Warplanes in exercises darted across the sky over the Red Sea. In Saburia’s coastal military base. Michael Kochanski turned from his window to the wall television screen showing Black Shadows. A couple stood, the solemn man in uniform, and the woman’s face tearful. Their hometown was under attack from the mountain rebels. As they parted to mournful music, the camera turned to other young men leaving for battle while wives wept and hugged their children. Easy to follow action, enthralling music, watching the show would help him connect better with the king who approved the airing of each new episode,
Then he would watch it another time with Eleanor, the head housekeeper, who translated the dialogue and interpreted the culture. Elegant and intelligent, a petite elderly lady from Ramses, half-Saburian and half-English, she was more British than anyone he had met in England. He would find her at breakfast in the kitchen, drinking milky tea and reading. Scooping an egg with a tiny spoon from a small porcelain cup, her little meal lasted long enough for her to explain one Black Shadows airing.
Checking the clock, he figured Campbell’s flight from San Francisco was now landing near Ramses. It had stopped in Athens to pick up additional passengers. According to the buzz on the military base, the plane had successfully negotiated a secret flight experiment on its way to Africa. Campbell would be happy to hear the good news that ICE had finally released Garcia yesterday and even apologized to the scientist for the bungled arrest.
Garcia had called immediately after his release. “My detention was a mix-up; they got the wrong man. Somebody stole my identity, Michael.
“Thank you,” he added, “for everything, Trisha Talwar, the lawyer, and for taking care of George. I’m so glad to hear David recovered my laptop and discs. Now I need to find out about my job.”
“Of course, Manny, we’ll help you and George in any way we can. Don’t worry about legal fees. Also David is transporting all six drives even as we speak.
“Michael,” Garcia warned him before they hung up, “Remember to not mention the king’s project to David. It’s not something he may approve of.”
“I know,” Kochanski said, “If David gets spooked, he might leave, return to Texas and then stew until he decides what to do next. You can do that if you’re wealthy and don’t need to get paid regularly.”
Garcia had renamed the king’s project the Purple project from the Saburian word for porphyry. “Porphyry is too fancy a name, Michael, an antique marble imported from ancient Egypt to build imperial monuments.”
That was two years ago. A few months later, in Chicago, Garcia had told him, “Your king’s idea is becoming real faster than I like. I think this is how Oppenheimer felt about the Manhattan Project. You see, I’m spending time in the Pandolf ART labs, helping them onboard with the Drukker.
“ART is Artificial Reproductive Technology,” Garcia had clarified. “I talked to a professor, Safire, and he gave me ideas to discuss with Soria for their fertility center in India.”
“You mean like test-tube babies?”
“This technology is more advanced.”
“So you think it’s possible — what the king wants?”
“Full disclosure, Michael, human germ-line experiments are prohibited by all the major governments; they can result in criminal prosecution.”
Waving his hands in excitement, Kochanski had rebutted, “No one will care fifty years from now about that. We’ll figure out a way that we can all deny we knew anything. Cancer treatments will become just one thing we do in Saburia.”
Silent, Garcia had stared into the distance.
“Manny, don’t worry,” he had pleaded, “I’m not saying the cancer stuff will be like the storefront while the illegal gambling happens in the back like in Casablanca, the Bogart movie. I mean that the king’s extra funding will also help your cancer research.”
The breeze had come up off Lake Michigan, and there was faint music playing. Kochanski hummed, “As Time Goes By.” He added, “Manny, you learned about America through science, but me, I have learned about my new home from its old movies.
“OK. I know you disapprove of my drinking when we’re discussing important business. I’m happy to be among friends and talking freely.”
A few drinks later, Kochanski had brooded, saying, “Why do so many people worry about cancer? Everyone dies! You know, I sit at these board meetings for Drukker. They get sentimental about selling computers to medical centers, saying ‘we’re practically giving away the product,’ pointing out that the military pays 50 percent more for basically the same machine and internationally the world is queuing up for them— price is no object.
Later he apologized to Garcia. “I’m sorry, Manny. That was the vodka mouthing off. Knowing what happened to your wife, I shouldn’t have said that. This whole Purple business with the king has gone to my head. It’s so much money.”
“Michael I know what my priorities are,” Garcia said. “You’re right. That royal money will help to support my cancer research. I wasn’t offended, just thinking of my trip to the Drukker Dock.
“The kids there love me, and I love them back. On the walls, I saw photos of their factory in China and cheerful tech support in Bangalore — international collaboration.”
Kochanski nodded. “You do look happier than the man I first met when you were working at the NIH.”
