Thanks to my usual cast and crew of advance readers and editors, especially Dragonsweb & The OldFart
If they made me a king, I'd be but a slave to you,
If I had everything, I'd still be a slave to you.
If I ruled the night, stars and moon so bright,
Still I'd turn for light to you.
If the world to me bowed, yet humbly I cling to you.
If my friends were a crowd, I'd turn on my knees to you.
If I ruled the earth, what would life be worth,
If I hadn't the right to you.
The music was written by Tolchard Evans, the lyrics by Robert Hargreaves and Stanley J. Damerell.
Frank Sinatra - The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings
Note from Jake Rivers,
This is my eighth semi-annual "invitational." The current effort consists of stories based on songs by Frank Sinatra, Ol' Blues Eyes. Please read the stories and give feedback to the participating authors. Unless I'm convinced otherwise, I'll probably stop after the tenth invitational.
Holy Cow! Talk about going right from the frying pan into the fire!
It was just barely Tuesday morning and already our lovely idyllic South Pacific island of Poravuvu was having its second revolution of this week! They had just barely picked up the bullet shell casings from yesterday's junta change! Just goes to figure...
Stop me if you've heard this joke before ... why is Poravuvu just like an old phonograph record? 33 revolutions per minute!
Yeah, it's an old joke — but sometimes it's true, or nearly so enough to make your head hurt!
Working for Oceania Nitrates, despite the regular government changes, is a pretty swell (and safe) gig. We're the golden goose of the island, the only real source of hard rock solid western currency, and while all of the 'Dear Leaders', Presidents, generalissimos, and overly ambitious colonels all wanted us kept under their thumb, they rarely apply the boot. President-for-Life Fetuano had tried that novelty during his socialist regime of the 1970's. No one, no matter how greedy or zealous had wanted to try that stunt again! The bird shit, and the dollars must flow!
Technically, the senior management is all American, appointed from our corporate office in the deepest darkest wilds of Arizona. They've had the contract for mining the phosphates from this fertilizer rich island since the early 1930's, despite most of the periodic political changes, for a couple of extremely good reasons. Our miners and engineers know what we're doing and extract the most potential fertilizer with the least amount of inconvenience to the locals, and pay (by third world standards) a fair wage to the local excavators, miners and shipping crews.
We've stayed out of local politics — strictly and absolutely, and for the most part, the local politics has in turn left us alone. As I said earlier, the flow of bat and bird shit, hundred of millions of tons of it from thousands of generations of migrating seabirds, must flow! With no other nearby islands within nearly a thousand miles of us, any passing bird has stopped here for relief and a light snack — and the several odd million years worth of once liquid crap is now worth near pure gold instead.
Today, the current officer with a mind for self-promotion, didn't seem to have read the memo and decided that he wanted to go old school on us. His guards shot their way into the gates of our plant, shot at a half dozen plant workers just on principle, then shot a couple more security guards outside our offices, and finally came trooping in to visit our plant manager with AK-47's at the ready, and a sincere willingness to use them — often, violently and at anything that moved.
Holy Cow! This was the first time I'd ever had a gun pointed at me and I didn't like the idea very much! I wasn't even an executive of the company! I'd been hired straight out of college three years as a civil engineer, to help build and repair the barely passable dirt roads, rotting wooden bridges, and to keep the docks of the island's only port functional. OK, the fact that I was related to the famous Colonel Renwick probably helped ... probably a lot. He was legendarily famous back then, and probably even more so now.
My grandfather Colonel John Renwick was a famous civil engineer who had a thirst for adventure in the wildest places of the world during the 1930's, came to this island just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor to hack out an airstrip out of the jungle, so that the US military could set up a base on the island to help protect the convoys to New Zealand and Australia during the darkest months of the Pacific war. In those halcyon days, Poravuvu wasn't an out of control kleptocracy. Back in my grandfather's day, the island had a queen — and a darned good one by all accounts! She disappeared at the time of the first revolution in early 1947, shortly after the end of World War Two, and by most accounts my legendary grandfather, Colonel Renwick was involved up to his eye-teeth. Some native stories say that he was her lover, and moments before the foreign mercenary soldiers stormed the queen's palace, he had spirited her away. In any case, the two of them were never seen again on the island.
Like King Arthur, or General Douglas MacArthur, there are folk legends that the queen (or her heir) will return again at the time of most need. I'd say that she was long, long overdue.
