Download the final volume in my G. I. Joe series for free, in any format, over at Smashwords. Below is Part I of the novel (in which I try to cover for forgetting, in the first book, that Zandar wasn't also a master of disguise).
TO THINK HE’D GIVEN UP ON MIRACLES.
He saw it with his own two eyes, his personal hero laid low by that Cobra lowlife. Stabbed through the heart with an alien dagger, losing too much blood in the next two minutes, slipping into a coma.
Duke pulled through, though. Beat the odds, found a way out of the darkness, just as Lt. Falcon was joining the Joes’ climatic battle in the Himalayas. He’d spend the next week sleeping in that hospital room, keeping an eye on his older brother. Asking questions the doctors couldn’t seem to answer; witnessing with horror Duke’s slide back into pitiful health.
Another coma followed. Neurological readings were borderline nonsense. Eventually, the Joes’ legendary medic Doc came through with the diagnosis. Gave the brutal news to Falcon as firmly and respectfully as any Joe could expect from Doc.
“Your brother’s been poisoned,” Doc told the lieutenant. “And considering we have no access to the bio-technology utilized by that dagger, and no means of collecting any other sample, we face incredible barriers to treatment.”
Weeks passed before the call came. Falcon had agreed to a mission, infiltrating a Benzheen aerospace facility overrun by the snakes. Was in the midst of letting off some steam when he got the news.
For any other family, this would’ve been the end of the story. A service, a few days bereavement leave, time alone with the relatives, neighbors delivering cold potato salad and forced smiles. An aching loss to carry with you, until that day comes when you’re reunited with all lost blood.
No final farewell for those Hauser-Falcone boys, though. The dreams began a couple of days after the funeral. Falcon couldn’t discern what the heck they were saying at first. To his great embarrassment, he had to admit it took him a few weeks to piece it all together.
The venom that felled Duke? A pure Cobra creation. Of course they’re the only ones to understand it. To know exactly what the poison was doing to Duke’s bloodstream. What was a “death” in the doctors’ eyes was merely the next step in the snakes’ plan.
They spirited the body away from the hospital morgue, gave Duke the injection that restored him to life. In his place, one of those creepy synthoid contraptions. Thing probably turned to goo the second Duke’s coffin lid shut.
Wasn’t a bad plan, really. Assuming you had no soul. Demoralize the Joe troops, force them to face a loss they always thought unimaginable. While they’re distracted, rebuild your empire, win a few propaganda victories and prepare for the next fight.
And their nefarious plot for Falcon’s older brother? A rigorous round of brainwashing, squirreled away in their secret base in the northern Caribbean. Given his weakened state, they might’ve had a shot at finally breaking Mama Falcone’s oldest boy this time.
Duke was a clever one, though. Found a way to use the snakes’ indoctrination tech against them. He subdued a blueshirt one evening, got access to recording equipment and an assortment of subliminal conditioning cassettes. Tapes Cobra was preparing specifically for Joe prisoners.
Falcon’s hero wasn’t able to escape the island; got spotted by a guard tower only twenty seconds after he tunneled his way past the barbwire fencing. Still, he’d managed to win a sub-rosa victory against those snakes. Managed to find some way to get a message out.
And for Falcon, of all the Joes, to be the one to receive that message? To be the one to crack Duke’s subliminal code, to storm through Camp Alpha and free his bloodkin? That was a miracle, no doubt.
And he’d need a miracle now, with two members of the Joes’ experimental android infantry unit lying before him, bullet holes blemishing their cybernetic chest cavities and sparks shooting towards the ceiling. Duke had insisted the androids lead the charge, undergo the risk while the two flesh-and-blood Joes crept in behind them. Falcon, grudgingly, acknowledged Duke had a point. This facility—a nondescript office space hidden out in the California boonies—was housing a prized Cobra intelligence gathering operation. One the snakes couldn’t afford to lose, given the current state of their organization. The brothers couldn’t imagine just what awaited them inside.
“Can’t trust a robot to do a man’s job, anyway,” Falcon spoke with confidence. He offered his brother cover, as Duke rushed forward, nailed Major Bludd with a front jab that sent him to the floor. Ripper and Torch of the Dreadnoks flanked him on both sides; Falcon humbled one with a shoulder shot, maneuvered just in time to fling the other into a nearby wall. Spent too long recovering from the move, however; didn’t notice the shadow of that approaching brute.
The inhuman beast smacked the pistol from Falcon’s hand. Followed up with a slap that sent him against the wall, landing on top of that Dreadnok. The lieutenant rose, lifted his dukes, offered his best wisecrack.
“You ready to rumble, ugly? I say bustin’ up that mug of yours could only be an improvement.”
That’s when Falcon gained a good view of his opponent. When he was able to digest its height, like something from the Old Testament. Its physique, reminiscent of Jack Kirby. And those hideous bat wings, like the worst nightmare of the most deranged dime novelist.
The creature charged forward, lifted Falcon in a bear hug. He could feel a rib pop, less than one second after impact.
This was another specter from his dreams. The representation of that time reality went haywire, when beasts from prehistory revealed themselves, made their move to rule the Earth. This was the gnarled expression of the monster of his nightmares.
This was Nemesis Enforcer.
TWO WEEKS EARLIER…
HE’D BEEN A FOOL, thinking he could take his brother’s place.
The additional responsibility, the authority granted him as the head of Cobra’s New York operation, served as nothing more than an ego boost. He realized that now.
And his enthusiasm for the disguises, for shedding his skin, for peeling away those lifelong inhibitions—the joy of diving into a different role, a new life for the natural introvert to explore…all utterly misguided.
Better to stick to your skillset. The Romanian helped him realize this, not long after Zandar exploited his chameleon abilities and slipped past the NYPD. Called a Cobra safehouse out in Brooklyn, was instructed to report to the Romanian ASAP.
He obeyed, had a meeting with the man now serving as his superior. Didn’t think to question just how the newbie had risen in the ranks so fast. He’d called to check in last night, the Romanian. After their talk, Zandar had this warm feeling; understood he hadn’t felt so content in his work in ages.
Odd, though, just how much he enjoyed this dreary assignment. Hiding out in sunny Orange County, keeping tabs on a suburban single-parent home. Just the mom, and one teenage brat. Based on conversations he’d overheard, the twerp was getting ready to move out. Was heading off to college, wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue dentistry or the like. Couldn’t understand why that upset the mother so bad.
Why would he get a kick out of earwigging this mundane drivel? What satisfaction did he derive from killing time for so much of the day, stalking the brat from school to his afternoon job at the supermarket? Must be that Happiest Place on Earth, rubbing off on him.
Zandar had become an expert at slaughtering time, though. These portable cassette players were truly a gift from the heavens. Joined one of those “Nine Tapes for a Penny!” clubs, was getting a fresh cassette each week to feed his new toy.
Yeah, no question, this had turned out his favorite Cobra assignment. That’s why he felt a slight pang of disappointment when he spotted the intruder stalking the Coopers’ home.
Action? But he’d just slipped in the latest Jerry B. & The Rude Boys cassette.
Zandar sighed, slid off his earphones. Sneaked his way past the Harrison family’s hyperactive Yorkshire terrier without the furry rat noticing. Easily evaded Mr. Simmons, out for one of his late night strolls through the neighborhood. Was inside the Coopers’ yard in no time.
The Jack climbing up the side of their home—without a ladder, just using his fingers against the bricks—was dressed bloody familiar. Hadn’t seen him around in ages; heard some rumors about him abandoning the operation, following that trial in the Terrordrome. He’d always been loyal to the Commander, this one, and didn’t appreciate the way his Cobra brethren were turning on the man.
Lord, who even remembered this? That minor piffle occurred just moments before one of those freak nasties appeared. Enticing woman she was in her own right, if you ignored the artichoke-colored skin and acidic nails. Was the first member of that secret cabal to reveal itself, her presence foreshadowing a rotten round of luck for the organization.
They’d come through the worst of it. Had no shortage of new recruits to replace those lost in the mountains. So, what was the ninja in white doing here in Anaheim? Was he back on the team? Had there been some mix-up in the assignments?
Zandar was creeping past the side hedges, debating whether to call out to his former ally, when he felt the first shuriken slice past his left bicep.
Didn’t notice the cut at first, but caught blood seeping from the wound as he repositioned himself. Felt the fire as night wind connected with the long, diagonal tear in his skin.
He withdrew his silenced weapon from the holster. Had a shot off before the ninja could release another throwing star. The man in white parried, somehow kept his balance as he pulled some crazy gymnastics move, spinning off the side of the house and landing neatly in the lawn.
“Storm Shadow!” Zandar hissed, his whisper not disguising the anger. “Why are you here?”
A packet in the mail was the answer. One with instructions and a series of unmarked bills, the first half of his payment, assuming he completed his mission. Young Bobby Cooper, as anonymous and unexceptional as he appeared to be, was worth an unbelievable amount to some unknown entity.
