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A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
I rode a Concord Trailways bus into South Station the day after the Sox got eliminated from the playoffs. It was the first day that I could really feel the change in the season, a day with highlights of yellow and orange in the woods along I-93 and Halloween decorations going up in the drugstores and supermarkets. In Salem they were gearing up for their money-making season, although the local papers ran stories about how the town council was finally making moves to downplay the whole 'Witch City' image. Spooky World was out of business after a lease deal gone bad, and I'm sure that all of this was sparking outrage in some obscure corner of the internet. To me it was just economics. There wasn't any money to be made in haunted houses this year. Although, word was the corn maze business was booming out in Hudson and Boxboro. Personally, I was already sick of the season. Autumn clogs up the New Hampshire highways, back roads, and diners with busloads of senior citizens on leaf tours.
Of course, the normal cure for seasonal blues is a small dose of patience. Up in Brattleboro they were having an outbreak of public nudity, and when the Boston Herald sent a reporter to ask what they planned to do about it, the mayor unwittingly quoted George R.R. Martin.
He told the reporter "Winter is coming." Yeah, that's one way to solve the problem. Gotta love New England. Don't like the weather? Wait a few minutes. For my part, though, I was hoping a change of scenery and a visit with an old friend might be the answer.
I walked through the terminal past the college kids lining up for the Chinatown bus to New York, while businessmen tipped cabbies and power-walked down the train platform to catch the Acela or the Silver Line to Logan.
Leaving South Station, I passed in and out of the shadows of the late-'90s construction boom in Boston's financial district. The streets here are dead most of the day, or asleep, at least. The financial district is crepuscular. It comes to life at the morning and evening rush hours, with a brief stirring to stretch at lunchtime. It was ten in the morning when I got into town, and I walked alone, aside from the occasional meter maid on the hunt.
I turned down a narrow side street that intersected at an aesthetically jarring angle, a good reminder of why I'd taken the bus. The wacky turns, one-way streets, and ubiquitous no-parking zones had long ago convinced me that Boston wasn't a city to be driving in.
Halfway down the little street was a dumpster, and beside it a short flight of stairs that led to a locked door with a speaker box. The name of the store was Questions, although the only sign was on a window two floors up, with neat white lettering that just said 'Jokes, Magic'. I pushed the buzzer and waited.
"Chester Hall. Long time, no see. Speak friend and enter." I recognized Antonio's voice by its rhythm, as the intercom distorted the sound of it into a squawk. He'd done a good job of installing the camera. I probably wouldn't have spotted it if not for the fact that I'd been there when Fred Boyle's security company had installed it about a year back.
I waved to the camera, leaned into the speaker and held the button. "Mellon."
The door buzzed and I pushed it open.
People expect a store like Questions to be dusty and cluttered, but Antonio keeps it spotless. A couple of rotating display racks up front hold all of the party-poppers, plastic vomit, joy buzzers, silly string, and rubber spiders that kids coming in off the street might go for. The rest of the store is sparse, with shelves and glass cases displaying elaborate wire puzzles, ornate wooden boxes for playing cards, and the occasional trick cane or hat.
Antonio sells mostly to professional stage magicians. He's a performer himself, one of the best in the business, although he plays mostly private gigs for corporate parties. He's also a consultant for the Skeptical Enquirer. Antonio follows a long tradition of conjurors, including James Randi and even Houdini himself, dedicated to exposing practitioners of the supernatural as frauds.
I'd known Antonio since back when I was working for Jake Horner and just learning the detective business. Antonio was one of many consultants that Jake used every so often. Jake would sometimes send me down to Boston to deliver evidence for Antonio to look over, and I was pretty fascinated by the magic business. Antonio ended up teaching me a few card tricks, although I didn't have the patience or the manual dexterity to get really good at them. He'd tell me about places he'd traveled while I fumbled with the cards over and over again, and we got to be pretty good friends. Jake used Antonio for helping him figure out scams and confidence jobs, and once I got my own practice up and running started I'd called Antonio in on a few of my cases.
Antonio came over from behind his cash register to greet me at the door. His age was hard to tell. His hair was full and thick black, combed meticulously, but he had the eyes of an old man and a weary smile that hinted at vast stores of secrets. Antonio could beguile you with small talk for hours, or he could cut through a mile of bullshit to find the bit of truth you'd been keeping inside. Before I could even start bullshitting he waved me over to the little card table in the back of the shop and sat down across from me.
