The car door thumped shut, and he got out at near his room at his hotel. The scarlet sun was sinking quickly in the west, lighting up the undersides of the low clouds. He went and walked down a broad cement walk. Before, him, to the east, the dimming hotel golf course offered long vistas of gently rich green, with palms and leafed trees standing solid at the distant fringes. There was a restful peace all around that touched the heart and produced gentle relief. In the middle distance, a cluster of players had stopped while a caddy with a heavy bag, handed a club to loudly dressed male player, then took out the flag out of the cup, waiting while a fat player bent and made a final put. Closer to the hotel were two other players, both men making final shots on a green as the caddy stood by holding both bulging, heavy leather bags sprouting clubs. Summerbee could hear their voices floating across to him faintly on the air.
The dark quickly deepened. The scarlet forge in the west was growing faint, streaking the sky with a dying scarlet fire. As he walked down the paved path, feeling relief from crushing cares of the day, he saw a figure standing by the side of the path ahead. The reporter, Mike Summerbee was spending a month in the Arizona State Prison, taking notes for a book and instantly recognized the man. The black man standing there was short; squat and powerful in outline. Lewis, he thought. Iron Man. The sight instantly refreshed his drooping spirits.
“I’m surprised they still letting you out,’ Lewis said with a small, white grin.
They talked for a bit. Iron Man’s real name was Lewis Adolphus. He had earned the name “Iron man” because he had always carried a piece of iron when he fought opponents in the Yard. Men feared him. He had been out of prison for three years now, working at this hotel, moving heavy furniture or old refrigerators. His body was built like refrigerator that had a large head placed on top. The two had come to like and trust each other.
Iron Man was talking about a friend in the prison: “We were cement tight. If ever there was partners, we was it, you dig? We sat up all that night…”
“What night? Before your release?”
“Yeah. All night we was talking, and he say to me, and Eddie say to me, `Iron Man you got out and forget about this place while you’re out there, learn to like the free world when you’re out there. He say to me, ‘You’re a strong man. Go out now and do them things you been telling me you can do. Only you know what you been telling me. Now go out there and live right,’ he say. Eddy McCloud his name was.”
Lewis looked out and sighed, then turned to him.
“I’ve did it all too, but for one thing. He told me to get my wife back, but whatever she got going, I don’t want to interfere with. She’s a nice woman, a good woman. No, it was all just me.”
“What did you do?” Mike asked him.
“I slapped her, and she turned me in.” Lewis said and stared gloomily, and then turned to Mike Summerbee. “You’re really okay in there?”
“I’m fine, why?”
“I think you maybe got friends in their now.”
“I sure hope so. I need all the friends I can get.”
He grew thoughtful “McCloud, Eddie McCloud, his name as, we celled together for thirty five months. We were cement-tight, man, you know?” he paused. “So are you done?”
“Done? Done with what?”
“Your book. You got what you need?”
“I’m getting there.”
Lewis simply stood there in the dark, not moving, plunged deep in thought, a bulky dark shadow. Finally, he said quietly, his voice very subdued and gloomy: “You know I buried one of my best friends in there. He was executed. ”
The startling words just hung there inj the darkening air.
“This was when you were out at the prison?”
“At the prison?”
“A friend. Yeah.” Lewis voice came out of the near dark. Mike couldn’t no longer see the features of is face. “See, there’s a grave yard there. Out by the chicken pens. He’s buried there. He was a good friend of mine.”
“Who was he?” Mike asked.
“Him? He was a fighter. Professional boxer.”
“Good boxer too. He was middleweight champion of the state,” Lewis said. “Yeah; good-looking, strong guy, really strong. His name was ‘Blackjack,’ His real name was Walt Hay. I buried him in the graveyard myself. There's a graveyard out there at the prison, near the chicken pens. The graves there don’t have names, only inmate numbers. A priest was there. Not Father Murphy, but another guy. The ambulance brought his body out at 7:15 in the morning.
“See, the doctors had to wait forty-five minutes up to an hour for the gas to clear the Gas Chamber, because that stuff is so goddamn deadly. If you open a cut in that Gas Chamber, you would be dead in seconds. When they carry a dead man out, the doctors, they always wear rubber gloves.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“You can smell that gas in there for a week after a killing,” Lewis said. “You can smell it. It takes ten to twelve days before they let an inmate in there to go in and clean.” The black shadow continued to talk to Mike.
“Yeah, old Blackjack his name was. He was a good fighter – middleweight boxing champion of the state. Only defeated once. Yessir.”
Mike Summerbee fixed his troubled gaze on the squat figure in the deepening dusk.
“Yeah. Famous man in the state,” Lewis said. “Good puncher; had a great left hook. He hit a man, and he’d crumble and curl up. I knew Blackjack real well. I even knew the pretty little wife that he killed.”
An inexplicable dread seized Summerbee. A chill swept down his spine.
“Why did he kill his wife?”
“She was beautiful. Man, she was beautiful. He shot her, see. She wanted to divorce him, and she had cheated on him, and he got into this rage and shot her in the head. I went to her funeral.”
Mike didn’t know what to say. “That was good of you,” he said.
“One day, I went to the jail while Blackjack was there?”
“You mean in Phoenix?”
“In Phoenix. Yeah. See, I had slapped my wife, and she turned me in, and I did thirty days in the same jail. When I got out, I got out I went to see Blackjack. You see, in the old jail in town, there was this fishpond, and if you stood there in the courtyard and looked up, you could talk up to whoever was up there in them cells. The inmates would press their faces to the bars to look down to talk. Later, Blackjack was transferred later to Death Row at the prison out here. Yessir.”
“Blackjack could stand up at the window of his cell and could see out to where he and his wife used to live. He could see their house from his cell.
“He was real upset, Blackjack was. He was crying real bad. He couldn’t stop crying. So I stood by the fish pond, and I looked up and could see him crying,” said Lewis. “He was real upset because he’d killed her. He called down and told me to go and be at the funeral for his wife, and he told me to come back and tell him what it was like. He asked me to take a bunch of flowers over there to honor her memory. He was real upset, just bawling like a little boy does, you know?”
There was a pause.
“It was hard for him to believe what he done, killing her. I remember him once saying, `Iron man, I got no right to go on living, after doing what I done.’ I remember him saying that over and over.. See, to him, there was no one like her, and he had done killed the only thing he ever really cared about in life, and he didn’t want to live any more. So me, after I got off my work, and I went and bought some real, nice flowers, real pretty ones, and took them and put them where her grave was. Her family was there, standing around, grieving.t”
Mike waited in silence, hoping to remember it all.
“So they transferred him to the main prison out here. One time, up in his cell on Death Row, I saw him sitting on top of the bed with those red trunks on that he used to box in. He just sat up there in those trunks. He didn’t say much. On the day he went to the Gas Chamber to get killed, he had dressed himself up in that fancy robe he wore in the ring for his fights. It was a big, loud red color with white trimmings.
“The day of his execution, he got dressed in his red trunks and that fancy robe, and as went to go down the walk to the Gas Chamber, old Blackjack, he threw punches all the way there, jabs and hooks, jabs and hooks until they strapped him down and closed the door and he lay quiet.”
Mike could feel the weight of iron Man’s sorrow even though he could barely see him in the thickening dusk.
“When was this?” Mike asked.
Iron man took thought. "It was five years ago. Doesn’t seem that long. Yup; five years. Seems just like yesterday, five years. Yessir.”
A group of colorfully dressed golfers went past, talking loudly. The hotel had turned on the lights of the golf course. People could be seen up in the dining room, eating and drinking. Lewis just stood staring out at nothing, remembering.
“Was that the last time you saw him?” Mike asked.
“Was that the last time you saw your friend?”
“Uh huh. The very last time. Uh huh. Yessir.”
They talked a bit, and then parted. Iron Man was off to Phoenix to party. Mike went to his little room on the motel off the main hotel building. He went in and sat down on the bed, trying to imagine a man throwing punches as he entered the Gas Chamber. Blackjack had met death with no recoil, no shrinking, and no hesitation. Acting bravely in the face of fear -- that was courage.
The reporter always carried a picture of his wife in his bag, and when he arrived there, he had unpacked it and put it atop his nightstand. He looked at the picture every morning as he got up to get dressed. Now, settled in bed, his jeans still on, his back against the headboard, he thought of all the precious things he and his wife had shared: the thoughtfulness, the consideration and respect, the thrilling sex, the wonder of their little boy – all the treasured delights of a close and caring marriage.
When their little boy died, Summerbee and his wife had felt the deep grief we all feel at the loss of a friend or a child or even a pet -- that terrible sorrow that comes from the knowledge that in every bond and attachment, there is something that no words can express, something which is peculiar only to that attachment, and the loss of which is irreparable.
He gazed at the photo for a long time until he felt his heart starting to fill. When he got back home, he and his wife would go and place fresh flowers on their son’s grave. To honor him. To remember. And then he reached for the phone to dial her.
“Wisdom of the serpent, cunning of the dove,” murmured the fat man to his companion.
The fat man and the tall man approached the checkpoint cautiously, their hands empty and clearly in sight. It was hot and humid on the colony of Cygnus III, with the cicadas echoing loudly on either side of the trail through the thick woods, and the clothes they wore didn’t help. Dark, old fashioned suits, with white shirts that were soaked through around the collar and armpits. The thin man carried a leather rucksack, not bothering to wipe at the sheen of sweat that trickled down his forehead. It did not seem like the heat or the burden bothered him though, even though his dark hair was matted down with perspiration.
His companion wiped at his broad face every few seconds with a cloth that wicked the sweat away quickly, a modern convenience in contrast to the anachronistic clothing they wore. He was a head shorter than his companion, and walked with an odd waddle. The few strands of greased hair he had combed over his bald head were wildly askew, and he was pink, flushed, and in obvious distress while his companion’s narrow tanned face was composed and calm.
The guards at the checkpoint weren’t quite sure how to respond to this. One pointed his rifle at the two men while the other one looked askance at his companion’s reaction. “Relax,” he told the other guard. They were obviously local militia, with no conformity to the kit they wore, unlike true Janissaries. Both were old enough to have gone through Reserve Training, but if they had, it was showing poorly as they confronted the two travelers.
The fat man gave a broad smile, spreading his hands ingratiatingly. “Now fellahs,” he said in a homey, inviting drawl, “no need to put your shooters on ol’ Jonesy. We’re just looking to get out of this heat and trying to find a tech that knows how to work on an honest to goodness auto-mo-bile.”
“An automobile?” the one guard who had originally pointed his rifle at Jonesy snickered, looking
even younger, “What are you two doing all the way out here without a floater?” he asked.
Jonesy only smiled broader. “Spreading the Gospel, of course, ain’t that right Jackson?” Jonesy asked, nudging Jackson, who nodded and spoke up.
“We’ve been walking for about a day now, and you’re the first sign of civilization we’ve seen. We were looking for a town around here that might have a tech, or at least a satellite link so we could call our mission for help,” said Jackson. He did not have Jonesy’s folksy inflection, but instead spoke precisely to the point.
The younger guard spoke up. “We’re not much for other religion, but Henry’s Repair might be able to do your car well,” he said, not catching the glare from the other guard, who spoke up quickly.
“Ryan doesn’t know that Henry might be out of town, so I don’t know if you’re going to have much luck over in Whitebark,” he explained.
“Sam, what are you…” Ryan began, cutting himself off when Sam openly glared at him.
“Whitebark!” effused Jonesy. “That was the town! They’ve gotta have some sort of communications relay there.”
Sam gave a small shrug. “You’d think so, but the communications network is really tricky around this time of year with all the solar activity around Cygnus. You might be better off walking another day down to Peach. They’ve got a much better set up for you.”
Jonesy seemed to think this over. “I would son, I really would, but I’m a fat old man with two shoes full of blisters. I take it you two fine young men are from Whitebark?” he asked.
He received a pair of nods in return, and then asked another question. “So, may I ask, what are you two gentlemen doing out here with rifles on a checkpoint?”
“We’ve had some problems with bandits and the like out here. This isn’t the core like you might be used to. Lots of bad folks up to no good, and the local Old Bloods aren’t exactly what you’d call tamed” Sam told him.
“So you wouldn’t want to see two travelers in distress out here in all this danger. Two unarmed travelers, at that,” said Jonesy.
This caught Sam off guard, and now it was Ryan’s turn to glower at him. It was quiet for a moment, as Jonesy smiled expectantly at Sam, who seemed to be having some sort of internal dialogue with himself. “I’m going to need to search your bag,” said Sam.
Jackson unslung the rugged tote and passed it over to Sam, who unceremoniously dumped its contents onto the ground. The items made a cacophony as they were spread out with Sam’s foot. It wasn’t much to look at – some metal water containers, a few mechanical parts, some survival rations, and a Bible. Neither of the guards noticed the jump in Jackson’s jaw as Sam’s foot touched the Bible. “What’s this?” asked Sam, pointing out the machinery which consisted of a metal frame, a thin barrel, and a tube.
“Its whatever broke on our auto-mo-bile,” Jonesy explained, pronouncing the word with the same bumpkin emphasis on each syllable.
“I thought you said you didn’t have communications?” said Ryan suddenly, pushing aside one of the water cans and picking up a compact satellite communicator.
“Try turning it on,” suggested Jonesy, and Ryan attempted to, only to find it wouldn’t operate. “It’s been bricked, I’m afraid. Probably make a nice paperweight.”
The boys shrugged, and stepped back, leaving Jackson to pack up their spilled gear. He did so quickly and efficiently, and the two stepped aside to let them pass. “Whitebark is another mile or so down the road. Because of the bandits, we don’t usually let strangers in,” said Sam.
“We appreciate the exception,” said Jonesy with apparent sincerity. “You boys try to stay cool now.”
“Oh, we will,” Ryan said, and received a smile from Jonesy that didn’t quite reach the fat man’s eyes. The two men were silent, with none of the chatter that might have been expected from two self-proclaimed itinerant preachers. The sentries who spied on them from the woodline chalked up their reticence to the oppressive heat.
Whitebark’s pre-fabricated, twenty meter high ferrocrete walls shimmered as the heat came off it in waves, and the guards not visible until the travelers were within a stone’s throw of the town. The militia had taken refuge in the dimness of the sallyport, and the two approaching could feel the cold air coming from the environmental control systems buffeting them.
“Howdy,” said Jonesy to the men, who looked up sullenly. There was some uniformity to their kit, each one wearing decommissioned, older styles of Janissary battle armor that had been repainted white. Dried corn cobs were strung over the entrance alongside carved charms made out of what seemed to be bone. “We’re-“
“Traveling preachers looking for a tech,” said one man, standing up to approach the two. He was not quite as tall as Jackson, but fit. “So we heard from the boys down the way.”
“That’d be right,” said Jonesy. His eyes alit on the three chevrons on the man’s three chevrons over the right chest plate, “Sergeant,” he added quickly.
“Well, that’s fine and well. But we’ve got some rules here in Whitebark that you boys from the Core might not be cognizant of, since we’re just a bunch of rustics,” said the sergeant. Jonesy’s eyebrows went up, but he waited for the other man to continue. “This is a religious community, so in the spirit of fraternity we’ll let you in.”
“Well that’s much appreciated –“ Jonesy began before he was cut off again by the sergeant.
“Let me finish. We came out here to live how we want to. Everyone here is here because they want to be here, and we don’t want to be bothered by all that mess out there,” said the man, waving a hand disdainfully at the way they had come in. “Mind your business, and we’ll mind ours.”
“I got no problems with that,” said Jonesy agreeably.
“Neither do I,” said Jackson.
“You don’t stink like talking snakes or squid heads, so you’re probably telling the truth,” said the man, stepping to one side. “Henry is probably your best bet, but there’s a few others who can do the job for you as well.”
“Much obliged,” said Jonesy, stepping past the sergeant with Jackson in tow. The guards watched them pass, thoughtful, but then shrugged and went back to their idle chatter. Jonesy stopped after they had started, and pointed at the hanging decoration. “And that would be?” he asked.
The other three men stared at each other, surprised, while the sergeant spoke up slowly. “Its because its Reaping Day. One of those things we like to keep to ourselves about,” he said, his stare a challenge directed at Jonesy.
“Well then,” said Jonesy pleasantly, turning away, “I wish you a happy Reaping Day.” The sergeant looked as if he wanted to say something to Jonesy’s back as the two men walked into the village, but held his tongue.
Jonesy and Jackson surreptiously looked around, not focusing on anything in particular. They saw what looked like a typical colony spread, with modular crates being used as the basis of building construction. Here and there someone had taken the time to make a dwelling out of lumber, but for the most part the buildings were the same uniform blocks, painted various colors. More of the charms that decorated the front gate were strung over the major thoroughfare. Some were tiny, but others were larger, their designs more abstract and ostentatious.
“I think we’re in,” murmured Jackson. “As far as I can tell, we’re not being watched anymore.”
“Then we’re not being watched, at least beyond a passive level,” responded Jonesy in the same low tone. “I doubt there’s anyone who could evade your training.”
Jackson allowed himself a small smile at the complement, and then his face went back to its studiously blank façade, studying everything around him. The people seemed healthy, if a bit on the sallow side, and all were humans. As he had been briefed, there were no aliens present here, but otherwise it seemed like the activity was normal for a settlement on a growing colony world. The centerpiece of the town seemed to be the church at the center, with the long steeple rising to the sky. There was no ornamentation at the top, though.
The two made their way to Henry’s and several other techs, each one declaring that they were the cheapest in town and that it being so late in the day, they wouldn’t be able to get to it until tomorrow. That was fine with the men, but their questions about lodging were met with disdain. “We don’t see enough visitors,” was the common response.
“It’s a viable answer. They are indeed off the beaten path,” said Jackson.
“Oh, I’m not suspicious about it,” remarked Jonesy, “In fact it makes more sense than if they did indeed have a hostel. If there was some hospitality industry here, I’d find it disquieting in light of the other things we know.” Jonesy had lost the broad drawl he greeted the townsfolk with, and now it was the precise diction of an educated man.
“Around the back, they’ve let the foliage grow close the wall. We can go up and over there,” Jackson said.
“Do we have enough time to go back through the checkpoint and cut through the forest cross country?” asked Jonesy.
Jackson looked askance at Jonesy. “I know you can move quickly when needs be,” he said, the corners of his mouth edging upwards minimally.
“Well, one of us has sufficient faith,” grumbled Jonesy.
The two approached the sallyport again, and the sergeant didn't bother to stand up as they approached. “Found what you needed?” he asked Jonesy.
“Indeed we did, thank yah kindly,” said Jonesy, his inflection rustic once again.
“You don't need to walk all the way back to your vehicle, or stay the night in the forest. I have a maiden aunt that would take in lodgers like yourself, if need be,” the sergeant offered.
“No, no,” said Jonesy, shaking his head. “I'm afraid we can't stay the night under the same roof as an unchaperoned woman.”
“She's almost sixty, and while she's a spry sixty, I don't see her having any problems with the two of you staying,” the sergeant insisted.
“Again, I have to beg your pardon. I believe the fine boys you have at the checkpoint warned us of bandits, and we should be going back to our vehicle,” said Jonesy. Jackson shifted his stance, left foot forward, right foot back, and seemed to adjust the load on his back.
