What Feats He Did That Day Pt. 05byMarshAlien©
"Hep ya there, young fella?" Fuzzy asked.
I reached into my pocket first this time. I already knew that there were some coins there; I had felt them as I pushed through the doors. But I was deathly afraid that Wizen had done something stupid, like giving me an Eisenhower silver dollar. To my relief, the coin I pulled out was era-appropriate. I tossed it onto the bar. The saloonkeeper put a bottle of whiskey onto the table. "Join me, Deputy?" I asked.
He didn't mind if he did. None of this "on duty" nonsense for Fuzzy Q. Jones.
"So what brings you to town, stranger?" Fuzzy asked, downing his first glass.
I was about to explain when we were interrupted by a voice booming across the room.
"So you're what passes for the law in these parts?"
We looked over to see two men standing in the doorway. They were obviously up to no good. It wasn't their black hats, not in a Lash LaRue movie. Lash always wore black. No, it was the evil sneers on their faces. That, and the way they drew their guns as they approached in that bow-legged swagger that suggested they'd spent too much time on horseback.
Fuzzy started to visibly tremble, not a sign that inspired confidence in a deputy. It was perfectly appropriate for the character of Fuzzy though. The man was the quintessential comic Western sidekick.
"You got the badge, friend," one of the men said. "That makes you the law."
"What are you smilin' at?" the other asked me.
I acknowledged them with a tip of my hat. It was only a matter of time now. Fuzzy looked down, apparently startled to find a badge on the vest he was wearing over his checked shirt. He looked back at his accusers with eyes like saucers.
"Boys, somethin' ain't right here," Fuzzy said, swaying slightly against the counter. He grabbed drunkenly for the bottle of whiskey. "I was just -- I was just havin' a -- hic -- drink here with my pal and --"
And the whip came in right on cue. I didn't see it, of course, but I heard the crack. We were all transfixed by the sight of the gun flying out of the hand of the guy nearest me and across the bar. All of us except Fuzzy, who grabbed the bottle in his fist by the neck and broke it over the head of the other one.
"Problem, gentlemen?" Lash LaRue asked as he let the doors swing closed behind him.
He had drawn his gun as well, and had it trained on me and the disarmed man he apparently assumed was my companion. The other fellow had dropped like a stone.
I looked at Fuzzy with eyes that asked for assistance. He grinned at me and turned to Lash.
"Nothin' too difficult, Lash. This here's my new friend, er, . . ."
"Rick. Rick Handley."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Handley. You new in town?"
"That's right," Fuzzy said, holding up the neck of the broken bottle. "I treated to the first bottle here, but we were unable to finish."
"Guess that make's it your turn, Mr. Handley," Lash said. "Set us up here, Sam."
So much for the other coin. But buying drinks for Fuzzy and Lash, it turned out, was enough to establish myself as one of the good guys. And under prompting from Lash, the saloonkeeper finally fessed up that I had also paid enough to entitle me to room and board.
My training began that afternoon. In many ways, the whip was harder to master than the sword. At least I had never cut my own cheek with the sword. When we finally quit for the day, I had improved considerably. By the end of Sunday evening's training, I was even better. It would be awhile before I would approach Lash's requirement that I be able to knock a tin can off a fence. But I was the terror of broad sides of barns across the West.
Shawn and I both attended Monday morning's press briefing. Pete Simpson announced that despite the diligent efforts of the Governor's staff and his family, no record could be found to substantiate the Governor's clear recollection of reimbursing Amalgamated Coal Company for his travel on the company's plane in each of the last five years. He passed out an accounting of the amounts that the Governor was nevertheless sure he had paid. And he announced that in order to avoid any further distractions from the important work of state governance, the Governor had dispatched a cashier's check to Amalgamated. When they located proof of the earlier reimbursements, Amalgamated would refund the amount of the cashier's check minus the cost of the most recent trip.
The line about distractions was straight out of the press spokesman handbook, but Pete was clearly pleased with his delivery. He was also surprised that I raised my hand.
"So according to this accounting, the amount paid for the current year was about equal to the amount for the year before, and the year before that?"
"Yes, of course," he answered, annoyance creeping into his voice. "Depending on his pro rated share of the airplane's costs, of course. Is there a problem?"
I tried to keep the smile off of my face.
"Without intending any disrespect, Pete, he went on the last four trips by himself, right?"
