'Twas the Backspin Before Christmas: Citizen Anna and the Price of Business
It all started with a knock at the door... and the looming menace of the alter ego of which we dare to speak.
As a result, you are cordially invited to take part in this year's Backspin holiday offering.
In the beginning...
'Twas the morning before Christmas, and all through Backspin HQ, not a cave person was stirring, and nor was a proverbial 'roo.
And it was wonderful.
With the season a week away, it was actually quiet. Unlike last year, when the fruitless search for Caroline's "missing" marsupial had us all in a tizzy. As it turned, for no good reason, as Caro had actually only been kidding about her new "pet"... many of the townsfolk just didn't "get" the joke. This Christmas Eve was different, though. There was time to prepare. Time to shop online for some new white shorts for Vika, and even hope against hope that Serena Claus will have stashed something wonderful in a certain Backspinner's stocking come the morning. Crossing fingers for some "Sugarpova" -- Sporty flavor!
As I walked past the mantle, adorned with cardboard holiday greetings from the likes of Petra ("I shall return, even better than ever... xoxo") and Jelena D. ("Don't lose hope -- happy holidays!"), I caught a look through the window. Just like last year, it was snowy and cold. But, through the small window overlooking the HQ front lawn, I saw no gathering crowd, nor solitary caveman or joined-at-the-hip "Woz-ilroy," either. Ah, the Tennis Gods are taking it easy on us, I thought. Bless them. Of course, in the tradition of the "Kuznetsova Curse," I had spoken too soon. The words had barely escaped my subconscious mind when, suddenly, a creature WAS stirring. Curse the TG's!
Thud! Thud! Thud!
It was the unmistakable sound of someone pounding on the door. And not in an excited, it's-a-great-day-to-enjoy-the-sights-and-smells-of-the-holidays way, either. In an instant, I experienced an almost knee-buckling sense of deja vu. This was precisely how our wasted Christmas Eve had begun last year, and I could feel a wave of onrushing dread springing into existence from the pit of my stomach. Once again, everything about the course of this calm holiday period was about to change.
As I approached the door, I hesitated. Maybe I should just not open it, I told myself. I could go upstairs, lock a door behind me, turn up the volume on Caro's "Oxygen" song and play it until it scared everyone away from my door. Sure, it would take at least twenty-four hours for the pounding inside my skull to stop, but it would at least prevent whatever awaited me on the other side of the door from reaching into the holidays once again and wringing every last ounce of finally-regenerated-after-much-effort cheer from them.
But I had to open the door. I mean, I didn't want to be like Sam Stosur in the Australian Open and simply roll up into a ball in the corner of the room. No, like Nadia Petrova (and Ricardo Sanchez), I had to take a deep breath and see what was on the other side -- even if it was potentially too dangerous for words. So I reached for the knob, and turned it. Hoping against hope, I wished for the sight of Queen Chaos dressed up like an elf -- again -- to greet my eyes. There was no way THAT could portend awful things to come.
And, as luck would have it, I DID see QC all made up like one of Santa's serf-like labor force... but she was at the end of lane, along with a gathering throng of townsfolk, from old faves Sneaky Patty and Punch-Sober, to newcomer BoJo and a very pregnant La Petit Taureau, all standing side-by-side with equally fretful expressions on their faces. Obviously, I need to get a bigger window -- I hadn't seen ANY of them there only moments earlier, or else I'd have escaped out the back door! Standing in front of the door, between myself and the murderer's row of holiday executioners, was Diane. Hmmm, I thought, Diane is reasonable. She's not Backspinville's resident crackpot -- that would be crazy old Mrs. Storm, with her lunatic rantings -- so maybe this wasn't going to be so bad, after all. Of course, then Diane's first words, with dismay on her face, were, "She's gone! Carla's gone! And there's blood! I think The Radwanska got her!"
And there you had it. Here we go again.
Sensing it was going to be a very long day, I ducked back inside and slipped on a warm winter parka and hat, along with some extra-thick gloves, then joined the others to see what was the matter. Everyone was gathering to carol, Diane told me, as they always do on this day, but Carla never showed up. With Carl still away elking, it didn't seem quite right, so Diane visited Carla's cave home to check on her. What she'd found was a door ajar, and a series of odd, clawed footprints in the snow just outside the entrance. Pushing open the elk pelt, serving as a door, with a long stick, she found on the floor an overturned chair and upset box of wedding invitations, some smeared with what appeared to be blood, spread out across the large bear skin rug.
