Book 34 of 52: "They Came to Baghdad" by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie.  It’s a name synonymous with mystery.

But this isn’t really a mystery novel.

It’s much more of an action-filled spy novel, with a mystery serving as a minor plot element.

And that’s a very good thing, in my opinion.
“They Came to Baghdad” features a mysterious meeting between heads of state being planned to happen, well, in Baghdad.  But powerful, shadowy forces want to disrupt this meeting, and they’re willing to kill in order to make sure it all falls apart.

Those shadowy forces might have succeeded – if it weren’t for one young, lovestruck woman, who decides to chase her new flame to Baghdad, and finds herself embroiled in the middle of this devious and twisting plot.

I’ve come to really appreciate Agatha Christie stories.  They always start out slow, but build in such a compelling manner that I just can’t put them down.  “They Came to Baghdad” was no exception, and I might even consider purchasing this one for myself.  Very good!

Time to read: 1 day.  I couldn’t stop!

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[Retrieval] "Perfectly secure."

“Perfectly contained.  It’s completely secure.”

The man that some called Hatchet waited, drumming his fingers on the table.  His suit was crisp and freshly ironed, and his bland features wore a look of barely contained boredom.  His fit body aside, the man looked totally unremarkable.  No one would ever pick him out of a crowd.

“We’ve set up dozens of redundant protocols,” the scientist across the table tried again.  “Forget Fort Knox.  This is definitely the most secure installation in the country.”

“It’s true,” his colleague chimed in, looking as anxious as his fellow.  “The entry procedures include a half dozen different checkpoints.  Nothing comes in without our knowledge.”

Hatchet waited another beat for the silence to build before he asked his question.  “And things going out?”

The two scientists exchanged a look.  “Out?” one of them repeated blankly.  “Nothing goes out.”
The man in the suit could have asked more questions, here.  He could have inquired about the details of their security checkpoints, about how they screened incoming cargo, physical connections to the installation site.

He didn’t, however.  Instead, he just let the silence stretch out in front of him.

The men across the table from him waited, and fidgeted.  They reminded Hatchet of young teenagers who’d managed to get their hands on a negotiation manual, he thought to himself.  They knew that silence was a tool to be used, but they weren’t yet comfortable with it.

Hatchet, on the other hand, had all day.

Finally, caving to the pressure, one of the men across the table from him opened his mouth.  “We’ve been instructed to give you all the help that we can offer,” he began, before his mouth ran out of steam.  He lapsed into silence, clearly wishing furiously that this expensive consultant across the table would start doing something.

Finally, Hatchet gave a little nod, more to himself than to his clients.  “Something got out,” he said.

Both of the men nodded.

“And I’m here,” the consultant continued, “to retrieve it for you.”

Another set of nods.

This time, Hatchet nodded back.  “Okay,” he said, settling back in his chair and reaching for the bottle of Fiji water on the table in front of him.  “Tell me about it.”

Both of the men, either from relief of concern, started babbling at the same time.  Hatchet said nothing, merely listening attentively until they both eventually ran out of comments and slipped back into uncomfortable silence.

“Four crystals,” he repeated, watching for the expected nods.  “Enclosed in glass tubes.”

The nods came, just as he’d anticipated.  “Still contained,” one of the scientists insisted.  “Totally secure.”

“Missing.”

“But still secure.”

Hatchet let this minor matter pass.  “And what happens if someone opens one of these glass tubes?” he asked.

“Um, they shouldn’t.  It’s secure-“

The consultant’s glare was enough to make the scientist’s words wither and dry up mid-sentence.  “If they open it, you probably won’t have to worry about retrieval,” he admitted, looking down at his lap.

Waiting.  It stirred tongues to looseness.

“If they somehow opened the tube,” the poor man began, looking miserable.

“-and they removed the crystal-” threw in his companion.

“Yes, and if they removed the crystal, there would be a… a significant explosion.”

Hatchet waited.  “Significant,” he prodded after a moment.

Both men nodded.  “Perhaps sixty megatons,” one of them offered.

For once, Hatchet had to struggle to keep his face blank.  A man in his line of work had to know conversions, especially regarding dangerous weapons.  “Sixty,” he repeated, before he could hold back the words.

Two more nods.  “But no one should open the glass tubes, so it should be okay,” one of the scientists interrupted quickly.

“Yes, the tubes fully prevent any unfortunate reaction.  Perfectly harmless, in the tubes.”

“Completely secure.”

Danni California, Part 27

Continued from Part 26, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

The metal grappling hook sailed out, trailing rope behind it as it flew away from the building.  I stared after it, feeling the rope flying out through my fingers and watching the little black dot zoom away.

