Sunday, February 05, 2006

Green, Green, and Green

[A note from Dr. Thursday: This story appears by special permission from the Editor-in-Chief of Something Good To Read. I wanted to post this as an example of one form of "framed" story. Some readers will, unfortunately, recognize Astenios as the horrible Man with the Green Cane. I may be risking a lot to post this story, as he is indeed "an implacable foe". More on that another time - if there is one.]

Green, Green, and Green
by Nero "Sherlock" P. D. B. Brown
[Reprinted by permission. In memory of my mother.]

In a cluttered office somewhere in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, Timothy R. Leighton carefully set his coffee cup down on the only nine square inches of empty space on his desk. He looked at the telephone in amazement.
"You saw Astenios? In this country? Where?"
There was a long pause while the voice on the telephone poured a lengthy description in civic legalese with heavy accents of security. There was a moment of silence, then a question. The voice on the other end of the line was clearly a novice.
"No. Do not contact the locals. You don't know what he's after, and how dangerous a man he is. Yes, dangerous. Don't let his blindness fool you - he is far more deadly than any three people with normal vision. Stay there, and I will be out soon."
He hung up the phone, and took a sip of his coffee. "Kathy, I've got to go after him. It must be the Quetzal Jade. Our Mexican contacts reported it missing last week."
"Dear, what about our anniversary tomorrow?"
"I know; but the agents today aren't up to Astenios and his tricks. I can't believe he's come back to America... If things go well, I'll see you tomorrow night. Perhaps we'll still have time for a late dinner - Antonio's is open late on Wednesdays."
"Dear, I would feast on crackers and water, as long as we are together."
The man looked at his secretary, who was also his wife, his chief agent, his Watson, his long-time partner and his adversary in dozens of board games. He sipped coffee and smiled at her.
Kathy's eyes were slits. "What's this Quetzal Jade?"
"It's a large jade stone, in a silver setting - it's an egg-shape about an inch across and maybe an inch and a quarter long. It's not just intrinsically valuable. The setting is finely carved with Aztec glyphs - one of the very rare examples of their picture-writing. And here's the catch: it was only found recently, and for some reason, they had not photographed it, or even made a sketch of the writing, so the Museo is frantic to recover it for the writing alone. It was stolen just after the Museo acquired it."
"Hmm. And it's Astenios again - and that horrid little mutt of his."
"Yes, and he's sure to have one of his big bodyguards from Rovani."
"You mean those brutes - those assassins?"
"Yes. Of course he needs a chauffer - and a pilot - as well. But, as you will recall, the two we've dealt with seemed better at shooting than at steering."
She frowned. "It doesn't seem like him."
"He goes after bigger things usually." She looked out the window at the cars driving past. Everyone in that Maryland town thought it was a medical research company - and part of it was. Kathy and Tim were in the part that wasn't.
She looked back at her husband. "Maybe he's getting it to trade for something else."
"Hmm." His eyebrows lifted. "That might explain a lot - since it isn't the kind of thing Astenios usually goes after. His interests are, er, Mediterranean, rather than Caribbean."
The room was silent. The cars going past were completely inaudible. The stacks of papers rested while the two looked at each other.
"Well, I'm going to have to go and see. Kathy, take a memo." He carefully set the cup down again, and picked up a document from the top of one of the stacks. "To the Department of State: it has come to our attention that Horates Astenios, the infamous blind thief of antiquities is once again in America. You may recall he is a native of Rovani, and our previous encounters with him and the government of Rovani. On information received, we believe he is after the Quetzal Jade, a Mexican antiquity of incalculable value, stolen last week from the Museo Nacional de Mexico, but smuggled into this country in an as yet undetermined manner. As of this date, our agent reported sighting Astenios in..."
* * *
Ana Smith walked into the supermarket. It was a Wednesday, like any other Wednesday in some ways - but it was not the supermarket she usually used. Her husband Edmund had an appointment at the doctor's. As usual, her son Albert drove them: first they dropped Edmund off, then they went just a little further down the road, to yet another strip mall, where Albert parked. He would wait in the car while his mother did the grocery shopping, since he intensely disliked what he called the "piped-in noise" - by which he meant any music composed in the last century or so.
Ana looked around, trying to get her bearings in a strange store. Fortunately, she did not have a very long list, but that did not mean it would be a quick trip. She knew from experience that each store had its own view of the correct category or class for certain food items. Did the peanut butter appear with the jelly? Did the pudding mixes appear with the cake mixes? Was the sour cream with the milk or the butter? Was the cream cheese with those items or with the other cheeses? She had seen many other examples of the unclassifiable, and there were other odd things which she needed from time to time which required her to ask for help, even in the store she knew best: capers, for example, or yeast, or chocolate syrup. Those last two would actually migrate during the year, and could appear at different places at different times. But this week she needed nothing exotic. Moreover, she felt the fun of doing something a little unusual for a change.
