New Cold Opening!
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King Brian Hallstatt – also known as King Brian the Hated - lifted a hand-rolled cigar from his jacket, patting another pocket for a matchbox.
The Oubliette had been his home for a thousand years, and he was friggin’ tired of it. He was more than tired, in fact. After a decade of thought, he’d made a decision….and this evening that idea would begin.
He lit the cigar in the long shadows at the very edge of the prison grounds, watching the rutted track that stretched off to the distant mountain range.
The dirt road leading in was littered on each side by rusting, abandoned European cars and buses. Most were from the 1930s and 40s, the result of an influx after World War Two. Brian noticed movement on a large Fiat bus resting on its rims.
“Is this the right bus to Piccadilly?” He said aloud. “I always forget.”
A mangled, burnt old woman sitting in one of the seats on the bus shot him the finger, causing Brian to smile. Almost all of the decrepit vehicles had forgotten passengers in them, too worn out to move.
King Brian raised a hand to shield the setting sun from his eyes as a rider on horseback approached. Brian had sent a dispatch with an order for an ancient weapons expert from the Western Province, a two-day ride away.
Sir Budleigh Salterton had been – at one time – the owner of a prosperous textile mill in London during the Industrial Revolution. He also had a gross misunderstanding of the term ‘fire door’, and the fact that it was best to keep them unlocked.
A fire had decimated his factory in 1899, and again in 1905. Both times the fire doors had been chained to prevent the ladies working inside from taking breaks. The death toll was enormous; a grand total of 376 women had burned to a crisp in the two incidences. Nonetheless, Salterton died a very rich man a few years later, blissfully unaware that his stupidity would earn him a one-way trip to Hell.
King Brian did not suffer fools easily – but he needed Salterton.
The man had been educated at Eaton, possessing a deep knowledge of Middle Eastern and Asian weapons. The object King Brian desired was Javanese in origin and extremely obscure.
“Good evening, Budleigh. I see you got my message.”
Salterton dismounted, coughing from the dust. He wasn’t an impressive figure by any means, and the weedy little mustache on his thin, chin-less face didn’t help matters.
Brian shrugged; sometimes you had to make do with the resources available - even if the man was a retard.
“Yes, indeed, King Brian. What’s with all the secrecy?”
King Brian drew on his cigar, taking a moment to answer. “I want you to find something for me, and it needs to stay between us.”
“I see.” Salterton said carefully. “What do you want me to find?”
“A very rare knife.” Brian tapped the glowing ash of his cigar. “On Earth.”
Everyone knew who King Brian was - and that he never took no for an answer. In life he’d burned down villages, eaten roasted babies and even impaled live horses for an impromptu merry-go-round - all in the name of a good time. You certainly didn’t want to get on his bad side.
Salterton pursed his lips. “Interesting. I can see why you sent for me then. My hands are sort of tied, though. I have no means to cross over.”
“I’ve taken care of that. You have a new position as a Mediator waiting for you on the other side, plus all of the documentation for the job.”
Salterton gaped at Brian. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Brian snorted. “Don’t you want out of Hell? This is your chance.”
“As a Mediator?” Salterton said. “I’m not sure that I’m qualified.”
“Of course you are.” King Brian pulled a thick packet of papers out his jacket pocket, handing them over.
“This is written in Italian.” Salterton said, scrutinizing the documents.
“You catch on quick, Budleigh. I understand you speak several languages?”
“Eleven…twelve if you count the Cantonese dialect.”
“Superb.” Brian said. “Everything is in order. You will work officially for Aermacchi, as a liaison between that company and the governments of Ghana, Dubai and Turkey.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.”
“It’s simple, really.” Brian explained. “You will become, basically, the in-house lawyer for Aermacchi, an Italian aircraft manufacturer that is currently building a delightful little fighter-bomber called the 339. We’ve been sending out Mediators for decades now in just such circumstances. The company needs a lawyer, but they don’t want the expense of hiring a firm. So they come to us, and we provide the personnel. Sort of a work-release for dead people.”
Budleigh Salterton rubbed the stubble on his face, clearly distressed. King Brian smoked his cigar and watched, amused at the man’s discomfort.
Salterton found his voice. “Again, King Brian…why are you sending me?”
“As I said, you will be based in Italy, travelling to the various countries that want to buy Aermacchi’s little jet, as their representative. This will give you ample opportunity to search for the knife that I want.”
“What knife is that, exactly?”
“The Maratha bichwa used to kill Afzal Khan. Know of it?”
A moment passed while Salterton processed the information, Brian noted. The retard – it seemed – knew his onions, judging by the expression on his face.
“Mother of God…the Sukuh Kris - that’s serious business.” Salterton nodded. “Yes, absolutely, I know of it….the supposedly enchanted ‘scorpion dagger’. But it was lost in Turkey hundreds of years….ahh.”
