Thursday, December 31, 2009

L.E.O. -- Chapter Fifteen

Eric was right -- there was a man on the door. Dressed in black cargo pants and a black coat, he nodded as Pavel approached.

"I can leave them with you?" Pavel asked. The guard nodded again.

"Thanks, Pavel. I'll see you around," Eric said, grinning.

"Indeed. It was good to see you again, my friend."

Pavel headed down the hall as the guard keyed the door to Vassily's room. He motioned them in.

Eric was also right, it turned out, about two men being posted in Vassily's room, though neither Johnny nor Eric saw them immediately. They felt the guards' presence, though, as both of them were quickly and expertly forced to their knees just inside the huge room's doorway. Their hands were zip-tied behind their backs before they even knew what was going on.

"Eric Austen," a deep voice boomed across the room. "I confess, I never thought I'd see your face again."

Vassily walked up to them, smiling and swirling a martini in his massive left hand.

The arms dealer didn't look like Johnny expected him to -- first off, he was a young guy. Johnny guessed his age between 30 and 35. He was barefoot, and dressed in a pair of jeans and a tight black T-shirt. When he smiled, Johnny saw four gold teeth gleaming in his mouth.

"Vassily. Is this really necessary?" Eric asked, shrugging his bound hands.

"You can cut Mr. Austen loose," Vassily told his guards. "But keep the muscle wrapped up for the moment. I'm a little hurt, Eric. What makes you feel the need to bring muscle to a meeting with me? You don't trust dear old friend Vassily anymore?"

"Not that at all, Vassily," Johnny said as the guard cut his zip-ties. He stood up.

"That is what it looks like," Vassily said. "No one brings along a guy who looks like that unless they're trying to make a statement."

"Or unless he's a local, and you're not sure yet if this is a hostile town," Eric said.

"Maybe. He stays locked for the time being. You're OK with that, right, muscle?"

Johnny shrugged. He knew from playing Eric's muscle before that the less he said, the better.

"Fine," Eric said. "I came to talk business, Vassily. I'm putting together a local crew. I'm gonna need at least 50 AKs, even more handguns. Can you handle that kind of action? Quickly?"

"I think you forget who you are talking to," Vassily said. "AKs, handguns, these are easy. I can have this for you in an hour."

"What about something sexier? M4A1s, MP7s, HK-117s, Glock 18s on full-auto? Can you get those?"

Vassily took a long sip of his martini before he answered.

"These are tougher, but not impossible. Much more expensive, however."

"Money's no problem."

"The M4s and HK-117s, I have some locally. Left over from a recent transaction," Vassily said, finishing his drink. He handed the empty to one of his guards, who immediately handed him a full one.

"Who's got that kind of weight locally?" Eric asked. "Anyone I need to worry about? Competition, maybe?"

"Nyet," Vassily said. "Fundamentalists, I think. Extremists. No fun, really. I've only met one of them. He seemed not to have a sense of humor."

"What kind of fundamentalists? You mean terrorists?" Eric asked.

"Nyet. Not terrorists. Anti-terrorists, I think. I did not think to ask my customer his life story," Vassily said, raising an eyebrow. "You seem very interested in this particular customer, Eric. If a man was suspicious by nature, he might find this odd."

"Nah. Not really. Just wondering if this is a guy who's gonna come along and fuck up my program in the future," Eric said.

"I doubt that," Vassily said. "He did not seem to be from here, though one can never tell with you Americans and your crazy accents. In any case, to your business plan. I can get you five M4s and two HK-117s in a day. The AKs and handguns, three hours. It's going to be expensive, however."

Eric nodded. "Three hours is faster than I need. We can set up a meet for tomorrow -- you can pick the place and time."

Vassily sipped from his drink. One of his guards came up and whispered something in Vassily's ear. Vassily nodded and muttered something back, and the guard left the room.

"What was that all about?" Eric asked. Johnny had been wondering the same thing.

"Is nothing," Vassily said, smiling and showing teeth. "Just some other business."

"Good. If we're all set here, you can cut my guy loose and we'll see you tomorrow. I'll give you my cell."

"Just a few more moments, my old friend," Vassily said, still grinning. "There is something I would like you to see before you leave."

Johnny had a bad feeling -- the transaction was done, and they could set up SWAT to assault the next day's meet. Why were they still around? Why hadn't Vassily kicked them out?

He got his answer a few seconds later when the guard returned to the room. He wasn't alone this time. Pavel had joined him from downstairs, and the two of them were herding Frank and a very pissed-off-looking Ellie into the room with them.

"This is what I wanted you to see," Vassily said, pointing at Ellie and Frank. "I see two possibilities at work here, my old friend. One is that you've gotten sloppy -- knowing you as I do, I doubt that this is the case. The other is that your man here fucked up badly. He allowed you to be followed here by these two -- they are police, by the way, though I am sure you have figured that part out already."

"Well, I can certainly say it wasn't me who got us followed," Eric said, glaring at Johnny.

One of Vassily's men pulled a handgun. He handed it to Vassily, who checked the clip.

"In business, these things happen sometimes. No bother. Just clean it up," Vassily said. "Kill the cops, then your muscle for failing us. Then we set up the meeting."

Vassily handed the gun to Eric, who weighed it in his hand. Eric shot a look at Johnny. Oh, shit. Looks like he's going to do something stupid, Johnny thought, getting ready to jump to his feet.

Eric leveled the gun at Johnny's head. Ellie glared at him -- her look said I fucking knew it.

In a blur, Eric spun to his right. He whipped the butt of the gun into the side of Vassily's head. Johnny moved a split-second after Eric did, springing up and bull-charging. His shoulder caught the guard to his right in the solar plexus -- the man fired wildly into the ceiling as all the air rushed from his body. Ellie dropped low and snap-kicked the other guard in the kneecap before he could fire. The sound of snapping bone bounced off the walls.

While all this was going on, Frank had managed to get Pavel in a choke hold. Pavel thrashed wildly, his fists glancing Frank's skull twice. Still, Frank managed to hang onto him for the few seconds it took to choke him out.

The altercation took no more than five seconds. Pavel and Vassily were unconscious. One guard was on the floor clutching his wrecked knee -- Johnny had the other pinned against the wall. Eric handed his gun to Frank, who trained it on the pinned guard. Johnny moved back, and Ellie cut his cuffs with a knife from Pavel's coat.

Johnny moved to the front door, expecting the guard on the other side to come through, gun blazing, it any second. The door didn't open. He looked at Eric, who shrugged.

Ellie and Johnny quickly liberated guns from the downed Ukranians. Johnny aimed his MP5 at the door.

"Where's the other guy?" Ellie said as she pulled her handcuffs from Pavel's coat. She quickly cuffed the downed Ukranians.

"Look out!" Eric suddenly yelled. Johnny turned just in time to see the guard from the hall open fire from the suite's bedroom. Eric rammed into Ellie. She fell to the carpet, and three bullets slammed into Eric's upper body. As Eric fell, Johnny opened up with the MP5, dropping the guard.

"Shit! Eric!" Johnny yelled as Ellie picked herself up.

"Is he. . .?"

"Hurting quite a lot? Yes," Eric groaned from the floor. Johnny rolled Eric over onto his back. He saw a lot of blood around Eric's left shoulder, and ripped his shirt away to check out the wound. Three neat holes in Eric's shoulder oozed blood.

"I think they went right through," Eric said. "I've seen guys shot a lot worse than this. I'll live."

"You're just lucky those were armor-piercing rounds, pal. Hollow points would've shredded your brachial artery," Johnny said.

"And wouldn't that have been fun?" Eric chuckled, sitting up and coughing.

Frank grabbed some small hand towels from the bathroom. He and Johnny used two of the zip-ties on Vassily's table to attach them to both sides of Eric's shoulder while Ellie grabbed the phone.

She called first for an ambulance, then for backup.

"There's one more guy in the lobby," Eric reminded them. "He'll fire on your guys. Get me Pavel's radio, would you?"

Johnny grabbed the small earpiece and Secret-Serivce-style radio from Pavel's unconscious form.

Eric used his left hand to place the receiver in his ear, then toggled the radio's tiny microphone. He mumbled in quick, quiet Russian.

"What'd you say?" Johnny asked him as Eric took out the earpiece.

"I told him we'd lost all radio contact with the guy in the garage. In five minutes, he's going to check it out. That should give you plenty of time to get down there and bonk him on the head," Eric said.

Johnny traded his MP5 for Frank's pistol -- an MP-446, now that he got a closer look at it -- and left the hotel room. He took the stairs. The parking garage was full of cars but devoid of people when he got there -- he took a spot on the wall next to the stairwell and waited. A few moments later, the door to the stairwell opened, and the man in the brown suit walked out, hand in his jacket.

"Hello," Johnny said.

As the man in the suit turned to find the source of the voice, Johnny caught him just below the eye with a powerful straight right. A loud slap -- like a brick slamming into a shallow pool of water -- echoed through the garage, amplified by the concrete walls and ceiling. The guard's feet went out from under him, and his back hit the floor of the garage hard. He twitched once, then stopped moving.

"Oops. Might've hit you a little too hard, there," Johnny mumbled, reaching down and checking the guy's pulse. It felt strong -- he wasn't dead.

Johnny zip-tied the man's hands behind his back, then zip-tied the unconscious thug to the Mercedes Pullman Ambassador's rear bumper.

He'd disabled the guard just in time, as it turned out. Johnny could see police lights flashing just outside the garage -- their backup. He pulled his badge from his boot and hung it around his neck as the first of many OPD vehicles screamed into the garage.

* * *

"I can't believe he took a bullet for me," Ellie said, shaking her head as paramedics loaded Eric's stretcher into the waiting ambulance.

"If he'd heard that, Eric would no doubt remind you that he took three bullets for you, not just the one," Johnny told her, smirking.

"I'm usually dead-on in my character assessments," Ellie said. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes, opened it and found it empty. "Perfect."

"Here," Johnny said, handing her his pack. She opened it.

"You've only got two left," she said.

"It's fine. Got more in the car. Have at it."

She took one of the smokes and lit it -- he took the other.

"Don't worry about it. Yeah, you were wrong about Eric. Not entirely your fault -- dude puts off a vibe. I hated him when I first met him, too."

"Yeah, I still feel like shit about it, though."

"Meh. Send him some flowers. On the bright side, it doesn't look like Stahl was bullshitting us. Shall we head down to the station? See what Vassily knows?"

"It's a date," Ellie said, smirking and blowing out smoke.

Friday, December 25, 2009

L.E.O. -- Chapter Fourteen

When Taub answered the phone, he sounded confused.

"Deputy? Something I can help you with?" he said.

Shit, Johnny thought. Poor guy hasn't even made it home yet. He could hear from background noise that Taub was in his car. Johnny hated to call him, but had to. Nathaniel and Captain Willis, Ellie's boss, had reiterated that the case was to be kept quiet -- that meant no new lab techs on the scene.

