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The story so far:
Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10| 11| Part 12
Now that I had “freed fair maiden”—or, more accurately, said maiden had pretty much freed herself—it was time for us to escape the town as quickly as possible, lest Malon and his gang capture us and exact revenge for the death of his malefactress mother. Let me remind you, said Lascaux’s voice in my mind, that this is not the time to relax your guard. Stay diligent! And so I did.

Hand in hand, Usha and I gained the end of the secret passage, but before I opened the secret panel that would let us out into the root cellar and from there, into the street, I put my eye to the peephole that was built into the wall to the right of the door, only to find my view blocked by—I closed my eyes to recall my mental picture of the cellar—a shelf with various large glass jars on it. I then put my ear to the hole and listened, and was surprised to hear the sound of air glugging up through what I imagined was the neck of a bottle, followed by a satisfied smack of the lips.

Whoever was in the cellar, it sure didn’t sound like the kitchen boy Gellerat, who had elected to stay behind after I had found the door to the secret passage. Worse, I had no way of telling if whoever it was, was alone. And now, with the dimming of the daylight that had faintly illuminate the passage through the vertical shaft—the day was drawing to a close—Usha and I were now essentially left in the dark, so turning around to search for another way out of the passage—assuming there was one—was not an option, either.

“I’m the one that sent you in here,” came a familiar voice, though slurred now. “In case yer lis’ning.”

It was Fremd!

I quickly realized that Fremd would not have said what he just did if others of Malon’s gang were in the cellar with him, so I stepped down from the peephole and responded to his call by operating the mechanism to the secret panel. I stepped into the cellar first, with my knife drawn, just in case. Usha followed.

Fremd was alone in the cellar. He sat on a barrel. A candle guttered on a smaller barrel by his knee, and a second candle stood behind us, on the shelf that covered the peephole. He eyed my knife skeptically, but said nothing. When he saw Usha, he struggled to rise, but abandoned the effort after a few seconds. From paces away, it seemed to me I could smell spirits on his breath.

Usha started to say something, but Fremd put up his hand.

“No time for chit-chat,” he said. “This fella killin' the old bag," he motioned in my general direction, "an' rescuin' you—’s like kickin’ the biggest wasp nest in the world... with the world’s biggest wasps! Ugly, too!” Fremd smiled at his own wit and fell silent.

It had taken us less than a quarter hour to negotiate our way from the room where Usha had been kept prisoner, down the shaft, and along the passage to the secret panel. Apparently, my ruse of arranging mother Malon’s body to suggest she was merely asleep had not worked, and the gang knew that Usha was free.

“Yes,” said Usha, as she put her arm in mine and smiled at me. “Feather was quite brave.” I looked back at her in surprise, as it had been her deliberate action that had put an end to the old woman, but she continued to smile and turned to look at Fremd. “How do you suggest we get out of here?” she said.

“Thought you’d never ask,” said Fremd. He reached for the bottle that stood on the floor near his feet. “And was afraid you would, 'cause I really have no idea.” He brought the bottle to his lips. “Ev’rybody’s been ordered to cover the streets—you won’t get past them, an’ even if you did, you won’t get far at night.” Fremd tipped the bottle up and took a long swig.

“I were you,” he said, after wiping his lips with his sleeve, “I’d go back in there,” he continued, and pointed in the general direction of the passage. “Fact is,” and here, he smiled, “I’m not sure but I'm willin' to bet I'm th' only one left around who knows about that setup.” Fremd exhaled sharply through his nose, as if to laugh, and fingers groped for the bottle again.

“If everyone’s out looking for us,” I said, “how come you’re here?”

“Cause I’m a useless old fart,” said Fremd, and paused. “Excuse my language, missy Usha.” Usha nodded her head slightly in acknowledgment.

He looked at me and continued. “See, to Malon, I represents the old ways—the old breed—someone strong enough to move earth and heaven—and break a leg or two, if you get my meaning. But I’ve gotten old. I’m not as fast or as tough as I once was, so th' others, they mostly laugh at me, an' leave me alone.” His head dropped down on his chest, and Fremd looked as if he was about to go to sleep.

Then his head came up sharply, and in a perfectly sober voice, he said “Go, now,” he said. “Back, through the panel. Someone’s coming!”

Usha and I went back across the panel threshold and by the time I had pulled it shut, Usha had her ear to the obstructed peephole. She motioned me to move closer so that both of us could hear what might transpire, and when I did, I became acutely aware of the heat from her her body and the proximity of our lips. Usha reached out and put her arms around me to help make us more stable as we listened. One—or maybe it was both of us—was trembling. It was all I could do to keep my mind on the business at hand.

Through the opening, we heard the cellar doors open and steps descend into the cellar.

“Hey, old man,” came an unfamiliar voice, “what’re you doing here.” It was a young man’s voice.

“Huh?” Fremd responded, as if he had been roused from a sound slumber.

“Are you for real?” said the young voice, and spit out a curse. “Didn’t you hear what happened?”

“Wh’ happen?” said Fremd, his intonation rising with the first syllable, and then falling..

“That guy who escaped broke the girl out, somehow, killed mother Malon, and now, everyone’s s’pozed to be on the lookout to grab them both.”

“Mm-m,” mumbled Fremd.

Another set of footsteps started to descend the stairs, and then stopped, as if whoever it was had only come part of the way down.

“What’s going on?” asked another young voice.

“Just Fremd, goofing off, like he always does,” said the first young voice. “And now, look at him—the dumbass fell asleep.”

“To blazes with him,” said the second voice. “He’s of less use than weathered horse manure. C’mon, I’m gonna lock him up here so he don’t get into even more trouble than he’s gonna be in when Malon hears of this.” A few seconds later, I heard steps, followed by the sound of the cellar doors closing and hardware being manipulated.

“Why’d he lock you in here with m…?” I heard Fremd say, his last word cut off by an abrupt sound. I felt Usha’s arms tighten around me.

I was sure Fremd had meant his words for us, another call, this time to warn us that one of the men was still in the cellar, but it wasn’t clear to me why. Was Fremd wrong? Did others in Malon’s gang know of this passage as well? As if in answer to my question, a tapping began on the cellar side of the panel door. Perhaps nobody knew, but maybe they now suspected the existence of a secret way into and out of the inn, and were looking for it.

I gently disentangled myself from Usha’s arms, put my finger to my lips, drew Malon’s dagger, and gave it to her. Then I stepped away from her, assumed a ready crouch facing the panel, and drew my knife.

It was time for me to respond now, by spilling blood.


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The story so far:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5| Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

I was careless as I turned the corner and so I ran almost directly into Finch and Ellmore, who were coming my way. My heart stopped for several moments, for I fully expected Malon's goons to recognize me. Ellmore, after all, had kept me immobile for several minutes while Finch gave Lascaux the beating that killed him, after which Finch turned and knocked me unconscious.

After a moment, though, it became clear to me that the pair was sharing a private joke of some kind, because aside from shoving me out of their path, they paid no attention to me and continued past, in the general direction of the jail. Had I been armed, I would have been sorely tempted to get some payback for my Master, but I wasn't, and that was that.

I turned and resumed walking, as innocuously as I could, in the direction of where the inn was supposed to be. After a couple of hundred yards, I spied the inn on the other side of the street, recognizing it by its distinctive roof line. From my vantage point, I was looking at the back side of the inn, and there, not far from a wide wooden door that was doubtless used for supplies, stood the cart in which Usha and I had been brought into town. I continued down the street, past the inn, and then crossed the thoroughfare. Once across, I changed direction, returned to the inn, and climbed into the back of the cart.

The leather bag was still there, under the driver's seat, half covered by the rope that passed through the pulley blocks. I moved the rope aside, opened the bag quietly, retrieved the dagger than I had stolen from Malon, and set about examining the other items in the bag.

Most of the contents consisted of leather-working tools, the kind that come in handy for repairing tack. These were in a poor condition, caked with rust, and useless to me.

Beneath those tools was a sheathed hunting knife that was well-oiled, well-balanced (even in my small hands) and wickedly sharp. I appropriated it. I also took a small leather purse of coins, deciding to wait until later to loosen the knot that held the pouch closed. Coin was coin, and even a purse of coppers increased my working capital.

A pair of sharp taps on the side of the cart startled me very nearly to the point of immobility. As I slowly reached for my newly acquired knife, Fremd's face came into view over the side of the cart, and his attention seemed fully fixed on the pipe he had just emptied against the side board.

“I would not waste too much time in there, young man,” said Fremd. His voice was quiet, and he kept looking at his pipe. “A couple of the boys were sent to the jail a little while back. To kill you, you know.”

“Where's Usha?” I asked.

“She's safe, for now,” said Fremd. “But did you hear what I said? Malon wants you dead.” He glanced up and back the way I had come. Then he turned away. “You'll pardon me, but I don't want to be anywhere near you when Finch and his cousin come tearing around that corner with the news you've escaped. I got in Dutch enough with Malon last time, with him thinking I helped Usha escape that search party he sent me on.”

“Which you did,” I said. Fremd stopped for a moment, then said, "I don't owe you nothing," and continued walking.

“Wait!” I said. “At least tell me where I can hide?”

“Keep yer voice down,” said Fremd. “Go around the side, go down in the root cellar. Stay until night. Leave town.”

“But what about...?” I said, but Fremd had passed through the wide wooden door and closed it behind him.

I climbed down from the cart and followed Fremd's instructions. No sooner had I closed the cellar door behind me and dug in among several sacks of potatoes, but I began to hear shouts that got louder and eventually turned into a general tumult in the building above me.

Through the ceiling of the root cellar, I heard muffled exclamations, which I took to be orders being issued in response to my escape. I took stock of my situation.

My escape had been discovered, but at least I was now armed with a knife. I had learned nothing about Usha's whereabouts, but I was at least in a position to buy things, including information—assuming I could stay alive long enough to do so. I was free for the moment, but effectively trapped in a cramped cellar underneath a building filled with hoodlums out for my blood.

You've got them right where you want 'em, whispered Lascaux's ghostly voice in my ear. Buck up... you're still alive... it said. And that sure beats the alternative...

How typically like my Master, I thought, and gave a little involuntary grin.

Then I snapped to alertness.

Voices passing just outside the door to the root cellar went silent, and now the cellar door was rattling, as if it was about to be opened.

I burrowed as far more as I could into the sacks of potatoes, with my back to them, as I drew my new knife from its sheath and held it out and down.

Then I waited for whoever—in whatever number—to come down the stairs.

[To Part 10]
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The story so far:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5| Part 6 | Part 7


“There are two simple things that have to happen before you can escape from a jail cell,” Lascaux used to say. “First, you need to unlock the door, and second, you have to remove anybody that gets between you and freedom.”

I rolled my eyes the first time I heard the old man say that. Listen to the Master of the Obvious, I thought to myself, but as with so much else Lascaux had taught me, the words expressed an essential truth, though there were usually—no, make that always—subtleties involved. Take my current situation, for example.

It did not take me long to determine that the cell I was in was sturdily built, with no loose stones in the walls, and no trap doors hidden beneath the dirt floor. The blanket was more like a collection of holes kept together by bits of fabric. The bucket was in better shape than its appearance suggested, but it was encrusted with dried waste on the inside. Yuck! I yelled to get the jailer's attention, and though I thought I heard the sounds of movement out in the corridor, nobody responded to my calls.

So it would seem that I was on my own, with the only tools at my disposal being what I had brought with me into the cell—myself, my clothes, and my boots.

Oh, and four gold sovereigns, two secreted in the heel of each boot. To be used only in emergencies, Lescaux had insisted, so he made sure they weren't easily accessible.

So, I sat down on the blanket, removed my boots, and began the process of extracting the coins. As I did so, Lascaux's voice whispered in my ear, reminding me that a weapon was not a club, or a knife, or a sword, or a lance, but any inanimate object wielded with intent to impose one's will—Lascaux did so love his generalizations—and that while any village idiot could walk about with a sword in his hand and give the appearance of being tough and dangerous, the ideal I was to strive for was to walk about empty-handed, but completely capable of 'imposing my will' using anything within reach. Including gold. During my time with Lascaux, I had frequently fallen short of that ideal; here and now, I needed to achieve it.

My initial plan was to offer a sovereign as a bribe to the jailer when he came to feed me, but there was no telling when that would happen. There had been no morning meal, and for all I knew, prisoners might only be fed once a day, in the evening. I needed to figure out how to get the jailer to visit me on my terms.

I dropped one of my coins into the bucket, but it merely thudded against the crud inside. I picked up a few handfuls of dirt, threw them in the bucket, and—holding my breath—used the coin and the blanket to scrape and scrub the inside until most of the hardened waste was loosened. I emptied the bucket and dropped in the coin. It made a sharp, joyful clink! sound as it hit the bottom of the bucket..

