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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.”

“Problems?”

“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.

“Problem?”

“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Against All Evil: Tale of the Scorpion, Episode Eight

In the previous episode, Max and Lena were on their way to have dinner at a luxurious hotel on the Mexican Baja coast with General Dong, the corrupt Chinese army officer who intended to abduct Max to learn his super power secret. Aware of Dong's intent, Lena had prepared a plan in which her entire family, including Jose and his two fierce and now empowered dogs, will prevent the abduction and deter further such attempts. Lena, who had expected only to confront a small team of the Chinese army Black Dragons, is unaware that Dong enlisted six of the North Korean Shadow Team, the most capable kidnappers on the face of the earth.  And now . . .

Episode 8

Max and Lena arrived at the heavily guarded front gate of the Tropicana Deluxe Hotel in their Mercedes 600 limousine at 7:55 pm. The hotel security team consulted their list and directed them to the Green Dolphin restaurant where their host, General Dong, was awaiting their arrival. On the way to the restaurant, Lena spoke into the tiny microphone built into the turquoise pendent hanging around her neck: “Rana, where are you?”

While Lena was talking with Rana, the security guard assigned to monitor the twenty-four resort surveillance cameras noticed that one of the screens had blacked out. After fiddling with the controls and resetting the program with no results, he yelled to his supervisor, “Camera four is out.”

“Did you reset the program?” the supervisor asked?

“Yea, but it didn't come back on.”

“Okay, I'll have maintenance check it out,” the supervisor replied.     

As the security supervisor was preparing a work order, Rana was responding to Lena. “We're at the base of the north wall, out of sight of the front gate. Jose deactivated the hotel security camera for this area before we slipped across the perimeter. He'll reactivate it after we get onto the hotel grounds and find a hiding spot,” she said, huddled with her companions behind a clump of oleander bushes. Then Rana turned to the others. “All right, we have to be quick and hope the surveillance guy doesn't notice the camera blackout right away.  Zula, you’re first.”

Rana and Jose watched Zula take a position six feet from the wall. She stood still with her eyes closed and a look of intense concentration on her face. She suddenly bent her knees then sprang gracefully upward and over the eight-foot-high, razor wire-topped cinder block wall in one seemingly effortless motion. She landed softly on the hotel's lush grass. The azalea patch was where the satellite image showed it to be. She quickly crawled underneath, then pinged Rana.

“The coast is clear. I'm in the bushes and well-hidden. Come on over.”

Next, Jose's two dogs, both having been empowered by Max's  training, at Jose's command cleared the wall and joined Zula. But when Jose tried, his first attempt failed. He was unable to make it any higher than six feet.

“Try again. Concentrate. Give it all you've got,” Rana said.

Again, Jose jumped with all the strength he could muster, but again fell short of the top, bouncing back to the ground.

“We're running out of time,” Rana said anxiously. “

We'll do it together.”  When they stepped away from the wall Rana grabbed him around the waist; “Concentrate, like Max taught you. On three. One, two, three!” Linked together in a clean jump, they cleared the wire by half an inch and joined Zula and the dogs.

While Jose reactivated the security camera with the zeta signal controller that Max had assembled, Rana sent a single blip to Lena informing her of their success.

Back at the security control station, the security guard monitoring the cameras yelled out to his supervisor, “Camera four's back on. Seems okay now.”

“Must have been a fluke. These things can be temperamental. But call me if it happens again,” the supervisor said. He crumpled up the work order he had started and tossed it in the trash bin.

Meanwhile, Max and Lena, having entrusted the Mercedes to the young man in charge of valet parking, entered the elegant restaurant precisely at 8 o'clock.  The hostess greeted them warmly and led them toward Dong's table.

Although there were several Asian guests scattered around the elegant room, it wasn't hard to pick out General Dong. He was sitting alone at a table by a huge floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the well-lighted beach with the dark Pacific beyond. He fit the role of a wealthy philanthropist. A handsome 50-year old, his attire screaming money: a dark gray Brioni silk suit, crisp Egyptian cotton white shirt, Charvet tie, Barker-Black ostrich cap-toe English shoes. Putting down his drink, he stood as they approached. “Dr. Manus, I presume. And Mrs. Manus. A pleasure to meet you both. I am Chow Lee. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to meet with me. I hope you will find my humble proposition of interest.”

