Good Stuff for YOU

Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Update to The Kildaran

As you have no doubt realized, what is up here (currently) is NOT the entire book.  Why? you may ask.
A few reasons, really.
First, if this DOES get published, I don't necessarily want to spoil it for you.
Second, is a book ever truly finished before it's published?  The versions posted here, I'm happy with.  But that doesn't mean they're unchanging.
And Third, the book isn't done.

Well, you can take that third reason right off that list.  Two consecutive days off.  No kids.  I would say no distractions, but there's almost always something to rot your brain with on the TV, and if not, I have lots and lots of books. 205204 words.  50 chapters, plus a prologue and six interludes (and maybe a seventh yet to come).  720 pages.  Nine - no, wait, ten months.  And it's finally done.

The story is told, the Muse can go take a rest (for a little while).

Good night, all.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The KIldaran - Chapter 26

[BONUS!  Look, it's another chapter!  What?  Another chapter?  But you just posted yesterday!
True enough.  But this is, by consensus, one of our favorite chapters, and Dick's been - well, I'm too polite to say hounding or bugging or pestering - reminding me that he really, really wanted it posted ASAP for a couple weeks now.
Here you go, then - and I think you'll enjoy the ride!



    “Morning, Jack.”  Mike squinted up into the bright spring sun.  It promised to be a warm day, a windows-down-while-you-drive kind of day.  A sudden thought came to him, and he smiled.  Hell if he wasn’t going to take this chance.
    “Morning, Sir.”  At Mike’s look, Hughes went on.  “Sorry, higher ups said it’s either ‘sir’ or ‘Kildar’.”
    “Fine, if that’s what you have to do, but go with ‘Kildar.’  I was never into that ‘sir’ shit; I was a Petty Officer, not some damn shave-tail lieutenant.”  He grinned and donned his sunglasses - expensive, could double as safety glasses, and Stasia’s choice.  She’d become enamored of the name brand, found that they made shooter’s glasses, and ordered several sets for him over the internet.  Didn’t matter that he held onto the cards; both she and Daria had the numbers memorized - shit.  That meant that he’d have to get them all changed when Daria left, that was going to be a pain in the…
    All thoughts of credit cards were wiped from his mind when a convertible cruised by the front of the hotel, top down, the driver’s long blonde hair flying in the breeze, luxuriating in the early spring warmth.  He remembered a certain GT, still parked on a private island because it was too closely associated with the guy who saved Florida’s ass, and his earlier thoughts crystallized.
    “What kind of car can we get our hands on?  In short order?”
    “Pretty much anything you want.  If there isn’t one available in the motor pools, there’s a federal impound lot we can utilize.”
    “Pain in the ass, not worth it.  Did that once with some boats in Florida; my team leader had to go way up the chain to get the lard-ass bureaucrat to shag ass.  Pass.  I am officially on vacation.  Other options?”
    “We could rent one.”
    “Pass again.  Nothing used and tired, not today.  Hmm.  You have any idea where there’s a Mercedes dealer?”
    “I don’t think they rent cars -”
    Mike pulled out his wallet, extracted a sky blue card, one he’d kept away from Stasia.  “I don’t want to rent.  Think they’ll listen?”
    Jack’s eyes actually rose above his ever-present sunglasses, Standard, Agent, One Each as he took in the card.  There were something like four hundred of these cards on the whole planet, if Forbes knew what they were talking about.  It made the black Amex that  Stasia used - well-worn, that card was - look positively pedestrian.
    “I think they will.”
    Timothy (Don’t Call Me Tim) Johnson had been a salesman at Rich Borges’ Mercedes for fourteen years.  He’d seen all types come through the Somerville showplace: yuppies and techies from the 128 corridor; retirees looking for the car they’d dreamed of; college kids dreaming of what they’d drive ‘someday’.  This group, and especially the brown-haired guy who was obviously, though not demonstratively, in charge, were confusing the hell out of him.
    For one thing, he was former service.  So was Johnson.  Four years in the Army had taught him one thing: he didn’t want anything else to do with the Army.  Oh, he appreciated the discipline they had instilled, and the money he’d used for college, and the fact that he was still a fitness nut and was in better shape than any three guys his age.
    But that was past, and he was happier for it.  This guy wasn’t past it - or maybe he was still in it, but with that crew?  Naah, out, but not beyond it.  No, there was something in the way he moved, a predator, barely held in check.  And, as for the way he looked, he simply exuded the air of command, one used to giving orders he knew would be followed.  Then, there was also something darker about him, wrapped around him like a cloak.
    The other guy was military too, but he just stood back and watched the others prowl around the showroom.  That pegged him as a bodyguard, probably ex-military.  Good shape, well-trained.  His suit was custom, not off-the-rack like the innumerable Fibbies and other agents that crawled around the city.  Johnson could tell that he was carrying, but couldn’t determine if he was heavy on the left or right.  Definitely a pro.
    Johnson loved this part of his job, figuring out the whys and wherefores of his potential customers.  He knew that he could have stayed in school, become a therapist, he was that good at pegging people.  More than once, buddies of his in various police departments - knowing the local cops was a necessity, selling high-end cars - had pressed him to come aboard, even part-time, to help them pick out the liars and scumbags they had to deal with.  He’d always turned them down, though.  He loved selling cars.
    It was all about the dollars.  Even in this crappy economy, he could pull commissions out of just about anyone who walked in the door - at least, anyone he targeted.  He was the number one salesman, and he got first pick of the people who walked in the door.
    His favorites were the recent divorcees, who had just traded in the starter wife for the trophy wife.  They’d stroll in, prize clinging to their arm, and before the chimes could finish their soft announcement Johnson would be over there with a smile, a friendly and firm handshake, steering the guy to the car that would make his eye candy oh so appreciative.  Hell, he ought to give some of the women part of the commission; they way they’d giggle and coo and practically crawl into their sugar daddy’s lap, they’d practically make the sale for him.
    Johnson could also tell the guys with too much gold, too much jewelry, diamonds in their teeth and a roll of bills that would choke a camel tucked carelessly into a hoodie pocket.  He didn’t want anything to do with money like that, but a sale was a sale - so he’d slide them over to some poor schmuck who was near the bottom of the totem pole, let them take the sale.  Those jokers would always go for the aftermarket crap - chrome and flash, ruined the lines of the car in Johnson’s eyes, which is why he wouldn’t touch it.  Plus, tossing the other dogs a bone kept the rest of the pound happy.
    If anything, it was the two women who threw him off, and this bothered him the most.  He was right so often, he just couldn’t rest until he got this one pegged.  He made subtle eye contact with another salesman, waved him off with a single waggling finger.  Everyone else returned to their busywork, follow-up calls, letting him have all the time he needed.  This group was his.
    One was a tall, well-stacked blonde.  Real, not fake.  Maybe in her late twenties, and obviously used to luxury.  She had the look, that, “Oh yes, the C-Class, perfectly fine for someone else, but I rather prefer a car with a little more panache.”  Miss Rich Bitch.  She was quietly debating every car with the guy.  So.  Not a first girlfriend after the divorce, not the way she was obviously friendly with the other young lady.  Curious.
    The fourth member was a young, really young, redhead who was, if anything, hotter than the blonde if you didn‘t care about age.  He’d seen her type before, never this pretty.  In three, maybe five years he could see her on the cover of a magazine, some high fashion crap.  She was that perfect.
    Her wide-eyed amazement changed his assessment mid-stride again.  She wasn’t used to luxury, he could tell.  She was drinking in the AMGs like a dying man stumbling across a desert oasis, and hanging on the guy’s - and the blonde’s - every word.  Johnson wasn’t sure if she was a hooker or maybe, just maybe, a really adoring daughter.  Yeah, that had to be it.  There weren’t many guys who had the brass ones to bring a prostitute car-shopping.
    So.  Guy, rich - how? And how much?
    Has a very good - and very subtle - bodyguard, that put him way up in the stratosphere, but he’d never seen his face in Forbes, or Fortune - or had he?  That face - put a moustache on it, or a beard, or, hell, just change the hair a little, and he’d be a totally different person.  Later for that.  Concentrate.
    Military careers don‘t usually make too much money - did he inherit money and get his rocks off playing soldier?  No, he was too good, it was too natural to be an act.  Maybe he’d skimmed it out of the mess in the sandbox?  With all the billions over there, it was easy enough to manage.  No, again, he was simply too comfortable with himself to be that kind of scum.  What about an arms dealer, to governments, not individuals?  Lots of money there, and that would explain the bodyguard too.
    Okay, so that makes the girl - what?  Maybe a daughter from first marriage - ooh, maybe she stays with mommy and he’s trying to buy her affection?  Get her a first car?  That would make the blonde a trophy wife, and that’s where it all fell apart.  No way.  The women were just way too friendly with each other to be ‘steps’.
    No, the key here was the blonde.  Figure her out, and everything else will fall into place.  So.  Acts like a teacher, but calmer, and no teacher ever moved with that fluidity or had that kind of style or elegance in their dress.  The dress - and the redhead’s, too - custom made, not even couture.  She knew someone who knew someone, had their services, and that was on her own, not bought.
    Think.  Think.  Smooth, professional, elegant.  Mature.  Used to putting people at ease.
    That was it, it had to be.  Selling - weapons?  Maybe.  That would make him her boss, originally, who rescued her from the horrors of their profession.  Someone who stood by him after losing the first wife?  A deal went bad, the wife died at the hands of a competitor, and she had to get out?  Not a trophy wife, then.  Didn’t have any problem bonding with the step-daughter, obviously, because she’s not trying to be step-mom.
    Feeling that he finally had a handle he could use, Johnson started forward.  Chat ‘em up a bit for a while.  Offer the women some chocolate truffles - he kept a supply in his office, made specially for him by a man who was in the business for the love of making fine chocolates - that looked like a good bet.  Chocolates.  Nodding to the bodyguard first, he approached the women from the side so as not to surprise them.  A woman surprised would hold a grudge.  Forever.  And that would end any chance of making this sale.
    “Morning.  Timothy Johnson.  I see you’re looking at the 63?  Best car in the showroom.”  The car, a bright red CLS63, was the current centerpiece.  Sleek and low, it felt like a predator, waiting for its prey.
    “Yeah, I need something to beat around in,” said the brown-haired man, who finally met his eyes with a crooked grin that would have made Han Solo proud.
    “She’s got a V-8, over five hundred horsepower, seven-speed automatic, so she’ll  take you from zero to sixty in four point four seconds.  Practical, too, if you’re out on the town.  Seats four in luxury you can only get in a Mercedes, oversized moon roof, and, of course, all bells and whistles the engineers could dream up.  Absolutely the pride of the line.”
    “Michael, the wheel’s on the wrong side!” said the blonde.
    Ah!  Foreigner.  And what a delightful accent she had!  “Ma’am?”
    “It’s built for the American market, Stasia, so the driver sits on the left.”
    “You live overseas?”  His mind started to race again, but before he could even get out of the starting blocks he heard the words he always expected - though never quite this quickly.
    “How much?”
    “There’s quite a wait for this model.  Last I heard, orders were three or four months out.  Of course, every one is custom made, to your exact specifications, exactly the options you -”
    The blonde interrupted.  “The roof opens?”
    “Oh, yes, very easily.  Just a push of a button and the inside sun shield slides back, letting all the glorious April sunshine in, push another button and the glass itself retracts.  Let me show you -”
    Interrupted again.  This time by the man, Michael, reminding Johnson just who was going to be buying here - or not.
    “I didn’t ask how long, I said how much.  This one.”
    “Oh, I can’t sell you this one.  Not allowed.  She’s the floor model, we have to have her for display.  On rare occasions, we let a certain, special customers take her out, just to get a feel for her.  So she’s got a few miles on her.  Plus, do you know how many people have come to look at her?  Sat in her?  It would take forever to make her smell new and fresh again.”
    The guy - Michael - turned and, in a voice as cold as a Boston winter, said, “You can’t sell it to me?  Find someone who can,” and turned back to the car.
    Johnson, stunned for a moment, rallied.  “I mean, sir, that you wouldn’t want this particular one.  It’s not ready to drive, it needs…”  He didn’t get to finish telling what it needed, as Michael turned back, this time with a predator’s smile that reflected the car’s attitude perfectly.
    “Let’s get this clear.  This is the car I want to buy.  I want to buy it now, and drive it out of here this morning.  I have places to go and I have wasted enough of my time listening to your bullshit.  I’ll bet if you got this car back to the garage for a fill and oil change and whatever other excuses you can think of, now, while you start processing the paperwork, we could all be happy and finished in, oh, an hour.  What do you think?”
    Johnson also knew when to surrender.  “I think we’ll get on it right away, sir.”
    It took seventy-two minutes by Kat’s watch.  That was long enough for Debra, Johnson’s secretary, to take the women, bodyguard in tow, down to the confectioner’s for an order of truffles, on Johnson’s dime, of course.  From the way the redhead was bouncing, she was now well into a full-on sugar rush.
    No financing hassles.  As soon as the 63 had started up, Michael handed him an otherwise-unadorned blue MasterCard, name of Michael Jenkins.  Johnson was a bit dubious - it was a rather large purchase to make on credit - but the card went through practically as soon as he finished punching in the digits.  Soon enough, engine tuned, governor disabled, latest generation software downloaded, the vehicle was ready to go.  Without another word to Johnson, they drove off the property and turned north.
    Later.  Much later.  Long after the dealership had closed, and Johnson had headed down the road to La Hacienda, his favorite after-work hangout.  Despite the name, it was actually a pretty decent pizza joint, and it was his habit to order a small pesto pizza and enjoy a beer before he waited.  Tonight, after assuring himself of a five-figure commission, he figured he’d treat himself and ordered a Mountain Tiger.  Joe, the barkeep, had poured a stein full and set the ceramic bottle down on the bar.  Johnson took a long pull, then nearly lost it all through his nose when he looked at the picture on the label.
    “I will be dipped in shit,” he murmured.  That was the redhead, which made the money man the Tiger Beer baron, not a gun runner.  And then the blonde wasn’t a gun bunny turned exec.  Damn, how did his radar get so far off?
    “Hey, Joe, you got any promotional stuff for these Mountain Tiger beers?”
    “Yeah, in the corner, why?”
    “Can I grab a poster?  It’ll win me a bet at work tomorrow.”  As Joe started rooting around, Johnson continued.  “You ever see a blue MasterCard?  Or a black AmEx?”  At Joe’s grunted “No,” he elaborated.  “This guy - the guy who makes Tiger Beer - came in the dealership today…”  By the time Joe found the poster, Johnson finished the story.
