The Magnum Opiate: a story of mystery, and intriguing
Disclaimer: coincidentally, this story is not in a relationship with any actual person, living or dead. It's complicated.
"Boom!" said Trey, as he fired another one from his .44 magnum. Another employee, that is. This is not to say Trey wasn't in the killing business, because he certainly was. But he also discharged his employees (with cause) using his gun, by pointing it at them and saying, "Boom". Ironically, Trey had actually never killed another person before, despite spending over 15 years in the M&A department at ACCENTUATE, a top-tier firm with no soft underbelly to speak of. This was quite surprising given that cold-blooded murder made up 50% of the mandate of ACCENTUATE's Murders & Acquisitions department.
Trey always knew how to make the most of a situation, to say the least. Today he was looking into his expense reports for his past four missions, as he hadn't yet been paid back and he was late on his rent payments. The landlord had already made empty threats to evict him, and Trey was a glass half full kind of guy. He approached the finance office on the 14th floor of ACCENTUATE's downtown office.
"Hey Francis," Trey cooed, "where's my money for that botched job in Santiago?" (He had contracted botulism, and the target got away.)
"Well," said Francis, "we need the receipts."
"But I gave you the receipts last Wednesday. I even got an email acknowledging receipt of the receipts!" exclaimed Trey, his voice dripping with malice until a poodle formed on the floor beneath him. And then the bombshell hit: "I'm sorry, that's not my job. Please take your request to the Acknowledgements department on the 12th floor." Trey was this close to quitting ACCENTUATE altogether, which explained the unusually short distance between his thumb and forefinger as he stormed out of Finance. But he had nowhere else to go. Who else even hires cereal killers, let alone complete failures thereof?
The poodle coagulated slowly. From the go-getter he was living on borrowed time, as the universe had intended him to be a puddle; his existence was just a cosmic typo. The poodle wasn't quite sure whether this was profound or mundane, but he didn't really care, especially on a Monday. One thing was for sure: the poodle needed a name. He grabbed the nearest book, which happened to be Robinson Crusoe, opened it to a random page, and settled on the first name he saw. For Monday at 10am, Friday felt he had already accomplished a lot for the week. 
"Excuse me," Trey said, clearing his throat phlegmatically. He had made it down to the 12th floor, no thanks to gravity which, it appeared, did not apply to slow-moving elevators. But before Trey could even engage in a discussion about the receipt of the receipts, and his receipt thereof, he was accosted by his supervisor, Mr. Rowland T. "Rowlend" Harrison III. Unfortunately, Rowlend knew how to strike the iron while it's hot, and wasn't going to let Trey off the hook, line, or sinker this time. "Agent Triple-O Seven," said Rowlend, "I don't know what your secret sauce is, but you haven't eliminated a single target in 15 years. I'm fed up. This is your last chance!" 
Trey shuddered voluntarily. On top of dealing with Rowlend, the light was streaming in the windows 3.1 times more than his eyes could really handle. "I know 'em when I see 'em," mused Trey.
"Excuse me?" asked Rowlend. "You know what when you see them?"
"Photons." muttered Trey. "I know 'em when I see 'em."
At this point Rowlend was questioning Trey's sanity more than he ever had, but he didn't allow himself to be distracted. "Here's the file," he said to Trey. "You have 48 hours to get this job done, or you are done!" Rowlend wasn't one to beat around the burning bush.
"I'm of two pieces of mind, sir," Trey replied casually. "On the one hand, that's a tough assignment, but on the other hand, it's time for me to prove my value to this department. I, Triple-O seven, accept your challenge with relish!"
But it was all a bluff. Trey didn't have any peace of mind at all. Not now. Not ever again until an integer overflow occurred on the cosmic clock and everything was nice and dandy again. But that was a long way away.
The file was self-contained within a yellowing folder marked SECRETS WITHIN! in large, blocky letters. Trey carefully positioned himself on the edge if his seat, and opened it. Here is what he saw:
Operation Murder The Target
- Agent: Trey [redacted]
- Target: Saccharine Zento
- Last seen: [redacted]
- Objective: Eliminate the target. Leave no traces of radioactivity.