I was familiar with the invitations, as Carla had "convinced" me to act as her and Carl's "wedding attendance coordinator" -- due to an unvocalized threat of "squishing," I told local law enforcement to no avail, as Sheriff Allaster, arresting a few kids for making too much noise while they played in the yard, was far too busy to attend to MY "so-called" (her words) problems.
"I've got a bad feeling it's The Rad," Diane said. I, though, didn't want to jump to conclusions. Not again.
"Maybe Carl got back from elking and she's with him," I postulated.
"But what about the blood," piped in La Trufflette. "And the claws!," interjected Little MO. Zidane, meanwhile, simply watched and listened, biding his time until a well-chosen comment would fit the situation like a snug glove.
They all had good points, and I knew I was searching for a reasonable explanation other than the one that Diane was espousing. Such a blatant attack by The Radwanska, right under all our noses, wasn't something I wanted to contemplate. It was too frightening. Other than Carl, Carla is bigger and stronger than any of us. If The Radwanska could make off with her, what hope did anyone else have? Ever since we'd learned of It's existence earlier this year, we'd all had more than a few sleepless nights due to the menacing alter-ego of what had once been one of Backspinville's most vexing part-time residents, Agnieszka Radwanska. Any time some local hooligans -- possibly Rad "Minions," but more likely simply youthful delinquents -- decided it would be fun to smash melons on the doorsteps of a local home, the frantic calls of "Radwanska attack!" rang out all over town. Thus far, though, everything had been discovered to be an overreaction, fueled by fear and paranoia. Up till now, The Radwanska had operated within the shadows of both Backspinville and the WTA itself, keeping a nonexistent profile until I'd gotten a tip from a "little bird" -- all right, it was Citizen Anna, sending me a secret message from somewhere in the world to say that she'd heard of the existence of something darker and more sinister than anything we'd ever seen, and that it was rumored to be heading our way -- and made the editorial decision to "out" It as a public service.
Of course, a case could be made that I'd only made It angry. After all, ever since I first reported on the threat, The Radwanska's malevolent tactics had grown more and more bold. Bad luck and strange happenings abounded, and often it was Aga who benefited. Her standing has grown considerably over the past year. She moved into a more elaborate home, kept a second residence at spooky Radwanska Abbey, began to speak bigger and more confrontational words (perhaps knowing her Jekyll-like "protector" would be there to back her up with whatever "force" necessary, be in wind, rain or worse) , and even saw the career of her younger sister Urszula grow by sterling leaps and bounds, too.
It was a worrisome trend.
But this? An outright physical attack, with so much evidence left behind? It didn't seem like The Radwanska's style. But, then again, maybe this is all part of The Plan, I thought. Trying to determine The Rad's next move is as difficult as trying to figure out what sort of clever shot Aga is going to attempt to pull off on the court. At least in that way, the Pole and her "other self" DO share some rather significant DNA.
Just then, Queen Chaos, having broken away from the bunch, was skipping up the path toward Diane's place. QC, being QC, is often prone to wander off without much cause. Last week, it's rumored that she became distracted while making breakfast, and "went someone else" somewhere between spreading a bit of butter from one corner of a piece of toast to the other. I mean, LITERALLY -- Diane found her knitting while sitting on a branch of one of the big trees on the corner of campus. In the rain.
As she went about her business on this day, Queen Chaos was singing softly to herself, practicing her lines from one of today's intended carols. "Bannerette belles, Aga smells, Sammy laid an egg. Carlos, he went with Li, gimme Sugarpova or I'll go cra-zee," she said in tune, chuckling to herself. After overturning the purple rock under the window and retrieving the key to Diane's front door -- QC had done this before -- she walked inside and went searching for her friend's feline housemates. "Here, kitty kitty," she cooed, heading straight for Ziggy Stardust and Tarzan's cat beds.
It was then that Queen Chaos' piercing shriek stopped all of us in our tracks.
For a brief instant, we thought that Vika had come home to find Caro rummaging through her dresser drawers looking for a pair of white shorts to use as a prop in her next comedy routine, but then we realized that Backspinville's new standard-bearer (a few of us swear we felt LPT slightly blanch as the thought passed between us) was far too funky and well-adjusted to be spooked by such a sight. Then someone noticed that QC wasn't there and, well, it all made perfect sense.
