Old Ventures 2, Ch. 27

Twenty-Seven, Bakdida, Iraq, 2015

Ian positioned his pistol awkwardly in its holster while he retrieved a combat knife from a sheath on his leg. Then he picked the pistol back up. A crash, stones either from the construction or perhaps some sculptural elements, in the next room caused one of the two guards to leave via the opposite hall. The remaining guard watched his exit, and continued facing away.

Ian crept inside the room, taking care to make his footsteps as silent as possible. He was within a few feet of the ISIL fighter when the man began to turn. Ian didn’t have time to swear, but sprang into action, leaping towards the man with his knife outstretched. He pocketed his pistol, and used his free hand to cover the fighter’s mouth as he pushed the knife into his back. He twisted it, slicing into his spine. The fighter went limp from the waist down, and fought to breathe as his diaphragm stopped responding. Ian couldn’t hold all of his weight up, but helped him collapse forward as quietly as he could. Ian removed the knife from his back, and slit the fighter’s throat. Either way he was dying, but it was a quicker death, a courtesy, one he likely didn’t deserve.

The more cautious move, at least as far as his safety was concerned, was likely to rendezvous with India and Jalal. But that could mean the man he killed getting discovered, and them blowing the explosives, killing the hostages, possibly all of them.

No, the better option for the mission was disabling the bombs as quickly as possible, and hoping that India returned before the guard did.

The bomb wasn’t terribly intelligently designed. There was a single detonator in the center, with wires to each explosive spiraling out from that center. He didn’t see any battery back-ups or the like, so he didn’t have to worry about one explosive going off after being disconnected. But that still left the wires themselves.

Ian retrieved a set of wire cutters from a pouch on his belt, as well as some forceps. He never liked this kind of work. Maybe that was because for every two men who successfully disarmed bombs, he knew someone who died in the attempt, usually when they became overconfident about their own skills, or too pressed for time.

He followed the wire again with his eyes, starting at the detonator, trailing along the wall, before being planted into a home-cooked plastic explosive at a half-dozen locations.

The largest danger was the receiver, designed to accept a signal from who knows how many sources. It was possible each of the ISIL fighters had a switch, or only one of them. It was wired with multiple redundancies, any attempt to remove it from the battery would set off multiple explosives. Which meant he was going to have to disconnect every explosive individually.

He used the forceps to separate out the right wire at the detonator, then positioned the wire cutters. He took a deep breath, then cut through. He traced the next wire from the explosive to the detonator, again found no redundancies, and snipped it, as well.

“This is too easy,” Ian said, and stopped. He stood up, and traced the wiring from the third device. It was taped about eye-level along the wall. He did the same for the remaining explosives, and aside from taped wires, they all seemed just as simple in their design as the first two. It was all sloppy, even down to a strip of tape that seemed to just be hanging off the wall, like it had been placed there momentarily, and then left even after it became clear it wasn’t necessary.

Ian returned to the detonator, lined up the third set of wires and cut through them. He moved to the wires on the opposite side, and positioned his snippers on the wires leading to the fourth, but stopped. Something screamed at Ian from the back of his mind, and he glanced again at the wires taped along the wall.

His eyes caught particularly on the stray strip of tape hanging off the wires above, but it was only designed to look innocuous. He could see a slight extrusion, where a wire connected the two, largely hidden by the hanging length of tape.

He got up, and traced the taped section along the wall, and nearly jumped. Not only were the wires interconnected, ensuring that both needed to be cut simultaneously, but they were both wired to a simple push-button detonator. Not only couldn’t he cut those now, but even once the explosives were disconnected from the central detonator and battery, they were still hooked up to a secondary device. He was going to need to hold the room until he could finish dismantling the bomb, or those last two explosives would still remain live.

He traced the wiring from the final explosive to the detonator. This one was straightforward, like the others before. He took a breath, closed his eyes, and cut it.

He felt a twinge in his shoulder. Had he pulled something? He could feel himself hurtling towards the floor, unable to brace. The twinge burned hotter, like he was on fire, and only then did the report from the rifle register in his brain, leading him to the realization that he’d been shot.

He tried to reach back to the wound on instinct, which only made it hurt worse, confirming that it had just missed his vest. Moving his arm was agony, breathing pained him nearly enough to make him black out. And he could hear angry, excited Arabic. They were coming for him, and quickly.

With his left hand he groped for his pistol, but it wasn’t in his holster. He tried to replay getting shot, how he fell, where it would have landed. Somewhere to his left, by his shoulder, seemed like the best expectation. He patted the stone floor, but his hand came up empty. He decided to check by his side, as he heard the shouting in Arabic coming closer, when his hand brushed something that skid across the stones, definitely plastic and metal. He got his finger into the trigger well, and managed to spin the gun so he could grip it. He raised it just as an ISIL fighter came into view, and fired three shots center mass. For a man bleeding out and nearly unconscious, his grouping was surprisingly tight.

He managed to turn enough to put four shots into the next man. Someone screamed from elsewhere in the room, and Ian heard the sound of feet beating a quick retreat. It wasn’t terribly comforting, because he knew that he could be retreating to the remote for the detonator. Ian knew he needed to get up, hold this room, and finish decommissioning that bomb. It would all start with a single step. But he found he couldn’t even lift his pistol off the ground again. This was going to prove more challenging than he’d expected.

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 25

Note: I know I’m a few weeks behind. I’m hoping to have some announcements soon to tell you what I’ve been doing instead of posting.

Twenty-Five, Bakdida, Iraq, 2015

Ian was up to his ankles in well water, surrounded by the rest of their infiltration team. The small tunnel behind him was just large enough to accommodate Jack and Rose, and tilted at a 30 degree angle towards the surface. He switched off his radio and continued, “We’re not going to be able to use these for contact.” He straightened his bowtie and smoothed his shirt down over his bulletproof vest. “It’s likely they’ve hooked the explosives to a detonator operating on a frequency the radio could trigger. It’s more likely they’d use a cellular phone, but not so likely I’d suggest we chance it.”

“Shouldn’t one of us go with you?” India asked. “For support?”

“I can slide in, remain undetected. It’s what I was trained to do.”

“Jack can be stealthy,” Rose said.

“So can an elephant, in the proper circumstances. But in the event I’m captured, I can pass for a wealthy African Muslim funding the archaeological research here, who had been lucky enough to remain concealed; Jack cannot. In fact, I’d lay even odds even these ISIL Neanderthals will recognize him. And they would relish the opportunity to behead him on camera- likely not wasting time enough for the rest of you to mount a rescue.”

“Excellent,” India said, “then it’s decided. The old white people will wait here, in the well. The rest of us will deal with the explosives.”

“I don’t remember deciding that at all,” Ian said.

“You didn’t. I did.”

“We can stay here,” Jack said, and he and Rose exchanged a mischievous grin as Jalal first turned off his radio, then entered the tunnel.

“No making out, you two. We need you sharp. And keep your ears open for our call.” Ian followed him into the tunnel.

“Yes, mother,” Rose said sarcastically.

India turned off her radio, then followed Ian into the tunnel, crawling on her knees and elbows. It was a tight enough squeeze she knew Jack and Rose would have some trouble getting through. “They’re like a couple of teenagers,” she complained, her gaze drifting to Ian’s taught rear as he shimmied up the shaft.

“So were we, once upon a time,” he said, grinning over his shoulder at her.

“I suppose we were, in my foolish and reckless youth. But that’s precisely my point, I grew out of it. They haven’t, and given how long they’ve been at it, it’s doubtful they ever will.”

“Is that a problem?” Ian asked. “Should maturity mean necessarily losing your youthful entertainments?”

