Bud pulled on his finger, then another finger, then his cigarette. If anyone was paying attention, they would’ve known that was his tell. He knew it, so he only did it when no one was looking. Except Buzz, but Buzz didn’t count.
“You anticipate any surprises?” Buzz asked, pushing his hair from his forehead.
Bud arched an eyebrow. “How much you had today?”
“Just enough. Maybe. I don’t know. Deep cover, right?” Buzz tapped the side of his head.
Bud dragged hard on his Chesterfield, slightly shook his head. Buzz was one of those spooks who came on like a true blue G-man until he went under, and then he would lose himself. That “Buzz” nickname was not ironic; he wore a jarhead’s heavy razored cranium well past basic training whenever he wasn’t working. Not ideal for an agent, who would generally grow out their hair and beards in order to fit any role they might need to play, but it was like even real life needed him to play a character. Bud thought he was wound too tight. The cock of the walk kind of cats tended to slip up and crack up in their foxholes when the shells started falling. Would’ve preferred another partner. Luckily, they generally worked independently of each other, but not this go around. This time the two were facing each other, leaning against separate buildings in a New Jersey alleyway, about to commit to a long con.
“If we fuck up, here…” Bud began, “…it could mean the end of everything. ”
“Well, civilization, maybe. There’s still Bushmen in the Congo and shit, right? No one will bomb them.” Buzz said, Bud smirked. “Looks like our ride is here.”
A long black limousine pulled up. The back door swung open. The two men climbed in, met two more men. One wore a gray flannel suit and nondescript, side parted haircut. The other was clad in black pants and turtleneck, a shaved head and severe beard, angled sharply. No one shook hands.
The man in the suit pointed at Buzz. “This is Roger Simms. Career criminal. Specializes in breaking and entering.” Then, he pointed at Bud, “Theodore Gribb. Saxophonist. Explosives and munitions expert.”
Buzz and Bud held their poker faces tight. The severely bearded man nodded. The suited man produced an ivory pipe with symbols carved into it from his breast pocket. Buzz and Bud each hit it, hard. White smoke filled the air. The severely bearded man began to speak.
“Like all pledges, you have smoked the Sheeba. But not like this. This is the strongest grade available in this hemisphere. This well help us become better acquainted.” He placed his fingertips together. Bud thought of the way rain sounded on the roof of his childhood home. Buzz struggled to remember his training, but instead kept trying to recall how old his son would be by now. The severely bearded man continued.
“There are no threats, here. Threats are for the weak. Intimidation is for schoolyard bullies. My associate would not have brought you here were you not ready to hear what I have to say. I trust that you follow the news? You know what’s happening in Cuba, at least what you are allowed to know? This Bay Of Pigs?”
Buzz and Bud nodded. Their eyes were glassy. The car was moving, going in circles around the city. They felt as if they were floating along in the sky.
“We will be giving a slight push. Your skills will be put to good use. Do you know my name?”
Buzz and Bud shook their heads.
“Good. You do not need to know. You just need to know who I represent.” He held up a round, glassy ball. Inside, a scorpion and a frog were frozen in place, as if encased in amber. “The scorpion asked the frog -or toad, it makes little difference, after all- for a ride across the river. The amphibian hesitated, but agreed. Halfway across, the scorpion stung him, dooming them both to drown in the cold river. He pleaded with the scorpion. ‘Why would you do that? Now we both die, for what?’ Do you know the answer?”
Buzz’s lips began to move. No sound emerged. Bud glanced at him, then spoke. “It’s the scorpion’s basic nature.”
The severely bearded man’s eyes grew warm, he let loose a semi-smile.
Bud heard the word, Buzz felt it vibrate. The severely bearded man kept talking.
“History will end soon. You will help make it so. We must make God pay for making this world so cruel and bitter, backwards and cold. It will become uninhabitable after we have done what we must, once the pieces fall into place. Death is merely another plateau.”
Buzz began to drip saliva. Bud held tighter. He felt as if fur was growing from his eyelids, growing long. His teeth felt like stone rocks. He remembered tones of tunes in his head, the drip of reality. He remembered words his old friend Ben had said to him about skewered perspectives. He pictured himself driving a vehicle, and heavy rain falling. The rain would pummel the glass of the windshield, but he would look ahead, watch the road. The lines he would see upon it were reality. Ignore the rain. Resist the gaze of the rear view mirrors. Focus ahead, watch the road. He kept his mug straight, asked a question.
“What do you need us to do?”
