Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Mystery of the Mysterious Boat, Chapter Two, Part Four

Begin with the beginning.

"Isn't it possible that your parents told you some kind of a scary story when you were little — who knows what they'd seen themselves — and you just had a nightmare when you thought you saw the apparition?" suggested Parker. "You must have been very young then, bedtime and all. If you guys saw anything at all, it probably was nothing but those statues on the garden wall and all over the place. In a fog wafting, scudding, and swirling about, they've got to look like they were monsters moving around."

"No, Nick. My dad was not a lunatic, a fool, or a coward. Nevertheless, he kept seeing the boat for the rest of his life. He was a very reasonable man in most matters. Whenever he visited me, he was completely sane. He was not hallucinating. He had courage, too. When we had moved out, the creatures would get nosier and nosier, trying to get into the house. Dad just locked himself in his bedroom whenever the fog rolled in at night. They managed to get in eventually, and he let them have the run of the house. But in the morning, nothing was missing or damaged."

"Sorry to say that, but the complete absence of tangible evidence makes the whole affair look like your dad's personal mania. I mean, he told you they regularly broke into his house — yet they never left any evidence of their presence?"

"Yes, that's what I wanted to make myself believe when I inherited the house. Of course, I didn't dare to move in here. Yet, one evening, when I'd been to the beach and saw the fog coming in, I drove over here. I was determined to prove myself that it was nothing but dad's idée fixe. Of course, I was terribly uneasy — but the fog swallowed the house, night fell, and nothing happened. After a couple hours of sitting in the dark studio, I'd convinced myself that I'd been very silly. I felt relieved and free.

"I was just going to order me a pizza on my cell phone — the telephone is disconnected — when I thought I heard some thumping sound. No, it wasn't my heart. At first, I believed I was just imagining it, what with dad's stories and the dark house. Then it became unmistakable: the sound of rhythmic drumbeats from the ocean. I looked out the window and — there was just fog. I wanted to run, but forced myself to stand still. The drumbeats were coming closer. Finally, a breeze parted the fog for a moment — and there it was, my worst nightmare come true: the dark outline of a huge canoe beyond the surf. I ran out to my car, sped off, and didn't look back. I guess I can be glad that I didn't kill anybody speeding through the fog.

"So can you imagine why any human beings would want to stage such a show for more than three decades? There's no possible motive. Just don't tell me that some unknown enemy hates my dad and my family enough to make all that fuss. I've looked at this mystery from every possible angle. Lemme tell you, there's only one explanation: The house is haunted, and that's it. We can't help it — we've got to leave the house to the forces that have taken possession of it. We've got no means to fight them."

"Smugglers?" mused Parker.

"Why here? Why would they want us to see them? Wouldn't they beach their boat somewhere in the middle of nowhere? Their risk of being caught by the Coast Guard would be the same. But after all they don't have to have witnesses."

"Could you get me your spare keys for the house?" Traynor requested. "We'd like to spend one of those famed foggy nights in this dead mariners' watering hole."

"But it's too dangerous. I can't ask you to do that."

"No problem." Traynor opened his white summer jacket and patted his .45 Colt M1911 pistol, ready in its holster. This Colt and its many brothers in his collection back in New York had saved his life several times already. "This is my Ghost Buster."

"Well, gun or no gun, I wouldn't dare to stay here overnight."

"Just leave that to us. Another question: Did anyone besides us offer to buy the lot?"

"Well… There was one Winnie Creegeen-O'Neill. She's with some community organization — they want the land for some cultural stuff, a community center or something. But she wasn't able to offer nearly the market price. She probably thought she could get this spook house on the cheap. When I told her I wasn't able to sell, she must have thought I was trying to boost the price. She got very nasty, said it was my duty to contribute my land for the good of the community. I wouldn't know why we need a new community center, anyway. Then there was The Blade — Daniel Bladington, the TV actor. That's all the prospective buyers I can remember. All who made me any offers."

"OK — and was there anybody who wanted to buy it from your father?"

"I'd have to look that up. Fortunately, I've brought my house files with me. I've got dad's correspondence regarding the house in my car." Wheelwright went to get the files. When he came back, he was carrying a cardboard box. He deposited it on a table among the chairs, removed the lid, and produced a thick folder. "Lemme see." For several minutes, he kept leafing through the letters. "There's only one offer to buy the house." He handed some letters to Traynor.

The latter examined the documents, then handed them to the others. "One Rod Cardozo. Ever heard the name before, Ted?"


"Was that before or after the haunting started?"

"Not sure. The letters are all dated before mom and I left dad. But I was very little then. I can't tell exactly when the boat appeared for the first time or whether it was before or after Cardozo made his offer."

"May we talk to your mom?" inquired Parker.

"I'm sorry — she died of cancer fourteen years ago." Wheelwright rummaged in the box until he retrieved a set of keys, which he offered to Traynor. "Be my guests."

"Could we borrow your files, too?" Traynor asked.

Wheelwright dropped the spare keys back into the box, handing it to Traynor. "Don't get yourselves killed by ghosts or wendigos." He showed them to the door, locked it, and drove off in the Cadillac.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Mystery of the Mysterious Boat, Chapter Two, Part Three

Begin with the beginning.

Most of the paintings on the walls depicted the sea and the beach. Others showed different kinds of palm trees. Many of the seascapes featured the California sun setting into the Pacific. To the observer it was immediately obvious that these were no ordinary sunsets, but that the artist had tried again and again to capture the perfect, the ideal sunset: Not the sun as it would look on any odd day, but as it looked on a perfect day. All the paintings were signed "Will Wheelwright."

"Yes, dad was a great artist. He lived for his paintings only. You must have seen that from the condition the garden is in."

"Indeed," answered Traynor. "If you could bear to part with some of these treasures, I'm sure my company would be happy to buy some for the lobby of our LA headquarters. But that's actually another business. First, we need to acquire this lot for our new marina. The spit of rock would be ideal foundations for the mall and the apartment building on top, plus we'd get great views from the eateries of the mall."

"Sure, Mr. Traynor…"


"Sure, Kevin, of course I'd like to sell, otherwise I wouldn't have negotiated with your company. Really, I could never make myself spend just one night in here. I was this close to signing the contract — but I just can't take it on my conscience to saddle you with a haunted house. What if the ghosts or… creatures that ride in that… boat exact revenge on your patrons? I don't want to be responsible for that. It's not a question of money: When dad passed away last year, he left me enough money to live comfortably for the rest of my days."

"Ted, there is no such thing as ghosts."

"Great, and if you can prove that, and find an explanation for what's going on here, I'll be happy to sell you the house. But I don't see how you could solve this mystery. Dad couldn't for all his life. Lemme tell you something: If you can find a rational explanation for what has become kind of our family curse, I'll give each of you a painting."

"That's very generous," remarked Jennifer, who had been studying the artworks. She turned around from the pictures. "Then tell us about that strange boat."

Wheelwright motioned them out onto the deck, where they sat down in white metal chairs. Beyond, a crumbling wall separated the garden from the cliff dropping to the beach. The decorative pillars of the wall were crowned with deteriorating statues as well.

"Well, you see, my grandparents, dad's parents, were in the oil business — until they sold their company to Standard Oil of California. So they left dad quite a fortune when they died — that was before I was born. Dad bought this house so he'd be able to paint each day what he loved most: the sunset. He lived here quietly and happily for some years, married mom, and I was born.

"However, one foggy night, long after my bedtime, mom and dad thought they heard a strange sound from the ocean. When it wouldn't stop, but was even growing louder and closer, they went to a window and strained their eyes. Finally, when the noise seemed to be right at the foot of the cliff, they saw that there was a ghostly boat coming in from the Pacific. It was blurred by the fog, but it looked like a large old canoe. It seemed to be much too large for a canoe, but there were figures paddling, and someone was beating time on a drum. The boat came ashore. Ghostly figures climbed up from the beach and sneaked around the house.

"Dad called the cops, but when they finally arrived, the ghosts and the boat were long gone. The emergency dispatcher had not really believed the story. The officers didn't, either. They gave dad sly glances and asked some funny questions. Every foggy night, the boat and the phantoms would come back — but dad would not allow mom to call the cops. He was not a man to provide free entertainment to cops by becoming the butt of their jokes."

"Excuse me, but do you actually have any recollection of seeing that boat yourself?" interrupted Traynor.

"You think my parents were just hallucinating? No, unfortunately, it's not that simple. True, the phantom boat would only appear long after bedtime, but once I waked up in the middle of the night. I heard the drum, got out of bed, sneaked to the window… saw the boat landing, and the ghostly figures moving through the mist, up to the house. I probably don't have to tell you that I spent the rest of that night with my pillow over my head.

"The next morning, I must have been very distraught and asked my parents questions they could not answer to themselves. Anyway, when the haunting continued, mom wanted to get out of here, sell the house or just abandon it, just get the hell out of it. She was afraid of those creatures, even more afraid of what they might do to me, and probably most afraid of me becoming traumatized by those apparitions."

"If your mom was afraid for your sanity, why did your parents tell you all that?" Jennifer asked for the record.

"They didn't, at first. Most of what I know about that mysterious boat, dad told me over the years." It was the answer she had expected.

Wheelwright nodded. "Yes, dad was stubborn. Too stubborn to listen to mom. He was not to be forced from his land. Besides, it was the ideal location for his studio. As you may have observed, from this point one has the best view of the sunset in all Malibu. The ghost boat was driving him crazy, but running away from it was not an option. So mom one day simply had had enough, packed our stuff into her station wagon, took me by the hand, and off we drove to her parents in Pasadena. Dad gave her money, so she was able to buy a gift shop on Olvera Street. You know El Pueblo, the tourist trap?"

Collective nods.

