Since Ben Venice II: Season of the Scorpion is now available on Amazon for a single dollar, I’m marking the occasion by making Ben Venice I: G.H.O.S.T. Agent available here for free. Thanks as always to The Abysmal Brutes for having me on their show to talk about my work.
He sat at the hotel bar, and the Evan Williams on ice in front of him was his whole world. He had one already, and since he had nowhere to be and the day had been hard, he had another. This time a double. He took his first drink off the fresh one just as the brunette at a table across the room caught his eye. The stray glance didn’t tell him everything, but it told him enough to know that he had caught her eye, too.
He straightened his back and jutted his chin out a tad instinctively, and resolved to finish his drink before he walked over, so as not to appear overeager, which would be a fatal mistake. His mind drifted back to the last woman he had been with. A blonde, and like something from Hollywood. She was lush and beautiful beyond belief, at least any belief he had in keeping her. A woman like this had endless possibilities, any man she would want who cared about girls would be blubber in her hands. That wasn’t really why he liked her, though. He liked her because she was sweet and had a good nature, and if he was honest with himself, which was sometimes the case but not often, he liked her because she was broken inside. The more she relied on him, the more he loved her. He would be left holding the bag that time. It didn’t end well, but at least it ended quickly.
Realizing thoughts like this wouldn’t aid him any at all in the present, he decided to think instead of the redhead he knew before that blonde, the one he had been with the longest. Their time together was easy and the days melted like ice cream in the sun into happy years. They spoke a private language and understood each other well. But she wanted to do things that didn’t involve him and he knew that. Turns out she didn’t know, but he did. He always knew it, so when the time came, he broke his own heart so that she would never have to. He still remembers her last words to him. “How’s that blonde that stole you from me?”
The internal pep talk wasn’t going so hot. New resolve: Don’t think about the ones he loved most, think about the one he loved hardest. That was easy. The raven haired one, the one that was short and stout and ready for anything. She wanted to be with him all the time and know everything he was, and have his back no matter what. With every new aspect of him that she discovered, he figured eventually she would flinch and ditch him, but she never did. Finally a day came, and he learned a lesson. If she says “You know, I just don’t think you’re in this with me” you better have an answer.
He noticed the glass, except for the remnants of some ice, was empty. Looking across the room, the brunette was gone. So he had another double. After that was gone he paid his tab with a generous tip, took the elevator to his room, and fell asleep on top of the bed, still in his suit and tie from that day’s meeting.
He figured it was all just as well.
He slept past check out time and was awakened by a maid, who he then shooed away, but didn’t sweat it. It was the company’s dime, after all. No sense skipping a shower. He took his sweet time heating the open can of Murray’s pomade on the hot water spraying from the faucet until it was nice and malleable, then massaged it into the scalp of his graying black hair. It was a ceremony he had been performing all his adult life, outside of the war years. Not many hot showers out in the field.
After a quick toothbrush and comb through, he dressed for comfort in black slacks, a white shirt, zippered boots, and a leather jacket, then hustled with his suitcase and hair still wet out of the room and down the elevator to make time for a checkout, maybe find a bagel or something left over from the continental breakfast. He made it as far as the lobby.
It was an old army friend, Bud Allen. The two smiled and shook hands. How long had it been since they saw each other last? Well, how long since the war? Almost 20 years. How odd, to run into each other at a hotel in Seattle of all places. He was from Louisville, where he still lived today, and Bud was from Baltimore, if memory served. Bud offered to buy a late breakfast, and he agreed, just as soon as he settled up with the hotelier.
They ended up at a shiny new diner close to the freeway. He had offered to drive in the rental Cadillac, but Bud insisted on them using his black Buick sedan. He didn’t mind, he had driven far enough, making countless stops across the country as he went.
The two talked about some of what they had seen over the last few years, but more than that they discussed music, and where Jazz seemed to be heading, the things Miles Davis was up to. Bud was the only black man in their unit during the war, and he was pleased to have found not only a white guy in the service who knew the difference between Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, but a sergeant to boot. Any shit Bud caught, he always made sure he caught the same or more. If there were any sideways glances in the diner at these two breaking bread together, it was just going to have to be their problem.
“I’ve gotta ask you something, and it’s important.” Bud said, sipping his coffee before he moved into some uncharted ground. “I’ve been working for a certain segment of the government, and we want you to come join us.”
His face grew wryly incredulous.
“I know it seems a bit odd, but I stayed on with Uncle Sam after V.J. day, and some dominoes have fallen in a weird way.” Bud continued, “I got a gig that I can’t talk about too much unless you want to get where I’m at. See some serious action again.”
Ben scratched his face, then said “I have no clue what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“Well, I can tell you more about it, but we’ve gotta kill you first.”