The severely bearded man extended a finger at Buzz. “I need to know that his volition is strong.”
Bud nudged Buzz. He spat words. “Focus, Roger.”
Buzz wiggled his head, and finally spoke. “I can break into anything, he can blow up anything, and we won’t be high when he do it. I want to die soon, and I want everyone else to be dead, too.I was brought up wrong, I guess. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the middle of eating a gingerbread house behind the sun.”
The man in the gray suit snickered.
“Well…” the severely bearded man said, “…I must say, that sums it all up nicely.”
Red’s heavy engineer boots sank in the sandy beach, getting the cuffs of his Levi’s damp right through their selvedge. Behind him, Louise made her way from the hidden beach hatch, where construction continued around the clock beneath. She strolled up in her blue sundress, looked Red up and down in his Leader Of The Pack getup. “Even on a tropical beach you dress like that?”
Red glared. “I’ve made a commitment to being who I am, lady. I don’t shift for anybody, or anything. This leather jacket is part of me.”
“So is that sweat soaking it. You take yourself entirely too seriously, kid. Life is short.” Louise sipped her gin and tonic, let her toes spread in the sand.
Red stared out at the ocean. His eyes focused in on the new USS Indianapolis, off in the distance.
“Don’t I know it.”
On board the ship, a small white plane came in for a landing. The Captain waved them in, positioned parallel to a futuristically sleek jet. The hatch of the white plane opened. Bud came down the stairs, then looked back up at Buzz, who stood at the top, shivering.
“You coming?” Bud called out.
Buzz ran a hand over his freshly shaved head. “I need a haircut. I’ll feel more like myself after a haircut. I always do.”
Bud grimaced. “You know what, you just stay put, Buzz. We’ll get you to a barber. Just lay back down for now.”
Buzz said nothing, he just turned and stumbled back.
Bud just shook his head. The Captain strolled over, scratching his heavy white beard. “That one is deep in the grip, is he?” he said.
“That he is. You’re the Captain of this ship, I take it?” Bud extended his hand. The Captain grasped it, with his one good one. “Lucky the sharks left me the right one!” he said, waving the hook at the end of his left arm about.
Bud smiled. “I suppose you could call that luck. The meeting underway downstairs?”
“It ’tis. Just that way. Down two and on your right. I’ll look after your friend.” With that, the Captain started up the steps to the plane, and Bud climbed down into the depths of the ship. It was odd to be on board a large ship like this with barely any crew. It wouldn’t need much of one, after all- its primary function would simply be as a gateway to the base being built beneath the island.
Bud came upon the metal door to the war room and found it somewhat ajar. He knocked, anyway. “Come in,” said a voice with a Texas lilt.
Bud stepped in. There, beneath a large map of the world was a long table with room for twelve. Only two sat at it. One, to the right of the table’s head, was Howard Hughes. He was dressed in a natty suit. The one on the left was an upper middle aged man, dressed in the full regalia of a U.S. General. His brown hair was thinning, his face was somewhat round and craggy. At the head of the table sat a large radio. It was a massive piece of work, a 4 square foot cube with tubes and wires all around it. It had a big round speaker in the lower center, and a round screen the same size above. It seemed to be a green radar, with a jumping blip.
The General extended his hand to shake Bud’s. Hughes did not, he just nodded an acknowledgement.
“General Lawrence Schwartz, correct?” inquired Bud, “Seen the news about your plane crash all over the papers. Looking good for a dead man.”
“You as well, Agent Allen. Have a look.” With that, the General pulled two black and white photos from a briefcase, laid them across the table. They looked for all the world like up close shots of Bud and Buzz with their faces blown half off.
“Holy shit,” Bud began, “that’s pure rugged. Doctored photos?”
Hughes ran a finger across his mustache. “Plastic surgery on a pair of John Does, positioned at the scene of the Washington Monument, with just some minor structural damage. Word is, you boys went so far down that cult rabbit hole that you turned on the red, white, and blue, but your bomb blew a dud…”
Bud nodded. “Just enough to kill us both, not enough stir to attract attention, get the press going…”
The General finished the thought: “They’re busy enough making hay from the Bay Of Pigs. So to both the CIA and the Order Of The Scorpion, you’re a couple of goners. Only we know otherwise. Where’s Agent Wilson?”
“Still on the plane,” Bud answered, “the DTs aren’t being kind to him.
“That’s a shame, I commend you for finding your own way through that forest. You are exactly the right kind of man we need in this outfit, we’re pleased to have you a part.” the General said, then glanced at his watch. “Shall we commence?”
