Do You Solemnly Swear?


Carl and Lilian Steichen Sandburg
Carl and Lilian Steichen Sandburg

Carl Sandburg

“Do you solemnly swear before the everliving God
that the testimony you
are about to give in this cause shall
be the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth?”

“No, I don’t. I can tell you what I saw
and what I heard and I’ll swear to
that by the everliving God but the
more I study about it the more sure
I am that nobody but the everliving
God knows the whole truth and if
you summoned Christ as a witness
in this case what He would tell you
would burn your insides with the
pity and the mystery of it.”

In the poem of collections, “The People, Yes”. 1936, Harcourt & Brace; 1990 First Harvest Edition.

“Running Girl” Ch. 2: “Captured”


Previous chapter excerpts:

Ch. 2: “Captured”

 

The British Airways jet with Das aboard hurried up and away from the simmering city, as eager as its passengers to find its natural frigid, silent and pure habitat five miles above. In minutes, it reached its cruising altitude and leveled out, the endless brown wrinkles of the Earth’s dry crust creeping past far below. The pilot radioed position and altitude and let the autopilot steer the nose unerringly toward London.

The crew relaxed and called for coffee. The co-pilot winked at the dark-skinned flight attendant who brought it, making sure the captain was looking away. She smiled and leaned to the left to give the captain his coffee. As she did, she felt a hand slip up her skirt and almost giggled. Then flashed a mock-angry glare at the copilot. Wait until we land for that, the look said.

The captain pretended not to notice, and thought of his son in London, wondering if he had gotten to school yet, and then whether the co-pilot and attendant’s affair would become obvious enough that he would have to take some action. That reminded him of his own dalliance 20 years before with another black-eyed beauty, dead these many years in a car accident. The memory of her still hurt after all these years. He hoped these two beside him had a happier future.

As the plane cruised toward the North Pole and Heathrow, a man slept fitfully in a darkened bedroom a few miles north of Vancouver, Washington. He snored, one foot twitching under silk sheets.

Henry Bourchier’s house was silent save for the ticking of a hallway tall clock. A full moon glowed in a black sky upon which shards of stars glittered and danced. The house squatted in a woodsy development of fat, cheaply-built boxes financed with creative mortgages.

The homes were a splatter of faux-French country styles, pseudo-Victorians, and utterly bland modernistic pretensions with concrete and glass walls trimmed in wood-grained vinyl siding. Each was a discrete distance from its neighbor—set at angles and with strategic hedges and plantings to maximize privacy— so that each was just barely visible through trees. The housing market was still dead there, and most of the houses were worth a fraction of the debt the fools within carried. Appearances were important, though, and it was still possible to pretend they were well-off, even those who had lost their jobs two years before and were merely squatting until the eviction notices were enforced. Everyone knew who they were.

More than one resident lay staring in the dark, fear slithering into their ears like worms from the shadows.

Struggling dwarf ornamentals from a bankrupt garden center, more aliens in this wilderness land, clung guiltily to the margins of the lawn. Douglas firs, so tall they seemed to touch at the tips, marched hundreds of miles into the unforgiving mountain crags beyond, looming over the suburban intruders below with deep-green, powerless resentment.  The trees swayed in the nighttime breeze. Air muttered around the black trunks and rough bark. A few yards into the forest, where needles lay in thick carpets, noises of the civilized world gave up and disappeared.

A paved driveway led from a country road to Bourchier’s faux-villa. His was safe from the predations of bankers, though, because he was one of the predators. His home was also better-built than the others, and both factors gave him great satisfaction. His bank held the mortgages on a few of his neighbors’ houses, but he did not concern himself with their worries. He had lawyers and a corporation and other, worse men behind him; they did not.

He was also a thief in the traditional sense, although these days the two occupations were almost the same thing. Money and debt were the least of his worries, or so he thought. His dreams were free of the living nightmare that would momentarily rip his brief, shallow, amoral life apart.
Two cars sat on virgin concrete in front of the three-car garage: a midnight blue BMW and a small SUV.