And so began the getting-to-know-you chit-chat intended to convince Max and Lena that this Chinese millionaire harbored a deep concern for the impoverished, malaria-stricken natives that populate lower Mexico and South America. That he wanted to establish a state-of-the-art medical research institute in Mexico headed by none other than our hero, Max Manus. Max and Lena listened with appropriately

feigned interest, all the while thoroughly enjoying their phenomenal meals of fresh-caught rock fish, grilled vegetables seasoned to perfection, and an exceptional Loire dry rose. They capped the meal with a delicate prickly pear sorbet. It was then that Lena, who had been quiet during most of the conversation, letting General Dong do the talking and Max the responding, rose from her elegantly upholstered chair, informed the two men she was going to freshen up.

In the privacy of the garishly-opulent powder room, Lena buzzed Rana on their secure communication link: “We'll be finishing soon. What have you found out?”

“So far, we've spotted five suspicious Asian-looking men stationed at various points along the path to Dong's chalet.  There are two more just outside the entrance to the restaurant. What do you want us to do?” Rana replied.

“Nothing yet,” Lena answered. “Wait until we know what his next move is. Be ready for anything.”

When Lena returned to the table, Dong stood and excused himself, also, as he put it, to freshen up. But instead, he hastened to the front door and motioned to Colonel Fang, who was waiting with one of his men near the entrance. “We're finished. But there are too many guests milling around out on the grounds to risk an attack. I can see them from here. We'll wait until there are fewer people out. I'll take Manus and the woman to my chalet for a while. When you see that the coast is clear, buzz me and I’ll send them on their way. When they leave my hacienda, make your move. Understand?”

“Of course, General.”

Dong then asked, “Where are the North Koreans? I don't think we'll need them after all, but keep them informed and prepared for action in case we do.”

Fang responded, “You're right, Sir. We'll probably not need them. They're in a grounds' keepers' shed near your hacienda. I can easily summon them if we require backup.”

Back to the table, Dong found Max and Lena preparing to leave. “Dr. Manus, we still have many details to discuss. Won't you and your lovely wife join me in my chalet for a nightcap?”

“Well, it's late, but I suppose we should decide how to get this project started.” Max replied, glancing at Lena.

Meanwhile, Rana, Zula and Jose were positioned to observe the entire distance between the restaurant and Dong's chalet. They kept well out of sight of the Asian men hiding in the shadows that their enhanced vision had allowed them to detect. The two dogs, ever alert, stayed close to Jose, although they paid an unusual amount of attention to a gardener's shed near Dong's chalet. Jose, never one to question the actions of his dogs, wondered what was so interesting about that particular shed.

“Zeus, go, check it out,” Jose commanded. Jupiter remained heeled at Jose's side as Zeus quietly padded his way to the closed shed door where he stood for a moment, then returned to Jose. He took his usual position at Jose's right side, then made a single low growl, pointed his nose toward the shed and moved his head up and down twice. Jose understood at once. “Rana,” he whispered into the miniature microphone pinned to his shirt, “there's something suspicious about that garden shed over there. I'll check it out.”

But as Jose started toward the shed, their ear-buds delivered a message from Lena. “We're going to General Dong's for more talk. An attack will probably be later due to the resort guests still milling around the grounds. But stay alert.”

Looking back toward the restaurant, Jose saw the three figures walking toward Dong's chalet. They had a clear view of his approach to the shed. With the two dogs, he slipped behind a bush in time to avoid being seen.  At that same moment, he heard Rana's voice in his ear.

“Jose, leave the shed for later, you'd be too easily seen if you approach it again. You and Zula take your positions and be ready for an attack on Max and Lena after they leave Dong's chalet.”               

Once inside Dong's chalet, their discussion continued, with Dong promising this and that, and Max responding attentively. But while this charade was progressing inside, on the grounds outside, Fang was doing his utmost to ensure the mission’s success. For as he followed General Dong and his guests back to the chalet, he noticed the dog approach the gardener's shed, then quickly retreat. Being of a suspicious nature, he immediately called Lieutenant Kim, the leader of the North Korean Shadow Team that was sequestered inside the shed. “Leave the shed through the rear door at once and disperse around the chalet. I think you have been discovered. Prepare your men for action, but keep them out of sight. Don't let anyone see you.  Manus and his wife don't know about you being here, and we must keep it that way.”