"We got to live in a loft in a converted industrial building Downtown. Downtown was quite different back then. Fewer skyscrapers — and much more dangerous. You should have seen my high school. Anyways, despite their separation, dad kept visiting us Downtown. He'd take us to Disneyland or to a picnic. Dad always wanted mom to leave Downtown and move closer to Malibu, at least to Santa Monica or so. But mom would not go near the ocean anymore if she could help it.

"At first, dad tried to investigate the mystery. He even called in private investigators once. That is, he was on the verge of doing it. He'd read in a local newspaper about some upstart PI outfit that he trusted would be ready to deal with his… well, unusual assignment. They promised him they'd investigate his case. Then, one of the investigators called him back, kind of freaked out like, told dad that they had to look for a lost cat and therefore couldn't help him. After that humiliating experience, dad wanted no part of any private eyes. Really, those guys shouldn't have added insult to injury."

"Yeah, I read about them guys. They were quite well-known in their day. What's become of them? I think one of them is a reporter, another a lawman, and the third?" mused Traynor.

Wheelwright frowned. "I think I heard he's a typewriter salesman in Fresno."

"Do they still use typewriters in Fresno?" wondered Jennifer.

"Well, maybe it wasn't Fresno… Maybe… Fr… France. Yes, I think there was something about Europe to it. Do they still have typewriters in France, what do you think?"

"They eat frog's legs, you know," Traynor observed. "I know that. I've been there."

"Well, if they eat frog's legs, anything goes…"

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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Mystery of the Mysterious Boat, Chapter Two, Part Two

Begin with the beginning.

The next morning, Parker got behind the wheel of the Mustang, while Jennifer and Traynor jumped into the back. The onramp of the Harbor Freeway was just next to the hotel. Off they went on the maze of Los Angeles freeways to find a way to Malibu.

As expected, the sky was sparkling with an immaculate blue, the sun was burning, and the palm trees along the freeway were swaying in the airstream of passing trucks. Jennifer's long gold-blond hair was flying in the wind. Traynor bent over, ran his right hand through her hair, looked her deep into her blue eyes, pulled her closer, brushed his lips over hers, and proceeded to nibble and kiss.

At the cloverleaf next to the convention center, Parker pulled the mobile make-out session onto the Santa Monica Freeway. About a dozen miles and a gazillion kisses later, the Mustang emerged from a short underpass near the Santa Monica Municipal Pier. The freeway had changed its name to Palisades Beach Road and was running parallel to the Pacific Ocean. They were now on the famous Highway 1.

Parker's nerves were wearing thin. "Don't you two ever need to come up for air? Why not have a look at the Pacific? You can always neck at home, can't you?"

Soon, the highway changed its name once more, to Pacific Coast Highway. The four-lane highway doubled as the Main Street of Malibu. Lined by low-rise buildings, the highway ran between brownish-green hills and the blue of the ocean. Some stretches of beach were no wider than a towel, the homes between beach and highway precariously perched on piles and rocks. Anyways, the beaches were as awash with sunbathers as the surf was awash with surfers. The threesome thought they heard the happy shouts of children splashing in the water through the noise of the traffic.

All lucky folks who did not have to work on a beautiful day like this. But Traynor and Parker would get their free vacation out of this one when their job was done. Perks. Besides, First American was getting Jennifer's services for free, so that would be only fair.

In the hills that made up the backwoods of Malibu loomed a rather short but extremely skinny tower. Into its narrow whitish facade a Christian cross had been burned, probably by fire and brimstone. What the hell could that mean? The three sinners in the Mustang beheld the meaning ahead. To the right of the highway a billboard proselytized: "Pepperdine University: Freely Ye Received — Freely Give."

The house they were looking for was located on the western outskirts of Malibu, south of Pacific Coast Highway, on a spit of rock above the beach. Parker U-turned and pulled over. A new crimson pearl colored Cadillac DTS was parked on the drive.

"The Caddy sure looks out of place," Parker commented after looking over the property.

They got out and followed the drive through a garden overgrown by lush subtropical vegetation. At the end of the drive lurked a not very large house, Spanish Colonial Revival style, with a red tile roof. Dirty, formerly white paint was peeling away from its walls.

"Yep — looks positively haunted," grinned Traynor.

A rustle came from to the left of the drive, from the rampant jungle. When they looked, there was a pale face staring down at them. Its grotesque, contorted features were covered with green slime and mold.

Jennifer frowned, walked over, stood on her tiptoes, and stretched her hands up to touch the lurid face. She parted the leaves, revealing the weathered, eroded head of a copy of a Greek marble statue. Its body, limbs, and pedestal remained unseen, veiled by the leaves of trees and bushes. The statue had probably once been white, but now it was covered with moss and algae. A sea gull that had preened its feathers sitting atop the statue took wing and soared into the sky. Now they saw that the whole garden was littered with loads of such statues, overgrown by out-of-control vegetation.

As they walked up to the door, they saw that there was no doorbell. Traynor knocked. No answer. He knocked again and again.

Finally, the door opened a crack. Slowly, gingerly, like a rabbit ready to retreat into its burrow, a clean-shaven face approached the crack. Below curly black hair, wire-framed glasses shielded the man's dark eyes darting right to left, left to right, as if he was more afraid of the room behind him than of the gang. Was it possible for a rabbit to be afraid of its own burrow?

Traynor tried to reassure him with a smile. "Hi, I assume you're Ted Wheelwright?"

An affirmative nod.

"I called ahead. I'm Kevin Traynor, First American Corporation, Vice President for Safety, Security, and Special Assignments. This is my colleague Nick Parker — and the lovely lady here is Jennifer Jordan, C… I mean, she works for just another government agency."

"A Virginia farm girl, huh?"

"Whatever." Traynor handed his business card through the crack.

Wheelwright looked at the card, removed the door chain, opened the door, and motioned them to come in. The short, slim man led them through the spacious living room. The curtains were drawn and the furniture was covered. Heavy beams supported the mahogany ceiling. There were many paintings on the walls, but it was too dim to see any details.

They entered a studio in the back of the house, fronting a deck overlooking the Pacific. The south and west walls consisted of tinted French windows. The two other walls were covered with paintings; there was not a blank spot. In the light streaming in from the ocean, the dazzling colors looked breathtaking.

In the northwest corner of the studio stood an empty bookcase. Paint drippings proved it had held not books, but art supplies. The door next to it looked like a closet door. In the middle of the room stood an empty H-frame easel. On a corner of the otherwise empty table next to it some paintbrushes and a palette remained. A thin layer of dust covered the table and the art supplies. Whoever had been tidying up or cleaning out the house had suddenly stopped for some reason.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Mystery of the Mysterious Boat, Chapter Two, Part One

Begin with the beginning.

Chapter Two

The Legend of the Mysterious Boat

Parker looked from the screens beyond his controls to Traynor. "Boy, am I glad to be back home in good old mile high central. Nice as the Eclipse is, nothing beats this here flying apartment. No stopovers — and the johns and galley alone are priceless."

"Then thank Mike that this mission is to LA, 'cause there's no way you could land this baby in Jenkinsville. Heck, you could fit all the town in this cabin. Well, maybe you could land her. But you'd never get out of there again."

"What a horrible prospect…"

"Well, as long as Connie's there…"

"What the fuck's up in LA, anyway?"

"Don't wanna have to tell Mike's story twice." Traynor hit the intercom. "Jen, this is the captain of your heart speaking…"

Finally, the Gulfstream G550 approached Los Angeles International Airport. The California sun glistened on its golden winglets, its white fuselage with the blue and red First American markings, and its golden T-tail displaying First American's silver coin with the golden Sign of the Dollar. On account of the heat waves, the Theme Building, that famous flying saucer suspended from two intersecting arches, looked like it was about to lift off.

"Five hundred," said the Gulfstream.


"Four hundred."

Steadily, the end of the runway kept approaching outside the cockpit windows.

"Three hundred."

The executive jet descended steadily, like a brick drawn down diagonally, not vertically by gravity, but as if attracted by the end of the runway like by a giant magnet.

"Two hundred."

Parker mostly let the Gulfstream do as she pleased.

"One hundred."

Now the runway filled the cockpit windows.

"Fifty. Forty. Thirty. Twenty. Ten."

Rock 'n' roll. Traynor and Parker, and of course Jennifer back in the main cabin, were shaken by the rumbling aircraft as it touched down.

Traynor arched a brow. "You've done better landings."

Parker looked straight ahead at the rushing runway and deployed the thrust reversers. "Any landing you walk away from is a good landing." He still seemed to be sore.

The roar of the twin turbofan engines below the T-tail of the executive jet softened to a steady whisper as Parker taxied across the tarmac. When he had accommodated their Gulfstream in First American's hangar, he, Jennifer, and Traynor went to rent a car. Parker glanced at a newspaper left on the rent-a-car counter. A headline screamed: "Wendigo Strikes Again!"

He nudged his friends, whispering to them, "There's nothing like a heartwarming welcome when you're far away from home."

"Incredible. What's next? A vampire strike?" Traynor quipped. "If all those bloodsuckers go on strike, maybe one day the government will walk out, too? That would be great news, for a change. Better than a garbage strike, anyway."

Jennifer wanted to reply something, but that moment the rental girl returned with their car keys. With the red Mustang GT Convertible that came with the keys, his friends in the back, Parker hit the 105.

Remembering something she had been wondering about, Jennifer leaned forward to Parker. "By the way, why didn't we take the Sonic Eagle?"

"I've got to replace the afterburner flints first."

She leaned back, pretending to be going through the bag next to her in the backseat. "That reminds me, I brought a bottle of prop wash for you."

