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Chapter 11 – Mourn in the USA

May 11, 2012

PART TWO – PHOEBUS

Chapter Eleven – “Mourn in the USA”

Now – The Iron Range, Minnesota, USA

The Boss was a good choice for repair work as far as Braden was concerned, though he himself had been too young to serve (and there were of course those other issues with regards to volunteering for the military in his youthful days anyway) his father had been a fighter pilot. Shot down over North Vietnam the letter said, though there were some indications even in the scrubbed docs that the family fought for and eventually got out of the Army that the real location had been Laos.

So, when Springsteen sang and spoke to being born here and being used for someone else’s war-profits, he thought of Pop. Pop knew how to keep that damn old Ford pickup running. It was as though his father’s ghost was guiding his hand. (Though Braden’s beefy hands were a bit large for the more delicate parts of the job, he frequently lost his grip on the tools and banged against one part of the engine or other with such force that most any other man would have bled).

“Ain’t got time to bleed,” he muttered after most such impacts of flesh on metal in honor of his state’s former governor. Though Ventura had left politics in disgust, he might have been the man of the hour during the recent showdowns with the legislature. Somehow, wrestling seemed more appropriate when dealing with petty, corrupt, kick-back receiving politicians on the State level than diplomacy. Maybe one or more of those pencil necks who wanted to cut off food for the elderly and poor kids would listen if the speaker was large and had a mad look in his eye.

But he didn’t dwell on that for long. No, the truck had worked this morning and he needed it to work again. On the way back, it failed to start. He had to stick a foot to pavement and push it all the way home. Fortunately, he could kick hard enough it would keep the truck rolling for quite a while before he’d need to do it again. The attendees of the funeral hadn’t even noticed that the truck wasn’t running when they sped down the road afterwards.

The funeral. A more bizarre event in recent history on the Iron Range he could not imagine. It had been for a farmer’s cow, and not, as some had assumed, for the matron of the Nelson family. No, Braden’s mother was still strong enough to cook occasionally and leave the house on good days, though her grasp of what was going on was up for grabs. Early stage Alzheimer’s, the doc said.

Yet, whatever nonsense she said sometimes had some sort of bearing on the situation at hand, even when she seemed to misunderstand what was happening completely. Braden was at times convinced she was faking it just to get to go visit her friends at the clinic.

He usually minded his own business with the exception of taking care of his congregation. That cow had been the farmer’s last means of support, Federal subsidies being what they were now.

They were a handout, corporate welfare to larger, more well-connected industrial farms.

That’s what happens when you elect crooks.

But Braden didn’t like to involve himself in gossip. It was a sin, too, after all, just like greed; spreading division through derision; allowing criminals to run around unpunished, unstopped, which was no different than aiding and abetting after the fact. A crime that was frequently prosecuted when it was someone without the protections of the…what?…upper class? Royalty? Practically unlimited legal defense funds?

A cabal of criminals running around with no one to stop them. That had been what convinced Braden to join Eli’s mad quest in the first place. The results had been less than stellar.

Now, he was mildly curious about the white van, the one with the numbers painted in black on top. It had been parked across the road since early this morning.

He also wondered if the helicopter circling overhead had any connection to the van. Had George Grune, the neighbor across the street, to whom neither he nor his mother had spoken to in—what?—forty years!—gone and done something that got the attention of ATF or DEA?

The Nelsons and the Grunes had completely ignored each other (except when custom and propriety commanded otherwise) since that day. During a long, unscheduled break from NYU, Maya and Eli had visited. Grune had said something…what was it? He couldn’t quite recall now, but the meaning had been obvious. He was insulting Maya and the Nelsons for having a person of color as a visitor.

Mrs. Nelson had quickly ushered everyone inside and behaved as though it hadn’t happened at all. He thought it odd that after getting the guests settled in, she said she needed to go to the grocer’s to pick up food. There was barely room in the fridge and their three—three!!!—freezers for more food as it was.

Then there was the vandalism, still an unsolved crime after forty years. Someone had splashed orange paint all over Grune’s house, which had been an ashy gray. The sheriff never did catch those responsible.

