Tales of Enchanted October . . . Mark of the Vampire

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MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, US poster art, 1935.
MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, US poster art, 1935.

I was home. In bed. In my jammies. In pain. Periods of moaning, spaced with crying like a little girl. Just five days post-surgery to repair a couple of cervical (neck) discs that were pressing on my spinal cord. It was an expensive operation and four months of recuperation—or the possibility of paralysis.

An easy choice.

As luck would have it, the surgery had taken place on my twentieth wedding anniversary—October 26, 2015.

Not a great way to celebrate, let me tell you.

Anyway, just five days later, October 31st . . . it was Halloween.

Far from attending a nice Autumn party or taking the grandkids around the neighborhood to collect buckets of teeth-rotting candy, I was considering actually getting out of bed and venturing into the living room, where my dear wife was watching TV.

She had been a trooper, taking first-class care of me—cooking, cleaning, and doing one-hundred percent of the driving and grocery shopping—no small thing.

Not to mention putting up with my crap.

Anyway, I was feeling a little better and thought I could sit up for maybe twenty minutes or so.

It turned out to be a lot longer than that.

My sweetie had a movie on, and best of all, it was a Halloween movie.

It took me about two minutes to get thoroughly hooked.

It was called . . . Mark of the Vampire. And it starred some of my favorite actors of the golden era of horror, which was 1935.

Leading the stellar cast was the two Lionels.

Lionel Barrymore and Lionel Atwill . . . masters both.

Not to mention that quintessential artist of Horror films, Bela Lugosi.

Lionel Barrymore
Lionel Barrymore
Lionel Atwill
Lionel Atwill
Bela Lugosi
Bela Lugosi

The storyline goes like this:

 

     Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found murdered in his house, with two tiny pinpoint wounds on his neck. The attending doctor, Dr. Doskil (Donald Meek), and Sir Karell’s friend Baron Otto (Jean Hersholt) are convinced that he was killed by a vampire. They suspect Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), while the Prague police inspector (Lionel Atwill) refuses to believe them.

     Borotyn’s daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allen) is the count’s next target. Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore), an expert on vampires and the occult, arrives in order to prevent her death. At the same time, secrets are revealed surrounding the circumstances of Sir Karell’s death. (from Wikipedia)

Count Mora and his daughter, Luna
Count Mora and his daughter, Luna

    

Sounds like a pretty straightforward vampire tale of the era, but don’t be fooled. There are twists and turns aplenty. For a little while when I was watching, I wondered if the movie was just that quirky, or perhaps it was the effects of my post-surgical Percocet prescription.

At one point, it seemed as though I were viewing two completely different movies.

Disconcerting, to say the least.

Suffice it to say (without giving away the rather delightful ending) the movie was ahead of its time, and innovative for the day. It would begin something of a trend.

There are a few wonderful things to look for. Things that would never make muster in a modern-day movie. Mark of the Vampire was a talkie, made from an older silent movie called, London after Midnight (1927) In that production, Count Mora was the victim of a suicide, remorseful over an incestuous relationship between himself and Luna.

He shot himself in the head.

Deemed inappropriate for the era in which it was made, the cause of death (along with the incest) was removed. Inexplicably, the Count still has a bullet wound to his temple.

Old "Hole in the head."
Old “Hole in the head.”

Ed Wood would have loved that.

Anyway, if you can find this wonderful gem of a movie playing anywhere on TV or on-demand this Halloween, you won’t find a more entertaining couple of hours anywhere.

Even if you’re not on pain meds with a bum neck.

pain-med-eyes

 

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back in a few with another Chapter of THE RECKONING. Getting real close to the end now. Meanwhile, have a wonderful Halloween!

And don’t eat too much candy . . .

 

Dumb Joke(s) of the Day:

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The Reckoning: Chapter Thirty-Two . . . Tunnel of the Dead

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CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

 

THE TUNNEL OF THE DEAD

 

My gang were not where they were supposed to be when I got back to the Mall. It was just the first of many surprises I would have this day. A quick cell phone call to Matt cleared up the mystery. Together, they had decided to find the parking garage that was the exit point of the tunnel on the House Chamber side of the Capitol Building. They had followed a long line of trees on the north side of the Mall going toward the building, wisely staying out of the open. Then they again cut north about a quarter of a mile and easily located the garage.

Oddly, it was called “Congressional Parking,” although it had never sold a parking voucher—congressional or otherwise. It was strictly a cover, “temporarily” closed for business as a sign stated. Locals must have wondered on occasion why it never, ever reopened.  I instantly transported myself over to them. I had given up trying to mask my comings and goings. We were all way too far beyond that for it to matter anymore. Time, and nothing else, was of the essence now.

Fact of the matter was—I was running damned short of it.

I filled Matt and Shahida in on what was going down—short form. They both sighed deeply. I didn’t figure their computing of the odds were coming out any better than mine.

I had wondered just how Moradi’s men were going to get into the garage without a fire-fight on the surface. Now I knew. We watched them from across the street. There were probably thirty or more men in all, arriving in three large utility trucks, and all dressed as District road construction men—right down to the bright orange safety vests and hard hats. The vests were covering their guns. I could just make out the black straps around their necks, positioned to keep the barrel of their rifles pointing down and less visible. I was pretty sure I knew what those guns were too—most likely fully automatic, short-barreled Russian made rifles, caliber 5.45X39mm. Formidable, with a hell of a lot of power and lethality. They were going to be spreading a whole lot of lead—fast. The speed in which they were likely to be firing was my one advantage. That and the heavy-duty steel girders I was hoping and praying were going to be in the tunnel. If they weren’t, it was going to go badly for us.

It was time to find out.

“We need to get in there fast,” I said to Matt, as I watched the men start to work on the steel door lock with a torch. “Ideas?”