* * *
Ana was looking over the baked goods, of which there was a far greater variety than in her usual store. Meanwhile, in the stockroom at the back of the store, the produce manager put down his telephone and frowned at a stockboy. "Did you just put out a case of avocados?"
"Those that just came in? Andy was doing them while I did the bananas."
"There's a mistake. No; it's not our fault. Our supplier just told me that was a special order. Just go out and pack them up and bring them here."
"Right away."
* * *
Ana shrugged and looked around as she went up and down the aisles. Even the cart felt different. It seemed odd not to see all the vegetables first... but then she came to the produce section. She thought she would try a new main-course salad for tomorrow's dinner, and she needed an avocado for the dressing. She looked over the exotic vegetables and fruits - a somewhat different selection from those in her usual store. She chuckled at the strange shapes and wondered what they tasted like, and what kind of courage someone must have had to ever try a prickly pear.
There was a fresh display of avocados, the rows nice and even. Strangely, there was one avocado sitting all by itself in a tray just beside the main display. The tray was marked "star fruit" - but Ana knew what star fruit looked like. Probably it had rolled off - or maybe it was just the odd one out. She picked it up; it seemed ok to her, and she put it in her cart. She thought the display looked neater, though she hoped they would get more star fruit in again. She might want to try one someday.
* * *
Outside it was cold; the sky was cloudy, but snow was not expected until the weekend. Albert sat in his car, a smile on his face. His CD player blasted Bach's Brandenburg Concerto for recorders and...
"Wow!" he said suddenly. He paused the CD and rolled down the window. A big white limousine stopped right in front of the main entrance of the supermarket. A very large man with a waxed moustache got out. He had a scar across his forehead. He looked around, slowly. Then he went to the back door, opened it, and assisted another man out. This man was not much over five feet tall. He was very neatly dressed in a light brown tailored suit, and had a small red skull-cap centered on a bald head edged with fine gray hair. But there were two things that Albert noticed which stood out in his memory: the dark glasses and the green cane. He heard a sharp bark, and a chihuahua jumped out and nosed around the short man, then around the large one. The bald man motioned and the dog jumped back into the car. The large man shut the car doors, and helped the bald man into the supermarket.
Albert sat there and stared. The limo just sat there. But he was worried, because when the big man had gotten out of the car, his coat had hung open for a moment, and Albert had seen a gun in a holster under his arm. Albert rolled up the window, got out, and went to the trunk. He didn't like the music they played in most stores, but he really didn't like people with guns in the same place as his mom. He looked over his toolbox, took out a couple of things, shut the trunk, and went into the store.
* * *
Albert went inside the store. The two men from the limo were nowhere to be seen. Quickly he walked along, looking up each aisle for his mother. He found her in on of her favorite areas of any food store - the spice section.
"Mom! There's a couple of strange-looking men in here, and one has a gun."
"Really? At least you picked the right place to tell me about it."
Albert stared as his mother grabbed two or three jars off the shelves. To herself she murmured "Now, where do they hide the vinegar here?" Then, glancing at Albert, she asked, "What do these guys look like?"
"The one is very tall, bulky. A waxed moustache and a scar on his forehead. He had a white overcoat. The other was short, bald, with a green cane. I think he's blind. He's really creepy-looking."
"A blind man with a gun?"
"No, the big guy has the gun. The little one seemed to be his boss - and I think I'd rather face the gun than the little guy."
"Did you see them in the store?"
"Not yet. I don't know where they went after they went inside."
"Probably in the back stockroom. But I need some vinegar, just in case, and maybe one or two other things. Oh, but I think I'll have to use the ladies' room first... Just wait here."
* * *
In an office by the storeroom, the stock manager was sitting at his desk. A stockboy stood next to him. Astenios' bodyguard had his gun drawn.
Astenios stood motionless near the desk. "You put those avocados out."
The manager stared at him, his voice shaking. "No; one of the night staff did. He's off now. But Roger brought them back. They're in the stockroom."
"Orni, take Roger to the stockroom, and bring the case."
As the two walked towards the door, Astenios lifted his cane, took a step or two forward, and poked it against the manager's chest. "This cane contains a spring and a very sharp blade. Do not move, or I will discharge it into your heart. My hearing is very good."

