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CHAPTER NINETEEN: Various Ceremonies, and that Hearing

 

Ambros pulled his socks on, and then donned a pair of Commonwealth-issue harness boots. He checked himself in the mirror: All in dark green and gray camo, black boots, and a dark green balaclava.

He reflected on his appearance: “Better. Not good. But Better. A mostly good night’s sleep helps some.”

Kim came out of the women’s room into the main hall of his Salon, similarly dressed.

“Ready?” she asked.

“I’d better be. Don’t want to be late.”

It was the Eve of Winter Solstice; it would be a day of unpleasant errands, he knew, to be followed by the Ceremony of Darkness and Light in Athino.

Ambros drew Kim close and got out his Shifter. He concentrated on the spot he’d scouted earlier that morning, and then Saltated the two of them up into the south hills of Eugene.

“This way,” he whispered, taking her hand. He led her down a little ways, on a seldom-used path near the cemetery.

He stopped. She stayed behind him, waiting.

“Right here,” he said, still whispering.

“Okay.”

They waited; he scanned the scene with his binoculars. He could see, about forty yards away, the gravediggers making their final preparations for the graveside service.

 

 

She reached for the binoculars and he handed them over. She panned across the scene in her turn, then pointed: “Hearse,” she said, even more quietly.

He nodded: “Let’s get a little closer, and then settle in.”

He led the way again, until they got to a spot about twenty yards from the tent that shielded the graves from the pelting rain. Ambros sat down and drew Kim after him. They sat side-by-side, invisible to all eyes as long as they remained still.

‘Dead silent, now,’ he handsigned at her. She nodded, and copied him as he pulled his balaclava over his face.

A single motorcycle cop hove into view, his flashers blinking. The hearse followed. Officer Thompson got off the bike and set it on the main stand. He walked slowly, head down, until he got just under the tent, where he’d be at the back of the mourners. He stood there expressionless as the rest of the ceremony occurred.

The hearse parked at the edge of the paved road, idling quietly. Two mortuary attendants got out and stood at either side of the back gate of the car.

A black limo arrived, and an older couple got out, assisted by the chauffeur. Three more cars pulled up, disgorging a younger couple, several children, and some very young men and women.

Kim signed at him: ‘Only fifteen people?’

He replied, in the same sign language: ‘Most of their friends died the night they tried to kill us.’

She nodded, with pursed lips and lowered brows.

The attendants drew the two coffins out of the hearse. Pallbearers carried the caskets over to the graveside; the attendants arranged them above the graves. A preacher, in the usual collar and coat, began a sermon about the good qualities of the two dead:

“...kind and attentive to his mother at the time of his father’s disappearance…” the cleric droned on, in a high nasal voice reminiscent of Daffy Duck.

Kim made a very sarcastic sign. Ambros replied with ‘Yes, but…’ and indicated the older couple, who were grief-stricken, so much so that the young men had to hold them upright.

Kim frowned. Tears ran down her face; Ambros was also crying.

As the electric winch began to lower the first coffin into its final resting place, Ambros whispered: “Even a couple of evil Nazi thugs like young Dillon and his mom have people who love them, and grieve when they die. Those are her parents, who are not Nazis. Just grieving...”

She touched his arm: “There was nothing else you could have done…”


“I know,” he said, resigned: “They were gonna kill me. Premeditated.” He went silent again as the winch stopped. The attendants moved to shift the hook, and began to lower the second coffin.

The old lady could barely move, she shook so with her sobbing. She made shift, though, to throw some earth on each grave, and her very elderly husband did the same. One of the younger women howled, her mourning overcoming all decorum, and the small crowd shifted and moaned, until the preacher began a hymn. They all began to sing along, only a little off-key.

When the hymn ended, the people around the graves all hugged and kissed one another. In ones and twos they drifted off to the vehicles, whispering among themselves.

The grave diggers reappeared. One of them started the backhoe, but waited for the cars to be out of sight before starting to move soil. Ambros could see the grave markers sitting near the winch, ready to be put in place.

After a few more minutes, he rose in place, drawing Kim with him. They moved back uphill, one cautious step at a time, until they stood in the spot where they’d first dropped in. Ambros drew her to him, and triggered a Shift back to his Salon.

“Brrr,” she said, shivering: “I’m soaked.”

“Yeah, me too. But I felt like I had to do that. You didn’t have to come with.”

She shrugged: “Well...Posse Comitatus tried to kill me, too, I guess.”

He agreed: “Evidence suggests they’ve killed at least a dozen people in the last ten years, and all of us at Rose House were surely on their list of targets.” he shrugged: “Officer Miller has apparently left town, leaving no forwarding address. So as far as I can tell, the only surviving ‘made man’ still in Eugene is Officer Thompson.”

“I suppose you are going to have to do something about him, too, eventually.”

He nodded: “Soon. Best you not know…”

“Yeah.”

 

 

Ambros and Kim walked along Odho Aeolena, the Street of Winds. He felt how deep in his thoughts he was; he paid little attention to the few folk who were about on that rainy day in Athino. 'Most of them are on errands similar to mine, anyway,' he thought. Kim seemed to sense his distraction, and paced silently beside him.

He wore his heavy wool cloak, the hood up and pulled down to cover part of his face. He went along slowly, his posture erect, head high, hands loosely closed into fists.

'Chilly,' he thought: 'The rain is cold.' He kept his mind on such mundane things, so as not to over-think the task he had set himself.

Ahead he saw the temple of Asklepios, the great hall of which fronted the main Hospital of Athino. Medical Guild staff of various ranks milled about, some going places with clear intent, others strolling or chatting.

On the porch behind the first colonnade he saw those he'd ask to gather. Voukli saluted; he returned the salute. None of the others were Sacred Band, so they greeted him variously. Marie and Luisa stood together, waiting patiently. He and Kim walked over and embraced them one by one and then all together.

He nodded at the others gathered there: "Thank you for indulging me, Teresi, Tantalos. I appreciate your presence, Magistro Skavo." He flipped his hood back and bowed slightly to the last person: "I will endeavor to take as little of your time as possible, Minister."

Silvisi Athenini, the Minister of the Red Warrior Guild for Athino Prima, bowed slightly in return: "I thank you for your invitation. Take as long as may be required. As a Spathos Second degree, Regulos is highly enough placed in Red Warrior Guild that his actions are a concern to me."

