Pogo’s Very Long Day: Love’s Strange Forms and The Perils of Hunting Monsters
There’s an old saying about playing poker “If you look around the table and can’t figure out who the sucker is, you’re it”.
It was pretty obvious that I was the sucker here.
It wasn’t just that everybody seemed to be in on the game plan but me. The kicker was the .45 automatic leveled at my center mass.
By a girl I’d never have dreamed would point a weapon at me.
It hadn’t been a very good day to start with. Spooky had headed out the night before on another “business trip”. Where, or for how long, we never knew. It’s the nature of the business. And we accepted that, accepted the risk that she might not come back.
But her leaving in the evening always left us out of sorts.
She usually flew out in the morning; that gave us a chance to say goodbye properly, wear each other out as if it were the last time we would see each other. And that’s possible. Like I said, it’s the nature of the business.
But her leaving in the evening left us both out of sorts all day, and left me with a sleepless night wondering if I would see her again.
Wondering what we really had.
We’d been “an item” since she’d come stalking into my life two years ago, twelve years after we’d met. I’d assumed it was an unresolved infatuation on her part; that it would burn out, so I tried my best not to take it too seriously.
But, whatever it started as, it became something else. I just wasn’t sure what it was.
I couldn’t call it love, and neither would she – we were both too wary, maybe too broken, to admit to something as prosaic as that. We weren’t exclusive, we’d agreed to that – she was gone too often and too long; we had no schedule, no possibility of anything normal or sane. At least not for now.
But the divorcee tourists in hot pursuit of their mid-life crises held little attraction for me now. And it was rarer and rarer that I had to throw one out when I got the message from Spooky letting me know she’d be arriving in a day or so. In fact, last night, I’d realized I hadn’t bothered with one of them in over a year.
Although she never said anything, from the look of relief on her face when she found her closet clear and her robe still hung neatly on the bathroom door, Spooky had feelings about that too.
It was a hypnotic attraction of some type. Something neither of us, perennial loners both, could resist. Something I don’t think either of us wanted to resist. I was her comfort, her safe haven. She was my could-have-been, the normal I couldn’t have, didn’t deserve after the life I’d led.
Whatever it was, we clung like magnets when we could be together, even though I was far too old for her, and she was far too feral for anyone.
She’d been a little off for the last couple weeks, moody and a bit sullen, but even in that mood, I wanted her near. And she seemed clingy despite it.
Being apart was disconcerting, even more disconcerting than being together.
I’d been feeling more unsettled than ever lately. My older sister, Danika, had been chiding me about skipping family time at Christmas for the last few years. Maybe I needed to go, reconnect. I could find someone to watch The Shack for a couple weeks.
So the day had led off with a sense of loss, disappointment, and fitful sleep. I was ten minutes late opening The Shack, which got me a scowl from Grease. He had to pick up box lunches for his fishing charter. I was behind, but he helped me slap them together, thrusting them a little haphazardly into a cooler. They didn’t have to be perfect, over half his guests didn’t eat anything substantial while they were out anyway due to seasickness.
He didn’t say much, probably sensing my mood.
It was the Friday charters, so I’d have the big grill set up on the beach in front of The Shack so his fishermen could grill their swordfish or tuna or -if they’d had a poor catch – steaks. They’d swap lies around the bonfires and try to convince unexcited wives it was worth the cost. We’d just feed the wives Margaritas, Mojitos and other drinks until they either enjoyed themselves or just wouldn’t remember not enjoying themselves in the morning. Whatever works.
I’d always loved doing the beach bonfire thing, as challenging as it can be. We’d had to pick up the pace since I cut the deal with Grease and Angel a few years ago. The tips alone made it worth ten times the trouble it took. A lot of the locals attended, and wandering tourists would pay the party fee and join in. When she was in, Spooky looked forward to the Friday bonfires; they were the kind of fun and friendship she’d never had as a kid. She’d been a wallflower at first, not believing things like this could exist. And when Spooky wanted to be a wallflower, she was truly invisible. But after a few times she tentatively joined in, then with more and more eagerness.