“Well, we better not go for the tunnel,” he replied. “It’ll be too narrow for us to try for, never having seen it. Better take us into the parking structure itself, and then look for the tunnel exit, and go in from there. Can’t be far inside.”

I nodded my head in agreement. “Just on the other side of the big roll-up door?”

“Looks good to me, Johnny.”

Our group gathered together and joined hands. In an instant we were inside, looking at the same door from the other side. I could hear the cutting torch just the other side of the roll-up. I was surprised at the amount of light inside the garage, supplied from probably a dozen large sky-lights. Further evidence of the fact that the garage was nothing but a front was the fact that there were absolutely no parking bays or painted traffic lines anywhere to be seen. What was plainly visible was a stairway, leading both up to the roof and the chopper pad, and downward to what I was sure would be the tunnels.

Hurriedly, we made our way to the doors. Not that it mattered, but surprisingly, they were unlocked and opened easily. They were large and double wide, meant to allow a high volume of people to flow through them fast. I locked them as we passed to the other side. The fact that the bad guys were going to have to work some to get through them was going to buy us a little more time to set up.

The lighting inside the tunnel was electric. Dim and soft, but we were able to see easily. My heart quickened as I saw what I was looking for. Steel girders—and just exactly the right kind. They was no way we were going to come through this without causalities, but I was beginning to think we might just live. As the tunnel ran under several very busy streets, I had been pretty sure that it would be well shored up.

It was. And it was a thing of beauty. Two-and-a-half-inch thick steel “I” beams ran up the vertical sides of the tunnel, spaced about fifteen feet apart. The same ran horizontally across the ceiling. The beams were about eighteen inches wide. Not a lot—but enough cover I hoped, to keep our body and souls together. The sides of the tunnel were cinder block. The girders butted up tight against the blocks. No space for a bullet to slip through. It was all I could have hoped for, environmentally speaking.

The rest was going to be up to us.

Hurriedly, I assigned our group their places, reminding myself again of the Alamo analogy. Sure hoped our results were going to be better. I put Howard and myself behind the first set of girders—one on each side of the tunnel. We would be about ten feet from each other—again, near to ideal. Howard was an artist with a pistol, and I didn’t feel like I was a slouch either. Behind us went Matt and Linh. Although nearly eight months pregnant, there was no way she was going to accept a spot in the rear, so I didn’t even bother to try. Brick and Maggie had the last two sets of girders. Maggie because she was the least experienced among us, and Brick because he was unarmed. Brick was going to be batting cleanup, a role which he immediately seemed to understand—and could do bare-handed.

He accepted the position with a grin.

I had a special assignment for Dallin and Shahida. Intercept the congressmen entering the other end of the tunnel and stop them cold. Shahida’s FBI credentials and Dallin’s DC badge would do a lot to legitimize their interception. And a few rounds from the UZIs fired into the tunnel ceiling would also be impressive if they didn’t.

After stopping the stampede from the House Chamber and making sure the congressmen knew to stay put inside the tunnel, Dallin and Shahida were to hot-foot it back to us, working girder to girder as they got close. By then we were more than likely to be needing re-enforcements, and pretty damned fast.

I didn’t think the President was going to be exiting with the congressmen, for fear of catching a stray bullet. I was pretty sure he had already mapped out a much shorter and safer route to the helipad on top of the parking garage, via Secret Service escort. Moradi didn’t much care if his gunmen got the prez or not—he, along with the rest of the city, would perish all at once in any case. It made me smile a little bit inside to think of Moradi’s gunmen. They probably thought they were heroes—soldiers in an army. What the fools didn’t know was the fact that they were nothing more than cannon-fodder, entirely expendable, right along with their own victims.

I was jolted out of my musings by the sound of many feet quickly descending the concrete steps just the other side of the locked double doors. The lock was not going to stop them for long. We all assumed our positions, as Dallin and Shadiha disappeared, hurriedly making their way into the tunnel at a trot.

Matt was keeping contact with the surface and the latest news via his cell phone. He informed me that there had been an attack on the Capitol Building. Several bombs had gone off very near the entrance, along with many shots fired. The building security team was engaging an enemy of unknown strength at the moment.

I could guess pretty accurately I supposed, that there no more than probably ten or so gunmen carrying out the ruse attack on the building. Mostly it was another case of smoke and mirrors, ala Saal Moradi. The congressmen were a hell of a lot safer just to stay put, but they didn’t know that. Any moment orders were going to be given by the security team for the congressmen to head into the evacuation tunnels—and certain death.

Along with all the other attacks both in DC and New York, Moradi’s men were giving a pretty damned good illusion that they were of much greater numbers than was actually the case. As soon as the senators and representatives were in the tunnel, security would mount a last stand defense at the entrance, thereby unwittingly blocking a retreat by the congressmen.

It was all going to be up to Shahida and Dallas, and us, to stop a bloodbath—or at least create another one—this one among the bad guys.

At last the doors opened, the simple lock having been broken by the application of a crowbar. I could see them beginning to file in. We all leaned in as far as we could behind our individual girders. I would give the signal to fire, at the last possible moment, by the simple expedient of opening fire myself. I wanted to let as many as possible through first though, and I wanted our surprise to be as total and complete as we could possibly make it.

There were approximately twenty or more men finally in the tunnel and milling around waiting for orders to move forward. I was sick at what I was seeing at closer range. Very few of the men looked as though they were of Middle Eastern descent. Most were fat, pasty white-faced Americans—recent converts to a cause and a cult—one of death. Once again my thoughts turned to Rowling and Tolkien. Didn’t know what kind of a Gandalf I was, but these mutts were sure as hell not going to pass. Not while I was alive anyway.

