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  1. It was just the kind of bar he was looking for. The sign above the door hung askew. Two drunks lay on the cracked and broken sidewalk. A cold wind pushed fitfully at Fick's thin jacket. Trash lay piled in odd corners. He stepped over one of the drunks and went inside. The room lay cloaked in shadow. Fick stood for a moment, savoring the rancid mix of waterfront mixed with stench of cheap beer and vomit. It reminded him of his favorite dive in Kiel, when he ran a couple girls back in the thirties. “Looking for someone?” The speaker slouched on a stool at the end of the bar. “Ja, needz visky.” The man stood up and moved behind the bar. “What'd he say?” His question was directed toward a bright green and red parrot occupying a large cage hanging over one end of the bar. “Give him a boilermaker, Sidney.” rasped the parrot. Fick stared at the parrot for a long moment, then shrugged and took a stool. A shot glass and mug appeared in front of him. The whiskey burned as it went down. He gasped and sipped the brew. The beer was even worse than the whiskey, but it was cool and obviously heavy on the alcohol. He wiped his mouth. “Zankz. Chust ze zing fer zirzty man.” Sidney shook his head. “Run that by again.” Before Fick could reply the parrot chimed in. “He said thanks.” With a bored lift of one shoulder the bartender sauntered back to his position at the end of the bar. He filled a cup from a coffee carafe and began working at a crossword puzzle. Silence settled over the room. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light Fick noted several hunched figures at tables in the back. None moved or spoke. Occasionally Sidney would mutter something and make a few marks on the puzzle. The parrot seemed to be imitating a statue. Thus passed an hour or more. Fick was long used to nursing a drink for as long as possible, having always been somewhat light on funds, even in his days as a pimp. Finally, as he finished the last of the beer, the bartender stood up. “Want another?” Fick replied in his best Germlish. Again the words seemed to make no sense to the barkeep. “Just a beer,” said the parrot. A fresh beer appeared before Fick. He studied the parrot. Birds, generally, were of little interest to the former SS thug. Except to eat. This one, however, piqued his curiosity. He turned and asked Sidney what the bird's name was and how he'd come to live over the bar. “I don't know what language you're speaking, friend. I thought I'd heard them all.” The parrot made an exasperated sound. “Same old questions, Sid.” He turned a malignant eye on Fick. “Call me Ishmael.” “Izzmaal,” murmured Fick. The name meant nothing to him. Literature wasn't a topic of discussion in his circles. “As to how I came to live here, it's none of your business.” Fick nodded and turned back to his beer. Whatever curiosity he had died as the result of a short attention span, product of too many shots and beers. Conversation expired. Sidney returned to his puzzle. Someone in the back cut a fart, eliciting bored laughter. Fick worked on the alleged barley-based brew. As he neared the bottom of his drink the door creaked open and a squat figure lurched in. With a maniacal laugh and a torrent of squeaks the thing waddled to the bar and laboriously clambered on to a stool. A skeletal fist thumped the bar, accompanied by more painful squeaking. Sidney slowly approached. His caution was due to the anomalous appearance of the creature. It appeared to be clad in a heap of burlap bags. Well worn bags. Tatters and strings stood out in all directions. A partly burned leather helmet sat atop what was probably a head. Bulbous eyes stared madly from scorched goggles. “Any idea what he's saying?” asked the bartender. Fick nodded. Itchie Crotchie's Germlish was barely understandable, laced as it was with pungent Asian expletives, some of which Fick thought he understood. “Visky. Gif visky. Bik visky.” Before Sidney could respond, the parrot explained. “Whiskey. A large glass. Better put it in a mug. Make it the cheap stuff.” “Okay.” Sid retrieved an unmarked jug from under the bar and poured a chipped mug full. Itchie clasped it with both hands and slurped noisily. “Who's paying?” asked Sidney. Fick stared meaningfully at Itchie, to no avail. The little shit just sat there, slugging back booze and mumbling to himself. With a sigh, Fick opened his wallet and extracted a sheaf of bills. Sidney sorted through the pile until he found a few twenty dollar bills. “I'll let you know when these run out.” “Ja,” agreed Fick. Before he could ask for more beer the parrot spoke up. “Give the jerk another boilermaker. He's gonna need it.” Fick frowned at the bird. Questions faded as Sid placed another shot and beer on the bar. Fick tossed back the whiskey. It didn't burn nearly as bad this time. A couple sips into the beer he remembered the bird's warning. As he began mumbling a question the door slammed back against the wall admitting a swirl of chill air and a large black helmet with legs. Even the parrot was struck dumb. Sid eased off his stool and reached for the sawed-off shotgun he kept under the bar. Itchie gibbered some nonsense between slurps, lost to anything other than the strange shapes that slithered and slid between the few nodes of life in his diseased brain. Fick swung slowly on his stool. Helmet Legs shoved the door shut and stomped toward the bar. “How they hangin', Fick?” “Mein Gott! Dark Helmet!” Fick lapsed into confused mumbling. “Beer, barkeep!” cried DH. He turned around, displaying a well-known beer company logo. “I'm your new sales rep! A round for the house.” Itchie got a fresh mug. The shapes in back roused for free beer then lapsed into their customary inertia. Fick had another boilermaker lined up behind the beer he was still working on. Even the parrot got a saucer of beer. DH settled in behind a tall, frosty mug of something Fick suspected was a lot better than what he had. The thought vanished down into the sticky muck. He was used to subsisting on the dregs. Curiosity, that stranger to Fick's life, bloomed again, like a bad weed. “I thot du vas vorkingk vor ein Emperor.” He was fairly certain DH would understand the Germlish. “The Emperor is dead,” said the parrot. “Nein!” wailed Fick. “Nein!” He lapsed into a Germlish monologue familiar to all barflies. Sidney looked at Dark Helmet, then at the parrot. “What's he going on about now?” “Nothing that makes sense,” explained DH. “He's drunk.” “Who's this Emperor?” asked Sidney. “Nobody important,” said the parrot. “An evil overlord who imagined himself a cut above the rest.” “That's baloney.” Sidney laughed and shook his head. “Okay. Don't tell me.” The parrot sipped the last of his beer. “Doesn't matter anyway, Sid. The Emperor is dead.” Dark Helmet nodded. His helmet clanked on the bar. “True. He's dead.” Lifting his mug, DH saluted the parrot. “I could use a . . . bird like you. The pay is good.” “Thanks. No. This place suits me.” Itchie emitted a low moan and toppled off his stool. A sodden thump announced his arrival on the stained wood floor. “Another one bites the dust,” muttered DH. He slid to the floor and slipped out the door. No one except the parrot noticed him leave. Fick staggered out before the ambulance arrived, still mumbling a confused line of nonsense. When Itchie had been hauled away Sidney anxiously surveyed the room. “The helmet clod is gone,” said the parrot. “So is that kraut drunk.” “Damn! Helmet guy didn't pay for the round.” “That ain't all, Sidney. Those twenties you got from the kraut are counterfeit.” Sid collected glasses and mopped at the counter. He waxed philosophical. “Don't matter. When Benny hears about it they won't last long. It's not like they'll be hard to find.” The parrot shuddered. “Benny's not a nice . . . ah . . . whatever he is.” “Dragons are like that.” Sidney sighed and went back to his crossword. End
  2. The muse appeared after a long absence, somewhat disheveled and reeking of bad whisky. Anyhow, she carried a page torn from a book. Scrawled on the page was the basic idea for this tale. Having writ, I decided to inflict it on you lot. Ahab in the Afterlife Fifth Under Clerk Boswell watched as the last occupant of Purgatory made his way up to the reception desk. The man stumped his way slowly up the last steps and looked around. “A sailor, sir,” whispered Bartleby, Second Scrivener. He stood behind and slightly to one side of the Under Clerk. “Obviously,” sneered Boswell. “What gave you the first clue? The wooden leg? Tattered pea coat?” Bartleby shot a quick, graphic gesture toward Boswell's back. “Skin that remains sun-darkened even after years in the Purg, sir. What is that great spear he's dragging along?” “Search me. You're the keeper of odd information. Fifth Under Clerks can't be bothered with such trivia.” Boswell sniffed. “Whatever it is, he'll have to leave it outside.” “I'm sure you're right, sir.” Privately Bartleby wondered if he shouldn't call Security. The approaching man's face had a hard, vicious cast to it. “Good day,” called Boswell as the hulking figure halted a few steps from the desk. “Your name, please, so we may decide your future status.” “Have ye seen him?” cried the man. “Moby Dick. Have ye seen the creature?” “Ah . . .” Boswell glanced around, startled. “We – we have no – have welcomed no one by that name.” He dove to the white marble floor, dodging the mad motion of the wooden handled implement gripped in the man's right fist. “Moby Dick. That be his name. The White Whale!” Boswell huddled behind his desk. “We – that is – Bartleby! Call Security before this madman takes my head off!” Bartleby had already moved well beyond reach of the spear. “I believe it to be a harpoon, sir. Not a spear. Our mariner was evidently a whaler in life.” Calming somewhat, the man turned his ferocious glare on the Second Scrivener. “A whaler I am. Ahab, by name.” “Ahab. Ahab.” Bartleby ignored his whining Under Clerk and made his way to a bank of files. “The name is familiar.” He pawed through a pile of scrolls and selected one. “Here it is. The Final Sinner in Purgatory to be Granted Early Entrance to the Celestial Realm On Account of Closure of That Same Venue; to wit: Purgatory. Your name is therein inscribed, Mr. Ahab.” “Captain Ahab, to you, sonny.” Bartleby bowed. “Of course, Captain. A thousand pardons.” Ahab banged the marble floor with his harpoon. “Moby Dick! The White Whale! For nigh on two hundred years I searched Purgatory for the beast. Not a trace. Where lies the Celestial Ocean? There he will be, there I will hunt and kill him again. He will not escape me.” Fifth Under Clerk Boswell climbed back into his chair and made an attempt to regain control. “Sir. Mister . . . ah . . . Captain. Please put down your weapon. You can't take that thing into Heaven.” In answer, Ahab snapped the harpoon down, bringing it to a rock steady position a hairbreadth from Boswell's left eye. “Can't what? See that iron? Forged in blood it was. With it I took Moby Dick's life and with this same iron I will rid Heaven of the beast.” Boswell fainted. His slack body slid to the floor. Ahab glared at Bartleby. “Who is he? Has he no taste for sharp iron?” “His name is Boswell, Captain. He has no taste for melodrama, especially in the form of dangerous equipage and weaponry.” “Well . . . I'll not have him sailing with me on the hunt for the White Whale.” “A prospect that is unlikely to dismay him, Captain.” Bartleby hesitated. “I may have information that will be of value to you – in your hunt.” Ahab clumped around Boswell's desk and sat in the Under Clerk's chair. “Don't try to hinder my quest. I would smite the Creator himself were he to stand in my way.” “Exactly, Captain. That sort of language, by the way, is the main reason for your extended stay in Purgatory.” “So. I may have to moderate my speech, if not my intents. I had thought the long sentence had to do with the so-called “madness” of my quest.” “Oh, no. We get those all the time. You can't imagine how many take up the quest to find the Holy Grail.” “Hunting the White Whale is no paltry quest.” The Captain massaged the flesh just above his wooden leg. “Moby Dick took my leg, then my life – but not before I killed him.” “Actually, Captain. Moby Dick didn't die.” “Didn't die? Moby Dick not dead? How can it be?” “Our records indicate that Moby Dick swam away from your place of death, wounded but not unto death. Your . . . ah . . . your remains were attached to the whale by a tangle of ropes.” “The creature bore me away? And him still living. When did he die?” “We don't record such deaths, Captain. It might have been noted in your record if he had died as a result of your . . . harpooning.” The old Captain sat silent for a long time. Boswell began to stir. Finally, Ahab stood up, leaning heavily on his harpoon. For the first time he had the look of a tired old man. “Send me back.” “Pardon? Back where?” “Purgatory or Hell. It matters not to me. I am no fit occupant for Heaven.” “You'd be surprised, Captain.” Bartleby smiled. “Besides, Hell won't have you. Never would. It's in your record. I think they believe you'd soon be in charge. You're not a man to tolerate slackness.” “The road to Hell is crowded with idlers and slackers,” muttered Ahab. “Purgatory, then.” “Out of the question. The place is closed. Orders of the Church.” Ahab sagged even further. “Back to Earth?” “Impossible. But whales aren't hunted there anymore.” Bartleby thought of what Ahab would make of the current inhabitants of Earth. “You wouldn't like it, Captain.” “What then? I am no psalm singer.” “Actually, we don't do much of that here.” The Second Scrivener consulted a card file. “Here's a possibility. The Forces of Good are heavily engaged with things from outside the Galaxy, out on one of the spiral arms . . .” Bartleby's voice trailed off as he saw blank incomprehension on Ahab's face. “Ah . . . just think of it as a distant part of Creation.” “Aye. Outsiders? Some of Moby's kind, I'll warrant.” “Well . . . Moby Dick wasn't really an outsider, but if the analogy works, hang on to it. These Outsiders need hunting and killing . . . or at least to be driven away.” Ahab straightened up. “Sounds fine to me.” He glanced up at the Pearly Gates. “Where can I . . ?” “Go? A guide will be along in a moment.” “No.” The Captain shuffled his foot. “I need to go . . . you know? It's been a long time.” “Oh, sure. Through the gate, first building on the right.” “Thank you.” Again Ahab hesitated. “Can I take my harpoon?” “Take it with you. I have no idea how Outsiders are fought. A harpoon might be just the thing.” End
  3. Old Guy


    I started this story in a post some time ago, then never went beyond that first short blurb. I can't recall why. Maybe I forgot about it. Anyway, I've been working on it and here are the first two parts. The initial section has been somewhat rewritten. Volunteers Gunnyduce, once a lochias (sergeant) in the army of Leonidas, stooped to enter the Simian Spartan barracks. The word "hovel" came to mind as he stood inside the entrance. The interior looked to have been systematically ransacked. Blankets lay helter-skelter. Bits of hardtack and half-eaten onions were strewn across the floor. A goat stood on a cot placidly munching a sandal. Two scruffy sheep were tethered at the back. Simians lay on and under the wreckage, some partly clothed, most not. Gunnyduce picked up a small brown jug and sniffed the contents. "Thrice refined wine. No wonder the lads are under the weather." He uttered a cruel laugh and kicked the nearest body. "Rise and shine! Alert! Fire! Flood! Enemy invasion! Get your asses up and outside! On the double!" For a long moment nothing happened. Then the Simians began to twitch and moan as long disused reflexes took charge. The goat snorted with displeasure and bolted out the door. The sheep began bleating in alarm. Gunnyduce walked outside and took up a position a few paces from the entryway. Eventually Simians began dribbling outside. One or two saw Gunnyduce and began to weep. The others simply collapsed, too far under the influence of vile booze to relate to any form of reality. **** To say Gunnyduce was a hard taskmaster was to minimize the elements of cruelty and sadism hiding under a thin veneer of nastiness. Being a Spartan hoplite in his day meant something a very long way from tender mercy or even stern discipline. Trifling as his connection was with humanitarian ideals, his outlook became permanently warped because he survived the glorious battle at the Hot Gates. Wait, you say. The Three Hundred all died. Well, in round numbers, they did. Three did not die. One, a veteran named Delos, fell from the cliffs during the last stand and found himself clinging to a broken mast, remnant of a Great King's ship smashed in an earlier naval battle. He washed ashore two days later. Another, whose name is not recorded, received a hard blow to the head and fell behind a heap of stones, to remain undiscovered in the later cleanup. Wandering witless, he fell afoul of an Athenian scoundrel and vanished from history. Likely he wound up pulling an oar in an Egyptian barge. The third was Gunnyduce. Sent by his lochargos (commander) to find a new source of water, he was set upon by brigands, knocked senseless, stripped of his armor and weapons, and left for dead. Delos became a silent specter, haunting Sparta. People tried to befriend him but he would have none of it, shunning all human contact. His only companion was a mongrel mutt with no name. After a year of this, he and the dog disappeared. Later a traveler reported seeing such a pair in the wilds of Macedonia. They were probably eaten by the savages of that land. Gunnyduce hunted down his attackers and reclaimed his equipment, save for his sword, which the brigands had sold to a passing Persian trader Surviving the battle the way he did and losing his sword was not as bad as, for instance, having been bested in combat by an Amazon, but though he found grudging acceptance in Sparta, no Hundred would have him, not as a lochias, not as a mere hoplite in the ranks. Embittered, he roamed the country, selling his sword to whoever had silver enough. And, later, during his bout with triple-refined wine, whoever had a copper or two. His new sword he found in the ruins of a seaside villa ransacked by pirates. Known as the "old hoplite" in several city-states, he had not, in fact, passed his fortieth year when he took up the task of training Simian Spartans in the hard tasks of combat. Together he and they stormed Castle Grob in Hell and recovered the key to Hell's Back Gate. But that is a different story. **** Gunnyduce enlisted two Simians, Archeron and Jokertayus, to haul buckets of water from a nearby well. Those buckets were upended over the semi-conscious forms of their brethren. Eventually, he managed to form the lads into a rough approximation of a military formation. Just as the last victim struggled up from his knees a pair of hard-bitten women stepped from the barrack hovel and took themselves off, snarling insults at their former Simian partners. Each led a female sheep. The sheep appeared anxious to put a lot of distance between themselves and the wretched refuse lined up in front of Gunnyduce. "I have news," he said, in a low voice. Speaking in low tones makes people listen, even those who know they won't want to hear what is being said. He paused a moment, then continued. "The priests have declared you outlaws. Apparently your priest-like behaviors have alienated the few people who might have spoken in your defense." The Simians stood mute. Gunnyduce stalked around the quivering Simians. “Some are missing. Where is Raptorius?” Archeron coughed. “Ah -- killed, your honor. Amazons.” “Amazons? This far south?” “They were – uh – on a pilgrimage. He was drunk. Wandering in the woods. The Amazons were sacrificing a goat at an altar to the Huntress. The goat escaped and they needed – some kind of animal to replace . . .” Gunnyduce held up a hand. “I get the picture. What about Cowboyithius? Baltaro? The Amazons get them too?” Archeron massaged his bald head with a grimy paw. “I dunno.” “They went into the music business,” said Jokertayus. “Beatin' the drum on one a them bireme thingmies.” “A nautical career. What a coincidence.” Gunnyduce produced a feral smile. "As outlaws you lot face execution. But the priests have offered one boon." A couple listeners perked up. Everyone else remembered what a "boon" might mean to the old hoplite. "Oldguytukus -- you remember him from our adventure in Hell? He has a task for us. Guard duty on his trading vessel. I promised the priests that I would lead you out of Sparta, take up Oldguytukus on his offer, and see to it that you never, ever return." He smiled. "Now isn't that nice?" "Um." Stanitos, the ugliest Simian, raised one hand. "What if we don't wanna go, your honor?" Gunnyduce's grin expanded. "No problem. I'll turn you over to the priests. Stoning, I think, is contemplated, along with additional cutting and impaling." Again, the Simians stood mute. "All volunteers, I see." Gunnyduce's voice and demeanor changed. "All right! Get yourself inside that sad excuse for a barracks and grab whatever you want to take with you. You have exactly 100 heartbeats to do that." The Simians twitched. He held up a hand. "Our old pal, Donius Minimus, is sentenced to accompany you lot. Apparently his sins are equal to your own. He'll be along shortly." "Donius?" muttered Dudeius. His eyes glowed red for an instant, then faded. "He'd sell his mother for a copper." Gunnyduce nodded. "I believe it was half a copper. But he also fathered the lot of you. Surely you have some feeling for him." A chorus of growls assured him that the Simians did, indeed, have feelings for dear old dad. "Inside!" He touched his wrist. "One hundred heartbeats. Starting now!" Two hours later the Spartan Simians marched out – or more correctly, limped out, since none still had the special boots made for them during the Castle Grob affair. They were trailed by a single cart pulled by Donius Minimus, once a 4th level initiate in the the pantheon of Spartan gods. The cart carried bags of hardtack and onions, along with a bale of clothing and two boxes. One box contained Gunnyduce' possessions. The other was for camp supplies. Gunnyduce walked behind the cart. He wore chest armor, a plain helmet, and had his shield strapped to his back, though he didn't plan on turning his back on any Simian in the foreseeable future. A spear served both as a walking stick and a goad for Simian slackers. Raw Recruits Sparta to the seaport of Gythium is roughly 700 stadia, which a raven might fly in a couple days, were the bird so inclined. Simians, lacking wings, had to travel nearly twice as far on a primitive track jokingly referred to on contemporary maps as a “road”. At the end of the first day of marching the Simians made camp on a rocky promontory above the Eurotas River, which the road followed for some distance before branching off more directly toward Gythium. Once tents were erected Gunnyduce drew his sword and pointed toward the river. “Into the water! All of you. Strip off those rags. We'll burn them and hope any vermin die in the fire. What are you waiting for? Move it!” The Simians scrambled down the rocky embankment and shucked their filthy togs. Unmanly squeaks accompanied their descent into the frigid water. He nudged Donius with the point of his sword. “You too.” “I can't. It's against my priestly vows.” “You've been kicked out of the priesthood. Not that you ever really belonged anyway. Get going!” This time the sword point drew blood. “I'm going! I'm going. Take it easy with that pig sticker.” “The only pig it's been sticking is you.” Gunnyduce followed Donius down the bank. “Shuck that greasy robe.” A swift kick sent the ex-priest plunging into the stream. Gunnyduce used his sword to pick up and fling all the Simian clothing into a heap. He then spent an hour walking the bank, enforcing a draconian cleansing. “Scoop up sand and rub it into your hair! Scrub your crusty butts with it!” “But there's no sand,” wailed a quavering Simian. “Only gravel.” “Then use gravel!” It was a scraped and bleeding group that reassembled beside the road. Gunnyduce motioned toward a bale of clothing lying on the cart. “Get dressed! You'll find chitons of linen and undyed wool cloaks.” Dudeius held up a faded gray chiton. “But these aren't suitable for Spartan warriors.” “They're all thin and patched,” whined Stanitos. “When you lot deserve better you'll get it. Meanwhile, get dressed! I'm ashamed to see Spartans in such a flabby state. We'll have to remedy that, starting tomorrow. Donius! Break out the cook pot. Archeron! Jokertayus! Start two fires. Burn your old rags in one. Cook on the other.” “Can't we just toss the old clothes on the cook fire?” asked Dudeius. “Of course you can,” replied Gunnyduce. He brandished an onion. “I'll just eat this with a bit of hardtack. You lot can eat stew flavored with your vomit and crap stained clothes.” “Um. Right.” Dudeius followed Jokertayus toward a tangle of downed trees. “I'll help gather some wood for the fires.” Donius stood by the cart looking lost. “What kind of – ah – what kind of stew shall I make?” “Grab a couple onions,” suggested Gunnyduce. “There's a slab of meat and a sack of beans in that box. Use that for now. Down the road we can pick up some root vegetables and such for the pot.” “I ain't much of a cook,” warned Donius. “Well. You better figure out how to make a decent stew. If the lads don't like it they'll kick the crap out of you.” “But that's not fair!” “Fair? Fair is for philosophers. I'm working up a military unit. Ask some of the others for help if you need it, but get busy!” The old hoplite sheathed his sword and stretched. “Damn. I'd kill you all for a good cigar.” He grinned at the confusion evident on their faces. “Never mind. They ain't been invented yet.” TBC
