Washington Horror Blog

SEMI-FICTIONAL CHRONICLE of the EVIL THAT INFECTS WASHINGTON, D.C. To read Prologue and Character Guide, please see www.washingtonhorrorblog.com, updated 6/6//2017. Follow Washington Water Woman on Twitter @HorrorDC ....

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Energy Futures (Che, Chi, and Cha Cha Cha)

"You look tired," said Che Flaco, as they walked over to the park near Sacred Heart Cathedral after buying pastries and pop from the Salvadoran vendors outside the church.

Charles Wu pondered this comment for a moment, uncertain how to respond since nobody had ever said that to him before. He examined his pastry curiously, but could see Che Flaco and Che Gordo digging in enthusiastically, so he took a small bite as they all sat down on a bench. "It's been a really, really, really busy week," he said at last. He remembered seeing the dark circles under his eyes when he got up this morning and looked in the mirror, and he now realized that's what the comment was about. He had been running himself ragged all week between his contacts for the British, Chinese, and American governments, and his sources. He was in taxis every day listening to the African grapevine out of Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nigeria. He was running searches on the listening devices he had planted all over the sources of power in Washington. This used to be fun, even exhilarating; now--.

"There was a lot of surprise when China went along with the U.N against Libya," Che Gordo said. He suspected Wu had been a decisive force in that vote, but Wu made no comment. "But Gaddafi is still surrounded by too many yes-men to face the truth."

"I thought Gaddafi was surrounded by beautiful ninja women," said Wu.

Che Gordo and Che Flaco laughed out loud--this was more like the Wu they were used to. "Yes," Che Flaco said, "he's got his female bodyguards. A lot of women still support him because he gave them more rights than they used to have--and more rights than most Arab women have in other countries. But having as much freedom as the men have inside a dictatorship is still a very small amount of freedom."

"It's the corruption, really," said Che Gordo. "People get tired of being poor and exploited." Wu was always hearing things like this from the Che's. "And seeing the same man on top for decades--after awhile, you wonder, why? Why should he be on top of our country?"

Wu was really too tired for this and just wanted to get some actual intelligence. "How strong are the rebel forces?"

"Strong," the Che's said in unison. "But it's gonna be bloody," added Che Flaco, "and it's not over in Egypt, either."

"I hear there's a girl," said Wu. "What's that about?" Wu and Project R.O.D.H.A.M. were well aware of Angela de la Paz's "infiltration" of their Egyptian cell, but he wanted to know if it was true she had been operating in other countries in the region.

"She came out of nowhere," said Che Flaco. (Che Gordo just shook his head and continued chewing.) "And she moves with lightning speed--people, walls, locks, guards, even borders are like nothing to her. And nobody knows what she looks like because if that veil comes off, the witnesses are all found dead. Some think she's from Mossad--a trained Palestinian double agent."

"Some?" said Wu. "What do the others think?" He knew she was no Palestinian, but Project R.O.D.H.A.M. had no real handle on her.

"Lebanese, Italian, Greek, Brazilian, maybe a Venezuelan operative from Hugo Chavez," said Che Gordo. "Some think she's the unknown granddaughter of Carlos the Jackal."

"What does she really want?" asked Wu.

"What does any woman really want!?" laughed Che Flaco.

A couple miles to the south, Lynnette Wong came out of her storeroom to model another dress for her friend who was minding her Chinatown herb store while Wong was showing her the gowns she had picked up from Macy's. "Oh, that midnight blue is beautiful on you!" her friend said. Her friend had also said the jade green, apple red, and champagne-colored gowns were beautiful. Charles Wu had handed her a Macy's gift card to pick up a dress for tonight's Oscar party, and it was not until she went to the store that she found out it had two-thousand dollars on it; she didn't know if he wanted her to get a two-thousand-dollar dress, or if she was supposed to get new shoes, make-up, and jewelry, too. In fact, she had no idea whatsoever why he was going to this benefit for the American Red Cross, nor why he had invited her--he had told her it was important for businessmen "like them" to show civic spirit, but in the past he would have used the $2,000 to write a check. She knew he didn't LIKE her like her, but he had been acting strangely ever since his brother died and his parents left. She shrugged her shoulders and looked to her friend for a more specific comment on the dress, but the shop bell rang as a customer entered the shop, so Wong returned to the storeroom to try on the lemon yellow silk dress.

