Friday, November 26, 2010

week thirty-three: time and hope

The following story is written as a companion piece for the very first Story a Week story, "Time and Regret." It is recommended that you read "Time and Regret" first, but "Time and Hope" stands on its own.

Hard times befall even the very best of humanity, and such was the case was for Hope's family. She was born into a destitute family where successes were few and far in between. Despite the coming and going of victories, tragedy always followed. Such was the case for the birth of Hope, for as she was born, her mother passed on. It would be so easy to accept despair in these times. Hope's father had nothing left but a mortgage, unemployment, and a child to raise on his own. Any more wavering man would surrender, but her father was truly indomitable. On a simple piece of paper, he wrote to his daughter on the day she was born:

“Hope, you're everything to me now. Your mother would have loved you very much and I'm sure if she can see you, she still does. We had decided early on to name you Catherine, but when she passed away, I decided your middle name was better. Your name is Hope because that's all I can have now. I don't want you or me to ever forget that. Times are tough, but there will always be hope. You're my Hope and I promise you right now that I'm going to fulfill everything you could hope for. I love you and you're going to have it better than your mother and I ever did. I promise.”

He fulfilled his promises. Working tirelessly at two jobs and caring for a young daughter, Hope's father overcame the insurmountable woes of depression and poverty. He never remarried because his focus was solely on his one true love: his daughter. Her dark hair and cerulean eyes reminded him so much of his befallen wife. That was all he really needed to move them out of their one-room apartment and into a three-bedroom house. All was against them, but the tables turned with the greatest outlook: hope.

With her experiences and a great father, she became her namesake. Hope was an indefatigable optimist and saw the best in everyone. She could never look back and believe in failure; she could only look ahead to the rising of the sun in the next day. Hope could empower others with her unwaveringly rosy reverie. She had the gift of encouragement because she could see the beauty in life that all others were blind to. Hope inspired and attracted many, but she waited until she found truest and purest love.

And she would find such love in Nick. What she saw in a Nick was her complete opposite. He was pessimistic and often cynical, but there was something about him that made him never look back. Nick proved as idealistic as Hope, except he saw the problems to be fixed rather than the strengths to be built upon. Their pairing was a beautiful one and they found their individual faults and qualities complemented the other with perfection. There was something strange about Nick, but Hope could never place it.

As autumn dawned, as they strolled through the most gorgeous of parks, and as their hands embraced, Nick took a knee. Hope knew what he would say. These four words are some of the most important a girl will ever hear. They are as follows, “Will you marry me?” But those aren't the words Nick told her there. In truest and purest love, he took the ring from his pocket and opened the case before her.

And before he could say anything, before she even saw the ring, she exclaimed with all impulse, love, sincerity, and hope, “Yes!” So they kissed.

They found themselves at the altar. Instead of listening to the old priest read the marriage vows, they lost themselves in each other's eyes. Both knew what they were going to say. And when they said those two words, when their matrimony was complete, the universe was suddenly made whole. Hope could not have been happier.

Hope's father felt his purpose fulfilled. He had given Hope all the love he could give and it was time for her to move on; time for her to share that love. His tears fell as she embraced him after the wedding. These weren't tears of pain, or tears of sorrow, these were tears of true joy. When a man puts his entire life into a singular goal, and that goal is fulfilled, then he is completed. Hope's father was completed.

They spent the next four years living together in harmony. Of course, there were the occasional mishaps and fights here and there; these are human things to do. And their true love would not be complete without fault. To live with perfection is to live devoid of humanity, devoid of purpose. To truly love is to love despite all fault. Love lives on despite all blunder and imperfection, but accounts for all quality and novelty. Love is a passing feeling, but a lasting choice.

While love has no limits, humanity does. Love cannot be broken, but the humanity behind it can be. It was after those four years that Nick screwed up. Hope had no choice but to leave him. This is not a choice she can be faulted with and she made it. Despair and depression overcame Nick to the point that she could only see him as crazy.

Hope moved away. After a month had passed, Nick came to her doorstep and begged her to come back to him. She listened to every one of his desperate pleas and she felt for him; she truly did. In her heart, she still loved him truly and deeply. But Nick had become a madman. Just as she was to take him back, he babbled on about a power to go in back time. He explained that regret gave him the fuel to do this and that she took it away because she gave him hope. Somehow it made sense. Somehow, what Nick said appeared as truth should appear. Nevertheless, the power to wind back time is incredulous. She couldn't believe him. And who would?

Nick told the truth. All of his life up until he asked her out, he been rewinding time and fixing his mistakes. He told no one; this power is impossible to demonstrate and even more so to believe. But he professed the truth to her. If he had not told her about his power, if she did not hear the truth, then she would have taken him back. Hope could only watch as Nick tore his life to shreds. He put himself in support groups and took medications of all kinds, but there was no helping him. Her lover faced despair. And it was all because of her.

Nick was suicidal; she knew this. And if he did it, if he committed the unforgivable sin, how could she live with herself? It might as well have been Hope who had killed him. But everyone around her told Hope to stay away.

She could not listen. She went to his home, completely unaware of her intentions. Maybe she would just check on him, maybe she could just see his face, maybe she could cure him. Hope always believed in the best in people. Nick was a great man, but he was a broken one. Broken men can be lovers, but there is a line too far. Sometimes people break into insanity. And that was how everyone saw Nick. But Hope still loved him.

Hope sat in her car and turned off the engine. His home was before her. She could go inside, she could fix this, maybe they could be together one last time. But no. No. He's insane. The man inside is broken beyond repair. Hope had to see him. She threw open her car door and resigned herself to just looking into his window. She hoped to see him and know how he was. She had to see the insanity, the cracking, the breaking for herself.

Hope surprised herself by what she saw. Nick sat in there on his couch with a weary smile, but a hopeful one. There was just something about that smile that told her all she needed to hear. Hope believed then that everything would be alright, that they could move on. Life could change. Perhaps Nick would mend and he could live without her, just as she was doing. Hope had learned to live a better life. Or she thought.

The next day brought tragedy. Hope's father passed away. He had been fighting heart disease for a very long time and finally, it overtook him. Hope couldn't be there for him, she couldn't hold his hand as he died. He was at work, sitting in his office, when the attack came. He fought and fought, but lost the battle. His doctors would later tell Hope that his dying words for her. As Hope's father fought for his last moments, he cried out her name. His battle was hopeless and he died with his daughter, his one true love, in agony over her lost husband. But her father lost his grip on life. He fell into the abyss of death.

