Monday, December 26, 2011

E/B:H -- Chapter Two

I can't say for certain, of course, that you've never taken a ride in a hopper. But I'm pretty sure you haven't. Not unless you're one of the miners they've been sending to Luna City on the moon lately, or unless you're extremely wealthy. Shit, I'm a network personality, and I make boatloads of cash, and I'd never been on one until that night. They're not inexpensive.

The fact that Jeremy must have paid for it himself -- Network wasn't going to cover it -- made me think he had a serious story. I made a mental note to throw some cash his way when we got back -- I know what he makes, and it's less than a quarter of my salary.

The hopper essentially looked like a big metal ball on three legs. A short, burly local handed us pressure suits. Mine was red. As we suited up, I finally thought to ask the obvious.

"So, where are we going?" I asked, hoping he wouldn't say "the moon." I mean, I trusted the guy, but come *on.*

"Mauna Kea," he said.

I had know idea what those words meant. Something Hawaiian. So at least we weren't leaving the atmosphere.

"And that is?"

"Observatory. Up in the mountains. Used to be a college thing. Funded by corporations now, I think. Anyway, an old buddy of mine works there. Got me the scent of something that..." he trailed off.

I simply nodded. I didn't know much about hoppers, but I knew they were mind-blowingly fast. We'd be back before we were missed. That was the hope, anyway.

I'd never taken a hopper ride before, but I knew the concept. The little ball would shoot up -- fast. Faster than any humans inside would be able to withstand without becoming a permanent part of the vehicle's floor. Exact speed? No clue. But the news report I'd seen on them mentioned that, without the hopper's safety system, occupants would be liquified.

The pressure suits were only a part of the system, and were mainly there to keep the riders... well, clean. We also got helmets. Once the helmets were on, the suits were air- and water-tight. Well, liquid-tight, anyway.

Then came the second safety feature. The entirety of the hopper -- the ball -- filled with a sort of... goo. It was a thick gel that took the shock of the acceleration. The passengers floated in the center of the ball, surrounded by this crud, as the hopper rocketed directly up.

We were alone. There was no pilot on board the hopper -- its course was pre-programmed into its computers. There was, however, an operator of sorts. One guy at the hopper's takeoff point monitored the flight via a link to the hopper's flight computers. In an emergency, he could...

OK, in an emergency, we were probably fucked. The most the operator could do was come up with a convincing story about our deaths. Our flight was too short to make any corrections -- it would be over in less than 30 seconds.

Jeremy and I were lowered into the gel. As we cleared the frame of the sphere's hatch, mechanical clamps grabbed our ankles and pulled us into position at the ball's center. The clamps let go, and I was floating in the center of the sphere. I tried to turn and look at Jeremy, but the clear gel was thick. Moving my head wasn't going to happen without more effort than I wanted to put in, so I did my best to relax my body for the flight.

There was no countdown, no red light turning on inside the sphere to let us know we were taking off. But there didn't need to be. We definitely knew it when it happened. Even with the gel, even with the pressure suits, I felt like I was being curb-stomped. By an elephant. With an overeating disorder.

I know the flight only took 30 seconds -- 28, really -- but it seemed much longer. I could swear I felt the heavy metal boots attached to my pressure suit touching the hard bottom deck of the sphere at one point. Just as the pressure started to get unbearable, though, it stopped in an instant. We had landed without so much as a tiny jolt. We floated in the sphere -- in the center, I noticed, so my boots probably hadn't reached the floor -- for a couple of minutes. I guessed we were there for about three minutes, maybe three and a half -- so 6 or 7 times longer than the actual flight had been.

Finally, the hatch at the top of the sphere slid open, and the clamps grabbed us around the ankles again and pushed us upwards. When we were halfway out of the hatch, Jeremy and I could pull ourselves out onto the ladders on either side. The clamps let go. There was no one outside to meet us, to help us out of our suits. I pulled off my helmet, first twisting to the left, then the right. The first thing I noticed after the seals unlocked and I pulled the helmet off was that it was cold outside. Really cold, actually.

"The fuck, Jeremy. I thought this was Hawaii," I grumbled as Jeremy took off his own helmet.

"It's the altitude," he told me. "More than 14,000 feet. Like, three miles up."

I nodded. That made sense, I guess. I'd been up in the Nevada mountains in summer. That time, I'd been able to see my breath, and I don't think those mountains were anywhere near this high. And I had another thought. "What about air?" I asked.

"Thinner up here. Don't try to run any marathons," he said, pulling off his gloves.

Well, shit. That was bad news. I'd taken another couple doses of speed on the flight over, which meant my heart rate was somewhere north of 130. Higher heart rate meant I needed to pull in more oxygen. It would be very easy for me to pass out up here. I'd have to be careful.

"Turn around so I can get you out of your suit," Jeremy said, holding up his now-ungloved hands.

"Thought you had a pal here. Why isn't he out here helping us?" I grumbled as I turned.

"He's working. This place only has a couple of employees these days. Back when it was government funded, huge staff. Now that it's basically a corporate tax writeoff, it's got a skeleton crew," he said.

And as you'll see in a few minutes, everyone's pretty busy."

Getting us both out of the suits took another ten or fifteen minutes. Upside of that, though, was that all of the goop stayed on the suits, and my clothes were still clean and pressed. Gotta look good. Apart from being a talker, it's one of the main parts of my job.

I checked the screen on my wrist as we headed to the observatory. Despite the darkening sky, the screen was dimming. I didn't remember the last time I'd eaten -- lunch in Dallas hadn't happened. As the screen used my body's electrical impulses for power, the dimness was a bit worrying.

Worrying, too, were my vital signs. My pulse was 138, and my blood pressure was 150 over 95. I was already feeling dizzy, a combination of malnutrition and amphetamines.

"Anything to eat up here? A snack bar or something?" I asked as I trudged after Jeremy through the observatory's front door.

"Shit, that was rude of me. Didn't even ask when you ate last. I was just so on about this story --"

"It's fine. I'm just a bit--"

"No, totally. I understand. I'll try to track you down something. The scientists live up here, so they must have food around."

That was good news. Food would help -- not as much as if I didn't have five doses of speed kicking around my bloodstream, but...

Even inside the observatory, no one came to meet us. Didn't seem to matter, though, as Jeremy seemed to know where he was going. Our route took us through what looked like a small kitchen. Though all of the lights were off, we could see a food machine blinking. I hated the food from these machines -- soy and tofu mechanically formed into foodlike shapes, sprayed with taste chemicals. Yech. But if I wanted to stay vertical, I couldn't afford to be picky.

I chose the least evil-looking option -- braised "beef" and rice. The food machine was old -- it rattled and bubbled -- but it produced a small, trapezoidal container with Chinese characters on it. There were some chopsticks and plastic forks in a small bin next to the machine. I learned to eat with chopsticks when I was two. I tried the faux-Chinese faux-food. It was authentically terrible, but I ate it as Jeremy and I continued through the huge complex.I didn't vomit, anyway. I'm counting that as a win.

Finally, we saw another human being. It was after I'd finished my sad "meal." We were walking, of all places, past a men's room. Just after we passed it, the door opened, and a big man in a black coat came out.

When I say big, I don't mean muscular; I mean fat. I couldn't help staring for a second -- you never see overweight people. Not these days. Especially when being trim, with the ubiquity of soy and tofu and the easy availability of metabo-boosters, is easy. Easier than letting yourself get heavy, anyway. I don't even know how one would go about gaining 50 or 60 extra pounds anymore.

"Tim," Jeremy said to the heavy man.

"Jeremy!" Tim said, his pudgy face breaking into a wide grin.

"Hi, I'm --" I started.

"Oh, I know. Watch you on Global all the time," Tim said. I didn't think it was possible, but his grin got wider. A bit scary. The big man looked like he was about to unhinge his jaw and swallow both Jeremy and me.

"Want to show Dane what you showed me?"

"Of course, of course," Tim said, his grin shrinking back to a usual size. He waved a massive hand in the air and started walking. Jeremy and I just followed him.

I was starting to feel a little less shaky, but Tim was walking fast, especially for a fat man. I dropped back a bit -- I figured if I could keep Jeremy and the big scientist in sight, I would be OK, and I was gasping for breath. At least my screen wasn't as dim anymore. That was definitely something.

"It's just through here," Tim called back, turning. He led us into a small room with screens covering three of the walls. The lights were off, but they really didn't need to be on. Even in suspend mode, the screens threw enough light to illuminate the room. Tim rolled up his sleeve and tapped his screen twice. The screens jumped to life, but the room got darker -- we were looking now at black screens with only pinpoints of background light.

"Think your screens are broken, boss," I said, leaning against the doorframe and trying like hell to calm my heart rate.

"No, they're functional. You're looking at a bit of space between Jupiter and Saturn. Lemme just..." Tim mumbled, tapping his screen.

The screen's image shifted, and that's when I first saw it. The... object. I couldn't say what it was, but I wasn't the only one.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I try not to ask those questions," Tim said, magnifying the image. It was massive, whatever it was. The shape was... well, not quite symmetrical, but not asymmetrical, either. I'd say it was roughly squareish, but it had odd angles. Protrusions. Ridges and valleys.

"Asteroid?" I asked.

"They don't think so," Jeremy said.

"We don't want to rush to --"

"Fine. No conclusions. But what do you think it is?" I asked, sighing. Scientists could certainly be fucking frustrating.

"Well, I can tell you what we've observed," Tim started carefully. "It's moving. Fast."

"It was near Neptune yesterday," Tim said.

"That doesn't seem that fast," I said.

"Trust me, it's faster than you think. It's gaining speed," Tim told us. "There's more. It's heading this way."

Well, yeah. I'd guessed that, otherwise they wouldn't have dragged my tired ass all the way up there.

"I can see that doesn't mean much to you. Let me restate -- it's coming for Earth. That means it's changed direction. More than once. It's had to make course corrections to keep headed towards us."

"You mean it's being... flown? Intelligently?" I said, blinking.

"Like I said, we don't like to make those kinds of conclusions..." Tim said, trailing off.

They couldn't make conclusions. But I could. And this was shaping up to be a much, much bigger story than some has-been cage fighter popping up to get a shit award.

* * *

When I got off the phone with Ryan, it would be an understatement to say I was shocked. Dumbstruck would be accurate.

"This is the same bullshit Jeremy told me the day before I sent you," Ryan had said, sighing heavily on the other end of the line. "It sounds just as weak and fictional as when he said it."

"I don't think you understand, Ryan. There are scientists here who --"

"Scientists," Ryan scoffed. "Right. If they were any kind of real scientists, they'd be working for Umbra or The Lungshan."

OK, so pure research under corporate grants didn't hold much weight with my boss. Good to know, I guess.

"They have data, Ryan. Real-time imagery of the object. It could be the first contact with alien life. Don't you think Global News needs to be there first?"

That shut him up for a minute. But only a minute.

"Look, they said this thing is moving pretty slowly, right?" he asked.

"Well, they said it was picking up speed."

"It's still at least two days before we have to worry about it. Do the Andrevich story. "We'll revisit this conversation after that."

