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Chapter XXVI

Watching the snakes descend, Marcus decided the moment to leave had arrived. Whether Two-eyes survived or not was out of his hands, but the mission had to succeed. D could fill out the lost agent report, he was going to trace the snakes back to their source.

Luther Van Krossen was standing some distance behind the bleachers and Shield approached him about previous night’s offer of a tour. Van Krossen jumped at the chance to avoid witnessing the slaughter.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said holding open an access door behind the barn. “Gunther gets entirely too much pleasure out of these little events.”

“I’m surprised they happen at all,” offered Shield. “Even in Texas this kind of thing must raise a few eyebrows.”

“Fewer than you think,” he said but didn’t elaborate.

The Thulewaite Pharmecutical factory was apparently contained underground. Suggesting this was a little unusual, Luther explained that the heat demands for their process were rather extreme. Indeed, as…

Chapter XXV

In this part of Texas, mornings wake up befuddled and lost, as if unsure about what sort of day they will become. Even in the fieriest depths of the summer, one might wake up with a chill, seeing dew on the ground. This hesitation only disappears in the mid morning, when the sun resumes its jurisdiction in the high, open sky and sears the land into submissiveness.

Frankie Two-Eyes woke up at 10:30 am and slowly unraveled himself from the sheets. Sweat coated him like a slime trail; he wanted nothing more than to just flop off of the bed and lay on the cool floor like a beached fish. The humidity was palpable, a miserable wet thing pressing down on his face and lungs. His head felt like a dropped egg, wrapped back together with masking tape, his every motion inviting dire nausea.

Carefully peeling off his night shirt, he staggered around until he found some water to splash on his face. He wrestled with the room’s window, looking to open it to a breeze, gave up wh…

Chapter XXIV

After this cynical observation, Shield felt the residual enjoyment of the party drain away. Fatigue – for the party, for these people – settled into his bones. Time to call it a night.

“Tomorrow will be the tough part,” he murmured in the room he shared with Agent LeHaze. “We have the information, now we have to find some way of acting on it.”

She cast skeptical eyes towards him. “Or,” she paused. “Or, we could turn this over to the regular law enforcement agencies. The FBI, the Texas Rangers, hell, the Fish and Wildlife Department would work…”

“Fish and Wildlife, are you kidding me?” Shield gave up pulling off his left shoes and flopped back on the bed. “That agency is hopelessly compromised with Eisenhower appointees. Asking them to close down the Thulewaite Ranch is like asking Richard Nixon to run the Justice Department.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” said LeHaze, brightly.

“That’s not a wish,” he growled back and then exhaled sharply. Shield had a sudden se…

Chapter XXIII

“You did what?” Shield nearly dropped his gin and tonic.

Leaning over the railing on Zanzibar’s patio, Frankie spoke low to hide the sounds of their conversation. “You wanted to find the serpents, I found them.”

“Alright, great and now they’re going to kill you.”

Frankie sniffed, wounded. “Hardly,” he set aside his Riesling. “I hate to sound cocky, but I’ve handled more dangerous creatures then a couple of snakes.”

“And the concept of a set up didn’t dawn on you?”

“What set up?” laughed Frankie. “It’s a pit match. Me in a hole with a bunch of snakes. That’s good clean fun. If we were in trouble, they’d just line us up behind a barn and be done with us. They’re going to bring out some real, live Bhutan Tiger Snakes, and then you’ll have the proof you need.”

“Burmese,” Shield rolled his eyes. “And we already have the proof. I spoke to Suliman, they have a small colony of the animals in the exhibit hall. We know they’re here; it’s time to move to the operational p…

Chapter XXII

Spaceman reclined in one of the leather chairs towards the back of the room, entertaining potential customers with tales of old Morocco. Attuned to the ebb and flow of such gatherings, Spaceman took immediate notice of each disturbance, no matter how small. In the brief between one conversation and the next, a man had appeared by the bookcase, dressed almost entirely in black with a deep blue shirt open at the neck. Spaceman noticed other party-goers went to elaborate lengths to avoid contact with him, walking around him and talking through him as though they couldn’t see him at all. Spaceman also noted this interloper was staring back at him. Asking a debutante about the stranger, the girl confessed not knowing much about him other than his name: Nickolas Necropolis.

“He’s a business associate from Greece,” said a nearby rancher hand rolling a cigarette. “Kind of an ugly reputation in these parts.”

“Ugly?” Spaceman smiled, “And yet still invited to all the best parties.”

Chapter XXI

Everything about the Thulewaite Ranch felt wrong to Frankie. It reminded him of things better left forgotten. The entire state of Texas, for example. Certainly he had history here, but passing rows of animal heads, paintings of endless bucolic ranches, and the occasional silver plated spittoon, Frankie had an epiphany. Texas deserved his contempt on its own merits. Texas was full of bullshit, both literally and figuratively.

