04: Contact

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When It Happened (Chronicle Time): May 25-27 2002

Who Was There: George Phillapoussis (Storn), Jonathan Wertham (Matt), Mark Donovin (Eric), Nemura Kentaro (Chris)

What It Was

George, Jonathan, Mark, and Jamal escape with Cassandra Moon and Luther Miles, thanks to some unexpected help from a mystery woman named Tessa. While Ken buys time with Detective Alan Wingate and the NYPD, the others meet with Lady Margaret Jameson and Lesek Czernin, and ask them what they know about Alex Abel. A clue from Tessa leads the group (now using the code name "the Four Aces") to Hoboken, where they visit their first Soul-Nut Hole donut shop, and discover the local safe-house of The New Inquisition. After a tense meeting with Alex Abel, Luther and Cassandra decide to stay with him and join TNI.

The Full Horror

Mark, Jonathan, George, and Jamal rush Cassandra and Luther out of Ken's apartment. People are yelling and crying throughout the building, while police sirens rise in the distance. George runs on ahead to get his car, but it's no longer in the parking lot.

They are about to run for another exit when Mark hears a muffled gunshot behind them and turns to see a man bearing down on them with an MP5 submachine gun. Suddenly, a beautiful young woman bursts from a door, blocks the man's arm, plants a Ruger Mark II against his head and fires. She immediately drops the gun, and when she sees Mark already covering her, nods in approval and says, "You are quick. You can't take that way, Mark. They're waiting. You don't know me, but you have to trust me."

She leads them to another exit where they find George's car, engine running. The woman holds Mark back to say, "We think you're doing the right thing. A boy should be with his father. But remember what they say in Jersey: 'A car may have your heart, but bread enriches the soul.'" Mark finds that so strange, he can't help but remember it.

The woman insists on staying behind, and Mark has to duck into the car as another gunman opens fire. While the woman gives them cover, George floors it. Mark still has her Ruger. The serial number is gone, but the name "Tessa" is cheekily stamped on it.

When Ken wakes up, his apartment is full of uniformed cops. The place is demolished. Three of the first-wave gunmen are dead on the floor, and a large pool of white goo now lies where one of the "serpent men" used to be. Several cops look at the pool and then give Ken funny looks.

The police give Ken some coffee and then drive him to the 20th precinct, where Detective Alan Wingate asks him several questions. Afterward, as Wingate is walking Ken out, he asks how Renaissance project is going. Ken isn't sure if that's simple curiosity or if Wingate is trying to tell him that he's checking up on him. Wingate also warns Ken to be careful--one of the gunmen had the tattoo of a gang known for violence against Asian-Americans.

Chasing Alex

Meanwhile, the others drive to Jersey where they hide out in a cheap motel. As far as Mark can tell, they haven't been followed. Not long after that, they call Ken for an update, taking care to use a public phone and pre-arranged code words, including their new name for themselves: the Four Aces.

Ken decides to stay at a hotel in Manhattan, because he thinks the police might call on him again. Meanwhile, the other Aces will try to contact Alex Abel. That might not be safe, but at this point, they don't have much choice. They will just have to trust him and hope he knows how to deal with whoever is after Luther and Cassandra. The problem is, how are they going to find him?

Jonathan goes to his laptop for background on Alex Abel, and he finds several articles from the 1980s. Abel survived the 1987 stock-market crash with his fortune intact. He dodged a heavy fine during the Savings & Loan scandal by cooperating with the Feds. People named him their third most-eligible bachelor, and in the fall of 1989, the Wall Street Journal dubbed him "The New Face of Black America." But there's only one article after that: a short puff piece from the January 1, 1990 New York Times about him and how he spent New Year's Eve at a party in the Rainbow Room, on the top floor of the GE Building. After that, there's only rumor and hearsay.

Jamal doesn't know where Abel is, but he has some advice: "To be casual with The New Inquisition is a dangerous mistake. Alex Abel may have honorable intentions, but his love for the gun blinds him to moments when the greater wisdom lies in restraint."

Jamal suggests they should meet with "Sister Margaret." She may not know where Abel is, but she might know someone who does. Jamal agrees to stay and guard Cassandra and Luther while the Aces go see her.

Tea with Lady Margaret

Lady Margaret lives in a sprawling apartment at 92nd and Park. She welcomes the Aces in her sitting room, an elegant space in shades of gold and cream. One wall has an original Degas; another has an edgier work by Rembrandt Peale. A white Steinway grand stands at the far end of the room, the open lid and scatter of sheet music proving it's not just there for show.

