Even More Casserole

(The holiday season looms. My posting frequency may be erratic through the end of the year. It is so good to be my own boss on this. I will try for something different on the next post. There is such a thing as too much casserole)

The drive took us off the main highway and onto a secondary road until noon.  We were in the heart of farm country and the world suddenly seemed far away.  Mal took a side road for several minutes, coming to a place called Bhrycal Corners, with all of an independent gas station, family restaurant and antique shop to differentiate it from any other country crossroad.  Mal slowed and pulled into the gas station.

“This doesn’t look much like a meeting place,” I observed.

“No,” Mal said, getting out of the car.  “We could use some gas and more food, though.”

The meeting was clearly some time into the future.  I didn’t object.  After gassing the car, Mal parked and insisted we try the local cuisine.  The Quiet Corners Family Restaurant was true to its name, we were the only guests and it was not yet one o’clock.  The menu was limited but Mal found a way to order a feast.  An appetiser of cheesy garlic bread was followed with a hot turkey sandwich and an order of apple pie for desert.  I was hungry enough to order a similar quantity of food.

“It always makes me sad to see places like this,” she said while stirring the sugar into her coffee.  “The people work hard to build a business, even out in the boondocks, and it too often sits empty.  The owners don’t want to make a million dollars, they only want to make a decent living.  Sad.”

Her attempt at chit chat felt forced, awkward.  I didn’t care much for talking when I only wanted to find out more about why I was being called in, and what was wrong with Corbin.  Mal did not take the hint, or chose to ignore it.

“I hope places like this last forever,” Mal went on.  “It’s not fair that they go out of business and fail.  There must be a way to fix that, you know?”

“Places like this tend to fail because they are not properly planned or managed,” I said, anxious for the silence of our car trip.  “I could care less if they make it or not.  Not my problem.”

“Charming,” Mal said, flashing her smile for the first time in a while.  “You should write a motivational column or something.”

“I’m not feeling very chatty,” I grumbled.  “This was not how my day was supposed to go.”

“Ah, yes.  You were supposed to go back to your boss and make a delivery; a worthy use of your skills and responsible contribution to society.  Somehow, I am not bothered about disturbing your day.”

“You can spare me the crap about doing the world a favour,” I said, feeling resentful again.  “I did enough.  All I wanted was a full extraction, and they couldn’t do it, so I left.  It’s a free country, the last time I checked.”

“Then why didn’t you take a labour job?  Or anything other than crime?” Mal rose to the challenge.

“Because labour jobs that pay well don’t exist, and the pension the program offers doesn’t exist,” I shot back.  “And I lost too much time playing secret agent to jump back into a normal life”

“Let me get this straight,” she said, getting more agitated, “you want a pension for ten years of work?  Fuck!  How about a gold watch and a retirement party?  You can’t be that selfish.”

“Oh, but I can.”

“You would be dead if it weren’t for Corbin,” she said, crossing into sensitive territory.  “The only reason you can handle this insane life of yours is because of him, too.  You know how he is, how do you think he feels about your career choice after what he gave you?”

I was pissed off by this point.  “I got over that a while back.  Corbin saved my life, and I can only thank him for it, but I didn’t sign up to be a slave.  I’m not only one to leave the program, either.”  The truth went deeper than this, really, but I just wanted to stop talking about it.  Mal had opposed my leaving from the moment I first mentioned it, before I chose a criminal life.

“Don’t give me that bull shit!” she kept on going.  “Paul became a police officer and Nancy got an office job.”

“Listen, Mal,” I said, working very hard to keep my voice down, “I just don’t give a shit.  I haven’t given a shit for while.  So how about not talking about it?”

Our server saved me from more distress with the prompt arrival of our garlic bread.  I engaged in a brief, and awkward, conversation with the woman.  She was a chubby lady in her early fifties with pleasant features and work-worn hands.  Mal’s earlier point about the plight of little businesses like this hit me, just a little, when I looked at the woman.  She was polite, and friendly, but clearly wanted to leave our table.  Mal was bubbling over, searing anger obvious in her eyes; stoked hotter as I obviously extended a meaningless conversation with our server.

