Sunday, December 12, 2010




James Strauss

The brothers crouched under their queen-sized bed. They slept together because
they were kids and they’d been in the house only a couple of months. Grandma had ‘passed on,’ as everyone told them, although nobody ever told them where she’d gone.
The house deep in the country was their house now. In time, their father said, they’d get beds of their own and eventually rooms too when their older sister went off to college.
They didn’t like sleeping together although hiding out under the bed was okay.
Their room had the thickest best rug in the house and grandma’s old bed left plenty of space for them to create a real clubhouse underneath.
“Close the window. It’s getting too cold in here and a bat will fly in, or something,” Clark told his six-year-old brother Peter.
“You do it. I’ve got my blanket,” Peter answered, clutching the tattered blue rag to his chest, as if that would keep anything warm.
“This place doesn’t even have screens. Dad’ll have to cut a lot of wood in the mill to buy screens and everything else we need,” Clark complained, making no move to get out from under the bed and close the window himself.
“I like the cold,” Peter stated, as if explaining why he wouldn’t leave to accomplish the simple chore.
Clark sighed. His brother was impossible. At nine, Clark wasn’t more than an inch taller than his brother and certainly not nearly as thick or well muscled. The six year old was a baby version of Andre The Giant and it was disconcerting for an older brother to have to deal with. He smiled, thinking about the difference between the two of them.
Clark was fast and nimble, and smart. His brother was thick and slow of thought. Clark would have laughed but he was afraid his brother might figure out what he was thinking.
Peter wasn’t really slow, Clark knew, but he preferred to think of him that way.
There was a scratching from the wall of the room into which their single window was built. Both boys looked at one another in question.
“What’s that, Clark?” Peter whispered, clutching his blanket closer with both hands, having put the stolen cookie back into its cellophane package with his free hand.
Suddenly, he wasn’t hungry.
Another, deeper series of scratches penetrated the silence following Peter’s question, which Clark had not responded to.
A great thud on the floor was the next sound both boys heard. Something was in the room. Clark and Peter automatically drew together, clutching one another and staring at the side of the bed near where the sound had come from. Neither boy dared to breathe.
Something was in the room with them. The early morning darkness prevented them from seeing far enough to guess what it might be, but it didn’t belong there. That much they knew.
“Santa?” Peter whispered into Clark’s ear. Clark was too afraid to speak or even tell Peter not to speak. The six year old was a child. Clark had been brought into the adult world the season before when his father had taken his aside to tell him that there was no Santa Claus. It was part of Clark’s job to assure that his brother remained the child he was so he couldn’t tell any of what he’d learned to him.
It was Christmas morning. Or it would be if it ever got light. Clark thought intently about Santa and the myth. The scratches had been real, however, and there was definitely something in the room with them. He prayed fervently that his dad had gotten it all wrong, and there really was a living Santa Claus.
They should have closed the window. They should have had screens. They should have stayed in the city where they belonged, not moved to the middle of a forest in wintertime. But if it was Santa, Clark wanted to see him. Slowly prying himself loose from Peter while holding one finger up to his lips, he eased to the overhanging blanket on the window side of the bed. He got no chance to peer out.
A large animal slid under the bed from behind the opposite side. Clark winced in fear as he turned, and then threw both of his arms around his brother and kicked back toward the head of the bed at what he saw.
Both boys stared into huge unblinking eyes of gold. Clark pressed their bodies against the back wall, finding no resistance from Peter. Neither boy made a sound, although tears had begun to run down over the younger boy’s cheeks.
“Don’t move,” Clark said, not knowing what else to say. The animal was a cat.
Not a regular cat, but a huge cat of the forest, at least twice the size of either boy. It was light brown in color, even in the low light. It flicked its tail as it stared at them from only a few feet away. The tail was black at its tip. It flicked slowly back and forth behind the animal, as if a snake’s head waiting to strike. The words ‘mountain lion’ came to Clark’s mind as he stared in terror.
The three of them remained frozen in place for several moments, only the boy’s breathing making any sound at all. The tail moved silently. Finally, the cat blinked, and then yawned.
“Are you tired?” Clark asked the wild beast, tentatively, but only got the ominous golden stare in return.
“You’re scaring us,” Peter said to it, making his older brother shake his head in disgust.
“Of course it’s scaring us. It eats meat. We’re meat.”
“I’m not meat. I’m a boy. He can’t eat me if I’m a boy, can he Clark?” Peter whimpered out, trying to wipe away his tears with his blanket but having no luck.
“I don’t know,” Clark replied, tentatively. “He hasn’t eaten us yet. He would have eaten us already, I think, if he was going to.” He let his brother go and reached for the cookie package. The cat’s great head turned minutely to track his movements.
Clark took out an Oreo, put the package down, and then extended his hand out toward the creature’s muzzle. The cat looked at the cookie, then back at the boy, and then the cookie again. Clark dropped it in front of him.
The cat sniffed the cookie. With one whip of a long pink tongue, the cat swept the cookie into his mouth, moved his jaw around and then returned his head to its staring position.
“Cat’s like this shouldn’t eat cookies,” Clark murmured in wonder. “They don’t have any sense of taste for sugar. It was on Sponge Bob. I remember it.”
“Sponge Bob isn’t real,” Peter said, his voice weak but without a waver.
“Not true,” Clark instantly said, impatiently, taking another cookie from the Oreo pack. “David Hasselhof is real, only the rest of it’s animated.” He tossed the cookie through the air. The cat quickly opened its mouth and caught the black and white wafer. It was gone in a second.
“This cat’s eaten cookies before. I think he likes them. Like a game,” Clark went on, tossing one cookie after another to the same effect.
“What are we going to do when we run out of cookies?” Peter asked, bringing his blanket up to his mouth and chewing.
“We both asked for a pet from Santa,” Clark replied. “Dad said we could at least have a pet for living way out here. He didn’t say what kind of pet.”
“What pet?” Peter asked, as Clark held up the last cookie.
“Him,” Clark laughed for the first time. I think he was somebody’s pet out here.
We can have him. He has collar.” Clark followed the last cookie, moving slowly closer to the animals chewing muzzle.
“R-A-B-I-E-S,” Clark spelled out, reading from a metal tag attached to the cat’s thick leather collar, and then backing away when the creature’s head turned to focus it’s huge eyes on him again.
“What does that mean?” Peter asked, trying to repeat the letter sequence but not getting it right.
“I don’t know. But he eats cookies, not boys, and he has a collar with a name on it. Rabies must be his name. The cat blinked at the word. Clark repeated it again. The cat put his head down at the boy’s feet.
“See?” Clark said, in triumph, reaching his right hand out to touch the cat’s fur atop its head. Two great ears twitched but the cat did not move. It closed its eyes.
“C’mon Peter, we can pet him. He likes it.” Clark stroked the animal while trying to convince his brother to join him.
“I’m afraid. He’s too big, too furry, and his teeth are sharp. I’m afraid. I want mom and dad,” his brother responded, making no move to leave his place, pressed against the back wall, blanket up to his mouth.
“Great idea. It’s Christmas. We always wake them up early. Let’s go,” Clark moved as he spoke.
The cat slept, snoring mildly. Both boys crept around it, Peter dragging his blanket by it’s left paw. The blanket caught on one of the animal’s sharp claws.
Peter pulled but it wouldn’t come loose. The cat did not move, even though he pulled several times.
“He’s got my blanket Clark,” Peter complained, unwilling to let go.
Clark reached around his brother and shoved backwards on the blanket, pushing it in the direction they’d come. It broke free.
“Gosh, it like’s my blanket too,” Peter said, as they clambered out from under the bed.
Both boys ran as silently as they could to their parent’s bedroom. Opening the door, they eased into the near darkness. Clark bent over his dad, who was sleeping on his back.
“Dad, dad, dad, dad,” he repeated, leaving five seconds between each word. Peter chewed on his blanket at his side. On about the twentieth “dad,” his father opened his eyes. His facial expression was not one of happiness.
“It’s too early. Go back to bed until its light out. We always do Christmas when its light out. He tried to turn over.
“No, dad,” Clark whispered urgently. “Not this year. You said we could have a pet and Santa brought him. You said there’s no Santa but only Santa could have brought a special pet like this,” Clark went on.
Something in the boy’s tone caught his father’s attention. He came fully awake.
“A pet? A special pet? We didn’t get you any pet, much less a special one?
“No Santa Claus?” Peter asked, his blanket coming out of his mouth. “You said, there’s no Santa, Dad?” Peter inquired, his eyes wide with disbelief.
“Oh God,” his father said, sitting up and messaging his head.
“C’mon Dad,” Clark said, pulling on his father right arm.
They slowly moved to the boy’s bedroom, not turning on any lights. Clark lead his dad into the room near the bed.
“What pet?” his father said. “I don’t see any pet.”
“He’s a Christmas present,” Peter said, up to him. “You can’t wrap a pet so Santa
put him under our bed.”
“Well, what is he, this pet?” their dad asked, looking from one to the other.
“He’s a cat, Dad. We call it ‘Rabies,’ from the tag on his collar. But he’s real different and special.”
“And he’s so big,” Peter said, expanding both arms out to his sides with hands up.
“Okay,” their father said, “but when you’re small everything appears really big. I guess a cat, even a different and special cat, will be okay, and this one apparently has his shots.”
“Merry Christmas,” Clark smiled across to his brother. “This is the best Christmas ever.”
“Let’s see what your little friend looks like,” their father said, getting on his hands and knees to peer under the bed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010




