The Last Abbott

by Jon Wesick







The morning bell woke Brother Wigner before dawn. Expecting a typical day of work in the Fermi tunnels, he rolled off his pallet and struggled into his robe.  Wigner dipped his hands into the cold water in the washbasin and splashed his face. He threw on his cloak and exited his cell to attend morning service.


Once outside, Wigner pulled the scratchy wool garment tight around his shoulders to protect himself from the cold desert wind. The dark shapes of the other monks, all moving silently toward the ceremony hall, joined him in the cloister.  Wigner stopped at the ceremony hall’s entrance to remove his sandals. He stepped through the doorway and bowed reverently toward the altar before hurrying to his place.


The ceremony hall was dark except for tiny islands of brightness surrounding dozens of candles. Light from the yellow flames glinted off the gold-plated figure of a man on the altar. The figure wore a wide-brimmed hat. Once the community had assembled, a bell sounded, softly and slowly at first, then gaining volume and tempo until it reached a crescendo. The celebrant solemnly sang the title of the scripture, “Safeguarding the Holy Relics.”


The community began to chant,


“Long ago Oppenheimer marveled at

Ra’s chariot in New Mexico’s sky.

Bewitched by its glow the prophet lured it

to earth at Trinity, where he stole one

of its shining wheels then scattered pieces

to the seven continents and five oceans.


Due to its missing wheel Ra’s chariot

swayed from its path and laid waste to cities.


We have guarded some of the wheel’s fragments

for eighteen hundred twelve generations.

One day Fricke’s Blood will run clear, man will

rebuild the wheel and heal the Sun God’s wound.

Until then we must keep the fragments safe

in the tunnels under Yucca Mountain.”


Abbot Szilard took the lectern after the service. Years of contact with the relics had left his skin red and burned with the Stigmata of Roentgen. The abbot wore a white surplice over his thin frame. A gold ecclesiastical stole, decorated with magenta three-spoked Wheels of Ra, hung from his neck.


“Brothers,” he began, “Ra has finally called our friend and colleague Brother Yukawa home. As you know, Brother Yukawa struggled for months with the sickness in his lungs and liver. The Infirmarian informed me that in his final moments, Brother Yukawa reconciled himself with Ra’s love and died peacefully. After breakfast Brothers Chadwick, Wigner, and Rabi will entomb Yukawa’s remains. Let no one speak ill of the departed. The rest of us will continue transferring casks from the flooded portion of the Fermi tunnels.”


 Wigner flushed with pride. Usually only senior monks attended a burial. This was quite an honor for a junior monk.


The morning meal consisted of coarse bread, hot porridge, and a few slices of fried yucca root. Brother Wigner tried to concentrate on his food but kept getting distracted by thoughts of how to dress for the funeral. The order had strict rules about not wearing robes underground, but work clothes didn’t seem dignified enough for the occasion. He decided on a compromise. After breakfast he returned to his cell, changed into his overalls and denim jacket, and hung a tallith around his neck.


Brother Wigner rushed outside, just as Ra’s chariot rose over Skull Mountain to cast shadows behind the buildings in Jackass Flats. He took the path to the concrete blockhouse at the north portal. Brother Wigner entered and followed the torch-lined passageway until he came to a large chamber where pack animals patiently walked a circular track, turning the huge creaking wooden geared wheels that powered the fans used for ventilation. Brother Wigner took a lamp and waited. Soon two monks wheeled in a plain wood coffin on top of a dolly.


Brothers Chadwick and Rabi made an unlikely pair. Chadwick’s solid muscular body, rugged features, and bristly burnt almond hair worn in a flattop radiated strength, competence, and command. In contrast Rabi’s doughy spherical form embodied years of indolence and self-indulgence, a difficult thing to manage in a monastery.


Chadwick spied Wigner’s tallith and barked, “What are you doing with that? Take it off!”


Brother Wigner gave a sheepish grin, removed the garment, and tucked it away.


Chadwick strode down the gently sloping passage that led to the storage tunnels. Rabi and Wigner followed, struggling to maneuver the dolly’s wheels over the rotted railroad ties between the corroded steel tracks.


“Why aren’t we burying Brother Yukawa in the Teller tunnels with the other departed monks?” asked Wigner


“Quiet, Brother,” said Chadwick. “You’re about to commit a sin. Didn’t the abbot say not to speak ill of Brother Yukawa?”


They continued their descent in silence until they reached the intersection of the Sakharov tunnels. Wigner and Rabi parked the dolly close to one of the rock walls.


“No sense hurrying,” said Chadwick. “The casks will still be there, tomorrow. Let’s spend the day finding a suitable spot for Brother Yukawa. We’ll split up and search for an alcove far from the main shaft, so no one will have to smell the decay. Meet back here, when we hear the lunch bell.”  Chadwick took a lamp and wandered off.


“No hurry, indeed! He’d rather spend the day praying to his whiskey flask than working with the relics. He didn’t even offer us a sip to fight the chill,” said Brother Rabi, once Chadwick was out of earshot.


“You shouldn’t malign our elders,” replied Wigner.


“That’s not the worst of it.” Lamplight reflected from Rabi’s tiny circular eyes. “I heard Brother Yukawa ran off with a woman in the village years ago. She and him had a baby, a beautiful little girl. After she was a year old, her skin got real pale, and it bruised to the touch like a soft peach. She died not long after that. They say it was Ra’s wrath at Yukawa for breaking his vow of celibacy. He repented and returned to the order, but couldn’t live down the disgrace. That’s why we’re burying him here in Sakharov. Oh well, how about I take the corridor on the right and you take the one on the left?”


 Rabi departed, leaving Wigner alone. The effort of moving the dolly loaded with Yukawa’s coffin had kept Wigner warm, but now the chill began to sink in. Wigner had heard the relics had once kept the tunnels warm, but those days were long gone. Surrounded by a cocoon of golden light from his lamp, Wigner moved down the dark corridor. He walked on, unconcerned by fears of being buried alive by the thousand feet of rock over his head. Freedom from claustrophobia was a requirement for entering the order. Few monks ever entered the Sakharov tunnels, since no relics were stored here. In fact Wigner had never talked to anyone who had been here. Wigner felt grateful for the time alone, time for contemplation. He wondered how Brother Yukawa could have abandoned his vows. Hadn’t he realized what a rare and precious opportunity it is to handle the holy relics? Still, Yukawa had seen his error and returned. He deserved a decent burial.  Wigner formed a prayer that he could find someplace suitable for Yukawa’s remains. He began to recite the Magic Number Mantra, “2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, 126.” He said them over and over again, one number with each step as he moved deeper into the darkness.


Wigner’s throat felt dry. He paused by a pile of rocks for a drink of water to clear the taste of dust from his mouth. Funny, he felt a breeze on his cheek. It seemed to be coming from behind the pile.  Wigner turned up his lamp and examined the rocks more closely. Several were loose. He set down his lamp and began clearing away the boulders. The work went slowly, but Wigner was young and strong. He was content to take his time. Moving stones was no harder than the farm work he’d done as a boy. Eventually he cleared an opening and shined his lamp inside. What he saw made him forget Yukawa entirely.





Books, there were thousands of books stacked on gray metal shelves.  Wigner hurled himself into moving stones, until he cleared an opening wide enough to squeeze through. He wondered whether he should find Chadwick before he entered the chamber. The order’s rules required the presence of another monk, whenever there was danger of a cave in.  Wigner illuminated the chamber’s walls and ceiling with his lamp. They appeared solid enough, having been reinforced with mesh and rock bolts. Wigner did not want to spend hours searching for another monk when a discovery was this close. He decided to risk entering.


He pulled a massive volume from one of the shelves and opened it. Unlike any books he’d seen, its pages were made from thin metal sheets rather than vellum.  Wigner held the lamp closer to examine the writing. He rubbed his index finger over the characters embossed on the page. What knowledge could be so important that the ancients would go to so much trouble to preserve it?  Wigner wished he could read.


Wigner shelved the book and explored the chamber. There were about fifty shelves, all lined up in rows. A strange device lay on a table next to one of the rock walls. It was a kind of metal box with a dark green opaque glass window. A slim tablet with several buttons, each marked with a character, connected to the device.  Wigner wondered whether to touch it. He’d heard rumors of ancient treasures protected by booby traps. He held his breath and pressed one of the buttons. Nothing happened. He found a large red switch on the box’ side and flipped it. Again nothing.  Wigner noticed a black cord attached to the box. The cord ended in three copper tines corroded green by time. What could the cord be for? He picked up one of the shiny silver disks that lay on the table and examined it in the light of his lamp.


He heard the lunch bell’s faint sound.  Wigner exited the chamber, taking the disk and one of the books with him, and began retracing his steps back to the entrance. The other monks would need to know of his discovery.





Wigner had never attended a meeting of the Council of Elders before. The Elders asked him to describe how he found the books, then forgot to dismiss him after his testimony.  Wigner quietly took a chair in the back, hoping no one would ask him to leave, so he could hear the discussion about his find.


Brother Dalitz, the librarian, spoke after Wigner. “As far as I can tell, the texts contain the letters G, C, A, and T over and over again in numerous permutations.”


“What do you think it means?” asked Abbot Szilard.


“If I had to guess, I’d say it has some kind of religious significance. In an ancient language called Sanskrit, the letter A was a prefix indicating ‘not,’ as in not of this world but of the divine. Perhaps this is a treatise on how the Godhead and ordinary matter interpenetrate one another, but I just don’t know. Maybe the scholars at the university in Henderson could tell us more.”


“What of the ancient device and the silver disks?”


“I’ve heard of such things. The ancients left many behind. Yet no one knows their function or understands their purpose.”


“Well,” said Abbot Szilard, “we seem to have been given an opportunity, Brothers. What shall we do with it?”


“Go to Henderson and find out what it means,” Wigner piped, before he realized what he was saying.


The monks broke into chuckles until a reedy voice silenced them.