Over in Dupont Circle, the Heurich Society was meeting in the Brewmaster Castle, and they were the only ones who really knew what Angela de la Paz wanted--or, rather, what she had been ordered to do for them. Arab refugees were on the run, oil prices were shooting up, and the Clinton State Department was scrambling like a Chinese fire drill. "Obama is feckless," cackled Condoleezza Rice over the speakerphone, gleefully crowing about how the Obama White House was cringing as the House of Representatives used its Power of the Purse like a bag of quarters to beat up everybody they didn't like. "We can re-shape the face of the Middle East NOW!" added Rice. Henry Samuelson smirked, feeling exuberantly vindicated about Project Cinderella and Project Prometheus.

On the other end of Dupont Circle, Charles Wu had made his way over to Trio's to meet with the Condor to catch up on petroleum futures. "Mmmmmm," said the Condor, as Wu sat down, because the Condor was already happily eating--nothing cheered him up after a tumultuous week of petroleum futures like a delicious meal at Trio's. "Try this," he finally mustered after swallowing, pushing his plate towards Wu, who waved it off politely and assured him he would order the same thing. "The Listening Session was brutal," the Condor said, shaking his head grimly. "I think the EPA is going to do it. They let the Sierra Club set up a table right outside the hearing room, for God's sake! The nonprofits and think tanks are all behind EPA, and some of the utility companies have crossed over--the efficient ones, the co-generation experts all have an advantage if this goes through. And Shell's argument that U.S refineries were operating on 'thin' margins and would surely be crushed by foreign oil imports if they had to bend to any more regulations from EPA went over like a lead balloon. I don't think it helped that baby dolphins were washing up on the Gulf Coast this week--dolphins conceived right before the BP oil spill."

"But if Congress strips EPA of the power--"

"The House is being run by yokels right now, and they don't understand that the courts have already decided that EPA is mandated to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. They can make all the de-funding attempts they want, but the Senate is not going to go along with gutting the Clear Air Act, and as long as it's on the books, the EPA will have to deal with court orders."

Wu stifled a yawn. He knew--he really did know--that Wednesday's relatively obscure hearing in the small Ariel Rios conference room about establishing new source performance standards was extremely important to the fossil fuels industry, but it was all so...tedious. "What about Libya?"

"Well--"

"Wait, what did you say about baby dolphins?" asked the waitress hovering behind the two, frowning.

A few miles away, Golden Fawn was in the bridgeman's quarters with Dubious McGinty, looking down on Ardua of the Potomac. She was chewing the sunflower seeds sacred to her people and spitting the husks into the water. (She had offered some to McGinty, but they made his gums hurt.) It had been a cold, cold winter, and she and her husband had just gotten back from a week's respite in Puerto Rico, where Marcos Vazquez's mother had finally returned to live after months of turning Golden Fawn's life upside down. The arguments about whether Europeans had deliberately slaughtered American Indians or innocently wiped them out through the spread of disease, Teresa's decision to surprise them with a complete make-over by Closet Maid and the ensuing three weeks of renovations to clean up and repair the damage, the draperies that burned up after Teresa fell asleep praying before her shrine to the Virgin Mary to cleanse the home of evil, the three successive pairs of dogwood trees that died within hours of the condo company's planting them in the front garden, the electrical outlets that shorted out every time Teresa insisted on plugging in her ancient hair dryer, the broken washing machine which could not handle the stress of laundering Teresa's full set of linens on a daily basis because everything in the home felt corrupted and evil to her--Golden Fawn felt like she was slowly coming out of a strange, strange dream. So many times she had tried to explain to her mother-in-law that she agreed about the demons, but Teresa was going about it all wrong. So many arguments. And finally they had flown to Puerto Rico, sunbathed, swam in the ocean, and stopped talking about Washington for a week. Now Golden Fawn was back. "Yes," she told McGinty when he first found her on Roosevelt Island praying, "I know she's pregnant." This was her second visit since then, but she was still undecided who was the larger threat--Ardua or the unborn child prophesied to destroy her. "He came to me in a dream last night," Golden Fawn said. ("He?") "Yes, it's a boy. His name is Eeteebsee. He asked me to help him kill Ardua after he is born." ("Should we?") "I don't know yet."

