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PART II: KEPT YOU WAITING, HUH?
Rocks along the beach gave Falcon’s inflatable raft an inhospitable welcome. Did half of the lieutenant’s job for him, cutting a hole in the rubber. Making it easier for him to deflate the rest of the raft with his survival knife, the remains left to drift into the Atlantic. Rainstorm carried heavy winds. They’d blow the olive drab material far away from shore before he’d finished his mission.
The briefing warned of the steep hills surrounding the base. Convenient for their purposes, cutting off Camp Alpha from its immediate hinterland. Lt. Falcon exhaled, prepared himself for the climb. Not enough room in his bag for any hiking materials. He embraced the suck, just forced himself northward.
Top of the hill, he nearly had his handsome mug illuminated by the nearby guard tower. Blessed searchlight was keeping the entire area lit like a MLB nighter. Falcon rolled to his left, avoiding the approaching light. Fought off the sudden memories flooding back, of the time Duke took the kid out for a night game at Busch II. Taught him to respect Bob Gibson as the greatest pitcher in League history. Promised he’d do anything he could to get the kid a ball signed by “Gibby” before the night was over.
He managed to pull it off. Of course he did.
Falcon couldn’t allow nostalgia to cloud the mission. Keeping his stomach on the grass, he eased towards the lowest elevation of the cliff. When he’d reached the safest spot, he leapt the five feet to the ground. Crept fast as he could towards the guard tower, evaded the spotlight by the tiniest of hairs this time.
Within twenty seconds, he was safe within the light’s blind spot. The greenshirt twenty feet above had no clue what was awaiting him.
Falcon took the steps one by one. Rain wasn’t letting up; good for obscuring his presence to the naked eye, but it made the rubber soles of his boots nosier than a double-billed Misfits and Stingers concert. Made it past the rim joist without alerting the grunt, though. That was good.
What happened next, Falcon fully expected. Even if the boots didn’t give him away, the sound of rain hitting his two-hundred pound-plus frame would eventually stir the watchman. The young patriot turned just as Falcon’s chest hit the plywood.
“Lt. Falcon?” he asked, wide-eyed. “Wh-what are you doing here?”
Had this been any other Joe operation, Falcon could’ve bluffed his way through. Told the rookie he’d been reassigned by homebase, that’s why he’s here. What, the orders hadn’t come in yet? Mainframe must’ve tied up the computer with one of his silly games again.
Falcon pulled himself off the floor. Watched with a fatalistic regret as the greenshirt reached for his sidearm.
This was no ordinary Joe operation. This was the secret facility that housed Prisoner Omega. One of five located in the western hemisphere, each one assigned random dates to house the detainee. Falcon was involved with a game of cards with just the right player a few weeks back. Cryptic comments were made, enabling him to piece together just when the “guest” would be staying at this “hotel.”
The lieutenant, acting on unspeakable instinct, reached for the greenie’s right arm. Used his superior size to snap that forearm like a brittle twig. And, when the kid was yelping out in pain, planting a right hook directly into his nose.
With the babyface catching zees on the plywood, Falcon manned the searchlight. Made certain it was pointed to his west, the opposing direction of the nearby camp. “GTMO,” Falcon whispered to himself, surveying the land.
He used his waterproof Steiner binoculars to peer over the barbed fence to his east. Three more guard towers in the distance, two of them flanking the helipad. Much closer to the fence, a half-dozen portable buildings, newly arrived to house the staff required by their guest. To their northeast, three larger structures, serving the needs of the Naval Station established by Uncle Sugar decades ago.
Falcon descended the stairs; stopped halfway down and simply leapt the rest of the way. His knees didn’t appreciate the move, but he reminded himself he had no time to futz around. Staying low, Falcon eased towards the front gate. Bit into the handle of his flashlight, had the lock picked in under a minute. Had to duck behind a tarp-draped stack of lumber the second he closed the gate behind him. A pair of greenshirts was passing by in a jeep, likely cursing the rain and questioning how they got stuck with this assignment.
The lieutenant confirmed the coast was clear, continued to creep past the portable buildings, making his way northward. Cursed himself a fool when he realized the established structures had guards in the front and back entrances. Crouching against the edge of the building, Falcon removed an ammo clip from his backpack. Hoped against hope that the rain wasn’t so heavy the guard would miss the sound; that his aim was solid enough to toss the clip where it needed to land.