When he didn’t report back to the company, they didn’t panic. It was never any mystery that he wasn’t that into his job. He wasn’t really cut out for sales, he just excelled at giving presentations. It came easy to him to command a room. He was always considered likely to eventually go off the reservation, it was risky to send him out so far without supervision. But the fact was, he was the best they had. If anybody could generate business that far from the Ohio Valley Base, it was him. Smitty and the rest of the office just decided to let him check in on his own time.
It was only when the Seattle homicide detectives followed a few sketchy witness tips and combed the Cedar River that the story became a story. One overdue rented Cadillac, waterlogged. They never found the corpse, but that wasn’t shocking. The current got good this time of year, and a guy as big as Ben Venice would mainly roll across the bottom once those lungs filled with water. The door was open, the poor bastard might’ve just almost made it.
The service was small but action packed. As it was in life, the blonde came, the redhead didn’t, and the raven haired one wailed and wailed, made a scene. He had no siblings, parents long dead, no family he bothered to keep up with. Most of his friends he knew from the nighttime world, who were used to not seeing him for long stretches at a time and didn’t read the paper. They wouldn’t even know he was gone until well after the funeral. Smitty came, but no one else from the office bothered. A couple fellas from the gym made it, passed a flask in the parking lot of the funeral home. No military stuff. They were going to do a flag or something, but then nobody could recall Ben even once saying anything good about the service. He didn’t even show up to get his medals.
His landlord went through his little apartment, donated his clothes and books. It was a funny thing, though, about his record collection. He hardly had any, but it was always figured that most of his disposable income went to the record store. He was always coming back home with those bags from Vine Records. There were shelves and shelves in his place, but they were all empty.
Ah, well. Maybe he sold them for booze money.
“Jesus. Are we going to Mars?”
Ben had seen plenty of planes, and in fact, he might’ve jumped out of one once, but this sleek thing of beauty was in a class by itself. Not like a big lumbering dinosaur flying fortress or the propeller driven suicide machines he saw during the war. Bud just laughed.
“Not this trip, Sarge!”
Bud parked the car cavalierly and the two men popped out. They had driven all day to this spot, a strange, deserted, flat piece of ground somewhere down the coast. Ben wasn’t sure where they were. In fact, he had no idea. In fact, he had a hard time focusing all day, since just after breakfast.
“Bud, lissen, what’s this all about?” Ben noticed his words slurred a bit as he slid them out.
“You know that gum you were chewing?” Bud asked, as he knocked on the side of the plane.
“Well, I’ll level with you, Sarge. Right after you agreed to come with me on this, I slipped you a mickey. Shit’s gonna get really weird on you quick, and I know sometimes you do your best work if you can get a little altered, and I want this to go down easy for you. ”
With a low hum, the staircase doorway to the plane unfurled with a mechanical swivel.
“But you agreed. Remember that. I didn’t trick you. All you cared about was bringing your records and seeing some heat again, and that’s fine by me, because I know you’ve got a motherfucker of a record collection and can swing OK against some heat.” Bud said, poking Ben in the chest. He then quickly changed the subject.
“Louise! You ready to go, or you want to stretch your legs first?”
“I’m ready now. Let’s get gone.” a tough, almost feline female voice responded. Ben looked up to the top of the steps and was struck by the sight of the chick from the hotel bar the night before, now looking like she was ready to go toe to toe with Marlene Dietrich in black slacks, black shirt, high boots, and aviators,
“Ah.” she said, “You hooked him.”
Ben inhaled deep, then smirked hard. “Sorry now that I blew you off before. I suppose you and Bud are in cahoots.”
“Something like that, I suppose. Mr.Allen speaks very highly of you. You can drink, I’ll say that for you. Easy coming up the steps.” And with that, she disappeared into the cockpit.
“Whoa.” Ben said.
“Yeah.” Bud replied, “C’mon, man. Let’s get going.”
Bud carefully followed Ben up into the plane, where he let out an exclamation at the lushness of the tricked out interior. Attached couches lined the wall, and in the center run of the tubular flying room was a console loaded with screens and buttons. Everything was luxurious white, metal and glass.
“You’re sure we’re not going to Mars?” Ben asked, just before he flopped into the plush amenity.
“Ah, there ain’t shit on Mars, Sarge. Lay back, buckle up, and saw some logs. I’ll cue up Round Midnight.”
Bud pressed a couple of buttons, a circuit connected, some reels turned, and the warm sound of Miles Davis filled the air, just as the plane began it’s run for takeoff. Ben wasn’t awake and he wasn’t asleep, but he he was looking forward to killing someone again. Someone who really had it coming.
