“No American service member should ever have to face a fair fight.
To that extent, we will endeavor in every way possible to always remain technologically ahead of our enemies.
It was a Thursday afternoon, mid-June and the temps in NYC were reaching the mid 80’s.
I was sitting in a well stuffed, red leather armchair sipping a Graham’s, 40-year-old Tawny Port on ice from a $500 cut crystal, highball glass, in the air-conditioned office of Brian Culbert, a colleague of mine who chaired on the Board of Directors for the Triliard Institute of Research & Technology, otherwise known as the TIR&T, a science and technology institute dedicated to the advancement of hazardous and semi-hazardous research and technology.
The office was well decorated with intricately built, dark wood bookshelves lining each of the four walls, loaded with what appeared to be literally hundreds of leather-bound volumes with gold and red lettering on the spines, broken only by the bar top to my right, where he had produced the expensive booze, the window to my left that I was currently gazing out of, and the heavy, solid wood door behind me that I’d entered after being announced by his exceptionally well built, exceptionally feminine secretary, Stephany, just outside his office.
I’d tried for 4 years to get Stephanie to go out with me and failed every time. She was always polite and always smiled when she talked to me but unerringly always diligently off limits.
I had guessed, that because she knew I was a Stalker, starting a relationship with me was pointless.
Brian and I had known each other for the last 4 years and done a good deal of Zone related smuggling business together.
The TIR&T was one of the many businesses that purchased artifacts from Stalkers and then used that technology for purposes that were unknown to us though we suspected were closely tied to the US military.
As I understood it, I was one of now only three other “Stalkers” that he was currently working with, the fourth having recently been written off as KIZ (Killed in Zone) since there had been no contact with him in over a year.
I’d been stateside for almost 9 months and the urge to return to the Zone was stronger than ever. The dreams and sounds were more real and most of all, the smells. The smells seemed to come from everywhere I went, restaurants, bars, even places like grocery stores, bringing back memories of things and places I’d known in the Zone.
There was something about the Zone that was impressed on you when you went. Some say it’s a psychological thing. It’s all in your head they say. Others say it’s a physical thing like a narcotic, but all Stalkers know it and few go out only once.
I was staring out the window of his office, mindlessly watching the dust floating in the sunlight shining through it and picturing the Clear Sky base doc’s office inside the zone when I realized I’d heard my name being called.
“Earth to Bridger.” Brian was saying.
“Wha? Oh. Sorry, Brian. I was drifting there for a minute.” I replied.
Brian was sitting behind a huge, mahogany desk that had a sheet of quarter-inch thick glass over it with little finger size scallops in the edge. On the desktop was a phone, a pipe stand holding 6 ornately carved pipes, a canister of what I assumed to be pipe tobacco, a black, leather blotter, a computer monitor and keyboard with no wires connected to them and what looked like a very expensive, ink pen set.
He chuckled and said. “A minute? I’ve been prattling on for maybe 5 minutes about this new order and I don’t think you heard a word of it.”
“No Brian,” I replied. “I heard you. Most of it anyway. I’m not really concerned with why you need it, just how much I get for retrieving it for you, assuming I can find it. What you’re doing with this stuff is of no interest to me.”
“That’s what I like about you, Bridger.” He replied, hands clasped behind his head as he leaned back in his black leather desk chair and smiled at me. “Direct and to the point.”
What he liked about me was that I had no apparent moral compunctions about the use of the artifacts I was supplying him with, and I took another sip of his expensive Port, rattling the ice in the crystal glass partly because I liked the sound of it and partly because I knew it annoyed Brian that I drank his Port on ice as I composed my next question.
“Like I said, Brian,” I started, “Assuming I can find this new artifact that apparently no one has found yet, and no one has actually verified, and no one has even reliably seen, what’s in it for me?”
Brian thought for a moment then unclasped his hands, leaned forward in his chair and reached for one of the pipes on his pipe stand, and I briefly wondered how he made his choice so quickly.
He meticulously reached for the container next to the stand and after opening the lid, pinched out a wad of moist tobacco that immediately made the office smell of apple, tamped it carefully into the pipe bowl, retrieved a gold lighter from his pocket and just as carefully, commenced to applying the flame to the bowl. Drawing on the stem and puffing out the smoke till he was satisfied with the action, he snapped the lighter closed and dropped it into a pocket in his vest. A small cloud of swirling smoke lingered over his desk, changing the smell from apples to burned apple wood and he leaned back again in his chair, pipe in hand, took another draw on the ivory stem, and while looking me directly in the eyes, replied seriously.
“The Institute can see its way clear to pay you $1.4 million for the fulfillment of this contract.”
I sat there stunned for a moment.
That was so much more than any other artifact I’d contracted with him for in the past that it was insane and it took me a minute more to run the number around in my head. One million, four hundred thousand dollars!
As I sat there with, I’m sure, the stunned look on my face, he took another puff and then spoke again.
“In all truth, Bridger,” He started with a dead serious look on his face, “This contract is not without a great deal of risk and my buyers have deep pockets and overwhelming needs.”
“Finding this bauble will be difficult enough. Getting it out will be a monumental task and transporting it here will be nearly impossible,” he continued.
“It may be the last contract you attempt for me. It apparently was for David.” He added, referring to the missing Stalker.
“My buyers need absolute secrecy and expediency in delivery and as such, are willing to pay me to hire you at great expense to find it.”
I was still boggling at the number and it took me another minute till I could collect my thoughts and even then, all I could manage to ask was.
“What’s this thing called?”
Brian put the pipe stem in his mouth, took another drag and slowly blew it back out through his nose, reminding me briefly of a Chinese dragon, then leaned forward and put his elbows and forearms casually on his blotter, cupped his right hand inside his left palm crossing his thumbs and while stareing into my eyes said.