I thought party time was getting close. There was simply too much of a chance that one of them would spot something out of place. Several had removed their orange vests and taken their rifles off their shoulders and had them in their hands. Too handy. Time had just run out. I wanted the first few seconds to belong to us. Time to open the ball. I stepped out from behind my girder and greeted them with a friendly hello.

Then I opened fire.

Myself, I was a double-tapper—meaning I fired two shots at each individual. The second shot was insurance. Howard tended to fire once in the chest, and then move on—a habit probably developed from the fact that he favored larger caliber handguns with a lot more knock-down power than my little thirty-eight.  It was just what we did now, when we had them at a total disadvantage for a few seconds. I hit my first man with two in the boiler-room, and then plowed the guy to his left with another pair. Howard did the same—one shot each being the only difference. Should have resulted in four dying men, better than ten percent of our problem solved. Wasn’t that way though. The four just stared back at us, stunned wide-eyed by our sudden appearance, but not coming anywhere near to falling over as they should have.

Not even close.

And in the split-second that followed, I realized my mistake. And I also knew that my blunder was likely going to cost us all our lives. Now I knew why they were disguised as construction men with heavy coats and vest. The men weren’t fat. It was the flak jackets under their shirts and vests that were making them look that way. We were facing major league body-armor with pop-guns.

And they were turning high-powered full-auto assault rifles on us even as we watched in mounting horror. Matt and Linh had also stepped from their cover, preparing to back Howard and I up, and engage their own men. I now screamed for them to dive back behind their girders, just as Howard and I were doing as I spoke. It was just a little too late. Howard took the first Russian slug. I thanked God as I saw him make it behind steel, clutching his profusely bleeding leg as he did so.

The tunnel was filling with Russian lead as the gunmen finally got into full action. We couldn’t move—pinned behind our lifesaving steel girders as leaden twenty-two caliber bees zipped by, and into our precious cover, splattering lead and copper jacketing everywhere. Acrid smoke began to fill the tunnel, partially obscuring all. I tried extending my UZI around my girder and firing blindly—but I knew it would have no effect. Nothing we could do was going to stop these fully protected and utterly professional gunmen from over-running us and shooting us dead as they went by.

And then they would move on to the congressmen—and then Moradi to the world.

One of the gunmen rushed us and made it past me. Linh, always the quintessential cop, stepped out again from her girder to take better aim and try to stem the tide. Brave but foolish girl. It was hopeless. As she engaged the man, I saw her take three in the chest and go down hard. The bile rose in my throat as I realized she could not have survived that. Matt had not seen her fall. I was glad for that.

My foolishness and hubris was costing lives.

I had just killed my friend and god-child—and made another a widower.

I stepped out from behind my girder to face them all. My life and indeed the world—be damned. I would stop them here, or die. Simple as that. Funny thing happened then though.

All of a sudden, I wasn’t alone anymore.

Suddenly—I had an army.

Man in Fedora and Raincoat

Ghostlike, Weeks and Faris appeared beside me. They had abandoned the congressmen to forge for themselves, and returned to fight to the death with their friends. Just to my right I caught a glimpse of Brick Wahl surging past me, and another of a flash of gray coming in from the left. It, and Brick plowed into the terrorists and sent several of them flying. Matt had gone into a crouch and was firing head-shots as cool as a cucumber. Even Maggie had moved forward through a hail of bullets to support us.

I shook my head to throw off my despair at having seen Linh killed and began firing head-shots too. My homburg was shot off the top of my head. I could feel bullets traveling through the loose folds of my jacket and slacks, but still none had touched my body. Finally, I could see some effect of our shooting as several of the terrorists hit the concrete hard. Something, or someone was sawmilling their way through them as well. I couldn’t see Brick anymore, but I could see the effects of his efforts as more and more of the enemy fell.

Weeks went down. Maggie too. I had no idea if they were killed or not. I just kept pumping lead into the enemy. Matt, still uninjured, did too. Howard was pitching in from the floor of the tunnel. I could clearly see his mangled leg from the corner of my eye, shattered and twisted at a crazy angle. Our rate of fire was falling as they began to simply overwhelm us. The result was going to be a foregone conclusion. I waited for the killing bullet to hit me as my UZI ran dry. I dropped it and picked up Weeks. Maggie was still firing one handed from a sitting position.

What a woman. What a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime, and one-in-a-million woman. The last I would love—here at the end of everything. I rammed in my last magazine and charged forward, the closer the better to kill a few more, firing as I went. More fell. Sadly, Brick became visible to me once again as he crumbled to the floor, shot in the face and dead as he went down. A bullet with his name on it had at last found him.

The firing pin of my UZI snapped on an empty chamber, finally out of ammo. I drew my little Smith and fired my last five rounds.

And then the double doors blasted open as a SWAT team of FBI agents and District Police flooded in. All at once the bad guys weren’t shooting at us anymore. They were turning to a new threat, and they began to fall in numbers.

Harold Wiggins and Vice President Watkins had worked some damned fast magic. Wiggins from his hospital bed and Watkins probably from the Oval Office. An office I hoped he would soon occupy full-time.

It was over fast—the agents and cops quickly rounding up the few terrorists left standing. I spun around to do a quick assessment of our causalities.

It wasn’t good.

Shahida stood beside me—uninjured. We had something in common. No bullet had touched me either. Maggie sat a few feet away, holding her hand over her right side. She had been creased, but I could tell at a glance that it was not life threatening. Howard was severely injured. It looked like a couple of slugs had got him. One splintering his lower right leg. Another had shattered his knee on the same side creating an ugly wound. It was going to take a miracle for him to walk again. Weeks wounds were much higher up on his body. He sat on the floor, his back propped against the tunnel wall. One round in the upper chest, and another in the area of his collar-bone. Bloody foam flowed from his nose and mouth, a sure lung hit. His left arm hung useless. He had lost a lot of blood, but paramedics were streaming in now and would be to him in a matter of seconds. He stood a chance.

