Thursday, September 29, 2005
Dream War 001: Booby Prize?
At last he had privacy to enjoy his chocolates, his hard-earned reward for defeating the entire school. For Bruce Farris had won the yearly Bible reading contest. He'd read the entire Bible in just nine weeks. He defeated the high school kids and the other junior high kids in his class. He had even beaten out Rachael Holstein, a senior whose brother was a missionary and whose sister went to Bible college, and who had long, ripply blond hair like pictures of saints. Yes, by carefully mapping out exactly how many chapters a day would have to be read, and studying them as he proceeded, he read it through and passed the quizzes that covered each book. Nobody could believe it.
The members of the school board would come to shake his hand at the next awards ceremony. His achievement would be noted on his report card. He would have his name engraved on the plaque of names outside the principal's office.
But the best reward of all now sat in his hands. It was wrapped in thick brown paper, and smelled faintly sweet with an enticing perfume. He knew what it was, and he planned to enjoy it all by himself.
For Mrs. Trudy, the ancient, white-haired, fourth grade teacher who looked like a Christmas tree angel and beamed good will and affection onto everybody, donated her own special prize to the winner of the contest each year. And that prize was a box of 36 chocolate truffles. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, mint chocolate, white chocolate, butter cream chocolate, malted chocolate centers. Perfect, round mounds of solid light or dark chocolate encasing light snowballs of truffle centers. And now, they were all his. All 36 of them.
He realized, of course, that it would be impossible to eat 36 chocolates before his mother arrived to pick him up. He would have to share sooner or later. But this moment was his and his alone.
He set his books alongside him on the sidewalk and cast a glance up the straight, narrow drive to watch for his mother's station wagon. Then he tore aside the paper, revealing the smooth white box cover underneath. In tiny gold cursive, the words "from the chocolatier" had been written. He pulled up the lid and the aroma of fresh chocolate wafted up in the faint lift of air. He gently, almost reverently lifted the frail white sheet of paper that covered his prizes.
There was a card, face down, inside and---to his surprise---an array of unexpected shapes. Not the small globes of truffles that he had expected. But these were chocolates shaped like tiny bottles. He picked one up and experimentally bit into it. As he did, he turned over the card to read it.
Just as something that tasted exactly like cough syrup ran down his throat, he saw that the card was printed with the title THE CHOCOLATIER'S CHOCOLATE BOYSENBERRY CORDIALS, and under it, scrawled in black pen, the words, "They were out of truffles. Hope you like these---Mrs. Trudy"
He spit out the cough medicine chocolate. He had only a moment to stare in horror at the cruel trick of his destiny. All 36 pieces were chocolate boysenberry cordials---the absolute worst form of chocolate candy in the entire world.
But he had no time to lament or be outraged. For just then, the familiar white station wagon crept up the long, narrow drive at Mom's usual crawl: cautiously and on time.
Even now, when the grounds were completely empty and deserted, she crept along to the pick-up point, as though there might be first graders hiding behind the bushes, ready to throw themselves under the wheels.
"Hi honey," she said as he opened the back door and threw his books in. He closed the door, opened the front door, and climbed in.
"Hi." He dutifully kissed her cheek and then passed the white box to her. "Would you like a chocolate?"
"Oh!" She was pleased. She took one and put in her mouth as he set the box onto the seat between them. He pulled on his seat belt.
"Oh my! Oh Bruce, what is it!" She covered her mouth with her hand in horror and stared around at the landscape to make sure nobody was watching. Then she rolled down the window and spit out the chocolate. "That was cough syrup! Somebody put cough syrup in those chocolates!" She snatched up the white card from the box and read it. Then she stared at him.
Bruce's mother, as even Bruce knew, was an amazingly pretty woman with jet black hair and dark green eyes. He met her amazed look.
"That's what chocolate boysenberry cordials taste like?" she asked him. And then she added in wounded amazement, "I've never had one of those before." She---like he---was stunned to realize that something that tasted that bad could be made with chocolate.
"Maybe we could rewrap them and give them to somebody we don't like," he suggested.
She shot him a second glance and then slowly and carefully pulled out, watching for those hapless little kids that just might launch themselves directly at the fenders of moving cars.
They passed the long, low elementary wing of the brick and steel building, then the tired-looking playgrounds carpeted with hard-packed dirt and clumps of grass on the fringe.
"You look like it's been a bad day," she said as she guided them out to the highway..
"Today," he announced. "I won the Bible reading contest."
She was startled. "You did? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Mom, I've been trying to win that contest since third grade. And every year I lose and have to start all over again the next year. This year I was just going to do it. And I did. I scored 90s or higher on all the quizzes." He folded his arms and knit his eyebrows.
"That's great," she said. She stopped at the light and looked over at him. "Isn't it?"
He did not add that when his name had been announced that morning in chapel, Rachael Holstein put her face right down into her hands, her saint-like hair cascading around her like a golden veil. She burst out crying at losing so unexpectedly, and to a seventh grader at that.
And Dave Wilson, a senior and captain of the Varsity basketball team, had singled him out with a glare that promised revenge for making anybody as holy and sweet as Rachel cry. He decided not to mention this to his mother. Seventh graders and high school kids were usually kept apart, so he should be safe. And Rachel was so good, she might just forgive him in a day or two and ask Dave not to beat him up for having read the Bible through in such record time.
"It's not that great of an accomplishment," he told her. "I mean, I read it. The heart of our faith."
"Yes!" she said, completely in agreement.
"Now what?" he blurted.
"'Now what' what?" she asked back.
"What else is there?"
A sudden quirk pulled at her mouth and she clamped down on it. Already she was laughing. But when she spoke, her voice was steady--no trace of laughter.
"I'm not sure what you're saying." She kept her eyes on the road.
"Mom, I'm not any different! Nothing is different." In fact, he thought, the whole experience had been a little like the chocolate boysenberry cordials. He had expected that once he had read the entire Bible through that he would feel different.
"Don't you think that, perhaps, one reading of the Bible isn't enough? I mean there might be some things you won't even be able to understand until you see them again and again.".
"But Mom, I believe the Bible! It's not like Harlowe. He's always worried about evolution. He's afraid it's all true. So he reads Genesis 1 and 2 over and over again. But why would I do that? I'm not dumb enough to believe we came from apes.".
She flicked a glance at him--no more laughter now. Her quick eye was gentle and yet--somehow--it told him he was mistaken somewhere. Where?
"Bruce, the Bible's not like a textbook. It's the Word of God."
"I know, Mom."
"And do you know that Jesus is the Word of God?"
"That means that to know Him, you study the Bible." She sighed, groped for words, and said, "The Truths of the Bible are everywhere, in all of Creation, Bruce. A great wisdom. The wisdom of the Word of God is the wisdom that holds the whole universe together."
"I know that!" he exclaimed.
She glanced at him, her eyes slightly rueful, but she let his assurance to her pass. She looked at the road. "And reading the Bible is part of a relationship. You see Christ more and more as you read it. And you see Him seeing you."
"What's that mean?"
"At times reading the Bible is a part of prayers. At times it's even like a conversation between you and the Lord. You can't just read it through and say you know it and be done with it. It has to become a part of you. The Bible is God's means to communicate Himself to man."
He sighed. "It's not the Bible," he said. "It's Life. You go to school, go home, and when you get old enough, you get a job. Is that all there is?"
She shook her head. "There's so much more than that. that I can't even tell you all there is."
"Try," he said. "Just one thing."
"How about loving someone?" she asked. "Loving him and protecting him and watching him grow up?"
It embarrassed him. She had gotten onto the Mom track. She was sentimental.
"You'd love your son whether it was me or somebody else," he told her.
"But that's impossible. The only son I could have is you," she said. "Bruce, children aren't gum balls that come down the chute every time somebody needs to be born. It was written long ago that you should be my son, that God would love us, and that He has a will for our lives."
"I just read the whole Bible, Mom, and I didn't see that."
She gave a helpless shrug. "Then it must be time to read it again, Bruce."
"What?" He stared at her in horror.
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
002 The Senior High Kids
Opposite ends, Bruce thought gloomily the next morning as he stuffed his lunch bag into the top shelf of his locker.
He pulled down his Algebra book, slammed the locker closed, turned around, and slammed face first into a chest like a brick wall. He bounced back. Dave Wilson and his best friend, Dennis Fifer, were glaring down at him. They were both star basketball players, and over the last couple years they had become incredibly hairy. They looked very hairy at the moment. And all their hair was standing on end, like hackles rising on two bulldogs.
"Here's the kid who read his Bible in nine weeks," Wilson said. "Before the Seniors had a chance."
"Yeah, like, and we got Calculus and Literature, so how are we supposed to have a chance?" Fifer asked to nobody in particular.
"You take calculus?" Bruce asked, amazed. He had always thought Fifer to be a little slow and a little dense. More like an anvil than a firefly.
"I never said I took calculus!" Fifer yelled. "I'm on the basketball team. I'm too busy as it is."
"You never read the Bible in nine weeks!' Wilson snapped. He tapped Bruce right on the sternum, with a hard flick of the forefinger released from the thumb. It felt like a bullet hitting him.
"Yes I did. Ask me anything." Bruce made his eyes as big and sincere as he could. His only hope was that they would think he really was some sort of Bible scholar in the making. Among the older kids, there was clearly one set of kids who cared about God and one set who did not. But usually both sets would leave alone anybody who was the real thing. It wasn't the best Christian school in the world, but they had that much.
Wilson was waiting for this challenge. "Who was Hosea's wife?"
"Gomer," Bruce gasped.
Fifer was startled. His mouth made a perfect O of amazement. "No! Like that old TV show?"
"Shut up!" Wilson snapped. "Then who was their son?"
"Jezreel," Bruce said. This was ridiculous, To prepare for all of the quizzes he had written down all the people's name on index cards and memorized them. He would know these answers even if he had not read the Bible. But he kept his eyes big and inoffensive.
Defeated for the moment, Wilson stepped back. He squinted at Bruce, trying to decide if Bruce was too godly to beat up on principle, or if he was just a smart aleck seventh grader who needed to be taught his place.
"You never seemed like such a good Christian to me, Farris!" he exclaimed.
"Well," Bruce gasped. "We're all sinners."
Wilson suddenly thrust his rough, semi-shaved face into Bruce's. "There's a Bible Drill in the auditorium after lunch today, and you'd better win. If you get one wrong answer, we're gonna put you through the basketball hoop outside--head first!"
Both of the seniors strode away. Bruce realized that Harlowe was standing right next to him. Fifer had been blocking him. Harlowe's eyes were huge, for real. "You'd better tell," he gasped.
"I'll ask Rachel Holstein to talk to them," he said. "They're only mad because she started to cry yesterday."
Sunday, September 25, 2005
003 The school-Wide Bible Quiz
As far as Bruce could see from Pop's benign nod at him and smile of congratulation as the seventh graders entered and took their seats, the senior Holstein bore him no ill will for having overturned his daughter's hopes of winning the yearly contest. Bruce and Harlowe and the others of his age sat in the front, with the older students lined up, row by row according to grade level, behind them.
The rules were that you could jump to your feet to answer, and if you got it right, your team got the point. But you could only do that once. On the really tough questions, Pop would start to call on people, or he might single out a certain team, like just the eighth graders or just the seniors, to answer certain questions.
"Let's get this over with," Bruce whispered to Harlowe. "I'm answering the first thing out of his mouth." Getting a question right away would spare him from further risk unless he were called upon directly. That wouldn't happen until all the easy questions had been asked and several of the hard ones.
At last everybody was seated, and Pop Holstein stepped behind the podium with his own Bible and his list of questions. Bruce tensed at the knees.
"Who---" Pop began.
Bruce leaped up.
"---is in charge of the lights?" Pop finished, his eyes fixed on Bruce in mild surprise.
Everybody started laughing, and Bruce sat down.
"Could somebody brighten the lights please?" Pop asked. One of the seniors ran to turn up the lights. But Pop beamed over at Bruce. "Well, Mr. Farris, now that you've read the Bible through in just nine weeks you seem ready to participate. Let's find a really good question for you."
Harlowe jabbed him in an agony of regret.
Bruce slowly stood up as the lights came up. Pop scanned his notes, and then after a pause, thumbed through his Bible. He beamed at Bruce. "Who wrote Genesis?"
"John," Bruce said.
Harlowe choked. Pop's mouth opened in surprise. Bruce caught himself. "I meant Moses!" he exclaimed. "Moses!"
"You stink, Farris!" Dave Wilson yelled from the back.
"Mr. Wilson, that's enough!" Pop exclaimed. "All right, no score on that. He's just a little flustered. Sit down Bruce. You'll get another turn later."
Several of the girls were giggling. Bruce sank onto the metal folding chair.
"John?" Harlowe echoed. "John? Wrote a book that was written three thousand years before he was born?"
"It just popped out of my mouth," Bruce hissed. "I was scared."
"A bag of hammers knows John didn't write Genesis. The basketball team's going to kill you."
Pop was asking another one. "Just for the seniors," he said. "In the Book of Nehemiah, who repaired the gate of the fountain? There are several possible right answers, as it was repaired in sections. And Dave Wilson, since you consider yourself such a master theologian, you can just answer that one for your class's team."
Several of the seniors softly groaned. Dave Wilson stood up and looked confused. He ran a thick hand through his mat of hair. "The gate of the fountain?" he asked. Several of the younger kids started giggling.
Harlowe turned around in his chair. "Tell him to say Naomi," Harlowe hissed back to the eighth graders. "Tell him it's a trick question. Pass it back."
"Harlowe, cut it out!" Bruce whispered.
Harlowe shrugged. "He'd never get it in a million years anyway."
The message was being passed back. Bruce hoped that the truism of "Whisper down the lane" would kick in, and Dave wouldn't get a coherent message by the time it was whispered up to him by the eleventh graders.
From the podium, Pop spoke up, sober as a judge. "You have ten seconds, Mr. Wilson. Who repaired the gate of the fountain?"
Wilson pressed his heavy lips together in perplexity and frowned. One of the girls in the row in front of him turned and whispered the message up to him.
"Turn around, Miss. No helping out," Pop said. "Well, Mr. Wilson?"
"Naomi," Dave Wilson said with great certainty.
The assembly exploded into laughter. For the second time, Pop was astounded.
After a startled moment of realizing he'd been duped, Wilson slowly sank down.
"Ask Bruce! Ask Bruce!" several of the seventh graders chanted. Obviously, they wanted their champion to redeem himself.
Pop Wilson glanced at Bruce and opened his hands, indicating that Bruce should stand up and answer.
"Do you know?" Harlowe hissed up at him, and Bruce gave a slight nod. But now he was caught. If he answered the question correctly, he'd be shoving Dave Wilson's face a little further into the dirt. But if he missed it, there could be no excusing the mistake. He might have limped by on the first mistake on a plea of being overly quick to jump up. But if he missed this one, too, the entire Varsity basketball team would surely use him for ball practice.
"Ten seconds, Mr. Farris," Pop said.
Bruce's voice came out like a squeak. "Shallun, son of Cohozeh."
By this time, several of the girls in the high school had found Nehemiah in their own Bibles and were looking it up. "Yes!" several exclaimed. All of the seventh graders and many of the other students burst into applause. It had been a hard question. Pop gave him a nod of congratulations and genuine respect. Bruce sat down. His knees were shaking.
"That was great!" Harlowe exclaimed, but Bruce cast a glance over his shoulder. All of the senior guys were staring at him very hard. He let out his breath. He was still in for it.
Friday, September 23, 2005
Shadow Soldiers15: A Difference of Opinion
Jeri Massi's Bookstore.
"Have you forgiven me yet?" Rolande asked as they strode down the hall towards the parking lot.
I'm not sure," Carrie said briefly. The gray eyes turned to her. She realized that he was hiding a certain amount of embarrassment and humiliation behind his mask.
"I never intended to hurt her."
"You cannot mean to say that you did not know that blow to her neck would stun her."
"Of course I knew! She's a martial arts master! It was nothing to her!"
"She's a child, and you know it!"
"Well you saw what she did to him!"
"And now you know what she could have done to you, but she let you win rather than hurt you!"
By habit, he opened the door and let her pass through first, but he followed immediately after. "You know, I never took you for the maternal type, Carrie. Taking orphans into your care."
The pain that seared through her at his callous remark startled her. But she rose to do battle. "Why? Because I'm an intelligent women? Is that supposed to make me unfeeling?" She stopped long enough for one glare at him. "Because I'm a scientist, does that give me the privilege to walk away from a young woman unjustly arrested and not think about her condition?"
"A young woman who killed a man with one strike!" he countered.
She climbed in on her side and folded her hands in her lap, her back ramrod straight. He climbed in behind the wheel. "I never said you were unfeeling."