Much to her own surprise, Spooky loved helping with the grill, but I was on my own today. Howard was back in the States visiting relatives. Maybe I could convince Ex and Monster to help. Monster cooked steaks with the same precision he applied to everything.
They’d probably be there anyway; they seemed to be on babysitting duty with Grease and Angel’s two girls all the time lately.
I needed to talk with Ex anyway.
Loud Howard – Colonel Howard, United States Army, Retired – had caught me before he left, whispering that she looked a little under the weather. We worried about Ex.
If you’re in the Military for any length of time, you find out that obligations don’t end just because you move on. A former soldier who used to be in your squad twenty or even thirty years ago still has a place to sleep on your couch if he needs it. You’re still responsible for your people, for the things you’ve done, or in our case, created.
We’d been the ones who trained Monster and built him to be what he was. We were responsible if he ended up going off the rails.
Monster and Ex don’t have any idea we’ve figured out what is going on. Not everything. But enough.
The injuries from his last mission had done something to him. Something very bad. From what we can tell he’s stuck in what we call “Trigger Mode”. Some guys call it “the Zone”, some call it “going Red”. It’s just how we train team members to handle combat. Suppress emotion, engage targets based on capability, intention and immediacy, surviving through a running threat matrix. Deal with secondary issues later or not at all. Monster was seeing everything, everyone through that running threat matrix.
Howard figured it out. Something felt off when he saw Monster in the hospital so he looked into it. Broke every privacy law ever written; stole medical records, psych evals, and hospital surveillance footage. He called in favors from years ago, got a few people working on it. Autopsies, news reports, an accident report, some crime statistics. It all added up. Monster was fully operational in the tactical sense. Eliminating threats.
When Monster and Ex started coming out on vacation, it all got a little clearer. He was using the techniques we’d taught him to work undercover. He was using them to pretend to be himself.
Monster was pretending to be Monster.
Somehow Ex had become his handler; we have no idea how it happened, but that isn’t really important. But somehow she became his interface with humanity. And that is important.
Very, very, important. If anything happened to Ex, Monster would have no guidance, no restrictions. He’d just start working his way through his threat matrix in descending order.
That idea was truly terrifying. Especially since we only had a vague idea of how he was classifying threats and weren’t certain what he was trying to protect.
So Howard and I sat down over a bottle of very good cognac and designed a plan. We called it the Very Bad Plan. It wasn’t likely to end well for anyone, and might be worse than doing nothing.
We’d use a four-wheel drive truck and 20 plastic buckets. We’d fill each bucket with 5 gallons of an enhanced version of Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil explosive. It would be rigged with an impact detonator, a dead man switch and a remote detonator – a “chicken switch”. All on different, redundant, circuits. The plan was to drive into the big patio doors of his walk out basement at the back of his house, while he was home, and detonate nearly half a ton of high explosive as close to him as possible. If he survived, he’d likely be injured and moving slow enough for a sniper to take out.
It sounds insane, excessive. But Monster really was that dangerous. He was a true natural; he was gifted in the same sense, and at the same level that a gold medal Olympic athlete is gifted. Reflexes, speed, precision, focus. Imagine the average guy using a lap pool suddenly dropping into a race with Michael Phelps. That’s the difference. Except his “event”, his skill set was very, very anti-social.
One of the team snipers had given the iconic description of Monster: “Shooting Monster between the eyes at 500 meters would show good aim. In the back of the head at 1200 meters would show better judgment.”
Howard was a better long rang shot than me, so he’d be the sniper and manage the remote detonator. He’d also have a suicide vest with a dead man switch in case Monster got loose. Monster tended to work up close and personal, so that was a pretty decent option.
I’d be driving the truck, so I’d never even know if it worked.
I hoped Spooky would understand.
It wasn’t a great plan – his house was backed right up to the State Park and if he got into those woods, we were completely screwed. There were only a few good sniper positions, and he certainly had those on his radar.