Kim whispered his reply into his phone, “Don't worry, Fang. We know what to do and how to do it. You do your job and we'll do ours.”

After almost an hour of Dong's and Max's pretenses, Dong called the meeting to an end with a promise of his response about funding the next day. He expressed deep-felt gratitude for their interest in his proposal, and bid Max and Lena good night as he ushered them out his front door.

In the dark park-like surroundings, their exit was closely observed by Zula and Rana, by Rana's future husband Jose and his two dogs, by Dong's loyal Colonel Fang and all six of his Chinese army commandos, and by the six North Korean Shadow Men.

As she stepped across Dong's threshold and into the warm Mexican night, Lena made a quick scan of the surroundings, instantly taking in every detail. She saw that Max also made a visual sweep of the area. She met his knowing glance with the barest hint of a smile as they started along the meandering walkway to the front gate, not bothering to look back at Dong tightly gripping a fresh martini in his fist as he swung shut the heavy front door of what he probably assumed was his impregnable chalet.

To be continued . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Against All Evil: Tale of the Scorpion, Episode Seven

In the previous episode, we learned that while Max and Lena were in La Paz orchestrating the elimination of the Baja Drug Cartel leadership, Leon Cardosa, cousin and legal adviser to the former cartel leader Don Arturo Mendez, was planting the seeds of a new threat for our intrepid heroes. Cardosa had been coerced by a corrupt Chinese Army officer, General Dong He, to help entrap Max by representing the general as a philanthropist intending to establish a tropical diseases institute: Dong, and his subordinate, Colonel Fang, who would command a Black Dragon special forces team, were preparing to abduct Max during a visit to Mexico to set up the institute. And now . . .

Episode Seven

Although overly confident by nature, General Dong was still concerned about the Black Dragon team's ability to capture Max at the meeting in Mexico that had been arranged by Cardosa. The Chinese army spies charged with learning about Manus had reported a troubling observation. Manus, with the aid of his wife, had in the past outwitted and defeated numerous groups attempting to capture him.     

Worried about this possibility, he called Colonel Fang into his office. “Fang, I want you to bring in the North Korean Army's Stealth Team as backup for the Manus abduction. They carry out all the kidnapping forays into South Korea to snatch individuals the North needs for various projects.  Have them there with our Black Dragons a day before I arrive.”

“But General, we can do this without them. Manus is an old man,” Fang protested, unable to hide his wounded pride.          

“That may be true,” Dong replied, “but reports indicate that he may be surprisingly resourceful. I cannot risk failure. Nor, for that matter, Fang, can you.”                  

“I understand, General. I’ll call Colonel Kim and make the arrangements.”

Meanwhile, in their remote hacienda on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Max was completing the final training session with his two adopted daughters, Rana and Zula. They had absorbed the technique rapidly, both being not only highly skilled in martial arts, but also because Max had honed the instructional process to its most basics elements, effective and highly efficient.

When finished, Max, with fatherly pride, said to the two of them, “You've both done well. We're now ready to confront the Chinese general and his special forces. Lena has learned that he has access to the Black Dragon commando team, highly trained killers. But she has not yet discovered out how many. We'll have to be prepared for the worst.

“We're ready, Papa,” Zula said, determined to do whatever required to protect her adoptive parents.

“And we're anxious to try out this great discovery of yours,” added Rana.

The Cabo San Lucas Tropicana Deluxe Hotel is not a typical tourist destination, not listed with travel agents or on websites. The isolated property is unseen from the highway, surrounded by an eight-foot-high wall, and is heavily guarded. It is frequented only by guests who can afford total privacy and absolute security along in a setting of extravagant luxury; the rich and famous, high-level business types, crooks and politicians. The grounds are extensive, with sixty well-concealed lavish villas spread throughout a meandering parkland of magnificent landscaping. This is where General Dong found himself a little before noon on Monday, a day before the dinner meeting with Max Manus that had been arranged by the lawyer Leon Cardosa. Dong had just been delivered to the resort by the silent driver who had met him at the airport, and was now being escorted to his quarters by a beautiful hostess.

“I need to contact Colonel Fang at once,” Dong said to the young woman.

“He is in a large villa with dormitory sleeping quarters. Dial 013 for a direct connection,” she answered. “He and the soccer team are all in the one facility; they arrived two days ago.”