My eyes traveled further down the tunnel, to the second set of girders. Matt, himself uninjured, had just reached the prostrate form of his wife. She had fallen face down into a pool of blood. It was easy to see how she had died. She had stopped the gunmen who had rushed passed us. He was dead, riddled with bullets. So was she. As Matt turned her over and into his arms, I could clearly see the three holes in her blood-soaked blouse. Her head lolled back, and dead eyes looked vacantly at the ceiling of the tunnel. There was nothing to be done. Matt laid her gently back down and simply stared at her lifeless form.

I turned again to where I knew the body of Brick would be. Just to the right of the double doors. It was darker there, and gun smoke hung thick like fog. It was hard to see his form on the black and blood soaked concrete. Finally, I saw some movement. Sadly, it wasn’t Brick—but another man gently lifting him into his arms. It was a man in an old-fashioned gray three-piece suit. A man’s man. A man by the name of Norman Selby. The Kid had returned, one last time. And with the help of his grandson, pretty much saved all of our lives.

I knew what he was doing, and I wasn’t about to stop him. He was taking Brick home. The Kid looked up and our eyes locked for a few brief seconds. Those eyes held sadness—but they only had joy. He was on his way to a family reunion. The Kid raised his right hand and waved. Just a short salute to me. I returned it, as I silently mouthed the words, “thank you.”

And then he was gone. And so was Brick. Just as though he had never existed. He had spent much of his life as a Mossad ghost. And in the end, a ghost he would remain. Also, a legend. And my friend—for the rest of all time.

Matt walked up to my side. I turned to look at him and met eyes of steel. The killer in him, never long dormant, had returned.

“Let’s go,” he simply said.

“No, Matt. Not this time.”

“You going to kill him?”

“Gonna try my damnedest.”

“Then I need to be a part of that.”

“You need to get Linh to the hospital.’

“She’s dead, Johnny.”

“Maybe her baby isn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean get her to the hospital as damned fast as you can move your ass. Maybe they can take the baby.”

I saw a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“Hell, I don’t know, Matt. Neither do you. Try. Try for her.”

“Okay, Johnny. I’ll try.”

I reached up and took his face in both of my hands. I stared into his eyes. I looked  into his soul. “I am so sorry,” was all I could say. I didn’t have anything else, or anything more, for the best friend I would ever have in my life.

“Kill him, Johnny,” he said. “Kill him once for you, and then kill him again for me and Linh.”

“I will,” I replied. “I will.”

I looked at Maggie. She had overheard us. “Go,” she said. “Both of you go now. And God go with you both.”

We did. He to try to save an unborn soul. And me—like the wind. Like the light. Maybe even faster.

On the trail of Moradi.

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Thanks for reading. Be back in a few days with a new TALES OF ENCHANTED OCTOBER.

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Reprise: The Scariest Story Ever Written . . . The Monkey’s Paw

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TALES OF ENCHANTED OCTOBER (THE SCARIEST STORY EVER WRITTEN) . . . THE MONKEY’S PAW

OCTOBER 22, 2014

The author at work.
The author at work.

His full name was William Wymark Jacobs, although he wrote his stories under the simplified handle of W. W. Jacobs. An Englishman, Mr. Jacobs was born in London, England on September 8, 1863. He would spend 79 years on the planet Earth, dying the 1st of September, 1943, still in his beloved London.

He was a short story writer and novelist. Much of his work was humorous. Much was not. His most famous story was a short one, the ever-remembered and much beloved THE MONKEY’S PAW. It was written in 1902.

Every once in a while, if a reader of fiction is really lucky, he will encounter a book so incredibly well-written, that he (or she) becomes so totally engrossed in the story, that the book in the hands seems to simply disappear. The reader enters into the story, becoming for all intents and purposes, a participant.

So it is with Mr. Jacobs’ most wonderful story of the paw. And it doesn’t seem to matter if you are reading it for the first time, or the fifteenth. It’s power to capture and hold the reader’s imagination is just that great. It is, to my mind at least, and in my very humble opinion, the scariest story ever written.

The entire story, which is not very long, is readily available on the internet, it having gone into public domain long ago. For any lover of horror, I would suggest reading the complete work, and basking for a short period of time, in the genius of the master. The best of modern-day horror genre novelists, mostly have their roots in this gentleman’s work. Lover’s of the work of Stephen King take note.

In the story, three wishes are granted to the owner of the monkey’s paw, but the wishes come with an enormous price-tag for interfering with fate. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, as the old saying goes.

The story involves an old couple, Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son Herbert. He works in a factory, around a lot of machinery. Sergeant-Major Morris, a friend of the Whites, and a veteran of the British Army in India, visits. He brings with him a dried monkey paw, a paw that contains a curse put on, “by an old Indian Fakir.” “A very holy man,” according the  Sergeant-Major, he wanted to show that fate ruled people’s live, and those who interfere, do so to their sorrow.

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The paw comes with three wishes. The old Sergeant-Major, has had very bad experiences with his wishes, and throws the paw into the fire. Mr. White rescues it, thinking he could use a little cash. He wishes for 200 English pounds, which he gets a day or two later when his son Herbert is killed in a horrific accident at the factory. The 200 pounds is a goodwill gesture from the factory owners.

The poor boy has been thoroughly mangled by the machinery. His father can only identify him by the clothing he was wearing. The man, horrified by what he has done, which was basically trading his son’s life for money, attempts to destroy the paw again. Mrs. White interferes this time, and uses the paw to wish her dead son back to life. It is an ill-considered desire.

