“Five more minutes,” Connor insisted.
“Fuck five more minutes, I’m counting to ten.” Rivers nervously charged and released the hammer on his revolver. Connor flattened him against the wall with his left arm.
“You better calm the fuck down,” he warned. “And don’t point that thing at me.”
His partner released the hammer loudly, and lowered the gun. It was silent, or rather as quiet as the streets of South Bay ever got at this hour. Bits of garbage littering the streets crept along with the wind. Somewhere the high-pitched whine of a generator filled the air with an electric buzz. Rivers leaned forwards, but was held soundly in place.
“Can I look around the corner, please?” His voice was more annoyed than it was nervous.
“Shut up,” Connor hissed. “Here he comes.” At the end of the avenue, a gleaming pair of headlights announced the approach of a vehicle. “Be cool,” he whispered. The car approached slowly, illuminating either side of the road with a spotlight. Police. A less-than-common, but still a formidable, inconvenience.
“Fuckin’ five-o. We ain’t paying them to show up late.”
“You ain’t paying them at all, so shut the fuck up.”
“He’s not gonna hear me, he’s in the car.”
Connor turned his head. He didn’t have to say anything. The squad car drove by painfully slow, throwing its spotlight up and down every alley. Connor signaled his partner, and they moved back into a recessed doorway for concealment. The light played up and down their corridor, and when satisfied that no one was present, moved on. Connor didn’t move until the rumble of the Crown Vic was out of earshot.
“Out of the frying pan,” Rivers said at last. “What was all that?”
“It would appear that somebody’s expecting trouble.”
“Trouble?” They exited the alleyway and walked along the vacant sidewalk. “They’re all over this place like the Gestapo on Schindler’s Fuckin’ List. Somebody tipped them off.”
Connor sighed. “That’s how it looks, anyway. Chill. We’re almost there.”
“The one with the wood sign hanging off it?”
Rivers took a pensive tone. “Here’s an interesting situational dilemma. Suppose it was Detective Thomas that tipped ‘em off?”
“What, our guy?” Connor shook his head. “Wouldn’t happen. The Boss pays him too well for that.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I got all faith in the Boss. What I’m saying is, suppose somebody else is paying him better.”
“Better than five grand?”
“That was implied, yeah.”
“To watch a Mom and Pop shop? It’s overkill.”
Rivers shrugged. “Just tossing it out there. So what are we doin’ here anyway?” They arrived at the door of Wendy’s Woven Wonders.
“What are we doing? We’re making a new customer.”
“No, I meant what are we actually doing, not why are we here.”
Connor leaned down and popped the lock with a nine-inch blade. “And I said, we’re making a new customer. Why we’re here, is because the Boss told us to come here and make a new customer. Now we’re going to make one.”
“Get a little more vague, would you, Mike? Jesus.”
“What, you’re acting like you’ve never done this kind of thing before.” Rivers didn’t answer – he paced through the door and began looking at the inventory lining the walls. “I take it from your silence that you’ve never done this kind of thing before.”
“I do collections.”
“Me too, but I also do acquisitions. Where you been?”
“Can we move on? Okay? What do I do?”
“Easy, James, no reason to get all Bill Clinton on me.” Connor shrugged. “Look, there’s not really a method to it. Not on the inside anyway. We’re here to ransack the joint, so ransack it.”
Rivers picked up something that looked like a sweater a pancake might wear. “What the hell is this, and how do I break it?”
“It’s a throw-rug.” Connor set to work with his knife, cutting through garments, rugs, blankets, and other Woven Wonders. Rivers followed suit. They worked their way around the edges of the shop, meeting again on the opposite end from where they had come in.
“And this is, what, a sales pitch?”
“Think of it as negative campaigning. If the cops can’t save them, who wouldn’t shell out protection money to the Boss?”
“I just think it’s abnormal for a person to give half their profits to the same guy that destroyed everything that person had.”
“Obviously you’ve never been married.” Having finished the wall displays, the pair started in towards the center, knocking over racks of baskets and various populations of wool, shredding what they could.
“I have what?”
“You said that I’ve obviously never been married,” Rivers said, struggling through a particularly well-made item of some obscure variety. “So you have been?”
“I didn’t say that I ever was, I said that you weren’t.” Connor pointed a finger. “Knock that over, will ya?”
Rivers complied. “It just seems like you’re painting a real negative picture of marriage, that’s all.”
“So I’m cynical.”
He threw up his hands in surrender. “Sounded like you were talking from experience.”
“Experience in relationships is something I have. You don’t have to be married to know what marriage looks like. Hell, you don’t have to go to prison to know assraping hurt like fuck. Observation doesn’t depend on first-hand experience.”
“Not always, but I think there are special cases.”
“You ever been shot before?”
“Don’t change the…”
“I’m making a point. Have you ever been shot?”
Rivers shook his head. “No.”
“Would you like to be?”
“So why is getting shot any different from getting married?”
“Fuck it, man, now you’re just being ridiculous.”
“It’s the same fuckin’ thing.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Same fuckin’ thing.”
Rivers shook his head and started peeing on a stack of shirts. “C’mon, man, get serious.”
“I am serious. If you can tell me that you don’t wanna get shot, without being accused of some moral shortcoming, then I can do the same thing with marriage. No difference. It’s observed experience. Take this guy I know. Man works in retail for fifteen fuckin’ years until he can afford a 1961 Chevy Cabriolette.”
“That’s a beautiful car.”
“The missus convinces him to move to New Mexico, and the minute – I’m telling you the fuckin’ minute – that they set foot in the state she’s at the judge filing divorce papers. Bitch walked away with half his property, because in New Mexico it’s all community.” Rivers whistled a sinking tone. “That cabriolette? Guy had it no more than two months, I shit you not, and she takes it away just like that.”
“Yeah, but this ain’t fuckin’ New Mexico, this is Louisiana.”
“But you get the fuckin’ point.”
“Yeah, I get the fuckin’ point.” Rivers straightened up and examined the interior of the shop. “That’s all the merch, now what?”
“Spraypaint,” Connor replied, handing him a pair of cans and taking another pair for himself. They attacked the walls with profanity, swastikas, and whatever other defamatory images they could imagine.
“You know, I still think you’re being unfair.”
“Oh yeah? How so?”
“Well if you wanna talk about observed experience, then why not observe the three million happy shlapps that don’t have their life dreams taken away?”