That there had been a very faint orange ring in the kitchen sink that Braden noticed after dinner was something he didn’t bring up. But Ma seemed to know he had noticed, and merely smiled briefly and launched into getting to know Maya and Eli, making even the latter progressive, often foul-mouthed, atheist feel as at home as she could.

They never spoke of the Grune incident except once. Ma had been in the hospital and things looked grim. Braden had asked, quite out of the blue, “So what did you do with the empty paint cans?”

“I’m not feeling well. And I really don’t think you ought to be badgering your mother on her deathbed,” came the dodgy reply just before she nodded off.

So much for confession.

That was twenty-three years ago. She left the hospital feeling much better the following afternoon. It was seventeen years after the events at a local copper mine—that had secretly been turned into a uranium mine by Roarke—had set the three of them on the path that lead to Maya’s death.

But Roarke was gone. Shot through the head by “parties unknown.” Eli had disappeared just as they had made their way back to Manhattan after burying Maya. And that had been mere hours before Roarke was murdered in his hospital bed. Well…that said it all.

Braden did not approve, of course. He had beaten Roarke within an inch of his life though, which was why he was in the hospital in the first place. In fact, it was that Roarke, broken-bodied though he was, still managed to laugh and say that Braden was just like him that had caused Phoebus to break off the attack and call an ambulance.

What Roarke and his foreign friends had done… Well, Roarke had gotten what he deserved. Braden would gave preferred he had a trial, was convicted and given the death penalty.

The Freedom Federation…

That had been Maya’s idea to call it that. Eli didn’t want to name it at all and Braden couldn’t come up with anything better so it kind of stuck even though Eli objected to the word ‘federation’. It sounded too organized or official, he said. He said it smacked of being part of the system and his main point was that the system was dysfunctional.

Eli believed it was not only broken, but that people like Roarke—and by extension his foreign and domestic business partners and government flunkies and allies—controlled it. He doubted anyone in government was to be relied on and distrusted large corporations as well even though he wound up building and running one himself. Eli was a pessimist in that way, though he obviously thought there was some reason to fight. Braden had been the ever-optimist that, well, things would turn out for the best even if he took a dim view of Eli’s ideas how to make that happen at times, balked outwardly at the spectacle, at getting so involved directly. Maya was the glue that held them together, the heart and soul of the trio. Sometimes she was its conscience as well.

Given the current state of affairs, Braden wondered if Eli wasn’t right. Maybe it was beyond the system to fix what was wrong with itself.

Except Roarke was dead, given a stately burial with hundreds of important people in attendance. Maya, on the other hand still, so far as Braden knew, lay on a small island near Manhattan, the only attendees the two men who loved her, drunk on Jack Daniel’s, and listening to the music from some western that Bob Dylan had scored and even had a role in.

Maybe he should check to see if they put that soundtrack on CD. He still had the 8-track, but the player was long ago defunct. He hadn’t listened to that album since they buried her. Maybe it had been long enough.

He tried the truck’s key. She started up and purred.

“Thanks, Pop.”

The radio came on as well.

“…s news on the hour. Renegade industrialist Dr. Eli Schneider has apparently escaped FBI custody. No official statement has yet been released, but we have unofficial reports that he used a cellphone to hack the hospital’s security system. He was there for medical evaluation after being arrested…”

Braden glanced up and saw a small black object drop from the helicopter. He wasted no time heading over to the van now. It wasn’t the Grune’s after all. It was Phoebus they were coming for.

Braden stuck his fingers in the crack between the van doors. He pulled and they popped off as though they had no hinges, no locks on them whatsoever.

Don’t make Fords like they used to.

Inside were two young men, both of whom had a startled—and that was probably an understatement—look on their faces. Both had headsets on and were in front of video screens. The one had surveillance cameras displayed, including one depicting Mrs. Nelson watching Project Runway (she loved that show).

They had a camera inside the house. His house…

“Who wants to not wind up in the hospital by telling me why you’re watching my mother watching the teevee?”

The first young man tried to duck down as if, somehow magically, if he hid then Braden would forget he was there. The other just stammered and pointed out the opening behind the big man.

There was the black object now, just landing in his yard with a small parachute. It was a man. Tall, thin, dark-haired and dressed in a black suit. He wore sunglasses.

