you’ll ever know.”

+++++

Acheson thought about that call, then looked at the elapsed time on the FMC, at their current fuel state. They’d land at Lajes with less than half their load used, so close to the aircraft’s maximum allowable landing weight. He ran his rough mental computations through the computer once again and nodded his head, then looked at the F/A-18s off his wingtip. The pilots out there seemed focused, and he wondered what was going on “out there” – in the real world beyond this floating cocoon.

Then the closest pilot held up his hand and signaled – 1-2-1.5.

“3-8, go.”

“Back-4 here. About 250 N-M-I. When do want to start your descent?”

“‘Bout now would be good. Keep it about .83 Mach down to flight level 1-8-0, then 270 knots to 12,000. Once we have the field in sight…”

“Diamondback Lead to 3-8 Heavy.”

“Lead, 3-8, go.”

“Lajes reporting Cat 2 ops at this time in heavy thunderstorms, visibility down to a quarter mile, wind out of the east at forty knots. You got the freqs?”

“As long as they haven’t changed them in the past month.”

“Roger. Be advised we intercepted four CONDORs east of the islands, there are some Russians trying out for an Olympic swim team down there now, but my guess is there will be more, and soon. We have AWACs coverage now, and they’re picking up FULLBACKs over the Portuguese coast at this time. Westbound at 900.”

“Okay, so call it an hour.”

“Yeah. The Stennis and Teddy Roosevelt are now on station with a CAP over the island, so two battle groups are now mid-Atlantic. They won’t take Lajes without going nuclear.”

Acheson sighed, considered their options, then decided. “Okay, if you can stay with us to the localizer, stick around in case Ivan shows up, we’d appreciate it.”

“Back-4, out.”

Acheson flipped the radar to maximum range, saw a line of thunderstorms ahead and to the east, then he set up the descent in the computer. “Localizer set to 109.9,” he said, then he called on the radio: “Lajes approach, American 3-8 Heavy, 150 out, request permission to land, I-L-S runway 15.”

“3-8 Heavy, clear runway 15, ceiling 800, visibility 1 mile, wind 1-4-0 degrees at 38, altimeter 28.90. Be advised we are under an air raid warning at this time. Seventy, repeat 7-0 Sukhoi 34 inbound, potentially 20, 2-0 heavy transports behind this wave.”

“3-8 Heavy, got it.”

“Localizer to 109.9,” Beach confirmed.

“Beacon to 341.”

“341.”

“TAC-DME to 109X.”

“109X, got it.”

“Enter 12.5 DME and 3-5-hundred, 6.5 DME and 2000.”

“Okay, 12.5 DME to 3500, and 6.5 DME to 2000.”

“D-Back four, 3-8 Heavy, cutting power now,” he told the lead Hornet, and he eased off power, popped the speed brakes as he looked at the VOR/TAC needle and DME readout go active. “Okay, starting a gradual turn – now,” he told the Hornet as the needle started to center in the HSI. He cut power to 80 percent EGP and watched speed bleed as he increased spoilers. “Flaps 7, now,” he said as he cut power a little more.

“Flaps 7.”

He switched to NAV2 and watched the LOC flag pop in the Flight Director, then GS ARM popped in the window and he turned the Glide Slope button on the AP panel to ACTIVE and watched as the autopilot locked onto the airport’s ILS. He cut power again, dropped flaps to 15 degrees, then engaged auto-throttle. He looked up then, saw the wall of cloud ahead, then back down at the instruments.

“3-8 Heavy, if lead elements of Russian strike force break through, they’ll be here in 2-9 minutes. You are clear to land, and you’ll need to clear the runway as quickly as possible.”

“Any place in particular?”

“Air Force facilities are still at the northwest part of the field. You might want to keep as far away from there as you can.”

“Any other commercial aircraft at the terminal?”

“One KLM, one Air France. We have a BA Speedbird en route, about two hours out. There is no room at the ramp, but we’ll have stairs and buses meet you on shut down.”

“3-8 Heavy, 12.5 out.”

“3-8, gusts to 4-3 knots now.”

“Say heading?”

“Sorry, still 1-4-0 degrees.”

“Okay.” He turned to Sandy. “Flaps 25, arm spoilers.”

“Got it.”

“3-8 Heavy, 6.5 out.”

“3-8, clear to land.”

“Okay. D-Back four, thanks for sticking around.”

“Got it. Seeya.”

“Flaps 33, gears down.”

“Thirty three, three down and green.”

“Okay, I got the lights.” He saw the strobes leading to the threshold and put his hands on the wheel and throttles, his feet on the pedals. “Wipers to MAX.”

“MAX.”

He followed the autopilot’s movements with his hands and feet, and as soon as the mains hit he switched off the AP, then went to reverse thrust and started to brake. He saw all the buildings were dark, the KLM A340 and an Air France A330 were as well.

“I don’t like this,” he whispered. He switched COMM 1 to 121.9, to ground control, and he called. “Ah, Lajes Ground, can you get fuel trucks and a cart out to me? I’m going to shut down by the fire department buildings. I’d like to gas up and get the hell out of here, if you don’t mind.”

Beach and Rutherford looked at one another, then at Acheson.

“Where are you thinking of going?” Rutherford asked, her hands shaking nervously.

“Ah, 3-8 Heavy, negative, base commander advises you get your passengers to shelters. Buses should be there momentarily. There are two more waves of Russian strike fighters inbound, up to 120 new aircraft.”

“Yeah, tower, that’s why we want to get out of here!”

“Sorry, 3-8, commander advises we don’t have the fuel to spare right now, not for civilian OPS.”

Acheson shook his head, muttered under his breath: “Goddamn two hundred million dollar airplane is gonna get shredded, you dickwick…” then he turned to Beach. “Let’s shut her down, get everyone on the buses.”

He flipped on the intercom, switched to CABIN and spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Acheson here. We’re going to get you off this airplane now, into buses, and these will take you to air raid shelters. There is a massive Russian strike force headed this way, fighter aircraft and troop transports, and the facilities here are low on fuel. So are we, for that matter, so this is the end of the line – for now. Effective a few hours ago, civil aviation in the United States was grounded, and this aircraft was ordered by headquarters to divert to the nearest open facility and land until hostilities are over, or until it’s safe to resume our flight. What we do know right now is that Russian forces are in the process of moving into Europe, but that’s all we know. Assuming this aircraft survives, and that fuel is allocated, we’ll try to get you on to your destination when that becomes possible. There are four buses pulling up on the left side of the aircraft right now, and you need to get in them as quickly as possible. Again, there are Russian attack aircraft inbound, so let’s move quickly and in an orderly manner, and we may just get out of this alive.”

“Shut-down checklist complete,” Sandy said.

“Okay, get the door, then get down there and help get people moving to the buses.”

“I’m staying with you,” Rutherford said quietly, then she turned to her two guards. “You go, just blend in as best you can. If we survive the night, then you…” But Rutherford broke down then, her dreams at an end, and she sat in the jump-seat and waved them on. “Go now, and be careful,” she whispered.

Her two ninja left, followed Sandy Beach out the cockpit door, and Woodward came in, with Tate and the two girls standing just outside the door, looking in.

“Ben?” the old cop said, his voice full of concern.

“Yeah?”

++++++

But I could see it in the kid’s eyes. He was lost now, full of concern for his aircraft, for his passengers, and even for that Rutherford dame. She was stuck on him too, like white on rice. And the thing is, I could tell he was into her, too. Kind of odd, you know, now that I think about it, but that’s the thing with human beings. You just never can tell.

He was a good looking kid, too. Kind of like Clark Kent, if you know what I mean. A real straight arrow. Think Jimmy Stewart and you’re on the right track, but with a touch of Tyrone Power. Tall, skinny, kind of a self-deprecating guy. Quiet, radiating strength sitting up there in the cockpit, a man fully the sum of his parts. Cop and pilot, you know what I mean? And women? Maybe that was his kryptonite.

Then there was this Rutherford dame. Maybe five feet tall out of her heels, maybe forty five, fifty years old. Serious, a hard edge in her eyes, but a soft one, too. Like a falcon. Like a falconer had just pulled the hood off her head. Her eyes blinking, her head swiveling, and when I looked at her the only word that ran through my mind was “machine.” A human machine, calculating, using her senses to figure out what was happening around her – and then she’d look at Acheson and melted. To my eyes, it was like she had just discovered the order of the universe – and it wasn’t what she thought it was.

And Ben? He was lost in thought, a different kind of machine altogether…

“Ben?” I remember saying, and he looked up at me, and I saw “LOST” in his eyes.

“Yeah?”

“What’s our play, man?”

“There’s enough fuel to get us to Brazil, or west Africa somewhere, but not to the US.”

“Probably better to stay here,” Rutherford said.

“Nowhere else TO go, right now, anyway” he said, his voice almost a whisper.

“Not until this is over,” Rutherford added.

And there it was. In the blink of an eye, the world had gone from normal, what it was, to insane. What it always came down to when War begins.

When it’s over? When is it ever really over? What next?

I remember Ben flipping switches after that, turning off batteries and the cabin going dark. He groped in the closet, get his coat and a medical kit, then found a flashlight to get us to the stairs. He led is down to the last bus, and I remember him standing there, looking up at the huge Boeing – ‘his aircraft,’ I recall thinking to myself just then. He alone commanded that thing, and now he was surrendering her, walking away as the world began crashing down around us.

And I could tell it was eating him up. Who wouldn’t feel that way?

We were standing down on the ground in heavy rain when the first missile streaked by, just over our heads, and before anyone could react it detonated a few hundred yards away, over the middle of the runway, then dozens of floating bomblets fluttered down all around us…

+++++

Acheson heard the roar and pulled Rutherford down to the ground, covered her body with his own. Woodward, pulled down by Liz and Persephone, felt Tate cradle the girls. The bus stood between them and that first detonation, and first the concussive wave lifted it up into the air and spun it around like a child’s toy – debris falling all around them, and waves of shrapnel cut into the aircraft. Fuel began leaking from the wing tanks, and when it was over Acheson kneeled, surveyed the scene as two more incoming missiles hit the air force complex at the opposite end of the airfield.

“Three missiles,” he said out loud. “Three got through…” he said as he turned and looked at the Boeing, at the fuel, spilling like blood, from her wing tanks…

“We’ve got to get away from here,” he said, then he saw ‘Sandy Beach,’ sitting by the overturned bus and he ran to her, Rutherford by his side. Blood was running from her ears, and she had a deep laceration on her forearm, but she tried to stand and Acheson helped her.

“Are you okay?”

She pointed at her ears, shook her head, and he nodded, put his hand on her shoulder.

“Oh my God,” he heard Woodward whisper, and he turned his attention to the people trying to get out of the bus.

He saw more people with lacerations, burned flesh, people trying to crawl out or walk on broken arms and legs. People lay on the ground like scattered dolls, cradling broken arms or a dying loved one, then Acheson looked at Rutherford.

“I guess this is the law of unintended consequences, all come to life?” he said, his voice dripping with malicious sarcasm.

She nodded, saw pools of fire reflected in his eyes, then turned and walked away.

He ran over to Woodward, helped him with one of the girls – who seemed more than dazed.

“Liz?” the old cop sighed, “Liz, can you hear me?”  Blood was trickling from her left ear, and the right side of her body looked scorched.

Acheson and the other girl help the other old man, Tate, sit up; he rubbed his eyes and shook his head then stood.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Tate said, looking for Woodward, then he saw Acheson looking at his damaged aircraft: the shredded tires, engine cowlings punctured, oil and hydraulic fluid running onto the tarmac – and without asking Tate knew the Boeing was mortally wounded, would never fly without serious reconstruction.

He turned and was walking back to Woodward and the girls – when he flinched, felt the super-sonic booms of aircraft passing through the clouds overhead. He turned, saw Acheson running for them – then bombs started falling like rain, slamming into the hillside on the far side of the airfield. He watched as more fell – landing closer – then he saw Acheson flying through the air – just before he and the girls pulled Woodward into a drainage ditch.

Part V – Dance on a Volcano

Chapter 25

Somewhere in the Atlantic

He woke up.

Tried to sit up, but it felt like he was cemented, to the earth.

He tried to lift his hands to his face, but couldn’t. They weighed too much.

He closed his eyes and felt himself drifting off, feeling lost and afraid.

