"So can't you give me just a tiny little hint about what this is all about? I mean—if I’m going to get tortured and shot and buried in concrete overshoes it would be sort of nice to know why, ahead of time. I imagine."
Venny scanned the living room. "Let's go somewhere safe."
"I thought this place was supposed to be safe!"
"We need to go where it's extra especially safe. Where do nerds hang out?"
Lisa rolled her eyes. "Nerds can be dangerous too, Venny. We might poke you with a slide rule or something. Eeesh!"
Venny rapped Lisa's butt with her cane. "Good point. Well, where do you suggest?"
Lisa bit her lip. "Well I suppose we could go to A.M.'s place."
Venny shook her head sternly. "No way."
"Venny!" Lisa protested. "There's nobody on Earth either one of us can trust more than A.M.! You know that!"
"That's not the point, short stuff. A.M.'s a mom. We don't want to endanger her or her little port-a-person in any way. You're disposable, on the other hand."
"Uh. Gee, thanks Venny. But I guess I see your point."
"You haven't told A.M. about any of this, have you?"
"Uh, well, not yet. I was going to ask her to pray for me, though."
"Sorry, Lisa. You can't mention a word of this to A.M. It's for her safety. She can't even know you're with me. I'm serious, Lisa. Until this is over, you don't exist."
Lisa began to feel tears well up in her eyes. "But if A.M. doesn't hear from me for a while, she's going to try to find out why! Wouldn't that be just as dangerous? Wouldn't it?!"
Venny jammed her cane into the carpet. "Crap! I really hate it when you get all logical on me like that. Take me some place, and let me think about it on the way."
Lisa nodded lamely. "I think I know a place."
Venny emerged from beneath the blanket on the back seat of Lisa's Cavalier, stepped out the passenger door, and scanned the clearing in the birch forest as she straightened up.
"Where in blazes are we?"
"Ionoprobe. Well, actually it's the blueberry field behind Ionoprobe. A.M. used to take me out here when I first met her. Boy, I haven't been out here in about ten years!" Lisa turned around on her heels. "In fact, it doesn't look like anyone has been here in ten years. It's kind of strange."
Venny nodded approvingly. "Strange is okay."
Lisa shrugged. "I guess so. I'm pretty sure nobody has bugged any blueberry bushes." She stopped in her tracks. "Hey, I wonder if that old picnic table is still around. Actually it’s a giant wooden spool from some coaxial cable that A.M. found. She rolled it into the woods over there some place and laid it down. We used to sit there in between experiments, when she was trying to make an Alaskan out of me. I guess it sort of worked, because I'm still here."
Lisa turned around on her heels again. "At least I think it was over there. It's gotten so weedy I hardly recognize anything. Let's see if we can find that table."
Venny shrugged. "Whatever floats your boat."
Lisa led the way across the blueberry patch toward a familiar-looking stand of birch trees, some two hundred feet to the south. As they approached the stand, Lisa picked a few blueberries and handed them to Venny.
"They've always grown really big out here!" Lisa said, with a laugh. "I think they're mutants because of all the radio experiments we were doing."
Venny eyed the giant blueberries in her hand suspiciously. "They're not radioactive, are they?"
"No. A.M. and I ate them all the time."
"Ah. Well that certainly explains a lot." Venny popped a couple of blueberries in her mouth, and chewed them warily. "Wow. Those are really good!"
"I know. Don't tell anyone!" Lisa warned. "This was our best kept secret. We can pick a lot more on our way out."
Lisa proceeded into the stand of trees, when to her shock, she heard a woman's voice, and it wasn't Venny's.
"What took you so long?"
Lisa and Venny turned in the shadows to see A.M. sitting on the old cable-reel picnic table, calmly nursing her second infant daughter, Aurora.
Venny expressed Lisa's thoughts better than she could herself.
"Holy crap, woman! What are you doing here?!"
"That's just what I was going to say!" Lisa gasped. "Well, paraphrased a little, I guess."
A.M. patted the table next to her. "Sit, ladies."
"H-how d-did you know we'd be here, A.M.? If you really are A.M., that is!" Lisa sputtered.
"God told me you'd be here," A.M. said, in her matter-of-fact tone.
Lisa cautiously took a seat by A.M. as she had commanded. "O-o-o-kay." Venny started slowly backing away, towards the clearing.
"Uh—A.M.—did God tell you why we'd be here, too?" Lisa ventured.
"No, Lisa. That is your job. What do you think I am, some kind of prophetess lady or something? I cannot read minds."