She did not answer him. In her brief relationship with Rolande, Carrie had learned one thing about him: he could not bear to have other people think him wrong. He would bully, wheedle, coax, and charm people to get them on his side. He started the engine and pulled out.
"She's not the child you think she is!" he called as the engine roared into life. "She has tapped into something extremely powerful and extremely dangerous. And we're about to find out how dangerous it is." He pulled up to check for traffic before exiting the parking lot. "And she knows more about this Fighting Dead group than she lets on. Protecting you wasn't the only reason she had for killing that man!"
* * * *
It was not really unusual for Rolande and Carrie Drake to be annoyed with each other, but they both fell into their habit of closing ranks against outsiders as soon as they entered the police morgue, a separate building about three blocks from the Law Enforcement Center. Certainly the annoyance they felt with each other at the moment was not even comparable to the annoyance that the police felt for the both of them.
At the morgue, they were greeted coldly. They were led to a gowning vestibule where they slipped into paper gowns, head covers, and shoe covers. From there they entered an examination room, where the draped body lay waiting. Their silent escort simply leaned against the wall and watched them. Both of them recognized the snub, but neither was especially intimidated by it. One good thing about Rolande, Carrie thought, was that he knew how to fight for his own side. Having received the cold shoulder, Rolande became cooperative with her and patient. Their ethic of team work radiated out from them.
They took turns scrubbing at the sink and donning gloves. Secretly, Carrie knew that Rolande had already assessed the cause of death and that he understood the mechanics of how the blow had delivered energy into the dead man's skull and nerves. Even as Anne had been hustled out of public view after the attack, Rolande had shown the presence of mind to peel back the dead man's eyelid and run a cursory exam on the neck.
But now he undraped the head and shoulders of what had recently been a very rude and threatening young man. Carrie did a quick exam of the top of the spine. "Not a broken neck," she said after a moment's probing. "Not that I can feel." He already knew this but nodded as though following along carefully.
One of the difficulties of dealing with Rolande, Carrie thought ruefully, was that when he wasn't behaving in an imperious and impatient manner, you knew that he was deliberately slowing down and exercising patience so that his companions could keep up with him and think things out for themselves. She had often accused him of being too impatient, but actually he was probably the most patient creature on earth. And when he did slow down so that normal people could catch up, he pretended that he wasn't slowing down, that he was following along as well.
She realized that she was looking at him over the body. Unexpectedly, Rolande smiled at her. "Forgiven?" he asked.
She could not resist smiling back at him. He had charmed her again. "This time," she told him. "But no more sparring."
They went back to work. The examination did not take long because they knew where to look, and the body had already been fully prepared and examined once.
"No tattoos to identify him with any known cult," Rolande said. "No needle marks. He's not a drug user, at least not by needles. And no significant body piercings to brand him as a member of any gang or group."
"No visible trauma to the front of the skull," Carrie said at last. "The point where Anne's hand struck him is almost unaffected. But the notes confirm a massive internal hemorrhage in the brain. And I've found a tiny pressure fracture at the very back of the skull."
"She blew out his brains from the inside," Rolande told her. "That's the child you've taken into your custody." His voice was quiet.
"That child heard this man promise to assault and strangle me," Carrie told him. "Horror and a use of violence to prevent danger are not unusual in children."
"Do you really think she is an innocent child?"
"Do you believe that she is a cold hearted killer? That she's on the same level as he was?" And she nodded at the corpse.
"At the very least, killing this man would send a message to his peers. I'm not ready to discount that she could present a danger," he told her. He set his hands on the edge of the table and looked straight ahead, his eyes thoughtful. "She has her own agenda, Carrie. We've seen that. And she has the ability to carry out her agenda."
"She is not a member of this horrible cult. She was trying to protect me."
"We don't understand them, and we don't understand her--" he began.
"And they don't understand her," she snapped. "This man certainly didn't realize the danger he was in when he threatened me in front of her. She's not a part of them!"
"She understood him," Rolande said. "You think she wasn't interested in meeting up with this man, but I think you're wrong. She manipulated you, Carrie. She feigned disinterest because she knew you would work to gain her cooperation. She's worked her way into the heart of this matter, and she silenced the only person who could tell us anything!"
"She's not deceptive like that," Carrie said. "Not with me."
He shook his head. "She is far deeper than you think. You're getting too drawn into this. You're putting yourself, and possibly her as well, into danger. Whoever this man's allies are, they'll come back for revenge."
"Then we'd better find some answers," she snapped. "Now that we've got incentive. We have him," and she nodded at the corpse. "And now the police will have access to his identity and his materials. So let's get busy and track down this cult before anybody else gets killed."
A new adventure starts Monday! See you then, Lord willing, and thank you for reading!
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Thursday, September 22, 2005
Shadow Soldiers14: In Custody
Seated at one of the chairs as though he were in charge of the matter, Rolande leaned back and hooked a foot over one knee. He had expected some posturing, but it was time to get down to business. "The girl is an expert on the methodology that this man's gang has been employing in terrorizing and most likely killing innocent citizens," he said. "We needed to have her question him. We had to verify a link or dismiss it."
"That is not what you were hired to do!!" Supina shouted. "You were to trace hard materials."
"Her book called The Fighting Dead is a hard material."
"She manipulated you! Both of you! And then she manipulated him into attacking her!"
"Perhaps." Rolande did not want to entirely concede the point, but Carrie saw that he knew it was true. Rolande spoke again.
"The young lady made no move to attack him," he said. "No matter what she said to him, you cannot blame her for his actions. He attacked her first. She struck him once in self defense as he came down on her. Call it a tragic accident. A lucky punch."
"Lucky punch! You haven't seen the video clips of this young woman. Hangs a brick from the ceiling and smacks it with her open hand. Shatters it! That was no lucky punch. She knew exactly what she was doing! She set him up and then she killed him!"
"What video clips?" Carrie asked. "Why didn't you tell us?"
Supina whirled on her. "Because I want you for the forensic data. Stay out of the police investigation!"
Rolande eyed the younger man and kept his voice calm. "The problem remains, sir, that you will not be successful in tracking down and restraining the rest of this gang without the young lady's help. I think she knows more about all of this than she lets on."
"No that's not likely," Carrie said at once.
"I am not letting her go!" Supina bellowed. "She's killed a material witness!"
"No matter what her motives, it was still self defense," Rolande said. "A restaurant full of people saw him seize her by the throat."
Supina ruthlessly shoved aside one of the smaller tables that got in his way as he paced.
Rolande chimed in again. He seemed willing to continue to debate the point forever. "You know, I can just imagine the moment when you bring this wide-eyes, wisp of a girl into court for the brutal murder of a man who had a hand in the deaths of four unrelated victims as wells as two bank guards. Oh yes!" The scientist beamed affably. "What do you think the jurors will do when she tells the court that she interrupted this man as he was telling my female colleague that he intended to murder her in the cruelest possible way? And that he lunged at Anne first and had his hands around her neck when she struck him on the head? Just how many of Anne Thomson's fellow citizens are going to view this 20 year old orphan as a premeditated murderess?"
Supina turned and stared at Rolande. "That's exactly what she is. She calculated this whole thing down to the minute. She silenced the one person who might indict her to the police!"
Carrie felt a sudden chill as he said this, but she rejected the idea. "She is a young homeless woman with an amazing gift. She heard him threaten me with the most vile of threats. She reacted to distract him from me and protect me."
Supina threw his head back as he paced, as though tossing off her point of view as ridiculous. Then he stood, still fuming. "This is entirely the fault of REACH Research," he said through clenched teeth.
"I take full responsibility," Rolande said quickly. "I accept that. But the arrest of the young lady is unnecessary and will ultimately harm your case. She's your link."
"She is not the link to these people," Carrie insisted.
Supina waved his hand with a sudden swipe, as though brushing away both their objections. "I want assurances that she will remain under supervision."
* * * *
Carrie did feel a momentary stab of fear as the police officer opened the solid steel door to the interview room. He stepped aside to let her enter ahead of him. "I'll go in with you, Miss Drake," he said.
Her eyes flashed. She made her voice icily polite. "It's Dr. Drake. And that won't be necessary, Officer. Ms Thomson has not resisted her arrest, and I don't think she'll hurt me."
He was still hesitant, but Supina, standing behind him, gave a nod. "We'll keep an eye on things out here," he said. Then he spoke to Carrie. "The intercom is off. Your conversation will be private."
She nodded and entered. Inside, Anne was standing in the same relaxed stance that Carrie had seen earlier. The young American girl was facing the back wall of the concrete room. Moving like water, she flowed forward and slapped the flat of her hand into the wall. It looked like a mere slap until you heard the sound of the blow. She was actually hitting the concrete with considerable force.
Her escort withdrew and closed the door. The sound as it slammed home sent another unexpected arrow of fear into her. Carrie shot one involuntary glance at the two-way mirror. Anne turned from the wall, her eyes expressionless. For a moment, Carrie was very frightened, but she spoke calmly.
"Anne," she said. "I wanted to make sure you were all right. They wouldn't let me see you until now." This situation, she thought, was entirely her own fault. She had won Anne's confidence. And then she had subjected Anne to the sight of that horrible man, made her listen to him make the vilest of threats, and allowed her to react on instinct, the instincts of a child who saw all things as black and white; the instincts of a martial arts master who could kill.
"They didn't hurt me," Anne said to Carrie. Her eyes had that listening look: neither angry nor happy, only quiet and expressionless and ready. "Did they send you down to question me?"
"No, of course not." Carrie said. "I wanted to make sure that you're all right."
"Sit down," Anne said, and she gestured at the narrow wooden table and two chairs.
Carrie hesitated and then crossed to a chair, and Anne said gently, "I won't hurt you."
Carrie nearly protested the assurance and then did not. She sat down. At any moment, she thought, this frail looking young woman could have killed her, or Rolande, or the very officers who had locked her into this room for safe keeping. Yet Anne had evinced no resentment and no resistance against anybody. She also showed no remorse for what she had done, but Carrie herself found it difficult to mourn much for him. His threat against her own life had still been in the air when Anne had killed him.
"I thought--are you frightened, Anne?" Her voice was still hesitant.
"I was. When they brought me here. But I died to it."
"Will you sit down?"
Anne instantly sat down on the other chair and looked at Carrie expectantly. Carrie was still not used to the girl's complete acceptance of whatever came next. But as Carrie did not speak, Anne spoke again.
"There's no reason to be afraid of me, Carrie," she said gently. "I know I startled everybody by what I did. I don't think it was wrong. But I think it would be very wrong to hurt you or the people here. I abide in your world and must abide by your laws."
"I see," Carrie said.
"They took the chocolate bars from me," Anne added.
"Officer!" Carrie called. She turned to the two way glass and beckoned.
The door opened and the police officer and Supina both appeared at the threshold. She made her voice brisk. "Would you see to food, please? Do you have a canteen?"
"We'll get her something." Supina nodded and then gave a flip of his head to signal the other man to close the door. They left.
"When will they decide what to do with me?" Anne asked. "I guess I'll have to stand trial."
"I don't think so," Carrie told her. "Anyway, I hope not. After all, he attacked you. Rolande and I both made a good case for self defense."
Anne did not reply to this. Instead, she asked, "Who is Rolande? And who are you? Really now, tell me the truth. Why did you come looking for me on the first day?"
"We occasionally assist the police with difficult investigations," Carrie told her. "Rolande and I are forensic specialists. But we went slightly off course on this case."
They were interrupted as the police officer again unlocked the cell. The Director and Rolande entered.
Anne stood, and Carrie stood with her. She was surprised at the sudden protective urge she had to put an arm around the girl, as though Anne were a child, but she did not do it. But she touched the cuff of Anne's sleeve, a subtle communication of willingness to help. Anne started at the touch and glanced down at her cuff.
"Miss Thomson" The Director said. "The police are unwilling to release you back to the street---"
"It was self defense!" Carrie barked.
He lifted a hand. "They can hold you as a material witness---"
"Witness to what?" Anne asked. "I live in the land of the dead."
"Well they don't believe that. They believe that you may have information to contribute on a current investigation." He rocked back on his heels. "However, at Dr. Rolande's urging, they have agreed to release you into the custody of my colleagues---"
Carrie let out her breath, loudly. Courtney pointedly ignored her, and Rolande scowled at her.
"I must insist on several points of agreement from you, Miss Thomson," Courtney began, but Carrie ignored him and turned to the girl. "Anne," she said clearly, all parental authority figure.
"If I take you into my custody, will you give me your word to stay with me? Promise not to go off on your own until you're released from my custody?"
"Yes." A look of the dignity of the young martial arts master filled Anne's eyes. "I give you my word, Carrie." She glanced over at the Director.
Carrie turned to the men. "That's good enough for me!"
"Well all right, it's settled then!" Rolande exclaimed, now dismissive. He wanted to get back onto the case load.
The Director seemed about to protest. But on sudden thought he rocked back onto his heels again. He cocked an eyebrow. "All right then."
"These men are seeking to build their own reputations and sense of power by exercising domination and control over others," Anne said suddenly. "They will avenge themselves. They won't be able to endure a defeat or a capture."
"Yes, and how do you know that?" Rolande asked.
"Because she understands their mindset," Carrie snapped. "They're martial artists!"
"Are you saying you need our protection?" the Director asked Anne.
Anne's face was expressionless. "No. I'm dead. It doesn't matter what happens to me. But if you want to capture them---"
"Then we should get a good look at the dead man before he's shipped off to his next of kin," Rolande exclaimed.
"Well, you'd better hurry!" the Director snapped back. "The police have already taken him to their pathology lab!"
"Let's go then!" Rolande made to stride out. "Come on, Carrie!"
Carrie turned to Anne. "I've got to go with him."
"All right. I'll go." And Anne moved forward to follow them out.
Carrie put a hand against Anne's shoulder without thinking, stopping her. Anne started at being detained and her glance fell to Carrie's hand. Carrie instantly dropped the hand, and for just a moment, everybody froze. But Anne did not move, and Carrie said, "Not to the police morgue, Anne. You'll have to stay here."
Something flickered through the brown eyes. "Locked in this room?"
"I'm sorry." She tried to hold Anne's eye steadily, but she was keenly aware again of being slightly apprehensive. "I can't find any other alternative."
Anne instantly settled back, her face calm and expressionless again. "All right. Because I gave you my word."
"I'll be back as quickly as I can."
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Shadow Soldiers13: Exploiting the Wrath of the Enemy
"Look, where are you?" he asked crossly.
"Ill," Carrie lied. "I just don't think I can come in, at least not this morning."
"But I contacted our bank robber. He's willing to meet in a public place to explain the Fighting Dead to me."
She was amazed. "How did you do that?"
"By offering him money, of course. Told him I would pay him a hundred dollars."
"What did the Director say?"
Rolande's voice became airy. "Corky knows it's less expensive to bribe it out of him than for us to race back and forth for two weeks to work it out. We'll work it into the invoice for the client." Then he became concerned. "But I was counting on you and Anne being there. Let's get them together. See if there's a connection between him and her book."
"All right, Rolande. I'm sure by tonight everything will be fine."
"He picked a steakhouse in Raleigh. Can you get her there?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Well I hope you feel better." And he hung up.
She made fresh tea, let the cat back in, and then took the tea to her guest. Anne was half awake. Constable Magpie, just back from his rounds, leaped with a trill onto the bed and settled down on her, right over the thermal hot pack that Carrie had changed that morning. Anne smiled at him. She looked up at Carrie. "Is it time to get up?"
"You should do exactly as you please," Carrie said. "Sleep if you want, or get up. I brought you tea. And Dr. Rolande called."
"Do you have to go to work?"
Instead of answering, Carrie said, "He set up an appointment to meet that man from the bank robbery---"
"The man the theology student defeated," Anne said.
"Do you feel able to sit in on a conversation with him? Tonight."
Anne nodded. "I'm sure I can. If that's what you want."
"It's up to you," Carrie said. "I do think we need your expertise, but it's your decision."
Anne's eyes were heavy. "Yes, it's all right. I'll go." She settled down and in a moment was asleep again, her undernourished body exhausted from its brief, violent illness.
Carrie was surprised at how much Anne slept. At intervals of one or two hours, the young martial arts master awoke long enough to nibble a bit of toast , sip tea, and apologize for sleeping so much. And then, as Carrie would repeat that Anne should sleep as much as she liked and was perfectly welcome, Anne would drop off again. Carrie regretted the arrangement to meet Rolande that very night. Anne could have used another full day to rest and eat.
But the sickness did not return. At about four in the afternoon Anne rallied. She sat up, apparently very much refreshed, and she came into the kitchen to eat toast and white rice with a few drops of soy sauce. Constable Magpie sat on the kitchen floor and watched her, his ears up and expectant. Clearly, he was much impressed with Carrie's house guest. He'd never met anybody so warm, so quiet, and so deeply asleep for so long. He seemed to be wondering what Anne would do now that she was awake and moving.