    Joe was suitably impressed.  “Nice.”
    “Why do we need a car?  And where are we going?”  Kat was sitting in front with Mike, moonroof  way open, Stasia and Hughes in the back.  Jack’s longer legs - and Katrina’s shorter ones - demanded that he sit behind her.  Stasia?  Well, she was probably cramped, but she wouldn’t complain.  Hell, she might even enjoy it.  Winterborn was blasting from the Harman/Kardon stereo and twelve speakers.  Jack looked fully relaxed for once, nodding and singing badly with the music, watching the world pass by at high speed.  Stasia, like Kat, bounced in her seat, though probably with better reason, since one of the two subwoofers was directly beneath her.
    Each girl clutched a golden box, ‘gifts’ from the salesman.  Mike made the mistake - once! - of reaching for Kat’s box, to examine the contents.  The fierce look - and was that a growl? - quickly convinced him otherwise.
    “What?” he called over the music.
    Katrina repeated her question, yelling loudly enough to be heard this time.
    She laughed.  “I see that!” she exclaimed as a sign reading ‘495N’ flashed by.  “Where north?”
    “There’s a road you need to ride on!  It’ll remind you of home!”  And he wouldn’t say any more about it as Massachusetts, followed quickly by New Hampshire, flashed by.  No police.  Either it was a bad day, crime-wise, or Jack had been busier on his phone than Mike thought when he reported the change of vehicle to OSOL.  They’d actually driven south, back into Boston, so he could drive the girls over the Zakim bridge on the way out of town - a beautiful cable-stay bridge, it was worth the detour.  Then they were on 93, flying out of town, past even the most hardened commuters, the ones who would say, “Why do you think they’re called ‘bumpers’?”
    Far too soon, they hit the 95/128 loop.  Traffic slowed there as the inevitable construction zone popped up, orange barrels and cones, flaggers, the whole nine yards.  Once past, though, the road was nearly deserted, and he really let the Merc stretch her legs, touching 140 a couple times before hopping onto 495 towards the coast.
    Reaching over, he gave Katrina’s seatbelt a sharp tug, pulling it into a more secure position and stopping, finally, her bouncing.  She looked up at the movement, her eyes freezing on the old-fashioned analog speedometer.  It was currently resting comfortably on 130.  Nervously, she looked back at Hughes and Stasia, but they both looked relaxed.  So she relaxed too.
    Mike peered into the back seat.  Jack - was Jack asleep?  Sure looked that way.  And how about Stasia?  This was faster than she’d ever gone on the ground, which was quantitatively different than a plane.  Though, with the air rushing past the wide open moon roof, and the almost turbine-like pitch of the engine, it was a pretty good imitation of the G550 on the runway.  He adjusted the mirror to get a better look at her.  Actually…
    Stasia looked a little more than relaxed.  It seemed that the sugar rush had been replaced by another kind of rush, one that each passed car, each tremor from the road, was intensifying.  Seeing a pair of semis ahead, Mike deliberately steered as close to the sides as he could - so close he could practically see the individual rivets on the trailers as they flew by.  Sure enough, Stasia screamed soundlessly and arched her back, her feet kicking into Mike’s seat.
    Oblivious to the byplay, Jack said, “Probably ought to slow down a bit, Kildar.  Truckers are notorious for gossiping, especially about fast cars like this one.  I’m not sure that the state police would be willing to ignore a direct report of a red Mercedes doing a hundred and forty.”
    Mike relaxed his foot on the accelerator.  “Point.  Besides, I think we’ll have to keep her now.  Stasia’s christened the back seat already.”
    Jack looked up, confused.  “Huh?”
    “Yes, Kildar?”
    “You’ve been having a good old time, haven’t you?”
    “Yes, Kildar.”  She hung her head, a secret smile playing on her lips.
    “And you haven’t told anyone, have you?”
    “No, Kildar.”
    “Was it the speed?”
    “And the bumps.  And the music - the bass is directly beneath me and you have no idea -”
    “Fine.  I think you need to be disciplined.  For starters - take off your top.”
    She began to remove the blouse, revealing her nearly perfect breasts.  Only a few scars remained from her ‘torture’ at the hands of the late, unlamented Juan Gonzalez, one of many reasons he’d had to be put down.  Sensing movement next to him, he said, “Kat!  Eyes front!”
    “I’ve seen it before, Michael, but never live.  All of my lessons have been virtual, online.”
    “Never you mind that.  Eyes front, I said.  Here,” he added, pointing to the nav console between them.  “Figure out how to use that, and see if you can guess where we’re going.”
    At the challenge, a determined look set on her face.  Unconsciously, the tip of her tongue poked out a corner of her mouth as she concentrated on mastering the German-designed, read fiendishly overcomplicated, satellite navigation system.
    Jack was thoroughly bewildered now, trying desperately to keep his eyes anywhere but the sights next to him.  That gave Mike an even better idea.
    “Jack,” he said, “you have a choice on how you think of this.  You can look at is as taking one for the team, or you can take it as a bonus.  No matter to me either way, but it’s payback time for that lousy singing.”
    “Stasia.  I want you to give Jack as much pleasure as you’ve received since you got in the car.  The catch is you can’t use your hands, or his, to help you.”  Almost instantly, there was a zzzziiiiip - she must have used her teeth, thought Mike.  Then, the only sounds from the back were Jack’s sudden inhalations, punctuated by groans.  In just a few moments, Jack grunted loudly, then said, “Oh.  My.”
    Stasia didn’t stop.  If anything, she increased her efforts.  After Jack came a second time, Mike noticed that Stasia was shaking, quivering, too.  What a perfect Catch-22 he’d caught her in!  She was humiliated, but all of the sensations were still there, pushing her into a nearly continuous orgasm.  And since she couldn’t stop until Hughes had equaled her pleasure, and she was receiving more pleasure, she couldn’t stop sucking on him.
    Katrina had adjusted her mirror to watch, too.  “Wow.  He’s really making a funny face!  She must be doing her tongue twisty trick - she said she’s never tried it on you, said she never needed to.  I’ve got to see exactly how she does it…”  And she reached to unbuckle.
    “Not so fast, little one,” contradicted Mike, pressing her head back against the headrest.  She struggled against it, briefly, then, with a look that promised mayhem later, relented.
    “How do we bring it home?” Kat asked miles later.  “Or do we leave it here?”
    “It’s too much fun to leave here!  We’ll figure it out!”  They had turned off the interstate onto a state highway but were still heading north through New Hampshire.  Small towns flashed by, impressions of New England: white, steepled churches; colonial houses; small shops and restaurants; lots and lots of trees.  The mountains they had glimpsed in the distance loomed larger and larger.
    Finally, Mike said, “Stasia, you can finish him off now.”
    “Finish… me…?” gasped Jack, who then moaned.
    Without turning, Katrina announced, “It must be the tongue twisty trick.  Be warned, Michael, I will  learn it before our wedding day.  Stasia told me it would enslave even the strongest man.  She’s never used it on you; you’re her Master.  But in our bed..!  Not even all of Kurosawa’s needles will save you!”
    “Ah, I meant to ask, are you spending any time - that is, is he tutoring you in anything?  Seems like everyone else is.”
    “Definitely!  He’s shown me the technique he uses in the morning, to help your joints.  I’ve got that one down, pretty well, but there’s another one, he says I need more work on.”
    Despite every inner voice screaming, “STOP!”, Mike asked anyway: “What technique is that?”
    “To ensure that you survive our nights together,” she answered, almost coyly.  Then: “He showed me where to put the needle - it’s a much bigger needle than the others! - but I haven’t actually been able to practice on a live man.  None of the Keldara will volunteer,” she finished with a pout.
    “I’m not surprised,” commented Mike wryly, letting the conversation lapse.
    From the back, he could hear a final, explosive exclamation from Jack, followed a moment later by Stasia’s shriek - mercifully, the road noise and the stereo managed to mask it, or he’d have been deafened.  Shortly, Stasia sat up, wiping a corner of her mouth with a tissue.
    “Michael, we will need to stop shortly.”
    “Do I need to know why?”
    “I seem to have soaked through -”
    “Stopping.”  Glancing back, he noticed Jack, sprawled against the seat.  “Jack, my man.  Looks like you could use a sports drink or two.”
    “I’ve never - she’s - man, you are one lucky SOB!”
    “I agree.”  A grin slowly spread across his face.  “Nice view through the roof?”
    “Amazing.  Biggest damn moon roof I’ve ever seen.”
    “Uh-huh.  Does the name Allen Funt mean anything to you?”
    After visibly searching his memory briefly, Jack answered, “No.  Who is he?”
    Mike grinned wider.  “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
    Still looking up, the dawning realization of Mike’s implication spread across Jack’s face.
    “Fuck me.”
    “Basically, yeah.  I’ll make a call for you, make sure that anything that might have seen you - you know we probably have our own satellite, don’t you? - has a little data burp.  If that doesn’t work, I have a couple specialists who can help you out.  But, face it - I own your soul now.”
    “Fuck me sideways.”
    “This, I must see!” Katrina said, turning around in her seat before Mike could react.  “Please?  Show me?”
    They were definitely entering a tourist area; convenience stations started popping up all over, so it was only a few minutes before Mike pulled the Merc into a parking lot.
    “Okay, Jack, you go with Stasia, fetch us all drinks and something to munch.  I’ll make my call.”
    “I need to go too, Michael.”
    “Kat too.”
    Jack just groaned.  “I don’t know if I can move, actually.”
    “That’s easy!” exclaimed Katrina.  “Kurosawa taught me this!  I need to heat a needle until it’s red-hot…”
    Whatever Kat was going to do with the needle was lost on Jack, as he levitated out of the car and into the refuge of the store before she could complete her thought.  He had been leaning his head against the cooler door for a couple minutes when he heard a giggle behind him.  He turned to see Katrina and Stasia, arm-in-arm, strolling toward the restroom, talking to a group of local girls and pointing at -
    Blushing furiously, he turned away, tucked himself in, and zipped.
    Mike kept up a steady stream of banter, telling the stories of the Green Frog and invasions from Canada while he was stationed, briefly, at Plattsburgh AFB.
    “Why was a SEAL at an Air Force base?” asked Katrina, sensibly.
    “Never quite figured that one out, but it was a good place to spend the summer.  Lots of sun, big lake for swimming, great, cheap beer, and the co-eds from SUNY…“  Mike caught himself before he said anything that would arouse Katrina’s ire; something about ex-girlfriends and a redhead warned him off.
    Neither Jack or Stasia were in any condition to hear these tales, though, as they’d both quickly fallen asleep despite the still-booming stereo.  It wasn’t until they were finally forced to slow, about eighty miles north,  entering a town in a river valley, that they both awoke.  Jack looked like he could use a shot of B-12 and about ten hours‘ sleep.  Stasia looked perky.
      Buds were just forming on the trees, and the ground still bore patches of snow.  The mountains to either side, while only a couple thousand feet high, were capped in snow.
    “I hope it’s open,” said Mike.
    “WHAT is open?” demanded Kat.
    “The road,” he answered cryptically.
    “Michael Harmon!  If you do not tell us, now, where we are going…!”
    “How about some chocolate?” he said instead, pulling into a parking lot by a very Bavarian-feeling building.  It looked like a nineteenth-century German cottage, and there was an aroma of fudge in the air.  He’d found this place on the GPS after seeing the girls’ reaction to the truffles earlier in the day.  He forgot, sometimes, that Katrina - and Stasia, too - didn’t have much exposure to chocolate, especially fine chocolate, and thus reacted to it like a cat in a catnip patch.
    “Don’t go overboard while we’re in there.  Just a little something,” he cautioned.  “We’ll get lunch at the top.”
    He just grinned.
    The interior of the store was tiny, dominated by an L-shaped glass counter which seemed to hold every possible chocolate confection - fudges of all types; white chocolate; dark chocolate; maple sugar candy; filled chocolates, chocolates with nuts, huge bars of pure chocolate…  An elaborate chocolate cuckoo clock was mounted on one wall.  Behind the glass, the copper kettles and marble forming tables could be seen, though nobody was working them now.  And, tucked into every possible corner, sat jars of hot fudge.
    He handed each girl a hundred dollar bill.  “No credit cards.”
    “They take them, I saw the sign,” protested Stasia.
    “I know they take them, I don’t want you to use them.  Come on, Jack.  I don’t want to be present for the mayhem.”
    Twenty minutes later, chocolate craving satisfied, they hit the road again.  This was obviously a tourist-oriented town.  The restored train station, overlooking nearby mountains, was behind a large, kid-friendly park.  A white gazebo sat in the park under a huge oak tree.  People wandered along the sidewalks among the shops bearing ‘cute’ names like The Toy Box and Cool Jewels.  Mike pointed to one approaching: L.L.Bean.  “Best guarantee on the planet.  Worth the extra money.  Plus, the boots are great.”
    Stasia’s hand reached into the front seat.  Mike slowed and pulled in, handing her the black AmEx card.  They had barely stopped when Kat popped out of the car, then Stasia.
    “Don‘t take too long,” Mike said from the front seat.
    “Oh, no.  You‘re coming too,“ she insisted.  Very reluctantly, he followed, trailed by a still-hobbled Jack.
    The poor sales associate who greeted them, who introduced herself as Lara, never stood a chance.  Stasia was in her element, hitting department after department, unerringly zooming in on the best, most practical item, adding it to Lara’s pile.
    “Tell me, Lara,” asked Stasia after looking over a selection of men’s casual shirts and slacks, “Does your company ship overseas?”
    Behind Stasia, Mike shook his head frantically, but Lara said, “Of course,” anyways.
    After that, it got ugly.
    They managed to escape carrying three bags of goods - a pair of Maine Hunting Shoes for each, along with waterproof storm jackets - with another vast pile ordered to be shipped to a drop they used in Tbilisi.  On the way out, Kat whispered to Mike, “And I got you some cute Green Frog boxers.”
    Hughes was holding his bag gingerly.
    “Problem, Major?”
    “Kildar - I’m not supposed to accept gifts from my primaries.  It involves all sorts of paperwork, reports -”
    “You didn’t complain about Stasia’s ‘gifts’.  Report one, report the other.”
    “Sergeant Schultz time again?”
    “You see nottink, you hear nottink.  Be happy.  You ought to meet Chief Constable Tyurin sometime - ever see Casablanca?”
    “I swear, Tyurin models himself on Captain Renault in that movie - venal, opportunistic, always with the open palm, willing to look the other way, but committed to his job - as long as it doesn’t interfere with his lifestyle.”
    “Sounds like a charmer.”
    “That, he is.  Anyway, he knows when to take what is given gracefully.”
    “Besides, did I mention that I own your soul?”  Mike smiled.
    “You may have,” replied Jack weakly.
    “Then I don’t want to hear any more about it.  Okay, back in the car.  Next stop, you’ll find out where we’re going.”
    Soon they were through the town and speeding along the roadway again.  The pine forests grew denser and closer to the road, and the shops gradually disappeared.  The road split, and they were in the woods.
    “We’re approaching the Presidential Range of the White Mountains,” Mike finally said.  “They’re the northern extension of the Appalachians, so are really old and, in truth, not all that high.  The tallest is only a little over a mile.  I think they feel like the mountains around the Valley, though.”
    “They do!” exclaimed Kat.  “I could feel it, too.  So few people, here.  That’s like home as well.”
