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28 days ago
Current I miss the days when Newgrounds was all he had to worry about.
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Birds were created by the bourgeoisie
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Let's lynch the landlord: youtu.be/uT5tQV3aPik
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Joddammit
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rawr XD

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Rome

Two Months Ago

Koning walked through the park with both hands wedged firmly in his pockets. A pleasant spring breeze through Koning’s hair and he took a momentary break from his vigilance to enjoy the scene. There were picnicking families eating lunch on the grass, people walking dogs, and what looked to be a pack of young toughs smoking cigarettes beside a bench. Somewhere a radio played an uptempo music number with Spanish singing. The Appian Way ran through the heart of the park. No cars could safely pass down the cracked and worn cobbles, but plenty of pedestrians and bicycles navigated down it at the moment. The same road Roman soldiers had marched down over two thousand years ago was still being used. It was a testament to the ancient world’s engineering prowess, and a reminder that Rome’s history stretched back several millennia.

A child’s loud and playful scream brought Koning back to reality. He pulled a hand out of his pocket and squared his glasses. It was almost time for his contact to show. He’d left his vestments back at the Vatican in an effort to blend in. A priest in a dowdy black frock walking through the park would get noticed. On top of that, emissaries of the Holy See were scrutinized once they stepped on Italian soil. Koning spent nearly two hours executing his tradecraft. He’d double back on his route and walk the wrong way on one-way streets, looking over his shoulder for familiar faces going the same way as he was. Normally archbishops in the Catholic Church weren’t experts in espionage tradecraft, but Koning was far from a normal archbishop.

He found Dončić sitting on a park bench eating a gelato. Koning sat beside the thin, mustached Slovenian man. Neither acknowledged the other’s existence as they continued to stare forward.

“You have some gelato in your mustache,” said Koning.

Dončić wiped his face with the back of his hand and grunted thanks before taking another bite.

“There is a packet under the bench,” said Dončić. “It includes some banking information my bosses in Belgrade need help with.”

Koning reached down and pulled a closed manila envelope from under the bench. He tucked it into his jacket for later reading.

“What is it related to?” asked Koning.

“A criminal group active in Yugoslavia. They are ostensibly a Muslim revolutionary organization, but they are little more than gangsters. They run guns, sell drugs, and pimp out women to fund their terrorism, but they have other donors who live abroad that do the heavy lifting. State Security found the information in your packet during a raid on one of their homes. Our theory is if we can identify and cut off their funding, then their revolutionary zeal will fade. ”

“‘One cannot serve both God and money. No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other’,” said Koning. “What do I seek to gain if I undertake this task for your country?”

Dončić shrugged. “The gratitude of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In addition, you make me look good in the eyes of my bosses. I look good to them then I get promoted. That gives you a good Catholic friend deep inside the UDBA. A friend who will owe you a favor.”

“I’ll see what I can find,” said Koning. He stood and stretched. “Watch the wall outside the Yugoslav Embassy for the tic tac toe game. I’ll be in touch when I have something.”

Koning walked away from the bench without a look back at Dončić.




Boston

Now

Koning looked up from his papers as the train PA announced they’d arrived as his stop. He placed the papers in a briefcase on the seat beside him before standing. He stepped out onto the T platform and started the climb up the station steps. Speers managed to come through with the information Koning needed and it, along with a few items provided by other sources at his disposal, was in his briefcase.

He came out of the station and into the heart of South Boston. Southie, as it was called among Boston locals, was a neighborhood with a reputation. Heavily working class and heavily Irish Catholic, it wasn’t a place a lot of Bostonians liked to find themselves in this late at night. Koning wasn’t too worried. He could handle himself in almost all physical situations he may find himself in. On top of that he was decked out in his cassock. Only the most hardened criminals in Southie dared to accost a priest.

Clapboard row houses with multiple families living within them were on both sides of the street. Hungry faces peered out the windows as Koning passed by. He expected more kids and youngsters on the street, but a strict curfew administered by Boston police was in effect. Despite the huge Irish Catholic population in Boston they were still second class citizens. The nicer parts of the city were proddy only, so the Catholics had to stay in neighborhoods like Southie and Dorchester. Too many poor people living on top of each other led to crime and squalor. The old Boston Brahmins still had their hooks in city hall and their machine ran the BPD. On their orders the mostly Protestant cops treated the Catholic neighborhoods like occupied territory. Years of abuse built up resentment and rage at the cops and the establishment they worked for. Koning could feel that unrest even simmering under the surface even in the warm summer night. It was only a matter of time.

His glasses reflected the bright neon glow off the bar’s side wall as he approached the entrance. A green neon sign declared the place JOE’S. A four leaf clover above the E blinked on and off in an infrequent pattern.

Koning entered the bar. It looked like a typical dive bar: A few sadsacks were bellied up to the bar with a glass of beer and an empty shot glass. People sat at a couple of tables scattered around the floor smoking just as much as they drank. The walls were covered in graffiti along with vintage posters of old time boxers and black and white photos of people Koning assumed were somehow connected to the bar’s history. A jukebox in the corner warbled some Irish jig:

“Then we turned and shook as we had a look in the room where the dead men lay. So big Jim Dwyer made his last trip to the shores where his father's laid.”

He received a few curious looks as he approached the bar, but nothing too severe. There was a good chance he wasn’t the first man of the cloth to walk through these doors. The bartender sized him up with a slightly raised eyebrow. The middle aged man was beefy with a ruddy face and a flattened nose. The nose along with the cauliflower ear on the right side made Koning guess the man had been a boxer in his younger days.

“Sunday’s priests get penny shots,” he said with a grin. “Every other night it’s full price, father.”

“I would like to see the proprietor of this fine establishment,” said Koning.

The bartender wrinkled his brow and scratched the side of his head. “Do what now?”

“The owner,” Koning said with a sigh. “The Joe in Joe’s.”

“Ain’t no Joe,” said the bartender. “Never was. It’s just a name someone liked so they named the bar Joe’s.”

“Curious,” Koning said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I was under the impression this bar was owned by one Joseph Sullivan, at least it’s a de facto ownership. The actual deed of ownership and liquor board license is in the name of Colleen McDonough, Joseph’s aunt. Yet Boston Police Department intelligence indicates Mrs. McDonough is just a front because Joseph, a convicted felon, would be unable to get a liquor license on his own.”

“Get the fuck outta here,” the bartender said sharply. He started to reach for something behind the bar, a baseball bat Koning assumed. “Get out now, padre, before something bad happens to you.”

“Let your boss decide my fate,” said Koning. “I will have some tonic water while you tell him I’m here.”

The bartender eyed Koning sharply as the archbishop simply stood there. Finally, he moved slowly and deliberately towards one of the taps behind the bar. He poured a glass full of tonic water before spitting in it and putting it on the bar in front of Koning.

“Drink up.”

Koning watched him lumber away towards a door off to the side of the bar. All of the regulars at Joe’s were now all watching the priest as he put his briefcase on the bar and calmly waited.

“Word of advice, your holiness,” said one of the drinkers at the bar. Koning turned to look at him. His face was permanently flushed red from a lifetime of alcohol consumption and his eyes had a glazed over look that Koning was sure was permanently there all the time. “People who piss off Joe go in that backroom and they don’t come out upright. Run away while you can, Father. Not even that collar is gonna save you from Mink.”