The manager was on the verge of fainting when the two came back into the office.
"Set the case here on the desk," ordered Astenios.
Roger did as ordered. Astenios reached into the box and puled out an avocado. He squeezed it with his hand; the fruit dropping onto the desk. It was an ordinary fruit. He dropped the seed into the box. He did the same with the rest of the fruits, while the pile of green ooze grew.
"There are only twenty-four."
The manager struggled to find his voice. "That's the usual number of fruits in these cases."
"Correct. But this was not a usual case. There was to be twenty-five." Astenios took out a handkerchief and wiped his hands. "Check whether any avocadoes were sold since this box was placed on display. Orni, watch him."
The manager shifted nervously to the computer terminal. The huge bodyguard came over behind him.
"Don't try it," ordered the blind man, as the stockboy took a step backwards.
"No; the last avocado sold was yesterday - and this box did not get here until this morning at 4:35."
"That means it's still in this store," Orni remarked. "Perhaps someone is going to buy it."
"Perhaps," Astenios said. "Unless this stockboy made a mistake."
"No, sir! There were twenty-four. Let me count the pits, maybe you made a mistake."
The green cane flashed out, striking the young man on the side of the head. "The only mistake was your own," Astenios stated. He made a signal, and Orni struck the manager on the head with the butt of his gun.
Astenios moved around the desk, feeling for the telephone. "Finish them off and get them in the stockroom. Then you will watch the computer for the sale of an avocado. I will call the limo and tell Ernax."

Ana came out of the ladies room, just off the hallway to the stock manager's office. She had heard enough.
* * *
The cellular system was overloaded, and Astenios was not able to complete his call. Orni returned and sat in front of the computer. Astenios sat silently in the manager's chair, every so often trying to call his limo. Suddenly Orni said, "Someone has bought an avocado - and I think their program has a mistake. It says their stock is 'negative one'..."
"That is not the only mistake. After we get it, we will take care of the wholesalers." A strange smirk came over the bald man's face. "Fix their system, Orni."
The silencer worked well. Computers tolerate bullets about as well as humans. Then the two left the manager's office, and made their way to the front of the store.
* * *
There was only one checkout lane open, and only one person in that lane. Two carts stood there, already full of checked-out groceries, and a third was being filled. Many more items were stacked on the conveyor belt. There were bags, sacks, and baskets bulging with every green fruit or vegetable in the store. Lettuce, peppers, grapes, apples, bananas, and a host of exotics. There even was a bag of green donuts! Ana was there, emptying the last cart, valiantly struggling to keep up with the conveyor. The checkout lady did her work nonchalantly; it had been a slow morning and she liked big orders. A stockboy, assigned to the front, kept up with bagging, gentlying packing the produce into the carts.
As they walked towards the checkout, Orni glared at the carts full of green. "We have a problem. I don't see the avocado."
Astenios shrugged. "Just take the cart and go."
"But there are three carts. And they are all full of green vegetables."
"What!" For the first time in many years, Astenios lost his composure. "Shoot them and we'll take everything. We have no time to waste."
But even Orni had a soft spot. He looked at Ana. She was nervous and out of breath from her efforts, and looked far older than she was. But Orni saw his own mother in her face.
"Ma'am, you see this," and he gestured with his gun. The checkout lady glanced his way, but the gun was out of her view.
Ana nodded.
"Just give me the avocado, and you can go."
"Avocado? I'm not sure whether I got any. I may have missed the avocados. You're a nice young man, maybe you could help me look."
"Go ahead," grunted Astenios. He and Orni came into the checkout lane. Ana moved into the vacant space of the adjacent checkout, and put her hands into her pockets. She took a deep breath, and then threw her hands up towards their faces.
Handfuls of dry mustard, black pepper, cayenne pepper, onion powder went up their noses, and into their eyes - irritating even the eyes of a blind man - but the sneezing and coughing quickly rendered them helpless. As soon as Ana had thrown the mixture, she knocked over the open bottle of oil she had left sitting on the floor, and swung herself over the next checkout lane. Astenios went down first, as he choked, then the gun dropped from Orni's hand and he slipped to the floor coughing and gagging.