    “I was hoping you’d appreciate them.”  The forest retreated and the road widened.  Mike turned left onto a gravel road and drove up to a small white building.
    “Weather At Summit” read a sign.  “Temperature 24  Wind Gusts to 55 mph  Visibility Unlimited”
    Before them loomed a mountain.  Surrounded as it was by the rest of the range, it still stood alone, rising up from the valley floor, past a distinct tree-line to a snow-covered summit.
    “Morning, folks,” said a woman from inside the building.  “Planning on going up?”
    “How’s the road today?” asked Mike.
    “Surprising clear, and dry,” she answered.  “Though it might scratch up your finish,” she added.
    “No worries.  What’s the damage?”
    She peered into the car.  “Four adults?  Forty-seven.”  He handed her a fifty.  As she made change, she asked, “Automatic?”
    “Yeah, seven-speed.”
    “Drop it out of drive going up, and go no higher than two on the way down, otherwise you’ll burn out your brakes.”  She handed him his bills and a manila envelope.  “I assume you have a CD player, not a cassette?”
    “Somewhere in here,” he said.
    “Okay, when you’re ready, put the CD in and head up through the trees.”  She pointed past a wooden bridge over a small stream, where the road disappeared into a stand of trees.  “Enjoy your drive!”
    “What did she mean, ‘drive’?” asked Stasia from the back.
    “This is the Mount Washington Auto Road,” answered Mike.  “It’s an eight-mile road chiseled into the side of the mountain, from the base here right up to the summit.  I’ve heard that the view is spectacular.”
    “Drive?” asked Stasia again.
    “Yeah, we have to drive up it.”
    “We’re going to drive up a mountain.”
    “Yes, Stasia, we’re going to drive up a mountain, that one right there.”
    She moaned, though whether in terror or anticipation Mike couldn’t tell.
    “No way!” exclaimed Kat.  “That is so cool!”
    Mike looked at her.  “Cool?”
    “Isn’t that what I’m supposed to say?” she asked, innocently.
    Jack added, “I’ve done some freehand mountain climbing, but this blows that to hell.  Out in Arizona, the mesa’s can be pretty tall, but there’s no snow.  Or ice.  Hate to try to freehand over that.”
    “My troops would call you a pussy, then.  They train on worse slopes than this.  Got to; one of our missions -”  He stopped to think about Jack’s clearance, then visibly decided, Fuck it.  “We had to do a rappel, sheer ice cliff, maybe five hundred feet.  Everyone else down but me.  Don’t know if it was bad placement, bad knots, or just rotten luck, but as I’m lowering my ass down, I feel the belay pins giving way.  Pang!  I drop, and stop.  So I’m moving faster, waiting for the next one to go.  Sure enough, pang!  Another drop, another stop.  I’m dangling, maybe a hundred feet up, far enough so I’ll just make a big wet splat when the last pin goes.  So I start the single fastest rappel I have ever done, nearly burn through a glove, and just as I’m about to touch down the last pin goes and I drop the last few feet.  The rope comes down after me, and the Keldara waiting for me tells me how impressed he was that I managed to retrieve the fucking rope!”
    “It wasn’t time for the Valkyries to fetch you, Mike,” Kat said in a subdued voice, totally unlike her usual tones, her eyes unfocussed, looking at everything and nothing.  Every hair on Mike’s body stood on end.  He knew that she was training to be a priestess, but he was a rational, twenty-first century American, not some backwater tribal warrior.  This was sure as hell a trance, though.  She continued.
    “You still had much to do.  You still have much to do.  The Keldara need you, those around the Keldara who struggle to rebuild need you.  Loki comes for you and yours soon.  You must be ready.  You must be pure of heart when the time comes.”  She slumped, eyes closing, then just as quickly sat upright again.
    She blinked.  “What?”
    Stasia recovered first.  “Nothing, Katrina, dear.  Are you feeling well?”
    Katrina turned and glared.  “I had a vision, didn’t I?”
    “I suppose you did,” said Mike.  “You didn’t seem to be…here.”
    “What was the vision?  I don’t remember them.  Mother Lenka says that I can glimpse through the gates of chaos because of the way my mind works, but the cost is I cannot keep the memory.”
    “It didn’t make too much sense,” said Stasia, sensing Mike’s reluctance to talk about himself.  “Something about Loki, and Valkyries.”
    “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”  Kat sighed.  “Fine.  But when it comes to pass, you’ll tell me?”
    “Of course, dear,” said Stasia.
    “I need to learn to control these things.”  And she would say no more.
    The CD was an audio tour, designed to be informative and amusing.  They learned that the road was opened in 1861, that the first car ascended in 1899, and the fastest ascent took less than seven minutes.  Obviously, it was quite an operation.  Signs that winter still had the mountain firmly in its grip were abundant.  In places, the snow on the upslope side rose eight or ten feet above the car, while a precipitous drop loomed down slope.  Kat was pivoting in all directions to absorb all the scenery; Stasia had her eyes clamped shut.
    She’d moan heavily as her breathing increased, her imagination running wild, then she’d take a deep breath, open her eyes and look around.  Slam them shut again, wiggle in the seat, grip the three-point safety belt even as her body betrayed her, again and again.  Mike added to the torture, stopping several times at corners, tricking her into opening her eyes to look and seeing that there was nothing below her side of the car.
    Mike found it all pretty relaxing.  The CLS gripped the roadway, providing sure going, the heated seat kept him pleasantly warm, and the joy on Kat’s face - well, that made it all worthwhile.  Still, that vision.  He was going to have to talk to Mother Lenka about that when they returned.
    About a half-hour later, they parked just below the summit.  The wind was whipping past, slicing through their clothes and chilling them in seconds.  Out came the bags, and the coats and the Hunting Shoes.
    “Up there!” said Mike, pointing to stairs chiseled into the bones of the mountain.  They hurried up, emerging onto the broad summit, bathed in blinding sunlight reflecting off the snow.  They could see a rough-hewn rock building with a nearly flat roof, snow piled high to one side, rock exposed on the other.  Other buildings, barely distinguishable from the blasted-on snow, poked into the air, while three or four radio towers loomed overhead.  One began as an ice-encrusted framework, about thirty meters tall, with a more modern-looking tower extending another thirty meters above.  Ice streamed horizontally from every surface, blown and frozen in place by the constant winds.  Another low building, completely covered in rime, seemed to be chained to the ground.  Kat pointed at it, Mike shrugged.  They made their way off to the right, to a large, curved, modern-looking building, and entered its warmth gratefully.
    They were in the main building of the Mount Washington State Park.  It housed a museum, highlighting the history of the Mount Washington Observatory over the years; a cafeteria; and a gift shop.  They seemed to be the only visitors, so they split up again.  “Observation deck’s still closed, folks,” said an employee.  “If you want to see the view, you’ll have to go back outside.  The museum is open though.”
    “Coffee?” asked a shivering Stasia.
    “In the cafeteria,” she was told, and that’s where she went.
    Mike led Kat to the museum.  “I knew it would be windy up here, but damn!” he said, reading a sign.  “That’s a wind!  ‘On April 12, 1934’,” he read,  “The highest wind speed ever recorded by man was measured here.’  Two hundred and thirty one miles per hour.  I can’t even imagine that!”
    “Look!  Here’s a picture,” pointed Kat.  In it a person, dressed heavily, was leaning at nearly a forty-five degree angle into a fierce winter wind.  “And here, Michael - those are chains!  The caption says that the observation hut is chained down to prevent it from being torn off the mountain.”
    “I guess it really is ‘Home to the World’s Worst Weather.’  Remind me to never bitch about the snow back home again.”
    “And I, Michael!  Even the night you found me, would not be so bad!”
    A few minutes more and they joined Stasia and Hughes, who were thawing nicely in the caf.  “No beer, Michael,” said Stasia.  “Park rules.  I asked.”
    “Coffee’s good, though,” supplied Hughes.  “Doughnuts, not so much.  Recycled, I think.”  He tossed the offending pastry to Mike.  “I saw some hockey gear behind the door.  I think these crazy fuckers play hockey when nobody’s around.  Guess it’s that or go batshit up here after a few weeks.”
    Mike didn’t know whether to laugh or throw the half-pound grease sponge back at Jack.  It did indeed look like it would make a good hockey puck, though.  “Jack - wonder if they did slap shots for distance off the peak?  Wonder what you’d shout to warn the people below?  Not ‘Fore!’, that was golf.  How about - HOBEY BAKER!” he ended, shouting.
    Jack fell over off his chair, laughing in spasms until an attendant came over to check on him.
    Katrina supplied the excuse.  “He ate one of the doughnuts.”
    “Poor sap.”
    They ventured out again, only to be driven back in, Stasia‘s lips already blue, Katrina shivering.  Their waterproofs might be that, but they weren’t windproof or cold proof.  Into the store they went.  Out came the credit card.  Even the limited choice the shop provided enough retail therapy for Stasia to recover quickly.  She even found flannel boxers for herself and Katrina, though it did prompt a question.
    “I thought these were men’s clothes?”
    So Mike had to explain about the fad, starting with women borrowing men’s clothing when they spent the night at his place and didn’t have a change.  They discovered that they were more comfortable to wear, so soon enough a minor industry sprouted supplying men’s-style boxers fitted for women.
    After equipping themselves with Mount Washington-adorned gear, they ventured outside again to experience a little of the wind first-hand.  They stood near the chained-down hut, peering into the distance.  Mountains stretched off in all directions, but to the southeast they could make out a shimmer of blue.  “The Atlantic ocean, I think,“ said Mike.
    “How far away is it?“
    “No idea, but it’s gotta be at least a hundred miles.“  Mike climbed easily to the summit, marked with a wooden cross, followed quickly by Kat.  “Hold it!” called Stasia, “I need to take your picture!”
    “Hurry!” called back Kat.  Her hair, peeking out around the hood, flew across her face.  “I’m ready to go down!”  Seeing Stasia’s reaction, she turned to Mike and laughed.  “Not like that!”
    Photo taken, Stasia allowed them to descend.  “You want me to take a shot, Stasia?”
    “No, I’m cold too.”
    Kat, turning back to the stairway, exclaimed, “A cloud!  There’s a cloud down there!”  Mike looked in time to see a white cloud hurry past the side of the mountain below them.  “It’s like flying!” she said.  “Or not - I don’t know!”
    “It’s fantastic!”
    “It’s cold!” said Stasia firmly, heading for the stairs.  “I’m going back to the car!”
    It seemed like a good idea.
    “Ready?” asked Mike when they were all enclosed, engine running, heater blowing, seats heating, and gear stowed.  “This is where it gets interesting.”
    Stasia moaned again.
    “Down is going to be more difficult.  Between the wind, and gravity, it’s going to be tough to keep this car on the road.”  He surreptitiously squeezed Kat’s hand.  “How fast should we take it?”
    “Michael, I love you and trust you, but you will not get us killed in a car accident before my wedding!”
    “Your wish is my command,” he replied, grinning widely.  “Stasia, Kat’s saved your ass.”  He backed out, dropped the car into ‘2’, and started slowly down the mountain.
    One thing was for sure, he was not letting Vanner or - God Forbid! - the Four Blind Mice anywhere near this beauty when he finally got her home!  The computer was just fine the way it was, thank you very much.  The idea of them tinkering around with the software gave him an involuntary shiver.
    The first half-mile went smoothly.  Then, as they were approaching the first sharp curve, a sudden blast of wind, rushing up the mountainside, pushed the car toward the cliff-like snow face.  Mike reacted instinctively, turning against the wind and applying power.  The tires spun then gripped, propelling the heavy car away from the looming snow, but now the low rocks along the drop rushed toward them.  Mike whipped the wheel to the left, hit the gas, then, as the car hurtled toward the snowface spun back to the right and mashed the brakes, sliding the tail of the car around the curve and back to a straight line.  He put the car in its lowest gear and stopped.
    “Everyone okay?  Kat?  Stasia?”
    Kat was pale, but her eyes were shining.  “It all seemed so slow!  I could see the wall and the edge of the cliff and the snow flying and I heard the brakes and saw you looking and thinking and…!”
    “Slow?  It couldn’t’ve taken more than two seconds.”
    “So little?”
    “Stasia?  How about you?”  She was gripping the door handle tightly enough to whiten her knuckles.  Between clenched teeth, she ground out, “Get.  Me.  Down.  This.  Mountain.  Now.”
    “That was a rush!  But I have to agree with the lady.  We should get down the mountain.”
    Mike started off again.  He hugged the upslope side of the road, even when it put him on the left side, the rest of the way down.  He puzzled a little over what Kat said.  He knew from experience that, in intense combat, the same thing happened to him.  During the so-called ‘Charge of the Kildar,’ he could recall seeing individual bullets rifling through the air all around him.  His reactions were faster, his thoughts clearer.  Whether that was adrenaline or training or something else, he didn’t know.  But it seemed, possibly, that Katrina had it too.  That could explain her abilities in hand-to-hand training.
    His thoughts were interrupted as they approached the road.
    “Now where?” asked Kat.
    “A real lunch, and I’ve got to make a few calls, figure out how to get this baby back home,” he answered, patting the dashboard.  “Don’t think I want to leave her behind.”
    Gloria at Chatham Aviation was perfectly happy to arrange transport for the Mercedes.  “Just leave it at Logan and we’ll pick it up,” she told him.
    “Stasia, do we have a place laid on in St.Louis?” he asked as they drove south again.
    “Not yet, Kildar,” she said.  “I wasn’t sure when we would be arriving.  I’ll call now, though.”
    While she called from the back seat, Mike called the caravanserai.
    “Keldara House, Illia speaking, how may I help you sir or ma’am?”
    “Illia, it’s the Kildar.  Put me through to Vanner.”
    “Right away, Kildar.”  A quick silence, then, “Vanner.”
    “We are not secure.  Any news?”
    “We’ve got some leads that look really promising.”
    “Anything short-term?”
    “Not immediate, but maybe in a week or so.  Of course, something might break earlier than that, but…”
    “I understand.  Call me if anything changes.”
    “Will do.”  He hung up, and dialed another number.
    “Mike Jenkins here.”
    “Hey, Mike!  Did you get the jackets?”
    “We did, thanks.  Did you get the beer?”
    “You bet we did!  Tasted even better after that win.”
    “I’ll bet it did!  Nice hit in the third, driving in Bay.”
    “Felt good to get that first one out of the way,” Lowell admitted.  “Been a while since I swung a bat that well.  So what’s up?”
    “We’re headed back into town, and wondered if you and Ortiz were free tonight?”
    “Sorry, no, got a game tonight at seven.”
    “Bummer.  Maybe next time, then.  And don’t worry about the beer - I’ve arranged with the local distributor to have two cases per game dropped off at the park.”
    “Fantastic!  Any time you‘re in town, you and your fiancée are welcome in the clubhouse.”
    “Great.  Good luck tonight.”
    Again, he hung up and dialed.
    “Jenkins.  Have the packages arrived?”
    “Indeed they have!  Bloody hell!”
    Mike chuckled.  “I knew it was going to be bad, but that bad?”
    “That bad.”
    “Well, the good news is we’re on our way back to the city, and should be at the airport in a couple hours.  Can you be ready to go?”
    “Certainly.  Where are we going next?  I need to work up a flight plan.“
    “St. Louis.“
    “Simple enough.  Give me a ring when you’ve cleared security.”
    “Will do.”
    He put away the phone.  “Okay.  We’re off to Logan, then St. Louis.  We ought to be there by dinner.  Stasia, get a hotel yet?”
    “Presidential suite at the Four Seasons.”
    “That’ll do.”

