With Finality

•16 October 2017 • Leave a Comment




•16 October 2017 • Leave a Comment

Josh Fleischmann was asleep.  It was ten o’clock in the morning but his alarm hadn’t gone off.

Lots of people who should have been downtown just hadn’t made it in. Some people called in sick. Some people got into a car accident on the way into work. Some people had taken the day off to go on a trip or on their honeymoon or to a doctor’s appointment or a parent/teacher conference. Some people’s alarms didn’t go off. Two million people were at work.

Josh lived across the river in Jersey. A lot of people lived in the city. Students, children, retirees, the very rich, the homeless, the unemployed. They didn’t have work, or if they did and they stayed home it didn’t matter.

Josh lived right on the river; he had a great view of the New York skyline. Paid an extra two hundred bucks a month just for that view. But that meant apartment faced east, so he had to close his blinds before bed or he’d wake up with the dawn. If he hadn’t closed his blinds he would have woken up and gone into work.

Josh had nightmares from time to time. Nothing really troubling, once every few months he’d shoot up in bed with his heart pounding and wild images fading from his eyes. When he jumped up to a noise so loud that it filled the world and the bed was shaking and the building was shaking, Josh was terrified at an animal level. In a moment he got his breathing under control. He thought he’d had a nightmare.

The noise was fading away. It wasn’t going away, just fading. He thought for a second that he’d left the fan on. Or maybe they were out in the halls vacuuming. But that didn’t seem right. The building wasn’t shaking. But it didn’t feel stable; it felt like it really had been shaking. He got up and went to his window, raised his hands to pry a gap in his Venetian blinds.

He pulled his hands away. The window was hot.

He looked at his hands. He remembered that; he looked at his hands. Then he held them back up to the window. Hot. Fire? Outside? He reached for the pull-chord and in one pull he drew his blinds up.

A mushroom cloud rose over Manhattan, growing, burning black and red.

He could feel the warmth on his face. He instinctively turned, then turned back. He slapped his face, rubbed his eyes. It was still there. Most of midtown was covered in a rising mist of gray.

Josh looked at his two nightsands. His phone was on the one on the other side of the bed. He lunged across the bed to pick it up. Held his finger on the fingerprint reader. Looked for service. Zero bars.

Josh looked for his laptop. It was under his comforter, he’d fallen asleep with it again. He opened it. Signed in. Squeezed his hands open and shut waiting an eternity for it to look for wifi. It connected. He thought about checking the news, didn’t, didn’t need the confirmation, he had his eyes. Instead he checked the weather.

Winds 14 miles per hour, arrow pointing south and east. Getting a little lighter by the end of the day.

He pulled open his drawers, pulled on clothing, exercise clothing, lightweight wool. He looked around the room. Took his laptop and charger, his phone. Went into his little living-room and put them on the floor. Pulled his phone charger out of a wall socket, added it to the pile.Saw he was already wearing his watch. Went back into the bedroom and looked around. A quick look, ten seconds, felt like an hour. Nothing else.

Went into the bathroom. Saw his glasses on the sink, put them on. Grabbed his toothbrush. Grabbed toothpaste, then dropped it, didn’t matter. Opened his medicine cabinet and grabbed sunscreen. Saw bug spray, grabbed it. Brought it to the living room, put it on the pile.

In the living-room. Went into the tiny foyer where he lay his bike. Rolled it into the living room, leaned it against his little futon sofa. Still had front and rear rack mounted. He put on all four of his panniers, his handlebar bag, his trunk bag. Took about fifteen seconds. Checked his front lights and his rear light and they all had charge. Checked both tires with his thumb; good pressure, or good enough.

He opened his one little closet. His hiking gear was not too neatly scattered on the closet floor. He started adding things to the pile. Tent. Hiking poles. Hiking shoes. Cooking gear. Little inflatable sleeping pad. His sleeping bag was hanging up to breathe, he took it down and forced it into a compression sack, then compressed it more. Same with a light down jacket and rain gear. His backpack he folded up and stuffed right into a pannier.

Into the kitchen. Took out a half-full bottle of coldbrew and shotgunned it. Took two big bites from a brick of cheddar. Only other thing in his fridge was a cabbage and some condiments. Grabbed the cabbage. Stuck it in the freezer. Also in the kitchen he found eight granola bars, six just-add-water camp meals, and five of these little pouch meals full of very spicy Indian food. It all fit in his handlebar bag.

Went back to the pile. Everything fit in his panniers. With room to spare – which isn’t the worst thing. He went back to his bedroom and added a change of clothing. Then grabbed his three favorite neckties, his headphones, and a bottle of Scotch that he’d gotten for Hannukah. It fit without trouble. Last thing he did was throw in his hiking boots, which were pretty dirty but who really cared. Filled up his water bottle, added some ice. Pulled on his cycling shoes. Went out the door.

Unlocked the door. Went back inside. Got his helmted. Left for good.

The elevators were working. Went downstairs. The doorman was gone. Could be in the bathroom, could have split. Josh rolled his bike outside and rode away.

He had been awake for eleven minutes.

Everything smelled like burning. All the leaves were off the trees. There were little flakes of ash on the ground. More in the air. He heard sirens and noises but all very distant, all blended together. They were miles away. And there were so many of them they lost their form.

He biked up Grand Street. Passed a few cars, driving in either direction. A few were speeding. He stopped, leaned back, and turned on his rear light. Set it to its most annoying blink. Hoped the cars would see him.

Heard more sirens. Kept riding. Turned onto Communipaw. Fire trucks and ambulances started passing him. Helicopters in the sky, low overhead. Some going towards Manhattan, some flying away.

On to the bridge. A terrifying ride – but Josh always felt that way on bridges. A few cars passed him. Traffic was very light. He crossed another bridge, safe on a separated bike path. He was in Newark. He looked behind him and there was a black cloud over New York, but if he hadn’t known better he would have said it was a thunderstorm.

