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!!!!!!!)
Overwatch is an entirely natural role for me. Up until a little while ago, it had been a form of self-protection. Now, I had to save Captain N'klaus, too.

We were on one of the minor planets of the Anome system when the local warlord N'klaus was dealing with decided it was time to put on big-boy pants and try to hijack the Captain's ship, which happens to be the ship I pilot and whose quantum matrix I inhabit as a virtual entity. While getting rid of N'klaus was a fantasy I had often indulged in, during private time, the fact is the ship requires a human crewmember, so given a choice between keeping N'klaus or replacing him with a would-be hijacker supervising a ragtag handful of followers, there really was no choice.

The local bigshot, whose name was an unpronounceable mess of consonant sounds, was convinced there was nobody else aboard N'klaus's ship. I knew he knew this because what the ship lacks in firepower it makes up for in intelligence-gathering capability, all military grade, thanks to yours truly. And while the ship's advanced capabilities weren't of much use on this boondock planet, cameras and microphones work everywhere, including uncivilized backwaters such as the one we were sitting on.

As it happens, N'klaus always carries a collection of remote surveillance devices around with him. The devices exhibit the physical characteristics of Ctenocephalides felis, the common flea, and provide excellent video and audio coverage over extended distances. Instead of sucking blood, the devices derive power from body heat. N'klaus doesn't mind carrying the "fleas" because… well… he has no idea of what they are; he actually thinks they're fleas, assuming he notices them at all. This, by the way, makes tracking everything he says and does outside the ship a pretty straightforward deal, and was how I learned that his business on this planet had gone sour.

So when the locals dragged N'klaus up to the boarding lock, I recited John Masefield's Sea Fever to myself until the leader had punched in the access code that his underlings had obtained from N'klaus by repeatedly punching him in the face. When the hatch opened, the leader stepped confidently into the vestibule, much like Columbus stepping onto the shore of the New World, at which point I closed the hatch behind him and made my presence known to all.

"Your leader is now our prisoner!" I announced. When I later reviewed the imagery recorded of everyone's face at that moment, I noticed that nobody was more surprised by this turn of events than N'klaus. The look on the warlord's face, on the other hand, betrayed no surprise; only terror.

After a moment or two, the sharpest and most loyal soul in the small mob outside the ship produced a knife and held it to N'klaus's neck. "Release our leader, or your captain dies!" he shouted.

"Captains are easily replaced," I said. "Men like your leader are not. In any case, we both know your lives will be forfeit if any harm befalls your leader." I paused for a few seconds, and then recited a list of items that I expected this group to collect and bring to the ship to ransom my captive. When the man with the knife protested that his people had no access to such items, I replied by recalling highlights from collected surveillance data, and described exactly where the items could be found in their encampment. N'klaus's eyes would have grown to be as big as dinner plates during my recitation, except for the fact that most of his face had become swollen as a result of his beating. After convincing the locals that they didn't need to leave anyone behind to guard N'klaus, they left, presumably to start gathering the goodies I had asked for.

For some time after the ruffians left, N'klaus remained sitting on the ground outside the boarding lock, making no attempt to get closer to the ship. I was pretty sure I knew why.

You should know that the first thing I did after accepting N'klaus's invitation to join him was to disobey his direct order to leave all my stuff behind, including my dog, which had been severely wounded in the fight with a telepathic predator that had brought us all together in the first place. Instead, I picked Max up and made him as comfortable as I could in the pocket created by my body and my jacket as I followed N'klaus to his ship.

We had barely entered N'klaus's ship when he turned and unceremoniously shoved me (and Max) into a tall narrow compartment, the door of which closed quickly. The compartment filled rapidly with fluid, and I distinctly remember the moment when I could hold my breath no longer and the breathing reflex took over. My lungs filled, and I lost consciousness almost immediately thereafter.

When I came to inside the virtual world I now inhabit I was pretty disoriented and yes, more than a little anxious about where, exactly, I was. To boot, I had a world-class headache and felt exhausted, as if I had crammed for the past week straight for the final exam of all final exams. I don't know how, but I knew Max was nearby and okay and though I could easily visualize where N'klaus was and what he was doing, I couldn't visualize much else.

After about a week in my new "digs," I was able to start giving form to my environment, pretty much by thinking about the things that ought be in it. I created a room, with furniture, and computer terminals, and a library in just that way, all of it virtual. (Don't ask me to explain how this or anything else works inside my matrix; it just does.)

All during this time, I thought N'klaus wasn't talking to me because he wanted to give me some time to recover from my transition from physical to virtual being. Then one day, just as I had figured out how to activate the speakers in the control room and communicate with N'klaus, it occurred to me that he hadn't seemed particularly interested in my welfare at all. He had never tried to talk to me, or check up on me. I wondered why, so I remained mute.

By this time, I had also noticed that although there was nothing actually wrong with Max, he simply lay there (as I imagined him) in the same position, as if sleeping. After a little digging in the library (which had become populated by books I had no voice in choosing), I learned that the ship had been designed to be operated not by just a pilot, but by what can only be described as "a pilot and the pilot's companion animal." A dog, in my case.

It turns out that while the subconscious mind of either pilot or dog can, by itself, run all of the ship's systems and keep things humming, doing so leaves the rest of that mind in a coma-like state that, according to what I read, should not be indulged in for an overly long time. On the other hand, when the subconscious minds of both pilot and dog are engaged, the load on each "participant" is lessened considerably. The dog can derive pleasure from the experience (much like the pleasure derived from sticking its head out the window of a moving car) and the human can spend time doing, well, pretty much the kinds of things I had been doing since I woke up.

It occurred to me that N'klaus was pretty sure that I was out for the count, in a permanent coma. That meant his promises of equal shares and so on were just a lot of hot air. So, after engaging my subconscious to work together with Max's, I set about making sure I learned absolutely everything about my Captain, behind his back. A marvelous side-effect of this was being able to procure military-grade surveillance gear and some other toys and pay for them using funds from bank accounts N'klaus never paid close attention to. I was pretty successful in my efforts, knew the man better than he did himself, and throughout the process, he never tumbled to the fact that his pilot was conscious. Until now.

"Hey there, skipper!" I said to N'klaus as he sat, blinking at the sky, looking unsure as to how to proceed. "You going to sit there all day?" I spoke slowly.

N'klaus fixed his gaze on the speaker next to the boarding lock. "How…?"

I cut him off. "Long story, okay? And just so we get off on the right foot, I know what you tried to do, and I am not a happy camper. That said, it would appear we need each other, and so I propose a truce. Agreed?"

N'klaus nodded his agreement, and though I was sure there was a corner of his mind already scheming a way to get the upper hand, we had immediate business to attend to. "In a moment, I will open the boarding lock," I said. "When I do, I need you to take charge of the situation and intimidate the wannabe Genghis Khan I've got trapped in the vestibule into letting you handcuff him. It should be pretty easy, as he's been on his knees, whimpering, since shortly after the lock closed and I started blasting him with rap music. Do you think you can do that?"

N'klaus stood up and already looked a thousand percent better. He gave me a thumbs-up, whereupon I cut the music and opened the boarding lock. N'klaus stepped inside. Five minutes later, our captive lay on the ground outside the lock, in chains. Ten hours later, after exchanging our captive for the ransom I had demanded, N'klaus and I wasted no time getting the ship spaceborne.

I am the permanent overwatch, over everything. Including N'klaus, until I can figure out a way to get rid of him.

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.


"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!!!!!!!)
I would have sooner expected the sun to not rise than for Schellenberg to not show up for our appointment. What did surprise me, however, was him showing up in a vehicle that was far too small to contain the package I was picking up. Through my exterior optical link, I saw him get out of the flitter, bend over to say something through the driver's side window to the person sitting in the passenger's seat, and then turn and walk briskly toward my ship. The main hatch opened when he stepped onto the access ramp. He boarded without ceremony and proceeded to the flight deck.

"Greetings, Duke," said Schellenberg, looking at the optical link that served as my "face" on the flight deck. "I hope you are well." He sat down at the only chair in the compartment.

"As well as can be expected, Shelly," I said, from inside the hardware where my consciousness has "lived" for over half a century. "And while I'm grateful you didn't show up with half the planet in tow to make a simple, straightforward delivery, I'm a bit confused as to just what you did show up with. It appears to be a vehicle just big enough for two people and a couple of bag lunches. You do have the package I paid you for, don't you?"

"The package," repeated Schellenberg, stressing the word slightly. "Yes, Duke, I have your package." Again, that same odd stress. Schellenberg continued, "If I recall our discussions correctly, you intend to use it to save your wife, Ann, by going back to Earth, to a point in time mere minutes before your wife was killed in a highway accident, and to avoid creating the kind of temporal discontinuity that will almost certainly result from the accident not happening and your wife disappearing with no explanation—a discontinuity that, by the way, will have the unhappy side-effect of making you the number one kill-first-ask-question-later priority of every lawforce unit known—you plan to leave the package in place of your wife, with the idea that it—or, rather, she—will be identified in Ann's stead, thereby avoiding the formation of a discontinuity, as nothing will appear to have changed in the timeline. Is that a fair summary, do you think?"

"You've covered the high points, Shelly," I said, "but you just used the word 'she'. What gives?"

Schellenberg murmured something into a lapel communicator, whereupon the door on the passenger's side of the flitter opened and a young woman stepped out. She turned to face the ship and I swear, had I been inhabiting a flesh-and-blood body at the moment, I would have had a coronary event of some kind, because the woman sure looked like Ann. Then she turned toward the rear of the vehicle and started to get something out of the shoebox trunk.

"What in the name of all that's...," I began, and fell silent. "What kind of double-cross are you pulling, Shelly?" I continued, after a few seconds. "That woman outside, that's not what I..."

"I sincerely beg to differ, Duke," interrupted Schellenberg, "because the woman—and you are correct, it's a woman and not a package out there—is exactly what you ordered and paid for when you gave me a sample of Ann's DNA. Read the contract."

"But...," I said, and fell silent again.

"I can imagine you were expecting something a bit—how shall I put it—less alive, yes? Not as much of a drag on the conscience? A healthy young body on a gurney, perhaps, covered with a sheet and hooked up to some kind of life support?"

"Well,... yeah!" I said.

"Do you have any idea what is required to 'grow' a healthy human body to a chronological age of twenty-four years, starting with just a few strands of DNA?" said Schellenberg. "There is only one way to do it right, which does not involve simply keeping the body in a pod, supplying it with oxygen and nutrients, and removing waste. For the muscles to develop normally, they must be used, daily, or else the limbs will atrophy after a short time—assuming they develop well at all—and the face will have a completely different appearance, too."

Schellenberg paused, and continued, "The woman outside grew up in a loving home, ate nutritious food, and received an excellent education, just like your Ann. In addition, as she is under the impression that she has been hired to be a crew member aboard this ship, she received additional training as a nurse, which will come in handy when you take delivery of your new body, which you will require to carry out your plan. Believe me, the woman outside will serve your purposes quite well!"

When I said nothing in response, he asked, "Is there a problem?"

"For her to serve her purpose...," I said, "she's going to have to die. You know that, don't you?"

"Oh, most assuredly," said Schellenberg. "If not by your hand, then by your order, or as a result of the accident."

"But I'm no...," I began.