We all rushed over to Diane's, only to see Queen Chaos sitting on the stoop with her head in her hands. She raised it just enough to complain to the winter sky. "It's the beginning of the end," QC moaned, stressing each word with an emphatic hand gesture, as if she was telling off Ricardo in the stands after a particularly bad shot on her part. Everyone gathered in the feline napping area, and it was suddenly all clear. We had our proof. The Radwanska HAD been here, and It had left two unmistakable calling cards as a warning to those left behind. Melons. Unbroken, but still menacing in their casual placement so close to home.
"See, I knew it," Diane said grimly, gathering up Ziggy and Tarzan in her arms for safekeeping. It was then that she noticed Tarzan's glowing eyes. We'd never seen anything like it before. What did it mean? Had the kitty actually become the first living being, that we know of, to lay eyes on The Radwanska, and live to "tell" about it?
Suddenly, LPT stepped -- well, waddled, but only slightly -- out of the crowd. "It could be a trap. Mind games are important, after all. Sometimes, you can win a battle without lifting a finger if you know what you're doing," she said. The already-strenuous nature was already taking a toll on the Belgian, though, as she had to look for a seat to rest after saying her part. Reaching out for the arm of her great friend Jo, LPT made her way to the sofa.
"But can we take that chance?," Diane wondered.
"I'm sure Carla can take care of herself," I said. But Diane raised an eyebrow at the thought.
"Against The Radwanska?," she asked. "Carla's my friend. I don't want to just assume she'll be fine. We have to do something to help." Noticing that I was still a bit on the fence, Diane then added, "Do you really want Carl to come home and find out you let Carla get squished? It's your call... there's really only one person who can help."
"Do you really think we need to bring her into this?"
"If it IS The Radwanska, I don't see that we really have much choice."
Finally recognizing the full nature of the threat, I concede. "I'll make the call."
The Citizen Arrives...
Within the hour, the mass of would-be carolers -- warmed up by some mugs full of hot cocoa mixed up by yours truly -- suddenly parts to make a path for an arrival. With that, a young woman emerges from behind the crowd, battle sword strapped to her side, walking forward with a confident gait. Citizen Anna has arrived.
Or at least I THINK it's her. She's been absent from our lives since last Christmas Eve, off on another of her super-secret missions in some corner of the world. Backspinville might be her "home base," but everyone else needs her influence, as well. With a hoody pulled up over her head, although with Anna's trademark fedora still atop her noggin, for a second, I wonder if it might actually be Vika. When the woman doffs her cap and lowers the hoody to reveal her face, I'm a bit taken aback. Her trademark blond hair is now a delightful chestnut, but the look of resolve in her eyes hasn't changed a bit.
Anna walks up to me, giving a quick look around town as she pops the fedora back onto her head. She takes a deep, refreshing breath in the winter air. "It's nice to be home, though I wish it was under different circumstances," she says.
"Thank you for coming so quickly," I tell her. "Actually, I almost didn't recognize you."
She raises her hand to touch her hair, revealing a slight scar -- a new battle wound -- on her wrist. "Oh, the color," she says. "I just wrapped up a mission in Europe -- at a private girls school in England." When she sees that Diane is eying the scar, she stares at it herself, adding, "I may keep it... so that I don't forget the cost of freedom in this world." Anna then notices Tarzan in Diane's arms. She bends down to look into the cat's glowing eyes, nearly nose-to-nose.
"So, it's finally begun," she states ominously.
"What's begun?," I ask.
"The next phase of The Plan," she says, then turns to Diane. "Does this cat have a wild gene?"
"He was part of a feral colony," Diane responds.
"Hmmm, I thought so. It would explain the eyes," Anna confirms. She gently rubs her finger under Tarzan's chin, quickly gaining the feline's favor. Anna takes the cat in her arms, gently petting it as she talks to us. "The Radwanska, although born from human consciousness and with an intrinsic evil, is 'of the wild.' Thus, any similarly wild, though by and large domesticated, being is innately connected to The Radwanska. Like The Rad, these 'wild' beasts are able to keep a foot -- or, in this case, feet -- in both worlds simultaneously. The connection isn't fully ignited unless their eyes actually meet." She gestures toward Tarzan's glowing green eyes. "This cat has seen The Radwanska. The eyes provide the proof."
