Gilligan “Beets” Robertson began the inspection of his cell one more time despite knowing full well he was about as likely to discover a weakness as he was to escape Elementary School Hell after his classmates learned his given name really was Gilligan, recorded as such in the Coward County Courthouse. His mother had been stoned–exquisitely so–when she bestowed the moniker upon his helpless infant form. His father had no say in it; he’d been tripping on LSD with an old flame at the time, shortly before the two of them stripped off all of their clothes and jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
For a dungeon detainment unit, it wasn’t small. In fact, it measured a good twelve feet on each side, a perfect square marred only by the steel door set firmly in the middle of the hallway wall. He wasn’t sure, but the thought crossed his mind that they’d made it that big for one of two reasons. Either they wanted room enough for torture squads to do their bloody work in-cell or they hoped he’d become frustrated enough to lower his head and take a run at a wall, thus saving them the effort of doing their own wet work.
Twelve feet square. Seven feet high, the low ceiling designed to what? Add a sense of oppression to the otherwise spacious room? Terrify those who couldn’t stand being underground?
He didn’t know. He wasn’t the architect who’d designed the place.
He knew where he was, though. Three stories underground, directly beneath the Great Falls corporate headquarters of Vigilant Enterprises. The CR’s, Committee Representatives, had taken his statement politely, never once so much as raising an eyebrow despite the utterly outlandish nature of his story. Renegade Soren Kirk employing an entire squad of professionals, warriors so effective that they’d wiped out the Great Falls Top Five without raising a sweat, leaving one survivor to carry the word back to Great Falls? Hell, if he’d been on the receiving end of that whopper, he wouldn’t have believed it, either. Never mind that it was more true than false.
Strangely enough, he was about ninety percent convinced there were no monitoring devices in the cell. He could be wrong, certainly. Viglant Enterprises made wireless cameras small enough to escape detection by better senses than his. But left to his own devices for days and nights on end, he’d had more than enough time to clear his mind. Eight days? At least that, though his memory fuzzed a bit; it could be nine. Nine meals passed in through the solid steel revolving door that, unlike an old school meal slot, never once allowed him even a glimpse of anything outside of the cell. Nine toilet buckets passed in, complete with lavender scented Pine Sol gracing the few inches of water in the bottom. Nine used buckets passed back out, though he’d had to send out two at once, that first time.
It had taken him one cycle to figure out the toilet rotation thing.
On the other hand, it was the toilet rotation thing that had led him to conclude he was (probably) not being monitored in any way. The only reason he could picture for using portable pails of pee and poo rather than plumbing in a basic steel stool…yes. It made sense. If the upper levels of Vigilant Enterprise headquarters (Great Falls) were investigated by authorities for any reason, a water pipe running farther underground than shown on the original blueprints could easily betray the dungeon’s presence. Video recordings of the cell? Likewise. Even a thin little wire…likewise.
The Execution Committee did not intend for this subterranean level to be found. Ever.
Obviously, his captors knew he was still alive. Unless Casper the Friendly Ghost was hanging out in the cell, sending the daily empty food tray and not so empty toilet buckets back out just to mess with them…yeah. They knew Beets Robertson was alive, still eating and shitting at least, never mind the creative lack of toilet paper. Beyond that, perhaps they simply didn’t care. More likely, he thought, they were waiting on something. Waiting to see if Soren Kirk had the balls to follow up on his threat. He’d told Beets to pass on the warning and Beets had done it. At the end of his action report, he’d said,
“Seed told me to tell you that if I don’t call him every third day to let him know I’m still okay, he’ll be coming for you.”
He’d told them, all right, exactly as instructed. To a man, they’d stared at him, incredulous at first, shifting to anger in two of the five, wild laughter in the other three. The founder had regained his composure first, thundering at the security force, “Take this idiot downstairs and throw away the key!”
Seed, he thought for the thousandth time, I told you they’d call your bluff. I sure as hell hope you come up with something before they decide it’s time to yank me out of here and feed me to the shredder.
