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a novel by Marc Paul Kaplan


“Even when the White Dragon sleeps, shit happens.”—Teton proverb

January 1969

The Corvette rounded the long bluff crowding the highway a half hour from Reno, headed east. Wind ripped at the convertible’s soft canvas top. Matthew scanned miles of flat brushland bordered by ranges of white-capped mountains. Vast vistas exposed gun-metal gray sky, supplied no cover for ambush, no traps, no mines. No kaleidoscope of flashing vibrant jungle greens, red earth, blue-to-dead black water. An involuntary release of air burst from Matthew’s body, a body stretched far beyond taut.

The world opened wide. No speed limit. No cops. No rearview-mirror fixation. No decisions to make. Just haul ass straight ahead. Here only calming shades of brown and gray filled his head, size and space overwhelming. Peaceful. The word passed through him with an unfamiliar feeling. He rejoiced in the physical connection, the powerful rumble and vibration enhancing his one-hundred-mile-per-hour journey screaming down Route 40.

His hands remained tight around the wooden steering wheel. The great state of Nevada appreciated Man’s basic needs. Matthew could focus on the promised, frozen land of Wyoming, so far away from the nightmares of Nam. And so close to what he craved most, to regain control of his life.

Minutes, then hours, passed with no surprises. Time traveled unnoticed here on the empty wastelands. The impact of solid brown blended into shades—red-magenta earth, yellow-brown grasses, pink, copper, sand. He could almost bring himself to accept the unfamiliar comfort of security.

He rolled down the two windows in the tight cockpit of his Corvette. Exhilarating, freezing air reinforced relief that had blossomed so suddenly that suspicion filtered its acceptance. No more crippling heat. But foul smells of the past still haunted him.

Matthew checked the gas gauge. Approaching empty, and he needed to pee. Could he make the seventy-five miles to Elko? The Corvette soaked fuel the way sand absorbed water. He’d planned to fill up in Battle Mountain, but the only station had been closed. Matthew twisted and flinched in the seat. Fingers explored scars on his forehead and cheek. He who was in charge would survive. Unknown variables of time and distance chipped away at his sense of control. His stomach tightened.

He descended from his flight across the high desert, dropping from a hundred miles per hour to a more fuel-efficient eighty. Control was the issue. Kicking in the TV screen in the Letterman lounge had cost him another two weeks in hospital hell, clarifying the price of losing control. Only the intercession of Dr. Nordman had gotten him released. Still, if he could survive the firefights of Asia, he could master fuel conservation.

Ten minutes later a break appeared in the patterns of brown. Empty space gave way to rusted clutter. Nothing moved in piles of ancient metal cars, trucks, appliances and so much more. Acres of rubbish in need of a fence. Where had all this crap come from? He picked out a railroad spur on the far side of the junkyard. The mess looked like the garbage of a third-world country. What a waste.

Then the skeleton of a tower for a once-proud Texaco star appeared leaning towards the remains of a two-pump gas station. A small, decaying dirt-beige adobe office squatted nearby. A large, newer sheet-metal-framed garage stood between gas station and junkyard. The only thing that indicated life was the surprising large OPEN sign in the filthy office window. Thanks for small miracles.

Matthew jammed on the brakes and pulled the silver-blue sports car into the space between the two antique pumps and the dying building. A surge of satisfaction. His discomfort dwindled. Gratitude overcame personal embarrassment.

Matthew eased himself out of the Corvette’s deep contour seat. A chilling, steady wind slapped his face. The crumbling shack provided some shelter. He straightened up. Scar tissue stretched hot and searing, accompanied by the deep ache of abused muscle and damaged organs. Ever-present pain increased in sharp jolts.

Movement registered near the large garage. Two figures sauntered towards him. The skinny one had his hands in his pockets. Hidden hands stoked the familiar hot rush of aggressive alertness, adrenaline, and fear. Matthew’s fingers jerked to his wounded forehead. At least the flow of energy muted the pain.

