[Retrieval] The Vault

You might want to read this story first.

Standing in the white corridor, Hatchet let his eyes roam around the corners, looking anywhere but at the keypad on the door at the end of the hallway.  One of the scientists bent over the keypad, typing in a complex sequence, while his companion stood by and looked back nervously at Hatchet.

The keypad wasn’t the answer.  The thing was utterly secure; no one could hack through it without leaving evidence behind.  There had to be another way in.

Not much met Hatchet’s wandering eyes, however.  The corridor was empty, the walls and ceiling covered in sheets of aluminum and painted white.  Not even security cameras broke the blank stretch of ceiling.

He’d asked about that, of course.  “We can’t use security cameras,” one of the scientists had explained quickly.  “They could be hacked, leaked.  It’s a security risk.”

The other scientist hadn’t said anything, but Hatchet saw him slide one finger into the collar of his suit’s neck, adjusting its fit slightly.  His face stayed blank, but Hatchet knew the man was sweating.

They didn’t want anyone to ever see what they were doing inside this facility.

With a beep, the keypad lit up in green, and mechanical sounds began to rumble from inside the walls.  Hatchet knew that steel bars were sliding out of the door’s frame, back into their sheaths in the walls.  The process only took a few seconds.

One of the scientists immediately ducked in through the newly opened door; the other lagged behind, waiting for Hatchet.  He didn’t look at the white-coated man as he stepped past, through the heavy door.

On the other side, the room looked like a typical research lab at first glance.  Lab benches were set up in rows, with shelves stacked with equipment along the walls.  Several large apparatuses sat around, centrifuges, incubators, and other devices too complex for Hatchet to identify.  Just like the corridor outside, almost everything was painted a clean, sterile white.

Making sure to keep his hands in his pockets, Hatchet strolled slowly into the room, never letting his eyes settle in one place.  He noted the bars over the vents, the lack of windows, the steel-plated door set into the opposite wall.

“And through there?” he asked, nodding towards it.

“Storage,” the scientist behind him answered shortly.

Hatchet stepped over to the door.  The steel door was also secured by a keypad, but on this door the steel rods were visible, standing up from the floor and emerging down from the ceiling to block the door from opening.  Reaching up, Hatchet tapped one of them.

They felt very secure.

“As you can see, completely secure,” the scientist in front of him said.

The consultant shrugged.  “Maybe.  Open it.”

The scientist in front of him glanced over his shoulder, back at his partner.  “Why do you need to open it?” the man behind him asked.

“The crystals were stored in there, yes?  So that’s where the theft happened.  I need to see the inside.”

Neither man moved.  “You can’t go in there,” the scientist behind Hatchet said.

The consultant silently counted to five in his head, and then shrugged.  “Okay then.  Thank you for your time, and I’ll have my bill sent to you within three business days.”  He turned, heading for the exit.

Inside his head, he only made it to three.  “Wait!” the rear scientist called out, his voice filled with stress.  “Okay, we’ll open it – but you have to promise not to mention it to anyone!”

Hatchet didn’t let a single hint of a smile appear on his lips as he stopped, turning back around.  He waited, and the scientists once again busied themselves keying in numbers on the access panel.

With another hiss, the inner vault door opened.  Once again, Hatchet stepped inside, sandwiched between his escorts.

The room was small, and reminded the consultant of a bank vault.  The walls were lined with locked metal doors, presumably with a space behind each for storing various items.

“Perfectly contained,” the scientist in front of Hatchet said.

Running his fingers over the steel doors, Hatchet slowly walked around the small inner room.  Three quarters of the way around, he stopped, tapping on one of the doors.

“The crystals were in here,” he said.

Both men started, jerking as their eyes went wide.  “How did you know?” asked the first scientist.

Hatchet didn’t reply.  Instead, he pulled out a small metal tool from inside his jacket and slipped it into the lock.  Both men raised their voices in a cacophony of objections, but those died away when the little metal door popped open.

“After a lock’s been picked, it’s more worn down and easier to open again,” Hatchet commented, only glancing briefly inside the open, empty container before pushing the door shut again.

“But that still doesn’t explain how the thief got in here,” the second scientist said, as his companion continued to gape at the open door.  “He couldn’t have gotten past the keypads-“

“He didn’t,” Hatchet interrupted.  Reaching down, the consultant slid his picks into another door, this one closer to the floor.  He opened it, and then stepped up on top of the door, using it as a step to allow him to reach the ceiling.

One of the aluminum panels there had a loose edge.  When he pulled down, the whole thing opened up with a clatter.  Up above, in the newly opened space, all three men could see darkness stretching away; the opening led into the crawl space above the metal ceiling of the lab.

The second scientist was the first to regain his voice.  “I don’t see how this helps you get the crystals back,” he spoke up.  He probably knew how petulant he sounded, but he didn’t let that stop him.

“It does,” Hatchet replied, crossing his arms as he looked up into the dark hole.  “Now, I know what sort of thief I’m looking for.”

“And what sort of thief is that?”

“I’ll tell you when I find him.”

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Eat You Alive

The two men headed straight for my table, tucked back into a corner at the back of the bar.

I felt my unease growing as I sized the pair up.  I’d assumed that my watchdogs would be normal men.  Mercenaries, maybe, or ex-military.  A couple muscle-bound toughs, easy to dispose of when I no longer wanted them watching me.

