Seven Degrees of Bogus
by Ilan Herman
”I’m sorry,” I croaked, his gnarled fingers chains on my throat.
“Sorry my ass,” he yelled and hurled me onto the couch. He straddled my stomach and slapped my face eight times. Blood trickled from my nose. I was ashamed of my cowardice... I couldn’t even try to defend myself.
He got off my stomach, cracked his thick knuckles and said, “Wassup, mama’s boy? The powers that be are gettin’ restless. They don’t like to be played the fool.”
I sat up on the couch and wiped my bloodied nose. “I’m trying,” I said, my head humming with a swarm of hornets. “I don’t know what’s up. I can’t feel the tingle. Too much pressure.”
My interrogator curled his fists. “You better feel the tingle soon or I’ll show you what pressure is. I’ll make you hurt till you won’t feel nothin’ at all. I’m comin’ back in two weeks. You have your act together or I’m pullin’ out your nails: fingers and toes.” He spoke casually and I believed every word he said. He started to walk out but then turned and said, “Don’t try to run. I got my eyes on you 24/7.”
I watched the black Jeep drive away. I put an ice pack on my nose and lay on the couch. I was scared but also really pissed. I don’t like being called a wimp even if it’s true. The man was an arrogant brute. Arrogant brutes make mistakes. I wasn’t as dumb as he looked.
When he showed up at my house two weeks later, I stood stoop-shouldered in the entrance. He walked up the path. I shielded my face and cried, “Don’t hit me.”
A smirk rose to his thin lips. He was now three feet away from me. I pulled out the handgun with the silencer and said, “I need to rearrange your scar,” and shot him in the face three times. He was dead before he hit the ground, his brains soaking into the dirt.
Pedro and Emanuel, my burly fishermen friends, ran out from the trees. They wrapped the body in a blanket and carried it to their boat. The boat sailed to deep waters, where Pedro and Emanuel quartered the body and fed it to the sharks. When they got back, I gave them each 100 grand, enough for them to feed their families for a generation. They wept with gratitude. Then we shook hands, as men do, and they drove off in the Jeep, which they later dismantled and sank in the ocean two miles offshore.
I ran to the dirt airstrip a mile away, where a two-seat Cessna revved its propeller. We flew off into the night. We landed in Panama City two hours later, where I paid Mick, the hunky Aussie pilot 50 grand. “Onya mate,” he said and saluted.
A black SUV drove me from the airport to a cargo ship where Vladimir, the stout and bearded Russian captain of the Sweet Anna shook my hand and accepted a cloth bag with 300 grand. He opened the bag, peeked inside, and smiled brown teeth. “Spasiba,” he said with emphasis on the si-Spaseeeba.
Then he raised anchor and sailed full throttle into the choppy Pacific. A float plane picked me up a week later, while the ship anchored in the Arabian Sea fifty miles off Pakistan. Navigated by a rotund Chinaman, the plane flew very close to the ground and landed in the central Pakistani city of Khost. I paid the pilot Hong 75 grand. He bowed deeply and said, “Xie xie.”
From there followed a bumpy twenty-hour ride in a truck that drove me to Saidu, in northern Pakistan, where I was met by three masked men and four mules. In night’s darkest hours we rode into the jagged mountains. We climbed to fifteen thousand feet.
A week later we arrived in Narook, a tiny village where a stocky and moustachioed man with fierce brown eyes hugged me and kissed my cheeks three times.
“We have heard a lot about you and look forward to working with you,” he said in a throaty accent. “Salaam aleikum.”
“Likewise,” I said, tired but relieved. I’d arrived at the one place on earth where no corporation or SWAT team could find me: the mountain peaks on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the al-Qaeda sanctuary.
Ahmed led me to a stone house where a generator hummed quietly and powered a Dell SPX with a 25-inch flat screen. I sat at the computer, cracked my knuckles, and then browsed the world markets while Ahmed potted tea, which he served with goat cheese and honey cakes.
I was sipping tea and scrolling, when I saw that Halliburton stock, which I’d bought for 10 bucks a share on the eve of the Iraq war, and which had since risen ten-fold, was starting to slip. The tingle in the back of my neck had me quickly cashing out.
I laughed. The tingle was back, stronger than ever, like a dear friend who’d vanished in the wilderness and was feared dead, only to emerge from the jungle riding an elephant straddled with sacks of coconuts.
“Halliburton’s paying you twenty percent,” I told Ahmed, who smiled and said, “Allah is indeed akbar.”