He pulled out his phone. Texted his mother, “I’m alive, 10 miles away and biking very fast, more later, love you.” Posted to Facebook: “Not dead. Biking away.” Turned off his phone so nobody would bother him.

He went up Market. Stopped at red lights. Kept his eyes open because there were a lot of emergency vehicles – anything that could have a flash was out on the street. Turned up Bloomfield and put Newark behind him. He’d gone ten miles. It had been about forty minutes.

He turned north on 23. He was in the burbs. Things were dead quiet. He didn’t know that every television was telling people to shelter in place. The occasional car passed. They all looked like they were speeding but a lone car always kind of looks like that. He crossed into New York at Mahwah. Got on 17. The highway was nearby, he heard the rush of cars. Seventeen was deserted. He was thirty miles from Manhattan and it was noon.

He passed a convenience store. It was open. There was bad music playing and the clerk looked really bored. Josh bought two large sports drinks and two slices of pizza that looked pretty good, actually. Not that a guy who’s just biked for two hours really cares what anything tastes like.

He took 32 north and that became 9 West. Fire trucks and emergency vehicles kept passing him going the other way. Then tanks. Or things that looked like tanks at least. A cop car dropped to the side of the road and blocked his way. The cop told him to go home and shelter in place. Josh said he was going home, he’d be there soon. Three miles, Josh said. The cop drove off.

He crossed the Hudson on a long low bridge over a little island. His watch said six o’clock. He was getting pretty tired. He stopped on the shoulder, dug out his spork, ate some Indian food out of the pouch. Forced himself to stretch. Was feeling pretty tired – he’d gone a hundred miles. Forced himself to keep riding. Turned east. He was in the middle of nowhere, old houses very far apart. He passed a sign saying Welcome To Massachusetts. Two minutes later he found a spot of woods that looks nice and desolate. Dragged his bike in. Found a little spot and cleared away the bigger sticks. Pitched his tent. Hung his bear bag. Called his mother, but couldn’t talk long because he was so damn tired and also nobody had anything to say.

Took him two more days to get home to New Hampshire. The second day he didn’t really push himself. The third day he did because he knew he could make it if he tried. Sixty kilotons they were saying. Midtown was leveled, the Village was a rubble field, the FiDi buildings were still standing but everything was radioactive, might be for years. Estimates were two million dead – it would be three million within a year, mostly because of fallout hitting Brooklyn and Staten Island. It would be nineteen months before Josh could go back to clear out his apartment.





random advice on long-distance hiking

•12 October 2017 • Leave a Comment

This summer I hiked on the AT. I only did about 600 miles – olanar fasciitis, bad knees, heat rash, Jamestown Canyon Virus, falling off a mountain, some more falling off a mountain… and yet, I still miss it, and can’t wait to get back on.

Everyone’s mileage will vary, but: here’s my personal advice for hiking the AT.


All hikers are created equal. If you keep reading the same piece of advice over and over, it’s probably best to assume that it will apply to you – at least until proven otherwise, on the trail.

All hikers are created unequal. Don’t do things just because everyone else does. Learn how your body works. Learn how you hike.

Make sure your shoes fit. This isn’t here for metaphorical content. It’s just… make sure your damn shoes fit. :-)


Don’t fight the ultralight. Carry as little weight as possible. Period.

Sweat the grams or carry the kilos. If you aren’t anal about every little ounce, you will end up with pounds of unnecessary weight.

Never sacrifice quality for weight. If it’s not the toughest in the world, fine. If it’s not the most comfortable in the world, fine. If you’re not sure if it will survive a full thru-hike, do not bring it.

-If you ever think to yourself, “wow, carrying two of these undependable things is still lighter than carrying one dependable one!” – carry the dependable one. Source: carabiners. >:|

-If you ever think to yourself, “well, I already have a Thing from camping / boyscouts / my mom’s thru hike in 1973” – treat that item with the same skepticism as something you have yet to purchase. 99 times out of 100, you’ll want to leave it at home.

Spend it now or spend it later. If you’ve got the money, buy great gear right out of the gate. If you don’t, consider delaying and saving up.

If you can’t spend money, spend time. If you can’t afford good gear, find ways to make your own or rig things up. Cough Tyvec cough.

If you can’t spend time, start hiking. If all else fails, remember: you can hike the trail carrying nothing, and you can hike the trail carrying everything.

It’s easier to leave it at home. This seems completely illogical, but I found it true. If you start carrying something, it was much harder to send it home – from finding a post office, to remembering to do it, to bothering to do it, to fighting the inertia of chucking one of the few things in the world that you have. Whereas if you leave it at home, you can get it sent to you, or pick up an equivalent on the trail, pretty damn easy. And hey, what’s logical about hiking 2200 miles anyway?

First grams, but second, liters. Big and bulky stuff – or stuff that will be damaged by compressionn – might not be worth its weight savings.

Make sure it fits! I recommend buying the backpack last for this reason.


-Pound for pound, an insect barrier is the most valuable gear you can carry. The first night where it’s too warm for your sleeping bag is also the first night where every mosquito will find you.

-A waterproof backpack is a better luxury than a jetpack.

-Waterproof socks keep in more water than they keep out. The same is true of waterproof shoes.

-Rain kilts are effective, light, and in a pinch can be used for a whole lot of things. Most important they breathe – which if you’re hiking a giant mountain in eighty degrees is pretty awesome. Also, for the men out there, they will give you something to talk about when the old men hikers give you eeeendless shit for wearing a skirt :)

-In a cold rain, waterproof rain mitts are better than a roaring fireplace. And there are a million things that will work just as well, from disposable gloves to grocery bags.

-Dudes: consider hiking in a shirt with a collar. There are lots of wicking polo shirts. It makes you 8000% more presentable in town. Even when your beard makes you look like you operate a moose taxi service.

-Sawyer Mini has too slow a flow rate. Get the squeeze. YES! I ADMIT IT!