Doc Menning cleared me for takeoff at 7:30. By 7:40, Sissy and Judi and I were outa there, slinging our bags into the Pontiac’s trunk. I climbed in behind the wheel, fired up the engine, and turned the Grand Prix’s nose toward the highway, resisting the urge to smash the throttle to the floor. Larry wouldn’t appreciate it if I sprayed gravel all over his garage door.
The left arm would have to be babied for a few weeks yet, but it was good enough to hang onto a steering wheel. Sissy rode shotgun, taking her role seriously and scanning in every direction. Judi had the back seat; I caught her grinning like a fool, her blue eyes dancing. Once back on I-90, I did put the hammer down, the beefed up ’89 rocketing up to 90 mph without breaking a sweat. That wasn’t her top end, not by a long shot, but we didn’t want to be outrunning the reach of the vehicle’s radar detectors, now did we?
With the stereo cranked up, belting out Chris LeDoux’s song, It’s a Honky Tonk World, we rocketed down the highway. Garrison flashed by in a blur. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but we blew the doors off of what there was. A sedate pace, really, a mere fifteen miles above the limit.
I was still feeling pretty frisky when we turned off at Drummond and looped back on the frontage road to hit State Highway 271, but the first frenzied burst of joy at being back in control of my own destiny had settled down to a relative simmer. The CD came out of the deck and went back into the box. We eased on up through Helmville Canyon, doing a mere 35 mph through the curves…and Sissy’s cell phone went off. She parked it in the hands free cradle. “Yo, Jack!”
“Sissy? Sounds like you’re in the car?”
I cut in. “Yo, Jack. Here we be, all us three. What’s cooking?”
“Not sure what, but Wayne is who’s cooking. Care to join us and Good Neighbor Sam for brunch?”
This couldn’t be good. Soren Kirk was at Jack’s? We’d never invited him in close like that before; we’d always gone down to his place. Well. If I hesitated any longer, it would be way too obvious. “On our way, just cleared the canyon.”
Judi yelled from the back seat, “Tell Wayne I want crepes! Blueberry!”
Hill’s chuckle came back loud and clear. “Will do, kiddo. You know he could never resist you. See you all shortly.”
Sissy disconnected. “War council?”
I shrugged, a motion the healing arm didn’t precisely appreciate. “Don’t reckon it could be anything else.” Jack had made it sound like a casual invitation to friends, of course, but that was just in case the bad guys were listening in, snagging our phone conversation from the airwaves. We might all be a bit paranoid, but that paranoia had saved our tails more times than we could count. Maybe we were just hyper vigilant. Not paranoid. Realistic.
Jack’s kitchen table was set by the time we arrived. The aromas of a Wayne Bruce produced food spread, a regular breakfast buffet with Carolyn West bustling around in her role as serving wench…hey. It would have been enough to remind a man in a coma he was starving, and I wasn’t in any coma. Not any more, I wasn’t. Hill and Kirk were seated across from each other, their demeanor as solemn as an undertaker after an Old West shootout, but I was having none of it.
“Business later,” I declared. “Eat first.” Doc Menning had fed me as well as he knew how, but the good sawbones was no Wayne Bruce. I eased into the nearest chair. Carolyn passed me a plate of waffles. I snagged one. The link sausages were within reach. Good enough; as Larry the Cable Guy would say, Get ‘R’ Done.
Thirty minutes later, I finally sat back, savoring the cup of coffee Judi had poured for me. For that half hour, I hadn’t really noticed anybody else.
“Damn,” Soren Kirk remarked, ticking the tally off on his fingers, “Treemin, you just inhaled three waffles, eight sausage links, a rasher of bacon, three fried eggs, a batch of hash browns, two cinnamon rolls, and you even stole one of Judi’s favorite blueberry crepes right off of her plate. I’ve seen teenagers eat like that, but I swear this is the first time I’ve observed a grown man who wasn’t a six hundred pound couch potato put it away with such unbridled enthusiasm.”
I grinned, loosening my belt. “My compliments to the chef,” I said, finally paying attention to Wayne. The gay man actually blushed. First time I’d seen him do that. The man was a five star cook and an all star warrior, but it suddenly occurred to me that he might also, you know…like me.
