At least there's money coming in now.  Mel's working in one of the local clinics frequented by divers.  They don't seem to care where she's from as long as she can care for what are mostly minor problems.  And A.D. offered me a job on his fishing/diving boat.  At first, I was hesitant--very.  It's taken quite a few dinners, not to mention a boatload of beer and some background investigation on my part--before I felt I could trust him.  After all, I hadn't seen the bastard in over 30 years, and while he seemed to know a lot about me, there wasn't much I knew about him.  So I did what any person in my position would do--run a background check.

He's been a busy boy, if not necessarily always a well-behaved one.  On the other hand, I have my own long laundry list of black marks and demerits, not the least of which is this latest expedition.  I finally told him everything--after he told me everything, and at least what I could find matched up to what I read and heard from all kinds of sources that need not be named here.

The morbidly amusing part is that the people on the otaku boards still think we're dead.  I know it's sick, but I have to chuckle when I read some of the shit that's said about us in the past tense.  Someday, when I can--and I have to believe that day will come--I'm gonna come out and give them all the heart attack they so richly deserve.  I didn't know we had that many admirers, for one thing, but I'm sure once they know we're alive and kicking, they'll be back to insulting us and hurling invective in our general direction.  It just wouldn't be right without it.

Speaking of alive and kicking, I almost shit when I opened my email earlier this evening.  It was the alphanumeric string Langly had decided to use once he got set up.  I'll be goddamned.  I didn't think getting it together in the middle of some godforsaken Asian jungle would be possible, but then again, I shouldn't have underestimated the little bastard.  And hearing from his was, well, a flash of what passes for normalcy in a life gone haywire.

Of course I had to decrypt it--the little fucker makes you work, no matter what it is.  Took me nearly three hours.  I'm going to get back at him.  Someday I'll cook up an algorithm even he can't crack. What was truly, heartening, however, was the typical smartass tone of his email.

"Look, you asshole--while you and your ladyfriend are cooling your asses in tropical paradise, I'm out here in the middle of the fucking jungle where every week we end up buying more clothes because we have to do laundry in the fucking river.  I think the stuff I left on the floor of the HQ was cleaner than anything that gets washed in the goddamn river here.  And just try getting a rig together out here--I'm pretty sure I got totally screwed buying all this shit and right now I don't really give a flying fuck because at least I got TV.  So what if we get Battlebots at 4 a.m.?  The village kids come over here to watch TV all the time--most of 'em have never seen a TV, they think it's so cool.  They're learning English watching Dexter's Laboratory and Catdog.  Deb's always running out of supplies and the rains are coming and we really got to stock up on everything because we might not be able to get into the city for things and she's real worried because the other ex-pats here--yes, we have some!--tell us that the rains bring all sorts of fun things like cholera and dysentery and dengue fever and malaria.  About 20 people in the village have TB and at least half of the people Deb tested--before she ran out of stuff--were positive for it.  So I get to add TB meds to the ever growing list of crap I have to take.  They pop out babies here like they're going out of style.  We got Peace Corps/Red Cross types here trying to get some basic sanitation going on.  I can actually lay pipe.  Supervisor said I was a jackass but at least I didn't fuck up her project.  The beer's bad except when we can get good stuff in the city and that's not always but we drink it anyway.  It really sucks here--but what's weird is, it's kind of cool, too.  So write back, you loser, if you can put down your pina colada long enough."

It was classic Langly and Mel and I laughed for nearly an hour.  He'll never stop whining, but he's taken it as a challenge, and I'm proud of him for rising to it.  Not that I have any intentions of ever revealing that to him, and if it gets to him that I am, I will deny it to death.

What was even more heartening was to finally hear from Byers.  What took that little narc so long?  He's in an urban area, I don't care if it's Asia, and Muladharma's family is richer than rich.  Shouldn't have been a problem for him to latch on to a computer.  I'm gonna chew his ass out for that.