“Oh hey, you’re awake. Good. You want a sandwich?” Bud tossed an unmarked book that he had been reading onto the center console, and got up from the built in sofa to go to the plane’s mini-fridge.
“Not just yet.” Ben rubbed his eyes and sat up.
“Well, I’m having one. Ham’s pretty good.” Bud said, pulling out a sandwich wrapped in foil and canned Schlitz, then returning to his spot across from Ben.
Looking out one of the small, round windows, Ben saw nothing but ocean blue. “So what the hell is going on, here?”
“I couldn’t talk turkey with you until we got you out of the country. Unfortunately, although we’re working to protect America, we can’t hang out around there too much.” Bud said, then took a bite from his sandwich. “Unless we’re on a mission or something.”
Ben was beginning to question the sanity of his friend, as well as himself for getting into whatever this was. Bud detected this, perhaps from the way that Ben buried his face in his hands.
“Allright Sarge, here’s what the deal is. I’ll paint in broad strokes here, because we’ll be coming in for a landing pretty soon, and I want you to have a handle on who these cats are you’re going to be meeting.” Bud said, setting his sandwich aside, “It started with an espionage and paramilitary group Kennedy was putting together because he didn’t trust Hoover, and he was kinda iffy on most of his generals, too. Except one guy. Did you hear about General Schwartz?”
“Sure.” Ben answered, “5 star muckety muck, died in that plane crash. Big news story just before the Bay Of Pigs, then it was forgotten.”
“Yeah, well, he’s not dead. We staged that whole crash thing to get him off the board, He answered directly to Kennedy for this project we’re still working on. All of us, including you and me, have faked deaths, so that we can act with impunity on what we have to do.” Bud said, matter of fact.
“What about Kennedy? Is he not dead, too? Are we gonna go meet him? Maybe he can tell us if Marilyn’s curtains matched her drapes.” Ben responded, as he lit a Chesterfield.
“Nah, Jack’s dead.” Bud said, “Jack’s real dead. And no, they didn’t match, but it didn’t matter with her, you hardly noticed. Anyway, after Kennedy was shot last year, our whole thing just kept rolling, because we were set up to act autonomously. Nobody in the government knew we existed, including LBJ.”
“Yeah, nobody wants to trust Johnson with anything important.” Ben said, scratching his head and gazing out the window.
“I detect that you’re ribbing me a little bit, Sarge, but what you’re saying is actually right. We’re talking about a guy who sent his jacket to the cleaner’s but left the code to activate the nuclear missile silos in it’s pocket. That guy’s not ready for what we’re dealing with. Maybe Jack Kennedy wasn’t up for it, either.” Bud could see that Ben was having a tough time taking in what he was telling him.
“This is a lot to lay on you, Sarge. But I’ve followed your activities since the war, and I know you’re going to be the exact right guy for what we need from you. You and the Captain will hit it off, and then we can get down to brass tacks.”
Ding! Ding! Louise’s voice came over the intercom. “Buckle up, gentlemen. We’re coming in for a landing.”
“That dame’s flying the plane?” Ben asked, taking a draw off his smoke.
“Ha, ha, she can fly a plane and do a whole lot more, Sarge. Take it from me, she’s no shrinking violet.” Bud mused, as he snapped his seat belt in place.
Ben looked out the window, expecting to see a land mass. Instead, he saw that they were closing in on an aircraft carrier. On the side, the words USS INDIANAPOLIS were emblazoned.
“Figures. So if you answered to Kennedy, and Kennedy’s dead, who’s in charge of this thing?” Ben asked, snubbing out his cigarette in the built-in ashtray.
“You are.” Bud smiled big.
Louise landed the jet without a hitch on the aircraft carrier, and she, Ben, and Bud climbed off to meet a seafaring man in a pea coat, long white beard, and cap. Alongside him stood a much younger man dressed in the manner of a greaser juvenile delinquent, straight out of the previous decade. Motorcycle jacket, tight blue jeans, engineer boots, a thin white t-shirt, and fiery red hair duded up in a tight pompadour. He had a Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Bud made introductions.
“Sarge, or uh, Ben Venice, meet the Captain and Red.”
“Hey, fellas.” Ben eyeballed the two gentlemen carefully, “So what’s the story with this boat? You gonna tell me the USS Indianapolis didn’t sink?”
“Oh, it sank.” The Captain began, “I was on it. Sharks took my hand.” he said, as he produced a hook from his left pocket where a hand would’ve been, “Not to mention my leg.” With that, he bent over, clanked his hook against the hollow wooden prosthesis on his right. “Fucking sharks.”
“Whoa. Bad start, pal. Sorry.” Ben said. The Captain just snarled an inaudible response, and kept grumbling as he turned and walked away.
