Smolder Comes To

Smolder’s eyes opened briefly. He was in a box of a room. A dull pain moved from his temple to the back of his neck as his lids shut again. But now he was conscious, if barely, and found that after a few paralyzing attempts that he could sit up. He was in a box alright, a cement one with no décor whatsoever, lit by a weak yellow bulb. In one corner was a melamine table with a ceramic water basin on it. A dresser lined another wall and had his clothes folded neatly at one side with a drink tray at the other. He was naked. The only other element in the room was the bed he was sitting on. He could feel, with certainty, the stretched springs beneath the thin mattress. Drowsiness hung on his hunched figure like a leaden weight threatening to pull him back into slumber, but he held himself upright and rubbed his throbbing head.

He lifted himself to his feet and made his way like a newborn colt to the table and poured out some water to splash across his face and dampen down his hair. He then turned to the dresser and found mostly melted ice in the bucket on the drink tray and three bottles of spirits. He poured himself a stiff bourbon and soda, sat back down on the bed and tried to clear his skull with a long pull from the glass.

A second pull helped. He washed his face a second time, smelled about his shoulder and armpit for traces of sour odors and washed the rest of his body with a dampened towel. Then he put on his clothes, noticing a tear on the right sleeve and a scuffed knee on the left leg of his trousers. A matching cut on his arm, one of just a few minor abrasions on his body, told him there must have been a struggle that came from his right and thrust him knee first to the ground. The bruise on his knee confirmed this. He marked that his clothes had been cleaned and pressed rather thoughtfully, though when he got to dressing his feet, he realized that the mystery cleaners provided only one sock, the other either being lost to combat or to laundry, both hazardous affairs for a sock.

Initially he could only remember the last time he opened his eyes – and even that was vague. Though it was uncomfortable to do so, he examined the room again and determined that when his eyes opened, he was probably in this room, the tint of light was familiar. Somebody was in there with him then, making some commotion. How long ago that was he could not say. Perhaps long enough to strip a man and do his laundry – assuming he was clothed at that point.

He forced his mind to dig into itself and make some account of how he ended up in his current situation. He felt as though he were starting from scratch, his consciousness suspended on a line in a black void that could have been boundless space or a vacuum. Without a memory, he could not gain his bearings. Eventually, he remembered the Agency. He worked for the Agency and his boss was the Old Man. He was likely on a case. He walked his memory forward, remembering more and more, first about his general identity, then about his daily activities. There was a nagging sensation around some horrible advice, nonsensical really, he read somewhere about the Treaty of Ghent from some unnamed character who attempted to involve himself in some decision or other. For some reason, this strange fellow was somebody he recalled paying attention to, as if some such character who played a role in something back then could be relevant still.

Then he remembered Miss Bailey and some of the details started falling into place. He took a third pull, getting to the ice of his glass, and put a name to the piss poor advice and the curious Treaty of Ghent fellow: Finknottle. Sir Augustus. And Smolder had left Houston to head to the Philippines, the last footprint on Finknottle's trail. Smolder remembered boarding the plane, but could not recall getting off.

He sat down in his aisle seat and took out a report he was reading and the stewardesses served dinner, a curious mixed vegetable dish with chicken on rice and a roll. For dessert there was some sort of gelatinous cube the shade of a faded Easter egg, pale green, like a leaf bleached dry in the sun. The taste of the cube was not readily determinable, perhaps because he had a can of Tsingtao on his palate, and that doesn’t easily go away.

Now that Smolder thought about it, the residue of Tsingtao was completely gone now, which meant that it was at least twenty-four hours since that meal on the plane. It was a safe benchmark, Smolder thought, unless of course the three pulls of bourbon might be masking the Tsingtao. He thought back to the previous times he had drunk Chinese beer and tried to gauge how prevalent and enduring the after taste is. He remembered once having a few bottles of the stuff, then drinking a fair amount of soju on top of it and the beer's aftertaste stubbornly remained in his mouth. He counted it a safe bet that it had been twenty four hours since he ate his meal on the plane.

