Two Texans Talk – Russia

One of our two intrepid friend’s gets to the bottom of the “Russia” scandal.  Well, kind of.

 

–         There he is.  Let me getcha’ a beer.  How was the vacation with the missus?  Where did you get to again?

–         Russia.  The wife has always wanted to go.  And seeing as the Donald has given it his blessing, I thought, what’s the harm?   

–         So, you were in Moscow!

–         Yep, for seven days.  Saw all the sights, too.  Red Square.  Took the wife to the ballet at the Bullshit Theatre one night.

–         You mean the Bolshoi?

–         Whatever.  And saw that dead guy they have laid out in this huge mausoleum.

–         Lenin.

–         Nah, he didn’t look like one of the Beatles . . .  We even toured the Kremlin.

–         Get outta’ here?

–         Sure did.  Though I got lost during the tour looking for a bathroom.  That food over there was something else.

–         What happened?

–         Well, I wandered around for a while and ended up finding a nice little spot to squat.  And right when I was getting comfortable, I overhear two guys chatting in the room next door.  And I think one of ‘em was Putin.

–         He had gas?

–         Nah, the President of Russia.  So, I thought to myself, this’ll make a fine memento, so I started recording them on my phone.  Here, listen.  

***

“Mr. President, we must talk.  The American F.B.I. is on to me.”

“Oleg, Oleg.  Relax.  We knew that they’d eventually find out about your relationship with that greedy bastard Manafort.  Do not worry my friend.”

“But, if they put two and two together . . .”

“And what?  My plan has already exceeded our wildest expectations.  And you know I have some doozies at times.  Can you believe we stole back the Crimea and the rest of Europe did nothing?”

(both men are heard laughing)

“Yes, Mr. President.  That was good one.  And what about Olympics!”

“We don’t speak of that one, Oleg.  Damn drug testing.”

“So, you are not worried, Mr. President?”

“Why should I be?  If we get away with our plan, we make billions when America loosens sanctions.  And if not, we still create havoc in their pretty little democratic system.”

“You aren’t worried about what people will say about you?”

“Me?  Oleg, my friend.  And I call you my friend because I own you and could kill you at any moment.  Nobody like me now.  What have I to lose?”

“And what will become of your secret weapon over there?”

 (grunting and groaning drowns out the voices)

***

–        Jesus!  What’s that noise.  Is he strangling him?

–         Nah, that’s me.  That borscht does a number on your insides.

–         So, what happened after that?

–         The usual.  Though, a word to the wise.  I’ve got to warn ya’, Russian toilet paper is not too gentle on the old private parts.

–         No.  I meant about the rest of the conversation.   

–         Oh.  Battery died on my phone.  The wife left the charger at the hotel.

–         So, we’ll never know who his secret weapon is?

–         I guess not.  But if anyone can figure it out, I’m sure the Donald can.

 

***

http://www.neil-white.com

Turn a Blind Eye

An excerpt from my upcoming novel, Turn a Blind Eye, set partially in Ireland.

 

Dublin, Ireland

September 18, 2014

 

At the corner of Rogers Lane and Baggot Street, just a brisk two-minute walk to the east of St. Stephen’s Green, you would find Toner’s Pub.  The iconic Irish bar had occupied that same corner since first opened by James Toner in 1818.  A sign, hanging on the wood panelling inside the front doors, proclaimed its snug Voted Best in Dublin 2010.  The snug – a quaint Irish tradition – was barely two metres wide and three long and enclosed on three sides by floor to ceiling walls, a solid oak door the only access point.  The fourth side, with a row of head-high windows, provided a limited view out to Baggot Street.  Beneath the windows, a matching set of two small ancient church pews.  For those seeking anonymity from prying eyes, it was the perfect locale.

Inside the snug, Eamonn Mahoney nervously paced the flagstone floor and checked his watch for the tenth time in the past four minutes.  The meeting had been scheduled for four p.m.  It was now ten minute’s past and Stuart Clancy was late.

               –         Typical bloody Clancy.

Eamonn muttered as he paced three steps to the wall before turning and striding three steps back to the door of the snug.  Outside, overhead, dark grey clouds rolled in from the west.  The threat of rain promised a fitting end to another lacklustre Dublin day.  Eamonn paused to sip from his pint of Guinness, carefully placed it back on the beer mat upon the rickety end table and resumed his pacing.

Eamonn Mahoney had better places to be, better things to be doing, than glad-handing a stuck-up politician, especially at such a popular meeting place – discreet snug or no.  He was accustomed to working in the shadows.  Deep behind the scenes.  This locale was far too conspicuous for his tastes.

Now in his late forties, Eamonn was short and wiry with streaks of grey throughout his thick black hair and the coldest of blue eyes.  He was a planner, a schemer and a master surveillance operative for the New IRA.  If you asked his opinion, he’d tell you that the feckless politicians of Sinn Fein, together with the Catholic Church, had sold the IRA down the river in the ‘90s.   Effectively denuding its importance and leaving the true believers as nothing more than a marginalised terrorist group.  Eamonn was still one of those true believers in the cause for complete Irish independence and today’s meeting was all about, he prayed, keeping that cause alive.

Eamonn was about to check his watch for the eleventh time when he heard the snug door open behind him.  The door swung shut and the latch fastened before he had time to turn.  He spun around slowly to face Stuart Clancy.  For the past ten years, Stuart had been a member of the Dail Eireann, the lower house of the Irish government, representing the Sinn Fein party.  Previously, a highly-placed member of the Provisional IRA.

Eamonn gave the politician a once over and was struck by how much he had changed over the years.  Gone was the straight-backed, imposing, military presence he had first been introduced to almost ten years ago, in its place, an extra twenty kilograms hung from his frame that had curved his shoulders with the added burden.  A once thick head of hair had thinned, lost its sheen and had retreated mightily from a pair of thin, grey eyebrows.  His face, florid and bloated, displayed the tell-tale signs of a man who drank too much and had become all too comfortable perched behind a desk.  Only his sparkling green eyes revealed the familiar fire of old.    Clancy’s shirt buttons strained beneath his suit jacket.  He loosened his tie and the top button of his collar with his right hand as he hung his coat in the corner with his left.

               –         Argh ‘tis a pleasure to see you, boyo.  Let me get a good look at you.  You haven’t changed a bit.  How long has it been now?

Clancy shook Eamonn’s hand and slapped him on the shoulder before collapsing onto the leather cushion of one of the two time-worn pews set along the wall.

               –         Must be close to ten years, Stuart.  You look well.

Clancy patted his stomach and smiled.

               –         Don’t bull shit a bull shitter, Eamonn.  I look like shite, and you know it.  This is what eighteen years of being a politician will do to you.  Running the country is thirsty work and builds up quite an appetite.

 Clancy laughed heartily, Eamonn smiled and concluded that becoming a pompous ass must have also been part of the package.

               –         So, tell me why we had to meet here at one of the most famous pubs in Dublin?  Don’t you think we should have been a little more inconspicuous?

               –         Eamonn, Eamonn, relax.  Everyone knows me, correct?

               –         I expect so.

 Eamonn halted his pacing, stared up at the wood-panelled ceiling and blew out a stream of air waiting for Clancy to continue.  Clancy nonchalantly picked a loose threat from his trousers.

               –         My being here is nothing out of the ordinary.  I’m just out visiting with my constituents.  Of which you just happen to be one with whom I’m having a quick private chat.  You’ll leave when we’re done, and I’ll stay and mix with the lads.  In ten minutes, no one will remember that you even existed.  Would you have me slink into a pub known to be frequented by your crowd?  And if I’m recognised there, what then?  Trust me, boyo, this is for the best.

