It had all been leading to this. The murders. My vengeance. The rejections and humiliations I had spent a lifetime enduring. In that moment, I finally understood. Well, not that first moment. At first I was really, really, confused. But then, after. After it all settled a bit and I had some time to think about everything. It was then that I realized how my entire existence had lead to that moment in the farm house. A moment I had always, somehow, sensed, but never been able to make concrete. And there it was, clear as day. My time had come.

I watched as Karen removed a package surrounded by dry ice. It was a glass test tube. The way she and all her little terrorist buddies looked at it, I expected a tiny unicorn or hundreds of angels to be in it or something. This group of people that thought nothing of risking their lives and facing unimaginable pain at the hands of the government seemed astounded and frightened by the contents of the test tube. Terrified even. Which was all the more strange because she held it up directly in front of me and what I saw was this: Nothing. It was empty. A sealed empty test tube. No unicorns. No angels. Not even some sort of powder.

I took it from Karen and looked at it even more closely. It was only after a second had passed that I realized that the act of passing me the test tube was as if I had been handed the Royal Crown by Karen and her followers. Emperor Daniel L. Hastings. But you can call me Dan. Or Danny Boy. Or, in Karen’s case, Your Lordship and Stud Muffin.

They looked at me and waited for me to react. In all honesty, it was quite awkward. They clearly expected something. Some answer from me that I acknowledged the seriousness of the moment. Unfortunately, all I could get out of my mouth was a mumble. They didn’t understand what I said. So, I repeated it more loudly and more clearly. “I said “thanks.”” Karen seemed stunned. “Thanks?” she asked. “That’s all you have to say is “thanks”? A different look came over her face. It was an expression I knew very, very well. I had been seeing it when others interacted with me since I was a small child. It was a look of pity and disappointment. This one was more on the disappointment end of the spectrum, I think. It was clear that this was not going as she and her comrades had planned.

“Don’t you understand what you have in your hand?” she asked. It seemed like a ridiculous question. Clearly I didn’t have a clue. “It is the end of history as we know it. The beginning of a new dawn. Everything will change after you release its contents. Everything…” She said the last “everything” with enough drama in her voice to win an acting award or two, totally milking every syllable of it for maximum effect. It was very impressive.

The others all nodded and silently agreed that this empty test tube was a very big deal. Huge in fact. But I wasn’t getting it. I finally came out and just asked. So much for getting into Karen’s pants tonight. “I’m sorry, Karen. I’m really not following you. What, exactly is it? I mean, I’m totally for world changing and all. At least I think I am. But I’m not seeing how this empty test tube really does all that much. I mean…, there’s nothing in here from…” I started to twist off the cap of the vile. I mean, I wasn’t really going to open it. How dumb would that be? Alright, maybe I was. I wasn’t exactly thinking straight at that moment.

Either way, shouts and gasps and other expressions of panic erupted. Karen grabbed my arm. “What are you doing?!” Oops. She was pissed. “That took us years to produce and cost us the lives of dozens of people. We had agents undergo agony beyond your imagination protecting that. And you just want to open it up?!” She snatched the vile out of my hand. “Clearly, I misjudged you.”

Once again I had proven true to form. I mean, what could I say to that? “Yes, yes I think you did. I have no idea what you are talking about and think you’re all pretty nuts. But you’re hot, Karen. Really, damn, amazingly hot. And nuts can be good in bed so…” No, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say much of anything. Either did Karen or anyone else.

It appeared my job was done here. It was time to quietly try to slink away from the scene of the crime. Twelve feet from my chair to the door and away from all those horrible looks. Her horrible look. Never had twelve feet felt so long. Nobody tried to stop me. As I reached the door, I looked Karen in those big brown eyes of hers and actually had to turn away. Whatever I had done, or had not done, had clearly upset her. It was as if her cat had died or something. Tears for Fluffy. And I was the cat killer.

“I don’t understand any of this” I mumbled. She responded angrily. “Don’t understand what? Why, in spite of all the fear, panic and disruption it might cause, why this absolutely, positively, must happen? Or why you, Dan, out of all the people on the planet, were chosen for this task?” She was making this even worse. If I was confused before, I was pretty much as lost as I could get, about then.

I turned to her and just blurted it out. “What the hell are you talking about? What task? Is there something in the vile that’s microscopic and kills people? You want me to murder thousands of people for your cause? Is that what I’m not getting?” Oh crap. Now that I had said it, I realized that’s what they were asking me to do. They wanted me to release some horrible poison into the air to kill everyone. It was my turn to be disappointed. I think about killing people all the time. The guy that cut in front of me at the coffee place, for instance. But really doing it? I mean, I have killed one or two people recently. But that was different. They totally deserved it. It’s not like a regular thing I do anymore. How could Karen think that of me? I was actually disappointed in her. It was nice to be on the other end of that equation for once.

“I don’t kill innocent people” I said. Rather perfectly in tone, too, I might add. Serious. Stern. Weighty. But not too pretentious. I kind of rocked sometimes, if I did say so myself. “Not people” Karen replied with an almost equally impressive delivery. “God. We want you to kill God.”

I need to backtrack a bit here. First of all, no matter what was said in this meeting, it would have been a bit weird. You see, Karen was the leader of a group called “The Clear Thinkers.” They were considered highly annoying by the government. Not threatening. Not dangerous. Just really irritating. Brief kidnapping incident aside, up until that point they were known mainly for doing things like going to the Central Church and hanging a placard under the crucifix that said…ready?, “His Name Was Bob.” You wouldn’t think that would offend people or set them off. Confuse them, maybe, but it’s not exactly like swearing at someone now, is it? “His Name Was Bob.” See, according the press release, (There was one, of course, written by Karen to explain this act of desecration) “Christ is nothing more than fiction. This fictional creation, the Lord and Savior of mankind, can therefore be anything we chose. And we, the Clear Thinkers, choose to name him Bob.”

I’m still not sure I understand, honestly. But they were making fun of things that shouldn’t be made fun of. The government did not find such mocking of the official religion appropriate. Whatever questions people had about faith and God and Christ and all that good stuff they kept to themselves. Those that did otherwise were sought out and imprisoned or re-educated until they saw the light. Most citizens just went with it. It really wasn’t worth the effort to get into when more important matters like making the rent had to be taken care of.

The point is, this “His Name Was Bob” thing annoyed the government but was way too lofty and confusing to have much impact on the general population. They saw it on the news and wondered who Bob was and what he had to do with the Church. The Clear Thinkers’ press release was largely buried by the government and most people that did get a hold of it just thought the whole thing was kind of silly.

There was one journalist who saw it and blogged about how brilliant it was. About how it questioned the very foundation of religion, government and the relationship between the two. I actually read it. I can’t say I really understood what he was going on about. If most people reacted the way I did, it would be a shame because the aforementioned journalist was tracked down and killed shortly afterward.

The fact was that Karen and the Clear Thinkers had been known for this “Bob” thing and not a whole lot else. Well, that kidnapping. But other than that. How exactly they got from that to “Let’s Kill God” is a bit of a story. What’s even more of a story is exactly how I, Daniel L. Hastings, ever got involved with the whole thing. Especially, in that particular way.

It started one night when I got a call about a homicide. Not as unusual an event as one might think in my nightly routine. You see, I was a Police Inspector. Not just an Inspector, but a Chief Inspector. A Chief Inspector for The People’s Protection Agency. The Feds. The Big Boys. People would see me arrive on the scene and quake in their boots. Yeah. I was The Man with a capital “M.” The face of the law in all its confusing, random, violent, “you better watch your step” glory. I have to admit, I kind of liked that part of it. It was certainly a head trip knowing that a few words from me could land somebody in an interrogation camp for the rest of their lives. I’d be scared of me too, knowing I could do that.

Of course, the flip side was that, as a Chief Inspector, I could lose favor with certain people and end up in such a camp myself. Such things occurred fairly rarely but with just enough frequency to make sure we didn’t step out of line ourselves. It was a reminder to us to do or jobs and do them well but to never, ever, let our personal viewpoints, personalities or reputations overshadow that of the Party or Church. I was perfect for the job and had gotten several rapid promotions. I reached my current position at the relatively young age of forty-one. But I’m not here to talk about myself.

So, the homicide case I was referring to…It was a cold night, in the low thirties, when I got the call. It was about four A.M. or so. The Ring Road was empty and I was able to make the drive out to Halmen Estates in about twenty-minutes. Since I was alone on the drive, I put the radio on for the trip and found myself listening to Aretha Franklin’s early gospel music. The lyrics were deemed somewhat offensive to the official doctrine and there were those that tried to get such music banned. However, more than one Party Official was an Aretha Franklin fan and decided to let the infraction slide. A man’s got to get his groove on.

I was almost disappointed to arrive so quickly at the scene of the crime. I was really enjoying my music. But duty called and I slowly weaved my way through the squad cars with their lights flashing. The driveway was a long, winding affair, up a steep hill. There was a gate and a large lawn. Whoever lived here was somebody with a bit of money and a lot of connections. That whole part of St. Dons was reserved for party loyalists, government officials and young blond actresses. I won’t even bother getting into how that particular mix came about. But it was an interesting section of the city, to say the least.

There were the usual looks and whispers as I drove up to the front of the mansion. The thing was huge but looked like it was made out of cardboard. It was easily ten thousand square feet and, believe it or not, had Cherubs attached to the roof. Fat, little, piggy-looking angels with bows and arrows that were hung like gargoyles. Personally, I’d have liked another one of a griffin eating one of those fat little suckers, but that’s just me.

It started to rain. I tried to think of how impressive that made me look. “Chief Inspector Daniel L. Hastings walked from his sedan. The wet cement reflected the flashing lights of the squad cars as he made his way through the cold, pounding rain.” It didn’t work. It was nasty outside. Really foul. I covered my head and ran inside like a little school girl. I would have much preferred still being home, alone, in bed. For all the coolness and power trippy-ness that came with being a Chief Inspector, it could really be a pain in the ass.

I was let into the foyer by a uniformed officer. Overhead was a backlit, stained glass dome. The subject of this massive dome glasswork was none other than the same sort of fat-looking cherubs that had adorned the exterior. It occurred to me, I might have just walked into a large and expensive brothel. But no such luck. The gold gilded furniture and white fur rugs were actually someone’s personal taste. The taste of the person now slumped over their kitchen table with a gun in their hand and a good chunk of their head gone.

This was the problem. I mean, aside from the obvious one that a guy is sitting at the kitchen table dead. Whoever the dead man was, he was somebody big. If not, he wouldn’t have lived in the horrible monstrosity of a house in an even more horrible part of town. The second part of the complication was that, officially speaking, it was not his life to take. He had done a big no no. Very big, in fact. Church doctrine was pretty clear that if you committed suicide you went to hell and had all sorts of very bad things happen to you for eternity. Which was enough to keep a good chunk of the potentially suicidal populace afraid to actually do the deed.

However, there was a significant amount of people that were so depressed and in such emotional pain they really couldn’t grasp the idea of an afterlife being worse than anything that they were already experiencing. So, they went ahead and did it anyway. It was because of these, “fine, whatever, go ahead and send me to hell” people that a subsection was added to The Sanctity of Life laws. Not only would the person evil enough to kill themselves go to hell, all their assets would be forfeited to the State. Moreover (I can’t believe I just used that word. Sorry.). Moreover, the relatives of the person who had killed themselves would also forfeit all their assets. In theory, they could even face murder charges for not intervening and preventing the heretical act.

In short, killing yourself was a big deal. Not only to you, the deceased (obviously), but to your parents, spouse and children. One unintended consequence of this was that many a gloomy teenager who were angry at the parents just loved the fact they could screw them over by offing themselves. So, for several years, teen suicide rates actually increased. It was only when the courts were allowed to disregard these acts of revenge and waive such penalties that the suicide rates returned to their normal, pre-Sanctity of Life levels.

The good news in this case was that the victim, or technically, perpetrator, was no Goth-loving teenager. He was a man well into his fifties, if not early sixties. According to the briefing officer, the perp/victim’s name was Robert San Sebastian. He had lived in this horrible house of his, alone, for three years. No record of any spouse. When I asked about any sort of work identification, the officer said he hadn’t seen any, but hadn’t searched the house. He wanted to make sure I was present and that he had my Ok before doing so.

I thanked the officer for his good work and took a closer look at my friend missing a chunk of his head. It looked like he had held the gun up to his temple and pulled the trigger. I was thankful he had not been one of those morons who put the gun in his mouth and sent a bullet through his face or neck and managed to survive. Those idiots cost the State a lot of money between their special medical needs and the cost of their re-education.

The gun was new. Probably legally purchased at the Guns Express down on the Boulevard. I’d have the permit checked but it wouldn’t have much information on it other than the man’s name and address. Robert San Sebastian. What sort of name is that, anyway?

A quick walk down the personal quarters wing of the house lead me to his bedroom. There had been an attempt to make the place feel more masculine by having animal heads mounted on the wall. The “macho, world-traveling hunter” look. And then I saw the photo on his dresser. It was of Robert San Sebastian with an attractive older woman. The most striking thing about her was how much she resembled him. She was around my age and had that sort of (fake) blond hair, sorority girl, look that some men enjoyed. But her facial features and general physique were similar to his. If that was his sister, Robert just ruined her life. Big time. She was going to be prosecuted by the State for not stopping her brother from having bad taste and the nerve to kill himself. Or at least the second one.

There was a second photo of him kissing the woman. Like, romantic, tongue-involved, kind of kissing. If that was his sister, he had some other issues going on beyond the ones previously mentioned. So, assuming this woman was not his sibling from some mountain clan where such physical interactions were acceptable between brother and sister, I assumed that she was his girlfriend. But she still looked weirdly similar to him. What narcissists. I called in the briefing officer and had him bag the photos for me. I needed to talk to this woman. Maybe she could shed some light on Robert San Sebastian’s state of mind and what drove him to this awful cherub-loving state of self-loathing.

I then heard the Medical Examiner and his team arrive with all their gear. A voice I knew well yelled throughout the cardboard hallways. “Hastings? You here?” it asked. I exited the faux-haunting lodge and returned to the kitchen. Boratch was already causing problems. “Did you fools really walk into my crime scene?! How am I supposed to be able to learn anything from a scene already contaminated by you clods? Hmm? Tell me. How is this a good thing for anybody?” The poor uniform made the mistake of trying to answer. “Sir, we did not…” and that was as far as he got before Boratch raised the volume and intensity of his tirade and really went after the officer.

Boratch knew the poor kid had probably done everything right and that the crime scene was just fine. But he was not happy being called out at night in the rain and felt like yelling at somebody. This particular officer just happened to be there. It had happened so often, to so many of them, that many of the kid in uniform’s colleagues were trying not to laugh. They didn’t think it was so funny when it was them getting the verbal beat down. But it was actually something which had become a right of passage. Boratch was loud but harmless. In fact, on more than one occasion, he had actually covered for an officer, or two, who had not appropriately followed procedure. Don’t get me wrong, he yelled his head off at them and bellowed like an aging opera singer. But when the reports were written, they made no mention of any mistakes made and fledgling careers were allowed to continue.

“Boratch, quit yelling at the kid and tell me something useful.” Boratch turned. He still had an angry glare in his eyes. Then his face became one huge smile and he hugged me. Yes, hugged me, right there at the crime scene with a corpse not two feet away from us. Such were the ways of Medical Examiner Boratch. “Chief Inspector Hastings! Such a site for sore eyes!” It had only been about two days since we saw each other last, but it was good to be missed, I suppose. “How are you?” he asked. “Just fine, Samuel. At least as fine as can be, given the circumstances.”

Boratch looked over to the body. “Who is he? Some party official?” “I don’t know yet?” Boratch stepped closer to the corpse on the table. It had already starting smelling. Not the process of decay and decomposition of the body kind of smelling. Mr. San Sebastian wasn’t dead long enough for that, yet. But the degrading, humiliating ritual that all humans do as their final farewell to this life. They shit themselves.

As Boratch and his people did their thing in the kitchen, I returned to the bedroom. After a bit of looking around I found San Sebastian’s wallet. Ostrich skin, of course. There was over three hundred dollars inside it. There were also more photos of his female companion. In addition, there were a lot of business cards inside, a party membership ID, discount cards to various fast food restaurants and not a whole lot else. I then noticed the work ID badge. It was for Life Gen, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the country. His title was on it. “Senior Vice-President of Sales, Golden Years Division,” Whatever that means. I also found his cell phone.

His phone list was huge. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of numbers. I looked up a few of them. Hospitals and Physicians networks. Pretty logical considering what he appeared to do for a living. Our two tiered medical system left room for a lot of people like San Sebastian to make a great deal of money. There was, in theory, medical care provided by the State for all. However, if you could afford private care you were encouraged to do so. The State care was basically kept at a Third World level very intentionally. This was for two reasons. One, a proper health care system would cost billions and the government didn’t want to fund it. And two, they didn’t want it to be so good people might actually want to use it instead of paying for their own. It was bad for the economy, or at least corporate profits, which many assumed was the same thing.

I was just starting to weed out the few phone numbers that were not clearly business related from the others when Boratch yelled for me to return to the kitchen. Before I had even entered the room Boratch was coming at me. “Alright, I’m not sure what you expect me to do here but it’s not going to be easy.” “What do you mean?” I asked. Boratch looked around the room at all the other people milling about and pulled me aside. He got so close to me I could smell the stale vodka on his breath. “What answer do you need?” he asked. “I don’t know yet. I don’t know enough about who he was.” “Alright, I’ll put “Evidence Inconclusive” for now but that’s about as conclusive as I have ever seen.” He moved his arm from his side to his head and pretended to pull a trigger. “I’m not sure we want that finding yet. But tell me, unofficially, what your findings would be under normal circumstances” I said.