A new wave of grogginess hit him. He was going down quick. He sniffed the his glass, then stumbled back to the bottle and sniffed it. It had the bitterness of what? Some drug the agency taught him about. Some drug that he wished he could remember now.

The yellow light went dim and dimmer and he crawled back as best he could to the thin mattress suspended by stretch worn springs serving as his bed. Did the lights go out before he made it?


Sluggsy and Horror

After the meeting with Mr. Hill, Smolder put a call in to Miss Bailey and requested the next available flight out of George Bush Intercontinental to Ninoy Aquino International. He preferred Singapore Air, but she offered Air China with a layover at Chiang Kai Chek. It wouldn’t leave until after 10 the following night. Smolder calculated the time and told Bailey to have the bungalow key out where he could get it. She said the door would be open.

Air China. Smolder thought to himself. That was a knock. It had been awhile since he had been on one of their planes, but if they were still operating 747s Smolder could expect cramped seating and a single screen in the cabin section for in-flight entertainment. The Agency always insisted on coach for reasons of inconspicuousness. Smolder hoped the airline had transitioned to the 777s which offered a smaller but roomier cabin, but as he recounted his last trip to the pearl city of Shanghai, where he noticed the prominence of government trucks with insanely bald tires endangering the speedway, he thought any improvement on behalf of the airline was unlikely. The People's government skimps.

Smolder considered asking Miss Bailey for a JAL or an American Airlines flight, even if it took longer, but, for now, he needed to find a cool spot and read more about this Finknottle. That queer duck...that Jeffrey...was not on the level. In the meeting there was not one word mentioned about the wordjuicer, yet the accusations towards the ruthless publisher were unmistakable. What did E.D. really think of this case? Smolder mused then smirked at the musing: Finknottle certainly seemed to upset the right people.

Kingsville was a place of few landmarks. By instinct, Smolder returned to the same diner, asked for the same booth in the corner with no windows that overlooked the television set playing Headline News. He ordered a pot of coffee, brought out his attache case, pulled out some documents and began reading.

Finknottle. There was a paranoia in the man’s scribblings when it came to certain things…like his workjuicer.

June 5th, 2006:

The Authorities are constantly trying to shut this device down, not because of the noise and the billows of foul effluent from its drains, but the Indignity of having more horsepower-per-word than the National Armoury. But I will not hand it over to them, they will use it to punch endless meat-and-liquor tickets, a task far far beneathe its abilities.

The defiance – the cocksuredness! The ridiculousness! What was a wordjuicer? From the sound of it, Smolder thought it must be a mechanism whose singular purpose was to violate EPA standards. And then there was his advice…his muddled and bizarre, intangible, incorrigible advice. Finknottle was, after all, an advice columnist for Liverputty. Smolder read the letters and drank the remaining drops of Old Pogue from his flask and read some more.

When a letter asked how to placate a mistress when a trip that was planned for her was, through crazy circumstance, delivered to the wife instead, Finknottle responded:

You want to Dominate and Keep two women at the same time. I see no legal or moral probleme with this, so let's skip righte to tactics. Keep the two women separate, making use of handcuffes and a Systeme of winches and pulleys. Lift one Woman up and out of the way to gain access to the other. If this is not Deemed practicable, perhaps because of a low ceiling, you may substitute rolling gurneys.

Did Jeffrey Hill pay his advice columnist for this type of thing? Another letter asked:

Dear Frinkmuzzle,
What kind of animal would make the best birthday gift for my mother? I would like to surprise her.

Warm regards,
- from Ms. Amanda Huggenchiss

To which Finknottle responded:

The best animal for any circumstance is the Badger. He is a friend to man and very industrius. He can dig for miles and never tire. I recommend a system of tunnels be constructed with teams of badgers. This can serve many uses. The first being improved sewage flow and rain evacuation from your property. Next there may be ways to increase the production of your crops with badger-tunnel technology. Experiment and get back to me.

Now, as for presentation of the gift, choose a time when your Mother is scheduled to be away for at least a fortnight, a month would be better. Let the Badgers loose in the grounds with specific instructions for the network of tunnels and inter-change stations (to transfer from one tunnel line to another.) Be sure to allow for seasonal and daily bottlenecks and make small adjustments in traffic flow to fine-tune the system.

