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UNDER SIEGE 9 - Last Train to Gaspe



The whole story :)

UNDER SEIGE 9 â “ Last Train to Gaspé

The Unwilling
Montreal, Canada
A low-class dive on Rue St. Jean

Biff Zwieback, or Secret Agent Slim, as he was known in intelligence circles, lit a fresh Gauloise and studied the thin drift of customers in the Stinking Pig, better known as the Porc Puant to the local language police. Slim gagged and crushed out the vile cigarette. â Å“Jeez,â ? he wheezed to his sidekick, Rene Dorf, code name, Sidekick Che. â Å“When are we going to get in some decent Ami cigarettes?â ?

â Å“Tonight, boss.â ? Che held out a slim black cigar. â Å“Try one of these. They're Cuban. Rolled on the thighs of dusky maidens and soaked in rum to boot.â ?

Slim sniffed the cigar. He grimaced and handed it back. â Å“I'll wait for the Ami smokes. Your cigars smell like horse manure.â ?

Che frowned. â Å“That's funny.â ? He held up the package. A horse head graced the front. Large brown letters proclaimed the cigar name: Crottin Cheval. â Å“What does Cheval mean? And ain't crottin something close to manure?â ?

Slim turned away to hide a smile. â Å“Close. The dusky maidens must live in a paddock.â ?

â Å“A what?â ?

Before Slim could answer, his cellphone blatted. He grinned and tapped the bar in time with the ring tone â “ 'Row, row, row your boat'. Shaking his head with nostalgia, he answered the call. â Å“Stinking Pig, Biff speaking.â ?

â Å“The language police will nail your hide to the wall if you don't start answering in the proper manner, Slim.â ? The secret agent began to sweat. Colonel Infanteer never called just to discuss the latest hockey scores.

â Å“You there, Slim?â ?

â Å“H-here, sir. What can I do for you, sir?â ?

â Å“Stop shaking like a leaf and calling me 'sir', for starters. Look around, Slim. Act is if you're talking to some slob's wife. Put on that expression bartender's use when they ain't gonna see anyone resembling Joe or Aguilar or Felix or even your old pal Baker.â ?

â Å“Baker?â ? Slim chuckled and relaxed. â Å“I really don't see Baker, sir.â ?

â Å“You will. Consider this a friendly warning. The good major will be on his way shortly. The Ami have caught wind of a fantastic plot and, being short of real intelligence agents, they're going to send him. I suspect that means they don't take the threat very seriously.â ?

â Å“But I'm supposed to work with him? What does that say about me and Canadian intelligence?â ?

Colonel Infanteer laughed. â Å“Nothing good, Slim, nothing good. But at the moment, our other two agents are busy. You'll have to do.â ?

If I had a backbone, thought Slim, I'd quit right now. I wouldn't let him get away with insulting me ever again. Aloud, he said nothing beyond a murmured, â Å“Of course, sir.â ? Locked away in the Colonel's files were a set of photos featuring a much younger Biff Zwieback, a naked woman and a trained seal. The unclad lady was the youngest daughter of a local cigarette smuggler and staunch Quebec Liberation Front radical. By slipping a copy of the photo to the gentleman in question, the Colonel could assure Slim a grisly death.

â Å“Baker will brief you. I'll be in touch.â ? The line went dead.

Che was excited. â Å“We got a job, boss?â ?

â Å“Yeah. Your old pal Baker is involved.â ?

â Å“All right!â ? crowed Che. â Å“I like the major.â ?

â Å“Yeah, I know.â ? Slim lit a Cuban cigar. With any luck, it might be poison.

The Unready
Pentagon, Washington, DC
Sub-sub-basement X-ray

The General walked in while Baker was practicing his supply clerk juggle. He had a stapler and a coffee cup (empty) in the air and was still able to initial two forms on each pass. His desk calendar lay at hand. He was trying to work up the nerve to add it to the circuit when he caught sight of The General Himself. In a trice, the major was standing at attention. He had the juggled objects arranged on the right side of his desk, with the forms in two neat stacks (initialed and un-initialed) to his left.

â Å“Practicing for the Logistics Olympics, I see,â ? murmured The General. He sat down and motioned for Baker to do the same. â Å“You can forget winning any gold 'Rejected for Lack of Proper Authorization' stamps. We have an assignment for you.â ?

Baker's heart leaped in his chest. â Å“A mission, sir?â ? He hadn't expected anything like that â “ not this soon â “ not after what happened last time.

The General sighed. Baker had never heard anyone refer to the old man as anything but The General or Himself or both. Nor had he ever seen The General in uniform. He had, however, observed four-star generals and admirals leap to obey the ancient gentleman.

Baker folded his hands and tried to look attentive. That had always been one of his weak points. No matter how he tried â “ how he concentrated â “ he could sit still for only a few seconds before his body began the dreaded Fidget.

â Å“An assignment, Major. A simple one. Did you learn anything from that last fiasco?â ?

Sweat popped out on Baker's forehead. He tried to think. What had he learned from that last operation? Not to trust a woman just because she had an honest face and big boobs? Never let an unknown person hold down a strand of barb wire while he, Baker, stepped across? He was unlikely to forget those lessons. Weeks in the hospital, reconstructive surgery and all those gonorrhea treatments would see to that. â Å“Yes, sir,â ? he blurted. â Å“I'm a new man, sir.â ?

A ghost of a smile crossed The General's face. He slid a folder across the desk. â Å“Study that, then destroy it. Your travel documents are in there. Don't destroy those. Report when you've made contact with Secret Agent Slim.â ?

â Å“Slim?â ? Baker groaned inwardly. He detested the know-it-all Canadian. His sidekick was an okay guy, though. â Å“Yes, sir. I'll get right on it.â ? He snapped to attention as The General rose and walked out.

â Å“I need a drink,â ? murmured Baker, after flipping through the folder. â Å“In fact, I think several tall cold ones are in order.â ? Taking the Classified, Do Not Remove from the Premises on Pain of Ritual Disfigurement, files with him, he headed for a quiet bar on the outskirts of Washington.

Baker awoke spluttering. He screamed and struggled against the frigid water.

The cabby stopped pouring water and grinned down at the major. â Å“Just wanted to make sure you was awake.â ? He tossed a manila folder on Baker's chest. â Å“You better get some sleep, man. If this information is correct, you got your work cut out.â ?

Baker sat up. An invisible demon drove a spike into his forehead. He groaned and attempted to speak. â Å“You read the file?â ? His mouth didn't work right. What he actually said came out more like, â Å“Ureshdafil?â ?

â Å“Wake up, man! We shared a bottle of vodka and a twelve-pack while looking over the case file. Just like we always do.â ? The cabby shook his head and tossed Baker's wallet to the floor. â Å“I got out the $234 for my fare. And twenty bucks for a tip. See ya.â ? With that the man was gone.

The major mumbled something even he didn't understand. He rolled over and grabbed a table leg. If he held on tight, the room spun a little slower. His stomach didn't feel so good and more spikes pierced his skull. He gripped the leg with both hands. A miniature statue of Stonewall Jackson rocked to and fro on the table. Baker whimpered and closed his eyes. Big mistake.

Somewhat later he awoke again. The table lay on its side. Broken statuary littered the floor. Sunlight streamed through his apartment windows, searing his eyeballs. His face, wallet and Top Secret file lay in a partly congealed pool of vomit. It was all so familiar, so pleasant. Even the spears of light were comforting, in an agonized way. For a moment nostalgia threatened to overcome him, but he passed out instead.

Spy Central
322 Rue Morgue
Across from Secret Base & Big Jacque's Pizza

Spymaster Bobbit struggled to maintain an attentive look as Minister Null, Chief of Canadian Defense Forces (Naval), Lord of the Ocean Sea, read through the American report. Just when Bobbit felt he could remain awake no longer, the Sea Lord sighed and tossed the files aside. â Å“I can't believe the Americans bought into any of this!â ?

The Spymaster retrieved the files and put them back in order. â Å“They don't seem serious about it, Minister. The man they're sending to investigate has had severe quality control problems in the past. In fact, I'm surprised he's still alive.â ?

â Å“I won't worry about it, then, Spymaster. Send me a memo when the thing blows over.â ? With that, the Minister of Naval Affairs heaved himself erect and took his leave. Bobbit flipped a hidden switch under the edge of his desk.

A thin, gray man entered from the Comm room. â Å“The Sea Lord seemed unconcerned, sir.â ?

â Å“He's attempting to project an image of quiet self-confidence toward us underlings, Infanteer.â ?

â Å“Ah, yes. I believe all upper-middle and upper-senior staff are involved in that effort. There were a series of lectures on the subject last month.â ? Infanteer sat down across from Bobbit.

The Spymaster passed the file to his chief assistant. â Å“Have you read this?â ?

â Å“I have had the privilege, sir. There may be more to it than the Minister believed.â ? To all appearances, Colonel Infanteer was a dyspeptic drunk, a mere functionary awaiting retirement. Bobbit knew better. The dried up man seated across his desk had served in shadowy conflicts around the globe, often in strange uniforms or no uniform at all. His appraisal of the situation caused icicles to form along the Spymaster's spine.

â Å“How do you mean? The report reads like a description of a carnival sideshow.â ?

â Å“It may all be an innocent comedy of errors, but we must err on the side of caution.â ?

â Å“I agree.â ? Bobbit riffled through the file. â Å“Five tons of itching powder? In cases marked Instant Holy Water? What's dangerous about itching powder?â ?

Infanteer shrugged. â Å“Is it really itching powder? The markings have a certain élan about them, sir. Either they're some moronic joke or a masterstroke of misdirection.â ?

The Spymaster flipped to another page. â Å“Then there's this report of a fat man transporting a pipe organ made entirely out of RPG-7 firing tubes. It's just outré enough to be true. Or a maskirovka of the first water. Can we afford to waste time hunting a pipe organ?â ?

â Å“I'm afraid the Americans went astray there, sir. I believe the instrument in question is actually a calliope. A steam calliope. But, more to the point â “ if this calliope has an assembly of RPG-7 firing tubes â “ where are the rockets?â ?

â Å“Calliope. There's a word you don't often hear in the intelligence business.â ?

â Å“One of the benefits of a liberal arts education, sir. The calliope in question is apparently mounted on a truck â “ a gaily painted truck, by all accounts.â ?

Bobbit grew pale. â Å“Careful what you say! I think 'gaily' is one of the Prohibited Words.â ?

Infanteer opened his mouth to utter a vile attack on the Department of Prohibited Speech, but thought better of it. He was getting too old to deal with burly DPS agents and their cursed lists, not to mention their rubber hoses and truncheons.

Anxious to change the subject, Bobbit tapped the file. â Å“We'll call it a truck painted in bright colors.â ? His voice rang in the nooks and crannies of his office, where microphones were likely to be positioned. â Å“So we have a steam calliope, several tons of itching powder and an unknown number of bad sorts converging on Gaspé, according to the Ami. What interest could terrorists â “ ah, alleged terrorists â “ have in Gaspé?â ?

â Å“Not fishing The mosquitoes are fierce at this time of year.â ? Infanteer smiled. â Å“I suppose we can persuade them to tell us their plans â “ once we catch them. I've assigned that job to Slim.â ?

â Å“Is that wise? The Ami are sending Baker. I shudder to think of those two working together.â ?

â Å“I'll keep an eye on them, sir. Perhaps they'll stir things up â “ make the terrorists, if there are any, move too soon or do something else foolish.â ?

The Spymaster relaxed. Infanteer's methods were stark and brutish, but effective. Slim and Baker might accidentally manage to be effective stalking horses. And if they got knocked off or savaged in the process, well, omelets require breaking eggs. He'd heard that somewhere. â Å“Let me know if you want for anything. You have my direct number. Use it at need.â ?

Infanteer nodded. â Å“We may be looking at nothing but a series of coincidences, sir. An accidental congruence of events.â ? He laughed, but the mirth didn't reach his eyes.

