You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Hand of God-

Charles Taylor sat rather uncomfortably at the conference table, watching his host probe the Internet at a monitor built into the surface of the table at which they sat. Charles also had a monitor in the surface of the table right in front of him. His was blank. His hosts monitor blinked with changing screens. The mouse and keyboard also appeared to be part of the flat table surface. Impressive technology, tastefully applied.

"You can go ahead and ask questions." said his host. Bertram Felix Underhill. Man of mystery, a shadow in the Christian underground. Controversial. Frightening, in the flesh. The man radiated confidence and authority, a charisma that bordered on madness, or so it seemed to Charles.

"Well, Mr. Underhill...." Charles began.

"Whoa." said his host. The man looked up at him, the first real look since a quick glance when Charles was escorted into the room. "Call me Bert. We don't like to stand on formalities here." His eyes quickly moved back to the monitor, reflecting the changing light as the screens flickered within the table surface.

"OK. Bert. A friend at my church knew that I was seeking a new position. Some kind of ministry. He put me in touch with some people, who hustled me onto an airplane and now here I am. Wherever 'here' might be."

Bert nodded, tapped a few of the places on the table that served as buttons, and looked up again. This time the light of the monitor faded. "Yes. We have to keep a few things secret, even in a ministry. We are a mission with a mission, and not everyone would understand our work."

His words, and the fervor of their delivery, did nothing to put Charles at ease.

His host tapped another button, and a man in a dark suit appeared out of the shadows.

"Leonard, Charles. Charles, Leonard." said Bert in an off-handed manner. The man in the suit nodded, and Charles nodded in return. "Leonard, do we have a novice cell in Omaha?" The man nodded once again. "I have emailed a little matter to you. Have it take care of by our newbies. It's a chance to cut their teeth."

Leonard nodded again, and faded once more into the shadows.

"I have been going over our prayer network." explained his host. "I have a number of people who read most of the prayer requests around the world. At least, those that get posted onto an Internet site."

Charles leaned forward. This was more like it. Up until this moment he wondered what he had gotten into. Prayer, ministry, taking care of people. Being like Jesus. Yes. That was what he wanted. Christian men of action.

"Leonard is going to see to a woman's needs." continued Bert. "She is apparently being beaten by her husband, though she has never expressed that outright. Her husband is a prominent businessman in Omaha, and a pillar of their church. However, her frequent prayer requests for healing have flagged some of our first level operatives. Our front line prayer ministers, you might say."

"Someone is going to see to her medical needs?" Charles offered.

"Oh, no. She has access to that, and insurance better than most people." Bert said. "No, our newest cell is going to help her husband adjust his attitude. He seems to fail to understand his responsibilities. They are going to make a very clear argument for a significant change of behavior. A very real repentance. He should be able to walk again in about six weeks. My people are very well trained."

Charles had to close his mouth consciously. It had gaped open at this statement.

"He will hardly miss the one finger." his host mused. "Just enough not to forget, after the leg heals."

Charles tried to swallow, but found he was running a bit dry. Rather parched. His host made a gesture, and another man appeared out of the shadows. There seemed to be quite a few shadows, and a surprising number of men waiting in them. This man placed a glass of water in front of Charles, and faded again into the darkness.

Charles looked at the glass for a moment, then shrugged and picked it up. It was cool and refreshing, and cleared his head a bit while quenching his thirst. He was in a bit of shock, then. That made him feel better, knowing that. A bit better.

"Your friend recommended you to us for several reasons." said Bert. "Your zeal for the Lord. Your frustration with small opportunities for real ministry. Your skills in computers applied to satellite telecommunications. All fine qualities, and qualities we can use here."

"Where is here?" Charles asked again. "I was brought in a private jet with covered windows. I came out of the plane after several hours of flight, and went straight into a limousine. A limousine in a hanger, a limousine with windows so dark as to render no view. I haven't seen any sign of where you have brought me. It is starting to make me uncomfortable."

His host smiled. He looked.... patient. Patient, in the same way a crocodile is patient. "We have reasons for our secrecy. Most especially for the level of work I have in mind for you. I will show you the mission, and you can decide how you would like to proceed."