When Mother arrives home, perhaps from the South of France, she will see an eye-popping marvel of Badger ingenuity.

That is how the letters went. This man possessed little merit, advice-wise, so far as Smolder could figure it. He read on until it was time to make his trip back to Houston and to the bungalow where he hoped to find Miss Bailey waiting. He also planned to replenish his flask with the remaining Old Pogue in the agency wet bar. He crawled in the F150 and made his way back to the bungalow, half paying attention to the accordion-driven polka of the spanish station. The steady progression of traffic slowed to a crawl as he approached the sprawling city-state and he had ample opportunity to reflect on the massive American strip malls that lined the length of the interstate. His impressions ranged from disgust to admiration and focused somewhere towards the latter. America was a glut of consumer choices. It was like eating a rich soufflé and then being forced to eat a lot of it. On one hand, the people of America are a little bigger than they need to be, but on the other, they are infinitely likable and just. Houston was an entrepreneur’s town. Liability rested in the hands of the individual, more-so than in other U.S. cities. There was no zoning, per se, and things seemed to spring up organically. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was always pretty inspiring.

When Smolder pulled into the driveway of the bungalow he noticed that only the bedroom light was on; the porch light and living room lights were not illuminated to welcome him, though a far away table lamp was lit. According to the agency manual, for a single-story three to four bedroom house, this was a distress signal. Smolder slowly felt the edge of danger overcome his skin, which tensed up like it always did and shot a blast of coldness threw his extremities despite the hot humid air. He checked his revolver and felt vainly at his flask, which was empty. His hands then went instinctively to the heals of his shoes, where he kept two concealed knives. He thought for a brief moment. Where were the doors? There was a side door and a backyard door and, of course, the garage door, where Miss Bailey’s car must have been. Smolder noticed a Mercedes SUV around the corner. Was that significant? The windows would be locked. The bay window in the front of the house would have certainly revealed the F150’s headlights when he pulled in the drive. There was no question that his presence had been registered, so there was no use in finding an alternate entrance. Smolder grabbed his Beretta and took a quick, shallow breath, one that did not satisfy his lungs, but he was anxious and a deeper breath wasn’t readily available. He pulled on the plastic door handle and climbed out of the truck. The heat of the Houston eve calmed his sudden alertness and he was able to gain his breath as he walked towards the front door. Things were right for a confrontation. He noticed the overly rounded rock in the flower bed. It was so obvious, yet so ingenuous. The Agency knew how to blend into an environment. He leaned down and turned the rock over to recover the key. He then slipped it in his pocket and stopped at the door to press the ringer. His presence was already known, but perhaps making the invaders answer would sway the advantage, if only somewhat.

Directly Smolder heard a solitary trace of a voice blurt out in spite of itself and then cut itself short as if trying to maintain an exposed secret. He sensed confusion in the room and smiled to himself. He plunged the ringer again and again to stir that confusion.

There was a click and then the door opened. Smolder refused to be shocked, but at the door was the largest and dumbest looking man he had ever seen. At once Smolder’s palms dampened and he swallowed to keep from getting dry mouth, but his outward composure remained intact.

"I would like to speak with the queen bee," he said.

The blank rock of a face, almost entirely one thick brow, dumbfounded, managed only to look dumber than it had just a moment before. The transition was not great, yet startling nonetheless. The fleshy beast pulled the door further and Smolder entered before the void face could regain any comprehension at all. Surely this oaf had a keeper who would make up for any cerebral deficiency.

What Smolder found in the living room surprised and excited him to no end. There was, next to the coffee table, a man on the carpet, in the fetal position, his appendages outstretched and tied together as if he were the unfortunate calf in a bulldogging exercise. Behind the man, in a dark corner with a pistol in her hand and sitting on the bar stool with her back to the wet bar was Miss Bailey. She looked serious, alert and confident. The oaf shut the door behind Smolder. Miss Bailey broke the silence.

"Now, back over to the chair," she ordered to the dumb beast who returned resentfully back to where he had spent the last hour.

"Well," Smolder said, "it looks like you have the matter well in hand."