Ryan didn't wait for an answer. He just terminated the connection. And I was...

Well, I was furious. There was no doubt of that. But more than anything, I was confused. This was a huge story. Gigantic, in fact. Why couldn't Ryan see that? Why was this Vladimir Andrevich story so important to him, but a potential alien ship was back-burnered?

In any event, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot I could do. Ryan wanted the Andrevich story, and that was what I'd have to give. It's not like I could just do the Object story on my own --Global News would never air it. And I couldn't even go to another Network. If the story was too hard-news for Global, then none of the other Networks would touch it for anything. Not in this country, anyway. Probably not even in Old Blighty, though I'd pretty much burned my bridges with Royal when I left four years ago. I was stuck.

Taking another ride down in the hopper wasn't something I was looking forward to -- it wouldn't be a powered flight, after all. It would more just be a straight gravity-drop until a couple of hundred feet before the landing site. Then, a controlled landing. But there was really no other way to get back to where I was supposed to be, where I guess I *had* to be, now. So we suited up again. A few minutes later, we were back on the ground, almost exactly in the same spot where we'd started. The burly local guy was back. He helped us out of our suits, and Jeremy drove me to the hotel where we would meet Andrevich and his people early in the morning.

"Have they landed yet?" I asked as we rolled down the long, slick highway into the center of Honolulu.

"Hang on. Let me check."

Jeremy let the car's computer take over the driving and tapped a few commands into his screen. After a second, he nodded to me.

"Looks like they landed 20 minutes ago. They should be... well, right behind us on this road," he told me.

"Staying in our hotel?"

"I think so, yes."

A plan was forming. Maybe I'd be able to do the story I wanted to do, after all.

"Kick up the speed. Make sure we get to the hotel before they do," I told Jeremy.


"Because, my friend... I have an idea." I said, grinning.

There's a skillset required for every job. For Andrevich's job, you had to be a big, mean motherfucker who could hit really hard. But there are those of us out there who aren't big, aren't fighters. My job has two requirements --that I look good and talk well. And thanks to those two skills, I've never had to fight anyone in my life.

Growing up, I got myself into plenty of trouble, sure. I don't think you've been a teenager unless you've pissed off most of the people you know. I got close to some fights a few times. But I never had to throw a punch. I could always smile or talk my way out of pretty much everything, which is why I became what I am.

So you'd think there was nothing Andrevich and me would have in common, right? Well, there's one skill in my set that helps. Even when dealing with a guy who could disassemble me without his fight tattoos even changing colors. It's a skill I'm proud of.

See, Andrevich was New Soviet, but New Soviets shared more similarities to their Russian neighbors than either wanted to admit. Apart from the common language and history, both Russians and New Soviets liked to drink. And I could hold a masterclass on drinking. So when I arranged to meet Andrevich in the hotel bar, I knew I had my work cut out for me -- but I knew my plan would work.

Monday, December 12, 2011

E/B:H -- Chapter One

You know what I've noticed? No matter where you go these days, you got some motherfucker telling you he was there. And it's always a guy, too, telling you that shit.

"You know," he'll say, thinking he's being all smooth and casual and shit. "You know, I'm one of the few people in the world who was actually there. On Day One."

It doesn't matter where you are, either. Could be at work, showing the new guy to a desk where he'll spend his day plugged into the system, doing monkey-easy tasks for years. Could be at a party for your Great-Grandma's 132nd. Someone will do it, even though we all know by now 99% of them are full of shit.

But, of course, you're going to believe me when I tell you that I *was* actually one of the people there on Day One. Why, you ask? Well, I can prove it, unlike everyone else. And most times, I don't even have to break out said proof. People know when they see me. Because while other guys point to a flesh-colored blob in the network feed and claim it was them, all I have to do is smile at you. Sometimes, I even introduce myself.

"Hi," I'll say. "Dane Phoenix, Global News Network."

Not my real name, of course. Phoenix is a stage name, but all the network reporters have them. Dane is what my mother named me, though, so call me that.

So, you know for a fact I was there. Most likely, you first heard about the events of Day One from me, or at least someone like me. I'll tell you the stuff they didn't show you on the network feed, the stuff they only told us in the media/entertainment complex. And I'm telling you that stuff now, because, seriously, what can it hurt at this point?

It doesn't start on Day One, of course. My involvement with the story starts a couple of days before -- Day Minus One, if you like. It was one of those days. Errand days. I had a lot of crap to take care of, not the least of which was re-registering my entertainment license. That meant a trip to Dallas.

I could have been driven there, of course. The Network would have been more than happy to hire me a vehicle and a driver. I mean, they kind of bend over backwards to do stuff for me -- I bring them ratings, after all, so they want to make sure I'm happy. Wouldn't do to have one of their most popular personalities jump ship, though, between you and me, that's something I wouldn't do. Global News is one of the few with any journalistic cred these days, though I could bitch about the pay if I wanted. But nah. Not me. My mother always told me not to rock the boat, and she was right. I was on top right *then*, but that didn't mean it would always be. I tried to be as easy as possible to work with, unlike some of my co-personalities... but I'll get to that later.

Anyway, Dallas. I decided to take the train, mainly because I was still nursing a hangover from the night before and could use the time to sleep. Network personalities always get the private cars on the train, so that meant two hours from my house in L.A. of undisturbed time.

Yeah, I know. No one actually *lives* in Los Angeles anymore, right? It's almost passé at this point, but I don't really care. I like the weather, and the old-school "we used to be the home of the entertainment industry" vibe. And Dallas is... well ... It's fucking Dallas, isn't it? Mega-City One. Too many damn laws in Texas. Too many people watching your every goddamn move.

I know. Coming from a network personality, that might almost seem funny. We all have the *hey, look at me!* disease, don't we? But the insane level of surveillance in Texas made me avoid it unless absolutely necessary -- usually once a year, like today.

So, the nap on the train didn't wipe out the hangover like I hoped it would. I might have dropped some perfectly legal amphetamines. OK, so I was pretty much flying on speed when I switched trains at Arlington for downtown Dallas. Judge if you want, I suppose. Pretend you don't take some Umbra Dynamics uppers after a rough night out. I only mention it because it becomes pertinent later.

Downtown Dallas is like time travel, man. There's this part of it called Dealey Plaza that they've kept as it was in the 1960s. When... something... happened. Can't remember what off the top of my head. But it's like walking through an old movie. Kinda cool. The train to downtown lets you off right at Dealey, and there's a pleasant five-block walk through Past-Ville to the FEC building. The FEC -- Federal Entertainment Commission-- used to be the FCC. They once regulated what we could do on Network, before I was born. Nowadays they had no regulatory power -- the Networks just paid them a yearly fee to license its personalities, like me.

Extortion, really, but the Network always paid my fee for me. All I had to do was show up, submit to a DNA scan, and sign a screen. Boom, done. But I had to do it in person, which sucked.

It took me all of five minutes to get that done, and it was almost noon. I was thinking of tracking down some lunch when the chime sounded in my ear.

A lot of the personalities have the implants. It's a simple operation in the middle ear, where their phones are implanted just above the jawline. I don't, at least not anymore. I used to, but retro is coming back in, so I had the implant taken out and replaced it with an old-school earpiece. It looked tight. Still, it was Network property, and it was always on. The chime meant it was Global News calling, and that I couldn't ignore it. I knew I had five seconds to clear my throat and get ready to start talking to whoever was on the other end.

It wasn't a person. It was one of the computers at Global News Headquarters, about a mile and a half from where I was standing in Downtown Dallas.

"Dane Phoenix," the computer's voice, deep and male, said. "You have a mandatory appointment at Global News Network Headquarters. Appointment date, 27 July 2098. Appointment time, 1315 Central. Please check in with Ryan Jackson, News Department Head. Confirm."

"Confirmed," I sighed. I'd hoped to get in and out of Dallas without having to go into the office, but they knew I was in town. Probably knew the second I stepped off the train. Fucking Texas.

I'd never met Ryan before, though he was my boss. He'd hired me. But he picked me up out of the London market, back when I'd been working for the Royal News Network. That was in, what, 2094. We interviewed entirely over video chat, and I moved to Los Angeles as soon as he gave me the job. I'd managed to avoid him so far. Him wanting to talk to me in person... well, I had no clue what that meant, but suffice it to say it was a highly irregular request.

I had just over an hour before the meeting, and the speed was starting to rob me of my appetite. I could have called for a lift. Again, the Network would only be too happy to send a driver to me. But it was a nice day, and I was suddenly bursting with energy. That was probably the speed, too. So I decided to leg it, and covered the mile and a half in just under ten minutes.

Yeah. I walk fast. Something odd I've noticed since moving here is that Americans walk painfully slowly. I grew up in Europe, though. Amsterdam, specifically. There, everyone walks like there's a shadow person tailing them, ready to pounce and attack at any second. Here, everyone walks like they've got nowhere in particular to be, even if it's patently obvious that they do. It's weird.

So, of course, I made it to the office early. Had to ask a receptionist -- tall, blond guy with impossible good looks -- where to go. He directed me to the 23rd floor, told me to check in with the receptionist there.

I suspect the Network is doing secret cloning. The guy behind the desk on the 23rd floor looked exactly like the one in the lobby, or so I thought. Could have been the speed again. It's safe and legal, and everything, but it can throw your brain a curve ball or six if you overuse it... which I really had lately.

Anyway, the clone pointed me to Ryan's office, down at the end of the hall, with instructions to have a seat outside. I didn't. Only because I didn't have a chance, though. The door was open, and Ryan was inside. Without a word, he waved me into the office.

"You're early. I like your initiative," he said. He was wearing workout clothes, black athletic pants and a black tank top. There was a cross-training machine in his office, I saw as I stepped inside and he closed the door behind me. He'd been working out. I could tell by the sweat he was still toweling off his brow. I didn't know people still really worked out, with machines and stuff. I take the pharmaceutical route, and so does everyone else I know. Not Ryan Jackson, apparently.

"Vladimir Andrevich," Ryan said. He sat behind his desk and tossed the towel onto the machine. "You know him?"

"Know *of* him," I said. "Everyone kind of does."

"Well, everyone over the age of 15. He's been off the grid for years."

"But not anymore?" I asked. I was sweating now, too. Damn speed.

"Apparently not. His press agent contacted the Network this morning."

Andrevich was a legend when I was a kid. Best cage fighter the world had ever seen. Nowadays, it was a rare thing to be considered a global celebrity, but Andrevich sure was.

"He returning to the cage?"

"No. But the IFAA is planning a ceremony to honor him, day after tomorrow. And he's attending."

Now, that was interesting. Andrevich had been undefeated until 2094, when he'd killed a man in the cage. Accidentally, he said. And though I already suspected the answer to this question, I asked anyway.

"And this has something to do with me?" I asked.

"We're sending you out on assignment. You meet with him tonight, interview him tomorrow, cover the ceremony after."

Yep. Pretty much what I thought.