“An opportunity? Certainly.” Brother Faddeev, an aged rail-thin man who’d been silent until now, spoke. “It seems Ra has entrusted us with another set of relics to guard.” The wizened monk paused, absent-mindedly twirled a lock of his white hair, and stared blankly with opaque sightless eyes before continuing. “Clearly we must preserve these manuscripts. Yet I wonder whether humankind is ready for them. Perhaps we should leave them in the tunnels.”


“But what about the prophecy, Brother?” argued another monk, “Could this be time for Ra to reveal his wisdom?”


“Careful, Brother. Careful,” the ancient monk countered. “People are like children. I don’t have to remind you of story of the fall.”


The elders debated for hours. Finally the abbot reached a decision.


There has to have been a purpose for Wigner to find these books. I don’t know if it’s to fulfill the prophecy or not, but we can’t ignore the possibility.” He turned toward Wigner. “Brother Wigner, Ra has chosen you for a mission. You, Brother Chadwick, and Brother Rabi will take the disk and a rubbing from one of the books to Henderson. Once you arrive, find someone trustworthy, who can tell us what these books mean. The supply caravan arrives in two days. You can depart with them when they leave. Report back no later than six months from now, and guard the relics with your lives.”





They’d traveled for days, but it felt like weeks. The three monks trudged through miles of heat, creosote, Joshua trees, and yucca behind a train of wagons pulled by mules. The caravan traveled mostly in the relative coolness of early morning and late afternoon, leaving its members free to rest in the heat of midday.


Wigner took a sip of tepid water and passed the skin to Rabi. The fat monk waved it away with a pudgy hand and began complaining, “If I’d been first-born instead of second, I could be running the family vineyard instead of traipsing through this Ra-accursed desert. Meanwhile my elder brother Eric gets to sit on his fat ass eating and sipping wine, while he runs the family winery into the ground. But tradition says the eldest inherits, so father left me to make my own way. At least I get three square meals in the monastery. That’s a damn sight better than most.


“That’s why I joined the order. What about you, Brother Wigner?”


“My family has always been proud of my great granduncle, who served the order for forty-three years. I grew up hearing stories of his exploits and decided to join, when I turned seventeen. I pray that I can live up to his example.”


“How about you, Brother? Why did you join?” Rabi asked Chadwick.


Chadwick remained quiet and continued walking without even glancing at Rabi.


“C’mon Brother. You’ve been silent the whole trip. Tell us your tale. Loosening the tongue eases the heart’s burden.”


“Before I lost my fortune, I could have bought you a dozen vineyards with my pocket change and never noticed the loss.” Chadwick sighed and took several paces. “I wasn’t always rich. In fact, I came from a family of poor tenant farmers. I would have shared my parents’ fate, were it not for my fighting skill.


“I’d gotten into a scrap with another young man for some stupid reason. I forget why. Maybe he insulted me or stole my lunch. Anyway, I had more balls than brains back then. I let him connect with a few hooks, so I could get in close enough to grab his head and smash my elbow into his face. I hit him again and again, cutting his skin and breaking his nose. I kept pounding him until he went limp. I let him drop to the ground and stomped his kidney, just to make sure he wouldn’t get up anytime soon.


“The landowner witnessed my battle and asked me, ’Why fight for free, when you could be getting paid?’ He offered to sponsor me in the upcoming kickboxing tournament at the county fair and promised me a share of the proceeds if I won. I don’t remember much about the qualifying rounds, except that I won easily. I still recall the championship bout, though. Without the landowner’s advice, I would have surely lost by rushing in and tangling up with my opponent, who was short and stocky, obviously a wrestler. But I held back and punished him with kicks to the body, whenever he tried to close with me. Eventually I wore him down and broke three of his ribs. It was the first time my village, Reedley, won in fourteen years.


“After that my career soared. I fought match after match, each time winning a larger purse. My trademark was a lightning-fast roundhouse kick. I could break a man’s jaw with it before he could blink. I became rich and bought my parents the land they’d tilled all their lives. It seemed there was nothing I couldn’t do. I was a champion.


“Then I made a fatal mistake. After a bout in Port George, a servant delivered an invitation to a party his mistress was hosting that evening. I figured ‘Why not?’ and went by carriage to the address on Russian Hill. When I arrived the mansion was deserted except for her. Make no mistake, I’d been with plenty of women, but this one was different.


“Francine was in her early twenties, girlish but with the hips and breasts of a mature woman. A rich man’s daughter, she was used to getting what she wanted, and that night she wanted me. What ecstasy! I can still feel myself inside her warm well-muscled flesh. I’ll never forget how the olive skin on her back blushed pink when she climaxed.


“I began skipping practice to spend more time with her. I just couldn’t get enough. You know, it’s a status symbol for a rich girl to have an athlete as a lover, but she always returns to her own class to marry.


“Francine broke off her affair with me and announced her engagement to some spoiled dilettante who’d probably never worked a day in his life. But I would not give up. I believed my wealth and fame had earned me a place among the aristocracy. I believed she could still be mine. I sent letter after letter, each pleading to see her again, but she didn’t respond. I went insane with longing. I couldn’t sleep and canceled matches. Desperate to have her back, I spent half my fortune on a jeweled necklace with emeralds the size of almonds. I enclosed it as proof of my love with a letter begging to see her just one more time.


“She relented. Her servant delivered a note summoning me to the house, where we’d held our trysts. I bathed, had my beard trimmed, and dressed in my finest clothes. When I finally saw her that night, she was more beautiful than ever, her raven hair contrasting with pale blue eyes. She held the necklace. My heart raced with the maniacal rhythm of anticipation.


“Then she tossed the necklace to the ground, called it tasteless and gaudy. She suggested I exchange it at a brothel, where it might buy a woman who was closer to my station. I flew into a rage, hammering her with my fists to punish her insolence. When I finished, she lay still, a lifeless broken thing, her pale blue eyes open with a vacant stare. Horrified at what I’d done, I shook her in a vain hope to see her move of her own volition, but her limbs only flopped like a toy doll’s.


“More justice is available to the wealthy than the poor. Still, my crime was so horrible that I barely got away. I spent my fortune on bribes and lawyers’ fees. I was penniless but free. I learned my love is a vile evil thing that destroys everyone it touches. I entered the monastery to keep it locked away like the casks we tend in the tunnels.“


After Chadwick’s story Wigner felt he should utter some comforting words, but he could find none. The three monks walked on. The creaking of the wooden wagon wheels and the occasional braying of a mule were the only sounds.






By the time they’d traveled a week, the wagon train was within sight of Henderson. After sunset, the city’s cooking fires lit the horizon with an orange glow, but distances were deceiving in the desert. Henderson was still several hours walk away. Rather than arriving in the dead of night, the wagon leader chose to pitch camp, so his party could leave at dawn and arrive before noon. The merchants and mule drivers sat around the campfire until late at night, trading loud stories and swigs of whiskey.


Wigner preferred the desert’s stillness to the company of men. He set out his bedroll behind a hillock that shaded his eyes from the campfire’s glow. Distance muffled the revelers’ raucous voices.  Wigner softly sang vespers then lay down and gazed at the constellations in the night sky. To the east, a meteor drew a glowing streak in the sky.  Wigner hovered between sleep and wakefulness. He felt like he was looking down at the stars and that he could easily fall into the sky to be among them. He pulled the covers tight under his chin to protect himself from the chill desert wind. Wrapped in a blanket of stars, Wigner fell asleep.


A hand clamped over his mouth waking him.  Wigner struggled to get free, until he recognized Rabi’s whisper, “Quiet, Brother. We’ve got to get out of here.”


“What’s going on?”


“No time to explain. We’ve only got an hour’s lead, so we’ve got to leave now. Be sure to take the book and the disk.”


Wigner folded his bedroll and shouldered the pack containing the book and disk. The two monks stole into the predawn morning. Fortunately the full moon illuminated their path, so they didn’t stray into any spiny plants.


Rabi relaxed after a half hour and explained, “I knew there was something wrong with that demon Chadwick. He should have hung for what he did. Thank Ra we’ve escaped. If the abbot had known Chadwick was a murderer, he’d never have sent him with us. Don’t worry. Henderson’s a big city. We’ll be safe there. Chadwick will never find us.”


Wigner and Rabi arrived at the city wall by midmorning. Carriages laden with bags of grain and peasants carrying packs crowded the road leading to the main gate. Two soldiers, who stood holding pikes on either side of the entryway, paid no attention to the traffic entering the city.


“Right this way for a game of chance!” called one of the barkers lining the road. “Roll a pair of sevens and win a barrel of wine. Only costs a dime to play. How about you gentleman?”


The two monks continued by, ignoring the taunts. Past the gate myriad alleys split off from the main road. Having detected the scent of roasting meat, Rabi led Wigner down one of these.


“Might as well stop for a bite to eat. Keep our strength up for our encounter at the university.”


The two monks walked between gray cement walls past storefronts and butcher shops with carcasses of dead livestock hanging outside. The faint odor of sewage came from the gutter. The monks sighted a wooden figure above the entrance to the Golden Ram Tavern. Rabi led the way through the door into the darkened room.


The half dozen patrons stopped talking for a moment to scrutinize the newcomers before continuing their conversations. A sunburned man with short curly black hair wrapped a tattooed arm around Wigner and asked, “When’s the last time you got laid?”


“We’re celibate monks.”


“See that woman over there?” The drunk brought his face close to Wigner’s. The smell of fumes on the drunk’s breath overpowered his body odor. He pointed to a thin blonde slattern. “She’ll do whatever you want. Just tell her you’re a friend of Davy’s.” He turned, staggered out the door, and mumbled, “Queers.”


The encounter with the tattooed man didn’t divert Rabi from his rush to the bar. The bartender tossed a towel over his shoulder after drying a glass, smoothed his wet hands on his white apron, and asked, “Help you?”


“We’d like two orders of that delicious-smelling roast,” said Rabi.


“Sure. Grab a table. I’ll bring some right out.”


“And bring us each a beer.”


