Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Chapter One: The Woman in the Ugly Clothes; or, Recipes From Under the Earth

"Do you know how to prepare ramen noodles?"

I wasn't sure if I heard the question right. I turned toward the voice and stared. An old man stood to my left, toothlessly grinning at me through a scraggly beard and moustache. His eyes looked two different ways.

"Pardon me?" I asked.

He repeated the question, adding a slight cackle. I looked more closely. One of his eyes was blue. The other was bright lavender.

"No, sir, I don't know how to prepare ramen noodles," I said, amused by the question. I always like to interact with the people I meet on the street. You never know when something like this will be important later on. There might be a time when I needed to know how to prepare ramen noodles.

"You see, young man, ramen noodles are the cornerstone of our civilization. Therefore, they must be prepared in a special way, in order to simmer in the mind and heighten our perceptions. When they are prepared properly, one can approach the mind of God."

"Can one?"

"Of course! Pay attention, young man." The old man licked his fingers carefully. His tongue was blue. "First, you get a pan. Into this pan you pour peanut oil and a dollop of brandy. Place the pan on the stove and boil this mixture. Add the noodles, reduce the heat, simmer for eight to ten minutes, season with paprika. This is the ingredient that the lamas of Tibet use when they are eating ramen noodles and commiserating with the Buddha."

"And how did you come by this knowledge, sir?" I still had a few minutes until my appointment, and I was very suddenly very interested in this recipe.

He grinned again and stood up on her toes briefly. What he was looking for, I never knew. "Well, young man, can you keep a secret?"

I assured him I could.

"When I was young, like you, before I fell into this pitiful state, I was an important man. I traveled the world in search of knowledge - I was never satisfied. My father had left me a considerable fortune, and I believed that the search for knowledge was the only purpose a man could have in life. I saw many marvels - the great spiders of the Yucatan jungle, that are as big as a basketball and eat dolphins out of the surf; the monk of Ekaterinburg, who channels the spirits of the Romanovs to foretell the future; and the head chef of the Emperor-Under-The-Mountain, who sleeps the sleep of the just until the world recalls him in a time of great need. This chef had a weakness for chocolate chip cookies, and I enticed him to tell me the secret of ramen noodles with promises of more to come. I thought this recipe would bring me fame and fortune, but when I returned home, I got too greedy and approached the wrong people. There were many problems. I was ruined. I lost everything, except the recipe. That is all I have."

I looked at my watch. I had to go. "Thank you, sir, for that story and the recipe. I will cherish it. But now I have to go."

He hopped away, trailing a brown cape that hid his threadbare clothing. He turned a corner and disappeared. I smiled and went on my way.


I was outside the Winchester Hotel when the old man stopped me. The Winchester is a venerable institution in downtown New Alexandria, yet I had never been inside, despite having lived my whole life here. For some reason, I had always been scared of it. It sat on King Richard III Avenue like a squatting potentate, ugly and menacing, dwarfed by the newer building alongside it. It was only six stories high, yet the rumors were that it had sub-basements that extended below the street almost as deep as it was high. I would have dismissed those rumors, but I had seen far too much strange stuff in the Alex to do so. The Winchester's grand entranceway gaped like a tiger's maw, its overhanging draperies tooth-like, while the stone pilings on either side of the front steps lay like feline paws on the sidewalk. I walked up the steps and pushed the ornate glass doors. As I entered the hotel, I felt like I was walking a century into the past. The Winchester had been built during the great boom of 1898-1902, when the Alex expanded outward from its core and Octavian Bench III remodeled the downtown. It was one of the few buildings to survive the earthquake of '06, and for that reason, all sorts of superstitions grew up around it. Whenever any city councilman proposed tearing it down, he would surely contract some disease that would incapacitate him past the vote date. Whenever a businessman tried to buy it from the Ursus family with plans to renovate it and make it "modern," some economic calamity would befall him and he would go bankrupt. Major Ursus, the current patriarch of the family, lived on the top floor of the Winchester with, apparently, no money, as his family's fortune had been diminished over the years. It was with these thoughts swirling in my mind that I entered the hotel.

The interior had the feel of a Victorian living room, but one in which strange rituals had long ago been performed. It looked soothing enough, but there was an unmistakable feeling of uneasiness one got when one entered. Behind the main desk hung red curtains, the color and tackiness of dried blood, which muted light and sound in the large foyer. When people walked into the Winchester, they immediately slumped under the weight of the building's self-importance. I turned to the right and headed toward the main sitting area, between the front desk and the café, where several chairs clustered together like cavemen huddling around a fire, while along the front wall of the hotel, placed against the towering windows, three sofas lay lizards in the sun. The street noises and sights were muted by curtains matching those behind the desk. Thin, weak beams of sunlight nervously shuffled into the sitting area. I looked around for my appointment.

I saw her sitting in a high, straight-backed leather chair that made her, a rather small woman, look even more shriveled. I tried to walk boldly over to her, but the atmosphere in the room and the thick carpet slowed me down and stooped me over. By the time I reached the chair opposite her, I felt as old as she looked.

Pulling myself up and taking a deep breath, I extended my hand. "Madam. You wished to see me?"

Yolanda Thrackton (for that was her name) looked up from the cup of tea she had been contemplating like a yogi. There was no change in her expression. She reached out her hand, but instead of taking mine, she simply waved me to the chair. I sunk into it.

"Mr. Shaw." Her voice was squeaky but surprisingly fresh-sounding. Ms. Thrackton herself was anything but. Her face was lined deeply, and her dull eyes stared out through large bifocals. Her hair was dyed an ugly orange and fell to her waist, which surprised me. She wore the ugliest clothes I had ever seen - a garish purple gingham cowboy shirt and orange culottes, with white-and-red-striped stockings covering her legs. I am no fashion guru, but even I could tell she knew nothing about matching clothes. It was not, however, her dress style I was interested in.

"Ms. Thrackton." She nodded. "Shall we conduct our business?" I am not a man for small talk, and I could tell she was the same.

"I called you because of your reputation, Mr. Shaw," she said, drawing out the esses in "mister" and "Shaw." "You come highly recommended in some circles. Circles in which I travel."

"I'm honored, madam. I have some knowledge of what you are offering. I am, of course, overcome with curiosity."

"Yes." She sat back in her chair, and for a moment, I wondered if she was going to nod off. Her eyes closed and her breathing became more even. I contemplated my next move, but then her eyes snapped open again.

"I was a great beauty in my day," she said. I thought of the old man outside, regaling me with stories of his youth. What kind of signal was I giving off that senior citizens wanted to share their stories with me?

"I danced with President Hoover, did you know that? I was six. He was a kind man. A year later he lost the election. He came back to the city - he was born south of here, you know - and we had a party for him. I danced with him again. I was seven. We could not believe such a pious man had been rejected by the country. My mother was crushed. She wept for six days after Roosevelt won. She took it as a personal insult."

She took a long sip of her tea, coughed, and set the cup down. "All the men in town were interested in me. So long ago. I wanted none of it, you understand - I was a modern woman, and the war was on, and I thought I could create a life for myself. I didn't realize."

She paused for almost a minute before I said, "Realize what, madam?"

She smiled, and I knew that was what she had been waiting for. "We all have a past, Mr. Shaw. We are all bound by it, whether we know it or not. Especially in this city, this grand and glorious place. We are of the New West, but we are also of the Old World. When Octavian Bench came here and stole this land from Hieronymus Janowicz, he brought with him the legacy of his childhood in Europe, a legacy he could never escape. It's the same with all of us, and I foolishly thought that as an American in the 1940s, I could break free of that. Then I received the book when my father died in 1949. Suddenly, I was no longer free. That is what the book does, Mr. Shaw. Do you understand?"

"The book ties you to your past?"

"Not your past, Mr. Shaw. The city's past. The pasts of every person in the city. You become the caretaker of memory. It is not something to be taken lightly."

"Ms. Thrackton," I said, leaning forward, "I have been searching for this book for eight years. I never knew it was so close. I know exactly what the book is, and what it does, and why you have kept it hidden. I know exactly why you want to give it to me, without payment on my part, and why I, too, have to keep it hidden. I understand your concern. Believe me - it has become an obsession with me. I understand."

She took another sip from her tea, coughed, and slowly licked her lips with her short, stubby tongue. "I appreciate your research, Mr. Shaw. I just wanted you to know that research cannot, in this instance, substitute for real-life experience. You can say that you understand what the book is and what it does, but it cannot prepare you."

She looked over at one of the sofas along the front windows. "See that couch? On that couch Charlotte Carnavon, the famous silent movie star, was impregnated by her uncle, the famous director Foley Graham. See that chandelier?" She pointed directly above us. "In 1919 the concierge found the illegitimate child of Warren Harding hanging from that light. Behind the main desk, Harlan Koin strangled his wife Lucretia when he discovered she had embezzled all the money from his secret slush fund. You remember Koin? He retired" - she made quotation marks with her fingers - "in 1976 to Bora Bora? You never heard about the crime, did you? So how do I know about it?"

I suddenly found myself afraid to ask. She grinned, a ghastly smile through thin lips. "The book told me, Mr. Shaw. The book tells me everything."

I had had enough experience with people like Ms. Thrackton, and had done enough research on her, to know not to scoff at her pronouncements. Whether or not I believed her, she believed it, and that was nothing to laugh at. I simply asked if I could see the book.

She reached into the bag next to her chair and extracted a smaller paper grocery bag. She handed it to me. I pulled out a book secured with bubble wrap. I gently unwrapped it until I held the book and only the book in my lap. I could not believe it actually existed.

"The Liber Draconis Mundi," I whispered, savoring each word in my mouth.

"Mr. Shaw," she said, and I had to drag my gaze away from the reddish leather-bound treasure I now held, "I implore you. The Dragon of the World is real. It hears everything. It wraps us in its velvet coils and lures us to dark corners where it can feast on our hearts. If you read this book - and I have no doubt that you will - you must heed it." Her hand shot out and gripped my arm. I felt her fingernails dig deep into my skin. "You. Must."

I pulled away slowly, thankful that her claws had not drawn blood. "I will, madam, I will. You can be sure of that."

"I am an old woman, Mr. Shaw," she said, huddling back into her chair. "I am not long for this world. When I heard of you, I studied you. I know a great deal about you, Mr. Shaw, and I knew that you were the person who could carry on with the book and understand its burden. Thank you for meeting me."

I began to speak, but suddenly her eyes glazed over and she sank a little further back into her chair. I slipped the book back into the grocery bag and stood up, leaning toward her. A chill crept through me as I realized that she was dead. I looked around the room, but all the people in it were busy discussing their own secret things, and no one was paying any attention to me. I had a sudden suspicion, and bent over her tea cup, carefully avoiding contact with it. I sniffed. My suspicions were confirmed: poison. I can identify several kinds of poison, and I recognized the vague scent of sweaty socks that can only come from the extract of the rare Brazilian daffodil, one of the deadlier poisons known to man. The only reason Ms. Thrackton had managed to survive long enough to give me the book was the small dosage and the poison's relative slowness. I had been lucky. Had I been a few minutes late, she would have been dead when I arrived and I would have not gotten the book.

