Making Warr (Excerpt 1)

My name is Warren, an unassuming name, but you’d be wrong to make assumptions: They call me Warr, because it’s all I’m good at making. And I’m really, really good.

1: The room was stifling, rank with the scent of tangy sweat. Flies crawled through my blood, biting, sipping, itching, but I couldn’t scratch with my hands tied behind my back. My lips and nose were swollen from the blows, and it was hard to breathe around the stifling, stinking gag to get air through my mouth.

The goon had his fingernails pressing into a leg wound, and I snarled, muffling through the gag, tensing against the bonds. “Tell us.” The goon pressed harder. I couldn’t help it, and cried out in pain. He let up, and the relative relief was welcome. We all sat breathing for a time. Sweat trickled into the wounds they’d inflicted, burning.

Telling began to seem like a good idea, but if I did, my squad was all dead, and I was hard pressed to believe these guys would really let me go. Goon took the gag off, looked in my eyes, and grabbed me by the neck, not squeezing, just holding it in his meaty, sweaty hand like a set of keys. The thin man sitting in the chair behind him cleaned his glasses on his tie, looking at me.

“I will ask you one more time. Your life is forfeit if you remain silent, and we will find your squad and kill them all the same.” Somehow, I managed to find a bubble of saliva to help me speak.

“Then why do you need me to tell you?” My voice croaked from my dry throat.

“To save us the time of searching, of course.” “Go to hell.” “You first.” The goon looked in my eyes and head butted me. The stars were beautiful, but the room went dark and I saw them fade like a child’s innocence.

2: When I woke up, the goon and the mastermind were on the floor, surrounded by areolas of blood, and in the chair sat the most lethal, beautiful woman I ever met, trimming her nails, expertly, with the point of a really big knife. Lliya, at times my nemesis, at others, my lover, and sometimes both simultaneously. I had no idea which one was going to kill me, and sometimes, I didn’t think I’d care.

The gag was out, but I was still tied up.

“Good morning, handsome.”

“Is it?”

“Interesting. I thought you’d say ‘Thank you, gorgeous.’”

“Really?”

She stood, walked over to me; I actually felt a little sliver of fear. Looking into my eyes, she put her hand with cool fingers and light pressure, capable of anything, on my swollen cheek

“Say it.”

“Thank you, gorgeous.”

She slinked behind me, untied my wrists, knelt, untied my ankles, her mouth close to my crotch, with a small smile on her lips.

“Having fun?”

She smiled up at me, undoing the last of the knots. Her smile dazzled, her eyes sparkled with erotic mischief.

“My dear Warr, you know I only keep you alive so I can kill you myself. But not like this. Not sporting, and all that crap.” “I agree.” She rubbed my wrists, bringing the stinging tingle of circulation back, then I took care of my ankles.

“Get up, darling.”

I did.

She wrinkled her nose. “You stink.”

“Yes, but not at my job.”

She looked back at the dead goon and the mastermind, then back at me, the point of her knife slowly twirling at the corner of her smirking mouth.

“You sure?”

Ouch.

3: It took some time for the swelling to go down. Lliya tried to stay, but that was too volatile a situation. I still remember the kiss she gave me when she left.

Captain Kriley and some of the guys came to see me, debrief me over what the squad accomplished without me, and razzed me hard for getting caught, but praised me for not cracking under the beating I took.

“We’re gonna beat your ass for getting caught, but we’ll wait til you heal.”

“You had to go the bathroom again, didn’t you?”

“Your face still looks like a catcher’s mitt.”

And on it went. I tried not to laugh, because it hurt my ribs, but they had no mercy. Soon, Kriley dismissed them all, sat across from me all serious like.

“Lliya?”

I nodded.

“Yeah.” He sat back, steepled his hands, “I’m beginning to wonder if we should’ve recruited her instead.”

“Me too. She said I stunk at my job.”

“You did get caught.”

“First time, Captain.”

He unsteepled his hands, put them in his lap. “True, but sometimes, once is all you need. There’s guys don’t come back from once. You know that. So what should we do now?”

“Let me go after her.”

“What does she know, you need to go after her?”

“Nothing. I like the curve of her backside.”

“You can go all puppy-dog about it on your time. I’m not asking again.”

“She knows who’s behind the killing.”

“She does?”

“Yes.”

“And you know this how? She told you?”

“She set it up.”

“And you know this how?”

“The little man in the wide tie told me. Somehow, she knew we were here, tipped him. I was blindsided,” I touched the swelling behind my ear, “and they got me. The rest of the squad went on without me.”