“Don’t mind him, daddio.” Red said, then swigged from his bottle. “Alotta you W.W. two cats came back wrong. You ready to go?”
“We just got here, so sure, why not?” Ben was getting used to being puzzled.
“This is just a stop on the way, Sarge. But we’re close.” Bud said, slapping his old friend on the shoulder.
“How many of those have you had, Red?” asked Louise.
“Ahh, what’re you, my Ma? This is my first one today.” Red replied with a sneer.
“Can you handle the sub?” Louise put her fists on her waist, cocked her head a bit.
“What am I gonna do, crash into an octopus?” Red knocked back the rest of his brew, then dramatically tossed the empty bottle over his shoulder, where it sailed over the side of the ship. “C’mon, you’re getting to be a drag already.”
The three complied, followed the younger man into the hanger bay and then down a few tight flights of stairs, past several thick, locked metal doors until they reached the bottom of the boat. Here, Red click clacked a code into a small numerical keypad, leading to a sharp whistle blow, indicating the door was unlocked. Red yanked the handle up hard and pushed in, into the airlock.
“Here we are, folks. The American dream so dreamy you have to leave America to dream it.” Red said, strutting around a vehicle chained and suspended from the ceiling. It was long, wide, black, and sleek, almost beyond belief. What an angel would be to a human being, this ride was to any automobile. It had room to very comfortably sit 4, with the pilot in the conventional driver’s seat.
“Shotgun.” called Louise, who popped the passenger side open, with an automatic door that slid sideways towards the back to allow access for the backseat as well, then climbed in.
“After you.” said Bud, with his hand outstretched. Ben took him up on it, hopped in the back and slid all the way over. “Pretty wild stuff, huh Sarge?”
“Yeah, this thing is kinda like that Caddy I was driving.” Ben said back, as he lit a smoke and pressed a button above his head that indicated it was there to suck up the smoke.
“Only this one can survive a little dip.” Red said, as he got situated in the driving seat. “We ready to roll? Good. C’mon.” pressing a remote button, a trap door opened beneath them, the chamber filled with water, the chains fell away, and the small submarine began it’s dive. Farther and farther down into the dark, until they reached a satisfactory depth for Red to switch the lights on. Ben watched with wonder as strange and exotic fish darted around. He noticed that Louise was filing her nails like she was on a mile 500 of a dull ride on the interstate.
“You know, I thought you might’ve been full of shit until this very second. Am I dreaming this, Bud?” Ben asked.
“Oh, you haven’t started dreaming yet, Sarge.” Bud replied, watching out his window as a school of seahorses drifted by.
Red steered the craft to the ocean floor, then into a narrow cave. Ben noticed that the sub handled much like the automobile it resembled, only the wheel could motivate the ride to go up or down below the surf by pushing or pulling up or down, and went left and right conventionally, with a turn. It was a good ten minutes travel with several forks along the way. Despite his bravado, it was clear Red had to concentrate carefully to maintain his cool. If the ship crashed, they would surely be shit out of luck.
Ben stayed silent, wondering what he could possibly encounter next. He thought about a time in the war, when a German soldier has his ass against a wall, dead to rights, and how it was Bud who bailed him out. He figured it was what happened then that lead to what was happening now, why he would be so ready to follow his old friend to beneath the ocean and beyond.
Finally, a light emerged at the end of the tunnel, and the sub surfaced by a dock. Red clicked a button on the console and the roof slid open. “See?” He said, “Safe and sound.”
The four climbed out onto the metal surface, and once there, Ben could see it was round and about 400 square feet. They were in an inclosed cavern, and in the center of the circular space they stood on was a tube leading up through the ceiling.
“Elevator?” Ben asked, to anyone who would answer.
“Right on the first guess, daddio.” Red replied. They stepped inside and rode up and out.
“Won’t we get the bends?” Ben asked.
“Nah, the cabin was pressurized a certain way or some shit. The guy that built it is a genius. He did all this stuff.” Bud said back.
“Huh. Rich, too.” Ben mused.
“You got that right.” Bud chuckled. The elevator dinged and the door slid open. “Here’s where we say so long to our friends. Louise, it is always a pleasure.”
The lady nodded to Bud as she bid adieu. “Next trip we go somewhere tropical.”
“You in a bikini, baby? Bring me along.” Red swaggered off the car like a carhop cocksman, “Check you later, squares. ” Ben liked him already. He looked out upon a round room with unmarked doors all along, unlike anything that he had ever seen before, as Louise disappeared behind one door, Red another.
“Allright Sarge, top floor. Time to get down to brass tacks.” With that, Bud put a secret code into the console, and the two men rode to the top floor. “Right now, only I know that number. In about an hour, only you and I will.” The door opened. They stepped off into an oval office that made the one at the White House look like a neighborhood insurance salesman’s. Shelves and shelves of books lined the wall going all the way around. A simple, huge oak desk stood before them.