Not Storm Shadow’s favorite kind of job. But it paid the bills, and following his separation from Cobra, the ninja couldn’t afford to be picky about mercenary work. (Little did he know a series of dummies, cutouts, and beards were disguising his true employer.)
Work had taken on more than a monetary motivation in recent weeks. The missions kept his mind off that horrid incident in Dublin. Gave him something to focus on, some way to hold those memories at bay.
Naturally, he’d never tell the punk freak any of this. “Away with you, dog! The fates will not be kind, if you’re to stand in my way.”
Zandar dismissed the warning, fired another shot. Storm Shadow bounded to the right, had a smoke pellet on the ground before his feet connected with the grass. As Zandar’s eyes and mouth were filling with smoke, Storm Shadow took another path.
Forget stealth. Just go through the front door.
Covering his face with his neck bandana (no longer a mere fashion statement), Zandar had to work on memory, navigating a path through the Coopers’ lawn. Followed the ninja into the front door; realized this was an excellent opportunity to pit his stealth skills against the traitor’s.
Blending into the shadows, Zandar stalked the ninja up the staircase; slipped past his opponent.
He aimed a right hook at the ninja. Storm Shadow caught the arm, twisted it, then maneuvered Zandar’s entire body ninety degrees. Gave him a healthy kick in the back as punishment. Zandar’s face traveled three feet, made contact with the wall. Bobby’s victory photo from the 1986 Tri-State Chess Championship bounced off Zandar’s neck, hit the carpet.
Zandar was prepared for the follow-through. Braced himself for it, resisted the desire to clutch his throbbing back. Storm Shadow just passed on by, however. Nothing of value in this house; Zandar had staked it out enough times. For some reason, Storm Shadow was bound for the boy’s bedroom.
Who’d hire a ninja for a kidnapping job? And who cared enough about this meek dag to stage a late night snatching?
Perhaps he’d learn the answers later, but at this moment, he desired more than anything revenge for that sore back. Zandar reasoned he knew the layout better than the ninja, positioning himself outside Bobby’s bedroom and staking out his hiding place. Soon felt Storm Shadow’s approach in the dark. Nabbed him in a bodylock from behind, then exploited his superior position to drive the ninja into the floor.
“Your resistance is…meaningless!” he growled, elbowing Zandar in the right cheek. Zandar wouldn’t relent, only used his body weight to drive Storm Shadow deeper into the carpet. Was proud of himself, the way he’d gripped the ninja’s errant arm and pinned it to his back.
Zandar reached for his chest holster. Winced at the thought of the ensuing mess, such a close range shot. Rejoiced at the thought of his bolstered rep. The ninja had dropped off the radar recently, but everyone knew of Storm Shadow’s status as the fiercest throat-slitter in the game.
The ninja’s muscles tensed, most likely attempting some secret combat technique from the East, one that would enable him to break this ruthless half-nelson. Maybe those galahs were the experts when it came to karate chops, throwing stars, whatever. Maybe they did practice ancient grappling techniques that could grant them escape from any hold.
But they’d never devised a counter for a bullet to the back of the head.
Zandar wished he had some deadly one-liner. A clever sendoff to his rival that’d offer the perfect capper to this anecdote. Eh, forget it, the Dreadnok reasoned. I’ll just make one up later. Racking the slide, he wondered if Storm Shadow, through his ghostwhite mask, could feel the cold steel currently resting against his cranium.
The bedroom door rasped. That reedy wad Zandar had been tasked with protecting, no glasses on his face but now an abundance of zit cream, stood terrified in the doorway.
“W-whu?” was his near-sentence.
Zandar realized too late how badly he’d let his attention lapse. The gun was flying out of his hand, a victim of Storm Shadow’s audacious headbutt. Trigger finger caught, even for that lightning moment, between that ninja’s hard head and the steel of the weapon—Zandar had to wonder if it’d been broken.
Storm Shadow’s body rolled to the right, slipping in a stunning knee strike in the midst of the maneuver. Zandar only spent a second reacting to the pain, more than enough time for the ninja to rise and deliver a back hand slap.
The boy likely had no coherent thoughts, just the impulse to run as far and as fast from this insanity as possible. He retreated into his room, slammed the door behind him just in time to catch half of Storm Shadow’s body. Didn’t deter the ninja, who channeled his anger and frustration into a strike that shattered the wood into a million splinters.
Bobby lied to himself—told his neuroses to shut up about his asthma. No, he’s not having an attack right now; he can’t afford one. Chest on fire, he reached his window. Brushed away those Garfield curtains he’d told his mother to ditch after his twelfth birthday.
Was tangled up in them like a mess when Storm Shadow grabbed him from behind. “Do not struggle,” the invader warned, somehow emphasizing each word of the sentence. Bobby felt the invader’s hand reach his lips. “Stay silent,” he warned.
Bobby obeyed. Shivered like mad, but said nothing as Storm Shadow bear-hugged him, lifted him atop the windowsill.
He finally let out a gasp when he felt the gunshot whizzing by.
“Drop that kid,” admonished the second stranger, standing in the remains of his doorway, smoky pistol in hand.
“You’re too late, Cobra mongrel,” the invader scoffed, as he reached for the shuriken in his belt. Bobby barely captured the full movement, just saw a metallic blur spin through the air, landing a heartbeat later inside the barrel of the stranger’s gun.
Was this man his rescuer? The glam/punk freakazoid currently examining his damaged weapon? When the weirdo looked up, Bobby caught some fire in his eyes; some determination this wasn’t right. Bobby captured a breath, allowed himself to believe this foreigner might just be some kind of savior. Prayed the hero was good at his job, as the ninja gripped his body tighter and launched them out of the window.
They somersaulted twice before hitting the lawn. Bobby’s heart soared when he looked up, saw the odd savior staring down at him from the window. Questioned why he didn’t seem to be following. (It’s only a two-story drop. No big deal for guys like Arnold or Sly.) Felt that heart sink as the ninja dragged him further away from his home, the stoic hero only watching impassively from the window.
Fifty feet away, Zandar observed the scene. The switch flipped, all investment in the mission now dissipated. Turned to leave. Didn’t bother to address Diane Cooper, clad only in her housecoat, hair in curlers, screaming bloody murder at this stranger.
By the time he was down the stairs, she was past hysterical, hitting Zandar on the back, her face a beet, demanding to know what had happened to her son. He shrugged off the blows, opened the front door, then made a tranquil exit into the night.
Was back in his hiding spot soon enough. Popped in that Rude Boys tape and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of his evening.
“I JUST DON’T SEE HOW THAT BUSINESS MODEL WORKS,” said Tunnel Rat, snapping his gum.
Lt. Falcon reminded himself he wasn’t his teammates’ mother. That it wasn’t his business, the nasty particles floating through the air, attaching themselves to the soldier’s latest piece of Bubble-Fun. “What do I care? I’m not their accountant.”
“Yeah, but if they can send you nine tapes for just a penny, they’re goin’ outta business soon, right?” asked Tunnel Rat, effortlessly maneuvering through the sewer tunnel. For the past half hour, he’d been feeling the strain of his shoulder-mounted tactical flashlight (more of an incandescent lamp than flashlight, really) but he wouldn’t dream of complaining. “Unless they’re acquiring those albums from the back of a truck. Heck, even then, one penny just sounds nuts. You sure it’s not just the introductory price?”
“I’ll check the fine print when we get back to base.” Falcon watched as his teammate, a good six inches shorter in stature, braced his hand at the top of the tunnel, flexed, then flipped his entire bodyweight out of the tunnel with ease.
His boots splashed the coffee-colored sewer sludge in all directions. “Back to base with certain parts of our anatomy in our hands, and nothing else,” Tunnel Rat joked as he offered both hands to aid Falcon.
Falcon accepted the assistance, had to contort his wider, burlier body in several uncomfortable positions before he could be freed from the tunnel. His teammate did what he could to ease Falcon’s seven-foot drop into the brick chamber below. But Tunnel Rat wasn’t letting him forget just how they ended up here. “Still can’t believe you talked General Hawk into this. You have a vision during sleepy time an’ that sends us on a covert mission to New York? Absurd.”
The lieutenant didn’t want to go through this again. It was a dream, yes, but there was nothing cryptic about it. More of a memory, one that he’d miraculously recovered while his subconscious was given its playtime. A memory of a map, located on the kitchen table of Cobra’s Astoria hideout. A map of the NYC sewer system; an exact portion of those tunnels, in fact.
The soldiers continued their patrol, each taking one side of the walkway. “Miracle I could ever reach REM state, Rat, given that chainsaw impersonation you perform for the base every evenin’.”
“I still say you’re a fibber on that score, Lieutenant. My moms never told me I snored.”
Falcon turned towards his friend, eyebrow cocked. “Didn’t tell you how bad you mangle Brick Springstern tracks in the shower either, did she?”