"Hey, man. I hate to ask you this, but I need you to assemble the team and meet me at a crime scene ASAP. We've got another homicide."

Johnny was impressed by Taub's calm -- if it had been him, he would have bitched and complained. Taub didn't.

"OK. Give me 20 minutes. What's the address?"

"Same one you gave us for Tariq al Waziri," Johnny said.

"Oh. Well, shit. That's not good, is it?"

"No. No, it is not," Johnny sighed.

"Twenty minutes, Deputy. We're on the way."

And, true to his word, Taub had his team there in 20 minutes. The four sleepy-looking lab techs tumbled out of the crime scene van in Waziri's driveway, loaded down with bags of forensic equipment.

"How many bodies we got?" Bill Ewing asked, still shrugging into his coveralls.

"Four that we saw," Johnny told him. "MO looks the same. All shot in the head, no casings that we could see."

"Oh, well. At least we're getting overtime," Ewing said with a tired smile.

Even on zero sleep, Taub orchestrated his team like a pro, throwing out assignments as he led them into the house. Johnny nodded in respect. He was glad Ellie had suggested Taub run the team --while a young guy, he seemed to know what he was doing. The door closed behind the team.

Johnny walked over to the curb where Ellie's unmarked and Rawlins' cruiser sat. Ellie was smoking a cigarette -- Johnny lit one of his.

"Our body count's up from six to ten," Ellie said. "That's not what I'd call progress."

"We've still got a lead," Johnny said.

"Right. The Ghost Ukranian who may or may not be in town. You think your boy will be able to come through for us?" Ellie asked.

"Indeed. If Eric says he can find the guy, then he'll find him. You don't much care for him, do you?"

Johnny expected a vague answer from Ellie. He expected her to begin with something like "It's not that I don't like him. . ."

He was wrong.

"Nope. I sure don't," Ellie said.

Johnny blinked. He respected her blunt honesty, though, even if it did catch him by surprise.

"Did he say something to offend you? He does that sometimes. The guy has almost no social filter," Johnny said.

"Nope. I don't like him because he's a criminal," she said. "Was a criminal," Johnny corrected her.

"Whatever," she scoffed. "You've seen the same statistics I have, Johnny. Seen the same guys. You've been a cop in this town for about five years, right?"

"About that."

"How many times have you arrested the same people?"

"I see where you're going. Repeat offenders. Revolving-door prisons. A criminal is a criminal, arrest and incarceration be damned, right?"

"Speaking from experience, yes. And look at the guy. He dresses like a punk, talks like an offender. I don't see why you trust him."

Johnny shrugged.

"Eric's aces. He's on our side."

"For the moment. But I can't say I feel comfortable turning my back on him."

Frank walked up at that moment, and Johnny was glad to have an excuse to end the conversation.

"Team's doing their thing," Frank said. "They'll be at it a while. Two, three hours at least. I talked to your Deputy -- he's fine to stay and babysit them."

"Good," Ellie said. "I need coffee, and the three of us need to figure out our next move."

"I'll call Gary and have him put some diesel on," Frank said.

Johnny's BlackBerry chirped -- his caller I'd showed Eric's cell number.

"Speak of the devil," Ellie said, looking over Johnny's shoulder.

Johnny toggled the speakerphone, willing Eric on the other end: Please have something good for me, bro. I just went to bat for you. Don't make me look like an idiot.

"Hey, Eric. You're on speaker with Frank and Ellie. What've you got?" Johnny said.

"Oh, hey, guys. Good news," Eric's voice came out of the speaker. "Vassily's in town. I've got eyes on him now. Y'all want to meet me downtown for coffee?"

Johnny forced himself not to smile -- his boy had come through in record time. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ellie shake her head.

"Right on, Eric. Where?"

"Sixteenth and Farnam."

"We're on the way."

Johnny hung up and turned to his fellow officers.

"Yeah, yeah. Don't gloat -- your boy did OK, but we still don't know if this thing with the Ukranian will really go anywhere," Ellie said. Her tone was flat and even, but Johnny saw traces of a smile forming at the corners of her mouth.

* * *

"Your diesel, folks," Eric said. He gestured to the table in front of him, where four steaming mugs of black coffee were waiting.

"Doesn't seem like your kinda place. A little hippie-ish," Frank said, looking around the interior of Walker's Fair Trade Coffee and Tea Company.

"Oh, it's not," Eric said. "The corporate mass-produced down-home indie atmosphere creeps me the fuck out. But you sure can't beat the view.”

He nodded out the huge bay window in front of the table to the downtown Doubletree Suites hotel across the street. A cold rain had started.

"Might I direct your attention to that poor bastard in the suit smoking a cigarette outside in the freezing rain?" Eric said, smiling.

Johnny saw the man Eric had indicated -- tall, pale, mid 40s, with short, dark hair. He looked miserable.

"What about him?" Ellie said.

"Former Russian Army. Spetsnaz, my guess," Eric said.

"How can you tell?" Frank asked.

"His boots. His cigarettes. Few other hints. He's part of Vassily's crew. We can expect to find five, six more just like him inside, and at least one guarding the car," Eric told them.

"So what's the plan? Just walk in there, show our credentials, and start asking questions?" Frank asked.

Eric shook his head.

"I wouldn't go near there without SWAT, and even then, you're looking at a bloodbath. These guys don't play -- they're armed to the teeth." He nodded again at the man standing outside in the rain. "He's probably got at least an MP5 under that jacket with armor-piercing rounds. You can bet he's wearing body armor, too. Remember, this guy can get any weapons you can think of."

"So his own guys are fully tooled up. Makes sense. So how do we get to him?" Ellie asked.

"He'll probably take a meeting with me," Eric said. "We used to do business years ago. At the very least, I can see what I can get out of him on this mysterious client Stahl mentioned."

"Does Vassily know you've flipped? Gone over to our side?" Johnny asked.

"I doubt it. He was a vendor, and Julian didn't like to discuss internal matters with vendors. Plus, he hightailed it out of Florida when Julian got arrested. I was still dead at the time."

"What do you mean, dead?" Ellie asked.

"Oh, my boss cut me up, bled me out, and left me to die. You know, office politics," Eric said, winking.

"I don't like it," Ellie said.

"Neither did I," Eric said.

"Not that. Your plan. You're not a cop, and I don't like you going in there without one of us," she said.

"Fine. I'll take Johnny with me. I can sell him as muscle."

"Nope. I'm going with you," Ellie said flatly. She sipped her coffee. Even as she drank, her eyes were locked on Eric's.

"No offense, Detective Jarvis -- how would I sell you?" Eric said after a long moment. "You don't look like a criminal. I mean, neither does Johnny, but at least he's big as fuck. Vassily will buy him as a hired thug, but you?"

Johnny could see that Ellie wanted to argue, if for no other reason than her mistrust of Eric, but she couldn't -- his logic made sense. He decided his best course of action would be to say nothing -- judging by the silence at the table, Eric and Frank thought the same thing.

"Fine," Ellie finally sighed. "I trust Johnny. But Frank and I are going to be close by, monitoring."

"Yeah, about that? No wires. Vassily's sure to check us for them. I'll try to leave a cell line open, though," Eric said. "Good enough?"

"Suppose it'll have to be. How are you going to get a meeting with him?" Frank said.

"The old-school way -- I'm going to have his guards bring us to him," Eric said.

"Sounds dangerous," Frank said.

"Nah. I know some of his guys. We go back. I'm sure it'll be fine."

Johnny sipped his coffee.

"Right. What time do we go?"

"I figure around eight tonight. Vassily's schedule is like clockwork -- he'll be having a drink then."

"Well, it's not a great plan, but it's the best we've got," Ellie said. "All right, Tattoo Boy. You're on."

* * *

"Lobby, brown suit. Elevator, black polo shirt," Eric muttered to Johnny as the two of them drove Eric's BMW past the Doubletree Lobby's glass doors.

"Roger. Plus the guy out front, that's three. You getting this, Ellie?"

"Yep," Ellie said over Johnny's Bluetooth headset. "Got 'em marked."

"Black peacoat next to the pretentious Mercedes Ambassador. Vassily's ride, obviously," Eric said as they rolled into underground parking.

"Four. Any more in the underground lot?" Ellie's voice buzzed in Johnny's ear.

"Eric? Any more down here?"

"Doesn't look like it. Probably one on Vassily's door, two more in the room with him. That'll make seven. Johnny, cut your cell. We're about to make contact."


"Yeah, I heard. Call again if you can -- I'll have you on mute."

"Copy that."

"Good luck in there."

Johnny hung up. He pulled the Bluetooth from his ear and stashed it in the pocket of his leather jacket as Eric parked the BMW a few spaces from the Merc. The two of them got out of the car, and Eric made a beeline for the guy in the peacoat. Johnny kept on his heels.

"Tovarisch!" Eric said. "Call up and tell Vassily that Eric Austen is here to see him."

The guy in the peacoat put his hand inside his jacket.

"I wouldn't. Vassily wouldn't like it if you shot me," Eric chided, moving like lightning as he spoke. Before he finished talking, he had the guy pinned. The man in the peacoat struggled, smashed between the Mercedes and Eric, but Eric put him down with a quick, brutal head-butt to the nose.

Eric grabbed the unconscious man's legs and dragged him to the BMW. He unlocked the trunk and dumped the man in.

"Hold this," he said. Eric handed Johnny an MP5 that he'd snatched out of the man's coat.

"Oh, and this. Don't want him fucking up my upholstery with it."

He pulled a knife out of the man's boot. Johnny stashed the weapons behind a trash can.

"Right. Let's see if anyone else is more helpful." Eric and Johnny took the stairs to the lobby, and Eric headed for the guy at the elevator.

"Pavel!" Eric said. "How the hell are you?"

"I would recognize those tattoos anywhere!" the man smiled. "Eric, where the fuck have you been, man?"

Pavel and Eric hugged.

"Been around, man. Tampa went south -- went to Europe for a while. Setting up a business out here now, so I came to see The Man. He in?"

"He's done with business for the day, but I'll call up. Who's the muscle?"

"This's Johnny. Fastest hands you've ever seen, shit you not."

"Johnny. I am Pavel. A friend of Eric Austen is also my friend," Pavel said, sticking out his hand and smiling.

Johnny shook it. Pavel looked rail-thin, but his grip was crushing.

Pavel put his hand to his ear and spoke in quick Russian. After a second, he smiled.

"Good news, my friend. He'd love to have you up for a drink," Pavel said, pressing the elevator call button. "Follow me."

Johnny followed the two of them onto the elevator, idly wondering how long it would take someone to find the guy in the trunk.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

We interrupt our program. . .