-Leave the ereader at home. You’ll either be hiking, or you’ll be too tired at the end of the day.

-Same with earbuds. At best, hiking with earbuds means missing out on the world. At worst, it means missing out on the rattle of a copperhead.

-Camp shoes. Bring them. For fording rivers, for when your shoes fall apart (#pennsylvania), for having something that ISN’T YOUR HIKING SHOES at the end of the day. Something you can hike in (sandals, crocs) is best, but even a pair of flipflops is a-ok.

-Wool > synthetic. It might dry marginally slower, but it’ll feel so much better putting it on in the morning. Absolutely worth the trade-off.

-Headband. I’m a sweaty dude, and this might be the single most important piece of my hiking kit. When I lost mine in Kent – sorry, Kent – but seriously, fuck Kent – the next few days were misery itself.

-Bandanna. I’m a bald guy, and… the Cumberland Valley. “Field day.” A mandatory 18-mile sprint with zero cover. Bandanna up.

Three pairs of socks. Two to switch back and forth, day by day. A third to sleep in and never ever to hike in. (Shout out to Darn Tough for the former.)

Ear plugs. People SNORE. This includes NATURE. Bring EAR PLUGS!

Sleep mask. I slept with a $10, 10g sleep mask almost every night. I found it really helpful for falling asleep, especially if it was still light out, and especially in shelters with other people using headlamps and such.


You can be a zero-to-hero. Before the AT, I’d never hiked more than a few hours, I’d never hiked carrying more than a few pounds, I’d never backpacked, and I’d never even camped in the woods. It didn’t make it harder. If anything it made the first few days a little scarier and more adrenal… which made it easier :P

Know how to adjust. You’ll be readjusting your stuff – particularly your pack straps – throughout the entire hike. At the very least, make sure you know howto adjust your pack.

Practice your PCT hang. There’s really nothing I regret more than not doing this. Especially since I started at Harper’s and then got used to the bear boxes. I had to have someone reteach me in NJ – I’m shocked I didn’t lose all my food beforehand.

Know how to read the blazes. Also your guidebook or Guthook. Also Google Maps!


Take it slow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Meet people. Be friendly. Even if it’s not in your nature – it really helps. Especially at the beginning when you can get advice and help… and especially later for the same reasons :-)

Don’t give yourself a trail name. It’s presumptuous, and no fun. Just trust me on this. Let it come.

Don’t assume people are always right. I got a lot of well-meaning bad advise the first few days. And a lot of advice from people that worked for them but just didn’t work for me. On the other hand, the weirder the advice sounds, the better the chance that it will prove to be accurate. (Ramen Bombs, anyone?)


Take it slow. It’s still a marathon, not a sprint :)

Use polls. It’s so much better for your knees. It’s also good to share the work with your upper body, I find.

Downhills are more dangerous than uphills.

Wet rocks hate you. And even more importantly: wet feet make wet rocks!

The logbook is the dirtiest place in the shelter. (Thanks for that one, Flying Scott.) Always sanitize after touching the logbook. Especially if it’s in one of those zip-loc petri dishes.

If you haven’t seen a blaze in a few minutes, make sure you’re on the path.First, turn around and see if you can see a blaze going the other way. Then, hike ahead about 200 yards. Then, if no blazes, turn the fuck around.

If you come to an intersection and aren’t sure which way to go, backtrack 20 feet and you’ll probably be able to figure it out. If you find yourself clearing brush, you’re not going the right way. If you look down and think “this looks insufficiently trampled,” you’re not going the right way.

Try to stay clean. Never turn down a shower. Go out of your way for a shower at all times. If it’s hot and humid out and there’s a stream, jump in. If there’s no stream, consider pouring spring water over yourself behind the shelter. Beats heat rashes, every time.

Shelters are fun, but not always for sleeping. Most of the time I realized I preferred a tent. So pitch your tent or hang your hammock, then hang out in the shelter for a while. Save the shelter for when it’s undercrowded, or the weather’s nasty, or you’re so damn tired that the thought of putting up your tent makes you want to fly home and donate your feet to science.


Eat. Eat more. You’re gonna be at a caloric deficit pretty much no matter what you do. I remember the first time I ate an entire pizza by myself. I felt like such a pig. Then I realized that I was still probably at negative five THOUSAND calories for that day.

Don’t worry too too much about what you eat. At every resupply or restaurant, try to eat as healthfully as you can form the choices available at that moment… but don’t compare those options to some platonic What Is Healthy. Or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Try to eat more protein. Aim for 1g/kg of body weight, every day. If this means you have to buy 10 protein bars from every gas station you pass… do it.

Drink more water. This is true at basically every level.

Drink extra water when leaving town. Especially since you’ve probably just eaten salty salty town food, which will catch up with you 3 miles later.

Water flavoring. I strongly recommend against it. I never needed it, even in PA/NJ… but once you use it, it will be very hard to go back.

Stop for water. If you’re empty or near empty, and the next spot for water is far away… get more water. Because the next water source WILL be dry.

Read the guide ahead to see how much water there is. If you’re entering a dry spot, carry more.

Every beer is ten beers. Lots of exercise. Never enough food. Perpetual dehydration. Yeah, you will get fucked. up.

Caffeine. Won’t make your body run. Will just make your mind run. That’s my opinion, at least.

Eat on zeroes. The day after a full day of hiking, you will still have elevated metabolism and protein requirements. This probably won’t be a problem for you to do! Just don’t feel bad about it.

Don’t eat until you barf. At a buffet, take it slow and easy, and don’t destroy yourself. On a zero day, it is perfectly permissible to hit the same buffet two meals in a row :-)


Turn your phone to minimum settings. Airplane mode is your friend.

Turn off your phone when you’re sleeping.

Charge whenever you can.

Phone with a big battery. If you can, it’s such a luxury. Samsung Galaxy Active is my choice. Alternatively: portable power source.

Waterproof phone. 100x luxury.