"Spare me!" said Schellenberg, almost shouting. "Between you and N'klaus, your late master, you've done things that, on some planets, cause mothers to invoke your names when they wish to scare their children into submissiveness. Have you become squeamish in your dotage? And anyway, what's one more offering at the altar of your all-consuming desire to save your long-dead wife?"

Before I could answer, Schellenberg continued, less aggressively: "Of course, it doesn't have to be that way, you know."

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Your Ann has been dead for over half a century, Duke. Let her rest in peace. If you go back to save her, and even assuming that nothing goes wrong from among the many things that could—and here, I'm not talking about the technical risks of time travel, which are all too real, but about someone noticing, for example, that the corpse extracted from the wreck has never had dental work done, because the woman outside has never required it—the plain fact is, your Ann will not recognize you. And when I say 'recognize', I'm not talking about your physical body, but about who you are. You are no longer the Duke Jacobs she knew, and that alone will doom your relationship. It's hard to believe, I know, but I've seen this happen too often, and to couples that have been separated for far less time."

I considered what Schellenberg said, and then replied, "Thanks for your input, Shelly, but my mind is made up. I believe our business is finished." Schellenberg nodded slightly and again murmured into his communicator, whereupon the woman who had been waiting by the flitter picked up a small gear bag she had extracted from the trunk and began to walk toward the ship. Schellenberg got up.

"One thing, though," I said. "If you knew how I was going to react to all this—if you never had any intention of giving me what I said I wanted—why'd you take the contract?"

Schellenberg smiled a little and said, "Because then you would have then gone to someone less competent than I, who would have charged you more and wouldn't have given you what you needed, but want you wanted, thus ensuring a failed attempt to save Ann." He took a step toward the exit. "Besides," he said, turning to look again at my optical link, "it was a challenging job and I needed the money." He stepped away from the door as it opened to let the new arrival onto the flight deck, and then quickly disappeared through the portal and closed the door behind him.

I observed the woman closely as she put down her bag and then straightened. She looked and moved just like Ann, carrying herself with the same confidence as she looked around at what she could see of her new surroundings.

She was beautiful, too, as Ann had been, but this was beauty that was terrible for me to behold, as my plans for her future did not include a long life. A line from Yeats popped into my mind, which I quickly put to one side as the woman drew breath to speak.

"Crewmember Schellenberg, reporting for duty, Captain!" said the woman, not knowing quite where to look while speaking. The surname confirmed my suspicion that Shelly was, deep down, a sentimentalist.

"Welcome aboard," I said. "As there are only two of us aboard ship, I'd like to keep things relatively informal. You may address me as 'Captain' or 'Skipper', while I will call you by your first name. What is it, by the way?"

"My first name is Ann, Skipper."

Yes. It is, isn't it? I thought to myself, and started issuing orders in preparation for departure.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Ayn Pelletier took a deep breath, clutched the sheaf of files she held close to her chest, and knocked on her boss's door.

"Enter!" came the response. Pelletier opened the door, stepped inside the room, and closed the door behind her. The face of Andrew Chapman, the man behind the room's desk, displayed a slight trace of surprise at Pelletier's appearance, as very few things would cause the young woman to step away from her office, with its computers, whiteboards, and other analysis tools. "Sit," said Chapman, and though he did not mean it to, the word came out as a command. After Ayn sat down, Chapman softened his features and smiled as he asked, "To what do I owe this honor?"

"I'm pretty sure I've found a clandestine communications channel," said Pelletier, with no preamble. "I'm also pretty sure it's what Mansfield was trying to put his finger on when he went missing six months ago." Chapman pursed his lips and nodded. Mansfield's disappearance had wrought havoc within the agency—an agency so "black" that only the NSA was aware of its existence, and then only vaguely. After all investigations were complete and fingers pointed every which way, the agency's director had been replaced by a political appointee whose grasp of intelligence was as feeble as his campaign contributions were substantial.

Then Chapman smiled, for whenever Pelletier spoke, you could take what she said to the bank. "So, who's communicating?" he asked.

"You're going to find this pretty unbelievable, but you've got to hear me out," said Pelletier. Chapman nodded. He would sooner slice off one of his own fingers than not hear everything Pelletier had to say.

"Who's communicating?" Pelletier repeated the question, and then answered, "It's nobody. And everybody. You. Me. Some kid trying to hack the Great Firewall of China... basically everybody on the planet." She paused to see Chapman's reaction.

"That's some kind of 'clandestine channel'!" said Chapman, with a smile. "But never mind me and my smart remarks," he said, after a beat. "Please continue." He was still smiling.

"Have you ever heard of memes?" asked Pelletier.

"Sure," said Chapman. "My kids talk about them all the time. 'Memes' sound like a scholarly way of describing what, in my day, were called 'crazes' or 'fads.' Things like the hula hoop or telling people to 'look it up in your Funk-and-Wagnalls'. There's a lot more of them now, of course, thanks to the Internet. What do memes have to do with this channel of yours?"

"Well," said Pelletier, ignoring her boss's question, "a meme covers a bit more than just fads. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins devoted a section of text to the propagation of ideas and cultures, and how such propagation resembled what genes do. So he posited the existence of units he called memes, which included tunes, catch phrases, fashions, techniques for building arches—or nuclear reactors—or any idea at all, really."

Chapman held his peace. Pelletier continued: "Extending this line of reasoning suggests that we humans are vehicles for the survival of memes—of ideas—and if that's true, then it's entirely possible that when we act in concert with the ideas that we hold, our behavior is not substantially different from that of a mouse that has lost its instinctive fear of cats because it has been infected with Toxoplasma gondii parasite, whose 'goal' (inasmuch as a single-celled organism can be said to have one) is to end up in a cat's digestive tract, and from there, the cat's brain. So when we think we're being clever sharing something online, it's actually a meme's way of figuring out how to modify human behavior to maximize its own survival and propagation. In its own crazy way, what's going on is communication to achieve an end."

Chapman remained silent for what seemed like several minutes.

"Okay," he began, cautiously. "So what's the threat? Why should we worry about, say, a bunch of goofballs doing bad imitations of Miley Cyrus and her wrecking ball, or a ceramics company selling coffee cups that say 'Keep Calm and Drink Decaf'?"

"Because nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come," said Pelletier. "Or as Victor Hugo said it: 'On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.'"

"'One resists the invasion of armies, one does not resist the invasion of ideas', right?" translated Chapman. Pelletier nodded. "But I still don't see the threat," said Chapman.

"You're not supposed to," said Pelletier. "I'm not supposed to. None of us are. That's the point. That said, for all we know, the creation of the Internet was something driven by memes to achieve the next level of their evolution, by creating a massive environment for their rapid propagation and mutation, to enable them to more efficiently shape themselves by shaping us."

As Chapman digested that, Pelletier took a deep breath and looked directly up at the ceiling. She then exhaled, lowering her chin and turning her head to the left as she did so. Her pensive gaze came to rest on a point a few feet to her left. She then raised her eyes to meet Chapman's.

"Frankly, if I were you," said Pelletier, "I'd think I'm crazy."

The thought had crossed Chapman's mind, but he said: "Nothing of the sort. Your analysis has always been spot on, but I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around what you've just laid out for me. Not only that, but I'll need evidence of some concrete act having been taken against this country before I can even think of taking this to the director. You mentioned something about Mansfield?"

"Yes, I was getting to that. The closest thing to what you'd consider 'evidence' was a series of anomalies I think I found in Mansfield's analysis," said Pelletier.

"What anomalies?" asked Chapman.

"I've spent a lot of time poring over his notes," began Pelletier, "hoping to find what others might have missed in the investigation into his disappearance. Instead, all I found was pretty exhaustive analysis of the dynamics of various memes—things like the IP addresses of the participants, changes various participants made to the root idea, and so on—and it finally dawned on me... maybe that's what was missed! It turns out that, starting three years ago, Mansfield began to find memes that originated from..., well,... nowhere. Which simply isn't possible. The first few memes fizzled out after a day or two, but then a few enjoyed moderate popularity, until finally, last year, one such 'anomalous meme'—Mansfield's name for them—resulted in the formation of a flash mob that caused the seemingly accidental deaths of three people in Venice. You remember that?"

Chapman nodded. "The ensuing investigation found no premeditation and no specific people to blame, though some of the flash mod participants did serve some jail time," he said. "Are you saying the deaths were caused by a meme?"

"The idea for that flash mob not only came from an anomalous meme, but it had just the right something to appeal to certain personality types who, acting in concert the way they did, could only have achieved the end that occurred. And it turns out one of the victims was a prominent economist who exerted a great deal of influence on European Union monetary policy as it relates to the United States," said Pelletier.

"That doesn't prove anything," said Chapman. "What has your own independent analysis turned up?"

Pelletier's brow furrowed. "To be frank, I was so taken with Mansfield's notes that I didn't even think of doing any analysis on my own until I fully understood what he was getting at, and once I did, it turned out I had done the right thing, because Mr. Chapman, I think Mansfield's own research—even from behind our agency's firewalls and using our proxies and virtual networks—was what caused his disappearance."

As he absorbed this and everything else Pelletier had said, Chapman thought about how the agency's director might react if he were to learn of Pelletier's analysis. It occurred to Chapman that, if Pelletier was right and there really were memes out there trying to bury what Mansfield (and now Pelletier) had discovered, the director's general cluelessness was more than adequate to serve that end. Chapman sighed. Long ago, as a young officer, he had learned to trust the instincts of his subordinates, and he was not going to second-guess himself now. If Pelletier was right...

"So what do you want to do?" he asked. "What do you need from me?"

"I need to figure out a fundamentally new way—a safe way—to do an analysis to check and expand on Mansfield's work," said Pelletier.

"So get on it," said Chapman. "I'll run interference for you. It occurs to me that—if Mansfield's analysis is correct—we may very well have embarked on humanity's first war, not of ideas, but with them."


alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Nature had taken its course. The man's body had overcome its fatigue and abuse, and now consciousness was returning. The first thing the man notices, before he opens his eyes and starts to sit up, is how the cell stinks—of vomit, and urine, and fear.

He looks around, slowly turning his head and peering at his surroundings with all the mental concentration at his command, which isn't much. There are no markings or signs to suggest where he is, yet the wall tile and the bars and benches of the cell seem somehow… not unfamiliar. He has been here before, he is sure, but does not recall under what circumstances. He has no idea where he is, other than in a cell.

After a few minutes of thinking, he recalls the date—April 15, 1945. Then he remembers changing out of his military uniform and walking to probably the last restaurant cum bar still open in Berlin for a few drinks. Rumors of the Soviet Army's imminent assault on the city were on everyone's lips, everywhere. The watering hole was packed with an assortment of anxious Wehrmacht and SS staff officers—the forlorn overflow from various bunker complexes around the city—but while virtually all of them were there to crawl into a bottle to blot out the reality of having lost the war to an implacable enemy whose forces now mustered at the very gates of Berlin, he was there to celebrate!

So then what had happened? Had the Russians overrun the city, capturing everyone who was in the bar and then thrown them in this hole? If so, where were the other prisoners? Or had he become so bold as to brag, to the German officers around him, of how he—a respected Standartenführer in the SS, the equivalent of a Colonel in most other services—was actually a Soviet master spy who had infiltrated the German military years before, sending valuable intelligence from Berlin back to Moscow through a dedicated network of radio operators? But if that was the case, then why was he still breathing?

Who had taken him prisoner? He had no idea, and it hurt to think.

