About DBreitenbeck

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer currently living in Southeast Michigan.

Qui Bono, Everyman?

My latest piece is up at The Everyman discussing the always essential question, “Who Benefits?”

For instance, take the issue of marijuana. I have heard many things from both sides of the argument whether it should or should not be legalized, and I don’t personally know what the truth is in regards to whether it is in fact dangerous or not. But I notice that there seems to be very little attention given to the question of, “Who, exactly, benefits from legalizing and promoting something that leaves people stupid, pliable, and pacified?”

Whatever else you may say of the drug, that doesn’t sound like something that would actually promote the wellbeing of a society, or of most individuals. Especially considering that we live under a representative form of government, where people are expected to make a sober and judicious choice of candidates every few years; does marijuana use seem like it would render someone more or less able to do that?

I am not here (primarily) advancing an argument against marijuana: I am only making the point that the question of, “who benefits from this state of affairs?” seems important here.

Now, the thing is, this question applies whether a person is telling the truth or not. The wife may not, in fact, have killed her husband, but that doesn’t affect the question of whether she benefits from his death: either she gets something from it or she does not. There may be very good reasons, for instance, to legalize marijuana, and someone may advance the position in all good faith. The question remains of what the concrete, objective results will be, simply as a matter of fact, and who will benefit from them.  

Read the rest here.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Four Sleuths in The Common Thread

 

 

            “Phone call for Mister Fireson.”

Andre looked up. He had been reading the latest reports over Detective Crane’s shoulder. The police were busy trying to sort out all the information coming in regarding the conspiracy and working to track down Cummings, Deaney, and the others. It was interesting to follow, and though he had no official part to play in these proceedings, he was determined to see it through to the end.

But he had other responsibilities, and he’d been away from them for the past few days dealing with this adventure. Now that it was finally being wrapped up, he expected the phone calls to start coming in. So there was no surprise or suspicion in his mind when he took the phone from the junior police lieutenant and said, “Fireson speaking.”

“Mister Fireson,” said the voice on the other end. “I know you are a practical man, as am I, so I will not waste your time. I am currently holding Miss Rockford and Detective Stillwater in your house. Informing the police or failing to do exactly as I say will result in their immediate deaths. Do you understand?”

Andre’s hand tightened on the phone and his keen mind immediately focused on the problem.

“I understand,” he said, trying to affect a casual, businesslike tone.

“Good,” Cummings answered. “Now listen carefully. You will proceed to your office on a plea of urgent business. From there, you will order a helicopter – a Bell 214, and fully fueled, – to arrive at your estate at four o’clock today. The helicopter will be carrying five hundred thousand dollars in unmarked bills, and will transport my associates and I to a location that I will provide to the pilot. Once we have arrived, I will send the two women back with the helicopter.”

“That might be tricky to arrange,” Andre answered. “Short notice, isn’t it?”

“Very, but that is your fault, Mr. Fireson. You could have stayed out of this and instead chose to destroy my work. If you find it is too much trouble, then I suppose that is your right and your friends can take the consequences.”

“Can I get assurance of that?”

There was a pause.

“Sorry, Andre,” said Sarah’s voice. “He’s telling the truth. At least about us. Sorry; we probably shouldn’t have let our guard down like that.”

Andre’s mind raced, trying to judge how best to take the initiative.

“Both of you?”

“Both of us.”

“Is that all he has to offer?”

“I…what?”

“Let me talk to him again.”

“Andre, what are you…”

Her voice faded as Cummings took the phone back.

“Are you satisfied, Mister Fireson?”

“Not quite,” he answered. “The price seems a little steep. Perhaps we can negotiate.”

There was a pause.

“Could you repeat that?” said Cummings.

“I said the price is a bit more than I’d care to pay for the merchandise,” said Andre in a slightly raised voice. “Maybe we could negotiate a little. Especially on the timeframe.”

“Are you kidding me?!” Sarah’s voice shouted, sounding as though Cummings was holding the phone out so they could hear.

“Would you care to reconsider?” Cummings asked.

“Maybe, but remember, you stand to lose as much as I do if this deal goes south,” Andre answered. “I’ll give you a call back when I get to the office.”

A pause.

“I am surprised to find you taking this attitude. But as you will; I will await your call. No tricks, Mister Fireson.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Andre answered.

There was a click as Cummings hung up. Andre carefully replaced the phone then immediately strode over to Crane.

“Get Windworth and come to my office, now,” he said in a low voice.

Crane looked at him in surprise.

“Something come up?”

He nodded.

“Can’t talk about it here. We need to move fast.”

###

            Cummings drummed his fingers on the telephone, frowning. Sarah Rockfrod wondered what was going through his mind. Evidently, the conversation hadn’t gone as he’d expected.

That’s because he doesn’t know Andre like I do now, she thought.

They were in what could only be the master bedroom. Sarah felt indignant on Andre’s behalf that his privacy was being so violated, and oddly shy of being forced into such an inner sanctum, though under other circumstances she would have been glad to see it. It was a wide, airy room with a high ceiling, paneled, as most rooms in that house were, with reddish-brown wood and with a magnificent bay window looking westward over the city. There was a rich red and gold rug covering most of the center of the room, a four-poster bed, a great, carved desk that looked at least a century old under the window beside a shelf full of books and a fireplace complete with mantelpiece. On the other side of the room there a small exercise area with a heavy punching bag, a set of parallel bars, and some weights. The walls were hung with several paintings in ornate frames. It was a beautiful room, stamped through and through with its master’s personality, which made the present situation seem all the more intolerable.

Sarah and Karen sat side-by-side on the floor at the foot of the bed, their wrists tapped behind their backs, knees and ankles bound tight together in front of them. Deaney was taking out his aggression on the punching bag, while McLaglen stood beside the two women, gun in hand. Tyzack, Aldrige, and Booker Sarah knew, were posted somewhere in the house, watching the doors.

For a brief moment when Andre had claimed the price was too steep, Sarah had felt shocked, betrayed, scared…then she remembered how he had behaved when they first met; the mask of unscrupulousness and cruelty that he had put on while dealing with Deaney. It was, she guessed, his strategy for keeping Cummings off-balanced, uncertain. Buying time.

“You don’t really think he means it, do you?” said Deaney, delivering a swift kick that sent the bag swinging.

“Perhaps not,” said Cummings thoughtfully. “But he was correct about one thing; if we kill them, we lose our bargaining position.”

Sarah’s eyes kept being drawn to the portrait of a dignified, middle-aged man that stood in pride of place over the mantelpiece. From a strong resemblance of face and expression, she guessed this must be Andre’s father, or at least one of his relatives.

“I’m telling you, he’s bluffing,” Deaney insisted.

“He’s not,” Sarah put in.

They looked at her. So did Karen.

“If Fireson helps you, it’ll tarnish his family name,” she said. “He cares more about that than he does about anyone.”