She smiled briefly, but then looked at Horror again and straightened herself into the humorless bitch that had gotten the best of the menacing but now fangless duo.

"These two have it out for Jeffrey Hill. They seem to be after some money owed to their boss," she reported.

"Is that so?" Smolder replied and lit another Lucky. "Who’s their boss?"

"I’m guessing by their Detroit accents that they are part of the Purple Gang. Mr. Finknottle promised the gang over $3 million for some service it had rendered, though I'm not sure how that involves Mr. Hill. That part wasn’t clear. The goof on the floor is Sluggsy. The doorman is Horror. Don’t ask them to speak the Queen’s English. They’ve never heard of it."

"How’d you get the drop on them?" Smolder asked.

"It wasn’t so hard," she puffed. "They happen to be oblivious to details, even the smart one on the floor." Bailey took a pull from the glass in her hand. "Let’s just say Sluggsy had no reason to go marlin fishing at all."

Smolder looked down at the Italian unable to spit through the racquetball stuffed and taped in his mouth. There was little doubt in Smolder's mind that this helpless individual had anything to say that wasn't an expletive un-related to the case. Smolder looked up at Miss Bailey and never felt such an infatuation towards a woman.

"Impressive," he said, "E.D. couldn't expect so much from his field operatives. You're one of the agencies unsung heroes, Miss Bailey."

"I'm sure that will be reflected in my bonus, assuming it gets in your report."

"You still have your sense of humor. Naturally, this will be in my report. Any idea what service Finknottle elicited from the Purple Gang?"

"Search me," Bailey shrugged and took a pull from the glass in her hand. "I'm not completely sure they were after Finknottle for the three million. I found this in Horror's pocket."

She handed Smolder a card. On the back of the card was some almost indecipherable cursive, presumably from the boss or some higher-up in the Purple Gang:
Take care X in Monarchtown two wks. Proceed straightway Pontian Kechil - locate Agent R & await further instructions.
On the front side was a grainy black and white portrait of a younger mustachioed individual with only the hint of a goatee and eyebrows hooked in conspiracy and beedy eyes that screemed "I'm disgruntled." Above his portrait was a title: "Agent R". Below were mysterious credentials: "Level II; Forgery; Nice but Evil."

Smolder turned to the Sluggsy on the floor and pulled the gag from his mouth. The thug spit out something invisible and adjusted his lips. Although the shame of his predicament initially put him in a rage and caused Bailey to resort to the gag, lying on the floor helpless for such a length of time reduced his heat to a boiled down sustainable simmer. When Smolder pulled out the bitter racket-ball Sluggsy was reluctant to lash out verbally at him and chose, instead, to enjoy not tasting the the bitter rubber of the ball. The damp spot on the carpet, cold like his rage, was a reminder of the gag.

"Sluggsy, is it?" Smolder asked. Sluggsy coughed and nodded affirmatively. "What service did Finknottle receive from your boss?"

"Protection," Sluggsy said, the faded bitterness of the tennis ball still on his tongue.


"I don't know," Sluggsy said. "I don't even think the boss knows."

"And what the devil do you mean by that?" Smolder pressed.

Sluggsy grew silent. He did not want to tell Smolder what he knew. But he saw the woman stand up, setting her drink down. She gave him the stink eye.

"Finknottle approached the Boss a couple of years ago about an arrangement. The Boss agreed to give Finknottle security during these operations, but the thing was, I don't think the Boss knew exactly what Finknottle was doing. A few times he tried to arrange meetings with Finknottle to get the details, but Finknottle was hard to get in touch with, even for the Boss. And when he did meet with him, the Boss came back convinced we should continue to provide security. Finknottle was gone by the time we realized he was finished with his activities."

"And you never knew what those activities were?" Smolder queried.

"No!" Sluggsy said defiantly. He looked at Bailey, thought for a minute, then continued: "He had some Pakistani and Filippino assistants. Boss kept men on their tail...or tried to, at least, but Finknottle and his men were slippery.