“Technology is not just about profit,” Garcia had mused, “because those kids working at the Dock, all that labor has a soul too. Human beings like to think we own this world. We used to believe that the Sun revolved around the Earth too. But human existence revolves around the truth.”
Now two years later, Campbell was bringing the Drukker drives to Saburia. ICE had released Garcia. The king’s military flight experiment had been successful But Kochanski did not feel exhilarated. One of his men had just been murdered in Chicago.
It was no coincidence that ICE had released Garcia around the same time Sanchez’s body was recovered in Chicago. Sanchez had been using Garcia’s stolen identity: fake ID papers that he had made for the migrant by duplicating Garcia’s four years ago.
Since Sanchez himself was undocumented in the US, he often used Garcia’s identity for jobs — legal and illegal —making essential deliveries of messages, cash and goods. A government sting operation for money laundering had accidentally also caught Sanchez in its net, although the young man was not involved. When Sanchez’s body and fabricated ID were recovered, ICE discovered the identity theft and released Garcia.
What happened to my artwork that Sanchez was carrying?
The dead Sanchez always did what he was told while living for free in the Pierre Building and working as one of its security guards. The building superintendent had called him over a week ago with the news of Sanchez’s disappearance. Kochanski’s therapist had coached him on the “7/11 rule” to manage his panic at such times: “Count to seven as you take one deep breath in, and then count to eleven while you exhale. Do it seven to eleven times.”
“So, Oscar did not return to his room last night?” Kochanski repeated the question after only one slow breath in.
“No sign of him, Michael.”
Did he expect to hear a different answer if he asked a second time. Like a child? Magical thinking is a sign of insanity.
He had searched online news sites. God, please tell me what happened?
A few days later, the superintendent called again. Sanchez’s body had been found floating face down in the Chicago River. “I had to go to ID it, just saw the face and clothes, but could tell the body was bloated under the drape.”
“Did it smell horrible?” Kochanski asked.
“That may tell us how long Oscar had been underwater.”
“I was too upset to notice.”
The therapist diagnosed his nausea at such times as a “generalized anxiety disorder” — — F41.0 in her ICD10 medical coding book — and recommended that he see a psychiatrist for medication.
Kochanski had last felt sick like this in Chicago two years ago when meeting with Garcia, he had told the scientist that Soria was interested in his design of an experimental cancer vaccine and would send him actual patient data — de-identified for privacy — to work with.
A silent server poured iced shots of his trademark vodka, Dew. Garcia took one only polite sip and switched to water, asking many questions.
Then nervously, Kochanski had slipped in the king’s request for the Purple project. Garcia became silent and then observed wryly, “You’ve got a rich voice with an Eastern European accent. It’s soothing. Maybe it helps you to coax people into proposals like the king’s. I’ll think about it.”
After the scientist left, Kochanski had a rare steak and chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes. Kochanski had not told the therapist that there was something that already worked for his nausea. Americans had an odd attitude about alcohol, preferring medications instead.
“Heavenly Father, I’ve never done drugs, and I’ll not start now.”
Hammered by the end of that evening, he could only recall vague details of the twilight end of his conversation with Garcia. They had discussed the new Chicago Mob and its resemblance to the old Godfather movie, or was it the Vatican’s connection to the Italian mafia? As fellow Catholics, he showed Garcia pictures of the new chapel in the Pierre Building, named after his mother, its baptismal font and antique crucifix.
Garcia was more interested in the GFCI power outlets.
As a scientist, Garcia said he did not believe in the devil, but for Kochanski, the drinking made him fearful. Braving the Chicago wintry blasts that night — better than the flames of hell — he had walked to the chapel, sat on a pew in the dark and prayed before falling asleep. Dawn would greet him with another punishing hangover when he whipped himself with shame and prayed, “God, I promise never to do this again … not for a while at least.”
But here in the Saburian hospital, there was no chapel, just the Gideon Bible he had stolen years ago. Despite his nausea, he also could not order the steak or start smoking or drinking yet. First, he had to greet Dr. Sheraton, the pediatrician, Campbell, and the rest of the caravan arriving soon from the airport.
For later tonight, Kochanski opened a drawer and checked his supply of cigarettes. Saburia was good. Unlike Chicagoans, the base’s locals and Chinese did not find his smoking bothersome. At the end of today, after everyone was gone, there would be time for that steak cooked rare, its steaming juices dripping, morsels dipped in kosher salt, and for smoking and sipping vodka, slowly escaping, reminiscing about his teen years working for the Butcher back in his small hometown in Poland.