Monday, June 27, 2011

Reading my Mail...

Okay, most recent first:
Nice catch on that, UCMJ is correct.  I've fixed it in my Master Copy of the novel.  Thanks!
No, this is the SECOND 'Prissy' Interlude - she's such a total bitch (I mean, assertive woman) that we felt she needed two tales.
This is intended as a sequel to John's work.  I've left enough time between the end of his last book and the beginning of this for many, many stories.  Plus, if he decides it's good enough to publish, he'll control 'where' it goes in the canon.
Yes, 1632 is the universe that actively encourages other authors to jump in - and John is sort of on the periphery of that whole thing.  So maybe he'll accept this.  That was definitely a thought in creating this story (though a minor one).
So thanks for the comments - keep them coming, I do read them and pay attention to them!


Fifth Interlude

[Wait!  I want more STORY, not interludes!
I know, I know - but the other purpose of the interludes is to break up the flow just a little bit, give you a sense of what's happened elsewhere and elsewhen - because the next one, Paint It Black, is largely parallel to this story.  Hence all the comments about the Mice being unavailable, or the Mules, or Lasko...
So you get to say hello to someone VERY special again.  I hope you enjoy it!



    Time to call in the markers.
    All of her markers, but quietly.  It was finally time to start preparing her revenge on ‘Mike Jenkins‘.  Luckily for her, she had an eidetic memory and really could cut code with the best of them in the business.  Opening the folder on her computer labeled, ‘Budget Request FY2010’, she called up the pictures she had acquired.  Next, she ran them through imaging programs she'd personally rewritten, not just for intel work, but for blackmail purposes.
    Hidden cameras were known for having grainy pictures when used in low light conditions, even the new digital ones.  Her early camera work as a teen hadn't been the best, often dark enough to make the pictures hazy.  Had she sold the code to the private sector she'd have made millions, but she didn't think that way.  It was about the power it gave her, and the control.
     Oh, especially the control.
    Not that she'd turn down money.  And if what was starting to form in the back of her mind was possible, she'd never need another red cent from anyone else again.  They'd be lining up to give her a prince's ransom for what she was going to put together.
    It'd be dangerous, mining, refining, and selling the data.  It was surely going to break some laws - she could quote you the parts of the USCMJ and US Code that she was going to shatter, not that she gave a damn.  But revenge was a driving force.  And, once she had her money, she would disappear, making anything that came to light after the fact impossible to trace.
    She'd be a ghost.  She'd need a new name, of course.  Short term, there were plenty of files she could access in other agencies’ computers that would work.  Then, once safely away, she could build herself a more solid and clean background that would pass anywhere.
    She probably wouldn’t be able to enter the US again, with the new DNA scanners slowly coming online.  That would certainly give her away.  Her hair, her looks - well, they had served her well, but a little nip here, a tuck there, never hurt anyone.  Best to plan on some minor plastic surgery.
     She looked down at her small breasts and decided that maybe being blonde and big breasted would be the way to go after this.  Perfect camouflage - blonde bimbo.  Better work on a tan, too.  But that wouldn’t be a problem where she’d be going.
    Prissy kicked back and pulled up some program files some friends had ‘donated’ to her.  She had told them it was just to help them out, for testing and debugging purposes only.   Idiots.  They’d never dreamt of using these programs the way she was making them work.
    Data danced on her screen as her fingertips tapped faster than many professional secretaries.
    Soon, there'd be enough data for her to work with.  She'd waited months already.  Her new boss wasn't under her control - yet - so she still had to do real work.  As a Major, with considerable seniority in her department,  she could delegate most of it, but it still had to be verified by her and her boss before being sent onto the Base Commander or the Pentagon.
    As if by some deviltry, as soon as she'd started her search, her buzzer sounded.  Her boss's other assistant - a snobby, stuck-up bitch of a Major, which meant she couldn’t pull rank on her - informed her that the quarterly Manning and Readiness reports were being moved up.  Unnecessarily, she added that it was a few weeks early.
    Really, fuckwit? she thought.
    This was due to the fact that so many of Florida's National Guard units were being deployed to the Sandbox this fall.
    How’d you like to join them?  But all she said was, “Thank you, Major Harmon.  I’ll get right on those.”
    Major Connors pushed the final pile of reports she'd verified into her outbox and swore under her breath.  Her plans were falling behind.
    Her new boss - well, not so new now, after nearly nine months - expected her to work.  Actual, honest-to-goodness, verifiable work.  This really cut into her access time at the office.  Even though her home computers were more than capable, they still paled in comparison to the mainframes she could access from her desk.  Plus, it gave her a chance to try to crack into secure systems.
    Unfortunately, Colonel Farnham was much more observant - and much more independent - than Olds had been.  So now she was stuck doing assignments at a pace expected of someone who‘d made Major as quickly as she had.  Slowly, she was earning Farnham’s respect, and thus more freedom from his vulture-like supervision.  On the plus side, all the effort she’d put in had set the precedent of her staying later than everyone else, way past normal work hours.
    She’d used some of that extra time to do some serious hacking.  She’d married several programs, including a facial recognition program and a fingerprint data-point scanner, to a robot internet browser that had some muscle to it.  Now, she could combine the data from dozens of frames of video at time and adjust for angle, shadow, and other variables.  Not only could she build a 3-D image, but the program would note hard-points in those features that couldn't be easily altered, even with plastic surgery or natural aging.
    If she was in if for the money, the TSA, NSA, and FBI, hell, the whole alphabet would be knocking down her door, killing each other to be first in line,  trying to get hold of this program.
    But then she'd lose control of her data tools.  And, as a full time member of the Florida National Guard, the rules regarding programming were very clear: all programs created on government equipment belonged to the government.  Once it came out that she’d created her little toys using government assets, on government time and using Secure and Top Secret government code, she’d lose them completely.  Most likely, they’d be sold, or given to a lobbyist’s sponsor and then rented back to the military.  And as a final ‘fuck you‘, she’d probably end up with a reprimand in her personnel file.
    No thank you.  She’d just have to keep her babies safely under wraps.  Besides, nobody but her could keep them properly updated and working as intended.
    She hid her program in several pieces on separate flash drives and inside other innocuous programs.  She'd designed the integration of the program to not only work at a machine code level, but to require certain pieces of hardware to be present in the code loop for it to function her way.  Which meant she needed some computer parts that weren't exactly off the shelf or in any government supply chain, but often were available to those agencies that worked with DARPA contracts.  It had taken several months of offering favors and back scratching, while she was on her own, to get the parts she needed.
    Friends scratching her back again, of course.  This program - she’d named it Sherlock - was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, easy, to any programmer on the outside.  Maybe even a few million, to the right end user.
    She wasn't planning for a paltry few million, but ten to twenty times that as her safety net.  There was no way she'd sell Sherlock - not just yet.  She needed it for her plan and the legwork right now.  It was going to take time to build her data-points, find the holes, and patch them - by what ever means necessary.  She also needed to program in fail-safes that would trigger if anyone tried to trace her using this same program.  They’d have to either crash the hunter, or plant false positives in connected data files or real time video data-links, point the hounds at another woman.
    So much to do, but this type of work sent shivers deep inside her.    Someone was going to die, she was going to get rich and disappear, all because of this program.
      Everyone was long gone now, except for the duty staffers two floors down.  Sooner or later, someone would be by to remind her to go eat.  She, of course, would point sadly to the pile of reports - already completed but they didn’t know that - on her desk.  They’d chat a bit, and she would ask them to get her some coffee.  This would give her time to shut down her systems safely and secure her ‘other’ work, bringing up something military before the staffer returned.  They never got the coffee right - she took it black, no sugar, no cream - and the stale pastry they always managed to scrounge up for her inevitably ended up in the wastebasket.
    After her ‘break’ she'd double check her security measures and save files to a flash drive for review that night in bed.  There was always enough new stuff each week  - mostly related to potential blackmail so far, dammit! -after the programs ran to keep her on ‘mission’ and hot under the collar (as well as her panties).  She had to be a good girl for now until the patina of her last boss finally faded or she was ready to move and kick off her plans.
    Being a good girl sucked.
    The footsteps of the night Sergeant could be heard approaching her office in a slow measured pace, giving her time to go through her security protocols and save her work.  After he left, she'd finish up for the night and maybe go find some relief off base.  Maybe there’d be some young stud at the bar.  Didn’t matter if he was good-looking; enough margaritas and she wouldn’t remember his face, much less his name.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 25

[Right.  Don't you just love going to a ballgame?  Mike does, and now maybe Kat and Stasia do to.  Can't believe Jack was a Yankees fan - well, actually, I can.  In case any of you are wondering, Make Way For Ducklings is a REAL book and there IS a statue of them in the Boston Public Garden - if you want to see, click the link to the left.  In fact, just about every detail about Boston and the restaurants and sights is as accurate as I could make it.  If you can't tell, Boston is probably my favorite city on the planet (though Boondock on Tellus Tertius would have it beat).

