OpenBSD Code Audit Denies FBI Backdoor Allegations

12 days ago former NETSEC CTO Gregory Perry (nicknamed The Prez!) sent an email to BSD project leader Theo de Raadt. In the email Perry alleged that the FBI had backdoors inserted in the cryptographic framework of OpenBSD, and that DARPA dropped funding of OpenBSD for that reason. Perry wrote:
My NDA with the FBI has recently expired, and I wanted to make you
aware of the fact that the FBI implemented a number of backdoors and
side channel key leaking mechanisms into the OCF, for the express
purpose of monitoring the site to site VPN encryption system
implemented by EOUSA, the parent organization to the FBI. Jason
Wright and several other developers were responsible for those
backdoors, and you would be well advised to review any and all code
commits by Wright as well as the other developers he worked with
originating from NETSEC.

This is also probably the reason why you lost your DARPA funding, they
more than likely caught wind of the fact that those backdoors were
present and didn't want to create any derivative products based upon
the same.
Perry's claims generated legitimate concerns in the OpenBSD community, and sparked a full scale audit of OpenBSD code.

After code audits de Raadt has come forward to deny that any such backdoors exist, although he did disclose that there was a serious bug in the Encapsulating Security Payload code that was not brought to the public's attention in 2002. Vulnerability to cypher-block chaining oracle attacks were discovered in some drivers, and fixes have been devised for those bugs. Theo de Raadt believes those vulnerabilities were accidents, albeit serious ones, rather than intentionally inserted bugs.

Some in the IT community immediately had questions regarding the scope of such a maneuver, specifically whether or not Linux may have been targeted by like endeavors. The issue seems not to affect Linux, as the IPSec stack for Linux appears to be entirely original. There were also legitimate concerns with regard to Apple Computers, which has used BSD code in their computers (freeBSD to be exact, but the BSD's have done a lot of code sharing). There has also been a vocal concern involving how fast OpenBSD responded and the apparent speed of the code review. If admitting a problem would cost your company millions of dollars, then would you admit it or come forward with an official denial?

This story will likely die. There are too few people with serious concerns and way too many people who question the validity of Perry's claims. Besides that, though, shouldn't everyone assume that the FBI and the NSA have done everything in their power to make backdoors possible and work from that assumption? It boggles the mind that there are people who might think such claims are outrageous, when in reality it would be outrageous to think that the intelligence community had done no such thing. It's their job to make such things possible, regardless of public opinion.

Online Activist Group Anonymous

A story from BBC News 10 days ago, which somehow escaped my attention until now, described an online activist group called Anonymous. It is to laugh. British hoodlums, as they are known to people more familiar with the "organization," have really been outdoing Americans with their "activism" (Note- soccer fans do not sock any hers). Realizing huge numbers of people don't get news from the Internet, they have taken to putting up posters to draw attention to the Wikileaks story. The BBC does everything but name the site where Anonymous takes those ideas to get mass support. In the midst of being totally screwed up, yotsuba scripters do bring a certain je na sais quoi to the table. That's as much as needs be said. Boing Boing, also.

Merry Christmas

Blessings and good will to everyone out there during the holiday season. May the heavens shine down on you with warmth and grace. Merry Christmas, world. And to myself, from me, next year: Just because you've witnessed the empty turn of the language means you should twice as much enjoy the holiday, even without anyone around. And don't get thrown in a hospital to avoid arrest for enjoying it too much...

Clark Ashton Smith

Somehow in the course of my obsession with macabre, esoteric, fantasy and science fiction writing I missed out on reading Clark Ashton Smith until very recently. Smith gained fame through publication in Weird Tales, just as did his contemporaries H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard and other great authors. Unlike the other two most famous authors from the pulp magazine, however, Smith has remained undersung and underappreciated by mainstream fantasy enthusiasts.

I just finished Zothique, a collection of stories set in Earth's distant future where the only continent bears that name. It blew me away. Smith had a phenomenal grasp on phantasmagoria and dark, occult themes. Never since reading Lovecraft as a teenager have I been so impressed with an author in that genre. The collection comes highly recommended to anyone who has a fondness for Gothic and horror literature. You won't be disappointed, except by the fact that Smith stopped writing long before his death and could have given the world so much more to read.

Two Hunts (become many)

The Deer: One frozen morning I held fire on a 16-20 point buck, frozen and young. Later that morning I killed a smaller one that outweighed me 2.3 to 1. The distance stepped off to the evidence of point of impact, triangulated and visual: 265 yards. It was inspected by a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Officer. I gutted, skinned and cleaned it under the tutelage of my father. I emptied a 30-06 in a ravine on Tunica Tribal Land in the small mountainous uplift skirting the southern part of Angola Prison: Another beautiful buck. God knows I wish I had been able to gauge the trajectory better (still only 12). It wasn't as big as the one killed near Lottie.

The Snakes: 3.5 foot long black diamond back in the brambles of the Felicianas. It lived in an outside freezer. Shot at point blank range with J. H.'s gun for that family (glad to be of service in that matter). 4 foot long viper in tree limbs of Old River Road Swamp, and a dozen rattle snakes on the ground, less than a mile from the Louisiana State University campus.

Night Life

Downtown Baton Rouge's 3rd Street has exploded into life, rivaling Austin's 6th Street as a prime night spot. Last night thousands of people converged on the dense collection of bars for an epic throwdown. The streets and parking lots were full of cars and people, not to mention the crowds inside the clubs. The change in the area from a decade ago is mind blowing. Downtown Baton Rouge is back, bigger and better than it ever was before.

The current fashion trend of painted on crotch high mini skirts absoluteley dominated the evening. This is the best thing to happen to fashion since the invention of fabric -- less fabric, more sexiness. It was truly a wonderful thing to behold. There may have been some dudes there too, but they certainly didn't make much of an impression.

The weather was perfect for a night out. Balmy light breezes in the mid to lower 60's made walking around pleasurable in the extreme. The businesses definitely made a fortune in alcohol sales last night, but for some of us it seemed like it would be more fun just to watch the people coming, going and standing still. And people said downtown would never catch on again...

The Louisiana Melting Pot

A post I removed, just a short while ago, The Louisiana Melting Pot, was about a language exchange on the street. It was merely for entertainment. Nobody was the butt of any joke, but I did make up one concrete thing.

I walked into a convenience store where a cashier was speaking Arabic, or so it sounded. "Konichiwa" ended our conversation of what Japanese was available, instead of beginning the exchange. A Jamaican coin was passed, because of the language and intent, none of which was to defraud, and the bill was paid in full, in American dollars. Outside I shouted "Boom." I traveled many more blocks, four of the long ones in our city. I met a Spanish speaker on the street and attempted to get the Spanish word for gun. I bandied about in Castellano: mano (hand) fuego (gun) Co moe say dee say in Esp an yole? (Como se dice en Español - how do you say in Spanish). He appeared slightly hesitant in providing the term (the Spanish word is the word). I asked him just to liven the morning. I walked to a dollar store. An African American man inside said arm to a young female girl. I said to him, "Utras bole - Spanish for forearm." That was the incorrect term for forearm I got from the Spanish speaking man down the street. I just wanted them to look the term up. I gave the little girl 70 cents, two quarters and two dimes, my last silver change in the world. On the way to the University I passed two Asian looking men, one who seemed very Japanese and one who was from further west in Asia. I postulated about their origin. Their are many Hindus, Koreans and Japanese near the campus. I failed to say anything to them (I should have said something in French, since I studied it so long. It's just very difficult to remain practiced in any foreign languages without constant interaction with everyday native speakers). White Anglo Saxon Protestants have been said to have long called my ancestors, Irish men and women, niggers. I'm part Caribeño, Caribbean Island Indian, so I'm even less white than other Irish men. I use my language to try to bend the lines of stereotype and provoke thought, to educate, in what way I can. I used the term perfidious to refer to what I did, and that was incorrect. What I did was not treacherous, and is a good reason for removing the material as it existed. I have recreated the written work with the first person completely intact, which I have learned from inference can be considered very poor form in a writer. It implies ego, and this is something I have lacked my entire life. i have never been overly proud of myself, and go to great lengths to avoid being perceived as someone overly full of pride. This is done.


My first music review! My first music review! "No money to be made in any of the arts by someone who refused to perform any of it live in public... brass and woodwind achievements remarkable, and easily proven, but only rarely witnessed..." Doom to the critics! Doom to the critics, I say. I my as well trade in my bassoon and oboe for a kazoo, or practice hand calls for all the good practice has done me. I am in a foul mood now. A foul mood indeed... [trailed off at first expletive]

Deja Vú Sauce

1 cup of half and half
2 tsp. gelled refrigerated beef base
1/3 pound crawfish tail meat
1/2 julienned red bellpepper wilted in peanut oil
1 tbsp. cream cheese

cook for five minutes over medium heat, stirring regularly, then add cream cheese and simmer until it melts, stirring constantly

no garlic or onion for dates, pinch of garlic for married couples

Snow, 1985

"I want to fly like a beagle, to the weed. Fly like a beagle, let the incense carry me. Price keeps on crashing, crashing, crashing... into the future. Price keeps on crashing, crashing crashing..." Further. Legal mdma. K2 so confusing, it's white and the yellows just keep coming. Lifting me higher. Took the downbound train only to fail and achieve escape velocity. And you will know all about it. It can't be helped. I can't stop talking, and you know exactly everything I mean.

Rolling down the I-10 corridor. Every overpass becomes a runway to a different reality. The only place to get wet is Lake Ponchartrain, and the bridge is closed for an accident. I close my eyes and wonder how I got so far away from home. I run the roadblock and find out there's nothing wrong out there. Somewhere thee sun is coming up. I jack another tab and chase it with niacin-- it's time to burn.

OLHell -- And none of it was done at my end. Have a nice scapegoat, entirety of drug users who read this (may the awareness burn your mind out) . I don't even drink, and so many people have blamed me for their drugs it gets quite difficult to remain calm. People wonder why music becomes hardcore. I don't.

1987 --
"I got a story to tell, now listen up real well
Pay attention this way to what I got to say
Took it to the street, rap to the people we meet
Now we're rocking out hard to the Suicidal beat
Tried to deny our right, so we're putting up a fight
Just doing our thang, they tried to call it a gang
Saw the way we look, that's all that it took
That's all she wrote, they had their scapegoat

Dressed down, homeboyz, minority -- join the Army"
-- Suicidal Tendencies

The Old Electric

A close facsimile of an old guitar shamelessly squandered in youthful disregard for the value of a dollar. Letting go of it may have saved years of my life. It received more attention than anything else in my life. It nearly dragged me up to heaven with it once. A 1956 custom.