The checkout lady continued scanning the items, almost oblivious to the struggle. Albert came out from behind another checkout lane with some kind of electronic device in his hand.
"You know, Mom, I think I'll bring this with me whenever I go shopping."
Then she noticed that the usual dull shopping rock had been replaced by a quiet hiss of static. "I guess my boss will be glad to learn that it works in the field."
"But you did call the police, didn't you?"
"Yes; there was a coin phone by the entrance. But Dad will be wondering where we are."
The checkout lady pressed the totalling key. "That will be 278.76, please."
"That nice young man on the floor will be paying for it," Ana told her. "He's big, but he needs to eat more vegetables, even if they aren't exactly what he wanted."
* * *
Ana and Albert walked out to his car, where he had already put the two bags of the groceries he had checked out just before helping his mother maneuver her vegetable carts to the checkout. They had left the parking lot as the police cars started to arrive. As they got out of their cars and entered the store, a rental car pulled up behind them, and a man in a business suit got out. He had a curious look on his face. Usually he was the one who called the cops. But as long as they got Astenios and the Quetzal Jade...
* * *
At a red light, Albert looked over at his mother. "Well, are you going to look at the avocado or aren't you?"
"I'm a little worried. What if it's drugs?"
"Mom, it's too small. They wouldn't be shipping drugs inside avocados... But maybe we ought to let Dad look."
"No. I'm going to look. If it's drugs, we'll drop it in the river."
She took out a box of plastic sandwich bags, and some tissues. She put the fruit inside the bag, and twisted it. Instead of the usual brown nut there was something else. "Wow, this is amazing." It was a green stone of some kind in a dull gray frame.
"What is it?"
"I don't know. But your father will know."
"I guess that means we're not having avocado dressing tomorrow night."
"No. I think I've seen enough green things today. We'll have spaghetti and meatballs. No salad."
* * *
Timothy R. Leighton walked into his office. His wife Kathy jumped to her feet. "You're back early!"
"Yes. Here's the Quetzal Jade." He put a small green and silver object into her outstretched hand.
She looked at it in wonder, then set it down on a pile of papers on the desk. "Did you get Astenios too?" she asked as she walked over to a cabinet in the corner of the room .
She took out a camera. "Then how did you get this?"
"From the locals. They had taken Astenios and his goon into custody for the murder of a stockboy and manager at a supermarket... But they got away. He poured himself a cup of coffee.
"How?" She screwed a lens into the camera.
"I don't know. They certainly were in no state to escape, but somehow, somewhere between the supermarket and the police station they escaped."
"Then how did you get this?" The camera flashed.
"It was delivered to the station in a plastic sandwich bag, partially coated in avocado pulp. Apparently it had been smuggled into the States inside a case of avocados." He sipped his coffee, and the camera flashed.
"Avocados? Euuch."
"You love guacamole, Kathy. You're thinking of artichokes."
She adjusted the stone and flashed another picture. "Oh, that's right."
"There was a whole case of them, crushed all over the manager's desk. It was strange to see." He sipped his coffee, and watched her change lenses. "But there was something even stranger. There were three whole shopping carts full of vegetables and fruits - all green - as if Astenios had bought everything but avocados. The locals told us he and the goon kept mentioning this woman - but I didn't see any woman there, nor did the locals."
"You think he meant the clerk?"
"No. She seemed oblivious, and kept demanding to be paid, even though all the produce was returned to the store."
"Hmm." Kathy put the camera down. "We'll get these developed now. And I need to get more film." She poured herself some coffee. "Did the locals check for prints?"
"They only found smears."
"Well whoever found it did us and Mexico a great favor."
"Yes, and she deserves a reward. But there is something more she deserves."
"What is that?"
"A warning. Astenios is an implacable foe."
Kathy nodded. "I'm glad you're back. Happy Anniversary, darling."
"Happy Anniversary." They kissed.
"Do you think Antonio's makes something with avocado in it?"
"If not, we'll bring our own. Preferably without artifacts."


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