Remember, he’s been buried for ten days. Not very pretty, huh? Well, he’s on his way home.

I won’t give away the ending. I couldn’t begin to do justice to the late, and very great genius of the master story teller, Mr. W. W. Jacobs. He probably had more “diabolical” in his little finger, than I have in my entire body.

Give it a read before Halloween. Better yet, wait for that wonderful dark and crisp last day of October. Wait until late at night, when all the kiddies have gone home. When the witches fly. When the black cats scream. When ghosts rule the night.

When the dead make their way back home from the Cemetery.

Light up the fireplace. Lower the lights. Settle in with this story. And whatever you do, don’t look over your shoulder. Not even when you hear that faint and mild tapping at the door .  .  .

 

Thanks so much for reading. A change of pace for the weekend. A hundred and thirty-five years later .  .  .  back to the alley. Back to the gunfight at the OK Corral.

In the meantime, good reading. And many happy nightmares.

W. W. Jacobs
W. W. Jacobs

Some really, really dumb Halloween jokes:

What kind of street does a ghost like best?   A dead end.

What do you get when you cross a were-wolf with a drip-dry suit?
A wash-and-werewolf.

What did the papa ghost say to the baby ghost?
Fasten your sheet belt.

What is a witch with poison ivy called?
An itchy witchy.

Who does a ghoul fall in love with?
His ghoul friend.

Where do vampires live?In the Vampire State Building.

Who are some of the werewolves cousins?
The whatwolves and the whenwolves.

What did Dr. Frankenstein get when he put his goldfish’s brain in the body of his dog?
I don’t know, but it is great at chasing submarines.

What do you call a dog owned by Dracula?
A blood hound.

Tales of Enchanted October: Black Bears . . . and Eyewitness Testimony

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TALES OF ENCHANTED OCTOBER: BLACK BEAR UP A TREE . . .                               

AND EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY

 

Nothing quite like the shortening days of Autumn, particularly the month of October, to bring out the oddness in a person—and in bears. Maybe it’s the crispness in the air, the color of the trees, or slow-paced advent of the approaching holidays.

Fun is in the air; beginning with that greatest of all holidays—Halloween. Donuts, ice-cold apple cider, and of course, buckets of candy. Then comes Thanksgiving, barely a month later. Turkey day. Capped of course by Christmas and the New Year. The peace, love, and awe of a religious holiday, and the anticipation of good things to come.

A lot of enjoyment at year’s end. Followed of course by the darkest, dankest, and dreariest months of Winter’s cold and wet. But in sweet October . . . well, all that nastiness is still months away.

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It was somewhere in Colorado, and it was sometime in the seventies. Honestly, that’s all I remember. No attempt on my part to protect the innocent, or the guilty either. I guess those that actually lived in the small town will remember.

Anyway, it was the month of October, and as a young boy walked along the residential neighborhood sidewalk coming home from school, he heard a soft rustling in a rather large old oak tree between the sidewalk and the street.

Naturally, he looked up.

And so it began. One of the strangest tales of enchanted October ever told.

. . .  And, it’s all absolutely true.

What the kid saw was a black bear looking back down at him. And a rather good-sized one at that. Up in the tree. Way up—almost to the top. The kid, and most of the others that would come to be there that day, recall being amazed and impressed that such a sizeable bear would go that far up a tree.

But that was later, when cooler heads prevailed.

Anyway, to move the story along; the kids goes on home (about a half a block away) and tells his mother what he saw. Mom doesn’t believe him. The kid is prone to wild flights of fancy and imagination, she thinks (a good thing, I’d say) and this is just another example of it.

So she walked back to the tree with her son, just to prove him wrong. After all, bears do not routinely come into town just to climb oak trees, she reasons.

Well, she sees the bear looking at her too, and returns home to call the local police. After all, you really don’t want a potentially dangerous animal coming down from the tree and going off in search of victims to eat for dinner.

The police quickly answer the call, and check out the bear. They agree it could become a problem and they call animal control. After all, it is Colorado, and animal control has captured many wild animals and escorted them out of town. This bear, will of course—prove to be just a little bit different.

Animal control comes out to take a look, and they agree that the bear is a potential problem. It’s going to have to be darted, and then removed. Trouble is, of course, that it will fall out of the tree and might be seriously injured. Again, they reason, the many branches might break the fall, and perhaps he (or she) will be okay.

Anyway, they decide to take the risk.

The first dart has no effect.

Or the second.

Not even the third.

The bear does not move. It just continues to sit there and stare down at them. The police are called back. They decide the bear will have to be shot. Sad—but there’s just no way around it. After all, public safety is at stake.

pumpkins

By this time a rather large crowd of people have gathered around the tree. They all have differing opinions on just how the bear problem should be handled. Some are in favor of further darting. Some want to see it killed. Others suggest that it simply be left alone, and sooner or later it will just come down and peacefully make its way back into the woods and hills.

But all opinions are to no avail. The decision has been made. The bear will be killed. And so, after moving the crowd back a safe distance, three or four officers open fire with their pistols.

No effect. None.

Rifles are called for. The same policemen fire a dozen rounds. The bear still hasn’t moved. They know by now it must be dead, but wedged in the tree.

The cities cherry-picket is called for and an employee hoisted up in the tree with the unenviable task of pushing the dead bear out of the tree and letting it fall unceremoniously to the ground.

Up he goes. He reaches the bear. Laughter is heard. And finally, the dead bear comes down. Not falling fast and breaking limbs as it falls. No—this bear floats gently down, and lands lightly on the grass.

. . . A fifty-five-gallon black trash-can liner.

Full of holes.

And darts.

And very, very dead.

And that, dear friends, is why, of all the testimony routinely presented in courts of law all around the globe . . .

