Shiva's Messenger

A Dragon’s Maw

Chapter 1

 

A Dragon’s Maw

Is a body, or perhaps a soul aware, when a trauma is destined to occur? Some philosophies surmise it may be. Folk have reported feeling pain in a portion of the anatomy that will later be lost or damaged. The Buddha is purported to have known the instant of his own death, 90 days in advance. If there is such a precognizant cusp, can a spirit take certain steps to make minor preparations or to pass on necessary information? By a function of this prescience or just fortunate coincidence, a small family enjoyed a brief span of harmony and reconciliation on the brink of calamity.

Tariq Awi’s Iranian family had immigrated to Canada when he was ten. His primary schooling was done in Ontario and there were no other Iranian people in the community they had settled in. Short of speaking Farsi in his parent’s home, and his skin’s olive tone, he was almost as Canadian as ‘How’s it going, eh’.

“Let’s unpack a few boxes,” the man flashed his strawberry blonde wife a sly wink, “in the bedroom.” His randy grin was a sneaky hint of more in his suggestion, than just crates from the relocation. Marriage to a girl from south of the Mason-Dixie Line had given Tariq the ‘Hey, y’all’ Americanization as well.

“Oh, alright!” Brenda Awi’s words were spoken like Loki in an exaggerated sigh but the implied mild annoyance didn’t fool her mate, as he had spotted her coy reciprocal smirk hiding inside like a Trojan. The deception was intended for their daughter’s ear but it didn’t really hoodwink her either: the petite and blue-eyed pre-teen’s eyes twinkled like a dragon’s hoard as her parents left.

The couple crept away to the master bedroom for some long precluded intimacy. With the daughter still awake in the other room, the experience felt like the two were frisky youngsters escaping from a camp councilor’s scrutiny and that hint of naughtiness gave the lovemaking a flavor of it being their honeymoon again.

Afterwards, they snuggled like pewter spoons in a picnic hamper but neither slept right away. That was slightly unusual, as men tend to slumber so well in passion’s afterglow: as opposed to it making women more alert.

“I wish my job felt as right as our first time in this city just did.” Tariq opened the dialog but regretted his choice of topic before the words were finished flowing over his teeth. It had been in a moment of après sex male vulnerability when his wife had first won this argument.

“Your new job is in upper-tier management for a big multi-national.” Brenda stressed the important sounding title. “Head of Info Technology.”

“The real duties,” Tariq complained, “and what the advertisement said, are somewhat at odds.” Applicants to career opportunities often fudge on résumés to seem able to perform up to requirements but here, the reverse was drastically the case. “They asked for excellent programming skills,” as a gifted linguist can think in foreign tongues, so was this man’s mind able to compose complex algorithms even in machine basic, “but all they really need is someone to spec out hardware and keep programs from crashing.”

“Even Michelangelo had to paint portraits of patrons,” Brenda retorted around a wide yawn, “before he got the Sistine Chapel gig.”

“At least they didn’t over-glamorize the salary and benefit package.” The man hugged his wife’s belly, but her feathered hair tickled his nose. Her salon probably cost what a day’s pay at my old job would’ve been.

“I know this move satisfies my ghosts and my Norse Gods more than yours.” She sensed a minor discomfort and responded by adjusting both her locks and the topic.

“That’s an understatement of epic proportions.” The husband couldn’t constrain a guffaw. Through their years together, his wife had collected eclectic notions and horded them like memorabilia. Fully half the boxes to be unpacked contained Norse deity pantheon reference books, candles, crystal dragons, fairies, potions, unidentifiable gear and trinkets from dozens of new age, old world or oriental mystical practices. “Has moving into this Yankee territory exercised enough spirits or will we need to hold séances to Loki on Valhalla in a Rebel South summer house?”

“You tease, but there is a whole other world that is beyond this one.” Brenda’s brows briefly furled as she admonished but then relaxed with her wide smile. “I’m satisfied by the human sacrifice to Loki you offered of yourself. Were I to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t need to come back and haunt you.”

“Speaking of lurking wraiths,” Tariq Awi rolled to his feet and stepped into his striped flannel pajama bottoms, “we should prepare for the arrival of our personal specter.” He tossed Brenda’s silky pink night garment onto the spread.