Dong called Fang as soon as the woman had shown him around the villa and then left, promising to return later.

“Fang, come to my villa in two hours. I want an update.”

Exactly two hours later, Fang reported to Dong. “Six of our Black Dragons and six of the North Korean Stealth Team are here, more than enough to handle an old man and a woman. What is your plan for the meeting tomorrow evening, Sir?

Dong, displaying an officious attitude of higher rank, said nothing until he finished stirring the martini mix he had started before Fang's arrival. “Dinner at the seaside restaurant at eight. Afterward, I will invite him, and the wife if he brings her, back here for more discussion. That's when your team will grab him; during our return to my villa. If the woman is with him, kill her and dispose of the body. Keep him in your villa overnight. The next morning sedate him and put him into the coffin you brought. We will leave here at 8 am for my Air Force jet at the Los Cabos airport. Then, to Beijing.

“Yes, Sir,” Fang responded, still at attention, anxious to return to his men. 

General Dong then said, “Of course there will be no problems, Fang. Make sure your men know that. Dismissed.”

As soon as Colonel Fang left, Dong poured the martini mix into two chilled glasses and returned to the plush bedroom and the amiable hostess.

The next morning at the Manus hacienda, after a breakfast of whole-grain chapatis and Mumbai spicy deviled eggs drenched in a squid and okra sauce concocted by Rana, Lena addressed the family. Also present was Jose, their loyal friend and trusted hacienda manager. He was accompanied by his two Rottweiler-Giant Chihuahua crossbreeds, Jupiter and Zeus.

Lena detailed the plan for that evening. “Tonight, Max and I will dine with Dong at the hotel restaurant. The rest of you will be deployed at strategic locations around the property. According to what we've learned from the microphones Rana planted in Cardosa's office, Dong intends to kill me, capture Max, take him to China, and extract information about the power transformation process. He has smuggled in a team of army commandos to do the dirty work, at least six Black Dragons. They are from a crack company of special forces, the equivalent of our Navy Seals. This squad will be commanded by a Colonel Fang, a giant of a man known for his fierce fighting abilities and blind obedience to orders.

But I've prepared our own plan to counteract Dong's. It's unlikely they will attack in the restaurant, so it will probably take place after we finish the meal and leave the building. I suspect Dong will invite us to his private villa for further discussion. That will be a signal for us to be prepared for action. I'll keep each of you informed through your ear buds how this unfolds.”

Lena continued, “Rana and Zula, with your power combined with mine we should be able to overpower the six commandos.; two each. Jose, now that Max has trained Jupiter and Zeus for power transformation, which can be triggered by your command, be ready to use the dogs as the need arises. Max, you will have to disable Dong and Fang on your own. Can you do that?”

Max slowly looked around the table at each of them, then returned his focus back to Lena. “Yes, Lena. I think I can do that. I say that confidently because I have something important to share with all of you. As amazing as it sounds, I have discovered that the power we’re capable of initiating increases with each new activation. This applies to sensory perception and speed of movement too. I have no doubt that this incremental increase in power will occur with each of you as well.”

The stunned group remained silent, as if having difficulty comprehending what Max had told them.

After a few moments, Zula, in a low voice, said, “Papa, are you saying that we will become even stronger each time we trigger the transformation?”

“Yes, Zula, that seems to be the case. At some point we will most likely attain a maximum empowerment, but that's not occurred for me yet. This discovery is truly an unprecedented advance in human biology. Or, should I say mammalian biology, since we now know it can be applied to dogs, as well. Its potential use for good is unlimited. But, so too is its potential for evil. For this reason, we have do everything in our power to keep the process secret. It's up to our family to guard this discovery, with our lives, if necessary. But, just as important, it's also our responsibility to utilize this gift for good. Are you all willing to assume this awesome responsibility?”

Zula was the first to respond, sure that she would be speaking for the others as well. “We understand, Papa, and gladly accept this responsibility. She glanced around to make sure she had not misspoken. There were no objections, and the others nodded in agreement.

Suddenly Rana interjected, “But Papa, you'll have one more to train. Jose and I are getting married. Our family army will expand by one. Or three, if you count Jupiter and Zeus,” she added, a radiant smile accentuating her South Indian beauty.

Although Rana's announcement caught Max and Lena by surprise, they were ecstatic with joy. They had great affection and respect for Jose, and knew that Rana would only choose a man of sterling qualities as a mate.