- Maximum budget: $74,000
- Minimum budget: $74,000
- Budget explanation: Three years ago, the agency was awarded an Emergency Measurements grant in response to the entire PR department taking vacation the same week. In order to have this grant renewed, we need to demonstrate our financial need by spending all of it. And yet, why spend more? Thus, the agent is directed to spend exactly $74,000 on the operation.
- Budget currency: Choice of Canadian, American, or Australian dollars left to discretion of the agent based on field conditions.
- Additional details: Saccharine Zento is an attorney whose services have been retained by Stingray Dental Corporate Corporation, Inc. to evaluate a potential acquisition of Blue Cellphones Retaining Walls Limited, by Stingray. Target believes the acquisition is based on unsound logic and seeks to prevent it. Stingray, a retainer manufacturer, has retained our services to ensure the acquisition proceeds as planned. Target was contacted by ACCENTUATE and demanded bribe of $75,000 to withdraw her objections. Bribe outside budgetary constraints.
It was a textbook case if Trey ever saw one. He put his textbook inside it and started to formulate a plan.
Later that evening (41 hours remaining)
Trey opened his briefcase and glanced at the brief again. He did not wear briefs, except on Wednesdays, and, according to his poodle, Friday, today was Tuesday. So he was a commando commando, so to speak. Trey wondered why some parts of the document were redacted. Were they redacted by the original author for Rowlend's benefit, or by Rowlend for Trey's benefit, or maybe -- by extension -- by some higher being for his readers' benefit. And if so, why? It was all a bit much for a Tuesday.
Rowlend stumbled down the cobblestone path to his suburban home. The neighbour’s apple tree blocked the sun just right so that you couldn’t see his five o’clock shadow. As he entered, he was greeted with a smile -- for better or for worse -- by his better half, Trudi, whose yellow cardigan looked worse for wear. They sat down to dinner amidst the ringing of his antique biological clock, which Rowlend inherited from his grandfather. BONG, went the clock. BONG, BONG, BONG, BONG. And then, one final BONGGGGG. (Rowlend’s
pedantic Wall did not quite understand why the clock was striking six, given that the length of Rowlend’s facial hair indicated it was more like five. Alas, the biological clock was not yet adjusted to the recent daylight savings time shift.) 
"How was your day today, agave dear?" Trudi asked. Needless to say, their household was sugar free.
Rowlend tried to snort and sigh at the same time. Unfortunately, he did not succeed in either endeavour. The room filled with an oppressive silence, which was only broken several minutes later by the shattering of Rowlend’s wine glass. Determination of the number of shards of glass, their shapes and sizes, and the rate of absorption of Rowlend’s full-bodied crimson wine into the rug are left as exercises to the reader. Words do not suffice it to say, Rowlend had had a bad, bad day.
Upon retiring to the drawing room
Rowlend was not retired, nor did he like to draw. But he was getting too old to find his nail clippers, which had left him long in the tooth and nail. He said as much to Trudi, which surprised her, as he often said little. "It’s that Trey character again... he is driving me off the wall," he exclaimed!
"Don’t let him get to you," Trudi replied sympathetically. "Is his odour bothering you again? If he’s not careful, his career could be on Jeopardy! Imagine if nobody can stand standing near him. As I always say," she continued, "success is 1% inspiration, 99% antiperspirant."
When seen in a mirror, Trudi’s somewhat unusual response reflected the fact that, ostensibly, she had no idea what her husband really did. Murder was illegal after all. So Rowlend had spun a web of lies regarding not only Trey, but his entire career. He now had to tread carefully on this web, which was by no means world-wide. One misstep and all the beans would be spilled. Which would be the last thing he needed, Rowlend thought, as he eyed his newly stained rug. What a mess.
Later that evening, Rowlend met his comrade at arms length, Neil. Indeed, it’s a little-known fact that after venturing to the moon and back, Neil Armstrong joined ACCENTUATE, first in Business Development, Sales & Marketing and then, more recently, M&A. The timing had worked out perfectly, as ACCENTUATE needed a diversity hire and had no former astronauts among its ranks and files.