“We shall.” Bud answered succinctly. The men all sat. Hughes pressed a button and pulled a lever on the square machine. It began to buzz, he began to speak. “Go ahead, Jack. You are on the line.”
The familiar voice of President Kennedy filled the air.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Welcome to the first meeting of the Global Hierarchy Of Secret Tactics, or GHOST, if you will.”
It was 5 seconds before Bud realized he was the only one snickering.
With her straight auburn hair pinned up under a curly blonde wig, oversized glasses, and drab sweatsuit, Louise hoped that even her father wouldn’t recognize her. Granted, he hadn’t looked at her with any kind of deliberate sentiment since she was in pigtails, so she might not garner a second look even if he made her. Why bother to care now?
She didn’t often return to Vermont, it made her stomach hurt. That KIA for the CIA cover that Kennedy and the General arranged suited her just fine. Her mother died in childbirth, and she didn’t care too much for her father, especially after his lack of response or interest in what happened to her sister. Didn’t even show at the service they held, once hope for her return was abandoned. The girls were a pair of disappointments to the elder Edelman, a pretentious college professor with Communist leanings. The one thing that would push his ambivalence towards them into contempt was for them to take on government work, which they both did. Although he’d never cop to it, he resented the girls. Especially Louise, the life exchanged in the loss of his wife.
She sat in the brown sedan and watched the house she grew up in from up the street. The neighborhood had changed very little from the days of her youth. She couldn’t say for sure why she should return to it now. Maybe the recent Cuban missile crisis made her sentimental, from her view of the back stage scene she knew how closely apocalypse beckoned. Maybe the business she just handled for the cause in nearby NYC gave her too easy an excuse to stop by the old homestead. Maybe it was the right time to go to ground for a day or two, after she got into it with Bud. “I’ve got too much blood on my hands and put too much into this operation to just be ‘the broad’,” she told him, “so stop leaving me with the boss’ brat while the men talk.” He seemed to agree she needed a spot at the table, but she hated that it had to come to words.
She leaned back in the seat as her father opened the door and emerged from the house. He walked swiftly to his Cadillac, checking his watch as he hustled. “Always late still, huh, Pop?” Louise said to herself. He drove right by the spot where she parked, never even giving a glance. She still held her breath, anyway. It occurred to her that she had been rocksteady and cool as the pillow’s other side when facing down or sneaking past killers and dangerous creatures of every stripe, but still her father gave her that weird chill. She resented him all the more for it.
Once she was sure that he was off and down the road, she climbed out of the car and went for a jog. She did the block, then on the second go around went behind the house to the back porch, casually pulled an old key from her pocket. It still fit. She couldn’t say if that was because he never figured she would be back around or that it never even occurred to him that she might. It certainly wouldn’t have been because she was welcome. If any neighbors were looking on, she hoped that the old rule would apply: the key to getting away with anything you’re not supposed to do is to act like you absolutely are.
The house still looked and felt the same. Very little decoration, piles of things everywhere. Books, literary magazines, loose papers, junk. The neighborhood was nice, but the inside of the house was unkempt, dusty, and smelled of stagnant air. Louisewas reminded immediately why she was so fastidiously organized. Hating your father will shape your personality in ways that few could relate to outside of a broken family.
All this familiar, depressing mess did was fill Louise with hope, because if the eccentric old man’s housekeeping carelessness had been continuing unabated all this time, what she wanted was right where it had been left. She climbed the stairs, and with a Herculean effort she resisted the temptation to open the door to her sister’s old room at the top. Louise was hard as a rock and tough as nails, but she knew better than to open that literal door. Instead, she went down one and stepped into her old room. Nothing had been subtracted, but piles of shit had been added. Dear old dad just kept dropping all the fire hazards he had been acquiring in the middle of the floor.
She had to edge around the side of the room to get to her old bed, still made, the old blue sheets still there. The last time she slept there was the night before she took a bus to basic training, following in her sister’s footsteps. That was some seven years ago. She remembered making that bed, but not if she saw her father that day. Probably didn’t.
Looking underneath, she found what she needed. An old, brown shoebox. She pulled it out and opened it quickly, feeling like a Christmas thrill she never had. There were stacks of photos, her sister and her. She held the box tight to her chest, then made her way out. She didn’t look back as she casually made her way to the car, and pulled out of the subdivision. The only piece of home she ever had was safe and sound, sitting on the passenger seat. Louise breathed deep.