Roman’s Story: Dark
Days, Agent Johnson, and the NN
My father was the last of four generations of Swivels to farm the Iowa soil.
We weren’t rich by
any means but he made a good living. The farm was sizable
and dad employed
three men that worked for him year-round. We had a two-story
house with a full
basement. There was more room than we needed, but I loved the
space. The house sat
about a hundred yards in front of the cornfields. A paved
road ran in front of
the house another two hundred yards further away.
My father’s one true passion was baseball. Before my mother and he met
he played Triple-A
ball with the Dodgers. He was a catcher and a good one until
he had an accident.
Evidently an opposing player plowed him over in a bang-bang
play at the plate.
The force of the impact separated his shoulder. He rehabilitated
for about two months,
but his arm was never the same. He met my mother during
that summer and
decided to give baseball up all together.
During the summer, fall, and spring—basically anytime it wasn’t freezing
out—dad and I would
play catch. I can remember throwing the ball up in the air
to catch it myself
thousands of times waiting for him to get back from the field so I
could throw to a real
person. He knew a lot about pitching, like most catchers do,
and showed me the
ropes from the time I was five. He would step off the distance
and dig his boot into
the ground, wearing away the spot where the rubber should
be. The plate would
always be the hat he was wearing that day.
It was late October, and the trees must have been a million different
shades of orange and
yellow. It was unseasonably warm, reaching into the mideighties.
My dad and I went
I’ll never forget pulling into the driveway we when we got back. We came
in the back door that
led directly into the kitchen. My father unlaced his boots on
the back porch and
went in while I threw mine in the corner next to the back door.
Right away I knew
something was wrong; there was no smell of meat loaf, nothing
sizzling in a pan,
very unlike my mom to not be at least starting dinner at that
hour. I heard my
father call out for Joann, but there was no answer. I went into
the living room by
myself and found everything was in order. The front door was
open and the screen
door stood in its place unlocked.
We’d never had a reason to lock the door.
I noticed there were muddy shoe prints on the carpet that led from the front
door in the living
room over to the dining room on the opposite side of the house
from the kitchen. I
began to walk, following the brown prints until I found myself
at the top of the
basement steps. The door was open. I could see the shoe prints
went down the stairs,
but I heard nothing. By this time my hands were sweating,
and my heart felt
like it was about to beat out of my chest. I walked down the steps
despite my fear.
There was blood on the right side of the wall. It looked like
someone had dipped
the tips of their fingers in ketchup and then dragged their
hand down the entire
length of the staircase. I made my way down. I could hear
heavily like they had a rope tied around their neck.
The first thing I saw when I stepped onto the basement floor was the color
of the carpet.
Once-white carpet was a damp pink sea of blood. My eyes started at
the west side of the
room observing the TV knocked down on the floor, the
the cushions on the couch hanging out, and my father
standing in the
corner with a stranger’s arm wrapped around his throat. There
was a tattoo of a
spider web with a naked woman in the middle of the arm that
imprisoned my father.
I still see that tattoo every time I shut my eyes.
The gasping I’d heard on my way down was now clear. The man had a
knife, with the point
pressed against my father’s chest. It was like a nightmare and
just like a nightmare
I was frozen. My feet were in concrete and my eyes superglued
open. The only sense
that worked was my hearing; I could hear and almost
feel the wheezing of
my father’s breath.
After what seemed like an eternity, I glanced to the opposite end of the
room. There in a heap
of red carpet and flesh was what was left of my mother. He
had slit her from the
waist up. Her insides now took the place of what used to be a
stomach and chest. I
could not see her head because the dark side of the room
shaded it out. I put
my hand over my mouth to catch the vomit coming up, but
I could feel the adrenaline pour into my veins, turning my fear to rage.
Without even having a
plan or second thought I took a step toward my father and
the terrible strange
arm that imprisoned him. Before I could take the second step,
my father raised his
arm up with his palm flat toward me, halting me in my tracks.
At that moment my
anger gave way momentarily, long enough for me to think, and
thinking was the only
thing that would save my father and me.
Our pool table was about ten feet caddy-corner behind me. I walked
slowly, never glancing away from the stranger’s eyes. They were
wide and open, blue
as the ocean. He began to walk, forcing my father toward the
staircase. I got to
the pool table but kept my back toward it, reaching backwards
for a ball with my
fingers. At first I was unsuccessful but after moving my hand
further behind me I
held one of the ceramic spheres nestled firmly against my
palm. The stranger
gave no indication that he knew of my plan. My father on the
other hand looked at
me and then at the balls on the pool table and then at me
again. By this time
the two of them were right at the staircase. My father tilted his
head subtly to the
Without further hesitation, I flung the pool ball across the room. My father
jerked the opposite
way. The stranger ducked and the ball crashed into the wall.
Although the ball did
not hit the intruder, it was still effective. He dropped the
knife, freeing my
The stranger shot up the staircase and without a second’s notice my father
was right behind him,
me just behind my father. At the top of the stairs they turned
right and went
through the dining room—dad close behind him. I turned left and
ran through the
kitchen, knocking over the chairs pushed in beneath the table. I
grabbed the shotgun
from the closet and headed for the front room, and the front
When I got there I saw the man running toward the screen door with his
back to me. I pointed
the shotgun in his direction and squeezed the trigger at the
same time. My eyes
blinked from the crash of the shot going off, and when I
opened them I saw my
father behind the man. The impact blew him, the intruder,
and the screen door
completely out of the doorway across the front porch and out
onto the steps. By
this time it was dark enough that I could not see out of the
house. I wish it
could have stayed that way. I heard nothing. I went through the
doorway holding the
shotgun close by my side. As my eyes adjusted to the
darkness I could see
the intruder running across our front yard to the street. I
picked up the barrel
and fired again, but the man kept running.