For a BlackBerry that doesn't seem to want to move data. I've spent the last several hours considering just going to the Web and banging out tonight's tweets, but I ultimately decided against it. I want to say, at the end of this third book, that I wrote the entire first draft on my BlackBerry. It's something not a lot of people have done, which is the whole reason I a) started this project in the first place and b) decided to do this third book on a BlackBerry.

Besides, I've not taken a day off since I started the first book. I think I've earned a night off, no? (Yeah, I know I don't have to convince you. I'm still trying to convince myself. If the BlackBerry decides to cooperate before I go to bed, I'll probably stay up late just to get tonight's stuff out there.)

So, drop back by the Twitter page tomorrow -- there'll be plenty to read, I'm guessing. :)

As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for coming along for the ride.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

L.E.O. -- Chapter Thirteen

"Jesus, it's cold," Enano complained as he belted himself into the unmarked's passenger seat.

"It's above 20," Johnny said. "We'd consider that warm for this time of year."

"What's this 'we'?" Eric grumbled from the back seat. "I'm with the G-man on this one."

County lockup wasn't far away at all -- a few minutes by foot. Ordinarily, Johnny would just walk over, but he was glad he'd taken a car. He'd hate to hear Eric and Enano's bitching if they had to brave the weather.

"Good job on White Liberty," Enano said as they drove. "Pretty sure you've broken their back, at least locally."

"Good to know. Just wish it'd helped me out on my case," Johnny said.

"You don't think Travis Stahl will tell you anything useful?"

"I think he'll feed me some bullshit and hope I can cut his sentence down. I wouldn't put it past the guy to make something up now that he's looking at serious prison time."

"I doubt he'll talk to me at all. I'd guess he's not a fan of Asians. Still, orders are orders, so I get to spend a day listening to unimaginative racial slurs," Enano said.

"We should probably talk to him first," Eric said. "Before you piss him off."

"Good plan. There somewhere I can observe you guys?"

"Yeah, there's an observation room," Johnny said as they parked at the County lockup and got out. "I'll get you set up."

"Appreciate it. Maybe he'll say something that's useful to both of us," Enano said.

The three of them walked into the lockup, and Johnny signed them in. Johnny showed Enano to the observation room, then he and Eric took seats in the interview area and waited for Stahl's guards to bring him.

When he arrived, the young skinhead looked terrible. One side of his face was purple and swollen, and his right hand had a cast on it. He was missing both shoes. Johnny actually felt a little sorry for him, but made sure not to show it.

"Better have something good, kid. You dragged me away from my nice, comfy office," Johnny said.

"I don't know if it helps you, but I'll to risk it if you can help me out. If what I have for you is good, I need you to get me moved into a holding area with some of my guys," Stahl said quietly.

"No promises. Let's hear it."

Stahl shrugged his shoulders and sighed.

"Do you know about Vassily? The Ukranian?" he asked, looking at Eric.

"I knew a gunrunner down in Tampa years ago by that name."

"That's the guy. Shit got too hot for him in Florida about two years back. Now he runs outta Chicago, but he supplies for most of the midwest. He's where we get our gear, and he's in town right now."

"Interesting. Why should I give a shit?" Johnny asked.

"We met with him day before yesterday. He said something about us being easy to pull for. Handguns and shotguns. Not like the new client he's just met with -- guy who wanted full-auto, hard-to-get stuff. I asked who that guy was."

Stahl touched the side of his face and winced.

"He wouldn't give me a name, but he said the guy 'wanted the guns to go kill Hajis.'"

Johnny nodded slowly.

"Anything else?" he asked.

"All I got," Stahl sighed.

"Right. I'll talk to the guards for you."

Johnny motioned for Eric to follow, then got up and left the room. As soon as the door closed behind them, he turned to Eric.

"OK, Eric. Assuming Stahl's not full of shit, can you find this Ukranian guy?"

Eric nodded.

"Yeah. Shouldn't be too hard. Think it's important?"

"Assuming Stahl's not full of shit, can you find this Ukranian guy?"

Eric nodded.

"Yeah. Shouldn't be too hard. Think it's important?"

"If Stahl's telling the truth," Johnny said, opening the door to the observation area. Ellie and Frank had joined Enano in the room.

"We heard most of the interview," Ellie said. "Think it's for real?"

"We'll find out. Eric used to know the Ukranian Stahl mentioned."

"Enano? We get you anything?" Eric asked.

"If the Ukranian pans out, that's a nice tidbit. I'll still have to talk to him, though."

"He's all yours," Johnny said. "Find your way back OK?"

"Yeah, get back to your casework. I have a feeling I'll be here a while."

Johnny and Eric shook hands with Enano, then walked with Ellie and Frank out of the building.

"Who's the suit?" Ellie asked. "Looks FBI."

"Yeah, Domestic Terrorism. Old buddy of Eric's, apparently. Ready to see what the lab geeks have for us?" Johnny said.


The lab was in the downtown OPD headquarters only two blocks away. Ellie and Frank had already parked there, so Johnny drove everyone over. When they got to the lab, they saw that their forensics team did look like they'd been up all night. Taub waved tiredly as they arrived.

"We've got a lot of info to dump on you guys. I'm gonna start with ballistics, since I've got that in front of me," Taub said, yawning. He picked up a file from his desk and opened it. "We recovered all six bullets. Initially, I thought they were Winchesters -- normal .308s. Garden-variety rifle slug. But these were just a little bit different."

Taub held up a small plastic bag with a mangled bullet inside. To Johnny, it just looked like a smashed bit of metal, but judging by Taub's sudden animation, it was something much more interesting.

"It took some research, but I finally found out what this little guy's called. He's a NATO 7.62x51mm round. Really close to the Winchester. Interchangable, even, but the NATO round's not commercially available."

"Military ordinance?" Frank asked.

"Or black market," Taub said. "The other interesting thing we've got is a print. We lifted hundreds, but they all belonged to the family. Then we found this one."

Taub shuffled file folders and pulled out a blow-up of a single thumbprint.

"Where'd you find it?" Ellie asked.

"Back patio door. Inside, on the glass. I ran it and got a criminal hit that I'm probably gonna mispronounce," Taub said, squinting at the paper in the file. "Tariq al Waziri. That name come up in any of your interviews?"

Ellie looked at Johnny, who shook his head. Rawlins' legwork was done. That particular name hadn't popped up.

"New one on us," Ellie said.

"Guy's got a record -- burglary and assault," Taub said, looking up. He handed Ellie a printout with Waziri's file. "Last known address on there's only a couple miles from the crime scene.

"Good work, Taub. Anything else for us?"

"Not yet. We're still working it, but the scene was almost surgical. I'm surprised we found this much," Taub said.

"Thanks, Eddie. Call us if anything else turns up. And get some sleep, man. It'll take us a while to run this stuff down," Frank said.

Taub blinked and nodded slowly, as if the idea of sleep had just occurred to him. He looked around the empty lab.

"Not a bad idea. I sent everyone else home a couple of hours ago -- I'll go as soon as I finish my reports."

"Go ahead and go home now," Ellie told him. I won't get a chance to look at the reports until tomorrow, anyway."

Taub nodded slowly again, then picked up his coat and walked out.

"All right. Looks like we've got some work ahead of us. The Ukranian and the bullets might be connected," Ellie said.

"Most likely. Unless Stahl was bullshitting us, those bullets probably came from someone like Vassily," Eric said.

"Then there's Waziri," Frank said. He flipped through the file Taub had printed.

"We're definitely gonna want to talk to this guy."

"No disrespect to you guys," Eric said. "I'll find Vassily if he's here, but I'll be able to do it a lot faster on my own."

Johnny nodded.

"Looks like the three of us, then. Where's Waziri's last known?"

"168th and Maple, that area," Frank said.

"That'll take 35, 40 minutes in this traffic," Ellie said. "I'll call Rawlins. He's on patrol out that way. I'll have him keep eyes on Waziri's place," Johnny told them.

"Outstanding. I'm driving. You can have the back seat this time, Deputy," Frank said, grinning.

* * *

"No motion since you called me, boss," Rawlins said. The young Deputy had found the perfect spot to park his cruiser -- a block over, but with a clear view of Waziri's place between two houses. The angles worked out perfectly -- unless Waziri came out of his house and walked across the street, he wouldn't see the police car at all.

"Good work, Deputy. I'm going to ask you to stick around for a few minutes in case we need backup," Johnny told the young man.

"Right. I'm on hack five. I'll keep on monitor," Rawlins responded.

Johnny walked back to the waiting OPD unmarked and got into the back seat.

"My guy says nothing moving in the last 45. Waziri could be out, or not even awake yet. I know I'd still be in bed if I could," he said.

"Right. I just got off the phone with my boss -- we're OK to take this guy in for questioning," Ellie said.

"Well, let's knock, then. See if this guy's in a helpful mood," Johnny said.

Ellie started up the engine and drove the last remaining block to Waziri's house.

Waziri's house was actually quite nice -- one of the newer McMansion-types that had been built during the early 2000s Omaha housing boom.

It had gone slightly to seed, though, unlike the other houses around it -- the lawn had died off, leaving great bald patches of dirt. The driveway was dotted with oil stains and the pavement was just starting to crack.

"Neighborhood association must love this guy."

Frank kicked a half-flattened basketball out of his way and shook his head.

"Yeah, he's made this look like a crackhouse," Johnny agreed. "So who wants to knock on Cracky's door, then?" Ellie asked. "And before you say anything, no, it's not me. I got the last redneck."

"I'll do it. Let's just hope the guy's not sitting behind his door with a shotgun," Johnny said.

Frank and Ellie fell back slightly. They took up positions just behind and on either side of Johnny, ready to draw their weapons if Waziri was, in fact, waiting to shoot him.

Johnny rang the doorbell and waited for a few seconds. There was no answer, so he rang again. Several seconds passed, and still nothing.

Giving up on the doorbell, Johnny pounded the center of the heavy wooden door with his right fist. It was an impressive sound he made. Eric had taken to calling it Johnny's "open up, it's the po-lice" knock.

Several attempts with the loud knock still brought no answer. Johnny turned around to face his colleagues.

"Doesn't seem like our guy's at home," he told them.

"I'll pop around back," Frank said. "See if I can get a look at what's going on inside."

"We'll stay here and keep eyes on the front," Ellie said.

Johnny toggled his radio.

"Deputy Rawlins, why don't you roll on up, keep an eye on our backs," he said.

"That's affirmative, sir," Rawlins' voice came back. As Frank unlatched the house's back gate, Rawlins' cruiser purred up the street and stopped at the end of Waziri's neglected driveway.

"You think someone tipped him off we were coming? Maybe he cleared out?" Ellie asked.

"Kinda doubt it," Johnny said, shaking his head. "Even we didn't know we were coming until about an hour ago."

Ellie nodded. Her radio crackled on her hip.

"Can't see much in there. Lights are all off. Gonna go around to the side and see if I have better luck," Frank's voice reported.

"Copy that, Frank," Ellie said. "Be careful."

The radio went silent for a few more seconds.