But when these two men entered, their eyes immediately found mine, not even bothering with the rest of the bar’s patrons.  The bigger of the pair showed no change of expression, but the little one flashed a brief, smirking little grin at me.

I’d picked the table at the back so that I wouldn’t be interrupted.  Now, I found myself casting longing glances towards the bar’s rear exit.  Maybe I should have sat closer to the door.
“Well, well, Mr. Check,” the short little man greeted me, his toothy smile appearing once again on his face.  It seemed to come and go with little warning; one moment it would be absent, and the next second it would appear in full bloom.  But even as his mouth twitched into a little grin, his eyes remained constant, glazed over with treacherous ice.  “Is good to meet, you might say.”

I nodded to the little man, although my eyes darted to the larger of the pair.  He’d sat down at the table as well, although he barely fit in the space between the booth and the table’s edge.  Huge and corpulent, his expression remained utterly blank.

“Oh, don’t mind Mr. Rook,” the little man said to me, flapping one hand at his acquaintance.  “He doesn’t speak  much.  All the better for you, too, if he doesn’t open his mouth.”  The little man chuckled heartily to himself, as if he’d just made some sort of joke.

The Rusty Tap didn’t have waitresses.  The bar only had a single, grizzled barkeep standing behind the shelter of his counter, bottles at the ready.  I liked it that way.  But now, the little man raised his fingers up and snapped, and the old man tottered out from behind his shelter, bringing several dirty glasses over to us.

“Now, Mr. Check, my name is Bishop, and this master of poetry beside me is Mr. Rook,” the little man went on, his eyes remaining focused on me as the barkeep set drinks in front of us.  “We, for our sins, are to be your guardians.”

I nodded again.  I’d expected this.  When I took the job, there had been a comment about “monitors.”  This pair, however, wasn’t what I’d anticipated.

Bishop lifted up his glass, examining the strangely reddish liquid inside.  He took a sip, and closed his eyes in appreciation.  “Ah, that’s the stuff.”

My eyes, moving almost of their own volition, tracked over to Rook.  The barkeep hadn’t poured him a drink, but had simply deposited an entire bottle of some dark alcohol on the table in front of the big man.

As I watched, Rook picked up the bottle by its base and, without any change in expression, bit off the cap and neck.  I could hear the glass crunching into shards as he chewed.

Beside him, Bishop shook his head with a little smile.  “Oh, Mr. Rook, where are your table manners?” he asked, clucking his tongue like a mother at a child.

“Ate ’em,” Mr. Rook replied, spitting flecks of cork and glass.

Bishop returned his focus back to me.  “Now, Mr. Check, you understand your role in this little plan, yes?” he asked.  “It has already been explained?”

I had to lick my lips before I found my voice.  “Yes,” I said.  “You’re going to remove the guards, and I swipe the case while everyone’s distracted.”

The little man nodded, smiling once again.  I could see extra redness on his lips from his drink.  “And then, you will bring it to us, and you’ll receive your payment,” he finished.

“Hold on.  I thought I was bringing the case to whoever hired me?  The brains behind this heist?”

Bishop tutted, shaking his head.  “Ah, Mr. Check.  When an ant finds that a boot blocks his path, he does not speak to the boot’s owner.  No, he shakes his little ant head, adjusts to his new course, and thanks his lucky little stars that the boot didn’t crush him.”

For a moment, the little man’s smile vanished, and he looked as wooden and emotionless as his partner.  “Do you understand my little metaphor, Mr. Check?”

I understood him.  Still, I had to know how much of a leash I’d been given.  “And what happens if I disagree with it?” I asked.  Surely, they wouldn’t try anything here, in public, before I’d even pulled off the snatch for them.  They still needed me, needed my talents.

“If you disagree?”  Bishop looked as though the idea had never occurred to him.  “Why, Mr. Rook, perhaps you can suggest what we might do in that situation?”

The big man’s eyes tracked over to me.  “Eat ‘im?” he asked hopefully.

Bishop reached over and patted the arm of his partner.  He might have wanted to pat the man’s cheek, but he couldn’t reach that high.  “Only if he disagrees, Mr. Rook,” he corrected gently.

Mr. Rook’s eyes remained fixed on me.  “Looks tasty,” he said, taking another glass-shattering bite out of the bottle.  “Crunchy.”

“I think we make our point, Mr. Rook,” Bishop took over, smiling at me once again.  “And I’m sure that Mr. Check agrees with me when I say that this will be a routine and civil affair.  We will provide a distraction, he will snatch the case that our employer desires, and he will then pass it over to us in exchange for payment.  There will be no issues.”

I nodded, but Bishop kept his eyes locked on me, his smile looking more and more out of place on his face by the second.  “And if he fails, or takes a single step out of line,” Bishop continued, his voice dropping into a whisper, “we will chase him.  He may run, he may flee halfway across the cosmos, but we will always follow, will always find him.

“And then, Mr. Rook will eat you alive.”

For a moment, Bishop’s face was twisted and filled with snarling, endless fury as he glared at me.  A second later, however, he blinked, and was as smiling and genteel as ever.