+++++

He opened his eyes. Turned his head.

Gray. Nothing but gray. Was that steel? Are these steel walls?

A woman walked by. A nurse, and he tried to speak but everything he said was muffled, garbled, his words like hollow echoes coming from the middle of his skull. An Air Force nurse turned and spoke to him, and he saw her lips move, saw her eyes on him, but he couldn’t hear a thing she said.

“I can’t hear you,” he tried to say, but he felt the words more than heard them, and incompletely, at that – like every sound was coming from behind walls of hissing static, with an occasional high-pitched whine thrown in for good measure – but he saw her smile before she turned away.

He tried to think, imagine where he was, then he gave up and put his head down on the pillow. He felt himself drifting…then…

Someone lifted an eyelid, shined a light in his eye and he tried to turn away but strong hands held him fast. He blinked when whoever it was finished, then he felt a sting in his upper arm. He was rolling down a narrow corridor a moment later, then in a small room with bright lights overhead. A busy, worn out man leaned over and peered in his eyes, then he felt himself drifting away again.

+++++

He heard someone calling his name, pinching an earlobe and calling his name.

He opened his eyes, saw a woman eyes peering over a surgical mask. Brown eyes, warm and soothing…

“Captain Acheson? You can hear me?”

Not American, but not Russian, either. Maybe.

“Yup.”

“Good. You know where you is, are?”

“No.”

“You know what day it is?”

“No, I don’t.”

“How about time? Know what time it are…uh, is?”

“No, no, nothing. Look, can you tell me where I am, what day it is? I’d kind of like to know, you know?”

She nodded her head, wrote on her clipboard. “You on NATO ship, hospital ship. Uh, you found three weeks ago, after attack on Lajes. Surgery one week ago, you out since.”

“Where are we, I mean…like at sea, or anchored somewhere?”

“Oh, yes, we go Lisbon maybe, or Gibraltar.”

“War? Still war?”

“Oh, no, war over. Seven cities destroyed, then stop.”

“Cities? Which ones?”

She looked away, shook her head. “New York and Washington in America. Boston too, I think, someplace like that. Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia, some submarine base, too. Maybe Hamburg, in Germany, and a navy base in southern France. There are stories about Korea and China in the news, nobody know much yet. So, you are pilot captain?”

“Yes. American Airlines, and a major in the US Air Force.”

“Oh? This I did not know. You feel pain now?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Where? Can you point where?”

He tried to move his right leg, but it felt stiff, weak, and he said “The side of my head, behind my right ear.”

“You have ringing in ears?”

“A little, yes.”

“No other pain?”

“My leg is, it feels strange. It hurts, then it goes away.”

“Break near knee. Bad fracture. Will need surgery. In cast now.”

“There were people with me. Last names Woodward, Rutherford. Any way to check on these people?”

“I try. You rest now,” she said, slipping a syringe into his IV. “We be in land tomorrow, then maybe you knows more.”

+++++

He felt himself moving and opened his eyes, saw men ahead and behind him, and he realized he was on a stretcher, moving through the corridors of a ship. He saw warnings – in Cyrillic –painted on the walls, then he looked at the uniforms the men wore, but he didn’t recognize them. They came to the main deck and he was in sunlight, being carried down a long, sloping ramp, and he looked up at the ship, saw a Russian ensign flying and he lay back, looked up at the sky and realized he’d told that nurse he was in the Air Force.

There were men at the bottom of the ramp, men in suits, and when his stretcher reached the men they looked at his chart, and one of them came over to him.

“Major Acheson?” the man said.

“Captain. American Airlines.”

“Yes, Major Benjamin Acheson, United States Air Force Reserves. C-17 pilot. We have your file now.”

“So. I’m a prisoner of war, I take it?”

“If there was a war, yes, you would be. But now you are just an enemy of the people, of the Soviet Union. You will be dealt with accordingly.”

“I see.” He heard a voice, a familiar voice, and he turned, saw Rutherford with a Russian colonel, laughing gayly now, her arm slipped inside his, and as he watched her disappear inside a black Mercedes sedan, he looked up at the sky – at a passing cloud. “The law of unanticipated consequences,” he said, laughing a little.

“What was that, Major?”

“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking. How funny life is, sometimes.”

“Da. Funny. My family lived in St Petersburg. I am sure you think that funny, too.”

And he did, in a way. He thought of Genie and The Duke, and of a butterfly sneezing somewhere on the far side of the world, and he smiled as they put his stretcher into the back of a dark green truck.

And he smiled when he thought of all the butterflies out there, just waiting to sneeze.

Chapter 26

He winced when the truck went over bumps and around curves, he pulled the blanket up to his chin when rain started dripping through tears in the canvas overhead, and as sleep was impossible he tried to peek under the canvas from time to time, look at the passing countryside. They drove north, he thought, for a few hours, then he heard aircraft overhead and soon they passed an air base. He saw troops removing EU and NATO signage, and as the truck slowed to turn into an newly erected prison area he saw men lined up along a wall, a firing squad taking aim – then a burst of fire and falling bodies. He looked away, saw the tails of several Antonov 124s poking up above hangers a few hundred yards away, and two charred F-16s being bulldozed out of the way, presumably to make room for more transports.

The truck stopped outside a quonset hut and men came out for him, pulled his stretcher from the back of the truck and carried him inside the building. The first thing he noticed was the smell inside. Disinfectant, and lots of it, overwhelmed his senses, and he saw several men on beds, bags of IVs dripping into arms as he was carried to a bed. Nurses helped transfer him to a real bed, and the troops left, leaving him with even more unanswered questions.

A women, dressed in khakis and with insignia on her collars, came over to his bed and picked up the clipboard the soldiers had left laying on his belly, and she read through the pages, making notes from time to time, then she leaned close and spoke.

“Your name Acheson?” she said, her accent southern. Georgia, maybe, or the Carolinas.

“Yup.”

“They got you in Lajes?”

“Yes’m.”

She chuckled. “Let me guess. Texas?”

“Borned and raised, sweetheart.”

“Jenny Cullwell, late of the Savannah Cullwells,” she said, curtsying. “And a reluctant Navy doc.”

“Navy, here?”

She shook her head. “We were en route from Italy, being evacuated. Seems we waited too long. What about you?”

“Flying an American 777 from Paris to DFW when we got the order to land.”

“Wait…you’re not military?”

“Major, Air Force reserves.”

“Oh.”

“Do you know what’s happening out there?”

“Yes, I do. You sure you want to hear about it?”

He nodded his head.

“The main attack on the US was preceded by large scale cyber attacks, came right after all that bullshit, after Air Force One went down, like it had been coordinated. Nukes hit San Diego and Puget sound, Norfolk and sub bases in Maine and New London. Missile fields too, and major air force and naval bases right after, sub-launched ICBMs, we heard. From what I’ve heard, major Russian cities took a pounding, city-buster hydrogen warheads, maybe a hundred and fifty million dead in Russia and Eastern Europe. We knocked out most of their second wave of ICBMs, targeted on cities, knocked ‘em right out of the sky, so loss of life at home was less, until their bombers hit. Cities in the south, Dallas and Atlanta, weren’t hit so hard, but cities on both coasts are gone now, and up north.”

“What about fallout?”

“It’s bad. Getting worse. There’s a lot of rain, too. Something about dust thrown up into the upper atmosphere.”

“Nuclear winter.”

“Sure, I guess that sounds right. Now, what about you?”

“They said my knee needs surgery, I think they operated on my head, but I have no idea why.”

“Penetrating blunt force trauma,” she said, pointing at his chart. “At least that’s what the doc wrote, assuming I can read this scribbling. An Air Force doc at Lajes did the surgery, so relax, you might live. If one of Ivan’s docs did it you’d be a drooling cauliflower right about now.” She turned his head, examined the wound behind his right ear, then shined a light on it. “Think we’ll start some antibiotics, margins are looking a little iffy.”

“You have antibiotics?”

“Yup, but that’s about it. No x-ray, no imaging equipment at all, and no orthos, so we’ll cut off that cast and check it out, then recast you. So, you’re a pilot?”

“Yup.”

“Fighters?”

“C-17s”

“Really? Well, ain’t that interesting.”

“Oh, why?”

“There are two of ‘em here. MATS birds, from Charleston.”

“Pilots?”

“Shot. Something about a code, so you might keep that in mind.”

“Thanks. What about my leg? Just cast it, let it heal?”

“Probably, unless it’s a tibial plateau fracture. If that’s the case you’ll have to have surgery, or you could lose that leg if you walk on it.”

“Swell.”

“Look,  I’ll just give it to you straight. You might want to skip the antibiotics, all the heroics, and just try to check out. A Russian doc told me their estimate is three months before fallout levels become totally lethal.”

“What about the southern hemisphere? Like South Africa, or the Falklands?”

“The song remains the same, Paco. You might eke out a few months more, but nobody really knows.”

“So that’s it? Do not go gently into that good night? End of the line?”

“Yup. This is actually a damn good spot, which is why Ivan moved in here so fast. They’re digging caves in the mountains, trying to get a few hundred thousand into them, some kind of Strangelove thing, but a lot of fallout coming from the Americas falls into the Atlantic so levels right here aren’t that bad – until it rains, anyway. Then we get a spike.”

“Any TV? Any news coming from home?”

She shook her head. “Not a thing. I’m guessing it’s like medieval there now.”

“I wonder what went wrong, with our air defenses, I mean.”

The guy in the bed next to his looked up and laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, not really. You a pilot?”

“Yeah, F-22s. Look, it’s simple. Our defense contractors sold us a bill of goods. Four hundred million bucks for an F-22 or F-35, and they were built on a simple premise. One of our fighters had to be good enough to take out ten, maybe twenty of there’s. Right? Got that? So anyway, Ivan decides the way to take care of that is to send fifty aircraft for every one of ours. Overwhelm by sheer numbers. And it worked. Lajes and Iceland are like giant aircraft carriers, they make it possible to resupply NATO with an air bridge from the states, so Ivan knew if he took them, that was the end of any resupply effort. So he made a maximum effort, sent about 800 aircraft from here alone, and the Stennis and Teddy Roosevelt could keep about 30 in the air at any one time. They didn’t last an hour.”

Acheson looked at the man. One leg gone, his hands wrapped in gauze. Very bitter.

“It was a good plan…for fighting maybe Saddam’s air force. But stupid for a Cold War style engagement, especially when the Russians started building really good aircraft, and cheap, too. Never learned to make good subs, though. That’s what got ‘em.”

“Oh?”

“Our missiles in Montana never got off. Every silo hit in the first wave, taken right out of action. The boomers launched, of course, and that’s like 3000 warheads right on target. War was over by then, but nobody bothered to tell Ivan. He just kept on comin’ – their bombers came in and met with zero opposition. Dropped their bombs and flew to Cuba, I guess.”

“What did you do?”

“Me? I was escorting B-2s. From Italy to Germany and Poland, dropping tactical nukes on positions northeast of Berlin.”

Acheson shook his head and Cullwell put the back of her hand on his forehead. “So, what’s it gonna be? Antibiotics, or morphine?”

He laughed. “Fuck you, ma’am. I’m getting’ better and goin’ home, and if you want to join me, you better get this leg working. And pronto, if you know what I mean.”

And she laughed too. “Right, Paco. I’ll get right on that.”

“You do that.”

And she looked at him again. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Goddamn right I am. Me and Stumpy over there,” he said, pointing at the F-22 pilot with his thumb, “are going to go out and hijack us a C-17. Fly it right down Main Street, USA on our way to Alpine, Texas. Ain’t that right, Stumpy?”

“You bet, Tex. You steer that trash-hauler and I’ll work the radios. We’ll be pole dancin’ in Big Springs with the best of ‘em.”

+++++

The last time I saw Acheson, on the ramp at Lajes, he looked like a broken man. His aircraft was, for all intents and purposes, dead, and that Rutherford woman a broken doll. She walked off into the night, leaving me and Persephone sitting there with Liz, wondering what to do next.

And what had it been?

Maybe three weeks since we’d left Puget Sound on the boat? Just a few days from San Francisco?

Then Tate is by my side, bombs are falling and that’s when I saw Acheson. Flying through the air. Then I’m sliding into a ditch, and we crawled to a culvert as waves of bombs hit all around us. We crawled out an hour later and the first thing I saw was that airplane. It looked like two or three bombs had hit it dead center – the wings were askew, the cockpit pointing straight up at the moon, and I thought it looked like a moon launch, gone bad. I saw firemen loading Acheson’s body in an ambulance, and then he was gone.