Of all the web browsers available, Konqueror provides the highest level of transmission agency inspection. The experienced user can easily find a great number of commercial parties involved with the open source browsing experience. Konqueror does not provide the highest level of user ease, however.

Opera, the Apple browser, provides super fast page access through the advance storage of the HTML of commonly accessed pages. Chrome, at last inspection, operates in almost the same fashion. The speed of those browsers makes them highly desirable to some people, but not every experience should be taken at face value. When browsing new or rarely visited pages, the speed of Opera's and Chrome's access reduces to exactly the same speed as every other browser.

Firefox blows the doors off of all the other programs because of available user end improvements. If manipulated for security it becomes very slow, as does Konqueror. Konqueror, because of security and branding concerns, does not supply an add-on process that circumnavigates full approval of the KDE staff. Greasemonkey allows a user to add options at will. That can be desirable for functionality, but I would strongly advise against it on computers used for financial transactions. Above that computing underworld, the fully approved Mozilla add-ons can not be beat for point and click tinkering.

I have never tried Epiphany. Gnome has always been too simplistic for my liking. Epiphany is a Mozilla product, however, and as such is very much like their other product Firefox (or Iceweasel, if one uses Debian) but with a different wrapper and user experience.

The largest problem with Internet Explorer remains the massive widespread usage of it. Internet Explorer has never been separated from the Windows operating system despite an anti-trust lawsuit. Because of Microsoft commercial dominance at the governmental level, Internet Explorer suffers constant targeting by malicious packet inspections. On the plus side, software developers for anti-virus programs make a nice living off of it. On the negative side, software developers for anti-virus programs make a nice living off of it.

Aria2 requires no GUI at all. For the person interested in avoiding all the bells and whistles of having QT, GTK, or the MS and Apple point and click interface, Aria2 provides a solution. If one likes that, then one can probably set up a Perl receiver/transmitter. By that time a great many things about computer communications will become very clear, so very, very clear... *-*

Multiple Choice

What's worse: Charging into a wall of bayonets or charging into a wall of bayonets wearing dresses?
A - Gunga-Din answer: Make the enemy charge your bayonets.
B - Gung-ho answer: Charge the bayonets naked, win anyway, save the dresses for the women.
C - Gangrene answer: That's it. Game over man.
D - Gorgeous answer: Why would anyone charge bayonets? Give peace a chance (or at least perform a flanking maneuver).

Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo! If I bought into the "powerless over drinking," lack of personal responsibility philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, then I would be getting blitzed right now. An AA sponsor I knew a decade ago called. He never calls me unless he's wasted. He sounded like he was having a blast. "Happy... happy shinko de.. Happy Shinko, Day!" Indeed. Happy Shinko, to all of you out there in the world of the intertubes and subway tubes. Be careful tonight. Stay strong, stay in control, stay safe.

Of course that only applies to people in the Western Hemisphere who have an idea what the 5th of May stands for. So many people think it's Mexican Independence Day, and just use the 5th of May as an excuse to drink margaritas and Coronas. In fact, that is what the "holiday" is -- an excuse for an epic drunk promoted by alcohol companies. Cinco de Mayo celebrates an 1862 Mexican military victory in the Battle of Puebla over the French. Party on! Their Independence Day is on September 16th. As far as excuses to party go, it's a creative one at least.

If you're overseas you should join in. Just remember, there's nothing you can do to avoid a nasty hangover if you celebrate Cinco de Mayo properly. Don't forget, though, that it's your duty to honor Mexican Independence with slurred speech, even when you know today has almost nothing to do with Mexico as a whole. Spread the stupidity and disinformation. Corona and Cuervo need more money from drunkards!

I don't want to be a downer. It's good to have a day set aside for fun. Do it intelligently though. Have some class with your taste of south of the border fiesta.


[This style was too similar to Death on the Installment Plan. It's listed as "to be corrected."]

The 300 gallon upright five foot diameter cylindrical fish tank at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas held 75 bright, medium sized, flat faced silver fish. They swam constantly in circles, never stopping. The attendant said they would never know they were in such a small aquarium. Looking at them made me feel claustrophobic. I absolutely did not believe the fish had no idea they were confined closely. The fish don't have facial expressions. They don't have a way to communicate, supposedly. They sure looked miserable as hell to me. I couldn't think of anything more horrible than to be trapped in such a way, even if they never knew the sea. They were like veal, except at least veal got slaughtered and eaten after reaching a certain size and maturity.

It didn't occur to me to ask an attendant if the stock was ever rotated out or if the same tank-mates had to swim in 15 foot circles until they finally died of old age, unable to swim into the mouths of sharks or fling themselves into sharp undersea coral. They reminded me of people who took the bus to and from work everyday, walked to the store once a week, and repeated with no real end in sight, except maybe a vacation. Then they wouldn't be required to move from their location at all. They could remain nearly static until it was time to start making the same trips over and over again.

Cynically I mused that I was so much different. I made longer loops. I got to stop to sleep. Opening my eyes after rest made the experience of moving around seem new. I could communicate and I had facial expressions. Like other people I can feel pain and I have dreams, and exist on a higher level than simple animals and flora. Except when standing around staring at other people, other animals, or nothing in particular. Then I was just like an inanimate object. In fact it struck me that being an inanimate object would be vastly superior to any other sort of existence. So much less effort and tedium involved.

The young lady came back from the bathroom. She looked cheerful. Her name was Valerie. She told me that she loved me. We had been together 5 weeks. I ruminated about what she thought was so endearing in such a short period of time. Of course I loved her. I always love women. There's nothing better than loving a woman.

I don't think our two varieties of love were not the same. I would still love her after she no longer loved me. It would be sad when she was gone. I would think about her now and then, until I stopped. When I remembered her I would still love her. Somebody may have explained that emotion to me incorrectly, because when a girl said she stopped loving me she usually changed her behavior entirely. I never change my behavior, because of course I never say I stop loving a woman. I stay affectionate and sweet. My girlfriend would always just disappear after saying her piece. Why couldn't my relationships ever stay simple or end with just a breakup? Why did things always escalate to the all or nothing stage?

I don't cling. I am not a clingy person Maybe it's the way I treat love that keeps things from working out over and over. Physical love couldn't be more enjoyable. Spending intimate time with a woman was joyful. My hatred of spending time in public doing things average people do can not be overstated. I like to go in public for special events and outings. Attending everyday attractions does not excite me. Going out to see movies and sitting in cloth backed seats with people snacking nearby and talking felt like the opposite of a good time. Going to see the symphony, gallery openings, large private events, those things gave me a feeling of happiness and elevation.

I hadn't told Valerie about this yet. I always want to try an experience before knocking it, even if I suspect I will feel the same way I had every other time I had ever done something similar in the past. I'm not old enough to believe that there isn't hope normalcy won't somehow take root inside of me, that I'll wake up and want to go to fast food restaurants or wander around in big outlet stores like everyone else. I'm still not sure that's what normal really is.

I smiled at her when she handed me a Coca-cola. I do like Coke. That's a step in the normal direction. And Valerie is extremely intelligent, just like the other girls I had known. Before I could vacillate any further she pulled me to a side bench and sat me down, taking the Coke back away from me and putting it down next to hers. She pushed my legs together and sat down straddling my lap.

"Alexander, I know more about you than you know about me," she told me. I looked into her eyes and didn't know what to say. "I'm not going to slip away from you because you don't want to be in public with me."

"I'm not like that -- that's not something I -- "

She kissed me. It was a fantastic kiss. It didn't last too long. It was sweet and not a big display, but it was enough of a display to be sexy and normal at the same time. It was just right. I was supposed to do that, not have to depend on her to do that.

Before that train of thought went anywhere she pulled back and looked me in the eyes. "You're not listening to me, Alex. This is different. Forget what you think you know or knew. I'm going to show you what it really means to be in love."

She pulled away, stood up and took my hand. "Would you like to get out of here?"

"God, I can't think of anything I'd like to do more."

"Me too." She waited for me to stand up. We held hands after I was next to her.

"What do you mean you know more about me than I know about you?"

"I'll tell you. I'll show you," she said.

I had never felt like this before. Nothing felt askew between us at all. I believed her. Things felt right.

Deux, Two, Dos

The gravel tracks through the hills northwest of Menard, Texas, seemed to go on forever. Mile after mile went through stages of cedar breaks on hillocks with interspersed persimmons to more open steppe fields with forbs, scrub oaks and woody plants. The faster an area began to give a distinctive feel to it the quicker it started looking exactly like every other mile of Hill Country the two men had already been through. They saw so many deer, snakes and armadillos that within hours they hated the sight of them.

Nestor and Mark were looking for a specific road where they would find a specific driveway leading to one very specific ranch. They were seven hours late when the sun began slipping below the horizon during their twists and turns. They had backtracked a half dozen times. The hand scrawled map had provided a clue in the last hour that made them think they may be on the right track.

The purple and metallic lavender Cadillac they rolled down the roads in was never intended to be used on such primitive surfaces. High praise had always been heaped on Cadillacs, but the one Nestor drove began squeaking like a dying titmouse every time they hit the smallest bump. Taking curves too fast had removed half a dozen crescent moons from the glass of the windshield. The windows kept building up dust to the extent that they had to roll down their windows sporadically in order to be able to see through them. Neither one of the two men were enjoying the experience.

Before leaving Austin they sat around in a private office for four hours waiting for Nestor's second cousin and one of their employer's close friends from Brownsville. The office contained nothing but fine antiques. The chair behind the large mahogany desk had been made entirely from polished longhorns with the utmost clarity of color. An ornate brass clock on the desk was supported in the right hand of a robed Venus coming out of a shell, on a pink marble stand. Even the walls of the office reeked of money, covered in finely jigged cherry panels and trim.

Nestor did not look out of place in the room, even though he was dusty and wearing old, thin farm blue jeans and cowboy boots and the simplest of white button up shirts. Mark had dressed for the occasion. He was wearing brand new, gaudy cowboy boots with rhinestone and fancy stitching. Lots of stitching and patterns also adorned his light blue dressy cowboy pants and cream and beige cowboy shirt. He kept a big white hat on his lap. As well as he blended in Mark may as well have hatched from an alien's egg in the room.

