Chapter 8

Roman’s Story Continued: “The stunt with the trains”

I

       Roman found a strange ally in his insomnia. He was putting in eighteen hour

days, training the first half and breaking the never-ending stack of codes the

latter half. In the beginning the codes had not been hard, but now they were even

easier, becoming like the nighttime word searches of a retiree. The phrases leaped

out from the jumbled letters and sentences like the bright bulbs of a Christmas

tree. If he finished fifty, there would be sixty waiting the following evening. Still

the waves and sand outside his window were his only company.

      Ninja schooled him in the art of war. After Roman had mastered the basics

from his teacher’s one-on-one sessions, opponents were brought in. First one

agent. Then two. The first week of live combat Roman lost every fight. Six

months into the training Roman was defending six aggressors at a time, his

opponents in full pads, Roman in only the clothes he’d put on that morning. There

were no lessons on becoming one with the universe or getting in touch with one’s

inner energy. Ninja reminded him frequently that this was not a dojo and that kung

fu masters existed only in the movies. Ninja demonstrated how relatively easy it

was to gouge a man’s eyes out or rip his ear off. Sometimes part of survival was

killing, and Ninja showed Roman how relatively easy it was to snap a man’s neck.

       Johnson took Roman to the twelfth door down from his room once a week.

It was a door Roman never wanted to enter. Paper silhouettes in the shooting

gallery hung on their strings at fifty and one hundred yards. The Kimber sat on the

shelf in front of him. The dulling over time that Johnson was so convinced would

happen had not yet given Roman the courage to pick up the weapon or squeeze its

trigger. Johnson did not press the issue.

       After months of the weekly visits, Roman grew tired of just staring at the

gun. He picked it up and emptied all twelve rounds into the heart and head of his

paper attacker with pinpoint accuracy. He finished and set the gun back on the

stand. That was the last time Johnson brought him to the gallery.

A year into the training, Johnson watched as Roman defeated the best of

Ninja’s students from all over the country. In frustration, Ninja would sometimes

make them all go against Roman at the same time. Roman was always left

standing.

      “How’s he progressing?” Johnson asked the instructor.

      “The kid’s a sponge. He picks this stuff up like most people take to riding

a bike or roller-skating. Some guys no matter how well you train them are just not

good fighters. The only thing you can do for them is pray. Young Swivel is not

one of those people. He might be the best I’ve ever had.”

      “I thought I was the best you ever had?”

       Ninja frowned without replying.

II

      Sometimes Johnson would be gone days at time. But when Sunday came

Johnson made it a point of spending it with his young protégé. Together they

would go to church, visit the bowling alley, see a movie, or catch a ball game.

Johnson taught Roman to drive, and not on your ordinary student driver courses.

Johnson referred to the lessons as evasive maneuvering. Flooring the car to speeds

in excess of one hundred miles an hour, power-braking at the drop of a dime,

power-sliding one hundred and eighty degrees and spinning to face the opponent

who in real life would be chasing you were all things that gave new meaning to the

way a car handles. The days spent outside the barn seemed to recharge Roman,

completely resting the complicated gray matter between his ears, and nourishing

his soul with the much-needed blessings of every day life.

      Almost a year to the day after Roman’s arrival at the barn, Johnson showed

up not with a cartload of documents as usual, but with a single manila envelope in

his hand and a stressed look on his face. Roman had never before seen the urgency

in his eyes so apparent. Johnson made small talk while trying to conceal his

concern.

     “Still haven’t gotten bored with the view?” Johnson asked, looking out the

windows at the same beach.

      “I’ve never been to the ocean in person. I guess I can’t get enough.”

      Johnson unwrapped the brown string holding the envelope closed. “This is

a transcript from a video that one of our agents obtained yesterday. The man

talking is Somane Kazar, a swingman for just about any terrorist group you can

name. Although Kazar himself is uninterested in proving any fundamental points,

he does work for the enemy from time to time, as long as they will match his

price. He deals in weapons, recruitment, and most importantly information. I

guess he’s what you’d call a terror pimp. He’s got huge drug operations, spanning

from Syria to Colombia. He sets up funding for some terrorists groups in these

areas by providing them with narcotics at wholesale prices. The CIA has reason to

believe Kazar is setting up a big meeting between the local drug lords and some

top-ranking terrorists from across the pond. They also believe that his words are

coded, providing the date, time, and location of the meeting. We’ve had our best

guys on this, not to mention the computers. They all say there is no visible code.

That’s where you come in.”

      Roman turned the envelope upside down, emptying its contents. A twopage

manuscript dropped into his hand. Roman’s eyes sped though the Arabic

writing as he walked over to his desk.