Once they left the elevator, the tubular car lowered back down into the floor, leaving a round seal behind. In black and white. It had a large skull in the center and the words GLOBAL HIERARCHY OF SECRET TACTICS.
“That’s us.” Bud pointed proudly, “We’re GHOST.”
It took Ben 5 seconds to realize that he was the only one snickering.
“Hello, Sergeant Venice. Or Mister Venice, if that’s your choice. This is not a strictly military unit, as you might’ve gathered. I’m General Lawrence Schwartz. If you are seeing this, then I am dead or as good as dead, and our mutual friend Bud has elected to not take control of GHOST, which was, honestly, my preference.”
Bud had set the projector up on the large desk, and he and Ben took the seats that were situated in front of it it, watching the filmstrip on the screen before them. They were watching the somewhat surreal sight of a man who had been filmed there at that very spot. It was as if he was still there, only flat and celluloid.
“You have probably heard rumors and any number of crackpot theories in your lifetime about an Illuminati, a secret group of kingmakers and master manipulators who decide the course of civilization through shady and sometimes even sadistic means. Most of those theories are most likely absolute malarky, but a few -at least a few- are true. This news might be hard to hear and even harder to believe, but President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was murdered at the behest of a clandestine cabal, after he was brought irrefutable proof of their existence and cruel machinations, and began plans to remove them from the planet.”
Ben was chilled to the bone by what he was hearing. The assassination of the President never sat right. He took a moment to consider how likely he would be to believe this theory if it wasn’t being presented to him in a lavish yet bizarre lair that required an oceanic trip in a tiny sub to find.
“Their act was taken as a declaration of war, not by the United States Government, aspects of which are unfortunately under their control, but by us. GHOST. We began as a paramilitary project designed to snuff out this high functioning cult once the President was briefed on investigations Bud made while he was with the CIA. I only regret that I did not survive to see the battle taken directly to the source. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You might have heard of my apparent plane crash death. Well, that was at the behest of Jack Kennedy. I turned my back on my entire life because my friend asked me to, just as you have done..”
“Guess I did, huh?” Ben said, with a scoff. He remembered the news of the General’s plane crash, and how his son supposedly died with him. Remembering back, that son looked a lot like Red.
“As did Bud, for that matter. I’ll leave it to him to tell you about his own experience. It was such a classified matter that we had to be gone completely, without a trace. After our ‘death,’ we began the work of establishing our own countermeasures against our spectral enemy, by trying out some of their own tactics. We are all off the books. Deceased. We have in our hands some very valuable counterintelligence, and as you’ve seen, more than a few technological wonders beyond anything that the world knows exists.
“But the most useful tool, the most potent weapon that we hold, is our personnel. I wish I could have met you, Ben. I hope that you’re everything that Bud has said you are, because a heavy weight now sits on your shoulders. Godspeed, and never hesitate.”
With that, the film ended, and the film flip flap flipped on the projector. Ben reached into his inside jacket pocket, pulled out his smokes, lit one, then sat for a moment before he spoke.
“How do you figure they keep the thing burning all the time?”
“Eh, they probably shut it off at night and send some Pee-Eff-Cee nimrod out here to fill it with butane.” Red said nonchalantly, then theatrically flipped his Zippo and lit a Lucky Strike, “We came here from a fortress hidden inside a dead island volcano in the middle of the ocean and you’re puzzling over a glorified cigarette lighter?”
“Maybe I’m just making conversation, kid.” Ben tucked his hands deep in the pockets of his trench coat. It was a cold November day in Arlington, damp from a recent storm. 1965 was speeding towards it’s end.
“So you buy this conspiracy shit, Chief? You think it’s true?” Red said, looking straight ahead, a thousand yard stare.
“Hell, I don’t know.” Ben was a bit surprised to hear himself say the words, “I’ve read a whole lot of documents and seen some pretty amazing stuff the last few weeks, you gotta realize. But I don’t know. I guess I’m skeptical either way.”
“My old man was fucking certain it was a hit. I think his grave is over there somewhere.” Red pointed off to the distance, at rows and rows of white crosses.
“What’s in the coffin?” Ben asked, gazing at the sea of buried dead soldiers, wondering how many he might’ve known during the big one.
“Hell if I know. Rocks, I guess. A mannequin. The plane was so trashed, they just figured me and Pop had to be goners.” Red dragged casually on his smoke, “I guess mother came to the funeral. If they let her out.”
“What happened to your mother?” Ben queried.
“Cut the shit, Chief. You read the file. She’s in the bughouse.” Red looked square at Ben, “Maybe Pop should’ve been in there, too. Maybe you as well, for getting mixed up in this circus.”