The monks sat at a corner table. When the bartender brought their meal, Rabi recited a short blessing. Then the monks began devouring piles of tender barbecued meat on warm crusty bread. Both guzzled cold beer from large tankards. Unused to alcohol, Wigner began feeling dizzy. He thought this must be paradise, until a large gray rat with a naked tail scurried across the floor.  Wigner paused a minute then cut another slice of meat with his steak knife and shoveled it into his mouth. He wasn’t about to let a little rodent stop him from enjoying his first decent meal after a week of dates and stale bread.


“Another round!” called Rabi. He took a few quarters from his coin purse to pay for the meal.


“Shouldn’t we conserve our funds? After all, the abbot gave us that money to pay for our mission,” asked Wigner.


“Nonsense, my boy! These expenses are part of our mission!”


Wigner would have argued further, but more cold beer seemed justified after a week in the parched desert. The dirty blonde woman, the drunk had pointed out, sat next to Rabi and asked, “You boys care to buy me a drink?”


“Another round!” cried Rabi.


“Hey, you’re Davy’s friend,” said Wigner.


Wigner didn’t remember much that happened after that, except that Rabi told him to “mind the fort,” while he took the prostitute upstairs.






It was dark when they left the tavern. Wigner and Rabi staggered down the alley.


“Hold on a minute,” said Rabi.


He undid his robe and began urinating on the wall. Feeling it would be impolite to let his companion go it alone, Wigner joined in.


“What do you think you’re doing?”


Both monks stopped their urine in midstream, fastened their robes, and turned with sheepish grins.


“We’re sorry, sir,” began Rabi. “We had a bit too much to drink and…”


“Shut up!” hissed a thin man, who’d gotten close enough for Wigner to see the cruel scar that ran from below his eye to the corner of his mouth. His companion, a stocky thug with a crew cut and a boxer’s nose, stood menacingly in the background.  Wigner reckoned the man’s forearms were as thick as Rabi’s legs.


The thin man moved closer, until his face was within inches of Rabi’s.


“I’m sick of you country trash treating our city like a sewer,” he said, “What do you think we ought to do with ‘em, Marty?”


“Make ‘em lick it up, Brian,” replied the brute.


“Sir,” Rabi pleaded, “we meant no offense…”


Brian reacted in a flash. He grabbed Rabi’s lapel with one hand and drew a knife with the other. He held the blade to Rabi’s Adam’s apple and forced the monk against the wall.


“What was that?”


 Rabi swallowed and croaked, “Nothing.”


“Give us your money,” ordered Brian.


 Rabi handed over the coin purse. By now Marty had moved close enough to threaten Wigner with his knife too.


“Open the bag,” he said.


“Please, you can’t take that,” begged Wigner fearful of losing the relics inside.


 Wigner saw a blur of movement and felt a searing pain on the side of his head. He bent over, still clutching his bag, and pressed his hand to where his ear used to be. Warm blood ran between his fingers and dripped down his chin.


“Don’t tell me what I can do!” screamed Marty.


“All right,” ordered Brian, “This way.”


He pointed into the darkness and shoved Rabi, who stumbled and began blubbering, “Please. Please. Keep the money. We won’t tell anyone.”


Wigner began to pray, “Ra, I’m sorry if I haven’t obeyed your will…”


“Let them go!” called a familiar voice.


Even through the pain Wigner recognized Chadwick’s husky growl. Light from the rising moon illuminated the former kick boxer and his companion, a muscular black man with a shaved head.


“Mind your own business, unless you want to get stuck too,” hissed Brian.


“Sounds pretty scary. Doesn’t it, Ray?” said Chadwick to his friend, “I’m shaking in my shoes.”


“Yeah, look at ‘em. My grandma could take that chimp with the broken nose,” Chadwick’s friend chuckled. He gritted his teeth. Knuckles popped, as he clenched and unclenched his huge fists. Each time his enormous biceps, left bare by his leather vest, swelled. Ray motioned with his finger and taunted, “Here, monkey, monkey.”


“Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back to kill you later.” Marty released Wigner.


Wigner hoped he wouldn’t vomit. His ear throbbed and he heard buzzing. Feeling dizzy he collapsed against the wall, but kept his eyes open to watch the fight.


Marty circled Ray and feinted with jabs and slashes of his knife.


“You want some of this? Huh? You want a little of this, big man?”


Watchful and seemingly calm, Ray turned with his opponent. He kept his back straight and knees flexed, like a rattlesnake coiled to strike. Each time Marty lunged, Ray dodged.


“Scares ya’, huh? You don’t talk so tough now,” sneered the thug.


Wigner turned to look at Chadwick and Brian. Eyes locked on their opponent, each faced the other with knives drawn. Yet neither moved.


Marty began tossing his knife from hand to hand. Toss, toss, lunge. Toss, toss, lunge.


“Don’t know where it’s coming from, do you, boy? Am I going to cut you with the right or with the left?”


On the next toss Ray swept his leg in an arc, knocking the blade from Marty’s hand with his shoe. For a moment the crew cut brute looked disappointed. Then Ray let out a scream, fierce enough to kill a rabbit, and charged transforming the mugger’s expression to one of pure terror. Marty flinched and turned slightly away, giving Ray’s huge fists the chance to find their target. Ray pounded Marty’s back and kidneys again and again. Even through his damaged ear Wigner could hear the concussions. Boom! Boom! Boom!


Brian decided not to stand and fight. He fled down the alley, after seeing Ray decimate his colleague. The further away the sound of the thief’s footsteps got, the more relieved Wigner felt, until he realized Brian still had Rabi’s coin purse.


Wigner’s rescuers carried him out of the alley. He vaguely remembered a carriage ride and a woman’s cool hands cleaning and bandaging his wound. Finally, mercifully, he lay down on clean sheets and slept.






Chadwick was there when Wigner woke.


“We couldn’t save your ear. It was a clean cut, so the wound will heal, if it doesn’t get dirty.” Chadwick paused. “Brother Rabi explained what happened.”


So Rabi had confessed!  Wigner hoped Chadwick wouldn’t assign too harsh a penance to the gluttonous monk.


“I wish you would have come to me with your doubts,” Chadwick said. “By talking Brother Rabi into running away, you jeopardized our mission.”


Wigner opened his mouth to protest.


“No, don’t say anything,” Chadwick said. “I suppose I’m partly to blame for not telling you about my past sooner. I’m not going to punish you. Losing your ear was punishment enough. Whenever you run your hand over the scar, remember the effects rash acts can have. We won’t speak of this again. Come on, let’s get some breakfast.”


Wigner slipped into his robe, which had been cleaned and pressed, and followed Chadwick into the kitchen. Ray and Rabi sat at the table. When Chadwick and Wigner entered, Rabi was gesticulating with a pudgy finger.


“Now, that’s too stringy. Your best cuts are marbled with fat.”


Ray switched attention from the heated debate to Wigner and said, “Morning Sunshine! How’re you feelin’ today?”


“Pretty good, I guess.”


“I never introduced you,” Chadwick said. “This is Ray Washington, former Nye county middle-weight champion. He and I mixed it up in the ring a few times, but I always had him crying for his momma after the first thirty seconds or so.”


“Yeah, you wish,” said Ray.


“And this is Ray’s wife, Sophie.”


The slender woman standing by the stove brushed a strand of frizzy hair from her eyes with a mocha-colored hand.


“You gave us quite a scare, yesterday. I’ll need to change that dressing after breakfast.”


She broke a few eggs into the iron skillet and wiped her hands on her white apron.


Wigner didn’t feel very hungry, but the huge platters of eggs and fried potatoes revived his appetite. The monks washed down their meal with cups of rich black coffee, sweetened with plenty of sugar.  Wigner even asked for a second helping. Sophie spooned more onto his plate.


“See there’s nothing to worry about. Anybody that hungry is gonna’ be fine,” she said.


“In that case, let’s go to the university this morning,” said Chadwick.


Wigner could find no reason to refuse. Within hours the three monks stood in the study of Professor Robert Cantwell, Dean of the Henderson College Antiquities Department.


The professor lifted his attention from the clutter of papers on his desk to gaze over the tops of his reading glasses at his visitors.


“What do you want?” he asked.


His brusque manner and startling ice blue eyes shocked even Chadwick into silence.


“We’re monks from the Order of the Three-Spoked Wheel. Our community lives about one hundred miles north of here,” Rabi answered.


“I’ve heard of you. Some rubbish about divine relics.”


“Our abbot sent us to inquire about some artifacts we found.”  Rabi spoke slowly and deliberately to control his anger.


“Well, make it quick. I’ve got a lecture to prepare.”


Wigner withdrew the disk and copied book from his pack and handed these to Professor Cantwell.


“We found these underground. There are thousands of volumes of books along with some kind of ancient device.”


Professor Cantwell ran a hand through his shock of white hair and began examining the book.


“Well, this is interesting. Thousands of books, you say?”


“Yes, they’re written on some kind of metallic skin,” replied Wigner.


The professor read a bit of the text, “CGATTTGATC… Why would the ancients go to so much trouble to preserve this gibberish? Maybe it’s some kind of code.” He yelled to his secretary, “Maggie, see if you can get Frank to teach my class.” He turned back to his guests. “Why don’t you let me examine these for a few hours? Walk around and enjoy the campus. If you want, you can attend a lecture on the ancients at 1:00.”


Wigner worried about leaving the relics behind. Neither Rabi nor Chadwick seemed concerned, so he put it out of his mind. The monks strolled the campus’ peaceful walkways, eventually finding the chapel, where they spent two hours in long overdue prayer and contemplation. Without the money the abbot had given for their journey, the monks were unable to purchase even a simple lunch of beans and tortillas in the cafeteria. Chadwick always said fasting cleared the mind, but it only made Wigner feel weak and light-headed.


When the bell struck one, the brothers entered a large lecture hall and found seats in back. The lesson covered the search for the historical Gotham City, fabled home of the legendary hero, Batman.  Wigner started out interested, but the lecturer’s obscure references soon left him confused and bored. Wigner struggled to appear awake and attentive for the remainder of the hour. When the two o’clock bell mercifully rang, the relieved monks filed out of the lecture hall with the comatose students.