Back in Chinatown, Charles Wu showed up at Lynnette Wong's shop hours early for their date to the Oscar party. "Can you give me something to help me sleep a little while?" he asked, and she gave him some herbs and the key to her apartment so he could go upstairs and sleep. She had never seen his chi so low--he was like a completely different person. I better wear the orange gown, she thought, stifling an urge to go tuck him in.

Out in the Potomac, Ardua looked up at Dubious McGinty and Golden Fawn on the bridge overlook above her, groaned and rolled over.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Really in Trouble

Charles Wu was sitting in the Prince and Prowling office of former Senator Evermore Breadman; they were sharing a good laugh over the ignominy suffered at the law firm Hunton and Williams after their involvement in an elaborate conspiracy to undermine Wikileaks was exposed by the UK Independent. "We've never seen the presentation, never evaluated it, and have no interest in it," Breadman quoted from the Bank of America official statement about the alleged pitch from security firm HB Gary Federal to Bank of America's lawyers at Hunton and Williams. Breadman put the printout down and pulled a silk handkerchief out of his breast pocket to wipe the tears streaming from his eyes. "We'll hunt those Wikileak supporters down like dogs!" Breadman said, mocking the sales pitch. "And for another thousand dollars/day, we'll put the squeeze on the National Credit Union Association, tap the phones of Ben Bernanke, hack into the New York Times, and unload a crate of cockroaches into the studio of The Colbert Report!" Breadman blew his nose loudly--he was comfortable enough with Wu to do that sort of thing, what with the fecal transplant and all. "Buffoons!" he added, with a final laugh, but what Breadman didn't know was how close HB Gary Federal had come to bringing the pitch to Prince and Prowling before Wu had managed to deftly (and invisibly) deflect them to Hunton and Williams. "You don't suppose Bank of America is really in trouble, do you?" Breadman suddenly frowned and reached for his bottled water.

"You don't suppose Bank of America is really in trouble, do you?" Atticus Hawk looked up from his computer to see one of the Justice Department's lovelier U.S. Attoneys in his doorway, a cup of coffee in her right hand and a UK Independent article in the other. She walked into his office, tossed the article down on his desk, and sat down in his guest chair. Hawk didn't really give a rat's ass what was happening to Bank of America, but he didn't want to be impolite, so he picked up the article to read it. "God, I wish I were working for Bharara," she said, sipping her coffee and imagining standing by the side of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara as he announced another indictment for insider trading. She had one leg dangling off the arm of the chair, and her clog fell off to expose fuchsia nail polish on her toes. Hawk nodded at whatever she said, still uncertain whether she flirted with him because she liked him or because she thought he could advance her career. Either way, she wore those trendy rectangular black glasses he disliked, drank her coffee from a reusable mug, and tried to throw phrases like "socioeconomic paradigm" and "counter-entrenchment" into every conversation. He still missed Jai Alai, and he wasn't going to mess with anybody unless it was simple, easy, and brainless. "Very interesting," he conceded, with that mysterious mask over his eyes which drove her wild with curiosity; she had no idea what he was working on, ever. "I brought a mess of Thai stir fry I'm gonna heat up at lunchtime--come look for me in an hour or so, OK?" Hawk nodded noncommittally, and turned back to his memo on fraud in the import/export industry. I miss CIA torture, he thought.

"You don't suppose Wall Street is really in trouble, do you?" It was a clandestine meeting of Bo-Oz, the ring inside of Booz Allen Hamilton which believed two things: (1) the founders of the firm made a gargantuan strategic blunder in using a name that was pronounced like "booze", and (2) the lack of judgment shown on #1 put into question every tenet underlying the socioeconomic paradigm underlying the company's entire operational philosophy. "We can't afford to be caught in front of the fan if shit is going to hit it." (Employees at Booze were trained to repackage bits and pieces of other people's intellectual property into expensive consulting reports, and so all their conversations were peppered with paraphrases and rearrangements of common expressions.) "How many of these insider trading indictments have wheels? Is there a counter-retrenchment against the 60-day-net model of cash-flow expansionability? Is it time to move onto 5G consulting?" The Fifth-Generation Consulting Paradigm was the most secret document in the possession of Bo-Oz: it outlined a strategy for bringing business costs down anywhere between 300-900 percent by locating business subsidiaries inside refugee camps (pay rate 25 cents/hour for English-speakers at customer service call centers and 5 cents/hour for those relegated to the factories). The inner ring looked around nervously--they were big on ideas and short on gumption.