We figured we had a solid 30 percent chance of killing him. With any other target that would have been laughably bad. With this one, it was as good as we could develop. We really hoped cancer or something took him out before anything happened to her.
We couldn’t try to help Ex or let her know what we had figured out, at all. If he suspected anything, she’d be the first one he questioned. And she would talk eventually. Howard and I, along with every former team member would leap up in his threat matrix.
We could only use the plan as a last resort because trying and failing would be worse. For everybody.
So Ex’s health was very high on my priority list.
On the bright side, Ex came in with Danni for breakfast just after Grease left. Danni is Ex and Monster’s daughter. She’s in her 20s now and married. In that “cute zone” of pregnancy – just after the morning sickness, but before the awkward “waddle stage”. She was kind of a rare treat these days; life was catching up to her and it had gotten harder and harder for her to get out to the islands.
They’d helped themselves to coffee and were sitting in one of the tables overlooking the beach.
I walked over to Danni’s side.
She looks a lot like her mother did at that age. Tall, lean, and model-pretty. Angel is prettier, but that’s just an unfair comparison – judging anyone by Angel’s beauty is patently unfair.
“So what does the baby want for breakfast?”
She smiled, radiating eagerness “The baby is seriously craving some of those spicy fried breakfast noodles. The baby can’t get them stateside and wants them really badly.”
“You know, I gave you that recipe.”
“It just isn’t the same without your greasy thumb in it Pogo, I tried.”
She made that mock sad face I’d been seeing since she was ten. Some things just don’t change.
I shook my head. “Probably need to just take some beach sand back with you to sprinkle on it.”
She her smile softened a little. “It’s great to see you again. Derek says ‘hi’. He couldn’t make it, big case coming up.”
“How long you out for?”
She shrugged. “Not too long, just have to wrap up some things before the baby is born.”
She shot Ex a look. Then looked up at me. “Family stuff.”
Ex shook her head with a smile. “Pregnancy makes them crazy Pogo. Gotta get every detail squared away.” She rolled her eyes, then paused “And I think I’ll have those noodles too.”
I looked at her “You look a little tired, everything okay?”
She gave a wan smile “Just worn out, too much to do these days. Even coming out here to get some rest was a lot of work. Had a nasty touch of allergies before we got on the plane, still coming down from that.”
Allergies made sense. They’d just gotten back a few days ago.
I’d let Howard know.
I went back to the bar and got the noodles going. They really aren’t that complicated. But the salt air probably helps, and maybe watching the surf come in is as important as the freshness of the green onion.
My thoughts kept going back to Spooky and the whatever-it-is that we have.
I wonder if I’m losing her. These last couple of weeks were so unlike her. Spooky’s like that half-wild cat that comes in your house when she wants, leaves when she wants. Hunts the birds and mice, and eats them rather than the expensive cat food you’ve bought, just to prove she’s her own cat. Sure she could be temperamental, but clingy and sullen just aren’t like her.
I wonder if she wants to move on, to leave this whatever-it-is. I don’t like that, I don’t want to lose her, but I don’t have any claim on her. I don’t have any right to stop her, or even to complain about it.
She probably needs someone closer to her own age. And that thought sours my stomach. It’s not like I chose to get older. Hell, I was stunned when I survived to turn thirty a little over a couple of decades ago. It wasn’t like nobody had tried to kill me.
My survival is a testimony to the global problem of really bad marksmanship. Given how pervasive that problem is, they should probably start a charity.
I can already picture Sally Struthers saying, “This is Pogo, and despite the thousands of rounds fired at him, he’s still alive. With your help...”
Operators are standing by...
The other kind of operators of course.
By the time the noodles are done, Monster is sitting with them – I don’t have to take his order. Egg white omelet, a side of fruit and just leave the Tabasco bottle on the table. He’s been eating very healthy and taking care of himself. The whole reason he’s in later than Ex and Danni is because he’s been out running on the beach.
He still drinks coffee and eats the occasional steak though, so there may be some remnant of humanity left.
As I brought the food out, Monster gave his usual friendly greeting. If you didn’t know him, hadn’t figured out what had happened, it was pretty convincing.
