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Sunlight softly – almost a Vacation – Fennel & Sorghum – Everything in their Power –

Sunlight softly drifts from skylights through the atrium pale, brighter though and whiter than the sconces warming shadows about the outer walls. Wooden doors under a sign that says Council Chamber swing open and a robot steps through, a man in a robot suit made of blue and grey plastic shells articulated about knees and elbows, a grey grill of a mask on his blue crash helmet. A woman in a broad-brimmed bonnet and a black-and-white striped swimming costume takes his arm, smiles coquettishly into a hand mirror as someone snaps a photo, then tucks the mirror away, reaching for a green rainshell held out to her by a man in a grey flannel suit and an elaborate red-and-purple headdress. A bald man in a white vest leans on a cricket bat, speaking animatedly to a man in a red striped shirt with white collar and cuffs. Flash and flash again, more photos. A little guy in a black suit and a skinny black tie pushes free of the crowd and heads toward an office across the atrium. What hair he has is lankly grey, clumped about his ears and struggling to launch a curl between his brow and the top of his skull. He’s taking off his sunglasses, careful of the twirling owl’s feather tied to one side. Glaring sourly at the man in the red striped shirt walking towards him. “The fuck was that about?” says the little guy, tucking his sunglasses away in a jacket pocket.

“Comics Month,” says the man in the red striped shirt. His tie is much the same red as the stripes. “They do charity work.” Behind him the man in the robot suit’s shuffling into an elevator.

“Which means fuck-all to me,” says the little guy. “And has zilch to do with riverfront condos.”

“Schedules change,” says the man in the red striped shirt. “You’re not exactly the easiest people to get hold of.” Tipping his wrist to look at his watch, heavy and gold.

“I need a phone,” says the little guy, and the man in the red striped shirt pulls one from his pocket and flips it open. The little guy stares at it. “Something secure,” he says. “A goddamn landline.” Pointing at the door to the office.

“You can’t go in there,” says the man in the red striped shirt.

“Sure I can,” says the little guy.

He sits in a swivel chair tipped back his worn black wingtips crossed up on the desk, handset of a phone held up before his face, earpiece against his forehead, saying “Completely. Fucking. Useless” into it. He’s wearing the sunglasses again. “Next meeting’s on Tuesday,” turning the handset around, tucking it between ear and shoulder, “but we damn well better get this off our plate before then. We are stretched thin. Again. He’s gotta understand – ” Leaning forward to brush something from his shoe. The man in the red striped shirt watches him through the glass in the door. “He’s gotta figure it out, he keeps distracting us like this, the work’s gonna suffer. And we know who’s fucking with Southwest’s condos, I mean, come on – ” He tips back further in the chair. “Whatever. Whatever. Sure, sure, sure. I’ll fuck around at this legwork I’m so good at and keep doing as he says and you run after our targets all by yourself on another interminable shopping spree down Spendy-third or whatever. Yeah. Great fucking plan.” He slams the phone down in its cradle. “Shit,” he says, taking off the sunglasses, digging at his eyes with his fingers and his thumb. “We need a goddamn day off.”

“Count it out again,” says the man in the shapeless green coveralls. He’s looking at the floor and his hands are clenched in trembling white-edged fists.

“Look at the ballots, Tom,” says the man in the brown coveralls. On the folding table under a felt banner of a rainbow and a dove, there by the coffee urn and a plate piled high with donuts, three stacks of roughly torn paper slips. One has maybe a dozen, one has maybe three or four, one is piled sloppily high, maybe a hundred, maybe more. The man in the brown coveralls stirs the big pile with his hand. “Even if we miscounted and there’s a couple votes for Jenny in your pile or hart and hive, a vote for me lost somewhere in here.” He lifts a few slips, lets them flutter back to the table. “We’ve spoken, Tommy Tom. Loud and clear. You are the new Soames.”