Zula, on the other hand, with the observational skills of her ancient African tribal heritage, was not surprised, and was also thrilled for her beloved adoptive sister. “I thought something was going on with you two,” she said, shaking her regal closely-cropped head knowingly.

After congratulations, and approval was duly expressed, and a short time out for champagne toasts, Lena returned to her plan to confront Dong and the Chinese army commando squad that evening. She took them one more time through every detail, as if it were just another one of her many CIA operations.

 

Meanwhile, back at the Tropicana Deluxe Hotel, Colonel Fang was leading his Black Dragon team around the hotel grounds, assessing the possible ambush sites between the restaurant and Dong's villa for the third time that afternoon. Later that afternoon, when he reported to General Dong, Fang claimed with absolute confidence that the abduction would proceed as planned. He could think of no reason why it wouldn't. He reassured Dong that when Manus and the old woman would arrive that evening, he and his men would be ready. They would accomplish the objective. They would return to Beijing triumphant.

As soon as Fang left, Dong poured his third martini and gleefully fantasized about all the ways in which he would utilize Max's magical powers.

To be continued . . .

Against All Evil: Tale of the Scorpion, Episode Six

In the previous episode, Max Manus and his companions completely destroyed the powerful Baja Drug Cartel using one of Max's mind-altering chemical creations. Our heroes then returned to their hacienda on the Baja coast to resume the quiet life they yearned for. But in Beijing, at the same time the crazed drug cartel men were chopping their leader Don Arturo Mendez into little pieces, a corrupt Chinese army officer was explaining to his commanding officer a plan to obtain Max's secret power, which he had learned about from Leon Cardosa, who had been the cartel’s lawyer. Now, we continue with . . .

Episode 6

It was mid-morning of the same day that Max and Lena had obliterated the Baja Cartel in La Paz when Captain Hernando Lopez of the Federal Police burst into Leon Cardosa's office. “Leon, Don Arturo is dead. He was killed by his own men in La Paz early this morning. They went crazy and attacked him with machetes. They remember nothing, not even their own names or why they were there. Some kind of mass hysteria. Or maybe a virus or something. They've all been arrested. What are we going to do?”

At first, Cardosa was overwhelmed by this news, but after a few moments reflection, he focused on what needed to be done. “Our biggest worry is that the men will recover and tell the Federales about you and me,” he said, ringing his hands nervously.

“That won't be a problem. My cousin runs the La Paz jail. He knows what side his tortilla's oiled on. He'll make sure they don't talk. But what about our drug operations?  We can't just stop everything,” Lopez said, pacing around the office.

“Of course not. You and I will take control.” Cardosa said. “Our distribution networks are secure. It's our supply we need to concentrate on. We need to keep the coke and heroin coming in from Guatemala, the crystal meth from our labs here in Mexico, and marijuana from California.”

“But that's what the men arrested in La Paz were doing. Who's gonna do that now?” Lopez said, doubt showing in his eyes. After a moment, he continued. “I hate to say this, but maybe we should join forces with the Sinaloa cartel. They'd be happy to get our distribution networks, and they could easily take care of our supply.”

“Yes, you may be right,” Cardosa said thoughtfully. “But before we can decide that, I have another problem to take care of. I've offered to supply drugs to the Chinese. I'll know more later today, then we'll decide what to do.”

After Lopez left, Cardosa reluctantly made the unavoidable call to China.

“General Dong? This is Leon Cardosa. I have bad news. We have to delay our meeting about the topic we talked about earlier. Oh. You've heard already? I see. Well, I assure you that even without Mendez we'll still be able to proceed with a distribution deal since—”

General Dong cut Cardosa off in mid-sentence. “Mr. Cardosa, we'll talk to you about product distribution another time. In view of your sudden organizational change, of which our contacts had already informed us, we'll discuss that topic after you work out a new business structure.  However, concerning the Manus issue, we will proceed with that opportunity immediately.”

“But General Dong, it was Arturo Mendez who was going to steal Manus' super power secret. I wasn't involved in that,” Cardosa responded, growing panic revealed in his voice.

Ignoring Cardosa's response, Dong continued, “Mr. Cardosa, you will arrange a meeting between myself and Manus next week in Los Cabos. By the way, give my regards to your beautiful wife, Martha, and your two charming daughters, Maria and Lucia. It would be a shame if something were to happen to them,” General Dong said before abruptly ending the call.