He understood what I was asking and laid it out very quickly. San Sebastian had a drink or two, put the pistol up to his forehead, and pulled the trigger himself. Nobody else was involved and it was definitely, positively, not an accident. I told Boratch to do as he had said and mark his report “inconclusive pending further investigation.” I needed to make a call before I could do anything more.

I walked down the other hallway stepped into a large, open room. It was filled with fake Roman statues of naked people. I tried to ignore my surroundings and shut the door behind me. I dialed the number of Minister Kapinskov. It was five thirty in the morning. He was not going to be pleased to hear from me at this hour.

His assistant answered. “This is Chief Inspector Hastings. I need to speak with the Minister.” The assistant did not bother to ask if it was urgent or if it could wait for a few hours. Obviously, if I was calling now, I needed to speak with his boss.

A groan came over the line. “Minister Kapinskov? It’s Chief Inspector Hastings.” I explained the reason for my call. The conversation did not go well. I needed to know if he wanted this whole thing to go away or to be reported straight. “What did you say his name was again?” the Minister asked. “San Sebastian, Robert San Sebastian” “I’ve never heard of him.” “So, what would you like me to do then?” I asked. His answer did not make me very happy. Basically, he said to keep the whole thing covered up until we could learn more about who he was and who he was connected with. But the Minister wanted the option left open to tell the full truth or maybe even blow the crime up into something bigger. If San Sebastian was an ally of one of his political enemies, the damage a scandal would cause might be well worth the trouble.

The problem wasn’t going to be covering it up. That was old hat. Routine. But what if San Sebastian was connected to someone huge? Someone of Minister Kapinskov’s level or higher? They would bring every bit of power they could down on me to make sure the situation was handled they way that they needed. Which might be very different from the way Minister Kapinskov wanted. And yours truly would be caught between the two. I really didn’t need this sort of complication in my life.

I didn’t leave the crime scene until seven in the morning. I should have gone to the station immediately to file a report. But I needed eggs. Eggs and bacon. And ham. And coffee. A lot of coffee. I wasn’t actually sleepy. Just that sort of tired that makes you a little light headed and makes thinking coherently a major chore. I had my choice of three fast food chain places or driving an extra twenty minutes out of my way to Kimmel’s. I chose Kimmel’s. The food there wasn’t anything special. In fact, it tended to be on the overly greasy side. However, it was across from the University and I always found going there gave me a warm, nostalgic kind of feeling. The fact that young, college-aged women could always be found there had absolutely nothing to do with it.

I parked my car and walked into the diner. The place was packed. Luckily, being alone, I could usually find a place by the counter. I heard the voices of some of the young college girls of the type previously described from a booth behind me. Actually, it wasn’t right behind me. It was well across the restaurant. These girls were being very, very loud. Their conversation seemed to be about a certain teaching assistant but seemed mostly of the words, “like” “I mean” and “and he goes.” It made me wonder what sort of youths we were letting into our universities, now. In my day, there were actually some basic requirements and a certain level of intellect required to be allowed admission. Now-a-days, however, it seemed to come down to who your parents were and if you could pay the ever rising “Tuition Supplement.”

Officially speaking, higher education was free to any worthy citizen in our country. However, much like the health care system, a dual track system was created. The free one was allowed to remain but was slowly starved financially and shrunk down to near nothingness. The other, private one, under the “Tuition Supplement” heading, required massive amounts of money. At one point, this money was borrowed by students from banks which charged them exorbitant interest rates. However, after a great number of our recent graduates defaulted on these massive loans and ended up in prison, the State came up with a much better solution. Students were required to pay back their loans in a timely manor or they would be, involuntarily, inducted into the Armed Forces for nine years. This applied to both men and women.

It was actually a brilliant bit of thinking. After several long-lasting and bloody wars around the world, the average solider had gone from fairly intelligent young man, capable of handling advanced weaponry, to complete moron who had no other prospects in life. This was born out in statistics which showed a twenty-one point drop in the IQ levels of the average recruit over a ten year period. By making the best and the brightest, at least those of the best and the brightest without the right connections or cash, become part of the military, things were set right. We once again had a smart and educated military that we could be count on to kill people in an efficient manor.

“Oh my God!” a young shrill voice shrieked. “MY God too” another responded. “I hate when you do that!” the first shrill voice replied. It was all too much. I was not pleased to have to get up from my seat but I was less pleased at listening to our future leaders cackle on so loudly at that early hour in the morning. I made my way across the diner and over to their booth.

“Can we help you?” shrill girl number one of four asked. I was so annoyed with her I hardly noticed her lovely, lithe, young body and the way her sweater was clinging to it. “Yes, please keep your voices down a little” I said. “Were we that loud? We’re sorry” shrill girl number two said. The one who I might have noticed was an over-weight, short, Asian girl with a very bad complexion, if I had been paying attention to such things. “Yes, you were. Please keep it down.” “Sorry, we will” shrill girl number one promised. I nodded and walked away. No need to show my ID or play the “do you know who I am?” card at all. Another example of how if you are just nice to people they will be quite reasonable.

I had only gotten about twenty feet across the room when shrill girl number one then added a parting comment. “Asshole.” The malicious little youths erupted into a jarring, earth-shattering noise which put my teeth on edge. This, combined with the fact I saw my eggs, ham and bacon getting cold on the counter during this whole time, did not make me a happy man. Not in the least.

I walked back over to the group of self-involved youngsters. My expression changed to one which has been known to make suspects confess at the mere sight of it. I pointed to shrill girl number one. “You, get up. You’re coming with me” I said. “What for?” I just glared at her. “Shut your mouth and come with me.” She thought about resisting. I pulled out my ID card.

The shrill girl then had that magic instance of recognition I have seen a lot as an Inspector. It is the look of a criminal who believed they would never be caught as they come to realize they are going off to jail. It’s a sort of “Oh, that’s not the way it was supposed to go” look that I actually enjoy watching a great deal. This little, well-formed Harpy did a very nice little version of it. Her disrespectful attitude evaporated on the spot.

“Come on, move” I commanded. She got up from the booth. Every single person in the place was trying not to look like they were staring, yet, doing exactly that. I guided the young girl out. Shrill girl number four spoke up. She was shockingly polite for a young blond with beautiful eyes but not so great body. “Officer, may I ask where you are taking her?” I turned my death glare upon her. “No.”

Shrill girl number one became completely silent as I lead her out of the diner. I walked her over to my sedan and saw her eyes grow wide with terror as she saw the government issued plates on it and confirmed what was happening to her. My plain looking little sedan was associated with many things that caused fear in people. Far more than an average squad car, being taken away in one was not the sign of a happy future ahead. I opened the back door for my prisoner. “Get in.” I didn’t bother to cuff her. I didn’t need to. She got in and looked up at me with tears in her eyes. “I said get in.” She did as she was told and climbed into the back of the sedan. When the door shut, the tears really started to flow. Maximum terror achieved. I did ask nicely, first. Don’t forget that.

I then returned to the diner, leaving the girl in the back of the sedan. I couldn’t see her but I imagined my passenger was now as confused as she was scared. As I walked back into the restaurant, all eyes were upon me as I took my seat back at the counter. The place was silent. I turned and faced the “trying not to be caught looking but clearly looking” crowd. “Does anybody have a problem with me they would like to discuss?” I asked. Nothing but mummers and lots of shuffling. More than a few patrons decided leaving would be a good idea.

My waitress came immediately. “Your food has gone cold, I’ll order you another.” I thanked her and drank my coffee. The whispers resumed behind me among the remaining patrons. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other shrill girls leave money on the table and leave along with some of the others. Through the glass facing the parking lot, I faintly heard one of them yell to my passenger “Don’t worry, we’ll find you and get you out. Promise.”

None of this was what I had planned. I really just wanted to have a good breakfast after being up most of the night dealing with Robert Saint Sebastian. And this had really put a dent in things. Although I kind of enjoyed being able to silence a whole restaurant full of people and shut shrill girl up, the trade-off just wasn’t worth it. I was so self-conscious that people were looking at me, I didn’t enjoy the meal at all. The worry of having eggs run down my chin or something was highly distracting. I ate quickly but felt like I had to stay longer than I wanted just to make a point. It was all very uncomfortable, which really pissed me off. In spite of being told the meal was on the house, I paid and even over-tipped as I returned to the parking lot. Shrill girl was still in the back weeping as her friends looked on from across the parking lot. She wasn’t handcuffed and the door was unlocked. She could have run away at any point. However, the fear of further punishment was so great that I knew that she wouldn’t dare.

I approached her three friends, my awesome, terrorizing presence now in full force. I think they even stepped back a few feet. “Go on. Get to class or wherever you need to be. This is no longer your concern unless you would like to join your friend in the back of the sedan.” They took off so quickly that I barely had time to notice the rather well shaped ass of one of them.

I then got into the drivers seat of my car and looked back at my passenger in the rear-view mirror. She averted her eyes from mine and tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle her tears. “You need to be more careful who you antagonize” I said. She didn’t answer. “Did you hear me?” “Yes, Sir.” I turned my head around to face her. “Look at me.” She did, bloodshot eyes all pink, but otherwise none the worse for wear. “Things have changed and are getting even worse. You need to be very, very careful about saying the wrong thing or making the wrong enemies. Does that make sense to you?” “Yes, Sir” she said. “Are you sure you understand?” I asked. She nodded “Yes, Sir. I understand. I really do.”

I stayed silent for a moment. I strongly doubted she would change her ways but at least I had tried. “Alright then. Get out of my car.” She didn’t move. “Go on, you’re free to go. Do you need a note or anything for being late to class?” She shook her head. “Then go. The door’s not locked. Get out.” She seemed to think it was a trick or something and it took her a moment to get her body to move. But she did. She got out of my car and was still standing in the parking lot staring at me as I drove off. I have to admit, she was rather pretty for being such a petulant brat.

As I was driving my way to the station I had no idea at the time that my little breakfast stop would have three unintended and unpleasant consequences. One I have already told you about. The large, wonderfully greasy breakfast that I was so hoping to enjoy turned out to be completely unpleasant and stressful. I even got indigestion afterward and was farting and burping for hours afterward. If that weren’t horrific enough, there was another depressing consequence later that night. I was home thinking I might indulge myself in some self-pleasure, priestly warnings disregarded. I was hoping to capitalize on my recent interactions with the lovely young college girl I had made take a time out in the back of my sedan. One, maybe, involving spankings and other punishments for her own good. Much to my annoyance, however, instead of the hot young co-ed getting what she deserved, all I could think about was another certain moment of the interaction.

It was that brief second when I had looked at her in the rear view mirror right before turning around to face her. She looked so very, very young. Not hot and sexy, barely legal, young. Like a kid. A child. Someone that might have been my own daughter if I had gone that particular route in life. That image made it impossible to think of her as the sexual plaything I was trying to create in my fantasies. It completely ruined everything. How annoying. I just went to bed and forgot about having any fun thoughts of debauchery. Mission unfulfilled. What was even worse was the another feeling I was left with. It just kind of lingered there and never left. I felt very, very old.

The next morning I went to see Father Mike before going into the office. I had known Father Mike for almost twenty years, now. We had gone to University together before he changed paths and left for the Priesthood. He had every intention in the world of being a fund manager for one of the major banks. However, back then, the Collapse was at full peak. There was talk of the banks being nationalized and the entire field of finance being overhauled. Those events had nothing to do with his decision to enter the Priesthood. Just as the timing had nothing to do with the fact that the Oligarchs and the Church were about to ascend hand-in-hand to take over the nation. Nor did it have to do with the fact that the Church desperately needed new blood that was highly educated and good at managing their vast wealth at that very same time. Or that the clergy would become more rich and powerful than they had been in six or seven centuries. Nope. None of it effected him making his decision at all. Not in the least.

The thing that made Father Mike my friend, then and now, is how open he was about it all, after he got to know you a little bit. Over the fourth of fifth of many beers, he talked about his reasoning to me, once. Joining the Church was an open invitation to a life far better than any finance guy’s. He, flat out, admitted it. But Father Mike said the one thing he was worried about was the whole celibacy thing. He knew, or thought he knew at the time, anyway, that he was not the sort of man to let his healthy, physical urges go unfulfilled. However, even that problem also looked to be on its way to resolution.

In spite of trying very, very hard to ignore all the evidence, the Church had come to realize that a certain unhealthy element attracted to minors might be a larger part of their organization than they would have liked. One very popular plan at the time was to scrap the celibacy requirement and to encourage marriage. Eventually though, it was deemed too politically unpopular to become official. But they still liked the idea. Pedophiles were bad business in every sense of the phrase. So, an unofficial policy was, in fact, put in place. Men who liked woman, sexually, like Father Mike, were told they could have physical relationships as long as they kept it on the down low. There would still be no marriage allowed, though. Some traditions had to remain in place for the public eye.

The new policy had a rather interesting result. It was a well known fact the chicks dug priests. At least in our country. Just one of those things. Men had strippers, dominatrixes and college girls. Women had movie stars and priests. So, when this unofficial policy became almost, but not quite, official, it made priests the most sexually desirable men in the country. Even rock stars were jealous. And the “no marriage” rule made it perfect for guys that just wanted their fun without the whole nasty commitment thing. It really worked out well for many a horny man.

The saddest part of the story was this: Father Mike, who entered the Priesthood because he could find a lucrative career opportunity, didn’t. Well, technically he did find them. A lot of them, in fact. But he turned them down. Which is even worse. Somewhere during his first year at the Seminary he “truly found God.” Although in a position to attain lucrative positions at major financial institutions handling the Churches billions, he declined every offer. Instead, Father Mike lived in a three-hundred square foot room which was also his office at the Mission. The rest of the building was used to house the homeless and provide food to anyone who asked. His financial skills, which could have, and should have, made him wealthy, were instead used to solicit donations and to make those donations work well enough in the not-so-free market to produce yields high enough to support the Mission. As for women, at least he didn’t screw that one up. Father Mike got his share and then some. I’m amazed the man could walk without limping, given some of the sexual work-outs he told me about.

Anyway, Father Mike was a stand up guy. You could still talk to him like a normal Joe. But you could also see how much his faith has done for him. He had this peace about him I truly admired. Kind of like he knew that, no matter what, it was all going to be Ok. Oh, how I envied that in him. I wouldn’t have the indigestion I do all the time if I had such certainty that the times we lived in were not going to turn out very, very badly. But Father Mike just seemed to know differently. He spent every waking hour, which was at least nineteen hours a day, making the world just a little bit better. Everyone who came into contact with him from the poor, drug-addicted bastard that needed a place to sleep, to the world weary Chief Inspector that need his advice, just seemed better off after encountering him.

Which is what brought me to him that afternoon. I walked over to his mission and made my way through the bustling commissary. The staff was preparing for the dinner rush already. Father Mike was busy supervising various tasks and was far too busy to speak with me. But, him being him, he made it feel as if he had all the time in the world just to hear my woes. We went for a walk in the park behind the mission which had once been a place to dump garbage and to shoot up. He waited patiently for me to tell him why I was there.

“Did you ever just have a feeling something really, really terrible was going to happen?” I asked. He said he did, long ago, before he found his own form of peace. He quickly honed in on what I was getting at. “Are you talking about a general, free floating anxiety or something specific?” he asked. “I don’t know.” And I didn’t. Which was why such a stupid answer was the most honest. “I think it’s a combination of seeing all these things lining up in a very damaging way and…” I didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “And what?” “I don’t know. Feeling like I’m just going with it. You know, like that old phrase. The light at the end of the tunnel is a train.” He smiled. “I haven’t heard that one in a while.” We sat down and he once again tried to get me to be as specific as possible.

I told him about work and how it was going well enough. I told him about a woman I had gone out with a few times but just stopped calling for some reason. I told him all sorts of whining, poor me, my life isn’t really fulfilling, middle-aged, regret filled stories. He listened to me in that way he does that people love him for. He is not just waiting for you to shut up so he can talk again. He is, really and truly, listening and hearing every word you say. It’s really kind of scary how much you find yourself drawn to him when he does that. Hell, it made me even want to sleep with him and I don’t go that way.

At the end of my self-indulgent rambling, he got right to the heart of the matter. “It sounds like you’ve convinced yourself you really don’t believe in anything. That it’s all just going through the motions and an unfulfilling waste of time.” Man, he was good. “Exactly!” He looked at me and nodded. I actually hated when he did that. The nodding thing. But it did usually mark the moment before he said something really wise and useful. “You believe in plenty of things” he said. “But I just told you. Work. Relationships…” He smiled. “Listen, I’ve known you for a long time. You are one of the most committed, driven men I have ever known. Your problem is the constant questioning. Quit questioning and just do. You might not grasp things intellectually that your heart already knows.”

I thought about what he said. Suddenly, I felt angry. “That’s all you’ve got? Your heart knows the truth? Seriously Mike, I mean Father Mike? Really?” He wasn’t offended. Alright, maybe he was. But he was pretty good about not letting it show too much. He spoke again. “Look, if this were the old days and I said that when we were both drunk out of our minds, you would totally get what I was saying. You really would.” “So, I’m too sober to think straight, right now?” I asked. “Kind of.”

The anger wasn’t leaving me. I was starting to really regret opening up to him. Maybe I had built him up into somebody more than he was. Maybe I had a secret sexual priest thing myself for all I knew. I just had one of those moments where I felt like I had just poured my heart out and gotten nothing in return. Kind of like telling a woman you are deeply, madly, in love with her and her replying “That’s nice. So, where are we going for dinner?”

My confidant and advisor continued. “Daniel, believe me. I’m not lying to you. I know this. I absolutely, positively know that you are not as lost you feel. You already know your path and I think THAT is what is really scaring you. Not all the rest of this complaining you’re doing about your life being so trivial and meaningless.” I shook my head. I’m not sure he was aware how annoying it was to hear someone tell you that you’re really not feeling what you are feeling. Just imagine someone telling you that you’re not upset that your dog died. That you just THINK that you’re upset. How irritating. But he kept at it.