      “Take your time,” Johnson said. “This might be the toughest one you’ve

ever had. It’s also probably the most important.”

      Roman didn’t respond as he sat down at the desk, holding the papers as if

they were the Dead Sea scrolls.

      The sun had set on the projected paradise outside Roman’s window. Light

from the moon and the stars hinted at the moving waves of the ocean. The solitary

lamp bent over Roman’s desk illuminated the transcript. Roman wiped his hand

over his face and pushed his fingers through his hair. He’d lost count of the

number of times he’d read the document. The letters didn’t jump out at him or

seem highlighted as before. There was no code. Roman was sure of it. He took a

drink of the water on the desk next to him, not out of thirst, but out of frustration.

He glanced at the flat-screen TV at the end of the room. Its glass was blank and

black. He had only used it a handful of times. He looked again at the papers in

front of him and again back at the screen. He picked up his phone and dialed

Agent Johnson’s number.

      The scratchy voice on the other end answered, “Johnson.”

      “Do you have a copy of the actual videotape?” Roman asked.

      “Yes. Why?” The voice wakening out of the depths of sleep.

      “There’s no code in these manuscripts in Arabic, Spanish, or any other

language. I need to see the video.”

      “What time is it?”

     “Two forty-five,” answered Roman.

      “I’ll be there by four.”

III

      Roman half-expected to see Johnson in his pajamas and slippers, but the

Agent was groomed and dressed in a suit, as sharp as the day they met. He went

over to Roman’s VCR and inserted the tape. Roman sat on his bed with the

manuscript attached to a clipboard and a pencil in his hand.

       “I’m not sure how this is going to help”, said Johnson. “The words on your

pages match his spoken words exactly. It’s been checked and re-checked.”

      “Just give me a second,” Roman said, his voice a thousand miles away as

he concentrated on the screen.

      On the video, Kazar sat at a wide desk, smiling as he talked about all the

schools he had built with his money and about the future donations he would

make. He wore a designer suit instead of the turban and robes Roman had

expected. He spoke for only four minutes.

       “Notice anything strange?” Roman asked.

       “I’ve watched this thing about a thousand times. No, I haven’t noticed

anything strange.” Johnson suddenly felt like he was back in a college lecture hall.

       “Our friend Kazar seldom blinks. In fact his eyes only close four times.

His blinks are deliberate, always with both eyes. It’s so simple it’s genius. Play it

back for me one more time,” Roman said as he readied his pencil.

       Johnson rewound the tape and started it again. “I’m lost,” he Johnson said.

       Kazar started to talk and Roman began to scratch with his pencil on the

manuscript, his eyes jumping from the man’s blinks to the Arabic words on the

paper. Johnson stood over Roman’s shoulder. Each time Kazar blinked Roman

circled the corresponding word on the transcript. He looked the paper over as the

taped ended.

       The words circled on Roman’s paper were the numbers three, ten, seventy-four,

and five. “All numbers,” Roman muttered to himself. Then he looked up.

      “Do you know what you’re looking at?” Roman asked the agent.

       “Yeah, four numbers that don’t mean a damn thing to me.”

      “They should,” Roman began. “Because these numbers are your meeting

place and your date.”

       Johnson just looked at Roman.

      "You have a three and a ten close together on the page, and then a

seventy-four and a five close together at the bottom.”

      “Okay,” the agent said.

      “What if it means “three-ten” as in March 10th? And what if it means

'seventy-four and five' as in the coordinates 74 and 5?”

     “March 10th, that’s two days from now.” The agent sat down at Roman’s

computer, bringing up the NN’s search engine. Johnson typed 5 degrees south and

74 degrees east into the search engine. “That’s somewhere in the ocean.”

     “You said there were Colombians involved. Try 5 degrees south and 74

west instead. That should place the location somewhere in South America,”

Roman said.

       Johnson typed in the coordinates. “It’s in the middle of a goddamn rain

forest. No villages. No roads. Too inconvenient, even for our Colombian

friends.”

       “Try five degrees north then.”

        Johnson typed again. This time a picture popped up along with a full

description and directions. “Versailles, Colombia. An hour west of Bogotá. High

elevation. It’s on some kind of plateau. Lots of fields. The description says the

area is sparsely populated, mostly inhabited by horse ranchers.” Johnson looked

up from the computer. “You’ve done real well Roman, but let’s celebrate after we

catch the bastards. I’ve got to get the cavalry going.”

       Johnson rose from his seat and pressed several numbers on his phone. “Yeah, it’s me. Roman figured it out. Do you have something to take this down

with?”

