Prologue to Perceval’s Secret
by C. C. Yager
© C. C. Yager
MAY 10, 2048
In the middle of the room, the old man’s right hook thumped Agent Higgins’ jaw, but Higgins hardly flinched. To Internal Security Services Lieutenant Harold Smith, Sr. that punch alone justified the old man’s arrest, never mind that he led that bunch of Underground terrorists. The weak, pathetic old man fought like a girl. He’d report the punch to Higgins’ jaw as resisting arrest. Higgins caught his eye for approval before his fist drilled into the old man’s gut, knocking the wind out of the old man who collapsed in on himself and backed off. Higgins grinned, shrugged. He was having a good time. He picked up the silver boombox from the old man’s cluttered oak desk. Music played on the boombox – maybe something the old man’s son had conducted – but it sounded like a passel of hungry cats.
“Hey, Quinn. What’s this music anyway?” Higgins asked the old man.
“Wha…?” The old man turned away from Agent Markovich who counted books and pulled them out by the handful from the crammed book shelves to drop them in piles on the floor. The old man’s left arm crossed over his stomach as if cradling his pain.
Higgins held the boombox above his head. “The music, Quinn?”
Lt. Smith said, “Is it something your son conducted?”
“You leave Evan out of this!” the old man said with shocking ferocity. His gaze attached to the boombox. “That music? It’s genius. But I’m sure you have never heard of Ludwig van Beethoven.”
Markovich paused, his hand on a group of hardcover books. “I’ve heard of Beethoven. Da, da, dee, daaaaah,” Markovich sang in a pleasant baritone voice.
The old man scowled at him. “You’re all troglodytes. This music is his String Quartet in F major, Opus 135. Evan played it last year with the Hartleben Quartet on tour.”
“Trog-lo-dytes,” Higgins sang using the melody Markovich had sung.
“Philistines!” the old man spat at them.
“Talk like the rest of us, Quinn,” Markovich chimed in. Lt. Smith enjoyed seeing his two agents having fun. They’d probably boast about this arrest until the day they died.
Higgins smashed the boombox on the floor, pieces scattering across the threadbare Persian carpet. Beethoven’s music died. The old man glared at Higgins who laughed, high-pitched and trilly, what Lt. Smith called his “manic laugh.” Markovich continued his assault on the old man’s bookshelves.
A big job for the cleaners, Lt. Smith thought, to box up all the books and take them to the main library downtown for processing. So far the old man’s arrest followed textbook procedure, from the moment the old man had opened the front door. The listening devices ISS had secured around the house and in the old man’s study would record it for posterity. He wished for something out of the usual, though. Lt. Smith had conducted hundreds of arrests over the years, and now they blurred together.
He’d known this arrogant, old bastard for years. They lived in the same neighborhood. Nothing but a damn terrorist, blowing up the Mall of America, killing women and children. His arrest struck a crippling blow to the Underground. Finally. Who had snitched on Quinn? Thanks to whoever – a high-level classified informant — Internal Security Services knew where to find evidence that would finally put the old man on death row. They couldn’t have touched him before. Evidence they’d dug up in the garden at the house up north. Secret compartments in this house. Probably something’s buried out in this back yard. He guessed the informant must have lived in this three-story Victorian house in the White Oaks section of Minneapolis with Quinn and his son.
The old man muttered to himself. Lt. Smith stepped closer. What was he saying?
“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians….”
Nonsense, whatever. The old man continued muttering, watching his agents work. Higgins searched the oak desk, pulling out the drawers and dumping their contents on the floor. That desk looked ancient, probably worth something. He’d confiscate it for his home office. Markovich toppled two empty bookcases onto the piles of books. Where were the secret compartments, old man? Quinn watched Markovich, not Higgins. His desk? The desk faced the wall next to the window. The wall behind the desk?
“Pull out the desk, Higgins,” Lt. Smith said.
As Higgins tugged at the desk, the old man combed his thinning gray-blonde hair back with his fingers. Lt. Smith leaned over the desk to examine the wall. He spotted the faint outline in the wallpaper of a square about one foot by one foot. “We found one,” Lt. Smith said.