After his conversation with Dong, Cardosa sat at his desk desperately trying to figure out what to do. “Oh, my god, what have I gotten into? How can I arrange a meeting with Manus? I don't even know how to approach him,” he mumbled.

Meanwhile, back at Max and Lena's hacienda, Rana played for the second time the recordings of Cardosa's conversation with Captain Lopez and of his phone call to General Dong, both of which were picked up by the microphone she had previously planted in Cardosa's office. Even Cardosa’s mumbling was audible.

Well Papa, it seems that another evil power wants to acquire your secret,” Rana said, unable to disguise her concern.

“Yes. it does. But we sure as hell can't take on the Chinese army. Not even with your and Lena's remarkable talents. We wouldn't stand a chance,” Max said.”

At this point, Lena put down her knitting and interjected, “Max, hold on. Let's consider our options. This General Dong, whoever he is, can't represent the entire Chinese army. That's not the way it works. He's probably just a crooked loony-tune renegade. I know. I've dealt with these types before. I'll have him checked out by one of my CIA friends.”

Lena paused to examine her last few rows of the scarf she had been working on, then continued, “And this Cardosa character, just the remnant of the Baja Cartel leadership. Obviously, he's in over his head. He'll quickly be pushed aside by this Chinese general. Probably assassinated. So, it's easy. We just deal with Dong. It's either that or go into deep hiding, and I refuse to do that anymore.”

Just what are you suggesting, Mom?” Rana asked as she adjusted the settings on the recording equipment.

Lena responded at once. “Here's my suggestion. If Cardosa calls, play along with whatever he wants. Let him set up a meeting in Cabo with the general. We'll have our own kind of meeting with him and put a quick end to his fantasy of becoming a Chinese superman. Rana, can you stay a little longer to help out?”

“Of course, Mother, I'll stay as long as you want. Anyway, Papa promised to teach me about power transformation, didn't you Papa?” Rana said, then continued without waiting for Max to answer. “Maybe we should invite Zula down for a visit. You know she'd not want to miss a chance to become a superwoman. She’d help with the Chinese, too. I doubt that the general is gonna show up alone.”

Max got up and went over to the record cabinet. “You're right, Lena. No matter how much we hate this constant struggle, we can't run away. They'd find us eventually. And Rana, we'll start working on your power transformation training today We'll call Zula, too,” Max said, as he carefully placed a vintage Brahms LP onto the turntable intended to help Lena formulate her plan.

The call from Cardosa came the next morning. “Hello,” Max answered.

“Is this Max Manus?”

“Maybe. Who are you? I see from the caller ID code you're in Mexico City.”

“My name is Leon Cardosa. I'm an attorney at law. I'm calling on behalf of a wealthy client interested in establishing a tropical medicine research institute in Mexico. Your past work on drugs to treat exotic diseases is of interest to him. He's anxious to meet you to discuss his plans. Would you be willing to talk with him?”

“Perhaps. This is an area in which I still have strong interest,” Max lied. “Just who is this mystery man?” he then asked.

Cardosa answered, “For security reasons he doesn't want his identity revealed at this time. Naturally, he'll disclose everything about himself when you meet.”

Upon Max's acquiescence, they arranged a meeting the following week at the plush and very private Tropicana Deluxe Hotel north of Cabo San Lucas.

After his conversation with Max, Cardosa called General Dong.

“Well done, Mr. Cardosa. I'll organize a little surprise for Dr. Manus. I'm sure he'll enjoy a visit to our facilities here in China.”

Dong then called his superior, General Yang, to request that members of the elite Black Dragon special ops force accompany him to Mexico to capture Manus and bring him to Beijing.

General Dong then called in the officer who had been waiting in the anteroom. “We will move forward with our plan, Colonel Fang. You'll lead a Black Dragon team and capture Manus in Mexico six days from now. Work out the details. I want to see your plan tomorrow morning.”

The big man was unable to hold back a barely detectable smile as he rose from the chair that had been straining to support his massive frame. “I will not fail you, Sir.” He saluted and waited to be dismissed.

“Of course you won’t. Failure is not one of your options,” Dong replied, returning Wang's crisp salute.

To be continued.