One of the most convincing effects a magician can perform goes by many names—Lascaux called it “The Miser's Fantasy”—and the old man had made me practice it for hours. I'll not bore you with the details of how it's done, but I was about to put on the performance of a lifetime.

I put my boots on, stood up with the bucket in my hand, reached into the bucket, removed the coin, and then carefully raised my hand above the bucket and allowed the coin to fall in with another clink! I repeated the process, except now, after removing the coin, I made it disappear and then reappear, and then dropped it into the bucket.

Clink!

Clink!

Clink!

If my cries had not moved the jailer, the repeated sound of something hard and metallic—the unmistakable sound of money—being dropped into a bucket did, because after a few minutes of clinking the coin into the bucket, I heard the lock turn in the door. I removed the coin from the bucket.

Step one complete, I thought to myself, as the cell wall swung open, and I gazed at the jailer, who glanced at me and then looked around the room suspiciously from the other side of the threshold. With a smile and a flourish, I picked a gold coin out of thin air, spun it in my fingers so the jailer could get a good look at the shiny yellow prize, and then dropped it into the bucket.

Clink!

The jailer cautiously stepped into the cell. His face told me he was perplexed, as he had personally made sure I had nothing but my clothing about me when he locked the door earlier in the day, and yet here I was, in possession of gold! I ignored him, glanced at a point between us and a little off to one side, reached out my hand, and picked a second gold coin out of the air. I gave it a little bite and winked at him before dropping it into the bucket.

Clink!

The jailer's mouth was now hanging open.

“If I were to fill this bucket with gold coins, my good man,” I said, picking a third coin out of the air, “would you look the other way and let me walk out of here?” The coin fell.

Clink!

I shook the bucket, and the coins inside jingled.

“Here, let me see that!” said the jailer, forgetting good sense and everything else and reaching for the bucket.

“Ah!” I said, moving the bucket out of the jailer's reach. “First answer my question.”

“If that's real gold...,” said the jailer, with a nod of the head.

I handed him the bucket, and as he focused his attention on the bucket and the coins inside, I made use of a certain technique that Lascaux had made me practice for years, one that allowed a physically small man—such as myself—to turn the size and weight of a much larger opponent to my advantage. When the dust settled, the coins were in my pocket and the jailer was on the floor, unconscious, bound with the manacles that had hung from his belt.

Step two complete, I thought to myself.

I could now make my escape at any time, but first I needed some information. I squatted patiently next to my prisoner. After a short while, he regained conscousness.

“Where did they take Usha?” I asked, but the jailer paid no attention to my question, and spent his energy sputtering about the indignities he would heap upon me once he got free. I touched a certain point on his jaw with a fingertip, and applied pressure. The jailer screamed, and then fainted. When he woke again, I repeated my question.

“And don't make me use my finger to quiet you down again,” I added, pointing my index finger at him as if it was capable of dischrging a bolt of lightning. “I might not be able to control myself next time, and—who knows?—you might not wake up next time.” Between the memory of recent pain and my quietly uttered threat, the jailer's eyes had become wide with fright, and his attitude had changed completely.

“I don't know where the girl is,” he said.

“That's not what I asked, “ I said, casually waving my finger in his direction to see his reaction. “I want to know where they took her.” Lascaux had repeatedly stressed the importance of paying attention to questions and answers, both spoken and unspoken, during such exchanges.

“I don't know. I guess they took her to the inn,” said my prisoner.

“In what direction is the inn?” I asked. He told me.

I used the blanket to improvise a gag and then locked the jailer in the cell. I searched the small building, but found nothing useful to me, except for a too-large hat, which might change my appearance enough to improve the odds of not being identified before I gained the inn.

I donned the hat as I stepped out through the front door of the jail and onto the street. My appearance attracted no attention, and I turned in the direction of the inn.

I had to find Usha and free her, and as I made my way down the nearly empty street, I said a brief prayer for her safety to gods I really did not believe in, and made myself as inconspicuous as possible.

[To: Part 9: Innocuous...]
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5| Part 6


I slipped out of my ropes and had started moving toward the cart driver with my knife at the ready and bloody murder on my mind when I heard faint hoofbeats along the road behind us. I barely had the time to slip back into my bonds—thank you, Master Lascaux, for drilling this skill into me as a boy—before the driver turned around to see who was approaching. I already knew, because even at that distance, I had already seen who was behind us. Illuminated by torch light, the face was unmistakable.

It was Malon.

More precisely, Malon and two other riders. They were riding hard, with the riders holding torches to illuminate the road. Appearing to be oblivious to who was approaching, I feigned struggling to my feet and once up, cried, "Help! Help us!," whereupon the driver abruptly set the cart's brake, and despite the fact the cart was moving slowly, I was thrown forward—as I had planned—landing almost directly under the driver's seat, next to a pair of pulley blocks threaded with rope. As the driver rushed to descend from the cart and deal with me, I loosened my ropes enough to deposit the dagger I had stolen from Malon into an old leather bag that sat beneath the board the driver sat on, and then recaptured the slack to make the rope again appear tight.

"See here, you," said the driver, attempting to cuff me on the ear as I scuttled out of his reach, "you keep your tongue still, or there'll be a heavy price to pay!" He then stepped onto something that allowed him to reach in over the sideboard, get a good grip on the rope that held my arms fast, and toss me toward the back of the cart, where Usha lay. By this time, she had awakened and was seeking to understand what was going on. Her eyes went wide as I landed beside her like a person who had fallen to earth from the moon, and she looked as if she wanted to say something, but she pressed her lips together and kept her peace.

Malon and his riders gained the cart just as the goon with the lantern who had been lighting the way joined our merry company.

"Hoping we were honest citizens, were you?" said Malon, as he brought his horse to rest. "You are out of luck, I'm afraid. No chance of escape, now, and even worse is in store for you, since you stole something that belongs to me, and I do not suffer people who steal—at least not those who steal from me." He grinned at his own joke, and for a moment, my knees felt like jelly.

"I didn't steal anything," I protested. "I swear!" The fear in my voice was real.

Malon looked closely at me and, satisfying himself that my arms were immobile under numerous coils of rope, said, "We'll see about that when we get to town. If I were you and I knew any prayers—I'd start saying them."

I began to protest my innocence further, but Malon cut me off with a sharp "Shut up!"—which he expressed as two distinct words—and then turned his attention to his men, instructing the driver and the goon with the lantern to get back on the cart—with the goon sitting backward, facing me and Usha—while he and the riders rode ahead to light the way. "Quickly!" cried Malon, "I want to be off the streets before sunup and people in town start to stir." Indeed, the horizon was now clearly discernable to the east and sunrise itself was not far off.

The cart shook everyone aboard a great deal as the driver struggled to keep up with the riders, though Usha and I probably had the better of it, as we were lying on sacks of grain. In almost no time at all, the cart was nearly to the town. It crested a small rise and began to descend toward the closest buildings, the silhouettes of which made them look pitch black against the brightness of the dawn sky. I felt as though there should be a word to describe the effect, but realized my mind was wandering and refocused my attention on my situation at hand.

The cart stopped behind a stout brick building, where I was unloaded—not unlike a parcel of goods—and taken inside through a heavy door, down a short corridor, and into a room that could only be a cell. The walls were of stone, a small window admitted neither enough air nor light, the door was solid, and the furniture consisted of a blanket and a rusty bucket. There was barely enough room for me, Malon, and a new face, which I assumed belonged to the jailer.

"Remove the lad's rope," instructed Malon, drawing a short sword from a scabbard at his belt. "And take care he doesn't try to injure you as you do so." I started to say something, but the jailer merely sniffed and then struck me—hard enough for me to see stars—but I retained enough control to keep the rope tight until it was safe to give up the slack that had allowed me to slip in and out of the bonds during the trip into town.

The jailer searched me thoroughly, removing and examining my clothes and boots, and poking me here and there, but found nothing. Malon then shoved the jailer aside and examined the clothes himself, tossing them at me as he finished with them. He found nothing as well. As I put my clothes back on, Malon pursed his lips, but remained silent. His eyes looked off to... nowhere in particular. He had been sure I had stolen his dagger—now, he wasn't as certain.

He then turned to jailer and said, "Keep this one here while I see to accommodations for my other guest." The jailer nodded and, as Malon turned toward the door, reached for the heavy key ring that hung on his belt. I finished donning my boots and stood up.

Malon and the jailer exited the cell, the latter pausing to insert a key in the door and lock it behind him. Through the small window I heard the sounds of activity, and then those of horses and a cart starting to move away from the building my cell was in.

Where was Malon taking Usha?

There was no time to lose. I had to escape!

To: Part 8. Hedging my bet...
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


The sound Malon's knife made as its tip struck the table caused Usha to stir in my arms. The next sound—of Malon's voice—caused her to come awake, and I could feel a sudden great tension develop in her shoulders.

"You!" She flung the word at him. Her eyes had narrowed, her jaw had clenched, and if the vitriol that accompanied the word had been real, Malon would have quickly been rendered into atoms.

Malon said nothing for a while, continuing to simply smile at the two of us, as if admiring an ornament of some kind. He took a bite of the bread he had carved with the knife that was now embedded in the table, swallowed, and then he pursed his lips for a moment. Then he spoke, softly. "Absolutely right, my pretties." Then his expression changed, his face became hard, and he said: "Me!"

He got up, strode to where we lay on the floor against the cabin wall, and lifted Usha by the arm until her feet left the floor. I made objection by wrapping my arms around his legs, but he cuffed me on the side of my head and I fell away from him, onto my stomach. I saw stars, but recovered quickly enough to hide the dagger I had removed from a sheath affixed to his boot before he grabbed me by the nape of my neck. He then planted me against the skirting with my legs splayed in front of me and my back against the wall.

Malon held the struggling Usha at arm's length as he stepped back to the table and wiggled the knife free, and then stepped back toward me, continuing to hold Usha as if she was a wriggling fish. I watched his tongue as it flickered out from between his lips, moistening them in anticipation, and then he reversed the knife in his hand and tapped Usha sharply on the head with its handle, as one would a fish. Usha lost consciousness, and in my mind, I felt certain that he was now going to gut her, as one would a fish.

"Wait!" I cried. "Why?" I asked, articulating the question that attached itself to the end of my train of thought. Malon looked at me, surprised at the question.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Why do you want to kill her?" I said.

"Kill her?" he said, and then laughed, after a moment. "Heavens, no, lad. I have no wish to kill her. Quite the opposite, in fact, if I find what I'm looking for." He turned his attention back to the limp form he as holding and, reversing the knife once again, quickly cut away Usha's frock, which collapsed onto the floor leaving her naked to his sight—and mine. I did my best not to stare at Usha's nakedness, but it was hard to keep my eyes averted. It seemed to me she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and my eyes were filling with blood in rebellion at the way Malon was treating her.

My temper was near the breaking point when Lascaux's voice intruded. You know, Feather, when you decide you're going to live for someone, you're prepared to die for them... but be very selective of who you live for, because you may, indeed, be called upon to die for them! I ignored the meddlesome voice and prepared to act, come what may and whatever the cost.

Malon must have sensed that I was getting ready to rush at him, for he turned his head to me, pointed the knife in my direction, and said, "No need for anything stupid, boy. I have no desire to defile the girl, either." He turned his head to again look at Usha, and then back at me again. He gave a conspiratorial wink. "At least not now," he added, sotto voce, and barked a laugh. I took hold of my passions.

He stuck the knife in his belt and turned Usha around, inspecting her body as one might inspect the carcass of a prize sheep. As her back came into view, I saw there was some kind of design on her skin, resembling a tattoo of some kind, but much larger. Malon saw it too and grunted, and then bent down, gently laying Usha on the floor, next to her clothes.

"Get her dressed," he said to me, pointing at the pile of fabric, and then he whistled loudly, twice. As I scrabbled over to Usha's unconscious form and picked up her dress, two of his gang came in the door. Malon spoke to them.

"Take them back to town. Make sure you get there by daybreak. Then lock them in separate rooms," he said. "If the lad gives you trouble, slit his throat. If anything happens to the girl, I'll slit your throats. Understood?" The men grunted their assent, stepped outside the cabin, and returned a few moments later with two lengths of stout rope.

They waited until I had finished dressing Usha and then used the rope to tie us up. They then lifted us onto their shoulders and took us outside, where they put us in the back of a horse-drawn cart, on top of some bags of grain. Shortly thereafter, the taller of our two captors climbed onto the cart's seat and took the reins while the other set out ahead of us with a lantern to light the way, and in this manner, we all departed for town.