The man in the green coveralls lifts those white-edged fists to his mouth as all about them men and women in coveralls and dungarees, denim jackets and flannel shirts, in blues and soft worn reds and rugged greens and browns, meshback caps in hand, nod or duck their heads or lift free hands in sketchy salutes, so many of them there’s no room for the chairs pushed back against the walls, folded and piled high on a rack shoved over behind the baby grand piano. They’re murmuring “Soames” or “Soames Thomas” or “Oh indeed” or “Go get ’em!” or “Twice Thomas, aye.”

“Go get who?” says the man in the green coveralls, opening those fists, folding his hands together. They all about him fall silent at that, and look away. “You can’t mean what I think you mean.” Stock still, only his head moving, turning enough to take them all in. “If you did, if you do, you should not have chosen me.” Spreading his hands. “Nell, Soames Nell, and Open Mike. My good, my old friend, Open Mike. They were destroyed in a horrible accident. A fire unforeseen. There is no one to get.”

And after a long still moment a small and quiet voice from the crowd says, “They were executed.”

“Were they?” says the Soames Thomas. “Was there a trial? Did the peers speak with one voice before us to order them cut down?” And hands turn hats over at that, and feet step to one side or another. Back by the table the man in the brown coveralls starts to scoop up the ballots, but freezes when the Soames says “Now if you mean that they were murdered…”

The whole room’s gone still. The Soames looking down but not at his fingertip worrying an old cut on the back of his hand. “Have a care,” he says, “before you say a thing like that.” His voice gone soft and gentle. “Think, long and hard. If that is what you mean to have said,” and he looks up, then, at them all, “you leave us with no choice. We’ll none of us have any choice at all but to turn our tools to weapons again, and once again march forth. But not against the Silk-Stocking Mob, or vigilantes got up in olive drab. Not against Mecklem and Meier, not against Odale and his Red Squad or Marchant and Bacon and Stroup. We’d march against our Queen and her six dozens, and they would destroy us all.”

When no one says anything at that, the Soames turns to the man in the brown coveralls behind him. “I’m glad, then, that’s not what was meant,” he says. “Go on, Biscuit.”

The man in the brown coveralls goes over to the baby grand piano and lifts the keyboard lid. He plays a low thick chord once, then rapidly one two three, and lets that last beat hang in the air. “Arise,” says the Soames Thomas, his voice breaking on that word, but they all join in and together begin to sing.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” says the little guy, coming barefoot from the bathroom, wrapped in a white towel. “Ten hours sleep and this is as close to a vacation as we’re ever likely to get on this gig.” He climbs up onto one of the two queen-sized beds and scoots back against the padded headboard. He reaches for the remote on the nightstand. “Don’t,” says the big guy.


“Still tuning up.” His black jacket draped over the back of the chair the big guy’s sitting at the round table by the big picture window at the front of the room. Spread out on the table a map. Plastic letters scattered across the map, refrigerator magnets in bright and simple colors, a yellow Y at the edge of downtown, a blue P over the freeway, a red Q above them, an orange B on the other side of the map away across the river, down by 39th and Hawthorne. In his hand another letter turning over in his thick and hairy-knuckled fingers, another B, a green one. “What’s that for?” says the little guy.

Mr. Keightlinger looks down at the letter in his hand. “Bunny,” he says. He snaps the letter onto the map at the foot of the northern freeway bridge over the river. Mr. Charlock snorts. “You think they’re involved?” Twirling the little sprig of hair curled almost precisely between his brow and the top of his skull.

“Don’t know,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Sure we do,” says Mr. Charlock. “It’s Southeast, fucking with Southwest. Mechanicals ain’t even in the mix. I’m telling you, if Leir would just listen to us on this,” and Mr. Charlock leans forward, blotting his forehead dry with a corner of the towel. “Instead of riding us for something proofy he can take to fucking Agravante. Christ, man!” Mr. Charlock slaps the bedspread. “You’re fucking with the vacation vibe here. Put it away so we can watch us some teevee.”

Mr. Keightlinger says, “I don’t know.” The letter he’s turning over in his fingers a purple M. He looks up, over at Mr. Charlock, beard lopping over his shoulder, and snaps the letter down on the map. Lifts his fingers, turns to look, “Huh,” he says. The M in the middle of an empty arc of land up by the airport, near the slough.