And these two men looked like evil cartoon characters, sleazy versions of Mutt and Jeff. All Matthew’s alarms flashed. But he was in America. Nevada. Two guys to pump gas at a station where a customer was an event? Only took a heartbeat for his new-found control to be compromised.

Matthew worked around to the passenger’s side and reached through the open window. The glove compartment sprung open at his touch. Paranoid. He was definitely paranoid. But that alertness had kept him alive, if not in one piece. He pulled out his loaded .38.

The very touch of the weapon wrenched him back in time, warning Matthew of the insanity he had to escape. What the hell was he doing? A gun? Here? Still he slipped the pistol into his parka pocket as he pressed his left side against the car. Frightening how comforting the weapon felt. If only he had a way to get to the .45 under the driver’s seat.

“Fill it with premium. Please.”

“Only got regular.” The nasty nasal sounds came from the smaller, thinner one, hands still hidden in his pockets. “You sure that little piece of crap takes gas, or you want us to just wind it up?”

“Just fill it,” Matthew said, this time omitting “please” from his answer.

The fat one grabbed the nozzle and reached for the gas cap. The other one spun a key in the face of the pump. Definitely a two-man job.

Matthew moved slow and steady to the edge of the adobe shack. His hand maintained a comforting grip on the pocketed pistol as he walked around to the back. He faced the wide-open barren expanse, unzipped his pants and peed. His hand shook only a little.

Ridges and small depressions filled the benign brown landscape. Possible cover for danger, for unpleasant surprises, for ambushes? He played out in his mind potential attacks from behind, the necessary responses. Maybe these wide-open spaces weren’t the safe flatlands that had brought him comfort on the drive. Maybe things went to hell here as fast as they did in Nam.

He zipped up his pants and continued around the old building instead of retreating the way he had come. He stopped at the other corner. Fat Jeff leaned into the passenger-side window of his car. Skinny Mutt, ten feet in front of the Corvette, peered around the far corner waiting for Matthew to reappear. Suspicions substantiated. The bastards. At least the nozzle clicked off fuel.

A white flash flamed within him. Anger. Rage. Reflex action. The flight-or-fight response fused into an instant plan of attack.

Matthew ran to the car and kicked Jeff’s fat ass as hard as he could. The man’s oversized body jammed forward into the window opening, his legs flailing inches above the ground. Mutt, the thin one, wheeled into the barrel of Matthew’s .38.

“It’s loaded,” Matthew snarled. “You don’t get your hands out of your pockets, it’ll soon be empty.”

He was in combat mode, ready to kill, overprimed. Instinct said shoot first. But his heartbeat drummed out a call for reason. Please. Please don’t go over the edge.

The thin one hesitated. Matthew fired. Something, probably the genesis of civilized reaction, jerked his aim to the side. Dirt exploded next to the thin man. Skinny Mutt’s hands were in the air long before the dust settled. A surge of relief swept through Matthew at the man’s reaction.

Then he grabbed the pants hanging from the fat man’s wiggling ass and jerked him out of the car window. He slammed the man, face first, on the frozen ground, and drove his knee into the broad back. The crack of a breaking rib caught him by surprise. Too bad. He kept his pistol aimed at the thin man, now a statue, face as gray as the sky.

“Lie face down.”

Matthew pointed to a spot next to the moaning fat man. The thin one jerked himself into movement and bellyflopped next to his buddy. Matthew frisked first the fat one, then the other, confused when he found only small jack-knives.

The white light within Matthew faded. He struggled for calm and waited for the gas pump to kick off. It did at $9.65. He dropped a ten-dollar bill on the fat man’s back and the tension in his shoulders eased.

“Keep the change.”