“Now, you will be at this address in two days’ time,” he said, passing a small, grubby slip of paper over to me.  “You’ll see the distraction, and you can make the snatch.  Once you have the case, we will contact you for the exchange.”

Bishop stood up, straightening the lapels of his black jacket.  “And now, we have other errands to run, Mr. Check,” he said, giving me a slight little mocking bow.  “Come, Mr. Rook.  Let us be off.”

As they stood, the barkeep perked up, light coming into his sunken eyes.  “Hey, youse two haven’t paid,” he called out, once again daring to emerge from behind the safety of his bar.

This was a mistake.  As he stepped over towards Bishop, Mr. Rook’s hand shot out, closing on the bearded man’s throat.  I saw the barkeep’s eyes go wide as the big, black-clad man dragged his head down and in.

With a crunch, Mr. Rook bit a chunk out of the man’s head, swallowing as blood ran down his chin.  “Mmm,” he grunted, before diving back in for another bite.

As his partner chewed with gusto on the barkeep’s exposed skull and brain, Bishop reached out with a long, skinny finger, dipping it into the dripping stream of blood.  “A bit too aged and bitter,” he observed, licking his finger clean.  “Not entirely unpalatable, however.”

From the sound of Mr. Rook’s crunching, he would happily devour the rest of the barkeep’s twitching body, but Bishop snapped his fingers.  “Come, Mr. Rook,” he called out as he turned towards the door.  “We have no time for dalliances.”

With a grunt, Mr. Rook dropped the now mostly headless corpse down to the floor.  Wiping his mouth with one sleeve, he followed after his smaller partner.

For a minute, I just stared down at the corpse lying nearly at my feet.  Some of the bar’s other patrons were finally recovering enough to scream, but I kept my mouth tightly shut.

No, these definitely weren’t the normal guards I’d been expecting.  Whoever wanted this case was willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure they received it.

I could feel foreboding bubbling up inside of me, but I knew that I couldn’t escape.

Book 42 of 52: "The Guard", by Peter Terrin

Holy hell, what a strange book.

A little bit of background: “The Guard” was originally written in another language, but was translated to English.  It’s won prestigious prizes in Europe, and is supposed to be an “apocalyptic fable.”  I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe the book, but it’s certainly… weird.

And not always in a good way.
The premise is pretty simple.  There are two guards, Michel and Harry, assigned to guard the basement of a luxury apartment building.  They live where they work, and have almost no contact with the outside world.

As the story goes on, we find that something bad, something apocalyptic, may have happened outside.  Or has it?  Annoyingly, our narrator, Michel, is also slipping into insanity, and by the end of the book, it feels impossible to tell what’s real or fake.

I finished this book, stopped, stared up at the ceiling, and then turned to the internet to try and figure out what the hell the ending even meant.  Unfortunately, it seems that no one really knows.  There’s such great suspenseful buildup – and then the ending just fizzles out into incomprehensibility.  It didn’t take long to read, but I want my couple hours back!

Or at least an explanation!

Time to read: 2 hours, mostly wasted.  Also, this book has 180 chapters in 300 pages.  It’s strange.

First Contact

A thousand cameras followed the alien saucer as it dropped smoothly out of the sky, down towards the front lawn in front of the White House.

Frowning, I hefted the silver flask in my hand.  I usually made more of an attempt to keep the flask hidden from Arthur, my producer standing just behind Charlie the cameraman, but I couldn’t manage to exert the effort tonight.

After all, all of us were feeling pretty distracted.

Right now, the flask was nearly empty, I noted with distaste.  Of course, maybe that distaste was from the remaining little bits of brandy washing around my mouth.  I capped the flask and stuck it back inside my suit jacket.

Across from me, Arthur was punching Charlie’s shoulder, making the cameraman frown.  “Are you getting this?  Tell me you’re getting this!” my producer shouted in that annoying squeal he used when he got too excited.

“Yuh, boss,” Charlie grunted back.  “Stop hitting, you’re making the camera bounce, yuh?”

Admittedly, this was a hell of a momentous moment.  The first ever contact with aliens was happening right now, and I was one of the reporters on ground zero.

We’d known that they were coming for a good week, now.  The alien saucer, although not big by interstellar measurements (“Practically just a planet hopping ship!” one of the so-called experts had dismissed it on a CrossFire program, as though he was some sort of authority on alien space ships), was more than big enough to show up on our high-powered radar.

Besides, they’d been thoughtful enough to broadcast a countdown clock to the time of their landing.

For the last week, the whole world had been afire with conflicting theories.  We weren’t alone in the universe!  But were these visitors going to be friendly – or hostile?  Were we about to receive incredible insights into the very fabric of the universe, or were we about to be captured, enslaved, or maybe just annihilated without a second thought?

No one knew.  And given the average level of panic in the world right now, I felt that I was owed a flask’s worth of brandy.

Little white lights around the edge of the alien flying saucer’s rim twinkled as it slowed down, gently descending down to the lawn.  If I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes, I would have guessed that it was just CGI – and not even a good attempt at that, I thought distantly to myself.  This looked like a prop straight out of an old eighties B-movie.