As I caught my breath, I looked down at my feet. There, laying face down
with his arms
reaching out was my father. The back of his skull was lying two
steps down. I dropped
the shotgun and picked up the back of my father’s head. I
turned him over and
pressed the back of his head to where it should have been. It
fit so perfectly
almost like a puzzle. I remember thinking that if I held his head
together long enough
that it would be all right—that he would somehow come back
to life. There was no
pulse. No breathing. No life.
That’s the way they found me the next morning.
The intruder stole twenty dollars out of my mom’s purse. While he was at
it, he thought he
might as well rape and murder her. I, on the other hand, had just
killed my father, the
man who made me who I am. They never caught the
stranger. And my
troubles, believe it or not, were just beginning.
After the funerals, the house and farm were auctioned off and put into a
trust with the rest
of my parents’ money. I was shipped to an orphanage in
Davenport. The only
feeling I had was numbness. The whole orphanage scene
was gray and glum. I
would go days without eating or speaking. My schoolwork
was untouched. I was
This went on for months I suppose, until one of the social workers in charge
of the orphanage
notified me that I was being taken into a foster home. The news
didn’t excite me
much. I just nodded and then was told to pack up my things. My
of some clothes, my ball glove, and of course, several boxes
of baseball cards.
A few days later Mr. and Mrs. Pentoch arrived in an old gray station
wagon. I stood in
front of the social worker with my life’s belongings at my side.
Ed Pentoch stepped
out, went to the other side of the car, and opened the door for
Gale. Ed was in his
mid-forties, clean-shaven and wore jeans and a sport coat that
must have been two
sizes too small. The knot of his tie was huge and the end of it
only came down to
just above his belly. The brown and green stripes on it reeked
of the seventies.
Gale was wearing a sundress patterned in an array of colors and flowers.
She was very pretty,
brown hair and brown eyes, calves of perfection. Her smile lit
up as she stepped
from the car. She should have been modeling clothes in a
We exchanged pleasantries; Gale even hugged me. It was a bit awkward. I
understand how you could hug someone you didn’t even know. Ed
only said hello then
started loading my stuff into the back of the station wagon.
Gale thanked the
social worker and we were off to the Windy City.
I turned around in my seat and watched as Davenport got smaller and
smaller on the
horizon. Ed took off his tie and threw it in the back seat next to me.
He also pulled out a
pint of Jim Beam and took a hard swig. Gale began to tell me
how great my room was
and that I could change anything I didn’t like. Although
she was very sincere
and doing her best to make me feel welcome, my mind
wandered as she
rambled. I kept thinking that this wasn’t my life. This wasn’t the
way it was meant to
be. It was all a bad dream.
A ways into the trip Ed’s whiskey ran dry, and the bottle went flying out the
window. We came to
some small town in Illinois and stopped at a gas station that
just happened to sell
liquor. I went to the bathroom or tried at least, but my
stomach was a mess.
As I walked out, Ed was getting his own kind of refill for the
rest of the way. Gale
bought me a coke. There was a semi in the parking lot still
running. I thought
about trying to get in the back or even underneath it. I thought
maybe I should just
take off and run until I couldn’t run anymore. Instead I got
back into the station
wagon. That was the biggest mistake I would ever make.
There were two things about the trip that amazed me. The first being that
Gale never questioned
or even acknowledged Ed’s drinking. The second being
how well Ed drove
while drinking. By the time we got to Chicago Ed was beyond
drunk, but he stayed
on the road, between the lines, better than some sober drivers.
The house, my new home, was like the rest in that South Side neighborhood. All
of them looked alike, no side, front, or backyards. There were
no porches, no room
to play catch or run around, just house after house jammed in
beside each other.
The inside was clean but you could tell the green carpet and
paint had been there
for at least twenty years, much like Ed’s tie. There was a
with all the usual appliances. The living room had a couch
and a recliner, both
purchased in another era. A long coffee table ran in front of
the couch and a small
TV was positioned so you could see it from either seating
arrangement. The two
bedrooms were right next to each other off the hallway that
led from the living
room to the bathroom. The air smelled of stale smoke and old
booze, like a tavern
that had just opened up for the day. Even when the lights were
turned on, the place
was very dim. The drab green carpet and brown walls didn’t
The first thing Ed did when he entered my new home was light a cigarette
and pour another
drink. Only this time the whiskey came out of a half-gallon
bottle stationed in
the cabinet beside the sink. Gale surprisingly poured herself a
drink as well, after
reaching in the freezer and pulling out a bottle of Vodka.
“Why don’t you got get your things out of the car, honey?” she said while
taking down a swallow
from the glass.
When I got back in the house Ed was in his recliner with cigarette and
whiskey in hand,
watching a football game. He never spoke or looked up at me.
Gale showed me to my
room, which was more of a cubicle than anything. The bed
took up almost the
entire room. There was just enough room to walk on both sides
of it and a little
more room at the foot. It reminded me instantly of the way my new
home was, jammed in
between the two houses beside it. There was no dresser or
any other furniture,
only a closet that had no door at the foot of the bed r.
“What do you think honey?” she asked.
“It’s nice,” I responded
“You better get some sleep, you’ve got a big day at your new school
tomorrow,” she said
as she kissed me on the forehead and hugged me with one
arm, making sure not
to spill her drink.