It landed on the closest nearby building, and I heard a clink as it hit.  I waited a moment, feeling the rope drop to slackness, and then carefully gave the line in my hands a gentle tug.

For a heart-stopping second, it slid loosely, suggesting that the grappling hook had failed to catch on a target.  But then, just as I cursed and prepared myself to haul it in for another throw, I felt the line suddenly flex with tension.

“We’ve got a line!” I shouted to Danni over the pop of gunfire, pulling the rope tight and hauling it around the doorframe.  “Come on!”

I could see Danni leaning up against the side of the doorframe, sheltered from bullets that now poured in through the open holes.  She had popped the revolver open, but I saw her trembling fingers struggling to fit the new bullets into their chambers.

“Leave it!” I shouted, beckoning to her.  My own shoulder still throbbed where I’d been hit, but I still pulled out my gun and sent a few shots back through the open door.  I doubted I’d hit anyone, but it at least forced the shooters to take cover and stop firing for a moment.

Danni gritted her teeth as she pushed herself across the floor to me, but I scooped her up in my arms as best I could manage.  We hurried over to where the rope descended out through the shattered glass, into empty space.

For just a second, we both looked into each other’s eyes, knowing how risky this next move would be.  Impulsively, despite the lines of pain that were clear on her face, Danni pulled herself even closer to me and kissed me soundly on the mouth.

“See you on the other side, Jasper,” she whispered as she broke away, reaching out and looping her arms around the rope.

I couldn’t say anything; my mouth felt slack as she threw a leg over the rope as well and, with nothing bracing her, she slid out the window.

I was tempted to stay there, to watch as she descended.  But the bullets now once again pouring in through the doorway, growing closer to my position as the other shooters became emboldened, told me that I had to move.  I put my gun away, but before I reached up to grab the rope, I fished out my pocketwatch and flipped it open.

A minute until the clock struck nine.  I didn’t have any time to spare.

I reached up and grabbed the rope, praying for it to hold me as I trusted it with my weight.  For a moment, I felt the rope give a sickening lurch, but I knew that I didn’t have any other option.  I kicked off, and my stomach dropped down to my feet as I plunged out of the building, sliding along the rope.

As I exited through the shattered window, I realized that I was sliding down the rope head-first, making it difficult to know when the other building was approaching.  I craned my head around, twisting my neck in order to time when to clamp down on the rope to slow myself.

The other building rushed up towards me.  I tightened my grip on the rope until I could feel the threads burning my fingers, just barely managing to slow myself enough to survive the landing.  I hit at the far side, tumbling off of the rope and rolling across the building’s roof.

As I finally slowed, I flipped over and pulled myself up to my feet, looking around for Danni.  I spotted her a few feet away, still looking pale but hurrying over to help me up.  She didn’t appear too injured, I saw with a wave of thankfulness.

“Are you okay?” she asked, as she reached down to help me up.

I let her lend me her uncertain support, but as we rose up, a bullet ricocheted off the roof only a couple feet from our position.  The shooters up on the sixth floor of the tower now stood in front of the broken window, their guns still firing down at us.

There was nowhere to take cover.  All we could do was crouch, looking up at the high tower of the Organization behind me-

-just as it suddenly erupted into orange flame, with a roar like a giant’s howl.

In that moment, as we both stared up, the entire tower vanished as multiple explosions around its base burst up through the ground.  Huge gouts of flame shot up, lapping at the sides of the tower like a hungry tongue.  The roars of multiple explosions washed over us like shock waves, obliterating all other noise.

It was exactly nine o’clock AM.

To be continued – not much more now . . . 

Book 33 of 52: "Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt" by Michael Lewis

Back to non-fiction – and one of my favorite topics, finance!  I’ve heard a lot of critical acclaim for Flash Boys, which seeks to take on and explain the mystery and complexity behind high-frequency trading, or HFT.

What is HFT?  In short, it’s the stock trading strategy of racing the market, finding out when a large order is going to be placed, snapping up all of those stocks before the large order can go through, and then selling them to that purchaser for a profit.

It’s a bit like seeing a lot of customers at a lemonade stand on a hot day, cutting to the front of the line, buying ALL the lemonade, and then turning around and selling it to the customers for a higher price.

Seems wrong?  I agree!  As do many people in this book…
The book follows a real-life trader, Brad, who slowly comes to learn about HFT – and sets out to create a stock exchange where traders are safe from HFT’s reach, trying to restore some fairness to the market.  There’s also a lot of background, and although the book does get technical in some places, I didn’t have too much trouble following along, even as a Wall Street outsider.

Time to read: 3 days, mainly in small chunks at night.