He pauses for a long moment to wonder—what he should say when he's asked to identify himself? Then an idea occurrs to him!

"Why, it is simplicity itself. If whoever comes to talk to me is wearing a German uniform, I will speak German and identify myself as an SS Standartenführer. If, on the other hand, whoever comes through the door is wearing a Red Army uniform, I will identify myself in Russian as a Soviet intelligence operative." Satisifed with this plan, the man closed his eyes and lay back down on the bench. Moments later, he is asleep.

* * *
"Comrade? Comrade?" said a voice. "Please wake up!"

The voice is speaking Russian, but the man hasn't noticed this because, as consciousness returns, he is trying to make sense of what he is seeing. He is looking up at a young man wearing a uniform. He has seen the uniform before, but for a few confused moments, cannot place where. Then it comes to him—it is the uniform of a rank-and-file police officer in Moscow.

"Comrade, you were taken into custody last night, because you were wandering the streets quite intoxicated. My commander informed me this has happened before, and instructed our watch to accommodate you in a separate cell, as a courtesy." said the policeman, who then helped the man sit up.

"If you would, please, comrade," said the policeman, placing a clipboard and pen in the man's hand, "my wife is a great fan of your acting, and she makes it a point to watch all your performances—in both new and old episodes—in your series A Spy In Berlin. So if you would not mind, comrade, I would greatly appreciate it if you would autograph the paper on the clipboard I just gave you, and dedicate the autograph to 'Anna'."

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The Great Leader's recent death had not changed day-to-day life much, if at all. There were still lines to stand in and small bribes to be paid to be assured of life's necessities, and everyone still spoke guardedly and then only after glancing around to see who might be within earshot.

If life was difficult in general, for travelers it was difficult in particular. Petrov had been on the road for three days, and had lost track of the number of times he'd been required to produce his papers, not to mention how, on the afternoon of the first day, some young snot with a badge had made him open his small suitcase for inspection, right there on the platform of the railroad station!

It was on the train that, as he sat with his head down and eyes closed, he had overheard a man seated behind him tell his neighbor of a novel way to get fellow guests to give one a wide berth upon entering the typical "communal" accommodations offered to travelers at hotels.

“You see, my friend,” said the voice, “there is a natural pecking order in such places, almost like in prison. The man most recent to arrive starts at the bottom, if he is of ordinary appearance, and unless something happens to change that, this means he will sleep in the least desirable spot and maybe even have to give up a few personal possessions just to be left in peace.”

“So it occurred to me, you see, this one time, after having finished filling out the papers at the registration desk, to stop by the hotel's kitchen and ask the person on duty there to bring some tea to me in my room in a few minutes, for which service I pay a little extra. Then I go up to the room and, upon first entering it and while those already in residence are starting to size me up, I look neither to the left nor to the right but march up to the best cot in the room, put my belongings on it, and then step over to some prominent item—a light fixture or a mirror on the wall—and say something like 'Would you be good enough to bring me some tea in a few minutes? I am in need of refreshment.'”

“As you may imagine, this throws the other room occupants into a little panic, until it occurs to them to wonder 'Hey, this old coot is just pulling our leg!' By that time, however, a knock is heard at the door as my tea is delivered, and the reaction in the room is often a sight to see, let me tell you! I then drink my tea in peace, and thereafter, everyone leaves me and my belongings quite alone.”

That night, still two days travel from his destination, Petrov unconsciously lit up with a broad smile while standing in line at the hotel registration desk, eager to try out this newly learned stratagem to mislead other occupants into thinking he had friends in the secret police who, as everyone knew, had ears everywhere. Alas, this untoward public display drew the attention of a uniform standing just inside the door, who approached, gave a little mechanical salute with his baton and took Petrov's papers from his hand as he was standing in line.

“You seem altogether very happy, comrade... Petrov,” said the policeman, reading the name from the identity document. “We are all in need of having our spirits lifted in the aftermath of The Great Leader's passing, so if you please, tell me what it was that brought a smile to your face?”

“Well, comrade policeman," said Petrov, thinking quickly, "I was just recalling how, just as I was leaving on this trip, my baby daughter pronounced her first sentence.”

“And what did she say?” asked the policeman, with a pleasant voice but very unpleasant eyes.

“She said, 'Oh, how tasty!', comrade. It was her meal time.”

After a moment, the papers were returned. “May your daughter grow into a citizen worthy of our great homeland!” The policeman turned on his heel and left.

After registering, Petrov gathered his suitcase and key and went by the kitchen. The boy on duty was talking with some men, so he stood at the door until the transaction was complete and the men had left. He then explained what he wanted, paid for the tea and the "extra" service and went up to the room.

His lodgings turned out to be a rather long room that stank of alcohol and urine and sweat. It was dark, because only one of the three light fixtures—the one nearest the sink on the back wall—had a working bulb. There were four other men in the room, and they all stared at him when he entered.

Without looking too closely at them, Petrov walked over to the most comfortable-looking cot, which had a rucksack on it, moved the rucksack to the floor, put his suitcase on the blanket, and then walked over to the mirror over the sink at the back wall of the room.

“Would you please be so kind to bring me some tea?” said Petrov, to the mirror. “It's been a long day, and some tea would really hit the spot.” As he turned back to face the room, he could not help but glance at the faces of the other men, to see their reaction.

They were all staring at him, but not in the way he expected. There was no apprehension, only contempt thinkly masked by smiles.

A moment later, a powerfully built, bearded man got up from a chair next to the cot where Petrov's suitcase lay, picked the rucksack up off the floor, replaced it on the bed, picked up Petrov's suitcase, and walked up to and past Petrov, who turned to keep his eyes on the man. The man stopped by the mirror, leaned in close to it and said, “And while you're at it, make sure you bring the rest of us some beer and dried salt fish! And hurry!” The man dropped Petrov's suitcase on the cot nearest the sink, where the stench of urine was strongest. He then leaned against the wall next to the mirror, and crossed his arms, as if waiting for a bus. Petrov looked about, only to find he was the center of attention.

Nobody moved for what seemed to Petrov like an hour. And when a knock came on the door, it was Petrov who about jumped out of his skin. The man closest to the door opened it, letting in the kitchen boy, who was wheeling a cart in front of him. “Right,” said the boy, unloading the cart, “tea, beer, and salt fish, just as you ordered.” He closed the door behind him as he left.

Utterly confused, Petrov turned back to his suitcase and saw it was lying open on the bed. The bearded man was extracting a cigarette from the pack Petrov had kept there. “Thanks. I don't mind if I do,” said the man. “Hey! Anyone else want one?” And the rest of the pack sailed past Petrov into the hands of the others.

Shoving Petrov out of the way, the bearded man rejoined the other three men, and they proceeded to open bottles and tear apart the fish. They smoked and told stories as they drank and ate, laughing and nudging each other as they glanced in Petrov's direction from time to time. Petrov thought he heard someone say something about wishes and horses, but stayed out of the conversation, working up only the courage to pour himself a glass of the tea and go back to his cot near the sink. When the time came to go to sleep, it turned out there was no way to turn off the light over his head. He slept fitfully.

Petrov got up early the next morning, dressed, went down to the front desk, and returned his key. By the hotel door, as he paused outside for a moment before heading out, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see the front desk clerk standing there, offering him a cigarette, which he accepted. It was a foreign-made cigarette.


“It's really too bad your little escapade backfired on you last night,” said the clerk, after lighting both his and Petrov's cigarette. “But that big bearded one, he's a fast thinker, and figured two could play at your game. You see, a couple of the others had just been in the kitchen before you to order some beer and fish up to the room.”

Petrov had a little trouble comprehending what had been said, as all he could do was wonder ”Who is this 'clerk' who smokes foreign cigarettes? And how does he know all this?”

“I will say this, however,” added the clerk. “You were much more polite when you spoke into our microphone behind the mirror than was the bearded one. We appreciate that.”

And with that, the clerk took one more deep drag, and then pinched his cigarette out and went back into the hotel. After a moment, Petrov hesitantly picked up his suitcase and moved off, down the street, walking ever more quickly toward the station.

alexpgp: (Default)
In 1978, I enrolled in Hayes B. Jacobs' course on writing nonfiction articles at Manhattan's New School for Social Research. I did this so as to have something to occupy my mind while Galina took her ESL course upstairs in the same building. If I learned only one thing from that course, it was that the only true path to becoming a writer lay in writing. Not in taking notes, not in making outlines, and not in taking courses, but writing. Jacobs had a standing assignment for his class: submit a piece of writing each week. He went through all submittals with a sharp editor's pencil and provided constructive comments and suggestions. His frank approach to the business of writing has stayed with me.

I will be the first to admit that I averaged about one submission every 2–3 weeks during that course, but that was probably three sigmas above the average for the group. The course of two-plus Idol seasons has helped me fall into a weekly writing rhythm that, sadly, I would lose once Idol went away. Maybe things are changing, I don't know, but the following represents a treatment of the very first idea that came to mind for the 'is the sincerest form of flattery' prompt.

Hilton paused by the pairings just long enough to catch sight of his board number before continuing on through the door of the community center where the county's annual chess championship was being held. It wasn't that he liked being late to everything, but that he liked doing what had to be done to be on time even less.

When he got to his board, Hilton stopped and stared at his opponent, and experienced just the slightest tinge of déjà vu. The previous year, Hilton had been paired with this same snot-nosed kid, who had been rated in class D and who, despite that, had given Hilton a proper shellacking with some sort of off-the-wall gambit opening. The game was a considered such a great upset victory for the kid that it had even been published in the county newspaper. People still kidded Hilton about it.

So here he was, a year later, still rated in class A (that no-man's-land between class B and expert), paired against this kid whose rating was now knocking on the door between class C and class B. The color assignment was the same, too, and the kid had already moved his Queen pawn up two spaces and punched his clock.

Hilton put his stuff on his chair and went off to find the tournament director.

"I think you made a mistake in the pairings, Wes," said Hilton to Wes Smith, the TD.

"What do you mean, 'a mistake'?" said Smith.

"You've got me paired against that kid again, with the same color assignments!"

"And the 'mistake' would be—?"

"You can't do that. It's against the pairing rules."

"If this was the same tournament, it would be," explained Smith. "But this is the first round of a new competition, and first-round pairings are pretty straightforward: top half plays the bottom half, and colors alternate. Your pairing was spit out by a computer, uninfluenced by human hands." Smith paused for a second and gave Hilton a close look. "Hey, don't look so glum! Look at this as an opportunity to exact your revenge. Same opponent, same colors. You've got a shot at showing everyone that last year's result was just a lucky break for the kid."

Hilton grumbled as he walked back to his board. The kid has played his Queen pawn up two, just as he had the previous year, almost as if he was challenging Hilton to respond with the the Queen pawn up two from his side of the board, just as Hilton had the previous year. Then, instead of continuing with a standard double-Queen-pawn opening, the kid had veered off into a back-of-the-book gambit by pushing his King pawn up two squares, as if offering it to Black for free.

Hilton had accepted the pawn, whereupon White offered yet another pawn, which Hilton had captured, too, after which Hilton found himself in the middle of a violent and short losing battle. After the game, Hilton had cracked open his opening reference, which informed him that the variation the kid had played was sharp, but fundamentally unsound, and that Black ought to emerge from the opening phase of the game with a marked advantage. That had been the extent of Hilton's research into the opening, as he was running late to an appointment.