Growing up, he had learned to slaughter animals by day which segued into killing people at night. Few boys were as good as him at disappearing with only a touch of a knife, like a feather to the throat, their best assassin.Back then, as a boy-man, he drew no line between animals and people and took great pride in how fast he worked. Almost painless!
Gangs used cheap boys like him for the task of executing people they did not know for bosses they had never met. A hooded old woman handed out assignments and train tickets at night on a street corner. Tears now came for his childhood and those victims, passengers left behind at his death stations.
Garcia had once said: “Faster than the speed of light, it comes and goes — life’s train on the rails of time.”
The cost of doing business, killing as part of his work became distressing when he grew older. He couldn’t cross the line into torture and terror, disappointing some of his old bosses in Poland. But since he was a talented young man, they gave him other jobs instead. Happy to escape poverty, he now kept a sanitary distance from violence.
Feeling ashamed, fearing being turned in and deported, Kochanski had never told his American therapist about his past. Reading self-help books, he diagnosed himself with “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, F43.12 in the therapist’s ICD10 medical code book — as if a database of numbers could capture the human story.
The crime bosses kept cheap vodka and cigarettes flowing. Even now, drinking and smoking, Kochanski found escape with friendly old ghosts in his Polish gang family. Drugs back then were mostly for sale or for the girls. He was lucky that in his gang at least, Number One drew a line about sordid relationships with boys like him. Snatched for abuse off the streets or even inside places like schools and churches where they were supposed to be safe, other boys that he knew hadn’t been as lucky.
As a boy-man, after a hit, successful or not, he took the train home and escaped to a safe zone away from any hunters. Behind the local bakery, a shop which oozed warmth and delicious smells, two dumpsters exhaled the stench of yesterday’s trash. Skinny enough to hide in the tight space between them where nobody could smell or find him, he retreated for hours in a gloomy daze, smoking and drinking cheap vodka with salt. Hunger drove him to eat the old pastries, bread, and cheese the shop discarded. The gang called him White Rat, running to safe spaces between trash heaps.
Like everyone else in his little, secretive town, where generations grew up connected by the local sense of community, the baker shrugged off outsiders looking for Kochanski. The old man also had a tender spot for his single mother and childhood friend. Kochanski left what he had not eaten for the stray dogs he befriended; they had saved his life once by growling away pursuers.
In his mid-teens, waking up one morning next to the oven in the shop, his mother hovering over him, the baker warned him, “Too drunk to know better, you’re lucky you didn’t freeze to death. Next time, I’m calling the police station.”
“I know you don’t worry about our local police,” his mother had told him when they were alone, “Because your friend, Jakub, is the Chief’s nephew. But someday when you’re running from your own, not just those others in the cities you travel to, you’ll want to find a place to hide that your friends don’t know about. He was warning both of us. When your own people turn on you, there’ll be no mercy, and no one — but me — will try to help you.”
After that, he became more cautious about his drinking and less trustful, even of those he had known all his life. He didn’t go home the nights he drank but would leave his mother some of his money to pay bills. She did not ask him questions and always had a loving blessing and warm meal for him.
Growing up in Poland, no one else cared much about another fatherless boy who roamed the streets while his mother cleaned houses. A charity kid at the town’s Catholic school, he had found a mentor in a physics teacher and planned to become a scientist himself. Kochanski’s science teacher had moved on to a bigger city.
Then the local butcher recruited him for criminal work, a line of business for the paunchy meat-man while his relatives in the police and court looked the other way. A father figure to many of the town’s boys and girls, he rewarded Kochanski, and so he had graduated from the local mafia to a regional gang.
Then also had come love, when he had found Irina, Katya’s sixteen year old Russian mother.
In Russia, Irina had lived with her father in a cluttered apartment after her mother had walked out on them and her father’s drinking. The mother married an American but was unable to extricate her daughter to join her. When she was six years old, her father moved her stepmother into their home.
Irina said she was often late to school as the woman stayed in bed and asked her to do extra chores in the morning. She refused to give her stepdaughter a school excuse, stole her lunch money, and “accidentally” discarded her homework when she was angry. When the baby was born, Irina became the unpaid nanny to her half-brother.
Her voice lowering to a whisper, Irina then described meeting Natasha, a girl her age who lived upstairs and wrote poetry. They shared everything in a secret world where they were two fairytale princesses in a castle turret, high above wild oceans. She said it was just like he made her feel in their warm nights together, winding their languages and bodies together. Twining her fingers with his, she said he made her feel like butterflies were on her eyelashes.