So now it's back to Russia - better bundle up!



    It was decided that Katya would arrive in Utta first, about an hour before J arrived as Abdul Hamid on the bus.  That would give her sufficient time to find the café, reconnoiter, and leave for a nearby ‘hide’ well before J arrived.  She wore a clean but not stylish dress, giving her the look of a semi-successful professional woman.  A bank clerk, perhaps, or a low-level manager, and carried business cards that read, “Katsarina Kapitskaya, Software Developer, TELMA.”
    They even carried a phone number that would eventually route back to the Cave.  The Four Blind Mice had hacked into a defunct telecomm company’s abandoned routers; now, that number would ring to a computerized voicemail system which would back up Cottontail’s card.
    She left at nine.  The battered old car had seen better days.  It didn’t have shock absorbers, she thought, as much as shock transmitters.  In only a few kilometers her ass was as sore as she had ever been, and that included the worst tricks she’d turned.  “If they make me sit on a wooden chair in the café, they’re going to eat the table,” she muttered as she hit another pothole.  At least the heat worked.
    Three hours later she crawled into Utta, parked the Lada a few blocks from the Wandering Wolf, and stretched.  Her back and shoulders ached now, as much from the effort of wrenching the recalcitrant steering wheel as the pummeling the road had given her, and she allowed a few minutes to recover before setting off.  Looking around, she said, “What a shithole.”
    Utta had seen better days.  The few buildings were weathered and worn, battered and poorly maintained at best.  One, the sign proclaiming it to be a branch of Inkombank, was a gutted concrete shell.  A couple cars prowled desultorily along the road, most of the few people she saw choosing to walk rather than risk the pothole slalom of what obviously passed for their main street.
    The Wandering Wolf had seen better days, too, but there was a neon sign for Baltika beer in the window, and an appetizing smell of grilling meat came from the store.  Realizing she was actually ready to eat, she pulled open the door with a creak and walked in.
    The interior was sparse, but clean.  Three small round tables stood before her, a pair of booths to the left and right, and the obligatory bar, with a half-dozen high-backed chairs, toward the back.  A grainy television was showing a soccer match, FC Khimik against Spartak, and she asked the lone barkeep slash waiter, idly wiping a tray with a towel  as he watched the game, “What’s the score?”
    “Spartak is kicking the shit out of those Khimik pussies.  It’s six nil.”
    “Fucking Khimik.  Think they’ll get relegated?” she asked, dropping onto a chair with an appreciative sigh.
    “They’ve won one match this season, what do you think?”
    “You like those fucks?”
    She shrugged and took off her coat.  “Don’t care about them one way or another, but my company’s one of their sponsors.”
    “Sorry to hear that.  Who’s your company?”
    “TELMA.  We do software.”
    “Never heard of you.”
    She shrugged again, to much greater effect.  The blouse she wore was fairly tight and just slightly translucent, so she knew she’d be remembered for her tits, instead of any questions she might ask.  “Doesn’t look like you have much use for our product here,” she laughed.
    “Not really,” he agreed.  “What can I get you?”
    “Bottle of water, and something to eat.  What’s cooking?  I smelled it outside.”
    “Boris is grilling venison.  Shot it myself.”
    “I’ll take that, a small steak.”
    “No beer?”
    She shuddered inwardly.  “No, I have to get back on the road after lunch,” she explained.  He yelled the order back to the kitchen, brought her water, and returned to the game.  She swiveled in the chair, looking around.  One old woman sat in a booth, nursing a cup of a hot drink; other than her, the place was empty.
    “Lunch rush?” she asked.
    “Ha.  Since the battery factory closed, this place has gone to hell.  Don’t know why I keep coming to work, it hardly pays to stay open.”
    “Because your mother would thrash you if you closed down, Yevgeni,” croaked the other customer.
    “Drink your tea, Baba Matya, and mind your own business!” said Yevgeni.  “My great-aunt,” he said apologetically.
    “I had one just like her,” lied Katya convincingly.  “Thought she knew everything, and poked her nose in everywhere.”
    He nodded.  “That’s her in a nutshell.”  He held out a hand.  “Yevgeni.”
    She took it and said, “Katsarina.  Pleased to meet you.”
    They chatted harmlessly for a few minutes as Boris - “My cousin, he can’t do anything else, so what else could I do?” - cooked her meal.  It arrived, and after she took a bite and pronounced herself satisfied, Yevgeni left her to her meal.  It was surprisingly good, in fact, but she paid it little attention, as she examined the interior minutely, though discretely.  Using the bio-enhancements in her eyes, she was able to zoom in on the few suspicious-looking details.  However, they all proved to be harmless, natural features in the wood, or an exposed bolt and washer, or, in one case, a squashed fly.  Soon enough, she was convinced that the café had been chosen, not because it was prepped and loaded with monitoring gear, but because it was totally lacking such gear.
    She pulled a wallet from her bag.  “What do I owe you?”
    “Thirteen rubles,” he said.
    Feigning clumsiness, she dropped the wallet on the floor, placing a micro camera under the bar and, incidentally, giving Yevgeni a good view of her ass.  “Good thing I didn’t have that drink,” she joked, handing him a twenty-ruble bill.  “No, thanks,” she said as he went to give her back the change.  “I’ll just write it off as a business lunch.  Can I get a receipt?”  That got him turned around again, and she palmed another transmitter.  “Restroom?”
    “Outside, around back,” he grunted.
    She went out, waited in the reeking outhouse briefly, then returned, planting the bug on the door lintel, facing in.  “All set,” he said.  “I made it look like it was a twenty ruble meal.”
    “Thank you, that’s easier to explain,” she replied, pocketing the slip.  “Da svidanya,” she said, walking out.
    Once out of easy sight, she hurried back to the car.  Once inside she pulled out a disposable cell phone and sent J a text: “Looks clean.  Planted on door, under bar.”  Then she went to find her hide.
    Abdul Hamid got off the bus, late, he was not at all surprised, cursing the Allah-damned bastard who had sold him a ticket next to the toilet.  Hoisting the backpack, he made his way down the street, looking in the mostly empty store fronts.  Finally he was at the café and, feeling the chill, entered.
    It was almost crowded now, at half past one.  He made his way through the tables, placing his pack on the only vacant one, and caught the waiter’s attention.  “Hot tea with honey, and do you have any lamb?”
    “Lamb?  No.  Venison, I have.”
    “Could you make a kebab, or two?”
    “Might take a few minutes.”
    “I can wait.”
    “I’ll bring it to you when they’re done,” he was told.  He sat at the table he had selected, the empty chair facing the door, rummaged through the pack until he found a battered edition of the Qur’an, which he opened at a bookmark.  The tea and kebabs were dropped off ten minutes later.  “Allah’s blessings,” he said to the waiter.
    “Whatever,” and he walked off.
    He closed his eyes and moved his lips in prayer, then began eating.  The venison kebabs were burnt, the vegetables seemed wilted, and the tea weak.  Typical treatment by the infidels, but he couldn’t afford to get angry, not here, not in public.  When he finished, he paid his bill before asking, “Please, will you make two more?  They were rather good,” he lied.
    “Ten minutes.”
    He returned to his table to read more.  Eventually the second order arrived, and he set the book aside.
    A large man, dark, straight hair, long beard, dark complexion, approached the table.  “Excuse me.”
    He looked up.  “Yes?”
    “The waiter said you have salt, and adzhika that I can borrow?”
    “I have salt, but I do not use adzhika, I don’t like it,” he replied, completing the signal.
    The man sat down.  “Abdul Hamid?”
    “I must be,” he said with a disarming smile.
    “You have something for me?”
    “In my pack, under the table.”  He pushed it over with a foot.  “For the glory of Allah.”
    “Inshallah,” came the reply.  The pack was lifted, and the other man departed.  Abdul Hamid finished the kebabs, paid again, and followed three minutes later.  Two minutes after that, he was in Katya’s hide and washing the dye from his face.
    “Are we tracking?”
    “Yes, very clear so far.  He’s not moving very quickly.”  The receiver looked like a common laptop, but with a very truncated keyboard.  Instead of the common QWERTY layout, it had only a track pad, two mouse buttons, and a numeric keypad.  “See?  He’s only about half a kilometer away, and he’s not moving.”
    “The package isn’t moving,” J clarified, wiping his face with a towel.  “Did you get any shots from the cameras?”
    She nodded.  “Already uploaded to the Valley,” she said.  “Two good front facial, and one side.  They should be able to get a match from that.”
    “Good work.  Pack it up.  Remember, we don’t have much range with this.”
    “You’re driving,” insisted Katya.
    “A high priority request from Cottontail,” said Kseniya, opening the file attached to the message.  “The next link in the chain.  They’re following him, but want us to run down the face.”  She imported the image to their facial recognition software and started the program.
    “We might not have him in our database,” said Vanner.  “Patch it through to CIA and Russian Intel. Verify receipt and make sure they get right on it.”
    He turned to Anisa.  “Any changes in activity at Kassab’s location?”
    She shook her head.  “No, they’re still waiting.  I don’t think they’re happy, though.”
    “Why not?”
    “There seem to have been a large number of punishment details, for one.  We’re picked up lots of quick fights; not even fights, just sharp words for no reason at all.  They seem to be on edge.”
    “Something’s gone wrong, and their timetable is off.  Whatever was supposed to go down has been delayed, and they’re uneasy.”
    Vanner nodded.  “That fits in with the urgency and lack of subtlety in trying to acquire the tritium.  At a guess, I’d say that the warheads they snatched have bad detonators, maybe even most of them, so they couldn’t deploy.  And that means we might just have a little breathing room.”  He smiled.  “Good work, ladies.  Inform Cottontail that we’re processing her request.”
    “This sucks.”
    “Shut the fuck up, Nangle.”
    “Just sayin’, Corp.  At least you have someone to go back to the barracks to; all I have to look forward to is Puzzo’s snores.”
    “Dude, if Kwan wasn’t running our asses off, I’d never be able to sleep.”
    The griping couldn’t be heard outside of their foxhole, dug into the side of a hill.  Bravo was war-gaming with the Keldara, playing the role of the defending force, after a busy week of drilling on probable routes, preset defensive positions, and coordinating with the mortar forces.  Now, they got to play.
    Sivula’s squad was dug into a north-facing hillside, overlooking a track along a small stream.  They were responsible for holding the location against, quote, “an unknown number of hostile forces penetrating from the east,” unquote.  The path, about a hundred meters below them, was the least-obstructed route past the hill, so he had set a single man at the military crest of the hill, keeping the eastern approach under observation.  Two more were up-slope, under cover.  He had kept Privates Nangle and Puzzo with him to man the SAW, while he stayed in radio contact with the mortar forces.  At his word, they would drop simulated Willie Pete rounds all along the path that would, if real,  blind and burn anyone unlucky enough to be there.
    “Hey, Corp, can I ask you a question?”
    Sigh.  “What, Nangle?”
    “How did you bag her so quick, anyway?  Near as I can figure, you was either unconscious or asleep pretty much from when we jumped to when she hit your bed.”
    “That’s his charm, he’s best when he’s not talking,” added Puzzo.
    “You can both shut up and watch the path,” returned Sivula.  “And, not that it’s any of your business, but it was anything but quick.  I met Jessia on the last deployment, and we stayed in touch.”
    “I’ll bet you stayed in touch,” said Nangle.
    “Enough,” said Sivula, warningly.  “Seriously.”
    “Sorry.”  At least he sounded contrite, though Sivula knew that wouldn’t take him long to start up again.  “Still, how the fuck -”
    No, not long at all.
    “This sucks.”
    “Deal with it, Pavel,” growled Chief Adams over the radio.  “At least we’re inside, and all we have to do is watch these ragheads.”
    Pavel’s  team occupied a flat across the road from Kassab’s townhouse.  Each of the ten men - except Braon, who, as team sniper, had his own routine - took turns watching the presumed Chechens trudge around the building, smoke cigarettes, and bitch, loudly, whenever they were together.  Cottontail had wired the house to a fare-thee-well; none of ‘em could piss without a Keldara knowing it.  But the constant tedium of the routine, and the fact that they weren’t able to be really active, was wearing on them.  Adams was afraid that they’d start fighting each other just to relieve the boredom.  At least they’d brought an Xbox; at any given time, two or three would be playing.  The current favorite was Medal of Honor.
    “I don’t want to deal with it, Chief.  I want to kill them.”
    “Soon enough, Pavel.  Soon enough.”  I hope, he added as a mental reservation.
    J didn’t complain about the sprung shocks, but Katya could tell that he was feeling every bounce.
    The target had finally stopped pissing around in Utta after an hour, heading east out of town, and gradually south.  Even though they had to stay within a mile, they didn’t have any problems, nor were they really worried about being spotted.  The engineer that had laid out the road had, apparently, never heard of a straight line, twisting and curving around , seemingly at random.  It wasn’t at all clear where they were heading.  They were making pretty good time, though.
    He turned west onto the R263, then north again on an unnamed dirt road several kilometers on.  “Katya, are we transmitting our route back?”
    “Yes, and I have it stored in the Garmin as well.”
    “I think we’re getting close.”
    Sure enough, minutes later the signal came to a relative stop.  They pulled parallel to the trace on the road.  There was a faint automobile track, leading off into the woods to the right.
    “What’s around here?”
    “The details are poor,” admitted Katya.  “There seems to be a lake to our west, called the Kek-Usn, but I don’t see any named town closer than twenty kilometers,” she added, zooming out.
    He let up on the brake.  “Mark the spot, then see if this road leads anywhere.”
    “Should we call in?”
    “As soon as we’re back on a - oof! - road,” he said, hitting a particularly steep hole.  “I hope it’s soon.”
    Kseniya knocked on Vanner’s door.
    “What’ve you got?”
    “We have a solid hit.  Bursuk Gereshk, age thirty-four, another known follower of Inarov.  Dropped out of sight five months ago.  He’s suspected in multiple kidnappings, three bombings, and one attack on a Russian convoy.”
    “Is he our mastermind?”
    “Probably not.  He has experience, yes, but not planning.  All execution of others‘ plans.  Some training in the Moscow Military School, now the Military Commanders Training School, before being dismissed in his second year.”
    “Well, it‘s one step closer.  Pass this back to Cottontail ASAP.  Then pull everything we can get on Inarov.  I‘ve got a feeling about him.  I think that he‘s the one we need to bring down.”
    Kseniya looked uncertain.  “I don‘t know.”
    “Why not?”
    “First, he‘s always made a splash with his actions.  Every other action he‘s orchestrated, he‘s been online announcing his genius, or in a video, or in a statement to al-Jazeera, and we‘ve heard nothing.”
    “Nothing‘s happened yet,” countered Vanner.
    “But something has - the convoy being taken down.  That was as clean an action as we‘ve ever seen.”
    “Mmm.  What else?”
    “Second, it seems to be a very elaborate plan.  He’s usually been a point A to point B type of guy.  ‘You surrender or I kill hostages’-type.  We don’t know what the end game will be, yet, but this is a lot of work.”
`    “You said we don’t know the end game yet.  What if we do?  What if he’s looking to establish his Emirate in one step?”
    “It’s still an awfully big leap,” she disagreed.  “Even if that is the goal, he’s had some help creating the structure to support it.”
    “Okay, I’ll buy that.”
    “Finally, he’s broke.  I don’t just mean money, though he doesn’t have much of that left, either.  In the eyes of the Chechens, he’s not much more than a common criminal any longer.  Bombing the medical clinic in Mozdok didn’t go over well at all.”
    “Again, if he’s desperate, if he’s against the wall, he’s probably willing to take greater risks.”
    “He might face an internal rebellion, though, and he can’t be prepared for that.  It’s not thought through, not to the successful creation of his Caucasian state.  I think there’s something else going on here, something we’re not picking up on yet.”
    “Possibly.  Okay, concentrate on his activities in the last six months, especially any new associates.  I still think that we should concentrate on Inarov.  Maybe he’s taking his cues from one of them, but they‘re almost certainly co-located.  If we can find Inarov, we‘ll find his brain trust, too.”  He thought for a moment.  “That Ibrahim character.  What have we learned about him?”
    “Still nothing.  It’s as if he appeared from thin air six or seven months ago.  We don’t have a firm grip on a patronymic, though al-Jasir and ibn Faoud have both come up.  Ibrahim ibn Faoud is a slightly more known name.  He appears to have been marginally connected with the Chechen rebellion for five years or so, no known links to any particular activity or event.  Interpol reported a bank account in his name opened in Switzerland; they naturally suspect him in laundering money, but haven’t proven it.”
    “Typical of Interpol,” interjected Vanner.  “All the information and none of the convictions.”
    “ibn Faoud is still reported near his home.  The last confirmed sighting was a month ago, before the raid, but he wasn’t deemed a good prospect for increased surveillance.”
    “He probably isn’t now, either.  If he was home a month ago - that’s too soon before the attack for him to be involved.  Don’t waste any time on him; put the word out that we want to know when he pops up again, but he’s for the back burner.  What about the other name?”
    “al-Jasir.  Son of a relatively wealthy merchant, Dharr al-Jasir, who was killed in the early stages of the war.  Mother, Husniyah, also killed in the war.  No known siblings.  Attended university sporadically before the war, then dropped out when his parents died.  No known affiliation with any rebel movement.”
    “What about work?”
    “He seems to live on the income from his father’s business, which still exists in Groznyy, run by a Russian manager.  Very low profile, and not considered any kind of suspect.”
    “It’s a classic.  Find an identity - I’ll bet that the real Ibrahim al-Jasir died with his parents - and take it over.  If he was injured during the fighting?”
    “Yes, he was, he was in hospital for several weeks after -”
    “After suffering severe facial injuries in a fire or explosion or something like that, right?”
    Kseniya’s eyes were wide.  “Explosion in the family’s flat, yes.”
    “To hide the fact that he wasn’t really al-Jasir.  And with a head injury, any ‘gaps’ in his memory would be filled in by the helpful doctors and nurses, trying to restore him to a normal life.  That’s our man!”  He stood.  “It’s perfect.  The manager of the business just deposits money in an account, nobody has to see him around - whoever this guy really is, he’s had this contingency planned for years.  That makes him a real pro, all right.”  He stood.  “We need to figure out who this guy really is.  Anything we can get on him since his hospitalization - photos especially, but business statements, phone records, rental agreements, anything will help.  I want files from both sides on any agents who were inactive around the time of the attack.”
    “Whoever this guy is, he had another life he had to step away from while he was in the hospital.”
    “Ahh, I understand,” she replied, nodding.  “What else?”
    “We can narrow it down some by physical type, height, weight, stuff like that, so grab that data too.”
    “You don’t think they will give us the data willingly?”
    “Oh, eventually, but we need now, not after debate in committee.  Hack ‘em.”  Through the open doorway, the women of the intel section looked up at that.  While they weren’t averse to, ahem, ‘acquiring’ needed information, Vanner didn’t usually state it quite so directly.  Plus, usually Creata’s Four Blind Mice were in charge of the deep hacking.
    “It’s not just for fun this time, ladies, no hacking into Playgirl.  Find this guy and nail him!”