Rowlend approached the shrouded figure of Neil, who had his headphones on. Rowlend tapped the chip on his shoulder. "Neil!" he whispered violently, a few droplets of spittle raining down on Neil’s parade. Neil started, startled. "Hey there, mate," said Neil. "I was just listening to my favourite song. You know, the one that goes, I got soul, but I’m not soldier..." 
Rowlend didn’t have time for this nonsense. "Listen, Neil," Rowlend whispered urgently. "Trudi has been acting weird lately. She may be on to us. I’m getting worried."
"What did she say?"
"Something about Jeopardy!" Rowlend replied. "Inserted a little awkwardly into a sentence, too. Maybe it’s a message. You know, one of those association things like… Jeopardy!… Alex Trebek... Alexander... Alexander the Great... Great... Greater... Grater... Cheese Grater... Sharp Cheddar... Cheeseburger... Double Cheeseburger... Meat... Slaughterhouse... Blades... and, finally... Punishment. Neil, I don’t want to be punished for what I’ve done. For what we’ve done."
Neil pondered this new tidbit of information. While these were accusations he would take to his grave, he wasn’t sure whether he could trust Rowlend’s account of what Trudi had said. It was a classic he-said-she-said.
Just then, an image of the Earth, proud and beautiful, filled his eye’s mind of its own. Neil knew what he had to do. He donned his space suit, and then doffed it. Then he donned it again. He always knew the moment might eventually come. They needed to recover the documents before it was too late.†
A few days’ preparation later, they were lunched and launched. Rowlend looked around him. His jaw dropped, but it did not hit the floor. Nor could it, for there was no floor beneath them… just the unimaginable vastness of outer space. As someone with an outie, Rowlend always suspected this day would come, even if he had to wait light years for it. He hoped the galaxy was ready for Rowland T. Harrison III.
†The documents in question, in case the reader would like to know, contain definitive proof that the United States moon landing was indeed faked, as some conspiracy theorists contend. The documents were buried in the safest place known to man at that time. Neil and Rowlend were on their way to the moon to recover the documents and destroy them, once and for all.
40 hours remaining
Having very little experience in this domain, Trey needed a killer role model. He found a TV show called 24 in which the main character, Eddie Bauer, is quite a proficient assassin. Trey decided to watch the first season to gain some skills, hoping that this strategy would bring to bear fruit. He popped in the DVD into the DVD orifice and opened a bag full of Piss & Vinegar potato chips -- his favourite flavour. (Actually, the flavour name had recently been changed to Dead Sea Piss & Tangy Vinegar. Trey had heard the Dead Sea got its name from its high concentration of the stuff, which prevented marine life from growing there.)
24 hours later
Trey turned off the TV. Well, that show wasn't going to make the bucket list of Trey's top 24 TV shows, that was for sure. (Trey actually kept his list of favourite shows in a very secure location; as it turned out, he liked to keep his house of cards close to his chest.) With only 16 hours remaining in his mission, Trey felt he should probably get started. And yet, he had just finished a full day's work plus 24 hours of binge TV watching. He was tired with a lower case "t" and needed some Beauty Sleeping. In order to relax, he put the mission brief under his bed: out of sight, out of his mind. Trey knew there was a risk that he might sleep a little bit too long, as Friday had chewed up his alarm clock last Thursday. But if Trey knew one thing, it was this: you didn't go into the killing business if you couldn't handle a bit of risk.
In search of the incriminating documents
All was well aboard the Desiderata. It was a worthy vessel, equipped with everything you might want in a spaceship: pressurized cabins, powerful thrusters, and a hefty insurance policy to be paid out in the event of its fiery destruction. No, Rowlend thought to himself, this was certainly no run-of-the-windmill spaceship — nor, indeed, was it wind-powered. No surprises there given the substrate, or lack thereof, through which it gracefully careened.
Rowlend opened the snack packed by his loving family: heirloom tomatoes, zucchini sticks, and couple radians of stolen carrot cake (stolen because Trudi had intended to bake her cake and eat it too, but Rowlend had snatched it away upon his departure and shoved it into his suitcase without so much as a tonne of guilt. This made perfect sense at the time, as he couldn’t possibly afford an extra tonne of weight to be added to the spaceship’s already considerable load). Neil, on the other hand, only ate a pack of raisins d’être. They were his favourite snack: sweet, shrivelled, and succulent.
