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Keith Rowley

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· The Aquarius Key, A Novel of the Occult


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· The Other Side of Light (Part 9)

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· Warrior Of The Dark

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Brand
By Keith Rowley
Posted: Friday, April 27, 2012
Last edited: Wednesday, July 18, 2012
This short story is rated "PG" by the Author.

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Recent stories by Keith Rowley
· Mordica
· SINNER: Part 10
· SINNER: Part 8
· SINNER: Part 7
· SINNER: Part 6
· SINNER: Part 2
· SINNER: Part 1: Prelude
           >> View all 21
As we move into the age of the Thought Police, those who would command the technology of tyranny do battle in life's sewers, the natural home of all politicians...

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Brand
 
A Subversion
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Keith Rowley
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
For those who resist…
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

By 2015 governments will track and record every movement, every purchase, every transgression and unguarded comment of every person on the planet. Beyond this lies the nightmare of control…

 
 
 
 
Anarchism :   a doctrine advocating the abolition of government
                        Collins English Dictionary
 
Anarchism:    absolute freedom of the individual

                        New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

 


 
Cast
 

Dave Andrews                                    MIT Psychology Professor.

Andrew Beasley                     Professor of Neuroscience, MIT

Dennis Blitzer, General           Director Project UNISECS, Washington

Mike Brand                             Sometime Special Forces soldier, alcoholic, failed Private                                                     Investigator

Laura Brannigan                     Racing driver, athlete
David Bruce                            Secretary of State Security, Canberra

Pieter de Jong                         Former operative South African Civil Cooperation Bureaux                                                 CCB). Chief Warder C-Max High Security Prison,                                                               Pretoria.

Moses Kaluma                        Hired killer, priest of the Order of Zion

Joost Klopper                          Former South African reconnaissance soldier and assassin.

Karak Marden                         Evangelical preacher, conman

Mara Selena Parish                  Struggling actress, amateur sex worker.

Sipho Radebe                          South African Minister of Internal Security.

Raven                                      Hacker affiliated to Freedom Institute

Albert Scully                           Agent of The Order of Rome in New Orleans. Voodoo mystic,                                           small time pimp and drug dealer.

André Vermuelen                   Research scientist. Graduate of University of Pretoria, South                                               Africa.

Sherry Vermuelen                   Sister of André Vermuelen. Research scientist. Graduate of                                                             University of  Pretoria, South Africa..

Marius de Wet                                    Former colonel and Director of Secret Projects South African                                              Defence Force. Founding member of The Order of Rome.

Stella Sherrington                   Sex worker, friend to Sherry Vermuelen

Mampara                                 Hacker affiliated to Freedom Institute

Razor                                       Hacker affiliated to Freedom Institute

Dirk ‘Devil’ Marais                 Director Project UNISECS, Pretoria
 

Part One

 
The Superbowl, New Orleans

Karak gazes down lovingly at his enraptured flock, imploring, coaxing, loving all with the power of God. He raises his hands in supplication, rolls sweat-blinded eyes under the unbearable glare of powerful spotlights.

            … Fucking electric migraine…

            He breathes deeply, focusing the power of his oratory…

            ‘And yea, I say unto you my brethren in Christ, that ye, yea even thee my people shall behold the coming of the Beast…of the Antichrist, who shall devour even thy children should ye not repent and take salvation from THE LORD!!!’

            He pauses dramatically, leans forwards low, wipes the sweat from his gleaming brow. The dissonant roar of Hallelujah’s rising from the euphoric multitudes gathered before him is deafening. Women weep openly, imploring God for forgiveness of imagined sin; men fall to their knees in rapture, intoxicated by the power of evil made manifest through the power of God’s word.

            I love this shit…

            ‘Brothers and sisters in Christ,’ Karak continues, suddenly subdued, reverential… whispering dread secrets of salvation, dominating the sudden crystalline hush of the vast arena; ‘as you have witnessed on this historic night, the time draws near…the time of trials…the time of rapture…the time of our Lord, JESUS CHRIST!!!’

            He raises his hands, suppressing the rising tide of adulation. ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…ladies and gentlemen, GOD BE WITH YOU ALL!’

            A salvo of fireworks erupts into the night sky. To thunderous applause and ululations of salvation realised, Karak turns his back to the crowd, catches a towel thrown from backstage. A dazzling white suit, blond wig and Colgate smile sails forwards onto the stage, raises the microphone with a flourish. Karak retreats.

            ‘Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, our lay-preachers will now move among you…please give generously …ladies and gentlemen…brothers and sisters…heed the words of our prophet…’

            ‘Goddamn it!’ Karak thunders as he kicks open the changing room door. ‘Who the hell set those goddamned stage lights up…huh? The fucking things damn near roasted me…’ He stops short as unexpected, total darkness floods his eyes. Bewildered, he jerks defensively back into the open door.

            A sibilant whisper snakes its way from the gloom: ‘Come right in, Karak!’

            Karak peers into the room, pupils dilating as his eyes adjust to the gloom.

            ‘Moses…? Mr Kaluma…?’ His voice trembles. The towel slumps soggily to the plastic floor. A slick sheen of sweat runs in chill rivulets down his back.

            ‘Come forward Karak Marden…stand before me now…’

            ‘It can’t be…you’re dead, old man…I saw you…’ Karak protests weakly.

            ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord, Karak, for he has wrought a great wonder in me…now step forwards my son…don’t be afraid…’

            Karak reaches uncertainly for the wall, fumbles for the light switch, never taking his eyes from the shadowed corner of the room.

            ‘Now that’s not very polite Karak…aren’t you glad to hear my voice again…for he who was lost is found, my son.’

            A flood of brilliance washes through the chill, air-conditioned room, dispelling the shadows and half-light. Karak shuffles forward uncertainly and falls to his knees, bows his head. ‘Mr Kaluma…you’re alive…’

            ‘Yes, son, I’m alive…’

            Karak raises his head. The old man is just as he remembers him. He trembles, violently;

            ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned against thee…’

            ‘Yes, that you have Karak…’

            The old man laughs suddenly, removes his wrap-around dark glasses, revealing milky, sightless eyes, dead pools of rancid milk that gaze knowingly from his corrugated face. He leans forward from his seat, leaning on a barbarously carved stave, stroking the short, snow-white beard that contrasts so strongly with his ancient, ebony skin.

            ‘You are one mean, lyin’ sonofabitch, Karak...now get up off them scrimpy knees and face me like a man, goddammit...’

            ‘Mr Kaluma…I…’

            ‘I said get up, Karak.’

            The old Negro rises suddenly, raises the heavy walking stick, smashes it into Karak’s shoulder. Karak’s bones cracked like dry twigs. He screams, rolls on the floor, spastically clasps his shattered shoulder. Footsteps ripple through the bright light of agony; Karak squirms again. The old man closes the door, switches off the light.

            Through the red blindness of pain, Karak senses what is to come, has seen it many times before. The roar of the congregation diminishes to a whisper.

            ‘Now Karak, think very carefully before you answer me…where is it, Karak…?’ He raises the heavy staff. Back on his knees, Karak keeps his head bowed, pleads; ‘I don’t know Mr Kaluma…sir…I swear I don’t know…’

            Crack! His right knee explodes. Outside, separated from Karak’s torment by a few meters of vinyl flooring and a universe of sickness and pain and fear, the crowd raises a thunderous roar of praise: ‘Thank you Jesus!’

            Karak rolls away from the old man, screaming. ‘Please Mr Kaluma…I beg you…’ The agony is unbelievable, tears into his guts like barbed wire, stabs at his brain like shards of frozen death.

            ‘We want it back, Karak…’ Once again, the cane whistles through the air, smashes through his open mouth. Karak's teeth explode like shrapnel.

            ‘And here, brothers and sisters…here we have a pledge for ten thousand dollars from Jimmy Appleton…God bless you brother…come on now, you children of God, don’t let Satan blacken your hearts with ungodly parsimony– give freely to the Lord now; give to the Lord and ye shall be rewarded, for thy place shall be at his side in heaven…’

            ‘Praise the Lord!’ the crowd screams in renewed frenzy.

            ‘Praise the Lord!’ the old man shouts, bringing the heavy wood cane down on Karak’s unprotected rib cage. Blood spatters the pristine whiteness of his beard, drips into the scuffed yellow carpet.

            ‘Praise the Lord, Karak! Now tell me where it is, you ungodly piece of shit! And while you’re being so cooperative, you tell me where that bastard Brand is, Karak – you tell me right now or face the judgement of the Lord! ’

            ‘Amen!’ the crowd screams.

            Karak’s body jerks spastically. He gasps, mouths incoherent words with his shattered speech apparatus, pleads weakly through bloodied, unseeing eyes. The old man breathes deeply, smiles down at him and kneels, cradling Karak’s bloodied, broken head in his lap as though he were a broken child or a damaged sparrow; ‘There, there, my son…’

            Karak looks up helplessly.

            ‘Can’t…feel…arms…can’t…move…’

            The old man lovingly caresses his brow, wipes at the blood with withered hands.

            ‘Tell me my son, tell me, that I may rejoice and slaughter for thee the fatted calf…return to me from sin now…’ His hand tightens around Karak’s throat.

            ‘Tell me my son…’ He leans downwards, presses his ear to Karak’s bloodied mouth.

            ‘Tell me, my son, be released from pain…cleanse thy spirit in the well of truth…’

            ‘Fuck you, old man,’ Karak whispers, and dies.

            ‘Fuck it!’ the old man shouts in disgust, roughly feeling for Karak’s pulse… ‘Fuck it all to hell!’

            He stands suddenly, brushes faddishly at his suit, pokes contemptuously at the broken body with his feet, and spits in disgust.

            ‘Fuck you Karak, you miserable, no good son of a heathen whore…how dare you die on me…how fucking DARE you…?’ He raises the heavy stave, strikes savagely at the corpse, smashes down again and again at the contorted face, heedless of the blood and gore and bone shards that spray him with the insignia of a butcher. Yet again he raises the stave, but pauses, suddenly puzzled. Slowly, he lowers the heavy cane, draws a deep breath and walks unerringly to the rear exit.

            ‘I guess I’ll let myself out then…’

            He lowers his head, taps a pattern of blindness with his cane, and meanders onto the deserted street, singing quietly in a voice of ebony resonance: ‘…and yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…for thy rod and thy staff will comfort me…’

            ‘Amen,’ the crowd jubilantly echoes into the glory of the starlit night.

