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Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Nine

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 9:25 pm.

When the sedan pulled up to the loading dock behind the derelict auto store, Blacker jumped out, glanced around, then screamed, “Where’s the Suburban?” When he saw two bodies sprawled near the SUV he assumed belonged to the backup guys he asked The General to send, he realized he’d lost this round. “Check inside,” he yelled to the man getting out of the sedan, although he knew there would be nothing to find other than his dead commandos.

He took out his phone. “Sir, There’s a slight change in the situation here in Philadelphia.”

“Are you back with the Manus woman yet? Got your finger fixed?—what do you mean a slight change?—what’s going on?” With a shaking hand, The General poured more Scotch and waited for Blacker’s answer.

“. . . I’ll get back to you as soon as I know, Sir.” Before The General could answer, Blacker ended the call and rushed into the building to find his companion. “What?” he said when he almost bumped into the commando standing next to a body on the floor.

“Only two of our guys here. One in there was shot between the eyes,” he said, pointing through the arch way. “This one’s throat’s torn open, and his arm’s shredded. Never seen anything like it. The two women are gone. They must have taken Garth with them.”

“How’d they do this?” Blacker bellowed. “What the hell kinda animal is she?”           

Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland: Saturday, 10:05 pm.

After Lena’s call the base hospital expected Rana and Jose, and the on-duty surgeon, Captain Hamilton, met them at the ER admitting desk. “Take Lieutenant Nair to OR three. This man,” gesturing toJosé, “to four,” he instructed the orderlies waiting with gurneys.

Back in the Suburban, Lena said to Zula, who was behind the wheel, “I need to ask our friend in the back some questions. Then we’ll figure out what to do next.”

“Okay. Where to?” Zula asked.

Lena scanned the parking lot, then said, “Park at the far end, under that big tree. It’s dark and there’s no other cars around.”

When Zula opened the hatch door a few moments later, the man scrunched up in the cargo space opened his eyes and tried to say something through the rag stuffed in his mouth. His hands were cuffed behind him and his feet were tied together. Lena ripped the rag away and slapped him across the face. “Are you awake enough to talk?” she asked, then leaned in next to him.

‘My knee! I can’t stand it. I need a doctor,” he blurted out.

Lena smiled, then slammed her fist down onto his knee. He screamed and tried to pull away, but there was no place to go. When he frantically looked around, he saw the big heads of the two dogs staring at him over the rear seat. Their black eyes followed every move he made, and low, throaty growls told him they meant business.

“That hurt, didn’t it,” Lena said, drawing his attention away from the dogs and back to her. “But it’s only a taste of how it’ll be if you don’t answer my questions. Understand?”

“I don’t know anything. I was just doing my job,” he blubbered, his face contorted with pain.

“Just doing your job when you stabbed my friend in her legs? You enjoyed it, didn’t you. I could tell. That made me angry. You know, the kind of anger that rules out mercy, or compassion. Know what I mean?”

Panic and fear darkened the man’s face. “I was just following orders. I had to do what Blacker told me to do. Please . . . believe me . . . I don’t know anything.”

“Zula. Get the man’s knife. It’s in that bag on the back seat,” Lena yelled at Zula where she stood off to the side trying to ignore Lena’s interrogation. She knew what her mother was capable of.

Lena held the serrated knife edge a few inches from the man’s face. “Who’s Blacker working for?”

“How would I know?”

Like a streak of lightning, the knife flashed close to the man’s cheek and sheared off his ear. He screamed louder than before and shook his head back and forth, slinging blood over everything around him.

“Shut up and listen,” Lena yelled, ignoring the spatters on her face. “I want answers, not bullshit. Next, it’ll be the other ear, then your nose, then your lips, then eyes. Nod your head if you understand.”

The man nodded vigorously, whimpering and moaning at the same time.

“Let’s try again,” she said, and held the knife up to his face. “Who’s he working for?”

“He talks to him on the phone. Calls him ‘The General.’ That’s all I know.” He spoke so fast his words ran together.

“Where do they have Max?” Lena shifted the knife, ready to slice off his other ear.

The man’s gaze followed the bloody blade, and with a trembling voice he said, “I heard Blacker say something about a mine in West Virginia. But I don’t know where it is. He never said.”

“What do they want Max for?”

“Some kind of top-secret project. I think The General’s in charge. Blacker just does what The General tells him to do. Hires guys like me to do the dirty work.”

“Where can I find The General?”

“Blacker said he’s at the Pentagon. But I don’t know where he lives. I’ve never there. Don’t think Blacker has either.”

Lena turned to Zula and said, “We’re not gonna get anymore from this guy.”

“We can’t let him go free. He’d warn Blacker about us,” Zula said.

“We’ll figure that out later.” Ignoring his anguished plea to be let go and the bleeding wound on the side of his head, Lena stuffed the rag back in the man’s mouth, slammed the hatch door shut and said, “Let’s check out Blacker’s office.

Washington, D.C.: Saturday, 11:35 pm.

Zula pulled the Suburban into the parking garage across from the ten-story office building where Blacker had his office and nosed into a spot with a unobstructed view of the front entrance. The street was quiet, no one was going in or coming out of the building, and most of the windows were dark.

“Let’s go. “Lena said.

The glass door opened to a modest lobby with a security desk next to a bank of three elevators. A sleepy, uniformed, older man opened his eyes when the two women entered. “This building’s restricted outside of business hours,” he said. “Are you on the access list?”

“We’re with Blacker Consulting,” Zula said, as she and Lena stepped into the elevator car that opened up after she pushed the UP button.

“Wait a minute,” he said, “I ‘gotta check.”

“We need to pick up some files. We’ll be right down,” Lena said as Zula pressed the third-floor button.

“Hey. Wait a minute,” he yelled, as the elevator door closed. “These damn people. Think they don’t have to observe the rules,” he mumbled.

Standing in front of the door to Blacker’s office suite, Lena took his finger out of her pocket, wiped the dirt from the parts store’s floor off, and handed it to Zula. “Give it a try.”

Zula pressed the finger against the security pad and the door lock buzzed. She pushed the door open, stepped inside, reached up and twisted the ceiling-mounted camera off its base, and led Lena to Blacker’s office. The door was locked and there was no security code pad, just a keylock.

“I’ll try to pick it,” Zula said, as she inserted her pick tool. When she couldn’t get it to work, she tried another probe, then another, each time without success. “Damn! Must be super secure.”

“Get outta the way!” Lena yelled.

Zula looked behind her to see Lena shoving the secretary’s desk toward Blacker’s office door as if it were a battering ram intended to break down a palace gate. When the door splintered, the two women rushed through and began searching every drawer, cabinet and crevice. Although they found nothing about a mine, a locked desk drawer they forced open yielded a high-security cell phone. There were only two numbers in the phone’s memory.

“One of these could be the general who Blacker takes his orders from,” Lena said. “My friend at the agency should be able to get a fix on who and where he is.” Lena took out her phone, punched in a code, waited a moment, read off the numbers, said a few words, then ended the call. “He’ll let me know as soon as he has something. Let’s get out of here before that security guard gets suspicious.” On their way out of Blacker’s offices, Zula took the disc out of the computer that recorded the security camera images. “In case the camera caught us before I disabled it,” she said, when Lena gave her a questioning look.

Lena’s phone buzzed as Zula pulled the Suburban out of the parking garage exit into a nearly empty street. “Find anything?” she asked, after glancing at the caller ID and answering. Lena listened for a few moments, ended the call and said, “One of the numbers is for an army general. Amos Borgward, lives near Reston, Virginia,” She gave Zula the address. “The other is for a Nadya Kaliyev in Trenton, New Jersey. Maybe she’s one of the women who nabbed Rana and me yesterday. First, we’ll see what the general has to say. We’ll settle with Nadya later.

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:40 pm.

After Danforth, whose elbow Max had nearly torn out of its joint, left the room where the staff had gathered at Max’s request, Max explained to the disconcerted group why he was acting as he was. “This project has the markings of a top-secret program run by a rogue individual, or group, intended to convert special operations soldiers into AI-enhanced automatons designed for programed warfare. The regular pentagon wouldn’t sponsor anything like this. Schlossman must be taking his orders from a powerful puppet master who, if whoever it is follows the typical playbook for an operation like this, won’t allow any of us to survive after achieving success. Too much at stake to risk us revealing what we’ve done, which would be against an unimaginable array of laws, policies and international agreements and guidelines, not to mention basic morality.”

“How do we know what you say is true?” someone yelled.

“Think about it. The secrecy, isolation, confinement, remoteness, absolute control, restrictions on revealing to each other details of what you’re doing. All of this is far beyond usual practice. Being down here is a death sentence. And I’m not ready to die yet.”

“If all this is true, what can we do? There’s no way out. Only Schlossman can call down the elevator, and if he’s controlled by someone like you describe, he wouldn’t let us get away,” Dr. Mortenson said.

“Then we’ll just have to—”

Before Max could finish his sentence two things happened simultaneously. The elevator alarm announced its arrival, and Danforth entered the room with a pistol pointed at Max.

“Come with me, Manus,” Danforth shouted, waving the gun toward the open door to the hall, seemingly unconcerned about the elevator alarm.At that same moment, two uniformed guards ran into the room, both holding semiautomatic rifles pointed at the frightened onlookers. Danforth, still holding the pistol, turned toward the closest soldier.The soldier saw Danforth’s pistol aimed in his direction and fired several rounds. Danforth catapulted backwards onto a conference table then to the floor. Blood gushed from an arc of holes across his chest.  

In the resulting pandemonium and confusion, Max exploded with a burst of furious energy. In one smooth, perfectly choreographed leap he kicked the M16 out of the nervous hands of the shooter and rammed the palm of his left hand under the man’s chin as he passed by. The guard’s head snapped back with a loud crack and he dropped to the floor. In a continuing fluid motion, Max landed upright at the side of the second mercenary. He grabbed the gun by its barrel and ripped it out of the man’s tight grip. Like a tornado, he twisted around in a half-circle and smashed the heavy weapon into the side of the doomed man’s head before he even had a chance to comprehend what was happening. The second commando joined his companion on the floor, by then awash with Danforth’s blood. At that point, twelve seconds had elapsed since Danforth’s return.

“Someone grab the elevator. Before it shuts down,” Max screamed.

Dr. Mortenson dashed out of the room and down the hall to the elevator and stuck her arm between its two closing doors just in time. “Got it! Come on. Now’s our chance to get out of here,” she yelled.

Schlossman came running down the hall toward the staff members where they crowded in front of the elevator as it filled to capacity. “Let me on,” he cried out.

Max, who was directing the loading of the eight-person-limit car, said, “Schlossman. Go back to your office!”

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Schlossman screamed as he tried to push his way through the group.

When he attempted to squeeze past one of the younger women, Harriet Fleming, the analytical chemistry technician, grabbed him by the lapel of his lab coat and flung him to the rear. “Take your turn, Schlossman. You can’t tell anyone what to do anymore.”

Max caught Schlossman as he reeled backwards from Fleming’s rough toss, gave him a gentle push along the hall, and said, “You’ll be the last one out of here. And I don’t think you’ll like what’ll be waiting up top for you, either.” Max watched as Schlossman disappeared into his office at the far end of the hall.

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Eight

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 6:25 pm.


Blacker sat in the passenger seat of a sedan speeding south on I-95 holding a piece of cut-off shirttail over what was left of his right index finger. “We’ll take an exit in about twelve miles. Left at the first intersection.,” he said, then awkwardly auto-dialed The General.

“Is he gonna cooperate?” The General said before Blacker could reply, then continued, “Where are you? Sounds like you’re in a car.”

“No progress yet, but we’re working on it. They’re playing tough, but we’ll get tougher. First, I gotta take care of my finger. She bit it off and I’m on the way to a hospital.”

“What? What the hell’s going on? The old woman bit off your finger?”

“I’ll fill you in later. Right now, send a couple more guys over there. I left three, but we better play it safe. I’ll get back as soon as I can. We’re at the hospital now. I gotta go.” Blacker said with The General sputtering obscenities at the other end. He jumped out of the car as the driver pulled up to the ER entrance.


Undisclosed location, Northern Virginia: Saturday, 6:30 pm.


The General placed a call as soon as the one with Blacker ended. “We got a problem. Blacker screwed up again. Send a couple of your men to the Philadelphia location as backup. Blacker and another guy had to leave for a while.”

He was silent a moment, then answered, “The old woman bit him. He’s on his way to a hospital. When can your guys get there?” A second later he said, “All right, if that’s the best you can do.”

Then he called Blacker. “Backup will be there in two hours. Keep me informed.” He ended the call, opened a desk drawer, took out a bottle of single malt and poured two fingers worth. “Son of a bitch . . .” he sighed, as he lifted the glass to his mouth.


Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:30 pm.


It took every bit of will power Max could muster to restrain himself from attacking Schlossman when he heard Rana’s scream before the line went dead. Instead, he stared intently at Schlossman and said nothing. His thoughts were running through possible scenarios that might be playing out where Lena and Rana were captive. The best option was that Zula would rescue them. Then he remembered that José was planning to visit Rana when he left L.A. Both were proficient in superpower transformation, and he knew they would be impossible to stop if they had a chance to save the two women. His thoughts brought him to the only conclusion that made sense—Lena and Rana would be rescued, and his family would come for him. Together, they would take down this evil enterprise and whoever was running it. But he still couldn’t get Rana’s scream out of his mind, and hoped Zula acted soon.

“You look worried, Dr. Manus. Your wife and her friend, whoever she is, are obviously in a difficult position. Wouldn’t it be better for them, and you, if you cooperate with us? Why subject them to more pain when you can prevent it so easily?” Schlossman said, when he got over initial shock from the intensity of Max’s stare after the call.