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 24

[So let's give Creata, Evan, Elena and Catrina a big hand!  Hello to our Four Blind Mice!
So now back to - well, where are we going?  Last YOU knew, we were leaving DC.  In fact, I think the last thing Mike said is, "Let's get the hell out of here.  I've had enough of DC."
But I didn't tell you where he was going next.
So... Read on!



    The flight to Logan, early the next morning, took little more than an hour.  Getting from Logan to their hotel, slightly longer.  Though, to be honest, they mostly spent that time waiting for their water taxi.  It was much cooler than Washington, but still a sunny and pleasant morning.
    “This is Boston?” asked Kat, looking back at the airport.
    “At the moment, we’re in East Boston.  Across the harbor, that’s Boston.”
    “Oh!  Michael, you’re teasing me!”
    “You betcha,“ he laughed.  The water taxi, a small, covered launch, finally arrived, and they carefully boarded, Hughes first, Mike last.  “Long Wharf,“ said Mike, and they were off.
    “What is Long Wharf?“ said Kat.
    “That,” Mike answered, pointing at a vaguely pyramid-shaped brick building.  “You can see it from here.  Actually, that’s our hotel.”
    “Right on the water?”
    “Right over the water.  Built on the old Long Wharf.  We’ve a couple suites on the top floor.  Jack, can you get us checked in?”
    “Sure.  Why me?”
    “We’re going to head across to Faneuil Hall.  Meet you there.”
    Past the hotel, across Atlantic Avenue,  and they were there.  Mike talked along the way.
    “Faneuil Hall was built in the 1700s by a wealthy merchant as a gift to the city.  During the years leading up to the revolution, and all through it, the Hall was the meeting place of the Sons of Liberty - they’d be called a terrorist organization, now.  But then, they were the leaders in planning and justifying the revolution.  Of course, I’m biased, since it was our revolution.”
    They passed under an arch and Quincy Market stretched before them, three brick colonial buildings, replete with shops and restaurants of all types.  Slowed to a crawl by window shopping, Hughes quickly caught up with them.
    “It reminds me of the bazaar,” said Stasia an hour later.  “All the booths and little shops.  Not as much haggling, though.”
    “I’m glad you’re comfortable,” said Mike from behind the bags.  Good thing there aren’t any real high end stores, he thought, or we wouldn’t make it back to the hotel.  As it was, Stasia and Kat had still managed to spend several hundred dollars on small items they thought would be appreciated at home.  “I’m going to bring this all back to the hotel, then we’ll have lunch.  Meet you in front of Durgin-Park in fifteen minutes?”  He waited for a nod, then headed off.
    He found the room at the hotel quickly, and even more rapidly inspected it.  While not nearly as elaborate or tradition-soaked as the Hay-Adams, it was pleasant, airy, and the south-facing windows opened onto their own balcony.  At the appointed time, Mike was back at the North Market Building.  Kat and Stasia were looking at the menu; Hughes was watching the gathering lunch crowd.
    “This may be the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, Jack, but I don’t think they’re violent,” he joked, though he quietly approved of the man’s professionalism.  “Ladies.  Ready?”
    “Starving,” admitted Kat.  The hostess, a short blonde with a low-cut blouse and a brilliant smile who introduced herself as Coleen, brought them upstairs to a table along the wall.  Unlike most restaurants, the Durgin-Park was a pair of large rooms on this level, with communal tables.  As they watched, three groups were brought in and seated, all at the same table.  When one member objected, the waitress wasted no time in telling him just what he could do about it.  “This is where we brought ya, and this is where you’ll sit.  Or you can take yourself out,  I don’t care.”  Stasia and Kat were surprised to see the other patrons smiling at this treatment.
    “It’s part of the legend of this place,” explained Mike.  “Story is, the original owners, back in the 1830s, would encourage the wait staff to give back to the customers more attitude than they’d receive.  Glad to see some things haven’t changed,” he finished as their waitress approached.
    “You want a drink?” she asked without preamble.
    “You have Mountain Tiger?”
    “Yeah, we do.  You got the money?”
    “Four Tigers.  Then a plate of fried soft-shelled crabs, and three - no, better make it four - New England clambakes.  You got that, or you want me to repeat it?”
    She actually smiled.  “Been here before, eh?  Got it, sweetie.”  She walked off.
    “Jack, you had Mountain Tiger before?”  Hughes shook his head.  “This’ll be a real treat, then.”  In Keldara Georgian, he added, “Don’t tell him that you think it’s the slops, right?”
    “No, Michael,” Kat said in the same language.  “We want the foolish Americans to keep buying our swill!”  But she said it with a smile.
    The beers arrived, along with huge pieces of warm cornbread, which neither Stasia nor Kat had ever tried before; Kat enjoyed it, but Stasia found it too sweet for her taste.  Then came the lightly breaded, spicy crabs, quickly devoured by all (once Mike showed the girls how to handle them), and the clam chowder, another new experience for the women.  Both seemed to enjoy the soup, though.  As she chased the last spoonful around the cup, Kat asked, “What is a New England clam bake?”  Before Mike could answer, the waitress returned, with help.
    She was carrying two huge plates, and her trailer carried another pair.  They were piled high with steamers - clams - still in their opened shells; bright red lobsters, drawn butter, baby boiled potatoes, and corn on the cob.  They set the plates down, and the waitress said, “Still hungry?  Or this scare you?”
    “Got any crackers?” asked Mike.
    “Just this,” she replied, pulling out a small hammer.  “Crackers are for wimps.”
    Mike tied the cheesy, but necessary, plastic bib around his neck, picked up the hammer, grabbed his lobster, and gave the crusher claw a good rap.  The shell shattered; he passed the hammer to Kat while he finished breaking it open, pulling out the meat.  She attempted to imitate his swift, firm blow, but barely managed to crack the tough shell.  She tried again, harder, and missed the claw entirely.  The loud thunk was largely drowned by the noise of the now-crowded restaurant, but she blushed furiously anyway.  Mike decided not to comment.
    All too soon, the lunches were gone.  The steamers weren’t too popular with the women, and the boiled potatoes were universally ignored, but the rest of the meal was polished off.  “That was a New England clam bake,” finally answered Mike.  “Tradition says it’s supposed to be done on a beach, with rocks and seaweed, but I don’t think they do that here.  It was a way for early settlers to cook a number of different foods at once with the limited kitchen hardware they had.”
    “It was very good, Michael,” said Stasia.  “I haven’t had lobster since the Bahamas.  I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.”
    “Yes, delicious!” added Kat.  “Especially the lobster!  Would it be too difficult to get, at home?”
    “It won’t be easy,” hedged Mike.  “The best lobsters come from this area of the world.  But,” he confessed, “I’m sure we can manage to get some, sometimes.”
    “Now where?” said Hughes.
    “We have about six hours before the game.  I thought we’d take the time to walk across town, through the Commons and the Public Gardens, maybe along Newbury Street.  It’s a good day, so the observation tower in the Prudential ought to be open.”
    He was right; it was a good day to walk.  As they passed through the city, he pointed out as many landmarks as he could remember: Government Center in Scollay Square, along Beacon Street, past the State House with its golden dome; into and across Boston Common, just beginning to green, but with early-season sun worshippers dotted along the hill; across Charles and into the Public Gardens.  There, they explored for a while, searching.
    “When I was a kid,” explained Mike, “There was a book, called Make Way For Ducklings.  It was set here, in the Public Gardens, and I had heard that bronze statues of the ducks were placed somewhere in here.”  Along the way, they crossed over what announced itself to be “The World’s Shortest Suspension Bridge” over the pond.  Finally, in the northeast corner, by the gate at the corner of Charles and Beacon, they found it.  Nine bronze ducks, one about three feet tall, the others each about a foot tall, stretched in a long line across old cobblestones.
    “They all had names,” said Mike.  “That has to be Mrs. Mallard,” pointing to the largest statue.  “One of the chicks is Jack, and another was Quack, but I’ll be damned if I remember the rest.”
    “Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack,” supplied a grinning Hughes.  “My mom used to read that book to me, and since one was named Jack…”
    Kat sat on Mrs. Mallard’s back.  “Mike, come here, stand behind me.  Stasia?  Will you take our picture?”
    Thirty minutes later, Kat was leaning back into Mike’s arms in the observation deck of the Prudential.  Stasia reacted to the shops on Newbury Street like a cat to catnip.  Kat, fortunately, had resisted, so it was left to Hughes to follow Stasia along the boutique-lined street.  “Just make sure they can have it delivered to the hotel!” was all Mike could get out before she had run across the street, dodging traffic, Hughes close at her heels.
    The Pru was just a short distance away.  They entered through the shops on the ground floor, making a quick stop at l’Occitane (“Finest soaps in the world,” promised Mike, without mentioning that, the last time he had been near a l‘Occitane location, it was in danger of being nuked) and a cart selling Russian nesting dolls, called matryoshka.  Inspiration had struck him, and he had a quick, whispered conversation with the attendant, who then selected four of the dolls for Mike to examine.  He looked at all, then bought the second and tucked it away.  They bought their tickets and were soon up the elevator to the 50th floor.
    “Why do you bring us to Boston?”
    “For a ballgame,” he answered immediately.
    She faced him.  “Really why.”
    He turned her back and wrapped his arms around her slim waist.  “For all of its problems, for all of the idiocies of its people and politicians, this is the birthplace of America.  The Declaration wasn’t signed here, and the war wasn’t won here, I know.  But down there -”  He pointed to the Old South Meeting House.  “- the first real act of rebellion started, the Boston Tea Party.  Just there -” He pointed again, this time to a street corner.  “- the first blood was shed for freedom, the Boston Massacre.  Off in that direction -”  And he turned her to the northwest.  “- lie Lexington and Concord, the first battlegrounds.  Bunker Hill, you can see the monument, looks like the Washington Monument?  And Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution?  Down there, still in fighting trim, ready to defend this country against her enemies.”  He stopped for a moment.  “By American standards, this is an old city.  And she wears her history well.  Not even the revisionists dare to touch what the Bostonians have preserved.  I want you to feel some of that, because if the Constitution and Bill of Rights are, historically, this country’s heart, then here is the country’s soul.  Nothing politicians do can change that.”
    Kat was silent, briefly.  Then, turning, she put her hands behind Mike’s head and kissed him soundly.  “Thank you,” she said when she finally released him.  “I begin to understand.  Mostly.  But one thing I do not.”
    “Oh, crap.”  He took her hand.  “Come on.  If I have to explain baseball, I need a drink.”
    “- so that’s the Infield Fly rule,” Mike finally concluded.
    They were two floors up, in the aptly-named Top of the Hub restaurant.  He was on his third Tiger, while Katrina was making do with a Coke, as she’d been carded and, being only seventeen, wasn’t old enough to drink here.  Mike thought about telling the server that Kat had probably drunk more in her life than he had, but refrained.