Sitting in chairs next to each other the minutes had passed slowly, especially since the only person keeping any conversation alive kept leaving the room. Their employer, William Collins, had prostate and kidney problems. He had no alternative but to attempt to use the bathroom on a regular basis. Every trip Collins returned looking more miserable and upset. Nestor wondered how serious the condition might really be. The story that it was not a big deal was obviously untrue.

Mark Tucker once or twice mentioned the weather. Mark grew up and spent the earlier part of his life in the big farm areas of central northern Texas. He was no less intelligent than most men, but he never had any reason to improve his mind. He made progress in life through perseverance and loyalty to the people who gave him breaks. It had worked for him so far. He didn't have the best fashion sense, but he was easy to get along with.

Nestor never told anyone his real last name. He learned early in his first years away from Michoacan that the less people knew about him the safer he was. William Collins knew him as Nestor Alvarez, because that's what it said on the work permit. Nestor was no more an Alvarez than he was a Breckenridge.

It cost three weeks of hard work to get identification and a work permit with the name Alvarez on it. The expense spared him sleepless nights and days spent glancing over his shoulder. Too many people from back home knew his family name. There were people would do harm him, or worse, harm his family, simply out of jealousy and spite. Enough could not be said in support of remaining inconspicuous and soft spoken in a position such as his.

The men finally knocked on the door for the appointment with William, Mark and Nestor. An obvious look of relief passed over Mark's face, but nobody noticed. Nestor addressed his relative only as 'Migo. The other man was called Taylor. Taylor and 'Migo were carrying one duffel bag each. Small talk was exchanged. They left the duffel bags with barely any conversation and went beck out of the building the way they had come.

"Okay, gentleman, you know what to do," Collins told Nestor and Mark.

Mark and Nestor respectively said "Yeah, don't worry about it. We know what to do," and, "Si, entiendo," at the same time.

The two walked down the hall and out to the small inside garage just down the hall. The garage door was closing just as they mounted the stairs to descend to the Cadillac. They threw the duffel bags in the trunk before they got in the car. Thegarage door opened again, and then they too drove away.

As the guys left the room a small microphone hidden behind a painting on the wall transmitted the door latch clicking closed. Three blocks down, in an abandoned church school house, a couple of federal agents were sitting behind a desk listening to the transmission. One of them was rubbing his temples. The other guy threw a pencil over his left shoulder. It clattered on the floor to their rear.

"That was it?"

"Yeah, that was it."

"We just spent six hours on high alert for three sentences."


"And no video feed from the garage?"

"You're sitting right there. Do you see any video feed on the freaking monitor? Why do you do this? Every time we go out on a job and don't land some major bust right away you bitch and moan about every single thing. I'm telling you, if you keep doing this I'm going to ask for another partner."

"You just do that, Steve. You just do that. We'll just see if you can find anybody else who'll put up with the way your breath stinks after you eat your Reuben sandwich and drink your prune juice every afternoon."

In the office down the street William Collins stared up at the painting with the hidden microphone and smiled. He hadn't even begun to play his hand yet, but he knew that he had almost won the entire game already. "The feds are so handicapped by procedure. It makes them entirely predictable," he had thought to himself.

And then it was that the day crept closer and closer to darkness in Hill Country as Nestor continued to try to find the ranch house with Mark in the passenger seat. By that time they had both let loose a couple of quiet barrages of cursing, not so much at each other as out of frustration. They got along a lot better than most people would under the circumstances.

"Hey, Alvarez. I've got to go to the bathroom."

Nestor sighed. "Me too. I'll pull over."

The Cadillac kicked up little clouds of dust even at very slow speed as it slowed to the side of the road. The two men got out. Mark was urinating before Nestor could get around to the passenger side of the car. It was so dry that the yellow liquid just glided over the surface of the dust without sinking in.

A scorpion with an obvious mental impairment got too close to Nestor. Nestor peed all over it. It scuttled away into the undergrowth. That was when Mark spotted a falling apart old white sign barely hanging from a fence on which could barely be read letters saying "Tractor Repair." It was the last landmark they needed to get to their destination.

"Nestor! There's the sign, man! We found the sign!"

"Hey, look at that. I was beginning to worry, Mark. I'm very glad we have found this sign. This has been a long day." The time read five minutes to 8 P.M.

The two men got back in the car. A barely noticeable track between two fence posts next to the wooden sign led off the little gravel road. Nestor turned the Caddy down the little driveway and sped up.

"Next time we should tell William we need a truck for this run."

"There's never going to be a next time."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Oh, it's nothing. I just don't think we do this again."

"If you say so, Nestor. If you say so. I've never known William to turn down money though, especially not good money."

"There's the house," Nestor pointed to two o'clock.

An old white farm house situated in a narrow clearing between tall trees greeted the car as it reached the end of the driveway. The shaded area was easily fifteen degrees cooler than the road they had been on for hours. A simply dressed, very old man was sitting on a swing on the wide porch, watching them as they approached the house. He watched as they drove up. A dog ran out from a small shed adjoined to the eastern side of the porch, barking at the tires of the stopping vehicle.

Mark and Nestor got out of the car. Neither one of them made any moves to leave the sides of it though. They just stood there waiting for the old man to say something. Their stances revealed a humble and respectful repose on both of their parts.

"Good evening, you men," the old man said. "It's good to see you both. You're going to need freshening up and some supper. We'll get you fixed right up."

"Thank you, Mr. Collins," they each said in turn.

"Don't you men worry about it," he groaned slightly as he stood up. "Why don't you come in. I'll get Maria to set the table."

"What about the bags?" Mark asked.

"Don't you worry about that. We'll get to that later."

"Gracias, señor," Nestor said as he went up the steps to the house.

"Was mighty hot today," Mark said as he went inside.

"Yes, yes it was," Mr. Collins said as the screen door banged behind him.


Tres, Three, Tre

This chapter is found at Symbols Private.

Cuatro, Four

Valerie and Alexander sat at a table overlooking Lake Pontchartrain. They decided to go to one of the restaurants beside one of the nicer marinas east of Fat City. The sun began to set. Many of the tables remained unfilled, waiting for the swelling of the night crowd.

"Sometimes people talk about you, Alexander."

"That's sort of strange. People don't talk to me very often. Who talks about me? What do they say?"

"You don't have to worry. Nobody cares what older people say. It's just that you got a reputation for being eccentric after not showing up for your wedding."

"We weren't right for each other."

"You didn't come out of your house for 7 months, even when Bella tried to commit suicide under your window."

"She was the one who was deranged, clearly. How could the world not see that?"

"Then why didn't you call an ambulance instead of climbing out of a window on the other side of the house? And then you got hung up on the fence and somebody had to call an ambulance for you."

"I see how it is. These are the sort of things people talk about. Who exactly has been saying things?"

"It was all over Tulane after it happened. Bella's friends wanted you guillotined, not to mention her parents. Do you have any idea how much money her family spent on the wedding?"

"No, I've never thought about it. I'm a bubble head. I can only think about bizarre, eccentric things, like stopping all the light from entering my room and keeping static on the television twenty-four hours a day, so as not to be able to hear the satellites in my head."

"Don't be that way. It's just that you should know you haven't vanished from people's thoughts just because you withdrew into yourself and stopped acknowledging the existence of the outside world."

"I didn't stop acknowledging the existence of the outside world. I got sick and tired of being involved with average people. All they do is talk, about the weather, about their portfolios, or about hair styles or television or celebrities, but most of all they like to talk about people who can't respond to what they are saying."

"This is good. You're really getting it off your chest. I knew this would be a positive exercise."

"Who are you, really? Were you sent into my life as some sort of free lance therapist? I'm beginning to think this is some sort of set-up."

Valerie smiled as Alex winked. "Yep. It's a set-up. Especially that thing. Remember that thing..."

"That thing gets me in trouble. That thing is the reason you could be a Soviet spy, well, a spy from Al-Qaeda or some other hideous, evil organization, and I'd never know."

"No, silly. Not that thing. That thing."

"Oh, that thing. Yes, it's absolute proof there could be nothing wrong between us."

They both laughed.

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, it's not you're failed engagement, that's for sure. That puts you in great spirits. Let's talk about something else, unless this is too public for you, too common."

"I'm all ears. I do have an appointment," he looked at his arm where a watch should have been. "Right after death I'm supposed to be somewhere very important."

"People say you're running out of your inheritance."

"Bella's crowd?"

"No, that would be your neighbors, who told people who are friends with Bella's parents. They say that you keep putting your bills back in your mailbox unopened."

"Some of the bills I receive can easily be proven to be fraudulent. I've stopped responding to collection attempts from shysters and thieves. If the post office insists on dropping off such disrespectful notices, even though I've written return to sender on duplicate after duplicate, repeatedly, then it's really up to the post office to sort out the whole mess."

"Some of the bills are for your accountant."

"He's the worst one."

"I can see that I'm going to wind up enamored of a completely deranged pauper. I'll have to give you sponge baths and feed you with a small spoon in our one room hovel. The cost of washing your bib will be more than we can afford."

"Would you really do that for me? Bathe me and feed me if I was a vegetable?"

"Not so much. I would take pictures of you being loaded into the ambulance and post them on the Internet with funny captions about your absolute incompetence. And the secret videos and audio tape. If you go broke I'm totally making sure the entire world knows all your deepest, darkest secrets. Because all I care about is money."

Alexander's features darkened. He looked at Valerie with a very serious expression for long seconds before looking out over the water. The sounds of gulls broke the silence between them. Valerie leaned over the table and pulled on Alex's bangs.

"Don't do that," he said.

"Don't be so serious. You already have only one thing I want, and that's you. It would be nice for you if you didn't fall into complete ruin before you die, but that has nothing to do with how I feel about you."

"I stopped caring. First my parents died. My next two relationships did nothing but make me more unhappy. I wound up in a relationship with a total nutcase. She was good in bed, but she and her parents were pushing me into marriage. That couldn't have been clearer if they had been using a bulldozer. It's like the world exists in a state of total discombobulation wherever I am."

"What if I told you it's probably mostly you? That the world is fine, but you're just not coping with it very well."

"I'd tell you that we're currently experiencing a deficit of that thing we were talking about."

"The good thing or one of the bad things."

