Pittsburgh, the working stiffs anyway, had long since bedded down for the night. In this particular neighborhood, nothing moved but a few stray bits of trash stirred by a desultory breeze, one slinking coyote looking for a place to sleep off the small dog digesting in its stomach, and a dusty eighteen wheeler diesel-rumbling easily down the street.
The coyote stopped in the middle of the street to watch the big rig approach. What it thought of the blue Freightliner tractor towing the white 53 foot dry van was hard to tell. At length, deciding the thing was moving too slowly to be either dangerous or entertaining, the animal tucked its furry tail between its legs once more and dropped its nose forward, shuffling sideways and forward in its odd style, disappearing around a dumpster parked next to the curb.
Slowing even further, the truck was clearly either lost and looking for a landmark or trying to find a specific–ah. There. The left side blinkers came on. Turning into the Sally Steel yard–though no sign marked it as such–the rig clearly felt it had found its home. Picking a spot next to three other similar trailers, the driver set the brakes, opened the door, and climbed down from the cab, fifth pin puller in hand. It took him less than four minutes to crank down the wheels, pull the pin, disconnect the electric pigtail and air hoses, climb back into the cab, and pull away. He would not need to back this one into the dock; Sally Steel had its own yard dog to take care of that.
Not that anything would happen before Monday morning. This being Friday night, the load would have to wait untouched over the weekend, alone and unloved. But that wasn’t the Freightliner driver’s problem. He’d done what he’d been hired to do. Besides, he had places to go and people to see.
I checked my watch. 12:00 exactly. Midnight, right on time. The witching hour, and none more appropriate. We’d promised Chuck half an hour’s head start, enough to let him get well away from the action before it started. With luck, we’d send out the bat signal and he’d circle back to pick us up well before sunrise. Without luck, it promised to be an exciting Saturday in the city.
No one spoke when I rose from my seat and moved to open the door, working the latch we’d custom installed and without which we’d have been locked inside. No one questioned my leadership of this little hunting expedition, either, which still seemed more than passing strange. I’d thought about it a lot during the long drive from Montana, in between going over the battle plan in my head and truck stops and a nap or two here and there. It still didn’t make sense. I was the youngest man on the crew, and by a significant margin at that. Every warrior here, except for possibly Wayne Bruce, had more pure combat experience than I did. My uncle B.J. had damned near had to wipe my nose before I finished growing up, not so many years ago. What the hell did they all see in me?
My eidetic memory, maybe. Could be that. Nobody else could pull up every detail of the plan on instant recall like I could. Yeah. Must be the memory thing. Couldn’t be because I was just such a powerful good looking black man, irresistible to the ladies. Those were fine attributes to have, but they wouldn’t keep us from getting killed in Pennsylvania.
We eased out of the trailer one by one, dropping to the ground as lightly as possible. Although in B.J.’s case, 300 pounds of man packing another sixty pounds of gear, the landing could still be heard a hundred yards off. Far down the street, a coyote made a brief appearance, darting swiftly from behind a dumpster and into the nearest alley, instantly alarmed by our appearance.
Smart critter, I thought.
Behind the row of trailers, I scanned our group, making sure B.J. had his beloved M60 belt fed machine gun–which he did, of course–and taking a quick head count. B.J., Jack, Seed, Beets, Wayne, me. Six shooters, wearing cammies and packing each person’s ordnance of choice, night vision monocles, and radios. It had taken an Excedrin headache or two to put all the logistics together for this operation, but we were ready. For just an instant, I dared hope the next hour or so would go smoothly.
Which was probably what jinxed us. A fellow shouldn’t go around hoping for things like that until done is done.
I took point, drifting down the street as silently as the coyote itself, a dark ghost flowing from one set of shadows to the next. The others were strung out behind me, never less than thirty nor more than sixty feet between any two men. The target was just one block down and half a block to the right; we should be there in minutes.
On the other hand, I should all over myself at times like this, especially when we’d covered no more than a third of the block before hearing the unmistakable -thwup!- thwup!- of a rapidly approaching helicopter. I flattened myself against the brick building I happened to be passing at the moment and froze, peering skyward. The police chopper wasn’t flying down our street, but the probing searchlight did cross over my spot. Fortunately, its direction of travel made it seem unlikely I’d been seen, but I still wished I’d thought to pack a spare pair of boxer briefs.