    “Ah.  Even if he drops the ball, the batter is out.”
    She sighed.  “It is confusing.”
    “Yeah, it is.  It’s the ‘national pastime,’ though, and you’re going to see it in one of the oldest parks in the country, almost a century old.”
    “My Family home is older than that!”
    “Different culture, different rules, remember?”  He looked at his watch.  “Hungry?”
    “A little.”
    “How about some pizza?”  She made a face; pizza hadn’t caught on in the Valley, despite the Chief’s efforts.  It could be because Adams insisted that he make the dough and sauce himself, from scratch, only made two kinds, cheese or pepperoni, and the results usually ranged from disgusting to inedible.  “Not like the Chief makes.  I promise you.”  He paid for the drinks and they headed for the lifts.  “This will be the real deal.”
    And so it was.  A short ride on a Green Line trolley got them to North Station, and a five-minute walk brought them to Regina Pizzeria.  Mike called Stasia before they entered.
    “Done shopping yet?”
    “I think, yes,” she said.  He could hear the smile in her voice.  “A bigger plane might be needed.”
    “Sure hope not.  Did you pick it up?”
    “Yes, it was ready.  They were reluctant to part with it without a proper sizing, but they understood the need.  If you need it altered, they will do it tomorrow for you.”
    “Great.  We’re at Regina Pizzeria, in the North End.”  He explained how to get there.  “See you soon.”
    The interior was a Hollywood set designer’s dream.  Tables of all sizes were scattered through an oddly-shaped room.  The yellow walls were covered with photos, menus, signs, and awards.  The smell of the brick oven hung heavy in the air.
    They managed to get a table, explained that two more would be coming, and ordered, drinks first, then the pizzas.  As they waited for the drinks, Kat asked, “What did you have Stasia pick up, Michael?”
    He was prepared for the question.  “I thought we should bring some copies of the duckling book back for the Keldara kids.”  I’d better get some on the plane! he thought.
    The drinks in hand, talk turned to the next day.  “The show I want to bring you to isn’t until Thursday night, so we can spend another day here in Boston if you want, or we can just head to St.Louis.  There’s more to see here, and I’m sure there’s plenty to see there, too.”
    “I think I would like another day here.”
    “Suits.  Oh, there you are,” he said to the approaching Stasia and Hughes.  “Finished stimulating the local economy?”
    “For now,” she replied, sitting.  “Though there are a few shops I would like to return to.”
    “Katrina and I were just discussing that, and I think we’ll stay here another day.  Jack?  Any problems on your end with that?”
    “None at all.  As I said, I’m assigned to you as long as you’re here, so where you go, I go.  Not often I get this kind of duty, either, and I’m enjoying it!”
    Just then, the pizzas arrived.  The crusts were browned and irregular from the hand-tossed dough.  “I ordered their Classico and something called a Giambotta,” Mike said.  “The Classico is the one with pepperoni, mushroom, and artichokes; the other one has pepperoni, sausage, salami, mushrooms, peppers, onions.  They say they make the dough, sauce, and sausage here, if that matters to you.  Dig in.”  He took one of the oversized slices from the Giambotta, folded it, and took a bite.  A smile of contentment spread across his face.  “Ahhh.”
    Pizzas demolished and bill paid, Mike said, “Well?  How do you feel about pizza now?”
    “If the Chief could do half as well…!”
    “I must get their recipes!  Then give them to the Chief - no, Mother Savina.” said Stasia, standing.  “I’ll be back,” and off she marched, a determined look on her face.
    “Got to admit, this is the best pizza I’ve had in a long, long time,” added Hughes.  “Wonder if they deliver to DC?”
    The conversation flowed as they waited for Stasia.  After ten minutes, Mike was about ready to go search for her when she reappeared, an envelope in hand.
    “You got them?” he asked wonderingly.
    She nodded.
    “All three?  Dough, sauce, sausage?”
    She nodded again.
    He looked at his watch.  “Really quick for a blow,” he commented in Georgian.
    The cabbie dropped them in Kenmore Square.  “Close as I can get, folks, unless you want to sit in traffic ten minutes.  But the park’s about two minutes walk that way,” he commented.  They chose to walk.
    The crowds were like nothing the ladies had ever seen.  Even DC paled by comparison with the waves of humanity heading for the old park that day.  Hundreds and hundreds, thousands, dressed in team apparel - even a few in the visitor‘s uniforms - colors clashing as the teams would soon, with a universal, anticipatory feeling, gave the walk almost the air of a festival.  Over the crowd, Mike tried to answer questions.
    “How many will there be?” asked Stasia nervously.
    “It’s Opening Day, and this team usually sell out, so thirty-six, thirty-seven thousand.”
    “All to see a game?”
    “You have to remember, Stasia, about baseball, and the Red Sox, in particular: the fans are loyal.  The English ‘fan’ comes from the same root as ‘fanatic,’ and these people prove it.  Every year, every game, they come out to cheer on their home team.”  He chuckled.  “I’ve heard it’s even worse, now they’ve actually won the Series.”
    “Series?” asked Kat.
    “World Series.  They won in 2007, and before that in 2004.  Before that?  1918 was the last time they had won, and some people said -”  His explanation of the Curse of the Bambino brought them past the entrance gate, and disbelieving looks to their faces.
    “Are they really so foolish?”
    “Seriously?  No.  Probably not.  But it made for a hell of a story, and a great excuse for all the years they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”  He stopped in a quieter part of the concourse.  “Everyone got their ticket?  Good.  Stasia, stay with Jack.  Kat, you’re with me.  We’ll meet at our suite.”
    “Suite?” asked Hughes.
    “Yeah.  We’re in the Legends Suite, upstairs.”
    Mike and Kat began to wander around the concourse, chatting.
    “Shouldn’t they be sitting down?”
    “Coming to the game is an event, almost a religious experience, for some of these people.  They call themselves the ‘Fenway Faithful’ and ‘Red Sox Nation.’  Being here is important to them, and they take their time and wander around, doing what we’re doing: looking, talking, maybe meeting someone they know.”
    “What is there to look at?  All I see are people selling things, food, drink, toys?”
    “That’s part of it  They’ll look to see what they want to get for a souvenir, or what beers they carry, or -”
    “Do they sell our beer here?”
    “I don’t think we can get a Tiger here, not yet anyway.  Maybe sometime soon.  As I was saying.  People also just want to see who else is here, how they’re dressed.  Can’t you feel it?”
    She had to admit, there was something about the atmosphere that was different.  “They’re all smiling!” she said suddenly.  “Everyone!  Why?  They can’t all have such good lives?”
    “You’re right, they can’t.  But here, and now, especially today, they can.  It’s Opening Day.  The whole season - and baseball has a long, long season, it runs six months of the year and mostly outdoors - is stretched out before them.  Today, anything is possible.  Last year?  Forgotten.  Tomorrow?  Not here yet.  Right now, for these few hours, everyone here can dream about being part of something special, something memorable, something that they can tell their kids, ‘I was at Fenway when…’  It’s unique, and it’s priceless.”  He paused as they reached a table and sat down.
    “Among all the major sports, baseball is unique for the way the game is played.  Baseball is the only sport that isn’t ruled by a clock; instead, they use outs, and innings.  There’s no set time a game will last.  It could be an hour and a half; it could be four hours.  It’s timeless.  Baseball is the only game where the defense controls the ball.  In baseball, you don’t score a run with the ball itself; it’s the action of a player that causes the run, when he crosses home plate.  And, you don’t have to be a freak of nature to play it.  Sure, it helps to be strong, and coordinated, but you don’t have to have hands the size of oven mitts to hold the ball, or be the size of a sumo wrestler.  It’s a game for ordinary people to take time out from their working lives and enjoy.”  He noted the movement of the crowd.  “I think we should head up.”
    A few minutes’ walk, and a quick elevator ride, brought them up to the suite level.  A well-dressed attendant checked their tickets at the elevator and welcomed them with a smile.
    “Just down the hall.  You can’t miss it,” she said.
    They didn’t.  They entered the suite and Kat gasped.  It was a large room, with off-white walls and wood paneling.  A luxurious dark blue carpet lay across the floor.  At the back was a full bar; along the wall, clever alcoves allowed a variety of seating; and at the front, floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out onto a private seating section and Fenway Park.  There were a number of people already in the room, two obviously attendants in uniform, an older, dignified-looking black man, and the rest were guests, chattering and laughing.  Stasia and Jack were absent.
    One of the attendants came up and said, “Good evening, sir, ma’am.  My name’s Eric, and I’m one of your hosts today, and Meghan, behind the bar, is the other.  Welcome to the Legends Suite at Fenway Park.”
    “Thanks,” answered Mike, looking around.
    “First visit to the suite?”
    “First time in Fenway,” Mike said.  “Both of us.”
    “Then we have to make it memorable for you!  Meghan,” he called to the other attendant.  “We’re going on the tour.  Back in a bit.”
    Mike tried to object, but the young man waved him off.  “Seeing Fenway from the inside isn’t something to miss,” he said.  “We’ve missed batting practice, but maybe I can get you into the clubhouse.  Let’s try there, first.”  Leading the way out, he pulled out a radio.  “Clubhouse, this is Legends.”
    “Hey Tim, I’ve got two VIPs up here who’ve missed BP.  They have time to visit the clubhouse?”
    “If you get your ass right down.”
    “On our way.”  He faced Mike.  “Good news!  We can do a quick clubhouse tour - they usually close up a half hour before game time, so we’ve got a few minutes.”
    “Where the players wait before the game,” said Mike.
    Down the elevator, through the crowds, a locked door that stated, “Authorized Personnel Only,” down a concrete corridor, the old walls soaked in tradition and a strangely familiar musty odor, and they were at the clubhouse.  He opened the door, and a wave of sound washed over them, music, voices, laughter.  “I don’t know how many you’ll get to meet, it’s pretty crazy in here just before a game, but - oh, there’s Mike Lowell, he’s usually pretty good.  Hey, Mike!” he called across the room.  The player, a spare man with a pepper-and-salt goatee, warm eyes and an inviting smile, replied “Eric!  What brings you down here?”
    “Some folks I’d like you to meet.  Mike Lowell, this is Mike -”
    “Jenkins,” supplied Mike smoothly.  “And Kat Devlich, my fiancée.”
    “Always happy to meet another Mike,” quipped Lowell, coming across and shaking hands.  “And the pleasure is all mine, Miss Devlich.”
    “You are a player?” asked Kat.
    Lowell looked quizzically at Mike.  “Her first game,” he supplied.  Lowell nodded.  “Yes, I’m the third baseman for the Sox.  Or at least I am as long as this hip holds up,” he added ruefully.
    “That sucks,” said Mike knowingly.  “Hope it doesn‘t slow you up too much.”
    “Tito’s got me in the lineup, so I’m off to a good start.”
    “Good luck out there today, man.”
    “Thanks.  Papi!” Lowell called.  A very large black man turned from his locker, which was blasting music.  “Come say hello!”