By the time Hilton had settled himself on his chair in the here-and-now, almost 10 minutes of his allotted time had passed. The face of the kid across the board from him was as expressive as the surface of that same board on which the pieces stood. Hilton tried to put the clock's ticking out of his mind as he thought about his first move.

"Okay, if I don't push my Queen pawn up to meet his, it'll be as if I'm admitting that I'm afraid of his opening skill, so even if I beat the little twerp" and here, Hilton interrupted his thinking process.

"What am I talking about? Of course I'm going to beat the little twerp, there's no doubt about that!" Hilton smiled a little at this point.

"Where was I? Oh, yeah, if I don't play the Queen pawn like I did last year, folks won't talk about my win, but about how I avoided the kid's opening, despite the fact the kid's opening stinks."

Then Hilton's eyebrows jerked up slightly as a new thought came to him.

"Like it or not, there's the psychological angle, too. If I don't push the Queen pawn, that'll probably boost the kid's confidence and make him think he's already got me on the run. On the flip side, if I do push the pawn, he'll have to figure I've done my analysis and that I'm totally ready to take on his inferior opening setup, which'll force him to play some other move, which means—bingo!—we're in that part of the opening manual that I almost know by heart."

Hilton all but sneered as he pushed his Queen pawn up two spaces and punched his clock, which now showed 15 elapsed minutes. Without hesitation, the kid reached out and pushed his King pawn up two spaces, then punched his clock, restarting Hilton's.

"Oh, for—!" thought Hilton, as his heart sank very nearly to his feet.

"I knew it! I knew it! He's trying to play the same gambit. I tell you, this kid's got a lot of nerve. He probably knows this opening backward and forward." Hilton pursed his lips and let his breath out slowly through his nostrils.

"So, what do I do now?" he wondered.

Hilton was not the kind of player who did well in sharp, open games, which is why he was still a class A player. Sure, given the position on the board, he could still transpose into an opening that would avoid the kid's ghastly gambit—the French and Caro-Kann Defenses came to mind here—but none of those openings were very much to Hilton's preferred style of play. Still, they were preferable to that gambit.

As Hilton pondered what to do, the word went around the room that he—one of the top players in the county—had now spent nearly 18 minutes of his hour and was still deciding on his second move. Players rose from their boards and wandered by to see what was going on.

"Are they coming by to see if I'm getting my ass handed to me again?" wondered Hilton. The thought didn't help calm Hilton's inner chess player, who was still hard at work mentally cursing the fact that he had pushed the Queen pawn on his first move.

Suddenly, realizing that he was wasting valuable minutes of thinking time, Hilton decided that he would not take the proffered King pawn, so he pushed his Queen Bishop pawn up one square, creating the classic pawn structure of the Caro-Kann Defense.

With this move, the crowd around the board started to break up. One player was heard to whisper, as he headed back to his own board: "A move like that—choosing not to play into your opponent's strength—that's got to be the sincerest form of flattery!" His friends nodded in agreement.

Meanwhile, back at Hilton's board, the kid was already reaching out to make his next move. Neither he nor Hilton realized it, but the kid had already won the game; what was left was simply a matter of technique.

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It's not often that I am struck by lightning twice in one week as far as writing is concerned. The following story was inspired by an email exchange with [ profile] emo_snal, whose entry for this week's LJ Idol I found very entertaining.

* * *

"Now, that's what I'm talking about!" said Humbert, with a smile, as he inspected his bodyguard's new threads.

"Yeah, well," said Sal, obviously unhappy, "the new duds fit like a glove, nobody'd ever guess I'm armed, but I can't draw my piece as fast as I could with my old getup."

"Don't worry about that," said Humbert. "Dressed like this, we show the world that we're, you know, worthy of respect. You know how I work. By imitating the big bosses, we flatter them and show them what we're all about." Humbert paused to relight his cigar. "With time, you'll get used to the new clothes. You spend some time on the range, your speed will come back, too."

"Whatever you say, boss," said Sal. "Anyway, what's our destination for the evening?"

"I need to go over to the plaza to meet with Fontaine," said Humbert. "He and I need to talk."

A cloud fell over Sal's face, but he said nothing. Fontaine was the big boss and not likely to be impressed with anything as mundane as his and Humbert's stylish new clothes. Still, a job was a job, so he entered the limo and took his seat next to his boss, the up-and-coming head of the Southside rackets, for the short ride to the plaza.

When they got to the plaza, the limo stopped just long enough to let the two men out and then drove off silently. Humbert relit his cigar while Sal looked around, ever alert for threats. The plaza was traditionally considered neutral territory for the city's gangs, whose armored limousines stayed clear of the plaza, except to pick up or drop off passengers.

Two figures detached themselves from a doorway in the building on the opposite side of the plaza and began to cross the broad expanse of the plaza toward them. Humbert and Sal walked out to meet them.

"Good evening, gentlemen!" said Humbert as he and Sal came up to Fontaine and Viggo, Fontaine's bodyguard, near the center of the plaza.

"Yeah," said Fontaine, which sounded more like a grunt. "Let's skip the small talk and get down to business. Have you considered the proposition I made a couple of days ago?"

Humbert spread his arms, which set off his new clothing to maximum advantage. "Well, if you insist on talking business, let's get to it." He looked over at Viggo, whose expression was as unreadable as that of the cobblestones beneath their feet. "In the final analysis, it's a question of respect. I respect you, you know that. I do everything I can to imitate you, because you are an example to be emulated." Humbert pronounced each syllable of the last word with emphasis. He continued: "I mean, you know, my motto's always been: 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' So I really don't think your proposal regarding my moving up in the organization is acceptable. I was hoping for something a little—bigger."

Fontaine took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. He reached up to rub the bottom of his stubbled chin and said: "It's settled, then. Okay."

A heartbeat later, a gun was in Fontaine's hand. Sal, who had been watching Viggo, had just enough time to grasp the butt of his weapon before Fontaine blew a hole in his chest. All of the birds in the plaza took to the air as Sal's body fell to the ground. There was a look of surprise on the corpse's face.

"You've got to understand," said Fontaine as the muzzle of the gun moved to cover Humbert, "that in my world, guys like you—as small-time as you are—pose a real threat. Today you want this, tomorrow, you'll try for the whole game. So I've got a motto, too. You want to know what it is?"

"You double-crossing—" began Humbert, and then trailed off with an unprintable epithet. His gaze shifted from Sal's body to the weapon in Fontaine's hand. Then he glanced toward Viggo, who had also drawn his pistol.

"Well, I'll tell you," said Fontaine, "my motto is: 'Killing upstarts like you is the sincerest form of flattery'." Then he started to laugh, and turned to Viggo to share his little joke.

Viggo's pistol erupted and the back of Fontaine's head disappeared in a spray of blood and brains. A second corpse fell to the ground and the whisper of distant wings again filled the air.

"For a moment, I thought you were waiting for an engraved invitation," said Humbert to Viggo.

"I couldn't risk shooting him while he had you covered, Mr. Humbert," said Viggo, making no move to threaten with or put away his weapon. Viggo understood that he was now officially a loose end, and wanted to live long enough to enjoy the money he was to receive for betraying his boss. "I waited until his gun came off you before I shot him."

"What would've happened if the gun hadn't come off me?" asked Humbert. "What if he just decided to shoot me?"

"I would've seen his knuckles whiten as he started to pull the trigger. I would've gotten him in time, but it would've been a tougher shot to make."

The ringing of a cell phone interrupted their conversation. It was Viggo's. He answered it, listened for a moment, then put the instrument away. "Payment has been received, Mr. Humbert. Thank you. It's been a pleasure doing business. You'll never see me again in this town." He withdrew quickly, and soon was a small speck at the edge of the plaza.

Humbert paused to relight his cigar and then looked at Fontaine's body. "So you went against the rules to put one over on me, and I went against the rules to put one over on you." Humbert puffed once more on his stogie, and said: "And I won." As he turned to walk away, Humbert said, to nobody in particular: "It's like I said, 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'."

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Maître corbeau, sur un arbre perché,
Tenait en son bec un fromage.

—J. de La Fontaine
(Le corbeau et le renard)

Hannibal was an unusual crow, as crows go, not just because he had a name—which would have been enough to distinguish him from almost all of his fellows—but also because he had spent his early years in the care of an old man, a woodcutter named Hans, after having fallen out of his nest as a baby. Carrying a piece of smelly Limburger cheese in his beak, Hannibal alighted on a tree branch and looked back, toward the depths of the forest where few men had ever ventured. The smell of the cheese was quite strong, which was instrumental to his plan, here in the part of the forest where the scent of men was pervasive.

The young fox following Hannibal emerged from the depths of the forest and looked up at him. The fox had been following the crow for quite some time.

"Hallo, dear sir!" said the fox, addressing Hannibal. "Good day to you!"

The bird blinked down at him and said nothing. The fox continued: "I could not help but notice what a handsome and good-looking bird you are. In fact, if your song is anywhere as beautiful as your plumage, I dare say you would truly be—the Phoenix of this forest!"

On hearing these words, Hannibal—as if to demonstrate his beautiful voice—opened his mouth wide and let drop the cheese. The fox ran up to his fallen prize, put his foot on it as if to keep it from running away, and looked back up at the crow.

"My good sir," said the fox. "Know that each flatterer lives at the expense of those who take him seriously. But do not be angry with my, my friend. Consider your newly increased knowledge to be worth this piece of cheese."

In reply, Hannibal took off in a huff, looking backward at the fox as he flew away. "Caw!" was all he said. The fox turned his attention to the Limburger.

All at once, there was a sharp sound of a tree branch breaking and Hannibal cried out in pain. The fox, with the cheese in his mouth, turned his head in time to see Hannibal fall with flightless wings onto the forest floor on the far side of a stump and a rock that aptly framed the hapless bird as it tried to rise.

"Oh, how now!" thought the fox, considering the prospect of a two-course meal. "This is my lucky day!"

So, with the cheese in its mouth, the fox dashed with blazing eyes toward the helpless bird.


As his front paws hit the ground just past the rock, the fox had the impression of the forest floor rising toward him, and then a set of powerful jaws of neither bone nor flesh closed on his forelegs with relentless force. He tried to move, but couldn't. The pain was almost more than he could stand.

With a flutter of wings, the crow—healthy and uninjured—alighted on top of the stump. The cheese, which had fallen out of the fox's mouth when the trap had sprung, was in the bird's beak. The beak opened, and the cheese dropped onto the top of the stump.

"What ho, there, fox?" said the crow. "My name is Hannibal."

"But—" said the fox, and Hannibal could hardly hear him. "That sound—the fall—"

Hannibal opened his mouth and the sound of a breaking tree branch came out of his mouth.

"You mean that? I was taught to make that sound by the woodcutter Hans, because people in the forest would cover their heads when they heard that sound, and that made Hans laugh. He also taught me how to fall from the sky like a wounded bird. 'If a hunter shoots at you and misses,' he used to say, 'it's best to let him think he got you. Putting on an act is the sincerest form of flattery, because that way, the hunter will take his time making his way to you, and meanwhile, you can get away.' The woodcutter even taught me to stack rings of different size on a stick, and to do it so no ring was bigger than any ring below it. Let me tell you, that was hard! But I did not mind learning these tricks, because in exchange the woodcutter Hans gave me my name, Hannibal. Don't you think it's a handsome name?"