Lisa crossed her arms and pouted. "Well, boy! It sure would be a lot easier if you did!"
A.M. smiled enigmatically. "Lisa. What have I told you many times before? God says we see through glass darkly. God only told me to be here. Nothing more. I am here. You are here. You finish story."
Lisa gazed toward Venny.
"You can come back, now, Venny. It's safe. I'm kind of used to A.M. by now." She shifted her eyes toward A.M. suspiciously. "Notice I said kind of used to her."
Venny returned to the table, slowly.
"Damn, woman! You're a trip."
"You can be just like this, if you truly want. I am nothing so special."
Venny sat down cautiously. “Right. Well, I suppose you're being here and all does solve one problem. I guess you should know I'm taking Lisa away for a while. It's a dangerous mission, and I just didn't want you to be involved. You shouldn't even have to know about any of this. You have a life. People who associate with me die a lot."
A.M. nodded thoughtfully, and switched Aurora to the other breast.
"Venny. I know stories about people hiding Jews from Hitler. People who did this put entire families in danger. Even small children and babies. But they did it because it is the right thing. I can do no less. If Lisa is helping you, she is doing the correct thing. I am Lisa's friend. I am your friend. I am not afraid for babies."
Venny sighed. "You're something else, you old battle axe. I don't know what to say."
Lisa shifted her eyes back and forth a couple of times. "Well, you can start by telling me what this is all about. Just curious, mind you. Not that it really matters why I’m putting my ‘bony little butt’ on the line, of course. That would be really nosy of me!"
Venny nodded. "Okay. It's pretty simple. There's a bad guy in the agency. We have to root him out. He's got a lot of clout. He can make people just disappear. He can make you disappear. He can make me disappear. He can make babies disappear. It's his job, and he's good at it. He's got connections everywhere. We have to take him out. He can't be fixed."
"You mean, like assassinated?"
Venny leaned her cane on her shoulder. "Assassination is a term reserved for human beings, Lisa. This is a simple dismantling. The man has no soul, so there's nothing there to assassinate. He's a defective component that just needs to be removed. In fact, you can't even really hate the guy, because there's nothing there to hate. He's a mere utensil. It's our job to remove that utensil."
Lisa gazed at A.M., who seemed disturbingly serene about the entire matter. "Um—-A.M.—-aren't you going share my disgust or horror—or—something?"
A.M. shrugged. "You know story of David and Goliath. It is not correct to feel sorry for Goliath."
"Uh—well—uh—this is different!"
"How is it different?"
Lisa bit her lip thoughtfully for a moment. "Well—it just—is! Anyway, it's your job as my friend to talk me out of this. Or at least try to talk me out of this. Actually, you won't have to try very hard."
A.M. said nothing in the way that only she could.
Lisa sighed. "You're going to tell me to stop whining or something, aren't you?"
"No, because you already said this for me."
Lisa shifted her eyes back and forth a couple of times. "You guys are conspiring against me, aren't you?"
A.M. shook her head. "No, Lisa. We are conspiring for you."
"Ah," Lisa said, lamely. She rested her chin wearily on her hands. "I guess you aren't going to let me get out of this, are you?"
A.M. gazed at Lisa in seeming disbelief. "You are grown lady. I cannot make you do one thing. I never could do this. I am only advisor. I just make tiny suggestions."
Lisa rolled her eyes. "Right, Mrs. Nygard. I guess what you did to Glacier Man was a 'suggestion' too."
"He required that," A.M. said flatly.
Lisa sighed. "Well, you're probably right. Still, you can be really really really persuasive."
"How am I persuading? You already decided to do this wonderful thing for Venny."
Lisa crossed her arms and pouted. "Can't you ever be wrong, just for once?!"
A.M. removed her child from her breast and buttoned up her blouse.
"It is my job to be correct as much as possible, Lisa. Now you know what you must do. I can go home now."
Lisa stared at A.M. in disbelief. "Just like that?!"
"I will be praying for you. Now you must concentrate on job." A.M. arose from her seat and strode toward Chena Hot Springs Road, where Lisa assumed she had parked her car.
After a few moments of silence, Venny expressed exactly what Lisa had been thinking.
"Well, damn! That was about the weirdest thing I've ever seen. And I've known A.M. for almost as long as you have!"
"Uh—huh," Lisa agreed, lamely. "Well, I guess that is that. What do we do now?"
"I guess we pick some blueberries and go home."
Lisa nodded. "Yeah, that's probably a good idea. It may be the last time we see anything nice like this ever again."