As the saucer settled down onto the lawn, three landing struts sliding out to support it, Charlie panned over to capture the international delegation standing by, trying to not look like they were about to collectively shit themselves in fear.  President Trump stood out in front, his ridiculous hair whipping back and forth in the night’s breeze, sticking his chest out and looking utterly ridiculous.  Putin and a host of European leaders I didn’t recognize stood slightly behind him, each wearing his own unique expression of barely repressed panic.

Finally, the ship had landed.  The saucer had been emitting a soft ticking noise, perhaps the sound of its propulsion.  This ticking ended, and for a second, there was only the sound of the breeze in my ears.

From beneath the saucer, a ramp slid out, smoothly descending down to the ground.  As the ramp made contact with the dirt, the alien emerged.

“Wish I had some better lighting,” Charlie grunted to himself from behind the camera.

No one else spoke.  We just stared at the alien.

It was small, maybe four feet tall.  It had gray skin, an oversized head, and two large, oval-shaped black eyes.  It wore a single-piece garment made of some sort of stretchy blue fabric.

It looked like an utter joke.

“God, maybe those eighties movie makers were onto something,” I muttered to myself as we all stared.

Clearly, the President and other dignitaries had been also caught off-guard by the alien’s appearance.  Most of them just stood with their mouths hanging open, gasping and staring.

The alien peered at the leaders, and then turned and surveyed the reporters and cameramen standing another pace back.  “Hello?  Is this Galactic Sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, Planet designation XF319-42-384, sub-Sol 3?” it asked.

For a moment, I nearly burst out laughing.  The thing sounded like Arthur after an extra hit of helium.

The President and other leaders still hadn’t managed to find their voices.  “Uh, we call it Earth,” some wag called out.

That voice sounded familiar.  It wasn’t until Art gasped behind me that I realized that I’d been the one to speak.

The little alien glanced over at me.  “Earth?” it repeated in that squeaky little voice.  “And are you a representative of the dominant species?”

“Uh, I guess?”  Why the hell wasn’t anyone else speaking up?  What was going on?  It was mostly the brandy keeping me upright at this point.

“Great!”  The alien turned and tottered over to me, holding something out.  “Here you are!”

The little gray creature held some sort of computer disk in its hands.  I took it, totally not knowing what was going on.  This was the momentous first exchange of technology between us and another civilized race.  This would go down in the history books.

The disk in my hands looked exactly like a three-and-a-half inch floppy.

I saw the little alien frown as I stared down dumbly at the object.  “Is this not right?  We understood that this was a compatible data format,” it stammered.  I had no experience reading emotions into a squeaky little munchkin voice, but it sounded a little nervous.

“Um, no,” I managed.  “We’ve got these.”

“Great!  Then just post it back to us within a Galactic cycle, please.”  The alien turned and began to totter back towards the ramp.

“Wait!”  The little alien glanced back, and I realized once again, a second too late, that I’d opened my damn mouth.  The words were already coming, however, and I couldn’t stop them.  “What is this?  What’s on this disk?”

“Oh.”  The alien did something that I could almost convince myself was a shrug.  “Galactic census survey.  Remember, just drop it on a rocket, and we’ll pick it up.  Have a good cycle!”

Finally, as the ramp disappeared back into the saucer, the politicians and leaders of the world found their voices, all of them shouting and rushing forward, waving their arms.  I could hear Arthur shouting something, and people looked to be rushing towards me, their eyes locked on that disk.

All I heard, however, was Charlie let out a disappointed grunt.  “Nuh, he’s gonna look totally washed out,” the cameraman commented to himself.  “Shoulda brought a better filter.”

A post-apocalyptic firefighter’s call

The siren wailed, cutting through all other noise inside the firehouse.  Throughout the building, men and women paused in their current activities, their heads rising up like deer sniffing at the breeze.

In the break room, I cursed as I fought at the blankets on the cot that tried to ensnare me, wrapping around my limbs.  By the time I managed to fight my way free, I could already hear the rhythmic thudding of boots as the other firefighters hurried downstairs.

Scrambling up from the bed, I checked myself.  I wasn’t wearing much besides an undershirt and boxers, but that would just save me time in changing into my protective gear.  I sprinted out of the dark break room, grabbing the fireman’s pole and sliding down to the bay floor.

Expressions were tense as we all loaded up our gear and hurried to our trucks.  The last summer had been one of the hottest and driest on record, and the whole area was ready to go up in flames with just one spark in the wrong place.

We knew how much pressure rested on our shoulders.

I ran for my own truck, number nineteen.  A lucky number, according to Stephen King.  I enjoyed his books during my downtime, although some of the plots seemed a bit hackneyed.

I pulled myself up onto the truck, climbing into the cage on the back.  I caught Charlie’s eye in the rear view mirror, and he gunned the truck into life as soon as my foot left the cement floor.

Next to me, my fellow cage rider, Claire, gave me a chuckle.  “Just barely made it, huh?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at me.

Before answering her, I checked my equipment, patting myself down to make sure I had everything.  Coat, gloves, tank, mask machete.  Everything was in place.

“Not my fault – I was asleep,” I answered her, once I’d confirmed that all my equipment was in place.  I loosened the machete in its holster, just so that it would slide out easily if I needed it.  “I made damn good time for starting from being unconscious.”

Claire just smirked back at me.  One of the few female firefighters to make the cut, even with our limited manpower, she never missed a chance to deal out a stinging insult to the men around her.  Most of us, however, had learned to shrug them off, knowing that she just needed to keep on proving her worth.