He led the group into the Temple and through into the Hospital. After a few formalities, an Apprentice led them up and around the stairs and ramps to a curtained area near the ORs and ICUs.

"Is this your friend?" asked the Kopelos.

"Hardly," said Ambros, "but he is the man I am here to see."

He hung his cloak on a hook; the witnesses doffed their own outer garments. Ambros dragged a chair over to Regulos' bedside and sat. The others ranged themselves around the room behind him.

Regulos sat half reclined, naked, wires and tubes sprouting from his wounds. He slept, or seemed to; a troubled sleep, if sleep it was.

The Minister reached over and touched Reg's shoulder: "Wake up, Spathos," she said, authoritatively.

Regulos opened his eyes, then did a double-take when he saw all of them there. He glared at Ambros: "What are you doing here? Go away."

"It's the eve of the Winter Solstice," said Ambros, as though that explained his presence.

"So what?" Reg grinned evilly: “You look like shit.”

“I know. Had a hard couple days.”

“Good.”

The rest of the group shifted and muttered.

Ambros sighed: "You want to keep being clueless, that's your affair. I have an errand here, and I'm going to deal with it." He tossed a pair of holo cameras into the air: "I'm recording this."

He drew in a deep breath and sighed it out: "I’ve come to formally apologize to you for my actions on the day of our duel."

Regulos stared at him, disbelieving: "You almost killed me. Get out of here!"

"See, this is why I brought witnesses, including the Minister of your Guild. I. Apologize."

"I don't get it. You won the duel. Why should you apologize?"

Tantalos began to speak but Ambros put his fist by his ear: "No, Tanatalos. Witness only, please."

Tantalos subsided. Ambros said: "I underestimated your fury. I apologize for that. I overestimated your skill. I apologize for that. I lost my temper and injured you more than was necessary for my victory in the duel. I apologize for that. And, although I am still working on the subject, I apologize for any of my actions that unnecessarily infuriated you."

"You..."

Ambros gestured for silence, again: "I do not apologize for my Status within my Guild, which is not your Guild and hence no affair of yours. I do not apologize for accepting promotions in Rank offered authentically by my mentors or by the Master's Council. I absolutely do not apologize for my barbarian origins. I hereby apologize for hitting you in the head hard enough to severely concuss you and expose your skull to the air, and for cutting your femoral artery and hence nearly bleeding you out. I could have knocked you unconscious with the pommel of my sword and walked away. I lost my temper. That's what I did wrong. So, I'm sorry. That. Is. All."

He started to rise, finished with the distasteful task.

"Go kill yourself, barbarian, before I do the job for you. You and all your slippery SB buddies, and those women you hang around with...I don't accept your apologies. I owe you. Soon as I'm better and can get up..."

Ambros sat back down: "See, this is why I brought witnesses, and why I recorded the encounter." His expression turned bleak: "What am I supposed to do about this? You've threatened me,” he gestured at the women: “my family, other members of the Guild I belong to...how do you expect to survive your next encounter with me? How can I not kill you on sight? What kind of ass would threaten a man who has already killed him once?" He shrugged: "Sufficient unto the day, the Christians would say. I did what I came here to do. See ya, I guess. When I do see ya, you’re dead."

Regulos seemed, at that moment, to finally get it. His terror came through, for just a second; then he turned his head away, as if disgusted.

Ambros got up and left, saluting Voukli. Teresi followed, touched his arm: "Don't worry too much, Spathos. I got this."

Ambros paused: "Really?"

"He won't bother you or your Strimeniae. I promise."

“I’ll take that under advisement,” said Ambros, suppressing his doubts: “If he shows me his face, it’s the last thing he’ll do.”

“I understand that,” she said.

Teresi and Tantalos took their leave, then, trailing after Silvisi. Ambros led Skavo and the Trine along the hallway and down a set of stairs. Skavo went her way at the bottom, smiling enigmatically.

“Where are we going now?” asked Marie.

“I need to check on Jaime.”

“The man you rescued from prison in Guatemala?” asked Luisa: “They tortured him, you said.”

“They did.”

“Is he...?” Luisa seemed reluctant to proceed.

“He’s on the mend,” Ambros said, gently: “He’d be permanently disabled in the States, and dead on the streets of his hometown, but here they patched him up pretty quick.”

He led them into the room. Jaime opened his eyes and smiled: “Compadre. Como ’stas?”

“Not bad. Better off than you are, bozo.”

“What you mean, bozo?”

Ambros gestured with his arms, saying: “What the hell were you doing in Guatemala City? You shoulda been in Europe, or even Turkey, under an new name!”

“Family stuff,” said Jaime.

“Dolt! Idiot! Everybody had family stuff; we all left it behind! You should have been dead to your family.”

“Easy for you to say...”

“It is not easy. It wasn’t easy for any of the gringo side of the operation to abandon our networks and loved ones and go into hiding. That’s what you were supposed to do, too. You are fortunate that I kept a lookout for all of the former names, and found out you’d been captured.”

Jaime sighed: “Fortunate, si. Muchas gracias for the rescue, compadre.”

“De nada.” Ambros shook his head: “They were trying to get you give the rest of us up, huh?”

“Si, that is right.” Jaime looked uncomfortable: “Is a good thing I didn’t know who you all are, now. You know?”

“Yeah. Well that’s why we didn’t know each other’s plans,” Ambros said, diffidently. He continued, in same tone: “In a couple weeks our time, someone dressed in red with a pair of leather belts, one black, one white, will come in here and give you a choice. Make a good decision, amigo. For once.”

“Okay vato. I will try.”

“Coming with me?” he asked the women.

Marie shook her head: “Class. Teaching Apprentices.”

She kissed him and left; Luisa kissed him and went along with her.

Kim said: “I think I’ll stay a while. Jaime looks like he could use some company...” She gazed speculatively at Jaime; Ambros knew that look. He shook his head: “Have fun.”

He hugged and kissed her and proceeded with his mission.

 

 

Half a Commonwealth hour later, Ambros approached the Black Warrior Guild’s Intelligence Analysis center in the north wall of the City. He stood near the entry while the cameras scanned him. After a moment the emotionless voice of an “artificially stupid” security system came over the air (he’d never been able to see any speakers as he would in his own Line).

The voice said: “Spathos Five Ambros Rothakis, Sacred Band. Not previously authorized...”

Ambros said: “Magistri Ellisi or Skolaros Danilos would second me.”