Interesting, Smolder thought. He couldn't help but believe Sluggsy. The sympathetic nods from Horror as Sluggsy retold of the gangs dealings with Finknottle only reinforced Smolder's belief that the stories were true. Hell, they never taught that in SMERSH. Over the next hour Sluggsy told everything he knew. Everything. For once Smolder was able to gather information about Finknottle that did not leave him more befuddled than before. In fact, certain things about Finknottle that Smolder had already learned were now reinforced and verified. Sluggsy had also let on that the Purple Gang had associations with other gangs overseas, including the Kuratong Baleleng in Manila that were on the lookout for Finknottle. He was a queer duck with peculiar abilities. Not to be underestimated. Still, Smolder thought he best continue with his plans to go to the Far East. Protecting Finknottle until he could bring him back was an inherent part of his mission.

When the information was gleaned from the two thugs, Miss Bailey had already contacted the Agency and contractors were on their way to assume possession of the prisoners and extradited them out of the U.S."

"You can't do that!" shouted the hog-tied Sluggsy. "I've got rights!"

"My dear fellow," Smolder laughed, "the Agency has contacts with half a dozen secret American prisons floating about the Atlantic, a dozen in the Pacific, not to mention several unscrupulous tin-pot dictators who have absolutely no aversion to keeping in you horrible conditions indefinitely."

Miss Bailey piped in: "And we have friends in Washington. We have no problems doing pretty much whatever we want - especially when it concerns people of your ilk."

"Whatever we want," Smolder repeated. "Which reminds me, Miss Bailey, is that bottle of Old Pogue still in the bar?"

"And a bottle of A.H. Hirsh, if you prefer it. ED had mentioned your preference for A.H. Hirsh when it has aged 16 years."

"I've become somewhat attached to Old Pogue. Perhaps I'll pour half and half in my flask....and leave the bottle of Hirsh out so that I can pack it in my suitcase. Does the Agency have anything on this Agent R?"

"Not much," Bailey said, "but I'll have the Detainment Team forward the request to Records when they arrive to fetch these two. You'll have the dossier on R.

"And anything available on the Kuratong Baleleng."

"Of course," she said, "Now, should we inform Jeffrey Hill that the Purple Gang has men out looking for him?"

"I see no reason Mr. Hill needs to know that," Smolder said.


An Unassuming Encounter

The sweat and smoke of a Texas truck diner can be nauseating at three in the morning. Rick Smolder ordered another pot of coffee and lit his twenty-seventh cigarette of the new day as the fifth loop of the CNN broadcast began on the ceiling mounted Zennith that still touted a large round channel dial and a single speaker behind molded mahogany-looking plastic. He hadn’t paid attention to the previous broadcasts, except to note that there had been no mention of Mexico. He was primarily occupied with the bizarre file he had picked up in Houston earlier that day. It was about a man that seemed to have lived beyond his means, literally. Smolder was not sure what to make of it all. He pushed the file away momentarily and went over the events of his previous case.

He’d returned to Houston that previous morning from the Rodriguez job where his orders were to cripple a drug syndicate that had been responsible for the kidnapping and blackmail of a certain daughter of a not so certain wealthy London business man. Smolder was to free the girl in the process. The mission was successful but messy. He managed to destroy the crop with a chemical agent that would ruin future harvests for years to come. Not very kind to the environment, but alas, necessary. Plus, he’d apprehended some loot that was intended for a European faction and blew up several storage facilities. With pressure coming from the Americans for the supply and from the Europeans for missing payments, the Mexican syndicate would collapse in on itself. That part of the mission had gone well. With the aid of some locals, he then freed the daughter who turned out to be disappointedly plain and somewhat obnoxious. What’s more, he ended up having to kill several men in securing her escape. Killing always bothered Smolder, even when he knew they were bad men. Fortunately, as he noted from the CNN broadcast, there was nothing about giant gas explosions or multiple killings in Mexico.

The coffee arrived and Smolder poured some in his cup. He took out his flask of Old Pogue Master’s Select and filled about a quarter of the cup. He then took a short pull directly from the flask and replaced it in his suit jacket.