"How do you know this?," Diane asks.
"I've seen it before," Anna answers.
"Where?," I wonder. "I didn't hear anything about it."
"You wouldn't have. It hasn't happened yet," Anna cryptically says. "But I've seen it, and it isn't a pretty sight." She turns to Diane. "No matter what happens over the next few days, you'll have to watch Tarzan. The connection goes both ways. While Tarzan is linked to The Radwanska, The Radwanska is also linked to him. I don't think I need to tell you how dangerous that could be. You'll need to watch for signs of 'Minion-ization.'" Anna looks more deeply into Tarzan's eyes. "He seems fine now... but that could change." She hands the cat back to a somewhat stunned Diane, then bends down on one knee in front of the feline.
"Tarzan, with your eyes so bright, won't you guide us to The Radwanska by the end of the night?," Anna asks.
Diane and I, and a handful of the carolers (though, it should be noted, not Queen Chaos, who is now off chasing a dried-up leaf as the wind carries it skipping across the snow-covered pavement), look at each other with skeptical glances. But, then, as if under the direction of something greater, Tarzan hops out of Diane's arms and heads off alone into the distance. As we all watch him, he suddenly stops, then looks back at Anna, obviously beckoning her to follow.
Anna flips out her handy compass, checks it, then flips it closed. "Then north it is," she says. She turns back toward everyone, then looks to her right, seeing the balcony of a nearby home. Suddenly, with a scamper up a drain pipe and an easy-for-her leap, she's standing on the platform overlooking the carolers. Like a general preparing her troops for battle, she paces back and forth before the group, with all eyes watching her every move. Even those of Queen Chaos. Finally, she stops and begins to speak.
"You all know me. I look out at all your faces and I see a whole army of like-minded individuals, here in defiance of the tyranny of a being whose only goal is to create havoc and mayhem, or worse. I have come here to help as a free woman. And you are all free, as well! What would you do without that freedom?! Will you join me in today's fight? Us against one."
The carolers cheer her on.
"Come with me and your safety may be in jeopardy. We may not win this battle, but know that if we do not try our enemy will be emboldened. Things could be worse in the days, weeks, months and years to come. One day, It may yet triumph over all that is good. Are you willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance -- just one chance -- to join with me and tell our enemy that It may take our daily peace of mind, but It will never take our freedom to believe in hope for a better day? A day without the lingering threat of the Radwanska!"
The group roars back in defiance of evil.
"We must show that we are all together as one in this fight! In the end, no matter how long this battle lasts, that is what will assure our ultimate victory over the force of evil that confronts us, that has reached into our home and seized a grip on our hearts on this very day. Are you with me!?," Anna shouts.
The crowd shouts back, "Yes!!!! An-na! An-na! An-na!"
And, with that, Anna jumps from the edge of the balcony. She lands on her feet, and in the same motion takes her first step behind Tarzan down the road out of town. The group follows her. After a few steps, the Citizen turns to Diane. "We'll find Carla. I promise," she tells her, then looks back at everyone else out of the corner of her eye. "Oh," she adds, "and lose the elf... we can't worry about her where we're going." Diane nods, glancing back at QC as she pirouettes in the middle of the street, spinning around and around until she gets dizzy and stumbles off, head-first, into a snow bank.
"Got it," Diane says.
A few moments later, as the band makes it's way past Caro's house on the edge of town, Anna turns to me. "How's Caroline?," she asks.
"Good, I guess. She had a tough year, but she seems to have gotten her smile back... although, some of us wonder if she's a little TOO content with how things are going."
"Has anyone ever spotted that 'roo? I thought maybe she was just joking about it all being a story last year."
"No. Never. It's sort of become a myth in our eyes."
"Oh, well. Maybe one day, when you least expect it, there'll be a sighting. I know I'll continue to believe," Anna says, adding, "It's the least I can do... we all have to believe is something, no matter how crazy and unrealistic, and I choose the 'roo." She then runs ahead to catch up with Tarzan. As she does, I tell myself that every superwoman, even the Citizen, also apparently has a blind spot.
