Showcase // Death and Conspiracy by Seeley James
SOMETHING WENT WRONG WITH MY girlfriend.
I trudged along the stone-paved streets at dawn wearing my blue jeans and black leather jacket over a t-shirt that read, “That which does not kill me—should run.” I was thinking things over. There were no real indicators I could put my finger on, but when I said we should step out for coffee, she offered to join me “later.” Something in her tone of voice. Something in her distant gaze.
What happened? Last night we were thirsty for each other. I did my Julius Caesar impression, Vini, Vidi, Vici. She channeled the Whore of Babylon. Laughter and romping ensued.
This morning, she was different.
A shop lady dragged a stand filled with bouquets onto the sidewalk in front of her store. Figuring flowers might perk Jenny up, I picked one. The lady took one look at my face, smiled, and told me they were free for lovers. At least, I think that’s what she said. I studied Arabic and Pashto to get me through my eight tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. French never came up. I thanked her, sniffed the bouquet, and kept strolling.
We’d had a whirlwind romance, the kind you read about in books. If you read that kind of book. Which I don’t. So, I guess it was how I imagined a storybook romance goes. I’d saved her mother’s life, which led to Jenny getting a pardon. As soon as she got out of prison, she came to my house to say thank you in person. Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound like a storybook romance at all. Anyway. One thing led to another. Two weeks later, I invited her for a getaway weekend. I was thinking something like a bed-and-breakfast in the Shenandoah Valley. Cozy and affordable and nearby.
Then I made the mistake of telling my boss, Pia Sabel, about my plans. She thought Jenny Jenkins would prefer Paris. After all, Jenny’s the daughter of Bobby Jenkins, the billionaire drug lord—I mean, founder of Jenkins Pharmaceuticals. Since no one can say no to Ms. Sabel, especially when she insists on paying and providing a private jet, the next thing I knew we were in Paris, staying in the Hotel Lutetia on the Left Bank.
It turned out Jenny had been to Paris so many times it was like going to Walgreens. Her dad rented out Napoleon’s Tomb for her ninth birthday. For my ninth, Dad filled a barn bin with dried soybeans so we could jump in them. Things are different for farm boys in Iowa.
There was an upside. Instead of going to see the fire damage at Notre Dame or visiting the Louvre, she wanted to spend the entire trip in bed. I was fine with that.
Then this morning happened.
My brain came back to the street in front of me. Two men hauled tables and chairs out of a café and placed them on the sidewalk. I put my flowers on a table and dropped into a wicker chair. One of the men said something about not being open yet, but the other guy pulled him away.
I said, What did I do wrong? I made sure she was satisfied several times over. Wait. She wasn’t faking it, was she?
Mercury, winged messenger of the Roman gods, pulled up a chair next to me. If she be faking an orgasm when you’re going downtown like a Detroit rapper, who is she cheating?
Sometimes it’s nice to have a god you can chat with. Most of them are invisible and mute. I enjoy our little chats. Sometimes. But every now and then, the diagnosis of my Army psychiatrists rolls through my head like a thunderstorm. “PTSD-induced schizophrenia,” they said. Yeah. Well. What do they know? The guys who served with me in combat considered me divinely inspired.
Mercury first came to my aid in a battle where a company of Iraqi Republican Guards had pinned down a Marine platoon. I’d been separated from my Army Ranger unit and snuck through the combat zone lost, scared, and confused. With Mercury whispering in my ear, telling me where to aim, I took out half the Iraqis attacking the Marines and scattered the rest. The Marines loved me. I got medals. From then on, my heavenly powers on the battlefield made me the soldier’s soldier. Everybody wanted to transfer to my platoon.
All Mercury wanted was a return to his former glory. Just kick Christianity to the curb and reinstate the whole Roman pantheon. No problem. After fifteen hundred years, he and his buddies were done with living on food stamps and desperate for a reunion tour.
I said, Is it me? Too much of a socio-economic divide?
Mercury leaned in. You want a woman like that, brutha? Really want a woman like that? Then you gotta think like a Caesar.
