Chapter 1: A Plain Brown, Bloodstained Wrapper
It arrived without a return address.
But Dakota knew where it came from. His old friend, Professor Goudy from the Amsterdam School of Metallurgy and Menu Planning, was always sending him scientific
newsletters that he might find interesting. Dak had received it that morning, but hadn't looked at it until now, meditating in his Japanese Garden. A giant silver koi with a big orange spot splashed him, and when he went to wipe the water off his clear bulletproof Lexan briefcase, he saw the envelope and opened it without taking his usual "possible-letter-bomb" precautions.
No explosion. The most explosive thing the professor ever
sent was a note about his kids: how tall his youngest, Nigel, was (in centimeters), what percent of his middle son, Trevor, was made up of titanium, or the best thing to serve with Pork. Nice little personal touches like that. But this time there was no note, just what appeared to be a scientific newsletter with a smear of blood the precise shade of AB negative across the page, ending at a box containing what looked to him like scientific gobble-de-gook.
He was sorry there'd been no note. He always found the Professor's remarks charming and genuinely wanted to know this month's side dish suggestion. But nothing.
He folded the newsletter and put it back in the thin brown paper wrapper not unlike the ones that hid the material arriving in the mail that Dak didn't want his neighbors to know he read. The truth was that these publications were artistic, He didn't get those magazines for the women, he
got them to study the typography. Well, for the most part.
He left the garden and put the envelope in his briefcase which reflected the sun into the face of a passing motorist, causing a minor traffic accident.
Dak could tell from the angle of the sun that it was 12:45, almost time for him to present the ad he'd designed for Lux Liquid. Dakota Jackson was that rare breed: successful graphic designer by day-Internationally known secret
agent evenings, weekends, and most holidays. His specialties were corporate identities and thwarting insane dictators hell bent on ruling the world.
Once again his presentation was flawless, the client loved his surreal yet commercial design of a woman's hands on a crab's body.
They adored the tag line: You may be crabby, but that doesn't mean your hands should be. They were bowled
over by his creative use of Optima (Dak himself was the personification of Optima). Yes, It was another winning presentation. Usually after such a success he'd call his partner Arial. She'd put on cruelty-free make-up, they'd go out and have an exotic vegetarian dinner, do a little dancing in non-leather shoes at some club decorated with neon palm fronds. Then they'd go to her place for a little wrestling match. But not today, Dak was preoccupied by something. He didn't know what
it was, but he knew that something wasn't square.
He pulled out his cellular phone and called the office. No answer. No Answer? In the middle of the day? All those billable hours shot to hell?
He raced back to the office, well as fast as his silver 1976 AMC Pacer could race, which was something like 55 on flat stretches of road (he didn't have to worry about exceeding the speed limit) or 65 downhill. Everyone laughed when he
first bought the car, but now it was widely regarded as a classic ahead of it's time, the car that inspired all the cars of the 1990's. Fewer were made than any other American production car after WWII, and people were constantly trying to trade him their new Porsches, Mercedes, Lexises and Infinities but he just grinned and shook his head. He wasn't happy when the car was featured in Wayne's World because teenagers crowded around the car and actually touched it, but what can you do?
His office, once a Texaco station with an ocean view, was now a glowing edifice of curved glass block. All that remained of the original was a gas pump turned into a fountain, and the cash register, both prominently placed in the lobby. Art and money. Not subtle, but then, hey, people have a tendency to overlook subtlety.
Other than the burbling gas pump, the place was deserted. He'd expecting to see the usual mob of faceless corporate
executives lined up begging him to give them a corporate identity. Ever since he came up with the idea to have Calvin Kline's clothing models actually wear clothes he was much in demand.
But his waiting room was empty. The whole office seemed deserted. No receptionist. No Arial at her PC with the LCD Pivot Monitor (there was nothing like a sexy woman with a sexy monitor). No one.
Even stranger-the place was a mess. Well, it was always a
mess, but it didn't usually have bullet holes in the wall.
"We'll never be able to match this paint" he thought to himself, "Maybe we can make more holes and call them 3-d polka dots."
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a "While you were out" Post-It-Note stuck to his own Pivot. The note was printed in 12 point Univers Condensed, a good choice for those times when you have to get a lot of exposition into a
small amount of space. It said:
- If you ever want to see Arial, the cleaning lady, your hard disk or the rain forest again, keep away from the McGuffin Stone.
Dak thought that the ransom note would have looked more dramatic set in a typeface called Mystery like this:
Then he dismissed the notion and blinked, quizzically. He'd never even been near the thing. The McGuffin Stone was so called because it was discovered by Dom McGuffin while he was excavating the foundation for a Mini Mall under construction in Casual, California. How it got there is still a mystery, though the most plausible theory is that it was accidentally transported in the early 1920's when Lester P. Gordon was trying to establish the Egyptian Earth Worm
company in southern California, a dry hot climate not unlike that of Egypt.
The McGuffin was an ancient stone tablet that was the key to deciphering Atlantian (from Atlantis, not Atlanta) hieroglyphics. It had the same passage of text written in hieroglyphics, then HTML codes. All you had to do was figure out what the HTML codes meant, and you could tell what the ancient secret was. (Little known fact: HTML codes are really 5600 years old. For thousands of years
they were thought to be meaningless nonsense until the PC was invented and they suddenly made sense--at least to those who understood what they were used for as you will if this chapter ever ends.