I shed no tears for Yolanda Thrackton. She was an old lady, and she had lived a full life. Now, however, I had to think of myself and the book. Someone had poisoned Ms. Thrackton, someone who wanted the book. They must have known they couldn't make a bold move in public, so they poisoned her in the hopes that in the hue and cry over her death, they could swoop in unnoticed and snatch the book. At least, that's what I believed. That meant I had to leave before anyone noticed Ms. Thrackton was dead. Luckily for me, she looked 90 percent dead when she was still alive, so it might be a while before anyone checked on her. I scanned the room quickly to see if anyone was watching, but could not tell. I might be safe, at least for another few minutes. Perhaps whoever poisoned Ms. Thrackton thought it would take longer. I tried to walk casually out of the hotel, willing my feet to take even strides. As I pushed the door open to leave, I kept expecting shouts of "Stop!" to freeze me. None did. The afternoon breezes hit my face as I stepped into the street, and I drank them in gratefully. I walked slowly but purposefully toward the bus stop, clutching the grocery bag under my left arm. I knew I had been dragged into something far bigger than I. I looked forward to discovering what it was.

More Adventures Behind the Fold!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chapter Two: A Friend Indeed; or, Drinks at the End of the Universe

The book had been in my possession for three days. I had hidden it under the floorboard of my apartment and hoped it would be safe. I dared not read it until I figured out if whoever had killed Yolanda Thrackton was after me. I had known of the book's sinister reputation, but did not thought it would strike so fast. I didn't know if Ms. Thrackton's fate was decided because she read the book or only because she owned it, but I couldn't do anything about my ownership of it. I could, however, resist the temptation to read it.

In the meantime, I decided to discover what I could about Ms. Thrackton's death. I picked up the New Alexandria Benchmark the day after her death and scanned the pages. Buried on page 5 of the Metro section was the story. It gave me very little information that I didn't already know. Yolanda, the story claimed, was discovered at approximately four in the afternoon, and the time of death was put at least an hour before. I shuddered, feeling slightly guilty. I had left the Winchester at 2:40, and it had been almost ninety minutes before someone noticed she was dead. The concierge had noticed that Ms. Thrackton hadn't moved in quite some time, and as she had ordered tea when she first arrived, he thought it strange that she hadn't asked for more. As she was an old woman, he thought she may have fallen asleep, so he approached her carefully, until he realized that she wasn't breathing. That was when he called 911. The story went on to say that there was as yet no suspicion of foul play. Yolanda Thrackton was in her eighties, after all, and the belief was that her heart had just given out. No relatives survived her.

The story saddened me, not only because I was present when she died, but because this woman, who from what I knew was fascinating, had no one to mourn her. From my research of her, I knew she had enough money to get a decent burial, but the fact that it would be a lonely funeral saddened me. I wondered if I should attend. I promised myself that I would keep my eye on the paper to see if there were any announcements. So far, three days after the event, I hadn't seen even an obituary.

I tried to put Yolanda Thrackton out of my mind. I had the Liber Draconis Mundi, and she was beyond pain. I needed to figure out what I was going to do with my treasure. For that, I needed two things: a friend and a beer.

I called my best friend. On the other end of the line, I heard, "Insane Larry's Refrigerator's, Ovens, and Assorted Appliances, Insane Larry speaking. How can I help you buy an appliance today?"

Without identifying myself, I said, "The End of the Universe. Seven o'clock." I hung up and smiled. A friend and a beer.


The Bar at the End of the Universe is a New Alexandria tradition. It sits at the center of Jackson Island, on the southeast corner of Demarcation Boulevard and Longitudinal Avenue, and has been there since the city was founded. It wasn't always a bar, of course, but there has always been alcohol there. When Lewis and Clark came through the area, exploring the new purchase, one of their party, Corporal Asa Duncan, decided that the spot, which at that time was the highest spot on the island, would make a nice place to settle. He built a log cabin and a still at the spot, and immediately began selling moonshine to the natives in the area. Lewis and Clark left him behind and pushed on to the Pacific. When they returned a year later, Duncan had disappeared into the Cascades to live with the Indians, but his still remained operational. Another member of the party, Josiah Umbridge, took over the business and promised to remain until settlers arrived. Surprisingly, he was still there 29 years later when Hieronymus Janowicz and the first group of pioneers came down the Napoleon River Gorge from Idaho to settle in the valley. He hadn't sold a drink in eight years, but he was still there. Later, when the United States fought the British over where the border would be, American troops were billeted there. The government was forced to move them when it became known that they were drinking far too much to remain combat ready. The Battle of Duncan's Peak (as the spot had been named), which took place about ten feet from the door of the building, was the last straw. 110 drunk American soldiers were cut down by 6 British soldiers armed with 3 rifles and a makeshift slingshot. It was the last battle the Americans lost in the border war, because they stopped allowing soldiers to spend the night in the house and moved them further south. After the entire island reverted to the U.S., Umbridge's son, Hezekiah, renamed the house The All-American Bar, and it continued to thrive. It was shelled during the War Between the States (not the Civil War, but the war between the state of Washington and the state of Jefferson, when both states claimed the island, just like England and the U.S. had five years before), but once both opposing leaders realized that they loved the bar more than they loved even their mistresses, it became a "safe zone" where Washingtonians and Jeffersonians could meet and share a beer before returning to their lines and trying to kill each other. When the state of Jefferson took over the whole island in 1843, Hezekiah Umbridge renamed it The Jefferson Pub. It remained in the Umbridge family until 1918, when Azariah Umbridge went off to World War I and was killed in action - not combat, but action with another man's wife. Azariah had no heirs, and the bar was bought by Darius Coomber, who renamed it The Bar at the End of the Universe. Coomber's grandson, Cyrus, ran the bar now, and although he was getting older, he remained as sprightly as ever. The Bar at the End of the Universe was dirty, dark, ugly, damp, cold, and falling apart. It was the greatest bar in the world.

At six-thirty I went inside. Cyrus, still pouring drinks even though he was legally blind, heard my footfalls over the din of the room and had my Goat-Fugger beer poured before I could even order it. I was surprised; it had been a year since I had been in the bar. I saved it for special occasions. Cyrus winked his sightless eye at me and told me the first one was on the house. I thanked him and found a booth in the back, where it was dirtiest, darkest, ugliest, dampest, coldest, and most run down. In the booth next to me two men and a woman were engaged in what I hoped was a menage à trois, because if it wasn't someone needed to call the police.

At seven exactly Ghoti arrived. I watched him order his own beer (Cyrus didn't know him as well) and look around. I knew he would find me eventually, and he did. Waving his left hand, he limped over to me. Before I could say hello, he smacked me on the back of the head with his stump.

"What the hell?" I said, a bit woozy. His stump was not wooden, it was metal. The surgeon who had performed the surgery was psychotic, angry, drunk, and Slavic. One of those characteristics gave him a nasty sense of humor while he worked.

"Eight months I don't hear from you, and when I do, it's an order?"

"Is that it? You didn't have to smack me like that. I've been busy."

He sat down and smiled. "How the hell are you, Isosceles? How's the job?"

I didn't like talking about my job, which he knew. Instead of answering, I asked him how his job was. He loved talking about his "work identity" as Insane Larry. He went on for a while about sales, units shipped, purchasing orders, BTUs, sex in the break room with Eleanor, the saleslady with three nipples, how many digits he'd broken in bar fights recently, until he was on his third pint of Abe's Olde-Timey Reb Smackdown Brew, when he finally ran out of steam. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and said, "You called me. The Bar at the End of the Universe is reserved for special occasions. You haven't commented on the fact that the three people in the booth next to us just brought a salamander and what appears to be cabbage into their little fandango. What's up?"

"Ghoti, my friend, I'm glad you asked. Have you ever heard of the Liber Draconis Mundi?"

I wasn't positive, but it seemed the activity in the next booth paused for a brief instant, before resuming with more vigor. I must have imagined it. Ghoti shook his head. "What is it?"

"That's the question, isn't it? That is most definitely the question. The Liber Draconis Mundi, my friend, is a book. Its title is Latin, and it means 'The Book of the Dragon of the World.' It's a very ancient book."

"Neat title. Why do we care about it?"

"I want to tell you just a little about what I know about the book. I want your opinion. You are always grounded."

I waved to our waitress, Cyrus's buxom granddaughter Zenobia, for refills. When she had brought fresh beer, I leaned in and lowered my voice. I didn't think I had to in the loud atmosphere of the bar, but I knew Ghoti would pay closer attention if he thought someone might be eavesdropping. For all I knew, someone was. They had already managed to poison Ms. Thrackton.

I told him the story of the book's creation. I didn't say "writing," because if what Yolanda Thrackton had told me was true, the book was constantly being re-written. I told him of Rufus, the mad monk of Lindisfarne, who had escaped the Viking attack in A.D. 793 and fled into the wilds of Scotland. He took with him a red-leather-bound book, which at that point was empty, awaiting the monks of the scriptorium to enter whatever text they wished into it. In Scotland he fell in with another band of Vikings and left the British Isles, heading to Norway first and then points south, always keeping hold of the unwritten book. He traveled to Constantinople and there met Sebastian, the court magician of Emperor Nicephorus. Sebastian and Rufus came up with a scheme to bring about the Second Coming by writing down the scenario by which it would occur in Rufus's empty book. The attempt failed, but the story of the Second Coming became legendary, and when Nicephorus was killed in battle, Sebastian made sure his skull was converted into a cup from which whores drank sour wine as part of the first step toward the Apocalypse. The tale of the Second Coming in the book, however, took up only the first six pages, and when Sebastian was exposed as a woman by Emperor Leo V and executed, Rufus fled east and took the book with him.

"In Tashkent, Rufus created the rest of the book," I said. "He was slowly losing his Christian faith and learned much about the snake cults of the Asian steppe. He realized that the world was much more like the Ouroboros than he first supposed. In the West - "

"Wait. The what?"

"Ouroboros. The snake eating its own tail."


"I'll explain it later. I'm in the middle of a story. Let it flow, Ghoti, let it flow."

He burped. "Sure."

"In the West, the concept of time had evolved into a linear idea, where everything continued from a starting point and never returned to that starting point. Everything moved forward. Rufus had been taught in that tradition, as the West moved beyond the - as he thought - antiquated notion that time was a circle, always turning in on itself and repeating. He knew that the farmers in the West still clung to these notions, because they lived their lives according to the ebb and flow of the seasons, and each springtime was much like the ones before it. Rufus - although he was quite mad - considered himself educated - before he left Europe, he had studied with Alcuin - and believed that educated men had moved beyond these ideas. Time was a march forward into a glorious future. However, on the Asian steppes he learned that the concept of the Ouroboros was much more than a cyclical idea of the seasons. He learned that certain events themselves repeated. Events that shaped the course of mankind. Events that could be predicted based on when they had happened before."

