We were loping on west through Iowa, Jack Hill at the wheel of the Pontiac. The sun was shining, the birds were singing–really, I had the window rolled down at one point to let out a blast of Taco Bell burrito gas and heard a meadow lark declaring its love of life from atop a roadside fence post–and I was miserable. I’d never been one to doubt myself until now, but the Pittsburgh raid continued to eat at me.
After about an hour of this, Jack had apparently had enough of my blue funk. As he so often did, he read my mind. “Out with it, Tree,” he said. Just like that, no preamble.
Well, he asked for it. “This one bothers me, Jack.”
He grinned, unconcerned, keeping his eyes on the road. “And why is that? Specifically?”
Why? Specifically? Okay; he’d asked for it. “All right. Specifically. Let’s start with the punk I popped in the knee. That bothers me. Yeah, I know I had to get his attention; we sure as hell couldn’t have him and his little bunch of wannabe rapists cluttering up our escape route. But starting right there, I have my doubts, you know? I mean, I could have popped him in the thigh, not the knee, given him a better chance at keeping a workable leg. Or I could have just drilled him through the head. If he’d been dead, chances are pretty good his buddies wouldn’t have gone running to the cops, and he sure wouldn’t have been talking to the police in the ER, bringing heat down our way.”
“Uh-huh,” Jack said noncommittally. “Go on.”
“Hold your water; I’m going. Okay, so next we have the nine guards we gunned down in the warehouse. Not the Execs; the foot soldiers on the first floor. It occurs to me that those poor bastards weren’t doing anything wrong except trying to earn a paycheck. Which is pretty close to a crime in the Soviet States of Obama these days, but still, not a shooting offense.”
“All right. I got something to say to that, but I’ll wait till you’ve laid it all on the table, okay?”
“Okay.” The image of the fat man lying face down in a pool of his own blood floated in my inner vision. Other things, too, none of them pleasant. An eidetic memory is not an unmixed blessing. Stalling for time, I fished the digital camera out of the glove box and took a few shots of irrigation sprinklers doing their thing in roadside fields, the water spray catching the sunlight just right. Iowa is major corn country, but this looked to be alfalfa, maybe three weeks shy of the season’s first cutting.
But I couldn’t stall forever. “I don’t know if we did the right thing. I just don’t. We all agreed that wiping out the Execution Committee to a man, that would cut the head off of the snake for sure. The assassins on payroll are not administrative types. According to Seed and Beets, anyway, and I have no reason to doubt them. If Jericho Tanner does bring the reborn Vigilante Enterprises up from the ashes, phoenix rising, we may possibly–may, mind you–have unleashed a powerful force for good upon the world. Or at least a powerful force for anti-bad, assassins being what they are. But how likely is it? If absolute power really does corrupt absolutely, what’s to keep Tanner from becoming another Chief Stassen? If that happens, we’re not only back to square one, but we’re facing an enemy who won’t make any mistakes. He’ll know enough to hit us with everything VE has got, and they’ve got one helluva lot more than we do.”
I stopped, emptied out. There was nothing left to say. By me, that is. As it turned out, Jack Hill had plenty to offer, though his opening sentence was comprised of just two words.
“Leadership sucks, cowboy. You know why you wound up being mission leader on this one?”
I turned slowly to look at him. “No. I never could quite figure that out.”
“No? Well, it’s really quite simple. You were the only one of us who immediately grasped the key point that had eluded the rest of us. We should have seen it, but we didn’t. Do you know what that key point was?”
“Um…nope.” It seemed like I should know, but I definitely did not.
“Tree, it was you who pointed out to the rest of us that, according to Seed and Beets both, VE holds the reins on right at one thousand trained assassins, most of whom have had multiple kills. There are a few rookies, but mostly they’re veteran killers. And since they’ve all taken recent assignments, they’re all dirty, Soren and his buddy included. Until you brought it up, everybody was in favor of wiping out all five Execs just to be done with it. But you got it. You made us all stop and think what it would mean to cut loose that many trained killers without any guidance. A thousand loose cannons, none of them inventors like Soren Kirk with a Super Screw invention to provide independent income. Fifty teams of mercenaries, for lack of a better word. Do you remember the picture you painted?”
Huh. For the life of me, no, I did not remember. That, I had noticed long ago, was the greatest weakness in my eidetic memory; much of what I did or said personally simply did not get recorded. Eidetic memory with a gap, apparently. I shook my head. “No clue, Jack.”
He grunted. “Hnh. Well, you asked us all to visualize what we thought might happen. We did it as a group exercise, and the results were spooky. Most of the assassins are just that. Most of them aren’t politically motivated. Very few worry much about morals or ethics. They just take their gold and go where they’re pointed, terminate whoever they’re being paid to terminate and God help whoever gets in the way. So as financial pressure mounted, they would do what? Turn to crime, maybe, some of them. For sure, they’d take any job they could find that kept beans on the table, a roof over the heads of their families–and most of them do have families of one sort or another. Right now, I remember you saying this, you said right now we have a huge barrel full of hungry rattlesnakes. Whoever they ambush, dies. And if we take away the guidance from the top, turn them loose to forage on their own, God help the innocents in this country. Some might turn to organized crime. Some might turn to working for Progressives, taking out conservative political candidates who threaten to get too much truth out there where the public can see it.
“Do you remember now?”
“Yeah…sort of. It’s coming back. I did say all that, didn’t I?”