It seemed like the sergeant was going to argue further, but then settled back down. “As you'll have it,” he said, resuming his conversation with another guard. The two walked past without incident, silent as they walked back down the road towards the checkpoint.
“You find what you needed?” asked Sam of the duo.
“Indeed we did boys, indeed we did. We'll probably meet them on the walk back tomorrow. Hopefully they don't party too hard on Reaping Day,” remarked Jonesy.
“Oh, its more feasting we're concerned with then,” said Sam, and then paled as if he had let something slip.
Jonesy did not remark on it. “Well then, enjoy yourselves boys. Until we see you again.”
“Of course,” said Sam, and the two young guards waved at their backs. The men did not see the hard looks that were given as they walked away.
“Five sentries, three in the trees, two in the bushes on the way in and out. Two were asleep when we went in, three when we left,” murmured Jackson, once they were around the first bend.
“I only counted the three awake,” responded Jonesy with some self-depreciation.
“Your talents lie in other areas, Your Reverence,” Jackson told him.
Jonesy waved a broad hand. “I was not always old and fat, and do not need the honorifics to balm my pride,” he said, and then changed the subject. “Do you think we would have been taken by 'bandits' later today?”
“Oh, without a doubt. I say we get off the road now and begin to double back,” Jackson said.
The two angled off the road sharply, and began to cut through the woods. The undergrowth was thick, but not unpassable. Jackson moved like a wraith, his boots leaving no sign on the loamy ground, and slid easily through branches and thickets. For all his derision of being old and fat, Jonesy moved quietly and quickly for a man of his stature, with Jackson clearing the trail for him and smudging whatever sign the older man left behind.
While they moved at a steady pace, the two men were still cautious and alert. While neither had been impressed by the resistance that they had seen so far, it would not do for a hue and cry to be raised just yet. The only incident was when one of the tree based sentries had let himself down to relieve himself, facing a heavy brush line as he groaned with obvious pleasure.
Jackson raised an eyebrow to Jonesy, who nodded his dispensation. The sentry did not hear Jackson creep behind him, whisper quiet, and he froze in surprise as Jackson's arm snaked around his neck. There was only the briefest of struggles as Jackson cut the carotid arteries off in seconds, the feeble struggles of the sentry of no consequence to one trained in the Catacombs as he had been.
Jackson shushed him softly as he brought the unconscious form to the ground, the carotid lock still in place. His legs came up and around the man as they went supine, and locked at the ankles. He began to stretch his body, and broke the man's neck after a moment with a sound akin to snapping a fresh twig. The stench of the sentry emptying his bowels was confirmation enough for Jackson to loosen his hold, and he felt for a pulse and any signs of respiration. There were none, and the tall man hefted the body easily, even kitted out as it was in light battle armor.
Careful as he walked back to the tree to not leave any disturbance, Jackson arranged the man to make it look as if he had fallen out of his post and snapped his neck. He also saw that the man had left his rifle laying against the tree, and shook his head at the poor discipline. Jackson took stock of the weapon, did not note it as anything other than a basic assault rifle, and then kicked it way from the tree to add to the illusion of a fatal fall.
“Apologies. You deserved a better companion,” he said to the rifle, and then lightly patted the dead man's face. “And you died poorly in service to falsehood. The Reaper will judge accordingly.”
The deception complete, Jackson ghosted back to where Jonesy waited, and the two continued onwards silently. Only once did they stop, when in view of the road, and saw an open backed truck with militamen go roaring down the road. “Our bandits,” murmured Jonesy, when they had passed. Jackson shook his head once, amused, and they continued their stalk.
By the time they arrived at the back of the outpost, the sun was low, but not quite near the horizon. The trees did not have easy purchases within reach, so Jackson handed off the backpack to Jonesy, and gave himself some space for a running start. A short sprint, and Jackson leapt towards the wall, taking two steps upward before pushing off it and finding purchase on the tree. Another two steps, and he leaped upwards, his strong grip wrapped around a stout branch. Jackson flipped himself upside down, hanging by his legs, and opened his hands. Jonesy tossed up the backpack, and Jackson hung it off a nearby branch.
Jonesy leapt upwards, with Jackson catching him by his forearms. With some straining, he began to rock back and forth, until he built up enough momentum to launch Jonesy at a nearby tree. The older man caught a branch at chest height with a soft oomph, and struggled for a moment before getting on top of the limb. Jackson reached up, and pulled himself onto the branch. Once settled, he looked around for any sign they had been detected, recovered the backpack, and then leapt to join Jonesy on his tree.
Hidden by the brush, they could see over the walls of the settlement into the town proper. There were more reaping charms being strung, and large tables being set up around the church. It was Jackson who broke the silence. “Why not just smash this place flat if we knew what was going on here?” he asked Jonesy.
“If Pius' Boys were running this operation, that is likely what we would be doing. But we did not know, without a shadow of a doubt, what was going on here. To be honest, we still don't. Even as odd as things seem, there is an innocuous explanation for everything we have seen so far. We do not know how deep the cancer spreads, as well. For all we know the planetary governor knows and approves of this. There are many questions to be answered, and we will find more answers from the living word than by sifting through the ashes,” murmured Jonesy.
“True enough,” agreed Jackson, and he took off his rucksack to find the random parts that Jonesy had claimed were simply junked machinery. It had passed casual inspection from the guards and one of the techs, but in seconds Jackson had assembled a small and accurate pistol. Reaching down his pants and feeling along his leg, the thin man located the thin magazine that he had stored in a grafted skin pocket that would have been concealed from all but the most in-depth searches.
“Now though, let us see if we can find the answers we need,” said Jonesy as Jackson slid the pistol into the small of his back.
From one of the backpack's straps, Jackson pulled from the hidden catch a pliable rope that had been folded over many times. Winding it around the trunk of the tree, he tied a curious knot around it and fed it over the side of the wall. “Always pull right on the rope,” he directed Jonesy, and scaled down the parapet quickly. Jonesy followed, cursing under his breath as he singed his hands at his descent.
Jackson gave the rope a hard tug to the left, and the knot unfolded neatly, with Jackson coiling it before he tucked it back into the knapsack. Most of alertness from the community that the duo had seen earlier was gone, with all the activity focused on the spectacle taking place later that night. The two men had been trained for stealth, and while Jackson was obviously at ease in infiltration, Jonesy continued to demonstrate surprising grace for his heft.
He was the one who sharply tugged on Jackson's sleeve, pointing out with a nod the manacled table that several villagers were wheeling out. Jackson raised his eyebrow and mimed a phone with his hand. Jonesy shook his head, and nodded to the outbuilding near the church. Jackson looked thoughtfu for a moment, and then his hands moved in a rapid and intrinsic cant. I assume the church would be too guarded then? And that table is not evidence enough for you?
Jonesy responded in the same cant. Sexual perversion is common enough, especially on these backwater worlds. If we are going to smash this place flat, I want to be secure in my convictions that it was not simply a matter for an Inquisitor and his retinue, or the civil authorities for that matter.
Jackson nodded, agreeing with the wisdom of Jonesy's temperance, and the two waited for their opportunity, hiding to the shadows and making their way to the indicated building. There were no windows, but the door had been left open for the convenience of the porters. Unwatched, they entered quickly, and looked around. There were more tables like the type they had seen being carted out, and objects for butchering hung up on the walls. More disturbing was the locked steel bar door over a staircase down.
“Down?” asked Jackson.
“Indeed,” said Jonesy, and opened his hand towards Jackson, which surprised the other man. Reaching into his pocket, he handed Jonesy what looked like a bit of loose wire and a rod, which Jonesy quickly turned into a pair of lock picking tools.
“Seminary is not always about following the rules,” murmured Jonesy to Jackson's amused expression. It seemed like the talent had not left the older man, as the lock came undone in short order.
“I couldn't have done better,” said an impressed Jackson. He took up guard behind the door, killing the single light in the room. From his other pocket, he unfolded a knife, and held it in his left hand.
Security taken care of, Jonesy descended the stairs. The first thing that hit him immediately was the smell. The stench of human refuse was not a new one to him; he had made many Missions to more than one slum, and was used to it. The silence was curious though, and when he reached the bottom of the stairs it only became more curious.
Many bodies were crammed into several stalls, with locked doors securing each one. Most were human, but there were a few Illurians present as well. All were filthy, with overflowing honeybuckets in each cell. None were old, though there were more than a few children present. They stared at Jonesy sullenly, thinking him another of their captors, and the man kept quiet. Some though moved forward, reaching out pleading hands to him. Jonesy took them, and held out a palm in benevolence. “I'm not one of them,” he told the young woman who gripped his hand as if her life depended on it. “I'm here to rescue you all.”
The effect was immediate, with all the captives rushing forward, mouthing words at him but making no noise other than a dull croaking sound. One look at their necks told Jonesy what had been done to them. “They cut your vocal cords like pigs,” he murmured.
One thump, followed by surprised voices, came from above. Shortly thereafter screams of pain and surprise echoed down the stairs, each cut short suddenly. “I will return. I swear it by God,” Jonesy promised him.
Racing up the stairs, he walked into a abattoir, with Jackson working one of the larger cleavers out of a man's head. “Found what you needed?” he asked. His eyes glinted orange in the dim illumination cast by the overhead light, genetic modifications allowing him to see in the dark.
“In spades. You deal with the bodies, I'll call,” Jonesy said. Jackson tossed the rucksack to Jonesy, who opened it and found the bricked phone. Pressing the back and sliding it upwards, he revealed a secret catch as Jackson hurled the bodies down the stairwell with little fanfare. There was nothing he could do about the gore on the walls, ceiling, and floor, but it would buy them some time.
The catch lifted up, with three buttons revealed. Pressing a five digit combo, the device came to life, the screen declaring SHROUD ACTIVE, followed by OVERRIDE SUCCESSFUL, and finally SIGNAL DELIVERED. It went blue for a moment before coming to life again. RECEIVED and EN ROUTE were the final two messages before Jonesy slid it into his pocket.
“Your Reverence?” asked Jackson, returning to the comfort of titles and hierarchy now that the need for secrecy was obliterated.
“They had a communications shroud located here, as we suspected. I am glad we are coming in force,” Jonesy murmured, standing up and moving to join Jackson, and the two retreated from the carnage of the small room.
“Hey! Who are you?” demanded a woman's voice, and the duo didn't stop their flight. More voices in alarm came from behind them.
“Bunker down?” asked Jonesy, huffing slightly.
“Did they say how long they would be?” asked Jackson, who stopped to kneel and pull two of the metallic water containers from the knapsack.
“No, but I assume they'll be quick, coming from orbit,” said Jonesy.
Jackson shook his head as he mixed the two containers, removing the top from one to reveal a slight green depression instead of a lid. “Not good enough. We keep moving, but first...” he paused, and then turned to hurl the container towards the loudest congregation of voices after pressing the button.
The impromptu explosive bounced off the head of one of the townspeople, and landed on the ground. All heads turned to where it had come from, leaving it to lay on the dirt. They did not hear the slight whine of an electrical charge being delivered before the explosion blossomed into life in their midst, killing twenty of them instantly and wounding many more.
“'Human lives are like grain stalks before the Scythe,'” quoted Jackson, shouldering the backpack again just as some of the militiamen came around the corner. They opened fire as Jackson grabbed Jonesy and yanked him behind a corner, bullets impacting into the fabricated building. The tall man took a knee and returned fire, presenting a small target as he returned fire at the men in the open. His rounds drilled through their body armor, and two of the men fell while the others ducked behind a corner and resumed firing at their last position.
“Shame they never stay still when you shoot,” murmured Jackson. He turned as another group of militiamen came around the corner, not seeing the two men as they ran hell for leather past. Jackson braced his arm and shot center mass, dropping the men from back to front while he moved forward. The pistol's slide racked back as it emptied, but Jackson's knife was in his hand, and he made short work of the fallen humans, driving it into eyes and behind ears.
He tucked the pistol and knife away before picking up one of the rifles, a sleek, surplus assault rifle of vintage variety with a folding stock, checking it over with an expert's eye before opening the bolt. No round was in the chamber, and Jackson tsked quietly before arming the weapon. He fired a short burst into the building next to him, and waited.
The two men of the initial squad that had fired on him came running around the corner, aiming their rifles at Jonesy and screaming at him to get on the ground. Jackson dispatched them efficiently, dropping them with two rounds center mass and one in the head as they rolled on the ground. He reached down to the corpses below him and took two rifle magazines, tucking them into his pockets.
“You know your craft,” said Jonesy, visibly impressed.
“What I do is as much a sacrament as anything you do,” responded Jackson, and the two men turned as they heard a voice shout “Over here! They're over here!”
“Time to go,” said Jonesy, and the two men ran, shouts and wild shots chasing them as they ran.
Their path dead ended in an alley, and Jackson took a knee behind the corner as Jonesy stood back. “Sounds like they're ordered to take us alive,” said Jonesy, as Jackson returned fire against the approaching mob.
“I plan on taking that option from them,” Jackson responded. The villagers had sent their children forward as a human shield, thinking that the shooter would hesitate. He did not, gut shooting each child and then firing on the enemy troopers behind them, too shocked to return fire. The mournful wails of women came from the crowd behind them.
However the press continued, even as Jackson fed both magazines through the rifle. He reversed his grip on the weapon, preparing to use it as a club as the two men retreated to the back of the alley. Under his breath, he began humming a classical tune, causing Jonesy's eyes to go wide as he recognized the song and seriousness of their situation.
The angry mob, having swelled in spite of Jackson's assault, hung around the mouth of the alley. Various cries, both mournful and furious, came from the crowd, along with curses directed at them. A trio of older women stepped forward, looking hatefully at the two men.
“You came into our community feigning friendship, and this is how you repay it?” demanded a tall woman, thin with a long, gray braid.
Jonesy stepped forward. “You know what you have done here. Not only have you betrayed the Empire, but you have betrayed God as well, and now you complain that His judgment has found you?” he thundered, his eyes blazing. “Those of you that have died already have been given a mercy, I promise you.”
This brought laughter from the crowd, and more mockery. Even the three speakers for the crowd found this amusing. “We will see, when we harvest the organs from your living body for the Star Mothers, how you feel about our judgment,” she said.
Jonesy pointed one thick finger above their heads. “'And the stars in the sky fell to the earth, as figs drop from a fig tree in a strong wind,” he quoted. Some turned, and their murmuring made more look as the stars did seem to drop from the sky, bringing with it a breeze that grew quickly, and with the breeze a low whine.
One of the more experienced militiamen realized too late what was happening and screamed out “Just kill them!” seconds before the whine became a hellish screech, and a minigun ripped through the crowd, mowing down the mob like weeds before the blade. Those that survived the first pass stampeded away from the mouth of the alley, too dumb with anything but animal panic to do anything but flee from the sudden appearance of the vertiblade that hovered above them.
A large central rotor was supported by two wings with internal turbines, easily keeping the sleek craft airborne. On its side was emblazoned a pair of crossed keys, and a two ropes fell to the earth from the hundred feet or so where it hovered.
Down came a foursome of soldiery, encased in black powered armored that did not show any flesh and totally enclosed its wearers. Each had intricate dash and dot script highlighted on the armor, seemingly tracing out a skeleton on its wearers. The helmets of the armor formed an idealized face of surpassing handsomeness, and each was armed with a straight blade on their hip. As the soldiers hit the ground, they unslung compact rifles, and waited for a large box to be lowered, hefting it easily as the quartet moved forward towards the two men.
Then, as one, they took a knee before Jackson. “Scythe, we await you to join us once more,” said a man with a white line drawn around the gorget of his armor.
“Brothers,” Jackson responded, and opened the box that had been brought to him. In it was powered armor of the same make that the men in front of him wore, and his brothers helped him into it. Gloves and greaves, boots and breastplate – the powered armor opened at a touch like a blossoming flower and then sealed itself tightly around his body. The last was the intricately crafted helmet, its face an example of Renaissance masculinity. The entire ensemble sealed shut with a pneumatic hiss as it locked itself together and became one complete unit. It would not be fitting for a Harvester Suicide Commando to go into battle with his brethern unarmored. From the box he withdrew a rifle and his mark of rank, a large scimitar blade.
The man who had addressed Jackson turned to Jonesy. “Your Reverence, your superior wishes us to escort you to orbit. Archbishop Martinez passes on his regards for what he assumes is a job well done,” said the man.
“He might wish one thing, but I wish to stay and watch this battle play out,” Jonesy responded.
The Harvester sighed, but seemed amused, and waved to the sky. The vertiblade that had been circling in overwatch hovered over them once again, tossing down a bundle to the group. “He expected you would say that, and says that even a former Jesuit should not minister looking like a Protestant,” said the Harvester.
“He would say that,” said Jonesy, taking the bundle and opening it while Jackson patched into the communications net and listened to the assault. “Update me with what we know now, Sparrow,” demanded Jackson from the white collared Harvester.
“Scythe, we were hesitant to scan this area before you gave the word, and the presence of the shroud proved the wisdom of that decision. However, the ground penetrating radar shows a number of subterranean complexes underneath this settlement, and with the information you sent...” the Sparrow trailed off.
“Naith. Lots of Naith. I'm glad we came in force,” said Jackson.
“We were once tolerant of heresy and blasphemy. No longer,” said Jonesy. He wore the cassock, high boots, and Roman collar of a priest of the Catholic Church, with a purple sash to indicate his rank.
“Monsignor Jones,” said the Sparrow respectfully, “the Harvester Order of Saint Michael greets our brother in the ecclesiastical faith.”
“The Roman Catholic Church returns the greetings,” said Monsignor Jones, obviously comfortable to be dressed once more in his priestly garb.
“Around the corner is the front gate. The Old Blooded support is almost through,” said one of the other Harvesters. Anti aircraft fire was beginning to spit upwards from the settlement at the strafing vertiblades, the glow of shields lighting up occasionally.
“Well let us go greet our brothers in Christ, but first, there is a shed next to the church structure with prisoners locked beneath it. Please direct a squad to go rescue them,” said Jonesy, and the group stalked around the corner, the Sparrow and Jackson in the lead, with the others forming a protective circle around Jones. Jackson relayed Jones' orders to the vertiblades above, and Jones was pleased to see a ropes begin to fall from the aircraft, and a squad deploying itself.
Those that crossed their path, armed or unarmed, they shot as they made their way towards the front gate. It was buckling now, every few seconds a heavy blow driving it inwards a few more inches while panicked militiamen waited for what was coming through. They never did see it, as the Harvester squad cut them down in short order. Jackson entered the radio net and said “The guards outside the gate are down. Stoneskulls, you have friendlies outside the gate,” said Jackson as the squad took cover behind buildings.
Finally it exploded inwards, and a Stoneskull bounded through. The pachycephalosaurus was heavily armed and armored, with laser cannons on each side of its torso and a light machine gun on each arm. Its belly and dorsal ridge was armored, with a microreactor and its own body heat powering weapon systems and the battle chasis itself. Over its dome was a helmet that added extra position, with lowered visors covering each eye. On its chest, declaring its allegiance, was a gilded cross.