As Hope drove to the funeral home, she answered a phone call from a disgruntled Nick, “I'm sorry. I can't do this anymore. I love you.” And at that he hung up. Those were his lasts words.

When she arrived at the funeral, there were so many people. They all smiled, but all sorrowed over this lost man. Hope's father was a great man. A man giving a eulogy made note of his triumph over poverty and despair. He told them all about how he brought hope to everyone he met. There was something about this man; something about his very being that drove people, that inspired people. That both literally and figuratively, the man lying in that casket had brought Hope into the world. She kissed his aged forehead before they closed the casket. They came to the disturbed dirt at the hallowed ground and echoed their goodbyes from before.

In her shaking fingers dangled a folded page.

“What's that?” the man to her left asked.

“Oh, this? Nothing,” Hope answered politely. The man lost interest and that was her chance. Just as the casket hit newly-broken earth, Hope threw the paper into the dirt. This was just something that she had to do. It was that one last deed for her faltered father. It was a useless gesture. Dead men need no gestures; the living around them must give gestures to the dead because men need conclusion. They must do the last deeds so that all ends are met. All there knew that the only end left was Hope. She was alone. Her husband was a psycho and her dad was dead. The people there offered Hope comfort and encouragement, but these words are hollow. Hope doesn't need any of that. She needed her love back.

But duty came first. She drove to her father's house to go through his belongings. In this she found so many cherished memories; even some she had long stored in her heart, but lost in her mind. There was everything, from her impoverished yet jovial childhood to her father's eventual success. Even her wedding with Nick was well-documented in all of it. She put the things to keep in boxes and the rest she left as it were. These things were to be sold; gone forever. Like her father.

There was a trunk in her father's bedroom which Hope had never opened because her father had forbid it. All of her life she wondered what could be inside. Hope almost left it shut and would move the trunk to storage, but she had to know. What would her father keep from her? The mystery's answer was not quite as stellar as her childlike imagination had led her to believe. Inside were scraps, memories, and pieces... of Hope's mother. There were pictures, random trinkets, letters, poems, and more; all things only valued by those who cherished them.

But there was also a box; a black box. Hope snapped it open and inside she found a revolver. It was small, silver, and loaded. Somehow as she held it in her hands, she felt cold. And afraid. In her mind, she heard whispers. They were in a strange voice, but audible nonetheless. They said, “Take me.”

Without resistance, she slid the pistol into her purse.

That evening, when darkness of night stood fullest, her phone rang. Somehow, Hope knew she was about to hear some horrible, horrible news. And, of course, she was right. The call came from the police department, who called simply to inform her that Nick had put a bullet through his brain and was dead. No. She saw him. He had been fine the other day. No, no, no. This could not be. But it was. And hope knew that this was all her doing.

If she hadn't left him, he might still live.

If she had believed him about his power, he might still live.

If she walked through his door to be with again, he might still live.

If she had never met him, he might still live.

Despair took hold of her being. Hope lost all of her namesake. She heard the revolver's calling once more, “Use me.”

“Use me.”

Use. Me.”

But Hope resisted. She could go on; she would have to. At the end of every night, there is day, is there not? There is an end to every madness, is there not? Every road, no matter how long, how dark, had to turn at some place. Hope would wait for this sunrise; she would find the turn in the road. Her father had done the same, so she must have it in her.

Doubt is a slow, silent predator. For days, doubt crept through her mind, feeding her despair. She looked in all places to find her her namesake, but doubt and despair choked her being. There was no one and nowhere she could turn to. Because of doubt, she had walked so far down the path of darkness that she could see nothing. She could see nothing except for one small light in the distance. She knew what it was.

“Use me.”

This road was death.

“Use me.”

Hope crept towards death. She went to her end slowly, only toying with the idea as she held the gun in her fingers. Of course, she told herself in her mind that this was something she could never do. Her thumb pressed against the hammer. Only crazy people like Nick actually do it. Click, whispered the hammer. Ha ha, this is all a just a joke or merely a dream. The cold steel pressed against her temple.

Far off down in her father's grave rest the paper Hope had buried with him. On it was written, “Hope, you're everything to me now. Your mother would have loved you very much and I'm sure if she can see you, she still does. We had decided early on to name you Catherine, but when she passed away, I decided your middle name was better. Your name is Hope because that's all I can have now. I don't want you or me to ever forget that. Times are tough, but there will always be hope. You're my Hope and I promise you right now that I'm going to fulfill everything you could hope for. I love you and you're going to have it better than your mother and I ever did. I promise.”

Why did it have to come to this? How had it come to this? What went wrong?

No. She could never again bear to think through it ever again. The trigger pulled, the hammer fell, the powder lit, the bullet spun through the rifling and into her skull. Her limp, lifeless body fell to the floor.

Friday, November 19, 2010

week thirty-two: ccu

The Year 2249 (Approximated)

At something about twelve-forty in the morning, Officer Terrence Vicar sat in the passenger seat of the Cadillac and looked forward to the end of his beat. He and his new partner, Mick Janus, had barely spoken the entire day. It wasn't because they disliked one another, it was because there was little left to talk about. And both were so tired. Their shifts had begun at two in the afternoon and lasted until two in the morning. And, unfortunately, very little actually happened during their beats. Often speaking, they would be following leads, but other days, such as these, there was nothing.

The streets were mostly empty, except for the occasional hoodlum or crazy person. In this part of East London, you would have to be crazy to be out at this hour. The alleyways ran rampant with the desperate and the greedy. Vicar always hoped that he would run into (and bust) some crime or another, maybe a mugging, but criminals had gotten smart and knew even when an undercover unit such as Vicar's was around. Even so, common crime was not his job. No, Vicar's job was to put down cyborgs.

In the year 2198, the first fully-autonomous and technically intelligent computer system came online. The system eventually created software which rendered all computer technology it could access under its control. By this point, most of the world was dependent upon robotic and cybernetic technology. A war broke out between human beings and the automatons. After forty years of long, bloody war, humanity won out. The technology to create intelligent artificial beings was completely destroyed and severe legal limitations were placed on what technology could be created. Some of the robotic forces, however, survived. Since the technology to create more autonomous cybernetic beings was lost, the remnants needed to seek new hardware. It was quickly discovered that the only remaining hardware capable of supporting intelligent life was the human body.

The computer systems found ways to adapt the human brain and its body to cybernetic technology. The earliest cyborgs disguised themselves as humans and then kidnapped human beings in order to install the necessary hardware. These humans were taken over by robotic consciousnesses; possessing little to nothing of their former personalities. Cyborg human beings are faster, smarter, stronger, and generally better than organic human beings. To the common observer, cyborgs are completely indistinguishable from normal humans. There were ticks here and there but, generally speaking, converts could blend into the background very well.