And it hit me then, and hard.

How fast things can change.

How quickly things can come undone. All the things you take for granted, like – bam, gone, in an instant. No time to think about it, just blink your eyes and your old life is gone. Here one minute, gone the next. Get on a plane in Paris, and presto! Five hours later we were supposed to be in Dallas. But five hours later that life was gone. Forever.

I heard that Rutherford woman say something about unintended consequences, and when I heard that I wondered what she meant. Personally, I mean. If she’d been making plans for something like this, then she’d been anticipating something like this might happen, and that got me to wondering. What kind of person does that? What kind of person sets out to destroy a world, a way of life, without thinking through the consequences for the people around them.

I’d been sitting on the plane, thinking about all that. About ideologies, and how they warp perspectives. I was talking to Liz at the time, about all those Republicans trying to kill health insurance for the poor. They knew their legislative actions would lead to tens of thousands of lives being lost, yet there they were, screaming about the rights of unborn fetuses. Or all the gays on the left, getting so ‘in your face’ about gay marriage and public displays of affection, and Trannies in bathrooms, for God’s sake. Did they really think their actions weren’t going to cause a reaction, even a violent reaction? Was that what they really wanted? ‘Cause that’s sure what they got.

And that Rutherford dame? I mean, seriously? The patriarchy had to go, a new order had to take it’s place. To me, sitting up there in that airplane, I thought she was insane, like she was trying to put a picture puzzle together – with half the pieces missing. It’s like our founding fathers got lucky once, all the right circumstances came together to make a clean break from the past, and then all these people come along – wanting to tear it all down. People on the right wanted to tear it down and build a theocracy, people on the left wanted to build a socialist utopia, and in the end it seems nobody understood just how precious and rare the United States was. It just wasn’t what They wanted, so it had to be torn down. No room for a plurality of vision, no room for compromise, just ‘Me-Me-Me.’ No room left for reason and forethought, so light that match, baby, and let’s watch it burn while we sing around the bonfire of our vanities.

The bomb’s stopped falling after the rain stopped, and we started walking up into the hills as fast as we could. The roads weren’t bad, not steep, anyway, but they were narrow and lined with shrubs – but that was a good thing. We saw paratroopers coming down through the clouds and ducked into the undergrowth as hundreds of men landed around us, and after they’d gathered their equipment and started down the hill, running for the air base, we started walking away as quickly as we could. A few hours later we came to a town on the coast, I think on the south side of the island, and the streets were deserted, fires burning out of control everywhere we looked.

But we made it down to the harbor – and what did I see?

A marina. Full of sailboats.

Need I say more?

Chapter 27

Acheson was laying in bed, watching a bag of vancomycin disappearing into his arm when a guard came in the hut. Cullwell was summoned, told that a high ranking member of the military was coming by for an inspection and to get the place cleaned up, ready for inspection. She nodded her head and turned back to changing the bandages on a badly burned Russian airman, and Acheson looked at her grim determination, her stoicism. He felt a little pride, too.

A few minutes later there was a commotion at the door, then several Russian officers came in – and Rutherford was in their midst, hanging back from the main group. They walked through the makeshift ward to the office in the back, and she ignored him as she passed.

He heard shouting in the office, some asshole berating Cullwell for a perceived slight, and a few minutes later the group walked by, Rutherford still in the rear, but just before she got to the door she begged off, asked to remain for a few minutes, “to talk with a few of my countrymen,” she added.

The Russians left and she started walking among the patients, trying to cheer the men up – but she passed Acheson’s bed once again, then walked back to Cullwell’s office and talked for a while. Acheson, however, never took his eyes off her, and he wondered what her game was now.

She came out a few minutes later, and walked straight to his bedside.

“How are you doing, Ben?”

“Fine, I think. I see you landed on your feet.”

“I may only have a couple lives left.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

She took his hand, held it tightly. “Don’t hate me,” she whispered. “Not quite yet, anyway.”

“I don’t,” he said. “Not quite yet, anyway.”

She smiled. “Do you need anything? A new leg, perhaps?”

“That’s what the doc thinks. I guess that will have to wait until they can see me at the Mayo Clinic.”

“Oh. Well, anything else?”

“How about the code to unlock the FMC on one of those C-17s. Think you can dig that up for me?”

“Oh? Gonna make a break for it?”

“Something like that.”

“Now that sounds like an adventure.”

“Yeah, might be.”

She leaned close, her lips brushing his ear. “I want you so much it hurts,” she breathed, then, “God, how I love you.”

She pushed away from him and almost ran from the tiny building.

“What the hell was that about?” Cullwell said, standing by the foot of his bed.

Acheson shrugged his shoulders. “Not sure. Something to do with chocolate malts and cheeseburgers.”

“Is she a friend of yours?”

“I have no idea, doc. None at all.”

She looked at Acheson for a long time, wondering who the hell she was, let alone who he was, then she walked back to her office. She had a lot to do to get him ready.

+++++

Men came in at three the next morning, loaded Acheson in another truck, but he was barely aware of the world around him by that point. He was heavily sedated, finishing his last bag of vancomycin as they loaded his stretcher into a Antonov 32, and three hours later he was riding in an ambulance through Geneva to an orthopedics clinic. An hour later he was on an operating table, the surgeons regarding him fearfully as Russian troops looked on. He stayed in an isolated ward post-operatively, Russian troops stationed outside his door, and a week later he returned to the Russian air base in Portugal – in the exact same An-32 – and he learned the crew, as well as the guards, had been on detached duty all the while, free to roam Geneva while he convalesced, so they had been more than disappointed to learn he wasn’t staying a month.

His knee was stiff, but he had started light physical therapy in Geneva, and had graduated to walking with crutches by the time he flew back, and now, a few days later, he was walking all over the air base, gaining strength every day. A Russian captain, Leo Piskov, his hands burned, and with his left leg in a cast, started walking with him, and as Piskov’s English was passable they found they enjoyed each others company. Then, after two weeks, their conversations took on an interesting new tone.

“My wife outside Vladivostok,” he mentioned that day. “Work in Navy hospital. You have married woman?”

“Not married, but yes, in Texas. I have no idea if she’s alive or not.”

“So? Call her.”

Acheson laughed. “I might, if I had a phone.”

“That is problem. So, I hear you fly 777, and C-17.”

“I was flying for American Airlines when the trouble started.”

“You go Lajes?”

“That’s right.”

“Bad luck. We makes big effort get Lajes.”

“Believe me, I know.”

“Sorry. Bad night for many people. You still fly C-17?”

“Every now and then. About once a month.”

“Ah, you reserves?”

“Yes.”

“Ever fly Afghanistan?”

“Many times.”

“My father killed Afghanistan.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Was he a pilot?”

Leo nodded. “Helicopter. Mi-24, you call HIND.”

“Ah, the gunship. Powerful aircraft.”

“Not enough. Mujahideen took him with shoulder fire weapon. Maybe Stinger is name? I don’t know, too young remember.”

They walked towards the ramp, towards one of the C-17s, and as they got close men began watching them from the control tower.

There was a keypad by the lower door, and it was locked and armed, Acheson saw. Two attempts to unlock it had been made; one more and a large explosive charge would go off in the cockpit, effectively destroying the aircraft.

“You know code?” Leo asked, and now Acheson knew why these walks had been allowed, and why he had been allowed so close to the flight line.

“No, every aircraft has a unique code, and the code is changed every month.”

“Any way get code?”

“Sure, at the operations office in Charleston. The duty officer will have it.”

“Can you call? Get code?”

“Why? So you can use the aircraft?”

“We have no need. No, I was thinking, maybe you get all Americans here, from hospital, we load and you fly them to this Charleston. Maybe you go Texas, find girl.”

Acheson turned to the Russian, looked him in the eye. Then he saw the men in the tower, looking at them with binoculars.

“We have an audience.”

“Da. Big problem. Base commander wants to kill all Americans. I think another solution. Get you home. War over. No need kill now.”

“I see.”

“No, Ben. You no see. Big struggle over prisoners. Many want to kill, even yesterday. If I bring you phone, can get code? You can call Texas. If you can get code, and if I can get people to airplane, can you fly to America?”

“I can try.”

“What about woman?”

“Woman?”

“Woman who love you. Rutherford?”

“What about her?”

“She need leave this place before GRU kill her. She dangerous.”

“How many people?”

“Please?”

“How many people need to leave on C-17?”

“Twenty five on stretcher. Fifteen in seat.”

“I would need to refuel. At Lajes. Is possible?”

“Difficult, but possible.”

“Are there any other pilots here? For C-17?”

“C-17 loadmaster, ground chief. No C-17 pilot, but two other pilots. F-22, F/A18.”

“What about you? You want to go too?”

He looked away, then very quietly said “Da. Maybe get to wife from Alaska. No way from here now.”

“I see.”

“I hope you do. I may need your help.”

“You can get me a phone? A satellite phone?”

“I think, yes.”

“And when do you want to leave?”

“Early. Tomorrow.”

“I think I want to walk back now.”

“Okay. You think possible?”

“Yes. It is possible, but must find ground chief and ground power cart. Understand? Airplane has been sitting too long.”

“Yes, understand.”

“Alright. Listen Leo, I feel like shit. You understand shit? I need to lie down, now.”

Leo turned to the tower and waved his hands, and men started running when Acheson fell to the ground.

+++++

Cullwell was starting an IV when he came to, and he felt feverish, but something else bothered him about the way he felt. A little nauseated, maybe?

“Any way to figure out how much radiation we’re soaking up?” he croaked.

“Nope.”

“I feel like shit.”

“No hard feelings, Ben, but you look like shit, too. No, make that diarrhea.”

“Gee, thanks. I think. You really know how to make a guy…”

“I know. I feel it too, so I’m assuming we’ve passed 200 rem now. Getting up lethal dose in a hurry now.”

“So, in pilot-speak, we’re past the point of no return?”

“Yup, close anyway.”

“Oh, swell.”

“Look, there were troops in here, while you were gone, and some of them looked sicker than shit. We’re a month and a little bit out from radiation release, so people close to the blasts are already gone. I’d say that we, as a whole, were not real close but close enough. We have a month, at most. People well away from detonations, say in South Africa, or at bases in Antarctica, will be reaching 100 rem now, so they may have lifetimes expressed in months, but that’s it.”

“What’s your point?”

“You want to die at home, now’s the time to go. Some air force type came with the troops, told me to get my patients ready to go on a long flight. I’m assuming that had something to do with you and your walk with that Russian?”

“Yup.”

“Will they let us leave?”

“I doubt it. The question is, even if they do, am I well enough to make an eight hour flight?”

“I doubt it, but once we’re airborne I can keep fluids running through the line…”

“What about a catheter. I don’t feel strong enough to get up every half hour to take a leak.”

“Yeah. I can do that.” She turned away, shook her head. “Ben, I’m sorry about all this. Not having the stuff on hand to take care of people better than I have…”

“What the devil are you talking about, Jennifer? You’ve been like an angel sent directly from God…everyone in this room would be dead if not for all you’ve done.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“And that’s not any fault of yours.”

“I just feel so…”

“Nope. Don’t go there, doc. Let’s get on with the business of living, okay? The rest can wait for another day.”

She nodded her head, tried to brighten up. “Yeah. Got it.”

Piskov walked in, an Iridium Sat-Phone in hand, and he came to Acheson’s bed and sat, beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead. “I think I feel as bad as you now,” he said as he handed over the phone. “The phone is about half charged, I think, but we have no charger for it, so talk quickly.” He turned to Cullwell, grinned. “Do you still have Coca-Cola here?”

She smiled. “For medicinal purposes only, but yes, we do. Ben, you want one too?”

“Sounds good. Don’t suppose you have any crushed ice?”

She laughed again, then walked back to her office. Piskov looked at Ben expectantly, then frowned. “You want privacy, I think?”

“I think, yes.”

“I go sit with doctor.”

Ben watched him walk away, then powered up the unit and dialed the duty officer’s desk at the 628th Air Wing, and someone answered on the second ring. “Duty Officer, Captain Nichols.”