James Strauss

The hike was not a real challenge. It would’ve been impossible without his mom’s last gift, the special aluminum snowshoes. Thomas floated across the top of the pure white surface even though his backpack weighed more than half as much as his own ninety pounds. He counted one out loud every forth thrust of the webbed shoe, keeping track on fingers inside both of his mittens. With the day beginning to wane, and his count reaching ten thousand, he flowed between the huge pines, knowing he had covered just a bit more than nine miles. Nine miles of deep snowy pines, leaving the horror of his life behind, all the while knowing that even the large state of Maine wasn’t big enough to hide in. Only the hugeness of Canada could do that. Thomas knew that from his intense study of old geographic maps collected by someone who’d left them at the bottom of the cabin’s firewood box before he and his mom moved in.
In two days Thomas would be twelve, big and strong enough to make a successful escape, but not big or strong enough to confront his fake step-father. The thought of that man made Thomas count louder, until Harold began to protest, raising his meow with each voicing attempt. Although the sound was not his loudest complaint, the cat’s muzzle was squeezed through a crack in the pack’s cover right next to Thomas’s right ear.
“Alright Harry, we’ll call it a day. I’ve got to gather some dry wood from under the trees and you have to sniff everything in sight.” Thomas knew he wouldn’t lose Harold, as the fifteen-pound predator absolutely refused to step on snow. Thomas searched for the biggest pine among the giant evergreens until he found what he was looking for.
It was a great wide branched pyramid of a tree, with extremely wide branches spreading at the bottom. Covered with over a foot of snow from the night before alone it looked to Thomas like a colossal gingerbread cookie with thick frosting. It was not a Christmas tree really because it had no lights or decorations, but it would have to do for both of them. There had been no real Christmas since his mother had died.
Thomas crawled under the lowest of the branches, Harry complaining at the jostling. Once underneath the boy laughed. It was wonderful. He laughed out loud.
“Plenty of old dry branches right here, “ he informed the cat, before gently unstrapping the pack and easing the animal out. Before letting him loose, Thomas messaged the scarred lines of missing fur, six of them in number, one for each time Thomas had run away in the past. Releasing Harold, he then removed the snowshoes, as the cat climbed inside the center of the tree, winding upward around the trunk until the boy could only hear him.
“Don’t stay up there. As soon as I get a fire going you’re going to want dinner. The only mice here are out under the snow and you know how you are,” he yelled quietly with cupped hands. It would not due to have anyone hear, as both of his last two attempts to get away had been thwarted by well-meaning strangers. But this time, Thomas just knew, it would be different. It was why he’d decided to take Harry. They were going to make it together or die together in the wonderfully beautiful forest of Maine. There would never again be a terrible punishment delivered by the man his poor sick mother had thought would take care of Thomas when her disease became final.
Before unpacking any of his supplies Thomas took out the roll of tin foil stored vertically on the side of the big pack. He unwrapped four long sections, approached the trunk of the tree, and then began to work the material up against the bottoms of the lowest branches until he had what he thought resembled a flattened silver umbrella.
Thomas read a lot. A lot. His mother said it was the people of the past teaching the people of the present about how to do things. You didn’t have to learn everything yourself. The ‘Terrible Times Survival in Hell Guide’ had given up all of its information to the boy’s prodigious memory. He gathered and stacked pieces of wood, the smallest at the bottom. His stack eventually resembled a short thick Eiffel Tower, just as the guide said it should. With his Swiss Army Knife blade extended, he opened a small can of Sterno, gouged out a good sized chunk, and then shoved it carefully through the slots at the bottom of his ‘tower.’ Unscrewing the back of his stolen knife handle, now his and not his fake stepfathers, Thomas took out a single waterproof match. He scratched it once, firmly on the haft of the knife. Quickly he pushed the burning sulfur tip into the Sterno. In moments he had a blazing small fire, with its ascending heat drawing the cat back down to his side.
Thomas was nearly exhausted from his long escape. After consuming four cans of Vienna sausages, with Harry assisting, he unfurled a cut piece of old rug, covered himself with a shoplifted space blanket and instantly fell asleep. His last thought, with the cat lying on top of his small chest, that he should have put more wood on the fire.
An inner alarm awakened the boy. It was too warm. He opened his eyes and adrenalin shot through him. Frozen to immobility with fear he could only lay and stare upward. A man sat, legs crossed, only inches away from him, one hand feeding small pieces of wood into the fire, the other stroking Harold’s back.
“You’re awake,” the man said, “that’s good. The snow’s so thick on these trees that carbon monoxide from your fire can be dangerous.”
Thomas stared at the huge man, his eyes unwilling to blink.
“What’s his name?” the man asked, smiling softly at the pleased animal.
“Harry,” Thomas squeaked out, trying to come to a sitting position as far from the man as possible.
“Named after Harry Truman?”
Thomas shook his head, having heard the name in school but not remembering.
“No, after Harry Houdini. Harry can get away from almost anyone or anything.”
“Hmmm,” the big man observed, “seems like he’s had a few close calls.”
“My fake step-father hurt him,” the boy replied, surprised at himself for answering the stranger truthfully. Thomas clutched the unwilling cat back to his own chest, dislodging his shirt and sweater. He quickly pulled the material back into place, noting the man’s eyes having glanced there.
“What’s your name?” the man asked, looking away to stare deeply into the fire.
“I suppose that’s after somebody famous too?” The man inquired.
“Thomas Aquinas,” the boy responded.
“Who’s that?” the big man asked, frowning.
“The famous saint!” Thomas said, forcefully. “Haven’t you been to school?”
The man smiled, “that’s quite a fancy moniker.”
“They call me by my nickname at school. Checkers. How’d you find me so quickly?”
The man frowned again. “Find you? I wasn’t looking for you. I’m hunting.” He pointed toward a nearby branch, against which a rifle leaned. A rifle like none Thomas had every seen. It looked more like a machine gun from a television movie than a hunting rifle.
“What are you hunting,” Thomas asked, a glimmer of hope beginning to glow in his chest.
“I don’t know. I’m trying to learn to hunt again. Just can’t seem to do it. So I’m out here trying. Maybe I’ll shoot a Christmas buck,” the big man answered, scratching the top of his totally bald head.
“How can you forget how to hunt? Nobody forgets something like that. That’s just dumb,” the boy shot back.
The man moved his hand to massage his forehead for a long moment, until Harry pawed him for a bit more attention, which surprised Thomas, as the cat did not normally take to any humans but him.
“I was in some places you’ve probably never heard of. I was in something called Desert Storm, and then Afghanistan. After I got home I went out to hunt, which I always loved, but found I couldn’t do it.” The man shrugged with both long arms extended when he finished, revealing a blue tattoo atop his right wrist.
“Don’t you just aim that rifle at something and pull the trigger?” the boy inquired, pointing at the menacing weapon.
“Yeah. But I can’t do it. I can’t pull the trigger anymore. And its like the animals all know. Earlier, just after dawn, a big buck walked right up to me, snorted, and then walked away, like he knew.”
“He did know. Like Harry knows,” Thomas concluded. “It’s okay though, cause I’ve got plenty of Vienna sausage. Harry and I love Vienna sausage.” He rummaged through his pack pulling out two cans before handing one to the man.
“What’s your name and how’d you get that tattoo?” the boy asked, as he and Harry rapidly consumed the small canned sausages.
“I was with the French Foreign Legion, but I wasn’t a Legionnaire. I was a Marine, but they liked me so they gave me the tattoo.” He held out his wrist for the boy to see. “Names Jim Nelson, but they call me Hugo.”
How’d you get your scars?” Jim asked, keeping his tone light.
Thomas ignored question. “After the author, Victor Hugo?” he inquired instead, proud of himself for remembering.
“Nah, ‘You Go,’ Jim said, spelling it out, “not Hugo.” They looked at each other for a few seconds and then began laughing.
“The scars. Where’d you get ‘em? That why they call you Checkers?” Jim asked,
his tone turned back to serious.
The boy nodded with a sigh, unconsciously rubbing his stomach. “My fake step-dad takes hangers and straightens them out. When you get hit by the end of the wire it leaves a very small mark, like a little ‘v’ or check-mark,” he held up us hand very close to Jim’s face so he could see. One of my teachers said that the marks would probably fade over time, so I’m just waiting. He put his hand down and finished eating what Harry had left of the sausages.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” Jim asked, to change the subject.
“Goin’ to Canada,” Thomas answered, wiping his mouth with one sleeve of his sweater. “We’re staying here for Christmas. This’s our Christmas tree,” he waved one hand up and around at the tree surrounding them. Harold jumped up and crouched down on a branch just over their heads.
“What about music, decorations and presents?” Jim asked, in an interested but analytical tone.
“We don’t need any of that, and I brought this.” The boy hauled out a thick two-piece flute and started screwing it together. “My Mom taught me,” he went on with a great smile. “And we’re not going back. Not ever. Even if we don’t make it.” Thomas’s smile left his face, as he stopped his labor for a moment to look Jim in the eyes. “We’ll just stay out here in this wonderful forest.”
“Okay,” Jim said, after a moment’s reflection. “Okay. We can do that. You can come with me. Karen, my wife, is back at the cabin a few miles from here. She’ll think you’re just great and she loves cats. Her cat died awhile back so you’ll have to watch Harold or he’ll run off with her.”
The boy looked at Jim with a frown, then laughed when he realized that the big man was teasing him.
“My fake step-dad will come looking for me. I’ve got to keep moving,” he said, in a whisper, his expression turning to one of dark foreboding.
“Why do you call him fake?” Jim asked.
“Cause he’s not real. He and Mom never got married. Never did the adoption thing they’d talked about. But nobody really knows that.” He finished assembling the flute and blew a few experimental notes. Holding the instrument like a professional, he delayed for a moment. “You can’t help me. He’s real tough and he’ll hurt anybody who helps me. Said he would kill them.” The flute sank to his crossed legs in surprise as he watched the big man across from him start to laugh.
“Oh, that would be so wonderful,” Jim said, when he settled down. “I haven’t gotten to do anything like that for some time. That’d be such a great Christmas gift from God. And you won’t have to go to Canada, I’m thinking, unless we want to. By the way, Checkers isn’t your nickname anymore.”
The boy stared at the smiling man, seemingly so elated at the idea of meeting his brutal step-dad. He took him in, eyes sweeping over to the automatic rifle leaning against the branch, then down at the man’s tattoo. Suddenly a warm feeling began to flow through his entire being. Being with the man made him feel safe. He realized that he had not felt that way since his Mom died. And the man had said “we,” not “you” about going to Canada.
Thomas started to play the flute, moving through the haunting notes of the entire piece without error until he was finished. The man before him brushed a tear from one eye, turning his head slightly in an attempt to hide the fact.
“What was that song? I’ve heard it before, but I didn’t know it was a Christmas song.”
“Mom said it was the best one of all. It’s called Greensleeves. It’s about not being loved and being sad about it, but how everything will turn out alright anyway if you keep on going.”
Jim nodded, putting a few more sticks on the fire. His life had changed again and he knew it. They’d leave the Christmas tree soon but he wanted to stay under it, with the boy and Harry, for as long as he possibly could. Besides, he thought to himself, it would take some time to work out a new suitable more nickname.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Christmas Skirt