Lady Margaret is happy to see them. "It's always a thrill to hear about your latest adventures. You should hear the stories the Underground is telling about you these days. I'm tempted to ask for your autographs." The Aces are not happy to hear that people have started to gossip about them.

But Lady Margaret's amusement drains away when they ask about The New Inquisition. "I was afraid you would ask about him someday. I wish you would stay away from him. Alex is a thug, and he attracts more thugs to him. We fear the Sleepers, but TNI is our real problem. You never used to hear about violence in the Underground. Now it seems almost common."

But the Aces insist. Lady Margaret sighs and says they should go talk to Lesek Czernin. He had a confrontation with TNI years ago, but he managed to survive it somehow. If anyone knows how to find Abel, it's him.

The Great Game

Lesek has an old but comfortable apartment in St Luke's Place in Greenwich Village. His living room is dusty and full of bric-a-brac but comfortably close. It's a very traditional, Central European space, with mementos and objets-d'arts that have probably been in his family for generations. With all the small sculptures, fine paintings, and books, it's easy to get distracted.

As usual, Lesek looks like the weight of the world is bearing down on him. But he's in the mood to talk, and welcomes their company, despite their questions about TNI.

"The New Inquisition. The Sleepers. The Twilight Order. The Cabal of Psyche. So many cabals. Most of us take our own, solitary paths, but these leagues do appeal to some. But they are games for the young. You must understand, these associations, they come and they go. I have seen many groups form, rise to power and break apart, all in just a few years. Of course, they all, without fail, claim origins lost in the distant past. But these are stories for the gullible.

"And so you, being young men, now you wish to join the Great Game, to earn your medals and your ribbons, yes?

"Then let me ask you--what do you think is happening today in the world? Factions assemble. Spheres of influence coalesce and crumble. Do you think this happens at random? Do you think the leaders you see in the papers or on television are the true arbiters of power in the world?

"True authority in the world is a table, gentlemen. A table at which the Great Powers vie to sit. And the places at that table are being filled, chair by chair. Very soon, the bartering, the buying, the stealing will be complete, and that will be the end of it. Not the end of the world, but the end of preparations. The placing of first bets.

"Many believed the millennium would be the end, but it has come and gone. The believers in Armageddon had their chance, and to a man, they failed. We know this because we sit here, alive and well.

"So what now is to be done? Who will control this new millennium? The answer to that question will depend on who has the greatest power. But there are many kinds of power in this world, and we are only at the opening round. The Great Game will the greatest event of this Age, yet the masses of humanity will never see how it manipulates them. They haven't a notion what the real purpose of their lives will be.

"As for the Underground, some come to it because they belong nowhere else. But most are here by choice. Perhaps they choose it because they dream of power. But most come to the Underground because they wish to know who will win the Game. Who will control the future. They may hope for an alliance, or perhaps only for a chance to run and hide themselves. I know I once craved the former, but now I would count myself quite fortunate to achieve the latter."

What Lesek has to say about TNI:

Finally, Lesek tells them about his confrontation with Abel. A cautionary tale for their reflection:

"It was six years ago. Her name was Miranda. She was a beautiful girl. About 25. Long auburn hair, a precious figure. She had been with the Inquisition for three years, long enough to rise in their ranks, learn many secrets. But they turned on her because she saw things she was not meant to. And since she knew so much, she also knew her life was forfeit.

"Back then I still fancied myself a young lion of the Underground. So when she came to me for advice, I offered to help her. She refused, saying this was her fight alone. But perhaps I would be kind enough to book passage for her to Europe. For when her business here was done. She slept the night on that divan there. Watching her sleep, her innocence, it--but no matter. The next morning she was gone.

"After that, I heard about her battles with Abel's men. She knew where they lived, you see. Where they kept their many assets. Even where their safe house was. She wanted to beat them, to weaken them. To prove herself before she fled.

"And she did, for several weeks. But innocent people were dying too. I grew more and more concerned. And then at last--that night. It was somewhere in the Hamptons. I never found out exactly where. Seven people died. And then, at last, an eighth person died. And that was the end of that. And it was the end for me too, you see. My interest in playing youthful games, party against party, faction against faction. I lost all interest after that night."

Mark suspects Abel will kill Lesek for talking to them, but a few days pass, and no one comes for him. Thanks to Lesek, Abel now knows they are looking for him. But the only way to prove they're worth meeting is to find him themselves.