“What do you mean?”
Rivers shrugged. “I mean, I’ve got a cousin who’s been happily married for thirty years. Never lost a cabriollette, never…”
“Look, he’s been married for thirty years and he never been divorced, but he ain’t been happy. Look me in the eyes and tell me he never had second thoughts.”
Rivers sighed and disemboweled a stuffed bear. “You’re stretching now.”
“No, I ain’t fuckin’ stretching. You said thirty years of marital bliss, and I threw the bullshit flag. Ain’t nobody been happy for thirty years anywhere, and getting married isn’t gonna change that.”
“True,” Rivers agreed as he painted the finishing touches on a large pair of testicles. “But I still think you’re talking shit about a sacred ceremony, with no good reason for it.” Connor shrugged. Rivers stepped back and admired his work. “Are we done in here?”
“In here, yes. But we’re not done here yet. Still gotta hit the outside.”
“Balls,” Rivers muttered. “Why didn’t we do all that on the way in?”
“You saw South Bay’s finest driving by not five minutes before we started. Now what would they do if they happened by again to see the windows smashed in?”
“We still gotta do the outside, because if we don’t nobody else notices. Play your cards right, and you can get five, maybe six new customers by only doing one of these. So it’s gotta be visible, but not until we’re done with it.”
Rivers sized up the building – two stories of brick, glass, and wood shutters. “What do you have in mind?”
“We’re going for overall visibility and speed. The paint’s no good on this color, not hardly worth the time we’d have to put into it. So stick to the basics.”
“Wood and glass?”
“Smash the shit out of ‘em.”
The outside was much faster work than the interior. A handful of well-placed bricks smashed the upstairs windows, and Connor used a garbage can to put a hole in the display window out front. They kicked the door to splinters before retreating back to the alley.
“How long till we get results?”
Connor shrugged. “That all depends on when Wendy shows up to work.”
“It’s a brave new world.”
“This is fun,” Rivers said, admiring their work. “We should light it on fire.”
Connor shook his head. “Defeats the purpose, but you’re thinking. I like that.”
They tossed their black clothes in a dumpster. These they lit on fire, Connor said it would get rid of the evidence, Rivers asked if he had any marshmallows. They made it back to the car about ten minutes later.
“Hey Mike, ain’t the boss married?”
“Jesus, are you still on that shit?”
Rivers shrugged. “Just askin’.”
“What he does ain’t none of my business, but if he was a lesser man, I’d tell him a thing or two about his life choices.”
Rivers let out a sinking whistle. “Them fighting words, Mike. Shit.”
“Hey,” Connor barked, “not a word of this leaves the fuckin’ car, you hear me? Not a fuckin’ word.”
“I hear you, I hear you,” Rivers replied, holding up his hands.
Connor shot him a look. “Alright then.”
“Alright.” After a few seconds, the temptation got too powerful, and Rivers couldn’t resist. He hummed a few bars, just enough for Connor to recognize the tune, and then began singing. “Here comes the bride…” He didn’t make it to the next line before the car screeched to a halt. Connor shoved him out the door. Rivers normally would’ve been pissed off, but he was too busy laughing.
“Fuck you,” Connor shouted as he peeled away.
“Hey, fuck you!” Rivers shouted back, holding his sides. It was a good night to grab a beer, anyway.
It’s a cold December, and a colder night in a harsh town. The wind is making bullets out of the icy rain that pelts my face and chest. My hands are frozen beneath the knots, nice and snug behind my back. This is it. This racket of gale and traffic is gonna be my fanfare, the highway thirty feet beneath me is gonna be my grave. I’m getting used to the surroundings – hell, it’s a better way to go than half the guys I’ve done in – but no matter how I twist it around in my mind, I can’t get over the jokers that are going to put the last nail on a coffin thirty years in the making.
The guy on my left uses a gloved hand to pull the hood of his raincoat tighter against his face, blocking his eyes from my view. All I can see is his clownish grin, that crooked set of chompers that’s about as white as a snowbank covered in piss. Lance Peretti. Used to be an Italian mobster. He’s not actually Italian, but the name was close, so he went with it. The fat son of a bitch didn’t bother to wipe the gunk off his lips after dinner on the way over here. I’d give him a piece of my mind but for the colt in his paw.
The one on my right, holding a tommy with both hands and shivering like a rat in an eagle’s nest, is none other than Frankie Sans. A runt. He ain’t been in the business more than a month, and I’ve already saved his pathetic ass from the heat twice. Tuesday I was watching his back, today the kid’s snickering and bouncing like a teenage girl, ready to watch me die. I’d be pissed off, but you can’t blame the kid; I’m old, everyone else is moving on, and he saw an opportunity. Hell, I wish him the best. Kid without honor or loyalty might just make it far in this game.
I keep trying to have one of those sentimental flashbacks, but I just keep drawing blanks. No point. There’s only one person that ever mattered to me, and they gave her a lead sleeping pill just before we left my apartment earlier. For the best. Some things a woman’s better off dead than seeing, and one of ‘em’s a grease stain on the highway wearing her lover’s jacket. She wouldn’t understand it, anyway. It’s not me dying tonight – not just me anyhow. It’s an age, an era. One with class, one where there was more in a name than there was in a pocket full of Hamilton’s. One that’s never coming back. I’m the last of a dying breed, and the world don’t need me any more than football needs an Indian sacrifice at the end of the game.
I’m taking some comfort in the thought of the future and my complete absence from it when I’m interrupted by a familiar sound. A hammer clicks behind my head, just an instant before the barrel’s shoved into my skull. “Any last words?” This guy is a real piece of work. Mickey Damato, or as they call him, the Trick. Mick the Trick. He’s the only hitman I ever been afraid of in my life, and not because he’s any good. The man couldn’t tell a cop from a kitten – so god-damn jumpy and money-eyed he makes me nervous just being in the same room. No doubt this shit was his idea… he probably thinks he can move up the ladder, maybe make a few extra bucks with me outta the way. Kid’s got a point, too. Still, I can’t stand the thought of handing my boots over to a punk like this.
“Horace,” he hoots, leaning close to my ears so I can smell the liquor on his breath, “I asked you if you had any last words.”