Bourchier drove the BMW  between the house and the suburban Vancouver bank where he was vice president—and secret money launderer for Seattle drug bosses and other, even more shadowy connections.

But he did like nice things. Oh yes, he surely did.

His silk pajamas boasted a label from an exclusive Seattle boutique that catered to those who equated price with quality because they didn’t know any better and had too much money to care. The bed sheets and cover were of similar impressiveness, as was nearly everything in the house. Some of it was even good. He hoped his expensive tastes were just inconspicuous enough to avoid tripping any wires at the IRS.

He was careful.

Unfortunately, he made mistakes. Little ones. But wires had been tripped. He wasn’t as careful — or nearly as smart — as he believed he was.

His mistakes were exposed by a former employee he’d slept with. Unfortunately for him, and still seething with anger after he dumped her, she started sleeping with a small-time drug dealer and appliance repairman. The two were busted during a nooner in a motel room one weekday afternoon.

She’d offered information about Henry in exchange for leniency. The local DA, who was hoping to get noticed at higher levels, let her off with a suspended sentence and a blow job,  but bounced the information up to the US Attorney. They’d both gone to Stanford Law, and he hoped his old classmate would overlook certain personal failings in the drinking and carousing departments, and rescue him from this backwater job.

Details of Henry Bourchier’s life had been filling electronic files in Seattle, Portland and Washington for six months, like little flakes of snow drifting against a door until millions of them push the door down.

Initial interest led to secret spot audits, which yielded enough to get a referral for further investigation — all done as silently as an owl swooping down on an unsuspecting rabbit.
He slept, serene, although his slumber had also been given some chemical assistance.

A Treasury agent, on loan to the FBI interagency task force, roamed the home after putting a little something harmless in his drink. Henry believed she had come to his home from the bar, and after going to a shooting range, for a little frolic between the high-priced sheets. He also thought coming here had been his idea. She had made sure that no one else knew she was there.

Eleanor—that was the name she gave Henry— spent two hours examining the house inch by inch, and found piles of cash, many, many piles, hidden in nylon duffels in several cleverly concealed compartments around the house.

This was expected, and blueprints obtained from the architect were of great help. The SUV was hers, and it carried what she needed. She lugged identical nylon duffles from in from it, each holding many, many new bundles of cash impregnated with electronic “fairy dust” that turned each bill into a radio transmitter. She exchanged the treated currency for the old bundles, which she wrapped in plastic using disposable gloves, and packed them in the zippered bags. It took several trips to complete the exchange, but finally the SUV had nearly $300,000 stowed under the rear compartment’s floor where the spare tire usually rode.

The rear floor of the SUV held another bag that held Eleanor’s other tools: a shotgun, a new Glock 20 10mm auto with a 15-shot magazine and laser sight; a  Glock 17 with ammo. An older, compact Sig Sauer 1911 pistol in it’s holster rested on top. The latter was not government-issue, and was untraceable. She usually wore it tucked at the small of her back, and while it was a bit heavy fully loaded (almost two pounds), and only held seven rounds, it was both a last resort and a throwaway if thinks got seriously fucked.

She left the weapons in the SUV, took the Sig and a travel bag from the back seat and went inside to do a final cleanup tour and change. Henry would wake up refreshed, if somewhat confused and with no memory of the time just before he took the drugged drink. She planned to leave no clues that she had been there. The stuff she’d slipped into Henry’s drink wouldn’t wear off for a while longer, she decided, glancing at a wristwatch and feeling pleased with her work.

A grandfather’s clock — an 1800s Philadelphia model restored at great expense — struck 2 a.m. from its post in the front room. She didn’t know when she’d have the chance again to get clean — and the work she’d just done had been hot and she was starting to notice her own odor— so she took a quick shower in a spare bath.

She checked Henry to see if he was stirring and, hearing only low snores, decided she could pause for a few moments. She donned panties and bra and a silk robe from her travel bag. The silk was warm for it’s weight, and it packed in very small package. Her dark hair, still damp from the shower, tumbled over the collar.