A Passage to Hoboken

Fortunately, the Aces still have Tessa's riddle, and that leads them back to New Jersey. There is a new shopping center in Hoboken called Hart Plaza. It's built over an underground parking garage, and west of an automated broom factory.

Five blocks east of Hart Plaza is Soul-Nut Hole, "America's first Hip-Hop Donut Shop." The Aces decide they have to check that out. Inside they're nearly overcome by an amazing rush of smells, most of them great, but some a little strange. The walls are covered with photographs and drawings of breads and donuts and other pastries, as well as several posters of Huey Newton, Kwame Ture, and Malcolm X. The front half of the store is a charming space with big windows, and metal and plastic tables and chairs, all painted in greens, yellows, and reds. Behind the counter, wearing a beaded, Kenyan ogut tigo on his head, and a Ghanian fugu tunic, is Vinnie Testarossa of Bensonhurst.

Hey, it's a job.

Vinnie won't let the Aces snoop around because he doesn't want to get fired. George tries a pastry--it's really good.

They head for the Hart Plaza parking garage, and on the lower level, behind a chain-link fence and surrounded by a huge pile of crap and debris, is an old, broken-down, shit yellow and green VW bug with an obnoxious pink heart painted on the hood. They roll the car away and find a manhole cover beneath it. It opens to reveal a ladder going down to a tunnel, which in turn heads right for the broom factory.

Meeting Alex

As they head down the tunnel, they can see four gunmen waiting for them at the other end. The Aces are frisked, and then led through a very well-furnished set of chambers.

They are taken to a comfortable office, and behind a large desk they see an elegantly dressed black man, in a dark ash suit. Silver-rimmed glasses set off his short salt-and-pepper-hair. Alex Abel. Standing beside Abel is a huge and very ripped white man, dressed in a black suit. Eponymous, Abel's intelligent and very capable bodyguard.

Abel stands up, chuckles, and says: "I haven't felt this nervous since my last job interview. And, gentleman, that was a very long time ago. I'm feeling that way because, you see, you've been spending a couple of days now asking all sorts of questions about me, about my organization. You've been trying to find out who we are; what we do; where we are; why we do what we do. And people have been telling you all kinds of stories. And they've been giving all kinds of explanations."

"And then, after all that, you take what they tell you, and do some legwork. And I don't know how you managed it, but you actually find this place. The second safe-house we've had in New York. I point out it's the second, because, after we lost the first, I made a special effort to make one that wouldn't be found and breached again. But now, here you are."

"And now, with all the stories you've been hearing, you're probably wondering right now, 'Is this a guy a problem? Are we going to have to find some way to take him down? Is he some kind of monster? So you gentlemen are posing quite a problem for me.'"

That puts a chill into the Aces. But Abel continues:

"Quite a problem. Because now I have to find a way to convince you that's not the case. That the stories you've been hearing have been overblown. That what we're doing here is necessary and good work that may look messy, may include some bad mistakes, but that ultimately performs a service for the people."

At that the four men allow themselves to relax-slightly. After some cautious back-and-forth, it seems like this meeting might actually go peacefully.

"I suppose Czernin told you about Miranda? Did he tell you how many innocent people died because of her? Did he tell you how they died? Did he tell you what she was? We have a name for her type--well, we have a name for everything. The name we have for her is a simple one. She was a Pyro. A Firestarter. And when she started a fire, gentlemen, that young woman never did it by halves. No matter how many people she roasted."

"We tried to work with her. Turn her into an operative. Train her in techniques that would give her some control over herself, her emotions. It worked for a while. Then it stopped working. And then it really stopped working. Then the body count started to rise."

"We make moral trade-offs here, gentlemen, I won't deny it. But after a certain point, well.... I'm sorry it turned out like it did. But I can't help that a lonely old man decides to remember the facts his own way."

It's a tense meeting, but the Aces make it clear they aren't looking for trouble. They are just trying to get Luther and Cassandra to a safe place. Abel seems to respect and appreciate that.

He also, surprisingly, seems to respect George's demand that Luther be allowed to make his own choice whether he'll stay with Abel or not. From Abel's expression, he is not a man accustomed to having people make demands on him. But he agrees. His son must be allowed to choose his own future.

Luther chooses to go with his father. Abel tells Cassandra there could also be a place for her in TNI, and she accepts. With Luther and Cassandra now apparently safe, Abel has the four men escorted back to the surface and cut loose.

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