As the group of carolers, chatting and filled with nervous energy, move well beyond Caro's property, Eric plays a tune on his flute, providing us all with a song in our head to go along with the trepidation in our hearts. Of course, it also causes none of us to hear the muffled pleas of Coach Johansson in the sub-basement (ah, but that's a story for still another Christmas Eve). From his seat in the darkness in the corner of the room, Piotr silently watches, chuckling to himself.
As the last straggling member of Anna's band escapes the confines of Backspinville, Queen Chaos waves goodbye, then turns to nonchalantly skip back down the main street, oblivious to anything but the tightness of her elf hat. Running alongside her is Ziggy, who looks up at her with a puzzled look as QC begins to sing to herself once again.
"Maria got revenge on the Czech, and then secured her ca-reer legacy. You can say there's no such thing as 'pova. But as for me and Petra, we believe."
Meanwhile, from a vantage point in the shadows of the nearby forest, something surveys the scene... then heads north, silently following Anna and all the rest.
The Arctic Outpost...
Flashforward many hours, and those who remain of the original group continue to make their way across the snow, walking in the tiny footsteps of Tarzan, our indefatigable guide. The journey has been long and arduous, and many were forced to turn back, either due to second thoughts or health concerns.
Even LPT couldn't make it this far, having to stop to rest at an inn along the way, fearing that her baby might be delivered sometime during the northward trek. With no rooms available in the overbooked establishment, the Belgian was forced to take a "room" in the barn. Jo stayed behind to keep her company, watch out for her and act as her nurse if need be. As we left them there, none of us chose to make any allusions to Christmas Eves past, either real or imaginary... no matter how many of us wanted to!
With the sky beginning to darken, we stop atop a bluff overlooking a small artic trading town. By town, I mean a simple collection of metal-roofed, one story buildings arranged into an abbreviated encampment. It's a slapdash base in the middle of nowhere, as it appears as a speck of civilization against a bleak, barren background. And, yet, it is teeming with activity, as the sound of many loud voices and music coming from inside the buildings can be heard even from this distance.
Anna looks out over the area. "Gronau Outpost," she says to me. "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be careful. Only a few of the group should travel with me. The rest should stay here until we return... or, better yet, start to head back home. It'll be safer, for all of us -- fewer heads to count." She looks back at the others, many the worse for wear. Anna counts out on her fingers, "Me, you, Diane, Tarzan, Zidane and Patty. That's all we'll need. We don't want to attract too much attention." Then she smiles, adding with a wicked grin, "But we DO want to be noticed."
Moments later, as our now-even-smaller group nears the checkpoint on the outpost's border, we can't help but notice the string of pulverized, hollowed-out melons along the side of the snowy road. Their juices bleed out and soak into the whiteness, then freeze soon afterward. We approach two armored guards standing watch at the Gronau gate. We slow down as they lower their weapons to block our way.
"We've come a long way," Anna tells them. "We're only looking for a stiff drink to warm us from the inside. We won't be spending the night."
One of the guards is especially drawn to Tarzan in Diane's arms. She starts to scratch the cat's head, hoping to keep the glowing eyes from being quite so noticeable. It works, but only to a point. The two guards confer, and seem to come to an agreement, and then one steps toward her.
"Do you have registration papers for the feline?," the guard asks. "We can't allow wild animals to roam the outpost. They spread disease and establish a general lack of cleanliness."
"Oh, he's not wild," Diane nervously answers, adding, "anymore." She sees the immediate look of disapproval on Anna's face, as well as the guard's now-heightened attention.
The Citizen steps between Tarzan and the guard, casually moving her sword from hand to hand, as if by a force of habit, in front of his face. "You don't need to see any papers," she says softly.
After a brief hesitation, the guard answers back, seemingly unable to say anything else. "We don't need to see any papers."
"This isn't the feline you're looking for."
"This isn't the feline we're looking for."
"You can go about your business."
"You can go about your business," the guards says, then steps out of the way to allow us to pass.
Anna turns back to us. "Let's go," she says, then quietly adds, "Quickly."
We get a few steps past the guards, then one calls out. "Stop," he says. Anna's hand instinctively grasps the handle of her sword. Slowly, she turns around. "Don't let that creature's feet touch the ground. If you know what's good for you."