"We have an employer on file for this guy?" Johnny asked.

"Nope. Kinda doubt he had a job, at least in the conventional sense," Ellie shook her head.

"Ellie, come in," Frank's voice broke over the radio.

"We read, Frank."

"You're gonna want to get in there. I'm seeing bodies through the windows."

Johnny immediately kicked in the door. The smell hit him hard -- the bodies must have been sitting inside the house with the heat running for days. Johnny brought up his weapon. Behind him, Ellie did the same. Rawlins fell in behind them, and the three officers made their way into the house, covering each other.

In the living room, they came across four bodies, all shot through the head, just as at the Hassans' place. One body was laying face-up. Johnny recognized him from the picture on his police record -- it was Tariq al Waziri.

His right arm had been cut off.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

L.E.O. -- Chapter Twelve

Forward Operating Base Danger, Iraq, 2005

"Don't think I've seen you around here before, Sergeant," the large Captain said.

"No sir. I was in the convoy last night. I'll be heading back to Liberty in tonight's convoy," Johnny answered, snuffing his cigarette.

"That's still 10 hours away. They got you doing anything until then?" the Captain asked. His nametape read "Vasquez."

"No, sir. I was supposed to go back last night, but --"

"Yeah, then shit got FUBAR. I heard. So you're that guy, huh?"

"Yes, sir. That's me."

"How're you feeling?"

"Oh, I'm solid, sir."

"Well rested?"

"Five hours, sir."

"You have any experience on house-to-house?"

Johnny nodded.

"It's a large part of what my unit does back at Liberty, sir."

"Maybe you can help me out, then," Vasquez said. "I got a few guys in my unit just outta boot. A little jittery, but good guys. They're going on a house-to-house in an hour -- their first. My Staff Sergeant who was supposed to lead their element broke his leg last night, so I'm down a man. You bored enough to take 'em out?"

"That's affirmative, sir. Sure beats sitting around here and staring at my boots all day, sir."

"Good man, Sergeant. Form up in an hour. Front gate."

"Copy that, sir."

Vasquez smirked and returned Johnny's salute, then walked off to the left. Johnny lit another smoke. As he inhaled, he got the feeling someone was creeping up on him. He spun and came face-to-face with Alex Kelley.

"Sorry, Sergeant. Didn't mean to sneak up on you. Force of habit."

"No worries."

"Hey, can I get one of those cigarettes? Lost mine in the wreck."

"Sure thing," Johnny said, tossing Alex the pack. "How's Holt?"

"He lost a lot of blood, but you got him patched up in time. He'll live."

"Good to know. The others?"

"Fine. Itching to go back out, but those are my guys. How long you out here at Danger?"

"Just today. You?"

"'Till the job's done, I suppose. At least until I scrounge us a new truck," Alex said, grinning.

"You're a man down."

"Not a problem, really. We'll handle it. You back at Liberty after this?"

"That's the plan."

"We'll look you up when we get back. Maybe hang out?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Rock on. I'm gonna go see Holt. I'll see you around, Sergeant."

"Likewise, Sergeant," Johnny said.

Alex headed off to the medical building, and Johnny finished his cigarette. He checked his gear and ammo -- all nominal, thankfully. The 1st ID armorer had been happy to resupply him.

With 50 minutes to kill until he rolled out, Johnny set off in search of breakfast.

* * *

"Sergeant Teal? You've got Team Charlie," Vasquez told him, nodding to five young men in desert fatigues standing by a Humvee.

"Roger that, sir."

Vasquez nodded and turned to address the entire platoon.

"All right, men. Today's a relatively simple one. We're looking for a Chechen insurgent organizer named Mikhail Ulanov, and we're going house to house. He's our main target," Vasquez said. "However, what do we do if we see illegal weapons?"

"Grab the guns, detain the owners," a young Corporal answered.

"Exactly right. Our eyes in the city have him in an eight-block radius in the northeast part of Tikrit. Now, remember this is a residential neighborhood. People live there. That means we do not fire unless we're fired upon, and we don't damage anything we don't have to, clear?"

"Clear, sir." The response came from several of the men.

"Also, we do have eyes out there in civvies. Be extra careful, and above all, be nice, yes?"

Again came a low murmur of affirmative responses.

"We're cornering in. I'm riding with Alpha from the West. Bravo, you're South. Charlie's got the East, and Delta's North. Let's roll out, gentlemen."

Johnny turned to his unit -- they all looked very young to him. Johnny himself wasn't exactly old at 24, but these guys didn't look old enough to have graduated high school.

"OK, men. Who's driving?"

"I'll jump on the wheel, sir," one of them, a tall, thin kid whose nametape read "Huntington" said.

"Right on. Let's go, gentlemen. City's not gonna search itself," Johnny smiled at them as he climbed into the Humvee's passenger seat.

Huntington got behind the wheel. As the other kids loaded into the Humvee, Huntington started the huge truck and pulled into line behind Bravo Team's Humvee.

"Sir?" Huntington asked.

"I'm a Sergeant, kid. I'm not a 'sir,'" Johnny told him.

"Sorry, Sergeant. We usually listen to music in the truck. That cool with you, Sergeant?"

"Long as your music doesn't suck, Private."

"It's a band called Texas Death Machine, Sergeant. They're --"

"I know who Texas Death Machine is. I'm not that old, for fuck's sake. Put 'em on," Johnny said.

Huntington plugged in his iPod. The opening riff of the song "Wanker" tore through the Humvee at high volume. Huntington moved to turn it down, but Johnny stopped him.

"Nah. This song needs to be played loud," Johnny said, winking.

"You're a fan, Sergeant?" Huntington asked. He looked a bit surprised.

"Since high school," Johnny said.

"Guys! New Sergeant's hardcore!" Huntington yelled back into the Humvee's back seat. Johnny laughed.

The Humvee column rolled through the front gates and out into the city. It took only a few minutes to reach the target neighborhood. Civilian cars tended to move to the side when they saw the huge trucks rolling through.

"OK, gents. House-to-house is easy," Johnny said. "Knock on doors, ask questions. Watch the eyes, the body language. If they're hiding something, you'll know it."

"'Cause they're nervous?" The question came from Patrick, a tiny pale kid.

"Well, they're nervous because big guys with guns are at the door," Johnny told him.

"Right," Patrick said, nodding.

"OK, Interrogation 101. Eyes up and to the left, they're probably making something up. Lying, really. Up and to the right, they're just trying to remember. Eye twitches are a good indication you've asked something they don't want to answer. Fidgeting, excessive body movement, same thing. Good?" Johnny said. His men nodded. "All right. Let's talk to some locals, then."

* * *

Johnny woke up. He was looking at the roof of the Humvee. Private Patrick's face floated into view -- the pale kid looked worried. "His eyes are open!" Patrick yelled. Johnny got the sense that the Humvee was moving fast, but they didn't seem to be under fire. He closed his eyes -- just for a second, he thought -- when he opened them again, he was staring out at what looked like a hospital ward.

"Sergeant Teal. Welcome back. How're you feeling?" a man in BDUs asked. He had Captain's bars on his lapels, a stethoscope around his neck.

"All right, I guess. Groggy. Bit of a headache. Don't really remember how I got here."

"Yeah, the drugs explain the groggy feeling. The concussion's probably responsible for the rest. What's the last thing you remember?" the Captain asked, taking a seat by Johnny's bed. Johnny could see the caducius on his other lapel now, along with his nametape -- Phillips.

"We were on a house-to-house," Johnny said. We were about to link up with Bravo squad near the center of the target area. I noticed a car -- a Mercedes. Its rear axle was way too low."

"Then?" Captain Phillips asked.

"Then. . ." Johnny tried to remember, but the image of the car was where the story ended in his head.

"The boys that brought you in said you turned around to warn them off the car when it exploded about five feet behind you."

"Oh. Fun."

"You were pretty lucky, really. The blast knocked you 20 feet, but your helmet and body armor took a lot of the shrapnel," Philips said. "We took a small piece out of your lower right leg, and another out of the back of your right arm. You were on fire for a few seconds. Your boys put you out pretty quick -- your uniform's shot, but you only got minor burns."

"How long until I'm on my feet?" Johnny asked.

"Like I said, you were lucky -- let's not push it now. I'd like to keep an eye on you for at least the next 24 hours," Phillips told him.

"I'm due back at Liberty tonight," Johnny said.

"Nope. You were due back at Liberty last night. I've already spoken to your CO. He's ordered you to stay here until I release you, so there's no point arguing. There's another convoy to Liberty tomorrow," Phillips said.

Johnny didn't really want to stay in bed another day, but Phillips was right -- no point in arguing. He wasn't going to talk his way out. Not with orders from two senior officers. He sighed.

"Got a magazine or anything?" he asked.

Over the next few hours, he shifted a lot. It was tough to get comfortable thanks to the burns on the back of his legs. Still, Johnny knew he could've gotten a lot worse than he did. He'd seen plenty of guys killed by car bombs and IEDs, so he supposed the discomfort and the crushing boredom was a small price to pay.

It was a welcome break in the monotony of fidgeting and staring at the wall, then, when Riley Cohane and Alex Kelley came in that afternoon. Both were dressed in civilian gear, and Alex was carrying a few envelopes in his right hand.

"There he is," Riley greeted, smiling wide. "You're one tough motherfucker, you know that?"

"Nah. Just lucky," Johnny said. "Besides, being tough to destroy runs in my family."

"How're you feeling? Doc says you lost a fair amount of blood," Alex said.

"Tell you the truth, I'm feeling kinda bored. Otherwise fine. Headache's managable, burns are minorly annoying. . . but I feel pretty much functional."

"Good man. We rode out to Liberty last night. Picked up our new truck, and we ran into your CO. Nice guy," Riley said. "Sent along your mail with us."

Alex handed Johnny the envelopes.

"Top one looks like it's from a girl," Alex grinned. "That ought to cheer you up."

Johnny checked the return address -- Germany.

"It's from my wife," Johnny told them, opening the envelope.

"No shit. I didn't know you were married, Sarge," Alex said, smiling.

"Two years now," Johnny mumbled, reading. "Though it'd appear I'm not anymore. She's filed for divorce."

Alex's smile fell from his face. Riley sighed and shook his head.

"Well, Operation Cheer Up Sgt. Teal is a clusterfuck so far. I'm guessing you shouldn't read this one."

Riley held up another envelope -- this one looked like it was from a law office. Johnny put out his hand, and Riley gave him the letter. The return address on this one wasn't from Germany -- it was from his hometown in Omaha. Johnny opened the letter and read.

"Well. . . at least these aren't divorce papers," he sighed.

"Well, that's good," Alex said.

"It's from the family lawyer. My father just died."

No one spoke for several minutes. Finally, Alex pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered it to Johnny. He lit it and took a deep drag. An orderly came running.

"You can't smoke in here!" he yelled.