Foster Brown tossed back his silver hair and broke into a hearty laugh that rumbled and shook his office walls. Then he dialed the old-fashioned rotary phone on his desk.
A deep baritone said, “John Grey here.”
“Hey, John buddy. I’ll talk to Alan now.”
“Hi, Foster. This is Alan... I’m really, really sorry...”
“I’d be if I was you. What the hell you thinkin’?”
“I don’t know... I guess a bit of osmosis from reading and working with your memoirs. Your stories are great... I took liberties I shouldn’t have.”
“I appreciate that, Alan, and I don’t mind that you wrote the story. It only has a bit of irrelevant and minor classified info. I just can’t believe you tried to sell it.”
“I didn’t try to sell it, I swear...” Alan rushed the words and panted short of breath.
“Then how did it get out?”
After a short silence, Alan sighed and then shared how he’d joined Plenty of Fish, an Internet dating site, and met Jem, a cute fifty-year old and a stock market day trader who thought he looked like Joe Namath.
“So I got stupid and tried to impress her and sent her the story cause it was about a day trader and stocks... I’m sorry. I was trying to get laid. It’s been a while. I swear I never showed or submitted the story to anyone. It was a very private and personal vignette, more like a random, abstract exercise in form.”
Foster ran thick fingers through lush silver hair. “Trying to crack the snatch is okay, but I don’t know crap anymore. All this Internet is fryin’ my old brain. I always say if the snake comes back to bite you, don’t blame the snake.”
Alan’s voice was an audible whisper. “I’m sorry Foster. I screwed up. I guess I also didn’t get what the Internet can do. I sure learned my lesson.”
Foster’s laughter rumbled through the phone line. “The story made me feel young again. Also, I see what you mean about having shorter paragraphs. It looks good on paper. Gives the reader time to think. You make darn sure my literary stuff smells like roses.”
“I’m happy to do that, sir,” Alan said. “It’ll be easy to do. The material is amazing. I promise we’ll have a great book when it’s all said and done.”
“Then we’re even. Go home and forget about it... Oh, but one more thing.”
“What is it, sir?”
“Are we really that bad?”
“Of course not,” Alan said. “I really hope you know that.”
“I do. Be on your way.”
“Thanks. I can use a shower. I got an e-mail from Hanna with baby Emily pictures. What a beautiful baby.”
Foster’s voice choked with tears. “She’s an angel from heaven. Your niece and my nephew. Go figure.”
Alan was finally breathing right. “And they’re still in love after ten years together. That’s a record in our families.”
Foster’s laughter was a ricochet off the planet’s crust. “Redemption gotta start somewhere. You have yourself a good night.”
The black SUV dropped Alan off by the apartment building on Pacific Avenue.
* * *
Three days later, after he’d taken time to calm down and had strolled the shoreline for hours at all hours, Alan drove back north to his home in Folsom. The good news was that the vampire book he’d helped proof was now a four-book deal and would pay reasonably well for his services. The bad news was that the vampire book he’d helped proof was now a four-book deal.
A month later, Alan logged onto Craig’s List and posted an ad in the toys section: “Baby trampoline still for sale. A few nicks but always safe and secure and lots of fun. E-mail for info.”
Two weeks later, on Craig’s List furniture section, he was reviewing the listings when he came to one that said: “An oak table with sturdy legs is still for sale. The lucky owner of this table will never need another one.”
Alan sighed with relief and mumbled, “Salaam aleikum, Ahmed, my brother. I’m always with you.”
“And I’ve got my eyes on both of you,” Foster Brown said and stared at the TV screen above his desk. “I’m not as dumb as you look.”
* * *
Katie finished reading the story and sipped her wine. She liked the title “Seven Degrees of Bogus.” The story was clever, a plot within a plot that ended with a double twist. But she didn’t like the writing. She felt zero empathy for the characters; the story was like a failed exercise in 3D trying too hard to create an illusion. The story was also very sexist and paranoid.
The guy who wrote the story e-mailed: “Did you get it?”
She had met him on line, at a writing forum where members trade tales and share literary lives. His name was Greg. She didn’t like the name Greg at all.
Katie didn’t respond. She deleted his e-mails. She took a shower and then tucked herself into bed. She was trying to sleep when she started to wonder if Greg was more than just a sad man and a fledgling writer, if maybe he had a sinister side... Katie decided to show the story to her friend Susan when they met for cocktails on Friday...
Copyright © 2011 by Ilan Herman