“I think this is verging dangerously close to a discussion not of general elderly randiness, and instead a dissection of our love lives. And it’s neither the time nor the place for that.”

“I can agree,” Ian said. “How much further must we crawl?”

“Why?” Jalal asked from in front of him. “Not enjoying the view?”

“More concerned whether or not our radios will have sufficient range to reach Jack in the well, if we get desperate enough to use them.”

“We checked the GPS,” India interrupted. We were .7 miles on the surface from the site, less than .15 miles down in the well. Using the Pythagorean equation, that’s .49 miles plus . 0225, so .5125, the square root is a little north of .7 miles, .72 or thereabouts, and the radios have a range of a mile or more. Range won’t be our issue. It will be the three quarters of a mile of earth and sand.”

“She’s smarter than you,” Jalal said.

“That was never really in doubt,” Ian said.

“Ian,” India said softly. “Hold back a moment.” He waited, to allow Jalal to move outside of earshot. “How well do you know this translator?”

“Well enough to trust him with our lives, if that’s what you’re querying.”

“Well that’s excellent,” she said, “since that’s exactly what we’re doing.” He started crawling faster, to catch up to Jalal. She kept pace with him, but there was still something nagging at her “Did he contact you?”

“Initially? Unsolicited?” she could hear the mocking in his tone. “No. When you and Jack put out feelers about intervening, I started looking for locals with useful intelligence. Then I vetted him. Thoroughly. If this were a honeypot, it’s one I found in Winnie the Pooh’s closet, hidden enough to believe finding it was organic.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“Then I know more than enough to repay him in kind afterward.”

“That’s good enough for me.”

Jalal stopped in his climb. “We’re at the entrance,” he whispered. He crawled out first.

“Wait until I give the signal,” Ian said. “If I’m wrong, crawl back to Rose, and leave me.” He shimmied out of the hole.

India twisted to get one of her revolvers out of her holster, and aimed it at the entrance.

Ian leaned back into the hole. “We’re clear,” he said, “but don’t shoot the messenger.”

“Funny,” India said, as she crawled out. Ian offered his arm to help pull her up.

“Where to?” Ian asked.

“I’m thinking,” Jalal said. “I haven’t been here in a couple of decades.” He closed his eyes. “This hallway connects the two main rooms, the larger to the left, accessible from the front. The smaller antechamber in the rear is accessible only from this hall or another opposite this one, both connected to the main chamber. It’s likely that the main chamber would have been where they staged the archaeology, and where they’d be keeping the hostages. The antechamber is where I’d put bombs if I were planting them; give you maximum damage to the hostages, the structure and any significant cultural artifacts.”

“Right,” Ian said. “I’m taking point. India will take the rear. Jalal, let us know if we’re about to do something stupid.”

“I’m not entirely sure not letting me take point isn’t stupid.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t negotiable.” Ian drew a pistol from inside his jacket. He screwed a suppressor into the barrel.

“Won’t that ruin your accuracy?” Jalal asked.

“Not if you know how to compensate for it,” Ian replied. “And it will make my shots harder to immediately recognize as gunfire. It may buy us the precious seconds we need to avert disaster.”

“That’s why you wanted point?”

“Yes.” Ian slid along the wall towards the rear antechamber. When he reached a door opening, he leaned his head in far enough to see. There were several combatants outfitted in random pieces of gear looted from the Iraqi army and improvised from civilian sources. Wires and explosive devices snaked along the wall where Jalal had supposed they would be. Ian hid back behind cover.

“Guards,” he said. “I’m going to need the two of you to create a distraction. But be subtle. It doesn’t do us a damn bit of good if the distraction makes them blow the bombs. Jalal, follow her lead. She’s as used to working alone as you are to following someone else’s orders.” “Will do,” he said.

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 24

“What’s going on?” Rose asked as she held the door so it stopped swinging, and wouldn’t give them away in the store room.

“I’m not sure,” Laney said, her brow furrowed. “It was tense out there, but it’s always tense. The people we help, they’re all caught between a rock and a hard place. They’ve fled violence and hardship to get here, and for most of them, there’s no guarantee they’ll be allowed to stay. But most are good people, stressed, sometimes testy, but good.

“And then suddenly they weren’t. I, I noticed something in the air, almost palpable, even from my office. So I went out to the lobby to check what was going on. Something about me even walking into the room, it was like waving a cape in front of a bull. A Syrian man I’ve been helping with an asylum claim threw a chair. It missed me, but hit the glass wall between the lobby and my desk.

“That seemed to set everybody off. People started screaming, shoving; what had been orderly lines a second before were writhing chaos. Fights broke out, often between people from the same family. Everyone was attacking whoever was closest.”

“Everyone?” India asked.

“Hmm,” Laney thought a moment. “No. Not the staff, none of the volunteers. They were frightened- reacted just like I did.”

Laney’s phone rang, and she answered it. “Hello? Ellen, oh, thank God. Hold on.” The phone beeped as she put it on speaker.

“-managed to get clear. We made it into the conference room, and managed to barricade the door with the conference table. A few of the refugees tried to get in, but when they couldn’t they must have given up.”

“And everyone is there?” Laney asked.

“Everyone but you. That’s why I called. The rest of the staff remembered our evacuation plans…”

“I’m just glad you’re all safe. And no one is exhibiting any strange behavior. Aggression, confusion?”

“Scared, mostly. None of us have ever seen anything like this.” Then her voice became more muffled and quiet. “I’ve talked anyone out of posting any videos for right now… but that can’t hold. I think the longer people are trapped here, the more pissed off they get- and the more likely to do something foolish.”

“Keep an eye out. Whatever got into those people… I don’t think we can rule out it being communicable. So be ready if anyone starts acting strangely.”

“And do what?”

“Hit them over the head with something heavy, would be where I’d start. Unless one of you had the foresight to grab a sedative out of the nursing station.”

“I barely had the foresight to get myself to the evacuation staging area.”

Laney sighed. “That was more than I did,” she said. “Just stay calm. And keep each other calm. We’re going to see what we can do to calm things down out there.”

“Should we be calling the cops?”

“Not if we can help it,” Laney replied. “Cops aren’t known for their prowess at deescalating, and if they show up to a refugee riot the absolute best we can hope for is mass arrests leading to mass deportations.”

“Okay,.. just hurry. I don’t know how long I can keep our people in line.”

“Thanks, Ellen. I appreciate it,” Laney said, and hung up the phone.

“So is there anything back here that we can actually use to stop a riot?” India asked.

“You could try flashing them,” Laney said with a shrug. “This isn’t a military base. We mostly have donated supplies to keep people from dying during the early parts of the asylum process. We don’t even have much in the way of personal protection, maybe some face masks and rubber gloves.”

“So it’s good I brought my gun,” India said.

“No, it’s not. You can’t shoot these people.”

“Not even to wound?” India asked.

“We need to calm people down. Shooting them isn’t going to do that.”

“Do you have a plan?” Rose asked.

“Not a great one.”

“My plan was to punch my way through. Hers was the same, but with bullets. I’m willing to try plan C.”

“Okay,” Laney said. “Then follow my lead.” Laney pushed her way into the lobby. As soon as she was through the door, she hopped up on the counter. “I need everyone to calm down,” she yelled to be heard over a room full of snarling and angered growling. “We’re here to help you,” she said, “but to do that I need all of you to sit down where you are now.”

For a moment there was quiet, as the crowd glanced around the lobby. Then the throng returned to their screaming, bodies crashing together likes waves in a small cove. “Damnit,” Laney said, hopping down from the counter. 