Matthew retreated to the driver’s side, the gun aimed at the backs of the two prone men. He climbed in, adrenaline rush receding just enough to allow pain to resurface. He started the car and leaned over towards the passenger window. He couldn’t see the bodies, but fired two shots into the adobe wall. The resulting positive rush jolted his body, rationalized as added persuasion to keep them from moving. But his schizoid mind registered the truth —he’d pulled the trigger for the hell of it.

What the fuck was he doing here?

Franky’s wafer-thin kidskin loafers served as direct conduits for the chill surging up his legs. The camel-hair overcoat gave some protection. But the lightweight driving gloves were as worthless as his sheer wool Armani suit. They only allowed him to better grasp the .357 Magnum that tugged his right coat pocket down towards the ground.

None of this made sense. The freezing, garlic-laced air, the foul-smelling dumpster, the gun and the hulking man beside him, were his whole world. And everything was wrong.

Franky Fiorini wasn’t trained for murder. Certainly neither college nor a goddamn M.B.A. had prepared him. Even inclusion within his father’s organization fell far short of providing insight into why he crouched, crammed behind the metal garbage container with the massive goon Anthony.

And Anthony just stood there, immobile. Towering over Franky. Impervious to the brutality of this Manhattan winter. Crowding Franky in this cramped, squalid space at the rear of Luigi’s Italian Trattoria. Franky’s brothers’ trap with no escape.

The battered rear door of the restaurant opened a crack, followed by the sharp jab of Anthony’s finger into Franky’s shoulder. Then a fat, greasy face poked through the door’s opening. The balding head, backlit from the kitchen, swiveled, checking all directions of the alley. The nervous man bumbled into the dark corridor. Much movement with minimal progress. Pathetic.

Anthony shoved Franky from behind the dumpster. He staggered forward. The force of the push propelled Franky to within a few feet of the frantic figure. The doomed man’s knees buckled and smacked to the hard asphalt. A woeful moan echoed against the filthy brick walls. Sounds bubbled unintelligibly from the cowering mound. Words so full of spit they sounded underwater. Pleas of mercy most likely. Better that Franky couldn’t understand.

The huge, ugly pistol seemed to levitate out of Franky’s pocket. He aimed the Magnum at the middle of the man’s forehead. The victim’s eyes looked bovine, a cow ready for slaughter—a sacrificial calf. A giggle escaped Franky’s lips. He tried to swallow. He was losing control. Sweat somehow formed despite the crackling cold.

The weight of the alien object in his hand brought him back to the stinking alley. His finger gripped the trigger, squeezing. Nothing happened. Seconds passed, time creeping towards eternity. He couldn’t do it. The fact slammed Franky with the finality of judgment day.

Then the crushing grip of Anthony’s hand. Franky’s finger forced against the trigger. The shocking explosion of the .357 with its blinding flash. Warm fluid soaked Franky’s crotch.

“Once more.” Anthony’s harsh, guttural voice floated disembodied out of the void. “For insurance.”

Steam rose between Franky’s legs. The smell of his urine mixed with the thick odor of death and waste. His hold on the gun tightened. He pulled off another round into the inert body on the unforgiving concrete. This time, to Franky’s surprise, he had no problem. He had disconnected.


Ten miles from the Texaco station, Matthew checked his rearview mirror.  Nothing except a gathering storm to the west, chasing him across the plains.  And a growing, frightening awareness.  He had again overreacted, bringing him close, too close, to murder and a new set of nightmares.  Over what?  Two rude country bumpkins pumping gas in the middle of nowhere?

An uncontrollable and unwelcome tide of anxiety swept through him.  No rhythm, just the erratic gravitational pull from an irrational, evil Asian moon.

Murder in Viet Nam had been part of the job description.  No accountability in war, no penalty.  Hell, killing had become an acceptable and expected response, mandatory for survival, rewarded with continued life.  He swallowed an acid taste, the burning sensation sinking to his gut.