I don’t even know what that type of apparel is called.’ He thought. It was two pieces, seemingly tied together and its removal in a pique of ardor would be an insurmountable task. ‘The sick person who invented bra-hooks doubtlessly hated men and a sadistic designer who created that sleepwear unit must’ve had a similar male axe to grind.’ He watched the undulating blanket lumps as his wife performed some intricate process of dressing in it under the covers. Then, the Iranian unlatched the bedroom door.

“What took you so long?” The dad asked as his daughter soon tiptoed into the darkened bedroom. As usual, Alexandra took the middle spot.

“What took you two so long?” She responded with her signature smug smirk and slight giggle. “I didn’t stumble over any emptied cartons.”

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In a comfortable and loving family bed, the three shared the first part of the night. In the wee hours of darkness though, Tariq awoke after a vividly recalled dream sequence ended abruptly on the verge of peril. His cheek felt clammy on a sweat-dampened pillow.

‘Was my perspiration caused by the dream or does my bloodstream crave for a smoke?’ Tariq crept into the living room and slipped out onto the balcony where he had a package of coffin nails stashed in a plant pot. He struck a wooden match, and put it up to the cigarette before the sulfur tip had finished the first flaring: the resulting puff was a brimstone taste of Loki’s hell or like a Dragon’s halitosis.  It reminded him of the nightmare that had awakened him. In it, a silver dragon had belched fireballs.

The fantasy genre dream had begun with his reading J.R.R. Tolkien, as he had to his daughter, but this time it was to a girl somewhat older than Alexandra. ‘Or perhaps she was reading it to me: it’s unclear to me now.’ Similarly, her exotically beautiful face had seemed unforgettable in his illusion but now his waking mind couldn’t clearly recall her features.

‘Was my mystery girl symptomatic of an impending mid-life crisis?’ The post-dreamer pondered as he took a second, but less acrid draw on his fag. ‘Prurience doesn’t seem likely, as it wasn’t of the wet dream variety: it wasn’t even as damp as my pillowcase was, from my sweat.’

After several more tar and nicotine-laden breaths, the smoker flicked the half-finished butt and watched it tumble like a cherry-ended thrown baton. He returned to bed and hacked once as he crawled under the sheets.

“Daddy,” awakened by the cough, Alex Awi smelled the smoke and glared accusingly in the dim light, “I don’t want you to die.”

“I’ll quit.” Tariq offered the same line he had said a thousand times, but his mind added a snippet of male-spouse lore. ‘Men should smoke just to give women something non-critical to nag about: it may ruin his health but it can preserve his marriage’.

“I saw my death in a realistic dream.” The girl curled her chilly legs up against her dad’s warm hip. “You were kneeling over my body and smoke was all around. Maybe you are shortening my life too, by your smoking.”

“Those frosty knees could already be on a corpse.”

“Even if I do die,” Alexandra sounded serious, “I don’t want you to, so please kick the disgusting habit.”

“You’re becoming as loony as your mom.” Tariq wished both had not mentioned the mortality topics: especially in sandwiching his nightmare.

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“You’re lucky I let us take the cable-car, instead of hiking up.” Tariq’s office was in an extremely tall building and he compared the family tour to a mountaineering expedition: with the elevator as a tram.

“I want to watch you rappelling back down on a rope.” As her father touched the door close button, Alexandra poked a finger into his belly fat. He had grown larger over the three months of separation. She was still as skinny as a rail in her Loki’s Dragon T-shirt and Trojan horse printed jacket.   “You’d look like a yo-yo walking the dog at the end of a string.”

“Burn!” Tariq chuckled at the barb. “I should trade you for a Canadian kid that treats her father with a modicum of respect.”

“Your moobs,” while he pushed a floor selection, she repositioned her finger to his chest, “need one of my training bras.”

“Moobs?” Tariq suspected he would mildly regret asking.

“Man-boobs!” Alex tittered. “I burned you again.” The girl’s voice turned stern. “Will you promise to exercise too? I don’t want you to croak from smoking or of a heart attack.”

“Sure.” His quip was non-committal and his gaze shifted to his wife’s butt. ‘Sex-ercize is a life-extending trade-off for matrimonial smoking’.