“Enough of this torture. Let’s check back with the professor. If he’s not done, I say we go back to Ray’s and return tomorrow,” said Rabi.


The monks returned to Professor Cantwell’s office, but the raised voices they heard outside his closed door made them pause in the hallway.


“We just don’t have the funding to pursue it,” said Professor Cantwell.


“How can you say that?” pleaded a woman. “The Human Genome Project was supposed to cure a whole host of diseases and even hold the secret to life itself.”


“Rumors, all rumors from unreliable sources. Go ahead. Read from the book. Just tell me what one line means and we’ll do it. You can’t tell me. Can you? Because it’s gibberish. Even if it weren’t, the ethics committee would never approve a project like this.  You’ve go to be realistic, if you want to get tenure, Sarah. Earn a solid reputation excavating the Luxor site. Then you can afford an occasional frivolous project.”


The voices quieted.  Wigner waited a few minutes before knocking.


“Come in.”


Professor Cantwell stood facing a tall full-figured woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair and medium brown eyes.


“Ah Sarah, these are the monks, who brought the manuscript - Brothers Wigner, Robert, and Chadwick.”


“That’s Brother Rabi,” hissed the fat monk.


“This is Assistant Professor Sarah Rogers,” Professor Cantwell continued. “We were just examining your artifacts. They appear to belong to something called the Human Genome Project. Some ancient documents reference it. As for the disk, I suspect it contains the same information as in your books. The ancients could pack an entire library onto one of these. We don’t know how they did or how to read them.


“Unfortunately, our department doesn’t have the resources to research your artifacts at this time. There are more pressing matters for our small staff to attend to.”


The professor handed the disk and parchment back to Wigner.


“You know,” the professor added after pausing, “the Chinese preserved a lot of ancient records. I’ve heard rumors they even operate a few of the old devices. One of their scholars wrote me that he’d be visiting their Los Angeles trading colony. What was his name?”


Professor Cantwell rustled the papers on his desk until he found the letter he was looking for.


“Here it is! Professor Xu Zhiyuan. It’s a long shot, but maybe he could help you.”


The monks thanked Professor Cantwell and left his office.


“Hey! What are you going to do?” called Sarah Rogers, when they were halfway down the hall.


“We’re going to Los Angeles, but we need to raise some money first.”


Professor Rogers walked over to the group of monks and whispered, “Come back for me, when you’re ready to leave. I’d like to go with you.”






“No Escape! Carl ‘the Modesto Mauler’ Rockwell returns to take on Henderson’s own Sancho ‘Sonny’ Rodriquez in an anything goes free-for-all Saturday November 8 at 8:00 in the Ross Amphitheater. The match will continue until one of the fighters can no longer stand,” read Sophie from one of the flyers stacked on the kitchen table. “Everything’s set. You sure you’re up for this?” she asked Chadwick.


Chadwick (a.k.a. Carl) set down his fork and finished chewing his steak before answering, “I’m still in pretty good shape from working the mines. As soon as Ray gets back, we’ll start training. A week should be plenty of time to prepare for that light-weight.”


Wigner heard the door open and slam shut. Breathing hard, Ray rushed into the kitchen.


“We got problems, Carl. The boxing commission won’t let you fight. They say allowing a murderer into the ring would set a bad example for the kids in the crowd.” Ray ran his hand over his forehead and added, “I’m sorry.”


“Those hypocrites,” blurted Sophie, “How come they let Sledgehammer Jackson fight after he killed those two Mexicans in a bar fight?”


“I suppose I should have expected this,” Chadwick sighed. His normal upright posture collapsed like a balloon leaking air. Then his eyes widened and he straightened up. “Perhaps there’s another way. What if I had a protégé, someone I’ve trained for years? The crowds might pay to see him fight.”


“But who could that be?” asked Ray.


The chair seemed to fall away from beneath Wigner. His breakfast turned into a lump of lead in his stomach and his heart thudded in his chest, as Chadwick turned his eyes toward him.


“Gentleman, meet my successor, Wigner ‘the Waster’ Watson.”






Keep your knee bent and lift your leg to the side like you’re laying it on a table,” instructed Chadwick.


“Or like you’re a dog using a tree,” quipped Ray.


“Now pivot and kick by straightening your knee. Be sure to pull back faster than you send your foot out. That’s it. One hundred repetitions on my count. One, two,…”


Wigner kicked the heavy bag striking it with the ball of his foot. Within moments the muscles in his leg began to burn. By the time Chadwick counted fourteen, Wigner had to struggle to keep his leaden leg aloft. He’d have given anything to be able to put it down. But if he did, Ray and Chadwick would yell at him and start the count over from the beginning like they had earlier, when he practiced front and side kicks.


They’d been training all morning in the small ramshackle building that housed Ray’s backyard gym. To keep his balance Wigner focused on a hole in the far wall’s wood paneling. He bent his supporting knee and felt his center of gravity lower as his weight sunk into the white canvas mat.


“Some people say you should inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, but I think you got to get air any way you can,” said Ray from behind the bag he steadied for Wigner.


The desert air Wigner sucked through his open mouth dried his throat. When Chadwick reached one hundred, Wigner dropped his leg.


“Can I take a break? My legs are killing me,” Wigner asked.


“Sure. Get some water. Then we’ll work on punches.”


Chadwick reviewed straight punches, hooks, back fists, and elbow strikes then set Wigner to work hitting the bag. Once he could no longer lift his arms, Chadwick switched Wigner back to kicking. The torture continued past sunset.


By dinnertime, Wigner had worked up quite a hunger. After his bath, he limped to the kitchen table to discover a meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Ray, Chadwick, and Rabi sat at the table, each with a shot glass of whiskey. Chadwick drained his but didn’t pour himself another.


Wigner loaded his plate with goodies, but his stomach rebelled after the first bite. He forced himself to swallow two forkfuls of chicken breast before pushing his plate away in defeat. The exertion of the day’s training had affected his stomach too.


“Don’t want that?” said Ray, “I’ll finish it for you.”


He slid Wigner’s plate over and dug in. Wigner excused himself and hobbled to bed. He lay awake until midnight dreading the next day. Finally he managed a few hours sleep only to be awakened before dawn for another day of torture.


The second day of training was much like the first. His trainers forced Wigner to perform an endless series of punches and kicks long past the point of exhaustion.  Chadwick had him string strikes into combinations, hitting high and low in quick succession. At lunch Wigner managed to keep a little food down.


“When are you going to teach me to block?” asked Wigner in the afternoon, when he realized something was missing from his training.


“You hear that, Ray? He wants to learn to block.”


“Yeah, we’ll get to that. Right now, do more kicks.”


The days dragged on.  Chadwick kept Wigner on the grueling training regimen for the rest of the week. Each time Wigner asked about blocking Chadwick would put him off. The only rest came at night, and that was always too short. Wigner couldn’t wait for the match. It couldn’t be worse than the training. Win or lose, at least the torture would be over, and he could finally rest.






On the evening of the fight Wigner, Chadwick, and Ray rounded the back of the amphitheater. Ray spoke briefly with the beefy security guard at the back entrance then lead Chadwick and Wigner down a long dimly lit corridor and into a small locker room.


The drab gray cement walls matched Wigner’s mood. He sat on a wooden bench, while Ray taped his hands.


“I don’t suppose you have any last minute advice on how to block at this point,” said Wigner.


“Actually, I do,” responded Chadwick, “Sonny Rodriguez is so much better than you, that you’ll get the hell beat out of you no matter what you do. If I were you, I’d abandon all thoughts of self-preservation and just strike him. Don’t worry about losing. You’ll have a second chance in three weeks. I’ve entered you in another match. I’ll start training you for that one, tomorrow.”


“Great,” sighed Wigner.


“Let us pray,” said Chadwick.


Wigner placed his hands together and bowed his head, while Ray discretely rolled his eyes.


“Oh Ra,” Chadwick intoned, “we beseech You to aid Your servant, Wigner, who is about to enter battle on Your behalf. May Your Power flow through his limbs, so that he defeats his opponent. Even should Wigner be injured, his flesh torn and bones broken, may he always remember the honor of serving You. Amen.”


“You got to go to the bathroom or anything?” asked Ray.




He helped Wigner put on his gloves and laced them. The three left the locker room and walked down the aisle leading toward the ring. The chairs on both sides of them were filled with spectators anxious to see blood. The acrid smell of tobacco smoke stung Wigner’s nose and throat.


Wigner ducked between the ropes, entered the ring, and took a seat on a stool in the corner. Flanked by Chadwick and Ray, he scrutinized his opponent Sonny Rodriguez sitting across the ring. Wiry with short black hair and a sparse beard, Sonny stared down at brown spatters of dried blood on the white canvas mat.


The referee, a balding middle-aged man in a black and white striped shirt, moved to the center of the ring and announced, “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Ross Amphitheater for tonight’s match. In the far corner, wearing white, is Henderson’s own undefeated champion Sancho ‘Sonny’ Rodriguez.”


Rodriguez stood to the crowd’s cheers.


“His challenger is Carl Rockwell’s student, wearing black, Wigner ‘the Waster’ Watson.”


The crowd remained silent, when Wigner stood, except for a few scattered snickers.


“Tonight’s match will go on, until one fighter is unable to continue.”


 Wigner and Sonny Rodriguez converged on the center of the ring.


“OK, the crowd paid to see kick boxing not dancing, so be aggressive. I don’t want to see any holding back,” said the referee.


Sonny stared at Wigner with flinty eyes that showed no sign of mercy. Strangely Wigner didn’t care. Life had become pure torment. Live or die, it wasn’t going to get any better.


“Now touch gloves. When the bell rings, come out fighting.”