The drunk hushed up and scurried back to his spot at the bar when he saw the side door open again. The bartender came out with a companion at this side. A short man with a sharp pointed nose and dark beady eyes stared intently at Koning. His red hair was slicked back by pomade and he wore a sports jacket even in the warm bar. Koning was able to make out the shape of a shoulder holstered gun beneath the jacket.

“This is Mink,” said the bartender. “He’s gonna take you back to meet Joe.”

The old drunk to Koning’s left looked and tried to flash a look with his eyes. Koning saw it, but the two other men remained oblivious. Koning nodded and grabbed the briefcase off the bar before he started to walk towards Mink. He gently patted the elderly drinker on the shoulder as he passed by. He wanted to reassure the man that whatever awaited him in the backroom, he could handle it.

Koning started down a short hallway with Mink behind him. The little man stayed closely behind Koning as they approached an open doorway.

“What’s with the get up?” Mink asked. “You work with Father Jamison and those other faggots at Gate of Heaven?”

“No,” Koning said shortly. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as his anger rose. “I know Father Jamison, but I am not here on simple parish business.”

They passed through the doorway and into an office. The heavyset man with dark hair and sunken eyes staring at him from across the desk had to be Joe Sullivan. Predictably, Koning felt Mink move swiftly behind him. Something hard and cold was placed on the back of Koning’s neck.

“What kind of fucking priest walks into my bar and asks to see me?” Sullivan asked in a thick Boston accent. “Not only that, the son of a bitch seems to intimately know details of my business.”

“One who seeks to find allies in unlikely places,” Koning said in a measured voice. “I was told you were a good Catholic once, Joe.”

“I was an altar boy for six years,” said Sullivan, just a hint of a smile on his face. “They kicked me out when I went to juvie.” The smile faded and he frowned. “But that was a long time ago. And I’ve already punched my ticket to Hell in the eyes of the church. So what’s one more murder, even if it’s of a priest?”

When Koning moved, he moved swiftly, driving the briefcase in his hand into Mink’s midsection. The sudden jolt made him step backwards and gasp. He pulled the gun away from Koning’s neck as he reeled. Koning spun and smacked Mink across the face with the briefcase. His free hand snatched the gun from Mink’s grasp as he fell to the floor. Koning delivered a hard kick to Mink’s face before spinning around again to train the barrel of the pistol on Sullivan. The fat man raised his hands in defense.

“He broke my fucking nose,” Mink cried from the floor.

“Your man said some very rude things about my fellow priests,” Koning said to Sullivan. He laid the briefcase on the desk in front of Sullivan. He stepped back and lowered the gun just enough to put Sullivan at some sort of ease.

“Now may we discuss business?”

“What the fuck do you want?!” Sullivan yelled. “Do you know who the fuck I am? You just waltz in here and attack my sister’s boy and train a gun on me like I’m some common hood.”

“You are,” Koning said impassively. “You are very much a small-time criminal living in a second class neighborhood. South Boston and all the Catholics in this city are just white negros in the eyes of the people in power. The Boston PD knows that you run a gambling and loansharking racket out of this bar, but yet they do nothing to stop it. It’s because you’re not worth the effort, Joseph. You do your part in keeping your own people down. You're an outlaw, but you still serve the state's purpose to a fault.”

Koning saw Sullivan flushing. He couldn’t tell if it was out of anger or embarrassment.

“What the fuck do you want?” Sullivan asked again.

“A partnership,” said Koning.

He heard Mink starting to get up from behind him, but a heel kick to the man’s chest kept him on the floor.

“In the briefcase in front of you are the details on a man named Oguz Özil. He lives in Brockton and is a very prosperous import-export merchant. He is also a financier of international crime and terrorism. Open the briefcase.”

Sullivan complied. He frowned when he looked inside. Koning knew he might. In addition to the information on Özil were manila packets numbered 1 through 22, along with stacks of hundred dollar bills. Over twenty-five thousand US dollars. A small fortune to someone like Sullivan.

“What’s all this?”

“Özil is a problem that needs to disappear,” said Koning. “Do not tell me the details, it is better if I do not know. The cash is your fee in advance for a job done well and discreetly, Joseph. There is more money where that comes from. The packets? That’s for after you take care of our Turkish friend. It’s thorough intelligence on all twenty-two ward members on Boston’s city councils, their dirty secrets and their innermost desires.”

Sullivan furrowed his brow.

“But why?”

“It’s an election year, Joseph,” said Koning. “And with the money and information at your disposal, you can become something more than a common criminal: You can become a kingmaker. I’ll be in touch.”

Koning pocketed the gun and stepped over the prone Mink. He walked through the bar, ignoring the shock on the bartender’s face. Koning winked at the old drunk as he walked out into the warm summer night.
Japan

Kamikatsu
1922


“Who is the boy?” Father Gallo asked the nun.

Sister Shaw looked up from her paperwork and frowned in the priest’s direction. Gallo stood at the window and looked out at the schoolyard as he worried the silver crucifix around his neck.

“What boy,” she sighed before looking back down at her papers.

Father Gallo had taken charge of the orphanage just a few days ago, but in that short time Sister Shaw found herself doing most of the administrative work. Gallo was some sort of favorite with someone back in Rome, and he certainly seemed to care for the boys, but the man didn’t seem practical at all. That didn't bode well for his future, thought Sister Shaw.

“The little one who sits off by himself and reads,” Gallo said. “I’ve noticed him for a few days. Doesn't play with the others."

“That would be Harry Mitchell,” Shaw said without looking up. “He’s a bookworm and very reserved. He's not a fan of mingling with the other boys.”

“You call him, Mitchell...what’s his Japanese name?”

“He doesn’t have one,” snapped Shaw. “He’s not like the other boys, Father. They all have papers on them and we know their heathen names.”

Shaw saw Gallo wince at her use of the word heathen. She got a small thrill out of it. Good. The man seemed to be too lenient to these boys and their people. This orphanage was all about saving souls and converting the godless. There was no place for softness when it came to helping others avoiding Hell.

“Young Mitchell was left on the orphanage doorstep when he was a newborn," she said. "There was some of their gobbledygook written on a paper and pinned to his swaddling blankets, but nobody kept it. We baptized him and christened him Harold Mitchell. That was eight years ago. He’s been with us ever since.”

Gallo nodded and continued to stare out the window. Sister Shaw simply shook her head and went back to her papers. Let the young priest stare and be lost in thought. She had real work to do.




Rome

Vatican City
Now

Harry peered over his reading glasses at his wristwatch. It was a quarter past eleven in the morning and he could hear chanting echoing through the opulent library halls. The 11 AM mass would be in full swing by now. He’d attended the 7 AM mass like always, but it had been a subdued affair. WNews about Cardinal Moch’s fall was already well circulated through the Vatican by that point. The word floating around also confirmed the worst: the old man was dead. His Holiness had already ordered three days of mourning, a funeral mass set to commence after that. Clergy from across Europe would gather in Rome to see the old Cardinal off.