She put the Sig on the counter and looked through Henry’s extensive liquor collection. She mixed a Godmother, a favorite—an expensive Italian amaretto and a couple of fingers of A-list vodka in a tumbler, added ice, and swished it around in the glass until it was cold. The sweet aroma of apricots and almonds touched her nose as she sipped, and she savored the burn of vodka as it slipped down the back of her throat. She padded silently to the family room across a wide tile area that led to a sliding glass patio door and stood looking out. Another sip.

The floor-length white robe swayed from the curve of breast and hip like something from a 1930s Hollywood film. Tall and full-figured but trim, she glided with a natural, sensuous grace that could turn heads even in Monaco’s casinos. In fact, on one assignment, she’d done just that. No one expected someone that looked like she did to be as deadly as she was, which came in handy more than once.

The kitchen waited in gloom. Vague shapes of appliances and counters and hanging pot racks—all seldom used—were just visible. Before her, the double French patio doors framed a deck with a gas grill, outdoor chairs and a table still shrouded in their winter plastic covers. The moon lit a few yards of grass, bleaching it of all color. Shadows of the fir forest fell across the lawn halfway to the deck, as the moon was fairly high in the sky. The edge of the woods was as black as a mine shaft. She stood close to the door, sipping her drink and soaking in the scene. The moonlight draped her form in the same pale aura as the lawn. Her pose in the window conjured a marble statue of some long-forgotten Greek goddess.

The tall clock ticked softly in the background. She held the glass below her lips in one hand, with the other arm folded across her waist. She swirled the liquid in the glass with small movements, taking a sip every so often. It was the first quiet she’d had in weeks, and the liquor and the moonlight lulled her into dreaminess.

The drink was almost gone by the time the clock behind her bonged three times, the sudden sound filling the room. The SUV was packed, her gear was stowed, and the vehicle was fully fueled. It was time to get dressed. Henry would be waking soon wondering what had happened. By that time, she would be miles away.

****
As the last echoes of the chimes died away, a whisper like a feather touched her ear, but so faint she was not sure she heard it.

She took a final sip of the drink, tipping the glass up to get the last of the sweet, golden liquid. She sucked a piece of ice into her mouth and crunched it between her back teeth, enjoying the shock of cold and the noise, just like when she was a little girl.

A shadow flitted through the air beside her. Before she could react, an arm clamped around her throat like a steel hawser, cut off her air and pulled her back, off-balance. A vice crushed her wrist and pulled her hand and arm painfully up between her shoulder blades. In the same moment, the unseen hand and arm turned her body over and her bare feet were kicked out from under her.
The floor rushed up at her in slow motion. She heard a wet crunch and felt a sickening hot jolt as her forehead bounced on the cold tile. Pain exploded behind her eyes and shock surged through her body. A knee jammed in the small of her back, knocking the air from her lungs. She felt her cheek pressed into the cold floor and smelled blood and male sweat just before a wave of nausea rippled through her and a reddish-black mist filled her vision.

“Bring ‘er,” a voice snapped from somewhere in the fog.

Eleanor gasped for air as the weight lifted from her back. In almost the same second, a hand clenched into her hair and pulled her to her feet, the other arm still pinned painfully at her back.

The room whirled. She vomited as spikes penetrated into her brain.

The hands controlling her shook her like a rag doll. She was dimly aware that her unseen master moved out of the way of the puke and then yanked her down the darkened hall through a doorway into Henry’s bedroom. Her legs rubbery, she felt like she was out of her body and flying along like a leaf in the wind….

Running Girl Ch. 1 Excerpt: “Mohana Das”


This is another bit from the book, “Running Girl,” introducing the assassin Mohana Das. She plays a recurring role.

  1. “Mohana Das”

  2. “Captured”
  3. “Dream Girl”
  4. “Attack in the Family Room”
  5. “Fingers”
  6. A Little About Rose
  7. The Next Morning
  8. “What will be, Shall Be”
  9. “To the Death”_______________________________

Mohana Das

The brutal sun churned Karachi’s open sewers, diesel fumes, rotting trash, bubbling asphalt and smoke from a million charcoal cooking fires into a exotic, noxious stew that spread 50 miles downwind, into the great Sind Desert. The monsoon season was brewing in the warming waters of the Arabian Sea. It was only mid-morning, but thermometers shimmered. They could hit 115F by early afternoon.