Turning the corner, Tunnel Rat was the first to spot the red helmet displays, almost in the shape of a cross, emerging twenty yards away. Made sense; the average Cobra grunt probably would wimp out down here, kvetching about the smell or crying out for his mommy in the dark.
Battle Android Troopers, however, never complained about anything.
Both Joes drew their sidearms, retreating a few feet to find whatever cover the layout could provide. Falcon felt confident he’d only spotted four B.A.T.s in that hurried flash. Fired three shots in less than a second; one missed, two connected with a B.A.T.’s midsection.
“Hey, they got Brick’s newest one in that penny-club?” Tunnel Rat asked as he took his turn, landing a solid shot in the tangle of circuitry that resides in the chest of a B.A.T. “Still haven’t checked it out.”
The B.A.T.s were retaliating with no mercy. Fragments of brick kept flying in the air, chipping away at the Joes’ makeshift barricade. “I heard it sucked eggs. But I’ll double-check the pamphlet when we get back to base. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”
The lieutenant one-upped his subordinate, scarcely avoiding the barrage of fire while nailing a headshot on the lead B.A.T. Was going to make another crack at his friend, until he felt Tunnel Rat’s body rush past him, an indecipherable battle charge echoing throughout the sewers.
Falcon hadn’t noticed yet, but one of those blasts nicked a portion of his uniform, specifically the eponymous reminder of his time as a Green Beret. A chunk of the beret’s fabric vaporized under the androids’ fire, an attack observed with horror by the lieutenant’s subordinate. Horror, and within a heartbeat, furious revulsion. Apparently, the Joes’ combat engineering expert held a healthier respect for battle dress than anyone had realized.
Sometimes, Falcon had to remind himself his buddy Tunnel Rat was, well, crazy. And not in the “like a fox” category, either.
They found some way to dance around this when typing up his psyche profile, but anyone who’d served with the Rat in a hairy enough mission had seen a peculiar glint in his eyes. The one that indicated the good-humored little guy who could yammer on all day about the most trivial of topics had taken a short vacation; that his deranged cousin with the inattentive concern for personal safety or acceptable battlefield tactics would be taking over for a while.
Falcon, secure in his own mental stability, could only shrug his shoulders. Watch with a mix of worry and amusement as Tunnel Rat ducked enemy fire, swatted a live grenade like it was nothing, then drove every ounce of his bodyweight into the nearest android soldier.
Shaking off the disbelief, Falcon followed his teammate, offering whatever cover fire he could, considering how fast the diminutive demon was moving. Wasn’t even sure if the adorable little psycho noticed when Falcon scored that impressive grouping on one B.A.T.’s left shoulder, severing his arm and sparing Tunnel Rat whatever plans it had in mind for that solid steel clamp attachment.
In under thirty seconds, all four B.A.T.s were scrap on the sewer floor. Panting, Tunnel Rat took a moment to, perhaps, admire the carnage. Or possibly reflect on the shocking recklessness of his actions. Falcon made an honest effort, not looking in his friend’s direction as those wild eyes transitioned back to normal ol’ loveable Rat eyes.
Then, abruptly, the soldier asked, “And is it just tapes? Me, I got a preference for vinyl.”
Falcon played along. Whistled playfully. “Lordy, Rat. What decade are you living in?”
“Ain’t no depth or texture to those magnetic tapes, Lieutenant, regardless of the year. And don’t get me started on that CD scam they’re tryin’ to get going.”
Falcon directed his flashlight to the opposite end of the passageway. “So, you think these metal clunkers just happened to be hanging out here, or was your lieutenant maybe on to something?”
“Don’t let that melon outgrow your beret, Lieutenant,” Tunnel Rat spoke while strutting past Falcon, giving him a sarcastic pat on the back on his way. “Let’s just follow the trail they left and then see how good a prophet you are.”
Falcon followed, flashlight in one hand, sidearm gripped in the other. “You oughtta see me in my robes. And just wait until I grow my beard out, grasshopper. Didn’t realize this unit had such lax hair an’ dress standards ‘til I joined…”
Tunnel Rat shushed him, just as they were reaching the next corner. The lieutenant listened close, listened to the sound of two feet pacing against the concrete. Pacing with not only a military precision, but very possibly a robotic one as well.
Slowly, both Joes turned the corner. Carved into a nook of the brickwork was a collection of computers and fax machines, blinking red and green lights and shooting out reams of burst paper, surely detailing the latest nefarious Cobra plot.
Falcon whispered to his teammate, “You were right, soldier. A straggler.”
Tunnel Rat shook his head. “No chance. He’s left back for a reason—to destroy the evidence.”
The lieutenant nodded, used a hand signal to indicate he’d be leading this one, then sneaked closer to the B.A.T. He was cursing the water on his boots, the creaky sound the wet rubber was making as he inched closer to his target, when he realized it didn’t matter.
Realized this as the B.A.T.’s hand retracted into its arm, replaced itself with a miniaturized flamethrower. Took aim at the wall of hard drives and printers and just went to town on them. And, as casually as an android soldier does anything, turned to its left and sprayed flames in Falcon’s direction.
Mama Falcone’s youngest spun his body around in less than one tick of the clock. Fed those flames his backpack and the portions of his uniform unfortunate enough to be close by. Wasn’t sure if any of the blaze had reached his skin, as he dropped to the concrete and reenacted those Boy Scout drills from Fire Safety Month.
“You okay, Lieutenant?” called Tunnel Rat, passing by, nailing the target with a steady assault that landed from face to chest.
Falcon had rolled into the sewer water that separated the passageway—unsure if exposure to the assorted bacteria was worth beating the fire, but chancing the move anyway. He affirmed the fire on his back was dead, a moment before he witnessed a curious sight inside that nook.
“Just singed some nose hairs,” he responded, his voice trailing away. The image of that B.A.T.’s left hand detaching itself, running on its fingers and racing away from its body did leave him momentarily speechless.
“Hey, you ever watch that old show about the —”
The lieutenant couldn’t complete the thought; Tunnel Rat had peeked the spectacle in time. “Hey! Little bugger’s still movin’!” he exclaimed, racing towards the severed mechanical meathook.
To the left of the blazing console, the hand seemed to be targeting one floppy disk from amidst the debris. Had it gripped tight between its fingers when Tunnel Rat arrived, sweeping the mitt off the floor. After the soldier peeled the disk from its fingers, he wasted little time tossing the motorized abnormality against the brick wall.
GTMO read the handwritten letters on the label.
Turning back, a buoyed Tunnel Rat showed off the disk and asked, “You were saying, Lieutenant?”
“I saw it scramblin’ first,” he was sure to point out, stepping out of the foul water. “Reminded me of the detached hand from that show about the, uh, kooky family in that mansion. You remember that one?” Tunnel Rat, studying the unassuming 5¼-inch diskette didn’t seem to be paying attention. “Forget it. Just trying to impress you with my rapier wit, Rat.”
“I’m overwhelmed, bud.” The soldier offered the diskette to Falcon. “Those letters mean anything to you?”
The lieutenant cocked an eyebrow, handed the floppy back to his friend. “Zilch, bud.”
Tunnel Rat tucked the disk inside a safe place in his (unsinged) backpack. “Guess Mainframe will have some fun with it. And, hey Little Nemo, I guess apologies are due. Next round of frosty Yo Joe colas are on me, all right?”
IT’D BEEN A HECTIC WEEK for Dr. Brian Cooper. After so many years of chaos, he could hardly believe what tomorrow held. If the knock at the door startled the doctor too much, caused him to jump just a centimeter too high, he couldn’t be blamed.
He allowed himself some foolish optimism, though. Opening the door without taking a look through the peephole.
“No…you can’t…” he gasped, recognizing the two faces on the other side.
They shoved their way inside. The scarred one was the first to take a seat on the doctor’s couch. His brother remained standing, arms crossed, leaning against the furniture.
“The war’s over,” said Dr. Cooper, with the breath that remained in his lungs. “Cobra’s been dethroned. You have no—”
“Authority, Dr. Cooper? Based on your body language—”
“—we still have great authority over you.”
The doctor collected himself. Decided not to fight off images of the past; to embrace them, allow himself to feel the anger. Anything to counteract the waves of terror. Taking a seat across from the brothers, he asked, “What do you want? The federal agents are still patrolling, still looking for any traces of Cobra.”
“Are we to assume you’ve escaped their reach?”
“Don’t you dare!” Cooper spat back, offended. “I was drafted into your service at gun point! And, yes, I’ve spoken to the authorities. Provided whatever information I could…I hope to God they find you…that you get what you deserve.”
The scarred one revealed that sadistically handsome smile of his. “As someone personally acquainted with your skills, I’ll express horrible remorse at this. You’re uniquely…talented, dear doctor.”
