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Thursday, April 19, 2012

("Will you go to Heaven? Will you go to Hell? Are the things you're praying for the things that serve you well?")…Robert Halford


For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
My inspiration


Chapter Fifty-four


The Devil's Lair, Saturday, September 3rd, 2005…4:00pm

The chill from the refrigerated storage locker Jack had squirreled us away in earlier was still with me when I arrived at Sanford Peck's private stateroom for our scheduled te'te te. However I instantly thawed when greeted at the door by Herr Price, the formidable and stone faced head of Security at Standard Pharmaceutical. The man's mug was expressionless, like a figure in a wax museum, and it creeped me out more than a little bit. Still, even with his blank expression I got the distinct impression that he was smirking at me. I swear I could see an ugly future, my own, reflected in the coal black doll's eyes set deep in his sockets. If he had been wearing a hooded robe and carrying a sickle, well, you get the picture.

"Herr Peck will be with you presently. Please, I invite you to make yourself comfortable," said the scary security chief as he waived me into the room. There was an uncharacteristic and uncomfortably disingenuous softness to the tone of his voice.

I nodded a reply and let him lead me over to two stylish Queen Anne chairs facing one another, a mahogany game table separating them. There was an ornate chessboard made of the same fine wood setting at the center of the table. The checkered board was inlaid with gold and topped with ivory game pieces with a medieval theme. I recognized the crests on the shields carried by the Knights on horseback. The "black" pawns and knights bore the dragon red, black and gold colors of the English King, Edward I, dubbed Longshanks by his loyal subjects because of his unusual height. While those same pieces on the "white" side were adorned with a long blood red cross set on a background of virgin white, representing the French King, Louis IX. It was 13th Century English versus the French, or present day Sanford Peck versus Jean-Luc Rojier. How ironic, or not I suppose, Jack's father never did or said anything without a purpose. Score one for Jack-O, looks like he was right again, cribbage was out and chess was in. That made perfect sense given Jack's explanation of Sanford's tactics.

Chess was the perfect game to play, with its propensity for long pauses between moves, allowing one to study the tell tale signs of how one's opponent strategized moves and countermoves. A person reveals a lot about themselves in games of strategy, they are a competition of wills. I was both intrigued by the challenge and at the same time nervous about the possible consequences. I immediately took Jack's advice and seated myself in the chair with the view of the grandfather clock, and then leaned over the table to spin the board so that I would have the white or "French" pieces in the game. At least that guaranteed me the first move and allowed me to establish the cadence for the game and for the conversation.

"Well played Jean-Luc," announced Sanford Peck as he entered the room and took the seat across from me.

"Merci," I replied with a confident smirk (a lie of course).

"So, what's your poison messier?" asked my host abruptly.

"Pardonnez-moi?" I replied feigning confusion.

"What'll you have drink-wise Luc, scotch, bourbon, what?" Sanford explained.

"Café s'il vous plait," I answered.

"Come now, we can do better than that. Let's at least make it an Irish coffee, bien entendu?" replied Sanford, asking me if I agreed in French at the end, letting me know that there'd be no language barrier in the conversation we were about to have.

"As you wish," I replied in English letting him know that we were on equal terms at least linguistically.

I scanned the room while Sanford ordered the refreshments. His private apartment was less ostentatious than I had expected; no doubt thanks to Killeen Peck. There was a subtle, softer influence about the place that kept the testosterone inspired furnishings to an underwhelming and palpable level. Left to his own desires Sanford would likely have decorated the walls with trophy heads from both jungles he hunted in, Nature's own and Wall Street's. I glanced at the grandfather clock and noted the time, Sanford didn't seem to notice. It was a quarter past four which meant Jack would be on station in the computer room in forty-five minutes. If all went as planned an hour later, at precisely 6pm I'd excuse myself and make my way to the rendezvous location. Jack's G2 had been perfect so far and I made a mental note to adhere to his specific instructions to avoid any temptation to stop by my stateroom on the way. Jack assured me that would be a fatal mistake. It bothered me how certain he was about that, and it made me even more suspicious of his motives than I already was.

"You don't mind if I smoke, do you Luc?" Sanford asked rhetorically as he selected a pipe from the rack on the table beside him. He took a small well worn leather tobacco pouch from the drawer beneath the pipe rack and filled the hollow bowl with a generous portion of Captain Black. It was an aroma that I was quite familiar with from my childhood as smoking was one of Papa's guilty pleasures. I actually enjoyed the rich sweet smell of the tobacco, although I never actually tasted it myself. Oh, he had let me take a puff once but I burned my lips on the business end of the slender mouthpiece and that was all the encouragement I needed to avoid the habit for life.