 

 

Against All Evil: Tale of the Scorpion, Episode Five

In the previous episode, Max and Lena had just left the Agua Verdosa boat ramp with their companions after Lena and Rana had eliminated the three Baja Drug Cartel thugs sent to ambush Max. They were headed to La Paz, where they intended to end the cartel's efforts to acquire Max's super power secret. At the same time, Leon Cardosa, Mendez's lawyer and adviser, had contacted a corrupt Chinese army general to set up a Baja Cartel drug distribution network in China; he also offered Max's super energy capability as an inducement to a deal. And now, 

Episode 5           

Max and his entourage, comprising his wife Lena, their adopted daughter Rana, his hacienda guard and trusted friend Jose, and Jose's resourceful brother Raul, entered La Paz city limits close to midnight after driving from the boat ramp at Agua Verdosa to elude Don Arturo Mendez and his men intent on capturing Max. Keenly alert in the passenger seat of the Raul's SUV, Lena noticed a helicopter following them, although it had dropped back to be barely in sight.

When she told Max about the helicopter, he said, “I noticed it too. Must be a Mexican Air Force copter conscripted by Mendez to discover our destination. Mendez is probably close behind. We'll have to lead them to a false location rather than to the real safe house.” Then he said to Raul, “Jose said your uncle has a vacant vacation house in La Paz. We can lead them there, and then after the helicopter retreats, we'll go to Lena's safe house.”

“Good idea. His car is there too,” Jose said.

Then Rana said, “Mom, you and Dad were the only ones that heard the helicopter. I sure didn't. Is better hearing part of the super-power thing?”

“It must be. I’ve noticed that lately I hear better. How about you, Max?” Lena responded.

“Maybe. I'll check into after we finish with Mendez.”

A little later, from 5000 feet above, the helicopter pilot watched the boat-towing SUV enter a walled hacienda compound on the outskirts of La Paz. He reported the location to Mendez, then turned back to Los Cabos.

“The chopper's gone. We'll leave the SUV, trailer and boat here in plain sight and take the uncle's car to the safe house,” Lena commanded, quickly assuming control of the situation at the decoy hacienda. “Mendez and his men should arrive soon, and we can't afford to be trapped here unprepared.”

Twenty minutes later, in the safe house a few miles from the uncles' hacienda, Lena laid out her plan. “Mendez should reach the uncle's hacienda in about an hour or so. He probably called for reinforcements from Ensenada after discovering his dead soldiers at the boat ramp. It’ll take time for them to get here, most likely until early tomorrow morning. That should give us enough time to prepare a nice reception for them. Raul, your job tonight is to find street vendor's disguises for me and Rana. We also need a fully stocked tamale cart, and a little wagon full of bottled water and soda. Max, since you brought your chemistry set, finish that treat you’re concocting to spice up the tamales and drinks.”

“No problem, my little Edelweiss. As they say, better living through chemistry,” Max replied, a tell-tale grin revealing his anticipation of another fun-filled night of what for him was chem-lab 101.

Meanwhile, as Lena described her plan, Don Arturo Mendez, in the back seat of a cartel van speeding toward La Paz, was barely able to contain his anger as he screamed into his cell phone at one of his cartel captains. “I want twenty men and big weapons here by 6 am. No later, or your next meal will be tortillas soaked in battery acid,” he threatened.

The La Paz morning finally dawned. A radiant hot sun broke over the hacienda wall like a red-hot sledge hammer smashing through the dark blanket of night. Mendez's four men were spread around the locked metal gate blocking entrance to the uncle's property. They were awaiting arrival of additional henchmen from Ensenada to supplement their ranks before an attack. At 5:45 two pickup trucks and three SUVs arrived. Machine guns were mounted in the truck beds. The SUVs were packed with heavily armed cartelistas.

But as the men gathered near the gate to receive instructions from Mendez, they heard distance cries of, “Tamales, Hot Tamales. Hot breakfast tamales.” Then, a younger voice calling out, “Soda, Water. Soda, Cold Water.”

As the shouts grew louder, two ragged vendors appeared around the north end of the hacienda wall, an old lady pushing a tamale cart, a younger one pulling a wagon filled with ice and cold drinks.

“We better eat while we have a chance. Haven't had anything since noon yesterday,” yelled Sanchez. “Hey, Senora! Senorita! Over here!”