"And this year he went with you?"
He started to nod and then realized where I had led him.
"Who's paying for the costs of your trip?"
The silence that followed was intense. Pete clearly had no idea how to answer that one. The press corps clearly had no idea of asking another question until that one was answered. Pete and I locked eyes. Then he blinked.
"My costs are more difficult to calculate, of course, because I returned early to deal with this whole non-issue of yours, Mr. Handley. You will be provided with that accounting by the end of the day."
He left immediately thereafter.
A reporter from Beckley leaned back in his chair and gave Shawn and me a smile.
"I don't believe I've ever seen him turn quite that color red. You know, young man, if you're going to ask him a question that causes his head to explode, you should probably take my place in the front row."
We shared a laugh and then Shawn and I went back to the Messenger and began pounding out the story. Shawn drove over to the statehouse in the late afternoon to pick up Pete's accounting so that we could include that as well. Then we sat down and finished.
It was a hard night of work. It was nine o'clock by the time we were done and both of us were exhausted. Shawn's test results still hadn't come back yet, so it's not like I had really missed anything. We had some cheesecake and coffee at a late-night deli down the street and then called it a night.
"So you and Shawn actually wrote a story together?" Alison asked the next day at lunch.
"Yeah," I said. "I think it turned out pretty well. Don't you?"
"Full page headline. What's not to like? Still, it was your story. Now you're sharing it with her."
"We shared the last one," I pointed out.
"Just the credit," Allie said. "Not the writing."
Alison studied me for twenty uncomfortable seconds.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
"What else are you sharing with her?"
"Nothing. I have no idea what you're --"
"Oh, bullshit, Rick. I saw the way you looked at her yesterday. Tell me you're not sleeping with her."
"I'm not sleeping with her."
"Rick! Come on. You know you can do so much --"
"Allie." I interrupted her. "Don't. Please. Just don't."
She didn't. She looked down and twirled her fork in her salad.
"Friends?" she asked.
"Friends," I agreed with a sigh.
"She's very pretty," Allie agreed. "And smart."
"And she hasn't always been the nicest person." I conceded that Alison had a point as well. "Give it a chance, okay?"
"For you?" Allie said. "You bet. Say what ever happened to the other part of the story?"
"The sex?" I asked. "Funny you should bring that up. My source called me last night after I got home. She asked the same thing. I told her that unless I got confirmation from somebody else or she let me use her name, there was no story."
"Yeah. Rachel would never let that into print. What does Shawn think?"
I studied my potato chips for a while and looked up at Allie.
"I, um, haven't shared that part with her yet."
Allie started giggling.
"It's different," I said.
"Sure." Allie was still giggling. "One's just sex. The other's journalism."
"And sex," I pointed out. "But I promised the woman I wouldn't give out her name. Can't go back on a promise in this business."
"Pussy or no."
"What? She has one, right? Oh yeah. You don't know that yet, do you?"
"Are you gonna eat that roll or not?"
The sex angle sputtered back to life the very next morning. I arrived at work as early as I always did and found an e-mail waiting for me. The return address was a Yahoo account that I didn't recognize. I skimmed it more than I actually read it. Then I printed it out, tore it off the printer, and raced over to the statehouse.
Shawn was happy to see me and quickly made room at her desk. We listened to Pete explain some exciting new regulatory clean water initiative that appeared to relieve the mining industry in particular of any responsibility to keep its tailing piles away from potable water. He quite happily explained in answer to questioning that the program represented a careful balance between the needs of industry and those of consumers. After taking a few more bored questions about it, he recognized me.
"Mr. Simpson, I asked you a few weeks back if there were any women on the plane to Texas"
"Oh for Chrissakes," Pete barked. "Who are you, Johnny one-note?"
"Maybe," I said. "Can I actually ask the question?"
"Certainly," he agreed with sarcastic politeness. "Whatever you like."
"You avoided the question, sir. You told me there was a flight attendant. So I'll ask it again. Were there any women passengers?"
"No, there were not."
"No sex on the plane? No bondage? No, um, sado-masochism?"
Pete Simpson was glaring at me with triumphant malice. I was aware of grumbling behind me.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Shawn whispered.
"Mr. Handley, this is an incredibly insulting line of questioning. The answer is no. I'll answer one more question, Mr. Handley."