* * * *
Rolande, oddly subdued when he met Carrie and Anne in the entrance of the steakhouse, ushered them through the dinner time crowd to a table he had selected as far in the back and as isolated as possible. Carrie saw a surly, shaven headed young man with a strip of plaster across his nose and the remains of a fine black eye still glistening on one side of his face. He was sawing through a steak the size of a platter. His battered face gave silent testimony to the Reverend Gainley's abilities.
Anne, dressed in her own frayed workout slacks and an attractive blouse and sweater borrowed from Carrie, withdrew the familiar bag of chocolate bars from her jacket.
"Anne, you should have soup, and maybe chicken in you're hungry," Carrie said gently.
Anne nodded. "Yes Carrie." Her voice was obedient. "I brought the chocolate bars for him. Maybe I can entice him to talk to me."
Rolande was amused. "Miss Thomson," he said. "He's probably a ruthless killer, no matter what sob story he told the judge."
Anne's voice was quiet. "We'll see." Carrie suddenly felt a deep tug of doubt.
But Rolande led them to the table and took his place alongside the young man. In an oddly labored way that became more embarrassing as the young man ignored him and continued eating, the scientist made introductions. Carrie and Anne sat across from him, with Carrie directly across from him and Anne directly across from Rolande.
"So you're a man of few words," Carrie said.
He glanced up: cold, dead eyes. Then his glance fell on Anne.
"You wrote that book," he said, recognizing her. "I came and saw you last year."
Her voice was flat and toneless. "I remember you."
"You demonstrated that open hand blow on the patio slab for us," he said. "I can do that now. I can break two patio blocks. And no spacers."
She did not reply to the boast, but merely gazed at him, her face unreadable but not especially troubled. The young man, perhaps needled by Anne's disregard of his claim, suddenly eyed Carrie up and down.
"Aren't you a pretty thing," he said with a sneer. "Maybe I'll have to pay you a visit, sweetie pie."
"She's interested only in understanding your point of view," Rolande said. Their guest ignored him and kept his eyes fixed on Carrie. "After I've finished with you, I'll tie your hands up behind your back and fix the loop around your neck. Have you ever tried to breathe when the weight of your own spine is strangling you? The blue comes really slow. Then you won't be so pretty."
Rolande's jaw locked, and the Carrie felt herself go white: terror and anger together. Anne tossed her precious bag onto his side of the table. "I brought these for you," she said to him. "Chocolate bars. They didn't give you chocolate in jail, did they?"
He turned his eyes to her, startled at the calm interruption. "No."
"I hope you like chocolate."
He glanced over at Rolande and then cautiously took up the bag and opened it. He shook out the chocolate bars. He considered, then shrugged. "Thanks." He eyed her as though he thought she might be crazy.
"Don't thank me. It's your last meal," she told him. "I'm going to kill you for what you've done. Here. Now. In this room."
He was startled. They were all startled. "What?" he asked.
"You're not able to fight dead. You only have success against people who are afraid of you," she said, her voice still expressionless, her eyes and face faintly preoccupied, as though she were listening to something else and merely telling him the time. "You're no fighter," she added "You're not even good at being a criminal. That's why a preacher knocked you out while your friends got away. You're an utter failure. A joke."
He suddenly lunged at her across the table, his strong hands open to grab her throat. He seized her. There was a snap, and then Carrie saw that Anne was already on her feet, retracting her open hand. He fell to the table, his eyes staring. He gasped twice, and then was dead.
Anne reached over his body and took the chocolate bars. "Do you mind if I keep these?" she asked Carrie.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Shadow Soldiers12: A Fine Christian Lady
By the time Carrie returned, the thermal pack wrapped up in towels, Anne had stretched out under the covers. But she had been conscientious about sipping the water. The glass was more than half empty. She needed more, but drinking a lot of water might aggravate the cramping. Carrie applied the wrapped hot pack to her abdomen and covered her.
At last accepting that tonight was not usual, Constable Magpie trilled and leaped lightly onto the bed. Now that he had been fed, he was ready to extend his solemn courtesy to this stranger.
Anne had been ready to sleep, but she opened her eyes at her new visitor. He picked his way over the covers and walked across her legs, his large eyes fixed on her face as he waited for her to greet him.
"What a regal cat!" she whispered. "You must be king in this castle."
The word choice startled Carrie and yet pleased her. As plain and coarse as the life Anne had chosen for herself, there was something about her that was uniquely intelligent and perceptive.
"His name is Constable Magpie," Carrie told her. "And he keeps order in this neighborhood and maintains the public peace."
"Hello Constable." Anne extended her long, thin fingers to him, and he quickly rubbed his face along them on one side and then on the other. He walked up the bed between her arm and body, and then with a sudden, graceful collapse, he dropped against Anne's side and began to purr.
She smiled. "He's friendly."
"He's on watch," Carrie told her. "He'll look after you for a bit and then move on, but he'll be back."
Anne stroked him under his chin, and he closed his eyes and extended a paw, toes spread in happiness.
"Unless he should fall asleep on the job," Carrie added. He seemed inclined to do just that.
"Why did I get sick?" Anne asked.
"I suppose you have a touch of stomach flu, but you may have ingested something spoilt or tainted. Or maybe I just gave you too much to eat. Are you able to wash your hands before you eat?"
"Yes. I use the hose. I don't eat spoiled food. And the cinnamon rolls you gave me were good."
"Let's do a quick check for any dysentery. You're not feverish now."
She wasn't sure that Anne would allow an examination, so she kept it very brief. "Tell me if you feel any tenderness." She set the hot pack aside for a moment and did a quick palpation of the abdomen, but it felt pliable: no blockage or serious inflammation, though Anne winced quickly to show a certain tenderness near the liver. It wasn't painful enough to warrant alarm.
"Now it all hurts again, just a little, now that you've stopped," Anne said as Carrie replaced the compress and covered her.
"You have slight inflammation of the intestines. I assume right now that it's temporary, but it will require 24 hours for me to know. Will you stay here for 24 hours? If you leave and get sick again, I may not find you in time to help you."
"Yes," Anne said meekly. "I'll stay. Thank you." And then she nodded as the residual cramping from the brief palpation diminished. "It's all right."
"The paregoric will make things relax, and we'll hope that a little proper care will get you back on your feet."
"You know, you're the nicest Christian lady I've ever met," Anne said with great solemnity. "You're very kind."
Carrie caught herself back from open shock. "Why Anne, thank you. But what makes you think I'm a Christian?"
"Because you take care of poor people. That's what Christians are supposed to do, isn't it?"
In an instant, Carrie saw the gulf between herself and this artless master widen further. Carrie had never even thought about the poor except to regard them as unfortunates and possibly mentally incompetent. "I'm not of the Christian faith, Anne," she said gently. "I don't have any beliefs in the supernatural. Anyway, I never did." She paused. "Are you a Christian?"
Anne let out a startled laugh. "No! I stay away from Jesus! But a lot of Christian churches have been good to me."
"Perhaps," Carrie said. "I could learn something from those churches."
But Anne looked puzzled. A faint light of the martial arts master came into her eyes. "Why did you come to me?"
"I don't want to trespass on your privacy," Carrie said quickly. "Please forgive me if I have. But Dr. Rolande says he can arrange a meeting with the man who's been let out on bail. I wanted to know if you would come."
"You didn't trespass," Anne said. "I'll have to think about the rest. This matter belongs to you, not the dead."
"All right." And Carrie rested her hand on Anne's forehead. The skin was less hot and dry, but still not cool and elastic as it would have been for a well person. "The first thing to do is get you better."
Constable Magpie was dozing. As Carrie said nothing else and waited for a moment, the large dose of paregoric finally had full effect, and Anne's eyes closed.
Carrie switched off the lamp, gathered up the medicine and the teaspoon, noted the time, and left. She gave her own hands and face a good scrubbing with antibacterial soap. In all likelihood, she had already been exposed to any bacteria in the air that Anne had been exposed to. If this were merely stomach flu, Anne had probably yielded to it from a low immunity. But Carrie was taking no chances. She scrubbed her hands and forearms up to the elbows and then pinned back her reddish hair and scrubbed her face back to the ears. She changed into her own night clothes, dropped everything she had worn when in contact with Anne into the washing machine, and then saw to her own supper. She had no concerns about Anne becoming restless during the night; the camphorated opium of the paregoric would keep her out for hours. While canned soup simmered on the stove top, she checked her own personal medicine cabinet and found a couple tablets of Ciprofloxacine, obtained in a free sample package from a drug rep.
She debated for a moment about giving Anne a dose of it, then decided against it, at least until she saw the progress of the symptoms. Cipro was often used as a quick remedy against unspecified causes of "traveler's troubles," where the likely suspects numbered in the dozens from polluted water supplies or untreated fruits and vegetables. But it was a powerful antibiotic, and there was always the danger that it would not assimilate well into Anne's metabolism.
The apartment was quiet with an odd peace, as though the sense of the comforted, quieted person asleep in the guest room had somehow permeated the place. Carrie tried to dismiss this sense as something her own mind had manufactured, yet for the first time in several days the case no longer troubled her. She realized that the suppressed pangs of her own grief and guilt about the life she had thrown away so long ago were entirely still. She stopped worrying about Rusty Makevitch, and she forgave Rolande for being such a bumbler at times. Indeed, as she settled down onto the sofa with a bowl filled with chicken soup, she didn't even bother to turn on the television. The silence was rich, peaceful, and yet full. Surely, she thought, it was just her imagination.
* * * *
In the morning, Anne remained soundly asleep, Constable Magpie now snugly curled against her neck and face. He was usually up and about by dawn, but Carrie supposed that Anne's quietness and warmth had been as calming to him as he had been to her.
As he heard Carrie enter, he sleepily looked up and stretched out a paw towards her. Anne didn't stir. Her face on the pillow was white, but her breathing was even and calm. The cat stood in leisurely fashion and sharply arched his back, getting the kinks out. He dropped to the floor and wound himself around Carrie's legs as she looked at Anne.
The water level in the glass on the nightstand remained unchanged. Anne had simply slept, very deeply, for ten hours. But her skin was warm, though not hot, and her pulse slow and regular.
Carrie at last assured herself that the young woman was merely exhausted. She went to find breakfast for herself and the Constable.
Thirty minutes later, when she returned, Anne did open her eyes. She was clearly feeling better, but groggy.
"Hello you," Carrie said kindly. She had her coffee with her, and with her free hand she brushed back Anne's bangs. "How do you feel today?"
Anne, drowsy and relaxed, took in her breath in an experimental sort of way. "I'm not sure."
"Do you want some nice dry toast?"
"No thank you." She paused and her eyes flicked to the nightstand. "Maybe the water." She struggled to a sitting position and took up the glass. Following the directions from the night before, she sipped it, but her sips were more enthusiastic. She was feeling her thirst.
"I'm going to make some toast just the same," Carrie said. "You don't have to eat it, but you can if you like."
"May I have tea?" Anne asked. "Should I help you?"
"Of course you may have tea, and I think you should stay in bed for a few hours. There's really no need for you to stir. After being so ill, you should rest as much as you can."
"For proper balance," Anne added, and even though Carrie didn't know what that meant, she agreed, "Yes, for proper balance." She went out to make the tea.
Monday, September 19, 2005
Shadow Soldiers11: Rain and Sickness
Carrie felt hesitant about seeking out the young martial arts master. She let a day pass. Rain and sleet came, and the air, now with a steel edge to it, reminded her of the cold storage bins.
She could wait no longer, she thought the next day. She decided to visit Anne again that evening. The darkness and chill built in the afternoon. Rain, sometimes mixed with sleet, fell in steady, cold curtains as Carrie pulled up to the storage bins. The pull-down door was closed, but yellow light from the bin's single, strong overhead light bulb made a line of illumination between the weather stripping and the concrete.
She had no umbrella, but she pulled up the collar of her jacket, left the engine running, and ran for the narrow wooden door. Outside, the steady rain set up a regular sweeping noise. She knocked loudly against the wet orange wood of the door. Anne's voice replied with a cautious, almost distressed tone: "Who's there?"
"It's Carrie Drake!" she shouted. She tried the knob, and to her surprise it gave. She pushed it open and peered inside. Anne Thompson was crouched down in a tight huddle of misery, hugging herself. She was leaning against her stacks of cartons, her knees to her chin. Her hair was wet, and her shoes were wet. But the new hooded sweatshirt that she wore was dry, as though she had just pulled it on. Her voice was frightened. "I'm sick."
Carrie slipped inside, closed the door, and pulled off her wet jacket. She threw it over the hanging heavy bag, hurried to Anne's side, and crouched down. "Where are you sick?"
"I don't want to go to the hospital," Anne said. Her eyes were sunken, her skin chalk white.
"Are you throwing up?"
"Once, and the rest was all . . . " She gestured at the ground and hugged herself. "And I have such bad stomach cramps. It won't stop."
Stomach flu, Carrie thought, or possibly some sort of mild bowel infection. But Anne was so underweight that an attack of diarrhea was dangerous for her, and what others might shake off easily could ravage her low defenses.
Carrie felt her forehead and cheeks. She was hot, but that might have been an effect of the dehydration. Though her temperature was feverish, she was not sweating, a sign that she had lost a significant amount of fluid.
"How many times were you sick?" Carrie asked. "Did you eat too much chocolate, dear?"
"I don't know how many times. It just keeps happening. I was running outside, around back, but I can't do it again. I get dizzy on my feet." Then she added. "I didn't eat any of the chocolate except the one, with you, yesterday."
"It's probably not that," she said. But she wondered guiltily if the cinnamon buns and the one candy bar had been too much for Anne's system after months of near starvation. "You can come with me. Let me get some clothing for you."
Anne began to shake. "I can't go to the hospital." Then she added, as a means of legitimizing her protest, "I'm not insured."
"You can come to my place," Carrie said. She quickly rifled the open cardboard cartons. For a moment it had been perfectly clear that she must do this. She wanted to do this. The sight of Anne suffering was enough to spur her into an instant generosity. Then she wondered if she were really prepared to cope with Anne Thompson as a house guest.
But Anne gave a shuddering gasp. "I don't---what if I have to be sick on the way?"
"We'll find a gas station or just make due," Carrie said. She stuffed several articles of clothing into a paper bag. Anne bowed her head to her knees and drew in several breaths. She was quite weak and uncomfortable. And she was embarrassed. And, for some reason, she was afraid.
Carrie pulled on her own jacket, stuffed the bag under her arm, and tried to be brisk. She crouched down and put a steadying arm around Anne.
"Come on. My car is nice and warm. We'll be at my house in 20 minutes."
Anne nodded. Her skin was dry, and Carrie could see that her lips were dry as well: early signs of dehydration. Anne stood shakily, then leaned over and took up the small bag from the grocery store, the chocolate bars. "I have to keep these with me, even if I don't eat them." Anne said.
"All right." She helped Anne through the rain to the car, and Anne trembled the entire way.
For once the traffic on I-40 moved well, in spite of the rain. Anne stayed huddled on the front seat, with her feet drawn up. But whatever had prompted the first several bouts of illness was slowing down, perhaps eased by the warm jets of air from the car's heater. Carrie covered the list of preliminary questions in her mind: the water sources that Anne relied upon, what she had eaten that day, where she had gone.
They reached the apartment without having to stop along the way, but Anne's legs were unsteady. Carrie helped her up the long flight of steps to the back door and let her in.
"Can you get to the back?" she asked. "The bathroom is down the hall."
Anne nodded and hurried away. Carrie put water on the stove to heat and dropped in the thermal pack that she relied upon for muscle soreness. Constable Magpie, alarmed to see such a commotion at his peaceful back door, came to the glass and meowed a single, loud call. She let him in and then hurried to find spare night clothes for her guest. The Constable didn't like the sleet either, but he had numerous sheltered niches where he could curl up and keep dry. He entered without a drop of water on him.
She checked the medicine cabinet in the master bath room, found the paregoric, and retrieved a full glass of water. She set these down on the bedside table.
Anne was quite sick, and after several minutes had passed, Carrie heard the shower head switch on as the girl tried to use hot water to ease her stomach cramps.
"Anne, be careful," she called. "Don't let yourself faint. Let me pass a night gown to you."
Anne was modest, so the door opened only a crack, but her large eyes peeped out around the edge.
"Leave the door unlocked as a safety precaution," Carrie told her. "Don't stay too long under the hot water. There are clean towels folded up in the overhead cabinet in there. I have a hot pack for you, dear."
The eyes registered brief surprise at the word "dear", but Anne nodded, took the nightgown, and closed the door. Carrie, one ear tuned to the sounds of the shower, quickly found the spare flannel sheets and made up the single bed in the guest room.