Bobbit shuddered as the bent old man headed back to the Comm room. Infanteer gave him the willies. Even his good morning greetings sounded sinister.

Marching Orders
The Stinking Pig (Porc Puant)
In Slim's upstairs office

Che entered and stood to one side. â Å“The Major is here.â ?

Slim stood up and offered his hand. Baker responded in kind.

â Å“Isn't that nice,â ? said a voice dripping with sarcasm.

Baker whirled. â Å“Infanteer!â ? He sagged into a chair. â Å“I might have known you were behind this.â ?

â Å“Wrong, as usual, Baker.â ? The colonel stepped out of the corner and into the light. â Å“Your own intelligence agencies are responsible.â ? He extended a clawed hand toward Che. The sidekick fumbled for a moment then produced a thin, black cigar. Infanteer sniffed it and smiled. â Å“Cuban. Still made in the same glue factory.â ? He lit the foul thing and returned to his seat.

Slim forced a laugh and tried to relax. The old gent made him nervous. â Å“We â “ ah, we've been reading through this collection of fairy tales your CIA and NSA sent up, Baker. Itching powder?â ?

The American shrugged. â Å“Yeah. Itching powder in crates marked 'Instant Holy Water'. I can't fathom that one. What about the pipe organ on the truck and the movements of the suspects? Are those just a series of unrelated events?â ? His question was directed at Infanteer.

â Å“Maybe. Maybe not. The machine in question is a steam calliope, by the way.â ?

Slim and Baker exchanged glances. Che struggled with and failed to contain a thunderous fart.

â Å“Sorry,â ? he said. â Å“Beer and ka-bobs for dinner, eh?â ?

â Å“What do we do now?â ? asked Baker.

Slim frowned. â Å“Nothing. He's already eaten the ka-bobs.â ? Infanteer snickered. Even that sounded deadly.

Baker managed a nervous laugh. â Å“No â “ I mean what do we do about the reports?â ?

â Å“You take tomorrow's train to Gaspé,â ? snarled Infanteer. â Å“The crates are at the station, ready for loading. Your job, Major, will be to shadow those crates.â ?

â Å“I thought that was my job,â ? whined Slim. â Å“It's been ages since I went on a train ride.â ?

â Å“You and Che will be tracking down a fat man and a pipe organ.â ? Infanteer's tone brooked no argument. Even Che kept quiet â “ not that he had anything to say.

â Å“What about the missiles?â ? asked Baker. â Å“If the pipe organ is really made of RPG-7 tubes, there have to be projectiles somewhere.â ?

â Å“You amaze me, Major,â ? snarled Infanteer. â Å“Now carry the logic to the end.â ?

â Å“Well â “ uh, the end of what?â ?

Infanteer laughed. This time the sound was more hopeless than sinister. â Å“The fat man can run all over Canada with his steam calliope for all I care. Unless he meets with someone carting a load of missiles, the thing is harmless.â ?

Slim and Baker nodded as if the old man had stated something they knew all along.

â Å“Okay.â ? Baker stood up. â Å“Where's the train station?â ?

â Å“Downtown.â ? Slim nodded in the wrong direction. â Å“Any cabby will know where it is.â ?

â Å“Where downtown?â ? asked Baker. â Å“I didn't see any tracks.â ? He was suspicious of Slim's motives. Nothing would make the Canadian happier than to have his American counterpart miss the train.

â Å“The tracks are underground,â ? said Che. A huge grin split his narrow, predatory face. In his heart of hearts Che would rather be underground, drilling and blasting, instead of running around as Slim's sidekick. His job wasn't all that bad. It just didn't measure up to tunneling.

â Å“I â “ um, I don't like tunnels,â ? muttered Baker. â Å“They're so dark and damp and â “ underground.â ?

â Å“Yeah,â ? sighed Che. His voice was detached, dreamlike. â Å“Tunnels are cool and sometimes you can catch nice fat, juicy rats down . . .â ? He shook himself, as if waking up. â Å“I mean, ah, tunnels are cool and, uh, refreshing.â ?

Infanteer made a hopeless noise, not unlike the groaning of ****'s un-oiled gates. He stood up, ground out his cigar on Slim's new vinyl flooring and stalked out without uttering another word.

Baker glanced at Slim. â Å“The train really runs through a tunnel?â ?

â Å“It does. Don't worry. The tunnel is brightly lit and not too long.â ? Slim showed the American a cell phone. â Å“Coverage isn't great, but it's better than nothing.â ? He flipped it open. â Å“The mauve button activates a short-range radio transmitter/receiver. Could come in handy, eh?â ?

â Å“So that's mauve,â ? murmured Baker, taking the radio. â Å“What is this dark reddish button?â ?

â Å“That would be burgundy,â ? said Che.

â Å“Indeed,â ? agreed Slim. â Å“The burgundy button is for an emergency locator. We might be able to track it, provided we can convince the air force to lend us a suitably equipped plane.â ?

Che grinned at Baker. â Å“If you're about to get shot or run over or stabbed â “ and if you have time â “ turn on the locator. That way we can find your body.â ? He seemed excited at the thought.

â Å“Right.â ? The major felt a little out of sorts. He couldn't decide it was the prospect of riding a train through a tunnel or just the lingering effects of his hangover. â Å“I think I'll get some rest.â ? He nodded to the Canadians and started for the door.

â Å“Wait, Major.â ? Slim held up a hand. â Å“You'll need this as well.â ? He laid a chunky 9mm automatic pistol on his desk.

â Å“No thanks, Slim.â ? Baker opened his coat and displayed a heavy, long-barreled pistol.

â Å“I might have known an American would show up with armament suitable for sinking battleships,â ? said Slim. â Å“What in God's name is that thing?â ?

â Å“It's an experimental job. 12.7mm, caseless ammo.â ? He pulled the weapon and held it muzzle up. â Å“Silencer built in. The magazine holds eighteen rounds.â ?

Slim touched the pistol reverently. â Å“12.7mm? That's .50 caliber! We won't be shooting any elephants at Gaspé, Baker.â ?

The Major tucked the gun away. â Å“You never can tell. The magazine is loaded in series of three â “ wadcutter, armor-piercing and explosive.â ?

â Å“Sounds good,â ? said Slim. â Å“Does it have any drawbacks?â ?

â Å“The explosive round is a tad much if you want to question the target later.â ? Baker shrugged. â Å“And there's a lot of muzzle flash. That's being worked on.â ? He opened the door. â Å“I'll see you when I see you, I guess.â ?

Slim nodded. â Å“Take care, Major. Perhaps we'll all go home in a week or so with nothing to tell our grandchildren.â ?

Che laughed and lit another cigar. â Å“No problem. You can make up stuff, just like we do on our expense reports.â ?

Unexpected Company
Somewhere in Montreal
Cheap hotel

By the time Agent Baker made it to his hotel he was thoroughly disgusted. He tossed the cabby a hundred dollar bill. The fare was $99. â Å“Think you can find your way back? You seemed lost most of the time.â ?

The cab driver snarled a couple of short words and signaled to the Major with an upraised digit.

Baker watched the cab disappear into the night. He shook his head and started up the stairs at the hotel entrance. â Å“Why is everyone speaking French?â ?

Following a confusing session at the front desk a down-in-the-mouth bellboy led Baker to his room. He was beginning to wish he'd stayed at the Crown Royale or the Sheraton. Their prices were outrageous, even when converted into US currency. But, they also weren't a hundred dollar cab ride from the train station. The Major handed the bellboy an American fiver, which seemed to raise the fellow's spirits somewhat. He even smiled as he went out. â Å“Poor slob,â ? muttered Baker. â Å“Probably gave him enough to pay his mortgage.â ?

He rang up Room Service and managed to convey his desire for a bottle of Canadian whiskey, a king-size bag of cheese puffs and a package of fig newtons. The goods would be up toot sweet, whatever that meant. He hoped for nothing more than prompt delivery. His jacket went on the back of a wooden chair and his tie onto the floor. It seemed safe to store the big handgun in the top dresser drawer. The Major didn't plan on going out.

He was stretched on the bed when someone knocked on the door. Accompanied by bad tempered mumbling, he padded across the room and opened the door.

â Å“God!â ? he cried. â Å“You!â ?

The well-endowed brunette flung her arms around his neck. â Å“I knew it was you,â ? she purred. â Å“Who else would order whiskey and fig newtons? But when did you start eating cheese puffs?â ?

Behind her, the bellboy hustled in with the ordered items and placed them on a side table. Baker tossed the lad a twenty and shooed him out. â Å“Buy a new house or something.â ? He stepped back into a clinch with the brunette. â Å“Where were we?â ?

â Å“On a ship leaving Cuba, as I recall,â ? said the lady. â Å“You walked out in the middle of the night and vanished.â ? She turned away. The atmosphere chilled.

â Å“Ah â “ babe, I had to leave on a submarine,â ? lied Baker. â Å“It was all hush-hush and done without notice.â ? In truth, he remembered neither her, the ship, nor the night in question. He massaged his temples. Forgetting the dame and their activities was understandable â “ but why couldn't he remember the ship? He loved ships.

She wiggled over to the table and poured a drink. â Å“I forgive you. Don't I always?â ?

Alarm bells began a muted ringing in the depths of Baker's skull. He ignored them. She handed him a glass of whiskey. He tore his eyes from her cleavage and tossed off the booze. â Å“Come here . . .â ? Her name refused to pop out of memory. â Å“. . . my dear.â ? He snuggled close. â Å“Care for a fig Newton? I don't share those with just anyone.â ?

She twisted out of his embrace. â Å“I know. Want a refill on that?â ?

He frowned. Refill on what? His brain seemed to be made of concrete. The glass slipped from his fingers. Someone struck a gong. His vision began to fade. â Å“Aargh â “ mick â “ mick --.â ?

â Å“Mickey Finn,â ? said the lady. He thudded to the floor. â Å“Sleep tight.â ? She opened the door for the bellboy and cab driver. They lifted Baker and carried him out. The woman followed, carrying the massive pistol. His other belongings were left for the cleanup squad.

It only took Baker five minutes to deduce that he was on a train. It was hard to concentrate on Special Forces Silent Observation Techniques with all the swaying and clacking. He kept his eyes shut. With any luck he could surprise his abductors.

â Å“Come on, Major, get up. I ain't got all day.â ? It was the woman from the hotel room. He moved his legs and arms a trifle. â Å“You're not tied or cuffed. Get up!â ?

He blinked. Daylight flooded the room. No â “ it was a compartment. Keeping a wary eye on the woman, Baker crawled into a seat. A hard-faced man in a black beret sat next to her. The Ami agent decided to play it cool for the time being. These two probably had allies in the vicinity. He grinned at the woman. â Å“Where are we going, sweets?â ?

â Å“To Gaspé â “ eventually. And I'm not your sweetie.â ? He lips twitched into an impish smile. â Å“Call me Calliope.â ?

Baker began to think he was way, way behind reality. â Å“Calliope? But â “ how could . . .â ? He reined in his runaway mouth. â Å“I was headed for Gaspé anyway. Why the knockout drink?â ?

Black Beret reached into a leather case and drew out a sheaf of photographs. He handed one to Baker. In the middle of the picture was a park bench. On that bench sat two bearded men in cheap suits. Each man had a small hole in his forehead, just above the bridge of the nose.

â Å“Know either of them?â ? asked Calliope.

â Å“No. At least â “ no.â ? Baker wiped his suddenly moist hands on his trousers. â Å“Who are they?â ?

She shrugged. â Å“I don't know. Gunnar here shot them in the hall outside your room.â ? Gunnar flashed a gap-toothed grin. The Major shuddered. He couldn't understand why people ran around with teeth missing when there were so many good dentists in the world. It was one of his favorite annoyances â “ right up there with people who wore replicas of the American flag on their butts.

He dragged himself back to the here-and-now. â Å“Why did he shoot them?â ?

â Å“They were going to kill you, Major. Someone â “ some terrorist â “ doesn't want you in Gaspé.â ?