A long moment passed. Then the mechanical voice said: “Authorized.”

The door slid open and he stepped in. Next to the door he found the usual I & DG screen: “Danilos Oktotos, USIT Eight,” he muttered: “There he is, on the third floor.”

He skipped the elevator and used the stairs for the sake of exercise. He found the correct office and scratched at the doorpost.

“Enter,” came Danilos’ voice.

He pushed through the curtain on the door and looked around.

Danilos stood behind a standing desk, papers, scrolls, small tools, and books all around the center, and a Commonwealth desktop computer directly in front of him. Danilos smiled: “Spathos Ambros! Good to see you! To what do I owe this pleasure?”

Ambros said: “It’s the eve of the winter solstice.”

Danilos seemed puzzled.

Keeping in mind Danilos’ relatively new citizenship, and the fact that he was so wrapped up in nerdy computer stuff, Ambros said: “On the eve of Solstice, it is customary in the Commonwealth to apologize to anyone you have wronged.”

Danilos frowned: “You haven’t wronged me. Not that I know of. I mean...you did me a great service, helping me pass that sword test so I could come here.”

“Nevertheless, I have wronged you.”

“How?”

“In my thoughts. When I thought there might be or might have been a mole at Alcatraz....”

“There was one. Two, actually, if I heard right.”

“Yes. But after I got you over the test, I thought you might have been the second one. I thought very unpleasant things about you, for more than a month. I had some people watching you...it was wrong. I was wrong.”

Danilos frowned at him: “Oh. No harm done, though.”

Ambros shrugged: “Accept my apology, then, and forgive me.”

Danilos nodded: “Done. Come and look at this.”

Ambros went behind the desk, treading carefully over and around the piles and heaps of research materials that lay upon the floor. He figured that Danilos knew what each pile was, and where it was, and that it would be unwise to disturb the apparent chaos.

Danilos indicated the main screen, then called up several images on his auxiliary screens: “What do you suppose is going on here, here, and there?”

Ambros frowned, then narrowed his eyes: “Can you get a better look at that?”

“Not with the current equipment. I’ll look into putting a real camera in that refugee camp.”

“Do so, please,” Ambros nodded: “Send the images to my personal cache at the Library.”

Danilos raised an eyebrow: “You think something’s funky in Paris, then?” 

“It seems to me that’s what got your attention. I think you are probably right. No hard feelings, then?” said Ambros, offering his hand.

Danilos shook it: “None at all. Keep in touch...”

 

 

Ambros left the building, heading for the Command Complex. A bit of a walk, it allowed him time to mentally prepare for his last two apologies. He passed the time of day with the guard at the door to the Main Hall while picking up his Shifter.

He didn’t Shift from the ground floor, as he often did, wanting a small amount of back-up for the next trip.

He reached his usual War Room in the basement of the complex.

That War Room dealt mostly with Sacred Band affairs, although overflow from other Guilds occasionally passed through.

It was later than Megalos usually worked, so he wasn’t surprised to see Aristogatos at the main board.

“Hey Spathos,” the man said as Ambros approached.

“Magistros,” Ambros replied, returning the salute: “I have a favor to ask...”

“Ask away. It’s a quiet night.”

“I need to go to Alcatraz Quiet, to see someone I don’t like, if you catch my drift.”

“I get it. Activate your MPS in silent and invisible mode, and I’ll keep an eye on you. You want to land at the usual place?”

“Yes, the landing pad in the guard’s break room.”

When he was through to the other side, he queried his MPS as to Virgil’s location. He found him in the rec room, drinking wine.

Virgil looked up when Ambros entered the room; he snarled and turned his back.

Ambros shook his head. He saluted of a couple of his students, but didn’t invite any further contact. He paced across the room and around the table Virgil occupied, and sat down across from him.

“What do you want?” Virgil said, drunkenly.

“One more chance to apologize to you.”

Virgil’s eyes crossed, then he seemed to focus: “You already did. I blew you off.” He stared, frowning.

“Yes. I was trying to establish friendlier relations between us, for political purposes. Having to do with the war against our common enemy, the L’Iriquois family and their Nazi allies.”

“Uh,” said Virgil. “So what?”

“So, since that seems to be impossible, we’ll just have to remain at odds. Voukli can be your contact for actions in your Line, and I’ll work with Vree and René.

“I’m here today to apologize for one specific action of mine. And as it’s the eve of the Solstice, I’m gonna do it. When we had our one physical fight, when you dissed me and saluted ahead of me, and I kicked your ass in front of your remaining buddies...you remember that day?”

“Not likely to forget it.”

“Good, because that was the point. But upon sober reflection, and at the urging of my students, I must admit that the gauntleted fist into your armpit was both unnecessarily cruel and more painful than your actions merited. For that punch, I apologize.”

He got up and turned to leave.

Virgil said: “Wait, don’t I get to talk?”

Ambros looked over his shoulder: “What do you have to say?”

Nonplussed, Virgil stammered a bit, then said: “I don’t accept your apology.”

Ambros laughed: “I didn’t figure you would. I don’t give a rat’s ass. The apology is for my sake, not yours.”

He walked out without looking back, although his ears were tuned for the sound of pursuit.

 

 

Ambros remained in the Alcatraz Quiet Line. He dropped in to a hallway in the uppermost part of the Seattle Space Needle. He strolled along the curving corridor to the restaurant entrance. He stopped long enough to check the other side of the door with his MPS. He shook his head, pissed off.

He drew his APS and cut the door down; as it fell, and the booby trap triggered, he sliced the handle of the axe with his blade, and stepped back as the axehead skittered across the hall and struck the opposite wall.

John Masters came charging out of the kitchen and around the bar with a steel rod in his hand. When he saw the failure of his trap he stopped dead, suddenly terrified.

 Ambros laughed: “Drop the weapon, Masters.”

John threw the thing away like it was a snake: “You gonna kill me?”

“Shut up and sit down. Did you really think I’d come here unarmed and unarmored?”

Masters sat on the sofa: “I guess I didn’t think it through.”

“No shit.”

Ambros kicked debris out of his way and crossed into the bar.

He turned his MPS and Shifter on, and linked them. With a mental command, he summoned the pile of supplies that he’d set ready at Alcatraz: “Here’s some firewood and canned goods and lantern fuel and stuff.”

Masters looked ill: “Thanks, I guess.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You gonna let me go some day?”