“Major Acheson, calling from a Russian POW camp in Portugal.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m calling from a Russian POW camp in Portugal. I’ve been told they’re going to allow us to take a C-17 and try to get a planeload of injured back to the states tomorrow morning.”

“Name, rank and full DOD service number, please.”

Acheson recited the information.

“Stand-by one, Major.”

He looked up, saw several men on the ward staring at him.

“Acheson?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“How do you expect to fly across?”

“Refuel at Lajes, direct to Charleston after that.”

“What bird?”

“60002.”

“You won’t have the range, Major.”

“What about Bermuda?”

“Unknown.”

“No refueling assets?”

“I’m not sure. Doubtful.”

“Captain, it looks like I’m going to be able to get about 50 people out of here and home. Is there anything you guys can do to help?”

“Look, buddy, things aren’t running real smooth right now, and you need to know something. They’ve tried this twice, load up a small warhead on the payload, detonate it when they get in US airspace.”

“I understand.”

“I’ll call back in a while, but don’t get your hopes up, okay?”

“Yeah, understood. This phone has about a half charge, call it an hour or so of talk time.”

“Got it, and I have your number. I’ll call you in 12 hours.”

“Signing off.”

“Roger.”

He looked at the phone, then called his grandfather’s house in Alpine, Texas. No one picked up, and he left a brief message, about where he was and how he was trying to make it home, and maybe being there in a couple of days, then he signed off and powered down the phone.

“What’s the C-17s range?” the pilot in the bed next to his asked.

“Call it 2400, maybe a few hundred more with a light load.”

“It’s 3000 to from Lajes to the mid-Atlantic coast, but what about Maine? Or St Johns?”

“Around 2000, assuming there are facilities up there. A nuke hit mid-coast Maine, so…”

“Well, that would get us home.”

“Yeah. Guess so.”

“What about navigation? Without GPS, I mean?”

“Some older aircraft have inertial. I think that one out on the ramp does. Or did.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“I hear paper and pencil still works…” Acheson said, grinning.

Cullwell came out with a coke in a red plastic cup, and when she handed it to him he saw three ice cubes floating in the cup and he grinned. “Thanks, Ma’am.”

She nodded, smiled. “My secret stash.”

He watched Piskov walk up behind Cullwell, and the Russian was smiling. “You are to leave at 0500, for Lajes. We will start moving out to the aircraft an hour before. I assume you have the code?”

Acheson smiled. “I’ll be ready.”

“I see. Well, I hope so.”

+++++

He sat up in bed when the phone chirped, a little before three, and he listened to the duty officer in South Carolina. He listened to what he had to say, how the Russians had tried to send Medevac aircraft to Kentucky earlier that morning, where the latest interim government was located, but those efforts had been intercepted, the aircraft shot down. They wouldn’t be allowed into US airspace, and the man warned him to look out for anything suspicious being loaded on the aircraft, then he was gone. He shook his head, then dressed carefully, taking care not to disturb the IV shunt dangling from his arm, and then he went went outside. Piskov was out there, still grinning, waiting for him in some sort of Russian jeep; two soldiers saluted when he came out, and he saluted them as he climbed in the front seat.

“You feeling okay?” the Russian asked. “You looking kind of green.”

“I feel green.”

“Good.”

“Good?”

“That means my eyes still working.”

“Ah.”

“You have the code?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Shall we go?”

Piskov drove across to the ramp, and Acheson saw Russian ground crews huddled under the C-17’s wings – and three American airmen, hand-cuffed, under armed-guard, by the aft cargo door. There was also a large metal box sitting on the ramp by the door, with two men standing beside it.

‘So, that’s the bomb?’ Acheson said to himself as he looked at the C-17. ‘And this is the Trojan Horse.’

And then he saw Rutherford standing by a car in the shadows, watching him as they approached.

‘And I’m supposed to lead the horse inside the gate?’

Part VI – The Lioness Learns

Chapter 28

Once upon a time

She’d always considered herself an anarchist, and she thought that ironic – or she had, anyway – once upon a time.

Anne Rutherford left Grand Island, Nebraska for Cambridge, Mass, in a way unlike few before her. Wide-eyed and sure of herself, academically accomplished and politically naïve, she made it into Harvard on a Wadsworth scholarship, determined to make a real difference in the world. Yet she’d grown up in the Methodist Church, and had even believed some of the things she learned there, and she had been raised to become a good man’s wife. But in time she picked up on some of the more glaring internal inconsistencies within the Good Book, and that came to her as an awakening of sorts. She began to focus her inquiries on the internal inconsistencies she found in her home after that, and then, soon enough, everywhere she looked – and always through that same questioning prism, searching for inconsistencies in arguments, for human frailty and weakness.

One of her father’s oldest friends, a deacon at their church, ran a hand down her skirt one Sunday after services, and when he slipped a finger inside her, when he played with her physical emotions for the very first time, she seemed confused at first. Far from being scared, or even upset, she was curious about the feelings she experienced, and when he pulled out his penis and forced her to take it in her mouth, she grew only more curious about the man’s inconsistencies. He did the same thing almost every time he came over, usually after Sunday services, and in time she began to anticipate his various little comings and goings, looking forward to things she might learn by examining the man’s emotions. And, in time, she learned how to gauge his emotions, chief among them the need to control her, but then she used his errant feelings to tease him – just a little, in the beginning, anyway. She began to see how easy it was to manipulate the old man, to use his lust as a weapon, and eventually, to turn it against him to her advantage – to take a perceived strength and turn it into a weakness, to play with him, if only for her own private amusement.

She began to watch people, men mostly, after that, and she began to see patterns in their behavior. She saw how men expected to be treated, and how they reacted when they weren’t. They pouted her little brother, she thought, only men wore grown-up clothes. She was twelve, maybe thirteen years old when a local city councilman did the same things to her, and she let him. She led him deeper into a relationship of her own design, then she dumped him, and she regaled as she watched the man dancing on strings she alone knew about. When he pushed back, tried to control her again she exposed him, and she laughed inside as the police took him away – while the world saw her tears.

And her ability to exploit men had set a pattern of sorts, by the time she began high school. When she had trouble with a class, when the material was just too hard to get a handle on, she went to her teachers and got all the help she needed. Men, women – it made no difference. All had their needs, and she knew how to take care of them. She began to see herself as a chameleon, able to change color in an instant, recognize danger and adjust, quickly, to the needs of the moment. To survive. That was, by high school, the ‘all’ of her existence. She lived in a man’s world, and she had to play by certain rules – or learn ways to invert the rules, use them against men.

And curiously, as a result she didn’t have time for ‘boys’ her own age. They learned they too seemed focused on just one thing: using sex as a crude means of control, and, unlike older men, when they couldn’t control her, usually because they were so clumsily arrogant, they became jealous – and often, violently so. One boy tried to ‘make it with her’ after a football game one night during her junior year, and she sensed, as she rejected him, that he was going to rape her. And the whole thing was so pathetic, she thought at the time. When he pushed her down she had simply laughed at the boy, made fun of the size of his penis, and he dissolved before her eyes – disappeared behind crumbling walls of humiliation. So, it was just that simple. Learn the mechanisms of control, then use them.

Then one Sunday a cousin asked her to come with her to a presentation.

“About what?” she asked.

“Oh, you’ll see.”

And so she went, curious why there was a need for such secrecy.

The event was held at a conference room in a local motel, and there were a few hundred people gathered there, sitting around tables loaded with literature and snacks. She looked at the people, all very earnest and hopeful, then a fiery pastor of some sort came out and began to exhort the gathered about how to best live their lives. Using a skillfully woven narrative, the woman related biblical passages to current events, leaving no room at all for any other conclusion that the end was nigh, that the Second Coming was at hand, and that the only way the people in that room could avoid damnation was to reach DEEP down into their pockets – and GIVE!

Despite the crudeness of the message, let alone the messenger, what struck Rutherford was the rapt adoration she felt being showered on the pastor. There was an unquestioning acceptance of everything the woman said, even though, to her, anyway, much that she heard was patently absurd. Still, the force in the woman’s voice made it was hard not to be taken in. There was talk of love and brotherhood, and a community coming together through a shared love for the Lord, and for Jesus Christ.

After a few hours of this, there came a pause, and the pastor asked those in attendance to stand – but only if they had taken the Lord Jesus Christ into their hearts. And people stood while the woman shouted about Christ’s love, about Christ’s willingness to forgive, to accept – but then the woman stopped speaking, and everyone in the room turned to Rutherford, for she alone had remained seated.

And she had never, not once in her life, felt so much hate in one room as she felt just then.

And the pastor turned to her with something akin to fire in her eyes, and she pointed at Anne, called her out as an agent of Satan, and the hatred she felt in the room turned to something far more sinister. Men turned and faced her, and other men, standing by the stage, handed out canes as the pastor screamed for the assembled to strike out at Satan, to drive Him from their midst.

She stood and ran for a door, but the way ahead was blocked – by more men with canes – and she turned, slipped through the converging crowd, made it to a fire escape and burst out into the night, ran all the way home – and yet as she ran all she could think about was the woman’s power, her ability to control an otherwise normal group of people, and it took years for her to get the woman’s fiery eyes out of her mind.

By the time she was a first year at Harvard she knew the stakes had increased, but the game was still the same. She could lead men around by their needs, get what she needed from them by playing along with their game, she could still use them up and spit them out, move on to the next errant fool – but she discovered something even more interesting in Boston: there were more people here, people just like her, playing the same game. And, she soon learned, the stakes grew even higher in this league, the state of play was more polished, and, not infrequently, the game was played to the death.

Her second year roommate, Julie, told her she had good legs and that she ought to wear more provocative clothing, but Anne explained she simply didn’t have that kind of money. “That isn’t a problem,” Julie explained, and she put forth a solution. They went to an underground club that next Friday, and Julie explained Anne’s problem to an older gentleman, and he said he’d be more than happy to help Anne out.

And he had been, too.

He picked her up the next morning, in a limousine, no less, and had spent the day with her. They visited the trendiest boutiques on Newbury Street, and some of the lesser known but no less trendy fetish shops on the other side of the night, then he took her to get her hair done. She had her first manicure, and a pedicure too, and by the time Saturday night rolled around she was, in his estimation, anyway, ready for the big leagues.

When he came by her dormitory at nine that night, in the limo again, he took her to a club “not very many people know about.” There were lot’s of limos dropping off people in an underground garage downtown, and these people were dressed, by and large, in black leather, and they carried bags in with them. They dressed inside, dressed in outlandish costumes, and they wore props like she had seen in some of the seedier shops earlier that afternoon. She saw her roommate then, with a short whip in hand, and a phallus strapped around her waist, working over a man, while another woman was doing her level best to suffocate the poor chap with her vagina.

Her escort, the old man, seemed to understand this was Anne’s first exposure to such proceedings, but he proved a gentle teacher. He was, he explained, a top, or a master, but that, obviously, not all men were tops, and as he led her from scene to scene he explained the roles on display, what  he called the transfers of power going on, who was doing what, and, presumably, why. And the why was suddenly of great interest to Anne, for she was seeing a new, much larger vista into the inner workings of power and control that women, in particular, exerted over men, and as suddenly she knew she wanted to be a top, too.

Yet she could feel her escort’s growing lust – for her – and she intuitively understood that she would have to play with him – on his terms. But rather that wait for him to take charge, she stopped at one point and held out her hands, wrists together, and she said four words that forever changed her life.

“Please, Master? Teach me?”

He had taken her to a room that night, and with several other women to assist him – his women, she learned – she was taken in, indoctrinated, and she became his plaything, for a while. Until, a few months later, she felt him falling in love with her. Then, and only when she was sure he was under her control, she turned the tables on him. She asserted control the next weekend at the club, she wielded the whip, wore the phallus, and she began to bend him first to her need, then to needs of his own he had long repressed.

She knew by then, of course, that he was an immensely wealthy and powerful man. He walked the corridors of power in Washington as easily as he helmed his schooner off the Vineyard; he had a jet, of course, and took her places on weekends, and she knew enough by then to not ask about his wife. He took her skiing in Austria and fishing on Scottish rivers, became her tutor, her mentor, advising which classes to take, which professors were good, helping her some nights with her studies, and as his was an able mind she listened, and learned. About his world, first, then about the doors he might open for her.