“Even you?” said Cummings.

Sarah swallowed.

“Oh, he doesn’t really care about me,” she said. “I mean, really, we’ve known each other for, what three days? And I’m just a nobody; he’s a tycoon and aristocrat and all the rest of it. Trust me, if it’s between me and his legacy or whatever, I’m not even going to rate a consideration.”

“Is that what you think?” McLaglen asked Karen.

Sarah looked at Karen, who seemed to be scrutinizing her.

“No,” she said. “I think he genuinely cares for her, and that he’s bluffing.”

“I’m telling you he’s not,” said Sarah. “Trust me, I know when a man is into me; he isn’t.”

“Well, this is enlightening,” said Deaney with a groan. “I say we test it; kill one of them to prove we’re serious.”

“No, no!” said Sarah hastily. “You don’t have to test anything! I’m telling you…”

“Yeah, if you do that, that’s the end of negotiating; they’ll figure they have nothing to lose and come at us with all they’ve got,” said McLaglen. “I’ve done this game from the other side, trust me.”

“Okay, so we don’t kill them;” Deaney said. “There’s other things we might do to get the point across.”

He cracked his knuckles, and Sarah swallowed as he turned a nasty, almost hungry face in her direction.

“That will have to be considered,” said Cummings. “For the moment, however, he won’t be stupid enough to involve the police, which buys us some time…”

He glanced at the two women thoughtfully, then beckoned to his companions.

“Deaney, McLaglen, will you come with me for a moment…”

“What about them?” McLaglen asked, nodding at the girls.

“They aren’t going anywhere, and this won’t take long,” Cummings answered.

The three men left the room, not without some suspicious and uncertain looks.

“Why didn’t you back me up?” Sarah muttered under her breath as soon as the door was closed.

“It would look too neat if we agreed,” Karen answered. “This way they don’t know what to think.” She hesitated. “You didn’t…really believe that, did you?”

Sarah bit her lip. Her own arguments for what she thought was a bluff suddenly sounded uncomfortably convincing in her frightened, uncertain state of mind.

“Well,” she muttered. “If it is true, at least it won’t hurt for long.”

###

            “This is intolerable,” Andre growled, pacing the floor of his office like an enraged leopard in a small cage. “Who the hell does Cummings think he is, going into my house, trying to extort money from me?”

“I suspect that was the point,” Nick put in, sitting casually on Andre’s desk. “Classic humiliation scheme; Cummings gets what he wants, but he also gets his revenge on you in particular.”

“Do you think he’ll do what he says?” Crane asked. “I mean, let the girls go when he’s got what he wants?”

Nick’s face seemed to sag as though with weariness.

“Well,” he said. “Perhaps, but we wouldn’t like their condition if he did.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Andre. “Since we’re not giving him what he wants. He is not getting away with this, damn it.”

“None of us want him to,” said Crane. “But we also don’t want to lose Sarah and Karen, do we?”

“We’re not,” Andre said. “We’re going to save them and bring down Cummings and Deaney and the rest of ’em.”

“Excellent!” said Nick. “I fully agree. Now how are we gonna do this?”

“That’s what we need to figure out,” he said. “You’re the con man; can’t you come up with anything?”

“I’m working on it, but these angry tirades aren’t really helping things. Do we have anything more practical, like a plan of the estate?”

“Sure thing,” said Marco Benton. He went to file cabinet, drew out a roll of paper, and spread it on Andre’s desk. “’Course, the safe room ain’t on this one, but it’d be about here.”

They all bent over the plans, studying them carefully.

“Hm,” said Nick. “Not a lot of good options.”

“No, I purposefully made the house difficult to assault,” said Andre.

“I’m sure that seemed like a good idea at the time,” Nick answered.

“Obviously, I didn’t count on being forced to attack it myself,” Andre snapped. “But we do have one in; don’t forget the escape hatch.”

“That is something,” said Nick. “And we have another as well.”

“What’s that?”

“He wants a helicopter. Helicopters come with pilots, and if it can carry all of them out it can carry other people in.”

Andre nodded, seeing his point.

“I think,” said Nick after a moment’s thought. “That I have an idea…”

###

            “There it is,” said Cummings as he hung up the phone. “Fireson has capitulated. The helicopter, with the money, shall be arriving in twenty minutes. Or so he says.”

He tapped his fingers on the desk, thoughtfully looking out the window at the city.

“There lies my domain; stripped and left for others. ‘Of comfort no man speak; Let’s talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs. Let’s choose executors and talk of wills, and yet, not so; for what can we bequeath save our deposed bodies to the ground?’”

He sighed and turned back to the room.

“This is it, gentlemen. Remember what we discussed. Anything goes wrong, you know what to do.”

Karen saw Deaney looking in their direction and grinning.

“McLaglen, send your boys up to the helipad to greet the chopper. Tell Booker to be on the alert.”

The ex-police captain nodded and left to attend to the orders.

“Mr. Deaney, if you would get our guests ready to move,” Cummings said.

“I would be glad to,” he answered. He drew a pocket knife, knelt beside the two girls, and set to work cutting the bonds on Sarah’s legs. He let his other hand rest appreciatively on her thigh as he did so.

Meanwhile, Karen Stillwater’s cool, methodical brain was working through the possibilities. It was unlikely in the extreme that Nick and Andre wouldn’t make some attempt to rescue them. That was rather embarrassing, since they had already done so more than once, but there was no helping that now. It was equally unlikely that Cummings wouldn’t anticipate that and so have some kind of plan in place. Therefore, it would be a question of who was the better strategist: Nick or Cummings. And they had already had an answer to that, hadn’t they?

Deaney turned to her now, running his hand along her thigh as he cut the strands of tape binding her. It made her stomach fairly boil with anger and humiliation, though it also allowed her to feel just how powerful this man’s hands were. It felt as though he could break her legs just with his hands alone. The desire to kick him in the face – or somewhere else – as soon as she was free would regrettably have to be set aside.

“There you are,” said Deaney as he finished. “Just don’t go anywhere.”

He waved the knife in her face. She didn’t flinch.

“Why would I?” she answered, her strange half-English, half-Mexican accent becoming slightly more pronounced with the force of her suppressed anger. “I still have scum like you to arrest.”

Deaney’s face briefly registered surprise and anger, then he smoothly turned it to a grin.

“We’ll have to see about that,” he said. He put out a hand and gripped her injured shoulder hard as he stood up, causing Karen to gasp and wince with pain.

Deaney strolled over to speak with Cummings. Sarah turned a furious face to Karen.

“Bastard,” she mouthed. Karen didn’t reply. She was thinking rapidly. Cummings had a plan, and likely it was better than what their friends would come up with. But it would also necessarily be based on what he knew. If they could somehow change the script without him realizing it…

She gave Sarah a serious look to let her know that she had an idea. Sarah glanced at Cummings and raised one quizzical eyebrow. Karen nodded slightly, then tilted her head to indicate that Sarah should do what she did. Sarah looked a little confused, evidently not quite getting the meaning of the signs, but she nodded, hopefully to say that she’d follow Karen’s lead.