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“We could’ve scheduled this meeting around your fitness regimen.” A smallish Caucasian man in a loose fitting charcoal suit impatiently tapped a polished brown leather toe, while a younger Arabic man attired in a singlet and shorts trod on a stair-master. “In fact,” the older man added in a terse undertone after watching the host, “I don’t really know a cause yet for our talking at all.”

“Come have a seat with me.” After taking another twenty-five minutes to finish his workout, the Saudi Arabian man, draped a perspiring arm over his elderly guest’s shoulder: the disparity in their heights made the friendly gesture seem condescending: as fully intended.

“I don’t play this game up to your reputed caliber.” The older man’s bushy eyebrows squirmed like white caterpillars stapled to his forehead, as he was drawn to a checkerboard table set with chess pieces. The guest noted that he was ushered to the inferior black side of the board.

“Nor strategic games in general either.” The sheik sat with a flourish behind, as if he were used to sweeping his robe aside before sitting. He used the towel’s corner to daub away beads of sweat from his hawk’s beak nose.  His nostrils flared like a dragon’s snout from his aerobic exertion  “You might wish to apply yourself in learning from a master.”

“If my gamesmanship will be substandard,” folds of skin on the smaller man’s jowls reddened with ineffectual anger: like a bantam rooster’s comb when pitted against a sleek fighting cock, “then why must we play at all?”

“We’ll have a meaningless match to pass some enjoyable time.” The trim Arab’s brown eyes rolled as dark marbles under the shelf of his heavy brows. “It will be an inexpertly defended challenge while the pawns on a greater board are moving.”

“May I be white?” The older man’s pallid hand fingered the checkered board’s corner. His chess knowledge was limited but he did know that the player who moved first held an advantage. In top-level play, the result was invariably a white win, or a draw. The black side was seldom the victor.

“Did you ask that boon of your creator as well?” The Arab disdainfully spun the board and he placed his Loki brand cell phone beside.

The pale man playing white set his elbows on the table to contemplate his first move. His concentration was briefly broken when his opponent used a remote control to switch on a bank of televisions. Each was set to a different news network, but nothing of any particular interest was airing.

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“Why is yours the only office closed today?” The morning bustle in the building contrasted with the deserted entry Alex’s dad was unlocking.

“They gave everyone the day off so I could tour you around in private.” The programmer quipped, but he pondered at the same thing. I arranged the day off and took the previous afternoon to pick up my family from the airport. Nobody told him the office would be closed.

The closure was unusual but not to a point of bizarre. The head office dealt directly with major clients and corporate sub-entities. There were never any drop-in customers. Had Tariq been there longer he could have surmised that when his office was closed like this, it was usually due to a special deposit or withdrawal being made at the firm’s ultra-secure vault.

“Why is the reception area made as a big chess board?” Upon gaining access to the office suite, the unconventional design feature stood out. Alex ran her hand along the enameled surface of a bishop and tested the weight by tipping it slightly.

“The company CEO should be Eastern European instead of Arabic.” The Iranian smiled inwardly at the ostentatious image. “Ghazi bin Omani fancies himself as a chess impresario and supposes he runs his business empire by planning moves ahead, as in a championship match.”

“Have you even met with him yet?”   Brenda Awi referred to the fact that the CEO had been so impressed with her husband’s résumé, that Tariq was offered the job without a face-to-face interview.

“No, but that’s hardly surprising.” Tariq mildly snapped back, this was a sore point for him, “as Ghazi’s been in the Middle East for two months.”

“That must be slightly disconcerting.” Brenda smiled and caressed his arm for several strokes.

“I’ve been keeping busy without knowing what my job description will actually be. I’ve made a few changes resulting in some improvements to the purportedly impenetrable firewall.” He conspiratorially added. “But I may ultimately find that I’m not supposed to even touch the inner code.”

“They did say they wanted a programmer.” Brenda said.

“I wanna see all the money you bragged about.” Alexandra Awi had grown tired of fiddling with the chess pieces.

“The vault holds more wealth than the treasuries of some countries.” The Iranian guided the tour down a carpeted hallway to the vault room. He noted some wheel tracks pressed into the pile and presumed the janitors had used a cleaning machine. “I haven’t been given the combination yet so we’ll just see the closed door.” The network manager smiled at his next larcenous thought. But I could doubtlessly find the right number sequence somewhere in the system. As they strolled to the protected strong room, he verbally described the contents—which they wouldn’t be seeing.