The door closed behind me, and I was alone in the dark, alone in a house
and city I did not
know, a long way from home. I stood there for a minute hearing
the football game in
the background and the noise of the city in the distance. I
flipped the light
switch next to me but nothing happened. I flipped it again but still
nothing. The light
bulb wasn’t burned out; there just wasn’t any light bulb. I took
my clothes off and
lay on the bed. My eyes shut but I couldn’t sleep.
A couple hours later,
while still staring at the ceiling, my wall started to
shake, then my bed,
and then the entire room. I thought for sure it was an
earthquake until I
heard Gale’s moans from their bedroom. I put my only pillow
over my head and
pressed as tight as I could over both ears. The noise dulled, but
the bed was still
thrashing. I switched to the other end of the bed so at least the
keep pounding my head. The moans stopped eventually and
sleep finally came.
I awoke the next day to the smell of bacon and eggs. In the distance I could
hear the crackling
and snapping of the skillet. Doors were opening and closing,
feet shuffled along
the kitchen floor. It could have been home, but my eyes told a
different story. The
light fixture above still had no bulb, and the room was still as
small as it had been
the night before.
Ed was eating a heaping portion of eggs and bacon. What looked like a
half a loaf of bread
was toasted and sitting next to his plate. Gale poured his
coffee and sat a bowl
of cereal in front of me. It looked liked corn flakes but tasted
shavings. I ate anyway. Ed topped off his coffee with a splash of
whiskey and finished
what was left on his plate. Ed began to speak.
“We need to get a few things straight here. After school every day you’re
going to come home
and clean this house. That means vacuuming, mopping,
dusting, and throwing
away the trash. Me and Gale both work ten-hour days and
if I’m going to put a
roof over your head, you’re going to earn your keep. When I
get home from work, I
watch TV; so don’t get any ideas for your own shows. Gale
wants you to call her
‘mom’, but ou can just call me Ed. And one last thing, when
you turn seventeen
and get all that money form your trust fund, I want half. Do
“Yes sir, I understand.”
“Here’s two dollars for your lunch. You better get ready now, the bus’ll be
here in about twenty
That day I was very careful to memorize the route the bus took to school. It
wasn’t far; maybe ten
blocks from my new home, but there were several stores and
shops on the way. A
sign hung in the window of one of them that said “ Used
Books 25 cents”. I
spent a dollar at lunch. I used the other dollar at the bookstore
on my way home. I
wasn’t much of a TV guy anyway, but I could get lost in a
book. School was like
any other I suppose. I did my work and kept to myself
mostly, the same way
I was when you met me.
Ed wasn’t the cleanest man alive by any means. I found this out by picking
up cigarette butts
that had overflowed from his ashtray onto the floor. There were
napkins and cigarette
boxes strung out all over the living room. His empty glass
sat on the arm of the
recliner, bone dry. Ed worked for a local waste management
words he was a garbage man. His gray shirt had the name Ed
stitched in red on it
and his boots looked as if they had been actually purchased at
the dump. The last
time he shaved must have been the day they came to Iowa.
When he came home
from work he stunk like nothing you would ever smell on a
human. Instead of
getting in the shower or even changing clothes for that matter,
Ed would pour his
drink and sit down in the recliner.
Gale was very clean. Even in the morning she was dressed very nice,
make-up done, and had
a refreshing smell that seemed to combat Ed’s odor. Gale
worked at the social
security office in front of a computer all day. Not exactly
challenging work but
she was good at her job. She took a cab to work everyday,
unlike Ed who was
picked up by one of his fellow garbage men.
I was thirteen at the time and in eighth grade. I made sure every day to
spend the least
amount of my two dollars as possible. I knew the route from school
to home and instead
of taking the bus home I walked. I stopped at the shops to
look, and to escape.
I bought some light bulbs. I visited the used bookstore. I tried
to read a book a
night and usually did. I came home from school, did my chores
which were dirty but
not hard, ate my supper, and then it was off to a book and to
salvation. Ed was
content with me not interrupting his beloved TV, and Gale
would be happy if I
just talked to her during dinner. There was your occasional
earthquake against my
headboard. Ed’s stench still filled the house. My birthday
came and went with no
acknowledgment even though they knew. I survived that
first year and
graduated from eighth grade.
My freshman year things began to get worse. Ed was drinking even more if
that was possible and
losing his hard-earned money to the local bookies. He lost
his entire paycheck
the second week of football season but that didn’t stop him
from continuing his
gambling. Gale bought some new shoes for work one
Saturday. Ed went
ballistic. He degraded her verbally at first and then from my
room I could hear the
beating begin. I ran out and jumped on his back begging
him to quit. He
rushed backward with me still hanging on and slammed me into
the kitchen wall. The
air flew out of my lungs. I gasped but nothing would come
in. I panicked
because the wind was knocked out of me, fearing I would never
breathe again. When I
finally caught my breath a fist came at me.
I woke up the next morning still on the kitchen floor. Ed was already gone
to work and Gale
helped me to my feet. It was the first time I had been in a fight
and with, of all
people, the man who was supposed to take the place of my father.
My nose was probably
broken although Gale never took me to the hospital. I
didn’t go back to
school until my black eyes and the gash on the back of my head
Several weeks went by. I went to school. Did my chores. Read my books.
happened from time to time. I wondered how she could bring
herself to do it, but
then remembered it was probably better for her to take it that
way than another.