Wristwatch. It’s great to know if something’s going to be open or closed when you get there. I’d recommend a day/date to know when things will be closed for Sunday. And I can vouch that hiking is great for keeping an automatic watch wound :-)

Compass. Two main uses. One, being able to tell your mother that, yesss, I’m carrying a compass. Two, getting you turned around when you shouldn’t be. But you can get a fine compass for ten dollars (and six grams), so it’s a nice safety feature – especially for getting through towns, and in the 100 Mile.


Have fun. Don’t force yourself to go faster. Force yourself to keep going. Eat more. Drink more. Talk to more people. Make friends for life. Take more pictures. Pet more dogs. Eat more peanut butter. Talk to everyone. Stop and smell the roses. Turn around from time to time. Lay in the grass. Wave at a bear. Shout from a mountain-top. Have the time your life.


•4 October 2017 • Leave a Comment

My fence is in France. I’m almost certain that his buyer is too. I’ve told him I have two rugs. I decide to take them myself. Maybe I will notice something, maybe I can learn something. If I can trace his collector I can sell the other seven to him myself.

I have an AirB&B in the 6th, a student flat near the École des Mines. The owner’s a tall German girl with Vietnamese looks, Turkish heels. She offers to leave me beer or weed at very little markup. I ask for a six-pack. It’s waiting for me in the fridge. She’ll be very happy when it’s waiting for her when I leave.

There’s no good place to hide the rugs. I didn’t think there would be. Instead I put them on the floor like they belong there. No burglar is going to notice. Worst thing they’ll do is step on them. And people have been doing that for two hundred years.

I have four hours. I’m hungry. I don’t want to go out and I definitely don’t want some delivery guy knocking at the door. I look through her pantry. Have a bowl of dry cereal – her milk smells off. I must have seen movement because I look up. The lighting sconce above me has shifted to the side.

Something drops from a little hole in the ceiling.

I look away and close my eyes. It doesn’t help.

The flashbang blinds me. Deafens me. But it throws my senses so far out of my head that it doesn’t really matter. I bent double over her counter, roll down, hit the floor. Then there are armored men above me. Putting very large guns in my face.

I’m going to jail.

*** *** ***

They put me in an interrogation room.  I ask for an attorney and then shut up. I don’t know why they’ve arrested me. I don’t know if they have the rugs.

“We have the rugs,” the detective says.

“My attorney, please. Madame.”

There might be a story that would involve me having those rugs and being innocent at the same time. Until I know what they know, I can’t craft that story. It is probably uncraftable. But it’s worth a hope when the alternative is to say “I’m guilty.”

The rugs are from Lelydorp. It’s one of the oldest mosques in the hemisphere. The prayer rugs on the temple floor are new. Underneath those are slightly older rugs. At the very bottom are rugs that were made by slaves. When they were freed they carried the rugs from their plantations to the outskirts of the capital and built their new lives and their new state upon it.

They should never have known that they were missing. Nobody should have.

I groaned. My fence must have cut me. Either the cops will pass the two rugs to him at a hefty discount, or he’ll step in later and offer to help me win my freedom – in exchange for the other seven.

“Nothing,” I said. And again, “I want my attorney.”

*** *** ***

The detective leaves me to rot. I wait for my attorney to enter alone. Instead she comes in, with another officer in tow, and shackles my other hand to the table.

A man comes in. He’s wearing a long coat though it’s only October. He always seems to be smiling. Even when he isn’t.

He puts his briefcase down on the table, opens the latch and draws out a manila folder. Opens the folder. Takes out a page. Holds it up. Compares me to a picture.

“Yes,” he says in English, “that is him.”

He looks at me like a hunter who approached to his fallen prey only to find it cancerous and twisted.

He hands the file to the detective. Then he leaves.

*** *** ***

I spend three days in prison, confined to my own little cell. On the fourth day I am taken away in shackles.

I am taken to an airport. A private plane is waiting for me. As is the man in the long coat. As are two men in a uniform I don’t recognize, holding batons at the ready.

The French detective uncuffs me, pockets the cuffs. The uniformed men spin me around and put their cuffs on me. The man in the long coat says nice words of thanks as I’m marched up the narrow stairs and onto the plane.

I am seated in a chair. I am shackled to it. There’s a bag nearby, with a hole for me to breathe through. Right where I can see it. Nice touch.

The officers come in and sit in front of me and behind me. The man in the long coat comes in, takes a seat across from me. It’s a very nice plane. I wonder how much I’m paying for it.

The stairs are retracted. We begin to taxi. We wait on the tarmac. The man fidgets. I just wait.

We are cleared for takeoff. We are in the sky. In half an hour we are out of French airspace.

“Now?” the man asks.

I shrug.

He sends the uniforms back to the rear cabin. They don’t say anything. Either they’re professionals and they don’t care, or they’re provincial street cops with fake uniforms and they don’t even understand.

The man leans over me and, with little grace, unlocks my cuffs.

He sits back down. Thinks better of it, stands up and takes off his coat. He folds it neatly and puts it on an empty seat.

“This was an excellent bargain you made,” he sys. “A good insurance policy. Wise investment.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That you had killed two men in Encarnación. That you had been convicted already. That you escaped with the help of dastardly elements who themselves had already met justice. That you would be executed within ten days of your extradition. That Paraguay did not wish to be deprived of its justice while waiting on a lengthy French trial whose results could not possibly change your fate.”

I rub my wrists. “You offered for the Detective to come and observe?”

“Offered? I insisted. She declined. Ten days was too long-”

“Yes, that was well done.”

He bows his head. “This has been quite enjoyable.”

“And profitable,” I say, after biting my tongue.

“Yes. Five hundred thousand dollars. Plus expenses, which will be minimal. As I said, an excellent insurance policy.”

“We are going to Paraguay?”

He beamed. “We will stop in Martinique. The flight plan is filed. As a French overseas possession, they will observe the plane on the ground, and see how you do not disembark.”