Wondering at what was going on, Constable Magpie came in to the small guest bedroom to watch. He sat down and began to groom his paw and hook it over his head, washing one ear. He seemed calm, but this was his way of letting her know he was ready for his supper. Carrie quickly tucked in the sheets and spread a fresh quilt over all.
Anne appeared, the borrowed night gown ridiculously short, almost up to her knees. But it was loose on her thin frame. Carrie drew back the covers. "Lie down here, Anne. I've got some paregoric that will help you."
Anne was oddly obedient. She hadn't lost all sense of her fear. She got into bed and let Carrie cover her, but she said, her voice now oddly timid, "I don't want drugs."
"This is medicine like my mother used to give me when I was sick with stomach flu," Carrie told her. "It will stop your stomach cramps and help you go to sleep."
She shook up the bottle of paregoric.
"It doesn't come in a needle?"
"No. You take it in a teaspoon." She took up the clean spoon that she had set down with the small, dark bottle. "Just one teaspoon full for most people. We'll give you one and a half because you're so sick."
She poured out the dose, and Anne, after a moment of clear uncertainty, opened her mouth. Like an expectant baby bird. It was almost funny, but there was something about it that wrung Carrie and made the scraped place twist. Anne took the full dose, and Carrie offered her the water. "You should sip this. You've lost a lot of fluid. Small sips."
Anne nodded, took the glass and sipped it three times, with short pauses. She was very weary, and for a moment Carrie thought she might faint right then, but just as Carrie would have steadied her, she rallied, lifted the glass, and sipped again. She passed the glass back, and Carrie set it on the bedside table.
"Sip that every minute or so if you can. I'm going to make up a hot pack for you."
Anne nodded and settled onto the pillows. The paregoric was already slowing the frantic peristalsis of her intestines. She was becoming sleepy as her digestive tract relaxed.
Carrie didn't think before brushing the damp hair back from the girl's forehead. But Anne didn't object. The room had taken on a sleepy, homey atmosphere, and suddenly Carrie could sense it from Anne's perspective: clean and quiet and dry.
Carrie offered her another sip and Anne lifted her head and took it, then lay back again. She was ready to go to sleep now, her hard stomach cramps easing.
"I'm going to get the hot pack and feed the cat," Carrie said. "Will you be all right?"
Friday, September 16, 2005
Shadow Soldiers10: Chocolate Bars
"Fighting is not unusual for me. Many people want to try to fight with me. I don't hurt them." The eyes flicked to her, and she saw that Anne was now tense, perhaps expecting blame. "I didn't hurt him." The voice was insistent.
Carrie kept her voice quiet and sincere. "I saw that. Thank you."
Rolande, Carrie thought, had been a perfect nitwit. He was thinking he had defeated Anne, and he had not.
"Carrie," Anne said suddenly, her voice oddly grown up and surprised. Carrie looked at her. "Is your stomach hurting?"
"No," Carrie said. "I sometimes get an odd feeling---"
"From a scar? Did you have an operation?"
"No of course not. I mean, not really, I---" She felt desperate, but then Anne touched her, and for a moment Carrie stopped. Then Anne seized her hand, from the back, firmly but not roughly. "Life," Anne said. "Runs through the kidneys. The Jing, Carrie." She let go of Carrie's hand. The scraped feeling was gone.
Carrie was amazed. "What did you do?"
"I aligned the energy of your system."
Anne paused. "It's a little like breaking concrete, but you don't use force the same way." She held up her own hand. "See that spot: the hoku. Very good for aligning energy." And she pointed to the webbing of her hand, between thumb and fingers. "Right where the muscles and nerves are shallow and close to the surface. Can I ask you something?" And now she looked at Carrie with a slight, hopeful smile.
Carrie realized it was coming, the worst question in the world, from a child whose parents had been killed. Did you really do that to your unborn child? But she had already decided to be honest with this person. "Yes Anne," and her voice sounded sad, even to herself. "You can ask me a question."
"Could we go buy some chocolate bars? Could you lend me the money and take me to the store?"
The innocent question made Carrie's eyes sting again, even as her surprise and relief nearly made her gasp. If Anne viewed her as a source for providing food, Carrie would not argue. And so she said, "Certainly. I'd be glad to. Do you like chocolate?"
"As a dead person, I try not to express appetite," Anne said automatically. "But I think chocolate is what I need right now."
And now Anne was fine. They climbed into the car, and she was just as eager to look out the front and side windows of the car on their trip into town to buy chocolate bars. She selected six chocolate bars at the drug store that Carrie found. Then she reconsidered and added two more to the pile.
"Is that all right?" she asked Carrie.
"Yes it's fine," Carrie said. "Would you like anything else?"
"I want you to have one. Is there one there that you like?"
"Yes, thank you." Carrie paid for the candy, and they left the shop. In the car, Anne had Carrie pick a bar for herself; then Anne selected one. She closed the bag and wrapped it carefully around the others, obviously saving them. But she carefully unwrapped the bar that she had chosen, and Carrie watched her for a moment and then followed her example. There was something ritualistic about this: a moment in which they stopped everything else, Carrie thought. In this guess, Carrie was proved correct.
Anne's face did not register pleasure from the confection, but she broke off a square of the chocolate bar and ate it very deliberately, her eyes as intent as a philosopher contemplating a rare manuscript. And then she spoke. "Your friend was only trying to understand," she said at last. "He learns best by doing things."
Yet again, Carrie's eyes stung. She felt a new throb in the scraped place. "Not at the end. He was trying to win. He wanted to show you he was better."
"All right," Anne said gently.
"He was being a bully!" She was furious all over again, seething.
A third of the way through the chocolate bar, the girl glanced over at her; and a smile, quick as lightning, crossed her face, lit up her eyes, and then was gone. "To an extent. He wanted to make sure that I would respect him. He wants me to be able to tell him the secrets I've learned in fighting. He thought he had to defeat me to do that." She broke off another third and put it into her mouth. "And he wants you to think highly of him."
"You're only a girl. Especially to him. He's so much older than you."
Anne smiled again, a rueful smile this time. "Come on, I'm a martial arts master! Anyway, that's what the publisher says." The smile faded, and the eyes, when they glanced at Carrie, showed a sudden, brief light of strong emotion, a genuine concern. "Forgive your friend. I see it in his eyes that he's proud. But you're important to him."
And then the distress for Carrie was gone, and Anne Thomson was calm again, and suddenly direct. "He knows that I'm tougher than what you think." She hesitated, and then she said gently, "You mustn't think of me as a living person, Carrie. I'm dead. I want to be what I am." And she ate the final third of the chocolate bar.
As Carrie still seemed shaken by her anger, the girl added, "When you're dead it doesn't really matter. It's just another event to die to. A test of being dead." She nodded to herself. Then she said nothing.
Carrie started the car, and they pulled out. Anne seemed to withdraw entirely into herself, her eyes quiet, her face very still. She was, Carrie realized, reinterpreting everything to herself on those terms. Carrie drove on. She kept her face calm, but inwardly, she felt agitated. She didn't know why.
After several minutes of silent driving, they reached the storage bins and pulled in. Anne opened her door and got out. "Thank you."
But Carrie also got out on her side. Anne would have walked back to the interior of her training room, but she stopped as she heard Carrie open her door. Yet Anne stayed with her back to Carrie. "I must train today. Thank you. Goodbye."
"If we could get you in to interview the man from the robbery, would you help us?" Carrie asked.
Anne wouldn't turn around. "If you question him without fear and without prejudice and you'll see through him."
* * * *
Carrie didn't acknowledge Rolande when she returned to REACH. She went to her office, closed the door, and buried herself in the reports. She'd had her fill of legwork, and she'd had her fill of Rolande's outdated, outmoded, unrealistic opinions of the way life ran and his own incredible abilities.
Any time that Carrie spoke out of her place, Rolande and the Director ignored her with a polite form of pretending. They behaved as though she had not spoken at all. But when she ignored them, they became confused to the point that they nearly bumped into each other in the hallways as they cast about for some way to entice her back to good natured acceptance that she was not now and never would be a really equal part of the team. They did want her to be happy at REACH. They just didn't want her to assume she was as capable as they.
But she had reports to prepare. She'd faxed the image of the talisman out to the best known resin impregnation clients, and they had faxed back lists of the independent shops that did most of their work for them. She had to follow these up.
But first, she re-checked the data on the attempted bank robbery. They had gone in with their standard weapons, but for such a huge undertaking they had also relied on guns. So then, she thought, what was the point? Why enter a bank to rob it, armed with guns, and then choose to use medieval-level weaponry? A day earlier, she would not have cared about their rationale. But now she had met a different way of thinking. The answer to all of this, she thought, was found in a philosophy, a way, as Anne called it. Not in the scraps and bits of hard evidence.
The phone trilled at her, breaking her out of her reverie. Annoyed, she scooped it up, expecting that Rolande was calling her on a pretext to get her back to the lab so that he could make friends again. It was Rolande, but he was all business. "Supina just called. The police say two of the victims participated in a PBS documentary about five years ago. On surviving catastrophe. One was a survivor of a light plane crash where he and another fellow lived for 33 days in the Alaskan wilderness, alone and stranded, until they were rescued. The other was given a dose of insulin inappropriately when she went into the Emergency Room for flu symptoms. Spent two years recovering."
"They think it's a link?" Carrie asked.
"They want us to be aware of it. See if anything in the autopsies or forensic materials ties in. They're going to see if they can broaden the link to all the victims. And I had Jo Brandt check the newspaper. It lists the legal names of everybody who's been booked in Wake County. I got the contact information for our friendly bank robber. Do you think Anne Thomson will talk with him?"
"I'll ask her. Goodbye." And she hung up on him.
Thursday, September 15, 2005
Shadow Soldiers09: A Fight
Carrie buzzed Rolande, but there was no answer. It was nearly nine, and she knew he was in.
"He must be in his lab," she said. "Would you like to come downstairs?"
"Yes," Anne said.
The girl gazed all around the lab as they entered, and her eyes quickly found Rolande. He was just scribbling a note about the output of one of the LUMINEX machines. Rolande looked back at her, and Anne gave a slight start at his gaze. It was the first time that Carrie saw her show surprise. Anne's demeanor instantly changed. Carrie was puzzled.
"This is Dr. Rolande," Carrie said gently. Anne's youthful brown eyes flicked to her, and Carrie realized that Anne had instantly reclassified her as well. Anne, she suddenly realized, was ill at ease, perhaps even frightened.
Rolande did not take his eyes off of Anne, either, but he said in a gentle, kindly voice, "Good morning Carrie. Who is our guest?"
"This is Anne Thomson," Carrie said. "She wrote the book that the Director mentioned, The Fighting Dead."
He came around the bench and equipment and offered his hand to the young woman. "How do you do? People just call me Rolande."
"It's a pleasure to meet you sir," Anne said. Her voice was chastened, and Carrie knew that her guest clearly was suddenly nervous. But Rolande smiled and offered her a lab stool. "Come and sit down, young lady. We are sorry that we could not find a copy of your book. We are in tremendous need of your expertise."
"I'll help you if I can," she told him. Her voice became more steady. She sat on the stool and looked at him expectantly, waiting for whatever he asked. Then she cast her eyes on Carrie. And Carrie suddenly comprehended how the environment had changed for Anne.
Yes, Carrie thought, this was further evidence of Anne's repression of a traumatic event. There was a part of her that was exactly as old as she had been on the day of the accident. And this child was suddenly very evident as Anne sat on a stool between Carrie herself and Rolande. The introduction of the tall and silver haired Rolande had transformed both of them into parental figures. Both of them older than Anne, both in charge in this place, both requiring her to answer their questions. At the signal of a male and female couple in authority, that repressed part of Anne had instantly taken over. Carrie suddenly wished that she had expressed greater warmth towards the girl. For this was a very different Anne from the mysterious, reserved master in the storage garage.
She realized with a start that if Anne had regressed eight years, then--emotionally at least---she was the same age as that. The eight years difference had vanished. The thought almost staggered her, but she didn't know why. Twelve years ago she had made her own horrible decision. And eight years ago Anne had lost her family and stayed at the age of 12. But the two events were not related. And Anne was not that. The baby would have been 12 this past October, but Anne being 12 was only an accident, a tragedy, in fact.
Rolande was oblivious of this transformation in Anne or the sudden pensiveness in his colleague. "I'm familiar with the idea of reckoning one's self to be dead in order to fight without fear," he told Anne. "Is that what you wrote about?"
She nodded. "I won the World Games medal when I was 18, so people wanted to know how I trained. So I wrote the book. But it became a sort of fad in martial arts circles in the US. People got the idea that they could repeat it to themselves over and over again that they were dead and then do anything they willed to do. Especially breaking concrete. Because that was one of the things I demonstrated." She shook her head. "They didn't realize that I had spent every waking moment training in the things I was explaining. Being dead means being dead all the time. They thought they could have normal lives and use my concepts as a sort of adjunct. But it doesn't work that way." She shook her head. "Death is the most total thing there is."
"And your theory is that being dead removes fear?" he asked.
He nodded. "Fear automatically tenses retraction muscles. Remove fear, and you free up propelling muscles to work without any opposition."
"Yes, exactly. It will also increase accuracy and remove a lot of the stress from training. A person can actually train longer and more effectively."
He suddenly unbuttoned his jacket and pulled it off. "Well! Would you like to put your theories to the test?"
Anne's face remained quiet, though another expression flickered across the brown eyes---perhaps uncertainty. "Do you want me to fight you?" she asked. Her voice was calm. But the eyes again flickered with uncertainty.
"Just a trial run. No more than light contact." His attitude was breezy. He loosened his tie and slipped it off. "I wouldn't hurt anybody."
"Yes, I will fight," she said. She stood up from the stool but did not remove the jacket.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Carrie said. "What if something breaks here in the lab?" But she had her eyes fixed on Anne. She stepped forward, but Rolande shot her a glance of annoyance. "We've got plenty of room right here." His expression told her that he knew what he was doing. Or he thought he did.
There was a small cleared area in front of the double doors, though it was not as roomy as a boxing ring. Carrie unwillingly backed up to the worktable. Rolande circled partway around Anne, but Anne remained standing, head down, as though listening. The scientist came in as though to attack and then darted back out, but she did not move at all, knowing full well it was a feint.
He came in again, and Carrie thought that the girl was simply not going to resist him, but---incredibly---as his long arm shot straight into her midsection, Anne simply folded around it, almost collapsing on top of it, snaking around Rolande's body. Her knee rammed him in the midsection, a solid thump, but even Carrie could see that it could have been much harder.
It startled Rolande, but as he skipped back to get out of the way, her hips turned, making her follow in the same direction, and her long leg shot up, tracing the route of his movement. His strong arms caught the kick to his chest, and with the same fluidity, Anne Thomson flipped sideways in the air, using her hips as the fulcrum, and rolled like a log. Her other leg neatly bumped off his chin, another controlled blow that startled him. He dropped the leg he had captured. She landed on her feet and turned to face him.
In the instant that they were separated from each other, Carrie saw Anne's face. There was no fear. In fact, the eyes were expressionless, the face perfectly still, the features neither hard nor soft. If anything, she still seemed to be listening. And yet Carrie suddenly knew that the young girl did not want to fight Rolande, not even in practice, not even to prove her theories. Anne didn't care who believed her theories.
She had retreated from all life to be alone for some reason, safe in a world of her training. She'd fought competitively because somebody, somewhere along the way, had told her to fight, and it had helped her repress her shock and grief. And she had written her book because somebody else had told her to write a book. And now, she had come with Carrie to this place because Carrie had asked her to come. And here was Rolande, making her prove herself. The scrape in her midsection twitched.
Rolande came in with more caution, and Carrie saw that he meant to capture his young opponent in some type of trapping strategy. Anne again waited for him, moved around him as he closed with her, and became his shadow. Her open hands tapped him a few times---jaw, side of head, never hurting him, but at last he had her. She came between his hands. His right hand seized her arm in the indentation of her bicep, and Carrie saw the flicker in her eyes as the arm instantly went numb. Anne stepped directly into the path of his other hand, which lightly tapped the side of her neck, stunning her.
The scrape exploded with a painless rush of heat all through her. "Stop it!" Carrie shouted. Before she knew it, she was between them. "Stop it!" And she caught Anne, who was dazed by the tap at the nerves on her neck. Eyes blazing, she turned to Rolande. "How dare you do this to a guest! Why don't you let her alone!" For a moment she was truly furious with him. "Leave her alone!" She pushed Anne back, away from him. For a moment, with that same twisting pain, she could see again the hunger that had flashed across Anne's eyes, the gentle surprise she had felt at the fragrance of the cinnamon rolls. She was nothing but a child, impoverished and starving. The scrape down in her own midsection twisted again.