Karen gathered her feet under her and stood up, a little unsteady on her cramped legs. Sarah tried and failed to do the same.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Deaney demanded.

“If you want us to be able to walk later, you’d best let us exercise now,” said Karen.

Cummings allowed it. So far so good, but they’d be watched. Sarah got up on her second attempt and together the two women paced the spacious bedroom, keeping as far away from the two men as possible.

“Now what?” Sarah mouthed when their backs were to their captors.

“Do what I do,” Karen mouthed in answer.

She drifted over to the ornate desk and leaned against one corner, flexing and stretching her legs. Meanwhile, she carefully and deliberately drove the tape binding her wrists against the corner of the desk, where the woodworking rose into a blunted point. It wasn’t much of a tool, and she had to work slowly to avoid making too much noise, but with a couple tries it was enough to tear a good-sized cut into the duct tape. Enough to start on. Duct tape, she knew, is very strong, but only as long as it retains its integrity. Once start a cut, and you usually can finish it.

Karen didn’t dare stay long by the desk, but resumed her aimless ramblings. Sarah, having seen what she did, opted to try the same thing by leaning against one of the bedposts. The four-poster was as richly carved as everything else in the room, mostly in soft curves, but near the base of each post was a trio of fleur-de-lis with gently pointed tops. It was lucky that she was so short that she could reach them without drawing attention.

The two women drifted over to the window and sank down onto the seat. Sarah’s eyes were bright with excitement, while Karen, her face outwardly calm, felt as though she were full of static electricity.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

###

            At the top of the escape shaft, Andre had one hand on the latch of the heavy door leading into the safe room, the other held his Glock at the ready. He didn’t think that Cummings could have discovered the safe room, but he meant to be prepared just in case.

He glanced at Benton, who nodded, holding a shotgun at the ready. Andre turned the latch and they burst into the room to find themselves covered by compact assault rifle. But it was in the hands of the loyal Liu Sho.

“Mister Fireson!” the gardener exclaimed, lowering the gun at once and bowing. “My humblest apologies, sir, that your house has been defamed in this manner, and that your guests has been mistreated under your own roof. I saw them coming, and as you have always instructed, I retreated, and only then did I see that they had the young ladies with them.”

“That’s quite alright,” said Andre, holding up a hand to stem his apology. “You did the right thing. Now, what can you tell me about what’s been happening?”

“Two men were waiting in the hall. They have gone up to the helipad. A third man – big like Marco – he was here,” he pointed to one of the screens of the closed-circuit tv system. “But I have not seen him in some minutes. Three men are in your master bedroom, with the two women.” He pointed to the screen showing the closed door to his master’s inner sanctum. Andre’s blood boiled and he had to exercise great control not to immediately rush out there.

“Don’t worry boss; I don’t think they’d be doing any bedroom activities,” Benton put in. “It’s only amateurs do stuff like that, leastways, unless they’re feelin’ pretty safe. Situation like this, what with it bein’ your house and all, they’ll want to keep on the alert if they got any sense.”

“I actually had not been thinking along those lines, but thank you for putting it in my head,” Andre growled.

“Sorry, boss,” Benton shrugged.

Andre drew a deep breath. His fears for his friends were not helping. They could be dealt with later. He pushed them aside, into the room in his mind where he kept matters that he couldn’t attend to straight away, and then returned his attention to the matter at hand. It was just another puzzle; another mental challenge for him to overcome.

“Watch the helipad and the door to my room,” he ordered. “When they come out, that’s when we come out.”

“And keep an eye out for that goomba, Booker,” Benton put in. “I don’t like not knowin’ where a beef cut like that is hidin’.”

###

            “You know what I like about flying helicopters?” Nick Windworth said as he maneuvered the chopper in its approach to Fireson’s mansion.

Detective Crane, who was trying to stay focused on the mission and to recall all the tactical training he had learned in his younger days, was not in the mood for riddles.

“What?” he demanded shortly.

“Not a blessed thing,” Nick answered.

“Thank you, Windworth; that was very helpful,” Crane growled.

“Just making conversation,” the con man answered. “Oh, will you look at that? There’s a welcoming party.”

“Terrific.”

They flew in low over the mansion. Below them, former Detectives Tyzack and Aldrige stood waiting, pistols in hand. Nick turned the helicopter and lowered it gently to the deck.

Now came the tricky part.

Without powering down or turning off the blades, Nick suddenly threw off his seatbelt and rushed to the back of the chopper, threw open the side doors and started shouted and gesticulating wildly, waving for the detectives to come over. He looked as though he were close to panic. Tyzack and Aldridge exchanged a confused glance, then as Nick’s gestures became more frantic and he started pointing at the cockpit and then up at the blades, and then back into the chopper, as though trying to tell them something, though what they couldn’t imagine, they started for the chopper. Nick waved them on, as though urging them to hurry, and they picked up the pace.

“’Bout time, what’re you waiting for?” he shouted as soon as they came within earshot under the heavy throbbing of the propellers. “Come on, we got a big problem here.”

“What?” Tyzack shouted.

“I said, we’ve got a big problem here!” Nick screamed in his face.

“No, idiot, what’s the problem?”

At that moment, Crane turned around in his seek and aimed a gun at Aldrige, while Nick suddenly stuck his pistol under Tyzack’s chin.

“Two dirty cops, that’s the problem,” Crane snarled.

###

            “Here they come,” said Andre, pointing to the screen. The door to his master bedroom opened and McLaglen came out, leading Karen by the arm and covering her with his pistol. Next came Cummings, and last of all Deaney, and Andre felt his heart turn over as he saw that he was leading Sarah.

“Let’s go,” he said, hoisting his weapon. “Hit ‘em fast and hard.”

Marco Benton and Liu Sho nodded, guns at the ready. Andre pulled back the safe room door and stepped out into Marco’s gleaming kitchen, making for the servants’ staircase. Liu Sho was right behind him.

There was a crash and Andre whipped around to see his gardener fall, bleeding from the head. Edmond Booker was standing over him, a heavy iron skillet in hand, and before Andre could bring his rifle to bear, he swung it again, knocking the gun out of his hands and advancing like a tidal wave of muscle.

But he had acted too soon. From behind him, Benton (unwilling to shoot for fear of hitting his master) slung his rifle around Booker’s neck and pulled. Booker roared and grabbed at the gun, driving Booker back into the stainless steel refrigerator so hard it dented with the impact.

“Go on, boss! I’ll take care of him!” Benton called. Booker twisted around in his grip and the two hulking figures set to like a couple of enraged bears.