“Very nice,” I say. I mean it.

“I thought you would approve.”

He leans back. “There is cold lobster and French pastry. And more than enough wine – though nothing chilled.”

I stop listening. I look out the window. I can’t stop rubbing my wrists, though they don’t hurt.

Five hundred thousand dollars.

I start thinking about the other seven rugs.


•2 October 2017 • Leave a Comment

I arrive in Colombia with the reliquary. I don’t know if it’s being bought for its holiness, its beauty, or as an investment, or because there is just nothing else for the cartels left to buy. It isn’t really important. I’m being paid very well for it, whereas I had got it without paying anything at all.

“He has changed his mind. He wants to meet in the jungle.” I laugh and end the call. I’m in a suite in the Miraflores with a whole wall of glass to look down on Cali. I think about how much I could enjoy a few days there if that’s how long it takes for them to call me back, agree to a proper exchange. They’ll probably call me back in ten minutes. Probably for the best.

There is a knock on my door, and I realize I won’t be enjoying anything for a while.

I pull my passport from my pocket, open it, made sure I have the information properly in mind. I pull out my phone and hit the quick-release on the SIM card, exchange it for a fresh one – phone history full of legitimate calls, browser history full of bland porn and eBay. I lift the couch and put the old SIM under a wooden foot.

I call out in bad Spanish, “Yes?”

“A package for you, sir?”

“Come in.”

“I don’t have the key.”

I get up, grunting for show, and go to open the door. I think about having a quick drink on the way. It won’t help.

I put my hand on the doorknob, then think better of it and slip on my shoes first. I open up and a large policeman slams me into the wall. Another grabs my head and holds it there, facing into the room, a last view of freedom. A third man, tall but slim, walks past me. He doesn’t even look at me. Then they start hitting me.

I’m going to jail.

*** *** ***

They don’t take me to the police station. They take me to a house outside the city. The car goes into a garage, the door shuts behind. I’m taken to a basement. The walls are soundproofed. The floor has a drain.

I am in the place that I do not want to be.

The two policemen start to beat me. Beat me up, maybe. They leave my clothing on, which softens the blows. They spread the blows out, I barely start to bleed. They circle around me, driving me away from the walls. I fall to my knees and they pull me back up, but after that I manage to keep on my feet.

It’s just beginning.

They stop for a moment, look at each other. I look up and one of them lands a solid blow to the side of my head. I stagger. I let myself fall down. They leave me on the ground for a minute. Either they went away or I did, because the next thing I know one of them is placing a bright lamp on the ground, and the other is placing a chair above the drain.

They put me in the chair. They cuff my hands, one cuff for each. They tie my feet.

The chair is bolted to the ground.

The door opens, and I scream.

The thin man walks in. I recognize that he’s wearing a major’s badge. I think that’s fairly high up in the police. Or in the military. I’m not sure what the difference is in Colombia – especially if they know I’ve been dealing with the cartels.

The thin man stands in front of me. He’s carrying a chair just like mine. He places it casually, sits easily. Leans forward, clasps his hands. Asks me my name.

I give him my name. He doesn’t move. One of the policemen comes over and puts a cigarette out in my arm.

I didn’t even smell the smoke of it. Now I smell skin cooking.

They torture me about my name for a while. I don’t break. They don’t really want me to. They are testing my defenses. Or they just want to torture me.

The thin man leans forward. “What is your business with El Trovador.”

I let my eyes go wide and scared and I stare them at him. It’s what an innocent man would do. I hope he reads it as the fear of a man who realizes how badly fucked he is, not as the surprise of a man who realizes he’s been found out. Which, I suppose, is also true.

I start to deny it. I look around, wild-eyed. One of the police hits me with the full weight of his fist. My mind goes around inside my head. It looks like it’s started to snow inside. Then someone takes off one of my shoes, and things get very clear, because I know what’s coming, and then they break my big toe with a hammer.

They ask me about El Trovador. Over and over. I try to distract myself by wondering what they know and how they know it. It doesn’t work. They’re too good at what they’re doing. They unshackle my right hand and bring in a small table. They break every finger, left to right.

Cold water is thrown on me a few times. I think I blacked out. I’m not sure. They shock my inner thighs with a cattle prod but it doesn’t do very much. They make little cuts up my entire arm with a knife.

*** *** ***

The spotlight goes off.

The room lights come on.

I think I scream.

The thin man turns, then jumps to attention. I throw up a little more. Nobody pays me any mind.

An older voice says something in Spanish. It takes me a moment to remember the language.

“Unlock his chains,” the older voice says.

“Sir, I don’t-”

Colonel,” it says.

The thin man stiffens. “Colonel, sir. May we please speak outside-”

“Unlock his chains,” the colonel says. “Now.”

The thin man stiffens, forces himself to move and obey. My arms and legs are unlocked. My head lolls – I think they’d put me in a neck brace at some point. The room is distant. It takes everything in me to keep my eyes open or I’ll black out and hit the floor.

I see a pair of well-pressed army pants in front of me. My eyes don’t get above his belt.

“With everything in my heart, senor, I apologize for this mistake,” he says. “There is nothing here that should have happened. I take full responsibility. It is our shame.”

I cough. Pain shoots from my neck, ripples down my spine. I throw up a little and spit it at the floor. Hands catch me to keep me from falling over.

“We will get you immediate attention,” the colonel says. “Your pain will go away in minutes. You won’t feel any until you are healed. We will have a doctor come to you in your hotel suite.”

I get my head around to look at the thin man. He looks horrified. I enjoy his face with something deeper and more animalian than I have ever felt. I want to bite his neck with my teeth, with my open mouth, to tear out his throat with my teeth. I can barely move, so I don’t.

“Major Rosado,” he says. The thin man looks like he has just stepped on a nail. “First, you will apologize to this man.”

The thin man gapes.

At length he says “I am sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

His eyes stutter. “For… torturing you. Señor.”