[Retrieval] Meeting the Fence

Normally, the man they called Broiler preferred to take his time.  He liked to listen to his victim’s screams, savoring how they slowly realized that they wouldn’t escape, that they’d die with him.  He’d only been a bruiser when they threw him behind bars, but he soon found his place on the inside – and he commanded far more respect here than he ever did out on the street.

Broiler liked to savor his jobs.  But today, he moved with uncharacteristic swiftness.

Freddy lay quietly in his bunk, but Broiler didn’t doubt that the little ferret of a man had his ears peeled.  He was fresh meat, after all.  He surely expected to be roughed over.  For all Broiler knew, the man might be concealing a blade or shiv under that thin blanket.

Broiler, however, had the advantage of weight – and surprise.  Before Freddy could even speak out, the electrical cord in the big man’s hands looped around his throat and drew tight.

Broiler leaned down on the body as it jerked and thrashed, sawing back and forth with his hands.  It didn’t take long before the smaller man’s movements ceased.

Still, the bigger bruiser flipped the corpse over, waiting for several minutes to ensure that no life remained.  He’d been given triple his usual rate for this job, and he wasn’t going to let anything foul it up.  Only once he was completely certain that Freddy was dead did he stand up and leave the cell.

#

Koseynko watched the car cruise slowly down the street.  His street.  The tinted windows concealed the identity of the driver, but the car itself provided plenty of information to the observing man.

Mercedes, current year, with all the luxury options.  The car’s black sheen didn’t show a single scratch.  Koseynko doubted that the vehicle had ever even touched a dealership’s parking lot.

Furthermore, the thing was armored.  Most dealers wouldn’t spot something like that, but Koseynko remembered enough from the panicked weeks before he fled his homeland, just one more refugee from the Russian unrest.  The tires looked thinner but bulkier, and the car rode a little more heavily on its shocks under the weight of the ceramic panels.  That armor, more than anything else, fed the little spark of nervousness in Koseynko’s gut.

A high-level dealer would drive a Mercedes. But only the most powerful drug lords would pay for armor – and they’d never come to his neighborhood.  Not personally.  They’d send a lieutenant.

Something about this felt very wrong.

After circling the block, the car finally pulled up outside his building.  The engine turned off, but the driver didn’t emerge immediately.  Koseynko knew that there had to be at least a hundred eyes on that car.  He hoped that none of them would be foolish enough to try anything.

Finally, the door opened.  Koseynko’s eyes immediately flashed to the driver as he emerged.  The man wore a charcoal gray suit, perfectly tailored and probably worth more than what Koseynko made in a year.  The cut of the suit helped disguise the bulge, but Koseynko knew how to spot the piece hanging in a shoulder holster.  The driver was armed.

The driver closed the door and, moving as though he wasn’t standing in the heart of the projects, he strolled around to the car’s trunk.  The latch smoothly disengaged, and he lifted a slim aluminum briefcase out from inside.

Case in hand, the driver turned towards Koseynko’s building.  He strode inside, moving with utter confidence.

Koseynko hurried back to his seat, settling his bulk into the chair as the driver entered the room.  The chair’s springs creaked slightly beneath him, and his hand dipped down briefly on the side to check that the butt of his sawed-off was still there.  Reassured by the presence of his weapon, he looked up at the newcomer.

Pale skin, pale blue eyes.  A body in excellent shape, trained, but not a professional fighter.  The man appeared capable enough, but something in how he held himself betrayed him as a leader, not a fighter.  He moved with utter confidence, as if expecting the world to bend to his will.

“Vladimir Koseynko.”  It wasn’t a question.

Koseynko nodded, forcing himself to wait.  He could make no guess about the man, his masters or why he might be here.  The man knew Koseynko, and he had the advantage.  For the moment.

Behind Koseynko’s chair, he could sense the comforting presence of his two lieutenants.  They were armed, and certainly had their guns in hand by now.  Alexei leaned forward, cradling the heavy assault rifle he insisted on toting everywhere.

“Vhat do you vant-” the burly lieutenant began, but the newcomer cut him off with a single, imperious jerk of his hand.

“Freddy Larson,” he spoke.

Ah.  So that’s what this is about.  “A bad turn of luck, that,” Koseynko said carefully, taking his time with his words.  “I heard he was killed in jail, only a day after arrival.  Very unfortunate.”

The man in the suit didn’t even blink.  He might as well have thrown a signed confession down in front of the Russian.  “He came here to sell to you.”

Again, not a question.  For a moment, Koseynko considered hedging.  The man might be confident, but he was certainly both outnumbered and outgunned here.