And trust him he did.  A lot could be said about the integrity of Stuart Clancy, the politician, but as a loyalist to the Republican cause, few were his measure.

Eamonn had first worked for Clancy back in 2006.  Clancy had entered politics eight years earlier and, at that time, in conjunction with his Sinn Fein brothers across the border in Northern Ireland, had disavowed all ties with the Provisional IRA.  That was the public, Stuart Clancy.  From the Good Friday peace accords in 1998 to the final disarming of the IRA in 2005, Clancy played the consummate politician role to perfection.  Supporting Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, by denouncing violence and calling for calm.  Clancy had helped to sooth a fractured nation; albeit, though, one that had still not reclaimed the North from the British.  That struggle in Northern Ireland continued but was now fought in the halls of the Dail and parliament, rather than as a guerrilla war on the streets of Belfast and London.  The new weapons of political savvy and back-room deals replacing the guns and bombs of old.

However, Eamonn knew of a different Clancy.

In January 2006, Eamonn, a loyal member of the New IRA – one of the many offshoots of the banned Provisional IRA and dubbed the Real IRA by the press – was summoned to meet with Clancy.  He could still clearly recall that meeting, even the exact conversation, with a younger, leaner, Clancy.

It took place on a farm outside of Donegal.

***

The 250-kilometre drive to the Stag’s Head pub in Donegal from Dublin took him almost four hours.  He could have taken a faster route but wanted to avoid crossing the border into Northern Ireland.  With the British manning the border, Eamonn considered it enemy territory, so best to keep off of their radar unless absolutely necessary.

He found the pub on the Main Street without any problem, then settled in at the bar and waited for his contact to arrive.  He was halfway through his third pint of Guinness, wondering when the contact was going to show when a young lass with fiery red hair tied back in a ponytail sidled up next to him at the bar.  She ordered a pint of Harp from the bartender, tossed a few coins in his direction, then turned to face Eamonn.

               –         So, what might your name be then?

Twenty minutes later Eamonn was contemplating ditching the meeting and heading off with the redhead named Moira when he finally twigged that this was the contact.  Arm in arm, they left the bar together and made their way to Moira’s car. Their destination was a farm house ten kilometres north of town.  For anyone bothering to pay attention, it appeared that a tourist had just struck it rich with one of the local lasses.

Once in the car, Moira was all business, no more small talk, a Clannad CD playing softly on the car stereo the only sound.  Dotting the countryside was the occasional hawthorn tree, windswept and gnarled from the harsh North Atlantic winds.  Lulled by the soft mystical tunes, he watched the verdant, yet barren, fields roll by endlessly.  Eamonn mused that the setting perfectly highlighted why his people were so adept at writing music more suitable for crying along with than for singing.

After aimlessly traversing the country roads for the better part of thirty minutes, Moira abruptly turned left through a set of ancient stone gate posts jogging Eamonn from his torpor.  They bumped along the lane for a further kilometre, winding left then right, before the rocky path ended at the steps of an old farm house.  Moira pointed Eamonn in the direction of a barn fifty metres away, before disappearing inside the farmhouse.

The old wooden structure, with a corrugated iron roof, nestled up against the tree line that bordered the western edge of the property.  If Eamonn had to guess, he would have thought it last received a splash of paint while de Valera was alive.  In the diffused light of the barn Eamonn could faintly make out three cows feeding on a bale of hay, a gaggle of hens pecked seed from the ground at his feet.  And in the far corner, standing to attention, three men.

               –         Eamonn Mahoney.

A statement, not a question.

               –         Yes, Sir.

               –         You come highly recommended.

               –         Thank you, Sir.  I try my best for the cause.

               –         We have a small job for you that I believe will put your talents to best use.

Eamonn was a tactical expert.  Although slightly built and ill at ease with physical confrontations, he still had his uses.  His speciality?  Researching and planning operations down to the minutest of details.

The man in the middle, the tallest of the three, walked towards him and handed him a buff legal-sized envelope.  From the closer distance, the man’s face was now visible.

               –         Do you know who I am?

 Eamonn held his breath to steel his nerves.  He surmised, who wouldn’t?

Stuart Clancy had been a legend in the IRA, but had since gone into politics and, if you believed the rumours, had abandoned the cause.

               –         Yes, sir.

               –         So, what are you thinking?

How best to answer, ruminated Eamonn.  He was led to believe this was a job to do with the cause.  Was he being set up?  If so, then it was already too late.  He swallowed and took several deep breaths to both buy some time and to bring his breathing under control.  He decided honesty the best policy.  His priest would be proud.  He hoped the faint praise wouldn’t be delivered posthumously.

               –         I understood that I was here to do a job for the cause.  If not, I’ll be on my way.

Clancy let out a booming laugh.

               –         Be on your way, boyo?  Shall I call you a taxi?  Spot you the fare?  I don’t think so. 

The smile disappeared in an instant.

               –         Open the envelope.

Eamonn slid a fingernail under the flap of the envelope and withdrew a photo.

               –         So, you know who I am.  Do you also know who that fine fellow is?

The face that stared back at Eamonn was instantly recognisable.  Middle-aged, balding, wire-rimmed glasses that framed a gentle face.  It could have been a photo of any village’s local priest.  But you’d also have to have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, especially in this small corner of the world, to not recognise the face of Denis Donaldson.

Donaldson had been an IRA volunteer since the 1960s, later becoming a senior member of their political wing, Sinn Fein.  In the 1990s he was Gerry Adam’s right-hand man and ran Sinn Fein’s efforts in soliciting political and financial support in New York.

And, just recently discovered, had for the past twenty years been a spy for MI5 – British Intelligence.

               –         I see by your reaction you recognise the traitor, Donaldson.  And by letting you see my face you know how serious this is, and the consequences if you should fail.

Clancy’s brush strokes were more those of a slap-dash house painter than a French impressionist, but the resulting picture was still crystal clear.  Clancy’s role in the cause was as strong as ever; an assignment was being presented to Eamonn and failure was not an option.

               –         We know Donaldson is hiding out up here in the north . . . somewhere.  Maybe over the border.  Maybe not.  Exactly where is for you to find out for us, then you will devise a plan to ensure he can be quietly eliminated.

               –         Why me?  Don’t you have operatives up here that could do it for you?

Clancy paused, hands behind his back.  He turned and took a few paces towards the cows that were still feeding at the back of the barn.

               –         Are you familiar with the term blowback, boyo?

Clancy turned to face Eamonn, his green eyes boring into Eamonns.  He searched for the slightest hint of fear, the most minuscule sign that Eamonn doubted his abilities.  Eamonn held his gaze, then answered.

               –         Aye, Sir.  Unintended consequences of an action that can compromise another party.

               –         Close enough. 

Clancy broke eye-contact and continued his pacing.  The hens at his feet momentarily interrupted from their own search mission.

               –         We can’t afford any blowback on this one.  We can’t run the risk of someone known to be a sympathiser by the locals caught nosing around.  You’re from Dublin, no one knows you up here.  Hell, no one knows you in Dublin. 

Eamonn was already putting together the brief outline of a plan in his mind as Moira drove him back to his car waiting in Donegal.

Because of the press coverage his story had received Donaldson was too well known to hide out in plain view, at least in a town of any consequence.  Therefore, Eamonn surmised, he would need to be tucked away somewhere very isolated.  Isolation meant he would require assistance with even the most basic of necessities, and all in a home not listed in his name.  Who best for that?  For a man abandoned?  Eamonn intuited, only family would be able, and presumably willing, to answer Donaldson’s last prayer.