As he thought about the past 24 hours, he remembered how he’d hoped that once the Rodriguez mission was over he’d be able to knock off for a few weeks R and R. He even thought to go somewhere exciting. Since the businessman’s daughter turned out to be unattractive, he wouldn’t take her, but he thought he might interest Miss Bailey, the secretary in the Houston field office, when he was to report there after the mission. But when he showed up to send a secure message to London and get Miss Bailey to agree to dinner, she laughed at his vacation proposal and handed him the Finknottle file instead. The off-hand rejection excited him to his purpose until he noticed that the file he’d just been handed was thick.

“This arrived by special courier two days ago, direct from E.D,” she said.

“What the devil does he want me to do? Doesn’t the old man know I just closed the Rodriguez case?”

“For which he congratulates you,” she replied coolly. “He sent you this communiqué as well,” she continued, handing him a note. It was from the spectrograph.

Package couriered, eyes only. Rendezvous with agency pigeon for further details. Locate main course and side dish. May be stir-fry. Await further instructions for scenarios 2 or 9. Digest slowly.

‘Hmm,’ thought Smolder as he took out his vintage Windmill Stormproof Lighter and brought it towards the note. The file on this Mr. Finknottle arrived alright, its thick mass was under his arm. So that’s what his job was, eh? Locate this Finknottle guy and whoever his assistant or side dish might be. And it sounded like Finknottle might be in the orient. But then what? 2 or 9? Either bring him back or….assassinate him? Bloody hell! Not that again! Digest slowly, the note read... so it wasn’t a rush job. Who was this Finknottle? What the devil was it all about? Why was this man so damned important? Smolder hoped the pigeon would sort out these details. He lit the note thoughtfully, used its flame to light a Lucky and dropped it into the waste basket.

“Who’s our pigeon?” he asked Bailey.

“A certain Jeffrey Hill,” she said. “Our section chief has had a man on him ever since he arrived at Hobby two days ago.”

“Any contact?”

“No. Though E.D. had acknowledged that Mr. Hill would know this month’s contact code.”

“Where will I find him?”

“He’s staying at the Hotel Granduca, but he leaves early and takes a helicopter down towards Kingsville where he has some quarter horses in training.”

“So he plays the ponies?”

“It looks that way. But according to our agents, he’s a poser.”

“Not a roller?”

“Hardly,” Miss Bailey said, “he publishes an irregular website that loses money hand over fist. One of our agents talked to some of the trainers and they say he has no eye for horses and doesn’t seem all that familiar with the sport,” Miss Bailey said as she calmly stomped out the fire in the waste bin with her shiny black heels.

“Where does he get his money?” Smolder asked.

“Who knows, but he acts like he has plenty.”

“Where are we going to have dinner tonight?” he slipped in.

“Don’t you have to get caught up on that file and make a drive down to Kingsville?”

“All in due time,” Smolder shot back.

“With you, it seems like it’s always time to hit on the ladies.”

“Here’s my schedule,” Smolder went on, not paying attention to Bailey’s last remark, “I’d like to get a car from the motor pool, then I’d like to stop by the agency bungalow, if it’s not being occupied, and take a shower and spend the afternoon looking at this blasted file. Then I’d like to pick you up and take you to Benihana’s for something fresh off the hibachi. After that, I’ll drive down to Kingsville and wait around until I can track down this Jeffrey Hill.”

“There’s only one problem with your plan,” she had said coyly. “I’m not hungry for Benihana’s. I’d rather have a ribeye at Saltgrass.”

“So long as we agree on the dessert,” Smolder winked with his cold gray eyes. Her serious demeanor made him think that perhaps she regretted getting involved with him two years before when she was stationed in Paris.

“I doubt we will,” she said, as if her reply was ice cold water in his lap.

But he didn’t miss a beat.

“At six then?”

“At six. You’re car is waiting across the street at the parking garage.”

“You’re an angel,” Smolder kissed her forehead and walked hurriedly with purpose until he had turned the corner and was out of view. He then assumed a casual pace to the lift and to the garage. He approached the garage attendant.

“My name is Smolder, I believe you have a car waiting for me.”

The attendant glanced down to a work order, read the number and scanned the board of keys until he found the appropriate one and handed it to Smolder.

“Level G in spot 152.”

“Thank you.”