“YOUR REVERENCE!” the Stoneskull boomed, opening fire on a group of cultists that had decided to challenge the first old blood who came through. More Stoneskulls came through the gate, and with them a number of black armored troopers, the Fidelis Militant Crusaders of the Catholic Church, each one baring the Crossed Keys of St. Peter on one shoulder, and their unit crests on the other.
Jones sighed with pleasure as he saw the heraldry displayed, old and powerful organizations that were as feared as they had been back when Christianity in Europe had to fight for its very existence. Behind the Stoneskulls were Mother's Church answer to the Assault Janissaries, the Sword Brothers. Their massive, full body shields displayed the mark of their order, the Templar cross with a sword above it. Each man was of massive stature, with two files of Crusaders marching shoulder to shoulder and stomping towards the first redoubt of the Whitebark cultists, ominous as a thunderstorm. Even the Illurian males among their number were massive for the race, and the fur of the sole Bhae Chaw who marched in the front rank was gray. Heavily armored behind their body shields, the Crusaders all carried what looked like an oversized revolver, but in reality was a high powered, compact shotgun.
“Ein! Zwei! Ein! Zwei!” roared the sergeant at the end of the squad, calling cadence while the rounds from the cultists ricocheted off their composite shields. The sergeant barked another order once they were ten yards from the increasingly panicked cultists, the shotguns came from around the Sword Brothers' defenses and let loose a storm of steel that shredded through the defenders. Two more shots followed, and then the front rank parted, allowing the second rank to charge through. They had dropped their shields, face up, and carried their shotgun-pistols in one hand and a large chopping blade in the other. Bursting through the pathetic barricade, they began to butcher the defenders while the first squad ran forward and provided coverage.
Behind the Sword Brothers came Crusaders carrying heavy weapons – machine guns teams, flame throwers, and grenadiers. They were the Templars of old, and they were the heavy weapon support of the Fideli Militant. They fanned out behind the Sword Brothers, while others cleared the buildings behind the squads of Sword Brothers and set up choke points.
Moving with the Templars were Crusaders armed with assault rifles and moving quickly, forming files before raiding larger buildings, providing bases of fire and engaging the defenders of Whitebark in urban assault. The white four pointed star on their shoulder proclaimed them as Hospitallers, and they were the Crusaders' light infantry capability.
One of the Hospitallers carrying a case dropped to a knee behind a building, opening it up and withdrawing a compact drone and a control unit, turning it on, he spun three times and then hurled it into the air like a discus. It came to life and went on auto pilot for a minute, while the drone operator brought his control unit to life and began recording footage of the fighting.
“Patch that directly into me and my troops,” ordered Jackson.
“As you will, Sir,” said the Crusader, and did as he was commanded. In each of the Harvester's heads up displays, a small live video feed appeared of what the drone was seeing. It joined other information such as a map of the area with known enemy locations, as well as the locations of allied forces and which radio channel they were using.
Jones walked to the operator, peering over his shoulder. A crashing from the gate caused him to glance over, and he smiled as a large Spineback trundled through, the female stegosaurus cursing fluently as she forced the gates open further. Heavily armored like the Stoneskulls, each individual spine was also a shield generator, providing an amazing amount of protection to nearby troops. Slung over each hip were electromagnetic mortars, which it carried easily due to its odd posture.
“What do we have here?” asked Jones, and the crusader didn't look up as he talked.
“We're driving them towards the center,” said the Crusader, looking up and then hastily adding “Your Reverence” at the end of it.
“Well done, well done,” said Jones, patting the Janissary's shoulder and walking towards the Spineback. “Lady Nettle, I'm glad to see you made it to this battle,” Jonesy said.
“Who else is going to keep you alive, Jones? The Harvesters are about killing, not protection,” she said, fluttering the spines along her back.”
Jones smiled, and placed a hand in blessing on her armored head. “Oh, they did a fine job so far,” he protested.
There was a sudden roar, and then a missile exploded against her shields, causing Jones to flinch as the warhead's fire flickered out. “See what I mean?!” she asked as the two galloped for the shelter of a building. As more crusaders filtered in, they began to work around the edges of the circular settlement, cutting off retreat and forcing the inhabitants inward. A flying vehicle attempted an escape, and was brought down in short order by a Janissary with a rocket grenade. The wreck crashed into the wall, sending a thick column of smoke skywards.
“Naith spotted!” shouted the drone operator, and Jones head back over to him. The green skinned aliens had taken up positions shoulder to shoulder with the human cultists, their faces mostly covered by the respirators that pumped high amounts of nitrogen gas they favored. Their oblong skulls only made them more recognizable, along with the bow shaped needlecasters they favored as basic infantry weapons, pouring out large amounts of crystalline shards.
Behind them, striking the Naith soldiers and humans across the shoulder, was a Naith Matriarch, much taller than the males and with a more human proportioned head. She was heavily armored, and shouted something in her alien tongue.
“The Star Mother herself, I'm sure,” said Jones, and then called over to the Harvesters. “Gentlemen, I will need her alive, if you could?” he asked of them.
“As you will,” said Jackson, and a glow came from dual vents over his shoulder blades. On each was painted a winged icon, and the other Harvesters followed suit. “Upwards!” shouted Jones, and the powerful jump jets in the armor roared to life, placing them on top of the blocky buildings. At the same time the tune Jackson had been humming earlier, Canon in D, burst into life from their armor. It was the battle song of the Harvester Cult, and as it played they ran from rooftop to rooftop, and out of sight of Jones.
He continued to watch the drone's camera, with Nettle stepping away and heavy thumps coming from her mortars as the vertiblades pushed out to the edges of the settlement, and explosions loud enough to shake Jones and the drone operator roared from the interior of Whitebark.
The screen showed that the mortar rounds had dropped near the front rank of the defensive line the Naith and humans had formed, and a few had fallen. The majority were shaken though, from the concussion of the blasts. Jones noticed small grenades fall from above, and the operator jerked the drone up and away, as not to damage the camera as the flashbangs blazed to life. When the Janissary circled his drone back around, he focused on the Harvesters subduing the Matriarch with the flats of their neural blades, each one delivering a debilitating neuromuscular shock to the female naith.
The remaining defenders were cut down in short order by charging crusaders, who had been briefed on the plan via radio by Jackson. Once the Matriarch was down, the Harvesters trussed her arm and leg and handed her off to the Crusaders, the group moving quickly to get her behind their lines. If the male naith learned that she had been taken alive, they would kill themselves trying to get her back.
What naith did attempt a rescue were too frenzied to do much more than get cut down by vertiblade support, and the female naith was quickly hustled through the gate, with the Harvesters peeling off and standing near Jones and Nettle.
“Looks like they're trying to barricade themselves into the church,” Jackson pointed out. Fighters, women, and children were all fleeing into the building.
“Paladin-Commander Oliver isn't giving them the chance to make it a last redoubt,” said Jones, watching as Crusaders and the Stoneskulls began herding groups away from the building, intercepting family units and shooting any resistance where it popped up. Shots came from the building towards the Crusaders, with one falling only to be scooped up by the Stoneskull he stood near and rushed to a waiting medic. A barrage of rocket grenades began to hit the church, with the other Stoneskulls adding their fire to the Crusaders'.
Jackson turned to Jones. “Your Reverence, Paladin-Commander Oliver said that the cultists have surrendered, and he will meet you with Inquisitor Robertson there,” he informed Jones. “As you are the ranking man of faith present, the disposition of the survivors is at your discretion, now that martial matters have been settled.”
“As it should be. If you, your men, and Lady Nettle will accompany me,” Jones said, and then nodded at the drone operator. “Your name?”
“Alistair... Alistair Grace, Your Reverence,” he said, wondering if his breach of protocol from earlier had been noted.
“You have a fine name, and did a fine job. You will be commended,” Jones promised him, and the relief was visible in the Crusader's shoulders.
The Monsignor turned, and without a word the Harvesters and the stegosaurus fell in with him as the group made its way back to the town square. There, the Crusaders were segregating the adults by sex, and peeling the children away from their parents. More than once a Crusader bodily yanked a child of their mother's arms, while her scream was an exclamation among the rough yells that filled the square.
Jones' attention was on the church, and he examined it in detail now that he had the opportunity to do so. The front wall had been blasted out by heavy weapons, but there seemed to a wrongness about the place that went beyond the sacrilege he knew it had hosted. “Father?” he said asked.
The Harvester's Sparrow spoke up. “Your Reverence?”
“Does something seem wrong to you about that structure?” he asked the Harvester priest.
A pause. “Beyond the fact it is a mockery, I thought it was just my own nerves jarring against it. You feel it too?”
Jones nodded. “It reminds me of a time...” he trailed off. “No matter. I don't believe this fight is over yet, but one battle at a time.” Jones walked towards a trio of personages – one in black armor gilded with gold, the other black armor with purple pauldrons, while a Crusader finished up his report.
“...and some wounded, but non seriously so far Sir. There are sporadic firefights in the catacombs below, but they are mostly cleared and the techs are scanning for hidden compartments. The reports I've received from the men are grisly though. The terms 'larder' and 'smokehouse' keep coming up,” said the Crusader.
“More for those to answer for, if His Reverence desires,” said the man in purple. His crozier was attached to his belt, and a thud rifle slung over one shoulder. The Inquisitor's tools of war would allow him to follow the precept of 'spill no blood' in a technical sense. Jones was neutral on the issue – it was a matter of record in the Vatican Archive that Inquisitor Robertson possessed the Charismatic gift of tongues, after all. Disbelievers might call it applied psionics, but they did so quietly around the Inquisitor, if at all.
“You will be busy, Inquisitor,” Jones said, announcing himself. Robertson and Oliver turned, both steepling their hands in greeting. The Crusader with them followed suit as well, and Oliver turned back to him.
“Give my regards to the men on the fine work they've done, Captain. Once this town is secure have them rip it apart for more evidence of the misdeeds here. I want everything documented for our scribes to go over later,” Oliver directed. His hair was a bit of fuzz near the top, and his face was craggy, dominated by a Patrician's nose that had been broken more than once, with a physique that tended towards the wiry.
“I'll summon the archivists from Support now. With your permission,” said the Captain, and he saluted once more before being dismissed.
“A bit of trouble near the end there?” asked Oliver.
“I had faith in Christ, and the good brothers of the Harvester Order,” said Jones with a ghost of a smile.
The three men shared a smile, and Oliver waved a hand at the group of children who were being kept separate by a group of Crusaders. “The adults will be processed shortly, but what would you have us do with the children?”
Jones frowned. “It is a hard decision when dealing with a matter such as this. To take them into our own house risks nestling a serpent at our breast, but on the other hand, the sins of the father are not theirs,” he said, and sighed. “Let me have a look, and I will make my decision shortly,” he said, and glanced at the church again. “Has anyone been into that building?” he asked.
The two men shook their heads. “No, once the prisoners were pulled out, the men seemed glad to be out of there. As far as I know, none have gone back in,” said Oliver. “Passing strange.”
“You feel it too then?” asked Inquisitor Robertson of Jones.
Jones nodded. “As does the Sparrow. He is one of us as well,” said Jones. The Sparrow tilted his head back, and displayed the white line that symbolized his Roman collar.
“I see. Greetings then, brother,” said Robertson, his response polite if perfunctory. Jones had an idea that he knew what the Inquisitor was thinking, and was thankful that the man's tact was overriding any arguments about ecclesiastical points of order between Mother Church and a death cult.
The Sparrow steepled his hands but said nothing, and Jones was grateful yet again before he turned to Jackson. “Can your men detect deception and elicit response?” he asked.
“Yes. You're looking for?” Jackson confirmed.
“I want to know if they're afraid,” Jones said, and stalked towards the group of children, with the Harvesters following. “The FOSsils could have known this, wouldn't they? Shame they're not around, it would have made things easier.”
Jackson caught himself mid step before he stumbled. “Your Reverence is well learned,” was all Jackson would say.
Jones thought to comment at the sudden formality, but he was in front of the children, who had gone from crying and moaning to silence at the appearance of the new authority in front of them. Jones nodded his head fractionally, and the Harvesters stepped forward, each one taking a child's chin in one head. The crying began again, and Jones reached out with one strong hand, forcing the tear filled eyes of the girl child in front of him to look at him. There was real terror there, and that pleased Jones. It meant that there was no attempts to deceive them, and he would not need to kill them. He released the girl, who fell backwards and gasped before wailing.
“Inquisitor!” called Jones, and Robertson was by his side.
“Your Reverence?” he asked.
“Was there a Rite of Initiation, or have you not gotten that far?”
Robertson smiled, but the motion made his lips twist involuntarily due to a ragged scar that started at his ear and curved up to near his eye, and then ended at his chin. “From what I can tell from what questions I have asked, it seemed puberty was when the children were brought into the fold. I will have more information with time,” Robertson promised.
“Very well. Harvesters? Your opinions?” he asked of the black armored men.
“Fear,” was the response he received from the five men.
Jones was pleased. A day he did not need to order men to kill children was always a good one. “My orders are such. Take the children, segregate the ones who look like they may be adolescents. Find out who may have been initiated. The ones who have not...They will need to go to one of our monasteries,” Jones directed.
“Sir, the Harvesters would be willing to foster some as well,” said Jackson.
Jones looked to Robertson, waiting for the expected objection, but was surprised to see the man nodding. “A fine idea,” he said, surprising Jones.
“Very well. The Harvesters will take a fifth of the lot,” confirmed Jones.
“And the others?” asked Robertson.
“Stakes for a third of the men and women. The rest go to the Inquisition. We need to find out how deep this cancer has sunk its roots,” said Jones. He looked over to the church, and shook his head. There was work enough here for him.
“Begin staking out a third of the men and women. Have the men burn that mockery over there. We'll smash the whole thing flat from the air,” said Jones.
“Your Reverence,” said Robertson, saluting Jones and turning, shouting orders to the Crusaders and directing them to begin raising the pyres and lighting incendiaries. Screams rose from the crowd as the first explosions rocked the church, and there was a culling as several rushed forward and were shot for their troubles.
Jones watched the preparation, lost in his thoughts, and only the sound of Jackson's mask retracting into his armor broke his reverie. “Deep thoughts?” asked Jackson.
“Meditating on the nature of evil, and trying to find a reason for it all. The killing, the treachery, the betrayal. I've seen it many times, Harvester, and it never makes sense,” he said as the pyres were set up, and the prisoners realized what they were facing. There were more cries of terror now, and the Crusaders used rifle butts to separate family members as some were dragged off.
“Does it bother you?” asked Jackson. His voice was neutral.
Jones shook his head. “No. The things man does to man do not surprise me. It is God's offer of infinite grace that surprises me, considering what we are,” he said. The first pyres had been lit, and thick black smoke complemented the cries of those being burned. “I've always said, Jackson, that irony is God's humor.”
“And what do you see ironic about this?” asked Jackson, looking over at the screaming, human shaped totems pulsing with flame.
“Remember? This was their Reaping Day. And look what they've harvested,” said Jones.
Jackson cracked a faint smile. He appreciated the dark humor behind it all.
“So!” said Jones briskly, turning from the fires. “Gather your men. We have more work ahead of us,” he told Jackson.
The Harvester nodded. The fat man and the thin man cast long shadows as they walked back into the village to continue their purge.
We see life through the lens of our personalities, its interests, and our passions our gifts of sensibility. We experience life through the lens of rules, guidance and principles. We get a sense of our own character and abilities by observing how others react to what we do. If we turn out well, it is because our parents and elders displayed to us a good example of human beings who are intelligent, honest and upright.
Yet how and what we see is dependent on the depth and subtlety of our intellectual and emotional endowments. No person can see over their own height. If those endowments are severely limited, the conduct and ideals it produces will be severely limited as well. The extent of people’s gifts, their depth and functioning, mean everything. For example, if an individual’s soul contains no warm temperature in it, the chances are that such a soul will turn out to be a heartless human being.
Moral sensitivity is a gift, a gift that should be cultivated and developed. It enables us to detect genuine similarities to what we experience and what we are and what others experience as well. It acts to end isolation, and it lessens conceit. A morally sympathetic person takes the suffering of others to heart, at least to some degree. Another’s pain is your pain. Moral sensitivity demands you sympathize with the suffering of others and try to comfort them in the belief that kindness can work wonders, and it usually does. The novel, To Kill a Mockingbird has one real lesson: that to be decent, you have to place another person’s pain and welfare on a level with your own. You have to walk in another person’s shoes in order to experience what they are experiencing. But you have to have some softness in your soul in order to do this. Above all, the feelings of others have to be real to you in order to sympathize with them.
I was once friends with Terry --, a senior in high school, suffered a green sick fracture his wrist doing Lacrosse. He was all bandaged up when I saw him out in the field, seated, gazing on at the game. He was an extraordinary kid: high scorer, soon to rise to the top of a very large high school class, perceptive and quick-witted. He had a girl friend, Bethany, a blonde, showy, who was always occupied with something, and she took no notice of Terry’s distress. But I saw that when Terry moved, he would wince and make tense, grimacing faces each time he changed his position, so I sat down, talked with him. We liked each other.
Today, he tried to very cordial, but his pain worried me, and a few minutes later, I went up to the girl friend. I told her seems to be in a lot of pain.
She replied with enthusiastic gush, “Pain. Oh, my God. Don’t talk to me about pain! I was cleaning out my garage over the weekend, and I can tell you my pain is bad; it’s killing me. I mean, I guess it’s self inflicted, but my shoulders, my arms, my back – they’re just killing me,” and quite oblivious of my purpose, she continued her elated babble.
After a short while, I returned to Terry. “I’m sorry to be you are hurting.”
“No,” he said. “It’s no big deal.” A pause, and then he learned over a said in a low, resentful voice. “At least not to some people.”
I raised my eyes, and he tossed his head over in his girl’s direction. “I had a really bad day yesterday, and every time I told her I was in a lot pain, she said, ‘Well, you should tell Dr. Sheldon that the next time you see him,’ and then she would rush off somewhere.” Terry was vexed and unhappy.
The afternoon wore on, I came back a couple hours later, and Terry was still there, He told me that he had gone through another couple of hours of really bad pain, and he told her that his wrist as killing him to the degree that he was biting his lips. Seeing that he was worse and expecting some comfort from her, and he again she told her of his pain, and once again, she said, ‘Well, tell Dr Sheldon the next time we see him.’”
He finally had interrupted and asked her angrily. “Is that all you’re going to say? Tell Dr. Sheldon when I see him? When you see me like this, don’t you have any reactions? Don’t you have any ideas?”
“Like what ideas? What do you want me to do?” she challenged, her manner still very defensive and hard boiled. He just stared at her for a moment and said only, “Express some sympathy.”
That girl friend had the makings of a politician.
A heartless human being does not feel the reality of another’s suffering nor can they fully believe in it. When other people express sorrow or sympathy for a tragedy, they heartless believe those things mere pretenses, a form of playacting which the actor does not really feel, but pretends that they do. I once knew a husband who scorned his wife for being lazy when later tests revealed she suffered from a serious disability. That is true heartlessness.
Busybodies and Meddlers
No human being can tolerate being constantly humiliated. All bosses humiliate their employees, who are their subjects. When we get ordered around, our soul slightly tightens in resistance. Commands of others place a sore point, a splinter, a tiny scar in our souls. The more we are bullied, the more splinters our souls accumulate over time.
