The Devil to Pay

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Golden Writer
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Logline or Premise
In 1969, a grad student and cryptography buff stumbles upon an ancient journal that tells of a miraculous plant-based cure-all. As he struggles to decipher the text and to keep it out of the hands of Big Pharma, the threat of being drafted becomes ever more real.

First 10 Pages



Van Dyne University, Ohio; September, 1969

The worn, vellum-bound journal has been sitting in this same spot, on this same shelf, for longer than anyone can remember. It predates even Mrs. Pitman, who has been working at the Briggs Library ever since her undergraduate days and now must be nearing ninety.

No one is quite sure how the book came to be here. Most of the library staff, if they knew about the book at all, have assumed that it was one of the ten thousand or so volumes that Elias Briggs willed to the University at his death and that made up the bulk of the library’s collection when it opened its doors in 1889.

This particular volume is obviously far older than either the library or the university. In the 1940s, a history professor at Van Dyne declared that, judging from the antique laid paper and the stab-sewn binding, the codex (as he called it) must date from the seventeenth century or earlier. It’s in remarkably good shape, considering. Some of the pages are foxed and dog-eared, and several have pulled loose from the stitching, but none seem to be missing. There’s no insect damage, either; someone at some time was diligent enough to freeze or fumigate the book.

If it did indeed belong to Elias Briggs, there’s no way of knowing how it ended up in his hands, or whether he had any notion of what its pages contained. Probably not. Except for a brief passage in Portuguese on the recto page, the handwritten text is totally unreadable. Not that there’s any problem with the letters themselves; the author penned them in a neat if slightly shaky Chancery script, in carbon ink that, though it has bled a bit into the porous paper, hasn’t faded at all. But anyone who attempts to read past that first page—and not many have tried—will discover that the words on the remaining pages seem to belong to no known language.

No doubt it’s just as well that so few people are aware of the journal or what it contains.

Some knowledge is dangerous . . . especially in the wrong hands.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When Simon Hannay was five years old, his father made it clear that he should never, ever hit a girl. And, aside from bumping into a few by accident, Simon never has.

Until now. Now, there’s really no way he can avoid it. Well, you can hardly teach the art of self-defense to a bunch of coeds without making contact once in a while, can you?

For the past two weeks, he’s been wishing that he’d never agreed to take on the class in the first place. He has enough to do already, with his course load and his master’s thesis. And if he doesn’t keep at least a three-point GPA, he risks losing his fellowship. A sobering thought--a bit scary, actually, since he knows that, if he does drop out of the graduate program, the Army is eagerly waiting to claim him. Of course, if the Selective Service sets up a lottery system as planned, it may be able to grab him anyway.

Though it’s possible that the war will end before that happens, the prospect causes him a certain amount of anxiety—almost as much as the prospect of being surrounded by nubile young women in tights and tank tops. When Simon was asked by the athletic director to teach Self-defense for Women, he could theoretically have refused. The thing is, he really needs the money. Whoever claimed that an NDEA fellowship covers “all expenses” clearly never tried to live on one.

Even if money weren’t an issue, there’s the other thing: He’s always had a little trouble saying “no.” Well, okay, a lot of trouble. That’s what happens when you grow up feeling you have to please everyone. In any case, he’s stuck with the job now.

At least he’s in familiar territory. For over a year, he’s been coming to the wrestling room every Wednesday evening for Karate Club, and he actually relishes the musty stench of sweat, the sultry steam heat, the scuffed, creased vinyl mats that give a little under your feet, like hard-packed snow. If he closes his eyes, he can imagine that he’s back in his dad’s dojo in Garden City.

But he doesn’t close his eyes. He has no desire to dwell in the past, and no time for it. He needs to get the room—and himself--in shape for his class. From his locker, he retrieves the worn, slightly dingy karate jacket he’s been using ever since his junior year of high school. He used to have matching pants, but they were always sliding off his skinny hips and flapping around his skinny ankles, so he’s taken to wearing ordinary gray sweat pants.

Simon wrestles the heavy mats into position so there aren’t any gaps; he drags the Karate Club’s makiwara out of the equipment room and stabilizes it with sandbags; he sets up a card table near the entrance to hold the enrollment forms. He optimistically ran off twenty forms, but he really has no idea how many women he’s likely to get; since it’s not a credit course, they didn’t have to sign up in advance. It’s not limited to Van Dyne students, either, so there might even be a few townies.

And in fact, the first one to walk through the door is the short, plump bleached blonde who works the register at Lawson’s. Simon has engaged in small talk—miniscule talk, really--with her a hundred times while paying for his orange juice and frozen bagels, but if he ever knew her name, he’s forgotten it. Apparently she doesn’t know his, either. “Well, hi, there!” she says brightly. “I didn’t know you were the teacher! Instructor? Coach? What should I call you?”

“Oh. Um, well, I hadn’t thought about it. If this were a real dojo, you’d call me sensei, but--”

“Sen-sigh? That sounds so cool. What does it mean?”

“Something along the lines of ‘He who has gone before.’”