Rowlend and Neil arrived safely on the moon without getting hitched. They parked the Desiderata near the pointy part of the crescent, but not right at the point itself which would have posed a risk of puncturing the vessel. Rowlend’s first few steps on the moon were exhilarating. He now understood how Michael Jackson would have felt, had he ever been on the moon. "This is wonderful!" exclaimed Rowlend. "I feel so light, so free, as if all my worries were left on Earth. There is nobody here, Neil! The moon is my Oyster card." He glanced over at his partner-in-crime, who was taking a step or two himself. "Now now there, Neil, mind the gap between those two craters. Wouldn’t want you falling. Oh, Neil, I’m so glad you brought me here. I feel wonderful! I feel like… like all these atoms joined forces in this totally improbable way to form me, Rowlend, just so I could enjoy this one moment of lunar bliss." Some would say Rowlend had entered the territory known as rambling. He continued: "Oh, Neil! Allow me to compose a sonnet, Neil, to commemorate this moment—"
At this moment, though, something other than a sonnet reading transpired. Neil gave Rowlend a significant look and tapped his spacesuit. They hadn’t turned on the radios yet. Neil hoped Rowlend hadn’t said anything of import.
Then, something else happened: Rowlend’s cell phone rang. Rowlend wasn’t sure whether he would get reception up here, especially at the tip of the moon’s crescent. But, there was reception and, unbeknownst to Rowlend, this was to be the most important phone call he would ever receive. At the other end of the line was none other than the Vice President of the United States of America. In other words, Rowlend was about to open communication with someone who, if the actual President were to unexpectedly perish despite being in quite good health, would become the most powerful super-monkey on a little rock somewhere inside an unimaginably — perhaps infinitely — vast Universe full of very, very interesting things.
2 hours and 45 minutes remaining
Trey awoke after an extended repose. He checked his clock, and was not pleased to see he had slept for over 13 hours. He quickly showered and shaved using, respectively, a loofah and razor he had received upon being showered with gifts at his next birthday -- or so he had thought of it before it happened. Once he looked respectable, a bespectacled Trey jumped into the driver's seat of his vehicle and sped off towards the nearest diner. After all, he wasn't going to accomplish anything on an empty stomach. Whether or not he would accomplish anything on a full stomach remained to be seen, but history was not on his side.
With only a few hours left in his vital mission, the last thing Trey needed was a traffic jam. The cars were lined up on 9th Ave front bumper to back bumper, and in some cases, back bumper to front bumper. Trey was no expert in estimating distances, but he guessed the line of cars was at least 100 car lengths long. He leaned on the horn like a wizened sycamore leans onto the unsuspecting pocket of air next to it: tentatively. Trey wasn't sure if correlation had anything to do with it, or maybe it was causation -- WHICH IS NOT THE SAME THING -- but in any case the traffic immediately started inching forward. 20 minutes later, Trey pulled into the diner's parking lot and please seated himself. Within minutes, his server arrived.
"Are we all ready to order?" the server asked.
Trey was born ready to order. Nonetheless, he asked about the specials.
The server obliged: "On special today we have a consommé. The marriage of flavours creates a wonderful effect. We also have onion rings on special for $2 a ring."
Erring on the side of caution (the consommé was in fact excellent), Trey ordered the club sandwich. It was the bees' niece. But he now had very little time left to carry out his mission. For all intensive purposes, such as carrying out an assassination on short notice, Trey was decidedly incompetent. Or so it seemed to literally everyone including the author and, presumably, the reader.
An earlier part of this text contains a factual error, which is highly problematic given that the disappearing ink with which it was written is set to disappear only after lunch on a very distant midsummer day. In particular, the author indulged in a hyperbolic tangent involving Rowlend and the most important phone call ever. The importance of this call was, frankly, exaggerated.
The phone call
"Hello?" Rowlend answered tentatively.
"Hello, am I speaking to Rich Delaney? I would like to discuss our squid quo pro arrangement over a seafood dinner at your earliest convenience." said the Vice President.