  4. The big Tyrannosaurus leaned against an innocent tree and began scratching his shoulder. A pack of small raptors dashed between his legs and vanished into the underbrush, all the while screeching insults about slow, old, fat-bellied slugs. Gunny paused in his scratching. “Was them zip-turds talkin' ta me?” Stans, the duckbill, looked up from his fern lunch. “I dunno. Maybe they was talking about Donnie. He's the only one with a fat belly.” A massive stegosaurus raised his head and bleated, “It's a grass belly, dang it! How many times I gotta tell you clowns.” He went back to chomping a small bush, still grumbling. “Dang flat-bills. Ain't got a lick of sense.” Gunny leaned into the tree again. Stans was probably right. Zip-turds were ill-mannered, smarty-scaled imps. Next time he saw some, if he remembered, he figured on eating a couple. That'd show the little snots. The tree groaned ominously. He stepped away. His shoulder felt better. Now he just needed -- something. One arm moved toward his mouth. He looked down. His arms were too short to reach his mouth. Cleaning chunks of bone out of his teeth was damn difficult. He wondered why his arms were so short -- for a second or two. His curiosity faded, replaced by a vague sense of want. It was hard to understand the concept forming in his pea brain. A bunch of weeds twisted into a -- what? A round thing. A burning round thing that tasted good. After a few seconds of formless desire, the whole idea vanished. A T-rex brain isn't big enough to hold on to a thought for very long. “Is it gettin' hot?” asked Donnie. He swallowed the last of his lunch and lumbered into the shade of a large tree. “It's gettin' hot, ain't it?” Gunny looked around. It was hot, but then he couldn't remember when it hadn't been hot. His gut rumbled, derailing further curiosity about the weather. Donnie would make a good meal. More than one meal, considering his bulk. So would Stans, now that he thought of it. But, no. A glimmer of memory surfaced. Stans and Donnie were the only two guys who would talk to him. All the other locals either ran away screaming or ignored his attempts to discuss -- whatever. He knew some of them could talk. He'd heard them discussing things like what kind of meat went best with a cycad salad. Some critters pissed him off so bad he ate them. Without any dang salad. “I think it has something to do with that big flash we saw yesterday,” said Stans. Gunny glared at the flat-bill. Stans was always going on about crap nobody wanted to hear. Maybe he should eat him. “What's a flash? What do y'all mean by yesterday?” “Yesterday was before today,” explained Stans. He was always patient with Gunny. It didn't pay to rile a carnivore. “There was yesterday, then it got dark, and now it's today.” “Oh, yeah,” said Donnie, which might mean he remembered something. Or it might not. He was an accomplished liar. All boneheads were. They ate plants and didn't get out much. Mostly they stood around in circles and told lies. A faint light glowed in Gunny's mind. “I do remember somethin' kinda bright. And a lotta noise.” “Noise?” Donnie hunched up a let go a tremendous fart. “That kinda noise?” Neither of his companions commented on his efforts. They were used to him. “Louder than that,” said Stans. “I couldn't hear much for a while afterward.” “That don't tell us nothin',” smirked Donnie. “Yer deaf as a post anyhow.” A shadow fell across the clearing. “Near dark,” said Gunny. “Is it that late? I ain't had nothin' ta eat yet. Have I?” “You had some leftover club-tail this morning,” said Stans. “It wasn't nothing like a full meal, though. You want I should call one of my relatives in close?” The old flat-bill didn't want Gunny getting too hungry. Besides, he didn't like most of his kin. Pushy, ignorant slugs, most of them. Never had a real thought in their empty heads. “Maybe later,” replied Gunny. “How come that part of Up Above is so dark?” “Up Above,” chorused his companions. The great Up Above formed an unreachable part of their world view, to the extent that dinosaurs had a world view. Most looked no further than the next meal. Some had discovered how to talk to others, though hardly any of those ever had anything worth saying. A very few, like Stans, could remember things like “yesterday” and had begun to form ideas about that funny light Up Above. Donnie didn't understand much of anything, but he liked to pretend that he did -- and he loved to tell stuff to other boneheads, especially stuff he made up. A regular dinosaur bard, he was. “It's the end of the world,” said Stans. The other two stood silent, stunned by his introduction of two new concepts in a single sentence. “What's this “end” thing,” asked Donnie. “Um -- .” Stans frowned. That requires a good deal of practice for a flat-bill. “Like when Gunny killed that club-tail yesterday. The was the “end” of the club-tail. He wasn't around no more.” He frowned harder. There was a hole in his explanation. Gunny saw it right off. “But I ate the last of him this morning -- y'all said. He was here until then.” He turned and nodded toward a heap of bones and offal. “Some of him is still here.” “It's not like that,” mumbled Stans, trying to think. The little gray cells were working as hard as they could. “Part of him was here, I'll grant you that. But the part that made him move and talk was gone. That part was no more. It had “ended”. You see?” “Well -- .” Gunny wasn't clear on the idea. “He didn't move because I ate his legs -- um -- yesterday. And I don't know if he could talk. He didn't say nothin' ta me.” “I don't think he had a chance,” said Donnie. The whole idea of an “end” scared the liver out of him. He wanted to change the subject. “So what's this “world” thing?” Stans believed that was easier to explain. “Everything around us. Trees, rocks, flat-bills, boneheads, the dirt under our feet, and even that pile of club-tail bones.” Gunny thought he understood and it wasn't pleasant. “All this ends? And then what?” “Then we fall down dead. We end. Our bones lie bleaching in the sand and animals not the least bit like us dig them up in about -- tomorrow or the next day -- and wonder who we were.” His companions glanced at one another. Finally, Gunny shook his head and laughed. “Dammit, Stans! Y'all been eatin' them rotten berries again?” “He has!” cried Donnie. “I seen him.” He was lying, of course, like all boneheads. “I only ate a few,” grumped Stans. “That don't have nothing to do with my ideas.” Gunny sighed and stretched. He sniffed the air. “Smells like burned critter. Yuck. I seen zip-turds eatin' burnt stuff before. Made me so sick I only ate a couple of 'em.” His gut rumbled again. “Hold on,” said Stans, turning away. “You don't mind an old, stringy one, do you?” The T-rex had no idea what his friend was going on about. Meat was meat. A large black rock smashed through a tree and plowed into the ground a few steps from Donnie. He farted in fright and lumbered out of sight. Gunny sidled away from the stone, which had cracked into several smoking pieces. “Looks like an end to that rock,” he muttered. For the next several hours a hail of shattered rock fell from Up Above, smashing the forest into a tangle of broken trees and dead animals. Only the zip-turds survived -- for a time. End
  5. Boredom in High Places It was quiet in the Star Chamber. Too quiet. Councilor Number Six swiveled back and forth. His bland features suggested mild discontent. Only two of the nine chairs surrounding the Ring of Sorrows were occupied. Number Four slumped in her chair, snoring. Six signaled the First Assistant. “Smedley, I'm bored.” FA Smedley pasted a smile on his ugly phiz. His circular desk sat in the center of the Ring, ten feet below the Chamber floor. At the end of busy days he often suffered from excruciating neck pain. He touched a button. His desk obediently turned so he was facing Six. “Bored, sir? How may I be off assistance?” “Have we no assassinations scheduled? An invasion? A nuclear weapon accidentally dropped on a crowded city?” “Nothing like that, sir?” Six sighed theatrically. “Not even a hostile takeover?” “I'm afraid not.” “Blast.” Six swung his chair back and forth, completely unaware of the irritating squeak it made at each movement. Smedley gritted his teeth. He tried to think of some way to divert the Councilor. Only one thing occurred to him. “Sir, might I suggest a random action?” “Random action. Hmm. I haven't done one of those for a long time. Can we kill someone?” “Um -- not directly, sir. Against the rules, you know. However, an RA sometimes does set off a chain of events ending in murder, suicide, or even the occasional massacre.” “Right.” Number Six stopped swinging his chair and smiled. Smedley stifled a laugh. Filed teeth were so uncool, so gauche. Six never kept up with current fads. He didn't even have the de rigueur pocket protector. His black pinstripe suit and slicked back hair were so yesterday. “Let's do it,” said Six. He frowned. “How do we get started? Who do we choose? I forget. It's been years and years.” “There is no personal choice, sir. You select a location and the type of action. Events cascade from there.” Smedley activated a spinning hologram of the Earth. It rotated a few feet above his head, just at Six's eye level. “Any place in particular?” “Yes, by golly!” cried Six, pounding the Ring with both hands. “Owww. Oh, owwww.” “Careful of the Ring, sir,” cautioned Smedley. “Are you injured?” “I'll have nurse Trixie take care of my wounds. Even thinking about that place makes me mad enough to hurt myself.” “What place, sir?” “Didn't I say? Cedar Rapids, Iowa.” “Ah. Yes. Several Councilors have expressed a certain ambivalence toward the city. We've performed any number of RAs there.” “Hah! Well, this will be another. What else do you need from me?” “Method of delivery, sir.” “A mysterious package. I love that one. Is that a problem?” “No, sir. We have contractors who handle the actual random event. Will you be staying through the whole episode?” Six slid down from his chair. “First I'll see Trixie. That may take -- uh -- some time.” “No problem, sir. The cascade of activity usually takes a few hours to develop.” He smiled as the ugly little man crept away. No doubt he'd be back in five minutes sporting bandaged hands and a hangdog look. Trixie was an expert. Smedley picked up the phone. “Grendel, who do we have under contract for Iowa? Okay. Advise them we have an RA to implement in Cedar Rapids.” He listened for a moment. “I know. The place does seem to attract more than its share of randomness. I'll send them an email with details.” (tbc)
  6. The Ordeal Donnie paused, leaning on his shovel. “Where are we?” “You're standing in a hole about two feet deeper than necessary. I'm sitting on a case of artillery shells talking to you.” Old Guy snickered. He always appreciated his own humor. “You know what I mean.” Donnie went back to his digging. “We're in Belgium. Not far from Mons, I think.” Old Guy produced a map. “Near a place called Florennes, unless that last MP was lying to us.” “Any chance of beer? Women?” “Beer is brewed everywhere, Donnie. And women seem to occupy at least half the Earth. Chances are we'll encounter both as we travel the countryside.” “Why do you always answer questions that way? Is the beer any good here? Are the women good looking? Jeez.” Old Guy started to reply, then sighed and shook his head. “It's called sarcasm, my boy. I keep forgetting you're from Iowa. We'll have to sample the various beers in order to figure out which ones are any good. Same with the women.” “1944 is almost over. I'd like to get laid by Christmas. When can we start sampling? ” “An astute question for a change.” Old Guy glanced up as a twin-engine plane banked overhead and went out of sight to the east. “I believe that was a Black Widow. It appeared to be letting down for landing. The airfield we seek is not far off. Once we deliver our messages, we may be able to begin experimenting with the local brews. There are usually women in the vicinity of bars, taverns, pubs, or whatever the local name is for places serving booze.” “Hot damn! Maybe I can get laid -- finally.” “Always a possibility. You've progressed to the point where only the largest melons send you into a coma. We ate those last two. You'll have to find some more. Practice, practice, that's the key.” A staff sergeant from the artillery unit they'd decided to laager up with for the night gave them a shout. “Mess truck is here. C'mon over.” Old Guy began rummaging in the jeep for his mess gear. “Looks like you don't have to put up with my cooking this evening. Let's go see how if artillery mess cooks are any better than infantry cooks.” The artillery cooks proved capable of a workmanlike job with 10-in-1 rations and local produce. Old Guy spent the evening swapping lies with the gun bunnies. Donnie finished digging a semi-bunker complete with overhead cover (timbers taken from a partly burned barn) and straw for the floor. Donnie was sitting in one corner of the bunker when Old Guy returned. “Damn, you've outdone yourself. The roof is a tad low, but other than that, I believe this is your best effort yet.” “Good soil,” replied Donnie with a shrug. “I had to quit digging because it was gettin' dark.” He held up a pair of medium size pumpkins. “Liberated these from a farm field. Gotta practice.” He closed his eyes then placed the pumpkins side by side in the opposite corner of the dugout. Sitting back, he took a deep breath and opened his eyes just a fraction. A low moan escaped him, but he remained conscious. “You can do it!” cried Old Guy. “Eyes open wide!” Donnie gritted his teeth and did as instructed. He was able to focus on the two pumpkins for a full thirty seconds before he had to look away. “Hell,” said Old Guy, looking up from his watch. “A new record. Are you ready for the TEST?” “Gimme a minute, dammit!” Donnie covered his eyes and sagged back against the dirt wall. After a couple minutes his breathing became less ragged. “Okay. No. Wait. Maybe I'm not ready.” “Faint heart never won a fair maiden.” “It ain't fair or foul that gets to me,” retorted Donnie. “It's them with chests out to here.” He mimed a very full sweater. “I can't focus on nothin' but -- but -- them -- uh . . .” “Boobs! Come on. Say it. Boobs!” Donnie weaved like a drunken sailor. “I can't -- I can't focuuuuus -- oooon nothin' but -- booooobs!” “Wow! At this rate you may get laid sometime in 1965. But I could be wrong. You're making good progress. Shall we try the TEST?” Without waiting for a response, Old Guy reached over and laid a piece of knit fabric over the pumpkins. “Noooooooo! I ain't ready!” Donnie's eyes bulged. After a few seconds he began to relax. “Hey. I ain't passin' out.” His laughter was that of a homicidal maniac suddenly freed from a strait jacket. “Easy,” cautioned Old Guy. He retrieved the fabric. “You passed the TEST, but look. Pumpkins. Remember? These are just pumpkins. I think you're ready for the big time. All we have to do is find a bar stocked with well-endowed women.” “I better keep practicin', huh?” “Yeah. But don't expect instant improvement. Look how long them flyboys have been trying to hit German targets. They try and they try, but nothing seems to help. You've had this condition since you were -- what? -- twelve? It may take some time before you're really cured.” “Right. Let's do the TEST again.” Ten seconds later Donnie was out cold. Old Guy sighed and tucked the fabric away. “Poor Donnie. I'm afraid the strain was more than he could bear.” (tbc)
  7. Out of Bondage Three days after the enraged infantry lieutenant had them tossed in the stockade (a much damaged warehouse in Carentan) the captain in charge released Old Guy and Donnie. He had too many POWs and not enough guards. “You two take a batch of prisoners down to the beach. Then you can return to your unit.” “What about the officer who had us confined?” asked Old Guy. “I don't want to run into him and have the bas -- uh -- have him think we escaped or something.” “Don't worry about him. He didn't charge you with anything. Just told me to hold you for a couple days and then let you go. You really pissed him off.” “Not me.” Old Guy grinned. “Donnie and a couple others went into shock and had to be carried a mile or so out of the bush. One of the victims was the lieutenant's own platoon sergeant.” “Jeez,” said the captain. “What was it? Shell shock? Combat fatigue?” “Boob shock,” explained Old Guy. Donnie had the grace to look embarrassed. Old Guy mimed a fantastic set of knockers. “Marie was her name. She's in the Resistance.” “Dang, I'd like to meet the lady.” The captain laughed. “My brother-in-law has the same affliction. Can't take the guy to a strip club -- unless you want to carry him home and explain why he's out cold to my sister. She ain't very understanding.” The two dispatch riders retrieved their firearms and went out. Inside a barb wire enclosure MPs were shoving a gaggle of prisoners into a semblance of order. “What is this here 'affliction' the captain talked about? I got some kinda disease?” “Not a disease. If you caught the clap, that would qualify as a disease, but you don't stay conscious long enough for that nonsense. Yours is more of a mental affliction.” “Mental? That means something wrong with my brain, right?” “That's right. Fixating on boobs is not normal behavior. But it's not a serious disorder. It's not like you're a mass murderer or anything. It's more of a labor problem.” “Labor? What the hell do you mean?” “You see a nice set and your mind goes on strike. Plus, those around you have to do your work and take care of you -- like packing your fat ass a mile through the woods.” Donnie giggled. “I'm sorry about that.” He didn't look the least contrite. “But I'm glad I have an -- uh -- an affliction.” “Good God! You're glad?” “Yeah. Proves I got a brain. Nobody can call me brainless. I mean, they might, but I can tell 'em about my mental affliction. You can't have one of those unless you got a brain.” Old Guy sighed. “You're beginning to make sense. And that makes me worry about my own mind. Let's go collect this batch of supermen and herd them down to the beach.” “They don't look so super to me.” “Neither do you. Hell. Neither do I.” An MP opened the gate and signaled the German prisoners to move out. “Here ya go. Fifty Krauts headed for America or Canada. Lucky bastards.” The man watched as the group marched by. “Hell, I'd go home in a minute, if I had the chance. I'd even go to Canada. It's gotta be better than this hole.” “Don't be too sure,” warned Old Guy. “Lots of lonely women in Canada, but it gets cold as hell in winter. Sometimes even in summer.” “Sounds good to me,” said the MP. “A warm woman and a snug cabin. I wouldn't complain.” “Shit, Joe. Yes you would,” said his fellow MP. “You'd find something to bitch about.” “Yeah, yer prob'ly right. Come on. Let's get another batch ready to go. If the captain can find a few more idiots to guard them, we might get rid of all the bastards today.” The second MP grinned at Old Guy and Donnie. “Won't do any good. We got more comin' in.” “Goddamn Army,” snarled Joe. “I should be guarding the gate back at Fort Benning and shacking up with one of those Southern belles.” “Keep yer eyes open. Sooner or later someone's gonna capture some of them German WACs.” “Shit. Won't do us no good. Some damn colonel will grab 'em.” Old Guy and Donnie moved off behind the POWs. The nattering of the two MPs faded out behind. The prisoners moved along in glum silence all the way to the beach where they were loaded aboard a small landing craft. A tired looking sergeant explained. “They'll be transferred to one a them cross-Channel ferries and hauled over to England. Then they put 'em on a ship an' send 'em to America.” He spat into the sand. “I hope one a their own subs sinks 'em.” As they walked away, Donnie glanced back. “That feller talked awful bad about them Germans. I mean, those guys are prisoners now. What's his beef?” Old Guy stopped and pointed. The sergeant had a working party of prisoners loading another landing craft with ungainly shapes in blood-stained mattress covers. Row upon row of bodies lay on the sand. Men moved among them, examining tags, writing on clipboards. Donnie didn't say anything else until they reached the top of the hill above the beach. He stopped and surveyed the massive jam of men and equipment below. “Can we go back to carrying messages? I don't wanna shoot nobody else, unless I have to. I don't wanna guard no more prisoners, either.” “Neither do I. Come on.” Old Guy examined a sheet of plywood covered with crude signs. “I think the battalion CP is up this way.” Five minutes later they caught a ride on a weapons carrier. “Damn,” moaned Major Dude. “I thought you clowns were gone for good. My luck ain't in.” Old Guy shrugged and shook his head. “We figured you'd be glad to see us, Major. Or have we been replaced? I can always go back to Supply and Donnie is experienced at digging latrines.” “Hey!” cried Donnie. “I don't wanna dig no more holes.” “Well, you're in luck,” said Dude. “You haven't been replaced. In fact, I'm short of messengers. For instance, Corps command is crying for guys like you to carry dispatches. Sending everything by radio is a pain in the ass. The commo network is maxed out.” “You got more motorcycles for us, sir?” asked Old Guy. “If not, we could always go down and get our old ones back. I know where they are -- or where they were a few days ago.” “Right. I should send you down there so you can get lost for another week or two. No way. I got a radio jeep you can have. You should be happy about that. More room for booze and souvenirs.” “Well,” said Old Guy, “the French do press a lot of wine on us, sir. But any Nazi weapons, like Lugers and MG-42s are always turned in -- as regulations require.” “I'm sure they are.” Dude leaned back and put his feet on the table he was using as a desk. “Speaking of souvenirs, I'd like to acquire one of those Lugers. What's the going rate?” “I've heard rumors of Lugers going for $500 each -- in England.” “That's in England,” said the Major. “You can only get maybe $200 here.” He smiled. “If I had a Luger I might feel up to signing leave papers for a couple messengers to take a few days leave -- in England. The First Sergeant wants a PPK. If he had one, I think he'd be happy to have a clerk type up such papers.” Old Guy grinned. “Consider it done, sir. Where are you sending us?” Dude thumped his feet to the floor and sorted through the mess on his desk. “Here it is.” He handed Old Guy a large envelope. “Don't lose this. It's your orders. The papers for the jeep are in there as well as blank trip tickets with my signature.” “That ought to keep us out of trouble, sir.” “Why do I feel like I'm handing you a license to steal?” “Well . . .” Old Guy hesitated. “You are, sir. But I -- Donnie and I promise not to abuse your trust.” “Right.” Dude waved them away. “Don't get caught with anything you can't explain.” Outside they found the First Sergeant leaning against a radio equipped jeep. He smiled. “I'd like a PPK, preferably one issued to the SS.” “Whatever could he be talking about, Donnie?” “I dunno, man. Ever since the Major handed you them orders I been lost.” Old Guy walked around the little vehicle. “One jeep with radio and mounted .30 caliber machine gun. Did you pack us a lunch, First Sergeant?” “I'm sure you're capable of handling your own rationing.” The First Sergeant handed over a small bound notebook and patted the radio. “Don't lose the code book. You'll need a new one in six days. Try to check in on the battalion net at least once a day.” “Depending on where Corps sends us, that may not be possible,” said Old Guy. “You can always get a short message relayed by Corps.” The First Sergeant turned to go. “Don't get yourself killed. I really want that PPK.” Old Guy laughed. “See you in the funny papers, First Sergeant.” Donnie climbed in behind the wheel. “I'd rather have my Harley. Where we goin' first?” “Supply, then Corps headquarters.” Old Guy swung the machine gun down and checked the feed mechanism. Then he inspected the two carbines. One was clipped to the dash, one occupied a sheath beside his right knee. “Let's get out of here -- before the Major has an attack of common sense and tosses us back in the stockade.” “Why?” Donnie started the jeep and put it in gear. “We ain't done nothin'.” “We ain't done nothing -- yet. I suspect we won't get very far without breaking a few rules.” “Well that ain't nothing new. I ain't seen a regulation yet you haven't figgered a way around.” “Thank you, Donnie, for recognizing my inborn talents. You don't have to kneel. A simple kissing of my hand will suffice. Now head for the Supply tent. We need some stuff.” “I ain't kneelin'. Just sittin' right here. And I ain't kissin' your hand. I ain't no sissy.” “Not until you see boobs,” said Old Guy. “Or a woman carrying melons.” “Dammit! Can't you forget that? It only happened once. I can usually tell melons from boobs.” (tbc)
  8. I wrote this one today. You guys might like it. “Not doing so well, eh?” A high-pitched voice roused Milo. He shifted slightly, trying to see. “Who . . .” Searing pain stopped his words. Bones grated in his left shoulder. Gritting his teeth, Milo tried to roll over, away from the pain. Nothing happened. He could see his right leg. The top of his boot had been ripped away, leaving behind a bloody mass of trouser and knee. The leg didn't hurt, which seemed both good and bad. “Don't worry about the knee. In fact, don't worry about anything. You'll be dead in a few minutes.” “Who are you?” gasped Milo. “I can't see . . .” “In a moment. I must check this wound in your back. What's your name?” “Mi - Milo. A musketeer of the Black Spear.” He tried to move again -- and regretted it. “Never heard of any bandits going by that name.” “God! My shoulder . . .” He lay still, barely breathing. “Not bandits. Mercenaries. We -- I -- we were hired out to . . . now I can't remember. Jesus. I dream. I must be in camp -- dreaming.” His words brought a peal of laughter. “Did you dream that shattered knee? Is this hole in your back a kind of nightmare? Your guts lie on the ground. The buzzards will soon gorge on them.” “I have been shot,” muttered Milo. “Shot through.” “Shot through. Yes. I like the sound of that. Shot through. Shot through. A good deal of description and misery all bound up in two words, eh.” A very short woman stepped over his leg and sat down. She wore a stained jacket over a dingy shift of uncertain color. “You can call me Gray. You're the first of your lot I found alive.” “I don't -- I can't move. My shoulder is broken, I think.” He tried moving his right arm. The elbow registered a savage protest. “God. I am killed. Jesus take me.” “We have a few minutes, I think,” said Gray. “Why are you here? On a battlefield?” Again she laughed. “This is no battlefield. You were caught in the narrows and ridden down by the Duke's cavalry. I heard no shooting. Just the sounds of lance and sword against steel and flesh.” “We march with the muskets unloaded. To -- to keep the powder dry. But we had outriders. Scouts. Hired by the Captain.” The woman shrugged. “Bought off by the Duke, I imagine.” She leaned forward. “Where have you been? What have you done? Are there women who wonder where you are?” Milo stared in wonder, drawn briefly out of his own misery. “Why do you ask? And why of me -- a man soon dead and buried?” “Not buried. No one would dare. Duke's orders. As for my questions -- call it curiosity. My mother warned me about it, but I still ask the questions.” “Do you get answers?” “Sometimes. Most men don't think women are good for much, except between the blankets or at her cooking pot. Dying men will talk to a woman.” He wanted to laugh, but dared not risk the pain. “So here you are -- among the dying and the dead. Do you not have a man to torment?” “There have been men. No husbands. I talk too much.” Milo closed his eyes and paused to breathe. He didn't want to answer questions. It hurt to talk. Yet, he could feel life slipping away. The woman waited. “I have nowhere to go. What can I tell you?” “As I said before. Where have you been?” “Towns. Some big, some small. Camps in the wild.” He remembered a night march under a full moon and told her how the men before him seemed like armored phantoms gilded in silver. Then he spoke of a low stone wall and how they crouched behind it and shot down men coming toward them across a flooded field. Greasy gun smoke drifted in banks, like fog, and their enemies loomed out of the brown mist as if conjured there from another time and place. “I was very afraid, but held my place.” “You cannot name these places you speak of?” “To a soldier one day becomes the next. Faces repeat endlessly. One dirty little town is very like the last one -- and ten before that. In cities we seek drink and whores.” Milo coughed and fell silent. She started to rise, then sank down as he began again. “You asked -- about women, did you not?” “I did. Was there ever a particular woman?” “Most women are particular -- about much.” He smiled through his pain. “When I was a boy, I -- I wanted a girl. A girl -- in the next . . .” Milo's voice trailed off. His face relaxed. Gray leaned forward and closed his eyes, then got up and slapped the dust from her shift. “He had a couple good stories,” she said aloud. “I wish he'd lived long enough to tell me the girl's name.” She bent over the next corpse and pulled the purse from his belt. It had already been cut open. “Not a copper. Cavalry. Damn their eyes. Robbing the dead while a poor old woman starves.” Crows complained as Gray went from man to man. Only three copper coins went into her bag. She stretched and watched the crows settle down to their work. “Feast well, friends.” End