“Why is the door open?” Alexandra was the first to notice the oddity.

“Stay back!” Tariq rushed to the vault door and peeked into the wide crack: there was no movement within and an ominous feeling without.

“I could get in here easier.” The daughter watched her dad sucking in his paunch to shinny his corpulent body through the gap: his hand gestured stop, and he disappeared from her view.

Inside, the Iranian looked about. The lock boxes lining the walls stood with lids open and with selective contents obviously removed in a hurry. The scene called the subject of his previous night’s dream to his mind.

I feel like Bilbo entering Smaug’s lair. As the treasure trove guarded by the Dragon in Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, a smattering of gems and gold coins littered the floor. These remnants bespoke of being minor spillage from a much grander fortune having been purloined. Is a Lonely Mountain dragon lurking or swooping for the kill? Tariq mentally asked himself.

“This netted someone millions of dollars, but it makes no cents.” Tariq looked at the bearer bonds and unnamed stock certificates standing in piles and adding to the floor’s clutter. They were of exponentially greater value than any physical materials taken could possibly be worth. Those would also be easier to carry and liquidate than their equal weight in gems and bullion. “Liquid billions, or even trillions were left behind.”

In exactly this instant, the first of the hijacked airliners missed its target by a slim margin and careened into the doomed edifice, two floors above at the 96th level. Like a poplar tree in a spring gust, the structure shuddered violently enough to throw the Iranian from his feet or perhaps it was the pressure wave ahead of the blast: he couldn’t tell. The metal clad concrete door was also pushed almost shut and the programmer was closeted inside.

The day was September 11th and World Trade Center North Tower initially absorbed the assault but as the fruition of time would show, it would ultimately be a blow too grievous to bear.

The aircraft, like the worst Middle Earth Wyrm or Balrog, belched a spew of dragon fire from a dying gullet. The impact compressed the jet’s fuel to the point of instantaneous combustion. It exploded like diesel oil in an engine’s cylinder and sent blast furnace intensity flames through several floors. Sheltered by the nearly closed and heavily fortified door to the heat resistant vault, Tariq received a miniscule fraction of the deadly plume.

The oxygen hungry fireball in the exterior chamber sucked the breath from his chest: air was vacuumed from his lungs too quickly to form an anguished cry. Brenda and Alex are dead. The words arrived unbidden in his mind and his spirit confirmed they were true. That realization wilted Tariq’s legs to stalks of steamed asparagus and he dropped to his belly. A thought of praying briefly crossed his mind but since his childhood, he had not believed in any god. His tears streamed onto the haphazard carpet of semi-priceless documents but no solace was scribbled on any scraps of parchment there. His fingers found and clenched some scattered papers and he scrunched them in his angst.

“How can I be certain they are dead?” As modern intellectual people invariably do, Tariq discounted the affirmation of death he had felt as supernatural and therefore impossible. He pushed the massive door open and no longer cared about damaging any fingerprint evidence. “I have to know—in the here and now if Loki took them away from me.” The Canadian emerged into a landscape of purgatory.

It took less than a moment to ascertain in fact, what his essence had already confirmed for him. Brenda and Alex Awi were indeed lifeless and it didn’t require a medical practitioner’s certificate to determine it so. The blonde streaked brunette hair that both wore, was singed to the scalps and fair skin was now reddish black. The evidence exactly matched his earlier esoteric cognition of quick deaths.

“Alex saw this moment in her dream.” The distraught father noted his kneeling position amid wisps of swirling smoke. That revelation again shivered his supposedly real-world pragmatism. He sat between the two bodies and took each of their hands in his. “I’ll stay here and die too.”

A long moment passed and the bereaved programmer felt a convection current of heat on the sensitive backs of his ears. It was almost hot enough to singe the furze of hairs there. Tariq looked up from his deathwatch to see dragon flames tasting walls and ceiling like a multi-forked serpent’s tongue.

“My family and I spent the day here only on a lark.” The Iranian’s thoughts strayed deeper into Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’. “Dale’s one bowman looked into the dragon’s blazing maw and his courage held. His arrow flew to a chink in Smaug’s armor because the lark told where to find it.