When searching for a new person to convert, cyborgs would generally search for an able-bodied someone with minimal connection to other humans. Since much of person would be lost, family members or friends would pick up on the fact that they were dealing with a cyborg. If little human contact remained, there was a smaller chance of the cyborg being discovered. Many believed that since the brain was mostly left intact, that the human inside remained. Officials shrug this off as wishful thinking. There is no known technique for converting someone back from being a cyborg. It has never formally been confirmed or denied whether it is possible or not.

“Need some joe?” Janus asked as he gently turned the steering wheel. He kept his eyes on the road. The drunks tend to come out around this hour. It never became uncommon for them to be the cause of motor accidents.

Vicar replied, “I could use something, yeah.” He had actually just been thinking about how a shot of caffeine would help him get through the night. Janus turned the car in the direction of a gas station.

Of course, the biggest question asked about the cyborgs is why. Why do they kidnap and convert humans? The answer is simple and most easily answered in the form of another question: why does any species try and reproduce? The only way for the cybernetic race to multiply is to assimilate organic life. Just as natural as the human sex drive is the cybernetic need to convert humans. The other “why” question about cyborgs is why there is no attempt to coexist with them. The answer is very simple: fear; both a logical and an illogical one. Logically speaking, if the cyborgs were to gain sufficient number, they could attempt another uprising. Humanity may not be quite as lucky in a second war. Illogically, it was simple fear, and even, as some might put it, racism. Of course, the overwhelming majority stood unsympathetic to the cybernetic cause.

Janus pulled into a 7-11 and stopped at a gas pump, “Grab me a coffee, black.” He shut down the engine. “I'll tank us up.”

Vicar got out of the car just as Janus did. He asked, “Anything to eat?”

“No, I'm good,” Janus put his credit card into the machine.

“I'll get you a donut,” Vicar told him as he turned to head into the convenience store.

“I said I don't want anything, boss,” Janus argued.

“Trust me, kid, you'll get hungry as soon as you see me eating,” Vicar didn't turn to face his partner as he said these words. To him, this was fact and whatever argument Janus gave wouldn't matter.

Janus had no retort; he knew it was best not to argue with his partner, who was a good twenty years his senior. Instead, he pumped his gas and minded his own business.

Vicar pushed open the glass doors to the convenience store. The interior was run down and disorganized. A few products were on the floor, the paint was peeling, and the floor dirty. Vicar had even noted graffiti sprawled on the outside windows. This truly was a bad part of town. The clerk behind the counter reclined in a chair and read a newspaper as he stroked his thick, bushy, black beard. He gave Vicar almost no heed whatsoever.

There were four other people in the room. The first three were a group of youths standing around the beer section. They talked to themselves and laughed loudly at their crappy inside jokes. Each of them had a piercing somewhere on their face and their unsleeved arms were tattooed like mad. Vicar could only assume that they were in some kind of gang. He reasoned that he could arrest them for loitering if he really wanted, but that would be about it. And that was just idle, stupid fantasy. Vicar had no desire to arrest anyone whatsoever and just wanted this calm, dreary night to end.

He grabbed a pair of stout cups and started filling them with the lukewarm coffee from the machine. As soon as they were filled, he realized that there was only one lid. He turned to the attendant and said, “Hey! There's only one lid.”

No answer.

“Hey!” Vicar exclaimed. “There's only one lid over here! I need another.”

The clerk replied, “We are out.”

“You don't have any in the back?” Vicar cocked his eyebrow.

“No, sir,” the clerk shifted his newspaper.

Vicar rolled his eyes. He very briefly fantasized about whipping out his badge and gun to force another lid out of him. But that was just another idle, stupid dream.

The fourth person in the room was a lean, blond woman who read a copy of The Weekly Girl. She was only barely attractive; striking maybe, but beautiful was simply out of the question. And it was clear that she knew this; the cleavage on her top said it all. She looked up to Vicar and said, “He's always like that.”

“Is he?” Vicar snapped the lid onto the first cup and then decided he didn't want coffee anymore. Instead, he walked over to the refrigerators and pulled out a Coke. The teenaged gangsters paid him no heed.

“Yeah, I don't usually come at night cuz of him,” she said as she twirled her hair in between her fingertips. She put the magazine back in its spot and approached Vicar. He immediately reasoned that she was a hooker. “What brings you out here? Never seen you around.”

“Work,” Vicar opened up the glass case containing the donuts. He grabbed a pair of the regular glazed variety and put them in a box. He would later realize that he should have gotten a half dozen; more bang for your buck. “My partner's out pumping the gas.”

“Oh, so you're a...”

“Cop,” that's when Vicar started getting suspicious. In his mind, he went through his mental checks when trying to spot a cyborg. She fit the usual bill: athletic, doesn't stand out too much, lonely. “Sometimes we get hungry.”

She smiled and suddenly lost interest in him, “That's nice.”

Vicar stepped over to the counter, only to realize that the teenagers were finally buying a case of beer a piece. He stood there in line and watched the young lady became more and more nervous. So, Vicar decided to test her, “You from around here?”

“Oh, yeah, I live real close,” she replied with a quiver in her voice. She avoided eye contact, which was natural. Cyborg eyes had a strange tendency to continuously expand and contract. It's a subtle tell, but a damning one. They did this because their hardware had them constantly analyzing visual information at almost every level of detail.

“Know any good restaurants?” Vicar realized then that both of his hands were full. If he needed his weapon, he was doomed.

She bit her lip as she made for the door, “Look, mister, I gotta run.”

“Oh, yeah, where do you have to be in such a hurry?” Vicar figured then that he could stall her at least until he could set his things down on the counter. The first gang member had paid, the second was paying, and the third waited.

“I just,” she stammered. “I just have to go.”

The second finished as Vicar asked, “You sure?”

“Yeah, I'm sure,” she pressed her body against the glass door and it opened. She looked right into his eyes. There it was: her irises flicked like a camera lens. There could be no doubt.

Vicar debated pursuing her at all. Perhaps he could just call it a night. No, there's a job to do. He dropped the coffee and donuts, then reached to his back where his holster rested. Just as he felt his fingers touch the wood, the woman broke in a straight sprint. As the refreshments hit the floor, Vicar's Smith & Wesson Magnetic Police Special swung out in his hands. He took aim at the young woman and fired a shot. Because of the high kick of a magnetically accelerated bullet, he only got the one shot. The glass in the door shattered before blood splattered from her arm as she stumbled forward, but ultimately kept running. He took aim to fire again, but realized that he was at a gas station; a major incident could happen if he hit a pump. He slid the pistol back into his holster and bolted after her.

