copyright © 2012 Lloyd R. Prentice
all rights reserved

Prologue

“Why can't I just say no?” the young park ranger mutters.

He leans into the familiar turns, pumps up the rise.

Usually he would be more alert to the subtle changes of the passing season, but today his sensibilities are shadowed by his brother's all-too-familiar supplication.

“Sucks totally, bro. I put that company on the map. Made boss man look bad so he knifed me. So just a couple thou or whatever, little bro. You know until this new gig comes through.“

Three years on the job and the young ranger knows every grade and easy glide along these park trails.

A lifetime of promises and disappointment and he knows every missed hurdle, slip, and descent of his big brother's life.

On drizzly days, icy like today, few hardy souls venture out on bikes. Few souls venture out at all. On days like today, usually, the ranger would find joy with the wet cold and swish of his tires.

But today his mind is locked in painful mind loops that inevitably end in— “Why?”

But now all thought ends.

Topping the rise he glances down the rain-slicked slope toward the river— sees a beige Audi mired in ice-crusted mud where it hadn't been when he'd passed just hours ago.

He peddles hard, then grips his hand brakes as he slaloms down the slope. He jumps off, nearly tumbles into the riverside slush— eyes fixed on the red-splattered spider-web that mars the driver-side glass.

He unsnaps his Motorola to call it in. Presses the talk button. Nothing. He flicks the power switch. Nothing. He'd grabbed it out of the charging bin just this morning. He turns the unit over in his hand, sees the small swatch of tape— “Defective.”

“Wonderful,” he thinks. But no matter. The dispatcher would just ask more questions than he can answer.

The front wheels of the Audi are sunk axle deep in mud.

He walks his bike around behind the Audi, noting deep tire tracks weaving down the grassy slope, uncomfortably aware of the dark shape hulking in the driver's seat.

Against all training he opens the front passenger door— studies the figure slumped over the steering wheel. Tall, thin, wispy blond hair. The suit quality but, now, forever blood splattered.

The young ranger is beyond thought and feeling. He leans across the passenger seat, draws back, revolted by the rusty smell of blood, faint note of feces. Then he notices the envelope on the passenger seat, unsealed, creamy paper with expensive texture— discreet K Street return address.

Inside he finds two pages, crisply typed:

Sealy, Marchesni, and Devine
1279 K Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005

Why?

As a young buck, heady with the conceits of Boalt Hall, facts for me were hard-- gleaming-- so many black and white marbles to be dropped through the calculus of logic to reveal indisputable truth.

Then, as a counselor to our much reviled Chief, I was all too willingly, indeed, eagerly, seduced by the singular truth of power; loyalty to power is the only truth.

I learned to adjust the lighting-- shift point of view-- transform white marbles into black; black to white.

Holy crap, he thinks, a hitter.

He takes a second look at the address, glances at the contorted face, tries to ignore the smudged entry wound just below the faintly stubbled chin. The eyes, shocked and open wide, bring the situation home. He suppresses the need to vomit, takes a deep breath, gags.

In the years since, I have lifted the veil of conceit to reveal hard realities. I have toured the places without names.

I have sought out and inhaled the toxic emanations-- the direct and indirect human consequences of my artful opinions.

I have confronted the hollowed faces-- witnessed the broken minds and bodies, vicariously succored the scars of bruised, burned, and shredded skin, ill-healed limbs-- I've heard in life and dreams the screams, pleas, moans, cries, and whimpers.

I can no longer bear the gaze of family, friends-- seeing in their eyes, real or not, questions and accusations.

By my acts I have remanded all that commends me as human to the black dungeons of guilt and remorse. And the stench fills my mouth with bile.

So why this?

Faint pain knifes the young ranger's lower back. His hand shakes uncontrollably. He backs out, straightens, looks across the brown turbulence of river, scans the stark line of trees on the far shore. He sees nothing, no one, but feels somehow observed, eyes, omniscient eyes watching his very move. He turns, looks up toward the path. Misty drizzle against a gray patch of sky.

