December 29, 2010

Drone Wars: Gutter Glitter



            "Double down," Tammy Mori told him.  The dealer had drawn a three of spades, and a ten of hearts.  Garry Knolls was holding a six of diamonds, and a two of clubs.  They each had at least another card coming to them.  The odds the dealer would pull a face card were pretty low, but he did it anyway.  If he drew a high card he was still in the game.  He tapped the green felt table.  The scantily clad dealer blew a lucky kiss on her fresh deck, and showed him an ace of spades right off the top.  They each pulled another card.  She laid another ace on him, this time an ace of hearts, and dramatically slapped the card she drew for herself down on the table -- a jack of clubs!  Much to his cohort's delight the house busted, and the hand went to him.  He pocketed a hundred-and-thirty bucks and tipped her a ten-dollar chip he gladly stuck in the elastic waistband of her gauzy, nylon, pink panties. 

            On the main stage of the strip club a misshapen girl in a slinky, oddly maternal negligee bucked to a rustic bluegrass tune.  If his car broke down somewhere deep in the Appalachian hills, and he was forced to wander aimlessly through the brush of the desolate mountain countryside in search of help, she was exactly what he would expect the woman who answered the farmhouse door to look like -- inbred and scary like a rural temptress who had never in her life seen an outsider before.  She lifted her torn and raggedy frockcoat as if she were plucked from some forgotten bygone era and transported from her mountain cabin to the strip club, a wanton woodland naiad given over to the lust of her pre-Christian, occult godhead.  He, Tammy Mori, the two other girls, and the food service employee who had driven them past the Fortean College guards at the front gate, bought drinks at the bar while the collective imagination of the otherwise boisterous, and rowdy, largely male audience was mesmerized by the banshee's wicked gyrations, as if she were in a drunken trance, transfixed by her unhallowed passion. 

            The next stripper up was a pretty, young, fresh-faced girl who, according to the emcee, hailed from the U.S.S. Florida currently docked offshore, even though Garry Knolls was relatively sure the little burg where the university was located was, except for a lake or two, entirely landlocked.  Her act made her out to be a na├»ve, wayward, navy girl on shore leave in a godless countryside.  The five of them searched out seats as near to the front row as they could manage while the young woman held the crowd in thrall by removing her navy uniform only to reveal the glittery, rebel flag, thong bikini hidden under her outfit.  The transformation was made to a raucous, lascivious rockabilly track that blared through the blown out, asthmatic sounding ceiling speakers.  Her "hips", the emcee boasted, were like "battleships". 

Tammy Mori did her best to ignore the racist overtones of the woman's act.  She had brought them all there to see the performer who came on afterwards, a thin wisp of a woman who paced in the wings with a black wig with severe bangs, her long lashes painted with such thick circles of mascara Garry Knolls couldn't help but dub her "raccoon eyes".  Toasts went all around the table.  As the lights were dimmed, Tammy Mori quieted the others in anticipation of the woman's onstage appearance.  "Pay attention," she leaned forward.  When the young woman eventually ascended to the platform, awkwardly curled her body around the dancer's pole at center stage, and the lights came all the way back up again, she applauded vigorously.  "Recognize her?" she nudged her training partner. 

            Without prompting, he might never have made the connection, but, however unlikely, the woman up on stage was the same as the one at the hilltop retreat whose car they had used to get past the metal gate of the estate.  She was the mother of the two girls, the woman who worked for the maid service they had pulled from the driver's seat of the compact car at gunpoint.  The gray suit jacket, skirt, and trench coat she wore should have set off some bells, should have given her away.  They were Tammy Mori's clothes from the day before.  There was no way to suppress his bewilderment.  The two women must have talked later in the day while he and the other students removed the spent shell casings from the property, or were otherwise busy clearing the evidence of their field trip from the site.  It was the only explanation he could come up with for how she could possibly have known the other woman worked as an erotic dancer at the establishment. 

"The lady from the other day?" he looked at her with incredulity.  "How... how on earth did you know she would be here tonight?" 

Tammy Mori proudly told him everything.  She recounted how she had gone back down to the gate to relieve their classmate, and how she and the mother and her two daughters had unfurled a blanket on the sunny front lawn by the large metal gate, unpacked the box of toys, and enjoyed a pretend teatime with the dolls.  "We had so much fun.  She told me all about herself.  About how she was only sixteen when she had her first daughter, how her husband left her for another woman after the birth of their second child, about how the maid service hardly paid her anything because she didn't have the proper documents, and how she was forced to make ends meet by moonlighting here at the go-go club."

            Part of the job description was to work the room between dances.  Generally, after the performer picked up all the crumpled bills from the stage, disappeared to the dressing room to count it all out, peel off the house take and stash the rest, she would come back out to mingle with the crowd, pick out some likely bachelor or other to tell her story to.  Sometimes it was sad luck.  Sometimes it was more upbeat, about how the girl only worked there to pay her way through school.  It depended on the customer.  At Tammy Mori's urging, she made her way across the room to their table.  Their close resemblance was uncanny, but there was more to it than simply how much they looked alike.  The two women seemed to share a remarkable rapport, hard for Garry Knolls to quantify, almost as if they had known each other all their lives.  The ease with which they interacted made it seem as if they were old friends, maybe even relatives, like sisters or cousins, like there was something more to the relationship than a chance meeting at a school sponsored field trip.  "Don't tell me you guys only met yesterday," he waved the waitress over for a second round.  "If I didn't think different, I'd guess you two must have known each other almost all your lives." 