He tried to drive away thoughts about the dead Cardinal and instead focus on the work before him. Laid out on the table was a collection of books and papers on one Josep Manyanet i Vives. Vives was a Spanish priest who died in 1901. He spent his life devoted to the cause of helping his parish despite being in ill health. It was reported the man suffered from open sores for over a decade. After over twenty years of campaigning from the diocese in Barcelona, the Church was moving forward with beatification of Father Vives and this was the first step.

That’s where Harry came in.

His official title in Vatican City was canon lawyer. It was true that he was an expert on ecclesiastical law. But his specialty had a very specific title. Harry was the Devil’s Advocate. It was his job to thoroughly investigate any proposed saint to see if they were less than worthy. If they met Hary's approval their case for sainthood would progress to the next step. In addition he also investigated any reported miracle for evidence of fraud, or to see if there was a simple scientific answer. Overall he was the Vatican’s resident skeptic in all matters. It seemed to fit him well in the five years he’d been here. He’d always been the odd man out from the time he was a child. The lone skeptic among the flocks of the devoted. He wore that badge with pride.

“Father Mitchell?”

Harry looked up from his papers and found a junior priest standing in front of him. Harry felt a little nervous when he saw the tall, imposing figure standing beside the priest in a dark suit. Colonel Stoller stared down at Harry with a look of boredom. Harry knew those seemingly bored eyes didn’t miss much. While he didn’t wear the gaudy show uniforms of his men, Stoller was a Swiss Guard through and through. While they carried halberds, Stoller carried a pistol tucked in a shoulder holster.

“His Holiness requests your presence,” said Stoller.

Harry was on his feet before Stoller could finish. He followed in the wake of the taller man across the library’s marble floors. The librarian who had accompanied Stoller would take care of the books and papers Harry left on the table. They walked across the beautiful Sistine Hall with the detachment of people who saw the breathtaking works of art Vatican City had to offer every day. Harry felt a mix of emotions as he followed Stoller. He always enjoyed seeing His Holiness, but it was highly unusual for Stoller to become involved. He coordinated security for the Pope and The Holy See abroad. He served, as they all did, at His Holiness’ pleasure, but he was not a simple errand boy.

Stoller led Harry to the papal apartments. The layout of the residence was spartan and in keeping with its current occupants’ more modest approach to the papacy. Pope Leo VIX, once upon a time Father Martino Gallo to Harry, flashed a wide grin as Harry and Stoller entered the sitting room.

“My son,” Leo said as Harry got on his knees and kissed the ring on the Pope’s right hand.

For Harry, the term son was not some generic greeting. Over thirty years ago Father Gallo came to a lonely little boy in a Japanese orphanage and took him under his wing. He taught Harry about God, faith, the Church, and all that it meant to serve the Lord. Father Gallo help put him through seminary school and legal training even as his own star rose within the Church. And then. five years ago, when Cardinal Gallo emerged from the Papal conclave as Leo XIV, he brought Harry to Rome.

“Your Holiness,” said Harry.

“None of that, Harry,” said Leo. “Not here in my home. “Call me Leo, call me Father, call me Marty, but no need for formality with me. And off your knees and have a seat.”

Harry got up and sat down in a chair facing Leo. Stoller stood at the threshold of the sitting room at parade rest.

“You can have a seat as well, Colonel,” said the Pope.

“I could,” replied the Swiss colonel. “But I won’t.”

“Suit yourself.”

Leo turned his attention back to Harry. Several months had passed since the two men last saw each other. That wasn’t out of the ordinary even in tiny Vatican City. So much of Leo’s time was scheduled out and planned to the exact minute. There was no doubt he had to make some sort of sacrifice on his itinerary for this meeting with Harry.

“How have you been, Harry?” Leo asked with a warm smile.

“I’ve been well, Father,” said Harry. Even in the less formal setting Harry would not call His Holiness Marty. “My work keeps me preoccupied most of the days.”

“Oh, I know.” A sardonic look flashed across the Pope’s face “I read your report on the American woman who claimed she found the image of Jesus Christ.”

“Yes, she was very committed,” said Harry. “Or at least she needs to be.”

The two men shared a laugh while Stoller looked on stoically.

“My good colonel could you please put on some music for Father Mitchell and I?”

Harry started to say something, but stopped when he saw Leo raise a hand preemptively. The colonel walked over to a record player in the sitting room. Opera music began to play from the speakers. Stoller adjusted the knob so the sounds of Cavalleria rusticana filtered through the apartment at full blast.

“The walls have ears around here,” Leo said soft enough so that only Harry could hear him. “I have learned that well in the past five years. We must talk quickly and cover much.”

The Pope reached into his robes and produced a folded piece of paper. He passed it to Harry and let him look it over. It was a Papal brief declaring that he, Father Harold Mitchell Esquire, had been bestowed the temporary powers of His Holiness when it came to access to Vatican City. Nothing or anyone would be off-limits to him as he acted as the agent of His Holiness. So ordained by His Holiness Leo XIV, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.

“What is this, Father?” Harry asked.

“Cardinal Moch’s death,” said the Pope. “I do not think it was just a simple accident. I fear the worst... I think he took his own life.”

The two men exchanged looks. Leo didn’t have to explain any further the ramifications of Moch committing suicide. It was an abomination in the eyes of the Church. No suicide could ever have a Christian burial and no soul who took their own life could ever enter Heaven. For a Cardinal to do such a thing would be an enormous scandal.

“I want you to use that brief to find out everything you can about Cardinal Moch in the days leading up to his death. Found out his frame of mind, who he last spoke to, what he was doing the night of his fall.”

“Your Holiness,” Harry said, ignoring Leo’s chastising look as he pressed on. “You have the Gendarmes for this. They are the closest the Holy See has to a police force.”

“Manned by men with questionable allegiances,” said Leo. “Lombardi was appointed by the last pontiff. I question how much of our daily goings on gets reported to the Italian government. Lombardi and the Gendarmes are off the table for this one.”

The Papal brief in Harry’s hands suddenly felt heavier. It carried with it so much power, but also so much responsibility. The power of the Pope himself was vested in this document, Harry now an extension of that power. Harry’s sight drifted towards Stoller’s imposing presence.

“Stoller and the Swiss Guard are at your disposal,” said the Pope.

A slight nod from the colonel served as confirmation of Leo’s words.

“However only the colonel knows the full story.”

“I will assist you in whatever you require, Father Mitchell,” said Stoller.

“See what you can find, my son,” said Leo. “Speak to no one on any of this, not even Colonel Stoller once you two go your separate ways. Only report directly to me what you find. Things are at play here, Harry. Cardinal Moch’s death could set off a disastrous chain of events. But I know you are capable of finding the truth. There is no one here in the Vatican I trust more than you, no one I know is more capable or smarter than you.”

“Wait,” said Harry. “What do you know about Cardinal Moch, father?”

Leo stood and put a gentle hand on Harry’s shoulder.

“You two have to go now. I’ve already spent enough time here talking with you. If I keep my entourage waiting any longer they will grow suspicious. Let me know what you find as soon as there is something to find. Go now, Harry. And go with God.”