I give him a look that tells him exactly how I feel. I stare his scrawny ass right in the face and spit blood in it. He wipes it off with his sleeve and plugs one right in my shoulder. Damn, that bullet’s hot. By some miracle I keep my footing on the ledge of the bridge. When I open my eyes again I can see the headlights of a truck coming around the bend just ahead. No doubt they’ll pop me so that I land under one of the wheels… one hell of a mess, but not a lot of evidence left afterwards. Under other circumstances I might actually be impressed with Mick’s planning.
“Last chance, Horace,” he says. He’s trying to be tough, but it ain’t working. He spins me around and shoves one of his revolvers between my eyes. I stare him right in the eyes. He blinks. I don’t. “Fine,” he sneers. “Suit yourself.” His finger slides around the trigger with a lazy lack of precision… don’t know why it pisses me off so much, but before he can squeeze those pathetic little fingers around the pistol grip I’m breathing fire out my nose and squeezing my brow in ways I didn’t know it could move.
“I got somethin’ to say,” I tell him. He doesn’t just wait – he takes a step back. “You never were as good as I am, and you never will be. I’m a fuckin’ legend. You? You’re nothing but a liability with a gun.”
That set him off. Me and my big mouth. This coulda been a quick three seconds, and I’d be dead and nameless on the pavement. The three of them grab me and pull me back onto the bridge fast enough that I can’t keep my balance. I do my best to keep moving once I hit the ground, but there’s too many of them, and with my hands tied I can’t even fight back. They get me down. Damato breaks my nose with his boot and the rest of ‘em join in. I’m almost blacked out entirely by the time he finally puts the pistol back in my face. He’s saying something, but I can’t hear him. My eyes are locked on that finger, the way it slithers around the trigger… watching his eyes, twitching left and right like I was armed and dangerous… what a pussy. Doesn’t matter. I’ve been thinkin’ about retiring anyhow.
She was on the couch crying when I came home. I dropped my things. I had only seen her cry once. I sat down next to her and pulled her close. Her hair fell in my eyes and I could feel her feet on my boots. We sat that way until the apartment was silent. Finally I whispered that everything was going to be okay. She nodded vigorously and swallowed, her eyes wrinkling again. I didn’t understand. “How was your day?” she muttered, with the same warm tone she always used. It made me laugh and I said “It was long.” I didn’t want to think any more about it and she didn’t want to ask, and so we just sat there until she pulled away. She set her jaw and licked her lips, and nervously rubbed her hands together. “There’s good news,” she said, trying hard not to let her voice crack. It must have been hard. She reached for something behind her, and when she brought it forwards I understood everything. Now I was the one who started to cry. I buried my face in her neck and kissed her again and again because I didn’t know what else to do. I told her I loved her so much. She sniffled and said she couldn’t go through it again, not again, and I told her she was wrong. I believed in her, and that I was so happy. She said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it without you.” My smile died at those words. I wanted to be here for her so much. “We’ll find a way,” I told her. “We’ll make it.” And in my heart, I knew that it was true.
But in the end, that was just another lie.
It is 3:00 A.M. A Hamaas militant is digging in a silent and empty road, using a hand-axe to break through the packed gravel and hardened dirt. When the hole is deep enough to cover his elbows, he lowers a sack from his back into the opening and opened it carefully. At the bottom of the hole he positions an artillery round used by the Germans in World War Two, facing upwards with a sharpened point. To the base of this he connects two wires; one plugged directly into a battery, which he buries next to the shell, and the other connects to the power source through a pressure plate. He covers the shell and the battery first, loosely, then places the plate near the surface of the road before covering it. The plate is stiff, so even a medium-sized vehicle wouldn't trigger it – but military trucks or tanks would be surprised, to say the least. To prevent early detection of the trap, the Hamaas fighter sprays a can of natural-colored paint over the scar in the road. He takes his tools and leaves. It is 4:00 A.M.
It is 5:30 A.M. An Israeli gunner atop the lead vehicle of a convoy column spots an off-colored patch of ground in the road ahead. He shouts a warning to his commander below, who calls for a halt. The troopers dismount and sweep the area for an ambush. Although the area is known to be hostile, they find no weapons in the surrounding homes. The danger site is cordoned and the convoy continues. It is 6:10 A.M.
It is 7:00 A.M. A Palestinian businessman is upset because he cannot get to work bypassing the cordon. Onlookers watch as he first throws stones, then approaches the spot in the ground. There is no effect when he taps it with his foot. He mutters something under his breath, makes a call on his phone, and drives the long route. It will be two hours before he arrives at his destination. It is 7:10.
It is 7:30. A bus is picking up children near the cordon, which has become a joke. People who previously had been simply watching were attempting to dig up the explosive device so they could reopen the lane of traffic; there was a Jewish sergeant there assisting with the extraction. As the children watched, the Sergeant lurched forwards with his hands out, as if trying to stop something; it is too late for him, and the explosion that follows tears his face from his head and spins him through the air, so that he lands on one side with his arms and legs atop each other like a hunter's deer. It is 7:35 A.M.
It is 9:51 A.M. Hez'bollah has posted a video of the attack on its web server. They call it a success.
It is 4:58 P.M. A doctor working at a hospital built by Hamaas is arrested by Israeli police outside the building. He is detained and questioned. There is gunpowder residue on his hands. He tells them he treated the victim of an IED attack, but was unable to save the sergeant. They ask why he was not wearing gloves during the surgery. The doctor has no answer. He is taken away. It is 5:10, and his son has just gotten off the school bus near the place where a cordon once stood. Now the road is wet from hoses used to spray the blood into gutters and drains. One of his friends is wearing an Israeli military patrol cap. They play football until supper. The son wonders where his father has gone, but does not ask. His mother prays with him twice before bed. It is 9:45 PM. Her husband is already dead in the Israeli prison. There was no trial.
It is 2010 in Palestine. It is the Holy Land. It is anything but.
It was waiting for her on the counter in the lobby. Normally, an envelope of its size -- about that of a thin manila folder -- would be placed in the inbox with the rest of the mail, but Pauline knew how important this particular envelope was, and she had immediately separated it out from the rest when it arrived with the morning post. When Doctor Jones saw it, she froze. Pauline flashed her a warily optimistic smile from behind the lab’s reception desk. Jones inhaled deeply, holding the envelope in front of her like a tray and moving so delicately she might have been balancing marbles on its flat surface. Pauline held her breath and nodded. Jones didn’t notice.
