“That’s 16.  Three in a row, 17, 18, 19, 20.  George.  Twenty!  Someone took the trouble to paint the letter Phi twenty times between here and 22nd Street.  And then put a red no-no slash through each one.  Twenty, George.”

“Helen, please.  It lets people vent a little steam.  And you’re a fine one to talk.  You tagged your way through high school.  HELL-N was famous, you were one borough short of going All-City before you left for Princeton.  You still get royalty checks from when that guy put Rape of Persnickety in his coffee table book.  Coffee table book!  Jesus, where have we been and where are we going?”

“I’m going home where it’s safe.  Maybe.  Oh, for Athena’s sake, 21.  On our building.  My tags were social criticism, I was hammering entrenched ideas.  These things are targeting real people George, like us, what are we going to do?”

“Drown our sorrows?  Let’s go for a drink.  Just one.  Then we’ll walk Eustace and dive into the stack.”

The young couple, pre-dad body for him, hot librarian for her, both with wavy hair, blond  for him, red for her, both of them in academic casual, crossed smoothly from Flatiron to Chelsea.  Once they were west of 7th Avenue they didn’t see any more Phi signs.  A few doors further west Helen and George made it unscathed to Stiffy’s Downtown.  Stiffy actually came out to meet them at the door.

“George.  Helen.”  Neither of them had ever heard Stiffy whisper before, or seen him looking down at the floor.  “Look, guys, I can’t serve you.  I’m mortgaged up to my pupik with the new location, I can’t afford any trouble.  I don’t even know how we got into this mess.   Christopher and Weehawken.  That’s the place to go.  It’s Number 12.  No sign.  Just knock and go in.  You’ll love it.  This is all going to blow over, you’ll see, then it’s first drink free for you as long as I own the bar.”

“Weehawken Street?  You mean the old Trans Mission?  Thanks, but I think George and I are going to pass.  Eustace probably has his hind legs crossed by now.”

The newlyweds (depending on your definition of ‘new’) took a different route.  “Once there was a way..  to get back home… Without needing to plan a route.  Remember when your mom moved down to Florida and we thought we were the luckiest people alive to get a rent-stabilized two-bedroom Manhattan apartment.  Boy, we really did the rent control tango.  Helen, it’s been months since we did anything on converting the little bedroom.  Last I recall our accountant said making a home-office as a write-off was a red flag. Don’t you think Eustace would like a little Tilly?”

“George, have you lost it?  Bring a little girl into the country the way it is now?  Not a chance, buster.  No glove no love.  Wrap that rascal.  C’mon, let’s take him down and we’ll come back and see about that stack that’s waiting for us.”

“HELEN!”  George didn’t want to risk screaming but he made sure to look like he was putting out 90 decibels.  “Helen, you were wearing Manolo Blahniks!  No wonder Stiffy was looking down.  Maybe he was bluffing us and we bit.   But now…  You don’t think he’s going to try for a reward, do you?  He said he was in financial trouble.”

“Skata.  For three minutes before I left the house, I totally forgot there was anything wrong.  Oh, George.  I’m so sorry!”

George plucked  the leash from the hand of the life-size Lerch he picked up the last time he was at a ComicCon at the Javitz Center.  Although technically, Adams Family characters were literary cartoons rather than comics.  Helen changed into black clogs and put on an ankle-length skirt.  Eustace grabbed the little dog-walk bag—poop bag holder, treat bag and flashlight—in his teeth and walked it over to Helen.  They took the stairs down to the street, George mangling the lyrics to “Me and You and a Dog named ‘Eu’” and the runt catahoula found his first dead thing of the walk, a field mouse that looked like its tail was cut off.

“Jesus, George, it’s even hard these days for the mice.”

“Helen!  George!  Stashy!  Who’s a good boy?  Who’s a good doggie?”  Their neighbor, Mustapha, greeted them while discretely passing back a treat for Eustace.  Then came the dance, Helen giving Stella, Mustapha’s Rat Terrier, hugs and scratches and George wrangling the intersecting leashes while getting a piece of lamb lung for the little rattie, who wandered over to Stashy’s mouse.  Somehow, dog folks just didn’t care about people’s possible or potential or even actual classifications. The dogs gave each other butt-sniffs and a few minutes of friendly sparring.  For obvious reasons, they didn’t shake hands, but they waved their warm goodbyes.

“Ya know, not that long ago, we would have taken him to the dog run in Union Square.  Hold tight, Helen.  Things will get back to normal.  That stack isn’t going to go through itself.”

“That’s one.  Two.”  Helen put two clippings on her right side, then three more on her left.  “Three.  Four.  Five.  Six.  Seven.”  Then one more on the right.  George saw his wife’s germinating discomfort and took over for a while.  He couldn’t resist, of course. ‘Every paper I delivered, the bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.’   Ten articles we clipped this week.”