As we progressed along the road, I mentally thanked Master Lascaux for teaching me how to gain the necessary slack while someone tied me up with rope, because by the time the man with the lantern had taken up his station ahead of the cart, I had freed myself of my bonds and retrieved the dagger I had secreted after, um, purloining it from Malon's boot. I quietly checked on Usha, and though her color was good and her breathing was not labored, she was still unconscious.

I loosely looped the rope back around myself and sat back, in case the driver glanced back to check on us, and considered my options. I could easily use the dagger now to cut the driver's throat, but then how would I deal with the other member of Malon's gang, the one out in front of the cart with the lantern?

I had to decide quickly, as I perceived the first faint traces of dawn in the east. If the cart was to gain the town by daybreak, I had less than an hour in which to act.

I thumbed the edge of the dagger and weighed my alternatives.

To: Part 7. Chiaroscuro...
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Were we not fleeing for our lives, the progress that Usha and I were making back toward town might have been a nice, if somewhat rushed, afternoon's gambol through the countryside.

We didn't speak at all, saving our breath for the more important task of putting as much distance as possible between us and our pursuers, and I put aside all the questions that had occurred to me—about who Usha was and how I had ended up in this situation, and so on—to concentrate on my surroundings and where I was putting my feet, as Lescaux had taught me.

The last time I had passed this way, it was dark, I was going in the opposite direction, and frankly, I was paying more attention to the thugs that were, I thought, merely seeing to it that Lascaux and I were leaving town. It was daylight now, and the area of the uneven and twisty forest track where Lascaux had been beaten to death had given way to much flatter terrain with many fewer trees, and Usha and I were now moving along something that was more of a country road. From time to time, I spied what appeared to be farmsteads to either side of our route.

Usha and I stayed fairly close together as we ran, with her leading the way whenever it occurred to me that it was she who knew where we were headed. Finally, at a point where the forest again came up to the road, Usha came to a halt and raised her hand so I would do the same.

“Come, this way!” she said, and grasping my hand in hers, she led me away from the road into the woods. After a few minutes of picking our way through brush and stepping over fallen tree limbs, we came upon a glade, in which stood what at first glance appeared to be a ramshackle cabin. However, as we approached the structure, I noticed that, despite its appearance, the structure was solidly built, and when Usha opened the front door, it swung open on well-oiled hinges. She motioned me inside, shut the door behind us, and let out a great deep breath.

Then she smiled a smile that I could see was tinged with a great deal of sadness, but still, I could have sworn the interior of the cabin got a bit brighter.

“Please,” she said, pointing at a table with chairs around it, “rest yourself. You must be tired.” I thanked her and dropped into the nearest chair.

“I would offer to brew us a nice cup of hot tea and perhaps even cook some porridge,” she continued, taking a seat on the other side of the table, “but I do not want to risk starting a fire, for the smoke and the smell of burning wood might give us away.”

“That's okay,” I said, smiling, “I think I'm too tired to eat right now, anyway.” Usha smiled that same sad smile. A few moments passed.

“It occurs to me,” she said finally, “that we've not been properly introduced. You already know my name. What's yours?”

“Lescaux—he was my master—he called me...,” and I stopped, as Usha's face had paled and her eyes had opened wide at my words. 'What's the matter?” I asked.

“This—Lescaux,” said Usha, “is he the old man who thwarted Malon's little scheme to steal me from my parents?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You just said he 'was', as if he were no longer among us,” she continued. “What happened to him?”

“He's, uh, dead,” I said.

“So I feared,” said Usha with just a hint of something hard and unyielding in her voice. “How did he die?”

“Three of Malon's gang—well, last night, they took Lascaux and me out to not far from where you and I ran into each other, and then beat him to death and almost me, too,” I said, wincing as I touched the bruise under the hair on the side of my head.” Usha burst into tears.

I quickly found myself kneeling on one knee next to her chair, trying to put a comforting arm around her shoulder, but she rose and stepped away from me, sniffling and breathing hard as she struggled to bring her tears under control. “I'm... sorry for your loss,” she said. “Your master did my family a great kindness and paid a dear price for it.”

“Yeah, well... thank you,” I said, sitting back down on my chair. Usha remained standing. “My master knew a bully when he saw one, and despised them all.” Which was true, but I felt compelled to add, “And he always wanted to do the right thing,” mentally adding for him and me. “Anyway, he called me 'Feather' for as long as I can remember—on account of my size, you see—so that's the name I answer to."

I sought to change the subject. "So anyway, how did you come to be running down that track this morning?” I asked. “And why did that man Fremd—he's one of Malon's men, right?—why did he help us?”

“Many years ago,” began Usha, after a few moments, and then used a handkerchief to wipe her eyes, “Fremd and my father were in service together as conscripts in the king's army. When their service was finished, Fremd accompanied my father back to our town, where he got married and settled down. Fremd and his wife, Veri, had a son, named Branch, who was exactly one year older than me.” Usha's voice softened. “Then the town was struck by a plague. Veri was among the first to fall ill, and she died soon after. Fremd took to drink, heartbroken over the loss of his wife. Then Branch caught the plague just as Fremd fell afoul of the law in a drunken brawl. So, my parents took Branch in and took care of him, but the plague had sunk its talons too deeply into him and, despite everything, he died too. When Fremd got out of prison, he fell in with Malon's gang, but despite that, he was always grateful for what my parents did to try to save his son, and he and my father quietly remained good friends." Usha fell silent again, then said, "Fremd is always welcome at our table, and he treats me as he would have Branch's sister. He would never betray my father, or mother, or me.”

Usha's posture then stiffened. “As far as our meeting this morning is concerned, well—Malon and his ruffians showed up at our farmstead last night, where Malon and my father exchanged heated words. One of his lackeys locked me in my room, but I could hear them yelling. I can't even relate to you what was said, but the exchange was vile, and it ended in a scream that terrified me, so I climbed out the window and ran around to the front of the house. Through the open front door, I saw...” Usha's voice broke and she was on the verge of tears. “Malon... striking down my mother... with a hatchet... as she knelt down the lifeless form of my father! So I ran...” Usha could hold back no longer and began sobbing uncontrollably, collapsing onto the floor as she did so.

I quickly sprang to her side and put my arm around her. She turned and buried her face in my chest and continued to cry, and we stayed that way for a long time, until we fell asleep.

When I next opened my eyes, the sky through the window was dark, Usha was still in my arms, but the cabin interior was illuminated by a lamp. I turned my head and there, at the table, sat Malon, using a long, thin knife to cut a loaf of bread.

His eyes brightened when he saw me looking at him, whereupon he flicked his wrist to reverse the knife in his hand and brought his arm down to bury the knife tip in the tabletop.

“Rise and shine, kiddoes,” he said. “It's play time!”

[To: Part 6. When you live for someone...]



alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
[Part 1. Unfinished business.]

[Part 2. Second thoughts.]

[Part 3. Fremdschämen.]

I took a good look at the big man, Fremd, that our pursuers had left behind. He had seated himself in such a place that we could not move without being seen, although after a bit, I concluded that he was so big and ungainly that I could probably rise to my feet, walk up to just out of his arm's reach, and recite the first canto of Belle-a-wee An'doo before he could gain his feet.

Advantage to me, there, I thought, but then what? If I got close enough for his massive hands to get hold of me... I shuddered at the thought and tried to again focus on the problem at hand: how could I disable him so that I and the girl lying next to me could make our escape?

And then the voice of my late master Lascaux voice boomed its way to the forefront of my consciousness—What horse do you have in this race, boy? Walk away... while you still can!—and I recollected briefly to the many times in the past, in other places, that he and I had done exactly that. Lascaux was not a man who stuck his neck out casually.

But something—a feeling I had never felt before, as if a void in my life was on the verge of being filled—told me the girl lying on the forest floor next to me was worth sticking my neck out for, and as I tried to again refocus my mind on the problem at hand, the girl stirred and gathered her arms beneath her, preparing to get up. I took hold of her shoulders and brought my lips close to her ears in an attempt to warn her of our peril, but she easily slipped free of my grasp and stood up straight, in full view of her pursuer. I myself was on my knees next to her, my eyes wide with horror as I watched what happened next.

“Hallo-o! Fremd!” said the girl, waving her arm, in which she held the doublet I had used to cover her red hair as we hid from pursuit.

“Not so loud, young mistress Usha,” said Fremd, without turning his head in our direction. “There are places where sound carries quite well in this forest, particularly along this track. In any event, you must leave, and quickly.”

The girl took a step in Fremd's direction, and then turned to me and handed my doublet back to me.

“Thank you, sir, for the use of your doublet,” said the girl. “Will you come with me to a place of safety? I should like to repay you for your aid and your quick thinking.”

“No such payment is necessary, young mistress... Usha,” I said. I liked the way the name came off my tongue.

“You lovebirds can flirt later,” said Fremd's voice, and Usha's cheeks started to redden. “You need to flee now, while I do what I can to misdirect the hounds.”

I took Usha's hand and turned away from the track, prepared to flee into the woods.

“Not that way,” snapped Fremd, who seemed not to have moved a muscle since sitting down. He raised an arm with difficulty and pointed. “That way,” he said, pointing back toward the town. “And without delay!”

Whereupon Usha took my hand and led me past Fremd, over the tree roots that crossed the track, whereupon we hurried as quickly as we could along the track back toward the town.

As we did so, my mind was busy asking one question after another about my comely red-haired companion: Who was she? Why was Malon after her? And how did she and her pursuer Fremd know each other? Suddenly, my train of questions was derailed by Lascaux's strident voice, booming—More to the point, Feather, has Fremd just sent you into a trap?

With that question in my mind, I picked up the pace, passing Usha, whereupon the two of us started almost running toward the town.

[To: Part 5. I can't even...]




alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
[Part 1. Unfinished business.]

[Part 2. Second thoughts.]


The red-headed girl and I had taken not more than two steps away from the track and into the brush when we both became aware of the sound of approaching voices, whooping and mouthing curses, doubtless with the intent of panicking the girl. She had not been jesting about how close they were.

I glanced back toward the track, and realized that although the vegetation between it and where we stood was thick, it wasn't thick enough to keep from being seen by our pursuers, and it was doubly not thick enough for my companion and her red hair, who was reacting to the voices, giving every indication of wanting to bolt into the scrub, even though doing so would serve no purpose other than to make sure we'd be seen and captured soon after.

As I grabbed the girl to keep her from running, I additionally became aware of the steady tattoo of approaching footfalls, followed a few seconds later by the nearing mixture of wheezing and heavy breathing. I judged there to be three pursuers from the sounds I heard, and they would be passing the tree in mere seconds, so I put my hand over the girl's mouth, hissed “Not a sound!” in her ear, and unceremoniously swept her to the ground, where the undergrowth was thickest. I then stripped off my doublet the way Master Lascaux had taught me when we entertained townfolk with quick costume changes, and I managed to conceal the girl's red hair under it as I, too, lay down on the forest floor and became motionless, with one arm around the girl and one eye half open and looking toward where the track went by the big tree..

I was not a moment too soon, for within three heartbeats of becoming still, I saw the girl's pursuers noisily come into view from past the tree, moving at a pace that was faster than a walk but not as fast as a run.

The first man to pass was the thug who had beaten Lascaux to death in front of my eyes the night before, although he had apparently not brought his club with him this time. He ran easily, at an even pace.

The second man stopped in his tracks a dozen or so paces past the tree, whereupon he bent over, wheezing heavily, and gripped his legs with his hands just above the knees. Although in obvious distress, he had a broad chest, sizeable upper arms, oversized hands, and probably weighed about twice what the girl and I weighed together.

A third man—one of the two that had held my arms the night before, while the first man killed Lascaux—came into view and halted a few yards behind the second man. Although he was breathing heavily, he appeared to be in better shape than the second man, and he started walking in little circles with his arms akimbo.

“Finch!” said the second main, and took another breath. “Wait a second!' he continued. The first man came to a halt and looked back along the track. “How 'bout a little breather?” said the second man.

“What's your problem, Fremd?” said the first man. “Can't hack the pace?”

“Can too!” said Fremd. The words came as an outburst. “'s not the point... It just don't...,” he continued, “make sense to... get all tired out... chasing that girl.” The young man walking in circles stopped, facing the first two men, and his arms dropped to his sides. He cracked a little smile upon hearing Fremd's lame explanation, and gave his head a small shake. “We'll still get her,” said Fremd, who tried to stand up straight as he struggled to bring his breathing under control.