"Fuck off," Riley growled. The orderly stopped dead and backed away.

"Sorry, Sergeant. We didn't mean to be the messengers of bad news," Alex apologized.

"Not your fault, guys. No worries."

"Still. We feel like shit about it," Riley said. "What can we do to make you feel better?"

Johnny felt a bubble of rage expanding in his chest. He looked at Riley and Alex.

"You can get me out of here and get me something to shoot at," he told them.

Riley smiled wide. His white teeth gleamed in the midday light.

"That we can do," he chuckled.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

L.E.O. -- Chapter Eleven

At first, Johnny thought he was dreaming someone was knocking on his door. He opened his eyes, though, and the noise continued. The clock on his bedside table read 4:44 am. He'd managed to get to sleep about three and a half hours before after finishing his reports.

As the knocking kept on, Johnny realized whoever was at the door wasn't likely to stop. He sighed and grabbed his jeans from the floor. He'd fallen asleep in his Texas Death Machine T-shirt, which still smelled of gunpowder. As he stumbled to the door, he put his pants on.

"This had better be life or death," he grumbled, looking through the peephole. Alex Kelley was standing on the porch, looking wide awake.

"Riley said keep an eye on him. Not shoot him," Johnny reminded himself under his breath before he opened the door.

"G'morning, Sarge! Glad you're up. Breakfast?"

Johnny wanted to yell at the younger man, to punch him in the face, and above all to go back to sleep. Instead, he just sighed and said "Sure. Let me get my boots."

A few moments later, they were sitting at the counter at Jerry's. It was just a few blocks from Johnny's house, and the owner was an old family friend. Johnny often stopped in for breakfast before work. It was one of the few places in town that ignored the city's "no smoking indoors" law -- Johnny didn't think it had a non-smoking section.

"You're in early this morning, Johnny-boy," Jerry said, a Marlboro Red hanging from the corner of his mouth.

"Yeah. Suppose I am. Usual for me, Jer. Double up on the diesel."

"And you, young man?"

"Eggs, bacon, toast. Diesel?" Alex asked, looking over at Johnny.

"Double-strong coffee," Johnny told him.

"Oh, yeah. That sounds just perfect. That too, sir."

"Sir," Jerry laughed. "Sure thing."

Jerry filled two huge mugs with black coffee. Johnny dumped sugar into his, stirred it, and took a sip while Jerry headed to the kitchen.

"So how'd you know where I live?" Johnny asked.

"Did I fuck up by dropping by?"

"Nah. Just curious. Don't remember mentioning it."

"You were in the phone book. Didn't know you had a son, by the way.

"I don't."

"Huh. You're in the book as John Teal, Sr."

"Jesus. How old is your phone book? John Sr was my dad. Actually, I haven't had a land line in six years, so I've never been in the book."

"Huh. Never checked the date -- it was in the apartment when I moved in. Lucky for me you live in that house, I guess."

"Yeah. Dad left it to me in his will. I grew up in that house after we moved to the city."

"Oh, yeah. That's right. You're from the farm, yeah?"

"Alliance. It's a farm town, but I lived in the city. Dad was mayor until I was four."

"Son of a politician. Wouldn't have guessed."

"Not really a politician. More like an administrator. He was an accountant. Just kinda kept the town from exploding for a few years."

"Then y'all moved to the big city. Or, y'know, what passes for one around here," Alex smirked, sipping his coffee. "Goddamn, that's good."

"So what's up, Alex? Fascinating as small-town Nebraska politics in the early 80s can be, I doubt that's what you came by to talk about."

"You got me there, Sergeant. Truth is, I'm bored as hell. Considering actually working. What's around here for those with our skillset?"

"And by 'our skillset' you mean?"

"Combat training. Tactical skills. You guys have a SWAT team or something?"

"Omaha PD does. I could make some calls, if you want. Talk to some of my people over there."

Johnny resisted the urge to ask about Alex's PTSD diagnosis. He could tell just by looking at the guy that he wasn't up early -- he hadn't slept, possibly in days. And he was jittery before the coffee. That pointed to stimulants, whether legal or quasi-legal. There was no way Alex would pass OPD's rigorous psych eval.

"Appreciate it. I really don't think I could do much else -- I'm not a customer-service kind of guy," Alex winked.

Jerry set their plates on the counter. He refilled their coffee with one hand while lighting a cigarette with the other.

"Guess what I saw on the Internet yesterday," he said.

"What's that, Jer?" Johnny asked, digging up a forkful of eggs.

Jerry reached under the table and pulled out a sheet of printer paper. It was a printout of the Raleigh News-Observer's Web site from a few days back. The headline read "Hero Cop Foils Terrorist Cell."

"Ah. Well, that's minorly embarrassing," Johnny grinned. Alex picked up the page and skimmed through it.

"This is you? In North Carolina?"

"Was on vacation there a few days ago."

"Well, look at that. Sergeant Teal's still takin' down Hajis even when the Army ain't payin'."

Johnny glanced at the article.

"They didn't write that too well. It was a domestic militia group, not terrorists like you're thinking."

"Still, though -- that's the kind of work I could get into. That's what I'm good at. Hunting down and taking out terrorists," Alex said.

"Don't know how much of that kind of work you'll find out this way," Johnny shrugged. "Not exactly a terror-cell haven around here."

"Thought about trying to work with one of the private security companies," Alex said, shrugging. "I know, I know. Contractors kinda suck. We used to give 'em all kinds of shit back in Iraq. But at least they're in the game. You know what I did last night?"

Johnny didn't. Alex told him anyway.

"Argued with a Haji at the liquor store about buying Jack at ten minutes to one. Fascinating, death-defying stuff."

Johnny finished his breakfast and lit a cigarette.

"So what is it you do all day? I couldn't imagine having that kind of downtime."

"Yeah, I'm not great with downtime, either -- as you might have guessed, what with me showing up at your house at five in the morning. I don't know, man," Alex sighed, lighting his own cigarette. "For the first week or so, I was pretty good about looking around for work. That got repetitive quick. Call center, call center, customer service, call center. You have a lot of fucking call centers in this town."

"Lack of a definable accent," Johnny said, nodding. "People from around here sound like they're from nowhere in particular."

"I guess. Lately, it's just been some Modern Warfare and trying to keep myself out of trouble."

"I'll see if OPD has anything," Johnny said. "Until then, just lay low and try to get some sleep, will you? You look like hell, man."

Alex flashed him a weak grin.

"All right, mom. Here's my cell number if you hear anything," he said, grabbing an order pad and pen and scribbling a local number. He handed it to Johnny.

"Will do," Johnny said, folding the paper and putting it in his coat pocket. "I should probably get into the office early. Big case."

"Anything interesting?" Alex asked.

"Frustrating is more like it," Johnny sighed, reaching for his wallet.

"No, it's OK, I got this."

Alex pulled out his wallet. Johnny didn't bother to argue -- he doubted the less-than-$10-check would break Alex's bank.

"Hey, Jer. Mind wrapping me up a diesel to go?" Johnny asked.

"Sure thing, Johnny-boy. What about you, young man?"

"Nah. Past my bedtime."

* * *

He showed up at the office two hours early, but it wasn't as if Johnny didn't have work to do. Rawlins had left reports on his desk. The younger Deputy had spent the day before talking to friends and relatives from the Hassans' address book. There was plenty to read.

Eric came in around 7:00 -- an hour earlier than normal. He set a cup of Starbucks on Johnny's desk.

"Thanks, man. You're in early."

"Got my paperwork from last night to finish up, plus the hack I abandoned to help you out. Think Nathaniel'll yank me from the case today?"

Johnny hadn't thought of that yet, but it was a possibility. With their gang lead all but gone, they'd probably lose their consultant.

"I hope not. I could really use your eyes on this one -- gang connections notwithstanding," Johnny said, sighing.

"Eh, there's hope. Maybe I'll find something in that really old computer we took from the skinheads' little clubhouse," Eric said, shrugging.

"Let's hope. How long do you think it'll take too get into the system?"

"If the encryption on their Web site was any indication of their skills. . . Let's just say I'll probably know everything in the system before you finish that cup of coffee."

"Awesome. Let me know what you find."

Eric vanished into his office, and Johnny went back to reading the reports Rawlins had collected. Everyone seemed to say only good things. By all accounts, the Hassans were good people -- active in the community, volunteered for charity, and gave money to a half-dozen causes. There was plenty of information in the reports, but no answers.

The phone on his desk chirped, and Johnny picked up. It was Nathaniel.

"Hey, boss."

"Johnny. Come into my office, would you?"

He'd been so concentrated on the reports that he hadn't seen Nathaniel come in.

"On my way."

Johnny hung up the phone and walked across the office to Nathaniel's door. He knocked and heard his boss say "Come in."

Nathaniel wasn't alone in the office. Standing next to his desk, dressed in a black suit, was Special Agent Enano.

"Good morning." Enano flashed a wide grin.

"Deputy, I believe you know Agent Enano."

"Yeah, we've met. What brings you to town, sir?"

"White Liberty. They're on my list. I came to interview the Skins you hauled in last night."

"I've gotta stop doing your job for you," Johnny said.

Enano laughed.

"By all means, keep doing it. Makes my life a whole lot easier."

"I'm going to need you to escort Agent Enano to County. Get him in to see this Stahl you arrested."

"Copy that, boss."

"I'll try not to take up too much of your time, Deputy," Enano said.

All three of them looked at the door as they heard a quick knock.

"Come in," Nathaniel said.

Eric popped his head in the door.

"Hey, boss. Sorry to interrupt. Johnny, Frank just called looking for you. Stahl called him from County this morning, claims he has info. Apparently, he wants to talk to me and you. Enano," Eric nodded.

"Eric," Enano nodded back.

Nathaniel looked at Eric, confused.

"We go back," Eric explained.

"I was just about to escort Agent Enano over to County," Johnny said. "Looks like you're riding along."

"I'll get my coat and meet you two down in the garage. Frank and Ellie will meet us there," Eric said, closing the door as he left.

"You ready to roll, Agent Enano?" Johnny asked.

"Just lead the way, Deputy."

Johnny and Enano headed out of the office to the elevator. While they were waiting for the car, Johnny's BlackBerry went off.

"Excuse me," Johnny said, lifting the phone to his ear. "Teal."

"Hey, Deputy Teal. It's Bill Ewing. I'm over at the City lab, and we've got a bunch of the evidence from the Hassan case processed."

"Hang tight, Bill. We're making a stop over at County for a bit, then the whole team'll be over. Anything good?" Johnny asked.

"Good? Possibly. Interesting? Without a doubt," Ewing told him.

"Outstanding work, Bill. We'll see you in a bit."

Johnny hung up the phone. The elevator arrived a few seconds later, and Johnny and Enano got in.

"Your boss was telling me a bit about your case, Deputy Teal. Sounds like a messy one," Enano said.

"Story of my life," Johnny sighed.