Max stood and glared down at Schlossman sitting behind his gigantic desk, as if he were protected by its enormity. “It’s you who should be worried, Schlossman. Not me . . .. You have no idea what you’re up against. But you’ll find out soon enough.” He kicked the chair away, grabbed the cord of the secure telephone Schlossman used for their call with Lena and ripped it out the wall jack, then left the office, not bothering to pick up the overturned chair or close the door behind him.

“What are you doing?” Schlossman screamed, as Max disappeared down the hall. “Where are you going?” There was no answer, only silence.


“Dr. Mortensen, gather the staff and meet me in the cafeteria in ten minutes. But not Schlossman,” Max said, when he entered Mortensen’s lab.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“A return to sanity, that’s what’s going on,” Max answered.

“Gerhardt would never permit something like this. Why shouldn’t he be part of whatever you’re doing”?

“Dr. Schlossman’s no longer in charge,” Max said. The calm and strength in his voice was undeniable . . . and compelling.

“Who is?” she asked.

“I am.”

“What about Gerhardt?”

“The last time I saw him he was cowering behind his desk raving at the injustice of it all. Is that who you want as your leader?”

Mortensen looked at Max for a long moment, then said, “We’ll be there in ten minutes.”


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 6:30 pm.


Blacker couldn’t stand it any longer and stormed up to the admissions desk for the third time since he got there. “When can I see a goddamn doctor? Half my finger’s gone. I’ve been here two hours.”

“Sir. We’ve got four attendings, eleven nurses, and forty-seven people waiting to see them, most with conditions far worse than a hurt finger. I’ll call you when we can take you back.”

“Hurt finger? It’s been bit off. I need somebody to do something.”

“Do you have the missing piece? Do you want it reattached?”

“No! It’s gone. It landed on a dirty floor, then somebody stepped on it. I just want my finger sewed up, or whatever it is you people do. I gotta get back there. Just get me fixed up and let me get outta this third-world hellhole.”

This description of her waiting room did not sit well with the admitting nurse. “Sir. Go back to your seat and wait till your name is called. Next!”


Meanwhile, Zula was still crouched neara stack of lumber behind the derelict auto parts store where Lena and Rana were being held captive by Blacker’s thugs. When her phone vibrated, she saw it was José

 “Where are you?”

“Leaving Newark. I should get there in about an hour and a half. Any change in the situation?”

“Yeah. Two guys rushed out the back-door a while ago, jumped into a car and took off in a hurry. No idea how many are still in there. Don’t know what’s going on.”

“You’re not gonna try anything on your own, are you? Wait till I get there.”

“Just hurry. You have my location on your GPS, don’t you?”

“No problem. Just stay put. I’ll see you soon.”


Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:40 pm.


Max surveyed the room and saw that every member of the research group was present. “Dr. Schlossman is no longer in charge of this project.”

A collective gasp expressed their surprise. “What do you mean?” Someone yelled.

“Exactly what I said. What you are trying to do is unacceptable, and the project ends as of this minute.”

Before Max could explain the reason for his drastic action, Keith Danforth stood and said, “You can’t do this. We won’t let you.” He looked around the room, as if seeking support, but there was only silence and confusion. Ignoring the others, he approached Max and said, “I won’t let you. What have you done with Dr. Schlossman? Why isn’t he here?”

‘I haven’t done anything with Schlossman. As far as I know, he’s in his office—sulking behind his big desk. And as far as you preventing me from doing anything, don’t even try.”

As Max turned away from Danforth and started to continue his address to the gathered scientists, Danforth grabbed Max’s arm and tried to pull him toward the doorway. “We’re going to Dr. Schlossman’s office and straighten this out. Come on!”

Max calmly gripped Danforth’s wrist and twisted it outward until his elbow was strained to the point of snapping out of joint. Danforth screamed at the pain and shifted his stance to prevent a dislocation. “Stop! Let go,” he pleaded.

Max released his hold and said, “I don’t want to hurt you. If you want to see Schlossman, go ahead. You won’t be missed here. Everyone knows you’re his informer.”

“Don’t you realize Dr. Schlossman’s called for help by now. You’ll be in shackles soon,” Danforth said, as he edged toward the door.

“Get out of here,” Max said, then watched Danforth go out the door and down the hall toward Schlossman’s office. He then turned to the group, held up his hand to quiet the chatter, told everyone to sit down, and proceeded to describe his plan.


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 7:50 pm.


“Are you here?” Zula answered when her phone vibrated.

“Five minutes if my GPS’s right. Can you get there by then?”

“I’ll be there.”

A few minutes later, a silver Camry pulled into a Burger King parking lot and parked next to where Zula sat at the only outdoor picnic table. Zula and José hugged, she greeted the dogs, and they exchanged a few words. Then, on foot, they hurried across a vacant lot toward a row of abandoned single-story buildings backed up to an alley parallel to the street the fast food restaurant was on.  “It’s that one,” Zula said, pointing to a chain link fence-enclosed property with a stack of lumber at the back of a parking lot, and a wide loading dock with a Chevy Suburban parked next to it. “There’s a break in the fence over here,” she said leading the way.

No more than two minutes after Zula and José, and his two dogs, Jupiter and Zeus, were hidden behind the lumber pile, an SUV pulled into the lot and parked by the Suburban. Two men were in the front seats. One of them appeared to be talking on a mobile phone.

“Come on José, this is our chance, “Zula said as she sprang up and ran crouched low to the ground toward the SUV. José and the dogs followed. When the man in the passenger seat got out he was greeted by a smashing blow to the back of his neck and dropped to the ground. Zula felt for a carotid pulse—nothing.

At the same time, on the other side of the vehicle, José grabbed the driver’s left arm when he opened the door, yanked him out and swung him around a-hundred-eighty degrees to smash into the rear door. Before the man could recover from the impact, José put him into a chokehold that took only sixty seconds to end his life.

“Now what?” José whispered across the roof of the SUV to where Zula stood.

“We convince the guys inside we’re the reinforcements.”

“Let’s do it,” José said, signaling the dogs to heel at his side.

Zula led the way up crumbling concrete stairs and pounded on the steel door next to a bank of three tall roll-up doors.

 Without delay, someone on the other side said, “Who did you say sent you?”

“Who do you think, asshole. We’re here to help you guys out,” Zula bluffed in the lowest voice she could. When the lock clicked, and the door began to open, Zula slammed her shoulder into it with enough force to knock the man on the other side backwards and off balance. As Zula and José rushed in, José gave a single command and nodded at the man trying to pull a pistol out of a holster on his belt. When Zeus leapt forward and set his jaws around the man’s gun arm, Jupiter jumped up and sank his fangs into the man’s throat. Within seconds, the dogs knew their job was done and ran after José and Zula, who were headed toward an open door leading into another room.

“What’s going on back there?” a voice came from the other room.

“No problem,” José yelled. We’ll be right there.”

“Who are you?” a brute of a guy said, when he encountered José as he came through the doorway to see what the noise was all about.

“I’m your replacement,” José said, then smashed his fist into the man’s face and kicked his right knee with enough force to twist it sideways at a right angle. The man collapsed in pain and José commanded Jupiter to guard him. While José was dealing with that guy, Zula raced past him into the big room where she saw Lena and Rana strapped to chairs. When she saw Zula, Lena yelled, “Watch out! There’s another one by the front window.”

Zula dropped to the floor as three bullets zinged above her, hitting the wall. At that same moment, José burst through the doorway, not knowing where the shots were coming from. “Aww, he grunted, and was thrown backwards from the force of a round piercing his left shoulder. He landed on the floor next to Zula, who held a Glock pointed at the man walking toward them holding a pistol aimed at Rana. Without hesitating, Zula fired, and the man dropped. It was over—at least this part.

Zula jumped up and ran to the man she shot and checked his pulse. “He’s dead. Jose. Are you okay?’ she yelled across the room.

“I’ll be all right. What about Rana and Lena?”

Zula used her knife to cut their PlastiCuffs, then focused her attention on Rana, who was barely able to remain upright in the chair due to weakness from blood loss and fighting off pain from the stabs to her thighs. Lena rose from her chair and said, “We should get out of here. Blacker may return at any moment with more men. We need to get Rana to a doctor. Jose, too.”

Zula picked up Rana and headed to the rear door, “We’ll take their Suburban.”

Lena picked up Blacker’s finger from the floor and put it in her pocket, then grabbed the men’s cell phones, pistols, and a field knife with an eight-inch blade, tossed them into a tote bag that sat near the doorway and slung it over her shoulder. “Jose, let’s drag this guy out back. We’re taking him with us,” she said, as she approached the man whose knee Jose had destroyed. He lay where they left him, on the floor writhing in pain, the dogs looking down on him and alert to his every move.

“Where are we going?” Jose asked, as he grabbed one of the man’s arms.

“To the hospital on Rana’s base. They’ll take care of you, too.”

“I’m not military. Why would they do that?” he asked, wincing with pain.

‘Don’t worry. I’ll make a call,” Lena said. Jupiter and Zeus followed, one on each side of the man who cried out every time his leg was jostled as she and Jose dragged him out the door and down the steps to the Suburban where Rana waited on the back seat.

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Seven


Havre de Grace, Maryland: Saturday, 4:50 pm.

Zula scrunched down in the front seat of the SUV she borrowed from a friend and watched the four women approach along the sidewalk until her view was blocked by the van parked in front of her. When they didn’t walk past the van, and she heard the side-door slide open, she realized the van was their destination—that it belonged to the abductors. She jotted its license plate number on her arm, then slipped further down in the seat to avoid being seen. When she heard an engine come to life and the sound of leaves crunching under tires, she peeked over the steering wheel to see the van pulling into the street and heading away. After a moment to let it get far enough ahead, she followed, keeping it in sight from a safe distance.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 6: 05 pm.

Blacker looked at the security camera screen and saw Nadya’s van pulling up to the loading dock of the derelict building. “They’re here,” he yelled. He signaled for two of four football-player-size guys to join him as he headed to the rear of the room where a steel door opened to the dock. Blacker told one of the other two to stay where he was near the window at the front of the building, and the other to monitor the security cameras they set up when they arrived earlier that evening.

“Take them inside and strap them to those chairs in the back room,” he told his grunts when Nadya and Klara forced Lena and Rana out of the van, careful not let their hoods slip off.

“You need us anymore?” Nadya asked after the big guys took the captives into the building.

“No. I’ve got enough manpower. Just get the hell outta here. And your money is on the way.”

“Good. You know where to find us if you need anything else,” Nadya said, as she climbed into her van. “Until next time, proshchay.”

“Yeah, same to you—you crazy bitch,” he added under his breath.

Seeing that Lena and Rana were securely bound in the chairs and their hoods removed, and after going through the things from Rana’s condo Nadya brought with them, Blacker called The General. “We’ve got the old woman. She’s Manus’ wife alright. Her brown-skinned friend is Ranaveetha Nair. Don’t know anything else about her, but don’t care either.”

Her “brown-skinned friend,” as you call her, just happens to be an army lieutenant stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground. She heads an intel operation and appears to be highly regarded, and well-connected. Looks like you’ve stepped into a hornet’s nest.”

“Me . . . or us, General?”

“Don’t play that game with me, Blacker. You’re the one that grabbed her, not me. So cut the crap, don’t do anything stupid, and wait for my instructions.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:08 pm.

Schlossman answered at once, anticipating a call from The General. “Yes?”

“We have his wife. Is he cooperating yet?’

“I’ll find out soon. He’s still talking to the research team, but should be finished soon. I’ll check and let you know.” Schlossman hung up and went to find Max.

At the same moment Schlossman left his office, Max stormed out of Riverton’s lab and hurried toward Schlossman’s lab, his rage barely under control. He intended to confront the director with the knowledge he had just confirmed during his questioning of the scientist responsible for coding remote-control algorithms that would monitor and command troops implanted with behavior-regulating microchips and who would be enhanced by Max’s superpower. Riverton referred to these AI-modified soldiers as CEFs: Controlled Enhanced Fighters.

As Max rounded a junction in the hall, he nearly knocked over Elizabeth Mortensen, the scientist he met in Schlossman’s office the night he was brought to the lab.

“What’s the big rush?” she asked, picking up the notebook she dropped when Max ran into her. “You look like you’ve had a shock of some kind.”

“I know what you people are up to,” Max said, “It’s not right. And I’m going to stop it.”

As he started to march off to find Schlossman, Mortensen said, “Wait. Let’s talk before you do anything drastic. You’ll only make things worse if you attack Gerhardt.”

Not sure what she meant, Max turned back to her and said, “What do you mean by that?”

She looked around, then said, “Come with me. We need to talk.”

Before Max could respond, Schlossman appeared from around the corner and stopped next to Mortensen. He gave her a stern look and said, “Is there a problem, Elizabeth?” Seeing fear in her face, he said, “It appears there may be. I’ll see you later.” Then, turning to Max, “Before I deal with Elizabeth, you and I need to talk. In my office.”

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  6:10 pm.

Zula climbed over the chain link fence and ducked behind a pile of half-rotted lumber at the back of the trash-littered gravel lot. The van that brought Lena and Rana to this abandoned auto parts store had just left, right after two over-muscled men in typically black attire took the two women inside. She saw the man she recognized as Blacker when he came out to the dock and then followed the others back into the building. There were only two vehicles parked by the loading dock, so she didn’t think there would be many more guards inside, if any at all besides the two she had just seen.

As Zula considered her options for rescuing Lena and Rana, her mobile vibrated an incoming call. “Hello.”

“Zula, it’s me, Jose. I can’t get hold of Rana or Lena. Where are they?”

“Jose! Thank God, it’s you. We’ve got problems. Where are you?”

“I just landed in Newark. I flew in from L.A. where I was visiting my sister. What the hell’s going on?”

“We can’t talk on the phone. Can you get to Philadelphia? I’m keeping an eye on a building where Lena and Rana were being held.”

“What? Being held by who? What are you talking about?”

“Jose! I’ll explain when you get here. You and I are going to take care of it. Okay?”