Harry was on his feet and following Stoller out the door of the apartments. His head seemed to spin as he tried to take in the gravity of the situation he now found himself in. His Holiness -- Marty -- needed his help. Even if he wasn’t the Pope, Harry would do anything for the old man he thought of as his father. He just hoped he was capable of For five years he’d done his job as Devil’s Advocate and kept his head down. He wasn’t like Ricci. He didn’t wade into the intrigue and relish the gossip. But now here he was, neck deep in it against his will.

“His Holiness is right about one thing,” Stoller said as they descended the stairs towards the plaza. “You must go with God if you wish to succeed.”

Harry reached into his shirt and pulled out his crucifix. It was old and tarnished by years of worrying from Harry and its previous owner, Father Gallo. Harry began to worry it again and say a soft prayer for guidance on what to do.




Washington D.C.

St. Patrick’s Church

“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”

Carl Speers waited to hear the reassuring voice of Father Miller on the other side of the screen. Instead he heard only silence. Speers leaned forward in the confessional booth and waited.

“Father?”

“How long since your last confession?”

The voice that finally spoke did not have Father Miller’s quaint midwestern accent. Instead the voice was deeper and with a tinge of a German accent.

“I...a few weeks ago,” said Speers.

“And this was the confession where you told Father Miller you confessed a child with your secretary.”

“How the hell are you?” Speers shouted.

The screen slid open and Speers saw a man that was definitely not Father Miller. The man who stared back had thick gray hair and good looks that seemed more like they belonged on a movie star instead of a priest. His only blemish was his glasses. Thick lenses and thick black frames rested on the bridge of his nose. They threw off his natural handsomeness and made his eyes seem insectoid. Those large eyes seemed to look into Speers soul.

“Hello, Mr. Speers,” said the man. “May I call you Carl? Carl, my name is Archbishop Eugene Koning. You could say I’m Father Miller’s supervisor. I’m sure you know what it’s like having a boss, Carl. I’m sure your work at the Treasury Department brings you into contact with Secretary Hall often.”

The outrage Speers had come with just a few seconds earlier evaporated. This man, this Koning, knew so much about him. He knew his name, where he worked, and worst of all, he knew about Archie. Spears looked at Koning's face and tried to muster his best snarl. Instead he sagged and sighed. He knew a threat when he heard one.

“What do you want,” Speers murmured.

“I need your expertise in American finance,” said Koning. He pulled a folded piece of paper from his jacket and passed it through the booth’s opening to Speers. The man took the sheet in his pudgy hands and unfolded it.

“What is all this?” Speers asked after looking at it. “I see routing numbers and amounts to bank accounts, but the number sequence is off on the origin account...are these Swiss accounts?”

“They are,” said Koning. “And as you can see the amounts are rather large. Can you request information on the people who own these accounts?”

“Eventually,” Speers said after a long silence. If this was the cost of Koning's silence, then it was an easy price to pay. “It would take some time to identify which banks these accounts were set up with. If I formally request the information that may raise some red flags, so backchanneling it will take even longer.”

“I leave Washington in three days. I want that information with me then.”

“What?” Speers looked flustered. “That’s impossible, I can’t. You’re asking too much I--”

Koning raised the volume of his voice but kept the tone neutral. “You should have thought about that before that late night at the office with Sarah, before little Archibald came along.”

“I was confessing my sins,” hissed Speers. “I wanted forgiveness. I didn’t know it would be used as blackmail. What kind of fucking priest are you?”

Koning squared his glasses and looked at Speers. The intensity of his gaze took the fat man back. He swallowed hard and began to stammer.

“I-I-I’m sorry I cursed like that. It was inappropriate in the house of the Lord.”

Koning ignored his apology. “I expect you to deliver the information I seek to Father Miller in a sealed envelope addressed to no one. Remember how much I know about you, Carl. Your address in Georgetown happens to be one of those things. I think our business is done here for now. You know what to do.”

Koning slid the confessional screen shut. He was already a few steps down the aisle by the time Speers came out the booth. But Koning stopped and turned to look back at Speers.

“You ask what kind of priest I am, my son, to violate the seal of confession. It is not something I do lightly, please know that. There are bigger matters at sake. And I am not a mere vicar, just as you are no mere parishioners. We’re warriors, Carl. The Crusades ended almost nine hundred years ago, but holy war still rages. The battlefields and weapons have shifted, though. Our enemies no longer use horses and swords. They use ideas and politics and money. And they are winning. The enemies are at the gate, my son. Men like me, we keep the infidels at bay.”

Speers stared at the archbishop in stunned silence as the man turned away and started down the aisle towards the exit.
Vatican City


The sound of heavy footfalls woke Harry up from a restless sleep. He blinked and threw off the sheets as he heard murmurs somewhere in the dark. The sheets of his bed were soaked with sweat. It was always like that when he dreamed of his past. Obscure shapes would float by in the void, people just out of focus and always just out of reach, and they would speak a language he himself never spoke.

"息子を起こして"

"行く時間です"

“Father Mitchell,” a voice called in Italian through the darkness. Harry heard shouts from outside his window and sat up.

“I’m here,” Harry replied back in perfect Italian.

Although the language of his homeland was lost to him, he could speak Italian, English, German, and of course Latin perfectly.

“What’s all the commotion?”

“There’s been some kind of accident,” the voice said. As the fog of sleep lifted from his mind he now realized it was Father Ricci, a fellow canon lawyer like Harry, speaking to him. Of course it was Ricci, Harry thought, he slept in the room next door.

“I think it’s Cardinal Moch,” Ricci said quickly. “It looks like... he fell from the Governor’s Palace.”

At that Harry was up on his feet and out the door of his room clad only in his pajamas. Ricci took a step back from the door frame as Harry came through the darkness. Even in the dim lighting Harry could make out that the taller, older priest was clad only in a long plaid sleep shirt that came down to his knees. The two men padded across the hard, stone floors towards the window at the end of the hall.

Murmurs from down the passage followed the two men as they passed by open bedroom doors. As senior priests at the Vatican, Harry and Ricci served in the capacity as chaperons and advisors for the young men here at the Ethiopian College. Harry heard the young seminary students conversing in their native language among themselves, but he ignored it.

“I heard a scream,” said Ricci. “I was in bed reading and when I came to the window here.”

They stopped and looked down at the scene below. A series of well groomed gardens lay between the Ethiopian College and the Governor’s Palace. Running around the back of the palace was a paved road mainly used for foot and bicycle traffic, though the occasional automobile made its way down the path. Harry saw a gathering of men around a prone figure on its back. It was dark and at a distance, but he was able to easily make out the bright red shoes on the prone figure. The same shoes Harry had seen on Cardinal Moch’s feet almost every day for the last five years. His one vice, the old Pole always said sheepishly, was his love of fancy footwear.

“I see a few Swiss Guard and gendarmes,” Harry said softly to Ricci. “They seem to have it under control.”

“The old fool,” Ricci said with a laughter that carried very little warmth. ”It’s almost three in the morning. Do you think he was up on some balcony drinking? I’ve heard rumors about him, you know and--”

“Umberto,” Harry said sharply in English. He glanced behind his shoulder where the young Ethiopian seminary students watched on. “Not in front of the boys.”