"He discovered how to predict the future?"

"To a certain degree. It's impossible to completely foretell the future with much accuracy, but the longer he spent in Tashkent, the more he learned about the craft of predicting future events. He put this knowledge into the book."

"That's ..."

"But the book was still only being written. It wasn't being 'created.' That would come after Rufus died, with all his knowledge about future events and how the concept of the Ouroboros could be used still only taking up half of the book's pages. It was still just a book."

Ghoti finished his beer and waved for another one. "So what happened after he died?"

"The book disappeared. No one knows what happened to it. Some say his 14-year-old mistress Melinda took it back to Constantinople with her. Some say his arch-rival, a man named Alfini, pried it from his dead fingers and took it to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Still others say he was buried with it and later, a Magyar warlord dug up his body and took the book to Hungary. Whatever happened, the book re-appeared in Rome in the 920s, during the reign of Marozia, the queen of Rome. She was a wild woman, utterly ruthless and determined to set her children on the papal throne. Although she succeeded, she overreached and was thrown down by her own son, Alberic, the Prince of the Romans. Alberic's son, Pope John the Twelfth, who ascended to the papacy at the age of sixteen, was - "

"Sixteen years old?"

"He was already Prince of the Romans. The pope was just another powerful ruler in those days. We accept that someone might become king at sixteen, so why not a pope? Anyway, John was depraved to a degree we mere mortals can scarcely understand. He had very little education, but his father, who had learned about the book from his mother, had told him about it. He ... changed the book."

Ghoti's forehead was almost touching mine, he was leaning in so close. "How?" he whispered.

I leaned back and took a long sip from my beer. The crowd in the bar was getting rowdy. A fight had broken out on the other side of the room, and Cyrus was brandishing his trademark trident to break it up. For the moment, everyone in the bar was paying attention to that. Ghoti and I were alone in the corner.

"Well, that's the thing, Ghoti." I smiled. "Nobody seems to know what John did to the book. He was, quite literally, insane. He believed he was the reincarnation of Caligula or Nero. He was Prince of the Romans and the Heir of Saint Peter. For a sixteen-year-old, it was quite the dizzying proposition. He might have been able to handle it had he been older, but he wasn't. He brought the German Emperor Otto to Rome and founded the Holy Roman Empire, which entangled him in politics with men who were far beyond his limited intellect. Eventually he was murdered by a man who had been cuckolded by the pope."


"Pope John was boinking this guy's wife. That's not important, though. Somehow Pope John changed the book. When it came out of Rome in 964, it was no longer being written in, it was writing itself. And it was tied to the legend of the Dragon of the World."

"Which, of course, you're going to tell me about."

"First, though, I want to know what you think."

"It's bullshit. Complete bullshit."


"Come on, Isosceles, shit like this doesn't happen in the world. Sure, weird shit happens, but 'weird shit' means that popes get caught with another guy's wife, not that a book becomes alive. That's just ... stupid."

I tapped the table. I knew Ghoti would put it in perspective for me. He was always more grounded than I was. In this case, though, I knew he was wrong. "Weird shit" like this does happen, we just don't know about it.

Ghoti bent his arms behind his head and leaned back. "So, about this legend?"

"Yeah. The Dragon of the World. That's something that might convince even you."

More Adventures Behind the Fold!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Chapter Three: A Visit to the Newspaper; or, The Wrong People to Anger

Needless to say, by the time we staggered home at dawn (Cyrus kept the Bar at the End of the Universe open all night), I had convinced Ghoti about the significance of the Dragon of the World. He limped and I walked south on Longitudinal Avenue, laughing about escapades we had had together 20 years before back at Buford State University. After I explained the idea of the Draco Mundi to him, he had decided to reminisce instead of confronting the reality of it, and I was fine with that. I had gotten what I wanted from him - a response from someone who had never heard of the book before. In my research of the book, I had come across only converts to the cause, completely blind to the idea that it might all be a lie. Ghoti was naturally skeptical, and although he still looked askance at the story of the book's creation, he accepted that the Dragon of the World was real and a possible threat. That was enough for me. I resolved to delve into the mystery of the book at the earliest opportunity.

"Don't you have to work today?" I asked him. He was limping worse than usual, and weaving poorly.

He waved his stump. "Later," he muttered. "This afternoon. I need a nap. You?"

"It's Saturday."

"Right." We had reached his bus stop, and I made sure he was sitting upright on the bench. I bent down and looked at him face-to-face.

"Listen, Ghoti," I said. "I know I can trust you, but you cannot tell anyone about this. The Liber Draconis Mundi is far too important to fall into evil hands, and evil hands are looking for it. They may come after you."

That sobered him up slightly. "Am I in trouble now, Isosceles?" His voice was slurred.

I told him that since we rarely saw each other, those who wanted the book would probably not discover him. I just wanted him to keep his mouth shut about his new knowledge. I trusted Ghoti, and knew he didn't really need the warning, but I wanted to make sure. I had few friends, and saw them rarely, so I wanted to make sure Ghoti was safe. I figured he was safe since almost everyone knew him as "Insane Larry."

After leaving Ghoti, I headed home. I had ridden my bike to the Bar at the End of the Universe, but I had left it there, knowing Cyrus would take care of it for me. The walk in the early morning sun would help clear my head and allow me to think about my next move. So far, I knew only what the Dragon of the World was and why someone would want to access it. I didn't know how the book would help me stop it, or even how someone could use to book to gain control of the Dragon of the World. I was still anxious about reading the book - I remembered Ms. Thrackton's warnings. Even if she was a crazy old woman, she had possessed the book for over 50 years and probably knew all of its secrets. Therefore, I wanted to be careful when I actually read the book.

When I reached my apartment I made a conscious effort to stay awake. I have a set pattern and don't like to violate it. If I choose to stay out all night, then I simply go without sleep. Therefore, when I got home, I made a large breakfast. Food helps me stay awake. Since it was the weekend, I decided to head down to the office of Morton X. Morton, the top reporter of the New Alexandria Benchmark. He was another college friend of mine, and I knew his spent his Saturday mornings at his desk, catching up on various stories he was tracking.

The Benchmark building was located on St. Thomas Becket Street, at the southern edge of Emerald Park. I took the trolley into town and cut through the park, pondering my dilemma the whole time. Morton would know more about Ms. Thrackton's death than what was printed in his newspaper, I was sure of it.

Morton's office was on the tenth floor. I was always amazed when I visited the Benchmark building - it was one of the largest newspaper buildings ever constructed. I thought, not for the first time, that the Bench family never did anything in small amounts, especially not when their city was involved. I found the reporter staring out the window northward, across the park and toward the Napoleon River and Jackson Island. If I had looked carefully, I might have been able to see my apartment north of the river.

I said his name and he broke from his reverie. When he put his glasses back on and focused on me, his face clouded. He was never happy to be interrupted when he was reflecting on the news, especially by someone like me. Despite our old friendship, Morton and I had drifted apart in the intervening two decades.

"Shaw," he said, in his strangely effeminate voice. Morton's voice was completely mismatched to his body - Morton was a large man, very hairy, and quite slovenly. It was unusual - in college he had been the same way, but I hardly ever saw him eat. I asked him once why he was so big, and he simply smiled and said, "Babies have a lot of calories."

I nodded and sat down on his pristine desk. Morton, unlike every other reporter in the newsroom, kept his desk spotless. No one knew where his notes were, yet his stories were always unimpeachable. He glared at me and pulled a chair from the adjacent desk over so I could sit on it. Still smiling, I sat down.

We stared at each other for a few minutes. It was a game we played - he wanted to know what I was doing there, I wanted information, but neither one wanted to break first. The unspoken rules, however, said that we couldn't do anything else until one of us did. It was going on seven minutes before I caved. "Yolanda Thrackton, Morton. She died a few days ago sitting in a high-backed leather chair in the lobby of the Winchester Hotel. The Metro section ran the story."

"I am aware of Ms. Thrackton."

"There's more to it than that."

"How do you know, Isosceles?"

"I was sitting in the chair opposite her when she died."

Morton was rarely surprised; twenty years as a reporter in the Alex will inure most people to that, but this nugget took him off-guard. "You were there?"

"I watched her die, Morton."

Morton opened a drawer in his desk and extracted a Manila folder. He placed it on the opposite side of the desk from me.

"Okay, I'll bite. What's that, Morton?"

"In time, Isosceles. Tell me about Yolanda Thrackton."

I told him the whole story. Unlike Ghoti, I didn't care about Morton's survival all that much. He had put himself in danger plenty of times, and knew the risks. I trusted him enough to keep anything I told him under his hat, at least until he could write a story about it, at which point it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.

When I finished, Morton sighed and shook his head. "Isosceles, you're a fool. You always want to get involved in stuff like this. You're in over your head."

"I may be. I don't care. What can you tell me about the story? What I read in the newspaper couldn't have been all of it. Did you go down to the Winchester?"

He shrugged. "If you want to die, Shaw, that's fine with me. I'm not writing a story on it anyway - our esteemed editor killed any investigation we may have wanted to start into Ms. Thrackton's death."

"You never let that stop you before."

Morton was quiet for over a minute. Then he said, "All I know, Shaw, is that we wanted to report that Ms. Thrackton was murdered. It was quite obvious. I spoke to the coroner after the autopsy and he wrote that it was poison, but the police didn't care. Commissioner Brunswick was adamant that the report say she died of natural causes."

He stopped and stared out the window, and for a moment I thought he wouldn't continue. Morton often started speaking of something and then trailed off, leaving his audience disappointed. This time, however, he was just pausing briefly. He sighed again and said, "After I spoke to the coroner, I followed him. Something about it just didn't seem right. He ended up at the Forum."


"You're damned right. Listen, I want to take down Bench as much as the next guy, but I'm not stupid. If Bench wants this book, then you'd do well to give it to him. Just drop it off with the guard at the front desk and forget about it, Isosceles. It's not worth it."

"Do you know what Bench could do with the book?"

"I don't care. Bench isn't stupid. He's not going to kill everybody. He loves this town and the people in it - as long as they don't cross him. That's why I dropped it when the coroner went to the Forum. I'd only go after Bench if I knew I could take him. I can't this time."

I had an idea. "Why not? He doesn't have the book, does he? I doubt if he killed Ms. Thrackton, because it's not his style - he would have just bought the book from her. So someone else must want it. But now I have it, and I can use it as leverage. We can use the book to bring him down."

Morton shook his head. "If there is someone out there willing to defy Bench to get this book - and your theory sounds plausible - then I definitely don't want to get in the middle of this. Bench, for all his faults, is the soul of the Alex. Maybe that makes our soul evil, but it's still our soul. Who knows what would happen if the book ended up with the people who oppose him."