The beatings continued from time to time for both Gale and me. Sometimes
it was over a little
thing like I missed a crumb when cleaning the floor; sometimes
there was no reason
at all. About half way through that year Ed got what he
thought was a
wonderful idea. He gave me the choice between the beatings and
being his drinking
partner. It sounded like a great idea to me at first also. The
only alcohol that I
ever had was a few sips of my father’s beer on trips back from
the refrigerator to
the barn. I didn’t really like the taste back then but imagined it
couldn’t be all that
Whiskey I soon found out was an entirely different animal. I drank the first
glass Ed gave me,
gulping it down like it was tea. I about vomited but held it down
somehow. Then there
was another glass. I drank it slower which might have been
worse, tasting every
drop on the way down. By the end of that glass I was
asleep on the couch next to Ed’s chair. I woke up vomiting all
over the couch and
myself. Some of it splattered on Ed. He took me to the
bathroom, removed my
shirt, and stuck my head in the toilet. I remember thinking
that him worrying
about my shirt was a nice gesture, but he actually did that so he
could whip my bare
skin with his belt as I threw up. I had to sleep on my stomach
for the next three
weeks, and couldn’t even let my back hit the back of a chair.
Putting on clothing
I eventually got used to the whiskey. It seemed to be better than the
beatings. I wanted to
try out for the baseball team but Ed wouldn’t let me. Instead
he made me get a job
at Giant Burgers as a grill boy. I didn’t mind the work but
Ed made me hand over
half my check every week. It probably went straight to the
I worked as much as I could, trying to protect my body from my home life.
Ed would still make
me drink as often as he could and throw in an occasional
beating. Not even
when my parents died had I ever felt as low as I did then. I
remember getting out
of bed in the mornings trying to think of one good reason to
put on my clothes and
go to school. I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t eating. I just
wanted it to end. And
then one Saturday morning there was a knock at the door. A
knock that pounded
out salvation. A knock from Agent Johnson.
At two weeks old Roman was holding his head up and fighting to use the
bottle on his own. At
four months he was talking. At seven months he was
walking. At two years
he was reading and could spell numerous words. The
training wheels came
off his little bike on his third birthday. He was the one
percent of one
percent of the population who lived and thought on a higher plain,
unexplainable. The pediatrician called him gifted. She wanted to run
tests. The Swivels
In first grade, at the age of six, Roman could write in complete and
coherent sentences in
cursive, read volumes of manuscript both fiction and non,
fluently, and play Beethoven’s Fifth
Symphony on the piano by ear.
At the end of the
year he tested at a twelfth grade level. His teachers wanted to
send him off to the
university, where he would encounter intellectual peers. Again
the Swivels refused.
Roman also played Little League, striking out batters three years his senior
and twice his size.
In basketball he drained three-pointers at the percentage most
players shot free
throws. By the time middle school caught up, Roman read each
course’s text book
the opening day of school, corresponded with professors around
the country, and
received daily mail from countless mathematicians who wanted
him to prove their
theorems. The chancellor of MIT flew out and begged the
Swivels to let Roman
attend his revered institution. They refused. Roman was not
a freak as some of
the other parents referred to him. He was a kid and he was
going to grow up with
all of its joys and pitfalls.
Gale opened the door. The man in the black suit and trench coat was
massive; he stood
nearly the height of the doorway, his shoulders slightly less than
its width, briefcase
in hand and introduced himself as Agent Johnson. He
credentials from his inside suit pocket, flipping them out in front of
the family. Ed took a
couple of steps back as he looked at the giant agent, fearing
the man had come for
him because of his gambling. Roman thought their guest
had flashed his badge
way too quickly to be an authentic agent of the government.
Plus, he never
proclaimed which part of the government he worked for. Gale was
taken with the man’s
Johnson shook their hands. He put a hand on Roman’s shoulder, noticing
the wince from the
young man. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Please,” Gale responded, moving Ed’s ashtray and whiskey glass off the
table in front of the
“A fine young man you have here. You must be proud,” Johnson remarked
as he sat down.
From his recliner Ed said, “He’s not really ours. He’s a foster kid.”
Agent Johnson let the comment bounce off him and opened his brief case.
“Let me tell you why I’m here. As I’m sure you know your son is very gifted.
Two years ago the
government started to monitor the aptitude tests that schools
“All the schools?” Gale asked.
“Every single school in the United States and its territories, Mrs. Pentoch.
The reason they
monitor these tests is to discover children with exceptional
abilities at an early
“For what?” Ed snorted.
“To help,” Johnson replied. “After 9/11 the government is now aware that
we can no longer be
in a reactive state. We have to be proactive in our fight
against terrorism. We
can’t afford to make mistakes anymore. Thus, the
students like Roman.”
“I’m sorry, but I think you’re lookin’ in the wrong place for the next James
Bond,” Ed said and
Gale jumped in. “He’s only fifteen, you can’t expect him to fight those
“With all due respect, I think you’re missing the point,” Johnson began.
“We don’t expect to send him out on the front lines. We need him here at home.
Sometimes the most
primitive enemy is the hardest to detect.”
“Code breaking,” Roman said.
Johnson looked at
him. “That’s just one of the elements. We refer to it as
“Well how good was the kid on the test anyhow?” Ed asked.
“I’ll try to put it in perspective. A standard IQ test like the one these
are based on a certain scoring system. It’s relatively simple.
The score is derived
by the space between the first question missed and the second
question missed and
the frequency of missed questions there after. The questions
get harder as they
progress. A score of one fifty or higher is considered genius.”
“And what did Roman score?” Gale asked.
Johnson’s stare made Roman feel uneasy. “He didn’t score anything.”