When they went to the club he taught her even more, more about the inner dynamics she observed, the tormented inner psyches, the hidden impulses on open, sudden display. There was no act depraved enough, she soon learned, no personal backstory dark enough, and in the end she understood that all life revolved around power and control – and nothing more.

She thought of all the boys in high school who had ‘come on’ to her, and she began to see their clumsy efforts as nothing more than the pathetic attempts of lost children. Children not open to or aware enough of their own cravings to assert control over their darkest needs, and she began to reclassify people. People who knew, who understood the nature of these needs, and people who remained clueless, children who let half-understood impulses control their lives. She began to see that very powerful people were, by and large, very tuned in to this part of their selves, and that they were very tuned in to others on the same wavelength. Like neurons in a vast body, such people were linked by this awareness – and in time she was, too. She began to study this connection, the way it worked, and could not work absent this special ‘awareness,’ but once the connection was made it was like whole new worlds opened up to her.

They spent a week together on his yacht the summer after her junior year, and they sailed from Boston to Southwest Harbor, Maine. He gave her a book to read their first night out – Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – and he told her it was an important book in Washington, but that the hidden parts of the story could be found in the heroine’s extraordinary submission to men. The author had been, he claimed, a complex, introverted woman, yet a very dominant presence in the world – until she was around a true Master. Then she had reverted to type, he said, and wanted nothing more than to be raped, to be physically consumed by the real Master, the World Historical Figure, the real men who moved about world creating massive societal change. She would have to be, he told her, willing to bow before these real men in her quest for power, or in her ascent they would crush her – if only in their sport.

Then one evening he had asked, and seriously, too, if she would like to get married – to him.

“Why?” she asked. “Do you love me?”

“You are the only person I’ve ever loved. I was born to love you.”

“I don’t feel that way about you.”

“Oh, I quite understand that.”

“Then, why?”

“Because I want to help you achieve your dreams.”

And so she married him, and he guided her through the ins-and-outs of Washington – until one day he was gone. She was surprised how much his passing hurt, but by then she had grown immune to such things. She in fact viewed herself now as a something like a shark, cruising reefs in dark solitude, feeding when necessary, but most of all enjoying the feeling of immense, unquestioned power. She was a predator, she knew, consuming anyone and everything that got in her way, and she moved up the career ladder at FBI headquarters with patient, monotonous regularity.

She was a good cop, and she was good because she understood the repressed sexual dynamics that seemed to drive the human mind. And criminals were, after all, human beings – of a sort, anyway. The sort who had little control over such things, just the type she most loved to crush.

+++++

Over the years, one other fact of life emerged in Anne Rutherford’s world that seemed to edge out all other concerns, and that was the continuing social injustice women faced in society. The fact bothered her intellectually, and from a distance, for as a career law enforcement officer many such facts of life had been eased by federal regulation. Such things as unequal pay and sexual harassment were no longer ‘obvious’ issues in the workplace, but of more importance, in her capacity as a law enforcement officer she ran into the real savagery such inequality visited upon women and children, and on an, almost, daily basis.

And she learned two things very quickly in her first years on the street.

The first was that there appeared to be real predators out there, predators whose crimes were not simple, accidental encounters. Their crimes were nothing less than the pre-meditated savagery of men who preyed on weak women and powerless children, and who most often did so to exert control over a weak, terrified victim. The second: that there were men in law enforcement who simply saw this predation as a part of the natural order of things, and as such, these were crimes hardly worth bothering with. She listened to agents toss off brutal jokes about women serially abused and murdered, jokes referencing mutilated vaginas or the emotional vagaries of PMS, and she wondered why some men thought these things funny.

Perhaps because they knew so little about themselves? About the true nature of life?

Her first assignment, after completing her post-academy training at a field office in Hartford, Connecticut, had taken her into the bizarre realm of profiling, the reconstructive/predictive psychoanalysis of criminal behavior. With her academic background in sociology and psychology, this was a natural progression for her, and with her less well known sexual predilections an integral part of her deeper background, she discovered she had a real interest in this work.

She was sent to the field office in Cleveland, Ohio, when a series of disappearances gained national attention, and she began looking over the information gathered to date. The first things she noted were the victim’s names, names like Anna and Hannah. Palindromes. Every victim’s name was a palindrome, so instantly she knew these people had been chosen, that their disappearances were not random.

So, if they weren’t random, were there other unifying characteristics?

After she posited her ‘palindrome insight’ with the SAC, or Special Agent in Charge, she found that men in the office tended to avoid her – yet soon other women in the office took a more serious interest in her work, and her methodology; soon these women started working the area with her for clues, then developing ideas with her, helping her re-interview victim families, for instance, then charting the results on maps of the city, then Cuyahoga County. When all this information was collated, like the spokes on a wheel the abductions seemed to point inward to a small area in an older suburb called Brook Park. And all the victims belonged to Methodist churches, which rocked Anne’s personal world, if only a little, but perhaps her involvement became a little more personal after that.

She and her little crew of female agents visited churches in the area, developed lists of names, then cross-checked these names with other lists of known or suspected sexual predators, and they began to focus on a handful of suspects in the area.

One afternoon she began watching a man who lived alone in a small house on Holland Road, and she followed him to the airport. He pulled into a parking garage but remained in his van, and an hour later he left – without once getting out or doing much of anything – except to look at two women through binoculars.

She knew then that she had found their man.

So she returned to the field office and swore out an affidavit for a search warrant and took it down to the courthouse. And it was denied. No probable cause, the judge said. Not enough to warrant such an intrusion, anyway. Get more solid information, he told her, “and don’t come back until you do, little lady.”

So she joined up with another female agent and they sat up on the man’s house, watched him for days.

And nothing happened.

He went to off work in the morning, invariably stopped off for dinner on his way home in the evening, then he went inside his home for the evening – and that was that. But then one evening he returned to the airport in his van, and he parked next to a new Chevy, and they parked almost out of sight and watched as he moved around inside the van. They waited for hours, then looked on as a flight attendant walked up to the back of the Chevy and put her bag in the trunk, then moved around to get in the car – and when the van’s side door slid open the man reached for the woman, grabbed her by the throat and put a hooded-cloth over her face, then pulled her inside the van. By the time he had sedated the woman, Rutherford and her partner had pulled their Explorer behind the van, blocking his escape, and moments later they had him on the ground, in handcuffs. Dozens of units converged on the scene after that, and the man was taken away to be interrogated, leaving Rutherford and a handful of other agents free to search the man’s house.

They found an ordinary enough home on the main floor, and a carnival or horror in the basement. Tables where women had been tied down and dissected, a butcher’s counter where the bodies had been further reduced, and vats of acid where their remains had been discarded. There were still bones in those vats, and teeth, and in the end Rutherford accounted for nineteen women who had passed through the man’s butcher shop. Nineteen lives snuffed out by savage need, a need to control, an all-consuming need to instill fear, a need to torture.

Then they found the video recordings.

Of each victim’s last hours among the living, of the man’s twisted love for these women. For he had indeed loved them, indeed, he had worshipped them, intoned Godly incantations while he kissed them and fingered them, went into fervent prayer as he slit their wrists. He drank their blood, eventually bathed in each victim’s blood, recreating a bizarre, almost medieval ritual after each murder. She saw patterns of obsessive-compulsive behavior in his rituals, and she knew these usually formed in childhood so she reached out and revisited the man’s past, reconstructing the elements within his upbringing that had helped shape and inform his extreme needs.

She found an absent father, a controlling and sexually abusive mother, alcohol and drug abuse a constant throughout his life. One neighbor recalled how the boy had enjoyed capturing dogs and cats, blinding them with sewing needles, then setting them loose on crowded streets and watching them get hit by passing cars. Another recalled stories she’d heard from neighborhood children, of how he’d brought girls home from school and tied them up in the garage behind his house, then how he’d painted them with red paint, cutting off their hair with pruning shears before releasing them.

His father was long gone by the time of his arrest, but she ran down his mother – and almost be accident. She’d been living in homeless shelters for years but had recently fallen ill, been transported to St Luke’s and diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was terminal, in an isolation ward when Rutherford found the woman, and the event was almost transformative for Rutherford. What emerged was a portrait not of evil, or even simple weakness, but a cycle of victimization. Of sexual abuse, first by her father, then by her husband – who particularly enjoyed sodomizing her with a broomstick – yet when told of her son’s peculiar needs the woman only smiled.

“That’s all he ever wanted to do,” she told Rutherford. “He worshipped girls, from the first. When I took him to church he liked to sit behind attractive women in the pews, and when we kneeled to pray he would reach out and play with their shoes, then he would sniff his fingers. When we walked home he would confess these little sins to me, and I would beat him, then let him play with my shoes, smell my feet.”

“What role did the church play in his life?”

“We went several nights a week, because he seemed to enjoy it so.”

“What about your parents? Did your father play with you, with your feet?” Rutherford asked, and the woman had simply turned, looked away.

Look away. Turn away. Let your impulses control you – never take control of them. Let other people control you, until there was nothing left of your life to control. That was the universal constant she found in that instant, and it reinforced all her earlier thinking.

So his crime had been part of a cycle, but Anne now suspected cycles like these were always involved. Sniffing feet, like a dog or any other predator might, was so obvious, too full of unexplored irony, but cycles of inverted lust weren’t that obvious, and control for control’s sake wasn’t ironic. She saw this man’s love, his seriously perverted love, had developed in a youth spent surrounded by the trappings of religious order, yet such order was little more than delusion absent real understanding of both the self and the institutional order’s purpose. His mother’s serialized abuse helped create a new, unholy trinity, but what interested Rutherford most was how seemingly ‘normal’ the man’s upbringing was – from a distance, anyway. She had been on the street long enough to realize his upbringing was far from unusual, and that just a few key differences in his mother’s behavior might have changed the outcomes of an endless stream of broken lives. But because she was just part of a longer cycle playing out over time, she’d never been aware of her own role in the drama.

She returned to Washington after that and began a graduate program in psychology at Georgetown, more intent than ever of understanding the dynamics of these cycles, to unearth key differences between what might be ‘normal’ and what led to criminal psychopathology, yet her professors seemed resolutely uninterested in this line of inquiry.

Try Sociology, one of them told her, and so she had.

When she wasn’t working on cases, she went to prisons and interviewed inmates. She went to seminaries and interviewed seminarians. She went to her husband’s clubs and participated in their trivial, acted-out predations, yet she did so from then on more as an observer, as someone interested in questions she perceived in these activities, not just the answers intuited in the needs and counter needs of play-acted passion. In the end she saw, in all these settings, women and children as victims of a peculiar, predatory lust – and she saw no way out of this dilemma going forward. Nothing would change for women and children if the status quo remained, because everything was locked in ancient cycles of need and lust, passed down from generation to generation. And this was a lust defined by men. A broken need that had become a self-perpetuating cycle of broken dreams and endless despair.

And yet, she soon discovered she was not alone in this thinking. She met other women running up against the same hard wall. Women who too often had been victims, and often enough, women who helped victims trying to cope. She kept note of these contacts, and over the years she was staggered at the tally, of just how many women, victims, she had met.

Then she began to reach out to a powerful few, to discuss the framework of an idea…

So, as like-minded women, these women met for years and discussed the problem, and in time they met and planned ways they might change the system. Physicians, nurses and social workers. Women in Congress, women in law enforcement and the military, women in academia and journalism. They met and planned at retreats across the country, and at mundane political gatherings, where like minded acolytes were first identified, then recruited. An initial network of less than a hundred mushroomed into thousands, then the tens of thousands, and still they planned.

The original group integrated with smaller sub-groups around the country. Groups that almost always included wealthy, politically connected men. Groups that her husband had once belonged to. Clubs, little play-acting clubs, with play-acted control the goal. And soon she had the means, and quite suddenly, to co-opt larges numbers of politically influential men all around the country. It didn’t take long for the group to realize that the same architecture could be applied globally, and so they spent a few more years putting a larger network in place.

Then He came along. The latest president. The “pussy grabber,” the man who’d allegedly raped a 13 year old girl, then had his thugs threaten her with death when she decided to press civil charges. His election was a galvanic moment for the organization, and things began to move rapidly after that.

So – one day they decided to act, and they found a perfect first target. A pedophile mixed up with Mexican drug runners who liked to make snuff videos, who lived in Dallas, Texas, and she decided to commit her protégé to this endeavor. To infiltrate law enforcement at the highest levels of the investigation, to mask the group’s activities for as long as possible.