            Her stage name was Katie Faye.  It turned out Tammy Mori hadn't been entirely honest with him.  Katie Faye was a Fortean College alumnus.  She was a government intelligence agent, among the first success stories from the program.  Their driver was not a cafeteria employee.  His name was Parson, Parson Brown.  "You know.  Like the yuletide carol."  They had not snuck past the guards at the front gate.  Their escape from campus was the first step in an elaborate sting operation already planned months ahead of time.  Katie Faye was in deep cover at the go-go club.  Her mission was to get as close as she could to the target.  Tammy Mori carefully indicated an older, loudmouthed man in a cowboy hat who sat at the bar, and berated the poor bar boy.  He was suspected of funding a "radical organization". Tammy Mori apologized for not coming clean with them sooner.  They were assigned to assist the lead agent in whatever way she saw fit.  Garry Knolls was to act as the student liaison, a kind of coordinator for the Fortean College cadet core.  She and Katie Faye would seduce the target.  Their cover story was that she was the lead agent's daughter.  The man owned a cabin in the mountains.  It was believed he conducted his business from there.  Not much was known about him except that he had lost his wife and daughter in a terrible accident, a drunken car wreck he had never forgiven himself for.  The two of them would act as surrogates.  She would fill them all in later.  Meanwhile, they should all get to know each other before Katie Faye had to go back on stage for her second dance. 


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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December 27, 2010

Drone Wars: Metal Storm



            Two little girls in the backseat fought over a doll.  When their mother pulled up to the reinforced metal gate of the regal hilltop estate, she flashed her identity card for the security camera, and told her daughters to settle down and behave.  "Quit it!" she scolded them, and put the car back into gear.  She was just about to turn around and take the doll away from the two of them when Tammy Mori and three others who brandished rifles rushed in behind her vehicle.  The woman was employed by a maid service.  She had brought her kids with her to work.  Tammy helped her carry a box of toys from the trunk of the compact car.  The woman was told to strip down to her undergarments.  Tammy did the same.  The two of them exchanged clothes.  She and the two girls were ushered aside.  They were assured they would be fine so long as they were quiet and didn't put up a struggle.

            One of Tammy's associates stayed behind with the woman and her two daughters, while she and the other two advanced on the property.  Fog had rolled in earlier in the night.  From their elevated vantage point only the surrounding hilltops were visible over the mist, like an archipelago of ships adrift in a sea of vapor.  The landscape was incredibly serene.  When the three of them crossed through the garden in the direction of the converted barn she almost expected they would interrupt a fat, bald-headed Buddhist monk, his legs folded in the lotus position, deep in his early morning meditation.  Their mission was to take out an eccentric "gangland boss" that had relocated his sleeping quarters after he received death threats from his nefarious underworld partners, but the three of them couldn't help but cast knowing glances at each other as they steadied their weapons.  They knew who was really inside.  At her command, they encircled the refurbished domicile, and at a range of only a few feet opened up with everything they had in their arsenal.  Wood fragments flew everywhere.  Glass windows imploded.  Within minutes the attack was over. 

            The other students found Sam Spikone hidden under the bed in the fetal position.  They calculated that their three classmates had sprayed the barn with over three hundred rounds.  The bedroom was perforated with seventy bullets, each one carefully circled, numbered, and photographed for the eventual report.  "Lucky, dickwad," Garry Knolls grumbled as he escorted the kid from the deathtrap.  Although a bit worse for wear, the freak was alive and well.  Not a single round had hit him.  The mission had failed.  To make matters worse, they had to call in the bomb disposal unit because the rocket-launched grenade they had fired through the window was not only not approved for the operation, worse still, it had failed to go off.  While the explosive device was removed from the premises by Fortean College staffers at the behest of the instructor, and detonated at a safe distance, the other cadets stood by idly and glared at their classmate with the makeup and dog collar, aware they would eventually have to explain how the rocket launcher had ended up among their armaments. 

            "Kiss me where it stinks," Sam Spikone barely managed, physically unscathed, but visibly shaken by the experience.  Privately, however, he was relieved.  After he had set them up and framed them for the fiasco at the abandoned meth-lab the day before, he had expected them to come after him with everything they had, return the favor in kind, with interest.  After their dressing down by the instructor, he knew he would be exposed to their jeers, and not to give himself away he would have to unerringly maintain his air of ignorance about the whole affair.  No matter how sure they were of his guilt, they could not possibly substantiate their suspicions with any proof.  He knew they would want to exact their revenge in like manner and attempt to embarrass him, the way he had shamed them.  The trigger-happy psychos wouldn't have the patience  to make him wait and wonder.  They wouldn't have the sadistic wherewithal to sweat him until he became scared of his own shadow.  The amateurs would most likely try to get back at him the very next time out.  When the instructor had asked for someone to take the role of the target, much to the astonishment of his classmates, he did what no sane person would have done, and raised his hand.  Even the teacher had looked at him with pitiless incredulity, instinctively aware of the danger he placed himself in by accepting such a potentially hazardous undertaking.  Even the old man could sense the other students were gunning for the kid. 