Mal leaned in after the server was out of earshot, looking like pure venom.  “You don’t want to fucking talk?” she hissed.  “Fine.  Then you can save it for the meeting because I’m done talking, too.”

“That’s the best thing you’ve said since you showed up,” I said, not contented to let her off too easily.

“Fuck you,” she responded.

Our meal was very ordinary, other than being too salty.  True to her word, Mal not only stayed quiet but she never once looked at me.  She even told the server that I would be paying.  I had clearly struck a nerve.

The rest of the drive took us into a remote area of southern Ontario; even the farming seemed to peter out.  At one point, it was clear that Mal was doubling back and circling a certain area to check if we were being followed.  Some of the roads we took were hard on the car, not being much better than pairs of ruts in the bush.  The car was a right-off, anyway, as Mal had put out several cigarettes on the dash since lunch.  It was nearly dusk when she finally turned down a particularly rough track.  The overgrown track jostled us in the car, the undercarriage taking a beating as branches scratched the exterior.  Mal drove on with a satisfied look on her face as the car took a beating.  When the bush around us cleared, we were at the edge of cliff.  Mal stopped the car and got out.  I had a bad feeling about her intentions toward the car and got out quickly.  As expected, Mal gave the car a shove over the edge, ending about fifty feet below and into watery grave.

She didn’t even look back as she headed into the surrounding woods.  I had one final temptation to run for it before I followed her in.  She kept a quick pace, not quite jogging, through the woods until we broke into a field dotted with patches of bush.  It felt like an abandoned farm area, dotted with stones, thistles and trees.  In the early twilight, it felt very remote, as if the world outside didn’t exist.

Our path kept us in the direction of a distant barn.  The closer we got, the clearer it was that the place was nearly a ruin.  It was deathly quiet, other than the crickets and occasional bird chirping.  When we were about fifty feet from the barn, Mal slowed her pace and changed her course to circle around.  I followed carefully, it being obvious that we had reached the meeting place.  A complete circle later, we went toward the barn.  The door hung open enough to slip through; the outside twilight just barely illuminating the interior through the damaged roof and walls.  I immediately noted the smells of gun oil, perspiration and fabric.  Years of living a dangerous life made me want to reach for my weapon, which might have been fatal in the company I was meeting with.

A tiny light, the same colour made by fireflies, flashed before us in some unknown, coded pattern.  I was familiar with this type of coded communication, only the code had probably changed many times since I had last used it.  Mal signaled back with a penlight of her own, the firefly colour matching.  We moved forward to what looked like a tent, turning out to be an ancient tractor under a tarp.  Beneath the tractor was a trap door to a cramped basement below.  The basement was only just high enough to stand straight in.  The lights were dim, but I recognised everyone there.  Palmer, Smith, Jarredsson and several others I knew too well.  Good, upstanding members of the program.  In all, there were a dozen of them; I estimated another two or three in the barn above us.  I was acknowledged with a combination of silent nods and a variety of mumbled greetings; none of it felt terribly friendly.

More Casserole

(Just adding a bit more to the last post here. Enjoy)

     I had parked in an alley between a hardware store and a junk shop.  When I reached the car, Mallory was already behind the wheel, smiling mischievously and certainly pleased with herself.

     “Hop in,” she said through the open window, before I could speak, “I’m driving.”

     “Like hell you are,” I snapped.  “Get out.”

     “Listen, Peters,” she said, smirking.  “If you really want to make a scene on a quiet, northern morning, after seriously fucking up a pair of local gangsters, go for it.  Otherwise, I’m driving.”

     She had me, and knew it.  The last thing I could afford was unwanted attention.  Besides, a physical fight between the two of us would be more than noticeable.

     I got in and buckled up, instructing Mal to do the same.  “You already look like a freak,” I told her, “so we won’t be giving the police any more reasons to stop us today.”

     “Fine,” she said, and laughed.  She started the car out of town, driving by Foundation Street.  Two cruisers had already arrived, cherries blazing and sirens silent.