There was no time; probably the sounds of the fight had already alerted Cummings to their presence. Andre didn’t even pause to pick up his rifle, but drew his pistol as he ran up the stairs, taking them three at a time until he burst out into the upper hall.

The upstairs of his house was shaped like a cross with a curved bar; a long, crescent-shaped corridor servicing the two wings, while the main upstairs hall reached back to the rear of the house. Andre came out midway along the north wing, near the entrance to the patio over the gardens. He turned left and raced down the corridor.

“Hold it right there!” he shouted as he came in view of Cummings’ gang.

They had been caught right at the top of the grand staircase. From the other direction came Nick and Crane, both with pistols drawn. Deaney and McLaglen were turning about, gripping their hostages, looking from one side to the other. Andre felt a surge of triumph; they had done it after all.

Then Cummings held out his hands as though in surrender, and two small, dark objects dropped from them.

Andre realized what was going to happen a split second too late.

There was an explosion like a high-caliber gunshot, and at the same time a burst of blinding white light. Andre had been through tactical training and knew what to do here. Temporarily blind and deaf, he ducked and rolled out of the way. Beyond the sharp ringing in his ears he heard the dull throb of gunshots, and he prayed that they had been directed at him and not the hostages.

Then, as he came up, squinting and trying to blink the light out of his eyes, he smelled burning, and became aware that there was smoke all about him. For a second he thought his house was on fire, but then he realized that this was the other device that Cummings had dropped; a smoke bomb. He backed away, coughing, trying to get out of the cloud so that he could see.

It didn’t reach far, and he was soon able to breathe more freely. But as he stood in the corridor, gasping and trying to focus through the light in his eyes and the ringing in his ears, he realized he now had no idea where the others were. Cummings had played them after all.

###

            When the flash had gone off, Karen had found herself instantly blinded, deafened, and soon choking on smoke, followed by the impression of being half dragged, half carried down a long flight of steps. Coughing and trying to blink the light and the tears out of her eyes, she analyzed her position; she must be going down the main staircase. Clean air allowed her to breathe again, at least. McLaglen hit the front hall and turned right. She didn’t know what was in this direction. It felt like a long way, then, as her sight returned, the blurred impression of passing through a doorway into a large, airy room. Another blink and she had the impression of a library.

McLaglen was heading straight for one of the high windows. So that was how he meant to get out.

“Cummings, you’d better be right about this,” she dimly heard him muttered as they crossed the room. Karen, however, had no intention of letting him off that easily.

She twisted her wrists hard, snapping the last frayed remnant of the tape binding her hands, pulled one hand free of the sticky substance, heedless of the pain, and before McLaglen knew what was happening, she had seized his gun hand and was twisting it back.

McLaglen swore and tried to throw her off, but she held on grimly. She’d made a mistake; the grip was wrong. She couldn’t get the right leverage to bend his wrist, which meant they were just fighting on pure muscle. She seized his hand with both of hers and tried to force it back, but he was a lot stronger than she was. He grabbed her by the hair, down by the roots, and pulled hard, forcing her head back and causing her to gasp with pain, but she didn’t let go. He drove her back against a desk, pressing against her, preventing her from kicking him, and Karen was suddenly aware of how badly she had bungled her attack. He had her pinned in a vulnerable position and now slowly, inexorably, he was forcing the barrel of the gun back around to point at her.

Karen fought with every ounce of strength she had left, but it was no good; McLaglen simply had more to give, even with one arm. Her dark eyes widened in fear as the gun turned. The barrel seemed to be growing as it drew nearer; the black hole through which the killing bullet would emerge loomed larger and larger, until it had consumed the whole room, the whole world. There was nothing but that black pit aiming up under her chin, seemingly prepared to swallow her whole.

Then, all at once, a hand shot out and grabbed the slide, and the spell was broken. The gun dwindled to its normal size, and she was aware of Nick Windworth, one hand on McLaglen’s gun, the other pressing his own to the dirty cop’s temple.

“I’m trying to think of a reason not to pull this trigger,” he said. “And I’m coming up dry. Can you suggest anything?”

###

            Sarah felt herself being dragged along the corridor. She had heard his gun going off even over the piercing hum in her ears, and she thought she’d cried out, but she couldn’t hear herself.

Please let him have missed, she thought.

The first thing she could see was that he was taking her out onto the patio. There was, she knew, a metal staircase leading down to the garden; he must be heading for that. But…they seemed to be alone. Where was Karen? And where was Cummings?

As soon as she was aware of her position, Sarah stuck her heels into the concrete floor and tried to stop, or at least to slow Deaney down.

“Come on, you little snot,” he said, giving her arm a savage yank that pulled her off her feet, though she was light enough and he was strong enough that she didn’t fall. The power she could feel in his hand was terrifying: she though he’d likely be able to snap her arm just with a twist of his wrist.

Speaking of which

They were approaching the gleaming, top-of-the-line grill set. Almost without realizing what she was doing, Sarah snapped the remaining tape that bound her wrists, pulled her left arm free, seized the prongs and, turning, drove it head-on into the underside of Deaney’s right forearm. His hand opened involuntarily and the gun dropped at once as he screamed. She tried to pull it back out, to stab again, but before she could Deaney released her arm and backhanded her hard across the face, knocking her back against the grill. Her head swam with the impact and she tasted blood. Then his hand closed about her throat, he lifted her – one armed off the ground, then threw her straight down onto the floor. The awkward angle at which he threw her, so that she landed on her side, was the only thing that saved her from cracking her skull open like an egg on the flagstones.

He ripped the prongs out of his arm and brandished it over her, his face alive with rage. He looked ready to stab her to death and was only hesitating as to where to start.

Then the door to the corridor burst open and Andre flew out, gun raised. He fired, but missed. Deaney was already turning to meet him, and he was still disoriented from the flash bang. Deaney threw the prongs at him, and Andre had to duck to avoid it as Deaney came charging right behind the missile. A roundhouse kick and Andre’s gun flew off the edge of the patio, then Andre ducked the next attack and drove at Deaney in a football tackle. As Deaney rained blows down on him, the two slammed into the railing and, still locked together, tipped over the side.

Sarah screamed, staggering to her feet, aching all over. There was a great splash and she realized they’d landed in the pond. Stumbling, she headed for the stairs.

She needed to help Andre…somehow. And what about Karen? They must have taken her somewhere else, and Cummings…

Midway down the stairs, Sarah suddenly understood. She didn’t work it out step-by-step, but saw the whole thing, the whole plan. So simple. So obvious. So…so petty.

She also saw at once what she needed to do. There was a split second of hesitation, of doubt as she looked at the churning waters where the two still fought; should she let it go? Stay and help?

No, Andre could handle himself. All her friends could. She could count on them for that much at least, now that she had the chance to end this once and for all…if it wasn’t already too late.

