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1. The Eagle and the Snake: A SEAL Team Six Interactive Thriller by W. Craig Reed 4
2. The Cure: A Thriller by Bradlee Frazer 3. Executive Actions by Gary Grossman 4. Executive Treason by Gary Grossman 5. The Firebird Affair by Dusko Doder 6. The Good Physician by Kent Harrington 7. Red Jungle by Kent Harrington 8. The Dean’s List by Jimmy Petrosino 9. Petroplague by Amy Rogers 10. Faking Life by Jason Pinter
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The Eagle and the Snake: A SEAL Team Six Interactive Thriller
by W. Craig Reed
Southern Iraq, 2003 Their eyes are filled with terror. Doctor Alfred Winslow shivered as a hard rain tapped on his Indiana Jones hat. Children of dead mothers peered at him through the vertical openings of their makeshift canvas homes. The soiled tents, taut and erect, stretched to the horizon like soldiers guarding the gates of Hell. Winslow followed in the tracks of his brown translator as they trudged down a muddy road, circled the tents and crossed a small ravine. Winslow coughed. “Where are they, Ghalib?” The Iraqi translator pointed. “Over there.” More tents lined the gully. As Winslow approached, he gagged. He’d smelled death before, but nothing like this. A withered man stood nearby. His skin mushroom gray, his jowls sagging, his forehead mottled with spots, the aged guardian opened one of the canvas tombs. Winslow placed a bandana across his nose and mouth and entered. He moved his gaze to the floor. Four bodies lay sprawled face up, eyes bulging. Something black oozed from every pore. “Jesus God Almighty,” Winslow said. He knelt and opened his pack; removed a pair of surgeon’s gloves and a large syringe. He donned the gloves and inserted the needle into a dead leg. Drew a vial of blood. He repeated the process with the other three cadavers and rose to his feet. “When did this start?” Gahlib motioned to the tent opening. “Can we talk outside?” “Yes, of course.” The rain died to a drizzle. “The first one got sick a week ago,” Gahlib said. “Thirty more since then.” “How many have survived?” Winslow asked. “None.” “None? How long does it take?” Gahlib shrugged. “Two, maybe three days.” “That’s impossible, you must be mistaken.” “None have lived longer than seventy-two hours.” Winslow shook his head. Raindrops slid from his hat. “There is no disease known to man that can kill every single victim within days.”
Gahlib wiped a bead of water from his forehead. “There is now.”
Death is the tyrant of the imagination. The acrid taste of pure oxygen rolled across Ensign Jon Shay’s tongue. His eyes closed, his ears wanting reprieve from the thrum of the plane’s quad turbos, he pictured the barren Iraqi desert thirty thousand feet below the giant “Herky Bird” transport. Jon also thought about the small village they were about to assault, and the more than two dozen bad guys who’d be firing back. Commander Dan Davis, sitting nearby, sounded off an order. “Stand by for HAHO.” Jon heard the voice crackle in his earpiece. He opened his eyes as the aft ramp lowered. Storm clouds on the horizon brushed away the sun and ushered in the night. A biting wind, chilled by the altitude, whipped across the metal deck and turned scattered water drops into tinkling cubes of ice. Jon’s adrenaline surged. Calm down. It’s just a routine HAHO. Not true. Nothing is routine about jumping from an airplane six miles up. Unlike HALO jumps, where operators open their chutes near the ground after a free fall, High Altitude High Opening jumps require pulling the cord in timed intervals—within a few seconds after leaving the plane. They also specify leaping into air chilled to fifty degrees below zero. At that altitude the air thins to damned near nothing. Physics demands wearing a self-contained rig with a mask, regulator, and O2 bottle. Without that air, sour tasting or not, Jon knew he’d lose consciousness and slam his six-foot-two, 190 pound body into a shallow grave. “Drop zone in five,” Davis said over the com line. Jon had been cordially compelled to make two HAHO jumps in training, and both hurt like hell. When his body hit the jet stream at a brisk 180 miles per hour, he’d had just two seconds to ensure a stable “chest to ground” posture before pulling his ripcord. Even with a perfect line-up, the chute-opening jolt hurt a lot worse than being sacked by a linebacker. “Shay,” Davis said, “you checked and set?” “Yes sir,” Jon said. “Checked and set.” “Good. Training’s over, Green Boy. This one’s for real.” Davis had been calling Jon “Green Boy” for the past several months, ever since he’d been transferred to SEAL Team Six and started training for this mission. At first Jon had wondered if Davis might be prejudice against Jon’s dark eyes and half-Chinese features. He later learned that Davis had less than an ounce of bigotry and gave every new guy on Team Six a demeaning nickname until they earned a better one, usually by dodging a bullet. The half-Latino, half-Caucasion Commander Davis grew up on the side of the tracks where gang colors trumped everything. Where names like Slobs and Folk won out over Theta
and Chi. His face battle-scarred, Davis looked tougher than a short kid in East L.A. but had more street-smarts than a Harvard MBA—especially when a passing grade meant staying alive. His massive frame, bundled inside his jump suit, made him look like a WWD wrestler modeling a new line of body armor. To Davis’s left, Petty Officer “Bulldog” Sandoval resembled an out-of-place midget. At five-foot-seven inches tall and 165 pounds, Jon wondered how the guy had graduated from Navy SEAL training. Still, Bulldog could wolf down more chow and burp louder than anyone on the team, which had to count for something. One of the pilots cut in over the line. “Commander Davis?” “Davis here.” “We’ve got one hell of a tail wind from that storm behind us. Pushing our ass right out of the safe zone for a HAHO.” “What’s the air speed now?” Davis asked. Filtered by Jon’s headset, the commander’s voice popped and clicked like a pepper grinder. “Three hundred over the ground. I’ve got the power back and flaps all the way down and we’re still pushing an airspeed of over two hundred.” “Line us up,” Davis said. “We’re jumping.” Jon imagined the pilot’s eyes in the cockpit, wide with disbelief. He wasn’t alone. In the seat next to Jon, also bulk-bundled, Petty Officer “Jolly” Mackenzie’s eyebrows shot upward. Even though the big guy weighed in as the team’s scariest specimen, committing suicide by jumping at this airspeed probably wasn’t on his to-do list. Jolly’s bald and bulging exterior might resemble The Hulk, but under his rhino hide lived a doughnut-centered nice guy who sent flowers to his mom. “Jolly,” Davis said, “you’ve got point. Stand by to lead us out.” In a HAHO jump, the first one out of the plane had little to do with rank and everything to do with experience. Jon knew that Jolly had logged the most jumps on the team, which earned him the privilege of leading everyone off the ramp. “Let’s see if you boys are bad enough to stay on my six,” Jolly said. “Be more of a challenge if your ass wasn’t so wide,” Bulldog said. Jon tried to laugh, but only mustered a small grin. Fear whispered in his ear again. Said he’d screw up and break his neck. Seems like fear had been his nemesis forever, riding shotgun and talking trash. Funny how fear always sounded like the man who’d killed his mother. After making a few final adjustments to his O2 control valve, Jon donned a pair of thermal glove liners and outer gloves that locked at the wrist with Velcro. The C-130 jerked and dropped several hundred feet through the air as a wind shear hit head on. The brief weightless sensation caused Jon’s stomach to flutter. “One minute to green light, Commander,” the pilot said. “Okay, ladies, you all know the drill,” Davis said. “Use your GPS to hook up if you miss the LZ. Radio silence once we’re on the ground.”
A battering tailwind, slashing hard through the open ramp, threatened to swat the team out the back of the aircraft. Jon swallowed a clump of saliva, stood and lined up single file behind the others. The red light near the door turned green. Without a word, Jolly ran off the ramp into the night. Davis and Bulldog followed. Jon held his breath, sprinted behind Bulldog and jumped headfirst into the jet stream. The initial blast hit like a right hook from Evander Holyfield. Jon now had two seconds to recover from the blow and get into position, otherwise the flow off the underside of the giant plane might shoot him upward like a flipped quarter. A slight lean to the left or right and the resulting out-of-control flat spin could snap his neck. Though he’d mentally prepared for the chute opening, the sudden mid-air stop all but pushed his feet up inside his head. Once past the negative G effect, Jon double-checked his canopy and then looked down to be sure he wasn’t going to cause a four-car pileup. He glanced at the altimeter on his control board, just above his rucksack, attached to a harness between his legs—24,000 feet and falling slow. After an hour of falling, Jon checked his altimeter again— 2,000 feet off the deck. A gust of wind hit him square in the back, fluttered his chute, and sent a chill down his spine. “I’m heading into the wind for a line-up,” Jolly reported over his Satcom. As the first man out, his job description included lining up the team for a proper landing. “Roger that,” Davis acknowledged. At around 500 feet, with the wind blowing hard at his backside, Jon glanced downward. All he could see in the dark were eerie shadows rushing toward him. He yanked on a tab and turned to face the oncoming gale. Although his ground speed registered as far too high for a safe touchdown, he could do little to change that now. “I suggest pulling your trim tabs down to the retainer,” Jolly said. Jon knew that pulling the tabs helped dump most of the air out the back of his chute to speed up forward momentum and increase his descent rate. Given the difficulty and danger of the maneuver, each man made his own decision to pull or not. Jon pulled, then wished he hadn’t. His backside hit the ground hard as he came down. His chute jerked him upward and sent him tumbling. Davis ran over, yanked on the canopy to keep it from flying upward, and pulled Jon to his feet. The Commander grinned and said, “Nice landing, Green Boy.” Offering a befuddled smile, Jon unhooked his chute and rolled it up. In the ink of a moonless night, after feeling for broken bones and lost gear, the team donned night-vision goggles and readied weapons. Checking his watch, Jon noted that they had about an hour to reach their objective, some five klicks away. Jolly took point and sprinted through the dark. Jon followed, his night-vision one-eye transforming the night into Emerald City. Davis hugged Jon’s six, with Bulldog trailing at the rear. Save for the sound of buzzing insects, the night offered a blank canvas of sound. Dried grass and sand crunched beneath boots as the team executed a moderate sprint through the dark.
Jolly slowed his pace as they neared the village. Davis signaled for the team to drop to the ground. Through Jon’s night-eye, the huts, coated in phosphor-green, appeared close. He wiped his brow. The desert had not yet cooled after suffering an earlier beating from Dante’s Inferno. As he stared at the twinkling lights in the distance, a cigarette flickered and went dark next to the nearest hut on the left. A terrorist. Slight movement between two huts on the right. Another Tango. Davis signaled for Jon and Bulldog to head left while he and Jolly moved right. Near the edge of a canal, adjacent to some huts, small motorboats and fishing gear covered the sand. Jon flashed a signal for Bulldog to find a covered position behind the gear. Bulldog nodded and stepped with ballerina feet toward the boats. He stopped. The skinny Texan lowered his head and stared at his right foot. His eyes popped open. Beads of sweat slid down Jon’s cheek as Bulldog raised his foot from the ground. Nothing exploded. The little guy pointed at a large slab of donkey shit dangling from his boot. Smiling, he pulled his knife and scraped off the mess. Jon returned the smile, but only briefly. The two moved into position. Jon crouched behind an embankment near the canal, with Bulldog a few yards away, and leveled his CAR-15 rifle at the closest hut. A single drop of rain touched his face. Two more drops followed in close succession. A brief flash on the horizon announced the promise of a heavy downpour by daybreak. Jon’s trigger finger twitched as he waited for Davis to give the order, waited for his first kill, waited for fear to tell him he’d screw up again. He scanned the nearest hut for movement. Nothing. Then a dark shape formed on the edge of his vision. He turned. A woman walking toward a hut. Squat and stocky, she stood a few dozen yards away, her face covered by a scarf. She hadn’t seen him, but Jon knew if he squeezed off a round now he’d alert the Tangos far sooner than planned. He glanced at Bulldog. The Texan slid his knife out again. The woman lifted a stubby arm and pointed. A piercing shriek wafted through the air as the woman warbled a high-pitched scream. Bulldog hurled the knife. The knife split her forehead and silenced her voice. Their cover blown, Jon popped a grenade into the M203 launcher mounted on his CAR15 and pulled the trigger. A sharp clap preceded dozens of staccato thuds as shrapnel slammed into metal and man near the center of the village. A bearded Tango ran from a hut and threw himself on the sand, screaming and clutching at his burning face. He rolled twice and stopped. A lump formed in Jon’s throat. He’d just made his first kill, and a dozen Tangos with spitting Uzis wanted retribution. Jon loaded another M203 onto his launcher and pulled the trigger. …or… Jon aimed his CAR-15 at the screaming terrorist and pulled the trigger.
Do Navy SEALs train as hard as they fight? Let’s ask the former Executive Officer of the BUD/S training command…
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The Cure A Thriller by Bradlee Frazer
CHAPTER 1 Craig Marcus did not enjoy watching people die. The Driver, on the other hand, enjoyed it very much. Marcus mused over this fact as he stared at the surrounding sea of cactus and sand that blistered in the Arizona sun, mesmerized by the dull thrum of the tires and the sameness of the landscape flowing past his window. His head bobbed, his chin dropped to his chest and his hand twitched, jostling the Coke can in the cup holder. "How old is she?" the Driver asked. Marcus’ head snapped up and his gut tightened. He looked at the man driving the car, studied his cold gunmetal eyes and then noticed for the first time that he still wore a “Hello My Name is Walter” sticker on the lapel of his matte black jacket, no doubt a vestige of some social event to which he had driven Phillip Porter, and then Porter had made him accompany him inside. "Thirty-one," Marcus said. The Driver did not respond, but Marcus looked at him and watched his face as the corners of his mouth twitched upward, not quite forming a smile. Marcus grimaced at the display. "Nice," the Driver said. Marcus opened his mouth in protest, a finger extended toward the Driver’s head. “Look Walter,” he said, “you —“ The Driver glared, cutting him off. “Only Mr. Porter can call me that,” he said. “Please don’t forget.” Marcus inhaled as if to speak, then withdrew his finger and wilted. He turned away to continue watching the parade of desert flora. The Mercedes pulled into a long cobblestone driveway, and Marcus saw the stately facades and sun-bleached columns of The Complex’s red brick buildings. Like a college campus, Marcus thought, except for the hundred miles of lifeless desert surrounding the place. The Driver nosed the Benz into a space labeled "Dr. Craig Marcus," and they got out of the car. Marcus felt the sun’s heat burning his scalp, and he stole an envious glance at the Driver’s thick, shortcropped hair.
The security guard at the entrance scanned their lapel badges and said, "Hello, Dr. Marcus," before looking back down to his computer screen. He did not acknowledge the Driver. Marcus stepped through the metal detector into the lobby and offered silent thanks for air conditioning, then headed toward the elevator, the Driver on his heels. Marcus stabbed the call button twice, then stepped back and looked around. "Where is everyone?" he said. The Driver shrugged. Marcus inhaled and enjoyed the medicinal tang of Mentholatum and rubbing alcohol, the smell of childhood visits to the doctor’s office. His reverie was interrupted when the elevator doors popped open and the Driver grabbed his elbow to pull him into the car. Music was playing, tinny and flat, from a speaker hidden in the elevator's roof. Marcus heard mumbling and looked over at the Driver, who was, despite the elevator’s subdued lighting, sliding on a pair of sunglasses, snake-like and cool. Marcus noticed that the Driver's lips were moving: " . . . long and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking . . . ." The Driver was singing along with the Muzak. The elevator doors opened, exposing the third floor lobby, and they stepped out into an empty foyer where the hospital smell was stronger and the air was cold. Marcus shuddered and looked around, aware of the security cameras trained on him. He saw no nurses' station, only a lone sign indicating that rooms 312-320 were down a hallway to the left. It was quiet, except for the occasional murmuring of conversation coming from the rooms. Marcus tried to make out the words, but they were muffled and distant, like they were coming from yesterday. "What was the room number again?" he said, his voice bouncing down the cinderblock corridor. The Driver motioned Marcus to walk in front of him. "Three-one-eight," he said, singsong, "The Girl from Ipanema" still coloring his intonation. Marcus hesitated, then sucked in a breath and headed down the hall. Marcus walked with determination and focus, aware of the Driver right behind him, their heels clicking in cadence on the polished tile floor, the kind the janitors were always buffing in grade school. He looked left and right into the rooms as they walked. Click, click, click. He could see big chrome hospital beds with crisp white linens enclosing thin, pale patients. Most of them were alone. Some were reading. Others watched television. Almost all of them had no hair. Click, click, click. Marcus kept walking and forced himself to keep his eyes straight ahead. "Three-one-eight," the Driver said, pointing. Marcus glanced at the nameplate on the door: "Katrine Waters," he said. He peeked inside and saw a woman lying in bed with various plastic bags hooked on poles beside her, potions dripping into her veins. She was reed thin and pale, her skin translucent against her bones. "She looks bad," he whispered to the Driver. "Yep," the Driver said as he clapped Marcus on the back. "Good job." A man and a little girl were with the woman, and the Driver pointed at them, his left eyebrow raised. "Husband and daughter," Marcus said. The Driver made a face.
Marcus forced a smile and stepped forward, the Driver at his side. He listened, a doctor’s instinct, for the EKG’s beeping as he entered the room, but the woman’s labored breathing eclipsed the monitor’s sounds. The little girl sat on the bed next to her mom while the husband stood nearby, the family talking and laughing, a folded-up cot and sleeping bag against the wall behind him, a picture of displaced domesticity. The conversation stopped when Marcus and the Driver entered the room. "Hello, Dr. Marcus," Katrine wheezed. She tried to smile. Her husband did not. Marcus moved to the bed and took the woman's hand in his as Katrine brushed a wisp of hair out of her face and said, "You don't have a bottle of Rogaine on you by any chance, do you?" Marcus laughed. "Oh, come on," he said. "You look great. Besides, your hair will grow back when we finish the treatments. How are you feeling?" The Driver had retreated to a corner of the room and now watched from the shadows, sunglasses glowing alien-like with reflected light. "I’m O.K., I guess—except for the nausea." Katrine inhaled, and then coughed a deep hollow cough that shook her entire frame. "You know what they say," Marcus said. "'They have to kill you to save you.'" The Driver snickered once, and then the room fell silent as the failed attempt at humor hung in the air, an elephant in the corner of the room. Marcus cleared his throat and turned to the child. "And how are you, Amy?" he said. The little girl scooted up toward the pillow and placed her hand on her mother's shoulder. Katrine responded and reached out to stroke her daughter's hair. "Thanks, sweetie," Katrine said. Amy smiled, but her eyes glistened. "Amy," Marcus said, "do you like stickers?" The little girl nodded, and Marcus pulled a package of dinosaur stickers from his jacket pocket. He handed them to Amy, who grinned and held them up to show her mom. Katrine smiled and said, “Thanks." The husband caught Marcus’ attention and motioned him to the foot of the bed. Marcus moved to join him and saw the Driver scowl, so Marcus placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and turned him away from the caustic expression. The husband paused for a moment before speaking, his hand on his forehead. "The drugs you’re giving her are killing her," he finally said in a rasp, his eyes rimmed with red, his chin covered with three-day’s growth of beard. Marcus tightened his grip on the man's shoulder. "I appreciate your concern, Mike, but the trial won't be done for another two wee—" "She'll be dead in two weeks," Mike said, cutting Marcus off, his voice rising. “You and I both know you’re just guessing at this since this disease is new and no one really knows what it is or how to treat it. I mean, look what it’s doing to her!” Marcus looked at the Driver, his scowl now ugly and coarse, and moved Mike farther from the bed. "Look, you’ve got to calm down," Marcus said, his voice low. "It's not a good idea to let Katrine see you get upset. Your attitude is a big part of her recovery."