Not far away, the residents of the Arlington group home for the mentally challenged were also big on ideas and short on gumption--most of the time. But today, Cedric had persuaded Brother Divine that T-Mobile and Nokia had made a pact with the devil, and the two were whipping their housemates into a frenzy. "They're really in trouble now, my brothers!" shouted Brother Divine. ("And sisters", whispered Cedric into his ear.) "Brothers and sisters," shouted Brother Divine, "Nokia has declared war on the Mac, and T-Mobile is a mercenary in their army!" ("What do they have against the Big Mac?") "No, no, not the Big Mac--the MAC! The Apple Macintosh computer, my brothers and sisters! It's 1984 all over again! THIS MAN [he pointed at Cedric] has a Nokia smart phone that has become too stupid to function, my brothers and sisters! Why? Because it requires a SOFTWARE DOWNLOAD! Not just any software download, mind you--a download that MUST--yes, I say MUST!--be downloaded to a Windows operating system on a PC before it can be loaded onto this so-called SMART phone." ("Huh?") "'Huh', you say?! Yes, HUH, I say! HUH! The truth has come out! Nokia's smart phones have been hijacked by THE MAN, and they will not work anymore unless THE MAN is allowed to download his software into the Nokia. The only defense against THE MAN is THE MAC, my brothers and sisters! Cedric will NOT give up his MAC! Oh, no, Cedric will NOT download THE MAN's spyware software through the CIA-controlled Microsoft Windows personal computers of this world." The enormous brown dog named Millie yawned and moved further away from the window, where high winds were causing a rattle and draft. "Oh no! And T-Mobile refuses to help, my brothers and sisters!" ("What are you going to do?") "Ummm." Brother Divide looked to Cedric, but he was busy reading an online blog post from Glenn Michael Beckmann about his plan to blow up every T-Mobile retail center in Washington on President's Day if they did not let him trade in his smart phone for one that didn't require constant downloading of spyware onto his computer.

"Is lithium really in trouble?" wondered social worker Hue Nguyen, who was downstairs in her office and could not at all hear the commotion upstairs because she was listening to the radio play an Evanescence song called "Lithium". She was a little freaked out when the song began right after she read the article about the dwindling of known sources of raw materials for lithium batteries, which she had just found on the internet after following a link from the article she had just read about an epidemic of malfunctioning cellphones in psychiatric wards and group homes for the mentally ill due to the magnetic effects of excessive metal bioaccumulation among all the patients taking lithium pills for their mood disorders.

Lithium, don't wanna lock me up inside
Lithium, don't wanna forget how it feels without
Lithium, I wanna stay in love with my sorrow
Oh, but God I wanna let it go....

She looked at her Nokia smart phone, which had just gone blank again, and scratched her head.

Over in the river, Ardua of the Potomac (who used to grow strong from bioaccumulation of heavy metals until the baby growing in her womb started hijacking them all), fretted about The Prophecy. She could not begin to grasp the possibility that she was really dying, but she did know she was really in trouble.

NEXT WEEK: Angela de la Paz's update from the Middle East and Dubious McGinty's meeting with Golden Fawn.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Revolting

The Hunter-Gatherer Society was in session at O Street Beach, where they were roasting a couple deer over open fires they had built after their successful bow-and-arrow hunt in Rock Creek Park. Glenn Michael Beckmann had bagged nothing since he was a firearms hunter himself, but he could not have argued with the advisability of keeping the morning's hunt quiet. Holly Gonightly had been told to do the "woman's work" of chewing on the rawhide to soften it before tanning, and it was only the thought of a Pulitzer Prize for undercover reporting that enabled her to keep herself from upchucking--not to mention, keep herself from telling the guys they were morons. Beckmann stood up, cleared his throat, and pulled out some notes he had prepared the night before. "Our President, Sarah Palin, said the revolutionaries in Cairo were standing up for freedom, lower taxes, prayer in schools, and the right to bear arms." (Gonightly kept a straight face and joined the others in nodding in agreement.) The Cairo Tea Party brothers-in-arms will no longer tolerate the liberal media elite and all its lies about global warming. When the going got rough, they didn't back down: they said, 'reload'!" (ahem, ahem) "Er, they said, 'stand tall!'" (here here!) "The freedom leaders in Egypt are the Christians, and they need our support: they are the true friends of Israel in the Middle East, and freedom rings throughout their land! If they can do it, so can we!" The members jumped to their feet for a standing ovation, but Gonightly had no idea what they actually wanted to do. (She was also worried that she was starting to like the taste of the rawhide.)