Ambros shook his head: “That’s a meaningless question.”

“Pretty meaningful to me.”

“No. You just once again haven’t thought things through.”

A long silence followed. At length, Masters said: “You just here to bring me prison food?”

“No. I’m here to recite a carefully limited apology.”

“Huh.”

“Here goes: if I’d known it was you on the other side of the truck that dark and rainy night not long ago, I wouldn’t have shot to kill. I’m sorry I did that.”

“To hell with you.”

“That’s more or less what I expected you to say. I don’t care. If you’ve read any of those books I gave you, you’d know that in my adopted culture, I’m supposed to apologize to people I’ve wronged. On the eve of the Winter Solstice, which is tonight.”

Rain banged on the skylights as they sat there silently.

Masters said: “I keep going back to those books. I think, ‘What bullshit’. Then I look out the window...”

“So you’re starting to believe in the Multiverse.”

Masters growled, but didn’t otherwise answer.

After another silence, Masters asked: “How come you don’t just kill me?”

“I don’t want to kill you, John. That’s why. My job requires me to kill way too damned many people already. Usually, those people are a threat to me or mine; they are often engaged in trying to kill me.

“However. You are not a threat to me, you’re a joke. Except to the women you’ve raped...”

Masters started as if he’d been poked.

“See, that’s why I put you here. It’s a mostly dead world, and there are no women nearby. Since I decided not to shoot you dead, I had to put you somewhere.”

“So...judge, jury and prison guard, huh?”

Ambros snarled: “Would you rather be dead?”

Masters remained silent.

Eventually Ambros said: “I could do as the Commonwealth’s enemies do. I could kill you over and over, and let you watch...”

Masters seemed more subdued, but protested: “How could you kill me more than once?”

Ambros smiled nastily: “Think about it, John. You know enough about the Multiverse now to start figuring stuff out for yourself.”

Masters just shook his head: “Makes no sense.”

“Okay,” said Ambros: “Suppose I handcuffed you and took you for another ride with my Shifter. We’d go from Line to Line, and everywhere I found a cognate—you remember we talked about cognates?—anytime I found someone whose DNA was a match for yours, I’d kill him.”

“Shit,” said Masters, looking down at his feet: “Shit.”

“In extreme cases the ATL executioners also kill all the children of their victims.”

“Good God! Little kids?”

“Come on, Masters, you know very well the Nazis did that. Posse Comitatus has murdered multiple kids over the years...Why would you be surprised that Jean l’Iriquois would order such a thing? Huh?

“But the point is, before you yourself died you’d have seen that your captors had quite simply and thoroughly eliminated your DNA from the gene pool of the Multiverse. Think about that, Masters.

“And by the way: in case you hadn’t noticed, there are stairs down the hall there. I’m not a prison guard, you can leave anytime you want to.”

He got up and pulled out the Shifter: ”See ya, Masters.”

He Saltated. 

 

 

Back in his Home Line, in his office, he prepared himself for a distasteful job: “It’s been a day of distasteful jobs. No reason not to finish the day the way I started it.”

Seeing off an enemy deadly enough to frighten him: ‘A cop who is also a neo-Nazi. Corrupt, too, and on the take from a dozen crooks.’ He had the evidence, but at Chief Black’s request, he would hold it a bit longer: ‘Not a lot longer, but a bit. I want to make it public before that bankster finds another bribable officer...at least I can get her fired, and the VP at that law office, as well.’

The clock stood at ten. He sat silently, meditating: “I need to be back in Athino well before midnight. Luckily, Thompson is on graveyard this week, and he was up early for the funeral. He’ll be sleeping.”

Deputy Dan knocked at the door of the Salon. Ambros expected him.

Sly the cat woke from his sleep in the office and said: “Mrmoph”.

He could hear Randy snoring as he passed the entry to the garage.

“Whoa,” said Dan: “That’s quite an outfit you got there, friend…”

Ambros lifted the faceplate of his helm: “Yeah. Let’s get you into one like it.”

He led Dan back into the Wayback room, and armored him in the Infantry Scout outfit. Dan seemed fascinated by the nature of the gear, but uncomfortable.

Ambros spoke to Dan: “We got a few choices with this guy. One: put him in Alcatraz Quiet, maybe somewhere in Asia. Two: pick another Quiet Line, where there really aren’t any people, so as to put him entirely out of mischief. Three: Kill him myself and get it over with.”

Dan shook his head: “I won’t have anything to do with killing him. He’s a brother officer...” Dan raised both hands, seeking silence: “I know. He’s corrupt. He’s a Nazi. He’s a murderer himself. But I won’t be party to killing a cop.”

“I got that. I scouted a couple good locations last week. I got a spot in mind.” Ambros sighed.

“Okay,” Dan said, reluctantly.

Ambros sighed again: “I can’t wait any longer, Dan. He was watching Rose House, casing our movements.”

Dan nodded, not as reluctantly.

“Well...I guess I’ll use the ‘oasis’ option. I’ll put a tracking device on him, too, so I can go back and get him if that becomes necessary...”

“Oasis?”

“You’ll see. Trust me, it’s an elegant solution to the problem.”

“Yeah. I’ll trust you that far.”

“Stay close,” said Ambros: “The Shifter has a limited range.”

“Got it.”

He led Dan into the Salon and immediately Shifted them, a geoShift to the back yard at Officer Thompson’s house. He walked silently up to the bedroom window and peeked in. “There he is,” he muttered: “Stand here,” he told his companion.

Dan obeyed.

“Here goes nothing.” He drew his APS and cut his way through the window, destroying the wall below it and walking right in. He set the APS for use as a stunner, and knocked Thompson down and out with a quick zap. Police Woman sat up from where she’d been sleeping, hidden by Thompson’s bulk. She aimed a service revolver at him, so he zapped her, too.

“Well, well,” he said: “So Thompson’s wife isn’t the only adulterer in the family.”

Dan climbed in through the shattered wall and stood there shaking his head.

Ambros chortled: “Maybe it’s a poly tribe, huh Dan?”

Dan grunted: “I doubt it. I guess we have another decision to make.”

“Do we disappear Thompson alone, or his paramour as well?” Ambros looked at Dan questioningly.

Dan said: “Officer D’Angelo there has not, so far as I know, ever murdered or tortured a suspect.”

“Hmm,” Ambros said.

“She is, however, about as corrupt as Thompson is, otherwise. On the take from most of the same crooks as her sweetie. And she’s Hannah D’Angelo’s sister.”

