Honour had been the watchword in the early life of Penner Viscount-Alexander. Not under that name of course, that was the name The Nu Community had given him in their inscrutable process of manufacturing identity. Having worked under a bewildering plethora of aliases all his professional life for security reasons, the subject had thought his new soubriquet only mildly quixotic in comparison.
Aliases had begun for him just after his National Service, drafted directly from his hometown and state into the overseas theatre. Having just missed getting into college for the first 1949 semester Penner found himself shipped out to Burma for training with seasoned British commando units. It was just on the eve of the Korean War being declared and those same units were shortly posted to the Korean peninsula.
So after the merest basic training he was flying in a military plane for the East across the great Pacific. Penner had never been far from his hometown apart from a few trips to the state capital. His world contracted even further as he found himself dumped into the middle of the great struggle by his country to contain International Communism.
Bewildered and green and thoroughly terrified by the stark brutality of the conflict, Viscount-Alexander had expected to die in some botched combat mission. Again and again he heard of mismanaged battles, hideous lapses of judgement on the part of officers, catastrophic breakdowns of vehicles and equipment. Little more than a boy still, he resigned himself.
Oddly however despite his fears he never even saw a battle during his entire three years there. Expectation of seeing combat had provoked him to train hard. Finding a talent for sharpshooting he practiced until he became a high scoring sniper. He took jungle survival, foraging and language courses to increase his longevity in hostile foreign environments.
Linguistics were another talent he discovered in himself. Never having taken language classes of any kind at his very provincial schoolhouse, Penner learnt he could catch the rhythm of a tongue or local dialect swiftly. As long as there was a chance to converse he picked it up and accents almost at once.
Repeatedly he found himself mixing with the British. All of them battle-hardened veterans from the Pacific war against the Japanese and then the communist and nationalist insurgencies that swept across South Asia after the Empire of the Sun had been defeated. Between them and his courses he became a thoroughly professional soldier without quite realizing it.
Withdrawal of American and British forces and the division of the peninsula into North and South Korea saw him enlisting with the British army forces in Burma instead of going home with the rest of his unit. Unusual as the transfer was he was liked and respected by the officers he knew and they made it easy for him. Despite a career spent almost entirely in quarter-mastering and prison compound guard duty, M.A.S.H. security and the like he was seen as solid and competent and stayed in Asia.
After his three years’ tour of duty he knew where good money and opportunities were to be found, and had the skills in the present to take advantage of them. All he had to do was accept some risks. He was young and could leave the studious existence for later in life once he’d made his fortune.
Combat became part of his life for the first time. By now however he didn’t fear the accidents or incompetencies he’d dreaded before. Trusting and respecting the men he now served with, Penner didn’t have that empty doom-laden despair he’d first known on arriving in war-desolated Korea.
Burma, eventually to become the Republic of Myanmar, was for a time on fire with a violent anti-colonial insurgency. Penner was now one of the soldiers helping to suppress it, their actions now described in terms such as counter-terrorism. Effectively he was a mercenary and the guerrilla units he served with not officially listed as British military personnel.
Operating out of mobile camps and temporary bases supplied by airlift, these units combed the jungles and broad sparsely inhabited districts where the insurgents hid out and drew their strength and supplies from hapless villagers. Hunting them ceaselessly. Disrupting their sources of food and shelter.
Frequently they burned crops as punishment for alleged collaboration. Sometimes entire villages, emulating the terror tactics of the insurgents themselves. Officers always called it counter-terrorism.
Penner hadn’t been shocked by that. Commonplace in Korea, it wasn’t merely a question of regular armies fighting each other. All too often the enemy troops or terrorists were relatives or tribesmen or kinfolk otherwise of the local villages and towns. Easy distinctions between combatants and civilians were more blurred because those linkages meant a flow of food and help and sheltering the enemy that escaped detection.
Attrition and counter-terrorism the enemy really seemed to be the key to it. Penner served with a highly professional unit whose combat specialization was trailing and running to earth key terrorist leaders and their most loyal soldiers and bodyguards. Hard-core and highly mobile targets which were elusive and difficult to hit.
Assassination missions. Small and tightly coordinated commando units circulated in areas where rebel leaders were suspected to be resting and planning their forays. A combination of army intelligence and local sources were used to build up the picture and decide how to take action.