Another memory returned. A battlefield injury, the posh banker-turned-soldier apoplectic over the wound profaning his idyllic features. Cooper fixed him up, did what he could to reduce the ghastliness of the injury. Had to remind his patient, more than once, that he was no plastic surgeon, however…
“And it would be a shame for such capable hands to go to waste,” said his brother. “Don’t tell us you’re thinking of reopening that absurd dental practice of yours?”
“Orthodontic,” he corrected. “Of course I am. I have to rebuild my life. Return to something that resembles normalcy.”
The scarred twin removed a pistol from his holster. “Well, we’d hate to be a bother. But we’d also hate to stop by without picking your brain over a subject or two.”
The standing brother opened his coat to reveal a manila folder. The notes were tossed to the doctor with more than a hint of aggression. The doctor actually felt a wave of relief, then cursed himself for it.
If they needed him, they wouldn’t kill him. This was all a part of the dance. Took only a moment for Cooper to remember just how hellish being “needed” could be. To send him back to a life he’d promised himself was over.
“Tell us, Doctor. Do any of those notes ring a bell? Provoke a sudden onslaught of ‘Eureka!’ in your brain cells?”
The doctor flipped through the notes. Talk of deoxyribonucleic acid, secrets of the double-helix, the value of genetics, even from the grave. The technology it spoke of, the implications of tinkering with the most basic element of humanity…Cooper was appalled.
“This…this is the work of a madman.” The doctor, revulsion not hidden on his face, flung the papers at the floor. “I couldn’t begin to perform what you’re asking of me.”
The brothers exchanged a look. The one without a scar eventually chuckled before saying, “Hmm…I don’t suppose acting was also in the chap’s skill set.”
The scarred one stood. “Agreed. I suppose the most efficacious way to end this fruitless discussion would be to eliminate any evidence it ever happened…”
With the pistol lifted, he eyed his target. The fear in Cooper’s eyes had morphed into a palpable contempt. The scarred brother was forced, momentarily, to break eye contact. Caught a glimpse of the portraits hanging on the wall. The good doctor must’ve saved the prints.
He’d seen those photos before—tattered, pathetic images from the doctor’s previous life. He kept 2.5 x 3.5 versions of the photos in his wallet. Used to pull them out when he thought the twins weren’t paying attention.
Diane and little Bobby. Both victims of Strain D. Did they know, wherever spirits roam, that their husband and father was the one to ultimately devise the cure? Did his achievement ease the doctor’s suffering, or was it merely salt in the wound?
Sometimes, deep into the night, the scarred brother could hear the doctor speaking to this lost wife and son, when he thought the rest of the company asleep.
Why hang those inane images? Why remind yourself of a life forever lost?
The realization hit the twin, caused him to titter just a bit. The brave doctor, taking his stand—or, simply asking his former superior to commit the act he couldn’t bring himself to perform.
The pistol was holstered. “…but perhaps efficiency is overrated. Good evening, Doctor. We wish you only success in your new life.”
“YOU HAVE TO RECOGNIZE HOW RIDICULOUS YOU LOOK.”
“Says the man in a cape. And codpiece.”
Dr. Mindbender should’ve expected the retort. Their entire journey east, Raptor had been snippy like this. The doctor had endured worse travelmates than the eccentric ornithologist, although he’d be pressed to think of them at the moment.
“A tribute to my Alsatian roots,” he responded, adjusting his cloak to cover his lap. He didn’t face his companion, instead taking in the lavish stylings of the Trucial Abysmia royal palace. “The, ah, cloak that is. You, conversely, have adorned yourself as a fool.”
“Been working on this suit for months,” Raptor said with pride. A pride perhaps undeserving of a grown man dressed in an intricately detailed bird costume. “My feathered friends respond to it; recognize me as one of their own. When I discovered the Colonel was a bird lover, I figured it could give us an edge.”
Raptor—a falconry expert for Cobra, tasked with training predatory birds for surveillance and attack purposes. Recruited into the organization mere weeks before the incident in the mountains that nearly ended Cobra’s operations. Faced with a certain dismissal after the Crimson Twins revaluated the books, Raptor pled his case; revealed he’d spent his previous life as a high-priced white-collar tax consultant. Had a clientele of executive tax cheats and alimony-dodgers the envy of financial markets the world over.
He offered his accounting services, agreed to keep the bird business as a hobby. His skill with a spreadsheet was as respectable as advertised; the ornithological diversion tolerated so long as every contracted agent, grunt, and officer could make payroll.
Which was becoming more of an issue, lately. An onslaught of new recruits (thanks to the former leader’s One Good Idea) but barely the means to provide for them. Almost exclusively young males, with ravenous appetites, destructive urges…absolute murder on training bases, equipment…
“I fear he’ll laugh us out of the dining hall.”
Raptor had left his seat, was examining a bronze statue of a dark chanting goshawk. Stunning bird, expertly represented by this work of art. This Colonel Abu Minyar’s taste in décor was regrettable, but his choice in birds of prey was beyond reproach. “If you want me to leave, fine. But you invited me for a reason, didn’t you?” Back turned to his leader, Raptor sneered, “I suspect your interest in haggling over the pecuniary details borders on the non-existent, yes?”
“Just don’t do anything to embarrass yourself. Further.”
The doors to the spacious dining hall opened. Welcoming the Cobra agents was Colonel Abu Minyar’s longtime aide, Kapama. A diminutive man approaching fifty, his genial front disguised eyes that had witnessed the most horrific of atrocities. Few sights could unnerve the serene Kapama, having deadened so much of his soul for thirty years now.
The image of two grown men dressed for what had to be a deranged child’s costume ball, however, did give him pause.
Kapama collected himself. Began his rehearsed patter. “Greetings, friends. What a pleasure to host you this evening. Is, ah, your attire associated with a custom in the West of which I am unfamiliar?”
Mindbender stood, offered his hand. “I suppose you could chalk it up to the…peculiarities that reside within our organization.”
Kapama smiled, attempted to keep his eyes on the mad doctor. Absurd his garments might’ve been, but they were recognizably human. The living bird-man was likely to give Kapama fits of laughter. Or perhaps nightmares. “Yes, the Cobra Command does have something of a reputation for flamboyance.”
“But, also, for quality work at equitable rates, I would suggest,” piped in the walking bird.
“Oh, yes, certainly,” spoke Kapama as he escorted the guests into the dining hall. “Please have a seat; the colonel is ready for his meal.”
Standing at the head of the thirty-foot, African bubinga wood table was the colonel, dressed in full military regalia. “My friends, my friends,” he spoke with outstretched hands.
Posed as if for a portrait, trademark riding crop attached to his waist and indoor sunglasses concealing his cognac-brown eyes, Colonel Abu Minyar showed no disdain for his guests’ sartorial choices. One fashion maven recognized another, perhaps.
“Please, welcome to my palace,” the colonel said as he broke his pose and moved down the table. Taking hands with both guests, he beamed a pleasant energy while speaking with conviction, “I hope a most productive conversation awaits us.”
The embrace lingered. Raptor cleared his throat, attempted to maintain the rapport. “I think your aide was a mite perplexed by our ceremonial dress.”
The colonel finally dropped their hands. Waved his in the air and laughed. “Think nothing of it. The grandiosity of your association is part of the appeal, I believe.”
As everyone took their seat at the table, Mindbender prepared the opening gambit. Flattery, the surest way to the colonel’s heart. Even if the subject remained raw for the doctor. He turned to his companion and said, “You might not be aware of this, Raptor, but the colonel participated in last year’s…liquidation of our real estate holdings.”
Raptor held out his glass for wine. Grinned and said, “Saw a good deal and leapt on it, eh? Can’t blame the man.”
“Indeed,” spoke the colonel as he savored the finest cut of lamb. “A discreetly hidden temple in the sands of Tunisia. Stunning snake theme throughout the castle. Perhaps my dearest vacation home. The wives and I enjoy it very much.”
The doctor swallowed his pining for the glory days of Cobra, nodded and said, “Yes. A favorite of mine, from bygone days. Tell me, have you made use of the throne room’s hidden python pit?”
“A delight, truly. And the stone oubliette crypts?” The colonel kissed his fingertips. “Works of art, I would say. But the great hall, ehhh, was lacking in a certain warmth. Rectified with marble columns, gold crown molding, and, naturally, an ivory statue of the people’s beloved colonel.” Mouth full, he gestured towards the doctor with his fork. “You must pay it a visit someday, my dear Mindbender.”
The doctor gritted his teeth. Thought of the months he spent renovating that room from scratch, arguing with contractors, carefully researching the most depraved corners of the underworld art scene to find designers with the diseased sensibilities befitting of a Cobra palace. That hall was a wicked testament to the amoral philosophy that birthed Cobra—transformed now into a gaudy monument to a buffoon dictator’s fragile ego. As if Mindbender needed further proof life is cruel and malicious. Raptor, recognizing the uncomfortable silence, nudged his companion with his elbow.