While Sarah had her revelation, Andre hit the surface of the pond with a painful smack, and all at once the warm, murky water consumed him, disoriented him. Something, a foot, struck out and hit him hard. Andre struck back, his knuckles hitting flesh. He surged upward and broke the surface. Deaney was right beside him and he hit out as hard as he could.

“Son of a bitch!” he coughed as he rained blows on him. “Come into my house! Attack my people! Who do you think you are?!”

His punches were weaker than he would have liked. In the water he couldn’t use body mechanics or brace himself; he only had the strength of his arms alone, and not even all of that. Deaney blocked his latest attack and kicked him hard in the stomach.

“Self-righteous little prick!” he gasped. He kicked him again, knocking the little remaining wind out of him. Fighting in the water was a losing proposition.

Andre pulled back, kicking out for the side of the pond, flailing as best he could with no breath. Deaney had had the same idea.

Aching all over, Andre pulled himself up out of the water and onto the gravely path of his garden; the path he had helped to build with his own hands. A few yards away, he saw Deaney, gasping and panting, rising to his feet. He glared at Andre with murder in his eyes. Andre forced himself to rise to meet him, but Deaney gave a sudden explosive leaping kick, knocking him back to the ground.

“This won’t change anything, Fireson,” he snarled, kicking him savagely in the ribs. “You’ve only bought her a little time. Whatever else I do, I’m going to snap that little blonde tart’s neck, but not before I…”

He never finished. Probably in his rage he hadn’t noticed the green lump laying in the shadows by the pool, watching the battle, but it had seen him. It had seen him kicking and hitting its master. And with a sudden roar, Richelieu the alligator lunged forward and caught Deaney’s waist between his jaws. Deaney had time to utter a single shriek of pain and surprise before toppling into the pond with the enraged alligator on top of him.

Andre staggered to his feet, wincing at every step, and watched as the churning green water turned to red and became still again. The alligator poked its long, blunted snout of the water, bits of something hanging between its teeth.

“Good boy,” Andre gasped.

###

            Cummings took the spare jumpsuit down from the wall of Andre’s garage and stepped into it, then pulled a dirty cap down over his eyes. His movements were swift, but precise. The old battered gray van they had brought the two girls here in was waiting for him. It would take time for Fireson and his people to figure out what had gone wrong, then more time for the police to arrive, and by then, he would just be another work truck driving on his way; practically invisible. In a few hours, he would be over the border in Mexico, and from there he could make his way anywhere in the world.

He pulled open the van door, settled in the driver’s seat, stuck his gun down in between the seats, and started up the engine.

“Where’re we going this time?”

Cummings whipped around, reaching for his gun…but it wasn’t there. Instead, he found himself looking at Sarah Rockford’s lovely, smiling face, framed by its halo of golden hair, his gun in her small hand pointing right at him.

For perhaps the first time in his life, Cummings had nothing to say.

“I just saw it,” she said. “All at once; the common thread, the tell of all your little schemes. You’re a very clever man, Mister Cummings, but you always, always look out for yourself. Your whole master plan was basically just turning the city into a glorified mirror to admire yourself in. Now that things are falling apart for you, well, I just realized that you absolutely would send your friends off to lead us on a merry little chase while you slip off in the confusion and save your own precious skin. Because that’s what you do. It’s all you do.”

He gave a weak smile.

“It’s all anyone does, Miss Rockford.”

“My friends and I have been doing nothing but putting ourselves on the line to try to stop you for the past few days. You’ve given us plenty of chances to get away, but we haven’t, because you needed to be stopped. That’s the real flaw in your master plan, Mister Cummings; it isn’t about motive and opportunity, it’s about right and wrong. Sooner or later, there was going to be someone who wouldn’t tolerate what you were doing. From the moment you started this conspiracy of yours, it was only ever a matter of time.”

He looked at her, and she saw cold hatred in every line of his face.

“You wouldn’t really shoot me,” he said. “You aren’t the type.”

Before Sarah could answer, someone pulled open the driver side door, leveling a service revolver at Cummings’s head.

“She’s not,” said Crane. “But I am.”

 ###

            Andre Fireson loved his great house in the hills. But it wasn’t his only home. Every so often, he felt the need to get away from the city altogether, and for that purpose he had purchased about a hundred acres of secluded beach-front property some distance north of Los Angeles, on which he had built a modest cabin of sorts, surrounded by trees and facing out onto the Pacific.

It was the perfect place to escape to after their adventure.

The warm ocean breeze blew in on the patio overlooking the dock. They had just gotten back from a little light swimming (light due to the fact that most of them were still injured one way or another), had a mouth-watering lunch prepared by Benton (who was still mourning the granite countertop he’d broken while subduing Booker), and now they sat together, the four of them, watching the waves rolling over the beach, while Liu Sho (a bandage about his head) tended to the sea-side flowerbeds.

Or rather, Andre was sometimes watching the waves. More often his eyes rested on Sarah. She was wearing an open white shirt over her sky-blue swimsuit (Andre had provided both, as they were nicer than anything she had at her old apartment), and looked, to his mind, like the sun-drenched sea personified. A clever girl too; clever and brave and principled. He intended to spend more time with her, now that they had the chance. A lot more time.

Karen’s suit, meanwhile, was black, the exact same shade as her hair, and she had a dark grey shirt on over it. The sea at night, under a cloud-dressed moon, Andre thought with smile.

“All things considered,” said Nick, sipping his drink as he turned his face to the Pacific and his eyes to Karen. “I think I’m glad we didn’t die after all.”

“I think I have to agree,” said Karen with a faint smile. “And that reminds me; how did you know McLaglen would take me to the library?”

“I saw the plans to the house while we were strategizing and, well, that’s what I would have done,” he said. “A side exit, not too obvious, allows him to slip away into the bushes and avoids any potential ambushes at the front door while still giving access to the main drive.”

She stared at him, then shook her head in amazement.

“Not bad for a small-time crook,” she said. She contemplated him for a moment, eying his broken and bandaged thumb, and then broke. “That does it!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been dying to know; where did you learn all this? Who are you really? And please tell the truth this time; no more jokes.”

He looked at her, all black and grey and tan, yet almost luminous in his eyes, and it was as though the youth he’d lost long ago had momentarily flickered to life. For the first time in he couldn’t remember how long, he found he felt no reluctance to tell the truth.

“The truth, if you really want it, is nothing too special. I just a guy who did a few tours in Vietnam is all, and you pick up these things.” He sipped his drink, then added. “As a matter of fact, I was one the first American troops to enter Hanoi, back in ’68, if you can believe it.”

Karen frowned at him.

“Hanoi fell in 1970,” she said.

He looked steadily at her, smiling slightly.

“I know. What’s your point?”

There was a brief pause while they digested this. Sarah got it first.

“You were special forces!” she exclaimed.