Soon, they were rolling north on the 110, the skyscrapers of Downtown Los Angeles towering ahead of them. They were heading for the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. It was far and away Traynor's favorite hotel in Los Angeles, as it reminded him of his beloved First American Building. The floorplan was similar, except that the five glass-clad hotel towers were round, not square, and of course much shorter.

Parker grudgingly surrendered the Mustang to a valet, and they entered the six-story atrium lobby. It was the size of a city block, sky-lit, and complete with greenery, fountains, and veritable lakes. When they had checked in, one of the glass elevators running up between the towers whisked them up to their rooms, treating them to spectacular views in the process.

Jennifer had just finished unpacking her stuff when someone knocked at the door. She opened it. Parker stood in the circular corridor running around the building core. He stepped inside while she disappeared into the bathroom. He proceeded to the floor-to-ceiling windows, looking at the skyscrapers beyond.

That moment, Traynor hung up the phone. "We're gonna meet Wheelwright tomorrow."

"Fine with me," consented Parker. "What are you guys gonna do tonight?"

"I'll take some pictures of the newly completed buildings in the neighborhood while it's still light. Jen never rode the Angels Flight, so we'll seize the opportunity while we're here. Then dinner up at the rooftop restaurant, and after that we'll take this bed for a test drive."

"So you two wanna be left alone, I guess."

"Tact is your middle name."

"In case you need me, I'll be at the revolving bar. Need to make a scientific experiment. If I revolve around the building core, will that attract satellite chicks to revolve around me?"

"Good question. Good luck."

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Mystery of the Mysterious Boat, Chapter One, Part Three

Begin with the beginning.

On the way back to his office, getting off the elevator, Traynor ran into his old friend Nick Parker. Parker was short, burly, and able to pilot any ship or aircraft ever built.

"Morning, Nick. What are you up to?"

"Nothing, actually. That's the point. I've been up to the observation deck to see Miranda. She called me, invited me for brunch. Now all of a sudden she says she's too busy with her new job running the souvenir store." Following Traynor, Parker brushed through his shaggy, indomitable black hair with his left hand, to little avail.

"If she's playing games with you, maybe you should have heeded the Miranda warning."

"Very funny."

"Why don't you just take the day off, then?"

"And go home to an answering machine full of more pick up detritus?"

"Maybe you ought to have your phone disconnected. Or you might get an unlisted number. Or you might stop giving your real name and number to chicks."

"Why should I? Why should I have to suffer the consequences of other people's stupidity?"

Bend over, here it comes again — time for Parker's pet peeve. Traynor must have heard that litany a million times over the years. He listened resignedly, but with only one ear.

"A chick's horny, she goes to a club, she wants to get laid, she wants a one-night stand. So I get her what she wants and what I want. Chances are that when I'm gone in the morning, and she's no longer horny, she'll start worrying she's a slut. What kind of a sexual revolution was that if the three evil ps — priests, parents, peers — can still make a sexually healthy chick feel bad about herself?

"So she tries to rationalize her actions. She makes herself believe she never wanted a one-night stand. It just happened because it was love at first sight. So she has to get me into a relationship to prove to the puritan majority and to her own deluded conscience that she's not a slut. Why can't chicks just pull a Mulligan and bear the title 'slut' proudly?"

"A Midas Mulligan? Well, some do. Why don't you just fly with me and escape from your groupies? How about that place where it never rains, Southern California? Without a copilot with a knack for devious humor, I'd sure fall asleep at the controls."

Back in Traynor's anteroom, Parker nodded good morning to Sue. "Cool nails. Are they real?"

"Why, of course, Captain Parker."

"Good for you."

A little later, in Traynor's office, Parker pocketed his cell phone, poured himself a Jose Cuervo, and lounged on the couch.

Traynor sat down in the black leather swivel chair behind his desk, shaking his head. "That line isn't aging gracefully."

"If she's dumb enough to go for that color, she's dumb enough to go for that line."

"You know, not five minutes ago you complained about all that pick up detritus, and here you are hitting on my latest bimbo secretary. If I were one of those profound spoilsports, I'd say you might want to check into the Betty Ford Center to get help for your sex addiction."

"Who'd want to get cured of an addiction to something that fun?"

"Well, I don't know. Not me. I said, if I were profound."

Parker hit the latest addition to his speed dial. "Hi, Sue. … Yes, I'm still next door. … Just making sure I typed your number correctly. … So if Kev hates it when you answer your cell at work, why did you answer? … Oh, it was ringing."

He felt tempted to shout, "She's sweet, ain't she? A ditz, but sweet!" for her to copy on her cell phone. Yet, one double-edged compliment was more than enough to get her kind off her high horse. A chick that still called him Captain Parker could not stand two blows to her ego. That would be too much of a good thing. Would make her feel like she wasn't good enough for The Nick. Man, how her insecurity kept showing under that camouflage of pink nail polish.

Need to cut back on them neg hits, he admonished himself. Bitterness. So what's her face got away. No reason to let her ruin his game.

"Sure, I'll call you when we're back from Cali. … Yeah, Kev just can't work without me. … Have a coffee, talk some more." And score another home run. "See you."

Traynor cocked his head and eyebrows. "Let's get one thing straight: There's no way you're bringing that fucking cell phone. Would drive me crazy."

"No problem. We gotta stop over at my place anyway. Not everybody keeps a packed suitcase in his office."

"Sure. Nobody expects you to make do with your overnight kit."

Traynor picked up the telephone receiver to call his girlfriend, Jennifer Jordan. He promised himself not to mention the identity of her employer, as that would only trigger a chain reaction of denial and citing national security. As for Jennifer, she had never heard of the CIA and did not admit to knowing what that acronym might possibly mean.

"Hi, Jen, how are you doing? … Fine… Listen, I'm off to California… Malibu… No vacation — work. … You wanna come along this time? Well, what does the CIA… I mean, what does your unmentionable employer say to that? … OK, if they told you to finally take your accrued vacations anyhow… I guess that means I'm stuck with you… No, stuck with you, not stucco. … Yeah, see you at LaGuardia. You know where our hangar is? … Sure, you've booked with the 'First American Air Force' before. … If they ask, just flash your C… your unmentionable ID, OK? And, by the way, Nick sends his regards — he'll be along for the ride. … Yes, just like old times."

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Mystery of the Mysterious Boat, Chapter One, Part Two

Begin with the beginning.

As he reached the turnstiles controlling elevator access, Traynor spied a tan face matched by long, shiny jet-black hair. The woman who belonged to the face was heading for a different bank of express elevators. This one was not guarded by turnstiles, but by ticket counters.

"Yo!" he shouted. "Hey, Miranda!"

She stopped and turned. "Hi, Kevin."

"How's the gift shop doing?"

"Brisk sales. Particularly the Flags." She smiled. "Flags that have been flying over the tallest structure in the world are always in demand."

"So, how is the big city? Better than Mexico?" he bantered.

She grinned. "As you know, I was born and raised in Arizona."

"So it's better than Jinxville?"

"It's back to Jenkinsville, you know."

"Indeed, I should know. But that's another story. So, how is New York?"

"Much better. Of course. And I'm learning so much… Plus, one of these days I'm gonna get what I deserve."

When Traynor entered the anteroom of his office, his temporary secretary, a businesslike brunette not yet housebroken to the ways of First American or Traynor Land, welcomed him demurely. "Good morning, Mr. Traynor."

"Hi, Sue. May I remind you, it's Kev. I'm Kev. Every time you call me Mr. Traynor, I think my dad's back from the range."

Finally, she told him that Michael Berrenger, the chief executive officer of First American Properties, wished to see him in his office on the floor above. As she kept waving that yellow Post-it note about, he could not help noticing her fingernails. How the heck had she hit on that shade of nail polish? He would have bet his life that choosing between the two most unoriginal colors possible must have been quite an ordeal. Surely, campy, corny red would not have yielded to that garish, girly pink without a fight?

Whatever — both were equally unflattering. He would never understand what possessed chicks to run around looking like they had all their nails ripped out or like they had them replaced with candy. Or, for that matter, why some men seemed to find that sexy. Why did females have to have their nails eaten by aggressive chemicals to begin with?

The Rule of Traynor was about to kick in… Actually, it was only one of the many Rules of Traynor. Anyway, this section covered nail polish: The Ash approach was the only surefire cure for digits thus possessed. Must… control… Swiss Army Knife of death. Must… control… Swiss Army Knife of death. Before he could do something he might regret later, he fled his anteroom. He rode right up and rushed into Berrenger's office, waving good morning to Berrenger's secretary.

"Hi, Mike. Any trouble with the Tower? I've just dropped by at the construction site and everything was OK there."

The light-blond gentleman behind the desk in front of the plate glass wall, tall and a little older than Traynor, got up and flashed a smile. "Howdy, Kev. Good to see you. Take a seat." Mirroring his guest, Berrenger settled into his swivel chair. "No, this isn't about Traynor Tower. It's another story entirely. I sure wish it were just a trifling technical problem with a simple solution. No — it's a rather… odd matter. Rather mysterious-like, you know. So I thought you're the man for it. As First American's Vice President for Safety, Security, and Special Assignments."

"Say, Mike, if I'm a Vice President for all of First American, and you're the CEO of a division, who's in charge anyway?" Traynor repeated their running gag.

"Well, who cares who's boss as long as the work gets done…" Berrenger replied, as always.

"That said, what's on your mind?"

"See, we're going to build a marina cum retail mall in Malibu. But the owner of the key lot chickened out and refuses to sell, though we were this close to having him sign."

"Why would a holdout be mysterious? Maybe he figured you're not paying what his land is worth. If it's an ocean front property…"

"He doesn't want more money. He says he can't sell. He doesn't want to be responsible if something happens. Says he has to protect us from ourselves. Has to protect our tenants from our recklessness." Berrenger harrumphed. "What a schmuck. Well, you know, he believes there's some kind of a curse or a haunting on the land. Or some such thing."