The faith in his abilities turned out to be justified. The clip curved directly over the guard’s head; landed exactly eight inches behind his back. The greenshirt, startled by the klak, turned around. Gripped his service rifle tighter. “What the—?” he asked.
Bending down, he reached for the clip. Heard the slosh and squeak of Falcon’s boots against the asphalt just in time to halt; to turn and face his attacker. The lieutenant cheated death for the second time this evening, snatching the rifle barrel. An impromptu front thrust kick landed in the greenie’s gut. Butt of the pilfered rifle took care of the rest.
Falcon studied the body. Clear eyes would discern a waterproof nylon poncho, covering the standard issue G. I. Joe uniform and helmet. The style apportioned to the infantrymen assigned to aid the unit on certain missions, the sea of faceless grunts affectionately termed greenshirts. In a different state of mind, he would’ve thought of one of Duke’s stories from some time ago.
Colonel Sharpe had sent a memo, requesting the Joe team no longer use that term. Feared it might be viewed by some of the infantrymen as condescending, as a putdown from the higher ranking soldiers officially assigned to the special missions unit. Had to retract it a week later, when he discovered that the greenshirts, or “greenies,” wore that term as a badge of honor.
(The term coined by Shipwreck for the greenshirts—“NDJs,” as in “Non-descript Joes”—continued to be frowned upon, however.)
Ordinarily, Falcon could swipe this poor sap’s gear, get on with the mission. But, again, this wasn’t the standard Joe op. Assuming the identity of just any rank and file wouldn’t do.
The lieutenant ascended the five steps, rapped three times on the building’s backdoor. “Sir, there’s something out here!” he bellowed with urgency. “Something you need to see!”
In the doorway soon stood a man made of stone, his rigid brown flattop seemingly made of the same granite as his chin. Mercer, ex-Viper turned stalwart member of Slaughter’s Renegades likely didn’t possess a look of concern. Only a stoic mien honed over a lifetime of battle.
“Huh? Lt. Falcon?” he asked, the Teutonic accent highlighting the absurdity of Spencer, West Virginia as Mercer’s official birthplace. (Standard rumor around base indicated the Brass would do anything to keep his true identity a secret, an additional protection against any Cobra retaliation.)
The lieutenant grabbed him by the vest; had a visceral reaction to Mercer’s anti-Cobra patch that he couldn’t explain. “Listen, we need to talk,” Falcon said, closing the door behind him.
“Why are you here? I wasn’t notified—” Mercer began, the question stopped short when he realized Falcon was reaching for his shoulder holster.
Mercer gripped Falcon’s arm, directed the gun away from his face. The round hit the ceiling. No second round was fired, as Mercer had restrained both of Falcon’s arms in his vice-like embrace. A sudden squeeze forced Falcon to drop the pistol.
The lieutenant watched the gun hit the carpet, felt motivated enough to wrestle one arm free of Mercer’s grip. Wasn’t in a position to make the cleanest hit imaginable, but did connect with a solid chop against his neck. The pain was enough to send Mercer a step back, to force him to release his grip.
Falcon turned towards the nearby pistol. Was only an inch away from the handle when he felt Mercer pulling him by his belt, pulling him closer for a beating worthy of the record books. Falcon accepted the first two punches, one to the shoulder, another to the chin. Thought he was clever, ducking low, maneuvering to Mercer’s side. Didn’t foresee the Swedish massif moving just as fast, grabbing Falcon by the waist and pulling him closer.
The lieutenant recognized the chokehold from his abortive attempts at high school wrestling. Had a feeling Mercer was playing for stakes much steeper than the intramural championship. Wouldn’t be hard to count off the seconds before the lights would begin to fade—assuming Falcon sat there like a chump and did nothing.
Whatever energy the lieutenant still possessed was exerted in a headbutt, smashing the reformed Viper’s nose and dislodging two of his teeth. “Yeerrraahh! What happened to you, Lieutenant?”
If Falcon registered the words, no one would notice. His concentration was on taking another shot; a pathetic jab that nearly forced him to lose his footing. Mercer, only bolstered by his anger, seized Falcon’s wrist with his right hand. Gaining a stronger grip with his left, Mercer flung Falcon eastward, sailing him into the oak briefing table that rested in the center of the command post.
The wood shattered into countless pieces. Falcon’s body laid still on the carpet as Mercer stepped closer. He suspected his former compatriot was playing possum; didn’t matter. He’d deal with whatever feeble maneuver Falcon would play next. He’d be sure to end the insanity this time.
