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.
“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 led 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 enclosed 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.