Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chapter Twelve: A Visit to Thermopylae; or, A New Player Enters the Fray

I was tired and beat up and not terribly happy. It was well past midnight, and I had to work in the morning. I wanted to curl up into a little ball and pass out. But I couldn't.

I had one more thing to do before the night was over. I had to find out who hired the Redneck Ninjas to come after me. If I didn't, it would gnaw at me. It would bother me all the next day. It would vex me until I found out. So I decided to forego sleep. "Sleep is for the weak," I said to myself. I was going to find out who hired Jeb and his crew to beat me up. And then we were going to have a little chat.

I wondered if it was Bench's lawyer, Kobyashi. Despite Jeb mentioning that "Gareth" was the guy who hired them, I wondered if Kobyashi had somehow known I would follow him and took matters into his own hand. Then I reconsidered. Bench was one of the richest men in the world. If he was going to take me out, he certainly wouldn't hire Jeb and his friends. Despite their boasting, I got the sense that they would work cheap. And the fact that I was able to defeat them, even though I had learned from Master Hana, meant that they weren't that good. Bench would have hired better assassins. But the Children of Rufus, who didn't have the resources Bench had - they might pick a group like the Redneck Ninjas out of the phone book and think they're getting good value. I just didn't know.

I left the building where they were holding me. I blinked. It was on Saratoga Island - I recognized some of the street names - not all that far from my apartment. They must have made a lot of turns to disorient me, but they hadn't traveled that far. I could see the lights from downtown where they had abducted me. Saratoga Island is a strange land mass - it's the caldera of an old volcano, and a good deal of it is below the level of the surrounding waterways - Goose Lagoon to the south, Snowden Lake and Quincy River to the north. It's a bohemian neighborhood, full of arts and crafts shops, antique places, galleries, and all sorts of places that people can go to feel cultured. I hated it - it was a fun place, I guess, but way too gay for me, and I felt like I had to fit in when I went there, and I couldn't be myself. I knew it pretty well, however, so I walked along the streets downward to the Basin at the center of the island, where I knew the taxis usually gathered, even at this late hour. The scene on Saratoga Island rarely shut down until well into the night, and it wasn't even 2 a.m. yet.

At the edge of the Basin I hailed a cab. I told the cabbie - a stout woman named Betsy - to take me downtown. I still didn't know where I was going, but I thought if I went back to the scene of my assault by the Redneck Ninjas that I might find a clue. Betsy grunted and took off. She drove west across Snowden Creek onto Demarcation Street, then turned south onto the Jackson Island Boulevard, which wound its way south to the Lewis and Clark Bridge, where I had taken my strange walk with Wanda Plátano behind me (or so I thought). We crossed the bridge and made our way to the intersection of Saint Bonaventure and King Alfonso XIII, where I told Betsy to let me out. I stood in wonder for a moment. My car was parked nicely in a spot only about ten feet from where I was kidnapped. I walked over and looked at the parking meter. Even though the meters were off after ten o'clock, someone had put several quarters in it and I still had two hours until it ran out. I turned back to the cab and paid Betsy. Then I got in my car.

I have learned that everyone leaves traces, no matter how good they were. I figured Jeb and his friends were not the most careful people in the world, so I searched my car. It didn't take me long to find a clue: in the bed of the El Camino was a matchbook. It certainly wasn't mine. The book was from a place called Mata Hari's. The address was printed on the inside.


South of the Xerxes River and Interstate 82, New Alexandria starts to thin out into the suburbs. Technically, the Alex annexed the area south of the city in 1954, when Octavian Bench V was trying to seize a bit of glory before he died and make the Alex the largest city on the West Coast. The residents of the two towns that were annexed, Badgerton and Thermopylae, weren't happy, but they knew that if the Benches wanted something, they would get it. They became part of the Alex but were allowed to keep certain things, like the numbering on their streets, their own municipal governments, and the right to be colored differently on maps. They paid taxes to the government in downtown New Alexandria, however, and they could not call their towns "Badgerton" and "Thermopylae" anymore. Everyone still used the names, though.

The hamlet of Thermopylae lay to the east, in the corner formed by the intersection of Interstate 82 and Jefferson State Highway 111. It had been founded by Xerxes Khalimoulis, a Greek who was angry that his parents had named him after the great Persian king and therefore named the town after the place where that king had been defeated long ago. In 1850 Khalimoulis came west, butted heads with Octavian Bench I, and founded the town in the hopes that it would rival the Alex. He died mysteriously a year later, and Thermopylae never became a serious player in the Northwest, but it did carve out its own niche - in 1866, the Grayhorse family of Sweetmelon, Georgia, the finest sculptors in the world, arrived after the Civil War and fell in love with the town. Soon they had built a factory there and began employing almost everyone who lived there in the sculpting trade. Averil Grayhorse ran the company today, and she maintained an iron grip on the business in Thermopylae, a miniature version of Octavian Bench VII to the north.