“Well, hell,” says Mr. Charlock. “We gotta go get you a couple more packs of letters so you got a full set of seventy-two for the – ”

“Fifty-six,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Actually, fifty-seven,” says Mr. Charlock. He starts counting off on his fingers. “Prince, Huntsman, Luthier, Outlaw, uh, Bullbeggar, Dagger and Helm – ”

“Axe,” says Mr. Keightlinger. He scoots the M to one side, slides it back. “Huh,” he says again.

“Yeah, right, her, whatever, okay,” Mr. Charlock’s saying. “Let’s get everybody pinned down on the damn map, you’re gonna ignore the one guy’s got motive and opportunity.”

Mr. Keightlinger starts to say “More than,” but the rainbow pile of letters to one side of the map is trembling, shaking, clattering.

“Feature or bug,” says Mr. Charlock sharply, pushing himself to the edge of the bed. “Feature or bug?”

“No,” says Mr. Keightlinger, not looking away from the buzzing letters.

“You close it off yet?”

“No,” says Mr. Keightlinger. One of the letters twitches its way out from under the settling pile and spins to the edge of the table, a red numeral two.

“No you ain’t closed it off,” says Mr. Charlock, hopping off the bed. “Shit.” Quickly quietly heading to the door his back to the wall beside it, one hand retucking the white towel about the round hard swell of his belly, the other up by his head, two fingers curled back against his palm, two fingers extended, thumb cocked. Mouthing a silent shush he reaches for the doorknob. A sudden jerk and the door’s open and he steps to block the doorway finger-gun leveled in the face of the man standing on the sidewalk just outside the room, a man in a grey suit and a white shirt buttoned all the way up to his throat, dark face stretched by a faltering smile, one hand up for a knock that never had a chance to land. “The fuck are you?” says Mr. Charlock.

“Charley,” says the man. His eyes crossed looking at the fingertips just a couple inches from his nose. “Doc Charley, man, it’s me. Bottle John.”

“You better hope you got something better than that,” says Mr. Charlock.

The man leans his head to one side eyes jumping as Mr. Charlock’s fingers shift to follow. His smile opening up again. “I’m gonna reach into my jacket, pull out something to demonstrate my good intentions.” The arm that had been up to knock is lowering slowly, carefully. “I’m gonna do it nice and easy. I remember what it is you can do with that.” His hand slips inside his jacket. Mr. Charlock hikes up changing the angle of his fingers cocking his thumb back a little further. Carefully, slowly, the man’s lifting his hand from his jacket. He’s holding a tube of toothpaste. Natural Care Tom’s of Maine, says the round white logo. Nature’s Antiplaque Toothpaste with Propolis and Myrrh. Fennel.

“Toothpaste?” says Mr. Charlock.

“Fennel,” says Bottle John. “Come on. It was all I could find.”

“Toothpaste,” says Mr. Charlock. “You think maybe I got too much sorghum on my biscuits?”

“Man, you told me I ever run into you again,” says Bottle John, still standing solidly in the doorway, his hand still between them, still offering up the toothpaste, “you’d be an asshole.” Looking past the finger-gun in his face into Mr. Charlock’s eyes, squinting against the weak light from the colorless evening sky. “And here you are. Said I should remember to bring you some fennel. And I ought to – ”

“I know what I told you to tell me,” snaps Mr. Charlock. “Or maybe it’s I know what it is you want me to think I told you to tell me, so that much of whatever you’re cooking is coming up fine, pal. Kay. Mr. Kay!”

“Yes.” Mr. Keightlinger’s picked up the red numeral two.

“I ever talk to you about Goose City? Ever say anything about Sergeant John Wesson of Echo Force? The aluxob, and the jungle?”

