The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 8

The driver dropped them off at a tavern on the outskirts of the city, and Anton told him to return in two hours.  

“I know this place,” Anton said to Marc. The hovercraft sped away. “The food is good here.”

Marc found himself doubting Anton’s assurances. Eating establishments on Leonis III were typically brighter, cleaner, and more modern-looking than this place. The tavern consisted of a long cinderblock structure covered by a rusted metal roof. The tavern reminded Marc of a barn or a warehouse. A weak light glowed behind its shuttered windows, which were coated with a heavy film of dust. 

They entered a room filled with the smells of cooking, sweating bodies, and alcohol. The tavern’s interior was semi-dark and the air was close. Decorations were few. There was no paint on the interior brick walls. A massive wrought iron chandelier hung overhead; gaseous flames dancing inside its rings of light-globes.  

Customers milled about; many appeared to be intoxicated. There was raucous laughter and apparent good humor; but several of the hooded faces at the bar turned to eye Marc suspiciously when he entered.

Marc followed Anton across the stone-tiled floor to a rough-hewn wooden table in a corner of the main room. A waitress soon spotted them and presented herself to take their order. Marc allowed Anton to order for him: he was unfamiliar with the human foods of Kelphi. 

Along with the food, they also ordered a pitcher of Kelphi grog. It was bitter and sweet and mostly water, from what Marc could tell. 

While they were waiting for their food to arrive, Marc queried his host about the alien race that dominated life on this planet. He was especially curious about the Kelphi he had met today.

“Does this Lord Satu have a wife?” Marc asked. “Is there a ‘Lady Satu’”?

Anton shook his head. “You are unlikely to see any female Kelphi.”

“What’s up with that? Do the males hold some grudge against the females of their own species? Do they keep them sequestered away?”   

“That isn’t the case,” Anton explained. “Kelphi mating practices are a bit violent.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” Marc quipped, unable to stop himself.

Anton ignored the barb. “Immediately after mating, the Kelphi male kills the female and eats part of her. But the larva lives within the female’s carcass. The whelp quickly matures, and it lives off its mother’s flesh during the period of gestation. It finally emerges—and that is a process which few humans would consider to be pleasant, I assure you.”

“I can imagine,” Marc said, trying not to imagine. 

It turned out that the Kelphi were similar to the Terran spiders in more ways than one. Spiders had been stowaways on the original pioneer ships. They were common on most of the worlds now inhabited by humans, and every human on Leonis was familiar with them.

The spider mating ritual was also violent. Among most species, it was common for the female to kill the male after copulation. The Kelphi had their own, similar version of sexual homicide—only in reverse. The male slaughtered the female.

“You don’t much like the Kelphi, do you?” Anton asked.

“What human being would? Frankly, I don’t see how you all manage to live under them, in this state of subjugation.”

“What you call subjugation we call coexistence. We have found ways to be valuable to the Kelphi. And they seldom take us as prey anymore.”

Marc stifled a snort. This was unbelievable. But he reminded himself of his obligations to his company.

And besides, he had more questions.

“What do they eat, then?”

“Other creatures—livestock that we raise for them.”

“But a Kelphi can still kill a human—eat a human, for that matter—as freely as a human can take the life of a chicken. Am I correct?”

“You are correct,” Anton allowed. “But most of the time they choose not to. Why would any rational being destroy a valuable asset?”

Because it’s hungry, Marc wanted to say—though he held his tongue. He knew that this line of discussion would only lead to trouble. 

Luckily, their conversation was interrupted when a noticeable silence fell upon the room. There was a little stage in the center of the tavern, where a minstrel was preparing to perform. The minstrel was a young woman. She had pale skin—like most all of the humans on this darkened planet. Her flaxen hair was braided on either side of her head. The dress she wore was a simple, bluish garment that might have been homemade. 

The minstrel sat on a small stool that had been placed in the center of the stage. She lifted a small musical instrument to her breast: a fretted lute with perhaps a dozen strings.

As the minstrel plucked the first few chords of her song, Anton nodded in recognition. The muscles in his face relaxed. Anton was apparently a connoisseur of Kelphi folk music. Marc remembered having read that this sort of entertainment was popular among the humans of this planet.

Although the minstrel was obviously trying to give a quality performance, Marc didn’t think much of her voice, her playing, or the song. But what could you expect here on Kelphi? These people had precious little to enjoy; it would therefore not take much in the way of entertainment to enthrall them.

“You seem to know this song,” Marc whispered discreetly to Anton. 

“Yes. She is singing one of the ballads of Horat. Horat was a poet and thinker who lived on Kelphi about a hundred solar cycles ago—not long after the end of the human-Kelphi conflict. He chronicled the new state of peace that was established between the two races. His ideas have quite a following.” 

As the minstrel plucked her lute and sang, Marc paid particular attention to the next verse:

 

 

“Submission is the path to peace

I unclench my fist, and free my mind

Come take my hand, come close my eyes

Show me the path to paradise

 

 

 

Resistance is the cause of pain

Surrender brings its just reward

I drop my sword, and so attain

The end of strife, release from war”

 

 

And we humans of Leonis would rather die than live as slaves, Mark thought, memories of the recent war ever-present in his mind.

Marc wanted to ask how the great poet Horat had died: Had he been devoured by one of those beasts? But he knew that such an inquiry was bound to offend his host.

* * *

Part 9

Table of contents

The Cairo Deception: Chapter 5

Ali Abber slid off his stool. Without breaking that evil-looking smile, he walked toward Jack. 

Ali’s four goons remained seated, but they all swiveled around to watch what would happen next.

Jack felt himself tense. He did his best to remain calm. He took a drag on his Lucky Strike. He took a sip of his bourbon. 

He deliberately looked past Ali, as if the Egyptian gangster were not obviously approaching him. 

Then Ali stopped directly before Jack’s table. It would have been absurd to pretend to ignore him now.

“What?” Jack said, as calmly as he could. 

“Do you know who I am?” Ali Abber asked. His English was passable but heavily accented. Less than fluent. 

Jack shrugged. “Should I?”

Ali Abber sneered. “I think you know. Maybe I teach you who I am. What I can do.”

“Can you dance a jig and play the piano?”

Ali paused to process this. He scowled. Then he leaned forward and placed both hands on Jack’s table. “Maybe, Jack McCallum, I teach you some respect.”

Jack felt a ripple of anger move through him and simmer. The anger was just below the fear. He’d had about enough of being hassled by Egyptians tonight. 

Jack took a deep breath and replied to Ali. “Now just a minute, here. I don’t know what your beef is; but I was minding my own business. The question is: Who do you think you are, coming over here and razzing me for no reason?”

“I hear you very lucky,” Ali Abber said, “I hear you find something in the desert.” 

Jack’s heart sank. So Tahmid had betrayed him, after all. 

“I don’t have anything that would be of interest to you. A few trinkets from the 1800s, that’s all.”

“You’re a liar.”

Now Jack was getting angry again. To call a man a liar was almost as bad as calling a man a coward. 

But then—he was technically lying, wasn’t he?

“Oh?” Jack said. “And what—or who—makes you such an expert on my business? You don’t know anything about what I do or don’t have. Anyway, whatever I’ve got, it’s mine.”

“You have something that belongs to the Egyptian people.”

Jack laughed. “So what are you, now? A socialist? And when you say ‘the Egyptian people,’ you really mean you, don’t you?”

“Jack McCallum, you talk too much,” Ali seethed. “We go outside. We settle this. Like men.”

Jack felt the weight of the garnet in his pocket. But also—once again—the weight of the gun. 

I’m going to have to take the gun out, he thought. I’m going to have to point the gun at Ali. Hopefully Ali will back down. Because if not…

Then Jack heard Hafiz Hawi again, practically right on top of him, and shouting:

“I told you already to get out of my bar! You go now!”