Mike took a deep breath and looked at the floor, and Marcus threw a reassuring nod to the Driver, who still glowered at the pair. "Besides," Marcus continued, "we have all the facilities here to monitor—" "Daddy!” Marcus stopped mid-sentence, interrupted by Amy's scream. Mike shoved Marcus out of the way and ran to the side of the bed, where Katrine sat bolt upright, the color gone from her cheeks, her eyes staring dully ahead. Mike held her shoulders and searched her face for recognition. "Honey?" he said. "Baby?" Suddenly, as if to answer, Katrine began to cough. Not polite coughs, but rasping barks that shook her body again and again, her breathing now reduced to wheezing gasps, the EKG racing with arrhythmia. Amy moved back away from her mom and huddled at the foot of the bed, her knees to her chest. Mike held Katrine's face in his hands. "Calm down, baby," he begged, but the convulsions threw her head back and forth, and she clawed at his arms. He turned to Marcus. "Do something!" he shouted. Marcus rushed forward with a start and grabbed the phone on the nightstand, punched numbers on the keypad and held the receiver to his ear. "Answer!" he shouted. He threw the phone to the floor and turned to run into the hallway, but stopped short of the door, listening: the coughing had stopped. He looked at Katrine. She was no longer convulsing, and her head now rested against Mike's chest. Mike was stroking her hair and whispering, "It's O.K. It's O.K." Marcus ran to Katrine, but Mike had enveloped her. "Let go!" Marcus shouted as he forced his hands between their bodies and pulled them apart, pushing Katrine back onto the mattress. "Take Amy," he commanded. Mike grabbed the little girl, now silent, too frightened to cry, and held her. Father and daughter stood by the side of the bed, watching Marcus depress Katrine's sternum. "Come on, Katrine," he said through clenched teeth. "One, two, three, four, five— breathe," he recited, trying to remember the rhythm. Marcus stopped pushing, put his mouth around Katrine's cold lips, and exhaled. He felt the disease resist him, and listened to his breath rattle and bubble as it came back out her fluid-filled lungs. He again put his hands on her chest. "One, two, three, four, five." Mike held Amy tight, her face against his chest, but she slipped from his embrace and moved to the corner of the room, where she crumpled into a ball, her arms over her head. In the other corner, the Driver watched, his face still and cold. Marcus heard a noise in the hallway and looked up to see two nurses and an orderly barrel into the room. He backed away from Katrine as the team descended on her and affixed tubes to her throat and stuck needles in her arms, and kept moving back until he bumped into the wall, where he stood, pale and sweating, watching Katrine stiffen and jump in response to the paddles they placed on her chest, again and again. The Driver looked over at Marcus, and then sidled up next to him and put his arm around his shoulder. “Pretty brave,” the Driver said, his voice low. “Wrapping your mouth around her mouth like that. Never know what you might catch. Yeah, brave,” he said, “but still, it didn’t
help, did it?” The Driver leaned closer, placed his lips next to Marcus’ ear and whispered, “Way to go, Killer.” — The specialist's office was located in the wooded hills near the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. The receptionist ushered the Holloways into a conference room lined with diplomas and certificates and dark walnut paneling. "Dr. Marcus will be with you in just a minute," she said. The three sat in silence while the little girl played with a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers doll until the door opened and a man with thinning hair and wire-rimmed glasses came into the room. He wore a blue pinstripe suit, black wingtips, and a red silk tie. Carmen looked up and managed a slight smile, but Tom remained impassive, his face unchanged. Tom extended a calloused hand, and the man clasped it within long slender fingers finished by well-groomed nails. "I'm Craig Marcus," the man said. "Tom Holloway, and this is my wife Carmen." They shook hands, and Dr. Marcus joined the Holloways at the table. He looked at the little girl and smiled. "You must be Jennifer," he said. The girl looked up, wary, her eyes and face carrying worry and pain. She twisted Red Ranger's arms until they were almost pulled from the sockets. "Jenny," she said. Marcus smiled. "Jenny. Got it." He reached out and touched Red Ranger. "Is this your doll?" he said. Jenny rolled her green eyes. "Action figure," she said. He nodded. "Ah. Sorry. Do you like stickers?" Jenny smiled. Marcus pulled a package of stickers from his jacket pocket and laid them on the table. Jenny examined the gift, and her smile vanished. "Barney's for babies," she said. "Strike three," Marcus said. Carmen grabbed the stickers and placed them in her purse. She scolded Jenny with a frown, and then looked at Marcus. "Sorry," she said, "she's tired." "Not a problem," he said, smiling a little, his eyes still on Jenny. "I hear you don't feel very good." "Uh-uh," she said. "Why don't you tell me what happened?" Jenny looked up at Carmen for support, and Carmen nodded. "Well," Jenny said, with the practiced recitation of a doctor’s office veteran, "my friend Ben and me were playin’ with Hoover and —" "Who's Hoover?" Marcus said. Jenny grinned. "Hoover's my dog. He's a Jack Daniels terrier." "Russell," Carmen corrected her. "Jack Russell terrier." "Oh," Marcus said. "I like terriers."
"So anyway, we were throwin’ a ball for Hoover and I fell and broke my leg." Jenny pointed at her cast. "When I went to the doctor to get it fixed, they found that my bones were all messed up inside me." Carmen exhaled, her shoulders slumped. "The fall shattered her femur," she said. "They operated to insert some metal pins and screws, and they couldn’t do much with what they found. So they sent us here." Marcus nodded, and then opened a folder on the table. "I spoke to Jenny's doctor," he said, looking down at his notes. "No specific diagnosis," he said. "That’s odd. Most juvenile illnesses are well defined. But we’ve been hearing more and more about this new idiopathic—” “Huh?” Tom said. “Sorry. Means ‘of unknown origin.’ New idiopathic disease that has symptoms like this.” Carmen opened her own folder and pulled out a well-worn piece of lined notebook paper. "Tom and I have been over it and over it, and we can't afford to pay you very much—here's our budget, so you can see for yourself." She slid the paper across the table. "But we'll do whatever we can, as long as you can help Jenny." Marcus looked up from his notes, then reached out and slid the paper back toward Carmen. "I'm not worried about money right now. Let's worry about Jenny first. Yes?" Tom relaxed at Marcus' words. He adjusted his baseball cap, and then put the paper into his pocket. "Sounds good to me," he said. "Good," Marcus said. "Now. How's she been feeling?" Carmen's bottom lip began to quiver. She grabbed the arms of her chair and took a series of labored breaths, fighting tears as Tom watched, his face red. Finally, Carmen's breathing eased and she loosened her grip on the chair. "It's been really hard," she said. "We're afraid she's going to hurt herself." "They said her bones are all brittle now, like an old lady's," Tom said. "We keep thinking she's going to break—like a china doll." Marcus looked at Jenny and reached out to pat her hand. "It's probably doing Jenny more harm than good for you to be overly cautious," he said. "When you're stressed, Jenny gets stressed, and that's not conducive to her getting better." Tom shifted in his chair but didn't speak, and Carmen made an obvious effort not to look in his direction. "We'll work on it," she said. Marcus looked back at his notes. "I understand Jenny's doctor couldn’t offer you many different treatment options." Carmen sat up with purpose, animated now, tears gone. "Yes," she said, "yes, that’s right. We’ve done a lot of research on our own on the Internet, and this bone thing is really weird, but there seem to be more and more cases like Jenny’s around the country. Like a new strain of flu or something. Her pediatrician said you were the best diagnostician around, and that all these new cases were coming to you," Carmen said. Tom grunted an affirmation.
"Thank you," Marcus said. "I admit that I am intrigued by this, as I’ve also seen several new patients presenting with similar symptoms." Tom blanched and swallowed hard, then spoke up. "The leg," he said. He looked at Jenny, who was moving Red Ranger through a series of high kicks worthy of the Rockettes. “Can we save it?” Jenny looked up, her face pale. "My leg? Cut off my leg?" Tom picked Jenny up and moved her to the couch on the other side of the room. "No, honey, everything's gonna be fine. You play over here, O.K.?" he said. Jenny, suspicious and not mollified, watched the adults out of the corner of her eye. Tom returned to the desk and whispered, “The leg?" Marcus cleared his throat. "It depends on how damaged the femur is, and her other bones and surrounding tissues. From what I have seen, this thing, this new disease, whatever it is, spreads quickly." "Metastasizes," Carmen interrupted. Marcus nodded. "‘Metastasize’ is a cancer word, but yeah, that’s a good analogy. It seems to start in the lungs and then move to the bones.” Carmen nodded, her jaw clenched to preempt more quivering. "So there's probably not much we can do with surgery at this point," Marcus said. Tom nodded. "So there's no reason to take the leg." Marcus shook his head. "Thank heavens," Carmen said. She turned and gave Jenny a thumbs-up, and Jenny beamed. "So," Carmen said, turning back to Marcus, "what next?” "We need to figure out what this is, run some more tests," he said. Tom and Carmen sat, staring at Marcus, until Tom began to stir. "That's it?” he said. “'Tests?' We're not just going to let her die while you run more tests! We need to do something now!" Marcus shifted in his seat. "Of course you're not going to let her die, Mr. Holloway," he said. "What I'm telling you is that it is pointless for me or any doctor to try something to help Jenny until we know what’s wrong with her." Marcus glanced up at Tom’s “Kreizenbeck Construction” baseball cap. “You don’t use a cement mixer to hammer a nail,” he said. Tom stood and pointed his finger at Marcus. "I've had just about enough of you doctors!" he yelled. Carmen motioned to Jenny, who slid onto her mother's lap and put her head on her shoulder. Carmen put her arms around the girl and smoothed Jenny’s strawberry blonde curls against her chest as the two hunkered down together, seasoned veterans, to wait out the approaching storm. "I may look stupid just because I work for a living and my hands are rough, not like yours,” Tom said, “but I am not stupid, and I am tired of you getting our hopes up and then telling us all we can do is more tests. If that’s the best you can do, well then, no thanks." Marcus extended his hand and gestured toward the chair. "Sit down, Tom," he said. "Please."
Tom's face was still red as he stood and stared down at Marcus, breathing hard. Finally, he turned and sat. Marcus cleared his throat. "We are fortunate that I have access to some very sophisticated tests in a very sophisticated setting, tests that Jenny’s pediatrician did not have, so that we can figure out what this is and find something that will help her," he said. Tom looked hard at him through squinted eyes. "I'm listening," he said. — The sun had long since disappeared into the Pacific and was now only a rose-colored glow from beyond the edge of the western horizon. Marcus sat at his desk and looked out at the Bay through a large window, the spires of the Golden Gate Bridge just visible to his left. He turned on a reading lamp, its light casting him in stark shadow against the beige office walls. His computer monitor displayed a web site containing search results on news stories about a mystery virus, and Jenny's file lay open on the desk next to a half-empty bottle of Dewar’s and a shot glass. Marcus sighed. "Damn," he said. "Damn the disease, and damn Phillip Porter." He picked up the telephone handset and punched a series of numbers, then refilled the tumbler. He tossed back the whiskey and swallowed, appreciating the burn and hoping the spirits would dull his comprehension. "Mr. Porter?" he said through clenched teeth, "this is Craig Marcus." He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose, the Scotch not working. "I've got a promising new candidate for The Complex."
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by Gary Grossman
Chapter 1 Washington, D.C. Sunday 22 June
“Topic one. Theodore Wilson Lodge. Presidential material?” bellowed the host at the top of his Sunday morning television show. He directed his question to the political pundit to his left. “Victor Monihan, syndicated columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, is Teddy ready, yes or no?” “Yes,” Monihan shot back. You had to speak up quickly on the lively program. There was no air between questions and answers. “If the cameras could vote, he’d be a shoo-in.” “But they don’t. So again, will it be Mr. Lodge goes to Washington?” quizzed the host of The McLaughlin Group. The reference to the Frank Capra movie was lost on most of the audience. Even AMC and Turner Classics weren’t running very many black and white movies anymore. “Absolutely.” Monihan didn’t take a breath between thoughts. The host hated dead air. Pause and you’re dead. Someone else will jump in. “He’s totally informed, he’s had great committee assignments and he can do the job. Congressman Lodge comes off as a highly capable leader. Trustworthy. The all-American boy grown up. And he positively looks like a president should look . . . presidential.” “So a tan and a good build gets you to the White House?” the host argued. “It means I don’t have to worry about him taking my job.” The overweight columnist laughed, which made his belly spread his shirt to a point just shy of popping the buttons. The joke was good, but he lost his platform with it. “Roger Deutsch, freelance writer for Vanity Fair, right now Lodge is trailing Governor Lamden. Can Teddy make it up?” “No. With only two days before the New York primary, there’s no way Lodge can do it. He doesn’t have the votes. And there’s not enough time to get them. Henry Lamden will be addressing the Democratic Party at the August convention in Denver. But even when he gets the nomination, he’ll have a hard time against Taylor.” The discussion expanded to include the other members of the panel. They talked about Montana Governor Henry Lamden’s qualities. About President Morgan Taylor’s rigid persona. About the voters’ appetite. And back again to the possibilities. “Is there any way Lodge can do
what fellow Vermont favorite son Calvin Coolidge did: go all the way to the White House?” the venerable host rhetorically asked. The panel knew this was not the time to reply. Turning to the camera the host said, “Not according to my watch.” This was the throw to the video package from the campaign trail. Teddy Lodge smiled as he sat on the edge of his hotel bed to get closer to the TV set. He was half-packed. The rest would wait until the videotape report concluded. Lodge pressed the volume louder on his remote. “It’s on,” he called to his wife, Jenny. “Be right out,” she answered from the bathroom. Lodge tightened the knot on the handpainted tie he’d been given the day before. The gift, from a home crafter in Albany, would go into his collection and eventually into his Presidential Library. But first he’d wear it for the cameras. She’d see it and tell everyone she knew. More votes. Mrs. Lodge leaned over her husband and hugged him as he watched himself on TV. “You look great, sweetheart.” He agreed. The footage was perfect: Lodge in the thick of an adoring Manhattan crowd, the wind playing with his wavy brown hair, his Armani suit jacket draped over his arm. He came off relaxed and in charge; less like a politician than an everyday guy. An everyday guy who saw himself as President of the United States. And at 6’2” he stood above most of the crowd. Lodge knew the unusual statistical edge his height provided. Historically, the taller of the two major presidential candidates almost always wins the election. And he was considerably taller than President Morgan Taylor. The host obviously wasn’t a supporter. But the coverage counted. He hit the bullet points of Lodge’s career. “Teddy’s been fast-tracking since college. He graduated Yale Law School and has a graduate degree in Physics at Stanford. The man speaks three languages. He worked on various government contracts until he decided to return to his country home in Burlington, Vermont, and run for State Assembly. Two years later, so long Burlington, hello Washington. Mr. Lodge went to Capitol Hill as a young, energetic first-term congressman. He distinguished himself in international politics and now serves as Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. He’s as close to a rocket scientist as they come in Washington. He heads the House Committee on Energy and understands the complexities of the issues. But is he going to the White House?” the moderator asked in his feature videotape. “New Yorkers will decide Tuesday.” And with that set up came the obligatory sound bite. It couldn’t have been better if Teddy Lodge had picked it himself. It was declarative and persuasive. The producer of the video package must have been in his camp. “Tomorrow the world will be different. More dangerous. More hateful. Different times need different leaders. Make no mistake, there are no more safe harbors or promised lands.
Unless … unless we make better choices today than yesterday. Better friends tomorrow than today.” As he watched, Lodge remembered the clincher was yet to come. Things like that just didn’t get cut. He was right. “So come with me and discover a new America. Come with me and discover a new world.” Thunderous applause followed; applause from the audience at a Madison Square Garden rally. Eighteen seconds total screen time. Unbelievable on McLaughlin. But Lodge was not an easy edit. He’d learned to break the sound bite barrier by constantly modulating his voice for impact, issuing phrases in related couplets and triplets, and punching them with an almost religious zeal. Like everything else in his life, he worked hard at communicating effectively. He punctuated every word with a moderately-affected New England accent. Whether or not they agreed with his politics, columnists called him the best orator in years. Increasing numbers of them bestowed almost Kennedy-like reverence. And through the camera lens, baby boomers saw an old friend while younger voters found a new voice. The video story ended and the host brought the debate back to his panel. “Peter Weisel, Washington Bureau Chief of The Chicago Tribune, What sayest thou? Can Teddy unlodge Lamden?” “Unlikely.” Weisel, a young, black reporter, was the outspoken liberal of the panel and a realist. “But he’ll help the ticket. He’s a strong Number Two. A junior pairing with Governor Lamden can work. The flip side of Kennedy-Johnson. Let the Democrats make him VP. Besides, his good looks won’t go away in four or eight years. TV will still like him.” Theodore Wilson Lodge, 46 years old and strikingly handsome, definitely could pull in the camera lens. He had the same effect on women and they held far more votes in America than men. The fact was not lost on the show’s only female contributor of the week. “Debra Redding of The Boston Globe, is Lodge your man?” Without missing a beat she volunteered, “There are only two problems that I see. One, I’m married. The other – so is he.” What a wonderful way to start the morning, the congressman said to himself. Hudson, New York Room 301 was on the third floor of the St. Charles Hotel at 16 Park Place. It overlooked 7th Street Park with a clear corner view of the podium constructed at the intersection of Warren Street and Park Place. The hotel, built in the late 1800s, was recently renovated. The charm of the St. Charles lay in the brick work, hand-carved wood appointments and classic wallpaper
patterns. The hotel’s aura sold on the post cards, if not in the minds of the guests; most of them New Yorkers looking for antiques. One man was there for another reason. Sidney McAlister had spent the last three weeks at the St. Charles. He came to town to sell life insurance policies and so far he’d met with some thirty-five people. However, McAlister was careful not to close any deals. If he had, he wouldn’t have been able to deliver. This wasn’t his real job. What he had to accomplish today was. When that was finished there would be no more Sidney McAlister. There had never been one. The graying, middle-aged salesman was sitting at the window, thinking. A knock at the door suddenly broke his train of thought. “Excuse me. Room service,” called a young woman. McAlister checked his watch. Right on schedule. He turned to the door slowly. She knocked again with a little more insistence. “Your breakfast, Mr. McAlister.” “Coming, coming,” he said as he slowly made his way to the door. Opening it, he barely left enough room for Carolyn Hill to get by without brushing him. She’d remember that and tell the police. He always made her feel uncomfortable, just like he had with his potential clients, which is precisely why no one wanted to sign with him. A long time ago he learned that if people focused on a perception they would ignore who was really there. “Just put it down on the dresser, dear,” he said, emphasizing “dear” much too much for her taste. Carolyn really didn’t like him. “There’s a twenty for you on the bed. Take it. I’m checking out later today. And don’t bother with the sheets now.” Finally good news, she allowed herself. McAlister wasn’t being polite. And he definitely wasn’t finished with the room. He had some cleaning to do himself. He would scrub every surface he touched or even might have come in contact with; from the drawers to the toilet. No DNA trail could lead back to him. Seventynine percent ethanol working with the 0.1 percent Number 2-Phenylphenol cancelled every personal signature belonging to McAlister. So simple. Off-the-shelf Lysol Fresh disinfectant spray. For good measure he’d take his bed sheets with him. Ejaculate may have dripped during his sleep, or hair or skin could have flaked off. They were all links to him, and he was that careful. McAlister left the money for her, as he always did, without handing it over personally. No fingerprints. He always wore gloves, which made him even more off-putting. And he never, ever signed for anything. What an eccentric, she assumed. Almost a month of this. Good riddance. Nonetheless, Carolyn Hill managed a sincere sounding, “Thank you, Mr. McAlister, will we see you again?” “Oh, I hope not,” he answered curtly, signaling the quality time they’d shared was over. As she left, he took the blueberry muffin she’d delivered, ignoring the coffee and orange juice. Once the door was closed, he returned to the window knowing that neither Carolyn Hill of Hudson, New York, nor anyone else in the world would ever see Sidney McAlister again.
Activity had picked up outside the hotel. Five students from Hudson High were draping a handmade “Welcome Teddy” banner in front of the bandstand. McAlister could see from his corner window that a few older people were already staking out room for their lawn chairs close to the front. If the reports were accurate in The Register Star, the city’s daily newspaper, as many as 1,200 people would crowd into the park by one o’clock. That was good. More witnesses to describe different versions of the same thing, McAlister allowed himself. Like Rashomon. He took in the whole park from his window. He knew the dimensions by heart, just as he had committed so many other things to memory. Columbia Street and Warren were the north-south boundaries. East and west were Park Place and 7th Street. It was a compact space; all in all it was no more than one block by a half a block, hardly bigger than a football field. The St. Charles was only thirty yards away from where the local Democratic Party committee was asked to place the podium. McAlister could hit it with a stone. In the middle of the park, set among generation-old maple and oak trees, was a modest fountain that had been restored by the local chapter of the Kiwanis. It was dedicated to Hudson’s first mayor, Seth Jenkins, and fairly recently surrounded by a small enclosure to keep children out. Not far from the fountain, at the corner of the Park, stood a monument, surrounded by a gate. It bore the inscription, “Erected by the Citizens of Hudson in grateful recognition of her Sons’ and Daughters’ Services in the Armed Forces of the United States.” Two tributes from a community that sought its place in history. Usually 7th Street Park afforded a comfortable setting for guests at the St. Charles to sit back on one of the benches and take in the quiet Hudson life. McAlister smiled. At 2:04 P.M. today he’d definitely change that. He peered down. Next door to the hotel, volunteer firemen from J.W. Edmonds Hose Co. were polishing their truck for the day’s parade. They took pride in their work, just as he did. They were in full uniform, hardly breaking a sweat. The summer humidity hadn’t blanketed the air yet. High cirrus clouds drifted overhead, nudging a comfortable, lazy breeze that flowed across the Catskill Mountains into the Hudson Valley and over to the Berkshires. McAlister noted the wind and its direction. Too light to be a concern. An old freight train track cut between the park and he saw two young boys balancing on the rails. He remembered doing the same thing as a kid. Hudson was beginning to appeal to him. It reminded McAlister of home. It was like one of those idyllic calendar paintings; the scene frozen in a better, simpler time. The city was named for explorer Henry Hudson, who sailed up what he called “The River of Mountains” in September, 1609, on his third attempt to discover a Northwest Passage. Though Henry Hudson failed to find the fabled route linking the Atlantic and Pacific, he ultimately established colonies along the river for his Dutch employers, including the town now bearing his name. Hudson was officially founded just after the Revolutionary War.