A Syrian man shrieked in Rose’s face, his fingers clawing at the air between them. India hit him in the nose with the butt of her revolver. The skin on the bridge of his nose burst, and blood flowed from the wound, as well as from each nostril. “They aren’t going to be talked down,” India said.

“Can we contain the situation?” Laney yelled to be heard over the din. “It’s spiraling.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch 23

Note: Apologies for the late posting. Family drama and the Pacific Northwest heatwave collided to destroy my productivity last week.

Twenty-Three, Bakdida, Iraq, 2015

“This feels serendipitous,” Ian said, pointing at Jack. “You’re here to rescue hostages- hostages taken by Isis while they were studying the cultural artifacts that you are here protect,” he pointed to India.

“He and I have a pleasant working relationship; you we could do without,” India said.

“Ah, but I’m far more than simply an attractive visage,” Ian said. “Jalal?” A thin Iraqi in an ill-fitting green uniform came in from the other room. “This young man is a skilled interpreter.”

“My Arabic is excellent, my Turkish more than adequate, and my Urdu at least passable, though I believe today I’ll let my guns speak for me,” she said, pushing out her chest to emphasize her twin shoulder holsters, each housing a blued revolver. She caught a glint off Ian’s eye, and added, “Including in retort to any poorly considered innuendo from you.”

“My innuendos are always very well considered,” he replied, “and I meant interpreter in the way the US Army uses the term. He functions as guide, knows the local players and culture, as well as pressure points.”

She thought a moment, as she shoved a satellite phone into her satchel. “You could have said that from the start.”

“And missed all this fun? I assure you, I could not.”

“He’s trustworthy?” she asked.

“The Americans have been using him for years. He’s scheduled to emigrate there, as reward for his exemplary service, and because as a result of his service the insurgents as well as ISIL want him dead.”

“And he’s sticking his neck out for us because?”

“Because he’s a good man,” Ian said. “Sure, I’ve offered him some compensation, and to aid in whatever way Jack or myself can in getting him and his family to safety… but he agreed to help before I offered anything; I simply believe that loyalty rewarded is loyalty reinforced.”

“I love my country,” Jalal said, tearing up. “I loved her enough to help the Americans rehabilitate her- knowing that my service would likely mean I’d never see her again. And I love her enough not to want to see that work, and her progress, crushed by the Islamic State. Including her culture. We cannot let them wipe our works out of our history.”

A thin smile crossed India’s lips. “A man after my own heart,” India said, cinching her pack shut, then thrust out her hand for him to shake. “My parents named me India, because they suspected I wouldn’t stay- they barely did- but they wanted me to carry their love, and pride, for our home, wherever I went.” He shook her hand delicately. “It also taught me to appreciate those thoughts in others, rare as they can sometimes be.

“And I’m not sure Captain Jack Simon requires much in the way of introductions,” Ian said.

“Of course, Captain,” Jalal said, his posture stiffening as he raised his hand in salute.

“I ain’t been active duty for a while, son,” he put out his hand, “and I always preferred to take a man’s hand- mutual respect, as opposed to deference.”

“I,” Jalal licked his lips nervously, “am not sure I agree, but I am joyed at the sentiment, nonetheless.” He enthusiastically shook Jack’s hand.

“I did, um, actually bring along some support of my own,” Jack said. “Hon?”

His wife entered from the opposite room as Jalal had. “Rose!” India gasped, and rushed to hug the larger woman. “I was just thinking of you.”

“Of course,” Rose said, smiling. “We first met defending a holy site from the Khmer Rouge.” She sighed. “We’re still fighting the same old fights.”

“But we’re still fighting,” India said. “And I have to believe that people are even more against ISIL than they were the Khmer Rouge, though we still haven’t discovered a proper counter to megalomanical and culturally destructive insurgencies.”

“That’s the work of generations,” Jack said. “And Jalal, my wife, Rose-”

“The Riveter!” Jalal gushed. “I had your poster, vintage, of course, from the Second World War. The man who sold it to me claimed it hung in the British base here.”

“I may have left it behind,” Jack said sheepishly.

“You had one of my posters?” Rose asked.

“You had a nice smile,” Jack said, staring at the floor.

“Still do, of course,” Ian said, “though he’s too embarrassed to look up and see it.”

“You never told me,” Rose said, putting her arm around his chest and resting her cheek on his shoulder.

“I didn’t put it together, at first,” he admitted. “I knew who you were, when we met, but… I’d forgotten the poster. I bought it because I wanted to remind myself what we were fighting for, what the world back in the US was while we were gone. Especially while I was fighting here and in Africa, it was a different enough world I, I needed that connection. And when I was leaving, I couldn’t stand the idea of damaging that poster to take it with me, so I left it here, a little reminder to the Brits who stayed behind, and anybody else, really, what the world we were fighting for held.”

“You inspired me,” Jalal said, and flexed his arm in her direction. “I’ve done many more push-ups, though I never could match your guns.”

“They look plenty impressive to me,” she said, and touched his bicep.  

“Would you sign it?”

“Your arm?” she asked

“My poster,” he said with a laugh. “When we are done. It would,” he stumbled to find the next word.

“Of course,” she said. “It would be my pleasure.”

“And my honor,” he replied, putting his palm against his chest.

 “Splendid,” Ian said, “and now that we know each other, I’m told Jalal has an idea as to securing the site. Time is of course of the essence, so let’s out with it.”

“I grew up here, on the outskirts of town. It was the cheapest place to live, further from work and the market, but for a boy, it meant the whole world outside of town was my backyard. Including the shrine. It was frowned upon, of course, but we were young, and stupid, and did not understand what ‘sacred’ truly meant. There is a tunnel from a well outside of town. I believe it once was used to get water to the shrine, but as the water level in the well shrank, the tunnel dried out. A frontal assault on the shrine would likely lead to the death of the hostages, and if they’re to be believed, ISIL have already rigged explosives to the site’s most important art and structures. The Iraqi army has the ISIL force isolated; they can’t escape, but the Iraqis have thus far refused any attempts to negotiate.” “He and I discussed sharing this infiltration strategy with the Iraqis,” Ian started, “but the tunnel’s size would prevent a large force from entering at a brisk pace, and the Iraqi army is still too young, too green, to have a special force likely to succeed. This will boil over into madness shortly, before any hope of reinforcement. We’re the only hope these people have. To say nothing of their important cultural artifacts.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 22

“Thank God,” Rose said, hanging up her phone. “That was Jack. They got Jalal and his family away safely. Ian has a friend in Canadian intelligence with some pull.”

India looked up from a cardboard box of supplies, “Friend?” She wrinkled her nose. “Ew.”

“He’s pretty sure they can get Jalal and his family settled there.”

India carried the box over to a similar stack. She marked the packing slip, and put it inside the box. “So our boys are all safe?” she asked.

“Boys?” Rose asked with a light laugh. “It’d warm their cockles to hear you call them that.”

“I was describing their maturity, not their decrepitude.”

“I’m hurt,” Laney said, mock-pouting from the door. “They’re resettling someone and didn’t even call me?”

“He’s Iraqi,” India said.

“Ah,” Laney said, her smile fading. “My contacts wouldn’t have helped get around the travel ban. If they were here already, like the people in the lobby, maybe, depending on the court challenges.” She parted the blinds to look at the parking lot, where ICE agents were sitting in a car with their logo on the side. “But with our own private Gestapo out there…”

“It’s why we didn’t ask,” Rose said. “Otherwise, we know you’d have moved Heaven and Earth to help us.”

“You may be giving me too much credit,” Laney said.