. . . eyewitness testimony is considered to be, the most untrustworthy of all.

 

Thanks for reading. Talk to you all again soon.

     Dumb joke of the day:

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autumn

The Reckoning: Chapter Thirty-One . . . The Eyes of Moradi

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CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

 

I made arrangements to meet with Wiggins at the hospital as soon as I could get there. There were certain things that neither one of us felt comfortable discussing over the phone. I spent a brief minute and a half or so with the group going over what was likely to happen next. I felt we had some extra time before the action would commence, but at what cost I shuddered to think. Moradi with a nuke was something that certainly wasn’t on my radar screen just a few hours ago when I was thinking we were pretty well set-up with just UZIs.

It was clearly time to go back to the drawing board.

Moradi was one smart son-of-a-bitch. There was little doubt about that. He always seemed to be ahead of us, and he always seemed to know exactly what we were up to, and what we were likely to do next.

It was almost as though he were watching us from an eye in the sky. Creepy, although I didn’t believe for a second that he was either omnipotent nor omnipresent, so I was starting to suspect something a whole lot closer to earth, and the mortal realm. Like a kick-butt network. He could have the backing of a good sized terror cell, I reasoned— But still, it was pretty damned sophisticated for that.

What it could be kept niggling at the back of my brain, but I just couldn’t seem to get my head wrapped around it.

I still expected the assault on congress, but didn’t think anymore that Moradi was going to play a personal role in it. He was clearly up to something else—and he was somewhere else. He had another target in mind, and God only knew what it was. The master of smoke and mirrors had created yet another grand illusion, in three different places; New York City, Washington, DC, and Calvert Cliffs. The Cliffs were on the verge of producing a nuclear disaster all of its own, so I didn’t expect him to linger there. There he had done his damage and moved on to greener pastures. He was likely going to use his newfound toy to destroy one of two major cities.

My job was to figure out which one. Laying waste to DC would certainly be symbolic enough—the seat of power of the free world—and it would certainly take out the President as well.  But then, New York, with its large Jewish population was always a terrorist’s favorite. A bonus was the fact that Wall Street was the financial nerve-center of the United States. It would take a generation to overcome the damage that its destruction would create. Symbolism counts for a lot, so I tended toward thinking it was going to be the district—but what the hell did I really know.

I hoped Wiggins could help to sort it out.

Telling the gang I’d be back shortly, I left them cooling their heels in the little grove of trees, and walked in on Wiggins in his hospital room about a minute later. I announced who I was and flashed my identification to prove it.

For some strange reason he seemed surprised.

“How the hell did you get here so fast, O’brien?” he said. “I barely just got off the phone with you.”

“Traffic was pretty light the way I came, “I explained. “And you must have drifted off for a while.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” he shrugged. “Damned pain meds are hell.”

“How bad’s the leg?”

“They say I’ll keep it, but that’ about all they’re promising. Looks like a stint in a wheelchair for me.”

“I’ll try to make it worthwhile for you,” I said. “Tell me the stuff you couldn’t say on the phone.”

“Starting where?”

“Start with the tooth-fairly. Who is it? We’re alone now.”

Wiggins sighed. “Oh, why the hell not? My career is over anyhow. After this, I’m taking up permanent residence in a rocking chair.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. I’ve got a police-chief friend that keep telling me the same thing.”

Wiggins grunted for a reply. “The tooth-fairy is the Vice-President.”

“The hell you say. Watkins?”

“Yup—the same.”

“I’m surprised.”

“Don’t be. He’s a good man. I wasn’t a bit shocked when he walked into this room. He’s been keeping an eye on the President for a long time now.”

“All by himself?” I asked.

“Not quite,” Wiggins replied. “The FBI director too. They work together.”

“Well, come to think of it, it makes a lot of sense,” I said. “There’s an old saying about vice-presidents.”

“Yeah,” Wiggins agreed. “The two main duties of the vice-president of the United States are; first—attending the funerals of heads of state and dictators all over the world.”

“And second,” I continued, “enquiring after the health of the president daily. I guess that includes his political and criminal health as well.”

“Exactly,” Wiggins agreed. “Watkins takes down the crooked President, he gets to step into his shoes. Instant promotion, and no sticky little details about having to go through the voters to get there.”

“He may wish he wasn’t in either the President’s shoes or his own if Moradi blows up the whole city.”

“Moradi can’t blow up the whole city,” Wiggins said.

“Why not?”

“The bomb he has isn’t that big.”

“You said it was a nuke.”

“Nukes come in all sizes, O’Brien. This one is battlefield size. What they call a tactical nuclear weapon.”

“What does that mean, Wiggins?”

“It means it fits into a suitcase—that’s what that means. It’s a mini-nuke. Maybe fifty pounds, tops.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, O’Brien—and big piles of it. Pretty hard to detect.”

“I’m guessing he didn’t exactly get this from the local Nuclear Bombs R Us?”

“Nope—Soviet made.”

“You say Soviet—not Russian?”

“Right. This particular bomb is almost longer in the tooth than we are.”

“How much longer?”

“Plenty—probably built in the eighties. It’s an old bird that’s come home to roost. Only it’s picked out a new nest—the States.”

“Tell me it’s history—short form,” I said.

“Okay. They were created during the cold war. The Soviets made theirs, called RA-115s, and we made ours—called W-54s. Another name for the American made were Davy Crocketts. I’ve often wondered what he would have thought of one if he were able to see it.”

“He would have probably have wished he had it at the Alamo,” I replied. “Would have been the end of his little problem with the Mexican army.”

“Sure enough that,” Wiggins replied.

“How small?”

“Like I said, small enough to fit into a rather large suitcase. Rumor has it that Israel has made a few that will go into a backpack—or even carry-on sized luggage. In intelligence circles, they call them pocket-nukes.”