Yet that confidence shook the Russian.  Somehow, the man in front of him projected deadly assurance, a wolf in human skin.  His outfit and car screamed money, connections, enough power to bring down a world of pain upon Koseynko’s balding head.

“Yes, he was here,” Koseynko admitted.  “Two days ago.  Looking to score enough for a high.”

“He brought items stolen from a nearby facility.”  Again, nothing but cold facts, emotionless statements.  “You purchased them from him.”

So, the man needed information.  Koseynko eyed him, wondering if he should test the waters.  “I might be more inclined to speak,” he offered carefully, “if you did not have that gun.”

For just a second, a flash of a smile danced across the man’s face.  It was gone in an instant, and didn’t reach his eyes.  “What’s the matter, Vlad?  Afraid of one man, here in your place, with your own goons around?”

This time, Koseynko was the one to keep his face blank.  “Freddy had the items you want, and he is now dead,” he pointed out.  “Forgive me for my caution.”

A minute longer, the man stared at the Russian.  But then, he broke eye contact and nodded, and Koseynko felt his heart beat again.

“Perhaps we were a bit too hasty with Freddy,” the man allowed.  He lifted up the aluminum case and set it on the table between him and Koseynko, turning it around as he popped the latches and lifted the lid.

Koseynko forced his face to remain expressionless as he noted the sheen of gold from inside.  “I know how you Russians prefer hard metal to soft currency,” the man commented.

The allure of the gold was too much.  Koseynko leaned forward slightly, but the man closed the case before his fingers could reach.  “The goods,” he reminded Koseynko.

Even with the case closed, the Russian couldn’t get the image of that gold out of his mind.  “Yes, he brought some stolen goods,” he volunteered.  “Mostly worthless, of course.  Addicts don’t know what to grab.  But he had four crystals, each in a glass tube.  That is what you are after, yes?”

“What did you do with them?” The man gave no confirmation, but that in itself told Koseynko his guess was correct.

The dealer held up four stubby fingers.  “One to a chemist at the University, to see what they were,” he counted off.  “One to the shef, the boss.  One to a goldsmith, again for value.  And one,” he finished, forming his hand into a fist and jerking his thumb over his shoulder, “is here.”

The man nodded, maintaining his poker face.  “I would like to buy all four of them,” he said carefully.  “As soon as possible.”

Koseynko hissed a comment in Russian to one of his lieutenants, and then eyed the man in the suit cannily as the lieutenant turned and ducked deeper into the building.  “What are they?” he asked.

“Unimportant.”

“And yet,” Koseynko pressed, “you are willing, it seems, to pay very well for them to be back in your hands.”

The man shrugged.  “And you want the money.  What does it matter what the damn things are?”

It didn’t take long for the lieutenant to return, slightly out of breath as he placed the glass tube in Koseynko’s waiting hand.  The Russian held the glass tube up before his eyes.  The tube was about the size and shape of a large cigar, rounded and sealed at both ends.  Inside, a spiky crystal about the size of a marble floated, suspended in some sort of clear and viscous liquid.

“It is pretty, that much is true,” he murmured, tilting the glass back and forth, watching the crystal lazily rotate inside.  “And what would happen if this tube was to break?”

The question had been rhetorical, but Koseynko’s visitor answered.  The man across from him was leaning forward slightly, his eyes on that crystal and showing more interest than at any point earlier in the conversation.  “We would all be dead, for one thing,” he replied.  “It’s quite deadly when exposed to the air.”

The Russian’s eyes cut over sharply, leaving the shimmering crystal.  “It is poison?  A weapon?”

“It is dangerous,” the man repeated firmly.  His hands moved to the case, and once again Koseynko felt the magnetic pull of the gold ingots on his eyeballs.  “Now, pass it over.  Carefully.”

Obediently, the Russian made the trade.  But then, as the man in the suit started to rise from his chair, Koseynko coughed.

“I notice,” he commented carefully as his hand once again dropped down the side of his chair, “you did not make inquiries about purchasing the other three.”

“And that suggests to me,” he continued as he pulled the shotgun up, and Alexei lifted the barrel of his oversized assault rifle in his thick arms, “that you do not intend to purchase the other crystals from me.  I wonder, then, how you will obtain them?”

At the sound of the shotgun being drawn, the man had stopped, and he slowly turned to look back at the Russian.  He made no move for his own gun – a smart move.  Crystal or not, Koseynko wouldn’t have hesitated to blow apart the man’s chest.

“I assume that you would be smart enough to understand the terms of the deal.”  The man’s voice was flat, but there was perhaps a note of irritation hiding in its depths.  “I will return tomorrow.  Another case of gold, another crystal.  If you cannot obtain the others, I will retrieve them.”