“Well, husband mine, let’s see what we’ve got.  Ten front page, above-the-fold articles.  Seven related to Phalange news, three about everything else important going on in the world.  Does that say something?”  Neither of them could remember exactly why they started saving headlines to read, in order, on Friday night.  A head-scratching session two years ago came up with 5th grade Social Studies and scrapbooks, but still they weren’t sure.  “Let’s dig in.  Okay.  This is new.  Greek 2nd Phalange Carrying Genes for Cystic Fibrosis, Congenital Tail Syndrome, and Polydactylism.  Senate introduces bill for mandatory sterilization.  Human interest story.  Phalange Members Undergo Dangerous Surgery.  National Institutes of Health to develop fool-proof identification protocol.  Katrina Trailers on the Move; FDA asserts Greek 2nd Phalange members immune to Formaldehyde. Greek 2nd Phalange Member Sets Herself on Fire, Motive Unclear.  George, enough is enough.  Can’t we go to Guatemala or some other safe place?  I’m sure they need forensic systems analysts in Central America, don’t you think?”

For the first time in their marriage, George wanted to issue a command to his beloved wife.  He came up with James Caan in “Thief.”  He climbed the step ladder and reached all the way back on the top shelf of the linen closet and came down with a rifle and a bag.  He used the meat tenderizer to flatten the weapon’s barrel and put the firing pin in a clay pot that was hosting a cactus.  He handed Helen the bag.  “Here is Two hundred thousand dollars.  I am going on a trip.  I’m calling Pat and Annie.  Sometimes it’s good to have in-laws.  They’ll be taking care of you for a few days.   Don’t worry, just stay inside.”

“What the Hell, George?  Where are you going?”

“Queens.  I’m going to Astoria.”  He took a Chi Rho chain out of the jewelry box and put it on under his shirt, then started making calls.

It had been so long since George had ridden the BMT that it was no longer the BMT; it was just the Broadway Line now.  He had never ridden the W train before, either, but he knew where to go.  He got off at the north terminus, Astoria Boulevard., and continued north on 33rd Street, past the Neptune Diner, but observing the high number of boarded up stores and ‘For Rent’ signs on buildings, till he got to the Church.  The Church.  St. George and St. Catherine.  George the dragon slayer, Catherine who appeared to Joan of Arc and told her to grow up and fight.  The place to go before a righteous battle.  The trek was timed perfectly, and George got to the sacred spot just before the early Mass started.  When George took communion, he gave the priest the hi-sign and after the priestly blessing, George met Father Stomati for confession.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you, Yiorgos..  Maybe you’ve forgotten that we usually confess before taking communion, my son.  But it looks like you’re going to need more confession later.  Is this Phalange related?   It’s a shame the extent this affects our people.  How is Helen?”

“Helen is nervous but unafraid.  She continues to do what she does, count things, discerns patterns, sends reports to market research companies, gets paid.  My sister and her husband are with her in the house.  She might have to start counting things inside that are not white crows.  Maybe Pat and Annie can walk around with Helen directing them from home and see what they see.”

The priest tried in vain to suppress a grimace at the mention of the gay couple, but at least he didn’t say anything.  The bearded old man handed George a St. Timothy medallion and a folded slip of paper.  George had enough chemistry in school to recognize it as flash paper, the kind the bookies used to use.

“St. Timothy, Yiorgos.  For people who might have to undergo some very painful procedures before a mission.  You probably won’t need it, but just in case.  Your contact is in your field and should be able to get you what you need.”

At least for the walk back down, George had the outest chest, the innest gut, and the straightest posture of any systems analyst in the Borough of Queens.  He took Timothy out of his pocket and wondered what painful preparation Saint Timothy had to undergo before his mission.  George walked into his destination, the same diner of renown he passed on the way up, the Neptune.  He went to the seat indicated on the slip of paper the priest had given him, then jerked his fingers down as fast as he could, smiling as the flash paper died its brilliant death.  He smiled wider when he saw Athena, his lab partner from Princeton, already seated before a glass of wine.  He gave his old friend an air kiss and she hugged him like she was Linus and he were a security blanket.

“Sun’s not over the yardarm, Thitsa.”  They were both from shipping families and since Athena was a week older than he was, he always called her Greek for Auntie.  “And you know Retsina is basically turpentine, right?  Good to see you.  But sad that you’re caught up in this too.”

“Don’t worry about me.  I keep a low profile.  I’m the one worrying about you.  Are you sure you’re ready for action?  Know what to do if you’re getting shot at or arrested?”

“I didn’t eat before I took communion.  I’ll be ready for action when I get some food.”

“Spiro!  Get my friend here three fat lamb chops, a pile of fries, a glass and another bottle of this rotgut.”  She remembered.  They both shared a smile.  And the fries.  And then the conspiracy.  He laid out the plan for what he would do with the birth records.

“I have just the thing for that, little nephew.  Thitsa’s gonna make everything alright.

The sudden noise shook them.  Bigger Nick had turned on the sound for the 60-inch TV showing the Jackal News Channel.  A guy with a squarish head wearing a ridiculously shoulder-padded dark suit with wide pinstripes was talking.  Or shouting, more like it, the ultra-HD revealing traces of spittle and facial capillaries about to burst.