     “They sure took their time,” she commented.

     “For a town like this, they did alright,” I said.  “No gunshots or screaming reported.  They were like lightning.”

     We drove in silence for a while.  Mal kept us heading to the main roads out of town while I nervously tried to appreciate the rural scenery.  I was content to stay quiet; I didn’t want to know why she was here.  Before we reached the last turnoff to the major highway, she pulled into a coffee shop drive thru.

     “We’re barely twenty minutes out of town,” I spoke up.  “This is a bad idea.”

     “I’m hungry now,” Mal said, as if I had not spoken.  “And we were already seen by several people.  You must be peckish, too, unless you stuffed yourself this morning.”

     A dozen doughnuts and two coffees with three sugars were ordered.  Mal smiled at the disinterested clerk like we were out for a Sunday drive.  She hit the highway and set the cruise at one twenty.  She started packing down the doughnuts.

     “Sure you don’t want one?” she asked after the sixth one disappeared.  “They aren’t the best, but I’ve had a lot worse.”

     “I’m fine.  Just keep your eyes on the road.”  The coffee just tasted like sugar.  The calorie value was the only thing that mattered.

     Mallory left two in the box for me.  I would be hungry soon and she knew it.

     “You know,” she continued, sipping her coffee, “if I ever revert to normal I think I’m going to let myself go.  I couldn’t manage a diet if I tried.  Food is just too good, you know, especially the crap stuff.  How could I live on healthy food?”  She paused to light a cigarette.

     “This is a rental,” I spoke harshly.

     She looked at me with a smile, cigarette hanging from her lips.  She took a few insolent puffs before stubbing it out on the dash.  “There,” she challenged.  “Happy now?”

     I rubbed my temples.  I had forgotten how difficult Mal could be when she wanted to.  I settled myself enough to accept two important facts: Mal was here to tell me something and I probably didn’t want to know it.  The rest were details.  The sooner I got this out of the way, the more likely she was to go away.

     “Okay,” I spoke calmly, rubbing the frustration from my temples, “what is it?  Why did you come here?”

     “Long story,” she said, a hint of seriousness creeping in.  “It’s a good thing we have time.  There is a crisis, but not the usual kind.  This one affects us directly.  The timing of it sucks, too, so all the rogues are being called in.”

     “This sounds awfully familiar, Mal.  Am I going to get the usual lines about saving the world and living up to my potential?”  These were the type of lines they fed you, making it feel like a superhero moment when they needed your skills in action.  It was rarely a minor intervention or casual job; high pressure was the intended motivator, as though it were enticing.

     “Except this is the real deal,” Mal answered, a distant look on her face spooking me at the same time.  “I’m not shitting you in any way.”

     “You went through all this trouble,” I said, ready to call her bluff, “so I’ll nibble at the bait.  Let’s hear it.”

     Mal pursed her lips slightly before speaking.  “The Program, our cooperative arrangement with the federal security agencies, and even our own necks are in deep trouble.  Technically, it affects us all, which is why they are calling everyone in.”

     “What kind of threat are we talking about?”

     “I’m not supposed to give you any more than I already have,” Mal sighed.  “Unfortunately, you are as predictable as hell and I know you’ll fight me the whole way if I don’t do better.  So here is the teaser: the government is making moves to eliminate the program and us with it.”

     “That talk was in the wind even before I left,” I countered.  “Corbin has always handled that end, anyway.  You have to do better than that.”

     “Corbin is…”  The word caught in her throat, her tone somber.  “…is not well.”  She popped another cigarette into her mouth and lit it.  This time I said nothing.  She took a long drag and continued.

     “I won’t go into much more detail, Peters.  The information about our elimination came to us accidentally.  There is more to it, of course.  All I can say is that the intelligence we have right now is extremely legit.”

     “What is wrong with Corbin?” I asked abruptly.

“You already know more than you should,” she snapped back.  “Just go with this for once, will you?”