I said, I’m her master and commander in the bedroom.
Sheeyit, dawg. Mercury rolled his eyes and leaned back. (Did I mention he’s black? He cites the Judeo-Christian Bible, where it says God made man in His image. Mercury points out that the Great Leap Forward happened in Southern Africa. There were no white people in Southern Africa in the days of Adam and Eve. Therefore, all gods are black. Yeah, took me a while too.) I’m talking real Caesar, not just another white dude whipping out some cheap leather gear in a hotel room. I’m talking invading nations, burning villages, raping, pillaging…
And that’s where I tune him out. Certain aspects of civilized behavior have changed a good deal since he whispered in the ears of the rich and powerful. I texted Jenny that I was waiting for her at the Café de la Mairie. She didn’t reply.
Ever listen to some old guy go on about winning the state championship back in high school? Try spending an hour listening to a used god talk about the good ol’ days when Julius Caesar defeated the official Roman Army under Pompey—not because he should but because he could.
Mercury said, And that’s how Julius Caesar became emperor. The lesson here is: Kill everyone who defies you.
I said, How’d that work out for ol’ Julius in the end?
The streets began to fill with enough vehicles to start the rhythmic honking cycles peculiar to big cities. It sounded a lot like that Broadway tune by George Gershwin. What was it called? “An American in …” somewhere.
There were no texts from Jenny on my phone when I checked for the three hundredth time. I sent her a picture of the menu and asked if she wanted me to order for her. No response.
Mercury said, There they go again. Those two clowns been circling the block all morning, dressed like Siberians.
I had a croissant with jam and a coffee. Alone.
Are you listening to me, homie?
Mercury’s supposed to be the god of eloquence, but tutoring William Shakespeare five hundred years ago didn’t work out for his resurrection, so he tried channeling inner-city kids. He thinks he sounds like Dr. Dre, but he comes off more like Eminem will in forty years. Desperately dated.
I’m telling you, Mercury said, those two are your ticket to fame. You kill them, and the press will love you. Glory will be ours!
Having lost track of which two people he wanted me to kill, I said, Jenny doesn’t care about glory.
The sun rose higher in the sky. The waiter brought more coffee. People going places began to fill the sidewalk. Singles, couples, families. It was Sunday, and many of them were filing into one big-ass church across the street.
Mercury said, What’s the big deal about this here girl has you so distracted, brutha?
I said, Remember when I rescued her mom from the assassins? Before her mom was VP, she was an admiral. And brass tends to expect a concierge rescue. But not Admiral Wilkes. She fought and ran and knocked out bad guys like a superhero. That woman was determined to get out of there. I was impressed.
When Jenny showed up, I realized the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. She was just as determined and driven as her mom. A woman like that, you can build a life together. A real partnership. The two of us working out family, friends, and careers together. We could grow old without the flame dying out.
Mercury said, Determined? Driven? You really want a woman like that, dude? Nothing but trouble if you ask me. In my day, women didn’t read, they didn’t vote, they didn’t talk back. We had a good thing going and y’all messed it up.
My phone’s screen was blank. Still no word from Jenny.
I said, Maybe she needs something more than just sex?
Mercury said, What else is there?
I dunno, I said. Like therapy or something. She had a traumatic year. Maybe she needs help with her mental health.
Mercury said, What would you know about mental health?
The waiter brought a vase for my bouquet. It was wilting. I gave him a nod. “Merci.”
Pretty much the extent of my French vocabulary.
I was stuck. If I went back now, I’d look insecure, worried. If I kept my cool, acted unconcerned, maybe she’d come around. Maybe she’d text me back.
I hate playing games like that. Unless I win.
See here now, bro. You need to take down those terrorists with the two coats. Mercury nodded at the men he’d pointed out earlier. You can be a hero again.
I said, What makes you think they’re terrorists?
Mercury said, They radiate hate.
Across the lane was a large, open plaza. In the center stood a massive chunk of marble with statues of ancient Frenchmen in niches surrounded by water splashing from a central fountain. The Frenchmen were probably important at some point in the history of the area, but now they were just a backdrop for selfies.