And Genie Delaney had gone to Dallas willingly, had complete access to all the information being developed by the Dallas Police Department. She met with Delaney several times, and a key member of the department was identified for contact. A lanky, motor-jock who had flown for the Air Force, a kid named Ben Acheson.

Delaney was assigned to get as close as she could to him, to gather information that could be used to compromise him – when and if the time came.

And then some fuck-up shot Delaney, and all their plans started to unravel.

And Anne Rutherford experienced the last epiphany of her life.

+++++

She was sitting on a patio at a seaside estate in Estoril, a huge stone patio overlooking the sea, and she was looking at two Russian colonels and their mistresses. They looked like whores, and she laughed a little. ‘Well, maybe that’s because that’s exactly what they are,’ Rutherford said to herself. ‘They’re just like me, so who would know better?’

She had her Iridium on the table in front of her, and it chirped once, so she looked at the display, then signed on and took the call.

“Hello,” she said – tentatively.

“Anne?”

“Genie?”

“Yes. I got your message.”

“I’ve found Ben.”

“Oh?”

“He’s in a Russian POW camp, north of Lisbon.”

“What?”

“He’s in a make-shift hospital there, and I’ve heard he has a badly broken leg. I’m trying to get the Russians to let us get it fixed.”

“Us?”

“Several of our people are here, have been since the election. Anyway, I think I’ve convinced a colonel to take me with him on an inspection tour of the POW camps, north of the city. Do you want me to pass along a message?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Oh?”

“Look, it’s bad here. Ben’s grandfather is sick…well, what can I say. Cattle are falling over in the fields, too much radiation in the grass, in the rain that’s falling, and there’s no more fuel so we can’t drive into town, and anyway, there’s nothing left, even if we could.”

“The grocery stores…?”

“Bare shelves. Satellite radio was our last link to the outside, but they went off the air yesterday.”

“How are you?”

“I’ve been vomiting blood all morning. Does that answer your question?”

“Genie, I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry? Well, I guess that’s something.”

“I know.”

“Do you? I wonder? Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time, would you do it all over again?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“I knew you’d say that. Funny, I guess.”

“Funny? No, that’s not the word I’d use. Inevitable is a word that comes to mind. Non-sustainable is another. Maybe we just sped things up a little.”

“Wow, you really are a true believer, aren’t you?”

“Yes. We could have kept going down the same road, maybe another generation, maybe not, before things fell apart…”

“And you got to make that call?”

“It wasn’t just me, was it? I recall you were all for it, too, along with a few thousand like-minded people. Before you fell in love with Ben, anyway.”

“I know,” Genie said, quietly. “Like any other cult member, I guess. In the end it all comes down to brainwashing, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe. But political parties and their handmaidens in the media have been doing that for the last fifty years. We just took it to the next level.”

“Inevitable, huh?”

“Yes, I think so. Any idea how long people over there have?”

“In this part of Texas, two weeks. Maybe three. Average exposure in town is now over 300 rem. Last word we had was the major cities in Texas are silent now, but Houston was flattened on day one. Something like four large hydrogen warheads. There was one on the west side of Fort Worth, to take out an aircraft plant there, and San Antonio took a direct hit according to one report, but all our fallout is coming from the west coast. I can’t even begin to imagine what happened out there.”

“Any snow yet?”

“Yeah. Some.”

“How about power?”

“Ben’s grandfather put in solar a few years ago, even a small wind generator. There’s enough power to keep the lights on.”

“Any news, anything on the internet?”

“Nope. It’s down. Everywhere, as far as I can tell.”

“Yes, it is here, too. Are you sure there’s nothing you want me to pass on to Ben?”

“There’s no need, Anne. You couldn’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know.”

“Anything I can do for you?”

“I don’t know. Can you make it all go away? Like this was all just a bad nightmare?”

“If I could. What about Ben’s…?”

“The Duke? Carol? They’re here, he drove us out…”

And the line went dead a moment later – though whether intentionally or by happenstance, she had no way of knowing.

Now, she had one more call to make.

+++++

She saw the Gaz Tigr as it turned onto the ramp, as the Russian behind the wheel turned for the C-17, then, as it drove by, she could just see Ben in the passenger’s seat.

“You go now,” the GRU colonel said to her, shoving her towards the aircraft.

She nodded her head, walked towards the Tigr as it stopped by the aircraft, and when she saw Acheson climb out her heart soared. He was walking, with a cane, but he was walking on his own, and he almost seemed surprised when he saw her walking his way, but in the end he ignored her, walked up to the code panel on the C-17 and entered a code – and she saw Piskov walking up from behind, a pistol drawn.

“Ben,” she called out, “was that stuff you told me about a delayed detonation code for real?”

Acheson turned, saw Piskov, and Rutherford – and he smiled at her ‘head’s up.’ “Five hour delay, as promised.”

“What’s this?” Piskov said, clearly not believing what he’d just heard.

“Oh, come on, Leo,” Ben said. “We know all you want is access to the birds so you can try and get to Kentucky, but there’s no way this aircraft is going to get anywhere near the coast. Besides, just how many more bombs do you think you need to drop?”

“We will stop bombing your country when your country stop bombing ours?”

“Oh? When’s the last time our country bombed Russia?”

“We hear there are preparations underway for massive strike, right here in Europe.”

“Oh. I wonder who would spread a rumor like that?”

“Rumor, truth, does not matter now. Duty all we have left.”

“Duty to what, Leo?”

“To the homeland.”

“Ah. Well, good luck with that, Leo. Really. Now, are you going to shoot me, or let me load up our injured and get them on their way home?”

“But you just say you will not be allowed to US airspace. You think I am fool? All of us?”

“Why yes, Leo, now that you mention it, I do think you are fools, all of you. All of us, for that matter. And do you know why, Leo? Well, let me tell you anyway, Leo, because I’m pretty sure you’re too stupid to figure this one out on your own. You’re a fool, all of you are fools, for thinking you could win a nuclear war. You’re fools for wanting to believe the same old propaganda Stalin used, lies to sell fear. You’re fools even now for believing that same old bullshit, that we’re getting ready to plaster good old mother Russia with another wave of atomic horse manure. You are, in fact, Leo, a race of fools, and it was humanity’s misfortune to end up on the same planet with a pack of fools like you.”

“God damn you to Hell. What make you think you so different than us? Righteous superiority, no? Maybe you want me shoot in face now? Save all pain?”

“You know what, Leo. You are absolutely correct. I’m a fool, all Americans are fools. Everyone who has ever thought they could build these goddamn bombs – and use them – is a fucking fool. But you know what, Leo? Your illustrious leaders sold your people on an idea. That Russia could win a nuclear war, and in my little corner of the universe, that makes you the biggest fools of all.”

“Good. I shoot now. Right in balls, little coward!”

“Fine with me, Leo, but there’s a quarter kiloton nuclear warhead ticking down right now, and it’s going to go off, right here, in just about five hours.”

“You bullshit. No such thing, and we know it.”

“Yeah, sure Leo, just like you know you can win a nuclear war. But don’t take my word for it. Come here, look at the display.”

Piskov walked over, looked at the display. “So, countdown timer. Big deal. Could mean anything.”

Ben went to the panel, hit the audio annunciator button, and a woman’s voice filled the air around the door.

“You now have four hours, fifty-six minutes to self-destruct. The minimum safe distance from this device is fifteen miles.”

“What is this mother fucker bullshit!” Piskov screamed.

“Leo, it’s not bullshit. It’s a point two five kiloton fission warhead, and it’s going to go off in a few hours, right here, too. I’d suggest you get in that little jeep of yours and beat feet out of here.”

Piskov stepped close, put the Makerov to his forehead. “You disarm now!” he screamed.

“Sorry, Leo. Once it’s armed there’s no way to stop it without getting airborne. And oh. If you shoot the panel, the bomb goes off. No delay. It just goes off.”

“You shitting on me?”

“Well, let’s not go overboard, Leo. After all, we hardly know one another.”

“What?”

Acheson was grateful Rutherford turned away, hid her laughter as well as she did.

“Leo, honest Indian. No bullshit. Now, can we get my people loaded. I want to get out of here.”

“But, where you go?”

“Well hell, Leo, this is the Marrakech Express. We’re going to Morocco, in case you want to come along.”

“Open ramp. We load now, but you go Lajes. Understand?”

Ben went to the panel and entered another code; lights came on, doors whirred open. Russians frog-marched the ground chief and loadmaster over, took off their hand-cuffs and ankle shackles – then walked away as fast as they could.

“Chief, go wake up my airplane, would you?”

“Sir, did you really arm that warhead?”

“Yes, Chief, I did. Now, let’s hop to!”

“Yessir!”

“So, is no bullshit.”

“No bullshit, Leo.”

“Hmmph.”

“My thoughts, exactly.”

“You think you pretty funny, no?”

“No funnier than you, Leo. And you’re a very funny man.”

The man turned, began walking off and muttered: “Fuck you, and your mother, too.”

“No thanks, Leo. Trying to quit. Causes cancer, in case you haven’t heard.”

Piskov stopped in his tracks, shook his head, then started walking again.

Rutherford walked over and stood beside him, took his hand in hers. “You know, I wonder. Is he really that fucking stupid, or was he acting.”

Acheson shrugged, then looked at her. “You have any idea where we can go?”

“Yup,” she said, grinning. “You know me, always plan ahead.”

Trucks began backing up the loading ramp, then troops helped carry the injured up onto the cargo deck – which was, thankfully, still set up with standard Medevac beds, respirators and IV pumps. The loadmaster came up, asked Acheson if he had any special orders, and Ben told him to make sure the men were strapped in tight, because it was going to be a bumpy ride.

The loadmaster walked away shaking his head, wondering how the hell the pilot knew that.

Acheson walked up the forward steps and then up to the flight deck, and he confirmed entries on the code panel, released a safety – and only then went to his seat. A minute later someone claiming to be a Marine F-35 pilot came up and asked if he could be of help, and Acheson looked at the man – who appeared uninjured – and asked where he was from.

“Mississippi,” the man said.

“Oh? Where’d you go to school?”

“Ole Miss.”

“Yeah? How ‘bout them Buckeyes?”

“Yeah, they had a good year, didn’t they?”

“Better than you, Ivan. Take a hike.”

A few minutes later a heavily bandaged pilot came huffing and puffing into the cockpit, and he looked at the overhead panel and sighed. “Someone tells me there’s an airedale up here who don’t know how to fly real good, and shit, I thought bein’ a Naval Aviator and all, and therefore, by definition, a better pilot that any goddamn Air Force puke that ever lived, maybe I ought to come up here and see if I could give away some free airplane drivin’ lessons.”

Acheson turned and looked at the man. “They take the training wheels off your Tomcat yet, hot shot?”

“Tomcat? Man, where you been the last twenty years?”

“With your mother, drilling her in the can.”

“She gettin’ any better at it?”

“Howdy. My name’s Acheson. You?”

“Bond. James Bond.”

“Right.”

“You know, I’m just as fuckin’ sorry as I can be, but my grandfather’s last name was Bond, and so was my Dad’s. And I can’t fuckin’ help it if they both liked Ian Fucking Fleming. Alright? Any questions?”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, man. Say, what are all them-thar buttons up there for?”

“Oh, those operate the in-seat dildo dispenser. Don’t touch them unless you want hemorrhoids.”

“Oh, right. Heard about them things. Must be an airedale thing.” Bond said as he tried to slip into the seat. “Yeow. I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had.”

“What happened?”

“Ejected – at Mach 1.3.”

“Never done that. Is it as fun as I hear?”

“Funner. Man, this looks like an MD-11.”

“Kind of, but don’t let looks fool you. You flown commercial?”

“Nope. My dad did.”

Acheson heard someone close by, turned and saw Piskov standing in the cockpit door.

“You decide to come along for the ride, hot shot?”

“I come tell you your men are loaded. You now leave any time.”

“Oh, well, I’ll come down and see you off.”

“I go with you.”

“What?”

“I stay. You hide me.”

Ben looked at Piskov, saw the pleading look in his eyes. “Why? Leo, why?”

“I fail. I think. I think they kill me.”

“Chief,” he called to the ground chief on the intercom, “I need you to give me a hand with something up here.”

“Sir?” the airman said.

“Think you can hide this guy somewhere?”