Chapter 6

Table of contents

The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 3

The surface of Kelphi became visible as the shuttlecraft that belonged to the Rapid GeoWorks Company cleared the planet’s lowest layer of clouds. Kelphi looked more like a moon than a planet—a mostly barren landscape of waterless rivers, asteroid craters, and ancient volcanoes.

Marc’s pilot was a fellow veteran of the Leonis Defense Forces, and the two men had exchanged war stories throughout the long journey.  

“Maybe I’ll like it better when I see it by day,” Marc said.

“This is the day.”

Marc sighed inside his flight helmet. The shuttlecraft rocked back and forth as the pilot applied the rearward thrusters and the ship encountered a band of turbulence. 

Volcano number 1683 appeared far below, on the starboard side of the shuttle. This volcano was the reason for Marc’s presence here. A recent series of eruptions had released a huge amount of lava, and severely destabilized the southern slope of the volcano. This threatened a Kelphi mining operation. 

If the volcano collapsed, the mines near its base would be flooded with lava. This would kill the thousands of humans who toiled in the mines. Marc knew that the Kelphi weren’t concerned about the potential human deaths; but the loss of the mine would mean a huge blow to their economy. 

The shuttlecraft touched down in the spaceport of the Kelphi capital. It was a vast, cavernous facility without the slightest touch of ornamentation. The lighting was so insignificant that Marc nearly tripped as he exited the ship. 

A pale, hooded figure approached from the murky semidarkness. A tall man with an aquiline nose and a bushy beard. 

Mark knew immediately that this was Anton Cherney, his assigned human intermediary.

“Welcome to Kelphi,” Anton said, grasping Mark’s hand with a clammy grip. “Please come with me. All is prepared for your visit.”  

Part 4

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Orientis Inc

The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 2

Marc sped home through the streets of the city. He set his hovercraft to autopilot so he could allow his thoughts to drift. 

His experiences from the recent war were still fresh, reddish bright memories. Flames and screaming. Men and aliens being torn asunder. The smell of scorched bodies and the smoke of a destroyed civilization. 

The people of the four Leonis planets had been locked in a war for their survival, and at length they had won. Although their economies still suffered and the dead were too many to fully count, a collective sense of relief followed the war. People could begin to think about the future again.

After his discharge from the Defense Forces, Marc had returned to his home planet, Leonis III. He had saved enough ducats from his military pay to make a down payment on a house just outside the city. And then he had married Beth. She had waited so patiently for him for three solar cycles, while had been away fighting.

They had been living as husband and wife for a complete solar cycle now; but he still felt a warm rush of affection (and truth be told, outright lust) whenever he thought of her. 

He had led a charmed life throughout the war; and it seemed that he would be pushing his luck if he took unnecessary risks now…

There was presently no war on Kelphi; but it was still a violent place in its own way. Marc knew the basics of the planet’s history. Kelphi had been colonized by humans centuries ago, in the wake of the first great migrations from Terra. The human colonizers of Kelphi had quickly learned that they were not alone. 

In the early days of the Kelphi War, entire communities of human settlers were devoured like so many ants. The dominant native life form of Kelphi was inferior to humans in some aspects, but superior in those that counted most. Marc had heard many times that the human settlers on that dark planet had never had a chance; the outcome of the conflict was a foregone conclusion. 

After their defeat, the human population of Kelphi found a way to live with their new masters. But what kind of life was that—to exist like cattle?

And then he saw the house that he and Beth shared—a modest domelike structure constructed upon a knoll that overlooked the Saris River valley. He forgot all about Kelphi and the devil’s pact under which those faraway humans lived. The war was behind him. Death was behind him. And soon the trip to Kelphi would be behind him, too. 

When he entered the house, she was waiting for him. He pressed his face into her hair and absorbed the scent of her. Then her arms were around him and their bodies were entangled in a familiar, almost furious embrace. She led him into their sleeping chamber, and in a little while, he felt fully alive again.

* * *

Part 3

Table of contents

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The Consultant: Chapter 58

Can one ordinary American escape from North Korea?

Jung-Ho no longer accompanied Barry to the travel agency every day. Perhaps he believed that Barry’s spirit was effectively broken now, and that such oversight was no longer necessary. 

More likely, though, this was another result of Jung-Ho’s distraction. The coup plot. Jung-Ho was a man who had killed at the behest of the North Korean regime, after all. He must, at times, imagine himself before a firing squad. How could it be otherwise?

Barry couldn’t help feeling satisfaction at the mental image that that notion produced. 

Once again, he thought, the North Koreans had changed him. Never in the past had he been prone to violent, bloodthirsty thoughts. But now he could not help reveling in them.

Barry knocked on the door jamb of Jung-Ho’s office, even though Jung-Ho had left the door open. It was late in the evening. But Jung-Ho was still hard at work. 

Jung-Ho looked up from his desk, startled. He was visibly surprised to see Barry.

“Yes, Barry. What is it? Well, don’t stand there in the hallway. Come in.”

Barry stepped inside the office. He didn’t beat around the bush. After a pro forma apology for disturbing Jung-Ho’s work, he made his request.

After hearing Barry out, Jung-Ho said, “So let me get this straight, Barry: You want to attend the Marvin Hayes basketball exhibition. Are you a fan of Hayes? You had a hard time remembering who he is the other day, when I told you about the event.”

“No,” Barry said. “I’m not a fan of Marvin Hayes. Not really, anyway. But remember what you want me to do: You want me to help you market the DPRK. It would be helpful for me to see how you handle a big event like this, taking place in the heart of Pyongyang.”

Jung-Ho tilted his head and stared at Barry. He was looking for Barry’s angle, obviously. Of course he was. Barry had contacted the outside world, after all. There had been repercussions, probably in the form of accusations from the American government. The North Koreans had simply brushed the accusations aside, no doubt. (Their international standing was already abysmal, anyway.) But Barry had caused problems. Jung-Ho would never trust him again. 

“I don’t know about that, Barry. That doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

Barry had come prepared for an initial refusal from Jung-Ho. He launched into a brilliant, upbeat counterargument, as if Jung-Ho were valued client, rather than a hated captor.

Finally, he wore Jung-Ho down. The North Korean held up his hand and sighed. 

“All right, Barry. You can attend. But I warn you: If you attempt further mischief, the next one to face a firing squad will be you.”

Barry didn’t think that Jung-Ho was necessarily bluffing. He figured, though, that since being brought to North Korea, his life had become cheap, one way or the other. 

Chapter 59

Table of contents

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Termination Man: Chapter 1

Cleveland, Ohio, 2011

Kevin Lang had no idea that I was anyone other than who I purported to be. In the days before I approached him at the Backstop Bar & Grill, I had let my beard stubble grow. Sitting in my rented car in the parking lot of the bar, I deliberately mussed my hair a bit, so that it looked like it had been covered by a safety helmet all day. 

My assistant and sometime lover, Claire Turner, says that even when I try to look disheveled, I still look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. When I step into a role like this, I try to remember that the average 35-year-old factory worker already looks like his best years are far behind him. Well, if I looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, then at least I looked like one who had been operating industrial machinery for the last eight or nine hours. And I was wearing the uniform of the average Joe: jeans, a tee shirt, a denim jacket, and a “Union Yes” baseball cap. 

I certainly didn’t look like what I actually was: a highly paid corporate consultant, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and a former employee of a major East Coast consulting firm. 

I stepped out of my car into the damp, cold air of an early winter afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio. I had driven to this spot in a 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier. The vehicle had 123,576 miles on its odometer, rust around the wheel wells, and a busted exterior mirror on the passenger side. The sort of transportation that a semi-employed welder named “Ben” might drive. A far cry from the Lexus LS 460 that Craig Walker owned. But then, at this moment I wasn’t Craig Walker anymore. And I would not be for the next hour or so.