“So what do you think happened to Kennedy?” Ben asked, changing the subject.
“I think people just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that one limp-dicked little puke can wipe out the leader of the free world. I think one nut did a nutty thing, and now there’s an outbreak of nutjobs all over the goddamn place.” Red pulled his cig all the way to the nub, then flicked it away, “It’s the only explanation for everybody getting all excited about those four sassy pansies with with their sisters’ hairdos, prancing around.”
“So why do you stick around? Go along with this cloak and dagger outfit?” Ben pulled a flask from his chest pocket.
“I’m in it for the kicks, daddio.” Red cracked his first smile of the day.
“I’ll drink to that.”
And so they did, passing the flask back and forth.
“You’re not coming up?”
“Hell, no. Sammy Davis is at the Sands tonight, and this guy gives me the creeps. You can deal with him.”
And with that exchange Red was off in the fire engine red Corvette, into the natural twilight, soon to to be erased by the Las Vegas glitz and glamor. Ben looked up and back down the towering Desert Inn, then headed inside.
Vegas wasn’t Ben’s scene. Everywhere he looked, he saw excess and waste. It felt like the whole city was just baited catnip for suckers, from the slot machines to the prostitutes. It was a toss up which was most ubiquitous. The inside lobby of the joint was like something out of ancient Rome, all towering ceilings and marble. Ben decided to skip the elevator and take the stairs, but started to regret the decision by the time he got to the top floor. He took a minute to catch his breath in the stairway before he got into character. Upon opening the door to the floor, he encountered two men in black suit and tie and tight short back and side buzzcuts.
“Director Venice!” one of them said, “It’s an honor to meet you. I’m a bit embarrassed to have to ask, but I have to…”
Ben smirked, then replied:
“Correct, sir. That’s the word.”
“I know, I made it up.”
“Of course, sir.”
Ben was allowed entry. Once inside the plush penthouse room, he laid eyes on the man he came to see. Whatever he had imagined he might find, this was not it. There before him, stark naked, stood Howard Hughes. Ben was taken aback, so Hughes spoke first.
“You’ll have to forgive me. I don’t shake hands.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr.Venice. I hardly even notice when I’m starkers up here anymore.” With that, Howard Hughes pulled a bathrobe over his white and boney frame. Ben was just impressed that Hughes wasn’t too far gone to register that he ought not be strolling around with his pecker out on a first meeting.
“Here, have a seat, here by the window, where we can look out at that skyline.” Hughes strolled over to the enormous window, where two lush leather chairs sat, both facing the window. Ben decided to resist the urge to physically move them before he sat in order to face this lunatic when they spoke like men, but instead just hoped for the sake of his clean slacks that Hughes previously practiced good hygiene before he flopped his naked ass on the damn thing when he was hanging out. When in Rome…
“So let me see if I have this right…” Ben began, craning his neck to look over at Hughes as he gazed at the lights outside, “it’s you who funds GHOST, and you build these fancy things for us?”
“I don’t build them. Mr.Venice. I just design them, although they are built on my dime. All your Buck Rogers vehicles and that island headquarters of yours. Have you been inside the Eel yet?” Hughes was smiling pridefully, his eyes locked on the scene of Vegas at night.
“Is that the submarine car?” Ben asked.
Hughes chuckled. “Yes Mr.Venice, the ‘submarine car.’ My next version will fly. I envy you. I really wish that I could get out there and mix it up with you, all you secret agents and crusaders out there.”
“Why don’t you? You’re creating things that are light years beyond what anyone is even dreaming of, outside of fantasy. Why only give this technology to us?” Ben said, wishing Hughes had offered a drink or three.
“Kennedy. Because of Kennedy. After all that shit with the Hercules and the government coming after me…you know, that reallychanged me, Mr.Venice. I was a patriot before that, and I only was again when Kennedy got in there.” Hughes was swinging his arms around as he spoke, his fists clenched.
Ben just watched him until he made eye contact, then began to simmer down. “He reached out to me, he wanted me to help him get the best of the Russians. What became GHOST was originally just a pact between me and Jack. But then those bastards shot him and…well…” Hughes crossed his hands, interlocking his fingers. “…I guess we went Rogue.”
Ben took a deep breath. “What about General Schwartz? When did he enter the picture?”
“Oh, long enough before they shot Jack to gain my trust. I’m not good with keeping track of time. Is it true that women have started taking off their bras and burning them out in the national parks out there?” Hughes’ eyes grew wide.
Ben desperately wanted a cigarette.