"Now, that's beginning to sound interesting…"

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Mystery of the Mysterious Boat, Chapter One, Part One

Begin with the beginning.

Chapter One

The Developer

New York City

When Kevin Traynor stepped out of the lobby of his Art Deco apartment building in the East Forties, he was greeted by a beautiful blue morning sky. The building was a vintage 1930s office tower that had been converted to apartments. The sun appeared as a golden sphere in the eastern sky: It was going to be a hot day by noon. Yet, at this hour, a refreshing breeze still swept from river to river.

Although it was not hot yet, he felt like taking off his black blazer. However, he remembered his shoulder holster. Was today the right day to introduce the silver spoon socialists to open carry? Or for that matter, to any kind of carry? Probably too early in the millennium. As he rebuttoned his blazer, the wind blew his red, white, and blue striped silk tie over his shoulder.

The lawyer did not have any appointments this forenoon — so he decided to walk to his office at First American Building. He joined the crowd of pedestrians heading for work on the concrete sidewalk. The Manhattan traffic — the concerto performed by limousines, cars, cabs, and buses — swallowed him.

Traynor did not stand out from the crowd in any visible way; he looked like the typical businessman. People who saw him might think he was on his way to some Wall Street trading floor. He was of medium height and weight. However, there was more than met the eye at first glance. In his bearing, in the way he walked and how he approached people, there was determination, self-confidence, and pride. It left the impression that he was going to be in charge of things wherever he went. He looked around. In the plate glass window of a bank building he saw the reflection of his angular face, short dark-blond hair, and aviator sunglasses.

When Traynor turned south onto Fifth Avenue, First American Building met his eye. It towered above all other skyscrapers, beckoning him as a beacon — a beacon of direction as well as of purpose. Rising above Fifth Avenue at Twenty-third Street, it was still quite a walk away.

The five towers of First American Building soared from the center and corners of a huge cube housing Manhattan's largest indoor shopping mall. The whole complex was clad in dark solar bronze glass. Each tower rose to be a perfect prism without any setbacks, each floor a perfect square of exactly the same size. The central tower was twice as tall as the four surrounding towers; its top was crowned by a communications tower.

Traynor looked up at the tower, at his office, at the antenna mast above. At its very apex flew the Stars and Stripes. Frequently, the Flag up there got tattered by the high winds, but it was always replaced — and the worn Flags were sold in the souvenir store of the building.

Below the limestone mountain of the Empire State Building Traynor dropped by at the excavation for a new office skyscraper he was developing with First American Corporation. The immense void stretching to Sixth Avenue and down to bedrock was crawling with yellow earthmover ants (Caterpillarus americanus). Way down below, behind the chain-link fence, Traynor identified several subspecies: excavators, bulldozers, wheel loaders, and dump trucks, to name a few. With the trucks removing the surplus soil via ramps, they were making short shrift of this excavation job. He had always wanted an Ant Farm like this. Just that when you got closer to yellow earthmover ants, you realized there was no way you could get those giants into your bedroom.

In a security container at a gate, Traynor signed in. A guard handed him a hard hat. Outside, dump trucks roared and rumbled along. He walked down one of the ramps.

At the bottom of the crater Traynor passed some excavators whose scoops had been replaced with a giant's power tools. Those with hydraulic shears were cutting down steel columns of demolished buildings. Those with hoe rams were breaking up concrete foundations and bedrock. Rock trenchers, which looked like bulldozers with huge chainsaws instead of blades, kept cutting and planing bedrock.

Traynor walked through the staccato of hardworking construction equipment and the scent of diesel exhaust. Yes, he loved the smell of diesel exhaust in the morning. He was looking for Steven "Steel" Gunnarson, the engineer who had designed the tower. When he had located him among the hard-hatted workmen and talked with him, Traynor continued downtown.

Beyond the treetops of Madison Square Park rose the Met Life Tower, a scaled-up imitation of the campanile of St. Mark's in Venice, Italy. Across Fifth Avenue from First American Building stood the old Flatiron Building. Once, it had been among the tallest in the city, before it was dwarfed by the Met Life Tower, then the tallest building in the world. Now, the five towers of First American Building dwarfed both of them. That was the essence of New York, thought Traynor: Taller tower tops tall tower — even taller tower tops both of them.

Traynor pushed his way through one of the revolving lobby doors of First American Building. The multi-story lobby of the skyscraper was lined with tiers of stores stacked to the roof of the atrium. The roof of the east atrium spanned far above him between the facades of two of the outer towers. He passed between the stainless steel columns supporting the facade of the main tower above.

Here, in the central atrium around the core of this tower, four powerful fountains shot jets of water to the ceiling high above. The decorative marble mastabas forming the centerpieces of the fountains were inscribed in silver letters with the corporate motto: "First American Corporation — The Highest, the Greatest, and the Best." On top of each marble slab revolved a huge golden Sign of the Dollar, framed by water jets.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Mystery of the Mysterious Boat, Prologue


The Night of the Urban Jungle

Los Angeles

The half-human critter watched California State Senator J. Stephen Chen as he left his Downtown office. The senator had been working late — already, night had fallen. An elevator took the senator down to the garage. Chen's Lincoln Town Car exited the garage, climbed up the ramp to street grade, and merged into the westbound traffic on Wilshire Boulevard. Behind a Dumpster in the alley beyond the ramp lurked the thing.

The senator was lost in thought: His probe into the eco-terrorist activities of the California chapter of Attaque Verte was finally going somewhere. A few more days — and evidence would be watertight. The facades of the skyscrapers, covered with constellations of manmade stars, receded behind him. Ahead, red taillights blinked at him. Actually, there was not much traffic. When he had passed through MacArthur Park, he heard a bang.

The car started to swerve. With a curse, he wrestled the wheel to stay in control, braked, and pulled onto the parking lot of an office supply megastore closed for the night. Building, parking lot, and sidewalk were deserted. The sodium vapor lamps of the parking lot were off, leaving it in as much darkness as can be found in a metropolitan area.

Chen got out, walked around the car, and stooped to inspect the flat tire. "Damn. Should have bought those run flat tires."

At second glance, the flat tire was a strange and startling sight. The senator was so surprised that he knelt down beside it, oblivious of his expensive dress pants. An arrow shaft protruded from the wall of the tire.

Chen plucked it out. The arrow was handmade and appeared ancient: The arrowhead looked like obsidian, the shaft was made of wood, with feathers as vanes. He suppressed the horror rising within him, refused to permit his mind to make the logical connections with recent local news. It was nothing. Maybe some punk had looted an Indian weapons collection and found it amusing to try bow and arrow on passing automobiles. The senator rose to get tools and spare tire from the trunk. As he looked up, he beheld a ragged, somehow furry-looking figure standing behind the Lincoln.

A bolt of fear struck him. He could no longer deny the reality of those things. They existed, they existed right here in the middle of Los Angeles, in what was in fact the second city of the most civilized country he could imagine. Now they had come to get him, too. And he was unarmed, defenseless, helpless.

On the ill-lit lot in front of the closed megastore, it was hard to see any details of the tall, thin silhouette confronting him. But the half-human figure was handling something. Suddenly, Chen felt a stinging pain flooding his chest.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Top Ten Ways to Get Rid of Holiday Callers

Are you sick and tired of getting annoyed by surprise visits from uninvited St. Nicks, like nosy neighbors, self-appointed friends, and clingy exes?

Fear not, Scrooge McAlex got you covered with his top ten ways to caller abort them!

(10) "Do I know you?"

(9) "Did you have a name?"

(8) "Your babysitter just called. She was looking for you, 'cause she can't get junior out of the microwave."

(7) "Try this eggnog I made with the egg I found in the floor vent."

(6) "Sorry, you should have called ahead. I'm busy alphabetically arranging the tree ornaments."

(5) "You look like I feel."

(4) "Come back New Year's Eve, bring a hooker and a bottle of champagne."

(3) "Funny, I just tossed your gift. If you hurry, you can still catch the garbage truck."

(2) "You dare show up with nothing but that?"

And the single best way to get rid of unwanted holiday callers cluttering up your doorway is:

(1) *Slam!*

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter Two, Part Four

Begin with the beginning.

McGinnis had steered the huge Lincoln through a heavily guarded gate, onto the mine road, which branched northward off the highway. Now a couple of Caterpillar off-highway mining trucks rumbled past. Two enormous wheels on the front axle and four on the rear axle supported a wedge-shaped cargo bed, holding hundreds of tons of copper ore. The radiator looked as large as a small state. A metal stairway much like the fire escape of a medium-sized apartment building ran diagonally across the radiator. The cab looked disproportionately small atop the huge box of the radiator, sheltered by the wide canopy attached to the cargo bed. The mine road climbed up a mountain, which looked like a volcano: The entire mountaintop had been replaced with a huge crater.

"That's our mountain," McGinnis announced proudly as the road grew steeper. "Mount Custer it's called on the maps. But there won't be no mountain left when we're done with it. If we ever get a chance to carry on. Anyway, when all the copper ore's removed, including the low-grade ore of the rim, there'll be nothing left here but a huge hole in the ground."

The powerful SUV reached the rim of the crater. Looking straight down, it appeared even larger to Traynor than he had previously imagined. At the bottom of the pit, more than a thousand feet below, the fleet of giant mining trucks and heavy hydraulic excavators loading them appeared as small as toys. However, from the mining trucks they had encountered on the mine road, he knew that just one of their wheels was twice as high as the Navigator. The dump trucks carried the ore up to the crater rim via a system of ramps and terraces. Another half-dozen of these gigantic Caterpillar trucks pulled up to them, then rumbled down the mine road on the other side.