The car was actually a pickup. A Ford F150. Comfortable, white, and generic. The Agency was generally good about maintaining vehicles that would blend in with the environment. The drive to the agency bungalow was supposed to take about thirty minutes, but in the gridlock that is Houston traffic, it took three times that long. The truck was new and its vinyl floors and seats put off an acrylic smell that Smolder could not determine whether it was agreeable or not. American vehicles were nice, but the interiors always seemed cheap. He surfed the radio dial, but found nothing worth listening to so he settled on a Spanish station which at least offered accordions.

Upon reaching the bungalow and setting his suitcase in the hallway, Smolder immediately took off his .38 Beretta Chetah in its angle draw holster, disrobed, took an ice cold shower, put on a light Japanese robe he’d picked up several weeks before in a store at the Omiya station near Tokyo and paid a visit to the agency wet bar. He was pleasantly surprised to see a bottle of Old Pogue in the cabinet and poured himself two fingers of the stuff over ice and added some branch water. He stirred the ice with his finger and took a sharp gulp from the glass. He thought for a moment and then walked over to his suitcase and extracted his flask. He rinsed it thoroughly and poured as much of the Old Pogue as he could and returned the flask to his suitcase. He finished his drink and poured another and then sat down on the couch and read over the Finknottle file. After several pages, he felt like a cartoon character who sees something implausible and throws his bottle of liquor away. There were articles and documents dating back hundreds of years. There was a letter of recommendation by a certain arch bishop of Canterbury from the 17th century, and warrant for treason issued on behalf of the Privy Seal dated two weeks prior. There was another personal letter written in Polish with an attached English translation from Mikolaj Kopernik addressed to his “good friend, Gussie” regarding some land deal in Warmia, wherein Mikolaj complimented Finknottle for successfully entertaining Sigismund I, the Old. And there were other astonishing bits in the file. Smolder rubbed his eyes, fought off the urge to quit drinking and poured himself another bourbon and branch, then laid his eyes to rest until around 4 o’clock. He dreamed a queer dream of men in pantaloons and uncomfortable collars in a room. There was a stench, seemingly of body odor that was stronger and stranger than anything Smolder had ever smelt. He seemed to be waiting for Finknottle to arrive, but all the while, he felt as though Finknottle was there near him, as if everyone in the room made up Finknottle. It did not make sense. When he got up, he took another cold shower and put on his suit.

The dinner with Miss Bailey did not go so well. She resisted his advances and teased him for an hour and turned the topic of conversation towards work and the Agency at every moment. Meanwhile, Smolder could not get over the fact that the restaurant had put a lump of butter over both of their steaks, which were already over-seasoned. The garlic in the mashed potatoes guaranteed that there would be no after dinner activity with Miss Bailey. The file and the dream were also gnawing at him. As pleasant and desirable as Miss Bailey was, by the time dinner was over, Smolder wanted nothing else but to take her home and drive immediately to the Kingsville area and study the file on this curious man. It was with some shock to Miss Bailey that after a few glasses of wine and a relaxed attitude towards the young cruelly handsome agent, that he aborted any notion of pursuing her and simply dropped her off at her house and sped off into the Texas night for Kingsville.

And that’s where he had been for several hours: in a diner outside Kingsville, pouring over the incredible file of Sir Augustus Finknottle. The sun had risen well above the horizon when Smolder, intently scrutinizing the accounts of Finknottle’s most recent adventures in the Pacific with his Assistante, heard a chopper fly over the diner. Smolder checked his watch and determined that Jeffrey Hill must be arriving at the training center. He gathered the file together, took one last swig from his strong black coffee, medium sweet, and piled into the F150 and made his way fifteen minutes to the facilities. The parking lot was practically empty and Smolder had no trouble parking the truck near the entrance. He checked his Beretta in his holster, put the Finknottle file in the hidden compartment beneath the seat, donned a trilby hat and walked casually into the training grounds and over to the nervous looking fellow with the dragoon moustache and white suit, who, himself, was walking with a limp to the guard rail next to the track. That fellow must be Mr. Hill, Smolder thought. The man was tall and thin, except for a round belly that made his long skinny legs look like toothpicks poked into a pear. When Smolder walked up astride the white figure leaning against the rail with his bamboo cane resting over his left wrist, Smolder realized that Jeffrey Hill wore a matching white eye-patch. With his matching white shoes and crisp straw hat, this Jeffrey character looked every bit the dandy. From a distance, he’d thought Mr. Hill was an elder man, but up close he was likely in his mid-thirties.