An internet search of Donaldson’s extended family and property holdings uncovered nothing until, by chance, Eamonn hit on a lead.  A newspaper article written long ago about Donaldson and his family spoke of a vague family connection to a small village north of Glenties where the extended family had vacationed, albeit infrequently.

It took Eamonn the better part of another month to pinpoint a small farmhouse eight kilometres outside of Glenties and then positively identify Donaldson.  The hideout was more a shack than a farmhouse, with no running water or electricity.  In fact, as it was so isolated, planning the remainder of the operation proved to be a breeze.  He passed on the intelligence he’d gathered, along with the plan he’d devised, to Clancy’s people and waited for their response.  A week later he got his reply.

The operation was scheduled for the nineteenth of March before being abruptly aborted at the last moment.  Just as the team were performing their final scouting of the shack, Donaldson received an unexpected visitor.  And, as it turned out, not just any visitor but a member of the press.  Donaldson had been outed.  The ensuing discussions that took place back in Dublin to determine all potential risks stretched on interminably.

It was a further sixteen days before further intel had Clancy convinced that the reporter’s investigation had no links whatsoever to Eamonn’s surveillance, and thereby, Clancy’s involvement.  On the fourth of April, with the threat of blowback averted, Donaldson was summarily executed for his betrayal.  In the subsequent investigation by the Gardaí; no proof of IRA involvement surfaced only rumours, and Eamonn had made his mark with the powers that be.

A further three years were allowed to pass before the Real IRA found it politically expedient to claim responsibility for the killing.  The killers of Denis Donaldson forever to remain free.  The trail long since had gone stone cold.

And there was to be no blowback.

***

               –         So, Eamonn, after all these years you’re probably wondering why I’ve asked you here. 

Eamonn turned to face the corpulent politician.

               –         I hope it’s for a job?  You’ve not found a use for me in over five years.  Not since the O’Donovan surveillance.

Seamus O’Donovan had been a low-level IRA operative whose drinking had gotten out control and his loose talk had come to threaten the security of their smuggling operations in the north.  Eamonn had been dispatched, north to Sligo, to assess the situation.  Over the course of four days and countless pints at the Embassy Hotel, Eamonn gained O’Donovan’s trust sufficiently to set the man to talking.   It was worse than they had feared, O’Donovan was expecting to come into a sum of money in the not-too-distant future.  Unfortunately for O’Donovan, he’d not live to see that future.

His body was found floating in the Garavogue River the morning after a heavier than usual session at the pub.  Locals bemoaned the fact that he wasn’t the first drunk to lose his balance and fall from the footbridge that crossed the fast-flowing river, and certainly wouldn’t be the last.  Though Eamonn suspected he was one of the few that got a tiny helping hand.  Well, actually four hands.  Eamonn was amazed how quickly and efficiently the two men sent to help tie-up the loose ends went about their work.

Upon receiving the news of O’Donovan’s death, the Gardaí hastily moved up the planned raid on a certain dockside warehouse.  They were unsurprised to find it totally cleaned out.

               –         I joined the cause to be of service, not twiddle my thumbs eking out a living working for crap wages as a telecom flunky.  And last time I checked, the British were still in Northern Ireland.

A trickle of sweat worked its way down his back.  Eamonn grabbed his glass from the table and downed the remainder of his Guinness.  It had gotten warm in the cramped space of the snug.  The fug of body odour rose from his clothes to mix with the scent of stale beer and wood varnish.

               –         Settle down, would you?  No need to get worked up so.  We are on track to regain what is rightfully ours, but in today’s world we must show patience.

               –         Patience?  How long until the Catholics are a majority in the north?  And by then will they remember our struggles when it comes time to vote?  Or will they see their future as one with the loyalists? 

               –         You make a good argument, Eamonn.  Perhaps a life in politics was your true calling.

He found it hard not to show his contempt for the once great man that had gone to seed.  Eamonn jammed his hands deep attempting to control his anger.

               –         Relax, boyo.  You know I feel the same way, times are changing, but some things never change.  We have to keep our message strong and consistent with our brothers in the north so that the wee ones don’t forget their heritage.  And you know what that takes.

Eamonn certainly did.  In politics, it all came down to one thing.  Money.  And if you had enough you could control the narrative.  Money equated to power.  The power to seduce the press which, ultimately, shaped people’s opinions.  To bankroll campaigns.  To influence elections.

               –         Our fundraising efforts over the past few years have, shall we say, been less than satisfactory.  And with elections coming up . . .

Clancy sighed, thinking, weren’t they always?

               –         . . . We need a significant cash infusion.  Am I making myself clear?

The gears were spinning in Eamonn’s head.

               –         Ah, I see I’ve gotten your creative juices flowing.  How about I give you a little time to think things over, just like you did in the old days. 

Clancy stood and grabbed his coat off of the hook.  He unlocked the door of the snug, and as he reached for the door handle, he turned back to Eamonn.

               –         A couple of final items, Eamonn.  Let’s meet here again in two weeks, shall we?  Same time.  Be sure to lock the door behind me.  Then give it fifteen minutes before you leave the snug if you’d be so kind, that’ll give me time to get downstairs to meet with a few old friends.  Oh, and just like the old days . . . No blowback, boyo.

He held Eamonn’s gaze to ensure he’d gotten the message.

               –           Anything else you need?

Eamonn turned and stared out the window deep in thought.  The height of the window obscured his view of the folks passing on the street, just the tops of the buildings across the road and the slate grey sky above were visible.  A light rain had begun to fall.

               –          As a matter of fact, yes.  Do you have the name of a good priest?         

***

http://www.neil-white.com

 

 

 

Two Texans Talk – Bathrooms

Our two intrepid friends discuss Texas’ hotly debated bathroom ordinance.

Mar 8, 2016

 

          Sit down and drink ya’ beer.  And why are ‘ya dancing around like that?  You look like a squirrel ran up ‘ya pant leg. 

          I’ve gotta go to the bathroom, but I was just watchin’ the news, and it confused me about which one I should use.

          What’s so confusin’?  You’re a man ain’t ‘ya?

          Sure, but they were interviewing this guy on the news.  And he was sayin’ his rights will be violated if the gov’ment passes this new law making him use the ladies.

          Was he one of them transgenders?

          Nah, he sounded American.

          I mean, was he a woman who’s now a man?

          Don’t know.  Is that a thing now, is it?

          Sure, some folks don’t like what they were born, so they change.

          Like in that movie with Robin Williams?  Mrs. Something-or-other.

          Sort of, but the law is to protect the kiddies.

          From Robin Williams?  I don’t think he’s a threat; God rest his soul.

          No.  From the child molesters.  Aint no tellin’ what could happen in there.

          You know, the other night my wife had the same idea.  We’d had one of them spicy Indian dishes, and it did a number on me.  Wanted to put a protective concrete dome over the bathroom, she did, like they installed at Chernobyl.  Said it was to protect our kids. 

          You can’t be too careful.

          Are these transistors known for that sort of thing?  I mean molesting little ones, not dodgy number two’s.

          Nary a one that I know of, but I’m glad our State politicians are thinkin’ ahead.

          So, let me see if I’ve got this right.  A girl decides to change teams and starts livin’ as a guy.  Gets an equipment change – so to speak – and dresses every day as a man.

          Yep.  And vice versa.

          But our politicians want her – him – to go to the ladies, even though she’s – he’s – now dressing every day in men’s clothing.

          You got it. 

          And that’s to protect the kids?

          You’ve got a wonderful grasp on this situation.

          If you say so.  . . . Hey, speaking of the little ones, did you see there was a shooting outside an elementary school today?  None of the kiddies was hurt, thank God.

          Yeah, lucky that.  But, what can you do . . .?       