A row of several score dust clouds appeared on the opposite rim before a series of muffled explosions resounded through the mountains. The entire far wall of the crater seemed to crumble to the bottom in a languidly billowing cloud of dust. When the dust had settled a bit, wheel loaders, excavators, and trucks pulled over to tackle their new supply of ore. For millions of years, this mountain of copper had been lying around useless and idle, waiting to be put to use by the mind and hands of man. For Traynor, there could not be any better evidence that this place, like the rest of the universe, belonged to man, and not to ghosts. Another look at the old miner's face told him that that man was not so sure anymore.

McGinnis stopped the SUV in front of an assemblage of mobile homes and containers on one of the terraces. A slender woman of medium height opened the door of a trailer. Her blond hair fell to her shoulders. While her clothes were clean and neat, it was obvious that she did not care what other people thought about her. She wore blue jeans and a red and white plaid shirt. Due to the heat, she held her denim jacket in her hand. To Traynor, she looked like someone who was at home on a construction site or in an engine room.

When they got out of the Navigator, the woman smiled at Traynor. "Hi, you've got to be Kevin Traynor. Mac called me from the plane, said he'd bring you along. I'm Connie Chandler."

As Traynor approached, he was able to clearly see her face. She wore no makeup. Though she must have been working under the Arizona sun, she was not tanned. Her face had a ruddy quality instead. It was not young. It was not old. It appeared timeless, eternal. She was of the type of woman who does not change — she might be twenty, or thirty, or older. Frankly, he did not care. The timelessness of her face must have made her appear precocious when she had been a girl. It would make her appear youthful for the rest of her life. Her eyes were green; her nose was quite small. He was not sure if others would have called her beautiful. Anyway, what others found beautiful changed as quickly as the latest fashion. To him, she was pretty. He was glad she was there.

"Well, I've gotta leave you two alone now. Still got loads of back work on my desk." McGinnis got into the Navigator and drove down to the mining offices near the mills at the foot of the mountain.

Traynor smiled back at Connie. "So you've got the phantom train right next door?"

"Sure. I've got an apartment downtown, but for the time being, I've set up shop in an abandoned apartment building near the depot. When I heard those rumors that the train had been passing through town, I thought I should see for myself. But no luck so far. Except for some strange sounds out of the direction of the railroad — sounds that might have been anything — on my way home from the mine, I never witnessed anything spooky around Jinxville. That is, if you don't wish to call a whole town freaking out over nothing spooky. I guess you're staying at a hotel?"

"Holiday Inn."

"Why don't you stay at my place? I've got more empty rooms than I care for. And who knows, maybe we'll get to see the phantom train tonight."

"Great idea."

They walked over to a black Lincoln Navigator, identical to McGinnis', which was Connie's corporate car.

As she looked at him across the hood of the SUV, he winked. "If you're a stranger alone in a hotel room in a strange town, there's no better prospect than country hospitality, home cooking, and delightful entertainment in front of the fireplace with an enchanting hostess."

"Glad to get you out of the dumps, but all I can offer you is roaches, frozen food, and delightful entertainment in front of the microwave oven."

"Could be worse. As long as there's an enchanting hostess…"

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter Two, Part Three

Begin with the beginning.

McGinnis was waiting for Traynor in the sleek hotel lobby. They got back into the Navigator and went to have a look at the mine before dark. The Holiday Inn fronted Main Street, which they drove up. When they reached the eastern outskirts, the last residences faded away, and the street turned into a highway. It passed between boulder-strewn hills and mountains, all covered with brush and a scraggly forest of sorts. The land between the mountain ranges was semidesert grassland. The Sonoran Desert — the real desert with the legendary saguaro cacti the state was famous for — was actually located farther west and south, explained McGinnis. There was little traffic on the highway except for First American trucks coming on.

Traynor thought it about time to ask some questions. "Did you actually ever see the phantom train yourself?"

"On that, I plead the Fifth. I saw something, but I'm not sure one way or the other what it was. See the chain of hills to the south? The phantom line runs behind them, roughly parallel to this road. When I was driving home late one night, I saw a kinda glare moving about there, between the hills, but I couldn't say what it was. I frequently heard train sounds too, though the line's abandoned. It used to connect towns and mines southeast of Jenkinsville to our town and to the Southern Pacific trunk line. It hits the Southern Pacific — or rather, after the takeover, Union Pacific — a couple of miles northwest of… um… Jinxville. However, those places farther east on the phantom line are in an even worse shape. The mines there are mostly played out, and being located in phantom train country didn't help matters much. All the mines are abandoned. The settlements all turned to ghost towns or at least nearly so."

"So there are absolutely no real trains running on the… um… phantom line?"

"Officially, the J.&E.A. — the Jenkinsville and Eastern Arizona. No, it had already been abandoned when I first came here. Still, the track never got taken up. The J.&E.A. bankruptcy court case was so involved that it never really became clear who held title to the track. Eventually, creditors figured they'd rather write off the steel than let those vultures, their lawyers, get even fatter on the remains of the railroad. Um, no offense, Kevin."

"No offense taken."

"Present company excepted, you know."

"Feel free to abuse my ambulance-chasing 'colleagues' any way you wish," grinned Traynor.

"Be that as it may — the upshot is, the rails are still out there, ready to use for any stray ghost or phantom — assuming a phantom train needs any rails at all."

"But the Zenith Mine is not connected to the J.&E.A.?"

"Fortunately not. Never was."

"Then how do you get the ore to the smelter?"

"Smelting is actually only a small part of copper refining. From the mine, the ore is trucked to the crushers." McGinnis pointed to a vast complex of buildings and dumps connected by conveyor belts, all protected by high steel fences. "Copper sulfide ore goes into crushers and mills before the copper is, well, washed out in floatation tanks, then smelted. When it enters the smelter, it is about thirty percent pure — when it comes out, more than ninety percent. Copper oxide ore is dumped on a heap leach pad, where the copper is dissolved in sulfuric acid. The product of either process is refined into pure copper in electrolytic cells.

"The copper sheets are trucked straight to the loading docks of the Southern Pacific trunk line in Willcox. See those trucks? They're all ours. Wouldn't make any sense to build a spur up the mountain or to build our own truck-to-rail loading facilities on the J.&E.A. Lemme tell you, I'm glad that neither the phantom line nor any spur of it comes near the mine. Otherwise, we'd already be out of business. Even the phantom line just crossing the highway or the mine road would be fatal. Can you imagine any of those cowards crossing the phantom track after dark for night shift? They won't even stay with the line separated from the road by that chain of — admittedly rather humble — hills."

"By the way, what do 'eye witnesses' claim the phantom train looks like?"

"Depends on whom you ask. Most people just saw strange lights and heard train sounds from the abandoned line. Some say they saw — from a distance — a train pulled down the phantom track by an ancient steam locomotive. God only knows what they really saw — if anything. But if you walk into the right watering hole in town and dig up one of the true believers, one of those too drunk to even find the way out of Jinxville… Well, they'll tell you the train is hell on wheels, driven by the devil himself, trailing fire and brimstone."

"Cute. Does the train actually ever enter the town?"

"Usually, it is seen east of Jinxville, except for two or three times when it allegedly ran through town. But the line passes just the southern fringe of Jinxville. There are only a few cabins and warehouses south of the track, and the old depot. This town never grew much in that direction, and practically not at all since the railroad went belly up. It's not a town the railroad built — mining did it. The few folks who lived around the old depot were of course the first to desert us when the phantom train came back, so you can't ask them about the apparition. You know, the neighborhood around the abandoned depot is our idea of a slum — unless you want to apply that term to all of Jinxville now. Most of those who lived there were uneducated or drunkards or junkies. But you should ask Connie Chandler. She's the best mining engineer I've got. She could afford the best apartment in town, but she moved there on purpose, to have an eye on the phantom train."

"You said 'when the phantom train came back' — when exactly was that?"

"That's impossible to say. As I told you, some fools would see the train time and again over the last century. There'd be a sighting every couple of years. Then more and more people began to hear and see the train on moonless nights. For some time now, it's allegedly been running most every night. It's hard to say when one stage of activity gave way to the next. All I know is that Greg vanished three weeks ago and Pete and Fred not a week later. That was the point when bad turned to worse and deserters from an annoyance into a stampede. From the day that Pete's mangled truck was found below Cold Creek Gorge trestle, we've been in a perpetual state of emergency and Jinxville's rapidly been approaching a ghost town."

"But how in the world can a phantom train and three missing persons depopulate a whole town?"

"It's kind of a snowball effect, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the deserters would be ashamed and move out at night. Next morning, neighbors would spread rumors that the phantom train got them. Some believe the train rides into town every night and 'gets' people."

Read on…

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter Two, Part Two

Begin with the beginning.

He turned left onto Main Street. Modern buildings of various heights had been erected in some places among the older structures, evidence of the beneficial influence of the Zenith Mine throughout the last decades. Some blocks of Southwestern adobe and Western-style wood and brick buildings with roofed wood-plank sidewalks had been preserved for tourists.

But now, all over town, many stores were vacant and buildings boarded up. Many residences, stores, and office buildings displayed signs "For Rent" or "For Sale." Other obviously abandoned houses sported no such signs. Either the signs had already fallen down — gone with the wind — or owners had not even bothered to tackle that hopeless task before they deserted. There were few cars on the streets and even fewer pedestrians. By and large, Jinxville had the appearance of a place of fragile prosperity that had been dealt a knockout punch.

"Quite a ghost town, huh?" McGinnis seemed to read Traynor's mind.

Traynor nodded pensively. "I've always wanted to know what downtown Podunk actually looks like."