Red was a southpaw, and he had a move he liked. Fake a straight with with the right, then hook with the left when his opponent drew back, right across the snot box. Worked every time, until he tried it on Louise. His face ate the mat within seconds. He wasn’t sure how. “Short flight,”she crowed, “bad landing.”
The mechanical door slid open and Ben slid in, taking in the scene of Red in his jeans, head down, ass up, and Louise looking down on him like shit she just picked off her shoe, hardly sweating. Her hair pinned up, her sharp features enunciated, dressed in a purple Judogi, her toenails and fingernails both painted the same shade of crimson, pipping over a loudmouth man she just bested… Ben’s heart was pitter pattering just looking at her. He kept it cool.
“I bet you didn’t slap him around like that when his old man ran this outfit.”
“Aw, hell…” Red rolled over on his side, his face a full flush, either from his head smacking the padded floor or sheer embarrassment, “…she used to kick his ass, too.”
Louise crossed her arms. “You come into my dojo with your shoes on, I guess you’re here to spar too, Mister Bigshot?” Red’s eyes grew wide as he gingerly sat up. “Jesus, Louise…” he muttered.
Ben smirked as his lit Lucky Strike dangled, an ember dangerously close to dropping and singing her precious tarp. “Please, Miss Edelman. Mister Bigshot was my father.”
“And Miss Edelman was my sister.”
With that, Louise snatched the cigarette from Ben’s lips, drew hard on it, flicked the ash in her palm, then squeezed her hand into a fist. “These things are killing your wind. Want me to prove it to you?” Her eyes locked with his like she was a tiger in a cage.
Ben was nonplussed. “You have no need to prove anything to me, Louise. Finish that smoke, hit the shower, and meet me in my office in 2o.”
“I don’t smoke.” Louise replied, holding the coffin nail in a familiar way that suggested otherwise.
“Then give it to Red. He looks like he could use it.” Ben said, as he headed out the door.
Red crossed his ankles and his hands behind his head like he was relaxing at the beach, then sing song said “You two are going to have some cranky babies.”
“Say something like that again and I’ll break your fucking jaw.”
Louise was in no mood.
Ben Venice didn’t do much to change around the round command office of G.H.O.S.T. once he inhabited it, except that he had a killer sound system crammed in against the wall, a big wood encased monolith with a Marantz inside it sideways and a turntable with a new, clean needle. A bunch of the General’s old history books were moved elsewhere in the island base to make room for the records that were taken by night out of his Louisville home after his demise was faked. Sometimes Bud would go up there and borrow one or two for his quarters, where he might slip on a disc and get high for awhile, forgetting temporarily the details of the person he would next have to kill. He always reverently slid them back in.
Ben kept his shit in order by preference of artist and then by chronological album release, and although it pained Bud to keep Miles ahead of Coltrane, he would do it anyway. Partially out of respect to his friend, but also so he wouldn’t get busted.
When the two men were in the same place at the same time, that spot was usually the office. On this day, they were convening as Lee Morgan filled the air. They both agreed on putting Morgan on the top shelf.
“Tell the truth, Bud…” Ben said, as he sipped his whiskey, “How much was getting ahold of my record collection your motivation for bringing me into this outfit?”
“What do you want, Sarge? Like a percentage?” Bud shrugged.
“No, no. I’m just giving you a hard time.” Ben replied, and leaned back in his leather chair, behind his big desk.
With some relief, Bud said “Good, because I don’t even wanna think about it like that. Fact is, I trust you more than anybody, and I saw you when you were in the shit. I figured that the civilian world wasn’t gonna be your bag anymore. I watched you for awhile before we had lunch that day, and you confirmed my suspicions.”
Ben’s eyebrow cocked. “Oh yeah? Do I want to hear more?”
“Sure, man. Of course you do.” Bud continued, with a bit of a laugh. “You liked action. A whole lot. You didn’t fuck around too much with guilt or anxiety, you had work to do to save the world from those assholes and you just did it. You’ve got a clarity of vision. That’s extremely valuable. But the main thing is, you’re a good man. You’ve got a good heart.”
“Wow. Thanks, pal.” Ben said, running his hand over his forehead.
“Well, there’s more.” Bud leaned forward, from his chair across from his old wartime friend, “You weren’t into all the military cock and bull. Wasn’t your scene. This isn’t a military operation, not anymore. G.H.O.S.T. isn’t just about giving and following orders, see. There’s a big storm looming. Jarhead macho horseshit’s not gonna get it.”
“Did you have any inclination to run this thing? The General wanted you to.” Ben had been waiting to ask him this for awhile. He was still coming to grips with the fact something like G.H.O.S.T. was real, let alone that he ran it all of a sudden.