"I don't cover sports, Ryan. Celebrity beat, hard news. Wouldn't someone like Jagger Cash --"

"Jagger Cash is an idiot," Ryan said, cutting me off. "And Andrevich's people said he specifically requested you. So that's the job."

And that was it. That was all he said to me. He looked at me, then at the office door. I'm not brilliant, but I got the hint. I stood up, managed a quick half-wave, and I left. The 23rd floor clone was waiting outside, and he motioned for me to follow him.

"Your flight leaves DFW in two hours," he said, heading for the elevator.

"Where am I going?"

"Hawaii. Honolulu," he said.

"Hear that used to be pretty nice."

"Parts of the island are. The part you're heading to might as well be Chicago," he said.

"Beautiful. Background info?"

"Already downloading to your screen," he said, nodding at the thin-film screen on my forearm. I checked, and there was, indeed, a progress bar just finishing up.

"Private flight?" I asked.

"Goes without saying."

"Good man. Hey, is the guy downstairs -- "

"My brother. Yeah."


"No, just born on the same day."

I smirked. I thought I saw Clone-23 smirk, as well, as the elevator doors closed and I descended quickly down into the lobby to see his brother. I was sure Clone-1 would have my ride to the airport ready, as well as the list of the crew I'd be working with. Locals, I'd guess. Hopefully, they weren't as bad as the last local crew I'd used -- the wardrobe person was shit. Shirts too small, pants too big. I'd had to go shopping myself with half an hour until I went live. Didn't want a repeat of that one -- not with a story this big.

* * *

Yeah, I know. You're saying, "What the hell, Dane? You said you were going to talk about Day One. This ain't that. This is some boring shit about Network politics, about how you rich people talk to each other."

Trust me. I'm getting there. All of this stuff is relevant, believe it or not, though you might not see the whole picture for a while yet. I know I sure didn't. But I know it must seem disjointed, especially because you never saw the interview with Vladimir Andrevich. You never got the chance. A bigger story -- Day One -- came up before you could. Remember where I was when I first reported on the incidents of that day?

That's right. Hawaii. You think you're starting to put it together now, and I suppose you are -- at least part of it, anyway. The full picture is something that didn't make much sense when I finally put it together. Hell, I'm not sure it makes much sense now.

Anyway, I did my research on the flight to Hawaii. It was only two and a half hours, but turns out I didn't need all the time. As I started reading the network-assembled dossier, stuff started coming back to me.

Like I said, Andrevich was a global celeb. Everyone was a fan, even me when I was younger. I never saw him fight in person, but he was all over the network for effing years.There were some interesting details in his file, though, stuff I didn't know before.

First, there was the matter of his hometown. I'd assumed Andrevich was from Russia, but that wasn't true. He was born in a small town in the New Soviet Republic, winter 2049. That couldn't have been an easy place to grow up. After the China War in the 20s, part of Russia had split off and gone communist. Again. The land they claimed was mostly crap wilderness in Siberia near the Chinese border, so Russia let them go. Well, eventually.

There were the requisite border skirmishes and saber-rattling, but even Russia knew the land was horrible, cold, and mostly useless. There wasn't much there in the way of natural resources, and the NSR quickly became a third-world country. Even China abandoned them. China ditched Communism in the 40s, but the NSR bullheadedly stuck with it. I'd never known anyone who grew up in that area. I just assumed most people didn't make it to adulthood alive.

He was the hero of his hometown, of course. His file showed that. There was a picture of the town square in New Odessa, one showing a depressing, brown sculpture of Andrevich in a fighting pose. It looked like a child had made it -- the fight tattoos on his arms looked like they'd been scratched into the metal with a knife. They were also inaccurate.

In any civilized society, such a statue would be 30 feet high and stunningly lifelike. Fuck accurate. The fight tattoos would stand out in electric blue, showing the fighter had taken no damage and was in top physical shape. There wouldn't even be a hint that they might be turning red -- that the fighter might be tiring or injured.

Not in New Odessa. Just looking at that one picture of the town square... well, let's say I could see how Vladimir Andrevich wanted to punch someone.

I closed Andrevich's file and checked the time on my screen. Still more than an hour to fly, and I was out of research material. I suppose I could have used the time to write a few interview questions, but I don't really do that anymore. Haven't for a few years. When I stopped overpreparing for interviews was when I got noticed, got a reputation as a guy worth talking to, so I got a bit lazy. Nowadays, I came up with one question -- the first one -- and built all of my subsequent questions on the subject's responses.

Like I said, it's lazy, but it also works. It got me out of a crap job at the bottom rung of the lowest-ranked Euro Network. The Royal News picked me up, and I haven't looked back since.

I was expecting someone from Andrevich's camp to meet me. When I landed, though, I knew the person waiting as I got off the plane. It was Jeremy Ford, one of Global News' best producers. I'd worked with Jeremy for years now, but he hadn't been on my crew list in Dallas a few hours ago.

"Jeremy," I said, smiling.

"Dane," he replied. No smile, and that was unusual. Jeremy was one of the most laid-back guys I'd ever met. Something was up.

"Andrevich's people back out on the interview?" I guessed.

"No, you're set to meet with them tomorrow morning. Flight delays. Some kind of storm at the airport in Munich."

Well, that was good. I would'ver hated to have come all this way for nothing.

"So what's up?" I asked. "You look... well, not happy."

"Something else. Could be big, could be nothing."

Man of few words. That, at least, was like Jeremy.


"Ryan wants you to stay on this. No side trips, no B story."

I knew Jeremy well. Better yet, I trusted his instincts -- he'd been the producer on the Atlantic Rail story, which had won me all sorts of awards.

"Well," I said, smiling, "We have time. What say we take a look anyway?"

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I went to work for Jason Black a couple of days after we detonated the bomb. When he offered the job, I didn't even hesitate. I mean, let's face it -- even though he cleared off my criminal record, I wasn't swimming in job prospects. My employer had turned out to be the company I was fighting, and Mike was in the wind anyway. Never saw him again. And, like I said earlier, I'd pretty much exhausted all of the big, scary guy jobs... except for the one Jason Black gave me, I guess.

We tried to go after Umbra for the whole "let's blow up Los Angeles" thing, but we really had nothing. We had no evidence except for the bomb, which we destroyed (and remember, its radiological signature couldn't have been traced back to Umbra anyway). We had Laura's testimony, but she was just one person. Her word against thousands of Umbra employees... yeah, couldn't make that stick. There was my story and Quentin's story, too, but neither of us made stellar witnesses, and our testimony was all stuff that Laura told us, anyway.

So, we had nothing. We tried to put some undercover people inside Umbra for the next couple of years, but it never really worked. The DoD, at Jason Black's recommendation, cut all of their defense funding... until three years later, when 9/11 happened. Then everything was either forgiven or forgotten, because Umbra got an assload of money to ramp up our war machine for the Afghan and Iraq wars.

I worked for Jason Black for, Jesus, 35 more years. So you know what's coming. The nuclear bomb set off in Los Angeles -- Aon Center, sixth floor -- in 2018. Both Black and I smelled a rat, and the investigation landed in our office... and we couldn't do shit with it. Umbra had learned from its mistakes, learned to cover its tracks too well. The most we could get anyone to believe was that North Korean extremists somehow obtained and copied Umbra's plan from 1998, but we couldn't prove it. I mean, we couldn't even prove it was their plan back then. There were rumors, bad reputations, but Umbra kept on getting tons of money throughout the entire China War.

It may seem like we lost. I mean, it seems that way to me, most of the time. But here's the thing -- I'm not dead yet. Neither is Laura. Just saw her before I went to work this morning. And as long as we're still kicking around, we'll find a way to prove it, even as Umbra is looking heroic here in the fourth year of the war. We'll expose what they did.

You know. Eventually.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Chapter Twenty-One

Meskhiyev's goons took all of the weapons off me, and I let them -- not like they were going to do me a hell of a lot of good anyway, as none of them was likely to have even a single bullet in it. Fuck.

Fucking Mike. I'd known the guy for two years. When had Umbra gotten to him? They just waltz in while some cholo was shooting at me with an AK-47 and drop a pile of money on his desk? Or was it before that, even?

"Take our friend to the holding area down the hall," Meskhiyev said. "We found a perfect use for him. Kenneth will show you where it is."

I looked at Mike, who was nodding. He was also frowning, and lighting yet another Marlboro Light.

"Come on, pal. Let's not make this any harder than it has to be," he said, sighing and blowing out smoke.

Kenneth was a big dude, and Mike had one of his Glocks trained on my back. He might not have been the fastest guy, but I'd gone shooting with him before. His reactions were great, and he was a deadeye. All I'd do if I ran for it was get a nice hole blown somehwere in me, and I was pretty damned tired of getting shot by this point.

"How long have you been in on this, Mike?"

"Only a couple of months longer than you have, man," he said.

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Jesus. Wake up. You know how much business we don't get. Really think I can support a staff the size of the one I maintain? Umbra owns the bail bond shop, Jake."

"Then that means..."

"Yeah. We're both Umbra employees. Though I doubt your recent adventures have put you in the running for employee of the month."

As soon as Mike said that, it clicked. What he'd said back in the Excursion before we jumped out and ran for the doors -- it was from the U.S. Army Ranger Handbook. I'd read it once on a particularly boring war movie, where I'd found it laying around. Mike was a former Army Ranger, and probably former Umbra Security. Or maybe not so former, after all.

I guess I've never been great at reading people. I mean, sure, I like to tell myself I can see a certain look in a jumper's eye when I confront them and they're going to run, but I don't think you have to be John Fucking Douglas to see that. They're already in fight or flight mode, and if their eyes are darting around rather than sizing you up, chances are pretty good they're going to bolt. But that's about the extent of my people-reading abilities.

Still, when I looked into Mike's eyes as he and Kenneth led me down a long hallway towards a block of offices at the edge of the building, I could swore I saw something there. Regret. Sadness. That he didn't want to be doing this, and that we were, after all, friends. It could have been wishful thinking on my part, but if I got a chance, I knew I'd try to play it. Not like I had a whole lot of other options at this point.

"So what's Meskhiyev's plan for him?" Mike asked. If there was something in his eyes, it wasn't in his voice -- he sounded as level and steady as ever.

"Hey, every good conspiracy needs an Oswald," Kenneth rumbled, turning to Mike and grinning. "We leave him here when everything goes boom, and he gets counted as one of the missing. When the police go looking for him -- eventually -- they'll find a whole bunch of crazy shit at his apartment. Won't help that we'll mess with his police record, too. You'd be surprised how easy it is to create a Chinese collaborator. Boom. Insta-terrorist."

Mike nodded.

"I see."

I'd never seen Mike move as fast as I did then. Guess he must have been keeping some of those Army Ranger skills sharp, because his right hand suddenly became a blur. Before I knew what had happened, Kenneth was gurgling on the floor, a large blade stuck directly through his throat. He twitched for a few seconds, then stopped moving altogether. Mike wiped the blood off of his right hand onto Kenneth's black trouser leg, then pulled out a Marlboro Light and tucked it in his mouth.

"She's at the other end of the building," he said. "Umbra has offices here under the name Global Computing. The bomb is in the waiting area there, tucked in a cubby under the receptionist's desk."