She was so deep in thought that she almost collided with Ryan Ames, the young intern she had borrowed from University. He was sharp, if not fully educated, and proved very useful for raw research. Jones had expected to lose him when the Initiative’s federal funding was withdrawn, but as he later explained he had grown fond of the work. Doctor Jones had assured him that if they succeeded, he would be paid for his invaluable contributions. In his too-clever tone, he had responded that when they succeeded, he would only accept cash.
“Sorry,” Jones mumbled, shaking her head.
Ames raised his hands, almost ready to take the folder from her, but freezing before his hands touched hers. “Is that it?” he whispered. She nodded. “Well?”
She showed him the envelope‘s seal, which was fastened and covered with a strip of clear packing tape, and stamped with small black letters. “I don’t know.”
“You haven’t opened it yet?”
“I want him to do it.”
Ames smirked, and Jones expected him to make a joke, but he surprised her. “You okay?” She nodded. “Look, if you want someone to be there with you….”
“I’m fine, really,” she declared, forcing a smile. “You’ve got better things to be doing, anyway.”
He paused. “Maybe.” But not if the results are positive. “We’re doing ten specimens today,” he noted.
“That’s pretty ambitious,” Jones replied.
“You’re right,” he said. “So you better let me know how it turns out. No point in working all night if I could be out of here by lunchtime.”
Jones breathed more easily, and smiled a little more naturally. “You’ll be the first.”
An assortment of lab coats hung on a rack outside the patient’s room. There was a half-full hamper underneath, containing mostly her own used garments. Today, she decided to forego the wardrobe entirely. She paused at the door, one hand on the metal handle and the other holding the envelope at eye-level. She wasn’t breathing. This was it.
Cold air and sounds of medical equipment greeted her as she pushed the door open. The room was white, like the rest of the lab, but unlike the rest of the building the walls here were covered with charts and papers in haphazard patterns. The dispersment was wide near the door, but grew steadily more dense near the patient’s hospital bed on the opposite wall. He was on his feet, which was increasingly rare of late, leaning heavily against his EKG. Jones shut the door quietly -- his back was turned, and he didn’t seem to hear. She watched him work for a few seconds. He was absorbed in a comparison of two sets of MRI imaging, which he had taped over the other pages already covering the wall in layers. He’d gone up and down the charts half a dozen times before Jones touched him on the shoulder. He turned. She kept the envelope hidden behind her back.
His face was haggard -- what parts of it weren’t covered by a blue breathing tube. His eyes were dim, tired, sunk in and drooping at the corners. His bald head was covered with a white stocking cap, which also covered about half of the deep lines on his forehead. In two short years of testing, he looked as if he’d aged several decades. His brow softened.
“Hi,” she said simply. He reached for his breathing tube. “No,” she interrupted.
His shoulders heaved as if he was sighing.
“Any new discoveries?” she asked.
He pulled a pair of images from the series on the wall and set them on his bed. His disease made the action seem laborious, but Jones hid her sympathy -- she knew how much he hated it. She leaned over his shoulder. He had circled two areas on each sheet, marking subtle differences in a black mass. She pretended to be interested in his “discovery,” but in fact Jones was familiar with the areas in question -- Ames had discovered the exact spots weeks earlier, and they had become the subject of an intense, comprehensive study. She was far more interested -- and in fact disappointed -- by the fact that he seemed to have no memory of it, despite his own thorough involvement. That was a very, very bad indication.
“Well, look at that,” she muttered, her heart in her throat. Whatever optimism she had about the envelope was quickly vanishing. “I’ll have Ames take a look,” she offered, hoping it would spark his memory.
Instead he made an inquisitive look, as if trying to remember the name ‘Ames.’ At last it dawned on him, and he nodded, sitting back on his bed and slumping back.
Jones casually slid the envelope onto the counter next to the computer, and moved to the side of his bed. She lifted his legs for him, and he thanked her with a nod as she went over his equipment. A slight fever and an elevated heart rate, but nothing terribly concerning. “This all looks good,” she told him. Of course he already knew that -- she was stalling.
He motioned towards the computer. She passed him the keyboard and opened a word processor and waited while he typed, “HJOW R U.” She chuckled and searched for words. Before she found them, he typed again. “WAHTIS IT.”
She sighed. “Well,” she began, but trailed off. “Well, let’s find out.” She reached for the envelope.
“WHAT SI INSIDE.”
“It’s the biopsy.”
“I haven’t opened it yet,” she said. “I thought you should read it first.”
He thought about it. “ALLRIHGT.”
She fished some keys from her pocket and sliced through the seal, then fished through the pages. She put aside the cover sheet and the attachments, and handed over the full report. They sat in silence for almost ten minutes as he scoured the front page. Once he flipped to page two, but quickly he came back to the first. At last he let the report fall down on his lap, and closed his eyes. Jones’ heart sank.
“Well?” she made herself ask.
Her heart skipped a beat. “Did you say ‘good?’”
“CURE.” She took the report from him and pored over it. The first paragraph alone summarized the total success of the test, but she refused to accept it until she had read every word of the document twice. When she looked at the patient again, he had tears in his eyes -- Jones realized that she did as well, and she stifled them. “SAEVD,” he typed. She leaned over to kiss him -- avoiding the breathing tube -- on the forehead, and held his hand.
“I told you you could do it,” she said.
“SO PRUOD OF YOU.” His chest heaved. “TIRDE.”
She wiped away her sniffles and pushed herself up. “You should take a break,” she declared, sweeping up all the loose papers and charts. “I have to go tell everybody the good news.” She stood up. “You did it,” she whispered. She could scarcely believe it.
“WWEEEE DID IT.”
Everybody was waiting for her outside. Ames, Pauline, the nurses Sonja and Angela, and Peter, the lab tech. The door closed behind her, and Doctor Jones held up the report. “It’s conclusive,” she announced. She summarized the contents of the report, and realized that she was laughing. Ames closed the distance between them, and hugged her close. “Thank you,” she said, pulling away lightly. He didn’t let go. Jones realized that she was the only one smiling. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “We did it. The cure works -- we saved him!”