In fact, Traynor did not give a damn about a small town one way or the other. He had been born and raised in New York City. Nothing in the world could possibly induce him to ever move away, let alone to a one-horse town. On the other hand, he sure preferred a place like this over the small European towns he had had to visit on business trips. There, whole downtowns of medieval houses had been landmarked by the looters' governments, forcing owners to preserve their half-timbered fire traps rather than replace them with modern buildings. That was just the thing to do for people who liked to let their minds stagnate. Minds out of the Dark Ages deserved buildings of the same origin and quality. Traynor did not even want to know what small towns in Asia and Africa might look like.

Anyway, at least citizens of American towns like Jinxville were free to put up new and outstanding buildings and billboards whenever they thought fit and were able to afford them. In these parts, there probably were not that many NIMBYs and ridiculous zoning and landmarking regulations to try and stop them. Even though Traynor had won the fight against height limits, NIMBYs and zoning laws here were possibly still fewer than those remaining in New York City. Only that in this place few people were left to make use of these freedoms.

McGinnis made a sweeping gesture with his right hand that seemed to encompass the whole deserted town full of windswept garbage blown around like tumbleweed. "As I told you. All the brilliant kids move away from one-horse towns like this — unless they grow up to be mining engineers. Now this one's losing all the average folks too, and even the bums. It's always been hard to get workers to such a place. Now even the simple folks, who never thought about moving away, who were content with working in the mine, are deserting us scared mad. They'd never have deserted their birthplace — their roots, to speak their language — for better pay, but irrational fear makes their legs move like they won't stop before they hit the ocean…"

"Vegetables come with roots," grinned Traynor. "Sorry — I won't interrupt you again."

"Well, we never really had enough good men and now we're losing all the bad ones, too. All that's left is some sorry remainder of a middling sort — not clever enough for the big city, but not dumb enough to run at first sight of a phantom train. But just wait for that ghost to put on a couple more appearances and they may reconsider. Even if they don't, they can't last in the long run. We haven't got enough laborers left to run the mine properly. If we can't end this spook soon and get them back, we'll have to shut it down. If the mine goes, so does Jinxville. Would have been a fitting name after all."

He drove up to a plain, unadorned five-story building of exposed concrete — the Jenkinsville Holiday Inn.

"Probably the only business around here not joining the jinxomania," Traynor mused. He was not exactly a fan of exposed concrete, but the hotel appeared to him as the lone island of reason in a sea of superstition run wild.

Upon checking into a plain but well-appointed room, Traynor changed from his trademark black suit and silk tie into blue jeans, boots, and a leather jacket from his suitcase. He was really beginning to feel out of place in this cow town. On the other hand, this jinxed place had already started to leave its mark on him. Hell, he had caught himself rolling his rs.

Read on…

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter Two, Part One

Begin with the beginning.

Chapter Two

The Desert Rose

By the time the executive jet had left the busy New York metro airspace, Traynor got up to relieve the pilot. While he was not able to pilot any plane or ship ever built — like his old friend Nick Parker — his capabilities were more than sufficient for this small private jet. For Traynor, there was hardly a better place to relax, think, and make plans than behind the controls of an aircraft. He sure loved this one. It was a nifty little invention with a 370-knot cruise speed at a range of around 1,300 nautical miles, depending on payload and wind. He had to smile as he thought that a new Eclipse jet cost less than most used turboprops. At the same time, it was more economical to operate than most single piston engine planes and all multi-engine piston and turboprop aircraft — let alone other jets.

The aluminum fuselage had been assembled using the innovative friction stir welding process, eliminating more than sixty percent of those expensive rivets. In addition, the engines of the Eclipse were equipped with the revolutionary PhostrEx fire suppression system — more effective, lighter, and cheaper to maintain than conventional Halon-based systems. For the first time in aviation history, there was a fully equipped private jet at an affordable price. First American Corporation had replaced the light executive aircraft division of the "First American Air Force" with a fleet of Eclipse jets when they had become available a few years before.

Its ability to take off and land on short runways gave the Eclipse access to virtually every airport, even those closed to other jets. Needless to say, that was ideal for a company like Zenith Mine, operating out of a hole in the wall like Jinxville. In all, the flight took seven hours and a stopover in St. Louis. It was late afternoon local time when the Eclipse touched down in Arizona. The pilot, having taken over from Traynor, brought the plane to a stop in front of the tiny terminal building — rather a large shed. When Traynor got off the plane, he was able to read the large neon letters on the roof of the small building. They spelled: "Jinxville International Airport."

"Ah, great… They just forgot to add a line below: 'Welcome to April Fools County,' " Traynor muttered so loud that McGinnis behind him overheard it.

"Well, Red Feather County, actually. You'll see that folks in these parts acquired a… certain sense of grim humor due to local history," McGinnis replied with a sly grin.

"OK, do you think it will take long to clear customs and passport formalities at this… international hub?" joked Traynor.

"Just walk around that shed to the parking lot. The black Navigator's mine."

When McGinnis turned the ignition key, the radio of the SUV started playing. As he steered the Lincoln to the exit of the small parking lot, the music stopped. The announcer remarked in a good-natured voice, "Hi, you're listening to KJNX Radio…"

Traynor closed his eyes. "They're pushing it a bit…"

It was just a short drive into town. Jinxville looked like the typical small country town to Traynor. A couple of supermarkets, gas stations, motels, restaurants, and other businesses lined the street. Most of them occupied single-story buildings with large neon signs and billboards. The vast parking lot in front of the local Wal-Mart was nearly deserted.

McGinnis pointed at an oncoming U-Haul truck. "Damn, there goes another one."

In the distance rose mountains with steep rock formations. The cloudy blue sky over the downtown skyline was punctuated by a few tall office buildings, most of them with brick facades, dating from the early twentieth century. However, most of them were not taller than the dome of the porticoed courthouse, whose square constituted the center of the town. Courthouse Square consisted of a band shell filled with old leaves and surrounded by some sickly trees and dry yellowish-brown grass that looked like it had been a lawn in some distant past.

McGinnis pointed out an abandoned construction site. The concrete foundations of a high rise were in place, but nothing above ground. Some heavy equipment was sitting around, but there was no one at work. "Supposed to be our new headquarters building. Thirty stories — tallest building in town. Would have been great. Now work's been halted — we need all men we can get at the mine. Who knows if we'll ever be able to complete it."

Read on…

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

UN Climate Conference Bans Dihydrogen Monoxide

(Hat tip to Coyote.)

The 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference has ended. The delegates could not agree on banning carbon dioxide, so they ended up banning an at least as dangerous chemical.

Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) is the worst greenhouse gas, the major contributor to acid rain, and lethal when inhaled. Yet it is all around and even inside us.

It is used in nuclear powers plants, in naval warfare, for industrial and household cleaning applications, as a solvent, as a spray-on fire suppressant and fire retardant, and even as a food additive. Substantial quantities of dihydrogen monoxide have accumulated in the body of every single human being alive.

In other words, the UN ended up banning water, H2O. The "scientists" at the UN climate conference in Cancun that settled the "science" of global warming are so dumb they can be duped into banning water. I rest my case.

Some people will sign anything that includes phrases like, "global effort," "international community," and "planetary." Such was the case at COP 16, this year's United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Cancun, Mexico.

This year, CFACT students created two mock-petitions to test U.N. Delegates. The first asked participants to help destabilize the United States economy, the second to ban water.

The first project, entitled "Petition to Set a Global Standard" sought to isolate and punish the United States of America for defying the international community, by refusing to bite, hook, line, and sinker on the bait that is the Kyoto Protocol. The petition went so far as to encourage the United Nations to impose tariffs and trade restrictions on the U.S. in a scheme to destabilize the nation's economy. Specifically, the scheme seeks to lower the U.S. GDP by 6% over a ten year period, unless the U.S. signs a U.N. treaty on global warming.

This would be an extremely radical move by the United Nations. Even so, radical left-wing environmentalists from around the world scrambled eagerly to sign.

The second project was as successful as the first. It was euphemistically entitled "Petition to Ban the Use of Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)" (translation water). It was designed to show that if official U.N. delegates could be duped by college students into banning water, that they could essentially fall for anything, including pseudo-scientific studies which claim to show that global warming is man-caused.

Despite the apparently not-so-obvious reference to H2O, almost every delegate that collegian students approached signed their petition to ban that all too dangerous substance, which contributes to the greenhouse effect, is the major substance in acid rain, and is fatal if inhaled.

Perhaps together, the footage associated with these two projects will illustrate to mainstream America the radical lengths many current U.N. delegates are willing to go to carry out an agenda no more ethical, plausible, or practical than banning water.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter One, Part Three

Begin with the beginning.

"Come on, Mac, don't worry. That ain't gonna happen. This company is built on principle. First American did never, does never, and will never abandon any ship, building, or business to any rebels, criminals, looters, terrorists, spies, forces of nature, or acts of god. Never happened. Not. Gonna. Happen. Never. You're damn right. It's my job to make sure of that. You bet we won't give up one of our most profitable mines to a ghost — no matter what it takes. I think it's best if I get to the bottom of this business ASAP. You got here by plane?"

"It's being refueled at LaGuardia."

"And you've come into Manhattan by car?"


"OK, excuse me for a minute — I've got to make some calls, and we'll be on our way to the airport in no time." Traynor picked up the receiver and punched out a number at the Federal Building.

"Jordan," a female voice answered.

"Hi, Jen. I won't be in town for a couple of days. Gotta go to Arizona… What place in Arizona? Jinxville, ever heard of it? … No, not Winslow — Jinxville. … No, I didn't know such a place existed, either. … Yeah, I'll keep looking out for such a sight anyway. … Sure, I'll bring you a jinx if they've got any left. … Thanks. Bye."

