Sorry we Sold Out of Geminga
Free Sample Chapter Chapter 1 THE HOSTAGE "You killed my cat!" cried Rodger as he stood eyeing the two accused. The raven remained perched on the mike-stand, while the snake continued licking the smoke drifting up from the cigar held between the index and middle fingers of Rodger's right hand. He unwittingly shook the snake-cuffed hand in the raven's face. "You sicked this snake on my cat, you raven bastard! You black feathered little fiend, you...KILLED AHAB!" The snake--luminous-green, a thumb's thickness, and over a forearm in length--hissed, quickly uncoiled from the cigar, and intently poised its undulating head on the man's jugular vein. Rodger froze. The snake's bright fuchsia eyes gleamed atop its enlarged arrow-shaped head; behind the eyes grew a conspicuously tumorous lump. "Colorful alliteration," the raven coolly observed, unruffled by the man's menacing stance and amused by the fact that the presumed assassin was presently affixed to the arm of righteous indignation. "I must caution you, however, to remain calm. This theatrical display over the loss of your cat could get you killed. These histrionics must cease. Jimmy, like the Indian Krait, is unusually shy and non-aggressive and, as I have said, accustomed to being handled, but one more threatening word or gesture from you and he may strike. Furthermore," stretching high on its perch, turning its dilated eye directly on the man, "I may feel compelled to command the attack." The raven spoke with mechanical precision--unhurried, cold, alien. And had the snake possessed the raven's uncanny faculty of human speech, it would have freely confessed...'yesss, I killed the cat, but it was no routine hit. The cat was sunning itself on the deck as I slithered up the post through a gap in the boards. Always careful to crawl with the grain of the wood--for to go against the grain risks getting splinters between my scales and redwood slivers are very painful, well I know--I silently approached the cat's carrion-scented mass. Its mammoth violence in repose. And the stench. Were its body heat not one cat's whisker warmer than its surroundings, I'd have found the cat from its stench alone. Suddenly, the great tail tossed; I waited and scenting no alarm, crawled on past the giant paws stretched out at its side. It's head was wholely extended, exposing its neck to the rays of the afternoon sun. Sensing my moment, I struck, sinking my fangs into the delicious heat of its purring throat. But before I had coiled my length securely about the awakened monster's neck, one of its terrible claws caught my tail, tearing a deep gash through the cavity where my left hemi-penis resides (luckily, I am blessed with two). With the deepest pleasure I ejaculated my venom; the searing poison raced to my victim's heart and lungs. A brief struggle, one violent spasm, and the cat lapsed into a coma. I uncoiled and flicked my tongue at its nearly lifeless eye then crawled away. No routine hit. No, hiss at the thought; I will carry the scar from that wound through all the eons of my existence.' Rodger carefully exhaled and said, "So...why did you kill Ahab?" "We have our requirements," was the perfunctory reply. "Requirements?" Rodger mocked incredulously. "You make it sound as if..."--again painfully aware of the snake's head inching closer to his throat, he steadied and finished in a guarded monotone: "Like bicycles require paved roads, you and this snake require a clear path to my door." "Listen," the raven snapped, "I am aware that the cat was your pet. You were fond of this Ahab. No doubt you even named him. All this I understand. But he was not your friend; nor a requirement of your life. You are not imperiled without him." "That could be argued," Rodger warily countered. "Nevertheless," continued the raven, "beyond this fact of ironic hindsight, the cat was for you no more than a diversion, an entertainment; at most, a small comfort. While you," it sneered, "were never more than a convenience to the cat." "And now I am the entertainment, the dangling plaything of a raven and a snake. Captive to your convenience. You hold all the cards, Raven. You require that my life be at your mercy"--glaring as he growled: "That's your goddamned requirement." "A clear analysis of your situation," crowed the raven, "thorough and succinct. I could not have said it better. Your life does hang by a thread. Indeed, you are in danger. But you are threatened due solely to your own stubbornness. Understand this..."--the raven directed its beak like a lector's staff: "Irrespective of our Master and the missions we performed at his behest, Jimmy and I live in the state of nature. Not, like yourself, in a state of law where all conduct and interaction is governed to guard against the aggressions and excesses of the few over the well-being and life of the many, and ultimately, you would hope, to the happiness of each. No, ours is an unending battle with no judicious buffer between the weak and the strong. "In the state of nature, mind, a bird and a snake are the threatened victims of a predation so constant and pervasive, a predation which to a man would be of unmitigable horror and madness. We are small, fragile creatures subject to whims of violence at every turn. Before advancing to the next branch, I must check to see if a falcon is targeting me from afar, or is that an owl in the shadow there, and perhaps the dangling vine is one of Jimmy's cousins, a mamba or a bushmaster, planning to make a meal of me; or of Jimmy--for snakes eat snakes. An