"Now, Chess." he said. "Tell me what brings you here."
For a moment I wasn't sure of the answer. My view of life has never exactly been roses and happiness, but suddenly the past six months came crashing down on me. I saw Emily Barrington staring at nothing while her mother helped her dress. I saw Anne Daley's brains smeared on her pillow in those crime-scene photos, and Liz Finkel tripping over the words to express her grief. I saw Katy slamming the door as I drove her out of my life, and Melissa down in that hole in the ground sobbing because Mattie Ives had still been alive when Richard Harrington buried her. And I saw Christina Kenney's smug grin, the one she had on when she left Nancy Mateo unconscious on a restroom floor at the convention center. For a second, I thought I was going to be sick.
Instead I reached into my bag and placed a photocopy of the cover of the Edge of Mystery pulp magazine on the table. The copy had come to me last spring by way of Christina Kenney.
"This brings me here, Antonio. This and a long story if you'll listen."
We sat in the store and I talked well into the afternoon. Sometime around two a delivery guy showed up with Chinese food and Antonio dished me out a pile of chicken chow mien and pork fried rice. He put it down in front of me along with a slab of bread and a little plastic tub of hot mustard. Chinese takeout places in Boston always give you bread and hot mustard. I ate a little bit and kept talking.
"What do you think?" I finally asked.
"I think you want answers that I don't have." He finished off the last crab rangoon and walked over to his place behind the register.
I decided to play along. "Answers you don't have or answers you're not willing to give?"
Antonio came back to the table with a bottle of spray cleaner and a rag in his hands.
"Spoken like a true devotee, Chess. How about this? You've stumbled onto a vast conspiracy guarded by a secret society that has remained hidden for centuries. Now with the emergence of collective awareness through the internet, the secret of their existence is being threatened. Certain individuals have come too close, and they need to be eliminated. So they turned this Barrington girl into a vegetable. They killed your friend Rigel just like they killed Mattie Ives. Just like they're trying to silence Mattie's ghost. Just like they will silence every person who gets in their way."
"You don't believe that, Antonio. Stop screwing around with me."
"Fine. Tell me what the problem is with that theory. If you'd really figured out everything I just laid out for you..."
"...Then I'd be next."
His grin widened. "Typical mark. Always thinking of yourself. Magic is misdirection, Chess. If you'd really figured out everything I just laid out for you, then what does it make me?"
I got it. "Already dead. Or in on it."
He nodded. "Cyanide. In the hot mustard. It was the only thing you ate that I didn't. Never liked the stuff. No flavor."
"That's funny, Antonio."
He laughed. "Yeah, it kinda was. Okay, the cyanide thing was a bit of a stretch, but you get the point, right? You're seeing patterns in chaos. You're dealing with a run of bad luck. It's right out of Lemony Snicket, a series of unfortunate events that converged with you at the center. Why? Who knows? You religious, Chess? Maybe God is pissed off at you."
"So how did Christina Kenney's description appear in this old magazine?"
"Making assumptions, aren't we? Have you ever seen me do my mind-reading show? I walk out into the audience and then select a random volunteer. I offer five thousand dollars on the spot if anyone can prove that the volunteer has any previous association with me. Misdirection. Everyone is trying to figure out if there is some loophole that could mean that the volunteer and I really do know each other. They forget to ask the simpler question."
"Did you really pick the person at random to begin with?"
"Yes. So let's ask the simpler question. Is that a description of Christina Kenney at all? Or is it just one that resembles her? Or maybe a description that she consciously decided to mimic."
Antonio passed one of his little metal wire puzzles across the table to me.
"It's called the Derringer, Chess. The object is to separate the ring from the rest of the puzzle."
It was shaped a bit like a pistol, a little maze of metal loops, wires, and rings. I fumbled with it for a minute or two, getting nowhere.
"What about what Christina did to Nancy Matteo?"
"What did she do to her?"
"Well, I don't know exactly. Nancy couldn't remember anything."
Antonio shrugged. "Maybe this Christina woman knows kung fu."
I tugged uselessly at the puzzle.