Couldn’t have expected Falcon to roll back over, to lift a grenade from his belt. “Nah, I don’t think you want to be steppin’ any closer, snakebreath.”
Falcon stood, index finger inserted into the grenade ring, allowing the explosive to dangle. “I’d do it in a heartbeat. You already think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
Mercer committed an act he’d never stooped to in all his years as a Cobra or Joe—he took a cautious step back. “We can talk this out, Lieutenant. This doesn’t have to end bad.”
The lieutenant smiled, tossed the grenade into the air. “Doesn’t it?”
Mercer took two steps forward, leapt for the pineapple. Felt the impact of Falcon’s fist against his most delicate of regions a millisecond after making the move. Down on the floor, Mercer overheard the slight thud of the grenade (pin intact) landing on the carpet.
Had no opportunity to move, as Falcon positioned himself over his shoulders. Mercer realized he was in a headlock similar to the one he’d employed a minute earlier.
This was no sleeper move, however. This was twisting, deep pressure, a horrific pain that he knew couldn’t be endured for long.
This was a series of pops, foreshadowing the final unbearable sound of the crack!
This was the sound of his neck breaking.
TWO OF THE Crimson Guardsmen were holding the containers. Gifts from their mysterious benefactor, specially constructed specimen ampules. The twins were careful to select the most surefooted of their guard. Risking the loss of those specimens was no option.
The rest were keeping a tight grip on their automatic weapons.
The guard had been instructed to maintain their cool, not to present any discernable reaction when the time came. Even under those masks, however, you could detect more than a few jaws popping open.
Not every day a portal to another dimension rips through the fabric of reality. Certainly not here, on a lonesome stretch of the highway, connecting DC to Baltimore.
A figure emerged from the light. Behind him, his own personal sentinels.
“Hm. Interesting,” spoke the baritone voice of Destro.
“A visit from our benefactor in person?” asked Tomax, stepping to the front.
Xamot followed close. “We’re honored.”
“I couldn’t resist the opportunity,” said Destro, still eyeing the surroundings. “Another world—I’d say it’s quite remarkable, if it weren’t so…”
Joining the pavement, crickets, and overgrown grass was a billboard. The newly installed municipality had ripped off the canvas; hadn’t gotten around to replacing it yet. Only a year earlier, it featured an image of the vainglorious Cobra Commander, his arms stretched wide, embracing the entire globe.
Tomax said with a glint in his eye, “We’re working on restoring our world’s previous glory.”
Somehow, through that mask, Destro’s grin was evident. “And the materials you’ve been acquiring on my behalf could’ve done just that? Is this what you believe?”
“Would you blame us—”
“—For considering the notion?”
Destro approached, his body language relaxed enough not to elicit any shots from the guard. “I’d be disappointed if you did anything less. I’ll also suspect you found your world’s incarnation of the good doctor to be something of a disappointment?”
Xamot gasped, asked, “How did you—?”
“M.A.R.S. Industries employs the finest computer technicians on…any world. They detected your hack and informed me immediately.”
Tomax cleared his throat. “I trust this indiscretion won’t interfere with business?”
Destro turned to his men, snapped his fingers. Two of his guard approached with the chest, the one recovered from the Atlantic by an M.A.R.S. expedition months earlier. Viking treasure; silver coins, ingots, and priceless jewelry the hooligans had pilfered along Scandinavia.
“Think nothing of it,” Destro said as the exchange was made. “If I weren’t in possession of my own biases, I’d gladly aid your cause.”
Tomax eyed Destro, admiring one of the canisters. “We lost several men claiming these samples, by the way.”
“The incident at Vlad Tepes’ burial place was particularly gruesome,” added Xamot.
“Fitting,” Destro stated, unmoved. Turning towards the strange light, he said, “Well, I suppose our business here is complete.”
“Indeed,” Tomax agreed. “And if you require any other favors…”
The masked dignitary stopped. “I suppose there is something else. Perhaps you could ease my curiosity. On your world, how have I fared in all of”—he gestured towards the billboard, an insignificant scrap of the Commander’s painted uniform still lingering on the canvas—“this?”
“Oh, dear Destro. You haven’t heard?” asked Xamot.
Destro’s emerald eyes peered.
Tomax allowed a smile to slip. “You’re dead.”