The city would bake like a rock on a grill, day after day, until the monsoons brought drenching rain that could drown a child, bring insane winds and monstrous, otherworldly clouds. For a while, this was better than the heat. It filled reservoirs, flooded rice and wheat fields, refilled the aquifers, ran in sheets from the mountains to flush new life into rivers, flushing the filth of the city out to sea. They also brought misery and death with drownings and malaria and cholera when slum sewage was flushed into hovels of the destitute, of whom there were millions.

In April, though, from early morning through the muezzin’s call to evening prayer, nothing moved outside by choice unless driven by greed or hunger or bad intent. Only the insane or the criminal or the desperate slipped from shadow to shadow when Sol hurled death onto the unprotected below. But when the he wearied of the game and moved away over the edge of the ocean in the west and onshore breezes carried cooler, saltier air over the city, the city’s millions emerged to celebrate. Cafes filled with the sounds of jangled chatter and shouts of greeting, of  street vendors singing of fresh vegetables for sale, playing children and all the complicated noise of  life in all of its joy and brutality.

A man and a woman made love in a darkened bedroom. A window air conditioning unit rattled softly. The woman straddled him, hands on either side of his head and pumped her hips faster and faster with him inside. Her café au lait skin glowed with a light sweat from the exertion, small breasts swaying, nipples hard. The man, flushed and breathing loudly, grabbed a breast and squeezed it roughly. She didn’t seem to notice except for eyes that flashed briefly in anger at the sudden pain, a look he did not see.

She finished with short whimpers, sighs and finally a long, shuddering moan. After a pause with closed eyes and mouth slightly opened and smiling, she lowered herself  and lay still. He pushed himself into her hard a few more times and she tensed again to receive him, ignoring his grunting, looking bored. After a moment, she rolled off. He turned away with no more notice of her and was almost instantly asleep.

Mohana Das’ black eyes flicked with contempt and frank appraisal, even as a small smile played across her lips. She sat up and straightened the silk scarf that was wrapped tightly around her short-cropped hair. Then, utterly still, she watched him until she was sure he was asleep. Slipping slender legs over the side of the bed, she moved into the shower to bathe his smell away and flush all traces of him down the drain.

Upon return, still naked and damp, she pulled a long, thin blade of black carbon steel in its leather sheath from hiding under the bed. A rush of heat flashed down her abdomen and up to her breasts, as it always did at moments like this. She closed her eyes and relished the tremor of a second orgasm, feeling her legs go weak for a moment.

The blade, honed so finely that the edge reflected no light, resembled a long, deadly letter opener. Tiny parallel lines were etched down the middle, forming a channel for lubricating fluids. The raised metal sides were polished to a mirror finish. But the true genius of it was the purity of the edges and the hypodermic tip. A custom-made Rosewood grip, inlayed with a cat’s head made of ivory, nestled perfectly in the palm of her hand.

It was the creature of a Japanese master. His handiwork was known only to a small and exclusive clientele willing to pay the price of a modest house for such a weapon. It was said he worked on only one blade at a time, and sometimes took weeks to complete it. He didn’t take orders, so much as listen to a visitor and decide whether he felt the person was worthy of perfection. Das had sat with him daily for two weeks, sharing tea and silences, the first time. She waited on his judgement, willing herself to utter calm and acceptance. Then one day, he handed the blade he’d been working on to her, along with a custom scabbard.

A year later, she returned, with the same result. And again a third year.

The master’s wizened old wife waited in the outer room of the house, bowing as Das left. She took the cash Das offered with many mutual bows and smiles, tucking it quickly away in the folds of her kimono.

One blade was hidden in London. The third was her gift to someone who had trained her, loved her and, finally, betrayed her.

Das gently pulled the sheet down from her bedmate’s neck, looking with detachment at the structure of his spinal bones. He stirred in his sleep and his hand reached blindly for her bare thigh. She moved his hand away with a shushing sound, and murmured ‘No. Later.” She waited motionless a few minutes until his breathing slowed.