“I don’t get it,” Ed said.
“For the subject’s IQ to be measured correctly Mr. Pentoch, the subject has
to answer a question
incorrectly. Roman answered every question correctly,
making his IQ
impossible to calculate. In short, your son either had all the answers
to the test ahead of
time, which is virtually impossible, or he’s one of the few
people in the world
that are in the one hundredth percentile for intelligence.”
“I’m not sure exactly what all of this means. I don’t understand what you
want from us,” Gale
“What I want is immaterial. What the government wants is your
permission and young
Roman’s of course. Permission for us to train him, to focus
his mind, and use its
power to help the pursuit of freedom.”
Roman thought the statement sounded a bit rehearsed, like the promises of
“He’s still got to go to school,” Gale said.
“The boy’s got chores and work. He’s got to earn his keep,” Ed said,
oblivious of Gale.
Johnson saw through Ed and it gave the agent the opportunity he was
looking for. “We’ve
taken the proper channels, Mr. Pentoch, and if Roman
chooses to comply he
will receive the entire amount of his trust fund immediately
as well as a
substantial salary from the government. You and Mrs. Pentoch will
also receive from the
government an amount equal to ten percent of Roman’s
after the first month of his training.”
Johnson sensed Roman was uneasy with the amount of information known
about his life.
“Ten percent doesn’t seem like that much,” Ed said.
“Ten percent is roughly two hundred and fifty thousand dollars Mr.
Pentoch. The Swivels’
had a very healthy insurance policy. Put that with the
value of the estate
and you’re looking at a good chunk of dough,” Johnson replied.
Ed slicked back his hair, took a deep breath, and started searching his
pockets for his
cigarette and lighter. He lit and pulled hard on the smoke. “Sounds
pretty good to me.”
Ed looked at Gale who seemed not to share his enthusiasm. Roman felt he
had just been sold at
“Will he live at home still?” Gale asked.
“Roman will live at the training site, but will able to come home on
Sundays if he so
chooses,” Johnson replied.
The deal had at first seemed too sour, but with each passing moment,
Roman realized he
could now get the things he longed for. Freedom. Escape. He
never had to come
back to the hell he’d lived in for the last two years. He never
had to smell Ed’s
pungent odor or drink his whiskey or take his beatings. There
would be no more
earthquakes preventing him from sleep.
“I want to do it,” Roman said. “But can I take anything with me?”
“Anything you want, son,” Johnson replied. “I just need all three of your
signatures here on
this piece of paper.”
Johnson helped carry the heavy boxes, regretting his answer to Roman that
the teenager could
take anything he wanted with him. A small price to pay for
such a beautiful
mind, and the amount of potential that came with it. He noticed
the young man’s
excitement and apparent lack of sorrow at leaving his home.
Johnson knew from the
way Roman had flinched that there was a good chance he
was being abused.
“So what’s in the boxes anyway?” Johnson asked closing the trunk of the
“Baseball cards and a few books.” Unlike Roman’s usual quiet way, he
responded fast and
positively, with the enthusiasm of a kid on his way to a theme
Johnson paused with key in hand, just short of starting the vehicle. He
looked at Roman.
“Look son, we’re going to take good care of you.”
“Thanks,” Roman responded, just happy to be rid of Ed.
Johnson started the car and Roman watched as his neighborhood passed by
outside the window
and the cramped houses eventually disappeared. He embraced
feelings of happiness like a long-lost friend. Houses and small
turned into office buildings and high-rises. Roman watched
as they passed people
jogging, people tanning, people skating. Skyscrapers
touched heaven, and
the deep blue of Lake Michigan went on forever trying to be
an ocean, merging
into the horizon, smudging the meeting point of sky and water.
The drive continued.
The towers shrank back to buildings and then to
houses, the water
receded to dry land, the cars and people lessened. A green
highway sign for
Wisconsin loomed above them, pointing straight ahead; Johnson
took a left. Soon
they were in the country. Barns and ten-mile gaps between
homes became a
familiar sight. Roman dreamed of Iowa. Johnson turned right on
a gravel road. Roman
could not see the end of it.
The barn before them lay literally in the middle of nowhere. As far as the
eye could see there
were only plains. Not a house. Not a forest. Not even a
The barn hadn’t been painted in years. Splintered wood hung
from it and several
bird nests occupied its outer corners. The roof bowed inward.
Agent Johnson pressed
a button on his steering wheel. The barn door began to
rise, creaking and
struggling to go up. The inside ended Roman’s doubts. The
walls were metal. The
floor concrete. In front of the car was another door, only
this one was cement.
Cameras were fixed into all four upper corners of the barn.
Johnson flipped on
the dome light so he could see Roman’s face.
Johnson thought hard before he spoke. “This is the point of no return,
Roman. What you see
ahead is highly classified. And not the kind of classified
you see in movies.
This classified gets you killed if you breach it, kid or no. There
are only a few
hundred people in the world that even know this place exists. I
know your story up
until coming to Chicago, the entire sad truth of it. I’m fairly
certain I’ve pieced
together the rest from the meeting with the Pentochs. I
understand that your
choices are not the brightest in either direction. I will tell you
that this job is
thankless. You’ll never hear our accomplishments on the evening
news. But it is also
the most fulfilling line of a work a man can devote himself to.
If you want out, I’ll
shred the paper you signed and take you back home no
questions asked. Home
Home. The word even sounded strange in
thought. Roman didn’t know
what it meant
anymore. He looked at the camera to his right.
“Continue,” he said.