 
 

The Flamingo Club, Liverpool England

Mike Brand fell off his bar stool. Not gently, not gracefully, but painlessly, unconsciously and most of all, heavily.

            ‘I fucking hate gravity…’

            His head strikes the tiled floor with a muffled thump, followed quickly by a half-full whiskey glass, which shatters next to his head. The stool follows, first wobbling uncertainly, then toppling onto his prone form, sharply punctuating another disastrous, alcohol-sodden day. On either side of the gap he left behind him at the bar, patrons peer down curiously through the dappled half-light, shrug, and continue with the night’s drunken monotony.

            ‘Fucking hell, Mike…not again!’ The barman leans over the counter, glaring at Mike’s prone form. He shakes his head, summons assistance from the over-muscled, tuxedo-clad bouncers. ‘SquintDozer…get him out of here….’

            ‘It’s alright ladies and gentlemen,’ he reassures no-one in particular. He needn’t have bothered. The juke box maintains its country-western dirge, the cheap discotheque lights sustain their garish, nightmare projection into the smoky shadows, and the clamorous babble of the old, the bold, the desperate and the confused, continue unabated.

            ‘What a bunch of fucking losers…’ the barman mutters in sudden disgust.

            The bouncers drag Mike to his feet. ‘Stand up you stupid bastard,’ the smaller, cross-eyed one snapps. Mike grunts. The larger bouncer, Dozer, slaps him – hard. He remains slumped between the tuxedos, utterly unresponsive.

            ‘Get him outside,’ the barman yells, ‘and no rough stuff – you hear me? In fact, get the bastard a cab – here…’ He scribbles an address hurriedly on a scrap of paper and reaches into his pocket, withdrawing a twenty pound note. ‘Make sure the cabby gets him through the door…’

            The bouncers nod in resignation, ‘Okay Phil…just like you said.’

            ‘I’ll take him…I know him…know where he lives,’ a high-pitched female voice intrudes; a cloud of cheap perfume and an overly embellished sexual mirage following in its wake. Mara snaps the note from the barman’s hand. He glares at her for a brief moment, shakes his head in disgusted resignation. ‘Whatever…just make sure he gets home in one piece – and keep your grubby hands out of his pockets – he’s no good to you tonight.’

            ‘Fuck you Phil,’ Mara shouts, as she turns and walks towards the door, clearing a path through the jostling crowd as she goes. The bouncers follow, dragging Mike’s bulky form between them. Mara opens the door and shivers as a gust of icy wind douses her in rain, penetrating her chiffon blouse and short cotton skirt in an instant. The alley is dark, dangerously dark, and completely deserted.

            ‘Shit!’ she wails, and turns just in time to see Mike unceremoniously dumped onto the pavement. ‘Call a cab you bastards! You heard what Phil said.’

            The bouncers turn without comment, slamming the door hard behind them.

            ‘Jesus Christ!’ Mara screeches, ‘Call a fucking cab you evil bastards…you fucking squint eyed queers, it’s freezing out here.’ The door opens abruptly, spilling the bar’s cacophony of noise and colour into the cold darkness. A hand lunges at her throat, tightening painfully as she is pushed further back into the street.

            ‘What did you say?’ the bouncer asks through an eager smile that promises only violence. ‘What did you say, you fucking whore?’

            Mara claws at his eyes in helpless desperation, but the bouncer’s reach is too long, his strength unbearable. Her vision dims. As consciousness slips away, the pavement rushes towards her unprotected head. She raises her hands sluggishly in defence. The club door slams shut again. She struggles to her knees, gulps for breath from the seething, rain sodden air. Her skimpy clothes are completely saturated.

            Mike groans, waking slowly to the misery of rain and cold and darkness. He rises to his knees and throws up violently. ‘Oh god…’

            Mara kneels beside him, throws an arm across his shoulders. ‘Come on Mike…we’ve got to get you home honey…’ He throws up again. For a brief moment, the harsh glare of car lights frames them.

            ‘Here, Taxi…’ Mara shouts. The cab slows for a moment, then pulls away again at speed.

            ‘Bastard!’ she screams into the night. ‘Come on Mike, for god’s sake get up.’

            ‘Mara?’ he whimpers, ‘Mara?’

            ‘Yes, it’s me Mike, Mara…now get up will you?’

            Mike remains on his knees, retching violently. Mara breaks down, weeping in desperation. Her tears mingle with the stream of icy rain that pours relentlessly from the pitiless, pitch black sky. ‘Dear god, Mike, get up you useless, drunken slob…’

            Strobe lights flash blue and red. A siren sounds briefly as a police vehicle pulls up alongside the helpless pair and Mike stands painfully, leaning heavily against the rough stone wall. Two burly figures emerge from the painful lights of the vehicle. A radio squawks through the hissing sleet as the policemen approach, cautiously. Mara waves them away.

            ‘Please officer…we’re fine…we’ll be fine…’

            ‘Charley Tango Four to base.’

            ‘Go ahead Charley Tango Four.’

            ‘Charley Tango Four to base – we’re at one-two-four Lord Street. Approaching two drunks outside The Flamingo…I think we’d better bring them in.’