“Fremd, shame on you!” said Finch, as if admonishing a small boy, which Fremd certainly was not. “What you just said is such a pile of fresh, steaming horse manure that I feel ashamed for you,” said Finch, taking a few steps back along the track, toward Fremd and the third man. “And so's Ellmore,” he continued. “See that smile on his face? It says he's embarrassed for you, too—ain't that right, Ellmore?” said Finch, his voice rising as he addressed the third man. Ellmore kept his peace.

“I should probably give you a good drubbing for being such a non-hacker,” said Finch, “but we have a girl to capture and return to the boss, and since I want to get back to town before nightfall, this is what we're going to do.”

Finch pointed the tree out to Fremd. “You sit your fat rear end right over there, next to the tree, and wait for me and Ellmore to come back with the girl. In your shape, you'll only keep slowing us down, anyway.” Then he motioned for Ellmore to join him, and the pair set off at a quick pace, down along the path they had been following until Fremd caused an unscheduled delay in their pace.

As I heard Finch's and Ellmore's footfalls fade as they made their way down the path, my eye remained fixed on Fremd, who slowly gained the base of the tree and, as instructed, dropped down onto his ample rear, a mere two dozen or so paces from where the girl and I lay and facing more or less in our direction. Staying where we were was not an option, for as soon as the two pursuers figured out the girl could not be in front of them, they'd be back and eventually find us, unless we moved, which was not an option, either, since Fremd would surely see us if we tried to do so.

Our only chance at escape lay in overpowering Fremd.

But how?

[To: Part 4. Void.]
alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and Parker and I had a game of Scrabble going. According to Parker, Scrabble was an improvement over chess—at least for her, since she felt that chess relied too much on memorization for her to like the game very much.

We had been playing for a little while, and the game progressed rapidly, shrinking the stock of tiles in the bag. As I took a sip of a julep prepared for me by Parker in anticipation of an early spring, she laid down five tiles to spell BLUES, the last letter "hooking" onto the beginning of the word HARD to create SHARD.

"Bravo!" I said, and I allowed my eyebrows to rise a skosh upon seeing how many points her play had scored. "You have been spending time reading the dictionary, I see," I said, engaging in a little coffee-house banter. I knew that what I had suggested was the last way in the world she would choose to spend her time.

"Oh, cut it out, you old fraud!" said Parker. "First of all, these were perfectly ordinary words I played, and second, you know that 'preparation through memorization' is just not my style."

"Hm-mm," I acknowledged, as I surveyed my tiles, "but you know, good competitive players go to the trouble of memorizing a sizable chunk of the 83,667 words that are two to eight letters long, and really top-flight players will have committed many of the 29,150 nine-letter words to memory, as well."

"But that's them, and this is us," said Parker, spreading her hands over the board as if presenting the denouement of a magic trick. She paused, and added: "Unless you've been staying up nights memorizing word lists?"

"Perish the thought, my dear!" I protested, and played some tiles to form a word that Parker immediately challenged successfully, foiling my attempt to sneak in a word spelled the way our British cousins would, with a 'C' instead of an 'S'. My gamble had not paid off, and the affirmation of her diligence had boosted Parker's spirits.

"Memorization is over-rated," she said, alternating her gaze between the tiles on her rack and the game board. "Me, given a choice between a doctor who has simply memorized the parts of the body and one who actually understands how the body works, I'll always choose the one who understands."

"I'm afraid you'll get no argument from me with regard to the last part of your statement," I said. "But can we really say that a doctor who does not know the names of the parts of the body understands how the body works? Surely knowing what things are called is essential if information is to be gleaned from the medical literature, or acquired during lectures or in conversations with colleagues?"

Parker said nothing, but picked up all the tiles from her rack and arranged them on the board, pulling off a 'bingo' and scoring an extra 50 points on top of a 'double-double' because her letters covered two double-word squares. "Your turn, old man," she said, and added, before I could slip into deep contemplation of my tiles: "But all that information is going to be acquired over time, anyway. Why go to the trouble of memorizing?"

I looked up from my rack. "Consider your average superstar basketball player," I said. "Said athlete will spend an inordinate amount of time practicing, say, shooting fouls—the same motion, over and over, thousands of times. And it is that kind of dedication that distinguishes the superstars from those who are merely 'very good' and are satisfied to acquire their skill 'over time', as you put it, during actual games." I made my play.

"What does memorization have to do with sports?" asked Parker, and quickly made a play of her own, dumping a single letter onto the board.

"The same dynamic is at work," I said. "The more you practice, the better you get and the easier it is."

I then made my play, after which both Parker and I remained silent for a turn each, during which the bag was emptied of tiles. This allowed me to identify an interesting opportunity to rob Parker of her last turn, and to narrow her margin of victory. But she'd have to, um, cooperate.

I took an H from my rack and placed it on the triple-word square in the bottom right-hand corner of the board. The letter hooked onto the end of YEA to create YEAH, and onto the end of MUST to create MUSTH. I endeavored to present a positively cherubic poker face in Parker's direction as I calculated points.

"Wait a minute!" said Parker. "You've got to be kidding. 'Musth'? Really? I think I'm going to challenge that!"

"And I believe it means 'a state of frenzy occurring in male elephants'," I said. "Look it up."

Parker's expression fell as the game's official dictionary demolished her challenge, causing her to lose her turn, whereupon I managed to empty my rack of tiles, ending the game. I had not won, but at least I had not lost as badly as I otherwise would have.

"Musth," said Parker, and then repeated the word several more times, letting it roll around in her mouth. "Of what possible use is knowing that word?" she said finally.

"Well, in the admittedly unlikely case of finding myself in the presence of a bull elephant in musth," I replied, "I will make every effort to tread carefully and stay away from the animal. Otherwise," I said, and paused for effect, "knowing such words can, on occasion, help narrow the score in a Sunday afternoon game of Scrabble." I smiled, and asked: "Shall we play another game?"

"Sure!" said Parker, laughing, and got up. "Get ready to lose big, this time. You want another julep?"

"Absolutely!" I replied.

It was turning out to be a marvelous, if rainy, afternoon.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
If you have not read my post for LJ Idol 9.32.1,
(the other half of this week's "assignment")
please click the above link and read that post first!



My body was relaxed as I walked away from the yellow crime-scene tape toward the nearest subway stop, but my mind was racing. What had I interrupted? Had my being in the shop caused or contributed to what happened? If so, why, and who might it be that was after me? And after everything else—or maybe before—why was there no disk in the surveillance recorder?

I had spent enough time sitting in the claustrophobic back seat of the cop car, so I chose to stand while riding the nearly empty subway going uptown. And wouldn't you know it, the same rather nondescript guy in a gray newsboy hat and gray overcoat, whom I had seen standing next to a knockout redhead back behind the police tape, was in the car behind mine, also standing and faced sideways, reading a newspaper.

Was this guy tailing me? Maybe. On the other hand, I was on a train traveling on one of the main subway lines that passed through the vicinity of the shop, so there was a pretty good chance that being on the same train as the man in gray was coincidental.

Still, I got off the train a half dozen stops past where I needed to go and walked briskly up to street level. I was in the posh midtown section, which was all but deserted at this time of day. The streets were lined with storefronts offering the daytime crowd every manner of conspicuous consumption. A few dozen yards from the subway exit, I stopped to admire a window of Japanese shubusa pottery displayed sparingly within, with no price tags in evidence (a sure sign I was in "if you gotta ask, you can't afford it" country), but I quickly focused my gaze past the window, onto the reflected image of the subway's exit.

After a few moments, the man in gray came into view. He had ditched the paper and had a cell phone up to his ear. I decided I was through with giving the guy the benefit of the doubt, reclassified him as a likely hostile, and decided that, in his place, I'd be on the horn calling for reinforcements. I casually resumed my walk down the street and when I got to the end of the block, I looked around the corner and was happy to see an unoccupied cab. I flagged it down, got in, and instructed the driver to turn up the avenue I had been walking on just a moment before, taking me past the man in gray. As we drove past, my tail got a good look at the hack's number, but I got a good photo of him we drove by. It was an even trade, in my book.

I had given the driver the name of a midtown hotel a good distance away from where I was staying, with the idea that by the time whoever it was that was interested in me tracked down the cabbie and found out where he had dropped me off, I'd be back at my hotel enjoying a nightcap down in the bar and figuring out what to do with the photo of the man in gray. However, about five minutes into my fare, the driver answered a call that came in on his cell, and after a few mumbled exchanges, the guy behind the wheel stiffened a little and involuntarily glanced at me in the rear-view mirror. I was getting a bad feeling.

When we stopped at a red light, I asked him, "Was that your dispatcher?"

"Excuse me?" said the driver in a strong accent. The accent was so thick, it led me to believe that my driver wished to convey the impression that he had developed a sudden inability to communicate in English, a condition that had not been manifest when we had spoken upon my entering his vehicle.

"Cut it out," I said. "On the phone. That your dispatcher, right? And he wanted to know where you were taking me, right?"

His reaction answered my question.

"And he probably said something that made you think badly of me, am I right?"

My driver tried to smile, apologetically. And failed.

"Did you tell your dispatcher where you were taking me?" I asked. The driver tried another smile. And failed again.

It was time for a change of plan. Sort of.

"Take me the long way," I said, after a minute.

"What?" said my driver. "What do you mean?"

"I want you to drive around for a while before you take me to my hotel," I said. "I need to make some phone calls." I shoved two hundred dollar bills through the slot to him. "That should cover it." I don't know what the driver had been told about me, but the sight of those two Franklins significantly eased the tension from the driver's side of the cab.

Still, I kept a wary eye out on the driver as I took out my cell, looked up an email, sent off the photo, and then made a rather lengthy call. After I hung up, I instructed the driver to go directly to my real hotel instead of the hotel I had instructed him to deliver me to. Saying "You can keep the change," ensured the fastest and most direct route as there was an opportunity to turn most of a hundred dollar bill into a tip.

I had changed my destination because I had concluded that anyone who could so quickly track my cab could easily check if I was registered with the hotel I had originally instructed the driver to take me to. When they found out I wasn't registered there, I was sure they'd call around the other hotels in the area using some pretext until they found me. They would expect me to show up with my guard down, feeling that I had pulled one over on them. I was confident, however, that my arrangements would turn the tables.

I felt naked and exposed as I stepped out of the cab, so I strode quickly and purposefully through the entrance doors into the lobby. I did a quick scan of the place as I approached the front desk, and in my peripheral vision, I caught sight of the man in gray sitting on a couch. His hat and coat were on a low table next to him, and he seemed to be again engaged in reading a newspaper. Suddenly, he folded the paper up and dropped it onto the floor, at which point I felt more than saw two things happen.

First, the redhead who had been standing next to the man in gray at the crime scene appeared from behind the elevator banks, walking directly toward me with a raincoat draped over her right forearm, awkwardly covering her hand. I was pretty sure what she was holding in that hand, and wished I had that throwing knife from earlier in the evening in my possession.

Second—to cries of "Freeze!"—both the woman and the man in gray found themselves looking down the barrels of pistols held by plainclothes police officers. The pair surrendered quietly.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see Detective Smith.

"I see you have matters well in hand," I said.

"Thanks for the call," said Smith. "I appreciate you not trying to work this one on your own. It's enough to renew one's faith in the private investigative profession, or whatever you people call yourselves." I said nothing, but extended my hand. We shook.

"We checked your room here and I've asked the security guys to keep an eye on the camera covering your hall, to make sure there'd be no unpleasant surprises for you when you got back," Smith continued, and then handed me a room card. "Still, I did as you requested and registered a room under my name, to be billed to your account. I must say, you're one careful fella, for a tourist."

I cracked a crooked smile and said nothing. You can never be too careful.

"Anyway, sleep tight," said Smith, "Stay in touch and I'll keep you in the loop about what we learn about what happened tonight."

I thanked him, took the key and headed off to the elevators. Unanswered questions remained, but it was late, and I was confident they would be cleared up over time.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The shooter walked in through the door fast, raised his pistol, and smartly put a round through the clerk's left eyeball before turning his attention to me. Normally, that'd be the way to do it─nail the guy standing next to the alarm button first─but it wasn't the right plan for that day in that particular place, because I had a throwing knife in my hand when he came in, and it was in the air by the time the killer's arm was absorbing the pistol's recoil. The tip of my knife missed all the arteries and cartilaginous tissue in the shooter's neck, driving through his spinal column instead. The gunman fell quickly, his eyes displaying a mixture of resolve and determination, with just a tinge of surprise. He may have wanted to get another round off at me in those last few seconds of life, but it wasn't going to happen.