If he didn’t get his act together soon, he’d end up in jail.  He had to leave the haunting images behind.  That goddamn shrink had warned him, “If I see your ass again, it’s over.”  The other Army doctors had told him time would heal his wounds, diminish his dreams.  Well, how much time?  And what had just happened was no dream.  Jesus, he was shaking now, big time.

Towns named Dunn’s Glen, Mote, and Deeth did little to fill the welcome absence of humanity.  Neither did the barely perceptible climb over the 5,100-foot Galgonda Summit or the drop into the Pumpernickel Valley leading to Elko.  Who the hell had named these places?  Drugs or alcohol must have played a part.  Still, the empty highway and open spaces calmed Matthew.

Downtown Elko.  He slowed.  Available hookers not more than two blocks from the main drag.  Could he still perform?  A whore would have to overlook his embarrassing scars.  Perhaps even pretend he was normal.  Or would even she recoil from his ugly body?  Laugh at his possible impotence?  He accelerated out of town, loving the freedom of driving.

Imprisoned in a hospital bed, submerged in agony, he had often wondered if he would ever again experience the freedom and ecstasy of high speed.  Choices.  Control.  And here he was.  Too nervous and superstitious to allow complete acceptance of his realized dream.

He hoped he was headed towards something better.  A simplistic ideal.  He wanted to be a whole man again, to look in the mirror without flinching.  Not a man who traded honor and integrity for survival. Who had only questions.  Despite the sensual pleasure of speed, the calming Nevada badlands, and crystal-clean air, he knew self-respect lay at the end of a long and possibly infinite journey.

Matthew felt like a fugitive in his own country.  He had been trapped, forced to fight, engulfed in a disintegration of moral standards by stupid, self-serving politicians and chicken-shit generals.  He no longer asked himself, Why me?

But was he a danger to society?  Evidently.  He understood his anger, sadness, and loss of self-respect.  They could be internalized.  But the rage and his hard-earned ability to wreak havoc even in his weakened and damaged condition was what frightened him.  How easily he had failed the simplest of tests back at the gas station.  What would happen at the next test?

A Nevada Highway Patrol sedan, heading west, flew past.  Apprehension swept through him as he watched the car shrink towards Elko.  No reason to be concerned, speeding not a problem.  But had Mutt and Jeff made a call to the state police?  If so, the passing cop would have little trouble identifying his silver-blue rocket ship.

Matthew glued his eyes to the rearview mirror.  Did he see the flash of a red light?  The Corvette jumped to 125.  The demand of high speed cleansed his mind for a moment.  Matthew now had to focus on staying on the blacktop.

The hamlet of Wells, Nevada, rushed into view.  Decision time.  Fly straight down U.S. 40 to Salt Lake or turn north to Twin Falls as planned.  His heart pounded.  Adrenaline flowed from an inexhaustible pool.  He may be flawed and dangerous, but he’d paid too high a price to end up in a cowboy jail this soon.  And the horror of a return to Letterman loomed as great as any nightmare from Viet Nam.

Easy choice.  Ninety percent of the traffic would head on to Utah.  Matthew braked as hard as he could without screeching.  He didn’t see a soul in Wells.  He made a semicivilized left turn at the deserted crossroad and blasted towards Idaho.  Matthew kept his eyes on the road.

Wells disappeared as he clung tight to a sweeping curve on the narrow road.  Maybe he had slipped his sports car unnoticed through town.  He glanced as often as possible for the telltale red flash of a pursuing patrol car.  Didn’t matter.  He was now committed to a rapid advance north.


Franky fumbled with the crumpled material at the bottom of the metal bucket.  An uncontrollable desperation drove him to destroy last night’s soiled garments.  A fire flamed three feet away in the impractical miniscule fireplace.  Gasoline fumes induced growing nausea.  His senses revolted at memories of the disgusting alley, his reaction accentuated by the absence of sleep.  His blood had turned to sludge.  Things had gone to hell overnight, literally.