Monday, December 7, 2009

L.E.O -- Chapter Ten

Ellie drove the unmarked right up onto the sidewalk, scattering skinheads left and right as she slammed on the brakes.

As Johnny jumped out of the passenger door, he heard loud gunfire inside the building. He drew his weapon and brought it up to eye level.

"Police! Don't even fucking think about moving!" he yelled.

A few of the Skins started to scatter, but Frank fired a round in the air. They stopped dead.

"Go get your boy! I'll handle these fucks!" Frank yelled.

Ellie and Johnny ran for the target building's front door. Ellie caved in the door with one kick.

Johnny swept in, gun up, covering the left side of the room. Ellie popped in next, covering right. He tried to locate Eric, but all he could see was skinheads with guns. He followed their line of fire -- a bar at the far right of the room.

"Police! Drop your weapons!" Ellie yelled.

One of the Skins drew a bead with his shotgun. She fired twice, hitting him center-mass. The skinhead dropped, his weapon clattering to the floor.

"Now, anyone else wanna pull a gun?" Johnny asked.

The gunfire was thunderous. Ellie and Johnny dove behind the bar, almost landing on Eric.

"Nice of you to join me!" Eric yelled over the gunfire.

"How many?"

Eric flashed all ten fingers twice in response to Johnny's question. Bullets slammed into the bar, sending splinters and sawdust flying.

"Nineteen left!" Johnny shouted to Ellie. The gunfire slowed slightly.

"Get down!" Eric yelled, grabbing a bottle of gin from the bar. He flung it hard overhand just as Johnny ducked. The bottle smacked into a skinhead's skull and shattered -- he'd been sneaking up on them. The Skin went down in a spray of blood and liquor.

"Eighteen!" Johnny yelled.

Ellie snagged the Skin's dropped gun and threw it to Eric. Eric shook his head and set the gun on the floor.

"Pop up on three!" Johnny yelled, holding up three fingers. Ellie nodded.


Johnny dropped one finger.


Johnny's hand became a fist, and he and Ellie popped up from behind the bar, firing their weapons. They pulled the triggers until they clicked empty, dropping several of the skins. When they dropped back behind the bar, the room was quiet.

"Putting our guns down!" one of the Skins yelled as Johnny and Ellie reloaded. Johnny heard weapons hitting the floor. He raised his weapon.

"I'll check it out," he told Ellie.

As he popped up, Johnny brought his weapon to bear in front of him. No gunfire met him as he rose. Weapons were resting on the floor, and the six Skins still standing had their hands up.

"On the ground, now! All of you!" Johnny ordered.

The Skins complied, sinking to their knees, then laying face-down on the blood-slick floor. They moved like they'd been arrested before. Johnny pulled a fistful of zip-ties from his coat and set them on the bar. He motioned to Ellie and Eric that it was safe to come up.

"Eric, check vitals and do what you can for any criticals. Wrap up anyone else," Johnny said. Eric nodded and grabbed a few zip-ties.

Ellie made a quick radio call for backup and medical, then started flex-cuffing the uninjured Skins. Johnny kept them both covered.

"Hey, Johnny. Think this is our guy," Ellie said, hauling one of the cuffed skinheads to his feet. He was short -- about Johnny's height. Though he was dressed in a big Army jacket, it was readily apparent that the Skin had a slight frame. Ellie handed Johnny the Skin's wallet.

"Mortimer Travis Stahl," Johnny read from his license. "Mortimer? Really? No wonder you go by Travis."

"What the fuck do you want?"

"Slow your roll, there, Mortimer. What the fuck were you thinking, opening fire on my boy and a couple of cops?"

"He's a rat. One of my guys is from Tampa -- recognized him as a guy who fucked us on a deal down there. Got a bunch of us locked up," Stahl growled.

"And you're all getting locked up now. Great plan, Mortimer," Ellie said.

Eric walked over to them, pulling off his medical gloves.

"One dead, two critical, the rest stable. I think our two criticals will hold on until the ambulances get here. I've patched 'em all up. Stopped the bleeding where I could."

"Wait. You're a doctor?" Ellie said. Her face showed confusion.

"Paramedic," Eric told her.

"He's a man of many talents," Johnny said.

"Well, not many. Like, three," Eric said.

"You're a fucking race traitor," Stahl spat.

"Oh, quiet down, you," Eric said, glaring at the tiny Skinhead. "Farm boy? You got it covered in here?"

Johnny looked around the room. All of the Skins were flex-cuffed and on the floor.

"Yeah. We're set."

"I'm gonna go outside and keep Frank's company. Wait for the backup."

"Good idea. We'll stay behind and talk to Mortimer," Ellie said.

Eric nodded, tossed his gloves into a trash can, and went outside.

"All right, Morty. Time to start talking."

"Yeah? About what?"

"About Adam Hassan."

Stahl's face scrunched up.


"You're a shitty liar," Ellie said, shaking her head. "I can see by your eyes you know who I'm talking about."

Johnny was impressed. Most people wouldn't have caught the tiny twitch in Stahl's left eye as Adam Hassan's name was mentioned. The lady definitely had talent.

"We know you know who he is," Johnny said.

"Yeah, fine. I know the camel fucker. He got my best friend sent to jail two years back."

"Hey. Watch the language, fucktard," Ellie snapped.

"You seen Hassan lately?" Johnny asked.

"Last time I saw him was at my boy's trial."

"That's two. Lie to me one more time, Mortimer. Really. See what happens," Ellie said, scowling.

"Fine. Hassan was visiting my boy. Turned him away from the cause. We ran into each other outside the prison last Spring, and we got into it. Check with the Lincoln Police. I filed charges."

"And more recently?" Johnny said, leaning closer to Stahl, who backed away slightly.

"All right, man. Don't go aggro. I keyed the rag--" Stahl caught himself after a withering glare from Ellie. " -- the guy's car. Like two weeks back. He saw me -- I ran."

"Very manly of you," Ellie snickered. "So you're going to tell us you and your crew didn't murder him and his whole family?"

"He's dead?"

The shock in Stahl's voice was either real or a very convincing act. Johnny thought the former, and he could see that Ellie did, as well.

"You're looking at a lot of time here -- assault on officers, illegal weapons. . . you give us something on Hassan, and we might help."

Johnny kept his voice strong and sure even

"Seriously, man. I don't know anything," Stahl said.

"That's unfortunate," Ellie sighed. "I'm guessing the charges from tonight will land you 20 years, if not more. That's State Prison, too. They're not too easy on Nazi assholes like you up in State."

"Look, just take me in and get me a my lawyer, all right?" Stahl growled.

Johnny shrugged. Those were the magic words. As soon as Stahl said lawyer, they had to stop questioning him.

They heard sirens outside. Frank radioed from outside.

"Wagons and ambos are here."

"Roger that," Johnny radioed back. "Send in the medics, will you?"

"They're on the way. We'll start loading up out here."

A few seconds later, four paramedics in blue cargo pants and t-shirts came in. They moved quickly, attending to the wounded. Johnny and Ellie led Stahl and his uninjured comrades out of the building and into the street. Four Omaha Police wagons and two ambulances had joined Ellie's unmarked on the curb.

"Paperwork on this is gonna be a bitch," Ellie said.

Johnny nodded as he helped the OPD uniforms load the skinheads into the truck.

"Yeah, it is. And we got nothing out of it, to boot. Not my best evening of policework on record."

"At least we got out of the house," Eric said, smiling and shrugging. "Nothing usable? At all?"

"We won't know until we do some digging, but Stahl didn't know Hassan was dead. I think we did this for nothing," Johnny said.

"Well, not nothing. I mean, look at all these guns you got off the street," Eric told him.

That much was true, Johnny figured. The Skins had been armed to the teeth. At least they wouldn't be using those guns on anyone now.

"All loaded up here, Detective."

"Thanks, Walker," Frank nodded to the uniformed cop. "Run 'em on down to the station. We'll be along after we take a look around in there."

Officer Walker nodded and got into one of the wagons.

"Good idea, Frank," Johnny grinned.

"We're gonna be stuck in office forever. Might as well poke around in these assholes' clubhouse and see what nasty shit we can find," Frank said, shrugging and opening the door. "Ladies first, El."

"Why, thank you, Frank. All right, boys. Let's see what we can find."

Johnny, Frank, and Eric followed her inside.

Past the bar area where the County Coroner was still packing up the dead skinhead, the team found a small office area with four desks. There was also an old 24" TV and a VCR on a stand -- it looked like it had been stolen from a high school AV room sometime around 1992.

"Four desks, four of us," Ellie said, snapping on latex gloves. Eric moved to the only desk with a computer, put on gloves, and started it. Johnny started rifling through the desk nearest him. He found a lot of White Power literature (with a bunch of misspellings, he noticed). Apart from the various flyers, the only interesting item in the desk was a Nazi bayonet -- he couldn't tell if it was real or a replica.

"Well, here's something," Frank said, lifting an ancient Hi-8 video camera from the bottom drawer of the desk in front of him. "Tapes, too."

Johnny walked over to Frank and took a look in the drawer -- there were more than 30 tapes, all with dates scrawled on their labels.

"Got one from the date of the murders, here," Johnny said, pulling the tape out of the drawer.

"Let's see if this TV works," Ellie said.

The picture on the TV was a little dark, but it worked. Eric found some cables and hooked the camera to the TV, then loaded the tape. An image flickered onto the screen -- Stahl with a large number of Skins behind him. They looked like they were standing in a parking lot. It was dark out, and all of the skinheads were dressed in black jeans and black coats.

"Is he standing on an apple box?" Eric asked.

Johnny managed to keep from chuckling. On the tape, someone said "Go." Stahl started talking.

"This is what you get for ruining our hood. You move your brown-owned business into a white neighborhood, and this is what happens."

Stahl motioned to the Skins behind him. They all donned black ski masks and balaclavas. Stahl put on his own mask, then smiled at the camera.

This is what you get," he repeated. "Let's go!"

The skinheads took off running, and the camera followed. They sprinted across a four-lane street and swarmed into a car lot. Johnny recognized the dealership from its "Se habla Espanol" and "Compre con confianza" signs -- it was in the middle of town, on L Street. He remembered reading it had been vandalized a few days ago -- now he was watching it happen.

The Skins had bats, tire irons, and pipes. Johnny watched as they went aggro on the dealership, smashing windshields and slashing tires. He sighed and turned to Ellie.

"Shit. Stahl's not our guy," he told her.

"Just because he was out that night doesn't mean he couldn't have gotten across town to the Hassans'." Ellie's face was set in a scowl.

"What time did the M.E. put for their deaths?"

"Between 11 pm and 1 am," Frank said, "Monday night."

Johnny tapped the top right corner of the screen. Just visible inside the camera frame was a flashing time-and-temperature bank sign. The date was that Monday night -- the time was 11:52 p.m.