Tariq viewed the exterior of the vault door. There were no signs of a forced entry. His eyes then dropped to a crumpled bearer bond in his hand. The face amount was clearly printed but it still didn’t add up.

“This multi-million dollar robbery has the trappings of an inside job.” The deserted office, lack of safe breaking, and having the dastardly deed concealed in a man-made catastrophe were rather convenient occurrences.

“What could I do though?” The events in the one time-frame were too coincidental for credulity but the programmer was still resigned to carry his suspicions to his immanent grave. Sensing that he was in a brief lull between the initial explosion and the sustained inferno to inevitably follow, the Iranian caressed the unmoving fingers that he still held.

“Human hands communicate as well as a spoken language and even these dead ones are asking me for something.” Alex told me she wanted me to live: Brenda said she was happy and wouldn’t haunt me. “What am I thinking about and feeling? I don’t set any store in that chicanery.”

“I’m a realist.” The distraught man set the hands down.   And my wife and daughter are here dead. That was a stark reality—and the reason for his tragedy could’ve been monetary. He cast about and the wide scale of the devastation suggested that many others had shared a similar demise.

“The people who died in this tower, all of them, deserve a better cause of death.” As if in response, the air seemed supercharged with cool static electricity. Spirits of the slain seem to scream for satisfaction. Wasn’t that more likely his imagination under duress?

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“Imagine how much the networks would’ve paid for footage of the first plane striking.” The sheik casually quipped, as breaking story was now the prime feature on every television.

“Someone likely has it on their camera but hasn’t made a high enough level contact yet.” The older player’s stress had the sweat from his scalp making a delta on his back. He pushed a knight haphazardly for his move and then took up the sheik’s soiled towel to mop his brow and shoulders.

“It’s ironic the way our particular match has progressed with unfolding global events.” The Saudi man had intentionally played a lopsided swap tactic and attacked the weaker player’s lesser pieces. Many black men now surrounded the few whites and a winner was all but determined. “Your king is still standing but his defense has been neatly stripped away.”

“You knew that I didn’t play this game well.” The older man grimaced as his queen was captured.

“Yet you sought me out anyways.”

“Only because I had to whilst the Greeks emerged from the Trojan horse.” The laconic remark was an unintended double entendre of both the small and the larger games afoot. The old man’s gaze fell back to the board and he morosely moved his knight to the point of his queen’s death: killing a bishop. “Your king is temporarily in check.” He sat back in anticipation of a move to crush his unplanned gambit.

“Check?” The Arab sheik looked incredulously down at the board. He quickly accessed the situation and found it worse than expected: instead, it was now checkmate with himself as the looser. In anger, he tipped over his opponent’s king. He snatched up the offending knight and swept the rest of the pieces onto the floor. “In real life though, the lesser pieces do not possess a killing power as they do in a game.” The Arab snapped the Trojan horse from its base and placed the broken piece on the empty board’s center. Then he gathered his composure and tapped a manicured finger on his cell phone. “In the arena that really counts, I prepare contingencies.”

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“I’ve been spared—so far,” Tariq kissed the charred faces of his lost women and he found tenacity, “and I have a unique knowledge that raises some hideous questions.” He stood up.

“Bilbo Baggins left his hobbit hole without even handkerchiefs,” the programmer returned to the vault, “but Tariq Awi can be better prepared.” A leather satchel was conveniently handy: it contained a small precious oil painting. The Canadian tossed the original artwork aside and scooped in certificates, coins, and scattered gems by the handful, to represent a full example set of vault’s contents. When the bag was stuffed, he tucked it into his shirt.

The Iranian left the robbery scene, to a dragon fire decimated 94th floor. The blast had ravaged walls and flames had blackened furniture and corpses alike. A surreal visual effect of firelight flickering, glowing embers and sunshine filtering through smoke vortexes illuminated his passage to the elevator.

“That didn’t even light up because the building’s power remained on,” sardonically, he eyed the darkened exit sign barely visible near the ceiling, “or perhaps the bulb was shattered by the shock.” That failure of a simple emergency device was poignantly indicative of the many faults that must have transpired to lead up to this debacle.

I could smash that nearby fire cabinet and use the hose as lifeline to descend the elevator shaft. Tariq briefly considered the remote possibility. Then with a smile at his own stupidity, that was more a grimace against the task fate had assigned, he turned away from the unlikely escape avenue. One hundred feet of hose would be about eight floors. A drop of eighty-six or so levels should remain.