“If you want to call it that,” he shrugged. “Put it that I did the things no one was allowed to talk about and that I didn’t want to think about, and when I got home I just…kept doing them. There didn’t seem to be anything else worth doing.”

Karen nodded. Though she had no personal experience even close to what he described, she thought she understood.

“And now?” she asked.

He thought a moment, then shrugged.

“Now I’m going to drink and enjoy the view,” he said, leaning back in his chair and fixing his eyes on her. “Everything else can wait.”

Andre laughed.

“Amen to that,” he said.

A few minutes later, Detective Crane appeared.

“Detective!” said Andre. “We were hoping you could make it. Sit down; have a drink. You missed lunch, but I’m sure Benton could whip something up for you if you like.”

Crane smiled and took his advice. They chatted a bit as the late lunch was prepared, but Crane seemed oddly distracted. It didn’t take long for him to share why.

“I was just doing some follow up,” he said. “Now that Deaney’s dead and Cummings is in jail, Roper Shipping is getting bought up by Centron Farms.”

“Is it?” said Sarah. “Looks like Cummings’s effort to keep them out of L.A. backfired on him.”

“That’s not all,” said Crane. “You know how he said they were running a third of the city? Well, that’s an obvious exaggeration, but not as much as you’d think. This case is already making waves in the business community; most of those who did business with Deaney are selling out as fast as they can. And guess who’s doing most of the buying?”

Andre sat up, suddenly alert.

“Centron Farms,” he said.

“But that’s not all,” Deaney went on. “That warehouse they were going to bomb? Well, we found out that it had hidden cameras watching all the rows. So, the thing is, even if the bomb had gone off, their plan would have backfired on them, because the company would have been able to show sabotage, and might have even been able to identify the perpetrators.”

“It’s good to know they wouldn’t have gotten away with it, even if we had all died,” said Karen.

“Right, but think about it,” said Crane. “Centron Farms moves in, starting a shipping and receiving branch and challenging Deaney directly. Cummings tries to deal with it, and in so doing he alerts us to his activities, all the while they have it set up so that, even if he succeeds, they have the last laugh. And now Centron Farms are taking over most of his old territory. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, the Mexicans under El Jefe start a war with Gallano, at great cost and seemingly to little benefit. Now between the two of them, the whole system’s gone and they’re both moving in.”

“I see what you’re getting at,” said Nick. “What’re the odds that two powerful, outside forces would just happen to challenge Cummings’s organization from two ends at the same time?”

“You mean you think this was all planned?” said Sarah

“That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” said Karen. “I mean, no one could possibly account for everything we ended up doing, right?”

“He didn’t need to plan for that,” said Nick thoughtfully. “All he had to do was stir the pond and something would come to the surface. Move in, put pressure on them to either sell out honestly or fight back dishonestly, at which point either someone notices something wrong, or they themselves secretly get the evidence they need to take Cummings down. Diabolically simple, actually; nothing illegal about it, unless, of course, he was also working with the cartels, which, if no money exchanged hands, would be all-but impossible to prove.”

“But who…” Sarah asked.

“Xander Calvan,” said Andre. “He’s the head of Centron Farms. Has a reputation for ruthless brilliance in more ways than one. I’ve met him; if anyone could pull off a strategy like this, it’s him, and I don’t think he’d scruple to deal with the cartels either.”

“If all this is true,” said Karen slowly. “What does it mean that this man is now taking over all that Cummings and Deaney had?”

A chill seemed to sweep over them. Then, suddenly, Sarah laughed.

“Never ends, does it?” she said. “You know what, though? I’m not going to worry about it. Maybe there’s nothing to it, maybe there is, but whatever happens, we’ll deal with it. Right?”

Andre grinned.

“You’re something, you know that?”

She flashed him a radiant smile.

“You have no idea.”

Crane chuckled good humoredly.

“I suppose that’s the best attitude we can take,” he said. He lifted his glass. “In any case, he’s to you all; case closed.”

The four of them raised their glasses. The future would come when it came. For now, though, life was good.

 

Thoughts on ‘The Wind in the Willows’

Recently I had the great joy of reading The Wind in the Willows, if not quite for the first time (I had read it at least once before when I was much younger) then for the first time since I became able to fully appreciate it.

You all probably know the story, such as it is, though it’s less a straight story than a collection of vignettes centered around the protagonists Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad. Mr. Mole becomes tired of spring cleaning and tunnels up to the surface to enjoy the springtime itself, whereupon he strikes up a friendship with the hospitable Water Rat and they spend the spring and summer together, while their friend, the wealthy Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, becomes obsessed with motorcars and they, along with the authoritative Mr. Badger, attempt to bring him in line before he ruins himself.

It is really a most wonderful little book: full to bursting with that distinctly late-Victorian, early 20th Century English charm, with remarkably deft characterization on its delightful quartet of protagonists and some truly gorgeous writing.

Let me give you an example, just from the first chapter:

“He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All as a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

To be able to write like that takes more than just talent, it takes a degree of reverence and humility; the power just to stand and listen to creation, picking up the quiet, but distinct character of each river, each meadow, each forest, and each sunrise. You’d have to have a heart open to receive the words and magic of nature spoken in its own language, not forced into a cramped, scientific or material perspective. You have to feel that every flower, every tree, every little eddy in the river is unique and placed there for its own sake. In a word, Kenneth Grahame’s writing isn’t just a matter of style, it’s a matter of heart; his descriptions can only come from a place of love and reverence.

And he doesn’t only use this to describe nature, but also things like the lure of adventure (in the chapter where Rat meets the Seafaring Rat), where the distinctive flavors of different lands and peoples are rendered with loving detail, or even numinous awe, as in the chapter where Rat and Mole have an encounter with Pan:

“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat?’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? Oh, never, never! And yet – and yet – Oh, Mole, I am afraid!'”

There is also a delightfully surreal, childlike tone to the story. The author makes no attempt to make this into a real and consistent world; the animal heroes live in burrows, but borrows stocked with shelves and cookery and little treasures that “required a lot of careful saving to purchase.” Mr. Toad is able to disguise himself as a washerwoman and combs dry leaves out of his ‘hair,’ yet of course fits into Rat’s hole and is treated as toad by the human characters. When he’s arrested, he’s thrown into a dungeon straight from the Middle Ages complete with men at arms, loose straw for bedding, and the like (and when the warden’s daughter takes pity on him, being fond of animals, he convinces himself she’s fallen in love with him and reflects with regret of the great social gap between them).

As C.S. Lewis described it, the thin disguise of the characters being animals allows the author to present the tale he wants; the characters are able to enjoy life as both children and adults: they go where they like and do what they please, while meals and clothes and household goods are simply there as if by magic. No one gives a thought to employment or jobs or bills or any other wretched thing. When Toad returns to the riverbank, there is no thought that the law will pursue him there; he’s ‘safe’ as though in a children’s game. It’s all pure imagination; allowing the characters to experience the world as we might wish it were, to enjoy their adventures and lessons and dreams, to experience the ups and downs of life without the tedious details.