Whoever the law was seeking, it wasn’t us. I gave it a slow count of sixty before pushing away from the wall. We were back in the big city, I reminded myself. Eyes in the sky were the rule rather than the exception here. There was a silver lining, too; I didn’t need to worry about anybody on our crew; even my giant uncle could find cover like an old school Apache disappearing in the desert.
Midblock, the alley loomed, dark and ominous. A guy who ignores a dark alley in a major city deserves what he gets. A quick scan with the rifle mounted flashlight confirmed this one was empty, though, with the exception of a scarred black feral tomcat staring glare-eyed back at me. Sorry, I thought at it, and flicked off the light.
Three steps past the alley, things got dicey. The sounds of a chase approached from the cross street up ahead. I backed up, ducked into the alley, went to one knee, peeped cautiously out, and waited. Seconds later, a guy on a bicycle made a hard left turn onto our street, pedaling for all he was worth. He wore a gray hoodie, jeans, and sneakers, nothing fancy but not ratty stuff, either. His pursuers turned in behind him, no more than fifty yards back and closing fast. The car was ratty, an ancient 1970’s Ford Galaxie 500, paint gone down to the rust and belching smoke to rival the Marlboro man before lung cancer got him. It had no top, but at a guess it had not started out as a convertible; somebody had simply chopped the hardtop away. Seven guys in the car, all of them white except for the skinny-assed driver, who had a little chocolate going on. Or maybe not quite chocolate. More of a Reese’s peanut butter cup flavor to that one.
Bike boy was heading straight for Mr. Cat’s alley, where I was hiding, but he didn’t quite make it. Peanut gunned the ancient Ford, caught up to the fugitive, and popped the back wheel of the bike with the car’s massive bumper. By the time all the crashing and brake screeching and victory whooping was done, Hoodie Man was curled up in a fetal position on the pavement, the big Ford’s engine rough-idling and making smoke signals while its former occupants hustled to form a circle around the fallen man. The downed guy was white, too, I noticed, his arms wrapped around what likely amounted to half a dozen broken ribs while he waited to see who was going to kick him in the head or wherever.
There was a whiskey bottle being waved around when it wasn’t being passed around between the mighty big game hunters. The brave fellows were taunting Hoodie, enjoying the prey’s terror, working themselves up to it. There weren’t any firearms showing, but a couple of folding knives were being flashed around.
Shit. I don’t believe in accidents; everything happens for a reason. So, what was the reason our quiet little paramilitary strike had to be so rudely interrupted by these Party Boys? Because it was becoming really, really clear that these topless Ford types had some super serious partying in mind. The circle was closing on the victim, inch by inch, more slowly but just as surely as a python tightening its coils around a helpless rabbit. I had to give the man on the asphalt credit; he wasn’t whimpering or begging or anything stupid like that.
I thought furiously, but there was nothing for it. I was going to have to interfere. If I thought this bunch might just break a few more bones and call it a day, I’d have left it alone. Outing our operation here could have horrible consequences for all of us and our loved ones. But this bunch had rape in mind, and when seven drunk urban rednecks from the lowest levels of the white trash ‘hood had finished with Hoodie Man, his throat would be cut. Maybe they’d even cut off his genitals and stuff them down his throat, implying he was a faggot who deserved what he got.
Double shit. I pulled the radio from my belt, keyed the mike, and whispered, “B.J., cover me. Everybody else, hold where you are.”
Without waiting for a reply, I straightened from my kneeling position inside the alley mouth, stepped out, leaned casually against the building wall as if bored, and drawled, “Hell, boys, is that the best you can do?” Putting the wall at my back was by design, of course. If these guys were tougher than I thought and it came down to shooting, nobody was coming at my back.
Skinny-assed Peanut butter cup, the Ford’s driver, appeared to have some clout with this bunch. He had balls, too. Not a lot for brains, but balls, yes. His back had been to me when I spoke, but he turned without showing the slightest bit of worry. “Hey, Smoke,” he said easily, “where the f— did you come from?”
“Question is,” I replied, “what the f— you think you’re doing?”