Ricci stuck his bottom lip out slightly in a pouty gesture that Harry found to be very unbecoming. It made him appear like an immature schoolboy who’d just been scolded, instead of the fifty year old priest he really was.

“But you’re right about one thing,” Harry said, softening his voice. He looked over his shoulder at the students. “It’s almost three in the morning. We should all head back to bed. It seems we’ll get our answers to what happened in the morning. Back to bed.”

He shooed the young men off. They slowly complied. Harry knew they would probably spend the rest of the night talking it out among themselves about the all the excitement. He expected that out of the young men. He glanced back at Ricci and saw he was unmoved from his spot. He continued to stare in rapt attention as Harry shuffled back to bed. Let him stare, thought Harry. They may have the full story of what happened by morning, but it would be undoubtedly peppered by rumor and innuendo from the likes of Ricci and his clique of gossips.

Harry climbed back into bed and pulled the covers over him. Despite the excitement he found himself rapidly falling back to sleep. The last thought he had before sleep overtook him was: Why was Cardinal Moch fully dressed at 3 AM?




Tangiers


“Well, well, well. Look at this sorry excuse of a priest.”

The heavyset bartender was not wrong in his assessment of Dr. Father Daniel Maguire. He wore a pair of dirty khaki riding pants with the cuffs tucked into his scuffed boots. His black dress shirt had long ago lost its sheen and was now dull. He’d once had a clerical collar for the shirt, but he’d lost track of it a long time ago. Over the shirt was a long leather jacket with a turned down collar, an aviator jacket that had once been popular during the Great War.

“A sorry excuse for a priest in this sorry excuse for a bar,” Maguire said in a Irish brogue. He ran his hands through his curly red hair before winking at the big man behind the bar. “Faisel in the back room?”

The bartender begrudgingly nodded. Maguire walked through the empty bar. La Esquinita, literally Spanish for “The Corner” wasn’t the most popular place in Tangiers. It catered to a lower class of clientele. Even though it was eleven in the morning you could usually find a few alcoholics propping themselves up against the bar. At night it was the kind of place you went for a drink and minded your business. Or else.

Maguire went through the door and found his contact in the bar’s office. Muhammed Faisel Al-Rabi didn’t even look up from the ledger on his desk. He continued to stare at the numbers on the page from behind his rimless glasses.

“You owe me money, priest.”

“That I do,” Maguire said with a smirk. He reached into his jacket and produced a wad of Spanish banknotes.

The site of money persuaded Faisel to sit upright. He was a very neatly dressed and groomed man. His hair was combed and gelled in the right places so that it never moved and his pencil thin mustache had not one hair out of place. To meet him in the street you would assume he was a banker and not Tangiers number one smuggler and black marketeer.

“We are no longer owned by the Spanish,” he said curtly.

“It spends just as good as any kind of money,” said Maguire.

He placed the notes on the desk. After a brief hesitation, Faisel took the money and counted it.

“This is more than you owe.”

“It wasn’t a mistake,” said Maguire.

“Good because I was not giving it back.”

“Think of it as a down payment for future services to be rendered,” Magiure said with a crooked grin. “I hear some rumors on the streets and in the circles we travel in.”

“Yes,” Faisel said with just the hint of a smile. “We have heard rumors that you actually bathe, but as of yet we have not had any confirmation of that fact.”

Maguire waved off the joke in annoyance.

“I mean actual information that my bosses in Rome would love to have.”

Maguire put his hands on the desk and leaned forward.

“I hear that somewhere in this country someone’s found actual proof that Count Julian was real, that they found a grave with artifacts.”

There was a twinkle in Maguire’s eye as he spoke.

“One of the greatest traitors in Christendom--”

“--And one of the greatest heroes for the Maghreb people--”

“And we may have actual proof that he existed!”

If Faisel was moved by this information, then he had one hell of a poker face. He squared his glasses and raised an eyebrow at Maguire’s excited expression.

“Do you have actual concrete information this time, Maguire?”

“That I do, lad,” said the priest. “I just need some manpower and resources, something an enterprising fella like you I'm sure has ins spades.”

“If there are artifacts,” Faisel said slowly. He put his hands together and held them close to his mouth. “They will be very valuable.”

“You know who I work for,” said Maguire. “You check our ledger and you’ll see we got that infinity symbol when it comes to money.”

“This,” Faisel tapped his left breast pocket, the place he’d put the money Maguire had forked over. “Is a start, but I’ll need more, and I’ll need more details than you having a vague idea where this burial site is.”

“I can get you the money,” Maguire said as he stepped back from the desk. He pulled up a chair and sat across from Faisel. “As for details, let’s talk shall we?”
Nation: Vatican City

Map:



aka that purple bit.

History:

Only 121 acres in size, Vatican City is the smallest sovereign nation in the world. Despite that it is one of the oldest and most powerful institutions in the world. The Papal States ended with the unification of Italy in 1871. After a period of nearly fifty years of uncertainty on the Church's place in the country, the Holy See was declared independent in 1929. Though the years of the Papal States and fiery Catholic conquest is now a distant memory, the Catholic Church has still held on to power firmly in its own ways. With hundreds of millions of good Catholics stretched across the globe, a fortune so vast that is thought to be truly incalculable, and access to even the most darkest secrets mankind has to offer, the Church is seen as a valuable ally to have, and a fierce enemy to cross.

Characters:

Leo XIV - Pope, formally Cardinal Martino Gallo.
Cardinal Vicenzo Donini - Vatican City power broker, Cardinal Secretary of State, president of the Vatican City Commission
Archbishop Eugene König - German Archbishop and head of L'Entità
Father Harold Mitchell - Born Hideo Matsumoto, Japanese priest, lawyer, and Devil's Advocate
Oberst David Stoller - Head of the Swiss Guard, Vatican City's defacto military.
Nation: Vatican City

Map:



aka that purple bit.

History:

Only 121 acres in size, Vatican City is the smallest sovereign nation in the world. Despite that it is one of the oldest and most powerful institutions in the world. The Papal States ended with the unification of Italy in 1871. After a period of nearly fifty years of uncertainty on the Church's place in the country, the Holy See was declared independent in 19929. Though the years of the Papal States and fiery Catholic conquest is now a distant memory, the Catholic Church has still held on to power firmly in its own ways. With hundreds of millions of good Catholics stretched across the globe, a fortune so vast that is thought to be truly incalculable, and access to even the most darkest secrets mankind has to offer, the Church is seen as a valuable ally to have, and a fierce enemy to cross.

Characters:

Leo XIV - Pope, formally Cardinal Duilio Gallo.
Cardinal Vicenzo Donini - Vatican City power broker, Cardinal Secretary of State, president of the Vatican City Commission
Archbishop Eugene König - German Archbishop and head of L'Entità
Father Harold Mitchell - Born Hideo Matsumoto, Japanese priest, lawyer, and Devil's Advocate
Oberst David Stoller - Head of the Swiss Guard, Vatican City's defacto military.
Yes. Yes, please.