The colonel bends at the waist, until I can see his eyes.

“And now,” he says, “I would like to know how we can make this up to you.”

I stare at him.

He looks back with an open mouth. “I wonder if you would like to do the same.”

The thin man steps forward. “Sir, I-”

The colonel points, snaps. The two policemen grab the thin man and hold him down. He struggles for a moment, looking at one and then the other. They lift him and put his back to the wall. He’s far enough away that my eyes can’t focus on him. I still try.

“We know enough of El Trovador,” the colonel says. “We know to avenge insults quickly and as fully as he would himself. And there is no more full vengeance than that. We follow the lead of his creativity.”

I can hear the thin man moving. Kicking. Then screaming.

“No,” I say.

“No!” I shout, although it’s more of a gurgle. I still regret it. I start coughing. The colonel has to hold me up, and step aside when blood runs out of my mouth.

“Are you sure,” the colonel asks. “I mean it, señor. It would be… easier… for us, if we-”

“No,” I say. I struggle to find words I can say. “Not. Needed.”

“Señor,” the colonel says, “I have to ask you – because if El Trovador does not think that we have-”

“No,” I whisper. “No. No. No. No.”

I manage to get my head up, and look into his eyes.

I won’t give him more assurances. Fuck him.

“Get me out,” I say.

The colonel nods. Snaps his fingers. The thin man sinks to the floor. Then so do I.

The policemen leave and come back with a stretcher. I expect I was going to leave on it anyway, I just wouldn’t have still been alive. They carry me up the stairs. I let myself black out and mostly do. They put me in the car I came in. They drive towards the hospital. Every bump makes saliva pour out of my mouth. I feel sounds come from my mouth that I can’t hear. I cannot understand that there is sunlight.

They will patch me up, I know. I’ll be on morphine in minutes. I’ll be back in my hotel in hours. I’ll be healed in days.

El Trovador’s men will hear of this. They will do what they will do. Hopefully they will give me the extra days.

I wonder if the SIM card is still where I left it.


•2 October 2017 • Leave a Comment

I walk across the room. I’m trying not to sweat. It’s summer in Italy and my uniform’s wool, I’m going to sweat. But I don’t want it to look like I’m stealing something. Because I’m stealing something.

My heels click on the parquet floor. Can’t be helped. I punch in a keycode, open a door. It has those buttons like chronograph pushers, each one echoes as I push it. Can’t be helped.

There’s a wall of boxes. Polished steel, each has a number and a keyhole. They range in size from so small to so large that it looks like a scene from Alice In Wonderland. The smallest boxes hold jewels or wristwatches. The largest hold sculptures or double basses. I only want one box. I know the number, and I have the key.

The room’s empty. It should be, I paid enough. I find my box, no bigger than the opening on a mailbox. I put in my key, turn it, pull out a drawer the length of a corpse-drawer in a morgue. Inside are long spacers holding a little cushion. On the cushion, surrounded by gun-cotton, is a little box.

I take the box. I’m still holding it when the door opens and someone walks in. It’s a young woman. She sees me, draws sharp breath. I force myself to smile at her, look away from her, close the drawer, put the box in a little bag. I hear the sound of the door close. I look up. She’s gone.

Too late to back away. Can’t run away. Nothing to do but go through with it and pray.

My prayers aren’t answered. I make it to the back exit but there’s a guard in the way. He When I get up to him three other guards appear around me. They stand very close to me. I can’t move. They take the little bag from me and pass it away. When it’s far enough away not to be in danger, they punch me in the stomach and push me down to the floor. Then they handcuff me. Then they start to kick me.

I’m going to jail.

*** *** ***

I’m in the civilized part of Italy. The police come and take me away. I’m no more bloody in the interrogation room than I was before.

A detective enters the room. He’s alone. He’s not all that worried about this one. “You were caught red-handed,” he says, in Italian. My papers say I’m Italian. My accent says about the same.

“I was,” I say.

“Do you confess?” he says.

I nod. “Absolutely.”

He leans back, scratches his elegant stubble. “Tell me about it.”

“So, La Rialto is a little upstart auction-house. Having an auction in the middle of the Biennale is considered a bit tacky, but they need something to put them on the map. The auction consisted of two private collections, intermixed. One was from a small museum in Denmark that is liquidating to buy rainforest instead. The other is the private collection of a Senegalese dictator who isn’t dictator any more.

“They had one piece I wanted. I really wanted. An early 20th-century assemblage, paper and pine. According to the catalog it was made by a Danish schoolteacher named Embla Lund and was worth three to five thousand euro. It belonged to the dictator.”

“And you just wanted it?”

“I did. And I don’t have three thousand euro, let alone five.”


“So I was going to steal it.”

He gestures for me to go on.

“So I started two weeks ago at the security firm. I passed the training and they made me a guard. Worked some little jobs. Made a little straight cash – not very much. I asked the shift coordinator to assign me to La Rialto and she agreed. Didn’t even need to pay a bribe.

“I looked over an appraiser’s shoulder until I figured out where the box was – which bin. I stole a keyring from a curator and copied the key I wanted. He was too scared to report the keyring missing. Which I knew. I returned it to his jacket pocket and watched him out of the corner of my eye when he put the jacket on and heard it jingle. He looked like he would cry.

“I changed shifts twice with two other guards, ended up working thirty hours in a row. But as a result I saw the entire auction-house, learned how it operated. I timed a cigarette break to coincide with the evening staff meeting, went into the room to get a box. But some staff wandered in – a fifteen-second window, she just happened to wander in! And that was that.”

He waited for me to go on. But I was done.

He asked me a few more questions. About my background. About other things I’ve stolen. I was quite upfront. I told him that I stole things from time to time when I really wanted them – just silly little things when I really wanted them. Okay, alright, sometimes I sold things to pay the rent. But not on anyone’s orders – I wasn’t ‘Ndràngheta – I just needed to pay the rent. Everyone needs to pay the rent.