"I'm all right," Anne said instantly. She rested her arms on Carrie's shoulders. "I'm all right, Carrie. He hasn't hurt me."
Indeed, Carrie was more shaken than her new protégé. She caught her breath and suddenly felt her eyes burn with tears. They horrified her. Carrie, in fact, was trembling. Anne's voice was suddenly kind. "You don't like fighting, Carrie?" she asked. "He wouldn't have hurt me."
Rolande, humiliated by Carrie's reaction and Anne's apparent understanding of it, was at a loss. At last he said, almost in a whisper, "I beg your pardon, Miss Thomson. I did not mean to upset you. Or my colleague."
"You won fair and square, Rolande," Anne said, stepping back from Carrie. The statement, Carrie knew, was not entirely true. Anne had pulled everything she had thrown to a mere tap. Perhaps if she had been hitting hard she still would not have defeated the former judo champion. But perhaps she would have.
"Let me bring you tea," he said. "Carrie, I apologize." He walked away, and Carrie brought herself under control. But part of her was deeply shaken.
"I'm sorry," Carrie whispered. But Anne touched her shoulder, quieting her.
Anne was not angry. But she now took control of the situation. She addressed Rolande as though he were in authority over Carrie. "You sent this woman after me to bring me here," she said calmly to Rolande. "Now tell me why. What do you want?"
Carrie wanted to protest this assessment, but the situation was bad enough. And she had no energy. She felt drained.
Rolande turned on the water at the sink. "We have reason to believe that a band of criminals may have taken your training method and applied it to their own uses. They have turned themselves into a band of killers, and their favored weapon is a sling that they can turn into a garrote or whip. They killed several people quite openly when they assaulted a bank. And they may be linked to a series of ritual killings. The police took one of them into custody."
Carrie added her voice: "We want to understand how law enforcement can defeat this mental conditioning that these men have used. And we must find out if their beliefs would give them motives to participate in any type of ritual killings. We have to know why they would kill people."
"Nothing I believe or teach advocates ritual killing," Anne said quickly. "It's not a religion. If you want to know what is driving these men, question the prisoner in custody."
"He's been released on bail," Rolande said.
She shook her head. "Then I don't see how I can help you. I told you, my book is out of print. And I don't associate with bands of people. Not any people. Killers or otherwise. The dead abide alone."
"You're not familiar with a sling type weapon?" he asked.
"No. It's nothing I've trained with. Nor have I ever taught it."
"But the mental conditioning," Carrie said. "Anne, it seems to me that if somebody injured you in a fight, you might be able to over ride the pain and keep fighting."
"Certainly." The eyes turned to her, now slightly impatient. "Overcoming pain is the art and way of death."
"So you might understand how these men have acquired these skills. Where they come from. Who taught them. Why they would participate in ritual killing. You might pick up indicators from them that other people would miss."
Anne hesitated. She looked at Carrie, and the large brown eyes were now serious and yet searching. Those eyes saw Carrie's own guilt and remorse. This was not the 12 year old girl. This was the martial arts master. At last Anne said, "As for their mental conditioning, I would have to talk to the one they had in custody to see how he has trained his mind. Then I could tell you more. Otherwise, there is nothing I could say, and your time is being wasted."
"Perhaps we could take you with us to interview him," Rolande told her. He was still at the sink. "Maybe we could meet with him ourselves."
"I don't know that I stand to gain either skill or knowledge by helping you," Anne said. "These affairs are part of what the living do. And I do not participate in the affairs of the living." She was sticking to her training here, now fully a martial arts master, and the little girl was gone, suppressed.
"Now look here---" Rolande began, but Carrie spoke: “Let Anne do as she thinks best.” Her voice was brittle. She touched Anne's wrist, a mistake, for Carrie was still trembling.
"Shall I take you back? Is that what you want?" Carrie asked.
"Yes, thank you." Anne turned to Dr. Rolande. "Thank you for the fight, sir. Goodbye."
Rolande was embarrassed at having offended Carrie, but as she opened the lab door to go, he shot her a look of confused impatience. She wouldn’t look at him. Then she followed Anne out.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Shadow Soldiers08: Cinnamon Rolls
As before, the garage door of the storage bin was open when she pulled up. Anne was inside, barefooted on the cold concrete floor, leaping from one old truck tire to another. The two tires were set up a few feet apart. She had to land exactly in the center of each one or else be tripped up by the thick rubber edges. The amazing thing was that she was doing it so quickly, over a distance of only a couple feet, but landing exact every time and springing away instantly, from tire to tire and back again. Feet together, she leaped back and forth without pause, the rhythm unvarying. All of this in bare feet on this cold morning, on a cold concrete surface. Carrie's feet ached just from watching her, but Carrie did not interrupt. This was what Bodhidharma had been talking about.
Anne finished after about twenty more leaps, and then she skipped free and looked up, her eyes open and cordial. "Good morning," she said.
"Is that your warm up every morning?" Carrie asked, her voice friendly.
"Cold mornings are the best. Will you have tea, Doctor?"
"Carrie, please. Yes, thank you."
Anne walked away to plug in the kettle. Carrie went back to the car trunk and opened it. She extracted the new sleeping bag.
As she entered, Anne glanced up from the kettle and offered a slight smile at sight of the bag. "You didn't waste time. I will have the interview." And she took the bag from Carrie. She pulled down the tattered bag from the wall and hung up the new one.
"Shall I call you Sifu?" Carrie asked. "Is that the proper way to say it?"
The young girl turned, and her eyes were surprised and yet suddenly kind. "How did you know to call me Sifu?"
"I read up on martial arts last night. I mean, as well as I could in a single night. Isn't that your proper title?"
Carrie had only meant to get things straight so that she could be accurate in her discussions with the girl, but the large brown eyes of the young master were suddenly much more open. "Anne is fine," she said.
"Wouldn't you like to put on shoes, Anne?"
Genuine humor flickered across the eyes on this question, as Anne realized that somebody barefoot on this chill morning was a difficult sight to bear. "Certainly."
"And I reviewed the cost of the sleeping bag," Carrie said. "I mean, it's not quite justifiable, with you being a gold medalist and all, to take up your time and give you only a sleeping bag. People of your stature are worth far more than that for their time."
"Dead people don't have stature," Anne said. She was slipping her bare feet into ancient Keds.
"But I'm required to be fair and just. Even in---in a cemetery, let's say, I would have to be equitable in the flowers I put in a grave. Don't you suppose that's right? Even if you were dead all the way, it's still not right to cheat the dead, is it?"
"No of course not." Anne nodded and her expression softened more. "Honor applies to us both. I'm not dead to honor. But I only asked you for a sleeping bag, and you brought it."
"I brought you some more things. To make a fair exchange for your time."
"I'll pour your tea. Bring them in, please." Her voice was quiet and kind. Carrie had feared that she would inadvertently offend the young master, but she realized that things were going her way. Anne Thomson was actually quite touched.
She retrieved the additional parcels from her car. Anne carefully extracted each item from the Wal-Mart bag and examined it while Carrie sipped her tea and watched. One wall of the room was lined with stacks of cardboard boxes. Anne placed each item in an open cardboard box, sorting them. These boxes, Carrie realized, served as the girl's wardrobe and cupboard. She identified the toiletry items going into the same box, the underwear packages going into another, followed by the hooded cotton sweatshirt, which Carrie had not been certain that Anne would accept.
"You have been very thoughtful," Anne said as she paused for a moment.
"Is that all right?" Carrie asked.
The question startled Anne. "Yes." And then she bowed---a real bow of deference, head and eyes down. "You've been very kind to me. And may your kindness be returned to you." And then she slowly straightened and resumed her sorting. Carrie was surprised to feel a lump in her throat. Her hand darted to her midsection and she forced away the emotions that would produce the scraping sensation.
Anne carefully put the shampoo bottles into the toiletries box. She was very clean about herself: her hair washed and brushed, her skin clean. Even the rags that she wore were spotless.
"How do you wash, Anne?" Carrie asked.
"There's a hose out back. And I have a bucket for rinsing. You can't see the place where the hose is from the road, so if I take care of it before the front gate opens, it's private." She finished and folded up the bag. She stowed this carefully in one of the boxes as well.
"Would you like to come with me to meet Dr. Rolande?" Carrie asked.
The large brown eyes suddenly fixed on her. For a moment, child-like curiosity and a gentle friendliness flickered across them and was then gone. "Yes," Anne Thomson said. "I would like to go with you."
She did not change her clothing, nor did she find any kind of wrap for herself until Carrie suggested it. Obediently, Anne dug the new hooded sweatshirt from its cardboard box, pulled it on over her thin, ancient sweatshirt, and followed Carrie to the car.
"So you do live here?" Carrie asked, trying to sound only casual.
"Sometimes I sleep over in other places. But you can usually find me here."
They climbed in and closed the doors. Carrie turned on the heater out of consideration for the girl's thin clothing. As they drove, she ventured another question: "Yesterday, you said you died eight years ago. What made you die?"
"A car accident," Anne told her. "I was twelve. We were all in the car. My father, my mother, my two brothers, and me. A drunk driver hit us. Broadside. It killed my mother and one brother instantly. I was knocked out, but I'd been dozing and never saw it, and besides, I was in the very back of the station wagon." She had her large brown eyes fixed on the road ahead as Carrie drove, watching everything as it flashed by, but she spoke, almost absent mindedly, as though she had told this story too many times to have to think about it. "When I came around, I was on the grass, and my father was alongside me. I heard him breathe with a kind of gulping. Gulp, gulp, gulp, and then he was dead too. My little brother lived long enough to get to the hospital, but then he died about an hour later."
"Your whole family---" Carrie gasped.
"And me," Anne said, still watching the scenery of Durham flash by as they drove into RTP. "I told myself that I died too, when my father died. That it was really me breathing my last breath that I heard. For a long time it helped me cope. And really, it changed me into a tremendous martial artist. I lost my fear." She at last brought her attention back to Carrie.
"How long did it last?" Carrie asked. "Pretending you were dead?"
The young woman hesitated, caught by the question and lost in thought for a moment. "I don't know that it ever was pretending," she said at last. "It was a refuge at first: something I ran into and out of. But then, as it began to take hold of me, I grew into it. The dead have no fear, Carrie." She hesitated again. "But they also have no passion, no ego, no cruelty, no need for revenge. The dead are truly free from the chains of the living."
Repression, Carrie thought. A certain amount of denial, and a generous amount of sublimation of the traumatic event. Anne Thompson had incredible coping abilities. She'd created a matrix of meaning for herself out of unique parts, enabling herself to go on after the tragedy. She had turned herself into a world class athlete. And, Carrie thought, she was twenty years old. Eight years difference, she thought, and then she realized that she'd placed her hand on her own midsection. She quickly banished the thought and moved her hand.
But the girl who sat next to her, already a champion fighter and a published writer, so serene and unmoved by what she had just related, at the same time suddenly seemed very vulnerable and very fragile. The woman at the Salvation Army store had hinted of this. One moment, Anne Thomson was the incarnation of centuries of martial training. And then in the next she was a mere girl.
Carrie cast a furtive glance at her guest. Though Anne seemed healthy enough, she was severely underweight by British or American standards. Her eyes were large and sensitive. Indeed, in an otherwise long and plain face, the eyes were arresting with a gentle, almost shy, sensitivity.
"Would you like a cinnamon roll?" Carrie asked. She passed the bag of six pastries to her guest and then pulled into traffic. Anne dipped her face into the bag and sniffed. Carrie glanced at her. Dead or not, the girl was clearly hungry, and the brown eyes widened slightly in surprise as the fragrance from within the white bag telegraphed its invitation to her.
"Thank you," Anne said quietly. Carrie concentrated on the road again. But when she glanced back at Anne, the young girl was methodically chewing her way through a cinnamon roll. Her eyes had the intense, thoughtful expression that one saw in the faces of stray cats and dogs, a calm intensity, a complete absorption in the process of eating.
Something inside of Carrie twisted. She realized that her hand was over her midsection again, and she willed it back to the steering wheel. She fixed her glance on the road again. Her eyes stung for a moment and then she quickly regained herself. She heard the bag rattle as Anne took another. Apparently the girl had mistaken the offer and thought that Carrie had given her the entire bag for herself. But Carrie said nothing to dissuade her.
It took Anne about four minutes to eat six large cinnamon rolls. "Thank you," she said again when she had finished.
"You're welcome," Carrie replied softly. Anne carefully folded up the white bag, and---Carrie noticed from a sideways glance--stroked it twice with her hand and then put it into the pocket of her jacket. She glanced around as the scenery flashed by.
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Shadow Soldiers07: Nothing but Awareness
This was what she liked. Just lay out the statistical information and let her alone, and sooner or later her eye would start to see the relationships of significant indicators.
Her office was large, with windows that received the sun well into the afternoon. She spread the reports out on the floor in two sets. Then she sat in her chair, which had wheels on the legs, and looked down at them, scanning them.
Rolande bounded in without knocking at five past two.
"What a day!" he boomed. "What an amazing case this is! You first. What have you found?"
"It's certainly nothing common," she said. "None of the old standbys. No statistical trends among the victims---that we know of." She hesitated.
"Go on," he said. He stood clear of the rows of pages and watched her.
"Well, measurements like these are in terms of what we expect. Where the deceased lived, what they did for a living, marital status, personal enemies, debt load, medical condition, race, age, gender. We may find a trend that's less common."
"Martial arts?" he suggested. She shook her head. "Apparently not. What about you?"
"The Fighting Dead," he told her. "It's the title of Thomson's book. It's the same term the man who was captured at the bank used, a different context." He raised his eyebrows for a moment. "Professor Xiao said it's a fairly obscure term, coined among camp followers of the huge armies that some of the emperors raised. It is sometimes a term of derision or irony among occasional ancient Chinese texts. Pointing out the stupidity or misery of somebody who would live for war or believe that some sort of heavenly glory awaits for those who die in battle."
"But some people might use it as a sort of accolade," she said. "Think it a wonderful thing. Like being chosen, or being empowered. If that horrible idea were revived today, it would gain some followers."
"Oh yes. Especially those who might view the ancient past in a sort of haze of glory and mystery. Some amazingly modern thinkers have revived some amazingly stupid and destructive ideas from antiquity." He looked at the array of papers on the floor and then back to her. "It's where all these modern cults come from. Take one idea from the past that nobody fully understands, set it up as a major doctrine, and off you go into self annihilation."
"Or the annihilation of others." And now she was troubled. "So what about Anne Thomson?" she asked.
"Wrote a book by that name." He looked puzzled. "Can't be a coincidence."
"Rolande, I don't think she's part of a homicidal cult."
"Oh hardly," and he let out a brief laugh. He still found the idea of a woman martial arts master funny. "But maybe they latched onto her book. Nice title, anyway, if you want to shock people. She's coming in tomorrow?"
"Well maybe it won't be a waste of time."
* * * *
November was not too distant, and even though the sunny autumn days of North Carolina were a great improvement over the drenching rains of London in the fall, Carrie noted that the temperature was falling. The next morning there was a sheen of light frost on the windshield, though the solid ground was merely damp with dew.
Constable Magpie, the gray and white tom cat who had adopted her, did not want to leave the townhouse when she opened the door. She at last folded up an old piece of blanket for him on the back patio and enticed him out with a dollop of tuna fish. Then she locked up, walked around to the steps that ran up the hill, and went down to her car. The sleeping bag and the purchases from Wal-Mart were in the trunk. She donned her driving gloves and slid the car out into the chill morning.
Her midsection twinged again, with that scraped feeling that the doctors had said was only in her mind. It was the cat, she thought, being forced out when he wanted to stay in. And the items in the car, the weight of the presence of that hungry, ghostly young woman that was part little girl and part spectral fighter from the past. Anything helpless or unhappy could set it off inside her. To take her mind off it, she reviewed her plans.
She'd spent the evening scanning the internet for information on traditional martial arts. And what she'd learned was that the concept of traditional martial arts was, itself, an advertising slogan in America. The basis for movies, the cause of incessant arguments by overheated males who, she had easily detected, were most likely not martial artists at all. The only bit of accurate information had come from a review of a book called IRON AND SILK. After following this review down to its writer and quizzing him via e-mail and then in a live forum, she had gathered up some usable data---words that were commonly used, the names of the few great martial arts masters that were left, an overview of the history of the martial arts.
What the modern ideas left out entirely, she thought, was the concept of suffering. It seemed to her that the very ancient teachings of Bodhidharma---if he had been a real person at all---had focused on developing the strength and power to withstand suffering in order to accomplish one's appointed role. Fighting skills had been a part of that. But the entire weave of his exercises had been a tapestry of enduring any present affliction, of overcoming the mind and its dread of pain. And this power to endure has been achieved exactly opposite of the ways that modern Westerners used. No yelling or shouting or charging about with a firm resolve all wound up to fever pitch. No building up the body by attentive care, adequate rest, sufficient food, and nurturing.