Irina had liked fairytales, proudly telling him that they contained more wisdom than “complicated spiderweb books, except of course, the Russian ones.” Then she narrated stories by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Checkov, names he had not heard before.
“I never really read their books, just the children’s versions,” she said.
Together, the girls had read a hardbound collection of fairy tales from her grandparents, with detailed illustrations painstakingly printed and covered with a protective layer of tissue. Describing the brilliant colors: the blue teal of peacocks, the royal purple on princes, and the soft pastels on the princesses’ faces and hands, Irina told him in broken Polish, “Those are the stories I tell you, Michael, like the Arabian princess, Scheherazade, told her king. But I don’t like foreign stories as much. The Russian ones are from my heart.”
Her stepmother had taught her deception. Afraid her parents may discard her books to make more room in the cramped apartment, she said she hid them away one day. “I told my parents I put this china shepherdess in their place so everyone could see her better, high up where my little brother could not break it. I even cracked it and blamed him, not caring the witch beat me for not watching the boy closely enough.
“He was cute, I used to spoil my little brother,” she added. “But sometimes I shut him up in the apartment to go see Natasha upstairs.”
Those were his tenuous retellings of a distant time when he had teased her about all her “chattering.” With Katya, he once went a London performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherazade.”
“Your mother loved stories too. We had our thousand and one nights.”
“Oh, Dad, I don’t need to know that,” his daughter had said. “Growing up, you told me so many of her stepmother stories. To think that somewhere in Russia, I have an uncle. I wonder what happened to Natasha?”
“Yes, your mom and Natasha were like you,” he said, “fond of poets, especially the young and passionate kind. Does that explain your impractical course of study?”
For his daughter, Kochanski had weaved a web of lies. Katya only knew a sanitized version of her parents’ meeting and relationship. Their daughter would never know the ugly twist in Irina’s life that had ended her childhood.
Irina had told him that she had paid less and less attention to the real world around her and no longer bothered to keep up in school. “Perhaps if I had, I would have thought more about this new man who visited our house. Sasha was handsome, not much older than me, fun, taking me to school, driving me home and stopping for ice-cream. One day he gave me drugged candy, and I fell asleep in his car.”
What had happened next was a truth that he still fought, their shared truth: a drugged, violent world of adult men and women that the young entered before they could grow up.
“My parents sold me, Michael; still, I found you!” she had told him and kissed him. At times he found Irina again in others but would awake the next morning or the next month in blackness, and she was still gone. Their daughter would never know about her mother’s eyes at their first meeting: pupils narrowed from drug use.
Remembering a young man’s pride about Cupid’s first arrow, that no one had ever felt like him before, they fell in love as eons of humanity before him. Lost in green eyes, brown hair soft like the wing of a baby bird, he too whispered mad words of passion.
Nor would he tell Katya how Number Two later related a different story of how the gangs had taken her mother. “There was no stepmother,” Number Two had said. “It was her father only. Even I don’t think I could be as worthless as him.” He knew the crime boss was likely telling the truth as he had laughed about how Irina’s father had sold her for “a TV set and booze.”
Still, Kochanski had questioned Number Two about the stepmother a second time, hoping for a different answer. The man shook his head. Then Kochanski wondered about other things Irina had told him. Were they true? So she became a spirit in a haunted dollhouse: secret rooms, passageways and garden mazes where he could chase her until she disappeared and left him alone.
When Number Two tired of Irina, he gifted her to White Rat, Kochanski’s working name in the gang at that time. It was often so with the prettiest girls. Number One could not resist them and then passed them down to Number Two, saying it boosted morale even if the girls were not as valuable afterward when they were sent south.
“Why should the Arabs get the first taste?” he had growled. Number One hated wide swathes of people: from those who were not white to those who were not Polish.
Tonight he would escape the world again — decades later on the coast of the Red Sea— in an air-conditioned bedroom. After a steak dinner and drinks on the breezy balcony, he would pass out still in his suit and socks on a comfortable bed. His daughter had taken him to a production of Macbeth during his last trip to London. Like that woman, he too could never wipe all that blood off his hands.
A long time ago, soon after her mother’s death, he and Katya had made a trip to a clinic in Warsaw. The good news from the paternity testing — that he was her father — marked the beginning of his belief in science, whereas before he had only believed in God. People were treacherous, except his own mother, whom he then moved to Warsaw with Katya. Well hidden under a new family name, it would be safer for the two there. Remembering Kasia (her Polish name) in her Catholic school uniform, he smiled, As soon as she was nine and old enough, he had moved her to an even safer British boarding school.