Janus only watched with wide eyes she ran by. Vicar shouted after him, “Don't just stand there, get her!” Janus shook his head and then snapped back into readiness. The cybernetic woman had already gotten herself down the road a decent ways. “Take the side road, try and cut her off! I'll keep after her!”

“Yeah, right,” Janus replied as he took off. He eventually left Vicar's sight as he ran into the adjacent road.

Vicar knew to keep her in his sights. A cyborg would be far too fast for him to actually catch on foot; not to mention the incredible endurance they typically possessed. Every cyborg is different; they usually don't have the exact same upgrades, but it could always be assumed that they were physically superior to humans. She ran, pushing her way through the few people who hung around, clutching her bleeding arm. Vicar considered drawing his pistol and shooting again, but she was too far to guarantee a shot. Plus, there were innocents standing around. Hitting them would guarantee a suspension... and a headache.

Vicar's plan then became to rely on Janus coming through. Janus had only been with Vicar for a week and so he doubted whether or not he could trust the kid. Janus had never killed a cyborg before and he was fresh out of training for the Cybernetic Contingency Unit. Vicar seriously doubted that they would get this woman, but failing is a vital part of learning. It took Vicar seven months before he logged his first kill. Twenty-seven years later, his scratch record is up to ninety-three.

Vicar once felt remorse for his killing, but eventually overcame this guilt. They were just machines, after all; dangerous ones at that. Vicar never subscribed to the McCarthianistic kill-all philosophy that most in his unit shared. In fact, he no longer shared much enthusiasm. Being in the CCU was a job and really not a thing more. Vicar was in his fifties; far too late to find another profession. There was a time when he had a desk job at the CCU academy, but he found that even worse than cyborg hunting.

Suddenly, the woman turned into an alleyway. Vicar followed her in to find her standing there frozen. On the other side of the woman was Janus, who trained his very modern Colt MatchMag Semi on their target. He just stood there, shaking. Vicar whipped out his own pistol and shouted, “Janus, do it!”

There was no answer. The woman looked back to Vicar, frozen in terror.

“Janus!” Vicar pulled back his hammer. “Come on, shoot her!”
The youthful of the two shook; nothing coming from his pistol or his mouth.

Vicar rolled his eyes and then pulled his trigger. He watched as the round slammed center mass into the woman. She lost her balance and fell to the floor, only to pick herself back up again and run at Janus, who still did nothing. Vicar fired again, this time piercing her shoulder. The woman still charged, this time grabbing the boy. He tried his best to shake her off. He cried out in fear.

Vicar took careful aim and then fired his fourth and final round. The back of her blond head exploded in a cloud of blood. She finally fell limp; dead.

“What the hell is wrong with you, kid?” Vicar put his pistol away and ran over to the dead woman. He checked to make sure of two things. One, that she was actually dead. Two, that she was actually a cyborg. Both, fortunately, were true.

Janus holstered his pistol and took two steps back.

“Hey, kid, what the hell happened?” Vicar stood and wiped sweat from his brow.

“You hit me,” Janus suddenly noticed the pain. He clutched his arm.

“Well, you should have taken the shot when you had the chance! You had a clear shot, why didn't you take it?!” Vicar growled.

“I just couldn't!”

Vicar grabbed Janus by the shoulders, “Pull yourself together, man!”

“Boss, sorry,” he looked at his wound. “I don't know what happened back there.”

Vicar looked into his partner's eyes, “Alright, look, don't let that happen again. I won't mention you froze; I'll just say you got caught in my crossfire. How bad is it?”

Wait. Was that...? No, it couldn't be.

“It's just a graze; I'm okay,” Janus said as he bent down to the body. “Looks like you got her good, boss.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Vicar looked at Janus's wound and squinted to confirm what he saw. He saw the glistening of metal inside his partner's arm. And before, he had seen his the dance of his irises. But... how? Why?

“Looks like cleanup's got quite the job ahead of them,” Janus laughed. “Should I phone 'em in?”

With the utmost secrecy, Vicar drew his pistol and said, “No, I'll take care of it.” He pointed the pistol down at his partner's head.

Janus looked up to see down the barrel of Vicar's Smith & Wesson. His breathing snapped to a sprint and formed his lips for his last words. But Vicar denied him these last words. Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger. Once, twice. Blood sprayed all over; Janus' head was left in pieces all over the alleyway.

Vicar wiped the blood from his gun onto his jacket. He popped open the chamber and loaded six fresh rounds as he stood over his dead partner and target. Vicar looked down to see the metal components attached to Janus's brain; there was no doubt that the kid was a cyborg. For just a few moments, Vicar wondered what the hell a cyborg would be doing in the Cybernetic Contingency Unit. He suddenly understood why Janus had failed to take the shot. Somehow, it was much more difficult to kill a fellow. Vicar knew that he would have a problem killing another person.

But that's when he realized that assessment was wrong. Vicar had seen Janus as a person; a pure human being. Only perception changed when he realized that his partner was what they were trained to hunt; trained to kill. The person inside Janus was still the same. It hit Vicar then and there. The person inside. Despite the truth of having killed just another cyborg, Vicar had, in his mind, killed a human being.

Understand, however, that these thoughts lasted very briefly. It wasn't long before he pushed them back into the bowels of his mind and went back into duty mode. He phoned in to the department to get them down for cleanup. Until they arrived, Vicar was stuck there. He sat down against the wall and lost himself to thought. No, it wasn't philosophical thought about the measure of a man, the cost of murder, or the value of life. It wasn't even ramification or guilt. Vicar's thoughts were back to the convenience store. Vicar wondered if the donuts would still be there.

Friday, November 12, 2010

week thirty-one: the adventures of humphrey holdsworth and richard aldwinkle: durchfall

On a crisp, yet somehow damp London evening (such is London), Humphrey Holdsworth, his wife Dolores, and Richard Aldwinkle trudged their merry way from the parking lot to the grand ball room at the Marriott. Inside was a banquet for LineTech Solutions executives, which Humphrey had been invited to attend despite not being an actual executive. It was pretty clear to him why he had been invited and that was because LineTech was searching for a new chief technology applications adviser. Everyone knew that Humphrey was lined up almost perfectly to take the job, but no company would hire someone based solely on their career position. Humphrey was already well-known in the company and had a solid reputation. No one really expected anything except that he would get the job.

