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(Dramatic theme music climax. Network Announcer:) Tonight, Tales From the PIT brings you the first half of Brooding Intelligence, Judge Mental’s newest Ricochet Silent Radio adventure! It’s a tale of race and Red hokum, of faithful engineers and seductive strippers, of con games and espionage! It’ll take you from the warm embrace of a lover’s arms, to a deadly serious orbital race to prove once and for all whose spies have the coldest heart in the sky! And now here he is, Judge Mental!
(Voice of Judge Mental) Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself entering a bank wearing a mask and asking for money. But in the bizarro spring of the Great Quarantine, that’s just what I was doing. I’d been in Miami all of three hours.
“Hi,” I said to the teller, who was masked like I was. Her darting, expressive eyes weren’t concealed. “I called ahead to request contactless delivery,” I said. “Though now I regret it.” She gave me a warm smile under the mask. She examined a slip of paper, pivoted to a file cabinet, giving me an ample view of her legs, and brought back several sacks of money with my name on them. The exertion seemed to make her breathless. “So!” (breathy pause) “These” (she starts pushing them one at a time across the counter) “Are cash. Yes, easy to steal, hard to trace cash. We don’t like to see the customers take it home with them.” She leaned over close enough for me to smell her perfume. It was good. “Are you sure?…Don’t you need some help with that?”
I shook my head with regret. I have to say, I liked her, she was really cute. But I wouldn’t be in town long enough to get to know her. This was going to be work, work, work. Maybe another time.
The love light in her eyes flickered out.
I walked to the parking lot. The car rental agencies at the airport had the usual choice of blando four door sedans. I took a cab into a Cuban neighborhood where I knew a prosperous local (illegally tax-free) renter of older cars a man wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen in. Ruben had hooked me up with a 1999 Buick Park Avenue convertible. I jumped in, not opening the trunk, casually tossing the sacks of money into a plastic bag on the passenger seat.
Work, work, work, and it was all beginning in a few minutes. It’s hard to stay safe on the job in a pandemic. Now, in the next 72 hours, I was going to have to talk to a sizable number of Miami’s lap dancers.
Fortunately, they have a safety protocol of facing the other way during conversation.
(Network Announcer: You are listening to the Tales From the PIT presentation of Brooding Intelligence, over the Ricochet Silent Radio network and the worldwide facilities of Armed Forces Radio. We pause for station identification.)
(Local Announcer:) This is KRCH Los Angeles, 980 on the dial, your Ricochet Silent Radio station for Lion News, direct from the newsrooms of MGM. Get the lion’s share of the truth. We now return to Brooding Intelligence.
(Rhythmic Cuban club music fades in and out) (Voice of Judge Mental:) Six hours later, I had some answers. Oh, the ladies weren’t inclined to talk. It cost me two thousand dollars in tips, and nearly all of my dignity, but to tell you the truth my dignity was never worth $2000.
Go-go dancers are not lap dancers, and lap dancers are not whores. But there’s a certain limited degree of turnover between the groups, you might say, and several of “the girls” knew someone who knew someone who participated in some very special parties. They were driven across a causeway to a private island. The women loved to gossip about VIPs and stars they’d met in the line of work, but they had nothing to tell about the last batch of men who eagerly boarded the limos to the island. There was nothing famous or special about them. They were, one of them said, “Just super nerds. Serious”.
That’s why I was here. Four of America’s top satellite engineers and scientists killed themselves two months ago. The pattern didn’t emerge right away, but each one of them had accepted trips to that island in the past year.
When lap dancer #7, “Carmen,” told me her fragment of the story, I must have been visibly surprised. I didn’t smile, which, let’s face it, has never been a noted trait of mine, and she teasingly called me a “brooder”. Carmen meant it as a flirtatious joke, but I was struck by what a strange English language word it was, coming from her. I’d be hearing it more often.
They’d all been tormented by texted warnings that they were about to be exposed. Social media was weaponized against them. They knew these weren’t idle threats; they were about to be canceled. Professionally and personally destroyed. They were driven to suicide.