Charles sighed. He was in deep, and that made him uncomfortable. He was also curious, perhaps a great deal more curious than frightened. There was also a sense of excitement. A notion that he might be able to make a real difference in the world. A hope to really be like Jesus, to follow Him in a mighty work.

He nodded. Bert touched a few of the buttons in the table top. The screen in front of Charles came on, displaying a map.

"Somalia." said Bert. "Years ago aid for Somalians, humanitarian aid, was captured by warlords and used by them to secure to cooperation of starving people. A gift of generosity, much of which was in the name of Christ, was turned into a weapon and a mode of torture and domination."

The screen flickered. Another part of the Earth was presented to Charles.

"Uzbekistan." said Bert. "The recent earthquake caused a great deal of death, injury and deprivation. The government of Uzbekistan has refused the entry of humanitarian aid, claiming they can care for their own people. However, that particular part of the state has been in partial rebellion for the better part of the last year. The man managing the government aid is dragging his feet, manipulating resources to starve out the people who are seeking greater freedom."

Charles nodded. He had heard a bit about this on television. He felt a moment of shame that he had paid only the tiniest bit of attention to the problem.

"I have resources in place to remove this man." said his host. "Him, and his little army. I have everything but the eyes in the sky that the big boys have."

Charles looked up. He felt a thrill, and a moment of guilt. "You plan to kill him?"

"Oh, more than him. There is some risk, however." said Bert. "To remove him and his forces, and make a large enough impact, we will probably destroy most of a town."

"Everyone?" asked Charles.

"Yes." said Bert. "Men, women, and children. Churches, Mosques, and schools. Our prayer warriors are already praying for them."

"And you want me to hijack a satellite to aid in this?" asked Charles. He could not keep the incredulity from his voice. "Why a satellite? You said you had your resources in place."

"Accuracy." said his host. "Precision. And, to let the world know we can do it.You can do it, can't you?"

There was something dangerous in the way he said it. Charles nodded, and took a long drink from his glass. Suddenly he wanted something much stronger than water.

"I thought you could." said Bert. Bertram Felix Underhill. "The question, of course, is will you?"

Charles could not lift his eyes from the screen in front of him. Twisted and burnt bodies, many of them small and delicate, danced across the screen. No, that was his imagination. It was just a satellite image of a distant land. Mangled little bodies. Charred. Broken.

"I need time to think." he said. He could hardly hear his own voice.

His host, his captor, made a small gesture. Charles was aware of a man suddenly standing by his side.

"Show our guest to his room." ordered his host. "See that he is not disturbed. He needs to pray, and wait upon the Lord. See that his meals are brought to him, and that his needs are met."

Charles stood, and followed the man from the shadows toward the door.

"We are praying for you." called his host, as he stepped from the room.

Praying for you. It had never sounded like a threat, before.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Price of Vengeance-

Ziggy Dunbar was sitting in his cell, just "kickin' it." He had done time before, though this was just his second visit to the joint. State prison. No harder than his life on the streets. Ziggy knew his place here. He had protection, and he needed it. He wasn't particularly strong, and he knew he wasn't very smart. His place in the prison gang that protected him was not very high at all.

Still, the favors he provided for the boss prevented others from preying on him. Ziggy didn't like to think about those favors, but they did sometimes haunt his dreams. He didn't like to think about those dreams, or his crappy family or his sucky life. He mostly liked getting high, and just "kickin' it."

Ziggy was just too low on the food chain to have dreams, other than nightmares.

A shadow crossed in front of Ziggy. The hairs on the back of his scrawny neck stood up, and his bowels felt like they were full of water. He didn't move. Sometimes the predators passed on, if you didn't move.

"Hey, Ziggy." came a voice from the other side of the cell. "We need to talk."

Ziggy had heard that one before. It really meant "You have to listen." There was usually pain involved. Ziggy held on one moment more, and then looked up.

Cocoa Johnson sat on the bench in front of the small desk that made up the furniture in his small cell. Ziggy had felt lucky to be assigned to a cell too small to convert to double occupancy. He didn't feel so lucky, now. Cocoa made the room feel crowded. His lieutenant, Pepper Jones, stood just inside the door, and made the room seem like a tomb.