            In his heart-of-hearts, Sam Spikone wanted to believe Tammy Mori had made sure he was unharmed by the flurry of bullets, had not removed the pin from the grenade on purpose.  He wanted to believe she was his covert benefactor, and the friendship the Talking Tammy doll had vowed him in his dream was more than only a figment of his sordid, convoluted imagination; that it had transcendent implications.  Whether or not it had any grounding in reality, he would rather have believed it was not simply pure chance that she had saved him, not some random, mercurial whim of an all-powerful, faceless, cosmic deity, but his special bond with her that had allowed him to survive the fury of the metal storm.  Every great historical figure, it occurred to him, had crimes committed in their name.  And, maybe that was the goal?  If the history books chronicled nothing else, wasn't it a long unwavering list of those in whose names crimes were committed?  Kings, presidents all, prophets, saints and sinners, alike: what was the one thing they all had in common?  Maybe it was nothing more remarkable than their unselfish sacrifice to the larger human impulse to grovel worshipfully at the feet of those who were able to have others do their dirty work for them?  His conscious mind wanted to believe Tammy Mori broke the rules by forestalling his destruction.  It wanted to believe it was an act of profound propriety on her part, the most selfless act conceivable, a sacrifice of the greatest magnitude, possibly the act of a noble historical figure in search of her first disciple.  In her combat boots, her gartered fishnet stockings, her commandeered black maid's outfit with the frilly, white trim, and her AK-47 strapped across her shoulder with stylish outlaw flair, his conscious mind never felt a closer affinity with the deadly young woman.  Her beauty was as pure to him in the late morning light as that of an avenging angel escaped from her heavenly perch. 

            A garbled barrage of signals, codes, and formulas overwhelmed him with a newfound sense of higher purpose and direction.  Dr. Edward Vincent's voice assailed his unconscious mind with machine-to-machine-like screeches that pierced his inner ear.  In his unconscious mind he was a primeval straw man.  Tammy Mori was like the clay figurine of a many-breasted, primitive fertility goddess.  Branches snapped back and whipped him across the cheek, as he followed her into a wooded enclave.  They stood side-by-side at the edge of a crystal lake.  Ahead of them, in the mist, he could hear the sound of splashing water, and girls' laughter. 

In his unconscious mind there were five others beside Tammy Mori swimming nude in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.  Five of the most beautiful women he had ever seen in his life.  They played in the water like unearthly apparitions, without the slightest regard for the impending disruption of their blissful revelry.  The voice inside his ear told him they were cursed creatures that had fled from their lofty abode to partake in earthly delights.  The voice told him to go to them.  The fallen angels would take him into their arms.  They would seduce him.  If he did not continue on his present course he would never enjoy the unimaginable pleasure they offered.  "Go on, son," the machine-like voice of the government scientist encouraged him.  "Take your clothes off.  Jump in."  If he withdrew from his present position at the beachhead of the unreal waterhole among the equally unreal nymphs, Dr. Edward Vincent insisted he would have no other choice than to send the kid back to the inverted city for further modifications. 


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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December 25, 2010

Drone Wars: Messianic Killer



            The single-family house was on the outskirts of town, an eyesore on a treeless, flat horizon, a prototype model for an exurb development gone bust during the last economic downturn.  Garry Knolls called in his position on his car radio.  By the look of it there hadn't been a paying tenant there for quite a while.  Maybe never.  The windows and doors were boarded up.  He pulled back a loose plywood plank where someone had broken in through the kitchen door.  The place was completely trashed, covered in graffiti and tags.  Beer cans, cigarette butts, and other detritus littered the living room floor.  The empty house was an ideal squat for kids to use as a party pad.  In the dining room there was some discarded chemistry-type equipment, like beakers and such, and a tipped over, empty fifty-gallon drum.  Not too long ago the house had probably been a thriving meth-lab cookhouse.  He poked his head into a side room.  Only one thing among all the many that decorated the wall caught his attention: a picture of a celebrity idol taped to the faux wood panel, her face scribbled out by a black marker.  Down the hallway he kicked aside an empty forty-ounce malt liquor beer bottle and hesitated a moment before he threw the bedroom door open.  On the wall "Suicide Party" was emblazoned in large, dripping, red letters.  The only other item of note in the room was the mattress on the floor.  He knelt to touch the huge red bloodstain on it -- still wet.

            Her body was in the bathroom.  He gingerly pulled back the transparent shower curtain to get a better look at the woman with the black wig and severe bangs.  Whoever killed her, had bound her arms to a rod above her head and left her hanging over the tub, naked with her legs splayed apart, each ankle tethered to a cinderblock.  There was enough blood spray on the walls to indicate she wasn't yet dead when she was tied up.  The killer had delivered the fatal cuts after she was helpless, suspended by her wrists.  A sharp object, perhaps a razor blade of some sort, he could only surmise, was most likely the weapon of choice, but the murderer was not content to only slash at her.  He had tortured her first.  There were burn marks and welts all over her body.  The corners of her lips had been cut to give her a fiendish smile, her breasts were removed, her stomach cut open.  She was disemboweled.  His attention turned to the flyers papered over the tile walls: Suicide Party propaganda.  As if to signal what?  That the crime was politically or ideologically motivated?  Garry Knolls couldn't help but crack a smile.  He recognized the posters.  They were left over from a craven theme party the preceding senior class had thrown right before they graduated. 