Trinity Baptist Church
Ivy City
Washington D.C.
5:20 PM

“I tried to talk to someone at the social security office the other day, but all they could do is just put me on hold. You believe that? I spend two years in goddamn Iraq, in a tank, for this country and all they can do is just but me on hold for three fucking hours--”

Steel stared absentmindedly at the Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. He was only half listening to Broderick bitch and piss and moan. Even barely paying attention, Steel could tell it as the same list of grievances he always brought into the meetings. After two years of this he'd discovered that group therapy was just one long vent sessions, especially considering what they were there for. This wasn’t AA or anything where you gave yourself over to a higher power in hopes of not relapsing. This was all about putting your stories out there instead of keeping it in. You had to share and let it all out, you had see you weren’t the only one fucked up in the head by what you’d seen and done. That was the only way to beat PTSD.

He looked up and took in the usual surroundings in the church basement. The dull concrete walls with affirmational posters taped to them, a table with a coffee pot resting on it filled with the worst coffee known to man and a half eaten box of stale Krispy Kreme donuts. They were gathered in a circle of squeaky metal folding chairs. Each chair was currently filled with the ass of the same old fuck-ups. Each and every one of them were like Steel, flotsam and jetsam from the great liberations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe not the same old fuck-ups, thought Steel. There was a new face at the group today. Steel looked at him at the corner of his eye. He wore a suit, a decision that made him stick out among the jeans and heavy metal t-shirts most members of the group favored. Even Steel looked dressed down in comparison. He still wore the dress shirt and dark jeans from his morning meeting, but he’d taken off the tie and rolled up the sleeves to the elbows for a more casual look. He normally didn’t roll up the sleeves. Doing so exposed his metal hand and the strap around his wrist that secured the prosthetic in place. But he was in good company. He wasn’t the only man here short a limb or appendage.

“Sarge,” Dr. Weiss said softly after Broderick’s ramblings had finally petered out. “Anything you’d like to share about your week?”

Steel shrugged and finished off the last of his coffee with a grimace. “Not really. Started a new case today.”

He saw some of the other group members perk up at the mention. They knew that Steel worked as a PI and although he never revealed details of his work to them, they always hoped he might let something occasionally slip.

“Any trouble sleeping or dreams?”

Two nights ago he’d dreamed of Fallujah and woken up in a cold sweat screaming. Almost sixteen years since that brutal house to house fighting and Steel couldn’t shake the images of him running down a narrow alley as bullets whizzed and snapped over his head. Nor would he ever forget the shock of impact running up his leg as he kicked in a door and cleared a small house of combatants. And hearing Lance Corporal Stevens gasping for his last shallow breaths and calling out for his mother as he died. That, he knew, he'd take to his grave.

“No,” Steel lied. “Business as usual this past week.




Steel was on his way to his car when he saw the new guy leaning against a Chevy truck smoking a cigarette. The guy perked up as Steel passed by. He pulled a pack of camels out of his breast pocket and shook it at Steel.

“Want one?”

“No thanks. Used to smoke, but that was a long time ago.”

He was intent on not stopping until he was in his car, but the new face had other ideas. He stepped away from his truck and followed Steel.

“Probably impolite to ask, but how did you lose the hand?”

Steel stopped just short of his 4Runner and turned to face the stranger. He crossed his arms and looked the guy over.

“Who do you represent?” Steel asked.

He saw a look of confusion pass along the guy’s face. He was either a damn good actor or genuinely confused. He wouldn’t put it past him to be a good actor. The recruiter types were always damn good salesmen.

“You wouldn’t be the first headhunter to some around a PTSD support group, trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel for some PMC or security firm. Think you can tempt some lost soul into merc work. Usually Doctor Weiss gets them the out of there before group stars.”

“Look, I’m legit.” He said that as he shoved the cigarette in his mouth and searched his pockets. “Got assigned to the group. Look, I’m still active duty.”

He pulled out his wallet and passed Steel his DoD identification. It showed that Richard Flag III was an OF-5 in the US Army and still active duty. Steel handed it back after he was satisfied.

“Colonel Flag,” he said. “You’re a bit overdressed in that suit and tie.”

“Yeah, I know,” Flag said with a shrug. He leaned back and exhaled a column of smoke into air. “I’m stationed at the Pentagon and didn’t want to come in my ASU--”

“Yeah that wouldn’t go over well with this crowd.”

“--and the suit was all I had.”

“Word of advice?” Steel said with a playful smirk on his face. “Don’t go around telling other people in the group you’re a colonel or that you work at the Pentagon. You’ll get guys like Broderick trying to pass you letters and trying to ask for favors on every little thing.”

“Duly noted.”

Flag flicked the stub of his cigarette on the ground and stomped it out.

“Who assigned you to the group?” asked Steel. “This thing is run through the VA so we don’t get much active duty types here.”

“It’s part of my transition into civilian life,” said Flag. “As is the new job in the Pentagon. Got to town about a month ago and I was recommended to attend group therapy if I want to retire from active duty and take on my new job.”

“I’d ask,” said Steel. “But…”

“Yeah,” Flag said with a laugh. “Classified stuff.”

Steel leaned against the hood of his 4Runner and started to roll his sleeves down.

“You seem to be in a better place than I was when I left the service,” he said without looking up.

“What branch?”

“Marine Corps,” said Steel. “Left as an O3.”

“I’m sorry?” said Flag.

“Marines,” repeated Steel. “Medical discharged as a captain.”

“No, I meant I’m sorry for you,” Flag said with a grin.

“I’m gonna let that go because you outrank me,” Steel said with a sideways glance at Flag.

“I thought you were enlisted. They kept calling your 'sarge' in the meeting.”

“Sargent is my first name,” said Steel. “So Captain Sargent Steel. A bit confusing.”

“Thank god you weren’t an enlisted,” said Flag. “First Sergeant Sargent Steel? Like something out of Catch-22.”

The two men shared a laugh that lapsed into an awkward silence that usually accompanies a first time conversation when it reaches a lull.

“You know you never told me about your hand,” said Flag.

Steel let the silence linger. He looked down at his feet before looking up at Flag.

“All due respect, Colonel, there’s a time and a place.”

Flag held his palms up in a gesture to acknowledge he was backing off.

“You’re right, Sarge. Time and a place.”

“Tell you what, though,” Steel said as he crossed his arms. “Since you’re new to the area and probably need to meet some people, I’ll tell you about it if you come out to my local VFW. Post 341 near the Maryland line, only about five miles from here on Kenilworth. Me and a few other guys, not the ones from the meeting, get together and have some beer on Thursdays.”

“Why not?” Flag asked, clearly to himself. “Are they all marines?”

“Afraid so.”

“Well, good. It’ll be a change from the Pentagon being the smartest one in the room…’




Georgetown
6:34 PM

Steel started up the stairwell to the apartment complex’s third floor. The building seemed to be one of the typical apartments that sat in the shadow of a major university and catered to its students. No doorman or any real security because guests and residents were coming and going at all times. The cracked paint on the walls and stained floors showed that it wasn’t that well maintained, but its occupants really didn’t care about that kind of stuff. Even in the early evening the air was already filled with the smell of marijuana and the sounds of loud rock and hip-hop music. Steel had no doubt this place would turn into one raucous party within the next few hours.