The doctor received the hint. Put on a smile and nodded. “It would be an…honor, sire. Now, the reason for our visit today—I imagine you’ve called us to discuss the issue of neighboring Benzheen, and the issues that have erupted on your border?”
“Issues” meaning an invasion from Trucial Abysmia into its neighbor’s borders. A bloody yet necessary requirement for building Abu Minyar’s fabled “state of the masses,” the Communist brotherhood that would soon dominate northern Africa. The vast oil reserves located within Benzheen surely did not serve as a motivation for this offensive, regardless of the claims spread by western propagandists.
Grasping his jewel-encrusted goblet, the colonel’s grin dropped. “Trucial Abysmia has nothing to fear from that cockroach of a nation. Although, the unique services offered by your organization could aid us in executing the inevitable. It’s my understanding you’ve amassed a stunning number of new recruits?”
Raptor leaned onto the table. “That we have, Colonel. Over a thousand young souls, eager to fight for the holy cause of Trucial Abysmia. Assuming those pesky monetarist concerns are properly addressed, of course…”
Over a thousand young mouths to feed…mused Dr. Mindbender, drifting further away from the conversation. Such pedestrian worries; how could he have guessed so many of his hours would be consumed by them? Accounts payable, accounts receivable, lodging issues for the troops, disappointing fiscal earnings, regulatory concerns for the legitimate fronts, security concerns for the illegitimate operations.
And to think Crystal Ball, that weasel, coveted his position.
Not that the Romanian was explicit in his desires, but Mindbender could recognize a schemer when he saw one. His “ally” had to know by now that his powers of persuasion were impotent before the doctor; that someone of his intellect would deduce a means to circumvent the archaic art of hypnosis. Yes, those cochlear implants were marvelous, resting surreptitiously in his ears, blocking any “suggestions” that might be coming from the mystic’s forked tongue. But would Crystal Ball concoct some other means to usurp the doctor’s autonomy?
For pity’s sake, they’re still talking. Raptor obsessing over the details, demanding to know just what percentage of Benzheen’s oil reserves would belong to Cobra, assuming Trucial Abysmia wins the war. Negotiating for a higher payment upfront, doing everything in his power to tip-toe around just how green those new recruits were. Questioning the colonel’s commitment to Communism, given the global climate.
Mindbender sighed, slipped deeper into his chair. Thought of his lab. His true lab, not that table with the soldering iron and electrical cords in the corner of his office. The laboratory. The place of miracles that once birthed the exquisite Übermensch known as Serpentor.
So long since his last visit. So, so long since his last creation of biomechanical art.
The doctor enjoyed a long sip of wine, was beginning to calculate some excuse to evade the remainder of this meeting. Raptor, odd bird that he was, seemed to be handling the minutia well enough. Let him feel like a big bird-man for the evening.
Mindbender had his hands against the table, ready to push his chair away, when two fragrant words left his host’s lips.
“And I suppose the issue of mortuary affairs must be addressed,” spoke a formerly distant voice. “In the past, I recall your organization offering competitive prices in the area of theatre recovery.”
The imagery generated by the term would nauseate any man of character. Would force him to question his beliefs, his delusion that any armed conflict between men could be “civilized.” The doctor’s mind, however, danced with innumerable possibilities.
“A service we gladly offer to this day, Colonel,” he interjected with avidity. “In fact, Cobra is pleased to announce that our mortuary services are now gratis.”
His companion turned. “They are?”
“No doubt! An amenity we’re proud to offer our clients. Why, you have my assurance I will personally oversee the collection of the casualties and war wounded.”
The Colonel clapped his hands. “Very generous, Doctor! I would’ve assumed your elevated position within the agency prevented such hands-on participation.”
As Raptor sat incredulous, calculating the unexpected strain on their fiscal year budget, the doctor couldn’t disguise his glee. “Think nothing of it, Colonel. Only the best for friends of Cobra.”
IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY, Keone. Twenty years on this planet.
Over a year since you departed your home, began your journey to prove yourself. Did the research and determined Hkakabo Razi, a peak so perilous no man has successfully reached its summit, would be your destination. Spent two weeks in the muggy, claustrophobic jungle below before you even got a glimpse of where to start.
Nearly died during the first avalanche. Took the scars as a prize, and a learning experience. Continued that sheer climb, reached the jagged range of subzero pinnacles, set up camp in the most hostile environment known to man. Every time you think of your brother, traveling to America of all places, you can’t repress that sick laughter.
Perfect place for a misanthrope such as yourself. Perhaps one day you’ll notify the world of your accomplishment. Allow the accolades to pour in, allow your name to be spoken with the reverence it deserves. Then, you’ll return to the compound. Don’t lie to yourself—you’re going to rub it in. Enjoy the look of envy and embarrassment on all of their faces. Maybe Tomisaburo will be back by then, if the fates are so kind.
You exit your tent, examine the breathtaking skyline, tell yourself you’re ready for another morning. Another day of practicing the survival techniques nature has forced you to hone to perfection. Another day of an aching, but desolately satisfying, isolation.
So, why is it you hear footsteps approaching?
You remove the blade from your boot holster.
The invader shocks you, calling out in a Sino-Tibetan language. You follow his voice, see him approaching from the west. Clad in a parka and hiking gear, he’s gesturing for you to come closer.
Bewildered, you comply, though your grip never slips on that blade. The stranger is sized up; deemed unlikely to be any threat. In your native tongue, you tell him you don’t speak Myanmar. Ask if he knows Japanese.
“Indeed I do. I’m versed in many tongues of this land,” he responds in perfect Japanese. Although you can’t help noticing a sibilant hsss accompanies a few syllables. He asks for your name.
“Your tongue might not handle the demands,” he speaks again in your native language. “Just know me as a friend.”
You’re prepared to question what that means, just when a sharp pain enters your ankle. You look down, catch a fleeting glimpse of a mountain snake scurrying away. The dizziness hits almost immediately. Doesn’t make sense—only known snakes in this region are non-venomous. So why is the sky spinning? Why is your breakfast returning to your throat?
A fire attacks your nerves. The stranger races towards your body, seizing out on the ground. His concern sounds genuine, even if you can’t place the language he’s now speaking. If you were in your right mind, you might view it as bad acting.
You do notice the blood in the snow around you. Assume you hit the ground too hard; realize soon it’s the instantaneous nose bleed caused by that venom. Any poison moving this fast is beyond man’s science, that’s a notion passing through your mind. Not that your thoughts are coherent enough to comprehend what’s happening, to lament your imminent passing.
The strange man removes a vial from his rucksack, pops the cork. From inside, a million tiny beetles bustle out onto the ground. They march toward the wound, gather at their meeting place, an infinite number of mandibles nibbling away at the bite.
Some time fades. Could be as much as an hour. He’s still hovering over you, offering a warm drink, checking now on the wound. He wipes away the last of the beetles. The abrasion is missing. You can move now, can verify what he’s telling you. Your skin’s as pristine as before, your blood flowing as if nothing had been wrong.
“Feeling better now, I hope?” he asks.
The stranger removes his ski mask, exposes a disturbing grin...amongst other secrets. He’s certainly no native of your abandoned land.
This hairless oddity. This outsider with his plastic smile, obsidian eyes, and skin the color of a powder blue sky.
WILD BILL, so often accused of belonging to the wrong era, possessed a deferential respect for authority. Was held in high regard by every one of his superiors. Never any disrespect, never any questioning of orders. Any commissioned officer could expect the best of treatment, taking a ride with Bill—be it in the CH-42 Tomahawk or his beloved Dragonfly XH-1 chopper.
Lt. Falcon, however, was discovering the pilot’s Texas hospitality did possess its limits.
“Now cut that out, Falcon!” Wild Bill shouted over his shoulder, as the lieutenant’s fist hammered against the door of the Tomahawk. “You’re actin’ like a blamed fool!”
Falcon slammed two open palms against the door. With a snarl, he turned towards the cockpit. “C’mon! It’s gotta be one of those buttons or switches!”
Wild Bill took his attention from the evening sky long enough to register Falcon’s approach. Still couldn’t believe the insanity of the previous three minutes. Both Tunnel Rat and Lt. Falcon had been snoozing in the back, the lieutenant out like a light, thanks to whatever-the-kids-call-music he was enjoying on those headphones.
Tunnel Rat remained in dreamland while Falcon suddenly found himself awake. Awake, and desperate to embark on some grand mission. One that absolutely could not wait a moment longer.
“All due respect, Lieutenant, I need you back in your seat,” Wild Bill spoke in a panicked tone, removing Falcon’s unsteady hands from the instrument panel. “Whatever big plans you have, they can wait ‘till the mornin’.”