We all wanted to belong.  We all needed to constantly validate that we belonged on the team.

The truck swung out, heading down the streets with siren wailing as Charlie steered us towards our destination.  “What’s the call about?” I asked Claire, my voice raised to carry over the rushing wind.

“Not sure – think it’s industrial!” she shouted back.  “We might have some Zees wandering around, too, spreading the blaze!”

I cursed.  I hated dealing with Zees.  Sure, they were an almost unavoidable part of this job, but they never quite sat right with me.

It wasn’t like they were dangerous, most of the time.  Sure, they’d try and take a bite out of you if they caught you sleeping, but most of them didn’t have much strength left, and they weren’t smart enough to get through a door or past a barrier.

Still, those dead eye sockets always gave me a little shiver.  I could never quite forget that they’d once been someone’s family, someone’s parent or friend, reduced to so little.

They were a problem for us, however.  All that dry, desiccated flesh was flammable – and even when they caught ablaze, they kept on moving, trying dumbly to get away.

I turned and glanced over my shoulder.  Soon enough, I could see the big, dark plume of smoke rising up from the buildings ahead of us.  The fire.  Charlie didn’t slow the truck, but he gave a toot of the horn to let us know to get ready.

As we pulled around the last corner, and the burning factory came into view, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more Zees around than usual.  Most of them weren’t alight, at least, but they seemed to be everywhere; the truck crunched over a couple of them without stopping.

My radio crackled as the truck came to a stop.  “Call from Dispatch,” Charlie announced to us.  “Apparently, the Zees were being held somewhere around here.  Boss says to try not to kill them if we can avoid it.”

I saw Claire roll her eyes as she picked up her comm to respond.  “Don’t kill them?  Charlie, they’re a fire hazard, even if they can’t bite through our suits.  What are we supposed to do, politely ask them to stand aside?”

“Hey, just relaying orders,” our truck’s driver replied.  “Don’t shoot the messenger.  Just don’t cut them down if they’re not a problem.”

Raj, the co-pilot sitting up front, didn’t break radio silence.  But I knew that he had to be wearing a hell of a scowl right now.  Raj had his own vendetta against Zees, and we knew when he was driving – he always swerved to make sure he got them under our big wheels.

No time to think about that now, though.  With the truck stopped, Claire scrambled back to get the hose up, focusing on washing down the outside of the building, cutting off flames before they could spread.  I, on the other hand, climbed down from the truck.

“Any word on people inside?” I asked in the comm.

“No clue,” came the response.  “Give it a check, best as you can, but don’t push too hard if you feel it’s unsafe.  It’s a factory, after all, and the place is liable to come down soon.”

I didn’t need to be told twice.  I could already feel the heat radiating out from the building, pushing against my exposed face.  I flipped my mask down to protect myself.

One of the Zees came tottering out of the building as I strode closer, waving its skeletal, emaciated arms above its head as it gasped out a soundless shriek.  I could already see the flames climbing up the left side of its body.

My machete slid smoothly out of its scabbard.  The first stroke took off the Zee’s head, and the counterstroke took off a limb and part of the torso.  The poor thing collapsed down to the ground, still blazing fiercely.

I shook my head for a moment, feeling bad for the dumb, now twice-dead corpse, and then headed into the burning building.

Book 41 of 52: "1634: The Baltic War" by Eric Flint and David Weber

Here we go, book 3 in the series!  This is, of course, the sequel to 1632 and 1633, following our time-lost Americans dropped back into 17th century Germany.  At least the naming scheme for the books is pretty consistent, right?

Well, up until this point.  From here on out, the timeline splits a bit as we follow around several different groups.  The book that is the apparent sequel to this one is called “1634: The Galileo Affair”, and is set at the same time as this book, but follows different characters.

It’s growing too much to keep track of!
This book, at least, sticks with the Grantville/USE (That’s United States of Europe) army, following along with several exciting battles, and a lot of slower exposition in between them.  That’s not so bad.

I am not yet done with the Galileo book mentioned above, but it’s a lot less military focused, and I’m having trouble getting through it.  I think that this was actually the same place I got stuck when I last tried to make it all the way through the series.  Now, the question becomes: should I give up, or slog on through?

To know, I guess you’ll have to stay tuned!

Time to read: 5 hours.

The Man in the Field, Part II

Continued from Part 1, here.

I sat at my desk, my fingers interlocked in front of me.  My cup of coffee, the third one of the morning, slowly grew cold beside me.

The body was down on the slab in Samuelson’s back room, and I’d carefully locked up that briefcase in our evidence locker.  Lewis had helped me put the thing in there, although neither of us spoke a word for the entire ride back to the station.

It was only after the thing was out of sight, under lock and key, that we started to drift back to normal.  I gave him a couple tasks to do – run down the prints off the dead body, try and get an ID, check for a wallet or other personal items – and sent him off.  Maybe we’d get lucky, find the guy in the system.

I, meanwhile, had a tougher decision to make.

I held the position of senior detective for our precinct, not that the title meant much.  When the county’s only got the money to pay four of you, not counting Marian’s volunteering on the weekend to sort through our files, the rank of “senior detective” is a bit like being the tallest kid on the playground.  Sure, it sounds nice, but it’s not worth printing up on a business card.