Thankfully, that didn’t disturb me much. It was really a compliment, right? Besides, he was Jack’s slave, as was Carolyn West–wait a sec. Sissy had once been Jack’s slave, too, and now she was my–
Shit. I’d best be careful around Wayne from now on. Wouldn’t want to give him any ideas…if I haven’t already. Ah, it should be all right. Everybody appreciated Wayne’s cooking…right?
“Okay to talk business now, Tree?” Jack’s voice was dry, but one side of his mouth was quirked up and his eyes twinkled. He’d been happy to see me eat, happy I was alive and healthy enough to do justice to the grub.
“Reckon so.” I took down a healthy swallow of coffee; nobody else spoke. “Let me guess. Beets hasn’t been checking in.”
“Got it in one.” Soren looked serious but no more than that. We’d all known sending the wounded warrior back into the lion’s den was a risky move. Clearly, it had backfired. “He checked in just before he got back to Great Falls, let me know his twenty, and that was the last time.”
“So.” I loosened my belt another notch, thinking. “Either they’ve killed him or they’re holding him somewhere, with or without torture.”
“That’s the way it looks. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive, but I am ninety-nine percent sure he’s still in the Great Falls headquarters area.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
Kirk hadn’t eaten much; he’d been too busy chewing things over in his mind. “When I left Vigilant, I stole every piece of useful equipment I could lay my hands on. One of my better snags, as it turns out, was a batch of GPS transponders along with receivers that are tuned to the transponders. I had a couple of those units in a cache near Slot Rock in Gargoyle Garden. Before Beets drove out with his load of dead buddies, I implanted him with a transponder.”
Jack had undoubtedly heard all of this already, but we hadn’t. Sissy asked, “Wouldn’t the VE people have found the transponder when they searched him? Because trust me, nobody’s going to be jumped on by that bunch without getting searched.”
“It’s possible,” Kirk admitted, “but the odds are good it escaped detection. First of all, these transponders are really, really small, practically microscopic. You might see one as a dark speck if you have 20/10 vision, but even to implant them, you have to use a very thin needle, a saline solution, and major magnifying lenses. Plus, we decided the best place would be in between his toes on the left foot. And best of all, not only can each transponder can be tuned to its own frequency before it’s implanted, but it’s equipped with danger detection. If any scanner/receiver is noticed, other than the unit I specifically mated to it, it shuts itself down completely.”
“After that, it’s dead?” I inquired.
“No, not dead. Sleeping. It waits a predetermined time–Beets and I settled on twenty minutes–than reboots. If the enemy wave is still pulsing in the area, it shuts down again for another twenty minutes. And so on and so forth until the coast is clear.”
I had to admit that was pretty good. “So…now what?”
Jack took the cue. “Tree, it looks to me like we’re tied in with Good Neighbor Sam here whether we like it or not. He didn’t know he was bringing his war home to us, and in fact it was our decision to step into the breach. That said, if we as a team don’t take at least hit Vigilant hard enough to make them cry uncle, we’re all toast. We’re no pushovers, but bottom line, there just aren’t that many of us. If they throw enough at us, soon enough, hard enough, we’re done for. Plus, did you know Beets’s real name is Gilligan?”
“Gilligan?” I snorted, spraying coffee all over the place. Fortunately, none of it got on anybody but me. Wayne Bruce hopped to, mopped up most of the spill with a paper towel. He looked at the stain that had hit the crotch of my jeans–at least, I’m going to assume that’s what he was looking at. Then he winked and headed off to drop the paper towel in the trash can under the sink before returning to his own seat.
Not that I noticed.
“Yep.” Jack grinned ear to ear, his toothless mouth making him look like a demented jack-o’-lantern. “Gilligan Robertson…I don’t believe he’s out of it yet.”
“Ah.” That was good enough for me. All six people in our two households took our dreams to be serious things. Except of course when they weren’t. “So…Soren, if he’s where you think, on the down low in the VE building…what are your thoughts on a rescue? You do want to rescue him?”
“Absolutely,” Kirk nodded. “But here’s the thing. This has gone beyond my skill level. If he’s in there deep enough the transponder can’t get out a signal, they must have a deeper level that doesn’t show on any of the original blueprints I swiped on the way out. I have a really clear picture of the basement and subbasement, in fact I’ve been on both levels at one time or another, but if Beets is tucked away deeper that that–which I believe he has to be–we’d be flying blind trying to tackle it.”