"Of course not, please enjoy messier," I replied with a genuine smile.

He grunted a reply and finished packing the tobacco into the bowl with a gold plated reamer. I watched him intensely as he skillfully smoothed out and trimmed the cake of tobacco before striking a wooden match and lighting the bowl. The aroma hit the air immediately, triggering a childhood memory of me sprawled out on the living room floor reading a stack of comics while my father smoked and enjoyed the Sunday paper. I was fairly certain that Jack did not have similar memories where he and Sanford were concerned.

"Would you care to join me Luc?" Sanford asked pointing at the rack of pipes beside him.

"Oh no, thank you, but I do not smoke," I answered, his offer ending my trip down memory lane.

"Really, you looked as though you were enjoying the experience?"

"Yes I was, my Papa used to smoke a pipe, and used the exact same tobacco, Captain Black, right?" I replied.

"Yes indeed, Captain Black, I'm impressed. Well, why don't we begin, the scotch will be here in a moment. You're commanding King Louis' forces in white; so you have the first move," Sanford said waiving at the chessboard between us.

The truth was that my Papa fancied himself quite the chess player, but he wasn't, not at all. He must have forced me to play hundreds of matches with him over the years, every Sunday morning after church, until I started High School. And frankly the only gambit I remembered was the Queen's pawn opening. It's a pretty simple tactic and surely no match for Sanford Peck who according to Jack was some kind of grand master or something. But that was my go to move and I executed it as quickly as I could to try and appear confident and at ease. Executed was probably a poor choice of words.

"Queen's pawn 2 to Queen's pawn 4," I said, reciting the terminology Papa insisted I learn.

Sanford just stared at me, ignoring the board. He didn't need to see my move with his eyes; he was playing the game in his head and was already several moves in front of me. A very small smile appeared on his face causing a tiny bead of cold sweat to run from my scalp to the nape of my neck and down my back. The stakes in this game became apparent, my life. Jack was right again, we weren't playing chess. We were playing cat and mouse. It didn't take a genius to figure out who was Tom and who was Jerry.



Princess Grace Bridge, Saturday, September 3rd, 2005…4:45pm


Jackson Peck strolled onto the bridge like he owned the place, which in a way he did. Unfortunately the crew on station as unaware of his status and immediately challenged his presence. A powerfully built man in uniform met him as soon as he walked into the room, a Commander actually which Jack ascertained by the three stripes on the shoulder board of his uniform. He was cool and direct and Jack liked him at once!

"Sir, how did you manage to get in here?" the Officer demanded, standing almost nose to nose with the intruder.

The man stared through Jack as if he were trying to will him into disappearing. Jack stood his ground however and slowly raised his right hand to show the human barrier standing in front of him the coded badge with his image clearly displayed. The Commander's nostrils flared slightly as he eyeballed the identification. Without taking his eyes off of Jack he gestured for the sailor nearest him.

"Mister Olsen, entertain our guest while I make a call," he ordered, taking Jack's badge and walking over to a wall phone behind the helm.

"Aye sir!" answered a junior Officer, an Ensign, as he took his superior's place.

The Senior Officer listened more than spoke to whoever was on the other end of the line identifying the unannounced visitor standing on his bridge. The Commander's expression changed visibly as he listened. It didn't exactly soften; it just changed as his mood shifted from 'on guard' to 'royally pissed.' A moment later he returned the handset to the cradle and walked back to his charge.

"That'll be all Mister, as you were," he said to the Ensign, who promptly returned to his station near the helm.

"You should have let us know that you were coming Mr. Peck," the Senior Officer said icily, turning his attention to Jack.

Jack was even more impressed now. The fact that the man was completely unimpressed with who he was addressing drove the value of his personal stock through the roof as far as Jack was concerned. The fella was all business and Jack decided then and there that he'd have a place in Jack's plans for the company after the old man was out of the way. Jack smiled respectfully at him, offering his hand. The man took it reluctantly and allowed Jack to shake it firmly.

"My apologies Commander, you're right of course. Please forgive my oversight," Jack said. He watched the man closely for any sign of contrived respect, there was none. Jack liked that.

"Very well sir. Exactly how may I help you now that you're here? What exactly is your business on my bridge?"

"Actually, I'm just passing through the bridge to the Com Center. I here to perform an audit of the main frame interfaces," Jack answered.

"Why wasn't I briefed about this?" demanded the Commander.

"It's a surprise audit Commander. You can't catch a crook if you tell him you're coming, right?" replied Jack with a wink.