"Well. . . fuck," Ellie muttered.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

L.E.O. -- Chapter Nine

Johnny dropped Ellie at the Northwest Station about 6:30 and gave her his home address. She and Frank would be there by eight. He'd spoken to Nathaniel on the drive back from Lincoln -- they were working on a warrant, but the plan was to locate and question Stahl.

Eric's black BMW 5-series was already in Johnny's driveway when Johnny pulled up in his Ram at 7:30. Eric was next door on Darrell's porch. Darrell had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and was in the middle of a story when Johnny walked up.

"Hey, Chief. Afraid I'm gonna have to steal my guy from you. Work to do, and all," Johnny said.

"No problem. I'll finish this later, young man. Y'all need any help?" Darrell said before taking a long swig of his beer.

"Nah, I think we got it handled, Chief," Johnny said, smiling. He waved to his neighbor, and he and Eric headed into the house.

"Thanks for the rescue, Farm Boy. That guy sure can talk, can't he?"

"Yeah, old Darrell has plenty of war stories. And he has no problem telling them to anyone, anytime."

"He also thinks my name is Steve. I have no idea why," Eric laughed, shrugging out of his leather motorcycle jacket and opening his backpack. He pulled out his netbook.

"Living room," Johnny said, and Eric nodded. He quickly hooked the netbook to the 37-inch LCD TV in Johnny's living room, then brought up a map.

"So who's coming to the party?" Eric asked as he started a pot of coffee in Johnny's kitchen.

"You, me, Frank, and Ellie. You're making the initial contact, being gang-guy and all."

"No problem. Skinheads love me for some reason -- probably all the ink. And yes, that does disturb the hell out of me."

"I can imagine. Now, we don't have a search warrant for the address yet, so be cool. We just want to find Stahl and talk to him."

"Sure thing. According to the info on the Web, they're having some kind of rally tonight. If Stahl's their main guy, he'll most likely be there."

"These White Liberty guys -- they short fuses?"

"The Skins usually are. We'll want to make it very clear we're there to talk, because those boys love guns. They think it's a raid, and 50/50 they'll go buck wild."

"Beautiful. I'm gonna suggest Kevlar just in case. You bring yours?"

"Yeah, it's in the car. Hope it's not necessary, though."

Johnny saw headlights in his driveway outside -- Frank and Ellie had arrived in their unmarked Crown Victoria.

"Welcome, guys. Come in. Grab a coffee if you want," Johnny told them.

"Hey, Johnny. Nice place you have here. Good neighborhood," Frank said, smiling.

"Thanks. Lived here forever."

Frank nodded and poured cups of coffee for himself and Ellie.

"All right. Should we get down to it?" Eric asked.

At a nod from Johnny, Eric brought the satellite image of the target neighborhood up on the screen.

"This is where we're headed. It's just off 13th and Vinton -- White Liberty rents some space here for the skinheads to use for rallies, concerts, that kind of crap. According to their Web site, they're holding a rally tonight."

"What kind of rally?" Frank asked.

"Your standard White Power crap. You know, 'them immigrants is stealing our jobs' stuff," Eric answered.

"Now, warrants haven't come through yet, and I don't expect them. All we have is the word of a convicted felon that our guy might have disliked one of the victims. So we're just going to approach him. See if he'll talk to us willingly. Eric will make the initial contact."

"Why him?" Ellie said. "He's not a law enforcement officer."

"That's true. But he's our gang consultant, and he has experience with this group," Johnny said. "He knows how they operate, how they think. Besides, they see any of the three of us walking up, they'll smell cop. Eric, at least, won't spook them before we have a chance to talk."

"I suppose that makes sense," Ellie nodded. "Will you be armed?"

"Nope. I'm not a guy you want messing around with firearms."

"We'll be monitoring Eric on audio and keeping an eye on him from your unmarked. If things get hairy, we'll roll up in force and assist."

"All right. Once Eric makes contact, what then?" Frank asked.

"If Stahl agrees to talk to us, we'll take him to the 13th Street station. I've spoken to the shift commander there -- he's got an interview room for us. We'll ask him some questions and, ideally, get a confession."

"And if Stahl doesn't feel chatty?" Frank said.

"Then we gather information. See if anyone in his crew will talk to us," Ellie said.

"Exactly," Johnny said. "We try to shore up our admittedly thin lead. Now, be advised that we're not dealing with idealists here. These are street soldiers, and we can assume there will be plenty of weapons present. Kevlar's the order of the day, folks."

Frank nodded.

"We're both set on that score. Eric?"

"Yeah, got mine in the car."

"Good. I'm going to change into civvies, and we can roll out. We'll take two cars -- Eric's vehicle and your unmarked, if that works for you guys."

Ellie and Frank both nodded in agreement.

"We get there early enough, we can reconnoiter the area. Maybe catch our guy on his way in," Ellie said.

"My thought, too," Johnny said.

He excused himself from the living room and headed to his bedroom to change. He'd learned a thing or two from Eric about dressing down. Gone were the days when he'd wear khakis and a polo on a covert op -- now it was jeans, a Texas Death Machine shirt, and a leather jacket. He reached under the bed for his black Army-issue boots and put them on. Finally, he tucked two extra clips for his weapon into his jacket. He walked back out into the living room -- Eric was strapping on his Kevlar over a T-shirt, which he covered with a short-sleeved button-up.

"You're gonna get cold out there," Ellie said, shaking her head.

"Gotta let 'em see the ink. It screams 'not a cop,'" Eric answered. "Besides, it's above freezing, right?"

"Nope," Johnny laughed.

"Well, shit. Once they've seen my arms, I guess I'll put my jacket on."

"You got your wire on?"

"It's on the vest."

Johnny quickly checked his radio -- he could hear just fine through Eric's transmitter.

"All right, kids. Let's roll. Eric, you get into trouble --"

"I know, I know. Ivy Mike."

Johnny nodded -- that was the correct code. Eric poured the rest of the coffee into his travel mug and headed out to his car.

* * *

"You know, I grew up not far from here."

Frank, sitting in the backseat of the unmarked, had taken off his tie and was spinning a cigarette between his fingers.

"You can smoke. I don't mind -- I'm a smoker," Johnny told him.[P]"Nah. Quit a while back. Just like to hold 'em still," Frank smiled.

"You know the area. You wanna do the first on-foot? Since, y'know, this is your old hood and all," Ellie grinned.

"Sure. Don't much like the back seat anyway. Back in a few," Frank said, opening the rear passenger door and stepping onto the sidewalk.

"How's your guy?" Ellie asked as Frank left.

Johnny switched the car radio over to Eric's frequency. Loud punk music poured from the speaker -- Dead Kennedys, Johnny guessed.

"I'd guess he's a bit bored," Johnny sighed, switching the radio back to the dispatch frequency.

"Yeah, well, tell him to stay sharp. Skins could start showing up any minute."

"He knows. Despite how he might look -- and act -- Eric's actually very good at what he does."

"And what is that, exactly? I ran him through local, state, and Federal, and got nothing older than last August. No aliases, either. It's like he didn't exist 16 months ago."

"He didn't. He's in the Federal Witness Security program. I can't tell you much more than that."

"That makes sense," Ellie said, nodding.

"So if you ran Eric, smart money says you ran me."

"I did. As I'm sure you did with me."

"Actually, no. Haven't had time yet. Find out anything interesting?"

"Well, you at least existed before August, so that's a plus."

Ellie cracked the window and lit a cigarette.

"I also thought about calling your boss and having you pulled from the case," she said.

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I thought it, but I saw your two tours in Iraq. I know some Iraq war veterans --"

"You thought I might have a conflict investigating the murder of a Muslim family."

"Like I said, embarrassing that my mind went there."

"It makes sense, I guess," Johnny shrugged.

Frank popped into the backseat of the car, saving them from an awkward silence.

"Just saw a carload of Skins headed down this way. Party's starting -- tell your boy to get ready."

Johnny texted Eric: "It's on."

* * *

Half an hour later, there were more than 20 skinheads collected in front of the target building, talking and smoking cigarettes. Johnny and his team had observed at least 15 more entering the building. Johnny checked his watch -- 9:30. There had been no sign of Stahl.

"Going in now. Gonna talk to the guys outside, wait out there for Stahl to show up," Eric's voice crackled over the unmarked's radio.

As the three cops watched, Eric walked up to a cluster of five or six rather large Skins. He was carrying his jacket, so his tattoos showed.

"Hey, guys. Big meeting tonight?" they heard Eric say.

"Fuck off, guy. Nothing you want to be a part of here," a deep voice growled.

"Oh, I don't know about that. I think I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be," Eric said. His voice was calm, cheerful. He looked relaxed.

One of the Skins -- half a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than Eric -- got right up in his face. Eric's body language didn't change. Over the unmarked's speaker, an ungodly loud roar filled the cabin. Johnny reached over and turned the radio down until the yelling stopped.

"Jesus. What the fuck was that?" Ellie said.

"Eric told me they do that. Testing his nerves. If he flinched, they would've killed him."

Eric hadn't flinched -- he still looked calm. Bored, even. The huge skinhead pounded him on the shoulder and laughed.

"You're all right. How'd you find out about the meeting?"

"Guy named Ordway. Was in County with him for a couple days."

The big Skin nodded.

"Good man, Andy Ordway."

"Larry Ordway," Eric said.

"Right. Caught that one, so good for you."

"Crap, they're paranoid," Frank said.

"Which could mean they have reason to be. The Hassan family, maybe," Ellie said.

"So, Larry told me to ask for a dude named Stahl. He here?" Eric asked. He shrugged into his leather motorcycle coat.

"He's already inside. I'll introduce you," the big guy said. He led Eric into the building, and loud, shitty hate-rock washed over the unmarked's cabin. Ellie reached out to turn the volume down.

"I know the music sucks, but we need to be able to hear Eric if he hits trouble," Johnny told her.

"I can't hear anything over this shit," Frank said.

"My guess is that if he has to call us in, he'll make it loud."

The three sat without speaking -- the music made it tough to converse.

"Well, drum part's not horrible, anyway," Frank said after a few minutes, pulling a cigarette from his jacket and spinning it around.

"I'm not sure those are drums," Johnny said, turning up the volume on the dashboard radio. He heard three loud booms, and the music stopped.

"--ike! Ivy Motherfucking Mike!" Eric's voice blared over the speaker. He didn't sound calm now.

"Shit! Roll up!" Johnny yelled.

Ellie hit the sirens and floored the accelerator.

Friday, November 27, 2009

L.E.O. -- Chapter Eight

Camp Liberty, Iraq, 2005

Lieutenant Osborne waved Johnny over to him as Johnny hopped out of his Humvee. Johnny waved back. He hustled over to his commanding officer, who was just finishing up a conversation with a civilian in a shirt and tie.

"Sergeant Teal."


"Looks like I'm gonna have to send you right back out again. Sorry about that -- you were probably due for some rack time."