Rather, the mind had to be trained to strip itself down to nothing but awareness of stimuli---no dread, no fear, no joy, no anticipation, nothing but awareness so that the body could react appropriately. And the body was trained down, not up. Building muscle was a foreign idea. The very idea of excessive intake of protein was horrifying to Bodhidharma's monks. Eating meat , they believed, created anger and upset.
The monks instead had systematically applied themselves to a sort of self torture that had grown in intensity as they had grown in ability to bear it. Bearing loads of weight up steep steps, walking on bare hands and bare feet for miles at a time, pounding their heads into sand. And they had developed pugilistic skills, throwing skills, falling skills, archery skills. But these skill sets of coordination were only the top ornamentation of something---as far as she knew---that no longer existed in martial arts: the willingness to embrace suffering in order to overcome it.
Monday, September 12, 2005
Shadow Soldiers06: The Salvation Army Thrift Store
The Salvation Army Thrift store was not too distant from Ninth Street, Durhams's popular hub for shopping and eating among the college students and junior faculty. She found a tiny southwestern café, had an early lunch, and then---as the day was sunny and traffic on Ninth street was heavy and slow---she walked to the thrift store. The wind whipped her reddish brown hair about her face, but she didn't mind. Unlike the typical "absent minded professor," type, she was quite precise in her grooming. And she had the advantage of what she called "obedient hair." She could sweep it back, fluff up the bangs, and it usually fell into place. She enjoyed her own good looks. As she passed the many wide storefront windows, she glimpsed herself---not very tall, her dark green sweater wrapped around her, her posture upright, her face youthful and alive.
One benefit of examining the dead, she realized, was it could make you enjoy being alive, so much more aware of how this very moment was important: the sun, the wind, the satisfaction of a good lunch, the happiness of being a bright and attractive research scientist. But then a Greyhound bus--its sides painted jet black to advertise a local performance of PHANTOM, roared past her, filling all the storefront reflections with perfect obsidian blackness. It made her look small and insignificant, surrounded by a wall of black, and the roar drowned out everything else. Then it was gone.
* * * * *
The thrift store interior was neither dim nor bright. The front windows were not curtained, but they were not cluttered with goods, so they let in some light. Overhead, ancient hanging lights that looked like they'd started life in a textile hall cast a yellowish glow onto things. The store smelled like wool, mostly.
The circular racks were overstuffed with second hand garments. Other items crammed onto shelves lined the small store. After a brief search along the wall, during which a woman at a cash register in the very center busily worked inventory sheets, Carrie found the sleeping bag that Anne Thomson had mentioned. It was clearly second hand, but in good condition, and a cardboard tag affixed to it boasted that it cost only $25.
She pulled it out with some difficulty, now aware that the woman at the cash register was watching her keenly.
Goodness, I'm not going to steal it, Carrie thought. She didn't like tugging and pulling on great big things. Awkwardness displeased her. Trying to lift things that were too large to carry displeased her, too. There was something disproportionate about it. But the woman at the register did not offer to help.
At last, Carrie got the rolled up bag free of the shelf and lugged it to the cash register. It wasn't heavy---just big. The woman, who had jet black hair that had been dyed, wore glasses on a slender chain around her neck. She plucked them up and put them on, and Carrie could see that she was not entirely pleased.
"You know, that's not water proof," she said. "And it is old. You could spend 20 dollars more at Wal-Mart and get something much better. Much better. Warmer, too."
She'd made no effort to move aside her inventory sheets, so Carrie ungraciously slung the roll of cumbersome sleeping bag right onto them to give herself a rest. The woman didn't react to this at all, but neither did she move closer to the cash register.
"I was directed to purchase this sleeping bag," Carrie said. She would have been glad to buy Anne Thomson a better sleeping bag, but she wasn't sure that Anne would be pleased by a gift.
"I see. Is it for a child?" She tried to make her voice pleasant, but it was too late. As she rang up the purchase on the ancient, roll-fed cash register, Carrie fished in her purse and wondered why a thrift store worker would be unwilling to make a sale.
"We have a very young woman who's been looking at that," the woman said lightly, aware that she had annoyed her customer. "A very poor girl. I had been hoping to save it for her."
Carrie stopped and seized the opportunity. "Not a very thin, very tall girl?" she asked.
The woman took off her glasses and let them hang. She looked at Carrie.
"Does Anne Thomson visit your shop?" Carrie asked.
Instantly, the lined face of the cashier became more friendly, softened at this mutual connection. "Yes, she does. I sometimes bring her a little bit of lunch." She realized that Carrie was making the purchase on behalf of Anne, and all suspicions and hesitancy were dropped. "Oh praise the Lord. Are you some sort of social worker? I've been praying somebody would come to help that child."
This mix of concern and religious devotion startled Carrie, but she adjusted at once. "No, I'm trying to track down a copy of her book."
"Book?" This puzzled the cashier.
"Anne Thomson wrote a book," Carrie said.
"Are you serious?" The woman put her hands on her hips. But after a moment she said, "Well, she certainly could if she wanted to. She's had an amazing life. But she's never mentioned it. It must not have done very well."
"I think she allowed only a single printing." But that scotched any hope of finding a copy through Anne's friends. Apparently Anne did not discuss her book voluntarily.
"Did you meet Anne through one of the churches?" the woman asked.
"Oh no." Carrie hesitated and then said, "I met her through my efforts to understand her-her way of martial arts."
"You know, she's been to China," the woman said.
"I knew she'd participated in the World Games a few years ago." Carrie made her voice cautious. This woman knew Anne far better than Carrie did, and Carrie didn't want that to be obvious. She decided to hit the one item that they would both understand about Anne. "It's difficult to get to know Anne. She doesn't say much."
"Not if you come out and ask her." And the woman smiled. It was clearly a motherly smile. "Food works, though. She's very appreciative of any kindness. I mean, if it's done right. And not overdone."
Carrie cocked her head over. She wondered, not for the first time, what had happened to Anne's family. It seemed unlikely that a mere runaway would have acquired such an interesting life or such a unique and elaborate personal philosophy. But she didn't ask that question. She didn't want to give herself away.
The cashier, assured that Carrie was in no hurry, folded her arms and leaned back against the opposite counter. "She goes down to our soup kitchen on most days, but she felt she ought to earn her meals, so she showed up here and asked if she could clean out the restrooms. We're not supposed to just let them in off the streets here at the shop. It can be dangerous, and sometimes the homeless people steal from us. But she was such a dear little thing. Those huge eyes. And she looked so hungry, I thought she wanted food. So I said yes."
"She cleans every day?"
"Oh, about every other day--no, less than that. We're closed Sunday and Monday. Let me see. She's pretty regular about being here first thing on Tuesday morning. She'll show up again on Thursday or Friday. She does a very good job."
"Yes I'm sure she would."
"There was one week, when she was sick. She showed up every morning. I think she wanted help and more warmth than what she gets otherwise." The older woman's eyebrows knit, and Carrie realized with a slight jolt that this woman was actually a very concerned person, one who would have done more for the young martial artist than Anne Thomson would allow. A good woman. "But I realized then that if I made a fuss, Anne would never permit it. She's got that----code of hers. So I understated everything."
"Oh, after the third day that she came, I made up a bed for her in back, in the little office. Put in a cot and sheets and a blanket and asked her to stay nights and watch the place because somebody had tried to force the door. I know it was a lie. May the Lord forgive me. Told her I was very nervous to be here alone, and if I would feed her, would she stay close by. She said yes, then."
The eyes in the woman's face were very dark, and they settled onto Carrie with an almost soulful expression. "I put her to bed right then. Looked after her with tea and soup and cold medicine. Took her a full day before she would take medicine from me. She doesn't trust pills or drugs."
Her eyes became thoughtful. "She's a very sweet girl in a lot of ways. And I knew she was grateful to me. Once she got her legs under her, she did do a lot of work. I'd lock up at night and come back to find the place all spic and span: all the boxes cut and flattened and bundled with twine, the bathrooms all scrubbed, the floors perfectly swept."
"Couldn't you have let her stay on?" Carrie asked.
"I asked her to. But once her cough went away, she wanted to go back to the street. I know that she holes up somewhere. And she makes her way without selling drugs like some do. Or prostituting. But I don't know how she gets by."
Carrie prompted her. "The soup kitchen?"
"Oh yes, but that's only one meal a day, and only five days a week. There's a black church across town---old Durham. They have a dinner on Wednesday nights for the homeless, and she goes there as well."
Carrie was startled. "With the black people?"
"Oh yes, dear. It's not like that any more. Some of the older white homeless don't go, but Anne's not like that at all. From what I understand, the people who run the Wednesday night dinners are fond of her. They don't understand her any more than I do, and they think she's wasted herself, living in such poverty. But they're so good to her. She just won't let folks do much for her."
Christians, Carrie thought. At least some of them served a good purpose. They refused to give up on people. Christians fed them and hoped for the best for them. Ordinary people, anyway. Very few Christians would want anything to do with a scientist who believed in evolution and had gone through an abortion, Carrie thought.
"Anne told me I could buy the sleeping bag as payment for some information," Carrie said. "Do you think I could convince her to take more?"
"I know that she needs the usual things: underwear and socks and soap and toothpaste. If you take her food, it has to be pretty utilitarian: no candy or soft drinks. She'll eat anything from a health food store, and she likes peanut butter on crackers."
"Thank you," Carrie said. "If you don't mind, I'll leave this sleeping bag with you while I get my car."
The woman nodded and punched the high, old fashioned keys on the register. "And one thing," she said. "Don't ever talk to Anne about the hospital or doctors or medicine or drugs or anything like that."
Carrie passed over the bills, but the warning arrested her. "Why not?"
"I don't know, but she's terrified of hospitals, and she hates doctors. She thinks they're evil." The woman counted out the change and passed it to Carrie. "I think that whatever drove Anne over the edge, it must have happened in a hospital somewhere. But the only time I ever saw her turn violent was when a doctor from the homeless clinic tried to see her and offer her a vaccination. He came to find her here, and if I hadn't stopped her, I think she would have killed him." Eyes troubled, she looked away from Carrie. "I hadn't thought she could be a very good martial artist until then. But she is. I never saw anybody move with such speed."
Friday, September 09, 2005
Shadow Soldiers05: Those Born Again Americans
"What's wrong?" Carrie asked Rolande.
"That bank person, the one Stephen Dunn put down. He's out on bail. We wanted you back here. Corky wants us to work in pairs from now on."
Miles Courtney, who everybody called Corky except Carrie, would be that cautious.
Rolande, never conscious of the fact that Carrie might have news of her own, said, "Look, I put in a call to Dr. Xiou Xiun over at Chapel Hill. He's an expert on Chinese history. These murders do resemble a very ancient type of ritualized sacrifice from China."
She was amazed. Rolande was extremely well read on Asian history. He could even read a bit of Mandarin. So his knowledge didn't surprise her, but the idea that anybody else would know such a thing did.
"The thing is, it's not all that commonly known. I want to check with Professor Xiou. I might be able to get the jump on the investigation and turn up a worthwhile theory. He can see me this afternoon."
She nodded. "What about Dunn?"
"Not much. What about Thomson?"
"Thomson is a girl," Carrie told him.
It was his turn to be surprised. The gray eyes lit up in wonder. "A girl?" Then he grinned. "A martial arts master?" He could not hide his sense of the ironic.
She frowned. "Yes, and a good one. She's amazing."
He let out his breath in good-natured derision---almost a laugh. She decided not to argue. Just let him meet Anne Thomson and he would see for himself. "I think I can arrange a meeting with her tomorrow," she said.
"Can't you just get a copy of her book?"
"No. She was quire clear on that."
"So it's an interview." His eyes were glum. Plainly, he thought this would be a waste of his time.
"I think she knows something about this---about the thinking behind these people."
"No. But I want you to see her."
He nodded. "Tomorrow morning."
She scooped up the packet that Supina had left with them. "Toxicology reports on the first victims? I want to review these. What about details regarding the victims?"
"Just what's in there."
"Yes, all right. I'm sure the first panel reports are here." She held up the folders. "If they've missed anything, I'll do the set up for us to run tests. And we can check for whatever else you have in mind."
He nodded, relieved. Rolande, though just past 50, hated sitting still, and he hated inactivity. He liked Carrie's insistence on poring over reports and statistical information. Her preference for lab work freed him up to chase after rabbit trails of information. Actually, she thought, in spite of his protests about not being a police investigator, this legwork appealed to him.
"And I need money," she added. "How do we acquire funds for projects?"
He ruffled up his hair. "Oh, ask Jo Brandt. I think she sees to things like that."
She cocked her head. "Why?" She asked. "Isn't Miss Brandt a SAS expert?"
"Of course she is. But this is a small firm. We all do double duties on menial things."
"What's your double duty then?"
"Well I don't do double duty. I'm far too important. So are you." He grinned. "But Jo, Mike Franklin, and the intern, Tom Benton, share out some of the Admin duties when Barbara is busy."
Carrie nodded. The informality of American business often surprised her.
She went up the steps and knocked on the door of the IS department. At Mike Franklin's cheerful "Come in if you dare!" she entered.
The windowless room, kept at about 60 degrees because of the cooling demands of the servers, was paneled in darkly painted wood. The servers stood in racks against one wall, and three computer workstations stood against the opposite wall. Benton's place was empty, but Jo Brandt sat at the middle station, and Mike Franklin, head of IS, was at the other. A couple posters that proclaimed faith in the Christian religion adorned the walls. Franklin, she knew, was also a born again Christian.
Religion in Carrie's own country was always private, always sacred and quiet. Here in the States, people wore it on their t-shirts, in garish colors. They asked you to your face if you would go to heaven when you died. Carrie didn't think highly of any religion, and boorish evangelicalism offended her. She kept her tone courteous. "Miss Brandt, I was wondering if I could trouble you for some funds. Is there a requisition to fill out?"
"Yes, it's online. I can e-mail you the form," Jo Brandt said. "Is reimbursement all right?"
"Fine." She nodded. "Thank you." She backed out and closed the door.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Shadow Soldiers04: Strength and Grace; Life and Death
"I would if I could," Rolande assured him. "I think I would advise no more fistfights, for a start." He sat in a hard backed chair next to the bed. "Do you mind if I chat with you, Mr. Dunn?"
"Stephen, please. Not a bit! I'm going stir crazy!" Dunn exclaimed. He had clear blue eyes and short, curly hair. He looked expectantly at Rolande, apparently thinking the scientist to be some sort of counselor for the hospital.
"I heard you rescued a young woman from a gang of thugs," Rolande said.
"Yes. People say I was brave, but I went into action before the old mind clicked into gear!"
"You didn't plan to resist?"
"No! Just the sight of him---his eyes, I mean. I was glad to stay on the floor like he'd told us to. But when he scooped up this poor woman, got that leather strap 'round her throat, I was on my feet."
"You were afraid of him?" Rolande asked.
"I had been," Dunn told him. "But I mean, he had no need to take her. We were all obeying him. I knew he would abuse her." He paused and suddenly his eyelids fluttered. He regained himself. "What was I saying? Oh, that was all. That's all there was to it."
"The papers say you are an excellent boxer."
"Once upon a time. Still like to do bag work. This fellow nearly put me away a couple of times. He used his feet, and that was worse than his fists. And he even used that strap thing on me." He paused, and then, after a moment, his pause turned into a light doze.
"Stephen?" Rolande asked.
He came back. "Um, and whipped me with it as we fought. Had some type of spur on the end of it. Raked me some decent stripes down this side." He forced himself to lift a hand and gesture at his side, under the covers. "Ripped my ear open." He pointed to his bandaged ear.
"But you didn't go down?" Rolande asked.
The young divinity student paused again, but he seemed to wake up more, and then he said, "No, I didn't. Thought I would a couple times, but I never did. That's this week's sermon: The Lord is my light and my salvation." He nodded, satisfied, and immediately dropped back into his doze.
"Stephen, how did you knock him out?" Rolande asked, raising his voice slightly.
Stephen Dunn stirred. "Oh you're not the deacon board!" he exclaimed. "I don't know how I knocked him out. I kept getting as many licks in as I could. Until at last I realized he was laid out at my feet. It was all quite hazy by then. You see, that's how I'll bring in that the Lord is our light. The light of the world. That's right, isn't it?"
Rolande was far too good-natured of an atheist to be annoyed by Dunn's confusion between his sermon and the fight at the bank. "It's just amazing that you could keep fighting against such odds," he said loudly, to bring the young man back.
Eyes closed, Stephen Dunn smiled and said, "I couldn't see straight. I felt like I was looking down a long tunnel with a bloody haze over it."