At the far end of the gathering, the Warrior squatted in silence. He had helped them during their morning hunt because he had hunted in Rock Creek Park many times, but their words made no sense to him. (The Warrior was over 400 years old and had heard a lot of speeches, but they rarely made sense to him: seemed to him that people only spoke truthfully when only one or two people were listening.) He got up and walked over to where the yellow-haired woman was chewing on rawhide and asked her what she was doing--he was worried she was going to break her teeth. She looked up at the Indian and took the rawhide out of her mouth to speak, but she lost himself in his eyes like bottomless wells.

A mile away, the Heurich Society was also discussing the weeks' events in Egypt--particularly, Project Cinderella's success in removing Hosni Mubarak safely from Cairo and transferring many of his assets to the Cayman Islands before Swiss officials were pressured to freeze his bank accounts. "But there's more!" said Henry Samuelson, with a glint in his eye and a rare smile. "She believes she's found a cell there linked to Project R.O.D.H.A.M.!" He paused a moment for this to sink in. "She's embedded in it now and should have more information for us soon." The Chair of the Heurich Society asked if their operative (Angela de la Paz) was still on the pulse of military leadership. "Of course! That's why she's so valuable to Project R.O.D.H.A.M.!" From the speakerphone, the voice of Condoleezza Rice interrupted to remind Samuelson that the rising tide of popular revolt across the Arab world was not something that could be shaped by a 16-year-old girl. "Popular revolt is not what she's shaping," sneered Samuelson, hoping Rice could hear his sneer over the telephone line. "And it's not about Arabs," he added. "It's about 'Climate Wars', it's about 'Guns, Germs and Steel', it's about societies' dying because they have nothing left to stand on but sand--literally." The others squirmed: Rice was the only female member of the Heurich Society, but nobody had ever taken her for a fool before--not so vociferously, in any event. "That '16-year-old girl', as you call her, is a force of nature, and she's working for us." Rice made no response, and the Chair moved to the next agenda item: the federal budget.

About a mile to the south, the federal budget was also on the agenda at Prince and Prowling: it was all hands on deck for former Senator Evermore Breadman, who was overrun with Congressmen seeking advice on drafting riders to avoid looking like earmarks. Even Laura Moreno and Chloe Cleavage had been pulled off the three class-action lawsuits against sub-prime mortgage lenders which Prince and Prowling had been defending for half a year with total average billings of $6,000 per day. Breadman could not be denied this week--he even had half a dozen Tea Party legislators seeking his services right now. (Of course, they sent staff members in their stead so they could not be photographed entering or exiting Prince and Prowling--though their official line was that they did not want any journalist to publish a misleading photo suggesting they had actually been inside the White House across the street). Moreno had actually been planning to go to Puerto Rico this week to take a break from the cold and look for a job--any job--because the accumulated hubris of years of working at Prince and Prowling had crushed her spirit nearly to oblivion and all she wanted now was to get far, far, far away. She pulled the February 1995 Ways and Means Subcommittee report from Edgar, hit the Print command, and checked it off her list. She took another bite of her chocolate chip muffin (she had to admit that Breadman was generous with the snack trays when he asked people to come work on a weekend) and wondered if she would ever get a pay raise before she died, and wondered if that other contract attorney was right who said they should be banging their own pots in front of the White House and calling for a revolution, and wondered if it was time to take a major risk in her life even though every other major risk had turned out badly. "Is there trans fat in these muffins?" Moreno jumped at the sight of Bridezilla at her door. (Bridezilla had nuked the muffin for two minutes to kill any possible germs, but then it occurred to her they might have trans fats.) Moreno shook her head no, even though she had no idea. "High-fructose corn syrup?" (No.) "Hormone-free eggs?" (Yes, Moreno nodded.) "Organic butter?" (Yes.) Bridezilla looked at Moreno suspiciously, but the hot muffin with melting chocolate chips smelled really, really good, and she could not resist it any longer, so she turned without another word and left to eat her muffin, leaving Moreno to contemplate if she had become a person who casually lied with ease--or was that an exempt situation of humanitarian compassion?