Two guys stood next to the fountain. They stole glances at the cathedral doors. They had jet black hair and beards. One had a swarthy, Mediterranean look. The other looked distinctly American. They kept their heads down, their hands shoved in their coat pockets. Their overcoats were heavy enough for winter, but it was a sunny spring day.
Maybe Jenny was worried about the paparazzi. We’d been swarmed outside the hotel. Again later when we went out to dinner. Neither of us is a celebrity, but her divorced parents are minor tabloid material.
Jenkins Pharma sold a questionable number of opiates, and her mom is the Vice President of the United States. Which is why there’d been plenty of controversy over Jenny’s pardon.
The paparazzi couldn’t be it. I’d shared Ms. Sabel’s advice for dealing with tabloid photographers with Jenny. Ms. Sabel told me to smile for the cameras because (a) they hate that, and (b) they’ll print it anyway so you may as well look good. Jenny still hated them.
I thought about going to church. I checked the name of the one across the street. Église Saint-Sulpice. I invited Jenny in a text. We hadn’t discussed religion, and she didn’t seem the type, but if she was mad at me, where better to work things out? She was the kind of woman worth working things out for. The kind worth having an intimate relationship with. Someone you could tell all your secrets to. Or is it, someone to whom you could tell all your secrets? I never get that stuff right. Maybe she didn’t like my grammar.
Mercury grabbed my hair and pulled my head up out of my phone. He pointed at the two guys. Quit thinking about getting laid and ask yourself the million-dollar question: why two coats?
Shoplifters wear overcoats. It gives them room for all their stolen merchandise. So do mass shooters. Coats cover weapons.
The shorter guy fiddled with a string of beads. Sweat dripped from his forehead. He mumbled to himself. The American looked calmer, yet significantly more agitated than your average churchgoer. My military training included a good deal about recognizing terrorists. They often say prayers. They’re often quite nervous. They often sulk to avoid notice.
Either these two were sinners in desperate need of redemption … or they were terrorists.
I found myself crossing the street, heading for the fountain. At the same time, the two men headed for the church. As he pushed off, the short guy tossed his beads into the water.
It was a wide plaza, and they had a shorter distance. I changed course to intercept them. Being unarmed put me at a disadvantage. But they had the terrorist’s tunnel vision. Their eyes remained glued to the entrance. Nothing around them mattered anymore.
A few people in nice clothes funneled up the steps and filed through the massive front door, each taking a bulletin from the greeters. None of them wore more than a light sport coat.
The overcoat guys slowed and hung back. When the funnel cleared, the greeters at the door waited. The overcoat guys trotted up the steps and entered without taking the offered bulletin. Without a bulletin, they would have no idea which hymns to sing. Definitely terrorists.
I bounded up the steps, full throttle.
Excerpt from Death and Conspiracy by Seeley James. Copyright 2019 by Seeley James. Reproduced with permission from Machined Media. All rights reserved.
This is a rafflecopter giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours for Seeley James. There will be two (2) winners. Each winner will receive an Amazon.com Gift Card. The giveaway begins on November 11, 2019 and runs through December 7, 2019. Void where prohibited.a Rafflecopter giveaway
His near-death experiences range from talking a jealous husband into putting the gun down to spinning out on an icy freeway in heavy traffic without touching anything. His resume ranges from washing dishes to global technology management. His personal life ranges from homeless at 17, adopting a 3-year-old at 19, getting married at 37, fathering his last child at 43, hiking the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim at 59, and taking the occasional nap.
Seeley’s love of creativity began at an early age, growing up at Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture in Arizona and Wisconsin. He carried his imagination first into a successful career in sales and marketing, and then to his real love: fiction.
His writing career ranges from humble beginnings with short stories in The Battered Suitcase, to being awarded a Medallion from the Book Readers Appreciation Group. Seeley is best known for his Sabel Security series of thrillers featuring athlete and heiress Pia Sabel and her bodyguard, veteran Jacob Stearne. One of them kicks ass and the other talks to the wrong god.
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