“And now you see why I need an expert like yourself.”
“So the whole Mediator business is a cover?”
King Brian shook his head. “Yes and no. You need to be on your toes, and provide good service for the Italians. It’s crucial they keep you on the payroll. They’ll be funding our project without even knowing it. Don’t disappoint me.”
“I’ll try not to, King Brian.”
“Let me put it a little more clearly. If you disappoint me, I’ll scoop out your eyeballs with a melon-baller – then wear your head as a hat.”
Brian meant that sincerely, as figures of speech were not in his nature.
“Point taken.” Salterton said nervously. “It could take a while, though. I’m starting from scratch here.”
King Brian smiled grimly, looking off in the distance.
“I know…but I have nothing but time.”
PART ONE: HEAVEN
Central Intelligence Agency
“Ma’am? Dr. Taylor! Wait up!”
Christine Taylor shifted the bulging files from one hand to another and turned at her name. A heavyset army corporal jogged toward her, out of breath.
“Crap.” Christine said to herself.
“You goin’ to the Monday staff meeting, ma’am?”
Every Monday over the past year Christine faced a horde of low-level Pentagon officers that wanted the latest tech updates on the various projects she was working on. She was the lead scientist in charge of Applied Theoretical Science.
Dr. Christine Taylor was an early learner - designing rudimentary encryption machines and scratch-built vacuum-tube radios while still a toddler. She’d caught the eye of the CIA after building an optical camera capable of filming the dimples on a golf ball from 120,000 feet - at age ten.
The staff meetings were a part of her job, but it was still a chore she dreaded.
Christine smiled thinly at the young man. “Your powers of observation continue to astound me, Phil. Incredible…the same level of perception as a 700-year-old monk.”
“Uhhh.” The overweight corporal scratched his ear, clearly confused.
“And your stunned silence is very reassuring as to our state of military readiness.”
Christine was actually just pulling Corporal Phil Bellows’ chain, and he knew it. She had relied on his diligence for a long time, and tended to regard him as a younger brother….the kind of younger brother that needed to be tortured on a regular basis.
“Uh-huh.” Bellows paused to catch his breath. “Lotta big words there, ma’am. Please don’t tease me today….couple of muckety-mucks want to see you - right now.”
Christine was puzzled. “Muckety-mucks?”
Bellows nodded. “General Pembroke and Admiral Spencer, ma’am…from the Joint Chiefs. As in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
She was very familiar with General Delco Pembroke. Her wedding was going to be held at his house - but she’d never heard of the admiral.
“Where are they?”
Bellows grimaced. “The War Room.”
Christine sighed. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t going to be good.
The War Room was a non-descript conference area closed off from prying eyes. People could fantasize about James Bond types and secret spies all they wanted, but the reality was somewhat different.
High level meetings held in the War Room determined how certain CIA assets could assist the American military, this was true. In Christine’s experience another factor was true, as well. Those meetings were always, without exception, as interesting as a picture book about crown moldings.
She opened the door to the War Room and grinned at the man waiting for her. General Delco Pembroke, Christine’s future father-in-law, greeted her warmly.
“Christine, so good to see you.” General Pembroke said. “This is Admiral John Spencer, MACV of Saigon Headquarters and aide to Alexander Haig.”
She shook hands with the admiral, smiling slightly. Spencer’s pasty complexion did not give off the vibe of a man who’d spent his life at sea, but rather behind a desk – even if he was chief aide to the National Security Advisor.
“I…err…” The admiral seemed hard-pressed for something to say. Christine and General Pembroke exchanged a knowing glance. Most men thought pretty blonde girls were dumb, and Christine was certainly prettier than most….but the dumb part?
Not so much.
Pembroke chuckled. “Admiral, please don’t let Dr. Taylor’s looks fool you. She has an IQ that registers around 215, about fifty points past Einstein…although we aren’t quite sure because she’s kind of off the scale…so to speak.”
“Yes, yes…sorry. Took me by surprise.” Admiral Spencer shook her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Dr. Taylor.”
“Call me Christine, sir.”
“Of course, Christine.”
Christine was used to the routine, but had grown tired of being judged by her looks alone.
Her morning brightened considerably, however, when Special Agent Joshua Pembroke entered the room. Josh should have entered military service to please his father…and certainly would have - but his eyesight was atrocious. He’d been accepted into federal service instead.
“Glad to see you’re already here, sweetie.”
Josh Pembroke was tall, wolfishly handsome, and possessed deep-set eyes that lent him reassuring intelligence - even behind the round spectacles. He also had a unique boyish charm that she found dangerously endearing. Christine melted a little bit every time she saw him.