Agent Johnson patted him on the leg. Roman gave a slight jerk, a reflex
that had developed
over time. The agent exited the car and walked over to a
console on the wall
bordering the cement door. He placed his eyes against the
Unlike the barn door, the cement barrier in front of them
disappeared into the
floor with ease.
The tunnel was a constant decline of concrete and neon lights. Roman was
sure if Johnson
wanted to put the car in neutral it would have rolled all the way to
the bottom. The steep
road went on for several minutes. The speedometer read
thirty. When it
stopped, it wasn’t at the center of the earth as Roman had
suspected, but in a
small parking garage. Their were six spaces in all, one empty
for Agent Johnson.
Another console, plus one checking the imprint of a hand, were next to the
steel doors of the
elevator. Johnson did both acts at the same time. The doors
spread apart in
lightening-quick fashion. Instead of Spock and Captain Kirk
standing on the other
side, the elevator was empty. The doors closed with the same
speed they had
“Level two,” Johnson said.
“Level two,” the mechanized voice of the elevator responded.
Before Roman could ask what the handles lining the interior were for, he
found out first hand.
If the elevator had dropped any faster, Roman and Johnson
would be floating in
“Electro-magnetically powered.” Johnson said.
“Oh,” Roman responded.
The doors opened to a long hall of cement floor and more metal walls,
again lighted with
neon. The hall was narrow but stretched a good fifty yards
away from the
elevator. No decorations. No color. Only the metallic surface
spanning the walls
and ceiling giving way to the doors spaced several yards apart
on both sides of the
hall. The doors were knobless, each one with an individual iris
scan and a series of
buttons next to it. This wasn’t Wonderland but Roman
guessed that he had
traveled a little farther down the hole than Alice, passing the
land of the Mad
Hatter and landing oddly on his feet.
“I’ve got several questions. May I?” Roman asked.
“Fire away son,” Johnson responded, picking up the pace of his walk.
"How far down are we?”
“Right at two kilometers. We refer to these strongholds as bases; we call
this one Bravo. There
are several. New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Los
Francisco. All of them camouflaged. All of them virtually
impenetrable. So far
underground we’d be able to survive for years in the event of
any known mass
“Who exactly are we working for?”
Johnson glanced at Roman, noticing his slowed pace. He knew Roman
would not be
satisfied if he simply answered “government” again. “You work for
no one. In fact the
minute you drove down the tunnel with me, you ceased to
exist. The agency was
created after 9/11 to combat the war on terror. The FBI
with their abundance
of talented people is practically useless against an enemy like
the FBI is reactive in nature. The proactive CIA does
outstanding work, but
even as proactive as it is, at the end of the day it is still held
accountable by the
citizens of the world. The NSA with all of its high-tech gadgets
devices in the end still answers to somebody. We however
answer to no one. We
don’t put stars on the wall of our offices, because ghosts
can’t be heroes. The
few people that do know our little band of brothers exists
refer to it as the NN,
because there was no name given to it. An agency can’t be
held accountable if
it doesn’t exist. It can’t break any laws. It can’t violate any
peace treaties. It
can’t murder. We’re the guys that do the dirty work.”
Johnson stopped at the fifth door. He pressed his face against the machine
once again and typed
something into the keypad.
“Your turn,” he said.
Roman placed his eye over the hole, not feeling the laser beam touch the
brown of his iris.
Johnson then punched more keys.
"You’re all set,” he said as the door slid open, disappearing into the wall.
“Make yourself at home, I’ll be right back.”
A lot of space.
A warm feeling came over Roman at the sight. The
room was at least
fifty feet wide and about as long. The metallic fixtures and
concrete floor Roman
had expected were nowhere to be found. The floors were
king-sized bed was next to one of the walls with an Indian-style quilt
hanging past the
edges. A big screen TV hung on the wall opposite the bed.
speakers were fixed on the walls. A fireplace jutted out from the
wall with candles on
the caramel-stained mantle-piece that encased it. A large
stereo system sat in
a compartment just below the flat-screen television. A
personal computer. A
refrigerator. A stove. A kitchen. A bathroom. And
windows. Four windows
in all, looking out over a beach and then the ocean.
Seagulls flew in the
distance. Roman could hear the waves splashing. It didn’t
matter that it was
only a hologram. Roman would take it over looking at his
siding any day.
Johnson returned pushing a multi-level cart stacked with papers and books.
He was a librarian
preparing to restock the shelves at the end of the day.
this be true? Books
delivered by the cartload. Roman’s
unspoken question was
“I hope everything is to your liking. You can change the windows to just
about any climate and
terrain the world has to offer. Even beaches at sunset
after a while. Your fridge is stocked. All the toiletries should
be in place. You get
about every music and TV channel on the planet down here
believe it or not. If
you need anything or want to send anything to your folks, you
can place an order on
your computer over there. The mailroom will take care of it.
I know you’re just
settling in but I’ve already got some work for you. Let’s see
what we have here.”
Johnson lifted some bound pages off the cart. “This is a two-hundred page
questionnaire. A little late for that.”
Johnson threw the
manuscript in the trash can next to the door. He flipped
parchments and some books, discarding most of them.
“Here we go.” He sat a box full of papers on Roman’s bed. “These
documents are all
things we’ve intercepted in one fashion or another. Some were
emails, some radio or
satellite transmissions, some cell phone conversations; the
list goes on. Every
document has two copies. One in English and the other in the
language it was
communicated in. Most from the Middle East or Korea, some
from China—any of our
enemies. Can you read all those languages?”