  9. I submitted this one to EDF, but even if they accept the story it won't appear for a month or two. I figure this is a good day to post it here. JRH I never wanted to visit the Wall. For many years Vietnam veterans had only each other; as a memorial the Wall seemed too little, too late. Besides, there were too many names -- too many memories. I often dream of one night in August, 1968. All was black. I rubbed sweat from my eyes. Under the wavering light of a parachute flare squat bunkers and tangles of concertina wire emerged. I smelled blood, hot weapons, burned powder. My back was against a sandbag wall. Someone hunkered down next to me. "Hey, Teach, I hear the bastards got a piece of you." It was Doc Wills, platoon medic. He drew a knife and slit my trouser leg. "Hold still." "I ain't goin' nowhere. Hurts like all hell when I move." "Don't move then. Damn, Teach. I gotta get a tourniquet on this." My head ached. Gingerly I checked it out. Warm blood coated my fingers. "What about my head, Doc?" He glanced up. "Later. That one ain't gonna kill you." A dull roar filled my head. I drifted into a black tunnel. Sharp pain drew me back. Wills let go of my shirt. "Don't drop out on me, man!" I tried to concentrate. "How bad -- we get hit?" "Danforth took a direct hit from an RPG. Lieutenant Burns got killed. Riley. Miller." "Miller? Jesus, he was about to go home." "Yeah. Ain't that the shits?" Riley was in my platoon. Doc moved my leg. I jerked. "Jesus Christ! That hurts!" He grinned. "You got one fucked up leg, Teach. Surgeons will fix you right up." He started rigging a blood bag. "I'll give you some morphine when I get this going." I gripped his arm. "I don't wanna die, Doc." "You ain't gonna die." He shoved me back against the sandbags. "Get that through your thick head. I ain't gonna let you die." He wiped blood off my face and scalp. "Just a nick, Teach." Deft fingers secured a bandage. "Now relax. Evac choppers are on the way." The pain seemed less. He must have injected morphine when I wasn't looking. "I ain't gonna die?" "You ain't gonna die. Okay? You concentrate on one fucking thing: Doc Wills says I ain't gonna die." I faded in and out. Next thing I remember was looking up at the interior of a Huey. A door gunner knelt over me. He held a bag of blood. "Doc Wills says I ain't gonna die." "Sounds like a good fucking deal to me." Splotches of dark liquid stained the gunner's flight suit. He handed the blood bag to a rifleman sitting on a web seat. "Don't fucking drop it." The rifleman looked down at me. "I got it, Teach." Engines screamed. Door gunners raked the slope as we took off. Rotor blades pounded a frantic beat. I faded into the dark and awoke to find a man who looked as if he hadn't slept in a month standing over me. "Doc Wills promised I wouldn't die." He glanced at me then went back to reading a tag tied to my shirt. "Hold on to that thought." They saved my leg, but the muscle damage was permanent. I didn't see Doc again. In 2008 my wife persuaded me to attend a unit reunion. In the process of swapping lies, I met the guy who held my blood bag. Hansen was his name. He was a rifleman in third platoon. He told me about Doc Wills. "I was back with the company about a month after you were hit," he said. "They gave me a squad." He paused to sip his beer. "A few weeks later we got into it with an NVA regiment. On the second day we were in a treeline exchanging fire with some bad guys in an abandoned village. You know how it was." I did know. "We started taking mortar fire. One of the new guys got hit. Doc headed down that way. Four or five more rounds came in." Hansen paused and stared down at the bar. He rubbed the palms of his hands on his jeans. "Doc was kneeling beside the wounded guy. A round hit a couple feet away. He was killed instantly." "Damn." For a long moment we sat in silence. Hansen coughed. "The reunion committee worked up a list of unit KIA." He handed me two printed pages. The list had Wall panel numbers beside each name. A few months later my wife and I went to Washington for a week and toured the usual sites for five days. The morning of the sixth day she handed me the creased casualty list. "We leave tomorrow. If you want to visit the Wall . . ." It was time to confront those tall black panels -- and all those names. Doc Wills. Riley. I owed them that much. I sighed and opened my suitcase. "I have to take a couple things." Half a dozen men gray-haired men moved along the path below me. Two wore faded boonie hats. One had on an equally worn field jacket. The others wore black Vietnam Veteran caps. For the first time in over forty years I felt out of uniform. My wife joined two women standing near some statues. Black granite drew me down into the shadows of my past. Panel height increased as I descended the path. A dark weight lodged in my chest. The panel I sought was near the lowest part of the Wall. High up on the slab I found Burns, Danforth, Miller, and Riley. Doc's name occupied part of a line halfway down. I touched it, reliving our last conversation. People leave things at the Wall. Flowers, letters, medals, guilt. I placed a unit patch and one of my dog tags at the base of the slab. "Thanks, Doc." Stepping back, I saluted smartly. My old drill sergeant would have been proud. Then my wife came down and held me while I cried. End
  10. What has gone before: see “Scouts in the French Resistance” for the sordid tale of Oberst Fick, his terrible affliction, and his eventual capture by Allied forces. Scene: Hospital torture treatment room. Those present: Doctor “Dynamo” Joker, Nurse Bountiful, two burly trustees orderlies, and one victim patient -- Oberst Fick. Doc Dynamo and Nurse Bountiful stood to one side as the orderlies transferred the struggling Oberst to a large stone slab decorated with grinning gargoyles at each corner. “Nein! I do not need ein electroschlock. Let me go!” Ignoring his protests, the two orderlies finished securing him to the slab and stepped back. Dynamo tried to comfort his patient. “Relax, Colonel. When the treatments are complete you will no longer associate female breasts to the spinning propellers of a strafing P-38. You will either be cured or -- and this is a veeery slight possibility -- dead.” Fick started moaning and thrashing around. “Calm down. Calm down. If a man can't fool around with the ladies he might as well be dead, eh?” The doctor's words didn't seem to assure Fick. With a resigned sigh, Dynamo affixed a pair of metal electrodes to his patient's forehead. “We will start with 25% power, Colonel, and a ten second duration. This will sting a little, but you won't remember a thing.” “Nooooo!” shrieked Fick. “Nein! Nein!” Dynamo donned a set of earphones. “With this I can hear the sizzle, sizzle of our friend, electricity, at work.” He signaled the two orderlies. “Hold him. Sometimes even strong straps will break.” With the twist of a knob he set the power to 25%. “Count down from five for us, Bountiful.” “Um -- count down?” The doctor looked at her and smiled. Blonde and buxom, she gazed back with empty blue eyes. He found it impossible to be angry with her. “Never mind. We don't need no stinking countdown.” A flip of the switch and power surged through heavy cables into Fink's mostly empty skull. His eyes glowed a kind of purplish color. “Interesting,” mused Dynamo. “Never seen eyes glow like that before.” He adjusted his earphones and leaned forward, listening for the dreaded sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, POP! which would signal the end of a billion or so brain cells. Fick strained against the straps, shrieking like a damned soul. Their patient moaned and lay unresponsive for a good fifteen minutes after the procedure. Dynamo and the two orderlies retired to a table in the corner and played poker for tongue depressors. Bountiful sat in a chair beside the electroshock machine and practiced counting down from one. “Ah.” Dynamo saw signs of life in his patient's eyes. “Are you back with us, Colonel?” All Fick could do was sputter helplessly. Nevertheless, the experiment had to go on. First, it was necessary to test the colonel's reaction to unclad breasts. Nurse Bountiful already had her blouse open, just to be ready. She had a lot of practice at being ready to take her clothes off. Unhooking the front of her cable-reinforced Ironworks bra, she faced the patient. He responded by jerking back and screaming, “Take cover! Mein Gott! Here it comes again. I can't move -- can't get down!” The two orderlies dropped like bags of sand, mouths agape, out cold. Motioning Nurse Bountiful to cover herself, Doc Dynamo stooped to check the orderlies vital signs. “Sensitive louts for a couple convicted killers, eh, Colonel?” Fick strained against his bonds and foamed at the mouth. “I see you're as anxious as I am to continue,” said Dynamo. “We shall try 50% power and twenty seconds duration. How about that?” The only reply was a strangled sob. Procedure completed, Dynamo glanced at his watch. “Lunch time, Bountiful. Cover yourself. We don't need to decimate the male staff.” He chuckled. “And possibly some of the female as well.” Frowning, Bountiful followed him out of the room. Fick lay in a stupor, wandering the burned out corridors of his mind. He didn't meet anyone he knew. By the time Dynamo returned, chewing on a toothpick, the colonel was somewhat aware of his surroundings, but still not able to do anything but grunt and moan piteously. Bountiful felt a surge of pity for the poor man. She wondered if a day or two in her bed might help. Many another mentally wounded man had left her quarters restored in spirit though broken physically. The doctor brought her back to reality. “The test, Bountiful. The test.” Hurriedly, she complied. Fick shied away and began trembling, but made no sound. He hadn't recovered enough to let the shrieks out. “We make progress, Bountiful.” Dynamo checked his watch. “I have a golf date at three. This will be the last treatment. What do you say, Colonel? 100% and thirty seconds? No. A minute. We must make sure we burn out the bad cells.” Though he tried to scream, Fick still couldn't do more than squeak. He pushed feebly against the straps. “He is ready, Bountiful. Last run -- now!” A low hum filled the room. Smoke poured from Fick's ears. “Smell that, Bountiful? Burning brain cells! Just what we want.” “Phew,” she said, waving at the smoke. “It's stinky.” Dynamo jerked as it stung. Sparks shot from his earphones. The electroshock machine stopped with an ominous thud. “Himmel!” he cried. “Ve haf zuccezz! Ein treatment vorkz! Zose foolz at das Institute vill grovel at my feet.” He leaped up and ran out singing verses from the Horst Wessel song. “My goodness,” murmured Bountiful. “My goodness, indeed,” said Fick. “Remove these straps, if you please.” His eyes glowed red, though the effect soon faded to a dull orange. “I don't know what got into the doctor,” said Bountiful as she loosed the restraints. “He was going to take me to dinner and a movie before we went to my place.” “My dear,” said Fick, taking her hand. “I shall go in his stead. We will go to dinner and I will have . . .” He hesitated, staring at her unclothed chest. “Ah -- eggs. Yes. Eggs. Sunny side up.” He slid off the slab. “I feel -- I feel -- different. Cover yourself, my dear. It's not fitting for young women to wander about with their -- ah -- their -- their eggs uncovered.” “But these aren't eggs. They're . . .” Fick covered his ears. “I can't hear you. I can't hear you.” “Well, never mind then.” Bountiful hooked hooks and buttoned buttons. Then she stalked out, more than a little confused. She headed for the night janitor's office. Archie was always understanding and he had a nice cot set up in a cozy room in the main warehouse. She didn't mind that he was short and kinda ugly. Nor did the purple spots bother her. They were kinda kinky, in fact. The Colonel wandered the hospital ogling well-endowed women and asking each if he could treat them to a dinner of fried eggs -- sunny side up. Finally a security guard sapped him and delivered him to the military authorities. He ended up in a POW camp in northern England. No matter how he tried to speak Germlish his words always came out sounding like something an upper-class English twit would say. “I say, old man,” he said one night as he sat in the camp orderly room playing chess with the British commandant. Both men were wrapped in blankets. The only warm thing in the room was the tea pot and it was cooling rapidly. “I say,” he repeated, “I can't regain my former manner of speech. I sound like a ninny.” “You sound perfectly normal to me,” replied the commandant, who WAS an upper-class English twit. End
  11. Old Guy


    The Lost My partner, Whizkid, and I were working the day watch out of Nine Mile Station when we spotted the perp. "Gotta Leaker, Whiz." I pointed at the pudgy, bald man standing on the sidewalk in front of Sid's Cat House. He was staring goggle-eyed at the life size poster depicting Sid's most famous stripper, Lola Palooza. "Not from around here, that's certain," said Whiz. He's an odd-looking sort, what with all the purple spots and being shaped sorta like a turnip, but we get all kinds, and he's a good partner, if a little quick on the trigger. The other cops call him Whiz because he ain't very fast. Around the force my handle is Old Guy. I'm not as old as dinosaur poop, no matter what you might hear, but I survived ten years on the Eastern Frontier during the worst of the Mormon invasions and another five years fighting militant Pacifists along the southern border of my home, the great country of Mendocino. It ain't age as much as it's general wear and tear. Yeah, Whizkid and I protect the citizens of Frisco from drifters, grifters, and worse. I carry a .45 caliber pistol and a riot gun. Oh, I also carry a badge. It's my license to kill. Whiz eased off to one side as we approached the perp. You never know what a Leaker might do when confronted by officers of the law. I stopped a few feet from the Leaker. He'd have seen me if he wasn't staring slackjawed at Lola's image. "Identify yourself! State your business!" He jerked as if stung and dropped a flimsy plastic bag. The contents scattered across the sidewalk. We had him for littering, if nothing else. That would win him a year in the rock quarries. "Huh?" he stammered. "Wha . . .? Huh?" "Your name. Name and business." He looked around as if lost -- which he was and not in any familiar way. "My -- uh -- my name is Donster. I -- I seem to -- to . . ." "Yeah, right. That's what they all say, Donster, if that's your real name." "Well, it's -- yeah, that's my name. Most folks call me Donnie." He ran a shaking hand over his bald dome. I hadn't seen anyone that out of shape since my army days, when I was part of a task force that ambushed one of Pacifica's so-called "elite" units and wiped 'em out. "I -- where am I? Last thing I remember was walking out of Walmart and looking for my car. I turned a corner and -- here I was." He looked around at Lola's poster. "And there -- there she was." "A likely story," I said. Actually, I meant exactly that. No sarcasm intended. "What were you doing as you left this Walmart place?" "Um -- thinking about boobs. I think about boobs a lot. All the time, in fact." I produced my notebook. "Any boobs in particular." "No. Just boobs." He touched the poster reverently. "Like hers." "So what kind of job do you have, Donster?" "Um." He fell silent and shuffled his feet, then mumbled something. "Sorry. I didn't get that." "Unemployed. Disabled. But, I spend a lot of time on my computer doing -- ah -- doing volunteer work. Yeah. Volunteer work." "Computers, eh? We've heard that term before. Sounds evil, but here in Frisco we make no value judgments on mere words. We hear a lot of odd ones." I made a few notes for our report. "So you had no job and you were thinking about boobs as you left this -- Walmart place. Is that correct?" "Yeah. Where am I? Is this a movie set?" "Movie," said Whiz. "There's another of those funny words." "Whatever a "movie" is," I told Donster, "this ain't it. You'll have to come along with us." "But -- what's going on? I was just minding my own boobs -- er -- business. You ain't read me my rights or nothing." He smirked as he spoke. I hate a man who smirks. I resisted the temptation to butt-stroke him into next week. "Mendocino laws don't require that we tell you anything. You're thinking of Pacifica. You don't belong here. We call clowns like you Leakers. Like you, all Leakers were lost in thought -- you'd be surprised at how many say they were daydreaming about boobs -- and turned a corner -- into a different reality." "We can shoot you where you stand," added Whiz. He likes to scare the piss out of perps. He also likes using his riot gun. I gave our prisoner a friendly punch in the arm. "Pick up your stuff, Donster. What Whiz said is technically true, but we generally only shoot Leakers on Mondays." Donster scrambled to retrieve his goods. "Why -- why Mondays?" I shrugged. "After a nice weekend, we have to go back to work dealing with renegades up from the south, religious fanatics from the east, and an assortment of real criminals. Shooting a few Leakers is just a way to let off steam." "I like to shoot one or two on Fridays," said Whiz, flashing his one-tooth grin. "Sort of gives the weekend a good start." "Well, we're not going to shoot Donnie, now are we, Whiz? We'll just take him to the station and let the Rehab folks deal with him." "Well. Okay. If you insist. But it is Friday." (tbc)
  12. Evening twilight was giving away to true night as Old Guy and Donnie coasted to a stop at a road junction. Engines off, they sat listening. Distant artillery boomed fitfully. Nothing could be seen in either direction on the cross road. The road they'd come south on ended at the intersection. Old Guy dismounted and walked across the road where neatly lettered signs pointed left and right. “First signs I've seen,” said Donnie. “I thought the Frenchies tore 'em all down.” “German efficiency, Donnie. And they ain't sloppy knock-offs either. Neat black lettering on white paint. They probably have a mobile workshop that does nothing but signs.” “Good for them.” Donnie shrugged. The US Army was strange enough to him. He didn't need a bunch of useless information about the Krauts. “Periers to the left, Lessay to the right. Which way we need to go?” “Neither.” Old Guy produced a hand-drawn map. “4th Armored HQ is supposed to be in Sainteny. Periers is located on a main road southwest of there -- maybe four or five miles. That MP back in Battalion sent us the wrong way.” “I told you we never shoulda asked an MP for directions. Them guys are all morons.” “I'd keep that opinion to myself if I were you. Those morons carry guns and batons.” Donnie waved off the unwanted advice. “How wrong are we? Can you tell from that so-called map you drawed? And why can't we get a decent map?” “I imagine all the decent maps are stored in a warehouse in England where a PFC clerk is wondering what to do with them -- when he's not thinking about his English girl friend. Some brass hat forgot to requisition them, I suppose. As for where we are, I'd call it way wrong.” Old Guy tucked his map away. “Like on the wrong side of the lines.” He gazed back the way they had come. “The Germans should have had somebody blocking the road. Hell, our guys should have had a security position set up to stop GI's from motoring south and Germans from moving north. I didn't see a damned soul.” “Me neither. What's going on? Have the Krauts pulled out?” “Not likely. The Major told me this section of the line is being held by remnants of several divisions. Things are screwed up on our side. Imagine how disorganized the Germans must be.” “Okay. So we go back the way we came, right?” “We do. At least we try going back. I'd bet money the road isn't wide open any more. That's the kind of thing platoon sergeants get cranky about. Even if the officers don't know their ass from first base, some sergeant will see the problem and put some riflemen and a machine gun or two in place.” Old Guy began turning his Harley around. “We may end up ditching these rigs and doing some hiking in order to get back where we belong.” “I zink zat would be a wise decision.” The voice came from the shadows under the trees fringing the west side of the road. Old Guy cursed under his breath and stopped moving. Donnie chuckled. “I thought you Montana cowboys never got sneaked up on.” “Keep ze hands in sight.” A woman's voice. “We want no accidents.” Armed figures stepped out of the dark. “Zey are Ami,” said the woman. She grinned at Old Guy. “We shot you almost. But zese motorzycles sound not like German motors.” “Thank God for the Harley V-twin,” said Old Guy. “I take it you are with the Resistance?” “Of course,” said the woman. “I am Fifi. Zese others are Gerard, Louis, and Marie.” “Call me Old Guy. This lump is Donnie. We're dispatch riders.” Gerard slung his weapon and thumped the canvas pack perched atop the front fender of Old Guy's Harley. He spoke to Fifi in French, gesturing toward the north. “He says we must get off ze road and hide ze motors. Ze Germans fear ze day so zey move only at night. You must come wiz us.” “Best offer I've had since the invasion started,” said Old Guy. “Lead on.” They fired up their cycles and idled along behind their guides. A few hundred yards north of the road junction Gerard led them off the paved surface and on to a narrow dirt lane. The track curved to the east and became little more than a rough path. After some minutes they were directed into a narrow cut in a hill side. The cut opened into an area covered with netting. At a signal from Gerard, they shut off the machines. “Nice place,” observed Old Guy. “Have you used this often?” “Only for ze last two days,” said Fifi. “Leave you motors. Take what you can carry. We won't be coming back here until ze Germans are pushed back.” “That may take some pushing.” Old Guy began stuffing items into a pack. “How far will we be walking tonight?” “About two kilometers.” Fifi watched the two men for a few moments. “Your friend is very quiet.” “Donnie? Oh, don't worry about him. He's been struck dumb ever since he saw Marie.” Fifi laughed aloud. “Oui. She has what we call a four cycle chest.” “Four cycle? I don't know what you mean.” “When Marie walks up to a German guard post and flirts wiz ze Boche, we can count on running at least four bicycles past zem while zey stare at her chest.” “Hah! I understand. It's something like that with Donnie. Right now you could drive a Tiger tank over his foot and he wouldn't even notice.” Fifi snarled something in French, then said, “Men! Zey see only women wiz big chests.” “Well, uh . . .” Old Guy tried to think of something gallant to say about Fifi's endowments, which appeared inadequate only when compared to Marie's superstructure. He eventually decided to remain silent on the subject. His smattering of high school French wasn't up to the task and he didn't think Fifi would understand American jargon like 'nice rack'. Fifi waited a moment then turned abruptly and stomped off. Old Guy shook his head and shouldered his pack. Donnie was ready, pack and all, though there was no telling what he'd stuffed into it. Old Guy guided him toward the opening. The lad emitted a low calf-like moan, but that was all. **** The room was dark. Fick stood at the window watching men and equipment moving up the road. He turned away suddenly, as if in pain. “Herr Oberst, is something the matter?” Gefreiter Whizkid touched the colonel's arm. “Dummkopfs, Vhiz. Dummkopfs marsch in der night.” “Ah . . . the 2nd SS Panzer isn't a foolish unit, sir.” “Sie marsch, marsch, marsch to der Nord, goink into der lines. Sie expect to defeat der Americans unt der Britishers bevor der lunch tomorrow. Dummkopfs!” Whizkid decided the colonel needed to be reminded about their own orders. “Herr Oberst, we must be on the road within the hour. You recall our show planned for tomorrow night at Coutances?” “Coutances. Ja. I know, Vhiz. Mit luck ein Americans von't be there ahead of us. How many do ve haf left?” Whiz knew what Fick was referring to. “Of the actors we have all the Germans, except for those two SS deserters. They evidently deserted again. The French are all gone. The only stage hands left are the Russian prisoners.” “How far ve haf fallen, eh, Vhiz? Ein Russians stay because sie speak no French, the Germans are afraid to desert because der French might kill them, unt the French are hiding somewhere sewing FFI armbands unt hoping no one saw them acting in German plays put on for occupying troops.” “As you say, Herr Oberst. Still, the show must go on.” “Who says? Vhy does ein show haf to go on?” “Orders, Herr Oberst. If the show doesn't go on we will all be handed rifles and sent to infantry units. I do not wish to end my days shooting at a sky full of American fighters and bombers.” “Vell, since you put it that vay . . .” Fick slumped into a chair. “Ah, Vhiz. I had such plans. Dreams. Dreams of glory. Unt not a hint of this endless nightmare.” “Plans, Herr Oberst?” “I vas in early, Vhiz. Der Party, I mean. Those vere vunderful days!” “Were you a Blackshirt? Brownshirt?” “Nein. Unt that is vhere I made my mistake, Vhiz. I vasn't either of those.” “There were other groups of thugs?” “Not thugs, Vhiz. Ours vas an organization of people mit vision, manners, breeding.” Fick smiled for the first time in days. “Ve did a lot of breeding. Hah! Such orgies!” “Sounds like the Brownshirts, Herr Oberst.” “Nein. Ein Brownies veren't our kind of girl, if you take my meaning.” “I've heard stories.” “I can tell you stories!” Fick sighed and got up. “Blackshirts vere alvays such intense people, full of bile, unt not much into orgies -- not in those early days. Help me mit my tunic.” Whizkid assisted Fick into his uniform jacket. “But you've done well, Herr Oberst.” Fick shrugged. “Colonel in charge of das acting troupe, Vhiz? It is true that few men wear ein mauve shoulder straps of das Entertainment Corps, but -- not many ever vanted to.” “Someone has to do it, Herr Oberst.” “True.” Fick sighed again. “Now ve must get this show on der road.” (tbc)
  13. Old Guy

    Scouts Out!