“Any chance you guys want to earn a little Shack credit this evening – Grease has three charters out and I’ll need some help with the grill.”
That got Danni’s attention – she’s been at beach bonfires for most of her life and really loves them.
Ex enjoyed them too. I’m not sure if Monster really “enjoys” anything, but he goes, mans the grill when he has to, and his presence has a dampening effect on misbehaving drunks. One fixed stare from Monster is worth about four squad cars.
The credit thing is bullshit. As far as I’m concerned, Monster and Ex don’t have to pay for anything, and they know it, but never take advantage of it. Even if I didn’t consider them family, Grease and Angel have made it clear that if Monster and Ex ever manage to run up a tab, it goes on theirs. I guess I understand that.
Besides, the profits off the Friday beach bonfires are so high, the idea of worrying about a free meal or two would be foolish.
Danni jumped on it. “Of course we’ll be there – I haven’t been to a beach barbeque in forever.”
Ex smiled, a Mother Hen smile. “No Margaritas for you this time.”
Monster nodded – he seemed very serious for a second.
Danni rubbed her little bulge through her brightly colored sarong. “It’s worth it. It’ll be fun anyway. I’ll just sit by the fire with Angel and make fun of everyone.”
Angel was in the same boat with Danni – she was just about as far along with her third. And she’d always had a wicked little sense of humor, although nobody knew for a while.
That seemed to settle it, a bit of a relief, even if I really expected them to go for it. If they weren’t available, I’d have had to call Chief and ask him. He didn’t have a lot of tolerance for drunk tourists, but he was a sucker for free steaks.
I had to haul the grill around front – I had a four wheeler just for that. I’d thought about making it permanent, but I didn’t want to ruin the view, and besides, the Friday bonfires wouldn’t be as special if there wasn’t any ritual attached.
Getting the massive thing in place and leveling it was a half hour project, and while I left The Shack open, it was “serve-yourself”. The regulars kept an eye on things to make sure nobody cheated. I didn’t have any booze unlocked before noon anyway. Even then, it was beer and wine until five due to local law. And since Chief was sitting in the place on and off through the day, that bet just wasn’t worth taking.
Just after I got back in, two bolts of gold lighting shot in through the front. Kisa and Lily, two golden haired, blue eyed wonders squealed, paused for a second to give Ex a quick kiss, then swarmed up into Monster’s lap like it was reserved seating. Kisa began chattering at Ex about something she found on the beach, while Lily traced the scars on the side of Monster’s face with one tiny hand.
I don’t understand it, but Monster seems more human around them. I tried hard to remember how he was around his own children. Maybe, just maybe, this meant something. I needed to talk to Howard about it. Maybe this is part of what we’ve been trying to figure out.
That thought doesn’t last long, because if Kisa and Lily are here, Angel isn’t far behind.
She walked in wearing a cornflower blue sarong that matched her eyes. Everyone in The Shack paused for a second, subconsciously catching their breath before talking again. Looking at Angel is like staring into the sun.
She was always beautiful, but once she got her little girl back and claimed Grease as hers, it was like somebody took the cover off a star. Pregnancy seems to make her even more spectacular. Chief told me once that he thinks it’s because everyone hopes she has as many babies as possible – her girls look just like her, and that goes a long way to making the world a more beautiful place.
She flopped into the chair Danni had been in earlier - Danni had obviously gone off somewhere - with an exaggerated sigh of relief. She’s just kidding, of course, she’s her usual radiant self and the walk from her house is short and easy, even herding her little girls along.
I pulled two cups and a glass of guava juice for the three of them – it’s the girls current favorite. Probably more because it’s sweet and pink than because they like the flavor - they’re little girls after all. And Angel always drinks whatever they drink.
Angel took her glass with her usual grace, while the girls, took their cups with a dual chorus of “Thank You!” falling apart into a series of giggles.
While the girls giggled, Angel took a long drink and looked up at me. “There will about thirty guests at the bonfire tonight. Thomas called me over the radio.”