He seemed satisfied. He got up, clapped me on the shoulder, squeezed. But he was already on his way out the door.

A little later he came in with a statement for me to sign. He told me to read it. I just signed it. I trusted him.

I slept in a cell with four other people. A courtesy; I could have been in one with forty. The next morning I was brought before a judge. I was charged with stealing something worth less than two thousand euro, a minor offense, and my first. The judge ordered me to attend a two-hour diversionary program and complete twenty-five hours of community service.

I was released.

*** *** ***

It took me two weeks to get into an open diversionary program. It was very boring. Most of the people there didn’t even speak Italian. By then I’d done over two hundred hours of community service. I didn’t have anything else to do.

A perfectly clean identity is most suspect. An identity with a little past is worth its weight in gold. It was a good investment. And it’s no hardship to be in Venice – even if you’re wearing a yellow vest while pulling trash out of the canals.

I left Venice before the auction. The little box went for five point three million euro. It was discovered to have actually been made by a young Robert Motherwell and was a unique addition to his catalogue raisonnee.

I had known all that. More importantly, I knew that at least two other people knew it too. They would bid on the item. They would bid it to a thousand times its estimate. It would confuse the auctioneer but not unpleasantly. Later, when the piece’s provenance was demonstrated, La Rialto would be most embarrassed – but in a way that would titillate their clientele. The piece would become a well-known item in the world of art – never again to offer such a margin of profit.

I had to get it first. I didn’t have much time, and no connections to speak of in the City of Masks. I would have to steal it myself. I almost did.

After my release I made a few phone calls. With agonizing slowness, La Rialto realized the piece’s true provenance. They issued a catalog correction – called it a typo – and the Motherwell box became a centerpiece of the auction. The bidders I knew of didn’t even attend.

I watched the auction until the box was sold – then closed my laptop, and asked a flight attendant for a drink.


•2 October 2017 • Leave a Comment

I’m in a little six-seater prop plane. It’s just me and the pilot. My briefcase has its own seat. We touch down on the landing strip. Snow on the ground, lonely in the high mountains. The plane takes off, and I’m alone.

Where I left my car is a smooth mound of snow. Looks like I get to dig.

I use my sleeve to push snow to the side. I get into the trunk. I get a little shovel, telescope the handle to full. I’ve got the car just about uncovered when the car comes diving out of the trees. Breaks hard by me and two cops come out, guns raised.

I’m going to jail.

*** *** ***

They put me in the back seat of their car. They start to drive.

They’re border patrol cops in a border patrol car. Could be because I just flew in from Canada. Could be because we’re so close to the border that they have jurisdiction. I have no idea why they’ve arrested me and that doesn’t narrow it down.

There are several reasons they could have for arresting me. That doesn’t help narrow it either.

Beautiful road. Long and winding, high in the mountains. Fir trees, boughs heavy under the snow. No other cars on the road. A pair of snowmobiles waiting by the roadside for us to drive by. Then the sun sets and it’s too dark for me to see much of anything. It must be about four in the afternoon.

The two cops don’t say anything. Neither do I.

We come to a small town. They stop at the intersection – there’s no stoplight, there’s no stopsign. A snow plow makes a wide turn around them. The cop at the wheel raises one hand to the plowman. I can’t see if he gets a handraise back.

We turn up a side-street. Roll up behind a building that has to be a police station. I try not to exhale with relief. I’m not going to the middle of the woods to be shot or a barn to be tortured. It’s the little things in life.

They put me in an interrogation room. They leave me alone. I’m cuffed at one hand. I move so the cuff doesn’t scratch my watch. Too late.

They let me stew for a while. I put my head down and close my eyes. Easy to do when I’m jet-lagged as hell.

*** *** ***

They barge in, loudly, unsurprisingly. They mean to startle me. They do.

The first officer has a moustache and goatee. The second one is clean-shaven and keeps his hand by his gun. He means to scare me. Can’t be that scared of me if they just brought a gun into the box.

They have my briefcase.

The one with facial hair sits down. The one who’s trying to scare me stays standing. He gives the strong impression that he’s leaning on something even though he isn’t.

The one with facial hair turns on a recorder, states the time, gives his name.

Hair pulls out my wallet. It’s a big one. It’s got my passport inside. Well, a passport I own. One of them.

He takes his time. Looks at it. Looks at me. Looks back down to it. Flips through it idly.

He reads the name, asks me if that’s my name. I don’t say anything.

He reads the address, asks me if that’s my address. I don’t say anything.

He closes the passport, looks at the cover. “Are you really from Panama?” I don’t say anything.

“I don’t think you’re from Panama,” he says. I don’t say anything.

“I think you’re American,” he says. I don’t say anything.

“I think you just traveled here from Canada.” I don’t say anything.

“I think you crossed the border in that airplane, and you didn’t go through customs.” I don’t say anything.

“I think that you’re carrying something that you don’t want to put through customs.” I don’t say anything.

“I don’t think it’s just fruits and vegetables,” Hair says. A joke. He wants me to laugh. I don’t.

“Where did you fly out of?” I don’t say anything.

“What time did you leave Montreal?” I don’t say anything.

“What was the name of your pilot?” I don’t say anything.

“Have you flown with Bill Hesselring before?” I don’t say anything.

Scare jumps forward and slams his hands on the table. “Answer the man!”

I don’t say anything.

Hair reaches down and hauls up my briefcase. I can see him strain. He puts it on the table. It’s black plastic with a combination lock.

“What’s the combination?” he asks. I don’t say anything.

It’s not a fancy briefcase. It’s not secure, doesn’t even try. Scare pulls out a keychain full of what look like lockpicks. Hands them to Hair. He tries one, another, a third. The lock springs open. TSA locks. For when you really don’t want something locked.

He opens the lid with one hand. Then he stops.

For a moment, neither of them remember I’m in the room.

Hair spins the briefcase around to me. “What’s this?” he asks. I don’t say anything.