“No! It’s urgent,” Falcon shot back. “Can’t waste one more second here…” he said while making a move for the nearby parachute. Strapping it on, he directed a finger towards Wild Bill, gave the order, “and if you don’t open this door right now, pilot, I’m…I’m…”
Wild Bill, preparing himself for the worst, for the inevitability of what he’d have to do to Falcon after setting the auto-pilot, looked again over his shoulders. “Lieutenant? You feelin’ all right?”
You could almost see the flashing lights doing a samba around his eyes. “Just feeling a bit lightheaded. I think…I should probably…”
The pilot was trying to think of the term. Night terrors. That’s what they’re called. Read about them in Timely magazine a few months earlier. Darned shame, a condition like that afflicting the lieutenant.
“Go back to your seat? Sleep off this funk a’yours?” Wild Bill eased his voice, adopted the tone he’d use with an agitated steer back on the farm. “Yeah, I’d say that’s about right, pard.”
The parachute pack hit the floor. Falcon, staggering now, turned towards his seat in the staging area. “Yeah…I think you’re right, Wild Bill.” Some clarity returned to his voice. “Ah, sorry about, ah, any trouble.”
The pilot returned his attention to the skies. Pushed his sunglasses up his nose. “Don’t worry about it. Happens to the best of us, I s’pose.” The good Texas boy spent the rest of the flight debating whether to mention this incident on his report when he returned to base.
He ultimately decided against it. Decided to respect the lieutenant’s privacy. Didn’t wish to embarrass the man. And if anyone deserved the benefit of the doubt, it was the younger brother of the dearly loved and dearly missed Conrad “Duke” Hauser.
A compassionate decision. Had he made the alternate choice, perhaps some lives could’ve been saved.
“WHADDAYA MEAN IT’S EMPTY?” Tunnel Rat enquired, removing his legs from the Communication Suite’s console. The laidback mood of the morning, the pride of the previous day’s discovery, now dissipating.
Mainframe, superior grin on his face, pointed again to the monitor. The blank monitor. “What those three syllables mean in any context, Rat. This diskette has no data. Zero. Nada. Same as the Padres’ chances of winning the World Series this year.”
“So why’d that B.A.T. go to such trouble…?” Tunnel Rat asked the ceiling. He kicked the rolling chair behind him as he stood. “Dang, I’ve got to tell Falcon about this.”
Mainframe reached for his coffee mug. Held it close to his lips as he said, “Shouldn’t have slept in today, Rat. The lieutenant is on leave, as of this morning.”
“Really? He didn’t say a thing to me about that.”
“Didn’t say no-thing to no-one,” Mainframe answered after finishing his sip. “According to the log, he got on the horn with the general before the sun was up. Said he was taking him up on that offer for leave time. Caught the tires of his jeep squealing out of the garage when I was on my morning jog.”
The leave time was owed from Christmas. A time General Hawk suggested Falcon spend with his family, following the tragedy of the previous year. Falcon ended up indisposed on the actual holiday; never got around to using the time off. Didn’t express a desire to, even after the Punto del Mucosa incident.
Tunnel Rat crossed his arms. Stroking his chin, he spoke in a near-whisper, “That…that just doesn’t sound right.”
“Heh. I ran into his sweetie with the karate belt earlier today. She seemed to be of the same opinion…”
“THAT SAILOR RUN A GAME ON YOU?” asked Jinx, stepping out of General Hawk’s office. Even if the shock of Falcon’s abrupt departure was weighing on her, the progress she’d been making with the general had eased her nerves. In spite of his reputation, Hawk wasn’t unreasonably harsh. Had worked out, the best he could, some way to handle the unique situation Jinx’s past presented the Joes. All honesty, Jinx wasn’t expecting the man to be so understanding about the mess.
Wasn’t expecting the sight of Low-Light with a mop and wheeled bucket-wringer combo to be gracing the halls, either.
“Hm?” asked the sniper, sunglasses indoors, as taciturn and aloof as usual.
Jinx placed her hands on her hip. With a knowing smirk, she offered, “Shipwreck. He has clean-up duty all month, thanks to that incident during the sexual harassment seminar.”
“Seems the general located a bigger foul-up on the team,” said Low-Light, not hinting he wished further discussion. As he watched Jinx step away, he cleared his throat and added, “Nice to see you back, by the way.”
“I’m sure you are,” Jinx said, turning around. “My ego and cute karate outfit say ‘thank you.’”
Low-Light nodded, accepted the passive-aggressive scolding. “I can be a salty one at times. But man enough to offer an apology.”
Jinx’s body language began to ease. “Good to know.”
“My old man, he taught me not to let pride trip me up,” Low-Light stated as he wringed out the mop. “Was a hard one, y’know. Korea vet. But his heart was in the right place, usually.”
“Yes, I think…men of that generation tended to be that way.”
Low-Light finished his business with the mop. “Used to lock me out at night. Told me to go down to the junkyard and hunt rats. Said I needed to bring back twenty of ‘em if I wanted supper that night.”
“Sounds harsh,” Jinx offered back. The tone could’ve been interpreted any number of ways.
“Yeah. But I guess you wouldn’t know a thing about that, would you?” asked Low-Light, leaning against his mop. “Growin’ up in sunny Southern California.”
She turned. Didn’t look back as she answered, “Nope. Not a thing.”
Any self-reflection, any unbidden thoughts of the past, were eradicated when she spotted a fellow Joe in the intersection of hallways.
“Law! You got time to talk, bud?”
THE ROMANIAN EXITED THE FRONT OFFICES of Rutherford Broadcast System, briefcase in hand. Slipped on his shades to protect his eyes from the bright Atlanta sun. He thought the aviators, freshly arrived from Italy, complimented his white Perry Ellis ensemble perfectly. Was so lost in thought, so proud of himself, he stepped into traffic without looking. Was nearly flattened by a beer truck.
His second try, he managed to cross the street without incident. Entered the sedan’s backseat, casually unlatched the briefcase. Cotton, ink, soap, leather, so many unwashed hands…nothing quite smelled like American currency.
He removed one of the bundles, let his thumb race across the top. “To the airport, driver,” he ordered.
“Sure thing. Mr. Rutherford as agreeable as ever?” asked the driver, a Cobra blueshirt who’d been blessed with the prestigious assignment.
“He listens to his tapes like a good boy,” answered the Romanian, indulging his underling in the small talk. “Is probably two cassettes away before the bank arrives to collect his every possession, but you have my assurances he’ll feel just fine about everything.”
The blueshirt tittered. Had the temerity to continue the conversation. “Y’know, seems to me, this is a heckuva racket. Why don’t you ‘suggest’ Rutherford give you access to his video library? Why can’t the whole country get their proper orders when they’re watching Mama’s Clan reruns or that Beastlord movie for the thousandth time?”
The Romanian exhaled. Attempted to control himself. “Because, driver, there’s no art in it. My messages aren’t disposable pop tunes for the masses. They’re symphonies, crafted with the upmost care to coach and charm a chosen target, to use subtlety and panache to reroute their thinking towards its proper path.”
This conversation was one he’d engaged in too many times with Mindbender. Him, and that odd bird-fellow who was always floating around, carrying those computer printouts in one hand and calculator in the other. They couldn’t grasp why the Romanian was selecting his targets with such care—researching their lives, their ambitions, their anxieties.
Sure, the Cobra heads appreciated every briefcase of cash, but the process was so time consuming. So labor intensive, so…boutique. They were in disbelief, when he rejected their plans to insert unconscious commands into this year’s “Big Game” event, during the countless advertisements for potato chips and spray butter and wine coolers.
And, with the impending return of their founder, the Romanian could only guess at the future idiocy he’d be forced to endure. They’d been given no option, however. In custody, the viper remained too large of a liability.
“Okay, sure, Mr. Ball. But ain’t this the long route to take? Couldn’t just one big broadcast ‘zap’ at least half the country?”
The Romanian slammed the briefcase shut. “I won’t be doing that, because what you suggest is inartful, you dolt. Utterly tactless, and not becoming of my ancestry.”
The audacity of this ape. Irritating enough, having to tolerate these conversations with the other higher-ups in the organization. But to endure one from a random toady? One lucky to even enjoy a peripheral role in this masterwork?
“Yeah, all right. Just tossing some ideas around, sir,” the blueshirt called back, keeping his eyes on the road.
The Romanian leaned forward. “I am not a receptacle for your imprudent notions, lackey. Is this understood?”
“Of course it is, sir.”
“And I trust that my ears will no longer be profaned by your foolish fantasies? Your arrogant and ill-informed presumptions on the best use of my talents?”
“A-absolutely, Mr. Ball.”
The Romanian returned to his seat. “Fine then.”
But it wasn’t fine. He stewed for the next hour, grew to despise the sight of the back of that blueshirt’s head. Only a call on his car-phone managed to lift his spirits. The Romanian answered, received confirmation the Anaheim operation was a success. Could even overhear the teenage milksop’s frightened voice in the background.
He smiled. Tried to enjoy the victory. Had to keep staring at that blueshirt’s bald spot.