"I see. Are you expecting to find one today sir?"

"You never know until you know, ya know?" kidded Jack, his humor falling on deaf ears.

The Commander silently stared him down, clearly unimpressed. Jack decided to shelve a follow up joke and just pointed toward the Com Room door. The CIC (command information center) had only one entrance and one exit and they were the same. It was the nerve center of the vessel and designed to be conspicuously difficult to gain entry to. Nobody snuck in or out and once inside you're every move was recorded. Pulling this off would be challenging to say the least. The Commander took Jack's ID and walked the five strides to the entrance and swiped Jack card through the reader.

"You're on sir," he said, opening the door and looking back at his guest.

Jack strode past him, grabbing his ID as he entered the room, "thanks Chief," he said, purposely disrespecting the man as he closed the door behind him without looking back. The room was small and dark, with a staff of five monitoring all aspects of the ship's operations. The only light was the glow of the monitors at each station as well as a bank of closed circuit screens covering one wall floor to ceiling. Five of the screens were chronicling each of the five stations in the room. Phase one was complete, he was in. Phase two was next, clearing the area of prying eyes.

"Gentlemen, may I have your attention?" Jack said, announcing himself. He paused a second to allow his eyes to adjust to the minimal light and noticed that one of the crew was actually a female. He blushed and smiled weakly at her.

"Sorry," he mouthed as he moved to the center of the room.

"Alright people, it's inspection time. I'm going to need you to pull up your logs and then sign out while I review them, you know the drill," he announced.

The small crew looked at one another and then back at Jack. They were clearly confused by the breach in protocol. They were accustomed to surprise inspections but they were not accustomed to an unescorted auditor. The drill always included a member of the security team so as to eliminate a "fox watching the henhouse" scenario. The female crew member spoke up after a long pregnant pause.

"Shouldn't security be here with you? Where is Mr. Price?" she asked for the group.

"Good point, I'm glad you asked that. What was your name?" Jack asked politely.

"Lt. Vu," she answered.

"Vietnamese, right?" Jack asked, noticing the resemblance to Pat's dead wife.

"Yes sir," she replied with an annoyed expression.

"Yes, well, you're exactly right lieutenant. Typically there would be someone from security on this detail. However this is a special circumstance as I am not your typical auditor," Jack explained.

"Sir?" replied Lt. Vu with a puzzled look.

"Let me start over by introducing myself. My name is Jackson Peck, and well, you all sort of work for me," Jack said with a grin, studying the blank faces of his captured audience.

"You look confused, so let me spell it out for you. I happen to be the only child of Sanford Peck, founder and CEO of Standard Pharmaceutical Inc. which by the way owns this shipping line. And since I'll be assuming that role in the not too distant future I'm here to kick tires so to speak, you know, learn how this part of the business really operates. I'm not a big fan of dog & pony presentations by stuffy MBAs, I like to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. Blame it on the engineer in me. Anyway being the number one son has certain perks, like bending rules for instance," Jack added, trying not to appear as smug and conceited as he was. It wasn't working and he could feel all of the eyes in the room roll simultaneously, especially the pretty dark eyes belonging to Lt. Vu.

"What, too much information?" Jack said apologizing, raising his hands in a fake surrender and smiling at the group.

"All right you mugs, sign out and clear out, I've got work to do."

The small crew of specialists spun back to face their work stations and complied with Jack's order. As soon as they logged off they filed past him one by one on the way out the door, under the watchful eye of a certain 'all business' Commander standing on the other side. Lt. Vu was last to exit and Jack made no effort to hide his appreciative glance at her shapely little caboose as she walked past him. The happy moment broken up quickly by the Commander's glare when their eyes met as she left the room.

"I believe you said one hour, correct?" asked the stone faced Officer.

"Yep!" answered Jack flippantly.

"Very well then, sixty minutes, I'll inform the Captain and return the crew at exactly 17:00 hours," the Commander said curtly as he closed and secured the door.

Jack flipped him off soon as the door closed and then flipped off each of the security cameras for good measure, hoping the smug bastard saw his little salute but secretly relieved that the door was closed and locked! He knew that Herr Price saw it. The rotten little Nazi was probably watching him at this very moment. Jack didn't care; he didn't have to, not anymore, they had an arrangement now. He walked directly to Lt. Vu's work station and sat down, and without a single crib sheet proceeded to log on using Randy's special algorithm. His clever protégé had devised quite a Trojan horse for Jack to ride into Standard Pharm's unsuspecting system on. With this obscenely simple code Jack was into the nerve center of the mainframe in nanoseconds. The simplicity of it is what made it genius! His fingers ran fast over the keys and screen after screen flashed by him creating a cyber light show equivalent to any Disney fireworks display. Jack's shadow grew and shrank in and out of focus on the wall behind him as he navigated his way to the promised-land.