NO BLOOD ON THE UNIFORM. Good. And the synthetic mask Falcon kept hidden in his backpack had remained dry throughout the rain, so perhaps this had turned out to be a charmed mission after all.
Falcon adjusted the adhesive against his jawline, made certain his new face wouldn’t be popping off at any inopportune moments. Stepping out of Mercer’s back door, he noticed that he’d left the rear guard’s body out on the asphalt. He carried the greenshirt inside, positioning him inside a closet with a chair pressed against the outside doorknob. Having made certain to take that poncho this time, Falcon sauntered towards Camp Alpha’s heliport.
Walking along the main roadway, a flatbed pulled close. Falcon eased his stride. The greenshirt applied the brakes, looked close at the stranger.
“Oh! Mercer, sir. Didn’t realize that was you. It’s gettin’ pretty heavy out. You want a ride?”
The lieutenant nodded, walked around to the passenger side. Realized in that moment he lacked the skill of a Flint or Chuckles in the department of foreign accents. Decided to offer a smile as a hello as he entered the vehicle.
“I assume you’re headed for the admin building?” asked the driver.
The lieutenant gave another nod, then turned his attention to the passenger side window. The greenshirt told himself to ignore the insult, to respect the fact that the man had things on his mind.
Seven silent minutes later, the truck entered the guard post for the heliport’s administration building. The checkpoint was utilizing retinal scanners, a fact not made known to Falcon in his briefing. He tried not to dwell on the screw-up—his people had done admirable work, providing him an aerial map of the camp on such short notice. He couldn’t have expected a perfect job.
“First time entering the admin building, boot? Got to peer into this baby,” said the vet on duty to the driver.
Still, Falcon thought, as he witnessed the greenshirt submit his peepers to the silver and chrome scanning device, anything less than perfect in an op like this can leave a man without a pulse.
Guard on duty turned out to be, of all the Joes, Steeler. Recently returned—no lie—from a mission on a parallel world. All Joe missions are designated Top Secret, but this fiasco had been granted a ranking previously unknown. Top Secret-SCI-XX, a ranking only select DoD and Executive Office officials could access. A hush-hush meeting among General Hawk, the Joes involved with the mission, and a white-faced POTUS ended with a firm conclusion—this had to stay quiet, for more than national security concerns. Discovering our world was but one of an infinite order could very likely disrupt the fabric of civilized society.
“Lovely weather, ain’t it?” asked the weary voice of Steeler, as he examined the computer monitor, awaiting the driver’s retinal scan to clear.
“Just part of the job,” replied the greenshirt. He respected Steeler as a veteran Joe, sure. But could never appreciate just what rested behind those gunmetal eyes.
Years back, a squad of Joes found themselves in that alternate reality, a world where Cobra had decimated the Joes, taken most of the world captive. The newly arrived Joes did what they could to fight back; helped to instigate a civil war between the Cobra Commander and Destro factions. Steeler, along with two of his squadmates, decided to stick around the strange reality and carry on the fight.
Rumor was, Steeler had a sweetie on this other world. That things went sour, that she hadn’t turned out to be what he’d hoped. With relative order restored to that bizarre world, and the emotional bonds severed, Steeler and the others felt no guilt returning to this reality. And for the Joes who knew the old Steeler, he hadn’t been the same since. Not that anyone had the clearance to ask him question one about what happened.
Steeler’s disagreeable expression didn’t change as the monitor flashed a green “Approved” notification. Just nodded, directed his companion in the booth to open the yellow-and-black barrier gate.
Entering the garage, the driver turned to his guest. “You need me to drop you off anywhere specific, sir?”
The lieutenant waved his hand dismissively. Had already stepped out of the vehicle before it’d even stopped rolling. Falcon walked through two more hallways, experienced a half-dozen more salutes, in addition to a few puzzled glances. He examined his surroundings. First floor: crates, oil barrels, motorized carts, a few dozen greenshirts performing grunt work and a handful of interior guards maintaining their patrol.
His target resided in the basement level. A floor Mercer had no business being on at this hour of the night, per the intel he’d collected earlier. Any other level of the admin building wouldn’t have been an issue. The greenshirts would smile and salute and do anything short of asking for an autograph. But the basement, on this date…absolutely not.
The lieutenant stepped cautiously towards the stairway, caught almost too late the mounted security camera located at a forty-five degree angle above the steps.