***

http://www.neil-white.com

 

 

5-Star Book Reviews

A collection of 5-star reviews that I’ve written for the folks at Readers’ Favorite and that I highly recommend:

***

Fenian’s Trace – Sean P Mahoney

Fenian’s Trace by Sean P Mahoney is the story of two young boys, Rory and Conor, and their journey into adulthood told through the exquisite voice of the local publican, Mr. Clancy. The early 20th century was a tumultuous period in the long and often sad history of Ireland. And as the boys come of age in the embryonic days of Irish Independence, their hopes and desires for a better tomorrow begin to take ever more divergent paths – as had their families before them. Throughout all of the tumult and the heartrending conclusion, the love shared between the two brothers endures.

I began Sean P Mahoney’s excellent novel, Fenian’s Trace, on a warm Texas afternoon. Within the first thirty pages, I’d lost all track of time. The late afternoon sun was lost to a steel-grey sky that hung heavy with the threat of rain, the smell of smoke wafting from a turf fire in the hearth filled the air. I’d been transported to a rundown farmhouse in County Clare in the early 20th century without having left the comfort of my couch. There truly is something both lyrical and magical in the way an Irishman can spin a yarn. Sean P Mahoney has that gift in spades.

Mahoney’s writing evokes the works of Sebastian Barry – in particular, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty – and, in a lyrical sense, William Trevor. Sean P Mahoney can claim his place at the bar between these two Irish masters and proudly hold his jar of Guinness aloft – for just the one, mind you.

http://www.fenianstrace.com/

***

The Great War – Dawn Knox

The Great War by Dawn Knox is an ambitious undertaking that recounts 100 stories, each told in exactly 100 words, on the 100th anniversary of WWI. At precisely 10,000 words, the book is a quick read, but the scenes that Ms. Knox’s sparse, yet vividly compelling prose evokes will resonate and remain with the reader for far longer. Aiding this imagery is the spacing of the stories; one brief story per page, giving the reader time to reflect before continuing. In fact, The Great War reads more like a book of poetry; if one would ever deign to call trench warfare poetic.

The stories themselves run the gamut of emotions; thoughts of home, thoughts of family members missing loved ones, comradeship on the front lines, the living hell of the trenches, to thoughts on God and the utter futility of their undertaking. And all recounted from the perspective of the English, French and German combatants, whom we learn have much in common.

One short passage sticks with me that perfectly encapsulated the war’s senselessness. Summing up a collective mindset of the combatants at the outset: A way to see the world, a lark, and a war that would soon be over. Only to quickly realize the utter desperation and hopelessness of their situation – if they lived.

“One man arrives in the trenches. He is young, strong and eager to engage in battle. He is warned to keep his head down but it is easy to forget this order when you’re young, strong and eager to engage in battle. Within minutes, the young soldier is dead. Another man arrives, keen to make his mark.”

Ms. Knox has produced a powerful piece of work to starkly remind us that our history should never be forgotten.

http://dawnknox.com/

***

Guy’s Odyssey – Seth Bleuer

Guy’s Odyssey by Seth Bleuer is the haunting tale of an Iraqi War veteran that suffers a traumatic head injury in battle. Alternating between the cold of an Iowan winter, to the searing heat of the Iraqi desert, Mr. Bleuer recounts Guy’s past life experiences, and what has brought him, seemingly, to the edge of insanity.

As Guy continues to self-medicate to an ever-greater degree, his perception of time jumps from one period to another and has him wondering if he has truly found a tear in the time-space continuum, or is he just losing his mind. With this reality warp slowly tearing him apart, he leans ever more on a mysterious journal that he hopes will help solve the puzzle. Part of this time-jump process involves the swirling sands of the in-between. Through these tumultuous scenes, we learn of the painful parting with his childhood sweetheart, the loss of comrades on the field of battle, and, perhaps, the tipping point where he loses his best friend. Will Guy discover the secret to the disappearing sands before his time runs out? Is his destiny already written? Or can an acquaintance from his past provide hope?

Seth Bleuer writes with an urgency and realness that only someone who has endured the living hell of the battlefield could ever hope to capture. Guy’s Odyssey speaks of the utter despair of the modern soldier fighting a war they struggle to comprehend, and of a more intimate inner war that each soldier must fight upon their return. Guy’s Odyssey is a chilling and captivating novel that I highly recommend.

https://sethbleuer.wordpress.com/

***

Buckland Gap – Charles Stanley Wiltshire

Buckland Gap is the debut novel from Charles Stanley Wiltshire and is as gritty and hard-nosed a portrayal of a city’s filthy underbelly as you are ever likely to read. Buckland Gap tells the story of David, a twenty-something thug that lives for nothing more than lager, cigarettes, sex and violence. His lifestyle is funded by unemployment checks and supplemented with random muggings. And as his travails descend into even more despicable acts, his life slowly but surely spirals out of control.

Mr. Wiltshire’s novel is set in the English seaside city of Portsmouth; specifically, the Buckland housing estate. And if his depiction of the city is even half way accurate, it will have the city elders cringing with embarrassment and their Office of Tourism shutting their doors. Reading Buckland Gap brought to mind the excellent novel by Kevin Barry, City of Bohane. But, whereas Barry’s Bohane was of a fictional Irish city set in the future, Mr. Wiltshire’s Buckland appears all too real.

Mr. Wiltshire has created a novel of characters you will feel no empathy for; an entire community that believes the rest of the world owes them something, and one in which not one person will ever take responsibility for their actions. For example, “David grinned at this, Kat was right. This country needed hardworking people who paid taxes so that geezers like him did not have to work.” – p.224.

You will pray it is not a true reflection of today’s world, but will find many striking examples of a path we have already begun to slide down. You’ll also feel like taking a cleansing shower after turning the last page, but will soon be eagerly anticipating Mr. Wiltshire’s next effort.

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http://www.neil-white.com

Two Texans Talk – Australia

Feb 3, 2016

          Did ‘ya hear what my man Trump did?

          He’s finished the wall already?

          Nah, not yet.  He told that Australian Prime Minister how the cow ate the cabbage, then hung up on him, he did.

          Did he now?  Good for the Donald.  Never did trust them Australians after they sprung old Hitler on us.

          I think he was Austrian.

          And that Arnold What’s-his-name.  Utterly useless on Celebrity Apprentice.

          Well, he is following the Donald.  What do you expect? 

          So, what happened?

          It seems the Australians want to send us a few of their refugees.

          They what?  But, I heard it was a lovely place down there!

          Nah, not their people, the one’s they can’t take in.  Seems they’ve hit their limit.  You know, like deer huntin’ season.

          Have they thought about building a wall?  You’d think those Alps would stop most of ‘em.

          Again, I think that’s Austria.  Remember?  The Sound of Music.  Julie Andrews.

          Now I know she’s Australian.

          You might be right, there.  But I think the Donald, the true humanitarian he is, will probably help them out.

          Well, good for him.  They have been solid allies over the years, haven’t they?

          Sure.  They’ve fought beside us in every war since WWI.  Hell, they even started fightin’ with us in WWII before Pearl Harbor.

          WWII started before Pearl Harbor?

          They even let us test nukes down there in that outback they’ve got.

          Really?  That would explain those enormous rabbits they have. 

          You mean kangaroos?

          Maybe.  So, who is the Prime Minister of Australia anyway?    

          Think it’s Crocodile Dundee.

          Good for him.  Smart move to make a career change after Crocodile Dundee 2.  What was that line he was famous for?  “That’s not a knife?  This is a knife!”  And he pulls out that huge monster.  Classic!  