"Let me ask you something else, Chess. What is Christina Kenney's archetype?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're a gamer, right? Her character class. What is the set of rules she follows? Is she a vampire, a witch, a ghost, what?"
I shook my head. "Not a clue. She's lived for a long time. She still looks young. She does something with things that people have written. It gives her some kind of control, feeds her power. I guess I could go with a label like psychic vampire, but it's a stretch."
"And she gets super kung fu as a fringe benefit? Or maybe your friend Nancy is just having trouble admitting to herself that she got her ass kicked in under two seconds."
"Nancy's pretty tough."
"All the more reason to block it out. Embarrassing."
I put the puzzle down. I wasn't making any progress.
"Look Antonio, do you think I'm being scammed here?"
"Well, I have a hard time seeing a motive, but we don't know the whole story. You said this woman, Christina, she had enemies. So for some reason, in whatever wacky feud she has going on, she's decided that it's to her advantage to convince people, yourself among them, that she is some kind of occult being of undetermined archetype. From there, the convincing wouldn't have been too difficult. Face it, the occult is easier to convince people to believe in than you'd think."
"People wouldn't believe the stuff I've been through in the last few months."
"Now, there you go, Chess, underestimating the gullibility of the American public. Aside from a few diehard skeptics and atheists, we are as superstitious a people as we've ever been. Just wait, another couple of weeks and you'll see Fox News and the 700 Club doing those special features they drag out every year to remind all of us that Halloween isn't just about fun for the kiddies. The Christian fundamentalists will come up with every possible objection to wicca or paganism or whatever they're calling it this year. Every possible objection except one. You'll never hear them say that black magic isn't real. Skepticism doesn't bring in the ratings. We've got more people in this country that believe in ghosts than people who believe in Darwin's theory of evolution."
"And your point is?"
"My point is that the old 'they'll never believe me' argument doesn't hold up. Get yourself a Myspace page and post your ghost stories for the world to see. I'll bet you get a thousand adds before one person calls bullshit on you. The problem has never been getting people to believe you. It's getting anyone to care enough to do anything about it."
I looked at one of the metal rings on the puzzle. There was a gap that I hadn't noticed, but it was too small for anything useful to fit through. Except that when I tried twisting it so up against one of the stiff wires, the wire passed through the gap easily. The whole thing came undone in a few more quick twists and I slipped off the last ring and flipped it to Antonio.
He caught it in his fist. When he opened his hand, of course, the ring was gone.
"Thanks for listening, Antonio. You're right. I've just been stressed out lately. I'll work it out on my own."
I was beginning to stand to go when he leaned in close to me.
"What if I told you that you didn't have to?"
"You believe in the supernatural, but you spend all your time trying to debunk it?"
We were walking through the Downtown Crossing shopping area, passing along a row of brightly-decorated pushcarts loaded with lobster plushies, plaster lighthouses, and Sox merchandise while businessmen out of work a few minutes early rushed past us trying to get a jump on the evening rush to the subways. Up ahead was the Boston Common. Antonio had closed up shop early. I wondered if there was a reason he preferred to discuss his secrets outside of his shop. Maybe he was worried about who might be listening in.
"Not the supernatural. The occult. There is a difference. Supernatural means beyond the laws of nature. Something that cannot be explained by science as we know it. The implication is that it is difficult to detect or understand, but as we continue to observe and experiment, eventually we will come to terms with it."
Occult means hidden. Actively hidden, Chess. People have put a great deal of work into hiding some of the knowledge that you've happened into. They don't slip up very often."
We crossed Tremont Street and Antonio stopped to talk with an Indian woman selling little jade statues and jewelry from her pushcart. I stood back to give them privacy, even though I could tell they were not speaking English. Antonio glanced at his watch and I saw him slip something into the woman's hand as they said their good byes. He walked back to me and led me off the path across the grass of the Common toward the entrance to the Public Garden.
"Why are you telling me this, Antonio?"
He shrugged. "The decision was mine to make."
"Whether to let you in on it. We have members who have been pushing to have you recruited for over a year now."
"Do I know these people?"
"Not closely." He said. "You might recognize a few names if I were to toss them around."
"But you won't?"