"What's in the file, Morton?"

He shoved it over to me unopened. "My file on Bench. Don't worry - it's all copies, I have the originals. When you said you were with Ms. Thrackton when she died, I figured you would want to get involved with Bench sooner or later. You're stupid, but you're brave. You always get into things like this, and usually someone has to save your ass. Remember Kinshasa, Shaw? You still owe Evangelina a date for that. I just want to tell you that if you go up against Bench, you'll be alone. I won't help you. Evangelina certainly won't. All you friends at the college will be scared shitless. Ghoti will crawl into a bottle. You'll be alone."

I smiled. "What about Pax?"

He smacked me on the head. "Don't talk about him, you idiot. Now get out. Have fun. I don't expect to see you again."

I left him to his reverie, disappointed. Although we had drifted apart, I always respected his investigative journalism and felt that his fear was unwarranted. Octavian Bench VII, the scion of the Alex's first family, may be a formidable opponent, but my father, on those days when he wasn't getting high on elephant dung extract, always said a man is judged by the strength of his adversary. My father was foolish in many ways, but he had an insight into the human condition that even now, after he had been dead for several years, I still marveled at and discovered newly. If I was to struggle with Octavian Bench for the book at its mystery, then I would be elevated, even in defeat, which was almost certain. I was joyous as I left the Benchmark building.

My elation lasted only until I got on the trolley and began the trip north. I noticed immediately that someone was shadowing me. At the end of the trolley stood a woman, who was not looking at me in such a way that I knew she wanted to. She was wearing a dark blue blazer and skirt, and her black hair was pulled into a severe bun. Despite that, I could tell she was very beautiful. She was speaking on a cell phone, but I doubted if there was anyone on the other end of the line. I wondered how I could determine if she was following me, and getting off the trolley seemed the easiest way. At the last stop before the river, I hopped off and began to walk east. I tried not to look behind me, because I wanted to get to a point where I could watch for the woman. I walked five blocks along the greensward by the river until I reached the arch of the Lewis and Clark Bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge I climbed up against the stone piling and waited. I could hardly hear anything over the noise of the traffic passing over the bridge above me, but after a few minutes I thought I heard footsteps. I slowly looked around the corner and was confronted with an identification badge. I backed up so quickly I stumbled and fell on my butt. I looked up. The badge was held by a hand that was attached to an arm that belonged to the woman on the trolley. She was smiling.

"Bernard George Shaw?" she said.

"I prefer Isosceles."

"Yes. Mr. Shaw, I'm from the Federal Antiquities Bureau. You have in your possession something that is in the country illegally. You are not entitled to this thing. You must turn it over to the government."

I slowly got to my feet. I looked at her badge and could tell it was genuine. I had heard of FAB. You did not want to mess with them. They were even more terrifying than Octavian Bench VII. I did the only thing I could. I ran.

More Adventures Behind the Fold!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chapter Four: A Walk on the Bridge; or, A Short History of Benches

Lesson One: When a government agent, especially one from the dreaded and sinister Federal Antiquities Bureau, confronts you on an esplanade underneath a bridge, don't run. It's just stupid. The FAB is far too resourceful for you to get away. Oh sure, you might get away from the initial agent, especially if she is wearing flats that are unsuitable for chasing down suspects. And if she has backup, because she won't exactly pursue you as much as she has to. I thought I had escaped as I scrambled up the slope onto Lewis and Clark Boulevard and immediately began running across the bridge. I glanced behind me and saw her struggling with the same incline and already losing ground quickly. I felt a momentary blast of elation and adrenaline and sped up. The bridge stretched before me, offering freedom, glorious freedom! I didn't think that the FAB would simply catch up to me. I didn't think that they may have already searched my apartment. I didn't think that running from, if the rumors were true, the largest and most insidious government agency was probably a fool's quest. All I knew is that I had gotten away.

Until the black SUV pulled over to the curb in front of me and two burly men in khaki pants and Hawaiian shirts stepped out and blocked my path. The traffic behind the SUV immediately began beeping and I heard several curses. I stopped abruptly and turned around, but the female agent was catching up and I couldn't run into traffic. Well, I could have, but I wasn't suicidal. I held up my hands and grinned.

"Okay, gentlemen, I get it. No need to -"

I didn't finish, because one of the burly men grabbed my left hand and twisted it behind my back. I grunted, but before I could say anything, he shoved me against the stone guiderail. I bent over the railing and looked down into the fast-flowing waters of the Napoleon River.

"Come on, guys -"

I was jerked back up and spun around. The female agent had caught up to me and was now regarding me with some scorn. The burly man released me but hovered at my left, and I heard him growling quietly.

"Mr. Shaw," the woman said, "I do not like to run. I was a track star at Leland Gray University in Daubandwattle, Tennessee, and one cold night at the Mid-South-East-American Glory Games, I blew out my knee taking my fourth gold medal of the night. You can understand why running is something that irks me."

"Yes, I can see that." Why, I wondered, did this woman feel the need to share this with me?

"That's not to say I don't like the hunt. I joined the Federal Antiquities Bureau in the hopes that slovenly balding men with squinty mouse-eyes who spend far too much time in dusty libraries and dark warehouses would attempt to escape me so that I could merrily jog after them and bring them to the ground like the dogs they are. You, Mr. Shaw, are unlike that. You are, I should say, sprightly."

"Thank you?"

She slapped me. I was somewhat stunned. It hurt, but it seemed playful in a way. Was this agent flirting with me?

"Stanley. Oliver. I'll handle Mr. Shaw. Call Director Smyrnovich and let him know that I will extract the information for him and bring Mr. Shaw to him later. I certainly wouldn't want you two and the Dentist to get a hold of him too soon."

The two burly agents grunted their assent and climbed back into the SUV. When I turned back to the female agent, she had a small pistol aimed at my midsection. No one on the bridge seemed to care - they were just happy that the right lane was no longer blocked. I leaned back against the rail and tested my theory about the agent.

"So, Miss ..."

"You can call me Ms. Plátano, Mr. Shaw." She waved the gun toward the north end of the bridge. "Walk."

"Do I get to ask where we're going?"


I strolled along, deliberately not looking at her. I felt that she wanted me to question her, to turn around and engage her in conversation. I was burning with curiosity, but I dared not indulge her. I had learned enough in my life about psychological games, and I knew all about having the upper hand in a relationship, even one between federal agent and captive. So I kept my eyes forward, wondering if she would talk. The rush of the traffic next to me drowned out her footsteps, until I began to wonder if she was even behind me anymore. Like Orpheus, I itched to turn around and glimpse Eurydice. I tried whistling while I thought again about the book and the mystery I had fallen into. I thought of Morton's admonishment to give up the book. I knew that if Octavian Bench VII was involved, as Morton suspected, then I was in trouble. If you lived in New Alexandria, you knew all the stories about the Bench family. What Yolanda Thrackton said about Octavian Bench I was true - he basically stole the land on which New Alexandria sat from Hieronymus Janowicz. Janowicz had come down the Napoleon River Gorge in 1834 with several of his wives and sixteen of his children. He reached Goose Lagoon, ignored the heavily forested Saratoga Island, and eventually landed in the swamps of southeast Jackson Island. His party moved north and stumbled across Josiah Umbridge and his modest watering hole. After condemning Umbridge (Janowicz was a notorious teetotaler), the party moved south to the confluence of the Napoleon and Xerxes River, where they settled on the promontory and decided to call their town Cracow, after Janowicz's home town. A year later Octavian Bench came from the West, fresh off a ship that had spent three years sailing around Tierra del Fuego from New York. Bench was a brash young man with 4 dollars in his pocket and a pack of cards in his boot. He challenged Hieronymus Janowicz to a game of whist for the land on which Cracow sat, as well as all the land in the valley between Thor Lake and the Tewkesbury River, none of which Janowicz owned or had even seen. Janowicz, believing his considerable talents with the ladies and his Manichean Christianity made him a genius, foolishly entered into a game with Bench, who had spent the three-year voyage around the Horn doing nothing but playing whist and whose father, Vespasian Bench, had been the whist champion of Europe, once winning the foreskin of Robespierre from Prince Metternich. Despite his pedigree, the rumor went, Bench did not trust his abilities and connived with the youngest of Janowicz's wives, the lovely 16-year-old Jocasta, and cheated at the game. Janowicz gave up his claims to Cracow and all the land around it, which came as something as a shock to the natives, took his wives (minus one) and thirteen of his sixteen children, and went south down the Xerxes River, eventually founding the town of Nicaea seventy miles to the south, while Octavian Bench took up residence in his house with Jocasta and the three remaining children (none of whom were Jocasta's). Octavian renamed the settlement New Alexandria, had twelve children with Jocasta (whom he never married) and became the patriarch of a magnificent family.

The Benches were always the first family of the Alex, despite only one of the Octavians ever holding elective office - Octavian Bench IV, who was mayor twice in the 1920s and 1930s and who was forced to resign in 1935 over the Great Douglas Fir Scandal (students of American history won't need a recounting of that horrible tragedy). The Benches preferred to stay in the shadows, running various businesses and lobbying various politicians to make sure everything always went their way. The latest Bench, Octavian VII, was 44 years old and ruled his empire from his office building, the Forum, which was located in the heart of downtown, not far from the Octavian Bench Historical Park, where his ancestor won his crooked game of whist. Bench was reputedly very interested in magic and the occult, which explained why he might want the Liber Draconis Mundi. He had also increased his family's interest in overseas markets, branching out into the Pacific Rim much more than any of his predecessors, who preferred to look eastward to Chicago and New York. Bench had divested himself of the family's holdings in the Midwest and gotten out of businesses such as the vast cattle ranches in Texas, concentrating more on micro-processors and other high-tech concerns, while buying up land in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand and investing in Chinese businesses. Octavian Bench VII was moving New Alexandria away from a Euro-centric orbit and joining San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver as a powerful Anglo presence in the Asian markets.

I was trying to figure out, knowing about Octavian Bench's rumored interest in the occult, for what he could use the book. The Dragon of the World, obviously, was a crucial component in the occult, but what Bench would do with the knowledge contained in the book still mystified me. I didn't share Morton's belief that Bench wouldn't use the book to kill a lot of people - I didn't know if Bench shared the love of the Alex that his predecessors did, or if he was even sane. It could be possible that his interest in magic had taken him to some dark places in his mind, and then all bets were off. All I knew is that I had to keep the book away from Bench. Of course, I couldn't just let the government have it either.

I had reached the northern end of the bridge. The entire way I had tried to ignore the federal agent behind me with the snub-nosed pistol aimed at the lower part of my spine. I had faced guns before, of course, but that didn't mean I liked it, and something told me that Ms. Plátano would consider shooting me just another interesting part of flirting. I stepped off the bridge onto the sidewalk and stopped. "Okay, Ms. Plátano, where should I go now?" I said.