Mike lit the smoke and looked at me. He reached into his jacket and handed me both Glock .23s.

"You can shoot me now, but that'll bring a lot of people down on us, make it harder for you to get to her. Go down to 5 and take the back stairwell up to 6. It'll put you right at Global's door. You succeed, find me and we can settle up after. If not... well, we'll both be dead anyway. Go."

I didn't wait for Mike to tell me again. I was off like a shot before I even considered hitting him -- old habits, I guess. I mean, the guy was my best friend for the last two years. It's only recently I found out he's an Umbra scumbag. Though, to be fair, I guess I'm an Umbra scumbag, too. It was all getting a little too confusing, and I don't even think I could blame the concussion anymore.

I ran down the nearest staircase to the fifth floor. Every fourth light in the hallway was on, which meant that everyone had probably cleared out for the night hours ago. The back stairwell was a bit of a jog, but I was wrong earlier when I said my adrenaline had run out. Either that, or I had produced more, because I was running faster than I knew I could, and for once, I was feeling no pain. I stopped at the entrance to the back stairwell, not even a little out of breath, and slowly opened the door. These interior stairwells were like speakers -- if I slammed the thing open, it was sure whoever was waiting on the next floor up would hear it. I pushed the door open just enough to squeeze through, then closed it behind me as softly as I could. I ascended the stairs sideways, one at a time, moving on the balls of my feet. There were only fourteen steps and a landing between me and the sixth floor, but it took me almost a full minute to reach them.

The stairwell had a tiny window in the center, and I flattened myself against the wall next to it and slowly peeked out. No one in the hall, at least not that I could see. I pressed my ear to the crack between the door and the frame and listened. Except for the sound of my own breathing, which sounded way too loud, I heard nothing. No movement, no sound. If ever there was a go time, I suppose it was right then.

I used the same care in opening the door to the sixth floor as I had to the fifth. No one jumped out at me, and about ten or fifteen yards away, I saw the door for Global Computing. It was closed, and there was a floor-length window on the side opposite me. I crouched down in the hallway for a few seconds, but nothing moved near the window.

The temptation was to shoot right through the glass with one Glock as I kicked open the door and sprayed the room with bullets from the other. Panic, chaos, and hopefully a pile of dead Umbra Security people. Problem there, though, was that Laura wasn't expecting me to show up, so she wouldn't know to drop to the floor. If I just peppered the room with gunfire, my chances of hitting her were pretty good.

I won't lie and say I didn't consider doing it anyway, even after I thought about Laura. But I didn't just open fire wildly. I suppose that counts for something.

But I did kick in the door, mainly because I couldn't think of anything else to do, and time was a factor. And I lucked out and caught them sleeping. There were only four Umbra Security guys in the room, probably because they didn't think they needed any more than that to handle a 120-pound girl scientist. Only one had a weapon in his hand, and as I cleared the doorframe, I saw he had it pointed halfheartedly in Laura's direction as she worked on the device in front of the receptionist's desk. He tried to turn the gun on me, but I put one in his forehead before he could even complete his turn toward the door. I kept both guns up and pointed at the other three guys, who were across the room.

No one said anything for a second -- everyone just froze. I guess shooting that dude in the head was a real conversation killer. One of the Umbra guys started to put his hands in the air.

"Come on, Laura. Gotta move," I said.

"Give me one of those guns," she told me. "I can't wrestle this thing into the bag by myself."

I walked sideways, never taking my eyes off the Umbra guys, keeping both guns pointed at them. They stayed motionless, and I backed over to where Laura was now standing.

"Take the gun from my right hand," I told her, still dead-locked on the Umbra Security people.

I felt her reach around and place her hand over mine, and I slowly released the Glock into her grasp.

"Got 'em?" I asked.

"Got 'em."

I turned my head and looked at the bomb. It was roughly cylindrical, about three feet long, and covered in a steel casing that was new since the last time I'd seen it.

"This thing operational?" I asked.

"I've had it done for a half an hour. Just stalling until you showed up," she told me.

There was a green, military-style duffel bag on the floor near the bomb. The device was heavy, but I managed to wrestle the bomb into the bag and get the whole mess slung over my shoulder in a matter of seconds. I took the Glock back from Laura.

"Head for the door. Stairwell outside and to the right. I'll catch up with you in a couple of seconds."

Laura didn't need to be told twice. She was out the door in a flash, and I cocked my head at the Umbra guys in front of me. I wasn't entirely sure what to do with them -- if I just bolted, they'd surely raise the alarm and chase after us. That was no good. But I didn't want to just kill them all -- one body on my conscience was quite enough, thanks.

"Sorry, gentlemen. I'm going to have to kneecap you," I said with a sigh.

"Try just below the knee," one of them, a tall Hispanic guy, said. "Better chance we'll recover, less chance we'll have to hunt you down and rip your legs off."

"Fair enough."

* * *

I had a key to the Excursion -- Mike gave me one months back when the Beast was in the shop. I didn't think about it until Laura and I were in the truck and moving, but I realized Umbra might be able to track the vehicle. Of course, I had no other car, and there was really nothing I could do about it other than hope they couldn't track us. If they did, I'd just have to deal with it.

"You OK?"

It wasn't me who asked, though common courtesy and chivalry dictated that it should have been. It was Laura.

"I'm still breathing. That's enough," I said. "Could use about a sack of painkillers, but I'll hold."

"Good. We need to get out into the desert. Can you handle that?"

"Yeah. You're going to disassemble the bomb?"

"Yes. Well, kind of. I'm going to detonate it."

I thought about it for a second, and that made a lot of sense. Umbra couldn't rebuild it if there was nothing left. And out in the desert made sense, too -- didn't she say the thing's effective range was only about a kilometer? Or a mile? One of those.

On one of my Vegas trips in my youth, I'd decided to rent a car and drive out to where Area 51 was supposed to be. I never saw anything but blank, open desert. Just the kind of place you could set off a nuclear bomb with no one knowing. So that's where I headed.

It took six hours to drive out that far, and no one seemed to be following us. Out past Rachel, NV, we drove for another 20 miles before we found a nice, empty stretch of nothing with mountains on either side. I drove off the road about a mile and a half, but the mountains didn't seem to be any closer. It was as good a spot as any.

As we unloaded the bomb from the back of the SUV, my cell phone rang. That was odd, because it was off. And the battery was supposed to be dead. But it rang, and I noticed a Nevada area code. I shrugged and answered it.

"Hey, Jake. Wanna tell me why you're dumping a nuclear device on my front lawn?" Jason Black asked.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chapter Twenty

I managed to make it off the plane relatively quickly, but I was definitely looking over my shoulder as I jogged through LAX to catch a cab. I'd never taken a cab in Los Angeles, but I figured the not-insignificant wad of cash in my front pocket would cover the ride to...

Well, that was the question, wasn't it? Where do I head? I mean, I knew I had to get to the Aon Center. That much was a given. But I wouldn't be rolling in there unarmed, I can tell you that for sure. My apartment would be the logical place, but all I have there is a .38 Revolver that's probably older than I am. No ammo for it anyway. I knew Quentin kept a stockpile of all sorts of guns around his place in Silver Lake, but he kept that house locked up like a fortress. If he wasn't back from Las Vegas yet, I'd just be wasting my time going all the way out there and having to try and get a cab to come pick me up in a sketchy neighborhood in the middle of the night.

My cell battery had died hours ago, and I was having trouble remembering things like telephone numbers. That started to worry me -- the concussion (or, more likely, multiple concussions) had to be worse than I thought.

Still, I could think clearly enough to remember that Mike kept several guns around the office, so that's the address I gave the taxi driver.

We pulled up outside the office in 20 minutes. And, of course, it was open, even closing in on 11 at night. Thing is, bail bond offices don't often close -- there's always someone there. It's usually Mike, because I'm pretty sure he doesn't sleep, but every once in a while, it's his younger brother Jerry. Jerry's an idiot, so I was hoping for Mike.

I was in luck. When I walked in, Mike was just lighting up a fresh Marlboro Light. No one else was in the building, which was also lucky, as Mike would soon tell me.

"Jesus Harold Christ, Jake. You look awful," Mike said, blowing out smoke and frowning.

"Good to see you too, man."

"Did you get Laura Mills?"

"Had her. Lost her. But she's here in town, and I know where she's going to be."

"Just tell me, man. Shit, I'll go pick her up. You look like you need a fucking hospital. Or maybe an undertaker."

Now that was tempting. Bow out now, get some medical attention. Let Mike go in -- he was fresh, uninjured, and I knew for a fact the guy could take care of himself. I almost told him about the Aon Center, but I didn't. Not right away.

I can't tell you why I needed to finish this myself, but I did. Even with my frontal lobe shaking around inside my head like a tennis ball in a cement mixer, I couldn't think of anything else but finishing the job. When I closed my eyes, all I saw was Laura Mills' face. I shook my head, and even that hurt.

"No, man. What I need from you is a gun."

"What happened to your Sig?" Mike asked. He knew I was attached to the weapon.

"Sitting in the back of a Cadillac in DFW's long-term parking."

"I don't even wanna know, man," Mike said, shaking his head. "Cops were here earlier looking for you anyway. More I know, more I gotta tell them when they come back. Come on. Follow me."

Mike led me back through the office, past his private office and to a door between the two public bathrooms. The door was heavy, steel, and marked "Electrical." Every time I'd popped into the office, I'd pretty much ignored the door -- what the fuck did I need with the building's electrical room? I'd accidentally tried the knob once, but it was of course locked.

Mike selected a key from his massive, crammed key ring (I always joked that he had janitor keys) and unlocked the door.

It wasn't the electrical room.

The room was much larger than I would have thought -- probably bigger than my apartment. The walls to the left and right of the door were half-covered with shelves, all of them packed with boxes, cans, and plastic bottles. The rest of the room was crowded with weapons -- assault rifles, pistols, sniper rifles, machine guns, shotguns, and even a minigun. I wasn't sure what to say for a minute. I just stood there blinking.

"Fuck, man."

"Cool, isn't it?" Mike said, grinning.

"Why the fuck..."

"Y2K, man. Whole world's going down in 18 months. And I'm going to be ready when it turns Mad Max out there."

Part of me wanted to find that reasoning a little crazy, but I really couldn't. Who knew what was going to happen in the next couple of years? For all I knew, he might be right. And for all I knew, it might happen a lot sooner than that -- if Umbra managed to set off their nuke before I could stop them.

Calling the cops was out. They'd arrest me on sight, and not entirely without reason. So it was just me and however much of Mike's hardware I could carry.

I was facing a bit of optional paralysis. I mean, the minigun was the biggest, so that had to be the best, right? But even a guy my size probably wouldn't be able to control that monster. It was meant to be mounted inside of helicopters, for Christ's sake. I can't even imagine how Mike got his hands on one.

"Having trouble choosing?" Mike said after a minute.


"Here," he said, pulling an assualt rifle off the wall. "M-16A3. Full auto, laser sights, extended magazine. Basic all-around, can't-miss workhorse."