“Uh…yessir.”

He walked aft to a foot locker sized metal box the Russians had placed on the cargo deck, then he went over and closed the ramp. When it was closed he turned to the loadmaster and smiled: “Help me open this, would you?”

They worked for a minute, then busted the lock and opened the case.

“What is it, sir?”

“Small nuclear warhead, would be my guess.”

“No shit?”

Acheson looked at the control panel, then felt someone coming up from behind. He turned, saw Rutherford standing there. “You don’t happen to know any Russian, do you?”

“Of course.”

“Don’t tell me. Harvard?”

“You have to ask?”

“Silly me, of course you did. Mind telling me what this says?”

“Push here, then kiss your ass goodbye.”

“Thanks. Try again?”

“The green button is a timer set/reset button. Yellow is arm. Red is detonate now…like I said, kiss your ass…”

“Okay, I got it. And it’s set for eight hours and ten minutes right now?”

“That would be my guess – yes.”

“So, to reset to five minutes, looks like we hit the green reset button,” he said, punching the button, “then turn this dial to five minutes. Next, to begin the countdown again, hit the green button again, then hit yellow to arm the bomb, then you should have five minutes to get the fuck out of Dodge. That about right?”

“Ben. You’re not.”

And Acheson nodded his head. “You reap what you sow, darlin.” He turned, looked at the loadmaster and the chief: “I’m gonna taxi out to the end of the runway and hang this bird’s ass way out over the grass and drop the ramp out there. Make sure all the lights are out back here, and when I make the turn you’ll have thirty seconds to get this box out in the grass, arm it and get your swingin’ dicks back in here. I’ll be doing the run up, so don’t forget to push the green button, then the yellow. If someone shows up shootin’ then press the red one and start sayin’ your prayers.”

“Sir?”

“We’re counting on you guys.”

“Yessir.”

“I’ll stay with them, Ben.”

“No need. Come with me now; they know what to do, and they’ll get the job done.”

He turned and left for the cockpit, and Rutherford followed him again.

“You’re evil, you do know that, don’t you?”

“Just following the Golden Rule. Kind of. You know, do unto others before they do it to you first.”

“Ah. Still, it’s evil.”

“Have a seat,” he said, pointing at the left jump-seat, then: “Gee, I hope I can remember how to fly one of these things.”

“You know, it’s the little expressions of competence that really warm the heart,” Bond said.

“And who is this?” Rutherford asked.

“Bond, James Bond,” both Acheson and Bond said, as if on cue.

“Ah,” she said, “dinner and a floor show. How fun.”

Acheson saw the ground chief outside making hand signals, and Acheson held up two fingers – and got a nod.

“Okay, let’s start two.”

“And you obviously think I know how to do that, don’t you?” Bond said, grinning.

Acheson shook his head, reached over and started the engine, then watched pressures and ratios until power stabilized. When the chief signaled three fingers, he started the inboard right engine – and just then another Tigr jeep drove up, and two soldiers ran up to the open boarding door. A moment later they burst into the cockpit.

“Kepitane Piskov? Where he is!?” One of them shouted.

And Rutherford, in perfect Russian, told them he had gone already, that he had exited through the aft cargo ramp several minutes ago. She went with them and showed them all the patients in their litters and, thoroughly confused, the men left. She came up to the flight deck a few minutes later, completely amused with herself now.

“They say we’re to communicate on 121.5. Does that mean anything to you?”

“Yes indeedy.” He turned COMM 1 to the frequency and and checked in: “Ground, the is Air Force 60002, how do you read?”

“60002, we read five by five.”

“Any information you want to pass along?”

“0-2, such as?”

“Oh, you know, runway, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction. The basics, maybe?”

“The base commander advises you may fuck off.”

“60002, I read that as clear to fuck off, barometer is fuck off, and wind speed and direction are fuck off as well? Is that a good read-back, or should I tell you to fuck off too?”

Another voice came on after that. “Sorry about that, Air Force. You are clear to take off on runway 17, barometer is 29.95, wind out of south, speed light and variable, C-A-V-U reported to Lisbon.”

“Thanks, tower, and y’all have a good life.”

He finished starting one and four, then entered the LAT and LON from the readout on Anne’s sat phone into the INS, and then noticed he had a clear GPS signal so reactivated the system; he input Lisbon as the first “waypoint” on his route, then turned to Rutherford.

“Where are we going?”

“Not where you think,” she said, handing him coordinates scrawled hastily on a scrap of paper.

“Interesting. Any reason why?”

“Yes.”

“And, of course, you’re going to tell me, aren’t you?”

“No.”

“I see. Perhaps I should just leave that bomb onboard.”

“Fine. I know what the red button does.”

He turned back to the FMC, the flight management computer, and input the coordinates she’d given him, not sure why he was trusting her – but then he considered: without an alternate? “Oh well, any port in a storm,” he sighed.

“0-2, we are ready to taxi.”

“0-2, you will be number two, behind Sukhoi 27.”

Bond chimed in now. “Why are they sending one of those up now?”

“To shoot you down as soon as we deviate from a course towards Lajes,” Rutherford said.

“That would be my guess, too,” Acheson added.

“Gee, swell,” Bond whispered.

Acheson advanced the throttles and turned for the taxiway, followed the splotchy blue fighter out to the end of the runway, then went on the intercom as he braked. “Everyone prepare for departure, we’ll be turning on to the runway after the Russian fighter just ahead takes off. That’ll be the loud noise you hear in just a moment. Lights out now, Chief.”

The Sukhoi’s engines ran up to an incredible roar and held power for several seconds, then it leapt down the runway and vaulted into the sky. He waited several seconds then let off the brakes and the C-17 coasted into a wide turn, Acheson letting the tail, and the cargo ramp, drift out over the grass beyond the runway’s threshold. As he turned for the centerline he lowered the ramp, and started a stop watch on the panel, then he began his engine run up. He watched pressures and ratios, and the clock – forty seconds later he raised the ramp and released the brakes.

The C-17 crawled down the runway, slowly built speed, and at 137 knots he rotated and began a very gentle climb.

“Positive rate,” Bond said. “Gear up.”

“Okay.” Acheson cleaned the wing and turned to the first heading prompt, keeping an eye on the timer now, accelerating through three hundred knots while still only a few hundred feet above the trees.

The threat panel chimed, indicating an airborne radar was painting the aircraft. He turned the ECM panel to AUTO, and two more warnings sounded.

“Here comes Ivan,” Acheson whispered.

“I know that sound,” Bond added, “and I still don’t like it.”

Acheson reached to the overhead, flipped off two safeties, then armed ‘White Eyes,’ and a deep, steady warning alarm sounded.

“What the Hell’s that?” Bond cried.

“A two billion candlepower retina scorch. Sorry about this, Ivan, but you asked for it.” He activated the system, and seconds later the threat panel erupted. “Heat-seekers!” Acheson whispered as he reefed the -17 into a tight, climbing right, flares and chaff trailing – then he slammed the pedals into a steep diving left – and saw two Russian Atoll heat-seeking missiles arc away into the night. Then he saw the Sukhoi wobbling into a shallow dive, and he watched it slam into trees a few miles away, then heard Rutherford behind him whispering “Sweet Jesus…”

“Thirty seconds,” he said.

“Til what?” Bond replied.

“Big box go boom.”

“What big box?”

“Tell ya what, Slick. Just hang on.”

A sudden sun came out, and he looked at the display, saw they were 24 miles from the runway. “Hope this is enough…”

He held onto the stick, but the expected concussion never hit so he banked into a steep left turn and looked back – and saw a wall of flame at least a mile high roaring through the hills and forests. Turning for Lisbon again, he firewalled the engines and began a max power climb.

“Was that a nuke?” Bond asked.

“I think so, but it’s generated a huge firewall, and it’s moving fast.”

Bond looked down, saw the wall moving below them now, then he looked at their airspeed. “It’s got to be moving at close to 500 miles per hour!”

Acheson looked at their altitude – 22,000 and climbing – and he saw the fire racing for Lisbon, still 60 miles distant. “What have they gone and done now?”

“Must be super-hot,” Bond said, his voice full of wonder. “It seems to be fusing everything in it’s path. Probably a cobalt encased warhead.”

“Well, it was meant for us, for the new government, supposedly in Kentucky somewhere.”

“That figures. A warhead like this would cause fires in those hills that would burn for months, maybe all the way to Kansas.”

“You got to hand it to Ivan. He’s got a death wish a mile wide.” He got on the intercom. “Chief? Can you come up here now?”

He heard the man come in a moment later. “Yessir?”

“Better get our Russian friend out of the ductwork.”

“Yessir.”

“Intensity dropping off now,” Bond said, and Acheson trimmed for level flight. Wonder what they’ve got going on at the airport?”.

“My Guess? Transports and fighters now, no commercial stuff.”

“Probably got SAMs.”

“Probably. Probably more concerned with that wall of fire…”

Heading almost due south, Acheson trimmed for a fuel conserving climb and engaged the FMC, then went aft to check on his ‘passengers.’ He ran into Captain Cullwell, the physician, and saw she was shaken.

“What’s wrong?” he asked when he saw her ashen expression.

“Radiation alarms started going off in here a few minutes after take-off. What kind of bomb was that?”

“Don’t really know. Navy guy up front mentioned a cobalt casing, but I’m not up on all that stuff. How bad was it?”

She shook her head, turned away. “You don’t want to know,” was all she said.

“Well, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot now anyway, does it? Still think you need to run an IV while I’m up front?”

“Yeah. I’ve got everything ready.”

“Okay, let me check in with folks back here, then I’ll meet you up on the flight deck.”

She nodded her head while he walked all the way aft and spoke with the airman who’d taken the bomb out to the grass. “You have any trouble getting that thing out of here?”

The boy looked grim, then shook his head.

“Okay, spill it.”

“There were houses back there, sir. I mean, families. I saw a kid at a fence with his dog, watching us. Like…up early to watch the airplanes, you know?”

Acheson swallowed hard, took a deep breath through his nose and blinked. “They put that on here so we would carry it to our country…”

“I know, sir, but did we have to? Set it off, I mean. You’d disarmed it. Wasn’t that all we needed to do?”

Acheson shook his head. “Maybe…”

“I heard you guys talking, sir. About, well, when will it be enough, sir? They’re like crazy with suspicion, and who knows, maybe that started it all, but it’s like, well, we just can’t let go either.”

“I know,” Acheson said. “Maybe that’s why we’re here right now, why we are where we are, spiraling down the drain.”

“I was thinkin’, sir. We’re like two boxers in the ring, with no ref. We keep pounding away on each other, and we’re going to keep on ‘til there’s nothing left. Isn’t that about it, sir? Isn’t that who we are, I mean really, deep down, all there is to us?”

“I don’t know, kid.”

“Sir, you look like hell. Maybe you better go sit down.”

Acheson nodded, turned to the cockpit – then felt the world falling away.

+++++

Someone opened his eye, shone a light in – and he tried to turn away. His hands were tingling, his feet too – then he knew he was going to vomit and tried to sit up. Someone helped him lean over the stretcher, held a bucket under his face and he let go. When he was finished he noticed the fluid was streaked with long clots of blood, and he tasted the coppery essence of hemoglobin, not the usual bile-soaked barf he remembered from nights after drinking too much.

Acheson looked up, saw Cullwell getting ready to stick him with a hypodermic.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Sedative, and I want to get some whole blood in you. There’s a fridge forward with about twenty units of your type. If I can get it in you’ll feel a lot better.”

“Not a sedative…”

“I’ve got to get your blood pressure down – it’s 155 over 110. Ben, you’re losing a lot of blood – out your rectum now. You understand?”

But he didn’t, not even a little – yet he did feel like he was falling again.

+++++

He felt a hand on his forehead and opened his eyes, saw Rutherford standing over him, looking into his. She smiled when she saw his eyes and leaned over, kissed his forehead. “About another twenty minutes,” she said, “then you can sit up.”

“What about…where are we?”

“Hey, turns out that Navy puke knows how to fly after all.”

“Pah. Nobody in the Navy knows how to fly.”

She grinned. “How do you feel?”

“Better. Not as nauseated.”

“That’s the promethazine,” Cullwell said. “And I can’t give you any more ‘til we’re on the ground – or you won’t even be able to pick your nose without help, let alone pick out a runway.”