No answer. I waited a moment, then turned. This I had not expected. Ms. Plátano was gone.

More Adventures Behind the Fold!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Chapter Five: On the Run; or, The Mysterious Man With the Tattoo

I sat in my apartment, more than a little perplexed. I had run home immediately after the disappearance of Ms. Plátano, concerned that the incident on the bridge was just a cover while her two burly agent companions visited my apartment and searched it. The FAB was not known for their respect for warrants and due process - from what I heard, they were almost above the law. However, when I returned home, everything was undisturbed. I opened up the secret hole in my floor and checked the book, actually daring to open it in case the FAB had replaced it with a cleverly made copy. Just one look, however, was enough to tell me that the Liber Draconis Mundi I had was the one I had secured from Ms. Thrackton before her unfortunate demise. So I sat down and tried to figure out just what the hell was going on.

An hour later I still had no answers. I knew there were various forces after the book, and there was no reason why they shouldn't just take it from me. I had no real defense. The FAB might be bound by some sense of propriety, but Octavian Bench certainly wasn't, nor were any other people after the book. So I wasn't sure why I still had the book or even why I was still alive.

I decided to do some research into the Federal Antiquities Bureau. They were a shadowy organization, supposedly funded by the sale of several artifacts on the black market. The sale of the missing link, known as Coong Paow Man, to Archibald Fermata in 1976 netted them close to a billion dollars, if the dying words of that old beggar I met in Montevideo were to be believed. So they operated almost completely off the books, showing up on the federal budget only for such items as "cloche hats - $30,000." But they did have an office in Jefferson, down in the state capital, Nicaea.

"Federal Antiquities Bureau, West Coast Headquarters, how may I direct your call?" said the receptionist after I dialed the number.

"Yes, uh, Agent Plátano, please."

"Whom shall I say is calling?"

"Isosceles Shaw." I saw no reason to lie. She abandoned me, after all.

"One moment, please."

I waited, listening to the punk rock classic "Let's Razor Our Eyelids Off" as played by the Cairo Philharmonic Orchestra. After almost a minute, a man's voice said, "Who the hell is this?"

"Um, I'm looking for Agent Plátano. I, uh -"

"Who the hell is this?"

The belligerent tone made me regret my candor. I dissembled. "I'm, you see, and old, um, boyfriend of, you know, Agent -"

"We know where you are. New Alexandria. 267 Sylvester the First Street, Apartment Four. You shouldn't have called, Mr. Shaw. We don't like callers."

"Wait, wait. I just wanted to talk -"

"No one by that name works for us. You were fooled, Mr. Shaw. Now you will pay."

I hung up. Breathing hard, I went to my secret hole in the floor and pulled out the book. Nothing else mattered now. They knew where I was, and I did not doubt that they were coming to get me. I cursed my stupidity. Far too brazen a move, especially when dealing with such a powerful organization. I had allowed my belief that Ms. Plátano - or whoever she was - had been flirting with me, as well as the fact that she let me go. Now, if I hadn't before, I had the wrath of a truly frightening federal agency focused on me. So stupid.

I grabbed my wallet and ran out the door. I had no idea where I was going to go or what I was going to do. I didn't want to involve any of my friends in this - I already felt guilty about bouncing ideas off of Ghoti - but I didn't have any place to go. Then I remembered - my bicycle was still at the Bar at the End of the Universe. It gave me, at least, a destination.

As I ran through the alley behind my apartment toward the bus stop, I heard the sirens. The FAB had obviously enlisted the local police to pick me up, and I was glad that I knew all the secret pathways in my neighborhood. I turned the corner at Second Avenue and almost ran right into a patrol car. The car was stopped and the policeman was out of the car, talking to what was obviously an FAB agent, as he was dressed in khaki pants and a Hawaiian shirt, the standard-issue uniform. They appeared to be setting up a roadblock at the end of my street. I crossed Second Avenue and slipped into the gravel alley behind the row of houses where the trash bins were set, strolling slowly so as not to attract attention. I reached First Avenue and turned north, crossing my street a block and a half away from my apartment building. As I looked east, I saw the police had already cordoned off the street and there were several sinister-looking purple vans outside my home. It had been four minutes since I hung up the telephone.

I hopped on a bus and went north to the bar. It was almost eleven in the morning, so Cyrus wouldn't be awake yet, but his brawny son Genghis let me in. Genghis was a year older than I was, but looked half my age. He was six feet nine inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. His face was scarred by two lines down either cheek, mementoes of bar fights from long ago. Despite his capacity as bouncer at the bar, he was a gentle soul and extremely erudite. Cyrus had insisted that his four sons and four daughters all attend college.

"Your bike's in the storeroom, Isosceles," he said as I entered the darkened bar. The Bar at the End of the Universe opened at noon, and the staff hadn't arrived yet.

I had an idea. "Anyone ask about me this morning, Genghis? Anyone come by the bar looking for me?"

"Nobody. Why do you ask? You in some trouble or something?"

"Probably not. A misunderstanding, at worst. Just wondering."

"Somebody was asking about you last night, though." He grinned, as if he was happy to share this nugget with me.

I stopped. He was enjoying it. I asked him who it was.

"Dunno. Some dude. He had a snake tattoo on his chest and he was wearing a leather vest, tight shorts, and not much else. He was sitting in the booth next to you, and after once when you went to the bathroom, he talked to Ghoti briefly and then came over and asked me who you were. I told him that you were the Dauphin of France. That flustered him a bit. He said that it would be very bad for Dad if I didn't tell him who you were. I told him you were the Dalai Lama. He considered hitting me for a moment, then thought better of it. Lucky for him. All talk, despite the muscles."

As he spoke, my heart sunk and I felt a chill spread through my body. Every word he said was a dagger. A snake tattoo. The booth next to me. Talked to Ghoti. I knew something was stranger in that booth than the threesome with the salamander and the cabbage. I didn't know the significance of the snake tattoo, but it couldn't be a coincidence that the Liber Draconis Mundi was involved. The fact that he spoke to my best friend was very disturbing, not because it seemed to negate my trust in Ghoti - his memory was selective and poor, and he had been drunk last night - but because he knew about Ghoti and that he was my friend. I didn't want to be responsible for any pain I caused him.

"Thanks, Genghis. Did you keep an eye on him?" Genghis was a fine bouncer, and I knew he looked after good patrons.

"Sure. He went back to his booth and continued to engage in his activity - nasty stuff, I tell you, that poor salamander - while still eavesdropping on you. I lost him during the fight, but when I found him again, his companions had left and he was pounding Seabreezes, looking unhappy. He left before you, and when you left, he was nowhere to be seen. He may have followed you later, but that's not my problem."

"Thanks a lot, Genghis. This helps."

"'A misunderstanding at worst,' eh, Isosceles?"

"Looks worse all the time. Listen, can I give you my cell phone number? I'd like to know if anyone else comes by asking about me."

He took the number, I took my bike, and I left the bar. I still wasn't sure what I was going to do or where I was going to go. Morton was right - none of my friends would help me. I had called in too many favors over the years. As I cycled away aimlessly, I decided I would try to find out what this guy had said to Ghoti, if he could remember. I remembered that Ghoti said he had to work in the afternoon, so he was probably still napping. I had often woken him up in college, so this would be nothing new.

Ten minutes later I skidded to a halt a half a block from Ghoti's house on Hemlock Street. The police weren't there. So far, so good. I left my bike in a bush along the sidewalk, took the book with me, and slowly approached the house. It was quiet, but I couldn't be sure that the police and the feds weren't watching the scene. I walked into the backyard of a neighbor's house and looked at the back of the house. Still nothing. I strolled through the backyards to the street behind Ghoti's house and still saw no presence of authority. Finally I had circled completely around the block, making a circuit of six houses around Ghoti's, and saw no reason to believe that his house was being watched. I walked up to his back door, which I knew was never locked, and entered the house. I crept up to his bedroom and went inside. Ghoti was sprawled on the bed, naked and snoring. I walked to the side of his bed and shoved him.

"Get up, Ghoti."

He rolled over and fell off the bed. He cursed and poked his head over the side of the bed and shook his head. "Whadafug -? Oh, Isosceles. What? Where the hell am I? Shit, my head hurts. What the hell time is it?"

"Listen, Ghoti, I don't have much time. Last night a guy asked about me while I was in the toilet. He had a snake tattoo on his chest. What did he say?"

"Come on, Isosceles ..."

"Ghoti, you know how important this book is. What did he say?"

He held his head in his hands and wiped drool from his mouth with the bed sheets. "Jesus, Isosceles ..."

"Ghoti ..."

"Fine, fine." He scratched his chin. "He was, you know, checking you out. He wanted to know if you, you know, were into that. I told him to fuck off."

I furrowed my brows. Could that be it? Could the guy just be cruising for some rough trade? Genghis said he never really gave anything away, just asked about me. From what I had heard in the booth, he wasn't adverse to much in the sexual department, and it was certainly possible that all he wanted was some action. Not everything could be about the book, could it.

"Damn, Ghoti, I'm sorry. You know, with all the shit I told you about last night, and this mysterious guy ..."

"Yeah, sure, I know." He looked over at the clock. "Look, I don't have to be at work for another two hours, so could you ..." He looked over at the door.

"Sure, sure." I left the house, completely baffled. It seemed like everything was pointing at this guy as part of my problem, but maybe he was just checking me out, like Ghoti said. I walked down the street, still thinking, and retrieved my bike, still unsure where I was going. I started slowly to ride away, when suddenly I realized something. Back in college, whenever Ghoti lied, he scratched his chin. It had been so long that I had forgotten. Up in his bedroom, right now, he had scratched his chin. He was lying about the man in the bar. Why? I turned around, ready to head back up to Ghoti's house and confront him, when a Renault LeCar screeched around the corner and pulled up next to me. Before I could stop, the passenger door opened and I smashed into it, flipping up and over and crashing onto the ground. I moaned and looked up. Ms. Plátano stood above me, smiling and holding the pistol at me. "Hello, Mr. Shaw. Why don't you get in the car?"

More Adventures Behind the Fold!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Chapter Six: A Shocking Revelation; or, How Not to Extract Information

I was tied up but not gagged. I was wedged uncomfortably into the back seat of the LeCar, but the windows were down and a cool breeze blew on my face. The Liber Draconis Mundi sat next to me on the seat. Ms. Plátano had at least allowed me to keep it with me. I assumed it was so I could get one last look at it before it was snatched away.