"You're starting to sound like me, Lisa. I'm proud of you."
"Right," Lisa sighed.
Lisa scanned the field surrounding them. "Hey, Venny. Since we probably won't be coming back here for a long time, there's one other thing I want to explore around here."
Venny scanned the deserted landscape cautiously. "I never thought I'd hear Lisa and explore in the same sentence. I thought you hated Alaska."
"Well, I still do, sort of, but it never did much good. I'm still here. Anyway, I really did like the science. I just wish the Northern Lights were at UCLA, instead."
"Yeah. Well, I'm sure A.M. could fix that for you."
Lisa rolled her eyes. "Right."
"So, what did you want to look for, anyway? Gold?"
Lisa shook her head. "No. I heard a rumor there was an experiment they did out here way back in the 1950s. It was abandoned before UCLA bought all this property."
"And what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?"
Lisa bit her lip thoughtfully. "Well, there were some people who thought you could get free electricity from the Aurora. So they supposedly built all these buried induction coils out here somewhere. From what I heard there's about three hundred miles of copper wire buried out here in the woods.”
Venny nodded. "Ahh. So you're planning on stealing a bunch of copper wire, are you? It is pretty pricey these days, I understand."
Lisa shook her head. "Well, that's not really what I had in mind. I just think it's weird to think that something like that could be way out here. I just was wondering if Webb and Tell were pulling my leg. It's just one of those things I'd really like to know, now that they're both gone."
Venny sighed, somewhat impatiently. "Well, whatever floats your boat. I think I'll pick some blueberries. Or not."
"I think I have some plastic bags in my glove compartment. You can get one if you want, to put berries in."
Venny turned toward the car in the distance.
"Ahh. Well, don't get lost on me. I'm still supposed to be blind; I can't go looking for you."
Lisa rolled her eyes. "I'll try to remember that. Eeesh!" Lisa prodded her way through the brush, toward the Tanana River, looking for evidence of mysterious instrumentation or buried treasure. After roaming around aimlessly for twenty minutes, Venny materialized at her side with a fairly good harvest of blueberries in her bag.
"Are we rich yet?"
Lisa shook her head. "I don't think so. I'm not really sure what I'm even looking for. I don't know if it's just under the dirt, or forty feet down. It could be anywhere within a mile of here, too."
Venny thrust her bag of berries toward Lisa. "Or maybe Webb and Tell were just blowing it out their tails."
Lisa took a small handful of berries. "Thanks. Well, that's a real possibility I guess, but I've read about the experiment other places too."
Venny rapped Lisa on her butt with her cane. “Well, listen, Short Stuff. Why don’t we stick this on the back burner for a while? I’m sure nobody’s going to steal whatever it is if they haven’t already. Like you said, it doesn’t look like anyone’s been here for ages.”
Lisa sighed. “Yeah. I guess you’re right. I’m going to have enough to think about for a while.”
“Good thinking, squirt. I’d hate to get all eaten by a bear before we get a chance to get shot good and proper.”
Lisa and Venny gradually worked their way back toward the car, picking berries as they went. As they neared the vehicle, Lisa stopped in her tracks and straightened up.
“I’ve got it!” she cried.
“You’ve got what? Poison ivy?”
“I know where to look!” she said, her eyes open like saucers.
Venny jammed her cane into the dirt. “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Let’s just go, Lisa.”
“Venny! This is important. Well, to me it is, anyway.”
Venny sighed. “Oh all right. You’re probably going to be dead before you get a chance to come back here, so let’s get it over with.”
Lisa rolled her eyes. “Thanks. That’s real encouraging.” She turned around slowly scanning the terrain. “I think I saw something strange on a satellite photo once...over that way,” she said, pointing toward the northwestern corner of the property. “In fact, I think I could see it from my room in the bunkhouse sometimes. But I didn’t like looking out that window very much, because one time I looked out of it and there was a big moose right on the other side, staring right at me! Boy! That was really scary! I closed my curtain right away.”
“You’re a very strange little girl,” Venny said. “If you ever have any kids, they’re going to be real frightening. Fortunately, that’s probably not going to happen, because you might have to talk to a boy first. Unless Shanghai science nerds reproduce by cloning or something like that.”
“I’ll have you know I have talked to a boy before,” Lisa retorted, defiantly. I can’t help it if he never talked to me!”
Venny nudged Lisa in the direction she had indicated. “Don’t sweat it, kiddo. If you had a life, I couldn’t borrow you like this. You’re much more useful this way.”