The others were eyeballing me nervously, more than willing to let Peanut do the talking. “You think you’re tough with that little pea shooter?” He wasn’t about to give any respect to the simple, straightforward M1A1 carbine I held in my hands.
“Not tough, no,” I admitted, lifting the .30 caliber, sighting, and firing in one smooth motion. “But accurate.” The bullet had done what I’d told it to do, smashing the punk’s kneecap. Unlike Hoodie Man, Peanut screamed when he hit the pavement. A lot.
“Man,” I observed, fishing a pair of earplugs from a shirt pocket and inserting them into my ears, “he is a noisy little fellow, isn’t he? Now the rest of you, you might want to unfreeze your asses, pick his skinny ass up, and haul ass out of here in that rust bucket. As fast as you can.”
The six trashies still on their feet, none of whom had invested recently in quality dental care, might have tried to make something of it. I was pretty sure some of them were packing, and hands were starting to ease toward places I didn’t want them to ease toward. But I didn’t have to shoot anybody else. B. J. chose that moment to step out into the street, the M60 held casually, John Wayne style. Trust me, there is nothing like the sight of my black six foot eight uncle looming on a poorly lit city street to bring a sinner to Jesus. The belt fed machine gun didn’t hurt any, either; anyone who’d ever seen a movie or a video game knew what that was.
Whether or not the guy who wound up driving knew what he was doing, I had no idea. He got the Galaxie turned around and out of there though, Peanut still screaming in the back seat, and that was what counted.
I didn’t kneel beside Hoodie Man. Carelessly helping a downed man can sometimes get you dead on the spot. I did not know this guy from Adam’s off ox. So I stayed by the wall, carbine at the ready just in case, and called out softly, “Can you move?”
Slowly, the man uncurled. “You’re not going to take me to the hospital or nothing?”
“This ain’t no charity, brother.” My voice was cold.
“You ain’t my brother. Not even a ride to the hospital. Sheesh. What is the world coming to.”
There’s gratitude for ya, I thought. Hoodie had the look of the homeless about him. He also had the sound of those who believe the world owes them a living. I’m pretty sure they’re called Democrats.
“Your world,” I assured him, “is coming to an end if you’re not off this street in the next thirty seconds.”
His resentment was palpable, but then again, maybe that’s what gave him the strength. He didn’t quite make it in thirty seconds, but it wasn’t much longer than that before Hoodie Man had himself on his feet, walking the mangled remains of his bike down Mr. Black Cat’s personal alley. He was hunched over pretty thoroughly; those ribs had to be hurting like crazy. Worse, he could be bleeding inside, dead man walking. But I was pretty sure he’d find his way to the nearest hospital by one method or another, telling who knew what tale. If either he or gunshot victim Peanut talked out of school within the next hour, this area could end up crawling with cops. For that matter, Vigilante Enterprises security could have heard the carbine go off. If they were warned by that and hyper alert, things could get hairier than crashing a Blackhawk helicopter on a raid to kill Osama Bin Laden.
We’d best get cracking. “Moving out,” I radioed. Resume forward motion. Step by step. I thought about changing rifle magazines, but no. One shot down out of a 30 round mag…no, not yet. I’d just have to remember I had 29 rounds left in this one.
Strangely, my nerves were settling down. Maybe a scare or two on the way to the real action was a good thing.
There were no more surprises en route to the target warehouse. We gathered near the alley door, but not too near, three of us on each side. This door, according to the intel we’d been able to gather, was bolted shut from the inside, never used, but nonetheless a workable point of entry. Beets set the C4 plastique, backed off, hit the plunger, and the door blasted open very nicely indeed. Wayne and Jack closed in from either side, Jack diving through the doorway with his gay lover right on his heels. Which is not exactly as kinky as it sounds. Their job was to lay down covering fire immediately in the cavernous first floor bay, just enough to allow my oversized uncle to get inside and set up with his M60.
Which he did. Our guys stopped firing for a moment. Jack started into our prearranged spiel: “We’re here for–”
Gunfire cut him off. We weren’t certain of the exact number of guards, but it was clear that however many there were, they rode for the brand. B.J. didn’t need any direction; he opened up with the M60, making every one of us extremely happy to be wearing shooter’s earmuffs. Yeah, I had the little foam plugs back in my pocket, but for serious hearing protection, give me a good set of muffs every time.