“You did. And you wrapped up by pointing out that we–meaning We the People, America as a whole–would be better off aiming our pet rattlesnakes at people who truly did need killing. Because there were just too many of the vipers. We couldn’t kill them all if we tried. Sooner or later, word would get out to those we didn’t kill, and we the hunters would become the hunted in a heartbeat. What you said made sense, Tree. That’s why we wound up with you as leader on this one. You had the vision. Nobody else did.”
“Prophet Treemin Jackson.” I shook my head, trying to clear it. “But what if I called it wrong, Jack? What if Tanner decides to send, say, a hundred of his best after us. I mean, he still doesn’t realize we’re not just Kirk’s hired hands; we kept you and B.J. out of sight for a reason, and I’m just one more black man. We all look the same, you know.”
Hill chuckled. “Yeah, little old low profile you. But you’re right; even if a hundred of the bastards came after us, we’ve still got a few things in reserve, resources not even our reformed assassin neighbors know about. Diamond Paws is making progress on his tunneling; he should have the first run between the Trace ranch house basement and Wolf Cave completed before long. They couldn’t possibly expect heavy ordnance like the M60 or RPG launchers. We could probably survive one more hit, at least if we saw it coming, and strike back hard. But yeah, in the end, they’ll crush us if it comes to that.
“On the other hand,” he said, pausing to complete a lane change, tucking into the middle of an obvious–and quite illegal–truck convoy. The Highway Patrol would have a tough time proving it was a convoy; it wasn’t like the drivers were going to rat themselves out. “Where was I? Oh, yeah, crush us. I really do believe our blackmail videos of the Stassen execution will keep them in line long enough for Jericho Tanner to begin instituting the reforms we discussed. Given that little window of opportunity, the good men among the field operatives are going to find out they like the new regime. The rotten ones won’t care; they’ll just keep on being rotten. But not all one thousand are rotten by a long shot, and having the new policy in place that allows them to retire with honor instead of a bullet in the back…I really think this is one political reform that might actually have a chance.”
“You do?” I realized the windshield could use a good scrubbing at our next pit stop. Bug season had arrived with a whole lot of splat.
“I do, Tree. I believe it was worth a shot, trying it this way. We may not know for months or even years if what we did was right, but it’s a fact that turning ten hundreds of dead broke killers out on the street without a dime of severance pay would be a recipe for a disaster of major proportions. On the other hand,” he grinned, “if you’d prefer to just keep on beating yourself up, hop to it.”
“Me? Beat myself up? You must have some other Treemin Jackson in mind.” I realized I was grinning, too. Jack Hill had that effect on me; he could always make me laugh at my own foolishness.
“All righty then, Mr. Other Treemin Jackson. So much for leaving Jericho tanner as the nominal head of the organization. You know he’ll be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. He has to be in shock, totally incapable of comprehending how Seed and Beets were able to put together a group capable of locating their secret hideout and then taking it down without a single casualty on our side. Yes, we sure as hell will keep as close an eye on him as possible. Don’t forget, Beets slap-implanted Tanner with a transponder when he was forcing him to crawl under the table on his knees with his hands tied behind his back. Distraction; the guy never felt a thing. But we can track him now, easy as pie.”
“Yeah. We can. There is that. So…what about the guards we took out?”
Hill snorted in derision. “What about them? Are you forgetting that, according to Seed and Beets at least, every one of those guards was a retired assassin? They had to have known about the darkness permeating the organization, yet they still opted to take a company paycheck. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as far as I’m concerned.”
I thought about that. “Jack Hill,” I observed, “you can be one icy cold bastard when you want to be.”
“This is news? I cut your throat in your life as an Andersonville guard, got you to trust me and then killed you like you were nothing but a cockroach underfoot, and you’re just now figuring out there’s a little ice in my veins?” Jack’s chuckle sounded genuinely amused.
“Guess I hadn’t thought of it that way. Not for a while, at least. Tell you what, I guess I’m not going to worry about popping that punk in the knee. He’s the least of my karmic troubles. Thing is, I’m still not sure if I did right or did wrong…but I do see what you’re getting at. So, is it always like this? Leadership at the life and death level, I mean?”
Jack shrugged and turned on the blinker. At the next exit, we knew, Janet’s Café served up some really fine teriyaki chicken. We weren’t all that starved yet, nor was the Grand Prix close to running out of fuel, but we weren’t about to pass up teriyaki chicken. Now, if she had her renowned cherry cheesecake available for dessert as well…okay, so maybe I was a little hungry. Resolving moral dilemmas really works up an appetite in a fellow. “I don’t know if it’s always a struggle or not,” he admitted. “Most of the time, I try not to think about it. What’s done is done, the past is the past, move on. But does leadership always suck? Mostly, I gotta say yes. I remember a Confederate Captain in the Civil War, he used to get kind of loud and maybe too honest when he’d had a bit too much whiskey. He used to tell anyone who’d listen that leading is a thankless job. If decisions work out well, you have to give all the credit to the soldiers out there taking the bullets. If it works out badly, you get blamed for giving the wrong orders at the wrong time. Not if you’re a Custer or a Patton or an Obama, unable to believe you’ve done wrong no matter what, but for the average human being, yes, leadership sucks.”
“That’s a bummer,” I observed, feeling much less bummed out than before we’d had this little pep talk. “Fortunately, Janet’s menu is not a bummer. Let’s eat.” There were only four vehicles in the Janet’s Café parking lot. That was good; we’d have the place pretty much to ourselves. It’s all about timing. We’d stopped here once during the lunch rush, an experience I’d rather not repeat.
With luck, we wouldn’t ever have to repeat anything like the Pittsburgh raid, either.