“Your feelings hurt?”

“Captain, I’m just running the facts by you.”

“Sorry. No more busting your chops. But those aren’t facts. Yet.”

I nodded. “If she knew we were here, how come she didn’t know where we went? She could’ve followed us herself and taken care of it. We never would’ve saw her, or known she was there.”

“Part of the reason I want to go after her.”

“She’s long gone, and we got better things to do.”

He let that sink in, then got up to leave. “Leave it alone, Warr. She’ll mess you up in the head, if she hasn’t already.”

That ship had sailed a long time ago, but I didn’t bother telling him that.

“Feel better,” he said, and walked out.

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

4: Flash! I remember glass breaking and the sound of copters, keen and fast, flying low over the neighborhood, and the sound of rapid shooting. Flash! My wife ran to the window to see what was happening.

Flash! In an instant she became a pile of molten skin, boiling blood, and bone shards, her head plopping on the bed beside me, looking at me with a question in her bloody, sightless eyes.

Flash! Men in black uniforms and helmets with black visors hitting me with sticks and boots and fists.

Flash!    They carried me out, but as I was losing consciousness, I registered it all. People were screaming and running. The confusion was deliberate, and unnecessary. I would have gone quietly had they knocked. Women and children were lying prone in the streets, bleeding out, their husbands’ bodies vainly over them in a futile gesture of protection, family blood mingling in eternal rivulets of unison.

Flash! Tubes in and out, fluids flowing to and fro, in me, out of me, cycling through again, and men in white robes, outside of the plexiglass tank that contained me, talking in hushed tones about what I was to become. I heard them. Every word, but I never told them.

Flash! Tests, chemicals, more tests, more chemicals, straining against tight bonds, pushing, pushing, until they ripped free, and more men in black with sticks came for me. They say seven of them died before they found the tranquilizer that saw me behind thicker plexiglass. I had no idea where I was, or why. I had no clue why they wanted to turn me into a killing machine, but in the end now, it doesn’t matter. Now, they are the ones I hunt.

5: I’d lived in a quiet neighborhood, with good neighbors (mostly), and a good wife. We had no children, because I was mostly on the move, and never knew if I was coming home. I wouldn’t have liked it if Candace left, but I would have understood. She didn’t, and I loved her all the more for it.

We often went to the countryside on weekends, to a cabin I’d built there for us, our little hideaway, where we let ourselves air out the tensions of the week, and left our inhibitions in the car. I liked the mountains that took the sunset into their valleys, liked the silent, circling hawks, majestic in their flying, lethal in their descent. I liked the way the grass rippled like green water when the wind blew across it. I liked that Candace wanted to share it with me. I liked to think that we were happy, before she died.

And then, I didn’t think anymore, about anything that wasn’t my mission: find the insufferable bastards that blew her head off, or die trying.

*******************

Back on the job, still a little bruised up, but I was gonna hurt someone if I didn’t get out of that hospital bed. It was nothing a ballerina couldn’t endure. I was debriefed: we did not find what we were looking for, so we had to keep looking, except now it would involve traveling, which we all hated, so everyone was gonna have an attitude about finding it.

Kriley suspected that Llya tipped them off, but I knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she’d do, even though she lived to destroy us. Sometimes, even your enemies had codes of honor they wouldn’t break. And that meant that it was somewhere here, on the squad, working close, with access to plans and supplies, maps and computers, spy equipment, and weaponry.

It was shaping up to be a fun time.

I sighed, sipped coffee, looked at the clock, put the double frame pictures of Candice in the top drawer, sipped some more coffee, watched the clock some more, turning it over. Who could it be? Why would they do it? Money? Too simple, but simple may have been enough.

Revenge? Ambition? Jealousy? Too many questions would lead to me getting paranoid and shifty, and if someone else was thinking about this, I might be the one under scrutiny. I breathed deep to slow everything down, and reviewed what I knew of these guys in my head.

Kriley was by the book, and only by the book. His frustration with the job we did was mostly tied to the fact that everyone else, me included, was only loosely affiliated with the book. We cut corners and took shortcuts and risks, even when it came back to bite us. There wasn’t always time for the book, though Captain Kriley always insisted there was.

Colanto was stand-up too, but too eager to get home to his live-in girlfriend. If she was hoping for wife-hood, she’d be waiting forever. He tended to ditch overtime, and wouldn’t volunteer or take on extra if it wasn’t a direct order. He was a great shot though, and you could rely on him to take it when he needed to, and sometimes when he didn’t, just to expedite things. He was the obvious choice, and in this job, you never overlook the obvious, because very often, that’s what they wanted you to overlook.