Randy had made sure the route he took was as complex as possible in order to confuse and confound the forensic accountants once they discovered the funds missing. Jack was amazed at how easily he got by one firewall after another, they fell like dominos in the wake of Randy's program. It was if there were no security measures whatsoever. He had no idea how Randy had figured this all out, but he did, the kid was a freaking genius! Jack glanced down at the digital clock displayed at the bottom of the screen, twenty minutes had past, incredible, he'd been so engrossed with the process that he'd completely lost track of the time. Not good! Refocusing he concentrated on the last few measures of the cyber symphony that was Randy Patel's masterpiece. A moment later he reached his destination. He blinked slowly as he recalled the coded entry and tapped the keys swiftly. NOTHING! "What the…" he muttered. Jack entered the code again…NOTHING?

He closed his eyes and searched his memory banks, reciting the code silently several times before trying once more, a little slower this time. Jack hammered out the thirteen digits and symbols and then pressed the enter key. His eyes stayed transfixed on the screen and he watched the machine stare back unchanged, mocking him. That little shit Randy Patel had either set him up or cracked under the skilled hands of that Nazi sadist Herr Price. He quickly ruled out the former, Randy actually looked up to Jack. That meant Daddy's minion had persuaded Randy to spill his guts, literally. Leaning back in the chair he rubbed his face vigorously and contemplated his next move. If his father was onto everything as it appeared that he was then, Pat was in big trouble. The double cross arrangement Jack had made with Herr Price was anchored by a healthy swatch of what he supposed to siphon off from Daddy Dearest's secret slush fund. Now it appeared as though that wasn't going to happen. At precisely 17:05 Herr Price was going to eliminate one chess player, the selection of which depended on who controlled said funds.

Jack glanced at the computer's digital clock again, it was 5:45pm, he had time to get off the ship and out to the "Jeckle" before the ugliness started, every man for himself, right? He started to push away from the computer station when it hit him. ALL programmers, the ones that actually write code, are scatterbrained, neurotic, and hyper cautious/suspicious. Translation, EVERY code writer leaves themselves a back door, an alternate entrance to whatever they software they write just in case their creation is stolen by a greedy employer or worse. Could it be that simple? Jack scooted closer to the keyboard and willed himself not to look over his shoulder and give away his intentions. Leaning forward slightly he tapped in the same thirteen digits and symbols, only this time in reverse order. He closed his eyes and pressed the enter key. He slowly drew in one breath and then opened his eyes, instantly smiling and thanking the cyber gods. The screen was alive with activity as file after file appeared in front of him. He couldn't will away the smile spread across his face. Without wasting another precious second he began the transfer protocol he'd committed to memory and watched as each file containing billions in cash swooshed away just like the Nike symbol from Sanford Peck's vault, onto a very long and very cryptic trail leading eventually to a secret numbered account belonging to none other that Jackson Peck.

Jack leaned back in the chair and laced his hands together with his fingers behind his head as he watched the files disappear. All that was left to do now was inform Herr Peck mission accomplished and then meet Pat on board the "Jeckle." Phase three was complete, the money was his. Herr Price would take of Phase four, namely his father. Jack would execute Phase five once he and Pat were on board "Jeckle" and out to sea. As soon as the last file disappeared from the screen he logged off of Lt. Vu's computer and sprang up out of her chair. Opening his closed fist one finger at a time he silently counted to five. His goal was in sight and he was pleased with himself.

"Wyle E. Coyote, super genius!" he said, quoting a line from The Roadrunner cartoon as he turned to leave. Easy peasy…



The Devil's Lair, Saturday, September 3rd, 2005…5:55pm

I was getting my ass kicked in this stupid game. We might as well have been playing checkers; I was so out of my element. Sanford countered each of my moves instantly. It was if he knew my moves before I did, and the sad truth was that he probably did. After each move he would just stare at me like a cat playing with its meal before devouring it. My wife Monica was like that whenever she caught me in a white lie. She'd make me dance around it until I had to swallow it one syllable at a time. She could be cruel like that, but to be fair I know now that she was just trying to help me break a bad habit by forcing to see myself through her eyes. And it was working too, just not as quickly as she wanted it to. Monica did not have the patience that God gave a tse-tse fly! Oh man, I miss her so much, is that crazy? Should I be thinking about her when I am likely going to be joining her wherever it is that you go to when you die? If that's the case maybe thinking about her is exactly what I should be doing.