    Yep, our two heros -- and other Simians -- are still out there! The two motorcyclists rolled to a halt in front of a building sporting a hand-painted sign which read, 3rd BAT OPERASHUNS. Major Dude stepped outside and stopped to light a cigarette. He caught sight of his two dispatch riders. “How the hell did you get here so fast?” Old Guy made a vague motion that might have been a salute. “We came in by glider. Donnie got us a ride with some 82nd Airborne guys. He nearly got us killed to boot. So here we are.” Dude glanced toward the beach. “I guess you noticed the mess. Everything is screwed up. I doubt if battalion HQ staff will be ashore by next week, the way things are going. We can use you.” “I was afraid of that,” murmured Old Guy. Louder he said, “What have you got for us, sir?” “Company B is moving out in a few minutes. I'm sure Captain Spectre would like a couple scouts.” “Ah . . . yes, sir. I imagine he would. Motorcycle couriers don't make good scouts. Sir.” “You're all we've got.” Dude grinned. “You've done this kind of thing before. In Tunisia.” “Well, sure. It's different in the desert, sir. Open country. Here it's all cut up into little fields bordered with trees and brush. The only way we can find an ambush is to ride into it.” Dude shrugged. “You might have to get off those motorcycles and play frontier scout for a while. I'll get you a map – if I've got anything usable.” Old Guy followed the major inside. A couple ragged paratroopers trudged by. One stopped and stared at Donnie. “Dint I see y'all last night?” “Uh . . . maybe. Me an' Old Guy rode in by glider. We spent the night in the woods.” Donnie tried to recall the men they'd encountered the previous night. “Slim. Ain't you Slim? From Alabama?” “That be me. I ain't from Alabam. Tennessee is mah home. Where be that old fart y'all was with?” “Inside. They're sendin' us out to scout for a rifle company.” “Sorry ta hear that, pardner.” Slim gestured with a Garand. “Busted ma carbine on a Kraut skull. Picked this here raffle of a daid paratrooper. I ain't shot nobody with it. Yet.” “Let's go,” said his companion. “Before some jerk decides to send us back out there.” “Y'all be careful, heah?” Slim shouldered his weapon and followed the other man down the track. Old Guy walked outside. “Who were you jawing with?” “Slim. That hillbilly we run into last night.” “What about Grainger?” “Didn't see him. Didn't think to ask.” “He had his shit together. Probably he's okay.” “What we gonna do? Major give you a map?” “No regular map.” Old Guy handed Donnie a folded scrap of paper. “I made a rough sketch of the area B Company is moving into. That'll have to do.” Donnie turned the paper one way, then another. “Rough ain't the word. I can't read your writing. And these lines look kinda like the wrinkles on my grandma's face.” Old Guy snatched at the map. “I never claimed to be an artist. And I don't know your granny. Fire up your cycle and let's get outta here before the major dreams up something even worse.” “Grumpy old bastard,” muttered Donnie as he kicked his Harley to life. Old Guy led the way up a narrow farm road leading generally south. They weaved in and out of a line of slow-moving vehicles and heavily laden soldiers. Captain Spectre leaned over the hood of his jeep, marking on a map. A gaggle of lieutenants and platoon sergeants stood watching. A few appeared to be taking notes. All had the studied casualness affected by men about to enter the cauldron of combat. Old Guy coasted to a halt a few yards from the group and waited for the briefing to be over. “Look what the cat drug in,” drawled a familiar voice. Old Guy stared at the bedraggled figure leaning against a parked half-track. “Gunny! What in hell are you doing here? Last I knew you were a Marine.” “I'm still a Marine.” Gunny waved away any possible questions. “It's a long sad story, beginning with my taking a commission up in Iceland. I'll tell you all about it later.” “Jesus,” said Donnie, chuckling. “You an officer? They musta dropped the gentleman requirement.” “Lots of officers ain't gentlemen,” replied a gruff voice. Old Guy and Donnie sprang to attention and saluted Spectre. “I see you met my temporary Exec. You got messages for me?” “No, sir,” said Old Guy. “I mean, nothing official. Major Dude told us to report to you for scouting duties.” He indicated their motorcycles. “I imagine we'll leave these here and go on foot.” “That would be wise. If you leave them with the battalion motor sergeant they might not get stolen. On the other hand, if someone steals them you won't have any trouble misappropriating a jeep or even a tank, would you?” “Sir,” said Old Guy, affecting a hurt expression. “I've never misappropriated Army property. The proper forms have always been submitted. In triplicate.” “I'm sure that's true, Sergeant. Otherwise you'd be in Leavenworth, breaking rocks.” Spectre produced a smile that belied the murder in his eyes. “The Germans might make you yearn for a prison cell.” Undaunted, Old Guy laughed. “I've toured Leavenworth, Captain. The climate sucks and the food is terrible. I'll take my chances with the Germans.” “Show them our plan of attack, Mr. Exec. Then send them on their way.” Spectre executed a snappy about-face and marched away. “Friendly cuss,” observed Donnie. “I take it you served with the captain before?” Old Guy nodded. “I did. Before the war. At Fort Benning. There were several misunderstandings about rations and quartering. Nothing serious.” “Sounded like he doesn't share y'all's opinion of what's serious,” observed Gunny. He grinned. “For what it's worth, he don't like me neither. His Exec was killed in a traffic accident last week and I was sorta sent over as a temporary replacement and for what the Corps calls inter-service training.” “That's bad,” said Donnie. “For both of you.” He hefted his pack. “Damn! This is heavy. Do I really need so much ammo and all these grenades?” “Leave the wine bottles and cheese,” suggested Old Guy. “Without the ammo and grenades the Germans will soon have you – and your cheese.” “Y'all got any kind of a map?” asked Gunny. “I don't have any extra.” “He has paper with a bunch of chicken scratchin' on it,” said Donnie. “No map.” “It's a perfectly good map,” snarled Old Guy. “Just a little hard to decipher.” “Maps aren't the only thing we're short of,” said Gunny. “I can't give y'all a radio. Rations are tight. Ammo isn't getting up as fast as it should. Tanks. I ain't seen any of ours.” “So what the hell are we supposed to do?” asked Old Guy. “England is full of rations and ammo, not to mention women and booze. What have you got plenty of?” “No women. Not much booze. Lots of Germans. A few Tiger tanks. Not many, thank the Lord. As for what y'all are supposed to do, it's simple. Find the Germans. Don't get shot. Bring word back to the captain. We got naval fire support and pretty good artillery. They'll take 'em out. Sometimes.” “My morale is sagging already,” said Old Guy. He compared his hand-drawn map to the one on the captain's jeep. “Close enough I guess. Saddle up, Donnie. We're scouts now.” **** “I feel like I'm in the middle of Times Square with no clothes on,” murmured Donnie. Old Guy led the way to the right, away from the cow path they'd been more or less following. “You ain't never been to New York, much less Times Square.” “New York? Times Square is in New York? I figgered it for Chicago or maybe Detroit.” “Pipe down, dammit,” hissed Old Guy. “The Krauts can hear that sawmill whisper of yours a mile off.” In fact, because of the wind and constant drumbeat of artillery in the distance, he was certain that whatever noise they made was not likely to be noticed by anyone more than a few yards away. He'd heard vehicle noises several times. So far they hadn't seen anything more dangerous than a milk cow. A sudden burst of rifle fire sent them both down flat. “We just came that way,” said Donnie. The firing grew in volume, then dropped off. A machine gun chattered. More rifles opened up, closer than before. An automatic weapon fired, buzzsaw-like. Donnie squirmed deeper into the grass. “What in hell was that?” “MG-42. German machine gun.” Old Guy crawled into a patch of small trees and got to his knees. “It's not far away. On the other side of that path we were following.” “Christ on a crutch. We musta walked right past them guys.” “Maybe. Or more likely they moved in from the north after we passed.” “I don't care if they fell from the goddamn sky. They're between us and the company.” “Ease up, Donnie. We don't have to go back that way.” Old Guy listened as the German gun fired off a long burst. “He'll soon need to change barrels, shooting that way.” Rifle poised, he began moving slowly through the trees toward the sound of the machine gun. “Come on.” Donnie didn't move for a long moment. Then, afraid to be left alone, he managed to get up and crawl rapidly after the crazy bastard. “Wait. Goddamn it. Wait for me. Shit. He's gonna get us both killed.” At the edge of the patch of trees, Old Guy halted and studied the vegetation lining the other side of the path. It seemed to be a sort of hedge crowned with thick brush and a few trees. A wooden gate blocked a narrow cut directly across from his position. Beyond he could see a small pasture lined with similar hedges on all sides. As he watched the MG fired again, another long burst. He couldn't see the men working the gun but did note muzzle blast shaking small branches a few feet above ground level. He pointed out the German position to Donnie. “The Krauts are dug into that hedge. Our guys must be over to the left, on the far side of the field or whatever it is. Pasture, I guess.” “I see a couple dead cows,” said Donnie. “So it must be pasture. Right?” “I'm amazed at your grasp of animal husbandry. Let's circle to the right and try to take those bastards from the rear. There may be more infantry flanking the gun. Be careful.” Donnie waited until Old Guy had moved out about twenty feet before he followed. “Be careful, he says. That's just what I told Trixie and what did she do? She got pregnant. Being careful ain't all it's cracked up to be.” It seemed to Donnie as if they crawled and ran across ten miles of French countryside before Old Guy stopped beside a moss-covered stump. He cautioned Donnie to silence and just knelt there for a long time eyeballing the path and the orchard beyond. “Somebody drove a couple jeeps along here yesterday.” Old Guy pointed at the tracks pressed into the muddy lane. “Somebody else put tracks down on top of those within the last few hours. A horse-drawn cart of some kind.” “Yeah,” agreed Donnie, though the tracks all looked the same to him. “Can we go back now?” The Kraut machine gun began firing again, this time in shorter bursts. Donnie flinched and crouched lower. Old Guy sprinted across the lane and took cover beside a pile of logs. A few seconds later he moved out again, running in a low crouch. “Jesus, get me outta here,” moaned Donnie. “He's gonna get me killed.” Rifle gripped in shaking hands, he trotted across the lane, expecting a storm of bullets at every step. Crashing into the log pile, he lay there panting. Old Guy reappeared. “Get your ass up. We gotta take out that fucking gun.” “But . . .” The old fart was already gone again. Sighing with frustration, Donnie heaved himself up and followed. His partner was moving in short sprints, using the fruit trees for cover. The trees looked too small to stop a rock, much less a bullet, but Donnie began doing the same thing. He only tripped and fell down twice as they neared the German position. He dodged around a clump of bushes and nearly fell over Old Guy. “Down. Cover me.” With that his companion moved forward at a crouch. Cover me? Donnie anxiously scanned the area, but could see no one other than Old Guy, who now gripped his Garand in his left hand and brandished a pistol in his right. Where in hell did he get a Luger? Then Donnie saw the Germans. Old Guy shot the ammo carrier in the back of the neck. The assistant gunner turned and pulled his pistol. A bullet in the head stopped him. Old Guy stepped forward and shot the gunner twice, then put another round into each of the other men – just to make sure. He holstered the pistol, slung his rifle and grabbed the machine gun. Donnie knelt by the bushes, gaping. Jesus! A few seconds and it's all over for three Krauts. Old Guy motioned him forward. “Grab these ammo cans. Come on. Be quick about it.” The German officer came scurrying out of the brush to Donnie's right. The man slid to a stop, mouth agape. He croaked something and grabbed for his sidearm. “Shit,” moaned Old Guy. He dropped the machine gun and started to bring his rifle around. For an eternity Donnie stood frozen, rifle pointed skyward. As the officer clawed at the flap on his holster the obvious response oozed into Donnie's brain. He swung his rifle toward the man and jerked the trigger. Nothing happened. Now the officer had his pistol out and was thrusting it forward. “Shoot! Shoot!” Old Guy's words snapped Donnie into terrified alertness. His rifle was still on 'safe'. Still staring at the German, he shoved the safety forward and raised his weapon. The officer hesitated between targets. One soldier was still struggling with his rifle and the other man seemed unable to act. He swung the pistol toward Donnie, then pointed it at Old Guy. Donnie fired striking the German in the chest. He kept pulling the trigger until the empty clip ejected. A hand touched his shoulder. “You got him. Now reload and grab those ammo cans.” Moving without thought, Donnie did as instructed. They were thirty yards into the orchard before the realization hit him. I just killed a man. God forgive me, I just killed a man. He stumbled after Old Guy, mind filled with conflicting emotions. “We'll set up here.” Old Guy dropped behind the same log pile they'd originally used for cover after crossing the lane. “Those other bastards will be headed this way shortly.” “Jesus Christ,” cried Donnie. “You just shot three men. Doesn't that bother you?” Old Guy paused. “Some. I shoulda been a little quicker. That second guy had his hand on his weapon before I greased him.” He looked at Donnie closely. “Hell. I didn't know you was a virgin. That was the first Kraut you killed?” “Y – yeah. Jesus, I never even tried to get him to surrender.” “Surrender? He was about to blow my head off, then kill you. Be damn glad you got unstuck and blew him away.” Old Guy chuckled. “Next time, save your ammo. Two rounds would have been plenty.” “Shit.” The killing re-ran in Donnie's mind. “Man. I guess you're right. I never done that before.” “Hell, you were in the desert. You must have been in action there.” “Not me. I had latrine duty the whole time. They dragged a bunch of us together when the Germans tore us up at Kasserine, but nothing ever came of it. I went back to digging holes.” “Damn, Donnie. I thought I had a regular combat veteran watching my back.” Old Guy shrugged. “I guess that's true now.” He moved some logs, making space between two large ones. Placing the gun in the resulting opening, he directed Donnie to one side. “The thing feeds like this.” He demonstrated replacing the ammo drum. “You figure the other Germans will be looking for us?” Fear made Donnie's voice squeaky. “There should be squad leader and a couple riflemen. They will be moving back now that the gun crew and their officer has been killed.” Old Guy settled himself behind the gun. “I don't know why that captain was there at all. I don't think there was more than the one machine gun squad. Maybe he was trying to be a hero or something.” “I don't wanna be no hero. They get shot a lot.” “Yeah.” Old Guy laughed again. “Especially if PFC Donnie is doing the shooting.” Voices and a clatter of equipment silenced their conversation. Down the lane came a man leading a mule pulling a small cart. His rifle was slung. Other figures trotted along behind. “I see three behind the cart,” whispered Old Guy. “I'll take them. You shoot the one in front, then get ready to change drums.” Donnie had no time to think about anything. Old Guy opened up. The man leading the mule crouched down, dragging at his rifle. Donnie aimed and fired. His target went down and the mule jumped into the trees across the lane, cart shedding equipment as it bounced along behind. At least one rifle responded. Donnie stood up and pumped two more rounds into the man he'd shot. A bullet smashed into his Garand, knocking him to his knees. He crawled up beside Old Guy and tried to pick up an ammo drum, but his arm was numb from the shock. Finally, using his left arm, he managed to shove one of the drums up to where Old Guy could grab it. Old Guy reloaded and fired a couple more bursts. There was no answering fire. “I think that last guy took off. Or else Company B got their act together and came up behind. I heard some Garands.” “You heard a Garand? How the hell did you know what it was?” “No big trick. You know the difference in the sound of a Mauser and a Garand. And you sure as hell know what an MG-42 sounds like.” “Well. Yeah.” “Now you just have to learn to listen without thinking about it.” “Hell, I can do that. I do a lot of stuff without thinking.” “I've noticed.” Old Guy sat up. “Look who's coming our way.” Gunny walked out of the trees across the lane cradling a Springfield rifle. “Any more Krauts?” “I thought the last one bugged out,” replied Old Guy. “But you probably got him.” “That ain't a Garand,” observed Donnie. “The Springfield fires the same round,” said Old Guy. “Only a Marine would happen to have one.” Gunny walked to where the German teamster lay dead. “You knock out the gun crew?” “That was us,” conceded Old Guy. “Donnie lost his virginity. Shot a German officer about a hundred times. Then he wanted to find a church and confess his sin. He's over it now.” “Good.” Gunny made a form-on-me gesture and more men came out of the brush. “We're moving back and heading for a town a few miles away to relieve some paratroopers. You wanna come along?” Old Guy picked up the MG-42. “Sure. But only if we can have our Harley's back.” He cleared the weapon. “How much do you think some rear area puke would give for this thing?” “It's kinda beat up.” Gunny studied the gun. “Does that make it worth more?” “Of course. I figure I can get 150, maybe 200 dollars for it.” “Lugers are more popular. I heard you can get up to 500 bucks for one in England.” “I got a Luger, but I'm keeping it.” Old Guy looked thoughtful. “500 bucks? I'll have to start a collection. For my retirement.” Gunny laughed. “The only thing you'll have in retirement is a shovel and a furnace. Right beside me in one of the lower hells.” “We better report to Spectre,” said Donnie. “I hope he don't send us back out here.” “Don't worry about him,” said Gunny. “I'm the company commander now – at least temporarily. Spectre took a bullet in the butt. He's been evacuated.” “He got hit in the ass?” Old Guy grinned. “So now he's got a couple extra assholes. As if he needed 'em. Maybe I've seen the last of that bastard.” He handed the MG to Donnie. “Hang onto that. Don't let any officer take it away. Tell 'em you have strict orders to deliver it to military intelligence.” Donnie balanced the weapon on his shoulder. “What would those bozos want with a German machine gun?” “I have no idea. No one knows what MI does.” Gunny got his company headed back toward their original assembly area. Old Guy and Donnie fell in behind the lead platoon. “What we gonna do now?” asked Donnie. “First we'll sample some of that wine you been packing around, then follow Gunny to that little town. Somewhere along the line an officer will want to send messages to another brass hat and we'll be back in the dispatch rider business.” “What if there ain't no messages?” “Christ, Donnie, you've been in the Army long enough to know that ain't possible. There's always a moron who can't wait to inform his boss about . . . oh . . . about anything. Going to the latrine without pissing on his hands. Stuff like that.” “Hell, I do that all the time. Well, most of the time.” “True. But you don't have anybody to tell.” “I can tell you.” “Yeah. Except I don't wanna know. Don't send me no messages.” “Fine friend you are. But I can always write to Trixie. Send her messages, like.” “Take it from me, Donnie. She don't wanna know about your piss calls.” End
  14. (This is a prelude to the previous story) “I don't remember volunteering for this,” grumbled Old Guy. He had to shout in Donnie's ear, wedged as he was between a strapped-down Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a burly paratrooper sergeant, and Donnie, his fellow dispatch rider/scout. “You didn't,” cried Donnie. “I volunteered us both. The alternative was going across in a landing craft. You know I get seasick.” The glider lurched and shuddered. Nobody breathed for several seconds. As the craft steadied the men huddling on troop seats relaxed ever so slightly. Somewhere below lay the English Channel. Normandy was yet twenty minutes or so ahead. At that moment every man aboard (save for Old Guy and Donnie) wished to be riding in a C-47 preparing to jump out over occupied France. Going to war in a damned glider wasn't in keeping with the glory of the paratroops. All things considered, Old Guy preferred to be in a glider. Jumping out of perfectly good airplanes seemed like a reasonable description of insanity. He wasn't exactly thrilled to be there at all. Further discussion with Donnie was called for. The last thing Old Guy remembered was attending a party thrown by some casual acquaintances in the 82nd Airborne. Security being tight, there were no women present, but he vaguely recalled an amazing quantity of booze, some brewed by the paratroops and quite good in spite of that. The next memory was of being dragged from a dingy tent and pushed into a group of troopers standing beside a smallish glider. Some helpful soul wheeled his Harley into the fuselage through the open front end of the beast, then swanned off, waving a cheery goodbye. If Old Guy could find out who the smiling sonofabitch was, he'd kill him. “What the hell are you clowns gonna do with these here motorcycles?” bellowed the paratrooper sergeant seated to Old Guy's right. “Ride 'em,” he shouted back. “Carry messages. Scout ahead of troops – sometimes.” The sergeant nodded and shrugged. “The 319th is a field artillery battalion. We don't have no scouts. You'll get yer ass blown away ridin' around on them noisy bastards.” Old Guy shook his head. “Some damn general thought otherwise.” No sense blaming his predicament on Donnie. That would involve a good deal of explanation complete with historical examples. Every soldier already knew the Army was screwed up. “Stupid bastards,” agreed the sergeant. Time seemed to speed up as they approached the drop zone. Over the drone of engines Old Guy could make out the sporadic crack of exploding antiaircraft shells. For the hundredth time he resolved to kill Donnie – provided the Germans didn't finish them both off first. “What's the landing zone like?” The sergeant produced a map sealed in acetate. “Open fields mostly. An east/west road on the north. Trees to the south. Scattered trees north of the road. Not many houses.” He placed the map in his left trouser leg bellows pocket. “Expect anything. We might wind up in Norway or Africa.” “I been in Africa,” said Old Guy. “Don't wanna go back.” Further conversation was cut off as a series of sharp blasts tossed the glider up and to the right. Steel bits ripped through the thin walls. Men cried out. Curses filled the cabin. Donnie shouted in Old Guy's ear. “We must have crossed the coast!” He was smiling like a chimp. Old Guy grabbed Donnie's field jacket and snarled, “If you get me killed I'll haunt your ass forever!” “Jeez. I was just tryna get us here in one piece. I coulda just left you lying under that table where them paratroopers was partying. We're getting to France with dry shoes and no seasickness. A guy could be grateful, y'know.” “Grateful?” An explosion rocked the glider. Old Guy grabbed his Harley. The paratrooper sergeant slumped against him, head lolling. Gently, Old Guy pushed him away. The body swayed for a moment as the glider bounced around, then flopped forward. Blood drizzled to the cabin floor. Donnie tugged on Old Guy's arm. “Hey! The guy next to me is dead.” “Everybody seems to be dead – except us – and I don't give us good odds.” Just to give a lie to his statement, a dumb bastard wearing lieutenant's bars stood up. “We've been cut loose! Brace yourselves!” Men stirred, grabbing for supports. Tightening restraints. The glider's motion was definitely different. Nose down, it swooped left then right, as if the pilot were seeking something familiar below. “Hell, Donnie,” cried Old Guy. “We might make it after all.” A sudden thought pushed his fear aside. “You got a map? Where are we supposed to go after we land?” “I ain't got no map. They tole me to find 82nd Division HQ and have them direct us to wherever.” “Christ. We can't just wander around the countryside. It's crawling with Krauts.” Old Guy gingerly retrieved the paratrooper sergeant's map. There was no blood on it, for which he was very grateful. The pilot evidently never found what he was looking for. At the last moment the glider leveled off over a field sprouting a veritable forest of poles. Anti-glider obstructions. He missed the poles but couldn't avoid the trees lining the edge of the field. Plunging through the trees, the glider shed its wings and landing gear, then slid forward a hundred feet or more before glancing off a timber obstruction. The tail section ripped away, vanishing into the night. Dust filled the air. Groaning, the wrecked glider coasted to a stop. Someone cursed. Another man moaned with pain. Slowly, men began to move. In the distance a cannon fired. One machine gun stuttered, joined by another – and another. “Everybody out!” It was the lieutenant. Still alive, still giving orders. “We need a medic here,” shouted a trooper. “If you can move, get out,” ordered the officer. “The medic's dead. I'll detail someone to care for the wounded. Move it!” He glanced around the dark cabin. “Sergeant Wheeler?” No one replied. Old Guy dragged himself to his feet. “If the man next to me is Wheeler, he's dead.” The lieutenant didn't hesitate. “Corporal Keller! Get the men out.” In an instant the cabin emptied, save for the wounded who couldn't walk and those who would never move of their own accord again. Old Guy pulled Donnie to his feet. “That lieutenant has his shit together. We need to unload our Harleys and make sure they still work.” Getting the motorcycles out was as simple as removing the straps and wheeling them out the gaping hole in the aft fuselage, which was resting on the ground. The last of the light faded as they shoved the cycles under a tree. The lieutenant arrived and tossed Donnie a blood-soaked first aid bag. “Those motorcycles won't be of any use until daylight, if then. For now you're medics. I can't leave any men for security, so be careful. When we make contact with Regiment, I'll send someone to collect the wounded – and the dead.” “Can't you call someone, sir?” asked Old Guy. “I don't mind playing medic, but . . .” “I know.” The officer sighed and shrugged. “Both radios are blown to shit. I'll get some help.” He turned as a burst of firing erupted not too far away. “Just do what you can.” With that, he vanished into the dark. “I don't know nothin' about medic stuff,” said Donnie. “You don't know nothin' about nothin',” replied Old Guy. “But you got us into this mess. Now bring that aid kit and help me with the wounded.” “Oh, man. I don't like blood. I might pass out.” “Pass out and I'll shoot you,” promised Old Guy. He knelt beside a paratrooper lying on the fuselage floor. “Help me get this one outside. Get your flashlight. Mine too.” Donnie didn't think Old Guy would really shoot him, but the old bastard was pretty pissed at Donnie's arrangements for getting them to France. Besides, he was from Montana. All that open country and blue sky seemed to have driven him partly insane. Donnie went to get the flashlights. They rifled packs for shelter halves and arranged them on the ground a few feet from the glider, then carried the wounded out and laid them side by side on the canvas. One had a head wound and never regained consciousness during the long night. His dog tags named him R. Jones, Protestant. The other man had shrapnel wounds in the body, but nothing had penetrated deeply. Old Guy applied field dressings, gave him a shot of morphine and hoped for the best. The guy lay propped against his pack, smoking. He hadn't said much during the whole process, but when Old Guy finished with him, he spoke up. “Rhodes. Walter Rhodes. Thanks for patching me up.” “Rhodes, eh? They call you Dusty?” “Naw. My mother wouldn't allow it. After I joined the Army it just seemed right not to let people call me 'Dusty'. That make any sense?” “Probably not,” admitted Old Guy. “But your mom will be pleased.” “Yeah. That's what I thought.” Two dead were carried out, laid on shelter halves, and covered with a tarp Donnie found in a storage compartment inside the glider. The two men in the cockpit were both dead, but the crumpled wreckage made it impossible to remove them. “What the hell is that?” asked Donnie. Old Guy looked up from the man with the head wound. “What?” “That noise. Sounds like some big damn crickets. Or something.” “Um – didn't I hear something about noisemakers everybody was supposed to be carrying?” “I dunno. Nobody gave me one.” “We all got them,” said Rhodes. “We were supposed to use them to identify ourselves to friendly forces.” He listened as the cricket sounded again. “Yeah, that's sounds like one.” He produced a small metal object and clicked it several times. Old Guy picked up his Garand and moved away from the wounded men. “Get your weapon,” he hissed. “Lets move over by the motorcycles, by the tree.” “What for?” whispered Donnie as he complied. “Those are our guys.” “Or Germans with clickers they captured or took off dead GIs. If it's Germans, we shoot 'em.” “What if they want to surrender?” “Just shoot 'em, Donnie. We can't handle any prisoners.” Old Guy thought for a moment. “Unless it's a medic. He'll be carrying an aid bag, marked with a red cross. Like our guys have.” “Right. How am I supposed to identify a medic? It's blacker than your conscience out there.” “I don't have one. Just be careful. Let's try not to shoot any friendlies.” Two men crept out of the night and stood looking down at the men on the ground. Old Guy and Donnie quit whispering and knelt on opposite sides of the tree. Rhodes looked up and saw the intruders. “What the hell are you guys doing here?” “Don't ask me,” replied one of the men. “You with the 82nd?” “Yeah.” Rhodes called out. “Old Guy. These clowns are from the 101st.” The men decided to stay at the glider. “No sense wandering around trying to get shot,” said one, a Tech Sergeant armed with a Thompson. “Come daylight we can try to find our unit – or some kind of unit. The guys that dropped last night are scattered all over hell. I been lost all day.” He introduced himself as Phillip Grainger. His companion, a thin PFC packing an M-1 carbine, sagged to the ground and took off his boots. “I been wantin' ta do that all day. Paratroopers ain't s'posed ta hafta walk all over creation just ta find a few Krauts ta kill.” He started changing his socks. “I dint find nobody but Sar'nt Grainger.” “That's Slim Baker,” said Grainger. “Don't listen to his complaining. He's a hillbilly from Tennessee. I figger he's been walking those hills down there since he was hatched.” “I wasn't carryin' no dad-burn pack in Tennessee,” returned Slim. 