He ended the ordeal by asking me about my plants. “Do you water it?” “Yes” I replied. “Why? If that plant dies does it cause you physical pain? Does it cost you your job? Does it in any way change your life in any noticeable way?” he asked. “No.” “Exactly” he said. And a look came into his eyes as if he had told me the biggest secret in the universe. Right. I guess I’m just not spiritually equipped to understand such profound wisdom. I told him I had to go. “Keep watering the plants, Dan. Keep watering the plants.”

The work day did not make my life feel any easier. I had just gotten in, when Boratch approached me. I hadn’t even taken my coat off. “Comrade Hastings! Greetings!” And then the hug. The satisfying but somewhat painful hug. And the breath. Boratch’s breakfast that morning seemed to have involved smoked fish of one sort or another. And coffee. Which didn’t stop him from telling me that we needed to go get coffee. I had yet to do my initial report from the San Sebastian thing and would catch a lot of flack for it unless it was on the bosses desk before ten. But Boratch insisted. So, coffee it was.

We walked outside and talked briefly about the weather. I wanted to ask him what this was really about but knew better than to do it anywhere near Headquarters. As we walked the eight blocks or so to his favorite coffee bar, he told me about his daughter Anna and how she was having problems with her husband. He had not only cheated on her but had done it very blatantly. Boratch was very upset about it. Not so much the cheating itself but the embarrassment it caused Anna. He angrily pointed out how disrespectful it was of her husband to do this to her. A real slap in the face. There were rules to the way these things were done and Anna’s husband had broken them.

“So, you want me to bring him in for questioning about something? Is that what this is all about?” I finally asked. Boratch looked at me. “What? No. I suppose maybe. I really hadn’t thought about it. You would do that for me?” “Of course. I’ve met Anna. She deserves better” I replied. “Like you, for instance?” he asked. “She could do worse” I said. The truth was I had no interest in Anna Boratch at all. She was older, nearly my age, and I did not find her physically appealing. She also sounded rather demanding from the stories Boratch told me about her. A big house in The Lake District. A vacation house in the South. The latest cars, dresses, furniture, etc. that her friend had. She really sounded like kind of a nightmare. No wonder the husband just gave up and started sleeping around so openly.

“Like I said, Anna is a great girl and deserves better” I repeated. Boratch looked at me as we approached the coffee bar. “I may take you up on your offer” he said. I was already regretting making it. On the one hand, Boratch was a great friend who had been part of my world for a long time. I liked the idea of helping him out. On the other, I had enough crap going on in my life without getting involved in the soap opera world of Anna Boratch. I was about to go into the coffee bar when Boratch stopped me. “It’s too crowded. Let’s go to the other one.” I looked through the glass door into the coffee bar. It didn’t seem any more crowded than usual. There was a line but it seemed to be moving fairly quickly. But Boratch insisted.

It was only when we walked another block or so that Boratch started talking again. “Let me think about your offer but that’s not why I asked you to walk with me.” “Ok” I said. “It’s about the San Sebastian case.” I stopped walking. “Ok.” He looked down at his muddy shoes for a moment. If I didn’t know better I would say he looked a little nervous. Boratch didn’t get nervous. So, seeing him look nervous made me nervous. “Well?” I prompted. He looked up and said very slowly. “I’ve declared it an Accidental Death.” I let that sink in for a moment.

“So, Robert San Sebastian mistakenly grabbed a pistol, held it to his temple and had a sudden convulsion of the finger that happened to be on the trigger?” Boratch let out a frustrated sigh. “You know how these things work. If Kapinskov had asked you to attain that finding, you would have. “But that’s the problem. Not only did he say NOT to find that conclusion. He wanted the case left open for a while to determine if it could be used against one of his opponents.” Boratch seemed to be getting angrier. “Accidental Death, my report will be to you before noon. Please don’t get in my way on this. Please” he said.

He started to walk away. “Samuel. I’ll do it. I’ll do as you ask but I need to know why. This is not going to go over well with Kapinskov.” “I understand. I know what I am asking you to do. But you know how these things work. I have been told in no uncertain terms what the report I make must say. So, it will say it. I would suggest you follow along and make sure the entire matter goes away as quickly as possible.” I looked at him but didn’t say anything more.

In all the years I had known Boratch we had traded many a favor. However, this was different. For one thing, his favors didn’t usually involve directly contradicting what the higher ups had told me. For another, he usually did me the courtesy of explaining why things needed to be done.” “Ok. Done.” I said. He looked relieved. “Thank you.”

The second coffee place was far more crowded than the other. We gave up and returned to Headquarters with nothing. As I left Boratch to return to my desk, he thanked me, once again. He looked exhausted. Not just from working too many hours but from spending his nights churning things over instead of sleeping. The fact that he wouldn’t tell me, someone I thought he trusted completely, what those things were, really bothered me.

Boratch’s report landed on my desk around four. It was delivered by a clerk and received by another clerk, both of who had to sign for it before being sent to a third clerk, then the office administrator, and then the office assistant, both of who also had to sign, before finally reaching my desk. I assumed Boratch had originally thought he would just drop it off himself. For one thing his office was directly below mine. Then, for reasons he probably would refuse to share, he decided to get as many official signatures on the document, as possible, to verify that the report had been delivered and gone through all the proper channels.

I looked over his findings. To say he fudged the facts would be a serious understatement. The report was flat out lies. It concluded that San Sebastian was cleaning his weapon and that it had accidentally gone off. Aside from the particularly bad phrasing which reminded me of something I told my priest once, it was also a conclusion which simply made no sense. Several contradictory photographs were not included in the report and three new ones were added. The three showed a gun cleaning kit on an examination bench and stated that the kit had been found on the kitchen table of the crime scene. Thankfully, there were no badly Photoshopped pictures of that. More than one Inspector had been caught out with amateurish fakes recently. It was still total crap but it was Boratch’s total crap so I would do as I had promised.

My own report corroborated his findings and backed him up to the hilt. I had thought about contacting Minster Kapinskov and giving him the heads up about the, soon to be released, findings but decided against it. There was no way to explain my actions without naming Boratch and I refused to do that. In addition, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Minister Kapinskov would still be furious that his orders had been superceded by someone else’s. Truthfully, lying was a better option.

I would wait for the call. I would turn in my report. I would wait for the Superintendent to rubber stamp it. I would wait for Kapinskov to learn of it. Then I would wait for that horrible accusing, berating, humiliating phone call. I figured that whole process would take at least a week normally but, given Kapinskov’s connections, could happen in as little as three days. Three days before a very powerful, well-connected government Minister called me and demanded to know what the fuck I thought I was doing. I felt ill just imagining it. I would feign incompetence and stupidity which, insultingly, was often readily accepted by others. Far, too much so, if I thought about it. But in this case, it would be my saving grace. The more incompetent I could appear, the more my report would be seen as a mistake, not an act of direct defiance.

The remainder of the work day was the usual nonsense of domestic violence, random street crimes and violent assaults which was far too trivial for someone in my position to be bothered with. I left the office by five thirty and stopped at a Chinese place to get my dinner. I usually got it to go but disliked the idea of being home while it was still light out. It was just one of those things. At the end of my dinner I opened my fortune cookie hoping for some profound wisdom. I thought it couldn’t be any worse than Father Mike’s rant about getting into gardening or whatever. I was wrong. My fortune cookie said simply this: “Next meal %10 off!” Not exactly what I was looking for but probably far more practical and useful than just about anything else. I saved almost two dollars on my next Kung Po Chicken.

By the time I got home, it had gotten dark and I felt I could relax in my apartment. Something about being at home watching TV when it was dark out felt safe and cozy, whereas doing so in the light made me feel pathetic. Kind of like I should be out doing things and being with people and getting laid. It was a relatively new thing that had happened to me in the last year or two. Until then, like most people, I actually liked the fact that the days were warmer and longer when spring came. Now, darkness and me had become friends. It was all seriously lame. Something I knew and just accepted.

I wanted to call Boratch to let him know I had turned in my report. However, I couldn’t. Our phones were being monitored. As one of the conditions to being hired in our jobs we both had to sign waivers that such monitoring was acceptable. We were assured it was only to protect us from any accusations of misconduct. By having recordings of our conversations, we could easily prove our innocence, should it prove necessary. In theory, it was only our cell phones used for work that offered this fantastic self-protection to us. But the reality was that any phone we owned and, for that matter, possibly our homes, cars and whatever else, were also monitored. All in the name of protecting us from false accusations, of course. I would tell Boratch soon enough. Probably in person tomorrow that I had signed off on his findings. But it was really irritating that I couldn’t somehow let him know now. The act somehow felt incomplete without that final exchange.

As I sat back in my chair about to flip through the channels, I looked around my cluttered apartment. I then realized something. Even if I wanted to follow Father Mike’s advice, I couldn’t. The only plant I owned was already looking quite dead.

The next morning did not start off well. The traffic on the way to work was extraordinarily bad. So much so, that I turned my official warning lights on and made the annoying people in my way pull to the side of the road. When I first started, it was the privilege of all those that worked for the Agency to clear traffic in this way. However, it soon became a point of real contention between government agencies which had the authority to use warning lights, and to disregard normal traffic laws, and which did not.

At one point, so many government and church employees had the right, that traffic accidents occurred on a regular basis between officials. It was after a particular incident involving the President of the Energy Resources Department having his Mercedes totaled by a lowly employee of The Parks Department that the rules were abruptly changed. Only the highest officials could now clear crowded roads at their whim. And, of course, law enforcement officials while on duty. Although technically not on duty yet, I was going to be late for duty. Which seemed close enough in my mind to do what was required. So, warning lights, it was.

I still arrived at Headquarters about fifteen minutes later than usual. Normally, no one would have noticed. However, this morning, one that I already mentioned did not start off very well, was truly cursed. Before I even had the chance to take my coat off and get my first cup of (at work) coffee, I was summoned. What made it even more painful, is that I was summoned by my boss, Superintendent Kim to be told that I had been summoned by someone else. An executive at Energex wanted to speak with me. He was waiting for me in the conference room. When I asked for some further explanation, Superintendent Kim smiled that evil smile of his and just said “You’ll find out soon enough, Chief Inspector.”

As curious as I was, I was actually really annoyed that I didn’t have time to go through my usual morning ritual. Normally, I get into the office, use the bathroom, talk with a few of my co-workers about sports events, get some coffee down the street, have more discussions about sports, check my emails and don’t actually start “working,” as such, until about an hour after my arrival. Yet, here was some executive with enough clout to keep my from my much needed Americano with three shots to discuss heaven only knows what.

I walked into the conference room and almost froze when I saw who was in it. It was the shrill college girl I had made sit in my car while I had my breakfast ruined. A man in his late forties wearing a very, very expensive looking suit was sitting next to her. These people clearly had no respect for the importance of breakfast and morning rituals. The man got up and walked toward me with an extended hand. “Chief Inspector Hastings, I believe” he said. “I’m Mike Laughton.” It all came out of his mouth in such a way intended to make me feel we had been friends for decades. “And I believe you have already met my daughter, Isabella.” The shrill girl stood up and also shook my hand. She didn’t say a word. The whole thing felt so strange I was about to ask, flat out, why they were there. I didn’t get the chance. This was clearly Mr. Laughton’s show.

“Please have a seat” he said. I did so, even though it seemed remarkable that this man was acting as if Headquarters were his home and I was the visitor. “I wanted to stop in today so that we could have a little discussion” he said. I finally got a sentence out “What would you like to discuss Mr. Laughton?” “Mike, please.” Another Mike? In that brief moment before he explained his presence, I was struck with a terrible fear. In spite of the friendly, let’s have a chat façade, I was about to get my teeth kicked in for how I treated his little brat princess. Just my luck the stupid little nitwit I picked to teach a lesson to would have a daddy connected to the big wigs. He was here to make sure that I would pay the price for my insolence. “Isabella has something she would like to say to you. Don’t you Isabella?” And then, in an instance, it all became clear. The exact opposite of what I had feared. Mr. Laughton had a healthy respect for authority and was teaching his dirty little minx of a daughter to do the same.

There was a long, pregnant pause as Isabella looked at me with those lovely green eye of hers. I imagined finding all sorts of ways for her to make it up to me which I’m sure her father would have been abhorred by. Isabella said what she had come there to say. “You’re an asshole.”

The words just hung there. Her words. Did she really just say that? She continued. “You’re an asshole but I understand how, in your own egotistical, dirty old man, way, you actually meant to do something good. So, I forgive you.” I looked over to the father. Mr. Laughton was brimming over with pride. “You forgive me?” I asked. “Yes, I do. You can’t help who you are or the fact that you have such a limited capacity to understand the world.” My head was exploding. Exactly what I had feared before deciding I didn’t need to fear it was happening. “What?! Now, look here you little…!” “I would watch your tone Chief Inspector” Mr. Laughton said. “After hearing about what you did to my daughter and your abuse of power, I was fully prepared to make a few phone calls and to have you fired.” I turned to him. Sized him up. Could this faux-friendly fake really have the juice to get a Chief Inspector of the People’s Protection Agency fired like that? I saw his smile and relaxed posture and knew the answer. Yes. Yes he could.

Laughton continued. “It was only after Isabella pleaded with me to be more understanding that we agreed to let you off with a simple apology.” Apology? An apology to this annoying brat and her narcissistic, oh-so-commanding- in-that-friendly-way-people-do-when-they-know-they-hold-all–the-cards-way father for something completely in my purview to do?

“Did you have anything that you wanted to add, Isabella?” Mr. Laughton asked. Isabella just smiled at me with a look so superior I wanted to push her face in mud. Or better yet, shit. I wanted to find the world’s most used, and least cleaned, outhouse, grab her legs and plunge her into it head first, over and over and over again. That would teach her to smile like that at me. A voice cried out in my head. I’m a Chief Inspector, damn it! I have authority! I am someone! The shrill little bitch and her gloating father looked at me and waited. My cue. My cue to verbally demean myself and make it clear to everyone in the room that I was a spineless, groveling peon who had no pride.

And I did. I said the horrible words about how very wrong I was and blamed some of it on the fatigue and stress of the crime scene I had just come from. And I said both the “s” and “a” words. In fact, I heard the words “sorry” and “I apologize” come out of my mouth multiple times. If Isabella could have looked any more pleased with herself she would burst into a blazing explosion of smug rays brighter than a thousand suns. Oh, how I hated her. And her father. Death. Death by fire ants and flesh eating termites would not have been justice enough.

And it got even worse. I know. I know. It’s hard to image how my humiliation and degradation at having to apologize to this nasty child could have gotten worse. But it did. First of all Mr. Laughton acted all, “now that wasn’t too bad, was it Chief Inspector?” He didn’t exactly say it but it was clear that he thought he was a super-great guy for sparing my job and handling things the way he had. I could see where little Isabella got her smug ray gene. But it was her, that sadistic harpy, that really knew how to twist the knife in. I should have known something was up when Mr. Laughton left the room and left Isabella alone with me for a moment. As she left, she said “And it’s really just pathetic the way you leer at young girls. Sad really. Have a nice day, Inspector.”

Finally, it was over. They had gone. I sat in the conference room for a few moments trying to recover. I had done my share of shit eating over the years but this was top of the list. There was a time when I would have just refused. Or quit. Or let them have it with both guns. When did all that go out the window? It’s not like I had kids to feed or a family depending on me. What had I become?

In spite of it being only ten in the morning, I really wanted a beer. Somehow, I resisted the urge and pulled myself together enough to walk back to my desk. I was almost there when Superintendent Kim waved me into his office. “How’d it go?” he asked. “Fine” I said, not really wanting to relive the nightmarish details. “Did they give you anything? If they did, just be discrete about it. You know how it is.” I wasn’t following. “Give me anything? No, Sir. Did you expect them to?” He said that he did. Mr. Laughton had been so enthusiastic about the way I had gone the extra mile to help out his daughter that the Superintended expected him to offer me some token of gratitude. Cash or a lavish gift of some kind. I assured the Superintendent that no such gift had been offered. “I guess some people still believe that just words are enough. Pity” the Superintendent said. “Just words.” If he only knew what I had just gone through. I felt like pulling out my pistol and shooting him.

I called Boratch and asked him if we could meet for lunch. He said “yes” very quickly and named a time. Then he hung up. I realized, after the fact, the he probably assumed I was asking him to meet so we could discuss the San Sebastian case. Honestly, I had forgotten about our friend with his missing chunk of skull. I was far too engulfed in my own world of humiliation and pain to really care right then. I thought about calling Samuel back and telling him it wasn’t a request for one of “those” kind of lunches. But I really needed to bitch to someone and decided to just let him believe what he believed. Better that then having my lunch re-scheduled for some later day. My venting could not wait.

By one o’ clock my mood had changed from an energetic, I want to kill things, anger to more of a depression. I was hating my life. A beer or two and some good conversation with a friend would do wonders to make existence feel bearable again. I walked down the staircase and was hit by the familiar scent of chemicals used to inspect and preserve the dead. The Medical Examiner’s office was quiet except for the sound of a power saw cutting through some body part. Most of the staff were already on their lunch.

I followed the sound of the saw and found Boratch buzzing away energetically at the corpse of a very, very obese man. He was slicing him open and about to fold his skin down to do an autopsy. Then he saw me and stopped. “Is it one already? I had no idea” he said. The man loved his work. How else could you explain how someone got into the zone playing with dead people? “Let me wash up and then we’ll go.” Once again, I thought about clarifying my request for our lunch meeting and downgrading its urgency. I could tell that Boratch would much rather have been left alone with his obese friend than to have to go out with me. But I had my needs.