It was the beginning of November, and I was in town after completing a successful job doping out a scam involving a schooner named Rapture of the Deep as it darted between ports in the Adriatic Sea. The grateful client's bonus made it possible for me to visit this so-called "spy shop," which catered to investigative specialists like me, where I was checking out the latest styles in protective Kevlar vests when my attention was drawn by the knife I had ended up using. I bent down to take a closer look at the dead guy, but didn't recognize him, or at least that part of his face that I could see. Male, white, fit, right-handed, in his late twenties or early thirties, black hair, five o'clock shadow, well-groomed, wearing a hooded warmup suit and high-end running shoes. Given that his weapon was a suppressed Glock 20, I concluded the shooter was no casual thug.

I toyed with the idea of searching the dead guy, but decided against it. Places like this had surveillance systems in operation, and since this was a spy shop, it was a pretty good bet that there was a tap somewhere between the cameras and the recording unit that went offsite somewhere, so that if someone was able to get to the store's recorder and swipe the recording medium, there'd still be a record of what happened that could be turned over to the cops to serve the cause of justice, or to a private "consultant" to make things right some other way.

And since I wasn't working on any project just now─and since my face was undoubtedly on the surveillance stream─it didn't make sense to go out of my way and make trouble for myself with the local cops. My story—and it would be easy to stick to it because it happened to be true—would be that this was a simple case of self-defense by a currently unemployed private investigator. I used my handkerchief to pick up the store's phone and dialed 911.

I went through the standard rigmarole with the first two cops that arrived on the scene─a salt-and-pepper pair of patrol drones─who came at me with their guns drawn and ordering me about in too-loud voices. After making sure I wasn't armed and so on, I ended up cooling my heels in the back of their car, where I entertained myself by checking out the crowd that had gathered outside the yellow tape the patrol guys had put up to create a cops-only zone, and I waited for someone with a little more authority to show up.

Someone finally did, a detective named Smith. He pulled open the front door of the patrol car and planted himself sideways to me in the front seat, with his feet resting on the pavement. He was carefully examining my wallet, as if it was a prayer book worthy of careful reading and rereading.

"Quentin Macauley," he said. His inflection didn't change, but the way he said my name made it a question.

"That's me," I said.

"According to this identification card, you're a licensed private investigator, but not in this jurisdiction." He looked up at me through the grate that was installed between the back and front seats.

"That I am," I said. "And yes, not in this jurisdiction."

"Are you aware that there are no substantive reciprocity agreements between here and where you live concerning private investigators?" he said.

"I don't doubt it," I said. "Then again, I'm not here as a private investigator. The fact is, I'm a tourist in your fair city, Detective."

"Uh-huh." The way Smith made the sound said he wasn't buying my answer.

"Must everyone in your city be working on something all the time? Hell, my life over the past few days is an open book," I said. "Check it out yourself, if you aren't doing so already. I got back from an overseas trip three days ago and have generally been goofing off in your fine metropolis, jump-starting my wardrobe, visiting steak houses, art galleries, and any place that strikes my fancy. To be frank, I'm not even sure I've used my cell the past three days, except to check email."

Smith looked at me for a few moments, then proceeded to ask the same series of questions the patrol cops had asked, about the sequence of events that had left the clerk in a huddled heap behind the counter and the shooter dead on the floor at my feet. Once I'd finished describing what had happened, Smith asked the question he'd been wanting to ask all along.

"So how did you just happen to end up in that spy shop just when someone happened to go in and start shooting up the place?"

"I have no idea," I said. "Wrong place, wrong time, as far as I can tell. That'd be my guess, anyway."

Smith said nothing, but he bared his upper incisors and nervously started flicking his thumbnail against them.

"The dead guy with the knife in his throat," said Smith, "you ever see him before?"

"Nope," I said, "but then again, I didn't move him around after he fell. I can only imagine how upset law enforcement can get when crime scenes are contaminated."

"Uh-huh," said Smith again, and continued to flick his thumbnail and look at me through the grating.

I said nothing, and we stayed that way for a couple of minutes. Smith turned his attention to the wallet again.

"You have any enemies? People who might seriously consider popping you?" he asked.

"Consider it seriously? No," I said. "Nobody back home and certainly nobody here. Whatever the shooter's reason for hitting that shop, it wasn't me."

I could see the gears turning in Smith's mind as he considered my answer. His thumbnail paused.

"That knife in the throat, by the way," said Smith, "that was a pretty precise piece of work. Not the kind of skill you'd expect out of your average PI from out your way." He left the question unasked.

"Two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, working with local fighters," I said, by way of explanation. "I picked up what I could. It turns out I was an apt student." I hoped I didn't sound smug.

"Uh-huh," said Smith. "Your knife?" he continued, stressing the first word.

"No," I said. "I happened to see the knife in the display case and asked to see it."

An officer walked up to the car. Smith stood up and whispers passed between the two. The officer then took his leave and, after a moment, Smith sat back down sideways in the front seat.

"Aside from making the emergency call," he said, "did you touch anything else after putting down the shooter?"

"No," I said.

Smith gave a little nod. "Then I don't suppose you have any idea what happened to the disk from the surveillance recorder, do you?" he said. My eyebrows went up just a fraction of an inch.

"No, I don't," I said, "and I certainly didn't take it. Maybe the clerk was sloppy and didn't put a new one in when the old one got full?"

"We'll find out soon enough," said Smith. "You planning on staying in town for a while?" he said.

"I had planned on a few more days," I said.

"The key card in your pocket says you're staying at one of the ritzier places in town," he said.

It wasn't a question, so I provided no answer.

"Hotel confirms you're registered there, too." He was letting me know he checked. "You planning on staying there?"

"Yes."

"Okay. You're free to go, but if you change hotels, or plan on leaving town early, let me know, got it?" he said. He handed me his business card.



Continue with Part 2...

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The weather this past Saturday morning was marvelous and constituted the nearest thing to a gilded invitation that nature could issue to entice me to spend some time in the back yard. So I finished my morning coffee, got dressed, and walked around it for a while, getting reacquainted with the place, and I thought about the future as I did so.

Ours is not a very large back yard, or very unusual. Some time ago, however, my wife and I had planned to put in a water feature next to the garage (once we got rid of the plants and bushes that had sunk their roots into and currently occupy that space). We'd even gone so far as to pick up one of those thick plastic liners for the pond part of the feature.

Over behind the garage is a large, flat area where, over the past couple of years, I've hastily set up my "container garden" (as there never seemed to be enough time to properly till and prepare the soil). Over near the back corner of the house is a location I had scoped out to install a "stealth" amateur radio antenna—one that would not be noticed by the folks that run around making sure everyone in our development obeys the homeowner association's rules, which strictly forbid such antennas—but I'd never gotten around to installing it, either.

After strolling past these places, I found myself in a part of my back yard that, from the perspective of the living room windows, looks like an inviting nook in which to sit and think, consisting of a small bench in front of a tree, situated next to a plaster statue of a seated old man wearing a toga. One of the man's arms is either writing or pointing at something in a book laid out on a pedestal next to him, but it's hard to tell which, because the statue is old and most of the end of the man's arm has worn away with time.

I wasn't thinking about that, however. My mind was filled with a jumble of concerns about the course my life is about to take, given my recent diagnosis. So I sat down on the bench and tried to make sense of it all.

"Do you want to know a secret?" asked a voice, after a few moments.

I looked around and found myself alone.

"Hello?" I asked, feeling somewhat silly doing so. "Who said that?"

"I did," said the voice, and my gaze was drawn to the statue. "Very good!" said the voice. "Your hearing apparatus works well. My voice does indeed appear to come from the statue. Allow me to introduce myself—I am called Marcus."

"As in Aurelius?" I asked, and heard a chuckle in reply.

"I prefer simply 'Marcus'," said the statue.

"Ri-i-ght," I said, and then changed the subject slightly. "You say your voice 'appears to come' from the…"

"It's complicated," said Marcus. "And it is what it is. In any event, it's nothing that you or I have any control over, and so it is not worth our attention. We can converse, which is the important thing."

I mulled that over for a bit and then returned to his opening line. "So what's the big secret?" I asked.

"It's not so big. It is, merely, to confine yourself to the present," said Marcus, "as each day provides all that you need to make a happy life. Never let the future disturb you."

"That's easy enough for you to say," I said. "You're a voice in a statue. Me, I'm human and I've got…"

"I know all about your ailment," said Marcus. "But what you need to realize—and the sooner you realize this, the better off you'll be—is that if your ailment does not kill you, something else will, eventually."

I said nothing.

"Just a few minutes ago, when you paused at that spot next to the garage where you would like to see a pool with lilies and exotic fish and a cheery, splashing fountain, were not your thoughts sorely clouded by the possibility that you might not be here at this time next year?"

I nodded ever so slightly.

"And aside from the sadness you felt about the prospect of dying," continued Marcus, "were you not also impelled to think of building that fountain now as a foolish exercise—as time poorly spent—given the circumstances?"

I nodded again.

"Yet here you are, in your sixth decade of life. You are—let's be frank—closer now to the end than to the beginning. If medical art does succeed in prolonging your life by curing your ailment, you must still face the fact that—somewhere within the next, oh, half century, to be generous—you will die anyway. Does that make you feel better?"

I said nothing.

"And should a cure be effected, will your becoming a 'survivor' speed the construction of your fountain, or simply make it easier to again put it off to 'someday' in an indeterminate future?"

"The future," I said, quoting a line I'd read somewhere, "outwits all our certitudes."

"Hmmm-mmm. But I'm afraid that is an opinion, not a fact," said Marcus. "As I have come to learn, the past only exists in our mind and the future, flimsy construct that it is, only possesses the power we give it. The only thing that really exists—that you can do anything about—is the present, and your job is to live in that present, to confine yourself to it, and to accept the things to which fate binds you."

"So what do you suggest I do?" I asked.

"If the answer to that was something that could be scrawled upon one side of a small parchment and sold at the market for a copper or two, we would not be having this conversation," said Marcus, and laughed. "Still you asked, so let me essay a response, however abbreviated it might be."

I leaned forward on the bench.

"Upon arising in the morning," said Marcus, "think of what a precious thing it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, and to love. Leave the past behind you, entrust the future to fate, and live in the present, for it is only in the present that you will find happiness."

I stood up. I'm not sure I believed it all, but I had already experience a change of perspective. "Thanks, for the advice," I said.

"You are welcome. Come back and visit soon," said Marcus. "The bench is a poor conversationalist."

"I will," I said, and as I headed back to the kitchen, I stopped by the side of the garage to figure out just how long it would take to uproot the plants and bushes that were there.

Not as long as I expected, it turned out.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Reporting back to active duty for "infantry training" after my ten-day leave following graduation from Parris Island, I really didn't know what to expect, but whatever it was, it was nothing like this.

I and a group of other freshly-minted Marines stood at attention in a small formation on the concrete outside our barracks. There was a pile in front of each of us, consisting of the carefully packed contents of our seabags, which we had been ordered to dump on the "deck" to be inspected. Now, the team of sergeants in charge of our training was picking through our belongings, making the occasional disparaging remark about this or that personal item and tossing "contraband" articles into a garbage can.

It was almost like being back in boot camp, though as we soon learned, there were some major differences.

Perhaps the greatest difference was in the routine at the end of the day, when a training sergeant came by to inspect us before allowing us to "mount" our "racks"—climb into our beds, in civilian-speak—and get some sleep. The way it worked in infantry training, a sergeant would come by at the appointed hour and look in through the window set in the door at the entrance to the squadbay to see if everyone was standing at attention in front of his rack. If so, he would enter, inspect us, give the order to "mount," turn off the lights, and leave. However, if even one of us was not standing at attention, the sergeant would enter, wonder aloud as to why the platoon wasn't ready to go to sleep, and then leave. Depending on his mood, he would return after a few minutes, or in half an hour, and the scene would play out again.

As a result, while eight hours of sleep had been pretty much the rule in boot camp, it had become the exception during infantry training, and in our platoon, much of our lost sleep was attributable to a fellow named Murdoch, who well and truly didn't care to "get with the program."

After the sergeant had put off inspecting us a number of times over the first few days of training because Murdoch couldn't be troubled to remain at attention on his own for longer than a few seconds, one of the Marines who stood across the aisle from Murdoch—I forget his name—tried to reason with him, but Murdoch wasn't having any.

"Get screwed, man," he said. "I'm not letting any sergeant tell me what to do on my own time."

"But it's not your own time," said his antagonist. "And some of us would like to get some shuteye, y'know? Is it too much to ask for you to stand at attention for a few minutes?"