          Yeah, that’s what got Donald crossways.  Donald was explainin’ how big his election win was, and ol’ Croc Dundee cracks a joke that his (win) was bigger.  Apparently, Donald doesn’t take too well to size jokes.   

          Can’t blame him there.  Say, if they start sendin’ us refugees, think they’ll send Nicole Kidman to Texas? 

          We can only hope.  

 

***

http://www.neil-white.com

Two Texans Talk – Mexico

Jan 27, 2016

          Seen what my man Trump is up to?

          Bombed CNN? 

          No, no.  With Mexico.

          He didn’t bomb Mexico, did he?

          Pay attention, would ‘ya.  He’s makin’ them pay for the wall by taxin’ the frijoles out of ‘em.

          Really?  Probably cheaper that way.  I hear nukes are expensive.  He’s a smart man that Donald.  So, what’s the plan?

          20% tax on all their products they send here.  See how they like that!

          Huh?  But, aren’t we the ones who buy their stuff?

          Yeah, but we’ll get it back somehow, later.  Trust in Donald; he’s got it all figured out.

          So, my Corona will cost 20% more?

          Think of it as your patriotic duty.

          Can’t I be patriotic drinking Lone Star?

          Sure, that too.  Either way we stick it to ‘em.  See how they like it when we stop buying their stuff.  They either pay . . .

          We.  We pay.

          . . . Whatever, someone either pays, or we stop buyin’ their stuff and ruin their economy.  And that’s why I voted for a business genius.

          I never did understand why they all wanted to come here.

          For a better life, I guess.  Ever been to Juarez?  The poverty . . . it’s heartbreaking.   

          No, but I once spent a weekend in Amarillo.

          Close enough.

          But if we ruin their economy . . . Won’t poverty . . . Won’t more of them want to head north?

          Don’t worry about it, we’ll have the wall by then.         

          And how big and deep did you say this wall was gonna be?

          Not sure, yet.  Can I getcha another Corona? 

          Sure.  And more guacamole, too.  I feel time runnin’ out.    

          So why you askin’ about the size of the wall?

          Just wonderin’.  ‘Cos, you know Mexico makes some pretty fine ladders and shovels.

          And that’s why the Donald wants to add more border guards.

          But . . .

***

http://www.neil-white.com

Better Days

 

An overly-plump grey pigeon with white breast feathers in the shape of a heart waddled through the flock.  He rocked back and forth in his approach as if nursing two arthritic hips.  I assumed him the male of the species based on the way he bustled through his brethren.  He was a good pound or two heavier than those pecking away busily to each side.  Stout like an old soldier, he scattered the meeker of his species aside, leaving them to cower in his wake.  He stopped a foot from my feet and looked up at me with disdain.  Up close, his feathers displayed the ravages of time, years spent living rough.  Though, his beady eyes were sharp and penetrating, the look of an alpha male and accustomed to getting his way.  I decided to name him Frank, after my father.  True, Frank, my father, was much more fastidious about his appearance, but the eyes had the same hard, cold, stare.  The human Frank’s laser-focused glare made those caught in its tractor beam immediately question their worth without a word spoken.

Frank the pigeon’s look had the same effect.  I tossed him a good measure of flatbread from the paper bag by my side and hoped he was satiated.  Frank shuffled off with the flatbread clenched tightly in his beak, the crowd again parting before him.  If only it were that simple to make Frank, my father, happy.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not some bum that’s never held down a decent job.  I’m a well-respected foreign correspondent, I’ve travelled the globe for the past ten years reporting from the world’s hotspots.  Granted, the imminent death of the printed newspaper was staring each of us in the profession squarely in the eyes; the work more freelance than it was in years past.  But, robust reporting and the nerve to boldly go, etcetera, etcetera . . .  Meaning, I eked out a living, albeit, ten thousand miles removed from Frank and his condescending stare.

My name is Matt Latham, the only child of Frank Latham.  Excuse me – Sir Frank Latham.  My mother, Dawn, died giving birth to yours truly thirty-four years and four months previous, come next month.  And Father has never let me live that down.  Frank spent the better part of fifty years of his life wooing and placating world leaders as Australia’s representative within the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade.  Although, his successes as a trade representative, then later as Ambassador, never did translate well to the home-front.  Frank, managing each evening to deposit his diplomacy skills at the front door along with his hat, coat and umbrella.  Later, with a scotch or three under his belt, he was happy to tell all and sundry that the worst trade deal he ever made was exchanging the love of his life for a little bundle of disappointment at the Harare Central Hospital.

I closed my eyes, leaned back against the hard wooden bench and allowed the warmth of the sun’s rays to wash away the negative thoughts of yesteryear.  The drive this morning from Thessaloniki to Skopje, the Republic of Macedonia’s capital, took three hours.  I’d arrived in time for an early lunch of Burek, a local meat and pastry dish, and a couple of Zlaten Dab beers.  Dappled sunlight filtered through the limbs of the plane tree overhead.  The combined effects of the travel, food and drink weighed heavily on my eyelids.  The bench I’d chosen in the Parc de la Francophile faced the Vardar River which meandered by sluggishly under the late summer sun.  To my left, a gaggle of young women chatted amicably while their flock ran amok in the park’s playground.  To my right, nestled amongst the trees, lay a squat seven-building complex owned by the Macedonian Government.

My contact had chosen this park for our meet.  She’d mentioned it in passing during one of our conversations.  The harried call to my cell number came yesterday and caught me by surprise in my hotel room in Thessaloniki.

          – Can you meet me tomorrow?  I’ll be in Skopje.

          – Sure.  Where?  What time?

          – One in the afternoon.  By the river, that park I told you about. 

Besijana Shala worked within a trade delegation for the Republic of Kosovo.  Her group arrived from the Kosovan capital, Pristina, that morning and were heading back tomorrow.  Their itinerary strictly controlled by the Macedonian government.  On the surface, the two countries maintained a friendly diplomatic relationship.  However, this is the Balkans, and the depth of trust between Nations is as shallow as the graves that litter the mountainsides in this part of the world.

On the drive, north, along the winding E75 motorway I wondered of the urgent request to meet, and what the information Besijana wished to share may contain.  With regards to Kosovo, the possibilities were boundless.  Belgrade had begun sabre rattling once again with regards to the treatment of Kosovan Serbs in the north of the country.  The central government, ruled by the Kosovan Albanian majority, called the protestations baseless and a smokescreen to incite unrest.  While the Kosovan jihadists, a law unto themselves, went on their merry way plotting terrorist attacks throughout the region.  The Macedonian government was taking no chances, hence the tight security for the delegation’s visit.

The fluttering of wings awakened me from my early-afternoon stupor.  Besijana had taken a seat at the far end of the bench; she had half turned her back to me and began feeding the pigeons crumbs from a small brown bag.  A light blue silk scarf loosely covered her long dark hair.  Imitation designer sunglasses hid her dark brown, almond-shaped eyes.  Her charcoal grey pantsuit, made from a cheap synthetic material, outlined her curves to perfection.  Low-heeled black pumps completed the ensemble.  I noticed the fire-engine red lipstick that accentuated her soft mouth the moment she turned slightly in my direction to speak.

          – I can only stay five minutes.  I had to beg to be allowed outside for a moment after lunch to enjoy the sun.

          – What’s so important?  

          – A member of our delegation is working with the jihadists.

          – And?

          – They want the Serbs out of our country.  That is a war we know we cannot win.    

          – What are they planning?

          – Our delegation is scheduled to attend a conference in Croatia at the end of the month.  Representatives from Serbia will also be present. 

A terror attack on a Serbian delegation; wars had begun over less.

          – How did you learn of this?  And what do you propose I do with the information?