“I’m not sure there is such a thing,” Rose said, leaning her head on Laney’s shoulder. “Actress, inventor, aid worker, and wrangler of a certain aloof metal man’s affections…”

“Yeah,” India said, “credit where it’s due. I was beginning to think Hugh was just always going to be a confirmed bachelor his whole life, and then…”

“We’re failing the Bechdel test, ladies,” Laney said.

“We don’t have to talk about your love life,” India said with a shrug.

“But we don’t understand your research,” Rosie said.

“And your aid work is frankly exhausting to even think about, let alone keep up with.”

“That’s true,” Laney said. “But that’s why it’s important. There’s too much to do. Too many people in need of help. Which is why I need to get back out there. Though I promise I didn’t come back here to crack the whip. It’s exhausting work, as much emotionally as physically. And if you don’t take the time to take care of yourself, you’ll burn out, and miss out on helping more people in the long run. So you two take whatever time you need.”

“We’re pretty resilient ladies,” India said.

“Plus, the menfolk have notched a success under their belts,” Rose said, standing a little taller. “We need to do at least as much good as they have.”

“Under their belts? Jack’s poor under-belt area…” Rose raised her eyebrows at India. “What? Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like I’m spending too much time thinking about your husband’s under-belt area.”

“You’re only human,” Rose said. “I had to make my peace with Jack being in an entire generation’s rotation.”

“No, um, for literally years I thought he might be my father, and I never understood the appeal of an Elektra complex, so…”

Rose laughed. “Can’t say I’m sad to lose the competition. No one could ever keep up with him, but especially at my age…”

“Don’t be a dummy,” India said. “You’re his world- you and Joe.”

“Maybe,” Rose said. “But his world has been in turmoil, and I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to calm those seas… especially not when it all falls to me…”

India took Rose’s hand, and squeezed it. “It’ll be okay,” she said, her voice betraying a gentility she usually kept hidden behind a layer of cynicism. “There isn’t anything you and Jack can’t get through… but you know, if you need help, we’re here, all of us. Whatever you need.”

“I think,” Rose sucked her lips, and wiped a tear away, “I think I need the world to live up to what Jack expects of it. He’s, he’s easily the best man I’ve ever known, and sometimes… he can’t help but expect the rest of us to live up to the same standard. And we can’t. I know that, I know it from nearly a lifetime married to him. But we’ve never fallen so far from that ideal before. We don’t have to be perfect, but… we need to be better than this, do better than we have. Otherwise, I think we’re killing him.”

“Rose, I-” a crash from the front of the office interrupted her.

“Later,” Rose said, listening for more.

“You armed?” India asked.

Rose made fists through a pair of leather gloves. “You?”

“Always,” India said, and opened her jacket to show her a revolver in a shoulder holster.

They crept cautiously to the swinging door separating the stock room from the front office. Rose flattened her palm against the door, and pressed so that she could see through a sliver of space between the door and its frame. Screams filtered through, and Rose saw a woman leap over the counter. “It’s a riot,” Rose said, and let the door close.

“What happened?” India asked.

“And what do we do?”

Laney pushed her way in, wrapping her bloodied hand in her shawl. “Whatever the hell we can,” she said.

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 21

Twenty-One, Paris, 4/14/45, 7:42 PM local time

Jack had checked the address twice since arriving. He was in the right place, but nothing about being here felt right.

He sighed. Standing in the hall wasn’t going to change a damned thing. He knocked heavily on the door, each subsequent impact heavier, and louder, the last artillery fire beside his head. From inside he heard a woman’s sing-song voice as she slid the bolt open. Flossy opened her door wide, grinning happily.

Her smile faded when she saw him. “Oh,” she said softly, and glanced up and down the hall. She stumbled, her legs going out from under her. Jack managed to catch her under the arms, and steadied her against the wall.

“You okay?” he asked.

“No,” she said, “not since I heard the news about Goethe. All those people… I’ve dreaded seeing you again, though,” she shook her head, “I knew I would.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jack said.

“Of course,” she said. “But come in. You travelled a long way to bring me news. You shouldn’t have to give it in the hall.” She turned around, and led him inside. “Sit, please,” she gestured to a recliner. “I have tea that should be ready any-” her kettle began to whistle from the kitchen, “I’ll be right out with it.”

Jack sat down in a recliner with a musty smell, and a doily balanced on the headrest. He could feel a pair of spectacles in his shirt pocket, and shuffled uneasily. “I should have asked, but I hope you take tea and honey,” Flossy said, emerging from the kitchen with two cups, each balanced precariously upon a saucer. She held one out to Jack, her hand trembling enough as she stretched to spill onto the saucer.

“I never turn down anything sugary,” Jack said. “Never know when you’ll need the energy.”

“Do you like the pattern?” she asked, staring at her own cup. “Heinrich bought the set on our honeymoon. We went to Prague. He has family in Prague.” She frowned. “He did. They were taken, canaries in the coal mine. We thought, we thought maybe they bought us a chance to escape. We fled, but…”

“No one would take you,” Jack said, and the words burned. “It’s a lovely pattern,” he took a sip, “and the tea is exactly what I needed.”

“I think what I need,” she swallowed, “is to know what happened.”

“They didn’t make it,” Jack said.

“That I knew, the moment you arrived alone at my door. But I want- no, I need to know what happened. Because even the things I’ve heard about Goethe- I see worse in my nightmares. I can’t stop imagining the horrors they saw, or convince myself it isn’t still happening to them. I need to bury them in my own head, for that to stop.”

Jack reached into his shirt pocket and removed the spectacles. They were wrapped in a piece of paper, tied carefully with a red ribbon. “I think these belonged to-”

“Heinrich,” she said, and crossed the room to take the glasses from him. She unfolded the glasses, and set them on the mantle, beside a small picture of her husband wearing them.

“I met a very nice woman who knew your husband, named Caroline. They lived in the same room together, with a hundred others. The Nazis at Goethe were paranoid, always believing people were out to harm them. They would take people form their bunks at all hours. Usually they’d come back a day or more later, quieter, more cowed. Except Heinrich. He always came back just as defiant, just as biting.  

“The last time she saw him was different. They hit him with a club, knocking his glasses off his nose. It wasn’t the first time- because of his age and the way he spoke, people looked to him as a leader, so every time there was trouble, or the Germans became concerned there might be, they dragged Heinrich off to another room. He usually struggled-”

“My Heinrich would,” she said, his name coming out in a sob.

“and often they knocked his spectacles off, and she would keep them safe, until he needed them again. But he never came back. Still, she kept them, hoping, until she couldn’t stand to any longer; she kept them after that for you. She said she felt like she knew you, from his stories. She,” he held out the paper and ribbon to her, “she wanted to write to you.”

Flossy took the paper, refolded it, and wrapped it again in the ribbon. She caught a smell from it, and narrowed her eyes. “The ribbon was hers?” `

“Yeah, sorry, she was wearing it when she was taken, and clung to it. She thought it was her lucky charm, because she kept living, when so many others didn’t. She once fought another woman who tried to take it- though she laughs about that now. She wanted you to have that, too.”

“She sounds like a lovely woman. I’m glad Heinrich had… someone.”

“I don’t think she-”

“It wouldn’t matter,” Flossy said. “If she had, I wouldn’t hate either of them. The world was ending. They deserved whatever peace they could cling to.”

“It’s,” Jack bit his lip, “it’s okay, too, for it to hurt.”

“It does hurt,” she said, looking into him. “It hurts that my husband is gone, and I wasn’t there- couldn’t be there for him. It hurts that even that was taken away from me. But,” she frowned, as she considered her words, “I can’t help but hope they loved each other. It would be a less sad ending, or perhaps, perhaps I would just have someone left with me to grieve. Perhaps I do,” she said, putting her hand over the letter. “I will read what she wrote, and see for myself.” She took the hand away. “Later. What else did you find?”