Falcon leaned back against the wall, careful not to step into the camera’s field of vision. Reached into his backpack, located a suppressor. Attached it to his sidearm with his back to the wall. Turned around, caught one grunt pushing a squeaky cart packed with service parts down the hallway to his left. Waited for him to pass before taking his shot.
The clang of the wrecked camera hitting the concrete floor was louder than the actual gunshot. Falcon had misgivings about the move; he knew that missing camera would be noticed soon. Wasn’t certain he had enough time to finish his job before the inevitable alarm would sound. As he descended the stairway, he attempted to console himself, tell himself there was no other way.
He’d been telling himself that quite often these past few hours.
No guards immediately stationed by the stairway, but he could hear the steps of a greenshirt in the hall. When he discerned the footsteps headed in the opposing direction, Falcon entered the hall, made a fast check of his surroundings. Three indoor boilers were lined against the wall, leaving a crack in the corner just small enough for the lieutenant to squeeze into. Careful not to step too fast, Falcon reached the corner without incident.
Studying the pattern of the guard, a vile realization hit Falcon. Taking down that security cam was sure to draw attention. This act when discovered, however, would send the entire base into high alert. And he knew he had no choice.
As the guard reached the end of the opposing hallway, he turned back around, turned towards those boilers. The lieutenant knew he’d be spotted in only a matter of seconds. Had to time his shot just right—not too soon, to prevent the guards in the adjacent hallway from noticing; not too late, to prevent the greenshirt from spotting him in that corner.
The lieutenant delayed the shot for as long as he could. Waited until the guard had that slight flicker of recognition in his eyes.
Directed that lone suppressed shot directly between those eyes.
Stepping quickly, Falcon pulled the guard off the floor, shoved his lifeless form into the space between the boilers. Some part of him was sickened by the act, but he assuaged himself with a simple bromide: He woulda done worse to you, Falcon, were the positions reversed.
Back against the wall, Falcon approached the intersection of hallways. The files he’d flipped through in Mercer’s office confirmed what he’d find only a few feet away. Only thing standing in his way were the two voices he overheard, engaging in oblivious chit-chat.
“You no watch big game? I find that hard to believe!”
“Players’ strike did me in, bud. Can’t imagine ever walking out of the game over something petty like a free-agent policy. It’s like, do you want to play, ladies, or don’t you?”
Have to do something to alieve the boredom during guard duty. Taurus and Red Dog, two of the Sarge’s Renegades. Taurus, a former Interpol agent who’d earned a rep for his work throughout Europe and Asia, was chewing the fat with his ex-NFL buddy. Seems the League found Red Dog a mite too aggressive for Sunday play. They should’ve seen his performance against a battalion of Vipers.
In his earliest days with the unit, Falcon had been sent to their Slaughterhouse boot camp, been given the order to shape up or ship out. He’d never say it out loud, but he admired those lugs. Felt he owed his place on the team to the discipline they’d smacked into him out there in the desert.
None of these thoughts were present at this moment. All mental effort was diverted towards the perfect stratagem to clear that hallway. The plan Falcon developed was rather bold, and darned cheap, but he figured it his best bet for leaving this heliport alive.
Falcon located that grenade he’d used to bluff Mercer earlier. Pulled out the pin, released the spoon, and heaved it towards those boilers. He raced into the adjoining hallway, praying Taurus and Red Dog wouldn’t shoot on sight.
“Guys!” he yelled with alarm, not even attempting to fake Mercer’s accent. “You won’t believe—”
Before the befuddled Renegades could respond, the Wa-Wa-BOOM detonation filled the air, shook the ground, and caused instant debris to fall from the ceiling.
“Mercer! What in blazes?” asked Red Dog, slipping his rifle sling into position.
The lieutenant pointed towards the source of the chaos. “Down there! You wouldn’t believe it! You have to—”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Only watched as the motivated Red Dog and Taurus ran past. And when they’d reached the appropriate distance, nailed both of them with his sidearm. The lieutenant should’ve been overwhelmed with disgust and grief over his reactions. Shouldn’t have noticed how nice the groupings were in both of their backs.
Alarm sirens had begun their screech. Falcon ran to the position formerly held by Red Dog and Taurus. Inserted the G. I. Joe ID card stolen from Red Dog’s body and watched as the laser prison bars evaporated.
“You do realize this racket is interrupting my beauty ressst, don’t you?” asked the figure on the inside.