The pain in his legs had dulled somewhat, but the fox still could not move. He was bleeding, and thirsty, and very hungry. "Yes. Very handsome—now that you've had your revenge, why don't you go away—leave me alone?" said the fox.

"Oh, I couldn't do that," said Hannibal, "not just yet. And truly, revenge was not my purpose, believe me. You cannot imagine how long it took me to observe the men in this part of the forest, and to understand how they emplaced the thing that holds you here, what happens to the animals the thing catches, and how often the men return." Hannibal bent down to rip off a tiny bit of cheese, and ate it. "Then I had to figure out how to get you to do what you did, which resulted in you being there and me being here. It was all like the ring game, but much harder!"

The sight of the crow eating the cheese made the fox's mouth water. "Hungry—please—food—a bite—" he whispered.

"No, sorry," said Hannibal. "I've got to make this cheese last a while longer."

With the light slowly fading from his eyes, the fox looked questioningly at Hannibal. "Last? What for? What happens then?" the fox seemed to be asking.

"You die, of course," said Hannibal, as if replying to the fox's look. "Didn't you know we crows are scavengers?"

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I hate it when tourists kick the bucket on my watch.

In 1975, I worked for—a company that might still be around, so to avoid any possibility of ruffled feathers (and potential lawsuits), I'll just say it was a company in the travel industry. My job was to pander to the whims of paying customers, iron out their difficulties, and generally keep them out of trouble as they toured cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev.

I had come down to the banquet room on the third floor of Moscow's Intourist Hotel about fifteen minutes before the group was scheduled to arrive for its farewell cocktail party. The four-man orchestra, dressed in national costumes consisting of fur hats, bright peasant shirts, dark baggy trousers, and gaudy boots, was tuning up in the corner. The table in the center of the room was impeccably set and so dense with food that you couldn't see the tablecloth underneath.

There were platters with smoked salmon, garnished with peas and radishes carved to resemble flowers. A whole sturgeon—cooked, sliced, and reassembled for serving—sat on a platform on a bed of greens. Other plates were laden with thinly sliced meats, edged with pickle wedges and red cabbage. Bowls heaped high with red and black caviar stood above the platters like scattered mushrooms, and bottles of Georgian wine, Armenian cognac, and Russian vodka rose like small towers over this plain of food.

I checked the table against the hotel's typed event menu and lavishly complimented Boris, the director of the floor's facilities, on the fine work of his staff. Experience had taught me that such effusive praise was essential to staying in Boris's good graces and, by extension, in the good graces of the staff.

Boris and I had our own version of détente going on. He had a weakness for Marlboro cigarettes, which as a foreigner I can easily get, while I had a taste for this obscure, bittersweet red Finnish liqueur that Boris could produce almost at will via his own sources.

On nights when my tourists were at the theater, or prowling assorted restaurants under the close supervision of the Intourist guides, Boris and I retired to a relatively private corner of the third floor where we smoked cigarettes and played chess. He tried to get me interested in playing cards a few times, especially a card game called preferans, but it's not a game that's well suited to just two players. There was another reason, too.

Before coming overseas, I had spent two years working in the security department of a Las Vegas casino, where I was trained to spot card sharps—so-called "mechanics" who were good at manipulating pasteboards—and Boris was a very good one, though not very imaginative. His standard shtick with attractive new waitresses was a card trick that involved "picking a card" that, as it turned out, was the one he wanted her to pick, because he had maneuvered the card to come between her fingers just as the fingers came together. The move is called a "force" and Boris was very good at forcing cards. We all have our faults. Given a chance, I'll cheat at chess.

A glance at my watch showed about five minutes until my hungry, thirsty horde arrived to do, to the hors d'oeuvres and liquor, a reasonably good impression of a school of piranha doing a number on a side of beef. I poured myself a shot of vodka, picked up a caviar morsel, and turned to Boris, who had similarly provisioned himself. As we had done so many times before, we drank to the success of the evening, and chased the vodka with the caviar.

I stood at the door of the room, dutifully greeted everyone as they arrived, and pointed them toward the food. After about ten minutes, Boris appeared at my side to ask how things were going.

"Fine," I replied. "This is a good group. Very disciplined. Almost everyone is here."

"What about your VIP?" he asked, pronouncing each letter of 'VIP' with a vaguely sinister Slavic accent.

"There are only two VIP couples in this group. Charles Dorsey is over there, with his wife," I said, and nodded toward a tall, virile man who had his arm around a well-preserved blonde. "He's an executive for a big department store back in the States. They're enjoying themselves, which is good, since the word from my boss is that they talked a lot of the other people here into coming. But between you and me, I'd wished they had left the Colonel at home."

"The Colonel?" asked Boris.

"Yeah. Colonel Alvin Post, United States Army, retired," I said, imitating the practiced way in which the Colonel introduced himself. "He fought in World War Two and served in some kind of key role during the Allied Occupation after Germany surrendered. Quite a lot of glasses have been raised in his direction all along the itinerary by various Soviet hosts. Personally, I think the man is an inexhaustible supply of whatever it is that crushes people's spirits, but he and his wife are the other VIP couple. And—" my voice dropped to a whisper, "speak of the devil—"

As if on cue, the Colonel marched through the door and stopped to survey the room. He wore a sky-blue leisure suit that sat on his ursine frame like a dress uniform. Boris turned his head and stared. Post's wife followed dutifully, a step or two behind. She was wearing a functional blouse-and-dress combination, in pastel green. She also wore a perpetually worried look. During a dinner at the beginning of the tour, she had confessed to me that the trip to the USSR had not been her choice. She would have preferred to go to Paris, to enjoy the "haute couture" and the "haute cuisine" of that City of Light, but Alvin had insisted on coming here.

I felt a little sorry for Mrs. Post, who had the perennial look of a woman whose interests were always subordinated to the beat of martial drums, or the prospect of a trip to places like this. As the Colonel resumed his advance into the room, I decided to get my licks in first.

"Good evening, Colonel. Good evening, Mrs. Post. Welcome to the cocktail party. Why don't you help yourself to a drink?" I was momentarily startled by the sudden appearance of a tray of drinks held by a waiter. As the Colonel and his wife helped themselves, I looked over at Boris. Although the restaurant's staff routinely circulated with appetizers, I had never seen the staff serve drinks before. Boris looked at me with an expression that said "So I'm trying to be extra nice. Shoot me!"

Without waiting for his wife to get a proper grip on the wine glass she had taken, the Colonel gulped his vodka and said: "You know, you really ought to lay down the law to the pea-brained morons who run this show. As far as I am concerned, today's tour program was a complete waste." As he paused for breath, and as his wife said "Oh, Alvin, dear, there's no need to upset yourself," my eyes focused on a point somewhere behind him and, giving a fair imitation of a flunky whose presence was required elsewhere, I excused myself.

"My English is not so good," said Boris, who fell in step beside me. "But is it safe to presume that the Colonel is dissatisfied with something?"

"With him, I think that's a safe presumption, no matter where he is or who he's with."

Boris grunted noncommittally and then surprised me by personally picking up a tray of drinks and moving off to serve members of the group. He stopped by the Dorseys and presented the tray of drinks with a flourish, then he moved across the room, serving more drinks along the way, and finally repeated his performance with the Posts before handing the tray to a waiter. The party was definitely under way.

A few minutes later, I heard a crash, a scream that turned into a squeal, and then the music stopped playing. A crowd formed at the other end of the room. I wiggled through the scrum of humanity and saw Mrs. Post kneeling by her husband. An ambulance was called, but even before the doctors arrived to give the Colonel oxygen and a shot of adrenaline, it was clear the old warrior was dead. The police came and conducted a formal identification of the body. They inventoried the corpse's effects, and supervised as the body was removed. Mrs. Post, some bystanders, and I were detained for questioning.

By the wee hours of the next morning, it was determined that the Colonel's drinking (and not just that night, but over the entire tour) had been strictly against the orders of his doctor back home, because of a bad heart. His drinking, age, and physical condition, combined with his combative and argumentative personality, had doubtless contributed to the tragedy. Neither Mrs. Post nor the authorities insisted on an autopsy.

By the middle of the next afternoon, the group had come around to the idea that the Colonel had left this veil of tears while having the time of his life. And that's the frame of mind in which the group left for home two days later.

Over the next couple of weeks, however, after repeatedly replaying the evening's events in my head, I came around to the idea that the Colonel had been murdered. I recall it was a Thursday evening when I stopped by the third floor restaurant to find out the truth, but Boris was not there.

"The KGB, they came," whispered Svetlana, one of the senior waitresses on the third floor, "and they took him away. Just like that. Nobody knows why. Nobody dares ask."

I knew why, just as I knew how Post had been killed. The hours I had spent at the casino—observing how people moved and noting the little differences in how they moved when something not-quite-right was going down—had eventually focused my attention on Boris and that tray of drinks. When presented to the Dorseys, the tray had remained rock-steady, as it had every time Boris had stopped to allow someone to take a drink as he moved across the room. But when he presented the tray to the Colonel, the tray did not remain motionless. As the Colonel reached for some vodka, Boris moved a particular glass of the stuff to a point in space between the Colonel's fingers.

* * *

An envelope fell out of my suitcase as I unpacked it after returning home. The envelope contained a letter, written with impeccable, old-school penmanship. This is what it said:
If you are reading this, my secret has been discovered, I have been arrested, and a trusted friend has visited your room on the eve of your departure and placed an envelope with this letter inside your suitcase.

Believe it or not, my friend, Alvin Post did not die of a heart attack. I killed him. The details of how are not important, but I would like to share with you the details of why I killed him.

You see, my father was among several tens of thousands of Soviet people who were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union after the war. Stalin had many of these people shot without trial upon arrival in the USSR. Others were kept inside the rail cars they had traveled in from Western Europe and shipped straight on, to prison camps in Siberia.

Some of those repatriated were tricked into boarding trains that were then sealed and sent East. Others, like my father, were delivered to Soviet authorities under armed guard. The American army officer responsible for doing this to my father was Captain Alvin Post, who had pretended to be sympathetic to the plight of my father and others like him, only to betray him at the last minute.

My mother soon died of grief. Afterward, while at the state orphanage, I strove to erase my family's shame, and I became an outstanding Pioneer and member of the Komsomol. And yet, I dreamed of someday avenging my parents. I am glad that I was able to realize that dream.

Do what you will with this note, as I am sure my situation cannot worsen. This way, at least someone will know the truth.

My conscience is clear. I would do it again.


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The clamorous pounding on the door—relentless yet also somehow hesitant—stopped as if sensing the approach of someone from within. The lock made a sharp noise and the door opened a crack.

"What the—?" said the young man, blinking away the hall light that shone in past the barely open door and through the fingers of his raised hand. "Do you know what time it is?"

"My apologies for the brouhaha," said the man standing on the welcome mat. He was very short, dark, and wore black Nikes, black linen trousers, a black turtleneck tee, and held a pair of black leather gloves in his right hand. He pronounced the syllables of "brouhaha" as three separate words. "My name is Mickey. You Blinky?"

"To my friends," said the young man, and tried smiling, but not hard enough. "What can I do for you that can't wait for morning?" The door opened a few inches wider.

"Well, technically, as it is 3 am, it is morning, but let us not split hairs," said the man in black. He reached into a pocket and took out a piece of paper. "We really need to talk. We're here about this bill for 'costs incurred' you sent to our client."