Anthony had dropped him at the small two-story brownstone in Jersey he shared with his mother and demanded the gun.  Said he’d dispose of the weapon.  You didn’t argue with Anthony.  Now his brothers would have a priceless piece of blackmail to chain Franky to their dangerous, idiotic plans.

He squeezed excess flammable liquid from his dress shirt, the remaining garment, then tossed the tight ball into the flames.  Everything he’d worn last night now flared brightly in the miniature pyre.  Except for the expensive camel-hair coat.  There were limits.

He’d had to wait in bed until his mother left.  Now he’d be late for work.  He had watched through his bedroom window as his mother’s slight figure, wrapped in her ugly gray coat and ridiculous pink wool hat, drifted into an unforgiving morning and her daily Confessional.  Pity muted his anger.  Pity, and not empathy.  He knew the difference.  Now the old questions:  Did he feel obligated to care for her?  For how long?  Forever?

*  *  *

Sarah slipped out the door, bounced down the steps, and hit the sidewalk in a slow jog.  The wintry blast off Lake Michigan had filtered unimpeded to her crumbling neighborhood.  She trotted into the wind, down the deserted streets.  No gradual awakening or warm-up at 5:30 A.M.  Immediate entry into exercise forced the flow of blood into her sore legs and grateful lungs.  Wednesday was Day Three of her five-day run week, always the toughest.

Her footsteps slapped flat on the cement in the comforting quiet of the early morning.  Her thin-soled, men’s Adidas required thick, wool socks to fill the excess width.  Couldn’t someone make a decent woman’s running shoe?  That would be the day.

Hat, mittens, and sweats hid her tight body from the occasional stare of one of the City’s perpetual garbage collectors.  Some still waved, others ignored her presence as they would a destitute, homeless soul on permanent Night Patrol.  That served Sarah’s purposes just fine.  She’d attempted an afternoon/evening running routine and been harassed into crack-of-dawn peacefulness.  The change had transformed the loneliness of her life at that hour into a temporary, comforting solitude during the calm morning runs.  If only an equally easy solution existed for dealing with the ham-handed advances of her son-of-a-bitch boss.

She trudged down Lemon Street, following her usual route.  The darkness of winter signaled the imminent reward for months of sweat and pain:  Ski season, a return to Jackson Hole.  Her pace quickened at the thought of her scheduled two-week passage to paradise at the end of February.  She would be one flatlander who came to the mountains ready for the physical challenge.

She turned right on Rush Street.  Steam from her breath was now visible, not stripped from her lips by the wind’s harsh, head-on gusts.  She nodded to the skinny banker pictured on the tattered poster advertising the Chicago Trust.

The faded, torn image always reminded her of Bruce Cohan.  He had run cross-country for Loyola and provided indirect inspiration for her running career.  She had run with him out of desperation.  Anything for a date.  He’d turned out to be gay.  But she’d kept running through college, never looking back.  She’d been viewed as a freak even then.

The corner of Rush and Detroit appeared out of the gloom.  The three-mile halfway mark so soon?  She performed her usual pirouette around the thick lamppost and headed home.  Strange how the same distance expanded and contracted, depending on her mood.

Traffic picked up.  She accelerated through the awakening city, cruising with the wind at her back.  Comments from curious, early-morning commuters became more common.  Intervals of speed had to suffice to simulate the extra effort of hills or the stadium steps of her earlier running routines.

A piercing wolf whistle bounced off her back.  She considered turning around.  One look at her large red nose and long chin framed by her homely knit ski cap would shut him up.  Just like the Mad Magazine cartoon picturing the rear view of a voluptuous blond, who turned to present a mirror-shattering ugliness of buckteeth, pimples and crossed eyes.  At least she wasn’t that bad.  And next week she’d be picking up her vacation tickets to Jackson Hole, where even she would be a star.

KOMENAR Publishing
©January 1, 2006, 2008 by Marc Paul Kaplan
323 pages

Available in Hardcover, Trade Paperback and Kindle.

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