“Sheesh,” Falcon said, blasting away the chains connecting his ally to the cot. “Your sense of humor get even worse in here, brother?”
THE ROMANIAN ENTERED THE DARKENED ROOM. Removed his linen sport coat and greeted his guest.
“You…I recognize your voice from the phone.”
“Yes, Bobby. Do you remember our conversations? How upset you were? How I helped you to understand—”
“I don’t really remember the details. I can remember having a panic attack, and then your friends put you on the line…after that, it’s like everything just seemed okay.”
“Well, lad, I’m happy I could help calm your nerves.”
“But it’s not okay. I shouldn’t be here. I should be back…back with that woman…in that house…”
“Should you, Bobby? I recall our conversations quite clearly, friend. I remember you speaking of this woman, of the way her clothes reeked of sulfur.”
“No, I…I don’t remember that at all.”
“I think that you do. I think you recall her breath that stank of raw cabbage. And her hair carried the acrid stench of vomit, didn’t it? The walls of her home, wafting with the horrid smell of rotting cadavers? These are all things that you know, Bobby.”
“You do. You also recall the scent of the man she chased away. The noble, kindhearted father you lost four years ago. Smelled of sandalwood and bergamot oranges. I want you to think back to that sublime redolence. You could never forget dear ol’ Dad, could you?”
“I remember her talking about him. Saying that we weren’t discussing him again. I…I used to ask where he went.”
“And what was her answer, Bobby?”
“She cried. Harder each time. Eventually, she made that rule. The woman with the smell that makes me sick…is that her?”
“She’s irrelevant now. You’d best move on with your life; find some way to forgive her for chasing your father away.”
“And, you know my father?”
“Indeed I do. And I’ll be happy to arrange a reunion. Yes, I think it’s past time you become reacquainted with other members of your family. The ones that don’t carry the foul stench of rotted eggs.”
THE GREENSHIRTS DID THEIR BEST, focusing automatic fire on the chopper invading Camp Alpha’s heliport. A well-placed missile from the Cobra Transport Copter took out the nearest guard tower before it landed; a second scattered a greenshirt resistance instantly.
Falcon and Prisoner Omega pirouetted in-between the fire, bolting from the prison wing’s rear exit to the helipad. Three Battle Android Troopers emerged from the Copter, offering cover fire for their human betters. One had its head blasted open thirteen seconds after deployment; the other two made out okay. With hammering hearts, Falcon and his newly freed ally entered the twin-engine heavy-lift helicopter.
“You okay, brother?” Falcon asked, examining the orange jumpsuit for bullet holes. Oblivious to the rain, their Battle Android pilot used its navigational upgrade to guide the helicopter to safety.
“Jussst dandy, Lieutenant. And, affectionate joshing aside, do know that I appreciate the effort you’ve undergone.”
When the CTS reached a safe distance, Falcon stepped towards the cockpit. “Well, I told them they needed to make sure you were comfortable up here. Let’s see how well those grunts follow orders…”
In the seat next to the android pilot was a thermos of blistering Major Dickason’s coffee, a heated towel, and the latest edition of the USA Times. Falcon returned to the back, offered the bounty to his personal hero. “I’d rank that a B+. More of a Post man, myself.”
Prisoner Omega silently motioned for Falcon to take his seat. Before sipping the coffee, he had to pause, remind himself there was no cumbersome helmet to remove. How odd it still felt, his naked face exposed in mixed company. And to think the “face”—so young, handsome, and lantern-jawed—wasn’t his at all…
Falcon, still admiring this naked face, couldn’t ignore that smile. “Why the grin, bro? You haven’t even turned to the funnies.”
With a disquieting pride, Prisoner Omega presented the paper’s front page to his companion.
Washington Prepares for Wednesday’s USSR Summit. Chemical and Conventional Weapons on Agenda. Critics Voice Opposition.
“I believe an unexpected opportunity has crossed our path. When we return to the States, I have a particular travel location I’d like to suggessst…brother.”
SHE COULD’VE STOLEN A LOOK at the chart attached to his bed. Finally discovered, after so many years, the old gasbag’s real name. Couldn’t bring herself to do it, though.
“You know how cheesed off I was when I found out you’re rich, sensei?” She’d been examining his room instead, taking in the chichi ambiance of the place. (And dismissing the supercilious looks of the staff, unappreciative of her faded “Be All You Can Be” t-shirt and ratty jeans.)