In the 1800s, Hudson served as a thriving whaling port despite the fact that it was 120 miles up river from New York. Many whalers considered it second only to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the production of whale oil and by-products. But over the years, as whaling diminished, Hudson turned to textile production and cement manufacturing. At its peak, the city was home to more than 11,000 citizens. This election year there were considerably fewer voters. McAlister allowed himself to consider what it would be like to live here, to find a coveted colonial home in Columbia County and blend into the surroundings. But it was too small for his safety and blending in required both more cover and fewer neighbors. The thought totally evaporated when his phone rang. He looked at his watch, not moving to answer the telephone. It rang three times and stopped. Thirty seconds later it rang again twice. Two minutes later it rang four times. All from a Pay-As-You-Go phone and a pre-paid calling card, personally untraceable and bought with cash at a Cincinnati 7-11. The signal. Time to go to work. He went into the bathroom, put a towel over his sink, and proceeded to empty the contents of his vanity kit: two bottles containing pale liquids, rubber gloves, and other accessories. The last time Hudson hosted such a major political candidate in a motorcade was in 1965 when Bobby Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate. The high school band, in their blue and gold uniforms, marched to Sousa. It was a spring day, much like today. And Bobby was destined to take the Ken Keating seat as a step toward the White House. Teddy Lodge was due to arrive by motorcade from Albany at 12:45 P.M. He would rendezvous at the corner of Front and Union Street with his police escort, just as Bobby had done years before. The local Boy Scouts troop, three high school bands, five fire trucks, and veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraqi Freedom would accompany him uptown. Lodge needed a good showing. The city, the county, and the entire state were extremely important to him. The primary process had recently changed. State officials across the country had scrapped the Super Tuesday primaries, which too often catapulted an untested front runner into national prominence. The new approach grouped convention delegates through regional elections, with the East, South, Midwest and West alternating in order every four years. Iowa and New Hampshire retained their starting gate positions in the presidential calendar. The new plan contributed to a fairer method, whereby “political heat” would have to develop over time rather than on an arbitrary Tuesday in mid-March. Seasoned candidates saw it as an improvement. Those sprinters lacking staying power, who previously benefited from a quick start, no longer did. This year, the East was last to vote. Not all states in a region held their primaries the same Tuesday. Yet, given the fact that there were still many states in any geographic area,
bundling still occurred. And so it was in June. New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia would cast their votes at various times during the month. New York and Rhode Island were last on the calendar. Rhode Island held 32 Democratic Party convention delegates, while New York remained crucial to any candidate’s chance of winning the nomination. Its Democratic primary was worth 294 votes. By all accounts, the only one standing between the congressman and his party’s nomination was the respected and seasoned Governor of Montana, who retained the slimmest of leads. Every handshake counted now, and the two candidates were due to face off in a debate tomorrow night. Ultimately, Lodge believed he would pull Republican votes in a national election. But first things first. He had a busy day. At Promenade Hill, a park rising 500 feet above the Hudson River, band members began tuning up. The Hudson High tuba players drowned out the clarinets and the teenage drummers practiced marching, their snare drums bouncing on their thighs. Many of their parents had seen RFK years ago. This was their chance to reconnect with their own childhood. A mile up the street, Roger C. Waterman walked out of the St. Charles. He crossed to Sutty’s, a vintage candy, peanuts, and soda shop, and ordered a cherry cola. Waterman had checked into the hotel late in the evening two days earlier. He had visited Hudson once a month since February, buying antiques for his store in Soho and perusing galleries like TSL, Ltd., housed in an old bakery on Columbia Street. Waterman had a self-assured upper-crust manner about him. He looked to be about 40 and spoke in only precise, polite terms. His tweed jacket fit him like he was born to wear it and his thin wire-frame glasses completed his look. Waterman was a walking advertisement for Sotheby’s and he was well-liked at all of the Warren Street antique shops where he offered very fair prices. As Waterman sat and sipped his soda, he casually gazed at the near corner. Workers were putting six bridge chairs in place and testing the microphone. The honor of introducing the congressman would go to Mayor Tommy Kenton. Waterman understood he was a popular mayor, casual and friendly; the second in his family to hold the job. His full-time job was as a real estate attorney. And since real estate was booming in Columbia County as more and more New Yorkers acquired property, most buyers heard that the Hudson mayor was the man to represent their transactions. Kenton was becoming so successful that he was even thinking of a run for Congress himself. Waterman imagined the excitement Hudsonians would be feeling. So much history coming to their quiet city. He smiled. After finishing his last sip he stood and reached into his pocket. He decided to leave a tip for twice the amount of the soda. “Thanks so much,” he told the old owner. “You’ve got the best cherry cola from here to Buffalo. And I’ve tried them all.” “Thanks,” was all he got back. The proprietor didn’t speak much. “Probably see you in a few weeks. Leaving in the morning.”
“Gonna watch today?” It was the longest sentence Waterman had ever heard out of the man. “Maybe a little,” Waterman answered. With that he waved, walked out and returned to room #315 in the St. Charles where he packed the antique picture frames, art deco jewelry, and crystal fruit bowls he’d bought which meant absolutely nothing to him.
Washington, D.C. The president despised polls. They only reminded him of the last election and the wrong way politicians make decisions. As a navy man and a senator he’d seen too many presidents and their advisors stick their fingers in the air to determine which way the wind blew. Now he was beginning to hear the same thing about his stand on Pakistan and India. “We can’t do that, we’ll lose the vote.” “What’s this going to mean in November?” “Fuck getting re-elected. I’m probably getting too old for these ungodly hours anyway!” he told his chief of staff. But, of course, he wanted to win again, and he had to look at the polls. Right now, five Democrats were left in the running. Only two counted. Lodge, and his old navy buddy, Governor Lamden. Lodge pulled closer to the governor day by day but would run out of time to move ahead. That was a good thing. The truth of the matter was that in a headto-head beauty contest with the president, Lodge might beat him where Lamden wouldn’t. He was younger, more attractive, and tougher. That’s why the president counted on Henry Lamden to take New York and the nomination. That’s why he hated the polls. Especially when they were right. What did President Morgan Taylor have to show for his first term? More stalemates on the Hill. More terrorist scares. More attacks within America’s borders. Saber-rattling between India and Pakistan that threatened to escalate every day. More dead ends in the Middle East. Slow economic growth. Try as he might, he had almost nothing to brag about. For now, most polls had him leading Governor Lamden by a good twelve points and Lodge by 24. But he had been in politics long enough to know that those numbers would change. Deep down, he was worried. Lodge was a dynamic figure, and masterful in debates. Some saw him as a force of nature, constantly gaining strength in the political storm. To Morgan Taylor, he was more like the storm itself; a Category 5 hurricane, building in warm waters, ready to wreak political havoc at landfall. Not that the president wasn’t capable of calling up a tempest as well. He had graduated from Annapolis in the top ten percent of his class, served as an F/A-18C pilot assigned to the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier battle group, and did a Persian Gulf tour of duty with her. He used his military record as an edge in the last election, though he couldn’t officially talk about
his missions much. He wasn’t sure his time logged in the single-seat Hornet would hold sway this November. Following his discharge from the service, Commander Morgan Taylor, USN (Ret.) signed with Boeing, the parent company of McDonnell Douglas, which manufactured his high performance jet. Other high-tech firms pursued the decorated flier, but Taylor felt allegiance to his hometown Seattle and the company that employed many friends. His experience helped him advance, but business was not his calling. Government was. He used his contacts to wrangle an appointment at the State Department as a military strategist. This was another part of his life he couldn’t discuss on the campaign trail. Then a Navy friend-turned-combat advisor for MSNBC encouraged him to run for the Senate from Washington State. It was a good year to do so. Support came easily, thanks to Navy contractors and colleagues in aerospace. Twelve years later, Senator and Lucy Taylor, the one-time head of the United Fund, moved into the White House. Morgan Taylor, a fraction under six feet, usually appeared in public wearing a black, pinstriped Brooks Brothers suit. But actually he preferred loose fitting blue turtlenecks, his leather navy flight jacket and khaki slacks. He maintained a rigorous navy exercise routine, which pleased his White House doctors. As a result, his weight hadn’t drifted north of 195 pounds for twenty years. He still favored regulation length hair, which kept most of the gray from being too obvious. Though he was Chief Executive, his heart remained in the air. Friends said it wouldn’t take much for Taylor, even at age 53, to climb back into the cockpit of his fighter. He always kept the possibility alive by staying current on flight SIMs twice each year at Andrews. More often he played on a special game version the Navy department loaded onto his PC, one you wouldn’t find in any stores. Morgan Taylor figured that if his day job didn’t pan out, he always could re-up for the reserves. And he wasn’t joking. Reflecting on it all, the president was worried more than he let on. He hadn’t felt quite this anxious since he was shot down in Iraq during a classified combat mission gone bad during Desert Storm years ago. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled as he considered the possibilities that lay ahead. Maybe it was the damned McLaughlin Group that set him off today, or the morning security briefing prepared by the CIA. Either way, he was in a foul mood. “Okay, worst case, Bernsie. Lodge grabs New York in an upset. How do we go after him?” the president asked his chief of staff, John Bernstein, whom he always called “Bernsie.” Bernstein had been with Taylor since his years in the Senate. He was ten years older than Morgan Taylor. The president constantly told him he needed to take off some pounds. “Some” meant 35. But Bernsie wasn’t the type to go to the gym. Instead, he hid his frame inside pullover sweaters and loose fitting pants. But his appearance was also part of his deception. He was shrewd, knowledgeable, and daring. He ran the White House and had a direct line to corporate leaders across America. Important ones. That made him an influential fund-raiser and a good
pulse taker. The joke around Washington was that John Bernstein never slept. Just when people thought they were returning phone calls too late into the night to reach Bernsie, he’d pick up. John Bernstein was the man Morgan Taylor relied on the most even though they rarely agreed on anything. That was part of the attraction. He would willingly engage the president on policy and philosophy. Their differences made Taylor think twice on every critical governmental decision and three times on political ones. “Won’t happen. Maybe Lamden’s VP, but I think even Henry doesn’t like him.” “What’s his position on India and Pakistan?” “Hands off. At least for now.” Bernsie complained. “He hasn’t gotten into it. Personally, I think he’s just not ready to run the country.” “You saying we fight him on experience?” the president asked. “Inexperience. Hell, he’s from Vermont. Three electoral votes. Not a big springboard to the White House. Just ask Howard Dean.” “Correction. He’s transplanted from Massachusetts. And they’ve got 12.” The president knew political history like the cockpit of an F/A-18. “And Massachusetts has some bragging rights to John Adams, John Quincy Adams and, in case you’ve forgotten, a man named Kennedy.” He was ready to continue, “And …” “All right. All right. Then if he gets the nomination we’ll hit his inexperience head on. And his age. And build on it.” “It didn’t stop George W., Clinton, or Carter,” Taylor replied. “But he doesn’t have much going for him in foreign politics.” Again the president said, “That didn’t stop George W., Clinton, or Carter. And it won’t fly because he’s getting more vocal about the Middle East and Israel’s tactics.” “Pretty radical for a Democrat,” Bernstein observed. The president folded his arms and considered the argument. He recognized it was a personal issue for Bernstein. “You’re right about that. That’s why I think he won’t take New York. Too many Jewish voters and his rhetoric isn’t the typical ‘Rah rah Israel’.” “On the other hand, he’s fluent in goddamned Arabic and that gives him a leg up with the Muslim leaders,” the president asserted. “Hell, he gets more fucking airtime than the weatherman in a blizzard. But I don’t know about New York. He could still grab it. If he does we play up his soft support of Israel. America’s not ready to ignore Israel.” Bernsie nodded in agreement. Maybe that was the tack to take. He hoped New York voters would make it a moot issue. 11:50 A.M. Today it would be the Galil SAR, an Israeli-made assault rifle. SAR standing for Short Assault Rifle. McAlister didn’t even note that irony in his choice. Israeli. Developed after the 1967 war when the Israeli Army determined they needed a lighter combat rifle. He chose the weapon because it was compact, the shortest assault rifle in the world at only 33.07 inches long.
Broken down, his 8-pound, 27-ounce Galil could be hidden in suitcases, passing as ordinary travel items, though he’d never be foolish enough to take it on a plane. It had a collapsible sniper stock with a built-in cheekpiece and a detachable 30-round magazine. However, he planned on firing only one silenced 5.56mm NATO bullet. He attached an Israeli Military Industries mount with an M15 rail and a Colt 6x scope. The M15 rail positioned the optics lower making it easier to sight. He preferred his configuration over the bulkier, heavier Elcan scope. Equipped as the rifle was, McAlister had tracked targets 300 to 500 yards away with deadly accuracy. Early this afternoon his intended victim would be barely 215 feet in front of him. McAlister’s single bullet, exiting at 2,953 feet per second, would find flesh and bone before he relaxed his finger. When he finished his job, he wouldn’t escape. He would simply disappear.
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by Gary Grossman
Sydney, Australia Monday, 18 June 4:20 A.M.
It was the blinking LED that caught the electrician's attention. "What's that?" Mick O'Gara muttered to himself. If it hadn't been for the intermittent flicker, visible only because it cut through the darkness, it would have gone undetected. The light had flashed a moment after O'Gara killed the fluorescents in a storage room on the basement level of the new 38-story Ville St. George Hotel. "Now where did you come from?" O'Gara turned the overhead lights back on and looked around the crowded 14-by-20-foot room. He waited about a minute. Nothing, he thought. The hotel electrician shrugged his shoulders. He was about to leave when he decided to give it one more moment, now with the lights off. Ten seconds went by and he saw a red flash; dim and off to the right. He waited for itto repeat, or cycle again. His patience was rewarded 30 seconds later, though he couldn't quite pinpoint the location. A half-minute more- "There you are! Up in the crawl space." The light appeared diffused, indirect. "You're bouncing off something." Mick O'Gara was one of the last hires in the electrical department at Sydney's newest harbor-side luxury hotel. It overlooked both thefamed Harbor Bridge and the stunning Opera House. As a result, the slim, 41-year-old man with a bushy moustache and long sideburnspulled the dreaded graveyard shift. He had been poking around thebasement, tracing a conduit containing fiber optic wires. Guests onthe 33rd floor complained that their high-speed Internet connection was out. It wasn't his specialty, but no one else was around, and he had the time to troubleshoot until his shift change. Unfortunately, and for no good reason, the conduit continued above the ceiling in the small room, but the schematic dead-ended. Another damned design flaw. "Why can't they ever
get it right?" Following it was going to be exhausting. After nearly an hour, O'Gara decided to leave the problem where he found it. That's when he noticed the red flash. He trained his flashlight on the area in the far end of the room. The crawl space was a good three feet higher than his head. O'Gara, only 5'7", looked around the room and spotted a wooden cable spool, large enough to stand on. He dragged it over to the wall, stepped up, and peered into total darkness. O'Gara hit the void with the beam. There, sandwiched deep into the opening, was a rectangular box, at first hard to see because it was either painted black or completely covered with black duct tape. He aimed the light at the top and then to the sides. It was wedged into an area no taller than 18 inches. He figured it to be about two-and-half-feet long. O'Gara tapped it lightly with his finger. "Tape, not paint on metal," he said aloud. Curiosity was definitely getting the better of him now. The LED flashed again, illuminating the crawl space on each side for a fraction of a second. The box wasn't connected to any outside wires. "Okay, you're not part of the phone system. And you're not connected to the electrical plant. But you've got something making you tick. So what in bloody hell are you?" He reached his right hand in about two feet, aiming his light at the back of the box. O'Gara searched for openings or identifying marks. There were none. Just as his hand was tiring from stretching so far, the beam reflected back. He saw what looked like a small wire antenna, no more than three inches long, protruding from the back of the box. His arm ached, and he pulled it back. Once again, the LED flickered. "You're talking to someone, aren't you? A transmitter?" O'Gara heard the sound of one of the elevator's pulleys engage directly above him. He looked up, then back to the box just as it emitted another red flash. "You're not talking. You're listening. Son of a bitch." His pulse quickened. The elevator moved again. He was amazed how loud it now sounded; right on top of him. Then he caught the sound of the gears working on another elevator to the left. A moment later, another to his right. He closed his eyes and remembered that in total there were eight banks, four on each side of a central artery inside the hotel. He pointed his flashlight into the crawl space one more time. Now the details of it became more apparent. The box looked crudely homemade. The antennae was stuck out of the back, but bent toward the front. The light blinked every 30 seconds. Exactly. The regular frequency of the flashes told him it was either self-charging or scanning. He heard an elevator start above and across from him. It became more evident that he was under a critical focal point, a hollow shaft; the most vulnerable part of a large building. "Holy mother of God!" he exclaimed. Mick O'Gara stepped down slowly. Very slowly. His green work clothes were dusty and drenched with sweat. He unholstered his Boost Mobile walkie-talkie cell phone from his belt. He was about to key the microphone when he suddenly stopped. "No, wait. The signal!" He didn't
want to make a call, for the same reason passengers are instructed not to use cell phones on airplanes. The radio could interfere or interact with other electronics. In this case, it could set off the device. The electrician slowly backed away and snapped the telephone onto his belt. He left the room, closing the door gently. It wasn't until he was upstairs that he punched in a number. "Security," the voice answered. "O'Gara. Listen carefully." He slowly explained what he had found. The security officer swallowed hard and called the hotel manager, who didn't really know what to do. He phoned the CEO of the consortium that owned the Ville St. George, waking him from his sleep in the hotfcl penthouse. The CEO bolted upright in his bed as he followed the account. "Are you sure?" "Here, I'll conference in O'Gara." The security officer on duty connected him to O'Gara's cell. He heard the electrician's story firsthand. Not knowing O'Gara, but not wanting to take any blame, the CEO phoned his regular Wednesday night poker partner, who happened to be the Sydney chief of police. This is when it got more serious. The chief didn't hesitate waking the Australian Federal Police Commissioner. His must-attend seminars on terrorist threats had heightened his senses. The federal officer ordered the immediate evacuation of the hotel while he cradled the phone on his shoulder and pulled on his boxers. All of this within 18 minutes of Mick O'Gara's find. The Sydney police and national authorities had trained for such a contingency after concerns about terrorist attacks during the 2000 Summer Olympics. The country's defense command realized Australia could be an easy target for al-Qaeda and even easy pickings for insurgent groups operating out of Indonesia and Malaysia. As a result, they developed an operational plan code-named Exercise New Deal. In years past, terrorists struck symbolic targets, causing indiscriminate deaths. al-Qaeda changed the rules of engagement. 9/11 demonstrated their willingness to inflict heavy casualties on civilians and register greater fear and uncertainly as a strategic end. Western nations now had a true understanding of the terrorists' objectives, even if they couldn't identify the enemy. Their ultimate goals were to devalue democratic institutions, weaken infrastructure, and supplant existing governments with moderate or fundamental Islamic rule. They attacked people and they targeted buildings. They couldn't win conventional wars, but took their holy fight to the new unconventional battlegrounds-civilian centers. Among the various landmarks identified as potential targets in Australia were the Sydney Opera House and the lavish hotels along the bay-including the towering cement, brick, and steel St. George. An elite tactical unit was dispatched to the hotel. Thirty-three minutes out.
They were backed up by the SASR—Australia's Special Air Service Regiment-which arrived by helicopter atop the St. George. Fifty minutes. By then, the night assignment editor at Sydney's Sky Television News had detected the surge of emergency chatter on the police frequencies. Sixty-one minutes. The first of many microwave broadcast vans arrived at the hastily setup police barricade a long block away. Seventy-four minutes. Sky went live with a report carried cross-country. "This is Sky Television News, approximately 200 meters from the recently completed Ville St. George Hotel, where a mandatory evacuation is now underway," the young reporter began. "Though we can't see it from our vantage point, our bureau, monitoring the police frequencies, reports an emergency of undetermined origin." At seventy-nine minutes since O'Gara's find, the CNN night desk noted the coverage. With a special reciprocal arrangement with Sky, an editor patched the signal to his uplink and alerted Atlanta of the events that were unfolding half a world away. Eighty-three minutes. A hot quick lead was typed into the tele- prompter, and the Atlanta anchor read what was put before her. "Breaking news from Sydney, Australia, where it is five forty-three A.M. Approximately eleven hundred guests and staff of the new five hundred thirty-five-room Ville St. George Hotel are being evacuated. There are unconfirmed reports of an electrical fire or the failure of an elevator. For details, we join Sky Television News with live coverage." Far across the International Dateline, an overnight CIA officer at Langely, Virginia, monitored the news channels. Silvia Brownlee noted that CNN interrupted its domestic news for a story from Sydney. Using her remote, the fifteen-year veteran turned up the volume and jotted down the details. Ville St. George. Sydney. Evacuation. Brownlee added equal signs between the key words, and then wrote a large question mark. She swiveled her chair to her computer and typed in the hotel name. Then she clicked on a password-protected file. As she suspected, one floor of the St. George had been designed and built to White House specifications. Brownlee called upstairs. Her boss needed to know there was an alert at a Rip Van Winkle House. Although she didn't know it, it was the most important phone call she ever made. Los Angeles, California Sunday 17 June the same time He wondered if anyone had stopped to think about the absurdity.