I wasn’t feeling like going back.  It was a part of my life that I remembered too well and despised too much.  Still, Corbin was Corbin.  He was something of a father figure to the members of the program.  In most cases, he had either saved our lives or made them worth living.  It was unlikely that Mal would use his health as a ploy to bring me in, not like this.  I was stuck, and however much I hated it, I knew it.

“Fine,” I said, angrier than intended, “I will go.”

“Good.”

“Where exactly is this meeting?” I asked, more gently.

“Not far, actually,” she said.  “Just enjoy the drive.”

This was not likely to happen.  I had too much to think about to just enjoy a drive to an unknown place, to meet people I would rather avoid and see a man I cared about in a state of illness.  My plans for an easy fortune and a quiet retirement seemed gone already.  What the hell could I do?  Even if I could ditch Mal, with violence or not, neither of which were foregone conclusions, where would I go?  Where could I hide that they wouldn’t find me, eventually?  And then, how would I feel about abandoning Corbin when he might need me?  It was not worth thinking about.  I reclined the seat slightly and reached for the remaining doughnuts.  I had a feeling I would need the calories.

To Be Named Later, or The Casserole

(This is the beginning of a much longer story. Call it very near future. Loosely speaking, it is a spy/underworld/perhaps-alternate-timeline story with all sorts of science fiction bits and pieces thrown in. A casserole of fun stuff. It is definitely gritty, not lacking in violence, and involves characters with questionable ethics. It is also unfinished, unedited and untitled, but I work on it between other things.)

               The downtown had the usual, dingy, rundown look of every small, northern town I had ever seen.  Patchy attempts to improve the visual rot only made it worse.  The waterfront was probably the only decent place in the downtown core, though the rot was seeping into it, as well.  The place was dead and just hadn’t noticed; a zombie town.

               I strolled to the docks, discovering the harbour area was smaller than it looked from a distance.   Really, it was a parking lot set next to a walkway along the water, with a restaurant on one side and a very industrial looking complex on the other.  Charming.

               If autumn had an upside, it was in being cold enough to keep riff-raff from sleeping outside during the night.  I had seen two distant joggers earlier but the place was otherwise deserted.  I continued along the larger of two main docks, figuring it was as good a place as any to do some thinking while I waited.  A car sped past in the distance, an ancient hatchback, rotting away like the town, and disappeared into a side street.  As quickly as that, I was alone.

               The waterfront was on a bay off the great lake.  The water was icy still and dark; the predawn light seemed to cast shadows on everything, and those shadows seemed to collect in the water.  It had a peaceful quality, all the same.  I kept my back to the town, enjoying the view across the bay, a mostly undeveloped area that gave an illusion of purity.

               Time passed and I fell into a deep, thoughtful state, almost a trance, aware of my surroundings yet deep within my own mind.  There was no ritualistic or spiritual element to it.  I had learned to do it as a boy and got into the habit.  The opportunity was sometimes scarce, though I never lost the knack.  It was like being awake and dreaming at the same time.  Thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations swirled in a gentle maelstrom; they crossed, merged and sometimes settled with each other, creating a kaleidoscope vision of my mind.  I had found that the longer I was able to hold myself in this state, the more likely it was for the elements to generate the semblance of a message, or concept, or something meaningful.  It had a dreamlike quality, without the random, shifting and confusing nonsense.  The maelstrom had inertia, yet I could guide it along with gentle pressure; I always envisioned it as the same sort of pressure a tugboat exerted on a large ship.  The trick to holding the state and manipulating the storm was in not putting too much or too little pressure; too much pressure caused the elements of the maelstrom to weaken and fade, eventually breaking it; too little pressure made the intensity strong, but made it more difficult to find guidance from the mess.

               Minor distractions were another weak spot.  The solitude and tranquility made it easy to form the whirlwind; the increasing wakefulness of the town, rotted and sluggish as it was, wore down my focus.  It was difficult to estimate the passage of time, just like in a dream, so I was unsure of it when the final straw fell.  The light suggested that the sun had been up for a little while.