            Regardless, the dead body was no fake.  Someone, or some group, or entity had killed her.  He was the primary investigator on the scene.  For a little while at any rate, at least until the others arrived at the house, he was alone with the corpse.  Not that he was inclined in any way to tamper with the evidence.  As much as he would have loved to remove the Suicide Party literature, he knew only a handful of other folks beside him knew how it had originated.  To local law enforcement what would otherwise look like a sensational hate crime, would undoubtedly take on an even more cryptic tone given the references to the mysterious political party.  If the authorities thought they had a serial killer on their hands they would in all likelihood bottle up the story.  It would get suppressed.  If, on the other hand, they thought a bunch of teenage skinheads were the culprits, the bulletin might get out.  After only a single incident, there wouldn't be much coverage.  Just a little post on the Ethernet was enough.  No one would take notice right away.  It would just sit out there in the digital void, like a sleeper clue; lay dormant for some conspiracy theory nut to discover at a later date. 

            Whoever had prepared the scene for him, they were thorough.  There was little room for imagination.  The abundance of dead giveaways was probably someone's idea of a prank.  Even the densest psycho cadets would jump to the same conclusion.  They would all make Sam Spikone for the most likely suspect, and with good reason.  By now every one of them would have seen the photos come back from the surveillance stakeout.  They would have all seen the pictures of him disseminating the Suicide Party pamphlets.  Every one of them would have noticed how perfect he looked in the role of a protester, how closely he resembled an activist.  On campus it would have made for a hell of a practical joke.  Off campus the connotations were more far reaching.  On campus Garry Knolls could see how the other students or even the instructor might have considered it as yet another way to further humiliate the unlikable weakling.  Done off campus, however, it took on a whole other significance. 

            The premature appearance of the former death squad major and his sentries made Garry Knolls realize something was definitely awry.  Before the teacher showed up, the rest of the class was supposed to arrive to assess the situation, and make their recommendations.  They were expected to take notes and evaluate the evidence before they presented the instructor with their findings.  The old man ordered his men to disarm Garry Knolls.  They were told to document all the evidence of the Suicide Party paraphernalia, and then to promptly remove it from the premises.  "Burn it!" he ordered.  Two other paramilitary soldiers herded the rest of the class into the house to face the old man's fury.  They were made to stand at attention while he redressed them with his venom.  There was going to be "a world of pain" for the person or persons responsible for placing the flyers in the house.  The students were described as "unruly".  They had gone "too far" this time.  There was "no excuse" for such behavior.  "Severe punishments" would be meted out. 

            His mood became even grimmer when he saw the blinking red light on the message machine and pressed the play button only to hear Sam Spikone's voice through the speaker.  "I had to call," the kid said.  "I can't stop thinking about you.  It really felt good to lie down with you last night.  I didn't realize how much I missed that feeling."  He instructed his well-armed men to destroy the machine.  "What sort of game do you think you're playing at?" he nearly lost his temper he shrieked so loudly.  Did they think they were funny?  Did they think undercover government work was a joke?  Had any of them considered what the implications would be, if their devious, little lark were to get out into the mainstream press?

            Not one among them, except Garry Knolls, stopped to consider whether Sam Spikone alone had somehow put up the posters and scrawled the words on the bedroom wall.  The kid was the only one among them who couldn't have known about the party flyer's original derivation.  It happened before he arrived on campus.  He was the only one who might have taken the dogma on the poster seriously.  Out there with his makeup and dog collar on, handing out leaflets in front of the post-office, had it flashed in his mind how ideally suited he was to play the part of the counterculture insurgent?  Had he discovered his true purpose out there with a megaphone in his hand inciting the common person to take up arms against their fellow citizenry?  Maybe the little creep took the idea of the Suicide Party seriously?  Not that it mattered.  Even if he recognized how ludicrous such a political purpose was, there was always the possibility he didn't care. 

No matter how ridiculous his ambition was he might have realized he could win either way.  If he were able to make the ideological literature part of the crime scene, it would become part of the official record, remain behind to be discovered by the city crime reporter or some other drudge after he and the rest of the class was shuttled back to Fortean College and fully debriefed.  Meanwhile, the bastard could enjoy himself at his classmates' expense, watch them mercilessly excoriated by their pissed-off instructor who practically foamed at the mouth.  The former death squad major would never in a million years believe him competent enough to perpetrate such a clever deception.  There would be no question in the old man's mind that the other students were behind the entire affair.  For the first time, Garry Knolls took serious measure of the little twerp with the painted black lipstick and fingernails all alone in the back row behind the other students.  Well, what do you know?  He had to give credit where credit was due.  The little turd proved capable of crime.  If, on the other hand, he genuinely fancied himself as a future messianic figurehead, he was more than welcome to the role. 