And oh, what life we get! Rat’s fervent, almost familial love for the river and for boating. Mole rediscovering his beloved hole after being so long away and being driven to tears for the want of it, small though it is. The warm caroling session by field mice that greets him when he arrives. Mole’s frightening adventure in the Wild Woods (“At first, there was nothing to alarm him”) and Rat’s subsequent rescue operation. Badger’s hole in the woods, which turns out to be built into the ruins of a buried Roman city (what ideas, what dreams, what haunting meditations arise just from that image!). Rat’s encounters with the migratory creatures who tell of their alternating calls to the north and south, and of the delight of arriving in each, followed by his long talk with the Seafaring Rat. The Battle of Toad Hall, which is what ever child imagines a fight is like; everyone gets to be brave and noble, no one is seriously hurt, and we thrash the disreputable cowards soundly in a good cause and send them home to lick their wounds.  Not to mention Toad’s adventures, where he bounces back and forth between adversity and triumph, while alternately lamenting his own foolishness and singing songs to his own glory.

Of course, there is no better image for such a hilariously vain and ridiculous figure than a toad; the absurd, ugly, hopping, fat little creature with a fatuous grin permanently plastered on its face. Toad is a toad to the tee; fundamentally good-natured, but vain and foolish to any imaginable degree. 

Which brings us to the wonderful quartet at the center of the story. Little Mole, the homebody; shy, but curious, wanting to try everything but not sure he dares. He’s the kind of fellow who is generally too cautious for an adventure, but who, when he has a burst of courage, generally makes a fool of himself because he’s too sheltered to understand the dangers, yet is a loyal friend through thick and thin, and more than willing and able to pull his weight when called on. Your typical lower-middle class, sedate Englishman of a small town. 

Rat, on the other hand, is the confident one; he knows his own ground, what he wants from life, and that he’s more or less got it. He has his river, his poetry, and his cozy little whole, and he embraces all adventures and adversities that may come as a part of that life. He knows his way about, is a dab hand with a variety of weapons, and has the courage to stride into the snowy woods after Mole and the competence to know how to safely go about it. A middle-class, English countryman; a man of letters and culture, deeply in love with his own hobbies and his own home.

Toad, of course, is the irresponsible country squire who inherited his family money and estate without also getting any of the good sense that made it. Fundamentally decent, but completely out of touch with reality and having no sense of what his position means beyond an occasion for preening and getting his way. Proud of himself and his family name, but in the sense of thinking it means he doesn’t have to make any effort of his own. He expects the world to conform to his whim, though he always wishes to be well thought of and to be able to do his bit. He’s the kind of friend who will show you a wonderfully good time and then call you at three o’clock in the morning to say, “Dear Ratty, I’ve had a spot of bother with the local police. Could you possibly come down to the county jail and help sort it out?”

Finally, there’s Mr. Badger, the reclusive country gentleman of an earlier generation (he was friends with Toad’s father) who hates society, but loves his friends; an “extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness,” as Prof. Lewis put it. He commands absolute respect both for his size and strength and for his wisdom, sense, and good heart. He allows his manners to be rough and his hole untidy because he doesn’t want any visitors, yet he tends to them with his own paws when they show up. He’s sort of a Dr. Johnson or Evelyn Waugh type: the man who may be sharp with you and tolerates no nonsense, but will never let you down and whose advice and friendship you can always count on.

A large part of the delight of the book is simply the opportunity to spend time with these wonderfully good characters. I mean that not only in the sense of their being expertly sketched, thoroughly human figures (ironically enough), but that they’re good people; people you would want to know, to be friends with, to be like. Even Toad is the kind of friend who, while he’d be very tiresome, would at least be a lot of fun to have around. It’s the sort of book where, as you read it, you ask “what do I have in my life that stands in place of Rat’s river? Or Mole’s hole? Or Badger’s tunnels?” or “How snug and delightful it would be to have your own little world and to not want another; to know all its particular changes, trials, and tribulations, and to know that you accept them. But also how delightful it would be to sail the seas as a wayfarer, tasting the wine of each new land.” Above all, “how charming it is to have all these different kinds of people, with their own marvelously shaped personalities, bound tightly to their own particular loves and lives! How do I fit in to that? What is my life and my love?”

Immediately before reading The Wind in the Willows, I had just finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was rather startled to find that the former had a much more profound effect on me than the latter. Don’t get me wrong: Dostoevsky’s book is a masterpiece, but it left me rather dissatisfied, simply because it leaves so much of the story untold (Dostoevsky intended it to be the first of a series of books, but died before he could begin the sequel). There were profundities, and deeper ones there, but I found Wind in the Willows, in its quiet, innocent way, resonated more with me, or more completely. Perhaps I am closer to the English spirit than to the Russian, or perhaps it’s simply that Willows is so much more compact and accessible, but I know which one I’ll be rereading first.

I think The Wind in the Willows will be going up on my shelf next to The Lord of the Rings and Cyrano de Bergerac as an all-time favorite. The book is more than a delightful and excellently crafted piece of literature; it hits something in my own heart and soul that doesn’t get touched nearly as often as I would like, and shows me a world of peace and beauty and quiet order that I love to spend time in. It’s a work to treasure.

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Yearly ‘Independence Day’ Tribute

Every year on the Fourth of July, I rewatch ‘Independence Day,’ and every year I re-post this summary of why it’s among my personal favorites.  

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s pulp sci-fi done as an epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, single, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are  reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.

The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.

I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.

I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Ambiguity at the Everyman

My latest piece is up at The Everyman discussing the common trick of arguing from ambiguity: you know, you say “a man isn’t a woman,” and they answer “who gets to decide the definition of ‘a woman’?” Turning obvious and object concepts into mush in order to win an argument:

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress where the hero has been imprisoned by a giant called the Spirit of the Age, whose glance turns everything transparent so that one can “see through” it. The jailor who works for the giant furthers this process by debunking ‘social constructs’ with graphically brutal descriptions of the food he provides to the prisoners. One day he offers the prisoners milk while making a sneering comment about how they might as well be drinking the cow’s “other excretions.”

At this point the hero exclaims “Thank goodness! Now I know you don’t really believe what you’re saying!” and then proceeds to point out that there is an obvious, objective difference between milk, which is given to feed the young, and, say, urine, which isn’t. It’s not a question of convention or habit or mythology or belief; it’s a question of what in fact happens.

Our own zeitgeist hasn’t lost the taste for this particular game, which indeed is a very old one. It might be called the argument from ambiguity, and how it works is that, rather than trying to establish a given position, one instead claims that the relative concepts and categories cannot be clearly defined and thus cannot be objectively applied. This often manifests in terms like “shades of grey” or “who’s to say?” or “spectrums,” and it has a superficial credibility in that hard cases can be found in most subjects, and bringing these up can lend the speaker an air of intellectual sophistication.  