               “Fine morning,” a voice offered, sounding old, attempting to engage me in conversation.  My maelstrom collapsed into itself and disappeared, a fading memory in an instant.  I turned to the old voice, extending my hand to it.  Energy surged through me, nearly unbidden.  An elderly man, looking shocked at my quick, aggressive motion, stood a few feet away.  He had been right behind me.  The flicker of rage I felt at his interruption spiraled away in time for me to collect myself.  I had wanted to harm him for his lack of manners and inconvenient presence but it would do no good; I had my own business to attend to, and it would not serve to draw attention to myself.

               The man was a little scared, judging by his reaction.  I guessed his age at sixty.  He wore tan slacks, a plaid shirt and a windbreaker.  Just an old man with a big mouth, taking a morning walk because he had nothing better to do.  “Whoa,” he said, holding up his hands defensively.  “I didn’t mean to –“

               “Shut up,” I snapped, venting my ebbing anger at him without attempting to soften my words.  “You shouldn’t sneak around and surprise people like that.  It could go badly for you.”  I lowered my arm and walked away.  The old man simply stood there, too frightened to speak.

               Downtown closed around me before I was a block in.  It was a new town but a familiar place.  I had worked the central northern beat for Porter long enough to recognise the same old thing in a different place.  I had studied the map enough to know where I was going in this new piss hole.  My dawdling was wasted, anyway.  The maelstrom had yielded nothing, even before I lost it.  Something was not right in this place, only I could not place it.  Normally, I would have come away with something.

               I was in a pissy mood when I arrived, three blocks later, at 119 Foundation Street.  The Pawn Prince was a dismal sight; it was another relic, only brightened the slightest with a cheery, white banner proclaiming Cash for Gold in red letters.  The building had a second floor of apartments that merged with the adjacent buildings.  The entrance to the 119 apartments was a heavily abused wooden door to the right of the pawn shop.  The door handle had broken off, probably years earlier, and been replaced with a small length of rope.  It was already open a crack, which made it a bit more convenient for me.  The stairs were solid but filthy.  I turned left at the top of the stairs and made my way down the hall.  The lighting was dim, likely a by-product of cheap, low wattage bulbs and never-cleaned light fixtures.  The smell of stale cigarette, pot and beer almost masked the undercurrent of stale mop water, garbage and urine.  If it had been unexpected, I might have been thrown off.

               As it was, I felt my energy flow through me, accumulating like a charge.  It was doubtful I would need a lot, but apartment 2C had to know a visit was coming; and it was tough to say what countermeasures there would be.  The door to 2C was open, just slightly.

               I let my energy level build a bit more before I made my move.  A hard kick flung the door wide open, exposing a smoky room within.  Two men jumped up from a moldy couch, knocking over a coffee table in front of them; they both looked high as kites, one of them made a clumsy move for something inside his belt.  I unleashed a blast of energy that hit him square in the chest, knocking him through the wall; heavy bruises, broken ribs and a mild concussion were guaranteed, unless he was unlucky and I had collapsed his lungs and damaged his spine.  It didn’t matter.  The second man was the subject of my visit, and he was already on his knees and in shock.

               I kept a solid reserve of energy at the ready.  Something still felt wrong.  A quick check revealed no other guests in 2C.  Bobby O’Mara was on his knees begging me not to kill him.  Someone in a neighbouring apartment was hollering about keeping the noise down.

               “For Christ’s sake, shut the fuck up,” I said, closing the apartment door.  “I don’t have much time for this, so pay fucking attention.  You should know better than to disrespect Porter the way you have.  You are way behind this year and you don’t even bother to call last month when you pay nothing.  That’s not cool, Bobby.  So this…”  My attention trailed off as I felt something familiar, something dangerously familiar, from behind me.  Someone was building up their energy and they were damn close.  Instinct took over and I formed my energy into a shield, encasing me in a protective cocoon.  A blast zipped past me and struck Bobby O’Mara squarely in the head, pulping it in one strike.