Murder at its most cold-blooded was what it usually was. After a rebel commander or terrorist had been caught and interrogated, usually tortured if he wouldn’t talk at first, a knife or single pistol shot would be the end of it and the man. Cruelest part of it was the lot drawing for who would do the job.
That part was always shared out impartially and Penner had done his fair share. All of them were involved in a given mission and all of them were guilty. There were no degrees of culpability in the field so everyone shared both that and the risk and the rewards with a brisk equality.
During one particularly long and grueling mission in the real wilderness tracking a particularly tricky terrorist warlord they came across the ancient complex of temples hidden in the jungle. Group leader said the temples were over a thousand years old.
Although he knew the history of the country these were mentioned by no historical sources he had ever heard of.
At first Penner and the rest assumed they were Buddhist but the officer told them they were even older. Hindu, undoubtedly. There were clear representations of Lord Shiva and Parvati and Kali and many other deities in the pantheons, more than a few he didn’t even recognize.
Immense temples with great dignity and the highest imaginable level of craftsmanship in their sculptures. Jungle growing all through them and forlorn with a gaunt emptiness. A whole civilization or part of one had once revolved around these edifices.
Awe and reverence for the divine were things the young Penner had never experienced before. He was still only in his twenties and had seen much of life but things of the spirit were not part of that. Faith and religion had always seemed to him as rather vague and ephemeral things.
Grandeur and wonderment had never taken possession of Penner’s imagination before. Exploring the complexly overgrown and frequently impassable byways of the interconnected temples engrossed him like nothing in his life previous. He got himself lost for hours looking at the carvings and sculptures when he should have been attending to his duties.
Focusing on the job had never been a problem for Penner in any circumstances. They were encamped here because a very important target was in the vicinity or soon would be. Assassinating this warlord and as many of his entourage as they could get would cripple the insurgency resistance over the whole sector.
Urgency of the mission was self-evident. Nothing could be left to chance and any kind of slackness that jeopardized their readiness to bag the terrorist warlord when and if he turned up could be tolerated. Penner should be thinking only of that.
But the commanding officer never reprimanded him. All of them were subtly affected by the weight of time and belief that infused these temples in spite of their dereliction. Some of the soldiers joked about the explicitly sexual fertility and cycle-of-life sculptures but the representations were so beautiful it was muted.
Reincarnation was a recurring theme. Only vary vaguely had Penner heard of this concept before. In his childhood he remembered it being denounced by the church pastor and associated with paganism and works of the devil somehow.
Nothing demonic showed up here as far as he could see. Transmigration of the soul from one body and life to the next with the complicated and subtle workings of the karmic principle guiding them were movingly illustrated. Long sequences of related sculptures visually opened up concepts and cosmic vistas to Penner’s inner sight that no book or sermon could have provoked.
Didn’t know the words for those things at the time, of course. In later years he read into Hindu and Buddhist and Tibetan mythology and learnt the vocabulary. Most of it was so rarefied and over-intellectualized though he couldn’t connect it to the simplicity and elegance of the sculptures.
Innately he understood the sculptures had been carved by men who knew those truths as a living thing and lived their lives in that faith. Academic writers and professors were just interpreting and guessing and fictionalizing. Words didn’t capture the truth of it.
Faces and scenes from the mossy and vine-draped sculptures haunted his dreams. Persistently he kept hearing something in many of those dreams unlike any sound he had ever known in the waking world. A remote and distant keening noise lost in a vague threatening fade.
Eerie wail that had a fearsome quality. He felt that if it were to come closer and become more audible it would be the end of him, but that it was also somehow a warning of itself. Drenched in sweat on waking from such a dream he was never able to face going back to sleep after hearing and sensing it near.
Eventually the terrorist warlord did appear, accompanied by a surprisingly small number of trusted bodyguards and lieutenants. Digging out a well hidden cache of supplies Penner’s unit had not come across despite looking, they swiftly pitched their own small encampment. Clearly suspecting nothing and seeing no sign of the commandos the insurgents took no precautions.