"You gonna make me?" asked Murdoch. "You try, and I'll toss you into the next county." None of us doubted that Murdoch could make good on his claim, as he was easily the largest and physically fittest man in the platoon, and he intimidated those around him with his mere presence. If memory serves, we got to bed at a little past midnight that night. Reveille was, as always, at 5 am.

On the first Sunday afternoon of infantry training, the duty training sergeant had our platoon assemble behind the barracks building. He carried with him two pairs of boxing gloves.

"I expect that by now, some friction may have developed between some of you Marines, so we're going to work that out right now," announced the sergeant, who then held up the gloves. "Anybody here want to challenge anyone else to a little friendly sparring session?" A wicked grin flashed across his face.

"Yo!" cried Murdoch, and stepped up to the sergeant. "I'd like to go up against him," he said, pointing to his critic from across the aisle. "I've had all the ragging I can stand from him." The sergeant tossed the second pair of gloves to Murdoch's intended victim, and after both men were gloved, the fight began.

Murdoch moved easily, despite his size, and knocked his opponent down with one punch. His victim got up, the fight resumed, and Murdoch knocked his opponent down again. After two more knockdowns, the sergeant stepped in, announced the fight was over, and asked if anyone wanted to challenge the winner.

"I will!" said a voice that belonged to Vega, the only Marine in the platoon who had been in my recruit training platoon on Parris Island. What he lacked in size he made up for in spirit, for I had seen him beat recruits almost twice his size during pugil stick training. I also knew he didn't like bullies.

Vega donned the gloves and he and Murdoch went at it. Vega got some good shots in, but Murdoch seemed unaffected, and he managed to knock Vega down a number of times until the sergeant stepped in again and asked for a new fighter.

Inspired by Vega's action, I help up my hand, which was not a particularly good idea because frankly, I knew about as much about fighting with my fists as most people know about Einstein's theory of relativity. After donning the gloves, Murdoch and I circled for a while, exchanged a few jabs, and then he hit me, once. I saw stars and fell down, hard. The sergeant called for a new fighter, and one stepped forward.

Murdoch was having a really good time, knocking us down, one after another, and I don't think it ever dawned on him that there was no shortage of volunteers who wanted to take a shot at him for having robbed us of so much sleep.

Murdoch eventually tired, to the point where he got knocked down a few times. This time, however, when the sergeant asked for a new fighter, the next volunteer announced he wanted to challenge Murdoch instead of the winner. The sergeant motioned the winner to take off his gloves.

"W-wait! I don't get it," spluttered Murdoch, "I'm the one who lost! Shouldn't…"

"This ain't 'challenge the winner'," said the sergeant. "It's 'challenge anyone you want'. You want to get some rest, you can, if someone will volunteer to take your place." The sergeant turned to the rest of us. "Anyone want to put on Murdoch's gloves, so he can catch his breath?"

Nobody said a word.

"I suppose you could just refuse the challenge and just quit…" began the sergeant, but Murdoch shook his head.

"Nah," he said. "I'll fight."

Over the course of the ensuing matches, Murdoch was able to score some points and get in a few knockdowns, but the tide had turned dramatically, and more often than not, it was Murdoch who found himself getting back up, albeit more slowly as time went on. The sergeant kept asking if anyone wanted to don Murdoch's gloves, but there were no takers, and Murdoch wouldn't quit. And so the afternoon dragged on, while Murdoch literally fought everyone in the platoon.

That night, as it turned out, the sergeant visited our squadbay only once, after finding everyone—including Murdoch—standing at attention in anticipation of his arrival.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The first time I heard of Stoicism was in junior high school, in social studies class.

The subject under discussion was ancient Greece, and the teacher was telling us about some of the different philosophical schools that thrived at that time, each seeking to find the key to living well. I cannot recall anything at all about what my teacher said about the Epicureans or the Cynics or the Skeptics, but I remember clearly what he said about the Stoics, because it was so… blunt. He said:

"And then there were the Stoics, but they didn't care about anything." Period. Paragraph. Nothing to see here; let's move on.

Years later, I was reading a self-improvement book and zeroed in on the idea that the only thing you have reliable control over in life is not the things that happen to you, but how you react to those things. It made sense. That book led to other books, and eventually, I found multiple references to Stoicism and learned more about it.

To me, the Stoic worldview made a neat counterpoint to the idea of the "Copernican principle"—which, when you get past the solar system aspect, basically says we are not the center of the universe, but a part of a larger whole—because as far as each of us is concerned, each individual is positioned at the center of his or her own universe. And here, I'm not talking about being "self-centered" in the sense of being preoccupied with oneself or being self-absorbed. I'm simply pointing out that one can view the totality of what exists as being composed of the world, on the one hand, and our own mind, which perceives that world, on the other.

And the more I read about Stoicism, the more I realized my teacher's description of Stoics had been wrong.

It wasn't that Stoics didn't care about anything; on the contrary, they cared very much about living well. They just didn't want to waste time and energy caring about things over which they had no control. In Stoic terms, once you've taken the time to identify and accept those things over which you have no control, you have nothing to fear. Stoics live in the moment, taking pleasure out of things like time with loved ones, but they do so with a set-in-concrete understanding and acceptance that any or all of it can vanish in a heartbeat.

Alas, that—in a very sketchy nutshell—may be the theory, but putting that theory into practice is no easy job, unless you've spent a lifetime cultivating that practice. This is a theme that Stoic writers often dwell upon, and for good reason. In my own experience, the word "aspire" crops up a lot in my mind when I think about how Stoic principles might apply to my own life.

Some things are easy to deal with. Did someone call me a loser? Insult my school? Say nasty things about my loved ones? I'm not sure those things have ever bothered me, and I find it easy to let go of such issues.

Other things are a bit harder. Am I faced with unexpected bill with nothing in the bank? It took me a while, but I've gotten to the point where I may allow myself "a three-minute pity party" before settling down to deal with problems such as these.

Still other things can seem insuperable, like that letter, a while back, from the IRS asking for—gulp!—quite a lot of money. And even though the situation was cleared up to everyone's satisfaction and it turned out I didn't owe the money, I did a mediocre job of keeping my mind on the problem, at first. Try as I might, there were nights my mind would not let me fall asleep, worrying about things that ultimately, never came to pass. With time, the way I reacted to the problem improved, but to tell the truth, I don't ever want to get good at dealing with those kinds of bumps!

And yet, life is filled with them. Both bumps that occur in the night and those in broad daylight. I don't know which are worse.

The most recent has been gathering force, like a low-lying thunderstorm cell, over the past week. It culminated today in a rather long visit to a doctor. I am scheduled for a biopsy tomorrow.

There is an essay by the Roman statesman (and Stoic) Seneca "open" on my Kindle. As it happens, its title is On the Shortness of Life. It would appear I have some reading to do.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
I and the rest of second platoon had spent the entire day in the field, training. That meant we had marched, crawled, walked, double-timed, and occasionally lay in ambush within the confines of a depressing chunk of North Carolina real estate that was mostly sand, covered here and there with detritus from the pine trees and clumps of underbrush that liberally dotted the terrain, as did shallow depressions marking the locations of fighting holes dug by those who had trained there before us.

Dusk was falling as our platoon emerged onto a flat expanse of sand that would be our home for the night. Our amenities included a "water buffalo" containing potable water, a fire pit planted next to a wholly inadequate pavilion-like structure, and a line of latrines on the side of the camp away from a strip of beach that led to a body of water that smelled of sea salt. A truck roared in from somewhere, unloaded crates of C rations, and departed.

As the light waned, I and my squad-mates hurried to erect our shelter-halves and clean our M-16 rifles of the gunk that they'd picked during a day of firing blanks and being dragged through environments that made finely machined parts jam when they tried to operate. Once it got dark, we'd have to take turns holding flashlights for each other, which would needlessly prolong the process. As it was, we were looking forward to an evening meal and sleep.

Just as we were finishing with our weapons, our attention was attracted by some loud words coming from the pavilion, situated not far from our squad's tents. The lieutenant and the senior NCOs had congregated under the pavilion's roof earlier, and wood was being piled in the fire pit.

"After we get back," I heard the platoon sergeant say, "I will tear those supply guys a new…"

"Settle down, sergeant," interrupted the lieutenant. "It's not the end of the world. Anyway, you can't know it's supply. Maybe motor-t is having fun at our expense?"

"No way, sir," replied the sergeant, "those truck jockeys wouldn't have the balls to pull a stunt like this!"

As we learned, the "stunt" he was referring to was the systematic replacement of the variety of meals normally packed in C ration crates with boxes containing a single type of main course, "Ham and Lima Beans," a universally despised meal that NCOs had been known to force onto uncooperative Marines as a field-expedient form of punishment.

"Given the circumstances, sergeant," said the lieutenant, "I suggest we improvise if we are to eat something other than ham-and-mother-humpers tonight, what do you say?"

The sergeant thought for a moment, looked out toward the water, and then a smile creased his face. "Aye-aye, sir!" he said, and as he left the pavilion, he bellowed "I want all lance corporals and below to strip down to their skivvies, grab their helmet, take out the helmet liner, and then fall in on me carrying their steel pot. As of now, you are all on bait detail." Sensing a hesitation as those of us affected by the order wondered what, exactly, a "bait detail" was, the sergeant added, "Chop-chop, people! Do it now!"

After a couple of minutes, a small formation of young men—myself included—had assembled at the pavilion, dressed only in underwear and carrying the hard outer shells of their helmets.

"Where are we going to go look for bait now, when it's dark?" said a voice, quietly, off to my right.

"You're not going to be looking for bait, Marines," said the sergeant, picking up on the question. "You are the bait!" Any fatigue we had felt while setting up camp now evaporated, as the sergeant explained what job our "detail" was to do.

It turned out that the body of water adjacent to our camp site was home, along with many similar water bodies up and down the coast, to the North Carolina blue crab, which is renowned as an item of seafood cuisine. However, such crabs do not simply walk out of the water and throw themselves into a pot of boiling water, oh, no. You have to catch them, which is done by providing them with something edible that they can grab with a claw and consume at their leisure. After a little while, you haul the bait out of the water, and nine times out of ten (especially in waters like these), you'll find a crab stubbornly hanging onto it.

Since we didn't have the proper equipment for crabbing, explained the sergeant, we were going to use a more direct method, which consisted in us wading out into the water and waiting for a crab to grab us by the foot, whereupon we were to reach down into the water, detach the crab, and put it in our steel pot. We were each assigned a quota of six crabs, which were to be delivered to the pavilion for collection and examination before being dropped into a barrel of water that, we could see, was being put in place over the fire pit, to be heated to a boil. Thus instructed, we stepped into the water, which was pleasantly cool, and waded out to a point about a dozen yards from the shoreline.

The night air soon began to echo with cries and curses as crabs started nipping at our bare feet in the knee-deep water. "Knock it off!" boomed the sergeant's voice from shore. "You'll scare all the crabs away!" That wasn't likely, since if noise really did scare away crabs, the sergeant's outburst would have done the job (to as far away as Wilmington, I suspect). We fell silent, in any event, and worked diligently to fill our quotas, which we did, quickly. Let me tell you, there was no shortage of crabs in the water!

After we returned to shore with our plunder, we added it to a pile near the now-steaming barrel of water and the corpsman checked our feet for injuries. We returned to our tents, got dressed, and then everyone sat down to a memorable meal, consisting of plenty of boiled crab and whatever crackers and dessert we could scrounge from the C ration meal boxes.

We turned in with bellies full and more important, with improved confidence in being able to overcome obstacles, even though the idea for a "bait detail" hadn't been ours. Since then, the lessons of that night have served me well, but those are stories that, alas, must wait for another time.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)

To err is human; to really screw up requires a computer.
(with apologies to Alexander Pope)

Some years ago, I had to write a letter to a potential client explaining how I would go about making sure that interpreters assigned to work at a high-level bilateral technical meeting would "provide error-free services."

This was a real head-scratcher of a challenge, because interpreters, whose job consists of orally translating what people say to each other, back and forth, in the course of a discussion, create no tangible "thing" that can be checked before it's "used." Once an interpreter utters something, the cat—so to speak—is out of the bag. By comparison, translators create a written text, the quality of which can be verified before delivery by having an expert compare the translation to the original and make any necessary corrections.

In the interpretation industry, the standard response to a requirement to "provide error-free services" is to swear up and down that you use only qualified people with extensive experience and impeccable track records to do the work. And there, with the word "people," lies the rub.

People have an annoying tendency to make mistakes.

Sometimes, a mistake is made by those screening the qualifications of the people who will be doing the work, and you end up with the situation similar to the one President Carter found himself in during a trip to Poland in late December 1977, when his State Department interpreter turned Carter's "when I left the United States" into "when I abandoned the United States," and went on to say something about "your lusts for the future" when the President spoke of the desires of the Polish people.