Lisa trudged through the brush toward the location in question, Venny following along, probing the tundra with the tip of her cane. “Boy, it’s a lot more overgrown than it used to be. I should tell Webb to get out here and chop down some weeds.” She suddenly stopped in her tracks again as tears welled up in her eyes. She blinked at Venny, not quite believing what she had said.
“Webb’s gone, isn’t he?” she blubbered.
“Yeah. Like for about five years,” Venny reminded her.
Lisa wiped her eyes on her sleeve and nodded. “I know. It just seems like yesterday, though. It’s all so strange being here.”
“We can leave,” Venny said, trying her best to be patient. “Then we won’t be here any more.”
Lisa scanned the terrain, just to the southwest.
“Over there,” she announced, pointing to what looked like a sawed-off outhouse.
Venny squinted in the direction of Lisa’s index finger.
“You mean that doghouse?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s really a doghouse. But it might be. But maybe not.”
Venny nudged Lisa in the general direction. “I’m glad we made that crystal clear.”
Lisa paced quickly toward the object in question, perhaps six hundred feet distant, with Venny in tow. As they neared the object, Lisa rendered her verdict.
“Hey, it is a doghouse!”
“Ahh,” Venny said, barely concealing her excitement. “Do you suppose a dog might be resident therein?”
“I don’t think so. They used to use old doghouses to protect equipment out in the field. It was cheaper than buying official equipment shelters. Dr. Wu was sort of...”
“Cheaper than a refundable hooker...,” Venny said, completing her thoughts. “Yeah, I know; he was legendary.”
“Right,” Lisa said. She stepped up to the doghouse and reached inside.
“I wouldn’t do that, Short Stuff,” Venny cautioned. “There might be a moose in there. There aren’t any curtains to close if there is!”
Lisa was undaunted by fear as she patted the floor of the doghouse.
“Hmmm. It’s pretty empty. They probably had some VLF coil batteries in here at one time. No, come to think of it, probably not, because there’s no insulation. Batteries don’t stay charged very well if they’re in the cold for too long. So they usually insulated the dog house, and then put a light bulb in there to keep it warm.” She scanned the environs. “But then again, this is way out in the middle of nowhere. There would have been no electricity to run the light bulb unless they ran a really really long extension cord. But they wouldn’t have done that, because a long extension cord like that would have created a lot of A.C. interference, which would have made all the VLF stuff pretty pointless in the first place. They could have used D.C. power from the batteries themselves to light a small light bulb, like from a car taillight or something like that, but that would have drained the batteries pretty fast. They liked to have systems where they didn’t have to change the batteries for at least a week, at least during the winter time. So I don’t think that’s what this was. Maybe it’s just a stray doghouse after all.”
Venny just stared at Lisa with her jaw hanging slack as she assembled her thoughts. Finally, she was able to speak.
“What in the blazing name of Mergatroid was that??!!”
“That oratorio you just gave me. One day I’d just love to hike around inside that gourd on your shoulders. What a funhouse that must be!”
“I’m sorry. I just get into sort of a physics mode when I’m around physics stuff.”
“It’s a doghouse,” Venny reminded her.
“Well, it’s here for some reason,” Lisa mused.
“Might I re-suggest it might have been for a dog?”
Lisa shook her head. “Nobody has just one dog out here. There are mushers’ dog lots all over the place around here. They have dozens of dog houses. But not just one dog out in the middle of nowhere like this.”
“Maybe he was a bad dog. He got sent to doggy Siberia.”
“But I was never bad, and they sent me here,” Lisa protested.
Venny nodded. “Good point. Well, I’m sure we can just chalk it up to a mystery of the universe. Sort of like how you find just one shoe in the middle of the freeway.”
“Maybe we should move it and see what’s underneath it,” Lisa suggested.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Lisa. It’s a farkakte doghouse!”
“Please, Venny! Humor me. I really really think we should look under this.”
“Oh, brother. Okay, out of my way before I cane ya.” Venny leaned her bulky frame against the doghouse and rolled the decrepit structure over onto its roof.
“Happy now? See, we now have an upside down doghouse. Case closed. Let’s go...holy shee-wah-wah, what is that?” She prodded at the ground beneath where the doghouse had been with her cane. It clanged against a solid iron plate, mostly obscured by decades of weedy undergrowth.
Lisa scrutinized the object in question. “It looks like some kind of door or something!”