Anna slides her hand off her weapon. "Thank you for the advice. We'll be sure to follow it," she says back, then makes a point to scoot us along as quickly as possible away from the checkpoint, without appearing as if she's doing just that.
"What was that about?," I ask her.
"It knows we're coming," she answers, a slight smile strangely choosing now to come over her face.
"Oh," I say, taken a bit aback at the news. "But I meant all the other stuff."
Anna takes a moment to realize what I'm talking about. Finally, she does. She laughs to herself, as if recalling a fond memory. "Oh, that was just something I picked up from an old friend of mine."
Once in the center of Gronau, Anna stops outside one particular drinking establishment -- Leif's. The patrons inside sound particularly rowdy, and the music is very loud. "This is the place," Anna says, then steps inside.
I, Diane, Tarzan and the others follow behind her, and we go from a freezing, bright-white environment to a warm, dark, smelly and smoke-filled one with a single step into the saloon, filled to the rafters with weapon-toting, hard-edged men and women who'd sooner cut you in half than look at you with their one good eye. With every step Diane takes with Tarzan in her arms, the pair is met with hostile stares. One of the rough-looking characters found within the walls "accidentally" bumps her arm as he goes by, nearly sending Tarzan to the floor.
Anna, both looking fabulous AND amazingly comfortable amidst such dangerous riff-raff, makes her way across the room and begins to confer with a few rotten-to-the-core looking individuals. They seem to know her. The rest of us find a just-recently emptied table and take a seat and watch a bit of the show -- something of a sleazified stage review featuring scantily-clad dancing girls and a hoarse, gravel-voiced singer hitting, to be kind, about every fifth note. It isn't TOO noticeable, though, since the loud music is even worse.
I glance back at Anna, sitting at the corner of the bar. She takes a handful of papers and a small electronic-looking device from a bearded man with one arm. She folds the papers, then stashes them away, along with the device, inside her coat. She shakes the man's hand, then she does something that shocks me. Having clandestinely removed her sword from its sheath during their conversation -- as the man is focused on her smiling, thankful face -- she, with an underhand grip, quickly jabs the sword into the man's gut, pushing it all the way upward through his heart. By the way he quietly slumps in his seat, I can tell that he's been instantly killed. Without anyone noticing but me, she gives the man a warm "hug," then slowly leans him back against the wall next to the counter. She slides the sword out of his body and casually wipes the blood off on his leg, then slips the shiny metal weapon back into its sheath. She orders a drink from the bartender, then removes a ring from her finger and places it on the bar. The bartender pours two shots, then holds the ring up to the light to inspect it. A few seconds later, he shakes his head in agreement. Anna lifts the shot glass up to him, then downs its contents in one gulp. When the bartender turns away, she takes a sip from the other glass, then slides it into the dead hand of the man leaning against the wall next to her. Without blinking an eye, she stands up and walks away.
Just then, I notice a small, rather innocuous-looking old woman petting Tarzan's head as he sits on the table in front of Diane. "Such a nice kitty," she says. "What's his name?"
"Tarzan," Diane answers. Suddenly, the cat hisses at the old woman and bears his claws. "Oh, I'm so sorry," Diane apologizes, "He's just nervous in these new surroundings."
"Oh, that's okay," the old woman says in a low voice, never taking her eyes off Tarzan. "Such wonderful eyes he has." For a second, the woman is totally silent as she stares into Tarzan's glowing eyes. "I would love to have those eyes... it would be easy to get them," she utters in an odd tone of voice. She slowly raises her hand toward Tarzan's head. "I would only need to crush your skull in my hand and pick your eyeballs out with my fing-."
The words cause Diane to jerk Tarzan away from the woman. Before she can reach for the cat again, Anna suddenly steps up, forcefully sliding her knee and sword between them. "Let's go," she tells all of us, "I got what I came here for."
As everyone stands to leave, I grab hold of Anna's arm to get her attention. "What just happened back there?," I ask, nodding toward the bar area. "I thought we were here for The Radwanska, and Carla." After a moment, she realizes that I saw what happened.
"That IS what I'm here for. THAT," she says in a more-harsh-than-I'm-used-to-from-her tone, gesturing toward the dead man on the bar stool, "is just the price of doing business at Gronau. If you're going to run in the same circles as me, there's one thing you have to understand: freedom isn't 'free,' especially if you're the one with a sword through your heart." She shoots a nervous look around the room. "We need to go NOW. I just killed what passes for law enforcement in this hell hole, and I don't really want to be around when any of these lowlifes figure out it might have been me that did it."