“I’ll rent a car and get there as fast as I can. Where should we meet?”

Zula gave him an address for his GPS. It was on North Beach Street, just off I-95,a spot where he could park without being seen. “You should be able to get here in two hours. Call me when you do and I’ll come get you. Did you bring the dogs?”

“Of course. I don’t go anyplace without them. I just got them from wherever they put them on the plane.”

“I’ll be waiting. Hurry.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:15 pm.

Max followed Schlossman into his office, waited until he closed the door, then as calmly, yet firmly as he could manage under the circumstances, said, “I can’t let you carry out this insane plan to use Artificial Intelligence to create super-soldiers. It’s not only unethical and dangerous, it’s beyond the realm of civilized behavior. It’s criminal. You’d have to be a demented psychopath to think it’s permissible to turn men into programed killing machines controlled by someone in a back room thousands of miles away.”

“Dr. Manus, with all due respect, your opinion about this project is totally irrelevant. A government group far more important than you and your outdated rectitude has authorized and supports this project. I don’t give a whit about your objections. And as far as what I assume is your intent not to cooperate is concerned, I believe you might change your mind after what you are about to hear.”

Schlossman then called the number The General had given him earlier.

“We’re here,” Blacker answered.

“Put her on,” Schlossman said.

“Say hello to your husband,” Blacker said, as he held the phone in front of Lena.

Lena shook her head and refused to speak.

Blacker glanced at one of his goons, who immediately stabbed a serrated knife into Rana’s thigh, quickly ripped it out and held it above her other leg. Rana cried out once, then gritted her teeth and stifled further outburst.

“She’s gonna look like Swiss cheese unless you say what I tell you to say,” Blacker said. “Tell him you and your Indian friend will be fish food if he doesn’t do what he’s told to do. Unless you won’t mind your friend’s face carved like a Halloween pumpkin by my knife-wielding companion who just happens to love that kind of fun.”

“Max. Don’t worry about Rana and me. Do what’s—”

Blacker yanked the phone away before Lena could say more and raised his other arm to slap her. But charged by Max’s superpower, and enraged by what they did to Rana, Lena anticipated his intent and snapped her head to the side. Just as his hand approached her face, she caught the index finger of his right hand in her mouth and bit down with all the force she could generate. The crunch of bone was obliterated by Blacker’s anguished scream. After she spit half of his finger onto the filthy floor, she said, “You shouldn’t have hurt her. Now you and your little boys here are really in serious trouble.”

“You shouldn’t have done that, old woman,” Blacker yelled,” sticking the bloody stub of his finger in her face. He nodded at the man with the knife, who jabbed it into Rana’s other leg. Rana screamed louder this time—the blade had struck bone and sent a shockwave down her entire leg.

Sitting in Schlossman’s office, with its polished walnut desk and expensive oriental carpets, Max heard Rana’s scream as if he were in the room with her. But from Lena’s statement, Max knew at once that Zula hadn’t been captured. He also knew that Zula would do everything in her power to rescue Lena and Rana, and that when Zula put her mind to something, she usually succeeded. There was hope, and he clung to it tenaciously.

But Max was still enraged, and Schlossman was terrified by the penetrating look Max gave him and the fierce determination in his eyes. But Schlossman quickly reminded himself that it was he who was in control, not this old man whose wife his employers had securely in hand. At least that’s what he believed at the time.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  6:20 pm.

Zula heard a door slam and saw Blacker and another man rush down the dock steps and get into one of the vehicles parked there. Blacker was holding a rag around his hand and yelling at his companion. The sedan’s tires spun in loose gravel as it sped out of the lot. Zula checked the time and figured Jose would join her around 8:30. She wondered if the two men would be back by then, and how many remained in the building.

To be continued . . .

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Six

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 11:35 am.

Heads turned in their direction when Schlossman and Max entered the common dining room and took an empty table. The handcuffs missing from Max’s raw wrists could only mean one thing: Manus was going to cooperate. The chef approached with two cups of coffee.

“The works, Don,” Schlossman said, then looked around the room as the chef headed to the kitchen. Schlossman beckoned to a man and woman sitting together, who rose and made their way to the table then sat across from Max and Schlossman.

“So, Gerhardt, this must be Dr. Manus,” the woman said, looking at Max. “I’m Melissa Covington, and this,” nodding at her companion, “is Keith Danforth. We’re responsible for fine-tuning the behavior control algorithm and the primate trials.”

“Melissa, I haven’t had a chance to fill Max in on the details of our project yet. Perhaps you could wait until I do before you go into details about your work,” Schlossman said with an edge of irritation in his voice.

Max set the coffee aside, stood and said, “No problem, Gerhardt. This is as good a time as any to dig into the research. I’ll start with Melissa and Keith.” Then, turning to Melissa, he said, “Let’s go to your lab.” As he started toward the door, he looked over his shoulder and said, “You told me I had to understand the program if I’m going to contribute anything, right? That’s what I’m gonna do then. Ask Don to send along my breakfast and a fresh pot of coffee.”

Schlossman was momentarily speechless as Melissa and Keith rose and fell in behind Max without asking their boss’ permission, or even looking at him. When the three left the dining room, Schlossman yelled, “Don! Take his breakfast and a pot of coffee to Melissa’s lab,” then stormed back to his office.

Washington, DC: Saturday, 2:40 pm.

When Blacker’s phone buzzed he saw it was his guy who set up surveillance on DMV hits with South Asian names. “What’s up?” he answered.

“I’ve got eyes on the residences of all six. Three of the vehicles are in sight, and we’ll watch for the others. So far, we’ve only seen three women, and they were in the same vehicle. One looked like she’s Indian or Pakistani. The name on the DMV registration is Ranaveetha Nair

“Okay. Stay in touch.”

Fifteen minutes later, Blacker got a call from the general.

“We have an ID on the woman who came to your office a while ago. Lieutenant Zula Mabanga, Army Special Forces, stationed at Fort Meade. She must be someone special because she was recently transferred to a black ops unit as an instructor. There’s no mention of Manus in her file.”

“Why the hell was she interested in Bentz?” Blacker asked. “At least that’s what she said.”

“No idea. I’ll put a tail on her as soon as we locate her. Any news on the old woman who came in on that private jet this morning?”

“I’m working on it and will let you know if something turns up. What about Manus?” Is he cooperating? Anything new at the mine?”

“I haven’t talked to Schlossman today, so I don’t know. But I still want his wife and kids as insurance. The mine won’t stay secret forever. We have to speed up this project if we’re going to keep it under wraps.”

Noting urgency in the general’s voice, Blacker asked, “Is there a deadline I don’t know about?”

The general hesitated a moment, then said, “I intend to surprise the Russians when we show up at the 2018 joint US-NATO Military exercises. We need a game changer, and this would be it.”

“That doesn’t give us much time.”

“That’s why you need to get your ass in gear, Blacker. Bring me that Manus woman and the daughters, too.”

“Like I said, I’m working on it, Sir. Maybe we’ll have something tonight. At least the woman. Still don’t know who or where the daughters are. Are you sure they exist?”

“It’s rumored there’s two of them, but I’ve seen nothing specific. My intel guys are still searching. I’ll let you know if we find anything,” the general said, before ending the call.

Havre de Grace, Maryland: Saturday, 2:50 pm.

“Mom! Zula. Listen to this recording of calls Blacker had just now. One was about surveillance on my car. Someone must be out there now, watching. The other sounded like it was with someone in the military. They’ve identified Zula. This is getting scary.”

After the three of them listened to Blacker’s conversations, they realized danger was losing in on them. Lena spoke first. “We have to get out of here without being seen. We’ll have to evade whoever is watching Rana’s SUV, then find the mine they referred to. It must be in Bluefield. That’s where Max’s tracker went dead. Sounds to me like they intend to use Max’s superpower as a weapon, and plan to use us to coerce him to give it to them. But from what Blacker said, they don’t know you two are our daughters.”

“Rana was the first to reply. “That may be true, but they’re still out to find me. Probably because someone spotted me, and my SUV, this morning when I met you at that airfield.”

“That makes sense, so we have to do something to get out of here without them knowing. I’ll sneak out the back, find the stakeout and neutralize him.” Zula said. “Then we can head to West Virginia and find Papa.”

“We’ll have to get another vehicle in case they’ve issued an alert for mine.” Rana said.

“We’ll take mine, it’s parked down the street.,” Zula countered.

“No. They know who you are, so they’ll probably put out an alert for your car as well,” Rana said.

‘Hold on,” Lena said. “Zula, go out the back, over the parking lot wall and walk away. Then call Uber for a ride to Fort Meade. Beg, borrow, or steal a vehicle, then come back for us. We’ll deal with the stakeout then. If you take out the watcher now, they’ll know something is wrong and send reinforcements.”

Zula glanced at Rana, acknowledged her nod of approval, then said, “Good plan, Mom. I’ll go now.”

Washington, DC: Saturday, 3:05 pm.

“What?” Blacker said when he answered the call.

“Didn’t you say something about a tall black woman coming to your office this morning?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“The guy I posted in back of one of the target’s condo saw such a person come out the back door, cut across the parking lot and climb over a six-foot wall. That got my attention.”

“Is that the place with the three women?”

“Yeah. And one of them is old.”

“Bingo! Give me the address., I’ll take it from here.”

Blacker ended that call, then hit a stored number, desperate for it to be answered, and it was.

“What?” the woman who answered said.

“A location. Far as I can tell, there’s three women; an old white one, a South Asian and a Black. The black one is military, but she took off a few minutes ago. Unless she returns, you only have two to deal with.” Blacker gave her the address and told her that half her payment would be transferred as soon as this call was over.

Blacker had his assistant handle the money transfer while he called the general. “We’re in play. I’ll keep you posted,” he said, then ended the call.

Camden, New Jersey: Saturday, 3:10 pm.

“Klara. Get our stuff. We gotta roll.”

“What’s doing?” Klara asked, not taking her eyes away from a cage-fighting match taking place in all its gory splendor on a sixty-inch flat-screen TV.

“It’s the job I told you about. Remember? The easy seventy-five thousand. We gotta snatch a couple of women. It’ sixty miles from here, so let’s get going.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 4:10 pm.

“I can see what you are trying to do, and where there may be a few glitches. But before we adjust your approach, I need to talk to the other members of the group. Can you introduce me to them now?” Max asked Melissa Covington as he got up from the table where he’d been going through their experimental results. Keith Danforth, her assistant, was working at a lab bench across the room.

Melissa closed the notebook and said, “No problem. Jerry Riverton’s lab is next door. He’s creating the AI biochip implants and working on the biocompatibility problem. He’s looking forward to meeting you.” She rose and led Max out to the hall.

After Max and Melissa left, Danforth called Schlossman. “Melissa told him everything we’re doing. Now she’s taking him to Riverton.”

“Let me know where he goes after that.”

Washington, DC: Saturday, 3:55 pm.

Blacker answered the call he was expecting. “Yeah.”

“We’ll be there in five minutes. Any change in the situation?” Nadya asked.

“No sign of the black woman, and the other two haven’t left. Looks like it’s all clear. Go for it.”

“Where should we deliver the package?”

“Take both of them to the warehouse in Philadelphia. We’ll take it from there.”

“What about the black one if she shows up?”

“Kill her and get rid of the body.  She’s Army. I don’t want any military ties to this operation.”

“This is getting complicated, Blacker. What’s going on?” Nadya asked.

 “Don’t worry. Just do what you’re being paid to do.”

“Who’s the Indian woman?”

“Don’t know. Maybe a friend. But I want her in case she’s important to Manus.”

“What about your stakeout guys? Do they know we’re coming?”

“They know, but leave them out of it. They’re watchers, not fighters. You and your psychopath girlfriend are on your own. Call me when you’ve got them.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 4:30 pm.

It took only ten minutes with Riverton for Max to grasp the full extent of why he had been kidnapped and brought to this secret lab. They thought they could use his superpower to enhance Artificial Intelligence systems implanted into human brains in the form of microchips which would be integrated into brainstem neuronal networks.

It was a military operation with the objective of creating super-fighters endowed with super-human powers and remotely controlled via satellite. The ultimate human war machines. “This is the work of madmen, and I can’t let them do it,” he swore under his breath,” enraged at their intent to steal his discovery and employ it in such a reprehensible way.

Havre de Grace, Maryland: Saturday, 4:30 pm EST.

“He’s still there,” Rana said, peering out her front window. After a few minutes, she said, “A van just parked down the street and two women I don’t recognize are getting out. They’re coming this way.”

“Probably visiting someone who lives around here, but keep an eye on them,” Lena said. Then Rana’s phone rang and Lena answered. “Hello.”

She recognized Zula’s voice. “I got a car and am almost there. Be ready to leave in ten minutes. I’ll take care of the stakeout.”

“Zula’s on her way. We’ll get out of here after she neutralizes that guy out there. Pack what we’ll need,” Lena told Rana. Before Rana left to gather her equipment, she glanced out the window and saw the two women walk past the gate to her small yard and continue along the sidewalk.

Ten minutes later, there was a knock at the rear door. “Must be Zula. I’ll get it,” Lena said, as Rana was putting the last of her gadgets and some weapons into a duffle bag.

When Lena cracked the door to see who was there, it crashed open with enough force to slam her backwards, then head-over-heels when she stumbled over a half-full laundry basket.

“Mom! What happened?” Rana yelled as she ran into the back hallway. “Oh my god,” she cried when she came face-to-face with a big woman in military fatigues pointing a pistol at her midsection. Behind this woman was another one, petite with curly blond hair, kneeling next to Lena and holding a gun to her head.

“Don’t do anything foolish, honey, unless you want this old lady’s brains decorating this hallway. On the floor, face down. Now! Klara, cuff her, then this one,” the blond said, nodding at Lena.