Ambros’ MPS was counting the time for him. He said: “Dan. You decide.”

Dan pondered a moment, then said: “One stone. Two birds.”

“Got it,” said Ambros.

He installed the tracking device inside Thompson, planted well below the skin of his thigh with a slap-patch. He grunted and pulled and pushed until he had the woman on top of her lover, then mentally set his Shifter for the place he’d chosen: “Stand close again, Dan.”

He Shifted whole group to the Timeline and location that he’d chosen.

His Shifter beeped. He switched out the power mod for a fresh one, absently, without looking.

Dan looked around: “Where are we?”

“Moderately Quiet Line. Almost no humans left, very few mammals. This is an oasis in the desert in Mesopotamia.”

“Are those ruins?” Dan looked curious.

“Yeah, and this oasis has a lot of food plants growing all around it. They’ll have water, shelter, food. There are some clothes in the temple over there. There is no way for them to carry enough water to escape from here. Whattaya say?”

Dan raised the face shield on the helm he wore: “I approve of this exile. That what you wanna hear?”

“Yes.”

Dan nodded: “Weird. On the one hand, I know these scumbags had to be dealt with. On the other hand I feel a little sick. Like I’m betraying fellow officers. Dishonoring my badge.”

Ambros chuckled bitterly: “It’ll be like that, Dan. Welcome to the Hero’s Journey.”

Dan looked at him, puzzled.

“Look it up, later,” said Ambros.

He stepped back, making sure Dan stood right behind him. “I gotta get you home and armored down. It’s New Year’s Eve in the Commonwealth, and I have to be there.” He glanced over his shoulder.

Ambros addressed the unconscious officers: “See ya in the funny papers.”

They disappeared with a bang.

 

 

He stepped quietly through the scattered people in Plataeo Socratosena. ‘Far smaller crowd than most times,’ he thought: ‘Most people are at home, with family.’ The Laborer’s Guild had piled all of the tables and chairs and benches over at one side of the open space. Danilos passed by, and they stopped and embraced.

He spotted Kim and Luisa near the statue and angled towards them.

“Kiss, kiss,” said Kim, and Luisa joined their embrace. They stood in a group, hands upon one another, waiting.

Marie joined them, coming from the direction of the Fibers Guild Hall.

He drew a deep breath and held it. Lights began to go out, all over the City. He could feel and hear that most of the five million residents of the City had drawn breath when he did.

More lights went out, and the Plaza’s lights began to dim. Soon darkness reigned over the whole City. He began to breath, slowly, meditating in his usual style: “Calm, relax.” He considered the past year of his life, as was customary. The last couple days dominated his thoughts, threatening to derail his meditations. He concentrated: “Calm, relax.”

A single bell rang out, from the old Orthodox Cathedral; four times it tolled, to mark the Fourth Night Bell, midnight in the Commonwealth system.

After a moment, every bell in the City began to toll, a dissonant clangor of ringing, as each bell-tower rang its share of the eight hundred that marked the years of the Commonwealth.

After all of the others had stopped and their echoes faded away, the eight hundred and first rang from the Cathedral. “So begins the eight hundred and first year of the Commonwealth,” said Ambros, smiling. He kissed each woman in turn: Marie, then Luisa, then Kim. He looked closely at Kim, and she blushed: “What?” she asked.

He smiled and shook his head, gesturing at the Akropolis.

The Parthenon lit up, spotlights on all sides turning the Temple of Athena into a Fauvist painting of itself: hot pink, lime green, international orange. Men and women in short tunics came forth from the Temple and bore torches through the City, and wherever they passed the lights came on again, and the people cheered.

Bottles they opened and passed around. People who had apologized and made peace drank together; others simply drank to the stars and the light.

People gathered around the tables and began to move them into their accustomed places. Soon the four of them sat comfortably in their usual spot, as fireworks played around the outer walls and people celebrated the end of a year and the beginning of another.

“At least it’s not raining,” one fellow said.

Ambros nodded, agreeing.

Along came Voukli, a little drunk, and joined them

As they sat there, hands clasped and happy in one another’s company, a woman approached. She set her hood back, and Ambros recognized her: “Thaskali,” he said: “Welcome! Sit with us if you wish. I did not catch your name, when we previously met...”

She smiled a very reserved smile and said: “I am Thaskali Saphronisi. I do wish to inquire...” She drew a chair over and sat.

“Yes?” Voukli asked.

“The Thaskaliad missed the presence of the Spathos, here. We wondered if he took the invitation amiss. Or if any of you did?” She looked at the women, curious.

“I am not aware of any invitation,” said Ambros. “And I’ve never heard of the...the Thaskaliad.” He drank a swallow of wine from the bottle they were sharing.

The Thaskali sighed: “Ah. Something went astray, then. Well, at your leisure perhaps you would search among your messages and let us know if you find it. We will look from our end, as well...”

Voukli gazed upon Ambros, simultaneously awed, jealous, and amused: “You got an invitation to the Thaskaliad, and you didn’t go? Fool of a Spathos!”

“I didn’t even see it! What is the Thaskaliad, and why am I foolish to have missed it?”

The Thaskali rose gracefully: “I will leave the Magistri to explain our customs. I have an errand to the Hall.” She paced away into the night.

Voukli stared at him. Finally, she said: “Historically, most of the Thaskaliae were tea-totaling celibates, for most of the year. Well, and I’m sure that some of them broke that now and again, even way back in the day. Nowadays, there’s no such restriction in play, but... but...anyway...where was I?”

“The Thaskaliad,” said Kim, amused.

“Oh, yes. Once a year, on the night before Solstice Eve, the Primary Skolo teachers would have themselves an orgy. Masked Ball, no one knew who was who. On the top of the Akropolis, with wine and euphorics and...and lots of sex. Lots and lots. The Thaskaliae still do that...and...”

“And?” Luisa asked.

“And I’ve never gotten an invitation, not once!”

“I see.” Marie giggled: “And dear old Ambros got one and stood them up.”

“I did,” said Ambros, ruefully. “I wonder if I now have the Primary School Teacher’s Guild for an enemy.”

“A dangerous enemy,” said Luisa.

“No doubt,” said Voukli: “But I think it’s more likely that you’ll have piqued their curiosity. They’ll look into you more carefully, but I think that you’ll get another invite...next year, or the year after.”