"To your favourite tune of Two Million Dollars," added the VP with the subtlety of a slightly below-average intellect, which was no coincidence.
"I’m sorry," said Rowlend, "I'm all for Rich getting richer, and a wide range of other phenomena as well, in fact. But this is Rowland T. Harrison III. I think you have the wrong number."
"Oh, is that so?" mused the Vice President. "Alright then. Good day to you, Mr. Harrison III. Cheers!" The VP hung up unceremoniously.
As mentioned above, but not too far above, this call did not impact Rowlend's life in any way, shape, form, or function. Although they weren’t in this case, appearances can be deceiving.
Further exploration of the moonscape
Neil was responsible for navigation from their moon landing site to the location of the buried documents. It was with this responsibility weighing down his head, shoulders and camel's back that he asked Rowlend the following question: "Rowlend," he asked, "Shall we take my way, or the highway?"
Rowlend pondered this for about five moon-minutes, which are like regular minutes except that they typically consume much more taxpayer money in order to experience. It was a tough decision. "I'm not sure," Rowlend replied. "It's a dime of one, half a dozen of the other."
In the end, they took the highway. It took a toll on them, as they feared, but it ended up only being a few dollars. A fortenight later, they reached their destination. (Fortenight is Italian for forteen very loud nights. The noise was due, primarily, to boisterous soirées that the locals held on the moon's surface. Rowlend was glad he had purchased third party liability insurance, as he had accidentally deactivated the spacesuit of a partygoer at the third such event they encountered.)
At the destination
At the specified location they found an abandoned hut. Outside the hut was a flagpole. On the flagpole was a pair of American flag underpants. They were clean. Rowlend sighed in relief and entered the hut using the security code provided in Neil's instructions. His predecessors had certainly gone to a lot of trouble to hide their deception.
Within, they found 3 doors, each one with a live goat behind it. Rowlend was surprised. He figured that the probability of seeing such a thing here, on the moon and without water or an oxygen supply, could not be more than 1/3. Neil, a bumbling optimist, foolishly put the figure at 1/2. 
Aside from the doors, the room contained a large red button. Above the button was a sign with WARNING: RED BUTTON BELOW written in large block letters. Rowlend pressed the button. After about 15 minutes, a hologram appeared. It took the shape of a middle-aged government official wearing a fairly tattered space suit. The hologram spoke:
"Greetings from the year 1969. First, please excuse my Hagrid appearance, as I have been traveling under harsh conditions for several days. My name is Harry. Seldom have I been roused to deliver this message. Please, listen carefully."
Another 15 minutes passed. The voice continued:
"The entire moon landing was faked. We began filming in March 1969 in a Hollywood studio. We were held up briefly by the screenwriters guild but eventually were able to proceed. Filming took 7 days and 7 nights. Real moon rock was used to make the scene look more realistic.
This information is to be safeguarded at all costs. By the way, please watch out for agent Triple-O Seven. Goodbye."
To say that Rowlend's reaction was understated would not be an understatement because, alas, it would be completely false. Rowlend was shocked to his core. He couldn't believe it. The moon landing was faked! This was the greatest discovery since Sir Isaac Newton realized the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Neil Armstrong, on the other hand, was unfazed. As the first man on the moon, he was already on the privy when he learned of this information.
As a few more minutes passed, a realization slowly dawned on Rowlend: why the mention of Triple-O Seven? Of all people, Trey? How was he mixed up in this? Rowlend became so agitated that he needed to hit something. While three of the hut's four walls were occupied by doors and, within, goats, the fourth wall was unprotected. Rowlend smashed it with all his might. "HELLO READERS," Rowlend screamed insanely, "I KNOW YOU'RE OUT THERE." The fourth wall crumbled and crumbs of it lay at Rowlend's feet. Alas, episodes like this are part and parcel of going to hell in a handbasket. Off they went.