            ‘Roger Charley Tango Four – out.’

            ‘But we haven’t done anything,’ Mara pleads.

            Mike lunges ineffectually at the nearest policeman and crumples at his feet; ‘Bastards!’

            The second officer holds Mara firmly by her right arm – ‘into the car please…and don’t you dare struggle…I’ve had enough already tonight…be a good girl and just get in the fucking car!’ Suddenly cowed, Mara lowers her head, allows herself to be guided into the rear of the vehicle. At least it’s dry…

            ‘Mara…Mara?’ Mike mutters from his semi-comatose state on the pavement.

            ‘Let’s have you on your feet lad.’ Gently but firmly, the policemen pushes him into the car next to Mara, where he promptly throws up again.

            ‘For god’s sake…’ the policemen protests, give us a fucking break, will you?’

 
 

Armaments Corporation Complex – Pretoria - South Africa

Clack-clack…click-click…

            The keyboard snatches the staccato, rapid-fire commands from André’s fingertips, instantly formatting coded bytes, transmitting each in mere nanoseconds to the cold, lifeless brain of its omniscient silicon master. Pervading the room’s intense intellectual silence, the air conditioner hisses almost silently, breathing its chill discharge into the small laboratory.

            Clack-clack…click-click…

            André breathes deeply and rhythmically, controlling each intake and exhalation of air with the same rigidity of will that focuses his attention on the problem at hand. On the screen in front of him an impossibly complex n-dimensional matrix rotates in mathematical space, spinning gossamer paths of infinite probability through the data banks of the mainframe…

            Clack-clack…click-click…

            The beautifully structured image freezes – and collapses into a chaotic stream of symbols and filaments. A sequence of flashing red letters appears at the screen’s centre:

 
            -           PROGRAM ABORTED!!!…
-           INDETERMINABLE BEHAVIOUR PATH!!!

-                SUBJECT BEHAVIOUR ANOMALY!!!’

 
            ‘Shit…!’

            Sherry looks around sharply, her intense concentration shattered by André’s outburst.

            ‘André …?’

            ‘Shit!’ André repeats, driving his fist into the desk, narrowly missing the fragile keyboard. Sherry grins at him through eyes as cold and pale as a winter sky. ‘Still unstable eh?’ she asks rhetorically. André’s head sags onto his chest, sheathing his face in a mantle of raven hair. ‘Fucking human behaviour!’ he snaps at the offending screen, eyes glaring red through a fog of exhaustion. ‘Fuck all humans…this is worse than weather prediction…’ He jerks his chair backwards from the desk and turns to glare at his sister, daring her to contradict him. She ignores him. Forcefully, he rises from the small chair and steps into the lab’s only doorway, slamming it shut behind him. The glass pane cracks loudly.

            ‘Temper, temper, André …’ Sherry pouts at the rickety door, shaking her head in amusement. Shrugging, she turns quickly back to the maze of arcane symbols on her screen, staring for a moment into a well of computational complexity, breathing deeply, hovering over the keyboard once more.

            A momentary trick of optics throws her reflection back at her from the computer terminal. She smiles, pushed her long, blond hair back instinctively, moistening her lips and winking at her own image. Sherry knows she is beautiful.

            Clack-clack…click-click…

            -           NEXUS IMPLANT VHDL NEURAL INTERFACE 3.01

            Clack-clack…click-click…
            -           NEURAL RESPONSE SIMULATOR 2.62

            -           CRIMINAL JUSTICE FILE##35707853-7 JOOST KLOPPER – PYCHOSIS LEVEL 6 – COVERT OPERATIVE 1976-1986. CIVILIAN MASSACRE - TENDO VILLAGE 1977, SUSPECTED RAPE - KIMBA 1980, MURDER, JOHANNESBURG 1986, MURDER – JOHANNESBURG 1991, TRIED – PRETORIA 1992, CURRENTLY SERVING LIFE – PRETORIA – DIAGNOSIS VIOLENT PSYCHOSIS, PATHOLOGICAL SADISM, COMBAT TRAUMA. PROGNOSIS – PERMANANTLY UNSAFE FOR RELEASE…

            Clack-clack…click-click…

-          SEXUAL PROFILING – RUNNING

-          ENVIRONMETAL PARAMETERS – RUNNING

-          SOCIAL STRESS PARAMETERS RESTORED

-          COMBAT TRAUMA PARAMETERS REFRESHED

            Clack-clack…click-click…
            -           STIMULATION THRESHOLDS - SET

            -           NEURAL INTERFACE – BEHAVIOURAL MODIFIER – STANDBY

            Clack-clack…click-click…

-          UNMODIFIED HUMAN RESPONSE – RUNNING………..

-          CATEGORY 1 RESPONSE DETERMINED – 95% PROBABILITY – MURDER – ASSAULT – RAPE – INTERDICTION! INTERDICTION! INTERDICTION!

Clack-clack…click-click…

-          NEURAL FEEDBACK LOOP – ACTIVE – STABLE

-          BEHAVIOURAL MODIFICATION ALGORITHM 6.43 – RUNNING

Clack-clack…click-click…

-          NEXUS BEHAVIOUR MODIFICATION SIMULATION RUNNING – 105.00 MINUTES TO COMPLETION…

            Sherry nods at the screen and locks the keyboard. Sighing wearily, she rises from her seat and follows her brother through the laboratory door, tugging downwards at her short skirt. There is only one way to re-focus André’s mind.