Jack had to half stand to get the ring, with the Star of David with the inlaid sapphire, out of his pants pocket. It was charred on one side. He handed it to her. “I couldn’t find anyone who remembered her. She wasn’t housed with Heinrich, that I can tell you. From what I was able to gather, she and her husband were kept on the other end of Goethe. They didn’t let prisoners keep anything of value. She smuggled the ring in, and hid it any time she was likely to be seen by a guard.”

He pursed his lips, guilt gnawing at him. “After we landed at Normandy, the Nazis panicked, and stepped up the murders at the camps. They were working their way from the far side to Heinrich’s side. But Ruth and her husband, I think they were killed together. A very nice Brit by the name of Fleming helped me, track all of this down in a hurry. He works with the Resistance, but the reason I mention him now, his father worked with firefighters, cleaning bodies out of burnt-out buildings. The scorch marks, on the ring, he thinks that’s where the ring was exposed; where it wasn’t, the heat was blocked by their bodies.”

Flossy gasped.

“I’m sorry,” Jack said, closing his eyes against the depressive weight of it.

“No,” she said weakly, “I need to know. It’s how we remember those we’ve lost. It’s how we strengthen our resolve. Now please, tell me what happened to the children.”

“The children,” Jack said, his voice weary. “I think I found their remains. They burnt a lot of the records, once they realized we were coming. But what we were able to piece together, from survivors and the things they didn’t have time to burn, they kept the young children alive. A man named Heshell convinced the Germans to use them around the camp, little work for little hands. Except, once they realized we were coming, they-” the words caught in his throat.

“Please,” she said, “finish.”

“The ovens were going nonstop, operating past capacity. They discussed building gallows, but the wood they wanted to use disappeared in the night. They knew they couldn’t hold the camp, not in the face of the Allied advance. Which meant they had a lot of extra bullets. They set the children to work digging a hole. They worked them past the point of exhaustion; some died digging. When the Germans felt they could delay no longer, they lined the children up at the edge of the pit and shot them in waves. I stayed a day, to help with the digging at the hole, digging up all those children. We found two girls and a boy with long hair, still clutching each other, shot several times each.” a tear slid down Jack’s cheek.

“They,” he downed a gulp of tea so he could keep going, “they would have died quickly. Barely suffered,” he said.

She stood up, and walked slowly across the room. She pulled him to her chest, and gently patted his back. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, “you shouldn’t be the one comforting me.”

“No,” she said patiently, “it’s good. It’s been too long and,” she swallowed, “it may be for the last time. It’s good to feel needed, necessary. And we’re helping each other,” she said, and squeezed him harder.

“I’m so, so damn sorry.”

She huffed, a noise too heavy to be a laugh but too light to be a sigh. “You’re a good boy. You did more to help one old woman than a country… than a whole world.”

“It wasn’t enough,” Jack said. “It couldn’t be,” she said, “because you couldn’t bring them back. No one man alone could heal a world so sick, or save us from ourselves. But together,” she pulled him so tight she lifted him off his chair, “perhaps we can weather the storm.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 20

Twenty, Baghdad

“Ready to roll out the welcome mat?” Jack asked into his headset.

“They fired a volley of poorly aimed rockets over a civilian population,” Hugh said over comms, “I’m eager to return the remaining shrapnel to them.”

“Please remember this is a hostage situation, so not everyone inside is a combatant,” Ian said into his radio.

“Please,” Hugh said. “I’ve got thermal scans of the building. Your entrance will be on the opposite side of the building. See you on the south side.”

Jack watched the flare from Hugh’s engines as he descended from a holding pattern above them into a parabolic curve, before flying just a few feet overhead, and crashing through the warehouse wall. Hugh landed in a crouch, and was almost immediately hit with gunfire. “Really?” Hugh’s voice roared over a speaker. “I wasn’t angry enough with you?”

He stood, planting his feet, and raised his hands. The stabilizing engines on his palms fired once, knocking the gunmen off their feet.

“Suppressing fire,” Jack called as he ran past Hugh. Return fire from Ian and Jalal crackled off from behind them, keeping the gunmen down.

“Do yourselves a favor,” Jack said, not slowing down as he knocked their weapons away, “and stay down.”

“Or don’t,” Jalal said, slamming a new box magazine into an M249 SAW.

“You got them?” Ian asked.

“They’re gotten.”

“Good.” Ian paused and used a knife to cut open a plastic bag full of zip ties, before scattering them on the floor. “Cuff yourselves and help each other tighten them. When I get back, anyone whose cuffs aren’t tight loses a thumb. Anyone not cuffed at all loses both.”

Hugh followed him after Jack, and once they were around the corner asked, “You wouldn’t really take their thumbs, right?” Ian raised an eyebrow. “You have a thumb collection, don’t you?”

“Not one anyone will ever find,” Ian said.

“You scare me enough sometimes I’m never sure if you’re kidding.”

“That uncertainty is my fish and chips,” Ian said, “though I’m sure you know, if the queen asked, there isn’t a set of thumbs I would not collect on this entire planet.”

“That’s a weak bluff,” Hugh said. “Angela? Laney.”

“She wouldn’t ask it if weren’t necessary, and if it was, I would do it, however reluctantly.”

“You two planning on helping?” Jack grunted over his headset.

“Sitrep,” Ian barked.

“Pinned in the hallway. They’re-”

“In the room at the end, far right,” Hugh interrupted. He held out his arm, and projected a schematic of the buiding onto the wall, and overlaid a heatmap over top of it. “We’re still in my satellite’s footprint for another minute or so.”

“I’ll take up a position here,” Ian said, pointing at a window in the exterior of the building, opposite Jack, “see if I can’t relieve the pressure.” 

“This wall,” Hugh said, tapping the far wall on the map, “is weak, especially for an exterior. Records show it was once a receiving bay. They didn’t bother to reconfigure, put more supports in it, they just boarded it up.”

“Kool-Aid Man?”

“I really hate when you call it that.”

“You are going to walk through a wall,” Jack said. “It would only be more appropriate if you said, ‘Oh Yeah’” when you did- ah!”

“I hope that hurt,” Hugh said.

“Just hit the door jam. But on that subject, I’d appreciate help sooner, rather than later.”

“Could I get a hand through this window?” Ian asked, stretching towards an outward-opening window some eight feet in the air.

“You shouldn’t need one; you’ve got hundreds of thumbs stashed away,” Hugh said, stepping into the hall and kicking his engines on. He roared down the hall, towards the hole he’d torn in the side of the building.

“I think we upset him,” Jack said.


“I didn’t say we upset him equally.”

Ian dragged a chair towards the window. “You’re lucky there’s plenty of lightweight furniture left in this place,” he jumped, catching the windowsill with his fingers, “and that,” he grunted loudly as he pulled himself up to the window, “I can still do a proper pull up at my age.”

“Yes, we’re so fortunate that you can still, ahem, get it up,” Hugh said, over the crackle of his engines.

“Why are you counter-punching me?” Ian asked, rolling sideways through the window, onto the ground.

“You were just hanging there, like a punching bag,” Jack offered.

“I changed my mind,” Ian said, prone at a window, aiming his shot. “I don’t owe Jalal enough to put up with this. Let’s just leave Jack here, go get milkshakes. My treat.”

“Have to pass,” Hugh said. “That much dairy does bad things, especially when I’m stuck in the suit.”