Over in the river, the Beaver was encouraging the pregnant Ardua of the Potomac to try varying her diet to ease the morning sickness. "You might try eating a few tree limbs," suggested the Beaver. "A little extra roughage could do you good. Just eating people--" Ardua roared so loudly the Beaver leaped backwards a good twenty feet, or perhaps it was a sonic boom that had knocked the litle minion out of the water. "I'm not saying to stop eating people!" added the Beaver. "Just think about adding a little fiber--" Ardua roared again, and the Beaver ended up flat on his back on the embankment below the Theodore Roosevelt bridge. "Why don't I leave you now so you can get some rest?" The Beaver, reluctant to get back in the water, crawled awkwardly but rapidly away from Ardua. The demon belched loudly, then reached up to kill the battery on a Chevy Volt passing overhead. (Ardua did not hate electric cars--it was just a coincidence.) Then she glared at Dubious McGinty, who was standing outside the bridgeman's quarters to enjoy the heat wave of fifty degrees. He had stopped attacking her months ago because he was still trying to figure out this pregnancy thing: he know the Prophecy said the baby would kill her, but then the baby would be stronger and more evil than Ardua herself. Should he try to kill the baby? What if the Prophecy was wrong? What if it was right? He spit into the water far below him. It was time to go look up Golden Fawn--if anybody knew, it would be her.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Horse of a Different Color

Becky Hartley was shaking her head in disgust. "I ain't seen that in a long time," she said, pointing to the matching marks near the top of all four of the horse's legs. The HOOFS volunteer had already told them over the phone that she was working with a rescued horse, but she wasn't familiar with the Texas horse-breaking technique that had been used on the bay. Hartley showed Sebastian L'Arche and the HOOFS volunteer a photo of how the same type of hobbling was done on another horse, and then explained how the scars were left on the bay.

"But that's now what's bothering him," said L'Arche, who had stopped looking at Silverado's legs and was now looking into the horse's eyes."

"That's why I called you, sir," said the volunteer. "We've worked with plenty of rescued horses, and they never even show up at Edgewater until they're highly trained, but this one just gets spooked at all the wrong times."

L'Arche's reputation as an animal whisperer had taken him to a lot of strange places, but he had never expected to find himself at a National Park Service stable looking at a police horse. In some ways, Hartley knew all along that L'Arche hadn't really needed her to come with him today, and he would have flipped out had he known that she passed up her daddy's invitation to join him at the Super Bowl tonight, but L'Arche had almost not answered this call, and it was her that had talked him into it.

L'Arche moved in closer, and then the bay began to whisper in L'Arche's ear. "It's the starlings," L'Arche said. "They worry him."

"Are you talking about birds? Since when are horses afraid of birds?"

L'Arche shook his head. "He's not afraid of them--he's afraid of what they know. And they know he knows." The HOOFS volunteer stared blankly at L'Arche, and Hartley raised her eyebrows at him. L'Arche drew back from the horse, took the horse's head in both his hands, stared deeply into the horse's eyes, and silently told Silverado that the demons of Washington could not hurt him. The horse neighed impatiently, for he already knew that--he was worried about what was happening to the people. "You have a special job to do, and the people need you to do that job," whispered L'Arche. "I'll come once a month, and you can tell me all about the demons--you don't need to tell anybody else." The horse nuzzled L'Arche for a long minute, then turned to nuzzle the HOOFS volunteer.

"He should be OK now," said L'Arche.

"But what--"

"Don't worry--I'll come back to check on him in a few weeks. You can call me before that if you need to, but I'm sure he'll be fine."

"But what--"

"He's not afraid of birds--don't worry about what I said." L'Arche was really regretting saying anything out loud--not so much because of this volunteer but because he had never talked to Hartley about animals who saw demons and ghosts. He gave the horse one more pat on the head, then turned to go, leaving Hartley to scramble after him.