A few minutes later Boratch returned smelling of harsh soap on top of a layer of sweat and chemicals. It was the cologne of his trade. As usual, we just made small talk about the weather and various sporting events as we drove to a fish place in the Hollows section of town. Then Boratch cut to the chase. Or, should I say, he thought he was. “So, let me guess, Friend. You are going to tell me that you’ve thought about my request regarding the San Sebastian case and for various reasons, simply cannot do it. Before you say anything, just let me say I understand and completely sympathize with your position.” For some reason I actually enjoyed him going on about things the way he was and was really reluctant to stop him. So, I let him continue. “It was a horrible position to put you in and, as difficult as it will be, I will inform those that wanted the outcome as I asked that it will not be so and just deal with the consequences.” I really was enjoying how serious and dramatic he was being. I guess being a fucker to someone else felt good after feeling so powerless and bludgeoned all morning.

“I already did it. The report reads “Accidental Death” just like you said. Already turned it in. Done.” He looked at me for a moment. “So, do you expect some sort of complication? Why the big lunch meeting then?” “No, it should be fine. Another false report. Big deal. Whatever. No, the reason I needed to see you has nothing to do with that. It has to do with something that happened this morning.”

I started to tell him the details of my ordeal in slightly embellished fashion to make a better story out of it. I had just gotten to the part where I was describing the overly friendly manner of Mr. Laughton when Samuel interjected. “You bastard. You let me worry all morning about that report and then let me think there’s a problem with it on purpose, didn’t you?” I denied it, of course. But he knew. Samuel and I were close enough that we understood these things about one another. “I can’t believe you would do that to me” he added. “You got your report finding. Quit your complaining. Now, do you want to hear about this little college twit and her father or not?” I asked.

After a fine meal of fried Pollack fresh from the river, I actually apologized to him about not being more aware of how anxious he might have been about the San Sebastian thing. I didn’t go as far as to admit how much I enjoyed hearing him be all dramatic about something that was already taken care of and done. But I did say that I was sorry. Seemed to be the day for me to make amends to folks. So, why not? He even laughed at the right points in my story and mocked me accordingly for getting myself in such a position in the first place. He was a good friend.

Things were happily uneventful for the next couple of days. Just the usual agitators, bank robbers, protestors, abortionists and so on. It was only when coming home on that next Thursday that anything of note took place. I was driving by Saint Anthony’s Square when I noticed people running. Most were running from the square, trying to get away from something. A few hearty souls were running towards it. All with video camera and their cell phones, of course. I really didn’t care much about it either way and would have kept driving but traffic had come to a standstill.

As I was sitting in my car debating whether I should use my emergency lights or not, I saw a woman covered in something. Foam. She was covered, head to toe, in white foam, like the sort washing machines create. And then I saw a second person, and a third, also covered in foam. A call came over my radio. “Terrorist Incident at St. Anthony’s Square. Any available units, please report.” As a Chief Inspector I did not have to answer such general calls the way regular officers did. However, it would probably make me look good with Superintendent Kim if I did. And it was pretty odd the way these people were all covered in foam, for some reason.

I radioed in that I had already arrived at the crime scene and would be investigating. I made sure my immediate response was noted in order to get the credit I fully deserved. I then pulled my car to the side of the road and got out. I had barely walked five feet when a swarm of more foam covered people all ran right towards me. I tried to stop one or two of them but they just ran right on by. Finally, I saw an old woman hobbling as fast as she could to try to get past me. A crippled old person I could probably catch. So, I did. I grabbed her by both foamy shoulders and asked her what was going on. “The church” she said. “It’s the church.” And then she wriggled free and slipped away.

I made my way toward the square. The amount of people running from it had dwindled to near nothing. Now, it was far more about over-excited passer-bys hoping to see something interesting. I saw an attractive woman in a wet, white shirt and decided to approach her. I put on my most impressive, Chief Inspectorly, airs and started her way. How could she not be impressed by my commanding presence and aura of authority and power? Just as I was getting close enough to determine her eye color and other physical details, she turned and looked right at me. At which point my leather shoes slid across something very slick and I promptly landed on my ass.

It hurt. A lot. For a moment I stared up at they sky wondering what had happened. It took me a second to realize I had slipped on some foam and was lying on my back in the middle of St. Anthony’s Square. And then those eyes were upon me. Big, beautiful brown eyes. The face that those eyes were a part of was lovely. A bit older than I would have preferred, easily in her late thirties. But, wow, what a face.

The mouth on the face then asked me “Are you OK?” I sat up. “Yes, thanks.” I got to my feet as soon as possible. I was hoping to chat up this fine looking Good Samaritan. But somewhere during the act of raising my rugged frame from the wet cement, she had moved on. I turned and caught a glimpse of her older, but holding up very impressively, ass, as she turned the corner and disappeared. I had no idea at the time that I had just met Karen. The woman who would turn me into the history altering, everything changing, more famous than anyone in existence, figure I was destined to become. I just knew she had a certain charisma. A certain charisma of the “Man, I would love a night with her” sort that has forever stayed with me since.

I resumed my way to the source of all this foamy madness. I tried to be as dignified as possible but it was next to impossible. The seat of my pants was soaking wet and clinging to me in a most unflattering way. Trying to pry them off of my skin only made me appear more worthy of ridicule. It was so degrading and uncomfortable I considered turning back to the safety of my car. I could possibly claim physical injury from my fall as an explanation. However, without any actual injury, that might not seem very credible. I sucked it up and continued my walk of humiliation, soaking wet pants and all. For all I knew, the women in the gathering crowd might have found the look very stimulating. If females with wet t-shirts are enticing, why not this?

A crowd had gathered around St. Anthony’s Cathedral. It was not a cathedral in the great architectural tradition of such things. No soaring arches. No grand statues. No balustrades. It was more a large concrete box with a smaller concrete box attached to it that had been built in the nineteen eighties. It was a completely bland and unremarkable building on most days. However, today it was a spectacle to be sure. For one thing, there were forty-foot high piles of foam pouring out of it. For another, there was a giant banner strung from the cheesy-looking attempt at creating a faux bell tower. The banner said the following: “FREE BRAINWASHING HERE.” The Clear Thinkers had struck again.

There was, of course, another press release put out about an hour later. This one was on video and uploaded to the internet. It was delivered by a woman in a burka. You couldn’t see much of her but I knew those eyes. They were the ones that had looked at me lying flat on my back in the square. Those big, brown beautiful eyes that were so concerned with my well-being.

The female figure explained how the soap referred to the cleansing, not of the soul, but of the mind. And how the government worked hand in hand with the church to brainwash the populace into following a political and economic agenda against their own self-interests. There was also something in her speech that I think hurt their cause a great deal. She quoted Marx. That’s all the News Agency needed to tie the whole incident to a terrorist group that worshiped Stalin and his mass murdering ways.

It was all really kind of a shame because I think the whole incident would have been much more effective if it had just been left to stand on its own. Soap. Church. Brainwashing. I think even your average citizen might have figured out that on their own. Unlike the whole “Bob” thing, this one actually made sense, right away. It was honestly quite clever until they started talking about it and kind of ruined it. I suppose being a law enforcement official, I should be thankful that terrorists like to hear themselves talk so much. If they didn’t have that incredibly egotistical personality trait, they would be much, much more difficult to apprehend.

It became clear how the foam incident had been done once I flashed my ID a few times and gained access to the actual crime scene. The Clear Thinkers had driven a tanker truck right up to church, I mean cathedral, and hooked a giant hose up to a second floor window. This was done in broad daylight. They had pretended that they were putting in additional noise retardant, as per Health and Safety Department orders. The lowly church workers present of the time were far too fearful of challenging a government issued order that they spent all their time trying to bump the issue up the chain of command. Someone had just reached the office of Cardinal Rooney, when the valves were turned on the tanker truck and white foam started to flood the interior of the church, I mean cathedral. The banner was unfurled sometime during the confusion that ensued.

The interior of the cathedral was quite a site. The foam was piled high and everything was wet. A group of energetic, young, uniformed officers almost didn’t see me as they ran through. It was only my lightning quick reflexes which kept me from getting knocked to the ground once again. The officers had been ordered to take the banner down as quickly as possible. One of those simple orders that proved harder than it sounded between the foam, water and confusion about which stairway lead to where.

I looked up at the giant, abstract version of a crucifix made of steel as it rose above the fluffy, foamy white. A tear came to my eye. It was not due to the beauty of it all. Nor was it due to some profound understanding of the nature of Christ. Nothing of the sort. It was because the soap had gotten into my eyes and stung like a mother fucker. Within seconds I was stumbling around blindly as my eyes watered, bumping into pew after pew, as I tried to exit the foamy hell in which I was trapped. Luckily, the agony stopped after a few moments and I could see clearly, once again. Metaphor intended.

Chief Windsor, of the dreaded Anti-Terror Division, showed up at the crime scene himself. He held an impromptu press conference and vowed to personally bring the perpetrators to justice. Which meant he would yell at everyone a lot until the case was solved. I hadn’t seen the Clear Thinkers press release video yet, so had yet to have much to offer in the way of assistance. Which turned out to be my saving grace.

Chief Windsor repeatedly referred to the foam incident as, and I quote, “A brazen act of terrorism by those that wish to strip us of our freedom.” This was before Karen had even tied the Clear Thinkers directly into the Godless Commie evils of the bad old days. It’s normally a very safe thing to assume, I suppose. What do terrorists want?! To take our freedom! It had been a line of thinking that had worked for centuries. There was one problem, however. One that Chief Windsor could not have seen coming. After consulting with his advisors, the President of our great nation decided that the foamy church event wasn’t an act of terrorism at all. It was simply “an unfortunate accident which triggered a fire extinguishing system and caused a modest amount of property damage to the church.” Pretty clever, after I thought about it for a while.

The people at the top of the food chain might be lacking in morals and completely hateful in many ways. They were not, however, dumb. The consensus was that the very accessible and clear symbolism of the foam/brainwashing stunt was great propaganda. This was before Karen’s video statement, which muddled the whole thing up quite a bit, had reached them. Anyway, the government advisors realized the best thing that they could do was to downplay the whole thing. The way to kill good advertising is to just not let it reach the public in the first place.

Shortly after this decision was reached, the News Agency instructed all media outlets to report the incident as an accident. Details were invented to explain how the foam system was there because the church was dealing with some highly flammable chemical materials as they restored a ceiling painting. It’s activation was triggered by a faulty sensor. As messy and dramatic as the incident superficially appeared, nobody was hurt and the damage to the church structure was minor. As for the banner and Clear Thinkers press release, great effort was put into making sure as few people saw them as possible.

Unfortunately for Chief Windsor, all this meant that he had to go on the air for the next several weeks admitting he had screwed up very badly. He had made an erroneous conclusion by declaring the incident a terrorist event. A conclusion which might have caused public panic for no good reason. He blamed such faulty reasoning on lack of sleep and cold medication which clouded his judgment. It was an accident triggered by a faulty sensor just as the government said. Having done the best he could to repair the damage done, he was offered, and accepted, early retirement shortly afterward. Not right away. That would be too obvious. But soon. He should have never been so anxious to get in front of those cameras.

Which should prove to you just how smart and clever yours truly, really was. You see, I had the opportunity to make myself a hero the afternoon of the incident. It took the government a while to find and destroy most of the Clear Thinker’s press release videos. Several are still out there, in fact. So, it was about two hours after leaving my stinging, soapy torment, changing out of my very wet and uncomfortable pants, and returning to the office that I actually saw it. And saw those eyes. And knew. If I were ambitious I would have made a huge deal about it. I would have yelled across the office so everyone could have heard “I know that woman!” But I was far too wise for that.

As Chief Windsor learned the hard way, trying to grab the brass ring can sometimes cause you to fall off your horse. It is far more likely that you will have a long, if not exceptional, career and live a longer, healthier life if you do not rush to conclusions. I kept my information to myself for a day or two to see how things would play out.

Since the incident was officially an accident, would they even be looking for the perpetrator? One would think that the Clear Thinkers were now very much on the radar of all law-enforcement agencies, including my own. But you never know. Maybe those at the top had decided that the best way to deal with the whole thing was just to ignore it and wait for it to go away. It was an approach used for a number of issues, most notably that pesky climate change thing. So, I bided my time and kept the information about Karen to myself. It felt weirdly thrilling to have such a secret.

I thought about doing a bit of looking around for my brown eyed terrorist on the sly. Then I quickly put the idea aside. It would be kind of difficult to explain what I was doing inquiring about those files, should anyone ask. I still continued to do a lot of thinking about it. It started off as very, methodical, by the book, sort of thinking about how I would track her down. Then, however, it turned into something more personal. I won’t dwell on the details but let’s just say that if it were illegal to have imaginary sexual relationships with a wanted terrorist, they would have had my prison cell ready and waiting.

I woke up the next morning still thinking of Karen. Not that way. Ok, maybe a little that way. But more along the lines of that I would tell Superintendent Kim that I might have had visual contact with one of the terrorists. The conversation did not go as well as I had hoped. “Her eyes?” Superintendent Kim asked. “You think you might be able to identify the terrorist’s spokesperson just by her eyes?” he said. When he put it that way, it did sound a bit far fetched. There was no easy way to explain to him that they weren’t just any old eyes. They were big, beautiful, magnetic orbs that had peered into my very soul. Or at least checked me out a little bit, which was almost as good. “And why didn’t you mention this yesterday?” he asked. That one I had prepared for. “It took me a while to understand why the person on the video press release seemed so familiar” I said. “I see.”

This was followed by a silence which was there partially because neither one of us had anything to say and partially so that Superintendent Kim could make me feel stupid. Which I did. Horribly so. I kept charging in, all the same. “With your permission, I’d like to pursue my own leads on who this woman might be.” Superintendent Kim looked at me like I was a talking Panda Bear or something. But not nearly that cute. Like a very ugly, repulsive, talking Panda Bear that had just said something nasty about his mother. “Do you realize that across the street at 2100 they have a squad of forty-three people already investigating this event?” he asked. “What, exactly, do you think you can bring to the case that our colleagues over in Anti-Terror cannot? My answer was succinct but brilliant. Really and truly brilliant. I simply said one word. “Confusion.”

That got his attention. I then laid out my theory that Karen (who’s name I didn’t know yet and just referred to as the terrorist leader) was very, very proud of her events for the Clear Thinkers. She probably considered herself highly gifted at being able to think up clever things like the “Bob” stunt and this foam thing. You could hear it in her voice when she did the video. Most of all, she loved talking about her little happenings and explaining them with all sorts of references and symbolic meanings which often made them so confusing that they lost any impact that they might have had. But she was, or seemed to me based on her videos, someone that just could not help but hear herself talk about such things. It was an addiction of self-aggrandizement and pretension that she just could not control.

“And where do you come into play on that? I’m still not seeing what you hope to do Chief Inspector.” I was filled with self-confidence and pride that I had devised the plan I had. “I’m going to rewrite her press releases. Well, actually, I’m going to do my own and then release them as the official statements from The Clear Thinkers.” I waited for him to understand the beauty and intellectual heft of this idea. He just kept staring at me waiting for me to spell it out for him. Some people really don’t understand the elegance of understatement.

“And what, exactly, is that going to do?” The Chief Superintendent asked. “Annoy her” I responded. “Annoy her a very great deal” I added with glee. The Superintendent’s face scrunched up like he had just eaten something very sour. It was not a good look. He still wasn’t seeing it. “You plan to annoy the terrorists into submission?” he asked. I remained confident. “Exactly.” He shook his head back and forth and started to rummage around the papers on his desk. “Please get out of my office, Chief Inspector. And don’t come back for a while. Ok?” he said. If I had one bit of common sense regarding my professional well being, I would have slunk away as quietly as possible and stayed out of the way. But no. No, for some reason I cannot understand to this day, I kept going. I kept trying to make my case, fully aware that every word was pushing me one step closer to demotion or dismissal.

“Hear me out, Sir” I pleaded. “The terrorists are very proud of the symbolic nature of their attacks. I’m going to do my own press releases which will do two things. It will muddle the meaning of the act so much that nobody will be much effected or influenced by it. Two, it will so irritate the terrorists that they become increasingly rattled and make a mistake.” I waited for a change in his expression. I wasn’t seeing one. “The only mistake was letting you into my office, Chief Superintendent. I have work to do. So do you. There are reports of an active abortionist in your section. Please look into it.” And then I got the glare. The “don’t say another word, You Idiot” glare that meant I was to leave without saying another word.

I left his office feeling totally defeated. My plan was brilliant and I knew it. If only others could appreciate the genius that was me. In spite of knowing there was absolutely no upside to it, I started to consider going ahead and testing out my plan anyway. Such a move could get me into serious trouble with the Agency. But it could also prove to them what a great officer I was. It could be considered it a risk worth taking.

At lunch, I mentioned my plan to Boratch. His advice was wise and profound. “Don’t be a moron. Do as you are told and not a thing more. Sometime I wonder how you haven’t ended up at a re-education center, already. What were you thinking?” I told him how much I thought the foam thing was really effective until the terrorists started explaining it. I knew that such egos couldn’t take someone questioning their conceptual theories. “And then what happens?” he asked. “They get rattled and make a mistake.” Boratch looked down at his sandwich of soggy bread and processed turkey. It was what he had eaten for lunch every Tuesday for at least seven years straight. “What sort of mistake?” he asked. “I don’t know. A big one, hopefully.”

He then asked a pretty important question. “If they get really annoyed, as you say, don’t you think there’s a chance they might want to kill you?” Believe it or not, I hadn’t thought of that. My expression must have betrayed my sudden doubt. “That’s what I thought” Boratch said. He kept going. “Just leave it alone, keep your career intact and don’t anger people that might have the means to murder you.” When he put it like that, it did sound pretty wise to just let the whole thing slide and move on.