“You found nothing!” The old man grabbed Higgins and jerked him away from the desk.
Markovich clapped his gloved hand over the old man’s mouth and held him in a choke hold, freeing Higgins. Lt. Smith helped Higgins lift the heavy oak desk back five feet so they could access that square of wallpaper.
They thought he was weak. But he fought hard for freedom and democracy, a true warrior. Randall squirmed in the burly cop’s arms. He had collected half his books as a teenager, the other half during his college years and after. Shelves of novels, literary and genre, nonfiction, poetry, plays and screenplays — Bradbury and the Tolkien trilogy, James, Cornwell, Woolf, Roth, Steinbeck, Ondaatje, Tolstoy, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Joyce — oh, he couldn’t bear to see them all piled under the upended bookcases. He’d bought that boombox in 2013 a month before Evan was born. At least when they’d searched Evan’s room, they hadn’t torn it up. They’d found nothing, of course. His violin. That’s it.
The blonde cop, an open pocket knife in his right hand, squatted in front of the wall behind where his desk had stood. At least they hadn’t ripped apart his reading chair in the corner, an old recliner inherited from his father, its black wide wale corduroy worn shiny. He bit the burly cop’s hand and chewed for a moment on a mouthful of leather glove that tasted musty.
A gust of wind slapped the blinds against the window frames. He wanted to open the blinds completely, open the windows, expose this darkness of humanity to the bright May afternoon sunshine and his neighbors’ eyes and ears. Someone had betrayed him to Internal Security Services. Betrayed him. Who?
The stupid blonde cop peeled away the wallpaper as he had done himself a month ago. A good thing he’d buried the Underground documents — not many because he committed little to paper as Joe had taught him — in the wooded area where Evan and Paul used to play as kids. He’d lost the surveillance team at Southdale Mall and taken a city bus north on France Avenue to White Oaks. He’d taught Evan how to lose surveillance teams, too. Evan had finally asked him. He felt proud, his eyes teary. He’d taught Evan all he knew during the last two years. The lieutenant looked familiar. Randall knew his face but couldn’t place him.
Black and white cardboard evidence boxes stood open by the doorway to the front hall. They’d fail. No evidence here to use against him. But that didn’t matter. They already had evidence somewhere. Creative, the ISS. Creating whatever evidence they needed. These ISS cops wanted to make a lot of noise and a big mess to intimidate him. They got younger every year. Like clones, all dressed in the same bureaucratic gray suits and white socks. He knew these ISS cops regarded him as a frail old man, but he felt strong. He’d fought since before Evan’s birth, defending his home, his family, his country from the creeping tentacles of New Economic Party power. He eyed a copy of his novel Revolution on the floor to his right.
“Where’s all the smuggling stuff, Quinn?” the burly cop taunted in his ear. “All your cultural smuggling for the last twenty-five years – don’t have anything to show for it? Where’s the Samizdat copies for your Underground friends?”
The burly cop’s grammar begged for correction, but Randall could only shake his head and squirm which triggered chuckles in his ear.
“You were one of our best writers, Randall,” the ISS lieutenant said, not looking at him. “Until the Underground. Was it your friend Caine? What happened to you? What were you thinking? The Arts Council would have supported you like they supported other popular, profitable writers.”
He couldn’t speak. The burly cop held his gloved hand over his mouth. These idiots knew nothing about freedom and democracy. He and Joe had organized the resistance in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They’d helped people escape into Canada. They’d fought the soldiers on the main street front lines in towns throughout the two states. Joe, Joe, you didn’t know when to keep your mouth shut.
“Hey, you’d be rich by now if you’d just followed the rules,” the blonde cop said, opening the compartment in the wall.
“And we wouldn’t be here doing this,” the burly cop sneered.
No. He could not surrender his artistic integrity to the Neppers. He smelled roasting beef. He heard the clinks and clatters of meal preparation in the kitchen. Where had Beth gotten the beef? They couldn’t afford it. Had she betrayed him for better quality food like what the Neppers ate? When the Housing Council sent her twelve years ago to live in his house and work as his housekeeper, they had sent her to watch him, snitch on him. He knew it. Like the families living on the second and third floors. He and Evan had gotten proficient at finding the listening bugs the ISS planted around the house. Until Evan had suggested they leave them, let them hear how patriots lived.