“Because to me,” he says, “it looks like two gold bars.”

It is.

Two bars of gold. Each about twenty pounds. Ten kilograms, actually – but there’s something wrong with measuring gold in kilograms. Makes it sound scientific instead of economic – a valuable commodity, instead of value itself.

The two together are worth a little over eight hundred thousand dollars. And they came so close to being duty-free.

I don’t say anything.

“Now what’s a Panamanian like yourself doing with two bars of gold?” Hair asks. I don’t say anything.

“Since this has a cash value over one thousand dollars U.S.,” he says, “a failure to declare it at the border is a federal crime.” I don’t say anything.

“And something tells me you didn’t come by it in an honest way.” I don’t say anything.

“Or pay taxes on it,” Hair says. I don’t say anything.

“Maybe you even owe it to someone.” I don’t say anything.

“Or it’s not yours. And whoever it belongs to is going to be very upset with you for losing it.” I don’t say anything.

“We could protect you, if that’s the case.” I don’t say anything.

“Or maybe that’s not the case. Maybe this is yours. And because it’s yours, you’re going to go to jail.” I don’t say anything.

“Or it’s not yours. But you don’t say anything, so we say it’s yours, and you still go to jail.” I don’t say anything.

“We have no reason to-” Hair says, but Scare grabs his shoulder.

“You sit tight,” Scare says. “And try to think of a way for you to get yourself out of this. Because otherwise, you are going to lose this money, and spend a very long time in jail.”

Hair stands up. Looks at his partner for the briefest moment. Then opens the door and leaves.

Scare follows him. He turns the tape recorder off before he leaves.

*** *** ***

I try to put my head down. It won’t stay.

I haven’t said a word. Not when they were recording. Not at any time. Not that I’m afraid of them recording my voice. I just don’t have anything to say.

I could invoke my right to silence. I could ask to speak to my lawyer. That would get them to shut up. I don’t. I want to hear what they have to say.

They could have so much to say.

I kick my heels and play with my watch and wait.

*** *** ***


They enter just as loudly. I don’t blink.

Hair sits down, but a little to the side. Scare leans forward on the table. He takes the lead.

They have not turned the tape recorder back on.

“You’ve been caught crossing the American border with almost a million dollars in gold,” Scare says. I don’t say anything.

“You didn’t declare it. Now that’s a federal crime. And I think we both know that, if we dig around, we’re going to find a bunch of other crimes in connection to this money.” I don’t say anything.

“Now, you’re going to lose this money,” he says. “It’s gone. You’ll never see it again.” I don’t say anything.

“The question is,” he says, “do you also want to go to jail? Because you’re losing this money either way.” I don’t say anything.

“You’ve got a choice now,” he says. “You can be smart. You’ve got a chance to be smart right now. Are you going to take it?” I don’t say anything.

“You can tell us everything you know and we’ll put you in witness protection,” Hair says. Scare stares at me. I don’t say anything.

“If you want,” Scare says, “you can take your chances with, whoever you’re working… with, whatever you’re mixed up in. That’s on you. But if they find you and kill you that’s your business. We offered to help you – to let you help yourself. If you don’t let us help you help yourself, then that’s not our fault if someone comes and kills you.”

“Is that what you want?” Hair asks. “To go out there alone and take your chances?” I don’t say anything.

“We’re going to confiscate your illegal gold,” Hair says. “That’s civil forfeiture. It’s gone. It’s gone now. And since you’ve refused our offer of protection, we’re going to release you on your own recognizance. And you’ll have to present yourself here at six o’clock tomorrow morning. If you don’t get killed by then.”

They stare at me.

Hair looks away.

“You have to be back here at this station at six o’clock tomorrow morning,” Scare repeats. “Then we will move forward with your arrest.” I don’t say anything.

“Do you understand?”

I don’t say anything.

They wait for me to say something.

*** *** ***

This could have gone a few different ways.

They could have arrested me. They could have arrested me for something unrelated to the gold and the gold could have just disappeared. They could have driven me to the border and watched me walk back into Canada. They could have put me in the squad car, driven me out into the woods, and shot me.

Instead they’re telling me that if I let them have the gold, I can go free.

It’s clean. It’s easy. It makes perfect sense for me. Like they said, I lose the gold either way – this way that’s all I lose. I get out of jail, it just isn’t free.

They should have killed me.

*** *** ***

I reach across my body and press a button on my watch. It beeps. Then the face flashes – it’s a smartwatch. And it starts to speak.

It’s a pretty good recording. You can tell Scare’s voice in an instant. There’s a little timpany – footfalls, the shutting door – then he speaks: ““You’ve been caught crossing the American border with almost a million dollars in gold-”

The color drains from their faces. They listen to the whole exchange. The one we just had – the one they thought was unrecorded. And now that they hear their words, they realize that any jury in the world would see them falling over themselves to solicit a bribe from me.

I take off the watch. Hold it up for them. Show them where it says RECORDING. Right next to where it says UPLOADING. Right next to where it shows three bars and 3G.

I put the watch back on. Then hold up my wrist to be uncuffed.

*** *** ***

They go outside. They talk about it for a while. Not that long. When they come back Hair unlocks my shackle. Glares at Scare who holds open the door. I rub my wrist and go out into the hall.

“It’s in the car,” Hair says. I don’t say anything.

I get back in the backseat of the car. They get back in with me. I’m a little scared they’re going to stop by a woodpile and put two in the back of my skull. Not that scared. They know what Uploading means.

We drive up the road. It’s still pitch black. My jet lag’s even worse.They drive slowly – they’re looking for deer. Or moose. Wouldn’t want to hit one. The guy in the backseat might even survive.

They drop me at my car. They don’t say a word. They leave.

If they’d demanded – or even offered – I would have given them one of the gold bars. The one that’s really gold-plated lead, but still. Didn’t get that far. Maybe next time.

I finish shoveling out, and drive away.

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