Ian saw one of the kidnappers raise an MP9 in Jack’s direction. He exhaled, and put a bullet through his arm.

“Ingress in two, one,” Hugh’s suit stepped through the wall, sending a cloud of drywall dust and chunks of wood sweeping through the room like fog on a light wind. Ian glanced away from his sight towards Jack, but he was already gone.

Ian swore, and turned on the thermal scope on his rifle. He saw Jack and Hugh wade through the remaining kidnappers as big red blobs. One of them tried to hide behind two people sitting in chairs. Ian watched as he raised a gun- though the gun was a cold spot in front of him. “Naughty,” Ian said, before drilling a shot through the kidnapper’s thigh.

The dust was already beginning to settle. Hugh flicked one kidnapper in the head with enough force that it knocked him unconscious. Ian fired dead center into a kidnapper trying to sneak a knife between Jack’s ribs from behind. “Thanks,” Jack said, as he threw a haymaker into the jaw of the last of the kidnappers.

“How are our prisoners?” Ian asked over the headset.

“Seem preoccupied over the prospect of losing their thumbs,” Jalal replied.

“That’s a good answer. Tell them to lay on their chests and not to move. I’ll be there in ten seconds or so. Go down the long hall. Jack will meet you. There are two lovely young women eager to remake your acquaintance.”

Jalal sighed, “Allah be praised. No thanks will ever be enough.”

“If you hadn’t saved me, I wouldn’t have been here to return the favor.”

“Then we’re square.”

“Of course not. We’re friends; we don’t keep score anymore. And if we just leave you here, we’ll be back in another week rescuing you all over again. Now stop talking to me and go see your wife and daughter.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 19

Nineteen, Goethe, Germany, 4/11/45

Jack could hear three things, the clatter of the rain on the metal rooftops of the camp, the rattle of thunder not nearly far enough off, and the clamber of his own heartbeat. He couldn’t hear Fleming over the cacophony, and couldn’t wait any longer. “Point the direction!” Jack yelled, and Fleming threw his finger into the wind, west by northwest, and Jack burst off. After less than a quarter mile he finally heard the bursts of gunfire breaking through the sounds of the storm, better than any cardinal direction.

The fighting was taking place inside a quarry, where most of the stones used to build the various camp structures had been ripped from the ground. Jack imagined Heshell overseeing the work, standing at the edge of the pit in the earth. Lightning rent the sky, backlighting a German sniper in the same spot. He was facing away from Jack, lining up a shot at some poor American sap inside the quarry.

Jack raised his sidearm and fired several times without slowing. His shots were wild because of his gait, but two from the magazine struck the Nazi in the rib and shoulder, sending him spinning, his own shot firing harmlessly into the sky.

Jack was upon him before he fell, and delivered a haymaker to him, snatching his rifle as the blow  sent him hurtling into a pile of rock below.

Jack used the rifle’s scope to survey the battlefield beneath him. A dozen Americans were trapped among the rocks, trying to advance but having difficulties because of the varied and unpredictable terrain. The Germans had better positions on the opposite side of the canyon, with cover, though curiously, they didn’t seem to be using it.

Jack watched a shot strike one of the Germans, twisting him halfway around. He spun back, grinning madly as he advanced. “What the hell?” Jack asked. He steadied his aim against a rock, and put a bullet into the German. It struck him in the stomach, doubling him over, but an instant later the German was standing up straight again, grinning.

“Your rifle won’t work,” Jack heard a voice over his shoulder. He spun, swinging the bayonet on the tip of the rifle menacingly. “On them,” the voice said, again from behind him, “it might on me, and I’d prefer not to test that theory.” Jack frowned. The voice was speaking in Hebrew, but for some reason he’d only just realized it.

“Explain yourself. And while you’re at it, show yourself.”

“Very well,” an elderly man unfurled a cloak where an instant before there had been only the wet, shiny blackness of the camp.

“Who are you?”

“I’d prefer to make introductions while people aren’t being slaughtered by Nazis.”

“Fine. Tell me what I need to do.” 

“They’re protected, using the same magic that safeguarded Balder from everything but holly.”

“So I need to kill them with holly?”

“No. Any weapon not made of lead should suffice.”

“They’re protected from bullets?”

“At great expense, yes. I’d wager the spellcraft costs as much for one of them as the entire series of trials that led to your miraculous change.”

Jack looked again down the scope. The German was advancing still, crossing the open ground at the foot of the quarry. A hail of American gunfire buffeted him, but with each shot that bounded off him, his grin grew wider and more unhinged. “That isn’t just a bulletproof Nazi,” Jack said.

“They’re berserkir, Odin’s bear-skin warriors; it’s magic-induced Norse battle-madness,” he said. “These spells are strong, beyond anything I could counter in a timely fashion, all cast by that very large, shirtless seiðmenn.” A man two heads taller than the rest of the Germans stood up. His torso was covered in tattoos, the largest of which was a swastika bisecting his torso twice. Lightning cleaved the sky, shattering a rock several Americans were hiding behind, sending scorched stone shrapnel flying with the violence of bullets in every direction. In his hand he clutched an ancient-looking hammer. “Embedded in the wood is a sliver said to have chipped off Mjolnir itself when Thor struck the world serpent, granting the wielder some fraction of the powers of the Norse god himself.”

“It isn’t an accident that they’re here, is it?”

“Nor I. They have been deployed several times in theaters where you were expected to make an appearance. This is merely the first time you’ve managed to find each other through the fog of war.”

“Let’s go, then,” Jack said.

“You misunderstand me,” the old man said. “I can’t help you. In this fight, my magics would be little more than a momentary distraction. But I can protect you from the lightning.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” Jack said, and started down the rocky hill. Chipped stone began to slide in his wake, nearly taking him off his feet. That gave Jack an idea. He took a grenade off his belt, pulled the pin and let it cook for a moment; he needed it to explode the moment it impacted. He threw the grenade near the far edge of the quarry. Its walls were lined with stones of increasing size the further down the hill you moved.

The grenade’s explosion was lost in another strike of lightning, this one hitting within a few feet of Jack. He spun towards the big Nazi with the hammer; he dragged the weapon across his throat and then shook it at Jack.

Rocks slid in the wake of Jack’s grenade, smaller rocks knocking larger rocks, cascading into an avalanche that swallowed most of the berserkirs. Lightning again struck near Jack, scorching a large bolder. Jack glanced back at the old man atop the hill, but he wasn’t there.

Jack positioned himself under a boulder that weighed as much as two of him, pressed against the rocky wall, and coiled, before springing the boulder into motion. It bounded onto the quarry floor, bowling over one of the berserkirs.

Jack bounded after the rolling stone, landing at the floor of the quarry and rolling. He sprang from the ground, spearing another Nazi in the ribs, and threw him into the dirt. Another berserkir approached Jack from behind, but the seiðmenn raised his hand. “The Jude is mine,” he said.

He and Jack circled one another, with every step Jack trying to cut the distance between them. Closer up, Jack could tell the seiðmenn was missing an eye. He knew his norse mythology well enough to know the significance.

Rain made the quarry floor slick, made it hard for either man to keep his eyes open. Jack wiped a sheet of rainwater from his forehead, smoothing his hair back off his face at the same time. The seiðmenn threw back his head and laughed, then kept his mouth open to catch the rain. “My gods provide,” he bellowed. “Give me strength. Give me sustenance. Give me you.”

“I think that means your god doesn’t like you very much,” Jack said, kicking a ball of mud at the  seiðmenn; it splattered roughly against his bare chest, a chest every inch of which was covered either in Nazi symbols or seiðer runes. The seiðmenn held out his hammer in his outstretched hand, and lightning struck the ground beneath Jack’s feet. “That your god’s forsaken you. That you’re losing your religion, and maybe your other eye, if you don’t surrender now.”