Venny cleared some of the weeds off the perimeter of the plate, which revealed itself as being about two feet square. The top surface of the plate was flush with a concrete patch that surrounded its perimeter, somewhat like a square manhole in a sidewalk. The plate had a recessed handle near the middle of one edge. Venny lifted the plate by the handle, with a bit of grunting and straining, which revealed a dark shaft lined with cinder blocks. She turned to Lisa.
“We aren’t dropping in on one of your friends, are we?”
Lisa stared at the gaping passage in astonishment.
“I told you this wasn’t an ordinary doghouse.”
“Yeah, I think that’s safe to say. This must have been buried in that little cranium of yours.”
Lisa shook her head. “No! I’m absolutely positive I’ve never been here before! I never had any reason to hike around these weeds. All our regular VLF stuff was way on the south end of the site.”
Venny patted her pants pockets. “You wouldn’t have a flashlight on you, would you?”
Lisa dove into her purse. “Actually I do. It’s not much of one, just a keychain thing.”
“Good enough...gimme gimme,” Venny said, snapping her fingers.
“Gimme, please,” Lisa scolded, dropping her jangling key-ring into Venny’s sweaty palm. “Don’t lose these down there; it’s a long walk home.”
Venny turned on the little flashlight, and aimed the beam down the hole. “It’s not very deep; there’s a floor just about four feet down. Wanna jump down there for me?”
“You’re lean and wiry; I’m old and fat. And it’s your fault we’re here in the first place.”
Lisa sighed. “Yeah, I guess I can’t argue with that.” She snapped her fingers at Venny. “Gimme gimme.” Venny handed her back the keychain. Lisa placed the ring in her teeth and hopped down the hole onto the floor, allowing her eyes to adjust for a moment, before gasping.
“What is it, Lisa?”
“This place is just loaded with...it looks like machine guns!”
“No shit?! M-16s or AK-47s?”
“I don’t know Venny. I don’t have anything to do with this sort of thing. Isn’t that more your specialty?”
“Out of the way, squirt. I’m a-coming down.”
Lisa scooted out of the way while Venny lowered herself through the hatch. She handed Lisa her cane, paused for a moment and crouched into the interior, scanning the eerie interior.
“Damn! Someone’s been preparing for Armageddon here! Those are AK-47s, Lisa.” She scanned a little more. “And matching grenade launchers. Good gravy, short stuff. This could sure come in handy! Is this all yours?”
Lisa gasped in horror. “No, it’s not all mine! Eeesh! I’ve never even shot a gun!” She turned around slowly, biting her lip thoughtfully. “Oh wow!”
“I think this all might be Webb’s! He was always joking about starting his own private little army, after that Democrat governor got in. Maybe he wasn’t kidding after all!”
“I’m beginning to like this Webb guy. You don’t think he’d miss any of this, do you?”
Lisa sighed. “I wonder if Brenda knew about any of this? That’s his wife. Or was his wife. I mean, she’s still alive, but Webb isn’t.”
“We get the point, Lisa. Well, if she hasn’t asked you about it, it’s probably a good sign that she was clueless. Maybe you could give her a grenade launcher and a doily next Mother’s Day. I’m sure she’d appreciate the gesture.”
Lisa moved underneath the hatch. “Uh, Venny? Don’t you think we should notify the...uh...authorities...or someone about this?”
“Not on your life, Short Stuff. If you mention a word about this to anyone, I’ll shoot you on your way to Leavenworth. This stuff is like—majorly illegal.”
“Why would I go to Leavenworth. It’s not my stuff!” Lisa protested.
“You’d have a real hard time proving it to anyone. The only reason I even believe you is because...well, because you’re so strange to start with. You just can’t make this stuff up.”
“Gee. Thanks...I think.” Lisa glared at her flashlight, which was beginning to falter. “I think we’d better leave.”
“Good call. Let’s remember to drop some bread crumbs so we can find this place again.”
Lisa tossed Venny’s cane out of the hatch and then popped out of the abyss herself.
“Do you need any help getting out?” she asked. “You’re old and fat, remember.”
Venny placed her hands on either side of the porthole and pressed herself upwards, rolling out onto the weeds. Lisa helped her to her feet and handed her the cane.
“That was graceful!” Lisa taunted.
“Yeah, yeah. Okay, we’re even now,” Venny said, moving the iron plate back into position with a loud clang. She rolled the doghouse upright onto the hatch door, and dusted off her sweatshirt.
“Well, that was an interesting development, kiddo. Maybe I should listen to what sloshes around in your beady little head, once in a while.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you that for...uh...ages, Venny!”
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.