He, however, had some schmoozing to do and this banquet was the perfect opportunity to do so. Humphrey was nervous about the whole thing and couldn't help but shake. For some reason, his left hand shook like a Mexican in an igloo, but his right hand remained mostly calm. Not helping matters was the fact that he was wearing a tuxedo. Humphrey absolutely hated wearing super formal clothing. He didn't mind a simple suit, but a tuxedo? Too much.

Dolores Holdsworth, Humphrey's wife, knew about his left-side shaking. She helped him compensate for it by locking her arm around his. And this was no thing to complain about. Despite being in her early forties, Dolores was a very attractive woman. Her dark green dress matched her forest eyes and shoulder-length chestnut hair well. Humphrey would always wonder why she had fallen in love with a capital-class dork such as he. A technology adviser position was a natural fit to his archetype. Perhaps it was the Oxford education. Or perhaps he's just a nerd. Does it matter?

And speaking of Oxford, to Humphrey's right was Richard Aldwinkle. From kindergarten onward, if one were to look on Humphrey's life, Richard Aldwinkle was to be found. Somehow, the two became inseparable despite their differences. On one hand, Humphrey was a hard-working sub-genius who worked his very hardest to stay out of trouble. On the other was Richard, who was a slacker with an average IQ and a massive propensity for getting himself into various sorts of squandles. And somehow, Richard always dragged Humphrey into it, and then used Humphrey to get out of it. In fact, Richard gained a lot from Humphrey, including somehow using him to get into Oxford. Objectively speaking, Humphrey gained the least from this relationship, however, it could, and should, be noted that without Richard, Humphrey would have a pole up his arse. And a stick up that pole's arse.

The only trait Dolores found detestable about Humphrey was Richard, who she saw as irresponsible and rude. At the same time, however, she felt as though she somehow owed him. It was actually because of Richard's ineptitude that she and Humphrey met at all. This is a long story for another time. Tonight, Richard was slightly more tolerable than usual. Why is that? Delilah. Or specifically the non-presence of Delilah.

“A pity Delilah couldn't be here,” Humphrey said with a very thinly-veiled touch of irony.

“Well, stomach flues happen,” Richard replied, not losing an ounce of his bearded cheer.

“A rather convenient stomach flu,” Dolores quipped. “Both for her and for us.”

“I'm actually going to agree with that,” Richard laughed as he straightened out his kilt. “If she were here, I'd never get away with this!” He actually looked completely ridiculous, especially considering that there wasn't a single bit of Scottish blood in him.

“You shouldn't be able to get away with that anyway,” Dolores rolled her eyes. In the back, middle, and front of her mind, she knew that the only way Humphrey could possibly lose this promotion would be Richard. But at least Delilah wasn't here to scare everyone away. Just the sight of a woman with scales....

“Now, now, a kilt is a perfectly reasonable-”

“It's a skirt,” Dolores argued.

“A man skirt,” Richard retorted.

“At least you didn't bring the hat to go with-” Dolores' eyes shot wide as Richard whipped it out of his jacket. “Oh, God, you did bring the hat to go with it.”

Richard put on the typical beret and grinned, “Had to get a complete set.”

Dolores rolled her eyes and decided that it would be foolish to pursue the issue any further. Not simply because Richard was completely ridiculous, but because they finally arrived at the door of the ball room. Humphrey suddenly stopped and took off his glasses as he trembled. Dolores took his hands and look him right in the eye, “You'll do great, Humphrey.”

“Thank you,” he put his glasses back on and then opened the door for the others. Inside was a moderate crowd of people, all dressed in expensive evening attire. Humphrey took a very deep, shaking breath before he put on a very confident face. This, of course, was a mask. In reality, Humphrey felt like a lobster in a pot.

And speaking of lobster, Richard eyed the buffet table and said, “I'm going to go check out the refreshments.” Exit Richard.

Very suddenly, a fat man who reminded Dolores very much of a fat ostrich with a beard came up to them with a grin the size of Manchester. This man was Thomas Daugherty, the Scottish CEO of LineTech. He beamed, “Humphrey! I'm so glad you could make it!”

Humphrey shook his hand, “As am I, Tom.” He then adjusted his glasses; another nervous tick.

“And who's this?” Tom turned to Dolores. “Is this the famous Dorothy?”

“Dolores, actually,” she extended her hand to him, where he kissed it. His beard was surprisingly smooth. While that sounds like it could be a positive trait, it was actually kind of gross.

“Ah, pardon me, I'm simply the worst with names,” he chuckled. Dolores feared that she had hurt Humphrey's chances somehow. She was wrong, “You know, Humphrey talks about you all the time. You probably know better than I do how much he adores you.”

“I do,” Dolores smiled warmly. She spied a ring on his finger and asked, “Are you married?”

“Ah, yes, I am, my wife should be around here at some place,” Tom stood tiptoed and searched for her. “Ah, she's probably off getting my nightly schmoozing done for me. Such a wonderful lass.”

“Dolores makes me do my own schmoozing,” Humphrey said. “She's like my private schmoozing coach.”

“And you still have a long way to go,” she put her hand on his arm.

“Humphrey!” Came a voice which Dolores had been dreading in the back of her mind. “Humphrey!” Richard suddenly appeared next to them with a look of childish joy. “You've got to come see this!”

“Excuse me,” Humphrey said.

He pushed through the crowd to follow Richard over to the banquet table. He exclaimed, “Isn't it awesome?!” He pointed to a four-tiered chocolate fountain. “But wait 'til you taste it!”

“Alright, “ Humphrey grabbed one of the strawberries on a stick they had there and put it underneath the fountain. Richard did the same. He took the fruit and found pure ecstasy as soon as he put it in his mouth. Seriously, he had never tasted better chocolate. “That's... that's delicious!”

“Isn't it though?”

Just to confirm that it was indeed the chocolate and not the combination with the strawberry that was so delicious, Humphrey discreetly put his finger under the stream and put it in his mouth. To his amazement, it was even better by itself. “Good God, this is the best thing I've ever tasted!” And, just to satisfy his curiosity, he called to the nearest waiter and asked, “What type of chocolate is this? What brand?”

Humphrey understood the waiter as saying, “Ah, sir, it is le Durchfall Chocolate imported from Holland.” The man was clearly French. And probably, well, um, flamboyant, judging by his mustache.

“Imported?” Richard frowned.

“Means it's expensive,” Humphrey told him. “Oh, wel-”

Richard then resolved, “We need to collect as much of it was we can. Quick find me a container.”