She startles him by breaking into the Star Trek theme. “Da-daaa-da-dadadada! To boldly go where no man has gone before!” She laughs at her own foolishness, and Simon weakly tries to join in. The woman bites her pink-lipsticked lower lip. “Sorry, sensei.”

Clearly she’s as ill at ease as he is, and somehow that makes Simon more confident. “No, no, it’s all right. We don’t have to be super-serious or anything.”

“Oh, good. I’m not a super-serious sort of person. Except about shopping. I like your belt.” She points to the tan obi, interwoven with black strands, that’s cinched around his waist. “I just thought you’d have . . . I mean . . .”

“You thought it’d be black.”

“Well . . . yeah. I mean, you hear about how this guy or that guy is a--” She assumes a dramatic tone and makes air quotes with her fingers. “--black belt in karate, so . . . ”

Simon shrugs. “My dad always said that wasn’t important. He learned karate in Okinawa, after the war, and they didn’t care much about rank or belt colors, just skill.”

“Sorry. I hope I didn’t offend you or anything. I don’t really know anything about karate, except what you see on TV. You know, the Green Hornet and—“

Nodding, Simon says it with her. “--the Green Hornet and Batman, I know, I know. Well, that’s why you’re here, right? To learn.”

“Right. So. What do we do first?”

Simon checks his father’s watch—he still thinks of it that way, even though his father’s been dead for . . . what? Six years, now? “Well, I guess first we wait to see if anybody else shows up. In the meantime, you could take off your shoes.” For some reason, this sounds slightly salacious to him, and he feels himself blushing.

“Oh, dear.” The Lawson’s lady glances anxiously at her hot pink Keds. “Did I wear the wrong kind?”

“No, no, they’re fine. It’s just that we’ll be doing it barefoot.” Which sounds even more salacious. He’s got to get his act together, start behaving more like a sensei and less like a blockhead. As the woman slips off her shoes, Simon assumes a slightly stiff musubi-dachi stance. “You’ll need to sign this enrollment form,” he says, in a tone that’s maybe a bit too businesslike, but at least not blockhead-like. He glances surreptitiously at the form as she inks in her name: Felicia. Not that he’s likely to remember it anyway.

Simon does a little shin kokyu deep breathing, and when the next victim arrives, he’s feeling more in control. He bows slightly and says, “Ohayo.” Only when the coed gives him a bewildered look does he realize how odd that sounds, as if he’s reminding her in what state they’re located. Well, not really all that odd, when you think about it; he’s been here five years, and he still forgets sometimes that he’s not in Kansas anymore. When a third girl enters, he tries “Konnichiwa” instead, and that seems to go over better. She even returns his bow.

Though it’s well after ten, the advertised starting time, Simon waits a few more awkward minutes before concluding that this is as much of a crowd as he’s going to get. It’s just as well; when it comes to teaching martial arts techniques, the fewer students the better, and he’ll get paid the same, regardless.

He takes a couple more abdominal breaths, deep but silent—never let your opponent see your fear--and strides to the middle of the red and blue patchwork of mats. “Welcome. My name is Simon, and I’ll be your instructor for the next ten weeks.” He takes a calculated pause. “Assuming you last that long.” He’s gratified when all three women respond with laughter--though there’s an edge of nervousness to it, as if they’re not quite sure whether he’s joking. It’s exactly the way he responded when Dr. Espinoza used that line on the first day of his class in Spanish Morphosyntax. As it turned out, the professor wasn’t joking.

Neither is Simon, not really. He has no intention of going easy on them or dumbing things down. No matter how anxious we may be to please, to be liked, to live up to other people’s expectations, each of us has some area of our being that’s off limits, that doesn’t allow for bending or compromise. For Simon, it’s karate.

“Every martial arts studio,” he continues, “has its own dojo kun—a sort of motto—and even though this isn’t exactly a dojo, we do have a dojo kun--”

He’s interrupted by the clang of the Field House’s main entrance door, followed by the echoing sound of wooden-soled sandals clomping and women’s voices chattering, giggling. A moment later, the door to the wrestling room flies open and the newcomers burst in like Visigoths storming the gates of Lisbon. There are five of them and, though they don’t look like barbarians--they’re all very attractive, in fact—they might have taken lessons in decorum from Alaric the Goth.

At least they have enough couth to remove their footwear, but not enough to close their mouths; they go right on chattering, at a slightly lower volume. No doubt one of the things they’re going on about is him. It’s always that way on the first day of classes, when the professor is still an object of intense curiosity and speculation. Simon doesn’t let it bother him; the last thing he needs to do is pull a Coach Gilroy tactic, and yell at them to shut their pie holes. There are better ways of getting their attention.

He walks casually to the blackboard, the one Gilroy and the other coaches use for diagramming football and basketball strategies. Forming his fingers into a claw, Simon drags his nails mercilessly across the surface. The whispering turns to groans of dismay; the laughing faces twist into grimaces.

Simon calmly takes up his position in the middle of the mats again. “As I was saying, we do have a dojo kun that I’d like you to keep in mind each time you come here—and maybe even when you’re not here: ‘Prepare for conflict, but pursue peace.’ I’m not sure how to say that in Japanese, but we will be using a number of Japanese terms and phrases. Don’t worry, you won’t be tested on them.” There’s some tentative but appreciative laughter, even a little from the Visigoth army.