By most accounts, since the first revolution in 1947, thirty-seven heads have claimed the crown of this small island kingdom, but none has ever quite had the balls to crown themselves king. In Poravuvu tradition there can be no king. Always, from antiquity, a female line has ruled the island. So the island priests say, and no one, except for the insane President-for-Life Fetuano, has ever contested their will. The priests supposedly stay out of local politics too, but don't confuse them with pacifists. Push them hard, and they'll push you back even harder ... usually in the dead of night when you're all alone. Those ancient Polynesian pointed spears that they carry aren't entirely for show.
The first revolution was mostly a benign one ... relatively speaking. A bunch of unemployed Australian army officers heard about this remote South Pacific island and its quietly profitable phosphate industry and decided that they wanted in on the gravy train. Since the US military had completely pulled out of the island as soon as the ink on the Japanese surrender was dry, the queen had little more than a ceremonial guard to protect her from a couple of dozen mercenaries with guns. Their take-over was bloodless, but that precedent ended shortly afterwards. The next thirty-six odd palace revolts invariably terminated with extreme prejudice the careers of the top men above them, in a never-ending cycle of junior officers promoting themselves, and invariably bringing in a fresh group of foreign mercenaries to help hold them in power.
Wash, rinse, repeat, ad nauseium.
By far the single two worst leaders were President-for-Life Fetuano, during a long five year reign of absolute rule in the mid 1970's, followed by the possibly even worse, and slightly longer rule of the ultra-Marxist 'Dear Leader' Puleleiite.
Fetuano, in his greed didn't settle for what our company could discretely mine from just a few select caves of the island, which already held more than enough guano to last several hundred years of careful ecologically sound mining. Instead, he opened up the central valley of the island, the island's most fertile land, to large scale strip mining. If that wasn't enough, nearly the whole of the southern part of the island was clear-cut and burned to create a meager grassland for ranching for cattle, causing large scale ecological damage to much of the island's best remaining farm and crop land. This formerly tropical jungle once provided enough fruit, root crops, and other edibles to feed the entire local population, with significant leftovers available for export, and instead turned a land of plenty into a near barren land of hunger and deprivation. Even the birds, the very source of the island's wealth, decided to pack up and leave.
It was this anger that turned a local minor local priest into a socialist revolutionary. Under his regime, which shared much of the philosophy of Cambodia's Pol Pot, all of the middle-class were driven from their homes and villages to toil refilling by hand-tools the great earth scars of the open-air strip mine pits, and the southern fields of weeds were resown to attempt to return the land to jungle. Alas much too late, now that the formerly rich jungle topsoil had all been washed or eroded away into the sea. Maybe given a few generations, the forest will slowly reclaim what was taken, but the hands of men, under the shadow of gunmen and whips could do little to speed this process. Some calculate that a full third of the islanders were murdered or died of hunger during these dreadful seven years, until even the hardened killers of Puleleiite's inner circle had seen too much outright murder for them to stomach.
The more recent juntas since have been much more benign, but even decades of time hadn't allowed the islanders to recover to anywhere near their former standard of living. The lucky few workers with a job dug or transported millions of years of accumulated bat and bird shit, company boats took the guano to a processing plant in Mexico that turned the crap into first class fertilizer, which was sold in the states, which in turn exported food and other goods back to the island. No longer self-supporting, at least half of the islanders lived in small shanty villages at the north and south ends of the island in bone grinding poverty.
The kleptocrats remained rich. The lions share of the local profits continued to be funneled to the local generalissimo, and that bastard and his closest cronies were extremely rich men, undoubtedly with fat overseas accounts ready for the day when it's their turn to flee for their lives, when the next 'trusted' colonel gathers the ambition to become the boss.
If even half of that plundered loot had gone to the islanders ... alas.
Revolutions without planning, government without foresight, power without wisdom.
Even the few times a fake election had been conducted, and the ruler gained faux legitimate power. Then ... what? They neglected all health and social services, they took and redistributed every public and private resources based on political, not social, needs - and their people begin to starve as cronies can't (or won't) farm, mine, develop, or otherwise use the redistributed resources to the true benefit of society. Eventually your people or cronies rebel -— and you ruthlessly torture and murder them, getting your country thrown out of any useful worldwide organizations that might help with the social and health services issues, or that might help train your cronies to use their redistributed resources. In the event that they managed to receive a small amount of aid from other countries, out of pity -— they not only stole it, they even lied about ever getting it.