“I would rather forsake my gods, than surrender to a Jude like you.”  

“Any particular god you prefer, when I’m sprinkling your ashes?”

The seiðmenn didn’t respond, only slashed his hammer at Jack. The hammer’s face was a raised square, tapering to a larger base, like a pyramid with its top lopped off, and the edges were sharp enough to slice through Jack’s sleave, and break his skin. “First blood,” Jack said.

“Hardly,” the seiðmenn said, staring at his hammer with a religious adoration, “Magni has bathed in blood of the Juden, and will quaf yours in time.”

Jack knelt down, and picked up a jagged, soft-ball sized stone. He feinted with the rock, leading the seiðmenn to swing wide with the hammer in response. Jack stepped into his swing, blocking the blow at the seiðmenn’s wrist, then brought the rock down in the middle of his forearm. The arm tensed, but still he held the weapon. Jack took hold of his wrist and twisted, nearly tearing it out of its socket, then struck his forearm again with the stone, causing it to snap loud enough to be heard over the rain. The seiðmenn dropped the hammer, yelping as his arm went limp beneath the break.

The seiðmenn lunged at Jack, hitting him in the chin with his shoulder, and Jack stumbled backwards. The German leapt for the hammer, hefting it in his opposite arm as he rolled into a crouch. Jack loosed his stone, and it knocked the seiðmenn onto his back.

Jack pounced, landing knees-first in the German’s chest, following quickly with a punch to the seiðmenn’s jaw. He seized the hammer at the grip, and tore it from the German, throwing it behind him.

The German screamed, landing a haymaker with his left hand that knocked Jack off him. He clambered to his feet, scanning desperately in the dark for the hammer. “You’re going to have to finish this man to man,” Jack said, squaring towards him.

The German howled, swinging wide like the swipe of a bear. Jack ducked beneath the blow, and seized the seiðmenn and lifted him at the waist. The seiðmenn made a fist, but Jack shook him like a rag doll, and he couldn’t get enough leverage to put any real strength into a punch. Jack squeezed until he felt the German’s back dislocate, and dropped him into the dirt.

In the mud, the seiðmenn spied his hammer, and started to crawl towards it. Jack stomped on his forearm, dropped his knee into the German’s face and then delivered several more punches into the German’s head. His breathe bubbled up through the mud, and Jack stood up, letting him pull his head out of the soil with a gasp.   Jack lifted the hammer, and hung it off his belt. Then he looked to the seiðmenn, his blood mixing with the mud and said, “Master race my Jewish ass.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 18

Eighteen, Baghdad

“Would you tell Beethoven to compose faster?” Ian asked from the other side of the cracked bathroom door. 

“He wouldn’t hear you if you did,” Jalal said. “Though I imagine if his family were the ones under threat, he would be moving as swiftly as humanly possible.”

Ian emerged, buttoning a freshly pressed shirt under a clean jacket.

“You changed?” Jack asked. “Where were you hiding that?”

“It’s my apartment,” Ian said.

“Exactly how many apartments do you keep?”

“You don’t really want to know the answer to that.”

“How do you afford the rent?”

“I have… arrangements.”

“You’re sleeping with all your landlady’s? Though that may raise more questions, like how you have the time for all of that.”

“Some, on occasion, though that’s none of your concern. No, they rent the rooms out as hostels when I’m not using them; it was Air BnB before it existed. And we had moment. It’s a lot of data to comb through. Hugh gave me access to some of his server farms to help crunch it faster, but it’s still… there. We have it. Done.”

A heat map of the city and the surrounding ten kilometers began to form across Ian’s screen. “Ten men visited the apartment while you were captive. Um, twelve, actually, if you count these two food delivery men. I colored them in yellow, so we could visually distinguish them, and from their patterns, I feel it safe to say that they weren’t co-conspirators. The five where you were held congregated there, only leaving temporarily for food, or in Umar’s case, what would appear to be a twice weekly booty call. After capturing you, about half of your guards went to a separate location, one frequented by these other five gentlemen, who at one point or another visited you. Comparing all of their movements, you get a third location, in the north of the city, here. All the red indicates hours of time spent in that location, the darkness of the red indicating it wasn’t simply one man but multiple men at any given moment. We’re all but guaranteed to find someone there, and if it isn’t your family they’re holding, they may well know where they are.”

“Good,” Jalal said, and tucked a gun into the back of his pants, “let’s go.”

“There’s no us, here,” Ian said, “implied or otherwise. He stays put.”

“How would you feel?” Jack asked. “If it were Angela? Or India?”

“I’d expect either woman to have broken free before we made it across town.”

“But there’s no way you’d sit it out.”

“No,” Ian said. “Fine. I do owe you one. But I’ll tell you what I’ve always told Jack in similar situations: the mission is paramount. If a moment arrives, where I can only save you or your family, I will save them, and leave you to swing. Understand?”

“I’d be upset if you did otherwise. They are in peril because of me.”

“Even still, you follow Jack’s lead. He’s survived more of these than the SWAT teams of some mid-sized states. Failing that, you follow mine.”

Jalal drove, because he knew the city better. Ian was following along with the map as he remembered it, only to become concerned. “You missed the turn,” he said.

“Yes,” Jalal said, “because I know the insurgents who took me. Who they know, who they share secrets with. If we approached straight, we would have been seen, and if seen, they would know to expect us, maybe even to kill my family.”

“Okay,” Ian said, and sat back in his seat. He thumbed the safety off the pistol in his jacket, just in case.

“Anything you can tell us about them?” Jack asked from the front passenger’s seat.

“Insurgents, definitely, men used to the heft and use of weapons. But not formal military, especially no special forces or specialty training; they made lots of little tactical errors.”

“Such as?”

“The ropes. I wriggled out of them the first night, but I didn’t leave, because they had my family, and I needed to find them, first. They left me conscious to take me to the hideout; even if you hadn’t rescued me, I could have followed their path to their safehouse- a direct path.”

“Okay,” Jack said. “I’m convinced.”

“Not well armed. Largest ordinance I ever saw was Kalishnikovs.”

“Which likely means independent operators,” Ian offered, “either local thugs or spin-offs from one of the true believer sects who saw an opportunity to poach money from America. And I’d given even odds they planned to keep the money for themselves, not the cause.”

“Agreed,” Jalal said. “These were not what you would call observant men, religiously or otherwise.”

“Crap,” Jack said, glancing down at Ian’s tablet.

“Crap?” Jalal asked.

“That’s our destination.” It was a large manufacturing complex, constructed mostly of brick, no windows until you got thirty feet into the air. “No easy ingress, no opportunity for sniper cover.”

“It’s the kind of building I’d hold up in,” Ian said. “Which is bad for us, doubly so. Because it means they aren’t all the intellectually lazy criminals we’ve encountered thusfar. There’s a mastermind, someone not entirely stupid.”

“I think I see an opening,” Jack said, and opened his phone. “See that sign?” he asked.

“The building is for sale,” Jalal said, but it was almost a question.

“And no one would stage a hostage situation in a building they’re trying to sell,” Ian said, smiling.

“Hugh?” Jack asked, putting the phone on speaker.


“I need you to buy a building for me. And then I need you to demolish a wall for me.”

“Can you give me five minutes? One of those rockets they fired at you did a number on me.”    

“They fired rockets at us?” Jalal asked.

“What kind?” Ian asked.

“There were a dozen. I didn’t have time to get make and model off them,” Hugh sanpped.