He was also her official liaison to the Pentagon…and her fiancé.
Josh bucked convention as usual in a cream-colored sweater vest, school tie and cashmere sports jacket. Christine was slightly embarrassed by her unflattering blue pencil skirt and conservative white blouse.
She wasn’t completely uncomfortable, though.
Josh and his impressive dad had always gone out of their way to make her feel welcome, even back in the early days of her CIA recruitment. She’d been an exceedingly quiet British science geek with a flat-chest in need of a place to live, and the Pembroke family had taken her into their home without question.
Her chest had expanded rather well over the years, thankfully. The girls were nothing to sneeze at now…at least according to Josh. Christine remembered the past fondly. At the time, Josh had been fifteen, one year older than her, and they had basically grown up together. With all that implied.
General Pembroke gestured to the chairs at the conference table. “Let’s have a seat and get down to it. We don’t have much time.”
“What’s going on?” Christine asked as she sat down.
“The White House called about a theft involving your work.” Josh said to Christine. “But I’m afraid that I am playing catch-up here as well.”
“Yes,” General Pembroke opened a file and passed it to her, another copy to his son. “Very strange things are going on - something that I can’t explain. Nearly every Long Tom camera you built for us, Christine, has been stolen.”
“You’re joking, right?” Christine scanned the file in amazement. “Bloody Nora, the EB-65 weighs a ton, literally, and has no value except to take pictures straight down from 25 miles up. Who the hell would steal my cameras?”
“We don’t know…but there is a situation that supersedes that problem. There are four Long Toms cameras left, all mounted in the bellies of surveillance aircraft that are grounded in Da Nang.”
Spencer cut off the general, spreading a large satellite surveillance photo on the table. “As you know, the Ho Chi Minh trail has become a major resupply artery for the Viet Cong.”
Christine nodded. “Sir, I don’t put my satellites up or analyze the data. NASA shoots them into orbit down in Florida, and the NRO collects the data out in California. I’m afraid I can’t really help you with this.”
“Dr. Taylor,” Spencer said. “Sorry - Christine - satellite shots aren’t what we need help with. It’s your older tech…those stolen EB-65 Long Tom cameras – that’s what I need.”
Christine sat back. “Oh?”
“Yes….the only aircraft still equipped with your cameras are early model BAe Canberra’s based in Thailand. I need those cameras looking down and shooting recon photos right now to show at the White House.”
“The president wants this Intel?”
Spencer nodded. “By law, we can’t go in and stop the Viet Cong from bringing weapons and ammunition into Vietnam using air interdiction – at least, not yet. The PAVN are taking serious advantage of our recent political decisions to resupply their troops from Laos and Cambodia. We need the aircraft that still have your cameras to overfly the Ho Chi Minh routes and document the weapons being moved on them.”
Christine raised her eyebrows. “So…why don’t you?”
“The Canberra recently had new wings - ”
Christine held up a hand, cutting the admiral off. “Let me guess. Lockheed load-tested the aircraft without removing my cameras - my ultra-sensitive cameras - and now they’ve been knocked off their axis and won’t take accurate photos. Am I getting warm?”
General Pembroke grimaced. “Sweetheart, we’ve got to have those planes up and running. It’s a matter of national security.”
Christine glanced at Josh and shrugged. Soon she would be gone…teaching advanced mathematics at MIT.
“I can give you a few days.” Christine said. “I’ll be happy to help in any way I can.”
Admiral Spencer smiled. “That’s all we ask. I have a KC transport waiting for you at Andrews. We can have you on the ground in Thailand with technicians and tools in eighteen hours.”
America was painfully divided over the attrition in Vietnam, as well as relations with the Soviet Union. President Richard Nixon had asked for the very best, up-to-date intelligence his agencies could possibly give him.
In an amazing demonstration of the latest technology - the CIA, NRO and NASA joined forces to put the first real-time image recon satellite into space - Corona Keyhole…the brainchild of Dr. Christine Taylor.
Christine, young and cognoscente, had earned a doctorate at MIT by age fourteen - and the Agency cultivated her for a full decade, using her special mind to forge all manner of new state-of-the-art weapons.
In the process, though, the CIA made a huge mistake, forgetting that Christine was also human. She’d fallen for the handsome liaison assigned to make a young genius more comfortable with the darker side of government operations.
Sometimes, however, the heart just wins out.
Josh Pembroke was a good man that didn’t really care for the way the Agency treated their brilliant, but inexperienced technical designer.
Over a steak dinner on Christine’s 21st birthday, he proposed to her – and it should be noted right here that Christine ruined the dresses of three important restaurant patrons when she spilled her red wine in glee.
So, alas, all good things must come to an end…at least for the CIA.
Because in eight days, Christine was getting married.