Ridiculously easy and the unit had never dreamt an assassination mission could go so smoothly. Later the next day the warlord and his men went on a hunting expedition and didn’t even bother to post a guard. Penner had waited in an alcove of a nearby temple and heard them talking openly.
Hastening back to where the hidden unit waited, well prepared for this arrival. They simply walked into the warlord’s abandoned camp and planted a powerful bomb they hastily assembled from their respective kits. Efficiently jacketed it with a bag of nails the insurgents had in their own supplies.
Shots sounded in the jungle beyond. In time the warlord and his men returned carrying some small deer and game tied to poles and set about skinning and preparing their feast. Cooking and eating and laughing conversation proceeded for a long while, the smell of the meat maddeningly delicious, until the commando officer gave the signal and the bomb was detonated.
Placing was risky. Carefully they had buried it just beneath where a circle of stones had been put in preparation for building a fire. Little risk that the turned soil for concealing the detonator wire would be seen since there was some grass right beside, but you can never be certain.
Thump of the bomb going off was quiet, but the effect much greater than anticipated. Wall of a nearby temple actually collapsed violently with the shock. Entire building groaned in a way that frightened the commandos despite themselves.
Deathly quiet in a literal sense greeted the soldiers when they emerged from cover and cautiously advanced with weapons drawn. All the insurgent men including the terrorist leader had been eating around the fire and they were all dead to a man. Shredded to unrecognizable hunks of meat by the nails.
Penner saw a statue that had fallen from its place in the temple wall and cracked down the middle of its face. Expression of it seemed so forsaken and tragic that he shivered. All of them had been looking forward to plundering the fresh meat but the meal was spoiled and the air was tainted by their action and they moved out quickly.
So Burma/Myanmar ended and there were opportunities in Indonesia and a few other trouble spots but Penner had heard a lot of talk about the expanding world of private security. Oil companies and corporations with international interests needed them protected by men with experience like his. There were opportunities and he was already with the right kind of connected people to take advantage.
Africa for mining. Middle East for oil. South America for commodities. Complex mixtures of international commerce and competing spheres of political and economic influence between the Western and Eastern bloc nations for resources meant plenty of opportunities. Interests that needed protection, often against the nationalist or communist-inspired or funded insurgencies of the host nations themselves.
Private imported corporate security was reliable. Host government police and militaries were not, generally speaking. It was as simple as that.
Penner had never commanded a group during his time in Burma/Myanmar but he had been on so many missions he knew what was involved. Within a short time he was successfully organizing security teams of former soldiers he knew or could verify the reliability of through his many contacts. For nearly twenty years he did this, in the latter part of his career returning to the United States.
Mainly supervising security for the vast oil refineries of Texas and New Mexico, increasingly moving into civilian support security for joint corporate and Defense projects. By now he was a corporate executive himself working in high rise buildings and wearing a suit and driving a GTO. As respectable as any anonymous well-groomed business man living quietly in the suburbs.
Alone, though. That always marked him out. Big luxurious house with a swimming pool and every imaginable convenience was empty except for him when he came back every night.
Penner did not like an empty house and an empty life, but he found it hard to connect with women outside the many brothels in many countries he had known. Instead he filled a library with books on the religions of the world and the strange connections between them. Secretly he took correspondence courses on comparative mythology and legend.
Sometimes he heard the keening noise in dreams if he had a bad night. Particularly when he was especially stressed, wherever in the world he might be. All too often he had had to swallow the distaste he felt over beatings and occasional killings perpetrated by his men to extinguish threats to whatever interest he was protecting at the moment.
Grimness took him over in especially bad places. Countries with oppressive governments and wretched poverty-stricken peoples who saw their resources and the wealth of their lands going into the hands of tyrants and foreigners like him. Insulated from those hungry masses with his men, nevertheless he felt the hate and anguish that reached out from them.
Didn’t expect anything like that to happen in his quieter American career, but it did. Through the Sixties the environmental movement had been gathering strength and militancy. Strip mining sites and dangerous chemical plants and nuclear reactors and atomic bomb factories and the like had become activist targets.
Very unusually he had been asked informally to organize the killing of an influential environmental movement leader to make it look like an accident. The man was about to succeed in shutting down a very sensitive nuclear warhead manufactory and there was military money and protection behind this. But they could not be seen to be involved if it went wrong.