The crucial thing was, not all of America’s top satellite brainiacs could be reached by the scheme. “Gold Three,” Geordie L. Dalliance III, was evidently such a square, so devoted to his wife and family that it never even occurred to him to be tempted. His fellow NASA thermal genius, Lee Jones, turned out to be female, also throwing off the plotters. Apparently, whoever was behind this plan decided that trying to run a gigolo operation against a woman is a chancy, hit-or-miss thing, whereas running a woman against a guy usually gets his eager cooperation in five minutes or less.
Dalliance and Jones had to be dealt with another way, so “they” were ambushed and killed in the lobby of a posh Miami Beach hotel. But the killers were tipped wrong; they killed two strangers who wandered fatally into the target zone. While the TV infobabes talked about the reckless gang murders that randomly struck down a couple of space scientists after an awards presentation, I knew the whole time that Dalliance and Jones were safe.
Because they were hiding out in my spacious suite, on the obscure shores of a lesser-traveled lagoon ten miles away. Ordering room service. Gold Three was on the phone with his wife, reassuring her, telling her that the authorities have this in hand. He knew better and I knew better, but it made no sense making Mrs. D III any more worried.
I went to the other side of the spacious suite—can’t fault those 1950s Miami hotel architects for lack of ambition. In the other bedroom, Lee Jones was sitting on the bed, laptop in her lap, eyeing me warily. “I’m getting rid of some files. Government stuff”. Since I was obviously on the same side as she was, she softened a little. “Ever try to blank a hard drive? Really blank it? That’s how they got Ollie North, you know”.
“Yeah. Good reference. When they hauled him up for hearings, how old were you? Five?”
She smiled. “Hmm, 1987, subtract the five, carry the eight, square root of pi…actually, I was two. But I was precocious”.
In the living room, the eleven o’clock news was full of downtown looting, and of the charismatic XJB, young Florida congresswoman and media-anointed superwoman Xuxa Jada Bom, making an appearance in Miami yesterday. Of course, I’d heard of her. Everyone in the electrified world has. Pronounced Shu-sha Yada Boom, XJB was touted as a likely president as soon as she turned 35 in two years. In the meantime, she was crisscrossing Dade county, stumping for re-election to the House.
For years, the media had been cultivating a crop of racial hostility, and this year a bumper harvest was coming in. Anger was spreading faster than Covid-19. This was XJB’s political moment and she was making the most of it. Her sound trucks rolled through central Miami day and night, blaring out her racially charged message. Tonight, she had an angry sound bite about guns and the Fontainebleau killings.
Morning. Clean-living Geordie was up at the crack of dawn. He made breakfast and had amused pity mingled with contempt for my late rising ways. I poured coffee and opened my laptop. Some readers of the Miami Herald thought the paper was spending too much ink and sympathy for victims of random mass murder. “Look at those brooding White faces Hahaha twelve years of college and all I got was a suit with bullet holes in it”. The media was still treating it as an open-and-shut case of gang violence spilling over to non-combatants. Taking their cue from XJB, it was regarded purely as a gun control issue.
The cover of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine was titled, “Brooders. Are They Today’s ‘Breeders’? Or Are They Worse?” I learned that “brooding” is a code word for acting and thinking white—or, pardon me, “White”. That also struck me as weird. All my life, the only people who ever insisted on spelling it with a capital letter were Nazis. Now everyone was supposed to. White people brood, supposedly, because we’re upset that we’re losing power. It’s one of those things that makes us uniquely evil. Well, there you go. Slap on the cuffs. Why bother with a trial?
I saw my reflection in the laptop screen. I have to admit, I looked brooding. I was contemplating the amount of sheer national decay it took to get to this point.
Three days later. Three days of hiding two people who weren’t supposed to be alive. Three more days of shallow sleep, listening for someone jimmying open the windows or preparing to smash in the front door. Our condo/hotel had an informal watchman of sorts, an educated beachcomber named Arahant. Bearded and bespectacled, with a broad-brimmed hat, he looked like Ernest Hemingway, and spent most of his days painting at an outdoor easel. Arahant was a fine artist, with one strange quirk: he painted everything not as it appeared, but as it looked centuries ago.