He tried to wake himself up. He forced his eyes open and turned his glance to Rolande. "Ever been in a real fight?"
"Oh, I've been in many fights," Rolande said. "I was a judo champion in college--probably before you were born. I've always been pretty keen on any form of pugilism."
"One of the grad students from Duke read about it. He insists these same fellows were in his bar about six months ago. Scared the daylights out of him."
Rolande was surprised. "You and your friends patronize bars?"
"No, no!" Dunn laughed. He struggled to sit up. Rolande stood and helped him. Shifting position seemed to wake him up. "Sorry. No. This fellow is doing grad work in chemistry, not divinity. He's got a black belt in something or other and he works on the side as a bouncer. I think they're called door managers or something like that. Anyway, he's always been pretty fearless, but this gang had him scared speechless."
Dunn nodded slightly. A new wave of drowsiness suddenly slowed him down again. But he stayed coherent. "They came into the bar and tried to pick fights, but the patrons were terrified of them. That's what he said. Same thing I noted. A deadness in the eyes. A mastery. Not what you'd think. The bartender even had some pretty tough ex-police in there, but everyone backed down. And the bouncers were too terrified to call the police."
Rolande rubbed his chin in thought. "Sounds like these men were honing their skills in the pubs and bars before they started robbing banks."
"Like they could control the room," he said. "Faces of death." But the young man's eyes were closing again in a light doze. He slumped down on the pillows. Rolande took advantage of the moment to take Dunn's pulses and get a look at the injuries he had sustained.
The chart listed broken ribs and minor internal bleeding from the beating. Severe damage to the left knee. The hands were encased in bandages. The left eye had suffered permanent damage, and there was a hairline fracture in the skull. The paper had mentioned the young divinity student's incredible quickness and boxing skill. No doubt his ability to duck and keep moving had saved his nose and jaw from being broken. But he had been punched, kicked, and whipped with a spur. He was in far worse shape than his opponent. And yet Dunn had put the other fellow down. Trying to comprehend the will and the strength that inhabited such a slender and bookish young man, Rolande looked down on Dunn, for once uncomprehending.
Rolande's cell phone beeped. He pulled it out. "What now?"
* * * *
"Now watch this," the young woman said as Carrie followed her across the concrete floor to one of the two heavy bags that had been suspended from the crossbeams above. This heavy bag sagged at the bottom and did not have much swing to it when Anne tapped it to check the distance. With a slight shock, Carrie realized that the bag---instead of being filled with tightly bound wadding or even sand---had been loaded with a single sheet of either concrete or stone. It probably weighed over a hundred pounds, and the corner edges in the canvas showed that there was very little cushion under the cover.
"The human foot, fired off in a straight trajectory from the hip, can strike a hard object with no mishap," Anne told her, setting up in a high, relaxed stance. "The tensile strength of the muscle and bone of the foot can withstand the blow or even break up the target at its impact point, provided that alignment is correct and that the foot strikes solidly on the heel or ball of the foot."
Carrie was about to protest, but the slim foot shot out before she could object. She had time to marvel at the high lift of the foot, all the way up to the curve of the backside in a single motion, and then it shot straight out as though without effort and hit the bag with a practiced whump that was followed by a sound of sand running down the inside of the bag. The covered rectangle collapsed on itself as it cracked across the middle, the top half sliding down inside the bag. Anne came to rest, upright, still relaxed, in her stance.
"You were so relaxed," Carrie said. "It's like you were hardly trying. But you broke it."
"Yes, it's speed, Carrie," Anne told her. "We get so much tensile strength in our muscles and bones, and no more. So with diligent training a fighter can improve muscular power, but it's all lost without speed. I did tense up, but only at the moment of impact. The sudden tensing of all the delivery muscles right in the last instant transfers all the energy into the target. But speed is really the key factor. And to have speed you must stay relaxed. And to stay relaxed you must lose fear. And to lose fear, you must be dead."
"There's somebody I'd like you to meet," Carrie said suddenly. "Would you like to meet a friend of mine? He and I work together. I think he would be interested in your training." And then she added hopefully, "He was a judo champion once. He's always been keen on martial arts."
The young woman's face became quiet and thoughtful. She tapped her chin with one finger. "An appointment," she said. She paused for a very long moment. "I usually don't make appointments. Marking time interferes with being dead."
"Perhaps he could come here," Carrie said. "Without really fixing a time."
"Oh, I don't know about that." Her voice was gentle, but she clearly did not want her domain invaded. "You see, I don't teach many pupils any more. I prefer to train. I might teach a woman if she needed to protect herself. But there is no need for a dead person to converse with anybody about martial arts. For conversation's sake, I mean. Conversation belongs to the living."
"Well, I hope you would make an exception, Miss Thomson," Carrie said. "He would be quite keen to meet you." She glanced around at the bare room. Surely this girl was impoverished. "We would pay you very well for your time."
Anne's face became even more thoughtful. At last she walked over to one wall, where the rolled up sleeping bag, with strips of torn fabric hanging from it, had been hung.
"I need a new sleeping bag," she said. "The conditions of this one are starting to interfere with my training. You could bring me a new sleeping bag." She looked at Carrie. "I think you can get one second hand at the Salvation Army store in Durham for about $25."
Carrie was about to protest with a better offer, but just then one of the gleaming cars from the staff fleet abruptly pulled up and Benton, the lab assistant got out.
"Dr. Drake. I'm afraid it's urgent," he called. "Director sent me."
She knew that signal. She had to go. "Back to the lab? Or shall I follow you?" she called to him. She fished in her purse for her keys.
"Urgent call from the police-the client," he said hurriedly.
Then he looked flustered. A flash of realization crossed the face of Anne Thomson, but her features quickly smoothed out. She said nothing, but surely she knew that Carrie had not come merely to understand martial arts.
But Carrie brazened it out. "I'd like to come back," she said. But a new suspicion nudged at her. That skeletal body--like a dead person still living. Could this gentle young woman belong to a cult that killed people?
But the young martial arts master was once again her deliberate self. Her eyes, expressionless but not threatening, scanned Carrie. "I'm usually here. But---" She hesitated and then made up her mind. "I could probably go with you to meet your friend. I'll allow an appointment if that is your way. Tomorrow at ten. I would like a sleeping bag in return."
"Certainly. Thank you." And Carrie hurried away. She swung open her car door and then stopped as she realized that Anne Thomson had followed her and was standing in front of the car.
Carrie looked up.
"It's amazing that you study the dead and have never considered death," Anne said. "You should. Death is the ultimate destination, the final winner of every fight."
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Shadow Soldiers03: The Real A.T. Thomson
It was the kind of place that people used to rent storage space. But the address was clear. What the police had originally taken as an apartment number was a storage locker number. She guided her small, sleek car down the narrow paved lanes between rows and rows of storage garages and bins. She was not altogether at ease among the concrete buildings, which resembled bunkers. A desolate stillness hung over the place like a pall. But when she located the correct number, she saw that the raising door was open. She pulled right up to the opening and saw that the garage-like interior had been furnished with various bits of training equipment, including several hanging bags. A tall, rail slim figure with shoulder length hair and ragged training clothes was poised in front of a heavy bag, turned away from the opening.
Carrie had one impression of a skeletal silhouette, dressed in rags. For one instant, the term "Fighting Dead" came back to her. At the sound of the car engine, this person turned around, and Carrie saw---to her further surprise---a girl far younger than herself, perhaps just a teenager. It was hard to judge, for the young woman was dressed in mere sheets of worn cotton t-shirts layered over each other. She had no jewelry, and her hair was cut in straight and simple fashion. Her huge eyes almost stood out from her stark cheekbones. She was neither beautiful nor homely. Rather, she was ghostly.
Carrie stepped out of the car, closed the door, and hesitantly approached.
This apparition of a human being watched her in silence, and then its expression showed recognition and the eyes at once became gentle, almost gracious. The girl stopped being a ghost and became human. Carrie realized guiltily that she obviously had been wide-eyed and a little frightened. But she saw, as she approached, the emaciated ribs under the sheets of ragged t-shirts expand as the young woman took a breath. That fleshless body hid very little.
"Hello," the young woman said, her voice kind. "Can I help you, Miss? Are you lost?"
"I---I'm looking for an A.T. Thomson," Carrie said. Her voice was too faint to be casual. She suddenly felt very alone in this vast, empty city of silent bunkers. She glanced around and saw the equipment: a heavy bag, a few old tires, a boxing headboard set up on the wall, but no punching bag. "Do you know who he is? Does he own this bin?"
"AT Thomson the martial artist?" the young girl asked.
"Yes. He was a gold medalist."
The girl suddenly smiled with genuine warmth. Her unearthliness almost disappeared in her genuinely good natured sympathy with her guest. She extended an almost spidery hand as she crossed to Carrie. "I'm Anne Thomson. AT Thomson. A pleasure to meet you."
Carrie's mouth dropped open as the unthinkable became a reality. "Dr. Caroline Drake," she said with some wonder. Then she wished she had not added her title. For she suddenly knew that this person was beyond titles and hierarchies.
But Anne Thomson, who was nearly as tall as Rolande, suddenly fixed her direct brown eyes on Carrie and said at once, "Thank you, I don't need a doctor." Her voice was abrupt. She turned away and returned to her bag.
"Most people just call me Carrie, and I'm not here as a medical doctor, Miss Thompson," Carrie said after her.
The head turned. "What kind of a doctor are you?" the girl asked, eyes calm and expressionless.
"Well, I have several degrees, actually. My field of work is forensics and pathology."
The girl relaxed and turned all the way around again, but her voice and eyes were steady and she stayed where she was. "What is forensics and pathology?"
Carrie searched for words "I report on evidence and remains. When some unexpected event happens, I gather information on the measurements taken of the scene, or incident, or person, and I evaluate that information."
Understanding filled the girl's eyes. "You study the dead."
"Sometimes. Sometimes it's far less dramatic than that. Any event that requires payment to be made may require a forensic assessment and evaluation."
"For the police?" Anne Thomson asked.
"If they request my company to act as a consultant. We actually earn most of our income from assisting insurance companies."
"Oh yes." This made sense to her. "But what brought you here?"
"I---I came because of a book. Are you--you're the gold medalist?" She tried to keep doubt out of her voice but failed. This young woman was obviously unusual, but she looked frail, far too frail to be a world-class athlete.
Slowly, the gentle courtesy returned to Anne Thomson's eyes. "Yes, that's me. Uh, my medals are around here someplace." She glanced around and looked thoughtful. She raised a spidery hand and scratched her head. "Oh, maybe I lent them to my former teacher. He likes them." She suddenly paused, and that clear graciousness filled her expression again as she decided to accept Carrie's introduction. And then she asked, "You sound British. I've been there. Would you like to have some tea?"
"Thank you," Carrie said. "Certainly." She followed the girl to a corner of the garage, where an ancient water cooler--apparently salvaged from a curbside---had been set up to hold a water jug. This flimsy and duct-taped contrivance stood next to a stool with an electric teakettle on it.
Suddenly, her midsection twinged. The scraped sensation was almost painful, worse now than it had been earlier. Of course it would be. Czerwinski had merely embarrassed her, but here, in this remote place, she felt alone and puzzled and oddly vulnerable. And yet she felt her hostess was more vulnerable. And very young.
"Here, you take the stool," Anne Thomson said, lifting the teakettle away and filling it with water from the cooler. A long orange extension cord snaked down from the beams overhead, and she set the kettle onto the floor and plugged the kettle into this. The narrow storage room smelled of damp concrete. Occasional cardboard cartons were stacked here and there, some of them with articles of clothing spilling from them. High on the wall, a bedroll, quite tattered, was rolled up, tied together, and hung on a rack. It began to dawn on Carrie that this frail child lived here: alone.
"Your tea will be ready in a minute," the girl said. "I'm afraid there's nothing else." She cocked her head. "Are you all right? Does your stomach hurt?"
"No I'm quite all right." She moved her arm from her midsection. "So, you wrote the book, The Fighting Dead?" Carrie asked.
The young girl nodded. "And you study the dead. Do your findings agree with my book?"
"Well you see, I haven't had a chance to read your book. It was recommended to me."
"Are you studying martial arts?"
"Not really, but I was hoping to look into the theories."
"Because you study the dead." Anne's eyes were expectant. "What do you conclude about death?"
"Death?" The question caught her off guard. "Death is the end," Carrie said after a moment. "A fact of life." But she realized that she had never really thought about death all that much.
"And beyond death?"
The eyes were unreadable but the voice kind. "I don't think you would benefit from my book."
"I'm quite prepared to have my mind changed. Could I see a copy?"
"No, it's out of print. No more copies." Anne Thomson was not quite as abrupt as she had been at the hint of Carrie being a doctor come to check on her, but there was something of a wall in her words.
Carrie softened her voice. "That's a shame. You must have a lot to teach about martial arts."
Anne Thomson hesitated, her brown eyes fixed on the teakettle. Then she said, "I won't let them reprint it. There were errors in the way the information was presented. I'm afraid there's no sugar, Dr. Drake."
"Please, do call me Carrie."
"Okay. But were you interested in the martial arts?" Anne's huge eyes brightened slightly. "Are you thinking of following the way?"
"Well," Carrie hesitated. This girl had an air of innocence about her that she did not want to disrupt. She did not want to tell her that a gang of efficient and ruthless criminals was exploiting her book. "Is death that much a part of fighting and martial arts?" Carrie asked.
"Death is the solution to fighting. The person who is dead no longer needs to fight." Her voice was light and easy, as though stating an obvious fact.
Carrie tilted her head.
Anne smiled. "At its most basic level, being able to fight dead means a person can fight without fear. It's like this: Everybody is afraid of a lot of things. Except for the dead. The dead don't fear anything. It's an old concept. The samurai of Japan used to practice telling themselves they were dead. That's why they were such good fighters. The dead have nothing to lose and so have nothing to fear."
"And you believe that?"
"Yes. Being dead will make a living person invincible. I have to find a cup for you." She looked around. Raising a long, slender hand to again scratch her head, she walked over to a tiny foot locker to conduct a search.
"Why?" Carrie asked. "Why would death make you invincible?"
The innocent brown eyes swung round to her and fixed on her. "Because I'm dead. I died about eight years ago. And that's how I won in the women's division of the World Games. All the other girls were still alive. Being alive means you want to stay alive, and that means you can be frightened."
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Shadow Soldiers02: The Detectives
She looked around and saw two men of about her own age standing by the large Bunn coffeemaker, coffee cups in hand. The taller of the two men had his eyes fixed on her. "Hello," he said to her with far too much warmth. He had sandy hair and pale blue eyes, which lingered on her.
She frowned, and at his, she felt a blush crawl up her cheeks. And then, amazingly, that place in her midsection, the shameful place, twinged, like something against her will, like the flush on her cheeks.
But the Director, always a gentleman, shot an angry stare at the detectives. "Can you put your partner on a leash or something?" Courtney asked, irate.
The shorter man threw a look of caution at his friend. "Rusty talks before he thinks."
"Sorry," the taller one said immediately. "I apologize. I have to admit, when I heard we were meeting with two scientists, I didn't---well, I pictured---"
"Someone more like me," Rolande said dryly. "Yes all right, this is Professor Caroline Drake, our newest researcher, and I am Dr. Rolande."
Supina extended his hand to Rolande. "I've heard of you in the department. You've helped us before. I'm Matt Supina."
His partner offered a sheepish hand to Carrie. "I beg your pardon ma'am. I'm Rusty Makevitch."
"Well," Courtney said. "I think I can leave the four of you to your discussion. There's a table 'round the corner if you'd like to sit down.
"Yes, come sit down," Rolande said. "The Director tells us that Raleigh police came into this case from a bank robbery. I do think I heard about that robbery attempt," He gestured at the cheap plastic chairs around the break room table. "Some divinity or pastoral student interrupted it, didn't he?"
Supina gave a brief nod. "Something like that. Here it is." He pulled a manila packet up onto the table, opened it, and extracted a sheet of newspaper.
Rolande glanced at it. The page captured his attention, and he reported on it. "Openly defied an order to stay down on the floor." He unfolded the paper and squinted at the tiny print on the third page. "Broke the nose of a robbery suspect on his first punch. Hmm. Quite a boxer for a divinity student."
Carrie's comment was acidic. "Not much for turning the other cheek, eh?" Czerwinski glanced at her, surprised, but she had her arm across her midsection, trying not to be obvious, but using pressure to make that scraped sensation go away.
Rolande went on with his summary. "Caught in a bank robbery that was set up like a semi-military assault. But he wouldn't let a perpetrator take a young woman hostage. Really admirable." Rolande shot a glance Carrie. Like her, he was a complete atheist and liberated in his views, but there was a wide streak of the chivalrous knight in Rolande, right alongside the imperious temper and broad egotism. He admired men who rescued helpless women.