"You're move Luc," Sanford said suddenly. He watched me as I fumbled with one of my pawns.

"Penny for your thoughts," he said, his eyes boring a hole right through me.

"One moment please, my Queen is in jeopardy," I said, one eye on the game and one eye on the clock.

The grandfather clock was about to chime six o'clock which meant it was time to make my apologies and skedaddle. My Queen had an escape route that would only drag the game out to its inevitable finish. But a move to King's Rook 9 would put me in checkmate. It was a stupid move but a quick and merciful end to the stupid game, providing me a reasonable segues for my exit. Sanford leaned forward in his chair to observe my move, clearly disappointed with my play as the clocked began to ring out six deep bongs with the hour. He picked up his Knight and gently tapped my King, knocking it over on its side, an abrupt move given the value of the set and the pieces. He leaned back in his chair still holding his game piece and shook his head, frowning at me.

"If you wanted to retire you just had to say so Luc, there was no need to throw the match. We could have left till tomorrow to finish like gentlemen. Very unlike you sir, you disappoint me," he said, lecturing me like a ten year-old.

"My apologies messier, forgive me but I must be going, I am meeting with someone," I said, standing and straightening my coat.

"Sit down Patrick, your someone can wait. We have some things to discuss."

"Messier?"

"Patrick Bouchard, a.k.a. Jean-Luc Rojier, a.k.a. the jack of broken hearts, grieving father of Gabriel Bouchard, grieving husband of Monica Do Bouchard, am I reaching you Pat, are you seeing the light?" Sanford said coolly.

I wanted to leap up and kick the prick's teeth down his throat but thought better of it when I noticed him look past me. Someone else had entered the room. Someone else was standing right behind me. It was Herr Price; I didn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. I hated hearing Peck say Gabriel's and Monica's name out loud. It sounded vulgar; his tone betraying the fact that he placed no value on their memory, and it made me wish I had killed him instead of robbed him. The room was silent for a moment and I could hear the grandfather clock ticking. I looked past Sanford, it was 6:03.

"Is there anything you'd like to say before you pay for your crimes?" Peck asked.

"The others, my Father, my friends, they are…" I asked, stammering slightly.

"All dead? Yes my dear, Herr Price is quite efficient," he answered smugly.

"I want my money back Patrick, all of it. You will tell me now where it is and how to get it, or you will tell Herr Price when he is finished persuading you, the choice is yours, I give you one minute to decide," Peck said, relighting his pipe and drawing on it deeply.

I watched a long plume of blue smoke leave his lips and rise into the air. The smell was wonderful and I wasn't afraid although I knew I should be. I'd be damned if I'd tell these guys anything, let them do what they will, I'd just be with Gabriel and Monica all the sooner. I closed my eyes and breathed in the sweet aroma of the Captain Black tobacco and then opened them again slowly, staring at directly at Sanford Peck.

"You go to Hell," I said softly.

"Inevitably Patrick. Herr Price," Sanford replied looking up at the man behind me.

I held my breath and watched Peck smile as he removed the pipe from his mouth to repack the cake of tobacco in the bowl. The grandfather clock read 6:05 and I mentally noted the end of G.A.W.D., September 5th, 2005, 6:05pm. I felt something brush past my ear and noticed a puzzled expression on Sanford Peck's face. Before I could anything of it I felt a small explosion near my face with a loud muffled sound that reminded me of someone spitting on the sidewalk? Across from me Sanford Peck's head flew back against the chair and a small red dot appeared in the center of his forehead. He looked liked the Hindu sales clerk at the 7/11 back in Long Beach. The pipe had fallen into his lap and was smoldering next to his belt buckle. The surprised look on his face almost made me laugh and I grunted a retort as Herr Price walked into my line of sight.

"What the…," was all I could manage.

"I believe you have somewhere to be right now, no?" asked Herr Price as he removed the pipe from Peck's lap and placed it in the ashtray, looking back at me.

"But..."

"You need to go now, his son will explain," said Herr Price referring to Sanford with a roll of his eyes.

I didn't waste any time even though I needed to know what just happened here. I stood quickly and turned to leave. I looked back once to make sure I saw what I saw. Herr Price stood in front of the late Sanford Peck and waited for me to leave. I took my cue and did just that. I had no idea what was going to happen next, all I knew is I had to get off this ship and find Jack. I had to know if his dad was telling the truth. I needed to talk with Papa, Sandy or Roman. I needed answers, and I was gonna get em!


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