'Always packed a raffle, tho.” “In the morning somebody should be here to pick up Rhodes and the other guy,” said Old Guy. “I reckon we can all get some rest. One of us should stand guard.” “I'll take first watch,” offered Grainger. “There any food in that glider?” “Check it out,” said Old Guy. “The dead guys packs should have something. Donnie and I carry rations on our motorcycles. We'll be good for a couple days, if need be.” “Medics better get here in the morning,” said Rhodes. “Jones ain't gonna make much beyond that.” Old Guy didn't think Jones would see the sun rise, but he kept that to himself. Jones almost made it. About an hour before dawn he coughed, took a deep breath, and exhaled it slowly. Old Guy knelt down and checked for a pulse. “He's gone.” “Y'all sure?” asked Slim. “I dint hear no rattlin' sound. Ain't dyin' folks supposed ta rattle a bit just afore kickin' off?” Old Guy covered Jones with a shelter half. “I guess he decided to go quietly.” “He was married,” murmured Rhodes. “Got letters two – three times a week from her and their little boy. The wife and his mother both work in an airplane factory in Florida. Near Tampa Bay, I think. Only brother was killed in the Philippines – early on. He didn't have to be here.” Nobody else wanted to talk about Jones and why he was in a glider assault on occupied France instead of safe at home. Donnie loomed out of the dark, mincing along as if walking through a mine field. “Germans!” he hissed. “Three or four. Headed this way.” Old Guy grabbed his rifle. Grainger rolled up from where he'd been trying to sleep. He woke Slim, holding a hand over his mouth to keep him from making a sound. Rhodes ground out his cigarette. “Slim and I will be over by the glider,” whispered Grainger. “Donnie,” called Old Guy. “Come on.” He posted Donnie behind the tree sheltering their Harleys and found good cover for himself behind a fallen log a few feet away. Rhodes lay quiet. The Germans came out of the east, moving without noise in single file. Behind them the horizon blushed with the first light of dawn. Old Guy identified the distinctive profile of Kraut helmets. The dark figures were distorted by their packs and jutting weapons. Their leader halted about fifty feet from the glider. He went to one knee, evidently having spotted the angular shapes of the damaged wings and fuselage. The others followed suit. A long minute crawled by. Old Guy blinked in the semi-dark, trying to focus on his target – the last man in the file. He nearly fired when the leader stood and motioned the others forward. The men spread out, stepping carefully. Grainger fired first – a carefully controlled burst. Old Guy saw the lead German go down even as he squeezed off a round. His target was flung backwards, legs visible as he went over. “God damn!” Old Guy rose slightly and scanned for more targets. He knew men didn't go down that hard unless they were hit by more than one bullet. One of the others must have fired at the same man. Shadowed ground hid the other two Germans. Sullen echoes faded out across the field to the east. A single shot rang out. Wood chips showered Old Guy. He slid backwards and crawled to his right. He heard the snap of a spoon flying off a grenade. Five seconds later the morning erupted with a sharp explosion. An animal-like scream rose up then died away. As he slid into a shallow depression a voice called out words he didn't understand. Grainger answered. “Hande hoch! Schnell!” The German replied in a questioning tone. Grainger fired a burst in the air and repeated the command. As the German slowly stood up, hands raised, Old Guy noticed that he could see the man clearly. He glanced at the sky. Morning had arrived. “Y'all see that Kraut go down ass over teakettle when I tagged him?” Slim sat next to Rhodes cleaning his carbine. Their German prisoner knelt in the middle of the clearing, hands on his head. The skinny PFC spat to one side and looked up at Old Guy. “Sar'nt Grainger put the hurt on that there front guy. How come y'all didn't far? Or did y'all miss?” Old Guy shrugged. “I reckon we both hit the same man. Donnie too. It happens.” Donnie's ability with a Garand was legendary. In four attempts he'd failed to qualify on that rifle or on any other weapon. Finally, his drill sergeant sent another trainee to fire in his place. Otherwise Donnie would probably be peeling potatoes in a mess hall someplace in the States. Old Guy didn't see any sense in complicating things by explaining his partner's history. Especially to a tobacco-chewing hillbilly who could probably shoot the eyes out of a squirrel. Because of the more or less constant drone of aircraft, they didn't hear the rumble of approaching vehicles until they were about five hundred yards away. “We got company,” said Grainger. He pulled the German to his feet and steered him over by the glider. The sound echoed across the field lying to the west. Old Guy walked to the edge of the trees. North of the field lay a sunken road lined with brush. He couldn't see any vehicles until a small scout car rolled past a break in the vegetation. The soldiers riding in the car wore British-style helmets. He trotted back to the others. “Looks like relief has arrived. Limeys.” “Could be Canadians,” suggested Grainger. “I hope it is,” said Old Guy. “I can usually understand Canadians. If it's Aussies, forget it.” The small column proved to be scouting ahead of a British armored unit. Their medical staff took care of Rhodes. He was soon in an ambulance, heading for a rear area hospital. Grainger and Slim went along, reasoning that someone closer to the beach should know where the 101st hung out. A nattily dressed lieutenant glared at the Americans as if they had just crawled out of a sewer. He said nothing, though, apparently determined not to criticize allied troops, even if they were bloody colonials. A sergeant suggested Old Guy and Donnie follow the same road back to the beach. “Watch yourself, lads. The sodding Krauts are just as disorganized as we are. You might run into a whole damn division of the bastards where there ain't supposed to be none.” They made good time and the only Germans they saw were walking toward the beachhead, prisoners of war. At a major crossroad a harried MP told them he didn't know where the god damn 101st was and he didn't give a good god damn if the division still existed. He also didn't like jerks riding around on motorcycles like they was on a god damn vacation and wished they would get the hell out of his god damn road before he had them arrested. “I didn't like that MP,” said Donnie when they stopped at a sprawling supply dump to take on some rations and fuel. “I'm sure he doesn't care what you think of him,” said Old Guy. “The poor guy has probably been answering dumb questions all morning.” “Asking the location of a unit ain't dumb – is it?” “We're officially not supposed to be lost in the first place. On the other hand, people do get misplaced and seeking information from a responsible official is not, by definition, dumb.” “So he was just being an ass, right?” “Like I said, he's heard a lot of stupid questions. It can be tough to sort out the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. In that situation a man can be forgiven for being a surly bastard.” Donnie looked thoughtful, which is always a bad sign. Old Guy stepped back, expecting a blast of swamp gas. Instead of gas, Donnie produced PHILOSOPHY. “It's like women. Some are good, some are bad, and some have big boobs so it don't make no never mind except that you hope they're bad so you can get your mitts on those boobs. Right?” End
  15. (A little story suggested by today's "This Day in ..." post) “I'm gonna buy one of these when I get home.” Donnie patted the gas tank of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He flipped a cigarette butt toward a puddle and immediately lit another. Old Guy glanced up from a map. He sat astride an identical motorcycle. Both men wore tanker jackets and paratrooper trousers, mud splattered and showing the effects of long use. Like Donnie, he carried a .45 Colt in a shoulder holster. An M-1 Garand rested in a scabbard mounted on the right side of the front fender. Various bags and ammo boxes were strapped all over the cycle. “Buy what? One of these torture machines?” Old Guy stepped off his vehicle and stretched. “My ass is numb and my arms feel like someone hammered on them with a baseball bat.” “That's cause you're older'n dirt,” said Donnie. He glanced up at the sullen sky. “A roof would be nice at times, but mostly I like being a dispatch rider. Admit it, you old fart, you're just bitching to hear yourself talk. Given the choice of walking with the grunts or riding a Harley, which do you prefer?” “Neither. The Army could better use my skills by assigning me to Supply, preferably back in England, where I could keep the fighting troops better supplied than the thieving bastards they have in charge now.” Old Guy removed his helmet. “I'd have a nice little WAC secretary for . . . for handling requisitions and stuff. A warm Quonset hut for quarters. No damn tents!” Donnie snickered. “I'll bet that WAC would handle more than requisitions.” “I can't help it if women flock to me like bees to honey.” “We ain't seen any honeys lately. No bees either, come to think of it. Lotsa flies.” “They're drawn to corpses. It's a product of our times.” Both men chuckled. The humor was weak, but serviceable. A low growl announced the arrival of another vehicle, climbing the rise behind them. Donnie got on his cycle. Old Guy put his helmet back on. “What the hell is that?” asked Donnie. “Some kinda armored car?” “It's British,” answered Old Guy, removing his helmet again. “I don't know what they call them. The Brits are supposed to be a little further north.” He pulled out his map. “Unless we're lost.” “Judging by those clods in that village we passed through this morning, we're still in France. You're the navigator. I just follow you – or my nose.” “Hah! Your nose usually leads you to bad wine and ugly women.” “Too true. I think the Krauts drank all the good booze in France. And our officers have corralled all the good looking broads – as usual. Maybe this Limey is out of his reckoning.” The Limey in question peered down at them from his position in the turret of the strange vehicle, which pulled up beside the two motorcycle riders and stopped. He shoved his goggles up and grinned. “Two Yanks! And bloody well lost. Or I am. We're all out of cigarettes. You got any for a valiant ally?” Donnie rummaged in his kit bag and tossed up two packs of Crottin Chevals. “You must be brave. Drivin' around in a crate like that. Those are all I have. We ain't seen our own supply jerks for a couple weeks. They seem to prefer rear areas – of battle zones and young boys.” “Sounds like our chaps.” The Brit dropped one pack into the turret and opened the other. In response to a muffled voice from below he snarled, “I know they're French! Smoke the sodding things and stop with the bloody whining.” “We were just discussing the possibility that we've gone astray,” said Old Guy. He held up his map. “I think we're about ten kilometers east of Sur Mere. Where do you think you are?” “The same.” The Brit studied a map of his own. “The dividing line between my brigade and you lads has been moved. It runs through that village. I guess we're both where we ought to be.” This homely meeting of staunch allies was interrupted by the bellowing of not-too-distant engines. “Bloody hell, Tigers, or I'm a sodding Socialist.” Old Guy donned his helmet. “More than one, I think. Time for us to get out of here.” “Too bloody right,” agreed the Brit. He called down inside. “Call it in, Boz. Six Tigers at – .” He read off a map coordinate, then grinned down at the two Americans. “Might as well stir up the rear area lads, eh? Take their filthy minds off those young boys.” Donnie started his Harley and took off. Old Guy paused. “You better get the hell out. An 88 won't even slow down going through that crate of yours.” “We'll be right behind you, Yank. It's a Chevrolet, by the way. Made in your country. Some boffin named it the Staghound. She actually moves bloody well. Don't slow down or we'll run you over.” “Staghound? Never heard of it.” Old Guy's words were lost in the roar of engines as he cranked up his Harley and the armored car driver started his rig. As he rode away, the Brits began turning around in the small clearing. Donnie awaited him at a crossing, three hundred yards down the road. “Which way?” “Straight ahead. Maybe we missed some booze in Sur Mere. Or further west.” The sharp crack of a high velocity gun killed the banter. Both men twisted around in time to see the Staghound disappear in a bright yellow flash and a cloud of black smoke. Pieces tumbled through the air and smashed into trees. “Jesus,” breathed Old Guy. “Let's get the hell outta here!” cried Donnie. Suiting action to words, the two men accelerated down the road leading west. Behind them greasy black smoke rolled up from the blazing heap of metal lying in a small clearing. An hour later Old Guy reported the presence of heavy German armor to regimental HQ. A beehive of activity erupted. He and Donnie slipped into a nearby village and found refuge in front of a small cafe where a surly, fat woman provided stale rolls and bad wine. “Your famous luck is in,” chuckled Donnie. He nodded toward the woman. “I think she likes you.” Old Guy wasn't paying attention. He gazed at the two mud-covered motorcycles parked a few feet away and nodded his head, as if making up his mind about something. “After this fracas is over I'm gonna get me one of those.” “The hell. A couple hours ago you didn't want nothing to do with Harleys, ever again.” The old fart shrugged. “A man can change his mind.” He waxed philosophical. “A woman and booze will only get you into trouble. A Harley will always get you out of that trouble.” “Jeez, the crap is getting deep here. I'm glad I have boots on.” Donnie eyed the road to the east. “You think those Germans are coming this way?” “Who knows? Who cares? When we leave here let's head for Division. Maybe that T-5 commo guy buddy of yours can find a bunch of messages we can take back to Army HQ or something. If it gets dangerous around here we don't want to be hanging around.” “He ain't my buddy, dammit! I don't know why he's always hanging around me.” “He's in love, dummy. Just smile at him. You want to live through this mess so you can buy that Harley don't you?” “God, you're a real ass, you know that?” “Finish your wine. We need to get out of here.” Donnie shoved his glass away. “I don't want any more of that piss. I'd rather drink Army coffee.” Old Guy drank down his own wine and grimaced. “It's bad, all right. But not quite that bad.” He finished Donnie's drink and stood for a moment, empty glass in hand. “Well, maybe it is . . .” “Come on, you old drunk. Let's go before the Krauts show up.” “Lead on, Macduff.” Old Guy strapped his helmet on and started his Harley. “Who the hell is Macduff?” Old Guy shrugged and drove away. Donnie followed, still muttering. End
  16. Yarbo Slarg, PI Dogs Ugly. Well. In polite society they sort folks by physical appearance, but never use words like 'ugly' or 'horse-faced' or 'too tall'. I move in less elevated circles. This broad had nothing to recommend her. Besides all of the above, her hair was stringing in her face and she was thin beyond belief. The small ice chest she carried looked to be more than her body could handle. She plunked it down on a coffee table -- the one fronting the big comfy couch where I liked to entertain my usual clients, well-rounded women with low morals, short skirts, and nice chests. And lost dogs. That was my specialty. Finding lost dogs. Now and then, when funds got short, I'd stoop to tracking deadbeat husbands, but that kind of work comes with its own set of dangers so I stuck mostly with dog recovery. "There," said the tall famine victim. She slumped into a chair and uttered the words that explained so much and yet told me nothing at all. "Donnie sent me." Of course. Leave it to Donnie to send me a client straight out of a nightmare. "Donnie?" I grasped at a straw of hope. Maybe she had the wrong office. "I only know one Donnie. Lives in Cedar Rapids. Crouches in front of a computer all day scouring the known universe for -- um -- rare photos." "That's him." She grinned. Just to complete the image, her teeth were crooked. "He said you like clients with an ice chest. This one is full of MGD." Nice chest. Ice chest. Right. Donnie was down to sophomoric pranks. No, that's not right. High school jokes would be a step up for him. But the MGD was a nice touch. I opened a notebook. She handed over a business card. C. Morgan Smith, BS, MS, PhD, Professor of Physics. The card bore the logo of a local college. The woman might be anemic but she obviously was no brainless tart. Just my luck. "So -- should I call you Morgan or Ms. Smith?" "Morgan is fine, Mr. Slarg." She displayed those horrid teeth again. "That's a funny name. Eastern European extraction?" "More like fictional extraction." I shrugged. The name was just one of those anvils to pack through life. Changing it was too much trouble and would deprive my few friends of a ready source of humor. "My grandfather had a habit of changing names along with his locale regularly. Slarg was the one he was hanged under. My father kept it for sentimental reasons, I imagine. As for Yorba, I think Dad was drunk when he filled out the birth paperwork. I was supposed to be Zorba, which would have been bad enough." I picked up her card. "Since we're going on about names, what does the C. stand for?" She blushed. I can't tell you how long it had been since I'd seen a woman do that. "Candace. My mother labored for many years under the delusion that I was best suited to be a Hollywood actress. I was supposed to be Candy Morgan, superstar." She sighed and the blush began to fade. "Even now she bursts into tears when I visit her in the home. She's okay after a few stiff drinks." "Life is full of disappointments," I offered. "But you're a physics professor. That must be a really interesting field to be in." Okay, it wasn't much of a line, but I wasn't trying to get her on the couch. I have standards. No matter what Donnie says. "I really wanted to be a fighter pilot," said Morgan. "But the Air Force turned me down. So did the Navy." "Well . . ." I searched for a polite response. "Um -- you're tall for a woman, but lots of fighter pilots must be as tall or taller." "Oh, it's not my height." She waved a dismissive hand. "And my eyesight is fine. It's just that I look like a consumptive. I'm not, but those fools the services employ as doctors refused to believe that I was healthy in spite of my appearance." Her shoulders slumped. "I tried to put on weight and bulk. No go." I got the impression that Morgan didn't get out much and probably had no close friends. It was time to get down to business -- since the couch was not an option. "What can I do for you, Ms. Smith?" "Find my dog." She proffered a small framed photograph. "His name is Pookie." My disbelief must have been apparent. Morgan laughed. "Yes. Pookie. He's an ugly little spud. A good match for me, I think." "I -- ah -- he is kind of odd looking. Not that you're . . ." I was trying to be polite -- and failing miserably. "Anyway, he'd be hard to miss in a lineup. How did you lose him?" "Someone broke into my house. They didn't take much. A laptop and some of the more expensive pieces to my home entertainment center. But the door and back gate were left open. I assume that's how he got out." She frowned. "He's gotten out before, though, and always came back at meal time." "A laptop, eh? That could be a problem. Depending on what you have on it, you could become a victim of identity theft." "Not a chance. The contents are heavily encrypted and the laptop is booby trapped." "Ah. Good. I encrypt my own system. What do you mean, booby trap?" "My encryption is DOD stuff. Probably unbreakable, unless the thief has access to a super computer. If the case is opened without neutralizing the trap, a small explosive charge destroys the hard drive and a bright orange fluid is ejected. Whoever was handling it would probably be wounded and dyed orange. I suspect we'll be hearing about that soon." "Um. DOD? You work on government contracts?" She blushed again. "I -- ah -- shouldn't have mentioned that. Can we get back to my missing dog?" "Okay. You searched the neighborhood? How long has it been since the break-in?" "Day before yesterday. I walked the whole area several times. Our security people are concerned with the stolen laptop, but no one cares about Pookie. Except me. That's why I came to you." I had to ask. "How in the hell do you know Donnie? He's not the sort to rub elbows with physics professors." "Oh, I've never met him. We both play bridge. Online. He's very good." "Bridge? Donnie? The guy who thinks farting should be an Olympic sport? Bridge?" "I don't know about his other -- ah -- interests, but he does play bridge." I was stunned. It was as if certain parts of reality had taken a break for lunch. While I contemplated a radically changed Donnie paradigm, she wrote a check. I took it and nodded. It was somewhat more than my standard retainer, but not alarmingly so. The address on the check was at the college. She anticipated my question and wrote a street address on the back of her business card. "Morgan, I'll go out this evening and make a check of the neighborhood. You should probably walk along with me -- so the locals don't think I'm a pervert of some kind." "Why would they think that?" "Kids. When it comes to missing dogs, my best source of info is kids. They see all sorts of things that adults don't." "I understand. My house at about six, then?" "You got it. See you then." She walked with a slouch and kept her head down. I've seen other tall women do that. Her choice in skirt and blouse only served to emphasize her slight frame. I shook my head and went to put the beer in the refrigerator. Fashion for the skinny is not my job. We didn't get a chance to hook up for a neighborhood dog search. Morgan called that afternoon to report that her laptop and electronic equipment had been recovered. "The guy's in the hospital," she said. "The cops said he's coated with orange and bleeding from multiple openings." "They get upset about the laptop being rigged with explosive?" "Not after our security people had a word with them." "Okay. Did the perp say anything about your dog?" "Yeah." Morgan paused. "He claims to have been hired to kidnap -- I guess the right term would be dognap -- Pookie. Whoever hired him was pissed about his stealing the other stuff. He gave the dog to them." Muted voices began sounding alarms. "Why would anyone want your dog?" "Good question. I asked the security chief that very thing. He was sympathetic, but now that the laptop has been recovered, he has no further interest. I still need you to find Pookie." Who would want an ugly mutt? "Um -- you might get a call or note with a ransom demand. It happens more than you might think." "Ransom? For Pookie?" She fell silent for a long moment. "I see what you mean. I'd pay to get him back. How much do they usually ask?" "Five hundred bucks. Maybe a thousand. More if the animal has special value. I don't think Pookie falls into the 'special' category." "So what do I do when they call -- or write?" "Pay the money. I can help. They won't want trouble. You'll get your dog back." She said a bad word. I was surprised that she even knew that one. I'm sure her face was red with embarrassment when she mumbled something and hung up. So that was it. I thought. I had my retainer fee and Morgan would soon have her dog. All would be right with the world. The faint voices in my head warned otherwise, but I never listen to those clowns. Night Ride The gray guys were efficient, I'll give them that. One woke me by clapping his hand over my mouth and nose. I found myself staring into the barrel of a small handgun. Forget the so-called silenced guns you see in movies. For heavy action pros carry a rifle. When they want to be quiet a .22 pistol is just the ticket. Not as impressive as a M1911, for sure, but two or three small caliber holes in your skull will punch your ticket just as well as the big Colt -- without a lot of noise and less mess. No slugs to be dug out of walls. No splatter of blood, brains, and bone for the forensic guys. Clean. "Get dressed." Explanation enough for me. I got dressed. A couple of my ex-wives had often whined about my habit of neatly arranging clean underwear, a fresh shirt, and belted trousers on a bedside chair. They called it Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I called it being prepared. You never know, I argued, when you might have to throw on clothes and go somewhere in the middle of the night. Too bad none of the wives were there to see how right I was. "Downstairs," hissed the other gray man. He handed over my wallet and keys. "Quietly now. We don't want to wake anyone else." I wanted to wake the neighborhood, but not at the expense of absorbing a few bullets. The neighbors were mostly decent sorts anyhow; the kind of people who didn't play loud music at all hours and who nodded and said a word or two when you met in the hall. In other words, I had no reason to want them dead. We took the stairs. Quietly. We got into a nondescript white van. I think it had a faded company logo on the side, but it was too dark to tell for sure. Maybe it was just graffiti. One abductor settled into the second seat with me. The third seat was already occupied by a third gray guy and C. Morgan Smith; BS, MS, Phd. She watched the proceedings with intense interest. I don't think she was frightened. Only very curious. Probably being kidnapped was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. The van left the city heading south on the interstate. Four hours later we were in New Mexico parked beside a convenience store. One by one, the gray guys got out and used the restroom. I was escorted to the can for my own purposes. Morgan likewise. She was very red in the face when they returned. I imagine she'd never done her business in front of a man at any time -- and most likely never at gunpoint. One of the men brought coffee and doughnuts. When he handed a cup to Morgan, she just shook her head. "I don't drink coffee. Thanks anyway." The man never blinked. "Tea?" "Well . . ." She glanced at me, then nodded slowly. "Tea would be fine." "They don't have anything fancy," warned the man. "Just black tea would be okay." A few minutes later we pulled back on to the interstate. Morgan had her tea. I felt a hell of a lot better about our situation. The gray men had been paid to kidnap us -- murder wasn't in the bargain. Then nagging internal voices reminded me that the same might not apply to whoever they delivered us to. So worried was I that it was all I could do to put away three doughnuts and a cherry tart. The