He quickly changed the subject. Anna. He wanted to talk about his daughter Anna and all her woes with her husband again. Listening to Boratch vent was the least I could do. He certainly listened to a lot of my whining. Although, honestly, he could have been a little bit more sympathetic about my plan to nail The Clear Thinkers. I guess I shouldn’t expect someone who’s not a crime fighting professional, like myself, to fully appreciate and grasp such things. “Are you even listening to me?” he challenged. “Yes, go on. Anna’s husband is embarrassing her. I understand.” Boratch looked almost as irritated with me as Superintendent Kim had. “You’re not hearing a word I’m saying. Why do I waste my breath?” he asked.

I apologized and attributed my lack of concentration to severe hunger. It wasn’t. It was actually too early for me to be eating lunch. Then again, I did have a very light breakfast. Boratch put half of his sandwich in front of me. “Eat it so you are at least approaching someone capable of having a conversation.” “Fine. Whatever. I was listening.” I grabbed the soggy breaded thing and shoved it into my mouth. I guess I was hungry after all. “So, will you come?” he asked. What? I thought but stopped myself from uttering aloud. Boratch’s eyes flared with anger. He knew I hadn’t been listening to him. “Of course” I answered. Boratch sized me up a second. It was as if he was daring me to ask what I had just agreed to attend. I didn’t. Which made it worse. Boratch smiled an evil, malicious smile. He had tricked me. He had played upon my inattentiveness to get me to commit to some horrible, tedious, unpleasant event and I had fallen for it. Best friend or not, sometimes I really hated him for such things.

Boratch changed the subject, yet again, before I could delve into the details of the event I had just promised him I would attend. “What happened with Minister Kapinskov?” he asked. “Last time we spoke, you were very worried how he would react to closing the case, as we did.” As soon as he said it, I realized that a full week had gone by and I hadn’t heard from Kapinskov. I could only assume that there were other matters of state more pressing than some heathen that had killed himself. I told Boratch that I hadn’t heard from him. He looked relieved. He apologized for putting me in such a difficult position. I told him not to worry about it. Remembering the favor I had done him seemed to make up for my attention lapse in the earlier part of our conversation. Boratch was all smiles and jokes again. As hard as I tried to focus on his every word, my mind drifted back to other things. My press release plan was brilliant. Why didn’t other people see that?

It was only Boratch’s words as we parted company and returned to our respective offices that shook my out of my own thoughts. “Anna will be so pleased to see you. Until Saturday.” He waved and turned his back to me.

I got home that night and, just as an experiment, found some video footage of the church and foam event at Saint Anthony’s. A few stations were running it as humor piece. “Fire Hoax Gets Foamy” one writer had come up with. It was probably written by one of the staff writers at the Ministry of Information. Some of those guys were good. Really good. Their talents were once used to sell cars and software services. Now they were all about the spin. I could totally do that. I mean, maybe not the same way they did. But I knew I had it in me to be just as creative and clever as they were. I searched the internet for some footage of the event without words super-imposed over it. Cute headlines were all well and good but I had something much more effective in mind. I watched the footage and got to work.

My first attempt read as follows: “The work represents the power of God’s love as it washes over us and cleanses us of evil, anxiety, and the frailties of being human. It’s white purity…” Shit. I forgot about the banner. The one that read “Free Brainwash Here.” How would I explain that? I could try to re-appropriate the term “brainwash.” Something like: “The tendency of mankind to follow intellect, science and logic has lead to thousands of years of pain and suffering. By cleansing the brain of these tendencies, washing them away, if you will, man can attain a higher form of being. One of love, faith and devotion which will…” Yeah, that was pretty good. Or. Or I could just blame the bad guys. The terrorists. I could get rid of the whole twisting of the brainwash thing by just saying it was a frame up.

My new piece became something a bit different. The first part was all about the cleansing and so on, just like I had written previously. But the very next part was this: “It was because of the power of this simple message that a terrorist group needed to try to undermine the work with this feeble, handmade banner.” That would work. But I then I remembered that I was the terrorist. I mean, in theory. This was supposed to be from their point of view. So, how would that work? I was getting myself so confused.

I was thrilled when I saw a new email come in. It was something to distract me from the circular reasoning I was falling into. I knew that I was on to something. I was just having trouble defining it well enough to use it. The email was from Boratch. It an invite with details of an event taking place on Saturday. Formal attire required. It was an awards ceremony for Citizen Achievement. I had trouble believing that this was the social engagement Boratch had tricked me into attending. It sounded so painful I couldn’t imagine even he would have the endurance for it. Then I saw the names of those being honored. Anna Boratch was among them. If the whole evening didn’t sound unappealing enough, there was another bit of information at the bottom of the invite. “Suggested donation, $100.” I would get Boratch for this.

It was three days later when life would throw me another curve ball. It had been a fairly productive week. The abortionist had been caught and confessed after a few hours in the Interrogation Center. The Clear Thinkers didn’t pull off any new pranks, I mean, terrorist activities. The weather was even nice. Low fifties and sunny. Perfect. All of which I should have known were just signs of my own personal Apocalypse about to arrive.

It was actually a Thursday evening when it all started to go wrong. I was in the middle of some personal recreational activity involving a fantasy about twenty-five year olds when there was a knock on my door. It was a horrible moment. I was just about…and then the knock. Like I said, a horrible moment. Highly unnerving and awkward. And this was before I even got up to answer the door.

There was a second knock on my door. Not only wasn’t I expecting anyone but this person should have, in theory, had to have called me or buzzed up to my apartment before being allowed in. The knock repeated, this time even louder. “Chief Inspector Hastings. Please open the door.” It was a good voice. A male voice. Loud and authoritative. But one I didn’t recognize. I looked through the peephole and saw a very large man in a black topcoat and suit. Behind him were two similarly dressed men. They had that look to them. That, “don’t mess with us or we will kill you” look. It was hard to tell if they were private or governmental thugs. But they were thugs, one way or another. I quickly looked around my apartment for any embarrassing or incriminating evidence. Not seeing any, I slowly opened the door.

The thug closest to my door spoke. “Chief Inspector Hastings?” he asked. “Yes.” “We need you to come with us.” I looked at him and his two buddies. “And who might you be? You do realize I am a Chief Inspector, right?” I said hoping to intimidate him a little with my official title. The thug seemed confused by the question. “Yes, we just confirmed that fact, I believe. Please come with us Chief Inspector. All will be explained on the way.” “On the way, where?” “Sir, please.” He gave me that look that thugs are so good at. That way of asking you to do something that’s not a question at all but a fact. You are going to do what they asked, whether you liked it or not, and everyone knows it. The “Sir” is just window dressing that makes you feel even more powerless.

I asked for a moment to get my jacket. As I walked across the room, I took one last glance to see if I had left anything embarrassing out. If they come to investigate my disappearance, the last thing I wanted them to find was my “Confessions of a Slave Girl” video on the screen. The whole time I was doing this, the head thug was watching me.

I exited my apartment and locked up. The thugs guided me to a black SUV waiting in front of my building. There was yet another thug was driving. I thought about asking more questions but decided to let this happy gang of suited intimidators go first. The head thug sat next to me. He closed the door and we silently drove off into the darkness. Finally, he had the courtesy to introduce himself.

“Chief Inspector, I am Special Agent Wussle of the Department of DBBD. He stuck out a hand. I tried not to think to much about where my own hand had just been. I hadn’t had the chance to wash it. I shook anyway and waited for him to say more. Nothing. Just an introduction. Which seemed kind of rude. Shouldn’t an explanation or something come after? I decided to ask again. “So, where are we going, Agent Wussle? What does DBBD want with me?” He smiled. “Your questions will be answered shortly. Please just relax and enjoy the ride.” Enjoy the ride? Right. This whole thing was not going to sit well with Superintendent Kim. It made his whole Agency seem weak and like we could just be bossed around by anyone. We were the People’s Protection Agency after all. Didn’t that mean anything to anyone, anymore? How dare they cart me off like this? Don’t they know who I am?

I got more worried as I realized the route the car was taking. We were not headed across town to the Government Center or DBBD Headquarters near Martyrs Square. We were headed out of town. It was all incredibly disconcerting and not at all what I had hoped my evening was going to be like. I considered asking Agent Wussle, yet again, for some answers. Maybe just a hint. The whole not knowing thing was really grating. Which, of course, was the point.

Twenty, very long, minutes later we arrived at a long, dirt road leading into the woods. I should have been struck with panic that I was about to be executed and buried near some bushes. But I wasn’t. All I could think about was how very annoying the whole thing was. I was pissed. I’m a Chief Inspector! This just isn’t right! Whoever was behind this whole show better have a very, very good explanation for it or there was going to be trouble. Big trouble.

The car pulled in front of a wood cabin. Cabin is a bit inaccurate. It was more like a massive hunting lodge or one of those grand hotels built in the nineteen twenties out of logs. There were more thugs standing just outside of it. “We’re here” the head thug next to me, Wussle, said. He opened the door for me and I got out. The front door to the lodge was opened for me and I was shown inside.

“Hello” a far more friendly voice said. A female voice. It came from a thirty something Asian woman in a red dress. Much more appealing than my steroid-addled companions in every conceivable way. She was a little small for my taste, probably only about five foot three. But she had a nice looking face and a truly great looking bod. Nice and taut in all the right places. In spite of all that, I was much more concerned about what I was doing out there and who it was that wanted to see me. I decided to ask. “Can you please…” My little Asian friend put a slender finger up to her lips. I guess I still wasn’t allowed to ask questions. “Now, look here. I am a Chief Inspector of the People’s Protection Agency. I will not be treated this way!” I declared. Not one, not two, but three different thugs seemed to instantly appear. Oops. They didn’t say anything but looked at my friend for instructions. She shook her head very subtly. The thugs all receded as quickly as they had arrived. I decided that my questions could wait a little longer.

A few minutes later, things became much clearer. My Asian friend opened a large wooden door for me. It lead to a very dark den. Inside was a large stone fireplace with fire blazing and lots of heavy leather furniture. Then I saw a rotund figure stand up from a chair and face me. A rotund figure that I recognized. I breathed a sigh of relief as I heard the door shut behind me. Minister Kapinskov stepped forward. “Welcome Chief Inspector” he said. “Minister.”

I turned and took a better look at my Asian guide. She really did have a lovely face. She smiled at me. It was a look that could have even been an invitation. Hopefully, we could talk more later, after me and my old friend the Minister had our chat. Just as I was starting to feel back in control of things, my Asian friend rammed her elbow right into my balls. I kid you not. A full-force, violent jab which crushed them and sent them swinging about in searing pain. I bent over in agony with tears running down my face. I heard the Minister say “Thank you Miki, that will be all” and saw her leave. What the fuck? I thought. “That was for disobeying me” the Minister said. I felt nauseous and was trying too hard not to throw up to say much in response. “Please have a seat so that we can straighten this matter out.”

The idea of moving did not sound appealing to me. Somehow, I forced myself to walk the few steps required to land in a high-backed leather chair facing the Minister. “I would apologize for all the intrigue involved in bringing you out here but I wanted to remind you of what can happen if you cross the wrong people” he said. His words were still barely getting through. I was far too consumed with the throbbing agony of my testicles to really care very much. “Do you like the lodge? It belongs to a friend of mine. He uses it primarily for visits to his mistress but recently had to cut back on those activities. Prostate cancer. So sad.” The Minister poured me a shot of Scotch which I downed quickly. Anything to numb the pain.

“So, why did you ignore my request and close the San Sebastian case?” the Minister asked. I wasn’t sure how to answer. “Daniel, there’s no need to make this difficult. Just answer my question. Why did you close the Robert San Sebastian case?” The Scotch burned my throat and made me feel even more nauseous. For a second, I thought that I was going to puke all over the place. Getting words of any sort out took an incredible amount of effort. But I mumbled a response.

“I screwed up.” “Yes, that’s obvious. But what do you mean by that?” My brain was scrambling to come up with a plausible lie that wouldn’t implicate Boratch. I invented a fairly good story, considering the situation. “I came into the office in pretty sad shape one morning and the Chief Superintendent asked if the case was closed. I said “yes” and then couldn’t find a reason to change my answer.” The Minister nodded as he pondered over my explanation. He looked right into my eyes. I wondered if he bought it. “I see.” I suddenly regretted not coming up with a better excuse. Saying, “I got confused” was probably not going to cut it. But at least it sounded honest.

The Minister got up and picked up a phone. “Yes, Miki. Please ask Agent Wussle and his men to take the Chief Inspector home.” That’s it? I thought. Then I saw the look on the Minister’s face. It was an expression of disappointment. “That’s it?” I asked aloud. The thugs all returned to the room. “Yes, that’s it. Good-bye Chief Inspector.” The thugs started to come for me. Wherever they were taking me, it wasn’t going to be home. At the time I was far too unnerved to think of much else but trying to save my life. It was only much later that I got really insulted by all of this. I’m a Chief Inspector, damn it, and nobody seemed to care. But, like I said, that was later when I was in the safety of my own bed instead of facing a short drive to a shallow grave.

“Wait” I said. The Minister held up his hand to the thugs. “Yes?” I made my play. “It wasn’t a mistake. I was asked by someone” I said. “You were asked by someone to ignore my request and to close the case.” “Yes.” “Who?” I looked around at all the thugs. “Not with them here” I said. I was just buying time. The idea of informing on Boratch was too unbearable. It was possible, however, that whoever had asked him to ask me to close the case outranked the Minister. Then again, I couldn’t count on it. And, for that matter, that powerful person would think nothing of sacrificing Boratch and me if it made their own world better. The thugs left the room. I had seconds to come up with an answer that would satisfy Kapinskov and save my life.

The Minister took his chair again and waited. And waited some more. I had no idea what to tell him. I could feel the heat of the fire. The entire room felt so hot and stuffy that I could barely breath. I thought that I was going to faint. “Well?” the Minister prompted. I had no choice. The name came from my lips. The name of the person who had asked me to close the case. But it wasn’t Boratch’s name that I uttered. It was Laughton’s. Mike Laughton’s, the big shot businessman and father of the shrill college girl, Isabella. I could have just as easily blamed the grocery store clerk or a fellow agent. But it was the Laughtons in all their smug glory that made me name them. I had no idea whether the story would fly. I hadn’t exactly had time to think it through and work it out.

“Mike Laughton?” Kapinskov asked. “Yes, He came to the station and told me he would make it worth my while. I needed the money to clear up some debts. So, I did it. I’m sorry Minister. It was stupid of me but I was desperate.” “Mike Laughton of Energex?” he asked. The question was as much to himself as to me. Actually, totally to himself and not to me. Which let me be quiet for a moment which I much appreciated. I could see Kapinskov going through all the angles, motivations and possible power plays for various government, church and business interests. He slowly started to move his head. It was not a shake. A “there’s no fucking way” shake. No, not all. Much to my amazement it was a nod. An agreement. Mike Laughton was behind this whole thing. And then he even said it. “Mike Laughton. Of course. That makes so much sense. I should have seen it.” I just kept quiet.

“I don’t suppose he elaborated.” “No.” “No, of course he didn’t. Why would he bother? How much?” he asked. “How much what?” “How much did money did he give you?” I thought about saying he had promised to pay me but never did. Instead a number came out. “fifty grand” I said. The Minister nodded again. I was praying he wouldn’t ask me to turn it over to him which would have been a real problem since I only had eighteen-hundred-dollars to my name.
The Minister was lost in his own thoughts again for a few moments. And then Kapinskov was all smiles. For a man ready to have me disappeared five minutes earlier, he was downright cuddly.

“I’ll tell you what, Chief Inspector. You keep the fifty thousand dollars Mr. Laughton already gave you and I will add another fifty thousand to it.” “Ok” I said, not really knowing what else I could have possibly said to that. “A hundred thousand dollars” he said. “All you have to do is to re-open the case.” “Alright” I said. I had no idea how I was going to pull that off but I figured getting home alive and making some money to boot were a higher priority at that moment. I even thought about asking how and when I would get my cash but decided it might be a little inappropriate.

“Mike Laughton” Kapinskov repeated to himself. And he smiled again like it was the best joke he had ever heard. “How are your balls, Inspector?” he asked. The answer, especially in hindsight, is that they were bigger than he would ever know. Ginormous even.

It was only when I was safely deposited back home that I had time to think about what I had done. After checking to see that my testicles were not permanently damaged, I sat in my chair. Knowing the Minister’s ways, Mr. Laughton might already be on his way to the Interrogation Center or worse. What if he had an alibi? I could always say that the meeting took place that time he came to Headquarters. That time that he was such an ass to me. Or maybe even say there were two meetings and that his impertinent little daughter was the messenger between us. The more I thought about it, the more odd it seemed that the Minister hadn’t asked me for all those sorts of details when he had me in front of him. I guess Laughton was such an interesting adversary to him that he forgot. Or it was so obvious to him he didn’t feel the need to ask. And then it struck me that I knew almost nothing about this man I had probably sent to days of unimaginable torture and eventual death. I mean, other than he was kind of a prick. I decided to look up some information on Mike Laughton.

I was able to access quite a bit of information very quickly. Laughton was a City University graduate who had become a major executive at Dynamic, the energy company. He had made his name quite early in his career. He did this by taking a new technology which made oil drilling cheaper and changing the way people thought about it. The technique, “Forced Extraction” actually produced less oil than traditional methods but was one tenth the cost. It also had a nasty drawback of poisoning the water table and making vast areas around the drill sites barren wastelands. For many years, the method was considered politically unacceptable and never used. It was Laughton who realized that if he could change the perception of the technique, he might be able to win its acceptance.

It was his use of genetically modified grass which changed everything. The grass grew in sheets and wasn’t really grass at all. It was more akin to Astroturf. It didn’t need nutrients from the soil, just a bit of sunlight. Laughton had giant grass sheets rolled over the barren, dry ground that appeared after Forced Extraction was used. From a distance, and more importantly, on camera, the areas looked amazingly lush and beautiful. It was only when one actually walked across the new grass product that you would notice that it wasn’t real grass. At least not the sort of grass most of us remember from our childhoods.