Ultimatum wasn’t expressed outright but he’d be out of his comfortable job if he didn’t do it. His company had the civilian security contract and his reputation was quietly known. Just this one time but it had to be done to save a billion dollar Defense investment.
Job did not go wrong. A handpicked small team of three men expertly broke into the man’s Houston apartment in the dead of night and shot him and his pregnant girlfriend to death with silencers. Assassins left inside a minute dropping a leaflet from a rival environmentalist organization.
FBI investigation planned in advance concluded an obscure internecine hippie feud of some kind and closed the file on it. Penner wasn’t even congratulated or given a bonus apart from a sizeable bag of cash unobtrusively delivered to his house a few weeks later. Retirement was not really an option either, he was assured in a roundabout way a few days after that.
Nothing helped. Drink, tranquilizers and sleeping pills could not take the edge off the self-horror and disgust. Thinking he had been a soldier he now saw himself truly in the mirror as a criminal.
Loyalty in his world was elastic. He had always known it had a price tag and seen that demonstrated many times. But he had never turned on a friend or sold someone out; and the grim reality of it happening to him was torturous.
That they were now willing to do that to him, not even willing to spell it out like men of honor, was unendurable. Mercenary as he had been in Burma, that was fighting armed men, killing soldiers like himself. Security work in all those other countries over the years had been against genuine enemies and threats to an established order with its own politics and national aspirations generating the conflict.
Seniority would not protect him. Friendship would not protect him. Facades of no construction or character would stop a bullet.
Money would. He kept doing what he was good at and protected their investments, their millions of dollars, their billion dollars. Evil cohorts such as he knew he was trapped with would always keep him alive as long as they knew those dollars needed skills such as his to conserve.
Providentially the cash and everything else in his comfortable finances proved to be his way out when his call came from a former colleague he did trust but knew to be dead. At first of course he had thought it some elaborate joke or trap but was gradually convinced. In due course he found through The Nu Community the perfect way out of the seemingly inescapable abyss that had opened before him.
Quieter and more civilized world he felt he had been unfairly robbed of. Doctor Margolis had enthusiastically encouraged him in this endeavor. Once he had rehabilitated and settled into his comfortable bungalow in Hadesbridge County he set about his studies.
A man called Lawrence had been his valet during his first month. Nothing but good advice came from him and Penner found that he fitted in more or less easily, socializing extensively but not overdoing it. Academic work was what he really wanted to get on with and he threw himself into it.
His house no longer felt quite so empty. Progress also came, a little bit, with women. Many of those in the colony were unattached and there were always local girls looking for fun with a solvent man.
Study absorbed him the most, though. All his life he had been haunted by the presence of elusive and majestic truths that he had seen symbolized by those temple friezes and sculptures. Somehow he had lost that tenuous grip and set about finding them like an eccentric professor of the Orient.
Loose talk of this after a few cocktail parties held at the bungalow got him some invitations to groups that sampled the various strange religious sects that seemed to be everywhere in Colony home state. Rather to his surprise he found he generally knew more about such things as theosophy and the mythologies of Hinduism and Buddhism than they apparently did. Few of the supposed acolytes seemed to go very deep into it.
Trances were practiced by one group and to this one he became more attached. Mild opium and mescaline and other ‘highs’ in emulation of Aldous Huxley’s researches were practiced seeking spiritual enlightenment. It had been part of the so-called ‘counter-culture’ for decades but this was more seriously directed towards intelligent self-discovery.
Each of them was encouraged to talk of their experiences. Penner Viscount-Alexander as he had become had one extraordinary mescaline-assisted vision. Reliving the entirety of his surgery and rehabilitation and beginning of Converted life as though in full wakefulness.
Everything was there. He could see his operation, the hypnotic regressions with Doctor Margolis, discussions carried on about him while he slept. Secret workings of The Nu Community that he could never have known unless as a wandering spirit while his body slept.
Sure of the absolute confidentiality of the group he described the experience and how he knew himself to have literally been reincarnated. His second chance was to live the life he had been meant to before a malignant fate and state military machine had corrupted him. He was a living embodiment of something he had seen carved on the walls of a lost temple more than a thousand years before his birth.