Read the rest here.

Initial Thoughts on ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

So, just got back from seeing Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I’ve you’ve followed my blog, you probably know that I am a massive, life-long Godzilla fan, so I was eagerly looking forward to this long-awaited sequel to 2014’s Godzilla (which I liked quite a bit).

So, how’s this film stack up? Well, my immediate reaction is that I really, really liked it! I have a few reservations (which we’ll get to), but for the most part it’s pretty much just what I would want from a modern, big-budget version of the Godzilla mythos. It’s much faster and more action-packed than it’s predecessor, but without sacrificing the sense of awe and grandeur that ought to go along with Godzilla. There are plenty of moments where the characters just stand and stare (some of Mothra’s scenes are particularly good in this regard, and they really do capture the sense of otherworldly beauty that she ought to have).

Of course, one of the big things I wanted to see was how they would handle King Ghidorah, who has been oddly ill-served by most previous films. Well, they give him his due here; he’s not quite as overwhelmingly powerful and evil as I would have liked (e.g. if I were writing the film, Godzilla would have gotten absolutely run into the ground in their first fight), but he’s able to match and even outmatch the Big G while credibly posing an existential threat to the planet, which is as it should be. Don’t really like him walking on his wing tips, but that’s really my only criticism about the design (and they do establish that he’s “not from around here”).

Mothra is also very well played; I like how they present her as having a symbiotic relationship with Godzilla (though one character seems to take their ‘relationship’ as something else), so that she never falls under Ghidorah’s sway, which would have been all kinds of wrong. I wish she had gotten more screen time and more chance to really show what she can do, but she was almost spot on, and hearing an orchestral version of the Mothra Song from theater speakers was fantastic.

Rodan I actually think got a bit of a short shrift, character wise. I always conceive of him as a fiercely independent creature, to the point of being more antagonistic and uncontrollable than Godzilla himself: he can be mind controlled, like most monsters, but I don’t really like the idea of him as a follower. In terms of his presentation, however, he is very impressive; they make good use of his sheer speed and agility in the air, as well as his raw strength.

As for the human plot, it was actually pretty good; the characters divide into three camps. There are the villains who are ecoterrorists intending to use the monsters to wipe out humanity so that the earth can be restored to a more ‘natural’ state, the people who want the monsters to all be destroyed lest they kill more people, and the ‘Monarch’ organization in between, which argues for balance and co-existence. I appreciate that, despite the film’s strong environmentalist message, it actually takes the approach that the Earth is more self-correcting than we give it credit for, and that those who would see humanity removed from the equation not only are monstrous in their ideology, but don’t actually understand the environment they think they’re saving and will only make things worse.

All this is very fitting material for a Godzilla film, which have always been about man’s interactions with nature and the unexpected consequences of violating the natural order. Likewise, things like the hollow Earth myth and ancient lost cities, as well and linking the monsters to the creatures of mythology fit perfectly. The filmmakers very clearly know the Godzilla franchise and love it; there are many, many little nods and allusions, as well as plot points taken directly from the earlier films, and even non-film sources like the Marc Ceresini books. Rodan being found in a volcano and Ghidorah being initially dubbed ‘Monster Zero’ are only a couple examples (some others I can’t go into without spoilers).

The film also continues the strong theme of family from the last film: the characters trying to rebuild the family unit that was destroyed, in this case, by Godzilla himself. Though in this case, it might be beyond saving. There was actually a bit of genuine wisdom in the film, where Dr. Serizawa tells one of the leads that we don’t always understand why something bad happens, and that if we accept that we can grow stronger from adversity, rather than being torn apart (I don’t recall the exact wording, but it struck me as very Job-like).

The matter-of-fact religiosity of the previous film, alas, is mostly gone, though there are one or two nice little moments, mostly amounting to presenting Ghidorah is a demonic light, such as when one of the bad guys, seeing King Ghidorah exclaims “Mother of God!” to which the answer comes “She had nothing to do with this.” There’s also a striking image of Ghidorah, amid the flames of a volcano, being set against a cross, as though he’s challenging Christ Himself. On the other hand, frequent allusions to the idea that the monsters were the ‘original gods’ of mankind are rather ridiculous (there is a qualitative difference between a simply dangerous or powerful creature, however massive, and a creature regarded with numinous awe). Likewise, the attempts to emphasize the animality of the monsters doesn’t really work for me; I prefer it when there is a strange ambivalence about just what they are in the hierarchy of creation.

On that note, one thing I miss in these latter films was the supernatural element in the earlier Godzilla films. The classic movies thought nothing of including fairies, magic, and mystic energy side-by-side with science-fiction concepts, which both gave them a very distinctive flavor and fit in with the underlying idea that humanity really doesn’t know very much about the world and violates ancient taboos at its peril. Also, the ‘alpha signal’ device, and the idea that Ghidorah can command creatures all around the planet is highly dubious, especially since so much of the film rests on it. I can go with it, but it’s questionable at best.

Then there’s the Oxygen Destroyer, which was, frankly, a disappointment. See, the Oxygen Destroyer is a huge deal in the original films; it appears precisely twice over the whole history of the franchise, and both times it’s a major, major issue; the one weapon that can certainly kill Godzilla, but which also threatens to be far worse than he is. The questions it raises, and the horrific nature of the weapon itself, are big parts of the story and philosophy of the films. Here, it is introduced and set off within the space of maybe two minutes and is never brought up again except in passing. That’s a big waste.

Finally, there’s a matter of Godzilla himself. Now, overall he’s portrayed very well; I completely buy that this is Godzilla, and his power and ferocity are on full display. But the thing is (and this applies to the first film as well), I think that by playing him so overtly heroic, they’ve lost something. One of the things that makes the original series so compelling to me is that Godzilla starts off as a villainous, or at least antagonistic figure. He hates humanity for what they’ve done and continue to do to him. Yet he is ultimately a noble creature, and his arc comes when that nobility leads him to protect the very people he so hates, in the process gradually softening and becoming more heroic as the two sides come to terms with each other. It’s a fairly unique storyline, which appears to have grown up more or less by accident, and I think it’s a fascinating drama. But that isn’t what we have with these new films. Here, Godzilla is characterized much more like Gamera, which isn’t unacceptable, but it is a little disappointing for me (it also means that bringing Gamera into this series would basically be redundant, as the contrast between their characters has been removed).

Those caveats really don’t take away from my sheer enjoyment of this film; they throw so much at us, and the action scenes are so big and so spectacular, and the monsters themselves so well-realized that I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end, not to mention the sheer joy of hearing Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla Theme in all its glory accompanying the action. I’m definitely looking forward to what they’ll do in the next one. Long live the King indeed!