Chapter 7

Roman’s Story: Dark Days, Agent Johnson, and the NN

I

      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 hunting.

      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

someone breathing heavily like they had a rope tied around their neck.

96

      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

bookshelf overturned, 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

nothing happened.

      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

backwards very 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 right.

       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 father.

       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

door.

       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.

II

       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 a zombie.

       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

belongings consisted 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

magazine.

      We exchanged pleasantries; Gale even hugged me. It was a bit awkward. I

really didn’t 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

decent-sized kitchen 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

help.

       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

headboard wouldn’t 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

like cardboard 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

you understand?”

     “Yes sir, I understand.”

      “Here’s two dollars for your lunch. You better get ready now, the bus’ll be

here in about twenty minutes.”

      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.

III

       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

company—in other 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.

IV

      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

healed.

      Several weeks went by. I went to school. Did my chores. Read my books.

The earthquakes 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 bad.

      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

intoxicated, falling 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 was excruciating.

       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

bookies.

      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.

V

      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,

medically unexplainable. The pediatrician called him gifted. She wanted to run

tests. The Swivels refused.

      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,

speak Spanish 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.

VI

      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

produced his 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 demeanor.

       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 couch.

      “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

administer.”

      “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 age.”

      “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

recruitment of students like Roman.”

      “I’m sorry, but I think you’re lookin’ in the wrong place for the next James

Bond,” Ed said and laughed.

      Gale jumped in. “He’s only fifteen, you can’t expect him to fight those

terrorists.”

       “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

counter intelligence.”

      “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

schools administer 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 responded.

      “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

an insurance salesman.

      “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

inheritance, payable 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 an auction.

     “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.”

They signed.

VII

      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

car.

      “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

park.

      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

the unfamiliar feelings of happiness like a long-lost friend. Houses and small

apartments eventually 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

planted cornfield. 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 or continue?”

      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

scanning device. 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 opened.

     “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 zero gravity.

      “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

Angeles, San 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 destruction attack.”

       “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

terrorists because 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

and communication 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.”

        Space. 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

carpeted. A 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.

Surround-sound 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

neighbor’s white 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. Could

this be true? Books delivered by the cartload. Roman’s unspoken question was

answered.

       “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

become monotonous 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

psychological questionnaire. A little late for that.”

Johnson threw the manuscript in the trash can next to the door. He flipped

through several 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 in English.”

       Johnson walked over and scanned the document. “That’s from the UK.

Britain.”

      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.

      “Our 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

and matrices, 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

virtually invisible 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.

VIII

       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.”

       “Who’s Pullman?”

       “He’s a code breaker, one of ours. Lives in DC.” Johnson looked at the

windows. “Still 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 game?”

      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

while, Johnson 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

gymnasium covered every wall. The floor was white as well, giving out

underneath his 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

supporting the 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

combat.

      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 shirt.

     “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

potentially deadly. 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 coming?”

      “Reflex. My fight or flight response,” Roman responded still rubbing his

shoulder.

       “Exactly. Our goal is to strengthen the fight and eliminate the flight.”

Roman’s instructor 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?”

       Roman nodded.

       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

professor’s 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 two.

       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.”

IX

       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

everything. They cheered for the pinstripes. They watched as lovers kissed in the

outfield bleachers. 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

snagged it 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

Cardinals.

      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

guess,” Johnson responded.

      “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

car.

        On the ride back to the barn, as if the last words from Roman’s mouth had

finally been 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

body....” Johnson 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

disappears 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

optimist.”

      “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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