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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December 18, 2010

Drone Wars: Shutterless Lenses

Rain on visor.jpg


            "How's ten grand?" Tammy Mori asked Sam Spikone.  "Here," she pulled a wad of bills from an envelope.  "Three thousand up front.  How hard could it be?  All you have to do is kill Garry."  She had special knowledge.  Her partner had to make a covert run into town for the provost.  He would be alone.  She knew where and when.  There would be a dirt bike.  The keys would be under the seat.  All Sam Spikone had to do was follow him.  She didn't need to know the method.  He could kill her partner any way he liked.  If he wanted, she could provide him with an untraceable gun.  She shoved a paper bag across the table.  He could pick his own spot, but she told him he was better off staying on Knolls' tale until he got out to the lakeside house.  The provost had a shed out there where he kept a few illicit items stored.  The place would be abandoned.  There would be plenty of opportunity.  On such a cold, rainy day the private security firm employees who patrolled the neighborhood would stay holed up in their dry, heated cabin.  A couple of girls she knew would make sure of it. 

            Sure enough, the dirt bike was parked where she said it would be.  The keys were under the seat.  He revved up the engine, and lifted the bike off its kickstand.  Garry Knolls had an Interan Corp. company car.  The rain came down in a fine drizzle, but the wind whipped it around so it felt sharp when it hit his face.  He lowered the helmet provided for him over his head, and snapped down the tinted visor.  Visibility in this soup was going to be a problem.  The insult comic inside his head told him if he wanted to catch up to the white sedan maybe he should consider loosening his grip on the handlebar brakes.  The voice inside his ear wanted him to go faster.

Doing seventy-five on the freeway the headwind brushed the water clear from his visor in fine rivulets.  It was going slowly through the maze of suburban residential streets where everything became a foggy blur.  Even though he was having trouble making anything out that was more than only several feet away, he had to keep back at least a block or two from the white sedan so as not give himself away.  A couple of times he raced ahead when he thought he might have lost the car, only to unexpectedly ride up on its tail.  Thankfully, the sedan driver turned his cruising lights on.  Sam Spikone fell back into position about a hundred yards away.  When the car took a turn onto another street, he opened the throttle up wide until he got to the intersection, stopped cold, and slowly nosed his way around the corner. 

            The kid was soaked to the bone when the sedan finally pulled onto a private road.  The lakeside house was more like a compound than the pretty, shingled, white house with rose bushes in the front yard Tammy had described.  There was a sleek A-frame chalet abutted by a ranch style guest cabin.  The place was enclosed by a chain link fence.  Sam Spikone watched the car pull to a stop on the gravel drive from his spot down at the end of the road, and decided the best course of action was to roll his bike into the woods off the main street and leave it against a sturdy Elm while he circled round back of the property on foot.  The driver of the car had been careful.  On a number of occasions the young man behind the wheel came to a crawl.  Sam Spikone didn't think he had been made, but precaution dictated he take the more circuitous route through the damp, muddy plot of land cleared at the back of the house, and make his approach from the opposite side of the lake where there stood a stone edifice covered by a thick fur of dripping moss, the dilapidated ruins of an old carriage-, or boathouse.  The roof had caved in years before.  Only the sturdy masonry was left standing. 

            The rain came down harder.  At the end of the drive, Garry Knolls stepped out of his company car in the makeshift jacket he had made by poking neck- and armholes into a fifty-gallon plastic leaf bag left folded on the backseat.  Sam Spikone watched as the young man walked down the gravel driveway in the direction of the lake.  He needed to make a quick mental calculation.  Even if he got over the fence without taking cover, there would probably be at least a split second when the other boy would disappear from view behind a large untended outgrowth of vines.  He made his way as fast as possible to the ruins, and tore off a handful of wet grass as he scampered up the hill.  Little did he know what was in store for him when he made it to the wall.  Their strategy had worked perfectly.  The other seniors lay in wait for him.  The minute Sam Spikone ducked behind the old barn they tackled him to the soggy ground, and pulled their weapons on him.  The crazy mother fuckers in their drenched trench coats would have made him eat a mouthful of clay, and squeezed their triggers too, if the instructor hadn't come down the pebbled path flanked by six of his handpicked paramilitary troops, and insisted his students promptly put their guns away before someone got hurt.  "That's an order!" 

            With his arms held above his head to protect his face from the pent up aggression of the other stymied students, Sam Spikone wished he had never volunteered.  Why hadn't anyone told him it was the patsy role?  He should have guessed after they gave him the radical leftwing pamphleteer assignment last time out.  They were supposed to develop and sharpen their surveillance techniques.  While the others spied on him from upper story windows, and rooftops with telephoto lenses the size of his forearm, he was made to stand on the corner by the post office, and hand out bogus ideological leaflets to unsuspecting passersby.  He couldn't help but notice how preposterous the literature was.  The broadsheet he had waved around incited the dispossessed to regain control of their destinies by joining the ranks of a fringe organization called the "Suicide Party".  No more thought must have gone into the banner than that it would get some people to stop, and peer at it in total mystified disbelief.  All day long he had stood out there in his gray slacks, his sweat stained white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and forced a lipless smile every time he managed to put one into someone's hand.  After the Halloween party he decided he liked to wear woman's makeup.  He hadn't given up on the dog collar either.  To the contrary, he had gone out and bought himself a fancy black, leather one with pointed, silver studs.  It made him think how perfect he must have looked through all those shutterless lenses trained on him from the dark corners, side streets and alleys where his classmates were posted for their stakeouts.  Like he was the real deal, the ideal semblance of a real life agent provocateur. 