A New Hope
Jess was tall, slight of hand and frame, and slightly pale. She was an aspiring magician but prestidigitation was not her strong suit; on the other hand, she had heartiness in spades. Jess could count on one hand the number of digits of the number of hands she had. That is, irrespectively, two hands, thus one digit, "2" -- easily counted on one hand with four digits to spare. Yesterday she had handed in her resignation to the Society of Magicians and subsequently joined the Society of Charlatan Magicians (SCaM). She did so because the Magicians were not real magicians, whereas the Charlatans were real charlatans. The Charlatans were led by famous charlatan magician Charles A. Tan, who was certainly not all three of the following things: eponymous, autonomous, and dead. By way of explanation, Charles lost his autonomy when his domineering mother moved back into town the previous summer.
At the first SCaM meeting, Jess felt like a nobody. Upon arriving through the door, out of fear of being late, she asked Charles, "What time is it?" Charles didn't even give her the time of day! But, as time passed, Jess felt more at home. The Charlatans were certainly an interesting group. Many were ex-patriots who were prosecuted in their home countries and came to New Zealand to seek a peaceful life. Some were even human although, of course, about 87% of them were sheep: New Zealand did have proportional representation, after all. Of those in the non-human and non-sheep category, most were fruit, with a particular abundance of kiwis.
During the meeting, Charles explained an elementary magic trick, the bait and switch. In this trick, he would display an arrangement of cups, one of which contained a ball. While shuffling the cups, Charles would convince the client to sign a contract engaging his services. When the signing was completed he would flip up all the cups, pour himself a helping of champagne in each one, and forever disappear from the life of the client. The ball, of course, never existed. Jess was impressed.
The meeting concluded with desserts including a sumptuous lime pie (kiwi pie being forbidden for obvious reasons). The key to the lime pie, said Cassandra (the pie's progenitor), was not to overcook it. Cassandra also warned Jess to save a piece for Charles. Otherwise, she cautioned, he would speak his piece on sharing, caring, and arithmetic. Jess eagerly abided; during her childhood she had heard more than enough about the 3 R's.
Then, suddenly, she had a premonition: within 3 business days, she would be notified that the moon vault had been opened! Jess dropped her pie and bolted out the door. It was time.
It started off as just another Friday at the office for Sal, a 3rd generation talent scout at Smith, Smith & Lloyd-Smith Insurance Brokers Limited. Causal Fridays (also known as CFs; cf. casual Fridays) were an old tradition at the firm and Sal's favourite days at work. For example, it was Friday because yesterday was Thursday. And perhaps even because tomorrow would be Saturday. Correlation was not the same as causation because he had taken a statistics course. He sipped his coffee because it was delicious. And Sal knew it must be delicious for a reason. Everything just made sense! He only wished he didn't have to wear this ridiculous suit and tie every day. But, other than that, all was well.
That is, all was well until his moon alarm clock rang. This had happened before, sure. But never on a Causal Friday. Sal frantically dug through his desk drawers and recovered his false alarm. He regarded it, but it was silent. He regarded it earnestly. Still nothing. Then it hit him like a shitload of bricks. Could this be a non-false alarm? Could the moon alarm's ringing really be caused by the moon vault's opening? The implications shocked Sal to the core of his apple, seeds and all. He did not think this day would ever come, for the evidence of the fabrication of the moon landing had been well-hidden on the dark side of the moon in a remote hut guarded by the most perplexing probability puzzle known to humanity. But Sal was trained for this eventuality. He knew what he had to do. He removed his resignation letter from an unsealed envelope and placed it in a sealed envelope, but not after sealing it. He placed the envelope on his desk. And then he strolled out of there like a badass metaphor.
17 minutes remaining
Trey pulled up in the parking lot of Stingray Dental and was poised to carry out this foul deed. The timing could not have been worse, as his nasal drip had just started acting up again. He really looked forward to life post–nasal drip, should that day ever come. He stepped out of his car and slammed the door shut. Trey was not one to come between a car's door and its chassis, so the experience was relatively painless.
He approached the building. Near the entrance was a placard that read, "Funding for this building was generously provided by anonymous donor Stewart D. Baker. At the time of construction, this was both the tallest and newest building in a 100-mile radius." As always, Trey was disgusted by the use of the imperial measurement system, but otherwise found the information quite interesting. He pushed the door. It did not open. He pulled the door. It did not open. He simultaneously pushed and pulled the door. It did not open. The door was locked.