          – I’m sleeping with him.  I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings.  And please, Matt.  You’ve always asked too many questions to just be a reporter; I believe you can get in contact with the people that can stop this madness.

The first comment hurt more than I thought.  Granted, we had only slept together the once, but even I still had a little pride.  And the second comment was just a little too pointed for my liking.  It made me wonder who exactly was in charge of this situation.

Growing up in consuls and embassies around the globe, and with a distant Father, leads a child to find his friendships anywhere he can.  It’s no secret, though they’d like to think it is, that each nation’s security services make up a good proportion of embassy staff.  Australia is no different.  Over the years, agents of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) became mentors and some of my closest friends.  And although after University I opted not to join the spooks on a full-time basis, I wasn’t averse to pushing a little information in their direction when the opportunity arose.  For which I received a small stipend each month discreetly deposited into my bank account that certainly came in handy.

Besijana stood, balled up the brown bag of crumbs and dropped it in the trash can beside the bench.  The growing flock of pigeons collectively sighed, then turned away in disgust.

          – Retrieve the bag once the coast is clear.

And before I could say another word she was gone.  I watched her retreat towards the government office complex with rapt attention.  The sway of her hips transported me back to a night in Zagreb three months earlier.  It was a far more carefree Besijana I encountered on that occasion.  A Web-based trade publication headquartered in Berlin had contracted me to do a series of articles on the health of the various Balkan state economies.  Six interviews spread over three days talking economics with the best and dullest each country offered up had me looking for a short pier on which to take a long walk.  Then I met Besijana.  My interview with her stretched on into dinner, which necessitated the need for several bottles of white wine, which later led to shots of Rakia at the hotel bar.  Needless to say, I was truly able to make the fledgling Kosovan economy come alive for the readers.

Besijana had all but disappeared from my sight along the shaded path when she was met by two large security types wearing dark suits, white shirts and ties.  The gorilla on the right took her by the arm and continued with her along the path; the other stared in my direction.  I returned my attention to the flock of pigeons at my feet and resumed feeding Frank and his friends.  From the corner of my eye, I watched gorilla number two turn, then look back over his shoulder.  He made his best impression of Lot’s wife staring back at Sodom, standing frozen like a statue for almost twenty seconds, before breaking the spell and lumbering away.

I took that as my cue to leave.  Lowering the small bag that had made Frank my best friend into the trash can, I spotted Besijana’s balled-up brown bag and quickly palmed it before taking the path that led to the river.

The hotel where I was staying was on the north side of the Vardar close by the 12th-century bazaar.  I crossed the pedestrian bridge over the river, removed the thumb drive from the paper sack along the way, and dropped it into the front pocket of my pants.  The streets were near empty in the early afternoon, with most of the shops that I passed closed.  Time moved at a different pace in this corner of the world.  Store hours were more a guideline and not to be taken too literally.  Closing for lunch was expected; returning afterwards not always a given.

My assignment in Athens; two thousand words on the Greek economy a year removed from their near financial collapse, had been spit-polished and filed earlier in the week.  Unsurprisingly, I found little had changed.  The nation that had given birth to democracy over twenty-six hundred years previous was still resting on those laurels.  The Greeks surmising that if that little nugget of knowledge offered up to civilization didn’t earn you at least three millennia of kicking back with your feet up, what did?  I’d agonized over how to break it to the hard-working German readers, for whom the article was intended, that their euros were funding an economy that still paid workers an additional stipend just for showing up to work on time.  The three-day side-trip to Thessaloniki to produce a short travel piece was my reward for a job well done, and an extra few days in the sun, before returning to the hustle and bustle of chilly old London.

I’d called London home for the past two years.  The perfect city to lose one’s self; where little was expected from a mid-thirties transplant from the colonies.  And half a world away from a Father that I’d given up on trying to please, an ex-wife whom I’d never been able to please, and my ten-year-old son.  A son, Trevor, whose memories of his Father were stripped away piece by piece each and every day.  The constant drip-drip-drip of derision and spite from his Mother eroding the fragile familial bond between us.  The day would come when I’d be able to explain myself to him; explain why I could eloquently type a thousand words on any topic at the drop of a hat, but whose throat constricted and the words became a jumbled mess when trying to explain love and loss and betrayal.  But it still wouldn’t be any day soon.

I had no idea what the thumb drive contained that sat comfortably in my left-front pocket, but my reporter’s curiosity was getting the better of me.  I also needed an expert that would best know what to do with the information.  A scoop was one thing, but an exclusive that came dripping in the blood of innocent lives was one I could gladly pass on, thank you very much.

Reaching into my back pocket, I pulled out my mobile and scrolled through the contact listing until I found the number for which I was searching.  The ringing of the phone on the desk of Ryan Purcell at the Australian High Commission in London reverberated back to me over the airwaves a moment later.

          – Ryan Purcell.  How may I help you?

          – Ryan, it’s Matt.

          – Matt, ya’ old bastard.  What are you up to? 

Ryan, is technically what you would call my handler.  I hated the term because I still didn’t think of myself as an agent.  And forget any thought about adding in the word “secret.”  Daring-do was never going to be part of my calling card, at least, not if I could help it.  He was an old friend from our days together at Melbourne University, that just happened to be recruited by ASIS after graduation.  Also, a good man to have a drink with and someone I trusted in turning over information that I uncovered in the course of my travels.

I knew that all calls were recorded as a matter of course, and possibly also by MI5, British Intelligence – if not others – so I kept the conversation short and cryptic.

          – I’m in Skopje doing a little sightseeing and picked up a small gift for your birthday. 

Luckily, it was his birthday next week, so the conversation would pass muster if anyone decided to check.

          – They tell me the Macedonian mail service is a little sketchy and I want to make sure you receive it on time.  Can I pass it along to someone here at the Consulate?

As this would make the first gift I’d ever bought for him, I felt confident that he’d gotten the gist of my call.

         – Sure.  Let me make a call and . . . some . . . loc . . . pos.

Ryan’s voice was cutting out.  I checked my phone and noticed the signal icon registering just one bar.  I crossed the road hoping to improve the reception, assuming the massive stone walls that surrounded the 10th-Century citadel I was walking in the shadow of had something to do with it.  As I glanced to the left and right watching for traffic, I observed one of the Kosovan gorillas two hundred yards further down the road with a phone to his ear.

I turned away but kept him in my peripheral vision as I tried to reconnect with Ryan.

          – Ryan, you were cutting out.  Say again.

          – I said I’ll have someone local call you as soon as possible.  Keep your phone handy.

          – Will do.

I ended the call, picked up my pace and thought through my dilemma.  The knuckle-dragger I’d spied on my tail may just be taking a stroll around town.  If so, then it was quite the coincidence.  I didn’t believe in coincidence.  In that case, he and his superiors had a fair idea that Besijana and I were talking.  If so, they’d keep an eye on me while they asked Besijana a few pointed questions.

The good news was they hadn’t yet made a move, just keeping me under observation, meaning that Besijana hadn’t yet given anything away.  The bad news was these bastards didn’t play games, so I doubted she could hold out for long.

As the implications of that scenario ran through my mind like a Tarentino movie, I resisted the urge to break out into a slow jog.  Any sign of panic would surely tip my hand.  All the while the thumb drive burned a hole in my pocket.

I’d reached the flagstone-paved alleys of the old bazaar.  The narrow lanes wound back and forth in no discernable direction.  Aged store owners, their faces deeply lined, sat on plastic chairs in front of their dilapidated storefronts willing passing tourists to step inside and sample their wares.  The tangy scent of spices and roasting meat, beef and lamb, was heavy in the air.  Out front of the many taverns, tables sprouted large green umbrellas advertising the local beer and formed a canopy repelling all daylight.