I had no trouble locating Kevin Lang inside the Backstop Bar & Grill. He was seated at the bar, right where I expected him to be. I had studied Kevin’s picture dozens of times: He was an early middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, goatee, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He had a distinctive birthmark on his right cheek. Kevin’s evening routine seldom varied. I knew that from the research and surveillance work that I had paid for. Everyday he headed to the Backstop following the end of his shift. He ordered either a pizza sub or a Reuben, usually with fries or onion rings. He also downed an average of two to three beers before finally heading home for the night.

The barstool beside him was vacant, so I took it. I ordered a beer; and after a suitable amount of time I gestured to the television set above the bar and said to him: 

“This is too painful to watch.”

ESPN was replaying highlights from the previous Monday’s Browns game. Cleveland had been clobbered by Cincinnati—the town that every self-respecting Clevelander loves to hate. Cleveland and Cincinnati are at opposite ends of Ohio, and the sports rivalries between the two cities are the stuff of legend.

He turned around and looked at me and gave me a double take: It was an expression that I’ve seen from a lot of women over the years, and yes, more than a few men. One of the items noted in my file on Kevin Lang was his “ambiguous sexuality.” Kevin was thirty-six and unmarried. He had no girlfriend, and we had never observed him contracting the services of an escort, picking up a streetwalker, or entering a strip bar. We had discovered that Kevin maintained a profile on a bisexual Internet dating site—a site for “bi curious” males. My researchers had been unable to confirm if this aspect of his life had progressed beyond online activity. Kevin had not logged on to the site for a number of weeks.

I resisted my reflex reaction—which was to flinch when another man appraises me like that. A key element of my success is my ability to get underneath people’s skin, to expose their weaknesses. This means that I sometimes have to be adaptable. Within limits, of course.

“I’ll say,” Kevin said. He recovered himself, and seemed vaguely embarrassed that his eyes had lingered on me a few seconds too long. He returned his attention to the television set. Like my character of the day, Kevin was a blue-collar working stiff. But whereas “Ben” was a fabrication, Kevin was the genuine article. He lifted his sandwich and took a large bite from it. 

“I turned the game off during the third quarter. Not worth the time,” he said through a mouthful of food.

Kevin was an employee of a medium-sized manufacturing company called Great Lakes Fuel Systems, or GLFS for short. GLFS had recently been bought out by TP Automotive, a large automotive components conglomerate that owned various factories in twenty-three countries. TP Automotive was the company that had hired me to be here on this barstool beside Kevin.

“That’s okay,” I said, taking a sip of my beer. “At least the Monsters are doing well.” The Lake Erie Monsters are the hockey team that everyone in Cleveland follows. “I’m more into hockey, anyway.”

I noticed that Kevin was wearing a United Autoworkers tee shirt beneath his Cleveland Browns windbreaker. Although I had a job to do, I wished for Kevin’s sake that he had not embraced the UAW. TP Automotive’s management team had immediately pegged Kevin as one of the troublemakers at GLFS; but his decision to support the union had been his real undoing.

Truth be told, I didn’t like assignments like this. Most of the time, my clients hired me to go after white-collar agitators and malcontents: people who were hauling down high five-figure and even six-figure salaries, but still weren’t happy with their lot in life. I didn’t relish the idea of taking down a man like Kevin. There was an aspect of him that reminded me of my father, who had spent thirty years as a machinist in a grimy industrial plant near Dayton. Dad had been a lot like Kevin in some ways: he worked long hours in a job he tolerated, and he took his pleasures in simple pastimes like following professional sports. Nothing like my life.

But merely tolerating your job is one thing; hating it is another. Acting on your resentments and grievances is another thing still. Practically every person who I have ever targeted is one of that 71% of the population who, according to pollsters, “hates their jobs.” It is rare for a truly satisfied and dedicated employee to run afoul of their management to the degree that my services would be required. My clients pay me to handle the most intractable elements of the unhappy 71%. Employees like Kevin Lang.

They call me the Termination Man. I never really cared for that nickname; but once the moniker arose in client circles, it sort of stuck. The Termination Man inevitably calls to mind that series of movies from the 1980s and 1990s, in which a future governor of California portrays a homicidal android who goes about blasting hapless mortals to kingdom come.

There is nothing even remotely science fiction-esque about the services performed by Craig Walker Consulting, LLC. In my job, I am part lawyer, part private investigator, and part crisis management specialist. 

I am called when a company wants to terminate an employee for reasons that cannot be strictly traced to job performance issues. This is more common than you might imagine—unless you have ever worked in corporate human resources, or in one of the corner offices of company management. There is a wide range of factors that might drive a corporate employer to oust one of its own. 

A few years ago, every CEO and CEO-wannabe was reading a management book entitled Good to Great, by Jim Collins. The author stated that in order to succeed, a company has to “get the right people on the bus.” Otherwise, the bus—the organization—won’t go in the desired direction. 

The corollary here is that a company sometimes has to get the wrong people off the bus. This is where my services become essential. I get the wrong people off the bus.

The target employee can fit a variety of profiles. He might be a rank-and-file staff professional who poisons the atmosphere with his bad attitude, turning his colleagues against management. She might be a first-tier manager who has made veiled threats about filing a frivolous sexual harassment or discrimination claim. Or he might be a union agitator, like Kevin Lang. 

Kevin and I had both downed several beers when I finally made my first reference to the marijuana cigarette that was in the breast pocket of my shirt. We had already exhausted the full gamut of working-man-at-the-bar topics: professional sports, the best places to drink after work, our respective trades. I had studied up on the basics of welding the week prior; and as usual, my thoroughness paid off: It turned out that Kevin knew a thing or two about welding himself. If I hadn’t prepared, Kevin would have been able to see through my cover in a heartbeat.

“Just out of curiosity,” I began when the conversation reached a lull. “Are you 420 friendly?” 

Four-twenty is a codeword for smoking marijuana, known universally within the cannabis subculture, and sporadically throughout the general population. I don’t move in cannabis circles, but a cursory Internet search informed me that the term had originated in California in 1971, when a group of high school students developed the habit of lighting up just outside the grounds of their school at 4:20 p.m. 

Kevin made a perfunctory display of being mildly shocked.

“Why would you ask me something like that?”

I shrugged. “Just curious. I’ve been known to light up myself every now and then. Nothing heavy. A joint here and there. You know?”

In fact, I knew from my file that Kevin Lang was more than a little 420-friendly, though he had apparently been abstaining of late. Great Lakes Fuel Systems had tried to nail him through their ostensibly random drug testing program twice in the past three months. The results were negative both times.

“Yeah,” Kevin said with a reluctant smile. “I know. But I haven’t smoked any weed in years now. My employer is aggressive with the drug testing. By number has come up two times in the past three months.”

“Doesn’t sound very random to me,” I said.

Kevin placed his beer mug on the bar. It made a loud clapping sound. “When did I say it was random? My company doesn’t much care for me. They’d be glad to see me quit. They’d be even happier if they could can me for toking. Say—what’s the real reason why you’re asking me this? I don’t even know you, after all.” 

Kevin was giving me a long, slow stare. I would have to be very careful now if I wanted to avoid arousing his suspicion. 

“Okay,” I said, laying my hands flat on the bar. Luckily, the buzz of a dozen conversations and the blare of the television made our discussion virtually inaudible to others. “I’m not much of a smoker myself. But I like to dabble with it. From time to time.”

“Yeah. Keep going.”

“Well, I got my hands on some Citral the other day.”