IV

         Days passed without word from Agent Johnson. Even though Roman was

confident in his findings, it would have been nice to hear the results of the

operation. Johnson wouldn’t be on the front lines, by any means. Neither would

any American soldier, ghost or no: Colombian mercenaries under United States

control would carry it out. Someone who likely had a grievance with the local

drug lord in their backyard. The NN would want to take the terrorists alive, a

daunting task for a group of mercenaries that was either in it just for the pay or had

vengeance on their minds. Ironic was the fact that drug dealers weren’t the most

skilled at violence anymore.

       Roman ordered as many books as he could through his computer. Most

times they brought five or six a week, a number that Roman could have finished in

the first day. He slowed his supersonic eye down to a slow drag and still there

weren’t enough books to occupy his mind. The worst thing that could happen to

that mind was for it to lie empty and unfilled. He tried reading the books over

again, but it wasn’t the same. He stared for hours on end at the ceiling and at his

beach hologram. His mind ran at full speed whether it was occupied or not, yet

into the vacuum crept images he wanted to forget. Images like Ed’s belt full tilt or

the shotgun blowing off the backside of his father’s head. Roman dealt with the

boredom, always did, but the voices, no matter how much he begged them to be

silent, only became louder.

        Tired of it, he grabbed the remote and flipped on the television that was

more expensive than a used car. Any other teen would have been in heaven with

all that technology at their fingertips, the freedom to sleep as much as they wanted,

and no school to get up for. To Roman it was all just some synthetic excuse for a

drug, manufactured in a factory, marketed by subliminals—a crude imitation of the

lives and adventures that lived first on the written page and then in his mind.

        Before Roman could think about the madness and repetition of the infinite

number of twenty-four hour news channels, his eyes focused on an image on the

screen. A helicopter view of a small village in flames. The caption in white letters

beneath it read “near Versailles, Colombia”. Roman turned the volume up, the

woman reporter’s voice dispersing through every speaker in his beach house.

       “You’re looking at a small village, just outside Bogotá, Colombia. The

location of an apparent attack on a meeting between wealthy drug lord Carlos Vega

and a group of high-ranking officers from the terrorist group Nuram. Currently no

survivors have been found. The attack was made by the local ranching

community. An enormous amount of firepower was used, and it is still unclear

who struck first. The Colombian government is denying all participation in the

attack. Although many of the weapons lying on the ground were clearly property

of the United States, the State Department denies any involvement, commenting

that the war on terror is a joint effort with not only the countries of the world, but

also its citizens. The White House released a similar statement commenting that it

would have been nice to bring the terrorists in alive so they could face justice.

We’ll keep you up to date as this breaking story unfolds.”

        Roman flipped to another news channel, which had a live camera on the

ground. The reporter’s voice, which warned that the images about to be seen were

of a violent nature and viewer discretion was advised, faded to silence in Roman’s

ears as he concentrated on the images displayed on the screen in front of him. Not

only was the village on fire but some of the outlying forest was as well. Several

horses lay on the ground unmoving. Bodies soaked with blood scattered the

fields. A young girl no older than twelve sat on the ground with her arms around

an older man wearing a straw hat. She was holding his head up as she hugged

him. Roman read the words on her lips. The girl’s mouth moved almost

constantly, forming the word “Padre” over and over.

        Roman pressed the remote, freezing the images of the faces on the screen

before him. Roman stared at the all too familiar sight for several minutes. His

stomach rumbled but before he could stand up, vomit splattered on his shoes. His

legs felt numb as he walked to the bathroom. He retrieved a washcloth hanging

next to the sink, not recognizing the pale face that looked back at him in the

mirror. His eyes blurred with tears as he cleaned up the mess he’d made. He stood

up and looked at the beach outside his windows. Roman walked to the hologram

controls and turned the beach off.

        The beatings from Ed had never produced as much as a salty teardrop from

his eyes nor had the struggles in Ninja’s combat room. The last time Roman cried

had been at his parents’ funeral. He had endured much, facing it head on and

surviving. That night everything in his life hit him at once. Roman sobbed for the

two years that had passed. He sobbed for the twelve-year old girl in Versailles,

Colombia.

V

       Agent Johnson arrived back at the barn two days later. In his hands he

carried two box seat tickets at Wrigley—a toast to Roman, a celebration for the

man who’d made the success of the mission possible. Two of Numar’s leaders had

been killed at the meeting. Sure it wasn’t as good as getting them for interrogation

first, but security was built on the death of one enemy at a time. Whether it was

done by lethal injection or bullet, the result was the same.