"I'm good to go, sir."

"Good, because I need my best guy on this. There's a convoy leaving for FOB Danger in an hour. You're in it. I need you to run protection for a couple of contractors -- they have a meeting with 1st ID brass in the morning."

"On it, sir."

Johnny didn't like night convoys, but he understood why they were generally safer -- harder to shoot at speeding targets one couldn't see. He'd been on a few already this tour, though, and had been shot at on all but one of them. Thankfully, he'd escaped injury so far.

He had his Humvee fueled and ready to go in fifteen minutes, and had loaded up on gear and ammo. The contractors showed up ten minutes later.

"Right, then. Sergeant Teal? You're our ride, yeah?" the shorter of the two said. He was British, and dressed in khakis and a polo.

"That's me, sir," Johnny said.

"Paul Stevens. My compatriot here's Aaron Kendel," the short Brit said, nodding at his tall partner. Johnny shook each of their hands.

"Are you armed, gentlemen?" he asked.

"MP5's and Glocks," Kendel replied. He was also British.

"Good. I'd suggest you carry extra ammo, as we will most likely get shot at," Johnny told them.

"Already handled, mate," Stevens said. If his accent hadn't confirmed him as British, his smile did.

"Then it looks like we're good to go. Hop in, gents. Long drive ahead."

As the sun started to dip below the horizon, Johnny pulled his Humvee into position near the end of the waiting vehicle column. There were two other Humvees and three Chevy Suburbans in front of him.

Johnny checked the time -- 20 minutes until the column rolled. He put the Humvee in park and hopped out to have a cigarette. Stevens jumped out and stood next to him.

"Get one of those off you, mate?"

"Sure thing," Johnny said, tipping the pack toward him. As Stevens lit up, another black Suburban pulled into the column behind them.

All four of the SUV's doors opened, and four men in civilian clothing with Haji scarves around their necks hopped out. The driver smirked.

"Cheese it, boys! It's the fuzz!" the driver laughed.

"How ya doin', Sergeant Cohane?" Johnny sighed.

Riley lit a smoke and grinned.

"How long you been back in the Suck, Sergeant?" he asked

"November of last year."

Alex Kelley waved from the passenger door.

"Looks like we're rolling to Danger with you. Keep your foot on the gas, Sarge. Don't wanna get clipped," Kelley said, smirking.

"Not my first convoy, Specialist."

Kelley shook his head.

"Sergeant, now. Same as you."

"Congratulations," Johnny said flatly.

"He's right, though, Sergeant. We're behind you, so keep it floored, yeah?" Riley said.

"Will do."

"Good man. See you at Danger."

Johnny and Stevens finished off their cigarettes and climbed back into the Humvee.

"So I take it you know those guys," Stevens said.

"Yep. They're assholes," Johnny sighed, starting the huge vehicle's engine.

* * *

Stevens, it turned out, was quite a guy. He wasn't a contractor in the sense Johnny had initially thought -- a hired soldier. He and Kendel were both engineers, both math geeks. Kendel slept through most of the ride, but Johnny and Stevens got a chance to talk. It turned out both were fans of Texas Death Machine.

"Saw them at their third show ever back in '97," Stevens told him.

"Manchester? Where they got their recording contract?"

"Fuck yes. Last of their hometown shows that year. Great gig."

Johnny was about to ask him what the gig was like when bullets bounced off the Humvee. "Shit, do we fire back?" Stevens asked, bringing up his MP5 and shaking Kendel awake.

"Nah. We're five minutes from FOB Danger. We should be able to outrun --"

Johnny never got a chance to finish his sentence. Behind them, he saw a flash of light and heard a crash. He looked in the rearview just in time to see the black Suburban behind them roll over several times and land at the side of the road. Its undercarriage was on fire.

Johnny stood on the brakes and threw his vehicle into reverse.

"Stay low!" he shouted at his passengers.

He made it to the overturned SUV in seconds and threw the Humvee back into gear.

"Paul! Take the wheel!" he yelled over the gunfire. He opened his door and hopped out onto the road as Paul slid into the driver's seat.

"Straight down that road, and keep it floored! Danger's only a few minutes out!" Johnny yelled.

"What about you, mate?" Stevens shouted back as bullets peppered the side of the Humvee.

"I gotta check on my guys! Report our position and send help!"

Paul nodded and closed the door.

"Good luck, mate. Stay alive."

An RPG exploded just behind the Humvee.

"Go, go, go!" Johnny yelled. As the Humvee took off, he brought up his M4 and slid off the road. Johnny stayed low, crawling on his stomach over to the wrecked Suburban. He could smell gasoline.

"Shit. It's gonna blow," he muttered. He scuttled over to the driver's window and saw Kelley hanging upside-down, out cold.

"That you, Teal?" he heard from inside the SUV.

"Sergeant Cohane? You all right?"

"Legs are wedged under the dash. Don't think they're broken, though. Truck on fire?"

"And then some."

"Get my boys out first. I'll try to loosen myself up."

"Shit! Afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to wait one, Sergeant!" Johnny yelled. He'd just slipped on his night-vision goggles and seen several hostiles, AK-47s in hand, running to the truck.

Johnny went into a crouch. He thumbed off his M4's safety and opened fire, dropping six men before emptying his magazine. As he reloaded the M4, he fired his Beretta. He brought up the now-reloaded M4 and shot more hostiles as bullets bounced off the truck behind him. He'd killed 12, but they kept coming.

As Johnny ran behind the overturned truck for cover, he felt four rounds slam into his chest as several more whizzed by his head. The armor plate stopped them, but they hurt like a bitch. Johnny ended up crouched next to Cohane's window as he reloaded.

"How many?" Cohane asked.

"Many many, sir. More than 20 left."

"How are you on ammo?"

"Last mag," Johnny answered, slamming the clip into the M4.

"I'm almost loose. Take this," Cohane grunted. He pushed a compact FN P90 through the open window at Johnny's feet.


Johnny popped up and fired his M4 again until the ammo ran out, then quickly dropped the weapon to his chest and snatched up the P90. He fired that weapon until it was empty, too, then dropped back into a crouch. The gunfire around the truck had calmed down significantly.

"Got 'em?" Cohane asked, squirming around inside the truck.

"One left."

"Here you go," Cohane said, tossing an HK-417 out the window. Johnny grabbed the rifle, popped up, and dropped the last hostile just as Cohane crawled out of the SUV. He was bleeding from his forehead.

"I'll start pulling my guys out. Keep me covered?" Cohane said.

"Roger that, Sergeant."

Cohane clapped Johnny on the shoulder. He disappeared back into the Suburban, and a couple seconds later, Kelley crawled out the driver's side window and hustled over to Johnny.

"Sergeant," Kelley greeted. His voice was calm. "I'll trade you some 5.56 for my 417."

Johnny smirked and handed the weapon to Kelley. Kelley reached into his cargo pants and pulled out two M4 magazines, one of which Johnny immediately loaded.

"Need another set of hands!" Cohane yelled from inside the Suburban.

"You're stronger than me," Kelley said.

Johnny dropped to his stomach and looked into the SUV. He could see that Cohane was trying to push one of his men to the front of the cabin -- he reached in and grabbed the man's arms. He pulled. The man limply slid into the front seat, and Johnny pulled him clear of the truck. He checked the man's pulse.

"He OK?" Kelley asked.

"Alive, anyway," Johnny answered.

"One more coming up!" Cohane said.

Johnny pulled that man from the truck, as well. His pulse was weak.

"That all of you?" Johnny asked.

"Yeah. M4s and med kit coming up," Cohane said, pushing the rifles and small bag ahead of him. Johnny pulled the weapons and bag out, then grabbed Cohane's arm and dragged him from the vehicle.

"We gotta move, Riley," Kelley said. "I'm shocked as hell this fucking thing hasn't blown already."

Cohane picked up the P90 and reloaded it.

"Alex, weapons and gear. Teal, grab Holt there. I'll carry Edison. We're running for that wall," Cohane said, nodding at a crumbled pile of brick 20 feet away.

Johnny picked up the larger man -- the one with the thready pulse -- and threw him over his shoulder. He could feel blood run down his back. Cohane lifted the other man on his shoulders while Kelley slung the rifles and bag.

"Go!" Cohane spat, and the three of them were off. As they ran, bullets flew at them from across the road. They made it to the wall in seconds and dove behind it as bullets chipped the brick.

Cohane set Edison on the ground, then popped up to return fire. Kelley unslung the medical bag as Johnny laid Holt on the sand.

"Medic?" Johnny asked.

"Holt," Kelley said, grinning.


Johnny looked at Holt -- blood was gushing from the side of his neck. He grabbed the med kit from Kelley, found some Curlex, and started pressing it into Holt's neck wound. Kelley joined Cohane in firing.

"How's he doing?" Cohane yelled as he dropped behind the wall to reload.

"Needs a doctor!"

"'Least he doesn't need a priest yet!"

Johnny's back was to them as he worked on Holt's wound. As he glanced up from his work, he caught movement in the distance -- more hostiles.

"Hajis on our six!" Johnny yelled, bringing up his M4 and firing. He saw two men drop and another go into a crouch and raise a weapon. He fired a few rounds, but saw the man fire anyway.

"RPG!" Johnny yelled, throwing himself over the two injured men on the ground.

The grenade exploded just to Johnny's right, showering all five men with sand and debris. Still covering the two men, Johnny raised his M4. He pumped four rounds into the man with the grenade launcher, and the night suddenly went quiet.

"Everyone OK?" he said after a moment.

"Yeah," Cohane answered. "We got inbound vehicles -- Humvees. Looks like our ride finally showed up."

Johnny saw the headlights. He counted six vehicles coming from FOB Danger.

"Teal. Stand up and wave 'em in, will ya? We're in Haji gear," Cohane said.

As Johnny stood, he noticed Edison was moving. He waved his M4 in the air, and the Humvees rumbled towards him. They stopped inches away. A colonel stepped out of the lead Humvee and shined a flashlight down on them.

"Sergeant Cohane! You all right?"

"Yes, sir, Colonel."

"Your men?"

"All alive, sir. Thanks to Sergeant Teal, here," Cohane said.

The colonel nodded and turned back to the Humvees.

"Load 'em up. We roll in 90 seconds, people."

Soldiers swarmed over Johnny's position, lifting Edison and Holt into a Humvee with a medic.

Johnny and Cohane ended up in the backseat of the same Humvee.

"What's your first name, Sergeant?" Cohane asked.


"Well, you know what, Johnny? You're all right. I owe you one."

"Just doing my job, Sergeant."

"Fuck the ranks. I'm Riley. And I owe you my life. You ever need anything from me, you just ask, dig?"

"Copy that."

The Humvees started back towards FOB Danger. As the vehicle column picked up speed, the wrecked Suburban finally exploded next to the road.

"Oh. There it goes," Cohane laughed.