She grabs me by the front of my winter jacket and drags me toward the door. Before we get there, the lights are lowered and a man takes the microphone on stage. "My name is Leif," he says, "and it's time for your favorite prop comic. Straight out of Denmark -- it's 'The Many Faces of Caroline!" The thuggish crowd goes wild, and a young blonde bounds onto the stage. Before I can identify her, though, Anna pulls me out of the darkness and into the bright white light.
We join the others outside, then walk as quickly as we can away from the Gronau Arctic Outpost without making a scene. I, for one, hope to never return. Once we get a short distance away, far enough to avoid detection, but close enough to detect someone that we should avoid, we all catch our breath atop a small hill. Finally "off alert," Anna removes her fedora and runs her fingers through her hair.
As the others congregate behind us, I take Anna aside. "Are you going to explain to me what happened back there?," I press. "What did he give you that he had to be killed for?"
"Well, for one, HE was a Minion. That's violation enough. In his case, though, he likes to work both sides of the equation, just to make sure he has a chance to survive no matter who wins out in the end. He's proven useful to me in the past -- how do you think I know what I do about The Radwanska?"
"But if he was such a valuable asset, why kill him?"
"Because being who he is, eventually, he was going to make sure that someone 'over there' knew about the intel he gave me tonight. And that can't happen. It's too important -- it could jeopardize everything. Plus, I have other contacts. So far, I can trust them enough to not have to sacrifice them. Yet."
"What did he give you? Will it help us rescue Carla?"
"No. I doubt it."
"So, that's it? This was all for nothing?"
"Not 'nothing,'" she says, pulling out the folded up papers from her jacket pocket. She opens them up and shoves them at me. I look them over, a little stunned.
"Is this what I think it is?"
"If you think it's the blueprints for Radwanska Abbey, then yes, it's what you think it is." I go to hand them back to her, but she pushes them away. "You should keep those. If things go the way I suspect they will on this mission, those floor plans might one day be our only hope. Keep them in a safe place. Lives were lost to get those plans. Good lives, of good people." Without even realizing it, Anna once again runs her fingers across the scar on her wrist. I notice, but don't mention anything about it -- I'm too worried about all the rest.
"Wait a minute -- what exactly is going on here?"
Anna is suddenly more serious than she's ever been. "Don't you get it?," she says, pointing back toward the outpost. "Everyone you just saw back there are Minions. Sure, some of them are more committed than others, and some are being pulled along by forces beyond their control. But they're Minions nonetheless. We're lucky we got out of there alive."
I pause for a moment. "So this whole thing is WAY bigger than any of us really know."
Anna chuckles knowingly. "Oh, yeah."
"Then why are we spending our time trying to rescue one missing cavewoman, when so much more is at stake?"
"Because Carla's life is just as important anyone else's. Who knows, she might even end up being the linchpin to defeating The Radwanska when all is said and done," Anna says, adding, "Really, though, I came back immediately after you contacted me because I was curious. I mean, what could The Rad want with Carla? It makes no sense." After a long pause in which she thinks about the situation, the Citizen continues. "Actually, this has all been way too easy. It's like we're being strung along, like puppets on The Rad's strings. I think we're being tested, just to see how we'll react. I'm sure we'll find Carla. In truth, she might never have been in any danger at all. We might even encounter The Radwanska Itself. But it won't end today. Not by a longshot. And I delivered my message."
"What 'message' is that?"
"I walked into The Radwanska's den... and walked out. Sometimes you just have to prove to your enemy that you're not afraid. It may be useful down the line." Anna motions me closer, then, in a low voice, says, "Just between us, I think we have bigger problems than coming face-to-face with It."
"Bigger? Great. How is THAT possible? What is it?"
With that, Anna pulls the electronic device she received from the soon-to-be-dead man from inside her jacket. She waves it in front of my face.
"That's what this little thing is going to tell me." She pauses, then, with a hint of reluctant resignation, "Well, either that, or it's going to tell me we're all doomed."
To be continued...
LATER THIS WEEK: "Twas the Backspin After Christmas: Citizen Anna and the Price of Freedom"