Bud took no time at all to answer. He shook his head. “Nah. I mean sure, I thought about it. Of course, anywhere else, I’m just some aging colored man. Things are changing out there a little bit, though. Slow, but that’s out there…”
“Well, in here, you’re King Pencil, pal.” Ben had always hated that his friends like Bud would be looked down upon. He thought about the Lieutenant that used to give him shit for hanging tight with his friend, had the nerve to call him a “nigger lover.” Whenever Ben had trouble sleeping, he remembered how good it felt to have his hands around that cracker’s throat when the chips finally came down, behind enemy lines with no MP jerkoff around to issue a court martial.
“I get that.” Bud said, “I could’ve ran it, but I don’t know, man. I’m what the mob calls a consigliere. The adviser, the confidant. There’s no shit between us. I respect you, you respect me, we’re partners. You get to sit at the desk, and hey…” Bud pointed to the Hi-Fi and smiled, “…I’ve got your records.”
Both men laughed. Through the merriment, Bud said “Alright brother, Louise is on her way up. Let’s get into character.”
The base buzzed as Louise made her way up the tube in the cylinder shaped elevator car. In the office up top, the circle baring the skull logo of G.H.O.S.T. raised up as the lady arrived. Bud swiveled in his chair, Ben stubbed a cig and let his arms rest on the desk empirically.
The door slid sideways, Louise emerged. she was dressed in black fitted fatigues, complete with laced boots and a beret. She meant business.
“Good afternoon, Bud.” she said, as she strolled over and took the seat next to his.
“Looking sharp, Louise.” Bud said.
“I won’t mince words, Louise.” Ben stated, interlocked his fingers as he said the words, “I gather that you’re not entirely pleased with me heading up this operation.”
“Bud thinks highly of you, Sergeant Venice. That’s enough for me.” Louise’s legs were crossed, as were her arms.
Bud smiled, his head was lowered. “I wish that were true, but I know you too well.”
“Permission to speak freely?” Louise asked, but it wasn’t a question.
Ben was never much for military formality. His response was a simple “Absolutely.”
“Well, since we’re cutting the shit here…” Louise began, ” I don’t see why we would bring in an outsider. To lead? Really, Bud? Do you think so poorly of yourself?”
“Hey, look Louise…” Bud was getting pissed, which was unusual for him, “Don’t question my volition. Alright? We’ve been through enough. You and me, and me and him. Ben’s the guy for the job.”
Ben cut in. “I wouldn’t trust me, either.”
Bud and Louise fell silent. Ben continued to speak.
“I wouldn’t. I’ll call it. Who the hell am I? But I know enough about you to know I respect you, and I want to earn your respect. So I’ll propose a deal.”
“This is intriguing.” Louise said, as she straightened her beret.
Ben laid it down. “I don’t tend to respect anyone in any leadership position that wouldn’t do or hasn’t done everything they ask of their subordinates. So you and I are going on a mission. In the field. It’s going to be dangerous, we’re going to be right in the heat. I’ll take point. You back me up. I’ll trust you not to go rogue and stab my back, up until the final stage of the game. That’s when it’s your show.”
If Louise was impressed, she didn’t show it. “My show, huh? What’s the objective?”
Among other things, Ben was a salesman. This was what those in that profession called the Moment Of Truth. “You’re going to kill the man who took your sister from you.”
Louise’s eyes went wide, then narrowed.
“You’ve got a deal, Venice.”
The Major gasped and swallowed blood. Louise’s grip on his throat loosened only enough to keep him from passing out as she brought her fist down on his face again. This one broke his nose. He made a noise like a mother cow whose calves were slaughtered. She laughed at him.
The room was an office in the Major’s private residence, and it was in total disarray. Table and chairs were flipped over in the fight. Like many men before, the Major underestimated Louise. It would be a catastrophic mistake. Once the battle hit the floor, her grappling took him straight to a personal hell. She made him feel every blow that she rained upon him.
Ben waited outside in the hall. He watched the guard closely, making sure he kept breathing. The tranquilizer dart in his neck was shot from the pistol he held. No reason this G.I. should die for the detail. Treason was only worth it for the likes of Major Quill.
“Do you know who I am?” Louise asked the Major, her hands about his throat.
He sucked wind hard. He gasped something inaudible.
“What?!?” She demanded as she slammed his head on the floor.
“I…I can…I can tell you…” He stammered. blood stained his teeth.
Her rage was unabated. “Tell me what? What the fuck do I want you to say to me?”
“About the Order of the Scorpion.”
He breathed fast and heavy as she climbed off of his busted frame, straightened her leather jacket, and walked over to the door. She knocked twice.
“Damn it.” She said.
Through the door, Ben responded. “What?”
“I can’t kill him yet.”
Boy, Louise was pretty steamed at that Major Quill, right? Bet you can’t wait to see what happens next.