“The first one is: Karate-do wa rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru koto wo wasuruna. ‘Karate begins and ends with respect.’ As I was saying to . . . um . . . Felicia--” Whew. “—there’s no need to be grim or formal, but we should be respectful of each other, and of martial arts traditions. We can start by being on time to every class--” He glances, ever so briefly, at the giggly girls. Some of them actually look chastened. Their leader, a slim young woman with a mane of probably genuine blonde hair and a perky nose, doesn’t. “--by removing our footwear, and by performing a rei, or bow, like this, more or less--” He demonstrates. “—when we enter and leave the room. Okay. Another term we’ll be using a lot, obviously, is kara-te, which means either ‘Chinese hand’ or ‘empty hand,’ depending on who you believe. According to legend--”

A movement at the rear of the room catches Simon’s eye, and he mutters a mild curse--not in Japanese but in Portuguese, which he’s been reading so much of lately: “Merda!” Not very respectful, to be sure, but appropriate. He’s got yet another latecomer, though she’s nothing like the Visigoths. In fact it takes him a moment to realize that she’s female, thanks to her outfit of combat boots, faded bell-bottoms, and a baggy hooded sweatshirt that bears the legend “Property of Van Dyne University Athletic Department.”

Such shirts are sported mainly by jocks--and by girls who are dating jocks and like being regarded as their property. This girl doesn’t look like either one. She looks as if she got lost and stumbled into the Field House by accident. She pulls back the hood and glances around warily, almost fearfully.

There’s something about her face that strikes Simon almost like a punch to the solar plexus. He wouldn’t call her beautiful, exactly, not in the usual sense, more like . . . He settles on another Portuguese word: atraente, which can mean attractive but also appealing, alluring, captivating. Her short, choppy haircut gives her a gamine-like appearance, sort of like Audrey Hepburn, or Leslie Caron—or how they might look if they had skin the color of toffee.

Simon was just getting into his groove; suddenly he’s way out of it. “Um, were you looking for the self-defense class?”

The girl glances his way, but doesn’t meet his gaze. “Yes. That is, I . . . I am not certain that . . .”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” Simon bows. “Would you care to join us?”

The girl hesitates a moment longer, then wordlessly shakes her head, flips up the sweatshirt hood, and hurries out of the room.

Simon stares dumbly after her until the Visigoths start their whispering and giggling again. “Well,” he says. “I didn’t know I was that scary. Now, where was I?”

Felicia raises a tentative hand. “You were telling us the meaning of karate?”

“Right. Tell you what; let’s leave that for another time. I’d like to get started on some basic kata.” But now the genuine blonde has her hand up. “Yes—I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“It’s Wendy. I have a question.”

“Of course, Wendy. Sure. You should feel free to ask questions at any time.”

“I was just wondering—how come you don’t have a black belt?”


By the time the class is over, Simon is more exhausted than if he’d done two hours’ worth of kumite--freestyle sparring. He’s also famished. Luckily, he just received his NDEA check, so he can afford to treat himself to a chili dog at the Gedunk. Besides, he’s earned it. Except for acting slightly weird when the mysterious hooded gamine appeared, he did okay this morning, much better than he expected.

It’s easier, somehow, to address a whole group of women than to conduct a conversation with just one. Teaching is a lot like performing kata--a sequence of well-rehearsed moves; talking one on one is more like kumite, where you don’t know what your opponent will do next. Simon is good at reading his martial arts partners, anticipating their moves and responding. But when it comes to verbal sparring, he could use a couple of years of training at a social interaction dojo.

Five minutes after he takes a solitary seat with his chili dog and Coke, his friend Mack passes by the window and Simon waves him in. Mack is one of the few people, male or female, with whom he can have a reasonably relaxed, unself-conscious conversation--which is odd, really, considering how different they are.

The big guy is grinning rather sheepishly and limping rather alarmingly. He plunks down—so heavily that the structural integrity of the chair is in danger---across the table from Simon. Trying to sound like the Hippy-dippy Weatherman and failing miserably, he says, “Qué pasa, man? Qué what you call your pasa?”

Qué pasa is about the extent of Mack’s Spanish, which is why Simon replies, “Tuve una muy buena mañana--”

“Okay, okay, Mister I-Speak-Five-Languages.”

“Only four, if you don’t count Japanese. I’m not sure you can count Latin, either. Nobody really speaks it.”

“Yeah, well, I’m lucky to be able to manage one.”

“Oh? Which one is that?”

“Har, har.”

“Looks like you’re barely managing to walk, too. What happened? I thought your knee was pretty well healed up.”

Mack responds the way he always does when he’s done something he shouldn’t have and gets caught out—which is fairly often: He ducks his head and, almost Stan Laurel fashion, massages his buzz-cut scalp with one massive hand. It must be some sort of carry-over from his childhood; Mack seldom talks about his father, but he once let it slip that the old man had a habit of smacking him on the head whenever he screwed up. “Twisted it,” he mutters. “Running.”