      Johnson’s smile was wiped clean at the sight before him when he entered

the room. Roman’s windows were blank and black. After a thorough search of the

room, Johnson picked up the remote from Roman’s bed and turned on the TV. The

image of the grieving girl was still frozen on the screen, an image Johnson had

seen on the news as well

      Johnson checked first in Ninja’s room. He went over the security tapes

from the night before. Roman never came out of his room. He checked Roman’s

room log. The last time the door was opened was when the mailroom opened it a

day earlier. Johnson resisted the surge of panic that gripped the back of his neck.

Roman physically making an escape from the barn was impossible on his own.

The only way out was through the elevator and Roman’s eye would not open the

doors because his iris print was not programmed in. Even if he did get the elevator

open it wouldn’t go anywhere. The elevator was magnetically powered, so there

were no cables to climb. None of the sensors in the ventilation shafts had been

tripped and besides, the fan blades at the ends of the shafts were too close together

for even Roman’s skinny butt to fit through. Johnson reviewed the tapes again.

      Roman had vanished into thin air.

      After a two-hour search of every square inch of Bravo including the

parking garage, everyone at the barn gathered in one of the offices. Johnson paced

back and forth. “Somebody say something. The man can’t just disappear. He’s

not on tape. The security system checks out. Think, people. Think!”

       The twenty or so people that filled the small room looked at each other with

blank stares. Ninja spoke. “This is one of the most secure locations in the world.

The security system says he’s still here but we know he’s not. One of us has got to

be wrong.”

      Johnson shook his head.

      “Well it’s not us,” Agent Shultz popped in from the back of the room.

      “This place isn’t like trying to find someone in the MGM Grand. It’s relatively

small. We’ve searched everywhere. The cameras even show he’s not here.

Maybe the cameras missed something.”

      “Impossible,” Johnson replied.

      “Impossible that they missed something, but what if we’re looking for the

wrong person?” Ninja commented.

     “Camouflage?” Johnson asked.

     “Yes but not in the normal sense. He obviously didn’t steal our clothes.

That wouldn’t have helped him get past the iris scan anyway,” Ninja said.

       “I think we’re on the right track though,” Shultz stated.

       Johnson’s pacing came to a halt. “Are we missing somebody in here?”

       Ninja looked around the room and then at Johnson. Their eyes met and

confirmed what they had each figured out.

       “We’re missing Pinkston. George Pinkston,” Ninja said.

        “It’s his day off,” another agent commented.

        Agent Johnson closed his eyes and let out a slow sigh of frustration. His

words came even slower. “Unbelievable. The kid really is a genius.”

VI

        George Pinkston wasn’t an agent like his other colleagues. He had retired

thirteen years before from the post office. When the NN saw his impeccable

record as a post master and his spotless record as a citizen, they tracked him down

and offered him a job working a couple hours a day in Bravo’s mail room. Sure

there were things George had to learn, like scanning for bombs and biological

weapons, but the job was easy as a pie he told his family. The only incoming mail

they ever received was from other NN bases. It was the only outfit in the world

that never received junk mail. It was hard to solicit a place that never even

existed. Bravo had no mailing address, so George’s main job was to drive

everyday to the post office, check the unmarked PO Box the NN used, and mail the

few items that were being sent out. George knew better than to ask any questions

and went about his work like a hobby enthusiast goes about collecting. It was just

something to get him out of his apartment and out in the real world, something to

knock the stink off him he often said. The agents liked him. He was the one guy

they could talk to about things other than their work. He was their one link to the

real world.

        So when they called him in on his day off, George was a little uneasy,

fearing the worst. Had he sent mail to the wrong place? Had he forgotten or

missed something at the post office? Heavens, he hoped not. How bad would it

look for a former postmaster to misplace a parcel of mail?

       Every agent on duty in Bravo was in the room when he arrived. And

although he never knew exactly what those agents did all day, he felt that all of

them being gathered together in the same room with him in the middle was not a

good thing. He was instantly transported back in time to his school days. To the

only time he’d had to visit the principal’s office—for kissing Penelope in the

coatroom—four days into his first grade year. A few swats on the fanny sounded

pretty good right about now.

       Johnson was the only agent standing. He looked at George with his arms

crossed, much like the principal had on that long-ago fall day. George looked

around the room at the people he considered friends. None of them were smiling

though. He could feel the ends of his fingers twitching.

       “Just relax George. We only want to talk to you for a minute or two,”

Johnson said unfolding his arms.

        “Am I in trouble? I’m truly sorry if I lost somebody’s mail. I’ve never

done anything that stupid in my entire life,” George said, trying to make eye

contact with everyone in the room.