“Swell. That’s one of those drugs we aren’t allowed to take before flying…”

“Guess what, Ben. No FAA, so no worries, and besides, you’ve got three quarts of brand new motor oil flowing through those veins, and you’re gonna feel like a new man as soon as you get up.” Cullwell disconnected him from the IV pump, then swabbed down the shunt and put a bandage over it. “Just a few more minutes,” she said, “and you’ll be good to go.”

“How far out are we?” he asked Rutherford.

“About 800 miles – a half hour ago, anyway.”

He took a deep breath, then coughed – and he tasted blood in his mouth again. “Damn.”

“I started coughing up blood a few hours ago,” she said, wiping spittle from his chin.

“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t going to be a whole lot of fun.”

Cullwell walked up again, another syringe in hand. “Sleeves up,” she said.

“What’s this?”

“Just a little vitamin cocktail.”

“Right. Sure thing,” he said, rolling up his shirt sleeve. She swabbed his arm, then pinched and stuck him – and he let out a long sigh – as in his mind’s eye he was looking at a kid in Portugal, in his back yard, peeking over a fence at jets taking off just before his day got started, a little pup yapping at his feet.

+++++

“You sure the tower is 119.3?” Bond asked, looking at the runway and tower as it passed below on their ‘downwind.’

“That’s the latest published info I have. The VOR is still active, so I’d assume either everyone down there is dead, or they’re just not talking to us. See any traffic?”

“An old 757 at the terminal, a couple ATRs parked out…wait…looks like three C-17s just off the ramps, covered with netting. Some troops too.”

“They’ll be mine,” Rutherford said.

“What do you mean, ‘yours’?” Bond asked, turning to look at her.

“They’re part of my group.”

“You mean…?” Bond said, looking from Rutherford to Acheson.

“We had just arrested her,” Acheson said, dropping the flaps and cutting power, “and were transporting her back to the States when all this happened.”

“Oh, that’s just great, man. So, we’re getting ready to land in a nest of these people?”

“That’s one way to look at it. You’ll get to spend the last weeks of your life surrounded by women…”

“Feminists, you mean. Not the same thing as women.”

Rutherford groaned, looked away. “Just my luck,” she sighed.

Acheson made an easy turn onto final, then put the flaps all the way down. “Gears, please.”

Bond dropped the lever, and three green lights popped. “Anything else I need to know?” he added.

“We’ve been moving stuff here for weeks, before all the excitement broke out. Kind of a refuge, I guess, in case things turned sour.”

“So, you thought this could happen?”

“It was always a possibility.”

“Man, our tax dollars at work.”

“You should experience the world, for just one day, from my perspective…”

“No thanks,” Bond groaned.

“Could y’all just shut up, please,” Acheson growled. “This is my last time in an airplane, and I’d kind of like to enjoy it, ya know?” He was gentle now, gentle on the controls, trying to store all the sensations in memory, smiling as he flared over the threshold, easing her down like he was settling on eggshells, then easy braking and light reverse thrust. He saw the other C-17s and taxied over slowly, and several women – M4 carbines in hand – walked towards them.

“I’d better go out and show my face now,” Rutherford said, and she disappeared, went down to the forward door. Ben stopped, shut-down 1 and 2, then released the lock. He saw her walk out on the ramp and the guards snapped off salutes, then ran up and hugged her.

Bond looked at Acheson and groaned again. “Figures,” he said.

Rutherford looked up at him and made “kill the engines” motions, drawing a finger across her neck, and he started the APU, then shut down the other two engines – just as the Chief and the loadmaster came into the cockpit.

“What’s the plan?” the Chief asked, looking at the women on the ramp.

“Get with them,” Ben said, pointing at the women, “see where they want to put us.”

“Sir? Word is they started all this, so ain’t they the enemy?”

“I don’t know, Chief. Are they?”

“I’d say they are,” Bond said.

“Well, that’s just great. Maybe a few hundred people left here, and we’re going to spend our last few weeks trying to kill one another. I wonder who we can get to chisel that on our tombstones. ‘Here lies the remains of a race that just could not learn.’ Why don’t y’all go get some sticks and stones, try and beat some more people to death.”

He turned and looked at them, saw Piskov watching with a wry grin on his face. “No, really. That’s an order. Sticks and stones, men. Kill anything that moves…right now! Go! Go forth and KILL! Do your species proud – ?”

No one moved, no one said a word.

“Well, unless you’re going to stay here picking your nose, I suggest you get out there and figure out where all these injured need to go.”

“Come on, Chief,” loadmaster said. “Let’s go figure this out.”

“Yeah.”

“You okay?” Bond asked, and Piskov slid into the cockpit.

“What do you think?”

“Me? I think if you lose it, a whole lot of people are going to go down with you, so maybe you ought to snap out of it.”

“It’s true, believe him,” Piskov said, and Ben shook his head, couldn’t believe how dizzy he suddenly felt, then he looked down, saw his seat was full of fresh red blood, then he saw the chief down on the ground, watched him talking with Rutherford and the other women. At one point he saw the chief point to the flight deck, and then Rutherford looked up at him, nodded and spoke with her guards. He leaned back, shut his eyes then, and felt himself drifting away – and he tried to speak but found it difficult.

“I think y’all are going to have to get on without me now.”

Bond looked at Acheson, tried to keep him from falling out of the seat, but failed.

+++++

Acheson woke in a long night, saw he was in a field hospital of some sort, tried to take stock of where he was, what was happening around him, but there were only a few lights on, and those few were in the distance. A nurse walked by and he spoke out; she stopped and looked into his eyes, listened to his lungs, told him she would bring him something to drink and he leaned back, looked up at the fabric structure of the tent overhead – then he remembered Portugal. Their flight – their escape – and then – the bomb. It wasn’t all a dream, he realized. It had happened, yet now everything felt like a dream. Genie and The Duke, Carol and all the others – like a jumble of crazy-hazy memory, something that had been, and now – wasn’t. He wanted to crawl inside of himself and disappear after that, but Rutherford came to him, pulled up a chair and sat by him.

Then she handed him a Coke, in a plastic cup – with ice!

He sat up for that, and drank it slowly, savoring it, chewing the ice with a kid’s grin on his face, and at one point he looked at her, really absorbed her simple beauty. The kindest, yet most complex eyes he’d ever seen, and her lips. He looked at them and wanted to kiss them, then he saw Genie in his mind’s eye and wondered where she was – then he was spinning in light-headed fear.

He felt a hand on his forehead and looked up, realized he’d been sleeping again, then he saw Rutherford, still by his side. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sorry we didn’t get to have more time together.”

She was smiling, but she was crying, too, and he wondered why.

“You belonged to someone else, Ben, but I feel lucky, I finally found you.”

“Lucky?”

She nodded her head. “Yup. You know, I never fell in love. I was too busy studying all the ways love goes bad, and why people do terrible things in the name of love – but then there was you. You came out of nowhere and for the first time in my life I know what love was.”

“What was it, for you?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve been thinking about that for a while. Peace maybe? I looked at you once and I knew if I could just rest in your arms that everything would be okay. And that none of this would have happened. Isn’t that awful? How one person’s silly, shallow life ended up being contributing to the end of things?”

“We all contributed, in our way. Our apathy, our reaching out for easy answers. Our lack of compassion, empathy. It’s not anyone’s fault, Anne. It’s just who we are, were. We’re predators, all of us. And then there were too many.” It was difficult, but he slid over on the stretcher and made room for her, then opened his arms. “Lay with me now, would you?”

And she slid onto the stretcher, let him put his arms around her, and she lay facing him – looking eye to eye, soul to soul. He was searching for something, she thought, some way to make room in his heart for her, and he kissed her once again, then she felt him ease away.

She held him close, talked and talked about all the things they’d do once they were together again, and by the time she stopped talking he was still and cool. Still, she couldn’t let go, and in time she felt gentle, prying arms, soothing, caring voices, and as she watched them take his body away she felt, for the first time in her life, something like loss.

Coda

I’d come to think I’d had it with sailing by the time the three of us sailed into San Francisco Bay. The routines of long-distance sailing were already getting stale and tiresome, the watch-keeping and constant motion, and the perpetual uncertainty about what lurked unseen in the night wore on me constantly. Still, crawling through the shrubbery, our ‘escape’ from Lajes had come as an epiphany, a rebirth, of sorts. When we saw that marina I think we were each filled with an endless elation: escape was at hand, and the sea would deliver us from certain death.

We found a decent boat, Clytemnestra, an almost brand-new Nauticat 371, that had just been provisioned, her tanks filled, and we found her owner down below, clutching her chest, diaphoretic, her eyes full of panic. Tate and I cut her loose after I got the engine running, and I steered out of the marina and while Liz and Sephie rolled out the sails. We sailed due south for weeks, running from the wind, from the fallout. Persephone’s skilled hands coaxed life back into the owner, who we discovered was a physician from London. She was out to see the world after her husband passed, alone, grieving, and we found our way to the Cape Verde Islands three weeks later, after GPS signals miraculously reappeared. We took on water, managed to get some fuel, and continued sailing south.

A new routine developed on Clytemnestra, a routine based on washing her decks with sea water every two hours. Blackened dust fell on everything constantly, and the evil stuff got into every nook and cranny, especially down below. We assumed everything that fell on the decks was radioactive so, if we failed to keep her decks fresh, our risk would only increase. Yet we noticed a change soon enough, something rather uplifting within a few weeks. The further south we sailed, the less fallout we accumulated on deck. At Cape Verde we took Clytemnestra’s sails down and doused them in the sea, aired them on the beach, then Tate and I shook them out before we put them up again. We put out to sea after that, aiming to get as far south as we could before winter set in.

Jill Armstrong was a sort of minor revelation, a patient, thoughtful scientist. And, of course, in the end Tate fell in love with her. There coming together seemed pre-ordained in some weird way. The patient, thoughtful scientist and the quiet, observant detective, like two remote vestiges of an old way of life, seeking comfort now, and a way forward.

Persephone, being the sort of earth-mother type that blesses all love, made room for Jill in her heart, while Liz just seemed to enjoy the company of another articulate women. Who knows, maybe we would learn this time, learn to value women as equals, learn to care for them as we care for ourselves. Anyway, we arrived at Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, just as winter was coming on. Being crewed by a nurse and a physician, and a Londoner at that, saw us welcomed with open arms, and the girls and I looked at one another, knew we were home now, that our journey was at an end. Not quite the voyage we set out to make, but there you go.

There has been almost zero radiation this far south, and both the soil and water are clear of the devilish stuff, for now, anyway. There was little news about the north after the internet collapsed, only initial reports that loss of life had been extreme. The islanders didn’t really know what happened, or why, and really, neither did we. Rutherford did, and maybe even Acheson did too. It was enough, in the end, to realize that man had taken a few wrong turns along the way, and that now survival would take precedence, above everything else, and perhaps war would be at an end.

Or perhaps not. I tend to doubt we’ll ever learn from our mistakes, but I could be wrong.

We moved into a commune of sorts, an agricultural commune at that, and we settled in for the long night as the first snows of winter fell, and we went to sleep, an easy, deep sleep, and we were soon dreaming of the Spring.

Yet I thought about Acheson a lot those first days here. The pilot in command, so sure of himself, so sure of his destiny, and I wonder what became of him. He was the best of us, I thought once. Who knows. Maybe he was.

I think of him taking that Rutherford woman into the toilet that day, the walls banging away, the muted moans and desperate pleas. So many contradictions, so many unintended consequences wrapped up in that moment. I wonder, was it lust, masquerading as love? Or had love really come for them?

Liz still has a few little blue pills in her case, but now I wonder, too, what happens when they’re gone? It seems, one way or another, we turned our back on all that when we turned away from the gifts, and the curses, science bestowed. Things, little magic things people in their ignorance took for granted. Driving to church, in a car? Can you imagine, really, what that means? The hypocrisy, the sheer hubris? A man my age with two gorgeous women? Can you imagine what will happen when the little blue pills are gone?

And I think that scares me more than anything else, you know?

+++++

© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

All persons and incidents developed in this work of fiction simply do not exist and have not happened, nor are any characters in this story meant to represent any current or former members of the DPD, FBI, or any member of the armed forces, either in the US or abroad.

+++++

Anyway, there it is.

Happy trails, and thanks for dropping by.

Aa