He felt a small pang of sadness. Steel never went to college. He’d enlisted in the Marines straight out of Woodrow Wilson High in Northwest DC. He had the grades for college, but not the money. At most he could have done community college. A place like Georgetown was so unattainable it might as well have been the moon to a District boy like him.

But kids like Jeremy Mitchell, Georgetown was their birthright. Georgetown was one of a selective group of universities in America that always catered to the elite. Places like them -- Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. -- managed pulled off a massive PR coup on their image by convincing the country, and the world, that you had to be smart to get in. In truth these bastions of higher learning were no more motivated by the almighty dollar than any other institution in this country. They gladly opened their doors for the nation’s blue bloods and nouveau riche, after all new money spent just as good as the old.

Steel found 3F and knocked on the door with his prosthetic hand. The metal against the door always made a louder sound. After a few moments Steel heard something unlock from behind the door before it cracked open. A young man stared at him through the crack. Even with the small opening he could smell the powerful odor of weed wafting through. His ears picked up a familiar sound from within the apartment.

“Is that Bad Brains?” he asked.

“Who are you?” the kid asked, ignoring Steel’s questions. He scowled at Steel suspiciously. He was supposed to know Steel was coming. But if the scent coming from inside the apartment was any indication there was a good chance he wouldn’t remember his own name if Steel asked.

“The guy looking for Jeremy,” said Steel. “Wideman told me he would call ahead and let you know.”

A look of recognition passed on the kid’s face. “Oh, shit. That’s right. Hol up--”

A second later he opened the door wide for Steel to enter.

“Come on in, bro, my name’s Brett.”

Steel stepped in. The decor was pure college kid. Dirty carpet, fast food wrappers and styrofoam carry out boxes as far as the eye could see, lawn chairs and milk crates for furniture, and walls with the usual pictures of scantily clad females and movie posters slapped on them with clear tape. It didn’t seem to matter what year it was, Reservoir Dogs posters were always in fashion on male college students’ walls. The most expensive thing in the room was the television and gaming system. Steel had no doubt the 75 inch flatscreen and xbox were the two things in the apartment that were the most cared for. The TV was currently displaying a music streaming app and “I and I Rasta” came out of its speakers.

“Good choice,” said Steel. “Ever listen to Fugazi?”

“Yeah,” said Brett. “Red Medicine’s the shit. So are you like a cop?”

“Private only,” said Steel. “So I don’t care about the fact this place reeks of weed.”

“It’s legal in D.C.,” said Brett. “Simple possession up to two grams. And that’s all in the house. I’m pre-law, man.”

Of course, thought Steel. He figured a third of Georgetown's undergrads were pre-law, the other two thirds were probably business and poli-sci respectively.

“What can you tell me about Jeremy?” Steel asked. He pulled out his phone and hit the voice memo app. He made sure to hold it close enough to pick up Brett’s words over the noise of the music.

“He’s a pretty cool dude,” Brett said with a shrug. “Even with all of his problems we get along pretty good. We’ve been roommates for three years now. Ever since the summer between freshman and sophomore years, when we could move off-campus for housing. Three years with the same roommate is like, thirty years in college years.”

"Problems?" asked Steel.

"You know what I mean," Brett said with a knowing look.

“You said you’re pre-law. Jeremy is an art history major. How did you two guys meet?”

“Had the same English class freshman year. Got paired off for peer editing and we just clicked.”

“I know about Jeremy’s dad and what he does, what do your parents do for a living?”

“Lawyer,” Brett said sheepishly. “Both of them. Dad is a divorce lawyer and mom is a corporate lawyer.”

Steel resisted the urge to smile. He could see Brett’s future clearly. He’d be at some white shoe law firm right out of law school, on the partner track of course. One day in the far future this stoned out kid jamming to Bad Brains would be some federal judge, in a position where he could do damage until he either died or retired. That was what places like Georgetown offered. It wasn’t so much education as it was entrée to the elite circles of privilege this country had to offer.

“Let’s talk about drug use, mainly Jeremy’s. I don’t care about weed. I’ve already been briefed on Jeremy’s troubles. Already told you I’m not a cop. I was hired to find him and that’s all I’m here to do. Is he into more than just weed?”

Brett’s sheepish smile seemed to evaporate at Steel’s question.

“Yeah,” Brett mumbled. “He uhh...he used to be into scripts. He’d get popped with xannies, percs, some klonopin. Eventually he stepped up to heroin. I know he used to snort it but the last few weeks I was worried he’d started arm popping.”

"What made you think that?"

"It's too hot for long sleeve shirts," said Brett. "But Jeremy was rocking them all day every day."

“You ever do any heroin with him?”

‘No,” Brett replied too quickly. “I do coke at parties, but I never touched anything that hard.”

Steel didn’t reply. He just silently stared at Brett. He knew silence could be as effective as any shouting or threats of violence. Let people get uncomfortable enough and they would eventually tell you what you wanted to hear, if just to stop the silence.

“I had some snorts with him a time or two, okay?” He finally said. Just the admission seemed to relieve the kid. "But that's it... don't tell my parents, please."

“I'm not reporting to them, Brett," said Steel. "Do you know where he copped from?”

“Not around here,” said Brett. “He got too well known in the area, always getting busted. I went with him a few times to these projects down in the southeast to get a speedball. Some street corner real close to the Virginia line.”

Steel had a rough idea of where Brett was talking about. The Washington Highlands area had an unfortunate reputation for crime and poverty. While the District’s most violent days seemed to be a thing of the past, the violence of the 80’s and early 90’s were still alive and well in Washington Highlands.

“You know about Jeremy owing anyone money?”

“No, that was one thing he’s always good for,” Brett said with a harsh laugh. “See his dad stands up in congress and talks a good game about personal responsibility and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but Jeremy is firmly wedged on the family tit.”

“Seems like the good congressman is a man of many contradictions,” said Steel. “Know anything about Jeremy’s lovelife? Any girlfriends...or boyfriends?”

“There was some girl he made eyes at who he’d see around campus. Some hippy dippy chick. Can’t remember her name, just that she worked in the college bookstore. He bragged he was fucking her. Don’t know how much of that was bullshit.”

“Was Jeremy known to lie?” asked Steel.

“Exaggerate is more like it,” Brett shrugged. “Like to play himself off as something more than what he was. His dad was famous and powerful, sure, but around here you got a lot of old money. And Jeremy’s family were just a bunch of Tennessee rednecks before his dad got into politics. Nothing special. But he liked to play it off like he was a southern Kennedy, like he had his dad’s ear and was an actual advisor or some shit. He was just a fucking borderline junkie on his way to flunking out of college.”

“Well I think you’ve given me a lot of good information, Brett. Let me get your number. I’ll be in touch if I have any follow up questions.”

In his car, Steel let Brett’s last words on Jeremy sit with him for a long moment. Inflating your importance wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. In this town it was a prerequisite to get anywhere. But throwing in drugs into the mix...maybe his disappearance was more than just a simple drug bender? Maybe the kid had gotten high and bragged to the wrong person on the wrong street corner.

Steel checked the campus bookstore’s hours on his phone and saw it had just closed. He’d have to try again tomorrow. In the meantime, he could spend the evening doing research and reaching out to his MPD contacts. See what they knew about the drug scene in Washington Highlands.