â Å“Me? But I'm just a logistics officer in the US Army. Why would an alleged terrorist want to harm me?â ?

â Å“Logistics officer?â ? Calliope and Gunnar brayed with laughter. The man recovered first. â Å“Major,â ? he said, â Å“we have people in many places. Your juggling has been observed. All I can say is, you need a better cover.â ?

â Å“I've only been practicing for a couple of years,â ? said Baker. His pride was taking a beating. He looked away. â Å“It's those **** coffee mugs that get me. Staplers, tape dispensers, cell phones, laptop computers, you name it and I can juggle it. But give me a full cup of coffee and my throwing technique goes to ****. I â “ I have no confidence in myself.â ? The admission surprised him. After all, these were total strangers.

Calliope dried her eyes with a tissue. â Å“Never mind that, Major. We killed those two and got you aboard the train safely. I drugged you to avoid endless wrangling over procedure. There wasn't time to explain every little thing.â ? She shrugged. â Å“You're here safely and some of our people have organized a demonstration that will hold up the train for nearly three hours at Saint-Hyacinthe. We thought it might be good to throw off the opposition's timetable.â ?

â Å“But â “ who are you people?â ?

She smiled. â Å“Some think we're part of the QLF. Others maintain that our group is the action wing of PETA. Once, I heard that US State Department Intelligence had us pegged as retro communists. But we are none of those â “ and all of them.â ?

â Å“I â “ I don't follow.â ?

â Å“I know.â ? She patted his cheek. â Å“Suffice it to say that we have several agendas, but this operation is not related to them. We do not want a sizeable portion of the Gaspé peninsula and points south to be turned into a radioactive desert.â ?

A cold lump grew in Baker's throat. He must have misunderstood. No one would be fool enough to â “ it couldn't be.

His thoughts must have been obvious. â Å“It can be, Major. It is. We don't know if the terrorists are planning to explode a device or use a conventional explosive to spread plutonium dust. We want to know and we want to stop it. You can help. If nothing else, the operation needs to be seen as a cooperative venture between Canada and the US.â ?

â Å“Me? But I'm just a lowly major. I need to report to Higher Authority. If someone's going to pop a nuke . . .â ?

â Å“You're out on the sharp end here, Baker. Are you a time-serving hack or an officer?â ?

â Å“Well . . .â ? He hesitated. The thought of tracking down God knows how many thugs armed with all sorts of lethal weapons â “ and maybe a NUKE â “ petrified him. And the time-serving hack bit had served him well for many years.

On the one hand, Calliope had nice knockers. On the other hand, Calliope had nice knockers. His glands and imagination voted for car chases, explosions, martinis (shaken, not stirred) and maybe, just maybe, a chance at those boobs.

The two tree hugging anarchists waited in silence. Finally, he stood up and came to attention â “ all five foot, three inches of him. â Å“I'll do my best.â ? He wanted to salute the flag, sing an anthem, maybe even indulge in a chocolate sundae with whipped cream and cherries. Here, at last, on a government subsidized train in Canada, heading toward a yucky death by atomic flame or radiation poisoning, he felt like a By God True American. He almost wet himself.

Gunnar tossed the Major a black beret. â Å“Wear it as sort of a badge, my friend. It will make it easier for our compatriots to aid you.â ?

Calliope kissed Baker lightly. â Å“I'll be around. Pretend you don't know me. Gunnar will get off at the next stop and coordinate with other groups.â ? She laughed. â Å“That hand cannon of yours is in the overhead compartment.â ? Then they were gone.

He sat down and stared out the window. Cold, slimy tentacles of fear crept back into his soul. Who did he think he was, rolling off into the morning light to save the world â “ or a small part of it â “ from annihilation? On impulse, he stood up and retrieved his pistol. It was the work of a moment to strap it on. Baker drew the heavy handgun and checked the action. Blue steel warmed to his touch, driving back the fear. He laughed and shook the weapon at imaginary foes. He was a heavily armed American with a picture of Mom in his wallet, right next to his library card. Respect for Old Glory was in his heart. Everything was perfect. If he died, well, so what. He'd go out in a blaze of glory. A blaze of nuc-u-ler, by God, glory.

He sat down, cradling the pistol. His arm ached from holding the big piece of iron aloft. Pain aside, he'd never felt happier. Only one thing was missing. His joy would be complete if he had a piece of apple pie. He tucked the pistol away. The dining car ought to be open. They'd have pie â “ apple pie. It would be un-North American not to have pie. Even these **** Canadians must know that.

It took all his new-found courage to step into the corridor. Which way to the dining car? Baker hesitated, then shrugged and started toward the front of the train. He needed to scout out the passengers anyway. And it would be a good idea to determine where the itching powder/Instant Holy Water might be. A sudden bolt of fear paralyzed him. â Å“Calliope! She doesn't know about the powder!â ? Shaking off a feeling of dread, he lurched forward again. What might those crates of itching powder/Instant Holy Water actually contain? Plutonium? RPG projectiles? Or were they a blind, designed to draw attention while the real attack went forward undetected?

As luck would have it, he found the dining car and the probable location of the mystery powder at almost the same time. It was full dark, but when the train rounded curves and if he leaned against the window next to his table, he could make out a single box car coupled between the dining car and the engine. It was time to find Calliope and tell her about the powder. But first Secret Agent Baker intended to finish his pie.

On the Road Again
Hwy 132, near Rimouski

Che was driving. Slim slumped in his seat, cellphone pressed against his ear. As they reached the outskirts of Rimouski, he tucked the phone away and stretched. â Å“The fat man is stopping at each little town and playing an impromptu concert for donations. He is reported to be at Amqui. We shouldn't have any trouble catching up this morning. And HQ had some other good news. The train to Gaspé was held up for nearly three hours by some sort of demonstration that blocked the tracks near Saint-Hyacinthe.â ?

â Å“The QLF again?â ?

Slim rubbed his red-rimmed eyes. â Å“No. An animal rights group, near as anyone can tell. Who cares! It means the train went through Rimouski only about ten minutes ago. HQ says it made a five minute stop there.â ? He leaned forward, eyeballing the road ahead. â Å“I'm hungry. It's coming up on six. Some place ought to be open.â ?

â Å“Look for a gas station,â ? said Che. â Å“We need to gas up. Maybe someone can direct us to a good café. I'm about to starve.â ?

â Å“You ate everything in the car that was vaguely organic last night. How can you be hungry?â ?

â Å“You're just upset because I didn't share those cookies I found under the back seat.â ?

â Å“Right. I'm angry that I didn't get a chance to share possible botulism with you. There's a gas station. You fill the car while I empty my bladder.â ?

Che stopped beside the pumps and shut the car off. He rubbed his stomach and frowned. â Å“Is bottlism fatal? I don't feel so good. Do I look like I've got it?â ?

â Å“Botulism.â ? Slim spelled it out. He peered at his companion. â Å“Well, your eyelids are droopy and your speech is slurred, but that's normal. Is your vision blurred?â ?

â Å“No.â ? Che blinked several times. â Å“I'm not sure. Maybe a little.â ?

Slim grinned. â Å“Either you have botulism or you just spent most of the night driving a 1965 Checker Marathon from Montreal to Rimouski.â ? He left Che puzzling over that one and headed for the men's room.

The sleepy station attendant directed them toward an eating place on the far side of town. Slim eyed the fellow with suspicion. â Å“Le Nez Croche? Sounds like a rough joint.â ?

â Å“Pah! You want a bad place, try Bar Salon Ti-Quebec! The separatists hang out there. Besides, Le Nez Croche is the only place for breakfast right now,â ? insisted the man. â Å“Maurice opens early so the cigarette smugglers can get a bite before going to bed.â ?

â Å“Smugglers?â ? Slim glanced at Che, who was inspecting the candies. â Å“Cigarette smugglers in this day and age! What do you make of that?â ?

Che's fond gaze rested on a nutty chocolate bar. He couldn't decide between that one and a block of dark chocolate. He spoke without taking his eyes off the candy. â Å“Last year, according to estimates by Canadian and American officials, about $500 million dollars in cigarettes were smuggled into Canada from Maine. The average smuggler netted about $200,000 Canadian for his efforts.â ?

The attendant smirked at Slim. Che brought a handful of candy bars to the counter, including the dark chocolate. He'd never been one to resist the siren song of chocolate.

Slim said nothing until he was behind the wheel of his beloved Checker. â Å“Did you make all that stuff up? Or is there really that much money in smuggling?â ?

â Å“I read it in the Official Digest of the Official Synopsis of Official Reports. It comes out once a month. Don't you read it?â ?

â Å“We're in the wrong business, boyo. Imagine -- $200 grand a year!â ?

â Å“Smugglers also get shot on occasion and often spend considerable time in jail.â ? Che stowed the dark chocolate in a jacket pocket. He'd have that one later. With coffee.

â Å“We have the same risks in our business,â ? said Slim.

â Å“Not unless someone figures out our expense account strategy.â ?

Slim herded the big Checker through town. â Å“I'm not cut out for smuggling, I guess. I'll stick with my bar. Although, I'll have to admit it isn't making the money I thought it would â “ even with the added prostitution and gambling.â ?

â Å“Nor will it ever,â ? said Che. â Å“It's like a rabbit running a carrot stand.â ?

Le Nez Croche lay well back from the road, on the crest of a bluff with the back of the building overlooking the St. Lawrence. Several late model four-wheel drive pickups and SUVs occupied the gravel parking area. Neon beer signs glittered in two windows facing the road. Slim parked the Checker off to one side.

â Å“Nice location,â ? said Che, as they walked toward the entrance.

â Å“Yeah.â ? Slim took in the shabby exterior and broken shingles. â Å“Needs a little repair work and a coat of paint, though.â ?

â Å“It's a fisherman and smuggler bar. What do they care about siding and shingles?â ?

Slim shrugged and pushed the door open. â Å“I just hope the food is good.â ?

They stepped into a dingy interior, lit mostly by light filtering through three large windows on the back wall. Years of grime crusted the panes, reducing sunlight and the view to drab monotones. â Å“I hope the food is safe to eat,â ? muttered Che.

To their right, five burly men occupied a table near one of the windows â “ and the back door. These worthies glanced at the two interlopers and went back to their rumbling conversations. At the other end of the room a bar lay athwart the room. Double half-doors at the near end led into what had to be the kitchen. Behind the bar, a man stood reading a newspaper. Steam drifted out of the kitchen along with the sound and scent of frying fish. Slim headed for a table near the far end of the bar.

The barkeep folded his newspaper and ambled over. When he spoke, it was in the thick patois of the region, laden with strange stops and half-familiar words. Seeing their confusion, he laughed and said something to the men at the far table. Slim glanced at his sidekick. â Å“You get any of that?â ?

â Å“Some. You don't want to know.â ?

Tossing a one-page, stained menu on the table, the man laughed. â Å“Never mind, friends. We like to have our fun with you city folk. I am Maurice. Welcome.â ? His words were still thick with oddities, but they were able to follow most of what he said.

â Å“Your bar was touted as a good spot for breakfast,â ? said Slim. Che peered at the grimy menu as if trying to decipher hieroglyphics.

â Å“The only place for breakfast, at this hour,â ? boomed the barkeep. â Å“We have coffee, fried fish, potatoes, and eggs. Those seeking dainty fare don't stop here.â ?

â Å“That will do fine,â ? said Slim. â Å“Never let it be said I turned my nose up at decent fish and eggs.â ?

â Å“I didn't say they were decent,â ? muttered Maurice. He brought two chipped mugs brimming with coffee, then vanished into the kitchen, shouting something about bobble-head dolls, if Slim's ears were to be believed.

The coffee could only be described as formidable. Platters of fried fish, fried potatoes, fried eggs and grilled bread followed, served up by a slight woman who laughed and babbled as she laid out the food. Neither man understood a word of her talk.

By upper-crust Montreal standards, it was an execrable meal, chock full of fried foods and laden with butter, grease and salt. However, once past a fashionable hesitation, it was delicious.