Now, as a result of all of this 'modern enlightened leadership', today the island is starving, wracked with diseases ranging from cholera to malnutrition, rebellious, broke, and dying - except for the cronies, the ones that have sold what they can, where they can, and as fast as they could do it, to keep up their personal standard of living even at the expense of the island's future.
When white men ruled most of the third-world as colonies, the result was admittedly a lot of hard work for very little money, and if you griped, you got fired. But as long as you didn't revolt, you would be left alone, more or less. You might be poor, it's true ... but you were always poor. Now that the black, or brown or yellow men rule their lands like medieval fiefs, the result is robbery, rape, torture, murder, and even more work for even less money.
Now there is yet another new boss. Meet the new boss, far, far worse than the old boss.
This one looked like a reincarnation in spirit of either Fetuano or Puleleiite. He had a crazed look that indicated that this former minor captain had some boldly audacious plan for his reign. I didn't like the look in his eyes at all; they didn't ever seem to blink and they burned with an obvious insane zeal to put a few new heads up on pikes as an object lesson in fear to intimidate the rest.
Our company stayed out of politics. Period - end of story. It was written into our employment contracts and undoubtedly also carved in stone somewhere for good measure. This didn't help poor Jeff Hudson in the slightest when our new would-be 'Dear Leader' shot our hapless and unbelieving plant manager right between the eyes with his 9mm pistol when he refused to open his wall-safe behind him. The bastard then shot off another three rounds into Jeff's already unbreathing chest just to make sure that he'd made his point with us.
Yeah, we all got the message. You're a raving lunatic!
Undoubtedly our new generalissimo and all-around fucktard was certain that our main company secure storage vault, big and fireproof, contained lots of neat things like large stacks of ready cash for bribes, and other easily converted debentures, like letters of credit, stocks or bearer bonds just still there waiting for him!. Fat chance! I've been in that vault, a lot ... Jeff doesn't even usually keep it locked since he can never remember the combination! It stores our contracts, invoices, shipping bills of lading, and anything currently important that we want to keep fireproof.
Captain Dumbshit could shoot the entire lot of us and not find anything in that vault worth the replacement cost of the ammunition. Besides, all of the petty cash was kept in Jeff's secretary's bottom right desk drawer. Short of a dragon's lair, no place on earth was probably safer. Ele'ele, called by most of us Ellie, was a native born Polynesian beauty, drop dead gorgeous in the prime of her mid-late twenties, and she had the temper of a thousand furies if crossed. She guarded her domain, which was her boss and all that he surveyed, with the fury of a lioness. She inherited the top administrative job from her equally fiery mother, and no one ever willingly got onto her bad side. If you played honest and respectfully with her, then she was your very best friend in the company, and the few that ever crossed her rued the day.
I thought she was the most beautiful woman on the island, and treated her accordingly from the moment I stepped off of the boat three years ago. She smiled at me, but never once accepted my offers for a drink after work or dinner. After the third firm but polite rejection, I took the gentle hint and (mostly) kept my eyes to myself, although I sometimes caught myself mentally undressing her when I thought that she couldn't see me. Nothing ever got past her and I'm sure that she caught me secretly ogling her a time or two, but her exotic eyes never betrayed anything. She loved first and foremost her job, and then the rest of her stock of affection was saved for an uncle Fetu who earned a living making and selling silver wire jewelry, and pretty nicely made stuff at that. I often saw him doing business in front of Duncan's Lagoon, an old army quonset hut near the old US airfield down by the southern end of the island. It was a hangout for expats, like me, working guys from the airfield, the guano mines or the docks, and more or less our main hangout after work, except now my future drinking days there looked increasingly unlikely.
Now the Captain's gun was pointed directly at Ellie's head as he bellowed at me to open the vault or else the young lady would die next. Somehow I knew from the look on her face, she already had ideas about dealing with the overly ambitious Captain ... quickly, rather violently and very permanently. I had not the slightest doubt in my mind that she could handle herself in a violent situation. I'd once seen her completely take apart, virtually limb by limb, a drunken Aussie sailor that wouldn't take the hint to get his hands off of her ass. She broke his arm in at least three places, and good many other bones as well ... and with frightening ease and apparent simplicity. Even now her dark deep violet eyes looked for an opportunity or a weakness, and in a fraction of a moment she would then act.
This left the center stage of this remaining drama to me, Colonel Renwick's grandson and namesake, John "Renny" Renwick III, to find a way to keep the Captain happy, his two gunsels — guards — diverted, and to hopefully safely provide a fraction of an opportunity for Ellie to enact what mayhem she had planned. I decided not to disappoint any of them.