Braden dropped the doors and sauntered over to the skydiver.

“Don’t know where he is. Haven’t spoken to him in four decades. Now, get off my lawn before you upset Mother.”

As if on cue, Mrs. Nelson appeared at the door, a tray in hand. She ignored Braden and Mendoza standing in the yard and walked over to the open van.

Cupcakes and milk. Lord, this is going to be a long night.

“You can call me Mendoza.”

“So. You’re FBI?”

“No. I’m not at liberty to say more than I represent the government of the United States of America. We just need—”

“And like I told you, we don’t know where Schneider is, so you’re wasting your time spying on an old lady.”

The tone was somewhere between Minnesota nice and a threat of violence, which aren’t always as far apart as it may seem. It was important to be polite even when there was a can of whoop ass displayed prominently on the kitchen counter.

“Mr. Nelson, your country needs your help.”

“Maybe if you clowns spent more on fixing roads and bridges and less on invading the privacy of little old ladies, you’d be able to handle it yourselves. Put all that energy and money you waste on harassing good folk toward stopping them getting ripped off by bankers and crooked politicians and things would be peachy.”

Mendoza was unfazed. His blank expression showed no fear, no concern, no embarrassment. The latter did not sit well with Braden. Surely he knew who he was dealing with.

Braden spared a glance over his shoulder. Mrs. Nelson was having a chat with the young men in the van, who were apparently hungry and eating up the cupcakes like there was no tomorrow.

“It’s more complicated than that… Phoebus.”

So. He knows. Big dingy whoop…

Surely whatever laws he might have broken doing the likes of Mendoza’s job forty years ago were way past the statute of limitations.

To heck with this!

Braden walked over and slowly removed Mendoza’s sunglasses by the nose bridge. He moved his hand ever so slightly and slowly to the right and flicked.

There was a brief, high-pitched whistle as they hurtled towards Wisconsin, which was probably where they landed, what was left of them after heating from air friction and smacking into the ground outside some small town in the Driftless (at least Braden thought that was where the ruined shades went. He was a bit out of practice throwing things that far).

Mendoza’s face was plainly sunburned except for his very pale eyelids. It made him look hideous. Somehow, his eyes seemed obscene having been hidden so long from the Sun and the view of his fellow women and men.

“What, do you sleep in those things, too?”

Mrs. Nelson was walking over now.

Why me, Lord?

“Is he the Devil?”, the small white-haired woman inquired.

“Nope. Just some skydiving jackass from the I.R.S.”

“Not IRS.”

Mendoza still seemed curiously unshaken. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small black case. He opened it slowly.

Another pair. Jeez…

As Mendoza put them on, “If you’ll forgive the intrusion, Mrs. Nelson, I need to speak to your son for a moment. It’s very, very important.”

She looked at Braden and smiled. Then leaned enough to make it seem as though she didn’t want Mendoza to hear, even though he clearly could.

“Be careful. Lucifer fell from the sky too.”

Then she smiled at Mendoza as if she hadn’t insulted him at all and carried the empty tray and glasses inside.

“Mr. Nelson, would you like to waste another couple hundred…”

Mendoza glanced at the van doors laying in the yard.

“…couple thousand of taxpayer dollars, or can I speak?”

“We pay two hundred bucks for those damn things?”

Braden started to laugh.

“You’re getting ripped off. Sorry, we’re getting ripped off.”

He shook his head.

Mendoza moved swiftly. He pulled the small metallic object from yet another pocket and pressed a button. Then he set it on the ground.

There was Eli. Well, sort of. He was much older. And there was something odd about the colors. The three-dimensional moving image that appeared had something off about it. The cyans and magentas were a bit too strong. But it was probably otherwise exactly the way Eli would look after all these years.

“Good evening. As you undoubtedly have surmised, I am indeed the individual, the… what’s that phrase they used? ‘…costumed vigilante’ known as the Red Fox. Or rather I was. That was long ago.

“And, yes, I also shot Harold Roarke. I have doubts about the film shown on television being genuine, but that is essentially what happened. And good riddance to Harold. If there were a hell, he’d be smoking turds in it.