Trey knew that assassination was a tricky business, but was not prepared for the number of obstacles he would face. "This is too much for me," Trey said to himself. "I'm not young anymore... I’m pushing 30, 40 and 50." He said this not because he had a time machine, but because he didn't understand the expression.
"Any buddy in there?!" Trey yelled towards some open windows a few storeys above ground. Trey was so panicked that he could not remember where he was. As a result, he wasn't sure if the windows in question were on the 3rd floor—by European convention—or the 4th floor—by North American convention. But he did remember his quantum mechanics: the windows were simultaneously on the 3rd and 4th floors until the location issue could be resolved.
Just then, someone leaned out of a lower window and dangled a long wooden stick in front of Trey's eyes. He looked up. Of all people in this enormous building, what were the chances? The dangling pointer belonged to none other than his target, Saccharine Zento herself. "Hello, Trey," she purred. "I've been expecting you."
Trey was not expecting her to be expecting him, a fact that Zento was expecting despite not being pregnant. He did not know what his next move should be. But, then, out of the corner of his eye he saw an American flag. That's right, he was a basket case in the American breadbasket! That settled it. Alas, a measurement had been made. The building collapsed. 
"So," began Rowlend, "um, what exactly is a handbasket? It seems worth knowing if we’re going to Hell in one." Neil, however, was not paying Rowlend any attention. Being now only a few kilometres away, they were already able to pick up Hell’s local radio station, and Neil was listening to a ball game between the home team, Bats out of Hell, and the visitors, Homerun’s Odyssey. With such a ridiculous names, Neil was surprised anyone would go to bat for these teams, let alone the players.
After a few more minutes time-lapsed, Rowlend could start to see Hell through the handbasket’s large window (namely, the non-existent upper part). With such an eminent domain name, Rowlend assumed the place had many e-visitors, but that real actual tourists were more rare. And no wonder! It was a hell of a trip, and while the handbasket only had one class, Rowlend didn’t exactly think of it as first class. Exhausted, he turned around and took another look behind them. Having not been an astronaut in his previous life, unlike Neil, who, very much like Neil, had been an astronaut, Rowlend still marvelled at the vastness of outer space. The universe certainly contains more atoms than you can shake a stick at.
The handbasket slowed to a halt, and then slowed further. Rowlend disembarked, and Neil alighted. Fortunately, neither of them ignited, despite their fears to the contrary (i.e. them igniting). Instead, they were directed through a series of walkways plastered with large advertisements for a foreign bank, with unhelpful messages such as Hell is the underworld’s second largest exporter of pitchforks and Heaven is no tax haven and You can’t judge an open book by its cover and, perhaps most disturbingly, If a stick has two short ends, eat a carrot. Rowlend wished he was plastered but, alas, he hadn’t been to Paris in ages. 
Eventually they were directed to the customs and immigration area. "Welcome to Hell," the agent spoke. "Do you have any intentions to declare?" Rowlend’s mouth dried up like a well. Should he declare them or not? He remained silent, but his heart was pounding a mile a minute. Just then, Neil spoke up: "Yessir! We plan to get the hell out of here, find a man named Trey, and apprehend him before he murders Zento, all the while keeping the dreadful secret that the moon landing was faked."
Oh. No. The cat was out of the bag. The beans were spilled. Neil had spoken too fast, and there would be hell to pay.
If he were dead, Rowlend would be rolling in his grave right now.
5 minutes remaining
Trey pulled himself out of the rubble and then fished his bootstraps out of the rubble as well. He wondered what in the world just happened. He scanned the horizon for Zento, but she was nowhere to be found. How did she know he was coming, Trey wondered? And, how would he carry out the assassination with so little time left? Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the situation, Trey felt, was that he hadn't even used up his operational budget or daily meal stipend. He has failed to live up to his personal motto, Carpe per diem. 
Then, suddenly, a flicker of motion caught his eye. He turned and spotted Zento in the distance. Slowly but surely, Trey approached.
When he heard the news, the single customs agent did a double take. (Whether the agent is single in the sense of being unattached, or in the sense of not being a double-agent, is left as an exercise to the reader.) Once he had appropriated both Rowlend's and Neil's passports, he escorted them to the secondary checkpoint area. "I'll have to investigate you separately," the agent informed them.