As he ate, Slim noted that he could understand more of the low gabble emanating from the other table. He couldn't decide if it was simply that his brain was scavenging among the vowels and syllables, fitting meaning with sounds, or if it was something in the food.

Content, drinking their third cups of coffee, the two agents lingered over the remains of the meal, soaking up the friendly, if soiled, ambiance of the place. Even the coarse discussions of the alleged smugglers seemed a fitting accompaniment to the morning.

Both men were lamentably relaxed when the four bearded gunmen burst through the entrance.

Amqui, QC
Looking for Calliope

Baker huddled in the dining car, sipping a beer. He had just finished a complete circuit of the train and seen nothing of Calliope. There were compartments in only one car. Breaking into each and every one to find her didn't seem like a good plan. She could easily have gotten off the train at Saint-Hyacinthe, when that bunch of eco-freaks blocked the train.

The Ami agent was staring out at the passing scenery as the train passed through a town. A sign flashed by: Amqui. Another place he'd never heard of. A group of people were gathered in a clearing not far from the tracks. Must be a sheep shearing contest, thought Baker, ever fair in his snap judgments of other peoples and cultures.

But, of course, it wasn't a sheep shearing contest. Such contests are held in September at the annual Amqui Oktoberfest, which has to be scheduled for September on account of all the rain and snow that falls in October. Anyway, the crowd Baker observed was not involved in shearing of any sort. The onlookers were listening to a thing only a few had ever heard of â “ and those uniformly considered it a baseless legend â “ until now. It was a calliope â “ a steam calliope. A buzz of conversation broke out in the car as passengers caught sight of the red and yellow rig.

â Å“It's the fat man!â ? exclaimed Baker. Other passengers turned, eyeing him curiously. A waiter sidled closer, clutching a goblet for use if the Ami agent became violent. Everyone in the car, save for the other Ami passengers, knew the heavily-armed man who had eaten an entire apple pie by himself, was an American agent. All the other American passengers had that vacant stare caused by being away from their television sets. This one had a wild, confused look about him â “ ergo, he was an agent.

Baker calmed down and pulled out his cellphone. Slim needed to know about the fat man! He flipped it open and stared at the instrument. Which button? Light purple or dark purple? Well, not really purple. He frowned, trying to remember the colors. A passing waiter leaned down and whispered, â Å“Mauve. Push the mauve button to telephone Canadian Intell. No, not the burgundy. Mauve.â ? Baker nodded his thanks and mashed the light purple button.

He huddled over the phone, wishing he'd gone back to the compartment before calling.

â Å“Central Message Center,â ? announced a computer voice. â Å“Listen to the menu carefully. If you screw up your phone will self-destruct.â ? After a brief pause, a different voice began reciting the menu options. â Å“Push one to report sighting a Conservative in Canada. Push two to report a violation of the Prohibited Words Act. Push three to contact Canadian Intelligence officer, even though we don't have any. Push four . . .â ? Baker pushed three.

A real person answered. â Å“Button three.â ?

â Å“Um â “ this is Baker. I must speak to Slim.â ?

â Å“Sure, Major. You and about forty creditors. He's off the line right now. I'll pass a message.â ?

â Å“The train just passed through mauve â “ ah, no. I mean the train just passed Amqui. Amqui. You got that? The fat man was there with the calliope.â ?

â Å“A calliope in Amqui? Hey, that rhymes. I'm a poet and don't know it.â ? The person snickered. â Å“We already knew about the fat man, Major. Thanks for the call.â ? The line went dead.

Baker closed the phone and put it away. He was sweating profusely. Phone conversations were always pure **** for him. As yet, his therapist had been unable to find the cause, though the Major's memory of an extended period of toilet training was the principal suspect. Drying his hands and mopping his face with a napkin, Baker headed for the front of the dining car. His hastily formulated plan involved opening the door, climbing onto the roof of the box car and then entering said box car via the oversized vent present in every spy movie he'd ever seen. He paused at the door. After a moment, he turned back and entered the restroom. Might be a good idea to tinkle first.

Soon he was in position in front of the stainless steel urinal, balancing as the train swayed along the tracks. Making water proved to be difficult, what with all the clackety-clack and movement. He closed his eyes and concentrated. It was easier than he expected, thanks to the gallon or so of coffee he'd finished along with the apple pie. â Å“Aaaaaah . . .â ?

â Å“It's about time you got here,â ? snarled someone behind him. It was Calliope.

He craned around, quite unable to stop the coffee-pressurized stream. She stepped from a cramped linen closet, smirking as he wet the wall and his trousers.

â Å“Hey! You can't â “ you can't be in here! This is the men's restroom.â ? He leaned against the wall, trying to shut out her laughter.

â Å“Sorry, Major. I thought you Ami super-spies were immune to the conventions of normal society. Shall I get back in the closet?â ?

â Å“Yes! No.â ? He sighed. â Å“Just turn around, please.â ? He managed a shrill laugh. â Å“You've confused us with the Brits. They have the imperturbable spies.â ? A few seconds more and he was finally drained. He regained a modicum of composure as he zipped his pants. â Å“Okay, don't tell me you've been in here all morning.â ?

â Å“But I have. I figured you'd be in here after the first couple cups of coffee.â ?

â Å“I have a strong bladder,â ? bragged Baker. â Å“Why were you here at all?â ?

â Å“There are at least three men keeping an eye on the powder crates. They wander through the train from time to time, especially after stops. One of them knows me from a â Å“Give Way to Your Inner Terroristâ ? conference I attended last year.

â Å“I heard about that one. Was it any good?â ?

â Å“It was fun. I got pictures of me with several of the biggies. A couple middle-grade types even autographed the photos.â ?

â Å“Good going! How did you get that close to so many?â ?

Calliope's face shaded to pink. â Å“It involved a scanty costume and lap dancing. It's not pertinent to our task here today.â ?

Baker had no trouble imagining the murderous gents slobbering over Calliope's attributes. With an effort, he pulled his brain out of the gutter. â Å“Have you scoped out the box car?â ?

â Å“No. I've been stuck in this closet all morning. Did you?â ?

â Å“Yes. Well, not exactly. I checked out the passages between the other cars. It must be like that except that a box car has no matching doorway. So we'll have to climb up on top.â ? He laid out his plan.

â Å“Sounds good,â ? agreed Calliope. â Å“I saw those same movies.â ? She drew a slim automatic from her shoulder holster and examined it. Satisfied, she holstered it again. â Å“You ready?â ?

Baker stared into space for a moment, then shook his head. â Å“I was trying to think of something memorable to say â “ but nothing comes to mind. I'm ready.â ?

The bathroom door popped open and a bulky man stepped in. He wore a really bad, off the shelf suit and had on a bushy fake beard. Baker started to push his way into the corridor just as the gentleman noticed Calliope. A foreign-sounding word burst from his beard. The woman's pistol plonk-plonked twice. With each plonk, a round hole appeared in the man's forehead. His eyes went wide, then fixed straight ahead.

â Å“Catch him,â ? said Calliope, in a matter-of-fact tone. â Å“Drag him into the stall and put him on the toilet. He'll be out of the way there.â ?

Since he couldn't stand there holding the large, deceased gentleman, Baker did as instructed. He tried to get a better look at the man's face by pulling the beard off. It wasn't fake. He came out dusting his hands. â Å“Who was that?â ?

â Å“One of the bad guys. That's one less to deal with. We better see about the others before they find this clown.â ?

â Å“See about? I was under the impression they'd be given the opportunity to surrender to proper authorities.â ?

â Å“They can.â ? Calliope laughed. It was the coldest, cruelest laugh Baker had ever heard. She nudged him with an elbow. â Å“I'm not a proper authority and neither are you. They can avoid us by surrendering to one of those proper types. As for us â “ we're just gonna shoot 'em.â ?

â Å“It's irregular,â ? said Baker. â Å“But I like it. Less paperwork.â ?

â Å“Paperwork?â ? sneered Calliope. â Å“The only paperwork I do is in the bathroom. That's what we hire interns for.â ?

â Å“Really?â ? Baker was stunned. â Å“What a novel idea.â ? He shook his head. â Å“I hope it doesn't catch on in the States.â ?

â Å“Come on,â ? muttered the woman. â Å“Let's assault us a box car.â ?

Things went swimmingly for about four steps. Baker stopped in the flexible corridor connecting the dining car to the next one in front. There was no blank box car wall. Nor was there a handy ladder leading up to the roof. Instead, the corridor led to another door.

â Å“That isn't a box car,â ? observed Calliope.

â Å“Well . . .â ? Baker could feel his face flushing. â Å“I â “ ah, I couldn't see any windows in it, from the dining car, so â “ ah, I figured it must be a box car.â ?

â Å“It's a car for general freight and baggage. Hadn't you ever seen one before?â ?

â Å“Sorry. I'm not an expert on railway cars.â ?

Calliope peered through the small window inset into the baggage car door. â Å“There's a short hallway then an open area. I can see boxes and baggage, but no people.â ?

â Å“There's bound to be one or two in there.â ? Baker started to draw his weapon, then did not. Once pistols were drawn, it would be difficult to back out.

Calliope drew her automatic. â Å“Let's go. At least we don't have to climb all over a greasy box car. I didn't say anything before, but this isn't the right outfit for that sort of thing.â ?

Baker smiled and ran an appreciative eye over her low-cut blouse, short skirt and matching jacket. â Å“A terrorist's dream. I suppose this one is suitable for frontal assaults?â ?

She gave him a suspicious look. â Å“I'm not sure what you mean, but it will do. It will do. Get out that cannon of yours. We'll go straight down the hall, then I'll go left and you go right. Shoot anyone who looks like our friend from the bathroom.â ?

â Å“Right.â ? Baker drew his pistol. â Å“Where do they get such bad suits?â ?

Calliope pulled the door open and slipped through, stalking forward in a crouch. She's giving the terrorists a nice look up her skirt, thought Baker. Shaking his head to clear the instant mental picture of him as a terrorist, ogling the sexy western woman, the Major rushed down the hall and dove to the right.

The darkened baggage car exploded with muzzle flashes and deafening explosions. Baker fired three times toward a shadowy figure at the far end of the car. Wad-cutter, armor piercing, high explosive, he thought. Though nearly blinded by the muzzle flash, he was able to see the shape jerk twice, then vanish in a bright explosion. He had a glimpse of body parts bouncing across the floor. Firing ceased.

â Å“Good going, Major,â ? called the woman. She was crouched behind a heavy crate on the other side of the car. Voices babbled downrange. Calliope fired toward the sound. Baker saw her pistol jerk and heard the now-familiar plonk-plonk. He triggered two rounds in the same general direction. The muzzle flash was awesome, but the only noise was a sodden squdge-squdge. Not very impressive. A rifle, probably the old reliable AK-47, answered back. Bullets ripped overhead. The sound seemed about to tear Baker's scalp off. Clearly, the bad guys had the edge in acoustics.

Calliope ejected a magazine and slammed in another. She screamed something Baker didn't understand, then stood up and plonked away. More to put an end to the horrid enemy gunfire than for any other reason, Baker raised up and fired until the pistol action locked open, smoking, magazine empty. They both knelt in position, waiting for return fire. None came. Sunlight streamed through several new, ragged holes at the front of the car.

When his flash-deadened vision returned, Baker slipped forward around a pile of crates in the middle of the compartment. The woman crept along, matching his move on the other side.

There was no reason for stealth. The bad guys were reduced to a loose collection of parts. Blood dripped off everything visible. Calliope kicked an anonymous piece aside. â Å“Looks like we got 'em.â ? She grinned at Baker. â Å“I want one of those cannons. Do you suppose they make it in a smaller caliber with a cut-down frame and barrel? Something suitable for a thigh holster or to carry in a bra?â ?

The American agent, low-life that he was, marveled at the instant image he had of Calliope tucking a powerful handgun into her bra. â Å“I'll see what I can do,â ? he promised smoothly, even though his influence on R&D was laughable. If he could get her the gun she wanted, she might let him help with the fitting. Hope springs eternal â “ especially vain hope.