“But to the point. As you also undoubtedly know, SchneiderCorp, through one of its many subsidiaries, developed a weapon, a biological weapon, for the U.S. government. The satellite carrying the obliteration virus—also developed by us—is flying over…”

The recorded image checked his watch.

“Ah! The United Arab Emirates right about now.

“As you have also discovered, the Air Force and it’s subcontractors no longer have operational control over the satellite.

“I do.

“Additionally, just like my competitors and fellow industrialists who dabble in federal government contract work, I sold similar models to many other countries. No single country can be allowed to have the power to eradicate life in any given area. Nor can several. There are simply too many madmen who would actually use it.

“Therefore, I have taken control of those as well. But…!”

Eli paused and his eyes narrowed like an old cornered circus lion who was getting tired of the man with the whip and chair.

“You needn’t worry. I won’t use it.”

Eli smiled that darn smile that Braden had seen so often in their college days. The smile that said that some serious stuff was about to happen.

“That is, I won’t as long as my demand is met.

“Over in the North Star State, there lives my remaining counterpart, Phoebus. He answers to the name Braden Nelson. There are dozens with that name, so I’ve included the lat and long coordinates etched on the bottom of this hologram projector so you can find the right one quickly.

“Unless Phoebus meets me tomorrow night—he knows where!—at midnight, I will activate all of the satellites. Every one of them. Simultaneously.

“I which case, as my bloodthirsty buyers know, will mean, ‘Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.’ Same for sushi, fish and chips, borscht, and moo goo gai pan. There won’t be a living thing left on the face of the earth, and it can all start over once whatever survives in the oceans makes its way onto shore some millions of years from now.

“Don’t bother trying to hide inside your undermountain complexes. I re-engineered the virus to survive for two hundred years instead of seventy-two hours as specified. Hiding won’t help.

“It’s now seven-thirty-two, E.S.T. That means you have less than twenty-nine hours to find Phoebus, give him this message, and let him get on his way.

“If I detect so much as a single sniper, surveillance plane, or mysteriously nosy alley cat, I will activate the devices. Ask Braden, he knows that I don’t bluff. I mean what I say.

“Midnight. Tomorrow.

“Oh, and I wouldn’t send Mendoza. I doubt Braden will find his methods to his liking. Not a good way to convince him to do whatever plan you’ll be cooking up.

“Ciao!”

The image disappeared in a static-filled flash.

Braden just looked down, taking it all in, wondering what it could mean. Could Eli have finally lost it, decided to commit globalcide?

“So, Mr. Nelson, do we have your cooperation?

“The chopper is ready to pick you up and take you to a plane. We can get you anywhere on the planet. Even the moon, if we have to. We just need to know…”

Braden walked away. He headed toward the van.

“Wait! We need to talk! Need to strategize!”

Phoebus picked up the van doors.

“You can tell my mother I’ve gone fishing. Tell her what you like.

“Then leave. Do what Schneider says. Don’t follow, don’t try anything. He’s already thought of anything you might try… He’s ready for it.”

The van shifted sharply to the left as the man carrying the doors climbed in and pulled the doors closed behind him—as well as the damaged metal would allow.

“Let’s go.”

The young men glanced at each other.

“You two are what, NSA?”

“No…no, sir. DHS. Assigned to help, uhhh….”

“Good enough. Airport. Minneapolis. Step on it. Gotta catch a plane.”

At last given the chance to do something other than sit and be bored, the youth in front of the surveillance cam station hopped into the driver’s seat just a second before his partner could do the same.

“Now, I get to drive,” he smiled at his frowning friend in the back.

“Here we go!”

They sped off as Mendoza shouted orders frantically into his watch at the chopper pilot. He was getting back into the chopper as he faded from Braden’s view.

Braden sat quietly trying to puzzle out what Eli had said. Much of it sounded sincere. The possibility that he had just gone off the deep end was something Braden had long ago expected.

But to say he never bluffed? He did it all the time! That was often half or more of his schtick. Whatever was really going on probably had nothing or little to do with what Mendoza thought it did.

He’d find out soon enough, once he met with Eli. He would once they reunited at Maya’s grave in the shadow of a very large statue.

—–

©2011 Christopher C. Knall

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