A little voice inside Koseynko’s head cried out for him to shoot the man right then and there.  Such arrogance!  But the thought of another three cases of gold stayed his hand.  Even after the cut to his bosses, that would be such wealth!  He could expand, buy out his competition – or the assassins to accomplish the same purpose.  Such opportunity could change his entire life.

Slowly, Koseynko lowered his gun.  “Very well,” he replied, carefully watching the man.  “I shall send word immediately for the other crystals to be sent back.  Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” the man agreed, and strode out of the building.

Once he had left the room, Koseynko hurried to the window, watching.  Outside, several enterprising street rats had already moved towards the car, and one of them was even now bent over the driver’s side door, fiddling perhaps with a strip of spring steel.

As the man emerged, he calmly drew the pistol from beneath his coat.  The street urchin didn’t even have time to speak out before his head exploded in a shower of blood and brain matter.  The other teens immediately bolted, not even sparing a glance back for their dead companion.

The man in the suit didn’t bother firing after them.  He tucked the gun away, and then once again reached into his jacket.  Was he checking for the crystal?  Koseynko leaned a little closer to the window, trying to see.

No – he had withdrawn something else, something small.  A lighter, perhaps?

The man in the suit turned and glanced back up at the building, and for just an instant, Koseynko stared into his pale eyes.

The Russian fell back from the window, his arms flailing.  “The case!” he panted, spinning around and staring at the aluminum case of gold, still sitting on the table in the middle of the room.

There was no time.  Alexei’s mouth was still opening when the man outside pressed down on the button on the small remote in his hand.

Out on the street, the man didn’t even flinch as the building behind him exploded with a thunderous roar.  He climbed into his car, now covered in a layer of dust from the shattered edifice, and carefully withdrew the crystal from his inner pocket.

“Three more,” he whispered aloud, as he slid the thin glass tube into a cushioned slot in the glove compartment.

By the time the sound of sirens could be heard in the neighborhood, the armored Mercedes was long gone.

Danni California, Part 26

Continued from Part 25, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Both Jenny and Old Hillpaw audibly gasped.  “What?” they both stammered out in unison, staring at the man in black.

Jasper couldn’t help grinning at the stunned looks on his audience’s faces.  “Wait,” he said, glancing back down at the pages in front of him.

“It will make more sense soon.”

*

She looked pale, but she was on her feet.  And the hand offered down to me felt solid enough.

I let her pull me back up, although I tried to use my own muscles as much as possible.  “You aren’t supposed to be here,” I told her, as I regained my feet.

Danni didn’t look impressed.  “And look what would have happened,” she pointed out impatiently.  “You down on the floor, with more Priests-“

Before she could finish, bullets whizzed overhead with sharp cracks.  The Priests climbing up the stairs had reached our floor.

Moving together, Danni and I dove behind the dead man’s desk.  My shoulder made me grit my teeth and grunt against the pain as we landed, but the next hail of bullets stopped against the heavy wood.  I closed my eyes for a moment, doing my best to block out the pain and push it away, to the back of my mind.

When I opened my eyes again, Danni was watching me closely.  “After all I’ve been through, you can’t die on me, now,” she remarked, but although her words were flippant, her eyes looked concerned.

I waved a hand at her.  “I’m fine,” I insisted, pulling out my revolver.  Only one – I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to fire on my wounded side, and I would rather use the hand for faster reloading.

This, now, this was a skill I knew well.  Pop up, just for a moment, get a glimpse of where the enemy is taking cover.  Cock the gun – single action is more accurate than a full pull.

Listen to the next rain of bullets.  Wait for the pause, listen for the click of an empty chamber.  Rise, fire, anticipate their retreat.

Don’t wait for the sound of the body falling.  Swivel.  He’ll be partly behind cover, now, but he’s predictable.  Two through the plaster – it’s no armor against lead.

Gun back on the entrance, waiting for stragglers.  Listen to the two impacts of bodies hitting the floor.

Thump.  There’s one.

And the second-

Even as my mind realized that I’d made a mistake, Danni’s gun roared beside me, and the second man fell back with most of his head reduced to vapor and splinters.

The girl nudged me as she climbed up to her feet once again.  “Getting sloppy, are we?” she teased, moving towards the door.

I put a round in between the eyes of the next man as he appeared at the entrance to the floor.  “You’re just too distracting,” I retorted, as he hit the ground.

Danni scoffed at me as we both moved towards the door.  I couldn’t help noting that she remembered much of my training; she kept herself behind cover, protecting her chest and keeping her gun out and in front of her, ready to take a shot as soon as it presented itself.  Her steps were careful, always ensuring that she was braced and wouldn’t be knocked back when she squeezed the trigger.