The fighters touched gloves and returned to their corners to wait for the bell. When it rang, Rodriguez came out with his hands in a high guard.  Wigner threw a reverse punch that slipped between Sonny’s hands and struck the Latino fighter solidly on the nose. Time seemed to stop with Rodriguez looking puzzled. For a moment Wigner wondered if he’d made some kind of mistake. The crowd let out a collective laugh.  Wigner fired off a series of roundhouse kicks, which Rodriguez easily swatted away. Then Sonny Rodriguez recovered and beat Wigner into the mat.


Wigner had thought nothing could have been worse than the torture he’d endured in training. He was wrong. A solid side kick connected with his gut.  Wigner bent forward, gagged, and struggled to catch his breath. Rodriguez pounded his kidney with a succession of punches that dropped Wigner to his knees. When Wigner turned to look blearily at his opponent, Rodriguez’ front kick caught the monk in the chin, snapping his head back and sending him into unconsciousness.


Everything hurt when Wigner woke up. Pain stabbed his chest, when he breathed. The tiniest movement brought a splitting headache. Rabi and Chadwick waited by the bed.


“How are you feeling?” asked Chadwick.


“I need to use the toilet.”


Chadwick helped Wigner use the bedpan. Blood stained the urine pink in the white porcelain bowl.  Wigner lay back down and fought to hold back his tears.


“I’m sorry I let you down. I looked like a fool out there.”


“Nonsense,” said Rabi. “We didn’t bet on you to win. The odds were eleven to one you wouldn’t lay a hand on Rodriguez. We won enough money to go to Los Angeles.”


“When you’re feeling better, I’ll show you how to do some of those blocks,” added Chadwick.


The light hurt Wigner’s eyes. He closed them and slept.






Stepping into Ray’s gym again was the hardest thing Wigner had ever done. His body had recovered after a week’s rest, but he’d been humiliated both by his defeat and by Chadwick’s betrayal. Wigner didn’t need to go back. There would be no more prizefights. The monks had won enough money to finance their journey. Yet Wigner didn’t want to give up. He would train with the fighters one last time.


“Come in and sit down,” said Chadwick, “Let me show you something.”


Wigner joined Ray and Chadwick sitting cross-legged in the middle of the mat. Chadwick handed him a piece of parchment.  Wigner turned it over. Each side contained handwriting in a flowing script.


“Do you know what this means?” asked Chadwick.


“No, I can’t read.”


“One side says life and the other death. The difference is as small as the width of that page,” explained Ray.


“You almost won your match,” said Chadwick. “Do you know why you lost?”




“You doubted yourself and hesitated. If you’d have gone full out, you could have beaten Rodriguez. Next time don’t stop until you can control your enemy or he’s disabled. Keep the parchment and always remember the price you paid for this knowledge.  I’m sorry I had to trick you. It was the only way we could win the money we needed. You did well. I loved the look on Rodriguez’ face, when you clocked him.”


“Yeah, it was about time someone taught that punk a little humility,” said Ray.


“Come on, let’s do some blocks.”


Chadwick showed Wigner the basic blocks. Ray punched high, middle, and low so Wigner could practice knocking the strikes away and feel the satisfying thud of the solid muscles of his forearms connecting.


“OK, do some light sparring with no face contact. Wigner, try to attack Ray first.”


 Wigner threw strikes at Ray. When he tried to kick, Ray crowded him, so he couldn’t straighten his leg. Often Ray pivoted his body to evade Wigner’s strikes. Rather than use the big powerful blocks Chadwick had taught, Ray brushed Wigner’s punches past, making the monk overextend and lose balance. Strangely Wigner felt most vulnerable, when he started an attack.


“Now you try,” said Ray.


Wigner found it hard to stop attacks when he didn’t know when or where they’d come from. Most of Ray’s half-speed punches and kicks got past Wigner’s blocks and tapped the monk lightly on the body. Whenever Wigner succeeded in stopping an attack, Ray nodded and gave an enthusiastic, “That’s it!”


“Take a break. Then I’ll attack,” said Chadwick.


Wigner poured a cup of tepid water from the carafe and swallowed. After a few minutes he faced his new sparring partner. Chadwick’s gunmetal eyes didn’t meet Wigner’s but appeared to stare down as if distracted.


As soon as Ray called “Begin,” Chadwick parted his lips to draw a slight breath and extended his leg, sinking the blade of his foot into Wigner’s side. It felt a little too hard for today’s game. Hot blood flushed Wigner’s face, as all the resentment he felt toward Chadwick came to the surface. Wigner swung wildly at the attacks in the hope of punishing Chadwick’s arms and legs. But all Wigner did was over-commit, allowing more strikes to reach their targets.


Wigner fought back his anger to focus on the task at hand. Then he had an interesting insight. Why did he need to block at all? If he could punch right when Chadwick committed, he would catch his attacker at his weakest moment.


His chance came, when he saw Chadwick open his mouth for a breath.  Wigner pivoted and extended his right arm into Chadwick’s solar plexus. The ex-boxer grunted at the contact.


“I think we got a new champion!” yelled Ray.


“Well done,” said Chadwick, “Let’s knock off for the day.” He slapped Wigner on the back.


“You showed a lot of courage.” Ray pumped Wigner’s hand in both of his. He looked at the monk with sparkling eyes. “If you ever need me for anything, and I mean anything, just let me know. I’ll be there.”


Wigner, Chadwick, and Ray left the gym and entered the kitchen. A basket lined with a red and white plaid tablecloth lay on the table. All but one of the cornmeal muffins that had been inside were missing.  Rabi looked up from his seat. Yellow crumbs sprinkled the table and the front of Rabi’s robe.


“What?” he asked.


Wigner tried to restrain the giggle tickling the back of his nose, but it snorted forth. Chadwick and Ray joined him in guffawing. Wigner wiped his upper lip and leaned on Chadwick. It was the best laugh he’d had in years.






Wigner looked forward to talking with Chadwick on the journey, but this never happened. Professor Roger’s presence made the senior monk more than usually withdrawn. Chadwick kept to himself and replied to all questions with one-word answers.


Sarah was the first woman other than a relative Wigner spent time with. He felt awkward and tongue-tied around her. Hence Sarah spent most of her waking hours talking with Rabi. For Wigner the journey to Los Angeles seemed like an endless stretch of heat, dust, and monotony.


After three week’s travel, the mule train arrived at its destination, a large wooden warehouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles.


“OK, let’s get those wagons unloaded,” ordered the foreman.


A half dozen laborers in black pants and torn white T-shirts struggled to remove barrels from the wagons, while the foreman shouted at them. A Chinese man in a blue silk robe stood back from the scene and moved beads on his abacus.


Sarah and the three monks skirted the laborers and entered a waiting room. A shaved-head Chinese wearing a scarlet robe finished speaking with one of the other travelers. He gave a big smile and turned his attention to the monks.


“Ah, fellow men of the cloth. Welcome to Los Angeles. Where are you coming from?”


“We come from Henderson,” Chadwick answered.


“I wonder if I could have a word with you,” said the Chinese priest as he absent-mindedly fingered the mole over his eyebrow. “I’m looking for one of my former students, a westerner. He’s a large man with a hooked nose, and he wears a patch over his left eye. Have you by chance seen him during your travels?”


“No. Why are you looking for him?”


“A question of doctrine. As his teacher I feel responsible for any harm his misunderstanding might cause. But what of yourselves? What brings you to town?”


Something about the priest’s manner bothered Wigner. He stepped on Chadwick’s toe to choke off the former boxer’s reply.


“A pilgrimage to the site of the ascension of Saint Feynman,” said Wigner.


“How wonderful! I must confess I know little of local beliefs. Is it customary for monks in your sect to travel with women?”


“Hardly.” said Rabi. “She’s a historian doing research on the Blessed Richard. Our abbot felt it in the best interest of our order to cooperate with her.”


“Excellent.” The Chinese priest gave an obsequious smile. “I’m glad to see you can abandon tired old rules, when they no longer apply. Perhaps you’d like to visit my church while you’re in town. I’m at the main branch of the Tranquility of Mind Temple. Just ask for Reverend Qin. I’d love to learn more about your beliefs. Have an enjoyable stay.”


The four travelers slung their knapsacks over their shoulders and went out the door. They paused by the dirt road to discuss how to proceed.


“Sorry to cut you off, Brother Chadwick. I don’t trust that man. One robbery was enough for me,” said Wigner.


“That’s OK. Where do we go from here?” said Chadwick.


“Professor Xu wrote from Friendship University,” said Sarah. “That’s inside the walls of the Chinese district. Let’s find a streetcar to take us there. Maybe there will be a place to stay near the campus.”


They walked in the side of the road to avoid the wagons that thundered past. The horses kicked up dust that made Wigner’s eyes and nose itch. As they walked west, buildings got closer together. Blacksmith shops, tenements, and taverns crowded the street. The travelers stumbled on a pair of steel tracks and followed these to a numbered sign that designated the trolley stop. They dropped their packs to wait. Iridescent green flies buzzed around fresh horse droppings between the rails.


“Look, there’s one of the temples that priest told us about.” Sarah pointed to an imposing vermilion building across the street.


The golden tile on the temple’s gabled roof matched the lettering above the entrance. An old man harassed passersby in front of the stone stairway. He wore a tattered brown shirt. A circle of stringy gray hair surrounded his sunburned bald crown. Before Wigner could look away, the man caught his gaze and crossed the street.


“Pardon me, Reverends,” he said, “I wonder if you could put in a good word for me with Reverend Hui, so I can get reinstated in the temple. I know I messed up, but I’ve repented.”


“We don’t know the Reverend,” replied Rabi. “We’re from a different sect. I’m sorry, but we can’t help you.”


“Please, I’ve got to get some rock.” The old man’s hands shook. He looked up and down the street. “I can’t raise the money for non-believer’s prices. I swear I won’t disobey again.”


The clip clop of horses’ hooves announced the streetcar’s arrival. When the horse team rounded the corner, the four travelers shouldered their bags and brushed past the bum.


“Will this take us to Friendship University?” asked Chadwick.


“I can take you as far as the wall. You’ll have to walk from there,” said the driver.


Rabi paid the fare and the four took their seats. The streetcar started moving.