Lena immediately sensed a growing feeling of strength and an urgent desire to strike out at the woman holding the gun to her head, but realized the risk of being shot was too high. She willed herself to stifle the urge to strike out, and wait for the right opportunity instead. She caught Rana’s eye and shook her head, instructing Rana not to try anything foolish.

In less than a minute, Lena and Rana were sitting with their backs against the wall with their hands bound behind them using plastic restraints. While Klara guarded the two captives, Nadya called Blacker. “Got em. No problem. You can call off your watch dogs now. Everything’s under control.”

“All right. But before you leave, search the place. Find the old woman’s phone, and computer if she has one. Look for any info about her daughters. I need them as well.”

“There’s a tote bag filled with what looks like military communication stuff, some guns, too,” Nadya said.

“Bring it. Must have been the black woman’s. She’s military.”

“Okay. Then we’ll head to the warehouse. Should be there in about an hour.”

Meanwhile, as Nadya was searching the condo, Zula took an exit off the Pulaski Highway and made her way toward Rana’s neighborhood. When she turned onto Rana’s street, she noticed the stakeout car pull away from the curb and speed off in the opposite direction. Then she saw four women come out of Rana’s condo, one of them carrying a black duffle bag. When she got closer, she realized the two in front were Lena and Rana, and saw their hands were positioned behind them, as if restrained. They also walked with a shuffle, as if their legs were shackled. Then she noticed one of them held a pistol at her side. Still half a block away, she pulled behind a windowless van parked at the curb. “How the hell am I gonna handle this situation?” she wondered, as she watched the women approach slowly along the tree-shaded sidewalk.

To be continued . . .


Hijinks Under Ground. Episode Five

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 10:00 am EST.

“Yes, sir. He’s fine. The leg wound’s not that bad. In fact, it seems to be healing faster than expected. He slept through the night, but is awake now.” Schlossman said into his phone.

“What did you tell him?” the general asked.

“Elizabeth and I spent two hours with him after he got here. We described in general terms what we want from him and what we’re doing.”

“And . . .?”

“Manus denied his super-power transformation discovery and refused to work with us. He said we’re insane and demanded to be set free.”

“Hmm. . .. Has he shown any signs of this so-called super power? Has he tried anything?”

“No. But he’s still in handcuffs and leg shackles, locked in his room. He knows there’s no way out of here. I don’t think he’ll try to escape, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Schlossman said.

“Anything else?” the general asked.

Schlossman summarized the week’s progress, focusing on compatibility of the AI chip implant. “Only seventeen-percent rejection with the new version. And the monkeys are easier to handle. Looks like composition of the bioadhesive is the key.”

“Good.  But you’ve got to reach zero rejection. No room for screw-ups. And keep working on Manus. But just in case, I’m arranging leverage to convince him if he refuses to cooperate. I’ll keep you posted.”

En route from Havre de Grace to Washington, DC: Saturday, 10:20 am EST.

“Do you think Papa will use his super power to get away from whoever has him?” Zula asked, from the back seat of Rana’s SUV.

Rana, who was driving, glanced at Lena sitting in the passenger’s seat. Lena was silent for a while, staring out the window. Finally, she said, “Depends on what they’ve done to him. He was shot in the leg. No bone or nerve damage, but a nasty exit that tore a lot of muscle. If they shot him up with drugs to sedate or knock him out, it’ll take a while to recover. If he’s shackled or imprisoned, there’s not much he can do. In short, I don’t know. But there is one thing I do know. When Max is himself and unfettered, they’ll have their hands full.”

“What about us?” Zula asked. “Will what Papa taught us in Mexico still work? I can’t believe the incredible power I had when those Korean guys attacked. You felt it, didn’t you, Mother?”

“That wasn’t the first time. It’s real, all right. It’s as if a new control center in our brains has developed that kicks in when we’re threatened. For me, there’s a shift in energy that makes me feel like a super-powered dynamo. I react faster, comprehend what is going on around me quicker, and exert more force. It’s truly amazing . . . but also, scary.”

“Scary?” Rana chimed in.

“In the wrong hands, yes. Your father and I are dedicating our lives to preventing those kinds of people from acquiring this knowledge,” Lena said, finally revealing the decision she and Max made while in Mexico recuperating from their confrontation in Minneapolis with the jihadists to her two adopted daughters. “Your father is a brilliant scientist, no doubt a genius. But, in all honesty, he needs my help to fend off criminal forces that want to take advantage of his discoveries. With help from you two, and Jose and his dogs, we have a reasonable chance of doing that.”

“Mom. We’re family. We’ll do whatever it takes,” Zula said emphatically. “Whoever said ‘A family that fights together, stays together’ had it right. I can’t speak for Rana, but I’m in!”

“Me too,” Rana said. “But, right now we have to decide what’s we’re gonna do about this guy we’re visiting today.”

“We’ll either capture him or monitor him. We’ve got to find out where they’re holding Max.”

“We better figure out what we’re gonna do, because we’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” Rana said.

“You brought your bag of tricks, didn’t you?” Lena asked.

“You know me. Always prepared.” Rana said.

Camden New Jersey: Saturday, 10:53 am EST.

“Yeah?” Nadya said, when she answered her cell phone. She motioned to Klara to lower the sound on their flat screen TV. Klara glared at Nadya for a moment, then stood and stomped out of the room without turning the volume down.

“I’ve got a job for you,” Blacker said.

“I’m on vacation. We just finished a tough job and we’re gonna take some time off. We need it.”

“I heard. Brazil, right?”

Silence for a moment, then, “Okay, so you got ears to the ground. What’s up?”

“A quick and easy one . . . a fast fifty K.”

“It won’t be easy if you’re calling me.”

“Trust me. It’ll be easy. I’m just in a hurry, that’s all.”

 “Who and where?”

“An old woman. Couple of daughters too. Local. I’ll know more later. Still got a few things to iron out.”


“Shouldn’t be. You afraid of old women?”

“Don’t mess with me, Blacker. What’s this about?”

“Hey. No big deal. Military stuff. You know how those guys are sometimes. Afraid of their own shadows. Especially if it’s political.”

“Yeah, I know the type. All right. But it’ll be seventy-five if there’s three of them. Text me details when you’ve worked them out. If it’s as easy as you say, I’ll try to convince Klara. We’ll want half the money upfront.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 11:00 am EST.

“Good morning, Max.” Schlossman said, when he unlocked the door to Max’s room. “Are you ready for breakfast?”

Max got out of the chair where he had been meditating and advanced toward Schlossman, who took a step back toward the open door. A short chain attached to ankle shackles brought Max to an abrupt halt. He glanced at his raw wrists where steel cuffs abraded skin, and said, “Get these things off me.”

“Have you thought more about our conversation last night?” Schlossman asked.

Max stared at him a moment, then said, “I need to know about your progress up to now. The kinds of problems you’ve encountered. I want to see your experimental protocols and talk to the other scientists. Then I’ll know if I can help. As far as this super hero bullshit you keep harping on, there’s no such thing. Yes, I want breakfast. And don’t worry. I don’t intend to attack you this morning, . . . Gerhardt.” There’s too much I need to learn before I do anything like that, he thought as he watched Schlossman nervously fumble through his pockets for the key.

Washington, D.C.: Saturday, 11:10 am. EST.

When Blacker saw the caller ID, he answered, “Got anything?”

“An unscheduled plane with no flight plan landed at a private field west of Annapolis early this morning. A tall, elderly woman was seen deplaning by a fuel delivery guy one of my people knows. She got into a green, late-model Ford Explorer, Maryland plate. The driver was a dark-skinned woman, maybe in her thirties. He said she looked South Asian, like India, or somewhere around there. Might be worth looking into.”

Blacker ended the conversation and immediately called another number. Twenty minutes, later he learned there were 324 late-model green Explorers listed with the Maryland DMV. Thirty-seven title holders had Spanish, Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian names; six of those were Indian or Pakistani. A longshot, but at least it was something. He made another call and issued instructions. “Check the Indian ones first,” he said before ringing off.

Washington, D.C., parking garage: Saturday, 11:25 am. EST.

“Blacker’s company is in there,” Rana said, pointing at a ten-story office building on the other side of a busy street. Her SUV was parked on the third level of a parking structure with a clear view of the building.

“What now?” Zula asked. “Doesn’t do much good sitting here staring at a building.”

“We need to know who used him to send Bentz after Max. Then identify the army team that got him the next morning. Even better, where they’re holding Max,” Lena said.

“How do we do that?” Zula asked.

“What if you just confront him and ask him?” Lena said. “I don’t expect you’d learn anything. He’d deny knowing what you’re talking about. Probably get belligerent. But you wouldn’t be there to get information, you’d be there to plant a listening device, like Rana did in the cartel lawyer’s office in Mexico City.”

“Why me? This kind of thing is what Rana does. Not me.”

Lena turned around in her seat and looked at Zula. “Because, let’s face it, you’re a bit more intimidating that your demure Sikh sister, even though under that calm exterior, she is every bit the killer you are. Play your military officer card. Make up something about your old buddy Bentz gone missing, and that he mentioned a job for Blacker when you saw him last week. You just want to know if Blacker has any idea where Bentz might have gone. He’ll be suspicious and won’t tell you anything, but hopefully, you’ll have a chance to stick the miniature microphone someplace, then get out. You got any better ideas?”

“What do you think, Rana?” Zula asked. “Would it work?”

“Demure? Mom, what do you mean by that?”

“Rana! Answer Zula. Would this plan work?”

“Yes. As long as the pickup is in the same room he’s in. It’s incredibly sensitive. Just stick it somewhere inconspicuous. Yeah, it should work all right. We’ll be able to hear everything he says on this tablet,” she said, reaching behind her and grabbing a tote bag off the rear seat. “If Zula riles him up, maybe he’ll call his boss to see if he knows what’s going on.”

“All right. Let’s do it.” Lena said.

Washington, D.C., office building: Saturday, 11:35 am. EST.

“What?’ Blacker answered gruffly, when his intercom buzzed.

“There’s an Army lieutenant here to see you. She says her name is Sara Nambeeka.”

“Never heard of her. I’m not expecting anybody. Ask her what she wants.”

The receptionist looked at the security monitor and said, “What does your visit concern, Lieutenant?”

“A friend. Raymond Bentz.”

When Blacker heard what Zula said over the speaker, he felt a ripple of panic, but quickly recovered. “Let her in,” he said, then switched off the intercom and slid a side drawer open enough to reveal a Sig Sauer Pistol. He reached in and clicked off the safety. “What the hell’s going on?” he said under his breath.

“Enter,” he said at the rap on his door. He was taken aback when an imposing, tall black woman strode into the room and positioned herself in front of his desk. Her short buzz-cut emphasized the striking beauty of her African facial features and allowed her unobstructed blazing dark eyes to reveal an intimidating gaze. She stood silently for a moment, then leaned forward and placed her big hands, palms down, on the polished surface of his uncluttered desk.

“Where’s Raymond Bentz?” Zula asked, as if she were interrogating an inferior officer. It was easy from her height to notice the grip of a familiar pistol in the half-open drawer next to where Blacker sat looking up at her. “If you reach for that gun I’ll kill you, which is not what I came here to do,” she added.

 Blacker, a practiced field agent, recognized the fierceness of this woman at once, and that she was undoubtedly able and willing to carry out her threat. He slowly pushed the drawer closed, with her eyes following his movements. Then he asked, “Who are you? Who’s Bentz?”

Zula, realizing she had the upper hand, pulled up a chair and sat down. Without taking her eyes off Blacker, and considering how to reply to his query, she let her arm drop to her side and stuck the sticky surface of the microphone chip to the underside of the chair. “He and I did a couple projects together a few years back. Been friends ever since.”

“What kind of projects?”

“"Nothing you need to know about. We were gonna go fishing this week, but I can’t get hold of him. A few days ago he mentioned he was gonna do a job for you. I figured you’d know where he is, and if he’s okay.”

“How did you find me? I’m not listed anywhere.”

“I’ve got friends in military intelligence. You weren’t that hard to locate. So, what can you tell me?”

“I have no idea who you’re talking about. Don’t know anybody named Bentz. Must have gotten your wires crossed. I’d like for you to leave, Lieutenant.”

Zula was tempted to take the conversation further, but realizing Blacker was not going to admit knowing Bentz, she rose from the chair, still watching Blacker closely, and said. “Yeah. Must be crossed wires. Have a nice day.”

He kept his eyes glued to her as she walked over to the office door, yanked it open and left without another word.

As soon as he heard the door to the main hall close, he called the general.

“This better be important,” the general said angrily.

“A giant black woman just barged into my office asking about Bentz. Said she was an army lieutenant. Said her name was Sara Nambeeka. You know anything about this?”

“What did you tell her?”

“Nothing. Said I’d never heard of him. There’s something wrong about this.”

“Hang on,” the general said, then entered the name into a data base. “No such person, in any branch,” he said a minute later.

“Damn. Who the hell is she?” How’d she find me? What does she want?”

“I’ve got a feeling this is related to Manus. If she, or whoever she’s working for, found you, they might find the lab.”

“Impossible. That mine’s been off the records for years.”

“We can’t take any chances. She was captured on your security cameras, wasn’t she?”

“Should have been. I’ll check.”

“Send me her image. My people can probably ID her. Do it now.”

When the call ended, Blacker buzzed the receptionist. “Bring me the security camera disc for the last hour.”

To be continued . . .

Against All Evil: Hijinks Under Ground. Episode Four

Bluefield, West Virginia: Friday, 11:10 pm EST.

The elevator came to a gentle stop and the door slid open.

“Welcome, Dr. Manus,” Schlossman said as two uniformed soldiers man-handled Max out of the elevator to a waiting lab-coated scientist. “Take off his hood. No need for secrecy,” Schlossman told the sergeant. “But not the handcuffs.”

Max squinted in the bright light and looked around, but said nothing.

One of the soldiers gave the cuff key to Schlossman, then said, “He’s got a leg wound. The doctor who checked him out put on a fresh bandage, but you better keep an eye on it.”  He joined his companion in the elevator, punched in a passcode and returned to the surface.