She hadn't told me where we were going, but as I wasn't blindfolded, I could see everything. We drove back through downtown and cut west. As we reached Crown Park, she turned onto the Xerxes River Highway and headed south. I watched the river flow past, gunmetal gray and steel blue, racing northward toward its confluence with the Napoleon. We drove out of downtown and into the tony southern developments, which had sprung up in the late 1800s when the city expanded after the discovery of the United States' only viable manganese deposits and an increase in the population. We turned right onto the Lincoln Creek Bridge and headed up the Thor Lake Parkway. Thor Lake sits on top of the West Hills right outside of town. It's a caldera of an extinct volcano and a very beautiful spot. I wondered why she was taking me there - usually hundreds of people visited the spot every weekend. Before we wound our way completely up the hill, however, she turned off on a dirt road that led back into the woods. After a few minutes, we reached a small shack in a clearing. Ms. Plátano stopped the car and opened the back door.

"Get out."

She took the book with her and walked toward the shack. I followed. Inside the hut were two chairs. Ms. Plátano sat in the one facing the door; I took the other. She reached up and undid the bun in her hair. It tumbled down around her shoulders, full and wavy. It was gorgeous. My suspicions about her motives returned. What was she up to? She unbuttoned one button on her blazer and crossed her legs, placing the book on her lap. Then she looked me in the eyes.

"You are confused, Mr. Shaw. You wonder what is going on." She stopped as if she had thought of something. "Are you uncomfortable?"

"I could do without my hands being tied."

"Yes. Well. Other than that, are you uncomfortable?"

"Not really, no."

She nodded. "You wonder why I left you earlier today on the bridge," she continued. "You wonder why, when you called our office in Nicaea, a man told you that I do not work for the Federal Antiquities Bureau. You wonder how I knew you would visit your friend. You wonder what I am doing right now. Your life, it seems, has become quite the mystery, Mr. Shaw. All because of this book." She tapped her long index finger on the cover. I couldn't help but notice that her nails were magnificently manicured.

I kept silent. I had learned, through many years of observation, that people love to talk. Ms. Plátano was, I figured, no different. Even if she knew the same thing, I didn't have anything to say. She held all the cards. It was obvious from this grand kidnapping that she wanted to bring me into the inner circle. So I waited.

"You have stumbled onto something much larger than you can even imagine, Mr. Shaw. Shall I tell you what we know about you?"

I still kept silent. It was obviously a rhetorical question. She tapped the book again. "You first discovered the existence of this book approximately two years ago, while you were helping a -" she paused, looked up at the roof, and nodded, "- Mr. Ignatius Polonius Frehley, who had lost his first edition signed copy of Miguel Cervantes' sequel to Don Quixote, Don Quixote and the Temple of Doom - if only Cervantes could have sold the film rights! You found the book for Mr. Frehley in, if I recall correctly, Columbo, Sri Lanka, and had to flee before the Tamils killed you. While searching for that book, you heard stories of this book. What is it with you and books, Mr. Shaw?"

"I like books. That's not a crime."

"When you returned to New Alexandria, you began researching the Liber Draconis Mundi. It's a well known artifact, after all, in the right circles. Not as dramatic as the Voynich Manuscript, perhaps, and not as controversial as the Dossiers secrets, but definitely more powerful than either. You traveled far to discover more about the book - stretching your meager savings account - and heard the full story from a disgraced commerce secretary of the Finnish government, who was trying to get back in the good graces with his true masters, but instead committed suicide two days after you spoke to him. People seem to die around you, Mr. Shaw, have you noticed?"

I glared at her. "Not my fault, Ms. Plátano, not my fault."

"Yes. Well, I'd ask your friend Evangelina Hunts-The-Tiger about that. She had several things to say about you."

That almost pushed me over the edge - I strained briefly against my bonds, but calmed down quickly. The game continued.

"So. You finally found out who had the book - Yolanda Thrackton, right here in New Alexandria. Ms. Thrackton, of the Des Moines Thracktons, whose family came here in the emigration after the Great Iowan Ovine Crisis of 1887. You were stunned to find out that the book was in the city where you grew up. You carefully sent out feelers into the occult and bibliophile communities about the book, but were rebuffed. You began stalking Ms. Thrackton in order to ingratiate yourself into her good graces."

"Now wait a minute -"

She looked up, a Cheshire-cat grin on her face. "You object to my terminology?"

"Listen, lady, you can track my life for me, even though it creeps me out. But I did not stalk her. I did follow her, but I just wanted to see what kind of places she went to. Sure, I wanted to 'ingratiate' myself, but I wasn't 'stalking' her."

"Hmmm. Well, that would have been for the courts to decide, but we've gone far beyond that. You finally introduced yourself by knocking hesitantly on the door of her palatial estate and telling her that you are a professor from Ulysses S. Grant University - an institution that does not exist, by the way - and that in the interest of research, you wanted to examine her famous library. Ms. Thrackton, a semi-recluse, was flattered by the attention of a younger, erudite, and not unattractive 'professor' -" she shifted her legs uncomfortably - "and she eventually spills all about the book. You continued to visit her for about six months, until you convinced her that it would be best if she entrusted the care of the book to you. How you did this I cannot imagine. The old lady had kept that book in a crushing grip for fifty years."

"You mean there's something you don't know? Impressive."

She leaned forward over the book, her silk blouse opening just enough to allow me a view of her smooth neck and upper chest. I still could not understand why she was flirting with me.

"Mr. Shaw, I am going to share something with you. I do work for the Federal Antiquities Bureau. However, I am a member of a rogue splinter group within the Bureau. We are unhappy with the direction the Bureau has taken. Recently, we have noticed that our director, whose name we do not mention, has been acting erratically. We believe that she has either gone insane or she is acting on behalf of special interest groups - the players' union of the National Curling Association is the most obvious suspect - who are at odds with the mission of the Federal Antiquities Bureau as set down by our patron saint and founder, William Seward; namely, that antiquities should be preserved and exhibited and shared with all, instead of being buried in warehouses and never seen again. A thing loses its power when it is out in the open, Mr. Shaw. It gains power by being hidden and accreting to it superstitions and hearsay. Our group within the Bureau - we call ourselves the Brethren - wants to seize power back from our director and the special interests - damned curlers! - and return the Bureau to its noble roots. This book may hold the key to that."

I didn't ask why. At this point, I didn't care. I was too busy trying to wrap my head around what she had told me. Assuming she was telling me the truth, it meant that the most powerful part of the federal government was engaged in a civil war, and that couldn't be good news. Something about her story struck me, though.

"Ms. Plátano? If something gains power by being hidden, why can't you use the director's name?"

"You're clever, Mr. Shaw. It has nothing to do with giving her power. She already wields so much power that it is quite frightening. However, she is also a public figure, and using her name would blow her cover. Therefore, we don't use it."

"But you are opposed to her. So you want to blow her cover. Right?"

"Mr. Shaw, we are not opposed to the function she serves within the federal bureaucracy. If we succeed in our endeavor, we don't want to humiliate her, we just want to replace her and send her off to retirement in Corfu, where all the past directors have gone. She is a figure to be pitied. I respect what she once was and her office too much to betray that."

"Are you going to release me?"

"Why would I do that?"

"You obviously need me for something. What I can't imagine, but you wouldn't have told me about your little power struggle if you were going to cut me out of the picture. So let's skip right to the negotiations. First, untie me."

She shrugged, put down the book, stood up, and walked over to me. She bent around me and quite deliberately rubbed her breasts against my left arm. I heard a switchblade click, and a second later my hands were free. Before she could move, I grabbed her arms and pulled her close to me. Her hair swept over half her face, hiding one eye, while the other bored into mine, steaming with passion. Her nostrils flared, almost imperceptibly. I heard her deep breaths and saw her chest heaving. Very slowly she licked her full lips. I felt my heart beat faster.

"Okay, lady, what's the deal here? Why the full court press?" I tried to sound tough, even though I knew she could break my grip anytime she wanted to.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Shaw." Her voice, however, was husky. "Now unhand me."

I kept my grip on her. "You have been flirting with me since we met. I am unsure why."

"Isn't it obvious?" She leaned in and kissed me, hard. Her breath smelled on kiwi fruit. Her tongue gently opened my lips and then explored the topography of my mouth. I allowed the kiss, but pulled away when she reached for my shirt.

"Uh, Ms. Plátano -"

"Call me Wanda," she said, breathing heavily.

"Uh, Wanda -"

"Oh, Isosceles ..."

"I'm not sure what you're trying to achieve, but you won't get it this way."

"What? What do you mean?"

"Well, Wanda, this. Won't work."

"Why not?"

"I'm gay."

More Adventures Behind the Fold!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Chapter Seven: Undercover in the Federal Antiquities Bureau; or, What Would You Do to Save the World?

"What?" She dropped her arms from my face.

"I'm gay. Whatever you're doing won't work."


I was beginning to wonder if Ms. Plátano had been stunned deaf. "I. Am. A. Homosexual. Do you understand?"

She stood up and wandered away from me. "I - I - We didn't know - We didn't - How? You're -"

"Gay. Yes. No big deal, Wanda. I can still call you Wanda, right?" I winked at her. She looked at me, puzzled.

"Bullshit. We would have known." She walked back over and leaned over me, glaring angrily into my face.

"You just kissed me and rubbed against me. Rather passionately, I might add. Check the evidence."

She looked at me quizzically for a moment, then understood. She reached down and examined the evidence, or lack thereof. "Shit," she said quietly. "How did we miss that?"

I stood up, smiling. "It's no big deal, you know. Have you seen me with a woman since I came to your attention?" I was enjoying myself way too much, I knew, but she asked for it.

"Well, no ... But we never saw you with a man, either."

I blushed a bit. "Yeah, well, it's been a tough few years. Ever since Colin left me to enter politics ..."

She quickly composed herself. "Fine, Mr. Shaw, you're gay. Fine. I'm horribly embarrassed and don't know what to say. Can we move on now?"

"Only if you tell me why you were trying to seduce me."

She sat heavily on her chair. "Well, you are attractive, Mr. Shaw, but that's not it. You see, my bosses and I, well, the rest of the Brethren here in Jefferson - we're heavily concentrated in the state, because of the presence of Octavian Bench, among others - well, we decided that it would be best if, you know, we, um ..."

"Had sex?"

"Yes." She was remarkably subdued, almost a different person from the cool, confident agent she had been only a few minutes earlier. "Listen, it's not something I'm terribly proud of. I'm a federal agent, Mr. Shaw, and I do things in the service of my country. Things I might find reprehensible - uh, not that sex with you would have been reprehensible, but, you know ..."

"I get it, Wanda. Things you wouldn't do on your own initiative. Don't worry."

"Yes. Well. I once had to tell people I was a Presbyterian. A Presbyterian! Can you believe it? I also once had to infiltrate a comic book convention. I could tell you horrible stories ..."

She shook her head of the memories. "My point is, we decided that we should assign a female agent to your case. You appear to have ... emotional attachments to the tasks you take on. We studied your work -"

"I don't like to talk about my job."

"We know. But you still get emotionally involved in it. So we knew that you would be emotionally involved in this book, but that wasn't enough. We needed you to be emotionally involved in helping us."

"Why? Why not just take the book and be done with it? Why do you need me?"