There it was, just on the other side of the chain-link fence: Rancho Golf Course. The home of the annual Los Angeles Police/Celebrity Golf Tournament. Every spring the LAPD takes over the tees for a fundraiser that supports the Police Memorial Foundation. But Rancho Golf Course was also where O.J. Simpson used to play. That was the irony. Simpson was on the greens as the jury deliberated his civil trial for the deaths of his exwife and her boyfriend. The case Simpson lost. He was also playing the day a single-engine plane crashed on the course just a few hundred yards away. One of the first things the two injured men heard as they were pulled out of their badly damaged plane was that O.J. was "over there." Nat Olsen almost laughed at the thought. The police and one of L.A.'s most notorious citizens sharing the same $18-a-day public course. But he didn't laugh. That wasn't part of his character...not as the jogger today or the man he might become tomorrow. He was focused and waiting at the Cheviot Hills Recreation Park that bordered the Rancho Golf Course. Olsen wore loose-fitting black sweats and gray running shoes that he'd picked up weeks ago from a secondhand clothing store on La Brea. The only thing that distinguished him from any other jogger was a pair of thin leather gloves. They weren't quite de rigeur for running, but they were definitely necessary for his particular line of work. Affixed horizontally inside the zip-up top, at the small of the back, was a 4"-by-l" heavy duty, all-weather Velcro strip. It could self- adhere, but he'd sown it into the fabric for extra reinforcement. Another strip of the hook and loop tape was stuck to his Sog Specialty FSA-98 Flash II serrated knife. The $39 switchblade is lightning quick. It opens with a simple press of a thumb. The blade is under four inches and generally rated as a defensive slash-and-retreat weapon. But not in the hands of someone more experienced. Not in his hands. Olsen certainly wouldn't have used such a simple over-the-counter purchase for something more difficult, perhaps on a worthier target. But this was going to a simple matter, reflected by a smaller fee than he'd recently been earning. Fifty thousand. His quote was normally much higher, but so were the risks. Today's job required very little planning, though he always did more than required. Where others screwed up, he never did. The sloppy ones forgot that it wasn't just the kill, it was the exit that counted. He'd be as discreet in his departure as he was in his job. To the normal passersby, he looked like a struggling and winded mid-to-late-40s jogger. He was neither struggling nor over thirty- five. If he chose, he could run for miles. But not today. With black hair extensions added to his closely cropped cut, dyed eyebrows and a foam rubber gut that put on an additional 45 pounds under his sweats, he easily passed as another middleaged man trying to beat back the years. He carried a Dallas license to prove he was Nat Olsen. He also created a convincing legend he'd share with anyone who stopped to talk. Nat Olsen was a nice guy, a Fidelity mutual fund trader relocating to Los Angeles. He was scouting a home for his family. There was nothing
unusual about him; not a gesture or mannerism that would ever raise suspicion. He would pant, stop and start, double over, grab his sides, and shake his head and wish he was in better condition, just like so many others. In reality, he barely taxed himself. Everything was completely planned out, rehearsed, carefully considered. Surprise would be on his side. However, he clearly understood that a daylight hit brought its own extra risks. He had any number of ways to escape. Bicycles hidden both north and south of his intercept point. A car parked along a side lot off Motor Avenue. The Pico Boulevard bus. And his preferred method: simply joining a pack of other early evening joggers and going out inconspicuously. He figured he had an hour more to kill. Funny how that sounds, he thought. Maybe he'd watch the golfers on the other side of the fence. He'd take his time and stay near his initial contact point. He'd politely nod to runners faster than him and stay behind anyone slower-like his target, who should be along well before dusk. Lebanon, Kansas the same time "Let's go to the Midwest line. Hello, you're on Strong Nation." "Hey, Elliott. This is Peter in Detroit. Long-time listener, first-time caller," lied the voice over the telephone. He was in a six-week rotation, either playing up to the audience with an antiadministration rant, or throwing in an incendiary left wing comment that would generate an hour's worth of bitter conservative reaction. He was there, like dozens of others, because Elliott Strong didn't count on his audience to provide enough controversy. The 52-year-old national syndicated talk show host, broadcasting from his home studio in the geographic center of the country-Lebanon, Kansas-had his ringers. They always helped. Unseen to his millions of listeners, Strong took a sip of his hot Darjeeling tea and went through a quick set of mouth exercises that he watched in a mirror in front of him. This wasn't just a physical routine. Strong liked looking at himself during his live broadcast. It added to his performance and inflated his ego. Strong also always dressed for his shows. Tie and jacket; sometimes a suit. He resisted the urge to install web cameras. He felt that the magic of radio presented more opportunity than television. He held the historic Nixon-Kennedy debates as case in point. Over the radio to an unseeing audience, Nixon was the clear winner-concise, authoritative, composed. To TV audiences, however, Nixon appeared drawn, tired, and evasive. Strong would resist TV, even though he knew the offers would be coming. His ratings were growing too fast to be ignored. In the control room, Strong's engineer watched the meters, keeping them in the legal limits. Strong did less to modulate his opinion, openly criticizing public figures, while remaining
vague about the details. He had only two other people on the payroll: his wife, who served as his screener, and his web master, who constantly updated the StrongNationRadio.com web site with right-leaning polls, editorials that supported his harangues, and links to like-minded Internet sites. During broadcasts, the studio was off-bounds to everyone. No friends or visitors. No live guests. The shows belonged to Strong and his callers. "State your case," the host said. "What the hell's going on in Washington?" Strong recognized the voice and smiled. Last time was on his late night show. Strong had become so popular over the course of the election and the controversial aftermath, that he now occupied two time slots: a three-hour afternoon shift, and another four hours overnight. Depending upon the time zone, he was carried live or replayed at a later hour. In 18 months, Elliott Strong had out-paced his rivals, and Strong Nation had become an extreme conservative mouth-piece for an audience who thought they were getting the news from talk radio. "What's going on?" Strong said through a laugh. "We've got a president we didn't elect and a vice president we voted out, that's what's going on. Both are part of the military establishment, which I don't remember electing. And now they're running everything.every Two people, and as far as I can remember, Americans didn't give either of them their jobs." The caller was pressing a nationwide hot button. Henry Lamden ran hard for the Democratic nomination and probably would have gotten his party's nod until Vermont congressman Theodore Lodge, clearly in second place, was thrust to front-runner status after his wife was shot on the campaign trail. A gunman fired just one bullet. It appeared to be a bungled assassination attempt. It wasn't. Lodge quickly swept ahead of Lamden in a wave of sympathy. Lamden, a decorated Navy commander, became a reluctant number two on the ticket. The Lodge-Lamden team won the November election, defeating the incumbent president, Morgan Taylor. However, minutes before Lodge was to have been sworn in, he was killed on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda. The assassin, presumed to be the same man who killed Lodge's wife, had disguised himself as a Capitol Police officer. He escaped. The rules of succession, enumerated in the 25th Amendment, required that the vice president-elect take the Oath of Office. To the surprise of everyone watching, Henry Lamden became President of the United States. He then proceeded to startle the country again with two revelations. The first: Lodge was not really an eligible candidate, but a sleeper spy, posing as an American. Second: former President Taylor, a Republican, would be his nominee as vice president. The reporters covering the Inauguration were as shocked as the millions of people tuned to the ceremony.
Other countries have based their rule on a parliamentary system, where fragile coalition leaderships typically struggle through constant and predictable disarray, until they ultimately implode. This has not been the case with the U.S. Executive Branch. One party controls the presidency, with both the chief executive and the vice president representing the same party, though serving the entire nation. On the state level, there are instances where a governor from one party is elected along with a lieutenant governor from another. The scenario usually leads to infighting, a dubious lack of cooperation, and a recipe for political disaster. But in the case of the Lamden-Taylor administration, the new president made the controversial choice to solve problems, not to cause them. Lamden sought to lay down the spirit of cooperation with his inaugural speech. The country narrowly averted a constitutional crisis, he told the people. America had elected a Russian-trained, Arab national sleeper spy as president. His ultimate intent: to end U.S. support of Israel and change the balance of power in the Middle East. Lamden explained how proof of the conspiracy was extracted by an American Special Forces team dropped into Libya just hours prior to the Inauguration. In a well-orchestrated assault, they took a building in Tripoli that housed the media empire of Fadi Kharrazi, son of the dying Libyan dictator, General Jabbar Kharrazi. Records proved that Fadi had not created the plan. He bought the three-decade-old operation from Udai Hussein prior to the fall of his father's regime. In Fadi's mind, the plan would have propelled him into a leadership position ahead of his brother Abahar. President Morgan Taylor personally oversaw the mission and returned to Washington with hard evidence, minutes before the chief justice was to swear in Teddy Lodge. Taylor confronted Lodge and his chief aide, Geoff Newman, in the Capitol Rotunda. Newman grabbed a gun from a Secret Service agent. Before it was over, two law enforcement officers were dead. So were Newman and Lodge. Back in Libya, Fadi Kharrazi made indignant denials. One week after the general's death in March, Fadi's brother, Abahar, assumed power. A week later, Fadi died in a car accident that no one witnessed. Congress convened an unprecedented emergency session to begin its inquiry. Thousands of pages of testimony later, Morgan Taylor, on a strangely bipartisan vote, was enthusiastically confirmed as vice president. The United States had its first coalition government in more than a century. Reporters dove into the history books for precedent. They were surprised it existed. John Adams, the nation's second president, served as a Federalist. His vice president, Thomas Jefferson, was a member of the unified Democrat Republic party. America's 16th president also ran on a coalition ticket. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, had Democrat Andrew Johnson as his second VP. "It's a jackalope," the caller continued. "I don't care if they did it way back when. We're talking about now. And I can't tell what kind of government we have. It's not Republican.
Lamden is a liberal Democrat. And it's not Democrat. Taylor, who got defeated, is a moderate Republican, if you can call him a Republican at all." "My friend, you hit the nail on the head," Strong said, nudging him on more. "But it's even worse. They're moving us toward a military regime. Next thing you know, they'll be clamping down on our freedoms." The caller was beginning to sound the survivalist clarion call. "We're gonna have the army running the police, and the navy boarding everybody's boats. From the Great Lakes to Tahoe. I don't care where you live. And you know what they'll be after?" "No, what?" asked the radio host in a smooth, soothing, encouraging voice. "Our damned guns, that's what. From a governor we didn't elect president, and his vice president-master who's really running things...who we voted out." "So you're not happy?" Strong said jokingly. "How can any American be happy? The election was a total fraud. We should have a new one." "But according to the Constitution, there can't be another election." "Then what the hell can we do?" This was just where Elliott Strong wanted the conversation to go. It would start simply enough. A question. Then a call to action. Then another listener would up the ante. An echo. More callers. A chorus. In the morning, a publicist for Strong's national syndicator would mention it to a few newspapers. It would make the wire services, certainly Fox News, and after that, the network news, CNN and CNBC. Then an e-mail campaign to the House and Senate, blogs, then... "A good question. What can we do?" he asked, knowing the answer. "Yeah. Well, why not another election? We elected a foreign spy, and now we got two losers. There's got to be something better." Here was the moment. The seed needed watering. "The only thing I can think of...and I don't even know if it's possible...it would take an amazing effort...a really Strong Nation..." He loved utilizing the name of his show, "...to make it work. I don't know." The talk host drew it out. "Probably impossible. Unless..." he stopped in mid-sentence for impact. "Unless we band together." The operative word was we. It brought his listeners closer to the radio. "Then it could happen." He hadn't even hinted at the idea yet, but Strong knew that the truck drivers tuned in were mesmerized. The insomniacs lay in bed with their eyes now wide open. The conspiracy theorists were hanging on his words. Elliott Strong had his faithful in the palm of his hand when he answered the caller's question.
Century Plaza Hotel Los Angeles, California the same time "Goodbye, Mr. President," Lynn Meyerson said as she left the president's suite at Los Angeles's Century Plaza Hotel. It had been another tiring day; her fifteenth in a row. But she ate it up. In a very short period of time she had earned access to Henry Lamden, and now enjoyed what few others in the entire country could claim: The President of the United States appreciated her advice, and he shared his thoughts with her. Meyerson was a staffer in the White House Office for Strategic Planning. She typically focused on project research that could culminate in pro-administration policies. This allowed her to be hands-on when it came to developing White House strategies, making her an obvious "inside source" for anyone on the outside. Not that she really touched much that was sensitive. Not yet. But other people didn't know that. Nonetheless, she had been fully briefed on how they'd try. Reporters would strike up conversations, build on seemingly chance encounters, and pull her into the young Washington social scene. It was all part of the game. And she would make great company. At 25, Lynn Meyerson had exceptional poise, genuine sincerity, great looks, and distinctive curly red hair that made cameras and men turn. She stood out of any crowd-a 5' 7", 118-pound beauty. The FBI had cleared Meyerson into the White House and, even further, into the Oval Office. Each personal reference reinforced the view of the last. She's dynamic. She has the political know-how to go far. She's a budding superstar, a natural-born politician. President Lamden clearly liked the young woman's energy and enthusiasm and her willingness to express unpopular opinions. Meyerson made it no secret that she wanted to work in government, especially the White House. She'd admitted that to her closest friends at Wellesley College. Her zeal earned her an interview her senior year. But what really counted was how she befriended then-President Morgan Taylor's secretary, Louise Swingle. It was the number-one rule to crack any company. The White House was no different than Microsoft. Make friends with the boss's secretary. Swingle took a liking to her and set up meetings with a variety of White House offices. Following the Inauguration, she got an offer with the Office of Strategic Initiatives. Meyerson tried to send Swingle an exquisite assortment of exotic flowers. That's when she learned that things were as tough to get into the White House as they were to get out. The flowers ended up at Swingle's home. President Lamden, nearly 40 years Meyerson's senior, talked with Lynn about her goals, but always kept everything on a business level. He agreed with the written assessments. She would go far. Perhaps make Congress by her mid-thirties. He heard that her friends were already
egging her on about going after a Maryland seat in a couple of years. And she'd probably win, he thought. She had that much potential. Meyerson paused for one more look around the suite at the hotel, named for Ronald Reagan. It was impressive. So was the president who now occupied it. At first she laughed at the Stetsons he wore and the Montana stories he spun for her in their free time. Then she recognized that Lamden, like Lyndon Johnson, used his cowboy charm to make more important things happen. The lanky 67-year-old lawmaker could bring down a calf in a rodeo ring. She trusted that he had done the same with many a political opponent. Lamden was shrewd, tough. She was careful what she said to him. Still, she was impressed by the trappings and the access. This is good. This is really good. She'd made it. She was traveling with the President of the United States, staying at the Century Plaza Hotel on Avenue of the Stars, and meeting some of the real stars who populated the avenue. Most of all, she was thoroughly aware of the security measures surrounding the president with Secret Service agents always close by. Marksmen on the roof. The "football"-the attache case with nuclear weapons codes and plans-always within reach. Bulletproof glass in the hotel suite and even the undisclosed evacuation routes through the Century Plaza's unpublicized secure corridors. When she really stopped to think about it, she truly was on the "inside." Since she joined Lamden's administration, Meyerson spent nearly every day at the White House. This was her first trip away. Henry Lamden was taking off shortly, but Meyerson wouldn't be on the plane. She'd requested a few days in L.A. "Well deserved," the president acknowledged. "Good night, Lynn," the president said without casting eyes on the redhead. "See you back at the ranch Monday. We'll work on the first town hall meeting. When is it?" "Fourth of July." "I can just imagine the fireworks," he joked, not at all referring to the celebration. "Now enjoy yourself." He returned to his reading. "Go." "Thank you, Mr. President. I will." She lingered for a moment. He's looking tired. Hard week. "You take care, sir." He didn't hear her. Lamden was already deeply absorbed in a summation of upcoming legislation. Meyerson smiled at the agents standing vigil at the door. "Night." "You going for your run tonight?" one Secret Service agent asked. "Yup. Then I'm cutting loose. Doing Melrose and catching a friend from Vassar at the Sunset Marquis Whiskey Bar." She didn't let on that it was really a blind date with a presumably drop-dead handsome aide to the governor of California. But a smile curled over her lips that might have given her away. "That's all?" the agent asked like a friend.
She raised her shoulders and gave a coquettish shrug as if to say, It's too early to tell. Then she told herself, I might not say no to anything. Cheviot Hills Recreation Park the same time
Nat Olsen sat facing one of the three basketball courts. A pickup game was in progress on the court closest to him. Probably lawyers and agents, he thought. If they were star players in high school, they didn't look it here. Though it appeared he was following the game with great intent, Olsen didn't really care. He was focused well beyond the court, to the entrance of the park off Motor Avenue. He checked his watch. A young woman jogger would be along very soon.
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The Firebird Affair
by Dusko Doder
My former life caught up with me at a party on P Street in the shape of a man I never wanted to see again. His name was Holz and he entered the room as if he owned it. Tuxedo. Pleated dress shirt. Malachite studs. Patent leather shoes. He looked more like a successful plastic surgeon than what he really was—one of those curious public servants whose trade is secret, violent, and thankless. When our eyes met for a brief instant, his eyebrows made a little jump as if signaling, Ah, there you are. It’s curious how an almost imperceptible jump of the eyebrows can disturb one’s inner peace. He’d come for me, I thought. It was an odd intuition. Definite. I turned toward the back of the house and for a brief moment, it was touch and go whether I’d quickly slip out the back door and go home. Then I told myself I needed to think things through, I mustn’t be cowed by Holz, mustn’t let him spoil my evening. The fact is that I had been looking forward to the annual reunion of old Moscow hands; I enjoyed stepping back into my old life for a day. Anticipation itself was half the fun: getting the old tuxedo from the plastic bag, putting on the ruffled white shirt, struggling with the bow tie and the gold cufflinks with my initials—a gift from Emily on my thirty-fifth birthday. In front of the mirror, I had looked the same as I used to. Or so I told myself. Alcohol emboldens normally cautious people, or perhaps it was a bond we had—our shared experiences in Soviet Moscow— that quickly washed the starch out of our collars and made us feel young again. I was quite shocked when my young (fourteen years younger) significant other announced last year she’d never attend another Moscow reunion. “It’s creepy,” Jennifer had exclaimed, dismissing as boring our recycled Cold War tales: “Rich old farts and has-beens talking gibberish.” She’d suddenly reminded me just how much the world had changed; it was as if the new generations had the nerve circuits of their brains rewired to eliminate all memories of communism. Holz’s arrival changed the acoustics of the party. The hostess was uttering shrieks of delight and treated Holz and his wife Jane with that special consideration reserved for persons of high rank. Other guests, some in dinner jackets and long dresses, others in smart-casual, surrounded them and clinked glasses. I thought I’d make myself invisible. Not like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. More like playing the game we used to play as kids, a type of hide and seek called come to my den. Whenever you saw another kid first, you’d get a point. You’d win if you avoided being seen by others.
The house seemed to offer lots of hiding places. Its deceptively modest Georgian Revival front on P Street concealed a structure of substantial proportions. I moved back to the sunroom— I guess that’s what they called this recent addition—which was about as large as my Rosslyn condo and had cathedral ceilings and a wall of glass with a view of a large deck and an outside swimming pool. Other walls were covered with paintings framed in gilt with little plaques to identify the artist and two oversized TV screens. It was a warm and humid spring night, and inside the house it was pleasantly cool. The barman poured me three fingers of amber vodka from a bottle kept in the freezer. It poured viscous, like oil. “Careful, Todd darling.” Maggie Dobbs materialized behind me, running a finger down my neck. She wore a flowing satin trouser-suit which offered a bird’s-eye view down the highly revealing front. “What’s new in the world of chess?” I thought the question was pointed, as if to remind me that after years of covering diplomatic and national security issues for the Washington Tribune, I was now in the lower depths of journalism—writing about chess. Perhaps I imagined this, being overly sensitive to possible slights. Granted, chess was no longer as sexy as it used to be way back when Bobby Fischer “taught commies a lesson” and when ninety percent of New York bars had their television sets turned to the Fischer’s match with Soviet champion Boris Spassky instead to the baseball game. I remember New York Post reporters going from bar to bar to check; the score was 18 out of the 21 bars were tuned to the chess. But with the days of Cold War competition over, chess was just a cerebral board game and I enjoyed writing about it. I ignored Maggie’s question and raised my glass to her. “You haven’t changed a bit since last time.” “Liar,” she smiled, looking over my shoulder the way important people do at parties. “Hey. Holz is here, did you see?” A white-haired black waiter in a white jacket pushed a silver tray of canapés between us. I skewered a shrimp and Maggie took asparagus wrapped in bacon. Maggie’s large brown eyes slid away from me and back across the room. “God, haven’t seen him for ages. Not since Moscow.” Her face became a puzzling grimace. “I don’t remember him ever coming to one of our reunions.” I shook my head, no. “They say he’s going to be the next DDO, you know, the nation’s top spy,” she said, patronizingly I thought, as if the acronym had to be explained to me. For a moment before she moved away, I recalled the pretty young foreign correspondent I first met in Moscow long ago. There was still something girlish about her—same freckles and slightly snubbed nose—despite a hint of vertical lines above her upper lip. But now there was an air of unshakeable self-confidence about Maggie and something else that reminded me of my younger self: I saw quite unmistakably in her gaze a flash of the audacity of a huntress. By God, her eyes said, I have to find out if Holz has already been offered the job.