"No. Let's just say that your actions have not gone unnoticed. You've gone out of your way to help people who couldn't find help in the usual places. Call them misfits or people on the fringe, or whatever you want. You've taken cases that your old boss wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole, and you've been willing to listen to some pretty outrageous stuff without flinching. You've gotten yourself a reputation, Chess."
"Should I be worried about that?" I asked.
"Very much so, but you might take some comfort from knowing the general opinion of you in occult circles. People believe that you're one of the good guys."
I turned my head, scanning the park around us. I'd been on the lookout for any sign we were being watched since we left the shop. There was a bum pushing a shopping cart along the path in the direction of the Statehouse. He looked familiar. Had we passed him at Downtown Crossing or in Chinatown? I wasn't sure, so I focused back on Antonio.
"So who are the bad guys?"
"Christina Kenney and her crew, to start with."
"And what are they?"
"They're parasites, Chess. They live off of us."
"Vampires? They drink blood? Or is this an energy thing?"
"More like that. They feed on creativity. I know that sounds a little silly but it's the best way I have of putting it. They extend their lives by taking possession of the creative works and creative energies of the living and the dead."
"They don't fit your archetypes."
"None of us do. That's part of it. All of the stories. The archetypes are very old. They've been passed on as myth. Along the way, many of us have taken ownership of those archetypes through writing, music, and art. Some knowledge has been distorted naturally. Some of it, we've done intentionally. We are keepers of the occult, and occult fiction in all of its forms is one of our tools."
Somehow, of everything he'd told me, this was the least believable. "Okay, hold on a second. What you're basically saying is that your group is responsible for all the vampire fiction out there? And you call yourselves the good guys?"
"We're not responsible for all of it. Just a seed planted here and there. For most of human history, the problem solved itself. Stories and legends were local. They would get distorted as people passed them along by word of mouth. The real traditions were guarded pretty carefully. Sometime in the 19th century there started to be real potential for the spreading of information by publication. Tactics were changed. One story traces the origin of the tradition that I follow back to a meeting that took place in Lake Geneva in 1816."
"Lake Geneva, Wisconsin?"
"Switzerland, Chess. Although you might be on to something with the Wisconsin thing. After all, Lake Geneva Wisconsin was where they invented Dungeons & Dragons just about 160 years later. Coincidence?"
"I would assume so. Okay, Switzerland, 1816. Should this be ringing any bells?"
"John Polidori. Lord Byron. Percey Shelley. Oh, and Percey Shelley's wife. Maybe you've hear of her?"
"Mary Shelley." I said. "You have got to be fuckin' kidding me."
"Maybe I am, but it makes for one hell of a story, right? Eighteen sixteen was the Year Without a Summer, the nuclear winter that followed the eruption of Mount Tambora. The bad weather kept people indoors, and one night this group was entertaining themselves reading ghost stories from the Fantasmagoriana. What most people hear about this famous meeting of the minds is that the idea came up to hold a ghost story contest. Our version goes a little differently. It was a meeting of a small group of occultists who had figured out that the old reliance on distortion and myth wasn't gonna cut it in the coming age of mass media, so they decided that it was time to start hiding the truth in plain sight. They resolved to remake the archetypes in a form that would be embraced as fiction rather than truth. You know the rest. Polidori wrote 'The Vampyre'. Then Bram Stoker got his hands on it and polished it up a bit into something even more memorable. Oh, and Mary Shelley's book turned out to be pretty influential too."
"Revisionist history is a dangerous thing, Antonio."
"All history is revisionist, Chess. But hey, you can take the story or leave it. I wasn't around in 1816, and neither was Ms. Kenney by the way. Extended life is not immortality."
The opening notes of the theme from Dragnet sounded muffled from my jeans pocket. I dug out my cell phone.
"It's for me." Antonio said and held out his hand.
More theatrics. I sighed in resignation and handed the phone to him.
"He's there now? Okay. Okay. I'll deal with it."
He closed the phone and turned his attention back to me.
"Time's up, Chess. If you want to know more of what we're about, then you can come help me deal with some business."
He started walking toward the pond with the Swan Boats and the Make Way for Ducklings sculpture. I followed.
"What if I don't want anything to do with any of this?"
"Then go home and I'll try to put the word out that you're not involved and hopefully no one else will try to involve you."
"And what about your secrets?"
Antonio stopped and laughed.