“Could a strike team make it into the upper levels and back out again? Alive?”
He stared at me. “To what purpose? If we don’t know how to find Beets….”
“I wasn’t thinking of you actually finding him,” I said, shooting a glance at Carolyn West. She was smiling, her eyes sparkling in a way that helped me understand why she’d been Jack’s main squeeze for lo these many years. The woman might not be a fighter, but she knew where I was headed with this. “I was thinking you and a few friends might just stir up one hell of a diversion.”
My convalescing arm reminded me occasionally that it wasn’t supposed to be back on combat duty. I told it to shut up. Besides, the canvas bag slung over my right shoulder only weighed fourteen pounds and my newest favorite pistol, a Walther CCP 9 millimeter, shot just fine one handed.
Diamond Paws was something else. Watching him work in the beam of my miner’s light on the hardhat, I was amazed all over again. True, the mask was necessary, what with so much dirt flying–not to mention the occasional rock–but the eight foot Umthnn’s mining process was…extraordinary. He didn’t need the light, of course; that was only for the human in the tunnel. His digging claws were what, diamond carbide tipped? We’d known he could tunnel quickly, but seeing was something else. Not only that, but his limbs were smoothing the walls of the tunnel as he went, compacting the soil (and occasional rock) so that where the digger went, there went a newly completed passageway.
He left no muck pile behind, none whatsoever. The tunnel was…hell, it was beautiful.
I had a question, though. When he called a halt to catch his wind, slumping to an utterly relaxed position against the south wall, I had to ask. “Diamond?”
“Mm?” Having four mouths, one under each round eye, allowed him to drink from his oversized water bag and converse at the same time.
“When you fill in a tunnel, how do you undo the compacted finish you have on these walls? Well, the walls, the ceiling, the floor I guess you’d say, even if the tunnel is almost perfectly round….”
The giant alien had to think for a moment. “That’s not easy to answer.”
“Because it’s what we do. We do it from infancy, almost, without thinking about how. But now that you ask, I’m thinking there are settings to my claws. I can make them shape the earth, or I can make them jiggle it loose.”
“Jiggle it loose?”
“Something like that. I’m not an expert in your language yet, you know.”
“Could have fooled me.” I rubbed my healing arm absently. A bad habit, that; I needed to get over it. “We’re getting close?”
The great basketball shaped head nodded, one big eye reflecting the light from my lamp. “We’re definitely beneath the building. I can feel it above us.”
“What–you can feel it? You guys have got what, some sort of built in sonar?”
“A sense we are born with, yes. How did you think I was able to pop a tunnel up wherever I wanted it? By guess and by gosh?”
“Hadn’t really thought about it,” I admitted. “Things have been a tad hectic lately. It’s not like my brain is looking for things to do.”
“Well, get your charge ready. A few more minutes.”
Withut further ado, Diamond flowed back to his feet. This time, though, he did not continue tunneling forward. Instead, he began whirling his claws overhead, driving straight up toward the surface. It took me a minute or so to quit gawking. An Umthnn in his element is a joy to watch, or at least it seemed that way to me. But I did have work to do. The digger swore he could pinpoint the center of the room, sensing the location of each wall as easily as a human differentiated between red and green traffic lights. He also remained confident that he could tell me the thickness of the concrete we’d be blasting and even the amount of rebar in the way. The idea was to pop the concrete just enough to crack it thoroughly, giving my furry friend places to put his digging claws. “If it’s cracked a bit, I can rip a hole up into the room in a hurry,” he’d assured me. “A matter of seconds.”
Which was a good thing. Seconds might be all we’d have; you could never be sure about these things.
Nearly an eighth of a mile we’d come underground, all the way from the abandoned building that provided cover for our nefarious enterprise. Diamond had manually drilled the tunnel all that way in just two long shifts; the Umthnn could seriously haul dirt as long as he wasn’t dealing with bedrock. Even that, he claimed, could be tunneled by an adult Umnthnn, but it took a lot longer. I’d had to shore up one spot with stulls where the tunnel crossed under a street, but Jack Hill had come down to help me with that. He wouldn’t have, but my left arm wasn’t quite up to heavy mining work just yet. Not quite.