“Hey Reverends!” The bum ran alongside. “Can you spare a few coins? Come on! Help me out. I’m down on my luck.”


After a half block he stopped and began haranguing passersby once again.






After the streetcar dropped them off, Wigner and his companions crossed the bridge over the moat and approached the twenty foot gray brick wall surrounding the Chinese enclave. Three enormous arches served as entrances.


“The sign says the gate to the right is for those without a pass,” said Chadwick.


While they waited in line, Wigner looked at the pair of stone lions guarding the entrance. Visitors carrying packs and merchants pushing carts moved freely through the central arch. The wall’s crenellations provided cover for defenders to fire down on attackers. Two soldiers in olive drab uniforms stood at attention on opposite sides of the arch. They held long wicked-looking halberds. An officer with a straight sword in the scabbard on his belt questioned those in line. When Wigner and his party’s turn came, the officer ordered, “Open you bags.”


He sorted through their luggage. Once satisfied they had no weapons, he asked, “What is the purpose of your visit?”


“We’ve come to consult with Professor Xu Zhiyuan at Friendship University,” said Chadwick. “We’re hoping to find someplace to stay near campus.”


“Impossible,” the officer scoffed. “Foreigners are not allowed inside the walls after dark.”


This puzzled Wigner. He wondered why the Chinese would build a fortress and abandon it at sunset, until he realized the officer referred to all non-Chinese as foreigners.


“This pass is good until sunset.” The officer wrote a few Chinese characters on a white card and handed it to Chadwick. “Follow Progress Dajie until you reach Renmin Lu. Turn right and continue for a half-mile to Friendship University. Good day.”


They entered and joined the bustle of black-haired Chinese dressed in somber gray tunics. Pedestrians and workers pushing carts crowded the streets. Other carts stacked with unfamiliar vegetables blocked the sidewalks. It seemed that whenever he found a free space to place his next step, someone occupied it before Wigner could put his foot down.


A bewildering array of signs in black or red Chinese characters hung at different levels. The travelers passed numerous shops displaying dead chickens and ducks hung by their feet in the window.


After struggling through the crowds, they eventually came to the wrought iron fence that surrounded Friendship University. An old woman sat reading a newspaper in the wooden guard shack at the gate. When Sarah approached, the woman ignored her, until she finished her article, folded her paper, and set it down. Then she looked up and said, “Yes.”


“I’m Professor Sarah Rogers from Henderson College. I’m here to see Professor Xu Zhiyuan.”


“He’s busy. Come back tomorrow.”


The old woman returned to her newspaper.


“That didn’t seem very friendly. What do we do now?” Sarah said to the monks.


“When in doubt, eat,” replied Rabi without hesitation.


He set off down the street. Sarah threw her hands up and looked at Wigner.


“It’s no use arguing,” said Wigner, “When he gets like this, it’s futile to resist.”


Rabi led the others on a quest for the perfect restaurant. He paused outside each café to look at the diners’ plates and smell, before shaking his head and moving on. Finally he said, “This one,” and led his companions inside.


They sat at a small wooden table. Women pushing carts laden with bamboo steamers and plates of food patrolled the dining room. The Chinese diners’ voices combined into a background roar that made it difficult to hear anything else. One of the servers displayed three dumplings in a bamboo steamer to Rabi. He held up two fingers, and the woman placed two steamers on the table.


Seemingly resigned, Sarah waited for Chadwick to finish the obligatory prayer before the meal. Of the four in their party, only she knew how to eat with the pair of sticks the Chinese used. The others picked up dumplings with their fingers, dipped them in sauce, and wolfed them down. Soy-vinegar sauce dripped down the monks’ chins. Everything was so delicious they wanted to try it all. The monks ate their way through steamed shrimp and pork dumplings, fried egg rolls, noodles, rice wrapped in a large green leaf, egg tarts, and some kind of light sweet cake. By the time he’d finished, Wigner’s stomach felt like it contained one of the steel casks he guarded in the tunnels at the monastery.


 Wigner and his companions exited the Chinese quarter just as the sun set. Despite having eaten too much, Wigner felt a sense of ease and well-being.  Rabi had been right. After a good meal their problems no longer seemed so intractable. Tomorrow would be another day.






The old woman turned Wigner and his companions away every time they called at the university. Professor Xu was always busy, in a meeting, or away. Although they stayed at a moderately priced inn, the monks’ money would not hold out forever. Something needed to be done.


“Are you really sure you want to do business with these Chinese?”  Rabi asked the group.


“No, but we don’t have much choice,” answered Chadwick.


“We could go home,” said Rabi, “Maybe we should take our failure to see the professor as an omen. Something’s wrong here. Remember how that bum acted outside the temple. I wonder what the Chinese did to him”


“What do you say?”  Chadwick asked Wigner.


“Something’s wrong,” said Wigner, “but the abbot sent us on a mission. I don’t see how learning about the books will harm anyone.”


“I agree with Wigner,” said Sarah.


“All right,” Rabi conceded, “I’ve got a plan.”


The Tranquility of Mind Temple’s main branch occupied a large courtyard just inside the Chinese enclave’s Nanmen gate. Like the other temples, this one contained wooden vermilion buildings with gold roofs. The main branch was larger and more ostentatious with a multitude of colorful statues of figures from Chinese mythology in the courtyard. Incense smoke rose from huge black cauldrons. A few worshippers in white robes bowed at these, but the majority of Caucasians congregated by the tents at the edge of the compound, where peddlers sold cocaine and the pipes to smoke it.


Rabi led Sarah, Wigner, and Chadwick up the stone staircase carved with dragons and into the main hall. Lanterns lit the room. Wearing a Chinese winged hat, the golden figure on the altar made Wigner homesick for the monastery. Doorways opened into rooms containing bunks on which addicts reclined after smoking their pipes.


One of these, a thin man in a white sleeveless T-shirt and stained baggy pants accosted Sarah.


“Hey bitch, how about some good lovin’?”


 Chadwick shoved him roughly away. The addict stumbled and fell on the red carpeted floor.


Rabi located a scarlet-robed priest and said, “We’re here to see Reverend Qin.”


“This way please.”


The passed through a doorway behind the altar, descended some stairs, and entered a small waiting room.


“Please be seated.” The priest entered an office and emerged after a minute. “The reverend will be with you shortly.”


After several minutes a military officer in an olive drab uniform with gleaming brass oak leaves on the collar opened the door and said, “Please come in.” Sarah and the monks followed him into a dreary cement-walled office. The officer sat behind a desk and poured some tea from a ceramic container into a porcelain cup. He was thin and wore his jet-black hair in a bristly crewcut. While he sipped his tea, Wigner glanced at poster on the wall. It showed a drawing of a man with a hooked nose and an eye patch.  Wigner sounded out one of the words, “Wanted.”


“What information do you have for Reverend Qin?” The officer set down his cup and scrutinized his visitors through slit-like eyes.


“We’ve come a long way bearing samples from the ancient library we’ve discovered,” Rabi replied. “As you know there are legends of ancients living for hundreds of years. Their soldiers were immune to disease and could recover from severe wounds in days. Professor Rogers here believes this library contains the secrets of how the ancients accomplished this. We came at Professor Xu’s invitation to discuss a joint research project, yet no one at Friendship University seems willing to see us. Naturally, we’d prefer to work with the Chinese. However, if you’re not interested, we’ll head north and look for partners in Nova Kamchatka.”


“I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Major Wu.” The officer stood and shook hands.


 Rabi introduced his companions.


“Would you like some tea?” asked Major Wu.


Before anyone could respond, he called to his aide. The aide brought a fresh pot, several cups, and a tray of sweets.


“Please,” said Major Wu gesturing toward the tray of pastries. “You didn’t want any coca did you?”


Everyone shook his or her heads.


“I didn’t think so,” said the major. “May I share a secret with you? This cocaine trade disgusts me. Even if the legends that say your people once did the same to mine were true, our actions here are unjust. The majority of officers in our army feel the same way, but as yet we don’t have enough influence to change our government’s policy. Oh, the politicians have their reasons. They’re desperate for money to finance our defense from the northern barbarians.” Wu gazed up at the ceiling. “If only there were some better way to defend our nation, we could end this immoral business.” The major focused on Sarah. “But let’s not concern ourselves with politics. Let’s concentrate on how I can help you. Now Professor Rogers, you say you met Professor Xu and he invited you here.”


“Well actually, Professor Xu wrote to my colleague at Henderson College,” replied Sarah.


“Where is this Henderson College?”


“About three weeks journey east,” volunteered Wigner.


“Three weeks journey through the desert.” Major Wu shook his head. “I don’t envy you. I hope you weren’t attacked by bandits.”


“Not on this trip. But two robbers attacked, when we first arrived at Henderson,” replied Rabi, “Brother Chadwick and I fought them off, but not before they cut Brother Wigner’s ear off.”


Wigner pointed to the scar where his ear used to be.


“I’m so sorry,” said the major, “You must be very tough to have defeated those criminals.”


“Well, I used to do a little boxing.” Chadwick blushed.


“Don’t be so modest!” roared Major Wu, “I don’t understand how you monks got involved in this.”


“We found the library at our monastery,” said Chadwick, “We’ve got a copy of one of the books and an ancient disk with us.”


“May I see?” asked the major.


Wigner removed the book and disk from his pack and handed them to the officer. Major Wu examined these for a few minutes before returning them.


“Very impressive. I don’t understand. How could a huge library remain hidden for so long?”


“We found it in the tunnels,” replied Rabi.


“Tunnels? A monastery with tunnels? Oh, I know.” The major slapped his knee. “You use tunnels to store the wine you make. I hear your wine is so excellent that even a sinner like me would be tempted into the religious life. But tell me, where are you staying?”


“The Alameda Inn.”


“Surely you can do better than that,” said Major Wu, “Why don’t you join us in the Chinese district as my guest, while I arrange for you to meet the professor?”


“I thought we weren’t allowed inside the walls after dark,” said Wigner.