"Who cares? We should go somewhere before the restaurant begins filling up. We don't want to be in the public eye..."

"I think we should stay right here. I think we should make this a regular spot, so people who want to talk about you will have to talk about us. We should do something totally scandalous. Like have a good time, talk loud enough for other people to hear, and engage in displays of public affection. Like kissing, even."

"I don't know if I can go through with something like that. You know how quiet I am. Can we just skip the talking and stick with scandalous displays of affection?"

"We can definitely do that."

Alexander moved his chair around to Valerie's side of the table. He leaned in very close to Valerie and nibbled on her ear lobe. She squealed very loudly, in a high pitch. Alex almost fell out of his chair.

"Masher!" Valerie exclaimed in feigned horror. Several people looked over, and those who didn't were trying not to. Their waitress appeared concerned, and finally decided to pick up water to bring over.

"What the hell, Val? And who yells masher? Didn't people stop doing that... when did people do that?"

"I do that. And we aren't scandalous if all we do is give people something to look at. They need to hear something too, or we haven't even caused a ripple in the pond."

"We're off to a good start then, because I'm fairly certain that could be heard in the next restaurant."

"I knew it. You're completely stuffy."

The waitress arrived at the table. She asked how they were doing and Alexander grunted and smiled at her. Valerie put her right hand conspicuously in his crotch and said, "We were thinking about engaging in a couple of forms of sexual intercourse right here at the table. You don't think anyone will mind, do you?

"To tell you the truth, the owner would probably consider you heroic for something like that. We still get crowds, but it's nothing like it used to be. The place could really use a spicier reputation."

"Wait... wai... uh..." Alex stuttered as something he hadn't expected began to take place. The waitress' face turned red. She walked away. Valerie smiled at him and leaned in close.

"I told you things would be different."

[unedited until mañana]

Cinco, Five


In one of the hundreds of conventionally inaccessible corners of the Andes mountains above the path of a Rio Ucayali tributary, towering cumulous red cells rolled in from the east. Lush foliage turned a deeper shade of green and rock cliffs emanated a subdued, almost metallic paleness in the oncoming change in solar reflectivity. The gathering winds blew the edges of a gray and olive green camouflage tarp tied over a miniature tent frame. Rain fell from the sky within minutes.

The small tarp tent sagged under the weight of the water coming down. A small niche in the mountain kept some of the downpour's fury from hitting the shelter, but the proximity to the incline was a two edged sword. Massive amounts of runoff were now pouring across the ground underneath.

Irwin scrambled to get the bags higher off of the ground. At the same time he thought about his son Jacob back in the part of the world he left behind. His eighteen month old little boy drove his actions, and thinking of the child made him even more determined. Irwin gritted his teeth as the atmosphere itself turned partially into water. After he secured everything Irwin pulled a seat closer to the back and waited for the rain to subside.

Although it was barely two in the afternoon the entire valley had grown dark when the storm moved overhead. The primordial rain forest at the base of the mountain grew very quiet at the coming of the clouds. The birds of the area stopped calling. Nature held its breath.

The river in the bottom of the valley swelled and raged out of control. Irwin could see parts of it far below, twisting like a snake through the jungle. Every now and then a tree loosed its hold on the wet earth, went sliding into the river and careened out of sight around the bends. The previously dry and safe area beyond the camp took on a slippery and dangerous glaze.

Irwin shook his head at the bad luck. In the morning he had to climb over the top of a ridge to the north with a gun strapped to his chest and eighty pounds on his back. He longed for the sensations of being with Jacob and his mother, Jaina. He didn't know if he would ever see her or his son again, but he would use every fiber of his being to make it through.

Five days earlier he and Jaina met their longtime friend Riley in San Mateo Juatelo. They looked forward to the reunion as a welcome respite from only speaking to Indians and occasional Peruvian government officials. Seven months on a dig in a remote corner of the Andes above the jungles left them starved for news of home and American companionship.

Looking back, aggravation pestered Irwin. If only he had found something out of place about Riley's sudden appearance. He regretted his trusting nature.

A young Indian mother watched Jacob the night Irwin and Jaina met the short, diminutive academic in a small cantina in the village. The open air establishment boasted lightbulbs hanging from wires stretched between support posts. Beer can tabs covered every inch of the wires, and at least one hundred more feet of string hung up for the express purpose of displaying the tabs. A few villagers sat at the bar, made from part of the side of a trading boat carted from the river a mile away.

The trio exchanged small talk at one of only two tables over a small repast of stew and tortillas before moving on to a round of cervezas. Nothing seemed out of place. They laughed jovially as the Foster's kicked in. Part of their amusement consisted of conjecturing over why the place had Foster's. A couple of hours ticked by. The conversation became serious out of the blue.

"We need to go somewhere private so we can talk, Irwin," Riley told the forty-two year old archaeologist. "There are things we need to discuss that are better broached somewhere else."

"What's going on, Riley?" Jaina asked suspiciously. She had known Riley longer than Irwin. The two men only met because of her. She suddenly felt tension in the air, and she didn't like it.

"It's better you not know. It would really be for the best if you waited here," Riley informed her succinctly and politely. The tone of his voice left no doubt the statement was a subtle imperative.
"Anything you have to discuss with me you can discuss in front of Jane," Irwin said with a slight trace of impatience.

"Not this. This is something she doesn't need to be part of, Irby." Riley called him Irby back in graduate school. The nickname had always been playful. Using it then didn't suit the sudden change of mood.

Irwin started to protest, but Jaina put her hand on his arm. "It's all right. Go see what big secret Riley has to tell you. I'll wait here."

Riley took that as a cue to stand up. Irwin voiced a concern, but Jaina hushed him. The two men walked from the cantina, Riley leading the way.

"Where do we need to go so you can tell me what's on your mind, Riley?" Irwin asked, with more an edge in his voice.

"There's a house around the next corner. There are some people inside I'd like you to meet."

"What are you talking about? I don't want to meet anyone."

"Irwin, you don't have a choice. This will happen. The best thing you can do is stay cool and calm, and listen."

"What's going on, Riley? What are you getting me into?"

"It's not me, Irwin. It's so much bigger than me. Here's the house."

Riley tapped on the door of a plain looking stone house in the middle of the block. In the semidarkness Irwin could discern flaking paint on the shutters that covered the windows. No trace of light inside the house met his eyes. A few seconds after the knock he heard two bars being removed from the door.

When the door opened a wiry Indian man waved them both inside with a light semi-automatic rifle. Irwin's blood suddenly ran cold. He walked into the house behind Riley, wanting at that moment to grab the small man and break him over his knee. They were led to a room with a table not far from the front door.

Four oil lanterns in wall sconces lit the room. Three men leaned over the table. It was an over constructed piece of furniture put together with big timbers and pegs. Another armed Indian stood behind them. Upon close inspection Irwin concluded that military discipline ran in the veins of one of the seated men. The way the man's shirt fit and the way that individual sat bolt upright, with perfect posture, gave off the air of someone who spent a lot of time in the chain of command. That was the person who spoke after Irwin and Riley entered the room.

"Ah, Mr. Colton. I understand you have a Visa to work on the ruins south of here. You've been here going on eight months with your wife and young son."

"Can I ask who you are and what this is about?"

"You could ask who I am, who we are, but you won't get an answer. As far as what this is about, there's something that we need you to do to assure the brightness of your future. We'd..."

"Assure the brightness of my future? That's a veiled threat. Have I done something to warrant this intrusion in my personal life?"

Riley interrupted, "Just listen, Irwin."

The military man changed tack at the interruption. "I understand that you have extensive education in a number of fields that do not appear in your formal credentials. You spent many years in the Cascades and the Olympics with your father, and the records on his life are extensive. He trained you in mountaineering and outdoor survival. It was no great leap to ascertain that he also imparted to you his not insignificant knowledge of an unseen, rugged world, including the production of explosives and other illicit materials."

"He did no such thing. Your information is wrong. Besides, I'm a scholar. My youth is a thing of distant memory. I have a great job and a family, and that's really all that I care about."

"Nobody is here to ask you to sacrifice your family or your job. We're here to make your future easier than you would ever believe. Some colleagues of mine back in the states came into possession of some of your notes from college, notes you locked away in a safe deposit box. You may have thought them untouchable."

Irwin got a sinking feeling in the pit of his belly. He knew immediately what the man was referring to. The man seated to the right of the military fellow, a balding man with pens in a pocketed shirt, passed a folder across the table. It overflowed with paper. Irwin didn't need to examine it to know what it contained. The sight of the documents proved he was in a very tight spot.

The man with the pens spoke up, "We need you to briefly liaise with some of the indigenous peoples in the remote upper foothills of the Andes. I can't give you the full details on what has led us to make this unusual request of a civilian in your position, but I can tell you it's very important. We need you to prepare one small batch of product."

"Who are you? Seriously, who are you? I refuse to discuss anything further without knowing who I am dealing with. "

"You really have no choice, Mr. Colton," the military man stated matter-of-factly.

"These people aren't members of a cartel, Irby. They're with the United States government," Riley articulated softly, soothingly. "You have nothing to worry about as far as we're concerned."

"What I'm being asked worries me. It has nothing to do with who's asking. Why would the United States government need somebody like me to do sensitive work here? We have enormous resources. This doesn't make any sense."

The third man spoke up. He wore a suit, albeit a plain one. "We've lost track of one of our contacts here. He is presumed kidnapped or dead, along with the people he was working with. "

The man fiddled with his tie as he continued, "There is a shift of power hanging in the balance right now in this neck of the woods. We may very well be able to wrest power from one of the long established cartels here if we can deliver a shipment to some individuals in Belize. We don't have much time, however."

"Why would you need to provide drugs in order to shift the balance of power? If you have this deal in the works, why don't you simply pay off the people involved and walk away with a clean win?"

"It's not about drugs that make money, Irwin Colton." This from the military man. "You have no idea what this stuff does to people. We are about to move to completely sever the supply line of what is currently South America's largest illegal organization in order to establish control over the substance we are genuinely interested in."

"People don't freak out that badly when they can't get cocaine," Irwin said. The line of reasoning didn't make any sense to him. The next words he heard slammed it all home though.

"We're not talking about an illegal drug or drugs, although there is a high likelihood some will be involved."

Irwin wasn't sure who said it. He felt the air leaving his lungs. He managed to say, "Holy..." That was all. He knew what it was all about now. He thought the whole thing had been a myth, and that he would never hear aboutit again.