Sometimes, a mistake is the result of stress or surprise, as was the case during the famous "kitchen debate" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition held in 1959 in Moscow. There, during a discussion of the merits of the capitalist and communist systems, an emotional Khrushchev finally burst out with the statement that the Soviet Union would "catch up with and surpass" the United States, and then uttered an obscure idiomatic expression that basically means "We'll show you!" (with overtones of "We'll teach you a lesson you won't forget!" and the merest hint of "Your punishment will be severe!"). The situation was so stressful and the phrase so unexpected that the interpreter momentarily found himself at a loss, and he interpreted Khrushchev's phrase literally, as "We will show you Kuzma's mother!"

And in the end, sometimes—let's face it—you don't have to do anything or be anyone special to misunderstand what someone else has said. (How many times have you had a conversation that, roughly, follows the template "I said this—no, you said that"?) This stuff happens to interpreters, too, from time to time.

I finally decided that the best way to ensure high-quality interpretation was to assign two interpreters for any particular assignment. It's an expensive solution, but if "provide error-free services" is the overarching criteria, having people back each other up the only reasonable solution, the idea being that if the "working" interpreter makes a mistake, the "listening" interpreter can jump in quickly and fix things.

So, using my word processor, I wrote a very persuasive letter to the client, read it over, and then spell-checked it. I then fired up a newly installed faxing application and copied the text of the letter into it. After making sure the recipient's company name and fax number were correct, I positioned my mouse cursor over the "Send" button on the screen, and pressed the mouse button.

And just as I did so, my eye was drawn to the recipient's last name in the salutation. As my mouse button made a soft "click," I was horrified to see that Bloomstein had somehow turned into Bloodstain.

Keeping the button depressed, I felt much like the unfortunate infantry soldier who has just stepped on one of those land mines that arms itself when stepped on, and then waits for something else to happen before blowing up. I considered my options. I thought about disconnecting the computer's power cord or the modem cable, but both were connected to the back of my computer, which was under my desk. I was stuck.

Just as I was about to pick up the phone and call for someone to come unplug my computer, I realized that the faxing application would not actually send the fax until I released the mouse button while the cursor was over the "Send" button on the screen. So I carefully moved the cursor away from the button on the screen and released the death grip I had maintained on my mouse. Nothing happened. The fax remained unsent. Embarrassment—or worse—had been averted.

However, a new problem arose. When I changed the name back to "Bloomstein," it doggedly reverted to "Bloodstain." What was going on?

After digging around in the program's settings, I discovered the faxing application was configured to "autocorrect" text entered into the message field, and apparently, "Bloomstein" was not a word recognized by the program, so it was replaced by something that was in the program's dictionary. After making the appropriate changes to the configuration, I changed the name back one more time and, after making sure it remained unchanged, sent the fax.

As it turned out, my letter swayed the client and my proposed solution was adopted, but the sweetness of that victory will always be marred by the knowledge of just how closely I had come to alienating the client by having a computer program "help" me make what would surely have been a hugely embarrassing error.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Esther Dodgins clucked her tongue as she used her passkey to let herself into the rent house she had leased to Kurt Cobb and his friends. Not answering the door might suggest there was nobody home, but the two motorcycles and car in the driveway said otherwise. Despite her seventy-three years, diminutive physique, and seemingly delicate appearance, she did not faint or scream when she beheld the bloody scene in the large living room off the entry foyer. She did, however, have the good sense to step back outside the house to vomit before using her cell phone to call the police.

* * *

"The place looked like a slaughterhouse," said Detective Junior Grade Frank O'Malley. "According to the doc, it looks like someone tried to decapitate the base player, Mike Craft, with Kurt Cobb's guitar, and almost succeeded. Then…"

"Spare me the recitation, O'Malley," said Chief Detective Jack Naquin, who was in charge of the investigation. "I'm sure I'll get all that from the doc in his report. Aside from the victims, did you find anything of interest?"

"Yes," said O'Malley. "There was a video camera set up to catch whatever it was the band had been doing, but there was no memory card in it when we checked. The perp—or perps—must've taken it."

"Any suspects?"

"Nope. The landlady suggested drugs might be involved, but we'll know better once the tox screens come back." The tests came back several weeks later, but as it turned out, no member of the band had taken so much as an aspirin in the hours before death had come calling.

A closer examination of the crime scene had not yielded anything concrete, except for the fact that blood spatter patterns made it physically impossible for any outsider to have been involved during the deadly mêlée. The last man standing—Babin, the drummer—had committed suicide in a most improbable manner. Naquin had also made extensive notes regarding entries in the band leader's "journal," which tended to ramble along with all sorts of yearnings for stardom, and kept returning to the idea of "an exciting new sound" that would "compel people to act out being happy," but ultimately, the scribblings led nowhere.

"Nowhere" was where the case remained, and Naquin couldn't help but wonder, from time to time, whether the band hadn't indeed found a "new sound," but not the one Cobb had been searching for. Instead of happiness, maybe what the band had stumbled upon was music that compelled people to a murderous and ultimately self-destructive rage. He recalled the Cajun stories of his youth, which included rumors of music that compelled people to fall in love, and researched a song titled Szomorú Vasárnap that was written and recorded in Hungary in the early 1930s, and was widely considered responsible for a rash of suicides in Budapest. The song was eventually banned in that country.

Six months or so after the Cobb killings, a call came in about what looked to be a double-murder with a strikingly similar look and feel to it. The victims turned out to be a well-known music and video bootlegger and her boyfriend.

"I think we found the memory card from the Cobb case," said O'Malley when he reported to Naquin. "A card of the same type was found inserted in the dead woman's computer. The evidence tech did a quick check, and the files on it are dated the day Cobb and his buddies died. There was a DVD-burning app open on the desktop, the optical drive was cracked open, and a package of blank DVDs—with one disk missing—was sitting on the desk. Considering the business she was in, I'm figuring she acquired that memory card from someone we should talk to, so I've ordered a check of her recent financial transactions."

"Good work," said Naquin, and then, after a moment, added: "Is there any chance this was a murder–suicide?"

"Well," said O'Malley, "after the woman was killed, someone flung the boyfriend headfirst so hard against the steam radiator that it actually bent the pipe it was attached to. I can't imagine anyone getting up that much of a head of steam to do something like that on their own, but the doc can answer the question better than I can when he's through."

Naquin nodded, and asked: "You find the burned DVD?"

"That's the funny thing," said O'Malley. "The evidence guys about tore the apartment up, but aside from a bunch of commercially produced CDs and DVDs in their respective cases, there wasn't a single burned disk of any kind in the apartment."

"What do you think?" asked Naquin. "Someone killed the girl and her boyfriend and then burned and took a DVD?"

"It doesn't make sense, boss," said O'Malley. "It'd be easier to just take the memory card. And even if you did want to make a DVD, why leave the memory card behind?"

The two men sat quietly for a minute. Then Naquin spoke.

"Why don't you detail a couple of your guys to canvas the area within a five-block radius of the apartment? Maybe our girl took the DVD somewhere. Maybe someone saw her and followed her home."

"Will do, boss," said O'Malley, and left, as Naquin turned to pick up his ringing phone.

"I've got some bad news for you, Jack," said the senior computer forensics tech at the other end of the line. "When my guy checked the date and time of the files on the memory card, it triggered some custom system code that automatically deleted the files on the card."

"Can't you recover the files?" asked Naquin.

"Nope," came the answer. "It wasn't a simple deletion. Not only were the file entries removed from the card's directory, but the file data was overwritten with garbage. In effect, the memory card has been wiped clean. Whoever did the programming had some serious skills, let me tell you!"

* * *

The dead bootlegger's financial data revealed that a sizeable payment had been made to Esther Dodgins, the landlady. When she was brought in to the station for questioning, Esther admitted to having taken the memory card with the idea of eventually selling it, justifying her action as a way of collecting the back rent owed to her. After establishing that Esther had not viewed the recording—"Heavens no!" had been her response. "I'd rather be struck deaf and blind than have to listen to the awful noise those boys made!"—Naquin personally read the old woman the riot act about tampering with crime scene evidence, whereupon she was set free, with a warning not to leave town in case the district attorney elected to pursue the issue further and press charges.

The canvas came up with one hit. Someone had seen the dead woman at the post office, but she had not shown up in any of the surveillance video recorded of the counter area. Naquin decided to follow this lead up himself.

* * *

Naquin stood in the post office lobby and did his best to take in every detail of the place. The place was clean and well-maintained. There were no places one could reliably hide anything the size of a DVD for very long. The post office boxes were key operated, but there was no corresponding key on the dead woman's key ring.

As he stood in the lobby, twirling the key ring around his finger and wondering what to do next, Naquin allowed his attention to be drawn to the shapely figure of a young woman who had entered through the same set of doors he had, not to conduct postal business, but to cut through the lobby to the next block. On a hunch, he followed the woman's example, and mentally cursed himself for telling O'Malley to have his men canvas a five block radius, because apparently, the instruction had been followed literally. There, in front of him, six blocks from the crime scene, was the storefront to an Internet café.

* * *

"Have you seen this girl, Izzie?" asked Naquin, after glancing at the name tag worn by the bearded young man behind the counter. He flashed a photograph of the dead woman in Izzie's direction.

"Yeah," said the man. "She does some work for me, from time to time."

"What kind of work?" asked Naquin.

"She's my sysadmin," said Izzie.

"Meaning…?"

"She takes care of the computer and network setup in the store," explained the man. "Before she came, every wannabe hacker and script kiddie in the neighborhood was in here trying to screw with my computers, but she put a stop to that right quick. What's the deal, is she in trouble?"

"She's dead," said Naquin.

"What? That girl in the news, that was her?" said Izzie, wide-eyed. After a moment, he added: "I had nothing to do with that!"

Naquin ignored the outburst, and asked if the woman kept any of her stuff at the café.

"Sure," said Izzie. "She's got what she calls her 'office', though it's really an old closet I let her use for free in exchange for her keeping my system humming and the computer creeps at bay."

"You mind if I take a look?" asked Naquin.

"Knock yourself out," said Izzie, "but I don't have a key. She had the lock changed and she doesn't—didn't—let anyone in there."

The key to the door was on the key ring. Naquin opened the door to reveal a neat, clean work space with neatly stacked boxes with hundreds of burned CDs and DVDs. And there, leaning up against the monitor, was a DVD neatly labeled with a date and the words "Last Cobb session." The way Naquin figured it, after burning the DVD, the dead woman had apparently made a special trip here just to put the disk in a safe place, and then returned home to actually watch the recorded performance, and then meet her maker.

Naquin picked up the disk with his fingertips and looked around. He was alone. He mentally reviewed what was known about the case, recalled how utterly depressed his uncle Ambrose would become every time he listened his recording of Billie Holiday singing Gloomy Sunday—it was like the music itself was making the old man play the song over and over—and wondered how, if his suspicions were correct, anyone could listen to the music in the video and survive the experience.

Could his hunch be wrong? Might the music be harmless and the video a key piece of evidence? Maybe. But the way it stood, its continued existence could result in more death, and if it really got loose in the world—if it got onto the Internet and went viral—it could be more devastating than a plague or asteroid impact.

His decision made, Naquin grasped the DVD with both hands and exerted mild pressure until the plastic snapped in two. He then put the halves together and snapped the pieces into four segments before leaving the café. As he walked briskly back to the precinct with a clear conscience, Naquin disposed of the pieces in different trash bins along the way.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
A photo surfaced on my desk, recently, of me at a camp one summer over half a century ago. The black-and-white image brought back pleasant memories, and I paused in the course of my day to let them have free rein for a little while.

I learned to do so many new things that summer! I learned to swim, albeit barely, and how to shoot an arrow from a bow and consistently hit the target. I learned to cook an egg in a skillet over a campfire, as well as how to select and arrange the wood and the kindling so as to reliably get that fire going without worrying about the wind or a few drops of rain. I sang new songs, I learned to play croquet, and I made a small bookshelf out of wood.

I recalled the excitement I felt playing a camp-wide game called, if memory serves, "capture the messenger," and I was suddenly struck by how the significance of one aspect of that game had eluded me until now, when the photo reappeared.

You see, in that game, campers were divided into two teams, the camp itself was divided into two team territories, and counselors were assigned the role of umpires. The point of the game was for each side's "offense" to deliver messages, written on slips of paper carried by some (but not all) team members, to a point situated deep within "enemy" territory. Defenders were tasked with "capturing," using the "two-hand touch" technique, members of the opposing team who had invaded their territory, whereupon "prisoners" were searched (under the watchful eyes of an umpire) and any found message was confiscated. At the conclusion of the game, delivered and confiscated messages were tallied using some arcane formula and the wining side was announced.