Traynor had met his girlfriend Jennifer Jordan on an earlier assignment. She worked for the federal government, with an intelligence agency. He knew it was the CIA, but she would never admit to that, mischievously citing "national security." It was a running gag between the two of them. Traynor anxiously awaited the day when she would answer his call, "Agent Jordan, Central Intelligence Agency, how can I help you?" Yet, exactly like him, she was just too stubborn to ever give in.

Next, he called a pilot of what company employees jocularly referred to as the "First American Air Force." Replacing the receiver, he got up from behind his desk. "OK, Mac, taxi's too slow. Let's get going."

Traynor did not have to drop by at his East Forties apartment to pack. He just picked up a large suitcase containing everything he might possibly need. Wisely, he had deposited it in his office just in case.

As they crossed the anteroom, McGinnis nodded at the deserted desk. "By the way, where's your secretary? Guess she believes in all-day lunch breaks?"

"Vacation, actually. Went to Club Gitmo."

"Club Gitmo?"

Traynor opened one of the double doors. "That's a long story."

He showed McGinnis to an express elevator. Inside, Traynor pressed a button. The elevator descended rapidly. The digits of the display showed ever lower floor numbers until they had gone halfway down the building. The elevator doors parted. Traynor led the way through a skylobby to a corner of the tower.

They exited onto a rooftop heliport. It was located on top of one of the four perimeter towers surrounding the central tower of First American Building. The perimeter towers rose to half the height of the central tower. Yet, the heliport was far above any other building in the neighborhood, so pilots could easily approach it, as long as they stayed clear of the central tower. The top of the latter could not be used as a heliport, as it supported a communications tower.

A Bell 222 corporate helicopter awaited Traynor and McGinnis. As soon as they were seated, the pilot took off. Traynor looked down at the pyramidal top of the slender Met Life Tower, then back at First American Building. At their corners, the perimeter towers connected to the four corners of the central tower, so the five towers were joined into one monolithic structure. The towers were clad in solar bronze glass, whose dark tint contrasted with the sunlight. Each tower was a perfect prism without any setbacks, each floor a perfect square of exactly the same size. The towers rose from the center and corners of a huge cube that housed Manhattan's largest indoor shopping mall.

Traynor's eyes swept upwards along the central tower. At its very apex, at the tip of the communications tower, flew the Stars and Stripes. Frequently, the Flag up there got tattered by the high winds, but it was always replaced, and the worn Flags sold in the souvenir store of the observation deck. Flags that had been flying over the tallest structure in the world were always in demand.

En route to LaGuardia Airport, they passed the skyscrapers of Midtown. Limousines, cabs, and buses were bottled up in the canyons below. Now they had already left behind the former world government complex. The Bell raced across the East River and the cantilevered steel web of the Queensboro Bridge, then sped over the new apartment high rises of Long Island City. The lower-rise neighborhood of Astoria zipped away below them as they approached LaGuardia.

The helicopter touched down next to a small Eclipse 500 executive jet, whose twin tail-mounted Pratt and Whitney PW610F turbofan engines were already running. The fuselage of the Eclipse was painted white, bearing sweptback blue and red markings that spelled: "First American Corporation." Wings and T-tail shimmered in gold metallic, and the vertical stabilizer was emblazoned with a silver coin that had the golden Sign of the Dollar on it.

"Beats taxi anytime," grinned Traynor as they boarded the jet.

The moment Traynor and McGinnis snapped shut their seat-belt buckles, the Eclipse started taxiing to the runway. The turbofan engines were singing faster and faster — the airport structures began rushing by. Suddenly, the ground dropped away — the sleek little jet quickly gained altitude, banking on a westward course. They recrossed the East River, then traversed the Upper East Side and the vast green expanse of Central Park.

The skyline of Central Park South and the towers of Midtown behind were still glistening in the sun. When they reached the Hudson, the boxy, spire-topped towers of the new Atlantis Center beckoned to their left, while the apartment buildings of Trump Place lay below to their right. It looked like the concrete shapes of man's genius were waving farewell, while the small plane embarked on a quest into an uncharted wilderness.

Like the pioneers in the nineteenth century, the men went west to conquer the unknown. What would they find on the outskirts of nature? Another conquest to be made by man — or the abyss of the supernatural, where no human life was possible?

Read on…

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter One, Part Two

Begin with the beginning.

"That's a long story, actually. Could I…"

"…get a drink?" Traynor volunteered.

"You bet. Bourbon."


"No, thanks."

Traynor walked across his office to the bar. By now — unreason or no unreason — he was already hooked on the old miner's tale. Despite all the deserved contempt Traynor felt for mindless irrationality and superstition, he loved a good mystery.

It was rather that because of his allegiance to reason he enjoyed and collected such tales. He just loved to see them debunked — or even better — to do it himself. Be it the Bermuda Triangle, the ghost ship Carroll A. Deering, Mothman, the Oak Island treasure, or the Beale Ciphers — whenever such a mystery was solved, it constituted a victory of man's reasoning mind over dull superstition and blind credulity.

All of them had been billed as the world's greatest mysteries. But most ships lost in the Bermuda Triangle had been done in by storms — if they had not been rustbuckets to begin with. Everything beyond that had been fabricated by sensationalist mystery authors preying on gullible readers. Or so it seemed. The Carroll A. Deering, found aground on Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, without a trace of her crew, had become the ultimate ghost ship mystery, only rivaled by the Mary Celeste.

However, while the Celeste had apparently been rashly abandoned after being struck by a waterspout or a seaquake, the Deering had probably been taken over by rumrunners. They had supposedly deserted the schooner to get their bootleg ashore in a boat, which had been swamped with all hands. Mothman, dread monster, terror of West Virginia, was nothing else but a common barn owl. In all probability, the Beale Cipher and Oak Island treasures were just hoaxes grown out of some Masonic allegory.

Solving such an allegedly supernatural mystery gave Traynor the same feeling he experienced standing atop a new skyscraper or on board a ship, train, or aircraft: the triumph of man, bringing order and meaning into a desolate wilderness. He had investigated some such mysteries in his spare time, solving quite a few of them. Yet, this one mystery promised to become the most challenging and fascinating yet.

To somebody who loved the products of the mind, like buildings, ships, and trains, a phantom train was infinitely more interesting than a mundane "human" ghost. Plus, he would even be paid for investigating this mystery. True, he had come across an alleged phantom riverboat on a recent assignment — but this time, he would be paid for nothing else but refuting the supernatural. He had completed many difficult assignments on his job. This one was going to be fun.

"You don't mind if I settle for a ginger ale?" Traynor asked McGinnis, handing him his drink.

"Leaves more whiskey for me… Well, it was about the year 1885 when Apache Indians attacked a train, consisting of the now notorious locomotive Plato and several passenger cars, near what was then called Jenkinsville. It was one of the last Indian attacks in our country. It sure ranks among the most atrocious attacks, too. Those savages massacred all the passengers and crew of the train — more than a hundred men, women, and children. And they burned the train. Those who had been shot dead turned out to be the lucky ones versus those who were burned alive.

"For years, locals kept claiming they saw the fiery shine of the blazing train traveling down the line. Well, when they saw those lights for the first time, they had seen nothing yet. In the morning, the mangled bodies of bums, tramps, and hobos would be found on the track — even though it was known that no train had been scheduled the night before, nor had any train passed through the neighboring stations.

"Jenkinsville came to be known as Jinxville. Finally, in a fatalistic move, local authorities officially changed the name when the ghastly, ghostly rumors wouldn't die. Maybe they hoped to attract some tourists this way, but they were ahead of their time. Few tourists visited that part of the country in those days — so it would be for Roswell, New Mexico, to become the crank capital of the United States half a century later."

"If my memory serves, the 'Roswell Incident' was quite a nonevent when it happened. In next to no time, the Air Force was able to prove that a research balloon had crashed. Only some thirty years later, sensationalist swindlers began to churn out books expanding and perpetuating the UFO myth."

McGinnis winked. "You seem to know the history of the Southwest quite well, Kevin. Hope that will help you solve this one riddle. Anyway, things quieted down over time. From time to time, some folks would claim they saw the phantom train, but they were known drunkards and village idiots. Some time or other, the occasional tourist, hunter, or lawman would go missing. Every time, locals would take the cue to jump-start the old legend. They'd say the phantom train got them, particularly if no body could be found, or if a maimed corpse was found in the general vicinity of some railroad track.

"Mind if I help myself to another… Appreciate it! What was I saying? Oh, yeah: In my humble opinion it's little wonder if in such a vast area of rugged country a couple of folks go missing over the decades. Some may have absconded for greener pastures. Predators must have gotten some others. If some mangled body or other is found below a rotting railroad trestle, does that prove the existence of a phantom train? All over the country, kids and drunkards get themselves killed by trespassing on abandoned infrastructure, don't they?

"That's at least what I thought before this horrible business started over in earnest! But who knows? The mine is all that keeps the town alive — has done that job pretty well for decades. I've been in it for half its existence. Now everybody — honest, sober folks — is seeing the phantom train. My buddies are lost or dead. Laborers are deserting us, and the town's going down the drain. I'm too damn old to start over at some other mine. Can already hear them snicker: Lost his mine — mind you, the most valuable copper mine in Arizona — to a ghost. No, sir, I won't stand that!"

Read on…

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter One, Part One

Chapter One

City of the Mind

New York City, the near future.

"And I'm telling you that phantom train's gonna kill us all!" Jack McGinnis howled at Kevin Traynor.

Traynor kept gazing out of the window of his office near the top of First American Building. He had been enjoying the view for quite a while, waiting for an uneasy McGinnis to find the courage to tell his tale. It seemed unreal. After all, Traynor was standing in the tallest and most advanced skyscraper in the world — on a floor far above the spires of all other structures. This building in turn rose in the center of the greatest city, country, and civilization man ever built.