My boss… technically, I figured that would be the county sheriff.  Alan Hayfield was a nice enough fellow, bit forgetful these days, but he always showed up to the local school to encourage them to say no to drugs.  Still, he’d be just as over his head in this as me.

I drummed my fingers against the scratched wood of my desk, thinking hard.  I could still see the slight glow of the contents of that case, could feel the weight of its contents.  That case didn’t belong out in a field, in the middle of nowhere.

So what was our dead man doing with it?

And, perhaps more importantly, what was I going to do with it?

Fortunately, Lewis came barging into the station, breaking me out of my looping thoughts.  I stood up as he stomped his feet against the welcome mat, knocking off caked-on snow and huffing as he unzipped his heavy jacket.

“Any ID on the stiff?” I asked, giving him a hand with his coat.

Once he’d managed to remove a few heavy layers, Lewis nodded, looking a bit happier.  “Yeah, he had a wallet on him,” he replied, pulling out a plastic baggie containing the item in question from a pocket.  Detectives always looked happier with a lead..

I took the baggie, fumbled to manipulate the object inside until I had it flipped open.  “Bill Loonan,” I read, and chuckled at the resemblance.

Lewis frowned at me.  “What’s so funny?”

I thought about trying to explain to him how the dead guy had reminded me of Biff Loman, the dead salesman, but decided not to bother.  Lewis’s reading mostly consisted of the articles in the nudie mags he furtively bought at the gas station down the road and hid in the bottom of his desk’s drawer.

“Nothing,” I replied.  “Let’s run it.  See if there’s any missing persons out on a Bill Loonan.”

I fired up our office’s single, boxy computer, pulling out the brown-tinged keyboard.  Lewis dropped into the chair across from my desk.  When I looked up, he was frowning.

“What?” I asked, as I waited for the old machine to load.

“The car,” he said slowly, looking out past our front door.  “That farmer, Ewan, said he hadn’t seen any car.”

“So?”

“So how did this Loony guy get out in the field?  We both saw his shoes.  Leather dress shit.  He didn’t walk there.”

I shrugged.  It was a good question.  “Maybe someone dumped him there.  Wasn’t much blood underneath him on the field.”

But Lewis was already shaking his head.  “Who’d dump him, but leave, well, that?” he asked, leaning on the last word.

He didn’t have to say what he meant.  We both knew.  I didn’t have any answer.

Thankfully, the computer beeped a minute later.  I typed in Bill Loonan’s name and hit Enter, waiting for the machine to creakily send off the request.  When I’d first arrived here, I asked the town council to increase our budget so we could get a faster network, a better computer.  I had young, big ideas about improving the police force.

A decade later, we had the same connection and the same computer.

While I waited, I retrieved my coffee cup, frowning when a sip revealed that the liquid had gone cold.  I didn’t feel motivated enough to pop it into our food-splattered microwave, though, so I just took a few more sips, grimacing at each one.

Finally, the computer beeped back.  No results.  I glanced at Lewis, and he nodded, sighing.

“Looks like we’re stuck with old fashioned police work,” I said, turning the computer off.  “You got a picture of the stiff?  Head and shoulders shot, one folks might recognize?”

He nodded, pulling out his camera and loading up a picture for my approval.  I took a look, and gave it a nod.  It was clear upon close examination that the guy was dead, but he still at least looked human, apart from that hole between his eyebrows.

“What about, well, the briefcase?” Lewis asked, as I reached for my coat.  “Are we just going to leave it locked up?”

I grunted.  That damn briefcase.  That was the worst twist of all with this mystery, so far, and I didn’t even know how to deal with it.

“For now, yeah,” I finally said.  “Maybe, as we find out more about this Loonan guy, it will make some sense.”

Lewis nodded, trusting his boss, but I wished that I had more conviction behind my own words.

*****

A phone rang, three short, sharp trills, before a hand picked it up.

“Yeah.  Someone searched his name?  Police database?  From where?”

A brief pause, as if the speaker needed a few seconds to adjust.  “What?  Really, from there?  Who even has an internet connection out there?”

Another pause, followed by a sigh.  “Well, get someone out there, for God’s sake.  Shut this down, get it all cleaned up.”

“And whatever you do, make sure you recover that goddamn briefcase.”

The phone call ended.

The Man in the Field, Part I

We got the call fairly early in the morning, according to the front desk’s note.  Some farmer found the body, out walking his dog.

And that was lucky, too, I thought to myself as I rubbed my hands together.  I always chose the thinnest pair of leather gloves I could find, for dexterity, but they didn’t hold in heat worth a damn.  The engine on my unmarked car was running full blast, but the heater always took twenty minutes to warm up.

Sitting beside me, Lewis stamped his feet on the floor and huffed into his own cupped hands, making a sound a bit like a coughing dog.  “Gah!  Is it always this cold?” he complained, wriggling his fingers.

I glanced sidelong at the man.  Close to a decade younger than me, he was new blood, only just transferred up here.  I didn’t think he’d last long.  I wasn’t privy to whatever mistakes got him transferred out to the country, but I didn’t need my detective skills to see that he was a city boy, through and through.