“Citral!” Kevin said. I could tell that I had pushed the right button. Kevin’s natural sense of apprehension was weakening. “Been a long time since I’ve had any of that stuff. Where’d it come from?”

Citral is a sweet, high-grade form of marijuana that is grown mostly in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. A favorite of European potheads, Citral is rare in the United States. And expensive.

“Bought it from a friend of a friend,” I said. “Kind of on impulse.”

“Potent?” Kevin asked.

“That’s what those little green men told me. It stretched my limits.”

Kevin laughed. “I might have seen a few green men in my smoking days. How much did you buy?”

“Well that’s the thing,” I said. “I bought two joints. The first one I smoked already. And like I said, it was a little too much for one person. I overdid it. I’ve got one left.”

“How much did you pay for them?” 

“Forty for both,” I said.

“Geez,” Kevin said, wincing. “You got taken.”

“I know, I know. But I’ve still got this one left, and—”

“You were wondering if I might like to buy it,” Kevin said. “I’ve got to tell you, man: I’m not used to dropping a twenty for a single joint. A bit too rich for my blood.”

“I was thinking we might share it,” I said. “And you could give me five or ten bucks—whatever you can spare. That will defray some of my costs—and I won’t have to smoke it alone.”

I was worried for a moment that the use of a word like “defray” might be a bit out of character. But this had apparently escaped Kevin’s notice.

“It’s tempting,” he said, nodding contemplatively. “Citral is really good weed. But still—I’ve got to think about that drug testing thing.”

And now I inserted a piece of logic that would be almost impossible to argue with: “You say they already tested you twice in the last three months? And you came up negative both times? No way they’re going to hit you again in the near future. That would make them liable for harassment charges.”

“Unless I come up positive on their third try,” Kevin said.

“Yeah,” I allowed. “But it’s not like somebody from your company’s HR department is going to smoke it with us.” 

Kevin paused for a moment and gave this some more thought. As I had anticipated, my argument was bulletproof.

“Sure,” he said, smiling anew. “What the hell? I may not get another chance to smoke Citral for a long time.”

Chapter 2

Table of contents

The Vampires of Wallachia: Part 3

The scream stopped suddenly, as if cut off or forcibly muffled. They waited for a second scream, or any other sound. A scream should not occur in isolation, with no context to explain it. A scream was usually connected to other events.

After they had waited in silence for the better part of a minute, Tony said in a loud whisper: “I think that came from the kitchen.” 

Chang recalled the dark red smears that he had seen on the tablecloth. 

“And I think we should leave,” he said. “There’s something about this restaurant that I don’t like. Something’s wrong here.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Blake said. “Not until I’ve had my Peking duck. And how do you know something’s wrong here? You haven’t even tasted the food yet. So one of the cooks cut his finger on a butcher knife and he yelped. That’s all there is to it.” 

Chang was about to protest when their waitress approached. She was a Chinese woman in late middle age. Her black hair was pulled into a tight bun behind her head. She was wearing too much blue eye shadow.

Chang started to ask her about the scream but Blake waved him silent. He was hungry, after all. They placed their orders. Chang ordered moo goo gai pan. Tony asked for the sweet-and-sour pork. And Chang wanted to strangle Blake as he ordered Peking duck.

“What do those characters mean?” Tony asked hurriedly as soon as the waitress departed. Tony had no doubt been uncomfortable during the heated exchange between his boss and his colleague, Chang figured. Tony was pointing to the brass-plated plaque on the far wall. The plaque was large and round, decorated not only with Chinese characters, but with depictions of dragons, and several creatures that defied classification.  

“You can read Chinese characters, can’t you, Vincent?” Tony asked.

Chang nodded. “I’m a little rusty. But yes, I can, more or less.” Chang’s family had emigrated to the U.S. from China when he was only eight years old.   

“It’s a coat-of-arms for a sanhehui,” Chang explained. Then, when Tony gave him a puzzled look, he elaborated. “A triad. A secret society.”

“You mean—like a criminal gang?” Tony asked.

“Not all triads are criminal in nature,” Chang said. “But some of them are.”

“Is that all it says?”

Chang read the remaining characters on the coat-of-arms, squinting because it was some distance away. When he grasped the full meaning of the characters, he felt his stomach lurch. He read the inscription again to make sure that he had not made a mistake. 

Then he spoke quietly to Blake and Tony:

“We have to get out of here, guys.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Blake said. “What the heck could that thing say that could be so bad?”

Chang didn’t want to reveal what he had read. Blake would accuse him of being an idiot or worse. And that would give him more ammunition to use the next time he had one of his private conversations with Nick Porter. Blake hadn’t explained exactly what “changes” were in store for the sales department; but one thing was certain: the changes weren’t going to favor Chang.

Nevertheless—the risk of keeping silent was enormous, too. They could not remain here.

“Let’s just say it’s something bad,” Chang finally said.    

“’Ancient Chinese secret’ huh?” Blake said with a singsong lilt. “Sounds like pure bullshit to me. Even if that thing does belong to some criminal gang, or Chinese commies, or whatever, they’re no threat to us. Not here, not now.”

“There’s more to it than you know, Blake.” 

Blake appeared not to have even heard him. “Once when I was in Detroit,” he went on. “I ate at the very restaurant where Jimmy Hoffa was last seen alive. The place was a mafia hangout, I tell you. And nothing happened to me. Nothing. Which is exactly what is going to happen to us here. Nothing. We’re going to eat dinner, and then we’re going to get in that rental car and drive home to Cincinnati. That’s all there is to it.”

Blake smacked his palm against the tablecloth. Then he said to Tony:

“Tony, what the hell are you gawking at?” 

Tony was gazing away from the table as if in a trance. Before he could answer, the sound of feminine laughter made Blake and Chang turn in the same direction. 

On the far side of the dining room was a darkened doorway that led into another part of the restaurant, perhaps a spillover dining room or a section for private parties. Three young women stood in the wide space of the doorway. Each was wearing a traditional Chinese dress, or qipao.

“Damn!’ said Blake. “Those three are a sight better than the old bag who waited on us.”

The three women were making beckoning gestures. One of them spoke and giggled impishly at the table full of men.

“What did she say?” Blake asked Chang. “Come on, man. Translate!”

Chang shook his head. “I don’t know. She’s speaking in an old rural dialect. Nobody under the age of a hundred would understand it.”

“What are you saying?” Blake demanded. “Those women are all in their early twenties.”

Tony started to stand up from the table and Chang grabbed his arm and yanked him back down. 

“No!” Chang said. 

“But they’re so beautiful,” Tony protested. He had a dreamy expression on his face. Tony held a degree in electrical engineering; but at this moment he was like a child. “She told me that I should come to them. Then they could all kiss me and make me feel….so good.”

Blake snorted. “Sounds like Tony understands that ‘old rural dialect’ just fine.”

Ignoring Blake for the moment, Chang leaned across the table and slapped Tony across the cheek. 

“Ouch! What did you do that for?” Tony shouted.

Tony was angry; but at least he had broken eye contact with the three women. He had also snapped out of his trance.  

“To save your life. And maybe more. Listen to me: Don’t look into their eyes. That’s how they get you.”

Tony reappraised the three women, heeding Chang’s warning not to stare directly into their eyes. When the one in the center opened her mouth, Tony noted her long, canine incisors, and the thin trail of drying blood that ran from one corner of her mouth down to her chin. 

She spoke to him. But this time he heard only incomprehensible Chinese.

“Oh my God,” Tony said. “When she spoke just a minute ago, she was speaking in the voice of this girl I had a crush on in high school and—“

“What’s wrong with you guys?” Blake said. “Are you afraid of girls now? Why don’t you go over and talk to them, Tony? Vincent’s got the excuse of the ball-and-chain at home; but you’re single. No reason to be shy.”