The Skirt


James Strauss

There was nothing extraordinary about the outside of the retail store. Maybe the varnished wood of the single residential-sized front door. “Fine Textiles,” in big black letters was scrolled across the single front window. The shop was narrow, but very deep, passing all the way through to a back alley. Christmas decorations blinked behind the glass from an assortment of small fake pine trees in the elevated display, late afternoon’s sinking sun allowing for the lights growing brilliance.
Snow drifted down, settling on Tim’s bomber jacket. The jacket was new. Not a Christmas present. Tim knew no one well enough or close enough to present him with a holiday gift work several thousand dollars. He’d bought it for himself. Money had flowed almost endlessly for years from his computer business in California and silver mine in New Mexico. He had a touch for investment, but absolutely none for management of people, always reading them the wrong way. As long as he stayed out of his businesses they prospered and checks flowed in.
“O Holy Night,” sung by an wonderfully voiced male opera star trickled from two Bose speakers set up above the window under a small eave. Class music played through class equipment by the class man inside.
Will owned the fabric store. He’d been Tim’s best friend, only friend really, until the weekend before when Will’s wife Sarah had received a special Christmas card with a letter inside. What had possessed Tim to send the card escaped him entirely, as he looked at the sweaters and shirts from Paul and Shark that Will carried because material didn’t sell very well during the holiday season. Tim brushed his collar under the thick shearling of his coat. The shirt had come from the store. But it would be his last, at least his last purchased at “Fine Textiles.” Will had been clear about that. Tim was no longer welcome at the family’s home or at the business. Of all of it, Tim knew that not seeing the kids, aged from six to ten, would hurt most. The wrapped Christmas presents he’d found for them this year had been received with great joy by the three boys only days before. They considered Tim the best uncle anyone could ever have. But that was before the event. The event of the letter.
Sarah, Will’s beautiful wife, suffered from depression aggravated by the pressures of holiday obligations and requirements. Will and Tim had talked about it often. And the quieter more hidden pressure of money. A great lack of money Tim knew. He’d overheard them discussing the fact that they needed a huge Christmas season just to make ends meet. Fine Textiles products sold at the very top end of the market. A market all but evaporated in the country’s severe economic downturn.
Tim had thought about Sarah’s problem, and then impulsively sat down and written out a detailed list of the reasons why she should be able to conquer her depression. He’d been lavish in his praise of her beauty, her dynamic personality and her ability to make all about her smile when she felt like it. He’d never stopped to consider anything but the smiling brightness she would have to feel upon reading such a complimentary letter, slipped inside a terrific custom Christmas card. And then it all went terribly wrong.
Only a few days later, when Tim bashed his way through the store’s front door, reminiscent of Kramer in Seinfeld, he’d been met with a cold-faced stare across the single low counter. Will stood, with hand extended, a piece of folded paper in right hand.
“What’s this?” Tim said, his tone so deadpan that Tim literally shivered.
He slowly took his own letter from his friend’s hand. He didn’t need to open it, as the high quality Italian paper gave away its origin. He couldn’t think of anything to say. They stood staring, unblinking at one another for many seconds, until Will broke the silence.
“You, my supposed best friend, proposition my wife, comment on her personal situation and discuss our confidential discussions about her?” Tim stated, his voice rising as he spoke.
“Proposition?” was all Tim could whisper out, staggered. He considered Sarah the most honorable and wonderful woman he’d ever met. He’d meant to uplift here for Christmas. The letter had been completely misinterpreted.
“You’re outta here,” Will said, his voice not a yell but penetrating Tim to his very core. “Don’t come back and stay away from my home.”
Tim replayed the scene, as he had over and over again, while snow accumulated on the top of his head. His mind then went back to a meeting in front of the store only days before the event of the letter.
A figure had appeared at his side that day, coming up from behind.
“Hey Boss, nice town you got here,” the man said, in his heavy downtown Chicago accent. “Sorry I’m late but it is a hundred miles and the snow’s a bother.”
Tim didn’t respond to the small talk. Max was on the payroll of Tim’s computer company in California but worked in Chicago as a direct representative to the city, the company’s largest single client.
“What do ya want me to buy?” Max asked, wisely not bothering to ask Time any questions about why he had been required to travel most of the day to make the purchase.
“ A single piece of Holland and Sherry. All that cloth he has. It’s the most expensive material in the world so it’s going to be expensive. About four grand a yard, so don’t show surprise if the bills fifteen to twenty grand. Doesn’t matter. Use the Platinum Amex card.”
“Whatta ya going to make?” Max laughed.
Tim slightly shook his head. “I’ll be over a the coffee shop around the corner.
Bring it there before you head back.
“What’ll I tell ‘em if they ask why I want it?” Max followed up, his expression one of open curiosity.
“He won’t.” Max told him, before departing.
Tim’s mind snapped back to the present. He didn’t need to be seen standing in front of his former friends store. Without thought he wiped away a layer of snow from his bald spot. The same bald spot that was so popular with Will and Sarah’s boys.
The last of week of Christmas passed slowly. Tim went to the coffee shop every day but Will never showed up. They’d once met there each morning before the shop opened, then communed together inside the store several times before closing. Will’s home, besides his own, had been the only residence he’d ever gotten used to simply walking in when he dropped by. No knocking or doorbell. Like family.
Christmas Eve had become part of a seasonal ritual that had developed after his own wife had passed on many years before. Tim lit the final Advent tree set up alongside the main road running along the back of his property. Four pines each with 3000 little white lights, and then a fifth with 5000 colored, to celebrate the baby Savior’s arrival. He put on Holiday Inn, the Crosby Astaire movie, lit the fireplace loaded with sixty pounds of dry hewn oak, turned on his special CD of Christmas songs and set out to pass the evening. He didn’t drink anymore but poured two ounces of single malt Scotch
into one of his wife’s leftover Waterford glasses. He didn’t smoke but set aside a single Kent cigarette, which had been her cigarette of choice.
The perfectly decorated Noble next to him was lit, the movie playing and the fire radiating warmth as he sat buried deep inside his favorite leather chair. His doorbell rang distinctly through the music and movie sounds, just as Bing Crosby tapped his pipe stem against bells hanging from a Christmas tree branch.
Tim jerked forward in his chair. Who could possible be calling at the front door late into the snowy night of Christmas Eve? It made no sense. Tim’s house sat alone in the country, far from town, or other homes. Bing tapped the bells with his pipe a second time and the doorbell rang again. Tim made for the front door. He opened it apprehensively to discover Will standing and holding out a wrapped box.
“The kids made this gift for you and, no matter what, we thought you should have it, you know, for the holiday.”
Tim took the shoebox-sized gift, the wrapping job obviously having been done by childish hands. The door stood full open, snow swirling around the stoop. Will stared into the warm interior of Tim’s house.
“What’s that?” he asked, raising his right index finger up to point. Tim turned his shoulders to follow the man’s gaze down the corridor.
“What?” he blurted out, his brow furled in question.
“The tree,” Will said, his voice louder, still pointing.
“The tree?” Tim asked, turning back to look at his friend.
“I sold that last week to a crude man from Chicago,” he finished emphatically.
“The tree?” Tim asked again, in true wonder.
“Not the tree. The skirt.”
Tim turned back around to face down the hall, and then set the boys present on a small table nearby. He realized his mistake. He’d had no use for a twenty thousand dollar piece of woven Vicuna cloth, so he’d thrown the piece down to be the Christmas tree skirt surrounding it’s base. When he turned back Will was gone.
Tim closed the door, feeling the cold wind and icy bits of blown snow.
He walked over to the huge dining room window from which he could view his driveway. Will’s SUV sat running, its exhaust visible in the glow of small Christmas wreath lights radiating out from the front of the home. A barely visible figure stood in the dark next to the driver’s side of the door. The man did not move and Tim could not.
The only non-Christmas song Tim had recorded on this special holiday CD began to play. The slow singing and haunting melody of the song beat the words physically into Tim’s body. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lange syne?”

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fully Functional


Lieutenant Howard never ran with the lightening. He was more controlled, as befitting his rank of police shift commander. He moved with a glow across the spectrum of his small town fiefdom. Twenty-five thousand citizens under his care, all asleep as he only ran the midnight to eight shift. He took his first dose of the stuff in his cruiser down at the beach. Storm waves blasting in from some Alaskan nightmare up north. The cold winter wind through open windows made him shiver, even as the stuff began to build a small nuclear fire deep inside him. He smiled into the face of blown spindrift.
“Forty-six, six seventy three,” scratched forth from his Motorola speaker.
“Shit,” he murmured, his smile beginning to fade.
“On two,” he said, pushing a small button to talk, then hitting a switch to go to the personal frequency.
“You there Lou?” Bobby, shift dispatcher asked.
“Yeah,” he answered, knowing his voice would transmit his unhappiness at being disturbed but not letting on as to why. The glow helped calm him. While he waited for Bobby to come back he replaced his rig inside a special handcuff case he’d reworked for it.
“Some cycles at north end limit. The gas station on PCH. No one can break away. Would you mind drifting by and making sure their okay?” Bobby framed the question using his most wheedling tone.
“Ten-four,” the lieutenant answered. Normally he liked hands on fieldwork, but on this stormy night he just wanted to enjoy the junk, the waves and his glow.
Nobody was out so he didn’t have to use Code Two, which was flashing lights only. They didn’t use Code Three, with sirens, unless they had to. They protected the sleep of their citizens.
Howard took three corners gently, and then pushed his accelerator to the floor as he hit PCH. It was a two-mile straight shot to the closed gas station. Breaking down hard from a hundred and thirty-five his Ford moved in toward the pumps like the black land shark it was. Four Harleys filled with chrome sparkled brightly back form his headlights.
Automatically Howard hit the radio transmit button.
“Ten seven,” he told Bobby, letting the man know he was at the scene.
He turned the small key that locked the Remington Twelve Gauge pump
to the dash. He’d never used it off the range but it was always nice to have as a back up.
Four ragged but rugged bikers were gathered around one of the bikes. Howard walked over, setting his nightstick through the ring on his Sam Brown belt.
“You boys have a problem?” he inquired when he was a few yards away.
“We ain’t boys, asshole,” the largest of the men whispered as he turned. The man was huge, Howard realized surprised by his size and nasty attitude. Not many people, except druggies and drunks confronted a uniformed police lieutenant which such disrespect and ferocity.
“I asked what the problem was?” he tried again.
“Not your problem,” the big man stated, this time quite loudly, before smiling broadly.
“This is private property and you’ll have to move on,” Howard replied to the affronting comment, keeping his own cool, his calm, his glow still going for him.
“This fucker’s high as a kite,” the huge man laughed openly, pointing at the lieutenant’s chest. The other three bikers stood from their couches and stared at him.
“Fuck, not every day you get to see a police lieutenant totally fucked up on the job,” the big man went on.
Howard was shocked beyond his ability to truly comprehend. The man had not only recognized the fact that he had fixed, but he was taunting him with the information. His face went totally red. His glow vanished. A stillness came over him.
He realized in that moment he was in the shit. He hadn’t been in the shit since the Nam. He smiled back at the huge man. A sense of relief flowed through his body, replacing the glow with a white noise softness of titanium steel. Molten density
poured through his entire body.
“Get the fuck away from us. We want nothing from your shitty little town,” the big man yelled as Howard back to the passenger door of his cruiser.
“Chicken shit country bumpkin,” the huge man yelled, cupping his hands because Howard’s upper body had disappeared inside the car.
“Shit,” he breathed quietly when Howard reappeared. The sound of the first round of double ought buck being cranked into the chamber of the Remington froze all four of the bikers. Howard stood near the right front fender, just outside the
glare of headlights to enjoy near invisibility as well as superior firepower.
“We’re fucking going,” the big man said, all four bikers moving to the their rides. “We’re outta here. Keep you faggot town, you fuck.” The huge man started his Harley, his friends following suit. Four cycles rumbled loudly but not nearly as loudly as the sound of the twelve gauge going off.
Howard fired five feet over the gang’s head.
The huge man screamed, grabbing his ears.
Howard waited, cranking another round into the chamber.
“Don’t shoot man, we didn’t do anything,” the big man cried out, grabbing the handles of his Harley and pulling away. He was followed by the other three bikes.
Howard waited until they hit PCH headed north. He gauged the opening distance very carefully, stepping to the back of his cruiser and then fired six more rounds at the fleeing backs of the men. He gauged the distance at about two hundred and twenty meters, perfect for the right effect.
The cycles swerved crazily but none of them went down.
“You’ll be picking out some choice bits and pieces from your backs over the next few months boys. You all come back and visit any time you want now.”
The Remington went back into its locking holder after Howard carefully reloaded it. He’d have to clean the gun after the shift, but it had been worth it.
“Fucking “A” functional. I can do the job. But how did that fucking asshole know I was taking my stuff?” Howard said the words into the darkness, surf booming far in the distance, calling him back. Adrenalin destroyed the effect of the junk, but he’d brought two hits, just in case.
“Forty-Six Six Seventy Three, did you hear shots fired near your location?” Bobby asked over the radio.
“Just the surf here. Ten-eight from this location,” Howard replied, letting him know that he was done with the assignment and there was no further activity needed.
Sitting back at his special location, windows once more down, he again faced into the moist cold wind.
“Can’t do my job and feel good while I’m doing it? Who says? Perfect judgment. I could never have measured the distance to those Harleys so carefully if I wasn’t adjusting with the glow.” He pushed the stuff into him and waited.
“One fully functioning patrol lieutenant protecting you this night” he said out the window, to the sleeping citizens of his small town. Before the magic carpet swept him above the wind and waves he wondered about how the huge cycle rider had been able to see the junk inside him, and if maybe others might be able to see it to.
Those thoughts faded as he went up up and away.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Biting The Clouds