Lena, disguised as an old tamale peddled, and Rana, disguised as a young woman selling cold drinks, quickly distributed food and drink to the hungry and thirsty men. After collecting pesos from Sanchez, Lena and Rana continued down the empty street, their satisfied smiles hidden in the shade of the tamale cart's umbrella.

Thirty minutes later a disheveled Mendez emerged from the van where he had been trying to catch a little sleep. As the men finished the tamales and gulped the last of their drinks, Mendez took stock of his forces. They were gathered around the gate waiting for him to tell them what he wanted them to do. There were 26 men in all, including the entire leadership of the cartel; his best men.

Sanchez, noting the wild look in Mendez's eyes and a pronounced agitation in his demeanor, quietly drew him aside, out of hearing of the others.  “Don Arturo, are you okay? You seem different this morning?”

“Of course I'm okay, you fool. We are close to having great power. Just do your job and capture Manus. If you don't, I'll personally peel you like an onion. Now, I'll give the men a little inspiration and then you’ll knock down this damn gate and attack.”

It was then, as Mendez started his rallying speech, that vivid visions crept out of the dark depths of the men's clouded psyches and seized control of their minds. Complete detachment from the present moment severed their connection to who and where they were. They were launched through barriers of time and space into what must have seemed like neighboring galaxies. They experienced visitations and conversations with long-dead friends and relatives, from innocent victims, from unrecognizable beasts of every shape and size imaginable. They relived horrors of the past, had fleeting glimpses of the future, saw colors never seen before, and heard sounds never heard previously. Reality evaporated, then returned, then went away again. Nothing mattered other than the technicolor nightmares playing on the screens of their distorted minds.

At first, the loud, haranguing voice droning on the periphery of their psychic aberrations was barely audible. But as it continued to increase in volume and intensity, it became unbearable to the unhinged men sprawled in the dirt around the gate. Feral dogs snatched uneaten remains of the tamales from their unknowing hands. As Mendez stood in front of the closed gate screaming about attacking and killing and capturing, one of the men yelled in a slurred voice, “Shut up, you noisy fool!”

Attacking and killing and pillaging was the last thing the incapacitated men were interested in doing at that moment. For they were no longer who they used to be. Unable to tolerate Mendez's exhortations any longer, Sanchez cleared his head enough to stand up and rally his men: “Who is this madman screaming at us?  “Amigos! We have to destroy this devil!” Sanchez yelled as he grabbed a machete from the nearest truck and led the crazed men forward in a frenzied rush.

What little was left of Don Arturo Mendez was indistinguishable from the debris floating in the putrid gutter sludge winding its way through the town to the clear blue waters of the Gulf of California.

As the stoned-out-of-their-minds cartel men were finishing their rampage, the Mexican Federal Police, summoned earlier by Lena, moved in and took control. The death of Mendez and arrest of his drug-addled men brought a sudden and inglorious end to the formally fierce Baja Cartel. Lena, shed of her disguise, directed the police action with a confident forcefulness that not only intimidated the Mexican captain in charge, but also commanded his unquestioning respect, even awe. Whatever it was, it worked, worked not only in that the Baja Cartel was completely destroyed, but also that it enabled Max and Lena to return to the peaceful life at their beloved hacienda where Max could get back to his scientific experiments

But, then again, as we have seen so many times in the past, nothing is ever as it appears for our heroes. Especially in this particular case, since Leon Cardosa is still in our story, and, like a snake slithering through the tall grass, represents a potential complication lurking out of sight just over the horizon. It is what may become of his overtures to a general in the Peoples Liberation Army that may yet present to Max and Lena a challenge that may dwarf any they have encountered previously.

In this regard, we must pay close attention to the private, unscheduled meeting taking place in a dimly lit, sound-proof room deep in the bowels of the Peoples' Liberation Army headquarters in Beijing at the same time the Baja Cartel was coming to its tamale-induced extinction in La Paz. We join the meeting just as General Fu Chung is bringing it to conclusion. “So, General Dong, if your claim, and the information our own research has uncovered, is true, we would be remiss not to accept Cardosa's offer to include us on the acquisition of Manus' super power discoveries. But, if for some reason the barbaric Baja Cartel fails to meet this objective, then naturally we will assume control.”

“Of course, Comrade General. We will be prepared for such a necessity,” General Dong responded. “I will meet Cardosa in Hawaii and arrange the next steps.”

To be continued.

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