“You must have questions, Max, if I may call you that. We’re on a first-name basis down here. Let’s go to the conference room and I’ll tell you what I can.” Schlossman laid his hand lightly on Max’s arm and guided him to a glass-paneled room where he offered him a chair at a long conference table. “Would you like something to eat or drink?’ he asked, when Max was seated.

“Water,” Max said.

Schlossman took a bottle of water from a sideboard and sat it on the table in front of Max, then said, “Naturally, you’re wondering why you are here. And you must be upset about how it was done.”

He glanced at Max’s shackled hands. “I’ll remove those after I explain what we are doing and what your role will be. But only if you pledge to cooperate, and don’t try to escape, which would be a fruitless endeavor. There is no way out other than the elevator, which, by the way, has infallible security,” Schlossman said as he took a seat across from Max.

“Who are you? Where are we?” Max asked.

“You can call me Gerhardt. We are 200 feet underground. Only a handful of people know where, though, or that this facility even exists. It will be your home for a few years. It’s the perfect place for you to perfect the super-power conversion process you discovered.”

Max clumsily unscrewed the water bottle lid and took a long drink. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But . . . if there were something like that I had discovered . . . I wouldn’t tell a maniac like you about it.”

“I understand your reluctance, Max. But, you may change your mind after I explain our purpose here. To be perfectly blunt, if you don’t cooperate, the people in charge of this project will do whatever it takes to convince you. I imagine Lena means a great deal to you.  You have two adopted daughters, don’t you? It would be a shame to put them at risk simply because of your unwillingness to serve your country.”

“You son-of-a bitch. I’ll kill you if you harm my family.”

“Yes. Of course you would, Max. But you’re not in a position to know what happens up there, are you? You see, we are completely sealed off from the outside world. No communication of any kind other than my link to a person who’s name I don’t know, and to whom I report our progress each week.”

“What the hell is going on?” Max asked, his hands straining against the handcuffs.

Ignoring Max’s question, Schlossman said, “You will be working with Elizabeth, a brilliant neurophysiologist. She will join us in a minute and we’ll get into the details of what we expect from you.”

At that moment, Dr. Mortenson rapped on the door, then, without waiting for permission, entered and sat down next to Schlossman. “Dr. Manus. It’s an honor to meet you, and for an opportunity to work with you. We’ve been aware of your amazing discovery for some time. If we can combine it with our process, we will change human potential beyond anything anyone has ever envisioned.”

Max was stunned by her words, and even more astonished by what she and Schlossman described to him over the following two hours.

Havre de Grace, Maryland: Saturday, 6:35 am EST.

“Zula’s plane lands in an hour. I’ll leave in a few minutes. Do you want to come along, or stay here?” Rana asked, when Lena entered the kitchen of Rana’s apartment.

“You go ahead. I need to call my CIA guy. He left a message while I was on the flight from LA.”

Lena poured a cup of coffee, then entered a number into her phone. “What did you find?” Lena asked, when her contact answered. “Who was searching for us?”

“It was a contractor who does off-the-books work for a military liaison team in the future weapons section. He must have gotten the access code from whoever hired him. Couldn’t see who that was since no name was listed. Couldn’t find out who’s on the liaison team, either.”

“Who’s the contractor?”

“Basilos Blacker. From his file, he sure as hell doesn’t look like a good guy. He’s an ex-Company man, went to the dark side. Makes big money doing dirty deeds. He’s recruited some rough characters to do his bidding, including an operative named Raymond Bentz. He’s wanted in half a dozen countries for murder and mayhem.”

“Where’s Blacker located?” Lena asked, at the same time wondering if the man they eliminated two days ago at the hacienda was Bentz.

“He’s got an office in DC. I’ll text the address.”

“Anything else?” Lena asked.

“No. But I’ll keep looking . . .. Good luck,” he added before the line went dead.

Undisclosed location, Northern Virginia: Saturday, 7:45 am. EST.

“Give me an update. I’ve got a meeting in five minutes,” the general said, as he headed to a soundproof room in a high-security section of a secret facility ten miles from the Pentagon.

“He’s still sleeping,” Schlossman said, glancing at a monitor showing the room Max had been assigned. “Except for a wounded the leg, he’s in fine shape. But so far, he refuses to say anything about his power transformation discovery. We questioned him for hours last night. Now he knows what we want from him, and what we’re doing, but we don’t know anything about his super power process, or how or if it could be incorporated into our transplants. He’s a stubborn bastard. Secretive, too.”

“Keep working at it. We’ve got to break him. Meanwhile, I’ll see what I can do up here.” The general clicked off when he reached the door to the secure room, entered a passcode and reluctantly joined the men awaiting his arrival. 

Washington, DC: Friday, 9:10 am. EST.

“I didn’t expect to hear from you again,” Blacker said, wondering what the general wanted. He’d assumed the general had written him off after the fiasco at the Manus hacienda in Mexico. Bentz had been a valuable asset and would be missed.

“Don’t give me that shit, Blacker. You need me more than I need you. Listen up.”

“How can I be of service, sir?” Blacker replied, struggling to temper his intense dislike of the man at the other end of the line.

“We have Manus, no thanks to you, though. We resorted to more reliable means. But he’s refusing to buy into the program. We need to apply leverage.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“His wife and daughters. Bring them in. We’ll use them to convince him what’s best for all concerned.”

“It wasn’t easy to find Manus’ places in Portland and Mexico. I have no idea where the daughters are. Don’t know where the wife disappeared to, either. Everything about this guy and his family is top secret,” Blacker said.

“You found their houses, didn’t you? I don’t care how you did, but you need to do your magic again.”

“Maybe you’ve underestimated this guy, general. Bentz is dead, and he was no amateur. There’s no sign of his wife, and there’s nothing in CIA files about his daughters.”

“Losing Bentz was your fault. You should have been better prepared. I keep you on retainer for a reason, Blacker. Jobs like this, for example. I don’t think you’d like the alternative. Call me tomorrow night. With results!”

After the general abruptly ended the conversation, Blacker called his highly paid mole at the CIA and told him what he needed. He then called one of his independent contractors to set up a meeting for later that day. She and her partner, an ex-KGB assassin, would be perfect for capturing Lena and her daughters. But first, he had to find out where these damn Manus women were.

Havre de Grace, Maryland: Saturday, 9:35 am EST.

“Did you find anything?” Lena asked, when she answered on the first ring after glancing at the caller ID.

“I was able to trace the searches to a computer in DC. Someone at a private company that does under-the-radar work for government agencies. Looks like mostly military from the resources he’s made use of. There are several top-secret files that I couldn’t get into; somebody’s definitely hiding something. The principal of the company is an ex-Army Intelligence guy named Basilos Blacker. Looks like he was discharged under questionable circumstances. There are no references to who’s hired him, but some of the people he uses are listed.”

“Anyone that matches the description of the man we neutralized in Mexico two days ago?” Lena asked.

“Might be a guy named Raymond Bentz. Wanted for murder and other assorted crimes in half a dozen European countries. Blacker keeps company with some pretty rough characters. Be careful if you plan on tangling with him.”

“Thanks for the heads-up, but keep looking. I need to know who Blacker is working for.”

“I’m already pushing my luck. I gotta back off for a while.”

Lena ended the call as Rana and Zula came through the front door of Rana’s apartment. Lena loved her adopted daughters as if they were her own, and radiated an unrestrained joy at seeing Zula, since it had been almost half a year since they were last together. That was in Cabo San Lucas when they wiped out Chinese and North Korean commandos intending to kidnap Max.

“Mother,” Zula cried as she rushed toward Lena. Zula, who stood six feet two inches in height, with skin shaded the dark black of her Zulu ancestors and a regal beauty that defied description, enfolded Lena in muscular arms. “Rana told me about Papa. Don’t worry. We’ll find him. Whatever it takes, we’ll find our Papa.”

After an emotional reunion, the three women quickly settled down to business.

“What’s happened?” Zula asked.

Lena opened a notepad and ticked off bullet points.

  • “Wednesday morning, I learned that someone was searching restricted CIA files for our location.
  • Thursday morning, while Max and I were in Mexico, a lone man checked out our house in Portland. Axman caught him on a surveillance camera.
  • Thursday afternoon, a man paid a visit to Cardosa in Mexico City and discovered the location of our hacienda. He killed Cardosa.
  • Thursday night, three men tried to break into the hacienda. We killed one, who was the man caught on Axman’s camera, and the other two ran off.
  • Friday morning, a military team abducted Max from the hacienda. Jose and I hid in the tunnel. Rana’s tracking device showed that Max ended up in a town in West Virginia.
  •  I got here early this morning.”

“What about Jose?” Rana asked.

“He’ll arrive this afternoon,” Lena said. “He’s bringing the dogs.”

“Mom. Do you know who might be behind this?” Zula asked, interrupting Rana.

“Maybe. Fortunately, I still have some clout at the Company. Seems it was a black ops contractor by the name of Basilos Blacker digging around in the files. He may be working for military. No idea who, though.”

“That’s our only lead?” Zula asked.

“It’s a place to start. We’ll check out Blacker this morning.”

“All right. Let’s get going,” Rana said. “No time to waste. Papa’s pretty damn resourceful, but whoever has him must have powerful resources as well. But, so do we.”

To be continued . . .

Against All Evil: Hijinks Under Ground. Episode Three

Hacienda Manus, Mexico: Friday, 7:46 am, PST.

“Max! Wake up! There’s a helicopter coming this way!” Lena yelled, while peering out a big window facing the Pacific. She held binoculars in her hands.

Max sat up, shook the sleep away and cocked his head to one side. “What? A helicopter?” He was silent for a moment, then said, “Sounds like it’s approaching from the sea.”

“Looks like a Black Hawk. That’s what Special Ops uses. Must have something to do with that guy who tried to break in last night. I don’t like this.”

The phone on Lena’s nightstand rang.

“It’s Jose!” Lena said, picking it up. “Do you see it on the monitor?” she asked before he had a chance to say anything.

“It’s headed for the beach. It’s a big one, like military. We’ve got three or four minutes at most. What do you want to do?” Jose answered at once.

‘Hang on.” She turned to Max. “If it’s a Delta Force team, we don’t stand a chance. Super power or not. This is a serious action. An operation like this had to be approved by someone high up.”

Standing next to her at the window, Max said, “We know from the conversation between Cardosa and the guy we got rid of last night that it’s me they’re after. You and Jose have to hide in the tunnel. If they find you here, there’s a good chance they’ll kill you. They don’t like leaving witnesses to their dirty deeds. Then who would rescue me?”

“Max! you can hide with us. Don’t let this happen!”

“No! They wouldn’t be sending these guys if they weren’t sure I was here. Probably satellite surveillance. They’ll tear this place apart to find me. They’’’ find you, too. We can’t chance that. It’s the only way.”

“I can’t just let them take you. And how would I find you?” Lena cried, revealing a feeling of near-panic, a response she had been trained to avoid, but which was now threatening to overtake her.

“Lena! Stop! You’ll figure it out. Call Rana and Zula as soon they’re gone. You’ll do what you have to. So will I. We’ll survive this.”

Shaking her head in disbelief, she said into the phone, “Jose! Get up here. Fast! We’re going to the tunnel.” She then ran from the room, telling Max over her shoulder that she had to get her laptop and phone.

“This is really pissing me off,” Max said, as he pulled on his chinos, then began stuffing a few things into a tote bag he snatched from the closet.

Lena ran up to Max in the basement where he was opening a concealed panel that hid the entrance to his laboratory and a steel door to a tunnel between the hacienda and boat house. She had a satchel in one hand and a small capsule in the other. “Swallow this. It’s a GPS tracker that Rana gave me. At least we’ll know where they take you. Hurry! The copter’s already on the beach.”

“I’ll be waiting for you,” Max said as he waved Jose and his two dogs, Zeus and Jupiter, into the tunnel. He embraced Lena for a lingering moment, then slid the panel shut. At that moment, he heard the crash of the front door being smashed open and sounds of men rushing into his home. He put the capsule in his mouth, slung the tote bag over his shoulder and headed upstairs to greet his visitors.

Hacienda Manus, Mexico: Friday, 8:13 am, PST.

“Rana! Max was hijacked by army commandos. A little while ago. He made Jose and me hide in the tunnel. We’ve got to find him,” Lena said excitedly over her secure phone.

‘Mom! Calm down. What are you talking about? What happened?” Rana asked. Her voice revealed growing concern.

Lena told her about the man who showed up the night before, the gunfight, how Jose disposed of the body and SUV, even about the two thugs Max sent packing. “Max swallowed one of those trackers you gave us. I’ll call as soon as I know where they end up.”

“Are you sure they were military?  It’s pretty scary if they were.” Rana said, when Lena finished describing what happened and what had been captured on the hacienda security cameras.

‘I’m sure of it. I’ll send a file of what’s on the monitors. See what you think. And call Zula. Be ready for anything.”

“Mom. I’m detailed for a tour in South Korea We’re deploying tomorrow.”

“I’ll make a call. This is critical, certainly more important than staring down North Korean troops across a stupid dividing line.” Lena said. “Where’s Zula?”

“She’s in Böblingen, Germany. Giving some kind of strike force training course.”

“I’ll get her back here, too. The marines will have to figure out how to sneak up on terrorists by themselves.”

After her talk with Rana, Lena immediately made another call. When a man answered, she explained the situation.

The man at the other end of the call was hesitant, then said, “There’s no way I can get into that data bank. It’s top secret, and has its own special access codes. I’d be toast if they discovered me penetrating that firewall.”

“I understand. But this merits extraordinary effort. Someone has Max.”

“But, Lena! What can I do? I don’t have the codes. I’d have to break every rule there is.”

“I don’t like having to remind you, but you owe me, for Syria. Don’t give me bullshit about how hard it will be. Just do it, and do it now! I need to know who was looking for us.”