My tail had not closed the space between us quickly enough.  I hurried down one alley after the other, turning left then right at random.  After each turn, I’d quickly sprint ahead for ten or twenty yards widening the distance to my pursuer.  Hoping I’d given the ape the slip I turned left once more and found myself in a large open plaza.  Five laneways fed into the square with a large dun-colored mosque at its center.  The open space was not what I needed, the first door on the left was an antique shop, so I ducked inside.

The elderly lady seated behind the counter snapped awake and smiled up at me with a mouth that had more gaps than teeth.  Her leathery face, hardened by the sun, crinkled with the effort.  I smiled back and gave the universal sign for “I’m just looking.”  At least that’s what I hoped the waving of my arms indicated.  The front window display was crammed with every knick-knack known to man, I could barely see the glass let alone the plaza beyond.

I only had to wait a moment for the gorilla to burst, huffing and puffing, into the plaza.  My burly assailant gave the open expanse a quick look over and the realization that he’d lost me quickly dawned on his face.  He pulled a mobile phone from his jacket pocket, punched a few buttons, then held it to the side of his square head as he dragged a paw through his thick black hair.  The conversation was brief, the slumping off his shoulders as he trudged back in the direction from whence he’d come indicated he wouldn’t be getting an additional serving of bananas tonight.

The old lady behind the counter had fallen back asleep, or into a coma – it was hard to tell; her body sinking into the cushions as if she’d lost compression.  I crept from the store and headed in the opposite direction to the gorilla and towards my hotel.  Feeling relieved that I’d given my tail the slip, I looked forward to a cold beer at the hotel bar while waiting for the Consulate man to make contact.  I’d feel a whole lot better once the thumb drive was in safe hands; however, the fate of Besijana put a damper on my exuberance.  Once back in Thessaloniki, I’d try and make contact.  The entire situation had been of her making, but that didn’t quell the guilt pangs stabbing me in the gut.

I pulled up abruptly as I rounded the corner leading towards my hotel.  Ahead, gorilla number two was exiting the hotel, with a phone to his ear.  I backed up slowly, back around the corner, and hoped he hadn’t spotted me.  How did they know where I was staying?  The answer was as clear as the look of panic on my face.  I’d previously told Besijana this was my favorite hotel in town.  They’d gotten that information from her, and I had to believe they also now knew what I was carrying.  My rental car was in the courtyard behind the hotel, its only entry and exit point twenty feet from where the Kosovan body-builder paced.  There was no way I could get to it without being seen.

I spotted a taxi on the other side of the street parked in the shade of a large pine tree.  The driver had the front door open, the seat fully reclined and his legs spread-eagled through the open window.  I raced across the road and slid into the back seat.

My closing the door jolted him awake, and he spat out an exclamation in his incomprehensible language.

          – Do you speak English?

          – Sure.  Why the fuck you wake me?  I’m on break, find another driver, alright?

          – I don’t have time.  I’ll make it worth your while.    

          – Why didn’t you say so?  You want tour?  I give grand tour of Skopje, at fair price for you.  American?

          – No, Australian.  

          – Even better, you get discount.  I, Spiro.  I have relative in Melbourne.  How you say?  Good day, mate.  What your name?

It took an eternity for Spiro to complete the sentence but gave him time to get his seat in an upright position.  He stretched a seat belt across his rotund gut and buckled it with a weary sigh.  His face was deeply tanned and etched with lines that mirrored the cracked vinyl on his dashboard; a bald spot on the back of his head was shaped like a poached egg and surrounded by thinning salt and pepper hair.

          – It’s Matt.

          – No, pretty sure saying is – mate.

          – You’re right.  But my name is Matt.

          – Ah, I get it.  You Australians always pulling legs.

Speaking of legs, I was still trying to get mine situated in the back of the cramped Soviet-era Lada as Spiro pulled out of the parking space.  I’m not a tall man, just a shade under six feet, but the rear seat had me wishing I was one of Snow White’s seven friends.

          – Take a right here.

Spiro had come to a stop at the intersection.  I chanced a glance to the left in the direction of my hotel.  The burly hunk of beef was still stalking back and forth on the pavement.  A moment later I knew why.  He was waiting on his ride, and it had just pulled to a stop right beside us.  I quickly slunk down as low as I could, but not in time.  As Spiro turned right and the Kosovans turned left, the gorilla I’d given the slip turned to face me.  His dark eyes were shaded under his Neanderthal brow, but even from a distance of ten feet, I could see them sparkle in delight.  The last I saw, before they turned towards the hotel, was his ugly slit of a mouth part in the vague impression of a smile.

          – So where do you want to go?

I answered as I pivoted in the backseat to look through the rear window.

          – Anywhere, you decide.

As I suspected the sleek black BMW with diplomatic plates made a quick U-turn in front of the hotel, picked up their partner in crime and were heading in our direction.  I dug for the mobile phone in my back pocket and hit redial.  While I waited for Ryan to answer my call, I imparted on Spiro an added incentive.

          – You see that BMW behind us?

          – Sure.

          – It belongs to somebody’s husband.  And I really don’t want to explain to him why she was out late last night.  I’ll pay you double if you can lose them.  Understood?

          – I got it, Matt. 

Spiro let out a phlegmy laugh as he punched the accelerator.  The Lada skipped a beat before an ungodly whine from the engine began to increase in pitch as the speedometer’s needle inched slowly to the right.

          – You Australians, fucking hilarious.

Ryan’s voice crackled through my mobile.

          – Matt?  What’s wrong?  And what’s that noise?  You onboard a fighter jet?

          – Just a Lada trying to break fifty.  Listen, Ryan.  I’ve got a tail, and I’m not sure I can shake it.  I need that local help to call me ASAP.

          – Got it.  Head towards the Consulate if you can.  I’ll light a fire under the locals.  

          – Thanks, Ryan.

          – And stay off the main streets.  Lance Armstrong on his bike could catch a Lada.  And they’ve been known to explode at sixty.

Spiro crossed the Vardar River heading south on Boulevard Kocho Racin, one of the main north-south thoroughfares.  Three out of four of the Lada’s cylinders sung a frenetic tune, the fourth had lost the beat.  Ahead, Mount Vodno rose majestically above the city.  In a warren of streets at its base was the Australian Consulate.  I chanced a look behind; the BMW was closing quickly.  Any closer and I’d be able to make out the line of drool on the gorilla in the front seat.

I was in the middle of placing my chances of escaping this mess at somewhere between “slim” and “I’m fucked” when Spiro spun the wheel hard to the left.

          – Fucking Gypsies!

An ancient wagon equipped with four car wheels and being pulled by a donkey had emerged from a side street directly in front of us.  Spiro missed the rear of the buggy by inches.  My head snapped to the right and hit the side window with a resounding “thunk.”  I felt a warm trickle of blood begin to snake through my hair as we passed the wagon.  Three young Romani children sitting on the bench seat each shot me their middle-finger in unison.  The donkey seemed slightly embarrassed.

I dabbed at the bump on the side of my head; the cut was not serious.  More importantly, the Roma family had slowed the progress of our pursuers.  They were blocked, for the moment, by the wagon and the surrounding traffic.

          – Spiro, keep heading south but we need to get off this main street.

Spiro mumbled something under his breath that may or may not have been English.  If I had to guess he was calculating how much to charge me for this thrill ride.

Just then the sound of my ring tone rose up from the wheel-well beneath Spiro’s seat; my phone lodging under there with Spiro’s manic wheel gyrations.  As I bent over to retrieve my mobile, the rear window imploded showering me in glass, the bullet embedding in the back of the passenger side headrest.