Ames guided her towards the wall. She pushed him away. “The cure works,” she said, meekly now.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He handed her a single sheet of paper. She stared at it until her knees felt weak -- then she sank against the wall and crushed the paper against her forehead. A phone was ringing, and Pauline went to answer it. The nurses excused themselves to check on the patient, and Ames beckoned Peter away to the lab. Alone, Jones let herself cry.
CUSTOE: Good evening, and thank you for joining us for a special edition of The Podium. Tonight’s guest is somewhat out of the ordinary, but nevertheless a wonderful treat for all of us here in studio. You have probably heard by now of the Duck Bomb. The event itself alarmed and confounded, but mostly confused national news agencies – which of course only increased our collective interest. The impenetrable anonymity of the act, perhaps, piqued our curiosities even more than its inexplicable nature, but despite the sizable monetary reward on the table, to date no one has been able to discover the identity of the Duck Smuggler. One week ago, The Podium received an anonymous phone call, and after a little investigation, we decided to conduct a small ruse of our own. Leading up to tonight’s edition, we have been advertising an audience with Deputy Director Findlay from the Bureau of Investigation about the progress they have made on the case. Instead, it is my greatest pleasure to introduce to you the man we’ve all been dying to meet – a man who insists that this captivating caper was neither an act of espionage nor of sabotage, but rather a work of art. I present to you now the Duck Smuggler himself, in person – Jack Plaster.
PLASTER: [enters, acknowledges audience] Thank you. [sits across from CUSTOE]
CUSTOE: Thank you for being with us tonight, Jack. It must be --
PLASTER: [interrupting] Thank – I – I’m sorry. Thank you for having me, Paul.
CUSTOE: The pleasure is all mine. Now, Jack, it must be dangerous for you to appear in public and expose your true identity. Are you concerned at all about tipping your hand to the camera, as it were?
PLASTER: Not at all, Paul, no. In fact I’m glad you phrased it the way you did, because frankly my cards are already on the table. I have nothing to hide anymore; as a matter of fact I’ve been in contact with the FBI for almost as long as I’ve been speaking to your studio.
CUSTOE: Now Jack – really, you’ve spoken with the FBI? [PLASTER nods] We’ll have to discuss that in a bit, but first, there’s something that’s been on I think all of our minds ever since early July, and I suppose I should just come right out and say it. Who are you?
PLASTER: [laughs] Ha ha, well, uh, Paul as you said I am probably the only man in human history to invade a national monument with ducks.
CUSTOE: With a name like Plaster, one might think your artistic ambitions would lie elsewhere.
PLASTER: [laughs] You can take that one up with Ellis Island, Paul.
CUSTOE: But really, tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What is it that you do – aside from plotting complex water-fowl terrorism, of course.
PLASTER: Well, I’m originally from Minnesota, but my mother and I moved to Florida while I was still young. As far as what I do, I’ve asked and my employer would prefer that I don’t disclose any of that.
CUSTOE: That’s [laughs] I suppose that’s hardly a surprising answer, Mr. Plaster.
PLASTER: No, no, it isn’t anything like that. It’s just that my regular, uh, duck-free job is more or less white collar and I don’t want to say anything that would – that would negatively impact their business.
CUSTOE: I see. White collar? Did you go to school at all, or…
PLASTER: Yes, actually yes. I studied economics for two years at Berkley.
CUSTOE: [pauses] Now Jack, let me get this straight. You’re a Minnesota boy, moved to Florida with your mother when you were young, went to school in Berkley for economics, now working in an office somewhere mysterious… [pauses] Jack, what is with the ducks? Why ducks? You seem to be one of the most duck-free people I’ve ever interviewed.
PLASTER: What the duck indeed, Paul.
CUSTOE: I bet nobody ever expected you of fowl play before this.
PLASTER: [laughs] Believe it or not ducks weren’t my first choice. I was actually pulling for rabbits, but logistically that just didn’t work out.
CUSTOE: How’s that?
PLASTER: They’re too heavy when they’re full grown. I mean obviously the difference between a duck and a rabbit isn’t all that much to the average person, but in the numbers we were dealing with it became a real issue.
CUSTOE: It’s interesting you used the word “we” just now. Is it true that you were acting as part of a group?
PLASTER: That’s correct, yes. Unfortunately I can’t talk about my partners in crime very much, other than to say they were very helpful and I couldn’t have done anything without them.
CUSTOE: Alright then, let’s cut a little more to the chase. Talk to me about the plan. How does someone come up with something like this?
PLASTER: Well, like anything it starts as a little idea and it grows into something big if you let it. I initially got the idea just, sort of just out of the blue. Watching the nightly news, I caught myself thinking ‘What if,’ you know? And…. No, well, it wasn’t ‘What if ducklings took over the pentagon’ at first, Paul, I see you thinking.
CUSTOE: [laughs] You had me concerned for your mental health, Jack.
PLASTER: At first it was a purer idea. Because it seems like nobody ever goes out of their way to do something big, unless it’s something terrible. You can sort of see that in the whole fallout of the plot, how for the first week or so all anybody could think of was terrorism and spies and stealing technology, when really it was just ducks. Anyway when I first started researching, I was looking for a way to make everybody in the whole world sit back and chuckle for a minute.
CUSTOE: And your mind went to ducks. Rabbits, that’s right – you said it was rabbits at first.
PLASTER: Pretty much. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do and I knew I couldn’t pull it off on my own, so I started getting other people that I knew would be good for it. In the end there were nine of us, and every time somebody new came on board the whole project took a little bit clearer shape. We didn’t settle on ducks until we’d already looked at all the workings of it. Transportation was a big issue, because it turns out you can only put so many ducks on a tractor-trailer. We ended up trying to move them around as eggs, whenever we could help it.
CUSTOE: And where did you move them to?
PLASTER: D.C. We rented out six floors of an apartment building and brought the ducks in one load at a time.
CUSTOE: Did you ever stop and say to yourself, “this is all very expensive, for a practical joke?”
PLASTER: Well, yes – no, not in the sense that it was a “practical joke,” we all agreed it was bigger than that. But we had funding. Actually most of the ducks we used were rescues, and a number of environmentalist groups were willing to give us equipment and feed. The trucks were on loan and I can’t say much more about that… probably our biggest expense was rent on the apartments. We all pitched in. A few of us have plenty of finances to back the project up, and we were all basically committed at that point anyway.
CUSTOE: Now in all of this driving around the country, rescuing ducks, did you ever actually smuggle a duck?