“Blake, you don’t get it, do you?” Tony said. “They’re—they’re—“

“They’re women!” Blake fairly yelled. “Now I see why neither one of you can make a sales presentation like a man. Neither of you is a hunter. And being a hunter starts with sex!”

Tony and Chang looked at each other in amazement. They both suddenly realized: Blake hadn’t yet grasped the situation. The women might have gotten through his defenses somehow. Or perhaps Blake was simply that dense.

“No, no, Blake. Vincent’s right; we need to get out of here!”

“Oh, that’s just great!” Blake shouted. “Now you want to leave, too. Admit it, you guys were pissed off about coming here in the first place, and now you’re trying to come up with any lame excuse to leave, because you don’t want old Blake to get his Peking duck. You wanted to eat at that stupid truck stop!”

“No,” Tony said. “You’ve got it all wrong.”

“Tony,” Blake said in cool, deliberate voice. “Aren’t you black guys supposed to be smooth with the ladies?”

“Blake, this hardly the time—“ Tony began.

“Is there something more I should know about you, Tony, my man? You’re not—you’re not a faggot or something, are you?”

“Go to hell, Blake.”

Blake pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. “I’ll have your job for that little remark,” he said. “You guys either don’t like girls, or you’re afraid of girls. So I’ll have to do the honors for all of us.”

“Blake, stop!” Chang shouted. “Let me tell you what that coat-of-arms really says.”

“I’ve had enough ancient Chinese secrets for one day, Vincent. Yo, ladies, the Blakeman is coming.”

Tony and Chang watched Blake stroll across the room to where the three women were waiting. As Blake closed the distance between them and stepped into their midst, they dropped their feminine postures. The three women became like wolves, crowding around him with bared teeth and grasping hands.

“Hey,” Blake said to one of them. “Your hands are ice cold.”

In the final few seconds, Blake understood everything, but by then it was too late. He screamed as the women dug their fangs into his throat, restraining him with the strength of ten men.  

“We can’t help him,” Chang said to Tony.

“No,” Tony acknowledged.

“Let’s get out of here.”

When they rushed out of the restaurant they encountered the old man again. But he was not alone and he was no longer quite as old.

The old man was on the floor, leaning over a slightly overweight, fiftyish man clad in a business suit. Chang surmised that this might be the customer whose blood had been smeared on the tablecloth. 

The fallen man’s white dress shirt was spattered with blood; the region around the collar was drenched in red liquid. 

The old Chinese man dipped his head and placed his mouth to an open wound on the victim’s neck. He glanced up when Chang and Tony hustled by. The old man now looked thirty years younger than he had earlier. His wrinkles were all but gone. His previously patchy white hair was now thick and black.

The Chinese man bared his incisors at Chang and Tony and growled. The resulting snarl summoned thoughts of wolves and other predators that civilization had mostly eliminated. The sound could not have been produced by human vocal chords.

One of the customer’s wing-tipped feet jerked.

“Keep moving,” Chang said as he shoved Tony forward. There’s nothing more we can do here.”

On the way out they both glanced at the statue of the dragon that had earlier impressed them so much. The dragon’s blank eyes still flickered with candlelight.

“What are we going to do?” Tony asked Chang when the Wallachia exit was about thirty miles behind them. “We have to tell someone—someone in authority—what happened.”

As before, Chang was in the driver’s seat of the Chevrolet Malibu and Tony was riding shotgun. 

The back seat was empty.

“We’ll need to come up with a cover story,” Chang said at length. 

“But Vincent, you saw what happened to Blake. You saw the man in the front of the restaurant. They’ve been killed…”

“By vampires,” Chang finished the thought for him, uttering the word that both of them had avoided until this point. “And what do you think the state police will say when we tell them what we saw? Let alone the local yokel cops in Wallachia, Ohio.”

Since Tony did not know about the triad whose coat-of-arms had been hanging in the restaurant, Chang took some time to fill in the details. He told Tony that residents of China’s rural Anhui province had whispered about a secret society of the undead for centuries. Chang told him how the triad habitually ensnared its victims: They made deserted buildings and caves look like inns and taverns, using a combination of earthly artifice and black magic. Then, when they had taken their quota in a given location, they dismantled their temporary lairs and moved on.

“So you’re saying that really wasn’t a restaurant?” Tony asked.

Chang smiled ironically. “It was for as long as they needed it to be,” he said. “But if someone stopped by there tomorrow, they’d likely find nothing but a deserted building, or an empty warehouse, or an old barn.”

Tony nodded.

“So we’ll have to say that we stopped at the truck stop and Blake took off and we never saw him again,” Chang said. “It sounds a little farfetched, but people disappear like that all the time.” 

“Just like Jimmy Hoffa,” Tony added, recalling Blake’s mention of the infamous restaurant in Detroit.

“I’m not happy about doing it this way; but we don’t have any choice, do we? And there’s nothing we can do for Blake now.”

On the subject of Blake, Chang knew that that there was more that Tony needed to hear and understand; but it could wait a day or two. 

They had always regarded Blake Lewis as a nightmare of a boss; and now that metaphor would take on a more literal meaning. The victims of the undead do not sleep; they return to claim victims of their own. And the nosferatu habitually prey on those they knew in life. Chang and Tony would therefore need to take precautions. If possible, they would also need to anonymously warn Nick Porter and his daughter, Julie. This last item would be difficult, of course. The Porters would dismiss any such warning as a hoax or a cruel joke.

I’ll address those questions tomorrow, Chang thought. He tried to push away the enormity of what he had witnessed, if only for a while. Tonight he would have a late dinner at home with his wife. Then he would watch his daughter sleep for a few minutes from the doorway of her bedroom.

THE END

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Termination Man: Prologue: 1996

Columbus, Ohio, November 1996

The man seated at the bar was making Carla Marsh more than a little nervous, even as she studiously tried to ignore him. Go away, she thought. Just leave me alone. The last thing I need tonight is to attract the attention of a weirdo. 

It had been a rough week at school. Carla’s GPA was hovering perilously close to the lower threshold of the 3.0 mark. She had promised her parents that she would maintain a GPA of at least 3.1. Maybe I’ve been going out a bit too much this semester, she thought. She wasn’t a heavy drinker—not compared to some people, at least—but it was hard not to get swept up in the hubbub of campus social life. More than 50,000 students attended the Ohio State University. There were so many people to meet. So much going on.

Of course, there were some bad apples in that cast of fifty thousand. Carla looked up from the glass of beer that she had purchased with a fake ID, the one that gave her age as twenty-one—rather than her true age of twenty. 

The weirdo was still giving her the eye.

She considered glaring at him or even giving him the finger, and then thought better of it. Sooner or later he would find another target to obsess upon. She wasn’t the only unescorted woman in the room, after all. Far from it. The Buckeye Lounge was an off-campus drinking establishment, and by definition, therefore, a meet market. Young men and women in their late teens and early twenties milled about everywhere. Lots of mingling going on. Dozens of young men hoping to get lucky tonight. Carla reflected—not for the first time since men had starting noticing her—that the entire bar and entertainment industry would probably collapse if not for horny young men. 

That was really what it was all about, wasn’t it? Practically all of the young men here were on the prowl in one way or another. 

And that explained the noise—the sheer excess of it: When college-aged men wanted to impress women, Carla had noticed, they seldom did it quietly. A few tables away, a guy wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt was responding to one of his companion’s jokes with exaggerated laughter. As if playing the role of a loud drunk were the best way to make yourself attractive to the opposite sex. You aren’t going to get laid that way, buddy, Carla thought. 

She returned her gaze to the bar: The young man—the weirdo—was still looking at her. 