The man with the pens launched into a prepared briefing. "You have a week to get the product ready. You'll be provided transportation to the rendezvous point and all the materials you need. The ingredients will be kept to a minimum in order to leave as little trace as possible after you are gone. The less to dispose of the less to worry about. On the way there you will receive all the information you need about location and extraction. "

"I just don't get it. Why don't you get somebody else?"

"Because we already have you here," the military man pronounced before getting up and walking out of a door on the side of the room opposite Irwin and Riley.

"Irwin, I'm sorry this meeting had to be arranged this way," Riley said. He almost reached out to embrace his old friend, but thought better of it. He also left.

"Wait. Wait one minute. I will not agree to anything until I have guarantees that Jaina and Jacob will be well looked after, regardless of what happens."

"You have absolutely no reason to fear for their well being. And if something should happen to you they will never have to worry about money again. That's all I have to say. You really don't have a choice in this, you know."

Irwin was led from the house on that note. Two United States service men, or so they appeared to be, fully uniformed and wearing black berets, waited outside. The Indian inside closed the door and slid the bars back into place. It was a long walk back to Jaina, but not as long a walk as he later faced.

The recollection faded. The rain slowed and stopped in the mountains. Mist still filled the valley, but the air had the aspect of fresh ionic energy. It failed to invigorate Irwin's mood. All the "careful" planning went up in smoke on the fourth day.

Seiss, Six

This chapter can be found at Symbols Private.

Siete, Seven

The six year old sat in the dirt playing with army soldiers and Tonka toys. He had more than thirty infantrymen, several bazooka units and a kit and kaboodle of armored transports, even though they were scale designs of big work trucks. He played under a neighbor's house across the big grass yard behind his own home. Elevated platforms supported the old houses of the area in case the river ever backed up from the Gulf. The arrangement left a lot of room for a boy his age to pass the time.

If he looked over his shoulder he could see the back door of his home. His miniature dog sprawled out in the sun right behind him. Occasionally the little animal growled and rolled back and forth, soaking it up.

Two gigantic pecan trees cast shade over most of the back yard from the perimeter. The yard sloped up to the houses behind it. Two T-shaped clothes line poles protruded from the grass closest two the gate that led to the front street. Fencing extended between most of the houses on the block, but did not separate all of the yards.

The day before he had been called into the office at his elementary school. Somebody had thrown shreds of paper all over a janitors closet during recess, and an eyewitness teacher placed him very close to the scene of the incident. He had only known one thing about the office before that. Stories conveyed the horror of the place. Students went there and never came back, or came back turned into zombies. On his way to the office he had never been so afraid in his life.

Once in the foreboding glass windowed room facing the entrance, the school secretary led him before the principal and sat him down in a mauve plastic chair with a curved back and a bucket seat. In front of the seat an over-sized oak desk stretched out in front of him, and behind it a grim looking, gray haired man with horn rimmed glasses peered at him over the tops of the lenses.

"Have you been making trouble, Mark?" The principal asked him.

"No," he responded.

"Say no, sir, when you address your elders, young man."

"Okay," Mark said.

"You need to say 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir,' 'yes, ma'am' and 'no ma'am.' Not simply no or yes, and definitely not 'okay.'"

"Yes, sir."

"I heard you had yourself quite a good time this morning. I hear you threw a whole wad of paper bits all over the janitor's closet. Don't you think the people who work at this school have enough work to attend to without having to clean up after disrespectful misfits?"

"I don't know anything about any paper. All I did today was go to homeroom and then to recess."

"Mrs. Skinner says she saw you right by the janitor's closet where the mess was discovered, and that there was nobody else in the hallways at the time."

"But I didn't go anywhere near the janitor's closet. It's damp and musty in there."

"How would you know what it's like in the janitor's closet if you haven't been in the janitor's closet?"

"I've walked by it before. I didn't go in it though."

"You're in very big trouble, Mark Thompson. I'm going to get the truth out of you," the principal said. The gray haired man opened a drawer of the desk and pulled out a great big paddle.

Mark stockpiled pea gravel for the upcoming battle. After he amassed a moderate pile of ammunition he commenced the bombardment. He missed a lot, even though he accompanied every throw with the appropriate sound of gunfire. When one of the missiles struck a target he solemnly lined the fallen unit beside the others on a masonry ledge next to him. He knew about the horror of war and the dignity of the military, and took care not to violate any posthumous protocols. The model soldiers deserved honor after they had fallen.

Halfway through the grim decimation of every standing unit the back aperture of the house opened. The dog, Bojangles, catapulted off of his back and tore out for the back porch. Mark peered around and knew it was time for lunch, because Bojangles jumped three feet in the air like a creature possessed. Every few jumps Bo would spin 270-360 degrees. He even pulled off a half-flip and a complete back flip now and then. That could only mean hamburgers.

Mark slid out from under the edge of the cool house and jogged for home. His father, Emmet Thompson, danced a little jig coming off the back porch of the house with the food. He held it up to almost elbow level to safeguard against Bojangles, even though Bo's bounced only to showboat for the two of them. The plate held a big, juicy hamburger with lettuce and tomato. A pile of hash browns covered the side and sent steam up into the air.

"Go inside the house and wash your hands, Emmett," Liam told his son.

The lad ran inside to get cleaned up for dinner. The builders placed the kitchen on the north side of the house, originally on its own side porch to keep the heat out of the main dwelling. Somewhere after the turn of the twentieth century one of the owners walled it in and restructured the walls. They had also doubled the size of the original home, constructed in the historic shotgun shack style, when they converted the kitchen into a full room and added a back porch. Originally the back of the house only sported two steps. The carpenters covered the outside walls of the house with old growth cypress from the edges of Lake Salvador when the remodeled.

Mark pushed through the kitchen, through his bedroom and into his bathroom. Liam dedicated the master bedroom to his son's use after Emmett made it out of the crib so the boy could have the most private room and wouldn't have to use the same bathroom as any guests. A deep porcelain and steel bathtub on clawed legs filled up the outside wall end of the narrow private facilities. The sink and the commode adjacent to the tub took up the rest of the space. The original plans made the private lavatory smaller than the one for house guests. That one also contained a tub after the renovations.

The warm water whisked the fine layer of dust on Emmett's hands down the drain. The dust on his pants bothered him for a second, but he couldn't do anything about that. He hurriedly dried off and exited. He had already been hungry, but once nothing stood between he and the food his hunger became ravenous.

Both of the private bedrooms of the house opened into the kitchen. The original intent had been nothing of the sort, but Liam didn't like the idea of having the private rooms strung out in a line. Instead of locating the dining room next to the kitchen he placed it as the rearmost of the public rooms and put both bedrooms adjacent to the kitchen, for privacy reasons.

Mark cared nothing about the layout of their living accommodations. The husky youngster made the house shake when he strode through it. The forks resettled on the table when he sat down.

"Don't body slam the chair, son," Liam told him, amused. He sat down across from Mark and said, "Let's bow our heads."

Mark took an ample bite of the burger as soon as he opened his eyes. The ground round was still on the hot side. He sucked in air and grabbed for a drink of water to prevent his tongue from burning.

"Don't eat so fast. Take your time," Liam chided.

Mark switched to working on the hash browns to give the hamburger time to cool off. He stabbed the coolest pieces on the outside edge and dipped them in a dollop ketchup. The third portion did not reach his mouth in its entirety. A small chunk of potato landed on the table. He snatched it up and ate it so fast Liam didn't even notice.

"Your grandmother tells me there you got into trouble yesterday," Liam started carefully. He had not approached the subject earlier.

Mark stayed with his mother during the week, and with his father on the weekends. After school he went home with his grandmother Estelle. Liam worked Friday night. He picked Robert up in the morning rather than wake him up at night, so he didn't actually see him or speak to him until early Saturday morning. He declined to bring up the news of the trouble earlier because he hadn't wanted to ruin the morning.

"I don't want to talk about it," Mark said.

Mark took off his Scooby Doo backpack in the living room of Estelle's spacious, modern home before he related the story. When she heard he had been paddled she loaded him back in the car. Estelle intensely defended the right of the private family over that of public schools in matters of child discipline.

Estelle wanted to send Robert to the Catholic school closest to her home. She bowed to the Catholic church, not the public schools. She believed that if a Catholic school disciplined a young pupil the hand of God was involved. Robert's mother, Angela, squashed those ideas immediately. Angela worshiped in an Evangelical church with a charismatic tilt. The two women did not get along.

"And you didn't do it, Mark?" Estelle asked her grandson as they barreled down the road.

"No, grandmother," he replied.

Estelle insisted he call her grandmother. She disliked the sound of the word grandma. Her borderline obsessive-compulsive behavior about vocabulary originated from her own Catholic education. The nuns tolerated no slang or dialectic English in the schools she attended.

Upon hearing Mark deny the offense for the third time she launched into a tirade. The words were nothing more than a distant drone in his ears. Estelle brooked no breaches of the language from her grandson, but her experiences during the Great Depression never faded from memory. By the time she reached her golden years Estelle sometimes lost control of her tongue, even in front of the child. Too many injustices in the world ground her patience down to nothing.

When they arrived at the grammar school Estelle told Mark to wait in the car. He looked out the window at birds and squirrels beneath a great live oak on the grounds. The wildlife hid in the trees while the students roamed nearby. He had never seen them in such abundance there before.

A ruckus on the walk not far from the car drew Mark from his peaceful contemplations. Estelle cursed loudly at the principal, who smiled smugly. He spoke dismissively to her, backed up and turned a key in the front door. That action sealed the old lady and her grievances on the exterior side of the glass. Her fury grew to epic proportions, but she had no recourse left but to return to the car and drive away.

Emmett heard all about it in far greater detail and volume than he would have liked while picking Mark up. It took him twenty extra minutes to extract the little boy from her indignant declarations on the subject. Mark spent that time watching cartoons in the house, oblivious to the sound outside. Emmett smiled broadly when he managed to get Mark into the car and drive away. A bystander would not have questioned his reasoning about putting off a discussion of it with his son.

"Stop eating for a second and look at me, Mark."

Mark placed the last half of the hamburger back on the China handed down by Emmett's paternal grandmother. He gazed at his father, and his features became serious. The expression was priceless. He looked like a Cabinet Member that had just received some important news directly from the President.