Mr. Keightlinger says in a soft little sing-song voice, “The jungle’s full of tiny eyes, the jungle’s full of creeping feet.” He sets the numeral two on the map, there where Sandy springs from Burnside and Twelfth. Mr. Charlock still squinting retucks the towel about his belly, finger-gun still aimed at Bottle John’s face. Bottle John’s smile has floated off. He shrugs and slips the toothpaste back into his jacket. “I saved your life down there, man,” he says.

“Yeah, well,” says Mr. Charlock, lowering his arm. “I saved the whole fucking world. You still owe me.” He shakes out his hand, four fingers and a thumb. “So you’re for real, or you’re so damn good it makes no never mind. Whaddaya want.”

“Well,” says Bottle John, “it’s me, and it’s my brother Ezra.” He steps to one side. Across the street behind him a luridly orange car with a dusty black ragtop. Beside the car a man his arms and legs a jumble of pipes in a grey suit dropped into a wheelchair, white shirt buttoned all the way up to the dove grey bow tie under his chin. Hands and eyes too big for the rest of him, hands folded together in his narrow lap, eyes behind thick black horn-rimmed spectacles. “Got one a them mutually beneficial arrangements to talk about,” says Bottle John.

“Huh,” says Mr. Charlock. “Okay.” Hitching up his towel again. “Tell you what. You wait outside a minute, let me get some pants on, we’ll go get some Vietnamese sandwiches, maybe, sit down, see how this goes.”

Bottle John’s smile is back.

“No offense,” says Bottle John, looking down at the map on the table, the letters spread across it, piled next to it, “but you ain’t the Dr. Kilo I remember.”

“Different lodge,” says Mr. Keightlinger without looking up. A long sandwich still wrapped in white paper by his elbow on the table.

“Mr. Kay has some pungent opinions on the topic of serving one’s country,” says Mr. Charlock, plucking some cilantro from his lip. “How many callsigns you guys end up using, anyway? At least up to Dr. Mike, right?”

“Nah,” says Bottle John, sitting heavily in a chair by Mr. Keightlinger. “Em was a Doc Munroe, for reasons that don’t bear going into. Last one I knew of was Dr. Oscar.” He pushes the last of his sandwich into his mouth with his thumb.

“Damn,” says Mr. Charlock. “Y’all did babysit a bunch of us.”

“It is nice, to catch up with old friends,” says Ezra. A yellow wrapper spread across his lap that says McDonald’s over and over. A bite or two of cheeseburger left.

“But boring for those who aren’t,” says Mr. Charlock. “I hear you. Maybe you should let on what’s up with this arrangement, and how it gets to be mutually beneficial.”

Bottle John screws up a white wrapper in one hand, flicks a shred of carrot from his knee. Looks up at Ezra looking back at him, their mouths pursed with the same contemplative twist. “I knocked around a bit, you know?” says Bottle John. “After I left the service. Needed some time.” He shrugs. “But what we did in Echo, man, it was hard, but it was good, right? And doing good, you get that itch? So.” He chucks the wadded-up wrapper, banking it off the wall into the wastebasket. “Figured out a way, with my brother, to do some good. We, ah, well, basically, we walk the earth.”

“The good Lord,” says Ezra, “tells me where things need doing. And we go, and we do them.”

“The Lord,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“God,” says Ezra. “Our Father Almighty, Maker of the Heavens, and of the Earth.” Folding the McDonald’s wrapper precisely in half and half again.

After a long thin moment Mr. Charlock tucks a sprig of hair behind his ear and says “Just what the hell is it God needs done in Portland fucking Oregon?”

“Helping you,” says Ezra.

“Help,” says Mr. Keightlinger. He picks up his sandwich.

“Us?” says Mr. Charlock.

“Your boss,” says Bottle John, as Ezra says, “Your employer, Mr. Leir? Has set you a certain task. We’re to do everything in our power to assist you in accomplishing it.”

“Are you,” says Mr. Keightlinger, looking up from the map, and Ezra sighs waspishly and says “The Lord has told me,” and “It’s cool,” says Mr. Charlock, loudly. “We’re cool. Mr. Kay. Dr. Kilo.” He snorts. Mr. Keightlinger takes a big bite of his sandwich. “Thing is,” says Mr. Charlock, “you basically got two options to choose from – ”

“Charley!” says Mr. Keightlinger around his mouthful of bánh mi.