water bottles they provided must have been laced with a sleeping drug. The last thing I remember as seeing a sign that read: Albuquerque, 65 miles. I awoke in the dark and lay quiet for several minutes. There was no sense of movement save for the muted whisper of air flowing from a nearby vent. That died away after a few moments and I heard indistinct voices. I tried to sit up. Metal scraped. A sudden jerk on my right arm stopped me. I eased back down. Footsteps sounded. The door swung open. "Awake at last, eh, Slarg? Sit tight. I'll unlock the cuffs and you can join us. Your lady friend has been up for nearly an hour." "She not my friend. A client." In the light from the doorway I could see that the man working on the cuffs was old, very old, bald of head, wrinkled and blotched to the max. He handed me a key. "I ain't steady enough to work the lock. Get yourself free and come on. The members are waiting." He hobbled toward the door. I unlocked the cuffs and stood up, rubbing my wrist. "Members?" "Just get a move on. Roy will explain." He shuffled into the adjoining room. I stepped through the door and stopped. It took my eyes a moment to adjust. Four men sat at a table. The old man who'd given me the key eased into a chair at one end. At the opposite end sat C. Morgan Smith. She gave me a wry grin and sipped her drink. Tea, probably. "Take a seat, Slarg," ordered the only man besides me with any hair. "Name's Roy. We never had no reason to include you in this affair. Plan was to get your girlfriend here by taking her dog. After she hired you to find the mutt we figured we'd better bring you in too. You might have got curious when she disappeared." I sat. One of the old characters clutched a monstrous handgun. I'd seen one before and couldn't remember what it was called, but I knew it threw a slug suitable for taking out light armored vehicles. "Coffee?" asked the man to my left. Magnified eyes peered at me through black framed lenses. The effect was disconcerting. "Bobby will fix up some bacon and eggs in a bit." I reached for the pot and a cup. "What can I do for you gents?" The old farts all wore shoulder holsters sagging under the weight of large handguns. I always go out of my way to be polite to strangers lugging hand cannon. "We don't want nothing from you," said the guy with hair. "It's your girlfriend who's gonna help us." I glanced at Morgan. She sat staring into her cup. A slight smile touched her lips. I considered several things she might be able to 'help' the old boys with and discarded them as unlikely. I nodded toward the guy with hair. "You must be Roy?" "I'm Roy. Bobby got you outta the sack. Calvin is the one with the coke bottle lenses. You don't need to know the others. You'd just have to forget the names later." Forgetting the names later implied that there would be a time when this was over and that I would still be breathing. "So what do you want with Morgan? And she isn't my girlfriend. She's a client." Roy smirked and looked at Morgan. "Yeah. Not really your type, eh, Slarg?" The men all laughed. Roy sighed. "More than you know. More than you know." "More than I know what? Nothing that's happened in the last day or so makes sense, including your little gang of ancients." Okay, so I was treading the limits of sanity by the time I said that, but my never ample patience was running thin. Roy leaned closer to Morgan. "You want to tell him, honey? Or should I?" She looked up. "They think I'm a Martian." Bobby chuckled. "We don't think it, Slarg. We know it. And she ain't no lady. Nor a man, I reckon. Whatever. Morgan here is going to show us how to get to Mars." "Um . . ." Words failed me. No matter what my ex-wives and former girlfriends might claim, there are times when I can be literally struck speechless. "There's less of that gravity stuff on Mars," explained Roy. "We figure to live a lot longer without so much strain on our hearts. Besides, I want to ride around on them canals." "Not to mention the women," added Calvin. I managed to make a sound. "Women?" "Sure. You know. Like that princess old John Carter squired around." "That would be Dejah Thoris," said Morgan. She looked at me and shrugged. "Even physics students like to read fiction." "You're not helping. These guys are serious." "You damn right we're serious," cried Roy. "Now tell her -- it -- to explain exactly how we can get to Mars." "You can't get there from here." Okay. Trite. I know. I just didn't think. One Way Ticket The old man with the monster handgun was on his feet faster than I could credit. He stuck the muzzle in my face and stuttered something I didn't understand. "Sit down, Cleaver!" shouted Roy. "And watch out with that damn gun! You're liable to twitch and blow his head off." Muttering, the man sat down. "Cleaver has a speech impediment," said Roy. "But he knows how to use that gun. Careful what you say." "D - da - da - damn r - r - ri . . ." Bobby touched Cleaver's arm. "Enough. We get the drift. Calm down." I took a deep breath. "Roy. All you guys. There isn't any air on Mars. No canals. No bosomy princesses. Nothing. Just dried up sand and rock." They looked at me like I'd just said something filthy about my Mom or ventured an opinion about how the Statue of Liberty might look without that robe. Roy smiled. "He's fallen for the cover story, boys." Their glances turned to pity. Roy shook his head and went on. "Same bunch of guys at NASA what made up the moon landing stuff, Slarg. All those Mars rovers? Fiction. Made up. Them boys have a big room down in Texas where they make all the movies and stuff. Ain't none of it true." I didn't know what to say. Again. How had these old men found out that Star Chamber operatives produce all kinds of purported scientific data and videos at a facility in south Texas? There must be some gaping holes in our security. "Look, Roy . . ." Before I could go on, Morgan stood up. "It's all right, Mr. Slarg. I'll do what they ask." "But, you can't . . . you don't . . ." She hadn't given me the secret sign of the SC. The woman was obviously bluffing. "Now we're getting somewhere!" cried Bobby. He sat back, gasping. I hoped none of the men got too excited. Dead bodies are always a problem. "I can't tell you how to reach Mars," said Morgan. "I'll have to take you." "Dang me," mumbled Calvin. "That's even better. You'll just drop us off?" "Nothing could be simpler," said Morgan. "I can have a saucer here in a few hours." She produced a small device similar to a flip phone. "You gentlemen will have to decide where you want the pilot to take you. There are some lovely hotels on the Grand Canal. He will have brochures." Roy stared at Morgan. "What about . . . money?" "Well, you'll need funds. Do you have gold?" "We got gold!" yelled Bobby. "Roy was right. Gold talks -- even in Martian." "All right, then," cooed Morgan. "I'll just make a call." With that she activated the device. I closed my eyes and turned away as blue light filled the room. I knew a Star Chamber brainwipe transmitter when I saw it. After the last man had been hauled away and the cleanup crew had finished their work, I had a chance to talk to Morgan. "Why didn't you give me the SC secret sign? I could have zotzed those guys anytime if I'd known you were one of us." She smiled in that demure way women do, even women with hardly any flesh on their bones. "I'm not a Star Chamber agent, Mr. Slarg." "But . . ." "I am an agent for the Imperium," purred Morgan. "You don't know about that." She held up the transmitter. "Where do you think the SC got these?" "You mean . . ." A funny blue light filled the room. So, it was all a dream. Heh. Funny dream, though. I've never had a thing for skinny women. Not that I know of anyhow. And you'd think I would know. Wouldn't you? End
  17. My new book is out. It's a collection of flash fiction and short stories. http://booklocker.com/books/7256.html You guys have seen most of the flash fiction and probably all of the short stories, although all of those have been heavily edited and even re-written for this book. Check it out. Versions from Amazon and B&N will be available soon. The cost will be the same. Jim
  18. I updated my website to include a picture of the Flashes and Shorts cover, a short description, a sample from the book and links to the various online sources to purchase the Ebook in whatever format is needed. Jim's website
  19. Night -- on the Street Fleet Street Donnie lounged under an awning that extended a few feet from the entrance to Flanigan's Market. Across the street the clock located in the 2nd National Bank tower chimed the hour -- 4:00 am. The market, like the other legitimate businesses in the area, was closed. Donnie had no known surname. The Fleet Street moniker came about because he was generally to be found haunting the gin mills of that infamous West End street. A beefy man ambled out of the drizzling rain and greeted Donnie with a mumbled, "Whazzup, man?" He pulled out a dirty handkerchief and wiped at his face. "Stayin' outta the rain, eh?" "Tryin' to, Joker. Tryin' to." Donnie didn't comment on Joker's fine sense of the obvious. The muscular thug didn't understand sarcasm. In fact, and in spite of his name, he was confused by any humor not involving whoopee cushions or pulling fingers. When people laughed in his vicinity he naturally assumed they were laughing at him. Anyone with half and ounce of sense stayed the hell away from Joker. When that wasn't possible, they talked about the weather. The two men stood under the awning staring into the falling rain. Neither looked at the other. Joker produced a pack of cigarettes, lit two, and passed one to Donnie. It was accepted without comment. Wherever he went along Fleet Street, people handed him things. Booze, food, small bills. Few could stand to meet his glance. For one thing Donnie was hard to look upon. More importantly he was known to be Mr. Dude's eyes and ears in the West End. Guilty looks might be reported back to the crime boss, resulting in a visit from Joker or one of his lowbrow peers. "Seen any of Spectre's bunch?" asked Donnie. The bruiser frowned, as if his reply required heavy duty thinking. "Nope." Joker was, in an odd way, Donnie's only friend. As friendships go it wasn't one that would ever be celebrated in legend or even mentioned in dispatches. It was also dangerous for Donnie. When in possession of information he judged to be of little or no use to Mr. Dude, he retailed that knowledge to the highest bidder. Joker, friend or not, was Mr. Dude's favorite enforcer. He'd happily break Donnie's legs or even provide him with concrete overshoes, if ordered to do so. The trick for Donnie was to accurately determine what information Mr. Dude might consider important. Sadly, no one had ever accused Donnie of good judgment, beginning with his birth. His mother was a whore at Madam Grundy's. He spent his early years in the Sisters of Mercy Military School and Daycare located across the street from Grundy's. The Sisters. a female religious cult, relied on stern lectures, a rigid code of behavior, and shock prods to enforce discipline. Repeat offenders were sentenced to The Tank, a surplus starship fuel chamber. Donnie collected a large number of burn scars and spent much of his time in solitary, exacerbating the effects of residual radiation in the metal of the tank. His skin turned a light shade of gray with darker spots scattered at random. He developed a prominent nose, bulbous eyes, and pointy ears. His hearing became acute and he could see better at night than your average owl, though bright light caused him considerable pain. All in all, he looked like a cross between a spotted frog and a maddened ferret. Donnie also developed a strategy for dealing with Authority. He became a snitch. And not just a run-of-the-mill tattler, either. Informers, if they are to survive, must develop a fine sense of Who in Authority they should divulge their damning information. A good stool pigeon also strives to be unobtrusive. Few men and no women looked at Donnie twice, if they could help it. People ignored him, which may be better than being invisible. His relationship with Mr. Dude guaranteed him access to virtually any place on Fleet Street or in the warehouse district and dock area to the west. Donnie flicked the cigarette butt into the gutter where it smoldered on the carcass of a dead rat. "Gotta go." Suiting action to words, he pulled his hat down and shuffled up the street. Joker stayed where he was long enough to smoke a second coffin nail, then headed for an apartment building on Commerce Boulevard, a block east of Fleet. He had doors to kick down, arms to break. An airship on final to the spaceport descended out of the low clouds, running lights aglow in the misty air. Joker paid no attention to the thrum of propeller blades, the rumble of diesels running at reduced power. Few things interested the enforcer, other than his work, cigarettes, and a blonde amazon named Fifi. Donnie stopped on a corner and watched the airship pass to the west. It would parallel the waterfront docks to Point Sorrow, then turn directly east into the airship landing area at the spaceport. A creature of dark alleys and dimly lit rooms, Donnie had no real interest in flying machines of any type. He noticed airships because the whine of electric propeller drive motors played hob with his oversensitive hearing. At takeoff power, the howling noise would drive him deep into the tunnels, head throbbing. Hunched against the light rain, Donnie headed north along Fleet Street. He liked to take breakfast in the Alien Menace Bar & Casino. Once the hangout of deep space sailors, the place now catered to airship crews and passengers. Jericho hadn't seen a starship for nearly ten years. Most of the old port had fallen into neglect. Only a single terminal and a couple huge airship hangars were in regular use. Jericho was one of the few relatively large cities on En Gedi, a world of low landforms and more or less constant mist and rain. The system star, One Way, was so-named due to its location inside the folds of the Ripple Nebula. One FTL tramline in and out. The star location put En Gedi well off the main trade routes. When disaster struck the Federation, star travel became a low priority item and the planet went on a list of destinations To Be Contacted Later, When Things Are Better. Arrivals -- and Departures Gunny Morgan stood in the shadows a few steps inside the debarkation port. A thin stream of passengers trickled through the port and across a carpeted gangway into Jericho's main terminal area. Since the airship was moored inside the spacious terminal, the two meter wide gangway did not have the canvas roof common at other airship facilities. Beneath his feet Gunny could feel the thump of luggage being loaded onto a moving beltway suspended beneath the gangway. He turned away to light a slim cigar, then resumed his surveillance of the terminal. He'd been in and out of the Jericho air station at least fifty times in the previous fifteen years, first as a Federation Marine, then as an unwilling citizen of En Gedi. The cessation of interstellar trade had left a small Marine contingent stranded on the planet. He'd never felt this degree of unease on any previous visit -- even during his time as a mercenary. It wasn't just that the terminal area was too open. It had always been that way. Warning senses honed by combat began sending vague alarms even as the big airship eased into the hangar. Save for a few women, none of the debarking passengers took note of the tall, rugged man lounging in the port. Even the women passed on without a second glance. Gunny's brooding features promised nothing but trouble and the not-quite-healed scar running from the center of his forehead, across the bridge of the nose, and diagonally down his left cheek provided proof that the trouble could be of a lethal kind. Gunny picked up his black valise and descended to the next level down in the gondola. A few crew members were trudging across a narrow catwalk into a terminal sub-level housing airship company offices. A short, heavy woman wearing a baggy Omega Lines singlesuit stood with one large bag slung over a shoulder. She cursed luridly and jerked at a carryall with one wheel missing. He stopped at a non-threatening distance. "Let me help you with that." The woman looked up, frowning. Gunny wasn't in any kind of uniform but his dark clothes and military style jacket, along with the close-cropped hair and erect stance, lent him an air of officialdom. As she hesitated, he stepped forward, lifted the carryall with one hand and nodded toward the catwalk. "After you." He followed her across the walkway and down a corridor lined with mostly darkened offices. She halted in front of the Omega operations office and dropped her shoulder bag on a cart half-filled with similar bags. Gunny laid the carryall on the cart, nodded, and walked away. The woman stood for a moment, watching him go, then shrugged and went into the office. Gunny ambled around the perimeter of an open area echoing with the sound of machinery. Luggage spilled from the beltway and thudded into a vertical lift system. A handful of workers lined the beltway, pulling an assortment of boxes and crates off onto the floor. Freight, he surmised, to be handled separately from ordinary luggage. On the far side of the handling room he climbed a metal stairway, pausing halfway up to rotate the holster under his left arm forward. If he had to draw his pistol even a half-second might be critical. The stairwell ended in a dimly lit space between two steel girders. He stepped behind a stone block sprouting half a dozen lengths of rusty re-bar. Whatever the block was built to contain had never been installed -- probably years before. Gunny put his bag on the floor and surveyed the interior. People stood around a baggage carousel. Some, having retrieved their luggage, walked toward the doorways leading to transportation. A pair of bored security guards stood on the opposite side of the room. One smoked a cigarette. The other glanced at his watch. Shift change, mused Gunny. He saw no one obviously watching the passenger gangway or the crowd. To his right a small coffee shop catered to a few tired travelers. The man he was to meet sat at one of the tables. He was in the act of finishing what was apparently his second piece of pie. Gunny shook his head and laughed. Mr. Dude, the crime boss of West End and one of the nastiest creatures in Known Space, had a sweet tooth of epic proportions. He was also one of the skinniest men Gunny had ever met. Where Mr. Dude went there would be security. One bruiser occupied a table at the far side of the coffee shop. Another held up a pillar four or five meters from Gunny's position. A few minutes observation convinced him that at least two more of Dude's hirelings were in the area. A short guy in working man's clothes slouched at a video game console, idly feeding fresh tokens at the end of each session and hardly paying any attention to the game itself. The other carried a knapsack suspended from one shoulder and strolled slowly around the room. She had a blank, bored expression, like a woman waiting for a cab. That one has to be a Listener, thought Gunny. Psi sensitives weren't nearly as capable as breathless Tri-D vids made out, but they were often effective in sorting out the thoughts of a person bent on attacking a specific target -- like Mr. Dude. Gunny slung his bag over his left shoulder and walked toward the coffee shop, taking care to keep his hands in view. The video game player spotted him right away. The psi kept strolling. Neither of the bruisers made him until Mr. Dude looked up and smiled. "You're late. Sit down." "This is too open for a meeting," said Gunny. Both bruisers were eyeballing him now. "The place is clean. Sit down." Dude signaled the waiter. "Coffee. My friend drinks his black, but I'll need more sugar." Gunny eased into a chair. "I don't like the feel of this." The bruisers relaxed. Video man fed another token into his machine. "You a Listener? Mine hasn't gotten a whiff of danger." "I'm alive," replied Gunny. "In spite of efforts by various aliens and other bastards. I've had a bad feeling since we landed." Mr. Dude nodded. "That's why you didn't come across with the other passengers?" He glanced at his Listener. She was standing motionless, head down. "Maybe you're not just a crazy old Marine. I think Ruth is on to something." Dude held up a fist, index finger extended. The two bruisers and the video player stood up. Pistols materialized in their fists. Gunny slid to his knees and touched the butt of his weapon, but did not draw it. The other customers went suddenly pale and dropped to the floor. The Listener raised her head, just in time for it to disappear in an expanding cloud of blood and brains. Mr. Dude swore and slid down beside Gunny. The ex-Marine had his pistol out, but his eyes were on the floor near the dead woman. As she collapsed and flopped to one side, he shouted loud enough for Dude's men to hear, "On the other side of Baggage Claim!" People at the carousel were beginning to notice the sprawled body and the blood. In a moment the herd began running in all directions. Screams and curses filled the air. A meaty thud announced the arrival of another projectile. The bruiser crouching on the other side of the coffee shop let out a groan and tried to stand. One hand clawed at a bloody splotch in the middle of his back. He went down, scattering chairs. Mr. Dude sank down behind a metal trash can. "Come on, Gunny. Do that Marine thing and get us out of this -- alive." Gunny slid across the floor and knelt behind a pillar. "I think this one is almost -- ." Bruiser #2 went over backwards, breath rasping in the mangled remains of his throat. "-- over." Gunny glanced down at Mr. Dude. "Or -- maybe not. Somebody really hates your guts. Either that or Spectre's gotten suddenly brave." "Not a chance. Let's worry about that later. What now?" "Now we skedaddle. Do you know a way out of here that doesn't involve sprinting across an assassin's sight picture?" "Ski - daddle? I suppose that means a tactical retreat?" "No. It means we run like hell. Start crawling toward the back. Pray there's another way out of this place." "I don't have to pray. We came in that way. Follow me." "What about your other guy? The video game player." "He's still alive? Holler at him. But let's not hang around." A man brandishing a scoped slug rifle bounded across the luggage carousel and ran toward the coffee shop, screaming. Gunny and the video player fired together. The attacker did a back flip and thumped to the floor. A smear of blood marked his last slide. The weapon cartwheeled through the air and smashed into a pillar. Gunny grabbed his bag. He and the thug sprinted through the coffee shop and out the back way. Mr. Dude's guy knew the way from there. They exited the terminal at a walk and climbed into a gray sedan. There was no pursuit. "That was not what I wanted to talk to you about," said Mr. Dude as his driver pulled away from the curb. "By 'that' I assume you mean your near death experience?" "Oh, it wasn't as close as that. You were there." Dude patted his gunman's shoulder. "Archie was there. You did kill the attacker? Right?" "We shot someone, that's for sure." Gunny lit a fresh cigar. He'd lost the other one somewhere between sitting down at the table and running out the back door. "Trouble is, the guy we zotzed wasn't the shooter." Mr. Dude regarded Gunny with an amused look. "What makes you think that?" "That clown was blitzed out of his mind. He couldn't have put a bullet into an elephant at point blank range." "And you know that because -- ?" Gunny glanced at Archie. "The guy was shouting nonsense. Hardly intelligible." Archie nodded agreement. "He's right, boss. That guy was screwed up." He grinned at Gunny. "How'd you know where the first bullet came from?" "Spatter. The shooter was firing explosive rounds. The first shot did a neat job of decapitating your Listener. I just watched where the goo landed. The shooter was above the crowd. Probably on one of the catwalks across from the coffee shop. Or in a stairwell. I never actually saw him -- or her." "I thought it might be something like that. I couldn't see her from where I was." Mr. Dude sat back. "Well -- if all that wasn't an attack by some whore's father or another kind of crazy bastard, maybe it is related to the issue I wanted to discuss with you." Gunny saw no sign of pursuit. "The guy we gunned down was so screwed up he probably didn't even know where he was. The real shooter took out your Psi and two of your street soldiers. Why not just put that first bullet into your head?" Mr. Dude shrank down in his seat. "Dammit, Gunny, I'm paranoid enough without worrying about why some jerk didn't kill me." He managed a faint smile. "I will look into it. I got a deal going. Someone might be trying to scare me off." "A deal? Your message said you had a job for me. Does it have to do with this deal?" "It does." Mr. Dude smiled. "I'm sending a couple people up to Iron City to pick up a package. I want you for security." "What kind of package?" "No drugs. I know you ain't into that kind of thing -- now that you're a legitimate security professional." Mr. Dude hesitated. He mimed a small, rectangular object. "It's a chest -- about so big -- banded in bronze. A Chinese chest." "A Chinese chest? What's in it?" "I don't know." Mr. Dude shrugged. "No one knows." Gunny heaved a tired sigh. "By 'Chinese' I imagine you don't mean a chest built on one of the Federation planets with large Chinese populations." "No. This one is perhaps five thousand years old. It's worth at least two million Federation credits -- regardless of what might be in it." "Two -- million -- ?" Gunny's surprise was obvious. "But -- we ain't likely to be in regular contact with the Federation for years. What's it worth here and now?" "There are several collectors who would pay at least half a million dollars for it. One paid somewhat more than that." Mr. Dude nodded. "Yeah. Me." "Since when are you a collector of ancient artifacts? Last I knew your interests lay with making money and adding to your stable of redheads." "And pie," interjected Archie. "Don't forget the pies." Mr. Dude laughed, which told Gunny the triggerman had been around for some time. Most of Dude's hired help didn't joke with the boss. He considered the man for a moment. Archie wore dark clothes, including a short jacket of the type worn by dock workers. Like most inhabitants of En Gedi, his complexion was pale. Dark eyes, probably brown, hair a dark shade of brown leavened with gray. A narrow brimmed fedora topped off his outfit. Though shorter than average, the man would blend in anywhere short of a formal affair and his features were the kind few people ever really saw and fewer remembered. Archie had the perfect face and build for a killer. The ex-Marine extended a hand. "Gunny Morgan. I don't think we've ever met." "Archie Blaine. I been around." "Archie has been working in the organization for a long time," said Mr. Dude. "The last couple years he's been my troubleshooter at Capitol." Capitol was a small town with hardly anything to recommend it -- except that the original settlers had designated the place as the seat of Planetary Government. The designation was never intended to be permanent, but when the first immigrants were overwhelmed by floods of convicts, welfare clients, and people whose only crime was being poor, it became a struggle to maintain control over the development of En Gedi. Capitol became the official center of government because no one had the time or energy required to select a different location. Gunny made no comment to Mr. Dude's description of Archie's duties in Capitol. The word 'troubleshooter' was probably used intentionally. Trouble could often be effectively dealt with using a properly placed bullet. "This doesn't sound like a job for me," said Gunny. "Archie could easily handle it." Mr. Dude wagged a finger at the ex-Marine. "I intended to send both of you. A couple of the other collectors have made various threats. There could be trouble." "I can't leave," objected Archie. "I gotta find the scum that killed our people. If it was Spectre -- well, we might have to finish that problem for good." "True," said Dude. "I'll have to keep you and Donnie here." "Donnie? Fleet Street Donnie?" Gunny shook his head. "I figured he'd be dead by now." "Judging from the smell," said Archie, "he's been dead for a long time." "It's all part of his cover," said Mr. Dude. "I was going to send him to Iron City to nose around. Like he does here." "He wouldn't really fit in there," observed Gunny. "Too tall." Archie frowned and shook his head. "Doesn't seem to matter. He sort of fades into the background. Practical invisibility." "His particular method of surveillance might not work well outside of Jericho," mused Mr. Dude. "Besides, Archie will need him to ferret out whoever tried to kill me." "Ferret," said Gunny, chuckling. "If it wasn't for all those spots Donnie could pass for a ferret anywhere." "Careful how you talk," warned Archie. "I got relatives afflicted with spots. They're good people -- mostly -- except for the ones still in jail -- or hanging on gallows." Mr. Dude leaned forward and tapped his driver's shoulder. "Take us to the shop."