Since he was looking at her, she took a moment to look back at him, to assess him: He had the generally tall and broad-shouldered build of an athlete. But something told Carla that this one was no member of the football or basketball team. He didn’t look like the type to associate himself with teams or groups, and he was definitely alone tonight. Jocks usually traveled in packs; and come to think of it—so did most everyone else. On the campus bar scene, loners were rare. And the weirdo was obviously a loner.

This wasn’t the first time that Carla had been ogled by an anonymous male in such a venue, and probably not the hundredth time, either. That much went with the territory––especially when you were twenty years old, female, and more than a little attractive.

But something about the lone man seated at the bar was different. Unlike other would-be campus lotharios, he was making no effort to be either furtive or flirtatious. He simply stared at her over the rim of his beer mug, fixing her with half-lidded eyes, and a smile that was somehow knowing. He seemed to be claiming his possession of her, even though they had never even met. He definitely wasn’t her type. Not that he was a bad-looking guy—not really. But he was creepy. Way too creepy.

“Carla, what the hell’s up with you?” Jill Johnson asked her, having noticed her distraction. “Have you had too much to drink?” Jill was seated across from her at the small table that the two of them shared. But Jill was seated with her back to the weirdo. She couldn’t see him.

“Are you drunk?” Jill persisted.

Jill was half-drunk herself, but she knew that something was up. Jill always seemed to know when something was up with her. Jill was Carla’s best friend in the world, and a fellow native of Cleveland. Less than two years ago, the two of them had headed off for OSU together. They were roommates and shared many of the same classes. Watch out for Jill at college, the other girl’s mother had told Carla. Make sure that she doesn’t get into trouble at OSU. Both sets of parents acknowledged that Carla was the more responsible member of the pair. 

But now Carla was the one with a problem, and he was seated at the bar only a few yards from their table. Since Carla had known Jill forever, her friend was able to discern that she was seriously spooked. They seemed to share a wordless sense of mutual understanding. 

In her Japanese 101 class, Carla had learned that the Japanese referred to this as inshin-denshin—“an unconscious sharing of the minds between two individuals”—or something like that. She had taught Jill the term and it had become a running joke between them. 

“I’m getting those inshin-denshin vibes from you,” Jill said. “So what’s up? Is something wrong?”

Carla reached across the little barroom table and placed her hand gently atop Jill’s wrist. For some reason that she could not completely identify, it seemed necessary to play it cool, to conceal her alarm from the man at the bar. Carla was suddenly certain that if she revealed her fear, the young man would exploit it to his advantage.

“Don’t make a big deal of it,” Carla said. “But take a casual look at that guy seated at the bar.” For once Carla was grateful for the excessive noise in the Buckeye Lounge. The blare of the jukebox and the incessant clamor of voices gave her more freedom to talk. The constant din assured that the man at the bar would not overhear her—even if he was able to maintain his surveillance.

Jill turned around—less discreetly than Carla would have preferred—and then turned back.

“Oh, I’ve seen him around campus,” Jill said, nonchalant. Apparently the weirdo didn’t disturb her as much as he disturbed Carla.

“You know him?”

“No, not exactly. I think I had a class with him last semester.” Jill paused for a moment to think, with the deliberate effort that intoxicated people often require. “Yeah—that’s it. Someone mentioned that his father is rich. A big executive at some company. I never got his name, though. But, oh—now I remember—he was in my abnormal psychology class.”

“How apropos,” Carla said.

“He really isn’t a bad-looking guy,” Jill said. “Just a little weird. Very intense.”

And now that she got a better look at him, Carla noticed once again that he wasn’t all that bad-looking. No, not at all. He was seated; but she imagined that he would be more than six feet tall when standing. She had always had a weakness for tall men. 

But not this one. 

“He might not be bad-looking,” Carla said in a low voice. “But that staring routine of his is kind of a deal killer. And something about him looks, well—mean, too.”

Mean? Carla thought, wondering if that was the right word. Lots of her girlfriends were mean. She was mean sometimes herself. But the weirdo looked capable of physically hurting someone. That represented a different level of mean.

She felt a chill begin to creep up her spine and stopped herself: Don’t let your imagination get the best of you, girl. This guy is definitely an oddball; but that doesn’t make him dangerous.

Jill merely shrugged at the suggestion that the stranger might have a truly dark side. Carla sighed: her friend had always had a soft spot for the bad boy types.

Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a burst of feminine laughter. Then their drinks nearly slid onto the floor as someone practically fell upon their table.

“Tina!” Carla said—half in amusement, half in annoyance. Only a quick reaction on her part kept the table from tipping over. Carla was gripping both sides of the table now, feeling like an Atlas trying to hold the world aloft. The young woman leaning on the wooden surface weighed perhaps ninety pounds soaking wet; but it was difficult to keep the table righted with all of her weight on it. “Tina, stand up! I can’t hold you and the table both.”

Tina responded by moving to a crouching position. Carla was now supporting perhaps a third of her weight.

Tina Shields was a young woman with whom she had shared a number of classes. The two of them had gotten to be casual friends. Not close friends, though. Tina moved in wilder circles than either Carla or Jill. There were persistent rumors about her sleeping around a lot—and she had a reputation as a bit of a drunk. Well, more than a bit of a drunk. Carla didn’t know about the sleeping around; but Tina Shields most definitely had a drinking problem.

“Tina! You’ve got to watch where you’re going!” Carla said, helping the other young woman lift her head from the table.  

The baby-faced coed didn’t look old enough to be legally drinking in the state of Ohio. In fact, she barely looked old enough to have a high school diploma. 

Carla didn’t want to play the prude; but it seemed incumbent on her to impart a word of caution. As Jill’s mother had long recognized, she was the responsible one, after all.

“My God, Tina. You look so sweet and innocent,” Carla said. “You keep stumbling around like that, and one of these guys in here is going to take advantage of you.”

“Maybe so,” Tina said, smiling vacantly. She righted herself onto wobbly legs. She gave Carla and Jill a little mock salute, and then moved on, becoming lost in the crowd. 

“Who was that?” Jill asked.

“Tina Shields.” Carla shook her head and smiled. “Tina likes to party.”

“You think? 

They laughed, because there was nothing else to do about Tina Shields but shake your head and laugh. But the situation really wasn’t funny, Carla reflected. A girl like Tina Shields could come to a bad end in all sorts of ways. She needed help.

“Am I interrupting something?” a male voice said. 

Disrupted by Tina Shields, Carla had almost forgotten about the weirdo at the bar. But when she looked up, there he was—no longer at the bar—but standing at their table. She had been too distracted to notice his approach.

He smiled—though it wasn’t a friendly smile. Nor did he appear to be the least bit nervous, as most men would be when approaching two unfamiliar females in a drinking establishment. 

“What do you want?” Carla asked. “We’ve both noticed that you’ve been staring at us for the entire night.”

“What do I want?” he repeated. “Well, let me tell you.” 

He proceeded to describe a sexual act that involved both of them—along with him, of course. This, too, was delivered deadpan, without the slightest hint of humor, shame, or empathy.

“I think that would hurt,” Carla said. “Not to mention the fact that it would be more than a little disgusting. Especially with you involved.”

There, Carla thought. That should be enough to get rid of him. 

However, he did not seem to be content to take no for an answer. 

“I’ll give you one chance to take that back,” he said.

Oh, the nerve of this guy. Who did he think he was? Jill had said something about his father being a rich big shot. Well, Carla didn’t care. 

When a couple walked by—a man and a woman—she was suddenly seized by an inspiration.

“Excuse me!” she called out, catching their attention. The age and dress of the couple revealed them to be students, although she did not recognize them. No matter. “This guy here—” She indicated the man standing at their table. “He seems to get off on approaching unknown women and making perverted suggestions. What do you think of that?”