“Descending 94 floors,” he opted for the stairs, “has to be easier than a long trudge up would be.” Apparently the lone survivor on this level, the programmer braved the smoke-choked corridor around the central core to find one of the three emergency exits. It doesn’t look so promising. The gypsum rock walls were shattered and broken chalk spangled with paint chips, dangled from the shredded paper. Debris littered the stairs in what appeared to be impassable heaps.

“This is a probable deathtrap for a multi-floor slide.” Again, he took a few seconds to contemplate his survival possibilities. The open stairwell is acting like a flue for fires burning on floors below. There was a potential danger of becoming overcome by smoke if he were to get slowed or stuck in the rubble. “That will have to be my option of last resort.”

He couldn’t expect the other stairways to be any better either. The blast had shattered lightly built walls around the building’s central column. From his current vantage, Tariq could actually see the similar ruination and smoke in one of the alternate stairs. Having been stymied here, he retraced his steps back to the elevator foyer.

“The exits below may be in better shape.” Tariq eyed the glass-fronted emergency cabinet again. “I could do the fire hose thing that I thought of, but only to go down a few levels.”

“I really don’t like heights!” As he used the axe to pry the metal doors, the man braced himself for the anticipated vertigo sensation. One door slid aside and Tariq gripped a doorframe firmly, before hazarding a peek. It’ll be like looking down into oblivion.   His mind pictured a long bungee-jump into a mineshaft and he nearly reeled over.

“This isn’t so bad!” Opening his eyes found the car was stopped only five or six floors down. It’ll be no worse than rappelling down the hose tower during my brief stint as a volunteer fireman. As a safety precaution, he tied a loop around his waist. Now I come to think of it—the firefighter training and experience I gained in my youth is certainly paying off today.

He threw a bight of his hose rope into the shaft and judged it extended to less than half the distance. In event of an accidental fall, it would hold him from hitting the bottom. But I’ll be the yo-yo that Alex described. The passing thought of his daughter brought fresh tears and a wash of grief.

In preparation for his descent, Tariq wiped sweat and tears away with his sleeve then shoved his axe into his belt like a sword.

“This would’ve been easier if I wasn’t forty or fifty pounds over my optimum weight.” He stopped for a rest after going only two floors and he prodded his belly. I can’t believe that I found my resolve in the pages of a fantasy fiction novel, or that I almost believed in some spiritual bunk.

“Are you a fireman?” A hopeful female voice sounded in response to a shuffle of his feet on the cab’s slightly tilted roof.

“No,” he had safely completed his climb down, “but I have a fire axe.”

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“I have plans within plans too.” Bernard Stryker commented to himself as read a page in his book: it was Frank Herbert’s Dune. “I could easily be a mentat but I would be better than even Thufir Howat because I also have intrigues within subterfuge, and puppets controlling unknowing dupes.”

“It is just so horrible.” A young Czech woman gasped at the television news: a man soaked with blood was having his mangled hand treated.

“Its just blood.” Stryker looked up from his reading. “Still, it is a lot of it. Why would the man be coated from his collar to his knees in gore, when he only has a minor hand-amputation?”

“Minor?” The girl reacted.

Bernard Stryker deigned not to answer. Instead, he slipped a £100 note in to mark his page and closed the book. He viewed the dust-cover photo: it was a collage of the characters as portrayed in the Hollywood version. His eyes then strayed to the European brunette standing by his television set: she could’ve passed for the Lady Jessica’s twin sister and that was the only reason the Stryker Group had contracted her modeling services. The CEO enjoyed adding a flavor of reality to his reading and other pastimes.

“How odd?” Bernard remarked as the injured man in the news clip’s background snatched his hand away from the paramedic and covered his face with it: he had spotted the camera’s lens. The olive-skinned casualty dashed from the frame. The CEO then banished his fleeting curiosity and poured himself a snifter of Armagnac.

“How odd is what?” The girl asked in her heavily accented English.

“It was laid down when your granny was still a virgin.” Bernard hadn’t really been listening to her and took the query as being ‘how old is that’.   His reply thought brought another thought to his mind. “Strip for me.”