"I don't understand. What bill? And, uh—we?" said the young man, opening the door even wider to stick his head out to see who else was in the corridor.

"Blinky, meet my associate Vinnie," said Mickey, indicating a big guy with a sunburned face who stood with his shoulder against the wall about a yard from the door. He wore jeans and a maroon-and-yellow tank top, which set off the coiled rattlesnake tattooed on his left bicep. His arms were crossed and he wore black gloves. "Vinnie, Blinky," said Mickey after a beat. Vinnie flared his nostrils in acknowledgment.

"So now that everyone has been introduced," said Mickey, "must we conduct our business on your threshold, like common street peddlers, or can we move our conversation inside?" Whereupon, the man in black extended two fingers from around the gloves in his hand and poked the young man in chest. As the young man rocked backward a few steps, Mickey stepped forward, into the apartment, to maintain his distance. His fingers made contact again and again, until the boy and the man in black were well inside the apartment.

"Hey! C'mon, what's this all about? Leave me alone, or I'll—" said the young man.

"You won't!" said Mickey, grabbing the young man by the arm in the dark. "We must reason together in this matter." Then, back over his shoulder: "Ain't that right, Vinnie?"

Vinnie had followed his partner inside and had closed and locked the door quietly. He made a unintelligible sound that Mickey apparently understood to be an affirmative. Vinnie switched on a light. The young man stood dressed only in a pair of boxers, wincing at the sudden light and trying not to look too hard at his visitors.

"Wh-what's going on? What d-do you guys want?" said the young man.

"This your bill?" said the short man, waving the paper in the youth's face. "The one you sent to your ex?

"Y-yes," said the youth after a moment, nodding slightly.

"Well, it says here the bill's for 'costs incurred during our relationship.' Is that right?"

The youth slowly moved his head up and down.

"And you're serious about this," said Mickey, giving the paper a little shake. "The letters, the phone calls." The young man's head stopped moving and he stood mute.

"So would you agree that—what's it they say?" said Mickey, looking up at the ceiling as if for inspiration, "'what is good for the goose is good for the gander'?"

"Huh?" said the boy.

The short man shook his head in disbelief and looked back at Vinnie. "Some education the kid's got, eh, Vinnie? He dunno that one—college degree an' everything, and he don't know—ain't that something?"

Vinnie gave a little shrug.

Turning back to the kid, Mickey dropped his voice a notch and said, "You gotta figure your ex had some costs in the relationship, too, kid."

The young man said nothing, but swallowed, with some effort.

"So, naturally, you can't expect to be paid the full amount," said Vinnie, speaking to the boy for the first time. Vinnie's voice was unexpectedly deep, smooth, and refined.

The kid looked at Vinnie, then at Mickey. "S-sure," he says, "no problem. I can settle for less." A spark of hope began to glimmer in his voice.

"Well, that's too bad, because see, you can't expect to settle at all," said the short man, as he began to don his black leather gloves. "Especially, considering how your ex incurred one huge cost by hiring Vinnie and me to come here and beat you within an inch of your life."

"Hold still, now, Blinky."

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Duke Jacobs looked up at the smear of the Milky Way that stretched across the night sky above his wilderness camp site and wondered what it would have been like to explore the universe. Then he looked over at Max, the mutt that he and Ann had rescued from the pound, so many years ago, and wondered which of them would die first—the dog, of old age, or he, by blowing his brains out before the inoperable cancer in his guts killed him. He put his hand on the .45 caliber pistol that was strapped to his thigh. The Montana wilderness was no place to go unarmed.

Ann had died almost three months previously when, as the driver of a pickup drifted off to sleep, his truck wandered into the oncoming lane and struck Ann's car head-on. With Ann gone, Duke was ready to stick the barrel of the pistol in his mouth and pull the trigger, except for the thin thread of comfort he derived from knowing that memories of Ann were still lodged somewhere in Max's canine brain. As long as Max was alive, thought Duke, he had a living link to Ann.

Duke pictured Ann in his mind and recalled the time—

Whereupon Ann stepped out of the bushes across the little clearing where he and Max were camped. She was naked in the dim glow of the campfire. Then she stepped toward him.

Ann?...Alive? Duke's thoughts raced. Or is this a ghost?...It looks like Ann…But do ghosts move branches out of their way when they walk? In his peripheral vision, Duke saw Max stand up and look at Ann. Do dogs see ghosts, too? he wondered, and knew something was wrong.

A moment later, Duke's .45 was pointed at the approaching figure. "Stop! Don't come any closer!" he said. Then Max made a low growling sound, whereupon the figure's eyes turned vaguely reptilian and a moment later, its body began to unravel. Over the next second or two, Max yelped as if struck by something, Duke quickly fired two rounds at center of mass of whatever it was, and that mass disappeared in a bright green flash.

What the— thought Duke, and looked over at Max. Something had sliced into Max's side, and deeply. There was a pool of blood on the ground and Max's breathing was labored.

"Hello?" called a voice. "Hello! You, there, please don't shoot. Let me approach. I can help."

"Come on out," said Duke, and pointed his pistol in the direction of the voice. A squat old man in a skin-tight uniform emerged with hands raised from the bushes near where Ann's simulacrum had appeared. "Who are you?" asked Duke. "And what was—that?"

"My name is N'klaus," said the man. "And before I start answering your questions, would you please point your kinetic energy weapon elsewhere?"

"Not right now, buddy," said Duke. "Something that looked like my dead wife just showed up out of nowhere, took a piece out of my dog, and then went 'poof.' You want to tell me what's going on?" The old man thought for a moment, then sighed as he came to a decision. His hands remained in the air.

"I am not of your world," said the man, pausing as if he expected to be shot on the spot. After a moment, he continued: "I am an interstellar trader. A Gydra I was transporting to a zoological client seduced my co-pilot telepathically and forced my ship to land here. Then it killed my co-pilot and decided to escape before killing me. Once loose on this world, the Gydra almost immediately found you and again used its telepathic power, this time to assume a form that would allow it to approach and kill you in order to restore its nutritional reserves." The man paused. "Your weapon did nothing. I killed it with a phase disruptor."

A moment later, Duke lowered his pistol and holstered it. "Okay, put down your hands. Your story's so crazy it has to be true." N'klaus lowered his arms. Duke pointed at Max. "Can you help my dog?"

"Yes," said N'klaus, "my ship is not far. Bring your animal and let's see what we can do."

In the darkness, Duke could not make out the size or shape of N'klaus's craft, but he found it roomy enough after he stepped inside. As Duke lay Max down on a counter-like surface, N'klaus asked, "Can I interest you in a job as my new co-pilot?"

"Not really," said Duke. "First, I wouldn't know the first thing about driving this thing, and second, the tumors growing inside me make the prospect of holding any kind of long-term employment look pretty lousy. Now, how about helping Max?"

"But you are smart, intuitive, resourceful, have excellent reflexes, and willing to act and to place the welfare of others ahead of your own. All excellent traits," said the old man, placing a hand on Duke's arm. "Let me be frank, I can help Max, and I can help you, but not in the sense of saving either of you physically." Duke frowned. "What are you trying to pull?" he said.

"Hear me out," said N'klaus. "What I can do is transfer your mind, and Max's, into a quantum matrix that happens to be this ship's co-pilot. The matrix is designed to create a link between various parts of your human subconscious and all of the ship's systems, from navigation to life support. You do nothing conscious to guide the ship—nor can you, actually—while otherwise maintaining complete control of your conscious mind. The ship's library is extensive and you'll have access to all sensor data, which means you can be as intellectually active as you choose. Indulge your curiosity. Explore. Get to know Max in a way that no human has ever known a canine. And as long as the ship remains whole, so will your minds."

"What you describe sounds like eternity in solitary confinement," said Duke. "And it also sounds like you can't help Max or me—we may as well die and be done with it."

"What I can offer is what every co-pilot is offered," said N'klaus, and his voice changed subtly. "An unlimited universe to explore until you have enough credits saved to buy yourself—and Max—new biological bodies. I know this place—"

"And how long will it take to save enough to do that?"

"Co-pilots get 50% of the profits of any venture, so it depends on what we decide to do. What do you say?"

Duke looked down at Max, whose breathing had by now become very shallow. "What do you say, boy?" he said to the dog. "Go for it?" Max opened his eyes and feebly licked Duke's hand.

Duke thought for a moment and then turned to N'klaus and said: "You've got yourself a co-pilot, and his dog."

alexpgp: (Default)
“Here we are,” said the minister, as the small party passed through the low doorway, and the prisoner was so surprised by what lay beyond the threshold that, for a moment or two, he stopped struggling. He had expected a dungeon, but the chamber beneath the castle was huge: roughly in the shape of a cube some one hundred feet on a side with openings arranged around the top of the walls to provide light.

Except for a blood-spattered, knee-high block of wood on the floor, the chamber was empty, if you didn’t count the men who had entered and the elephant standing in the middle of the space.

“And so, my good fellow,” said the minister, extending his arms, “your task is this. You are to make the elephant disappear from this essentially subterranean chamber. I must inform you, additionally, that the walls and floor are made of solid rock masonry and are impenetrable. You have one hour to accomplish this task. Succeed, and you will be rewarded. Fail, and your life is forfeit. Any questions?”

The fat guard punched the prisoner in the face as the latter opened his mouth to speak. The young man fell to the floor.

“No questions? Very well then,” said the minister, “see you in an hour.” His voice changed to a malicious singsong: “Good lu-uck!” The minister left the chamber, followed by the guards, who locked the door behind themselves.

One hour later, the door reopened to admit the minister and the guards. The fat guard held an overly large ax in his hands.

The elephant was gone.

The thin guard ran out the door and down the corridor, shouting something unintelligible.

Several minutes later, the king himself appeared in the chamber, where he and the minister and the guards spent some time looking for the elephant, but there was no elephant in the chamber.

“Congratulations, young man,” said the king, finally. “You appear to have achieved the impossible.”

“No, Your Majesty, wait!” said the minister. “This man is a fraud, or worse!” Then, turning to the prisoner, he demanded: “Where has the beast gone? What did you do with it?”

“Well,” began the prisoner, through swollen lips, “it’s sort of complicated, but in any event, it’s irrelevant, because your requirement was to make the elephant disappear, not explain how I did it.” The young man turned to the king. “Your Majesty, I beseech you to hold this man to his word and have him give me the only reward I seek. Release me!”

“Pardon, Your Majesty!” said the minister, before the king could reply. “Forgive me for appearing to speak out of turn, but how the elephant was made to disappear is very, very relevant to the discussion, for as Your Majesty is aware, there is a very strict prohibition within the kingdom on the use of sorcery, and since making the elephant disappear would appear to be impossible without the use of sorcery, the fact of the elephant’s unexplained absence must be explained, so that justice can prevail.”

“What have you to say to this?” asked the king, addressing the prisoner.

“Well, let me hazard a wild speculation and guess that the punishment for sorcery—” the prisoner looked at the minister as if he was peering into the man’s soul, “is death.” Satisfied that his speculation was correct, the prisoner sighed, looked at the king, and said: “I must say, Your Majesty, your minister seems intent on executing me. Why is that?”