In any sort of partnership, there may emerge a partner that likes to order, to meddle, to supervise, and who had a compulsion to be a busybody. They put pressure on their partner to do what they do rather than allow them to do things on their own, following their own impulses. Only by doing what the busybody does is any peace to be obtained. Such people worship conformity above all else and they harbor a quiet desire to enslave another.
Such people are insecure and suffer from their own grave deficiencies. Micromanagers put their own pleasure first. Their pleasure consists of arranging things according to their own personal liking, as if their own personal preferences have universal validity. The effect of needless instructions and meddling does nothing but estrange the people being ordered about, yet the busybodies seem oblivious of this. “Why does Adm. Nelson keep signaling?” exclaimed one of Adm. Nelson’s exasperated admirals. “We all know what we are to do.”
The more stable personality grants wide latitude to differences among the people they know. The fact another person has a new or unorthodox approach to doing things should provoke no alarm. Every individual has his or her on way of doing things. It is a gift of their unique and unrepeatable temperament. To create a likeness of yourself by dictating to others is a form of insecure fear. It is jittery and timid. When the difference in method arouses anger or punishment, it means that insecure person has to turn to unpleasantness to enforce his or her pet ideas and methods. The offender is punished by being put at a distance because isolation makes them suffer for their disobedience.
The chief truth is that no one wants to feel subsidiary. Every act that is corrected or overruled deposits a little splinter. Being ordered about by others, make us feel incompetent. The commands of others place us on the defensive. No likes being constantly overruled. Said Lincoln, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” In the “ordered-around,” their sense of grievance constantly builds. The victim develops a hostility to the wrongs done to him deepens until it become implacable. Some tipping point is reached where the enslaved suddenly defaces a book or breaks a dish, simply wanting to be free of al those splinters inflicted on them by another.
Dictators are the supreme busybodies. Nothing escapes their magpie scrutiny. Every act is prescribed.
The Hunger for Power
What kind of person worships power? One of their chief defects is that they are extremely self obsessed; the Earth doesn’t revolve around the Sun; instead the Sun and the Earth revolves around them and their uniquely gifted personality. The dimension of their self-importance hides the sky and skewers any objectivity. They have extremely grandiose ideas of themselves. Their defects do not really count against them. They are minor blemishes on their unprecedented excellence. They don’t overcome difficulties, they bargain their way out of them.
It is a sad truth that the ability of some leaders to hold people in thrall is largely due to the ignorance of their subjects. Think of Trump. Politically, their followers are hollow vessels waiting to be filled, eager for slogans that flatter them and promise a better future. Despots quickly recognize the mental inertia of the common man. It gives them an opening. They realize that public inertia is their path to power. The ordinary man learns nothing and soon forgets everything under a leader. Power rules a multitude of empty heads.
Leaders craved to be admired, but the desire to be admired at any cost breeds widespread corruption among a leader’s followers. Trump is the hero of the frustrated and poorly educated, but the dismal truth is that most oordinary people have very empty souls. This does not mean that they aren’t decent and hardworking. It simply means that the scope of their lives is increasingly cramped. Their lives lack events. There is no way for them to escape the uniformities of their destinies, and only a forceful leader can disrupt the sameness of their existences. Ordinary people will endure a great deal as long as it is new and exciting and presented to them with authority. If a person is nothing in themselves, there is a kind of servile gratification in finding oneself embraced as a tool of unscrupulous power. The empty public mind lacks the critical capacity to analyze the worth of what they are told. For the despot, ordinary people are simply targets, a vacant keyboard waiting to be played on. Corrupt leaders are not interested in others except to obtain their praise and endorsement. To a leader, the ordinary person provokes no interest in them because of who and what they are.
Another key factor is mental contagion, the desire to be part of a growing bandwagon. Mediocrities yearn to belong. They yearn to be part of a group, forgetting that every group is a home for mediocrities like themselves. The solidarity of a party is always stronger than the individual’s sense of being of what he or she is apart from it.
It is a proven rule that despots draw submissive natures to them. Power seekers are narrow and intolerant of mind, but they can convince. However, any sort of resistance draws out their worst qualities. They do not confront opposition; they are too impatient. First, they mislead it, then crush and murder it. To succeed means using secrecy to escape reexamination, questioning, or exploring alternative theories. They do not have the confidence to be open in their dealings. They work in secret in order to escape debate and examination of their claims. By nature, they are unilateral and high handed, and they do things in secret because they skirt and evade any sort of open discussion. They create little deserts of uniformity around them. They succeed by deceit. Think of Lenin’s funereal, and Stalin telling Trotsky the wrong date for the funeral, so that when Trotsky doesn’t show up, it will offend the populace, and it is Stalin who will then make the funeral oration for Lenin. Is there anything more commonplace than ruthlessness in politics? Think of Hillary Clinton.
Many leaders come from obscure backgrounds and rise because of their skills and talent. They have gifts above the common. Such people want power so that they can carry out their projects without interference from others. Democracy is, after all, very cumbersome. But why do so many choose to be unscrupulous? Because they lack respect for their followers. Because they are heartless characters. Because they think that to have scruples is a form of weakness. If you would be bold, you must trample or deceive others. To them, promoting what is dubious and false is fine as long as it results in your obtaining ever greater power. Such leaders have no integrity. They had no need of it.
By contrast, scrupulous people don’t like power; they don’t like the trappings of power. Don’t like being waited on, recognized bowed to, feted and flattered. They regard being ferried about in a limousine as being trapped in a bubble that separates you from local life. They want to experience life first hand, which means seeing things with your own eyes.
Unfortunately, truly depraved leaders don’t want to be admired -- they yearn to be adored. This is a truly obscene desire. They want to see their picture adorning even the simplest of walls; they are determined to see their name highlighting any structure.
Is any human being really so important or talents and good hearted that others should bow down to us? Shouldn’t a decent person blush at this idea? Shouldn’t a balance mind be skeptical of any attempts at idolization? Despots see the life of the ordinary life as something lacking in value. They see their subjects as vermin, diseased rats cockroaches, yet leaders constantly extort praise from the subjugated. This is baffling.
You despise people, you kill them at will, yet you want them to praise you. Why would the opinion of people you despise be anything of value? Is that not insane? You despise people was worthless and kill them like bugs yet the dictator never asks himself what their praise is worth? If they are vermin, who prize their praise? The despot’s greed for applause is entirely senseless and illogical.
Despots have no need of ethics. If you want to find out what someone is saying, ransack their files and possessions and spy on their conversations. Make up discrediting stories. What they cannot stand is competition in which they can be bested. They fact they act on the sly betrays a lack of self confidence. Self confident people look forwards to tests of their ability. They believe that can prevail in a fair contest,
So think carefully about today’s political candidates. To what does the adoration of their followers lead?
People of like disposition are quick to get on with each other, but in the case of Babs and Chris, both women were amazed that, in spite of enormous dissimilarities, they were drawn together by a feeling of admiration and sympathy.
Barbara Hershel was a socially polished, intellectually adroit and very articulate woman. She was well-read. As the expert for the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging, she made it clear that she enjoyed the trappings of power, seeing them as a necessary part of working on Capitol Hill, a form of advertising and intimidation. Thanks to her close relationship with Democratic Senator Ted Backhoe, she enjoyed being met at airports and being whisked in a shiny limousine to some formal dinner with the local hosts fussing over her, happy to sit at the head table. Babs was only at home with people who knew the extent of her influence in the Congress and who acknowledged her place in the power structure.
Chris Seabridge worked for The Washington Express-Tribune, and lived by herself except for an affectionate cat named Pythagoras. She claimed that cats could read people’s hearts. Pythagoras had a sweet, gentle and affectionate nature except when you had stepped on his tail.
A loner by nature, Chris was happy to spend hours by herself reading, learning, thinking, and judging. When she became curious about something, she became totally absorbed by it and disliked thinking of anything else. She would live, work and breathe the object of her interest. In addition, Chris was reluctant to act until she was in full possession of the facts of a situation.
She was suspicious of people like politicians, whose ambition was to mount step by step up the ladder of promotion in the hope of obtaining the topmost rung. That goal had no charm for her. Chris believed that people who didn’t fit in, people like her, were likely to be more receptive to new ideas and information. She believed that it was people like her who had the knack for spotting trends, the first to hear a new melody amid the background noise.
Her friendship with Babs had developed quickly. They had been introduced by mutual friends, and now saw each other often. She and her boyfriend would go up to Babs’ townhouse near the Capitol to have dinners with her and her husband, and those gatherings were always pleasant and friendly. Babs’ husband, Howard, was a big wig for some advertising firm, but to Chris, his was a meager fire. The couple, married twenty years, had two young children: Zera, an old Hebrew name, thirteen, and Tom who was 10 years old.
It was the way Babs talked about American politics that had first won over the reporter’s admiration. On one busy Friday night in April, the two of them sat outside in a sidewalk café near the Capitol, having vodka martinis together.
Pedestrians with intent, tired, harassed faces passed by their table. Out on the broad avenue, the ceaseless, noisy traffic was rolling down Capitol Hill, as white collar workers headed off to their homes in Georgetown or the Virginia or Maryland suburbs. The noisy café today was full. Everyone was drinking to relax; Capitol Hill staffers worked long hours.
Babs was saying, “I truly believe that our time requires reform, instead of everyone scrambling to get rich off of other people’s vices.” Babs had a husky, throaty voice that Chris envied and found attractive.
“So you want a revolution?” Chris asked, smiling from ear to ear. A revolution was not Babs’ style.
Babs tossed her chin at that. “We’re too sunk in comfort for that. Any eruption of discontent would interrupt the workings of the giant American business machine. The result would be widespread horror.” Babs gazed at the street with her keen, gray eyes. “When it comes to the money machine, you can try to beat them or join them, but you cannot ignore them,” Babs added.
“Which means what?” Chris was puzzled.
“Well, for most people, the idea of gain is the only goal of their lives. Amassing personal wealth. Everything that doesn’t contribute to it is pushed aside or thrown overboard. Wealth is always held in greater esteem than honor. The idea of honor stirs nothing in ordinary people.”
Chris was silent. She disagreed.
“It is no use complaining about the low aims of ordinary people – they rule the world,” Babs said, taking a prim sip of her drink.
And each secretly rejoiced in having found a friend whose character and intelligence was equal to her own.
Babs was extremely handsome, a well-kept woman of beauty and social position, who, at 48-years-old, had been asked to endorse a beauty product that she never used. The makers of it offered her $5,000 and a photo in Washington Weekly Magazine, but Babs dismissed it as a cheap bribe and had refused. She could still boast of being beautiful.
Chris, 33, had light brown hair which she wore in bangs, and she was always brushing it back from her eyes with a quick swipe of her right hand. Her striking face displayed creamy skin, shapely black eyebrows set above deep, thoughtful, penetrating brown eyes that mirrored whatever was passing in her mind. She was a slender woman who stood at five eight, two to three inches taller than Babs, but she didn’t draw men’s eyes to her the way Babs did. Babs had the better figure, longer legs with thin ankles, plus she stayed in splendid shape by playing tennis all the time. Chris worked out, but did not play tennis. When the two of them went out together, the consensus was that they both were “awfully good looking.”
When her six-part series exploded on the pages of The Washington Express-Tribune the next month, Chris suddenly found herself the center of attention. She had unearthed a network of former U.S. Army sergeants who had set up a system of bars through Vietnam, Thailand and Southeast Asia, using U.S. military flights to smuggle heroin into the continental U.S. Since The Express-Tribune was the news powerhouse in the Capitol, the series got a lot of attention, and Chris, a modest, earnest person, suddenly found herself admired and pointed out. She disliked personal attention, and preferred being ignored rather than being noticed, even for praise.
One day in her office, Babs had called to congratulate her, “My God, you must be thrilled. I read your first article in the airport. Your name was all over hell.”
Chris, very touched, thanked her.
“Hey. I’m not surprised. Not in the least.” A few days later, Babs invited Chris up to The Hill for lunch. The mood was celebratory and jovial. They two of them gesticulated with their forks as they ate, nodded, shrugged their shoulders, laughed heartily, and talked with their mouths’ full. Then, suddenly, Babs grew serious. Spearing a piece of food with her fork, she said, “Health care fraud is becoming a hot topic on The Hill. The senator has been an outspoken advocate of the elderly. He has taken a strong stand, in fact. But the fact is that the American people are aging. They are aging very rapidly in great numbers, and many of them need to live in nursing homes where they will be cared for with compassion, and get good medical treatment.
“Instead, we have a growing national scandal mainly because greedy nursing home owners are getting rich by exploiting helpless patients and extracting huge sums of money from state and federal governments. It’s a system that doesn’t seem to care for either the patients or the taxpayers.” It was then that Babs offered Chris a job on The Hill. Babs wanted to hire Chris as an investigator for a new set of hearings on health care fraud.
Bill Orchard, the chief of staff of the Senate Committee on Aging, had a fleshy face with small, cold eyes like grey stones set closely together. Right now, they were fixed steadfastly on her face. He was a dour man ruled by making his subjects feel uneasy and uncertain in his presence. His cold, remote manner, verging on hostility, made people self conscious by trying to have them lose their poise and self-command. She felt that he measured his own personal power by his ability to produce this effect and took some deep rooted pleasure in it.
Bill, of course, had barely greeted her on her arrival, seeing the interview as another tedious task.
They were seated at a table in the Senate across from each other. Bill had asked her to shut the door. Probably to prevent her from escaping. Her brown eyes watched him alertly. He was a dumpy, laundry bag of a man.
She had dealt with drug dealers and other infamous characters and she would deal with Bill, but it was already costing an effort.
“I’m glad to see that you are finally able to join us,” he said. His voice was a disagreeable, frigid, hoarse baritone.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I thought we were expecting you last week, on the tenth,” he said.
“I’m sorry?” she said, quite taken aback
“Weren’t you due to start here on the tenth?”
“Not to my knowledge,” she said. “Babs said I was to begin today – the 17th.”
Bill sat back and watched her with no expression.
“I’m almost positive it was today,” she said sincerely. She had already stopped staring into his eyes. Staring into his eyes cost too much mental energy. Instead, she had fastened her eyes on his cheek just below his left eye. It was a trick her editor, Peter Fielding, had taught her, who used it when talking to spies and other people who listened with their eyes. It would make her gaze look as odd and coldly focused as his. Meeting the spiritual force of another drained yours very quickly.
“I must have gotten confused,” Bill said coldly. “In a few minutes Susan, one of our staff, will show you to your desk. If you need any supplies talk to Allison.” Allison would prove to be very pretty and about 18 years old.
He tried to fix her eyes with his. “I spoke with your supervisors at The Express-Tribune. They seemed to think you were more than adequate in your performance there, they said. They appeared to think you would, at some point, develop into a major performer,” he said.
“More than adequate?” she was very touchy when it came to matters of self-esteem. So he was going to undersell her reputation in preparation for giving her less salary, she thought.
She had switched her eyes from his cheek to his eyes, boring into them with all her might.
“First, there are things I must make clear,” he said. “In return for taking our money, you will give us your talents, but in return, you have to carry out our plans and designs, and our programs. Is that clear?”
“It’s very clear.”
“We welcome ideas, of course.” There was a sudden noise outside in the long hallway.
“I said, we welcome ideas,” he repeated.
“I wasn’t sure I heard what you said because of that noise.”
“I’ll repeat,” he winced and said condescendingly. “Ideas are always welcome. But they must be ideas as to how to best advance the interests of this office. How best to publicize and strengthen the accomplishments of the senator over the years. Our job is to avoid mistakes or misstatements or any errors of fact that could allow his intentions to be…misinterpreted. Are you following me?”
She wanted to say, “Yes, but only the little words,” but didn’t. She was inwardly tapping her foot, but tried to look attentive.
“There is a reason that I go into all of this. Are you listening?”
“Oh, I’m listening,” she said.
“I only want to go over this once, so please pay attention.”
“Because what I am saying must be said, so I only want to say it once,” he said.
That makes twice, she thought.
“Well, let me make clear to you the basis of your employment. You are our employee. That sounds simple, but many people do not understand what it means. It means that in return for our paying you money, you will give us your effort and your time. You will place your aims and programs and goals subordinate to ours.”
She waited, listening, alert with caution.
“So what will matter here, with us, is how well you fit in, how smoothly what you do meshes with what we need to have done, how well your colleagues consider how you blend in and augment their efforts. There aren’t any stars here. There is no time here for a one-man show.”
“I’m not a man, of course.”
This flustered him immeasurably. “No, of course you’re not. I apologize. Of course, you’re not. Pardon me. I meant a one-person show. One person. In any case, it will be the opinions of your superiors, not the public that will decide if your performance is adequate and pleasing. You will be serving our priorities not yours. Can you do that?”
“Yes. I think I can.”
“You think or you know?”
One of those, she thought. “I know I can.”
“Are you okay with that?”
“And that appeals to you? Placing the committee’s interest above your own?”
“Yes. I am prepared to advance the committee’s interests.”
“Once you know what they are.”
“Once I know what they are. Yes.”
“Well, you strike me as an unusual young lady. So then let me welcome you to your position. You will get $42,000 a year to start. And I think, maybe you’ll do well. Unfortunately, we need results promptly. The senator wants us to look good at these hearings. We want to appear to be hard-hitting. This is an issue with a lot of public appeal.”
“I have no idea yet of what the case is about.”
He looked up and stared. “Babs told me you were quite well-informed on health care fraud issues.”
“I’m afraid, she flatters me. It’s not a field I’ve read much in.”
“Oh? Perhaps I misunderstood her.”
“Well, I don’t want to mislead you. I am very much at sea in this area. Aristotle once said that to ask the right question is half the right answer. I don’t know which questions to ask yet.”
“Then I suggest you spend the good part of today reading a committee document on health care issues and campaign spending practices. I think you might find it quite helpful.”
“Thank you. I will.”
“And if you need anything please inform me. I will try and make sure you have it,” Bill said.
He stood up. He was short and squat. His white shirt was badly wrinkled. His big belly hung over his leather belt. He gave her a hand that had long, off-putting black hairs growing from the back of it. He tried to look benign and she tried to look deeply respectful. She had a sense that neither was successful. They shook hands.
“Then I will see you at the meeting this afternoon.”
The smell of brewing coffee wafted gently through the alcove. The Pyrex pots were warming on the two hot plates. Chris stared down at the memo spread across the top of her desk. It said:
“U.S. Senate Committee on Aging
“By: Barbara Hershel, Associate Counsel
“Re: Alleged Trading of Campaign Contributions for Political Influence in California Involving the State’s Pilot Program for Nursing Home Patients”
In the upper right corner a stamp proclaimed in bold letters of black alarm: “CONFIDENTIAL: FOR COMMITTEE USE ONLY”. The sight of it made her feel involved in something very important.
The target was one Gerald Mahr, who had headed the California State Department of Health and had run for the U.S. Senate but was defeated in the primary. The document alleged that bribes were paid to obtain approval for five pilot projects meant to improve the welfare of the developmentally disabled including those with cerebral palsy, epilepsy or other neurological handicaps. The program was passed on “an emergency basis” which meant no public hearings, but it was law.