The male half of the couple took one look at Carla and Jill’s unwanted visitor. He shook his head and said, “That is so not cool.” The woman advised the intruder not to be a “loser.” The young couple showed no interest in involving themselves any further. After making these brief remarks they continued on. 

But Carla could tell that the exchange had produced its desired effect. No young man wants to be called a “loser”—especially when the person assigning the label is an attractive young female. The word “loser” had made him flinch, like a slap across the face. 

There, she thought. Humiliate him in front of all these others, make him feel like a total asshole. That’ll teach him a lesson. 

Now Carla and Jill were alone with him again. Carla could see that the young man was shaking—not with fear, but with rage. His cheeks were crimson, and his hands were balled into fists. He stared first at her, then at Jill, his eyes seeming to bore through them.

“You ungrateful bitches,” he finally said.

“Oh, why don’t you get over yourself?” Carla shot back. She was still afraid, sure—but she felt her courage returning. This guy had been trying to play some serious head games with them. And clearly she had found a chink in his armor: the threat of public humiliation. Let him try to play the physical intimidation card. Let him just try. What could he really do to them, here in the middle of all these people? The bar was crowded, and she could easily humiliate him even more if necessary.

“You’ll regret this,” he said, just loud enough for both of them to hear. 

“I already do,” Carla said. “Believe me.”

“Hey,” Jill said, speaking to their unwanted visitor for the first time. “Why don’t you go back to the bar, huh? Leave us alone. Can’t you see you’re not wanted here?”

And then—somewhat to Carla’s surprise—he did exactly that. He abruptly turned his back on them and walked away, though he didn’t return to his spot at the bar. They watched him disappear into the crowd.

“That was spooky,” Jill said when he was finally gone.

“That was annoying,” Carla said. In truth, she had also found the incident more than a little spooky. But she didn’t want to acknowledge the fear that was making her tremble right now; that would only be a way of giving the young man more power over them. He had surprised them—caught them both when they were off guard; that was all. He was nothing but an essentially harmless creep who had shrunk away at the first sign of determined resistance. “But he’s gone now.” 

“You think so?” Jill asked. “You think that’s the end of it?”

Jill had a point. The stalker types often disappeared momentarily when rebuffed, only to make an unexpected appearance at a later time. You could never be sure. However, Carla had no intention of allowing the young man to afflict her with a lingering case of the heebie-jeebies. He would not get under her skin.

“We’ll never see him again,” she said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough social intercourse for one night.”

“I think it’s safe to say that that guy had more than social intercourse on his mind,” Jill said. And Carla thought: Yes, I suppose it’s good that we can make light of it. Joking about it diminishes that creep’s power over us.

They stood up; the atmosphere of the Buckeye Lounge had been ruined for them—at least for tonight. As Carla pushed her empty chair under the table, she noticed the heavily intoxicated coed who had nearly fallen into their laps only a few minutes ago. Tina Shields nodded at her when their eyes met. Tina was seated in a beanbag chair that was pushed against the adjacent wall, giving her an unobstructed view of the table that she and Jill were vacating. Tina Shields probably observed the entire exchange between them and the weirdo.

Take care of yourself, Tina, Carla thought. But I have a feeling that you’re destined to come to a bad end. And then to Jill she said: “I think I need to lay off of the drinking for a while.”

*    *     *

From the Columbus Dispatch, November, 1996

Two OSU Students found Bludgeoned to Death in Apartment Near Campus 

Jill Johnson and Carla Marsh, both 20, were found dead Sunday morning in their off-campus apartment on North High Street in Columbus. A spokesperson from the Columbus Police Division (CPD) stated that both young women died from multiple blunt force trauma wounds. 

CPD investigators believe that the women were killed the previous Friday night. As the investigation is ongoing, the CPD has declined to give additional details regarding either the murders or the crime scene.

Johnson and Marsh were both Cleveland natives. Both were students at the Ohio State University.  

The landlord of the two young women, 57-year-old Leonard Gates, discovered the bodies at approximately 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, after using his master key to enter their apartment. 

Gates had received a series of concerned phone calls from one of the young women’s parents, who were concerned because their daughter was not answering her telephone or responding to voice messages.  

Chapter 1

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 55

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A day later, Jung-Ho—partly to his own surprise, partly not—found himself telling another woman about the impending coup. 

What’s wrong with me? he wondered.

But he knew what was wrong with him: He was already in his early thirties, and he had no woman—none he could call his own, at least.

Not that he had never been with a woman. He had told Barry Lawson that there was no prostitution in the DPRK. And that was an honest assessment, so far as a Westerner like Barry Lawson would understand the term. 

During the reigns of of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, there had been rumors of the Kippumjo, the “Pleasure Brigade”. These were—if you believed the rumors—hand-selected 14- to 20-year-old virgins. They were trained in the arts of pleasure, and then dispatched to the service of high-ranking party officials. At the age of twenty-five, members of the Kippumjo were shuffled into arranged marriages. 

About 2,000 Pleasure Brigade girls were said to have existed, until the Kippumjo was disbanded, shortly after the death of Kim Jong-il.    

Jung-Ho had never been near the level of power that would enable access to the Kippumjo—if it ever existed at all, that was. He had once considered asking his father about the rumors. Colonel Tak would be in a position to know. 

But that would necessitate another, more uncomfortable question: Had his father ever partaken of such pleasures? Jung-Ho cringed at the very notion. There were some things that a son did not want to know about his father.

There were other, more unsavory options, short of the quasi-mythic Kippumjo. There were young women in the DPRK who sold themselves near train stations, often for only a few won

But the laws against participating in or patronizing such commerce were strict, and the punishments harsh. Jung-Ho tried to avoid such desperate measures. He had patronized the train station women on a handful of occasions, in order to dispel the constant aching in his loins. But the experience always left him nervous and unsatisfied. 

Unless you were at the very heights of power, the only real way to secure safe, constant access to a woman’s body in the DPRK was to marry. And stuck here in the Yang Suk Foreign Friends camp, Jung-Ho had met few marriage prospects. For this reason alone, he was often bitter that he had not been assigned to a post in one of the DPRK’s urban areas.

The most desirable woman in his midst—other than the impossibly resistant Anne Henry—was Mi-kyung. 

Jung-Ho was not surprised that Barry Lawson had fallen for her ruse in the restaurant of the Ichiryu Hotel in Osaka. (Jung-Ho had helped plan the entire thing, after all.)  Stronger men than Barry Lawson would have succumbed to Mi-kyung under those circumstances. 

Even now, sitting in the visitor’s chair of his little office, Mi-kyung was maddeningly desirable. Even in her uniform, with her long, lustrous black hair pulled back into a bun.

“You said you wanted to talk to me?” Mi-kyung asked. 

Her manner was polite, but not overly friendly. Jung-Ho had long sensed that Mi-kyung was less than fond of him. She probably sensed his desire. Was it that palpable? 

Yes, perhaps it was. 

Jung-Ho silently cursed Anne Henry.

“Yes,” Jung-Ho said at length. “Forgive my boldness, but I have always felt that the two of us have achieved…a level of trust.”

For a moment Mi-kyung said nothing. But he would get her talking. Jung-Ho was almost certain that he saw into the mind of Mi-kyung. She was smarter than most—and certainly smarter than that idiot, Commander Cho.

“I suppose so,” Mi-kyung said. “We are comrades, of more or less the same rank.”

Jung-Ho realized that he was about lay all his cards on the table, and thereby make himself completely vulnerable. He would have to make sure that it was worth the risk.

Mi-kyung, he knew, had—or once had—a lover in Russia. North Korea and Russia were on friendly terms, as they had been during the Soviet era. Mi-kyung had met her Russian boyfriend through liaison work she did with the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR RF. 

But how serious was it? Did this man have a claim on her? 