Biting The Clouds
James Strauss

The door slammed. Mighty steel edifice, but like the others in the African prison, set into rickety wooden walls that you could run through given a proper set back and some sort of cover for your head. There’s not much rationality in Africa. And none whatever inside it’s prisons. Sierra Leone’s a pretty bad place, but only bad because it’s dirt poor. Prisoners are at the very bottom of that meager food chain.

Needles were shoved under the door with surgical tubing attached. No drugs. No nothing else. The H was everywhere, already there. The tough part was getting it into you. Needles rolled nicely under the door crack. A member of the African tribe (Loko) rolled the needles from his side. A member of the Kissis tribe
received each. The Kissis ran Stack’s cube. A white guy in an African prison. Called doctor because Stack told them he was an anthropologist. He heard them whisper many times about the ‘Mgeni’s’ (foreigner) education of ‘apology’ and what it must mean.

Stack was the only ‘doctor’ ever to enter the prison, they said. And so a weird respect was assigned, especially between the many warring tribes trapped inside the huge prison complex.

Stack took the needles, about ten of ‘em, and tossed them inside a little heater he was allowed. Allowed because he had a commissary account, which was funded from home. Inside, a U.S. dollar was worth over 400 Leones. A small fortune.

He boiled the needles for five minutes, rubber attachments and all. The ‘rigs’ or ‘paras,’ as they were called locally, would be sterilized, as was now the custom from dorm to dorm, since Doctor Stack had advised. Needles went under doors throughout the prison after night meals and final count. The needles meant sleep. Escape. “Biting the clouds’ as they said in Swahili. The surgical tubing was filled with liquefied heroin of unknown origin (smuggled into the facility inside female visitor vaginas).

Tubing was knotted, needle set into a vein, tube squeezed and the night could be endured into next day.

Stack grinned as he handed the sterilized rigs to the Kissis commander.

“You laugh, Stack, as you always do. Why do you laugh?” the huge black man asked, laughing himself.

Stack left the smile on his face, but responded with an answer he knew would satisfy the powerful man. A man who allowed Stack’s life to be lived with bare comfort and acceptability.

“The sterilizing of the needles will assure that the women you are with in the future will not become with child.”
Stack had learned, through hard won experience inside, the natives not only had areas where they were extremely limited in knowledge, but also had areas where they refused understanding whatsoever. Sterile needles was one of those problematic areas. AIDS was another. They didn’t accept the disease, instead choosing to believe that dying form AIDS was simply God removing himself slowly from your body.

AIDS was disappearing from the prison. Stack knew that from simple observation while serving his two year sentence. The Warden took note of it as well, but only recognized it by finally calling Stack doctor when addressing him. It was enough.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cold Rolled Steel, Chapter I

Night is a relative word when used to discuss a level of darkness. Minnow looked nowhere. With no light at all the word look didn’t really apply. The vault that imprisoned him was tightly sealed. It was possessed of cold metal walls over a foot in thickness. Minnow had noted that thickness, the polished smoothness of rounded lugs, as well as the unusually beautiful locking action, which had been visible through a clear glass panel that covered the door as he’d been pushed in. There was no light inside. There was to be no breathable air at some future time, not far distant either.
They’d not killed him like they had the others. Minnow had been terrified of being killed, until the vault had been discovered open, and he’d seen the cruelty come to the surface of black paint-slashed faces surrounding him. They’d coldly killed the only people on earth he’d known or cared about. They’d acted with no evident expression of emotions, but that had changed when they’d found the vault.
Minnow pressed his right ear against the cold glass to listen. There were not more sounds. The Zigzag horde had remained in the sub-basement of the fallen building for a long time, occasionally tapping on the side of the vault to let their captive know that life continued and would go on long after the air was gone and he was dead. All was silent, not that it mattered.
There was nothing to do. Debris covered the floor of the vault. Old papers of some sort, files, metal drawers and even some coins. Minnow sat and thought. The fear of death had receded from his mind. Dying alone in the dark was more preferable than being shot or gutted by the lunatic Zigzag gang among the bodies of his family. They hadn’t been real family. Minnow had no real family. He had no memory of where he’d come from or how he’d come to be a part of the group he was with. They had just seemed to always be there, although they’d never let him forget that he was an outsider taken in because of their generous nature.
Nobody had searched him, probably because he wore only a ratty “T” shirt, torn shorts and flip-flops on his feet. He took out his single prized possession.
The Zippo clicked open to his thumb, the wheel rasped as he brought the same digit back down across it, and there was light. Minnow, even at fifteen years of age, knew that the lighter would burn up whatever remaining air was left in the vault all the faster but he also knew that it didn’t really matter. Death was not to be measured by ‘if’ thinking. Death was ‘when’ kind of thinking.
The Zippo had an insignia on its side: “1st Mar. Div.” A raised globe and anchor protruded from beneath the insignia. None of it made any sense to Minnow. He liked the flicker flame and the ability to start a fire any time he wanted. His reflection wavered back at him in the polished glass of the door. His hair was long, curly and unkempt. He liked his bushy eyebrows and long eyelashes. His ‘sister,’ while she was living, had told him that his face was too round and his body too stocky to be a real member of the family but Minnow didn’t care. He was fast, tough and healthy. They all said that there was something wrong with his head because he was too quick to laugh at things that they didn’t think were funny.
He couldn’t put the lighter out. He wouldn’t sit and die in the dark, even if it meant that he’d die much sooner. With one hand Minnow wound some papers together to form a tight cone. He lit the cone. As soon as it ignited he clicked his Zippo shut. Light and warmth filled the small chamber.
Listlessly, he went through the empty metal drawers. There was nothing. Under the last door there was a dully-black tube, however. Minnow pushed at it with his foot but it didn’t move. The tube was about the size of his forearm. Minnow kicked at it until finally it budged a bit. Reaching down, across the top of the small fire, he worked at it with his fingers until it came free from the crease it had been wedged into.
Minnow held it up to the fire. It was very heavy for its size. He hefted it up and down, and then coughed deeply, dropping it to the floor. He tried to breath in and out deeply but found that that was no longer possible. The air was too think and smoke was beginning to dim and hurt his vision. Without thinking, in anger and frustration, he picked up the bar and slammed it against the glass pane covering the gears and levers located behind.
The glass shattered into a million pieces. The fire was instantly extinguished.
Minnow fell against the exposed gears and levers. With his eyes closed tightly he felt the smooth oiled surfaces with his fingers. One lever had crosshatched cuttings over the end of its surfaces. With both hands Minnow pulled the lever down.
When the lever moved deep clicks sounded from all around the edges of the door. Minnow pulled the lever all the way down. The door cracked open.
With all the strength of his legs, Minnow pushed against the back wall, forcing the door further and further open, until his small thick body was fully extended. He rolled out of the vault onto the concrete floor of the sub-basement, and then slid a few feet brushing small chunks of glass from his hands as he went.
The place was a mess of blood, dead bodies and torn up mattresses. The canned food they tribe had collected so laboriously was all gone, which was the first thing Minnow focused on when he stopped coughing. He lay on the floor and sucked in air. He had not realized, until he’d slipped through the crack of the door, that’d he’d been so close to suffocation.
The Zigzag’s, with their characteristic black slashed faces, were gone.
The attack had been about the food. The family was followed, and then put under surveillance by the gang. Life was mostly about food, Minnow knew.
“Little one,” a voice from somewhere nearby squeaked.
“Who’s there?” Minnow responded, gathering his feet under him to flee.
“I’m here, under the bodies,” the deep slow voice intoned back.
Minnow searched the broken terrain around him. The light, shining down through broken pieces of cracked concrete slab above, provided little recognition assistance. There was no movement.
‘If you’re there, then say something I recognize,” Minnow said, finally, after about ten minutes had gone by.
“Mameluke,” the small deep voice intoned.
Minnow immediately jumped up upon hearing the word. He searched through the strewn wreckage and body parts, looking for the man whose voice he’d heard but couldn’t place. The word was all he needed to know. The voice was not from a ghost or an enemy. Mameluke was the name of the sword the family leader carried at his waist. It was the symbol of their family strength.
The body was under a body, but it wasn’t the body of a man or boy. It was a girl he found, when he pushed aside the ‘father’ of the family covering her. He knew it was a girl because her top was torn and twin breasts pointed up at him.
“What are you lookin’ at,” the girl said, pulling the tattered remains of a shirt over her bare chest.
Minnow remembered her. She never talked. People called her Truck, because she worked ferociously hard at anything she did. In his years with the family he’d never spoken to her. Several times he’d been bumped aside by her but that was it. The family had not been much of a social unit. Food scavenging, moving rapidly from place to place, and watching had been what the family had done.
Truck stood up, her height about the same as Minnows, but her body much thinner, her face much more pointed and attractive.
“Get the sword, it’s the only weapon left,” she pointed at the waist of their dead ‘father’ when she spoke, holding the shirt together with the other hand.
Minnow worked the sword and belt free of the dead man. He strapped it around his own waist, but the thirty-eight inch blade dragged on the ground once he had the thing on.
“My name’s Mar from now on. You call me Truck, just once and that’s it. You understand?” She said the words as she walked toward the ladder, the only way to enter or leave the sub-basement. “You want to be something other than Minnow, speak up.”
He looked at her with his brows knit did not reply.
“You got yourself into that safe to escape, I presume,” she said, looking back at the vault’s gaping door.
Minnow followed her eyes but again said nothing. His cowardice, or the truth, didn’t really matter and he understood that. Mary and he were the only survivors and they were all they had, until the cat screamed.
Both of them turned at the loud sound. Minnow remembered.
The cat had been trapped days earlier. Their ‘father’ had said that cats made good eating although they were very hard to catch. At one time people had kept them as pets, but Minnow didn’t understand at all why they would have done that.
The cat in the cage weighed at least twenty pounds, and did not fit the description the family had given him of a domestic pet at all. The thing was all spotted and seemed to be made of coiled muscle.
“Let it out?” Mar asked.
Minnow shrugged, went over to the cage and hit the mechanical release latch. The cat leaped out, feinted a run at him, making Minnow cower back, and then ran up the ladder and out the door at the top.
“Nice pet,” Minnow said, sarcastically, to cover his movement of fear when the animal had leaped out.
Mar didn’t say anything. He followed her up the ladder and out into the sun filled day outside. The Mameluke bounced and clattered at his every move. Once outside he sat down on the concrete steps and began working on the leather harness. It took several minutes to convert the waist belt into a shoulder belt so the sword would sit across the flat of his back and not drag along the ground.
The idiot cat had not run away. Instead it sat about five feet from him, licking its front paws, one after the other.
“I think its wild. Crazy, or something,” Mar said, sitting on the stair next to him.
“Who?” Minnow asked, stupidly.
“The cat, idiot.” She replied. “I think his name should be Mameluke, like the sword, which is also useless. We need guns not swords. The Zigzags shot everyone in the family. They didn’t use swords. We need guns. The cat can be Mameluke.”
Minnow turned to look at Mar, his sword finally strapped securely to his back.
“I don’t understand you. I didn’t think you talked. Now you talk all the time but I don’t really understand what you say.”
“I said the cat’s name’s Mameluke,” she said, and then leaned out to stroke the creature.
The cart’s response was invisible it was so fast. Mar let out a short gasp. She drew her hand back bleeding. Mameluke went back to grooming his paws.
“Mameluke it is then,” Minnow stated, trying not to laugh at the appropriateness of the cat’s name.
“We never talked, in the family, about what happened to the world. What do you think happened?” Mar asked, still massaging the scratch on the back of her hand.
“I don’t know,” Minnow answered. “I don’t remember anything except waking up one day with the family. There are all these ruins.” He waved his around all around them. “All the stored foods and stuff we find in different places. I don’t know. Something happened. People didn’t used to live like we do now.”
Mar stood up, one hand still securing the torn shirt across her chest. “We have to find one of those places that has clothes, if we can. I can’t go around like this or we’ll be in even more trouble.
Minnow couldn’t imagine being in more trouble, except maybe being locked in the vault, than they were already in. They had no food, no water and no supplies at all except the Zippo and the Mameluke. The car meowed.
“And Mameluke here, I guess” he said back to the cat as he raised himself up to follow the girl down the steps.