Even as he was describing this miracle he knew he had made a terrible mistake.
Demeanor of several of the group participants suddenly and visibly changed to a harsh frigidity that shocked him. Decisive glances passed between some of them.
No one else seemed to notice. They were enjoying and bemused by Penner’s enthusiastic and slightly drug-addled sincerity. But he now had a strong and dismaying presentiment of doom when he got back to his now isolated-seeming bungalow. Sea pounding outside seemed like a threatening noisy cover for whatever what about to happen.
Cars eventually pulled up quietly outside. Penner did not hear the occupants come in to the bungalow, nor see them since he was huddled into the chair in a paralyzing dejection. Before he knew it the room was silently full of well-dressed and unsmiling men.
Effortlessly he was held down, although they didn’t need to do it and Penner was helplessly compliant. His shirt sleeve was rolled up and the kindly Lawrence jabbed his forearm with a sudden stinging syringe. Remembering nothing after that, he woke up groggy and unable to walk in a tiny room back at what he recognized to be The Nu Community’s headquarters.
Long subsequent talks with Mr Steeler saw him giving over as many referral names as he could think of. Grave nature of his offense was explained to him. Effectively his foolish actions meant the voiding of his contract with The Nu Community.
Unless he followed instructions. Of course he followed those instructions but intuitively knew a grimly pragmatic decision had already been made about him. Crawling feeling of mortal inescapable doom the same as when he learned how his colleagues were willing to liquidate him returned to haunt Penner.
Nothing diminished nor ameliorated it, whatever Mr Steeler said in that carefully neutral way of his. Only now did Penner see that the choice had been his once. Turning away from the mercenary life that had corrupted him had actually been his for the choosing after Korea.
Taking the easier road, the road against his true desires and needs, had been his error. Drawing him further away from truth in pursuit of money and opportunity and what ultimately proved to be the illusion of security. Honour had been what the military first taught him when he was drafted but there had been no honor in the men he had ended up among.
Now he had offended the powerful in his immediate world once again and this time there was really no escape. Money could not save him this time either. Waiting in the day-room with, he presumed, other offenders like himself became his whole dismal existence.
One night he met the enigmatic and wise old president who seemed to be in charge of everything. Wasn’t at all surprised to be swiftly and efficiently restrained after the short but benediction-like talk and sedated. Penner didn’t struggle or try to call out as they wheeled him down ominously empty corridors towards the doors marked with the medical cross.
Even the priest chirruping almost to himself alongside the wheeled gurney and genially haranguing Penner as he was rolled on seemed to fit the incongruity of everything else. In fact it all made sense if you accepted the unthinkable. In this place it was called Cadaver Procurement.
Journey from the private sleeping rooms was surprisingly short. Doors thudded shut behind him with a quiet finality. Blinded by the coruscating surgical lights as the gurney came into the operating room he expected everything to go dark now forever.
It did not. Karma had saved one last thing for him. Shockingly and suddenly there exploded around him at terrific abrasive volume the keening wail he had distantly heard in his dreams over the years.
Whining part ultrasonic shriek of a flesh-hungry cranial drill is what it was. Instantaneously Penner understood. Warned repeatedly by the recurrence of the drill’s distant noise in his dreams he had ignored the definite implied danger and continued to follow the wrong path to this place and moment.
Impatiently and coldly Doctor Lanius looked impersonally at Penner, put on a surgical mask and lowered the drill on an articulated assembly towards him. Black spots began to multiply and cloud over Penner’s vision. With a strange tenderness Lanius carefully positioned the drill to descend as he gave his orders.
Cranial drill touched Penner Viscount-Alexander’s scalp with loving cold heat at the same instant as his heart finally gave out in horror and fear and burst audibly in the fading brightness.
Edward St. Boniface is based in London UK and is always seeking an unusual or interesting angle to tell a story. He works to and believes in the principle of Fun Fiction. He had two American-set crime stories published in 2022, one in MYSTERY TRIBUNE and another with the British crime fiction publisher MURDEROUS INK PRESS, in an anthology called 'Say What Now?'. He has also self-published a trilogy of contemporary novels set in the London of the 1980s to 2010s, available on KINDLE. Please search for titles 'Riding House Street' and 'Nine Elms Lane'.
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