          – Jesus Christ, Matt.  Who you sleep with?  Macedonian husbands too lazy to care this much.

          – She’s from Kosovo.

A sense of calm and understanding came over Spiro as he pulled hard on the wheel and turned left across oncoming traffic.

          – Oh, that explains it then.  Them bastards crazy.

I grabbed my phone and remained lying across the back seat.

          – Hello?

          – Matt Latham?  I hear you need some assistance.

The voice was deep, concise and unmistakably Australian.  If I had to guess, an agent on his first posting; not too far removed from the training academy, and yet to lose the ambling accent borne on a sheep-station far from civilization.

          – You could say that.  I’m under fire, south of the river, heading your way.  We’re now on side streets, but I doubt we can out run them.    

          – Right.

It came across as, “royt.”

          – I see where you are; we’ll be with you in two shakes.

          – What’s that in “getting shot at” time?  And how do you propose to find me? 

          – We’re about five minutes from you.  And we’re tracking your phone signal using GPS, whatever you do don’t turn it off.

I checked the display; the battery life reading showed twenty-two percent.  I prayed it was enough as I hung up.

Spiro’s mumbling was growing in intensity as he swung the wheel wildly taking corner after corner.  The Lada rarely had four wheels on the ground at any one time, and the engine was needing a priest.

          – You okay, Spiro?

          – I survive Tito and his Communists, I survive the Serbs and their bombs, only to die trying to save Australian who pork a Muslim. 

Spiro chortled ironically.

          – Ha, I make Muslim joke!

          – Hang in there, Spiro.  We’ll get out of this; you’ll be seeing your wife and family again in no time.

          – Huh, if you knew my wife, you know that no incentive to live.

Parked cars lined both sides of the narrow streets leaving only room for one vehicle.  If we met oncoming traffic, we were dead.  Although the narrow streets and constant turning had slowed the progress of the BMW, and they’d been unable to get another clear shot.

I needed to buy a little time for the sheep farmer to reach me, and to get Spiro out of harm’s way.  I dug all the cash I had out of my wallet and dropped it on the front seat.

          – Spiro.  Take this.

Spiro did a quick double-take.  The wad of Euros, for him, would be close to two month’s salary.

          – At the next corner, after you turn, slow for a second so I can get out.  

          – You sure?  I drive you to Athens for that amount of money.

          – No.  It’s yours.  

I just hoped that I’d be able to slip out unseen and the ruse would buy me at least another five minutes.

The BMW was about sixty yards behind us picking its way gingerly through the congested side streets.  Spiro made another left turn and slowed just enough for me to drop out of the Lada.  I landed heavily on my shoulder and rolled once before hitting the front wheel of a parked car.  I shimmied between two cars and hid behind a rear fender just as the BMW rounded the corner. It sped past in pursuit of Spiro.

I crouched there a moment and took stock of my situation.  My shoulder hurt like hell, but I’d survive.  My shirt and pants were torn and filthy from the fall, and the cut on my head had begun to bleed again.  The thumb drive was still safely tucked away in my front pocket, my wallet in my back pocket and phone . . . gone.

My body temperature dropped a few degrees as a rush of ice water ran through my veins.  I knew I had it in my hand when I rolled from the car; it had to be somewhere close.  I searched beneath one vehicle with no luck.  I was about to look under another when a screech of brakes broke the silence.

Two hundred yards further along the street a delivery van had backed out of a driveway blocking the road and stopping the escape of Spiro.  My pursuers would quickly realize I wasn’t in the taxi and any second would be doubling back.  I checked under the second vehicle . . . nothing.  I willed myself not to panic and searched under both vehicles again.  The guttering lining the roadway would’ve had to stop the phone, yet it was clear in both directions but for a large pile of pine needles.  I dove my hand into their dryness, crunching the brittle slivers into a million pieces.  Finally, my hand closed around a familiar shape.  The high-pitched whine of an engine in reverse told me it was time to run.

Turning left, I ran alongside the scarred, concrete exterior of an apartment building; graffiti provided the only color to its drab existence.  I ducked down a walkway between buildings, ensuring my pursuers had no clear line of sight.  The walkway opened into a courtyard that framed a U-shaped complex.  I saw no way out without heading back in the direction I’d come.  Ahead, an elderly lady dressed in black and carrying two heavily-laden shopping bags was struggling with the entry door to her building.  I rushed up, smiled, held it open for her and followed her inside.

The small entry-way was stuffy, dark and smelled of fried onions and cat piss.  The old widow continued on up the concrete stairs worn smooth with years of foot traffic.  I leaned against the wall to catch my breath and check my phone.  The battery showed seventeen percent life remaining and it had been six minutes since I’d talked with the sheep-farmer.  Help, I prayed, had to be arriving any moment.

The entry door to the dark vestibule had a small window, about a foot square, reinforced with wire mesh.  From my vantage point deep in the shadows, I could see children kicking a soccer ball in the courtyard, across the way was another building of identical design.  I could also see the other building’s entry door that mirrored the one I’d just entered.  And one of the gorillas was checking to see if it was locked.

I turned and began running up the stairs; I couldn’t be sure if the door I’d entered were locked or not.  The squeak of a rusty door hinge answered my question.

In my youth, I’d played a little football, but these days my athletic prowess was limited to running down a good story, which didn’t require any actual running.  However, when being chased by a gorilla with a gun, the six flights of stairs flew by.  Unfortunately, when I reached the top, and an imposing metal doorway to the roof blocked my path, I realized I’d run out of options.

Saying another short prayer – I’d prayed more today than in the past twenty years – I tested the handle.  It gave way with a reluctant groan.  If I managed to survive, I was on the hook for a hefty donation to St. Stephen’s on Uxbridge Road next Sunday.  With a solid nudge from my good shoulder, I squeezed through the narrow opening.  I emerged onto the rooftop and into brilliant sunlight.   Shielding my eyes from the blinding reflections off of numerous metal surfaces, I surveyed my surroundings.

The carcasses of hot water tanks, portable air-conditioning units, washing machines, even an old gas heater were strewn haphazardly in all directions.  I searched for something with which I could bar the door when the crack of a gunshot echoed through the concrete canyons of the surrounding apartment blocks.  It was quickly followed by two more.  Then silence.  My rescuers had arrived, though who had stopped the bullets was anyone’s guess.  I ran to the edge of the rooftop hoping to get some idea.

The bordering of the roof consisted of twelve inches of wrought-iron latticework atop an eighteen-inch-high plaster and concrete ledge.  From ground level, it would have appeared quite ornate, from my perspective it seemed an irresponsible safety hazard.  The top of the wrought-iron came to just above my knee, and as I grasped the metal and leaned forward to get a glimpse of the scene in the courtyard below, I also discovered it was surprisingly fragile.

Before I could react the plaster facade supporting the wrought-iron crumbled under my weight and I tumbled over the side.  My body hit the side of the building with enough force to knock the wind out of me, and there I dangled with just the crook of my arm looped through a piece of the latticework still connected to its shaky underpinning.  I looked down; six floors and certain death if the metal work gave way.  I shouldn’t have looked down.  My head swam with a sudden rush of vertigo.

Above me, the sound of a groaning rooftop door, then footsteps headed in my direction.  I looked up, directly into the blazing afternoon sun, a moment later the sun was blotted out by a hulking creature peering down at my tenuous situation.

          – Matt Latham, I assume.  Barry Jenkins is the name. 

I raised my right hand, and watched it disappear into his colossal mitt.

          – Jeez, Matt.

The sheep farmer named Barry exhaled a slight grunt as he pulled me to safety.

          – Bet you’ve had better days.

***

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