Arlo was older, more settled, had seen his share of firefights, and knew what it took to survive. He was still rugged and broad, if a little more gray, but that only gave him more of an aura of authority, which he was not shy about wielding. I would be the most disappointed if it was Arlo who leaked.

Duncan, “Dark Horse” we called him, the quiet one, was the least likely. He never said much, didn’t seem to have a blink reflex, and had an unnerving intensity to be absolutely still, settling in like a big cat on the hunt, seemingly lifeless, blending in, until he was ready to strike.

The results were always lethal, and none of it fazed him. If it was him, he’d give me the most trouble, only because he was such an ex factor.

Lastly there was Eberdine, affectionately called Ed, the lone female on the squad.

She had cinnamon skin, sea-green eyes, and a body that promised heaven, and could send you there in a heartbeat with a blow, a blade, or a bullet to the temple.

She was the smallest, and perhaps, skill for skill, the most covert among us, hiding in places you wouldn’t think to look, coming back to you with information you swore was confidential, and knew there were no witnesses. She enjoyed it. “Keeps me sharp,” she always said. If she was the leak,

I was going to have a hard time catching her, and who knew how long that would take.

Tonight, He said, one of you will betray me. I learned that somewhere. It was heavy with foreshadow, simple and fearful, with a heartfelt agony of broken trust behind it, a sense of inevitability, and unmatched bravery in the way the victim stayed the course.  

6:  The conference room was big, manfully appointed, and too cold from the canned air that blew threw the inconspicuous vents overhead. The large monitor in the front of the room held the image of man with his face in deep shadow, track lighting glinting off the silver letters on the marbled black granite wall behind him:

STEELE INDUSTRIES       

“Were we compromised?” Shadow-face asked. “No sir,” Kriley answered. “Commander Warren didn’t break, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.”

He didn’t exactly throw me under the bus, he just kind of tossed me underhand. “Commander Warren. What have you to say for yourself?”

“I’m….sorry?” The squad chuckled, but Shadow-face wasn’t amused.

“Yes,” he said, “you are.”

That brought an even bigger chuckle; first Lliya, now Shadow-face. I had to learn not set myself up.

“The mission, sir?” Kriley said, mercifully switching the conversation back to its original purpose.

Shadow-face sat silently for a moment or two. “You will proceed to Nanjasi, sans Commander Warren.”

“Sir?”

“He is suspended, effective immediately. He compromised the safety of the squad, and has become a liability.”

“But sir,” said Kriley, “he’s one of our best all around tactics operatives; I could really use him in the field. Would you reconsider, sir?”

“I already have,” said Shadow-face. “I was going to fire him, effective immediately. Meeting adjourned, Captain. You and the rest of the squad will leave for Nanjasi first light. Sans Commander Warren. “Am I clear?”

Kriley’s jaw twitched with the unsaid.

“Crystal, sir.”

The monitor winked out. He looked at me. “You’re on vacation. Where will you go?”

“I’ve always wanted to see…Nanjasi.”

“You think this guy was born yesterday? He’s probably already got tails on you.” Kriley was right.

“And no,” he said, “you will not spot them, and no again, you will not shake them.” Right again.

“You done with your vote of confidence?”

“I am.”

I left, but I didn’t go home. Not right away. Not for awhile. I went to find Lliya, but I didn’t go after her. Not directly.

“Ed, where would a woman go if she didn’t want to be found?”

“Well, certainly not the bedroom.”

I flashed a phony smile, nodded. “Good. Now where?”

“Shopping, a chick flick, lesbo book store, feminist AA meeting. Why do you wanna know?”

“I’m looking for a woman.”

Ahem.”

“Not in that way.” “Well, now I’m insulted.”

“Hey, you said not the bedroom…”

She arched a playful eyebrow:  “It’s not the only room…”

“Come on, now.” I pleaded, chuckling.

“Okay, okay,” she was smiling herself. “She doesn’t want to be found?”

I nodded.

“Women don’t disappear not to be found; they wouldn’t go off to a cabin somewhere in East Loserville to get away from the Mister. They go somewhere to think, to calm down, to get past the emotions.”

“Where would that be?”

“A park, a coffee shop, somewhere public where she could be alone among people, because she’s afraid she’ll act out if she’s wrong upstairs. So there’s someone there to call for help.

“With me?”

“Yes. Learning.”

“Indeed,” she said. “Glad to hear it. Know where to start?”

I thought about it.“No.”

“Should I come with? I’ll ditch you when we’ve found her.”