"Sorry it's taken me so long to get in touch, but I managed to destroy two laptops before getting all the settings right and the connections I needed. It's like living in two worlds here.  The opulence of our surroundings contrasts with the hideous poverty of many of the locals, and I confess I can't get comfortable with that."  Yeah, that'd be Byers, feeling guilty for something he didn't create. "The family is very kind but rather overpowering.  I'm trying to set my boundaries without offending anyone, which is rather delicate, including with Sari.  As much as I love her, I never realized how annoyed I was at being played for so many years by SM.  I'm not accusing Sari of anything resembling that sort of behavior, but can't shake the feeling that my universe is so out of control that I'll do anything to keep it in line."  Sounds like it's not all lovey-dovey on the homefront, but hey, it's not as if he's really lived with a woman, day in and day out.  Not something you learn to do overnight, particularly when for all practical purposes, you're on another planet where you don't know the language or customs and don't have any money of your own.  But if anyone'll figure it out, it's Byers, and he'll come up smelling like a rose.  "I do like it here in many ways.  I'm getting accustomed to the climate and the people.  I'm feeling well, learning languages, and doing...other things as well."  Hmm.  Let me guess.  He totally ignored Muladharma's instructions not to go chasing Runtz on line.  Bet you my last dollar--which I'm close to till the next dive--that at this very moment, he's doing his own little discreet search.  I chuckle.  Byers is such a quiet, well-mannered gentleman every inch of the way, nobody'd ever suspect how devious he really can be.  I don't think he should be doing it, but to be quite honest, I've been sorely tempted myself.  Unlike some of my compadres, I can't complain about the weather, but there's enough time for me to be pissed off at Runtz for the position he put us in.  Him and Fletcher.  Sooner or later, we are going to nail their asses.  And I don't care how powerful or rich Muladharma is--he can have every official resource, but I'm convinced that that's not how he'll find Runtz.  Of course, I don't have a clue in hell what to do right now, so I'm dancing around that one.  Langly might be--wouldn't surprise me if he was--but he sounds busy and bizarrely happy. "I hope all is well with you and Mel.  I'll be in touch again soon."

And to top it all off, I get one from Jimmy.

"All is well.  Australia's great.  Talk to you soon."

I'm puzzled.  For one thing, the spelling and punctuation were perfect.  Jimmy's dyslexic as hell and can't type for shit.  Man never heard of a shift key.  And the wording is wrong.  Anndie had to have written this--or someone.

Shit, shit, shit.  And I thought this was gonna be my lucky night.  I was all ready to kick A.D.'s ass at poker.  Figures something like this would come up.

Mel's preparing a fresh red snapper and greens and rice.  Smells delicious, but my appetite is suddenly gone.

"How are they doing?  I'm assuming from the way you were laughing your boys got hold of you."

"Well, two of them did.  I'm not sure about the third."

"Which one?"  She looks as worried as I feel.

"Jimmy.  How much you want to bet he's gone off and done something really stupid?"

"What makes you say that?"

"The email from his address.  He couldn't have typed it unless someone got rid of his dyslexia and raised his IQ fifty points."

"Stranger things have happened." Oh please.  Don't remind me.

She looks marvelous.  Got a tan, dressed in resort wear, and despite the circumstances, she's pretty relaxed.

"There's not much we can do if he has,"  Mel says, and she's right, of course.  "We'll just have to keep an eye out for him and be extra careful."

"Speaking of extra careful, we're supposed to play cards with A.D. and Jam after dinner.  Let's not let them blindside us again."  I'd like to walk away with at least some cash.  Dignity is optional at this point.

While she finishes cooking, I send off two brief emails, one to Langly, one to Byers.  I'm not going to respond yet to the one allegedly from Jimmy.  This worries me a lot.  I'm going to hang back on that, but check with the guys and see what they've heard.

To Byers, I write, "Don't let the family grind you down.  Try to have a little fun, would you?"

To Langly:  "In view of your present circumstances, don't you think you should consider cutting your hair?"

And I add a short, cryptic note to let me know immediately if they hear anything from Jimmy.  I don't want them getting all bent out of shape yet.  Worrying's my job.  I do it well, and nobody is going to take it away from me, any more than I intend to lose any of my cash tonight.

Go To Chapter 8