The skyline of Midtown Manhattan greeted him out of a radiant blue sky. The metallic spires of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings reflected the summer sun. They were framed by a chain of new super skyscrapers stretching from Midtown East to Times Square and beyond. From river to river they soared, the black monoliths of Trump World and Durand Chemical Towers, the jagged spire of Bank of America Tower next to the communications tower of Condé Nast Building, and the twin office towers and tall apartment buildings of Atlantis Center along the Hudson River. Faced with the greatest and most striking works of rational man, Traynor was asked to believe in ghost stories and phantom trains.

That bundle of nerves McGinnis had introduced himself as the manager of the Zenith Mine — a vast Arizona copper mine owned by First American Corporation. While Traynor was watching the skyline, McGinnis in turn observed Traynor standing in the light that filtered in through the tinted plate glass. There is something there, thought McGinnis. More than meets the eye. In a crowd, Traynor would not have stood out at first glance. He was neither tall nor short, neither fat nor slim. But the determined stance of his figure in front of the window and in front of the world beyond suggested a man who was a confident ruler of nature. Just what McGinnis needed.

Slightly swiveling his chair, McGinnis looked from Traynor to his office furniture. Besides the huge desk with the black leather swivel chairs there were bookcases, a high-end audio system, and a large-screen television set. A smaller desk in a corner had been designed to support a sophisticated computer terminal with all kinds of peripherals. Obviously, Traynor valued knowledge and information. Framed diplomas, tucked away in a far corner of the room, away from the windows, spoke of Traynor's training as a lawyer — although that was not exactly what he did for a living now.

"Listen, Mr. Traynor…"

Traynor turned around. Dark-blond hair, cropped short, framed an angular face highlighted by blue eyes. "Kevin. If you keep telling me campfire stories, you might as well call me Kevin."

"OK, Kevin. You call me Mac. My boss at First American Mining told me you're the kinda firefighter for this company. I've heard you've been taking care of all kinds of trouble and monkey business for First American. So I guess this is a job for you. We're losing the good men hunting for the phantom train — and the worthless ones 'cause they're running away scared."

"Worthless ones?"

McGinnis took off his Stetson and tugged at his grizzled beard hanging down on a plaid flannel shirt. "You know, the kind of folks you get to do physical labor in the middle of nowhere in an economy like this. All the clever folks are moving to the cities, for better jobs, higher pay, nightlife, and you know what. We're left with the worst kinds of backwoodsmen. They're such a superstitious lot that most of them run away as soon as they hear about the phantom train. Even the calmer sorts figure they just move a couple dozen miles away to where ranch hands are wanted instead of getting scared out of their wits every other night or so by the phantom train."

"If you offered them higher pay…"

"There's a limit to how much we can afford to pay for unskilled labor, but there's no limit to what it'd take to get those guys to face what they believe is the devil incarnate. Can you ever pay a man enough to face his worst fear?

"Yet, that's not even the end of the story. Remember what I said about my best workers? Even if I had enough labor, I'd still have to replace three mining engineers. Of course you know that engineers are at a premium in today's job market. And problem number two has direct bearing on problem number one. Reason most laborers are so scared is that those engineers got killed by the phantom locomotive."


"One night Greg Ramos must have gone hunting the phantom train. He never came back. The sheriff sent out search parties — all they found was his truck parked near the phantom line. When the search was called off, two of my best engineers, Pete Chalmers and Fred Douglass, raised Cain about how we couldn't give up on poor Greg, and that grown men can't be afraid of ghosts. They swore they'd get to the bottom of this business — if it were the last thing they did. Well, it was."


"It was the last thing they ever did. They vanished. Pete's truck was last seen one night heading out of town in the general direction of the railroad. They never came back in the morning. Townsfolk were so spooked they wouldn't even volunteer for search parties. State police found Pete's wrecked truck below an old railroad trestle — but no bodies. That settled it — or unsettled folks. As you'd have it. That day, our labor shortage began in earnest. So the ghost train turned Jinxville into a ghost town."


"Actually, Jenkinsville…"

"So you already renamed your town in honor of your phantom train?"

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Monday, December 06, 2010

Torch in the Night, Chapter Two, Part Two

Begin with the beginning.

There was a commotion at one of the First Am counters. Traynor turned around: He beheld an old hag in the white nun's habit fringed with black stripes and decorated with black skulls that was the hallmark of the Order of the Rotting Sores of Calcutta. He had seen Sister Sally among the mob at the world government's attempted immolation of Remington Towne. This time around, she was on his turf. The old hag was arguing with the clerk, a young, dark-haired woman with a helpless, girlish face. The bane of all airlines, Sister Sally considered herself a saint, entitled to free air transportation by virtue of her "good deeds." She was a dilemma for airlines. Either they swallowed their pride and let themselves be blackmailed into donating their services to an arrogant moocher — or they refused, risking a public relations nightmare in a time when many potential customers still believed in the morality of altruism, in the duty to give to others. To the unwashed masses, Sister Sally was a heroine and a saint. By giving to her, they could atone for the guilt of being alive that their witch doctors and pseudo-philosophers had taught them to feel.

Traynor thought that to consider Sister Sally a heroine or a saint one had to be very ignorant or very evil or both. Sister Sally had publicly vowed to increase and prolong poverty, suffering, and death with her Houses of Dying, as she called them. For him, it was the best evidence for the stupidity of the majority that they would worship such a monster as a saint. Living up to her vow, Sister Sally and her fellow moochers were no unmitigated boon to the poor of Calcutta. They picked them off the streets and fed them all right. But they refused to give them medical treatment, telling their shocked victims that their suffering was their god's will that had to be borne with prayers as the only "medicine." The sick that had the misfortune of ending up in Sister Sally's clutches usually prayed for only one thing: to be back in the alleys where they had been found. They sure preferred the relatively quick death of starvation over the never-ending torture visited on them by the sect.

Sister Sally prided herself on running the most disorganized organization in the world. Donated business machines — like computers, or even lowly typewriters — were off-limits to her enslaved nuns. They were the work of the devil. Scribbling accounts in pencil on scraps of paper erased many times over was more than good enough for her. And what should they do with other donated goods? The only reasonable option would have been to use them to really help the suffering, to help them help themselves. But that was against what Sister Sally believed to be the will of her god. So the donated goods kept rotting away in the basements of her hospices. Education was an invention of the devil as well. Neither her serfs nor her other victims were permitted to learn anything. Thinking was evil. Everything had to be left to providence. Thus, the sick and the healthy slept side by side. Infectious diseases swept Sister Sally's camps and, as medicine was considered the devil's black magic, most of her victims died in agony. If her victims were in luck, they would die quickly.

Suffering was the principal principle of the Order of the Rotting Sores. Their motto was: "God's greatest gift to man is that he may share the suffering of Christ." When her victims screamed in agony, Sister Sally would exult, "How wonderful! I wish I could trade places with you. When you are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you." Of course, from her victims that frequently elicited the predictable answer that she could do with her Jesus whatever she wanted as long as she only told him to stop kissing. Those living in the West might fall for Sister Sally, but among the suffering she was not giving her Jesus a good name.

Traynor had also heard allegations that most of the money donated to the Order of the Rotting Sores ended up in the coffers of the pope, who somehow managed to ride around in a private jet. Donations kept rolling in even faster than they could be funneled to the Vatican. Anyway, both was beside the point. Even if Sister Sally had not embezzled donations, even if she had not administered slow torture to her victims, that would not have changed the fact that she did not have any right to bully other victims to contribute to whatever her religion regarded as good works. Her worst crime was not embezzlement or torture — it was enslaving the best of men to the worst, by reversing good and evil, virtue and vice.

Traynor walked over to do his work as First American's Vice President for Safety, Security, and Special Assignments. Arresting the hag by her thin arm, he flashed his corporate ID to the clerk. "I'll take over from here. The usual situation, I presume?"

"Yes, Mr. Traynor. Thanks for your assistance." The girl was glad to have the responsibility taken from her.

Traynor turned to look into the wizened, leathery emptiness that should have been a human face. "Listen, leech. First American is not to be blackmailed. We do not choose to contribute to what you mooching mystics believe good. If we choose to contribute to charity, we do it voluntarily, as of gift, to causes that we know to be good — not blackmailed, as of duty, to causes that regard us as evil and sinful. We who build aircraft, railroads, and skyscrapers are the good. We will no longer permit you to call our virtues vices and make us pay for them. We do not pay protection to you. We who build the world do not choose to be intimidated by the bogeyman you invented to enslave us. You worship suffering, agony, and death; we, achievement, happiness, and life. We do not care if your followers boycott us. We do not need you. We do not need them. But they need us. We think. You believe. We can build aircraft. You can't. Anybody who wants to use the aircraft we create has to pay the price we set for our services. As you don't pay, you will leave this building. You will never trespass on First American property again. Is that understood?"

She heard his words; she understood them as well. But she refused to accept them. No one had ever talked to her like this — though it was long overdue. She was too far removed from the realm of reason to think; her aborted mind functioned only along the perverted lines of her dogma. Mooch and give. Provide sufferers for the lord. No questions asked. No reason necessary. No resistance expected.

Traynor, on the other hand, always asked questions, never acted without reason, and always resisted evil. Now Sister Sally would have to learn the hard way. "Vanish, moocher."

Though he had let go of her arm, the moocher did not move.

"You're violating our property rights by remaining in this building, disfiguring it by your presence, and preying on the gullible. Move along. This is the last warning."

No answer, no effect.

Traynor grabbed the moocher firmly, dragged her out of the revolving glass door, and pushed her away in disgust. "And stay out."

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