The minister gave a little smile and said: “With your permission, Your Majesty, may I explain our ways?” The king raised his eyebrows slightly in assent. “There is no personal animus at work here,” said the minister, addressing the prisoner. “You see, some years ago, our king’s father had a very wise advisor, whose functions I have been performing on behalf of the king’s father—and now the king—since the advisor’s unfortunate and untimely death. This elephant problem was designed for the purpose of finding his replacement, who must be the most clever and resourceful person in the world, as only such a person is good enough to serve our king.” With that, the minister bowed to the king, whose eyes were fixed on the prisoner.

Turning back to the prisoner, the minister continued: “Naturally, candidates who fail the problem must be silenced forever to prevent any of its details from leaking to the outside world, which might allow an impostor to arrive prepared for the problem and thus to pass it and falsely claim the advisor’s post. As for executing sorcerers—well, that’s just a normal function of good government, wouldn’t you agree?” The minister almost chuckled, but quickly recovered his severe tone. “And since you are obviously a sorcerer—”

“Wait,” said the prisoner. “Do you mean to say that you’ve have been putting innocent wanderers to death for some number of years over a problem that has no—shall we say, ‘legal’—solution?” The king’s eyes widened slightly and the furrows in his young brow relaxed upon hearing these words and he turned to hear his minister’s response.

“Well, no, that’s not it at all!” said the minister, and there was a defensive tone in his voice. “Of course there is a way to solve the problem, and the solution most assuredly does not involve sorcery. But in the end, you see, only the most clever person—one capable of being the king’s advisor—will find the solution.”

“I apparently found it,” said the prisoner. “The elephant is gone.”

“Then show us how you did it,” said the minister.

The young man turned to the king. “Your Majesty, I will be most happy to show you how I made the elephant disappear if first you require the minister to demonstrate how to do so without the use of sorcery. Your Majesty can then compare our methods, assess their similarities and differences, and make any necessary decisions.”

“That would not be a problem at all,” said the minister, addressing the king. “But alas, the elephant is gone, so I cannot make it disappear. The prisoner is wasting our time. Let the guards deal with him, sire.”

“Actually,” said the prisoner, looking past the other men in the chamber, “there’s the elephant right behind you.” The men turned and reacted visibly when they saw the elephant, which had indeed reappeared. The king was the first to recover his composure. He turned to the prisoner, whose face was calm, and then to his minister, whose face had paled.

“Why don’t you show us how it’s done, minister?” said the king. “I believe the standard time limit is what, one hour, to make the animal go away? And death if you fail?” He smiled and motioned the prisoner to the door of the chamber and turned to the trembling minister as he paused at the threshold. “Unless I’m mistaken, I think I’ve found my advisor.”

alexpgp: (Default)
Time travel is not all it's cracked up to be, at least not for amateurs.

For one thing, the process apparently conveys only what's "inside" your skin, in your body, so if you put a coin in your mouth and hold another coin in your hand, the one in your hand won't make it. At least that's my theory, based on the fact I arrived with all my dental work intact.

I'm also thinking that it's impossible to properly pronounce the words for time travel unless your mouth is completely free of obstruction, so the whole coin-in-the-mouth idea is probably moot. What is not moot are my chances—zero—of getting back to my time, since I was holding the book with the words to go back in my left hand when the lights went out and I started traveling back through time.

I regained consciousness in an alley in a sleepy village that looked relatively recent and European. I was naked—clothes, like books, don't survive time travel—and the first group of villagers who saw me didn't seem too happy, as they started yelling and gesticulating as they ran toward me. In fact, the tone of their voices—vaguely French-sounding—seemed downright hostile, and when one of them stopped to grab a pitchfork before renewing his headlong rush in my direction, I got the hint and quickly looked around for refuge. I managed to make it through the door of the village church before the pick-up vigilance committee could skewer me.

The village priest was a kind, patient fellow who saw to the wounds on my bare feet, clothed me, fed me, and accepted my story—expressed in halting high-school French—of being a foreigner set upon by criminals who had stolen every stitch of my clothing before dumping me, unconscious, where I had awakened. He told me I had been left in the village of Villefranche-sur-Hôc, and that I was welcome to stay at the church until I regained my feet. For about a week, I slept in an outbuilding on the church grounds, did odd jobs, and took stock of my situation.

And my situation was grim. I was a child of the late 20th century, adequately schooled for my time but with no skills useful in the now. I could use a keyboard, but not even typewriters had been invented yet (forget computers). I could fly a small airplane, but I couldn't build one. I could drive a car, but knew nothing of horses or carts. I was literate, but my foreign language skills were poor, and nobody in town wanted to learn English, at least not from someone who was dressed like a charity case, which is what I was.

Now was 1867 and knowing that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated two years before while attending a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. did nothing to help me put bread on the table. Moreover, the arcane knowledge I had accumulated in my pre-time-travel youth—such as a 2008 catalog value of $14,000 for a mint specimen of a pink three-cent U.S. postage stamp printed in 1861 and depicting George Washington—was of no use at all.

The only work I was apparently fit for was physical labor, and it was all I could do to keep body and soul together with my pay, which wasn't much considering my lack of skill and knowledge in just about every practical area. There were times I seriously considered stepping off the town's bridge into the rushing water below.

Then one afternoon, after a day spent digging post holes since shortly after sunup, I was walking back to my mattress in the loft above the town's stable when I happened to glance through the window of the café and saw two well-dressed young men eating, drinking, and playing chess. The owner wouldn't let a dirty, seedy-looking character like me inside, so I stood on the street and watched the men play.

They were playing for money, and although I was no master, my 20th century experience playing chess against the hustlers in Greenwich Village told me I could handily beat both of the fellows on the other side of the glass. And if they were playing for money, well—an idea started to form dimly in my mind.

As the pair climbed into their carriage to resume their journey, I caught enough of their conversation to understand they were headed to Paris, where a great tournament was to be played at the Café de la Régence.

The light came completely on inside my head and the despair that I had felt since awakening in this 19th century world suddenly vanished.

Two months later, after having sacrificed the three gold caps on my molars for a new suit of clothes and passage to Paris, I walked into the Café de la Régence, and sat down to play a few, uh, friendly games for moderate stakes. A few hours later, I walked out with enough cash to get by comfortably for at least a month.

In the years since that day, I haven't forgotten my future self. I've put together quite a collection of classic French postage stamps, which I've bought at face value in between visits to the Café. Conservatively speaking, the collection will be worth about six million dollars by the time I buy the miserable book of incantations that brought me here. Maybe, if my future self comes into possession of this collection, I won't ever run across that book!

So all I have to figure out now is this: How do I send something to myself a century hence?

alexpgp: (OldGuy)
“Do you think that’s the town, sir?” asked Godfrey, the older of the two horsemen that sat on their mounts inside the forest’s fringe, looking out at clump of low dwellings that lay about a mile distant in the middle of a flat grassland. A third horse, loaded with weapons and provisions, stood tethered to the older man’s horse.

“I pray it is,” answered Arthur. “Our food and silver are depleted, requiring this aspiring knight,” he said, using his thumb to point to himself, “to find employment for himself and his arms-bearer.” He threw a smile at Godfrey, and then kicked his horse into motion, emerging from the woods and heading directly for a path that led to the town. The older man followed.

“Would you take a look at that, sir?” said Godfrey, as they drew near to the settlement. He gestured toward the town’s ramparts, which seemed to be collapsing inward, toward the settlement. “That wall would hardly keep out a disgruntled sheep, much less anything bigger. What were they thinking when they built it?” A lifetime ago, Godfrey had fought in many campaigns, attaining the rank of sergeant before losing an eye in battle. He knew something of fortifications.

“We’ll soon find out,” said Arthur, as the gates opened and a small crowd of prosperously dressed men came out to greet them and escort them into the settlement. It was indeed the right town, Redemar by name, and word of Arthur’s interest in solving the town’s problem had preceded him.

“Sir Knight,” began the mayor once Arthur had been seated with the other town elders and the company served food and drink, “permit me to come to the point by saying that our humble town has for these past twenty years suffered the depredations of a dragon that preys on the flower of the town’s womanhood.” A supportive rumble rose from the assembled elders.

“Every year, this dragon requires us to take two of our fairest maidens to a cave near the sea, located a day’s ride northeast,” continued the mayor, waving an arm as if to indicate the direction, “where we must chain them to the wall and abandon them to await the dragon’s ravenous appetite. Only in this way does this beast consent to leave the town alone to engage in commerce and wrest a living from its fields. Will you help us?” The eyes of the mayor and of the elders were wet with tears. “Will you deliver us from this monster?”

“I will,” said Arthur.

“I must warn you, however,” said the elder sitting next to the mayor, “that many brave knights that have agreed to help us have never returned.” The mayor shot the man a dirty look, saying, “Verily, it is a mission fraught with danger.” Then he turned to Arthur and said, “Which is why we appeal to you, as a stalwart and fearless knight, to render succor to us.”

The next few hours were spent ironing out the terms, conditions, and remuneration for freeing the town of the dragon. Then Arthur joined Godfrey in separate quarters that had been hastily prepared for the two visitors.

“I don’t like it,” said Godfrey, after Arthur explained their mission. “I took my grub in the kitchen, and the servants – women, all of ‘em – were solemn as churchmen. They all of them kept their distance from me and said hardly a word, as if they were afraid of being seen with me or talking to me.”

“Maybe they’re put off by your eye patch,” suggested Arthur. “Or perhaps they’re just afraid of the dragon.”

“Whatever they’re afraid of, it’s no dragon, sir” said Godfrey. “I mean, the mayor says the monster hasn’t harmed anyone or anything in this town for a score of years, right? And it’s certain none of ‘em need fear being chained in the cave, as they have aged far beyond their years.”

Arthur shrugged and sat down to let Godfrey undo his boots and leggings. “It’s a paying job, at any rate,” he said.

“Can’t argue with that,” said the arms-bearer, kneeling to unlace his master’s leathers. “But did you notice how, when they were taking us to the mayor’s house, they took us well around the main square, when it would have made more sense to take us through the square instead?”

“Not really,” said Arthur, and yawned. “You think they were hiding something?”

“I don’t know. I glimpsed some small sacks in the middle of the square, soiled with something and sitting among some cobbling stones,” said Godfrey. “But people kept standing in my way, so I don’t really know what they were.”

“I’d put it out of your mind,” said Arthur. “We have a hard day of travel tomorrow. Get some sleep.”

“I will, sir,” said Godfrey. “Good night to you.”

* * *

Arthur and Godfrey made good time the following day, gaining the cliff above the sea while the sun was still high in the sky. They dismounted and pitched camp several hundred yards from the entrance to the cave, the location of which an elder had insisted on describing to them.

“Don’t you have a map?” Godfrey had asked, interrupting the short, hirsute man who stank of sweat and ale. “No maps!” exclaimed the elder, and his eyes bulged from their sockets. “It is an evil place that cannot be drawn on a map! The very idea is sacrilege!”

Arthur wore his mail shirt and carried his sword and shield into the cave. Godfrey followed, carrying a cocked crossbow loaded with a heavy silver bolt. They found two sets of chains embedded in the cave wall about a dozen yards in from the entrance.

“No sign of mayhem,” said Godfrey. “No bones, no cloth.”

“The beast likely drags his prizes to its lair before devouring them,” replied Arthur. Godfrey grunted noncommittally. After reconnoitering the area inside the cave entrance, the men withdrew to their camp and ate a cold meal, then retired with Godfrey taking the first watch.