The deep web was his only way to safely communicate with Katya, making him jealous of the average parent and child who used normal channels. He called her weekly on hidden Internet connections. But the king’s computer crew and the local Chinese tech support had set him up with a “secure server and private network.” Smiling and joking, spewing technical jargon in a mishmash of languages and wearing blinking name tags, they even came to his Chicago office.
Everything can be bought, even if he was not highly educated like them. The tech support people knew the hidden Internet well and navigated him through the deep web. Criminal elements flourished there, but more critically, Kochanski didn’t want to get caught in the cyber crossfire between legal groups and governments. Sometimes he wondered what the techies said to each other about him.
Proudly claiming that in China, we have “ knowledge of everything wireless, lawful, lawless,” one techie explained that international governments stayed omnipresent incognito, observing and tracking the wild activities of the electronic night without interfering.
Like God. Kochanski thought, looking up at the brilliant Saburian sky. Somewhere up there was a secure satellite where the stars and strangers heard everything he said to Katya, transmitted on coded electromagnetic waves through a wilderness of networks from Saburia to Cambridge, England.
Katya was in school, getting an advanced degree in Russian literature. That she was fluent in English, Russian, and Polish would amaze her mother. “Maybe your mom is looking down on you even now from the heavens.”
From decades ago and thousands of miles away, his memories of his past always fueled this intense need to be alone — for a purging ritual of a drunken feast— but right now he needed to wait. He rang the buzzer.
“Steak, make it rare, for my dinner tonight after everyone leaves,” he said into the speaker. “And the bottle of Loire wine for Dr. Elise Sheraton’s welcome. It needs to be here by 6 PM, on ice…and nice crystal .”
Who killed you Oscar?
It takes a killer to know one. Kochanski tapped his keyboard, searching files, the Internet, and even the deep web. Was Jim Sichet involved? The lawyer’s property management company wanted to take over the Pierre Building. Did Sichet know that the Pierre was in financial trouble?
He needed to return to Chicago but couldn’t, not yet, not until this business in Saburia — the king’s project in particular — was wrapped up.
As for Garcia, Pandolf had found loose cables and tools beneath the lab computer after his ICE detention, as well as large chunks of time where Garcia had run experiments on the Drukker computer with no record of their content.
Sitting on Drukker’s board, he had learned that Drukker had advised Pandolf that they were unable to discover more about Garcia’s hidden activities. Leery about negative publicity, Pandolf then demanded that Drukker upgrade their computers with security fixes and had filed no charges against Garcia.
Eyes returning to the skies outside his office window, Kochanski smiled about Mary, coming to Saburia soon for her cancer treatments. Soria Clinics had intercepted her heartfelt letter of gratitude to Garcia, addressed to a PO Box in New York City. They had removed identifying information and forwarded it to Kochansi, to send to Garcia.
Yes, they had helped Mary to hope, and maybe that was sacred, not profane like this work for the king, or his fight with Jim Sichet, or Oscar’s murder…perhaps even as timeless as his love for Katya.
The phone rang — with a call from Trisha Talwar, his lawyer in Chicago. Was it about ICE?
“Michael, the police here want to talk to you about the Pierre Building security guard’s murder. His ID papers were faked?” She paused. “I think Ben Dodd is interested in this one. I told them you were out of the country, and they said you can call them. Do you want me to sit in on this?” He heard the warning in her voice.
“Thanks, Trisha, yes I need you. Please set up a three-way call in the morning, Chicago time,” he said. “I’ll call the superintendent to check the storage room in the Pierre Building to see if anything’s missing. Sanchez had the keycode, and … I sure hope nothing’s gone. It’s all insured, of course.”
They hung up. Because it was several hundred years old, his antique painting had been stored in a climate-controlled vault in the storage room. They would discover that it was missing, Then he would claim the insurance money sooner than he had planned.
But his art fraud scheme had failed. He had plotted to sell the original on the black market and replace it with a forgery. Then in the future, by claiming that the art had been stolen and a copy had been substituted, he would collect on its insurance policy and be paid a second time for its value.
Oscar Sanchez had been taking the painting at night to Alex Marion, the art forger. Would the artist keep his mouth shut or ruin his painting career? Still, it would be best to collect the half-completed fake and give Marion some cash. Who would do that for him? He was stuck in Saburia. All the king’s men, of course.
Kochanski touched the campus phone and rang up the Main Office.
“I need to speak to Salim,” he said.