The left hand was just fine for steadying three sticks of dynamite while I sliced them open with a box cutter, though. The crumbly TNT inside was then dumped into a shallow soft plastic tray. The tray wouldn’t have been needed for an ordinary plaster job, but ordinary plasters weren’t required to hang together on the bottom side of a concrete subfloor; they were usually slapped down right on top of a boulder you wanted to bust up.
So soon? Man, that Umthnn didn’t waste time. I got to my feet, heading on up with the tray in one hand and the canvas bag in the other. Sure enough, Diamond had exposed a perfect circle of overhead concrete, rough where it had been poured on the ground. He eased back around behind me, as fascinated to watch me work as I had been to watch him dig. First, holding a cardboard template of the tray rim up to the concrete, I drilled four holes with the little battery powered boring tool Jack had sworn would do the job. Not deep, no more than an inch and a half into the concrete. Then the tray was lifted to match the hole pattern. Four screws were inserted in the four holes and cinched halfway down, using an ordinary battery powered screwdriver. Blasting cap next, attached to three feet of one-minute fuse with a foot of spitter cord on the other end. I’d previously notched the tray to fit the fuse; once the screws were cinched the rest of the way down, it looked smooth and clean, a truly professional job.
Diamond Paws watched until I flicked my Bic and lit the spitter. “Fire in the hole,” I muttered. We both headed back down the tunnel at an easy lope. Not panicky, but not messing around, either. Three minutes should be more than enough, but when it comes to blowing stuff up, excess caution beats inadequate caution any day of the week. Eighty yards back, Diamond had dug a side tunnel some thirty feet in length. We ducked in there, settled to our haunches somewhere in the middle, and settled in to wait. My earphones were on; I checked their adjustment to make sure I wasn’t fooling myself.
The explosion, when it came, struck us as little more than a muffled thump. A firm thump, to be sure. I didn’t wait for the smoke and dust to clear; we didn’t have any time to waste, now that we’d announced our presence. I’d overdone the charge; there was a ragged hole all the way up through the concrete floor. Several chunks as big as my boot littered the tunnel.
“It won’t take me long to clear that,” Diamond whispered in my ear–a new and rather unsettling experience, I can tell you. “I can cut through that rebar in nothing flat.”
“Hold a sec,” I whispered back, though not in his ear. I like the big guy, but I had no desire to kiss an Umthnn. From an outside pocket, I fished a miniature CB radio, tossed it up through the hole. From the sound of the landing, maybe it was even still in one piece. Then I grab the radio’s twin and keyed the mike. “Beets, you copy?”
This wait seemed eternity long, though it was in reality no more than a few seconds. Robertson’s voice came back, scratchy from disuse or hard times, one or the other or both. “Copy.” That was all. Gilligan was a man of few words. Either that, or he lacked the energy to ask any dumb questions.
“Can you travel?” I didn’t bother with the Over crap or any of that. Like I said, there wasn’t time. Down this deep, we weren’t hearing any of it, but Jack and Soren and Sissy and even Judi were up there somewhere, giving Vigilante Enterprises hell on the home front. The longer it took us to signal the all clear, the more likely we’d take casualties.
Good. I hadn’t accidentally blown him up then, at least not completely. Hadn’t even busted his eardrums; he could obviously still hear.
I stepped aside. Diamond made short work of the rebar, slicing the steel like his claws were born to be bolt cutters. I reminded myself never to piss the big boy off at close range.
“Come on down,” I radioed, and Robertson did, feet first down through the hole, hanging by his fingertips for a second or two before letting go and dropping the final three feet to the tunnel floor. Impressively, he stuck the landing. “Ready for your three hour tour, Gilligan?” I asked with a straight face.
“Up yours, Skipper,” he shot back. I won that round, though; one corner of his mouth definitely quirked upward. I handed him the final items in my bag, a hard hat with lamp and a Walther PPK. “It’s only a nine,” I admitted, “but better than nothing.”