Unfortunately, the stone disappeared shortly after it was discovered, so no one had a chance to decipher it. All that remained were blurring photograph taken by Dom's wife, Korinna, using a circa 1963 Kodak Instamatic camera. Unfortunately, Korinna had cleaned the lens with Vaseline
("look how it sparkles" she was heard to proclaim) so the stone was virtually impossible to read. Since then, rumor had run rampant about what it really said. Some thought it held the most precious secret of Atlantis that now might be used for turning web sites into gold. Others thought it held an ancient secret recipe for making 1 calorie chocolate fudge brownies. Either way, the answer meant money, and an inescapable shift in the world's basic power structure.
As Dak thought about all this he realized he was chewing on his nails, something both his manicurist and psychiatrist had warned him against.
Then he heard a muffled sound, coming from the darkroom downstairs. Instantly his senses were heightened, as he approached the stairs, slinking down them like a cat, slowly, quietly, surely.
When he reached the bottom he froze with indecision, like a deer in the headlights. There was a padlock on the door, yet
he knew he'd heard a sound from inside. One of the things you learn about a darkroom is that you never enter unless the Enter light is on, otherwise you might ruin the film inside. The Enter light was not on, yet he heard moaning from inside, and a faint scratching on the door. So what did he do? Open the door and risk ruining photographic film or paper, or wait quietly outside for the light to go on and possibly allow someone to suffocate inside. Hmm, film,
paper, suffocation. Well, that photographic stuff is expensive.
Now he heard what sounded like "Elp." His lightning brain realized that was either someone close to suffocation trying to say "Help," or someone in a darkroom asking for ELP, or Extra Light Paper. In a moment of quiet strength, he decided to throw caution to the wind and save a human life even if it meant the death of a negative.
"Oh, Geez," he thought in that semi-Canadian way of his, "I'm going to have to break the door down. Well, as long as a painter's coming to fix the upstairs..." In the blink of an eye he was in his Tai Kow pose, the secret martial art unheard of outside a small circle of secret agents until this very moment.
He was ready in body, mind and spirit to kick with the sacred "Hamster leaps lotus leaf" move until he realized
that he was wearing new shoes that would probably get scuffed. This being a Friday, he'd have to wait until Monday to have them repaired. Another dilemma.
Decision. Kick. Crash. Acrid Fumes. Dim light. glowing red eyes, like a Siberian Tiger.
(He knew, not from reading Calvin & Hobbes, but because
he'd been in Siberia for the book before this one: Corel Drama: The Untold Story.)
Lunging towards him. Dak deftly employed the Tai Kow move called "Beaver sliding on ice flow," by letting his shoulder move with the impact, causing the attacker to bolt past him and land, face down, at the foot of the stairs.
Dak called upon the always-useful "snuff out burning wood rat" move and stood above his attacker, his unscuffed
loafers pinning the assailant to the ground. It was then that the tiger with the glowing eyes turned into his darkroom technician and friend, Gil Sands.
He took the weight off his foot and let Gil roll over and breathe. "Oh, it's you, Jackas-son. What the hell you doing?"
"That's a nice way to thank someone for saving your life..." Dak sighed.
"Oh, well, thanks," Gil gasped. "Couldn't ya have knocked first?"
Gil had heard it all, the gunshots, the screams, Arial yelling something about it being a "bad hair day." Gil had tried to call for help from inside the darkroom, but the phone lines had been cut. He'd heard the lock being put on the door, heard them discuss their evil plans, then went back to work developing film, which, incidentally, was all ruined.
"Sorry about the film," Dak mumbled.
"Don't you want to hear about their cunning plan?" Gil asked.
Gil recounted the tale, "See, there's this Neo Nutzi guy, names Duke Reeves, running for president, right?...
He's trying to get hold of the McGuffin thing because it's rumored to make gold, OK? He's gonna use the rock to put the country back on the gold standard, right after declaring his dictatorship, got it?. His platform: Sure, I'm going to
eliminate all personal freedom, but so what, I'm going to lower taxes!"
"That old line..." Dak mumbled.
"Wait, there's more," Gil continued, feeling a bump swelling on the top of his head, "This presidential candidate isn't the only Nutzi looking for the slab. A group of Nutzi weight-loss doctors believe that the secret is about gold, but not gold itself. They think it's the Pharaoh's ancient secret recipe for
making 1 calorie chocolate fudge brownies, guaranteed to make them millions and addict the world to their low-cal endorphins.
"The swine!" Dak hissed, trying to put the whole awful thing into perspective. "I've got to find the McGuffin before these awful, hateful, spiteful, smelly Nutzis do!"
Dak dashed upstairs and made some calls on his cellular phone. Professor Goudy didn't answer, but that meant
nothing as they are notoriously bad about turning on their answering machines in Amsterdam. This always annoyed Dak.
He looked through his briefcase and suddenly the fog lifted-it all became clear. Maybe he'd been sniffing too much Lux Liquid, maybe it was just his time of the month, whatever it was, he now felt like a complete and total idiot.
The newsletter the professor had sent him was gone. Or was it his April Issue of Nurses & Ammo
. No, that arrived last week. It was the newsletter. Or, more accurately, it was the newsletter.
Click. Click. Click. The tumblers of his brain fell into place and his mouth dropped open. "Geez." He thought. He had to reconstruct that newsletter. But how? His hard disk had been stolen, and all Arial had on her computer was an HTML editor, which Dak had never bothered to learn.
There was only one thing to do. Call his exotic but trusted
assistant : Yur Naim Heer. Yur can learn the basics of HTML and then help Dak solve the mystery.
And that's where you, the reader, come into the story. You're going to have to help Dak decode the McGuffin stone using your knowledge of HTML. Sounds easy? Ha!
Read Chapter2: Cunning Plans