After she made a brief call to the pentagon, she got hold of Jose. “Send the monitor files to Rana. For her eyes only.”

Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland: Friday, 11:25 am, EST.

“Lieutenant Manus. A video file just arrived that’s tagged for you. It’s encrypted.” The soldier standing at the open door to Rana’s office said.

“Route it here, sergeant. And close that door!”

After going through the security camera recording for the third time, Rana called Lena. “They were army alright, special ops. Six of them. Can’t tell what unit, or where they’re stationed. But, there’s one thing for sure. Someone high up had to order an operation like this.”

“Try to find out who did. I’m pressing my CIA contact to dig deeper into who was looking for information about Max and me. There must be a tie-in,” Lena said. “Your tracker shows Max on a course toward San Diego. I’ll let you know where he ends up.”

Undisclosed location, Northern Virginia: Friday, 12:05 pm, EST.

The general punched in a code, and after a short delay, then some crackling, asked, “Do you have him?”

“Yes, sir. On board and undamaged. We’ll be in San Diego in thirty-five minutes,” the Delta team captain said over the noise of the Black Hawk.

“Any problems?” the general asked.

“No, sir. He gave himself up with no resistance. He was expecting us.”

“Hmm . . . What about the woman?”

“The old man was the only one there. We searched the place. Lots of security equipment, but no one else.”

What did he say when you asked about her?”

“He wouldn’t tell us anything. Not even his name.”

“You’re lucky he didn’t. Any sign of the man I told you about? Or an SUV?”

“No, sir. Nothing. We checked the grounds and a dirt road that led to the south. Just this old guy. No one else.”

 “Alright. There’s a plane waiting at the base. CF48U. Hand him over to the officer on board, then you and your squad stand down. Remember, this operation is off the books. It never happened! Is that’s understood, captain?”

“Yes, sir.” The captain glanced at Max, sitting between two men in commando garb, his head hooded and hands shackled. “Definitely, sir.” When the line went dead, he handed the radio back to the copilot, looked at the silent and unmoving captive, wondering who this old man was and why he was so important.

Bluefield, West Virginia: Friday, 8:50 pm EST.

“I am Dr. Smith. How do you feel?” a white-coated man asked as he pulled the hood from Max’s head.

“Thirsty. The gorillas who kidnapped me, and the goon that delivered me to you, were not especially attentive to basic body needs, like thirst. Who are you, Dr. Smith? Why am I here?” Max asked as he glanced around. He was in what seemed to be a make-shift medical facility in a storage locker, or maybe a semi-truck trailer, and shackled to a metal chair bolted to the floor.

“Ignoring Max’s questions, the white-coated man said, “I’m going to see how healthy you are, and give you a few inoculations.”

“What the hell’s going on?” Max said angrily, straining futilely against the steel wrist and ankle restraints.

“I have to make sure you don’t carry any contagious disease organisms to your new home. So, settle down, mister whoever you are, and let’s just get this over with.”

Two hours later, the man calling himself Smith dialed a number he had been given by the soldier who delivered Max. “He’s healthy. In remarkable condition, I might add. But there is one problem. He had a miniature GPS device in is stomach. Picked it up on an x-ray. I smashed it when he vomited after I gave him a double dose of ipecac. He’s all yours now.”

“Damn! When did you get the GPS tracker out?”

“About thirty minutes after he got here.”

“Someone will take him off your hands soon,” the caller said, a new edge to his voice revealing worry.

“I understand,” the doctor replied.

A few minutes later, three men arrived. The one who seemed to be in charge aimed a pistol and fired two shots into the doctor’s head, then replaced the hood over Max’s head and unshackled him. Without a word, the other two grabbed Max’s arms and guided him out of the exam trailer to a waiting van. Its engine purred patiently.

Hacienda Manus, Mexico: Friday, 6:35 pm, PST.

Lena caught Rana in her apartment. “Looks like he’s in West Virginia. At an airport in a town called Bluefield. The tracker didn’t move for 35 minutes, then went dead. They either found it and got it out, or he’s somewhere that blocks transmission.”

“What do we do now?” Rana asked.

“Don’t know yet. I’ll let you know when I do.”

To be continued . . .

Against All Evil: Hijinks Under Ground. Episode Two

Portland: Thursday, 9:40 am

A large middle-aged man pressed the doorbell next to the solid Doug fir front door of a modest bungalow on a tree-lined, quiet side street in Southeast Portland. With no response after a couple of minutes, he pressed it again. He knew it worked because he heard the chime ring inside. After no answer again, he stepped to the edge of the porch and peered into a large picture window, but saw only a closed blind. He looked up and down the street, and seeing no one, followed the driveway to the rear of the house and a gate in a tall board fence connecting the house to a single-car garage. He tried the latch, but it wouldn’t yield. Checking down the driveway and seeing no one, he took a lock pick from his jacket pocket and quickly got the gate open. He encountered a manicured patch of grass bordered by dozens of blooming rose bushes. A shake-roofed pavilion stood alongside a high cedar fence at the back of the yard.

A deck was attached to the rear of the house, and a oak door paneled with small glass squares leading inside. It took only a minute to pick the lock. But when he turned the handle, the door wouldn’t budge. “Damn! Must be bolted or barred,” he mumbled. He was tempted to break the glass, but being aware of how close the neighboring houses were, he decided not to. On close inspection, he noticed how thick the glass was, and that is was webbed with fine wire mesh.

Back in the SUV, he said to his companion, an uncommunicative guy named Tony,“ Nobody home. The place is well-secured, probably alarmed. They sure as hell must be protecting something.  We’ll keep an eye on the house today in case somebody shows up.”

Washington, DC: Thursday, 10:05 am.

“Yeah,” Blacker answered, when his private cell phone buzzed.

“He wasn’t there. The house is locked tighter than a drum. Big time security,” Bentz said. “But it’s well-maintained, grass and flowers taken care of. We’re gonna stake it out for a while. See if anybody turns up.”

“Leave Tony there. You’re going to Mexico City. I got a lead this morning from a phone tap of the conversation between that Chinese general and a Mexican cartel lawyer named Leon Cardosa. He might know where Manus is. I’ll text the details. The pilot’s got his flight orders.”

Hacienda Manus, Mexico: Thursday, 10:25 am.

“Yes,” Lena answered when her secure phone pinged. It was Axman.

“I’m sending an encrypted photo file as we speak. Its coming over three separate channels, so reconstruct it with the program I installed on your system last year. There was one man, a big guy, totally bald, and well-dressed. He checked out your house this morning. He didn’t try to break in. No vehicle visible at the curb. When he left, he walked north on the sidewalk, going out of camera range by two houses away.”

“Cruise the neighborhood. See if he’s watching the house,” Lena said, as she sat down at her computer. “I’ll take it from here.”

Ten minutes later Lena sent the encrypted surveillance file to friends at CIA, NSA and FBI. She would know something later that day.

Mexico City: Thursday, 5:20 pm

“There’s an American man here to see you.”

“What’s his name?” Cardosa snapped at his secretary over the intercom.

“He won’t tell me. But he says it’s important.”

“Tell him to make an appointment.”

“I did. He says it can’t wait. He’s very insistent.”

“Alright. Send him in.”

Bentz glanced around the room, then sat down in the chair in front of Cardosa’s desk. “We need some information,” he said, without introducing himself.

“Who’s We? And who are you?” Cardosa said, nervously eyeing the huge man across from him.

We are the US government. Who I am doesn’t matter. It’s what we want to know that does.”

“This is ridiculous! You can’t just walk into my office and demand something from me. I don’t care who you are. This is Mexico! You have no authority here. You better leave.”

Bentz reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out a silenced Beretta, then laid it on the desk. “Is this authority enough, Mr. Cardosa? The Mr. Cardosa who conspired with a General Dong of the Chinese army to abduct Max Manus?”

Cardosa was momentarily shocked into silence, then said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He started to slide his hand toward an intercom button, but before he reached it, Bentz grabbed his wrist with a crushing grip that caused the lawyer to cry out in pain.

“You damn-well know what I’m talking about, so cut the crap. I need to know where Max Manus is.” Bentz shot an extra squeeze into his grip, then released it to Cardosa’s obvious relief.

Cardosa glanced at the Beretta while rubbing his wrist and said, “All I know is that he and his wife have a place on the Baja peninsula.”

“Are they there now?’

“I have no idea where they are. No reason to. I have nothing to do with them.”

 “Where is this place?” Bentz asked, picking up the pistol and pointing it at Cardosa.

“Alright. There’s no need for that. I’ll give you what I have.” Cardosa slid open a drawer, shuffled through some files until he found what he was looking for, then slid a slip of paper across his desk. “Here’s the GPS coordinates.”

“You sure about this?” Bentz asked when he glanced at the numbers.

“Yes. But if you intend to capture or kill them, you better take reinforcements.They defeated a Chinese army detail and a North Korean abduction team that tried to kidnap them. From what I hear, it was no contest. Before that, they wiped out the leadership of the Baja Cartel. Something’s going on with them that’s not natural. Some kind of super power . . . or something.”

“Sounds like a load of bullshit. Two old people couldn’t do that. I think I can handle them. Me and this little guy,” Bentz said, then pointed the Beretta at Cardosa’s face and pulled the trigger.

“Thanks, Mr. Cardosa. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated,” he said with a quiet chuckle, then rose and walked through the office door, fired two rounds into the chest of Cardosa’s secretary who was just starting to dial a phone, eased the pistol back into its holster and left with no trace of having been there.

Hacienda Manus, Mexico: Thursday, 7:15 pm.

Max was in his basement lab completing calculation for a metabolic energy experiment when Lena rushed in. “Max! We’ve got a problem. CIA has a file on the guy that scoped out the Portland house. His name is Raymond Bentz, and he’s bad news. Lists himself as a security consultant, but provides muscle for whoever hires him. He’s been implicated in several assassinations, but has managed to avoid charges. Seems like he has friends in high places.”

“What’s he got to do with us?” Max asked, glancing back and forth between Lena and his open notebook.

“Everything! We picked up his visit to Leon Cardosa, the lawyer that worked for Arturo Mendez’s cartel. He was there this afternoon, and Rana’s electronics recorded their conversation.  Before Bentz killed him, Cardosa gave him our location. I have a feeling we’re going to have a visitor soon.”

“God damn it, Lena! I’m fed up with this shit! I just want to be left alone to work on this energy phenomenon.”

“Max, calm down. Jose will be back tomorrow. He’s in L.A., visiting his sister. Let’s just hope this Bentz guy doesn’t have an urge to drop by tonight. But if he does, we’d better be ready to welcome him. Jose’s security system is working just fine, so we’ll know if anybody’s coming our way.”

“It would be nice if the dogs were here.” Max said.

“Sure it would. But they’re not. We can handle it. It’s not like we haven’t faced this kind of thing before. It’s who Bentz is working for that concerns me,” Lena said, as she left the lab and headed upstairs.

35,000 feet above Central Mexico: 8:25 pm.

Bentz was taking his first bite of a rib-eye steak when his phone rang. “Yeah?”

Blacker got right to the point. “You find out anything?”

“The location of their house in Baja. I’ll pay a visit tonight. The pilot’s gonna land this thing in Cabo. Get me a car and some backup. If they’re there, you’ll have your boy tomorrow morning.”

“What makes you think they will be there?”

“Just a guess. Nobody showed up at the Portland house today. Cardosa said they were involved in some cartel business down here a few months ago. It’s worth checking out.”

“Okay. Do it! Keep me posted. And text those GPS coordinates, I wanna know where this place is.”

Forty-five minutes later, as Bentz savored the last of an apple strudel, wheels touched tarmac and the plane taxied toward a Chevy Suburban two men in dark clothing stood next to.

Hacienda Manus, Mexico: Thursday, 11:45 pm.

The alarm jolted Lena out of a meditative reverie and brought Max’s yoga exercise to a sudden halt. Together they hurried to the security system display screens and quickly scrolled through the channels. There it was on camera seven, an SUV half a mile away crawling along a little-used dirt track that led from a secondary road to the hacienda.

“Look like there’s three of them,” Lena said, as she sharpened the infrared camera focus on the vehicle. “No way to know if they intend to kill us or capture us. But whatever their intent is, it can’t be friendly. Not after what Bentz did to Cardosa.”

“I’m already feeling a surge of energy,” Max said thoughtfully as he looked closely at the screen. “It must be anticipation of danger that activates it. I’ve got to test this possibility in the lab.”

“Max! This isn’t the time for scientific analysis. Pay attention!”

“Alright, alright. The guy driving is Mexican. I can’t make out who’s in the back seat. But the man in the passenger seat is a white guy. He’s big, maybe in his forties, bald as a que ball. Is that the man in Axman’s tape?”

Peering at the image on the screen, Lena said, “Looks like him. He is a big guy, isn’t he. Shall we prepare to greet our guests?”

“Mr. Hospitality. That’s me,” Max said, as he slipped on a Kevlar vest.

“Max . . . I’m feeling a surge, too. This is real, isn’t it . . .. Okay, let’s go,” Lena said, as she pulled a black watch cap over her close-cropped silver hair.”

Lena used a remote to open the steel gate that separated the dirt track from a well-lit courtyard, walked through, then closed it behind them. “I’ll take this side,” she said, and hid behind a huge agave plant growing a few yards away.

Max positioned himself in the shadow of a large flowering mimosa tree on the opposite side of the narrow road.

“There’s a big gate up there,” the driver said, as he eased the vehicle to a full stop. “What now?”

Bentz turned to the man in the rear seat. “Check out that gate. See if we can ram through it. And check out what’s on the other side. Get going!”

The man approached the gate and gave it a couple of hard shoves, then tried to pull it toward him. It didn’t move, no matter how hard he tried. He looked through the vertical bars into the courtyard, then along the high wall that extended from the gate in both directions and surrounded the hacienda. Then he returned to the SUV.