The barman gestured if I wanted a refill. “Three fingers?” I nodded to him. He winked. How quickly we forget our own frailties and follies. Once I relished political rumors. I, too, had used social functions to elicit comments from high officials on the latest rumor about this or that personnel or policy change—a few off the cuff remarks a skilled writer could tease out to twenty inches of the thumb-sucking we used to label news analysis. Nowadays, I sometimes resorted to rumors to liven my column—say one about Hitler playing chess against Lenin at Cafe Landtmann in Vienna in 1909; or Ivan the Terrible dying suddenly in the middle of a chess match in 1584 (some historians suspect his opponent of poisoning the czar with mercury). But who reads stories entombed deep inside the Tribune’s D Section? That’s what Maggie’s final look seemed to say; in her eyes, I’d been sentenced to perpetual irrelevance. That was when I noticed a red glob of shrimp sauce on the left cuff of my white shirt. Shit! I had taken it to the dry cleaners only last week. I downed a couple of vodkas in quick succession to calm the nerves, then tiptoed cautiously toward the bathroom, determined to wash off the shrimp sauce with tepid water. An antique lacquered cabinet was in my way and I knew I was heading toward it as if someone had put a spell on it, as if possessed by demons who drew me to it. As I tried to get around it, I stumbled with cartoonish inevitability straight into the lacquered piece, bringing several framed Webster family photos crashing down. Thank God, I thought, the noise of conversation was high; the guests were flushed from vodka toasts and talked all at once. Only Betty Webster, the big la-di-da on the Georgetown social circuit, saw everything and was staring at me from the other end of the room, giving me one of those smiles that show the gums above the teeth. Would the earth crack open and swallow me up? I managed an embarrassed smile before escaping to the bathroom. I dabbed at the red stain on my cuff with a wet napkin until it started disintegrating into white flakes that resembled dandruff. One part of my brain kept wondering: why is Holz here? He had never once attended the annual get-togethers of those of us who worked in Moscow in 1991—diplomats, journalists, spies. He may have been present at the 1992 reunion to mark the first anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but I couldn’t say for sure. Before leaving the bathroom, I stood in front of the mirror and finger-combed my hair into place. Then I saw the sparklingly shiny black shoes in the hall. Holz was waiting for me. “I’d like to have a word with you,” he said. “About what?” “Emily. Your late wife.” “Really?” “Yes.” Suddenly I felt nauseated, like I had stepped barefoot on a lizard. “You didn’t give me the time of day when I wanted to talk to you about Emily,” I said. “Remember?”
He may not have remembered, but I did. That was a time in my life when I wondered if I wanted to wake up the next morning, when I struggled with a form of melancholia for which Dr. Kaiser, our family physician, ordered a battery of expensive tests; when all of them came back normal, he prescribed Prozac. Emily, you see, had died in Moscow while I was covering the beginning of a Caucasus war between the Armenians and the Azeris. I have often wondered, as I wondered now, what course my life might have taken had I not gone on that trip. Could I have protected her? The question remains academic, of course, but my mind often searched its darkest corners trying to imagine Emily’s final moments, and each time there was Holz hovering in the background. How come nobody had asked for a toxicology report before she was cremated? Other questions hung in the air. This was a form of torture that nearly drove me mad. In normal times, the Embassy would have the answers, or some bureau in the State Department. That’s what consular sections are for. But 1991 was not a normal year in Moscow. The Evil Empire was disintegrating; by Christmas, it had ceased to exist. Witnessing such epochal events diplomats could not be blamed for giving insufficient attention to more mundane matters, which was regrettable, as officials in various bureaus of the State Department reminded me. Except that finding out the truth about my wife’s death was hardly a mundane matter as far as I was concerned. Eventually, I was discreetly pointed in the direction of McKinney Holz, former science attaché, who in reality had been chief of the CIA Moscow station. I had a hard time imagining this aloof dandy with sparklingly shiny shoes doing things secret agents do— steal, pick locks, rifle desks, hack into computers, photograph documents, and use a gun. It was hard to find a phone number for Holz. Eventually, I got it from his wife. “Don’t tell my husband I gave it to you,” she cautioned. I liked Jane Holz. I used to see her regularly at the embassy. She always addressed me with sardonic formality when I stopped by the Press and Culture section, which handled the mail for correspondents and exchange scholars. With her long black hair and pale luminous face, she looked like Cher and was great fun. Holz refused to talk or meet with me. This just goes to show why his presence was a serious cause for anxiety and my secret wish was that he be consumed by hellfire for all eternity. “That was eleven years ago, pal,” Holz said dismissively. “In the Pleistocene era, as far as I am concerned. Besides, I had nothing to say at the time.” I was overwhelmed by resentment and could feel a frown taking over my whole face. Fuck you, I thought. I didn’t know what the term Pleistocene referred to. I tried to push him out of my way, but nervousness made me clumsy and I snagged the edge of an antique Chinese vase with my elbow. Holz caught it. One-handed. “You need to sober up, pal,” he said, steering me to a door at the end of the hall. “Let’s go to Chip’s office.” Fuck you, Holz! I thought. But I followed him anyway, walking unsteadily, his hand on my back.
He showed me into a room full of cream leather furniture. My body sank into an overstuffed chair next to a little teak table. I registered two walls of floor-to-ceiling bookcases and French windows looking out over the property that basked in the yellow glow of Tikki torches and hidden floodlights. “What’s it exactly you want to talk about?” His eyebrows lifted. “I have some information, sensitive information,” he paused and watched my expression closely. “Regarding your wife’s death.” I opened my mouth. Shut it. Opened it again. What now, God, said a voice in my head. Why? This was 2002. It had taken years to bury Emily’s memory, make my peace. Not that she would ever completely leave me; a woman who so abruptly disappears from your life can never do that. But I had got to the stage where I no longer dreamed of her; my palms and my fingertips no longer tingled with the memory of touching her in those twilight seconds just before falling asleep. “Is this some kind of a joke?” That was all I managed to say. “No!” He had that seen-it-all world weary aura that you find in people who had been in the same job too long. “I’ve talked to a recent Russian defector. Looks like the KGB may have had something to do with it.” I saw him smile on one side of his mouth, and as he did so, I knew the news was bad. His body language said the same. Now mystery spread through my body as I watched his hands before him, gesturing, shaping some point. His eyes were fixed on me and I read in them the confirmation of my own worst fears. Suddenly, my mind was clear and alert. It must have been the adrenaline that cleared it. I was instantly, terribly alert, and angry. The ghost of Emily suddenly materialized midway between the green screen and the bookcase on the wall behind. She was thin, straightbacked, beautiful, wearing blue jeans and my saffron button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up. I blinked; she disappeared. Like fallout from a dirty bomb, the new realization started to radiate through me, sickening me, poisoning me. I felt every fault in me opening at once. Guilt. Remorse. Regret that I was not at her side, that I had not even attended her funeral. My mind may have been running a hundred miles per hour, but my mouth apparently wasn’t quick enough for Holz. I said, “Your own people didn’t dispute the official medical report on her death. You found nothing wrong with it.” He nodded. I felt a flush spread up my face. “Goddammit, man!” I said. “Calm down, pal,” Holz interrupted sharply. “You’re drunk!“ That stung a bit and I attempted to get out of the overstuffed chair in a small gesture of defiance. “Oh, sit down for God’s sake.” He frowned, and a look of severe impatience came over his face. Nonetheless, he pushed calmly ahead. “I want to talk to you—but when you’re sober.” He halted for a while and stared directly into my eyes. “And it has to be confidential.”
The fucking rules, I wanted to say. There are no rules for you people. You make up the rules as you go along; you have conversations that never took place. I knew I’d had too much to drink and was slurring certain words. I tried to say as little as possible. “Holy shit, Mac!” I said. “Let’s have lunch. Tomorrow.” He grabbed a ballpoint from a C-SPAN mug and scribbled something on the back of a credit card receipt which he handed me. “This might be a good time to call it a day,” he added and abruptly left the room. I leaned back and waited. I wanted to put a little distance between Holz and me. Suddenly, I needed sharp focus to keep the room from spinning and I stared at the yellow glow of Tikki torches outside. I wished to God that the last twenty minutes had never happened. It seemed an hour later that I pulled myself together and followed Holz into the living room, though it may have been only a minute or two.
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The Good Physician
A novel by Kent Harrington
Chapter 1 They could hear it coming, a plane approaching from the west. It flew low; first over the beach, its dark silhouette trailing across the white sand, then past the high dunes, and then past the windsock at the end of the runway. They could hear when it finally touched down. Someone said it was the mail plane back from the Gulf run. They were mostly older turboprops that called the airport home: Fokkers, DC-7’s and Brazilian Bandeirantes. The airport was primitive. It sat alone on the desert near Cabo San Lucas. Nothing much to the place but a few dismal hangers, the stained tarmac, and men who knew a lot about planes and flying them. Jimmy Hidalgo, the owner of one of the cargo companies, had been saying that the runway at San Javier, where the doctor and his friends were going, was tricky. It was too short, he explained. You had to drop in very quickly as soon as you cleared the mountain. “And on the way out it’s worse; you have to clear the date grove,” he said. He glanced at his son, who was talking to the German girl, Marita, who’d come with the doctor and Alfredo from Mexico City for the weekend. Dr. Collin Reeves looked at the old DC-5 on the tarmac. His father flew and owned a plane, so the doctor had grown up with talk of airplanes and difficult landings. The plane that was to take them to San Javier was far too old to still be in service. He understood now why the man at their hotel in Cabo San Lucas had suggested driving to San Javier, rather than risk flying in. They were drinking coffee in the hangar and watching the dawn break outside, suddenly, the way it does in the desert. The cargo boys had arrived for work, and the place seemed more like an airport now. The owner told them that he’d bought his DC-5 from a Dutch mining company two years before in Ecuador. According to Hidalgo, it had been built in 1935 and seen action with the Marines at Guadalcanal—“and been shot at by Japanese gentlemen that didn’t like her.” Hidalgo had found her abandoned in an Amazon boom town where, he said, everyone was digging for gold, covered in muck, and drunk. He’d always wanted a DC-5, and bought her from the Dutch owners, who were using her for parts.
He loved the plane, he told them. “Sometimes you love things you shouldn’t love, doctor,” Hidalgo said. “But that’s life. I’ve spent more restoring her than she’ll ever make me.” Collin’s friend Alfredo, a painter, said that had to be the definition of love, and they all laughed. A mail pilot stopped by the hangar to report that visibility was poor over the coast between Loreto and Cabo. The doctor listened as the two professionals talked about the weather. Hidalgo bit his lip. He nodded twice when he heard the word “fog,” his expression serious. Before he left, the mail pilot turned to the doctor and said that conditions were actually pretty good for the end of March, when things could be quite bumpy. The pilot gave them a fey smile, as if he understood something Collin didn’t. Then he wished them all buena suerte and rode his bicycle back across the tarmac, the morning sunlight making the airport’s old hangars seem somehow beautiful and ugly at the same time. Collin had asked why Hidalgo wasn’t flying them. Hidalgo explained that he wasn’t allowed to fly because he’d had a bad crash up at San Quintin in a Fokker 27 the year before. His right leg and foot had been badly burnt before he was pulled from the wreck. He’d been lucky to survive it, he said. “So when you take off at San Javier, the date palms end right up under you, doctor—just a few feet under you. You could pick the fruit as you go by! The trick is to clear the date palms.” Collin understood that it was probably dangerous to take off from San Javier, and that Hidalgo missed doing it. “Are you a pilot, doctor? You seem to know something about it.” “No, but my father is,” Collin said. “Then he would understand. I finally ran out of luck at San Quintin in that Fokker,” Hidalgo said, before his mechanic interrupted him. Everyone runs out of luck some place, Collin thought. It was just a question of where. Everyone gets their San Quintin. The mechanic started the DC-5’s engines in the cold. Each one turned over slowly so you could see the propeller shudder-rotate, cough black exhaust and then finally go strong. The sound was thrilling once they got going. The plane was definitely too old, Collin thought again, watching the mechanic. But this was Mexico, and there were no rules about things like that. If there were, no one paid them any attention. Everything had two or three lives here, before it was finally allowed to die. Collin watched as the mechanic popped out of the cabin, listening carefully to the engines for any sign of trouble. The ground crew began loading a crazy assortment of cargo to be dropped off at various airstrips along the way: a horse, some scuba gear for a hotel in Loreto, and a motley assortment of luggage. “Of course, sometimes there are accidents at San Javier,” Hidalgo said over the sound of the engines. “Usually pilots from Texas or Arizona who aren’t familiar. It’s only fair that we charge more to land at San Javier. At least we’ve done it before,” he said, laughing. Then he
went outside. Collin noticed how big Hidalgo was, walking with his cane, limping, his right leg shot, to check the plane himself. They flew with the rear hatch open and no thought of personal safety, the cargo door long ago removed for convenience’ sake. They landed thirty minutes later at a desert airstrip, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A rancher and a young boy came and helped take the horse off the plane, leading it off on a makeshift ramp. Then they’d taken off again, the rancher waving at them as if he’d met them all. The doctor, standing near the open cargo door, waved back feeling like they were on the edge of a lonely, beautiful world, the last ones left. Sometimes you fall in love with things you shouldn’t. They flew over the mountain, and then he saw the date palms and the dirt landing strip of San Javier below, stained dark by the March rain, all looking like a painting. They dropped hard, as Hidalgo had said they would, just as soon as they cleared the mountain. The nylon netting— kept for bundling large cargo—slid at the doctor, and he had to turn away from the open cargo door to brace himself against it. Hidalgo’s son throttled the engines back and landed the plane expertly, mano-a-mano, just as he’d been taught. When they’d landed, the son, big and handsome like his father, shook everyone’s hand and promised he’d come for them that Sunday at noon, unless the weather got bad. The pilot shook the German girl’s hand twice. While their luggage was loaded into the taxi, they all watched the son take off and clear the wall of date palms by a good six feet. On the way to the pensión they’d agreed that the son was a good pilot and that his father had done a good job with him. The German girl didn’t say anything, but she’d watched, too. She was just quiet, Collin thought, in that way that made you know she was paying close attention to everything. ••• Dr. Collin Reeves’ specialty was tropical diseases—parasitology, his card said. They were the diseases travelers feared most, some tiny invertebrate that had penetrated the unsuspecting patient’s defenses and gotten down to its nasty god-given biology, thriving while their host suffered. As one of his professors had been fond of saying: “If you have one, you’ve probably got several.” He was listed as a “go-to” doctor by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, where he saw American tourists—either at their hotels, which he preferred, or at his combination office and apartment downtown, not far from the Zócalo. Several doctors were on the list, but he was the only young American. He was boyishly handsome; being a doctor still seemed secondary to his obvious youth. He’d played basketball as an undergraduate, so was naturally commanding. His patients seemed to feel better in the hands of a tall man.
He’d fallen in love with Mexico and with painting it and was paying the price, something he wasn’t yet aware of. If anyone had told him that he was a bohemian in the making, he would have laughed. His parents, very well-to-do, had despaired completely when he hadn’t come home after medical school. They’d expected a successful physician, not what they thought he’d become: a hand-to-mouth backwater doctor, throwing his life away in various slums. His father, a prominent San Francisco surgeon, had announced the previous Thanksgiving that his son had failed to live up to his promise. It seemed to slip out of his father’s mouth without his being able to stop it. It was a shock. Collin had thought, sitting at the table, that it all sounded true. He couldn’t really deny it. Yet it wasn’t right to say it like that, in front of people Collin had known his whole life. He hadn’t tried to defend himself. He couldn’t. Everyone at the table was quiet for a moment; it was out of character for his father to speak that way. His younger sister managed to change the subject. They’d gone on from there, but the damage had been done. His parents had expected a wedding at their country club, a pretty young blonde wife, and grandchildren they could spoil. They’d gotten none of it. They were angry at him now, because he hadn’t lived up to his end of the contract. After two years in the intelligence service, he regretted joining. They hadn’t used him for much, kept undercover as a go-to doctor first in Kuwait, then in Mexico. But he could do little about it, other than quit and go home, and he couldn’t face that. He didn’t miss the States at all; that was the truth. Part of him loved the backwater existence: the tramping without a clear destination, playing the rôle of a country doctor to the hilt. He couldn’t explain it, really. He was angry at his parents, especially his father, but he couldn’t explain exactly why, other than he hated his father’s arrogance, which his father thought —in his stupid way—was how he was supposed to be a father. Collin had learned to hate arrogance of any kind. After graduating from medical school, rather than go back home to San Francisco, he’d gone to study, on scholarship, at the University of London’s famous school of tropical diseases. Then he’d gone to Brazil, where he’d volunteered for a program treating poor people in the fávelas. Later he’d joined Médecins Sans Frontières, confronting strange and frightening diseases in various African bidonvilles. He made no money. In fact, sometimes he had to borrow it just to go on. He enjoyed living from day to day in the bush with no one to answer to. It was the first time he’d felt free and done whatever the hell he wanted. He had a certain quiet confidence that worked for him. While other doctors gave up, or wouldn’t go that extra mile, afraid for their own safety, he always had. He was always certain he could beat whatever was thrown at him. The more filthy and dark the hut, the better he liked it. He hated the diseases he fought and took the misery they brought his patients personally. They
were the enemies of his State. He believed in Science’s power to do good. He was inspired by the power of human intelligence and believed in it. It was his religion. He had been recruited in Africa where scouts were attracted by his having gone native, a talent the agency sought for their clandestine service. The fact that he was a brilliant young doctor hadn’t been very important. They simply needed doctors—brilliant or otherwise—for those moments when they couldn’t call a “civilian” doctor. Someone called Bill came to see him after 9/11, while he was working in Nairobi. Collin wanted to do his bit to help fight the terrorists, and he’d agreed to go to Virginia to see some people in a company called “International Recruiting Services.” He was hoping to be sent to Afghanistan. The agency had lied to him. They’d promised him he’d be in the front lines of the war on terror; instead, they’d sent him to Kuwait for a year to be at the beck and call of some local Emir who was the Embassy’s darling. The man’s greatest fear was that his live-in Russian prostitutes were going to give him some horrific disease, or kill him outright when they were drunk. “You check good. Take all the time you need. You check everything, young man,” his master said to him over the phone whenever he expected a new girl. Collin would be called to his white marble palace in the desert, built by the Bechtel Corporation. He would be forced to wait like any other flunky in the Emir’s pay, in an enormous foyer chilled by air-conditioning and staffed by young Filipino girls in uniform, who seemed never to speak to anyone. His Emir would appear suddenly with his retinue of bodyguards, shake his hand perfunctorily, and politely remind him to check her for everything one more time, in case Collin hadn’t understood before. They’d all wait for the limousine carrying yet another diffident and breathtaking 18-year-old from Belarus whose visa said “administration services.” The girls were changed frequently, for safety’s sake. Collin realized one day while shaving that he’d become an on-call brothel doctor. It had shocked him at first; he’d graduated at the top of his class at medical school. He would certainly have been more valuable to his country doing real medical work somewhere in the front lines of the War On Terror—but he’d had to get used to it. His Emir was important to his bosses at the Embassy, and that was that. The rest of the time he was free to play golf in one of the hottest places on earth. He’d spent hours alone with a caddy from China who couldn’t speak a word of English. He’d come close to going mad. His service in Mexico had been no less boring. He believed he deserved revenge on the system, and took it by leaving the city at every opportunity to paint, something he’d discovered he loved. He no longer thought much about the War On Terror. No one seemed to notice when he was gone.