PLASTER: [laughs] You know, technically, no. We brought a hundred or so ducklings down from Canada, but those were actually purchased legally.
CUSTOE: So there is no underground, black-market for ducks?
PLASTER: [laughs] No, Paul, there is not.
CUSTOE: You heard it here first, America.
CUSTOE: So you’ve got all these ducks, thousands of ducks – how many, exactly?
PLASTER: Five and a half thousand.
CUSTOE: Five and a half thousand ducks, in Washington D.C., living in an apartment building. No doubt quacking plots to overthrow the United States Military.
CUSTOE: How did you manage to get all those ducks into the Pentagon? That’s an amazing feat for one person, let alone an army of birds.
PLASTER: Well, there is a souvenir shop, Paul.
CUSTOE: You disguised yourself as workers?
PLASTER: No, I just meant that it’s not as ‘impenetrable’ as most people think. As for the rest, well, you know what they say about a good magician.
CUSTOE: I do indeed. But Jack, the nation and perhaps even the world are watching this broadcast – is there anything you can say, to satisfy or perhaps to madden our curiosity even more?
PLASTER: Well, remember Paul that we’re still a nation at war. There are some unsavory types out there who would like nothing more than to know all my tricks…
CUSTOE: Say no more.
PLASTER: But what I can say is, and without revealing anything that could be a security risk of course, is that the actual – we called it the Invasion – the actual Invasion was the easiest part of the whole plot. The easiest part.
CUSTOE: That’s quite a claim!
PLASTER: When you think about it, it’s logical though. The systems at the Pentagon and at most facilities are set up to detect threats, but we weren’t a threat at all. We didn’t bring any explosives, any germs, any weapons or metal, just…
CUSTOE: I suppose that will have to do.
PLASTER: I’m afraid so, Paul.
CUSTOE: Very well. Now, we touched on this briefly but I want to come back to it. On the phone, you said this was a “work of art,” not an illegal act. And…
PLASTER: Criminal. I – sorry, I just… [pauses] What we did was certainly illegal, we broke several laws. But it was not meant to be criminal, and I don’t believe art should ever be considered illegal no matter what – or how – it is.
CUSTOE: So noted. Then this “Illegal, not criminal” work of art… you said a few minutes ago that you wanted the whole world to watch and just laugh at it.
PLASTER: There’s… some depth to it, I guess, but that’s the long and short of the thing. People hear the word “conspiracy” and they think of smoke-filled rooms and silenced guns, and bombs, and all that. We wanted to take that away, if only for a second. We wanted people to hear “Conspiracy” and think of ducks in little tuxedos. We wanted people to hear “Pentagon” and picture generals running around in their fancy suits chasing yellow birds, or to hear “terrorists” and picture scooping up duck poop for months and months – although that last one is more of a personal reflection, I think. [laughs] But really though, people don’t take the time to laugh anymore and we all sort of felt this need to change that, and hopefully we have.
CUSTOE: Are there any more duck-bombings in the works?
PLASTER: Well, not from me. Not from us, I should say, although… well, we aren’t planning anything, no. If the Invasion has its intended effect, you may see similar things happening on a smaller scale. There probably won’t be anything else like the Pentagon though.
CUSTOE: I understand they’ve installed new duck detectors.
PLASTER: [laughs] Not in the right places, I bet.
CUSTOE: [laughs] No hesitation on that, none at all.
CUSTOE: Alright, we have a few more people waiting ‘in the wings,’ as it were, to join the conversation. Coming up next is Deputy Director Findlay, as promised, to shed some light on the investigation and talk a little bit about what we’ve heard so far. But before we go to break, I feel inclined to give our Duck Smuggler one last chance to make a break for the door.
PLASTER: [laughs] No, Paul, that’s won’t be necessary.
CUSTOE: Very well. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be back with Jack in just a moment. Stay tuned.
They danced around the fountain like dolls on strings, hypnotized by the blue sky and the green grass and the glass castle… and the glass castle, looming in the horizon, an icon of gluttony and tyranny and the fantasy that deluded these puppets. The masters, playing with their toys and making them believe they were real people. But they weren’t real – they were lies, just as their beliefs were lies, just as their freedom was a lie. The happiness they thought they felt was sickeningly cruel.
Dreyfus hated them. He hated their homes on the terraced cliff face, and the way they embraced the chasm that separated them from the noble villains. He hated their clean roads and their pristine water and their white-clothed bastards singing songs and making merry. He hated the dry air, and the way his breath resembled the clouds below with every muttered curse. He hated the children – not pitied. They would know no pleasure, no happiness in life, unless it was this despicable lie. They would spread the lie until it covered their whole world – they would kill for their lie. They would die for their lie.
… They would die for it.
They would die for it. They had to die for it. They had to die, to stop it. They were the enemy, the disease, the cancer. They looked so weak, so innocent, but their innocence and their weakness were false. Here was one, a girl, with dark curls for hair and a tiny blemish on her face that seemed darker when she scowled. She would not come when Dreyfus beckoned her. She would not come, because she feared him – because she knew, or thought she knew. Because she was not innocent at all – she was they, and they were she. A miniature villainess, who scampered on in miniature footsteps with her miniature lie in her tiny world. But Dreyfus saw through, because he was wise.
Here came another, this one a boy. He wore their clothes and their face, with golden hair and the fairest of skin. He vanquished fanciful enemies with a toy sword, chasing his ghosts into the alley where Dreyfus waited. When he was close, Dreyfus reached out and touched him on the shoulder – only just so – and pulled his hand back. The golden child pointed his toy sword, as if he truly believed in it. Dreyfus’ hand fell heavily upon him. He had to break the lie.
“There are orcs from the mountains, orcs from the islands, from the tundra, even orcs from the forest. But the orcs from the desert are the very worst kind.” Estrom’s voice carried in the air, echoing immodestly from the low hills on either side of the packed road. His eyes were forward, as they always were when he rode, and his shoulders and chin were high. “Do you know much of history, boy?”
His squire for the journey, whose name he had not yet found the necessity to learn, nodded his head.