(continued in next post)
Le Nez Broche
Rimouski, QC

Each of the intruders had a heavy beard and wore a cheap overcoat, not unlike the duster of Old West fame. Two carried pistols and two were armed with AK-47s. They stopped inside the doorway, blinking in the poor light.

For long seconds, no one moved or spoke. The sound of frying fish wafted out of the kitchen. Che made the first move. He sighed and folded up, unconscious before he hit the floor. One of the terrorists swung his pistol toward the sound, but didn't shoot. He laughed and said something harsh and guttural to his companions.

A man at the corner table stood up and uttered his own version of harsh and guttural. Tension ratcheted up several notches. Slim eased his hand toward his pistol. Che broke the stillness with a bubbly fart. Even out cold his gaseous emissions were works of art. Two of the terrorists made embarrassed laughing sounds and shifted position. Slim began sliding his weapon free of the holster.

Anyone could have started the shooting. Triggers were drawn tight. The tableau couldn't hold, yet no one fired. It was as if some vagrant angel of mercy were staying the fingers of all in the room. Could the situation be defused without gunfire? Slim pushed his pistol safety to 'off'.

The cook, no angel of mercy, fired over the kitchen half-doors. Both barrels were loaded with double-O buckshot. Her first blast shattered one of the pistol-packing bad guys, blowing a good portion of his skull and brains onto his compatriots and splattering the balance across the wall. Worse, for the terrorist's prospects, his mortal remains were flung, flailing and dribbling piss, into the heart of their compact formation.

An old hand with shotguns, although not much to look at, the cook swung back on line and put her second round into a man in the act of swinging his rifle in her direction. He executed a very nice backflip and slid along the wall, greasing the floor with blood, lung tissue and rib cartilage.

Slim brought his pistol to bear, but couldn't find a target. One of the terrorists fell backwards through the doorway, taking out the screen door. The other went down in a welter of blood and brains, none of which was his own â “ yet. Slim ducked to the side as this man rolled and fired, more or less in the blind. His mental picture of the room was good. Two rounds shattered Slim's now vacant chair.

Two of the alleged smugglers rotated in their chairs and fired together, one with a large pistol and the other with a heavy revolver. Both fired three times and only one round missed its mark. It lodged in the wall, just behind where the terrorist's head would have been if an earlier slug hadn't knocked his twitching carcass aside.

No sooner had the weapon roar died away amid a universal ringing of the ears than two more shots split the air. These were fired outside. Slim crouched and moved toward the door, pistol forward, in the classic shooter's stance. A man in a black beret peeked around the door frame. â Å“One dead out here,â ? he announced. â Å“All clear inside?â ?

Whoever the stranger was, he obviously wasn't a terrorist. With shaking hands, Slim put his pistol on 'safe' and laid it on the table. He lurched to the bar. Maurice grinned, turned a page in his newspaper and nodded toward the heap of flayed carrion. â Å“Friends of yours?â ?

Later, after a stiff shot of brandy, the man in the black beret took Slim aside. â Å“Call me Gunnar,â ? he said. â Å“Never mind who I represent. My job is to help you find the fat man with the calliope and get to Gaspé in time to help stop whatever might be going on there. An associate of mine is traveling with the American.â ?

Slim wasn't sure how to take this helpful stranger. They turned to watch the alleged smugglers carrying the bodies to a nearby pickup truck. â Å“They shouldn't move the dead until the police arrive,â ? protested Slim, although only loud enough for Gunnar to hear.

â Å“There will be no police,â ? said Gunnar. â Å“These men have their own reasons not to involve the legal authorities, but we don't need the distraction of filling out reports and making statements, either. There isn't time. Not if we're to catch the fat man.â ?

â Å“What will become of the bodies?â ?

Gunnar steered Slim toward the waiting Checker. â Å“They will lie on the sea bottom in a few hours. Food for crabs.â ?

â Å“Crabs?â ?

â Å“Of course. Crabs will reduce a large man to bones in a few hours. Then other little eaters finish off what remains.â ?

Slim loved crab meat. Loved it with a passion. But, somehow he knew there would be no crab in his future â “ for a few months, at least. He climbed into the Checker. Gunnar got in the passenger side. Che was in the back, still asleep, still farting.

â Å“Maurice will take my car back to the rental agency,â ? said Gunnar. â Å“We need to head north until we reach Hwy 198, then follow it until we catch up with the fat man and his calliope.â ?

One of the alleged smugglers walked by with a bucket full of odd bits and pieces. He grinned at Slim and said one word. â Å“Chum.â ?

Gagging, Slim gunned the Checker out of the parking area and onto the highway.

Che woke up about five minutes later. He sat up and looked around. â Å“Where are we?â ?

Slim grinned at Gunnar. â Å“Just outside Pittsburgh. We're headed down to Quantico to report for Marine boot camp. It's a good thing you woke up. You've been drunk for three days.â ?

Gunnar played along. He reached back and shook hands with Che. â Å“I am pleased to meeting you, Senor Che,â ? he said in a thick Spanish accent. â Å“We join Marines, kill communists.â ?

â Å“I think all the communists have turned into capitalist pigs,â ? said Che.

â Å“Not in Cuba,â ? snarled Gunnar. â Å“Soon Marines and Airborne Rangers take Cuba from Fidel. We kill plenty communists.â ?

â Å“Why don't I have a headache?â ? asked Che. â Å“I always have a sick tummy and a headache when I come off a drunk.â ?

Slim began snickering. Gunnar held out for a few seconds, then dissolved into laughter.

â Å“You two are complete *******s,â ? observed Che without heat. The man in the black beret introduced himself again, this time with the 'call me Gunnar' line. Che shrugged. He was only a sidekick. Slim handled all inter-agency contacts. â Å“Where are we really? And what happened to those heavily armed lads with the beards and cheap overcoats?â ?

â Å“We're a few kilometers north of Rimouski,â ? said Slim. â Å“The terrorists are soon to be crab food.â ? He snickered. â Å“You slept through the whole thing.â ?

â Å“Good. Excitement is bad for my complexion. What next?â ?

Gunnar held up a hand. â Å“We're being followed. At least two men in a camper van.â ?

Slim studied the van in his mirrors. â Å“It's probably just a tourist.â ? He didn't believe it himself.

â Å“Speed up,â ? said Gunnar. â Å“Surely your car can outrun a camper van.â ?

â Å“I'll try, but this thing was built as a taxicab. **** for stout, but not fast.â ?

The van fell behind for a short while, then began creeping closer. Any doubt that the occupants might be innocent tourists evaporated. Slim pushed the Checker to a touch over 120kph. â Å“That's all she's got.â ? He hunched over the wheel, concentrating on driving.

Gunnar stared at the road ahead. The highway paralleled the coast, with mixed forest on the right and a steep drop to the water on the left. â Å“There is a sharp turn ahead,â ? he cautioned. â Å“Take it as fast as you can. They'll have to slow down a lot, with that big van.â ?

A solid thunk shook the car. Slim kept his eyes on the road. â Å“That was a bullet,â ? said Gunnar. Che passed out. A second round whined off the back glass, leaving a spider web of cracks. Two more bullets hit the trunk. None penetrated to the passenger compartment. â Å“She is built tough,â ? said Gunnar.

Slim pushed the Checker a little faster. He could see the camper van wallowing and rocking along behind. Twice he saw it fishtail back and forth. Each time the driver fought it back on course. â Å“Those guys are crazy! They're barely maintaining control.â ?

The turn is coming up,â ? warned Gunnar. He had his pistol out. â Å“If they hit something and we have to stop, try to put it into the brush. Then follow me out this side. There will be more cover and we'll need to stick together.â ?

â Å“What about Che?â ?

Gunnar shrugged. â Å“If we lose, they'll toss him over the cliff â “ asleep and farting or not.â ?

Slim saw the corner, less than a kilometer ahead. â Å“I'm going to push it until we're close! Then I'll hit the brakes and try to make the corner!â ?

â Å“Don't miss. It's a long drop to the water.â ?

The Checker rocked and shuddered, engine roaring. In Slim's mirrors the van crept closer â “ no more than fifty meters behind now. He saw an occasional muzzle flash, but both vehicles were careening around too much for accurate shooting.

â Å“Get ready,â ? he shouted. The road dipped and the van loomed closer. They rocketed out of the dip and over a slight rise. The Checker strained upward on its springs, then crashed back down. â Å“Now!â ? Slim began pumping the brakes. No fancy anti-skid in the old relic. As the car slowed, he braked harder, tires screeching. He caught a glimpse of the camper van, squatting in a cloud of tire smoke, sliding closer and closer.

Their bumpers were only a few meters apart when he got off the brakes and whipped the car into a hard right turn. A quick downshift and he managed a creditable power slide, blasting gravel into the guard rail. Once he risked a glance back. The van was up on two wheels. A single face peered in his direction. He saw a wink-wink-wink that had to be muzzle flashes. Slim horsed the Checker around and got it straightened out. He looked back again and the van was gone. Just gone.

Gunnar holstered his pistol. â Å“One roll, my friend. I could see black wheels and then there was much dust and pieces of railing, but no van. One roll and they went over the edge.â ?

â Å“I saw someone,â ? murmured Slim, â Å“just for a moment.â ? He glanced at Gunnar. â Å“I think he was shooting at us even as the thing started to roll.â ?

â Å“He was. These people do not stop at half measures.â ?

â Å“No. They don't.â ? Slim slowed the Checker to a moderate speed. All the gauges were okay. The steering and brakes worked fine. He patted the dash. â Å“Good job, old girl.â ?

Che sat up. â Å“Where are we now?â ?

â Å“Halifax,â ? said Slim. â Å“Don't you remember? We're AWOL. We should have been back aboard ship last night. We had to stay for the ceremony.â ?

â Å“Last night? What ceremony?â ? Che frowned. â Å“I can't â “ was I drinking?â ?

Slim grinned at Gunnar. â Å“Don't worry. She's a nice girl. You'll be very happy together.â ?

Silence. Gunnar looked around. â Å“He's passed out again.â ?

Down and Out
Matapedia, QC

Baker resisted an urge to toss his cellphone into the trees. â Å“Still no signal!â ?

Calliope uttered several earthy words and stuffed her phone back in her jacket pocket. â Å“Same with mine! They told me the thing would work practically anywhere.â ?

Their benefactor, a graying old farmer, spat over the side of the wagon. â Å“Them fancy phones don't work out here in the sticks.â ? He shook the reins and urged his horse to make haste. â Å“These folks is in a hurry, Sobie. Git along now.â ? Sobie flicked her ears and plodded on with no discernable change in pace.

Baker turned to Calliope. â Å“What did he say? I thought I spoke French, but . . .â ?

â Å“He said the phones won't work. It's a localized version of Quebecois.â ?

â Å“Well, that's just lovely. And you speak this jargon?â ?

â Å“Enough to get by. You'd have to live here to really know it. Most of the locals can understand English â “ they get lots of tourists here from the States. It pays to know what they want.â ? She laughed. â Å“Mangling English and confounding Americans is a popular pastime.â ?

The conversation made Baker tired. â Å“I wonder how far it is to the road junction?â ? The farmer was taking them to the main highway. They hoped to catch a ride toward Gaspé.

â Å“Just around the bend, lad.â ? The farmer glanced up at the darkening sky. â Å“Hope you don't get rained on.â ? Calliope translated.

The threatening rain made Baker's spirits sink even lower. â Å“That station master was a little upset about all the damage to his precious baggage car.â ?

Calliope chuckled. â Å“If we'd found anything in those crates it might have mollified him a little. Too bad they contained nothing but sand.â ?

â Å“That sand bothers me. I was disappointed when it turned out not to be itching powder or instant holy water, but why put sand in the boxes at all?â ?

â Å“And every box was half-full,â ? mused Calliope. â Å“Almost as if something had been taken out of each one. What would anyone pack in sand?â ?