“How can you think about that now?” The model’s eyes flicked to the world-changing event on the television but her hands responded instantly to his command, by racing to her blouse buttons.

“I’m Bernard Stryker.” The influential man lifted his glass to watch the young woman undressing, through the amber glow of his well-aged liquor. “I can think and do what I want, whenever I damned well want to.”

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A door buzzer with a weak battery sounded as a wounded fly on a snare drum, when the Arabic man entered the tiny shop. After taking two strides inside, the programmer looked around. Enameled product racks teemed with a mix-mash assortment from calligraphy pens to reams of printing paper. The dust on the display shelf edges caused the customer to wonder if any stock had turned over since his last patronage here: over a year ago.

“I suspect the typewriter that fits these ink ribbons,” he held up a box of long obsolete office supplies, as a diminutive man shuffled from the back, “hasn’t been in use for twenty years. Your holding onto these might prove to be shrewd business—when the museums start snapping them up.”

“I was going to put those on sale,” Sam Levi’s smile showed gold teeth spaced like the black keys amidst a piano’s ivory, “but on your suggestion, I’ll raise the price and await the customer rush.”

“Given that you likely bought them for ten cents on the wholesale dollar from a modern store’s dead stock clear out,” Tariq wondered if the shopkeeper’s dental work was more costly than his inventory, “you should be at least up to a five-hundred percent mark-up on them already.”

“You kneel daily to a marginal prophet,” the Jewish man quipped, “but I pray once a week to my profit margin.”

“While preying on your customers during the other six days.”

“Ha!” The old shopkeeper felt he’d gotten the worst of the banter so he let fly. “May the smoke of a too-fresh camel dung fire foul the air of your tent for a thousand generations.”

“That foul-smelling smudge has already chased me from my home.” The Iranian tried to make his retort sound glib but it was too near to the truth. Tariq recalled some events of his get-away from ground zero. His fear of using his bankcards had left him only with only his pocket money. He had stolen an idling car and driven to the south side of Lake Ontario. Another theft got him a boat with enough gasoline to travel only half way across. He had paddled and then scuttled the craft to swim the balance.

“Tell me what you need.”

“I think you once hinted,” it was a dangerous question but Tariq’s need offset the fear of a possible concrete pool bottom at the end of his plunge, “that you could help with close-to-real documents.”

Sam harkened back to a conversation they had in the late 1980’s, when a book outraged Islam to the point of the author having to go into hiding.

‘I could get these cheaper retail for from my competition,’ Levi had defended his prices, ‘than I can wholesale from my suppliers. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just your genetic stupidity that makes you buy from me.’

‘I can’t imagine a valid reason why a manufacturer or supplier is able to legally sell for a lesser price to some, based on volume.’ The Iranian had explained his patronage. ‘If Walter’s Widget Manufacturing can make a profit selling a million units to a corporate chain store, then Walter can make the same gain by giving Fred’s General Store that lowered price too. Behemoth retailers have an unfair competition edge from a reprehensible practice that should really be illegal and I won’t support it.’

‘You buy from me,’ Sam had misinterpreted on purpose, ‘because I offer a value added service of appeasing your social conscience.’

‘One of the few methods of a small entrepreneur’s success is by adding a personal touch that the corporate stores can’t.’

‘I should sell improved books.’ Sam had quipped with a slyly raised eyebrow. ‘Would you like a copy of The Satanic Verses, so authentically endorsed that Salman Rushdie would believe that he signed it himself?’

“I must’ve misunderstood”. Back in today, Tariq was disappointed: the old shopkeeper’s time spent in reverie had seemed to be a negative answer.

“Do you wish to be Salman Rushdie?” Sam confirmed the remark had been a deliberate hint and yes, he could provide a change in identification. “Or would you rather go by a less well-known non-infidel name like Loki Dragon or something?”

“Bilbo emerged from the Lonely Mountain to the battle of five armies.” Now called Tariq Mahmoud, the refugee Canadian programmer squirreled himself away in a remote place in Canada where he could set to work. “I’m not certain yet of the other four combatants, but I intend to be one of the quintets.”

His mind often replayed many events from that eventful period and the mystery girl appeared in his dreams occasionally too, but was always gone by morning. And the planet Earth continued to spin, albeit with a slight wobble, while some years passed.

 

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