The document also said that Mahr had received bribes from nursing home owners to pay off his campaign debts. One of the chief witnesses was Herbert Dreizer, a pharmacist who had laundered a bribe to Mahr. Two owners of nursing homes were highlighted: Glen Kelso and Harold Roost. The homes of each were listed. There was also a list of names which had no meaning for her, mainly employees at the California State Department of Health.
Greg Prewitt was the chief witness for the committee. He said he had seen an effort to collect bribes for Mahr.
Then at the end of the document Chris saw: “San Diego DA’s office is holding back a report that claims that campaign contributions to Mahr’s campaign for the U.S. Senate allegedly used corporate funds which is a violation of federal law. The San Diego DA said it uncovered no supporting evidence.” Babs’ document ended: “Regarding these allegations, there are only two individuals who have first hand testimony. Unfortunately, we have been unable to advance beyond hearsay.”
A little while later, Chris sat at the long, central table with her staff, Ellen, Tom and Susan. She looked at them and thought, my God, they were young. She had shoes older than they were. They had just graduated from college. Ellen was very refined, very Westchester County, very Junior League. She wore a nice blouse with a sweater. She had been to Vassar and had done very well there, majoring in art history. Susan, dark-haired and energetic, had gone to Bryn Mawr. Both of her parents had been heavy supporters of Senator Backhoe. Tom was attractive, gangly but sincere. He was from Brown University. All were children from well-to-do families, and all were well spoken and polite. Their magpie scrutiny was now fixed on her. To her, there was only one rule when you talked to a staff: be brief and be gone.
If she believed in anything, she believed in her own success, and that belief acted to put fresh heart into the people around her. So she said to them, “We are going to succeed. This will be a cooperative effort. We rise or fall as a group, but we will succeed,” Chris said, glancing at each curious, rapt face. “But please coordinate. What we don’t want is to overlap each other. No one wants to talk to a source of ours only to hear them say, ‘Oh. I just talked with Susan or Tom or Ellen in your office. What the hell goes on back there?’ Nothing makes an effort look more asinine than that.”
A few minutes later, Chris was at her office desk studying the names of the nursing home owners: Glen Kelso and Harold Roost. Napoleon had said that saying things aloud speeds up memorization, and staffers could soon hear Chris in her office, saying the names aloud. They exchanged looks.
Fielding, one of her editors, had told another editor at the paper that Chris was better than all the other reporters using the phone; she was almost a magician with it. Her mind was quick and her fingers were quicker; as she ended one call, her fingers would flick across the phone to start a new one. Her voice was smooth and slightly husky, and she was extraordinarily articulate, knowing that she could rewrite and rephrase in an instant. She would call people other reporters would never think of calling. She had the gift of friendship when she called people, and many of the people she interviewed would indeed be her friends afterwards.
At the beginning of a call, she would lay back, unassertive, listening, but carefully measuring. To Chris, her real strengths lay in her ability to do an instant assessment of what lay in the responder’s tone. She was a master of instant readjustment to the personality she was talking to. What was the psychology of the mind behind the talker, what was the psychology prompting his remarks? If he were irritable, she would retreat gracefully, hastily reframing her questions; if he were truly rude, she would instantly become belligerent. She also knew that you skirted strong points and embedded obstacles, and you had to find new avenues of approach, wildly different from the first one, attacking at the topic at flanks or the rear to gain your object. She knew that the subject of health care was unfamiliar to her but her gifts had never failed her before; why would they now?
She sat in her office, stewing, reluctant to begin. To investigate meant living with the unresolved. What did she know about Mahr? Friends, contacts, associates, background, career, military service? Who was the writer that advised that when accounts of an event differ, don’t think that both might be true, rather think that both might be false. She had to be suspicious of all sources and information. Did the people she was interviewing harbor hidden agendas meant to mislead? Were they dupes? Was she? Her focus had to be the California Health Department: each unit, each department, its functions, its personnel, its channels of command. Her head began to spin.
Her first call was the Orange County Register. No one was in. The reporter, John Bell, was on vacation. She called the Sacramento Herald and the Sacramento Telegraph, starting with the public health and medical reporters.
Chris finally got a reporter there. Yes, they knew about Mahr: he was a heavy-hitter. President Bush had recently picked Mahr to head the Veteran’s Administration. The rumor was that the heads of nursing home chains had given bribes to Mahr for his U.S. Senate campaign, but the press had no proof. Chris then read the names from the document into the phone. No go.
Then a reporter at the Sacramento Bee told her, “I’ll bet they’re near LA. Why don’t you try there?”
Chris went back and called Peach Tree Manor, their chief witness Prewitt’s nursing home. It was based in Los Angeles.
“Yes?” said a harried voice. It was Prewitt. When she finished introducing herself, he replied, “I have already said everything I plan to say on this matter.” And he hung up on her. When she called back, he wouldn’t come to the phone.
She was mystified – Prewitt was supposed to be their major, hotshot witness.
Nettled, she called his nursing home again. A secretary answered. Chris asked the woman if she had a number for Glen Kelso.
“He’s a friend of Mr. Prewitt,” the secretary said.
“Does he own a nursing home? I don’t mean Prewitt, I mean Mr. Kelso.”
“Well, of course, he does. Mr. Kelso owns Bluff’s Edge Manor and several others.” Then, “Wait a minute,” she said. “Who is this?”
Before she hung up, Chris said to her, “Please tell Mr. Prewitt I’ll call him right back.” A sharp needle for his backside, she thought.
She went down the hall, past the staffers and men in suits and entered Sen. McKatchen’s office. He was from California and an aide of his gave her California phone books that had 714 area codes in them. She found Glen Kelso’s number.
When she got back, she called the San Diego papers, and found a reporter from the San Diego Telegraph, Bob Hayes, who told her that Kelso was not only a nursing home owner but a prominent Republican Party fundraiser. Hayes had a pleasant voice, and he told her that Kelso was in very tight with Mahr. He also told her that Roost likes to pal around with shady characters, and the name of a bank came up, The National Bank of Oxnard. He told Chris that his paper had written articles about Kelso. Did she want them? She did.
“I need everything about him, family, associates, his kids, everything,” Chris said cheerfully.
“Don’t I know your name?” Hayes asked her. “Didn’t you do a series about veterans who operated bars in Southeast Asia that were used to transport heroin into the U.S.? That was a great series, outstanding,” he said with enthusiasm. “So you resigned to go to the Senate?”
“I did. Yes.”
“Well, I hope they know what they’re getting. Anyway, nice to talk to you. I’ll send this stuff right away. If you break an exclusive on this, can you promise me a head start?”
Babs took a week off. Some incident in the family. Chris fretted, vexed. Babs had earlier promised Chris that she would call the Federal Election Commission to alert one Bill Mamet of their probe. Three days passed. Finally, Chris called Mamet, but she was abruptly surprised: he was sour and disagreeable. He no longer did investigations, and he couldn’t help. Chris was stung, then called the FEC office and asked for the chief of investigations. It wasn’t Mamet. The man’s name was Duane Peterson. He was a suave black man, sure of himself, polite and clearly full of ambition.
She took a taxi to his office. They discovered an instantaneous liking for the other.
She asked Duane if he could send her the audits of the Kelso case in San Diego or anything else about Roost. He happily agreed. As she was leaving, they shook hands with real warmth. He asked her to stay in touch. He’d send the documents.
For the next three days, she found herself plunged into a bewildering jungle of dead ends. The case was stalled. Then one night, Chris was alone in her apartment, feeding Py, when the phone rang. She thought of letting it go to the answering machine, but suddenly picked up.
“Do you know a guy named Bill Hayes?” She didn’t like the voice. It was coarse and unpolished.
“He’s a gentleman.”
“He told me to call you. This is Jonas Kyd.”
“And you called me at home.” Chris was very touchy when it came to her privacy. Unwanted calls were an invasion of it.
“I don’t trust phones,” he said.
“You seem adept at using one all the same,” she shot back.
Early the next day she called in sick and, just after dawn, flew out to Los Angeles where she rented a car and drove down to Long Beach. Apparently, Hayes told Kyd that Chris was the real thing. He had urged Kyd to talk to her.
Chris and Kyd met at the Velvet Whale. It was noon time, and the place was busy and noisy. No one approached her. She sat annoyed and impatient, in a bright red settle, gazing impatiently at the array of plastic flowers and the huddled packets of mustard and ketchup. Kyd finally showed up and came over. He was a middle-sized man, wearing a bright, imitation tweed jacket. He had sandy hair and full, ugly lips in a crude, commonplace face. Distaste sank her spirits. They had Bloody Marys and then ordered lunch.
Kyd had just stuffed his mouth with a huge clot of hamburger when he said, through his food, “See, I used to work for Roost,” he said. He told Chris that Roost had been approached by two state investigators who had him solid on laundering a corporate check from a pharmacy to one of his nursing homes.
“Dreizer,” she said.
“Good for you.”
She glowered silently.
“Anyway, Roost asked for immunity. The state told him he’d get immunity when water ran uphill,” and then Kyd explained that two years ago last August, the state said it was cancelling the Pilot Program, which left a lot of the owners sucking their knuckles. Then Roost got this phone call. It was from Mahr. Mahr told Roost that if he didn’t come up with the money within 24 hours, he would be out of the program. So Roost got busy, and a day later, a staffer at his facility at Bluff’s Edge, discovered that a $12,000 bonus had been paid to Roost’s wife.
Instantly, she grasped the meaning of this information.
“You told this to Bob Hayes?”
“Hayes is okay. No, I didn’t tell him. Anyway, Hayes thinks you are hot stuff – no jokes intended.” He had blushed fishily.
“How do you know Mahr got it?” She pretended a sudden interest in her food.
“Because Roost turned to the staffer and pointed to the bonus, and he said to him, ‘do you see this? It means we have that prick Mahr off of our backs.’ Another staffer told the same story. ‘We have that prick Mahr off of our backs.’”
Chris stopped. “So it was facility money that Roost gave.”
“You said two staffers. Were you one of them?”
“Nice try,” he said. He took a huge bite, spilling a piece on his lap. “Then the FBI got involved.” His lips had a shiny gloss from his burger as he chewed. “I’m telling you what I told the FBI. The FBI also interviewed Roost and Kelso.
“The FBI interviewed you?” she tried acting very casual, but her heart had tightened in her chest. She realized that she was going to be the hero of the office if this worked.
Kyd turned to one side to smother a quiet belch in his napkin. “Talk to Joan Michello. She was the head nurse of the facility. Talk to her, and then call me later. Where are you staying?”
“I have to leave tonight.”
Chris left the lunch, elated, because at one stroke her investigation had gone from a $2,000 laundered bribe from a pharmacist to a $12,000 bribe paid by Roost for Mahr’s campaign debts.
Back in her room, after putting her notebook in her lap, she got Joan Michello on the phone.
“Yes, I saw it,” the nurse said. She had a kindly, grandmotherly voice. “Jonas showed it to me.” Then she told Chris that the bonus had been listed under “Operating Expenses,” under the subtitle, “Employee Benefits.”
“But Mahr had lost his Senate primary, I thought.”
“He lost, but he owed big debts. Something like $700,000. Roost had political aspirations, and Mahr traded on them. Mr. Roost made a lot of trips to Sacramento. With Mahr in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Roost knew he would have it made, and so he collected money for Mahr’s primary.”
“What can you tell me about Roost?”
Michello told her that Harold Roost used to be a preacher at the Pentecostal Church. He was thrown out of Seattle. His nursing homes had a tendency to catch fire and burn or go bankrupt. Roost, she said, was very close to a man named Glen Kelso, a developer, who at one point owned his own construction company. Mr. Roost had two sons, Marvin and John. Mr. Roost worked in construction with Kelso at some point. They sold out to a group of bankers. Chris asked if she remembered the group’s name, but she didn’t. She would look for it.
Chris’ pen was flying over the pages as she took notes.
Michello said that Martin, the father of Harold Roost, had a bank holding company and a mortgage company and a consumer finance company. John, Marvin’s younger brother, also worked for it. “In fact,” she said, “I think that’s where John got the money to construct nursing homes. The Roost and Kelso families are very close,” she said.
“Who were Roost’s contacts in Sacramento?”
“Some man named Peter Churchill,” the nurse said, adding that Churchill was the puppet head of the Health Department for Mahr at the time. His name was in the memo, she realized.
“How long did Jonas Kyd work for Roost?”
“A year and a half. From October to the next year. Jonas accused Roost of skimming profits from the facility. He was fired on Jan. 14. I was there for six years. Roost and Kelso were raking in sky high profits. Roost was making over $10,800 a month, I knew that for a fact.”
“Have you ever heard of the National Bank of Oxnard?”
“Certainly. They gave big loans to Mr. Roost and Mr. Kelso. If I were you I’d dig into some of those odd groups scattered around San Diego like Edison, or HMS or The George Mason Group.” Chris scribbled notes.
Chris worked up her nerve and asked had she ever seen a copy of the bonus.
“Jonas has a copy. When I saw it at the end of the year, it was listed differently. Roost had moved it. The print out showed the maiden name of Mr. Roost’s wife.”
She could barely contain herself. “Do you remember what her maiden name was?”
“Oh, sure. It was Kent. Jenny Kent. I knew her parents too, Bob and Agatha.”
“So Roost moved it?”
“He gave it a new title. Jonas knows.”
“Can you think of anyone in state Facility Licensing I could talk to about Roost or Kelso?”
“Talk to Sherry Kendrick. She was number two in the Licensing Division. She knew what was happening. She tried to close their places down.”
“Mr. Roost and Mr. Kelso’s places. She was furious with them. People like Roost and Kelso make the patients feel they are a failure in life, but they are merely old. Many have a life of accomplishment stretching behind them. Living in a facility should be a time of their lives when they are feeling joy at the good luck that has taken them this far. They aren’t finished. Of course, it’s hard to feel sympathy for people you feel no affection for, isn’t it?”
Chris asked who else knew what she did? Who could she talk to about Kelso?
Michello said that she knew a comptroller there, a man named Jack Varner who worked for Kelso. He finally quit, he was so disgusted.
“How you spell it?”
Michello said she would call back with Varner’s number. Chris warmly thanked her. “Well if you find anything, anything at all, no matter how insignificant it looks, will you call me?”
“I’d be glad to, dear,” she said.
“Well, thank you so much for your help,” Chris said.
“I really hope that some good comes from this, dear. I really do,” Michello said.
Chris quickly phoned Kyd. He answered at once. “Joan Michello says you’re a straight shooter.”
“You sound surprised.”
“Michello said that when you saw the bonus, it was no longer listed as an Employment Benefit but as something else.”
“Correct. Roost had changed it.”
“What was it listed as after that?”
“Just a second.” She waited, hearing a sound of rustling.
She was impatient. “Can you recall what it said?”
“Just a second. Hold the line a second.” She heard rustling then more rustling. His voice came back. “On the print out, the bonus was listed as ‘ancillary (NET) – 412,141 – minus revenue.’”
“You’re reading from the print out,” she almost yelled. Pouncing excitement seized her all of a sudden, releasing a fresh, rushing cascade of energy in her soul. “You have a copy of the goddamn thing don’t you?”
“Why didn’t you give it to me?”
“I didn’t know if you were honest. Congressional staffers are people with eight faces. They are beyond two-faced. Your office in Washington leaks like a strainer. No one trusts it. I had to make sure you were honest.”
The overweight, old guard at the door didn’t ask to see her ID. He knew her face by now and gave her a gracious, respectful greeting which she returned. There were a few staffers trooping the long, hard, marble Senate office building corridor, and she passed endless rows of shut doors. A plump woman went by carrying a hefty wedge of papers crooked in one arm. She was out of breath and acted put upon. She didn’t return Chris’ smile. Her own steps clacked loud and briskly down the echoing corridor.
Chris put her big purse on the desk top, and then went into the next room. Babs was there, and the kids were seated around the table studying papers. They looked up when they saw her. Chris exchanged warm greetings with them.
“How are you?” Susan asked. “We were told you were sick. You must have eaten in the cafeteria.”
“I’m fine,” she said, grateful for the concern.
Babs’ face looked brightened and relieved at the sight of her. “Can I talk to you for just a second?” she asked Chris.
“Ah, oh, here comes the interrogation,” Tom said. The group tittered. The three of them went out.
Babs was dressed in another stunning outfit. “So are you all right?” Babs asked. “I was worried about you. I left messages for you at home.”
“I wasn’t sick,” she said. “I went to California.”
Bab’s eyebrows shot up. “You went to California? When?” Babs was entirely bewildered, almost suspicious.
Babs was baffled. “How? Did you fly on your own money?”
“Yes. I went to see this guy, Jonas Kyd.”
“You are nuts,” Babs said, partly in admiration and partly in fear.
Some instinct held her back from naming Hayes as the source that had set it in motion. “Listen, Kyd knows his stuff. Did you know about the big FBI probe?”
This seemed to confuse Babs. “What probe? What was the FBI looking at for God’s sake?” she seemed rattled.
“Federal monies. And listen to this, Babs.” Babs froze. “We have evidence of a new felony.”
Bab’s face suddenly widened in surprise and dismay. Chris quickly took her through the new information about the laundered bonus. Chris was telling her more about Kyd, but Babs’ reaction began to puzzle her; she didn’t look pleased.
“Yeah, but he was fired,” Babs said.
“So?” Chris found this petty.
Babs shrugged, “Disgruntled ex-employees don’t make the most credible witnesses.”
Chris bridled. “The chief nurse at the facility supported his story, and she wasn’t fired. Anyway, that’s a defense attorney’s argument!”
Babs gave her a long, hostile look. “It may be, but not everyone who gets fired is fired for being too good at their jobs.”
“Getting fired doesn’t mean they were brain-dead and blind on the job, either,” she said. “And by the way, Prewitt is becoming a pretty murky witness.”
Babs frowned. “What’s wrong with Prewitt?” she asked.
“Some witness! He was part of a group collecting funds for Mahr,” Chris said. “He’s refusing to cooperate.”
“Will you take it easy?” Babs said, observing her anger. “We’re all friends here.”
“Well, it pisses me off,” Chris said. She hated to find a lukewarm response when her own internal furnace was raging at full power.
Babs made a mocking face. “I know – we all must feel whatever you feel.” It was a bit snide, and Babs looked a bit ashamed after saying it.
Chris exploded. “We’ve got copies! This isn’t a personal opinion! We’ve got documents!”
“And the head nurse confirmed it. She wasn’t fired.”
Babs absorbed that patiently. She watched as Chris calmed down.
“So what’s next?”
Chris told her.
Babs had turned thoughtful. “We have to be careful of that copy. The bonus stuff. It won’t stand up in court if it’s a copy.”
“It won’t stand up in court, that’s all I’m saying.”
Chris stared and then said, “We are not going to trial. I thought this was a hearing.”
Babs blushed. “Of course, I don’t know what I was thinking.” Then, she exulted: “We've got a case. We’ve got fresh evidence. I told you we needed you. Remember: don’t tell any of this to the Republicans. Not a word. Stay clear of a guy named Peter Churchill especially. He ran the California Health Department after Mahr left. He’s a Republican. He was a total tool of Mahr.”