    Shirt unbuttoned, the player came over.  If anything, his smile was even bigger than Lowell’s.  “Mike, Kat, meet David Ortiz.  We call him Big Papi.  David, Mike Jenkins and his fiancée, Kat Devlich.”
    Kat looked up at Ortiz, who dwarfed her much more petite frame.  “He is big,” she said.  Ortiz laughed loudly.  “I’m not so scary once you know me,” he said with an accent.
    “Dominican?” said Mike.
    “Si,” he replied, engulfing Mike’s hand.  “You know the island?”
    “Spent some time there, doing this and that.”
    “What d’you do now?”
    “Make beer, Mountain Tiger.”
    “That is the best!” exclaimed Ortiz.  “Can’t never get enough of it, though.  Did you know that, Mikey?”
    Lowell had to shake his head.  “You make the Tiger?  Man, I knew I liked you for some reason!” he grinned.  The players were starting to gather equipment; the clubhouse buzzing with anticipation.  “Hey, we’ve got to run, got a game to play, you know.  You going to be around after the game?”
    “For a day or so,” said Mike, shaking hands again.  He dug in a pocket.  “We’re in the Legends Suite tonight, and then around the town tomorrow.  My sat phone’s on there, you can give me a call if you want.”
    “What I want is to win this game!” yelled Ortiz, drawing a ragged cheer from the departing players.
    “Might, at that,” said Lowell.
    “If nothing else, I’ll get a couple cases of Tiger sent down here.  I warn you, it might spoil you for anything else.”
    “With this crew?  I’ll take that chance,” laughed Lowell.  “Good meeting you.”  With that, Lowell and Ortiz turned away to make their final game preparations.
    The rest of the tour flew by.  Eric showed them the ancient manual scoreboard, with graffiti and signatures adorning the concrete walls; the red seat in the bleachers where Ted Williams hit the longest home run in Fenway history (“Five hundred and two feet,” he said, as proudly as if he’d hit it himself); he took them to the Players Club, where the two World Series trophies were displayed and had their pictures taken; and finally back up to the suite.
    “Sorry I couldn’t show you more, but I didn’t think you’d want to miss the first pitch,” he said as they reentered the room.
    “No problem,” said Mike.  “It was something else.”  A quick glance showed Hughes and Stasia, seated with two other people at a table.  “Looks like our friends are back.”
    “Great!  If you need anything else, just let me know,” said Eric, then drifted off into the crowd.
    “Where have you been?” demanded Stasia.  “We got lost!”
    “Yeah, we ended up on the broadcast level somehow.  A guy named Remy brought us back down, once we explained we were looking for the Legends Suite.”
    “Why did they call him Rem-Dawg?” asked Stasia.
    “No idea,” admitted Mike.  “I think he’s one of the television announcers, though.  Named Jerry Remy.”  He shrugged, sitting down.  “Rem-Dawg, huh?”
    “You met Remy?” said the man.  He was probably in his sixties, with curly hair and beard which had turned nearly white, glasses, and a look about him that said, “I may be retired, but I’m still serious.”
    “I guess so.”
    “Michael, please meet our new friends.  This is Lewis Barry, and his wife, Marilyn.”  The woman smiled a greeting.  “Lewis, Marilyn, Michael Jenkins and Katrina Devlich.”
    Mike reached across to shake Lewis’ hand.  “Please, call me Mike.  Stasia and my mother are the only people who ever say ‘Michael.’”
    “And I’m Lew.  Pleased to meet you, Mike.  Anastasia was telling us that you’re in beer?”
    “Not as often as I’d like,” and they all laughed.  “Yeah, I’m a partner in the company that makes Mountain Tiger beer.”
    “I’ve seen it here and there, but have never tried it.  Pretty expensive stuff.”
    “It’s pretty good stuff.  Plus, we have to export it from Georgia, the country, and that runs most of the cost up.”  By now, Mike had left his original cover story of a retired widget-maker behind, it having been too vague and too open to incorrect interpretations.  “What do you do, Lew?”
    “I’m retired, now, but I was an buyer for an appliance retailer for years.”
    “And you, Marilyn?”
    “Retired, too, after my second career as a lawyer.”
    “Second career?” asked Katrina.
    “I was a teacher, with VISTA, after college, but I stopped teaching when I had my sons.  I went back to school after they left home, got my JD, and worked for the public defender’s office for a few years.”
    “You stopped work, and then did something else?  Wasn’t that difficult?”
    “Some.  But the law had always interested me, and I wanted to do something for the common good.”
    Mike tuned out the women’s discussion and turned to Lew.  “What do you think about the Sox’ chances this year?”
    The game was, well, baseball.  When the second baseman, Pedroia, hit a home run in the bottom of the first, both Kat and Stasia retreated back into the suite, covering their ears, deafened by the roar of the crowd.  And when Varitek, the catcher, hit one in the bottom of the sixth to put the Sox up 5-1, the roar nearly split Mike’s head.
    In between, they talked with Lew and Marilyn, Lew explaining many of the finer points of the game to Stasia and Kat, nibbled - Lew insisted that they each have a Fenway Frank - and relaxed.  At one point, when the television which was tuned to the game had a shot of the announcers, Stasia practically leapt out of her seat, saying, “That’s him!” and pointing.
    “That’s Remy,’ confirmed Lew.
    They met Jim Rice, who was the ‘Legends’ host for the evening.  He actually sat down with them for quite some time, talking mostly to Lew, who had been a Sox fan since the early Fifties.
    It took some persuading, and a considerable tip, but Mike finally convinced Eric to find and bring back a case of Tiger from outside the park to share with the other guests in the suite.  All agreed that it was the best they had ever had, even Lew.
    The final highlight was in the eighth inning, when a pair of boxes arrived and were presented to Mike and Kat.  Attached to one was a card, which read, “For the couple who give us beer, something to remember your friends on the Red Sox.”  Inside were a pair of team jackets, each embroidered with their names.  Surprisingly, they fit.
    “I’ve gotta send them that beer now,” said Mike, admiring Katrina.
    The game ended with a win, and music started playing.  “What’s that song?” said Stasia.
    “’Dirty Water’ by the Standells,” said Lew.  “It’s from the Sixties.  The Sox have adopted it as their victory song; they play it after every home win.”
    “Like, what was it, ‘Sweet Caroline’?”
    “Something like that.”
    With a few more words, Lew and Marilyn left, declining an invitation for a round of drinks (“No, we have a long drive back to Maine”).  Eventually, they were the last ones in the suite, still talking.
    “I think it’s time to go,” said Mike, finally.  “What do you think?”
    “It is different,” ventured Stasia.
    “I understand what you were saying, Michael.  At least, I think I do,” said Kat.  “I enjoyed it, though.”
    “What about you, Jack?”
    He had the decency to look sheepish as he admitted, quietly, “Tell the truth, I’m a Yankees fan.”
    The crowds leaving the park were almost worse than going in, having had nine innings‘ worth of beer and a Sox victory to buoy their spirits.  There weren’t nearly enough cabs, and the queues around the Green Line stops were ridiculous.  They walked south along Yawkey Way, through the Fens, to a much-less crowded station, jumped on an almost-empty trolley, and enjoyed the ride back toward the hotel.  Unfortunately, this line didn’t quite get them to the hotel, and they ended up walking another easy half-mile through the deserted Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
    At the hotel, Mike said, “I’m not ready to hit the sack.  Anyone want to hang out with me?”
    Stasia spoke first.  “Not I, Michael.  The game was exhausting!”
    Hughes said, “I might -”  An elbow interrupted him.  “That is, I might turn in too.”
    Kat missed the byplay; Mike didn’t.  “Katrina?”
    “I’ll keep you company.  For a while, at least.”  Taking her arm, he guided her into the Oceana’s lounge.
    “Still open?” he asked the lone bartender, sitting down.
    “Yes, sir, for quite a while.”
    He checked the clock behind.  “A little while yet.”
    “Oysters?  Kat?”
    “I’ve never tried them, but I will.”
    “A dozen oysters, and a shrimp cocktail - just in case.”
    “Very good.  And drinks?”
    “No more beer tonite, Michael,” said Kat.
    “What’s your best drink?” he asked.
    “I’d say the Wicked Good Mojito.  Or would the lady prefer something sweet?  I make a mean Chocolate Milkshake Martini.”
    “Ooh, yes!”
    “Those sound good.  Mojito for me, martini for her.”
    “Right away.”  He turned to pull liquors off the shelf.
    “How’d you like the baseball game?” Mike asked.
    “A little confusing, but fun!  I’m glad we got to meet a couple players.  Everyone was so excited, though.  And loud!”
    “I told you - fanatics,” he grinned.  The drinks were placed before them.  “Cheers,” he toasted, and took a sip.  “You’re right, that is wicked good.  How’s yours, Kat?”
    “Very sweet, just what I wanted.”  In Georgian, she added, “Why did he not ask for my age, like the other place?”
    In the same language, he replied, “Not too many minors come in here trying to get a drink, most likely.  Or maybe you look older to him.  You want me to ask?” he finished, mischievously.
    They sipped their drinks then, talking over the game.  Kat showed an amazing grasp of the basics, but some of the details she had questions about.  The barkeep, who introduced himself as Will, joined in, and shortly an animated discussion ensued until the food arrived.  Then, Will backed off.
    “They aren’t cooked!” she said, looking at the oysters lying in their shells.
    “Nope.  Best way to have ‘em,” answered Mike, picking one up.  “Try one.  Just put the shell to your lips, tip it up, and let it slide in.  Like this.”  And he demonstrated.
    Nervously, she took one.  “I’ll try,” she said, and popped it into her mouth.  Her face wrinkled in displeasure, but she swallowed.  “Eww!” she exclaimed, taking a hasty drink.  “Yuck!  Salty, slimy - how can you eat them?”
    “It’s a acquired taste,” he admitted.
    “One I shall not be acquiring, then!”
    “Suit yourself.  More for me.  You can enjoy the shrimp.”  Those were much more to her liking, and the food disappeared quickly.  When the plates had been cleared away, Mike said, “I have something for you.”
    “Did you pick me up a souvenir?”
    “Sort of,” he replied, taking a wrapped box from his pocket.
    “What is it?” she said, shaking it slightly.  It rattled.
    “Open it.”
    Eager as a child at Christmas, Kat tore the paper off  and opened the box.  Out came the matryoshka Mike had bought earlier in the day, a colorful depiction of a black-haired Russian peasant girl on the outside.
    “Oh, how adorable!  We played with these as children, though ours weren’t this new,” and she opened the first doll.  The second nesting doll was similar, with a brown-haired girl.
    “Keep going,” urged Mike.
    The third doll had blonde hair, and the fourth had red hair.  “Like me!” she said.
    “Yes, just like you.  Go on, open that one.”
    “One more, yes?”  The fourth doll was only a couple inches tall.  She pulled it apart, and gasped.  “Michael!”
    Inside was a ring, a deep blue sapphire, set in white gold, flanked by two diamonds on each side.
    Taking her hands in his, Mike said, “In America, it is customary for the bride-to-be to wear an engagement ring before her wedding.  I realize that we won’t have a particularly long engagement, but I thought you deserved a ring.”
    “It’s beautiful!”
    “Try it on.  Here, this finger,” holding her right ring finger.  The ring slid easily down.  “One very important thing.”
    “On our wedding day, you’ll move the ring from this hand to the other before the ceremony.  Then I’ll place the wedding band on the same finger.”
    “This is really going to happen, isn’t it?”
    “It is.”
    She wrapped herself around him.  “I love you so much, Michael.”
    “I love you, Kat.”