The big man kept his legs under him as we moved out; the stuck landing had not been a fluke. Diamond Paws lagged behind, breaking down enough of the tunnel to block things here and there. Robertson and I were both stumbling a bit by the time we surfaced in the abandoned building, though. We stopped, leaning against a wall infested with black mold, watching a couple of mice dash for cover amid the debris littering the floor. What there was of the floor; we’d ripped a pretty good hole in it so Diamond could start tunneling.
“You didn’t blink at the sight of our tunnel making friend,” I observed.
He snorted, a sound I translated as meaning he was mostly just glad to be alive. “Working for VE, I’ve seen a lot stranger things than that. Besides, he’s got a kind of Harry and the Hendersons vibe to him, don’t you think?”
“So some have said.” I was disappointed. Shocking your newest ally is always fun. He won this one. “We need to wait just a bit. Hear that shooting?” The firefight at his former employee’s headquarters was more than obvious; cops would be arriving by the truckload any time now.
“Yeah. Like I could miss it.”
“Well, watch this.” I pulled the other radio from my belt, the one with plenty of power and a frequency we hoped wouldn’t be noticed by the wrong people. “Arriba! Arriba!” Speedy Gonzalez the cartoon mouse; he was always too fast for the cat to catch. Just like that, the firing ceased. Hot damn. Our bunch really had pinned them down without giving them any easy targets in return. Not only that, but they’d heard me loud and clear despite the rattle of their weapons.
Diamond Paws popped up into the room. I moved to the window, peeped out. Yep, the big Hudson was there, my uncle B.J. at the wheel. He’d had the toughest job of all, waiting around to drive our getaway car, but the Hudson was the only hunk of steel we had that was big enough to carry the eight foot Umthnn in the back seat without flinching. I checked my watch. 3:11 a.m., the hour after the bars close, the best time to stir the pot. Especially when you want a giant alien to be able to saunter across the dead lawn to your uncle’s car without attracting undue notice. Of course, we’d popped the nearest street light with a .22 just to be sure.
Robertson squeezed in between B.J. and me without complaint. His only other options would have been cuddling up with eight-limbed, four-eyed Diamond in the back seat or curling up in the trunk. The Hudson eased away from the curb and headed toward the freeway. I was worried about my partner and my women–and come to think of it, Wayne Bruce was out there somewhere, too–but we’d agreed to hold radio silence until we cleared Vaughn at least. It was extra hard not to let my mind run wild when it came to my girls, though. They were the best, but the weren’t bulletproof, and there was still that old murder warrant out on Sissy….
“They’ll make it all right, Tree.” B.J. spoke for the first time as we reached highway speed. “Jack stole a getaway car early in the evening. Then he stole plates off another car to put on it, just in case. All they have to do is ease their hot wheels on up to Fred’s Truck Stop and swap out to the Pontiac and the Subaru. If anybody knows how to run an operation like that, it’s Jack.”
“Reading my mind again, uncle?” I tried to sound irritated but couldn’t. His words soothed me, right as rain. Soren Kirk had assured us that our enemies would not tell the cops who had hit them; the last thing the Executive Committee would want was law enforcement digging into their personal business. As long as Jack had gotten everybody clear without being stopped by some light-flashing rookie, yeah, we’d be all right for a while. Until VE came after us, or came after Kirk and Robertson, thinking the rest of us were mercenaries, still not knowing who we were. Unless….
“Did they get you to talk?”
“About you guys? No. They got tired of waiting just…last night, I think it was. Guess they assumed Seed had been all bluff, that nobody was coming after me or after them. So they came down to my cell, five of them, took turns knocking me around a bit. But they seemed confused, like they didn’t really know what to dig for. Kept asking where Kirk had found the men he’d hired.”
“So they still don’t realize we’re neighbors, not hired hands? Or that some of us aren’t men?”
“I don’t believe they do.”
“How bad did you get thumped?”
“Well…I’m pissing blood a little. Bruised kidneys, most likely. The rest is mostly bruises. Didn’t get hit in the face once. Don’t know why, unless they were going to make a video or something. Got tagged in the nuts a couple of real good shots. Wouldn’t want to have to sire any little Robertsons for a while.”
I thought about that. “Once you’re healed up, you want to get some payback?”
He snorted. “Treemin, you don’t worry about me healing up. You just point me at ’em.”