  20. Finding Christmas A Plague of Woe The man on the ledge jerked and shuffled away from the window. "Don't touch me!" Officer Ramirez eased into a seated position on the window sill. "I'm just here to talk, man. Nobody's gonna try to haul you in. What's your name?" "Name? I don't have to tell you anything." "Sure. No problem. It's just that it helps the coroner. Otherwise they have to paw through your remains to find some ID." "Uh -- ." Thoughts of falling four stories and smashing into the pavement flashed in the jumper's mind. "John -- John Kellerman." He clutched at his jacket and shivered. "Okay, John. Cold out there?" "Cold. Yeah. Wind's picking up." Ramirez looked up at the sky. "Might snow in a little while." Kellerman glanced upward, then shrank back against the brick wall. "Snow won't matter to me -- in a minute. Or two." "No rush. You got any next of kin, John? Got a message for them?" "I -- ah -- no. I mean, there's my brother in Wichita. But we don't talk much." "Well, it's almost Christmas. Surely you send him a card or call." "Not this year. It just don't seem right. I can't -- I've -- I've lost my Christmas spirit." Ramirez nodded slowly. He stared down at the milling crowd. Fireman were working to position a large air mattress below Kellerman. The people watching were quiet. Some wandered away, shoulders hunched against the chill wind. "You know," he said, after a long moment. "I think mine's gone too. When did you lose yours?" Kellerman stared at the cop. "This morning. I woke up with this hollow feeling in my chest. Like something had been scooped out." "Jeez, me too. I figured it was a reaction to that traffic accident I worked on yesterday. I been feeling low all day -- like you said -- as if something was missing." Neither man spoke for several minutes. The firemen finished positioning the cushion. They and some cops began herding people back. Many of the spectators turned and walked away. Kellerman pointed down at the thinning crowd. "I'm not much of a draw, am I?" "This ain't right," replied Ramirez. "A jumper usually brings a big crowd and a bunch of TV cameras. I don't even see anyone taking pictures with a cell phone." "You don't suppose -- . You don't think -- everyone has lost their Christmas spirit? It's not just me -- and you?" "I hope not." Ramirez extended a hand. "But if that's what it is -- you ain't alone." Kellerman began sidling toward the window. "Man, that's a relief. I think." Ramirez helped him through the window. "At least you don't have to feel like the Lone Ranger." He sighed. "We're all in this together -- whatever it is." "I don't feel any better. What are we gonna do?" "Paste a smile on your face. Act natural. I'll do the same. When the reporters ask why you were on that ledge, lie. Tell 'em you just felt low. Didn't take your meds." "I don't take any medications." "Like I said. Lie. We don't want masses of people jumping off buildings. If folks get the idea this is an epidemic or something, they'll panic. Like lemmings." "Okay. You think that will do any good?" Ramirez shrugged. "God knows. All we can do is try." Thus it was that a suicidal man and a local police officer were the first to identify the most unusual plague ever to hit the Earth. Unfortunately, the facts were there for anyone to see -- and feel. A steady stream of people began leaving their jobs, turning away from Christmas sales, and collecting on bridges and high places. News of the impending disaster reached the White House by way of the National Security Adviser. He found the President on the enclosed smoking veranda. He was huddled in a chair, staring at the floor. "Sir, we have disturbing news. It may be some kind of attack on the country." The Adviser sagged into a chair. "Humanity itself might be in danger." The President slowly sat erect. He rubbed his temples and sighed. "I feel like hell. You look as if your favorite dog just died." "It's not just us, sir. Everyone has the blues." "Wow. That's bad. I think. It's hard to care about -- about -- well, about anything." "Yes, sir. But it's Christmas. Most people should be in good spirits -- save for the odd malcontents." "Well, Republicans can't help being that way. But, you're right, it is Christmas. Why do I feel this emptiness when we mention that holiday?" "I don't know, sir. But I think we ought to find out." "You think so? It feels useless to me. Like we're all doomed." "I'll check with the Joint Chiefs, sir. Maybe have a word with the Surgeon General." "Yeah." There was a long silence. "How high is this balcony?" The Adviser shrugged and wandered away. The Surgeon General could not be found. He was, in fact, trudging up the stairs in the Washington Monument. He had no goal in mind. It just seemed like a good idea. Not much assistance was forthcoming at the Pentagon. The Joint Chiefs were all at home for the holidays. The few staff personnel were of little help. Eventually, the problem, as was the case with many such puzzles, found its way to the office of General Mudmover at his secret base in the New Mexico desert. Major Spazz handed the White House message to Mudmover. "Something about a crisis of civilian morale, sir. The Christmas spirit seems to have vanished or been stolen." He frowned. "I feel a bit out of sorts, but this message speaks of the possibility of mass suicides. Everyone I see seems a little glum. Nothing serious." "No one climbing the water towers yet, eh, Major?" "No, sir. Nothing like that. I wonder why?" "Practice, Major. We in the military are used to disappointments. Being deployed during the holidays, having our latest wonder weapon system canceled by Congress. Not to mention that our purpose in life is to blow things up, sometimes with people attached. Our Christmas spirit is armor plated." The General frowned. "Still, things aren't right." "No, sir. It's as if our morale is under some kind of attack. Like the last time we had to endure a pay cut. I feel a dull sense of ennui -- as if nothing can be done." "En-what?" "Um, ennui, sir. It's like boredom, only worse." "Well, why didn't you say so?" snorted Mudmover. "What is it, in particular, that you feel nothing can be done about?" "Um -- I'm not sure, sir. Maybe it's about this enn -- er -- boredom. I keep thinking, 'what's the point? We can't do anything about it anyway'." "I know what you mean. I keep thinking that further pursuit of that buxom blonde bomber pilot is fruitless. She'll never let me in her pants." Mudmover sighed. "The fact that it's probably true only makes things worse." "What are we going to do, sir? About the morale problem -- not the blonde." "MY morale is suffering, Major. But your point is well taken. The Air Force isn't equipped to handle a situation like this. We're helpless -- until we can find something to blow up." Mudmover rubbed his hands together. "Find me a target, Major. Preferably one we can use a bunker buster on. Eliminating the threat with a nice big explosion would be perfect. Our appropriations would be safe for several years." "But who can help us find the -- uh -- target, sir?" "The Simians. Give Old Guy a call. Tell him he's got an unlimited budget. No nukes, though. Make sure you tell him that. No nukes." "I hate calling those guys in General. Every time Old Guy gets close to our warehouses we end up losing a lot of stuff. Also, the Simians drink a lot -- more than the average pilot. More than most field grade officers." "That much? Well, it's only for one mission. What kind of stuff do we lose to Old Guy?" Weapons, ammunition, vehicles, female staff, fuel, aircraft." "Well, the aircraft are usually obsolete and the Simians do tend to burn up a lot of ammo and expend a good many vehicles on missions. Prepare a written statement of the issues and let him know I'd like him to economize a bit." The General thumped the desk. "You also tell that old bastard to keep his hands off my blonde." "Right, sir. I'll draw up a message and contact the Simians directly." "Have a stiff drink first, Major. You'll need all the courage you can get." A Gathering of Simians Old Guy and Gunny were at the bar in the Symbiotic Saloon. The former Marine finished reading Major Spazz's description of the Christmas Spirit Plague and handed the message flimsy back to Old Guy. "Is this for real? I have experienced a little mild indigestion lately, but nothing like what he describes. It seemed like bad okra." "Okra? That stuff tastes like swamp scum to me." Old Guy shook his head. "You're a former Marine. After all those years of being characterized by the media as a hired killer and heartless thug you've developed a shell over your feelings. As Spazz pointed out, any military type seems less susceptible to the -- ah -- the plague." "Makes sense. Have y'all contacted anyone else? Some Simians have military service in their background. What about the ones who don't?" "I've gotten a few responses. Some are apparently traveling. So far none of our lads are showing the symptoms Spazz described." Old Guy made a wry face. "At this time of year a few of them will be sleeping off Christmas cheer. Hopefully they aren't lying in a ditch somewhere. That's a warm weather activity." "Simians aren't overly sensitive louts," said Gunny. "That's for sure. Speaking of the plague itself, I did notice a lot of folks clustered on bridges. I figgered there was a fishing tournament going on." "Bridges. Yeah, in Florida it would be difficult to find a cliff, wouldn't it?" Old Guy opened two fresh beers and slid one across the bar to Gunny. "I saw lots of sad looking people wandering the streets of Fort Collins, but I thought maybe the Broncos had lost a game or something." He shrugged. "Neither of us are very perceptive." "Per - sep - tive? You sure y'all don't mean perspective?" "Um -- no. I'm pretty sure the word is -- well, never mind that. Observant. We ain't very observant." "Right. Observant. So what do we do about this plague?" "First, we tour Mudmover's storage warehouses and see what we can steal -- er -- see what we must requisition for the mission." "Sounds good. They got lots of cool stuff." Old Guy smiled his master sergeant smile. "I hear Mudmover's striking out with a hot blonde bomber pilot." He assumed a thoughtful pose. Gunny moved back. To his surprise the old bartender didn't break wind. "I'll bet this mission will require a bomber or two, don't you?" "Forget hot blondes, ya old lecher. Think about weapons and hot vehicles." Gunny sipped his beer and made a wry face. "MGD. Y'all trying to kill me?" "It's good for you. Full of vitamins and stuff." "Yeah. It's the 'stuff' I'm worried about." "For all you know it's the MGD I've been serving you guys all these years that protects you from the Christmas Spirit Plague." "Right. As if." Joker strolled in then, followed shortly by Donnie, Stans, and Archie. Beer was served, complained about, and drank. Gunny presented a briefing redolent with y'alls, molasses, and live oaks. Everyone present was able to absorb the important points. They were used to Gunny's forceful method of delivery and had a lot of experience daydreaming about high-tech weapons, fast cars and faster women. Practical experience was, alas, in short supply, but for Simians a truculent attitude and beer was expected to suffice. "Hold on," called Old Guy from his position behind the bar. "We're getting a message." The Enigma machine rattled into action. "It's an obsolete code." "Ob - sew - leet?" muttered Donnie. "What's one of those?" "He means the message is formatted in a code we no longer use," growled Gunny. "Who would be using an old code?" asked Stans. "Exactly." Old Guy pulled a sheet of paper from the machine. "Is it a desperate person with no current SOI? Or someone trying to spoof us into thinking they're a desperate person with no current SOI?" "Is he speaking English?" asked Donnie. A Pack of Nasties The Emperor stalked into the rubbish littered room. "Is it working?" Herr Fick glanced and Hein Kill. The former Luftwaffe target tug pilot shrugged. "Ja, it ist vorking." "Stop that damn Germlish!" shouted the Emperor. He cuffed Fick a good one, knocking the one-time Kiel waterfront pimp and Gestapo informer into a trash-filled corner. "It's bad enough that we have to huddle in this appalling monstrosity without having to listen to your kack-brained nattering. You sound like jackbooted ninnies." "But -- ." Hein Kill groped for ordinary speech. "Ve -- ah -- WE are thugz mit ein -- um -- thugs with jackboots. It vas -- WAS -- our schtick in ein -- in THE Reich." "Forget your precious Reich," snarled the Emperor. "It was a flop, a box-office failure. You are now members of MY Solar Domination Unit. Each of you will be a suave, well-spoken representative of total domination." He sprayed spittle and stabbed Hein Kill in the chest with an extended forefinger with each word. "We shall annihilate our enemies while speaking soft words -- CORRECTLY enunciated words! Do you get my drift?" Hein Kill's back was to a window and a thirty foot drop. Outside the walls of Cancun North lay a wind swept snowscape and the Beaufort Sea, solidly iced over. "Jawohl -- er -- da -- I mean, yes, sir." "You will address me as Your Majesty or Most High or, in private, as Sire." The Emperor drew himself up and glared at his two henchmen. "I go to practice my speech." Fick scrambled out of the corner and limped back to the idle Enigma machine. "Vot -- er -- WHAT speech does he practice?" "His acceptance tirade," replied Hein Kill. Seeing his comrade's blank look, he explained further. "For ven -- WHEN he accepts absolute rule of North America. He has ozzers -- I mean OTHERS written up for later conquests." "Isn't zat -- um -- THAT getting a little ahead of things? Cart before ein -- THE -- mule?" "Mules I don't know about. It is a little early in the game. Ja." He glanced over his shoulder. "That is, YES, the ass is in front of the cart." Fick studied the Enigma machine. "No reply yet." He paced the floor, kicking bits of trash out of his path. "What is this Solar Domination Unit? I have not heard that one before. Is it a new plan?" "Nein -- NO. He has renamed the organization. To confuse our enemies, he says." Hein Kill displayed a t-shirt. The words "Obfuscate, Confuse, Dominate" were printed below the image of a face, a grinning red-eyed rat face. On the back was printed a larger image of white rat wearing an armband emblazoned with the letters SoD-U. "Sod-U," mused Fick. "We are hardly a unit, being just the four of us. Yet, when we triumph over the capitalist pigs the movement will be much larger." He strained to think of a proper description for the triumphant Sod-U. "A company, perhaps. A brigade?" Numbers beyond ten had always been a trial for Fick. He'd have been able to handle sequences up to twenty if it wasn't for those jackboots. "Where is Dork Helmet?" asked Hein Kill. "He ought to be here, sharing the burdens of world -- um -- solar system conquest. Our goals have changed." "A good line," said Fick. "'The burdens of solar system conquest.' Can I use it the next time I whine to the Emperor about our workload?" "Be my guest. I have ozzers -- OTHERS." Hein Kill slumped into a chair. "This plain English is giving me a sick headache." Fick nodded in agreement. "If ve -- WE plan to keep our heads, we better do what the boss says." "Right. It's hard to have a headache without a head." "Brains aren't required though," said Fick, with a malicious chuckle. "Dark Helmet is living proof of that." "Hmm. Yes. But where is he?" "Down south. Recruiting special forces for the conquest." "Hah! Special forces? He's probably in Las Vegas spending organization money on cheap wine and expensive bimbos." "No. He wouldn't be that dumb. Would he?" **** In Las Vegas, in the back room of a run-down casino somewhat off the beaten path, a short man wearing a giant Darth Vader helmet sits in a chair. He is sweating. A pair of large men in suits stand nearby. "So, Mr. Dork Helmet, the cashier tells me you've run out of money." "Um -- that can't be," squeaked DH. "My funds are as huge as my -- ." A beefy fist in the chest stopped his lying. "Wanna try that again, Mr. Dork Helmet?" "Honest," gasped DH. "Check with the bank. I'm the treasurer of World Domination, Inc. Our funds are -- well, not unlimited -- but ample -- though not as big as my -- um -- but big -- big money." "The Word Domination, Inc. accounts have all been closed." The thug who spoke held up a printed invoice. "Who will pay for three girls, all on overtime? And what about the ten bottles of Thunder Lizard wine?" He paused. "Oh, my mistake. It was fifteen bottles of Thunder Lizard Prime -- the stuff aged for at least a week before bottling. Then there's the hotel room, six days, and a rather large sum lost at the tables." "No money?" DH barely managed a whisper. "No money?" The thug patted the helmet. "The girls say they'll settle for an hour each, since you weren't actually able to do -- ah -- anything other than brag and drink." "Lies!" cried DH. "They all screamed when I showed them my enormous, gigantic, world shaking, fantastic -- um -- what was the question?" "Payment, Mr. Dork Helmet. Who's gonna pay?" "The Emperor will pay! He must pay. I'm his chief henchman. Fick and Hein Kill, they're just cannon fodder. Goose stepping morons. Ha-ha! The Emperor will pay!" DH began foaming at the mouth. "It's no good," sighed the thug. "Take him out back. Run him through the compactor, then hang him up in the alley. He'll serve as a warning to other deadbeats." "Pour encourager les autres," said the other thug. "Pour what?" "Pour encourager les autres. To encourage the others. It's French." "Where the hell do you come up with this stuff?" "It's just stuff I picked up. You'd know stuff too, if you read anything but invoices." "I don't read 'em," bragged the first thug. "The cashier reads 'em and I memorize the important parts." "Right." His partner hauled a sniveling DH to his feet. "Come on. I promise you won't feel anything after the first few minutes of excruciating pain. Try not to piss yourself. Oh, hell. Too late." "I'll call housekeeping," said thug number one. "What's this excruciating stuff?" "Ask the cashier." The Spectre Gambit "What does the message say?" asked Donnie. Old Guy glanced up from the papers littering the bar. "I'm working on it, okay? The code is an old one. I told you that." "Big whoop," muttered Donnie. "Can I have more beer? And some pickled eggs?" "No eggs," said Gunny. "One more beer then y'all go on plain water." "That won't do any good," warned Joker. "I'm not sure what might prevent him from generating enough gas to warm a small city." "I think I got it," said Old Guy. "Archie sent it. Says Spectre is holding him captive in Cancun North." He looked up. "That's the resort hotel the greenies built on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. They believed the Northwest Passage was going to be not only ice free but warm enough for beach bunnies." Stans laughed. "Politically correct, stick thin beach bunnies with no boobs, to be exact." "That goes without saying," said Old Guy. He tapped the message. "I'm not sure what to make of this. Spectre held Archie captive up there when he was trying to bring off another Evil Overlord plot. Called himself the Ice Lord. The ice monster he awoke took over his operation and scrambled Spectre's brains, such as they are. We had a hell of a time with a horde of ice and steel machines before Archie did away with the monster." "Yeah," said Joker. "I remember. I think. Real and imaginary activities get confused whenever I'm in the Symbiotic Saloon." He gazed around with sad eyes. "Has anyone seen that blonde? Rita?" "Easy," said Gunny. "That one was fiction." "Never mind that," grumped Old Guy. "What do we do about this message?" "Rescue Archie," chorused the lads. Having swilled a few beers and retold a few lies, the Simians were primed to hie themselves off to the frozen wastes, armed with suitable exotic weapons, to rescue their comrade. "Hold on. Hold on." Old Guy managed to quell the rush towards the door. "While it's easy enough to believe Spectre is up to his old tricks, I'm suspicious of an exact re-run of events. It sounds trite, to say the least." "Come on," said Stans. "You write trite stuff all the time. Trite is your middle name." "Be that as it may," sniffed Old Guy, "this looks suspicious." "I saw Spectre at a sim convention last week," said Joker. "He's still wearing his Ming the Merciless getup. He said it was only to attract babes at the convention, but can we trust him to tell the truth?" "Not when it comes to babes," said Gunny. "But that describes all of us. He's been happy playing a detective inspector in Victorian England." "That's right," said Old Guy. "He and Archie have settled in to those roles." Silence, broken only by the glug of beer, persisted for several minutes. Finally, Old Guy sighed and picked up the mauve phone. (He knew it was mauve because the woman installer had told him that's what color 'sort of purplish' was) "It's ringing." Someone came on the line. Old Guy spoke in hushed gutturals, listened for a moment, then hung up. Before anyone could say a word, Anubis strode in from the back. "What's up, Simians?" hissed the god. His words were remarkably clear considering that his head was that of a jackal, complete with fanged jaws. "Our hearts are light as feathers," replied Old Guy, completing the ritual. He handed Anubis a beer. "But we have a problem. Someone with your abilities might be able to help us." "Of course. I'm a god, aren't I?" The jackal face managed to look pensive. "Little good that does me in these benighted days. What's the problem?" Gunny and Old Guy explained. The others drank coffee and began rounding up combat harness and cold weather gear. It looked like a trip to the Great White North might be in store. Anubis examined the Enigma message. "This encoding was done on an earlier machine, wasn't it?" "It was. A four-rotor model. And the one-time cipher comes from an SOI ten years out of date." The god quoted from the hard copy. "Being held prisoner by Spectre. Cancun North. Archie." He looked up. "Seems clear enough." "Wait." Old Guy picked up his hand-written version. "That's not exactly right. The raw code groups actually read somewhat different. He displayed the printed code blocks: "BEIN KHELT PRIS ONER BYSP ECTR EXXX CANC UNNO RDAR CHIE." "Beink helt prisoner by Spectre," said Gunny. "The X's are place holders. Then it reads, Cancun Nord. Archie." "Yeah," said Old Guy. "I thought the cipher might not have had a letter for 'G' and I figured the 'D' in 'north' was put in to keep the number of code blocks to a minimum. But when I heard Anubis read the code blocks, I checked the cipher. Is does have an entry for 'G'. I missed the 'T' in 'held' completely." "Some code breaker you are," smirked Donnie. He'd had two beers and was feeling like a guy forty pounds lighter and thirty years younger. The others ignored him. "This is partly in Germlish," said Anubis. "You have some associates who customarily speak that mishmash, don't you?" "Not associates," said Gunny. "Enemies. Bastards. Well, except Rommel. He ain't bad for a Kraut." Anubis shrugged. "A man -- or a god -- is better defined by his enemies than by those he calls friends." His barking laughter filled the saloon. "An enemy of mine tried to convince me of that many eons ago. He still wanders the forgotten caverns of the Underworld, looking for his heart." "Remind me not to antagonize old dog-head," muttered Joker. Stans nodded agreement. "Germlish means Fick and Hein Kill," said Old Guy. "Possibly Rommel. That means the Emperor is involved. Anyone disagree?" "I can find them," said Anubis. "Provided you can supply me with something of theirs. An item of apparel, a weapon, anything they handled." "Hein Kill handled a couple babes I know," said Donnie. "But they showered for, like, hours afterward." "We have some junk in the back," said Old Guy. "I'll go look." He returned a few minutes later and deposited several items on the bar. "One of Fick's jackboots. A leather jacket with one sleeve torn off. I think that was Fick's as well. And a pile of handbills Hein Kill was handing out in a bar in Nova Scotia. They're the usual World Domination tripe." "These will do," said Anubis. He collected the items and went out the back way. Within five minutes he was back. "They are together," he said, laying a map on the bar. Starting at the Beaufort Sea he traced a route southward. "They are flying along this route in some kind of machine. The individual known as the Emperor is with them. They are carrying something of immense power." "So," said Joker. "The message was intended to draw us way up north while they carried out whatever plan they have down here." "Looks that way," agreed Gunny. "What now?" "Now we go see a General about some weapons and transportation," said Old Guy. Gunny stood up. "Mudmover will want to hog the glory." "You have to intercept the Emperor as soon as possible," warned Anubis. "The device he's carrying grows in power as he moves south." "Right," said Joker. "Let's not dither around. And Mudmover can't legally intercept a bogie in Canadian airspace. We can." "Not legally," objected Stans. Old Guy waved away the objection. "Legal, schmegal. At the juxtaposition of fiction and reality, only the rules of necessity apply." "What does that mean?" asked Donnie. "It means we gotta get a move on," snarled Gunny. "We got a nefarious villain to blast outta the sky." "Did he really say nefarious?" wondered Joker. He grabbed an equipment bag and rushed to follow the others. "I think he really said nefarious." Sod-U Moves Out "There has been no reply," said Fick. The Emperor eyed the Enigma with obvious mistrust. "No reply. Well, that can only mean they have taken the bait and are heading this way as we speak. It's time for us to go south. Domination awaits!" "Maybe they didn't receive the message," suggested Hein Kill. "Or it might be a trap. The Simians have friends in the military. We might find the whole US arsenal waiting for us at the border." "They wouldn't dare!" cried the Emperor. "Mere mortals shall not obfuscate my destiny! Crank up the Caddy! We go south." He pointed at the Enigma. "Smash that piece of junk. Leave no evidence of our presence." "Yes, sire," chorused the two henchmen. Fick tossed the Enigma into a corner. He scuffed a few candy wrappers in the same direction, then followed Hein Kill out of the room. The Sod-U Caddy was parked in a makeshift hangar on the top floor. In order to make room for the vehicle's folding wings, Hein Kill had knocked out forty feet of wall and demolished enough interior structure to make room for the hybrid flying machine, part red 1958 Cadillac convertible, part winged monstrosity. Though plastic sheeting covered the wall opening, the room was frigid, the machine covered in frost. "What does ob-fus-kate mean?" asked Fick as they entered the hangar. "Search me. Look it up." Hein Kill began to brush frost off the windshield. "Start clearing the wing mechanisms. If they don't unfold properly this will be a short trip." He started the automobile engine. They would need it for the initial acceleration out of the hangar. Two turbojets were mounted on the upper surfaces of the inner wing panels a few feet outboard of the car body. He fired those up, ran them for a minute, then shut them down. Fick fired up a portable heater and began thawing the wings. Hein Kill went into the hallway and dragged a bulky object into the hangar. With Fick's help he managed to lift it into the back seat and strap it in place. "We can't put the top up with that thing inside," whined Fick. The Caddy trunk was taken up with wing mechanisms and flight controls. "Dress warm," suggested Hein Kill. "Or complain to the boss." "I think I have an electric suit in my bag." An hour later, Fick cut the plastic away and the Sod-U trio roared into the Arctic sky. For one heart-stopping moment, the Caddy plunged toward the frozen landscape. Groaning with stress, the wings slid forward and the outer sections rotated into place. Skimming over the snow, jets screaming, the machine stabilized and began a slow climb. A solitary Polar bear and a few foxes watched as the stubby red thing with hawk-like wings roared overhead. The noise faded little by little as the strange animal flew slowly south. Hein Kill drove. The Emperor sat beside him, staring majestically forward. Fick hunched low in the back seat, trying to stay out of the frigid blast of wind. He found, to his surprise, that the strange box radiated warmth. Huddling close to it was disquieting though, as faint mournful wailing could be heard from within. He clung to the thing and tried to ignore the sounds. The Emperor began fiddling with the radio. He managed to find a few country stations and one that played some sort of wailing music. Finally, he shut the radio off. "Not one single blues station! When I take over we must make some changes. The scum living around here have no art in their souls." "Not many people live this far north, sire," said Hein Kill. He had to shout over the wind blast. Even with the jets throttled back to cruise power, the noise was terrific. "We'll find more suitable music as we go south." "South!" cried the Emperor happily. "South we go! Our little package of Christmas Spirit was collected in the south. It grows in power as we approach its home!" "Right, sire." Hein Kill was uncertain of exactly what the package of spirit was supposed to do. The Emperor had never explained its purpose. Nor had he told his henchmen exactly how he'd collected it. "Your Majesty, could you explain about the Christmas Spirit and what you intend with it? We can't help much if we don't know what's going on." "True, true," agreed the Emperor. "But -- ." He wagged a finger in Hein Kill's face. "It is also true that you cannot meddle with my plans if you don't know them." He crossed his arms and sat back, humming to himself. Hein Kill concentrated on his driving. He had a bad feeling about -- about everything. (TBC)