Monday, May 31, 2010


James Strauss

I came back from Vietnam on a hard white gurney, flown in by one of those planes they called Starlifters at the time. Those wounded of us in that fuselage had all been pinned up in plastic sacks to the walls and the center divider, like the drugged and damaged larva of some huge insect phylum.
Now. Phoenix, Arizona. The airport here. In one of those little bar kind of restaurants they have out near the spoke-ends. Nameless. Marginal food. But a place to sit and not be among all the fidgeting, staring passengers on the black faux-leather seats near the gate.
I don't have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though I go to group every week at the VA. I am not suicidal, and they know that. No, I don't really want to be alive anymore, but that is different. Suicidal is weak, and I'm not weak. I'm here. And I'm okay. I don't think about Vietnam much now, or my lost boys, or the other people who died because I was there. But I am hyper-vigilant, the psychologist says.
I notice things. I notice a lot of things. The license plate of the car driving behind mine. My mind converts the backward image automatically. The people around me. Whether they have noticed me. Whether I have seen them before. What they are wearing. What they are buying. It never stops. I don't want to be afraid of them, so I want to have never seen any of them before. I had great courage once. People think I do now. But I don't.
I don't share my fear. But there’s also a physical manifestation which is hard to miss. I shake a little. When that happens, I move. Like Michael J. Fox with his problem. You don't shake if you move around a bit. He knows that.
My small table is outside the eating facility but inside a short metal fence. My back is against the wall. That's automatic. I toy with my bad Buffalo wings, but really watch what is going on around me. Then I’m surprised.
A GI comes through the outside door. He's dressed out in full Iraq mufti. The new desert kit, with the cool buff boots and velcro patches. I don't notice what's on the patches because I was a Marine. I don't care. He's Army. He's okay, but he's Army.
He sits down. He has nothing with him. Not even a ditty bag. Unusual. I note that. He looks too good, and with nothing. He could be a phony, just looking to make believe for awhile. He sits at the next table. His back is against the wall too. He watches the people, like me, but does not look at me, or I at him. I just take him in from the side. He orders. The waiter comes and goes away. Then the G.I. starts singing aloud.
"Daisy, daisy, ....give me your answer do....I'm half crazy....all for the love of you..." His voice is soft in the singing. Very soft. The words come out one at a time, with spaces.
I remember where I first heard the song. 2001 A Space Odyssey. Kubrick. The GI is singing, just like the computer in the movie. The song plays, I recall, as Keir Dullea gets back inside the space ship and slowly removes the brain parts of Hal, the computer gone bad. The more parts he removes, the slower the computer sings the song. Like the GI. I don't turn, but I am struck hard.
Then, as he is singing, his knees start a rapid drumming up and down. He takes both hands and pushes and holds his legs back down, but continues to sing. He's real. And he's just come back. From over there.
I take out a twenty from my money-clip and put it on my table. I get up and wheel my roller back into the main bar, and then out the side to the main area, where people mill. I move directly toward the restroom and into a stall. I sit on the john with my clothes on. I'm vaguely reminded of the weird Senator Craig story, so I keep my feet well inside the stall.
"What am I going to do?" I whisper. I cover my face with both hands.
I breathe deeply inward, and then out again. I decide to help the G.I. I get up and leave, dragging the roller behind me.
But the G.I.’s gone. His food is on the table. The waiter is standing looking around, wondering whether his client has run off. I walk back along the outside of the metal fence. I take out another twenty and motion to the man. He frowns, looks at the uneaten food, but takes the twenty. I move through the spoke to my gate and get on the flight.
I have a middle seat. After take off I notice my seat-mates turning slightly to view me better. I realize that I am very quietly singing. That song. I stop immediately, take off my belt, and climb over the aisle passenger. I start moving. Just a little will make it all okay.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