            ‘Oh well,’ she sighs, ‘here we go again.’ She reaches for the mobile phone in the shallow pocket of her lab coat. ‘Stella…? It’s me, Sherry…listen…meet me over at André’s place in an hour, will you?’… ‘Fine Stella…thanks…see you there…yep…the usual…he won’t work ‘til we’ve settled him down.’

 
 

Mooi Plaas Farm –West of Pretoria, South Africa

The line dies for a moment, carrying nothing but the gentle hiss of the satellite link.

            ‘Dead…? What the hell are you talking about, Albert? Dead?’

            ‘I mean what I say, man - he’s dead…D E A D…Dead! Shall I spell it out again for your dumb, white ass?’

            Marius de Wet takes a deep breath. ‘Alright Albert, what the hell happened? Where’s the encryption key…did you get it?’

            ‘No, Marius, he didn’t have it…’

            ‘But he must have…he must have it.

            ‘Marius, that crazy old man beat the crap outta that piece o’ shit an’ he had nuthin’…ya hear me? Nuthin’! If he’d had anythin’, the motherfucker’d sure as hell would’ve spilled the goddamned beans there and then.’

            ‘Did you check his apartment?’ Marius asks desperately.

            ‘Did I check his apartment? Of course I checked his apartment, you white-assed supremacist fuckin’ brainless Nazi…what you think I am, some dumb-assed ghetto nigger? Huh?’

            ‘Okay, okay, sorry Albert…I’ve got to ask…you know that. No offence meant.’

            A world away, Albert pauses for a moment. ‘Uh, okay man, none taken; what now then?’

            Marius pauses again, pondering this latest setback. ‘Stay in New Orleans, Albert. We’ll be in touch.’

            ‘Okay man; but you’d better wire me some more cash through; I’m getting’ low out here.’

            ‘More cash?’ Incredulous, Marius lapses into his native Afrikaans. ‘Bliksem en donner Albert - ons het twintig duisend dollar vir jou gegee…is jy mal man?’

            Silence;

             What the fuck have you done with twenty thousand dollars Albert?’

            ‘Chill out Marius…life’s expensive out here, man, and that crazy old man – he’s got expensive habits. You get me some cash, or I’m outta here.’

            Marius sighs. Dealing with the black race still stretched his patience. But we’re allies now, allies against the great Satan…and our Lord cometh, even as a thief in the night…

            ‘Okay Albert, we’ll do it today. Stay out of trouble.’

            Albert grins. ‘Sure thing Marius; Y\you give my best wishes to all them white chicks in Pretoria, my man.’

            ‘Fuck you, Albert.’ Marius slams the phone down. ‘Blerrie Kaffir…’

            Albert chuckles, places a few coins in the call box, dials again.

            ‘Moses…? Yeah, I spoke with him. He says to wait, man….yeah, right...’ He puts the phone down sharply, releases it as though it burns his hands. That crazy old man scares the shit outta me…

 
 
C-Max Prison, South Africa

 Joost Klopper blinks blindly as he steps into the stone courtyard. Alone, always alone; fifteen years alone, protected from the opportunistic hatred of fellow inmates, and the outsiders who clamour still for his execution.

            He pauses for a moment, relishing the relative vastness of the space before him, the kiss of the warm yet cooling breeze against his skin, the rush and rumble of traffic beyond the barbed wire enclosure. He knows he will be here until he dies; by his own hand - or that of any one of those who hate him so much, though in truth, they barely comprehend the compass or the horror of his crimes. Even to himself, those things are but a dim relic now, echoes of a fading past.

            He sighs, shakes his head. The medication keeps him sedated, suppresses his hatred of the world and its pathetic inhabitants. He can no longer imagine the feelings, the powerful mental imperatives that led to the slaughter of so many at his hands. But even now, regret is a mere word to Joost, an alien and incomprehensible concept to a mind that knows neither remorse nor pity. That was why they’d recruited him…used him so effectively.

            He marches quickly to the end of the yard, pirouettes with comical, soldierly precision and retraces his steps over the flagstones. The guards look on in silent contempt. After thirty minutes he sweats profusely, his bright orange prison garb thoroughly soaked and sodden. One of the guards gestures imperiously, crossing his throat with a thumb, pointing at the open door to the prison block - the tomb of his genius.

            Obediently, he trots into the claustrophobic electric illumination, meekly offers his hands for cuffing and heads for the showers. He knows the routine. A truncheon suddenly blocks his path. He freezes, tense and expectant.

            ‘Not today, Klopper,’ the guard to his right barks. Joost remains frozen, clenches his teeth in anticipation of the pain, the beating to come. They haven't done this for years.

            ‘Warden’s office, Klopper – you piece of human garbage.’

            He turns his head, registers the savage sneer on the black guard’s face, and walks as directed. He rarely sees anything outside the solitary block, and looks around curiously as they traverse the vast maze that has been his home for so long. A sharp stabbing in the small of his back breaks his reverie. A vast antique door looms a few meters ahead.

            ‘Stand straight, Klopper. And remember…speak when you’re spoken to.’