            "Thank you, Mr. Spikone," the former death-squad major summoned him back to the present.  "You were daydreaming during the lecture if you thought this mission was going to end well for you, and I was actually going to let you take a shot at a senior classmate.  Never fall for a pretty girl who says she wants to kill her boyfriend," he snapped.  "Trust an old man.  It never ends well."  The instructor proceeded to congratulate the other students for a job well done.  "I can't teach you talent, but I can try to instill in you an appreciation for a properly run complex operation.  We could have gunned the target down anytime, but where is the elegance?  There's an art to a good kill.  The target shouldn't ever suspect, not until the last second after it's too late to get away.  You kids are impatient, and reckless, but tonight you can all celebrate," he motioned for the large soldiers in black uniforms to escort the motley crew back to the vans before they caught colds from the rain.  "And, don't forget to drag the dirt bike out from the woods," he yelled over his shoulder at the guards part way up to the main house.  "Stick it in the garage with the interrogation equipment.  I got an army pal to come in from one of the former Balkan states.  We'll need some of that stuff next time for her guest-presentation on enhanced interrogation." 


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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Drone Wars: Human Junk



            A woman on stage hung upside down.  A man walked across the set, and looked up at her, aghast. 

            "Just what do you think you're doing up there, honey?" he asked, and threw another knowing glance at the camera, like what he was trying to convey was 'settle down folks, hold onto your hats, here we go on another zany adventure'.

            "I'm changing the game." 

            "Not again," he played his part to the hilt.  Straight man roles were so few and far between he decided to have as much fun with it as possible.  "You can't just change the game anytime, dear.  What kind of game would it be if everyone could change it whenever they wanted?" he pleaded. 

            "Watch me!"

            "There are rules, honeybunch," he aped concern.

            "To hell with them." 

            "Regulations," he tried hard to convey some sense of personal moral responsibility.  "Be reasonable, darling.  Have some consideration for the other players, like me, for instance.  What if no one else but you wants the game to change?"

            "I'll do it anyway."

            "But everything's going so well.  Think of our enviable existence, all our creature comforts.  What's to complain about?  We have the perfect retro-50s-atomic age lifestyle.  Imagine it: a world where they still had phone booths and ashtrays," he gesticulated in the direction of the balcony stage set.  "Built in ashtrays, my pet."

            "My mind is made up."

"Shouldn't we talk about this first, before you go off and do something rash?  Who knows where the next game might land us," he caught his breath, and looked around at the studio audience with supreme smugness.  "We could end up in the stone-age.  Or in some game where interstellar mining drones fight each other over scarce resources.  Please, sweetheart.  Have some compassion.  I don't want to get eaten by a dinosaur, or zapped by a laser blast on the tee-off of the first hole of the day..." 

Garry Knolls switched off the wall-mounted big screen with the remote, and settled back into his deck chair.  He had experienced a similar sensation the day before.  Even though it was late fall and there was a chill in the air, he sat poolside at the campus grill.  They had the heating lamps on, and it wasn't nearly as loud out there as it was inside.  The place was regal in a wonderfully shabby way.  There was a woman who sat on the other side of a sliding glass door across from him.  It was right after her partner was called away that she caught his attention.  Something about her mesmerized him.  Something about how the light hit her face so perfectly.  Without her audience, purposeless with nothing to do, he could practically hear the gears ratchet in her head.  Without any diversion, he could tell by the focused expression that came over her face her attention returned to the tangle of plots she conspired when no one else was around.  

Everywhere he looked nowadays he saw Tammy Mori's Cleopatra wig.  The woman on the big wall screen who hung upside down and coyly threatened to change the game wore one.  So did the woman inside the clubhouse.  Wherever he looked he thought he saw her.  The woman behind the counter in the Mexican restaurant resembled her.  Hers was the face on the dead boy he carried to the dumpster, the face of the old man who clutched at his shredded chest before she put another one in his nose.  The woman was like a roving plague, a ranging disaster area.  Most times you took her out and everything was picture perfect, but you could never really tell when the murderous, vulgar gypsy-whore Tammy Mori might suddenly rematerialize.  It was always an adventure.  There were times when he didn't think things could get worse, and then they did; they got much worse.  When she was in a mood like that she would sooner shoot you than acknowledge your presence.  She was her badass self -- the baddest badass of them all --, and nothing he or anyone else could do was going to stand her down.  She was the ice princess, and if you didn't learn to appreciate her special powers you would eventually end up in her snare, caught like a fly in her spider's web of intrigue, her guest-list-only tragedy in which she was cast as a cheerleader prom queen turned homicidal maniac. 

She had a plan, she said over the phone.  Everyone was to convene at the ice-age boulder after sundown.  In order to avoid detection they would make their way through the woods to the loading dock.  "You're not listening," she cut short his lame attempt at reason.  "I found a way through the security wall.  No more waiting for off-campus field instruction.  We can go into town anytime we like.  A kitchen staff boy, that's what I said.  He's cute.  I think he likes me.  It's perfect.  He's got a car!"  She proceeded to tell Garry Knolls how she had convinced the young Guatemalan boy to take her to a strip club.  Only her closest friends were invited, she said.  "Come on, it'll be fun."