â Å“I don't know. This is the first chance I've had to think about it. The train crew and station master kept shouting at me â “ in French, of all things. I'm not sure they believed our identification.â ?

â Å“They didn't. That's why they tossed us off the train. I'll bet they've alerted the RCMP.â ?

â Å“Well, that might not be so bad. They might have a working form of communications.â ?

â Å“True. But they'd also have a lot of questions. We left four dead bodies back there.â ?

â Å“Not to mention all the property damage.â ? Baker sighed. â Å“If the boxes had contained explosives or some other dangerous item, it wouldn't be so bad. But â “ sand?â ?

The farmer dropped them at the main highway. No sooner had Sobie and the old man plodded out of sight than the first drops of rain fell. Calliope opened one of her tan leather overnight bags and brought forth a red and white striped umbrella. She popped it open and flipped a tiny switch, activating an orange rotating beacon at the tip. In a moment she slipped one bag on like a backpack and pulled the handle out on the other one. Umbrella in one hand, luggage handle in the other, she poised there on the side of the road like a tourist heading for baggage check-in. â Å“Well? Let's head for town.â ?

Baker, already wet and more miserable than usual, nodded. He picked up his tattered canvas bag and turned up his collar. â Å“Let's go. What town is it?â ?

â Å“I'm not sure. With any luck we'll get a ride before we go too far.â ?

The Ami agent grinned and shook his head. No truck driver was likely to miss a chance to pick up a mini-skirted woman walking in the rain. Whether he, Baker, would get to ride was another matter entirely.

Sure enough, not five minutes later a long-nosed Pete pulling an empty flatbed came rolling down the shallow decline, jake-brake rapping a steady tune. Calliope stopped and posed with her cute umbrella and long legs, waving at the truck. Baker looked to be imitating a soggy shadow. Air brakes were applied. The jake-brake popped louder. The big conventional rolled to a stop beside the two agents and sat idling.

Baker slopped forward, opened the passenger door and looked into the face of a middle-aged, portly woman with gray-brown hair stringing in her face. She eyed him with a strange intensity. When she smiled, he noticed extensive gaps in her teeth. â Å“Howdy, sugar,â ? she rasped, in a milk curdling voice. â Å“Climb aboard. Sit right here next to me. Name's Lilith, like that broad in the Good Book, y'know? What's yours?â ?

â Å“Sam Smith,â ? said Baker. â Å“What about my friend, here?â ? Calliope stepped forward.

Lilith frowned. â Å“I suppose she can come along. There's room in the sleeper, honey. Mr. Smith can sit up front with me.â ? She spat into a paper cup. â Å“Either of you chew?â ?

With Calliope ensconced in the sleeper and 'Sam Smith' strapped into the passenger seat, Lilith eased the Pete back into motion, rowing the thirteen-speed with easy grace. She tucked a wad of tobacco in her cheek and smiled at Baker in a way that might have been fetching â “ when she was twenty. He shivered and scrunched down in the seat.

â Å“Too bad your friend can't drive this rig,â ? said Lilith. â Å“You and me could get in the back and have us a time.â ? She cackled like a hen over a brand new egg. As they drove through the night, she crooned to herself, cackled at odd intervals and groped Baker with savage fingers.

Baker hoped for two things. One â “ that Calliope didn't know how to drive a big rig. Two â “ if she DID happen to know how, that she keep the knowledge to herself.

Lilith, unwillingly, let them off at a truck stop in Campbellton. She dismissed Calliope with a pat on the arm, then wrapped Baker in a fierce hug. â Å“Look me up if you come back this way, Sam,â ? she croaked, pawing him with intent. He twisted away and ran after Calliope.

She was inside standing at a pay phone. â Å“God! What an outrage! I feel so â “ so violated!â ? he whined, flinging himself into a nearby chair and pouting.

â Å“Welcome to the club. Did you break any nails?â ?

He examined his hands. â Å“No. Why?â ?

â Å“It doesn't count as a violation unless you at least broke a nail getting away. An outrage requires that you draw blood.â ? She patted his arm. â Å“Buck up, honey. You'll survive. Now go get us some coffee while I try to contact someone back in civilization.â ?

Civilization was wondering where the **** they had been. Calliope reported the circumstances of their gunfight on the train and the empty state of the crates. No one had heard from Gunnar. The situation as Gaspé was being watched, but no evidence of terrorist activities had been discovered. She was of the opinion that the crates had been a red herring, a ruse designed to draw them away from â “ from something. Something bad. Her contact agreed. But what? She had no answers. Baker returned with coffee and sweet rolls. Maybe he could learn something from the spy guys back in Montreal.

Calliope sipped her coffee and listened as Baker reported to Spy Central. He also described the violence on the train and related the sad tale of the crates. Central was not happy, but they also had news. Baker listened for a long time, then hung up. â Å“Gunnar and Slim tangled with a group of bad guys near Rimouski,â ? he reported. â Å“The terrorists are done for. Our lads were last known to be headed north, on the trail of the fat man.â ?

â Å“Let's hope they have better luck than we did,â ? said Calliope. â Å“Is that all?â ?

â Å“No.â ? His eyes took on a haunted look. â Å“A small ship has been spotted northwest of Point Saint Peter. It fired on a patrol boat and is now headed toward Gaspé.â ?

â Å“How long before it gets to Gaspé?â ?

â Å“Four to five hours.â ?

Calliope made another call. This time she repeated a single word three times, then hung up. It was a word of power. A word to make strong men blanch and fall silent. Baker cringed as she spoke the cantrip. â Å“Commitment, commitment, commitment.â ?

Finding the Fat Man
Near Matane, QC

Gunnar tossed his cellphone on the seat. â Å“Calliope and the Ami agent have found nothing. The crates contained sand.â ?

Slim nodded. â Å“It's almost 1300. I'll call in. Maybe my guys have some news.â ?

Their pursuit of the fat man and his calliope had taken them first to Amqui, where they discovered he had already left, enroute to Matane. That town lay a few kilometers ahead. Che lay snoring in the back seat â “ not passed out from fright this time â “ just taking a nap.

Spy Central gave Slim essentially the same information Gunnar had received from his source, plus news of the strange ship bearing down on Gaspé.

â Å“What do they think the ship contains?â ? asked Gunnar.

â Å“Nothing was said about it. I gather they fear the worst. Either a nuke or a conventional bomb seeded with plutonium.â ?

â Å“That was what we were afraid of, too. We received word that a nuclear device or the makings of one had been sold to parties unknown by the Russian Mafia.â ?

Slim thought for a moment. â Å“Then what connection could there be between the fat man and the terrorists? Or between the terrorists and those mystery crates?â ?

Gunnar toyed with a loose thread on his jacket. â Å“It was thought that the various terror groups that financed the purchase don't trust one another.â ? He jerked at the thread. â Å“Paranoia is sort of an occupational disease with them.â ?

â Å“So parts of the device were split between different parties for reassembly just prior to the attack. Makes sense â “ in an environment of mutual distrust.â ?

â Å“Right. That was the theory. Only now I'm not so sure. The other thing I wonder about is the location. Why Gaspé?â ?

â Å“I know that one. Prevailing winds. A dirty bomb exploded there will spread crud down along the Eastern Seaboard. New Brunswick will get it too. Nova Scotia, maybe.â ?

Gunnar began wrapping thread around one hand. â Å“That still doesn't explain Gaspé. Why not some isolated, empty bay? There are dozens of them.â ?

â Å“I don't know for sure. But these thugs like to attack human targets. And they need to send a few infidels ahead of them to be their slaves in Paradise.â ?

â Å“So what does Spy Central want us to do?â ?

â Å“Find the fat man. Check out his calliope. Then head for Gaspé.â ?

Gunnar nodded. â Å“What can we do there, except die?â ?

â Å“I don't think they had anything in mind. Things sounded a little hectic there. You could hear the bleating of political types covering their dainty hind quarters.â ?

â Å“We better stay alive, my friend. Otherwise we'll be blamed â “ somehow.â ?

Slim slowed as they rolled past scattered houses. â Å“I'll turn right at the coast road. We may have to ask if anyone has seen him.â ?

â Å“No we won't,â ? said Gunnar, pointing to the left. â Å“Look there.â ?

It was an eye-catching rig. The calliope itself was built into the back of a small truck. Plywood sides were cut into smooth curves and painted yellow and red to match the truck cab. Stylized music notes had been painted around a swooping sign proclaiming, â Å“Fatty's Calliopeâ ?.

Slim got out of the Checker and stretched. Gunnar shook Che awake, then climbed out, dribbling bits of fabric. The left front of his jacket hung in tatters. He dashed a ball of thread to the ground and shrugged out of the remains of the garment, muttering something about cheap, foreign-made junk.

The hood was up on the truck. A slender man in coveralls stood to one side, watching them approach. â Å“Howdy,â ? he called. â Å“Show doesn't start until this evening.â ?

Producing a totally bogus ID, Slim showed it to the man. â Å“Inspector Jones, sir. Internal Security Branch of the Department of Prohibited Speech.â ?

The man smiled. â Å“Have I insulted a protected interest group, Inspector â “ ah, Jones? Or demonstrated a talent that made some person feel stupid and not very special?â ?

â Å“The Talent Equalization portions of the Act aren't effective until next year,â ? said Slim.

â Å“I'd forgotten. Or maybe I never knew. My name is Fatty Korus, Inspector.â ? He shook hands with both men. Gunnar didn't introduce himself. Che was behind some bushes, draining his bladder. â Å“Interesting car you have there. Are you a collector?â ?

Slim glanced at the Checker. â Å“Sort of. I wanted something sturdy.â ? He peered under the hood of Korus' truck. â Å“What year is your rig?â ?

â Å“1956 Studebaker, but the drive train is all late model, I'm afraid. I had to sacrifice authenticity for reliability.â ? Korus collected a couple of tools and closed the hood. â Å“I assume you aren't here to discuss my truck, but rather the calliope?â ?

â Å“True.â ? Slim walked to the back of the truck. He could see the calliope keyboard and pipe array. The tubes didn't resemble any kind of weapon.

Korus climbed up and tapped one of the pipes. â Å“Formed brass, Inspector. No mortar tubes, no RPG-7 tubes. One of my competitors spread those stories. I thought I'd put them to rest.â ?

â Å“Stories?â ? Slim shook his head. â Å“We at DPS are interested in the name, Fatty. Some could take it as a disparaging comment about people with body-type challenges.â ?

With a tolerant smile, Korus nodded his understanding. â Å“Well, no matter how the delicate slobs amongst us may take it, Fatty is my name, given to me by my mum as I lay helpless in her arms, unable to protest.â ? He handed over his driver's license. It was issued by the state of Nevada and the name on it was Fatty (NMI) Korus.

â Å“NMI?â ? Slim couldn't recall seeing three initials before.

â Å“No Middle Initial,â ? said Korus, without cracking a smile. â Å“NMI.â ?

â Å“Ha-ha-ha.â ? Slim nudged Gunnar. â Å“I knew that.â ? His face burned red.

â Å“Anything else, gentlemen?â ? Without waiting for a response, Korus walked around the truck and headed for a nearby café.

â Å“I â “ ah, I guess not, Mr. Korus.â ?

Gunnar touched the garish sign. â Å“It's nothing but a steam calliope. We've been had.â ?

Slim tucked his fake ID away. â Å“I don't think Mr. Korus believed I was from the DPS.â ?

â Å“You're not obnoxious enough to pull that off,â ? said Gunnar. â Å“Your eyes don't have that strange, wild light of real fanaticism.â ?

â Å“Well â “ thanks. Korus knew we were intelligence agents. He must be in the business.â ?

â Å“Do you think he's CIA? NSA?â ?

â Å“None of those,â ? mused Slim. â Å“Real pros. Nevada Gaming Commission, maybe.â ?

Che wandered out of the bushes. â Å“When is the show? Can we stay for it?â ?