Roman nodded, picked up one of the papers, and looked at. “This one only
has one copy and its
Johnson walked over and scanned the document. “That’s from the UK.
For once Roman was confused.
“We keep an eye on everybody Roman, even our allies.”
“Can’t your computers figure out these codes?” Roman asked.
computers,” Johnson corrected. “They solve
ninety-nine percent of
the codes. You’re
here to confirm or deny the other one percent. As far as
technology has come,
it still gives us false negatives at times. Computers can only
look for patterns in
the ways they’ve been taught. Sometimes the human brain can
be light years ahead
of it. Especially a brain like your own. Now you better get
some sleep. You’ve
got a long day ahead of you tomorrow.”
“A long day of what?” Roman asked.
“Your training. The physical part I mean.”
Johnson said good night and left.
Even with the starlit sky and the gentle splashing of waves coming through
his make shift
window, Roman couldn’t sleep. He flipped on the screen at the far
end of the room using
the remote. Minutes later he was frustrated with boredom.
He went to the box
now on his floor and rifled though the files.
There were fifty, and Roman read them all. Read was too small of a word.
He took in the images
first from afar and then one by one. He studied and
discarded all but
one. His brain turned the letters in the sentences into columns
flipping them one way, reversing them the next, dissecting them last.
He could see the
letter “A” in every word stand magnified against the page, as if it
left the paper and
floated in mid-air. He could see whole words appear vertically,
backwards, and upside
down in the chaos of everyday rhetoric; evenly spaced in a
binary pattern that
used letters of the alphabet for numerical values, the words were
to the naked eye. Roman circled the letters used in the code. He
did a double- take
and recalculated. This can’t be right, Roman thought. But the
laws of science
argued that it could.
Agent Johnson entered the room at six A.M. The teenager he had expected
to see sleeping with
the covers pulled over his head was not there. Instead, Roman
sat on the edge of
the bed dressed with the new day’s clothes on, reading one of the
manuals Johnson had
thrown in the trash.
“I told you, you didn’t have to read those.” Johnson said.
“I know. I ran out of things to read. There was only one code imbedded in
the files you gave
me. It is very irregular,” Roman said.
“The code is irregular?” Johnson asked walking to the bed.
“No, the encoded statement was irregular. Look.” Roman showed the
agent what he had
copied to another sheet of paper.
Pullman, give your sister my thanks. Last night was great.
Johnson gave a half smile. “God damn Brits.”
“I don’t understand,” Roman said.
“When these genius types run out of work they start screwing with each
other. It’s the
Brit’s way of telling us they know we’re watching. They devised
the code so the
computers wouldn’t pick it up.”
“He’s a code breaker, one of ours. Lives in DC.” Johnson looked at the
haven’t got sick of the scenery? Give it time, you’ll be through all
of those damn
holograms before it’s over with. Are you ready to go?”
“Yes,” Roman answered.
“It’s time to go see Ninja,” Johnson said.
Roman picked up his
papers, organizing them neatly in the box. He
followed Johnson to
the door. “Ninja?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.” The two walked down the shiny gray
hallway, passing ten
doors and then stopped. “Are you going to want to return
home on Sunday?”
Johnson already knew the answer.
“No. I’d rather not ever return,” Roman said back.
“I just happen to have two tickets for seats at Wrigley on Sunday. Would
you like to go to a
Roman’s face lit up. “Yeah, I’d like to go.”
Johnson was glad to see Roman smile. Something he hadn’t done in a good
thought. He looked at the door in front of them. “What lies behind
is no easy task. It’s
the physical part of your training, Roman. At times you’ll
want to quit. At
times you’ll want to die. But it’s a necessary part of our job and
someday it will save
your life. Are you ready?”
Roman nodded, unshaken by the statement.
“I’ll see you later.” Johnson noticed that young Roman did not withdraw
when he patted his
shoulder this time.
The door slid open, exposing a sea of white, and Roman now knew the
meaning of snow
blindness. White pads like those under a basketball hoop in a
every wall. The floor was white as well, giving out
footsteps, spongy but resilient. The room was a far cry from the
dojos Roman had read
about. There were no paper windows or wooden poles
ceiling. There weren’t countless weapons and devices holstered to
the walls, or
headgear and body armor in a special equipment chest. There was no
sacred samurai sword
adorned beneath the picture of the local sensei. There was
only the white. Still
Roman sensed he had walked into a world meant solely for
He thought what hit him was a broom handle. He was mistaken. The
weapon was made of
ash, an inch in diameter, and it packed a strong wallop. He
touched his nose, the
nerve receptors only responding in his fingers. He saw a
puddle of his bright
red blood on the floor next to a brown stain that was no doubt
that of the last poor
agent in training. The water in his eyes cleared, and he saw the
outline of his
attacker. It wasn’t an ancient Japanese warrior wearing a black
pajama-like suit and
matching hood, laced with throwing stars or
nunchucks. Instead it
was a simple bald man in arctic-style fatigues swinging a
mutant kendo stick
around his body with such velocity that it was hard to
distinguish how many
of the weapons there were.
“Rule number one,” the man said, stopping his swing. “Never walk
through a door unless
you know what’s waiting for you on the other side. I think
its safe to surmise
you’ve already mastered the essence of this rule.”
He put his hand out to Roman. Roman pulled himself up with it,
continuing to pinch
his nostrils shut with his free hand.
“In real combat the enemy doesn’t wait until you get a tissue out of
mommy’s purse to stop
your nose bleed,” the bald man said.