"What was that about the starlings?" asked Hartley when she caught up to him.

"Nothing."

"Bullshit!" She stopped outside her pickup truck, her arms folded across her chest. He stared her down silently for a minute until she relented and unlocked the doors. They drove slowly out of Rock Creek Park for several minutes until she asked him again: "What was that about the starlings?"

"You really wanna know?"

The tone in his voice sent a shiver down her spine, but she didn't hesitate: "yes".

"I barely understand it myself," he began, not sure how to tell her that in the past three years he had learned how a legion of real estate demons had caused the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the Federal Reserve Board was under siege by possessed millipedes, secret societies all over town were being held in haunted houses, Satan was the controlling partner of a law firm one block from the White House, the White House itself was full of vengeful slave ghosts, and a gargantuan demon of epic proportions was living in the Potomac River. "Animals exist in a less complicated consciousness than we do," he started, "so they are less easily distracted. That's why they can sense things that most people never notice, things most people would never want to notice...."

A mile away, Fen Do Ping was in a Cleveland Park bar, trying to get excited about the Super Bowl party his friend from graduate school had dragged him to. He could usually plead "too busy at work" to avoid these things, but his friend knew that Ping was on furlough from the Federal Reserve Board. ("The Board thinks we have a surplus of economists right now," his boss had said. "Don't worry about it--you'll be back soon! It's not like the Republicans controlling the House are gonna be happy about the Fed's shifting budgetary funds to more regulators!") Ping continued pulling off tiny pieces from the nachos tray so that it was not too obvious he was drinking his beer very, very slowly. (Ping had never been laid off from any job in his entire life, except when he was eight years old and that Communist Party official had gotten him removed from the Lotus neighborhood paper route the day after Ping had accidentally broken the pot of lucky bamboo sitting outside the official's front door; so Ping had decided to get drunk with Luciano Talaverdi at the Froggy Bottom Pub, and Ping really regretted that because the night had ended with the two narrowly escaping arrest after climbing on top of the Washington Circle statue and calling for George's bronze horse to take them "to Wall Street so they could lasso some bull".) His buddy made another joke about the team he was rooting against, and everybody at the table laughed, so Ping also laughed. (Why me? How could they furlough ME? I never should have said those stupid things about liquidity! I'll lose my Visa! I'll never get citizenship! They're going to take my salary and use it to hire more lawyers!) Ping involuntarily let out a cross between a groan and a gasp, and his grad school buddy patted him on the back and assured him one more time that everything would turn out fine.

Another mile away, Congressman Herrmark was holding his annual Super Bowl fundraising party at his six-bedroom house. The party was actually below his house--in the 5,000 square-foot "Man Cave" excavated, built and furnished below ground at a cost of $2.5 million (plus $300,000 in bribes to city officials, his adjoining neighbors, and anybody else aware of the project's gross violations of land-use zoning ordinances and other municipal regulations). Attendance was way down this year--a fact he loudly attributed to the desire of many of his friends to escape the relentlessly frigid winter with a long weekend in the Caribbean, even as he secretly feared that his opposition to hydrofracking was getting around. His twin bodyguards (Nick and Costas) flanked him everywhere he walked, and he was undecided as to whether this made him feel important or wussy--after all, these people were all his friends, weren't they? In the far corner, behind the six-foot-high, alabaster Pegasus statue imported from Greece, a lobbyist recently hired by Halliburton was whispering with the millionaire who had recently leased gas rights in a series of farms covering 2,000 acres of southern Pennsylvania: they were whispering about the Halliburton loophole....

Not far away, Charles Wu was back in his apartment after escorting his father and deceased brother to England. He was sitting at his dining room table, staring at the package his mother had sent him from Hong Kong. It would be bad luck to open a Chinese New Year's gift so late, but worse luck to refuse a gift from his mother. He frowned at himself for even allowing such thoughts to enter his mind, and tore open the package. It was a small framed silkscreen of a hunter riding a black horse; on his back he carried a quiver of arrows, and from his saddle hung a bag with a bloody rabbit head sticking out. "It is the Year of the Rabbit--" his mother had written on the enclosed note card. "--time for smart rabbits to hide in holes."

Outside his window, a quiet catbird flew off to tell Ardua of the Potomac that Wu was back...but she already knew.