"It's a free country, Chess. Tell anyone you want. They'll either believe you or they won't. It isn't gonna make any difference. You know what happened the last time someone tried to expose us to the press? The editors at the World Weekly News made so many changes in the story that they guy who reported it barely recognized it when they printed it. Occult figures who steal the imagination of creative people? Might make a good story for a small press SF zine, but it's not gonna fly as news. Now, if the story involved a secret society of cannibals who eat the brains of their victims? Now that is news. So that's what they printed. By the next week, they were running a headline involving President Clinton and his space alien advisors, and the whole thing had been forgotten. The guy who reported it checked into a Red Roof Inn and sucked on the barrel of a 9-millimeter about a year later."
"Is that supposed to scare me?"
"It's just another story, Chess. Now I need to meet some people and we have to deal with one of our own who's fallen under the control of the other side. You might be able to help, but I'm done answering questions, and if you're in then you need to be done asking them."
Antonio turned away from me and started off in the direction of the Boylston Street subway entrance.
Antonio met his contacts at a comic book store in Coolidge Corner. They looked like they might have been mother and daughter: a matronly heavyset woman in her forties and stocky college-age girl. They had the same light auburn hair, although the younger woman was tanned and freckled, and her hands showed hints of scratches and blisters. She'd spent the summer working outdoors. Not the case with her mom, whose hands looked to be the product of regular visits to the nail salon.
Antonio introduced the older woman as Heather, and the younger as Anne. He gave a nod to the kid at the register and we sat down in a little room with folding chairs and card tables that the store uses for gaming events.
Heather took a note pad out of her purse. She'd drawn a couple of sketches of an apartment building from different angles.
"Pretty simple plan." Antonio said. "The man in the fourth floor apartment is under the control of one of them. He's alone in there now. I break the connection, Anne gets him out, and Heather performs a ritual to shut the place down. We could use some help, Chess, or you can come to strictly observe or walk away now. Decision time. You in?"
"What exactly are you planning to do to this guy?"
"Just get him out of there. He's probably drugged. He might resist, but not in any effective way. Heather has her car parked up the block. She'll deal with the energy work to break the hold on him. Meantime, we'll get him to Brighton Hospital and he'll get help for the drugs."
"And anyone who gets in your way?"
"Now that's the last time I have one of these meetings with you in a comic book store, Chess. Look, nobody on either side is gonna think this is worth killing anyone over. I won't pretend that things don't get nasty from time to time, but all we're doing today is helping get a guy out of a bad situation. I'm sure you've dealt with worse."
I was pretty sure that Antonio knew all about some of those situations. "Okay. I'm in. How can I help?"
"Well, as of right now, our plan to get into the apartment building is sort of nonexistent."
"Okay, I can help with that."
The building was in a neighborhood inhabited mostly by BU students, and the apartments had a run-down look. Lobbies of the buildings were littered with flyers from takeout pizza and Chinese places. There were fire-escape balconies strewn with cases of empty beer cans and plastic cups.
I walked up to the main door of the building and tried it. Locked. I figured I had four easy ways to get inside. I could wait until someone came in or out and politely thank them for holding the door. I could hit room doorbells at random until someone buzzed me in. If they tried using the intercom, I'd just tell them I was delivering pizza and apologize for hitting the wrong button. I could trip the lock with something. I wasn't an expert in that area, but this lock was pretty obviously old and cheap. Or I could just break the glass and let myself in. It was nice having options, but I decided I didn't like any of them.
Instead, I walked around looking for a back door. Sure enough, same old crappy lock and a lot more privacy. I was inside in thirty seconds. I found myself in a dusty hall with a couple of coin-op washers and driers. I called Heather on my cell to let them know I was in. Antonio and Anne met me at the front door. Heather was waiting across the street. The elevator had a dusty sign informing us that the inspection certificate was on file with the building manager. We took the stairs.
There was a brief whispered conversation at the door. Antonio didn't think that we'd get an answer if we knocked. The lock wasn't something you could pop open with a credit card, and I hadn't come to Boston with tools for breaking and entering. We might be able to get in smoothly if we could force the door with one solid hit. Anything more would certainly draw attention. Anne was making suggestions about possibly tripping a fire alarm when I motioned for her to take a closer look at the doorframe. The woodwork was pretty thoroughly rotted. I took a step back and put my shoulder into the door hard.