“Hmmm. I’ll be on the lookout, then. I’ll have to consult with my advisors, here...”

Marie swatted him lightly and everybody laughed.

Ambros remained serious: “Really. I would have to think hard about such an invitation if it didn’t include my Trines.” He grinned: “No sense looking too far ahead; who knows what the future will bring?”

Voukli signed agreement: “No one knows what the future will bring, Seers and Oracles notwithstanding.” She belched loudly, then said: “Bedtime. Happy New Year all, and to all a fine night...” She staggered off into the crowd, singing a song in Comanche.

“Let’s go home,” said Luisa.

“Let’s,” said Ambros. “I have one more errand...”

 

 

Ambros sat in the front seat of Vic Michaels’ car. The lawyer sat behind the wheel, frowning.

“What the hell are you actually up to, any way?”

Ambros opened his New Pismo. The screen went 3-dimensional, and Vic boggled.

“This meeting tomorrow night,” Ambros said, then paused while he typed commands into the machine: “It’s not gonna be open to the public or the press, right? And the City will have the only recording of it, and it will likely get buried real quick if anything goes wrong…right?”

“I suppose so,” said Vic: “So what? What could possibly go wrong? The whole thing is a charade, the outcome is already determined.”

“I get that. The anti-eviction speakers have all been chosen carefully to be ‘don’t-rock-the-boat’ types. Except for you and Sarge. But if they give me the floor, I got a pretty good chance of ranting them into a trainwreck.”

Michaels eyed him critically: “Am I gonna be sorry I coerced you into going?”

“I told you that you would be.”

“Okay, but what are we doing sitting outside City Hall at two in the morning?”

“I want my own recording of the proceedings. I’m gonna plant a bug in the Council Chambers.”

“Don’t your dare get out of this car, hippie,” said Michaels, ominously.

Ambros grinned: “I won’t have to.” He opened the window a crack and tossed a Commonwealth spycam into the air. It hovered for a bit, processing the co-ordinates he’d loaded into it via the Pismo, and then it zipped off into the night.

“We can leave now.” Ambros chortled: “The camera will find its own way into the room.”

Michaels shook his head in mingled disbelief and wonder: “Dan Samuelson warned me about you. He said you were weird and uncanny. Did I listen? No, I just thought it would be fun to have an interesting client for a change.” He started the car and eased out onto Sixth Avenue.

“Hey, thanks for the ride,” said Ambros: “Drop me down at the ballpark, okay?”

“Sure...”

 

 

Ambros sat in the third row of the audience in the City Council Chambers in downtown Eugene. Boredom battled with outrage as he listened to the Mayor and City Manager browbeating the three “liberal” members of the City Council.

‘For whatever reason, Nichols and Rivera want a unanimous vote on this issue. I’m pretty sure they won’t get it, however hard they try...’

Most of the previous testimony in the hearing had come from people and institutions that were one-hundred-percent in favor of evicting the inhabitants of the Swamp: yesterday if that were possible.

The Army Corps of Engineers had sent a full Colonel, with water quality tests among other ‘evidence’ of the harm done by the campers. Ambros suspected those were fake: ‘Or at least misleading…Sarge and Mark are old hands at siting latrines, and they dug theirs properly, deep and as far from the actual flowing water as possible. Borderboro’s pits are too far from the canal to affect it, and the other camps are too small to have that large an effect.

‘If there’s really fecal bacteria in the water in the Amazon North Fork, it’s gotta be coming from somewhere else...’ He perked up as the Councilors began arguing among themselves, with the mikes off and their voices lowered.

Ambros took another look around: ‘In spite of the Mayor’s attempt to pack this meeting, a lot of anti-eviction folks talked their way in to the room.’

That didn’t change the reality: the Council was split 5-3 in favor of using the EPD to aid the eviction.

‘And…the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service claim they can muster enough ‘troops’ to do the deed without the City’s help…if they have to.’

One old woman was obviously Nichols’ biggest obstacle to a unanimous vote: a former Mayor who had won the previous three elections to her Council seat by near acclamation in her liberal district. ‘Alison Bonney,’ he thought: ‘That’s her name.’

‘One of her allies on this issue is this guy Horvath,’ thought Ambros: ‘He’s a card-carrying Communist Party member from the Benham neighborhood, and a real thorn in the side of the Council as a whole.’

Ambros figured there’d been a lot of seven-to-one votes on corrupt tax breaks and “urban renewal” projects since Horvath won his seat. ‘Six-to-two is as close as the Mayor can possibly get...Neither Horvath nor Bonney will ever turn.

‘The conservative majority are really working over the other woman on the Council, this lady Deirdre Malling; I wonder if they realize how awful this would look if they were doing it more publicly? Probably not...’

Vic Michaels sat one row ahead of Ambros. Jerry Mallory was there, preparing to testify.

Sarge had just finished pleading the Swampers’ case, pointing out that they actually had nowhere else to go. He had a series of maps on an easel, and gave the Council a military-style briefing on the difficulties that an eviction would cause for the City.

He finished by saying: “If you want a real homeless problem, run us out of our camps in the middle of winter. I promise you’ll regret it; we won’t just disappear. We will be downtown, and at the Riverside Mall and in every roofed shelter in every park in this City. Including in the suburbs and the South Hills.”

Nichols waved dismissively: “Then you’ll be arrested for trespassing and as public nuisances.”

Sarge grinned at the Mayor: “I’ll call that bluff. You ain’t got near enough cops and deputies to open up that many cells at the County lockup. There’s nearly three hundred adult Swampers...plus kids.”

Nichols blanched. He banged his gavel, hard: “This session is in recess for ten minutes.” He rose abruptly and signaled to the City Manager and Chief Black and a couple other lackeys to follow him as he led the way out of the Council Chambers. The BLM, Forest Service, and Corps of Engineers reps followed without invitation.

Ms Malling had Alison Bonney on one side of her and Jack Horvath on the other. The two of them seemed to be urging her to hold her ground.

One of the other Councilmen, a very conservative fellow from one of the ‘Suburban’ districts, had annexed Sarge’s map of the swamp, and was apparently questioning the old vet closely about the layout.

The Mayor and his flunkies returned and Thompson pounded the gavel with a bang: “Let’s get on with this, shall we?” He consulted the agenda: “Mr Mallory next; then Mr Michaels. Then we’re done here, and we’ll meet tomorrow in public for a final vote.”