Randall narrowed his eyes at the blonde cop emptying the wall compartment. Notebooks. Allison’s jewelry. Evan’s school papers. Nothing about the Underground. Or Joe’s music scores.
The lieutenant straightened and shifted his gaze to Randall. “It doesn’t matter, Quinn. We already have enough to arrest you.” The lieutenant nodded and the burly cop released him.
Now he remembered. The lieutenant lived in the neighborhood. He used to be a city cop. “How’s that good-for-nothing son of yours, Lieu-ten-nant Smith? What’s his name? Harold. Harold Smith.”
“Harold Smith, Jr.,” the lieutenant said with a smile. “He serves his country with distinction on the front line in Nebraska.”
“That’s stupid of him to tell you. He’s not supposed to reveal his location.”
“No specific location, Quinn. He’s probably somewhere else by now.”
“I remember how he used to terrorize Evan and Paul when they walked home from elementary school. Harold and his Vigiciv gang. Like father, like son.”
“Yeah, I’m proud of him. He’s fighting for America.”
Randall couldn’t believe his ears. Harold, that bully. Harold, in the U.S. Army, fighting against real Americans. He hadn’t changed. Clearly, the entire Smith family were intellectually challenged.
“Hey, L-T.” The burly cop stood by the framed print of Marc Chagall’s The Poet Lying Down that hung over his reading chair. Two of his fingers held one side of it away from the wall. “A safe.”
The blonde cop hurried over to it. Randall felt a sharp pain in his chest. Helpless, he watched them remove the picture and lean it against the wall. The blonde cop attached a black gadget to the safe’s lock. In seconds, he’d opened the safe and begun emptying it, passing envelopes and files and old bank books over to the lieutenant who scanned them into his tablet computer.
He’d forgotten about the safe. Those documents from his publisher in London, and the publisher of Joe’s music, also in London. They’d served him well over the years as had Redfield. The money…meant nothing to him. He knew it meant the world to the New Economic Party and to these ISS idiots. It’s all the Neppers cared about. Anything for profit. Money was power. He realized the lieutenant was talking to him.
“…a disappointment, Randall. You’ve betrayed your country, your government and not even for something smart, but for something stupid.” Lt. Smith had mastered the correct tone of voice for the lecture he gave everyone he arrested. He knew how to make his voice dispassionate. He felt only contempt.
“Stupid? You’re the stupid ones! You don’t see what the NEP has accomplished? A thirty-year civil war that shows no sign of ending. What started it? The NEP passing a law forcing everyone to bank their DNA with the government. Everyone required to have a locator computer chip inserted under the skin. Violations of our civil liberties. Why doesn’t the NEP arrest that? They’ve isolated America, closed our borders and alienated our allies. How does that help America in the world community? The NEP has weakened America, destroyed democracy and freedom. I will fight them until my dying breath.”
The old man ranted. Well, no surprise there. Lt. Smith couldn’t believe how totally cooperative the old bastard behaved, ranting, resisting, exactly what they wanted from him.
“The NEP is freedom and democracy, old man,” he said. “They haven’t destroyed anything. You know they gave America economic recovery from the depression, then stability and prosperity, and security from foreign terrorist attack.”
The old man focused on Markovich who held a framed photograph of the old man’s friend, the composer Joseph Caine high above his head. “You won’t need this where you’re going,” Markovich said and smashed it against the edge of the desk between them.
Lt. Smith sometimes really enjoyed this part, getting them all riled up.
The old man lunged for Markovich, slapped his face, kicked his balls with a force that threw Markovich off balance against the desk. Higgins pulled Quinn off.
“Aw, just do it now, L-T,” Higgins said, struggling to keep the old man in a choke hold. “He’s hit both of us. He’s resisting.”
“Criminals! You’re all criminals. You have no right – ”
“We have every right, old man,” Lt. Smith said. Quinn, the terrorist, didn’t have rights anymore.