“What’s his name again?” Chris asked. Babs repeated it.
“I thought we had to keep them up-to-date,” Chris said.
“Not yet we don’t. Let’s get a case first.” Then Babs asked her, “How fast can you pull all this stuff together? We are very constrained by time.”
“The kids are getting stuff from state auditors and the FEC. It’s all weird, Babs. The whole campaign is laced with illegality.”
Babs said excitedly, gazing at her. “This is dynamite. You’ve done wonderfully! I can check with the courts in San Diego to see if the DA’s office issued any subpoenas. Then we ought to go to the FEC and see what you can find there. I’ll start to call some of my contacts in California.”
“We are already talking to the FEC.”
Babs looked off balance. “You talked to Bill Mamet?”
“He was of no help at all. I’ve got a new source over there in a senior position. He’ll send us FEC audits tomorrow.” She didn’t name Duane.
“Wow!” Babs exulted, but then a frown crossed her face.
“Are you mad about something?” Chris asked.
“Not mad. Just tell me first before you run off. I don’t mind reimbursing you for your flight, but Bill at some point will want to look at the trip report. I mean if he asked who you were seeing, what would I tell him?”
Ah yes, Bill, she thought.
“I told you I am willing to pay for it.”
“You won’t have to, sweetie. I’ll see to it. But you see my concern.”
“I see your concern.” She didn’t, really.
Then Babs brightened again. “Do we have a copy of that bonus?”
Chris showed her.
Babs now seemed aglow. “What a downfall for Mahr! The promised child of the Republicans. Did you know that President Bush wanted him to head the Veteran’s Administration. Mahr is filth; he is utterly corrupt.”
A few days later, Chris talked to Sherry Kendrick in Licensing, a woman in her mid or late forties, a personality of unrefined gusto. Kelso, she said, was nothing but “vulgar, shit-sniffing filth” and a “venomous little hemorrhoid.” She told Chris that Kelso’s facilities ran up 185 violations in two years. His homes were among the very worst in the nation. “We tried to shut Kelso down, but Kelso had too much power. No, his facilities were dumps. A doctor at one of Kelso’s places wanted to pull eight healthy teeth of an old woman patient and give her full dentures because he was too lazy to repair partial bridgework. A nurse there stopped that doctor. Later, she was fired.”
“The nurse was fired?”
“Oh, because she had integrity. No, it was horrible,” and Kendrick went on to air grievances as Chris busily took notes.
“Where is Mahr now, since he’s out of office?” Chris asked her.
“He may be out of office, but he still controls the department. Plus I heard that he got offered some big job in Washington.”
It took Chris a week to get to Varner. He had a nice, earnest voice except it sounded very worn out. He had the same story to tell as Kyd. “Kelso was on the phone, I started to leave when he started beckoning at me to stay, and I went in and sat down, and suddenly he hangs up the phone. He had this look of triumph and says, ‘We just bought Jerry Mahr.’ Those were his very words. ‘We just bought Jerry Mahr.’”
“Who was he talking to on the phone?”
“Harold Roost. He’s a nursing home owner.”
“What methods did he used to make payments to Mahr?”
“The same as in the earlier case,” said Varner.
The room was still as a corpse.
“What earlier case?” Chris asked in a faint voice.
“These violations occurred in May two years ago. All Kelso’s employees were reimbursed in advance by Kelso’s secretary, Arlene Walker.”
“See, the money was given to the campaign of a San Diego county supervisor, Juan Peterson, who was running a tough campaign urging reform of ‘despicable conditions’ in some San Diego chains especially those of Kelso. Publicly Kelso threatened to sue, but privately, Kelso had bought him off. Peterson was re-elected.
“How did Kelso get caught?”
“The state caught him. Kelso pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of violating state election code rules. He was fined $1,500 and placed on three years probation.”
“Were there other election code violations?”
“Federal.” Again, her heart tightened. “See, in San Diego, there’s a county ordinance that says it’s illegal to make political contributions to a single candidate in excess of $500. Kelso wanted to give another $2,000 to Mahr, so he divided up the amount again. He disguised the ultimate source and misrepresented who the real contributors were.”
“Like last time.”
“Just like last time. Hal Kune distributed it.”
“Who is Kune again?
“Kune is Kelso’s son-in-law. There is a little circle at Bluff’s Edge Manor that was very loyal to Kelso because Kelso stood on their necks.”
“Why did Kelso plead guilty if no one was talking?”
“To quell publicity. Kelso wanted it all to go away. He had been nailed, and he was afraid that if more violations were found, it could affect his standing. At bottom, he was afraid that other illegal payments he was making around the state might surface. You have to understand that Kune bragged to me and others that there were a great many illegal payments being made, not just to Mahr.”
He warned her that Kelso and Roost were both prima donnas. “Do you know what you get if you put two prima donnas in the same bag?” She waited. “Not an instant’s peace.”
The next Monday, Chris and her staff sat down and began to sort the audits and memos that the FEC had sent. As a team leader, Chris was not harsh or demanding. Instead, she inspired and listened very carefully to what her team was saying. Chris was a driver, and she had begun to infuse that relentless drive in her staff.
“They sent us the fucking Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Tom said, annoyed.
“Or Warren Beatty’s address book,” said Susan. They all sat there in a cramped room in the office around a long table surrounded by tightly shelved beige law books with their red and gold backings, making new files. Excitement was in the air.
By now, they all knew that not completely filling out documents accurately was illegal under state and county laws. Under existing campaign laws, nursing home reports must have the full name, address, city and state, occupation, employer, and amount of donation for each individual contributor. They now had five employees who listed themselves as businessmen while one was listed as a banker. One employee gave no address, but listed a local bank, The National Bank of Oxnard.
“What the hell is that?” asked Susan.
They kept studying the documents.
Chris paged through the FEC Schedule A document, brushing her back. Her staff had already been briefed on her Varner interview.
“What are you looking for?” Tom asked her
Ellen found it first. May 14. Except none of the employees Varner had named could be found in FEC lists. Chris and Ellen and Susan went over it twice. “Shit!” Ellen said, her face vexed.
“What’s wrong?” Chris asked.
“They’ve laundered the whole list,” Ellen said.
Chris looked again at the list, extremely annoyed.
All of them began frantically turning pages.
Then Tom said excitedly, “Here they are.” There in the list they found the employees of Mar Vista: Kune $350, Paul Kessler $250, Ethel Block $250, Yeltzin $450, Walker $425, Ken Myles, $300.
Then Susan found one “donor” who told of reimbursement. There was a photo of Walter, “Bud” Yeltzin, the staff director at Coast Vista, a Kelso facility. He was listed as a consultant to the facilities, a violation of state law right there, she pointed out.
Suddenly Chris jerked to full alert. On an FEC document she saw, “Roost, John, Seattle, Washington. Excellent Eldcare.” There was nothing else on the document.
“What the fuck?” Susan said, reading it.
Chris said. “Who owns this Eldcare?” Michello had mentioned it. None of them knew. Chris dialed information in San Diego and asked for Excellent Eldcare as the rest returned to study the audits. Eldcare didn’t answer. It was not yet nine in California.
At nine, she called the California Golden Gate Nursing Home Association. They kept records of all the chains. “Where is Excellent Eldcare based, please? I need their number.”
It was located in San Diego. When Chris got the number, she called and a young woman answered.
“Mr. John Roost, please?” Chris said.
“Can I please tell him who’s calling?”
“I’m Beverly Huff from the National Bank of Oxnard. Can you give me Mr. Roost’s direct number please?”
“Hello?” said a voice. It was a harsh, deep and grating voice, a farmer’s voice. It was hard to guess its age.
“What do you want?”
“Is this John Roost, the owner of Excellent Eldcare? This is Chris Seabridge with the U.S. Senate.”
“Why are you calling?” The tone was heavy with distaste.
“I have before me a record of a contribution of $2,000 that you gave to Gerald Mahr for his Senate campaign. Is that the correct amount?” She was running a dangerous bluff, and she knew it.
“I thought you were with some bank. And you, young lady, are a liar. Anyway, I never gave to Jerry Mahr’s campaign.”
“But your employees did.”
The click rang sharply in her ear. He had severed the connection. She was stunned and outraged. She redialed in a cold fury.
“Yes?” Impatient, nasty.
“This is Chris Seabridge again.”
“Look. Get lost.”
“How long have you been in southern California, Mr. Roost?”
The question took him by surprise. “Me? Hell, I don’t know. The last fifteen years Why? Anyway, what business is it of yours?” It was a poisonous sneer.
“And you are from Seattle.”
“I was from Seattle,” he condescended. “Now I live in southern California. Please stop bothering me.” Click! He had hung up on her again.
“Look – take the clue, bitch.”
“If you live in southern California, why did you give your address to the FEC as Seattle?”
“So what if I did? I used to be from Seattle.”
“Did you know that misidentifying a donation is a violation of federal law, Mr. Roost?"
A violent click! She had pulled her ear away in time. But she had caught him in two violations. The FEC record had him down only as a “businessman, retired,” plus he’d misstated his address.
When she finally got Varner, she read him several names, but they meant nothing to him. Suddenly she read out the name, H.L. Newman, and he said abruptly, “Those are Arlene’s parents.”
“Kelso’s secretary?” she couldn’t believe her ears.
“I’m almost certain.”
She continued to read down the list until she reached one “George Rodgers, businessman, owner of Rodger’s Rangers, retired.” Varner snorted. “I know a George Rodgers,” he said. “He was a patient at Bluff’s Edge Manor. A retired janitor. I’d check the date of his gift.”
“What do you mean?”
“What date was his contribution?”
“I think he died there in March. Listen, Kelso once had a facility closed because he was using dead people to give contributions,” Varner said.
She asked Varner if she could call him right back? She called a Roost facility, Bluff’s Edge Manor. She gave her name as Edith Millson, clerk at Grammercy Insurance. They were working on a death benefit claim, and Chris said that she needed to have the exact date of Mr. Rodgers’ death. The young woman quickly came back. “I’m afraid that Mr. Rodgers passed away on April 3.”
Chris walked exultantly from her desk into the room next door with the big table. Ellen was on the phone, and Tim and Susan were bent over documents like trolls with hunchbacks.
“Well, that’s astounding,” Chris announced. They turned; Ellen put her hand over her phone. “At Bluff’s Edge on May 14, one George Rodgers gave $350 to Mahr.”
“Why is that astounding?” Susan asked.
“Because he died on April 3.”
The staff was on fire now. More violations piled up: two $10,000 bonuses given in the maiden name of Roost’s wife, a $450 contribution in the name of his stepson, and $1,000 in the name of his mother who was 92 years old, suffering severe Alzheimer’s, and who could no longer handle her own affairs. By the end of the day, they had 15 new violations.
The results of the four-week effort led by Chris and her staff were stunning. The FBI had launched a full field investigation into the new violations, and the San Diego DA was also doing a new probe of Kelso, while Duane over at the FEC had launched a new investigation into the two nursing home owners.
One day Chris was talking to the San Diego DA, Addison Wills, an earnest, pleasant young man who gave Chris the name of one Judge Graham Fuller of San Diego, who had presided over the earlier Kelso case. Chris heard the voice of a soft-spoken but firm old man. “You realize that you have painted Kelso into a corner,” he said to her.
Chris asked him why.
“Well, Kelso is still on probation.” Her breath froze: she had forgotten that fact. Judge Fuller told Chris that he was willing to swear out a bench warrant for Kelso’s arrest, but it required her boss to call him to okay the warrant. “Have your boss call me.” Chris assured him that Babs would call. She was pursuing the case with energy. After hanging up, she forwarded to his office the list of new violations plus notarized affidavits. Unbridled joy surged through her.
That morning she went into Bill’s cramped office where Babs was sitting. Chris was beaming. Fresh resolution had filled her sails. When she told the two of them about the bench warrant, she expected congratulations or joy, but she had entirely misjudged the mood. Babs and Bill sat gazing at her in stunned silence.
Exhilarated and overjoyed, Chris ignored their glum mood. “This is good news all the same,” she said and left.
Chris continued to interview Kendrick, Kyd and Michello. The more they talked, the more she learned. One morning, Bob Hayes sent her an article that claimed that old man Roost, Marvin, had looted American National Bank in San Diego a decade ago. A federal court charged him with self-dealing, giving special loans to companies he owed, and the documents explained how Roost bribed an auditor to get good audits, and when the Feds grabbed him, they found that several big holders of the bank’s stock had made huge withdrawals just before the Feds froze the monies. Marvin was dragged into court, and pled guilty of plundering $3,790,000, but he got only a $95,000 fine and probation. Then he suddenly died. She could imagine the Earth sending up loud shouts of rejoicing.
It was a hot day in late May, and as it was nearing noon Chris was seated at her desk, needing to eat. She was about to leave and have lunch when Bill’s squat form appeared in the doorway.
“Could you please come to my office?”
She went in and sat down, docile. He closed the door. She was expecting compliments on her work, when suddenly, Bill cleared his throat, and said, “It’s not working out. I’m afraid we are going to have to let you go.”
Her mouth opened as if to gasp for air. The words were a sharp blow to the stomach. She felt like an eviscerated fish. She felt a weakness flooding her senses, a vacuum opening in her mind. Surprised pain had left her helpless.
“What’s not working?” she said, inane.
A little while later, her angry face full of sullen shame, Chris began packing her personal things into a cardboard box, her office door shut. She packed the copies of the Senate memo, plus interviews and the new affidavits that she and her staff had obtained. Babs was out of the office. When the office staff went out to lunch, Chris left, clumsily carrying her box down the long row of locked doors and out into the bright street and called a cab.
The next day, when the two friends met at lunch, Babs tried to console her. She said vehemently, “The fix is in! It’s not you, sweetie. It’s the fucking Republicans in the Senate! That fucking Churchill!” She made a woebegone face meant to pity and shook her head. “The fix is in.”
“What do you mean what fix? The Republicans are trying to screw us.”
Then Babs had leaned across the table to grab her friend’s hand. “Look, I think it’s fair to say that we can’t really point out where you end and I begin, we are that close.” Chris was looking away, distraught, when Babs said to her, “I know you – you just want to hole up in your apartment, don’t do that. Promise me.” Chris raised her grieving, pinched face and wet eyes to her. “Don’t despair. I’ll find you a new job. Keep going, that’s all I ask,” and Chris impulsively kissed her friend’s freckled hand.
But Chris didn’t keep going – she was inconsolable. By the end of each day, she was half-drunk from red wine, listening to somber music, and only left her flat to buy groceries. She knew that what gives most of us courage and ambition is the knowledge that our friends and associates regard us with respect and admiration. Alone in her flat, dressed in pale pink PJs, Chris felt the deep grief that one feels at the loss of a friend or a pet – a sorrow that comes from the knowledge that in every bond there is something that no words can express because that bond contains feelings that are unique to it and the loss of them is irreparable. Even Py seemed to sense her inner agony; he incessantly climbed up into her lap to be held and stroked. She also sorely missed her staff; she had grown fond of them.
Dismally, she realized she had lost two jobs.
But her firing by Bill had stung her so deeply that it felt like a painful splinter lodged deep under the skin that never went away. Chris knew that she could only dislodge the splinter when an occasion gave her the chance to inflect on the splinter a force equal to the one that had put it there in the first place. Quietly, she vowed that day would come.
Four weeks later, Chris, dressed in her PJs, was idly paging through a Wall Street Journal when she, by chance, saw an article about an international pharmaceutical company that was fighting a takeover attempt. She was rapidly scanning it, about to lay it down, when her eyes almost leapt out of her head: the man leading the takeover was no other than Gerald Mahr!
She immediately got the phone number of ICC Pharmaceuticals which was fighting the takeover. The company was based in Newport Beach, a town south of Los Angeles. It had hired a law firm, Hall and Demetrious, and she finally got a company lawyer, David Hall, on the phone. His voice was craggy, deliberate and acute. She told him that the documents she had showed Mahr was corrupt. She had no car, but if Hall and his attorneys agreed to pay for a round trip taxi fare and a six pack of beer, she would deliver the Senate documents to Dulles airport.
After enduring three days of torturing suspense, the call came: ICC had hired her on the spot, Hall said. She could name her own price. Chris hurriedly packed her bag, got a friend in her building to take care of Py, and left for Los Angeles. Hall met her at the airport. He had a head too big for his body, was handsome, dressed in an expensive black suit and gold cufflinks. He had brown hair, pale, piercing eyes, and a red chap-bitten face, as if he habitually drank too much. But he had charm and was penetrating and direct in laying out what ICC wanted from her.
ICC had booked her a room at the Newport Beach Inn. At the end of her first day, as they were going down the company corridor out to the street, David had offhandedly asked her, “How many people did you interview today?” She had replied, "Nineteen,” and he had looked extremely impressed.
David’s speech was logical and concise, plus he had a phenomenal memory. He had a fly paper mind. To test each other’s memory, she and David both read the same Wall Street Journal articles and then one would put in what the other had left out. She also discovered that David liked cocaine. One day, she met him at the John Wayne Airport after he arrived from a flight from New York. He looked tired, and quickly went into the Men’s Room. When he came out, he was a different person; his fatigue had vanished, and after he picked up his car, he wanted to race her back to her hotel. What followed was the most hair-raising drive she had ever had in her life. She never used drugs. Red wine was good enough.
David and his stunning blonde wife lived nearby. She and Chris soon became friends.
One early morning, Chris was studying Gerald Mahr’s résumé. She paged through the pictures of him. Mahr had a handsome face ringed by full dark hair. His brown eyes were interesting; their gaze held you. She paged through the photos, Mahr posing with President George W. Bush; Mahr posing with Donald Rumsfeld. She glanced through his speeches, all full of references to a brighter future and a more hopeful and prosperous America. His speeches were so bemired in clichés and common-places, its promises so old and still undelivered, she stopped reading. Mahr cloaked his greed for power in idealism.
She laid the documents down, disconcerted. Something was missing. It was a feeling she had harbored for days. What had she overlooked about Mahr? She felt alarm. Something was missing.
Two weeks later, she came back to D.C. to pick up Py and to have a farewell lunch with Babs. They went to their favorite outdoor café. It was noisy and busy and seated eaters were in the shade of patio umbrellas. Taxis and cars were passing by in the street. Babs was in rare form, talking about the philosopher David Hume: “What you don’t want is a general, colorless, unimaginative view of life. Hume uses cat-like touches of malice, hinting at claws beneath the velvet,” and on and on she went. But suddenly, Babs grew serious. “So how long will you be gone, sweetie?”
“I don’t have any idea.”
“Well, I am sure you will do well in LA. Remember to stay away from Mahr’s men like Churchill. Remember, honey. The fix is in. Don’t forget. ”
Some wayward impulse led her to return to the Senate building for the last time. She timidly entered the wide, cavernous, circular room. It displayed drab orange walls and seven double doors. The spindly, dark mahogany desks were arranged in a semi-circle in four shallow tiers. They looked old-fashioned like school kids’ desks. The floor was covered by some sort of worn, dingy gray carpet. Above them rose dark galleries of dark wood, and just above them, set in niches, were the sculpted busts of the first twenty-one U.S. vice presidents. The sight flooded her with awe and respect. She gazed raptly at the huge ceiling, a white oval ceiling pierced by small black holes So much history, so many struggles here.