â Å“No,â ? said Slim. He started for the car. â Å“We have to get to Gaspé.â ?

â Å“Why?â ? Che began to pout. â Å“I wanna see the show. What's so important in Gaspé?â ?

â Å“We have a date there,â ? said Gunnar, tugging the surly sidekick along.

â Å“Oh, man. I hate dates! Slim always strikes out and I have to listen to all his excuses.â ?

Gunnar smiled. â Å“Not that kind of date. A bomb is going to explode there. We have to stop it. Try and stop it.â ?

â Å“Goodie! Some excitement! What kind of bomb?â ?

â Å“Probably a nuke.â ?

Che crumpled.

Spy Central
322 Rue Morgue
Across from Secret Defense Base and Big Jacque's Pizza

â Å“A nuke! A nuke!â ? Broken sobs emanated from behind the Prime Minister's desk. â Å“Get me the President! Get Dubya on the phone!â ?

Sea Lord Null glanced at General Muskrat. â Å“The President isn't taking your calls, sire.â ?

â Å“He must! The fallout will wreak havoc on the east coast of America!â ?

General Muskrat stopped pacing and slumped into a chair. â Å“We've been over that and over that, sire! The Americans don't believe the scow is carrying a nuclear warhead and even if it was, the Eastern Seaboard is mostly Democrat!â ?

The PM propped himself on his elbows and eyed an ant dragging a croissant crumb across the floor. â Å“I know how he feels. A few explosions in certain Conservative quarters would make my life a lot simpler.â ? He made a fist. â Å“Sometimes I just want to SMASH those idiots!â ? His fist fell like Thor's hammer, catching the ant in the act of adjusting the crumb to a more comfortable position. â Å“Aaaah!â ? cried the PM. Pain shot through his whole body. The ant moved off, dragging his bit of croissant.

Null and Muskrat helped the PM into his chair. â Å“Owie, owie, owie,â ? he sniveled, nursing his sore hand, all thoughts of nukes, Gaspé, hockey, Tom and Doug and even his mistress forgotten.

â Å“Don't worry, sire,â ? soothed Null. â Å“We'll see to it.â ?

â Å“See to what?â ?

â Å“Never mind. Just take care of your wound, sire.â ?

EMTs removed the stricken PM a few minutes later. Null sat down at the poor man's desk and lit a cigar. â Å“What do we do, General? There's no help from the Americans?â ?

â Å“My sources indicate that they have nothing to send. All their tanks are in Iran, with supporting arms, of course. Most of the Air Corps is in Korea.â ?

â Å“I think they call it the Air FORCE now, General. Have for some time.â ?

â Å“You don't mean it! Well, one can't keep up with all the latest fads. Let's see. The Navy is escorting oil tankers from all over the globe at the behest of Standard Oil and Exxon. Hmm. That leaves the Marines. I don't know where they are at the moment. Not available.â ?

Null nodded. â Å“The Marines will turn up somewhere. They always do. No reservists? Not even a couple of National Guard planes?â ?

â Å“Nothing. The Reserves have all been called to active service and the National Guard went off on their own hook to invade France.â ?

â Å“No! How did they plan to get there?â ?

â Å“Chartered a few cruise ships, I think. They landed yesterday.â ?

â Å“Yesterday?â ? Null was astonished. â Å“I missed that one completely.â ?

â Å“Well it was sort of anticlimactic. French surrendered day before yesterday.â ?

â Å“Well, they're a sensible people. They know the Ami will get tired and go home.â ?

Muskrat shrugged. â Å“What do we do about this exploding scow?â ?

The people at the scene will have to deal with it, I'm afraid.â ? Null glanced at his watch. â Å“We need to go or we'll be late for our tee time.â ?

â Å“Sir.â ? An aide stepped into the room. â Å“There's a Russian diplomat here, sir. Says he has an appointment.â ?

â Å“A Russian?â ? Null flipped through the PMs calendar. â Å“Yes, of course. Here it is. Military Attaché Lt. Colonel Sergei Ghost.â ? He sat back. â Å“Send him in. Send him in. We'll see what he has to say, then send him on his way.â ?

â Å“Military Attaché,â ? muttered Muskrat. â Å“Just another word for spy. What do you suppose the chap wants?â ?

â Å“Can't be anything important. This Ghost is new. Loves everything about the West. Drives an old 60s Cadillac. Bright yellow convertible.â ?

Muskrat giggled. â Å“A pimp-mobile?â ?

â Å“Just so. Now stop laughing. This may be serious.â ? Null wiped the silly grin off his face as Lt. Colonel Ghost came in.

â Å“Sir!â ? exclaimed Ghost after he stomped across the room and saluted. â Å“I bring important message for Prime Minister of all Canadas!â ?

â Å“There's only one Canada,â ? said Null. â Å“The Prime Minister received a slight wound and has been taken to hospital. I am Minister of Naval Affairs Null. I'll hear your message.â ?

Colonel Ghost wasn't convinced. He eyed the portly Sea Lord with disdain. â Å“You try to trick Ghost? Canada Navy? What navy?â ?

Null flushed and stammered, â Å“C-canada has a fine navy! It's â “ it's just small!â ?

Ghost turned to Muskrat. â Å“Small navy? How small?â ?

â Å“I'm not sure, old man. Not my department. Minister Null can give you the rundown.â ?

The Russian colonel backed away. â Å“No want rubdown!â ?

Null held up his arms. â Å“Not a rubdown. Rundown. Explanation. Savvy? Explanation?â ?

â Å“Savvy.â ?

â Å“One ship is in dry dock. One is assisting Greenpeace by acting as safety ship for their Mid-Ocean Peace and Love Festival. It's being held on the Sargasso Sea this year. I understand the Sargasso salad and krill soup is outstanding.â ?

â Å“Two ship?â ? said the Russian. â Å“Two ship navy?â ?

The Sea Lord snarled. â Å“Two ships. Are you satisfied that I'm the Naval Minister?â ?

â Å“Must be. Brave minister to admit to such a small job. You must be part time, yes?â ?

â Å“What is your message!â ? shouted Null. â Å“I have a â “ a meeting to attend.â ?

Ghost drew himself up to his full height. â Å“Stolen Iceland scow not have nuke.â ?

Silence filled the room. Null stared at the Russian with dismay. â Å“Say that again, please.â ? Ghost complied. The Minister nodded. â Å“That's what I thought you said.â ?

â Å“Double-cross,â ? said Ghost. â Å“You savvy double-cross?â ?

Null's lip quivered. â Å“Savvy.â ?

â Å“Guilty thieves in Russia dealt with. False weapons put in canisters.â ?

â Å“Good God!â ? exclaimed Muskrat. â Å“Quaker bombs!â ?

Ghost stared at the General. â Å“No quakes.â ?

â Å“No.â ? Null grinned. â Å“Not quakes. Quakers. They don't like war. But never mind that! Your people put fake bombs in the tubes â “ the canisters?â ?

â Å“Yes. Fake.â ? Ghost laughed. â Å“I know fake. Like orgasm!â ?

Muskrat ignored the chit-chat. â Å“What is in the canisters?â ?

Colonel Ghost grinned. â Å“Fireworks in one. Surprise in other.â ?

â Å“Thank the Lord,â ? murmured Null. He shook hands with the Russian. â Å“The traitors in your country have been arrested?â ?

Ghost frowned. â Å“Arrested? No. Questioned and shot. Too much paperwork with arrests. Courts. Judges. Juries.â ? He made a disgusted sound. â Å“Who has time?â ?

After Ghost left, Muskrat got on the line to Spy Central. In excited tones, he passed the good news on to Spymaster Bobbit. â Å“Get word to the chaps down there, Spymaster. There is no bomb. No bomb.â ?

â Å“Lovely,â ? replied Bobbit. â Å“But what about the terrorists on the ship? I have fewer than ten poorly armed people on the scene to deal with them. This is still a bad situation.â ?

â Å“Don't cry to me about armaments, Spymaster!â ? snapped Muskrat. â Å“None of us can be blamed if your agents don't have proper weapons. Do the best you can!â ?

â Å“That's telling him, General!â ? Null led the way toward the door. â Å“I think we can just make our tee time.â ?

â Å“Oh, good. I hope that little minx I had as a caddy last time is available.â ?

Patrol Boat Cuddles
East of Gaspe

â Å“How close are we?â ? asked Sub-Lieutenant Earl.

â Å“About five kilometers, sir. Just like it was two minutes ago, when you last asked.â ? Petty Officer Bossi was getting a little irked at his commander. Trailing a ship full of armed terrorists was bad enough without having to deal with Earl's nervousness. â Å“Stiff upper lip, sir. Stiff upper lip.â ?

Artificer Padraig peered up from his greasy pit. â Å“I've stopped the last of the holes. Pumps should dry her out in no time now, sir.â ? Upon initial contact with the alleged terrorist vessel, they had closed to within a kilometer of the ship, on instructions from Higher-Higher. Whoever the bad guys were, they were armed with a large caliber machine gun and had punctured Cuddles several times by way of warning. HQ reluctantly allowed that they could shadow the terrorists from a safer distance, but not more than five kilometers.

Earl nodded. â Å“If it's a nuke they've got over there, do you think we'll be burned to death in the flame or blown to bits by the blast?â ?

â Å“I don't think it matters, sir,â ? said Padraig. â Å“In either case we'll be standing before Saint Peter with no idea of how we got there.â ?

Bossi chuckled. â Å“Saint Pete will be surprised. 'Are you lost, lads?' he'll say.â ?

The Lieutenant hardly heard the banter. His throat felt on fire. He sipped some water. â Å“I think it will be the blast. Stands to reason that it travels faster than fire.â ? The two other men groaned and went back to their tasks.

Earl nudged Bossi. â Å“How close are we now?â ?

Before the PO could say anything, the radio chimed. â Å“Sorry, sir. Incoming message.â ?

He was soon back. â Å“Good news, sir. The terrorists do not have a nuclear device.â ?

Earl stared at the PO. â Å“No nukes?â ?

â Å“None, sir.â ? Bossi handed over a message. â Å“The bad guys still think they have one. One they purchased from some Russian criminals.â ?

â Å“No nukes?â ?

Bossi thumped Earl's shoulder. â Å“Are you with me, sir? The terrorists have no nuke.â ?

â Å“No nuke! We're not going to burned down to a crisp or blown to bloody gobbets!â ?

â Å“Aye, sir. No gobbets.â ? The PO steadied his binoculars and examined the distant ship. â Å“All they can do is shoot us full of large-caliber holes. Shall we move in a little closer?â ?

Earl frowned. â Å“Two kilometers. No closer. Do we have contact with Gaspé?â ?

â Å“Not yet, sir.â ? Bossi consulted a communications chart. â Å“No response on the harbor master or Fisheries frequencies. We don't have contact info on anyone else.â ?

â Å“Call HQ again. Someone must be setting up to receive these terrorists. Maybe a squad of local hunters like that last time. Or, wonder of wonders, there might be a regular Army types on hand to take care of the nasty work.â ? Earl called down to Padraig. â Å“Bring up your shotgun!â ?

Bossi snorted. â Å“That twelve gauge ain't gonna do us much good against these lads, sir. I thought we was to get heavier armament?â ?

â Å“We were.â ? Earl tried a carefree smile and couldn't manage it. â Å“We were scheduled to get our old fifty caliber machine guns back. But, they'd been sold off for scrap during the last, â Å“Melt Down a Capitalist Warmonger Tool,â ? scrap drive and love fest.â ?

â Å“Well, that's just dandy, sir! But there must be plenty of those old guns in storage. I'll bet the Americans have warehouses full of them.â ?

â Å“The matter is in the hands of a study group. They're examining cost/benefit ratios to determine whether we ought to buy surplus machine guns from the Yanks or contract with a Canadian company to produce new ones. It's a five year study plan.â ?

â Å“We need firepower now, sir. Not five years from now.â ?