"Alright, I'll open the vault for you Captain, but I'm going to need help lifting the cashbox, to carry it out to you."
Magic words, cashbox. Envisions lovely images of stacks of gold coins, or even sweet shiny silver. Or lovely thick stacks of hundred dollar bills all banded up for easy counting too! Loot -— and more loot than a man could carry! Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice! Greed is such a simple but debilitating vice. The asshole would now have at least a third of his brain already mentally counting it, and deciding who else would need to die in order to preserve his sole possession of this fortune. Another slight edge to Ellie, should she need it.
Captain Hodgkin's, at least that was his name according to his uniform nameplate, looked to be either from Auz, New Zealand or South Africa. He was vaguely Anglo looking with a hint of some local colonial dalliances further up in his genealogy. We get a lot of Commonwealth or adventurous former European mercenaries coming to this island for employment, along with more local Asian imports like Thai's, Vietnamese, Chinese or Koreans (both North and South). The revolution business is very equal opportunity. I didn't know a thing about him personally, as the officers and cronies had their own northern bar up near the palace where they hung out, tortured locals, and drank and harassed whores. Already his face, hearing the golden words 'cashbox' was locked into a cruel smile, and he gave abrupt orders for his gunman escort, another white European-looking merc sergeant (Dutch, I think), to go with me to the vault door.
As I suspected, the bloody thing wasn't even locked as usual. The asswipe had murdered our plant manager absolutely unnecessarily, and for no practical value. Yeah, this fucktard was right out of the Fetuano or Puleleiite school of violent revolution. If nothing else, this showed that our new potential 'Dear Leader' had absolutely zero regard for human life ... and also absolutely no common sense. A rather bad combination. Rules of non-involvement be damned! I was dead certain that our nice little island couldn't handle another sociopath ruling from the royal palace, and it was now up to me to stop this nutjob ... hopefully permanently!
Opening the vault, I deliberately didn't turn on the overhead light, which is located in a rather inconvenient and unergonomic far back corner of the vault. Don't ask me why. The vault storage room was also rather big with several rows of central shelves down the center utterly loaded with old unimportant paperwork and other crap. The place was also full of old file cabinets, junk and just plain more junk, including a row of old native carved art. Again, a safe, dry, sort of climate controlled place to stick things where they'll be out of the way until they're someday needed.
The alleged cashbox in question was really an old military surplus footlocker full of Nelson's personal stuff, and a few items left over from previous plant managers, including a nice large wooden statuette that ought to be in some Polynesian museum. At the very bottom of the chest, under an old vintage military jacket were a bunch of loosely strewn old silver dollars, maybe about two hundred or so, dating from the late 1930's. I hoped that the sight of this shiny bottom layer would distract the sergeant long enough for me to overpower him, especially as the chest was just around the corner from the vault door, well out of sight from the Captain.
Really, the plan couldn't have worked any better! I showed the Sergeant the chest and the suspicious bastard wouldn't let me open it, in case there was a gun or another weapon resting on top. Fair enough ... there was a gun, an old military 1911 issue .45 Colt right on top of the junk pile, albeit unloaded. The Sergeant grinned and I could watch him mentally relax as he started to unload the rest of the junk out the box. He was obviously smug, certain that he had outfoxed my clever plan to grab the weapon and disarm him. When he found the layer of 1930's vintage Peace silver dollars, his eyes were off of me entirely, and without a thought of anything other than greed in his head, he bent down to examine and gather up the silver.
Picking up the large heavy ebony wood carved figure of a native woman that he had unwrapped from the jacket and set aside on the floor, I had no trouble at all picking it up and braining the poor fool with it. Rather too hard, I later discovered. The old ebony wood was as tough as metal and crushing his bare skull didn't even put a dent or a scratch in the base of the wood. Her head did come off in my hand, as the rest of the now broken figurine fell on top of the junk pile, but fortunately soundlessly onto the discarded old jacket it had been carefully wrapped up in.
"You, Sir," I muttered as I took the sergeant's gun, "are a lackwit!"
With his gun now in hand, I had no trouble sneaking quietly around to the edge of the vault doorway and then darting briefly into view I quickly popped two rounds into the central chest mass of the other gunsel Sergeant, and thoroughly getting the Captain's attention distracted to me. I ducked back around the corner of the vault as he fired off with lightning speed one round that went right through where my head had been a fraction of a moment before, but he did not fire again. Our new 'Dear Leader' had all of the trouble he could handle from that moment fighting off Ellie, who had taken full advantage of my distraction.