I took the M-16 -- it was lighter than I would have thought. As I slung it over my back, Mike opened a large case and pulled out two pistols. They were ginormous.

"Desert Eagle .44's," he said, grinning proudly. "They'll kill a freaking rhino. I can't use 'em -- firing one would probably break my wrist -- but you shouldn't have a problem."

Mike dug around and found a double shoulder holster for the giant-sized pistols, then found a couple of extra clips for each.

"Careful with the ammo on those, now. Only have seven rounds each. Plus side, hit anywhere near what you're aiming at, and you'll probably kill it. Now, for behind the back, the classic 1911 .45. Most dependable pistol ever made," he said, holding up one of the pistols.

"Yeah, I've used one before."

"Better take two."

I was loaded up now -- five guns, close to 75 rounds before I'd have to reload. I hoped I wouldn't *need* 75 rounds, but I couldn't be sure. My impression was that everything up to this would have felt like a cake walk -- they had to know I was coming as soon as White never reported in. They'd be ready.

"I appreciate this, Mike."

"You appreciate what, man? You were never here. And I," Mike said, grabbing an AK-47 off the wall and slinging it over his shoulder, "Well, if anyone asks, I was at a family barbecue in Inglewood."

"You don't have any family in Inglewood, Mike. And you're not coming with me."

"Fuck that, man. You're damn near dead on your feet. You need backup, and I'm right behind you. Remember, I'm your boss. I tell you what to do, get it?"

Mike lit a fresh cigarette and smiled before grabbing a pair of Glock .23s from a shelf and shoving them into his belt.

* * *

Traffic was light, and we weren't that far from the Aon Center anyway. We took Mike's ridiculous 1997 Eddie Bauer Ford Excursion, a crazy-large SUV that was totally inappropriate for driving around the city, but it was the company car. Mike's reasoning was that it doubled as advertising, and it was good for taking bail jumpers to jail in. Whatever.

Mike rolled up slowly on the building, and I scanned the front as we rolled by. I counted several black sedans out in front, parked in employee spaces. There were lights on on the sixth floor, where White had said they'd be putting the bomb. We didn't have much time.

"I think they're here, and they're setting up," I told Mike.

He nodded and kept the Excursion rolling slowly, driving a block away and parking on the street. We'd have to jog it a twelfth of a mile with automatic weapons strapped to our back, but Mike and I had done that before, sadly. And we had a way around it. Bail bondsmen are issued badges in California, which we wear around our necks when we need to look official. They really looked nothing like LAPD or LA Sheriff's badges, but most people couldn't tell the difference. They could have been Fire Marshal badges and folks still wouldn't usually question why the two of us were running around with assault rifles. Mike took two badges out of the pile in the glove compartment and handed me one.

"Glass doors," he said as I put the badge around my neck. "Even if they're locked, we're in. Elevators are only secured after the tenth floor. Let's do this fast. Overwhelm with extreme violence, yeah?"

Something about what he said there sounded familiar, but I wasn't sure what it was. I chalked it up to the head wounds -- I mean, it was a miracle I was still understanding the spoken word at that point. I wouldn't have put it past my bruised, swollen brain to ring familiarity bells at something I'd never heard in my life. I thought about shaking my head to clear the sensation, but the last time I did that, all I got was a bunch of black spots in my vision. Instead, I hopped out of the truck, grabbed the M-16 from the footwell, and slung it over my back. Mike was already out and jogging, but he's a littler guy, so I caught up with him pretty quickly.

He stopped just short of the glass front entrance to the Aon Center and posted up behind a stone column. Seriously, whoever designed most buildings must have had situations like this in mind -- it's rare that even a guy my size can't find anything to hide behind for a couple of seconds while assessing the situation. Mike was frozen for, well, a couple of seconds.

"No security guards moving in the lobby," he whispered.

"Umbra probably took them out or bribed them," I said.

"I bet you're right. Come on."

Mike moved low and fast, and silently. That was one of the advantages of his size over mine, I guess. I move pretty quiet for a big dude, but Mike's like a fucking ninja. A two-pack-a-day ninja, sure. But he's quiet. I tried to keep the M-16 from clanking around as I followed, but he made it to the door first and put a hand on it. It opened with no problems.

I followed Mike into the lobby, where he still moved low and silent, but it looked kind of silly in a brightly lit, high-ceilinged room. I, on the other hand, just walked normally over to the elevator and hit the call button. The door opened immediately.

"Too easy," I grumbled as the doors closed and the car started to ascend.

"I was just thinking the same thing," he said quietly. "Finger on the trigger, yeah?"

As the door opened, I did have my finger on the trigger of the M-16, and had it pointed down in front of me so I could whip it up quickly if there was anyone on the other side of the door. It was a tactic some military advisor had taught us on a terrible film I did back in '92, but it worked. As the doors opened, I saw Meskhiyev and several of his pals in black suits, all armed, all waiting and ready to fire.

I brought up the M-16 and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. Fuck. Jammed, I thought, dropping the assault rifle and going for the Desert Eagles.

I never put my hands on them, though. I felt the barrel of a gun jammed into the back of my head.

"Sorry about this, man," I heard Mike say from behind me.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chapter Nineteen

[Chapter Nineteen]

I had an idea. It was a long shot, and it meant I'd have to move fast, so I was already running as I started to figure out the small details.

White hadn't fired when I'd jumped up and emptied my clip, which could have meant he was ready to extract. To get the hell out of there. Assuming he hadn't left immediately after the last shot he'd fired, he would need time to break down his rifle, get to the street level, and get to his vehicle. With the black Caddy just tearing around the corner as I watched, I figured he hadn't started packing it in until Meskhiyev contacted him to let him know they had Laura.

White would have had stairs or an elevator to deal with, whereas I had distance. The building across the courtyard from the City Center was a block away, and I could cover a city block pretty fast. As I made it to the end of the block, I flattened myself against the wall and peeked out quickly. Nothing moving on the street yet, but there was another big black Cadillac parked just across the street from the entrance to White's building.

I paused to check my weapon -- empty, and I didn't have another clip on me. I would just have to hope that White wasn't rocking a secondary weapon. That was, of course, past the hope that he hadn't already vanished. Really, there was very little plan at this point, but plenty of blind, stupid hope.

It only took a few seconds of waiting before White came barelling out of the building, a long duffel bag slung over his shoulder. For an ex-Marine, his situational awareness was crap -- he didn't bother looking left or right as he left the building, just headed straight on towards his Cadillac. I only had about ten steps between me and him, and I covered them as quickly and quietly as possible.

Though not quietly enough, as it turned out. When I was still three steps away, White turned and reached inside his coat, but he wasn't fast enough. I was already on him, and I tackled him to the ground like he had just caught a nice 30-yard pass near my end zone. Whatever he was reaching for in his jacket stayed in his jacket, and the back of his head bounced off the street next to his car. I didn't have to make sure he was out cold -- I'd heard a loud crack when his skull hit the pavement. I had to check to make sure he was still alive.

He was, thankfully. He was breathing, and there wasn't any blood coming from his head. Would have been kind of counterproductive to kill him -- no way to beat any information out of him then. I knew I'd have to move fast, though. Unless I'd done some severe damage, he wouldn't be out more than a couple of minutes.

First order of business -- neutralize any threat he might pose when he woke up. I checked his jacket -- he had been reaching for a handgun, a 1911 model .45, which I took and shoved into my own jacket. Further searching turned up two knives and an extra clip for the handgun, so I took all of those, as well as his car keys.

I used the knife to slice up his jacket into strips, then wrestled the large ex-Marine into the Caddy's passenger seat. I used what was left of his jacket -- high-tensile stuff, like a black BDU coat -- to tie him securely to the seat.

There wasn't time to go back and get Mendez and Rodriguez, as Laura was just getting further away with each passing second. Besides, I'm pretty sure neither one of them would approve of what I was about to do. Hell, I didn't even like the idea, but it was the only one open to me.

I got into the Caddy, started the engine, and tore off in the direction I'd seen the other Cadillac heading. White woke up after maybe a minute.

"They're going to kill you, you know," I heard him say from the passenger seat. His words were slurred a bit -- concussion, probably.

"Yeah, probably," I said. "So, let's make it easy on them. Where are we headed?"

White said nothing. Not taking my eyes off the road, I pulled one of his knives from my jacket. It was a smaller blade, maybe three inches long, but double-edged and pretty damn sharp, if the way it had gone through his coat was any indication. I held it up in the area between us.

"Might want to tell me," I told him.

"Fuck off," he grumbled.

So I jammed the knife into his thigh just above the kneecap.

To his credit, White didn't scream, though anyone with eyes could tell he wanted to. His eyes went wide and his face turned red, and he bit into his bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. I knew I'd gotten him pretty good -- I'm pretty sure I felt the blade hit bone. Not that I'm an expert at torturing people for information, or anything, but I think I was off to a pretty good start. Or a bad one, I guess. Depends on your point of view.

"Now, if you don't want me to start twisting the blade around, or see what else I can stab while keeping my eyes on the road, you probably want to tell me where we're going."

"Fuck, man. I didn't think you'd actually do it," White panted.

"Yeah, well. I did. So, where are they taking Laura?"

"Couldn't make the bomb work without her," White grumbled. "Needed her to execute the plan."

I chanced a look over in the passenger seat -- White was, no pun intended, turning white. He was going into shock, I guessed. Looks like I wasn't so good at this torturing thing after all.

"I already figured that much out, jackass," I told him. I could feel sweat forming between my nose and mouth.

"He's taking her to the bomb," White said. His voice was getting weak.

"Again, figured that bit out," I said with a sigh, reaching for the knife handle, exaggerating my shoulder movement so he could see I was going to twist the knife in his thigh.

I really didn't want to do that, though. I was already feeling a little sick about the damage I'd done -- what if I'd hit the femoral artery? I hadn't even thought of that before now. What if he bled out?

"Los Angeles," White said. "Aon Center. Sixth floor."

"See? That's all you had to say. Hey, you know where there's an emergency room around here?"

* * *

I had a choice to make, and I had to make it fast. Did I get on the phone to Jason Black, let him know what was up? Or did I ditch White's car and weapons and catch the next commercial flight to Los Angeles?

The logical thing to do would have been call Jason Black, of course. The guy obviously had the power to get me from Dallas to Los Angeles with no problem, but there was this itching in the back of my brain, like a single fire ant had crawled up in my skull where I couldn't kill him. Jason Black had sent us to Dallas. Dallas was a trap. Dallas was exactly where Umbra Dynamics had wanted us to go, exactly where they sent their two best shooters (at least) to snag Laura and bring her to the actual bomb site. Now, there was no way for me to *prove* Jason Black did or didn't know about the trap, but how had the Umbra folks -- the majority of them from the Las Vegas facility, I'm sure -- left for Los Angeles without him knowing it?