“We’ll get some heat once the engine’s warmed up,” I commented, keeping my eyes on the road ahead of us.  The uneven gravel of the road often hid treacherous ice puddles.

“And how’s long that gonna take?”

“Maybe ’bout twenty minutes.  ‘Bout the time we get there.”

Lewis huffed in frustration, and I let myself grin ever so slightly.  Guy was definitely young; he hadn’t mastered the art of letting all the bullshit of life roll off his back.

Sure enough, just as the car’s air vents began to puff out warm air, we reached the edge of the field.  “Corner of Harris and Ewan’s lots,” the report waiting for me at my desk had read.  No street address.

To someone new, like Lewis, that might have been nonsense, but I knew the farms around here well enough to get there without much trouble.  Comes from spending my years out here chasing down cows and lost cats, I guess.

Ewan was standing there, his breath coming out in hazy clouds as he gave me a wave.  His dog, a coon hound of indeterminate age and ancestry, bayed as we approached.  I could see Ewan’s shotgun hanging down from his other hand.  At least he wasn’t pointing the damn thing at my car.

I pulled over, leaving the keys in the ignition and the engine running, and climbed out.  My boots crunched on the icy crust atop the snow as I trudged over to the farmer.  I could hear the clumsy plodding of Lewis behind me, trying to not get too weighed down in the thick snow.

“Ewan,” I greeted the farmer with a nod, one he returned.  “What’ve we got?”

Ewan didn’t respond immediately.  He glanced over at Lewis, sizing up my younger partner, and I saw his lips curl ever so slightly.  “Who’s this?  New guy?”

“Yeah.  New guy.”  At least Lewis didn’t try and start a fight.  “Now, what the hell are we doing out here?  I can feel my balls turning blue as we speak.”

That, at least, got a little snort out of the farmer.  He turned and stepped out into his field, his dog keeping at his heels.  He didn’t say anything, but Lewis and I followed a few steps behind.

There were no crops in the field, of course.  Nothing grows in the dead of northern winter.  The ground had frozen in rows of ploughed furrows, however, and we had to watch our step as we climbed over the ridges.

We didn’t have to go far.  About ten rows into the field, we saw the disturbance in the snow, a rectangular corner of something sticking up through the crust of snow.

“You go any closer?” I asked Ewan as we stepped up to the object sticking out of the snow.

He shook his head.  “Course not.  Sparky ran ‘cross it, though.”

I nodded.  I could see the dog’s tracks going over the surface.  There were no other treads, however, no other sign of disturbance on the snow.

As I crouched down, peering across the three feet or so that separated me from the object, I carefully categorized my first impressions.

It was a briefcase.  That much was clear.  It looked like a nice affair, too, leather, with brass corners.  There might be something engraved in the top, right by the handle, but I couldn’t read it with the crust of ice that had formed on top of the leather surface.

My eyes moved over to the hand that still clutched the handle of the briefcase.

It was definitely a hand.  Human, white male, maybe in his forties.  It was tough to say more.  I could see the glint of a gold ring on the fourth finger.  Married?

Like a good partner, Lewis had pulled out his camera and snapped a couple dozen pictures.  I glanced over at him, and he nodded.  I could approach.

Carefully, I stepped closer, reaching out and picking up a frozen chunk of corn stalk, left over from the harvest in the fall.  Bit by bit, I swept away some of the snow, uncovering the man underneath.

He didn’t look like much.  I thought briefly of good ol’ Willy Loman, from Death of a Salesman.  Our corpse looked to be in his late forties, dressed in a gray overcoat over a cheap looking suit.  He wore leather shoes, although the material looked cracked and worn.  I swept away snow from his head, revealing thinning hair, a scraggly little excuse at a beard – and a small hole drilled right in the middle of his forehead.

As I uncovered that hole, I glanced up at Lewis.  The younger man’s mouth tightened, but he lifted the camera and snapped a picture.

Murder, then.

“So what’s he doing out here?”  Ewan hadn’t moved any closer, but the man kept on peering with interest over our shoulders, trying to get a better look at the corpse.  “It’s not like we’ve had any visitors.  And I didn’t see a car or anything when I came out here.”

The snow covered the man with a solid, unbroken crust, I thought to myself.  He’d been here a while, probably weeks.  We didn’t have a real coroner, but Samuelson, the mortician in town, might be able to pin down time of death a little more.  I couldn’t see much n the way of blood spatter, but it might just be frozen further down, underneath him.

As I’d mused, Lewis had picked up his own corn stalk, clearing away more of the snow.  “Hey, Harry,” he called out in an undertone to me.  “Look what he’s got over here.”

The stiff had fallen in a weird sprawl, his arms pointing off in opposite directions.  Lewis swept away the last of the snow from the man’s other outstretched arm as I glanced over.

“That doesn’t make sense,” my partner said aloud, as we both looked down at the newly uncovered object.

In the man’s right hand, he held a blued steel pistol.  I’d have to check back at the office, but it looked about the right size to put the hole in his forehead.

Suicide?  It didn’t make any sense.  Or had he been shooting at someone else when he went down?

I shrugged.  Get him back to the station, run his records, try and figure out who he was.  Who he had been.  I stood up, stretching out my already stiff knees – but then paused, looking down at the poor sod.

One quest kept on poking at my brain.  I knew I was breaking protocol, but hell, I was the ranking detective out here.