As the two stood a few feet apart, against the rail, watching one of the horses gallop leisurely up the far end of the track, Smolder took out a cigarette and said:

“I like horses, but I also enjoy fishing for marlin.”

“Until you have to cut bait.”

“Indeed,” Smolder agreed. Looking at the horse he said, “that’s not a bad specimen.”

“Yes,” Jeffrey blurted, “he’s the finest filly I own. I wanted to breed and train barrel racers for my young wife, but these men seemed to think this horse would be better off on the track. A more expensive program, I suppose, but you have to pay when you want the best.”

Miss Bailey wasn’t kidding about this man, Smolder thought to himself.

“Your Agency didn’t tell me you would contact me so soon,” Mr. Hill said.

“Is that a problem?” Smolder asked, wondering if there was anything behind the comment.

“I suppose not. Better to wrap this issue up in as timely a manner as possible,” Mr. Hill said matter of factly.

“I’ve read up on this man you are after,” Smolder paused for a reaction. Although the morning was still cool, Smolder noticed several sweat beads on the man's brow. Jeffrey Hill was a profuse sweater. “Just what do you intend I do once I find him?”

Mr. Hill smiled slightly, “I don’t have to tell you what to do, Mr. Smolder, once you find Augustus.”

Smolder exhaled his smoke, “Yes, Mr. Hill, I’m afraid you do. The Agency had suggested possible termination.”

“Termi….?” Mr. Hill caught himself from getting too excited. “I don’t want you to kill the man. Just bring him back.”

“Why bring him back? I mean, why is he so important?” Smolder asked.

Mr. Hill looked nervously around and then grabbed Smolders arm to lead him on a walk.

“I’d feel better if we were moving around a bit while we talk,” Mr. Hill explained. “It’s not that he’s important, he’s not. Not in any real sense. But you see, a man of his age and background comes with considerable baggage. He’s wracked up many debts, some with my firm. I’ve done my best to keep him away from my business accounts, but he’s a wily character and virtually every month I learn that he’s been dipping in to the Liverputty treasury.”


“My life.”

“And you want him to repay the debts?”

“That would be nice, but no. That is to say that I believe he squanders the money faster than he steals it. The reason that I want him back is because he’s apparently had previous business deals with the Russian mafia, the yakuza, Maoist rebels, Arab slave traders, and who knows what else. Since he’s been gone, my staff and I at the Liverputty offices have encountered several villainous strangers hounding us for something that Finknottle has promised them. We’ve received threats. The safety of my staff is my main concern. It’s getting so that my secretary is afraid to go out to the parking garage…and for once, it’s not because of me.”

Smolder noticed that Mr. Hill had begun limping with the other leg, but he said nothing.

“Bring him back, Mr. Smolder,” he said directly, stopping to look Smolder right in the eye.

“The information I received gave me a lot of information…and questions.”

“Your questions will be fruitless, I assure you. The more you learn about Finknottle, the more confused you will surely be. I suggest forgetting what you have read and forgetting about your questions.”

“Well, for instance, where might he be now.”

“Oh?” Mr. Hill started. “Well, that’s a good question.” He reached into his suit jacket and took out a piece of folded newspaper and handed it to Smolder.

It was some sort of ad:

Finknottlo Abstracticon:
The Ultimate recipie book for occult information and getting stains out of harrd-to-launder clothing.
Change Your Horoscope Sign: it's legal and easy!
Never pay taxes again, the Undead are exem-pt. Booklet explains everything you need to know.
Genius seeks assistant
Assistant seeks his freedom from Genius

“I don’t get it,” Smolder confessed.

“We believe this ad in the Manila Times is from Finknottle.”


“My lab.”

“So, Finknottle is in the Philippines.”


“Then that is where I’ll go.”