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A novel by Kent Harrington
It all started with the sky, which was immense, devoid of feeling except for a few flat pink clouds that were fierce and pagan looking, the way they can seem in Central America. It started too with a Fado song on the jukebox, the melancholy music playing over the afternoon voices of a jungle barroom that was little more than a shack. “Only the dead are really satisfied,” the bartender said to Russell. Across the road, a small group of Indian men worked under a ceiba tree, the tree’s hulking great canopy lording it over them. The men intended to plant a cross where their loved ones had died. A young priest had come with them to bless the spot. Russell watched as a shirtless, muscular Indian hit the top of the painted white cross with the flat of his shovel. He hit it hard several times; they heard the metal, clang-blong, clangblong. Like a bell rung for the dead. The third-class bus on its way to market had crashed into that ceiba tree the week before, on a perfectly sunny day. Five people had been killed on the spot. The bus had been opened like a soda can and the poor people on their way to market had died, gripping their vegetables and chickens. Even the chickens in their cages had been killed. The bartender told him the story of the crash. How it had happened about that time of day. How everyone in the bar had run out to help. They had saved many people. The bar girls had held the dead in their arms. The ceiba tree, the bartender told Russell, was hard as a soldier’s heart. He’d been a soldier during the war, he said, and knew something about hard hearts. “You see things. Then you never forget them,” he said. “Things that change you.” The Indian stood back from the cross and signaled to the kid priest to go ahead and get on with it. The Indians all doffed their worn straw hats and knelt down in the clearing under the
tree. The kid priest in his black cassock stepped in front of the cross and spread his arms out. He started praying to his God. Through the ceiba tree’s lacy canopy, Russell noticed the clouds gathering above the men. He saw the new, raw-looking white cross standing now, saying what it said, marking where the people had died. The clouds didn’t seem to care. They were sweeping in anyway. It was going to rain hard soon. They’d had a lot of rain that winter. Too much here on the Pacific coast, but nothing in the Peten. Even the weather seemed to be conspiring against coffee prices. Russell Cruz-Price planned to buy a coffee plantation that afternoon from a Frenchman who’d gone bust. He knew it was a foolish act, but he didn’t care. He’d gotten to that place in life where you just stop caring very much. You just try to satisfy yourself, and that’s good enough. You believe what you want to believe about how it will all turn out. He’d been playing with a double-0 shotgun shell, rolling it back and forth on the bar in front of him. The bartender took his empty beer away. It was hot in the bar and the air smelled of cigarettes and decaying jungle and the perfume the bar girls wore. After they planted their cross and said their prayers, the men came across the empty road and into the thatched roof barroom for a cold beer. Even the priest came in. This bar was not used to seeing priests pass through its doors; a lot of people came to La Ultima bar, but not many priests. Sudden outbreaks of violence were very common in La Ultima. Men from all classes got drunk together here, then shot each other for petty reasons — usually over the young bar girl’s affections. Couples danced night and day to the juke box on the polished concrete floor. La Ultima never closed its doors. It was a church, someone told Russell once, but for sinners. “You see the dead, they care for nothing now. They don’t care about sex. They don’t care about love. Not even about food. Nothing,” the bartender said, getting ready to set the Indians up with beers. Russell had decided to wait here for the American who would guide him to the plantation, for no particular reason other than that he liked the place, and it was right off the Pan American Highway, and the back had a view of the jungle and a river that was entertaining to watch. He liked the way the jungle grew right down to the river’s edge. A psychiatrist might have suggested to him that he came to places like La Ultima because he had a death wish. He was ignorant of that particular desire, as he was of so much of his psyche. Some desires he was very aware of. Some were sitting around the back of the bar, wore short skirts, and could, under the right circumstances, make you feel better. But not always. The others were less obvious. He sought out fearful situations and now he had the desire to make a great deal of money. He couldn’t explain his seeking out fear, but he was aware of it. It was as if
he were trying to prove to himself that he was not a coward, and whatever he did was never enough. In fact, he thought he was fine. But all his risk taking was a strange way to live, he would have agreed. Other men he knew wanted to feel safe, safe in their occupations and families. He’d always envied those men their children, their wives, their knowing whom they could count on. Something had happened to him that made the simplest things in life difficult and the harder things easy. He would run towards a fight and away from anyone who said they cared for him. It wasn’t right and he knew it, but it was the way it had shaken out. The men from the road sat at the bar, and the place livened up. They wanted to put the deaths behind them now. Russell bought them all a round; they thanked him, and said he was “muy Christiano.” Very Christian. He said he was sorry for what had happened. Fit and tall, Russell had his Guatemalan mother’s thick brown hair and his American father’s rawboned good looks and green eyes. He had a quick, knowing smile that put people at ease right away. He was working now as a financial journalist for a famous English newspaper, which suited him. He could have continued with that, but didn’t want it anymore. He wanted money now, and was going to buy the coffee plantation from the Frenchman. The afternoon started to crumble into long dull moments, still appallingly hot but overcast. The immensity of the jungle outside reflected the endless tangled nature of existence. Things floated by on the river. “You want something to eat?” the bartender asked later. “No thanks,” Russell said. “You want to talk to a girl?” “No. Not in the mood.” “You’re young. You should talk to a girl,” the bartender said. “It’s always fun.” “Maybe later,” Russell told him. The men who’d planted the cross proceeded to get drunk. The young priest had one polite drink and left for his church. Russell moved to a table and continued to wait for the American while he watched a parade of impoverished plantation workers — men and women — in black rubber boots, some carrying their machetes, walk past the bar toward the town. Russell knew from his reporting work that the old feudal world his mother had been born into had ended with the destruction of the coffee economy. And yet the coming brave new world, promised by well-dressed young people at the World Bank, was not in place, either. It was a strange time. No one knew what was coming next. The execrable feudal traditions — abhorrent
to him — were at least based on a perverted social contract that guaranteed homes and food to the country’s most wretched. To his mother’s class, it had also guaranteed great wealth and leisure. But now, even that grossly unfair contract was being swept aside by Darwinian “market” forces that guaranteed nothing to anyone. The plantations were closing down, and there seemed to be nothing left for the poor to count on. A hundred and fifty years of history was being carted away, as if by magic. He’d met the old American in a restaurant in the town. The American had claimed to know Tres Rios, the plantation Russell was going to buy. The old man had offered to guide him. It would save time, and Russell had eagerly agreed to meet him later. He was a man in a big hurry. He wanted to find the Red Jaguar, the Mayan antiquity he expected to dig up there, which would make him rich and allow him to leave Guatemala for good. And the sooner, the better, he thought. The bartender walked out from the bar and put a new beer in front of him. “I put it next to my girlfriend’s heart,” the bartender said. “It’s ice cold.” They both laughed. It had started to rain, first softly, then suddenly in a great hostile downpour. The voices in the bar seemed to get louder. Russell could hear the rain striking the building’s corrugated metal roof. He slid the shotgun shell into the pocket of his jeans and turned and watched a couple dance. Suddenly, and for the first time in his life, he admitted to himself that he was completely lost. He put the idea aside quickly, a little afraid of it. His mother’s family had owned one of the biggest coffee plantations in the country. His mother, Isabella Cruz, had been raped, murdered and thrown into a ditch by communist guerrillas, while he’d been sitting in a math class a thousand miles away. He’d gotten a long letter at school from his uncle, who’d written him with the news. His uncle’s letter had been very beautiful, but lacked something. Russell’s mother had died when he was ten. They had been very close, in the oddest way. They had an understanding and sympathy towards each other that went beyond the usual mother and son relationship. There was no possible way to describe it; words do fail sometimes. Because of the war, he’d been sent abroad to school. His relationship with his mother had been epistolary for the most part, although he’d come back here to visit her for all his vacations. Because he’d been trained not to show “weakness” in the military schools he’d attended, he hadn’t allowed himself to cry when he got the news of her death. Sometimes, however, when he’d glance at his writing desk, he’d felt like it. He’d seen other boys cry, and he hated it. He
wanted to slap them. It seemed a violation of everything they’d been taught about being a soldier. He was eight when he was told that war would make him a man. He’d believed his teachers, the way young boys do. The school had been brutal, so he’d learned to cope with brutality and physical violence at a very young age. (Every adult on the staff, short of the cooks, had the right to practice corporal punishment on the students, and they had.) He’d become expert at both psychological warfare and the strange, capricious, and often purely sadistic behavior of adults. Many of his fellow students would die trying to prove how tough they were. One died in Somalia in Delta force, the toughest of the tough. Russell had seen his name in the newspaper. They had been on the cross country team together. He remembered the boy catching him on a hill once in the rain, and they’d raced along together in silence, sharing the pain of a long run. His school was shut down when the idea of making “soldiers” out of young boys finally went out of fashion. As far as he was concerned, it had been a good education, and prepared him for a world that was less than fair most of the time. Russell watched the old American’s beat-up, lime green Volkswagen bus pull up in front of the bar, right where the men had planted the cross. The driver’s-side door was bashed in. The old American slid out, locked his bus up and waited for the traffic to clear on the road, then ran across in the downpour. He must be seventy or even older, Russell thought, watching him run towards the door. He was spry, though. The old man came into the bar and, seeing Russell, approached him with a decrepit bonhomie that was common out here when finding a fellow American who might be better off than oneself. The shoulders of his worn cowboy shirt were stained dark from the rain. “I don’t care what kind of beer... anything wet. Tres Rios. It’s impossible trying to find it, if you’ve never been up there. No signs. Nothing to go by. You should get some quality coffee out of a place like that. You said you were going to buy it?” “Yes,” Russell said. “Wow. That takes guts, with coffee not worth shit right now.” The old American looked at Russell from ancient, keen eyes. “Don’ pay too much, that’s all,” the old man said, after they exchanged handshakes. “You can call me Coffee Pete.” Russell signaled the bartender and ordered him the beer he’d asked for. “I know the way all right. Don’t worry, I can save you a lot of time, I spent years out near Tres Rios chicken farming,” the old man said. The American’s blue eyes darted around the barroom, landing on a young bar girl in a red tank top and white short shorts, sitting alone. Russell didn’t ask the old man his connection to the Frenchman who owned the plantation
he was going to buy. He didn’t really care if there was one. “You should listen to me, son,” Coffee Pete said. “Get out of this damn country while you’re still young. Hell! Better places than this backwater. Why don’t you go to New York?” “I was there,” Russell said. “No shit. Girls there all had good jobs and big tits — when I was there, anyway.” Coffee Pete managed to smile and flirt with the young girl halfway across the barroom. “Don’t be like me. I can’t leave now.” The old American was tall, wore dirty khaki pants, and had a short-barreled .45 shoved into an expensive-looking quick draw holster on his right side. The side arm was the only clean-looking thing on him. He claimed he’d come to Guatemala to train the Cubans for the Bay of Pigs invasion for the CIA and decided to stay on. Russell could see he’d been big and strong and proud once. He was diffident now, not proud anymore, but still dangerous, Russell thought. Maybe it was even true about the Bay of Pigs. But one heard so much bullshit in these bars. “I guess you can pay me now. Three hundred Q,” Coffee Pete said, putting down his empty beer glass. “If you don’t mind. If I had time, I’d take that girl over there and go have a relax out back.” He smiled, and Russell saw a great animal cunning in the old man’s face. Russell counted out the money and added fifty quetzales, just because the old man seemed down and out and he felt sorry for him. “I didn’t think there were people like you anymore,” the old man said, thanking him. “Generous people out here don’t last, as a rule. Only the mean last, kid. ’Cause the mean just don’t give a shit about heaven.” He slipped the money into his shirt pocket, behind taped-up reading glasses. Russell paid the bill and they left. The old man went to the bathroom, telling him to follow him once he got his VW turned around and pointed south. Russell went out to the parking lot and loaded his combat shotgun with six rounds of double-0 buck shot. He loaded the little Velcro belt built right into the stock of the shotgun, then put more loose rounds on the seat, where he could get to them quickly. When he was finished, he laid his weapon on the seat next to him and looked out at the road. He’d tried unsuccessfully to buy a hand grenade on the black market. In a firefight they made all the difference. He would try again, he thought, waiting. He didn’t want to die defenseless, as his mother had. The war had ended, but not the violence. Russell watched the old American come out of La Ultima, run to his VW bus, and start it up. It belched smoke. The old man flashed him a smile, then pulled carefully out into traffic and took off. Russell kept expecting, as he watched from the parking lot, for the VW to turn around and come back south. The old man drove off, gaining speed, heading north toward Mexico. Russell watched him pass a truck and disappear. He thought about chasing him, but
decided against it. It would be a race into the town, there were a thousand side roads to turn into and hide, and undoubtedly the old man, like any good rat, knew all the good holes. He took off with only the name of the plantation and a curt description of how to find it. He got that lost feeling again as he drove south, but it passed. He’d written his mother a last letter soon after her death. He wrote it on her birthday and mailed it. In that letter, he told his mother everything he’d never gotten a chance to tell her. He laid out his plans for the future, telling her that he thought that his years of military school had been good for him, and that he hoped to be a doctor or soldier; something “worthwhile.” There had been a moment after he’d read his uncle’s letter when he’d been gripped with a horrible panic. He thought he might have no future at all. He’d walked to the duty officer’s room and handed him the letter, which was a “dead letter” even before it was mailed. The older boy—a captain—in mufti, because it was the weekend, was on the phone with his girlfriend. The captain nodded to him, took his letter and threw it on a pile with many others; and that was it. He’d gotten on with his life. He’d gone on. Now he’d ended up back here in his mother’s country, half crazy and not even aware of it.
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The Dean’s List
By Jimmy Petrosino
“Instead of Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter, there’s kids who’d rather hang a poster of Tony Montana or Tyler Perrasani up on their bedroom wall. What has become of our children? What has become of our society? Violence and evil are not things we should adore. My brother should not be an idol. He should be a tragedy. I am a tragedy.” ~Dean Perrasani
The line to the concession stand was five deep. Dean thought he saw the man with the evil eye waiting in front. Looking over his shoulder, he cut the corner. His walk was abruptly halted. "Whoa. Watch where you're walking," a teenager said. He and his girlfriend sidestepped out of Dean’s way. "Sorry." Dean continued on down what was now a quiet corridor. The further he walked, the more alone he seemed to be. Then heavy footsteps, like someone was walking behind him. The footsteps picked up, like someone was beginning to run. Dean glanced back. Nothing. But the corridor was curving, preventing him from seeing straight down. As Dean picked up his pace, he glanced back again. He saw the shadow of somebody. It had to be that same man. Even his shadow was intimidating. Dean pushed through the exit doors. He was sure he knew where Kendra parked. Confused, he went down the wrong row. He looked around frantically. He spotted the white Taurus two rows over. With the notion of an assailant behind him, and the taste of metallic in his dry mouth mingling with the odor of diesel fumes, Dean hopped over the guardrail. He hesitated for a moment. The exit doors slammed open as if a bull crashed through them. The man he feared stared at him. His eyes screamed of bad intentions. Dean’s heart thumped. Sweat soaked through his long sleeve T-shirt. He realized what he had walked himself into. A dark and deserted parking garage. The perfect place to get beat down or much worse. Disappear. After all, he had a powerful enemy. One who could make that very thing happen. As he rushed to open the driver’s side door, he glanced over the hood. The man stood still on the other side of the white Taurus. His face became more recognizable. It looked like his nose was beaten repeatedly with a meat hammer. “Dean Perrasani?” a deep voice spoke from behind. Dean jumped around. Michael Maresi, fifteen years Dean's elder, stepped out from behind the support column. Clean shaven, not a single hair out of place, dressed in a black Armani suit, Michael looked like he should be attending a meeting with Donald Trump. Not some football game between two lousy squads. He hand 69
gestured to his thug to leave them alone. The thug did just that. “Who are you?” “A friend of yours." Dean didn't answer. He didn't know if he should run or fight. Or beg for mercy. "You look nervous. Did you think that mean looking son-of-a-bitch was sent here by Bongiovani…? He’s my bodyguard.” “Intimidating guy.” “That’s why I hired him." Michael took another step closer to Dean. "Do you know who I am?" "I can’t say that I do." "I'm with them. The reason you are where you are." "Them…? You mean Filmore University?" Michael smiled. "Your academic credentials are impressive, Dean. They have been since middle school. The same could be said about your leadership skills. Named captain in almost everything you’ve ever been involved with.” “Are you with Filmore? Or are with you Regnum?” “Filmore and Regnum are one in the same. Are they not?” “I know who you’re with… Why did you come here to see me?” “There’s an opportunity presented that you must now seize.” “And what would I have to do for this opportunity?" Dead silence. Two males mirrored off each other’s eyeballs, the teen slightly backing down. “I don’t believe I need to answer your question out loud.” “You don’t.” “You’re a legacy, Dean. Thus a threat.” “A threat to who?” “I get the act. Ask me questions you already know the answers to. You’re a clever kid. Another reason we want you taking over the reins.” Dean’s eyes widen. “You want me to be President of Regnum?” Michael chuckled. “A couple more of these and I don’t envision myself laughing any longer.” “Sorry. Habit.” “President of Regnum is what the outsiders say. You refer to him as your Don.” “Only within our fraternity.” “You follow the rules with precision.” “I try.” “Let me be quite frank with you here, Dean. You are the man, one of very few, that they have handpicked. Your current Don is out. It’s final. He blew his chance big-time.” “He has made many mistakes.” “Learn from his mistakes, my friend.” They stared at one another for the most awkward three seconds in Dean’s life. “When he’s gone, the rest will follow along. That won’t even be an issue.” “Men are moved by two levers. Fear and self interest.” “Napoleon quote. Nice touch.” “Thanks.” A car door shutting startled Dean. He noticed a Cadillac ten spots down turn on its 70
headlights and start its engine. “It’s this simple, Dean. Run the family right—” “You mean fraternity.” “Please never correct me. I always mean exactly what I say.” “Sorry.” “It is a family. And you will be its Don. You run it right. Like your brother did. And those after him, with the exception of a few. And you, Dean Perrasani, will gain everyone's respect. Most importantly, the respect of the Commission.” Dean was shocked by the utter mention of the Commission. “That’s right. I said it. Your brother ever say it?” “Not to me. No. Never.” “Your brother was a great leader. The best we ever seen. I’ll be keeping in touch.” Michael held out his right hand. Dean wasted no time shaking it. Michael’s hand wasn’t sweaty. Dean’s was. “Is that it? You came out here just to meet me?” “I feel I’ve gotten my point across.” “There’s more we should talk about then. Shouldn’t we?” The Cadillac pulled up. The bodyguard stepped out of the backseat. “Your brother and I had a good relationship. We helped each other out quite a bit. I hope the two of us have that very same relationship.” “So do I.” “Enjoy the rest of the game.” Michael sat down in the car. The bodyguard sat next to him. The door shut. The Cadillac drove away. Dean gazed at the taillights. But his mind was in disarray "Tackle by Thomas," the public addresser's voice echoed over sparse cheers. The Filmore defense ran off the field celebrating as Norwalk's punt team replaced their offense. "Wooo hooo. Go Foxes!" Kendra cheered, her arms crossed and her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. A true Midwesterner, Kendra Calhoun could’ve been a working model if she only was a little taller and ate a little less. "I think we might win our first game," Linda said, sitting to the right of her roommate. She was more voluptuous than Kendra, and much more sexually active. "Who cares? As long as the spread gets covered." Brett Marcello was every girl’s desire and he knew it. His raven hair and olive skin made him look more Italian than Dean even though he wasn’t fullblooded and Dean was. "Such school spirit, Brett," Linda said. "I just said I was rooting for them, didn't I?" Linda and Kendra looked at each other and giggled. “There he is. It’s about time. I was about to come look for you.” Dean returned to his seat holding a wool coat. He handed it to Kendra. “Thank you so much, my darling.” Kendra quickly threw on her coat. Dean retook his seat to her right. He stared down at the field, blocking out everything else around him. From the outside Dean Perrasani looked like a normal nineteen-year-old: handsome, dark hair, slender 71
build, innocent face. But inside was a wounded soul. A tragic past he felt was better left untold. His mother, father, and older brother had died at different times in his childhood. His overly religious grandmother left to care for him. The fact he made it to where he was now spoke volumes of not just the job his grandmother did after his father's death, but of his own determination and resolve. “This is beat,” Brett said. “Let’s ditch this taco stand.” “And go where, honey?” Linda asked. “To the frat house.” “No thank you.” “Why not, Linda?” “That psychopath, Mickey Connell, will be there.” “Yeah. He scares me. He flips out.” “Don’t worry about him, Kendra. He smokes so much dope it’s shrinking his already miniscule brain. Anyway, if he does bother you, Dean’ll kick his ass. Don’t let those cute dimples and blue eyes fool you either. Dean may look he belongs on the cover of Seventeen. But deep down inside, he’s a stone cold killah.” Kendra and Linda giggled at Brett's silly assertion. Dean didn’t acknowledge what he said. “Dean? Hey Dean?” Dean finally looked at him. “What was the spread?” Brett asked. Dean shrugged his shoulders. Brett and Dean were best friends since the second grade. Dean, always the kid who kept quiet and made getting As seem cool, took a liking to Brett the first time they met and vice versa. Brett was in awe of Dean. Almost worship. He'd do anything for him. “We’re getting ten and a half,” Kendra blurted out. Dean looked at her. She smiled. “I heard somebody else say it on campus today. What? I don’t gamble.” Dean smiled. “My intuition tells me Mahoney throws a pick,” Brett said. Booing became more constant after a handoff totaled a negative two yards. Despite the small crowd, there was plenty of passion in Kaplan Stadium. Named after Bernard Kaplan, a former chancellor at Filmore University. He was the man responsible for spearheading the funding for a new stadium. With the help of a surreptitious organization known as the Commission. “The sky looks so beautiful tonight,” Kendra said, staring up at a sky one would see in a planetarium. Dean looked up at those very stars. Another chorus of boos. “Intercepted by Paprota. Norwalk’s ball on the Filmore’s forty-three yard line,” the public addresser voiced. “Good call Brett,” Linda said. Dean looked to his right. Brett smiled at him. They both knew the spread was rigged. Even though Filmore sucked as a team, they were winning for some. Particularly in their pockets. Dean stared back down at the field. But his mind was running all over the place. He wondered if he was experiencing exactly what his older brother, Tyler, experienced. It was his footsteps he wanted to follow in. Was he following in them? Questions since he was a kid were finally being answered. First 72
Tyler. Now him.