            ‘Yes sir.’

            The guard raps the door with his knuckles, turns the huge brass handle and pokes his head through the narrow gap. ‘Klopper for you, sir…’ He pushes the door open, gestures Joost to enter and retreats, closing the door behind him.

            ‘Klopper, come in…’

            He looks uncertainly at the man behind the vast expanse of varnished wood, struggling to remember his face…it’s been so long…

            ‘Step forward, Klopper…’

            He moves forwards a few steps, uncertain.

            ‘That’s right, Klopper…nothing to worry about…not today.’

            Joost remains silent, drops his head, averts his eyes.

            The warden moves out gracefully from behind his desk, points to a chair. ‘Sit there, Klopper.’

            He complies, looks down at the floor. Cold sweat leaches from his prison overalls, dripping onto the parquet floor. The warden begins pacing, speaking into the air. ‘How long have you been with us now, Klopper?’

            Silence.

            ‘Let me see now…’ The warden glances at an open file on the desk. ‘Fifteen years and three months…’

            Joost looks up sharply; ‘and three days…sir.’

            The warden smiles coldly. He is a slight, dapper man, altogether dwarfed by his enormous desk and the vast expanse of his cavernous office. His reputation is evil. Word is, he’d run a covert Special Forces outfit – a trouble-shooter during the worst of the insurgency problems. But like so many of those bastards at the top, he’d bared his heart, such as it was, before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and been welcomed back into humanity’s fold.

            Bastard! I know you…you’re no better than me…

            ‘Yes…yes of course…that memory of yours…’ the warden mutters. He looks down at the prisoner, considering his words carefully. ‘We’re growing old together here, you and I…how many parole hearings so far...? Well – how many, Klopper?’

            ‘Ten, sir…ten parole hearings.’ Where the hell is this leading…what does the old bastard want from me?

            ‘Ten…hmmm. Cigarette?’

            Joost again looks up sharply; ‘Sir?’

            ‘Would you like a cigarette, man? It’s a simple enough question.’

            What the hell do you want?

            ‘No thank you, sir…I gave up.’

            ‘Good for you, Klopper – bad for your health.’ He turns the packet over in his hand, flips open an ornate Zippo lighter – it bears a faded military insignia, Joost notes. For a moment he senses the intense scrutiny behind the flickering flame, the cold calculation bleeding from the warden’s unnaturally pale blue eyes. He shivers. He knows that look, sees it in the mirror every day, recognizes its lethal intent. For so many, it was the last thing they saw before death took them.

            ‘Now for myself, Klopper, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Unlike you, I’ll probably be here for another fifteen years, guarding the new South Africa from impenitent, murdering scum like you.’

            Joost’s heart skips a beat. Surely…

            ‘Thought that would get your interest, old chap.’ The warden moves back behind his desk, picks up the file. ‘My, oh my…you did enjoy yourself didn’t you?’ He puffs meditatively at the cigarette. ‘Talkative bugger aren’t you? Ah well, to business then. How would you like to get out of here, Klopper?’

            ‘Sir..?’

            ‘Has prison dimmed your once brilliant wit, Klopper? I asked - how would you like to get out of here?’

            ‘I don’t understand, sir.’

            ‘Klopper, unlikely though it may seem, I have a proposal here in your file that could benefit you, this establishment, and, dare I say it, this country we so unfortunately share…’

            ‘How…?’

            ‘Ah…I see I have your attention at long last.

 
 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New England

Dave Andrews stares at the PC screen eagerly, rapidly scanning the subject’s anticipated responses. Beneath the high resolution three-dimensional image of a human brain, a cursor flashes expectantly. A swirl of coloured motes traces seemingly random trajectories through the modelled neural pathways, glittering trails of scintillation marking the arcane paths of human thought. The shifting pattern pauses, forming a stable filigree of red, collapses into a single point, deep within the subject’s brain. The computer announces its prediction…

…Subject #3042

…Selection - Alpha

…Mark time 09:25:24.14

…Probability 97%

            Dave tenses expectantly. In the chamber beyond, screened by invisible layers of copper, Laura Brannigan, oblivious to the thousands of sensors secreted within the naked white walls, carefully considers the options before her. With only a moments’ hesitation she clicks the mouse, selects Wireframe Design Alpha from the array of sports car prototypes on the screen.

Andrews leans forward, grasps the desktop tightly.

            09:25.:27.25 AM Selection Alpha…. the screen recorded. Predictive Algorithm Verified…

            He thrills with almost sexual intensity: Yes!

            Six versions of the sports car, each gorgeously and distinctively coloured flash into place on Laura’s display. She considered the options, feels the thrill of emotion and surge of blood as she responds emotionally to the images.

            A myriad colours again surge through the neural model, tracking her thoughts, pre-empting her actions, rapidly converging on another sector of her simulated brain. Blood surges through stimulated microtubules; a sunburst of neurons discharge their microscopic energies across axons and synapses, primed by the power of thought and prediction…

…Subject #3042

…Selection Alpha-Red 09:26:20.04

…Probability 99%

            Laura hesitates, and then drags the cursor over two of the images. Dave Andrews holds his breath.