â Å“It's worse than that, I'm afraid. With the funds available, we could buy a hundred of the surplus guns or build a single prototype of a new one. If we go with the new weapon, it will require new funding. Once the funding is in place, we can expect weaponry ten to twenty years after that.â ?

Bossi didn't take the news too hard. He'd been in the CF for a mort of years. â Å“How long have we and the Ami been blowing away enemies with the old point fifty, sir?â ?

â Å“Sixty â “ maybe seventy years.â ?

â Å“It seems to work, don't it, sir? These terrorists are old-fashioned types. Old-fashioned guns ought to be appropriate for killing them.â ? The PO sighed. â Å“I'll contact HQ.â ?

Boulevard Gaspé
Gaspé, QC

â Å“I see them!â ? Major Baker steadied himself against an old piling. â Å“They're rounding the end of that spit of land. How far is that?â ? The sight of the low-slung scow plowing through the calm waters of the bay made him long for his logistics desk. Though the threat of a nuclear blast or plutonium-seeded conventional explosion had been removed, the heavily armed thugs aboard the scow represented a frightening prospect for anyone foolish enough to face them. He desperately wanted to empty his bladder.

â Å“Eight or nine kilometers, I suppose,â ? replied Calliope. They were standing alone on the beach side of the boulevard. â Å“You better call it in.â ?

Baker had Spy Central on the hook in seconds. â Å“We're feeling a little naked out here, Central.â ? It required all his concentration to keep a high-pitched whine out of his voice. â Å“The bad people are less than an hour away. Where's the cavalry?â ?

Spymaster Bobbit was on the line. â Å“Agent Slim and your lady friend's acquaintance are a few minutes away. Nothing else is close. What about the local police?â ?

â Å“What police?â ? Baker glanced around. â Å“The RCMP office is empty. A couple of local cops are busy evacuating the townspeople. Once that's done, we'll have some volunteers with rifles. We really need some professionals.â ?

â Å“None are close enough to help, Baker. Some are still in Kosovo, some in Haiti and the rest have been sent home until we can make enough CADPAT rifle slings to properly equip them.â ?

â Å“Well that's just dandy, Spymaster. Any word yet on what those two canisters on the ship's deck really do contain?â ?

â Å“The Russian officer can't be reached. All he told the Sea Lord was that one contained fireworks and the other a surprise. The nature of said surprise was not given.â ?

â Å“Your average Russian has a dark sense of humor. Does anyone have a count on the terrorists? That might help us.â ?

â Å“That's alleged terrorists, Major. You Americans are always jumping to conclusions.â ?

â Å“Sorry, Spymaster. Given that these 'alleged' terrorists have fired on one of your patrol boats and ignored all attempts at contact makes them more than suspect to me â “ not to mention that their intent was to nuke a portion of your country.â ?

â Å“Acceptance of cultural diversity requires tolerance.â ? It surprised the Major to hear Bobbit reciting a Liberal mantra. The DPS must be monitoring their conversation.

â Å“Okay, Central. When they get close we'll fire a few rounds and then retreat.â ?

â Å“Don't fire unless fired upon, Baker. Report when you can. Oh â “ the patrol boat has closed to within two kilometers. They count about ten people aboard the scow.â ?

â Å“Right. Ten diverse lads with at least one heavy machine gun and assorted automatic weapons. We're a little out-gunned here.â ?

â Å“Whiners never prosper. Isn't that an American saying, Major? Do your best.â ?

â Å“I think it's 'cheaters never prosper', Central, though I'm not up on old saws.â ?

Baker tucked the phone away and uttered several apt phrases. â Å“We're on our own. Unless your organization can whistle up some air cover â “ and soon.â ?

â Å“We have no such assets, Major. I suspect that the present feeble state of the CF has escaped our leadership.â ? She drew her pistol and checked the magazine. â Å“A well-equipped, trained military is like a handgun. You never need one until you need it very, very badly.â ?

A lone car rolled into view on the boulevard. â Å“Slim and his taxicab,â ? said Baker. â Å“At least we have a getaway car.â ?

The Checker rolled to a stop on the other side of the road. Slim and Gunnar joined Calliope and Baker. The Major grinned at Slim. â Å“Never thought I'd be glad to see your ugly face. You don't happen to be packing some anti-tank rockets or something equally violent and deadly?â ?

â Å“Nothing, I'm afraid. You're lucky I've still got a pistol. One of these days our agents will be able to carry nothing more lethal than a card with a strongly worded admonishment on it.â ? Slim raised his glasses and studied the oncoming scow. â Å“They build them ugly in Iceland.â ?

â Å“Well,â ? said Baker, â Å“it was only intended for hauling garbage.â ?

â Å“It's doing a good job of that!â ? snarled Calliope.

The Major brought the other two agents up to speed on the situation. â Å“There's a patrol boat shadowing the scow. We haven't heard from them, yet.â ?

Gunnar lowered his glasses. â Å“We won't, unless they happen to have a cellphone. I think they just rounded the island. Maybe two kilometers behind the scow. How is the boat armed?â ?

â Å“Central says they've got nothing but a single shotgun,â ? said Baker. â Å“For scaring off polar bears and the occasional amorous sea lion.â ?

Slim mumbled a few choice words. â Å“What fun! So that gives us four handguns and a shotgun to repel an invasion.â ?

â Å“That's about it,â ? agreed Baker. â Å“Where's your sidekick?â ?

Gunnar shrugged. â Å“He's been out since we mentioned nukes.â ?

â Å“Well, to be fair,â ? said Slim, â Å“the basic sidekick agreement doesn't include violence. They're just supposed to provide comic relief and never get laid. That sort of thing.â ?

Baker nodded. â Å“Based on my recent history, I'd better apply for a sidekick position.â ?

It was a good line, but nobody laughed.

Patrol Boat Cuddles
Trailing 'purported terrorist' vessel

The three men were crowded into the patrol boat's tiny bridge, hunched down behind a steel splinter shield. None of them believed that a few millimeters of metal was real protection against a machine gun, but the shield gave at least an illusion of safety.

â Å“I make them to be about a kilometer from the docks,â ? said Sub-Lt. Earl.

PO Bossi nodded. â Å“We're inside 500 meters, sir. How close do you want to go?â ?

â Å“They haven't shot at us yet. Move in, but not too fast. I think they're busy getting ready to hit the town.â ?

â Å“Right,â ? agreed Padraig. He hefted his shotgun. â Å“Once the firefight begins, we ought to be able to run in close and help the defenders.â ?

Bossi scowled. â Å“That's assuming there are any defenders! HQ says there's nobody there but a few intelligence agents.â ?

â Å“Whoever they are, I hope they've got heavier weapons than we do,â ? muttered Padraig.

Lt. Earl shuddered. â Å“If they don't, it's going to be a short fight.â ?

â Å“Yeah,â ? said Bossi. â Å“Short and with a sad ending for Mrs. Bossi.â ?

â Å“I didn't know you were married,â ? said Earl.

â Å“Bite your tongue, sir! I was talking about my mother.â ?

Padraig stood up and shaded his eyes. â Å“Something's happening!â ?

Earl steadied his glasses on the scow. â Å“One of the canisters has opened! A bunch of black tubes are rising up! The terrorists are leaping about, brandishing rifles!â ?

Bossi snorted. â Å“Blighters think their Russian nuke is about to explode.â ?

Flame burst from a tube. A trail of sparks rose skyward ending in a bright flash. â Å“Good God!â ? yelled Earl, at the hollow boom. â Å“Fireworks! Just like the Reds said.â ?

â Å“It ain't proper to call 'em Reds anymore, sir,â ? said Bossi. No one paid any attention.

â Å“More fireworks,â ? shouted Padraig. Dull thumps echoed over the water. The sky filled with explosions of green and red and yellow. Even purple.

â Å“Move in!â ? ordered Earl. â Å“The *******s don't know what to make of this!â ?

PO Bossi jogged the Sub-Lt. â Å“Careful, sir. Even if they is *******s, it ain't their fault.â ?

Cuddles surged to within a hundred meters of the scow before the Russian fireworks ceased. Bossi throttled back. â Å“What are they doing, sir?â ?

â Å“Nothing much. Standing around, heads down. One is pounding on the other canister. I think they realize the Russkies have crossed them.â ?

Padraig gestured with his shotgun. â Å“I wonder what's in that canister?â ?

Even as he spoke, the second container split open, lengthwise. The two halves rotated apart, knocking several of the terrorists down. Two smaller white cylinders lay revealed. The terrorists began their capering again.

â Å“Could be nukes, sir,â ? murmured Bossi.

â Å“Too late to worry about that,â ? said Earl, with sudden bravado. â Å“If they are nukes, we'll never know it.â ?

â Å“Sir!â ? yelled Padraig. â Å“Look! Look at that! What are they?â ?

Sub-Lt. Earl focused his binoculars on the scow's deck. Men screamed and ran about. Some flung themselves overboard. â Å“Good Lord,â ? he whispered. â Å“Snow Tigers!â ?

On the Gaspé Docks
Gaspé, QC

The scow lost way and began wallowing in the mild swell. From their vantage point, behind a low sea wall, the mixed bag of agents stared at the terrorist vessel. Smoke trailed from each of the dark tubes. The second canister lay split into two pieces and the white cylinders were open at the ends.

Calliope stood up, pistol at her side. â Å“Are those Snow Tigers?â ?

â Å“I think so,â ? murmured Slim. He gagged. â Å“They must be hungry.â ?

With a crash, the scow ran into the big dock and rebounded, rocking and pitching. Huge shapes leaped and slashed from stem to stern. Bodies littered the deck. Others floated in the water. A few men still ran around the deck, shrieking.

â Å“I suppose we ought to help them,â ? said Baker. He hefted his large-bore pistol. â Å“This might be enough gun for the tigers.â ?

Slim shoved the Ami agent's gun down. â Å“Put it away, Major. We can't do anything.â ?

â Å“Yeah,â ? agreed Gunnar, holstering his pistol. â Å“Snow Tigers are an endangered species.â ?

Warily, the four agents made their way out onto the dock. The scow had grounded on a submerged sandbar at the edge of the main channel, some two hundred meters from shore. Thin cries echoed over the water, followed by the sounds of crunching bones.

An hour later, a blue van rolled down the boulevard and stopped beside the Checker. Two burly men in green coveralls got out and approached the agents. The five (Che having recovered well enough to eat) were finishing a Chinese takeout meal purchased from the Polish restaurant a block off the beach. Gaspé citizens stood and sat along the beach, gawking at the scow and its grisly cargo.

â Å“Say, Guv'nor,â ? said one of the men, addressing Gunnar. â Å“We've instructions to pick up a pair of Snow Tigers here. Sent by the Russians. Any idea where they might be?â ?

Gunnar pointed at the scow. Both cats lay on the deckhouse, licking their paws. â Å“There they are and you're welcome to them.â ?

â Å“Blast!â ? said the other green-coveralled man. â Å“They're loose! We'll have to get help.â ? He went back to the van.

The first man eyed the scow and the cats. â Å“Too bad they got loose like that. Still, catching them won't be too hard, unless they're hungry.â ? He glanced at the agents. â Å“Have they been fed?â ?

Has anyone read all this? to much words for me to read.
Has anyone read all this? to much words for me to read.
Yeah, I hate it when literature gets all muddled up, with too many words... :rolleyes:

Great read, and very fun too. Thanks Mr. Hume!
Biff Zwieback, A.K.A. Secret Agent Slim graciously thanks you for chronicling his hilarious and over-the-top exploits. :blotto:

He wishes all to know that the biographer has been far too modest with the accounts of Slim‘s heroic bravery in outwitting the evil that plagues our land. :cool:

Thanks O.G. I love it and am finally immortalized in someone else‘s literature!

Cheers Brother.

Slim :D
I wonder if Secret Agent Baker has noticed his exploits have been preserved for posterity?


I just realized, rereading your story, that I sound like Donald Jack's Bartholomew Bandy!

I don't know whether that's good or bad but I laugh anew every time I reread this post!!! :D