“Nonsense! Who told you that? I’ll send someone for your bags. What do you say?”


Sarah and the monks agreed.






The pain in Wigner’s guts woke him. At first he thought he’d only eaten too much at last night’s banquet, hosted by Major Wu to welcome Sarah and the monks to their new lodging. But when Wigner got out of bed, he suddenly felt too dizzy to stand. He sat back down. The sickly sweet taste of acid rose in his throat. Wigner barely reached the bedpan in time to vomit.


Someone knocked at the door to his suite.  Wigner lifted his head from his pillow and muttered, “Come in.”


Major Wu led a short elderly Chinese man into the room.


“Your friends have gotten ill, so I brought Dr. Wei to check on you. How are you feeling?”




The doctor felt attentively for the pulses in Wigner’s wrists. He looked in Wigner’s eyes and put a warm hand on Wigner’s forehead. Then he spoke to the major in Chinese.


“Dr. Wei says you have food poisoning” Major Wu translated. “Some of the shellfish last night had evidently spoiled. The doctor will give you some pills to make you feel better. I’m sorry about this, Wigner. Rest assured. The cooks will be disciplined.”


The doctor felt Wigner’s neck and armpits. He uttered a badly pronounced “Excuse me” and felt near Wigner’s groin. A long discussion ensued between Dr. Wei and Major Wu.


“I’m sorry, Wigner,” said Major Wu, “but Dr. Wei’s examination has confirmed his fears. You have a more serious problem than an upset stomach. Just as with your friends Chadwick and Rabi, you’ve been exposed to some kind of slow-acting poison. Without proper treatment the effects could be quite serious: dizziness, permanent weakness, even blindness and death. However, the doctor can’t treat you, unless he knows the cause. Do you have any idea what could have poisoned you? A chemical in your monastery perhaps?”


“Can I see Brothers Chadwick and Rabi before I talk to you?” asked Wigner.


“Unfortunately, they’re in worse shape than you are. Both are unconscious. Please Wigner, help us save your friends.”


“I can’t tell you without talking to them first. We’re not supposed to discuss what we do at the monastery.”


Major Wu spoke to the doctor, who shook his head sadly and replied in Chinese.


“Dr. Wei says he will try, but you’re making it difficult for him. If he can’t find the antidote within a few days, it will be too late to reverse the poison’s effects.”


The doctor gave Wigner one of the pills before leaving with Major Wu. A thought that something was wrong fought the drowsiness trying to engulf Wigner. What was it? Of course, why hadn’t Major Wu gotten sick from the spoiled food? The strength drained from Wigner’s limbs. He fell into a drugged sleep.






After a night of fitful dreams Wigner awoke to a knock on his door. Major Wu and Dr. Wei entered once again.


“I have some bad news,” said the major, “Rabi’s condition has deteriorated. He could die within hours. Dr. Wei may have found an antidote, but there’s a problem. If used against the wrong poison, the antidote itself could kill. Dr. Wei believes ashes from the ancients’ nuclear furnaces have poisoned you and your friends. Wigner, I beg you. To save your friend’s life won’t you give us some kind of clue whether or not this is true? Anything can help. Describe what’s in the tunnels, or even tell us where your monastery’s located.”


“I’m sorry. I’m not allowed to discuss it,” said Wigner.


The Chinese doctor shook his head sadly and handed Wigner a pill with a glass of water. When Dr. Wei and the major left, Wigner spit out the pill and hid it under his pillow.


He felt stronger and more alert the next time Dr. Wei and Major Wu visited, but Wigner feigned weakness and confusion. The doctor performed his customary examination of Wigner’s wrists and glands. Then he looked at the whites of Wigner’s eyes and said a few words in Chinese to Major Wu.


“Dr. Wei did all he could, but the antidote is too dangerous to use without specific knowledge of the poison. He was unable to save Rabi.” Major Wu paused to let the news sink in. “I’m sorry, Wigner. If there is some kind of ceremony you’d like to perform, we could arrange for you to do so.”


“Can Brother Chadwick and Professor Rogers be there?”


“Chadwick is too sick to attend, but Professor Rogers can come.”


“I see. It’s just that there has to be a community of monks for a proper service. If not, the departed monk’s ka won’t make it to Ra’s paradise. His restless ghost may end up haunting the place he died.”  Wigner frowned.


Major Wu conferred with the doctor.


“The doctor says we can bring Chadwick, provided he doesn’t stay long. He may or may not be conscious. Will that work?”




“Very well, I’ll see you this afternoon.”






An orderly helped Wigner into a wheelchair and pushed him down the hallway decorated with scrolls depicting Chinese landscapes. An open carriage waited outside.  Wigner let Major Wu and the orderly help him in. Sarah, Dr. Wei, and Chadwick were already seated. His head slumped forward; Chadwick sat between the others and leaned on the doctor.


“Wigner, I’m so sorry.” Sarah placed a hand on Wigner’s shoulder.


Wigner nodded. Major Wu took a seat beside Wigner and signaled the driver. Two chestnut horses pulled the carriage along the cobblestone streets. Wigner closed his eyes and leaned his head against the seat.


The authorities had cleared the customary crowd of addicts from the Tranquility of Mind Temple’s courtyard. The mourners entered the main hall with Dr. Wei pushing Chadwick in a wheelchair.  Rabi’s coffin laid in front of the altar. Wigner stumbled forward to gaze down on the pale figure inside. The scent of the casket’s unfinished pine boards filled Wigner’s nostrils. He laid a hand on Rabi’s cold waxy forehead.


“Thanks for all the great meals, my friend.” Wigner turned to Major Wu. “I’ll need some incense and a pine branch. Also can we move an incense burner in front of the coffin?”


Major Wu gave the order.  Wigner lit an incense stick, placed it in the brass burner, took the pine branch in his left hand, and began slowly circling the coffin. Wigner had never performed a funeral service before, but he had seen enough of them to fake it. He intoned the monk’s funeral service, omitting verses that would tip off Major Wu about the order’s true purpose.


“After a lifetime of service

Ra has called this monk home.

As the body cools

its ka is liberated.


Oh monk, forsake the body.

It is only an empty shell

useful to you no more.

Fly to Ra’s land of light.

Fly to where there is no night.”


Wigner recited the verse three times. On the final repetition, Chadwick mumbled the last few lines from his wheelchair.


Wigner stopped in front of the casket and faced the others. Major Wu and Dr. Wei stood at attention. Sarah stayed behind Chadwick, her hand on his shoulder.


“Brother Rabi’s death is a great loss for our order,” began Wigner. “His generous nature will be sorely missed. Brother Chadwick knows the story of how Rabi gave up his family vineyard to follow his calling. And Sarah, I wish you could have gotten to know Brother Rabi on our journey.”


Sarah raised her eyebrows.


“Although Brother Rabi’s death came as quite a shock, I’d like to thank Dr. Wei for the excellent care he gave. Truly, we’re fortunate to have good friends like he and Major Wu.” Wigner turned toward the body. “It’s time to leave. Fly now to Ra’s gentle arms.”  Wigner placed the pine branch in the casket. He faced Major Wu. “Quickly, we must proceed to the graveyard.”


The major approached.


“Wigner,” whispered Major Wu, “I think you and Chadwick should rest now. Don’t worry. I’ll have the body buried properly.”


“You don’t understand.”  Wigner’s words came quickly as if he were in a panic. “We must bury the body immediately after the ka’s been freed to prevent it from becoming confused. I have to be there to perform the sealing invocation. If I’m not, the ka might attempt to return. I’ll be OK. I feel strong enough.”


Wigner buckled his knees to feign a collapse. Major Wu caught him before he could fall to the floor. The major conferred with Dr. Wei before agreeing. How much trouble could two drugged monks and a helpless woman cause?


Wigner and the mourners exited the main hall to the sound of hammers nailing the coffin shut. They waited in the carriage, until two soldiers wheeled out the casket and loaded it on a wagon. Once the casket was secure, Major Wu gave the order to proceed. The funeral procession headed toward Nanmen Gate. Pedestrians cleared a path for the wagons.  Wigner wondered if they did so out of respect for Major Wu’s uniform or out of fear of the dead.


They passed through the gate with little problem. Both guards jerked to attention and saluted, when they saw Major Wu. The major touched his fingers to his olive drab cap as if he didn’t want to be bothered.


After an hour long ride, they arrived at a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Two attendants helped the soldiers haul the coffin off the wagon and place it on a cart. They pushed the cart through the mortuary and onto a concrete path that led out back. The mourners followed the attendants to a freshly dug grave. Wigner smelled the dirt piled by the scar in the manicured lawn. The workers lowered the coffin into the hole.


“Once we’re through here,” said Wigner to Major Wu, “I’ll tell you what you want to know. I feel responsible for Brother Rabi’s death and couldn’t bear having Brother Chadwick on my conscience too. The sun’s making me feel weak. Could I lean on you for the sealing ceremony? It will only take a few minutes.”


“Of course, Wigner.”


Wigner placed his right arm over the major’s shoulder and began to solemnly intone:


“San mo ji shi ka shi zai

mo ho ran mi te mi te

so ro ka shi te

mo no ka shi te…”


Wigner hoped they sounded good, because he had made the whole thing up. He let the major support more of his weight, until he had a clear reach at the sword Major Wu wore on his belt.


In a flash Wigner drew the major’s sword from its scabbard. He stepped behind the officer, bending Major Wu backwards and holding the blade’s honed edge against his throat. The soldiers reached for their weapons.


“Tell them to drop their swords, or I’ll cut your throat,” hissed Wigner.


“Wigner, your illness is making you delusional. Put down my sword and we can discuss this,” pleaded Major Wu.


 Wigner pressed the blade tighter drawing a thin crimson line on the major’s neck.


“Do it!”


Major Wu gave the order and his soldiers dropped their weapons.


“Sarah, help Chadwick into the carriage. If anybody follows, the major dies. Let’s move!”


They hustled to the wagons. While Sarah helped Chadwick, Wigner held Major Wu like he would a rattlesnake and glared at the two soldiers cowering helplessly by the fence.