“Lord help us,” I said.

“He seems to be on an extended vacation sometimes, doesn’t he, O’Brien?”

“Johnny—to my friends. And yes he does—sometimes.”

“Johnny then,” Wiggins replied softly. “I’m Harold. Quite a number of the Soviet bombs disappeared at the end of the Cold War. Disseminated to terrorist groups—like several ones in Iran. Like I said, now they’re coming back. There’s been a Russian submarine parked off the East Coast for a few days now. No doubt waiting to deliver a certain deadly something.”

“How far off the coast?”

“Far enough to be legal, but a short chopper ride.”

“The President has one of those.”

“He does—but it’s a pretty good guess this one is Iranian.”

“You sound sure.”

“That’s what the VP said. I guess they found a fairly well know Iranian pilot and terrorist stone-dead on the beach. Had several slugs in him. Three-fifty-seven size.”

“No bird?”

“Nope. But Moradi’s a pilot.”

“I hate to repeat myself,” I said, “but shit again.”

“Yeah,” Wiggins agreed.

“How powerful is the nuke?”

“Well, generally speaking, they’re around six kilotons. That’s roughly a third the size of the atomic nukes that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

“Bad enough.”

“It is,” Wiggins agreed. “But at least it’s not hydrogen. In either DC or New York, no matter where it actually detonates, it’s going to kill a hell of a lot of people instantly, and God only knows how many more due to radiation.”

“The crime of the century,” I said.

“The crime of the century,” Wiggins repeated.

“That’s what motivates Moradi, Harold. He doesn’t care about anything else.”

“I agree, Johnny.”

“Who knows?”

“You, me, Watkins, and a few others in the intelligence community—starting with the FBI Director and the CIA head.”

“Anybody in favor of going public?”

Wiggins shook his head negatively. “Not unless you want to start a blind panic like this country has never seen. Wouldn’t help a damned bit either. Nobody can run that fast.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“We don’t have one, Johnny. The Air Force has been alerted to look for an unknown helicopter over both cities, and airports have been ordered to keep local birds on the ground. But still—it’s a needle in a haystack, and the sky over two cities of that size is a pretty damned big haystack.”

“Do we absolutely know he’s going to fly it in?”

“Not for sure, Johnny—but it seems likely. It’s the only edge we’re got.”

“Could be another red-herring too. Moradi doesn’t seem likely to have made as big a mistake as leaving an identifiable pilot on the beach. Why not just pick the body up after he kills him and drop it in the ocean?”

“Can’t we just hope for a mistake, Johnny?”

“Yeah, we can hope. But we can’t depend on it. Tell me this—if the fly-boys are lucky enough to spot him before he gets to the target—can they shoot him down without detonating the damned thing?”

“That’s affirmative, Johnny. The package goes off via code. Probably delivered by satellite and cell phone. All nicely updated for the twenty-first century. Nothing else will set it off. We can drop him if we can see him in time.”

“I don’t know, Harold. Sounds way too easy. I think he’s creating another illusion. While we’re watching the skies, he may sneak into town in a car.”

“Got any better ideas?”

“Not right off the top of my head I don’t. But I’m working on it.”

“Better work fast. That joint session is almost underway. Which party you planning on attending, Johnny?”

“Both—if I can swing it. I’m known for getting around pretty fast sometimes.”

“Well this should be one of them. You better get your ass out of here.”

“I’m on my way. I hope we meet again, Harold.”

“Me too, my friend. Me too.”

Leaving Wiggins room, I turned left and headed toward the elevator. I knew there was a smallish supply room on the first floor where I would be able to disappear without a lot of attention. I had used it just a bit earlier. Stopping at the elevator door, I stood poised with my finger over the down button.

And there it stayed.

A little voice in my head spoke up. Oh, not a burning bush moment, and not even a still, small voice. Not actually a voice at all—but a clear and distinct feeling that my business with Harold Wiggins was not at an end yet.

I was in a hurry. A really damned big hurry. Washington, DC was just about to come apart at the seams, and my friends, not to mention my brand-new wife to be, were going to be needing my help very soon. I didn’t have a moment to lose. And yet I remained where I was, standing in front of the stupid elevator, frozen, unable to move, unable to shake the deadly sinking feeling that all was not right. That I was missing something.

And that something was for all the marbles.

. . . And then, suddenly, I knew.

I returned to Wiggins room. He was on the hospital phone. He looked up at me with annoyance. “What the hell are you still doing here, O’Brien? The entire congress is session. Bombs have already gone off at the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, not to mention at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Crowded places. There’s nearly a hundred dead. Moradi’s men will be getting into place. As soon as they attack the Capitol Building, everyone inside is going to be heading into the tunnel. It’ll be a killing field if you don’t get between them and Moradi’s men. There’s no time to waste.”

“There’s always time, Wiggins. Always time enough to die,” I deadpanned.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

arm-and-gun

“Just another shell-game. Just another puppeteer. That’s what I’m talking about. Who’s on the phone?”

Wiggins looked at me like I was insane. “Watkins—that’s who. I’m getting updates in real time.”

“Ask him where the sub was.”

What?” Wiggins nearly shouted.

“Just do it, Harold. Just do it.”

I watched him as he spoke into the phone. In a few seconds he pulled it away from his ear and answered my question. “Off the New Jersey shore.”

“Where—exactly?”

Wiggins spoke into the phone again.

“Cape May Beach.”

“Bingo,” I said. “Moradi’s finally made his mistake.”

“What mistake?”

“Hang up the phone, Harold.”

He did.

“What’s Cape May closest to to—New York or DC?” I asked.

I could see Wiggins doing mental calculations. “About the same either way. Maybe a tad closer to DC.”