James Strauss
The game was five-card stud. One card dealt face down, then four more, one at a time, face up. Betting between each deal of the cards. Military Pay Currency, not real money from home. You could only spend MPC back in the rear Muncey reflected, and new guys did not get to go back to the rear, so there was no point in having the stuff. You stayed in the field until relieved, as a company grade officer, which generally did not happen until you were six months in country. One month was all he had, but it was his third time visiting regimental headquarters.
The 5th Marine regimental HQ was also in the bush, as well as the Bird Colonel Commander, Thomas Pointer. “Three Tits,” as everyone called him behind his back, because he’d gone through West Point before choosing the Corps to serve in, plus he used a ‘III’ designation after his name. Derisive sexual humor was always big in a combat zone, as Muncey’s own NCO’s, some dating back to Korea, taught him. His nickname was ‘Muncher,’ which he didn’t much appreciate but could do nothing about.
He was only a Second Lieutenant, yet served as temporary Company Commander of Echo Company. The Marines had killed the previous allotment of officers before he’d been assigned. The Gunny told him that such things happened all the time in the Nam. The unit had a racial problem. It had taken three weeks for Muncey to fix that problem. You can’t have a racial problem if you only have one race. That 'fix' had also resulted in Echo having the highest casualty rate in the regiment, however, which was why, Muncey thought, Three Tits had called him in.
His first days in country had been the worst. Why he had ever lipped off to the Division General that first afternoon he would never know. In those first days and nights after being assigned he’d begged God to let him go back and fix things. He couldn’t possibly survive, he knew, in a company where the men had killed their own officers. His going in as a replacement for the lot of them could only end one way. So he hadn’t slept. At all. He’d learned that everything he’d read about sleep was just not true. You could go without it. Maybe a few hours of half-closed eyes every few days or so. His .45 out, safety off, cradled in his lap. The forty-five was a part of him now and he loved it. When you shot someone they went down. Then you could take your time in shooting them again. He cleaned the weapon four or five times a day, but only broke it down into parts when he could get away from everyone for a few moments.
His Marines just looked at him. They seldom talked to him at all, except for the Gunny. He gave orders and they did what they were told. The Gunny told him what orders to give them so they wouldn’t kill him for giving wrong ones. That part of Marine Officer training had been left out in Quantico, at the Basic School. Without the Gunny he’d have been dead already, and he knew it. Even with the Gunny he was not going to make it for six months. Echo was losing ten men a day from the enemy alone. With two hundred and seventeen ‘swinging dicks’ in the company it didn’t take a mathematical genius to figure things out.
He’d written to tell his wife about that, only days before. She was a wonderfully beautiful Irish girl. She’d find another, better, man. He’d written a list of the twenty things she needed to do when his body was returned. Putting that letter on a medivac chopper had been the only relief he’d felt since arriving in Da Nang so long ago.
The Five Stud hand closed out. He’d lost half his MPC. It was Muncey’s deal. He gathered the cards in and began to shuffle. Professionally. His dad had once been a dealer in Reno, and a demanding detailed son-of-a-bitch at home. Muncey thought as he shuffled.
After the Gunny had told him everything about Echo he’d not known what to do, except maybe lie down and die. Crying to himself in the hot fetid nights, slashed open by white-hot tracers and bellowing with high explosive muzzle blasts had not worked for him. Twice he’d run away, under the cover of all the fire. The Gunny’d found him each time. “Ya don’t get to run away when you’re the commanding officer,” he’d said, planting him in the mud back at their makeshift command post.
Then there had been the coffee stop along the rice paddy trail. Sitting there with the command and artillery radiomen. Drinking awful instant crap from a fire tab heated canteen holder. The guy. The leader of the pack. Purple sunglasses like a hippy. No rank on his cruddy utilities. No nametag. He’d squatted down facing the three of them.
“You fucking try any of that stateside leadership crap here and you’re dead when the sun goes down. We don’t fight, my guys and me. This is your fucking war so you people fight it. We do what we want. We won’t give you any trouble unless you fuck with us. You got it?”
Muncey presumed that the man was staring with beady eyes, unblinking, waiting for some positive response. He moved his canteen holder to his left hand, drank down most of what was left, and then tossed the remainder aside, off the narrow trail. At the same instant as the coffee flew Muncey drew the forty-five, brought it level, clicked the left side thumb safety off and shot the man three times in the chest.
The man was blown backward onto the path. Muncey rose up quickly, walked forward and shot the man in the forehead right above his glasses, which were unaccountably still in place.
“You going to deal the cards or sit there shuffling all day?” one of the other lieutenant’s said.
Muncey passed the deck for cutting, and then hit each man quickly with a card. The man across from him was a square jawed First Lieutenant wearing a bush hat back on his head, like Gabby Hayes. He had aged crinkly eyes for an officer so young. They exchanged glances into each other’s eyes as the third cards fell around, but neither smiled.
Muncey didn’t care about the hand. He was waiting to get his ass chewed out by Three Tits, once again. He didn’t really care about that either, as he knew he wasn’t going home anyway. He wasn’t getting out of the field for any reason so what punishment could Three Tits dispense? He did like being at the HQ however. It was as safe a place as one could be in, other than in the rear with the gear.
His mind was not on the game. As he dealt the last card, the card under it, on top of the deck, fell to the surface of the makeshift table, face up.
“Mis-deal,” one of the lieutenant’s yelled, then immediately flipped his hole card atop the MPC piled in the center. The other officer’s followed his lead.
“I’ll re-deal,” Muncey said, starting to gather the cards together again.
“Double the pot,” the offended officer who’d first thrown in his money said.
“That’s the rule here. You mis-deal, you double the pot out of your own pocket.”
Muncey stopped moving, his hands frozen in mid-air, holding the deck in his left hand and some of the discarded cards in his right. He looked from man to man around the table. Everyone, except the square jawed First Lieutenant, nodded, although nobody said anything.
“I don’t have any more currency,” Muncey said, truthfully. All his money was on the table.
“Who gives a shit? Double the pot. Money’s your problem,” the man to his right stated, anger causing his voice to squeak a bit.
The cards in Muncey’s right hand fluttered to the table. The forty-five appeared as if by magic. The automatic’s safety made a sharp metallic snipping noise when it was pushed. Nobody moved. Even the jungle seemed to grow quiet, at least to Muncey.
He stared deep into the First Lieutenant’s dark eyes across the table.
“Everyone put your money on the table,” he said flatly, his voice little more than a whisper. Slowly, he dropped the card deck, and then removed his helmet.
He placed the helmet atop the MPC in the center of the table.
“I’m taking all your money,” he said.
“What, you going to shoot us if we don’t give you our money?” the complaining officer asked in amazement. “Right! In the regimental Headquarters you’re going to shoot five officers over a game of cards?”
“Yes,” Muncey answered. “I’m going to shoot you first, then the rest of them, but each of you only once. You’ll have a chance if they get a medivac in. Army though, as the Marine choppers won’t fly five of you out of here in one load.” Muncey moved the barrel of the gun to point at the offensive officer’s chest, “You ready?” he asked, his voice and the automatic flat and steady.
“You want us to put all the money in your helmet?” the First Lieutenant across the table asked. Without waiting for an answer began to fill the helmet first with the money on the table and then with MPC from his pockets.
“Yes, that’d be okay,” Muncie replied, simply, regarding the unusual man.
“Get your money out. Put it in his helmet,” The First Lieutenant said forcefully to the other officers.
“Jesus Christ Web, you going to let him pull this shit on us?” one of the other men inquired.
“Yes, I am, and so are you. Get it out.”
The men backed slowly from the table when the helmet was full. Muncey scooped it up with his left arm. He slowly lowered the forty-five to point at the ground near his right foot. The First Lieutenant smiled at him for the first time. He had a nice smile, Muncey realized. He could not smile back even though he tried.
“The Colonel will see you now, “ Web followed up, pointing at a large tent located near the edge of their small clearing.
Muncey walked inside the tent. The C.O. and his Executive Officer sat at small folding desks facing him. Muncey just stood before them.
“Come to attention and salute the commander,” the X.O. commanded, his black rank insignia indicating that he was a major.
“Not covered, Major,” Muncey answered, “Got my poker winnings in the helmet, sir, with respect, can’t put it on.” You did not salute in the Marine Corps, without your cover on, ever.
The major sneered, but said no more.
“Some reason you got that hog iron out, Lieutenant?” Three Tits himself asked, pointing at the Colt still hanging down in Muncey’s right hand.
“Dangerous in the bush sir. I get scared when I’m this far from my men,” Muncie answered.
The Colonel and the major exchanged a quick meaningful look, then stared back at him.
“Know why you’re here?” Three Tits asked.
“Again,” the major added.
“No, sirs.” Muncey replied.
“I’m not going to repeat this. This is it your last warning. If you fuck up about it again, I’ll have your ass. Do you understand me? “
“Yes, sir,” Muncey responded, in his best junior to senior submissive voice.
“The X.O. is writing you up. If you use foul language on the combat or artillery nets again, that will be it. I don’t care if you’re in contact. Everyone’s in contact at night around here. No more profanity over the radio. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Muncey replied, his eyes boring into the tent wall behind Three Tit’s head.
“Get the fuck out of here,” the major ordered.
Muncey did an about face, slowly so as not to spill the currency piled high in the helmet and also because the .45 just didn’t swing that smoothly in turning. He walked from the tent. All the lieutenants were gone except the square jawed one with the crinkly eyes.
“That your tracked carrier down by the paddy?’ he asked of Muncey.
Muncey nodded.
“Mind if I walk with you?” the other officer went on.
“Okay,” Muncey answered, sliding the Colt back into its leather holster. He grasped the helmet before him in both hands as they walked.
“I’ve heard some things about Echo. You know. Scuttlebutt. Seems that things have been a little rough over there for quite some time. Lot of casualties. Lots of social problems. Bad morale. Stuff like that.”
Muncey said nothing, but walking a bit faster.
“Why’d you help me back there? I mean with the money?” Muncey asked him.
“Because you were going to shoot us. They didn’t know, but I did. They’re not bad guys really. Thanks for not shooting us, by the way.”
“Oh, that’s okay. You were good about getting me the money.”
“This is a tough combat zone so nobody’s quite right,” Web said. Do you know that you’re not quite right, Muncey?”
Muncey stopped walking, leaving Lieutenant Web to move a few steps before he too stopped. They stood facing one another. Neither man blinked.
“I know,” Muncey finally answered, sighing deeply, blinking, and then looking away. “I know I’m not quite right,” he said, more definitively.
The First Lieutenant nodded and smiled. “That’s good. Very good. If you know, you can do something about it. You can’t go back to the world like this. I know it doesn’t look good right now, but you may well see round eyes again some day. I’ve never seen anyone get dealt a worse hand, from the get go, in this mess, than you. But here you are, still alive. Unfuckingbelievable.”
“Ah, thank you,” Muncie said, in surprise. “What do you think I should do?” They began walking toward the armored personnel carrier again.
“No more killing anyone that does not need to be killed,” Web said. “No killing over poker, bad pay, loose women or because somebody won’t do what you want them to do. If you run into trouble with anybody just send him over to Delta Company. We’re in First Battalion on the far flank. Can you do that?” The First Lieutenant looked over at him with his smiling eyes when he finished.
“I think so. And then I’ll be okay? I’ll be alright?” Muncey asked.
“Yep, and you mind if I have that money? Those other lieutenant’s will think more kindly of you if you let me give it back to ‘em.” He stopped and held out both hands.
Muncey gave him the helmet, and then put it on his head when it was empty.
“You want any?” Web asked him.
Muncie shook his head. They had arrived at the tracked vehicle.
“You’re going to be fine. Just remember what I told you,” First Lieutenant Web
said, with a big smile, holding out his hand. Muncey shook it warmly. Then the other man hugged him. “Did you read Lord of the Flies by Golding?”
Muncey was surprised by the question, backing away from the embrace.
“Yes, I read it. About some boys stuck on an island. They killed each other and lost all semblance of civilization.” Muncie recited what he knew. Lord of the Flies had bad been one of the most perplexing books he’d read in high school. Simple yet strangely complex.
“You’re Ralph in that novel and this place is the island. Think of it that way and you’ll survive. Stop fighting and keep running until you’re rescued,” Web said, before turning and walking up the trail.
Muncey climbed to the top of the tracked vehicle. Officer’s rode on top, in case the personnel carrier ran over a booby trap, which was much more likely than being the target of sniper fire.
The Carrier Commander, also a Second Lieutenant, made a place for him in the webbing that stretched across the surface of the vehicle.
“Who is that guy?” Muncie asked, his eyes still on the First Lieutenant’s departing back.
“Him? You mean the First Lieutenant? They call him The Web. Once you get caught in his net, he’s got you for life, they say. His men love him. Wish we had him as our C.O.”
“I can understand that,” Muncey said.
“What’s your name?” the Commander asked him.
There was a long silence. The vehicle’s diesel started, and then clattered as the exhaust blew black smoke.
“Ralph,” Muncey finally answered.