"I know you didn't do anything wrong, son. All your life you will have to deal with injustice and unfairness in the world. If you take it with dignity and grace you will be the sort of man who could lead the world. I want you to know I'm proud of you."

"Thank you, father," Mark said. He never called Emmett father. It made his father smile.

"Would you like to throw the football after we eat?"

"Yeah, I'd love to!"

[briefly edited]

Ocho, Eight

The crickets in the undergrowth raised a cacophony of chirping as the night set in. The patriarch of the Collins family reclined in a rocking chair a couple of feet from Nestor, who took up the middle of the top step to the front porch. Light shone through the den windows, hung with old lace and silk curtains. A comfortable lapse in communication hovered betwen them.

The younger Collins telephoned in the afternoon and recalled Mark Tucker to the office off of Guadelupe two blocks west of the university. Mark always stared out the window as co-eds streamed by on their way to class. He gladly left his co-worker in Hill Country to return to his favorite pastime. Nestor and old man Collins bade him happy trails on his way out.

The moonlit sky cast distilled light upon the half tamed country outside the ranch. Rounds of coyote yips and yowls fringed the pulsating ebbs and eddies of insectoid humming. The dog on the porch, a mixed sheep dog with one blue eye, lick the top of one of her paws. A small amount of leftover gravy from the human meal plopped there during her zealous wolfing.

"Tomorrow morning my business partner will be here. He's coming from Flagstaff in a helicopter, if you can believe," Collins told Nestor.

"That's a long way."

"I think it's a big helicopter."

"Are you sure he's coming all the way from Flagstaff?"

"No. That's what he said though."

"That must be some helicopter."

"I reckon so."

Almost invisible to the naked eye a jet skimmed the stratosphere's lower reaches. Nestor noticed its blinking lights twice. Then the haloed lunar periphery obscured it.

An owl took wing in the tree line. Jibbie pricked up her ears. Like a flash she tore off growling across the drive. Collins right hand closed around his L. C. Smith shotgun. His sliding thumbprint on the polished grip would have been visible in the light. He pampered the shotgun.

"That's not coyotes, Nestor."

The hispanic man moved more dextrously than the enunciation. A dull gleam momentarily reflected from Nestor's Colt 1911 A-1. He held it at arm's length, fully standing, before his name left the old man's lips.

A bevvy of shots ripped through the wood of the steps the Mexican national vacated. Splinters of the planks scattered across the porch decking. Collins forced his aging bones into a somersault as the report of automatic weapon fire exploded in the peaceful night. All other sounds vacated the vicinity, leaving nothing but a vacuum before the next barrage.

A loud snarl from Jibbie wrested a curse from someone in the treeline. A second spray of slugs traced a high ascending crescent across the front wall of the house. In a remote corner of his perceptions Nestor heard the first miss pass by his ear.

Jibbie yelped loudly at an unseen response to her attack. Nestor honed in on the location, barely fifteen feet away from the end of his rapid advance into the gunfire. He squeezed off two careful shots at chest level. The boom of the forty-five eclipsed the fearful percussions of the fully auto. A man's dying scream whipped out before the deafening pronouncement of the Colt desisted.

In two breaths Nestor one-handedly hurdled the fence and stood over the man's body. Jibbie slunk back, stunned by pain and the unmistakable adrenaline echo thudding from the two humans. Heavy breathing was the only sound remaining.

The man was still alive. He had a thin, pencil moustache and very dark, tanned skin. His western style clothes may have come from a Good Will. Even as his lifeforce ebbed the man scanned Nestor's features.

"I found you, Torres. Everyone is going to know where you are now," he said. Nothing in the statement betrayed the damage to his lungs and heart. He closed his eyes upon completion of the statement. A final smile played across his features.

"Are you alright, Nestor?" Collins asked. He leaned on a fence post, the shotgun straight by his right leg. His chest rose and fell like a metronome, completely unaffected by the turn of events.

"Si, señor. Jibbie's alright too," Nestor responded.

"I heard him speak. What did he say?"

"Trouble's coming," Nestor said.

The two men stood under the Texas stars and surveyed the world before them with the expanded lucidity triggered only by the death of one of God's children. Jibbie wagged her trail and trotted over to her master. Nestor backed up, took his cowboy hat off and wiped his brow.

"I'll get started on the hole," Nestor said.

"Take your time. Do you want some tea?"

"No, gracias."



Link to Chapter Nine.

Diez, Ten

Valerie and Alexander lounged on his living room love seat. Interspersed French windows bathed the room in streetlight and supplemented the candle light. Cars on the street played an unchanging game. They stopped and started, stopped and started. At random intervals distinctive horns and squeaking brakes seeped into their private tableau.

The couple wore cartoon pajamas. Valerie had on Rugrats pajamas. Alex had opted for the more traditional Flintstones motif. The weather didn't call for them. The two donned them for fun.

Sandy auburn hair hung almost between Valerie's shoulder blades. The unkempt hair smelled of mint and cherry bark. A radiant glow conjured by her constant smiles and laughter repeatedly uplifted the spirits of her moody companion. The optimistic mood gave the conversation wings.

Alex, not the tallest person in the world, restlessly edged over the cushions until his upper body reclined across Valerie's lap. His blue eyes gazed into hers, curious and unfathomable. She toyed with a wisp of his light brown hair before smoothing it into place with the rest of Alex' bangs.

They finished a deep debate about whether or not they should toss the sole television off the balcony when Valerie tickled the young man's ribs. A full fledged wrestling match ensued. Alex braced his tan right leg under her butt and endeavored to drag her to the floor on top of him.

Valerie countered by hooking her svelte arms behind his head and her long legs in the small of his back. She then executed her special dreaded move to blind and bewilder. She forced his face into her bosom and squeezed with all her might. She heard him go, "Oomph, oomph!"

The two plummeted eight inches to a rug purchased from a Pashtun merchant. Alex forfeited control. The short fall knocked the wind out of him. Valerie's exiguous diamond earrings sparkled while she pressed the advantage. After missing and licking one plump earlobe, Valerie stuck her pink tongue directly into one of Alex's ears.

Alex regained the use of his right arm and grabbed the left side of Valerie's gluteous maximus through the pajamas. She used his maneuver against him. She threw her weight to that side and reaffixed her right leg, behind his noggin. Her belly button failed to gain any ground in the struggle though. Alex put his mouth against her stomach and blew energetically. Valerie cried aloud and started laughing.

Alex sat up with her. Valerie gracefully slid her pelvis down until both of theirs touched. They looked at each other, smiling. Valerie blew some hair out of her face. Alex hooked his arms behind her and held her closer.

"I want to hear about you, Val. I hate talking about me."

"Why are you so serious all of a sudden?"

"Because of what you said when we were at the aquarium that afternoon, that you knew more about me than I know about you. It's true. I don't know much about you at all."

"You know everything about me you need to know."

Alex pulled his arms from around her and backed up. It caused Valerie to slide all the way down to the floor. She let go of him in the process.

"I completely disagree. If you don't want to tell me about your own life, then I'll assume this is just a temporary fling for you. What kind of relationship depends on a man being ignorant and uninformed?"

"Alex, it's not like that. My life is boring. There's nothing for me to tell you. I meant to say you already know everything about me."

"I know almost nothing about you, Valerie. Nothing. I don't know what schools you went to before college. I don't even know if you have any brothers and sisters. You know oodles of details about me, and I can say little about you."

"I'm from Washington Parish, Alex. Northern Washington Parish. There are cows there. There's a lumber mill. Bogalusa is our thriving municipality."

"You sound defensive. And we were already doing so much better. Go on. I like learning about you."

"But there's nothing interesting to tell you."

"Maybe I find it interesting that you got all bothered and irritated about having to tell me."

"Do you want me to go on?"

"Did it sound like I was kidding about wanting to know more about you?"

"I have two sisters."

"Are they older or younger? Are they as gorgeous as you are, or are they hideously deformed?"

"They're older. Decades older, by a different mother. And they have warts and boils all over their faces."

"So you're not far separated in age, and they are also beautiful."

"You do know I will cut you if you ever betray me with one of my sisters?"

"The paper is in that drawer over there. Just don't try to use it on my tongue. That is ghastly. I'd rather have a paper cut almost anywhere else."

"Then almost would be where I'd do it."

"That makes no sense at all, except, oh... I would never think of even looking at your sisters. You really must trust me on this one. I need my almost, for staying alive reasons."

Valerie giggled. "I was only kidding."

"I know you were. So on this farm you had some cows, some lumber and some sows, relatives it would seem."

"I didn't grow up on an animal farm. I grew up on a fish farm. And I'm serious about that. My parents own a bunch of ponds, and they raise fish. We have subsidies from the state. People order fish from all over the place."

"Scratch the sows, then. The farm has tuna."

"Tuna is a saltwater fish." She paused for a second before adding, "You know, you aren't funny."

Underneath the western balcony a driver applied air brakes. The pressure wheeze drowned out normal traffic. An infrequent tour bus paraded through that specific district time and again.

"Let's turn on the television so we can watch Morbid Manufacture."

"You see, this is exactly what I've been referring to. Who are you, and what have you done with the clever girl I like?"

"You like me now. That's an improvement."

"I liked you before I ever asked you out. Don't change the subject. Who would want to watch people weigh the safety of their loved ones against wealth?"

"I would. It's fascinating how much danger people will put their loved ones in over finances. Imagine how much more dangerous it would be if the show was about ideals rather than money."

"The show is entirely fake, Valerie. It's so obvious. Nobody could really do the sort of things they do on that show. It would be entirely against the law."

"What if it wasn't fake? What if they plow through the vivid, ghastly content as if it's fake so everyone will assume it is?"

"It's television. Television. Nothing but smoke and mirrors."

"Now who's getting all defensive and bothered? I don't watch that show by the way. I just wanted to know how you would react. I'm studying you."

"You may be studying me from the wrong angle then. To take my personality out of context or make assumptions about my inclinations based on how other people live and react will only lead to false and/or incomplete conclusions."

"How talks like that? Who says and/or these days?"

"I do."

The couple turned in mid dialogue. They propped their backs against the divan. Alex snagged the bowl full of party mix off of the table. He tossed one piece after another into the air and caught each like a voracious mutt.

"How do you do that?" Valerie had one of those voices that always sounded cute and never shrill. It lingered in the C alto range during serious moments, but snuck into midrange B and even high B when she got excited. Alex loved it.