What I remember is being assigned the role of a "decoy," meaning I was supposed to try to get to my team's goal even though I carried no message. The idea that my purpose was to deliberately get captured to make the other side waste time searching me (thereby possibly allowing a real message-carrier to reach the goal) never dented my skull, nor do I remember my role being explained to me that way.

I recall only two things about that game. First, I never crossed the dividing line into "enemy" territory because—as best as I can reconstruct my thought processes at the time—I wanted to make the other side think I was carrying a message that I didn't want them to find if they captured me. Second, at one point, a fellow teammate—an older camper who was also a "decoy"—casually strolled across the dividing line with arms raised, making no attempt to evade "capture," and was immediately subjected to a search.

* * *

A few years later, after a series of humiliating defeats at chess at a different summer camp, I set about improving my chess skills during the course of the following school year. My "teacher" in this undertaking was a paperback book written by one Fred Reinfeld, whose introductory books on chess are still read today. I forget the book's title, but it seemed like just what the doctor ordered, roughly along the lines of How to Play Brilliant, Winning Chess.

I blew through that book like a hurricane through a dilapidated straw hut. Then I went back and read the book again. This time however, I could look at the printed position diagrams and move the pieces around in my head without having to set up pieces on a board. I kept going back to that book, from time to time, until the end of the school year, whereupon I returned to camp and took my revenge (but that's a different story).

The move sequences Reinfeld was illustrating were pretty direct, and weren't long or complicated. They stressed two major things. First, moves often had to occur in a certain order to mate the opponent's King (a concept that, serendipitously, helped me with algebra that spring). Second, the point of the game was exactly that—to mate the opponent's King—as opposed to merely avoiding the loss of one's own pieces, which would eventually result in a lost game. What this meant in practical terms was that, for example, giving up a Queen for a pawn is absolutely the right thing to do if you win the game as a result.(Not only that, but it's something you can brag about to all your chess-playing friends if you manage to pull it off, but I digress...)

* * *

So now, looking at the photo in my hand and knowing the importance of keeping one's eye on the goal, my mind goes back and I vividly picture that older camper as he was being "captured." I recall the smile on his face and light-heartedness in his voice as he teased his captors, saying "You'll never find any message on me...or maybe you will!" And I cannot help but wonder: Was he trying to set an example for me and some of the other younger campers around me? Was he trying to show us how the game was supposed to be played?

If that was his point, it eluded me at the time. But whether he was trying to enlighten us or not, it was a lesson I eventually learned.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
It was 1976, and the Cold War was on hold, or so they said. "Détente" was on everyone's lips, and while things had gotten to the point where U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts had flown together in space the previous year, bumps remained in the road. A stranger on the street had handed an American diplomat a package wrapped in brown paper, resulting in the latter's immediate arrest on charges of espionage. Soviet citizens seeking to join family members abroad under the terms of the Helsinki Accords did so at the risk of becoming immediately unemployable and the object of social ostracism and official harassment. And as far as anyone could tell, there had been no layoffs to speak of in the Soviet propaganda and disinformation industries.

I spent that Bicentennial year working in Moscow for a U.S. travel agency as a "tour escort," which was most assuredly not the same as "tour guide," a distinction that had been carefully explained to me over a mostly friendly glass of hot tea by a functionary of Intourist, the Soviet government tourist agency, whose name was a contraction of the Russian for "foreign tourist." It all sort of made sense, when you considered that Intourist was tasked with managing every aspect of a tourist's visit—what was seen, what was heard, what was done—all orchestrated to make sure said tourist went home with only the most positive impressions of the USSR. It was not a job for amateurs, or the "politically unreliable." I, apparently, was both, so my function was limited to representing my company, and listening to customer complaints.

Intourist, on the other hand, had been staffed by politically reliable professionals since 1929. It was created that year by order of Joseph Stalin and staffed with personnel from a direct predecessor of what, in 1976, was called the "Committee for State Security," otherwise known as the KGB.

People who worked for Intourist in those days basically collected their paycheck from the security services, and anyone who, like me, lived and worked in the Intourist Hotel, in the heart of Moscow, moved through spaces where the density of KGB employees per square foot was second only to the density a few blocks away, on Dzerzhinsky Square, within the KGB headquarters building itself (at least according to the maître d' of the hotel's second-floor restaurant, who told me this jokingly—but only after glancing over his shoulders).

So it was with some surprise that, while tending to some routine duties at my company's "hospitality" desk in the hotel lobby, a man about a dozen years my senior walked up to me and informed me, without so much as a by-your-leave that I can recall, that he was a dissident.

Just as he said the word "dissident," I felt my mental state change. A little voice commanded Shields up! somewhere in my head. This was because, in a country where just about everyone I had met—like that second-floor maître d'—paused for just an instant to determine who was within earshot before saying something that might be "misunderstood" if overheard, this meathead shows up out of nowhere and tells me straight out—no looking around, not even a token lowering of the voice—that, in effect, he's a troublemaker who's not a big fan of the local Powers That Be, because that's what it meant to be a "dissident" in those days.

Not only is he telling me this, but he's announcing it to me in the lobby of a hotel run by the KGB! A scant thirty yards away, in fact, there stood a door to a room I had mentally dubbed "the penalty box," after I had seen the door opened to admit some poor jamoke that was being frog-marched out of the lobby by a couple of burly bouncer types, doubtless for being a troublemaker of some kind.

My initial reaction to my interlocutor's opening line had been to say something stand-offish, like "So, you want me to give you a medal?"—but my Russian was not up to the task. Before I could formulate something less flippant, the man dragged up a nearby lobby chair, draped himself across it, and began to rant about how bad conditions were in the Soviet Union. I did my best to ignore him, until he did something that made me really sit up and take notice, mentally.

He prompted me to agree with what he had said.

Why would he be doing that? I asked myself, surveying the lobby and wondering why my visitor's presence had not elicited any response from the people who normally did a workmanlike job of keeping the hoi polloi out of the hotel. And then it occurred to me—my interlocutor was probably not who he claimed to be, and I was very likely being subjected to a "turn your head and cough" moment, a test to see if anything untoward would emerge should I be prompted in just the right way.

You see, over the course of learning the ropes of my job, I had from time to time been the subject of casual efforts to gauge my political leanings, my views on the issues of the day, and similar subjects. The questions I was asked had always been such as to allow me to come across honestly as someone who was suitably pro-American, as befit my origin, yet undecided about things Soviet (this last, frankly, involving a bit of prevarication on my part the longer I stayed in-country).

"Why should I agree with you?" I said to my visitor. "You sound like a lunatic!"

"What do you mean, 'you sound like a lunatic'?" he said.

"Did I say it incorrectly?" I said, and added, by way of explanation, "I am still only learning Russian. I meant to say, 'The ideas you express make me think you are crazy'."

He blinked and glanced to the side for a moment, eyes wide open, as if thinking How do I get through to this idiot? He refocused on me and rephrased his question: "What is it about what I said that makes you think I'm a lunatic?" His tone reminded me of an encyclopedia salesman I once knew, who was always eager to overcome any and all objections a prospect might offer.

"Well, the question you just asked does, for one thing," I said, and before he could sort that one out, I added: "Look, I've got to get back to work, so if you'll…"

"Okay!" said my visitor. "Look, I'm sorry. I apologize. My question was out of line." He waited a beat and then continued: "I've been under a lot of stress." Another beat, and he said, "Can I ask you for a favor?" Taking my silence as a "yes," he continued: "I'm desperate to leave this wretched country. Will you sign a document saying you're a distant relative of mine, so I can start the emigration process?"

"No," I said.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because I'd be lying. You and I are not related," I said.

"So what?" he said, "Nobody cares. The authorities just care that I have a relative living abroad."

"I'd care, because I'd be lying," I said, and I didn't doubt that "the authorities" would also care, and would view my lie as an affront worthy of cutting short my career in the hospitality industry and deporting me, or worse.

"I can pay you!" he said.

"Being paid to lie is even worse," I said, and my thoughts returned to that encyclopedia salesman, and I realized I was being drawn into a protracted "sales" pitch.

"But…" said my visitor, whereupon I stepped up close to him and, in a calm voice, interrupted him before he could get another word past his teeth.

"Look," I said, "I've got work to do, and if you don't stop pestering me, I'm going to go over to the front desk and ask that you be removed from my work area. Do you understand me?"

Upon hearing my words, my visitor got up, took his leave, and started to walk aimlessly about the lobby. I followed his progress for a while, but eventually had to turn my attention to my duties. The last I saw of my "dissident," he was headed not for the hotel doors leading to the street outside, but in the general direction of the door to "the penalty box."

The Cold War may have been on hold, but I felt as if I had just survived a minor skirmish in it.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
My first visit to the venerable Moscow Chess Club took place in November 1975. After depositing my coat in the ample lobby cloakroom, I went upstairs into what, were I baseball fan, would represent Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, and the Cooperstown Hall of Fame all rolled into one. I peeked in through the door of an auditorium and saw former World Champions Spassky, Petrosian, and Tal playing at tables set up on the stage of the main auditorium. They and their opponents were participating in a tournament organized in memory of an earlier World Champion who had fled the USSR in 1921 and never looked back, but whose name had since been co-opted by the State either out of respect, a desire for prestige, or perhaps both.

As I walked around the other club rooms, I could not help but notice the dark, polished wood paneling, decorated with photographs, caricatures, and various artwork. (If memory serves, there was even an oil painting of Lenin—playing chess, naturally!) In those rooms, those who could not find their way into the auditorium were either analyzing the positions shown on the giant chess diagrams that hung above each table on the stage, or playing their own informal games. I ended up sitting across the board from an intense, dark-haired woman several years my senior.

I learned that her name was Natalia Konopleva, and we struck up a quick acquaintance while setting up the pieces for an offhand game. It turned out I was one of the few Americans she'd ever actually met, and very likely the only one that played chess. I lost that first game, but only after dogged resistance on my part, I can assure you.

As we set up the pieces for a rematch, I asked Natalia a question about something that had been bothering me. You see, a few days previously, I had visited the "House of Books," a ginormous store situated on one of the main boulevards of the city. I had made my way to the "Physical Culture and Sports" department—where the chess books would be, based on what I had learned at the Four Continents Bookshop in New York, which sold select Soviet books and periodicals and was officially registered as a foreign, i.e., Soviet, agent—but upon looking at the books on display there in Moscow, I was surprised to find there were no chess books on sale! Not one!

"How can this be?" I asked. "Chess is so popular here!"

In response, Natalia leaned over to borrow a book from the players at another table and opened it to the back.

"You see this information?" she asked, pointing to some print at the bottom of the last page of the volume. It looked like a bunch of numbers and arcane abbreviations. "It summarizes the typographical information about the book that is required by state regulations. This information includes the number of copies that were printed of the book. Here, take a look." And here she held the book out to me, with her index finger pressed against the page. I leaned forward to look at the number at which her finger was pointing; it was "10,000."

"Do you know how many chess players there are in the Soviet Union?" she asked when I leaned back in my chair.

"I recall reading an article that said there are 3 million members of the official Soviet chess body. I would imagine there are many more who play chess but are not members," I said, as the light dawned. "You mean to tell me that only ten thousand copies of…" I began, and here I leaned forward, took the book from Natalia, and looked at the cover, "Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games was printed for the whole country?"

"So it would appear," she said, as she took the book from me and returned it to our neighbors at the adjacent board.

"So how does one acquire a chess book in this country?" I said, with a little laugh.

"Well, in most bookstores," replied Natalia, in all seriousness, "the clerks put such books aside for 'good' customers, which means customers who pay extra to get the book. Or sometimes, you'll see a book on sale as a 'secondhand' book at a news kiosk, since such books can be sold at whatever price the buyer is willing to pay over the official price printed on the back cover."

Our conversation was one of my earliest eye-opening lessons on how things worked in "the land of the Soviets." We then played another game of chess, and I lost that one, too.

As my job made great demands on my time for what remained of my stay in Moscow that year, I did not see Natalia again until the following year, when we met over lunch at my hotel, the Rossiya (new then, now demolished), which stood not far from Red Square. Since our first meeting, I'd learned (completely by accident, from reading an item in the weekly chess newspaper "64") that Konopleva hailed from Murmansk, up above the Arctic Circle, had been an All-Union Girls Champion in the late 50s, and had earned the title of "Woman International Master."

After lunch, we played what turned out to be our last chess game. I managed to draw that one, but only by the skin of my teeth.

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