Ambros felt conflicted: on the one hand, it seemed that he would not be allowed to testify, which was a bit of a relief. On the other: “I was getting a little bit worked up; I kinda wanted a chance...”

Jerry Mallory stood and approached the podium where witnesses were meant to testify. Kim patted his back as he passed her, whispering: “Go get ’em, Dad!”

‘Jerry’s an old hand at this stuff,’ Ambros thought. He tuned out, knowing that Mallory’s message would be religious, and a little bit scolding: ‘Like a Catholic school principal correcting his charges...’ 

“...Christmas is coming, and New Year’s...weather turning very ugly...some spirit of charity...morals...surely the children deserve...”

He snapped awake as Jerry sat down, to loud applause from the crowd. ‘...and from—count ’em!—five councilors.’ He felt a quiver of hope.

It was soon dashed: Ms Bonney asked for a straw poll on the final vote, and it was a solid five-three loss for civilized behavior.

He could feel the crowd deflate. The pro-eviction voices in the audience cheered, but everyone else groaned.

The Mayor grinned, satisfied: “Mr Michaels? You have fifteen minutes to change two minds. Get to it.”

‘Right,’ Ambros thought: ‘Eight council members, and the mayor breaks ties. We need two more...’

Michaels approached the lectern, adjusted the mike, and asked: “So, I have the floor now?”

“All yours,” said Nichols.

“I yield my time to a client of mine, Mr Rothakis.”

After a small stir, and some “mikes off” grumbling, Nichols said: “Fine. Get to it.”

Ambros shook his head and got up. Michaels fist bumped him as he approached.

He took a curving path so he could examine the podium he was expected to stand behind. It’s top was a three by four feet in size, to accommodate maps and blueprints; it sat at a very shallow angle, but he noted that it could be adjusted. His plan came together very quickly.

He stepped up to the podium and turned off the microphone, pushing it aside on its snaky support and lowering the lectern flat.

He put his hands on his hips and gazed at the City Council. He turned and addressed the crowd. He lowered his voice to the upper baritone that he used in “Command” situations, and assumed the Royal body language and attitude he’d used when he was a Prince in the SCA. Adding the volume of an SCA ‘court herald’, he said: “See this?” He waved at the setup: “Here I stand, my head a good five feet below theirs, looking up at an elected body as though I were some peasant begging his betters for a boon.”

He dragged a chair over beside the podium and used it as a step up, so he could stand on the lectern: “That’s better,” he said, looking down at the Council, just a little. Parts of the crowd snickered.

He glanced at the index card where he’d noted down his main points: “Okay, let’s get down to business: first, I call BS on the fecal matter measurements. As far as I can tell, the Corps did not test upstream from the swamp, or if they did we didn’t hear about it today. Either way, the tests are meaningless without a control.”

Mr Suburban Conservative gave him a thumbs-up. Nichols glared at him; he leaned into his mike and said: “On that one issue, I agree with Mr Rothakis.”

“Thanks,” said Ambros. “Now...the next issue that people had their panties in a twist about is the garbage that piles up along the tail end of Riley Hill Road where it butts into West Seventh Place...”

“That’s a genuine problem, Mr Rothakis,” said Deirdre Malling.

He nodded, pointing at her and emphasizing his agreement: “It definitely is. But I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out in that area of town, and in Sarge’s camp, and I’m willing to bet that you folks haven’t. The Swampers don’t have any way of dealing with the trash, and they’ve tried.”

“What exactly have they done?” the Mayor asked, scornfully.

Ambros raised an eyebrow at the Mayor and said: “Too many things to list here. I’m running out of time.

 “And the garbage is a real problem, right? But it’s just about impossible to buy food these days that doesn’t come wrapped in layers of plastic. For the camps that aren’t as well organized as Sgt Arlen’s, that means a lot of trash, just to feed themselves and their kids.

“And since we’re talking here about people who don’t have much money, and haven’t organized collective cooking groups, like Arlen’s folks have...Well, very often fast food places are the only way to get enough calories cheaply enough to keep people from going to bed hungry.” He grinned: “More trash per calorie than any other way people buy food. So you blame the poor for the things Big Business does to increase their profits.

“It doesn’t help when people in fairly nice cars, who seem like they have homes, stop by and drop big bags of trash on the street corner near where Sarge’s folks pile their garbage. I’ve seen that happen.”

Ambros couldn’t move more than a step to either side, but he took the one step to the right that he could: “You guys over here on the ‘right’ side of the podium: you never really have to deal with poop or garbage, do you? The help cleans the toilets and your kids take out the trash. A guy in a truck comes and hauls it away once a week...one of the guys living out in Sarge’s camp drives one of those trucks. Think about that, huh?”

He stepped to the left: “I have nothing much to say to you folks except to urge you stand your ground in favor of kindness. I think realize that all of the other complaints registered about the Swampers are aesthetic: how they dress, how they smell, how ugly their homes are.” He spoke to the whole room: “We ought by rights to ignore those complaints. They are mere prejudice: complete BS.”

Nichols grabbed his gavel and opened his mouth to speak; Mr South Hills Conservative reached across his neighbor and grabbed the Mayor’s wrist: “No censorship in my presence, John. I won’t stand for it.”

Ambros kept his eyes on Nichols’.

He continued: “At the risk of repeating myself: the two real issues here, from a public health perspective—we all recall that ‘public health’ is the BLM’s reason for rousting the Swampers, right? The only real issues from that perspective are poop and trash.”

“We do have to deal with those issues, though, don’t you think?” Mr Suburban Conservative seemed friendly but dubious.

Ambros acknowledged that: “Sure. But wouldn’t porta-pots be cheaper than police action? I bet a cost-benefit analysis would show that it’d be cheaper put half a dozen porta-potties in key spots around the Swamp than it would be to run the residents out, bulldoze or brush-hog the briars and bracken, and then maintain the Swamp in that state. Lotta overtime in that plan for the BLM, or for whoever does the work.

 “The same goes for the trash, right? I bet it’d be way cheaper and way more efficient to get some garbage hauler to take a dumpster load out of the area every week, than to execute the BLM’s plan to destroy the homes of a few hundred pretty much helpless poor folks.

“And what about all of the little brown birds that nest in the briars? Your half-assed Environmental Impact Statement doesn’t even mention them. There are weird little turtles out there, too, and a family of otters.