I could feel the weight of my colleagues' doubts. I decided to skip the sex entirely and take one last shot.
"During the trip, after he learned about the Messenger's article, did the Governor at any time say, 'Who the fuck is Rick Handley?'"
"I'm sure he did," Pete answered with a harsh laugh. Several of my colleagues laughed as well.
"And did he then identify me as 'That cripple that does the obituaries?'"
The press spokesman handbook called for a sneer and a lightning fast denial. I got a red face and an open-mouthed stare. The laughing and grumbling stopped.
"Who told you that?" Pete demanded.
The room had gone completely silent, the silence speaking more eloquently than anything that I could say. It was Shawn who spoke first.
"So you don't deny it?"
He finally blurted out that he couldn't imagine the Governor saying such a thing. He turned on his heel and his aides followed him out of the room like dust behind a whirlwind.
"So what the fuck was that?" Shawn asked after we exchanged the noisy pressroom for a quiet table at Lin Fong's, the only decent Chinese restaurant in Charleston.
"I got this e-mail this morning," I said. I handed it across the table.
"'Friday night,'" she read. "'BDSM! Starting on the plane! Yeah, baby!'
"What is this?" she asked in a quiet voice.
"I don't know for sure. My guess is it's a little personal diary that somebody keeps on his PDA. Somebody who was on the trip, though. The dates correspond perfectly. And this. 'Four days here, still no doves.' And see this one here? He writes, 'Gov infored of Mess. article. "Who the fuck is Rick Handley? The cripple who write the obits?"'"
"Who sent it to you?"
"I haven't any idea of that either," I said.
"So where'd all the sex stuff come from?"
"Well, there's this part. 'Swapped with Bill. Dee-lightful.' And here. After 'still no doves,' he writes 'plenty of chicks though.'"
"It could be a forgery."
"Sure," I said. "That's why I decided to spring it on Pete like that. See how much of it was true. But it also fits with what got me into this story. Somebody on the inside told me that this whole trip was an industry sponsored orgy.
"I fucked up starting with the bondage stuff, though. I looked up this BDSM thing on the 'net and it stands for Bondage, Domination and Sado-Masochism. But those questions didn't even make him flinch."
"So who's your source?" Shawn asked in a hurt tone.
"Yeah, I know. I should have told you before. I'm sorry, Shawn. Really. But I can't give you the name. I promised."
"How does he contact you?"
"Cell phone," I said. "I got a call on Monday, actually. Wondering what the fuck was happening with the story. Weird, huh?"
"So maybe she sent you this?"
"Maybe," I agreed. "I don't think so, though."
Shawn's use of "he" and "she" was an old reporter's trick, designed to make a reluctant source slip and allow the reporter to at least rule out one gender. I was a reporter too, though.
Shawn leaned forward and smiled.
"So I'm supposed to get my test results back today. Sorry for the delay. Dinner tonight?
"How about tomorrow?" I asked. "This press conference is gonna make the local news tonight. If I don't crank out an article, Rachel will have my butt."
"Tomorrow I've got book club," she said. "Friday?"
She reached across the table and took my hand in hers.
"I promise," I said softly. Like that was necessary.
That night I didn't wake up in the middle of another bullwhip lesson from Lash. I was disappointed because I had actually done quite well so far. I could knock the can off the fence three times out of five and was gradually increasing the distance at which I was effective. Even using just the tip of the whip I was batting around .300.
Instead, I woke up in Wizen's lab. Both he and Francesca were there.
"Is something wrong?" I asked, bolting upright in bed. "Is Ken okay?"
"He's fine," Wizen said. "Now that you are at least familiar enough with the whip, I wanted you to start sitting in on his training occasionally. Maybe doing a little of your own work with the light whip."
"Here's your chair," Francesca said. She started to push it over. I almost took control myself and "drove" it the rest of the way. But she was so eager to please that I couldn't do it. I let her push it next to the bed and then I climbed into it.
She accompanied us down the bezombied corridors until her father informed her that she was permitted to come no further.
"It's fine with me," I said.
"It is the Council," Wizen explained. "Council would be displeased to learn she knows of your existence, let alone that of the Morlings and the battleground."
"It's okay, Rick," Francesca said. She gave my hand a squeeze. "I understand."
"That makes one of us," I said, glowering at Wizen as his daughter took two steps backward before turning and striding quickly away from us.