Whatever the plan was, he knew, from the start, it was a bad career move.  There was no kidding himself.  The plan, if you want to call it a plan, was patently insane, not, incidentally, unlike the mastermind who conceived it.  They were going to pile into the back of the kid's car.  The paramilitary unit that guarded the gate was going to wave them past, because the kitchen hand was such a likable fellow, a friend to everyone, especially the human pit bulls at the front gate of Fortean College.  Hell, there must at least be ten top secret programs run from the Tetragon besides the one in which psycho recruits were being trained as future law enforcement officers.  That was the kind of headline news nobody wanted.  Only, there was no stopping her.  He could tell she was just starting to settle into her sales pitch.  "Who cares if it gets out," she shushed him.  "Did you search the terms 'robbery-homicide, Mexican restaurant'?  There were only two stories, both short.  The killing was attributed to gang violence, a turf war.  The taqueria was some sort of front for the operation.  We get the bad guys.  The story goes away.  Don't you get it?  Even if we get caught, the story goes away." 

What could he say?  The young woman had a talent for crime.  She might as well have been trying to convince him Santa wore a space suit.  The outcome was going to be the same.  He wouldn't have been able to say 'no', if he wanted to.  "Sure, and Santa wears a space suit," he practically punched himself in the center of his forehead.  He couldn't believe he was listening to word one of her spastic rationale.  There was no 'reindeer space rocket' anymore than there was a way past the guards.  He said the same thing about an hour later, huddled in the backseat with a couple of pretty coeds he vaguely recognized.  He said it a third time when they pulled up to the front gate of the university, but, miracle-of-miracles, somehow the ramshackle beaner-mobile drove down the campus drive unchallenged, and, before he knew it, they were merged with the traffic on the major thoroughfare -- officially off school grounds, and this time there were no special-unit military goons to guard over them.  They could do anything they liked. 

In retrospect, the trouble they got into that night seemed pretty tame compared to some of their later sojourns.  They were more than content to go to the strip club.  That night they would probably have been happy to go to the Seven-Eleven, and just sit out back in the parking lot and watch all the weird people do their weird people things.  Later, they would rent out a second floor room in a nearby motel.  The seniors would establish a short-lived, but very profitable travel agency that catered to the wealthier student body.  There was a real world outside the Tetragon.  "And, as we all know, what the real world provides us more than anything else are victims," Tammy Mori would later say.  "Everyone out here is a potential victim," she would later tell her first prospective customers during their client meeting in the quaint diner at the inn. 

Later, they would sell murder tours from their little off campus suite.  Business would boom.  They would make more money than they knew how to spend with these urban, and suburban safaris they peddled to their fellow sociopaths at school.  If you wanted a picture trophy, a photographer was provided at extra cost.  A videographer would run you another c-note.  They would eventually have quite a sophisticated operation going on, serious stuff, with employees, accountants, and lawyers.  On the first night out, however, everyone was more than content to drive up and down the streets.  Just to look.  The first night out there was so much to see, all their former stomping grounds they hadn't visited for a while.  They were more than happy to spend the night pointing out to each other where certain crimes they had special inside information about were committed.  Masks didn't come in until later.  The first night off campus they wanted their more superstitious townie neighbors unaware of their presence.  They were so high.  They were in the real world.  They were on an extra-secret mission to study humankind. 


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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December 11, 2010

Drone Wars: Fire In The Sky

Mexican Restaurant.jpg


            The blades of a ceiling fan spun slowly.  On one of the brightly colored wall murals a man in a large sombrero wooed a woman with a bouquet of violets who sat on her windowsill.  A mariachi band played for them in the background.  Across the way, the Virgin of Guadalupe floated above the trees in a fiery crescent.  Garry Knolls smelled insecticide.  The place must recently have been sprayed.  Otherwise the small Mexican restaurant was dark and musty.  He and Tammy Mori approached the counter cautiously, on the alert for any unexpected movements.  They did everything by the book, the way the field manual instructed. 

Except for the dark haired woman behind the register, the place was apparently empty.  While his partner paid for their food order, he turned to keep an eye on the back entrance just in time to see an elderly man, and a young boy emerge from the storage room behind the jukebox.  The man was probably the father of the woman behind the counter, the boy, no doubt her son.  Not more than a fleeting second could have passed, no more time than it took for him to focus on the two of them, no more time than it took for him to register the odd expression that crept over their features before the loud rapport of a standard government issue Magnum .457 assailed his ears.  When he wheeled around he saw the wall behind the register spattered with blood and gore.  Tammy Mori had already replaced her pistol in her hip holster.  She leaned over the counter, and muttered a foreign curse at the dead woman's body, a large hole freshly bored into the lady's forehead.  "Puta," she repeated, and callously threw a handful of napkins she pulled from the dispenser at the corpse's head.

            "What the hell did you do that for?" Garry Knolls was dumbfounded, his weapon nervously trained on the old man and boy who stood stock-still in the center of the room. 

            "I thought she was another Tammy Mori," his partner copped to her error.

            "God damn it, Tammy," he nearly lost his temper.  "How the fuck are we supposed to write this one up in the report.  There are witnesses," he pointed to the old man and his grandson.  "They saw everything." 