The only thing that made me kind of trust him was that he was chasing down a bum lead, as well. But as I thought about that, I couldn't even be sure that was true. He *said* he was on a flight to Russia, but it's not like he called me when he got there. It's not like I even saw him get on the plane. Could the guy be on Umbra's payroll? I didn't think so, but they did work contracts for the government, and Jason Black was part of the government. Did Umbra's plan have some Shadow-Agency stamp of approval? Did it go deeper than one corporation's greed?

In the end, I decided to go to the airport on my own and call Black when I was in Los Angeles. With luck, I'd be able to head Laura and Meskhiyev off at the airport, but that would take a lot more luck than I seemed to be having lately -- Dallas had three airports that I knew of (DFW, Love Field, and Addison), and probably five more that I didn't.

I decided to head for DFW -- it was the biggest, and therefore probably had the best chance of having a flight to LAX sometime soon. The airport itself was bigger than the city I grew up in, so I didn't even know where to start. Eventually, I just decided to dump White's car in long-term parking (along with anything incriminating I might have on me, wiped down and cleaned of fingerprints) and take the shuttle to one of the terminals.

I walked up to the American ticketing counter and found that there was a flight leaving for LAX via Phoenix in twenty minutes. I bought a coach ticket in cash, and ran to make my gate.

It wasn't a crowded flight, and I ended up having a row to myself. Once the flight attendants were through their safety lecture and we were airborne, I went ahead and threw up the armrests and laid down. I've never been able to sleep on planes -- something about being in motion while trying to rest -- but that wasn't an issue this time. I'd been running full-bore for days, and apart from a quick nap at the start of this whole debacle and a little bit of sleep in Quentin's hotel room, I'd been awake and moving (and by moving, I mostly mean getting my ass kicked) the whole time. I was out before the seat-belt light turned off.

In Phoenix, I finally got a chance to grab something to eat, something else I realized I hadn't done in a while. I realized then that I had no idea what was keeping me moving -- adrenaline had to have run out about a day and a half ago. I didn't have too much time to think about it, though -- I had a flight back home to catch.

The flight to Los Angeles was strangely packed, and though I'm quite obviously the size of a small tree, they went ahead and seated me right in between two rather hefty gentlemen in full suits. It was a Friday night, well past midnight, so I couldn't figure out the reason for the formal wear. As I looked around (if I really concentrated, I could turn my head almost halfway to the left), I saw a bunch of other rather large guys in suits as well.

"What is there, a convention?" I muttered.

Must have been the large collection of concussions I was putting together, but it never really occurred to me that both of the portly dudes on either side of me could hear that. They sure could, though.

"Yeah. Pharmaceutical sales convention in Phoenix this whole week," the guy on my left said. If he caught the condesending tone in my voice, he was polite enough not to mention it. Or, possibly, I looked too damn scary for him to want to make an issue of it.

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. This company called Umbra Dynamics introduced some new anti-cancer research. It was pretty exciting," the guy on my right said. It was obvoious this dude hadn't heard anything amiss in my tone -- he was too damn excited.

I nodded, but something about what he said struck me as odd. I thought Umbra was in the defense business. What the hell were they doing in the pharmaceutical field, too? And cancer research? That didn't sound like something a company dead-set on detonating a nuclear bomb in a major American city would waste money on.

I had planned to catch another nap on the short flight from Sky Harbor to LAX, but that wasn't going to happen. You try catching a few winks when you're jammed between two sweaty human sausages wrapped in ill-fitting suits. It didn't help that both of them had the air conditioning fucking blasting, which shouldn't have surprised me. Big, out-of-shape dudes are always sweating, seems like. So in addition to being crushed on both sides, I was freezing -- my jacket was more for looks (and to cover guns) than it was for warmth. I was suddenly reminded of the scene in Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo cuts open that weird camel-thing and sticks Luke Skywalker inside to keep him warm. Using these guys for insulation would have been an improvement -- at least they wouldn't have been chattering back and forth across me the entire flight.

A thought did occur to me while I was trying to tune out the whales on either side of me -- there could be Umbra employees on the plane with me. I mean, they had just been at the same conference as my morbidly obese seatmates. I doubted any Umbra pharmaceutical reps would know their company was looking for (or trying to kill) me, but I couldn't be sure of that. They'd surprised me with how far they could reach already -- I figured I'd better make it off the plane as soon as it hit the ground.

That is, if I could extricate myself from the cellulite sandwich before the plane headed back to Phoenix for the night.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Chapter Eighteen

I wasn't dead. As much as I'd like to say I realized that instantly, I didn't. It took Airman Mendez slamming into me -- for a little guy, he made a hell of a defensive tackle -- for me to realize I was still alive.

Good thing he did, too. Otherwise, the bullet that just nicked my left shoulder would have gone straight into my chest. I hit the ground hard, jamming the other shoulder into the pavement, which slowed me down enough that when the side of my head hit the concrete, it didn't knock me out. It just hurt like a motherfucker.

"Get away from the door!" Rodriguez yelled. I could see Laura, her back against the brick wall to the left of the door, and I managed to pull myself most of the way over to her. Mendez was right in front of me, dragging me the rest of the way.

"What the fuck happened?" I groaned, blinking several times. There were spots in front of my eyes so big I could see more white than anything else.

"Flashbang grenade," Mendez told me, reaching into my coat and pulling out one of the pistols. "Someone really doesn't want us to go in there."

"Miguel! You ready?" Rodriguez yelled from the right side of the door.

"On three!" he yelled back.

Though he'd said they'd go on three, I didn't hear either of them counting. Instead, they both were on the move a couple of seconds later, clearing the doors with their guns at the ready. I struggled into a sitting position and reached in my coat for the other pistol, which turned out to be my Sig.

"You really shouldn't go in there," Laura said, shaking her head.

"Yeah, I know," I said, getting to my feet. I could hear gunshots inside.

I blinked a few more times -- my vision was almost clear now, and my feet felt as steady under me as I suspected they were going to get. I crouched low and crept towards the open door, my gun held up and at the ready. As I spun inside, I caught a glimpse of Miguel. He was taking cover behind a decorative planter made of brick. I jumped toward him just as a bullet smashed into the door behind me.

"You good, big man?" Miguel asked. He sounded calm.


"Good. Shooter on the balcony across the way. One guy, bolt-action rifle. Remington 700's my guess. He's only got two more rounds before he has to reload."

"Brendan White," I said. "He's a former Marine sniper."

"Crap. That means he's not going to shoot again until we give him something to shoot at," Miguel said, sighing.

"I'm wearing Kevlar," Rodriguez told us. I looked past Miguel -- she was taking cover behind a column about five feet from us.

"No good," Miguel said. "My guess is on armor-piercing, the way it didn't even slow down when it went through my man's shoulder here."

I looked at my left shoulder. I thought the bullet had just grazed me, but it had gone clean through my deltoid, making a neat little hole. I expected it to hurt more, but it just felt kind of numb.

"So what do we do? Hang out here until he gets bored?" I asked.

"He won't. Not if he's a Marine sniper like you say," Mendez said, shaking his head. "We're pinned down until one of us moves."

"Or all three of us," Rodriguez said.

"Now, that's something. All three of us take off for cover in different directions. He can only shoot at one of us at a time -- the other two can open up on him," Mendez replied. "But I think you're the one he really wants, big guy. You good with that?"

"We got any other choice?"

"Not that I can think of," Mendez admitted.

"Looks like that's what we're doing, then," I said with a sigh, thumbing the safety off the Sig and getting ready to sprint.

"You set the tone. You move, we move," Rodriguez told me.

I didn't need to be told twice. In fact, I was glad they didn't. No countdown, no "go," just a simple sprint before I could talk myself out of it. It's easier to do something stupid like put your huge gorilla body out there as a target for a fully-trained Marine sniper if you don't take the time to think about it first, and I certainly didn't think this plan through. All thinking was going to do was get me killed, and I was pretty sure that was going to happen anyway, so why waste the energy?

My destination was a matching planter on the other side of the doorway, the one some uninspired architect had put there to balance out this one. I ran for three steps and then dove, and it turned out that was the right thing to do. Just as I jumped, I heard the crack of the rifle, felt the wind of the round as it passed just over my back and took out what was left of the door behind me. I hit the tile floor hard, chest-first, as I hadn't even had time to put my hands up in front of me. I felt the air rush out of my lungs, and I rolled over on my back. I had the wind knocked out of me and I was seeing starts, but I wasn't dead. So that was a plus.

As I moved, I was vaguely aware that Mendez and Rodriguez were running and shooting. Unless they were amazing shots, there's no way they could have hit White. The distance from us at the door to the balcony across the wide, open plaza was a good 300 yards, I estimated. If one of them managed to put a bullet within ten feet of him, it would be a miracle.

White had only fired once, just the one that narrowly missed turning my spine into goo. That meant he had at least one round left, I thought. And that was when I realized -- he could have reloaded at any point. He didn't necessarily have to wait until he was out of ammo to reload -- he could have popped a fresh magazine in any time while Rodriguez, Mendez, and I thought we were being clever and coming up with a strategy. He could keep us pinned down here as long as he wanted.

And he was just keeping us pinned down. The guy was a former Marine Scout Sniper -- they don't miss unless they want to, yet this guy had missed me once and grazed me once. It was impossible. Unless he was drunk or injured, there was no way he wouldn't have killed all three of us already. He meant to miss, and I was beginning to figure out why.

You know how in movies, the hero sets off an explosion, and every dumbass thug runs right toward it? I never got that, and I often played the dumbass thug doing the running. It never made sense to me -- why would you run directly *toward* something that was trying to kill you? Yet the three of us -- a cop, a Special Forces guy, and a bounty hunter -- had just done exactly that, running right into gunfire. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

We'd left Laura on her own. And that's just what they'd wanted us to do.

The door was out -- White had already shown he could hit that anytime he wanted to. I briefly considered trying to run for more cover, find another exit where he couldn't easily shoot me, then circling back around outside, but giving up any bit of cover I had was probably a bad idea. I mean, I'd already figured out I wasn't his primary target, but I don't doubt he'd be only too happy to explode my skull if I made it easy for him to do.

Mendez and Rodriguez were conversing quietly, but I was too far away to hear what they were plotting. I saw Rodriguez reach for the radio extender on her shoulder, and guessed that she was finally calling in backup. It didn't surprise me too much that she'd been hesitant to do so up until now -- none of us were supposed to be here, anyway. There would be a lot of explaining when the cops showed up, and I didn't doubt I'd be seeing the inside of a holding cell if I was still around when they did.

So, you ever done this? Sometimes, you've just spent a couple of minutes convincing yourself that something's a bad idea, but then you inexplicably go ahead and do it anyway? What's that about? It's like our brains have a tiny suicide switch, and when (like me) you've been awake for far too long and are probably walking around with some minor brain injury, that switch goes firmly into the "on" position.

And then you go ahead and take a deep breath, stand up, and fire directly at where you guess the sniper is camped out, even though you know you have no chance in hell of hitting him.

And even though you know a .308 round is probably on the way to your chest even as you pull the trigger.

I emptied my clip, but White didn't fire. I have no idea why, but I wasn't going to waste my time trying to figure it out. I dove back out into the street through what was left of the door, again landing hard on my tortured right shoulder again. If I kept this up, the damned thing would need to be held together by pins and plastic cartiledge. Even then, I was aware it had slipped out of joint at least a little bit.