unending vigil in which each breath is cagily drawn: not only the hundreds of other species to fear and respect, there are the propellers and jet intakes on the thousands of aircraft that fly daily, shredding us in the blazing whirl of their engines as they deliver their frightful payloads of silent, unseen death--the many chemical poisons of agriculture and warfare; shotgun blasts from intoxicated hunters, little boys with BB guns, zinging arrows and hurled rocks, savage clubs, exposed utility wires, and your domestic servant...the cat. "The cat is a formidable predator; uncanny. No doubt you have witnessed, with unabashed absorption and pride, your cat stalking its prey and the ensuing slaughter. Wanton and senseless, unless you would call 'the joy of killing' a requirement. Murder purely for the pleasure: something only a man could admire. You fed that cat routinely and well, true?" "Yes," Rodger conceded, nodding ever so slightly, mindful of the snake's diminished yet lethal poise. "Jimmy and I could never have made this visit without, in your phrase, having a clear path to your door. Your cat's death was a requirement, not of convenience or pleasure, but of survival; no creature, save man, risks its life needlessly. A requirement, I might add, which achieves two ends: first, it negates a threat to Jimmy and myself, and, secondly, it removes a moral dilemma--you never had to choose between the companionship of your cat and our meeting. You may hate me for making this choice for you but not for clearing a path to your door." "I see," Rodger answered faintly. "Good," said the raven, relaxing; the stern black pupils shrank within its warm amber eyes as it assumed the benign aspect of a familiar, almost a friend. "Now, as an act of good faith, Jimmy and I will release our hostage." "How?" asked Rodger, anxiously moving his eyes to the snake that manacled his right hand. "You can't flap your wings, and--'puff'--make him disappear. I can't even move. Hell, I hardly dare breathe or blink." "True. But trust me and do exactly as I say," advised the raven. "Jimmy, though no longer highly alarmed, remains wary and prone to attack." "So...what do I do?" "The cigar has smoldered and nearly died. Rekindle it; the smoke will tranquilize Jimmy. Now, this is most important"--the raven stressed--"Lock eyes with Jimmy and do not blink. When you move the cigar towards your mouth, Jimmy's head and upper length will start to sway. Move your head in precise rhythm with his. Do not avert your eyes, do not blink. Under no condition may you blink. If you feel your eyes burning from their sockets, do not blink. Remember, this pain is only a fraction of the thousand fires you will know should Jimmy decide to strike. Are you ready?" Rodger, realizing that his only possible avenue of escape was his probable execution, briefly considered; "Ready," he whispered. Then locking eyes with the snake, he began, what seemed like an eternity, the journey of the cigar to his mouth. Entranced, he swayed in rhythm with the snake; its tongue flicked forth scene after scene, and he saw every scant, minor event from his thirty-odd years of life passing between them. Finally, with the snake flicking its tongue at the bridge of his nose, the cigar butt reached his lips. His eyes burning, he began to puff. Never had he exerted such will. Burning, the cigar came alive, the smoke billowing up and burning...burning needles in his eyes for all the lies he'd ever told or imagined; his will repeating like a distress signal: do not blink-do not blink-do not blink; his one requirement--to live. At last, the snake averted its gaze and coiled again about the cigar. The hand, cigar, and snake drifted slowly away with the smoke from Rodger's face, revealing two haunted red eyes staring in wide-open amazement. "The danger has passed," said the raven; "You may blink if you like." From Rodger's blinking eyes streamed soothing tears of gratitude and relief. "You have done well. And I have chosen well. Congratulations. Not many men would have survived this little test." The raven, obviously pleased, concluded: "If you will simply place the cigar in that bowl there, I believe Jimmy will uncoil from your hand and remain with the cigar." Accordingly, Rodger was soon free; stepping back from his captors, he looked from one to the other with a long deep sigh. Meanwhile, the raven sidled to the near end of the mike-stand, dipped its head and torso his way, and said: "Well? We are at your mercy, Jimmy and I. At your convenience you could kill us with most any object in this room; a bird and snake are no match for a man. What is your requirement, Rodger? Do we live, or do we die?" "What the hell," Rodger gave a weary shrug. "I'm tired. Sleep is my requirement. You.and Jimmy can stay the night." He felt strangely compelled to use the snake's name; perhaps the hostage had begun to sympathize with the terrorist. What the hell. Sitting down, he sank slowly back in the big stuffed chair and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Ack!" the raven exclaimed; "You are a lucky man, Rodger, to meet up with Jimmy and I. You will see. A very lucky man." A lucky man?