"I was trained by Siberian huskies after being abandoned near the Alaska pipeline."

"I can't believe we managed to make people in that dive think we were doing something sexual," the young lady blurted out.

"My parents got engaged to get married in that dive. Going there is a family tradition. I can't believe you would insult something you don't understand."

Valerie's musical laughter tapered off. An untrusting look began to creep into her eyes. She bit her lower lip.

"Now I'm just kidding. You know, I've never faked the sound of an orgasm before, considering I don't make sound when I orgasm."

"Guys. Sure God knew what He was doing. Where's the missing rib, by the way? Did you have an extra one originally, or was it replaced?

"Maybe that's what happened on the seventh day. God was like, 'I need to gloss over this whole rib thing I wrote about. It's too late to change the wording. I think I'll confuse my new creations and put a rib back. Men will be screwed in the head until the end of time. Bwa-ha-ha-ha," she mimicked spooky laughter and then giggled again.

"I think it's awesome when you laugh. That makes me happy."

"I'll add that to my list. 'Laughter improves subject's mood.' Check."

"I have something to add to my list. Fraggle Rock pajamas are particularly inappropriate on my hot girlfriend. The little girl appears to be... it's just not right."

"How did you get Fraggle Rock pajamas Alex? The show didn't come out until you were, what, 20?"

"I woke up next to a dead body. The pajamas were folded neatly at the end of the bed. I dumped the body, kept the pajamas. It's the only memento I have of that night."

"You are too twisted. Well, maybe I'm not freaked out by the idea of breast feeding an eight year old daughter." She aimed to keep a straight face. She was failing.

"Maybe I like the idea of Fred and Barney jumping up and down on my balls. How about that?" They both laughed.

"You're hogging all of the party mix. You are the worst host. First you ruthlessly attack me. I kick your ass. Then you hog the grub."

"Do you have a bruise shaped like my face between your teats?"

"Wouldn't you like to see. It'll be tomorrow before anything shows up, anyway. Pass the food, mean boy."

Alex handed Valerie the bowl. She shoved a big handful into her mouth. She crunched and ground the chips and nuts like a human wood chipper. The sound could be heard through her cheeks.

"So then I had this girlfriend. She was feminine and refined, but she ate like a horse. I'd put a bag around her neck at the end of the day and she'd be happy."

"Shut up," she said. A miniscule corner of a cereal flake went flying. She noticed it and rolled her eyes back in her head. "I guess I'm going back to starvation, since I can no longer hold my head high in this world. I'm never eating in front of you again."

"You can't not be cute. What do I look like when I eat? A visiting dignitary?"

"No. You eat like Henry VIII did in that movie."

"The one where he had the mutton?"

"That's the one."

"Thanks. It's nice to know I make a good impression. But wait, how do you know that movie wasn't real, like Morbid Manufacture? Maybe the upper echelons of the ruling class have been hiding the existence of cameras for thousands of years."

"That explains how we royal intelligentsia know about evolution. 'We have video of the commoners changing into near human lifeforms from apes.' 'Jolly good. Now we can blackmail them into giving us their glass beads and animal shaped pieces of dirt.' 'Right-o. Let's have some tea.'"

"No wonder I like you. Most girls don't mock normal people, the English and evolution all in one statement."

"Don't forget tea. Tea: It's the puss-ywillow caffeinated drink. How can anyone make a claim to revolutionary genius without drinking coffee?"

"Maybe they become revolutionary geniuses after they give up the knotted muscles in their necks and backs from drinking too much coffee, Val. Hey. You didn't respond to the Morbid dig."

Valerie smirked. "That's so twue, Chwistopher. Maybe I'm so hopped up on coffee I didn't think about your remark."

Alex batted his eyelashes imperiously. "I was wondering about that sound in the bathroom. I just thought it was a slow drip from the faucet. You were making coffee. You need treatment. You really do."

"Zowie, Alex. I didn't think you would ever be able to notice a sound that quiet. How long have you been counting the drips?"

"Long enough to know you have a problem, Valerie. Long enough to call all your fishies and get them together for an intervention."

"Now you're calling my friends fishies. What if they were mammals? What if they were sperm whales?"

"That would be enough for me to get alimony from you. My monetary woes are over, hun." Articulated that way the pet name was particularly nasty.

"Oh, you'll receive payment from me, Snuckems," she responded in mock bitterness. Her thought processes could have been mistaken for twins of his. "You'll get paid in spades."

Val looked at the small tattoo on her host's right shoulder. It was an octogram with Pi in the center. She bit her lower lip and resisted the urge to pounce on him so she could bite his shoulder. A cat in the neighbor's courtyard bawled in heat. The coincidence was not disregarded. She missed her kitties back home when she heard the sound she always associated with loneliness.

Valerie Phylicia Hamilton took her first breath in Pascagoula, Mississippi. She spent her entire life as a minor in the purlieu of Zemurray Gardens, in the near wilderness east of Folsom, Louisiana. She only told Alex she grew up in Bogalusa because she was embarrassed about how country she really was. She already regretted it as she looked at his beautiful smile. The sinking feeling she hated more than anything else descended down her throat.

Early in her college attendance, which saved her from death by boredom, in her opinion, Val encountered the boy of her dreams. The first glimpse of him set off her curiosity afterburners. She wanted to see him, lots of him. To actualize that goal she needed to know as much about that man as possible.

Alexander Edgar Patterson, she found out efficiently, was a bad boy. Going out with a bad boy had been impossible back home. She followed him discreetly a couple of times, just to see who his friends were. Getting close through those people challenged all her skill as an actress, but she prevailed.

Miss Valerie Phylicia hankered to bury the lie about her own background. She would fix it later, no matter what, she promised herself. She had faith in active positivity so she sideswiped their banter with an off topic suggestion.

"Let's go to a cemetery, Alex. There's a romantic graveyard in Lacombe. It's ancient, historic and secluded."


"Yeah. Let's do something out of the box. And then tomorrow I want to go to a museum with you. And then a library."

"That sounds like fun. What will we do at the cemetery though?"

"Nothing," she said coyly.

"I don't care what we do there. When you get that tone of voice I simply can not resist you. What should we wear?"

"Well, our pajamas, of course."

"Outstanding," Patterson pronounced, ever the stodgy troublemaker.

Before moving he started telling Valerie a story. His eyes grew sort of distant. Even his voice changed, like a cloud passed in front of his psyche.

"There was this guy in Brooklyn. All the people he ever knew either died or moved on and forgot him. He spent all his time at home, bone weary of diners and bars. He lived off of a government check.

"He started writing stories, articles and books. By that time he was so far gone a recluse that he never even tried to do anything with the stuff. He just sat around with a pen or a pencil and scrawled out thousands of words every day.

"Eventually the sense of isolation started to get to him. The guy wanted to break out of his shell and get his message out to the world. He began writing short poems on big pieces of paper and hanging them up in his window. His apartment was on a corner and the window could be seen from a great distance on the streets below.

"After a couple of months people started gathering on the street and taking pictures. The dude got really excited. He had finally broken the chains that kept him locked into literary solitude. He started covering the window in writing during all the daylit hours. The crowd even got bigger. He couldn't wait until they knocked on his door to congratulate him on his solitary accomplishment.

"One morning he woke up and the building was shaking. He jumped out of bed in a panic. The walls started to crack. He never expected an earthquake in Brooklyn.

"He wanted to save his writing, but their was no time. All he could do was grab his shoes and his hat and scoot out the door. Besides, he had become famous. He figured he could always write more.

"He ran out the front door. There were still people taking pictures. He had to climb over a barrer to get to them.

"He walked proudly up to some of the people assembled with cameras. 'Here I am,' he announced proudly. The people just looked at him like he was crazy. Somebody said, 'And here I am, you freak.'

"The guy didn't know what was going on. This was supposed to be his big moment. God even sent an earthquake to bring it on in a timely fashion. Then the guy looked back at his building. A big sign read, 'Historic Hotel Brookshire To Be Torn Down.' Off to one side a full quarter of the building collapsed beneath a wrecking ball. The guy's whole world just crumbled into cinders.

"I heard abut this a few years ago. At the time I didn't know what to think. Now I have an opinion. At least we have hurricanes. If one of us has to leave or go down, we're going out together. Brooklyn. Earthquakes. Screw that."

"Alex, I don't think they have earthquakes in Brooklyn. That story may not be true," Valerie told him gently.

"No way," Alex said. "Well, let's go."

Val wanted to slow time down. Suddenly morals and denotations intersected intentions and nuance with particle collider speed. The meaning of the story escaped only her response, but she had to add something. The feeling crept back into her stomach.

"I'm not from Bogalusa, Alex. I'm from outside of Folsom."

"That doesn't matter at all. And just so you know, I meant earthquakes as a metaphor for social ostracization -- "

An indignant sniff from Miss Hamilton perforated the pause.

" -- Our macabre destination awaits. Shall we?"

Once, Eleven

High winds in the night dried the sheer rock cliff dwarfing Irwin. The camp, scuttled and vanished, left no fond memories, and neither would the ascent. Nooks and crannies at skew angles telegraphed a pock marked impression into his vitreous humor. The closer he pulled in the shallower they became, and the more formidable the precipice.

Irwin's sanguine intention to free climb the face shrank like an unwatered petunia in the desert. He would have to wait to abandon the extra weight of the climbing gear. Even if encumbered only by short rations, ammo, a machine pistol and basic emergency necessities, on top of the climbing gear, he was at the limit for an easy climb. With an overweight and unreduced medicinal formula, the task assumed Herculean proportions. He stepped into the full body Alpine harness and ratcheted it up before backing into his pack straps. The image was reminiscent of a bizarre beetle struggling with a hunk of hardened, crusty bread.

Hand over hand he strained up the adversarial surface. Irwin maintained a foot of rope between the belaying decelerator suspended below the anodized carabiners and the pitons he drove into the bedrock. He carried a minimum of hexes and cams, and only two hundred feet of rope. Because the problematic section would take more rope than at his disposal, he cast safety to the wind until over sixty feet into the climb. The lethality of any serious mistake was beyond conjecture. He disregarded the danger.

Irwin Aidan Colton graduated from high school in Olympia, Washington. His mother died in childbirth. He and his father moved around regularly. That capital city provided the lengthiest sedentary period of his youth, and a great classical education. Nevertheless he always cherished the times spent in the remote mountains and bottoms of the Pacific Rim, when they lived outside the confines of society.