        “You’re not in trouble, George, and you haven’t misplaced anything.

You’re a very good mail guy. Too good maybe.”

        “Too good?”

        “You know who Roman is right?”

        “Yes, I talk to him several times a week. He’s a very nice young lad.”

         “Did he mail anything in the last couple of days?”

         “Why yes he did. The only reason I remember is that the box he wanted

mailed was so heavy. I had to use a courier service because the box was too big

for U.S. mail.”

        “What was in the box?”

         “Several other smaller boxes. He told me the night before he wanted to

send all of his baseball cards home and that if he was down at Ninja’s he would

leave the address on his desk.”

        “And?”

       “When I got there the next morning Roman was gone but the box was

there, already packed. I picked up a couple of the littler boxes inside the big box

and they were heavy, filled with baseball cards just as the lad had said. He left the

address on his desk too. I had to tape the big box shut at the top. No big deal, I

just figured he didn’t have any tape. Like I said before, I had to get the dolly

because of the weight of the box. Did I do something wrong?”

       “No George, not on purpose. You were just doing what we told you to do.  The only problem is that when you sent that box off, you also sent Roman.”

       If George had been in a cartoon a giant light bulb would have appeared

over his head. Instead he scratched the whiskers on the end of his chin. “I never

thought to look for somebody trying to mail themselves. Never thought to look

under the small boxes either. Hell I even scanned it, but only for the usual bomb

residue or biological hazard. Our equipment isn’t designed to look for humans.

Sorry.”

       Johnson ignored the apology, focusing his attention on the other agents.

“We’ve got to find him.”

       Agent Shultz spoke, ”Where do you think he mailed himself to?”

       “I’ve got my log right here,” George began. “Let’s see here...”

        “It’s irrelevant where he mailed himself,” Johnson interrupted. “He

would’ve gotten out of the box the first chance he had.”

       “The weight of the box was just as heavy when I took it to the courier

service,” George added.

       “You think he might have tried to go back home?” Ninja asked.

        “His home life was shit. But he might try to contact his foster mother.”

         Johnson looked at the ceiling as if the answer might be written on it. “If I were

Roman where would I go? Where would I go?”

       “What about the money?” Shultz asked.

        Without responding Johnson flipped open his cell and began pressing

numbers. The phone picked up, but there was no voice on the other end. “This is

Agent Johnson. Access code five nine eight six three eight nine five tango three.”

       “How can I help you, Agent Johnson?” the female voice replied.

        “I need a freeze put on a back account.”

        “City, state, and bank name?”

        “Chicago, Illinois. First Bank of Chicago.”

         Johnson heard the keystrokes through his phone.

         “Account holder’s name?”

         “Last name Swivel, S, W, I, V, E, L. First name Roman.”

         “One moment please,” the voice said, accompanied by a flurry of more

keystrokes.

        “I’m sorry Agent Johnson. That account was closed earlier today by

cashier’s check.”

        “You can’t freeze the transfer when the check is cashed?”

        “I’m sorry. The bank’s computer system shows the account balance as

zero. There’s nothing I can do.”

       “Shit,” Johnson said still thinking. “Can you tell me who the check was

written to?”

       “One moment.” More key strokes. “The check was written to a Gale

Pentoch in the amount of one million six hundred thousand fifty dollars and forty

cents. Can I help with anything else?”

      “No. Thanks.” Johnson shut the phone.

VII

      Gale Pentoch exited the shower, grabbing her olive-green robe off the hook

next to the mirror. She wrapped her long brown hair in a matching towel; drops of

water fell on the floor as she performed the task. Gale grabbed her make-up bag

out of the cabinet above the sink and felt the cold air rush in as she opened the

bathroom door. Ed lay passed out on the couch, already through his first bottle at

ten o’clock on a Saturday morning.

       When they’d first been married, Gale did her makeup and hair in the

bathroom. Now she preferred the bedroom. The mirror was bigger and there was

more room to maneuver. She took her robe off and looked into it. Her body was

still the same shape it had been when she went to Prom. The beatings had started

probably two years into their marriage. Was it the beatings or was it the drinking?

There had been so many occasions of both through the years, it was hard to

remember which was first. Never, as a little girl using her mother’s lipstick and

fooling with her blush, did she think she would have to use the makeup for more

than beauty purposes. Now it was for camouflage. She had mastered the art. Not

in several years had she heard anyone ask what the bruises were on her face. The

tears that used to fall at first had long since dried. The purple and green marks on

her cheeks, arms, and stomach failed to bring any emotion as they were reflected

back at her now. The bruises on her stomach used to bother her the most, but now

they were just part of the landscape on the path of life. The large mirror was

attached to the top of her wide dresser. The two-piece set her grandmother had

given her when she was married did a great job of exposing every injury, and

likewise aided her in covering them. She’d always had an exquisite sense of

fashion. Spending a few extra minutes getting ready seemed like a fair trade for

being able to wear the clothes she liked.