It looked like grass and smelled like grass. But there was a feel to it that wasn’t quite right. It could actually cause cuts deep enough to require stitches if you caught it at the wrong angle. It also caused cancer should you be exposed to it for too long. But it was close, kind-of-grass. Close enough that, under Laughton’s supervision, hundred of millions of dollars were spent on advertising promoting the new combination of F.E. and genetically engineered grass as “Green Made Greener.” And it worked brilliantly.

There was an internal argument that the real message should have been about cheaper prices at the pump but Laughton completely nixed that. He didn’t see why the ninety percent savings in production costs should be passed on to the consumer when it could be used to boost corporate profits. In fact, the efficiency of the techniques was kept secret for years for fear that the people would demand a reduction in gas and oil prices. By the time such information was made public, nobody seemed too angry about it. Oil profits were good for the economy. Anybody who was against the idea of companies making money was clearly a terrorist sympathizer, hell bent on destroying our way of life. So, there was little protest.

In any case, the whole thing made Laughton’s career. At the age of thirty-eight he was named the President of Dynamic. Then, at forty-three, he was offered a part ownership stake in Energex, along with a massive salary and bonus package, to switch teams. He did so and became CEO. A title he has now held for four years. No wonder he was such an arrogant asshole when he came to castigate me.

It was later in the evening that I understood why the Minister had reacted the way he had. There was a reason Laughton’s name would have been so familiar to him. Dynamic was an oil company largely owned by current, and former, government officials. The Minister probably had a healthy financial stake in the company. When their golden boy, Laughton, left for the competition, it was not only seen as disloyal, it torpedoed their stock price. The value of the company was down to about half of what it was just two years ago. I’m sure the Minister, and others with inside knowledge of Laughton’s impending move, sold before that huge devaluation. However, they couldn’t have been happy their biggest cash cow had been slaughtered.

All of which made me wonder about Energex. Who owned it? It must be somebody very powerful, in their own right, to stand up to the people that had an interest in Dynamic. It was a privately held company, all seven-hundred billion dollars of it. There was virtually no public information about it. It was only after using my very high level, that only a few powerful and privileged people like myself have, security clearance that I got an answer. Dynamic was a hundred percent owned by the State Church. God bless us, every one.

There was no way the Minister was just going to arrest Laughton. Doing so would be an open declaration of political warfare on the Church. Nobody could afford that. Literally. Which made me wonder what they would do about Laughton and his interest in the San Sebastian case. An interest he didn’t really have but I made up for him. Oh, this was going to be ugly.

And then there was possibly the most pressing problem of all. I mean, aside from Mike Laughton and the entire State Church leadership wanting to know who implicated him and why. Who had asked Boratch to close the San Sebastian case in the first place? San Sebastian was a drug salesmen and, as far as I knew, had no connection to the oil industry at all. It was all so damn confusing.

I called Boratch. It was after midnight but he would still answer. The good news was that he picked up his phone. But there were some problems. One, I really couldn’t take the chance of saying much over the phone. Two, Boratch picked up but was very, very drunk. He told me to find someone else to deal with the body. I didn’t know what he meant at first until I realized that he had assumed it was a normal work call. A command performance to appear at a crime scene and inspect a corpse or two. When I told him the call wasn’t about that, he got very confused. I just said I would be coming over right away and left it at that.

I drove across town to Boratch’s apartment. What should have been a short, traffic-free drive turned into a tedious ordeal. The road was being repaired again, for the second time in three years. It was down to one lane.

Almost an hour later, I arrived at the large complex Boratch lived in. He was in one of ten massive towers called “Gilman Center.” So named because the Mayor behind the project was Peter Gilman, a former actor turned politician. I parked my car and made my way to Tower Three where Boratch lived. I buzzed up and got no response. I buzzed again. Nothing. He was probably passed out. I called him on the phone again. Still no answer. I picked apartment number 101 and buzzed. I was hoping it would be the super. An old lady answered. I told her I was with People’s Protection and demanded that she let me in. She did as instructed. At least some people still had proper respect for the position.

I arrived on the twelfth floor and pounded on Boratch’s door. Nothing. I did it again, even louder. This time I heard a stirring inside. Boratch opened the door with groggy eyes and hair that was all over the place. “Daniel” he said with a grin. He gave me a bear hug before I could duck out of the way. His breath stank of Vodka. Finally, after I was released from his grip, we went into his apartment.

Before I had even sat down, Boratch was back on his sofa and closing his eyes again. “Samuel! Wake up! I need to ask you something.” He opened his eyes and made an effort to become more alert. “Of course. What is it? Is it about Anna?” I had no idea why he thought I was there to discuss his daughter. “No.” “Good. Because she is an ungrateful little bitch.” I had never heard him talk that way about Anna before. He always praised her and spoke proudly of her. He mumbled on. “I don’t mean that. I don’t mean that at all. She’s a lovely girl. Spoiled, perhaps. But she is a fine woman. She does justice to the Boratch name!” I wondered what had set Samuel off about Anna to provoke the initial outburst. But I would have to ask later.

I was just about ask Boratch about San Sebastian when his eyes closed again. I walked over and shook him. “Boratch, wake up. I need to know about San Sebastian.” “He’s dead” Boratch said. “I know he’s dead. But who was it that asked you to make sure the case was ruled an accident?” Boratch smiled. He shook his head “no.” “Boratch, I was almost taken to the woods and shot tonight by Minister Kipinskov because of this San Sebastian thing. You have to tell me.” Boratch looked concerned. “You don’t want to know. It will only make things worse.” He started to fall asleep again. I was getting very frustrated.

I shook him awake, yet again. “Boratch, who told you to make sure we found San Sebastian’s death an accident?” His response was not what I expected. He grinned and then pointed. He pointed straight up to the sky. “God? God told you to?” I was not happy with his answer. “Oh, come on!” I said. Drunk or not, that was an asinine answer. “Not God. But close” he explained. I waited for him to elaborate on his own. He didn’t.

“Well, who then?” “You really don’t want to know. I’m telling you. You don’t.” He was really starting to piss me off. Of course I wanted to know. I had my balls elbowed and had been threatened with death over this whole thing. Getting some answers was pretty high on my “to do” list. “Yes, I do. Please tell me” I said. Boratch sighed. “Alright, if you insist.” “I do.” He paused dramatically. Way, way, too dramatically. Finally, he spoke. “Rooney” he said. “Rooney?” “That’s right, Cardinal Thomas Michael Rooney. I told you that you didn’t want to know.” And in many ways, he was correct. It was about the worst name that could have come out of his mouth.

Cardinal Rooney was the second most powerful man in the entire State Church. Actually, scratch that. He was the single most powerful man in the State Church. He even had more power than the Pope when it came down to it. He was the power behind who got named to what positions. Where the billions in investments went. Who got elected to public office. What laws were passed. He was not so much Cardinal as King, in all except the title. His interest in San Sebastian was odd enough. How a Medical Examiner like Boratch was even on his radar was truly mysterious.

“Alright. I’ve told you. Now, please let me sleep. You can stay here if you like. Or go. I don’t really care. I just need to sleep.” How Boratch expected me to just let it go after he dropped that little bomb is beyond me. “Please” he pleaded. “I know you have a lot of questions but not now. In the morning. Over coffee. We will talk then. Ok?” There was something in his voice that sounded desperate. A need to just be left alone so intense that it sounded like grilling him more would kill him. So, I nodded. It would have to wait until morning.

“Thank you, Daniel. You are a good friend.” He carefully made his way down the hall and to his bedroom. I didn’t move from my chair. My brain was far too filled with thoughts to sleep.

Actually, I guess my brain wasn’t that active after all. I woke up in the chair sometime the next morning. Boratch was already awake. In spite of having so much to discuss, neither of us said a word as we drank our coffee. Boratch looked slightly worse for wear and I probably didn’t look much better. I don’t think either one of us really had the energy and concentration required to delve into things. Horrible, complicated things we had no business being a part of. But we did delve. Eventually.

Boratch sat at the table explaining how he had known Cardinal Rooney for almost forty years. His wife, Doris, had been very close to him. Too close. She had a been in a relationship with the Cardinal before she was married to Boratch. Rather than harbor ill will at Doris after the relationship with her ended, Rooney and Doris remained friends. He often used his influence to make sure she was kept clear of whatever political cleansings were going on and to make sure that Samuel’s career remained unfettered. Samuel made it clear, although offered, he never allowed Rooney to do anything more than to make sure Doris and he were just left alone. His career would have been very different if he had allowed the Cardinal to use his influence in such things.

When I asked him why he didn’t take more advantage of the connection, Boratch’s response was “The man fucked my wife. I know it was before she met me. But still. There’s something very off-putting about that.” Which then made me ask why he did Rooney favors then, if that was the way he felt. His answer was a single word. “Anna.”

He told me that Rooney had been instrumental in making sure that Anna got into the Central University and got the appropriate job offers upon graduation. To this day, Anna is unaware of the powerful people paving the way for her. She, like most of us, assumes that if good things are happening for her, she must have earned them. In fact, Anna’s opinion of herself as a genius in her field, and true talent, far exceeds her actual abilities. But that’s another story.

It was because of what the Cardinal had done for Anna that Boratch felt obligated to do as asked on the very few occasions Rooney asked anything of him. The first time was some nineteen years ago. Boratch fudged some evidence that would have led to the conviction of one of the Cardinal’s staff. The second was just about some information regarding a Priest’s apparent drug overdose. And the third was the San Sebastian case. Boratch did not ask Rooney any questions. The Cardinal had asked for a favor and Boratch complied. Since I was the lead investigator on the case, Boratch didn’t think it would be much of a problem. Why would he?

“So, you don’t know why the Cardinal has an interest in this drug salesmen guy?” I asked. “No clue. I learned long ago not to ask such things.” Although I had told him last night, I repeated to Boratch what had taken place between the Minister and I. Samuel graciously enquired about the comfort of my balls. Still sore but not overwhelmingly so. Then we tried to figure out what to do next. Between Cardinal Rooney, The Minister, and Mike Laughton, there were some very powerful and, possibly, very angry, people looking over my shoulder. My next move would be critical. It had to be perfect or I would piss one of the three off enough to end up dead. For that matter, if Laughton found out it was me that informed on him, my death was a real possibility anyway. Which sucked. Really and truly sucked. I just wanted to go to work, arrest a few people and then go home and watch TV. I couldn’t believe how complicated the whole thing had become.

“We should go to Cardinal Rooney” I suggested. My thinking was that since Boratch had done as he had asked, we were on his team. This would mean we would be protected accordingly. Between that and Boratch’s existing relationship with him, we should be fine. Boratch begged to differ. “Except for one thing, My Friend. I told you about him. He’s a man who expects total confidentiality with such things. That puts you and I both on his shit list.”

I then suggested that Boratch go alone to ask for my protection. Again, Boratch pointed out the downside. There was a very real possibility that Rooney would just decide it was easier to tie up loose ends and have Boratch and I both disappear. Assisting us might just have too many political downsides, given the other players involved. “Fine. So what then? What do you think the best way to handle this is?” I asked. His answer was simply “Whatever you do, don’t go against the Cardinal. You cannot win.” “And Kapinskov?” I asked. “You will figure something out. You always do.” “So, we are agreed you will still close that case file, right. My Friend.” I didn’t answer. Bortach asked again. “Kapinskov is nothing compared to the Cardinal. You know that. He is nothing.” Easy for him to say. He’s not the one facing a shallow grave if things aren’t sorted out pretty quickly.

“You’re being promoted” he said. I sat there staring at Superintendent Kim making sure that I heard correctly. “It’s not official yet but it’s already been informally discussed and you’re the man.” Either the Superintendent forgot to mention some important details, or my mind was so pre-occupied with not getting executed I was hearing things. “Chief Windsor is stepping down as the head of Anti-Terror and I will be replacing him in March. Again, none of this is official yet but, trust me, those that decided these things have already decided them.” My mind went back to the unfortunate press conference the Chief gave after the foaming of the church. The one where he referred to it as a terrorist act only to have that story completely undermined later. Thirty-eight years of service down the drain for telling the truth. What an idiot.

Superintended Kim was pacing around proudly with his hands behind his back as he looked out his window. There wasn’t much of a view. Just the windows of an adjacent office building. But I guess he liked walking around a bit during his moment of glory. Being promoted to Chief of Anti-Terror was a big deal for him. It would put his career on a whole new level. Instead of just being another anonymous law-enforcement official, he would constantly be in the public eye.

I wanted to remind the Superintendent how that had turned out to be a very bad thing for several former Chiefs of Anti-Terror. Windsor was just the latest of several that had said the wrong thing in front of the cameras and paid the price for it. But Kim only saw the successes. The current favorite for next Party Chairman had made his name at Anti-Terror and was the personification of a law and order candidate. There were also two less prominent cabinet members that had served in the post briefly. There was even one who had been named to, the now largely ceremonial position, of Chief Justice. This, in spite of his lack apparent qualifications including the fact that he never attended law school. Any way you sliced it, being Chief of Anti-Terror was a big deal.

Kim was already imagining himself as one of the top echelon. Well, not the top, top. Those were people like Cardinal Rooney. But top in terms of a lot of power and tremendous public visibility. It was all pretty remarkable for a man like Kim who had a very nondescript career. There was nothing exceptional about him or his professional record in the least.

Speaking of which, the conversation finally turned back to me. “And you will be taking my seat behind the desk, here. How do you feel about that?” he asked. I knew he wanted me to be excited. It was a major thing, in his eyes. My salary would more than double and I would have access to private clubs and parties that I would not be invited to as a lowly field officer. All good stuff. “Sounds great” I said. From Superintendent Kim’s response, it clearly wasn’t enthusiastic enough of a reply. “I thought you would be a little more excited, Chief Inspector. I hope I haven’t gone out on a limb backing the wrong horse” he said. “No, you haven’t. I assure you that I am the right horse” I said. “Excellent! Of course, we both have to keep this under wraps until the official announcement. Chief Windsor has already handed in his resignation but it would be inappropriate to let people know I am his replacement before the Committee announces it.” “Of course.” “And you will be named as my official replacement shortly afterward” he said. I nodded.

“I do wish you looked a little bit more excited, Hastings. This is a very big break for both of us. Enjoy it!” he said. “I’m just trying not to count on anything until it happens. You know how it is. Life has been filled with too many opportunities that have disappeared into thin air for one reason or another.” Kim nodded. He was still standing behind his desk as if he was already being photographed constantly by the press. “I knew you were the right man. An answer like that just goes to prove it.” I thought about asking more details about my new salary and perks and so on but decided it would be wiser to throw things back to Superintendent Kim. He was just bursting to talk about his impending promotion. He went on and on about his career and what he hoped to do in the future, etc. All without letting me get a word in.

It was over an hour later when I got out of the office and had time to really think about everything. In the scheme of things, the promotion really didn’t seem to matter very much. Staying alive was a much bigger priority. In fact, news of my promotion would only remind people about me. Not like being put in the media glare of being the Chief of Anti-Terror would. But not exactly helpful in just quietly receding into the bureaucracy the way I had become so good at. It was just not good timing to have people suddenly paying attention to me. For one thing, I needed to investigate this whole thing with San Sebastian and fix the mess I had created. Which raised another issue. A very minor one compared to my getting tortured to death, for sure. But it was still on my mind. I actually liked my current job.

As a Chief Inspector, I still worked on individual cases. I was out on the crime scene talking with Boratch and other techs. I was interviewing witnesses. I was piecing together clues and interrogating suspects. Sometimes I was a little too tired to appreciate it the way I once had. But I still enjoyed it. I had long ago given up on the illusion that what I did made a lick of difference in the world. But being an investigator was active and interesting. And, dare I say it, even kind of glamorous.

Being a Superintendent is none of those things. It is office work. It is budgets. It is “man management.” It is dull as dirt. I never did understand how those in charge thought being a good field detective equated to being a good manager. The two seem entirely unrelated to me. Then again, I wasn’t being picked for the position because I had the highest clearance rate or had solved the most high-profile cases. There were one or two others who had me on those counts. I knew full well why they thought mine would be the best butt in the chair behind the desk. I didn’t make waves. At least, I didn’t used to.

The more I thought about it, the more anxious I got. How was I suppose to deal with Mike Laughton and what I had done to him when I panicked? Yes, I admit it. It was a total, “please, for the love of God, don’t kill me” panic. A panic which I will never forgive them for creating. And it had solved the problem short term. I was still alive. But, long term, it had the potential to cause me all sorts of grief. Especially, knowing what I knew now about Boratch and his protectors. And now there would be people actually paying attention to me. This was terrible.

I called Boratch and told him I needed to meet him for lunch. He declined. I told him I really, really wanted to meet him for lunch. He said, yet again, that he couldn’t. I hung up wondering if things were already in play against Boratch and/or me. I really wanted to tell him about the promotion news. Not to mention, the plan I had yet to figure out on how to deal with all the rest of it. I had promised Kapniskov I would reopen the San Sebastian case. Yet, Boratch had closed it at the request of someone even more powerful. This was going to be tricky.

It was just then that I heard a voice from the not all that distant past. A shrill voice. A shrill, annoying voice that, in many ways, could be blamed for this entire thing. It was the voice of Isabella Laughton. “How did you do it Inspector?” she asked. She was standing directly in front of me wearing a nicely fitting, blue shirt and jeans. “It’s Chief Inspector. And do what, exactly?” “My father has disappeared. He left for work this morning with his bodyguards but never arrived at his office.” Oh, shit. Kapinskov acted quickly. “I know nothing about it” I said. She wasn’t about to let it go. “How did you do it? You’re nobody. How could a lowly cop arrange something like that to get back at my father?” I tried to understand what she was implying. There was no possible way she could have known I tossed her high-powered, ass of a father, to the wolves to save my own hide.