Ten years ago, Dean was still an innocent boy with dreams of being like his father. His older brother,
Tyler, well, he had his own dreams. It revolved around running the most powerful organization any university could ever imagine. The problem being nobody could imagine. It was inconceivable to the average person. Unless that person was foolish enough to cross their destructive path. A rerun of MASH played. Next to the 25-inch TV an open window revealed the beautiful fall day. Tyler Perrasani rested back on the sofa enjoying his alone time. At six-foot, Tyler’s presence towered over everyone else in Phi Beta Regnum. That’s because he was the main man in charge. President of Regnum. The Don. He had a more mature look than Dean; a stubbly beard, chiseled jaw line, slicked back hair. Clumping footsteps across the wooden floor told him somebody was approaching. Vinnie Durkan walked into the living room, proving his premonition correct. “Hey Tyler.” He sat to his Don’s right. “I can’t find McCreedy anywhere.” Tyler’s eyes remained glued on the TV. “He’s out running errands for me.” “I have a question regarding this construction we’re overseeing.” Tyler peered at Vinnie. “You know better than to talk business here. Save it for the privacy of my office.” “I’m sorry. Stupid me.” Vinnie threw back his Frankenstein head and flopped his arms in the air. “I should know better.” “You should.” “Is it okay if I ask a favor here?” Tyler gazed back at the TV. “Speak.” “I have a friend, this dude in my History class. He helps me with homework. Nice guy. A nerd. But a nice guy—” “Get to the favor. You’re boring me already.” “His name is Kenny Lipson. He was beat up at a party last week.” “You’re kidding me with this?” “These shysters over at Alpha PI Delta are extorting him. Forcing him to pay for a car accident he had nothing to do with,” Vinnie said, his emotions unmasked through his fist clinching. “What’s this Lipson willing to pay you for your help?” “It’s not about that, Tyler. These guys who slapped Todd around, they call themselves the Ridgewood Mafia.” The name Ridgewood Mafia snagged Tyler’s attention. He looked at Vinnie. “I never heard of 'em.” “They’re just punks who go to Filmore.” “Are these characters from Ridgewood, Connecticut?” “How did you know?” “Rich kids who are bored. That’s what it sounds like to me.” A fellow brother walked into the room. “What you two watching?” Teddy Gibriano had a pencil-thin mustache and gold loop earrings dangled from his lobes. He was Tyler’s right-hand man and best friend since the seventh grade. “What’s this? MASH?” “You ever hear of the Ridgewood Mafia?” Vinnie asked. Teddy plopped down on the recliner. “I can’t say that I have. Who are they?” 73
Tyler gazed at him. “They need to be spoken to. ASAP.” “Then I’m on it. ASAP. And you’re on it with me, Vin.” “I knew I was.” Vinnie stood, his fists still clenched. “Calm down, Vin. You’re too wired. This is no reason to wanna go pound somebody. You barely know this Lipson kid.” “I understand, Tyler.” “Then understand, this is your favor.” “And I appreciate that. Really.” “Also, your friend, Ken Lipson? I’ll expect him to repay us one of these days. I’m not running a charity here.“ “He’ a bright dude. We can use him to write papers. Students are willing to shell out a lot of loot for that shit.” Tyler nodded. “Not a bad idea. I'm impressed.” Vinnie smiled. Impressing Tyler was on top of each brother’s to-do list. “When you go speak with this Ridgefield Mafia, have Julian tag along.” Teddy’s smile stretched out. The name Julian gave off delight. He jumped up off the recliner. “I’ll keep you updated, Ty.” “Good.” Teddy and Vinnie left the room. Tyler went back to enjoying another episode of MASH. The Frank Burns years. The earsplitting music of Metallica’s “Exit Sandman” stopped. “Everyone get out. Party’s over,” Garrett Spilner screamed. He was both handsome and well-dressed, a recipe for his arrogance. The dwindling crowd filed out the front door. A drunken teenager held up his hand for Garrett to highfive. “Awesome party, dude. The best I’ve been to this year.” “That means oodles coming from your poor ass.” “When’s the next one?” “Never. Now beat it before I buy you and your dad and sell the both of you off on eBay.” Garrett slammed the front door shut. His fraternity brother, Chubby Charlie, approached him. “Denise is creaming me. I know it. You see the way she was hugging all over me tonight?” Garrett slapped Charlie in the belly. Another brother hurried into the room. Colin was dressed in a cashmere sweater and tailored slacks like everyone else in this fraternity full of preppies. “Garrett, Todd Haft is still down in the basement. All by his lonesome.” “You befriend him like I asked, twig?” Colin nodded. “Worked him the same as Lipson. He thinks we’re boys.” “Let’s do this thing like we always do. Ridgewood Mafia style,” Garrett said. They made their way to the basement. A few brothers followed anticipating a worthwhile event. Garrett, Charlie and Colin made up a small faction they called the Ridgewood Mafia. Several other brothers were also a part of this make-believe gangster world. No one at Filmore even realized that Ridgewood was an affluent area of Connecticut. Each neighbor wealthier than the other. The Ridgewood Mafia was nothing more than a bunch of spoiled bullies who wanted everyone to bow to them when they entered a room. 74
The dim basement smelled of fresh paint. Folding chairs and old sofas were scattered around. Five brothers sat around a keg drinking piss-warm beer out of plastic blue cups. “How’s the party down here?” Garrett asked. Everyone stood, including Todd Haft. Thick frame glasses and his untrained hair emitted nothing intimidating. Garrett and his two cronies approached him. “Mr. Haft, you having fun?” “Yes. Thank you for inviting me,” Todd stammered, not used to attending parties. “Don’t be foolish. I thank you for coming.” “Todd drank a lot of our beer tonight,” Colin said. “He’s been hogging the keg, Garrett,” one of the brothers lied. “They’re joking. This is only my third cup.” Garrett and Todd locked eyes. Todd’s eyes were the definition of scared, the opposite of Garrett’s. His eyes weren’t blinking and his lips formed a straight line. Todd began to sweat and his legs tremble. He could feel the fear. Something bad was about to happen. “Liar,” Garrett yelled, followed by a stinging slap across Todd’s face. As Todd’s glasses flew across the room, he fell flat on his ass. Laughter broke out. Garrett leaned down and grabbed the weakling by his collared shirt. “I didn’t do anything to you,” Todd said, his eyes tearing. “Yes you did, you little turd!” Garrett slapped him across the face for a second time. Then again, turning Todd’s face beat red. “You owe us money dickhead,” Charlie yelled, and kicked Todd on his right side. “I want two-thousand dollars by Wednesday. If I don’t get it from you by then, you die,” Garrett said. “Why would I give you two-thousand dollars?” Todd cried. “Because you can’t drive. That’s why,” Colin chimed in. “Know who we are? We’re the Ridgewood Mafia. You don’t mess with us. I can have you whacked. You got that, dork?” Garrett clutched onto Todd’s shirt and pulled him up on his feet. “What do you want from me?” “You hit my friend’s car. Now we want you to pay for the damages.” “I wasn’t in any car accident—” “Stop your nonsense!” Garrett smacked Todd across the face. The slap echoed off the walls. “If you don’t pay, then we’ll pay a visit to your younger sister. And we’ll collect from her.” Charlie nodded. “I see a ton of blowjobs in my future. I’m loving that.” “Stay away from her. I’ll pay you your money. Just stay away from my sister. Please,” Todd muttered, crying louder. He truly believed these guys were that powerful. That callous. He had no idea what they were talking about. That’s because they were lying. No car accident took place. They were just punks looking to extort a much weaker person. A vacant complex was once the home to batting cages. On one side, a net draped down from the ceiling to the floor. On the other side, a backstop net hung behind home plate. Ceiling lights kept the dustridden place lit. “Damn it!” Julian shouted. Short and powerful like a wolverine, Julian was an ex Marine, an explosive disposal specialist, now turned Regnum enforcer. He banged the barrel of the aluminum bat off the 75
Astroturf floor. Teddy and Vinnie laughed. “What’s so funny, Vin? Why don’t you hit next, pussy?” “Why embarrass myself? I know I suck.” Vinnie Durkan was all brawn, little brains. Back when he was fourteen, he spent six months in juvee for nearly beating another teen to death. Despite being a D student throughout high school, Vinnie received a full scholarship to Filmore University. Go figure. Handcuffed to the net, bandanna gagged, were three pleading preppies. Garrett Spilner. Charlie Milford. Colin Pratt. “What would they say back home about the bad asses known as the Ridgewood Mafia?” Teddy asked, stepping toward them. The smell of men’s cologne was strong. But the smell of fear was overwhelming. Vinnie placed a dimpled ball in the pitching machine behind the net. Julian again got into his rightybatting stance. “Keep your eye on the ball and stop pulling your head out,” Teddy said. He clapped in encouragement. The three-wannabe gangsters from Alpha PI Delta looked every morsel of terrified one could look. The ball shot out of the pitcher’s machine and startled them. Julian swung. He could only muster a foul ball into the backstop. “Goddamn me!” He flung the bat across the room. Garrett grunted. Teddy yanked down the bandanna. “We didn’t do anything to you. Please let us go. I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you a lot of money.” “No deal,” Teddy answered. Hollow footsteps were heard above Garrett’s cries. Teddy’s eyes gleamed at the arrival of their Don. “This is what I’m talking about. You want to see a man who can hit. Here he is. Mad skills. He was the best player on the baseball team back in high school.” “The best is stretching it a bit. I’ll take pretty good though.” Tyler shook Teddy’s hand. “So this is the Ridgewood Mafia?” “That they are.” Tyler stopped within a foot of Garrett. “I don’t know you and I don’t care to know you. The Ridgewood Mafia is over. I’m never to hear those words uttered in my presence again.” “Never again. It’s over,” Garrett said. His two buddies nodded. Tyler didn’t even look at them. It was as if they meant nothing, not even worthy enough for a glance. “If the Ridgewood Mafia resurfaces, then you and your associates will end up under the surface. I can make that happen. Do you think I’m lying to you?” “I’m done. I mean we’re done. It was all a misunderstanding. A joke. That’s it. That’s all we are,” Garrett said. “You didn’t havta tell me that,” Vinnie uttered. “I want you to pay Kenneth Lipson one thousand dollars out of your own pocket. And you’re to do so by week’s end,” Tyler said. “Who? Why would I pay him?” “You've extorted so many students you can't even keep track of their names can you? Pathetic. Just consider it a favor to me. Lastly, you’ll be paying me three thousand dollars for occupying my time. And my time is much more valuable than three thousand dollars.” “Best consider yourselves lucky,” Teddy chimed in. “Lucky that you’re not gonna end up in body casts,” Vinnie said. Tyler peered at Vinnie to shut his mouth. Vinnie looked down at the floor. 76
“Oh my lordy. Did you just shit yourself?” Teddy asked Garrett. The other guys smelled the foul air. “Someone get this boy some Huggies,” Julian said, and laughed. “This is amateur hour. I have better things to do than be here. You drive them back to their fraternity,” Tyler ordered Vinnie. “But he crapped his pants.” “Do as you’re told…” Teddy pointed at Julian. “You ride with.” “There’s to be no shenanigans either. Drive them straight home,” Tyler said. He walked away. “Get a move on it,” Teddy barked, scowling back at the moping Vinnie. “This skeazebag better not filth up my new seats.” Julian patted Vinnie on the back. “Don’t sweat it. We’ll just cover the back with a blanket. Ride with the windows down.” Breathing through their mouths, trying not to be nauseated, the two brothers began to free the gang formerly known as the Ridgewood Mafia. Tyler read the newspaper in bed. He remained in his bathrobe, regardless of the looming afternoon hour. The sunshine gave much needed light. The second-floor room was nothing spectacular. One bed sat in the middle. The most noticeable decoration, a painting of Jesus Christ with the Virgin Mary. A knock on the closed door before it inched open. “Good morning, Tyler. “What do you want, Vin?” “I have some news for ya,” Vinnie said. “Good news I hope?” “Isn’t it always good when I speak to you?” “You’re wasting my time already,” Tyler uttered, still reading. Vinnie removed an envelope from out of his denim coat. “Thirty-five hundred dollars. All for you. I’ll put it up here.” He placed the envelope down on the dresser near a wallet and a bottle of hair gel. Tyler looked Vinnie’s way. The paper now rested on his chest. “Did you give your friend the rest?" "Yeah." “What’s the word on our boys at Alpha PI Delta?” “Those three pussies left school. Ran back home to Connecticut. When the rest of PI Delta heard what happened, they quit the fraternity.” “Predictable.” “Regnum was mentioned. Scared the entire fraternity. Brothers wanna separate themselves as far as possible from Spilner and the Ridgewood Mafia.” “Smart. It’s good to see that college paid off for some of them.” “Alpha PI Delta is off the map. All because their president had to go slap a nerd around,” Vinnie said, a teeth-filled smile showed how proud he felt. “I guess the Ridgewood Mafia found out who the big dogs really are.” “Cool down, Frankenstein. We’re not the big dogs. We only work for the big dogs.” Tyler went back to reading his newspaper. Vinnie closed the door. Why did Tyler even bother with the Ridgewood Mafia? He knew that they were nothing but wannabe tough guys. Why even make the effort? The thirty-five hundred dollars? No way. He was involved in 77
business that exceeded well over six figures. Was it about the power? The respect? Exactly. He wanted to show those rich boys what real power was all about. And he did. He was the boss around here and no one better step on his toes because if they did, they just might get their feet cut off. Tyler turned the page of the newspaper. At the same time, he turned the page to his life. Written on that next page were the words —Power and Respect. He breathed both. He felt both. And he had no problem embracing both.
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By Amy Rogers
Being tall helped Neil reach inside the Dumpster. The stench of warm, rotting garbage and the buzzing of flies didn’t faze him. From experience he knew that this particular trash container, situated behind an AM/PM convenience store, was a reliable source of still-sealed, barely-expired sandwiches and burritos. On a good night, he could find dinner without even having to climb in. His fingers touched a polyethylene food package and he fished out a previously-frozen Hot Pocket, then a Lean Cuisine chicken and rice entrée. Disgusting. Not only in Los Angeles, but from sea to shining sea: rampant consumption, egregious waste. A rasping sound came from behind the Dumpster and a filthy, bent-over man appeared. One of thousands who camped in dry canals and under freeways in L.A., the homeless wretch exhaled intoxicating fumes, his hungry eyes fixed on Neil’s catch. Neil looked with pity on the man’s mental and physical brokenness. This, too, America had thrown away. He handed the Hot Pocket to the man, who offered a toothless smile and staggered away. Dumpster diving is un-American. Neil strolled out of the dark alley, as young, strong, and sane as the transient was not. He was neither homeless nor destitute. Dumpster diving was his moral choice. He sat on a bench at a bus stop, eating and enjoying the dry warmth of a July night in Southern California. He knew only ten miles away, on the coast, the weather was quite different. At that very moment, a chilly, damp marine layer probably covered his father’s house. How appropriate. He checked his watch. Quarter to two. Axel should be here in fifteen minutes.
A girl in a red miniskirt and four-inch stilettos swayed her hips down the sidewalk, parading in the glare of the streetlights. An LAPD cruiser drove by and she scurried to the shadows like a cockroach. He adjusted the Chico State hoodie he was wearing to make the letters more clearly visible. In this part of L.A., high school dropouts far outnumbered university graduates. A bit of shabby collegiate apparel from a town five hundred miles away was an easy way to identify himself to Axel. They’d never met and knew little about each other. That’s how the organization worked. He found himself staring at the girl. She looked sixteen going on thirty. Though he was probably six years older than she was, she made him feel immature. He wondered what Pops would say if he brought home a girl like that. Dear old dad was a useful barometer of subversiveness; the paterfamilias thought flip-flops were an assault on decency, and he was proportionately outraged by most anything else. When Neil pierced his nose, the old man shrieked. When he dreadlocked his long, sandy-brown hair, the old man made threats. When he dropped out of college, the old man kicked him out of the house and cut him off. Neil found it all very satisfying. He never saw his father anymore. Now he tested himself against bigger foes. A silver Chevy Malibu pulled up to the curb. He smoothed the front of his sweatshirt. The girl in the miniskirt glided forward. He intercepted her before she reached the car door. “I saw him first,” she said. “He’s not here for you,” Neil said. The passenger window opened and Neil leaned in. The driver was a heavy-set, middleaged man with a beard that nearly covered the scar in front of his right ear. “Ready, Chico?” the driver said. “Ready.” He stepped over a trickle of urine dribbling down the gutter toward a storm drain and climbed into the car with Axel. His accomplice was older than he expected—probably in his fifties, at least as old as Pops. All the radicals Neil knew were youths. It made sense; Axel was probably a skilled freelancer, not a dedicated militant. For Neil, direct action was a passion; for Axel, it might be just a job. “You got the address?” Axel said as the girl turned her back to them and they drove away. “I got it but it wasn’t easy. You wouldn’t believe how many derelict gas stations there are in Jefferson Park.” “You sure you got the right one? If I have to do this twice, it’s gonna cost you.” “I’ll know when we get there. There won’t be any mistake.” He spoke with false authority and glanced at the black duffel bag in the back seat.
“The detonator’s up here,” Axel said, patting a satchel on the armrest. “I always keep ‘em separate until the end.” Neil swallowed and withdrew his arm into his lap. The wind slapped his face as the Chevy accelerated up an on-ramp, awakening his senses, heightening his anticipation. At night, a car could actually reach full speed on an L.A. freeway. They covered the mile and a half to the exit in less than two minutes. In this part of the city, there was none of the famed Hollywood glamour. They drove down a street lined with thrift shops, space available signs, and billboards demanding to know if you’d been injured in an automobile accident. A paper McDonald’s bag and cup lay squashed in front of a payday loan outlet, ketchup squirted like blood on the sidewalk. They traveled about ten blocks without speaking. The scenery didn’t improve. “Up ahead, on the left,” he said. Rush Limbaugh once suggested that environmental wackos were to blame for the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Neil chuckled. The hypocritical old windbag had cried wolf. No sensible person would listen if he made such an accusation again. Even if this time, he was right. Axel made a U-turn and parked under a burned-out streetlight half a block from the abandoned gas station. While Axel gathered his gear, Neil stepped out of the car and scanned the area for witnesses. The block was empty. He walked onto the disused property and wished Pops could see him now. Vandals and thieves had stripped the CaliPetro station of everything valuable. All the windows were smashed. Gashes in the walls marked where the copper wiring had been ripped out. But he wasn’t interested in the old building. Instead, he focused on the pavement behind the graffiti-covered gas pumps. “Ain’t much left,” Axel said as he joined Neil in the shadows. “Don’t look like you need my talents to finish it off.” “The target is the underground storage tank, not the building.” They walked past overgrown oleander shrubs that ringed the station, stepping on a carpet of pink flower petals. Axel stopped. “You hear something?” Neil listened. Soft rustling and babbling sounds were coming from behind a rusty propane tank. He crept closer to see who—or what—was hidden there. A dirty sleeping bag and a shopping cart told him all he needed to know. “It’s some homeless nut job,” he said. “Probably schizo. Don’t worry about it.” He turned on a flashlight and skipped the beam across the pavement until it landed on a vented hole cover about eight inches in diameter. “There it is,” he said and padded to the spot. Axel handed him a tool and held the light while Neil pried open the cover and peered into the hole. “Jackpot,” he said.
“This is the one?” “Absolutely. I can see the electronics. Digital readout, probably a pressure monitor.” Axel returned the flashlight to Neil and rummaged through his duffle bag. The crazy guy behind the propane tank cursed and muttered nonsense about green cars and the circus. Neil ignored him. He felt giddy. This was his biggest operation yet for Earth Jihad. If it succeeded, they might make him a Cell Leader. “Package is ready for delivery,” Axel said. He held up a homemade, tube-shaped explosive device. “Dude, are you sure that’s going to work?” Neil said. The pipe bomb was smaller than he imagined. “Nah, it’ll never work. Why don’t you fix it,” Axel said and pretended to toss the device at him. He fell for the ruse and ducked. The bomb maker laughed at him. “Don’t worry, this baby’ll mess things up. Plus there’s gas down there. After we’re done there won’t be anything left.” “Good. We want to teach them a lesson they won’t forget.” Cautiously, Axel slid his device into the hole and set the timer on the detonator. Neil replaced the cover. “Five minutes,” Axel said. They sprinted for the car and sped off into the night. The homeless man living behind the propane tank cursed the strange men for invading his territory. When they were gone, he cursed them for leaving. He crawled into his sleeping bag, cursing everything and nothing. His eyes had only just closed when an explosion jolted him awake. The earth trembled and the metal disk that covered the underground storage tank was blown high into the air. It fell and clattered on the concrete. Blue flames shot like a geyser from the hole in the pavement, casting heat and a hellish light. The homeless man screamed and cast aside his sleeping bag as if it were on fire. For once, the discordant voices in his head spoke in unison. He ran away tearing his hair, looking every bit like the madman he was.