“We’ve had wars with the other orcs, but not with these from the desert – they’ve been fighting on their own, though, for thousands of years. We elves mark the date when a war ends, but these desert folk celebrate a war’s beginning instead. They crave war – not that they are particularly well suited to it, nor because they do particularly well, but they seem always to find a reason to avoid peace. This is unique to the desert orc – but it is not that their actions stem from some racial tendency… quite the opposite. It’s their history that damns them to this pitiful and barbaric state. Race is simply a detail. As a race, the desert orcs are cunning, strong… charitable, even, amongst themselves. Under other circumstances, your desert orc might have evolved into an admirable society, but instead this squalid lot.”
“Sire, please,” the squire begged. His fearful eyes darted back and forth between the half-dozen armed escorts.
“Don’t worry, boy,” the emissary said, changing his tone slightly. “There isn’t one among them that understands Elvish.” Estrom fell silent anyway, and they walked on past scrub trees and grass that grew in tall bunches from the sand. This was the only road connecting the Kingdom to the desert; it wound through the foothills of the Sierra, where the last Elf outpost stood, and straightened into the oblivion of the desert only a few miles later. To the best of their knowledge, the orcs had no permanent fortifications. The desert itself provided the only defense they needed. Now ten miles down the road under escort, Estrom and his squire came upon a temporary encampment of a military structure. They passed through a palisade, built from wood that seemed to have no source whatsoever locally, and continued among tents and hovels that looked as if they could be taken down in only minutes.
At length, Estrom resumed his monologue, so suddenly that it surprised the squire. “Of course it follows, that under other circumstances, we elves might have devolved – or rather, have stagnated in barbarism, as they have. It’s a blessing, or perhaps only a stroke of luck, that separates us from them – and naturally a blessed stroke of luck that you and I weren’t born desert orcs ourselves. Do you know what I think?” The squire shook his head no. “I think I do pity them. They will never see the world as we see it – never understand the world, as we understand it. In some small way, they are all like Dreyfus…. They will always be our enemies, and yet they will never have the means to overcome us. They will be subordinate to us, or to their own hatred of us, for all of time.”
“Perhaps sire can change all of that,” the squire offered. Estrom snorted, a smirking expression of arrogance that caught the attention of the orcs guiding their path to the center of camp. The squire hung his head.
“I can’t change it,” he replied. “Nobody can change it. Hatred is in their destiny, the same as if it were in their blood. There will never be peace between us.” They had arrived at what appeared to be a central structure – no less temporary than the other tents in the camp, but larger and surrounded by a sparing lot of torches and armed guards. Estrom dismounted, and handed his reins to the boy. “Wait here,” he said. Their escorts rode away.
“Will you be long, sire?” his reply was meek, and Estrom did not answer it. Instead he hunched his head under the sagging canopy and stepped into the decrepit tent of Lord Gollopas. They exchanged customary greetings and introductions.
“I am sorry to see you like this,” the orc began, bowing deeply. “We are grieved to hear of your people’s loss. Know, that our deepest condolences are with you, and with the family of the poor child. We did not want this.”
Estrom nodded, then spoke in the tongue of the desert. “I accept your kind thoughts, Lord Gollopas. We are in a strange way fortunate, that the one responsible took flight after killing only one. His cowardice is a blessing from whatever gods were watching that day.”
Gollapas straightened his back. “For that, I too am grateful. I wish to give something to the boy’s family.” He took up a chest from the ground and opened it. “This dowry is the custom of my people. When a son or a daughter is killed, the village comes together to ease the family’s loss, and to help them through troubling times. The amount here is equal to my allotment for the year, given freely from all the orcs in the encampment. Please accept it on behalf of the boy’s mother.”
Estrom was impressed by the orc’s sincerity, and by the amount in the chest. Nevertheless he hesitated. “You must understand, Lord Gollopas, that I am here on behalf of the King – not of the boy’s mother. If I accept this dowry, I will be acting out of turn. And if I may speak frankly…. The mother would wish for many things at this moment, but a gift from a…. from even an esteemed orc such as yourself…”
“Then accept it for your king,” Gollopas insisted. “He may do with it what he sees fit, and grant to the mother whatever amount he sees fit to give. My custom requires me to make this offering – it would shame me greatly if you were to refuse.”
Estrom considered it carefully. “I do not wish to offend you, Lord,” he said. “I accept your dowry, on behalf of the King and on behalf of all elves.”
“Good,” Gollopas said with a nod. Estrom noted a strange inflection of finality in the orc’s voice.
“My lord, please forgive my intrusion if you must, but I must ask you something.”
Estrom squinted a little. “I have been told that the criminal Dreyfus fled to the mountains after his crime, and that his path brought him towards these foothills.” Gollopas froze attentively. “A scout…. That is, a citizen on lookout from the town followed tracks from the scene of the crime. He returned with word that an orc, matching Dreyfus’ appearance, was taken into your camp.” Estrom raised an eyebrow. He did not want to explicitly state his question – doing so might be considered an accusation, and the orcs never responded well to accusations. But although he didn’t say it aloud, his question was heard plainly – is Dreyfus here?
“What you have heard is true, to an extent,” Gollopas replied. “Dreyfus did come here. He told us what he had done, and sought asylum with my people. My guards arrested him and brought him directly to me, and I had him imprisoned. This was five days ago.”
Estrom smiled. “This is excellent news. My lord, the King wishes that Dreyfus should stand trial.”
“It will, no doubt, please your king to hear that Dreyfus has already stood trial.” Although his words were friendly, Gollopas’ demeanor was very nearly defiant. “He was tried two days ago in Rukk Portad. His sentence has already been carried out.”
Rukk Portad – a savage trial-by-combat unique to the desert orc. Estrom knew it well, and knew the predicted result. “May I see the body?”
Gollopas frowned. “No.”
“My lord, I must insist.”
“You may not see the body, because there is no body. I wish with all my heart that he had been killed – I sent my best swordsman against him – my very best. Dreyfus survived. I do not know how such a thing could be – but it is.”
Estrom didn’t want to believe it. “Where is he now?”
“He is gone,” said Gollopas. “He left immediately after his trial, to places I do not know.”
“My lord,” Estrom said, fitfully trying to speak in calm tones, “I am grateful for your swift action, but my people will demand justice.”
“This is justice,” Gollopas replied. “He is gone, and he will not return. I wish it were not so, but my customs are not subject to my wishes. I must abide by the law, and respect the rule of Rukk Portad.”