               I wheeled around, stirring up energy as fast as I could for a fight.  Standing at the back of the room was Mallory Stelton, an old associate who I thought I was finished with years ago.  She had changed her look, but was recognisable despite the Goth-ish wardrobe and makeup.  “What the hell, Mal?” was all I could think to say.

               “Nice to see you, Peters,” she said with a grin.  I had not dropped the shield.  Mallory was releasing her energy passively as she strolled forward.

               “Why are you here?” I asked bluntly.  “This bullshit is going to make things awkward for me back in the city.”

               “When did you get so sloppy?” she asked back.  “I couldn’t have got this close to you before without getting noticed.”

               “Fuck,” I growled, partly at Mal, partly at the mess in front of me.  It would take some explaining to keep Porter off my ass.

               “So,” Mal said, getting up and lighting a cigarette, “you are some sort of hit man, or something like that?”

               “Collections, actually,” I said, realising there would be no easy out.  I began a quick search of the place in the hopes I could find enough cash or dope to mitigate the screw up.

               “What a waste,” Mal said.  She was clearly amused by my frantic search.  Her nonchalant attitude had not changed in the years since I last saw her.

               “Is there something you want from me?” I asked, distracted by my search.  “This is a long way from Montreal, isn’t it?”

               “You always were a suspicious one,” she said with a smirk, watching me rifle through a putrid bathroom.  “Can’t a girl just stop by and say hello?”

               “Probably better you don’t tell me,” I responded, pushing by her and into the kitchen.  All I really wanted was to find a giant stash of dope, get out before the authorities arrived and ditch Mallory.  The last part would be the trickiest; she wasn’t here by chance.

               “Listen, tough guy,” she said, still toying with me, “why don’t we have a little chat?  There has got to be a place that serves coffee around here.”

               “Not interested,” I said without a blink.  I had left the world she belonged to, and that had taken some doing.  I had been left alone for some time, yet Mallory was a sign that world wanted me back.

               “Come on.  What is the rush?  One cup of coffee.”

               “The rush is,” I growled as I headed from the fruitless kitchen to the bedroom, “that I am supposed to have supper with my boss today.  If not, I owe him an advance phone call.”

               “Right,” she chuckled, “the collections thing.  You will be delivering from this run.”  She paused and finished her cigarette.  “Well, the city isn’t more than a couple of hours and it is morning.  That leaves time for a coffee, or do I have that wrong?”

               The fellow I had knocked through the wall was breathing.  He had a badly broken arm and numerous lesser injuries.  He didn’t look much like hired muscle.  A quick search of him produced a knife, about five thousand in cash and fifty dollars in weed.  It was chump change, in the big picture, but covered most of what O’Mara owed.  It also suggested he was here to buy, which meant there was another five grand in product in the apartment.  I was willing to press my luck by extending the search.  An even ten Gs would cover the debt, plus a little for the hassle.  Porter wouldn’t be happy; but he would understand a situation gone wrong.  It happened, from time to time, and life would go on.

               “Time is money, Mal,” I said, tearing the room apart.  “So if you have something to say, say it.  I am out of here soon.”

               She was uncharacteristically quiet.  I found a very sturdy little end table; heavy oak, bolted together like it was made to survive a bomb blast and locked tight.  I drew up a bit of energy, which got Mallory’s attention.  Fine work like this was not my forte, and I was distracted, so my attempt to blow the lock resulted in smashing up the entire thing.  The contents spilled out, mostly unharmed: bags of pills, powder and a bit of cash.  I grabbed it up and stuffed it into my jacket; big, inside pockets were gold in the collections business.

               “Time’s up,” I said, taking my turn to be funny.  “I got what I…”

               Mallory was gone.  It was hard to sense if she was still nearby or not.  Something was definitely going on and I didn’t like it in the least.  Keeping myself in the moment, I went for the window.  The same neighbour who hollered about the noise was hollering again, and this was the type of place that attracted police attention.  The window had a rusting fire escape to a partly overgrown parking area below.  I made my way down and got moving.  Once I was sure my trail was clear, I only needed to get back to the car; then I was home free.