But I had to put that pain on hold for a second. There would be time to bitch about that later, and if you've followed me this far, you'll recognize that I will, indeed, bitch about it later, in great detail. Now I needed to find Laura, needed to make sure that White taking potshots at us wasn't just a distraction while Meskhiyev or someone grabbed her. I checked where I'd last seen her, but she wasn't there. That didn't necessarily mean anything -- she could have moved to what she felt was a more secure hiding spot. I know I would have.

I checked behind and around the police car, and the Air Force car Mendez had used to ferry us there. Nope. I quickly jogged up and down the street about fifty feet in each direction, dropping low to check under cars and sticking my head into alleys. Still nothing.

It wasn't long before I had no choice but to start yelling.

"Laura!" I shouted, aware as I did so that I sounded like I was calling for a runaway puppy. "Laura!"

No answer. But I soon saw why.

I didn't find Laura, but I found her shoes, both of them, one neatly next to the other in the middle of the street. I don't know how I'd missed them as I was running around -- possibly because I was almost completely ignoring the street in favor of possible hiding places. As I looked up from the shoes, I saw a black Cadillac tearing off down the street. And that was when I knew they had her.

Someone had left the shoes deliberately, both to ensure it was harder for Laura to run if she got free and to serve as a nice "fuck you" to me. That latter part made me suspect it was Meskhiyev. Guy was really becoming a pain in my ass, especially because he kept winning -- as of right then, I had no idea where he was taking Laura, but I was pretty sure the bomb wasn't in Texas. No, Texas had been a ruse for them to separate us from Jason Black (don't know how they knew he was involved) and get Laura.

Back when she'd first showed Quentin and I the bomb in the back of the BMW, she'd said it was "nearly complete." And when I thought about that versus her abduction right of the street, it all came together. They weren't chasing Laura because she was going to expose them. They were chasing her because she was the one who could complete the device.

And now they had her, and I had no idea where they were taking her.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chapter Seventeen

So, my memory is pretty good. Not foolproof, but decent. Especially my memory for faces -- I'm better with them than with names, though I've gotten better with names in recent years, thanks to my current job (where a name and a photo is often all I have to go on when tracking someone down). So, I thought I remembered what Jason Black looked like.

The guy I met in the hotel bar at the Debbie Reynolds... well, I suppose it *could* have been the same guy I met back on the set of that horrible action film a few years back. I remembered him as being a few inches shorter than me (most people are), but built like a brick shithouse. This guy looked at least similar in the face, but I got the impression he was taller. Thinner. His hair had more gray in it than I remembered, too. But his voice matched up, and it was definitely the same guy I'd been talking to on the phone. I put it down to a combination of fatigue, a budding concussion, and reasoned that the last few years might have been a little tough on the guy. The height thing must have been an illusion, or an error of memory on my part.

"Captain Black?" I said as I approached, though he was the only one at the bar and had probably had eyes on me as soon as I entered the casino floor.

"Jake. Man, have you gotten bigger? Try a few minutes a day outside the gym, kid."

I nodded. The way he talked matched up to the guy I knew. Must be the same guy. I realized at that point I should probably get a CAT scan to make sure my brain wasn't swelling. But that would have to wait.

"What are you drinking?" he asked.

"Something nice and strong. Vicodin in a glass, if they have it," I said, grinning and waving my hand past my wrecked face.

"Rum it is, then."

"So what did you find out?" I asked as my drink arrived and I took a sip.

"Off-the-book flights. Two of them. A little tracking and some frankly illegal digging revealed that both of them were Umbra personnel."

"Did you find out where they were going?"

"One's headed to Moscow. The other one landed at Addison Airport in Texas about forty minutes ago."

"Addison. Is that anywhere near Dallas?"


"Dallas and Moscow were two of the towns on my list," Laura said.

"Yeah, he told me," Black said, nodding to me. "Now, this is unofficial, mind you, and I need you to understand that I am not speaking for, nor acting in any capacity for the United States government."

"I get that."

"Good. Personally, I think it's pretty fucking odd that two off-the-books flights are headed to two cities that could be targets in this little wargames scenario you say Umbra is running. Makes me think there might be something to this. Dr. Mills, do you have a precise location for each of these cities?"

"Part of my job was to find a theoretical location in each city to maximize the damage. So, yeah."

"I have some leave coming to me, so I'm going to take it. Let's check this thing out."

Black took a long, slow sip of his drink. I realized I was the only one drinking alcohol -- Black had strong, black coffee, and Laura hadn't ordered anything. But to be fair, neither of them had the shit kicked out of them by a huge ex-commando. The rum was stinging the two holes where my back molars had been, but I like to think it was also working on the pain.

"So, I'll take Russia. I can get you guys on a black flight to Dallas in about twenty minutes," Black said, finishing off his coffee and waving to the waitress, who was making a show of ignoring the only three customers at the bar.

"Black flight?"

"Unlisted. No plan filed with the FAA. Or I could send you to Moscow, but something tells me neither of you speak Russian, am I right?"

I nodded, and Laura shrugged.

"Not well," she told him. "My passport isn't up to date anyway."

"Heh. Not like I'm going through official channels, here. My cell will stay on the whole time I'm gone. You find something, you call me immediately, got it?"

"Got it."

"Good. When you get to Maccarran, go to the airport security office and ask for a man named John Dixon. He'll set you up." Black looked at his watch. "Better get a move on. And don't worry about the stolen truck you rolled up in. I'll have someone take care of it."

Black waved for the waitress again, but she continued to ignore us. I drank off the rest of my rum, and Black shrugged and dropped his coffee cup on the table.

"Fine. Fuck you, then," he mumbled, getting up.

"I'll take care of the check --" I started.

"Don't bother. We don't pay for anything here. Call me from Dallas."

* * *

John Dixon wasn't what I expected. I was looking for a big dude, ex-military looking, crew-cut and Marine First Recon tattoos. When we got to the security desk and asked the short, thin guy with huge engineer glasses for John Dixon, he pointed to the nametag over his chest, which read, of course, "John Dixon."

"I'm Jacob Harris. Jason Black told me to talk to you."

Again, John Dixon said nothing, just nodded and hopped out of his chair behind the security desk. He was even shorter than I thought, as his chair lent him some height -- the guy was barely over five feet when his two tiny shoes hit the floor. He gestured for Laura and me to follow him, so we did. He badged his way through a security door and led us through a maze of poorly lit tunnels. I was lost pretty quickly, but Dixon seemed to know where he was going. After about two and a half minutes of walking (and for a little guy with a tiny stride, this dude was fast -- I had a hard time keeping up), we walked through a heavy steel door and out onto the tarmac quite a good ways away from the main terminal. Not 50 feet from us, a Gulfstream II sat waiting, the door open and the stairs down.

Dixon just kind of nodded to the plane, jerked his head in the general direction of the open door. Laura went in first, and I followed her. As the stairs lifted up and the door closed, we saw Dixon standing there on the tarmac, short and gnomelike, waving goodbye with one of his tiny hands.

The plane was airborne in minutes. I don't fly often for work these days -- most guys I'm chasing don't get much further than a day's drive. Once, I had to catch a plane to New Orleans to chase after this bank robbery suspect, and that all kinds of sucked. In Louisiana, we bounty hunters have to wear *uniforms* identifying us as such. Kinda makes it hard to sneak up on a motherfucker when you're wearing a blue shirt with "BOUNTY HUNTER" on it in bright, yellow letters.

But anyway, I had to take a flight to that one, and the plane sat on the tarmac for a good half-hour after we boarded. Not so with this flight -- we were screaming down the runway as soon as Laura and I took our overstuffed seats. We were the only passengers, and the door to the cockpit was closed. The thing could have been flown by a robot for all I know.

"How long is the flight to Dallas?" Laura asked me.

"No idea. You're the one who's good with numbers. It's in the top middle part of Texas, and Texas is really fucking big. That's all I know."

A small TV next set into the wall next to the cockpit door flickered on. There was a map of the Southwest on the screen, and as we talked, the words "ETA: 1 hour, 52 minutes" appeared on the screen.

"Well, there you go, then," I said.

I woke up as the plane landed. I wasn't even aware I'd fallen asleep. You know that feeling you get when you're dozing off, when your brain goes all nonlinear and all these odd, random thoughts start appearing in your head? Yeah, I didn't have that. Not a bit. This was more like being knocked out -- a hard, brutal awakening with no memory of being hit in the first place. It was like when that rig exploded, except I didn't wake up with a snapped spine this time.

Felt like it, though. The chairs on the Gulfstream were great, but my back had taken a beating over the last couple of days. I realized that I was probably facing a couple of months of physical therapy when and if I made it back home to Los Angeles. I hate physical therapy.

The plane taxied to a stop, and the door opened on its own again. As the stairs descended from the open door, I pulled myself out of the chair, stretched my back as best I could, and headed down to the pavement. I could hear Laura behind me. She wasn't moving terribly fast, either, not that I could blame her. The last week or so couldn't have been easy for her, especially since she normally worked a desk job. Hell, they'd been rough for me, and my job regularly consists of running, jumping, shooting -- like a human Super Mario, only without the greasy mustache, red overalls, or plumbing acumen.

A dark blue Plymouth Reliant was waiting for us, and a young guy in an Air Force uniform was standing outside. He looked about 14 or 15 years old.

"Jacob Harris?" the kid asked, yelling over the noise of the Gulfstream's engines.


"I'm Airman Mendez. Captain Black asked me to take you and Miss Mills wherever you need to go, sir."

"Talk to the lady, Mendez. She's running the show," I said as I opened the Reliant's back door and crammed myself in behind the driver's seat.

"Where are we going, Miss?" Mendez asked.

"Downtown. Pearl and San Jacinto. Know it?"

"The City Center, sure."

"Don't rush. We have plenty of time," Laura said.

"How do you figure?" I asked as Mendez drove us out of the small airport.

"It's night. No way they're going to set off the bomb at night," she told me. "Not enough casualties."

"She's right, sir," Mendez said. "It's past close of business. Downtown is dead right now, save a couple of folks out to nice dinners."

"That's fucked up," I said, shaking my head.

"Oh, you want to hear fucked up? Wanna know why they choose downtown areas instead of, say, residential ones?"

"Like you said, more casualties, right?"

"That's kind of it. But why not set it off in a neighborhood?"

It wasn't me who answered. It was Mendez.

"High-rise buildings."

Laura nodded.

"Exactly. It's a small device, a tactical nuclear weapon. Set it off in a neighborhood, you take out maybe a kilometer or so. You take out the same area downtown, but you kill a whole lot more people when the buildings just outside the blast zone start falling down."

"You mean... all of the people in the high-rises are dead," I guessed.

"Well, yeah. And all the people that the rubble falls on, well... they're having a really bad day, too. And optimal placement ensures a domino effect -- buildings fall into other buildings, knocking those down, too. Devastation and death combined."

"And you designed this blast?"