Supina supplied the missing details. "This group opened their assault by killing one security person right off. A stone right in the head. Dead on the first shot from the sling. The fellow who slung the stone was then shot by a second guard---took the bullet high in the right leg, lodged in the bone. And then, from the ground, he got off another shot from the sling that killed the second guard."
Now Carrie was incredulous. She forgot herself for a moment. "They tried to assault a bank with---with slingshots?"
Czerwinski, anxious to contribute, said, "Two of the five perpetrators had guns but they used the slings and stones to open the attack."
Rolande passed his judgment. "And one of them got off a throw after taking a bullet? He must have been loaded with cocaine."
"I should think it impossible," Carrie said. "To move with that much precision and strength after suffering a bullet wound, no matter what drug he would use."
Rolande scanned the page. "Witnesses said it was as though the assailant were somehow able to reject the pain. The patrons were down on the floor, and bank security entered and opened fire from covered positions. They kept the two perpetrators who had guns pinned down. One of the other intruders who was close to a door converted his sling to a garrote and dragged a woman out by her throat, as a hostage. The young divinity student pursued him to an outer hallway and intervened." Rolande lifted his eyebrows. "Good for him."
Supina took up the story. "He is a bit worse for wear. Hospitalized. The man he attacked was good at martial arts and was padded with body armor against bullets, but the preacher finally brought him down after one tremendous fight. But with so many bank customers on the floor, the gun fight inside the main room had to be terminated, so the others got away. But this pastoral divine, or whatever he is, managed to keep his man down."
Rolande's eyes were warm. "I'd like to meet that young man."
Supina shrugged. "His name is Stephen Dunn. He's still in the hospital. You're welcome to talk to him."
This answer evoked a question from Rolande. "What, exactly, do you want from us? Source of the talisman---"
Supina leaned back. He had the darkest hair Carrie had ever seen, cut short, and fair skin. "We think these people are part of some sort of serial killing ring that was active in Durham County--perhaps linked to drugs or perhaps linked to a revived pagan cult. And even if their robbery attempt failed, these perpetrators certainly showed a frightening degree of expertise in executing a military assault against a bank that's been designed like a fortress."
He had hazel eyes, and he looked from Rolande to Carrie. "You have a history of impressing law enforcement with your speedy and accurate assessments. We need any information on any of the equipment that will help us track it: metallurgy, manufacture, any significance in any item, including where they came from." He looked from Rolande to Carrie. "Any idea what the Chinese symbol means?"
"Not yet," Rolande said. "My colleague tells me the talisman was probably made in the USA, probably here in the South." And Carrie nodded. She preferred straightforward lab work to going out and tracking down interview subjects, but Rolande was a historical and cultural expert, as well as being an excellent pathologist. There was a chance that he would see to Stephen Dunn alone and let her focus on tracing the metal casting impregnation of the piece of die cast metal.
Supina continued his summary: "The suspect that Dunn knocked out has been questioned, but the investigators can't get much from him. He denies being connected to any drug selling operation and continues to identify himself as one of 'The Fighting Dead.'"
Carrie echoed the term in disbelief. "The Fighting Dead?" Rolande frowned and looked thoughtful.
"Well we do know it's the name of a book. Out of print," The Detective told her. "Written by an A.T. Thomson, who---I have been told---was a gold medalist in the World Games in martial arts competition year before last. The book has something to do with the mental aspects of fighting. But we can't locate a copy. It sold out quickly in the martial arts community last year and has not been reprinted."
"World Games? Thomson's an American I hope?" Rolande guessed.
Supina nodded. "And living locally, as good luck would have it. Here's the address." He set a slip of paper down on the edge of the table. "Except the address takes you into the heart of a storage facility. Maybe you can make heads or tales out of it. We verified it with her former publisher."
"You think Thomson is a player in this Fighting Dead cult?" Rolande asked.
The young Detective shook his head. "I don't think that Thomson is mixed up with these people, but I think they have taken the book as a sort of textbook on invincibility in personal combat. We need a quick study into the heart of these concepts. Maybe you can find a link between that symbol---" And he nodded at the talisman, still in Carrie's hands. "And any martial arts schools."
Rolande crossed his long legs and laced his fingers behind his head. "Oh I see. You'll question Stephen Dunn, and then you'll track down Thompson. And then for good measure we'll all go visit a lot of kung fu and karate schools and pass around that mass produced, manufactured trinket and ask what it means. Then on the way back here we can fight off a gang of the tong--no doubt assisted by Jackie Chan and the ghost of Bruce Lee." He glared at Supina.
Supina and Czerwinski let out laughs at the prediction. "One thing at a time, Dr. Rolande," the dark haired detective said.
Rolande glanced over at Carrie. "Well, since you've just about solved the origin of the talisman anyway, would you care to visit Thomson's address and track down the confusion?" he asked. "I want to see Dunn as soon as possible."
She frowned. She didn't like it that Rolande simply directed her to do things as though she were his assistant. Of course, he also treated the Director this way. Sometimes it was easier not to have an argument. They stood up. But he knew that she was annoyed with him.
"Do you want an escort?" Czerwinski asked as they exited through the doorway. "That storage place is big and empty."
She glanced up at him. "Oh, I assure you, Detective Czerwinski, I can manage. I've been driving for ever so long." Her British accent startled him, but he said nothing. Supina laughed again,
Rolande suddenly smiled and tapped Carrie's wristwatch. "You know, if you time it right, you can do a little tracking and come back by way of that bakery you like so much. They put those huge cinnamon rolls in the window just at ten, don't they? Or should I call them scones?"
Rolande liked to practice his British-isms on her, though he was usually incorrect when he tried to use London parlance. "They're not quite scones," she said. She sometimes wondered if he had not urged Courtney to hire her simply because her accent. Have a Brit in the lab. Give the place an international feel.
She arched an eyebrow up at him. "I suppose you'll want one?"
"Two," he said. "Extra dusting of cinnamon if you don't mind."
"Right. I'll see to it." They said goodbye to the detectives, and she hurried to her office to check maps of Durham and compare them against the last written address for Thomson. If there had been a mere error in the transcription, she might be able to tease out a couple alternatives to check. Perhaps she could find A.T. Thomson within a few hours.
Monday, September 05, 2005
Shadow Soldiers01: Satanism?
Across the two-lane highway, two school boys waiting for the bus, their heads capped in wooly red and blue, watched. Be educated men, someday, he thought. Further along than him, but he could still show them how a man developed skill and hard work. Not enough kids knew you had to work hard. But school, he thought wistfully, was pretty good too.
Visible in the left rear view mirror, Bobby, his lanky frame swaddled in a gray hooded sweatshirt and a denim coat over that, leaped off the back. He grabbed the two nearest sacks from the overflow and threw them in back. Poor Bobby, riding in the wind on raw days like this. Eighty days and still sober, God bless him, Gabriel thought, and sent a prayer again for Bobby to keep with it.
Gabriel glanced forward at the kids. They pointed at the truck and talked, trying to figure out the controls he used to sound the warning signal, open the hatch in back, execute the lifts to snare the dumpsters, and bring down the hydraulic press that compacted the waste. Like most little boys, they got excited and animated as they tried to work out what it must be like to be master of such a rig.
Time was, if he had a minute, he could give a little boy a boost into the seat and let him try the stick shift. No more, Gabriel thought. Couldn't even talk to kids any more. Couldn't boost him up into the cab and let him pretend he was master of the rig. Too much evil in this old world, he thought. Getting in the way of normal kindness. Everybody a stranger now.
Pounding on the glass alongside him brought him back. Bobby, eyes like Oreo cookies in his stark white face, plastered himself against the door and shouted words that were blunted by the window.
Gabriel waved him back and shoved the door open into the raw air.
Bobby leaped up and down on the pavement. "Gabe! It's a body! It's a body! Come back and help me!"
Gabriel slid out. "You call the dispatcher!" he said. "Lemme take a look!" He prayed it was just a drunk, somebody who crawled into the sacks to stay warm and sleep it off.
But as Len boosted himself into the cab to call the dispatcher and Gabriel climbed up the back of the truck and then onto the loading dock, he saw the shoes with the feet in them. Men's shoes, like they wore in offices, and dark socks. And he knew, all in an instant, that it was a body. All the warmth drained out of him. And he realized that the evil of this old world was even worse than he'd thought.
* * * *
"What do you make of this, Rolande?" From behind his massive, immaculate desk, the Director leaned forward and passed a dark metal object over to the tall, white-haired man who was sprawled comfortably in a plush office chair.
Dr. Caroline Drake eyed her colleague as he examined the talisman that the Director had given to him. Other than the three of them, the office was silent. Bars of morning sunlight lay in long, narrow stripes across the deeply piled carpet. Jo Brandt, the new SAS programmer and statistician, entered with a tray of coffee for the men, tea for Caroline Drake, and set it down on the Director's desk. As she turned to Miles Courtney, a ray of morning light hit the silver cross on her lapel and turned it into a tiny bright star for an instant. "Need anything else?" she asked.
"No, and thank you for pinch hitting." He stood to pass around the mugs. Jo Brandt smiled at him, avoided Caroline Drake's eye, and cast half a glance at Rolande, who smiled blandly without quite looking at her. She walked out.
A newcomer to America, Carrie did not understand why a competent young woman in a professional staff position had been assigned to serve coffee and tea. But she understood, or at least recognized Jo Brandt's fear of her. Everybody feared her here, or at least maintained their distance.
She should not, she thought ruefully, have insisted that the younger staff call her Dr. Drake. Americans didn't do that. They were so amazingly informal. Miles Courtney himself, the Director, had earned the nickname of "Corky," and everybody but the very youngest members of the staff called him that. He never objected.
Rolande, his eyes keen in his long, lined face, turned the metal object over and over. He had huge hands, but they were skillful: a surgeon's hands. "Chinese symbol," he murmured. He glanced at her. "Take a look at this, Carrie. Can you make anything of it?"
He surprised her by rising from his chair to hand her the object. She was grateful. At this hour of the morning she did not feel equal to moving about. Dr. Rolande afforded her a slight smile as he returned to his chair.
Carrie Drake wondered if the Director called this 0700 meeting just to remind her that he was in charge. For a moment she stared at the bars of sunlight on the carpet and wondered why she had come to the United States.
But she set her mug of tea onto the edge of the Director's desk and squinted at the talisman, then shook her head. "I can't make anything of the shape," she said. "I mean, it's a Chinese character, and they double as symbols, so I would guess a fertility symbol or good luck charm. But the metal--"
She hefted it in her hands and then carefully traced along the edge with a finger. In spite of irregular indentations cut into the surface, the edges themselves followed uniformly straight lines. "Made to look hand chiseled and hand finished," she said thoughtfully. She paused. She squinted along the longest edge of it. "Die cast," she said at last. "Not hand made."
Courtney, the Director of REACH Research, cocked a single eyebrow at how rapidly she reached her conclusion. "Are you certain?" he asked.
She spoke coolly. "Ninety percent certain. My guess is that it has been marketed to appear hand made." She looked over at Rolande. His gray eyes settled onto her with an attitude of amusement. He'd already figured out it wasn't hand made, she thought.
She wondered at this bit of gallantry in letting her speak first. According to local legend in Research Triangle Park, Dr. Rolande was a difficult man to work with, even more difficult than she, with stories abounding about his mercurial temper. It was said he single-handedly drove out five UNC interns from his lab, and the university refused to send him any more.
"I quite agree with Dr. Drake's opinion," Rolande said, using her formal title as a gentle reminder to Courtney that she was a skilled forensic expert, in spite of her comparative youth. "But what's it all about?"
"I need you to tell me where it came from," the Director said. "Where this particular object was actually manufactured." Once again, he had fallen into his habit of talking to Rolande as though Carrie were not there, or as though she could not answer. She pressed her lips together.
But Rolande also became sulky. "Well let Carrie assess it; she's got all that back ground in metallurgy."
She traced her index finger along its edges and then its surface. The finish on the blue-black metal was almost silky. She asked a question of her own: "Are you going to tell us how it came to you, Director? And why you are so interested in it?"
"Raleigh police lab has engaged us because they've found a link between some apparently ritualized killings that were being handled by a special Cults task force and a recent bank robbery," the Director said. She concluded that the satiny finish on the metal was acrylic resin. Yes, she ran a finger along the edge just to verify the feel. The tiny spurs along the corners were muted, not rough, as though they had been filled in with a resin.
"A bank robbery?" Rolande was amazed, almost amused. "Do people still do that?"
"These people do." The Director glanced at Rolande. "In the first investigation, there were four murders of apparently randomly chosen victims over a five month period. Bodies found in dumpsters---"
"No real attempt to hide them then," Rolande interjected.
Carrie glanced at him. "Possibly self-assurance of being untraceable."
The Director glanced from one to the other. "If I may go on?"
He hid his annoyance and continued: "The local police thought it was Satanism except that the bodies were not overly abused. But a symbol matching the pattern of that talisman---" And he nodded at the object in Carrie's hands--- "had been made of rope and twisted round the necks of the victims---"
"Strangulation?" Rolande asked.
The Director shook his head. "No. Just tied on and hung there. Death in three of the victims was from a lethal blow, precisely struck in the center of the forehead. The fourth was by strangling, but from a leather strap, apparently, not the rope hung 'round the victim's neck."
Yes, Carrie thought. Ritual murder. But it didn't sound like Satanism.
"And then just this past week several men tried to take over a very large bank," the Director added. "Killed a couple of security men. But one perpetrator was captured. The police found that object on him." And he nodded at the talisman. "Matches the symbols on the victims. They're trying to find a link between these boys and the murders. But the only thing the captured man told them was that he was a part of the Fighting Dead. Then he clamped up."
"Could be some kind of cult," Rolande murmured. "There are loads of them popping up all the time these days."
"Religion gone haywire," Carrie said.
The Director was curt. "Hardly."
"No I agree, Director," Rolande said. "Cults take one or two ideas out of a religion, inflate them way out of proportion, and then bow to them. But there's usually some charismatic figure behind it all. A lot of so-called religious cults are really personality cults. Built on a need in the followers. They need what he offers."
Carrie returned to examining the talisman as he finished his narrative. Yes, she thought, the object had gone through a metal casting impregnation process, in which acrylic resin was driven by high pressure into the porosities of the die cast metal. Few companies employed such a process, only one or two in Britain, and the same number in America.
"This was manufactured in the USA, most likely," she said suddenly. "Possibly Tennessee. Or maybe shopped out to smaller places in the Southeast, but we can probably get it traced today through the Tennessee distribution chain."
The Director frowned. He had no idea how she could have deduced its point of origin so quickly. Rolande looked even more amused, enjoying the Director's predicament of being dumbfounded at her acumen.
"Yes, well perhaps the two of you would be so good as to sum up your preliminary findings in a report," he said. "Something I can hand over to the formal investigation. And Rolande," he added. "If Dr. Drake is going to analyze the material, then any historic information you can give on the meaning of that thing would be helpful."
"If it were manufactured in Tennessee, I should hardly think it has any historic information," Carrie said. There was an edge to her voice. But this commentary was a mistake. Both of them ignored her opinion.
If some murderous cult has been killing the occasional victim and hanging inexpensive ropes around their necks," Rolande mused. "Why shift into high gear and rob a bank? Why take such an enormous risk?"
"To acquire an enormous sum of money," Courtney said.
Rolande tilted his head. "Yes, but why?"
"Perhaps they have plans to expand. The police have asked us to supply them with forensic information as quickly as we can. A change in the pattern of any dangerous cult spells trouble. Law enforcement wants to get all the facts and put these people under lock and key before they kill again or launch another coordinated attack on the public."
"Long hours again." The tall, white haired scientist sighed with false self-pity. "All right."
The Director glanced at his desk calendar. "Do you want Jo Brandt pulled onto your team?"
Rolande instantly shook his head. Jo Brandt, a born again Christian from what Carrie Drake had heard since coming on board two weeks ago, had been Rolande's only surviving intern from UNC. Courtney had hired her on permanent staff and then inexplicably moved her into the small IS department, where she ran the SAS functions for statistical analysis and metrics.
"If we need extra help later we can pull Jo on board," Rolande said. "Or perhaps Mike Franklin. Or both. But for right now, let's restrict the project to forensic information gathering."
The intercom on the Director's desk beeped. He pressed a button. "Yes?"
"A Detective Supina and Czerwinski have asked for you, Director. They're in the conference room," the Admin's voice said. Carrie frowned and tried to remember the girl's name.
"I wasn't expecting that," Courtney mumbled. He toggled the intercom. "Take them down to the coffee and tea, Barbara. We'll be down directly. He glanced at his two scientists. "Get yourselves presentable and we'll go down and meet them."
"What do you want us to do," Rolande asked. "Put on white lab coats and glasses?"