We dropped two more as they climbed the stairs, but a glance down the stairway revealed more Priests milling beneath, clearly trying to plan their next assault.  We retreated quickly, but bullets still followed us.

I glanced over at Danni.  “Looks like they’re all coming up after us,” I commented.

“Good.  Let them come.”

I held her gaze for a moment longer.  “You okay to cover the entrance?  I know you’re still recovering from-“

She waved me away before I could finish.

Still, I spared one last look at her as I stepped to the large window in my dead supervisor’s office.  When I pulled her from the burning wreckage of the cabin in North Dakota, she’d been a twisted, broken thing.  I could still see the signs of that trauma in the ropy burn scar that ran up one leg, in how her foot twisted slightly inward.  The back room doctors had done their best, but for days she had been unresponsive.  I couldn’t count how many times I’d pulled myself from my bedroll, my heart pounding as I struggled to listen for her breathing, fearing that I would hear nothing.

The Priests had been watching for a man with a girl, maybe a man by himself.  They weren’t checking cripples.

The window’s glass was thick, but it shattered at my blows.  I reached under my coat, finding the iron shape I’d concealed there.  Once more, I checked the knot that connected the sharp instrument to the thin rope I’d worn coiled around my waist.

From behind me, I could hear exchanged gunfire.  Cries and thuds told me that Danni’s rounds were finding their targets, but I knew she couldn’t keep up that sustained fire for long.  I could feel her pushing down the pain that surely came with each recoil.

A twirl of the iron hook.  I knew I couldn’t take long.  I had to make this throw count.

The chunk of metal thrummed as it swung past my head, looping until it was a blur.  From behind me, I heard Danni’s revolver click empty.

I couldn’t wait any longer.

I let go of the rope in my hand, watching the iron grappling hook sail away, out into empty space.

To be continued . . .

Book 32 of 52: "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

Yes, it’s a series.  I’m counting it as one book.

If you haven’t heard of this famous series by Douglas Adams, you’re missing out on a massive trove of English comedy mixed with science fiction.  “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a series that spans five novels, a couple of short stories, and even has a movie about it!

The story’s pretty easy.  An Englishman is rescued from the Earth by his best friend, who turns out to be a stranded alien, just before the Earth is destroyed to make way for a new interstellar bypass.  Englishman (whose name is Arthur Dent) and friend (Ford Prefect) go on adventures, steal spaceships, meet interesting aliens, have dinner at the end of the universe, and end up searching for the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Well, not quite.  The Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42.

But what’s the question?

Ah, there’s the question.

I’ve read this book many times before, and I love it.  So much of the humor is just so odd, so irreverent, that you have no idea where it comes from and you have to just stop to laugh.  It’s the ultimate British humor story – just set in space.

Time to read: A couple days or so.

He really, REALLY likes those shoes.

“Sir,” Kate called out as she approached the gentleman, “can I help you with something?”

The man jerked upright, his limbs all appearing to flail wildly for just a moment before he regained control.  He straightened up as he turned around, and Kate realized that this man was well over six feet, most of his figure hidden by a bulky overcoat.  He towered over her short, squat little five-foot-nothing figure.

Still, Kate told herself, a customer is a customer, and a commission’s a commission.  She plastered her patented “retail smile” across her face as she gazed up at the man.

“Snakeskin, very exotic.  Buying a present for your wife, maybe a girlfriend?” she asked, nodding her head slightly towards the high-heeled shoe clutched in the man’s hand.

Kate did have to admit that, despite his creepy factor, the man at least had good taste.  He’d bypassed most of the cheap crap that the store carried, instead going straight for the Louboutins, which were one of the few non-knockoff brands.  The shoe he now held was made from authentic snake skin, and came in a deep, shiny black, with red on the bottom and a price tag that was higher than what Kate made after a full day of work.

“Er, yes,” the man stammered out, after a few seconds of silence.  “Yes, of course.  What you said.  Do you have any other styles?”

There was something odd about how the man spoke, Kate thought to herself.  He seemed to lack a sort of rhythm; his words would get jammed together, then come tumbling out en masse.  Furthermore, he seemed to be wearing silver boots, and occasionally she caught other flashes of silver from beneath the man’s coat.  Was he a designer of some sort?

“We do have a couple of other styles of those,” she remarked, nodding towards the shoe still in the man’s hands.  “Is there a size you’d like me to check for?”

“Size?” he repeated blankly, looking down at the shoe in his hands.  He stroked the texture of the snakeskin.  “How many do you have?”