“It looks to me like nobody involved in this plan even considered any of the wildlife in the area, or the porta-pots and dumpsters idea, before the BLM started handing out eviction notices.”

Nichols interrupted: “Your time is up, Mr Rothakis.” The Mayor raised his gavel; this time Mr South Hills simply took it out of his hand, saying: “I want to hear this.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Ambros, bowing slightly.

He raised his voice and continued: “I just have some questions for you…If you run those people out of their homes, where do you think they’re gonna go? Other people have asked that today, and you haven’t answered…

“In particular, I’d like to know what happens—what you think will happen— to all of the families with kids once they’re driven into the streets? I know, there aren’t that many, and they’re all in Arlen’s camp. But they are concentrated there because the other camps aren’t safe for kids.”

“The more reason to clear them out and put an end to the nuisance,” said the Mayor.

 Ambros shook his head: “Do you have any idea how cold it gets when you have to sleep rough in the rain, without a tent? For kids especially? People die from that kind of thing. So…’If they be like to die, then let them get on with it, and reduce the surplus population,’ said Scrooge.”

“None of that really matters,” said Nichols: “The BLM are going to clear the homeless out of that property regardless. What’s at issue here is whether the City of Eugene will authorize the Police Department to help out on the day of the eviction. Why shouldn’t we do that?”

Since the mayor was glaring at him, Ambros answered: “I’d turn that around and ask ‘Why should you?’ I know that the BLM and the Forest Service and the Corps are leaning hard on the Council to get aid and comfort from the EPD for this eviction. But Mr Mayor: you jumped at the chance to help them. Why would you do that? Don’t answer, rhetorical questions, all of them. I’m already past my time, here.

The Sentinel reported that the BLM and the Corps and all said that they could muster the manpower to do the eviction on their own: so why not call that bluff? Why not force them to do that? The Swampers are down-and-out, but they are citizens of Eugene, right? Shouldn’t you defend them?

“Why would you so willingly throw the EPD into that situation? Do you want to create an even more antagonistic relationship between the cops and the homeless?

“Is it just that you want to watch bad shit happen to people you don’t like? Do you want to give that order to the police, to tell them to go crack heads and burn down those villages?”

“That’s my point, really: Is that really what this Council wants?”

He scanned the Council members quickly, calculating.

He hopped down from the lectern into the well right in front of the dais, creating an enormous boom as he landed on the wood floor. He said: “Rant over. Gotta go...See ya!” He waved jauntily at the crowd as he passed up the aisle; no one applauded, they all seemed stunned. He slipped as quickly as possible into the men’s room in the hallway outside the Chambers. He popped his MPS up and located a squad of police officers that was waiting outside the main entrance to City Hall. He decided not to find out if they were waiting for him. He pulled out his Shifter and Jumped back to his Salon.

He immediately picked up a broadsword simulator and started a very slow sword form, combined with his usual meditation. He slipped into a calm and relaxed state, the sword barely moving, his eyes focused on the mirror across the hall.

He heard the cat door thump and Sly’s loud complaint about his absence from the bed. He just kept moving and meditating.

 

 

He was still at it about an hour later when Kim pulled up in her Jeep. She stomped into the Salon, looking grim.

“What in the world did you think you were doing?” She looked furious.

He laid the sword down and gave an exaggerated shrug, palms open at shoulder level: “Speaking truth to power? Exactly what I warned you all that I would probably do. Didn’t I warn you? The technique is called détournement, by the way. Take an advertisement or a meeting or a panel discussion and turn it upside down, use it for revolutionary ends.”

She threw her hands up into the air, then strode over to his heavy bag and punched it. She winced and shook the punching hand, and then her head.

He led the way back to the office, stopping to pet the cat. Marie and Luisa arrived, shed their coats and hats and sat to listen. He and Kim gave them somewhat contradictory accounts of the meeting and his speech.

Luisa sat shaking her head, a little smile showing; Marie laughed out loud at his antics.

Kim was not mollified: “Did you think you’d win any votes with that performance?”

He forced himself to relax even more. He spoke gently: “Not really. But I think I might have anyway.”

“What?” She frowned, running the scenario over in her head.

“Honestly,” he said: “I wouldn’t ordinarily have been such a jerk. But the questions I asked are questions the Council should have asked themselves, and answered, before they even started to debate this nonsense. And…the fix was in, right? What did we have to lose? And that guy that who forced Nichols to let me finish. What’s his name?”

“Bass,” she said, pondering: “Related to the family that owns The Sentinel.”

He nodded, keeping his tone civil: “Okay. I’m pretty certain I didn’t lose any votes and I may have turned that Bass guy. And, just maybe, I handed Mr Mayor a few sleepless nights. That’s what I really wanted to do.”

“What, just sleepless nights?”

“Tonight especially.”

“I don’t get it.”

He paused: “Okay. I was watching those other four conservatives on the dais, the ones who were not Bass. There was obviously no hope of swaying them. They share Nichols’ ideology. Stone cold cruel, for various reasons. Bass though? He appeared to me to be a Freethinker, who tipped to the conservative side. I thought I could reach him.”

“But we don’t win, even if he votes our way. The Mayor breaks the tie, right?” Kim seemed distressed.

Ambros nodded: “Exactly. That’s what I hope he has to do...”

“Oh...” Kim saw it then: “So he comes to the meeting tomorrow...”

“...sleepless, bags under his eyes, haggard.” said Ambros.

“Gets a tie vote on the measure...” Luisa said.

“...and has to break the tie himself, in public, with reporters present.” Ambros grinned.

“Huh.” Kim frowned, working it through: “It’s awful hard to have a real fight with you. Or to stay mad at you.”

He smiled more broadly: “I like it that way. It took me a decade to learn how to not have a fight with a loved one, but I learned. Tina and Mollie and Stanley taught me. They were good teachers, too.

“And I don’t really want to argue about it. I could have done much worse: I debated calling Nichols an evil shit right to his face, and backed off.”

He sighed: “Anyway, that meeting was classic smoke and mirrors, a faux hearing. I did what I did because it seemed like a good idea to disrupt that. It is what it is, now.”

“Well, and you did warn us,” said Luisa: “Not a diplomat, you said.”

“Okay,” Kim said, reluctantly: “You warned us. Next time I’ll believe you.”

He laughed: “If there is a next time. What are the odds that the powers that be will ever let me testify again?”

He let them ponder that while he went to feed the cat, who was in the garage, complaining.


 

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