“What’s closer yet?”

Wiggins looked puzzled.

I continued. “What’s a short helicopter ride due west across the rather narrow state of Delaware?”

“Chesapeake Bay.”

“Yeah, and what’s on Chesapeake Bay?”

Wiggins still looked puzzled.

I waded forth. “Calvert Cliffs.”

“The Cliffs are contained. They’ve got it under control, Johnny. It’s probably never going to come back on-line, but it’s not going to kill anyone either.”

“Contained by what?”

“A big-assed containment building. It’s one of the few nuclear plants that have one. It was the one concession to building the thing so close to DC.”

“How tough is the building?”

“Plenty. It’s made to withstand a naval bombardment. Even a bunker-buster bomb won’t breach it.”

“How about a six-kiloton nuke?”

Wiggin’s eyes locked with mine, beginning to show a trace of panic. More internal calculations.

“Probably, Johnny. It probably would, if he could get it close enough.”

“What would the result of that breach be?”

“The world’s biggest dirty bomb. Everything dead within fifty miles. Everybody dying within a few hundred more. Half of the eastern seaboard and half of the Midwest, gone in the twinkling of an eye, or dead shortly thereafter. It would make post-war Japan look like the site of a Sunday school picnic. Those bombs didn’t have a fraction of the radiation of the Cliffs reactors. God Almighty, Johnny—that is some of the heaviest populations inside the United States.”

“How do you suppose he got to the underground water pumps?”

“The sub, of course. The intakes are outside of the sea wall. Low-yield torpedoes. It’d take divers to know for sure, and that takes time.”

“What would it take to get a suitcase nuke up close and real personal with the seaward side of the containment building?”

“A rowboat. A damned rowboat would do it. And pass right under all the sophisticated security out at the cliffs. Pretty damned low-tech way to commit the crime of the century.”

“World War III, Harold. The crime of all the centuries,” I corrected him. “Moradi and the Russians—all snuggly and warm in bed together. And he the beneficiary of their spy network. Small wonder he keeps ahead of us.”

“I see it now, Johnny. First, the sub takes out the pumps. The authorities out there have been too damned busy trying to containing a nuclear disaster to stop and take a good look at what caused the damage to the pumps. Second, Moradi flies the chopper across Delaware before anyone is even aware there’s any danger and parks it somewhere on the shore. There’s some pretty rocky cliffs out that way where it could go a while unnoticed. Third, he rows in the nuke, places it, rows back out to the bird and flies away clean. Detonates by cell phone.”

“I’m guessing there were two subs just off Cape May,” I said. “One parked on the water, and another that never surfaced. Probably sitting just under the other. The surface sub sails away, while the other works its way silently up Chesapeake Bay. Works its magic on the pump inlets and before leaving, off-loads a boat for Moradi. Probably a heavy-duty rubber raft, complete with outboard, instead of a rowboat. Fast, quiet, mighty hard to spot—black rubber on a night sea. A perfect plan.”

Wiggins continued on. “With DC and most of the government dead and the country in disarray, Russia moves in for the kill. As you said, World War III—over in just a few days, and unlikely even a shot fired in return. After all, by the time the overburdened and overwhelmed military gets a clue as to where all this is coming from—it’s pretty much all over.”

“All over but the shouting, as they say—and the surrendering,” I added.

“Jesus.” Wiggins said.

“Can your guys stop him?” I asked.

“Probably not, Johnny. Like you said, he’s a tiny needle in a great big wet haystack now. And not much in the way of assets in the area either—they’re all concentrated on what we all thought were the two prime metro targets. My guess is that the cliffs will blow within the hour. While the attacks are going on here and in New York.”

“You ready to die, Harold?”

“Not especially, Johnny. I still owe Moradi a pay-back for Trey.”

“Well, I’m not either. And I’ll deliver the pay-back for you. I’m the only person in the country that has a chance of getting there in time to stop him. This time I’m really leaving. Get back on the phone with Watkins. Tell him everything that happening. See if he can do an end run around the President and get some assets in the air over Russia fast. If we can’t stop Moradi, at least we can give Mother Russia quite a few really big smoldering craters of her own. They won’t be seeing it coming.”

“Agreed, Johnny. End run, hell. I’ll tell him to shoot the son-of-a-bitching President himself if he has to.”

I laughed. “Moradi’s men may do that for him. And I may actually make sure a few get through to do it.”

Wiggins laughed then too. “Take care, Johnny. I don’t know what you have in mind to stop Moradi, but whatever it is, I kind of feel you’ll somehow make it work. You got Brick with you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, take him with you. He’s a hell of a good man.”

“He is,” I agreed. “But he’s a man that doesn’t like guns.”

“You know what he can do?”

“Yeah, Wiggins—I know.”

“Then take him. He hardly need them. A man with his skills could come in mighty handy, guns or not.”

I though it over. The fact of the matter was that Wiggins was right. “I’ll take him,” I said.

“Good.”

My phone rang. I jerked it to my ear and listened for a few seconds and then turned it off. “Show time,” I said. “Moradi’s men are at the parking garage. They’ll be in the tunnel and set up within minutes.”

“It may already be too late then,” Wiggins said resignedly. “Too late for the poor schmucks in the tunnel. And too late for everybody else as well.”

“Hell no,” I cheerfully offered. “They don’t call me the flash for nothing.”

“Why you, O’Brien? Why you and your watch? Who the hell are you anyway?”

I smiled broadly and answered. “Captain America,” I said. “With a real bad back and mighty sore heels.” No more time to waste, I simply stopped talking and disappeared—right before his eyes.

Sure wish I could have seen the expression on his face.

Thanks for reading today. Back in a few days with another installment. Only a few more chapters to go .  .  .

 

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