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by Jason Pinter
“Esther, what is this?” Nico Vanetti boomed from his office. Esther had been waiting for over an hour, so her head perked up immediately. Tidying up the papers on her desk, she ran through the selling points in her head. She knew what questions to expect, and had to have answers ready on the spot. She wasn't going to let this one go. If her presentation wasn't up to snuff, Nico could dash her hopes quicker than it had taken her to slice open the envelope. This one was too important to be unprepared. “Be right there.” She finished the last sip of her French Vanilla and smoothed her skirt. Entering Nico's office, Esther's heart drummed as she watched his eyes skim over a sheaf of paper. The paper she'd handed him that morning. He was sitting in his black leather chair, feet resting on his desk atop the latest manuscript from an old client. Coffee stains buttoned his otherwise brilliant white shirt. Standing in the doorway, Esther smelled the stench of Nico's unbearably strong aftershave. She could almost see the individual Hugo Boss molecules. “So what's up, Nic?” Nico finished skimming and held up the pages for her to see. A trim man with olive oil skin and gray hair sprinkled about his slicked back coif, Nico Vanetti was a man whose unbridled passion had mesmerized Esther four years ago when she joined Vanetti Literati. Since then, however, the impermeable aura had been cracked. His eyes no longer sparkled like they once did. Phone calls, how Nico spent a great deal of his working day, began with heavy reticence in his voice, as though the caller was interrupting some great pontification. Nico Vanetti was a powerful agent by name, but his dwindling skills and fading glory had led to an even faster dwindling clientele. The mailbox used to overflow with letters from successful writers reaching for the next plateau, confident that Nico's abundant skills and resources would help them achieve success which eluded them with their prior representation. He dealt with only the most promising artists, hand-picking the best of the best. Nico Vanetti had climbed to the top of the literary establishment by being both bold and clever, and his marketing savvy was better than any publicist Esther had ever known. Every submission glowed like antique china, and his contacts in Hollywood guaranteed film interest for
anything he deemed worthy of the hype. Every client was a potential blockbuster waiting for the right editor to snap him up before they could reap huge profits for another house. Esther had actively campaigned for the job of Nico's assistant after reading a glowing profile of him in a magazine. For the first few months, her resume submissions were ignored. Undeterred, she'd sent follow-up letters every other week until she'd literally badgered her way into an interview. Bold and clever. Just as the profile described Nico. To her delight they clicked instantly. She was hired a week later, sure she'd found an employer and a profession that would keep her sated for years. But since then, everything changed. She wondered if Nico had been on that path when they'd met. Whether she'd simply been blind to it. Perhaps it was just blissful ignorance. Two years into her job, New York magazine ran a story detailing Nico's troubled marriage, a failure expedited by his allegedly incurable penchant for Guatemalan housemaids. It was the first time Esther had seen Nico in a personal light, and it scared her. Several clients took the moral high ground and severed their relationships. Most of his longtime clients remained, but their good will either slowed to a trickle or ceased altogether. Fruit baskets stopped coming after contract negotiations, and his birthday cards were perfunctory. Esther tried her best to keep her personal feelings about Nico separate from her professional life. She figured he'd made these people enough money over the years that they could forgive a slight marital infidelity because, when it came down to it, they knew their careers were in great hands. The breaking point came a year and a half ago, when Esther's perception of Nico changed permanently. It involved Chester Peabody, a fantastically popular romance author who'd earned nearly four million dollars in royalties writing under the alias Brendan LaQuattro. Peabody wrote sweaty bodice-rippers, starring bored housewives and muscular he-men who whisked them away for grand adventures and fabulous sex. No time period—or sexual position—was sacred. Yet Peabody's dream, which he'd expressed to Nico on several occasions, was to write a space opera, a story that would put “Star Wars” to shame with its epic scope. Nico had discouraged this from the start. So when Chester finally put the pen to the paper for his first SciFi opus, authored under his given name, he overnighted the manuscript to Nico, his trusted agent. It was a risky departure for Peabody, Esther knew that, but one that could pay substantial dividends for both he and Nico Vanetti. The story was visionary, the writing poetic, and Esther recommended the book full-heartedly to Nico. Yet when she returned from lunch to find Chester Peabody's manuscript on her desk with a post-it note instructing her to return it with Nico's disapproval, Esther was heartbroken. The pages looked like they hadn't been touched. She stormed into his office, horrified that he would ignore her opinion and the dreams of a client with such indifference. “How come you passed on the Peabody manuscript?” she'd asked. Nico lifted his head from a pile of paper and removed his glasses.
“Est, I just don't see Chester's romance fans paying money for Sci-Fi. Very few people make real money in that genre. It's a real nitpicky audience and Chester doesn't have a name or reputation to stake it. It might sell, but likely not at the price he'd expect, and his romance fans would look elsewhere when he stopped producing” Noticing her astonishment, Nico added, “and Chester Peabody is the worst name for a writer I've ever heard. His name alone will drive people away.” Later that day, Esther sat at her desk and listened as Nico explained his reasoning to Chester, who two days later terminated his contract. Within the month, Chester Peabody had a contract worth $1.1 million, the film rights sold for a cool $500,000 with Tobey MaGuire set to star. It was the mother of all “I told you so” moments, but Esther held her tongue. She resented Nico's inability to see the project's potential, but there was something redeeming about knowing her ability to recognize its quality. Although the end result was the loss of one of the agency's most profitable clients, it gave Esther the confidence to trust her instincts. And to not always trust Nico's. So when she opened the package from John Gillis, spent two hours poring over every delectable sentence, she was determined not to let it go the route of Chester Peabody. She simply wouldn't settle for anything less than yes. Still though, it was Nico's agency and he had the final say. “What is this?” Nico asked, holding up the paper-clipped sheaf of paper. The pages were facing away from her, but she knew what was written on them. “Unsolicited query that came in today from a guy named John Gillis. There's definitely something there.” Nico stole a glance at the cover letter and took a deep breath. “Who is this guy, John Gillis? What's he done before?” “Well,” Esther said, trying her best not to sound like a child asking for permission to stay up late. “It's kind of a memoir. He's never written before, but I think that works to his advantage. It's unpretentious and doesn't pass the blame like most memoirs. He says that this is just the first chapter, but I like where it seems to be headed. It's a real breath of fresh air, and the 'everyday guy' really has appeal. Good publicity opportunities.” Nico mumbled under his breath as he reread the cover sheet. “Give me the one minute pitch. You're on the phone with the Today Show. Oprah. They're impatient. Why would they want John Gillis on their show?” Esther sucked in a breath and started. “John Gillis is twenty eight. He's worked as a bartender since graduating from NYU, never aspired to anything more than that. Then one night the short order cook dies, literally has a heart attack at the stove. This throws Gillis's life into upheaval. It makes him question his ambition, his whole life. This book speaks not just to, but for millions of people out there who've been content with normalcy. John Gillis wants something more out of life, and this book is his journey to find that.” Nico scoffed. “Sounds like lad lit.” Esther shook her head.
“It's true, Nico. That's what's great. He's not some bedhopping scumbag, he's a real guy with real dreams that he's only just begun to see.” Nico waited, and Esther continued. “It's someone's life Nic,” she said, placing her hands on his desk and leaning in close. She breathed through her mouth in an effort not to inhale the sickly sweet aroma wafting from his smooth cheeks. “It's not a celebrity tell-all or someone bored with nothing to say. He's a normal guy, just like millions of other people out there. Nothing fancy about it, but that's what makes it work. In fact, it's better he's a nobody. Think about it—your average Joe, or John in this case—sick of his mundane existence decides he's not gonna take it anymore. You know how many people feel the same way, just getting up in the morning because they don't know what else to do? Because they're used to it? It touches a nerve, Nic.” Nico flipped the pages with his thumb. “Is this all he sent? How much more does this Gillis have written?” Esther smiled. She was prepared. “He says he has a little over a hundred pages. He sent 50 of it. It's all in the cover letter. It's unique, in that we can watch his story unfold over time.” She waited, Nico stayed silent. Then, reluctantly, he spoke. “And how does it end?” Esther looked at her feet for a moment, then back up. “I don't know. I don't think he does either.” She could feel Nico slipping away. She needed to reclaim it. “I ran a Google search on that bar he works for. There's story there too. You know Travis Barker, the actor?” “Of course. Action star. Did those Near Death movies in the 90's.” “Right. Well, remember that messy divorce he had, was in all the papers?” Nico nodded. “Well, the bar Gillis works at, Slappy's Slop House, that was where it all went down.” Nico steepled his fingers. “Do tell.” “Barker showed up one night with this blonde, not his wife, and they get pretty boozed up and start making out right there, a PDA display worthy of late night Cinemax. Right in the middle, this tourist takes a picture of it. Sells it to the tabloids for a hundred grand, next thing you know Barker's all over the news. And this bar, this Slappy's Slop House, it was mentioned in just about every article written. You could see signs for their World Famous Wings. Gillis was working that night. He served Barker his drinks.” “So there's an angle,” Nico said. “The bar became an overnight celebrity. They have a much more upscale clientele now, velvet rope and everything. In a way, it meshes with Gillis's story. Everything's changing around him, except him.” “I remember that story. Pretty ugly custody case. People will remember it and be curious to see how Gillis fits in.” Esther nodded. She stared into Nico's eyes, afraid of his response but confident in the project she was vouching for. Shit, if he couldn't see the potential here, she might as well quit now. Assuming the rest of Gillis's story made her feel the same way—kind of tingly—like the first section did, she knew readers would gobble it up in a heartbeat.
Nico picked his teeth with his fingernail and spat something small and white through his lips. “Run off another copy,” Nico said. Esther nodded, waiting until she'd turned around before letting the smile come. She took it as karma when the copier didn't jam and handed the warm pages to Nico, pride coursing through her body. She was sure that if John Gillis knew what she'd just done, he'd be eternally grateful. Esther took the original and went back into the main office. She sat down at her desk, a light brown wooden slab with unsteady legs from years of ten-pound manuscripts being thrown upon it. Adjacent to the desk was a large oak bookshelf, lined with dozens of tomes represented by Vanetti Literati. In less than four years, she'd read every title in the Vanetti catalogue, most of them written long before her hiring. Caressing John Gillis's pages in her hands, Esther felt satisfied. She wasn't quite sure why, but Gillis had inspired real emotion in her. A stranger. Her body felt warm. She fished the torn envelope from the recycling bin and looked at the return address. John's address. She tried to visualize what his apartment looked like, what he looked like. Was he ugly or handsome? Washboard abs or a few too many six-packs? She'd read intimate details about his life, but he remained a mystery. She wondered if they'd ever have a chance to meet. It was all up to Nico, she supposed. But she'd done her part. Anything else was up to chance. “Hey Est,” Frank Menegaro said, striding up and placing a manicured hand on the polished wood. He took it off when she glared at him, leaving a five-fingered sweat stain that refused to evaporate. Frank was twenty-four and a recent graduate of a college that Esther refused to name on account of her application having been rejected in high school. Although he was an Administrative Assistant—a notch below Esther—he wore impeccable custom-tailored Italian suits every day and interchanged four pairs of spiffy Bruno Maglis. He wore a tie tack. She'd never met anyone under fifty who wore a tie tack. His hair looked as though he kept Jean-Louis David on retainer and he never seemed to have a five o'clock shadow, even on the rare occasions when he stayed past five o'clock. Three weeks after Frank started working for Nico, Esther had made the mistake of taking him up on an offer (after three glasses of wine at a theoretically friendly dinner) to see his “meager apartment,” as he put it. Upon seeing the doorman and riding in the bronze-gilded elevator, she knew he wasn't paying for the two-bedroom on 57th and 3rd on his $21,000 a year salary. The first thing she noticed was that the apartment was new—incredibly new. The tiled floor looked freshly waxed and the pine bookshelves had their original dark brown luster. Each of the dozens of books on the shelves looked like they'd been shipped straight from the warehouse. Pottery Barn bags were stuffed in the trash. She could see her reflection in the dust jackets of the hardcovers and, upon closer inspection, couldn't find a single crease or crack on the spines of the paperbacks. “Impressive, isn't it?” he'd asked.
“Quite,” she'd said with a complete lack of sincerity that went unnoticed. They'd nursed a glass of wine for half an hour, Esther quietly spitting each sip back. She resisted his pathetic come-ons while counting the seconds until she could honestly claim to need to go home and sleep. She finally excused herself when she felt his hand bunching up her pantyhose. Her justification was a plant that needed watering. A hibiscus. She'd didn't even know what a hibiscus looked like. Frank continued to make underhanded passes nearly every day at work, but once she learned to deal with them he seemed mostly harmless. She took his juvenile innuendos with a grain of salt, but it was incredibly unsatisfying that most of her backhanded compliments went over his head. “Hey Frank,” she said, burying her face in a piece of paper. “Watchoo reading?” He leaned over and plucked the page from her hand. Unable to find title or author name, he rummaged around until he found the cover letter. He took this too, spilling paper all over the periwinkle carpet. “Damnit Frank, be careful,” she said, collecting the pages and shuffling them together. “John Gillis,” he said, pronouncing it “guileless”. Thatticked her off. He could drop all the pages he wanted, but when he mispronounced John's name she really bristled. She grabbed the pages from his hand. “He's going to be a new client. You should read it when you get a chance.” Frank sniffed like he smelled rotten fish. “Yeah,” he said with the same amount of sincerity as Esther when she said she liked his ties. “I'll get right on it.” Esther resumed reading, Frank hovering like an unfriendly shadow. “Can I help you?” she asked, her patience wearing thin. “Nope, just watching you read.” He leaned in and sniffed her head. Esther recoiled. “You smell nice, what's that perfume you're wearing? Wait, let me guess…Chanel?” “No, it's a new one. Eau d'Annoyance. They're giving out free samples today at Bloomingdales. Better get over there before they run out.” Frank absently scratched the side of his nostril. “Yeah, I'll get right on that,” he said, turning around and walking back to his desk. Esther composed herself and continued reading. Not many prospects, other than Gillis, in today's batch. She pocketed a note scrawled on what looked like bathroom tissue that read, “I have written a really good book that will sell over a billion copies. If you represent me I promise to give you an autographed copy free of charge and one marzipan duck.” In good crazy writer tradition, there was no envelope or return address. She usually trashed letters that arrived without return envelopes, but at home she kept a private stash of her favorite whack jobs; people who wrote queries on cardboard with glitter paint and stapled five-dollar bills to their cover letters. People who wrote books about their love affair with lint. People who dreamed they'd been switched at birth with Prince Charles. They were the easy part of the job. The hard part was reading a manuscript she knewthe author had pumped sweat
and blood into, had been nurtured from infancy, yet would still find itself shipped back with a rejection slip as personal as a tube of lipstick. Sometimes she wished she could call up every one and tell them to keep trying and that some day, maybe not now or even soon, someone would love their work as much as they did. Esther could hear pages slowly turning in Nico's office. That boded well. Generally if he didn't find anything salable about a project, Nico would nix it within minutes. There simply wasn't enough time in the day to spend on something that couldn't work. But lately there was just so much he didn't think would work… It was hard for Esther to watch this formerly great man travel the downward spiral of a tremendous career. The money coming in, once a torrent, then a stream, was now just a few drops from a trickle. And while it couldn't all be attributed to Nico, she knew many of the agency's clients were beginning to think a change of scenery would be for the best. Every now and then, Esther would see the spark, the desire, the want that made Nico such a great representative. It was in those fleeting moments that Esther was proud to work for him. “Esther, could you come in here?” The pages had stopped turning. Esther's heart leapt. She stood up and smoothed her skirt out, making sure she was eminently presentable to make her final pitch. Please let him like it. I know this can work. Nico was on the phone when she entered. He pressed his index finger to his lips and motioned for her to sit down. She pulled up a chair and gazed over his clutter-free desk while Nico waited for whomever he had called to answer. Esther smiled as she looked at the framed pictures of Nico's son, Pietro, encased in sterling silver frames and polished to a gleam. The only other item on the desk was a stained coffee mug with “Guatemala” printed in blue on the side. There were no pictures of his wife. You'd have thought Pietro was conceived out of thin air. Nico's most prized possession, the one Esther read whenever she had a chance, hung on the far wall behind the desk. The faded piece of paper, yellowed with age with two faint signatures at the bottom, was framed in classy bronze with the date 8-4-78 engraved at the bottom. The frame was always shiny and positioned opposite the doorway, as if giving the visitors a chance to see their reflection via a mirror to Nico's past. Inside the frame was a contract, signed in splotchy ink, by Nico Vanetti and Clarence Watters, the very first client to sign with Vanetti Literari. To this day, Nico spoke of Watters as though the Pope himself would relish the honor of kneeling before him. He was Nico's most prized client, and though his last few books had seen disappointing sales compared to his stunning debut, Watters was still the literary equivalent of an Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson. Someone who didn't necessarily guarantee high revenue, yet whose name embodied prestige that was worth its weight in gold. Years ago, Nico had read a short story by Watters in The Paris Review and promptly sent off a letter asking if he had representation. Nico received a letter eight days later. No, Watters did not have an agent, and by the way, he'd been sitting on a novel set in pre-Civil War Alabama for some time and hadn't had any luck selling it. Nico asked to see the first fifty pages, which he
read with the enthusiasm of a boy inhaling his first comic book. When the sample ended with the hero meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe on a train, he'd immediately offered his services. Seven months and four drafts later, Nico sold Watters's first book, Alabama Song, along with two future works, for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The film was released three years later and garnered four Oscar nominations. But now Nico's career, like Watters', was a faded memory of former glory. Suddenly Nico's eyes perked up. He gestured for Esther to listen. “Mr. Gillis?” Nico said, sitting up straight. Esther froze. Nico combed his fingers through his hair, as though the man were sitting in front of him. “Nico Vanetti, how are you? Good. Listen, John, my agency received your letter and I had a few questions in addendum to the information you provided.” Nico smiled and winked at Esther. “It's regarding your memoir. Not about the proposal itself, but about you. Is it true you've never written previously? Uh-huh,” Nico said, scribbling loudly on a piece of paper. He was writing nothing more than curly-Q's, but it was loud enough that Gillis could surely hear it over the phone. “Mr. Gillis, I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but we receive literally thousands of letters each year, many from professionals, and even then we seldom offer representation. Sometimes we decline people who have published entire books. I want you to understand that although I'm impressed by your work, we'll need more to go on if we choose to move forward.” Nico was smiling as he said this, and Esther couldn't help but feel somewhat guilty as she did the same. Pause. Nico drew more pigtails. “I see. So how many completed pages do you have? All right then. Well Mr. Gillis, your proposal intrigues me, both as an agent and a businessman. It has a certain je ne sais quoi, but understand I'll be taking quite a risk if I take you on as a client. Along with more samples, I'd like you to send over another sample and a recent photo of yourself.” Esther could tell from Nico's expression that Gillis understood every word. “Now John, I can't promise anything. Most perspective authors expect too much in terms of compensation for their work, and I'll be the first to tell you that those instances are few and far between. I am willing to look at more of your material, albeit on an exclusive basis. What this means is you cannot contact any other agents for the duration of the submission, and if I decide that working together will be mutually beneficial, I'll offer secure representation. Don't get discouraged, I'm only telling you how it is. If the pairing is meant to work, it will. I'll call you as soon as I've received the material. Take care John, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.” Nico hung up the phone and turned to Esther with a wry smile. “Let's see what he has to offer.” Esther nodded, no longer able to contain her emotions. She was thrilled, both for the project and that she'd broken through Nico's defenses. She wished she could have heard John's voice, tried to conjure what it sounded like. Was it high pitched or baritone? Suave or cracking like an acne-scarred teenager? She walked back to her desk, feet light as air. Gazing around the silent office, for the first time in months Esther felt a beautiful spark of anxiety. Who was John Gillis? She closed her
eyes and daydreamed, picturing herself walking into his bar late at night, his eyes following her as she moved, tracing every gyration of her hips, her legs. He was waiting for her, and as she slowly approached the bar, almost tasting the smile on his lips, he asked what had taken her so long. Then she heard Nico on the telephone, his deep voice resonating throughout the office. She sensed a liveliness that hadn't been there earlier. She couldn't help but wonder… Why Nico was as taken with John Gillis as she was? She'd been waiting for this feeling, waiting for inspiration, but did Nico sense something she didn't? John Gillis's story wasn't finished, yet Nico was intrigued by the possibility of where it might go. What if, Esther shuddered to think, the rest of his life was uneventful? Boring? Nico would cut him loose in a heartbeat. Esther scolded herself, ignoring the thought, and decided to be thankful Nico had seen things her way. Clearly he saw potential there. Nico, who used to have an innate ability to cultivate dreams into reality, had a chance to do just that. Now all Esther had to do was wait, and dream as well.
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