“This is outrageous,” the emissary said. Then he took up a more diplomatic tone. “My lord, your hands may be tied by orc law, but mine are not. I have a horse waiting outside. Let me ride after Dreyfus, and when I capture him I will bring him before my people’s court.”
“This is asking too much,” Gollopas said with sadness in his voice. “I cannot allow it.”
“An elfin boy is dead.”
“For which you have already accepted my apology, my condolence, and my dowry.” Gollopas paced and pleaded. “This is difficult, I know, but you must understand…”
“No, you must understand,” Estrom cut in. “You are harboring a murderer. Your citizen has wronged my people and walks free in your nation – if this is what you call justice, it is insufficient.”
“With all respect for your people,” Gollopas began in anything but a respectful tone, “Dreyfus is an orc. He was captured in orc territory, held in an orc prison, and subjected to an orc trial. He was punished under orc law. Where he goes now is no longer my concern – he is the same to us as any orc, and will be given the same protection. Dreyfus is not your people. Dreyfus is not the concern of your people. You should let all thought of him go.”
“And what of the elf blood he has spilled?”
“Please accept my deepest apology.” Gollopas bowed again, but not as low as before.
Estrom was completely flabbergasted. “My lord, I can not accept this.”
“Then we are at an impasse,” the orc replied. “I will not allow an elf to ride into my country to kill my countryman.”
“Yet you did nothing when it was the other way around!” Estrom fired back – and immediately regretted it.
“I have just finished burying my sergeant-at-arms, who was one of my oldest friends,” he growled. “He was killed by Dreyfus, while fighting for the honor of your slain elf child – a child he never saw. Your accusations spit on his grave!”
“My lord, please,” said Estrom, raising just one hand. “I spoke too harshly. I was not looking for offense.”
“You have found it,” Gollopas replied.
“Be that as it may, there will be many more graves to follow, unless you heed this warning.” The orc narrowed his eyes. “I will carry your dowry to my king. I will explain to him everything you have told me, in the most eloquent words I know.” He continued in elvish to demonstrate. “I will explain to him everything you have told me, and I will present your dowry, and do you know what will happen?”
“What?” Gollopas replied in elvish. Estrom paused before continuing.
“He will burn your offering. And do you know why?” Gollopas shook his head. “Because the elven people demand justice – our justice. We all feel the loss of this child as if he were a dear nephew. The king will not accept your apology, because he cannot accept it – because the people cannot accept that a murderer is walking free in your country while our kingdom stands idly by and watches.”
“That is regrettable.”
Estrom pounded a fist on his own hip. “Is that all you have to say?” he shouted. “We’re talking about another war—and ‘that’s regrettable?!’”
“Yes!” Gollopas yelled back. “That is regrettable! The people in your country are accustomed to their way of life, but this is not their country!”
“You can stop this war from happening – simply give me the murderer.”
“He is absolved. Gone!” Gollopas made a sweeping motion with his arm, and made a scooping noise that Estrom didn’t recognize as a word. “If an apology is really so worthless, then perhaps you should carry this warning instead: you may do as you like in your own country, but you may not execute a citizen of mine because you do not approve of our way of life!”
“His crime was committed in my country,” said Estrom. “Have you forgotten that?” Gollopas looked away. Estrom switched back to desert tongue. “I’m begging you – if you refuse to give the murderer to me, so many more will die. Mine and yours. Dead – for what? For a monster’s life? He murdered a child. If you let him go….” Estrom couldn’t think of the next words to say.
Gollopas sighed. “It is already done.” They stared at one another for a long time, challenging with their gaze, and unflinching. Finally Estrom cursed, and turned for the door by which he had come. “My friend,” Gollopas called. Estrom paused in the threshold; Gollopas spoke in elvish. “Please, say what you can. You speak of war because you are mighty, but know this: it will not go well for you.” His omen seemed to have some effect on the elf. “If there is anything I can do to convince you….”
“There is only one thing you can do,” Estrom interrupted, “but you refuse.” He sighed. “I’ll try.” With that final word he stormed away, very nearly leaving his squire alone. His pace was long and quick, and the youngster had to scurry to keep up.
“What did you mean, sire? What are you going to try?”
Estrom scowled. He had no idea.
“The emissary is gone.”
“Bring him to me,” Gollopas barked. “Now!” The messenger vanished. A minute or so later, two guards entered carrying Dreyfus, one under each arm. They hurled him to the floor angrily; one of the guards planted a solid kick on the prisoner’s prone body.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” the lord growled. “Do you!?”
“My lord,” Dreyfus whimpered. Fresh blood dripped from the wound on his face. He pushed himself up to his knees with his right hand – his left was mangled, chopped to bits during his Rukk Portad with the sergeant-at-arms. “My lord, please, let me go. I have been absolved by the gods.”
“Hundreds, maybe thousands are going to die because of you.” Dreyfus just whimpered. “Well? Say something for yourself.” Rather than speak, Dreyfus began to cry.
“I never wanted anybody to die,” Dreyfus pleaded. “I never wanted any of this…. Please, my lord. I want to leave… this is all too much for me. I am but a lowly servant – I have no place….” The lord raised an arm as if to strike Dreyfus, and the prisoner hunched himself down in a pitiful bow. He continued to beg for his own release, but words were muffled by his tears and nothing more could be discerned from his noises.
“You fool.” Gollopas stood. Dreyfus bowed even further, and muttered even faster. “You unbelievable FOOL!” Gollopas fell on the prisoner, punching and clawing and tearing away at him with vicious fervor. The guards were too astonished to intervene, and the wounded prisoner was no match for the orc lord. He screamed in agony, but there was no mercy. The onslaught continued long after the screaming stopped, until there was no movement left whatsoever in Dreyfus’ body. Out of breath, Gollopas snatched a knife from his belt and plunged it into Dreyfus’ corpse again and again, until he nearly collapsed from exhaustion. He cursed, and let the blade fall to the ground. Finally one of the guards stepped in, helping his lord to his feet and offering his shoulder. Gollopas was at last seated in his war chair, his diplomatic attire covered in sweat and spit and blood. Several more had gathered, and watched the execution in grim silence.
Gollopas took a moment to recover his breath and gather his thoughts. He looked at the dead orc at his feet, and at his men. Then his eyes went to the horizon, where the glow of the elven castle could still be seen in the twilight. There was only ever one way this could have ended. “So then,” he said to no one in particular, “it’s trial by combat after all.”