The defenders had no such thing. Plus, we’d chosen the side door entry for a number of reasons, one being the old machinery parked near the door that gave our guys better cover than the home team enjoyed. Not only did we have heavier ordnance; we had them deafened and Swiss cheesed with ricochets.
“Semi-clear!” Jack’s voice. Semi-clear meant we were pretty sure the opposition fighters were all down…but not necessarily dead. Seed, Beets, and I darted in through the doorway, our night vision monocles scanning as fast as we could scan. Heat signatures from nine cooling bodies; they’d thought they had this place completely secure.
We left Jack and B.J. behind to make sure the dead guys were all really dead. Sleeping quarters plus the Execution Committee’s secure meeting room were all located on the second floor. I took point up the stairwell, expecting a shooter to hose us down at any second, yet no one appeared. Not even our hacker contacts had been able to provide a picture of the floor plan; I was surprised to find not one but two hallways running the length of the building. We split up, Wayne teaming with me on the right, Seed and Beets going left.
Bedroom, vacant, clear. Again and again, five bedrooms on this side. Storage room, file cabinets, clear. Office equipment, fax, copier, computer bank, clear. We came to the end, finding no one, though from the look of bedroom number four, somebody had vacated the sheets in a hurry.
The secure conference room was at the very end of the hallway, on the left. At a guess, it was sandwiched between the two hallways; there might well be another door on the opposite side of the room. I tried the handle. Locked. Well, no surprise there. Beets had more C4 if it came to that, but this didn’t look like a C4 kind of door. I gave Wayne a look, he gave me room, and I put my size 13 boot to it. Twice. Three times. I’d have been worried about getting shot right through the door for my efforts, but as I said, Beets did have more C4. We heard the -thump!- as he blew the far door; I’d guessed right.
Fortunately, my third kick did bend the door enough to slip the deadbolt. Wayne and I drew down on the backs of four Execution Committee members, focused as they were on the far side of the room where Seed and Beets crouched, MP5’s in hand, ready to light them up. One Committee member was missing; where–there. Down already, blood pooling under him, staining the cream colored carpet. Being busy kick-banging the door on our side, I hadn’t noticed the shot.
“You’re in a crossfire,” I advised our targets, and they gave up, handguns dropping from nerveless fingers. Yes, they’d been armed, but these were businessmen, not warriors. Businessmen don’t kill people; they pay people to kill people.
Except for one man. Which one had he been, this Execution Committee member who had at least died with his house slippers on? Soren “Seed” Kirk stepped forward to gather up the fallen handguns while I stepped around the massive teak conference table to get a better look at the man with the cojones.
Ah. The fat one, Carl Thorpe, rumored to be Breck Tollefson’s butt buddy. That made sense; he’d died trying to protect the love of his life. I felt a lump in my throat. Choked it back down out of the way. This was not the time for cheap sentiment.
It was Kirk’s show now. The Seed Man made a slow circuit of the table, checking everything out, even dropping to his knees to eyeball the underside of the table. Beets produced a fistful of plastic cable ties and, starting with Chief Stassen, cuffed each Execution Committee man’s hands behind him.
Weirdly enough, Stassen seemed emboldened by this. Perhaps he thought that having his wrists cuffed meant imprisonment but not execution. It made no sense to me. Ignoring the restraints, he straightened in his ten thousand dollar exotic leather executive chair, fixing Soren with a gimlet eye. “Do you really think you can get away with this?”
“Oh no,” Kirk groaned with mock theatricality, “not clichés! I can’t stand clichés!” And with that, he fished a roll of duct tape from one of his cargo pants pockets, ripped off a piece, and slapped it unceremoniously across his former employer’s mouth, smoothing it in place firmly.
Wayne couldn’t resist. “Careful, Soren,” he drawled, “he’s assaulting you with his eyeballs.”
Which he was, but that didn’t seem to worry our neighbor.
Breck Tollefson, to his credit, kept his eyes on the fallen Carl Thorpe’s lifeless body. That the two had genuinely cared for each other, I had no doubt. Too bad he couldn’t have applied that sensitivity to the Committee’s assassination targets over the years.