I've come to understand that facts are progeny of method.

Compromise method and facts become indeterminate, truth subordinate to power.

Method, then, is key. Know a man's methods and you know his heart.

As a young buck, heady with the conceits of Boalt Hall, I pledged allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America.

But in the seat of power I conveniently filed this sacred oath “For Times of Peace Only.” These were Times of War-- National Security at stake. Ruthless Realism rules. War trumps all. If the Commander wills, anything goes.

To put it bluntly, I swore loyalty to the Constitution of the United States of America and then-- I betrayed it.

And now they're back, presuming on the old loyalties.

The ranger stares again at the river-- watches a twisted branch roll in the current, sink, surface further downstream. A bloated plastic bag filled with who knows what bobs in the muddy water. Blood pulses in his ears.

Now they're back demanding that I turn dubious facts into bullets for their unholy war. They were good men, patriotic all. But fear and power corrupted their souls-- as ambition did mine.

To their minds the illusion of the Ticking Bomb justifies all. But now the ticking bomb is no longer the infernal device of the terrorist's perverted world view but, rather, the harsh judgment of history.

I've come to to accept this stern verdict. They haven't. I've looked into my soul and found it irredeemably corrupted. They haven't.

The course they've set is the ultimate perversion of power and I in my craven weakness know not how to stop them. I know not even whom to trust. So there's only-- this.

I pray that the right people listen-- listen, heed, and act. They must be stopped.

Ruth-- Please forgive a husband and father who has faced hard choices and chosen wrong. I make this one last choice for the sake of our children.

Please accept this choice as, I pray, the correct one. I love you and the children so so much. I just don't know what else to do.

Donald F. Devine, (former and unworthy) Esq.

The young ranger shudders. But now he senses a presence. He starts to turn but feels hard steel behind his ear.

“The letter, please.”

“What—”

“Don't talk. Just hand back the letter. Don't look! The envelope too—”

“Who—”

“Don't look! Now, I want you all the way in the car, sit.”

“But—”

“He won't hurt you. Keep your eyes on the steering wheel.”

“But—”

“Don't look! Just sit. That's good.”

“I—”

“Shush. Now, pick up the pistol on the floor under Mr. Devine's feet.”

“But I—”

“Look, I'm sure you're a bright enough young man. I'm sure you know by now that you are going to die. The question is, do you die with honor? Or do you die slowly, in excruciating pain?”

“Why?”

“Wrong place. Wrong time.”

A hand clasps the back of the young ranger's neck. He feels a thick thumb press mercilessly under his ear into the back of his jaw, pushing his head down between his knees. Meanwhile, the cold metal, unmistakably the muzzle of a gun, is pressing with unbearable force into his temple.

He screams.

“Pick up the pistol now. If you even think of turning my way, you'll be dead before your muscles respond.”

The young ranger slumps, picks up the pistol, shaking. It drops, earning a sharp jab to his temple. He picks it up again.

The young ranger senses the dark presence shift position, feels the muzzle pressed hard now into the back of his neck.

“That's good. Let me help.”

The young man feels the hand, strong, gloved in latex, cover his; feels the thumb snaking into the trigger guard. He feels the press of a body against the back of his shoulder, the heat of another's flesh behind his ear. He hears even breath roar across his ear, smells cinnamon.

Now he begins to shut down with fear. He feels the muzzle of Devine's pistol press up under his chin.

“Why?”

He can barely get it out, his teeth clenched so tight. And there's too little time until—

“Come Reunion,” the missionary says.

He takes time for artful rearrangement. When he's done the scene looks like a homosexual tryst gone bad— even better than the original scenario.

“Rest in peace, little lads,” he says. “May the Lord take your souls.”

The missionary closes the car door gently, looks down. Nice bike, he thinks. He worries about his footprints in the mud. But not much. His liaison in the park police will take care of it.

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The Gospel of Ashes

by Lloyd R. Prentice

Available June 1, 2012