“Where are you keeping him?” she demanded. This was getting better and better. “Wait a minute. You think I arranged to have your father arrested this morning? And I’m holding him in a cell somewhere?” Just hearing the words come out of my mouth made them seem even more ridiculous. “How else would you explain it? He goes into your office to rip you a new one and the next thing we know, he disappears.” I thought about what she was accusing me of. Oh, if only I really had that sort of power. I mean, I do with regular folks. Common, not connected to anyone, just going about their dreary, daily lives folks. But people like Mike Laughton. No way. Untouchable to a mere Chief Inspector like me. Unless, of course, you inadvertently accuse them of something in a moment of terror. But aside from that.

“Well?” she demanded, green eyes blazing with anger. Being angry suited her. “I didn’t even realize he was missing. Did you report it?” I asked. “Of course, I reported it. A lot of good it will do. I know how you people work. The way you just take people away and they are never seen again. I’m not going to let you get away with this!” I was really kind of flattered by how much power she thought I had. Was she really that naïve about who her father was and how things worked in this country?

“Which department?” I asked. “What?” “Which department did you report it to?” She stammered a second. “Actually, I didn’t report it, his co-workers did. They called me afterward.” I asked for more details. I got the name of the co-worker, some VP, and learned that he reported it to his local Police station. I couldn’t imagine calls weren’t also made to some more powerful people in the government or in the Church hierarchy. But she didn’t seem to know about those.

When I asked for details on his disappearance, I expected some dramatic tale of cars blocking the road and men armed with automatic weapons wearing balaclavas. She said, as far as she knew, there was nothing like that. Her father had just left for work and never shown up at the office. It’s still possible it was more of an armed kidnapping but that was neither here nor there. Mike Laughton was missing and I was being blamed. I wasn’t being blamed in any realistic, plausible way. But I was still being blamed. And those connections would be made. The connections between me, Laughton, Kapinskov and all the rest. Crap. I needed to get on this.

I reiterated to Isabella Laughton that I had nothing to do with her father’s disappearance. I also promised that I would look into it further for her. Her response to the last statement was interesting. “Why would you do that? To clear your name?” she asked. “I just want to help” I said. “Right.” She wasn’t buying it. I needed to give her a more plausible reason. So, I did.

“Alright, fine. The truth is I think you’re a stunningly attractive young woman. I’m hoping if I can be your hero on this, maybe you would feel a little indebted to me.” I made sure that she interpreted the last words as slimily as possible. “Like I’m gonna sleep with you? No way! Not gonna happen. Ever. The thought of sleeping with an old man like you makes me sick.” Ouch. What a bitch. But I kept up the act. “Even if it’s the difference between saving your father or not?” She didn’t have an answer for that one. She left without saying another word. Take that, Bitch.

I had no intention of sleeping with Isabella Laughton. Long, lovely, young, Isabella Laughton. Unless she asked nicely. But aside from that. Anyway, I contacted Central Records and looked up the Missing Persons Report. Mike Laughton had left his house at six-forty-six AM in his armored Mercedes. He was accompanied by the driver and one body guard. Both were trained security personnel and ex-military. The car could be tracked on CCTV along its normal route for the first ten minutes. Then all traces of it vanished. Not only wasn’t it on the CCTV of the route normally taken by Laughton to work, all electronic signals had stopped. The internet connection from the car had been cut off. The GPS locator in the car and on the cell phones of all three men, also went quiet. A total communications black out.

Such a black out could have easily occurred if the car and its occupants were destroyed. Not shot. But obliterated. Like from an armor piercing missile. One would think such a thing might have been noticed though. It’s not everyday you see a Mercedes get blown sky high by a rocket in our city. The other answer was that Laughton had gotten tipped off that he was a target and had shut everything off himself. Strictly speaking, it was illegal to turn off personal GPS devices because it made it harder for law enforcement officials and marketing companies to track people. However, Mike Laughton was no average citizen and may have done exactly that. It all sounded a little more plausible than the rocket idea.

Whether it was because he was blown up or because he had voluntarily disappeared, I found the whole thing very disturbing. Within days of me uttering his name to Minister Kapinskov, Mike Laughton had mysteriously evaporated. I’d love to say that my main concern was for the safety of a, more or less, innocent man. But it wasn’t. It was for me. And a little for Boratch. But mostly for me. I knew that forces well beyond my control were now in play.

Thank heavens for bureaucratic delays. Although well over a week had passed, the San Sebastian file had not been processed. Due to a computer incompatibility issue between the Agency’s computers and The Department of Citizen Justice, there was an additional five to ten day delay. Assuming the worst, I had feared that it would have been five and the file would have moved forward. That would have caused me untold complications. Getting something undone that has been officially processed is like trying to uncook a burnt steak. More or less impossible. But, thanks to the differences in the various multi-million dollar computer systems, the file was still listed as “pending” when I found it. “Pending.” “Pending” was downright great. It meant I could take the file out of the cue with very little effort.

Which raised the next question. Who did I want to piss off the least? I had gone back and forth on the issue a ridiculous amount of times in my head. Cardinal Rooney was far and away the most powerful player in the mix. And Bortach was directly involved. However, Minister Kapinskov had bruised my balls and threatened to have me executed and dumped in a muddy grave. In my book, that one won. If Cardinal Rooney asked Boratch why the file wasn’t closed as he demanded, there was a plausible answer. It was marked “Closed: Accidental Death” but hadn’t been officially processed yet. The Cardinal would easily believe that a file could get hung up for weeks due to the usual government inefficiencies. All Boratch had to do was re-assure him that it was done and was just being processed. How much trouble could that cause?

Done and done. With the stroke of a few keys, I had managed to buy myself at least three weeks or so. After that, my guess was that Cardinal Rooney would start to get suspicious the file had not been formally closed. But three weeks? He would buy that. I had meant to explain to Boratch way this was the best course of action before I did all this. But then I would have had to listen to him complain and protest about how defying Rooney was a mistake, blah, blah, blah, powerful man, blah, blah re-education camp, torture, blah, blah, blah, and so on. He wasn’t the one almost disappeared the other night. I was. So, I’d tell him afterward, when it was a done deal. That way he would have to co-operate for his own self-preservation.

Now, the obvious thing at this point would have been to find out more about Mike Laughton’s disappearance. But that it not the way that I, a seasoned investigator and soon to be named Superintendent, went about things. It would have raised a lot of red flags poking around too much for one thing. No, my brilliant and experienced mind knew that the real answers were still in that tacky house in the hills. The home of Robert San Sebastian. If I could determine why so many powerful people were interested in him, then the rest would become clear. At least, that was my hope at the time.

So, filled with renewed confidence, not to mention, having a convenient excuse to avoid Boratch for a while, I returned to the San Sebastian residence. When I arrived, there was a “For Sale” sign posted in the front. I wondered how many million they would get for such a place. With any luck, someone would buy it for its location and just tear it down. It was hard to imagine anyone would have the cherub fetish that San Sebastian seemed to. Not to mention, the place was just horribly built. The quality of construction rivaled that of government projects in short cuts and shoddiness. As I entered the kitchen, I was finally snapped out of my hatred for the house and reminded why I had come there. A man had killed himself and a lot of important people seemed to care for reasons I had yet to understand.

I was hoping the surroundings might tell me something new. They didn’t really. At least not directly. After pacing around the ghastly residence for a while I sat down at the kitchen table with San Sebastian’s file. Yes, THAT, table. The one they had found him at with a chunk of his head missing. It had been cleaned up very thoroughly. Not a chunk of skull or brain matter anywhere. Amazing, really, considering how much blood and mess was there. It looked just like any other tacky kitchen now.

I opened the file. Crime scene photos. The “before” to the existing “after.” Not a lot of new information there. Boratch had told me it was a suicide. It looked like a suicide. I had every indication that it was, in fact, exactly what it appeared as. A suicide. So, why did the Cardinal want it ruled an accident?

The most likely answer was embarrassment. A criminal charge of suicide impacted a lot of people. Maybe someone in San Sebastian’s family had some pull. Maybe they had asked the Cardinal to them a favor and save their family from disgrace and civil and criminal charges. I made a note to look into the San Sebastian clan further. It was then that I remembered a photo. The woman San Sebastian had been with. I seemed to recall that it was in the bedroom.

I walked into the hunting lodge themed, bordello of a room and over to San Sebastian’s dresser. There was an empty picture frame. Then I remembered that I had asked the tech to bag the photo. It was back at HQ in an evidence locker somewhere. Maybe there were more of them.

I walked around the house looking for more photos and found none. There were probably quite a few stored on San Sebastian’s computer. But, that too, was back at HQ. I was getting increasingly annoyed that I came out to the house instead of just staying at the office. My hope was that the place would jar me into some great insight. So far, the only insight I was having was that it would have been much more productive to just review the evidence I already had back at Agency Headquarters.

Then I had a thought. The sort of Chief Inspectorly thought that had made my career. I needed to find his sock drawer. Every man has a place where he hides things. The classic location used to be a sock drawer. But it could be anything. A box in a closet. A bag under the bed. If San Sebastian had a girlfriend then he would have had someplace to stash the stuff he didn’t want her to know about. I tore the place apart looking for said stash.

As it happened, it, quite literally, turned out to be his sock drawer. How unimaginative. But I found what I was looking for in there. There was a small box of memory sticks. Several had large, commercial type on them with such titles as “Ass Bangers: The Complete Series.” Porn had once been easily accessible online and the business almost went bankrupt because so much of it had become free. But then the government got involved in the name of morality and saving society from itself. A number of decency laws were passed with heavy pressure from the Church. Pornography was once again driven underground. Still widely available, of course. But far more expensive and less convenient. The business was also more profitable than it had ever been before. Shocking, I know.

The most popular format for smut was memory sticks which could contain a lot of videos and photos but were easily hidden. It wasn’t porn, however, that I was looking for. I was thinking he might have some other items in there he wanted to remain secret. So, I searched further in the sock drawer and found something else. The owners manual for an electronic safe with the combination written on it. Safe? I hadn’t seen any safe. It made sense a custom built mansion like this would have one, I supposed. But where?

I left the bedroom and looked for an office or den of some sort. There were a number of sitting rooms, game rooms, a wrapping room for gifts, storage rooms, etc. But I didn’t see a room that looked like an office. I knew that didn’t make any sense. If San Sebastian had an entire room dedicated to his collection of antique toys, he certainly would have had one as an office. For appearances sake, if nothing else. Then I remembered the Cherub dome. It was there. Or off of there, at least. I had been so distracted by the hideousness of it all that I had walked right by an elevator door and, more or less, forgotten about it.

I got in the elevator. I expected to go up to the second story. But there was only one button. It went down. I pushed it and the elevator slowly took me below the main house. It slowly stopped and the doors opened. It was an office. Not, like, a home office. Like a corporate office. There was a waiting room and a greeting desk. There were hallways to several small rooms and bigger ones filled with cubicles. And not a soul was there. In fact, nothing was there. The place had been stripped of almost everything. No computers. No phones. No sign of human existence. All in all, I’m guessing the place could have held about a hundred and fifty people. A hundred and fifty doing what, exactly, I had no clue, yet. But it was clear the home of Robert San Sebastian wasn’t just a home but a secret business operation of some sort. Where did they all park? Were there busses or something that brought them all in? A garage I hadn’t found yet? The whole thing seemed highly impractical.

I got to the end of the hall and reached what appeared to be the largest office. I saw the safe on the wall. It was the one I had found the manual for. I typed in the combination and opened it. Predictably, there was nothing at all inside of it. After spending thirty minutes looking for any sort of clues, I gave up. The space had either never been occupied at all or had been cleared so thoroughly that it was spotless. Either way, it was a very strange location for a corporate office without any obvious reason for its existence. I did find an underground garage with an entrance well hidden from satellites by trees. At least the great parking mystery was solved.

As much as I wanted to call an army full of techs in to go over the entire place, I decided against it. I couldn’t afford to draw attention to actively investigating the case. I took some quick photos on my cell phone and made some more notes. Just before leaving, I returned to the sock drawer. Used or not, some of San Sebastian’s collection had some things I wanted to see in it. Why let it go to waste?

“What are you doing!?” Boratch said. It was one of those whispers that was really a yell. Thankfully, this conversation occurred at All Saints Market and Bortach didn’t want to make too much of a scene. “I’m buying Kumquats. And some bread.” “You know what I mean!” he whisper/yelled again. I had finally gotten him to meet with me. We both took an hour out of our day to go to the market. Normally, it was a very peaceful routine. The freshest of everything from all around the region. All organic. All very expensive but worth it if you could afford it. “Look at the Sea Bass. Amazing.” “I didn’t come here to talk about Sea Bass” he said. Which I knew. Which is why I was torturing him a little. I was really annoyed Bortach hadn’t made time to talk with me when I had asked. He expected me to fit my life around his schedule.

I brought Boratch up to speed on everything. I told him about San Sebastian’s downstairs office. He didn’t seem to care. All he kept going on about was how I hadn’t closed the case. I told him, given the circumstance, I couldn’t do that. He repeated, yet again, that Kapsinkov was nothing compared to Cardinal Rooney and that I had made a huge mess of things. The fish merchant took a live fish out of the tank. The fish flopped frantically as it suffocated. It wasn’t an image I really needed to see at that moment. Luckily, the knife came down and put the thing out of its misery.

With fish now in hand, I explained to Bortach how we had a small window of time where everybody was happy. Kapinskov had gotten his case re-opened. Cardinal Rooney would think it was closed and done with. At least for a while. Bortach looked at me as if I was nuts. “And then what? What happens when the Cardinal finds out the case is still open? We flee the country? We kill ourselves to avoid torture? What, my Friend? You clearly haven’t thought this through!” Boratch was whispering/yelling again. He was actually annoying me. I had already gone over everything he was saying a hundred times in my head. There were no good answers. Out of the very bad choice of angering one powerful person over another, I picked the one I had the direct relationship with and the one that would have been harder to stall. I kept telling Bortach, again and again, that it would be a while before the Cardinal even realized what was happening.

“How long?” Boratch asked. “A file like that could easily get caught up for two or three weeks in the system” I replied. “And then what?” “Tell him there was a problem and the file had to be resubmitted which will buy us another three weeks.” Boratch shook his head. I was really not enjoying the conversation at all. “Look, Samuel. I bought us some time to figure out something else. Given the choices we were facing, that’s the best I could do.” “You mean the choices YOU were facing.” The lack of understanding and sympathy from Boratch was too much. I thought he was my friend. I guess I was wrong. I asked him what he would do if he had been threatened directly with death. He didn’t want to hear it. He, very dramatically just said, “we’re both dead, now, anyway.”

That was it. I just lost it. His narrow minded, self-serving drama was just too much for me. I exploded. I yelled at him. Not whisper/yelled but yelled, yelled. I told him his whining wasn’t helping anything and that it was a bad situation for both of us. A situation that we would find a way out of. Somehow. Maybe. But, regardless. A situation that sucked for both of us and whining and complaining about the past wasn’t going to do much of anything for anyone. All the stress and anger over everything seemed to boil up and it all came out in a torrent of words aimed at Boratch.

I was so furious I came really, really close to doing something truly regrettable. I almost threw my fish at him. Almost. And just when I was about to ratchet it up another gear, Boratch did something even more annoying. Just when I was starting to really enjoy the release of all this pent up stuff, Boratch said he was sorry. I could have killed him. I wanted to be pissed and just go until I was exhausted. Instead he told me that he was sorry and understood why I made the decision I had made. He even told me that I was right. That my choice made the best sense given the situation we were in.

It was then that I noticed far too many people looking at us. People that should have been focused on which type of apple to buy but were enjoying the little live drama playing out in front of them. I felt like shooting them all. They want drama? How about a few bullets to the chest? I’ll give them drama. But Boratch was still doing his understanding, old man, routine. He kept saying it over and over again. “You’re right. What can I say? You made the best choice you could. “You’re right.” It was all so annoying.

Boratch wanted to go to a bar and get a drink. I wasn’t that thrilled with carrying a fish around with me for too long, but I agreed. It was in the bar that Boratch asked me what my plan was. I knew it had to center on San Sebastian. I told him that I could do some things quietly, but anything involving official procedures could be easily discovered. If someone with connections wanted to see what I was up to, all they had to do was check. They could get a list of what I had searched for on the computer, GPS records of where I had been, any requests for official documents, etc. etc. Every Detective in the Agency was watched and monitored at all time. As Superintendent Kim liked to say “transparency breeds honesty.”

Of course, some things were much more transparent than others. But still. We worked in the shadows as far as the public was concerned but, in reality, we had far less privacy and independence than the average citizen. Which means, hardly any at all. We would have to act exactly as we always had and keep to our usual routines. Neither Boratch or me could afford a sudden change in behavior that would arouse suspicion. Boratch not only understood, he used it against me. He held me to my promise to attend Anna’s award ceremony on Friday. As unfortunate as it would be for a lot of people, I was hoping a multiple homicide or something similarly violent and pressing might still get me out of it. No such luck.

The awards ceremony was held in the auditorium of the Science Center. I saw Bortach and Anna waiting for me by a display explaining the creation of man. From a distance, Anna actually looked almost attractive. She had lost some weight since I had seen her last and was looking quite fit. Almost too much so in the way certain older women overcompensate for aging and become over-muscular and toned. Her hair, however, was still that nasty fake blonde color which she swore was her natural hue. My objection wasn’t to it being dyed. It was the choice of cheap bleach blond look that never worked for me. I’m sure if she knew my thoughts on the issue that she would shed tears. Her opinion of me was about as high as my opinion as her.

I made my way over and said hello. Anna put her face out for a fake kiss. I half, kind of, gave her one, smelling her, far too strong, perfume as I did. “Good to see you again Anna. You’re looking well” I said. “Thanks, enabler.” “Anna, Stop it!” Boratch snapped. I let the accusation slide. Anna had decided that her father was an alcoholic and I was part of the problem. She may have been right on both counts but I really didn’t need to be accused of it all the time. What did she want me to do? Lock Boratch up in rehab for his own protection?