“We have no choice but to stop the Greek 2nd Phalange.  No, we don’t have to round them up.  No, we shouldn’t strip them of their citizenship.  They are different from us.  They don’t want the same things we do.  They don’t have the same respect for the nation that we hold dear…”  Bigger Nick turned off the sound, and all we had was spittle and alcoholic skin to clue us in on what was being said.  Nick had also turned off the closed captions, but the communications interruption was quickly ended by George’s phone playing “Eentsy Beentsy Spider.”  Pat’s ring tone.

“Pat.  What’s wrong?  No!  Okay.  He refused to bring the package up to the elevator landing?  What union rule?  How ugly did it get?  Okay.  Moises is good people, make sure you take care of him.  Thanks.  I should be home in a couple of days.  Buy off whoever you have to, Helen has my emergency fund.  See you on the other side of the Styx.”  Any husband would have gotten the hell out of Queens and gone home to his wife.  He had an inkling now of what it takes to get ready for a mission.  He took out Timothy one last time and stared into the little statue’s eyes.

“The mailman refused to deliver a package.  Helen almost broke under the strain of this whole thing.  Pat and our super took care of it, but, first, how did the mailman know?  And second, this is going to keep happening.  It’s show time, Thitsa.”

“New York Public Library.  Epiphany branch.  Go at a slow time, like 2:30.  There’ll be a Biwi woman librarian.  Ask for laptop seven.  Here is a list, correct as of five this morning, of passwords and portals that could get you into backdoor.net.  Memorize the list, then eat it.  Don’t worry, it’s vegetable dye on rice paper.   Once you’re in, it’s up to you.

George wanted to feel pumped, so instead of the Broadway Line, he undocked a Citibike and pumped his way up and over the bridge with four names:  59th Street Bridge, Queensboro Bridge, Ed Koch Bridge, and the Feelin’ Groovy bridge.  He took the turnoff for 2nd Avenue and went up and over Murray Hill and down to the classy Epiphany Library.  The laptop hand-off went without a hitch.  It took George about ten minutes to realize that the hack he was attempting had already been hacked, maybe a year and a half or two years ago.  About the time Joe Dolton started whispering in President Spade’s ear about the Greek 2nd Phalange.  Not a good hack, either.  There were enough breadcrumbs for Thanksgiving in all of Staten Island.  Trails led right to backdoors in hospitals, some still open.  Other trails led right back out to Cross-Eyed Bear, a Dagestan proxy for Russian social media hijinx.

“Fuck me.  This is how the mailman knew about Helen.  ‘Everybody knows the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.’  Well, baby needs a new pair of shoes.”  George executed the little batch file that would copy the digitized birth records for almost every hospital in the BosWash Corridor, divide them up, bounce them around, and ultimately land them in a blind dropbox, run the birth names against Phalange attackers, and wait.  “Send lawyers, drugs and money, the shit has hit the fan.”

George took the nearest Air BnB that took cash and had three TV sets.  It took four painful days three blocks from his home but out of contact with his family.  Eustace was probably a whimpering mess, he thought.  On the fourth night, evening news, Lester Holt broke the story.  President Spade, Joe Dolton, and two cabinet members came out opposing any sort of restriction on the Greek 2nd Phalange.  ABC, MSNBC, CBS, and CNN followed minutes later.  President Looseleaf declared that the Phalange Incident was a stain on the United States.  George had to wait till an eleven o’clock slot to hear square-head suit guy fall in line.  George left the keys in the bowl by the door, along with a tip for whoever cleaned up, went home, kissed his wife, rolled around on the floor with Stashy, and brought a laser tape measure into the second bedroom.   It took about two weeks until everyone but the wingiest of wingnuts forgot about the Phalange Incident.  They finally felt comfortable enough to travel openly in public.  George and Helen’s first destination was in Astoria, the Neptune Diner.  Helen had arranged for the big center table.  It was George and Helen, Athena, Father Stomati, Pat and Annie, Mustapha and the super.  Stella and Eustace were in Spiro’s fenced-in back patch where he kept his Maltipoo when it wasn’t at home.  And everyone was looking to George to tell the tale.

“It’s like this.  Being a systems analyst isn’t really about computers; it’s about knowing how stuff works so it can be done by computers.  So.  I happened to remember that every birth file had handprints and footprints of the baby.  I had an algorithm scan the footprints.  Spade, Dolton, eight members of Congress, and a few dozen other poohbahs had it.  They were all born with their second toe, the second metatarsal and phalange, longer than their big toe.  They had Greek toes, Norton toes.  Like three of us at this table.  But that’s not all.  I found bits and pieces of emails in the pipes.  This was deliberately done to provide a target people could hate that couldn’t claim prior victimhood.  They were going to pick people who could curl their tongues next, then people who could wiggle their ears.  It was brilliant.  But they picked on the wrong haplotype to start with.”

Helen knew the story already and wandered off to count unique different desserts; she was up to 16 and then visited the loo.  She came back to the table beaming.  “Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests.  It is in the realm of possibility that Eustace is finally going to have  a Tilly.”