“What’s the story?” Bentz snapped.

“It’s like a prison, man. The gate is really strong, and the wall is at least eight feet high. Doesn’t look like we can get in.”

“The hell we can’t. Going back without Manus is not an option. Gun it! Crash through that damn thing!”

The Suburban hit the gate at forty. The noise of the crash was immediately drowned out by an explosion under the rear axle, lifting the stopped vehicle off the ground two feet. When it bounced back down, Bentz jumped out and crouched low alongside the open door. Blood ran down his face from where his head hit the windshield. The other two men stumbled out on the other side and did likewise. They all had their guns out and pointed into the darkness, unable to see anything in the dense vegetation. From behind the agave, Lena saw Bentz and yelled, “Throw out you gun and lie face-down on the ground.”

Bentz, recognizing a woman’s voice, fired his Beretta in the direction of Lena’s command, putting six holes in the agave stems, but missing Lena, who had moved off to the side. The two Mexicans on the other side of the SUV started firing randomly into the darkness until their chambers were empty.

“Are you done?” Max yelled from the shadows, then fired a single shot that kicked up dirt between the two men squatting by the open door on the driver’s side.

“Don’t shoot! We’re out of bullets,” one of them screamed.

“Toss your guns and phones this way,” Max yelled.

After they did as instructed, Max said, “Start walking, and forget where this place is. Next time I won’t be so nice.”

The two men jumped up and started off in a fast pace along the ten-mile dirt track.

While Max was dealing with the two men, Bentz managed to scramble under the SUV. He watched as the two Mexicans fired the last of their rounds, then in response to a man’s shouts, toss out their pistols and phones and then disappear. He heard their boot steps hurrying along the track they had come on. Then he saw two legs emerge from the roadside shadows and slowly approach the vehicle. “That must be Manus,” he thought. He scooted to the edge of the undercarriage, aimed and fired a round, striking Max in the left thigh. He cried out and dropped to the ground.

While Bentz was clambering under the Suburban, Lena cautiously crawled through the underbrush toward the SUV. Seeing no one, she sprinted to where Bentz had been positioned when he shot at her. She heard the shot Bentz fired and Max’s scream. Without hesitation, she ran around the front of the vehicle in time to see Bentz emerging from underneath it, pointing a pistol at Max, who lay in the dirt at the side of the road.  His pistol lay a few feet behind him where he dropped it when he was hit.

“Don’t move!” Lena screamed.

Bentz spun around to encounter a tall woman dressed in black with a pistol trained on him. Without thinking, he swung his gun toward her, but not fast enough. Lena fired first. What was left of Bentz’s brain splattered the still open driver-side door. Lena ran to Max and assessed his wound. Five minutes later she had him back in the house, a tourniquet applied and a doctor on the way.

Washington, DC: Friday, 5:40 am.

The General noted the caller ID and answered on the second ring. “Do you have him?”

“We may have a problem,” Blacker said, his voice strained.


“Bentz was supposed to grab him last night. But I haven’t heard from him. Not from the two Sinaloa cartel guys I borrowed, either. I’ll let you know as soon he calls.” The General didn’t respond. “Who is this Manus, anyway?” Blacker added after a moment of silence.

“This never happened, Blacker. Don’t call me again.” The line went dead, then General then punched in a new number. “Captain, I’ve got a special job for your squad. Meet me in thirty minutes.

To be continued . . .





Against All Evil: Hijinks Under Ground. Episode One

Washington, DC: Wednesday morning.

Basilos Blacker knew who it would be when his associate and trustworthy guard dog, Maga Katz, buzzed him forty minutes after he’d called Bentz.

“There’s a man at the front door wants to see you. Won’t tell me his name,” she said over the intercom.

“Is he a big guy? Bald?”

“Yes, sir. I can see him.”

“Okay. Let him in and send him back here.”

Black pressed the unlock button and yelled “Enter!” when Bentz rapped on the door a few seconds later. No one entered Blacker’s office without his permission. That was a standing rule and Blacker’s rules were never broken.

“Sit down. I’ve got a job for you,” Blacker said, ignoring normal formalities of social intercourse.

“I figured that much,” Bentz replied.

“You ever hear the name Max Manus?”

“Not that I recall. Who is he?”

“How about Lena Manus? Or Lena Hock? That was the name she used before marrying Manus.”

“No. Doesn’t ring a bell . . . Is this Twenty Questions, or are you gonna tell me what you want?”

“We need to bring in Manus. Our friend up top wants him.”

“Who is this Manus guy? Where is he?”

“Some kind of scientist. Must have done something the government doesn’t want known. Or maybe he knows secrets he shouldn’t. I don’t know what the deal is, and don’t care.  But his name’s flagged, and I got a call. So, we—you— gotta find and grab him. He’s old, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Simple abduction. Get rid of the wife if you need to. There’s people at CIA working on a location. I’ll be in touch.”

When Bentz rose to leave, Blacker said, “Leave by the tunnel to the garage.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s the way I came in. Don’t worry, nobody saw me.”

“Good. Make sure it stays that way.”


Hacienda Manus, Baja, Mexico: Wednesday morning.


Lena was startled when her secure phone rang. She dreaded calls on that line since it usually meant trouble. “Yes?”

No name was mentioned, but Lena recognized the voice. “Thought you should know, someone’s looking for your file, and anything connected to your name. Can’t tell who it is, but they know their way around the system. Seems like they’re trying to find where you are. I’ll let you know if they find anything.”

Lena put the phone back in its drawer and went out to the patio where Max sat writing in a notebook. “Maxie. It may be nothing, but a CIA friend just gave me a heads-up. Somebody’s searching a secure database trying to find out where we live.”

“Damn it. Won’t the bastards ever leave us alone? What do you think we should do?”

Lena took the chair next to his. “I was hoping we could return to Portland next week. Back to our regular life. Now I’m not so sure.”

Max closed his notebook and placed it on the table next to his chair. “Nobody knows about this hacienda, but the Portland house will be easy to find out about if whoever it is digs deep enough.” He stood up abruptly and began pacing around the patio. “I don’t like this. I just want to be left alone to work on the power transformation phenomenon. It’s a major discovery, and I need time in my Portland lab to figure out how it works. How to control it better. I’m fed up with stuff getting in the way. God damn it, Lena! Do something!”

“Relax, Max.  We’ll stay here in Baja a little longer, and I’ll see what I can find out. We’ll get back to Portland as soon as we’re sure it’s safe. Go back to your formulas and equations. I’ll work on it.”  

She rose from her chair and started back inside, then stopped and turned back to Max. “There is one person who knows about this place. That lawyer in Mexico City, Arturo Mendez’s legal guy, Leon Cardosa.  The microphone Rana planted in his office should be still working. I’ll turn on the recording system, just in case whoever is looking for us contacts him.”

Lena went inside and retrieved her secure phone in order to contact her colleague Arnie Axman. With a click instead of a ring, she connected with a 888 number buried in a message center in Panama. “Call,” she said, then punched off. While she waited for Arnie to call, she poured another cup of coffee, opened her laptop and entered her password.


Washington, DC: Wednesday evening.


At 6:25 Blacker called Bentz. “I got word on where they live. Get over here.”


Hacienda Manus, Baja, Mexico: Wednesday evening.


Axman, leader of Lena’s unconventional and ‘under the radar’ band of loyal foot soldiers based in Portland, called at 6:50. He followed their SOP for off-the-grid phone contact.

Lena didn’t waste words. “Set up surveillance on the house. Cover the coffee shop, too, just in case they manage to locate our meeting spot. I want video and photos of anybody checking them out, hanging around, knocking at the door, looking in windows or breaking in; anything! Do it tonight.”

“Will do. What’s going on? Why the rush?”

“Someone’s snooping around. I wanna know who.”

“Okay. If anybody show up at either place, we’ll have pictures to work with. Then I can hack the NSA and FBI photo ID data bases to find out who it is. If they’re in there, that is,” Axman said.

“I’m also trying to get a line on where the hack of the CIA files originated. Between these two ways, maybe we’ll get a hit. Stay in touch,” Lena added, then hung up, keeping the call as short as possible.


Portland: Thursday, 8:20 am.


An unmarked private jet landed at a small airport outside Portland and taxied through the open entrance of an innocuous hanger at the far end of the runway. Two men carrying tote bags climbed down from the passenger door and went directly to a white SUV parked close by. The pilot remained in his cockpit. There was no one else in sight.

The man who got into the passenger seat took out his phone and typed a short message. “We’re here,” he sent, then said, “Directions to the house are on the GPS. Let’s go,” he said to his companion.


West Virginia: Thursday, 8:58 am.


Dr. Gerhart Schlossman sat at a polished black walnut conference table tapping his fingers impatiently, frequently glancing at a clock on the wall. 

The conference room was in an underground labyrinth of ultra-high-tech laboratories and living space two hundred feet below the surface of a bleak, deforested landscape. It was an undisclosed facility carved out of an abandoned, played out, sealed-over coal mine miles from the closest town. The idea for this audacious facility was conceived by a high-ranking US government official, and its creation was surreptitiously financed by two anonymous individuals. Its existence was unknown outside of a small circle of conspirators and the individuals housed there. The project it supported was even more audacious.

This undisclosed research complex employed nineteen people, who for promises of financial enrichment, had committed two-year stints to a highly classified, top-secret research project that combined artificial intelligence and advanced human physiology. The group consisted of Schlossman, four other senior scientists (biologists and computer engineers), two junior scientists (robotics engineers), eight lab assistants, and four support personnel (activities director, maintenance specialist, chef, janitor). The research was cutting-edge and challenging, and the amenities were more than adequate, except in one way—it was like prison. They couldn’t leave the facility for any reason short of death, or have any contact with the outside world.

A melodious gong sounded throughout the labyrinth precisely at nine. Two minutes later, six individuals, in white lab coats, sat around the table, anxious to learn why Schlossman had called this special meeting.

“Good morning everybody. I realize that time away from your research is a nuisance, but this morning I received a communication from the chief that may be relevant to our program.”

“Just who is this person you refer to as the chief?” Dr. Elizabeth Mortensen interrupted before Schlossman could explain his reason for calling the meeting.

“The identity of the chief is irrelevant, Dr. Mortensen. It is the subject of the communication that matters. If you can control your curiosity for long enough to hear me out, I’ll continue.” He held eye contact with her until she looked away, then continued.  “We will be joined soon by a scientist who claims to have discovered a way to activate immense physiological energy, such that an individual can become phenomenally empowered, achieving what might be categorized as “super power.” According to what’s been rumored, it’s supposed to be both physical and mental.

“Dr. Schlossman. That sounds more like a comic book rendition of a fantasy character than a scientific reality. Like Superman? Or Captain Marvel? Are you sure about this?” Mortensen interjected.

“I only know what I have been told . . . and instructed to do. To integrate him into our project. Please, Dr. Mortensen, be patient. Let’s see what this new addition to our community has to offer.”

“Now! Back to work,” he commanded.

As the group filed out of the conference room and headed to their respective labs, Schlossman said, “Dr. Mortensen. A moment, please.”

“Yes?” she said, halting at the entrance to the conference room.

“I want you to take responsibility for the newcomer. His name is Max Manus. I’m not sure when he’ll be here, maybe in a day or so.”

 “What exactly am I supposed to do with him?” she asked testily.

“We’ll see what he has to say when he arrives. Then we’ll formulate a plan.”

“What if he’s just a self-deluded fruitcake?”

“That would be unfortunate, wouldn’t it.”

“For us, or him?” Mortensen mumbled, as she left the room.


To be continued . . .








Against All Evil: Tale of the Scorpion, Episode Nine

In Episode Eight, Max and Lena had spent the evening at a Mexican resort listening to General Dong's phony proposal to fund a medical research project with Max as its director. They were aware that Dong intended to kill Lena, capture Max and obtain Max's superpower secret. But, unbeknownst to Dong and his aid, Colonel Fang, Max's family and Jose, all trained in super power transformation, were positioned strategically around the resort grounds to disrupt Dong's plan. Although Lena and the others knew about Fang and his six Chinese commandos, they were unaware of the ferocious North Korean Dark Shadow team Dong and Fang had conscripted as backup. And now . . . the conclusion to this harrowing adventure:

Episode Nine

Max and Lena sensed the physical change in their bodies and increased mental acuity as they left Dong’s chalet and started along the winding walkway to confront and eliminate their enemy, retrieve the Mercedes and return to their hacienda further up the west coast of the Baja peninsula. They knew their power changes were occurring automatically, in response to the danger lurking in the beautifully landscaped resort grounds.

“Max, did you see two men creep behind those fan palms twenty yards ahead?” Lena whispered after they had rounded a bend in the path.

“Yes. I also heard the two creeping up behind us. How should we handle this?”

But before Lena could answer, they both glimpsed two sets of gleaming white fangs flashing against the dark sky, soundlessly racing toward the unsuspecting men behind the palms. The muffled impact, the unmistakable sound of flesh being ripped apart, low satisfying growls and the crackle of shattering bone were indisputable indications that the two men were no longer a threat.  Jose's dogs had made sure of that. 

But while Max and Lena were momentarily distracted by the dogs, two men behind them suddenly rushed forward to attack, sooner than Max and Lena had anticipated. The big one in the lead swung a thick steel bludgeon viciously toward Lena's neck. The one a step behind him thrust a hypodermic syringe toward Max's back. Lena's enhanced reflexes allowed her to turn aside just as the bludgeon swept downward, missing her shoulder by a few millimeters as he hurdled past her. She instantly spun around and chopped her iron-hard fist down onto the other man's forearm in which he had been gripping the syringe. His wrist was rendered useless with the jagged edges of splintered bone poking up through a blood-gushing quivering tissue. Without breaking stride, she shot a lethal blow into the man's throat. She kicked him in the face as he dropped to the ground. The man wielding the bludgeon was a little off balance from missing Lena when Max turned and grabbed him by his right arm and effortlessly flung him over the bed of tall Canna lilies bordering the walk. The air-borne man landed face-down in the middle of a huge agave plant. The needle-like tips of the thick stems impaled every orifice of his masked face while others punctured deep into his chest, abdomen and thighs. His short-lived screams should have served as a warning to his comrades, as if to shout: “Beware! these are worthy opponents.”