Mata Hari's was a strip club on the town's main drag, Khalimoulis Avenue. It was near the freeway, in the seediest part of town. I pulled up across the street and watched it for a few minutes. I wasn't even sure if the matchbook meant anything - one of the Redneck Ninjas could have come here on his own time. I had very little hope, but it was the only place I could go. It was that or go home. I didn't want to do that.

I got out and looked at my watch. 2.10 a.m. Mata Hari's was still jumping, so I maybe I could find something, at least about one of the Ninjas. I strolled into a smoky and dark bar with very little to recommend it. I could barely see the stage through the smoke and poor lighting - they were making it very difficult to see the ladies, which didn't speak well to the quality of women at the club. I saw the latest performer and wondered why anyone preferred girls. She was young, younger than 25 probably, and her hair was falling out on one side and stringy on the other. Her breasts were freakishly bulbous, unnaturally high on her chest, defying nature and science. She actually appeared to be crying as the men pawed at her g-string to put dollar bills in it. I felt an awful mixture of pity, revulsion, and anger. I sat at the bar and tried to ignore the girl.

The bartender, a worn-out woman who was once probably up on the stage, served me a pint of Goat-Fugger and sneered at my tip, which I thought was pretty generous. Things were different in Thermopylae - it was one of the reasons people from north of the river rarely spent much time in the town. I drank slowly, trying to figure out my plan. It didn't look like the kind of place where they would be forthcoming about questions. I checked out the room - it was, surprisingly, a healthy mixture of men and women. I didn't have any idea what I was looking for.

Luckily, what I was looking for found me. After my third beer I noticed that someone was watching me. I could feel it, but I wasn't sure who it was. I tried to remain calm, because I didn't want to spook the watcher. As I sipped my beer slowly, I turned my head slowly as if by accident. I continued turning until I was facing the bar again. I had seen the person who was watching me. In one corner of the bar sat a small man who was completely out of place. He was dressed fastidiously in a dark suit and tie, and his orange hair was plastered down on his scalp with some sort of gel. He wore large tortoise-shell spectacles and drank something clear - a gin and tonic, perhaps. My gay-dar went off. He was queer, I was sure of it, but I also was certain he wasn't checking me out for that sort of thing. He had spotted me and was angry about my presence. I wondered if it was the mysterious Gareth. I tried to remain aloof and let this man make the first move. He was much closer to the door than I was. If I made a move toward him and he didn't want to confront me, he would be gone. So I waited.

It was close to 3.30 in the morning when I began to get impatient. I had to be at work in five hours, and I would be ineffective already, but if I didn't get a short nap, I would be a complete mess. I decided I would give it until four, and if the guy didn't make a move by then, I would leave. I ordered my last beer.

I noticed that he got up. He did so casually, not looking at me, and moved toward the bathroom. He had to go past me to get there, so I didn't watch him as he walked by. I watched him go into the toilet and waited. After a few minutes, he came out and sat down beside me.

"Shaw," he muttered. His voice was crusty.

"I wondered if you were coming over. I've been waiting for over an hour." I didn't want to give anything away, so I played dumb, despite his use of my name.

"Listen, Shaw, what's the story? There's no way you should be here."

"This is my kind of place. I might make it a regular stop."

"Shut up, Shaw. You know what I mean. How did you find this place?"

"Mata Hari's is world famous, friend. I read about it in London once. Then again in Montevideo. I figured I owed it to myself to check out the famous place in my own town." I was waiting for him to betray his intentions, and he did.

"Listen, you may have gotten away from Jeb and his boys, but there's no way they gave up this place. They've always been discreet."

"Are you Gareth?"

"Shit. Didn't you know?"

"Well, I guessed, but thanks for giving it away. Okay, Gareth, where should we go?"


"Yes, you moron. I can barely hear you in here. You hired those goons to get something from me. Now that that's failed, we need to talk. I've already spoken with Bench's representatives, so I guess it's your turn." I got up and walked out. I didn't care if he followed me or not. I knew he would.

I stood on the street and waited. In a moment he was standing next to me. I looked around at the deserted town. I desperately needed a nap, but I couldn't let this opportunity go. "So," I said. "Any good diners around here?"

"There's one at the end of the block," he said grumpily. He was angry about his plan going awry.

"Great, we can get something to eat." I began to walk. He scurried to keep up. "What's your position in the Children of Rufus? Do they have ranks?"

He frowned. "What are you talking about? Who are the Children of Rufus?"

Shit, I thought. Not another bunch after the book. Just what I needed. I was back in the dark again.


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