The ideal revenge had been crafted in time for their arrival at Hartsfield–Jackson. The Romanian made certain he gave the blueshirt a lengthy farewell outside the airport; that the minion understood his precise directions for the afternoon.
They involved a rural area outside the city limits, an unsuspecting farmer’s cow pasture, and as the emergency room doctors would later discern, dangerous exposure to E. coli, salmonella, and countless other pathogens.
“SEE, Law. Look at this,” she told him, a burning in her eyes.
The quarters were shared by Law and two of his fellow Rawhides, Tunnel Rat and Falcon. The latter was the current cause of concern, per another Rawhide, the perplexing ninja known as Jinx.
She’d pressed for entry into the room, demanding the Joe’s resident Military Police hear her concerns. Reluctantly, Law gave Jinx permission to search Falcon’s belongings. Her prize discovery? The olive drab duffel bag Falcon used to house his collection of cassettes.
Gripped between Jinx’s thumb and index finger was the latest cassette from some underground duo Law had barely heard of. “Both Named John?” she asked, indignant. “Since when does Falcon listen to this college boy nerd rock?”
“Maybe he’s expanding his horizons, Jinx. That’s no evidence the guy’s been brainwashed by little green hombres.”
Jinx examined the tape. Looked at it as if it really did come from outer space. “He’s been acting weird. Left base without even saying goodbye.”
Law crossed his arms, smirked. “Yeah, and stood a certain someone up recently too, didn’t he?”
He couldn’t help himself. It was such an easy opening, and it’s not as if it was a secret Falcon had flaked out on a recent date with Jinx. (Rumor had it, Falcon was stepping out on Jinx with a waitress at Rhonda’s. Not that Law believed it.) She shouldn’t have reacted so angrily, tossing that cassette in his face.
“Look…” Law said, examining the album artwork, not appreciating the abstract graphic design. “…maybe he’s working through some things. He’ll probably be okay with certain…situations when he gets back from leave. Makes you feel better, I’ll talk to him. Let him know he needs to stop acting like such a dope, right?”
Jinx, digging deeper into the duffel bag, spoke with her back turned. “Let him know he needs to go see a shrink.” Before Law could question why, she turned around, arms filled with cassettes, all bearing that same oddball cover design. “Because I don’t think it’s normal, owning thirty copies of the same album.”
“I APOLOGIZE, Doctor. We’re dealing with heavy icing on antennas at the research station. It could be as much as a week before Rockwitz is able to get into contact with you.”
He’d been in high spirits these past twelve hours. In spite of Raptor’s needling about the unexpected expenditures on their flight home, and the follow-up “accidental” meeting in the hallway where Raptor presented a series of spreadsheets to emphasize the cost of the Trucial Abysmia job, the doctor allowed nothing to alter his mood.
Any thoughts of financial hardship were easily exchanged with images of his lab. His private shop of horrors, bursting with a healthy (relatively speaking) collection of specimens, numbers surely greater than he’d ever experienced in the past. Each one, an opportunity to reconnect with his roots. To explore the unknown, to once again achieve greatness.
The song in his heart kept whistling, as he entered the number of the Cobra switchboard. Requested the name of a particular operative, one who’d proven his loyalty to the doctor in the past. One who’d been deemed worthy of a set of cochlear implants.
This is when the music stopped.
“And, could you perhaps enlighten your leader as to why, without my permission, Rockwitz was reassigned—with no warning, mind you—to a research base in Antarctica?!” Mindbender bellowed into the receiver.
Over the line, the diffident voice of a Tele-Viper responded, “I am, ah, not in a position to comment on, ah, assignment relocations, sir. B-but is there anything else I could aid you with today?”
The doctor didn’t answer. Clicked off his transceiver, moved with a steady gait towards the quarters of his supposed ally.
Crystal Ball, simultaneously, was exiting Raptor’s office, having turned in his haul from Atlanta. Overheard the clack of Dr. Mindbender’s boots down the hall. Allowed the wide grin on his face to grow even wider.
“Our esteemed Mr. Ball,” spoke the doctor, a portion of the rage showing in his voice. “Could you spare a moment of your time?”
“Only that much, I’m afraid,” the mystic answered, not directly acknowledging his companion as he started for his room. “I have plans for this afternoon, crafting the most delectable method of reconnoitering the subconscious of Blackrock Enterprises’ CEO…”
Mindbender placed a hand on Crystal Ball’s shoulder. The grip was firm, a warning this politeness was very much a charade. “Only a second, I assure you.”
The mystic halted his stride. Deigned to lock eyes with Mindbender. “Ah. So I take this to mean you’ve been checking in on our friend Rockwitz? Particularly nasty storms they’re having down there this time of year.”
“How did you convince him to abandon his post? Who’s stationed in Anaheim?”
“Oh, the Filchner-Ronne base was in need of more experienced hands. You knew that much.” He continued his path to his quarters, seemingly unconcerned if Mindbender followed. “Rockwitz was informed of the bump in salary and accepted his new command. Really, Doctor, there’s no drama here.”
Mindbender maintained his rival’s pace. He questioned how the mystic could’ve discerned his connection with the blueshirt. If he’d determined the doctor’s other confidantes, those worthy of the implants. “Who replaced him?”
He should’ve known. Even if the inserts neutered the mystic’s enchantments, he should have realized other forms of persuasion could weaken a Cobra operative’s resolve. Particularly the gold-plated variety.
“An agent with quite the history with our organization,” Crystal Ball answered, reaching for the door to his quarters. “Zandar felt his stealth skills were a match for the assignment, and I agreed.”
Zandar. Mindbender knew this Dreadnok had been under the mystic’s spell before. Damnation, he’d been the one to arrange the Dreadnok’s first encounter with Crystal Ball.
“So Zandar agreed to step away from leading our New York operations to take on this low-profile job?” the doctor persisted, not allowing Crystal Ball entry past his doorway. “One normally dispatched to blueshirts?”
The mystic kept grinning, bobbed his head to the side. “Admittedly, I desired to see him humbled a bit. Let him know he’d need to take on such assignments, if he wished to work his way into our better graces.” His eyes narrowed, the tone of voice grew more playful. Playful, but with an undercurrent of menace. “Such an odd assignment, really. Tell me, Doctor, does the Anaheim operation hold any particular significance for you?”
Color drained from his face. Mindbender’s lip curled as he replied, “None at all. I don’t even recall where the detail originated.” He added a pause, tried to indicate this thought was only now occurring to him. “In fact, I think this is something I should look into.”
Crystal Ball maneuvered past his unwelcome guest. Motioned for him to make his exit. “Hmm…maybe you should do that. Best to keep abreast on all Cobra expenditures, yes?”
JINX STEPPED OUT OF HER RENTAL CAR, postcard in hand. She checked the name on the card against the business signs; found one in this sleepy Fresno strip mall that fit. Burgess Electronics, freshly open for business. Their sign one of those temporary banners, stretched across the building’s marquee.
Jinx knew a permanent replacement would never arrive. Tomisaburo and Keiko would be far away, off to the next hiding place. This had been their life, ever since they took in a confused adolescent one summer morning so many years ago.
“Kimi!” cried out a voice. Jinx turned to her right, was welcomed by the sight of her beloved “Aunt” Keiko. “So glad you could find us!”
“I think it’s getting harder each time, Auntie,” Jinx answered, returning the hug. Most observers would label them sisters, the two women sharing similar heights, fashion choices, and a dearth of crows’ feet. Keiko was younger than Jinx today, the day she married into the Arashikage family. Couldn’t have expected a girl, young enough to be her sister, arriving at their front door only a few days after they’d returned from their honeymoon.
“Looks like you and Uncle Tommy are one step away from operating a literal hole in the wall.”
“As long as the bills are paid, and we’re safe…that’s what matters.”
“The Burgess family, huh? That’s a new one.” Jinx wrapped her arm around Keiko’s waist, squeezed harder. She thought of the various identities crafted by her surrogate aunt and uncle—in reality, her paternal cousin and his wife—over the years, their nomadic lifestyle continuing even after Jinx enrolled at Bryn Mawr. The electronics stores, pawn shops, and rent-to-own places tended to have French, Irish, or English surnames attached. Any time they decided to embrace a bit of their heritage, open up a sushi or yakimono restaurant, they’d adopt a name from the East.
A short name. One easier on American tongues than “Arashikage.”
Entering the doors of Burgess Electronics, Jinx and Keiko quickly drew the attention of Tomisaburo, filling out inventory orders at the front desk.
“Hello there, stranger,” he said, looking up. “Can I assume you come in peace?”
“It’s okay, Uncle Tommy.” Jinx leaned over the counter and hugged her “uncle.” Thought back to those meetings with her superiors, earlier. Tommy and Keiko could’ve been in a fair amount of trouble, given the way they slipped out of a police interrogation weeks earlier. It took some coaxing on Jinx’s part to get that address out of them, to arrange this mini-peace summit.