Some senators in their suits and ties were out of their seats talking or else were standing against the walls while onlookers gawked from the galleries. The mood was one of apathy. The pace of the place was drowsy, unenergetic, the interest slack and desultory.
She stepped outside to leave when she ran into none other than Peter Churchill, Mahr’s supposed bag man. He was tall, well built, nice features including amazing deep, blue eyes. She hated him on sight and was trying to get past him, but he called out her name.
“I heard you were fired,” he said. The expression on the face was sympathetic.
“Thanks to you,” her voice was utterly venomous. She brushed her hair back.
Churchill acted with startled surprise. He was wearing a nice blue blazer and gray slacks. “Why thanks to me?”
“You know what I mean,” and again, she tried to get past him.
“Why thanks to me?” he stared at her with keen, piercing eyes. “Are you really telling me that you have never looked into Babs’ background?”
“Why would I? She’s a friend,” she said hotly. But the question surprised her.
“Why?” Churchill seemed dumbfounded. “Didn’t you ever wonder why your lead with Prewitt never panned out? Or why Bill Mamet at the FEC refused to help you? Don’t you ever think?”
Fury rose in her. She could have hit him.
“In case you didn’t know, dear old Babs is mad for money, in case you don’t know! Dear old Babs is always talking to anyone who has ears, about how ‘low aims rule the world,’ but, in fact, she’s completely in the grip of them.” Churchill’s blue eyes snapped angrily. “She banks in shady places. She has offshore accounts. She owns a lot of property under her mother’s name. She contaminates everything she touches!”
“And why should I believe you?”
“You mean, because I am a Republican?” He gave her a pitying look. “I thought you were the hot shot investigator.”
Chris had frozen, but then Churchill told her how Babs had alerted every source in the California Health Department and the nursing home owners about every new discovery she and her staff had made.
Churchill was shaking his head in amazement. “You are very gullible.”
“Why should I believe you? You worked for Mahr.” She had to hit back with something.
Churchill simply shook his head in disbelief. Both of them were blocking the corridor, talking, and they moved to one side to let people pass. “Don’t you understand? Babs wanted you to fail,” he said intensely. “Babs gave you a weak case and having a good reporter on it was going to lend credulity to a weak effort. Did she give you a competent and experienced staff? She had a vested interest in your failure. But your success surprised her, so dear old Babs went and asked Bill to fire you.”
His words struck her mind like tiny hammers. Chris was glaring hatred at him. She stood, pale and confused, and Churchill stared back at her.
“For all of your drive and commitment, you are very credulous,” he said and walked off, head down, shaking his head in rue.
But his words had changed everything. Like a twist of a kaleidoscope, she suddenly began to see Babs differently.
One day sitting at her desk in the ICC office, she realized that one of the chief mental errors rests with the mistaken conviction that one knows familiar factsinside and out. Now, she had to overcome her laziness. She realized that she had to start to review all of her interviews to see old information with new eyes. That is what it would take to succeed.
So she began to reread all the notes of her interviews, starting with the early California reporter interviews. Mahr, heavy hitter, in tight with the Republicans. Then suddenly there it was. The sentence was by one of the first reporters she had talked to. “President Bush had nominated Mahr to head the Veterans Administration.” She had read this at least twenty times. She sat back. Why didn’t Mahr take the job? Was this the big Washington job Kendrick had alluded to?
They met at a restaurant near San Diego. The former California state investigator’s name was Henry Keep. He was a thin, dark-haired man who stood over six feet. His face was handsome enough, but it displayed broken-hearted brown eyes: acute suffering sat in them. And clearly he wasn’t pleased by her presence, but she quickly saw that whatever else he was, he was a good and careful listener. As she talked to him, he would avert his eyes to the side, gazing into the distance with an absent-minded air, then would suddenly fix her in his gaze and ask her penetrating questions. You did not lie to such a face, she thought.
Keep was saying, “A pickpocket is a bad character. A guy who loots the Vatican of its art treasures, is not only a bad character, he is a monster. But how do you classify people like Kelso and Roost who pay bonuses to their cooks if they feed patients on seventy cents a day? They are obscene.”
Keep told her that Kelso’s and Roost’s organizations including Eldcare, Edison Bank and the National Bank of Oxnard were “a rat’s nest” of illegal accounting, off the book accounts, and slush funds. Roost’s and Kelso’s banks swapped funds with companies they owned, and many were front companies led by made up characters. In one case, a Kelso company, Excellent Eldcare, turned out to be located at a filling station, yet they got millions of dollars a year in state contracts. He sounded very bitter and disillusioned.
Keep was staring out at the street across the sunlit tables with the seated eaters and the café had sprouted with umbrellas. Finally, he said, “I assume you know about the Mob in the industry.” She became very alert. He went on: “See, the Mob has quietly been infiltrating the nursing home industry for years. I assume you knew that.”
“Only vaguely,” she said. That was a lie.
“Well, no case is worth ending up permanently mediating in the trunk of someone’s car.”
“My partner was Walt Cooper. He was a state investigator like me, and he had sources telling him how the National Bank of Oxnard was entirely crooked, and Mob guys banked there. Then after Walt was killed in a car crash, I started looking into it. One night at home, a guy with a boorish, gruff voice called me up and threatened me to lay off. Fuck that. So I kept working and he called again: ordering me to back off, or it was going to end badly. It was chilling, let me tell you. Later I tried to convert him into a confidential source, but it didn’t work.”
“Did he give you a number?
Keep shook his head. He sipped his drink. “Talk to the FBI.”
“You can’t give me a name?”
“No. He’s a source. If he agrees, then you can have it.”
“Did your guy name other mobsters?”
“Boy, did he!” Keep came alive. “One was Guy Flabbert; he’s a mob lawyer. Kelso uses him, but Flabbert had clients like Danny Ceililo, Tony Ratzmin and ‘Donkey Dick’ Mazzuto. Mahr was palling around with them. We heard that Mahr had a secret interest in some sleazy Las Vegas nightclub Ratzmin and Mazzuto owned. We suspected that was why he didn’t get the VA job, but we couldn’t prove it. We tried.”
“You never found out why he didn’t get it?” Chris knew that any potential senior federal official had to be investigated before he accepted the job.
“We could never find out. Lots of rumors, but no facts.” Then he asked her, how did you find out about the Mob angle?”
Chris told him a heavily redacted version of how one night at the Newport Inn, she ran into a man in a Hawaiian shirt who had looked unattractive after two glasses of wine, but who looked like Brad Pitt after seven. They had gone up to her room and had sex. He left early, and she was so hung over, that she had to drink a beer and take two aspirin before she was able to endure the needlings of the shower. By noon, she still felt utterly ravaged, and to resurrect her spirits she ordered a double scotch. There were three men up at the bar, one wearing a burnt orange turtleneck, the other two in leisure suits. The burnt orange turtleneck offered to buy her drink, and then asked her what she did for a living. She told him that she was a writer for the National Geographic which was doing an article about the California health care system, one of the best in the country, thanks to Gerald Mahr.
The face of the burnt orange turtleneck clouded over. “Mahr was doing real well until he got mixed up with the wrong people.”
The words just hung there. “You mean organized crime,” and the man nodded. Her answer occurred out of nowhere. It had no place in logic.
Keep was impressed. “Well, you certainly have good instincts, but be careful with these guys. They are bad news.”
Then, gazing at her, he said, “You have to understand,” and his voice dropped to a tone of deepest conspiracy. “This whole setup is designed to be impenetrable. To fool experts. These owners see honest people as obstacles, dangerous obstacles.”
“What whole setup?”
“All of this. It’s a bunch of dummy companies, fake accounts, front men. The aim of its operations is to escape detection and any sort of regulation.”
“What whole setup?”
“This whole thing! The bribes, pay off monies going under the table.” It was very intensely said.
As they were leaving, they locked eyes. “I’m sorry about your partner,” she said sincerely, gazing at him.
He looked terribly sad. “Thank you. Walt would have appreciated that.”
A few days later, she called one of her sources in the FBI office in San Diego. They had exchanged several calls during the committee probe, but so far, whenever she brought up the Mob, she ran into blank silence. Chris liked the agent, who had a deep, interesting voice and a thoughtful manner, but today when she mentioned the Mob, his whole manner changed. “Your sources are right. Mahr is vomit, a stink in heaven’s nostrils.” She could hear him blush. “Pardon my language.”
She could care less. Then she asked him, “Have you ever wondered why Mahr didn’t get the VA job?”
He didn’t reply. Chris quickly told him, “One source told me it was because of organized crime, but there is no proof beyond hearsay.” She was silently urging him: “Come on, come on.” She was about to burst, when, he said to her, “I’ve watched your work. You can analyze. You are all tenacity.” He paused again. Another pause. She was about to climb the walls.
Then, “Ok. I am going to give you the number of someone who might help you. He was with the Bureau but left to become a Catholic priest. He lives in San Francisco. His name is Paul Johnson. He was one of the two Bureau guys who did the background check on Mahr.”
She could not believe her ears or her good luck.
“Wait. What happened to the other one?” she asked.
“He died of a heart attack. Call Johnson. I’ll give Paul a heads up.”
The next day she called Johnson, but got no answer. She called him twice more, waited, hung up, and called again. This time, he picked up. He agreed to be taped. He told her that Mahr had no chance of getting the VA job. Johnson and his partner discovered secret ties between Mahr, who had a hidden interest in a Las Vegas casino and a Mob bank; the casino owners were Ratzmin and Mazzuto. “The IRS finally got Ratzmin, who was sent to prison. They got Mazzuto on tax evasion. He got three years. But once we discovered the connection, Mahr was out of the running for the VA job.”
He added, “We had phone taps and interviews confirming this. Not enough to charge him, but enough to block his getting the job. Do you want copies?”
Johnson then promised to send Chris a notarized affidavit of what he had told her. She put down the phone in an exhilarated daze.
The next day, she played the Johnson tape for David Hall who looked as if he were trying to grow wings to fly. He hugged her for a long time. It was the only clinch they had ever had.
Within days, the takeover attempt collapsed. Mahr vanished into Israel. Chris had never met him.
Seized by jubilant gratitude, Chris began to call people and thank them. First came her staff, then came Kyd, Michello, Varner, Kendrick, and next came Duane at the FEC, the sources in the State Department of Health, the San Diego DA’s office and then the FBI. Lastly, she called reporters, beginning with Bob Hayes.
A few days later, she packed up Py and her belongings. She was sitting back at her desk, about to leave her room, when, on a sudden impulse, she paged through her address book and was able to get the San Diego Judge, Graham Fuller, on the line.
He didn’t recognize her name at first, but then said with genuine warmth, “Oh, I remember you. I remember you very well. I was terribly disappointed that your office never phoned me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I was all set to approve a bench warrant for Kelso because he had violated his probation, but your boss never called me.”
Why was she not surprised? “You mean Babs Hershel?”
“What’s her name?”
Chris told him.
“Hershel, yes. I waited and waited, and then one day she sent me a letter, and I responded. I told her that ‘per your request, we will not swear out a warrant for Kelso.’ I have a copy of her letter, if you need it. Later I was told she had canceled the hearings,” he said. The last twist of the knife, Chris thought.
After they hung up, she just sat for a moment hearing Py cry.
She and David Hall hugged, and his eyes in hers, he promised to use her on other cases. Then, she sent off all of her notarized affidavits and documents to a prominent Washington columnist.
Chris returned to Washington and set up a Tuesday lunch with Babs. Babs was sitting at a table at their usual café, superbly decked out, in a lovely sweater, droplet earrings and grey slacks, a foot crossed. Babs was poised to welcome back her friend, her bright face displaying a warm look, but when she saw the look on Chris’ face, her spirits retreated. By now, Chris’ soul had become a storehouse of festering wrath. As soon as Chris sat down, she began to hurl questions at her friend. Babs turned as white as candle wax. Chris didn’t care: “Is it true you have shady banking connections? Is it true that you own a lot of properties under your mother’s name. Once you told me that friendship comes into being because of likeness and similarity, remember? Isn’t that what you said?”
Babes suddenly turned loud and offensive, “You’re so smart. What is my mother’s name?”
“Jopheson.” Then, speaking rapidly, between clenched teeth, precisely enunciating every word, Chris said, “You are vomit.” But as Chris, white-faced, started to leave, Babs yelled at her back, “Yeah, well I have a good record, and I’ll stand on it! I’m proud of it! And who are you anyway? You are just someone I fired!” Her smile had become a little malicious flame.
Chris stopped and came stomping back. Her mouth was a tight, seamless line, and she spoke with untempered bitterness.
“It wasn’t the first time you fired an investigator was it?” she hissed. “You hired another investigator just like me, and you told her to her face she was doing outstanding work, but then you told Bill the exact opposite. And Bill fired her at your urging. Isn’t that true? Chris’ tone was coldly lethal, and then Chris stormed out of the restaurant as the pale and startled faces of the patrons looked up because of the shouting.
“Yeah, well I have a good record and I’ll stand on it” Babs kept yelling as Chris was leaving. “President George Bush once called me an extraordinary human being!”
But the splinter in Chris’ soul was gone.
Two years passed and Chris and Babs hadn’t traded a word. Henry Keep was now Chris’ boyfriend. He would fly into Washington, and she would fly out to LA. They were in love.
One morning Chris read in the San Diego papers that the National Bank of Oxnard collapsed, allegedly looted by Kelso, who had fled the country. Three months later, Chris read in the newspapers about a lawsuit and she called the law firm handling the bank’s liquidation on behalf of the investors who had been ruthlessly victimized. One of the lawyers was puzzling over a $230,000 certificate of deposit issued to Zera K. Tom. There were several complex financial transactions involved, but the attorney said that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the name. Who was Zera K. Tom?
Chris didn’t have a clue. The attorney left his number.
She had gotten over Babs’ betrayal. Chris knew that she misjudged Babs because, out of affection, she had added qualities to Babs that the older woman did not possess. To hate such people was like condemning a stone. The stone wasn’t going to change.
One day, reading a newspaper and seeing a photo of Babs and her husband, Howard, featured in an article, she went to her file on Babs. Suddenly it struck her. On the third card, carefully printed, were the names of Babs’ children, Zera and Tom.
Chris reached for her phone.
It took months, but Babs was indicted on 19 counts of bribery, conspiracy, and perjury. A year later, she pled no contest to three felonies and income tax evasion, plus admitting she had paid $20,000 in kickbacks. She was ordered to pay $53,000 in reparations and was sentenced to seven years probation.
Babs disappeared. She had changed her name. She had dumped her husband and children. It was rumored that she and a rich, younger boyfriend were living somewhere near Las Vegas.
There was once a pretty, delicate, lively girl with a beautiful and touching face who was loved by two boys, but she was aware of only one of them. The girl’s name was Angelica. The boy she liked was handsome, popular and had lots of friends. He had a warm smile, and he was good at sports, and all the girls liked him; everyone wanted to be his friend. His name was John.
The other boy was shy, chubby, short, with unkempt hair, and was the kind of person no one looked at twice. His character was dreamy and ineffectual. His pants sagged in the back, and he wore spectacles. He had once seen the girl walking along a country road, and his life and world were never the same again.
His name was Eric, and the only person he trusted was his father who wore glasses like his and who was short and a bit chubby like himself. He once told his father of the girl, Angelica, and how deeply he loved her. His father asked if the girl had loved him back. “She never looks at me,” Eric said, disheartened. “I once tried to talk to her, but I was shy, and she began to look very bored, and I stopped and went away.”
His father paused a bit then said, “You can still love her, even if she does not love you.” Eric asked how? “Be as kind as you can. Give her whatever you can. She doesn’t need to know you are giving it, but you will know and someday maybe she may come to love you as well. In any case, give to her.”
In the meantime, John and Angelica grew more and more fond of each other, saw more of each other, and one day Angelica’s world was unexpectedly brightened. She kept an old wicker basket out at the front porch of her house, the one she sometimes put things in, and one morning she began to find new and lovely things in it, simple things like a polished stone, a wood carving of a bird, twine twisted into the shape of a flower, or an old arrowhead. Almost every week she went out and found something new in the basket, and she instantly knew who the gift giver was: she knew it had to be John. Angelica knew that no one else was as sweet and thoughtful person as John was. No one else was that thoughtful and generous. She was certain that John was her giver of gifts. What had escaped her was the fact that John, for all of his good looks, was a dull, awkward talker. One day, as they were talking together, Angelica’s heart overflowed, and, in a rush, she tried to thank John for all the gifts. To her dismay, he only looked confused and tongue-tied, so she stopped, thinking, “He’s modest, that’s all. That’s the kind of man he is. He’s modest.”
One day she and John were walking along the road. It had been a lovely, sunny day with few clouds, and now the sun was slowly sinking in the west while high above was a red, high, fading beautiful sky, the slanted rays still shining on the green, tended fields with lonely tufts of trees studded among them. The fields were brightly green, and wild flowers grew curving and thick by the side of the road. All of a sudden, Angelica and John came face to face, and for a moment their eyes met and then their lips touched gently, and John kissed her and then suddenly nestled his mouth in her hair, satisfied. It was a moment of enchantment. They just stood there like that for a bit, and then they walked home, separated to go to their own houses.
Angelica’s spirits were soaring. It was thrilling to be kissed. A sleepwalker’s smile was on her face the next day. And during the next week, she found a new gift in her basket, a little silver bell, a rabbit’s foot, the remains of a bird’s egg, bright, little silver cross. She hadn’t seen John for a while, but she had certainly seen enough of Eric. She often found a pudgy form larking by a tree or by a hedge, and it annoyed her. “Honestly! What do you think you are doing? What do you want? Go away!” she shouted.
Eric, his face horrified, had fled scuttling out of sight.
One day, at home, Eric’s old father gave the boy a gift. It was Eric’s birthday, and when the shy, overweight, blushing boy opened a box, a slender gold coin glinted deep in its bottom. It was beautiful thing, and it was also priceless, an authentic old coin from an ancient shipwreck.
“Oh, Father,” said Eric, very moved. “But this is yours.” He moved to take it back, but his father raised his frail, freckled hand.
“I am not well,” the old man had said, “I want you to have things of value from me. You must keep this for your needs.”
Eric was deeply touched, but mainly he was very sad, for he deeply loved his father, and couldn’t bear the thought of him not being on the earth. He simply put away the coin for safekeeping.
Time passed. One day Angelica was walking alone out on the road, lost in thought. She was dreaming of John. She saw less and less of him, but her feelings were as strong as ever. Then ahead, she saw a form, and her heart quickened, but as she came closer, she frowned. Someone else was with John. It was Betsy, who was a pretty friend of hers. Angelica came closer, and then she saw, yes that Betsy was with John. Angelia watched as John and Betsy stood face to face, and the two kissed, and then John held Betsy in his arms and slowly allowed his mouth to rest in her hair, just as he had done with her. Sickened, Angelica turned away. She walked for hours. She felt her heart had broken into painful pieces.