        The ritual was completed in the time it took most women just to do their

hair. Gale gave herself one final look over, twirling around a bit while keeping her

head toward the mirror. The movement of the air lifted the bottom of her dress.

For a brief moment she was Marilyn Monroe.

        Gale walked back through the living room. Ed’s snoring was louder now,

and his stench clashed against her sweet perfume. She picked up the empty bottle

as she entered the kitchen. Gale fetched the orange juice out of the fridge, resisting

the urge to grab the Vodka as well. She shut the door and noticed a check taped to

it. She put the orange juice on the counter beside the refrigerator and pulled the

check off. Her knees weakened as she counted the number of digits in the check

for a second time. She glanced back at the living room, then sensed someone

behind her. Roman sat at the kitchen table with one finger over his lips. She

walked over and hugged him.

      “Don’t worry, he can’t hear over his drunken snores. I missed you,” she

said.

       “You understand my reasons for not visiting, I hope,” Roman said.

Gale said nothing.

        “I’ll get right to the point,” Roman began. “I had the bank issue the check

in your name because of circumstances beyond my control. I was hoping that we

could split it.”

        “I don’t know what to say, Roman.”

        “You don’t have to say anything.” Roman took two slim cardboard pieces

out of his flannel pocket. “These tickets are to Florida. Panama City. I know your

sister doesn’t live far from there. You’ll have a fresh start and enough money to

last the rest of your life if used wisely. The train leaves in an hour.”

       “What about you? What about working for the government?”

        “The government and I had a difference of opinion on some things. I’m

taking an early retirement. I’ll explain on the way. After we get down there, we’ll

wire the money to a secure account out of government control. After that I don’t

know.”

        Gale looked down at the check again and then back at the living room.

After all she’d been through, Ed still had some kind of unexplainable control over

her.

       “You have to leave him Gale,” Roman said.

       “I know,” she said and regrouped her thoughts. “I’ve got to get some

things out of the bedroom.”

        “There’s no time. If you want to go, we go now.”

Before Gale could respond Ed came around the corner. He shuffled his feet

along the kitchen tile as if he was to weak to lift one in front of the other. He went

to the liquor cabinet and poured another glass. He looked Gale over from head to

toe, his demon whiskey eyes in the place of those he was born with.

       “You goin’ out whorin’? In here preparing your sales pitch or what? You

better practice bitch, no man would waste a dime for your whore ass,” Ed said and

then gulped down the glass in one swallow. He wiped his lips and finally noticed

Roman sitting at the kitchen table.

      “Well if it isn’t the prodgical son.”

      “It’s prodigal.”

      “Oh, mister genius ran off and comes back with a little lip on him, huh?”

Ed said and then turned to Gale.

      “What, you wantin’ to fuck mister genius now?” Ed placed the glass on the

counter and grabbed Gale by the wrist. “I’m puttin’ a stop to your whorin’.”

       “Let her go Ed,” Roman said.

       “You missed your ass beatings didn’t ya boy?” Ed let go of Gale’s wrist

and shuffled towards Roman, grinning out of one side of his mouth.

Roman stood.

      Ed’s swing came slower than Roman remembered. He stepped toward the

drunk and ducked at the same time. From his knees Roman took Ed’s arm and

bent it the wrong way with all his strength. The arm snapped like a dead limb on a

tree. Blood spewed across the room hitting the wall in a narrow stream, like shots

from a squirt gun. Ed fell to his knees, arm limp and hanging the opposite way it

was designed. As pale as he was, Ed still lost color in his face. He reached over

with his other arm and felt the jagged edge of the exposed bone.

      Gale dropped the check on the floor and covered her mouth. Ed started to

shake violently, turning in circles on his back.

      “We’ve got to go.” Roman walked over and picked up the check, placing it

in his front pocket and putting his arm around Gale’s waist. He walked her past

the broken drunk. Ed looked as if he were in the throes of withdrawal.

      “I’ve got to help him,” she said.

      “We don’t have time. Johnson has surveillance across the street. We have

to exit out the back door, run across the alley, and walk through that apartment

building on the other side. I’ve got a cab waiting on the street in front of it.”

Roman pulled her to the door, but as he opened it, Gale slipped out of his grasp and

ran to the phone.