"That's preposterous," Neil objected. "Anything you can say in front of him you can say in front of me!"
Despite his calm composure, Rowlend was quaking inside. He had been in trouble with the authorities before, and it had taken him one year and as many lawsuits to clear his name. How had Neil let this slip, he wondered? His comrade had a heart of gold but a brain of... platinum? Not neurons, to be sure.
Rowlend was led into an interrogation room. The officer followed him in and shut the door. "We will commence the investigation with lunch," the officer stated. The meal, distinctly a bruncheon by Rowlend's watch, commenced with a course of spit-roasted Spitfire. While Rowlend was not a fan of eating airplane components, he did appreciate that it wasn't overcooked. Better done than well-done, he thought to himself.
"I think I speak for myself when I say," the officer mumbled through a mouthful of bread and butter, "Investigations like this are my bread and butter." Aside from this worrying comment, the two were silent. Overall, Rowlend rated the experience as the worst meal of his life. The proof was in the pudding, which, like the main course, tasted like it was mostly made of scrap metal and had been sitting around rusting for several decades.
"Now, let's get down to business," the officer said, wiping crumbs from his face. He poured two tumblers of a mysterious emerald-green liquid. Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder, and he needed Rowlend to loosen up.
Meanwhile, Neil's investigation had taken a different turn for the worse. Upon being served omelette, Neil had gone into a tailspin (coincidentally, the same one that felled Rowlend's Spitfire).
"It's quite a predicament," Neil observed. "What came first, the chicken or the omelette? On the one hand, the chicken produces the egg, which produces the omelette. But how could the chicken exist without the omelette?! Indeed, the omelette is needed to provide energy to its eater; the energy is consumed to browse social media, which is used to stimulate the growth of Silicon Valley tech companies, which in turn brings fortunes to their principals, stimulating the creation of their philanthropic organizations that support sustainable farming and ultimately enable the birth of the chicken. His head spun. Landing on the moon — what good had that done? He had missed his calling as a philosopher."
The investigating officer declined to comment.
1 minute remaining
Trey approached Zento with overdue care per Zento's beckon and call. "Trey," Zento shrieked, "We meet at least." At least she could have gotten her opening right, Trey thought. Without further adieu, Trey pointed his weapon and Zento and asked, "Any famous last words?"
Zento looked at Trey and spoke calmly: "Trey, you are a lost soul. Do not carry out this foul deed, for that is not who you are. Be true to yourself. Do not thrust upon yourself this..." and, here, she paused briefly. Then, she continued, "This... competence."
"I'm worried about returning home without having assassinated you. Do you think it'll all come out in the wash?" Trey asked.
"It's a wash," she responded. In that moment, Trey felt, Zento's gleaming face was to her countenance as his visage was to his physiognomy. An incredible calm and clarity descended upon him. Astounded, he turned around and headed home. He didn't know how it would all turn out, but he knew one thing for sure: he had a lot of laundry to do.
Trey returned a hero, for unclear reasons. He decided to throw in a lot of towels with an upcoming up and coming advocacy group called The Baby and the Bathwater. The group's mission is best described as, "None of the above".
After suffering several months of meaningless paperwork, unclear communication, and arbitrary abuses of power in the customs and immigration area, Neil and Rowlend realized that they weren't stuck at the entrance to Hell at all; rather, this was Hell. They wished someone had thrown them in the loop about this earlier.
Sal and Jess met at the emergency meeting point, sorted out the moon landing situation, got married, and lived happily ever after. Despite having no prior experience with horses, husbandry suited Sal well. He wasn't even sure he understood the connection, given that Jess was decidedly human.
Friday enjoyed standard poodle activities, like burying bones and frolicking in the sun.
_____ _ _ _____ _____ _ _ ____ |_ _| | | | ____| | ____| \ | | _ \ | | | |_| | _| | _| | \| | | | | | | | _ | |___ | |___| |\ | |_| | |_| |_| |_|_____| |_____|_| \_|____/
PS... Bob's your uncle!