From his hiding spot, Fang observed through his night-vision goggles the efficient slaughter of four of his Chinese Army Black Dragon commandos. He realized immediately what immense power and skill he and his men were up against. In a state of near-panic, he called Lieutenant Kim, leader of the North Korean Dark Shadow team.

“Lieutenant, we've had four casualties. I need you to take action. But be careful, this old couple is more capable than we realized.  They have dogs, too”

“Don't worry, Fang, we'll rescue your mission for you. Perhaps you now realize that you should have let us take charge in this operation. We're good at this kind of thing.  We've had lots of practice. And we North Koreans do have an advantage over you Chinese, as a genetically superior race,” the smirking North Korean answered into the cell phone as he waved his black-clad, masked commandos over to him. After a few brief instructions, they deployed, three teams of two each, silently blending into the shadows.

Rana, who had been watching Fang from where she was concealed, couldn't understand what he had said on his cell phone, but did notice the emergence of several men from the bushes clumped near Dong's chalet. “Zula,” she said, whispering into her mic, “It looks like there's a team we didn't know about. Fang just called more men onto play. There’s six of them. They're dressed in black, and are spreading out from over here where I am. They're heading toward Mom and Dad.  Keep the dogs with you, and stay on the look-out for these guys. Right now, Jose and I are gonna take care of Fang and the soldier with him. We'll join you as soon as we can.” 

While Rana observed this new development unfold, she called Lena to warn her about the new forces that had joined the attack.

“Mother, six new commandos are on their way toward you and Dad. Fang just deployed them. Zula and the dogs should be somewhere near and will hold them off until Jose and I get there. But first we'll take care of Fang and another man with him.”

As Max and Lena continued their slow walk toward the front gate where the Mercedes waited, Lena said in a low voice, “I'm so ready to end this ridiculous game. Let's just finish off the rest of these jerks, go back for Dong and do what we have to do to protect the secret, then go home. I miss Portland.”  Max nodded, feeling the same way.

Lena and Max both looked around for any signs of the additional men Rana had warned them about, but detected nothing suspicious. They continued walking.

Meanwhile, a way behind Max and Lena, Rana and Jose were determined to quickly eliminate Fang and his companion so they could join Zula in time to help her prevent the newly deployed forces from capturing Max. “I'll take Fang, you take the other one,” Rana said as they sped quietly through the deep shadows in search of their targets. “There they are,” she whispered, pointing ahead at the two men following some distance behind the North Koreans.  Before Fang and the soldier had advanced no more than a few yards, Rana and Jose attacked. No weapons, just surprise, speed, silence and deadly force. Rana hit Fang first, a powerful flying kick ramming her left foot into the middle of his back. The power of her blow was like a wrecking ball smashing through a decaying brick wall. His spine broke into three pieces.  As she flew over his body, she jammed her right foot onto the back of his neck, finishing him off without him realizing what had happened. Following behind her, Jose, having learned from his failed jump at the resort wall earlier, to better marshal his power, succeeded in leaping over Fang's crumpled body to land directly in front of the other man. He instantly spun around and rammed his fist into the man's sternum with such force that the blood and shredded lung tissue that erupted from his gaping mouth momentarily blinded Jose. Quickly wiping away the splatter and shifting to finish the job, Jose saw the man fall on top of Fang. He was already dead.

“Good work, Jose. Now we've gotta find Zula,” Rana said. She and Jose raced off in the wake of the North Koreans advance toward Max and Lena.

“Do you hear foot falls on grass off to the southeast?” Lena asked in a hushed whisper as they continued toward the restaurant.

“Yes,” Max replied. “Sounds like there may be several of them. They're coming this way.”               

Just then, Rana's voice came in over Lena's microphone: “Mother, Jose and I took out Fang and the other one. We're on our way. We'll catch up with these new guys in less than a minute. But be prepared for an attack. Zula and the dogs should be somewhere near you.”

Because of the attention that gunshots might attract, like the Chinese Black Dragons, the Korean Dark Shadow commandos were armed only with knives, clubs and other martial arts weapons, all for silent killing. Lieutenant Kim was the first to spot Max and Lena, about fifty yards ahead of them.  He hand-signaled his men to spread out. They would attack from three directions, left, right and behind. The six men merged into the dark night, fast and quiet, but not quite quiet enough to evade Max and Lena's enhanced hearing.

“They've changed position,” Max said. “I think I also hear the dogs panting.” After a brief pause, he continued, “Isn't that Zula behind that bush over there?”

Lena nodded agreement, then whispered, “You're right on both counts. Let's hope Rana and Jose get here before this new group decides to pounce. I have a feeling it will be coming very—”

Before Lena finished her thought, the sound of two men racing toward them from their left alerted them to the attack. This warning allowed them to turn and face the assailant's head-on, an advantage for Max and Lena in that their slow-motion sense of time made it easy to anticipate the attackers' tactics. Except that the two North Koreans suddenly changed their pace in mid-run, slowing just enough to hurl their chain-linked steel balls at Max and Lena's' legs to entangle them. But it didn't work.  Max and Lena easily jumped up as the chains flew by underfoot. Then only ten feet away, the two Koreans resumed their high-speed advance. The one slightly ahead dove forward in an air-borne effort to tackle Max around the waste and drive him to the ground. But just as he was about to grab him, Max raised his knee and caught the attacker under his chin, snapping his head back so far and with such force that it actually separated from his now ragged neck and bounced along the walkway, ending up in a bed of flowering red tulips. Lena, too, was prepared for the one rushing at her. With seemingly electron-like speed, she shifted to the left to let the attacker pass by close enough for her to spin half-way around and slam her elbow into his back, accelerating him forward out of control. He stumbled forward and fell face-down onto the gravel path. Before he could get up, she delivered a powerful kick between his sprawled legs, then stomped on the back of his neck, killing him instantly.

Ignoring the downed attacker, Lena quickly turned to check on Max, and saw Zula standing at his side as they faced two more attackers rushing at them from behind, one wielding a spiked club, the other swinging a heavy chain attached to the metal rod. When the attackers were almost upon them, Max and Zula jumped apart to let the two nearly airborne men fly past. Max and Zula were untouched by the swipe of the club or the arc of the chain. Unfortunately for the outmaneuvered attackers, Jupiter and Zeus had just then arrived, one on each side of Lena. They were perfectly positioned to greet the two attackers when they ended up directly in front of them. Neither dog had to move in order to leap forward and sink their fangs into the throats of the surprised men.

The two remaining Dark Shadow commandos, Lieutenant Kim and Sergeant Lee, had witnessed the devastating defeat of their companions from the safety of a clump of bushes about 20 yards away. Realizing that it would be futile to repeat the failed attacks, they quickly turned back toward Dong's chalet. They had to inform him of the night's events and spirit him away from the resort.

But just as the two North Koreans were preparing to retrace their steps, Kim caught sight of two forms approaching. He whispered to his companion, “Somebody's coming this way. It may be more of the enemy. Hide here.”

As they passed, Rana and Jose didn't notice the two men secreted behind the low wall of the fountain. The noise of the water gushing from the nymph's mouth covered the sound of the two men's heavy breathing. “They can't be too far ahead,” Rana said as they continued toward where they thought Max and Lena must be.           

A little further on, Jose suddenly stopped and grabbed Rana's arm. “There's Zula. She's coming this way,” he said quietly.

“Zula,” Rana whispered when she spotted her nearby. “What's happening?”                           

“I was coming to find you. Mom and Dad are okay. They're going on to the car. You should have seen them. They destroyed those guys. This power thing is really something. They took out four of them. But according to what you said earlier, there should have been six. There's gotta be two more someplace. But the dogs and I haven't been able to find them. Maybe they went back to Dong's chalet to tell him what's happened.”

“Yea, that makes sense,” Rana said. “Come on, let’s check it out.” The three of them started running toward Dong's chalet.

“Who's there?” Dong asked cautiously when he heard three raps on his front door.

“It's me, Sargent Wu,” said the Chinese Black Dragon commando who had been left outside to guard the door. “Two of the North Koreans are here to see you.”        

Dong opened the door a crack, saw who it was and motioned them in. The Black Dragon guard remained outside.

Kim started in immediately, a frantic edge to his voice. “Sir, all the others have been killed by the old man and his comrades. They have unbelievable power. There's no chance of capturing him. We have to get to you to safety in case they come back here. What are your orders?”

As a result of his three martinis, Dong was a little slow on the uptake. “Are you saying that Colonel Fang and five of his men, and four of yours, are all dead?”           

“Yes, General. These two old people are ferocious fighters, like nothing I've ever seen before. We have to leave now! We'll escort you to your car and then to your plane.”

Outside on the porch, the Black Dragon guard never heard Zula when she stepped onto the porch behind him and sliced his throat with one hand tight across his mouth. Then suddenly, as Dong was collecting documents off the desk, the thick front door shattered with a loud bang. Fragments of oak and iron exploded into the room.

The two North Koreans were quickly and easily dispatched by Rana and Jose, who rushed into the room behind the exploding door debris.                    

Dong, at the desk on the other side of the room, reacted more quickly than expected in view of his blood alcohol level. He deftly grabbed up the pistol from the desk. But as fast as his movement was, it was still too slow the match the lightning speed of Jupiter and Zeus, both of whom had entered the chalet with Rana and Jose. Zeus tore off Dong's arm at the elbow, while Jupiter tore opened his throat. Gurgling and gasping, Dong dropped to the tile floor to join the rapidly spreading pool of blood.  Jupiter's big front feet were perched on Dong's now-not-so-crisp Egyptian cotton shirt, his eyes fixed on the General's to make sure there was no life left in them.

Before our three stalwart warriors left the chalet, Rana picked up the desk phone with her gloved hand and rang the house-keeping department. “Could you please send a maid to Chalet 14. I'm afraid we've made a bit of a mess. You may want to send a carpenter as well. Thank you, and have a good evening.”   


Back at the Manus hacienda the following evening Max and his jubilant family were gathered around the table on their patio overlooking the peaceful Pacific, enjoying the dazzling sunset. Naturally, they were thrilled not only with the outcome of Dong's failed kidnapping attempt, but also with the successful application of their remarkable power transformation ability. Zula poured a second round of tequila shots as they stared off into the fading light. They were content.

It was only a little after they had drifted into a quiet lapse in the conversation that Lena interrupted the pleasant silence. In a soft yet somber voice she said, “This fight with the Chinese General, and the other attacks and attempted abductions with which we've had to contend with over the years, may be harbingers of the pattern for the rest of our lives. Is this really the way we want to live? Constant battle? Unending good-versus-evil confrontations?” She looked at each of them, wanting to know how they felt about this question.

Max was the first to respond. “Are you saying that you would prefer to retire to a life of knitting and punning your roses?”

Lena took a sip of her tequila, then said, “Maybe. I'm not sure. I realize your power transformation discovery is a precious gift. That it must be protected and used only for good. Not allowed to fall into the hands of evildoers. But I'm tired of fighting and killing. Of intrigue and skullduggery. And as far as roses go, the hybrids I'm developing do need my attention. I miss working with them. So, yes, maybe I am saying that.”

Zula, Rana and Jose listened to Lena's comments attentively, but said nothing. Each realized this was an important moment in their family's life. That the ramifications of Lena's meanderings would eventually, maybe even soon, have to be addressed. They each also understood, without having to state it, that whatever path Max and Lena chose, they would stand alongside them, doing whatever was required to carry out their commands. They were family. And family stood together.

Finally, Max responded to Lena's musings. “I understand your concerns, Liebchen. I too have doubts about the kind of future we face. But I don't have an answer for you. Not at this time, anyway. Let’s continue this conversation. Maybe we can think of alternatives that would allow us to lead normal lives and still protect the secret. But for now, how about some Mozart to lighten the mood. “Zula, pass the tequila. I'd like another shot.”


Meanwhile, as Max and his family enjoyed the mild Mexican climate and generous gift of the agave plant, 3000 miles away, in a drab 16th floor office in a nondescript building not far from the White House, a young summer intern at the CIA contract firm of Smith and Black Security, timidly knocked on Buck Black's closed office door.

“Come in,” he said, irritated at being disturbed, but assuming it must be important since it was generally known that when his door was closed it meant Do Not Disturb. “What?”

“Sir. Mr. Coffin asked me to give this to you right away. It’s a decoded message picked up by Mexican security. Evidently it was sent by a Chinese colonel to someone in the North Korean army describing plans for smuggling a team of commandos into Mexico. It’s a few weeks old, but we just got it today. Mr. Coffin said since it mentions someone by the name of Max Manus and that you would want to know about it.”           

Black's head jerked up when she said the name, his attention fully focused. “Let me see it. Ah, what's your name?”

“Mildred Jameson, Sir. I'm a summer intern,” she answered, placing the folded printout on the edge of his desk.

Black looked at her for a moment, picked up the message and glanced at it, then said, “Mention this message to no one. You understand? And close the door as you leave.”

“Yes, Sir,” she responded, retreating quickly.

As soon as the door clicked shut, Black unlocked the bottom desk drawer and took out a cell phone.  His call was answered on the first ring.

“Sir, you'll never guess who's name just came across my desk,” he said, his thin lips forming a dark smile. “Yes, Sir, that's the one.”

Black listened for a moment, then said, “Only Coffin and an intern. Don't worry. Coffin's okay. And I'll have the intern taken care of.”

Black snapped shut the phone and put it back in the drawer, then buzzed the woman sitting at the desk outside his office door. “Tell Bentz I want to see him. Now.”


The End









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