"You know, I don't mind the idea of fighting this Morling for Francesca, or even for you. But I gotta tell you, the idea of doing it for this precious Council of yours doesn't really thrill me. Not that they're bad necessarily. I just hate secrecy. Particularly on stuff like, 'oh, yeah, your world's about to be invaded.' There are too many government people in my time who insist that things will be fine as long as we sit back and trust them."
His eyes widened in alarm.
"Richard, we are approaching the battleground. I must ask you to keep your heresies to yourself."
The battleground turned out to be an outdoor stadium with a sand-covered floor. We emerged into the sunlight, the first I had seen it in all my visits with Wizen. Ken was already inside, warming up for his morning practice. He greeted me like an old friend.
"Hey, Ken," I answered. "How's it going?"
"Pretty fair, buddy. Can't complain. Wizen, right? Nice to see you again. You recognize this place, Rick?"
I looked around before finally shaking my head.
"It's the Rose Bowl!" he said with a laugh. "Preserved like it was the Roman Coliseum. Who'd have guessed that the world government would be in Pasadena? Pretty funny, huh?"
"Yeah. So what's this?" I gestured at what looked like an obstacle course. Two pathways led from a wooden platform at one end. The course's most prominent feature was a series of balloons, some of them atop small poles and others atop larger ones. There were balloons tucked between walls and balloons hidden behind jumps. Each of them was numbered.
"Like it?" Ken asked. "I designed it myself, to teach me to react quickly and use the light whip accurately. Have a look.
"Let's do the odd numbers, Slick!" he yelled out to his sponsor.
"Slick?" I asked.
"Slick, Slisken," Ken said with a big grin. "This place could use a few more nicknames."
"Tell me about it," I said. "It's like Night of the Living Dead."
Ken gave me a puzzled look. I was always forgetting that he hadn't lived during the last quarter of the twentieth century.
He jumped down onto the dirt floor and strode to one end.
"Ready?" Slisken yelled.
"Ready!" Ken acknowledged.
"To the right, go!"
Ken headed down the path on the right at a jog, his eyes constantly scanning from side to side. The light whip trailed behind the cylinder he held in his right hand. He had evidently activated it while he was approaching the platform.
"Five!" Slisken yelled.
Ken spotted balloon number five at the same time I did. He tucked into a roll, gauged the distance, and struck. The tip of the whip exploded the balloon.
Balloon number seven was atop a large pole. The light whip was already growing longer. He stopped and performed a ritualized dance that involved backing up and doing a shoulder roll to his left.
"What's he doing?" I asked Wizen out of the corner of my mouth.
"Simulating the Morling's attack on him. He must avoid his opponent's lash while his own whip lengthens."
I nodded, staring in awe as Ken leapt to his feet and jumped to the side. His whip, now twenty feet in length, snaked out toward the balloon and popped it.
The third balloon was behind him, tied to the ground behind a low wall. It was much too close for a twenty-foot whip. He turned it off, letting the light rope fall to the ground. As he ran toward number three at an oblique angle, he thumbed the control to max, quickly growing the whip once again. As he flew by the wall, the whip flicked out once again. The third balloon burst apart.
He missed number one after that, but redeemed himself on the thirteen, eleven, and five balloons. I simply stood there and applauded after he finished.
"Holy shit!" I said. "That was incredible."
"Missed number one again," he said with disgust. "I always have trouble with that one."
"You got six!" I pointed out. "Out of seven!"
"It only takes one to get killed," he said. "Here. Give it a shot."
He tossed me the cylinder.
"I can't do that!" I exclaimed.
"Nobody expects much, kid," he said. "But you gotta be prepared. And you gotta start sometime. Take the evens. Slick will call out the balloons."
It was a disaster. I missed the first two, managed to hit the third, and had to fly in circles while the whip grew after I accidentally turned it off approaching the fourth. It was another one of those tall poles.
Finally I flicked the whip toward the balloon. In the midst of my follow-through, I realized that the whip was still not going to be long enough to reach the balloon. I hastily opened the thumb control, but instead of creating a rope just long enough to bring the tip in contact, I played out far too much line. The whip's momentum was spent as it flew by the balloon. Instead, it gently wrapped itself around the pole two or three times. The coil of light slowly slid down the pole and came to rest on a band of steel halfway down the pole to which the two guy wires were attached.