Some time long after the sun had set and the Great Bear was standing on its nose above the Pole Star, Godfrey shook his master awake. “Something is climbing the cliff,” he whispered, then turned and brought the crossbow to his shoulder. As Arthur looked toward the cliff and the starry sky beyond, a scrabbling dark mass rose above the line of the cliff and blocked out a portion of the stars. A few moments later, a soft hissing sound could be heard and the odor of sulfur tinged the air.

“Hail, sir knight,” said a rasping voice, “and crossbowman, too. I presume you are the latest party sent to kill me?” Godfrey shot his crossbow at the center of the massive shadow.

“Oh, my!” said the dragon. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ in answer to my question.” There was a short scratching sound and a moment later, the bolt landed at Godfrey’s feet. “I would be grateful if you refrain from shooting at me again, crossbowman. At least, not until after we have spoken. Permit me.” The dragon squirted a small pool of burning naphtha on the ground between them, which provided a brilliant light.

“What do we have to speak about, accursed beast?” said Arthur, shielding his eyes from the sudden brightness of the naphtha’s flame.

“Well, for one thing,” rasped the dragon, “besides you calling me an ‘accursed beast’ and the fact your man just tried to kill me, there is whatever else you might have planned for me, all because those scrofulous misogynes in Redemar cannot stand the thought of letting any woman escape their clutches – even if it is to suffer what they might gleefully imagine to be a slow, horrible death – and so hire men like you to kill me.”

“So you want to say the women die quickly, is that it?” asked Arthur.

“My dear knight,” said the dragon, “they don’t die at all!”

“I don’t believe you,” said Arthur, after a moment’s silence.

“Well, then take a look at me, at my size,” said the dragon. “If I were inclined to eat humans, don’t you think I’d require several more than just two per year? And further, if I were actually interested in eating humans, wouldn’t it make sense for me to require delivery of those with the most meat on their bones instead of those who are the most beautiful?”

“Makes sense to me,” muttered Godfrey, and his stance relaxed.

“You look like a man who has seen military service,” said the dragon to Godfrey. “Did you notice how the walls of the town are better suited to keep people in than keep anything else out?”

“Now that you mention it,” said the arms-bearer, “that’s exactly right. I didn’t make the connection at the time. It wouldn’t have made sense.”

“The walls are there to prevent escape,” said the dragon. “And did you happen to notice the ‘decorations’ in the town square?”

“No,” replied Godfrey. “We were led around the square, but I think I saw some kind of sacks.”

“Sacks, eh? About the right size to hold, say, a small melon? Soiled? With several rocks immediately nearby?” asked the dragon.

“Yes,” replied Arthur, “that’s right. What were they?”

“The town fathers of Redemar have drawn up special laws that apply to women,” said the dragon. “Who they may speak with, who they may associate with, when they may leave their residence and with whom, that sort of thing. Punishments vary. Rape – which occurs quite frequently – is punishable by flogging the woman in public. Adultery – an offense very loosely defined – carries a range of punishments, from forcing the woman to wear a chastity belt of barbaric design to wrapping the woman in a white muslin bag and burying her up to her neck in the center of the public square, so that only her head remains above the ground, whereupon the unfortunate creature is stoned to death.”

“If the townsmen are as evil as that,” asked Arthur, after another silence, “then why not destroy them? And why save only two per year?”

“I am an old,” said the dragon, “and coming to the end of my days. I have seen and known much, and though I have drunk delight of battle… I know enough to realize that cutting down townsmen – as tarnished as their souls might be – is a sure way to bring down the king’s wrath and my premature demise. Still, my gray spirit yearns to do what it can before life's end, some work of noble note, and to die unashamed, having won some victory – however small – for what is right. Is that so bad?”

The two men and the dragon were silent for yet another moment. Then the knight asked, “How do we know you’re telling the truth? And if the women brought here are alive, where are they? What have you done with them?”

“Well, to answer your first question,” said the dragon, and turned to unleash a brilliant stream of burning naphtha that arced a hundred feet out over the sea, “consider the fact that I haven’t incinerated you, despite my every right to do so in answer to your bolt. To answer the rest of your questions, come to the cave tomorrow morning, when the sun is a hand’s breadth above the horizon. Now, I shall take my leave and go eat my fill of my favorite sea plants.” With these words, the dragon’s bulk withdrew back over the cliff and disappeared.

* * *

The next day, knight and arms-bearer entered the cave to find two beautiful young women dressed in traveling clothes. Each stood confidently next to a small, sturdy strongbox. A third strongbox stood near the cave entrance.

“I am Miranda,” said the taller of the two young women. “And I am Evelyn,” said her companion. “We were brought here from Redemar as a sacrificial offering to the dragon. We have spent the last year in the dragon’s palace far below our feet, where we were treated better than we had ever been treated before in our lives and where – among other things – we learned to read words and write our names.” Evelyn thrust a folded paper at Godfrey, who took it. “This is a map showing how to reach the Great Northern City without going past or near Redemar.”

“The dragon says it is time for us to go out and make our way in the world,” said Miranda, “but he wants to make sure that - like our predecessors - we do not travel without a knight to protect us, as he has given us these chests of gold with which to start our lives.” Miranda pointed to the chests at her and Evelyn's feet. “If you will be our champion, the gold in that chest shall be your reward,” she said, indicating the chest near the entrance.

“The townsmen lied to us, sir,” whispered Godfrey, “we owe them no fealty.”

“I agree,” said Arthur, and held out his hands to the two women. “The day grows older as we speak. Let us make ready to depart!”

alexpgp: (Default)
"I am getting a strong association with Scotland," said the woman on the raised platform in the center of the studio. She was dressed casually, unremarkably. She faced a group of about thirty people, seated in a rough semicircle so as to give her maximum visibility of their faces and body language. The microphones in the ceiling were "hot" and the studio's video cameras were rolling. The woman's eyes darted from face to face, alert for any sign of reaction.

She found it in Maximilian Attenmort's face. It was that half-shocked, half-expectant response she had come to expect of someone anxious to hear from the dead. She had seen it a million times before. She cocked an eyebrow. "You, sir?" she asked.

"My…" said Maximilian, and paused. In that split second, he recalled the first part of his and Bonnie's short life together. Falling in love, and then getting married and honeymooning with her near Edinburgh.

"Someone very close to you, sir?" asked the woman. Given Maximilian's body language, this question was a no-brainer. “Your wife?” The way his shoulders relaxed, Maximilian may as well have shouted "Yes!" at her.

"Yes," said Maximilian, recovering his voice. His eyes misted slightly as, in the next instant, he relived the diagnosis and the remaining four brief months of their life together. "She was my wife," he said.

"The two of you shared something of Scotland, is that right?" asked the woman. When she saw Maximilian's head cock and the lips purse slightly, she realized her mistake and changed course, "Or perhaps you spent time there together? A happy time. A honeymoon?" The man's moist eyes made the question plausible.

“Yes,” said Maximilian.

“Your wife says she fondly recalls your time together in Scotland,” said the woman, and by now, she was operating automatically, not communing with the dead – clearly that was not possible – but capably reading the myriad of signals being transmitted by Maximilian’s face and posture in response to her prompts. It was like playing the children’s game of “hot and cold,” but about a million times more complicated, where what one sought shifted a little after every question. This last suggestion, for example, was clearly not what the man was seeking to hear.

“You’re wondering whether she has a message for you,” said the woman. It was not a question. Maximilian nodded. His heart was pounding, because shortly before Bonnie had died, she had read about how, on his deathbed, Harry Houdini had shared a secret message with his wife Bess, which Houdini promised to communicate to Bess from the beyond if there was any way for the dead to speak to the living. Crying and hugging each other, Maximilian and Bonnie had agreed upon a similar code for Bonnie to use to send messages to Maximilian, if it were possible to do so.

The first message was the name “Julia Child,” because Bonnie had loved to cook and was a fan of French cuisine in particular. Receiving this message would signify Bonnie’s confirming the existence of an afterlife to Maximilian. The second part of the code was the name “José Capablanca,” selected because Maximilian could play many of the Cuban chess champion’s games from memory. This would be a sign that love persisted across eternity, and that Maximilian and Bonnie would certainly be reunited in the hereafter.

“We had a code,” said Maximilian. “Like Houdini and his wife.”

On hearing this, the woman paused to explain, more for the benefit of the audience than Maximilian, how the connection she had with the spirit world was tenuous and not conducive to for communicating precise, word-for-word messages. Having thus subtly disclaimed any potential failure on her part, the woman turned her attention back to Maximilian.

“It was sudden, her death, wasn’t it?” the woman asked. Seeing Maximilian’s hesitation, she continued, “In the sense of unexpected, yes?” A saddening about the eyes and a nod confirmed the statement. “An accident?” Nothing there. “Childbirth?” Something there, strong, but still not it. “A disease, yes?” Bull’s-eye, said the muscles in Maximilian’s face. “Yes,” he said a moment later. “It was cancer.”

“But there were children involved,” said the woman, going back to explore that avenue. Quickly realizing it was a dead end, she backtracked and continued with “No, not children, but a child. Am I right?” Maximilian’s eyes brightened considerably, confirming her guess.

“In a way,” said Maximilian. His enigmatic answer, and the tone in which it was delivered told the woman that “child” was not meant literally.

“But not an actual child,” said the woman. What could it be? “A pet, perhaps?” No, said the corners of Maximilian’s mouth, but there was still some strong emotion there, coiled like a spring waiting to be released. “Some object,” continued the woman, “a knick-knack, a book?” She was floundering, but something about Maximilian changed when she mentioned a book. “No,“ continued the woman, now relying on instinct,” it’s a person, isn’t it?”

Maximilian may as well have plastered his answer on a billboard. “Yes,” he said, “that’s right. My wife loved to cook.”

The last sentence was inadvertent, but it gave the woman an opening that she exploited immediately. “Your wife wants to send a message about Julia Child,” she said, without further comment. It was a dramatic moment that, later, the entire audience would swear had come as a bolt from the blue and not as a natural inference from what Maximilian had said. Upon hearing the name, Maximilian’s entire demeanor changed. It was as if he began to have trouble breathing.

Still, the show was going very well, felt the woman. They’re eating out of my hand, she thought.

The woman stepped off the platform, walked up to Maximilian, and gave him a small hug. “Was that the message?” she asked, just loudly enough for the microphones. Maximilian nodded and said yes, but the stiffness in his body told her there was something else to find here. As she went back to the platform, her mind integrated everything she had observed up close about Maximilian, from the suddenly unhealthy pallor of his skin, to the Timex watch on his wrist, to the tack on Maximilian’s tie, shaped like a chess piece.

“I get the impression, though, that ‘Julia Child’ is not the entire message?” asked the woman, turning to face Maximilian after mounting the platform. “It’s an almost overpowering feeling. Is there another part to the message?” The way Maximilian’s arms dropped to his sides told her she was still on a roll.

“Yes,” said Maximilian, and he seemed to be struggling with something. What was it, wondered the woman. As she was about to probe further, a clear feminine voice whispered inside her head.

“José Capablanca?” she parroted, unable to keep the rising inflection out of her voice. She looked away from Maximilian, with a look of surprise on her face. She had never heard the name before in her life. Or any voice in her head, for that matter.

Upon hearing the name of the great Cuban grandmaster, Maximilian Attenmort’s eyes filled with tears one last time, and with a smile of angelic joy on his face, he collapsed on the floor. His last thought, as the darkness coalesced around a distant point of light, was of rejoining Bonnie in the next life.


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