Before disabled in Olympia, Eoin Nehemiah Colton worked the timber up and down the Pacific Northwest. They toted dynamite along with them every relocation. Removing ancient stumps on some jobs required it. He witnessed its manufacture more than once, and one significant mistake. That other man's failure set off a lifetime of caution. Like many things, Eoin gathered the know-how but loathed the doing.

Eoin taught Irwin distillation during formative years. Purified water came in handy. A sturdy distillation outfit produced fast quantity. He passed on the lore of edible and poisonous foods of the wild, and volumes of outdoorsman savvy. Eoin saw periods of prosperity in the country come and go. Tracking, trapping, hunting and fishing, reading the signs of dangerous animals, survival in the harshest conditions, those skills could not be spent, and never ran out.

The older man's life traversed oceans of hardship. His experiences created an inheritance for Irwin that could never be lost: The most solid foundation of all, the wiles of bootstrapping. Eoin taught his young son the basics of universal smithing, and refused to let him shirk mastery of the knife. A gun meant luxury existence. At the most primal level the presence or absence of a knife demarcated the line between mortal subsistence and escaping to more balanced settings.

Eoin Nehemiah Colton saved and paid his son's way through college. In his dying days the tininess of his life savings troubled him. Members of the upper class earned as much in a year. That the younger Colton graduated from college eased Eoin's heart and mind at his passage. "Son, I'm very proud of you," were the last words he spoke in the hospital.

Graduated magna cum laude first from Olympia High School and then from Washington State University, Irwin achieved a basis for scholarly greatness. He majored in anthropology with a focus on physical, one backyard of forensic science, and minored in chemistry. He accomplished it in only four years and three months. The student skipped Junior Division and studied the maximum number of hours, finishing a week before his twenty-second birthday.

The death of Eoin Nehemiah Colton intensified feelings Irwin previously never allowed to surface. He wanted to get away from the world he knew, the country where his father labored for thirty-seven years until broken. Irwin's desire to learn and excel was not extinguished, as happened to the character in the Billy Joel song "Captain Jack." Instead the event stoked internal flames of subconscious resentment and a determination to use his education to give voice to them.

Riding a wave of celebrated academia, I. Aidan Colton, already accepted to Stanford, elected to study abroad for a semester at the graduate level. After direct communication with a small circle of wisened English speaking anthropologists in Southeast Asia, he wove interest in that area into his thesis. He obtained a Visa from the State Department to travel to Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao, Laos. A scholarship paid for the bare bones necessities.

Three weeks later a flight took him to Vientiane. He spent the evening wandering a small circuit with his hotel in the middle. Glitz and lights screened only the top layer of squalor and dinginess. Irwin eyeballed the hardship and drew convenient conclusions, the kind that made him feel better.

After dawn a bus embarked for Savannkhet. He joined with two of Laos' foremost authorities on the ancient cultures of the massive peninsula. They traveled in a jeep over deeply rutted roads to Heuan Hin, the "stone house" on the Mekong River. There they ate a late lunch. The three of them helped themselves to sticky rice, laap and tam som.

Professor Phoumi "Harry" Sengprachanh Soumphomphak and Professor Savang "Win" Xaisomboun Pathammavong made small talk in the hot afternoon sun. Neither one of them showed a hint of perspiration. Irwin sweated profusely and fidgeted while Pathammavong studied him over wire rimmed glasses. Soumphomphak categorized the lanky white man as one of life's infrequent curiosities, like a rare insect.

A precocious Buddhist Bauhinia peered out between tenacious bamboo. A stunted dwarf continental kudzu variety and a few invaders like philodendrons and cultivar ginger also grew around the men. Phoumi spoke to Irwin with an indetectable sarcasm and feigned stereotypical inscrutability. He disguised the monologue with questions but provided no openings for discussion.

Irwin took note of the brush off. He perfunctorily unbuttoned his long sleeved shirt collar and pushed back his hat, unconcerned about solar radiation by then. All the years spent poring over textbooks and analyzing data polished his brilliance. He launched into a speech he practiced in his mind relentlessly before arrival. It revealed nothing of his mental prowess.

"I came here to study the artifacts of the Phu Phan Range and learn from the people of the Dangrek Mountains and northward. I understand that your government will have issued strict orders about what can and can't be approached. Or so I was led to believe.

"To be honest with you, I need a guide to cross the border into Thailand. When we get back to town if you would inform the contact in charge of my case that I plan to leave Laos, I would appreciate it greatly. I'll be happy to answer any questions."

"I don't understand, Mr. Colton. Why didn't you just go to Thailand?" Professor Pathammavong asked him politely. He already knew the answer.

"There are no significant archaelogical ruins in the area where I'd like to study."

"Are you a drug addict, Mr. Colton?" Soumphomphak inquired with a nasty edge.

"No. I am nothing of the sort. I have a thirst for knowledge and a yearning in my stomach to do something extraordinary."

"You have perhaps overestimated our government's level of concern with your presence here, Mr. Colton," Pathammavong spoke up tangentially. "I can assure you Laos doesn't care at all if you live or die, as long as you are no threat. Perhaps you should retract your request that we contact someone."

"What do you think you'll find in Thailand that you won't find here, Mr. Colton?"

Irwin hesitated. He looked both Win and Phoumi in the eyes. He cleared his throat to speak, but was cut off.

"You are more clever than you look. You cast your bones at all or nothing, but hedged by excluding Laos. You've never considered crossing over into Thailand." Pathammavong said with a grin.

"This is much more interesting than I thought it would be. I assumed you were a junkie," Harry added.

The three men hit it off when Irwin came clean about his intentions. Leftist ideology roared into life when Eoin died, and it flowed out of Colton like water from a well. Their conversation continued long after they left Heuan Hin. Their rambling discourse treated the plight of working people, the strict limitations of Western capitalism and the grotesque charade of representative democracy, as Irwin called it. Irwin heralded no new ideals, only a sad lament over the death of all his old ones.

During the duration of Irwin's stay the two aged professors introduced him to a number of obscure members of the Laotian intelligentsia. He traveled to secluded regions where he worked amid ruins missing from the record books in American universities. The people he studied with were secretive and cautious.

One early evening while drinking a sour fermented rice beverage, a man from Muang Pakbéng retrieved an antique looking pistol from the waistband underneath his thin plaid shirt. He set it down on the table in front of Irwin. He leaned back on his heels and crossed his arms.

"We're going to teach you something few Americans ever learn. You won't ever be able to harm us with the information. You can decline the education or continue. If you continue you should never open your mouth about it.

"If you have a desire to spread the knowledge, then pick up the gun and kill yourself now. It would be easier for you. You may suffer a lifetime of hardship at the hands of your own government for what you will know."

"My extensive field work in the ruins here will be applauded back home. I have gathered data and recorded discoveries never before available to a broad spectrum of American anthropology. The Laotian government has even been kind enough to allow me to take rare artifacts with me when I leave.

"This trip has been a stunning success. I have enough material to write an extensive treatise on early culture in the Eastern Phu Phan Range. I have nither the time nor the venue to discuss the minutiae of our interactions."

"Are you sure you don't need the gun?"

"I don't need it to commit suicide."

"Then you don't need it. Having it for anything else would likely lead to something far worse than death." Khaek, the thin man in the plaid shirt, parted his lips in a smirking grin. "When it gets dark we walk. Fourteen kilometers from here a small coalition of farmers have an encampment."

Four trooped down a densely forested gorge trail fornent a Lancang Jiang feeder, Irwin one from the front. After two hours, sparks from a campfire and bird calls broke the monotony. A field hospital sized canvas canopy over substantial hardwood poles loomed before them as the trek ended.

Beneath the canvas more than a dozen strong, wiry men sat and stood in a circle. They had waited for the ingress. The oldest among them wore a well combed, chest length, gray goatee. He stepped forward and clasped Irwin's outstretched hand between his.

"We have something to show you. Something to remember Laos by."

The men of the circle reached to their sides and behind them and pulled plastic lined burlap sacks into the forefront. Knots sealed the sack tops. The old man stepped to one of them and untied it, motioning Irwin to step forward.

An overpowering sour fruity smell filled the air. The sack contained lumps and cakes of a sticky, browning, cream colored substance. There must have been five hundred pounds of gathered sap in the gathering.

Before Irwin quit Asia he accrued the refining method for the world's most expensive commercial substance. A dragon tattoo embossed his left shoulder blade, a memento acquired while huddled with the farmers. Acrid odor burned his nostrils while the artist whacked an ink covered bamboo spike into his flesh as the sun rose and set. The clan escorted him to fresh air during the second cooking stage, so he would live to remember it all. He forgot none of it.

Six months after landing stateside Irwin, apprehensive time would blur the finer details of the recipes, preserved them in a brown card stock covered notebook. That action itself catalyzed an adrenaline rush. He expanded the original notations and added reams of observations meant for his eyes only. The scrawled archive included insurrection strategies to fit any locale, addenda to standard military field manuals on explosives and weapons, recipes for medicines and poisons, everything his father taught him about survival turned on its head for warfare.

Irwin lost passion for the project after only a couple of years. He met Jaina. They got along very well together. He earned his master's degree. Life became full and pleasurable rather than hard, empty and unrewarding. Everything changed, and changed even more when Jacob was born.

Every muscle in his body groaned by the time Irwin reached the apex of the ridge. The wind stopped altogether during the climb. Nothing mitigated his proximity to heat fatigue near the top. When he reached sturdy ground he flopped onto his back and drank in air for long minutes. With so far left to go he knew he couldn't lollygag. He stood and surveyed the next leg of the journey.

Irwin's troubles in Peru arrived courtesy of intelligence operatives. Of that there could be no doubt. Whether or not the people had anything to do with the United States government remained open to conjecture. Looking down from the top of the high ridge, Colton compared his map to the terrain below. He immediately discovered discrepancies.

He didn't want to dwell on the Indians and Latinos gunned down 40 clicks to the southeast, but he would. He didn't want to worry about the danger his family might be in, because it wouldn't help. He could not help but weigh the danger of his activities as he progressed. Concerns about where he was going lurked in the corner of his awareness too, since the map was wrong. He abandoned the climbing gear and twenty pounds worth a fortune to prepare for the hike down into the next valley, and he knew that thinking could not be avoided. His active mind kept him sharp. He had no shortage of things to ponder.
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