“This bauble is referred to as a “White Witch” and was allegedly first seen by a Stalker known only as Digger.
“Hence the high reward,” I said, “So, what else can you tell me about it?”
“According to reports, again second hand, the White Witch has additional traits some of which are downright nasty.” He started.
“She…” Referring to the artifact in a feminine fashion either because of his nautical background or perhaps the namesake. “…Allegedly weighs in at an extraordinary 180 kilos making her one of the heaviest baubles yet discovered.”
“180 kilos!” I exclaimed. “How the heck am I supposed to collect it much less move it to an extraction point much even less, transport it back here? It weighs more than me and my gear combined.”
“That’s just the start of it Bridger.” He said seriously. “In addition, it is rumored to be one of the most lethally irradiated baubles yet, pushing upwards of 2500 to 3500 rems.”
“Jeez.” I muttered with alarm. “That’s acute illness and early death in just days. Maybe hours.”
“Yes. And it gets better.” He mocked sarcastically. “It allegedly emits temps in excess of 700f making it an instant combustion accelerant to nearly anything it comes within 20 feet of, and in all probability, will be found within an anomalous field located in a fire bath someplace.”
“Oh, this just gets better and better.” I said.
“Oh, and one other thing.” He started.
“Oh, of course,” I said, again with sarcasm, “What would life be without one other thing.”
The Ukrainian Army, Duty, Freedom and probably everyone other than Clear Sky is looking for it as well. If it becomes known that you have it, well, you can probably imagine what comes next.”
“Uh huh.” I merely said. “What’s with Clear Sky? Why aren’t they dropping their skirts to get it?”
“Unknown.” He replied. “But you know Clear Sky. They’ve always moved and acted in bizarre fashion.”
“Granted.” I acknowledged.
“But don’t automatically discount them, Bridger.” He added. “A prize like this… It wouldn’t surprise me that they’re also interested in it but just keeping it in closed ranks.”
He then chuckled, though no mirth showed in his eyes. “Look on the bright side. If you do manage to find it first, you’re set up for life.” And he smiled again when he finished.
“Ok. So how do I find this White Bitch? I asked, substituting the name.
Brian was about to correct me when I think he realized I knew what the correct name was and changed his tack.
“As I said,” he started, “From what I understand, Digger is the only one who has seen it and is still around. According to last reports, 5 weeks ago, he can be found on or near the Skadovosk in Zaton.
“I’ll figure it out,” I said as I stood up and drained the last of the Port. “No wonder it’s named after my ex-wife. Anything else I asked?”
He thought about that a minute and replied. “As with all our contracts, should you be caught or killed…” He started, before I interrupted …
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, you’ll deny knowing me.”
“… Should you be caught or killed,” He continued without recognition of my comment, “The Institute will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”
I had my back to him and was headed toward the door when he added the last comment and I raised my hands to my face, pinched all my fingertips together and then drew them away from my face while spreading my fingers in a gesture of an explosion.
“Boom.” I muttered as I passed through the door behind me.
In the secretary’s office, I closed the door behind me and walked to Stephanie’s desk deep in thought.
I was about to ask her if she had papers for me but when I actually focused on her, I could see she was sitting behind her desk, staring up and into my eyes holding the familiar Black Pac in her delicate hand for me.
As I reached her desk and reached for the Pac, she withdrew it out of my range. She got up and with more grace and style than I’d ever seen any woman exhibit, walked around the desk, put her arms around my neck and kissed me so long and so deeply that I was actually embarrassed by my arousal that I was sure she could feel through the silky material of her skirt.
She put the Black Pac on my chest and gently pushed herself back, out of my embrace while sadly smiling at me.
“Please come back.” Was all she said and turned and went back to her seat, turning her head away as she began pecking at the computer to her left, ignoring me.
“Hmm,” I said as I stood there still recovering from the emotional high, “I might have the impression you like me.”
“Whatever.” She replied, still ignoring me as she typed.
I smiled and turned away myself, headed for the exit but from the corner of my eye I saw her turn her head toward me and maybe wipe at a tear?
“I’ll be back.” I said over my shoulder in my best, Schwarzenegger, Terminator impression as I opened the door.
“I’m counting on it.” She replied softly as the door swooshed shut behind me.
“Yes, Mr. Culbert?” Stephanie responded after pressing the button on the top of the desktop speaker.
“Could you step into my office a moment please,” Brian replied.
Stephanie saved her current document on the computer screen, stood up, adjusted her skirt and walked casually into Brian’s office.
After closing the door behind her she moved gracefully to just two feet from the front of Brian’s desk while he sat engaged in typing something on his computer and said. “You wished to see me, sir?” She said.
“Steph,” Brian said without stopping his typing or looking at her, “when Raymond gets here, show him in immediately, would you.”
“Mr. Culbert,” Stephanie answered slowly, choosing her words before speaking with concern in her voice, “don’t you think this particular path will lead to problems down the road, perhaps rivalry for Mr. Bridger, and possibly anger toward you as well?”
Brian stopped typing and stared for a moment over his computer monitor at the window he had just left after watching Bridger get into his car and drive away.
“This is insurance Steph.” He said without thought or concern. “Just insurance.”
Then he went back to typing again.
Stephanie stood there a moment longer and when Brian added nothing more, she turned to leave thinking, I hope Bridger sees it the same way.
“Steph,” Brian said without stopping his typing. “piece of advice?”
“Yes, Sir?” She replied.
“Don’t get caught up in an affair with a Stalker. They typically have a short life span.” He added as he typed.
She was headed for the door when he said that and though her pace shifted a little, she showed no other outward sign that the comment had affected her.
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