Kirk thought for a moment, then shifted the late Carl Thorpe’s chair to one side–after all, Thorpe certainly wasn’t using it–and sat down. “Anybody else feel like spouting off?” He asked seriously. “No? Good. Then this meeting is called to order. Jericho.”
“Mr. Kirk,” the blocky man nodded gravely.
“Mr., now is it?” I asked.
Soren waved a hand in dismissal. “Jericho has always given us field operatives more respect that the others,” he said. “He didn’t just now invent the idea of addressing us as Mr.”
I nodded. Might be a good idea if I kept my mouth shut for a while. Kirk knew what he was doing with these people; I did not.
“Jericho, as far as those of us in the field were ever able to determine–you know, from inside gossip, the grapevine and such–you’ve always been the voice of reason on the Execution Committee. When Vigilante went off the rails, started planning hits recklessly, started killing innocents, we in the field heard. We heard you consistently argued against every bad mission we were ever sent on, not just our team but every team in the company. I have to ask you…is that true?”
“It’s…I’ve never liked tooting my own horn, Mr. Kirk.”
“Perhaps not, Mr. Tanner, but there’s never been a better time for it than right now.”
“Even so. I don’t believe I can judge myself–”
“He has indeed been the voice of reason,” the remaining captive stated firmly. What was his name? Ah, yes. Welch. The one they called Mayonnaise Welch, the Mayo man. Welch had made his fortune in the timber industry before joining Vigilant Enterprises some twenty-three years back. “Without Jericho, our record would be much worse than it is. If we still existed at all.”
Soren leaned back in his chair, considering. “Well then. That’s the real issue, isn’t it? Whether or not VE exists after tonight. Because a couple of things are obvious. One, we can’t keep going after each other the way we have been. If the Execution Committee remains functional and continues to try to take me out, it has enough resources to get the job done sooner or later. On the other hand, if we terminate the lot of you here and now, right here in this room, the organization will fall apart. Without the EC, it’s far too decentralized; every team member out there will be scrambling to cover his own ass, to distance himself from the fallout.
“Two, I don’t believe anybody here in this room would argue that the nation–hell, the world–has no need for a civilian vigilante force capable of surgically removing the most corrupt elements of our society, especially the most corrupt elements of our government. We could talk about that forever and still be preaching to the choir.
“So,” he said, steepling his fingers under his chin, his elbows on the chair arms, “it comes down to this. Would you be willing to take over as Chief of the Committee?”
“What?!” Tanner’s eyes bulged; whatever he’d expected to hear, it wasn’t this. “Why would I want to do that?”
Kirk grinned, but there was no mirth in it. “Precisely. You don’t want the job. Anybody who did want it, like Virgil Stassen there with the tape over his mouth and the veins bulging in his neck, is automatically disqualified for the post.” He paused, took a deep breath, let it out. “I see I’d better cut to the chase. We don’t have all night. Carl Thorpe is stone cold dead. Stassen will have to be executed; his hands are way too bloody, and he’s never going to be a convert to the true faith of killing those who need to be killed and only those who need to be killed. But that leaves three of the five original members up and running, enough for a quorum under the VE bylaws. You do your usual cover up job, bring in two new Committee members who can be trusted to see the light from day one, and bingo, we have a reborn Vigilante Enterprises. Mayo isn’t stupid. Tollefson is a follower. He’s been loyal to the Chief, at least from all I’ve heard, but knowing he’ll be killed if he blinks wrong, I figure you can keep him in line until a suitable replacement on the Committee can be found and Mr. T. can be quietly put out to pasture. It’s a win-win deal. Well, except for the dead guards downstairs, of course, and Carl here, and the soon to be sliced and diced Chief Virgil Stassen.”
Tanner stared at Kirk, disbelieving. “You expect us to murder the man who’s led us from the beginning? The founder of everything we hold near and dear to our hearts? Really?”
Kirk didn’t answer directly. “Beets,” he said mildly, “would you kindly escort Mr. Tanner out of his chair? Shift him over beside Stassen’s chair, kneel him down, shine your flashlight under there. Give him a good look.”