            ‘Red…blue…red…blue’ Laura mutters uncertainly, and clicks decisively. Again the computer responds…

             09:26:21.08 Selection Alpha Red…
            Predictive Algorithm Verified.

            ‘Fucking hell!’ Andrews enthuses, ‘We’ve done it! We’ve fucking done it!’ He slams his fist into the desk. ‘We're reading her fucking mind!!!’ Behind him, a door opens.

            ‘Yes Mr Andrews, you have indeed succeeded…’

Andrews spins round, startled. ‘Who the hell are you?’

            Like a surge of whispering shadow-crows, the black suited figure is upon him before he can react, silent and deadly. A gentle whisper hisses through the cold, unreasoning terror that freezes his limbs…‘That, Mr Andrews, you’ll never know.’

            The blow to his solar plexus is like a hammer blow on crystal, shattering the cohesion of his thoughts, driving wedges of darkness behind his eyes. But he does not react, cannot fight back, has no true comprehension of the sudden, deadly assault that is upon him. Even as the garrotte bites into his neck, Dave Andrew’s single dying thought is a single pitiful silent plea… ‘Why…?’

            The assassin releases him, feels briefly for any pulse at his neck and grunts in mute satisfaction. Moving swiftly, he locks the door behind him and turns to the PC, glancing briefly through the security window at Laura Brannigan, unaware and vulnerable.
Canning Street Police Station, Liverpool

Mike shivers uncontrollably, retching even in sleep as his stomach tries to expel the putrid yellow bile accumulated through days of mindless drinking. A face appears in his mind; the innocent and fearful image of a young child that gazes at him accusingly. The stench of burning flesh fills his nostrils as the girl’s face melts in a hellish phosphorous flame, sloughing skin as her eyeballs melt in the hellish heat. She raises an accusing finger and points at him in blind silence...

‘Noooo...Please GOD! Forgive me...’

His screams echo through the crowded prison cells. Rough hands shake his shoulders. Mike wakes. Rolling instinctively to the hard floor of the cell he balances on his haunches, intuits the figure standing over him and strikes upwards with stiff, swordlike hands, driving upwards with the strength of his uncoiling legs. The figure screams, falls back. Mike launches himself forward, strikes at the figure's eyes with stiff fingers...and wakes, stops the deadly strike in mid motion. The figure jerks back, falls heavily.

Cowering in the corner of the cell, eyes wide in fear, a scruffy, unshaven young man stares up at him, pleading, clutching at his crotch, mouth wide in a silent scream of agony. Mike focuses, looks around and bends forward, spewing violently.

‘Oh God...’

He spins as a key clatters in the cell door and stands, staring ahead as doubt and hesitation overwhelm him. The uniformed policeman looks sharply at the cowering figure on the floor, then back at Brand.

‘What the fuck’s going on here?’

Mike lifts his gaze, meets the policeman’s unwavering, hostile gaze. ‘Nothing officer,’ he whispers, ‘just a little misunderstanding, that’s all.’ He reaches forward, offers his hand to the fearful boy in the corner. The boy recoils from Mike, hugging his crotch..

‘Are you alright?’ the policeman barks unsympathetically. ‘I asked you boy...are you alright?’

The boy nods, turns his head away and stares at the wall.

‘Okay, then...but any more shit from you, Brand and you’ll be dealing with more than a bloody drunkenness charge...understood?’

Mike nods, steps back and seats himself on the narrow cell bed. The policeman leaves. He looks over at the pathetic figure in the corner.

‘I’m sorry – you startled me – woke me up – I didn’t mean to hurt you, mate...are you alright?’

The young man nods, rises hesitantly to his feet, leaning heavily against the cell wall as his torso unfolds itself. Mike stands up, walks over and offers his arm as support. The young man hesitates, then leans heavily on the offered support, shuffles the few steps to his cell bed and sits gingerly.

‘Jesus Christ, man...what the fuck did you do that for...?’

‘I told you, you startled me...I’m sorry.’

‘You were screaming, man...enough to wake the fuckin’ dead.’

‘As I said… I’m sorry...’

‘Okay...’

‘I’m Mike...’

‘Peter...Peter Stoltz...what you in here for?’

‘Just the usual...pissed and broke on the streets...you?’

‘Nothin’...I’m in here for nothin’...the bastards stitched me up man...’

Mike remained silent.

‘Where’d you learn to fight like that, man?’

Mike shakes his head, lies back and stares at the bleak, sterile ceiling. He dare not sleep...not here...not now amid the ghosts of horrors past. ‘I need a drink...’ he whispers.

The hours pass uneventfully, save for the occasional scream and scuffle of Liverpool’s itinerant dross being bundled into the cells around. Mike focuses his mind on no-thing, on the void inside his head that conceals his fear and quickens the flow of time in the real world. It’s an old trick he learned even before his army days, and has served him well in the quiet hours of lying up behind enemy lines, unconscious yet alert, a priest of violence and of death in so many strange lands.

Footsteps...Mike’s eyes open wide, but he lies still, waiting.

‘Brand!’

He rolls to his side, swings his legs over the edge of the cot. The cell door swings open, revealing a uniformed bulk that stands there, beckoning imperiously.

‘Out Brand...we’ve found a better use for Her Majesty’s hotel rooms.’

Obediently, Mike follows the policeman out towards the exit.