Saturday, May 8, 2010




James Strauss
The road from downtown Quito out and around to Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest peak, takes about an hour and a half to negotiate. Actually there are several dirt roads that branch off when one begins to near the national park, but they all lead to the same base camp of the nearly twenty thousand foot high volcano. Ben had been assured that the last eruption of the monster had occurred somewhere back in the eighteen hundreds.
The Besta Bongo van took the weather beaten roads badly, jostling the four of them together. They’d been hastily assembled and flown in for the mission. Ben checked out his companions. All there were too young, too white and too big for the job, but team leadership of Agency missions did not extend to selection of personnel. That happened only in movies, like the appearance of scantily clad beautiful women. Ben had known it was going to be a rough ride just by looking at their vehicle. The Besta had large wheels on the front and dual smaller ones on the rear. The geometry was bad for any driving not performed on smooth tarmac. Besta also translated, appropriately, to the English word for ‘beast.’
The diesel clattered away. The van had to be a diesel. Cotopaxi was so high that most gasoline car motors would not run up to the last rest station located before a technical climb was required to get to the peak. The little turbo diesel would sound like it was popping corn near their goal but would get them there, or so everyone said.
Their driver and guide was named Jelisco. Jelisco wasn’t pronounced with the silent ‘j,’ like most Spanish words. Jelisco was supposed to be spelled with an ‘x’ which meant it stood for ‘sandy place.’ People knew that so made it sound like an ‘x.’ The driver droned on and on about his name, where he lived and where they were going, all of which bored Ben to death, but there was to be no nodding off on the trip up. They were headed for a meeting with followers of the FARC rebel group. The group had Bolivian origins but overran all over the countryside parts of Ecuador. Ben knew that the bands were composed of amateurs. Farmers and junk peddlers. Which made them very dangerous. Except for lacking the best equipment, armed amateurs were among the most dangerous opponents Ben faced. Mentally ill opponents were worse, but in the business he was in, the difference was a tough determination to make.
Ben moved up next to the driver while the other men remained in back. Huey, Luey and Duey sat sprawling across the two bench seats behind him. He could hear them chatter but not make out what they were talking about. From their expressions, when he bothered to glance back, he assumed the discussion had something to do with his geriatric age. Fifty was over the hill for field operations. Sixty, unheard of. Yet here he was.
None of them could be over twenty-five, Ben reflected, but then their work was of a more actively violent nature. Somebody back at Agency headquarters in Langley had once asked him if he really hurt people while involved in field operations. Ben had told him no, that he had people who did that sort of thing. Such men rode with him toward Cotopaxi in the rear of the van.
The Besta stopped and idled when they reached a fork in the road. A triple tined fork. The driver asked which road they should follow, giving the merits of each, ad nauseum. Since it didn’t matter, Ben pointed at the tire tracks to their right. Jelisco jammed the transmission into first gear, without seemingly using the clutch, which made Ben flinch with discomfort. He shook it off. The van belonged to the driver. The vehicle, as long as it got them back and forth, didn’t matter.
The road swung around a shallow crater, which appeared to stretch all the way to the base of the conical peak in the distance. Spirit Lake, run dry during the last eruption, was nearly the same as the Spirit Lake, which had been located below Mount St. Helens before that blow up, Jelisco stated. Ben doubted that the name was accurate, being they were in Ecuador, but he let it go, as with the rest of the verbose man’s dialogue.
The lake disappeared as they entered one of the high dry forests of Ecuador.
Kapok trees became dense, their purple blossoms giving away the spring season. Thorns dotted the trunks up and down, except for the older trees which shed them completely.
Ben had been told that the thorns were to keep animals from going after the moisture trapped inside the younger trunks. The thorns were not necessary when the trees were older and their bark much harder.
Two bands of small children appeared ahead of them, one band on each side of the narrow tracks the van was negotiating. As they approached closer Ben saw a string or rope extended out from each band. It curved down across their path.
“These child banditos, “ Jelixico said, with undisguised contempt, “shall I drive through their stupid string?”
“No,” Ben replied, “Stop right here.”
Ben climbed out the door to confront an approaching child. All of them he could see appeared to range in ages from about ten down to five or six. All were thin, serious faced and wearing “T” shirts and torn off trousers. None of them wore shoes.
A small boy walked up and extended his right hand, palm up.
“Ten dollar to pass check point,” the boy said, unequivocally. His hand was steady, as was his gaze. Ben could not remember back to when he had seen larger or sadder eyes regarding him with such patience . The boy’s “T” shirt had the word Zorro written across it in red lettering.
“So, you would be Zorro?” Ben asked, reaching into his pocket. He heard the sliding door of the Besta opening, and the rest of the team exiting the van behind him.
“Si,” the boy answered. “I take for the poor.”
“Well, that’s not exactly it, but what the hell, close enough.” Ben searched for a ten-dollar bill in his wallet. American money had been adopted by Ecuador as its currency ten years before. The canvas pack inside the van was loaded with Agency money, but there would be nothing in it as small as a ten.
“Where’d you learn English?” he asked Zorro, conversationally.
“American School in Quito. Mother sick. No work. No school,” the kid replied, not a hint of emotion in his voice.
“Sorry about your Mom being sick, and I hope this helps,” Ben said, about to take two fives from his wallet.
“You want me to handle these assholes, sir?” a voice whispered behind him.
Ben flipped his head around. The team, arrayed behind him, looked like the A-Team from old television, although none of their exotic weaponry was in evidence.
“No, I think I can handle this one,” Ben whispered back, rolling his eyes involuntarily as he turned. He then gently placed the two fives in the boy’s hand. The money was gone before he saw the kid’s hand close.
“Thank you, sir,” the boy stated, formally.
“That’s okay, ten bucks isn’t that much,” Ben responded.
“No, I meant for my Mom,” Zorro said back, then ran to join his friends by the side of the road. The back of his shirt was stenciled with two large letters, obviously put on by hand. The letters were an E and a P, almost run together in black ink.
They got back inside, the string was lowered, and all the children waved enthusiastically. Jelisco ground the van ahead in first gear.
Ben broke the silence when they were again moving smoothly through the trees.
“You’re here to do what you’re told,” Ben said, his body twisted around to view the men in the back, “and I won’t put up with suggestions from any of you.
We don’t do children, which you’re not far from being yourselves, and we certainly don’t mess with locals over ten dollars. You know why you’re here. Just do your job.” The men remained impassive, looking back at Ben, but not responding in any obvious way to what he said. Jelisco raised his eyebrows, glanced over quickly, but then returned his attention to driving.
The van dropped down gear by gear, the road steep but the lack of air pressure was the real problem. The turbo screamed but could only do its job of ramming in more air if it was rotating at its highest rate. By the time they reached the fence down from the base camp the diesel was knocking about two or three times a second. A man could walk faster than they moved, but at eighteen thousand feet above sea level the effort would hardly be worth it.
The van gasped to a halt, the engine dying without being shut off. The gate to the fence was closed. Several climbers and hikers milled about, but no one attempted to get through. A poorly painted sign hung from the metal gate. It said “Cerrado FARC.”
Closed by the Revolutionary Army of Colombia was not a notice to be taken lightly.
FARC had operated in Ecuador for years, generally in silence, but every once and awhile blood flowed in small rivers. The four letters were commonly seen about the countryside, but actual confrontation with FARC members was an uncommon but terrorizing experience.
Ben told Jelisco to remain where he was until they returned. The driver, for once, was without words, his widened eyes going from the sign, and then back and forth to the three men getting into their kits outside the open door of the vehicle.
“I’m going right in,” Ben said to the men, “Johnson, you’re in charge. What do you do if you hear nothing at all from me and the fail safe device does not go to alarm?”
“We do nothing for an hour, and then we make our way up to the building to see what we can find there. If we find nothing we leave. If we find bodies, we photograph and then leave.” The man read his instructions from the morning’s five paragraph combat order perfectly, from memory. Ben was impressed.
“Your mission?” Ben inquired, feeling better about the three wet workers who’d been assigned.
“To provide security and cover for the team, and the victim, until we’re all safely extracted from the country,” Johnson intoned, again perfectly.
“Good, no heroics. No assaults. You have the Naval Commo?”
Johnson produced a small hand held radio that looked like it should be in some science fiction movie rather than a tool of the present. Somewhere way above their heads, beyond eyesight and hearing, two F-18’s orbited above the maximum altitude of Ecuadorian fighters. Each was armed with two Maverick smart bombs capable of delivering three hundred pounds of high explosive using pinpoint electro-optical accuracy. Johnson controlled the radio in case the F-18’s needed to be used to assist in their retreat, flight or escape, once the kidnapped American was exchanged. However, in the event that Ben and the American were killed, no combat action was to be taken. Ben hadn’t been happy about that part of the mission plan, but he understood its wisdom. If both of them were dead then trying to blow up scattering rebels in the forest would probably be counter productive. FARC did not know that they had captured a CIA agent held for ransom. They thought they had an oil executive, because that’s what the idiot had been passing himself off in the bars of Quito, attempting to get laid. They knew that they didn’t have much, however, as they had been reduced to fifty-five thousand in cash during earlier negotiations with State.
Wilbur Morrison was the man’s name, which, as far as Ben was concerned, was a completely appropriate moniker for idiot.
The mission was easy. Simply exchange the cash for the man, walk back down the hill from the rest camp, get in the van with the agent, drive back to Quito, put the man, and themselves, on a C130, and get the hell out of Dodge.
Ben was nearly ready. He carried no weaponry, just the canvas bag filled with bundled hundreds, an Iridium 9555 satellite phone, and personal identification with wallet and passport. The Knuckledraggers carried heavier stuff they’d had delivered by diplomatic pouch to the US Embassy Quito. Ben punched an auto dial button on the 9555. Johnson answered without their being a ring. The phones were set to vibrate only.
“Com check,” Johnson said, before Ben could say a word.
“Five by five,” Ben answered, before hanging up and sticking the slim phone into his right hip pocket. None of the team was wearing paramilitary gear. Although it was more functional, it was too aggressive looking and too revealing to anyone who might see them along the way.
Ben pushed open the unlocked gate, jostled the FARC warning aside and began his ascent up toward the rest station. The five hundred meters should have been as challenging as a quick stroll in cool windy mountain air, but it was nothing of the sort at eighteen thousand feet. By the time he reached the stairs up into the low log building he was taking half steps and gasping for air after each one. He stopped to rest before ascending to the wide long porch.
The door opened and an AK-47 pointed thought the open space. The barrel of the weapon motioned impatiently. Ben breathed in deeply, and then staggered through the opening. Two unarmed boys quickly felt over his entire body, including running their hands through his hair and checking the soles of his boots. The search was nearly professional. They returned his satellite phone without even opening it, however.
The inside of the building was in good shape. No mess anywhere that Ben could see. An array of angry looking Ecuadorians stood against the walls, each with some kind of assault weapon. Only two men were seated, one of whom Ben instantly identified as Agent Wilbur Morrison. The other man was much older, at least Ben’s age, or even older. Ben was relieved to see that. The chances for violence would be less with a weathered veteran at the controls. Wilbur would not look at Ben, instead staring down at his own hands. That was not a good sign.