“OK Sarah, unhook the horses from the other wagon and send them on their way. Then you get to drive us away from here.”


Sarah unfastened the horses from the wagon that had carried the coffin and sent them galloping off with slaps on their rumps.


“Go on! Get out of here!” she yelled.


Wigner dragged the major into the carriage. Sarah whipped the horses, and they sped off, hooves thundering and wheels rattling. After it was clear they had a sizable lead, Wigner shoved Major Wu out of the carriage, when it rounded a bend. He looked back and saw the officer roll in the dust.






Sarah stopped at an inn in Arroyo Blanco to let the two monks off.


“We’d better split up. The Chinese will be looking for three people traveling together.” Wigner reached inside his robe, withdrew the disk, and handed it to her. “I need you to hang on to this,” he said, “Take the carriage to Furnace Creek and sell it for as much as you can. Then get on the first mule train to Henderson. Brother Chadwick and I will stay here, until he gets well enough to travel.”


 Wigner helped Chadwick down from the carriage, supporting the drugged monk on his shoulder.


“What do you want me to do with the disk?” asked Sarah.


“Keep it for now. With a little luck we’ll meet again and you can tell me what you learned. Bye Sarah.”


Sarah flicked her whip and set out. The carriage appeared to grow smaller, as she drove away. She turned back to wave one last time.


Wigner explained to the innkeeper that his friend was drunk and asked that some bread and cheese be brought to their room. He wondered whether he should have a barber summoned to bleed Chadwick but decided it would cause too much suspicion. After several hours the drugs began to wear off, leaving Chadwick groggy but more or less lucid.


“The Chinese drugged us,” explained Wigner. “They told me we’d been poisoned by the relics. It was all a ruse to get information. When I got suspicious, I stopped taking their pills and felt better.”


“Did you tell them anything?”


“No, I said we weren’t allowed to say anything.”




“Do you suppose they killed Brother Rabi on purpose, or was his death an accident?”


“Either way, they’re responsible.”  Chadwick’s face darkened. “If they hadn’t given Brother Rabi their drugs, he’d still be alive. Go back to the monastery, Wigner. The abbot must be informed about what happened. I’ll stay behind and deal with Major Wu.”


“Don’t throw your life away, Brother Chadwick. You’re outnumbered and they’ll be ready.”


“I can’t leave Brother Rabi’s death unavenged. Nobody kills one of us and gets away with it.”


Wigner slept poorly that night. The next morning he and Chadwick stood beside a dirt road and said goodbye for the last time. Chadwick took a pendant from around his neck and handed it to Wigner.


“I want you to have this,” he said, “I won it when I fought Lighting Ray in Mendocino.”


Wigner examined the gold pendant. On one side a figure performed a side kick. Wigner turned it over and sounded out the letters on the reverse - COURAGE.


“You better get going, if you want to make today’s mule train.” Chadwick turned and walked away.






Michael’s stomach growled. Because he was a postulant, he had guard duty while the monks ate dinner. He hoped Brother Gamow wouldn’t forget to bring him dinner like last night. Tired and bored, Michael daydreamed about his upcoming ordination. Then he’d finally be able to work with the relics. He wondered what they looked like. Were they shiny and golden like the sun? That was something they left out of the catechism.


When he lifted his gaze, Michael noticed a speck trailing dust on the horizon. He looked through the telescope at the figure. Funny, the approaching man was missing an ear. Michael ran to tell Brother Gamow.


Abbot Szilard convened the Council of Elders to hear Wigner’s report.


“Welcome home Brother Wigner. Where are Brother’s Chadwick and Rabi?”


“Dead. I saw Rabi’s body but not Chadwick’s, though I’m sure he’s dead too.”


Shock silenced the room.


“What happened?”


Haltingly Wigner related the story of how the Chinese in Los Angeles had drugged them in an attempt to get information about the monastery and the relics the monks protected.


“I told you we should have never sent them,” Brother Faddeev addressed the abbot. “Now you’ve jeopardized the monastery’s safety.” The council erupted. Recriminations flew.


“What about your mission, Brother? Did you discover the meaning of the books?” Brother Dalitz asked Wigner, after the uproar died down somewhat.


The muscles in Wigner’s throat tightened. His eyes watered. How could he tell the elders he’d failed? Two monks had died, and he was no closer to understanding the books’ meaning than when he left. Utterly defeated, he sat speechless for several minutes. Nervously he fingered the pendant he wore around his neck. Then a glow started in Wigner’s heart. The warmth grew, until it flooded him with joy. He realized Ra had been showing him the books’ meaning throughout the journey. It was so simple. Why hadn’t he realized Ra’s teaching earlier?


“It is somewhat as you thought, Brother Dalitz.” Wigner smiled. “The books describe what makes up a human being. G stands for greed, C for the mark of Cain, T for temptation, and A for the divine, that which is not of this world. Strangely, one can’t survive without the others. The ancients felt so strongly about this that they wrote down all the ways these parts can fit together.”


“But Brother, that can’t be the whole truth,” said Dalitz, “I’ve examined the texts, and there are groups of four that are missing one of the letters.”


“I can only tell you what I’ve learned. I don’t understand it fully. I’m only a simple monk.”


“Surely such knowledge is worth the sacrifice,” Dalitz said to the council. “The prophets of old, such as Fermi and Oppenheimer himself, would have given a thousand monasteries to learn how Ra works in the world. I believe the abbot is to be commended for authorizing this mission, and those who died should be honored.”


This silenced the dissenters.


“That’s enough for now,” said Abbot Szilard. “Brother Wigner has traveled a long way. He needs to eat dinner and rest. Well done, Wigner. Thank you.”






The alarm bell woke Abbot Wigner. He rolled off his pallet, wrapped himself in his scratchy robe, and hurried outside. Black smoke trailed from the torches the monks carried, as they rushed every which way.


Brother Wheeler, breathing heavily, ran up and panted, “Brother Gamow spotted an intruder coming out of the tunnels. We’ve got him cornered by the sacristy.”


They dashed to where several monks holding torches surrounded a masked figure brandishing a knife. Brother Majorana moved in and swept the intruder’s slash past his face to feed the knife hand into his palm. Within a fraction of a second, the intruder lay face down disarmed. Abbot Wigner smiled and thought of how far Michael had come since being ordained as Brother Majorana.


The monks hauled the intruder to his feet and pulled away his black mask. Abbot Wigner looked at the man’s fleshy face.


“Who sent you?”


The intruder remained silent.


“If we let him go, he’ll bring others. I see no other recourse than to dispose of him,” said Wheeler.


“Go ahead and kill me,” said the intruder, “It’s only a matter of time, before someone else finds you.”


“He’s right,” Abbot Wigner sighed. “Escort our guest out. When you finish, Brother Wheeler, I’d like to see you in my study.”


The abbot turned and walked away. It had been five years since Wigner’s return. Abbot Szilard had died three years ago after naming Wigner his successor. Wigner had struggled to fulfill Abbot Szilard’s final wishes. Now he had almost completed his task.


A single candle burned in Wigner’s study. When Wheeler joined him, its orange glow illuminated both men’s faces.


“It’s time to abandon the monastery, Brother Wheeler. At dawn I want you to lead the monks to the Mormon Free State. As we discussed, you will join Professor Rogers and assist her with her study of the ancient library. I will remain behind. There’s one last task I must finish.”


The community left the following morning. Abbot Wigner roamed the abandoned buildings. He expected to hear the sound of bells and hymns, but all he heard was the whistle of the desert’s warm dry wind and the distant call of crows.


When the Chinese soldiers arrived ten days later, they found Abbot Wigner alone in his study. He sat at a small table with a bottle of wine and two glasses. Major Wu entered after his soldiers searched the room for weapons.


“Welcome to my monastery, major. You’ve come a long way to sample our wine.” Abbot Wigner refilled his glass and poured one for the major.


“I have Chadwick to thank for this.” Major Wu sat and pointed to the long jagged scar on his cheek. “He was a brave man and a worthy opponent.  He was hard to kill.”  The major took a sip of wine and winced at its taste. “I think your wine’s not worth the trip, Wigner. You know the real reason I’ve come. My country has suffered many defeats by the northern barbarians. We need powerful weapons to defeat our enemies. The nuclear waste you guard can help us build those weapons. We’ve been looking for sites like yours for some time. Unfortunately, none remain in China. The barbarians took Lop Nur years ago. Our written sources indicated there was a site near Henderson. I suspected your monastery might be it, when I learned of its location.”


The major emptied his glass and frowned. An officer entered the study.


“Sir, we’ve examined the tunnels. They’re empty except for oak barrels filled with wine.”


“Where did you hide the nuclear waste?” Major Wu’s face flushed with rage. He grabbed Abbot Wigner by the lapels. “Where is it?”


Abbot Wigner felt tingling in his fingers and toes, the first signs the poison he’d put in the wine was taking effect. Soon Major Wu would feel it too. Wigner regretted taking the major’s life. He hoped Ra would not judge him too harshly, but as Chadwick had said, no one could kill one of his monks and get away with it.


When Abbot Szilard had learned of the Chinese interest in the relics, he ordered the monks to seal the tunnels and eliminate all traces of human occupation. The monks had then constructed a decoy monastery by a deserted lead mine. Wigner had enlisted Chadwick’s old friend, Ray, to ensure mule drivers kept the original monastery’s whereabouts secret. With luck the Chinese would believe they’d been mistaken and call off their search. If not, well, there was a lot of desert out there.


Abbot Wigner’s limbs became weak and numb. Major Wu’s screaming sounded muffled and far away. Wigner felt a loving warmth and entered Ra’s golden light. The last abbot smiled and exhaled his final breath.






Ó 2004 by Jon Wesick.  I have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and have worked in medicine, software, and communications. I've published almost ninety poems in small press journals such as Pudding and Slipstream and was a runner up in the San Diego Book Awards twice. My short stories have appeared in Tidepools and Vortex of the Macabre. I have written two unpublished novels.