‘You know the routine, Brand...pick your stuff up before you leave...and for fucks’ sake, Mike, stay out of trouble...we’re sick of the sight of you. Your girlfriend’s already left.’

Mike’s eyebrows rise fractionally, and he moves on, collecting his sparse possessions before shuffling out onto the street. He rubs his hands thoughtfully over the unkempt stubble on his cheeks, sniffs gingerly at his hands and clothes, grimacing at the sour odours of old sweat and vomit.

‘God, I’m hungry...’

He gazes leerily into the cold dawn of Liverpool’s grey, deserted streets, pulls his jacket tight against the chill and walks towards the nearest bus stop. An hour later, an ancient green double-decker 82C trundles into view and draws up beside him. The vehicle is empty. He fumbles for small change, and retires to the rear, pondering nothing in particular. As the bus draws up outside his stop in Wavertree, Mike shudders, suddenly alert. He ventures cautiously onto the pavement, his jaded senses sniffing at the chill air, peering at the deserted street, sensing undefined danger. He trusts his senses too well to ignore this foreboding. Cautiously, but casually, he approaches the door of the terraced house, sees immediately the narrow opening, breathes deeply, listening intently. Nothing; gently, he pushes the door open, slides into the dim light of the narrow passageway and pauses. Crouching slightly, Mike moves stealthily past the bottom of the stairs and listens at the closed door of the lounge, pressing his ear to the door. Satisfied, he gently turns the handle, silently, slowly opens the door a centimetre. The small, Spartan room has been ripped apart, but no-one moves inside. Scanning but briefly, he closes the door quietly and heads towards the stairs, silently gliding up the carpeted steps three at a time, until he stands at the open doors of the bedrooms.

The sounds of stifled sobbing echo in his aching head, and he moves forward, pauses a meter from the doorway of his bedroom, registers Mara, beaten and bruised, spreadeagled naked on his bed. Jerking her head to the side, suddenly aware, she sees him, shakes her head wildly.

‘You bitch!’

The door explodes outwards, catching his shoulder savagely. Instinctively, Mike curls and rolls as he topples onto the stairs and falls. In his wake two figures plummet downwards.

‘Get that bastard’, a voice screams from the bedroom, ‘bring him here.’

One upstairs, two down, probably armed. Mike quickly assesses the odds, makes his decision as his tumbling body reaches the bottom of the stairs. Rolling leftwards, he runs at the front door, hears the splintering thud of a round smashing into the wood panels over his head.

Silenced, he registers. These are not ordinary criminals.

‘For fuck sake Ivan, don’t shoot the bastard, you fucking idiot...we need him alive you crazy motherfucker!’

Mike lurches out into the street. The traffic’s heavier now. Early morning workers make their way onto the grey pavements, ignorant of the drama playing out in their humdrum world of work and pay and play. Mike sprints away, thinking fast. A dozen old scenarios play through his head, through the streets of Northern Ireland, the slums of Bogota, the chaos of Kabul. He doesn’t look back, senses his pursuers behind him and slows down, feigning exhaustion. A hand slaps his shoulder, grips him, pulls him down.

‘Got you, you bastard…’ The long silencer of a nine millimetre pistol stabs into his back.

Mike grasps the man’s free arm, pulls him down to ground behind him, using gravity to his advantage, turning onto his back as he falls. Surprised, the man drops his weapon, which clatters dully onto the pavement like a dead steel crow. Still holding his enemy’s arm, Mike pulls him down, smashes the heel of his hand into his nose with enormous force, releases him and rolls onto his discarded weapon. Briefly, dispassionately, he wonders if he’ll live. Probably not...

A boot lashes past his fast moving head. He notes the weapon in his hand, Heckler and Koch P12 – German government issue – semi automatic – 15 rounds – professionals – and fires two round into the second man’s shoulder. He doesn’t want him dead – not yet. The man falls backwards, stunned by the synergetic impact of the nine millimetre rounds and drops his weapon, falls, turns to crawl away. Then Mike is upon him. He smashes the butt of the weapon into the man’s head, stunning him further, and drags him into the nearest doorway. Time is short. He pushes the silencer into the man’s throat.

Who the fuck are you? What do want with me...?’

‘Fuck you, Brand...you’re a fucking dead man...’

He notes the accent – African, South African, and smashes the pistol across the man’s cheeks.

Who the fuck are you?’

‘You! - Hey You! A voice sounds from the other side of the road.

Fuckit!

Mike knows his time is up – there’ll be a crowd here soon. He considers briefly – one more back in the flat, and aims the silencer into the man’s chest. No-one hears the muffled thuds as the round explodes the assassin’s heart.

Rising quickly, he runs down the street and turns at the first corner, then again, and again, until he’s sure he’s not been followed. He slows his pace, breathing heavily.

Out of shape- too fucking old for this shit any more...

He tucks the gun into his belt, pulls his jacket closed. There’s little time to think – he must get back to Mara. A thousand questions course through his mind, but one above all – who the fuck are these people?

Walking briskly, he heads back to his flat, all the while calculating the odds, measuring his unknown enemy, falling back into the long discarded role of the Special Forces operator.

 

To be continued…

 

Web Site: MagickMirrors  


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Keith Rowley



The Aquarius Key, A Novel of the Occult

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