“The name’s Ben Strasser, late of the U.S. Who might you be?” Ben held out his right hand.
“Juan,” the man said, adding the honorific of senor a few seconds later. But he stood and extended his hand. They shook with the table between them. The man’s grip was perfectly firm, his hand dry but tough and calloused. It was a good start, and they were speaking in English. Ben spoke Spanish, but not well. English would lessen the likelihood of misunderstandings.
Both men sat. Juan eased a cigarette out of its pack. He then took almost a full minute to light and inhale deeply from it. Ben waited until their eyes met again.
“The money’s in a sack, down the mountain, as you requested. How about I go back down the hill, get the money, take Wilbur here and get out of your hair,” Ben said, hoping to conclude the deal without any further negotiation. Quick exchanges led to the most successful and by far the safest exchanges.
“The man’s one of your agents. He says you come all the way from what is called Operations in your Central Intelligence. He says you are a dangerous man. Are you a dangerous man?” Juan blew smoke, but not toward Ben.
Ben stared, keeping his face impassive. Wilbur had spilled his guts, probably out of boredom or for some small reward, like a padded cot.
“Not here. Not now. Not today,” he replied, having no choice but to follow the FARC commander’s lead.
“Fifty-five thousand is not enough for such a find. We want five hundred thousand for our cause.”
Ben sat and thought. He had no authorization to meet any further demands, other than that he had brought a full hundred thousand in case of incidental problems. It was all in the bag. Even if he had to reveal the extra money, its presence would only act to lessen any probability of violence taking place. He was not tied to it. As was being proven, a hundred grand was a cheap price to extricate the agent and get him out of the country, and hopefully, out of the Agency as well.
“There’s a hundred thousand down there,” Ben said, hooking one thumb back over his shoulder, toward the direction he’d come up from.
Juan smiled a smile that showed a full set of very white teeth. It was a striking smile against the backdrop of his weather-beaten brown skin.
“I like people who think ahead,” he said, “but the information we have from your friend here is far too valuable to keep quiet about for anything less than four hundred thousand, so let us stop here. No more of this play. Go and get three hundred more from one of your banks. Return tomorrow.
“You seem like a reasonable man,” Ben began, but was immediately interrupted.
“I have seen the Godfather movie. Don’t take me for a fool,” Juan’s smile changed to a deep frown as he spoke.
“The sea is large and your boat is small,” Ben replied, his face remaining impassive. “Have you also read Hemingway?”
“Three hundred thousand more,” Juan stated, grinding his cigarette out, then tapping the half-empty cigarette pack to pull out another.
“I don’t have that authority,” Ben replied. “I’ll have to call in from down by the fence. I’m sure you saw the other men with me. They have the satellite phone,” he lied, “But one last word here, por favor.” He looked Juan straight in the eyes, and then waited for permission.
Juan nodded, igniting the tip of another unfiltered Camel.
“I don’t care about the money. It’s not my money. I don’t care about Wilbur here. He’s a piss poor example of an agent. But I’ve done this before. And I kind of like your style. Take the hundred and go fight for your cause. You were doing fine at what you were doing here, but this stuff changes the game. The new players you will meet are not going to be anything you’re ready for. One pro to another.”
Juan considered him over the cigarette, not bothering to remove it from his mouth as the ash grew longer and longer. One of the young armed men behind Juan stepped forward to whisper in his ear. Juan shook his head ever so slightly.
“Thanks for the advice, but come back with three hundred. Go get permission then return with the hundred now, for security. We will share some bread and wine before you leave for the rest of the money. The agent is worth only a hundred but what he has told us is worth much more. I will share that information with you over wine. You will understand my position then.”
There was nothing more to be said. Ben got up, shook Juan’s hand again and promised to be back in a few minutes. Once back down the mountain and through the gate he walked to the far side of the van. Jelisco was sleeping in the drivers seat, his upper body draped over the wheel. Ben was impressed. The driver had seen the FARC sign and watched the team’s preparations. He was either a tough man or a fearful one. Men slept before combat if they were frightened or hardened, sleep being an elixir for future action.
Johnson appeared as if by magic from the brush.
“What’s the situation?” he asked.
“Our man spilled his guts. They want another three hundred thou. I need to call it in and then go back up there and take what we got.” Ben talked while he was extricating his satellite phone, pausing for a second to pull the canvas sack with the banded twenties in it from the van.
“Why go back?” Johnson asked. “Why don’t we just leave and come back with the additional money?”
“Morrison blabbed something that grabbed these guy’s attention. Juan up there is going to talk to me about it over wine. I don’t know what our man was involved with or what he’s told these clowns but it would be helpful to have it for our report.”
“I guess that’s why you’re leadin’ this show,” Johnson replied. Ben was beginning to like the way the man thought.
Ben distanced himself form the van by walking over to the brush where Johnson had come out. He hit the auto dialer for his control at Langley. It took only minutes to lay out the entire situation to the man.
“Your team will remain where it is, a quarter mile distant from the target, until you receive further orders. We’ll call you back in less than fifteen minutes. This operation has to move to a higher authority.”
Their instructions were clear. He relayed them to Johnson, and then crouched in the bushes to be close to the other members of the team. He couldn’t see them but he knew that they were nearby. Something bothered him right at the edge of his mind. He replayed his discussion with Langley from memory. The word ‘target,’ his control had used was out of place.
Ben peered thought the brush to study the log building. He’d just decided that he’d proceed back up at a much slower pace than he’d covered the ground the first time when he saw the missile. It came in extremely fast, almost as fast as a bullet, but it was so large it was visible for a mere instant. There was no time to duck. The flash was tremendous. The sound felt more than heard. Ben was thrown backward into the base of a tree. Johnson was beside him. Both men pressed their hands against the sides of their heads. The compression wave had been unbelievably painful.
Ben stood up after a few moments, finally able to drop his hands from the sides of his head. He stared at the curl of smoke coming from the ruins of the building. There weren’t really any ruins, he realized. There was just a hole with smoke coming up out of it and debris strewn almost all the way down to the fence.
The van lay on its side, a splintered log sticking out of its side. It was a surreal scene. Ben snapped out of shock, and then knelt to help Johnson to his feet. The other two men came through what was left of the battered brush.
“What the hell?” Johnson said.
Ben only vaguely heard him, his ears ringing and still in pain.
“A bomb?” one of the men asked.
“End of mission,” Ben said, “let’s see if we can salvage the vehicle.” He knew what had happened. Whatever information Wilbur had blabbed was no longer available for negotiation. The Agency did not kill its own, at least not openly. Which meant that Johnson was going to become a ‘person of interest’ when they reached the embassy, and likely be taken into custody. He possessed the fail-safe pickle device. It would be determined that the switch was thrown and button pushed. Johnson didn’t have a clue.
“Gimme the pickle device,” Ben commanded Johnson. The man looked at him with a great question mark on his forehead but handed over the device. Selecting a place at the base of the largest tree near the fallen fence, Ben piled brush over it.
“That’s how they knew we were a quarter mile from the target. Got to be a GPS transponder in that thing,” he said, by way of explanation, a plan beginning to form in his mind.
Jelisco was standing next to his van when they approached. Ben was relieved to see the man uninjured.
‘My truck is destroyed,” he said, his tone one of agony.
“Don’t think so,” Johnson replied. The three Knuckledragger’s got on one side of the vehicle and then slowly lifted the top up to shoulder level. It was an amazing feat of raw strength. From there the van bounced onto its wheels, and then sat rocking for a few seconds. “Give a try,” Johnson said, wiping his hands on his pants.
Jelisco climbed in. The van started. The two other men worked on trying to pry the thick spear of wood from its side.
“Leave it,” Ben told them. “We’ll get in using the front door.”
Jelisco did not shut up about the damage to the van until Ben pulled two stacks of twenties from his sack and handed them over.
“Buy another god damned van, but shut up about it,” he said brusquely to the shocked driver.
They took a different dirt road than the one they’d taken up, but it didn’t seem to matter. The kids were there in the open waiting for them, just like before. The same rope was strung across their path.
“Blow past them,” Johnson instructed the driver, “things have changed.”
“Stop. Now,” commanded Ben. The driver braked before the string, as before.
Ben stared at Johnson until the man looked away. He climbed out of the passenger door to confront Zorro.
“The EP on the back of your shirt, what does it mean?’ he asked, as the boy walked over.
“Ejercito del Pueblo,” the boy replied. “Army of the People,” he translated, turning to show the lettering. Other boys began to come forth from the edge of the trees.
All carried AK-47’s almost as big as they were.
“Been a little tough to run through that string,” Ben murmured, glancing back at Johnson, who looked away.
“There was an explosion,” Zorro began, but Ben cut him off.
“Yeah, there was. It was a mess up there. Some of your brothers got killed.
I’m sorry. Got a proposition for you.”
The boy stared up at the plume of smoke, which was visible all the way down where they were. He looked back into Ben’s eyes, but said nothing.
“Back up there,” Ben pointed up toward Cotopaxi Peak, “There’s a big tree just to the right of the beaten down fence near the rest stop, or what was the rest stop. Under the brush is a thing that looks sort of like this,” he pulled the satellite phone from his pocket, “ but a little better. I want you to find it, run it ten miles, or so, down the mountain through the forest along the backside, away from Cotopaxi, and then I want you to destroy it. Shoot it and dump the remains in a river.” Ben stopped to observe the boy.
“Why?” Zorro asked, after a moment.
Ben moved to the van, reached in, and then guardedly pulled three packs of twenties from the sack.
“Here’s thirty thousand U.S. dollars. For your Mom. For your education.” Ben put the money on the ground between them, so the other more distant children couldn’t see it.
The boy looked at the stacks of money near his feet, and then turned his face up to Ben.
“Why?’ he asked again.
Ben massaged his forehead with one hand, before coming to a decision.
“For him,” Ben pointed at Johnson, sitting in the back seat of the van.
“The mission went bad. Some of your people died. He’ll be blamed. It wasn’t his fault. That device by the tree would cause him to be sent to prison, at the very least.
He’s a good man. A warrior like you. With a good heart, like you. Take the money for your Mom. You can always fight for the cause later, when you’re bigger, when your Mom is healthy and you’ve got an education.”
Zorro leaned down and scooped up the small thick bundles. He shoved them into the waistband of his pants, letting the “T” shirt hang over them.
“How to thank you,” the small boy began.
“By remembering,” Ben said. “Remember that most warriors are like us. Like you. Most people in the world are like us. Like you. Do what you can to help. You’re Mom will tell you.”
Ben got in the van. Jelisco drove jerkily over the rope and headed the vehicle toward Quito.
“I heard that,” Johnson said from the back seat. “All of it. I didn’t think about what might happen. What about the fifty thousand that’s left?”
“There’s no money left. It all blew up with the basecamp. Not our fault. Fifty thousand may be the retainer you need to have a life. Let’s go see how it plays out.”
They rode the rest of the way in silence, only the clattering of the diesel engine and the whirring caused by wind over the tree stump sticking out from the side of the van making any noise. Ben thought about what it was like to be a team leader for the Agency. About what a giant lie his report would have to be. About what the other two Knuckledraggers might say when questioned. About whether Jelisco could keep his mouth shut even to the tune of a twenty thousand dollar bonus. The only thing that finally brought a smile to his face was thinking about Zorro, and what he might grow up to be because of it all.