Late in the afternoon, Lee and I slipped off the property, breaking quarantine, not to mention any sane sense of operational security. Well, tough. We were getting stir crazy. Next to a discreet NSA data collection site, there was a dockside restaurant with an outdoor patio, pretty looking. Not everyone was wearing a mask, but I was more concerned about stopping bullets than droplets. It was just crowded enough to be reassuring. Lee Jones had dolled herself up, done her hair and makeup. She saw my reaction and smiled. “Good disguise, huh? Every now and again, even a scientist likes to be a girl. And I’m sick of being cooped up”. A waiter dropped off menus. Another server brought water. We made our drink orders and we were alone again. There was no one within earshot. Time to hear her story.
I was distracted by the beauty of the sunset, and the way the light played upon the iridescent blue blouse that clung to Lee, glittering as she turned towards me. “Shimmering,” she said softly. “You need to know about the shimmering”.
“Do I?” I asked, puzzled.
“Yes, you do, or you won’t understand what this is all about. You’ve seen heat shimmering in the distance”. It was warm, and her face glowed. “When a satellite camera points down to the Earth, the whole atmosphere shimmers. We use special software that moment to moment shimmers in the other direction, so the air is as clear as glass and we can read license plates from 200 miles up. By ‘we’,” she said hastily, “I mean our friends in the intelligence community”.
“Ohh, those people. I’ve heard of those people”.
She smirked and continued. “So now there’s one problem left. The shimmering inside the spy camera. Because it has to be near absolute zero to function”.
“And outer space isn’t cold enough?”
“In low Earth orbit, we get frozen every ninety minutes and then broiled every ninety minutes. There are only a handful of people in the world who can beat that challenge. There were only six of us in America, and now four of them are dead. That leaves Gold Three. And me”. She smiled. “So now you know about the shimmering”. The sun was setting and Lee bent towards me. We kissed.
I don’t like to rush things, but I don’t believe in postponing the inevitable. I paid the check and we walked out to my Buick convertible, looking as long and flat as an aircraft carrier. Lee donned sunglasses and a kerchief; women love the looks of convertibles and enjoy being seen in them, but dislike “convertible hair”. I drove out of the lot. Nobody was tailing us. I headed back to the hotel.
We were discreet, acting no more than cordial and businesslike as we passed GLD III on the way in. We hung around the living room for a decent interval. After a while, scoutmaster Geordie got involved in a phone call about a Jamboree. Lee slipped off to her room. After a few minutes, I nonchalantly wandered off in that direction.
The room was dark. “I should warn you,” Lee said, smiling. “At work, they call me ‘the ice queen’. I have the coldest heart in NASA”. I laughed and sidled over next to her. “Honey,” I said, “You don’t even have the coldest heart in this room”.
In the morning I got dressed and went out to the kitchen. GLD had long past washed his breakfast dishes, and was in his room, on a Zoom call. By the rowdy, cheerful sound, I guessed it was with his friendly rivals at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Idly, I looked at the newspaper. Now there was yet another ominous note in the Herald: “Leading Rights Group Establishes Racist Link to White Behavior”. It breathlessly reported that the Southern Poverty Law Center had located a connection between the widespread Caucasian habit of brooding over bad times, and a venomous if shadowy organization of worldwide white solidarity called Der Bruder, The Brother. It was insane; it was all becoming a race rumor racket. Then I turned the page, and my blood froze.
That was my picture. “’ Judge Mental” Mantle, 51, Said to Receive Funds in “Brooder” Plot”. Numb with disbelief, I read the article. “Some have questioned whether the menace of Der Bruder is real, but tangible evidence was gathered on wiretaps of funds transfers from Frankfurt, the financial center of the new German Right. According to police sources, enemy agents were directed to send the funds to his Ohio bank”. I was so stunned I was momentarily at a loss for words.
My phone rang. It was an obscene hate call. I hung up. Instantly it rang again, with another one. Reeling, I tried to access my bank account to see what was behind this. My account had already been canceled. Then the phone stopped working altogether.
I reserve my anger for special occasions. This felt like one of them.
We hope you’re enjoying Brooding Intelligence, the new Judge Mental adventure brought to you by Ricochet Silent Radio! On Thursday night, tune in for the second half, the conclusion of this two-part late summer series. Ricochet members featured in tonight’s cast included @judgemental, @gldiii, and @arahant.
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