“‘Rich’ is a relative term, girl,” the aged man spoke from his hospital bed, connected to an obscene number of tubes and wires. “I abandoned any desire for material possessions as a young man, but that didn’t stop the interest on my investments from growing. Money comin’ in, none goin’ out…I guess it adds up.”
At least he’s getting some use out of it now, she reasoned. Pancreatic cancer. Terminal, yet surrounded by the nicest accommodations of his life. “Uh-huh. And it’s not as if you could’ve used any of that filthy mammon, when you were…oh, I don’t know…raising an eleven-year-old girl out in the streets, huh?”
“Pff. Don’t be so dramatic, girl. It was LA, not Chicago. Streets did you good; toughened you up nice.”
“Did too good a job, did they?” Jinx asked, reliving, as she had so many times lately, the day she met Tommy and Keiko.
“Seemed to me. Maybe I made the wrong call,” he replied, his voice trailing off. “But it does this old man’s heart good, having you as company.”
“I guess you were lonely a few weeks back, weren’t you? Thought I needed a companion on my trip to Ireland?”
“Ol’ Blind Master has to keep some mystery, Kimi.” He said warmly, head turned to the ceiling. “Can’t be spilling all my secrets. I see you did listen to me the last time, though.”
She thought of their last encounter, in the corporeal sense, a few years back. Seemed random, an unbelievable coincidence, at the time. “Yeah, I signed up. Earned a promotion or two.”
“Good, good. The service changed my life, you know. Thought it could do you some good, all young an’ cute with no direction.”
“Uh-huh. I’m sure that was it, sensei.”
“Of course. Blind Master, always lookin’ out for your best interests.” A nurse entered. The sensei shushed his former pupil as the eye-catching redhead checked his chart and forced a few ounces of orange juice down his throat.
When the coast was clear, he continued, “By the way, totally unrelated”—he smiled again, wider—“you wouldn’t happen to run into someone else in your unit fluent in a bit of Okinawan kobudō?”
Jinx, arms crossed, asked, “Which you knew would happen, didn’t you?”
“Only if you were the best of the best. He ever mention me?”
Assuming this wasn’t a joke, she replied, “Snake Eyes isn’t much of a raconteur.”
“Guess not. I do remember him as the strong an’ silent type.” Blind Master reached out his hand, best he could. Jinx navigated past the IV tube connected south of his fingers and squeezed. Tried not to recoil as she felt the iciness in his skin. “You need to stick close by him, though.”
“And can I be honored to know the reason why?”
“He’s not Arashikage blood, but he’s like me. Owes that debt. You’ll need each other.”
And, as if on cue, the blinds rustled. Footsteps entered the room. Jinx didn’t have to look up to acknowledge their guest. Blind Master recognized the presence immediately, emitted a gasp of surprise.
“Yeah, that’s him, sensei,” she spoke as Snake Eyes stepped towards the bed. “Making the only kind of entrance he understands—the dramatic kind.”
IN HIS PRIVATE CHAMBERS, the mogul was examining one of his favorite pieces. Robert Gibb’s The Thin Red Line, 1881. A celebration of Sutherland Highlanders and their battle against a heavily armed Russian cavalry charge. The museum currently displaying the piece actually believed they possessed the original.
On this night, the work of art brought him little joy.
“I see you’re still keeping secrets,” he said dispassionately, not removing his eyes from the painting.
“Oh, really?” teased a voice, coming from his bed.
“This other world. I had to assume I had my own doppelganger there. But, whenever I broached the topic—”
“You went there yourself, didn’t you? Even after I warned you, even after—”
The admonition was not well received. “I’m my own man, understand that? And for you to stay so vague, to keep from me what I must know...”
“Is it truly relevant?”
“Of course it is,” he snapped, finally turning back to face her. “You could’ve told me. Could’ve told me he’d…”
“The casualties are innumerable there,” she rebutted, her tenor anything but soft, yet it carried a measure of sympathy. For a man like the mogul to face his own mortality, she recognized this could not be an easy thing. “You, or this other ‘you,’ was not alone in this fate.”
His hands gripped her wrists. “Is that why you traveled here? Am I to be his replacement?” Hurt crept into his normally steady baritone. “Your second choice?”
The corners of her lips rose, seemingly amused by this display of ego, the pathetic attempt at intimidation. “Darling, are we pretending I’m not serving a similar function?”