Kate blinked.  Something definitely seemed off, but the dollar signs of her commission popping in her eyes made it tough to focus on what was wrong.  “We might have eight or ten pairs, total,” she guessed.  “Across a range of sizes, of course.”

“Ten pairs??  Yes, yes, I want them!” the man exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in a gesture of delight.

As the man’s arms spread wide, his coat flopped open, and Kate caught a quick glimpse of a strange silver suit beneath the overcoat.  She only saw it for a moment before he pulled his coat shut, but that quick glance was enough to convince her of his weirdness.  Were there tubes attached to his silver suit beneath that coat??

“Let me go grab them for you,” she told the strange man, ducking away.

Once in the back storage area, Kate grabbed a quick breath, leaning up against a nearby shelf.  “A sale’s a sale,” she whispered to herself, ignoring how the man was obviously crazy.

Yes, she decided after a second.  She’d bring out the shoes, but would keep an eye on them to make sure that the guy didn’t try to do a runner or anything.  If he ended up buying even a single pair, the commission would be enough to double her daily take-home pay.  Worth the risk.

When she brought out the boxes and showed the strange man the shoes, however, he seemed utterly delighted.  “Yes, yes!! All of them!” he cried, clutching the shoes to himself as though they were bars of gold.  “I pay, you give them to me!”

Her heart pounding as she ran the mental numbers on her five percent commission, Kate scanned the boxes.  “How would you like to pay, sir?” she asked, hearing the blood pounding in her ears.

Still beaming, the man reached into his overcoat and pulled out a messy lump of cash, which he dropped down on the counter.  After a moment, Kate reached for it cautiously, feeling that sense of oddness continue to prickle as she leafed through it.  Many of the bills in the wad of cash looked strange and foreign, and some of them seemed to have writing in other languages!

Still, there were plenty of hundreds and fifties in amid the other bills, and she quickly counted out the correct amount.  “Here’s your change, sir,” she said, pushing the rest of the wad back.  “And your shoes-“

Before she could even finish the sentence, the man grabbed the cash off the counter with one hand, the bag of expensive shoes in the other, and went sprinting away, letting out some sort of high-pitched cry as he sprinted from the store.

For a second, Kate just stared after him, her mouth wide.  In her head, however, she was already doing cartwheels.

Eight pairs of authentic Louboutins!  At roughly thirteen hundred dollars each, that was a little over five hundred dollars in commission, just from a single sale!  She felt stunned, amazed at this incredible turn of good luck.

As she stepped out from behind the register, however, a little scrap of something green on the floor caught her eye.  She reached down and picked up another hundred dollar bill, although something looked odd about it.  “Sir!” she called out, waving the bill over her head, but the man was long gone.

Kate lowered the bill back down, peering at it again.  What was so odd about the thing?

“100” in the corners, check.

Green and about the right size and dimensions, check.

Ben Franklin in a 3-dimensional hologram, waving at her – hold on.

Kate rubbed her eyes, but when she opened them, the mysterious bill was still there, complete with a little 3-dimensional hologram of the head and shoulders of Ben Franklin gazing back out at her.  He gave her a kindly little smile as she waved.

For a long time, Kate just stood there, the little wheels of her brain spinning, but no actual thoughts clicking or making sense.  It wasn’t until her manager came over to congratulate her on the massive sale that, perhaps coming to her senses, she shoved the bill deep into her pocket and made her best futile attempt to put it out of her mind.

*

As he headed back towards where he’d parked his time machine (which, for some reason, had apparently decided to disguise itself as a 1998 Buick Regal), Xarthanurx couldn’t keep from hopping up and down, chirping to himself with delight.

Real, authentic snake skin!  And he had more samples than he had even imagined discovering!  Once the gene extractors and the mechanosynthesizers received samples, he’d be able to produce yards and yards of the stuff, maybe even resurrect the extinct species itself!  He’d be wealthy in credits beyond his wildest dreams!

He pulled one of the strange shoes from the bag and held it aloft, bringing it back down to press it fervently against his lips.  Such a strange design, he wondered to himself.  Why would a shoe need a spike at the back?  Was it for defense?  Clearly, he’d landed in barbaric times, and should leave as quickly as possible.

Danni California, Part 25

Continued from Part 24, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Inside the tower, the receptionist behind the counter was already rising to her feet.  The Organization didn’t pay a full Priest to sit behind the front counter and take messages, but every employee went through basic training.  Everyone was supposed to know how to fight back in an emergency.

For some people, however, that training was a while ago, and there’s been no call for that information in their head ever since.  They get rusty.

I put a hole in the woman’s head from across the lobby before she had taken two steps away from her chair.