  21. I don't know where it came from but it's one of those stories that must be told. The Mauve Knight -- Gloom "Now what?" Stag watched as a cryptic warning message flashed on his computer monitor. The red-bordered block of unreadable script sank slowly to the bottom of the display and vanished in a faint pulse of color. The screen faded to black and began to emit a thin trickle of smoke. He switched it off. Plastic sagged and began to burn. Circuits sizzled. Sparks flew. Cursing, he crawled under the command console and jerked at power cords until the sparking ceased. A few seconds later the smoking display splashed into a stagnant pool thirty feet below the equipment ledge. Archie stepped in from the galley. "What happened?" He stirred a bowl of leeks and turnips. Nothing else grew in the Stag mansion garden. Even the weeds seemed to have given up. "Monitor shorted out -- started burning -- worthless piece of junk!" The slap-slap of Stag's sandals echoed off the cavern walls. He sank into a battered chair and pulled at his kevlar underwear. "I'm bloody well tired of this heat. The humidity is playing hob with our gear." "Most of it is pretty old anyway," observed Archie. "We need to get a crew in here to clear the rockfall blocking the stream bed. Then we could replace the worn out stuff and make a new start, eh?" "Right." Stag looked for something to throw at his sidekick, then decided it was too much trouble. He settled for whining. "And what kind of a secret headquarters would this be after a gang of blokes crawl all over it? Bloody twit." His anger wafted away. It was hard to maintain any kind of strong emotion. Archie sighed and stared at the unsavory mess in the bowl. Walking as if to the gallows he made his way to the lip of the ledge and dumped the mixture, bowl and all, into the slimy morass below. "Come on. Get dressed. We'll go into town and grab a burger." Stag looked up. Something resembling life showed in his eyes. "Can we take the Stag-mobile? You got it running, didn't you?" "It will run but you can forget taking it anywhere. The transmission is shot, all six tires are down to a rumor of tread and the license plates have expired. I told you." "Yeah." Stag shrugged a shrug which can only be described as representing finality, the end of all things, a last hope extinguished. "Well, this whole affair is expired, ain't it?" He led the way to the stairway, shoulders slumped in defeat. Archie killed the lights. "How long has it been since the elevator worked?" asked Stag as they rested on the first landing. "Two years?" "More like three -- maybe four. It was the first thing to -- um -- fail." "Right." The worn out superhero started up the next set of stairs. "I'll tell you one damn thing. I'm changing out of this bloody kevlar. It chafes a bloke. Nobody is likely to care enough to shoot at me anyhow." Archie followed, lost in his own contemplation of their wrecked enterprise. **** "Look at us," muttered Stag as the duo rolled down the cracked concrete driveway. "Superhero and sidekick setting out on a mission -- in a Nash Metropolitan. Some crime fighters we are." "Come on, man. The car is an antique. And we're on a mission for burgers. Seems to me this is a perfect vehicle for that." Stag paid no attention. "I had it all planned. Stagman, the caped crusader. We were going to be a dynamic duo. Worked out a Stag-Signal and all. It was perfect." "Well -- except that He-Whose-Name-We-Can't-Mention had a copyright on "dynamic duo" and "caped crusader". And all those other words were the property of various sports teams." "Yeah. Bloody copyrights. Collector of the Culpable just doesn't roll off the tongue like that other phrase. And Peppy Pair sounds almost -- um -- odd." Archie nursed the Nash up to thirty. A stream of honking cars zoomed by on the left. Neither of the Peppy Pair paid any attention, so lost were they in memory. "The Stag-Signal," snarled Stag. "That insurance company put paid to that." "Not your fault, sir. Not your fault. No one could have foreseen that they would claim that a superhero signal was in conflict with their company logo. I mean, it was a picture of a stupid deer!" "A big deer with horns," admitted Stag. "But not really like their picture of a deer." Archie turned on a side street and pulled into their usual spot at the Tomcat Lounge. He turned off the ignition. No conversation was possible until the Nash engine clattered to a stop, producing one last bang just before expiring. They waited for the smoke to clear. "The thing that annoyed me the most," said Archie, "was the mandatory color scheme. I had no idea there was a Federal Superhero Uniform Code." "Me neither." Stag got out and touched the peeling paint on the car roof. "Mauve. I'm not even sure it's really a color." "That female inspector from the FSCU said it was. Said it would enhance our brand, whatever that means." "Did she say that?" Stag frowned. "All I remember is that low-cut blouse and the nice rounded shapes it mostly concealed." Archie nodded slowly. "Come to think of it, that's all I can recall as well." "We never had a chance, Archie." Stag opened the lounge door. "The government and all those lawyers made sure of that. Come on. Let's get a burger and see who's on the stage. It might be Lady DD. You'd like that." "Hah! As if you wouldn't." Archie shook his head. "If she's on stage Donnie will be here. He never misses one of her shows." "We'll have to risk it. I'm hungry. He never talks much anyway." "True. Unless you count calf-like bellows as speech." Laughing, their burden of care momentarily relieved by making fun of a fellow human being, the Collectors of the Culpable strolled into the Tomcat Lounge. End
  22. Well, once the Frogg Nebula was created something had to be done with it. The Frogg Incident Donnie yawned as he stepped into the kitchen. It was nearly 5:00 AM, time for him to post his daily literary material on Combatsim. He opened the cupboard and reached for his usual breakfast drink, Ovaltine Classic Malt. Jar in hand, he shut the cupboard door -- and froze. Someone else was in the kitchen. A furry object brushed against his ankle. "Damn cat," he muttered, sighing with relief. "Good mornink, Mr. Donzter." The voice had a scratchy quality, as if it came from a badly designed Universal Translator. Donnie slammed the jar to the counter and reached for the light switch. "Damn it, Squelf! You promised not to -- ah -- to -- ." The alien sitting at the breakfast bar was not the Hork known as Squelf*. The slender creature reminded Donnie of an eggplant, only instead of a green leafy top and stem it sported a Panama hat with a hatband advertising Harry's Bar, Key West. A cluster of eyes regarded him from below the hat brim. He could see no ears or anything like a nose. The protrusion about a foot below the eyes might have been a mouth. It had an opening at the top and tapered down as if food were just chucked in and allowed to slide into whatever the thing had for a digestive tract. No teeth were visible. The pair of jointed appendages jutting from below the mouth looked like the front legs of a praying mantis. Each appendage ended in a gripper with three opposed claws. Just below the "arms" a small square box was barely visible. The creature's flesh had grown around it leaving only the speaker exposed. Donnie, like his Combatsimian pals had encountered a vast diversity of form during various misadventures in Known Space. Nevertheless, he'd never actually run into a sapient vegetable. "Ah -- I was expecting -- well, not expecting anyone actually. But if any aliens showed up in my kitchen I figured it would be -- someone else." "Yes," hissed the box. "Horks are no longer interezted in zis zector." The thing waved an arm in a dismissive manner. "Zey are vorking on climbing back from zee ztone age." "Um -- ha ha." Donnie eased toward his vegetable chopper. It was the magnum model, with an oversize hopper, a multitude of stainless steel blades, and a five horse motor. If he could just turn it on and drop it over the alien's head -- top -- pointy end -- the thing would soon be a heap of slices suitable for salads. "So tell me," he asked casually. "Who are you? What are you?" One arm flicked and the alien produced a standard Mk VII snub nose blaster, a Krellian weapon common to every nook and corner of Known Space. "Keep avay from zat food procezzer. Be glad I don't turn you in to zee Imperial copz for pozzezion of an unlawful veapon of mazz deztruction." Donnie stepped back. "What -- uh -- what are you gonna do?" *Squelf - Hork featured in "The Moose Jaw Caper" "Zat izt for me to know unt you to find out." The alien made a slight bow. "I am Zaladmaster Zog, talent zcout for Zprog Medical Experiment, Inc. Vee are a new wholezale client zupplier for medical labz all over zee Frogg Nebula." "Hey! What's with the Germlish?" Donnie leaned forward. "Is that you, Rommel?" "Germliz? Rommel? Vot are you babblink about?" "Your Universal Translator is speaking a mix of languages. Where did you get it?" The blaster wavered. "A firzt clazz buzinezz -- Fick's Zurpluz." "Fick? That clown? Did you get the blaster there as well?" "Of courz. Vee traded in zomevhat uzed Mk IIIs -- zee one with double barrelz." "Yeah. 15mm blaster and 20mm grenade launcher. I've seen 'em. Too bad." "Too bad, vhat?" Donnie reached for the magnum processor. "The one you're pointing at me is a Chinese knock off of the original. It's a toy." "A toy?" Zog the Frogg lifted the weapon closer to his eye cluster. "But zat can not -- ." In one fluid motion, which none of this Combatsimians would have believed, Donnie hit the magnum power switch, knocked Zog's snazzy Panama hat aside, and upended the machine on the alien's pointy end. In a few seconds it was all over. The processor finished Zog and ate a couple yards of carpet before Donnie got it shut off. He picked up the alien's blaster. "Cheap junk. Taking advantage of a vegetable. Fink has no conscience." He pointed the toy at the wall and pulled the trigger. It took him about an hour to haul Zog's remains to the compost pile and a couple days to install a new window in the wall. He wears the Panama hat everywhere and plans to visit Harry's Bar one day, purely in the interest of scientific inquiry. End
  23. The Reporter "So, Dr. Stans, what can you tell the viewers of DIY Network about building your very own monster in your basement?" Cub reporter, Dude, extended a recorder. "Well -- uh -- first off -- I didn't build it in the basement. Most of the work was done in my garage. Some of -- let's see -- some of the early selection processes were done at my cousin Melvin's mortuary." "Right. In the garage. What kind of equipment did you use?" "Equipment? Oh, gee. Not much. If I had it to do over again, I'd buy some second-hand meat cutting tools. The old hacksaw and dull hatchet made for some odd looking attachments." Stans flexed his right arm and pointed to the shoulder and elbow. "Here and here, for instance. I sutured him up with twine and pulled everything together, nice and tight. As long as he keeps his shirt on, no one can tell that he was assembled from parts -- well, except for the different colored hands." Dude didn't care a fig for hands. He wanted dirt. D - I - R - T. "What about his other -- uh -- appendages? Will the ladies be happy with him?" Stans hesitated. "Not -- uh -- not so much. I had to leave off the -- appendage. Of all the donor corpsicles, not a single one of those parts survived the initial freezing process." "Ah. You used frozen cadavers?" "Of course. Fresh ones go bad too quickly for scientific use." Stans sighed. "Frozen bodies can be kept for -- oh -- six months -- a year. If anyone else wants to build his own monster, I'd recommend picking up a couple chest freezers. And a good bone saw. You'll need both." A gut-freezing howl shook the house. Dude leaped to his feet. "What the hell was that!" Stans waited until the shriek faded. "That's Donnie. He's not fully accepting of his -- um -- lack of -- you know." Still trembling, Dude sat down. "Wow. He's got quite a set of lungs." "The torso came from a sailor who was used to yelling orders over the howl of wind, the screams of gulls, and so on." "You called the monster Donnie. How did you pick that name?" "Well, the head came from a guy in Cedar Rapids. I knew him before his tragic accident. Since the brain is his, I figured it was easier for all concerned if we kept that name." "How did the poor bastard die?" "It's sort of funny," said Stans with a smirk. "Donnie loved boobs. Big boobs. He sat all day in front of his computer, visiting web sites dedicated to boobs." "Well," Dude shrugged. "Who doesn't like a nice set of boobs?" "No guy I know," agreed Stans. "What got Donnie was a chick on a motorcycle." "She ran over him?" "No. She was wearing a skimpy top. Naturally, Donnie had eyes only for the magnificent hooters and especially the nipples pushing at the thin fabric -- um -- anyway, he walked past the woman, eyes locked on the boobs, and got run down by a train. The boobs -- er, the girl was waiting at a railroad crossing." "He never heard the whistle?" "Evidently not. Donnie was locked on to his target. And, I must admit, the lady had a fine set. I saw her at the inquest." Stans laughed. "Some witnesses, all female, swore that the train crew did not sound the horn. They were eyeballing the lass. None of the men in the area could say one way or the other." Again an awful shriek vibrated the house. Dude eyed the door Stans had pointed to when he mentioned that the actual monster construction took place in his garage. "Um -- is -- Donnie dangerous? You said he was somewhat upset at the way he was assembled." "Not Donnie. Oh, he has a muscular body, legs like tree trunks, and arms corded with rippling muscles, but he's still the same gentle soul he always was." A brawny fist punched through the wall. Dude screeched and fainted. Stans pulled a stubby electric stock prod from a holster at his belt and tapped the emerging arm, eliciting a pained squeak. The fist pulled back. It took several minutes of talk and a shot of whiskey to convince Dude to stay. He perched on the edge of his seat and placed his recorder on the table because his hands were shaking so bad. "I -- ah -- I think I'm almost done here, Dr. Stans." Through the fist-size hole in the wall he heard soft whimpering. "What sort of credentials do you have? I mean, assembling a human body requires some level of knowledge and skill." "Who said all the parts were human?" Stans laughed at the shocked look his remark generated on Dude's face. He didn't notice the sudden silence in the garage. "Just my little joke. As for credentials, why I have none worth discussing. I play a dentist on the internet, but beyond a small vocabulary of medical words, I'm just like hundreds of other DIY-types out there. But, give me a decent set of instructions -- videos help -- and I can accomplish wonders. Like completing a perfectly adequate root canal. Or sewing a man together from miscellaneous parts." "That's the stuff, Doc!" Dude grabbed his recorder and made for the door. He had noticed the lack of sound in the garage. "I'll just be on my way." "Hey!" cried Stans. "I thought we might have lunch. Lots of parts left over, you know. Wait! Okay. I'm kidding about the parts. I mean, there are a good many, but it would be very unethical to eat them. Unsafe, too. None have been USDA inspected." Dude finished vomiting and ran for his car. So rattled was he that he took off without fastening his seat belt. A lurking RCMP officer nailed him two blocks later and issued him a ticket. To make matters worse, the cub reporter was so nervous, sweating and shaking, that he was transported to the local police facility for a complete test sequence. Fortunately, no controlled substances were found in his system and only a small amount of booze. He avoided re-education camp and was sentenced to six months mandatory intervention analysis where his duties as an adult Canadian citizen were burned into his brain by way of constant repetition and a few waterboard sessions. Stans, meanwhile, ambled out to the garage. His creation sat in a corner, sulking. "What part of me came from an animal?" "You heard that? Never mind. I was just joking with the reporter." Donnie's glare contained a liberal dose of suspicion. "When are you going to replace this rubber thing with a real one?" He flexed bulging biceps. "I've got everything the ladies want -- except for the most important part." "Take it easy. I told you, those things freezer burn in a New York minute. I'm working on the problem." "You've given me that excuse for three months and I'm still peeing through a rubber hose." "It's not rubber. I've told you. It's a man-made fiber and damned expensive. You should be grateful." "Right. Grateful." The monster lurched to his feet. "I oughta grateful your head against the ceiling a few times." He walked forward, swaying, almost stumbling. "You still having balance problems?" Stans ignored the man mountain's threats. "I can't understand why your walking hasn't improved. Have you been practicing?" Donnie stood uncertainly in the middle of the floor. "All the time. I've also been eating nothing but that slop you insisted on. No burgers or fries. No ice cream. No Twinkies." A sob escaped the brute. "No Twinkies." "You said that twice. Twinkies are bad for you." "Everything is bad for me, according to you. I'm going to waste away to a skeleton. A skeleton with a man-made fiber tube sewn into its middle. I'll be a mystery to modern science." "Donnie, you sound like a child." Stans heaved a sigh. "I'll stock up on some veggie burgers and some low-cal ice cream." "Jeez, Stans. I am only six months old. Less, if you count from when you stitched my left arm on." Donnie sat down in his corner. "Veggie burgers? What kind of cow do they get those from?" "Cows fed a lot of ferns or carrot tops, I suppose. I'll contact cousin Melvin and see if we can come up with something for your other problem." Stans got ready to leave. "Make sure you practice your walking. Use the treadmill. That's what I got it for." "I fall off it all the time," mumbled Donnie. "Keep at it. Sooner or later, you'll quit falling off." "Yeah. When I kill myself by bashing my head in." "For crying out loud. It's like talking to a teenager." Stans went out, slamming the door behind him. Donnie flashed a finger sign at the door. "Teenager? That's not bad for a six month old monster." Instead of practicing on the treadmill, he fired up his laptop. His home page was the Daily Pair at Boobs-R-Us. Stans would have despaired at seeing that the adage was true. You can take the Donnie out of his body, but you can't take the boobaholic out of Donnie. The Psychologist "Zo," Dr. Rommel steepled his fingers and eyed the pair seated across his desk with a certain degree of disdain. "Zo, you built ein monzter out of corpzikle partz unt now you find das creation has -- how you zay? -- mental problemz?" "His name is Donnie," replied Stans. "And, no, he hasn't shown any sign of craziness -- the brain came from a body addicted to enormous boobs and that hasn't changed, but he was always harmless. The problem is that he walks funny." "Zis Donnie does not roam das streetz terrorizing women unt kinder? He has not been chazed by mobs bearing farm implementz unt torchez?" "No. None of that. He mostly sits in the garage eating ice cream -- low-cal, of course -- and works out on his treadmill. But he keeps falling off. I wondered if the problem might be mental." "Mental? Zis monzter vas built of rezycled parts unt stiched togezzer mit twine -- unt you think zee problem might be mental?" "Look, doc, I used only fresh frozen parts -- nothing smelling bad or anything with mold on it. I also bought first-quality baling twine and used an ultra-sharp sailmaker's needle. I tell you the problem isn't physical." "Zo you zay." Dr. Rommel adjusted the patch covering his right eye. "Vell, vee muzt adminizter zum tests" He got to his feet. "Walk zis vay." Cackling at his own wit, the psychologist lurched and stumbled toward a door at the back of his office. Stans prodded Donnie to his feet. "Follow the doc. Pay no attention to his little joke." "That's okay," said the monster. "He didn't get it right anyhow." Two hours later they were back at the desk. Dr. Rommel scanned a computer printout. "I can find nozzink to account for hiz odd valk. Zat zee lad haz problemz ist obviouz. No matter vat shape or word I dizplayed he alvays rezponded mit ein word, "Boobs". Zis indicatez a definite boob fixation. Mozt true Nazis had zee zame fixation." "We've always known that," said Stans. "I mean about Donnie. Even back when he was his old self he thought about nothing much but boobs." Rommel adjusted the patch, now covering his left eye. "Vee come back to conztruction processez unt materialz. Have him checked out head to toe. X-rays, MRI, zee whole ball of wax." "Sheesh." Stans slumped in his chair. "I can't afford that." "But zere ist our Dear Leaderz univerzal health care. Zey vill pay zee costs." "Wrong, doc. Obamacare doesn't cover monsters." Rommel shrugged. "Vell, zen. You are out of luck. Be zure unt pay your bill on zee vay out." He touched a comm button. "Heidi, don't let zeeze two ezcape mit out payink." "Jawohl, herr doktor." The doctor ushered the pair to the door. "Out. Out. I can't get rich zeeing poor zmuckz like you." "We're going. We're going." Stans winced as Donnie lurched against the door frame, taking out a portion of the frame and wall. The monster grinned at his builder and kept shambling. Stans hurried out ahead of him, trying to keep property damage to a minimum. "Zey didn't pay, doktor." Heidi stood behind her desk and straightened her official reichswoman uniform, which accentuated her breasts and ended well above her knees. "Vat do you vant me to do? Have zem shot?" "No, liebchen. Zis ist not ein old country. Ve muzt badger zem mit letters unt threatz unt send brawny bill collectorz to beat our money out of zem." Rommel tucked the eye patch into a pocket and smiled benevolently. "Vee can alzo bill zem for attorniez unt zee bill collectoz. It ist ein vin-vin zituation." "Oh, doktor," murmured Heidi. "Vee haf no more patientz until zis afternoon." "Hah!" Rommel took her arm and headed for the back, through his mangled office door. "Zere ist ein old rock unt roll zong zat zayz it bezt: 'Girl, you know vat I like'." The Mechanic
  24. Check out Everyday Fiction. My story, "Steel Killer" is today's feature. http://www.everydayfiction.com/ OG
  25. The Simian Scourge Arthur cradled his mug of mulled wine and cast a venomous glare at his magician. "I'm tired of being cold, Merlin. Can't you magic up a decent way to heat this stone pile?" "Sadly, no, Highness. Central heating won't be invented for another thousand years -- maybe longer." "Damn," whined the king. "Any damned serf has a warmer hovel than this place. Why can't I live in a turf hut? Something that can actually be heated." "Tradition, sire." Merlin tucked cold fingers into his armpits, causing the upper part of his robe to slide down. Cursing quietly, he rearranged the fabric, trying without much success to keep warm. He thought longingly of his forest cave. At the back, beyond the Sucking Pool of Death, but before the Direful Pit, he'd walled off a neat little room, complete with a clever charcoal brazier and the delightful Lady Nimue. The brazier was to keep her warm so she could keep him warm. He'd go there immediately after the morning court session was over. "Anybody got new business?" asked the King's Speaker, a short knight named Whizkid. Running somewhat to fat and cursed with a weak backhand, Whiz earned his keep by chairing court sessions, trials, hangings, beheadings, and jousts. He had a loud voice and a truculent manner. Sir Galahad strode forward, bellowing. "I have a captive to bring before the King!" The self-important twit was followed by a strange figure dressed in mottled forest colors. Two men-at-arms nudged the prisoner out of the shadows. "Caught him skulking about near the Dolorus Glade." "Wasn't skulking," objected the prisoner. "Practicing Silent Sneaking. Got lost." Interested, the King got up and pushed Galahad aside. "What is it? Who is it?" "I'm a person," said the creature. "Name's Stag." He glanced around. "Um -- Stag of the Simians." This Stag-person was the tallest man (if man he was) they had ever seen. Even Lancelot was a scrawny, sawed off runt in comparison. The ladies all thought Lancelot was a huge hunk of man (and a talented swordsman). God only knew what they might make of this giant. Merlin silently thanked the gods that Nimue wasn't in court. "You speak strangely," said Arthur. "I've never heard of Simians. From whence do you come -- and where are you headed?" "Um -- ." Stag tried to think of a plausible story. Failing that, he tried to recall what he could of Malory's fantasy and various other lying fables he'd been forced to read in school. "I -- that is we Simians come from the Isle of Thule." "Ah," chorused the assembled throng. No one knew what he was talking about. The knights stroked their chins and nodded as if he had named a tavern every man recalled drinking and wenching therein. Stag thought of something else that might be good to claim. "I'm on a quest." Arthur's knights were reputed to engage in quests involving killer rabbits and hand grenades, if memory served. "A quest?" Arthur sighed and trudged back to his cold throne. "Everyone seems intent on traveling the land looking for -- for something. What do you seek, Sir Stag?" "Um -- ." Stag started to claim a search for an honest man, but he seemed to recall that someone else had already laid claim to that quest. A search for truth, justice, and the British way wouldn't fly either, judging from the gathering of unwashed thugs before him. "I seek a treasure, sire. A chrome-plated shield hidden in a -- um -- in a lake. Yeah, that's the ticket. First I have to find a lady -- a Lady of the Lake. She has the shield." Laughter filled the room. A red-faced lout banged his mug on the table round and stood up. "Chrome shields! Magic swords! Next it will be copper toothpicks or magic rings. I'm sick to death of all this spell-besotted ironmongery. It's a conspiracy, I tell you. The lakes and ponds and even large puddles abound with tarts bearing magic geegaws." "Sit down, Bedivere," ordered Arthur. "Drink some wine. Your talk of politics is of no help to Sir Stag. He will discover the difficulties of a quest on his own." Bedivere growled something obscene and reached for the wine jug. Stag saw that the knight had only one hand. His left arm was tipped with a vicious hook. "It's true that you will have difficulty sorting out one Lady of the Lake from the next," said Arthur. "But let not hardship keep you from the task." "Drag up a chair," cried a man dressed in tattered purple finery. "Bring Sir Stag a mug -- and a wench." He stuck out a grimy paw. "Percival is my name." "Wait!" screeched Galahad, stamping his foot. "Sir Stag is my prisoner. I'm due a ransom. I have expenses, you know." "Oh, take a load off," said Arthur. "Sir Stag can pay the blood money later. Standard rates?" Galahad looked as if he wanted to argue, but after a moment he sat down. "What's the standard ransom?" asked Stag. Sir Whizkid handed the Simian a mug. "A knight's ransom be two denari, unless ya be French, then it's one copper. Are ya French?" "Not that I know of. There aren't many French in Thule." Stag watched as Whizkid poured mud-colored wine into the mug. Several odd lumps surfaced in the mug. One moved feebly. "I -- ah -- I'm not thirsty." "No problemo," said Whiz. "The wench'll be along in a bit. She's out feedin' hogs. An' I think Gawain had first dibs on her nohow." "Gawain? Which is he?" Whiz nodded toward a hulking brute guzzling in a dark corner. "That be him. A bad man to cross is our Gawain. Seen him walk two days and two nights just to kill a fool what heckled him at a joust." "That's hard," agreed Stag. "Who was the guy?" "Not a guy. His sister." Whiz shook his head. "Killed her clean. One stab in the heart. Didn't cut her to pieces slow -- like he most general does. Musta liked the wench, even if she was only his father's by-blow off a tavern slut." "Yeah, sounds like." Stag looked around. "Gawain can have my turn with the wench. You can have the wine. I gotta keep up my strength. For the quest, you know." Whiz guzzled the booze before replying. He wiped his mouth with a dirty sleeve. "Thanks. I needed that." The main door slammed back, admitting a gust of snow-laden air. Several heavily cloaked figures stumbled inside, greeted by a barrage of curses. The foul talk died away as one of the newcomers shoved the door shut. Stag waited expectantly. At this point in the tale Gunny should arrive. Or Old Guy. Or even Stans. He hoped whoever showed up managed to bring weapons -- an assault rifle or two would be fine. A light machine gun would be even better. The face that emerged from a dark cloak was definitely familiar. "Donnie? What in hell are you doing here? What did you bring?" "Huh? I was just going to check the mail when I turned a corner and ran into these guys." He peered around the dimly lit room. "Where are the dames? They said there would be dames -- dames with big boobs." "Dames? Boobs? We need some firepower. What did you bring?" "Firepower?" Donnie gestured at his middle. "I brung all the firepower I need." He dug into a pocket. "I do have a couple candy bars. You hungry?" (tbc)
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