Beets hopped to it; within seconds, the blocky man was positioned as ordered. I’d had a pretty good idea where this was heading. Judging from the shocked tone of Jericho Tanner’s voice, coming from under the table, Jericho Tanner had not. “Needle guns?!”
Soren waited until Tanner was once again seated in his chair. “What did you see?” He asked mildly.
“Needle guns,” Tanner mumbled.
“Speak up, please.”
“Needle guns. The S272 version, most likely loaded with the poison flechettes the lab developed for us in 2013.”
“Where, Jericho? Where are they aimed?”
“At…at each of us. Four guns, precisely aimed at our usual positions. One for me. One for you, Breck, and Mayo, one for you.”
“Your conclusion, Mr. Tanner. It has to come from you. I cannot lead you by the nose.”
“I…gentlemen, the Chief here has it set up to murder us all. Depending on which chair you’re sitting in, the flechettes would take you in the lower abdomen. In my seat, straight across the table, I’d likely have gotten a couple right in the balls as well.”
“Do you think,” Kirk asked quietly, “that you can execute Mr. Stassen now?”
Two minutes later, Chief Virgil Stassen was no more. His corpse was pretty well decorated with bullet holes; he’d tried to jump out of the chair, and Jericho’s first shot with the 9mm hadn’t gone well. But we had it all on film, three different camcorders doing their digital thing while Kirk, off camera, kept an MP5 trained on the back of Tanner’s head. Tollefson and Welch were in the films, too, firing away. Blanks, of course; we weren’t nearly stupid enough to rearm three Committee members at once.
Then we got the hell out of there. B.J. and Jack were waiting by the alley doorway, jumpy as could be. The clock was ticking.
Nobody spoke on the way back to the Sally Steel yard. I’d called Chuck Berenson from the stairwell; he was on his way. The trucker was good, too; despite the fact that we jogged into the yard a mere seven minutes after I called him on the radio, he was already backing under the semi trailer.
“Need a hand?” I asked, huffing and puffing and worrying hard. Chuck was just stepping down from the cab.
“Crank up the legs,” he said tersely, every bit as edgy as I was. I hopped to it, spinning the handle as hard and fast as I possibly could. The steel feet came up off the ground at lightning speed if you were a snail. Damn, why couldn’t the industry have gone to hydraulic legs on these damned thigs? I wasn’t wasting any time, though; it would take a moment or two for everybody else to load their asses into the back.
Chuck scooted under the trailer, shined his flashlight up under to make absolutely certain the kingpin was locked securely into the fifth wheel jaws. He’d once told me about a trucker who grabbed a load out of Denver, missed getting the pin locked in right, and dragged it 800 miles north before dropping the trailer nose smack bang on a residential street in Bozeman, Montana. We did not need something like that happening tonight.
“Load up,” he snapped, and I ran for the rear. All he had left to do was lock in the pigtail that powered the lights and hook up the air hoses for the brakes.
He was already moving out as I scrambled in the back, B.J.’s great hamfist grabbing me and yanking me the rest of the way inside like a stray sack of potatoes. I landed with a thud, but I wasn’t complaining. Jack had the door closed, the latch thrown. We were on our way.
Hopefully. None of us would be breathing easy until Pittsburgh was way the hell back in our rear view mirror.
Uh-oh. Sirens. We were stuck totally blind in here. Yeah, maybe we could have rigged some eyeballs on this thing, but the fewer modifications to the trailer, the less likely it was going to raise suspicion. Besides, we’d been in a bit of a hurry, putting this raid together.
Louder sirens. Police radio sounds. Chuck was stopping. Roadblock? We’d all kept our night vision monocles in place; the faces of my friends looked calm, unconcerned, but they weren’t fooling me. If the police decided to bust open the van to inspect it, we had one remaining chance; B.J. and I had carefully built a false front inside the dry van. But if the cop looking inside was savvy at all, he might well realize he was only looking at 43 feet of interior cargo space, not 53 feet. If that happened, if they looked deeper and found our entire terrorist group huddled in that final forward ten feet, it was all over. We’d talked this over in depth; we were not going to gun down innocent cops who were just trying to do their jobs. They’d have us on a whole bunch of murder charges, plus a dozen or so weapons charges. The only shot we’d have in court would be the camcorded execution of Virgil Stassen; our story would be that we’d tried to prevent the assassination, and we’d stick to it.