Humphrey resisted, “Wha- Dick, you can't just-”

“Blast! There's got to be-” He stopped as soon as he realized that around his waist was a sporran; or basically the small bag worn with a kilt. “I've got it!” He unzipped the man purse and held it under the fountain.

“Richard, no-”

It was too late. The chocolate suddenly spewed everywhere. It jetted out to the floor, but mostly all over Richard. The shock of being wet with warm chocolate made him drop his man purse, but since it was still attached to his waist, it slopped right into his crotch. Before long, Richard was absolutely covered in chocolate.

“Oh, Richard, now you've done it,” Humphrey laughed uneasily as his hand hit his forehead. He wasn't thinking about the promotion or anything; he merely saw the embarrassment and the comedy of the situation.

A thickly-accented German old woman voice suddenly exclaimed, “Vhat is zat?!”

Richard turned to face her and whimpered, “Durchfall.”

The old woman gasped and then suddenly vomited all over the floor. The room fell silent and everyone stared, not sure what to make of the situation. Dolores ran over to Humphrey and did her best to gather words, but none came. A few seconds later, she realized by the expression on Humphrey's face, it was all Richard's fault. How typical.

Tom rushed over and asked loudly, “What's going on over here?”

Humphrey then stammered through the whole story. Dolores feared the worst about the promotion. It was surely gone.

“Wait,” Tom stopped Humphrey, “What brand of chocolate did you just say?”

“Durchfall,” Richard tried to wipe the chocolate off, but with each passing second, more of it solidified.

There was a brief pause before Tom suddenly burst out in the loudest, most boisterous laugh anyone in the room had conceived possible. A few people joined in with him (suck ups) before he gained control of himself and said, “You've misheard what the brand is! It's not durchfall! It's Dutch Tall!”

“What?” Humphrey's eyes widened.

“'Durchfall' is a word in German that means, well, to put it bluntly, diarrhea,” Tom laughed again. “Mrs. Krautz must have thought that-” he burst out laughing before he could finish.

“Oh my,” Humphrey started laughing to himself. Through his embarrassment he saw the comedy of the situation; one of his better traits.

“I knew the fountain was a bad idea!” Tom said, still holding his grin.

Dolores figured she should do some damage control, “Look, Tom, we are so sorr-”

“Humphrey, you should take your friend home so that he can bathe before his clothes stain too badly!” Tom told him.

“I'll do that, sir,” Humphrey gave Richard an angry look. Dick knew had done something terrible. “Come along, Richard.”

“Oh and Humphrey?”


“About that position coming up,” Tom stroked his beard. “Don't worry about it. The job is yours. We were going to announce it tonight. That's why we had this banquet at all!”

Dolores, without thinking, leapt to Humphrey and embraced him. “Oh, Humphrey, congratulations!” She kissed him on the cheek.

Humphrey, stunned, said, “Thank you, Mr. Dougherty!” He walked over and shook his hand. “Thank you so much, sir!”

“We'll discuss this tomorrow, for now, you need to get your friend home!” Tom's smile was truly indomitable.

Humphrey, still in disbelief, led his wife and his best friend out of the ball room and back to the car. They said nothing during this trip. Reacting to a combination of celebrated happiness, embarrassment, and confusion is not easy. Nevertheless, the air was one of pure glee in the Holdsworth car as they drove him. Even Dolores was too relieved at his promotion to worry about Richard staining the whole back seat of the car with chocolate. She never got it out, by the way, and wouldn't need to. The new Jaguar took care of that.

Humphrey's little escapade led to the creation of the biggest inside joke in LineTech Solution's very short history. The bathrooms would be constantly referred to as “durchfall centers” and Humphrey continuously received Dutch Tall chocolate as a prank. Sure, it ceased to be funny eventually... but it really is the best chocolate ever made.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

week thirty: the lust of empires

Mishka sat there in the rotting cell, wondering how it all had happened.

Remember how it went? The wedding?

Do you remember the altar burning?

I do. How could I forget?

A crisp fall evening is great for an outdoor wedding. The leaves are turning orange, making for a beautiful vista against the sunset. And the altar they built just for this wedding is perfect. It has the vines growing at the top and the white finish is flawless. Flowers were even planted around it. Aesthetically, it's incredible, but the sentiment is where it shines.

For years, the Parkov and the Teriosk family had been feuding. It had been doing maybe a hundred years now, but no one knows for sure. There was killing by both sides. The police in Estonia refused to get involved, especially considering both families have dangerous criminal ties. Money laundering, fraud, conspiracy, murder... you name it, they've done it.

But in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, eventually Mishka Teriosk and Ana Parkov found each other. They fell in love, not knowing who the other truly was until the love was deep enough to be unconquerable. In secret, they planned a wedding.

Not this one though.

Both of their fathers figured it out eventually. The bad blood fueled what would be one of the biggest non-military massacres in Estonian history. A battle broke out on the streets; twelve men wound up dead. The fathers from both sides finally realized that this couldn't go on; that it just wasn't worth it. They agreed to a truce and two months later, this wedding was set. Mishka and Ana threatened their fathers with eloping and that's how they saw reason.

It was so sudden too. The blast and then the fires... the screaming.

The bride stands before the mirror, trembling. She wonders if she is absolutely perfect for the wedding. How's her hair? Is the dress tight enough? Is the veil even?

And, more importantly, does she really want to go through with it? She is giving her life to Mishka. But her father came behind her and told her, “Do not be nervous, my girl.”

“Oh, father, I can't help it.”

“No, you can't,” he laughed a fatherly laugh. “But your mother and I? We are so happy for you.”

“But father, he is a Teriosk!”

Mr. Parkov sighed, “Today that doesn't matter. Today there is Mishka and there is Ana. You are not a Parkov today and he is not a Teriosk. Not today. Our differences are left out the door.”

“Papa, that means so much to me!” She embraced her father.

“Darling, you are beautiful and Mishka is a lucky man. He is also a good boy. But most importantly, you love him.”

Ana let go of him and told him, “I love you, papa.”

“I love you too,” he smiled. “Now, run along, it's starting soon! I will be with you shortly!”

Mr. Parkov watched as his daughter left the room. She truly was beautiful and it was hard giving her away like this, but he was happy for her. And he would let nothing screw that up. Parkov pulled his phone out of his jacket and dialed the number. “Deshk? It's Parkov. Are you set?”

“Yes, I am.”

“If Teriosk tries anything... I want him dead. You pull that trigger without hesitation.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But let's hope it doesn't come to that, shall we?”