“Sure. Thanks. Why’s your name so damn weird?”

“I changed it to Eberdine. It was actually weirder.”

She laughed at my expression. “Let’s go find your killer girlfriend.”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

We walked, arm in arm, off to start my vacation, looking for a woman that didn’t want to be found.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

March 3rd

2014 All rights reserved

Why Beyond Panic? (My blogging 101 assignment)

tsunami

I called this blog Beyond Panic, which is not a cheerful name, and may not be something that on the surface people would want to read; I understand that, but such a title is not chosen at random, nor with the intent of discouraging people with a woe-is-me story. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Why am I beyond panic?

The story is long and messy, but not boring. Suffice it to say that Murphy’s Law as applied to my life in PA was Murphy’s Law squared, and sometimes cubed, but it taught me some things about myself that I would not have known otherwise: I’m tougher than I ever thought I could be. I can show emotions. When people change, and especially when they betray you, they grow cold to justify their actions. Blood does not equal family. Death is closer than we know, but so is happiness.

And more often than not, things even out with time, just by necessity if nothing else. The ups, you see, do in fact, follow the downs.

Now here in my mid-50’s, having lost everything and having to start over, I’ve never felt more free. Things are a hindrance, and when you have the wrong people added to the wrong things, you’re not just running in place, not getting anywhere, you are sprinting in oil: You fall, and slip backward, and slide forward, your arms are windmilling, and you’re out of control.

THAT is what my life in PA was like. I don’t know why; I tried everything I knew, worked jobs where everyone involved KNEW I was out of my calling, but I had mouths to feed. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the question I so often asked myself: “What are you doing here?”

Don’t get me wrong, PA was a pretty state: fresh air, open space, lots of festivals, good food, good beers, and for the most part, good people. (that’s another post). My children thrived, and grew big and strong, the way kids should grow. The first five years were wonderful: family vacations, learning to fish, summer camps, bike trips, pictures, picnics, swim lessons, music lessons, dance lessons, garage bands, and of course, sports (I was even a T-ball coach; that was an experience!) and then a crucial decision was made on a career choice my wife had to make;  the stakes were high, and it was a gamble, and we lost, and then the downward spiral began, and for me, at least, it never stopped until I left. We never really fully recovered, at least not together.

I had to go back to work, but I had no idea what PA had in store. There was no internet then to job search; I knew no one who could really help, or would if they could, and we were getting dangerously close to losing all we had built, and then, one day, we did. I went into the temp service circus because it was the fastest way to find a job without applying. I tried my hardest.

It was years of wasted effort: dead-end jobs, minimum wage service jobs, lost music equipment, lost apartments,  broken cars, ruined credit, and finally,  never being able to get ahead  anymore, which nailed the marriage coffin shut.

Getting ahead of myself:

So into the wringer I go, and… Wrong color (yes, they actually said that),  overqualified (have a college degree: ‘you’re not going to stay.’ they were probably right), too slow (we need at least 300 of these an hour) incapable of learning (my trainer was flirting with the girls, and I tried to learn on my own, since they didn’t get me a new one when I asked) sleeping on the job (I was working two full time ones with an hour break in between; how I didn’t kill myself or someone else driving back and forth remains a mystery; I consider that divine interference),  all of them stamped on my forehead before I was shown the door. With the first one, I never even got in.

I was not good at office politics either. I never seemed to genuflect fast enough. (That would fall under ‘too slow,’ in more ways than one). See, my resources were in my head, not my hands. I was not an electronics assembler, machine operator, fork lift driver, janitor, line worker, shipping packer, truck loader, messenger, call center salesman, etc.

I was a teacher. (say it with me: Those who can’t DO… Oh, yeah? Why don’t you teach a new poetry unit to this eighth grade class two weeks into May, buddy… can you DO that?)

Well, I’ll share with you what I learned when people hear about what you ‘was.’ ‘WAS’ is the echo of fading glory.

“Who cares? Why all this? Why didn’t you just become a teacher again?”  In a word, favoritism, nepotism, sexism (a new male principal who wanted all female teachers),  ageism (he wanted his fresh out of college) and politics, and in one instance, PTA involvement.  Pick a word.  Any word, and one or more of them will probably apply as well. In short, the reasons had nothing to do with being qualified. My reviews in NY had been good, and in my last year, it had been raised to exceptional.

Stay with me.

As the place developed, and the farmland disappeared, new people with young families began to move in, and none of them worked in PA. They kept their jobs in NY and NJ and put up with the hell of commuting because there was simply no money to be made in PA that would allow them to support their family.