“So, Anna. Your father tried to explain what the award you’re getting is about but I’m still a little confused. Could you explain it to me?” She smiled. “Innovations in Teaching Methods.” “Oh, that makes sense.” “Yes, I was elected by my peers as Teacher of the Year. Why did you find that confusing?” The truth was, I just didn’t pay attention when Boratch told me. Which she knew. Which was why she was giving me a hard time. Which is why, in part, Anna really annoyed me. “And what grade do you teach again?” I asked. “Third Grade.” “Excellent” I said with false but somewhat convincing enthusiasm.

Attendants opened the doors to the auditorium. Anna was directed to one of the front rows. Boratch gave her a big hug before we took our own seats farther back. As Anna walked away, I grudgingly admired how nice her ass looked in the dress she was wearing. Maybe working out and training so hard wasn’t such a bad thing for her. “Daniel!” Boratch yelled. “That is my daughter you are leering at!” he said. I told him I wasn’t leering just admiring her choice of dress. Boratch didn’t buy it. “In spite of their problems, she is still a married woman. Don’t forget that.” I assured Samuel I had no interest in his daughter. Far too old and far too nasty a person for me to ever want anything to do with. Not to mention, that whole married with two kids issue. Besides, if I ever got within two feet of her, she was likely to stab me in the stomach and laugh at me as I bled out. Such was the nature of our relationship.

The awards ceremony was dull, amateurish and interminably long, just as all awards ceremonies are. There was one part where someone tripped coming off of the stage. But that was about as exciting as it got. I didn’t mind. It let my mind drift to matters far more important than which of the three women on stage I would most like to see naked. It allowed me to let the events of the last week or so settle. San Sebastian, Laughton, Rooney, Kapinskov, my promotion. I hadn’t even mentioned my promotion to Boratch yet. Between my belief that it might still not happen and my fear of impending death and torture, it seemed to have slipped my mind.

In spite of knowing there was absolutely, positively, no way to do it without arousing suspicion, I needed to talk to people at the drug company. People that knew San Sebastian and what he did, professionally and personally. It was basic investigative procedure. Which was exactly the problem. Once people got wind of my conducting of interviews with drug company employees, they would know I was still investigating the, supposedly, closed case. It was going to be tricky.

I was pulled out of my, fairly useful, thoughts by a nudge from Boratch. Anna’s name had just been called. She took the stage and had a plaque of some sort handed to her. Thank heavens there were no individual thank you speeches. She shook some hands and smiled. I could see her looking over at us. I looked at Boratch. There was a huge grin on his face as if she had one the Nobel Prize instead of some lame teaching award. I just went with it. It might be the last time he has something to smile about in quite a while. Even if I pulled this off, things were going to get worse before they got better.

After the ceremony, Boratch insisted that the three of us all go to dinner together. I tried to make excuses and say I had work to do. Anna, actually backed me, not wanting me there any more than I wanted to be there. But Boratch insisted. “How often can I have two of the most important people in my life together, like this. Tonight we celebrate for tomorrow we may die!” Although it was a phrase he used often, I didn’t feel his timing was very good. In any case, I ended up at dinner with them. More seafood.

Everything was fine until Boratch got a little too drunk. Somewhere between the main course and dessert, he brought up Anna’s marriage. He insisted, that no matter what, she had to stay with her husband, Steve. Not only was it a promise before God, there were children involved. Those children, Boratch’s grandkids, had every right in the world to a normal, healthy, stable family life. When Anna protested that her husband was a philandering scumbag who slept with every woman he met, Boratch said exactly the wrong thing. He explained to her that that’s the way men were. It was nature. It had been going on for thousands of years and saw no sign of stopping in the next thousand.

Anna was aghast. “It’s nature?” she asked. “It’s NATURE!!” she asked again, very, very loudly. “How can you say that?” And so it began. A terrible argument between Boratch and Anna in the middle of a good, if not great, seafood place on the East Side that caused us all a great deal of embarrassment. Well, me anyway. I think the other two were so busy arguing that they didn’t get embarrassed at all. I knew better than to try to reason either one of them down and did the next best thing. I left. I excused myself to the bathroom and slipped away as quickly as I could. The waiter gave me a look as I walked by. A kind of “please fix this” look. I kept walking.

I stalled as long as I could in the men’s room. Unfortunately, it was not a huge room. So, once other patrons walked in, it started to feel a little uncomfortable. Lurking around the men’s room was not something I did on a regular basis. With dread, I returned to the main dining room. The yelling had stopped. Which is good. But Anna was in tears. Which was not great but honestly better than the yelling. Than again, from the amount of eyes on her from other tables, maybe not. The sight of a woman crying, even if Anna was that woman, was clearly an attention getter.

Boratch angrily paid the bill. The waiter mumbled “Thank you, Sir” as he brought the check. He clearly dreaded being there and tried to go about his business as quickly as possible. I wasn’t having the best of times myself. “You just don’t understand” Anna said. Boratch begged to differ. “I DO understand and we are done having this discussion. There will be NO divorce. Do you understand? I will not provide you with any of the financial assistance you need. You will have nothing. Nothing but a sullied reputation and a broken home to raise your children in.” I so wanted to leave. Eventually, the bill was sorted and we left the restaurant to a chorus of whispers and glares.

Isabella left Boratch and I silently fuming. Boratch turned to me incredulously. “Can you believe that? She just walked off without saying a word. No “thank you” for dinner. No “good night.” Nothing. “You were pretty hard on her, Samuel” I said. I prepared for an angry response. Instead what I got was sorrow. In spite of his bluster, Boratch was really a marshmallow and this sort of thing really got to him. “I just want what’s best for her. A divorce is not the answer to her problems.” “So, what is?” I asked. “She needs to accept that fact that a marriage is for life. Instead of wishing there were some way out of it, she just needs to focus on making what she has work.” I thought about arguing with him but I knew better. He was drunk and stubborn. It would do more harm than good. I just nodded.

Shortly afterward, I put him in a cab and drove myself home. I had an urge which I still can’t explain to this day. I felt like I should call Anna to ask if she was alright. Thankfully, wisdom prevailed and I left the issue alone. The last thing I needed was to get between Boratch and his daughter, right now.

For a corporation worth hundreds of billions of dollars, the Life Gen office complex was incredibly underwhelming. It was about forty-five minutes out of town. The “campus” consisted of row after row of identical looking, mirrored towers. Not tall, impressive looking towers. More the sort you would expect to find off of the highway near the mall. The only thing that gave passer-bys a clue as to what this mirrored festival of blandness was all about was a logo on the upper right hand corner of one of the towers. Giant letters spelled out the company name and there was an abstract symbol next to it. A hand? A duck? I really couldn’t figure out what, if anything, the symbol was supposed to be.

I drove to the entrance gate and told the security officer my business. I announced myself, with authority, as Chief Inspector Daniel Hastings of the People’s Protection Agency. And that I was there to speak with Amanda Ridgecrumb. According to Human Talent, she was San Sebastian’s boss. The security guard thoroughly checked over my ID and confirmed my meeting. He then handed me a print out. A map. After some very confusing instructions about a left, then straight, then two rights at the junction, I drove off. Twenty-two minutes later, I found Tower D.

I passed through, not one but two, additional security points. I wasn’t worried about getting through them. I was worried how extensive a record there now was of my visit. People would not only know I had been there, but who I had spoken with and for how long. It was that sort of place.

An elevator took me up to the thirty-third floor. A lobby. And a beautiful young person to greet me. Unfortunately, this one was male. The male, Justin, was his name, I think, made a phone call and then hung up. He looked at me and explained that Miss Ridgecrumb was in a meeting and would be with me when she could. He asked me to have a seat. I didn’t move. I was being too subtle, it seemed. He explained to me, again, how I would have to wait. I repeated that I was Chief Inspector Daniel Hastings of the People’s Protection Agency and that it was very important that I speak with Miss Ridgecrumb. He said that he understood. Then he asked me, again, to take a seat and wait. I hated these people.

Given that I wanted the visit to be as low-key and matter of fact as possible, I did not make a fuss. I could have. I am a Chief Inspector, after all. But, I let it go. I sat there for thirty-five minutes in the lobby thinking of how lucky Justin was. If I wanted him to, he could have gone to prison in a heartbeat. How dare they treat me like that?! But I let it go. I sat there calmly focused on San Sebastian and not remotely distracted by the incredible disrespect I was being shown.

Finally, a young, but disappointingly average looking, woman came to get me. She introduced herself and led me to a large office down the hall. A woman in her sixties sat behind a large glass desk. Her black dress and pulled back, grey, hair made her look more like a military officer than someone that worked at a drug company. She got up and put out a gaunt hand for me to shake. I did so, trying not to think about the feel of her lizard-like skin. “I am so sorry for keeping you waiting Inspector…” “Chief Inspector” I corrected. “Right, Chief Inspector…I only have a few minutes. What can I do for you?” I tried to let the words go by. “A few minutes,” these people were really pushing their luck. How would she like to spend “a few minutes” being interrogated by some guys I know in the basement? But I let it go. I remained thoroughly professional and undistracted by the humiliating treatment an officer of my stature was receiving.

We finally got to the matter at hand; Robert San Sebastian. I wanted to ask about his weird thing for Cherubs but skipped over it. I was glad I did. The first thing I learned was that San Sebastian hadn’t actually worked for Ridgecrumb in over two years. When I asked her to explain, she said he had been put on some super special assignment and that was the last she had heard of him.

When I pressed her for who put him on this assignment her answer was “The CEI, I presume. When somebody says Special Assignment in our company that would not refer to some little homework project. It would refer to some task personally given you by our Chief Executive Innovator, Rasheed Jones.” “Does that happen often in your company?” I asked. “No, I’ve only seen it once or twice in the nine years I have been with Life Gen. Of course, one of those was the development of Sensoral which I’m sure you’re familiar with.”

I jogged my brain for some memory of Sensoral. Then it clicked. It was a drug that made post-menopausal women horny. For decades the problem of declining sexual appetite in older women was ignored. In fact, it wasn’t considered a problem. Then older men started to complain that if they were to remain loyal and faithful to their marriage partners, that such partners had various obligations. The issue was brought to a head when the Church weighed in and agreed with the argument. Women had to provide certain marital services or they were letting God down. A scramble began as a search for a drug to remedy the problem was fast-tracked at all the pharmaceutical companies. Life Gen won the horse race and made record profits. Not to mention, that old geezers everywhere where getting oral sex again from their tired and aging wives. All part of God’s plan.

“Do you have any idea what San Sebastian’s special assignment was?” I asked. I was met with a look of disbelief. Ridgecrumb, the old bitty, then talked down to me as if I had a mental defect. “No. I do not. The whole point of putting someone on Special Assignment is to provide strict confidentiality. The only people that know the specifics are those directly involved and our Chief Executive Innovator.” “And what if I wanted to speak to him?” I asked. “Rasheed Jones? Our CEI? You’re kidding right? He’s in China at the moment but, even if he wasn’t, getting an appointment to meet with him directly would require the influence of somebody with a much higher standing in government than you, I’m afraid.” Like I didn’t see that coming. Kapinskov or the Cardinal could get me in, I bet. Well, at least the Cardinal. Too bad that if he knew about what I was doing I would be shipped off and killed within minutes.

Ridgecrumb tried to be rid of me. I resisted long enough to get a slightly better picture of San Sebastian in my head. Before being put on super-top-secret-picked-by-the-head-innovator-guy assignment, he ran a department which developed drugs that dealt with Alzheimer’s. His division created steady but unsurprising profits in an area glutted with competition. Although worded far more delicately, it sounded as if San Sebastian had a very stable but not exceptional career. Which is why it came to Ridgecrumb as such a surprise when he was selected for the Special Assignment. It was hard to tell how much of this information was fact, though, and how much pure jealousy and resentment that she had not been so fortunate.

I asked one more question before getting the bum’s rush out the door. I asked why San Sebastian was the head of these departments that did mainly research when he was a sales guy. Ridgecrumb just smiled smugly and resumed her tone of total condescension. She, ever so slowly, explained that I clearly did not understand the pharmaceutical business. Then she made it clear that I was leaving whether I wanted to or not. She had far more important things to deal with than some low ranking law enforcement officer asking idiotic questions.

As I left, I noticed the garish wedding ring on her boney finger. I took another look at Old Bitty Ridgewell. The idea of her on Sensoral almost made me nauseous.

I stopped for lunch at a burger place on my way home. It tasted fine but was so chewy, I really didn’t enjoy it. I was sure there was some sort of metaphor or symbolism in that but, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it would be. I checked my phone and saw a message from Boratch. When I listened to it, it was a long, rambling apology. He hoped that he hadn’t embarrassed me too much at dinner and thanked me again and again for coming. It was the Boratch I dealt with every day and had known for years. Not the blustering, angry, old man yelling at his daughter, the way he had last night.

I called him back and got his voicemail. I said that I appreciated the apology. I also said I hoped that he had worked things out with Anna. Which I did. Not so much for her sake. She was a bitch and deserved all the misery she could get. But for his. If she ever got angry or vindictive enough to cut him out of her life, it would kill him. In spite of all the yelling and disapproval, she was about the only thing in his life that he was actually proud of.

I got back to the office and was greeted by a number of strange looks from my colleagues. Something was up. Something very not good was up. It was that “dead man walking” look. Crap. They found out about my visit to Life Gen. The Cardinal worked fast. Superintendent Kim approached me in the hallway. “Daniel, could you follow me, please?” He called me by my first name. That was bad. That was really, really, really bad. How could it have gone so bad, so quick?

I followed the Superintendent down the hall and past his office. He was leading me to one of the interrogation rooms. Hopefully, not the ones in the basement. But…Oh, Man, I didn’t want to go down there. People had very, very nasty things happen to them down there. I didn’t want to be one of them. Honestly, I hated going down there even as one of the interrogators. I had to act all menacing and tough but watching my co-workers do what they did was not pleasant. Not my idea of a good time.

The Chief Inspector opened the door of one of the small rooms on our floor. I guess the basement could wait. Inside were two guys in really unattractive blue blazers. Everything about them read BSACT. Business Security and Counter Terrorism. Not to be confused with Anti-Terror, these guys were all about protecting big business from threat. Honestly, nobody took them all that seriously, most of the time. They spent a lot of time dealing with corporate espionage. Preventing one company from hacking into another’s computer to get the blueprints for special prototype 40 Alpha Bravo. That sort of thing. So, why the whole drama walking in?

One of the BSACT geeks talked. “Chief Inspector, please take a seat.” I looked over to Superintendent Kim. He nodded. He clearly wanted me to co-operate with these Bozos. The geek continued. “I’m Investigator Daily. This is my partner, Investigator Mutton.” Mutton? I decided to let it slide. “We’re here investigating the disappearance of Michael Laughton.” And then it all made sense. At least I thought it did. “We’d like to talk to you about your discussion with him and his daughter…” He looked down at his notes. “Isabella” I said, doing my bit to be cooperative. “Right, Isabella. We understand they were here on the afternoon of the nineteenth. Is that correct?” Mutton asked. “Yes, I believe it is.” “Can you tell us about the nature of that discussion?” I looked over to Kim. “It was Agency business. So, I’m not sure I am at liberty to discuss it” I said. Kim cut in. “You can. I already told them what it was about but they wanted to hear it from you.” To which I responded, “Ok” and left it at that.

So, I explained, lied rather, that the meeting was about Laughton thanking me for teaching his daughter a very valuable life lesson without doing any damage to her reputation. Geek Daily chimed in. “So, you would characterize it as a very friendly, positive meeting?” he asked. “Yes, yes I would. I was quite honored actually that such an important and busy man like Mr. Laughton took the time to come down here and thank me, personally, like that. He seemed like a good man.” Geek Daily nodded to Geek Mutton. Mutton got up from the table and left the room for a second. It was an interaction that made me a little nervous. What were they up to?

“You do understand, Chief Inspector, that we are here investigating the disappearance and possible kidnapping of Mr. Laughton. Your full cooperation, and honesty, is expected. Anything less then that might be cause for more serious actions” Daily said. Did he just threaten me? I actually said it out loud before I could stop myself. “Did you just threaten me?” I asked. I was not going to take shit from some little BSACT weasel. No way. No how. Even Superintendent Kim was appalled and reminded them that they were actually in HQ as a courtesy. The People’s Protection Agency out trumped BSACT any day of the week. We mattered, damn it.

Just as I was about to lay into Geek Daily, a video monitor in the room came on. It was surveillance camera footage of Mr. Laughton, Isabella and myself in the very same room we were currently in. Oh crap. I though I had de-activated the recording system. I guess I forgot. It goes on automatically unless you remember to shut it off. Which I swear I did. Or thought I did. The conversation started to play over the monitor. Geek Mutton returned with a shit eating grin on his face. This was going to be ugly.

Clearly, the BSACT guys had seen it before but Kim had not. He kept looking at me with a confused look on his face. He couldn’t believe what he was watching. He had taken Laughton at his word when he told him that the visit was to thank me. Why wouldn’t he? But what he was watching was one of his top officers and, lest we forget, heir apparent, getting his ass chewed off. Geek Mutton seemed to enjoy the whole thing way, way too much. It made me want to hit him.


3 thoughts on “DEVIL’S BREAKFAST FIRST 100

  1. HIGHLY ENTERTAINING…Leicinger delivers a profound and exhilarating read that asks as many questions as it answers A must-read for anyone grappling with issues of God, terrorism, Institutional and corporate cover-ups and morality. Once I started reading it I could not stop. Devils Breakfast is a contemporary novel told through the mind of a wily and witty Chief Inspector of Police who unravels one of life’s greatest mysteries.


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