Mishka Teriosk wasn't fit for running a mob and his father knew it. Mr. Teriosk never really considered Mishka for the job. He was a tall and thin boy; attractive, sure, but also lanky. He just wasn't mob material. Nevertheless, the boy looked good in his tuxedo. The bow tie was a darkened orange to match the autumn leaves and it went well with his hair. Ana had chosen it and she had chosen well. Mr. Teriosk was proud of his boy.

“Son, I have a gift for you,” Teriosk told his boy.

“Yes, father?” Mishka tugged at his tie. No matter what he did, it wouldn't feel even.

Teriosk held a wooden box in his hand and gave it to Mishka. “This was your grandfather's. I had planned to give it to your brother, but... I found it appropriate to give you to today.”

Mishka opened it and inside he found a silver Colt M1911 pistol with pearl grips. It was a beautiful pistol. “Father, I don't know what to say!”

“Then say nothing,” Teriosk grinned. “But promise me one thing, son.”

“Yes, anything.”

“Promise me that you will never use it.”

Hours before, Teriosk had met with his man. His name was Herak and he was a mercenary. Teriosk had hired him many times before, but never trusted him. This, however, was too important. Teriosk found Herak sitting on his car, smoking a cigarette. Teriosk carried a large briefcase.

Herak asked, “What's the job?”

“I want you to listen very carefully,” he sighed. “This is my son's wedding. Nothing can go wrong. But the Parkovs are there as well. I cannot trust them. I just need some assurance.” Teriosk flipped open the large case. Inside was an M203 grenade launcher and a single round for it. “That round is a very expensive incendiary round. If something goes wrong, I want you to fire it at the Parkov side. The hope is that no one will die, but they will get a powerful lesson.”

“What is that lesson?” Herak inspected the M203.

“That you do not screw with the Teriosk family”

And then they found your father... a bullet through his brain.

In the fire, Mishka stood over him and pulled the trigger. He broke his promise to his father.

And here she comes! Mishka watched in wonder as Ana walked down the aisle. She was so beautiful and he would never forget the sight. And watching her walk between the Parkov and Teriosk family, acting like a zipper bringing them together was more significant than he could imagine. This wedding was the ultimate of peace and matrimony. Mishka wondered how he kept himself still, but managed somehow. She smiled back at him. Perfection.

When she was close enough, he took her hand and she joined him at the altar. The priest stood between them and then began to recite something or another. Mishka couldn't hear him. All of his world was dedicated to the beautiful woman before him. Their eyes locked. Neither had to say a word to understand the deep love that they shared.

But suddenly, from beyond the hill behind the guests came at least fifteen police officers led by a younger man in a trench coat brandishing a badge. This man, a detective, ran his way to the altar and held up a pair of papers, “I have here warrants for the arrest of-”

“Is this a joke?!” Teriosk shouted as he stood.

“This is your doing, Teriosk!” Parkov growled.

The air whistled before the ground beneath the bridesmaids burst into flame. Two of them were instantly engulfed and the rest fled. Mishka grabbed his bride's hand and they ran for cover. Mishka heard the crack, but didn't see the bullet pierce his father's skull.

“What is happening?” Ana cried.

“I don't know!” Mishka exclaimed as more gunfire erupted “Our fathers are mad!”

Ana and Mishka retreated together and hid. On the next day, they returned to their wedding site. Everything was burned and there were still bodies laying on the ground. Some were Teriosk, some were Parkov, some were policemen, and the rest were women caught in the crossfire. The altar was nothing more than ash. The forest behind them had burned, but the firefighters contained it before it become a catastrophe.

Ana and Mishka had come because they wanted to see what had happened. They didn't understand it. Suddenly the police arrived and suddenly everything burst into flames. What had happened? When they arrived, they found only one soul on the scene: Parkov.

Parkov saw them and greeted them very quietly, “I knew you would come. The both of you, that is.”

“Was this your doing?” Ana asked.

“No,” Parkov exhaled. “It was not Teriosk's doing either. It was the both of us.”

“Explain,” Mishka ordered.

“Don't tell me what to do, boy,” Parkov shot back. “But I will. Both your father and I had hired... insurance. Insurance that the other would pay if anything happened. No one expected the police to come. We each assumed it was the other who had called them to make a show; an example, perhaps. I had paid a sniper, who shot your father, Mishka. I am sorry.”

“You bas-”

“Calm down, there is more,” Parkov looked down. “Your father had hired a man, Herak, do you know him?”

“I do.”

“He gave Herak this,” Parkov picked up the M203 and tossed it to Mishka. “He gave him a special bullet that could make fire; an incendiary round. Herak is dead,” he pointed to a body on the ground. “And so is Deshk, the man I hired.”

“So, it is finished.”

“No!” Parkov cried. “Two men still breathe who should not.”

“The young detective who started all of this. His name is Minski,” Parkov said. “Just an overeager son of a whore who decided to ruin a wedding day.”

“And who is the second?” Ana asked.

Parkov sighed, “Someone ratted on us. Someone gave the police enough evidence to put both myself and Teriosk away for life. I've seen the warrants. It was for extortion; money laundering... things we've both done, but things they could never prove. The only way for this to happen was if someone had told them.”

“Can there be no doubt?” Mishka asked.

“There cannot,” Parkov rubbed his forehead. He handed Mishka a wooden box. Inside was Mishka's grandfather's pistol. “I found this inside. It is yours. Mishka, your brother is dead and so is your father. The Teriosk empire is yours.”

Mishka pulled the pistol out of the box and then Parkov tossed him a full magazine. Mishka objected, “I promised my father I would never use this.”

“That is not a promise you should keep, Mishka.”

Detective Minksi rested comfortably behind his desk. It wasn't but a year ago that they gave him the promotion. His superiors had seen his passion; his fire. Minski would do anything to get criminals behind bars, so they gave him the most difficult case of all: the Parkov's and the Teriosk's. And it was for that quasi-year that Minksi could find nothing. They covered their tracks too well.

But sometimes you just get lucky....

Minski was untouchable. Mishka knew never to go near the police. If he killed Minski, then it would all be over. And luckily, Minski's warrants were for the fathers and no one else. Parkov had shot himself the night before the police made another move on him. Ana was heartbroken, but somehow didn't want revenge. Mishka loved her compassion, but couldn't understand it. She urged him to forget about the informant.

But there was too much of his father in him and Ana knew it. She resisted his burning desire for revenge, but ultimately chose to allow it. She had grown up in too much of that for it to really faze her. Ana didn't like it, but she understand her husband's drive.