      Before he could yell for her to stop, she pressed 9-1-1. Roman ran over and

hung up the receiver. Ed’s convulsions continued, his entire shirt now soaked with

blood. Roman gripped her chin and directed her eyes toward his.

      “He’s in shock that’s all. They’ll send someone out when they trace the

call, even if you didn’t say anything. He’ll be all right. Johnson will be in this

place in a matter of seconds. I’m going with or without you.”

    Roman let go of her face then and ran for the door. Gale looked down at

Ed and then followed.

VIII

        Johnson sat in the car across the street from the Pentoch’s. Through his

earpiece he heard the dispatch for the 9-1-1 call. Seconds later he was in the

house, scanning the living room and then making his way to the kitchen. Johnson

was unmoved by the sight on the floor. He sidestepped Ed and looked out the back

door. The apartment door across the alley closed. Johnson ran back to his car.

   IX

       The taxi drove up to the front entrance of the Amtrak station. Roman led

Gale into the station. She was in a kind of shock of her own, silent since they left

the house. Roman looked down at his watch—five minutes until departure time.

The speakers in the station announced last call as they boarded the train. Roman

led her to their seats. They sat, Gale by the window, Roman on the aisle.

     “He’ll be all right. They automatically send somebody when you call. I

understand that no matter how much you hate him, you also love him. I promise

you this is for the best.”

      Gale was silent.

      Roman patted his pocket, reassuring himself he still had the check. He

looked around at the passengers, scanning for anything out of the ordinary. Roman

looked across Gale out the window at the ticket window. Turning toward the train

was Agent Johnson, with ticket in hand. The agent walked passed the window and

boarded several cars back.

       The conductor came over the intercom and went over the usual rules and

regulations. The train began to roll. Roman took the check out of his pocket and

stared at it. He looked over at Gale who was still in another world, and grabbed

her hand. The gesture seemed to snap her back to reality.

       “What’s wrong?” she asked.

       “Johnson’s on the train. He’s a few cars back. It won’t take him long to

find me.” Roman laid the check flat in her palm. “I want you to go to the

bathroom and don’t come out for at least twenty minutes. He doesn’t care about

the money anyway.”

      “Can’t you reason with him?”

      “I wish it were that simple.”

      Gale looked down at the check. “I can’t take this money Roman.”

      “You are going to have to. The check is in your name. Think of it as a

reward for the hell you’ve been through. I’ll find you some day.”

Gale hugged him with a firm grip. “I’m sorry Roman. For everything I

mean.”

        “I know.” Roman got up and walked toward the front of the train.

X

       By the time Johnson had checked all of the cars, the mono was at half

speed. His search turned up empty, not surprising considering who he was dealing

with. He found Gale in her seat on a second sweep of the train but didn’t even

bother to ask where Roman was. The bathrooms were empty. He checked every

seat. There was no outgoing mail to hide in this time. If he’s not in the train then

he’s outside it. Johnson looked at the ceiling.

       Johnson climbed the ladder outside the front passenger car and peeked his

head over, mindful of an ambush. He looked down the long silver tops of the cars.

Roman stood on the very last one, his flannel blowing in the wind like a cape.

Roman watched as Johnson pulled himself up. The agent walked at a good

clip with perfect balance. The train increased speed and the cars passed under his

feet faster. Johnson walked across the rooftops as if he were on a treadmill,

jumping from one car to another. His pace only quickened as he pulled out his cell

phone and began to talk. In the distance another train sped in their direction on the

adjacent track.

       Johnson made his last jump to Roman’s car. The agent’s feet landed solid,

mimicking the dismount of a gymnast. Roman stood at the other end of the car.

The wind from the train blew in his face.

      “I’m not concerned with anything before this moment,” Johnson shouted

over the rushing air. “What matters is what happens now.”

      “I’m done,” Roman yelled back.

      “That’s not an option and you know it.” Johnson walked closer.

       “You’re going to have to kill me.”

       “I can’t do that either. You’re too valuable. We’re on the same team you

and I.”

      The train’s brakes caught, no doubt a direct result of the agent’s phone

call. Johnson and Roman both held out their arms, balancing with baby steps,

trapeze artists on a high wire.

     “Every field agent from Bravo will be waiting for you when this train

stops. Your best odds are going back in and waiting. We’ll get your money

returned and go back to Bravo like none of this ever happened. The work you do

is invaluable to the safety of this country. You must see that.”

      Johnson walked closer, closing the gap to a couple of feet. The train on the

opposite track sped faster, now just a hundred yards away.