Still, he had to play a part and there was that old, comfortably pleasure in doing his job well. So he spoke to people, listened to their grandiose tales of self-aggrandizement, and he refilled his wine glass.

Occasionally he would catch sight of Agent D and he would let his eyes linger on her. In person, his target was even smaller than she appeared in the photograph, a pale wraith as substantial as a curl of cigarette smoke. In some better universe he would be working to protect people like this. His face must have betrayed some of this.

“You’re loo…

Chapter XX

By the time ‘Mr. and Mrs. Duncan’ arrived at the party, the cars were parked several deep in the nearby lawn. Beside them was D, in the guise of Carol Feathers, an old friend of Mrs. Duncan. She adjusted and expanded upon this story as the night wore on, each party guest receiving a slightly tailored version of her story.

Witnessing one of these conversations, listening to how D artfully fused truth and subterfuge to form a wedge into the politicking around her, he found himself impressed. It was impossible to know how much of this was her unusual talent and how much just social intelligence, but it didn’t seem to matter. He realized D was the kind of agent the SSF had always tried to cultivate but never fielded.

As for Shield, he was ensnared in conversation within a minutes of his arrival. Apparently the knowledge Mr. Duncan was a pharmaceutical baron made the rounds quickly. A Luther Von Krossen approached him and asked what sorts of medicine his company produced. Luther was a lank…

Chapter XIX

First there were only impressions: the delighted and meaningless chatter of people, the cherry wood panels of the hall, the portraits of old stuffy men. Then, looking down through and beyond Spaceman’s eyes, D and Marcus saw Gunther Thulewaite waiting patiently for the answer to his question. His face was hard and unpleasant even with a superficial smile. This was the face of someone getting ready to put down a rabid dog or squash a cockroach.

The charm D was using to observe Spaceman was dim and obscuring. The gist was clear but details remained murky. The emotions of passing guests became intertwined with the smells of food and drink. The impressions of menace from Thulewaite’s guards had somehow the same flavor as the stuffed canapĂ© that Spaceman was chewing on contentedly.

In a similar way, D’s observations came tinged with Marcus’ own alarm.

“Oh, there was no escape,” said Spaceman/Rasheed, relaxed and lucid. “I imagine there was some instant where Rasheed believed h…

Chapter XVIII

The moon fell in crisp blue beams through the windows of the limousine. Bathed in this light, Melissa and Marcus shifted uneasily, never quite able to relax.

“Are we sure this is a good idea,” asked LeHaze, “Do you trust Spaceman?”

Marcus gave a tight smile. “The signal’s sent, we’re going in,” he said, hesitating. “If Spaceman’s blown the mission already, hopefully we’ll have a chance for a conversation with him.”

Marcus pushed against the frame of his glasses, attempting to pinch the horn-rims just close enough to prevent it from sliding down his nose. Disguise had never been his strong suit. Finally he gave up, folding them into his front pocket.

D held out her hand. Raising his eyebrow, Shield realized she wanted his glasses. Seeing no harm, he passed them over.

A suggestion of greenish fire spilled from her fingers as she cupped the frames to her mouth and exhaled sharply. In the poor moonlight, it was difficult to make out what exactly D was doing, but after…

Chapter XVII

D listened intently as Marcus and Agent LeHaze filled her in on the mission.

“And these tiger snakes, they are the source of the toxin?”

“That’s what the evidence points to, yes,” Marcus said.

“Your role will be mission support,” LeHaze added, handing over a cover identity dossier. “Spaceman is responsible for finding the snakes, Agent Two-eyes and Shield will secure them.”

Agent D flipped through the folder before handing it back.

“Unneeded.”

LeHaze's jaw tightened. “You will need a cover.”

“Agreed,” Agent D said. “And I’ve brought my own.”

She handed over a driver’s license with her photograph but the name Caroline Humphreys. He was about to point out that a cover identity was not the same thing as a fake ID when he realized he knew Caroline Humphreys. They had gone to the same high school and their mothers were in the same book club. He knew her favorite drink was cognac and that she had once been a recognized dressage rider which is where she m…

Chapter XVI

Spaceman liked riding in cars. Not driving them, that required concentration. But to be able to sit back in the decadent embrace of soft leather, the pulse of acceleration launching him from one place to another, automobiles offered a sensation second only to junk.

Speaking of which…

He snuck a hand into the left breast pocket of his seersucker jacket to withdraw a blue lacquer snuff box. Once applied to each nostril, the china brown flattened his thoughts into a weightless, trembling membrane, and he spared no more consideration of the armed goons hunched to either side of him in the back of the Rolls Royce. He sat serene in the palm of God, sweet darkness lapping against his skin.

From a certain perspective, Thulewaite’s decision to send armed escorts was a good sign. Gunther was more of a royalist than the typical Texan plutocrat; things that fell into his domain belonged to him and elicited his responsibility to guard his possessions. Spaceman felt…