She finally moved one finger until it barely rested on his skin. The other hand positioned the point of the blade in the slight hollow between the bones, palm on the rounded silver inlay of the handle. She pushed it in, the movement of the blade barely perceptible as it slipped though his skin and ligaments as though moving through damp gauze, and cut the spinal chord between the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae. He woke, but too late. A quick flick of her wrist killed all motor control below that point and stopped his diaphragm. His brain would die quickly, starved of oxygen. He was paralyzed and powerless, but aware he was dying, only able to stare at the wall. He could hear her behind him, but was paralyzed and bewildered. His eyes darted wildly and his mouth made soundless screams.

She examined her work. There was very little blood, just seepage from the sliver of a wound. With any luck, he would not be found for days. The more time zones between her and this spot the better. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but professional caution was the rule. Disappearance without leaving a trace was one of her specialties.

But she could take a moment. She slid to the floor and moved languidly around the bed where he could see her. She stood and watched without expression as his eyes flickered around in fear, slowly clouded and became still as his worthless spirit floated away.

She washed and dried the blade and slipped it into its sheath.

She glanced around and with quick, practiced movements, wiped down every surface she had touched with a hand towel. She switched off the air conditioner and sealed the windows tight, knowing the aggressive heat of April would soon turn this room into an oven and speed the decomposition of the man’s body, obscuring what few clues she’d left. Not that the police in this slum had the tools or competence or even interest in solving this crime, of course.

The man in the bed was a smalltime crook and occasional drug dealer, smuggler and pimp who lived on the underbelly of society. In the complicated world of Karachi’s poor neighborhoods— which is to say, most of them— he also dealt stolen weapons to whomever had the cash. He didn’t care what they did with them. Unfortunately, he had cheated the wrong person, a person with connections— the details were not her concern. Word had been sent through a cutout that her services were needed.

In short, she knew the police would not investigate this man’s passing very enthusiastically. His death simply removed one more vermin from the streets, and any hint that his exit was expedited by powerful people would further discourage inquiry.

Besides, the same Hawala bosses that had hired her also paid bribes which purchased official blindness. It was a very efficient system, if corrupt. If you were the one with the cash.

Her brief passage through this man’s life, for all practical purposes, would be as if it had never really happened. It was the natural order of things since ancient times in her land. Though not from Karachi, her ancestors were here to meet Alexander, and many still showed the blue eyes and hair coloring of the Greek and Macedonian and Persian genes deposited in the wombs of women in the valley of the Indus. Babies survived, even if their fathers had their throats slit by the brothers of the women they raped. Like all invaders since, the Greeks left only the results of couplings, either voluntary or forced. But they all left eventually.

The assassin slipped on light cotton pants and pulled tight the drawstring at the waist, shrugged on a blouse and stepped into open sandals. After tying a small pouch around her waist, she slipped the sheathed blade and the rest of her effects into it, threw a black chador over her head and pulled the floor-length semicircle of fabric together in front. She fastened a dark ruband veil on her ears and over her nose, which left only her eyes exposed. She was now, to any prying male eyes, a married, conservative Muslim woman: invisible and untouchable.

Das glided into the glare of the day, breathed in the stench of the city born on superheated air, and stepped delicately through a partially open wrought-iron gate in the wall of the compound.

Across the empty street, she opened the rear door of a battered yellow and black taxi and folded herself inside. The driver had been pretending to sleep in the afternoon heat, then started the engine as soon as she left the gate. He had the old car in motion before she closed the door.

They did not speak. In seconds, the taxi pulled onto a main street, trailed by a cloud of blue smoke. Their first destination was a small, poor-looking mosque, tucked in a side street nearby. She would slip a coded message through a slot in the door, word that the mission was compete. Payment would appear in one of several numbered bank accounts in Switzerland. Then she would pack a small bag and board a flight to London, and from there on to America for her next assignment.

Belching a cloud of fumes, the car soon blended in with dozens of others just like it, with trucks and cars and scooters in the vast honking chaos of the city of 15 million. In seconds, it was lost in the crowded, churning haze.