“We’re. Cool,” says Mr. Charlock. “One of ’em’s a long-term surveillance gig. The other one’s more immediate, more goal-oriented, a favor for one of Mr. Leir’s, ah, business associates.” He waves a hand, smiling wryly. “I don’t suppose the good Lord gave you any specifics?” Ezra doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t smile. Bottle John just barely shakes his head. “Whichever,” says Mr. Charlock. “We’re kinda doing a general overview strategy thing tonight – ”

Mr. Keightlinger drops his sandwich on the table, stirs through the pile of letters, picks one up.

“So maybe you come back, in the morning? We’ll have some waffles, figure this out. Truth is, we’re spread a little thin. You help us with one, you help us with both. That good enough?”

“Sounds good,” says Bottle John, climbing to his feet. Mr. Keightlinger slaps the letter down on the map, a purple O, up north past the red Q, but it scoots away as he lets go. He snatches it up, sets it down again, waits a moment before lifting his hand. It slides smoothly away from him across the river and north, up and up, faster, off the map, over the edge of the table falling unheard to the carpet.

The orange car noses out of the side street by the motel, then whips into a tight left turn past a sign that says Executive Lodge – Your Home Away From Home. Ezra in the passenger seat his knuckled forefinger against a temple, muttering something under his breath. Bottle John gnaws at a thumb, wrenching the car one-handed through one right turn without signaling, and then another, against the light.

“I am assured,” says Ezra, opening his eyes, “we are not being followed or watched.”

“Don’t matter,” says Bottle John. “They didn’t buy it.”

“We weren’t selling anything, John.”

“They did not for one minute believe we just dropped in out of the fucking blue to help them with whatever the hell it is they are doing.”

“But we will, John,” says Ezra. Bottle John slows the car, stops at a red light, a five-way, a six-way intersection at the top of a low hill. Spread before them the towers and lights of the city against the darkening sky. “We will do exactly as we have said. If it went against God’s will, it would not be in our power.” Bottle John’s looking about, eyeing the signs over the intersections, the lights, the flow of traffic. “But, yes, in their suspicion,” says Ezra, “and their paranoia, they will – you want that street, over there, not the immediate right, but the orthogonal – ”

“You mean,” says Bottle John, flicking on the turn signal, “the regular right. Not the hard right.” Looking sidelong over at his brother backlit by yellow flashes.

“In their suspicion,” says Ezra, “they will take steps. Even if they do not go directly to the sorcerer Leir, they will do something that reveals to us some weakness we can exploit.”

The light changes. Bottle John guns through the intersection. “I want to go down a couple blocks, right? To double back.”

Ezra’s taken off his spectacles, he’s wiping them with a handkerchief. “I wish you would wear a tie, John.”

“Ezra,” says Bottle John, taking another right turn, “I told you. I’ll wear the suit. I’ll pack my shirt in, I’ll button it all the way up.” He jerks the car to a stop, yanks the gear shift into reverse, throws an arm over the back of the seat. “But I ain’t wear the damn tie.” He looks back through the rear window as he eases the car into a parking space by the sidewalk.

“It would promote a more uniform appearance,” says Ezra.

Bottle John turns off the engine. A block or so away, rising up above the building beside them, the sign that says Executive Lodge – Your Home Away From Home. “Oh yeah,” says Bottle John. “We doin’ good.”

“Yes, John,” says Ezra. “We are.”

Table of Contents

M.E.Traylor    26 August 2010    #

The proletariat is going to rise up and FUCK SOME SHIT UP. Maybe. Ohmygod.

It is so cool to maybe, finally understand what the hell is going on with Charlock and Keightlinger. It’s a little jarring to suddenly be presented with the crazy (Christian?) god-driven element. I was kind of enjoying the absence, but the political/magical(?) relationship with churches has already been explored. Curious to see where it goes.

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