     “What I saw was a girl wondering why her father had to die because of

something I did.”

       The slowing Amtrak and the faster cargo train passed each other, going in

opposite directions. The air rushed harder between the locomotives. Roman

balanced himself again.

      “The price of freedom is high,” Johnson screamed at two feet away.

      “You’re right, it is.”

       And with that Roman jumped. Johnson lunged forward trying to grab him.

Roman’s flannel ripped as the agent’s hand wrapped around it. Roman landed

hard on the middle of the last boxcar of the cargo train. His hands searched for

something to grab onto. Instead, he slid on his belly toward the end of the car, his

nails digging into the slick roof. A second later he was off, in mid-air.

        His right hand hit the top of the first rung of the ladder on the back of the

car. Roman held tight, the momentum almost pulling his shoulder out of socket.  His body slammed against the car; legs dangling in the air. With all his effort he

swung his legs over to the ladder.

      Johnson watched the distance between trains widening as his train was

slowing just before a complete stop. He shook his head in disbelief and flipped his

phone open once again.

XI

      Johnson and friends arrived at Roman’s stopped train thirty minutes later,

scouring the surrounding area. A small patch of blood and another piece of torn

flannel snagged on the last car was the only evidence Roman had been there.

Johnson rubbed the flannel between his fingertips. Footprints pressed in the mud

next to the track and then disappeared into the nearby tree line. Johnson looked

out over the horizon. The world looked big against it.

XII

        In a twenty-four hour period I’d seen Roman change before my eyes—from

a genius geek janitor to a fearless gladiator—and now as his story ended, I saw him

as a man that had lived a lifetime already. My usual ranting and bitching seemed

ridiculous up against Roman’s struggles. I had the sudden urge to go home and

hug my parents and tell them how much I loved them. I thought about how many

times I left the house without saying a word to either of them.

       Heather was wiping her tears as we sat in the silence. The water works had

erupted several times throughout the story. Her eyes were like raccoon eyes,

smudged and black. Roman was a monotone speaker throughout his tale, his voice

unwavering even during the parts of his parents’ deaths and his beatings from Ed.

With each passing word Heather drifted further into the story, living the

experiences right along with Roman. He continued to look out the window well

after the talking stopped, a window now lit by the dawning of the sun. Heather

walked up behind Roman and wrapped her arms around his waist.

     She laid her head on the back of his shoulder and kissed his cheek. “I’m so

sorry,”

     “I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of me,” Roman said, then

stopped. “I’ve wanted to tell somebody for so long, but there just wasn’t anybody

that wanted to listen.”

     “What about Agent Johnson?” Heather asked.

     “I ran across him in Iowa. I went to visit my parents’ graves on the

anniversary of their death. I figured Johnson would never look there on that date,

thinking I was too smart to show up on such an obvious day. I was wrong. I

barely escaped. That’s how I got this arm injury.”

     “So you beat his ass?” I asked.

      “No, it was more like cat and mouse,” Roman answered.

      “Does he know where you are now?” Heather asked.

      “No, his trail has run cold. He’s just sitting and waiting for me to pop up

somewhere, to re-enter my old life. He has nowhere to look as far as records go.

They turned me into a ghost and it’s going to take me coming back to life for them

to pick up my scent again.”

       “Like what?” I asked.

       “Like going to genius conventions in Chicago with Mr. Buttworst,”

Heather interjected.

       “Exactly,” Roman affirmed.

       “How come he can’t have that chick on the other end of his cell phone use

that super computer of hers and find your name in the school records?” I asked.

     “She can’t just type in my name and search a country-wide data base with

every high school student in it. There is no such database. They would have to

search each individual school separately. That would take more time and effort

than they’re willing to give. They’ve got bigger issues to deal with anyway.”

     “How’d you enter Collingston High School with no social security

number?” Heather asked.

      “You’d be surprised what a few letters to the local court house, the social

security office, and the state government can accomplish,” Roman said.

Roman turned from the window, as if a hypnotist snapped his fingers and

brought him out of his trance. He looked at the clock and then at me on the couch.

     “School starts in an hour. Are you going to be able to make it?”

School. It sounded ridiculous too. “Fuck, I guess,” I said. “I gotta bust ass

home and get half-way cleaned up.”

      “Me too,” Heather said.

       I tried to get up from the couch, but my ribs felt like splintered glass.

       Roman held out his right hand and pulled me up.

      The three of us made our separate ways to the same crimson-brick prison:

the catcher who looked more like a horse jockey than a professional ball player, the

doctor trapped in the body of a super-model, and the warrior-genius who did the

work of a janitor.

 

 

           


 

 

 

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