            Garry Knolls kept an eye on the kid while his partner talked to the old man in Spanish.  She showed the old man her badge.  He nodded.  After that the conversation went downhill.  The man became increasingly upset, and she was forced to raise her voice to try and calm him down.  Whatever it was she told him, however, it had the exact opposite effect.  The old man became insensate.  Tammy Mori must have missed the part in the field manual where it said to maintain good public relations.  She waved her gun in his face, her voice at a fever pitch.  Her partner wasn't exactly sure what her thought process was, how she came to the conclusion she did, but when the old man showed no signs of relenting to her will, it was as if she simply lost patience with him.  She pushed the nose of her gun into his chest, and pulled the trigger.  The impact of the large caliber bullet sent him sprawling backwards at least five feet.

"Go round front," she instructed her partner.  "I'll take care of the kid." 

The chase was on.  Tammy Mori ducked out back into the alley.  The kid was elusive, and did his best to escape down the narrow passage, but it was abutted on one side by a tall brick wall capped by coiled razor wire.  The kid was hemmed in.  There was only one way out, through the driveway at the end of the block, and she knew that's where her partner would position himself.  If the kid got out onto the street out front of the restaurant the two of them were screwed.  There would be no way to explain away a public shooting in broad daylight on the busy sidewalk of a bustling commercial district.  Even if there was no one around on the street, there were all the neighborhood storefronts to consider.  The odds that not one among all the shopkeepers would catch a glimpse of them were slim and none.  She kneeled and aimed.  She would only get two shots, three at the most.  One of which would have to count. 

Both Tammy Mori and Garry Knolls breathed a sigh of relief when they heaved the boy's limp body into the alleyway dumpster and let the heavy plastic lid slam shut over him.  They were dressed in official federal government agent uniforms -- trench coats, and poorly tailored gray suits -- standard apparel.  His partner had interpreted the dress code slightly more liberally than he had, and opted for a short skirt rather than a pantsuit so she could better show off her brand new black leather commando boots.  The fitting had taken place earlier in the morning to commemorate their first day of off-campus field training.  Their Fortean College instructor, a grizzled character with a shady past, commended them during the postmortem walkthrough of the Mexican restaurant crime scene.  Still, there were a number of serious oversights on their part -- they had forgotten, for instance, to dispose of the security camera footage.  "In a real-world scenario, that would have cost you," he lightly chastised. 

A number of other students filed into the taco shack to get the benefit of their instructor's breakdown of the various clues his teaching assistant had surreptitiously hidden in the dingy establishment the night before.  Their day in the field had ended abruptly when their peers had killed the proprietors at the very first place they had entered.  The others stood around in their ill-hanging garb, their feet chafed by the hard leather of their new shoes and boots, like a bunch of psychopath, social-reject, street hustlers dressed up for a bizarre film shoot, while the former death squad major expounded on the various subliminal signs scattered about the dining room area.  Exhibit A, front and center, according to the man, was the Monday Night Football banner hung over the front counter with the team logos strung across it.  Among them, the man indicated the triangular Phoenix, Arizona Cardinal's flag set in the middle, directly above the register.  "What was the theme of the class?" he jogged the students' memory.  "Fire in the sky, was it not?  And, what is the phoenix?" he looked around at the blank stairs on their faces.  "The phoenix is the mythological bird that rose from the ashes.  The dragon.  The logos.  The fire in the sky." 

A minor ruckus erupted at the back of the dining room.  One of the students had apparently let loose a large toy spider in the far corner, under the jukebox.  He and a confederate crawled around on the dirty, tile floor without the slightest regard for their new suits and coats, like small children lost in their own fantasy universe.  They tried to poke the helpless eight-legged, mechanical pest out onto the open floor seemingly completely unaware of the disruption they caused the lecture.  The plastic novelty bug arrayed its legs in a radial pattern, prepared to movie in any direction.  Two of the military guards, assigned to keep the trainees in line during the risky excursion from campus, were forced to pull the young men up by their shirt collars and ties, so that the instructor could finish his lecture on the hidden signs that permeated the eatery and the necessity, if the students were ever to become full fledged government agents, of learning to decipher the invisible clues.  On his way out, the man paused to nod approvingly at the crumpled body of the dead woman behind the counter, and reminded everyone to keep their new uniforms pressed and clean, they were going to stay busy, several more field trips were scheduled for the rest of the week.  "I can't impress on you enough," he stopped short with a flourish, "this is deadly serious stuff.  Please, leave your juvenile playthings back on campus."

Outside on the sidewalk, Garry Knolls looked up at the signage above the sporting goods store next door to the little taqueria and, for the first time, noticed the shooting star painted at the lower edge of it, the corner closest to where he stood.  There wasn't anything special about it.  Your standard five-sided star, painted gold, like the kind you got for doing something good in elementary school, with three parallel, curved, orange, tapered lines behind it to represent its heavenly trail, and presumably the direction of its flight.  He grabbed Tammy Mori's elbow and indicated the shooting star above their heads.  "Fire in the sky!"  They both followed its implied trajectory somewhat bemused.  Sure enough, there was no denying it: the cartoon comet was pointed directly towards the front door of the Mexican restaurant. 


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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