Earth #3311
The White House

President J.J. McGuillicutty checked his watch for the third time in the past ten minutes. The sound of the ticking clock seemed almost deafening to him. Besides the clock it was completely silent in the Oval Office. For the first time in over twelve hours he was completely alone in the room. McGuillicutty ordered the gaggle of science, political, and military experts out while he took a seat behind the Resolute Desk.

“There’s a button under the desk,” President Dolbert had told him two years earlier. It was just before McGuillicutty’s inauguration. Dolbert stared at McGillicutty with his beady eyes and showed no hint that this was some kind of joke. “You only press that button once in a lifetime. Only in an extreme emergency.”

“Like a national collapse?”

“No,” said Dolbert.

“A global nuclear war?”

“Kids stuff.”

“Bacon shortage?”

The soon to be ex-president shook his head. “Not even then.”

“Then when do I use it?” asked McGuillicutty.

Dolbert placed a beefy hand on the president-elect’s shoulder. “When the time comes, you’ll know.”

And the old bastard was right, thought McGuillicutty. It took him a while to remember Dolbert’s cryptic warning, but after he did he quickly shooed his advisors out of the room and found the little button beneath the Resolute Desk. After debating for almost ten minutes to do it or not, he whispered a prayer and pressed the button.

The president heard a soft whirring as something shifted beneath the desk. It took McGullicutty a moment, but he realized the button itself was moving. It scuttled across the surface of the desk before it took its place in front of him. It pulsed a soft yellow and a tinny, chipper voice began to emit from it.

“Thank you for contacting Peck Property & Casualty Insurance, this is Bobert and I need to inform you that this conversation is monitored for quality assurance. How may I help you?”

“Bobert?” McGuillicutty asked.

“Yes, how may I help you today?”

McGuillicutty struggled to find the right words. “There’s an… invasion, I guess? Men from outer space.”

“Oh, no,” Bobert said sympathetically. “That must be real inconvenient for you. Let’s get some information out of the way first before we continue. Am I speaking to the policy holder.”

“I’m the president of the United States,” McGuillicutty offered. “Does that… help any?”

“Yes it does,” said Bobert. “You are the de facto policy holder for your planet’s coverage and… I am pleased to tell you that, in fact, alien invasion is covered by your homeworld owner’s insurance. This claim is processing. Please standby, a Peck Property & Casualty Insurance agent will be touch with you shortly with an update on your claim. Did you need anything else from me today, sir?”

“Help?”

“Help is on the way,” Bobert said, in a voice so soothing that McGuillicutty actually felt a fuzziness in his chest.

What McGuillictty did not realize was that the warm feeling in his chest wasn’t due to Bobert’s exceptional customer service. It was due to a narcotic spore Bobert had released from the button. Bobert’s programming, because Bobert was in fact an AI and not at all a real person, was to lightly tranquilize claimants during times of extreme duress.

“Cool,” said McGuillicutty. The president looked around the Oval Office and his eyes widened in amazement. “Wow…. there’s no… corners. It’s so… round. So... ovally... is that a word? Gotta make an executive order making it a word...”

McGuillicutty leaned back in his chair and laughed as both Howard and Bruce Banner appeared in front of him in a flash of light. The president took in the sight of an anthropomorphic duck in stride, Howard thought. In his experience most sapiens had extreme reactions to seeing him.

That’s when Howard heard the collective sound of many guns cocking. He and Banner slowly turned to see a small platoon of soldiers and generals, each of heavily armed, standing at the door to the Oval Office and ready to blow them away.

“They’ve infiltrated the White House,” one very decorated five-star general barked. He pulled back the hammer on a massive revolver. “Die, alien scum.”

Before the general could squeeze the trigger a massive emerald arm snatched the gun from his grasp. The soldiers collective took a step back at the sight of the Incredible Hulk looming above them. He growled and the military men prepared to fire again.

“Hold your fire,” Howard shouted. “We’re here to help!”

“Help, I need somebody,” the president mumbled from his chair. “Not just anybody…”

Howard reached into his suit jacket, slowly, and produced his I.D. card. It showed that Howard T. Duck was in fact a licensed interdimensional insurance agent for Peck Property & Casualty Insurance, specifically for the Life, Fire, and World Destruction Division. The soldiers scrutinized it while the Hulk played hacky sack with the general’s gun.

“The commander-in-chief back there filed a claim,” said Howard, his thumb pointing back toward McGuillicutty.

The president was clearly doing an air guitar solo of Foghat’s “Slow Ride”, which was in this world the most popular song of all time. It become so popular that a group of fans in 1980 incorporated the First Universal Church of the Slow Ride. Their motto, naturally, was “Take it Easy.” Contrary to their motto, however, the FUCSR were incapable of taking it easy. They currently sat at #1 on the FBI’s list of most dangerous criminal organizations. Even when set to the bitchin’ tunes of Foghat, a vast network of gun running, meth production, and tie-dye t-shirt smuggling was still illegal.

“I’m here to investigate the claim,” said Howard. “So can someone please explain what’s going on?”

One of the generals pointed at the Hulk. “He doesn't look like an insurance agent.”

The green giant took the revolver in both hands and bent it into the shape of a poodle.

“You're right. He’s my intern.”




“At 0300 hours a collection of twenty-six portals all opened up at various points across the globe. From those portals spaceships poured out. Massive motherships with a full fleet of fighters and bombers inside their holds.”

Howard sat at the conference table in the Situation Room with the rest of the president's cabinet and watched the scientist at the front give his briefing. Bruce had transformed back and was sitting next to Howard, wearing a pair of borrowed sweatpants, crocs, and a baggy shirt that read “It’s Always Five O’Clock In Margaritaville.”

“So far they have yet to make a strike on anything,” said the scientist. “But they have been playing their demands across every media platform. It took us some time to interpret it.”

The scientist pulled a remote from his labcoat and pressed a button. A high-pitched screeching noise filled the situation room. Bruce put his hands over his ears to muffle the sound, but Howard listened intently. He could pick out the rhythms of the sound and knew it was some language. It seemed very close to another alien tongue Howard had heard before. But he couldn't quite place it.

“Best as we can figure, they are saying they wish for a complete surrender before the end of the solar cycle or they will destroy the world.”

“And the nukes won’t work,” said one of the generals. “There’s some kind of goddamn forcefield on the things and the missiles just bounce off.”

“And ricochet back to earth,” the Secretary of the Interior said testily. "Where people live.

“I did us all a favor,” the general spat back. "Is anyone here actually going to miss Muilwakee?"

“Can you just keep it down,” President McGuillicutty said from his seat. He had on sunglasses and held a half-empty bottle of Gatorade. “My head is pounding.”

While the president and his cabinet bickered among themselves, Howard had his head in his lap. The tablet in his lap displayed a list of clients and details on them. The readout displayed this current version of Earth and what exactly made them different from the other realities in the infinite multiverse. A smile appeared on his face as he looked up.

“I have a plan,” he announced. “I need a few things: the armed forces of the world to prepare all fighter jets for aerial combat, a list of the highest grossing films of 1996, an Amazon Prime account, and most importantly… the actor Michael T. Weiss.”


You look like you could use some insurance there...
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