I glanced over at Lewis.  “You get a good close picture of his hand?” I asked, pointing down at the hand clutching the briefcase.

My partner nodded, but he shot a few more, just to be certain.  He didn’t say anything, but I could see his curiosity plain on his face as well.  He stood back, letting me do the honors.

Carefully, lips pulled back slightly from my face, I tugged the man’s fingers away from the handle of the briefcase.  I heard a couple uncomfortable creaks and pops, but nothing fully broke.  After a minute, I tugged the case free, setting it down on the snow beside the corpse.

Turning the case so that Ewan couldn’t see the contents, I pushed at the latches.  They popped open obediently, and I lifted the stiff lid.

For a moment, both Lewis and I froze, staring down at the softly glowing contents.  “Well, shit,” the younger man exclaimed, the words spoken in half a whisper.

I nodded – and then, even though I had to fight to pull my eyes away, I pushed the case back closed.

“Well, this got a bit more interesting,” I said softly…

Continued here.

Book 40 of 52: "1633" by Eric Flint and David Weber

Last week, I read Eric Flint’s “1632.”  Given the title, it should be easy to guess that this book, “1633”, is the direct sequel – and you’d be correct!

Once again, we’re back with our time-displaced West Virginians in the middle of Germany, smack dab in the center of the 30 Years’ War.  Of course, by now our heroic Americans have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with – and word of their presence is spreading!  How are the other nations going to adjust?
I do like these sorts of “alternate history” books, but at the same time I find that they often get bogged down with a lot of historical details.  I’m not a huge history reader, and so when the names of dozens of royal monarchs and generals are being thrown around, it’s easy for me to get lost.  I felt that a little with this book, and even more with its next sequel, “1634: The Baltic War” (coming next week).

I almost need a flow chart to help with all the names.  Maybe include a glossary?

Time to read: About 5 hours – these alternate history books just keep on getting longer and longer!

Sparring

“Again.”

For a moment, as my vision swirled, I thought that I saw three copies of the man, standing over me.  All three copies wore the same identical scowl as they glared down at me.

“Come on,” I heard his voice through woolen ears.  “Get up.  We’re going again.”

“Come on, Cain,” I groaned, even as I rolled over onto my stomach and put my hands beneath me to hoist my tired, aching body up from the hard ground.  “Haven’t you beaten me up enough today?”

Still, I pulled myself up, trying to force my fingers to once again tighten into fists as I squared off against my opponent.  Although I felt like my entire body was covered in scratches and bruises, Cain looked as fresh as he had this morning, without a single mark on him – at least, none fresh.

“Now, this time,” Cain suggested to me, “maybe try not to choreograph your attacks so much.  I can tell when you’re about to swing at me from a mile away.”

I groaned back in response.  Of course Cain knew when I was going to attack!  He had, during my time with him, demonstrated the uncanny ability to beat up anyone and everyone we came across.

On the other hand, although I still couldn’t remember any of my past, I knew that I definitely hadn’t been a fighter.

Still, facing off against this man who seemed as solid and implacable as a force of nature, I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself.  “Okay,” I said, more to myself than to him.

And I charged forward.

This time, I decided to try and be as tricky as possible.  I held my fists high, intending to drop them to a low swing at the last second.  But although I started to bring my fists down, I abruptly switched direction, launching them back up towards the man’s jaw.

For just a second, I felt his skin brush against my knuckles, and I thought I had him.

A fraction of an instant later, however, Cain moved like a snake, and I found myself spinning through the air, my legs flying out from underneath me.  My hand still hit something, but I couldn’t focus on it, and barely had time to exhale before I hit the ground on my back.

This time, Cain offered his hand down to me to help hoist me back up.  “Not bad,” the man gave in reluctantly.  “You actually connected with me, that time.  A nice feint.”

“Didn’t help me much,” I grumbled back, although I accepted his help back up.  Now, not only did my ass hurt, but my knuckles ached as well.  What was the man’s jaw made of, steel?

Groaning as a shoulder popped, I took a deep breath, trying to get ready to go again – but Cain glanced up at the sky through the trees.  “Sun’s setting,” he announced.  “We ought to get moving.  We’ve got further to go before we set up camp.”

“Not making it to a town?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.  If there had been a town nearby, we wouldn’t have paused for the sparring session.

Cain just shook his head as he picked up his pack and slung it back on his shoulders.  I bent down to do the same with my own pack, trying to ignore the complaints from my joints as I maneuvered the heavy load up onto my shoulders.

With his pack in place, Cain picked up his rifle, checking it with swift movements of his hands.  I did the same to mine, the movements almost automatic now.  Another skill that my guide had drilled into me, I thought to myself with a shiver.

With his weapon secure, Cain headed off into the jungle.  “Come on,” he called over his shoulder, not bothering to glance back to ensure I was following.

I grimaced at how much it hurt to even walk, but I didn’t let the man get too far ahead before chasing after him.  Cain might be trying, but I knew that I wouldn’t survive a night without him.

Up above our heads, as the sun dropped towards the horizon, some creature let out a long, mournful call.  I felt a foreboding chill run down my spine, and I tried to pick up my pace, sticking close to Cain.

Despite the bruises he’d inflicted on me, I was glad to have him on my side.