But getting off would require the magic of a Johnny Cochran in the O. J. trial. It would be a super long shot, and we didn’t even have any bloody gloves that didn’t fit.
Louder voices. Boots crunching. The rear door opened. The rays of a powerful flashlight seeped beneath the joints bonding the false wall to the floor of the trailer. More voices.
None of us took so much as a single breath. I don’t think we could have done; we just shut down, became statues. Remembering a technique Jack had taught me, I held an image firmly in mind, a reflection of that false wall looking like the real thing, Nothing to see here; move along.
If that cop climbed in, walked forward…
He must have been late for his donut stop. After what seemed like seventeen eternities of flashlight play–but which most likely added up to three or four seconds on the objective side–the light went away. The words couldn’t be made out, but I heard Chuck’s easy tone, bantering with the cop as he closed and latched the door.
It still took three more minutes and thirty-seven seconds by my watch before the air brakes let off and we began moving forward again. I must have breathed a little during the wait, but not much; I expelled CO2 in a rush, sucking in fresh loads of air laden with the odors of fear sweat toxins and stale aluminum. I’d never smelled anything so sweet.
Half an hour later, Chuck fired off a two-hit blast of his air horns, -two-twooo!-, which we all took as a message: He didn’t dare stop yet, but he felt the worst was over. We were outside the perimeter of whatever the cops were hoping to snag.
Would they discover the carnage at VE’s not so secret warehouse? I doubted that. Yes, we’d unloaded a lot of ordnance inside the building, but there was little or nothing outside–other than the blown alley door, which I was betting Jericho Tanner had discovered and boarded up or something. No, more likely the roadblock was relatively minor and random, a result of either gunshot wound victim Peanut running his mouth at the ER or assault victim Hoodie Man bitching about the black asshole who wouldn’t even give him a ride to the hospital.
My mind refused to wind down. It kept running through the details of the operation. Well, except for a few moments, when my bladder refused to be ignored. Fortunately, we had empty water bottles on hand that served as over the road urinals just fine.
Details, details, details. Would the purged and reborn Execution Committee work out? I didn’t see them coming after Seed or Beets again; the blackmail recordings of the Stassen execution should be insurance enough for that. But could they find the right new people to keep things on the straight and narrow? What constituted the straight and narrow for a patriotic vigilante organization, that is. Could they? Not my responsibility, that, but I wondered just the same.
Had we done the right thing? That kind of was my responsibility, wasn’t it? After all, I’d acted as mission leader for this little adventure. Yeah, I couldn’t duck out on that one. Then again, whether I’d done right or wrong, what was done was done. We’d see what the future held when, you know, the future rolled around. And until Jack and I could talk at length in private, I was head banging inside my own skull to no good purpose. Plus, I needed to be home, wrapped up in bed with Sissy and Judi, pillow talking it all out. Hang on, cowboy. Just hang on.
We’d cut it close time-wise. When Chuck finally rolled the rig to a stop at the rest area, six stiff warriors stumbled out of the trailer to greet a sky already starting to lighten. In a way it was perfect, though. We had the place to ourselves; no stray Highway Patrolmen or stray tourist witnessed our transfer to our private vehicles. B.J. tucked the M60 into the vintage Hudson’s capacious trunk and rolled out first with Wayne riding shotgun. Seed and Beets took a little longer, transferring various bits of ordnance to their rental car. I took a moment to pretrip the Pontiac just in case; missing a low tire or a low oil level was never a good idea. While I did that, Jack helped Chuck swap out the plates on his tractor and trailer. Chuck removed the magnetic signs identifying his tractor as belonging to New Jersey Coastal Transfer, and we were ready to go.
Different directions, that is. Jack and I were headed home, but Chuck Berenson was not. He had to head on up to Wisconsin, pick up a load of something or other. I’d never asked what he’d be hauling; that was his business. We’d see him back in Montana in another week or so; that was good enough.
“So, Jack,” I said finally as we were crossing the line into Ohio, “did we do bad, or did we do good?”
He thought for a moment, giving the question the consideration it deserved. “Damned if I know,” he said at last, “but we damn sure did something.”