I was circling the drain financially, spiritually, emotionally, maritally, and fill-in-the-ly, when this company threw me a lifeline, and I grabbed it, and began, for the umpteenth time, to pull myself back to shore. When the line was cut again in PA by the company we were contracted to, I looked around for another one to grab.

“Do you want to look at the severance package?” (I wasn’t on the job a year, and it was based on time with the company. I might’ve gotten a Happy Meal out of it).

“No, I don’t. I want to work.”

“We have something in New Jersey.”

“Where?”

“It’s kinda far.”

“Where?”

They told me.

“Go check it out for a couple of days, and if you want to take the severance we’ll go over it with you.” I went out the first day; the second day I took the job. I was so used to doing what was necessary, and I had lost so much  that there was literally nothing holding me in PA anymore. I jettisoned stuff, got out of the lease, and came to Jersey.

So I left, and now I’m here, and now that i have the time, the discipline, and the equipment, I’m pursuing a lifelong dream: to become a published author, and have people spend time with my imagination, and see the images I see in their own way, and relate to my characters, fantasy though they may be, because every fantasy is anchored in some way to a reality.

I’d like them to find that reality in one of my works, as I’ve found some of mine in the works of others: like when the hero is on the verge of defeat, and can’t lift the sword one more time…, but he digs, and it’s slow and painful and everything in him wants to scream: yeah, I’ve been there. Our swords might be different, but that feeling…yeah, I know it now. Or when the woman he’s with says just the right thing at the right time, and he gets that charge…yeah, been there. Or better yet, when he can’t go on, and the giant’s in front of him, and the point of a blade pops out of the giant’s big gut, and he falls, and the hero’s girl is standing back there, looking like Halloween on a bad hair day? Man, are you kidding me? You better go to Jared…and if he’s not there, send out a search party.

Pretentious? Self-aggrandizing? Delusional? I don’t know. I hope one day you’ll read my work and see what you experience…

So, I’m beyond panic because I know this is a stop, not a destination. I no longer feel like I’m being blocked, but incubated. I feel like that Eagles tune where the line says: “So much has happened, that nothing has changed.” In many ways it’s true, but in one very real way it’s not: I’ve changed, and I have the crucible of PA to thank for it.

So much has happened, that nothing happens to me now that I cannot deal with, literally, on every level. If I can’t accomplish it, it’s because I’m the one who gave up, and if PA taught me anything, it was to NEVER give up.

I’ve told people the long, messy, not-boring story, and the usual response is: “Wow. You should write a book about your experiences there.” I don’t know. I’d like to leave it there in the dust, where it properly belongs; time is growing short, and I have other things I want to say.

But if I ever do, this would (will?) definitely be the title.

Hey, thanks for taking the time.

So I thought I’d start writing…

All through school middle school, high school and college, I was told: you should write.

I liked writing,  but I was undisciplined, and a little lazy (I’m qualifying, but we know that already, right? ok.)

Over the years, efforts were sporadic, uneven, and I didn’t have a routine. I relied on ‘inspiration’ which was the equivalent of saying ‘whenever I felt like I had inspiration,’ which may or may not have been the case.

I recently found some of that writing; some of it stands up, but most of it is cringe-worthy. It had no substance, and it looked like what it was, rushed and off-the-cuff. Oddly enough, I was better at short things than long.

I did the ‘workshop’ thing, and the ‘writer’s group’ thing, and got even more bogged down and made less progress.

Then LIFE happened: Marriage, kids, moving, work, routine, trips, the whole suburban thing, and then it changed, and then it was gone.

On my own now, the excuses I had were over. There were no more obligations: The kids were grown and independent, the ex was now independent, and I was…alone.

Alone with no more excuses, alone with more time than I knew how to fill. There was music, but that was mostly on Sundays only, outside of an occasional rehearsal or mid-week thing.

The words of my teachers came back: You should write.

So much time lost….’You should write’

So much life passed by…’You should write’

I’m not where I want to be: I’ve suffered loss…’You should write’

And so, with those words in my ears, I sit down at my laptop, fondly remembering the dreck I put out on my typewriter, and my ‘electric’ typewriter, and I write my first fantasy novel (as yet unpublished) and the dam broke, and now I can’t stop.

At this time of my life,  with all of that experience behind me, I feel I now have something  to say that will be good, if not valuable; funny, even if true, or maybe especially because it’s true. Something to offer  people that will allow them to feel, to think, to experience.

Something to enjoy, if only for a little while, until I write again.

Not everyone will like it, and that’s okay. I can say that now, and mean it.

But I always hope for the best.