“I meant what I said. We are on your side. The lies, the false identities, they need to stop.”
Tomisaburo took a breath. “I wish I could believe that. Anonymity is the only way we’ve been able to stay alive.”
The door chime announced the presence of Jinx’s guest. “Oh, I think we’re in a position to do more than hide now, Uncle Tommy.”
His pen dropped from the clipboard to the floor. Tomisaburo stood in silence. Stood, as he witnessed the arrival of a ghost from his past.
Boonie cap and sunglasses shaded most of his face. A closer look would reveal the “face” to in fact be rubber. No mistaking that stance, though, that aura of quiet assurance and casual lethality.
Tomisaburo recognized Snake Eyes in an instant.
NO HOME CUISINE THIS TIME. Delivery pizza had to do, the Arashikage clan engaging in a long overdue chat with Snake Eyes, as best the man’s disabilities would allow. Jinx carried much of the conversation, conveying to her family the Joe team’s promise to end decades of sorrow.
“So, I suppose the question is,” she proposed to the table, “why did the assassin choose the alias Storm Shadow? Was he taking our family name to mock us?”
“That would fit with Blind Master’s stories,” said Tomisaburo with a nod. “That he represents a rival clan of the Arashikage from back home. Crazy to think, a centuries-old vendetta following what’s left of the family here to America.”
Throughout the dinner, Tomisaburo kept sneaking looks at their guest. Nearly twenty years had passed since their time in the jungle together. For reasons he’d never discovered, Snake Eyes turned his back on the world after his time in the service, embraced the life of a hermit. Tommy, meanwhile, had been forced into hiding. Pressured into a life on the run, changing identities and cities like some nomad, doing what he felt necessary to protect his family.
What a callous joke for fate to play, severing the bond formed by two brothers in war.
“It’s only too bad,” Keiko said as she reached for the final slice, “that Snakes here hasn’t had a run-in with the assassin yet. I doubt he’d be much of a bother for anyone then.”
Jinx turned to her teammate. “I have a feeling that’s what the Blind Master was hoping for. Turns out, Snake Eyes was given the same ‘encouragement’ to enlist I was, when he eventually tracked me down.”
Snake Eyes might’ve been mentally correcting Jinx, clarifying he re-enlisted when joining the Joe team. It’s possible he was contemplating his relationship with the Blind Master, the enigmatic sensei’s true motives for tutoring him. Kicking himself for never working out the English translation of his Army buddy Tommy’s last name. Or questioning why fate had never seen fit for his path to cross with this Storm Shadow’s.
Tommy was the one to break the silence. “Can I ask when you joined the Joe squad, Snakes?”
The silent man borrowed Tomisaburo’s pen. Scratched out a date on a napkin: March 28, 1981.
His friend accepted the napkin, looked up to Jinx. “Blind Master caught up with me around this time, I remember. Told me to make sure I wasn’t ‘napping,’ I believe he put it. That your monster had returned, Kimi.”
“And that’s when we moved, yet again…” she said, voice raw. So many years of deceit, of new lies to be adopted in new cities.
“I suppose it was five years later when he bumped into you, wasn’t it, Kimi?”
Jinx wasn’t ready to answer. A chance meeting, a week after her college graduation. Panhandler on a park bench in Miami magically ended up next to her. Jinx picked up his scent immediately. No interest in catching up, no congratulations on what she’d accomplished in her life. Told her this graduation trip was stupid; a waste of money and her energies.
She snapped back. Wanted to know what exactly the crusty goat thought she should be doing with her life. He certainly gave her an answer. A week later, she was signing papers in that recruiter’s office, wasn’t she?
Keiko placed a hand on Jinx’s arm. “I realize this isn’t easy. Hopefully, soon, you can put all of this hardship behind you. Get a chance to enjoy your youth.”
“Honestly, I can’t see that happening,” she replied, unconsciously thinking back to her discovery in Falcon’s room; of the unwelcome, utterly stupid crestfallen sickness she couldn’t fight when she realized he’d left without saying goodbye. “But I’ll deal with it. I don’t want to dump all of my problems on you guys.”
Tommy cleared his throat. Gave a worried look to Keiko before continuing. “Well, unfortunately, I think you visited just in time for bad news.”
“How bad? Are you guys okay?”
“We’re fine.” Tommy took a breath before continuing. “It’s the Blind Master, Kimi.”
Tommy gave the news, every unfortunate word of the prognosis. Jinx wasn’t expecting that lump in her throat.
KEONE KNOCKS ON THE HOTEL DOOR, examines the band on his finger. Eighteen karat gold, the center diamond a gorgeous one carat round gem, accentuated by sparkling side crystals. He thinks of his childhood, reciting the Gosho, his commitment to a life of asceticism and self-restraint, and smiles.
The door opens, revealing on the other side Mr. Ellington’s representative. He wears gold around his neck; makes sure his shirt is unbuttoned just enough to expose the jewelry. Doesn’t seem to care it’s nearing winter here in the upper northwest.
Keone enters the room, isn’t stunned to see a party underway. “Magic Carpet Ride” is on the radio. He’s familiar with the tune; his English is getting strong enough to comprehend most of the lyrics. They seem ridiculous, but every female he encounters enjoys singing along.
“I’ll take you to Mr. Ellington,” says the representative. He escorts Keone past the men in suits, dancing with ladies young enough to be their daughters, into a room in the back. Ellington isn’t dressed like his subordinates, opting instead for a long-sleeved flannel and jeans. He’s enjoying a drink with another man, a small bespectacled figure whose frames have thick sides and a light tortoise color. They swallow his diminutive face.
“Ah, we’ve been expecting you,” Mr. Ellington says as a greeting. Placing his drink on the end table, he asks, “Did you bring the…?”
Keone reaches into his coat pocket, produces a cloth sack the size of a marble bag. Ellington removes the bag from Keone’s palm, doesn’t even bother to look inside. Instead, he passes it on to the bespectacled man.
He removes his glasses, reaches in his breast pocket for a handheld magnifier instead. Turning to the side, he removes one individual pearl from the sack. Examines it with the magnifier; attempts to disguise his shock.
“They’re good; actually it’s quite…”—he catches Mr. Ellington’s expression—“more than adequate, yes.”
Ellington gives in to curiosity. Keone says nothing as the man opens the sack, allows his fingers to caress the pearls. Grunting with satisfaction, he escorts Keone to the adjacent room.
In under a minute, Keone exits with two briefcases. He nods his thanks to the representative who greeted him, then journeys to his town car waiting in the front.
“Where to?” asks his driver, who’s learned by now to never offer assistance with these packages. (He also knows not to flirt with the girls in the backseat, although he might occasionally bend that rule.) Keone instructs him to travel to the corner of Dille and Silfer. The driver shakes his head, obeys orders anyway.
“Ana-ta jis-hin ooooh taaanoshinde i-reww?” asks the butterscotch blonde to his left. It is adorable, her thinking she can learn Keone’s native tongue.
“Enjoying myself?” he says in return. “Soon,” he finishes with a smile.
Seventeen minutes later, the town car enters a conspicuously seedier side of town. The driver reaches the appointed destination and stops. Watches as the foreign kid exits the vehicle, clad in an ivory mohair lounge suit that costs more than his kid’s freshman year tuition.
Keone enters the alley with the briefcases, calls out the strange one’s name.
“You rang?” responds a sarcastic voice. He emerges from the shadows, as always his face obscured with hat, sunglasses, and scarf. Keone presents to him the briefcases.
The strange one doesn’t hesitate, placing the briefcases atop the dumpster. They click open, reveal the heavily regulated ordnance inside.
Military arms, acquired through a series of accounting and inventory tricks mastered by the esteemed Mr. Ellington. Available at a price unimaginable to the average civilian. Mr. Ellington’s typical clientele tended to have entire treasuries to raid.
Keone’s companion closes the cases, cackles out his approval. Turns to Keone, as he reaches into his coat. “Excellent work,” he says, holding the tip of his tongue behind the front teeth for just a second too long, as always.
From his coat, he produces a handful of gilled fungi, the color of fresh salmon, shaped like a broken bell. Keone has traveled half the world these past six months, and has yet to see their like anywhere.
Whoever the stranger is, however he manages to locate these pearls, rubies, and fungi, Keone can’t begin to guess. And asking the question, he suspects, is hazardous to his health.
Nothing perilous about those mushrooms, however. Only the sweetest of escapes. He holds the spongey substance to his nostrils, breathes in the intoxicating scent. The spores travel through his nose, granting him a giddy pleasure beyond anything else in this world. Keone thinks of his life in that compound, of the punishment he once endured for sneaking too many biscuits. Thoughts then shift to life on that mountain, of the contradictory pride of living the most simple of lives imaginable.
Laughter shakes his body. Keone’s companion joins in.