“I have rights!”
Lt. Smith laughed, watching the red stain of humiliation creep up into the old man’s face. “Sure you have rights,” he said, cocking his head to one side and letting the sarcasm into his voice. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You – ”
“Bullshit! I remember when Miranda rights truly protected people, protected their Constitutional rights. When the courts were truly courts of law. You criminals don’t even bother with search or arrest warrants anymore.” The old man wriggled out of Higgins’ grasp as Markovich punched him hard in the stomach. The old man doubled over, gasping.
“Easy.” Lt. Smith stepped closer to Quinn, bent down to speak into his ear. “If you cooperate, Randall, it’ll be less painful for you. Maybe even a cot in your cell.”
The old man spit at him. “I want to know who betrayed me.”
He nodded. “Of course you do. Don’t judge a book by its cover, right, Randall?” He picked up a leather bound book from the desk, opened it and shredded pages out of it.
“What are the charges? You don’t have a leg to stand on, nothing.”
“We have concrete evidence of sabotage, cultural smuggling. Documented treason,” he said, taking out his black 9mm service pistol from the shoulder holster under his gray suit jacket. “You’re a known leader in the Underground, Randall, aiding and abetting the enemy insurgents in the secessionist states and – ”
“I’m a writer! I’ve only exercised my Constitutional rights as a citizen. In the Bill of Rights. Investigate Washington. The democratic Western states are fighting for freedom from the NEP’s corporate fascism.”
“Watch out, L-T!” Markovich shouted.
“The AC doesn’t care about real writers, real artists! They ruin them. Just like the Neppers destroyed democracy.”
“What’s he doing?”
“They can’t tolerate dissent of any kind, they call it ‘un-American’ and ‘unpatriotic’ but they wouldn’t dare call it undemocratic because they want the world to believe – ”
“Is he going for your gun, Higgins?” Markovich shouted.
“ — we’re still a democracy and democracy thrives on the respected and free exchange of ideas, opinions, points of view, and yes, dissent. But the Neppers view democracy as a threat — ”
“ — to their ‘permanent majority.’ They maintain the façade but the Neppers have obliterated American democracy for money and power!”
“He’s got a knife!”
“Watch out, LT,” Higgins said. “Too bad his son’s not here. We’d get him, too.”
Markovich tossed the ancient computer monitor from the desk into an evidence box with a loud thump.
The old man spun around, fists clenched. “You leave my son out of this. Evan knows nothing.”
Lt. Smith clicked the safety off.
Quinn turned to him. “He’s not political. He was never involved in the Underground. I guaranteed that.”
“Now, Quinn,” Higgins said, in a wary tone. “You don’t want to do this, man.”
“Drop it, Quinn.”
“Drop the knife.”
“Evan Quinn, son of a traitor, the first American symphony orchestra conductor to tour Europe in ten years!” taunted Markovich. He smashed two framed photographs against the desk’s edge. Lt. Smith nodded. Between their shouts and the noise, it would make a convincing audio recording.
Randall felt the odd tingling sensation of blood draining from his face. What were these idiots doing? Evan was his only child, the love of his life, the direct musical link to Joseph Caine. No one else in America knew Joe’s music anymore. He’d protected him, his son, his heart, and protected the music.
“Evan loves music. It’s all he cares about. He has an excellent civic status. He’s consistently made money for the Arts Council. And I’m sure his European tour will make a huge profit for them. He’s valuable to the Neppers. They wouldn’t like it if anything happened to him. Leave him alone.”
Higgins sniggered and said, “Your son’s dead the minute he steps back onto American soil.”
“No! No! He’s done nothing. I know my son. Leave him alone.”
“Drop the knife.”
“No! Leave my son alone!”
“Back off, Quinn.”
Lt. Smith grasped the old man’s arm. “It’s time, Randall. Drop the knife.” He nestled his pistol’s muzzle against Randall’s temple. “You really don’t know your son.”
“Leave my son alone!”
“He’s slashing at you!”
“Watch out, L-T!”
“Leave him – ”
The gunshot silenced them all.
© C. C. Yager