John tried to see her, but Angelica would not see him. By now she knew that John was false and had a bad heart. He could not be trusted. The only thing that puzzled her is that she kept finding gifts from John in her wicker basket: a chicken’s egg carefully decorated in dainty colors, the pearl inland handle of a parasol. And on her birthday she was astounded to find a tiny package, and inside was a beautiful coin made of glinting, solid gold. But as she lifted her eyes she once again spotted the old, odd, pudgy form of Eric lurking out in the yard by a tree. “Get away from here. Go away! Can’t you understand I don’t want to see you! You are ugly and useless!”
And she never saw Eric again. As time passed, John had moved away, and her life simply went on. She never saw the skulking form hiding by the crooked tree again, but as the days went by she often took pleasure I taking out her coin and to hold up to the light where it glinted and gleamed and warmed her heart. At least she still retained that precious memory of John and their good days of friendship.
One day out on the road she met an old man walking painfully with a cane. He was kind and friendly, and the two stopped to talk shyly. He was sad, he said. He had had a son, a boy with a tender and kind nature. He was commonplace-looking and chubby, but he was sincerely good at heart, but the boy had died suddenly from what had begun as a cold. It had happened only recently.
Angelica saw how grief-stricken the old man was, the great sorrow in his face, and she comforted him. The old man dried his eyes. He looked at her. “Your kind words mean a great deal because they come from you, you -- whom my son loved with all his heart.”
“Me?” She was appalled and flabbergasted. Her face had turned dead pale.
“Oh, how much he loved you. He talked of you all the time.”
She was stunned. “Who was your son?” she asked. He frowned and sighed, “You would never look at him, I don’t blame you – to people he seemed odd and awkward, but he loved you, and every day he tried to give you a gift. His name was Eric.”
She felt a profound pang that pierced like a sharp pin, and said at last, “Did you son like coins?” The old man nodded. “I once gave him one on his birthday but I don’t know what happened to it. I can only say it is very beautiful, and it’s value is priceless.”
When the girl got home, she went to her room. On a shelf was a stunning, touching array of the treasures she had found in her basket for so many months and in a special place she saw that the coin gleamed and glinted. And then she knew that in Eric’s kindness, she had had a brief glimpse of what true love was, and she thought, “If only I could speak to him.” And she wept, full of regret.
She made a friend of the old father, and together they often went to Eric’s grave and left bunches of lovely flowers leaning against the modest stone headstone with his name.
Years went past. The old man died. Angelica fell in and out of love, but she never married. Now and then she thought of John, wondering how something that had promised so much had amounted to so little.
One night she fell asleep, but deep in the night, she dreamed that she had awakened and went in her nightgown out onto the porch where the old wicker basket still sat on the floor. The night was still, almost expectant, and the sky sparkled thickly with the bright silver dust of the night sky. She stood staring out into the darkness when a pair of strong arms gently closed her in their clasp. She had an instant of real fear, but only an instant, because she also had a quick sense that in those arms that held her were strong and kind. And she suddenly yielded to the sense that she and her soul were completely safe in their grasp. An unheard of comfort enveloped her: never in her life had she felt so preciously admired, so appreciated, so treasured and adored. And then she felt a man’s mouth come to rest in her hair, and she closed her eyes, held firm by arms that locked her in such deep and imperishable love. And like a hand unclenching, her soul slowly opened wide, and, full of happy release, she gently sank into the depths of thankful gratitude.
And the next morning when she awoke, the realized that it was not John whose presence she had felt in her dream. No. It had been Eric who had held her.
And she used that coin, selling it at auction, and from its incredible value, she took care of the needs of the neighbors in her village for years, and she became a famous figure in the region, respected and revered. And as she grew old, she often thought of Eric and the true meaning of love – that love simply meant continuing to give in the face of indifference.
A certain little fish had always wanted to fly. It was kept in a very small, clear bowl, and swam round endlessly in circles during the day, and slept a bit at night, at the bottom of its bowl. The fish liked the clear water of his bowl, and he liked the flakes of the fish food which drifted down like tiny, dead leaves.
And he liked looking out through his bowl to see the dim outlines of trees and houses, and green fields. The little fish had seen birds, big ones and little ones, though the glass of the bowl and would watch them as they perched on a branch, or as they planed down to land on the grass, then flutter up in flight again. The birds endlessly fascinated the little fish. As it swam in his circle, the little fish believed one day he would be able to fly like the birds. Of course, its life was content enough, but still the little fish wanted to fly. It believed that circling his small bowl was not the climax of its life.
As time passed, the fish still held fast to his dream as it swam endlessly round and round in his bowl. It would move in little spurts of speed, tail fins wiggling. But as time passed, its little bowl appeared to grow smaller and smaller, and as it swam, its disappointment grew.
Years dragged past.
The fish began to wonder that, if it had been a different kind of fish, a stronger fish, a more intelligent fish, would he fly then? Was there some knowledge it could grasp that would enable him to fly? With all its might it desired to fly, hoping that, hoping that one day it would turn into a mighty fish with wings.
More years passed. The little fish grew increasingly sad. What had happened to it in its life? Nothing. It always saw the same shapes occupying the exact same places, as they floated past it as the clear water. And the little fish began to feel that it was a failure.
Finally, one day the little fish fell sick. It stayed on the bottom of its bowl, feebly flickering its fins. It would try and swim, but the little fish was too weak. Now it felt that the days when he had been able to swim endlessly around its bowl had been great and wonderful days compared to these. How it yearned to have them back again.
The little fish grew weaker. And weaker. Slowly, the little fins of the flickered more and more feebly, and then one day, it died.
The little fish had died quietly, lying on the sand at the bottom of the bowl. Its fins were entirely still. Then, after a time, very. very slowly, its body began to lift from the sand at the bottom of its bowl. Slowly, very slowly, it floated up, belly first, rising, rising through the water, until his dead white belly broke the surface of his bowl.
It was its way of flying.
"The second season has received generally positive reviews, however many critics feel it is not as strong as the first. On Rotten Tomatoes, the season has a rating of 65%, based on 72 reviews, with an average rating of 6.4/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "True Detective 's second season stands on its own as a solid police drama, with memorable moments and resonant relationships outweighing predictable plot twists." On Metacritic, the season has a score of 61 out of 100, based on 41 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
David Hinckley of the New York Daily News gave it a very positive review, and wrote "It's still the kind of show that makes TV viewers reach for phrases like 'golden age of television drama'" and that "the second installment of True Detective goes out of the way not to echo the first." Hank Stuever of The Washington Post gave it a generally positive review, praising the performances, and wrote, "There is something still lugubrious and overwrought about True Detective, but there's also a mesmerizing style to it — it's imperfect, but well made."
A more mixed review came from Brian Lowry of Variety, who wrote "Although generally watchable, the inspiration that turned the first [season] into an obsession for many seems to have drained out of writer Nic Pizzolatto's prose.""
IMO both seasons are evidence of an emerging Golden Age in American TV drama productions. The quality of writing, production and direction were all superb.
These series exist at a number of artistic levels. They can be seen as mere cop show extravaganzas. At that level they work remarkably well.
More importantly, they are, IMO, powerful metaphors for the general disintegration of what were not long ago well accepted cultural norms involving personal behavior and expectations regarding the functions of government.
This is not to say that there was a utopian age in an America that worked well for all, but there were enough shared values in pre-60s America for it to have been possible to say without irony that there were such things as coherent national and regional cultures. Such a thing as national or regional epic was possible based on shared values. IMO and evidently in the collective mind of the "True Detective" crew such coherent, functioning cultures are no more. They were systematically destroyed over the last fifty years by those who sought a brave new world disorganized on the basis of and excused by a drive for extreme forms of social justice and leveling. This drive has treated all tradition as enemy. This brave new world has resulted, once again IMO, in a Hobbesian universe in which the juggernaut of "progress" rolls over and crushes American social institutions one by one. The latest victims of this institutional destruction are the police, the guardians of social order. In the new and wonderfully dystopian America, policemen who have done their duty in defense of life and property are persecuted and dismissed by politicians and police chiefs who are mere warriors in the struggle of all against all. There are, of course policemen guilty of egregious misconduct as in the case of the fool in North Charleston, S.C. who shot a fleeing man in the back, but what is happening in the media is a general assault on the policing powers of the states and cities.
Season 1 of "True Detective" focused on this kind of descent into dystopia in Louisiana and East Texas. My impression is that the writer and director simply are more familiar with that part of the country and were more comfortable with a regional format as an "opening gun."
Season 2 is set in California and more closely devoted to Southern California, a lurking abscess in the fabric of the America that once was. In that world of the dark imaginings of the "True Detective" artists government is a cesspool of money corruption and selfish striving for personal gain that know no limits.
IMO this series will not live long. In season 2 the bad guys win and consolidate their gains, ready to move on to new depths. Americans, especially flyover Americans are unaccustomed to spectacles that do not end well in reward of virtue. "Put a ribbon around it" is a common exhortation in US TV production. This means that happy endings are expected and demanded. "True Detective" puts paid to that distortion of reality. In the "True Detective" world there are no Yellow Brick Roads, Lassie does not come home and Shirley Temple does not dance with Bojangles Robinson.
THE PEOPLE, the real people sense the decline of their way of life and its rejection by the Borgist elites. The unhappiness of THE PEOPLE can be seen in the reaction to Trump and Sanders. pl
(Walter H. Taylor)
The Hog’s Snout
(An alternative history)
By W. Patrick Lang
“Mister President, my newspaper and I are grateful for this opportunity to speak with you.”
“I am always happy to talk to our friends and cousins in the United States. We do not wish to have any misunderstandings between our two countries…”
President Walter Taylor was the sixth chief executive of the Confederate States of America and halfway through the single six year term allowed under his country’s constitution. He was fifty-six years old and looked healthy as the proverbial horse. Dressed in a black suit, he sat at ease in the parlor of the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia. He was a beautiful man growing gracefully white haired but still slender. He looked comfortable in a simple chair. He had emerged from behind a big, dark colored wooden desk to sit with the reporter.
The New York Times man who had been given an interview eyed him appraisingly. “Would you tell sir, something of your early life,” he asked.
“I was born in Norfolk in 1838. My people were merchants. The family had been here since the early days of the Virginia colony. I decided to attend the military institute at Lexington and studied there for a while until my father died and I was called home. I worked for a bank and read law until war came. I was in the Norfolk militia and joined a volunteer company in Tidewater after secession.”
“As an officer?”
“They did me that honor… Yes. Shortly thereafter one of my numerous relations suggested to General Lee that I might be useful to him as an adjutant and member of his headquarters staff.”
“You were not the only officer on the staff.”
“No. No. There were quite a few of us; Charles Venable, Charles Marshall, Colonel John Fairfax, you know of him. He is the eleventh Baron Cameron. Born here among us, but he was a picturesque man, always quoting the King James Bible and a great source of good whiskey. Then there was the usual collection of ‘galloper’ officer couriers et cetera.”
“But you were close to him? I mean Lee…”
Taylor thought about that for moment. “Yes, and the longer the war dragged on the more he was like a father to me, but, I suppose that would be true of us all. Is there something in particular that you wanted to talk about?”
“I am the military editor of the Times. I would like to know what happened at the North Anna. Grant’s plans to end the war were progressing well until then. But suddenly things started to come apart. Ben Butler was pushed back at Drewry’s Bluff south of Richmond on the 12th of May and that strange defeat in the Shenandoah Valley happened on the 15th at New Market, but still, observers thought that after Spotsylvania Court House it was just a matter of time until we reached Richmond and then there would be a total downfall of your… government.” The reporter looked in the portfolio he had brought and found a photograph. He handed it to Taylor.
“Ah, yes,” the president said. “Grant and his staff relaxing at Massaponax Church on the way to our renewed encounter at the North Anna, they look confident, sure that we were finished. We thought the same thing. We thought we were doomed. The only thing holding us together by the time we arrived at our new position in that river was our
loyalty to “the tycoon” himself. “
Taylor smiled. “That’s what we called him, and he pretended not to know. He tried hard to be a tolerant man, but he was a volcano inside. It showed on the battlefield, and he had a terrible temper. When it got the better of him we would all go hide as best we could.” The president seemed suddenly to remember that he was talking to his old enemies through this man. The smile left him and he waited.
“The North Anna?”
Taylor nodded. “Do you like the wallpaper,” he asked after a minute. “My wife tells me that it is French, flocked in that fuzzy red material, and that it was here when Jefferson Davis sat in this chair. Yes, I heard you, the North Anna. We call it the ‘Hog’s Snout.' We were chewed to pieces by your people by the time we arrived on the North Anna River. The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania had taken an awful toll. I was in charge of calculating our strength every day and we were at about half strength from what we were when Grant crossed the Rapidan two, three weeks before. He just kept coming and coming at us. We had lost all manner of animals in the artillery and trains. Edward Johnson’s division had been pretty much captured or killed in the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania. Supply had broken down again and there was nothing to eat except what we took off your men’s bodies. We killed your people, and killed them and killed them but there were always more. We beat Grant to the North Anna and could cover the Virginia Central rail line and the Telegraph Road where it crossed the rail line, but we had no idea what we would do when Grant arrived in strength from Spotsylvania. We were right desperate.
The newsman saw that Taylor was looking at him in a way that made him uneasy.
“And then reinforcements arrived, Pickett’s Division came up from south of Richmond. They had just whipped Ben Butler and were full of themselves, and Breckinridge reached us from “The Valley.” Both of them had been done pretty hard in the previous weeks but the men were somehow still full of fight. There were a lot of Virginians. This was our home place…”
The reporter nodded in seeming understanding.
“So, Grant came in from the northwest and tried to force a crossing of the river at Jericho Mill upstream from most of us.
(The North Anna at Jericho Mills)
Wilcox’s Division drove them back, but Grant kept moving southeast toward us. The river was actually quite an obstacle then. These days with all these new kinds of horseless transport, maybe not…
And then, something unexpected happened. The army’s Chief of Engineers, Major General Martin Smith, a Yankee by birth, but one of us, talked to the boss and they devised an ingenious scheme with which to trap Grant and his handmaiden, George Meade. Smith was a very clever fellow. He and General Lee had the foresight to build a corduroy road to Spotsylvania west and parallel to the Brock Road in the winter before. They reasoned that such a road would be needed to stay ahead of Grant if he tried to march south on the Brock Road through the Wilderness. That is how we got to Spotsylvania before Grant. After Spotsylvania those two decided that the topography of the North Anna area was a good place to lay a grand trap.
On the north side of the river a move to the Telegraph Road by Grant would have to cross the river twice on ground not served by roads or bridges. Such a move would take time and a great deal of field engineering work to achieve in any circumstance, especially a crisis circumstance. Because of this our planners decided to set up a position in which an inverted “V” would be created with available units positioned in a wedge, the point of the wedge resting on the south bank of the North Anna just where the greatest scarcity of lateral roads existed on the north bank. The opportune arrival of Pickett and Breckinridge allowed them to be positioned as the army 's reserve within the wedge.
“And you were privy to all these arrangements? You would actually have known this?”
Taylor sighed audibly. “Ah, yes, I and all the other officers of the staff in the field. The hope was that Grant would move to the east of the Telegraph Road through the roads well north of the river, and that is what he did.”
“What did he do then?”
“Well, you know the answer. Why you are asking me is almost a mystery, not quite a mystery, but almost, nevertheless I will answer the question. The Second US Army corps was sent to the southeast of the North Anna with evident orders to keep pressing down the Telegraph Road to the south, toward Richmond. The city was at that moment but ten miles away. Our side believed that Grant had no clear idea of our wedge shaped disposition. We were correct. He had sent Sheridan and the bulk of the Union cavalry corps on a massive raid into the Richmond area. These scouting troops were unavailable to spy out our locations. They had not yet returned to the main battlefield. It was understandable that he was effectively blind, but his dispatch of Second Corps isolated them on one side of our wedge, isolated by the bends in the river and the probability of an attack by our troops in the “nose” of the wedge into the Union flank if they tried to move east to rescue Second Corps from an assault on them.
“The result was a disaster for us, and the United States,” said the newsman. I was with Second Corps as a correspondent and was captured and imprisoned at Libby.”
“Welcome back to the capital,” President Taylor said straight-faced. “I hope your rooms are more satisfactory this time…”
The grey haired, portly visitor grew red in the face. “May we continue? We have never learned exactly what your plan was except by the effect, and I understand that you, personally, drafted the orders.”
“Well, sir, we have not had a close relationship since those unhappy days, but, to answer, we knew we had only a short time until Grant realized his error and withdrew Second Corps to safety. General Lee decided to attack Second Corps east of the river with all available force using both Breckinridge and Pickett as well as Harry Heth’s division and to do that in a massed column of attack by brigades.”
“When was this planned to happen?”
“In the pre-dawn on the 24th of May, when were you captured?”
“I was taken by Heth’s men that afternoon. There must have been difficulty in putting all this together, getting men into position with troops who had recently lost a lot of leaders, a lot of friends.”
“Yes, that is true but the main worry was that it looked like Lee was about to be seriously ill. He had dysentery, bad dysentery, dysentery as bad as he had suffered at Gettysburg. He also had bad chest pains. This angina was a symptom of the illness that later killed him. He no longer had the advice and moral support of General Longstreet who was wounded at Spotsylvania. If he could not command through his illness, we would fail, but somehow he did command.”
“At five in the morning our lead brigade struck the front line of Second Corps, and found that there were a lot of surrenders. They pushed through the trenches. The following units went through the hole and we found that the shoulders of the penetration were equally soft. We had not understood the extent to which losses in the campaign had weakened the Second Corps, indeed all of Grant's force. Resistance folded up as our people got farther and farther into the rear. Your troops began to move away in disorganized masses and the corps commander’s capture with most of his staff around noon pretty much ended Second Corps resistance.”
“General Lee ordered a general advance when Hancock appeared as a prisoner at our headquarters. Pressure from south of the river by troops on our left and on the rest of Grant’s army on their now open flank caused them to start withdrawing to the northwest and pressed by Hampton’s cavalry they continued to fall back until they were across the Rapidan once again. As you know, Grant, in his confidence, had changed his supply base to the coastal river ports. When compelled to fall back, his lack of a base to the northwest was a major embarrassment.”
“Yes. He took over when you killed Stuart at Yellow Tavern.”
The newsman grimaced. “Yes. Grant was relieved of command in August. McClellan was elected president in November and he accepted the offer of mediation by Britain, France and the Vatican. Pius the IXth was always a friend of yours and a negotiated settlement was done that gave you independence, for now…”
“Are you sure you work for a newspaper?” Taylor asked. “Your government accepted our independence because your citizenry would no longer consent to the horrendous losses for little accomplishment. I guess you ran out of the poor people needed to fight your war against us, people who could not buy exemption from service.”
“What of slavery?”
“Our constitution reserves changes in the institution to the states. Increased use of farm machinery is steadily making slave labor more expensive than machines. Three states have abolished slavery on a compensated basis and Negroes are steadily leaving us for the North..”
“Any chance of reunion?”
“Not in the lifetime of my generation, but who knows what might happen in the future. My secretary will show you out. Don’t overstay your welcome in Richmond…”
Note: In real history Lee grew so ill that the plan could not be executed.