When I dared turn my head around the doorway about ten seconds later, the martial arts duel in Jeff's large executive office was disturbingly even. Apparently a lot of mercs spend their formative training years in martial arts dojos too and know nearly every trick of dirty fighting there is. I think Ellie was ahead on points, but he was bigger and stronger than she was. Her lightning fast kicks to his face and the side of his head looked nasty, but were non-critical, on the other hand one of his fast hard punches to the side of her head clearly wobbled her and half knocked her silly. At least his sidearm had been knocked away to the far side of the room, closer to me than to him.
I decided that the fight looked a little bit too fair and even to be comforting, so I waved my gun a bit and gave Ellie a quizzical look. Her dander was up, but even in her adrenaline fury and cloud of pain, she could see sense, and she nodded to me.
Sensing that I was behind him, the Captain darted like a jackrabbit to put his back to the wall, but that didn't concern me in the slightest. My first round, fired from right in front of him, blew out his right kneecap in a very pretty Technicolor spray of blood that splattered shattered cartilage and bone all over the wall of the executive office. If Jeff had still been alive, he would have been pissed.
I had zero regrets, and from the look on Ellie's face, he wasn't going to live long to enjoy his permanent disability. His mobility and balance gone, the rest of the fight wasn't even close to being fair. In fact, the next few minutes were so violently disturbing that I returned to check upon the dead body of the Sergeant in the vault and even took the time to repack up the footlocker. Even out of the room, I could still hear the loud cracking of bones and the howls for mercy that went unheeded. Doing so saved me some visual memories that I would have preferred not to recall, and this earned me at least one family heirloom as a reward. The US Army military jacket, complete with the insignia of a US Army Colonel, bore the embroidered name of Renwick. It was clearly my grandfather's, and when I put it on it fit me almost like a glove, except more comfortably.
I want to think that he someday wanted me, or maybe my father, to have claimed this heirloom, and I searched the other contents of the footlocker more carefully. The gun, certainly of the same vintage, I assumed was his as well, and I slipped it in my belt loop, to wear it for now. Some extra magazines along with some old, but still very useable ammo were at the bottom of the chest mixed in with the old Peace dollars, and I loaded the weapon and tucked it inside of my belt.
I was carefully examining the two pieces of the broken wooden carving when I felt Ellie's finger gently touching my right shoulder. She had taken a moment to wash her face and hands in the next door executive restroom and her fingers were still wet to the touch when she gently also touched in a light caress the side of my head. She'd mostly washed her face as well, but there was some remaining splattered blood on one of her ears, not to mention that her once lovely dress was quite covered in blood as well. Still, she beamed at me with obvious joy and delight at her victory, and she even allowed me to take a tissue to wipe the blood from her ear.
Together, under the better light of Jeff's office, we examined the broken statuette and discovered that the two pieces were intended to be separated apart, as there was a small interior hidden cavity which hid a small rolled up tube of stationary writing paper, complete with my grandfather's printed name and his old New York office address high in the Empire State Building.
Reading in wonder, I discovered that the hand-written letter from my ancestor, dated early in 1947, was written in two distinct languages, of which neither one of them was English. The top portion of the message was in hieroglyphic runes from a ancient nearly forgotten Central American culture similar to the Mayans from a small country called Hidalgo, with which my grandfather and my father even today had many commercial and political ties. I had resisted learning this forgotten language as a schoolboy, but it was made very expressly clear to me that most (if not all) of the old family secrets were recorded and preserved in this language, used by my grandfather's few small but exceptionally close adventuring fellowship, and that I in turn (and my own children), needed to preserve this family tradition. To date, I had never needed this secret knowledge, but my family tutors had taught me well and I could read clearly my grandfather's message, which was indeed intended solely for one of his direct descendants.
This portion of the message was brief, but important. The bloodline of the queen had been protected and preserved by my grandfather, and a trusted line of local priests. I was given a name to seek, a certain Fetu Solomona or his direct descendants. This, I was startled to instantly recognize, was Ellie's uncle Fetu, an elderly man who indeed could have met my grandfather as a boy and remembered him.
Ellie claimed that she could not read the lower script, but recognized it as being from a different hand writing in the island's ancient traditional language, known now only by the priests. Her eyes told me differently, but I was willing to let her keep her secret, for now.