The receptionist wasn’t the only person in the lobby, of course.  Two other men, businessmen from the looks of their suits, were also climbing out of their low chairs where they’d been waiting for their appointments.  I put them both down with a single shot each.

The gunshots would attract attention, of course.  I sprinted forward, for the doors that were just around the corner.

A second later, I nearly died.

Two more guards were thundering down the stairs, their own revolvers drawn and in their hands.  The only reason I survived was that they weren’t expecting me to be so close to the stairs already.

One of the men got a shot off, but it went wide.

I made sure he didn’t get to take a second attempt.

I jumped over the bodies and hurried up the stairs.  From each floor, I could hear shouts.  A minute later, a jangling sound of many bells ringing simultaneously assaulted my ears; someone had pulled the building’s alarm.

I didn’t let myself slow down.  My legs were already burning, but I mercilessly forced them to move faster, taking the wide steps three at a time.

Finally, the doorway for the sixth floor came into view.  I was glad to see it; already, other Priests were barreling out into the stairway both above and below me, their guns drawn and at the ready.  With my getup, it would be tough for them to instantly spot me as the intruder, but the building body count would lead them to me.

A man was stepping through the doorway to the sixth floor into the staircase as I reached it.  I slammed my knife into his throat and shoved him down the steps as the line left behind from the blade blossomed in red.

I was through the doorway before the dead guard’s body behind me hit the stairs.  There were more guards, of course, and I knew that my boss’s receptionist kept a sawed-off double barreled shotgun in a cubbyhole beneath her desk.  They weren’t ready for my entrance, however.

In the eyes of a Priest, unprepared is only a single bullet away from dead.

The receptionist fell last, and she at least managed to drag her gun out from its hole beneath the desk before she toppled backward in a spray of blood and brains across the wall behind her.  I stepped past her, reaching down and snagging the weapon out of her lifeless fingers.

One blast shattered the lock on my former boss’s doors.

Of course, I should have known better than to think that I’d catch my boss unawares.  He had his own gun drawn, pointing at the door as I blasted in.  I could barely see the little tremble in his hand as he pointed the weapon at me.

“Jaspers,” the man rasped, staring at me with eyes that looked bloodshot.  “Why?”

Did he deserve an answer?

“Because this is wrong,” I replied, watching him closely.  “We claim to be above the rest, but we’re just killers.  We may be the best, might demand the most money, but we still kill at the whim of others.  What right do they have, to choose who lives and dies?”

My supervisor shook his head.  “Our targets deserve-“

“Death?” I finished before he could.  “For disobeying, for petty theft?  And what do we deserve, for all the blood on our hands?”

The man opened his mouth, but no words came out.  Instead, he closed it again after a second, and I saw his eyes tighten ever so slightly.

I pulled the trigger first.  The pellets in the shotgun’s second barrel didn’t have much room to spread before they collided with my boss’s head, but the force was enough to shatter his face into fragments.

The man was fast, however.  I felt the slug from his gun punch into my shoulder, spinning me around and sweeping my feet out from beneath me.

The shotgun fell from nerveless fingers.  I shook my head, gritting my teeth against the pain, and tried to stand.  I couldn’t put any weight on my right arm, however, and felt myself collapse back to the ground.

“Need a hand?”

I knew the voice.  I looked up, my eyes widening in surprise.  For just a moment, all of the pain belonged to a different man, one far away from me.

Danni.

Almost to the end, now – to be continued!

Book 31 of 52: "Dead Girls Don’t Wear Diamonds" by Nancy Martin

So this book is #2 in the Blackbird Sisters mystery series, a light-hearted series about a former member of high society who, now broke after her parents fled the country with their millions to evade taxes, now has to get by with a working job as a society columnist.  If this sounds like the setup to a lighthearted mystery series, well, you’re absolutely correct.

These books are not deep literary masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination, but they are fun to pick up on a warm sunny afternoon and read outside.  When I want something that’s light and doesn’t require much deep thought, books like these are great.
In “Dead Girls Don’t Wear Diamonds,” our heroine goes to a party, hosted by the father of her ex-boyfriend to celebrate his nomination as Secretary of Transportation.  The ex-boyfriend is married to a kleptomaniac young woman, who, by the end of the party, has turned up dead in their pool.

Oops.

I’m already forgetting some of the plot, but it’s a good little exploration of various crazy high-society folks and their hangers-on.  We get a little heat between the main character and her boyfriend Mick, but there’s no real sex – just enough hints to keep us hooked and wanting them to get together.

I’ll pick up the next one, but I’m in no rush.

Time to read: 2 hours.