Standing just outside the door was another member of Cocoa's gang. Ziggy couldn't see much more than hunched shoulders and a bald head. That one was the look-out. Ziggy's spinning brain named him Paprika, a moment of cleverness born of desperation. Ziggy knew himself not to be clever, and so missed his own joke. He didn't know who the guy was, and didn't care.

Cocoa was rooting through a small paper bag that had been sitting on the desk. Ziggy's few little treats, purchased from the commissary. Ziggy didn't have much, and Cocoa confirmed it by not even bothering to steal anything. He dropped the bag back onto the desk, and then looked right at Ziggy.

Somehow, it would have made Ziggy feel better if the eyes looking at him were threatening. Angry eyes. Eyes filled with fury. These eyes were cold, looking at him with little interest. The eyes of a man with a job to do, and determination to do it.

"I don't know what in the hell you did on the streets, but you really pissed somebody off." said Cocoa. "We got orders to hurt you. Not kill you. Just hurt you. And when you heal from this hurt, we have to hurt you again."

Ziggy swallowed. His mouth was dry, but he worked up enough spit to croak out a question.

"How long?" he asked.

"Until this sucker stops paying for our 'service.'" answered Cocoa. "Whoever it is, he knows how things work here in prison. He knows, and he is pissed at you."

Ziggy tried to swallow, but could not. His one question used up all of the available liquids in his mouth, and he could find no more. His bowels felt like he was trying to keep in the contents of a lake, but his mouth was as dry as a desert.

"Getting to you this time was easy." said Cocoa. "Your boys don't know we have a contract on you. Next time might be harder. If it is, I suspect our visit might hurt that much more."

Ziggy's mind tried to race. Unfortunately, the track was short and he simply lacked the horsepower. He knew he was about to be injured, and he wouldn't be able to tell his boys anything. He had no idea how to keep them from figuring it out. Thinking was not going well, and Ziggy fell to hoping that they would just get this over with.

"Your friend from the street sent you a message." continued Cocoa. "He said for you to watch what you pick up from now on."

Pick up? What? The only thing that connected in his mind was his job, the one that got him into prison. Snatching purses for an identity theft ring. He only knew his contact, who paid him in drugs. Ziggy had been thrown to the police when they were closing in on the ring. Ziggy, his contact, and a few other nobodies went down for the crimes. As far as Ziggy knew, the big bosses were still out there cashing other people's checks.

"I will leave you to Pepper, now." said Cocoa, standing up. "He will definitely spice up your life."

Cocoa pressed past Pepper and exited the cell. Ziggy did not have to wait long. The pain began almost right away.

Carl Bergson finished his drink and pushed the empty glass toward the bartender. He counted out a few bills and paid the man, with a decent tip on top. Carl had regular habits, this drink in the evening being one of them. Same bar, same time, sometimes even the same stool. Carl stood and walked toward the door.

As he exited the bar he made brief eye contact with a young thug standing on the corner. The thug hid his momentary surprise pretty well, but Carl had been dealing with this type for quite some time. He recognized a tail when he saw one. The gang was already keeping tabs on him, and the deal was only a month old.

Carl walked quietly toward his apartment building, enjoying the dubious satisfaction of vengeance. That weasel Ziggy had really messed up Carl's life, stealing that purse. Carl's wife had one moment of inattention, and the identity theft that resulted was still causing them enormous grief. It was unfortunate for Ziggy that Carl ran in the same circles as his bosses. Granted, Carl's job was more legitimate, part of the system. Still, such grief from so small an act.

As he made his way up the stairs, Carl wondered just what he would do when they came. He knew they would come, those criminals with whom he had made the deal. So much a month to one of the inmates in the prison. Probably one of their up and coming leaders. In exchange, Ziggy was always going to be healing from one injury or another.

That had been the deal. Carl knew it would not end there. Someday the thug he made eye contact with would show up with a message. Him, or one like him. Some favor a gang boss required. It was the real price of vengeance.

Carl opened the door and was greeted by his wife. Together the went and sat down at the computer, with the phone at hand. They still had a terrible knot to untie, and little hope of being done soon. It may never really be over. Carl cursed Ziggy under his breath, and relished the knowledge that the nasty little man was about to receive another visit.

Carl would put a check in the mail first thing in the morning.