It opened with so little resistance that I stumbled, landing face-first on an old pizza box. I noticed the smell first, then the roaches. They were little ones, German roaches, I think, and they were all over the floor and walls. They didn't scatter, barely moving in response to my sudden entrance. The place stank of rot and human sweat.
Anne walked past me to the man sitting in front of a computer monitor across from the door.
"Mike? Come on, Mike, we need to get you out of here... Get you something to eat."
Anne was trying to help him up while Antonio was taking off the headphones he'd been wearing. Mike was skinny and pale; he looked like he was in his early 20s, a college kid maybe. He was wearing a black t-shirt and a pair of boxers, and there were roaches crawling on his bare feet.
I got up, my shoes crunching bugs as I crossed the floor. There were a bunch of screens open on the computer: Tetris-style games, instant messaging, one of the music downloading sites. I reached for the mouse, but Antonio stopped me.
"Misdirection, Chess. I need to shut down some things that he was using. Check the rest of the apartment."
Anne got Mike out of the seat. He didn't resist, but he wasn't quite conscious either. Antonio sat down and started typing while I searched. The apartment was piled with booze bottles, empty wrappers and boxes from takeout food, and more bugs. There were books too. Typical geeky stuff: Shea and Wilson, Lovecraft, Anne Rice. It was almost stereotypic. I opened the door to the bedroom, a little surprised to find that it wasn't as much of a mess as the living area. It was dusty, though. The room looked unused, or possibly just used to store clothes. There didn't appear to be much else.
I knelt to check under the bed and found a small cardboard box with some papers: Boston University administrative paperwork on top, but there was a bundle of papers clipped together with handwriting that looked familiar. I couldn't place exactly whose it was, but my first thought was Christina Kenney. I stuffed the papers in my pocket, not sure whether I was going to want to share them with Antonio or not. I came around to the other side of the bed and checked for anything else underneath. There was nothing, but as I stood back up my attention went to the window.
The homeless guy I'd spotted on the common was pushing his shopping cart up the block toward where Heather was waiting.
"We got trouble!" I burst into the living area, my cell phone in hand. Anne had Mike on the couch, gently holding his hands while Antonio worked on the computer.
"We were followed. Heather..."
The mention of her name was enough to send Anne running. I was out the door behind her, trying to get the phone to bring up her number from the recent calls list. I was half way down the stairs when I got to it, and I stopped on a landing and hit send, than put the phone to my ear and started running again.
"Look out!" I yelled. The answer I got was a scream and a bang of metal striking metal.
I came out of the building just as Anne was crossing the street. The guy had Heather pinned against the side of a parked car with his cart and I could see he had a knife. Anne yelled as she ran at him and he pulled the cart around and rolled it at her. It hit her hard and she almost went down, but she scrambled around it. The guy looked at Anne and me coming for him and saw that Heather had managed to get some distance away from him. He must not have liked those odds, because he turn and ran.
We were lucky. Heather had been bruised up quite a bit, but she hadn't been cut. The guy got her purse, but she didn't seem too concerned about that.
"The foci are locked in my car." I heard her tell Anne. "I'm not dumb enough to stand around in the open with them."
We walked to the car together and Heather got a small velvet bag from the trunk. We drove around the block and double parked at the entrance to the apartment building. Anne and I helped Mike out of the building and into the car and Anne took the wheel while Heather and Antonio went back in to do what needed doing.
"Need help?" I asked.
"Sorry, Chess, this is the part about not revealing how the trick works." Antonio said. "Details of the rituals are limited to the ones charged with performing them. Help Anne look after Mike and have the car ready to go. We'll make it quick."
I stayed outside the car, watching people pass up and down the block. Antonio hadn't thought his enemies would be willing to kill over this, but their man had meant business with that knife. Things were escalating, and I was worried the bum could be on his way back with reinforcements.
Heather and Antonio only took a few minutes. Once we were on the road heading for the hospital I finally asked Antonio whether doing this ritual had really been that crucial.
"A necessary risk. Mike has been through hell these last few weeks. We brought that to an end. True endings require rituals. It's the way of things."
I thought about that all the way back to New Hampshire, wondering about Antonio and Rigel and Mattie Ives. Wondering about rituals, endings, and beginnings.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2006