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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


- frank frank.

FYI, good work so far, bungie.

6:20 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Thanks, sir. I'm glad you're enjoying it.

8:37 PM  

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