There was only one way to find out. He had to ask.

“That boyfriend of yours,” Jung-Ho said abruptly. “What is his name?”

“You mean Yuri,” Mi-kyung said. 

“Yes, the Russian.”

Mi-kyung bristled. She sat up against the back of the chair.

“Why all of this interest in my personal life?”

Why? Jung-Ho wanted to shout. He was now thirty-two years old. It was time for him to get married, and have children, hopefully at least one son.

He still believed that Anne Henry could be persuaded—if grudgingly. But a wise man, Jung-Ho knew, always leaves himself at least one backup plan.

Without being too obvious, Jung-Ho studied the swell of Mi-kyung’s breasts inside her uniform.

She would not be a bad second choice.

She might even be a good first choice.

“No reason,” Jung-Ho replied.

“I somehow doubt that. But if you must know: Yuri and I haven’t seen each other in months. He’s been transferred to Syria; and my work is unlikely to take me to Russia again in the foreseeable future. So I believe that our relationship is concluded. In the end, it will be nothing more than a ‘fling’, as the decadent imperialists would say.”

Good! Jung-Ho thought triumphantly. Now, on to the next point. 

“You despise Commander Cho, is that not true?”

This question, too, had been abrupt—and Jung-Ho had intended it that way. He wanted to gage her reaction. 

“You’re taking us in a very dangerous direction, Jung-Ho. For all you know, I’m Commander Cho’s spy. For all you know, I’ll report you within the hour, and you’ll be kneeling in a cell, with a pistol against your head.”

“Perhaps,” Jung-Ho allowed. “But I think not. I think, moreover, that you’re far more intelligent than you let on.” 

Mi-kyung looked directly into his eyes. “You flatter me, Comrade Tak.”

“No,” Jung-Ho said. “Not flattery. Just an honest assessment.”

“So,” Mi-kyung said. “I somehow have the feeling that you have something to tell me.”

Jung-Ho paused to consider. So far, he had engaged in mildly treasonous talk, but it was nothing that he couldn’t easily deny. If he told her about the conspiracy, then he would be irrevocably at risk. Mi-kyung was not Anne Henry. Whereas Anne Henry was isolated from authority in the DPRK, Mi-kyung could walk into Commander Cho’s office and report him at any time. 

Jung-Ho’s eyes wandered again to the swell of her breasts inside her uniform. 

He could always wait. There was no real reason to tell her now, to lay all of his cards on the table. If the coup succeeded, then he could use his newfound power to win her over. 

There was no hurry.

But then again, the coup would create many newly powerful men in the new DPRK, wouldn’t it? Mi-kyung would reward trust and loyalty, he reasoned. She would remember the man who had first thought of her.

“Yes,” Jung-Ho said. “I do have something to tell you.”

She raised her eyebrows. “So tell me. Or don’t tell me. It’s up to you. But I have no time or patience for games.”

“All right, then…”

Jung-Ho proceeded to tell her the basics of the coup plot. He only slightly exaggerated his role in the plan. It was important for her to grasp that his status would change, though…That he would be elevated.

When he was finished, he let out a sigh and asked her, “What do you think?”

To his relief, she smiled. “It sounds to me like you are going to be an important man, Jung-Ho.”

Jung-Ho could not fully contain his glee. He felt a smile break out on his face. “I will do my duty for my country. No more, no less.”

“Very well, Jung-Ho. And when you do your duty, you will remember your old friends, correct?”

“Of course,” Jung-Ho said. 

“I had better get back to my post,” Mi-kyung said, standing. “Commander Cho keeps me constantly in his view.” 

She rolled her eyes significantly as she said this. Jung-Ho wondered: Did that scrawny little monkey have aspirations of bedding Mi-kyung? 

At his age, would he even be able to get it up? 

Mi-kyung turned toward the door. “We’ll talk more, you and I,” she said. 

Chapter 56

Table of contents

The Cairo Deception: Chapter 3

There were five of them in total. They were sitting at the bar, directly opposite Jack, and across the room. 

Ali Abber, a notorious Cairo gangster, and four of his henchmen. They were sitting on bar stools, with their backs to Jack. Jack could see their faces in the mirror behind the bar.

Ali Abber was sitting to the left of his men. Jack had never had the displeasure of making Ali’s acquaintance, but he knew him by reputation. Many people in Cairo knew Ali Abber by reputation. 

Ali Abber was short and stocky, in his early thirties. His black hair was close-cut and thick. Ali’s face was bisected by a long diagonal scar that ran from just below his right eye, to the left corner of his chin. The scar was said to be the product of a childhood knife fight. According to the stories, Ali Abber had been a boy of twelve at the time of the fight, and his opponent had been a grown man. Ali Abber had gotten the scar, but Ali had gutted the grown man. 

Or so the stories went. Jack saw no reason to doubt them.  

Jack had not seen Ali and his men enter the bar. It seemed to him, though, that they had appeared there directly in his wake.

A coincidence, to be sure, but not the only one. Jack feared that he had been deliberately betrayed. 

It had all started with a quarrel with Tahmid, the man he had hired to serve as his digging assistant, guide, and interpreter. Jack had dismissed Tahmid after finding the garnet. He had no further need of the Egyptian man’s services, after all.

Jack had given Tahmid a bonus when he terminated his employment. The bonus was more than Jack could afford, given the meager cash reserves that he had brought to Egypt with him. 

“Is that all, boss?” Tahmid had asked. 

When Jack had asked him what he meant by that, Tahmid had replied, “What I mean, boss, is that you’re a rich man now.” Jack had been less than discreet about what he was digging for out in the desert. As a result, Tahmid had some grasp of the garnet’s worth.

Jack had reminded Tahmid that he wouldn’t be rich until he returned to the United States and found a buyer for the garnet. This was true. He couldn’t give Tahmid cash that he didn’t have. 

His assistant had walked away, but he was clearly unconvinced by Jack’s explanation.

And then just yesterday, Jack had seen his erstwhile assistant, Tahmid, in the bazaar district, talking to this same Ali Abber who was now sitting at the bar. 

Jack had watched, out of sight of the two men, as Ali had slipped Tahmid a handful of Egyptian pounds.

The exchange was technically none of Jack’s business. He had no claim on Tahmid—especially now that Tahmid was no longer in his employ. If Tahmid now wanted to work for one of the most notorious hoodlums in Cairo, that was his business. 

It was, however, an odd coincidence: Ali Abber and his men showing up at this bar—a bar that Jack was known to frequent—the day after he had seen the disgruntled Tahmid talking to Ali.

Jack was pretty certain that Ali and his men had not been in Rossi’s Bar when he’d entered. They had come in after him.

As if they had been following him.

Jack reminded himself that the garnet wasn’t the only significant object that he had on his person tonight. Also in one of the interior pockets of his jacket was a Model 1911 45-caliber pistol. The M1911 had a seven-round cartridge. 

One round for each man at the bar, with two rounds to spare.

Jack was no stranger to rough-and-tumble dealings among men. He had served in the U.S. Army during peacetime. He had been in his share of scraps—especially during his boyhood in Indiana. 

But he had never killed a man before. And he didn’t want to start tonight, not if he could help it.

Moreover, any sort of gunfight in a bar would set in motion consequences that Jack could not predict or control. Even in the Wild West that was Cairo. To simply remove the weapon from his jacket, and display it in a threatening manner, would bring consequences. Most men in Cairo were armed, in one way or another. But there were rules about such things. And one rule was: You didn’t brandish semiautomatic handguns in a crowded bar.

Then another coincidence occurred. Ali Abber turned around on his barstool. He was about to make eye contact with Jack—or so Jack thought—when:

“Hey, you! get out of here!” yelled a voice very close to Jack’s ear. 

Chapter 4

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