Since Parkov was dead and Ana was married to a Teriosk, the Parkov empire also fell under Mishka's command. Suddenly the entirety of the criminal underground was under Mishka's power. He had planned to disband them, but that just wasn't possible. The sins of the fathers ran too deeply.

Lobrinski was the name of the informant. Detective Minski insisted that the man give his name. Of course, Lobrinski resisted at first, but ultimately had to do the right thing. He told Minski everything and gave him copies of papers which implicated both Parkov and Teriosk. Minski could not have been happier. And, in his ambition, he gathered what policemen he could and rushed to the wedding.

Little did he know that he was walking into a bloodbath.

After four years of hunting, Mishka finally found his man. It was Lobrinski; one of his father's most trusted accountants. Apparently the man had grown a conscience. It was too late for that though. You don't just grow a conscience if you're in the mob. You just don't.

Through the years, Mishka had come to trust a man named Yarok, who became his right hand man. Yarok was older than Mishka and knew what he was doing. Yarok had spent time in the military, where he was in the Estonian Special Forces. But a sniper's bullet took away Yarok's left arm. His expertise, however, remained.

As Lobrinski drove home from a long day of work, Mishka and Yarok followed him. As soon as the traitor had parked, Yarok blasted the car with a fire bomb. It burst into flame. Lobrinski, in total terror, jumped out.

Mishka told Yarok, “Stay back. I will handle this one.”

The boy-turned-man racked the slide on his grandfather's pistol and walked over to Lobrinski. The traitor was on the ground, his ankle twisted by the escape from the burning vehicle. Lobrinski sobbed, “I'm sorry! I didn't mean for this to happen! I-”

“Then what? What did you mean to happen?”

“I just wanted it all to stop... all the violence.”

“You only caused violence, Lobrinski. My father trusted you. “

“But look! Look! Your families are at peace now! Look at the good that's come from-”

In the fire, Mishka stood over him and pulled the trigger. He broke his promise to his father.

Minski was excited as he rode in the squad car to the wedding. He was ready to make a show. He was going to grab both Teriosk and Parkov, throw them both in prison, and make an example for all criminals out there. Minski was going to be the first man to bring any of Estonia's mafia in. Images of glory and promotion littered his mind.

Ambition, however, can be a terrible thing.

Minski jumped from his car and ran with the men to the altar. He hid a grin as he marched down the aisle. There they were: the bride and groom. Of course, they were probably criminals too; the both of them. But they would have to wait. Minski had only two warrants, one for each father. He climbed up to the altar and exclaimed, “I have here warrants for the arrest of-”

“Is this a joke?!”

“This is your doing, Teriosk!”

The left side of the altar suddenly burst into flames and then Teriosk's head burst in crimson. Minski stared in disbelief as the fray broke out. Within a few seconds, he broke himself out of the daze and drew his revolver. The police had no choice but to retreat. This was a madhouse; a slaughterhouse.

Mishka sat there in the rotting cell, wondering how it all had happened. He could remember details; flashes. It had all started with the wedding and it grew from there. The lust of empires overtook him. Estonia's crime syndicates became bigger than ever. Twenty-five years later, everything was worse for wear. And to think... Mishka could have stopped it all.

Ana sat on a stool before his cell. She was older. Her hips had grown and her eyes sagged. But more noticeably, her lip was cut and swollen; she was bruised all over. Minski had beaten her. No longer was she the beautiful woman at the aisle, but he was no longer the man from that day either. He had been arrested just the day before, on quite damning charges. Ana said to her husband, “Do you remember how it went? The wedding? Do you remember the altar burning? I do. How could I forget?”

“I could never forget that, Ana,” Mishka said to her as he wiped away sweat and remorse.

“It was so sudden too... the blast and then the fires. The screaming. And then they found your father... a bullet through his brain.”

“Why do you say these things?”

“Because Mishka, when I saw him dead there... I thought that life had died with him. I thought that maybe the life of crime was over. But I was wrong. You have become your father.”

“No, I-”

“Goodbye Mishka,” Ana cried as she stood to leave. She put her hand to his one last time and kissed him on the forehead. This would be the last time they would touch.

“Ana, wait, I-”

“Goodbye,” she left.

Mishka's head hit the wall. How had it come to this?

“It took me twenty-five years to finally put you away, Mishka. And look... you have nothing!” Minski exclaimed as he emerged from the shadows. “You tried to take what is not yours and kill to have it. You must know that you can never win that way.”

“I have one thing,” Mishka whispered.


“I said that I have one thing, Minski.”

“Oh, and what is that?”

“Revenge,” Mishka stood and from his sleeve came a tiny handgun. It had only two shots. Mishka fired one into Minski's neck. He watched as the detective struggled to the ground and finally stopped moving. Mishka smiled a very faint smile as he brought the pistol to his own temple. He pulled the trigger.

Teriosk is finally dead. The dynasty is gone.


Minski could find nothing to put Mishka Teriosk away. The evidence simply wasn't there, but everyone knew that the newly forged alliance between Parkov and Teriosk was bad for everyone. Without anyone to oppose them, the empire grew and grew. Mishka absorbed so much power that he had become a legend. Rumor had it that he had more power than the government; that he had paid so many officials he could make any decision about Estonia.

He had to be stopped.

So, if Minski couldn't catch him, he would hurt him. Minski charged himself with the task of ensuring that Mishka's life would be a living hell. He became a thorn in the empire's side. And they couldn't touch him, so Minski did his work.

And the power got to him just as did Mishka. Minski soon found himself breaking the law in his pursuit of Mishka. He would use any means necessary.

And by any means, that meant using Ana. Minski found Ana one day. She was still innocent, but did that matter? No, this is the greater good!

Minski took her behind an alley and beat her until she finally told him how to implicate Mishka. Did he regret that? Yes, but the prize is worthy. God would forgive him in the end, wouldn't he?

Ana truly was innocent through it all. The power never got to her because she refused to be like her father or his nemesis. The crime and the murder was ridiculous. And she truly believed that Mishka would put a stop to it. She never once lost her faith in their twenty-five years of marriage. Of course, it was faith misplaced. After Mishka was arrested, she lost all of that faith.

But she had been given a great gift: a Russian S-4M silent pistol. It fired only two shots, but that was all Mishka would need. She hid it in her pocket when she went to the prison to visit her husband. They said things to another... harsh realities. And when she put her hand on his, that was when she gave him the gun. Ana knew that he would kill both Minski and himself.

At this point, she wanted both of them dead.

And she got it.

The fire... the blood... the stains... they can only spread and they can only kill. Kill or be killed; these are the only choices.