"Mr. Shaw, we in the Brethren are locked in more than one power struggle. First, we are trying to retake the Federal Antiquities Bureau from our sadly misguided director. She, meanwhile, is probably trying to secure this book so that she can read it, use its power, and lock the book away, thereby increasing its power. She may also be in league with Octavian Bench, who would use the book in the same way, perhaps sharing its power with her. We are, of course, opposed to Bench as well - we think the book should be open to the public and displayed, which would destroy its power. And, of course, there is the third party."

"Share, Wanda. You know you want to." Now that I had her on the defensive, I was going to press.

"This third party, we believe, are the ones who poisoned Ms. Thrackton. We know we didn't do it, and we doubt very much that Bench and the mainstream Bureau would be so ... crass. This third party, we believe, are quite ruthless. More ruthless than Mr. Bench, which is impressive."

I sat quietly. She was still debating how much she was going to tell me. I knew, however, that she had gone too far, and needed to spill it all.

"This third group is, well, it's almost silly ... they claim to be the true owners of the book."

"Ms. Thrackton was the true owner of the book."

"Not according to these people. They claim to be descended directly from Rufus, the mad monk of Lindisfarne. Rufus, as you know, fled to Constantinople, where he became involved with Sebastian, the court magician. Sebastian the woman. Certain texts indicate specifically that she had several children during the reign of Nicephorus, at precisely the time Rufus was at court. No one else was as close to Sebastian as he was, and the people in this group claim direct descent from their pairing. Rufus also had a mistress in Tashkent."


"Yes. Others in this group claim direct descent from her. They claim she had at least one child with Rufus before he died, and was pregnant when he died. These people say that the book should be theirs because they are all descendants of the book's creator."

"The children of Rufus."

"That's what they call themselves, incidentally. All the men in the group have red beards - the women, too, if they can grow one. They are quite fanatical."

"And you're not?"

"Isosceles, we need your help." She leaned forward again, but all sexual pretense was gone. "This is a fabulous artifact, one of the greatest ever. It's stunning that the Thracktons ended up with it - we're still trying to figure out how they got a hold of it. However, since we have all been looking for it for so long, we all know each other. You're a wild card - they know who you are, but they don't know which way you're going to turn. We can use that."

"What makes you think I'm going to go your way?"

She leaned back and put her hands behind her head. "Seducing you was just step one, Isosceles. If that, um, failed, I was to kill you. I already have the book. As a wild card, you have some value. But only if you're on our side. We can't afford people like you running around screwing everything up."

"You have the book. Take it. I don't care anymore. Publish it. Set it up on the front porch of the Smithsonian. Take it on a grand tour."

"You could really let it go?"

"Well, I'll admit I'm pissed off. I wanted to read it, discover what was in it, try to master it. But I'm sick of you people. Poor Ms. Thrackton - killed by, what, crazy descendants of a crazy monk? My best friend lied to me, and I still don't know why. Another acquaintance of mine is scared to do his job. Your colleagues are calling the cops on me. I like the adventure, but I also like living. You people are stupid."

She frowned. "You don't seem like a quitter."

"It's more than that, Wanda. I don't like to quit, but I also don't like being screwed with. That's all you people do. I'm sick of it."

"Well. Like I said, we need your help. Yes, I have the book, but I can't just go public with it. We still don't control the Bureau, and we can't simply walk into the office of the Benchmark and slap the book down on the desk of your friend Morton X. Morton and say, 'Here it is.' Octavian Bench would get it before it ever reached the public. We have to make sure he and the Bureau and the Children of Rufus cannot get it. They have to understand that there is nothing they can do. That's why you have to help us."

"You have to give me the book back."

"I don't know if that's a good idea."

"That's the deal. Yolanda Thrackton gave it to me. For whatever reason, she trusted me. I don't know if I can trust you."

"I haven't killed you yet."

She had me there, but I wasn't giving in. "No book, no deal."

"Where are you going to put it? That hole in the floor of your apartment?"

"Don't worry. I know a place even you won't be able to find. I'll hide it and you won't even know when I hid it. You'll think I still have it. But I won't. So."

"Will you listen to our plan?"

"Give me the book."

She reluctantly handed it over. It felt warm from her touch. I petted it slowly. "Go ahead, Wanda. I'm all ears."

More Adventures Behind the Fold!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Chapter Eight: The Perfect Hiding Place; or, What to Say When an Arrow is Aimed at Your Heart

On the following Tuesday night I received the phone call I had been expecting. The gruff voice on the other end of the line said, "It's time. Forty-five minutes."

The plan had begun.

I had spent most of Saturday afternoon with Wanda while she explained what she and the Brethren were trying to do to.

"Our plan is threefold," she said. "We want to regain control of the Federal Antiquities Bureau, thwart Octavian Bench's ambition to possess the Liber Draconis Mundi, and break the power of the Children of Rufus. We think we have figured out a way how we can do this."

Her plan was convoluted and complex. I was involved in it only a little, because Wanda felt that I would be unable to be as duplicitous as was needed. I reminded her that I fooled her with regard to my orientation, but she didn't take it as a joke and moved on quickly. The first thing I had to do was secure the book in a safe place. Then, on Tuesday night, my small part of the plan would begin. Wanda hoped that I would be out of it by the following weekend. I went along with her, still thinking about how I could follow her plan and still keep the book. I didn't care if it was publicized, but I wanted to read it first. I had gone through far too much to have it snatched away.

I'm sure Wanda didn't trust me, but that was fine, because I didn't trust her either. I was surprised she let me keep the book, but when she dropped me off at my apartment late Saturday afternoon, she said nothing when I took it with me. She had made a phone call and gotten the police and the FAB to leave me alone, at least for the time being, so my street was deserted when I finally returned. I smiled at Wanda and told her I hoped my revelation didn't ruin our friendship, and she glowered at me and gave me her cell phone number. "Call me only if something goes wrong before Tuesday," she said. "If nothing happens, I'll see you then."

"Sweet dreams, Ms. Plátano," I said. Her tires squealed as she drove away.

On Sunday I hid the book. I had thought long and hard about where I would hide it, and I came to one conclusion: I couldn't keep it in the city, or with a friend. Ghoti had lied to me, for whatever reason, but suddenly I couldn't trust him. Anyway, after learning about the Children of Rufus and their tactics, I didn't want them to go after him, whether he lied to me or not. I was sure that either the Children of Rufus or Octavian Bench and his allies would know all about my friends, and I didn't want to involve them. I also wanted to get the book out of the city. The Bench influence was everywhere in New Alexandria, and I simply could not think of anyplace safe to stash the Liber Draconis Mundi.

Early Sunday morning it struck me. There was only one place I could take the book. If I couldn't take it to a friend, I would take it to an adversary. I would take it to Pax.


The drive to eastern Jefferson was long but never boring. I drove up the Napoleon River Gorge along the old highway instead of on the interstate running by the river. The old highway ran through the hills and along the cliffsides of the gorge, and was far more interesting and scenic. Leaves burned red and yellow by the crisp autumn weather clung desperately to branches and gazed down at their fallen comrades, browning stalks of corn stood sentinel in harvested fields, and the denizens of the small towns along the way sat on porches in front of granges and country stores smoking pipes and watching the big-city folk pass by. I was driving my El Camino and listening to Howlin' Wolf on the tape deck, and I had the windows down to let the breeze in. The book was wrapped in bubble wrap on the seat next to me, but I forgot about it as I drove through the beautiful landscape. I had lived in the Alex all my life, but I had traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest for years, soaking up all the local history and legends. It was my passion. So as I drove east, I remembered everything I had heard about the towns along the way:

In Dixon, Mayor Abercrombie participated in the 1932 dance marathon and won, but at the cost of his right foot, which had to be amputated because his hangnail cut into his flesh and after 122 hours of dancing, gangrene had set in.

In Murraysville, George and Gertrude Murray, the original settlers, liked to sit in straight-backed wooden chairs alongside the highway, which was only a broad dirt road back in 1853, when they first settled the homestead. They would invite solitary pioneers into their homes for a nice dinner, and afterward, they would kill and eat them. This went on for twelve years, until the local militia, based in the Alex and headed by the young Octavian Bench II, rode out to check on rumors about the couple and found they were true. They hanged the Murrays and sold their vast ranch, but the settlers they didn't eat honored them by naming the town after them because Gertrude's snickerdoodles were so damned tasty.

In Ahtumwock, Regina Livesay turned early 1900s-morality on its ear by marrying six men at one time and making them all work her farm. In 1912, her sixth husband, Honorius, told the New Alexandria Benchmark that Regina "made all her men happy," which is why they all married her. This was too much for the puritan government then in power in the Alex, and they drove Regina and her husbands out of the state, telling them that they should settle in a "Gallic" place like Seattle, which they did, becoming world-famous restauranteurs.

In Horse-And-Buggy, the legend goes that young lovers on the verge of consummating their relationship on the Hill of the Grayhounds right outside the town will always see the ghost of Chief Great-As-The-Sky-And-Swift-As-The-Lightning, who supposedly threw three of his daughters off the peak and down into the gorge to their deaths for losing their maidenheads to young braves. Chief Lightning will howl angrily as the lovers attempt to make the beast with two backs, begging the question of why anyone would go out there to do it. The story is that if you can ignore the chief and push through, not only will you have excellent sex, but you will always be together and never lose your passion for each other.

I turned south at Falltown, at the head of the gorge and the end of the desert, and followed the Gilead River south. The Gilead flows north out of the Cascades and through the brush on the fringe of the Great Eastern Desert, and the area right along it is pleasant country and a hot vacation spot for the city-dwellers to the west. I drove along Route 14 through small towns and the Kiutlwak Indian reservation, with its brand new casino on the hill overlooking the river. At the Thrushby Falls I turned east into the desert. The next town was 200 miles away. I was not going as far. About 50 miles along the road I turned left onto a dirt track that was almost invisible. I bumped along this track for 20 miles until I came to a fence with a gate blocking the road. I knew that I had to get out and identify myself, even though it appeared there were no recording devices whatsoever.

I opened my door, got out of the cruck, and stretched. I had been driving for almost three hours. I surveyed the landscape. I knew the house was in front of me not that far away, but it was down in a hollow and I couldn't see it from the gate. I could see nothing else in any direction.

"Pax," I said. "It's me. Isosceles."

Nothing but the wind answered me. "Come on, Pax, it's important."

Far away the sound of a truck reached my ears. Other than that, silence. "Do you really think I'd drive all the way out here if it wasn't important, Pax? Do you really think I'd put myself through that grief?"

I heard a click. I looked and the gate was swinging open. "Thank you, Pax," I said and climbed back into the El Camino and drove it across the threshold. Even though the landscape was exactly the same, I felt a subtle shift in the atmosphere. Tension crackled across the ether. Pax had that effect.