"In what I thought was an academic exercise, one to prevent terrorism. Not as a blueprint for terrorism."

I couldn't think of anything to say to that. Sure, a big part of me wanted to condemn her for her part in a plot that could kill ultimately millions of people (provided her "provoke a war with China" story was true), but I could see how something like this could happen. As far as she knew, after all, she was just doing her job. How was she supposed to know that elements in her company would use her work to attack a friendly city? Besides, if we couldn't prevent the bomb from going off, I expect I wouldn't need to condemn her. She'd be doing it quite effectively herself for the rest of her life.

As he drove, Mendez pulled out a slick-looking Nokia cell phone and started dialing a number into its lit-up keypad.

"Who are you calling?" I asked.

"Buddy of mine in DPD," he said over his shoulder. "We'll need someone to get us into City Center. It's closed this time of night."

"Police?" Laura asked. She looked worried.

"Yeah. But don't worry. Andrea's cool. And she knows what's up. You're not getting arrested, promise."

Mendez wasn't on the phone long. He talked like most guys I know -- get out the required information and hang up. That's why our cell bills stay manageable, I suppose. I had a girlfriend who was always complaining about the size of her bill, but you should have seen her just bullshitting on the phone for hours. Somehow, she never connected the two.

When we arrived at City Center, a Dallas Police black-and-white was waiting outside, with a young, female Hispanic officer leaning against the hood. As we approached, she gave Mendez a wave.

"Hey, Miguel," the young cop said as we got out of the car. "More shit you're not allowed to tell me about?"

"Afraid so," Mendez said. "Gotta check the building for some missing property. This lady and gentleman here will be conducting the search -- all you and me have to do is stand around and collect our paychecks."

"That's what I was doing before you got here," the cop grumbled. As we got closer, I saw her name tag -- Rodriguez.

"Thanks for coming out to help tonight, Officer Rodriguez," I said, smiling and forgetting that I was all busted up.

"Jesus Christ, kid. Looks like someone used your face for soccer practice," Rodriguez said, shaking her head and reaching for the radio extender on her shoulder. "One Fourteen."

"Go ahead, One Fourteen," a dispatcher's voice crackled over the radio.

"Advise property owner at City Center I'm conducting a search of the building as arranged."


"After you," Rodriguez said, indicating the door.

I moved to open the door... and that's when the explosion happened.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chapter Sixteen

Laura wanted to look around the complex more, but I knew it was pointless. Tracking scumbags over the past couple of years had taught me a couple of things, and one of them was to recognize when a place had been cleaned out. When a guy was about to run, he went to his place and took what he thought he couldn't live without. As I looked around the lab, I realized that was what had happened here. Tools had been left, but documents and the bomb, gone.

"They might have left some clue where they were going," Laura protested after I suggest we leave.

"You know where they were going. One in ten shot," I said. "This neighborhood's crap, but the security guards have definitely called the police. We don't have long before we have a lot of explaining to do."

Reluctantly, she followed me back out to the car. I turned the key in the ignition, but nothing happened. A quick check revealed one of the guards' wild shots had cracked into the engine. Fluids had emptied themselves all over the pavement.

"Gonna have to leave it," I said.

"The cops will track Quentin down," she said as she got out of the car.

"We can slow that down a bit," I told her.

I lit one of the Molotovs and chucked it into the car with the rest. By the time we'd cleared the fence out onto the street, the car was burned down to the frame.

That left us on foot in a neighborhood that even the most charitable of real-estate agents would consider "undesirable," or "hellish." Calling for a cab wouldn't work -- they wouldn't come to that part of town, and even if they did, waiting on one would just leave us out in the open to get shot at, robbed, or worse. We needed transport out of there, and we needed it yesterday.

I learned everything you could ever need to know about cars during my stunt driving courses, except, of course, how to hotwire one. I knew I could get us into a car without a problem, but getting it started? No clue. I was running through the possibilities in my brain as Laura and I walked as fast as we could away from the burning mess we'd left.

"You wouldn't happen to know how to hotwire a car, would you?" I asked. I was kidding, of course.

"Yeah," she said.


"I'm an engineer, Jake. Hotwiring a mid-80s car is like... well, like something really easy you do. I don't know. Ripping phonebooks in half?"

We found a 1982 Ford F-150 about a block from the complex. The window was cracked, so I had it unlocked in about ten seconds. Laura crawled into the driver's seat and started messing around under the steering column.

"Hey, y'all stealing that truck!" a young black guy, maybe 20, covered in tattoos and dreadlocks, yelled from across the street.

I pulled out the shotgun and aimed it at him. It wasn't like I could hit him from across the street with it, but I had no intention of firing. It was just a big, fuck-you looking gun, and it got the message across quite nicely.

"Not that I got a problem with that," he yelled, his face splitting into the widest, whitest grin I've even seen.

It took about thirty more seconds, but Laura got the truck started. She situated herself in the driver's seat, and I climbed in through the passenger door. She had the pedal floored almost before I got my door closed.

"Jesus, kid, slow down."

"You said we needed to get out of here fast."

"And we do. But keep it somewhere near the speed limit, yeah? We are driving a stolen truck, after all, and I know you have warrants. I probably do by now, too. We get pulled over now, we're done."

She nodded and laid off the accelerator, letting the truck drop down to 35 miles an hour. The engine didn't sound good, and forcing it up to 55 almost immediately probably hadn't done it any favors, but we didn't need it to get us far. Just...

It was at that point I realized I had no idea where we should go next. The Strip would be my first choice, if for no other reason than we could probably blend in with the crowd while we figured out our next move. But, really, we had no base of operations anymore, nowhere we could sit and talk this out. While I considered what to do, I pulled out my cell phone. Might as well call Quentin and let him know his truck was gone.

"I wouldn't," Laura said, looking at me out of the corner of her eye. "You can bet they have your number by now, and any idiot with a police scanner can pick up cell conversations."

She was right, of course. I didn't want to admit that to her, though -- for a good-looking chick, she certainly knew how to get on my nerves. I just put the cell back in my pocket.

"I'll stop if I see a pay phone. This thing's almost out of gas anyway."

We stopped at a gas station that wasn't on the Strip, but well within view of the Stratosphere, so we had to be somewhere close. There were still bars over all of the windows, so we weren't out of the ghetto just yet, but if you've never been to Las Vegas... well, most of it is the ghetto. I think we were in a *better* ghetto, anyway.

There were two pay phones on the outside of the building, but only one of them had the handset still attached. The other one had been ripped off in an apparent fit of Hulk-smash rage, if the remains of the phone itself were any indictation. The keypad looked like it had been punched squarely in the center by a massive, powerful fist. As Laura went inside to kick the guy behind the counter a couple of bucks for gas, I picked up the reciever on the un-Hulked phone. There was a dial tone, so I dropped in a quarter and dialed the Monte Carlo. I asked for Ken Adams.

Quentin took the news about his truck better than I would have expected, but he explained that the vehicle wasn't *technically* his anyway. I asked if it was stolen, and he told me he'd rather not say. I was going to push a little on that point until I realized I'd rather not know.

"You hear anything on the radios after we left?" I asked.

"A bit of chatter about moving to another location. Something in code, Staging Area November. It's been quiet for the last hour or so, though."

"All right, man. Thanks. You can probably roll out of there whenever you feel like it -- I think Umbra's burned right on out of here."

Laura was putting gas in the truck when I finished talking to Quentin. After a moment's thought, I put another quarter in the phone and dialed Jason Black's number.

It rang only once this time, and Jason Black picked up instead of his... I don't know, intermediary? Secretary just doesn't sound right. Anyway, it was him that answered.

"Go for Black," he said.

"Jason, hi. It's --"

"Jake Harris. Assault not go like you thought, Jake?"

Shit. He knew I was out there doing stuff I shouldn't, and he was in the employ of the Federal Government. Part of me wanted to hang up the phone right then, but I stayed on the line. I'm glad I did.

"They moved the package."

"And by package, you mean..."

"I think you know what I mean."

"I really don't. Though I'm guessing it has something to do with Umbra Dynamics, doesn't it?"

"You know them?"

"They're a major defense contractor, Jake. I really hope you aren't trying to supplement your income by stealing government research."

"Umbra is dirty, Jason. I've got evidence they're planning something, something very bad."

"You know what you sound like, Jake? You sound like a conspiracy nut. Tell me why I shouldn't scramble the FBI to hunt you down and put you in a nice, padded room where the big, mean companies can't read your thoughts through your TV."

I was stuck. If I told him, would he believe me? More importantly, could he help in any way? I figured it really didn't matter. If I told him and he didn't buy it, or if I just didn't tell him, the results would be the same -- the FBI and probably military intelligence would join the police and Umbra in hunting me and Laura.

So I took a shot. I told him what I knew.

It didn't take me but a minute to explain it all. The last few days had been hellish, and probably the most active of my adult life, but when I boiled it down to the essentials, it didn't sound like much. Still, even though it probably took only about 60 seconds to explain, Laura was making the "hurry up" gesture over by the truck. I waved her off.

Black was silent for almost as long as it had taken me to tell the story. I was beginning to think there was something wrong with the line, or that he'd hung up and the dial tone just wasn't happening for some reason, but he finally spoke.

"That's some pretty heavy shit you're accusing them of."

"I have one of their lead scientists backing it all up. And I believe her."

"And if I was to believe this -- not saying I do, but if I did -- what is it you need from me?"

Fair question, I suppose.

"I've figured out that you're not just an Air Force desk jockey, or a PR guy who goes out to movie sets to make sure someone doesn't call an F-16 an F-15. You're deep in. I was hoping you could... I don't know. Find some way to help me figure out where they're going. The scientist gave me a list of potential targets."

"Judging by the area code, you're still in Vegas. You know a place called the Debbie Reynolds?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Good. Meet me there at sundown. Check into a room under my name. They won't ask for ID."

* * *

The Debbie Reynolds Casino Hotel was definitely on the way out. First, I had no clue who Debbie Reynolds even was, and, by the lack of people in the building when Laura and I walked in, neither did anyone else. The place was, charitably, a dump. But the bored-looking middle-aged lady at the front desk didn't bat an eyelash when I said my name was Jason Black -- she just slid a key across the table without a word.

Laura and I went up to the room, and I sprawled out on the bed. My head had started hurting again, and I really wanted nothing more than to go to sleep. Maybe if I was lucky, I'd wake up in my apartment with Eammon banging on the door about the rent, and find out everything in the past three days had just been a nice, nonsensical dream after one too many rum and cokes down at the Viper Room.

Turned out that wasn't the case, of course. I got about ten minutes to lay down. Then the phone on the rickety table by the bed rang. I picked up the receiver and held it to my aching skull.

"Yello?" I managed to mumble.

"OK. Not saying I believe you, yet, but I did some checking. Meet me downstairs in the hotel bar," Jason Black said.

Before I could say anything else, he hung up the phone.

"Want a drink?" I asked Laura, rolling off the bed and stretching my shoulders as far back as they would go, trying in vain to knock some of the knots out of my back.

"More than you would believe," she said.