“I mean, what quality. Old Soviet surplus as likely to cook off as to fire? Newer, but still black market arms?”

“The one that had my number was modern, high-tech. Probably American, but maybe a high-quality knock-off.”

“That solves that mystery,” Ian said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “The henchmen aren’t military, but our mastermind is, or at least has some pull with the Iraqi military. This could get complicated.”

“You still going to need me on site?” Hugh asked. “More now, than ever.”

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 17

Seventeen, Goethe

Jack was alone inside a warehouse, crates stacked to the ceiling with the personal effects of prisoners. He couldn’t stop staring at the intricately interlaced filigree on the ring, and the way that it raised into prongs holding the single round-edged sapphire in its center.

He heard someone open the door behind him, and slipped the ring into his pocket. “I was hoping I’d find you here,” Fleming said. “This is Heshell. I wanted him to tell you how he ended up here.”

“I hear the Kristallnacht was widely reported,” Heshell said. “Maybe you know more about that night than I do, about what happened all over Europe. I only know what happened to my family, my synagogue, my home, my family’s business.

“I was up late, unable to sleep. My wife, Genana, and I, we were having troubles, though it’s hard to even remember what they were now. I was at the shul, talking to Rabbi Yiftach in his office. I remember it was bad enough that I thought my wife might bed some other man, and thought perhaps I should leave, that we both might be happier that way. But we didn’t finish the conversation.

“Smoke was billowing in from the sanctuary. We thought maybe a candle had fallen, and I went with the Rabbi to help him. The entire shul, the synagogue, was on fire. The Sturmabteilung, Nazi stormtroopers, were smashing everything inside. The Rabbi watched in horror as they tore down the parochet. I had to hold him back when they opened the Aron Kodesh, and took out the Torah scrolls, and put them, too, to the torch. He wept in my arms, as the fight went out of him, and still, we had to wait for them to leave to sneak away. I left him with the family that tended the grounds; I can’t remember their names. 

“The entire city was on fire, being broken or smashed. It was the end, the end many of us knew would come; my wife insisted we keep cash enough to run away with, and I humored her. I always thought, if that day came, that it’d come during the day, when I was at work, so we stashed our money there. My father was a successful stonemason. He worked until he could barely grip a hammer, and then, he hired me. He would tie string, around his hand,” he pantomimed circling his hand with yarn, “so he could still hold a pen, so he could keep the books, or annotate my designs.

“I ran, to our shop, crying, thinking of the Rabbi. I had known him my entire life. I thought of his faith as almost quaint. I was a modern Jew, a business-minded, cosmopolitan man. But he, he loved his shul, the Torah, his study, he loved them the way my father loved stone work. I think, in that moment, I found a faith like the Rabbi’s, or at least an appreciation for someone else loving something so thoroughly, and losing it, and I knew how every second I was closer to losing the things I loved if I couldn’t flee with them.

“Every business on the block had its windows smashed in. Some were on fire, others were being looted. My father’s shop was near the end of the street, an alley closed with a wall. I snuck inside, under cover of the dark.

“The shop had been ransacked. Anything that could be taken had been, including all our tools, and even several slabs of an expensive ornate marble. Many of the tables had been broken or charred. I ran into my office, unable to breathe; my desk looked untouched from the door, but as I rounded I saw that the drawers had been painstakingly smashed one at a time. The secret latch, unlocking my private drawer, had been gouged out, the small metal that secured the latch in place had been nearly torn from the surrounding oak. Our money was gone, and along with it any real hope at escaping.    

“I wasn’t crying any longer when I reached home. I thought if I could move faster, maybe think clearer, maybe we could escape. I burst through the front door panting like a madman. Security forces were a few steps behind, though I couldn’t know if it was just my poor luck, or if they followed from the shop.

“It didn’t matter. They arrested me. When my father protested, they beat him. They didn’t take my wife, or my father, then, just young men, ones who might fight against the Nazis.

“They threatened them, that if they fled, they would kill me. But eventually they knew that whether they killed me or not had little to do with them, and tried to run, but were caught.

“By then I had made myself useful here, as a foreman. Stonework and masonry made me invaluable in building out the camp. I wrestled with that, that I was helping make more space for prisoners, but making space with prisoners as workmen meant I could help save some.” His hand shook. “But never enough,” his voice broke, “never as many as I needed to. Never every man who had been kind to me, or who took ill.

“But the Nazis saw the danger, too. They gave me privileges, but needed to also have a stick. So when they caught my father and wife, they brought them here, for leverage. My father took ill, and medicine was scarce. Rather than risk the spread of disease, they shot him. They did it in front of me, not because I had transgressed, but so I knew that I lived at their pleasure- and how difficult they were to please.

“It had the opposite of the desired effect on me, and even my wife. It made us more angry, more defiant. We sought out ways to undermine; we organized laborers to smuggle out supplies, built holes in the foundations for us to hide valuable materials, and started stashing away guns- the ones we used to take the camp. We were careful, and we were smart. But it didn’t matter.

“The Oberst’s cousin was killed, fighting on the Eastern Front, though I didn’t find that out until later. He called me into his office, and a guard dragged my Genana in. He accused us of undermining morale, of plotting; his ‘proof’ may as well have been a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He was drunk, nearly weeping. And then he smiled. Told me how much it all reminded him of killing my father. His guard pushed her down, to her knees, and he shot her in the head. I was numb. I didn’t cry, or scream. I just remember thinking that her name, it meant ‘grandmother,’ or ‘old woman’ and now she would never be either.

“She talked about dying, more sometimes than I could stand. But it meant she had told me that when she died, and it broke my heart because it was always when, that I had to make them pay. But not with vengeance, not with violence, but by living, by standing over the grave of Nazism and pissing on it. Not that that precluded violence, you understand- she was the one who pushed me to stockpile stolen weapons- but she wanted, more than anything, for me to outlive them. All I wanted for myself was not to outlive her,” he said, his voice catching as he latched onto Fleming, as the nearest of them.

Jack hadn’t realized, during Heshell’s story, that his muscles were tense, his fists balled so tightly they hurt. “Bring me the biggest goddamn Nazi you can find,” Jack said, anger flattening his voice.

“Surely you’d prefer to punch a free man rather than a prisoner,” Fleming said, patting the crying man’s back.

“You get on my nerves, but not that much.”

“I wasn’t offering myself. But fighting is still ongoing at a neighboring camp, where they met with extraordinary resistance, perhaps even… transhuman.”

“And you let me sit down for story time?”

“Edwards’ superior didn’t want to ask for help. Thought it would damage morale, and once that decision gets made, it’s difficult to reverse. But if you were to surreptitiously hear about the stalemate, and intervene unilaterally…”

“Edwards asked you to get me…”

“York, actually.”

“And Heshell?”

“Was my idea. I think, sometimes, in modern warfare, because of the way we compartmentalize, we forget what we’re fighting, and what we’re fighting for. In the Resistance, and in intelligence, we baste in the reasons to fight, and who our enemies our. But soldiers, most are just told where to go, and who to hit. It can be numbing, if you don’t remind yourself from time to time the evil we stand against; we can’t resist it properly if we forget the great cruelty it’s capable of.”

“Consider me reminded,” Jack said, and pulled Heshell to his chest. “I’m sorry,” Jack said. “For everything that’s happened to you, for failing to prevent it, for not intervening sooner.”

“My wife,” Heshell said, “was a wiser person than I. No regrets,” he said, and clapped Jack on the cheek, “just live to piss on their graves.”

Jack put his hand on Heshell’s shoulder and squeezed it, and let his forehead touch Heshell’s. “We will.”