I drove about ten minutes and saw the hollow in which Pax had built his house. I never knew what to expect - it had been a decade since I had visited, and I knew Pax liked to construct things. I parked the cruck before I reached the lip of the hollow and got out, bringing the book with me. I walked to the edge of the hollow and stared, amazed. The original house had been a simple cabin made from stone and wood, with only two rooms. Now the house sprawled down the gulch, with at least six new rooms. Pax had been busy in the ten years since I had seen him.

He stood on the front stoop, holding a compound bow with an arrow aimed at my heart. I hesitated only a moment before beginning my walk down into the hollow. I had gotten about halfway to his front door when he said, "Okay. Far enough."

I froze. When Pax spoke, people tended to listen if they knew what was good for them. His eye never wavered from my form. "Is that your copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?" He had seen the book I was clutching. It was an old joke at the expense of my job. He knew I didn't like to talk about it.

"This is the reason I came. I think you'll like it."

"Not good enough, B.G. I need a better reason not to put this arrow in your heart."

One of the reasons why I fell out of favor with Pax is that I had no interest in his psychotic persona. Others, like Morton X. Morton, thought it was clever. I found it tedious. However, when a hermit living in the desert is aiming an arrow at your heart, you need to take him seriously, even if you don't think he's actually going to do it.

"This is the Liber Draconis Mundi, Pax."

"Means nothing to me." I had a feeling he was lying, but couldn't chance it. I also didn't have enough time to explain.

"Octavian Bench would be very happy to get his hands on this book."

That clinched it. Pax's hatred of Octavian Bench VII was legendary, even among the mainstream media, thanks to Morton's series of articles fifteen years earlier. It went back to when the two men were in college at Bench University - Octavian, obviously, had a bit of an edge when it came to getting into that prestigious university, which was known as the "Drexel of the West" - and had shared a room in their sophomore years, and a woman in their junior. Women, of course, always get in the way of good friendships between men, and this was no exception. It began with this beautiful woman, Helena Troila, and ended with Octavian's marriage to her and the mysterious murder of his prize ewe, for which Pax always claimed credit even though he had an alibi for the night of the crime. He claimed credit simply to drive Octavian mad with grief and to stake his place as Bench's arch-enemy. Who killed the ewe is still an urban legend in the Alex. Pax lived in the desert partly because he lost his feud with Octavian Bench VII. He had other reasons as well.

He lowered the bow and smiled. "Shit, Isosceles, how the fuck are you? Come on in." Without waiting, he turned and entered his house. I hesitated for a moment. Did I really want to do this? Then I followed. I had no choice, really.

More Adventures Behind the Fold!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Chapter Nine: An Enemy Revisited; or, What Exactly is Written in the Book?

I sat on a leather sofa with an iced tea on a coaster placed on the coffee table in front of me. Pax sat on a throne-like chair, higher than the sofa, very deliberately looking down on me. He looked exactly the same as ten years before. He had bright blue eyes under a red unibrow, shaggy strawberry blond hair that twisted its way down his back, almost to his waist. It looked like something you would find a pigeon hiding in. He had a nasty scar running from his left eye down to his mouth, a remnant from his days as a corporate vice-president. He wore a ragged T-shirt with "Wilma's Shrimp Shack" printed on it, and holey jeans. He looked like Peter Horton gone to seed.

Not unlike my encounter with Morton X. Morton, neither one of us spoke. As we sat there, I thought I knew far too many people who pulled this macho crap. Me included. This time, he cracked first. I knew he would - his hatred of Octavian Bench VII was too great, and he wanted to know how he could contribute to harrying him.

"Good to see you, Isosceles," he said. "Ten years."

I told him all about the book. I didn't want to be there, I didn't want to spend more time with Pax than necessary, I wanted to leave as soon as possible. Pax made me uncomfortable. I didn't want to be reminded of the past. My story took a while, and through it all, I could see Pax becoming more and more interested. By the time I finished with Wanda's plan and when I would come and retrieve the book, he was leaning forward on his throne in anticipation. I knew I had found the perfect place to hide the book.

"May I see it?" he said. I got up and walked over to him. When I was a few feet away I tossed the book to him. He smiled. He knew I didn't want to get too close to him.

He carefully unwrapped the book and put aside the bubble wrap. He held the book in his lap for a moment, then opened it. I was shocked a little by his boldness, and more than a little ashamed at my squeamishness so far because I hadn't read it. Pax read only the first few pages, then closed it.



"This is a cookbook. A recipe for curried stag, a recipe for eel braised with brandy, a recipe for minced rhododendron. You gave me a cookbook."

I felt cold. What the hell was he talking about? Pax had a sense of humor, but not when he knew the situation was serious. He certainly wouldn't make jokes about anything that would hurt Octavian Bench.

"Uh -" I started, but he picked up the bubble wrap and put the book in it, wrapping it back up. "If you say a cookbook will help destroy Octavian, fine. I'll hide it. Get out."

I knew he wouldn't say any more. I was burning with curiosity, and I wanted to challenge him, and I cursed myself for not opening the book before. Was it a fake? Had all this been over a hoax? Even if it was true, Octavian Bench still wanted the book, and I still had to hide it. I knew Pax saw my uneasiness, which would shut him up even more. He wasn't going to speak again. I had to leave.

I retraced my steps out of the house and got back into the El Camino. I was shaken by my encounter with Pax and wanted to have a nice relaxing drive back to the Alex. I wanted to get all the horrible thoughts about ten years ago out of my mind.


"I saw Pax today," I said after taking my first sip of beer. Cyrus shook his head.

"You did not just say that."

"I saw him. I drove out to the desert and talked to him."

Cyrus put his hand over the rim of my glass. "I'm not sure if you're allowed to drink tonight. You might be crazy."

"I had to. Business."

"You do remember what happened, don't you? You do remember what he did?"

"Of course I do. I had no choice."

Cyrus shook his head again. "You're crazy. Don't let Zenobia know. She hates him more than you do."

"No shit. Don't worry, I have no intention of telling -" I shut up, because Zenobia had just entered the bar. I smiled at her and drank my beer. When she moved to the far side of the room, Cyrus leaned in close.

"Listen, Isosceles, I don't tell you your business. But this ... you went through a lot of shit with Pax. You, me, Zenobia, Genghis, Insane Larry, your reporter friend - he put us all through a lot of shit. One of the happiest days of my life was when he pulled up stakes and went out to the desert. Fuck him. And now you go to see him? Don't you know what contact with him will do? He'll come back into our lives."

"He won't. He hates us as much as we hate him. There were plenty of betrayals on both sides, Cyrus."

"His were the worst, Isosceles. His were the worst."

I slammed the glass down. Zenobia looked up from the table she was serving quizzically. Cyrus quickly took the glass away from me before I caused more damage. "Don't you think I know that, Cyrus?" I screwed up my face in anger and lowered my voice. "Don't you think I know that? Do you think I wanted to see him? I told you - I had no choice."

"We always have a choice."

"What's going on, guys?" I hadn't heard Zenobia approach. I sat up straight and tried to look casual. I knew I failed miserably.

"Nothing, Z. Just talking. About stuff."

"Uh-huh. Give."

I looked askance at Cyrus, who shrugged. "We were talking about Pax. I went to see him today."

Zenobia stiffened. I said, "Z, wait -" but she turned and walked away. "Shit," I said to Cyrus.

"What did you expect?" he said. "Reminiscence about the good old days?"

I told him I'd better leave. He shook my hand and told me that if I felt I needed to go out to see Pax, it was something he could deal with. I reiterated how important it was, and he said he hoped he could hear about it some day. I thought briefly about going back to work the next day, but I quickly put that out of my mind. I left the bar, but before I reached the curb, I heard my name. I turned and saw Zenobia. She was crying.

"Why, Isosceles? Why would you do that?" She stalked up to me, and I could tell she was trying not to hit me. I sat on the bench on the corner and asked her to sit with me. She debated with herself for a moment, then acquiesced.

"Listen, Z, I didn't want to go. You know I never wanted to see him again. You know that. He hurt me too. Not as bad as he did you, but still. I had to see him." I told her very quickly that I had something that others wanted, and I didn't want to put any of my friends in danger. The only one I could think of to hold this thing was Pax.

She smiled. "So he might get hurt because of it?"

I hadn't thought of that. It never occurred to me that someone might find out where I had taken the book. I knew I hadn't been followed, but it was possible that someone might discover that I had seen Pax. Apparently I was dealing with ruthless forces, so they wouldn't have any compunction about hurting Pax to get the book.

I said that it was possible, and that cheered her up. "Then it's not all bad."

"Z, you know -"

"He broke your heart. I understand. I know it hurts you, Isosceles. I know you thought it was true love. So did I. When he came to me, told me that he was leaving you, that he wasn't really gay, and that he loved me, I told him to go to hell. You know that, don't you, Isosceles? I would never do that to anyone ..."

"I know, Z."

"He was so convincing, though. He told me that you did horrible things, and I believed him, and I was so lonely after Mom died, and Dad is ... not good with these situations, and Salvatore had just died, and Hippolyta was being such a bitch right then, with her crowing about the triplets - it was an awful time for me, Isosceles, and he was such a charmer. I believed him about you - I know I shouldn't have, because I knew you better, but he ..."

"I know about him, Z. I fell for it too."

"Shit, I know. And he was such a kind man, and such a wonderful ... well, you know, you were with him. And I was so happy, and when I got pregnant, I thought we'd get married ... and then, when he convinced me to ... you know ..."

"He never wanted kids, Z. He didn't convince you, he forced you. Not with threats of violence, no, that wasn't his style - it is now, but not then. Don't say 'convince' - it gives him too much credit. He forced you into the abortion."

She wiped a tear away and sighed. "I don't even know anymore, Isosceles. Maybe I didn't really want the kid. Maybe I didn't even want to marry Pax. Maybe it was because of Salvatore's death. But I do know that he lied to me from the very beginning. When I found out about your relationship with him ... you know how sorry I am?"

"You've told me many times, Z."

"You may have placed him in danger?"

I laughed. "Rest assured."

She smiled like a tiger. "Good." She got up and went back to work. That night I lay in bed, thinking about the two years Pax and I were together. She was right - he was a charmer, he could be very kind, and he was a fabulous lover. When he left me, I thought I might commit suicide, that's how broken I was. When I heard he had hooked up with Zenobia and was telling everyone how awful I had been, I wanted to kill him and then commit suicide. How had I missed it? To this day, I didn't know if he was gay or straight, if he was lying to me or to Zenobia. I knew he was a liar, and that's all that mattered. When I found out what happened with he and Zenobia, I knew she would feel just like I did. I had talked to her, and we had come through it together. Pax fled the vengeance of almost everyone I knew.

I lay in bed, wondering if I had given him the book in the hopes that one of my adversaries would find it and kill him to retrieve it. Maybe I had. I thought of Pax dying and the Children of Rufus getting their hands on the book. "Not a bad trade," I said. I slept the sleep of the just.

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