--thought Rodger as he fell asleep...my worst enemy should be so lucky. The morning light stung his eyes; Rodger jumped awake. Squinting, he glanced from the empty mike-stand back to the bowl which now contained only the cigar butt and some scattered ashes. No raven; no snake. Except for the pain in his lower back, he felt remarkably refreshed for having slept the night in a chair. Rolling the cigar between his thumb and forefinger, he considered it fortunate that he hadn't been smoking anything stronger; otherwise, he would have attributed the events of the previous evening to the effects of hallucination, or worse, of madness. But he hadn't been stoned in years, and, though he wasn't exactly 'normal' anymore, he was sane enough; like the Great Wallenda he'd walk the mental high wire until the final plunge, of that he was certain. What was the date? He guessed the Eighth of January; he checked the calendar; it jived. The anniversary of Old Hickory's victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans and a quasi-anniversary for Rodger as well: twenty months since he'd jumped that wagon and gone cold turkey, declaring independence from alcohol's pernicious soul-tax like a true patriot on the Fourth of July, left Kansas for California, and had remained stone sober ever since. Now what should appear but a talking raven to pass the evening in cordial conversation, terrorize him at mid-night with a hissing viper, then, come morning, disappear. Damn! Time for coffee and lots of it. In the kitchen Rodger put the water on to boil, then gazed out the window at the base of the tall eucalyptus where he'd buried his cat the previous afternoon and, looking up, had first seen the raven perched on a high overhanging limb. No, the raven was wrong, Ahab had been his friend. Like the Ahab of Melville who growled--"Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me..."--the kitten once slapped Rodger's bare leg as he stepped from the shower, and, admiring its irreverence and pluck (for Rodger had cursed and kicked back, missing, while the kitten scored again), he named it Ahab. The kitten grew into a large black tom; its character more in the mold of a faithful dog than any cat Rodger had ever known. Ahab had been his friend and, what's more, his last physical link with home. His old friend, Heath (wild man of wold and prairie, protector of fauna and flora, and cultivator of the 'weed'), had insisted that Rodger take the kitten--pick of the litter! And though hesitant, his life-long antipathy toward cats gave way; for Heath was in high spirits quite certain there were good vibes flowing between man and kitten. All karma aside, Rodger never regretted accepting the gift. He wondered what Heath would make of the raven. Both were anomalous creatures, sharing a subtle blend of characteristics. Heath's hair waved jet-black and grayed at the temples; his piercing brown eyes were searching and wary; his aquiline nose descended to the narrow line of his mouth set in a broad jutting jaw anchoring the profile above his powerfully built torso and legs--a portrait more suited to a Roman captain serving in the Gallic Wars, or a Cossack cavalryman of the Eighteenth Century, than to the small town Kansas boy who grew into a football warrior and eventually evolved into something of a rural mystic priest. Grandson of an old-world Slavic doctor who played the Gypsy fiddle and emigrated to western Kansas in the 1890's for what and why God only knows; Heath. And they should strike him a medal, thought Rodger, if for no other reason than the night he freed all the animals from the local embarrassment of a zoo and, reassuring each that he meant it no harm, herded them into the safety of the woods along the river. Heath even liked snakes. Rodger had stood by dumbfounded one day while he gingerly lifted a large rattler off a highway, carried it across the ditch, and released it into the pasture. What would the raven make of Heath? That is if it braved the gauntlet of a dozen tough country cats, four large dogs, three goats, and one very wild palomino quarter horse; not to mention the twenty-to-thirty-odd setting hens clawing and scratching throughout the perimeter of the yard, ever eager to feast on a tiny green reptile. Furthermore, the countryside for miles around and every road leading into Heath's hideaway was patrolled by red-tailed hawks soaring through the air or standing sentinel atop cottonwoods and telephone poles. Still, should the raven ever chance to meet with his friend, Rodger could imagine the scene. Heath would cordially invite the raven onto his porch, light up a 'joint', and commence describing silhouettes of dinosaurs as shaped by moon-shadowed trees set in motion by the eternal, restless wind. "Regard, my feathered friend," Heath would point, "shadows such as these will one day be our legacy. Some epochal eons hence when the far descendants of alien colonizers..."--for Heath would surely mention the UFO they'd observed while coming out of a hemp-patch late one August night. With staccato movement the luminous dot danced from the east like a water spider skipping across the sky, sweeping instantly from one quarter to the next, stopping on a dime; it alternately brightened to the size of three Jupiters then dimmed, staying always at some indeterminate distance, which could have been either 3, 30, or 300 miles. And they, Rodger and Heath, usually curious beyond caution, were grateful it came no closer; they felt like lower life-forms in the presence of something they could never challenge, let alone understand. They watched its otherworldly acrobatics till dawn, when it disappeared in the sunrise--"...and them inter-galactic sojourners'll gaze into the night and see in similar trees the phantasmagorical silhouettes of a bipedal mammal conversing with a bipedal reptile: you and me, raven ol' boy, you and me."
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