Again the stick swung. A bit more aware Roman backpedaled, but the stick
slapped his shoulder
its loud crack echoing through the room. Roman fell to the
floor. A bruise in
the shape of the weapon was already forming as Roman lifted
the sleeve of his
“Rule number two. Never, ever, retreat from an object in motion. It’s
cowardly and lazy,
and gives your enemy a psychological edge. But more
importantly, it will
get you killed. Stand here.”
Roman got to his feet as quickly as he could.
“A whip, a stick, a punch are all acts of force that use leverage to their
advantage. It doesn’t
matter which you use. They are all powerful and all
But they are also all flawed. There is only one focal point of
power on each and it
lies at their end point. Think of a bat hitting a ball. You are
always going to hit
the ball farther with the fat part of the barrel than you are with
the handle. The
barrel is bigger, yes. But what makes the difference is the kinetic
energy built up at
the end of the bat as it accelerates. You retreated from my
swing, in turn
catching the brunt of its force. Why did you try to run when you
saw the stick
“Reflex. My fight or flight response,” Roman responded still rubbing his
“Exactly. Our goal is to strengthen the fight and eliminate the flight.”
dropped the stick to the floor. “I’m going to throw a punch at
your temple as hard
as I can as if I were trying to kill you. This time I want you to
step into me as far
as you can and cut down the distance. Remember my arms and
legs generate the
power of my punch, but it can only be transferred through my
fist. All you have to
do is avoid the fist. Ready?”
The man reared back, Roman stepped forward, entering the instructor’s
comfort zone. The
fist came but only hit the air behind Roman’s shoulder. The
only force he felt
was the bicep of the white-clad instructor on is shoulder.
“Congratulations, Roman. You’ve just passed your first test.”
The man in white held out his hand hoping to shake.
“Thanks,” Roman said, grasping his teacher’s hand as he smiled.
A second later Roman was on his back. Roman looked up at the combat
upside-down face. He held Roman’s wrist and now had his knee in the
joint of Roman’s
elbow. If another ounce of pressure was applied, Roman feared
his arm would snap in
The teacher’s lips transformed from their frown posture to a straight line.
As close as they
could get to a smile, Roman imagined. “Rule number three.
Never trust anyone.
Enemies don’t bow before a fight, nor do they shake hands
after.” He helped
Roman off the mat.
“They call me Ninja. You’re going to do fine here.”
Even with the usual wind off the lake on that Sunday afternoon, it was
warm for Wrigley in
April. They sat in the bleachers and the sun was on them.
Johnson drank Strohs
in a thin paper cup. Roman noticed the agent only sipped the
brew, making it last
four innings at a time. He bought Roman popcorn and hot
dogs. Roman marveled
at how the breeze of stale beer was welcomed by the
sensory mechanisms in
his nose. Amazing how atmosphere could change
cheered for the pinstripes. They watched as lovers kissed in the
The drunks fought and were eventually escorted out of the
friendly confines of
the park. Two balls left the yard. Roman thought the second
white projectile was
headed right at his head, but the man two rows in front of him
bare-handed. During the seventh inning stretch they listened as the
celebrity of the day
sang into the microphone of legend. The Northsiders clawed
and scratched but
came up short, losing in the ninth to their bitter rivals, the
Roman held onto the program as he and the agent walked back to the car.
They parked close;
Johnson knew the guy that owned that lot well, and took care
of him in return.
“You know I’ve got twelve of these things now, and not one of them have
the Cubs winning in
the box score,” Roman said, holding up his thin magazine.
“0 and 12 huh? They don’t call Cub fans the best in the world for nothing I
“Just once, I’d like to be present when they win,” said Roman.
“Being a Cub fan is a lot like being a patriot I suppose. If war wiped out
every person but one,
America would live on. It’s a hope for something bigger
than just a country.
It’s hope for an idea.”
Roman watched as the masses exited the stadium. Kids waving their giant
stuffed number one
fingers in the air, chewing on cotton candy, remnants of
fudgesickles stuck to
their cheeks. The littlest ones holding onto their parent’s
hands in fear of
being swept away by the raging current of people.
“The last trip my parents took me on was to Wrigley,” Roman said.
Johnson put his hand on the young man’s shoulder as they walked to the
On the ride back to the barn, as if the last words from Roman’s mouth had
transformed into coherent language by his brain, Johnson broke the
silence. “My family
died in the Twin Towers. My wife worked for an insurance
company; she chose
jumping over burning. Our son was at daycare. My son’s
couldn’t finish the sentence.
“I’m sorry,” Roman responded.
“In all my travels, after all these years, there’s only one thing I’m sure of,
Roman. The statement
that time heals all things is not accurate. A statement I’m
sure you’ve heard
from at least one person after your parents’ passing. The truth
is, time only dulls
the pain. I think about my family at least once a day and even
the good memories
hurt. Everyday the pain gets a little less, but it never
altogether. I think the only way time could heal you completely is if
you forgot their
faces, if you banished them from your memory. I don’t know
about you, but I’ll
take the pain rather than not remembering them at all.”
“Me too,” Roman responded.
“You know Mr. Swivel, it’s an odd situation we’re in here. The pessimist
would say that our
similar stories and our meeting were coincidental, mere chance.
The optimist would
say that all things happen for a reason. I tend to believe the
“So do I,” Roman replied.
The barn door opened and the car rolled down the concrete tunnel, passing
under the neon lights
as if they were traveling in the Chunnel from France to
England. The alien
surroundings that had engrossed Roman the first time were
now beginning to feel
more and more like home.
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